Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Romania November 2007

6th November 2007 Bucharest.
I’ve always liked the Jim Bowen joke; ‘I’m not scared of flying, I’m just scared of crashing’. But I'm not sure fear's the reason I left it so long before I flew. It's more that when I was at an age to start travelling flying was more of a big deal, a rarity.
But my first flight was less nerve-wracking than it could have been. I think the tedium of hanging about after check-in must have had some sort of anaesthetic effect. Perhaps that’s why they make you wait so long. That’s not to say I didn’t have the odd moment of panic. Waiting for takeoff I misread some labelling on the wing. I now realise it said ‘hoist point’ but I initially read it as Hotpoint. For a few nervous minutes I was convinced I was about to go up in a plane that was either made by people more used to making domestic appliances, or worse, a craft that was actually knocked together out of old washing machines.
The second frisson of concern came when, just after take off, the pilot announced we were on our way to Budapest, when I’d booked for Bucharest. Luckily, it was a slip of the tongue, otherwise things might have taken some fixing. It’s not like when you get on a 21 bus, forget to get off at New Cross, and end up having to walk back from Lewisham.

In the week leading up to the holiday I’d had a heavy cold and was quite congested. As we came into land, my ears popped with a sharp pain. I immediately remembered a friend's account of somebody she knew who flew with a head cold and whose ear drums burst, leaving her permanently deafened. I didn’t panic immediately but started worrying when, on disembarking, it seemed the cabin crew were far more quietly spoken than before. I tried to put my anxiety out of my mind and get on with the holiday.

I'd been seriously looking forward to Romania. For a while I went out with a Romanian woman. I ended up loathing her but I've retained an affection for the idea of Romania. She grew up there under Ceausescu. She told me how there was almost no conception of marketing or advertising in her country. There would be one shop for vegetables. That would be where you bought your vegetables. It’d be called the vegetable shop. Something about the lack of choice enchanted me. I think we fetishise choice too much in this country, speaking as somebody who plans his social itinerary by looking through Time Out magazine and highlighting the free stuff.
The other thing I was looking forward to was the prices. I’d got off on the right foot by booking ahead in a hostel which represented the Holy Grail of backpacking holidays – it was actually cheaper than staying home! It was perfectly located amidst a batch of six or seven fleapit cinemas whose admission prices ranged from 95p to a still-bearable £1.90. Arriving at the hostel I drew up a provisional to-do list for the next day and went to sleep happy.

7th November.
On the second day I started my customary trawl of art galleries and museums. Everywhere in the city was in walking distance which was lucky as the metro system smelt of farts. Unfortunately the city seemed to have the builders in. The streets had a touch of the Somme about them as they were riddled with trenches. These weren’t the relatively neat affairs you see in London and were unadorned by anything as poncey as barriers or warning lights.
I spent the day at the National Art Museum. Standout was the work of Nicolae Grigorescu who is a bit like a soft focus, less weird Van Gogh or a glummer Monet. The museum itself was worth a visit for the beautiful spiral marble staircase alone.
Shamefully, after returning to the hostel I defaulted to the nearby McDonalds for my evening meal. It turns out that McDonalds have not only trade-marked the term happy meal but have also registered the use of the word ‘happy’. Hopefully this only applies in Romania, and only refers to use of the actual word and not the concept.
The night life on offer was limited. A bar near the hostel advertised itself as offering jazz, blues and silence. I didn’t mind the blues and silence but I didn’t want to risk being subjected to jazz. Instead I went to the nearest cinema. I turned up 5 minutes before showtime. There was nobody in the box office but a woman was mopping up in the lobby. Despite my limited grasp of Romanian I managed to ascertain that the showing wasn’t going ahead as, unaccountably, nobody else had turned up to see the sequel to ‘Van Wilder, Party Liaison’.
As it turned out there was a last minute rush of five potential punters so we were ushered into a draughty barn of a cinema which resembled a village hall gone to seed. The movie’s poster featured the bloke who played the original Van Wilder but he wasn’t in the film. Perverse but understandable, I thought. The premise of the original film was that Van had managed to extend his time at college well past the customary graduation age in order to pursue his predictable extra-curricular interests. Judging by the poster the actor in question was probably knocking fifty by now so his participation would have stretched the already flimsy premise beyond breaking point.
The chief satisfaction the movie offered was that it gave me an excuse to look up the word execrable. Verily it was a dog. One review I later read said this film was a vast improvement on the original but concluded that it was ‘still shit’. I was moved to note a fairly typical line of dialogue; ‘Provost, I do believe he’s just knocked out that girl with his schlong.’

