Tuesday, 31 October 2017

I Wish I... I Wish I Was In...

Richmond is the most replicated English place name. There are fifty-something (sorry, I couldn't be bothered to Google it again) examples worldwide, but the original (English) Richmond (in North Yorkshire, at the North Eastern corner of the Dales) isn't very well-known. This is an awful shame, as it is a super town, with a huge cobbled market place, an imposing castle, beautiful houses and a military museum that claims to house Hitler's Carpet. It also has sure signs of a real community - the railway station, in the absence of any trains, has been developed for small businesses and includes a little cinema, and the George and Dragon pub (which is admittedly in the neighbouring village of Hudswell – geographically the Richmond upon Thames of Richmond, North Yorks) was saved by its customers in much the same way as the Ivy House, and is a tremendous place for a pie and a pint, with a real-life record player spinning liquorice pizzas behind the bar.

Throw in a few decent shops, a swimming pool, a secondary school that the kids didn't look too unhappy to be walking to in the morning and a tiny hospital that once sewed up my knee halfway through a Coast-to-Coast bike ride (and then gave me an anti-tetanus shot that I got drunk in defiance of, but nobody wants this blog to end up being known as Places Where Tim Has Shat Himself) and you have a town that fits all of my own personal criteria as a Good Place To Live. 

I don’t think I want a city, or even a big and busy town any more. But then I grew up in a village with a population of larger mammals that was more porcine than human. Neither M or the boys enjoy the benefit of such humble beginnings, and so they're unsure of whether Richmond is a bit too sleepy, or a bit too In The Middle Of Nowhere and Nearly In Scotland.

Exercises like this tour sometimes force you to ask yourself difficult questions, such as Am I Just A Selfish Greedy Bastard and Why Does My Life Partner Seem To Hate Me So Much? But nobody said this was going to be easy, and as we pass the three-month mark, Nobody has been proven wrong. On our way from Rothbury to
Richmond, the van was clocked at 80 mph in a 30-zone during what was left of the hurricane. The letter that arrived at my folks' house in Suffolk says I could get a thousand-pound fine and 6 points on my licence, but I reckon that's peanuts for driving a huge ugly truck through a built-up area at almost three times the speed limit during a former tropical storm or whatever it was. Makes me almost wish I had. 

It is obviously a computer error, caused, I would guess, by the gusting hurricane-force winds. This van has only once gone over sixty with me at the wheel, and that was on a mile-long steep downhill stretch of motorway. In
Devon, if I remember correctly. But will I have to go to court to prove it? Will a magistrate agree to ride shotgun with me while I put the pedal to the metal and show him just what a lot Vanny's not got? Stay tuned to find out.

In order to open this letter and answer these charges, we've had to return to
Suffolk, 300 miles from where the crime wasn't committed. After Richmond, we visited...

Ripon - a big cathedral in a little city,

York - a big cathedral that for some reason isn't called a cathedral in a great city, full of pubs and at least one good record shop and animatronic Vikings who are quite impressive the first time around,

Harrogate (again) - where some friends made their home available for a few days in their absence which was very kind,

Knaresborough - where some strangers did their best to make Mother Shipton's home seem even more inhospitable in their presence, which was great fun, 

Huddersfield -  where my pilgrimage to the Magic Rock Brewery Tap left me a little disappointed, but Vinyl Tap made up for it,

Sheffield – where I snapped off part of the awning by driving too close to a telegraph pole. It was just the cover of the hooky bit, but this may have now compromised the aerodynamics such that we will never break the sound barrier. I realised I'm doing what my dad always accused me of with cars - taking the vehicle to the scrapyard, bit by bit.

In the newly-exposed, tuppence-sized hole that I briefly thought may go as deep as the width of the awning, there was some mouldy-looking, fluffy white stuff. I poked it. A lethargic wasp crawled out. I made an alarmed burbling noise. It fell on my face. I screamed like a 1970s Mid-Suffolk piglet. It landed on the ground. I stamped on it. Another came out. I swore at it. It flew away drunkenly. I thought of that book called The Wasp Factory that I haven’t read. I thought that the author was probably Scottish. I thought, again, about how the Scots’ strong and admirable sense of National Identity was inextricably linked to religion, despite the fact that religion is the cause of so much division and unpleasantness within the Scottish people. I thought about the huge and grand cathedrals in English cities and watched the wasp just about stay airborne as it departed. I wondered about whether American cities had to have cathedrals and whether the decline of Christian culture in England has had any effect on my feelings about where I want to live.

