Sunday 21 February 2016

Devon and Cornwall - why they are also mostly awful

I've had some rare time off work at the same time as my wife, so we've been doing daytrips and generally larking about like you can only do when your kids are grown up and moved out. Sadly, I married a teacher, so we can only have time off together in school holidays, which in turn means that everywhere nice is full to the brim of arseholes, no way round that I'm afraid. As a consequence of this I realised a sequel to my last piece about London was in order. We shall make a travel writer of me yet.

(The hordes of twats have all been photoshopped out of this picture)

In the last week we have been all over the South-West peninsula that we call home. To places as diverse as Totnes, Plymouth, Exeter, Boscastle and St Ives. I am choosing not to make a load of jokes about how dreadful I find Plymouth, since that would be like shooting fish in a barrel (incidentally, my friend Joe insists that Plymouth has the romantic air of a southwestern Vladivostock, given its watery border with Cornwall, but then he is more able to see beauty in shitholes than I). In a very similar way, I am not mentioning my safari trip round Primark, Nandos and Greggs in Exeter. I learned a lot of things there, I was in turns terrified, enthralled and mind-numbingly bored, but some targets are too easy, and however well-intentioned and inclusive I may be, making jokes about chav-pants in primark is not going to help the cause any. So I won't. Also, the very noticeable increase in the homeless population of Exeter makes me unwilling to be mean about anyone less fortunate than I. Go here, do something nice about it.

So I shall attack my own people instead, and when it comes to class based humour, Totnes is an easy target, though perhaps for less obvious reasons than you'd think. My Father-in-law always tells us we should fit right in there as it is 'full of flipping hippies and weirdos'. He is, on the surface, probably correct. It is our addiction to charity shops that first led us to go to Totnes for the day, suspecting that we could get plenty of crazy, colourful and outlandish clothing in its charity shops. This was a misunderstanding. On entering the charity shops there, one is confronted by a sea of beige, grey and conformity, which may well be the key to understanding the place.

Small confession here, I come from the middle-middle classes (one day I will write my treatise on why nobody admits being from the very middle of the middle class, but that day is not today) from the days when this strange tribe of people insisted on calling their children Saffron, River, Lichen, Depressed Cupboard Cheesecake or some unpronounceable, re-appropriated mystical Indian thing or another (I was lucky my parents avoided drugs in the 60s, thus myself, my brother and sister got away with terribly ordinary names, phew). Now this generation are parents ourselves, we have (not me, I hasten to add) unaccountably decided to name our own children after our great-grandparents, Myrtles and Berties and Alfreds and Gerties are in abundance, running feral around the once smoke-filled and sweary pubs of this great nation. God help you if you dare to suggest that they are in any way similar to little Dwayn and Chelsee (sic) from the council estate over the road. Myrtle and Bertie are just expressing themselves creatively when they knock your drink over and pull your dog's tail.

People move to Totnes to escape the drudgery of the middle-middle classes. Tarquin and Jacinta have made enough in accountancy or whichever beige occupation they have toiled at, and are now ready to flog artisanal ipad holders in the countryside instead. They sell their south-east mansion (small terrace, two up, two down) and buy a lowly Devon farmhouse instead (6 bedroom, two acres, half the price of the old place) for little Beryl and Algy to grow up in. They set up their own business knitting organic crosswords, throw all their grey suits and smart-casual, pastel-shaded shite into the local British Heart Foundation Shop and spend their new lives in alpaca fleece trousers and home whittled sandals (of which you can find a plethora of independent dealers in town). Maybe they can't quite throw off their roots, since even Totnes voted Tory, but they all seem nice enough, and it is wondrous to go somewhere where nobody gives us a second glance, however eccentrically we have decided to dress that day.
(Normal evening wear for me and the missus)
Cornwall in February seemed an enticing prospect, although our attempt to visit the witch museum in Boscastle was scuppered by its being closed, no reason given, just not open, one of the many things I enjoy about the pace of life down here (no, genuinely, I do, the relentless march of commerce is not a thing I subscribe to, I like places that keep erratic hours). A very lovely independent artist in the old forge and breakfast at the farm shop ensured that the visit was not an entire waste of time, however, and I enjoyed watching several families clad head to toe in waterproofs and wellies dragging themselves towards the North shore of the South west coast path, possibly fooled into a false impression of the Cornish weather from a long lost summer memory. Elspeth and Monty will almost certainly be crying at you as the February wind peels the skin from their faces, if they haven't been blown over the edge of a cliff (not unlike one of my favourite hats once memorably did during a performance of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead at the Minack Theatre) you should have stayed at home.

(This is neither me, nor my hat)

Having been lulled into a false sense of security by a near empty Plymouth City Centre the day before, we headed on down the coast for St Ives, hoping for some space as over the summer months it is more crowded than the streets of London, though with the added advantage of having no pavements, and angry city dwellers trying to drive their 4x4s through alleyways full of pissed up teenagers in flip flops. No chance, it was full, not of quaint and lovely fishing village charm, but arseholes, arseholes and twats mostly (and their children screaming loudly for ice cream, though blissfully unaware of Eddie Murphy).

