Friday, 24 December 2010

Peterborough 7th to 9th March 2009.

I arrived to find the guesthouse deserted in the familiar manner and spent ten minutes ringing the doorbell. Eventually I decided to phone the B and B to get access. The cleaner answered, then appeared from a caravan in the car park. She claimed to have been putting some finishing touches to it before going on holiday, finishing touches which so far hadn’t included putting some wheels on it. Showing me the room she asked why I’d come. When I said I just wanted to see what the city had to offer, her nervous laughter drew up just short of full-blown hysteria. In the guesthouse’s visitor’s book, under the heading ‘reason for visit’, there wasn't a tick box for ‘morbid curiosity’ or ‘mid-life crisis mini-break’ or even ‘long dark weekend of the soul’. But if I'm honest I'm not sure why I went there.
I found the city strangely conducive to deep existential angst. Perhaps I should’ve been warned by Linda Smith’s old joke where she claimed her native Erith wasn’t twinned with anywhere but it did once have a suicide pact with Peterborough. The extent of my torpor’s indicated by my response when I found a fiver on the floor in a poundshop. Ordinarily, I’d see that as about as sweet as it gets, but I could hardly raise a smile.
Maybe it was the sheer dim-witted capriciousness of my decision to visit Peterborough that tipped me into a downward spiral of remorse and self-attack. The city had always lurked tantalisingly on the National Express discount fare timetable, teasing me with the fact that the only way to go there on a daytrip would be to turn round and head back to London immediately on arrival. Instead of taking this as an omen, or travelling by train, I decided to make a weekend of it.
And this soon began to take on symbolic significance as the latest in a long line of bad choices, the latest instalment in a long tale of rudderless quiet desperation. I was in one of those moods where my entire back-story just seemed like one daft idea after another. One of these days I’ll write a memoir detailing the windmills I’ve tilted at down the years. Working title; ‘Lifetime Underachievement Award’.
Peterborough’s resolute ordinariness was a factor in my mood, I think. Something about the unblinkingly self-contained normality of it made me feel utterly surplus to requirements, marginal in a town with no visible margin. From the woman in Poundland chiding her grizzling child with the words, ‘Why can’t you be like your brother, happy as Larry with his £1 gun?’, to the cud chewing youths in the bus station, it all gave the feeling of having my nose pressed against the glass of the normal world.
Nose-diving towards despair I vowed to distract myself on the Saturday night with a dose of escapism. My default mode of escape is the movies and has been since I was first able to afford the price of admission. In my desperate teens I even went twice in one week to see the film version of the TV series Man About the House. I don’t remember much about the film but the shame of being that bored remains with me.
Peterborough has one picturehouse, an uberplex called the Showcase cinema on its light-industrial fringe. To get there I took the main option for the car-less – one of the city’s fleet of grim hopper buses. These shuttle endlessly back and forth like Pacmen around the labyrinthine housing estates that seen to go on forever. Every bus I went on that weekend carried at least one blank-eyed youth playing music out loud on their mobile. I began to wonder if it was some sort of strange performance art youth employment scheme.
Predictably I got lost. After twenty minutes of wandering the darklands I saw a huge brightly lit hangar-like structure in the distance. The sign looked like it said Showcase. As I drew closer it turned out to be a branch of Homebase. It was still open at 7.45pm. I asked one of the workers for directions. On my way again I reflected on my time spent in my early twenties working for a similar chain of DIY stores. Just after I left they extended Saturday opening hours until 8.30. The path not travelled, the shelves not stacked. Things could be worse. I might feel out on a limb these days but at least I don’t come home from work stinking.
I eventually found the cinema and followed a snaking queue of cars into a carpark the size of two football pitches. I gawped bleakly at the marquee listing the films on offer. I couldn’t face one of them. It felt like walking into an all you can eat buffet and suddenly coming over nauseous. I took the hopper bus back to town and sat in my room watching the tiny portable TV and drinking myself frantic with complimentary coffee.
Beside the odd moment caught from the corner of my eye in pubs and takeaways I’ve barely watched television for about four years. It felt strange knowing I was one of millions doing roughly the same thing. Miles from home, it was oddly comforting knowing that countless others had, likewise, nothing better to do.
How rarely I’ve had that, the sense that I was dancing round the same handbag as everyone else. Clearly, many people are as ill at ease in their lives as I’ve sometimes been in mine. But some aren’t. And increasingly I see that as a talent, a bit like an innate, unearned knack for drawing or music, something both enviable and mystifying.
Of course, I’m probably overstating my case. Orwell said any life viewed from the inside seems like a series of defeats. I know that many people’s lives are hobbled with failure and unease, and they hold it all together with a ragbag of distractions and excuses. I know there are countless ways we keep ourselves occupied and take our minds off our feet of clay.
In Peterborough the distractions on offer tended towards the obvious. The two local branches of Wetherspoons were doing a brisk trade with the maudlin of the town. When New Labour liberalised the licensing laws there was talk of creating a Continental style drinking culture in the UK. In Wetherspoons there wasn’t a beret or cravat to be seen, but plenty of soft-eyed pensioners in cheap shoes biting into their second pint of super cider at 9.30 in the morning. The liquid breakfast is now recognised as a legitimate niche market.
One older punter had the shakes so badly I could hear his glass rattling against the table from the other side of the pub. He could only get the glass to his lips by holding it in both hands. He reminded me of one of those children’s animations where a character operating a pneumatic drill continues to vibrate long after he’s stopped work.