8th November.
On day two it struck me how used I am, walking round London, to placing people socially by their clothes and appearance. In Bucharest that was almost impossible. I think a city dweller’s instinct is to look out for signs of potential threat. Without the usual clues I was at a bit of a loss, although I did give a failry wide berth to the bunches of teenage lads striding purposefully along inhaling lustily from carrier bags of glue.
First port of call was the National History museum. It was full of bronze age bling. It scrubbed up suspiciously well and looked oddly contemporary; if I’d seen it on the Elizabeth Duke counter in Argos I wouldn’t have turned a hair.
Then it was off to the museum of Romanian Literature. Literature museums always seem to be flogging a bit of a dead horse. At the Amsterdam Eduard Douwes Dekker museum I was the only punter and had a full guided tour from the curator. I could have happily skipped it. When he asked if I was a fan of the writer I felt it would have crushed him if I’d admitted I’d only gone because it was free to get in. Curating a museum like that probably isn’t as cushy a gig as it might seem – a bit like being a lift attendant where the lift keeps getting stuck.
The experience at the Romanian museum was similar. I managed to persuade myself the woman who talked me through the exhibit was flirting with me but I think she was probably just embarrassed. At the end of the tour she asked if her English had been okay and whether she’d got any phrases wrong. At one point she'd indicated my jacket and asked if I wanted to take my clothes off. I didn't have the heart to correct; that was my favourite bit.
When I’m travelling I’m occasionally chastened by the realisation of what a cringing introvert I can be. Lots of people go on holiday to meet people, I think I travel to avoid them. This attitude doesn’t sit well with the atmosphere in backpacking hostels, places apparently swarming with the gregarious. My normal avoidant behaviour was exacerbated by the fact that everything still sounded as if my head was in a bucket of cotton wool. Any conversation just served to remind me of my conviction that my hearing was ruined forever. In the evening a gap year nineteen year old from Andover wanted me to accompany him to an ex-pat pub called the Red Lion. It seemed a pretty redundant venture, but his clingy air of desperation made it even less appealing. I made some vague excuse and retreated.
I gave an equally wide berth to a gaggle of Californian travel jocks who seemed as if they’d just walked off the set of the horror movie ‘Hostel’. Late that night I heard them outside drunkenly chanting USA! USA!

9th November.
Bucharest has some fantastic architecture, but I don’t take much notice of that kind of thing. I notice other stuff. I noticed, for instance, that the green man on the pedestrian crossings moved exactly like the star-kicker figure at the start of the Old Grey Whistle Test. The fact I stopped to take a picture of it seemed to prompt some curiosity from the locals. Haven’t these people seen tourists before?
I sometimes feel I’m looking at life through the wrong end of the telescope, but fuck it, it’s my life and it’s my telescope, I can do what I like with them, I reckon. I noticed that Bucharest has female street-sweepers and that I never saw anybody pushing a pram in the city. In my entire stay I saw two cyclists, three black people (all men), and one woman with a tattoo.
She was working in Springtime, a healthy fast-food outlet which I couldn’t walk past without thinking of Mel Brooks. It had a fantastically complex ordering system, a bit like the daft one that Foyles’ bookshop in London used to have. It involved queuing up to pay a cashier, who gave you an itemised receipt which you took to a counter where you presented your receipt to the assistant who prepared your order. The assistant would then serve you your food, and issue you with a new receipt. I’m not sure if these layers of bureaucracy were a hangover from communism, or an attempt to clamp down on salad-related staff fraud.

10th November.
Around this point my notes get sketchy as I became increasingly preoccupied by the state of my hearing. It’s weird how these things affect you. Near the front of my mind was a frustration that I’d recently bought a digital home-recording set up that I hadn’t even taken out of the box yet. And now I was going to be too deaf to use it. One of these days I’ll get knocked down by a bus and my last thought will be a bitter regret that I’ve just wasted a tenner getting a big shop in.
After days of frantic Googling where I turned up account after account of people deafened by air travel I discovered some advice on the Valsalva manoeuvre. The Valsalva manoeuvre is a bit like the Heimlich manoeuvre but for shifting snot. It involves pinching the nose shut and gently trying to exhale. The keyword is gently, otherwise you can end up wearing your eardrums as epaulettes.
In the empty TV room I tried it. There was an immediate improvement in my hearing. I wasn’t completely out of the woods but there was enough of a change to make me dance to the television for a few brief moments. I felt like James Stewart at the end of It’s A Wonderful Life.

12th November.
The museums were mostly closed so I had a quiet day, but in a good way. I went to the geology museum. None of the displays had notes in English, and frankly it lost something by the lack of translation. Loose ended I spent more time than usual in the hostel, which gave me time to ponder the tension between the growth of cheap international travel and the decline in people’s ability to rub along with others.
The previous night a new room mate insisted on opening all the windows in the room, despite it being the depths of winter. As me and the receptionist whiled away the afternoon in the lounge watching a bootleg of some dumb action movie he came in and began to cook, bringing with him a portable radio which he played at full blast, apparently oblivious to the fact other people were watching a film.
Another new arrival seemed to be a career insomniac. He decided to do his laundry overnight, and put one item of clothing in his locker at a time. He banged in and out of the room at intervals of a few minutes all night. In the morning he recounted how he’d been robbed in the street and had all his belongings taken. I found the news strangely satisfying. Later on he brought in a fish for his tea that was so fresh I swear I saw its gills twitching. It was too big to gut in the kitchen sink so he disembowelled it in the shower tray. Nice. He made a fish stew which hung around for another three days.

13th November. Sinia.
The next morning I spotted the fish gutter helping himself to the last of my milk from the fridge. Misanthropy here I come.
I headed for Sinia by train. A quirk of the rail system was that you had to book your ticket at least an hour ahead of travel, a rare example of vestigial Eastern bloc style bureaucracy. Rather than bothering me, this actually made me feel quite nostalgic for the 1970s in the UK when life was full of random and intractable awkwardnesses like this, before we got addicted to convenience and started expecting to be endlessly indulged like whining children. Besides, the whole Romanian set up was still streets ahead of the Kafkaesque nightmare of Virgin trains booking system. And some of the difference is purely about presentation. In Romania you're obliged to book a seat with the result that everybody gets a seat. On Virgin trains you’re given the opportunity to book a seat, but if you choose not to, your chances of getting a seat are negligible. But hey, you exercised your freedom as a consumer!