The main shopping street (which being with my wife, I was obliged to walk down) is not filled with lovely independent shops selling locally produced wonders (unlike Totnes for example) but is jam packed with Super Salty Fat Dry Sea Face, or whatever the hell the latest trendy shop is called. It does have many lovely independent art galleries, and some proper crazy independents as well, in its defence. It's charity shops, however, tell a tale of holiday makers abandoning their optimistic shorts and swimsuits after a rainsoaked fortnight in an overpriced cottage.

I realise that if I wish to remain tranquil and happy I should never leave my house, where it is lovely. Or I should not have married a teacher and thus have to go away at the same time as every family in the country. I also realise that it is not just London that is awful, a lot of the South West is also filled with awful, I am probably part of the problem. At least it is both nicer to look at, and much easier to find an empty bit. Drive, walk or cycle (even I'm not stupid enough to suggest you try and use public transport down here) for fewer than 10 miles in any direction from any town and you will more than likely find yourself on something that barely constitutes a road, surrounded by trees and greenery, and almost certainly in fear for your life from either the weather, some kind of wildlife or the wheels of your own vehicle cheerfully waving goodbye from a ditch. Which is actually a rather wonderful thing, slow down and make the best of it.

 (That's my Stepson in the chair showing how we do it in the South West when the wheels come off)

Monday 8 February 2016

London - Why I am Glad I Don't Live There

Sometimes you need to get out of your comfort zone, and remind yourself why you live on the edge of Dartmoor where people are still occasionally scared by horseless carriages and elastic-trickery or whatever it is called. Last month, I did just that and went to that hive of scum and villainy they call London for three days. I found the place more absurd than ever, and came home to discover that I had made notes about it. Some of them were still legible, after all, when cider costs a fiver a pint, your handwriting stays that little bit more legible than usual.

The first two delicious slices of irony hit me as soon as we checked into our reasonably priced Premier Inn room in Waterloo. The windows were sealed, so no fresh air (or naughty cigarettes) allowed in this room. The air conditioning, however, was permanently on, so in the event of a power outage, everyone would probably suffocate. Maybe it is more economical to circulate air in a room this way than by simply opening a window? Maybe it was actually an aeroplane rather than a hotel? I was glad, however, that this room actually had a window, and enough floor space to walk around the bed, unlike the terrifying scifi nightmare hotel we stayed at in Peckham back in June. I'm pretty sure the breakfast we had there, in a dimly lit cellar, was mainly composed of Soylent Green.

The second of these ironic slices was that once I turned the data on on my phone, I was hit by a 4G signal, not a thing I have come across before (I know, get with the times grandpa) suddenly my phone was faster than it is on my wifi at home. In fact it was faster than the free wifi at the hotel was. Isn't technology marvellous? I know this paragraph is superfluous to you city dwellers out there who get it every day, but to me it was fucking witchcraft ok?

We hit the galleries, and the differences between London people and normality (for a given level of normal that includes me) began to open up immediately. In the Tate Britain I was amused to see a small boy (though not so small that what followed was necessary) being manhandled by his mother into the disabled toilets after his abortive attempt to go to the gents on his own. There may have been a genuine reason for it, maybe he had a pocket full of cherry bombs? Maybe his mother felt the gents was not safe for the kid on his own, after all, a sketchy looking bloke in a tricorn hat had just come out, and was now leaning against the wall, looking furtively at them while scribbling in a notebook.

Then I saw another mother, telling her 4 year old (probably 4, I didn't actually check) all about the app on her phone that they could use while they went around the gallery. Awesome, a day out staring at a screen rather than having to talk to your kid about art, well done you, and I think the phone belonged to the 4 year old rather than the mum. Modern parenting baffles me, and it is only a decade since I dragged my own kids around every art gallery in London until they wanted to kill me. We had no apps, I like to think they remember it fondly, and none of us can remember which bits I made up and which bits are true.

Lunch in the National Gallery cafe is always entertaining, and quite apart from the couple necking in the corner like it was a teenage party (which my wife assured me was actually a good thing, despite my natural English reserve finding it rather exhibitionist, I mean I'm all for a public display of affection, but they didn't come up for air for very nearly half an hour) there was a group of what can only be termed as media wankers sitting next to us. I don't know if they actually worked in media, but they certainly spoke in slogans, one of them assuring another that you only get one shot at life, and all of them talking about how quickly they actioned the emails on their phones. Yep, they used action as a verb, out loud, in public and without shame, and all held their phones in front of their faces as they conversed. As I said, wankers. Again, you city types might be used to this, and you may even use action as a verb regularly, I apologise to you, a bit, but you are wrong, and this is not right.

Then back into the National itself (where incidentally, the Viking looking booby lady just inside the main entrance seems to have disappeared, which makes me sad) where any attempt to look at the Van Goghs would require one to fight through a crowd of arseholes waving their phones around (maybe they too had an app?) Luckily, I've seen them before, and I don't like Van Gogh, so I could have a leisurely view of the opposite wall, which had a very interesting George Bellows I had never seen before. Along with some far superior Cezannes.