Even for those with healthier hobbies the prospects were slender. On the Sunday morning, struggling to fill the day, I went to the local train-related ‘attraction’, Railworld. My hopes weren’t high. When I’d announced my intentions to the landlady of the B and B she sighed and said, ‘I suppose you might as well seeing as it’s just up the road.’
It was a collection of flyblown portakabins painted in what I assume was left-over Royal Blue paint. The huts contained a succession of displays that might have been knocked up for Geography GCSE homework by a bright but lazy fifteen year old. I started resenting the admission price within minutes, a grievance exacerbated by the fact that the ten year old son of one of the volunteer staff insisted on following me round and asking me at regular intervals whether I’d paid to get in.
Directly next door was the Nene Valley railway. Some wheezing, threadbare diesel trains were being given a day’s outing. I infiltrated the shuffling throng of other middle-aged dateless wonders on the platform. I was just thinking that sort of thing’s probably nice for people who like that sort of thing when I overheard two cagoule-wearing compadres. One turned to the other and, surveying the station and Railworld beyond with a baleful eye said, ‘Look at the state of it. It’s a shit-hole. We probably shouldn’t have come – it’s only making us feel worse.’ I suddenly felt a strange affinity with him.
For those seeking escape into high culture, the pickings are slim in Peterborough. I took a scoot round the city museum. It had a plaque outside warning that it reserved the right to refuse admission, but judging by the footfall when I was there, they needed someone outside with a shepherd’s crook dragging people in. Perhaps the sign was a relic from a time when the city’s shiftless drunks and ne'er-do-wells needed somewhere to sit indoors in the warm. Before Wetherspoons came to town, then.
The museum contained little of note. The sameness of everywhere perhaps isn’t as new as we like to think. Most municipal museums suggest it’s been going on for some time. Look, we found some fossils. The Romans came here. We used to make things. Great! Curiously, there was a visiting exhibition of embroidery, the highlight of which was a crimson, appliquéd handbag that rather resembled a random tray of giblets.
Although Peterborough’s got a weekly art house film society that’s managed to sustain itself for 62 years, generally the city seems too busy getting on with it to have much time for the highbrow. Perhaps that accounts for the apparent lack of local interest in that last refuge of the scoundrel; Bohemianism. It seems that if and when the good folk of the town find the conventional compensations aren’t available or aren’t enough, few of them resort to growing goatees, signing on so they can concentrate on their screenplay, or breezily informing you that they do a bit of dee-jaying as if it’s some sort of vocation.
And the place is all the better for it. I’ve always seen that lifestyle as a cop-out, an attempt to excuse yourself from the ordinary, to escape your own ordinariness. It’s the polar opposite of amateurism, a creative tradition I’ve got much more time for. Amateurism isn’t an attempt to escape the ordinary, but an attempt to make being ordinary a better thing.
But what about my own creative pretensions, in particular my attempts to write fiction, an excuse I’ve made to myself for myself since my late teens? When I was about nineteen, I attempted a ghost story. The memory of it makes me shudder even now, for all the wrong reasons. I naively submitted to a random selection of magazines. I remember one rejection slip from a magazine called Sappho. The slip showed a tastefully drawn female nude. I assumed at the time it was some sort of classy wank mag.
Eventually, one editor was kind enough to return my piece with a letter explaining that nobody was ever likely to publish it. Rightly, he pointed out the plot was pretty obvious. I’d misused the apostrophe and I needed to pay more attention to the craft of writing.
I thought, ‘The craft of writing? The what now?’ I suppose it was a start of sorts.
After much procrastinating and a dizzying array of false starts I settled to writing. I suppose I’ve been at it consistently for about fifteen years. I can only marvel at how little fiction I’ve produced. Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones once said he’d been in the band twenty five years – five years playing the drums, twenty years waiting about. My fiction writing years were like that; three years writing, twelve years staring out the window sucking my biro.
But now, certainly as far as fiction goes, it feels over. I always had a pretty limited range. I mainly wrote about disappointed people struggling with loss and the fear of loss, intimacy and the fear of intimacy, in and around South East London, or Willson Country as I like to call it. Pretty niche. I was starting to repeat myself.
I tended to default to one of two types of ending, either of reconciliation or departure. These I thought of as, respectively, the Mike Leigh ending and the ‘fuck this, I’m off’ ending. I sometimes wish I’d just been better at making stuff up.
And part of me is relieved that I don’t have to worry about any of that any more. I’ve spent ages trying to wrestle the stuff of life into something like fiction. I think now, perhaps, my energy would be better directed wrestling the stuff of life into something like a life.
But was it all just a waste of time, a daydream that went on too long? Aside from the satisfaction of seeing my work in print, there were secondary benefits. Not long after I received the punctuation advice above it occurred to me that, if, as it seemed, a particular type of person wrote fiction, I should become like that type of person in at least one respect. I decided to go to university. I’d failed English Lit ‘O’ level at school. I ended up with an MA in the subject. That educational process developed my ability to think and built my confidence, in some areas at least. Nowadays, if I cross swords with somebody I can give them a run for their money in a reasoned argument whereas in my teens and early twenties I’d have had to rely on my ability to swear like a sailor and seem potentially unstable.
And now that it seems to be going from me, I realise that writing gave my mind something to do. I think everyone’s brain has a certain amount of surplus capacity, which behaves like a spare bedroom. If you don’t fill it up with something worthwhile, it only gets cluttered with shite. If I haven’t got some creative outlet, my brain’s spare capacity defaults to seething obsessively over every petty grievance, annoyance and anxiety.