The atmosphere in the waiting room was thick with foot odour. A man was circulating, trying to sell hats, without much luck. Seems they haven't fully grasped the concept of the market round here. If he’d been selling air freshener he’d have made a fortune.
I’m always sceptical when people talk about universal truths, but my conviction wavered when I went to my seat. Regardless of the infrastructure, sure enough, someone else was sat in my seat and got all snotty when I tried to reclaim it. It was a front-facer though, so I wasn’t going to give up without a fight. ‘This is seat 46,’ I said.
‘I know,’ she said. ‘Just wait a minute,’ she snapped.
Once rightfully seated she apologised, saying she wasn’t angry with me but with the system as she and her friend had missed their original train and they’d had to rebook at great expense. We chatted briefly and I was just beginning to warm to her when she pointed out of the window at some tatty houses we were passing, laughed and said to her mate, ‘Gypsy country!’
Her mate with the glasses said, ‘We’re not racist but it would be better without the gypsies.’ I gave my best tight-lipped, backing away from a bigot expression. Her voice faltered. She mumbled, ‘Or maybe not.’ Maybe not? What did she mean maybe not? Was she still mulling the idea over? Was she toying with the idea of being a gypsy-hating fascist but thought she’d run the idea up the flagpole first and see who saluted?
I had a near-identical experience on the train back from Brasov. Either a lot of Romanians hate gypsies, or a disproportionate number of Romanian people who use the train network hate gypsies, or I look like somebody who hates gypsies and gypsy-haters gravitate to me because they see me as a kindred spirit. I’d like to return to Romania, but if I do I’m seriously considering making up an ‘I heart gypsies’ badge. It’ll either secure me some peace and quiet on train journeys or it’ll get me lynched.
I came back from Sinia on the oldest train I’ve ever been on, 1950s vintage at a guess. It was divided into the sort of compartments I haven’t seen since the 1960s, each of which had brown vinyl seats with antimacassars. There were two older women in the carriage. One had her feet on the seat opposite, but she had spread a tissue there to protect the seat. Just like people do in the UK. Ha! The older woman inspected my ticket and said something quick in Romanian which presumably indicated I was in the right carriage. The carriage was warm enough to bake bread in, but I was glad of it after a day in the mountains. I settled into the cosiness and looked out at the snow-crusted valleys.
As we pulled out of Sinia a young woman, apparently deaf and without speech came along the carriage dumping handfuls of twee tat on each table; toy donkeys whose noses lit up, playing cards and torches. I decided to pass.
That night at the hostel a group of Australians moved in. They spent all night complaining loudly about the snoring of the Pole in the next bunk. The Pole was barely breathing heavily, and was nothing like as loud as the arseholes complaining about him. In the morning I woke to find the loudest Australian who’d spent half the night exclaiming of the Pole, ‘I’m going to strangle the cunt in a minute!’, spark out, snoring fit to rattle the windows.

Ploieste. 14th November.
Maybe I ought to take this travel writing lark a bit more seriously. Or take better notes. Or write sooner after trips. All I’ve noted about my daytrip to Ploieste is that yet again I had the experience of being the only punter in a museum. In both the art and the history museum a member of staff did the usual and followed me round turning the lights off in each room as I exited. I admired their attention to energy conservation but it didn’t feel very welcoming. The art museum was wildly overstaffed. In the ticket office, four large women were sat knitting. They looked surprised to see me. I’m assuming they all worked there, although it may be that only one of them did and the others were friends who’d come in to get the benefit of the two bar fire they were huddled round.
From memory, Ploieste was an unattractive and unpretentious industrial town which didn’t go out of its way for visitors. The train station was a twenty minute walk away from the city centre through run down streets of decrepit housing where traffic signs warned of approaching horses and carts. After I’d done the museums I ran out of stuff to do with a couple of hours to spare. Romanians have no conception of the charity shop as we know it, so I went to see the matinee showing of Knocked Up at the cinema. There were the typical five people in the audience. It was so cold in the auditorium that I could see my breath. By the end of the first reel I couldn’t feel my feet. Fearing frostbite I left twenty minutes before the end, reasoning that the walk back to the station would be easier if I still had toes.