Then, after chuckling at a really tiny dragon in a painting of St George, who seems rather less heroic when fighting an oversized Gecko (I can't remember the artist, but I fear Smaug the Magnificent has ruined me for other dragons) I wandered into a dark room claiming it had a Leonardo cartoon in it, and was saddened to find a rather dull black and white drawing of Jesus and John the Baptist, nary a turtle in sight.

A small confession here, while I'm talking about Art (and bear in mind I will never let the truth get in the way of a cheap gag before you accuse me of philistinery) I like my Art to pass what I call the Richard Scarry Test, which my wife resoundingly disapproves of. I like there to be a lot of different things to see, and plenty of smaller stories going on, for example, Canaletto, who put lots of different little groups of people here and there, allowing me to make up who they might be, and what might be going on. If you don't know Richard Scarry, then google him, and you may see why I call it that.

I also realised that I am part of a long tradition that will never end, that of the long-suffering chap being dragged around art galleries by a girl (insert the partner of your choice/sexual persuasion here). I am currently in the middle-aged section of this tribe, and can recognise those in the same position, the shambling walk, as they try to keep up with their partner (probably a teacher, almost certainly wearing a scarf of some description, and faintly bohemian) while trying to gather enthusiasm for pictures which have been dulled by familiarity. I can see the younger versions, still pretending to care, or even genuinely enthused by their new partner's passion, as they are dragged unrelentingly by the hand by some absurdly beautiful art student, who this season will almost certainly be wearing a faux-fur coat, an absurdly large floppy hat, and full thigh high fuck-me-harder boots. And then I can see the ghost of gallery-visits-future, in his long coat and trilby, resignedly sitting on a bench, waiting patiently for the Psychedelically dressed granny who is squinting through bottle thick glasses at an explanation of a pile of bricks and nodding sagely. He seems to be happy, the future looks bright.

The next morning I had to navigate my wife across the city (4G is genuine fucking witchcraft) who was on a course near the Barbican centre for the day. This meant that we could either get on the tube at rush hour, or take an early morning stroll through the bankers. We opted for the latter (obviously, tube at rush hour? Not if I don't have to thank you, and I haven't done it since the 90s, I hear it might have become busier) and nothing has made me appreciate my own usual walk to work along an empty, pavementless country lane more. The cyclists looked suicidal, the traffic barely moved, the hordes of people in shoes that probably cost more than my car looked anguished, and rushing. No more the bowler hat, umbrella and briefcase of my father's daily commute, everyone has a rucksack now, some of them are jogging to work in lycra, none of them seem to have ties on. I did not envy any of them, not their casually ruffled designer suits, their heart rate measuring watches, or their almost certainly cocaine-fuelled, shallow, self-hating, loveless, paranoid, early stress related heart disease expecting lifestyles. Though some of them had quite nice coats...

After dropping Netty off, I wandered the city aimlessly, and if you ignore its inhabitants, it is a beautiful place really. Among other wanderings I went all round the river path from St Pauls down to the Tower and back (I do not like the bits where you have to go inland) and eventually found myself having a pint of eye-wateringly expensive cider in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese just off of Fleet Street, either because it had been recommended to my by one of my cousins, or because I read about it in a book somewhere, I forget which (if you are that errant cousin, do come forward and tell me I didn't imagine it). I sat there, drawing inspiration from the supposed history of a pub that had been there since just after the great fire, that can count Charles Dickens (definitely) and Samuel Johnson (probably, as his house is just around the corner) among its former patrons.

At least I would have had there not been a very loud voiced American gentleman sat in the next room from me (I was in the cellar, as it felt more romantically Dickensian to me than the snug bar, which was filled with arseholes, even on a Monday afternoon) who was talking endlessly about himself to some poor woman who could barely get a word in. I found it almost impossible to stifle a laugh as he told of his amazement at there being no wifi on a train from Paris to Switzerland, meaning he couldn't do any work for four hours. Apparently this was unacceptable. As a chap who was aimlessly, and quite deliberately, whiling away a whole day with no plans whatsoever, I found it very hard to sympathise with him. I do realise that your priorities may differ from mine, and I (almost) mean no disrespect. It takes all sorts to make a world, apparently.

Eventually I realised that despite its having been there for so long, and with so many distinguished former regulars, the Cheese was just a rather overpriced tourist trap (almost a literal trap, those steps would probably be lethal after a few more pints) although quite fun. Ironically, my local pub, I am assured by an archaeologist friend of mine, is probably three or four hundred years older than the Cheese, and thus has seen a lot more history. Less important history certainly, but more of it. While I can seek inspiration sitting in places where far greater minds than mine have discussed it in depth, I am much more likely to find it in a much older (and more pleasant) establishment, where I will more than likely find people I like. People who don't action anything (unless Agadoo comes on the jukebox) are unconcerned with wifi signals on trains, don't feel the need to spend their weekends running past human statues and buskers in lycra, and, most importantly, do not bat an eyelid at a man doffing his hat to sheep, cows and chickens and bidding them good morning on his way to work.