On the Sunday evening I managed to pick up a local listings magazine. I discovered I’d missed an evening of death metal the night before. It was the last live entertainment for a week so I called it a night.
Back in my room, undressing for bed, I spotted a tired and sagging old man in an inconveniently placed wall mirror. It was me. Years ago someone told me I was one of the few people she’d met who looked better with their clothes off. I think it was partly a comment on my dress sense, but what wouldn’t I give for somebody to say that now.
In my early to mid-thirties people occasionally said I looked ten years younger. I had to ask a lot of people but it still counts. But being told that at that age isn’t much use; you don’t feel the benefit.
Maybe my surprise at ageing isn’t that remarkabl. In terms of family clues as to what the physical future holds, I haven’t got much to go on other than my maternal granddad. If he’s anything to go by I’ll end up as bald as a monkey’s arse. I never saw my dad grow old. And that, maybe, is the foundation of so much of this weekend’s moping.
This year I’ll turn forty seven, the age my dad was when he killed himself. A friend of mine said that people she knew in the same boat felt that, somehow, once they’d passed the age at which their parent died, they were in the clear, as if they’d outrun some ghost. Although I remember feeling some satisfaction at turning thirty four because I’d done better than Jesus, I never really thought about my dad in the same terms.
That said, I do have this strange feeling that the game’s about to go into extra time. It reminds me of a sensation I’d get in my first job. Each afternoon, as it came near to 3.45pm, school ‘hometime’, I’d think, right, that’s me finished. Then I’d realise I had another hour and fifteen minutes of life-sucking tedium to get through before my release.
It seems I haven’t given enough thought to how to occupy myself for this length of stay. I’m in need of a Plan B. Technically it still counts as a Plan B because I’ve been through the alphabet and lapped myself a few times.
The next morning, feeling every second of my age, I sat waiting at the bus station for my coach to take me back to the landmarks of my routine. A sullen, big-framed girl of about fifteen shouted over to me. ‘Excuse me. Can I have your number?’ I ignored her. She shouted again. ‘Excuse me, mate. Do you know your willy’s hanging out?’
I had the presence of mind not to check, but it felt like a Pyrrhic victory. It couldn’t have been clearer news. I’m now seen as the sort of sexless old duffer it’s safe for teenage girls to rip the piss out of in a suggestive way. What is to become of me?

