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?

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