Friday, 16 March 2018

With a Head Full of Snow... With a Head Full of Snow

“Dad, can you turn the heating on?”

“No, I mustn’t. I’ve just looked out of the window, and it snowed really heavily overnight.”

“Well, you should definitely turn the heater on then.”

“No, that's the thing. It says in big letters in the manual that if it snows, you should check that the little chimney up on the top of the van isn't buried, before you turn the heating on. Otherwise the carbon monoxide can't escape, and it comes back into the van, and then it kills us all.”

“Why don't we put it on, and then if we smell the poison gas, we just turn it off and get out of the van for fresh air?”

“That's quite a good idea, but you can't smell carbon monoxide. We wouldn’t notice it at all. What happens is you just fall asleep. And when you wake up, you’re dead.”

My sons don’t ask how it is possible to wake up dead. They knew I was a fucking idiot when we started out on this tour, and they know me much, much better now. I can see Big E looking at the carbon monoxide detector he remembers me buying about eight months ago, but he decides not to ask about it. This is probably to prevent me from seizing the opportunity to say more stupid shit. Little H speaks again instead. “Is that why Mummy is sleeping in the house?”

In fact, M is sleeping in the house because she is absolutely sick of sleeping in the van. I can sympathise, even if living in a van was her idea in the first place. It’s cold, it’s cramped, it’s on a slope, and it has me and our children in it.

I like to think I have been able to turn this lack of patience to my advantage. At Christmas she grudgingly got on board with the idea of buying a property that she had previously not been particularly enthusiastic about. But what we’d been told would be a quick and easy process has dragged on and on, new properties are beginning to appear on the market, and she is getting very restless, particularly when we go days at a time without hearing anything.

I’ve got si-lence on my ra-di-o, let the air-waves flo-ow…

This incremental lengthening of our limbo reminds me of Mrs Twit’s walking stick. It’s not a coin-sized disc of wood being glued onto the end each time, but another fortnight. It is also being used as a punishment, I think. Or it's a nasty trick to pay me back for suggesting to our solicitor that the housing market is all one big racket and there are loads of pigs with their heads in the trough that aren’t doing anything to earn their share of the swill.

Now I have a hefty pile of electronic paperwork to sift through with repeated references to how I really should consult a surveyor about this or that. Our feeling had been that it was abundantly clear the vendor had spent a fortune on the maintenance of the fabric of these buildings, and they’ve stood for a couple of centuries without falling down, so we don’t want to pay some bloke a grand to sniff around the place, looking at the same things we’ve seen already before printing out thirty pages of cut-and-paste that we will only ever look at once.

Maybe after we scoffed at the services of estate agents and mocked the findings of our buyers’ surveyor last year, our solicitor just wants us to know that there is one type of professional in all this pissing about that we actually can’t do without. And maybe, when you describe a solicitor as ‘fastidious,’ or ‘pernickety,’ you’re simply saying they’re good at their job. Maybe my tendency to use these eight syllables as a slur is one of the reasons I wasn’t very good at mine.

The house Mummy ‘has been sleeping in’ is the same one in which I grew up, at the quieter end of one of the duller villages in one of the less-exciting parts of Suffolk, the English county that your average person is least likely to know or care anything about. We’ve parked outside overnight several times on the tour, and stayed for longer periods at the beginning, around the middle, and now the end. In truth, we would all be sleeping in The Big House (as we invariably refer to the home of anybody we’ve visited) at the moment if my mother were not such an inveterate hoarder.

Living out the final stages of the tour in this way isn’t ideal, and we need to go on a few more little jaunts before we move into our new home and finally get to see if Vanny fits through the archway. I certainly hope the boys won’t forget the fun we’ve had in a hundred different places when the weather has been better.

We might even find that when they arrive in their new home, the place seems more exciting by comparison. A mile’s trudge through snow-covered fields and churchyard to a village stores that makes Ken’s Shop look like Selfridges certainly kept their adrenalin levels in check, but I was struck, once again, by just how beautiful everything was. I can only surmise that giving up your job in your forties and mooching around the country with zero goals and aspirations is a bit like brewing up some mushroom tea when you’re half that age.

Once we are settled into our new home and the shop is up and running, I must remember to close it for a few days every week to spend some quality time with my van.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Best New Album – Worst Live Band (Part 2 of 2)

Back in Cambridge, E has asked an excellent question – why are guitars seen as so ROCK and keyboards so geeky? If I had given a better answer I would have focused on elements of live performance – how the guitar can be worn, strapped to the performer as they prowl the stage like a gunslinger or pirate, or fall to their knees. Or lie on their side and run around in a little circle on the floor. I might have even talked about phalluses.

Unfortunately, I was still smarting from my Deep Purple Humiliation, which my whole family had arrived in Smugglers Records just in time to witness, and I took this as an opportunity to construct a defence. “That’s precisely it – they’re seen as geeky –” I looked over at the two bespectacled students banging the hell out of Rachmaninoff on the piano in the middle of the shopping centre – “but good keys in a band make all the difference. When I was a teenager, I thought that only guitars really mattered, and so when I heard everybody playing a piss-simple guitar riff really badly, and then found out Deep Purple’s line-up was built around a classically trained organist, I decided then and there that I wouldn’t like them. And I didn’t listen to them again until last week!” But E had walked deliberately away from me at 'When I was a teenager.' He didn’t actually want an answer; he just wanted to point out that it was unfair. And he was right. And my answer was terrible.