Monday, 8 October 2007

Loughborough 5th October 2007

In Loughborough I chalked up another in my personal I Spy challenge to find the most obscure local charity shop. Loros supports hospice care for Leicestershire and Rutland; I didn't even think Rutland still existed! I didn't linger long in the shop itself, partly because the place couldn’t seem to decide whether it was a furniture shop or a more conventional chazza selling clothes etc. But mostly I was scared off by one of the other browsers. She was fiftyish, and had enough tattoos and piercings to qualify her for a job in a circus. She also had a distinct white patch in her towering beehive of hair which made her look like a cross between Dickie Davis and Amy Winehouse’s nan. I made a swift exit.
I fled to the Sense shop where further strangeness ensued. I caught one of those eavesdroppings that almost make life worth living. Two old friends had bumped into each other after a long interval and were catching up with each other. One of the friends mentioned her son, who, she casually revealed, had been born with webbed fingers. The other woman responded, ‘Oh, right. You don’t hear of that much these days.’ I thought, these days? As if webbed fingers used to be all the go with the youngsters. When was that particular fad then? Sometime between Space Dust and happy slapping, when I clearly wasn't paying attention.
She explained that her son had received corrective surgery. She said, ‘It was his dad who wanted it done. Personally, I’d have left it.’
Left it? What was she doing, planning ahead? Perhaps she wanted to avoid those difficult toddler years of having to nag him not to pick his nose. Maybe she didn’t want him pestering her for a guitar when he hit his teens. Reeling with information overload I stopped snooping and turned my thoughts to lunch.
At the next table in Wetherspoons sat a smartly dressed man in his late twenties. He was heavily built and sweating copiously. Set out on his table were two meals, plus a bowl of chips, a cup of tea, a large Pepsi and a dessert. He sampled each of them, more or less in rotation, apparently oblivious to the people pointing at him and laughing as they passed.
I couldn't quite work out what this guy's deal was. He might have been some sort of area catering manager doing a round of quality spot checks. The pub may have been expecting a visit from the chain's director, and this bloke was his personal food-taster, paid to check for evidence of poisoning. As he finished his meal and waddled out I considered following him to ask but lacked the nerve.

I dropped into a small private art gallery. It was oddly deserted; I could’ve robbed them blind if they’d had anything I liked. There was the usual mix of seascapes, landscapes, with a few still lifes thrown in. Curiously, the same artists crop up repeatedly in these galleries. Jean Picton’s flowery work is everywhere. She’s a former TV actor who now bashes out pictures of poppies at a furious rate of knots. I had a browse and, unusually, couldn’t find anything by her. But there were some similar paintings by Anita Dobson. There wasn’t anyone around to ask so I don’t know if that’s the Anita Dobson ex of Eastenders, but if it is, what exactly’s the deal with TV actors and flowers?

Monday, 20 August 2007

Reading 17th August 2007

The liars at National Express have obviously learnt a few things from the people who insist that Luton airport is in London. The coach to Reading dumps you at a place called Reading Calcot. It’s a half hour bus ride away from Reading proper. If you book your National Express Funfare far enough in advance it can actually cost you more to get from Reading Calcot to Reading than it costs to get from London to Reading Calcot. Ah, the impeccable logic of the market.
This happens in a few places. The Megabus services to Swindon and Coventry drop you in the middle of nowhere, and all coaches to Milton Keynes drop you at Milton Keynes coachway, a £1.50 bus ride away from the town.
Although Coventry's got its good points, I suspect that the coach companies figure that if passengers see these places close up on arrival they’ll never get off the coach. The drivers have to drop their human cargo some distance away and hurtle off amid a screech of tyres before the punters realise what they’ve let themselves in for.
Reading has two branches of Wetherpoons eighteen doors apart. It comes second only to Carlisle in terms of Wetherspoons density. Its other claim to fame is that it’s home to the national headquarters of the country’s leading dyslexia charity. It's bad enough that dyslexia’s so hard to spell, but basing a dyslexia charity in a town whose name looks like the word reading but isn’t pronounced that way, has got to be taking the piss.

Monday, 28 May 2007

Salisbury 25th – 26th May 2007

Salisbury is middle England to the power of ten – half-timbered, half-baked, half-asleep, but it still has the odd local quirk. On Fisherton Street there’s a barber that opens at 7am most mornings and 6.30am on a Thursday. I’m not sure I want my hair cut by somebody strange enough to keep those sort of hours; he’s at best an insomniac, and potentially has an amphetamine problem. And what’s with the earlier start on a Thursday? Is that the day that milkmen round here traditionally get a trim before they start their rounds?
I was in town for the city's annual cultural festival, but there wasn’t much going on. I was going to put off going into Poundland until the Sunday so I’d have something to look forward to, but in the end I ran out of other options and relented just before closing time on Saturday.

Boredom does strange things to people. The local remedy for ennui seems to be body modification. There were three tattoo studios within sight of the train station. A piercing salon had prime position on the High Street. Its prices were listed outside. One nipple was £25, both nipples were £45. As quantity discounts go, that's nothing to write home about. A Prince Albert was £50. If pub signs moved with the times, there's one that’d get people talking.

Having holes drilled into themselves didn’t seem to leave the locals much spare energy for taking an interest in culture. As part of the festival, guitarist Pete Aves was playing at the Old Ale House on Crane Street. I was curious to see him as he’d previously played in the High Llamas, whose keyboard player used to work at the same library as me. He was flogging a dead horse and then some.
The pub was full of people, all bellowing at each other and ignoring Aves completely. At one point he introduced a song with the statement, ‘This next number’s about a prostitute I caught clap off in Hamburg. It’s not really, but at this point I could say anything because you’re obviously not listening.’ The braying of the punters surprised me. I couldn’t believe they weren’t stunned into silence by the bar prices. Foster’s was £2.90 a pint! I’d want it poured over me and licked off for that price. This seemed typical. It cost £8 to get into the city’s only cinema. If you’re going to pay London prices you might as well move to London; we’ve got piercing shops here too, you know.
For those whose interests in life have narrowed to charity shops and sarcasm, head for Catherine Street. You’ll have to bring your own sarcasm, but this back road’s blessed with an Oxfam, Cancer Research, Barnardo’s and South Wilts Mencap. This last one's presumably some splinter faction that broke away from Mencap proper. Continuity Mencap, if you will. Splitters!

