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Tuesday, 21 April 2009

A Walk Through Hull

My neighbour, a person whom at one time I would have called "elderly" and now claim as a near contemporary, is amazed by my "generosity" and the work ethic we (RHB and self) apparently both display. The focus of his amazement today is that I am off to the store to buy a loaf of bread for some other mutual neighbours. I explain:

"Well, its nothing, really. I was going the store anyway, and they had a baby last night, so I just asked if they need anything."

Keith's reply, if factual, is telling "That's how it used to be. Neighbours help eachother out. Not anymore."

I hurry along on my mission, concious that back home there are hungry mouths to feed. In truth, if the cats had not needed cat food, the celebrated loaf would have remained on the shelf. On delivery of the loaf to my neighbours, the subject of community again arises, again contrasted with how things "used to be". I have only lived in three countries, England, Liverpool and Canada, so my experience is limited, but based on that experience, the only place I have experienced where "things" have ever been as they "used to be" is Canada.

One of our first Canadian experiences occured when we bought a bed in Halifax. Standing near the till after paying, we were debating how to get the thing back to our apartment. Quite aside from the fact that our horse (ie a suitable mode of transportation) was behind our cart (ie our bed and mattress), we were enjoying the "abroad" experience of spending money that did not actually feel, or look, like money, and had neglected the detail of transport. A person in the queue for the check out overheard our debates about towing the thing through three feet of snow,, and simply offered his truck. He drove us five miles to our apartment, which was located in the opposite side of the city to his house. We did not meet the guy ever again, and he refused even a cup of coffe, just gave a cheery wave and disappeared into the blizzard.

One of my last experiences in Canada was a car dealer who took our car in for sale on the day we were moving. I had totally screwed up the sale of the aforementioned vehicle, left it too late and had ruined the upholstery by transporting saws, wood and cigarette smoking friends round in it. Loans were still outstanding on the vehicle and the salesman had to trust that we would continue to honour our loan payments until the car was sold, otherwise he would have to assume responsibility for them, as we had necessarily signed over the ownership papers. On the shake of a hand he took the car and sold it, a process which took him three months. He paid the balance of our loan off, which involved a trip to Toyota head Office in Toronto, and sent us a good luck card.

Inbetween these two events, seperated by ten years, there were many similar random acts of kindness, and regardless of how Canadians percieve themselves, they provide, for my at least, a degree of evidence that England and Canada are, culturally at least, very different places. It takes my long term companion though, the Red Haired Boffin, to make me realize the truth of the anthropological paradigm that says culture is something we choose.

A Walk Through Hull

It is Sunday, relatively warm, measured by the standards of Hul(tee-shirt, fleece, overcoat), and red has been back two days. We decide to attend an Art Show by my neighbour's brother, an artist who has not shown for some years. We walk to the show through Hull's brilliantly decaying streets, photographing and gossiping on the way. The show is fun, modern, chaotic and complicated, full of swirling colours but we do'nt stay long as we cannot afford to buy, and dont know anyone anyway, so set off back home, this time deciding on a short cut through the back streets.

Within five minutes we are lost in a sprawling council estate, half-derelict, chaotic and complicated. It's a bit like the show we've just been to. RHB sees an old building that is more derelict than most and we try to get closer, taking an alleyway strewn with needles, condoms, broken bottles and discarded purses. Turn left out of the alleyway into a cul-de-sac and in front of us, in the middle of the road, a full-blown party is in progress, a party originating in two or three of the only semi-occupiable terraced houses in a row of about fifty. Five or six bare-chested males with full beer-bellies are strewn across the road, shaven heads, tattoos, sitting on old car seats, bottles of cider. A small fire is burning in the middle of the street, and Shakira is blaring out of what used to be called a "beat-box". Hundreds, it seems, of children are riding bikes round the road, while the older women are all huddled round one doorstep, smoking, be-decked in pink and shiny and gold and shiny and tightness, every breast showing a proprietal tattoo. As we emerge, every head turns. RHB is the first to react:

"Hi Guys! Nice bike! What a great day!"

If this were bravado, I would be applauding the Boffin's gumption, but it is not, it is all natural, and she smiles beautifully at the crowd, like the Queen on official duties. Concious that the Queen on official duties has at least twenty five SAS bodyguards, I mumble through the side of my mouth

"Ust eep ahkin"

RHB loudly asks what I am saying, so staring straight ahead in order to avoid eye contact with someone who's name is, I think "Bif", I elaborate, with an elaborate casualness, and much too loudly "Let's just go down here", indicating the end of the road where I can see other houses, "the others will probably meet us down there." RHB looks puzzled, but am banking on fooling the crew into thinking that there's a big crowd somewhere and we have only been temporarily separated from it.

RHB has other ideas "Oh Look, there is a hole in the fence. We can go in!!!" She omits only a "Yippee George! A Secret Garden. How Scrumptious!" We enter the otherwise entirely fenced grounds of the derelict, hidden from everyone's view apart from Bif's family. Inside, the building is magical and spooky. Our photos do not really do it justice, we would have to go back at night, but my photojournalistic bravery does not stretch that far, which probably explains why I am not a photojournalist. We do not, as I had feared, get mugged, and our corpses do not get added to Bif's smouldering campfire and we walk home safely, stopping only at Aldi.

On the way home, past the Polish shops, past the abandoned pubs, over the old railway line and through the park past the Queens where I watch so many Liverpool victories, and RHB lightheartedly accuses me of paranoia, a charge I fully admit. But just as her beautifully open reaction that "Here's some guys having fun" is not entirely all her, my paranoia does have a cultural element. Admittedly, a good many Canadians would turn and run from Bif's street, but while a charity in Canada like Big Brothers, Big Sisters, is a massive success, the story is different in the UK. The mentoring website offered the following:

According to David Hall, Britain offers a particular challenge. 'It's the class thing,' he says. 'Nowhere in the world is it an issue like over here. If you get a working class kid from an estate, he won't want to spend time with a 'posh' bloke who likes hunting and fishing.
In the same way race can be a problem. We can't and won't tell a parent or child who rejects a mentor outside their culture that they 'must' accept them. And a black inner city kid or one in Newcastle will want a mentor they can recognise and relate to.'

Where does this leave buying a loaf of bread for my neighbours? One piece of, rather sniffily delivered, advice I recieved from a close relative suggested that if I like Canada that much, I should go back there. They missed the point entirely. Like so many Brits, praise of somewhere else was taken as criticism of here, but everywhere has it's good and bad points, even Canada. RHB has sauntered through this world as a Canadian, and does so wherever she lives, and it has served her well. She has left more of Bif's parties unscathed than anyone I know. I see no reason why I, if I want things here to be "as they used to be" there, cannot do the same. Tomorrow, I'm going to buy someone a great big cake.

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