As were several of the bands we had seen the preceding weekend at Broadstairs Blues Bash. I spent three days trying to establish why so many Blues Bands appearing in naff pubs play Naff Pub Blues. To pose a question that sounds like one of their song titles, “Who Gave the Blues a Bad Name?”

It was a very well-organised festival, involving about twenty venues and sixty bands. There were some good performances, as you would expect, and some good pubs too, but they were both in the minority. The better examples were those that were reaching beyond the limitations of what ‘THE BLUES’ or ‘THE PUB’ has come to mean.

Bert Jansch, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Booker T and the MGs, Dr John, The Doors and many and varied others have entries in the really quite useful Virgin Encyclopedia of the Blues, because of the music’s key influence in each act’s sound, but the vast majority of Pub Blues Bands throughout my musical lifetime haven’t explored a tiny sharp sliver of this variety. It is more as if some of the less-interesting sixties album tracks of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers were crystallized as Blues Essence in the 1980s and cut into very thin slices for distribution to Every Blues Band in Britain.

The worst offenders in Broadstairs were built around this model, and were playing, appropriately, at the naffest pub in town. A virtuoso guitarist à la Clapton, loud wailing harp, a singer who could sing but sounded like she’d been given a Blues Brothers libretto to work from (that film is supposed to be a comedy, not a musical manifesto) and a rhythm section that might as well have been a backing track. All in all, much less than the sum of its admittedly capable parts. I won't tell you what their name was because that would be mean, and because their name was so shit. But here is a bit of advice for anybody starting a blues band - don't put BLUES in the name. It immediately makes you sound like Blues Hammer in Ghost World.

In spite of much of the music, Broadstairs last weekend was one of the nicest places we've been. The sun was shining and temperatures were mild and pleasant - strange as it seems writing that now. The beautiful weather meant we hardly needed the heating in the van, and it felt like we were doing this for pleasure once again. Morelli’s, the ice cream parlour that was old-fashioned when I was a kid (and hasn’t changed in the slightest since then) provided E and H with enormous sugary breakfasts on a late-rising Monday morning when their friends would be in school after half term. We didn’t investigate the contents of the beach hut that advertised ‘Egg fried raisins and turkey crab nipples.’

The Chapel, which was a bookshop for many years before also becoming a bar, is a fantastic venue, and the New-Orleans-inspired community band we saw down there really stood out among the acts in the festival for actually doing something different.

This got me thinking once again about the blues. What I understand by it, as opposed to what it has come to mean. The organizers of the festival heard the blues in this music, and rightly so. Professor Longhair, Lee Dorsey and Eddie Bo would all have recognized this music as blues. Alton Ellis and Laurel Aitken and Jackie Mittoo would have bought R&B 45s straight off the plane from
Louisiana, and in turn made a Jamaican blues that came to be known by half a dozen different names. Meanwhile, in the US, R&B combos were the house bands for labels recording a huge range of soul singers. This is LeRoi Jones’s Blues Continuum in motion, and this is what I think of when I think of the blues.

I once got into a slightly heated online discussion with a bloke who was the sort of person I was hoping to attract to a Blues Night, because I’d said something like ‘Not just the same old 12-Bar Blues’ on the flyer. He wanted to know what was wrong with 12-Bar Blues, and all I could manage was ‘Nothing at all. But I wouldn’t want to listen to it all night long. It would get boring.’ I came to the conclusion that it never works when you were trying to define something to say what it is not. Every child in England already knows this is true, from all those lessons writing Non-Chronological Reports.

There’s me moaning about musical manifestos and I might as well have just written the OUR PHILOSOPHY page for

Henry VIII did go to
Cambridge University, paying for this and founding that, but he was only continuing his father Henry VII’s work. And I doubt if he went to any lectures or learned anything from the experience. He had inherited the title Earl of Richmond in addition to the crown on his father’s death, as well as a number of palaces on the Thames, one of which was named Richmond.

Richmond upon Thames was at the heart of the British Blues Boom of the 1960s, which was just one strand of the blues spider-web, but seems to have become What We Think Of When We Talk About The Blues in this country. This, I think, is a shame.

Richmond, Indiana was the home of Gennett Records, where Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charley Patton cut sides thirty years earlier that were among the first recorded country blues, but nonetheless exhibited a remarkable variation of style and form.

Richmond, North Yorkshire, will soon, I hope, become a new home of the blues. A more positivist, inclusive blues that has evolved and grown and spread, strong and far and wide, into almost every sub-genre of popular music – or at least way beyond the foil-thin definition offered by the average record shop’s Blues section or the average pub’s Blues Band.

I think that OUR PHILOSOPHY webpage is going to need a bit more work.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Best New Album – Worst Live Band (Part 1 of 2)

"How old is Cambridge University anyway? Didn't Henry VIII start it or something?"
"Nah, I think it's even older than that. He probably just went there."
"Says here it was founded in 1209, by some
Oxford scholars who had to move after a fight with some of the townspeople."
"I bet they lost."
"Well, obviously."

M and I are out of our depth discussing the noble history of student-bashing in and around the world's oldest universities. I did get pushed down a flight of stairs and stamped on once, for looking a bit like Wolf off of Gladiators, but this was the same year PEL became UEL and hardly in the same category.

M has many happy teenage memories of
Cambridge, the city. I know it fairly well too, and no longer imagine the success of the shop to be dependent upon me getting students into Lightnin' Hopkins and even greater debt. Further, we both probably knew that we wouldn't have been able to afford Oxbridge.

