Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Psychogeographically Speaking

There is a side entrance to Manchester’s outrageously splendid, gothic-styled Town Hall. It leads to a little courtyard which is fully visible only from within the building. I saw it once, that secret, mysterious and inward-looking place, hidden behind the public splendour of one of the structure’s three facades. The granite setts of its floor are overlooked by heavily featured, stone oriel windows with tiny, leaded lights. The walls between them are decorated with coloured, glazed mosaics and there are small, curved balconies of ornate wrought iron on the upper floors from which the occupants may spy on those who enter below. Surely this is a part of the building which its architect reserved for the indulgence of his own fantasies – his dreams of mediaeval, eastern European buildings with ancient and sinister provenances.

One evening, as darkness fell, I found myself the only person walking on the quiet street which gives access to this courtyard. A solitary car approached and turned in front of me to enter it. I hoped that, as the gate opened, I might get another glimpse of the secret courtyard, just to get an unexpected psychogeographical fix – and to reassure myself that modernity was being held at bay, that double yellow lines had not been painted around it or automatic bollards installed at the entrance. I came close to the car as it waited for the gate to open and saw that it was being driven by a chauffeur, that the passenger, sitting alone in the back seat, was wearing a chain of office around his neck and that there was a coat of arms painted on the side of the car. He turned his head to look at me and I realised I had caught the Lord Mayor in an unguarded, off-duty moment – returning, perhaps, from a function at the end of his official working day. Afterwards, I felt I should have waved or saluted or somehow acknowledged a connection between citizen and elected representative, but he looked away too quickly, perhaps embarrassed by being caught in an intimate, vacant moment. The ornate iron gate swung open and the car slid into the dimly lit courtyard.

I couldn’t really see into the courtyard, but I was struck by the ordinariness of the car, a black Volvo family saloon of indeterminate age, which would have been at home in any suburban driveway.  It was completely outclassed by the magnificence, opulence and historical significance of its parking space, but I supposed that the choice of car was indicative of Manchester’s collective, egalitarian principles which proscribe any flagrant waste of citizens’ money or the undue elevation of an elected official beyond the reach of the ordinary Council Tax-payer.

I bumped into the Lord Mayor again a few weeks later. He didn’t recognise me and, to be honest, I only recognised him because he was at the next table and wearing the chain of office; and I had seen his car parked outside on my way in. This time the venue was distinctly 21st century and the architecture not at all arcane. We were at the ultra-modern “statement” building that David Liebeskind designed for the Imperial War Museum North. It is very grand and striking, both outside and in. But it sits, as if deposited whole, in the centre of a desolate, windswept, tarmac car park - stranded on an island of self-importance.  It has no imposing portal or splendid, sweeping stone steps and gives no visual clue, apart from “signage”, as to where its entrance is, so there is no dignified or elegant way to enter or leave the building. Visitors park their cars outside its blank facade and scuttle around, looking for a way in. Parked thus, the black Volvo had nowhere to hide; no secret, discreet side entrance to slide into. It was just another family car (with a badge on the door) parked among a sea of others in an environment built especially for them

Monday, 23 May 2011

Driving Over Pheasants

I sometimes walk past a pub which advertises “Live DJs Every Friday!” and, each time, it causes me to speculate as to what a dead DJ would sound like. This type of thinking can become an obsession. For example, the expression “free range eggs” troubles me because it is the hens that range freely – not the eggs. Although I work hard to overcome this pedantic tendency, my forays into the countryside don’t help. Driving around the North Yorkshire Moors recently I spotted so many “free range eggs” signs that I might have suffered an apoplectic fit had it not been for another minor phenomenon which distracted my attention: that of road-kill.