Sheffield is a great city, and I would be perfectly happy living there and selling records and coffee and beer. It seems that I have only ever tried to go to Record Collector on a Wednesday before, which is pretty stupid, because that is when it is closed. But this time it was open and it was fabulous. Also the wonderful Wizard Guitars sold me a little amp that made me feel much better about how far technology has come in the last few decades, after the crushing disappointment of the Blackpool Illuminations.

I stopped worrying about sleepy wasps and started worrying about my speeding ticket again.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Coast to Coast Across the North

"I fucking hate Manchester. Everybody's miserable there, and they're always going on about being from Up North. It's not even Up North! Scotland is Up North. Manchester's just Over To The Side A Bit. And it's always fucking raining."

Not my words, of course, but the words of Jerry Sadowitz, at the Leicester Square Theatre several years ago now. Personally, I really enjoyed Manchester when we went there recently (but I was a little surprised to see that a house on a nice road in Chorlton costs about as much as a comparable one in Lewisham... right, that's enough about house prices for another six months). But Sadowitz was mostly right about the rain (at least on the evidence of the week we spent there) and about the latitude.

After a cosy night in Carnforth cuddled up to the canal we were miserable in Morecambe where the amusements were banal. In an empty seafront car park near the statue of old Eric we were tossed about in high winds and said, "It's going to be hard to sleep in anything worse than this."

We then spent a relaxing couple of weeks in Cumbria, at first on an excellent caravan site called Skelwith Fold, right near Ambleside. I've always loved the Lake District, and now it seems to be a much better place to live than it used to be, at least for people who like beer and food. I'd pretty much expected the Hawkshead Brewery to be one of the only places I could buy a heavily-hopped, unashamedly-alcoholic American-style IPA inside the boundaries of the National Park, but I couldn't have been more wrong. 

A fabulously friendly cafe called Freshers in Ambleside (staffed by a nice bloke of about thirty and a wonderful woman who may well have been his grandmother) led us to the town's specialist Beer Shop, which was one of the best I've seen on the trip so far, maybe even as good as the one in Bath. On the wall they had a relief map of the sixteen or seventeen wonderful lakes and the even-better mountains and fells in between, very like the one I had up in my bedroom for most of my childhood. They'd affixed a little sign saying BEERIST INFORMATION and had marked on all the best places to get good beer, which seemed to collectively form a neat ring covering the whole region. The middle of the circle, Ambleside itself, was left modestly unmarked, but just above, in Grasmere, was a little sign that brought memories pouring forth like a broken beer tap: TWEEDIES.

We had liked the naffness of the name when we went there in the late eighties, so it's beyond me to say how ironic or post-ironic it might be now. We liked it even better when the landlord not only served us pints of Theakstons Old Peculier without any questions asked, but also gladly took the extra coin for dropping a shot glass of vodka into each, telling us this was called a 'Depth Charge'. Amusingly, I realised as I chatted to a friendly but businesslike member of 21st Century Staff, things haven't changed all that much in thirty years - for the second day in a row I was drinking Hawkshead's Tiramisu Imperial Stout, a gloopy, sweet, black beer almost as strong as wine. The chainsmoking and repeated plays of Baker Street (can that really have been the best thing on the jukebox?) - in fact, the jukebox itself - were gone (which is probably for the best) but this was still a fine pub with a charmingly awful name. I ate my Vegetarian Stack - goat's cheese, avocado, a poached egg, sourdough toast and a bunch of other things I'd've paid to avoid in the eighties - and it was delicious. Then, by careful application of physics, I was able to gently shove legions of seated children out of my way and leave. This would not have happened in Tweedies in the eighties, because we were not only the youngest people in there, but also, many times, the oldest. We also never left before closing time.

