Saturday, 5 July 2008

Honiton. 4th July 2008.

A good indicator of how boring it is to live in a particular town is the level of local interest in body modification. It's a bit like at my primary school where some kids used to alleviate the tedium by poking the points of compasses through the skin of their hands. As I walked from the station, everybody I saw under the age of thirty had half a scrap-yard hanging from their faces. If the local police ever encounter crowd-control problems with disorderly youth they won’t need to invest in Tasers; a strong magnet should do the trick.
Honiton is one of those towns that make you wonder how and why towns form. I’ve got vague memories of what we were taught at school about rivers and trade routes etc, but that doesn’t explain how towns survive after they’ve outlived any apparent function. It’s as if populations agglomerate around certain locations, like fluff round a forgotten boiled sweet in a jacket pocket.
People get romantic about small independent businesses but the ones in Honiton seemed to have either given up or they were too smug to be bothered. A lot of them were closed by five in the evening. A few actually had dead flies in the window. To hear some people you’d imagine there was something heroic about a business staying small, but I suspected some of these places would have loved to rise to world domination but just couldn’t get the hang of it.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Belfast 18th to 21st February 2008.

18th February 2008. Fake tan's all the go in Belfast. I lost count of the women who looked like they’d battled headlong through a blizzard of Bisto. Some of them couldn’t have got more make-up on without scaffolding. It was like somebody had flown over the city in one of those crop-duster biplanes spraying the stuff. Either that or the spawn of David Dickinson were everywhere. Clearly some of the population are still proud to be orange.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. You’ll be wanting to know where the sweet spot is for charity shops. Easy. Botanic Avenue was once Belfast’s Bohemian quarter when the likes of Bernard McLaverty and Seamus Heaney were at Queen’s but now it’s vastly improved by the presence of a War on Want bookshop, Marie Curie, Cancer Research and Save the Children. All were quite pricey. I nearly bought a pair of shoes in Save the Children but decided against it; they were a bit on the tight side. Besides, I can’t stand kids.
It strikes me that although finding the usual tourist destinations can be a doddle, cities can be strangely impenetrable when it comes to finding stuff to do in the evenings. A pub called the John Hewitt was listed as having live music every night but there was nothing going on. The only amusement on offer came from the graffiti on the burnt-out cinema across the road, which had apparently been squatted until recently. Next to a big capital A in a circle someone had painted the words ‘Make my Christmas and jail the arsonists.’ Some anarchists really do want it buttered both sides.
Nearly everyone in my room at the hostel was female. They were very quiet and considerate during the night, but took two hours to get ready in the morning. But around midnight there was the sound of furiously creaking bedsprings from the bunk above me. The tempo of creaking increased frantically. I thought I heard a small sigh, then the creaking stopped. Seconds passed, then a male Australian voice stage-whispered the words ‘Hold on a minute. We’re in the wrong fucking room!’
19th February 2008. Later at breakfast I overheard two friends from another room. One asked the other whether she’d slept okay. She said, ‘Yes thanks. At least that Australian couple weren’t doing it all night again.’
Halfway through my morning shower I realised that someone had thrown up in the shower tray. To add that little element of surprise they’d put the rubber shower mat over their leavings. At a guess, they’d been eating either spaghetti or noodles. I didn’t want to draw attention by asking for a second opinion in case I got blamed. There was no bin in the bathroom so I gritted my teeth and hoiked the offending matter out of the window. The window gave out onto a small enclosed back alley, so the chance of the karmic justice of the vomit landing on its producer was negligible. There was a group of twelve Australians staying at the hostel. They seemed to have known each other from childhood. I eavesdropped as two of them discussed another member of their group. He’d gone out and got so pissed that today he couldn’t actually remember anything about the evening, in fact couldn’t remember that he’d gone out at all. It seemed perverse to me to travel half way round the world only to spend all your time solely mixing with and talking to people you grew up with. Then to go out and get so trolleyed that you couldn’t remember anything seemed evidence of a strange lack of curiosity about the world.
20th February 2008. Derry is such an ordinary town. Subtract the Undertones and the history and what have you got? Loughborough, pretty much.
Back in Belfast in the evening I went to a gig. Now that I’ve stopped drinking alcohol I realise how much boredom there's involved in gig-going. Without the draught-excluder on the doors of perception there’s so much hanging about during changeovers, so many duff support bands, so much technical faffing about.
21st February 2008. Belfast has some of the worst buskers in the world. Most were accordion botherers, a few molested guitars. I’ve seen free jazz played live and God knows that’s some unlistenable piss, but these people were beyond random. Even a stopped clock’s right twice a day but this lot didn’t luck into melody once. I suspect it was a ploy to circumvent local byelaws on begging. I imagined the daytime buskers borrowing their instruments from traditional musicians who only needed them for evening sessions in pubs. I pictured the proper musician looking doubtful as he handed it over and saying, ‘Do you want me to show you how to string a few notes together?’ and the busker shaking his head and saying, ‘Nah, it’ll be fine.’