The train back to London had to stop at Whitchurch so pigeon debris could be cleared from the couplings. I can't vouch for whether this was debris left behind by pigeons, or debris consisting of pigeons.

Sunday, 4 March 2007

Inverness 1st March 2007.

Inverness added a few names to my tally of charity shops nobody's heard of before. Like the one for the Crossroads Care Attendant Scheme, or the Chest Heart and Stroke shop, or the one supporting the Highland Hospice. The hospice shop had a nice stern line in anti-shoplifting warnings; stealing from us is stealing from people who are terminally ill. I immediately felt cringingly guilty, even though I’d done nothing, much as I do going through the nothing to declare channel at customs. I suspect those sort of warnings don’t really wash with their target audience. They probably think, fuck the terminally ill, they’ll be dead soon, they don’t need the money.
Although shoplifting happens a lot in charity shops, I find the mentality involved a bit hard to fathom. At the Oxfam where I volunteer we’ve recently been warned of people trying to claim refunds on bottles of Ecover they’ve stolen from other branches. I suppose if you’re at a loose end one afternoon and there isn’t a pensioner around with osteoporosis to knock over and mug, there’s nobody in a wheelchair whose tyres you can let down, and you can’t find a tiny kitten to repeatedly punch full in the face, what else are you going to do?
I recommend the Shelter shop on Drummond Street which was having a clearance sale with jackets at an oddly specific £1.29. Maybe the local epidemic of thieving was forcing down prices. Also worth checking out is the tiny café attached to the Chest, Heart and Stroke shop. No massive fry-ups on offer for some reason, but cheap and old-fashioned and friendly.
The Inverness Museum and Gallery had recently had a refit so was a bit characterless but was worth a visit for the chance to hear the delights of the rondello. The rondello was an instrument vaguely like a violin in appearance. It was invented by Alexander Grant of Inverness, and due to lack of popular demand, only six were ever made. A display allowed the visitor to hear samples of its sound by pressing an array of buttons. The sound was gorgeous, like a slightly nasal Mellotron, played backwards through some obscure wheezy-sounding effects pedal, if that means anything to you. I was hooked immediately. It amazes me the idea never caught on. Grant must have died crushed by disappointment. I only hope he didn’t live to see the runaway success of the Stylophone; it would have broken his heart.
Also worth a trip is Leakey’s bookshop. It’s the sort of second-hand bookshop that middle-aged men in car coats and sensible shoes get misty-eyed about. Housed in an old Gaelic church it also had a small café on the mezzanine floor. At the former business end of the church the sole assistant was enclosed on three sides by walls of books. Central to the ground floor was a huge wood-burning stove surrounded by piles of logs. Inside, the twenty first century seemed a long way away.
Much as I try to convert people to the pleasures of land travel over long distances, the journey back to London tested even my endurance. What with a replacement bus service from Carlisle because of an earlier traincrash, roadworks outside Luton, and a collision on the 453 bus to Deptford I took 18 hours to get home. Eighteen hours where the only moment of cheer came when I spotted a fireplace showroom in Preston called Burning Desires. Little things mean a lot, but sometimes they just aren’t enough.

Saturday, 3 March 2007

Glasgow 28th February 2007.

In Glasgow my mood improved. It doesn’t take much. Evidence that people are out there enjoying fannying about with language is sometimes enough. On Buchanan Street, somebody had converted an old Tardis style police phone box into a coffee stall and called it Coppucino, which managed to convince me the world hadn’t gone entirely to pot. Round the corner there was a sandwich shop called Snacks in the City.
It must be something in the water. There was an exhibition of photos by Kathleen Little at the always excellent Glasgow Museum of Modern Art. The pictures were just close-ups of ordinary people, but they were a reminder of how interesting people’s faces are when you’re made to really look at them. The local newspaper headed their review of the show, ‘Little’s Things Mean a Lot.’
In the art supplies shop near the museum I was struck by the two women who worked there. One was very pale with pink hair. She’d gone the extra mile and done her eyebrows too, which had the odd effect of making her looking like an albino mouse that had gone through some strange reversal. People used to try to look ordinary for job interviews but now perhaps you’re more expected to look the part. The other assistant had brown hair, with a three inch blue streak in it. It suggested a lack of commitment. Perhaps she was new. Or part-time.

Wednesday, 28 February 2007

Kendal 26th -27th February 2007.

