Monday, 13 November 2017

A Capital Idea

Rocket Man, it transpires, actually did manage to get out of the car before it went off the cliff and exploded. It's just that we didn't see him doing so last week. Misery Chastain was allergic to bee stings and in some kind of a coma, not dead, when they buried her, so she was able to come back and save Paul Sheldon's life. And motorhomes reflect light off their rear end in a way that bamboozles speed cameras with surprising regularity. 

It's somebody's job in the police station to look at the photo, and bin incidents where large vehicles have been clocked at ridiculous speeds, but occasionally one slips through. If you get a letter, all you need to do is call up and they'll re-examine the photo and quickly put the matter to bed. Whether this means you could soup-up your motorhome's engine and drive everywhere at insane speeds like a total arsehole without ever getting in trouble remains unclear.

I tried to blame my dad's easy submission to authoritarian language for our 500-mile round trip to the South, but in the end I was glad for the break. Sorting out the speeding business took about five minutes, and also gave me the chance to play a guitar I'd won at auction, by telephone from the top of Loughrigg Fell. It's likely I'll be playing it if and when you ever walk into my record shop, but I promise I'll put it down when I see I actually have a customer for once, and stick some John Renbourn on instead. 

Having made an emergency return to the South, and with Halloween looming spookily, we realised this was the right time to return to Sunny Nunny, SE15. I'm frankly disgusted by what my kids have come to expect of what was only a very minor date in 1981, but it was clear that they would resent having to spend it anywhere else, so this visit was an opportunity to catch up with some friends and see if we could stomach a taste of the life we've left behind. The boys duly managed to acquire and consume a half-bin-liner of confectionery each, M spent some quality time with former colleagues, and I achieved one of my great ambitions for this trip, parking the van with the door immediately opposite that of the Ivy House. For a while I contemplated winding the awning out.

E also bumped into the nice lady who bought our house, and she very kindly showed him around. He came back to the van a little tearful, but saying ridiculously grown-up stuff like 'They've made some very interesting changes.' In truth, neither of his parents would have handled it so well. I had an opportunity to play some records to a reassuringly empty room at the UK's first tank room bar, and the crowded tube journey gave me a chance to reflect on how little I'd seen of 'London' London in the last decade or so, as well as to wrack my brains for when I'd last had a wash.

We've realised that what we were living by Peckham Rye was not an Urban Existence. Despite how little respect I've shown for Estate Agents and their work elsewhere in this blog, I'd now agree that we were effectively living in a village on the outskirts of London. When I was first sent (as a supply teacher, from my Bermondsey flat) to East Dulwich fifteen years ago, 
I would ask myself Why would anybody want to live all the way out here? You might as well live in Kent. And this is what we always do - perceive a place to be remote and uninviting until we have made several visits. We are all cutting new tracks in the part of our brain that stores our personal geography, and having done this in London over a quarter of a century, we are finally extending it to the rest of the country. A nice place to visit, like a good film or book, needs a second or third rinse for the subject to see beneath the surface.

Indeed, the first time we park up somewhere for the night, we are still sometimes a little insecure, whereas our old neighbourhood felt perfectly comfortable - we didn't even feel we were treading on the toes of the people whose house we parked outside on our final night there (the sideways slope right outside the pub having rather spoiled our enjoyment of the exclusive location), despite sitting up late into the night with half a dozen beer drinkers in the van.

But the striking thing about this Wild Camping (if that term means what I think it does) is how easy it is. When we set out to do this, we didn't really find anything to encourage us, so I would like to contribute this wisdom to the web: if you have a campervan or motorhome, nobody is going to stop you from parking up and sleeping wherever the hell you want, unless you're on private property. Parking up by the roadside? Well, how many times have you approached a vehicle near your house to ask them what they think they're doing there? Town council car parks? Sure, the sign says No Camping or Overnight Sleeping, but how many people do you think are employed in the UK to enforce this? My guess is fewer than one. 

Even if somebody did knock on the window of my van at three in the morning, I expect I'd ignore it and leave them with little evidence that there was anyone in the vehicle at all, what with all the blinds down and the curtains behind the cab closed. And if I did, irrationally, stick my head through these curtains to see what they wanted, would I really accept their charges of overnight camping? No, I'm just sitting in my vehicle in my pants waiting for daylight because my lights aren't that great. I'm not sleeping, as you can see, because I'm talking to you at three in the bloody morning.

Of course, any Sherlock-Holmes-types could tell at a glance whether there are people in the van now the weather has turned colder. A thick layer of condensation clings to every window, obscuring any parking ticket we might have bought as a token gesture of having kept our ends up, and gradually feeding and watering those little spots of black mould that are so hard to shift if you don't wipe them away the moment they appear. Now we are using the heating, there's sometimes a cute little wisp of vapour curling out of the chimney at the back, too. But who is going to knock you up, even if they do know you're in there? 

When the weather is this cold and you're spending the bare minimum amount of time outside, paying for a campsite is an even bigger waste of money. Unless it's a tenner to park in the grounds of a good pub, of course. But if it gets much colder than this, we might have to shelve the project for a while, so we've been zipping around checking off places as quick as we can.