Saturday, 9 February 2008

Chesterfield 8th February 2008

It was a beautiful Spring-like day and I’d got a return train ticket to Chesterfield for £2.50 but these weren’t the only reasons I fell in love with the place. Chesterfield has, I think, more or less got it right. It’s retained lots of its old architecture, but hasn’t overplayed the twee, olde-worlde schtick. It has lots of half-timbered buildings but has somehow managed to avoid the naffness of, for example, Maidstone. On my desk I’ve got a postcard of Tudor Maidstone showing a range of half-timbered retail premises like Pizza Hut and Subway which can’t help but look ludicrous.
The first feature of the Chesterfield scene most people will notice is the famously twisted spire of the town’s St Mary’s church. This gravity-defying verdigris corkscrew is, according to legend, the result of a glancing blow from a passing Satan. In fact it’s the bodged result of poor craftsmanship. Due to the Black Death there was a shortage of skilled labour locally and unseasoned timber was used in the construction. I imagine the builders offering the Satan story as an excuse before mumbling something about needing to go and finish another job down the road.
Although the town has its share of the usual retail suspects, they didn’t dominate and there was plenty of room for some pretty random businesses. On the walk from the station there was a headshop which made its mission pretty clear with its choice of name – Amsterdam. Chesterfield doesn’t seem an obvious place for such a shop, but I’ve always thought headshops are on a bit of hiding to nothing. In my misspent youth my pals were so fearful of drug squad surveillance that we avoided patronising the only shop in Yeovil that sold king size Rizlas. A full-blown headshop with a window display of bongs would have been the sort of place we’d have run past with eyes averted. Perhaps times haven’t changed that much as Amsterdam had ceased trading. A few doors up and still hanging on in there was Mojo, a 70’s and 80’s bar which billed itself as ‘Chesterfield’s newest party hotspot.’ Perplexingly a poster exhorted the public to ‘put on your flares and come and test your reflexes.’ I've no clue what that entails, although I like the idea of staff wandering around casually whacking punters on the patella with a small rubber mallet. In the nightclubs in my hometown the main test of the reflexes was the necessity to avoid sudden and random assault by drunken sailors.
Misconceived business ideas were a feature of the town. The local Greggs was experimenting with opening until 3am. This seems ambitious given that Greggs usually struggle to keep their pies hot beyond mid afternoon.
For me, the icing on the Chesterfield cake was charity shop flavoured. There was a full day’s worth of musty-smelling browsing to be had. I was crestfallen to note that it was early closing at the first one I spotted as it looked a stonker and had a name to match. If there’s ever an award for the most tweely-named charity shop the Tiny Tim Trust has to be in the running. I hoped the trust might be in aid of that weird falsetto bloke who made the charts with ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips’ and other one-hit wonders of his ilk. Or that it might be raising funds for new crutches for the sickly infants of the deserving poor. But as a notice in the window said, apparently without a shred of knowingness, it was ‘a local charity for local children’. I couldn’t help sensing an undertone of mean-spirited parochialism in the claim. I checked there wasn’t anybody coming up the road and pressed my nose longingly against the glass. There was an extensive £1 rail and a 50 pence sale rail – so near and yet so far. As in Leeds, Goth was still alive and purposely not looking very well, with a subsection of the teenage rail set aside for Goth/black gear.