There were hundreds of dead creatures splattered on the minor roads, victims of un-witnessed hit-and-run incidents. There they lay, undisturbed and in varying degrees of decay, with occasional crows picking at them. At first I took a gruesome interest in the corpses, trying to identify the flattened creatures and estimating how long ago they had been squashed – not easy to do when you are driving quickly past. I did however manage to establish that, except for the occasional badger, the victims were mostly game birds. The feathers gave me a clue – that and my realisation that we were in game-shooting country. From what I know of the micro-economy of the region, it does heavily depend on hunting, in which case there are slim pickings ahead for those looking forward to “the glorious twelfth”.

Four of us were driving across The Moors, counting the corpses and musing on this threat to the viability of the local economy. We were en route to the port of Whitby for a touristic experience. “So, what’s Whitby famous for?” asked the ‘northern virgin’ of our party. “Fish and chips” we three replied, “Oh, and Count Dracula” said I. “When he had himself shipped over from Transylvania in a coffin, he was unloaded at Whitby and concealed in the Abbey, a spooky-looking, jagged ruin sitting up on the cliff-top”. “But that was just a story, wasn’t it?” she countered. “Yeah, well – it’s still famous for it” said I, indignant at such southern complacency. In the event our visit was a muted, out-of-season experience. The weather was blustery and cold, the Abbey ruins were closed and none of us really fancied fish and chips so we ate crab salad in a pub instead. The view of the harbour was more appealing seen from indoors and over the top of a pint of Black Sheep ale.

 We drove back via a different route and, although the scenery and the corpse count were much the same as before, we were treated to something a little different. As we approached an obscure hamlet there was a road-side sign warning of ‘Free Range Children!’ “Obviously they mean freely ranging children!” I raged – to no avail, since nobody else had seen it and, in any case, the hamlet was devoid of any (living) thing. The next village advertised the more commonly found ‘Slow Children’ but, by this time, I was looking forward to bed and past caring about punctuation.

A few days later I read about a list that had recently been compiled. Eminent U. K. historians had been asked to evaluate the myriad sites of historical significance to be found in Britain and to rank them according to their perceived importance to the historical development of Britain. I don’t remember numbers 2-10 but, to my mortification there, at number 1, was Whitby Abbey! Count Dracula was not mentioned. The reference (as everyone should know) was to the fact that the Abbey was the site of the AD 664 Synod of Whitby when the Anglo-Saxon King of Northumbria, Oswy, opted to swap from the Celtic Christian tradition to the Roman one, the long term consequence of which was to bring England into line with the European mainstream. The next time I need to impress a ‘northern virgin’...

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Conversation on The Moors

Two miles from the nearest hamlet, off a B road and up a long, snaking track, lies the farm which was to be our campervan site for three nights. It’s on high ground above the market town of Helmsley on the edge of the N. Yorkshire Moors. Many sites are in such places, on working farms, so it is an opportunity for us to see how life is lived in the real countryside. Lonely is how I would characterise it.

It was spring–time and the lambs had just been born. The whole of England was enjoying fine, sunny weather but, despite that, ours was the only van on the site. The farmer, relieved at seeing humans again since their retreat to the towns last autumn, was talkative in a way that one observes in those who don’t spend much time in company. When we told him where we were from, his response was a twenty minute account of how some relatives of his nearly went there, or at least the airport near there, once but didn’t. I have come to accept that these one-way conversations are often the real price one pays as ground-rent for such lovely, remote places. But we had arranged to rendezvous that evening for dinner in Helmsley with our relatives who had travelled from London so, with apologies for having to curtail the conversation, we left the farmer half way through his account of the birth of each of his lambs and walked the three miles into town.

The next morning I asked the farmer how much we should pay for the site. “Oh, wife deals wi’ books like. You’ll ‘a’ see ‘er, onny she’s tekkin dog out” is what I think he replied. When I caught up with her later she invited me into the kitchen to complete our transaction. Because her accent was less pronounced than her husband’s - or maybe because she had a full set of teeth – I soon got her drift, settled the account and turned to small-talk about the weather. The topic is usually considered to be a good starter for conversation because it’s uncontroversial – unless, that is, you are the contrary type who prefers cold, rainy days to warm, sunny ones. On a farm, however, the topic is far from uncontroversial – as I should have known by now. Too much rain, not enough rain, blah, blah, blah...