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Honiton. 4th July 2008.

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

Monday, 18 February 2008

Belfast 18th to 21st February 2008.

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

Saturday, 9 February 2008

Chesterfield 8th February 2008

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

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Romania November 2007

6th November 2007 Bucharest.
I’ve always liked the Jim Bowen joke; ‘I’m not scared of flying, I’m just scared of crashing’. But I'm not sure fear's the reason I left it so long before I flew. It's more that when I was at an age to start travelling flying was more of a big deal, a rarity.
But my first flight was less nerve-wracking than it could have been. I think the tedium of hanging about after check-in must have had some sort of anaesthetic effect. Perhaps that’s why they make you wait so long. That’s not to say I didn’t have the odd moment of panic. Waiting for takeoff I misread some labelling on the wing. I now realise it said ‘hoist point’ but I initially read it as Hotpoint. For a few nervous minutes I was convinced I was about to go up in a plane that was either made by people more used to making domestic appliances, or worse, a craft that was actually knocked together out of old washing machines.
The second frisson of concern came when, just after take off, the pilot announced we were on our way to Budapest, when I’d booked for Bucharest. Luckily, it was a slip of the tongue, otherwise things might have taken some fixing. It’s not like when you get on a 21 bus, forget to get off at New Cross, and end up having to walk back from Lewisham.

In the week leading up to the holiday I’d had a heavy cold and was quite congested. As we came into land, my ears popped with a sharp pain. I immediately remembered a friend's account of somebody she knew who flew with a head cold and whose ear drums burst, leaving her permanently deafened. I didn’t panic immediately but started worrying when, on disembarking, it seemed the cabin crew were far more quietly spoken than before. I tried to put my anxiety out of my mind and get on with the holiday.

I'd been seriously looking forward to Romania. For a while I went out with a Romanian woman. I ended up loathing her but I've retained an affection for the idea of Romania. She grew up there under Ceausescu. She told me how there was almost no conception of marketing or advertising in her country. There would be one shop for vegetables. That would be where you bought your vegetables. It’d be called the vegetable shop. Something about the lack of choice enchanted me. I think we fetishise choice too much in this country, speaking as somebody who plans his social itinerary by looking through Time Out magazine and highlighting the free stuff.
The other thing I was looking forward to was the prices. I’d got off on the right foot by booking ahead in a hostel which represented the Holy Grail of backpacking holidays – it was actually cheaper than staying home! It was perfectly located amidst a batch of six or seven fleapit cinemas whose admission prices ranged from 95p to a still-bearable £1.90. Arriving at the hostel I drew up a provisional to-do list for the next day and went to sleep happy.

