Saturday, 23 September 2017

Notes on The North

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 17 September 2017

A conversation that didn't happen in Otley.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Bristol v Leeds

It has rained a lot, these seven weeks that we have been on the road - I don't know whether you would've noticed. The sound of it falling on the roof of the van varies from 'child trying to readjust the velcro on their shoes in assembly with impossible patience and care, in the vain hope that the headteacher will not notice' to 'those drummers from the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics,' and it was very much this latter that we heard on Clifton Down on Thursday night.

With one side's wheels in the gutter, the angle is always an extra degree of challenge, but this was one of those ancient roads where several loads of tarmac have been poured on top of cobbles, and either they didn't bother to resurface the gutter or it's all just worn away at the edges. Either way, the sideways slope was sufficient for M to spend the whole night on the point of falling out of bed and for rainwater to be running sideways across the roof and down past the dodgy seal of the bathroom skylight, against the inside of the door and from there directly onto the floor of the van itself. When it rains on the roof of a level van, the worst we get is a few drips on the wet room floor, but with the lean, the effect is much worse. If I need a piss in the middle of the night, it lands squarely in the middle of my bald patch. The rain, not the piss.

An even-worse consequence of parking with a nasty sideways gradient comes when opening an overfilled overhead cupboard. A very nice copy of Terry Reid's River I'd found in the Centre For Better Grooves descended in a tandem jump with an ancient and hefty iPad, which knocked a hole in the laminate of the table and propelled a whole cup of coffee over the crotch of Britain's Favourite Walking Trouser. My self-annoyance in this moment was far too large to accommodate in a compact motorhome, so we went for a walk.

The Clifton Suspension Bridge was just five minutes away and I was able to relax and quietly shit myself while my kids swung on an ancient iron railing that moved as freely as the waters of the Avon, hundreds of feet below on the floor of the gorge. Looking at the bridge from this elevated perspective, I vowed to never drive across - a vow I broke less than an hour later when M's navigation arrowed in on it. Having paid a pound for the privelege, I resolutely stared straight ahead, as I'd seen those churning brown waters in quite enough detail already.

In the Tobacco Factory in Southville, another very smiley young man was serving me beer. I talked to him about my enthusiasm for Bristol for a while before discovering that he was not in fact a local, but from Leeds, a city he liked just as much. 

Bristol and Leeds have a certain amount in common in my mind. Both are said (by all I know who know them well) to be great places, and are homes to excellent breweries and bars that have sprung up in recent years, and good and varied record shops, and a huge range of places to eat. They are also both cities I've only been to once, in 1990, for interviews for dental school. I bought myself Exile On Main St on cassette the first time I came to one or the other. While this certainly changed my life for the better, I doubt whether it was as important a development as my failure to embark upon a career in dentistry.

Bristol, I think, is probably the better city, but this is probably just that it reminds me of London in miniature. Stokes Croft and Gloucester Road might be Brixton or Dalston, whereas Clifton could be Kensington or Hampstead  Sure, Leeds has a great city centre, but doesn't appear to have inner-city neighbourhoods with their own character and identity in quite the same way as Bristol does - in that way that reminds me so much of London. Leeds does seem very clean and tidy, has TWO, count 'em, TWO Brewdog bars, and has the Victoria Quarter and surrounding grand old markets forming 'The Knightsbridge of the North' - but I always hated Knightsbridge anyway.

"I'll be honest with you, seventy-five percent of the predicament I find myself in today is a direct consequence of poor decision-making on my part," said a handsome and articulate young homeless man with homemade tattoos on his face, just outside the Bell Inn in Bath. M had stopped for a chat with him, which is more than I did. I stood at a distance, cherrypicking soundbites. Bath is a beautiful, historic, boring city very close to Bristol, and I can't see why anybody between the income brackets of zero and stinking rich would live here instead of there, but this guy seemed to have made one of his occasional decent decisions - he had far less competition here, just as a record shop would have. Bath does have the best beer shop we've visited so far, however - Independent Spirit.

Meanwhile, in Leeds it seems that anybody with some money and sense lives in a neighbouring town or quiet suburb with good public transport links to the city centre. I'm sitting in the van outside a friend's house in Ilkley while my family take advantage of the facilities - M in the bath and both boys on the Wii U. This is a lovely town with some good cafes, good beers and not a single record shop in sight. I doubt whether Leeds University students venture out here looking for John Fahey albums very often though.