And so I got stuck in an endless loop of weather-talk, becoming increasingly anxious for a gracious way out of both the conversation and the cosy (dark and pokey) kitchen. My dilemma became more acute when she confided that the unseasonably warm weather had caused her to break with tradition and switch from flannelette to cotton bedding earlier than was usual. I could see the direction this might take and was keen to extricate myself before the topic of underwear came up, so I pretended to take an interest in the dog – there is always a dog in a farmhouse kitchen. It was a smart move in one way – the underwear minefield was sidestepped – but I then had the problem of trying to follow the minute particulars of this dog’s pedigree. In situations such as this I try to keep a light in my eyes and not allow them to glaze over completely – it’s another life-skill that I have acquired. In the end, however, I resorted to the excuse that I needed to get my boots on and start our planned hike before it got too late.

That evening, as I was preparing to barbeque, the farmer “happened to pass by”. There was something unfamiliar about his appearance which, as he came nearer, was explained by the fact that he was not wearing his flat cap! He was holding it, carefully, as it was full of hens’ eggs he had just collected. “So that’s what those caps are for!” I quipped. Whether his responding smile was of amusement or bemusement I could not tell; but, either way, I was in for a detailed explanation of the egg-laying habits of his hens. I was careful not to ask too many leading questions lest I should become obliged to lay another place for dinner.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Sleepy St. Ives

We were waiting, as arranged, in the Sloop Inn for our friends to arrive from London. The place was busy and had a Friday evening feel about it – a blend of relief and anticipation – for this was a mixed crowd of locals relaxing after work and in-comers looking forward to their holiday activities. We, falling into the latter category, were settling in with a couple of drinks and listening to the conversations around us. The locals gossiped and swapped stories about their daily lives while the TV on the wall was tuned to a football match. A young crowd of visitors talked excitedly about parties, surfing and rugby, revealing a somewhat different set of interests.  We were easily persuaded to buy raffle tickets so as to curry favour with the locals and encourage them to think well of us tourists. The couple at the table next to ours did likewise but, getting up to leave soon afterwards, generously offered to give us their tickets. ”We’ll not be here when they draw the raffle at nine o’clock” they said. “Thanks but nor will we” I replied, “Best give them to someone else”. I was to regret these words at five past nine as I watched the delighted recipient of the tickets collect the prize. Our friends arrived a few minutes later. Thus began our visit to St Ives, Cornwall.

Having been a few times before I already knew a thing or two about the place - enough, perhaps, to come in handy in a pub-quiz. You never know when you might be called upon to join in a pub-quiz, so here’s something new I learned about St. Ives, albeit on trust from my very good mate and entirely unsubstantiated otherwise. As we walked the few yards from the Sloop Inn to our beach-front apartment he assured me that the air there is full of negative ions which, despite what you might think about their negativity, are beneficial to one’s health. In particular they promote a good night’s sleep.  On arrival we dumped our bags and slid open the glass doors to the balcony, stepping out to admire the moonlit seascape. A slumbering seagull was startled into flight as, with a greedy intake of the health-giving air, my mate urged “Never mind the painterly quality of the light. Get a lung-full of those ions!”

As well as such invisible assets, of course, St. Ives has many well-known tangible ones. Amongst these are two beaches, several olde world pubs and an important painting heritage (which includes an outpost of The Tate Gallery, Barbara Hepworth’s former home/studio, a beautiful 15th century parish church with an unusual ‘wagon’ roof - and a lot of pasty shops). Yes, all of these I have seen and marvelled at but, on this particular visit, they were mostly neglected, except for the pasty shops, which provided nourishment on more than one occasion. Principal among these was a walk along the coastal path to Zennor. The weather was unusually fine for the time of year and the scenic beauty of this stretch of coast is well known so it was an easy sell and the walk turned out to be a refreshing delight for our city-dulled senses. The extra-large, jumbo pasties, however, proved to be something of a “commitment”, according to my friend, and more than one seagull was grateful for the unwanted crusts.