Like with the albums that will be for sale, a long and illustrious history doesn’t necessarily mean ‘Better’ in 2018, anyway. Nevertheless, we are still rather taken aback by an ad for what looks like a crappy room in a crappy house, being available for rent at a hundred quid a week. That, as they say, is Almost London Prices.

We've just spent a lovely week in Leigh on Sea, which has some terrific houses (also at Almost London Prices), and some great records and beer for sale, which are both justifiably expensive, regardless of geography; I'm sure you would agree.
Cambridge has at least some of that too, in addition to the best part of a millennium's history as one of the world's great seats of learning.

This isn't what we are looking for, though. The city centre has nowhere to park a compact motorhome, and its suburbs are, as with the other endless residential Nowheresvilles surrounding most cities, mind-numbingly dull. This may be the perfect working environment in which to bring together quantum theory and thermodynamics, or to write a double album of tuneless non-songs full of weird noises with some cows on the front, but it leaves me cold. Which is exactly how I felt as we waited for the Park and Ride bus.

Deal, which we revisited in-between-the-two, is a place of real inspiration by comparison, and would be an excellent place to open a record shop with good beer if it were not a place that already had Smugglers Records in it.

When I visited early in the tour, I was kidding myself that it was not the time to be shopping for records, but more recently I've caved to my instincts, perhaps in anticipation of setting the shop up soon. Leigh's old records by Alex Moore, The Cure and the John Renbourn Group may appeal enough to make me part with cash (even when my hi-fi is still disconnected and spread to the four winds), but what I am really craving now is something new. I've always wanted my own little record shop, but it was when I started buying brand-new records again, just a few years ago, that it became an imperative.

The remarkable Fives sold me discs by Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett, or by the Wave Pictures, that were very good, but won't bother my thousand favourite albums. Yet every day I am anticipating that first listen of another Benji, or another Channel Orange.

And so it was that I was in Smugglers again, flicking through racks of titles I know well and others I know nothing about, but failing to fall for these sleeves because I was just listening to what it was that they were playing. It sounded so new and fresh and cool, perfectly recorded and produced, with lots of classic rock motifs. A tourniquet-tight little band of thrilling musicians with a really great singer.

Shit, I thought, ALL the hip young people must be into this band. I've probably heard of them already, because they are so good, but I have no idea who it is. It’s hard rock, sure, but (and I try so hard not to use this word because it is so frequently misappropriated by square teachers talking to children) it’s just so damn FUNKY. They're going to be MASSIVE.

I gave in. “Who’s playing?”

And he held up the sleeve of DEEP PURPLE IN ROCK.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

"What's the worst Brexit shithole you've been to?"

Asked an old teaching colleague over on the Twitter. I wasn't really able to answer, for a couple of reasons. We haven't been to any towns we have particularly disliked. Some city centres have been too busy or noisy or smelly but that wasn't what she was asking, and these city centres were probably the places most likely to have voted remain, as most of them have significant immigrant populations and large universities. We haven't exactly been looking at EU referendum vote maps to choose where to go either - I feel fairly safe in claiming that I haven't mentioned Brexit at any time previously in this blog.

Admittedly, we haven't been to any towns that we assumed we were going to dislike, either. Although we've been to every county in England, some of them we've done no more than stop to fill up the diesel. Great swathes of the Midlands and the North, to say nothing of the Home Counties, have gone unvisited, especially those towns with names that make them sound awful in the first place. I'm sure you know the ones I mean. Towns that were flattened in 1944 and never properly rebuilt, or where the historic architecture was neglected until it had to be pulled down, or where the one industry that supported all human life was killed off by Thatcher, or where there was never any money to build something nice in the first place. Towns where it's visible that the council just doesn't care, there is no work for anybody, and everybody is angry or bored and has turned to drugs or crime or using the one time in history that the state has asked their opinion on something to mash a self-destruct button with the palm of their non-vaping hand.

But I can't say that I've stopped to think about the politics of the people in any one town. If you were looking for a blog written by somebody who is well-informed on the subject, or has a lot to say about it, you probably won't be reading this one any more. I don't have much of an opinion on Brexit and I can't remember having a single conversation about it during our time on the road. Quite frankly, I couldn't give the tiniest shit which way individual people or towns voted - it's done now. Granted, it was a complete balls-up on every level and at every stage, but I reckon about half the other big decisions in the history of politics probably were too.

I did find myself musing on what my colleague could have meant by asking the question though, and came to this conclusion - she wants to hear about dreadful places where everybody is a bit racist and always blaming the Metropolitan Liberal Elite in London (as well as immigration) for how shitty their lives are, I would guess. Some middle-aged Londoners are desperate for most of the rest of the country to be as crap as is possible, as I suggested once or twice before - otherwise what are they getting in return for those extra decades before the mortgage is paid off? This doesn't sit well with the fact that among all the people I've worked with, nobody has been seen to do more to include everybody, to reach out and welcome in, than this particular colleague. She doesn't seek to divide and classify, but she does have a wicked sense of humour. 

And we all like to assign characters to people we don't know. My family are not immune to this of course, and are just as quick to say, "Here's where the racists live..." when we pass a house with a flagpole in the front garden as we are to say, "Look - it's the murderer's house!" when we pass one that doesn't appear to have been lived in for years.

But I really haven't been travelling the country judging people on appearances or looking for evidence of right-wing politics. Rather, when I saw neat block capitals printed on a wall in a car park in Ipswich declaring - NO POLISH - GO HOME - I had a mental image of my father, having spent fifteen minutes squeezing into one of The Spiral's strangely tapered spaces, looking down at the dusty, dried-out leather of his shoes, sighing, and returning to his car.

