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Tuesday, 27 April 2010

In Defence of the Fleece - An Anti-Travellogue

"Clickety-clak, clickety-clak!" reverberates around the station as I await the delayed 17.38. "Tshppt! Tshhppt!" accompanies the arrival of every train as the platform gets increasingly packed. "Fizz! Fizz!" says the air, leaden under the weight of additional, odorous particles.

Not, you understand, "Clickety-clak! Clickety-clak" of steel wheels on steel track, but the "clickety-clak! clickety-clak!" of they're-in-fashion-so-I'll-wear-them high heels on marble, as the new emancipated woman returns home after a day at work. And not the "tshppt! tshppt!" of steam engines gently idling, or even clever carriage doors opening, but the "tshppt! tshppt!" of a million office-worker 'tut's" at every imagined inconvenience. And not even the "Fizz! Fizz!" of energized industrial particles making busy with their doings, but instead the "Fizz! Fizz!" of oxygen, carbon dioxide and water molecules breaking down under the sheer weight of day-old perfume, body odour, bad coffee and tramp's piss in doorways just next to the toilets.

Of course, I am in Leeds station, my second most unfavourite place on Earth, apart from Leeds proper, that is. And, after a long absence from the place, I realise that my impressions of England, after a protracted abscence were possibly - no! definitely dammit - coloured by the fact that the first place I had intimate acquaintance with on this island, after six months of depressing unemployment, was this town. I could'nt have chosen a worse place to reacquaint myself with the planet's eighth largest economy. In short, I have since learnt to discriminate, and after a week's abscence I am desperate to get home to beautiful, friendly, small, cutting edge Hull. It is a sentence that I did not think I would ever utter, even from before I could think, but Hull is great. Especially compared to Leeds.

Understandably, that there is a difference between the two places may be lost on some. THey are both, if known at all outside England, just places on a map. But in that they are just places on a map lies many of the reasons I hate Leeds. Hull knows it is a small town on the margins of England and just gets on with, doing its own thing, and in doing so is unpretentious, unconcerned with image, and secure in its poverty.

Leeds, on the other hand has goals. It is trying to transform itself from a dirty-grey powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution to a "destination". It has targets. It desperately wants to be corporate. It is a "city" where "things" happen, deals get done and the business card tells its inhabitants who they are. People go to meetings in Leeds, incessantly, and they love Barcelona because of the "design" but they cant name any artists. The magnificent Victorian buildings of detail and solidity that once dominated the city centre have been replaced by angular pastel architecture - mostly temporary regional headquarters for minor multi-nationals just waiting for the next tax-incentive in the next town. The business quarter consists of the outline traces of narrow medieval roads, with 14 storey tower blocks squeezed into place where merchant offices once sat comfortably. These cobbled streets are fed by fast highways and a motorway that cuts right through the middle of town which makes the cars transition from 70 to 20 mph almost instantaneous. Consequently, the fat middle aged men behind the wheels of the sporty BMW's (trying for all the world to look as if they should be driving these cars) that flit around Leeds make no attempt at transition. It's just 70, then stop. A cyclist and pedestrian's nightmare.

Did I mention I dont like Leeds? Not the people - I have no judgement of them, apart from that architecture and civic aspiration might explain why the place is just so unfriendly and uncultured. The down town bars are all immaculately clean, ultra-designed and fake titanium, so there's not a square inch of intimacy anywhere in the city centre, the interiors so shiny they echo harshly. You have to shout to be anyone in Leeds. On many evenings, I trailed the Crosstowner through this desert during my employment and after a while I longed to see someone among the cardiganed crowd who's clothes were practical, not ironic, or whose hair had been just cut (at a barbers) instead of being styled. "If civilization collapsed tonight", I would think to myself " then these people are entirely inappropriately dressed".

For the moment, the nightmare of Leeds is abated. I, eventually, return to Hull, the train having gone from sardine packed during its trawl through Leed's commuter belt to just dangerously overcrowded as it pulls into Paragon station. The remaining commuters relax visibly, suits crumpling unstylishly. Dressed-to-the-nines office divas head for the run-down boozers of Hull's tiny, crumbling old town, shedding the second skin that working in the metropolis has forced on them. I stroll through the casual, tattooed, slow moving crowd, bumping into three of my pupils and explain that I cant go for a beer now as I've been away, but definitely next time. I get a taxi back to Large Mansions and it heads off in entirely the wrong direction, but eventually bumbles it's way to my house, the driver chatting all the way. I count, and only see one BMW en-route, and its not silver.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010