The way that businesses in the Lakes have adapted to the apparently increasing middle-classness of fell walking (or perhaps just everything) is quite impressive. There are probably more outdoor equipment shops than are absolutely necessary, but is the region ready for a secondhand record shop with the full back catalogue of Nick Perls's Yazoo label? Probably not, at least until they are available in waterproof sleeves with fleece linings.

The following week, for H's birthday, we went to the Center Parcs near Penrith. This served a number of purposes, very few of which will be part of Center Parcs's business model moving forward. More than anything, H had wanted to go back to London for his birthday and to have a party with all of his friends, but it's still too early for that. We are all looking forward to parking up outside the Ivy House for a few nights at some point before Christmas, but when this does happen it will mark the completion of Phase One of Project Rest Of Our Lives. For one thing, if we were to go back and see friends and familiar settings and say 'This is stupid, lets just move back here,' we could do so (admittedly to a much smaller / less ideally-located / more Stannah-stairlift-and-smell-of-deathy house) and say "Well, we gave it a go!" And for another, if we don't feel like moving back, we could look at London through the eyes of people who've been to dozens of towns in recent months, then go back to places we've already been and take it more seriously this time, or visit places we missed on the first circuit. There's a plan in there somewhere.

So going back to London wasn't yet an option, and we thought we could distract both boys a little by taking them somewhere else they always bang on about wanting to go. And we needed some time out of the van, with proper beds and a proper bathroom. That relativity of scale of a family's living space was quite striking - a two-bedroom bungalow seemed frankly enormous for the four nights we were in it, and it was difficult to see how or why four people would even need any more room than that. Unless they happened to have thousands of records and a shipping container full of crap to accommodate, of course.

There was a Top Tip in Viz several years ago that said something along the lines of, "Give your family the CENTER PARCS experience by cycling to your local Swimming Pool every day and setting fire to a pile of fifty pound notes," which is pretty much bang on, but we spent Glasgow-and-Edinburgh-Half-Term-Week in some lovely woodland near Penrith having as relaxing a time as one can have while surrounded by people who sound like Francis Begbie.

From there, we stopped off in Hexham, Northumberland, which is a pleasant market town near Hadrian's Wall. For two boys who will cheerfully mimic Donald Trump saying "We Will Build a Wall" from some memey Internet video, my sons showed a surprising lack of interest in its ancient equivalent - the Northwestern Frontier of the Roman Empire and the single largest remaining piece of evidence of that great civilisation. Well, I thought it was surprising. So we didn't even bother going to look at it, to teach them a lesson.

We moved on to Newcastle, another town I just can't separate in my mind from the memory of the first time I visited it. As we strolled down the fairly-newly-developed riverside, my friend had looked over the edge and saw there was no Fog on the Tyne, but a dead man floating face down in it instead. This is the sort of memory that stays with you, and no amount of pleasingly-orange Geordie-Shore-type ladies posing for photos on the bonnet of a white stretch Audi limo can stop me thinking about it when I'm back in the same spot. 

There was also, at the end of the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, the best busker we've seen on our tour (my GOD we have heard some dreadful ones) who played The Archers theme on kazoo and a version of Always On My Mind in which the last line of each verse was delivered as an agonised scream. This also did little to take my mind off the subject of death.

Za Za Bazaar is a temple to globalisation and gluttony that would be wonderful if it didn't make me feel a bit sick. It's about ten different all-you-can-eat buffets of curry, pizza, noodles, and every other national fast-food dish in which Brits have a tendency to over-indulge, and you just help yourself to one after the other (or the same again) until the tidemark reaches your epiglottis. The fact that E was more enthusiastic about Newscastle than he's been about any other city since Bristol was not lost on me - these are the only places where ZZB can be found. We went again, of course (although M decided she'd seen enough the first time around) and got our money's worth again, but I wonder if I would be selling my son's soul to the Diabetes Devil if we settled in either of these fine cities.