Norwich is, as the sign says, A Fine City, with my equal-favourite (with Liverpool) Brewdog bar of the fourteen I've visited, but I fear that it may be just a tad too familiar and close to my roots that are still unpoisoned in the fertile East Anglian earth. I feel inclined to break new ground, to plow a new furrow in a field far from home, to cut new tracks in the topography of my cerebellum.

Holt (Norfolk) isn't a place that will allow this either. A nice little town filled with old people, I would struggle to get comfortable there. My previous visit was one of exactly two occasions that I've found myself telling a stranger to fuck off. E was about eighteen months old and screaming blue murder as I strapped him into the buggy and put the rain cover on. Each time I looked in there, the screaming intensified exponentially, so I decided to ignore him at about the same moment a well-to-do older woman began watching me. I'd been pushing him along for one very noisy minute when she approached me and said, meaning well I'm sure, "You should talk to your children, you know." But I've already ruined the punchline.

Almost completely out of character with the rest of the town, but seemingly happy and successful within it, is Holt Vinyl Vault, a well-stocked and interesting record shop that does more than just open the doors and hope somebody will come in. When I was there last Wednesday, an enthusiastic man even older than me was actually DJing - not just spinning discs but weaving a musical tapestry, or at least sewing together some really lovely bits and pieces to make a smashing patchwork quilt. I was sold my records in a big plastic Recorded Delivery mailer, left over from the shop's recent past doubling as a Post Office. M's local friend says it was a curious scene to watch not long ago - senior citizens queueing up for their pension cheques with a soundtrack from the Velvet Underground.

From Holt we rolled all the way back up North to look at Richmond again, beautiful in sunshine and cold air; Darlington, which is a much nicer town than I'd always assumed, and has a fabulous pub in Number 22; Heaton Moor in Greater Manchester, a pleasant and diverse suburb not dissimilar to Dulwich; and the ever-lovely Shrewsbury, via a freezing night in the Peak District near a village called Tintwhistle. 

We are working our way South-East again as we have an appointment with the van doctor. In addition to the little leak above the shower room, the electric switch in the kitchen tap has given up and the leisure battery lost all of its charge in one evening in London (although it hasn't been a problem since.) Our teenaged van passed forty thousand miles in North Yorkshire, ten percent of which have been added to the clock in the three-and-a-half months we've been living in her. So actually she's been incredibly durable, I think, and I shall repeat here what I've said in person to anybody who will listen: wherever we end up living, whatever form the shop eventually takes, you will have to pry my cold, dead fingers from the wheel before you take this van away from me.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

I Wish I... I Wish I Was In...

Richmond is the most replicated English place name. There are fifty-something (sorry, I couldn't be bothered to Google it again) examples worldwide, but the original (English) Richmond (in North Yorkshire, at the North Eastern corner of the Dales) isn't very well-known. This is an awful shame, as it is a super town, with a huge cobbled market place, an imposing castle, beautiful houses and a military museum that claims to house Hitler's Carpet. It also has sure signs of a real community - the railway station, in the absence of any trains, has been developed for small businesses and includes a little cinema, and the George and Dragon pub (which is admittedly in the neighbouring village of Hudswell – geographically the Richmond upon Thames of Richmond, North Yorks) was saved by its customers in much the same way as the Ivy House, and is a tremendous place for a pie and a pint, with a real-life record player spinning liquorice pizzas behind the bar.

Throw in a few decent shops, a swimming pool, a secondary school that the kids didn't look too unhappy to be walking to in the morning and a tiny hospital that once sewed up my knee halfway through a Coast-to-Coast bike ride (and then gave me an anti-tetanus shot that I got drunk in defiance of, but nobody wants this blog to end up being known as Places Where Tim Has Shat Himself) and you have a town that fits all of my own personal criteria as a Good Place To Live. 

I don’t think I want a city, or even a big and busy town any more. But then I grew up in a village with a population of larger mammals that was more porcine than human. Neither M or the boys enjoy the benefit of such humble beginnings, and so they're unsure of whether Richmond is a bit too sleepy, or a bit too In The Middle Of Nowhere and Nearly In Scotland.

Exercises like this tour sometimes force you to ask yourself difficult questions, such as Am I Just A Selfish Greedy Bastard and Why Does My Life Partner Seem To Hate Me So Much? But nobody said this was going to be easy, and as we pass the three-month mark, Nobody has been proven wrong. On our way from Rothbury to
Richmond, the van was clocked at 80 mph in a 30-zone during what was left of the hurricane. The letter that arrived at my folks' house in Suffolk says I could get a thousand-pound fine and 6 points on my licence, but I reckon that's peanuts for driving a huge ugly truck through a built-up area at almost three times the speed limit during a former tropical storm or whatever it was. Makes me almost wish I had. 