There's actually plenty of Polish in Ipswich. And Lithuanians, varnish, Albanians, linseed oil, Kurds and dubbin. It may not be a city, but last week it seemed as global as southeast London. Many of the shops were still open on a darkening Sunday evening, and there were lots of people around. Young E observed that the only ones he had heard speaking English had been some shouty teenagers who had nothing to say and nothing better to do. And he's grown up in Peckham, as a true citizen of Planet Earth, completely separated from the notions of Old Empire and WWII hangover that formed my worldview as an eleven-year-old.

Ipswich actually seemed rather pleasant. It has plenty of shops and pubs and places to eat, has some stunning countryside just down the river, and in Christchurch Park it really has one of the best urban outdoor spaces in the country. Some of the trees are incredible - like with those in Anthony Browne books, you can see loads of scary stuff hidden in the twists and lumps of the branches and trunks. Amidst these ancient sentinels, Yummy Mummies chase children on little scooters and bikes, all radiant beneath their winter woolly hats. If the town where I was born has gained this much innocent charm, our delondonisation process is complete, and Brexit is harmless.

How many times in our travels have we been having a perfectly reasonable and pleasant conversation with somebody and then they’ve decided it’s time to say something racist? Only once. This is pretty damn good going, I think, as I used to hear something virtually every day in South London twenty years ago, even if it was usually from one of a tribe of old men who are surely all dead by now. But while London has moved with the times, the rest of the country has at least been keeping up, I think.

A friendly woman in her thirties was talking about how much happier she was in her village in the South Downs than she had been in Suburban South London some years before. "You go there now and it's like Spot the White Person and I'm not racist." There was little aggravated intonation or emphasis in her delivery, and so she seemed genuine - the almost-complete absence of white people in Croydon can be better observed by a self-proclaimed non-racist person than by anybody else. This may be true, because I don't believe that I have ever told anybody that I am not a racist, and on each of the handful of occasions that I have visited Croydon, I've seen fucking hordes of white people milling about. Even she, though, has clearly been advised not to preface racist utterances with, "I'm not racist but..." and has taken to appending the disclaimer smoothly to the opposite end. It made her seem rather more gentle in her opinion - perhaps even to the point where she might begin to wonder why she bothers sharing it.

Meanwhile, the van has also been struggling to stay the pace with 2018. It's impossible to air it on any kind of basis, let alone daily, as when we are home the windows need to be closed to keep the warmth in, and when we are away the windows need to be closed to make sure that nobody else steals our precious family warmth. There is no escape for the moisture in the air, worst of all in the boys' bed over the cab. This is the most compact space with two humans in it who will insist on breathing all night long, the highest space where the hotter air eventually ends up, and the only space with three outside walls and ceiling, and could almost be a patented condensation-catcher. Prolonged periods of cold weather like this one, with all four of us in the van every day, expose the van lifestyle as Not Completely Sustainable. The moisture leads to mould and the boys' pillows end up sopping wet and smelling like granny's attic. We had to throw them away - yet more waste.

A few days earlier we had been visiting London - for a third time on the tour, this time to take some papers to the solicitor. On the day we came to leave, the van wouldn't start. This was no great surprise, as it had been sitting there charging 20000mAH power banks day after day, while I didn't even dare to start the engine in case it cost me a hundred quid. A new battery was only marginally more expensive than the London LEZ charge, of course, but we had to pay that in addition later that day. I wasn't exempted for wrecking my battery with good behaviour. This was the first time I'd noticed the TfL website encouraging me to sign up for an account. "But that's almost as if you WANT me to keep bringing my [supposedly] heavily-polluting vehicle [with an engine the same size as that of the average Saab] into London... and to keep paying you two hundred quid for the privilege!" I shouted at the Internet, which didn't hear me.

Vanny will still be our cheapest and easiest way of visiting London once we are settled in Yorkshire, however (which is one of a number of reasons why I get nervous as M makes louder and louder noises about selling her). We've broken free from the capital's economagnetic field, but we will want to go back pretty regularly. It has been a great place to live, in recent years at least. I have a vivid memory from 1991, standing on the roof of a multi-storey car park in Stratford E15, after a biophysical science tutor had shamefacedly accepted that he was absolutely desperate for students who could start his course the following month. The view was toxic industrial wasteland and housing that showed utter contempt for its occupants. "Look at this shithole," my friend and I said together.

Very few places have changed as radically as Stratford, but the whole world has been evolving with incredible momentum in the twenty five years since. All that time inside the M25 meant I hadn't spent enough time elsewhere to notice that it is changing for the better outside of London too, whether it's the food in Cornwall, or the decreasing likelihood of a country bumpkin complaining about the people in cities who aren't white.

There was a young woman who worked in our neighbourhood in London cleaning the streets - picking up litter with one of those claw things. I think she was probably from Eastern Europe somewhere - maybe she was Polish. She stood out, of course, because the majority of people doing her job are men. I never spoke to her, never asked if she got paid the same as the men did, for example. But I assume she's still doing it, because the streets around our old home are usually fairly tidy. The disgraceful mess at the sides of the country's A roads varies from county to county, which makes it obvious that some councils don't pay anybody to clear this shit up any more. 'Litter' just doesn't do it justice - the recent winds have seen to it that there are miles of road where every single tree and bush wears a bag, and whole, full bin-liners can be seen here and there, carefully placed by somebody who really wanted rid of them, but couldn't think where else to do it.