Looked after by terrific hosts, we were fed and watered (or boozed) well, and able to service the van with clean water in and (very) dirty water out. We were shown that Tynemouth is a quite lovely part of Toon (which I didn't expect, probably because of my first Tyneside experience) and then looked to move on further North. I've placed a lot of importance (in my attempts to imagine how this tour will unfold) in getting over the border into Scotland, for a number of different reasons. A disproportionate number of my heroes were Scots, I know it's a really beautiful country, but I've hardly been there. I'm fascinated by their political momentum toward independence, awed by the integrity of their national identity, and intrigued by how much significance religious sectarianism still seems to have. Also, this blog's description says 'exploring the UK' but we still haven't made it out of England. And we were getting so close - already a hundred miles further North than Manchester, but not into Sadowitz's Scotland yet. So we headed to Rothbury, a pretty little town in the right direction, that once saved me on a mountain biking tour when my blood sugar tanked, and was later the scene of a dressing-gown-clad Gazza's attempts to persuade Raoul Moat to give himself up, with offers of chicken and lager.

The dark road to Rothbury went up and down hill and dale through three fords, one of which was deep and wide and fast-moving between two 20% climbs, but Vanny (as she's known when we haven't time to remember the other more complicated names we've given her) repaid my good faith as she always does, albeit with wet tyres skidding on leaves and gravel as Former Hurricane Ophelia closed in.

Now we are sitting in a five-star car park a few metres from the River Coquet in what looks a fairly sheltered spot, but away from any trees that are big enough to squash us if they come down. The wind is bouncing our accommodation in all directions at once, threatening to tear the awning (rolled in, of course - we've barely used it) and the now-almost-financially-irreplaceable windows off of the thing, and somehow seems able to loosen the locked side door such that it has to be opened and slammed again every half-hour in a quieter moment.

Tomorrow we will gratefully observe that no real damage has been done, that the many sets of stone steps in Rothbury have all become enormous bulging piles of leaves, but that the town that once saved me is otherwise pretty but unremarkable, and that if there's any chance at all of more of that weather further North, we'd better head south again like the Southern Jessies we are. 

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Best Coffee - Worst Cheese

Best Coffee

I've never really liked coffee all that much. I can remember needing it on many occasions - staying up all night before a dissertation deadline, or working a Saturday at Music and Video Exchange on Berwick Street, I might have swigged it down like a thirsty man drinks from a canteen of water. The flavour and mouthfeel of a good cup of coffee is very enjoyable of course, but the specialist market that has developed around the crop fascinates me more because of how many not-particularly-nice cups it seems possible to buy, rather than the myriad opportunities to over-indulge thrown up by what might as well be called Craft Beer. During this trip, I've drunk about a hundred quid's worth of no-great-shakes, nothing-to-write-home-about coffee. Shops that had come highly recommended in Bristol and Lancaster have served unpleasant Americanos or long blacks with milk on the side that remind me in many ways of a mean old lady's hands - thin and bitter, almost translucent in the wrong light, yet covered in ugly dark liver spots.

Maybe I should move on from the Americano as it is certainly not the coffee style-choice of the connoisseur. An enormous, particularly rank effort from one of those Costa machines in a petrol station in Deal was enough to show me as much, two months ago now. I watched in captivated revulsion while a tiny espresso was drowned in a gallon of hot water before gushing cow juice turned it all a whiter shade of beige.

I would like to do some coffee in my record shop one day, but I am absolutely nothing like an expert. It seems to me that it can't be that difficult to consistently do a simple, good, coffee well, but I'm told by friends who have worked with it that it's not that easy. Why? Why is proper coffee so difficult to do well? And is this really why there are so many small independents that seem to be trying so hard, yet failing to deliver? In Carnforth my first cup of instant coffee of the whole journey so far probably ranked in the top half of those I've had, served strong and hot, while we were made to feel welcome by a lovely man I've never known all that well, his poorly mum (nevertheless radiant in her dressing gown), and his whippet (who flew around the room as if he was on his ninth cup). Meanwhile, the St*rb*cks in Skipton made a fantastic flat white when the right barista was on - the strong-looking woman with tattoos on her arms.