When I arrived at the hostel the warden explained the place was shut between 10am and 5pm. I said, ‘I expect there’s enough in Kendal to keep me occupied for a whole day.’ His eyebrows nearly flew off his face. He offered me a key to the front door just in case, but I declined.
The town was cluttered with sulking teens, hormonal and bored to distraction. It was Monday and the museums were shut, so I mooched round the charity shops then went in the world's cheapest Wetherspoons for something to eat. Myopia worked its magic yet again when I misread the pump sign for a guest ale from the Coach Horse brewery. I realised my error just in time to stop myself ordering a pint of Crack House. That’d be one of those beers the CAMRA tasting notes describe as ‘very moreish’, I’d imagine.
Come evening I explored some more. One of the town's more interesting features is its array of tiny side alleys squeezed between the buildings on the main streets. Eventually I drifted into a bar tucked up one of these. The bar was next door to a tattoo parlour and was called Dickie Doodles. I did a brief double-take when it occurred to me this might actually be a specialist sub-department of the tattooists.
An open mic was in progress. I decided to settle for the evening. In London the audience at these affairs consists entirely of the performers, in a depressing singer-songwriter equivalent of pyramid selling. Consequently these nights often have the feel of a conversation where everybody is watching for the other person's lips to stop moving so they can have their turn. But here, there were real live punters. Though the acts were variable, the atmosphere of generosity created by the audience was hard to resist. I think there’s something about amateurism in the true sense which really strikes a chord with people. You experience a professional at work and, at best, you feel like you’ve had your money’s worth; you see an amateur pull something out of the hat and you feel you’ve been given something.

One woman in particular had an excellent bluesy voice, and, unusually, knew what to do with it. Often people who are naturally gifted with that sort of voice are like a child with a hammer – they treat everything like a nail. I’ll never forget the ludicrous spectacle of seeing someone with ‘one of those voices’, emoting like a good ‘un, applying his gritty vibrato to a chorus that contained the distinctly un-bluesy word Frisbee.
I did wonder about the Kendal woman, and how she coped with having such obvious talent, and living in a backwater where she could probably only ever be the most talented fish in a very small pond. Later on she got very noisily and obviously drunk. Mystery solved!
Not everyone was up to the same standard. A lone singer/guitarist declared war on the Jam’s ‘That’s Entertainment’. I half expected someone from Trading Standards to walk in, lay a hand on his shoulder and say, ‘Sorry, but that isn’t entertainment. Under the Trades Descriptions Act I’ll have to ask you to stop.’ The bloke couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, and his timing was all over the place. But, not for the first time, everyone else in the room was far kinder than me. You could almost feel the punters willing him to stay in time and on key, although they were clearly on a hiding to nothing.
It was soon time for me to go as the hostel had an 11.30 curfew. Or, as it turns outs, an 11.20 curfew if the warden wants to go home early and he’s assumed that as it’s Monday and there’s not much to do in Kendal of an evening, everybody must surely be back and in bed. As I tried the door my soul gave a tiny but pitiful whimper. I rang the bell, knocked on the door, looked despairingly to see if I could spot a lighted window. It soon became clear I was going to be out for the whole of the freezing February night.
I returned to Dickie Doodles for another hour or so in the warm. I sat nursing a pint and wishing I was the sort of person with the confidence to chat up a stranger and invite myself to stay over. I rehearsed a few approaches in my mind but they all came out sounding wrong, usually along the lines of ‘If it’s any help I only want somewhere to sleep, I’m not trying to get off with you.’ There’s probably no right way of doing this sort of thing.
If I was going to try it on with anybody it would have been the woman in specs in the opposite corner of the bar who I’d noticed looking over at me several times earlier on in the evening. I’m not sure why she kept giving me the eye. She may have been working in some new glasses for all I know. Judging by her body language she’d just had a row with the hippy she was with and was engaging in some revenge flirting.
Earlier I’d decided he was a bit of a drip. He looked as if he'd been told the gig was fancy dress and he'd come as all of Jethro Tull. But now that he was, in my imagination at least, standing between me and a bed for the night, I really took against him. Strange how easy it is to persuade yourself that any rival for the attention of someone you’re interested in is a complete tool. He redeemed himself slightly later by playing the theme tune to Captain Pugwash on the fiddle. Unfortunately he milked it to death. His rendition seemed to last longer than the original TV series. It was all a bit academic anyway; my plan for securing emergency accommodation never got off the drawing board of diffidence.
I returned to the hostel to await the dawn, not quite as drunk as I’d’ve liked. Most of the night was taken up with a mix of self-piteous whimpering and a kind of tortured, obsessive post-match analysis as to whether the warden had closed early or whether my watch was wrong and therefore the whole fiasco was my own doing. The entries in my notebook for the night don’t make very edifying reading, resembling the written output of the Jack Nicholson character in The Shining, just before he starts chasing Shelly Duvall round with an axe.
By the morning, when the warden came to unlock the hostel, I was too frazzled to choke him to death. He was effusive but evasive in his apologies. He claimed he could’ve sworn he remembered me checking in at reception to say I was back in, as per his instruction on arrival. As he wittered on, my inner Perry Mason was doing overtime deconstructing his excuses. Most of what he said came under the category of the etiquette lie. These are lies that nobody’s expected to believe but which have the same function as basic social etiquette, ie they stop strangers from kicking you senseless.
He arranged for me to change from the dorm I was in so I’d have a room to myself to catch up on some sleep. My body clock was in meltdown and I struggled to drop off. Everybody has their pet method for dealing with insomnia. I find a wank often helps.
At the exact second I came in the sink, alarm bells began ringing. I mean real alarm bells. For a paranoid moment I did wonder if the warden had rigged up some sort of sensor to the sink trap. I pictured him wiring it up, muttering darkly to himself, Right, that’s the last time I have to unclog this fucking thing. I made myself decent, headed for reception and asked if there was a problem. The warden calmly announced he was just checking the fire alarm. I was really starting to go off him.

