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.