The best coffee I have had, ever, I think, was yesterday in a place called Mr Duffin's near the Hawkshead Brewery in Staveley. Not only was this specific single variety cup - a Peruvian - pure gold, it was one of about six they roasted right there, in a big solid piece of impressive engineering, in addition to a few different blends (one of which was a key ingredient in Hawkshead's Tiramisu Imperial Stout, a powerful half-pint that had sent me looking for the coffee shop in the first place).

Worst Cheese

Here's another foodstuff that has been elevated to a position where buying and consuming huge amounts of it can be mistaken for some sort of specialist interest, rather than just being a bit greedy. The Wensleydale Creamery in Hawes, in the Yorkshire Dales, offers gargantuan piles of dozens of varieties for the tasting of. Many of these were exquisite in their single-cubic-centimetre taster portions, but were never savoured nearly so well in the massive slabs I cut and jammed into my hairy gob after spending about thirty quid.

All cheese is good. Once again, my ill-educated palette is exposed. I enjoy pungent French soft cheeses, big blue mouldy stuff, dry-as-dust parmesans and even those yellow slices of processed fat that go well in cheeseburgers, and my whole family refers to as "'sgusty cheese". Sweating yellow rubbery Best-In blocks that look and taste like Semtex can serve a purpose if no other cheese is available.

So the worst cheese on this trip has, and I apologise in advance for this, been self-produced. You do not need to spend very much time with me (or any at all, thanks to this blog) to know that there are a range of things about me that are quite unpleasant. But smelly feet have never really counted among these demerits. Until Thursday morning in Skipton - gateway to the Yorkshire Dales and a whole new kingdom of self-loathing for me. The day before, we had been at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, paying handsomely to be drenched with water by Valhalla and shitted right up by the octogenarian woodwork project rollercoaster Grand National. The night before this, we'd been rained on most thoroughly during an abortive attempt to admire the illuminations, which appear to be the greatest rebuttal of humankind's supposed recent technological advances, as they are less sophisticated than they were thirty-five years ago.

My shoes were so wet that I broke out my gore-tex oversocks, stalwarts of very many happy days' mountain biking and very few washing machine cycles. The combination of new and old, moist and desiccated footcheeses, had a simply overpowering aroma which I attempted to ignore by drinking so heavily that I fell right out of the overcab bed on my return, thankfully avoiding knocking a BLUES NIGHT - shaped hole through the floor of the van. Two industrial washing machines later, this perfume is losing its bite, thankfully for anybody who has shared a room with me recently, let alone a compact motorhome.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

A Return Visit to Merseyside

It was, he supposed, inevitable that they would return to Liverpool, the city where the course of their lives had been set some twenty years before. They were not alone now, of course, sharing their carriage by day and at night with two bright-eyed young boys - living, breathing evidence that what he had done in the faded glamour of the Adelphi Hotel last century had not, thankfully, forced her away.

The place was different now, of course. Bright lights shone from new steel buildings and converted warehouses that had stood in silence two decades before. The docks provided a peaceful place to park and rest where once the van's wheels might not have lasted the night. Fine food from all over the world and beer of which they once could not have dreamt stood in the way of a visit to Chinatown just for old times' sake, and the faces of the city's favourite sons were everywhere, but EVERYWHERE, instead of peering modestly from just one shop window or two, and a plastic statue by The Cavern made to look like bronze.

However, this great love was forbidden to them - the red-haired child was small but strong and he laid down the law from the start. "I CHALLENGE YOU," he declared in a voice that, though reedy and nasal, demanded attention, "NOT TO MENTION THE BEATLES, OR ANY MEMBER OF THE BEATLES, OR ANY OF THE NAMES OF THEIR SONGS, OR ANYTHING ABOUT THEM, THE WHOLE TIME THAT WE'RE HERE." This was a relief, in fact, and the man enjoyed infuriating his son for 48 hours by finding it easy to do.