It is obviously a computer error, caused, I would guess, by the gusting hurricane-force winds. This van has only once gone over sixty with me at the wheel, and that was on a mile-long steep downhill stretch of motorway. In
Devon, if I remember correctly. But will I have to go to court to prove it? Will a magistrate agree to ride shotgun with me while I put the pedal to the metal and show him just what a lot Vanny's not got? Stay tuned to find out.

In order to open this letter and answer these charges, we've had to return to
Suffolk, 300 miles from where the crime wasn't committed. After Richmond, we visited...

Ripon - a big cathedral in a little city,

York - a big cathedral that for some reason isn't called a cathedral in a great city, full of pubs and at least one good record shop and animatronic Vikings who are quite impressive the first time around,

Harrogate (again) - where some friends made their home available for a few days in their absence which was very kind,

Knaresborough - where some strangers did their best to make Mother Shipton's home seem even more inhospitable in their presence, which was great fun, 

Huddersfield -  where my pilgrimage to the Magic Rock Brewery Tap left me a little disappointed, but Vinyl Tap made up for it,

Sheffield – where I snapped off part of the awning by driving too close to a telegraph pole. It was just the cover of the hooky bit, but this may have now compromised the aerodynamics such that we will never break the sound barrier. I realised I'm doing what my dad always accused me of with cars - taking the vehicle to the scrapyard, bit by bit.

In the newly-exposed, tuppence-sized hole that I briefly thought may go as deep as the width of the awning, there was some mouldy-looking, fluffy white stuff. I poked it. A lethargic wasp crawled out. I made an alarmed burbling noise. It fell on my face. I screamed like a 1970s Mid-Suffolk piglet. It landed on the ground. I stamped on it. Another came out. I swore at it. It flew away drunkenly. I thought of that book called The Wasp Factory that I haven’t read. I thought that the author was probably Scottish. I thought, again, about how the Scots’ strong and admirable sense of National Identity was inextricably linked to religion, despite the fact that religion is the cause of so much division and unpleasantness within the Scottish people. I thought about the huge and grand cathedrals in English cities and watched the wasp just about stay airborne as it departed. I wondered about whether American cities had to have cathedrals and whether the decline of Christian culture in England has had any effect on my feelings about where I want to live.

Sheffield is a great city, and I would be perfectly happy living there and selling records and coffee and beer. It seems that I have only ever tried to go to Record Collector on a Wednesday before, which is pretty stupid, because that is when it is closed. But this time it was open and it was fabulous. Also the wonderful Wizard Guitars sold me a little amp that made me feel much better about how far technology has come in the last few decades, after the crushing disappointment of the Blackpool Illuminations.


I stopped worrying about sleepy wasps and started worrying about my speeding ticket again.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Coast to Coast Across the North

"I fucking hate Manchester. Everybody's miserable there, and they're always going on about being from Up North. It's not even Up North! Scotland is Up North. Manchester's just Over To The Side A Bit. And it's always fucking raining."

Not my words, of course, but the words of Jerry Sadowitz, at the Leicester Square Theatre several years ago now. Personally, I really enjoyed Manchester when we went there recently (but I was a little surprised to see that a house on a nice road in Chorlton costs about as much as a comparable one in Lewisham... right, that's enough about house prices for another six months). But Sadowitz was mostly right about the rain (at least on the evidence of the week we spent there) and about the latitude.

After a cosy night in Carnforth cuddled up to the canal we were miserable in Morecambe where the amusements were banal. In an empty seafront car park near the statue of old Eric we were tossed about in high winds and said, "It's going to be hard to sleep in anything worse than this."

We then spent a relaxing couple of weeks in Cumbria, at first on an excellent caravan site called Skelwith Fold, right near Ambleside. I've always loved the Lake District, and now it seems to be a much better place to live than it used to be, at least for people who like beer and food. I'd pretty much expected the Hawkshead Brewery to be one of the only places I could buy a heavily-hopped, unashamedly-alcoholic American-style IPA inside the boundaries of the National Park, but I couldn't have been more wrong. 

A fabulously friendly cafe called Freshers in Ambleside (staffed by a nice bloke of about thirty and a wonderful woman who may well have been his grandmother) led us to the town's specialist Beer Shop, which was one of the best I've seen on the trip so far, maybe even as good as the one in Bath. On the wall they had a relief map of the sixteen or seventeen wonderful lakes and the even-better mountains and fells in between, very like the one I had up in my bedroom for most of my childhood. They'd affixed a little sign saying BEERIST INFORMATION and had marked on all the best places to get good beer, which seemed to collectively form a neat ring covering the whole region. The middle of the circle, Ambleside itself, was left modestly unmarked, but just above, in Grasmere, was a little sign that brought memories pouring forth like a broken beer tap: TWEEDIES.