7th November.
On the second day I started my customary trawl of art galleries and museums. Everywhere in the city was in walking distance which was lucky as the metro system smelt of farts. Unfortunately the city seemed to have the builders in. The streets had a touch of the Somme about them as they were riddled with trenches. These weren’t the relatively neat affairs you see in London and were unadorned by anything as poncey as barriers or warning lights.
I spent the day at the National Art Museum. Standout was the work of Nicolae Grigorescu who is a bit like a soft focus, less weird Van Gogh or a glummer Monet. The museum itself was worth a visit for the beautiful spiral marble staircase alone.
Shamefully, after returning to the hostel I defaulted to the nearby McDonalds for my evening meal. It turns out that McDonalds have not only trade-marked the term happy meal but have also registered the use of the word ‘happy’. Hopefully this only applies in Romania, and only refers to use of the actual word and not the concept.
The night life on offer was limited. A bar near the hostel advertised itself as offering jazz, blues and silence. I didn’t mind the blues and silence but I didn’t want to risk being subjected to jazz. Instead I went to the nearest cinema. I turned up 5 minutes before showtime. There was nobody in the box office but a woman was mopping up in the lobby. Despite my limited grasp of Romanian I managed to ascertain that the showing wasn’t going ahead as, unaccountably, nobody else had turned up to see the sequel to ‘Van Wilder, Party Liaison’.
As it turned out there was a last minute rush of five potential punters so we were ushered into a draughty barn of a cinema which resembled a village hall gone to seed. The movie’s poster featured the bloke who played the original Van Wilder but he wasn’t in the film. Perverse but understandable, I thought. The premise of the original film was that Van had managed to extend his time at college well past the customary graduation age in order to pursue his predictable extra-curricular interests. Judging by the poster the actor in question was probably knocking fifty by now so his participation would have stretched the already flimsy premise beyond breaking point.
The chief satisfaction the movie offered was that it gave me an excuse to look up the word execrable. Verily it was a dog. One review I later read said this film was a vast improvement on the original but concluded that it was ‘still shit’. I was moved to note a fairly typical line of dialogue; ‘Provost, I do believe he’s just knocked out that girl with his schlong.’

8th November.
On day two it struck me how used I am, walking round London, to placing people socially by their clothes and appearance. In Bucharest that was almost impossible. I think a city dweller’s instinct is to look out for signs of potential threat. Without the usual clues I was at a bit of a loss, although I did give a failry wide berth to the bunches of teenage lads striding purposefully along inhaling lustily from carrier bags of glue.
First port of call was the National History museum. It was full of bronze age bling. It scrubbed up suspiciously well and looked oddly contemporary; if I’d seen it on the Elizabeth Duke counter in Argos I wouldn’t have turned a hair.
Then it was off to the museum of Romanian Literature. Literature museums always seem to be flogging a bit of a dead horse. At the Amsterdam Eduard Douwes Dekker museum I was the only punter and had a full guided tour from the curator. I could have happily skipped it. When he asked if I was a fan of the writer I felt it would have crushed him if I’d admitted I’d only gone because it was free to get in. Curating a museum like that probably isn’t as cushy a gig as it might seem – a bit like being a lift attendant where the lift keeps getting stuck.
The experience at the Romanian museum was similar. I managed to persuade myself the woman who talked me through the exhibit was flirting with me but I think she was probably just embarrassed. At the end of the tour she asked if her English had been okay and whether she’d got any phrases wrong. At one point she'd indicated my jacket and asked if I wanted to take my clothes off. I didn't have the heart to correct; that was my favourite bit.
When I’m travelling I’m occasionally chastened by the realisation of what a cringing introvert I can be. Lots of people go on holiday to meet people, I think I travel to avoid them. This attitude doesn’t sit well with the atmosphere in backpacking hostels, places apparently swarming with the gregarious. My normal avoidant behaviour was exacerbated by the fact that everything still sounded as if my head was in a bucket of cotton wool. Any conversation just served to remind me of my conviction that my hearing was ruined forever. In the evening a gap year nineteen year old from Andover wanted me to accompany him to an ex-pat pub called the Red Lion. It seemed a pretty redundant venture, but his clingy air of desperation made it even less appealing. I made some vague excuse and retreated.
I gave an equally wide berth to a gaggle of Californian travel jocks who seemed as if they’d just walked off the set of the horror movie ‘Hostel’. Late that night I heard them outside drunkenly chanting USA! USA!