The scene is made even more grim by the roadkill. The veins and arteries of the nation are clogged not only with thin layers of plastic but with a variety of decaying corpses. I've finally seen more dead foxes than I ever saw live ones in London and I must have seen a hundred dead badgers too - I should organise myself to see one living happily, to exorcise their many ghosts. At one point, I can't remember where, I saw a huge stag lying in a ditch. Such a great beast, you'd think, must have made out a will - 'Leave Me To Rot By The Side Of The Road.'

What a strange way to end a blog post about beautiful England. About how it's getting better, and about how considerate and kind its people are. Mind you, it is just another thing on the web now, which has even more rubbish on it than the A14. Everywhere in this country is a nicer place than the internet.

Friday, 26 January 2018

Space Travel

It's been six months since we set off on tour. A voyage of discovery has led us to a small town in North Yorkshire, via dozens of convivial conurbations, full, as far as we can tell, of good food, good beer and good people. The overall experience has been one of learning that there are many, many great places to live in this country outside of London. But more of that some other time.

The road hasn’t ended yet. There is no standing still. Since we all agreed on where our home and shop will be, however, we've struggled a little to know where to go and what to do. Hopefully it'll only be about a month of living footloose and fancy free, as it's cold and wet outside, loads of places are now closed for the winter (a lot more than there were back in November) and we've just about had enough of living in a van. Until summertime at least.

So we’ve been revisiting some friends in The South and going back over some old ground from the early days of the tour. It’s been an interesting experience, staying in the same spot in Walberswick as we did on that first tumultuous night, but with none of the nerves about what we were doing and whether we were allowed to do it anyway. Or walking back along Southwold pier, in bright sunshine once again, but with ninety percent of the rest of the population having been wiped out, perhaps by climate change.

We found a great little campsite on a farm in Thetford Forest, which I would have avoided if I’d known how strong the coming winds would be. On the way I’d stocked up in Beautiful Beers, a great shop in Bury St Edmunds. I heartily recommend the place to anybody who is after a decent beer in a town that would have oodles of it, if it were not the home of Greene King. The shop’s particularly strong in the Tempest department, and after several bottles of Marmalade On Rye (among others) I had completely forgotten that there had been any mention of squalliness. In fact I was fast asleep.

I awoke to an almighty crashing noise, one of those that you can only establish has just happened because bits of it are still going on, even now you’ve had time to collect yourself. And by you, now, I mean me, then. The wind was howling around the van, which bounces around happily when a larger vehicle drives past, so in a gale she becomes a zero-gravity simulation. I assumed the noise had been caused by the removal of a substantial part of the vehicle, but was still too drunk and tired to establish exactly what, so I went back to sleep.

In the morning, the sun shone and total peace reigned on the farm. Alone on the January campsite, the family in the van laid in until ten. I drank some water and felt quite super. Fried some sausages, read to the kids, took my time about thinking where we were going to go next. Not for a fraction of a moment did it cross my mind that there had been a storm last night. Until we set off, that is. The farm stood in a large clearing, but proper foresty forest was only about a hundred yards to the rear of our van, and as soon as the farm track entered the trees, we had to stop because one of the larger ones was lying sideways, completely blocking the way.

In falling, it had brought down the electricity line with it. This, we saw as we backed up, had pulled two telegraph poles askew to crazy angles, and now lay along the line of the track like a menacing cyborg snake. One of the farm workers welcomed us back from our micro-excursion with what was frankly unbelievable good cheer, considering he now had his work cut out for the foreseeable future. He showed us that the powerline had nearly ripped the chimney off the roof of the cottage and had started a fire in the surrounding trees, told us he’d been at it since six taking the farm’s one generator around the various sheds and animal feeders, and gave immeasurable care and loving attention to a pewter-coloured dog in his arms as he described the route of a smaller farm track that “ye moight be ayble to ge’ back ow’ ahrn.”

Moight, here, was the operative word, and he didn’t look the tiniest bit surprised to see me walking back down the muddy path less than ten minutes later. He had warned me about the big dip, of course, but I’d been so delighted to sail straight through that and back up again, I’d decided to celebrate with a change of gear and suddenly found a world of no traction. At all. None. Again and again my front wheels would spin, but there was no hint of travel. To look at them from the side was a mystery indeed, as they had not dug into the turf at all – it didn’t even look muddy here. It was just as if I had stripped my tyres naked and slathered them in goose fat. Admittedly I’d been pretty drunk the night before and had forgotten quite a lot, of course.

Still, he didn’t even wait to hear my cries for help, just jumped behind the wheel of the nearest tractor, drove up to me and hoisted me into the cab, then rolled on half a mile to Vanny and set about her liberation. It was, in the truest sense of the phrase, all in a day’s work for him. But if a tree falls in the forest and the only person nearby is too pissed to hear it, or remember that he has heard it, should he really get away so easily, leaving such devastation in his wake?

A few days later we were back in Overstrand, on the
North Norfolk coast, looking out to sea. “Do you know,” I asked E, who automatically rolled his eyes, “if we were to sail away, out there, Due North, where we would arrive first?”

A shrug. “
Iceland or Greenland or something?

Good try.” That’s what I would have guessed too. Luckily I had already looked at a map. “We wouldn't actually meet land between here and The Arctic.”

Oh. Wow.” There aren't any words for how un-wow his wow sounded.

I tried again.

I like this idea of being back in the very same spot we were in six months ago, when we are actually as far from where we were as we will ever be. In, like, astronomy terms and that. About 180 million miles across space, we were, in fact, in the very same place.”