We had liked the naffness of the name when we went there in the late eighties, so it's beyond me to say how ironic or post-ironic it might be now. We liked it even better when the landlord not only served us pints of Theakstons Old Peculier without any questions asked, but also gladly took the extra coin for dropping a shot glass of vodka into each, telling us this was called a 'Depth Charge'. Amusingly, I realised as I chatted to a friendly but businesslike member of 21st Century Staff, things haven't changed all that much in thirty years - for the second day in a row I was drinking Hawkshead's Tiramisu Imperial Stout, a gloopy, sweet, black beer almost as strong as wine. The chainsmoking and repeated plays of Baker Street (can that really have been the best thing on the jukebox?) - in fact, the jukebox itself - were gone (which is probably for the best) but this was still a fine pub with a charmingly awful name. I ate my Vegetarian Stack - goat's cheese, avocado, a poached egg, sourdough toast and a bunch of other things I'd've paid to avoid in the eighties - and it was delicious. Then, by careful application of physics, I was able to gently shove legions of seated children out of my way and leave. This would not have happened in Tweedies in the eighties, because we were not only the youngest people in there, but also, many times, the oldest. We also never left before closing time.

The way that businesses in the Lakes have adapted to the apparently increasing middle-classness of fell walking (or perhaps just everything) is quite impressive. There are probably more outdoor equipment shops than are absolutely necessary, but is the region ready for a secondhand record shop with the full back catalogue of Nick Perls's Yazoo label? Probably not, at least until they are available in waterproof sleeves with fleece linings.


The following week, for H's birthday, we went to the Center Parcs near Penrith. This served a number of purposes, very few of which will be part of Center Parcs's business model moving forward. More than anything, H had wanted to go back to London for his birthday and to have a party with all of his friends, but it's still too early for that. We are all looking forward to parking up outside the Ivy House for a few nights at some point before Christmas, but when this does happen it will mark the completion of Phase One of Project Rest Of Our Lives. For one thing, if we were to go back and see friends and familiar settings and say 'This is stupid, lets just move back here,' we could do so (admittedly to a much smaller / less ideally-located / more Stannah-stairlift-and-smell-of-deathy house) and say "Well, we gave it a go!" And for another, if we don't feel like moving back, we could look at London through the eyes of people who've been to dozens of towns in recent months, then go back to places we've already been and take it more seriously this time, or visit places we missed on the first circuit. There's a plan in there somewhere.

So going back to London wasn't yet an option, and we thought we could distract both boys a little by taking them somewhere else they always bang on about wanting to go. And we needed some time out of the van, with proper beds and a proper bathroom. That relativity of scale of a family's living space was quite striking - a two-bedroom bungalow seemed frankly enormous for the four nights we were in it, and it was difficult to see how or why four people would even need any more room than that. Unless they happened to have thousands of records and a shipping container full of crap to accommodate, of course.

There was a Top Tip in Viz several years ago that said something along the lines of, "Give your family the CENTER PARCS experience by cycling to your local Swimming Pool every day and setting fire to a pile of fifty pound notes," which is pretty much bang on, but we spent Glasgow-and-Edinburgh-Half-Term-Week in some lovely woodland near Penrith having as relaxing a time as one can have while surrounded by people who sound like Francis Begbie.

From there, we stopped off in Hexham, Northumberland, which is a pleasant market town near Hadrian's Wall. For two boys who will cheerfully mimic Donald Trump saying "We Will Build a Wall" from some memey Internet video, my sons showed a surprising lack of interest in its ancient equivalent - the Northwestern Frontier of the Roman Empire and the single largest remaining piece of evidence of that great civilisation. Well, I thought it was surprising. So we didn't even bother going to look at it, to teach them a lesson.

We moved on to Newcastle, another town I just can't separate in my mind from the memory of the first time I visited it. As we strolled down the fairly-newly-developed riverside, my friend had looked over the edge and saw there was no Fog on the Tyne, but a dead man floating face down in it instead. This is the sort of memory that stays with you, and no amount of pleasingly-orange Geordie-Shore-type ladies posing for photos on the bonnet of a white stretch Audi limo can stop me thinking about it when I'm back in the same spot. 

There was also, at the end of the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, the best busker we've seen on our tour (my GOD we have heard some dreadful ones) who played The Archers theme on kazoo and a version of Always On My Mind in which the last line of each verse was delivered as an agonised scream. This also did little to take my mind off the subject of death.

Za Za Bazaar is a temple to globalisation and gluttony that would be wonderful if it didn't make me feel a bit sick. It's about ten different all-you-can-eat buffets of curry, pizza, noodles, and every other national fast-food dish in which Brits have a tendency to over-indulge, and you just help yourself to one after the other (or the same again) until the tidemark reaches your epiglottis. The fact that E was more enthusiastic about Newscastle than he's been about any other city since Bristol was not lost on me - these are the only places where ZZB can be found. We went again, of course (although M decided she'd seen enough the first time around) and got our money's worth again, but I wonder if I would be selling my son's soul to the Diabetes Devil if we settled in either of these fine cities.