The shop followed the usual trend where the further north you travel the more bric a brac there is for sale. In keeping with the season they’d made a display of said tat on a Valentine’s Day theme. How romantic! I suppose it’s the thought that counts. I was reminded of a sign I saw a few weeks before in a Manchester Pizza Hut; ‘Nothing says I love you like a pizza.’ Really? Nothing?! The lexicon of love’s obviously become far more specific than it was the last time I looked. What’s the protocol when the spark’s gone? ‘Perhaps we should think about seeing other people. Fancy some cheese on toast?’
Though I’ve imposed a moratorium on actually buying stuff I don’t need, I still had a leisurely mooch around the British Heart Foundation shop, Age Concern, Save the Children, Ashgate Hospice shop, and the Cats Protection League. Judging by the smell, the Cats Protection League was protecting cats by offering them somewhere cosy to piss. A woman, clearly a regular, came in to drop off a donation and greeted the assistant by name. Her name was Kitty, although maybe she just called herself that for work, sort of a nom de shop.
At the Arthritis Research Campaign shop I had a moment of weakness and bought a saucepan for £2, then in Help the Aged I lapsed again and bought a shirt. I am turning into the Imelda Marcos of smart casual shirts. One day I will count my shirts and weep with shame at my profligacy. But hey, it was £2; what are you going do?
Lately I’ve been going through a bolshy phase in my day-job at the Lee Harvey Oswald Memorial Library. Apart from chronic staff shortages, one of my bones of contention is the determination of senior managers to ape the practices of large multiple retailers. One of the big cheeses makes a habit of saying whenever she visits that she doesn’t want the place looking like a charity shop. I’m always tempted to say we’d be better off imitating chazzas than Asda. Most of them have air conditioning, take credit cards and have staff whose souls haven’t been crushed by years of management bullshit, so they’re streets ahead in at least three respects. And Oxfam do photocopying at half the price we do.
I’d checked the Chesterfield website before I came. The tourism page only had two things on it. I’d seen the spire so I checked out the museum. It was my lucky day. It had nothing about the Romans and it had a visiting exhibition of what it billed as curious contraptions. The exhibit was small but perfectly formed, full of devices that were pretty esoteric when invented and were soon rendered gloriously obsolete. There was a gadget for embossing cheques with the amount to pay so the figure couldn’t be altered, a tennis ball scrubber, and an automated rubber stamp that marked any correspondence that hit your desk with the date and time of its arrival – genius!
But the incidental highlight of the day came when I stumbled upon a cheese shop near the market square. Apparently the correct name for such a business is a cheese factor, which to me sounds more like the title of some horrid TV audience participation show. The shop’s novelty speciality was the cheese wedding cake. I’m not making this up; those who suspect as much can follow this link .The related poster announced, ‘Love cheese? Be different. Get that wow factor!! Create your own cheese mountain!!’ I can imagine a cheese wedding cake causing a response, but it’d more likely involve people pointing and laughing rather than saying wow. Picture the scene. Once the sniggering has died down, among the muttering someone can be heard saying, ‘I don’t feel so foolish getting them that fondue set now.’ The accompanying publicity material showed an almost autistic concern with detail. It offered advice on decorating the cheese wedding cake, including hints for those who might be ‘worried about foliage touching the cheese.’ As if that might be the one thing putting you off the idea.