Yeah, but the galaxies themselves are moving too. A lot further and much faster. The universe is always expanding.” He pointed to a muddy spot about thirty feet away. Plus, last time, we were parked over there.”

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Friendly Street to (Highw)A61 Revisited

"You hear it all the time - 'People are Friendlier Up North.' I reckon it's a myth. People aren't any friendlier here, it's just that they talk to you." The most Southern bloke I know (in the North) shared this observation in his Ilkley kitchen back in September. Within a week, I would be the audience for one of Yorkshire's foremost parking experts. This alone didn't seem much of a coincidence, let alone resemble the beginnings of an emerging pattern, but our weekend visit to Chapel Allerton, a gentrifying North-Leeds suburb, made my Useful Soundbite Gland start oozing again. All three incidences occurred within an eight-mile radius of Otley, it emerged, as I drew a big red circle on a map in the police station of my mind.

The woman in question on this occasion was neither a police officer nor a parking enforcement non-officer, but felt that she was entitled to an opinion on our very presence next to the park across the road from her house. We are still really careful not to sit our big ugly machine right outside somebody's front door unless we absolutely have to, but it appeared that this was an individual whose personal space straddled the highway. To be fair, she had probably noticed we'd been there all night, it was now late into the next morning, I had always expected our van to be on the receiving end of negative public opinion quite frequently, and this was literally the first occasion of it. I should also make it clear that I dithered on my way to the door to answer her knock, and that once again it was M who actually dealt with the Enemy of the Van. 

Earlier I had stared at a particularly interesting droplet - among millions - in a protective veil of condensation inside the windscreen. Meanwhile she squawked at her silent husband about us, as he carried the cat basket to her little yellow car.

'I would usually park it here, where THIS BIG VAN IS,' she told him. He gave no audible response. I would imagine that he knows where she usually parks her car, or perhaps he was thinking that she can only park it there when there isn't another vehicle parked there already. Or maybe the cat was just really heavy. He put the cat basket in the car, which he could almost certainly have done without her company for the long diagonal trek to a geographical point about thirty feet in front of us. They walked back to their house, which looked really nice. Then she strode purposefully to her yellow car again, this time without the husband, who had presumably gone to hide in the shed. 

She stood and glared at Vanny, probably able to make out a rotund silhouette in the front seat, and waiting for it to move. Waiting for me to move when I don't absolutely have to is a losing game for anybody of less-than-otherworldly patience. Eventually she gave up and walked off to her house again, so I went in the back to the toilet. As I came back, there was an impolitely-loud knock at the door.

'Are you visiting someone? I've got a broken foot.'
That's all I really remember of the conversation, but it is all I really need. This utterly perfect non-sequitur told us a great deal - that she suspected we had no real reason to be there at all, but that if we did know somebody in the neighbourhood she wanted to know who they were and why we couldn't park our big ugly van outside their house, and that whether or not we actually had the right to be parked in the unrestricted parking on the street where she lived, taking up her preferred parking space not immediately outside, but across the road from, her house, and forcing her to walk a little further to her car, we were proving ourselves shit-arse inconsiderate by doing so, because we should have been able to infer that she was carrying a debilitating injury, perhaps from the way that she made the same journey two additional times in order to glare at, and eventually, talk to, the people who were making her life so much more difficult. But she wasn't being friendly.

Nevertheless, M was superbly polite and sweet with her, which impressed me as much this time as it did with the parking bloke at Durdle Door and the toilet man in Abbotsbury. But she wasn't looking to make a new friend here either. The problem was not the woman's unfriendliness in itself, so much as the fact that this was the morning after M's third successive sleepless night. We had been to see a house, also for the third time, and made an offer that was accepted, and now it looked like the Tour was in its final stages. More importantly, it was dawning on us - long before dawn - that we were soon going to be living in a town where we didn't know anybody, at the far end of a massive county where we only know half a dozen people, hundreds of miles from most of our friends and family. 

It's when you're lying there alone with your ill-marshalled thoughts at night, unable to sleep but not really awake either, that the thin, brittle enamel of what you're doing with your life can give way and open up a festering cavity of loneliness. I'd had it myself on the first night - up to this point it has all been imagination, projection and fantasy. But just as it becomes real it suddenly seems so much less desirable, and so much more scary. Don't get me wrong, the place looks amazing, I can't wait to get started on the shop, and the boys will probably get straight into their new life, but the shadowy forms of one's doubts and fears do tend to congregate when you should be asleep, don't they? 

After Christmas in Suffolk, we had spent a very enjoyable few days back among friends in London. The highlight, for me and my stomach, was a visit to Everest Curry King, which I'd never called on in a quarter century in the capital, but which I could not commend more completely. Not only is the food amazing and the cheapest we've found anywhere in the country, but the people are so damn friendly. M recalled the occasion at the end of the nineties when we'd walked a group of drunk Geordies from the Blue Posts on Berwick Street to Leicester Square tube. 'Tha's fookin greet ovya man. I orlaz thought Cockneys was a reet buncha unfrenly coonts,' their translator offered as he groped for his Travelcard. We didn't tell him that he'd said that six times already, and that we were only doing it to prove him wrong.