Looked after by terrific hosts, we were fed and watered (or boozed) well, and able to service the van with clean water in and (very) dirty water out. We were shown that Tynemouth is a quite lovely part of Toon (which I didn't expect, probably because of my first Tyneside experience) and then looked to move on further North. I've placed a lot of importance (in my attempts to imagine how this tour will unfold) in getting over the border into Scotland, for a number of different reasons. A disproportionate number of my heroes were Scots, I know it's a really beautiful country, but I've hardly been there. I'm fascinated by their political momentum toward independence, awed by the integrity of their national identity, and intrigued by how much significance religious sectarianism still seems to have. Also, this blog's description says 'exploring the UK' but we still haven't made it out of England. And we were getting so close - already a hundred miles further North than Manchester, but not into Sadowitz's Scotland yet. So we headed to Rothbury, a pretty little town in the right direction, that once saved me on a mountain biking tour when my blood sugar tanked, and was later the scene of a dressing-gown-clad Gazza's attempts to persuade Raoul Moat to give himself up, with offers of chicken and lager.

The dark road to Rothbury went up and down hill and dale through three fords, one of which was deep and wide and fast-moving between two 20% climbs, but Vanny (as she's known when we haven't time to remember the other more complicated names we've given her) repaid my good faith as she always does, albeit with wet tyres skidding on leaves and gravel as Former Hurricane Ophelia closed in.

Now we are sitting in a five-star car park a few metres from the River Coquet in what looks a fairly sheltered spot, but away from any trees that are big enough to squash us if they come down. The wind is bouncing our accommodation in all directions at once, threatening to tear the awning (rolled in, of course - we've barely used it) and the now-almost-financially-irreplaceable windows off of the thing, and somehow seems able to loosen the locked side door such that it has to be opened and slammed again every half-hour in a quieter moment.

Tomorrow we will gratefully observe that no real damage has been done, that the many sets of stone steps in Rothbury have all become enormous bulging piles of leaves, but that the town that once saved me is otherwise pretty but unremarkable, and that if there's any chance at all of more of that weather further North, we'd better head south again like the Southern Jessies we are. 

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Best Coffee - Worst Cheese



Best Coffee

I've never really liked coffee all that much. I can remember needing it on many occasions - staying up all night before a dissertation deadline, or working a Saturday at Music and Video Exchange on Berwick Street, I might have swigged it down like a thirsty man drinks from a canteen of water. The flavour and mouthfeel of a good cup of coffee is very enjoyable of course, but the specialist market that has developed around the crop fascinates me more because of how many not-particularly-nice cups it seems possible to buy, rather than the myriad opportunities to over-indulge thrown up by what might as well be called Craft Beer. During this trip, I've drunk about a hundred quid's worth of no-great-shakes, nothing-to-write-home-about coffee. Shops that had come highly recommended in Bristol and Lancaster have served unpleasant Americanos or long blacks with milk on the side that remind me in many ways of a mean old lady's hands - thin and bitter, almost translucent in the wrong light, yet covered in ugly dark liver spots.

Maybe I should move on from the Americano as it is certainly not the coffee style-choice of the connoisseur. An enormous, particularly rank effort from one of those Costa machines in a petrol station in Deal was enough to show me as much, two months ago now. I watched in captivated revulsion while a tiny espresso was drowned in a gallon of hot water before gushing cow juice turned it all a whiter shade of beige.

I would like to do some coffee in my record shop one day, but I am absolutely nothing like an expert. It seems to me that it can't be that difficult to consistently do a simple, good, coffee well, but I'm told by friends who have worked with it that it's not that easy. Why? Why is proper coffee so difficult to do well? And is this really why there are so many small independents that seem to be trying so hard, yet failing to deliver? In Carnforth my first cup of instant coffee of the whole journey so far probably ranked in the top half of those I've had, served strong and hot, while we were made to feel welcome by a lovely man I've never known all that well, his poorly mum (nevertheless radiant in her dressing gown), and his whippet (who flew around the room as if he was on his ninth cup). Meanwhile, the St*rb*cks in Skipton made a fantastic flat white when the right barista was on - the strong-looking woman with tattoos on her arms.

The best coffee I have had, ever, I think, was yesterday in a place called Mr Duffin's near the Hawkshead Brewery in Staveley. Not only was this specific single variety cup - a Peruvian - pure gold, it was one of about six they roasted right there, in a big solid piece of impressive engineering, in addition to a few different blends (one of which was a key ingredient in Hawkshead's Tiramisu Imperial Stout, a powerful half-pint that had sent me looking for the coffee shop in the first place).

Worst Cheese

Here's another foodstuff that has been elevated to a position where buying and consuming huge amounts of it can be mistaken for some sort of specialist interest, rather than just being a bit greedy. The Wensleydale Creamery in Hawes, in the Yorkshire Dales, offers gargantuan piles of dozens of varieties for the tasting of. Many of these were exquisite in their single-cubic-centimetre taster portions, but were never savoured nearly so well in the massive slabs I cut and jammed into my hairy gob after spending about thirty quid.

All cheese is good. Once again, my ill-educated palette is exposed. I enjoy pungent French soft cheeses, big blue mouldy stuff, dry-as-dust parmesans and even those yellow slices of processed fat that go well in cheeseburgers, and my whole family refers to as "'sgusty cheese". Sweating yellow rubbery Best-In blocks that look and taste like Semtex can serve a purpose if no other cheese is available.