9th November.
Bucharest has some fantastic architecture, but I don’t take much notice of that kind of thing. I notice other stuff. I noticed, for instance, that the green man on the pedestrian crossings moved exactly like the star-kicker figure at the start of the Old Grey Whistle Test. The fact I stopped to take a picture of it seemed to prompt some curiosity from the locals. Haven’t these people seen tourists before?
I sometimes feel I’m looking at life through the wrong end of the telescope, but fuck it, it’s my life and it’s my telescope, I can do what I like with them, I reckon. I noticed that Bucharest has female street-sweepers and that I never saw anybody pushing a pram in the city. In my entire stay I saw two cyclists, three black people (all men), and one woman with a tattoo.
She was working in Springtime, a healthy fast-food outlet which I couldn’t walk past without thinking of Mel Brooks. It had a fantastically complex ordering system, a bit like the daft one that Foyles’ bookshop in London used to have. It involved queuing up to pay a cashier, who gave you an itemised receipt which you took to a counter where you presented your receipt to the assistant who prepared your order. The assistant would then serve you your food, and issue you with a new receipt. I’m not sure if these layers of bureaucracy were a hangover from communism, or an attempt to clamp down on salad-related staff fraud.

10th November.
Around this point my notes get sketchy as I became increasingly preoccupied by the state of my hearing. It’s weird how these things affect you. Near the front of my mind was a frustration that I’d recently bought a digital home-recording set up that I hadn’t even taken out of the box yet. And now I was going to be too deaf to use it. One of these days I’ll get knocked down by a bus and my last thought will be a bitter regret that I’ve just wasted a tenner getting a big shop in.
After days of frantic Googling where I turned up account after account of people deafened by air travel I discovered some advice on the Valsalva manoeuvre. The Valsalva manoeuvre is a bit like the Heimlich manoeuvre but for shifting snot. It involves pinching the nose shut and gently trying to exhale. The keyword is gently, otherwise you can end up wearing your eardrums as epaulettes.
In the empty TV room I tried it. There was an immediate improvement in my hearing. I wasn’t completely out of the woods but there was enough of a change to make me dance to the television for a few brief moments. I felt like James Stewart at the end of It’s A Wonderful Life.

12th November.
The museums were mostly closed so I had a quiet day, but in a good way. I went to the geology museum. None of the displays had notes in English, and frankly it lost something by the lack of translation. Loose ended I spent more time than usual in the hostel, which gave me time to ponder the tension between the growth of cheap international travel and the decline in people’s ability to rub along with others.
The previous night a new room mate insisted on opening all the windows in the room, despite it being the depths of winter. As me and the receptionist whiled away the afternoon in the lounge watching a bootleg of some dumb action movie he came in and began to cook, bringing with him a portable radio which he played at full blast, apparently oblivious to the fact other people were watching a film.
Another new arrival seemed to be a career insomniac. He decided to do his laundry overnight, and put one item of clothing in his locker at a time. He banged in and out of the room at intervals of a few minutes all night. In the morning he recounted how he’d been robbed in the street and had all his belongings taken. I found the news strangely satisfying. Later on he brought in a fish for his tea that was so fresh I swear I saw its gills twitching. It was too big to gut in the kitchen sink so he disembowelled it in the shower tray. Nice. He made a fish stew which hung around for another three days.

13th November. Sinia.
The next morning I spotted the fish gutter helping himself to the last of my milk from the fridge. Misanthropy here I come.
I headed for Sinia by train. A quirk of the rail system was that you had to book your ticket at least an hour ahead of travel, a rare example of vestigial Eastern bloc style bureaucracy. Rather than bothering me, this actually made me feel quite nostalgic for the 1970s in the UK when life was full of random and intractable awkwardnesses like this, before we got addicted to convenience and started expecting to be endlessly indulged like whining children. Besides, the whole Romanian set up was still streets ahead of the Kafkaesque nightmare of Virgin trains booking system. And some of the difference is purely about presentation. In Romania you're obliged to book a seat with the result that everybody gets a seat. On Virgin trains you’re given the opportunity to book a seat, but if you choose not to, your chances of getting a seat are negligible. But hey, you exercised your freedom as a consumer!