Saturday, 10 February 2007

Wigan 8th February 2007

Due to backpacking buffoons in Manchester I'd slept badly the night before. I wasn’t in the mood for Wigan, if there is such a thing as being in the mood for Wigan. I took the slow bus from Manchester to get there, which took 90 minutes to travel 18 miles. It would have been quicker in a sedan chair, carried by cats. There were leaflets on the bus warning that the route was threatened with closure due to low usage. Some consultants were probably looking into why this is. I could save them the trouble.
The bus crept its way through grey and ugly villages. There was little of interest to see although I did pass a pub advertising an upcoming psychic night. Makes a change from karaoke I suppose.
It was a slow news week in Wigan if the poster from the local newspaper was anything to go buy. The headline read, 'Wiganers warned to lock their sheds'.
Irritation piled upon irritation. Wigan isn’t big, but I still managed to get lost. I was looking for Wigan Pier, or as it’s now branded, the Wigan Pier Experience. Why is everything called an experience nowadays, but rarely feels like one? As it turned out the road to Wigan pier was closed to pedestrians due to maintenance work. My notes from the day at this point read, yet another shithole that’s declared war on pedestrians.
One of the reasons I visited was that I wanted to see Uncle Joe’s Emporium, the home of Uncle Joe’s Mintballs. Due to poor research I’d run away with the idea that this would involve having a nosey around the factory that makes the sweets but this was separate to the shop. So I was making a three hour round trip to mooch round in a sweetshop. Uncle Joe’s Mintballs have been around for years and are world famous. They’re round, minty and apprently vegan in case you’re wondering.

I searched my map for the local museum, couldn’t find one labelled as such so took a punt on the History Shop. It turned out to be a museum in all but name. I was so irritated I couldn’t concentrate on the exhibits. I wanted to ask the woman behind the reception desk if I could buy some history but she was becardiganned and a bit soppy looking; I wasn’t sure she’d cope with my industrial strength sarcasm. As it was I settled for asking her if this was the only museum in the town. She said it was. Inwardly I punched the air in triumph. Ha! There! See! It’s a bloody museum.

By the time the coach home left from Manchester, snow had started to fall further south. I knew because the driver told us. She apologised for our late departure which was due to snow related delays around Birmingham on the inward journey. She ended her weather update by saying, ‘It’s slippy out there, so, please, make sure you put on your seatbelt.’ I felt nervous immediately and began wondering what she wasn’t telling us. I imagined something along the lines, ‘And to top it all, I made a bit of a night of it last night and frankly I think I’m still pissed. Anyway, fingers crossed.’

Lake District 6th February 2007

I really shouldn’t have bought my last pair of glasses on the internet. As the coach pulled out of Golders Green I misread a sign for gentle dental care as gentile dental care. I was well underway, quietly frothing that this sort of thing shouldn’t be allowed before I realised my error. I’ve been doing a lot of this lately. At my day-job at the Lee Harvey Oswald Memorial Library I recently shelved a Simone De Beauvoir book whose title I momentarily read as All Men Are Mental, a book I’d actually like to read, along with that Chinua Achebe classic, Things Fall About.
Later as we approached Manchester I could’ve sworn we passed Tattoo Park, which sounds far more appealing than the far more prosaic (and real) Tatton Park. I like to think Tattoo Park would have the words love and hate spelt out on its wrought iron gates, and heart shaped flower beds with the words Mum and Dad spelt out in crocuses. And of course it wouldn’t be complete without inky blue swallows with massively out-of-proportion heads flitting about.

Corbridge. With my usual cavalier approach to research, I’d overlooked the fact that the special bus following the route of Hadrian’s Wall only runs in the summer. So instead, I took the 685 bus across from Carlisle to Newcastle, which went as close as I was going to get. Picturesque as places like Corbridge might be, I can’t help pitying for people who live there. The only supermarkets around seem to be mini-Co-ops. If not for them the locals would have to subsist on oatcakes and chutney in jars with gingham lid-covers. The place is like the set of Heartbeat crossed with that of the movie Westworld.

Brampton. Brampton had a similar mix of quaintness and strangeness. There was a sign in the window of the Spar shop saying, ‘Police notice. Members of staff have been advised not to sell eggs to anyone under the age of 18, under any circumstances.’ It’s the ‘under any circumstances’ bit that pleases me. Picture the scene. Some behoodied hherbert shuffles in and asks for half a dozen eggs. He asks for free-range to make it sound convincing. The woman behind the counter, suspicious in her nylon housecoat asks, ‘What do you want them for?’ The youth, prepared as he is, struggles to keep the note of defensiveness out of his reply. ‘I thought I’d knock up a Spanish omelette.’ The sales assistant nods, smiles quietly to herself. ‘You’ll be wanting some cheese too, then.’ The youth nods. The woman behind the counter lets out a ‘Ha!’ of triumph. ‘Gotcha! There’s no cheese in a Spanish omelette!’
In the shop I asked for directions to the bus stop. Continuing my mooching, I stopped off in the Knoxwood Wildlife Rescue shop. A woman entered the shop and approached me. She’d followed me from the Spar shop, concerned that I hadn’t understood the directions given and was deviating from the route specified. I wasn’t sure whether to feel grateful or very, very paranoid. I always expect rural areas to be expensive places to live but Brampton doesn’t bear this out. The wildlife shop had jeans for £2, a perfectly decent suit for a fiver, and books at 25p each. Age Concern round the corner was selling shirts for two quid. I later saw an advertisement for a one bedroom cottage for rent at £375 pcm. I know where I’m coming to live if Deptford ever gets infected with some mysterious plague. Obviously finding work might be a problem. I suppose I could always make a living selling eggs to teenagers on the black market.