After return visits to York and Richmond, Leeds revealed a lot of what we'd missed the first time, an inner city residential district with lots going for it, the waterways and industrial buildings, and in particular the breweries based in them. Northern Monk's Refectory was everything that the Magic Rock Tap wasn't, with the added bonus of a sign saying they'd spent £1872 replacing stolen glassware in the last year, and that they were "as tight as anyone else from Yorkshire," so if you liked their glasses so much, why didn't you just buy one? Durham, meanwhile, seems to be a city that is absolutely dependent on its university and its cathedral for the entirety of its identity. Take those institutions away, and the Jack Wills would go out of business, leaving little but the building works of desperate-looking redevelopment around the river on which my brother had shouted at teams of eight strong women at a time so long ago.

The boys set an excellent example of getting on board with this house thing, despite the fact that it couldn't be much further away from Worthing, which was their preference. They were cheered enough by the discovery of a decent sweetshop in the town that they turned from flat refusal to a kind of acceptance on a sixpence. This says much about the fickleness of kids but also their supportive relationship - having each other, and a place they can go for sugar, will be enough.

There are friendly faces everywhere you go, I'd told them as we were setting out in July, and we've seen dozens of them since, but now it looks like we will be living in the one town that is furthest away from any of them. The boys will make friends easily, I think (and hope), but what about their parents? And if Northern Monk are right about Yorkshire, to hell with friends, what about customers?

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Motorsport Can Be Dangerous (Devon and Cornwall, Part 2)

We were headed for Lands End. Not the place itself, which, despite being the setting for one of the great unsung classics of children’s literature is, according to M, “really boring,” but Penzance and St Ives. I was interested to visit both towns, and they’re as close to the Southernmost and Westernmost points of England as we could be bothered to go. I did have a look at how much it would cost to get to the Isles of Scilly, and decided it wasn’t worth it. I’ll go there when I’ve made my fortune selling secondhand records and I’m trying to decide what to do with my yacht.

Penzance is a great town. Sure, it has plenty of tell-tale signs of people living in poverty and heroin, but it has lots going for it. It has atmosphere, dramatic landscape, architectural interest and more miles between it and London SE15 than the Tyne Bridge. We met up with some other ex-regulars from the Ivy House who moved out of London at about the same time as us. They’ve both got jobs down there, and their young son is starting nursery school. 

What they make (so far) of their drastic change of circumstances is given interesting perspective by the fact that they’ve both taken the time and trouble to be American.I don’t know them particularly well, only chatting to them on a few occasions prior to this, and I tend to assume that Americans experiencing The Great British Countryside can only possibly be enjoying a quaint oldy-worldiness. People hailing from a continent where the scale of everything dwarfs what is possible on these islands surely can’t actually be thrilled by the best that our natural and built environments have to offer, can they? 

As we walked down the hill away from the Admiral Benbow Inn (where I was moved to tell the barman that my two pints of Proper Job were the best cask ales I’d drunk in the last six months, the length and breadth of the country), one of our new friends leapt into an involuntary star-jump at the view. “LOOK at this place.” She almost snarled. “I FUCKING LOVE IT.” And, for the umpteenth time on this journey, I had to agree.

Not just because I’m a little scared of her (because the first time I ‘met’ her, she was heavily pregnant and just standing in the doorway of the Ivy House, firing ice-laser-beams out of her eyes at her partner, who had already fielded two ‘come home’ phone calls while sitting at the bar nattering about record shops in Brooklyn), but also because the view across harbour to water was impressive. She is, I realise now, one of the most talented pubgoers I’ve met, effortlessly striking up conversations with locals everywhere we went (The Lamp and Whistle was very good too), although Being American might be cheating.

He, for his part, has already got himself a regular spot playing records in some late-night bar, and gained unrestricted access to one of those stupidly huge archive-type collections you see YouTube videos about. The thought occurred to me that Penzance was all the more inspiring a place for us to visit because it had this family happily living in it. They took us to the lido café for breakfast, which was amazing – the food, the elegant lines of the building, but, more than anything, the light.

Also, one member of staff (still) wore a Save the Lido T-shirt, and I felt a little Londonsick for the first time. People would ask me why, a year after the pub reopened, the Twitter account I was running was still called Save the Ivy House, although we would always both know that if nobody spent any money there, it would close again, forever, and soon. Being a customer for small businesses is like Mr Incredible says, “No matter how many times you save the world, it always manages to get back in jeopardy again… sometimes I just want it to STAY SAVED, y’know?”

Near St Michael’s Mount (or a good view of it from Marazion) there’s a great spot to park up (we have found it much easier since M found this website), away from the road but open to the elements. We were battered by the wind and rain more relentlessly than on any night since Rothbury, and although we never quite got to the bottom of whether Plymouth is truly “Britain’s Ocean City”, I’m not having anybody try to tell me that what was blowing around and through Vanny that night was a breeze from the English Channel or Irish Sea. That’s the Atlantic Ocean right there, and you can’t tell me any different.

Two of M’s least favourite things (on this tour, at least, after me) are steep, winding roads on which I might end up running her over, and towns where most of the buildings are Londoners’ second homes. But, like the Bio-Electronic Navigator BEN-GUNN in Disney’s version, she arrowed in on St Ives Rugby Club, which is a good overnight stop (if you’re prepared to ignore a few signs) and saves you from having to take your van down the slope into the narrow lanes of town.

Big H had told us to beware of ‘low-flying seagulls and Barbara Hepworth sculptures’ and we were soon victims of both. In something of a Cornish Cliché, M had the last bit of pasty stolen from her by a gang of gulls. A gull gang, or rather, one adult seagull and a bunch of teenage gulls flying around him, trying to look hard. Despite the armour of the brown paper bag it was barely protruding from, M, showing me her angry-red fingers, said she could feel that the seagull’s beak was serrated at its edge. I call BULLSHIT. (Remember to Google that before putting it in the blog.)