The atmosphere in the waiting room was thick with foot odour. A man was circulating, trying to sell hats, without much luck. Seems they haven't fully grasped the concept of the market round here. If he’d been selling air freshener he’d have made a fortune.
I’m always sceptical when people talk about universal truths, but my conviction wavered when I went to my seat. Regardless of the infrastructure, sure enough, someone else was sat in my seat and got all snotty when I tried to reclaim it. It was a front-facer though, so I wasn’t going to give up without a fight. ‘This is seat 46,’ I said.
‘I know,’ she said. ‘Just wait a minute,’ she snapped.
Once rightfully seated she apologised, saying she wasn’t angry with me but with the system as she and her friend had missed their original train and they’d had to rebook at great expense. We chatted briefly and I was just beginning to warm to her when she pointed out of the window at some tatty houses we were passing, laughed and said to her mate, ‘Gypsy country!’
Her mate with the glasses said, ‘We’re not racist but it would be better without the gypsies.’ I gave my best tight-lipped, backing away from a bigot expression. Her voice faltered. She mumbled, ‘Or maybe not.’ Maybe not? What did she mean maybe not? Was she still mulling the idea over? Was she toying with the idea of being a gypsy-hating fascist but thought she’d run the idea up the flagpole first and see who saluted?
I had a near-identical experience on the train back from Brasov. Either a lot of Romanians hate gypsies, or a disproportionate number of Romanian people who use the train network hate gypsies, or I look like somebody who hates gypsies and gypsy-haters gravitate to me because they see me as a kindred spirit. I’d like to return to Romania, but if I do I’m seriously considering making up an ‘I heart gypsies’ badge. It’ll either secure me some peace and quiet on train journeys or it’ll get me lynched.
I came back from Sinia on the oldest train I’ve ever been on, 1950s vintage at a guess. It was divided into the sort of compartments I haven’t seen since the 1960s, each of which had brown vinyl seats with antimacassars. There were two older women in the carriage. One had her feet on the seat opposite, but she had spread a tissue there to protect the seat. Just like people do in the UK. Ha! The older woman inspected my ticket and said something quick in Romanian which presumably indicated I was in the right carriage. The carriage was warm enough to bake bread in, but I was glad of it after a day in the mountains. I settled into the cosiness and looked out at the snow-crusted valleys.
As we pulled out of Sinia a young woman, apparently deaf and without speech came along the carriage dumping handfuls of twee tat on each table; toy donkeys whose noses lit up, playing cards and torches. I decided to pass.
That night at the hostel a group of Australians moved in. They spent all night complaining loudly about the snoring of the Pole in the next bunk. The Pole was barely breathing heavily, and was nothing like as loud as the arseholes complaining about him. In the morning I woke to find the loudest Australian who’d spent half the night exclaiming of the Pole, ‘I’m going to strangle the cunt in a minute!’, spark out, snoring fit to rattle the windows.

Ploieste. 14th November.
Maybe I ought to take this travel writing lark a bit more seriously. Or take better notes. Or write sooner after trips. All I’ve noted about my daytrip to Ploieste is that yet again I had the experience of being the only punter in a museum. In both the art and the history museum a member of staff did the usual and followed me round turning the lights off in each room as I exited. I admired their attention to energy conservation but it didn’t feel very welcoming. The art museum was wildly overstaffed. In the ticket office, four large women were sat knitting. They looked surprised to see me. I’m assuming they all worked there, although it may be that only one of them did and the others were friends who’d come in to get the benefit of the two bar fire they were huddled round.
From memory, Ploieste was an unattractive and unpretentious industrial town which didn’t go out of its way for visitors. The train station was a twenty minute walk away from the city centre through run down streets of decrepit housing where traffic signs warned of approaching horses and carts. After I’d done the museums I ran out of stuff to do with a couple of hours to spare. Romanians have no conception of the charity shop as we know it, so I went to see the matinee showing of Knocked Up at the cinema. There were the typical five people in the audience. It was so cold in the auditorium that I could see my breath. By the end of the first reel I couldn’t feel my feet. Fearing frostbite I left twenty minutes before the end, reasoning that the walk back to the station would be easier if I still had toes.