Haltwhistle. Alternatively I could move to Haltwhistle where I spotted at least two places I’d quite happily work. It’s home to the Haltwhistle film project which is a travelling cinema that goes round showing films for £3 a pop in pubs, village halls and schools. It’s also the location of the Newcastle bookshop . The main shop is closed during the winter while the proprietor works in the bindery to the rear of the premises, but he still had a table of clearance books on a table out front with a note instructing people to put any money through the letterbox. How quaint.
The film project aside I sensed there wasn’t a lot to do in the evenings locally. The Methodist Church hall was advertising a gig about a month hence by Sheds on Fire. I used to know a band called the Sheds. They formed from the remains of a group called the Dads. The singer became a vicar so this lot probably weren’t connected. Of course I’m assuming Sheds on Fire are a band. I suppose there’s an outside chance that the advertised event actually was going to involve some sheds on fire. A terrible waste of timber, but imagine the spectacle!
Hexham. Hexham was next. Like many well-preserved English towns it had a slight hippy feel to it. If there’s a stock image of England that’s pastoral and features spinsters riding to church through the morning mist, somehow the idea that they’ll be stopping off for a Fair Trade coffee on the way home is implied somewhere in that myth. The high street had a pleasing concentration of charity shops – RSPCA, two Oxfams, an Age Concern and a Tyndale Community Hospice shop. There was a Relate shop round the corner. All were a bit pricey. In other shopping news I was especially taken by Hexham’s half-timbered branch of Poundstretcher. An inscription above the door claimed it was founded in the reign of King William IV. A pound was a lot of money in those days.

Monday, 15 January 2007

Portsmouth 12th January 2007.

Portsmouth is particularly nondescript near the ferry terminal, which is where you’ll arrive if you travel with National Disgrace. If you’re pressed for time head straight for Albert Road which is charity shop central and home to some good little second-hand bookshops and record shops. I'm assuming of course that you'll be able to find your way, which, if my experience was typical, is by no means a given.

I found the city hard to navigate, partly because the map I’d been sent by the tourist board had a key so small I practically had to rub it against my eyes to make any sense of it. Navigation wasn’t made any easier by the fact that Portsmouth is following the current trend for designating different areas as ‘quarters’. The city fathers had got a bit carried away and decided the city should have five quarters. More arithmetic and less marketing, that’s what’s called for there. The place didn’t seem too accustomed to visitors. When I asked for directions in the local library the woman behind the counter seemed foxed by the enquiry and responded as if I must just be a local who’d had some sort of stroke and forgotten where they lived.

The surprise of the day was the amount of art on offer. In a small café in a park there was an exhibit of watercolours by an 87 year old ex-seaman. Several were selling for £10 each, another for £8. This seemed insanely cheap. Perhaps his reasoning was that he’d probably be dead soon anyway, so there was no point in treating his art as a money making exercise.

There’s something up the creek about the way we value things. Because the pictures were so cheap I instinctviely started looking at what might be wrong with them to explain their cheapness. Conversely, if I was looking at a piece of art that seemed wildly overpriced I’d be looking at it trying to see what all the fuss was about. But I liked his stuff. He had a slightly odd sense of colour, almost but not quite right, which was an interesting effect. I think I prefer artwork that makes you wonder whether you like it, rather than making you wonder why you’re supposed to.
On the top floor of the library building there was more art. Mostly they were large figurative acrylics of seaside scenes running out at £150 to £300. It's the sort of stuff a lot of people like. I don't mind it but I can't feel strongly about it. Unless, like me, you spend a bit of time mooching around small private and public galleries outside London you could run away with the idea that in purely quantitative terms most of the art produced these days is conceptual. That may be the stuff that gets the lion’s share of harumphing media attention, but actually most of what gets made is still pictures of stuff. And I sense that people consume it on the same terms that they buy their furniture. This influences the content of what’s gets painted and printed. Hence the seaside scenes. The majority of people who buy artwork, I think, want to be reminded of 'nice' things; holidays, the countryside, nature. Unless they happen to live somewhere picturesque people don’t apparently want to see pictures of the ordinary people and things directly around them, and they certainly don’t want to be reminded of work. The art in these galleries is essentially an arm of the leisure industry. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing.

Under slate grey skies I headed out to the arse end of the city in search of the Dickens birthplace museum. It was closed for the off season. I suspected I wasn’t missing much. These birthplace museums are usually a bit of a swizz. I went to the Holst one in Cheltenham. He’d lived there until he was about six, like that was when he did some of his best work. But somehow the wasted journey got to me. I plunged into a trough of self-doubt over this travel writing malarkey. I found myself wondering if there really is a niche out there for me, whether there really is a readership wanting the vicarious pleasure of mooching about like an aimless middle-aged loser, without the obvious drawback of actually being one of them.
The city museum perked me up before I headed home; no Roman shit, and lots of domestic interiors from ordinary homes – the sort of stuff that doesn’t end up in paintings.