And so it was that as they approached Matthew Street, the ever-competitive young scamp pointed up at a life-size silver figure leaning down from a building with drumsticks in hand, and enquired innocently, "Dad, who is that?" Luckily, this most unlikely of likenesses bore precious little resemblance to the usually-easy-to-recognise Richard Starkey, so the man was able to be honest and still not fail to meet his challenge, "it's actually really difficult to tell." As they moved along the side of the building, other unrecognisable musicians came into view, holding Rickenbacker guitars or a Hofner bass, so he was unable to hold in the loud afterthought, "but I assume that they're the famous Liverpool band Gerry and the Pacemakers."

"NOOOOchkOOOOOchkkOOO," groaned a homeless scouser from the doorway behind them, shaking his head miserably while inserting even more guttural sounds into a word in which they did not belong. The situation of desperate homeless people, virtually everywhere they had been on their tour, had affected the man of the family a great deal, and so he flashed this one a knowing smile in order not to make him sad. It went unseen. "Yer cahrn't seh daht," he wailed, still tossing his sunburned face left and right in apparent agony, eyes screwed shut against the sight of this Southern Dichkh who didn't even know the Beatles when he saw them.

The slow lane, M6, 1998: the only time in his life that the young man had travelled by coach some distance alone, and all of the way he became sicker and sicker. His nose was running, he coughed and he sneezed, and his guts were churning within him as he attempted to digest a moist sandwich of thin ham and tasteless tomatoes. The toilet on this coach offered little refuge, but he was determined to make it to Liverpool to meet M more or less in one piece.

In the pub that evening there were many other young men too, skinny, big-nosed scousers with the carefree manners and dark hair he knew she liked so much. A guitar was passed around the pub and everybody who knew how to play a song did. "Diwyew know enny Beatles songs, mate?" As he drank, he began to forget that he was ill, a new vigour coursing through his veins, so he struck up a version of I've Got A Feeling worthy of the beard he did not quite yet have. But these were the semi-old days, and nostalgia for the Beatles' canon had not yet completed its tour of duty, and not one of these young Liverpudlians recognised his song.

Liverpool in 2017 is a fine city, perhaps even a nice place to live, that might yet have need for a record shop where the good stuff isn't buried in tons of crap, where you can sit down and relax, listen and peruse, rather than stand on tiptoes forcing the racks apart for long enough to catch a glimpse of each sleeve as you flick through... as those who never gave up on the format have cheerfully done for decades. 

Other attractions lay further up the coast - a hundred six-foot iron men less than half his age whose penises were already rusting off, and their equally-rusty-coloured neighbours further north in Formby. Though they are smaller, quicker and nimbler than the lumbering oafs who have almost completely replaced them, it seems that the latest initiative to save the endangered red squirrel is a return to the culling of the grey. Making sense of the need for slaughter as part of conservation was one of the more complex lessons so far in the home education of the man's children - one of whom bears a remarkable resemblance to a red squirrel. And the other, therefore, the grey. This made the man think of himself as a hungry pine marten.

The landscape at Formby reminds him of his native Suffolk's coastline - specifically at Thorpeness where the tour began. Scrubby grass projecting in defiant tufts from dunes of the softest sand at the edges of evergreen woodland, it differs only in its hilliness. A sign declares it to be 'some of the most rapidly changing coastline in Britain' and seems unconcerned by the fact that 'the dunes roll back across the land by as much as four  metres a year' so he made a mental note to visit the place again before all of its excellent facilities are buried and unusable. This lifestyle, he then declared, shall surely defeat any ambition I have had, as the sense of achievement gained from simply emptying the toilet cassette is enough to satisfy me for two days, or about as long as it takes to fill it up and start all over again. There must, of course, be more to life than finding an appropriate place to put the shit for which you are responsible.

And then he saw it again, or didn't - the inky blackness of a perfectly unlit room in the Adelphi Hotel in 1998. Half drunk yet and his insides burning, he had awoken in the middle of the night and felt his way around the invisible walls, hoping for the bathroom door, or lightswitch, and not finding either. The pain inside him ever growing worse, in the end he had given up, and when she turned on the bedside lamp and bathed the room in colour and detail, there he was, squatting in the corner, crapping wetly on the carpet.