Later, back at the apartment, the sun setting over the glimmering sea was to provide the backdrop for a perfect, traditional, English seaside dinner of local, freshly-caught fish. Unfortunately, however, we had left it too late in the day to get to St. Ives’ last-remaining fish shop, so we compromised on the menu, starting with Champagne aperitifs and continuing with Spanish omelettes, Greek salad and more French wine. The subsequent feelings of well-being and drowsiness were to be expected, although there were those among us who argued the effects were due more to the negative ions. Either way, it was unanimously agreed that the “St Ives treatment” should be available on the National Health, thereby saving untold millions in drug prescriptions for insomnia.

Post script. Pub-quiz question: who is the patron saint of St. Ives?

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Shropshire Time Warp

The wise mother of an old friend of mine famously dismissed camping as “a complicated way of getting wet” and, after several failed attempts to disprove this theory, I am nowadays inclined to agree with her - which is why my preferred accommodation, when exploring the countryside, is my campervan. I have noticed, however, that the recent, extended spell of dry, sunny weather, combined with a spate of public holidays, has resulted in a rash of ‘reverse city breaks’ and I can reliably report (from the swivelling seat at the front of the campervan) that the practice of camping is currently thriving - which is good news for the local economy of many a rural community.

In our own exploration of the rural idyll, we met up with friends on a fully booked-out campsite just outside Bishops Castle - that gem of a small market-town in the Welsh Marches. We parked our campervans in a formation reminiscent of pioneer wagon trains on the American prairies, served ourselves gin and tonic, weighed up our neighbours and evaluated their varying types of equipment. Some, I concluded, would have brought with them a pop-up privet hedge had such a thing been on sale in their local camping centre. One item we all had in common, however, was fine, dry weather - an essential requirement for a satisfactory camping experience.

Those of you who are perplexed as to the purpose of camping will now be asking questions such as “So what?”, or “Then what?”- the answers to which are of a soporific nature and, perhaps, best left to professors of sociology. Those of you who are not troubled by such esoteric issues will probably want to know more about the facilities on offer since it is well known that they vary considerably from one place to another. This particular site had the advantage of being on a hill-top and, therefore, had great views of the surrounding countryside. Balanced against this, however, was an almost total lack of water pressure in the showers and a merciless exposure to the prevailing wind (neither of which is of concern to campervanners, by the way).

Any niggles, in my view, were cancelled out by the site’s close proximity to Bishops Castle which boasts (among other attractions) that Holy Grail for lovers of real ale - The Three Tuns, Britain’s oldest licensed pub and brewery. As if this were not enough, my delight was compounded by the discovery of a pub around the corner which was staging a three-day event of live music with a bar dedicated to locally made ales and ciders. That evening, unable to recruit a companion, I rolled down the hill solo to take advantage of this unexpected culture-fest. Entry was free (a mixed blessing, since free entry usually promises amateurism,) so my expectations in respect of the performance were modest as I tried to make up my mind whether to have an evening of ale or cider.

Having decided on the ale, I began to take notice of the assembling audience. It comprised people of all ages and types. In front of me a small group of excited Hooray Henrys joshed each other, one of them declaring that this was the best pub he had ever been in - ever! Their city accents cut sharply into the softer burr of the local voices and they were oblivious to the anxious-looking chap of around forty who stood nearby wearing a top hat over his shoulder-length hair and a one-piece black body-stocking with a white skeleton printed on it. Most of the rest of the audience, apart from a couple of single ladies out together, had not really bothered to dress for the occasion which was a shame because, when The Smoking Aces finally  took the stage, it was apparent that they had gone to a lot of trouble in that respect.

