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?