So the worst cheese on this trip has, and I apologise in advance for this, been self-produced. You do not need to spend very much time with me (or any at all, thanks to this blog) to know that there are a range of things about me that are quite unpleasant. But smelly feet have never really counted among these demerits. Until Thursday morning in Skipton - gateway to the Yorkshire Dales and a whole new kingdom of self-loathing for me. The day before, we had been at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, paying handsomely to be drenched with water by Valhalla and shitted right up by the octogenarian woodwork project rollercoaster Grand National. The night before this, we'd been rained on most thoroughly during an abortive attempt to admire the illuminations, which appear to be the greatest rebuttal of humankind's supposed recent technological advances, as they are less sophisticated than they were thirty-five years ago.

My shoes were so wet that I broke out my gore-tex oversocks, stalwarts of very many happy days' mountain biking and very few washing machine cycles. The combination of new and old, moist and desiccated footcheeses, had a simply overpowering aroma which I attempted to ignore by drinking so heavily that I fell right out of the overcab bed on my return, thankfully avoiding knocking a BLUES NIGHT - shaped hole through the floor of the van. Two industrial washing machines later, this perfume is losing its bite, thankfully for anybody who has shared a room with me recently, let alone a compact motorhome.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

A Return Visit to Merseyside



It was, he supposed, inevitable that they would return to Liverpool, the city where the course of their lives had been set some twenty years before. They were not alone now, of course, sharing their carriage by day and at night with two bright-eyed young boys - living, breathing evidence that what he had done in the faded glamour of the Adelphi Hotel last century had not, thankfully, forced her away.

The place was different now, of course. Bright lights shone from new steel buildings and converted warehouses that had stood in silence two decades before. The docks provided a peaceful place to park and rest where once the van's wheels might not have lasted the night. Fine food from all over the world and beer of which they once could not have dreamt stood in the way of a visit to Chinatown just for old times' sake, and the faces of the city's favourite sons were everywhere, but EVERYWHERE, instead of peering modestly from just one shop window or two, and a plastic statue by The Cavern made to look like bronze.

However, this great love was forbidden to them - the red-haired child was small but strong and he laid down the law from the start. "I CHALLENGE YOU," he declared in a voice that, though reedy and nasal, demanded attention, "NOT TO MENTION THE BEATLES, OR ANY MEMBER OF THE BEATLES, OR ANY OF THE NAMES OF THEIR SONGS, OR ANYTHING ABOUT THEM, THE WHOLE TIME THAT WE'RE HERE." This was a relief, in fact, and the man enjoyed infuriating his son for 48 hours by finding it easy to do.

And so it was that as they approached Matthew Street, the ever-competitive young scamp pointed up at a life-size silver figure leaning down from a building with drumsticks in hand, and enquired innocently, "Dad, who is that?" Luckily, this most unlikely of likenesses bore precious little resemblance to the usually-easy-to-recognise Richard Starkey, so the man was able to be honest and still not fail to meet his challenge, "it's actually really difficult to tell." As they moved along the side of the building, other unrecognisable musicians came into view, holding Rickenbacker guitars or a Hofner bass, so he was unable to hold in the loud afterthought, "but I assume that they're the famous Liverpool band Gerry and the Pacemakers."

"NOOOOchkOOOOOchkkOOO," groaned a homeless scouser from the doorway behind them, shaking his head miserably while inserting even more guttural sounds into a word in which they did not belong. The situation of desperate homeless people, virtually everywhere they had been on their tour, had affected the man of the family a great deal, and so he flashed this one a knowing smile in order not to make him sad. It went unseen. "Yer cahrn't seh daht," he wailed, still tossing his sunburned face left and right in apparent agony, eyes screwed shut against the sight of this Southern Dichkh who didn't even know the Beatles when he saw them.

The slow lane, M6, 1998: the only time in his life that the young man had travelled by coach some distance alone, and all of the way he became sicker and sicker. His nose was running, he coughed and he sneezed, and his guts were churning within him as he attempted to digest a moist sandwich of thin ham and tasteless tomatoes. The toilet on this coach offered little refuge, but he was determined to make it to Liverpool to meet M more or less in one piece.

In the pub that evening there were many other young men too, skinny, big-nosed scousers with the carefree manners and dark hair he knew she liked so much. A guitar was passed around the pub and everybody who knew how to play a song did. "Diwyew know enny Beatles songs, mate?" As he drank, he began to forget that he was ill, a new vigour coursing through his veins, so he struck up a version of I've Got A Feeling worthy of the beard he did not quite yet have. But these were the semi-old days, and nostalgia for the Beatles' canon had not yet completed its tour of duty, and not one of these young Liverpudlians recognised his song.

Liverpool in 2017 is a fine city, perhaps even a nice place to live, that might yet have need for a record shop where the good stuff isn't buried in tons of crap, where you can sit down and relax, listen and peruse, rather than stand on tiptoes forcing the racks apart for long enough to catch a glimpse of each sleeve as you flick through... as those who never gave up on the format have cheerfully done for decades. 