Their act offered very authentic-sounding, crowd-pleasing 1950’s rock ‘n roll - complete with appropriate costumes and a replica cylindrical, chrome, slotted microphone. Far from being amateur, this was a polished performance by talented musicians and the audience loved it. The Hooray Henrys were captivated by the irresistible simplicity of the rhythms, their clumsy, drunken dancing revealing its origins in the clubbing circuit, while the man in the skeleton suit claimed his dance-partner and showed off their exhibition-standard jive techniques. The two single ladies swayed rhythmically and looked around occasionally, hoping, I was sure, for a dashing partner to approach with a smile and a polite “May I?” All the while, grey-haired old-timers, having long ago given up on the jive, tapped their feet, smiled wistfully and inwardly assessed the authenticity of the songs compared with the original recordings stashed in their attics.

The end of the gig coincided happily with the limit of my capacity for ale consumption and I made light work of the ten-minute up-hill trek with the encore reverberating in my head – The Smoking Aces’ inspired version of the original ‘Hound Dog’ as performed by Big Mama Thornton. Bow-Wow!

Thursday, 5 May 2011

E.U. Harmony

He appeared at the open door of the restaurant as we studied the menu posted in the window. He was dressed in lederhosen, sported a neatly trimmed beard and was clutching a packet of cigarettes and a cell-phone. We had been in Germany only for a few hours and here we were faced with what appeared to be a caricature of the place. I have been to Berlin a few times but I now began to wonder whether Berlin really is part of Germany - in the same sense that I had previously concluded New York is not representative of the U.S.A. nor London of the U.K.
He identified us as English-speaking foreigners, made himself known as the owner of the restaurant and tried to tempt us inside by explaining the menu in our own language. While we two adults feigned polite interest our 14 year-old charge (on whom we were later to rely as our translator, since he had studied one term of German at school) could barely conceal his disbelief at the utter lack of cool embodied in the sight of an adult dressed in what appeared to be the costume of a young boy playing a walk-on part in ‘The Sound of Music’.
Earlier that day we had driven, as a family group of seven, across the invisible border from Belgium. We had stopped for lunch in a picturesque town square where we ate schnitzle  (the only word on the menu which we understood) and paid in cash - the credit card machine being broken. Now, after a lengthy walk through the forest, it was time for us to choose a place to have dinner. We peered into the gloomy interior, uninspired by the menu, and walked away leaving the caricature to light his smoke and make a phone call. Following the bend in the river we found ourselves suddenly deep into the ancient, perfectly preserved tourist town of Monschau. It looked like the kind of place where lederhosen might be de riguer and the Pied Piper could be expected to appear from a side-street.
In Belgium we had been accustomed to choose from a plethora of establishments offering the whole range of dining experiences from chips to haute cuisine. In Monschau, however, our inspection of the menus displayed outside the numerous hotels and restaurants revealed a uniform offering of thick slices of meat served with potatoes - one exception being an establishment with a speciality menu comprising exclusively spargle, the seasonal delight known to us as asparagus. Spargle as a dessert held no appeal beyond plain curiosity so, with hunger pressing and there being no perceptible difference in menus, we eventually chose a venue simply by its visual aesthetic.
I enjoyed a particularly fine glass of chilled Moselle as an aperitif. It was not so easy to find good red wine to match the thick slice of steak - nevertheless we sated our hunger and proffered credit cards only to be told by the unflinching maitre de that the card machine was “broken”. A trip to the cash dispenser, one last look around the Disney film-set and we drove the few kilometres back to our accommodation for the night. Next morning the buffet breakfast offered more choice than all of the dinner menus of the previous night combined though, when we came to settle the bill, we were not surprised to discover that the credit card machine was not working. 
Later that day, at a restaurant back in Belgium, I asked my host why there was none of that wonderful Moselle on the wine list. He explained convincingly that, having “invited” themselves across the border twice during the 20th century, neither the Germans nor their produce were very welcome even now. As we paid - with credit cards - and made our way home I was left to reflect that any misgivings I might have regarding cultural diversity being eradicated by the European Union could safely be discounted.