Bradford on Avon is a gorgeous little town in a comparable position for Bristol, and where my closest friend moved, from London earlier this year. We spent last weekend there, walking the canal, paddling in the river and even making politely interested noises about the aqueduct while observing that, as with all of the other Friends Outside London we have visited, we can see why they moved there.

But the question remains, can we see where we would move?

Monday, 4 September 2017

Devon - Somerset

'Have you ever heard of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs?' asked an intelligent and sensible friend (of a friend), briefly spoiling the Glastonbury Festival of about 2004 or 2005.

'Oh ye- no,' I replied. I was drunk, and I hadn't. All of my needs were being met at that moment in time, as I had a two-litre bottle of Brothers Bar cider under each arm. His observation - that Maslow's coincidentally-pyramidical model fitted with the day-to-day business of festival attendance for most mature adults - didn't really apply to me. I did not spend much time thinking, preparing, researching or planning for where I was going to get some food or water, or find a slightly-less-revolting portaloo to shit in, or a person who can lend me some sunscreen, or join the queue for the cash machine, or get into my tent without spreading mud across my sleeping bag - because I had skipped straight to the self-actualisation level via cheap hallucinogenic cider.

My first visit to Glastonbury (the town itself) has been a rather more sober affair, not least because I couldn't seem to find a decent pub. We had a much-less-effective pint of cider in what looked for all the world to be a pub, but turned out to be a restaurant, and experienced, if not enjoyed, an open mic night in an almost-empty characterless locals' local that had glitter glued to the flat surfaces in the toilets to deter cocaine use (a remarkably unglamorous effect) and a strong disinfectant aroma throughout. 

Glastonbury, I concluded, was a bit like Stowmarket with hippies. Absolutely loads of hippies. And hippies, I noticed, looking at some of the ones in Glastonbury, are not necessarily just middle-class, well-educated people who have embraced spirituality while turning their backs on personal grooming. Some of them are real lost souls at the very margins of society with the same money and drug problems as the rest of us, amped up to deafen Dreadzone. A stroll up Glastonbury Tor provided us with a wonderful panoramic view of Somerset, but did little to cater for my spiritual needs. It did give us the chance to further explore the idea that 'going for a walk with your family is really quite a normal and nice thing to do,' but this will have to be an ongoing project.

A restorative few days in North Devon followed our near-disaster on Dartmoor. All of the van's needs were met by my friend's garden tap, septic tank and recommendation of a local Fiat garage that gave our tyres and clutch a thorough going-over. We were in great company, ate very well and were able to access real 240v electricity and broadband for a few days. The kids got even more out of it than we did, thanks to our friends' younger son and his new dog. He is as happy a ten-year-old boy as I think I have ever met, and enjoys all of the same things that our boys do, despite having lived his whole life on a lane with grass growing down the middle. To spend so much quality time with a boy they've never met, but with whom they have so much in common, who is growing up in a place so different to all they have ever known, can only help them adjust to life outside the big city.

North Devon is staggeringly beautiful in places, but much of it feels very remote indeed. I tried to contribute by picking up some fish and chips one evening, but got so lost on the way back (with a dead phone battery) it had all gone quite cold. We managed to navigate visits to two beautiful places on the coast to which we had previously taken E when he was a baby. As we say to H, this was 'when he was still dead' so it was new ground for both of them. Clovelly, like Abbotsbury before it, is a village that makes you say, 'Wow! How have they managed to preserve these ancient buildings so perfectly, and keep the place so unspoiled by ugly modern constructions? Oh, of course, it's because it has all been owned by the same aristocratic family for generations, and they will never need to consider selling any of it, especially since they started charging for admission to the bloody village.' Feudalism is alive and well and living in the English Countryside. And probably in the cities too, but just a little less noticeably.  Nearby, Hartland Point is a beautiful beach framed by cliffs and rocks that would give a geologist geekgasms. And it's free.

At the weekend we spent a couple of days in Frome, which is a wonderful town, (despite only having a handful of decent pubs - The Three Swans by far the best). 'It wasn't this good when I was a kid,' said the young woman in a new bottle shop who sold me some delicious and powerful beers from Northern Monk and Cloudwater. 'Just eight years ago, all those shops around the corner were boarded up.' On Sunday we woke up in the midst of traders setting up for the Frome Independent, which sees pretty much the whole of the town centre turned into a street market for the day. If we had known about it, and carefully thought, prepared, researched or planned for where  we were going to park, we could not have found ourselves a better space. That first nervy night in the car park in Walberswick seems an awfully long time ago, and now I can relax in the van, watching old episodes of Father Ted and flouting the rules about camping in car parks without a trace of self-consciousness, it seems. Especially if I am pissed.