Other attractions lay further up the coast - a hundred six-foot iron men less than half his age whose penises were already rusting off, and their equally-rusty-coloured neighbours further north in Formby. Though they are smaller, quicker and nimbler than the lumbering oafs who have almost completely replaced them, it seems that the latest initiative to save the endangered red squirrel is a return to the culling of the grey. Making sense of the need for slaughter as part of conservation was one of the more complex lessons so far in the home education of the man's children - one of whom bears a remarkable resemblance to a red squirrel. And the other, therefore, the grey. This made the man think of himself as a hungry pine marten.

The landscape at Formby reminds him of his native Suffolk's coastline - specifically at Thorpeness where the tour began. Scrubby grass projecting in defiant tufts from dunes of the softest sand at the edges of evergreen woodland, it differs only in its hilliness. A sign declares it to be 'some of the most rapidly changing coastline in Britain' and seems unconcerned by the fact that 'the dunes roll back across the land by as much as four  metres a year' so he made a mental note to visit the place again before all of its excellent facilities are buried and unusable. This lifestyle, he then declared, shall surely defeat any ambition I have had, as the sense of achievement gained from simply emptying the toilet cassette is enough to satisfy me for two days, or about as long as it takes to fill it up and start all over again. There must, of course, be more to life than finding an appropriate place to put the shit for which you are responsible.

And then he saw it again, or didn't - the inky blackness of a perfectly unlit room in the Adelphi Hotel in 1998. Half drunk yet and his insides burning, he had awoken in the middle of the night and felt his way around the invisible walls, hoping for the bathroom door, or lightswitch, and not finding either. The pain inside him ever growing worse, in the end he had given up, and when she turned on the bedside lamp and bathed the room in colour and detail, there he was, squatting in the corner, crapping wetly on the carpet. 

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Notes on The North



Leeds - great city centre, lots of pleasant quieter neighbourhoods and towns (none seemed very exciting tho) dotted around it. Lots of places we didn't see - seemed to swerve most of the Northern Grit stuff, albeit unintentionally. Still want that curry in Bradford and to visit Magic Rock in Huddersfield.

Harrogate - great town in own right, lots of good places to go, would be a good place for my business if I got it right. Didn't get the 'loads of rich twats' thing I've heard so much about. Might be blind to this after quarter-century in London. Or maybe I just don't have a problem with rich twats.

Saltaire - was okay. Too busy with street Food Fair - last thing I need in my Post-Peckham Period. Impressive Industrial stuff. Average Artworks. Still haven't forgiven Hockney for being rude to my dad in late eighties.

Hebden Bridge - Vocation and Co one of nicest, friendliest bars we've visited so far. Most duck-filled body of water too. Water wheel in mill cafe quite impressed kids but not as much as cheese toasties. Failed to track down friend who works as life coach by river. Nice town, but I'd need more than counselling and good beer to live there.

Manchester - parked in Chorlton, part of town Mancs and near-Mancs we've known said would suit us best. Seems they're right. Discovered mum and dad lived here in mid-late sixties, so advisors can't be quite right when they say it's always been hip.

H smuggled his 3DS on 'educational' trip to Museum of Science and Industry, promptly left it on tram. Cue worst look of distress and misery I've ever seen on his cute little freckled face. E devastated too. Neither kid interested in my philosophising that if this is the worst thing that has ever happened to them, they're very lucky boys.

But this IS the end of the world in a way - a world they've created and inhabited merrily whenever they've needed to escape the confines of van life. I realised that the complexity and subtleties of their interactions and communications in and around Tomodachi Life or Miitopia take them miles further in developing their minds and characters than the English or Maths activities I sling them as a token bit of School. Their relationship is the most powerful social glue in this family on wheels, and deserves all the support we can give it.

Visit to Cloudwater Brewery taproom cheered me no end - it's like somebody lent that guy the Half Blood Prince's potions book. Did little for the boys as they had to stand outside and didn't even have any proper crisps. Got them each a new (secondhand - God bless CEX) 3DS on way back through town so they can play together. Their gratitude knows no bounds.

Stopped in on M in Chorlton library, where my dad used to work. Took her next door into the 'Spoons for a late lunch. As M says, this is always a good way of sneaking a peek at the underbelly of a town, but this one was a joy. A grand old Temperance Society Billiard Hall, it proudly displayed a black and white print of George Best, cue in hand. If he'd paced himself a little better, he might have enjoyed a few pints with some of his contemporaries who were enjoying the place in its new guise. 

Really like Manchester but strangely we're all craving a more peaceful, more rural setting. Maybe, as we pass the eight-week mark, we are starting to adapt and adjust our requirements a little. I'll be sure to let you know.


Sunday, 17 September 2017

A conversation that didn't happen in Otley.



Well, half of it happened. A woman in her thirties did say the exact words I have recorded as her lines below. But I did not respond in anything like the detail that I am suggesting, as there wasn't time and I couldn't be bothered. Instead I responded by sighing gently (I had not yet brushed my teeth that morning and so this was probably quite unpleasant for her) and waiting for her to go away. I was also rather hungover, so I allowed my eyes to close very gradually as she spoke. I find that this often infuriates people who are trying to tell me off, with its coded message that they are sending me to sleep. It is important to remain calm during the process of parking large vehicles in busy car parks, and if passive aggressive behaviour is the only means of doing so, that is how it must be. 