Monday, 8 October 2007

Loughborough 5th October 2007

In Loughborough I chalked up another in my personal I Spy challenge to find the most obscure local charity shop. Loros supports hospice care for Leicestershire and Rutland; I didn't even think Rutland still existed! I didn't linger long in the shop itself, partly because the place couldn’t seem to decide whether it was a furniture shop or a more conventional chazza selling clothes etc. But mostly I was scared off by one of the other browsers. She was fiftyish, and had enough tattoos and piercings to qualify her for a job in a circus. She also had a distinct white patch in her towering beehive of hair which made her look like a cross between Dickie Davis and Amy Winehouse’s nan. I made a swift exit.
I fled to the Sense shop where further strangeness ensued. I caught one of those eavesdroppings that almost make life worth living. Two old friends had bumped into each other after a long interval and were catching up with each other. One of the friends mentioned her son, who, she casually revealed, had been born with webbed fingers. The other woman responded, ‘Oh, right. You don’t hear of that much these days.’ I thought, these days? As if webbed fingers used to be all the go with the youngsters. When was that particular fad then? Sometime between Space Dust and happy slapping, when I clearly wasn't paying attention.
She explained that her son had received corrective surgery. She said, ‘It was his dad who wanted it done. Personally, I’d have left it.’
Left it? What was she doing, planning ahead? Perhaps she wanted to avoid those difficult toddler years of having to nag him not to pick his nose. Maybe she didn’t want him pestering her for a guitar when he hit his teens. Reeling with information overload I stopped snooping and turned my thoughts to lunch.
At the next table in Wetherspoons sat a smartly dressed man in his late twenties. He was heavily built and sweating copiously. Set out on his table were two meals, plus a bowl of chips, a cup of tea, a large Pepsi and a dessert. He sampled each of them, more or less in rotation, apparently oblivious to the people pointing at him and laughing as they passed.
I couldn't quite work out what this guy's deal was. He might have been some sort of area catering manager doing a round of quality spot checks. The pub may have been expecting a visit from the chain's director, and this bloke was his personal food-taster, paid to check for evidence of poisoning. As he finished his meal and waddled out I considered following him to ask but lacked the nerve.

I dropped into a small private art gallery. It was oddly deserted; I could’ve robbed them blind if they’d had anything I liked. There was the usual mix of seascapes, landscapes, with a few still lifes thrown in. Curiously, the same artists crop up repeatedly in these galleries. Jean Picton’s flowery work is everywhere. She’s a former TV actor who now bashes out pictures of poppies at a furious rate of knots. I had a browse and, unusually, couldn’t find anything by her. But there were some similar paintings by Anita Dobson. There wasn’t anyone around to ask so I don’t know if that’s the Anita Dobson ex of Eastenders, but if it is, what exactly’s the deal with TV actors and flowers?

Monday, 20 August 2007

Reading 17th August 2007

The liars at National Express have obviously learnt a few things from the people who insist that Luton airport is in London. The coach to Reading dumps you at a place called Reading Calcot. It’s a half hour bus ride away from Reading proper. If you book your National Express Funfare far enough in advance it can actually cost you more to get from Reading Calcot to Reading than it costs to get from London to Reading Calcot. Ah, the impeccable logic of the market.
This happens in a few places. The Megabus services to Swindon and Coventry drop you in the middle of nowhere, and all coaches to Milton Keynes drop you at Milton Keynes coachway, a £1.50 bus ride away from the town.
Although Coventry's got its good points, I suspect that the coach companies figure that if passengers see these places close up on arrival they’ll never get off the coach. The drivers have to drop their human cargo some distance away and hurtle off amid a screech of tyres before the punters realise what they’ve let themselves in for.
Reading has two branches of Wetherpoons eighteen doors apart. It comes second only to Carlisle in terms of Wetherspoons density. Its other claim to fame is that it’s home to the national headquarters of the country’s leading dyslexia charity. It's bad enough that dyslexia’s so hard to spell, but basing a dyslexia charity in a town whose name looks like the word reading but isn’t pronounced that way, has got to be taking the piss.