It’s interesting how Dame Babs has left great slabs of stone and metal lying next to our route throughout, from the dreadful sculpture above John Lewis on Oxford Street, where I spent the vouchers my colleagues collected for on my departure exactly a year ago, through Big H’s retirement japes with a cardboard replica of Two Forms (which had been a well-loved landmark in the best lesson I ever planned (rendered unreusable when the Divided Circle was recombined in a backstreet scrapyard’s furnace six years ago)), past reading about what Leeds is famous for, and ending up peering into her garden.

There were some nice ones of hers in the Tate, though. Big H’s younger namesake must have received an irreverent message psychically, as his behaviour in Tate St Ives was the worst I’ve seen from either boy on the whole tour. (To give credit where it is due, this wouldn’t even place him in the 30th percentile of the Boys’ Bad Behaviour Bell Curve I didn’t draw when I was teaching.)

H just wandered about looking grumpy and bored and saying sarcastic-sounding things that his vocabulary didn’t quite stretch to. I didn’t exactly help, delving into myTired and Bored Teacher’s Mental Book of Wind-Ups as we sat in front of Roger Hilton’s Oi Yoi Yoi.

“I just don’t like it. It’s not very good. It doesn’t even look like a person.” He opined.

“Ah, but you’re still responding to it. Well Done. You are appreciating it for what it is, whether you like it or not.”

This made him really cross, marching off to one of the two stations in the gallery that asked for feedback to be written on little paper circles which could then be hung on little round pegs. There were lots of little pencils with which to write something heartfelt. H was the second most-motivated (after his Christmas list) I’ve ever seen him when writing, “I didn’t like any of it. And I’m keeping the pencil.”

It was, as my brother has suggested, a good time to visit the town, and be able to enjoy its pubs and bars and beaches without all the bloody part-timer tourists getting in the way. Beer and Bird, the Firehouse, John’s bottle shop and more took plenty of money from us in return for great food and beer and incredibly friendly, professional service. It was, in fact, one of those phases of the tour when it felt like we are just on a really long, greedy holiday, breaking off chunks of Property Pie and stuffing it into our fat mouths, getting all bits of filling stuck in our beards.

Or maybe it was just me.

So for the first step of the journey back East, we thought we’d do something more educational. E had been insistent upon trying either quad biking or paintballing. It was a school day and I felt that driving a motor vehicle would hopefully be a more useful transferable skill for his future than shooting people, so we visited Blackwater’s ATV centre. Like the shit and boring Dad I sometimes have to be, I made a point of standing them for a meaningful moment in front of the sign that says MOTORSPORT CAN BE DANGEROUS in big letters.

It wasn’t really that important a lesson for these two first-time drivers. The sign would probably be better-deployed next to the A30 near Ottery St Mary. The boys were given full safety gear and excellent tuition, and the quad bikes themselves had little throttle limiters that the young bloke adjusted carefully, according to their respective ages and body weights. These, I feel, should be fitted to ALL vehicles driven by anybody under the age of 45. As they pootled around a well-designed course, they looked like they had a lot of fun, even if H did shout “I HATE THIS,” each time he passed me in the pits.

I consider this to be a healthy attitude to motor vehicles. Although I’ve never particularly enjoyed driving, this van is the most comfortable and least stressful ride I’ve ever had. Part of it is the position, up nice and high so you can see everything. Part of it is never having to stop because somebody needs the toilet. But the biggest part is that it doesn’t go very fast, so I don’t feel obliged to keep my speed up. The fact that I can’t see out of the back, so I don’t feel the pressure of a great long line of Audi drivers shaking their well-groomed fists at me, probably helps too.

M had just come back from the loo. This is illegal, of course, but I would like to see any of you try and stop her, even if you weren’t driving. The fact that you can’t see what’s behind you came as a blessing yet again, as I was only aware of these two cars, bumper-to-bumper at about seventy-five, as they appeared in the right-hand corner of my vision. As the second car, a little sporty-hairdresser’s thing, was passing me on my right, it was looking to accelerate across in front of me and undertake the first car in one very short diagonal line.

“Undertakers. Friends only to the Undertaker,” I decided to write in a blog several days later.

He lost control with his car a few feet in front of Vanny’s brave little snub nose, immediately going into a spin and bumping skywards off the central reservation, spinning mid-air, broadsiding the crash barrier with an enormous, well, crash, bouncing up in the air again and doing a lot of quick backwards swervy stuff before gradually slowing to a stop. All the time this was happening, I was just looking at the slow-lane gap, leaning forward over the wheel like Dougal in Pat’s milk float.

M said she felt she was looking at his face all the way through. Both boys were watching too, and all of us reported something different – M didn’t hear a crash, E was just mesmerized by how many “bits of mud and other stuff were flying up in the air,” H’s keen sense of drama reported that he was sure he’d heard the car knock some bits off the van. We were all in shock, and resolved, then and there, to stop off in Frome again and get drunk. On our previous visit, Brewed Boy was closed. This time, thankfully, it was not. And it is excellent.

Like Chris Rea, we felt we had been driving home for Christmas for about thirty years, but we made it to my Mum and Dad’s in Suffolk in the end. Where will we go next? Um, dunno yet. But we hope that you all have a very enjoyable few days off from whatever awful things you have to do the rest of the time, and do take care and look after each other. 

Merry Christmas, if that’s your sort of thing.