If you and a friend are reading this script out loud, it is important that the character of the WOMAN has a Yorkshire accent and a tone of belligerent sarcasm. The character of ME should be voiced with friendly good humour in received pronunciation. Think Stephen Fry.

WOMAN: Can I just point something out? Why are you trying to park a massive great car in a tiny little space when there are two big spaces just over there?

ME: Thank you for your valued contribution. While I'm a little disappointed that you did not await my consent for you to point something out, and you then, in fact, went on to ask a second question rather than make an observation, as you had requested permission to do, you have successfully brought me to reconsider my choice of a parking space.

This is not, however, a 'massive great car,' it is a compact motorhome. It fits fairly easily in a space designed for a conventional motorcar, so long as it is able to overhang a verge or other similar unused space at the back. This has previously caused us small problems in itself - first in Norfolk, where the rear end of the van blocked a pavement running around the edge of a much larger and emptier Waitrose car park than the one in which we now converse, that I simply could not have anticipated anybody wanting to use, until a sour-faced elderly man made a point of walking right up to the van and taking a U-shaped detour around it while shaking his head slowly before returning to the pavement and heading toward even more completely empty space. 

A few weeks later, in Teignmouth, Devon, we parked in a car park just as busy as this one today. There was a 'festival' at The Ship Inn that seemed to consist of a band dragging their sorry musical arses through some poorly-remembered Clash covers while scores of pissed-up Brummies made a good seaside town look crap. This was still the summer holidays, of course, and there were several motorhomes in the car park, most of which were considerably larger than ours, some of them parked sideways across three or even four car spaces. Without the opportunity to overhang a verge, we had found a central space with a small car parked in the one behind it, in such a way as to leave lots of room for us to park our van. When the already unhappy-looking family returned, they made a point of bending down closely to look at the six-inch gap between the rears of our respective vehicles as if they thought they might see some evidence of damage there, or they were concerned that they could not open their boot. Most of the family then got into the car (they didn't have anything to put in the boot) while the Dad (whom I suspect may have been serving a driving ban at the time) seemed intent on standing at the rear of the vehicle to give his partner hand signals for how to drive forwards, directly away from our van. Once he had got back in, the mother of the family drove around to the front of the van and stopped to glare at me for a moment or two before finally driving away, her son grinning out of the back window as if he had particularly enjoyed something his mother had had to say about me - 'stupid beardy bastard' or 'smelly fucking hippie,' perhaps.

It was at this moment that I began to think of the busy car park as the perfect analogy for an overpopulated island. Broken Britain in microcosm, with people demonstrating a territorial obsessiveness over rectangular spaces of asphalt on which they have paid a couple of pounds' rent. I've parked in another one almost every day, sometimes two or three times a day, since, never once hitting anything, never once protruding from the marked bay, and never once failing to observe that England is a lot like one big shitty car park.

But I digress. The 'tiny little space' to which you are referring is no larger or smaller than either one of the 'two big spaces' you have indicated 'over there,' but it would be greedy and unnecessary for me to take up more than one space, and the man might give me a ticket. Also, there is a large and dense-looking shrub very close to the back of those two spaces, and if I try and squeeze up against it I may damage it, or even worse, my back window. I shall not go into the details of how much these parts cost to replace. The 'tiny little space' which happens to be directly next to your car has no such shrub, and, in short, would be much better for me to park my vehicle in.

WOMAN: I mean, should you not be looking for a better place to park a great big thing like this? D'you know you nearly took the front end off my car just then, and I've got somebody coming in a minute and they're not going to be able to get in.

ME: I did not 'nearly take the front end off your car,' because I did not touch your car. If it were possible that I could remove a substantial but ill-defined part of your car by driving very close to it, this would have to mean that your car was extremely unsafe. I would advise you to leave it where it is and walk home. 

Further, I have to say I doubt that you are really worried that I might damage your car, as you would clearly have a whale of a time if I did. You're just unhappy that I am intruding upon the borders of your personal space. You'd be exactly the same if I were five stone heavier and attempted to sit next to you on the tube, my love handles wedged up on top of the arm rests.

WOMAN: You should park somewhere else. It's blatantly obvious, really.

ME: What is blatantly obvious is that you are accustomed to telling people what to do. Perhaps you are a primary school teacher (you certainly look like one) but I don't think you would be sat in your car in a Waitrose car park at eleven-fifteen on a Friday morning in term time if you were. It is also blatantly obvious that if you are waiting for somebody to come and join you in your car, it would be possible for you to pull out of the space and stop for a moment in order for them to be able to open your passenger door easily. But you're not prepared to do that, and you haven't been listening to my reasoning because I haven't really said any of these things to you, have I?

(Starwipe back into reality. ME shrugs, sighs, mutters something about 'thanks for pointing that out,' and sets about the murder of  a shrub with 3.5 tons of van.)