My comrade in arms, AKA Skarra, the other half of Cheek to Cheek is trapped by an Icelandic volcano in Spain. Enthused by recent social psychology lectures, I send him a series of helpful texts and cheerful e-mails. The first of these cheerily suggests that we amend our current set list to include

" 've been thinking we should do a few covers. Some of these are based on personal experiences, so we should be able to put that little bit extra feeling into them. We could also modify them to reflect those new inputs, and this would give the songs that extra twistr that would be sure to get us on A RAdio Four programme. Here's a list:

1. (I'm not) Leaving on a jet plane
2. It's a long way to Tipperary (and Beverley)
3. When will I see you again?
4. Spanish Eyes
5. Show me the way to go home
6. Fly me to the Moon, or preferably Hull
7. Since you been gone.
8. King of the Road
9. The Wanderer
10. Back Home ( the classic World Cup anthem)

My intention is quite clearly to raise his spirits, trapped as he is far away from Blighty. I am therefore slightly surprised when informed that due to the sheer quantity of similar helpful suggestions from likeminded friends, Skarra is unable to answer at this time. Instead of fretting about the geological inconvenience imposed on him, he has gone on holiday, and has taken, it appears, to not checking his e-mail. Frankly, I am disappointed. My motives in relaying to him a series of jokes about yet another failure in European competition by Manchester United were motivated by sheer altruism. Admittedly, it had somehow completely slipped my mind that the person with whom I spend at least half of most of our weekly rehearsals talking about football was an avid, lifelong Manchester fan, but I thought he would laugh as I was forced to do when he sent me the fiollowing table shortly after it became obvious how the soccer season would turn out for us

Ultimately, Skarra's decision to just treat his enforced exiile as a vacation is sensible. There is absolutely nothing he can do about being stuck in Spain, so he is turing a minor inconvenience into something positive. A quick reading of the English media however suggest that by reacting calmly, sensibly and proportionately to the situation, he is in a minority. Reports from people returning, and still trapped abroad, feature interviews with people who describe the "nightmare" they have experienced in having to stay somewhere reliably warm for an extra few days, and how "devastated" they are. Radio call-in shows are crammed with idiots demanding the "something be done". Questions are being asked at the highest political level, and newspapers have become excruciatingly unreadable as the British ability to turn a minor inconvenience that, lets face it, for the vast majority of people (ie holiday makers) who are "stuck in limbo" should be an interesting, harmless and diverting addition to their life experience, into a national crisis. Parliamentary investigations have already been ordered by politicians who are apparently anxious to maintain a civic culture whereby the maximum of dullness, misery and pointless acountability is extracted from even the most uncontrollable, and potentially enjoyable happenstance. The British social norm is to never be passionate but the area where they come closest to approaching passion is in their capacity to remove the fun from everything.

Current lectures in social psych have led me to understand that by studying exceptions to the social norms is informative in developing our understandings. It is in a social psychology lecture about this, and frankly a determination to act as unBritishly about everything as possible, that I conduct a research experiment to test reactions to non-norm behaviour.

There are many types of voices - loud, soft, siblant, melodic, rhythmic. The voice of an adolescent hormonised male whispering to his paramour throughout a lecture is one which is probably best described as "annoying". It is especially annoying due to its unpredictabilty, but mostly because of the transparency of thought processes that slowly trudge through the neural networks adolescents - he knows that talking during a ledcture is distracting, annoying and rude. But he does it anyway. He also knows that whispering does not change the situation at all in that as a psychology student he has done some work on attention. But he still does it. This is infuriating. Fantasies of rolling heads in the row ahead of me, setas that disappear into the floor, a discrete injection enter the old head, but I rein in the wilder fantasies and decide in a quid pro quo solution. The boy's crime is mostly that he has unsettled me, disturbed me, thrown me off centre. If, I think, I react predictably - ie with aggression, or polite request, or adult disapproval,
the boy's response will be programmed. He will be able to accomodate, rationalise and respond according to his social schema.

I decide therefore on unpredictability. I prss his shoulder, firmly, but not impatiently or aggressively. He turns round and I stare at him. He looks at me questioningly so I wait, then just as he moves to turn back when I say nothing, I say as unemotionally, as unaggressively, as neutrally as possible "Shut up" and as I do so I very deliberately and slowly touch his shoulder, nodding. I then beam the widest smile I can muster. He turns back with a little shake of his head and an exchange of glances with his friend who also turned round. A few moments later, I reach over his shoulder and lay a piece of paper on the desk in front of him. I have written "Shut up" on the paper. He turns to look at me and I give him a double thumbs up with as little expression on my face as possible. He doesnt speak for the rest of the lecture.

I should add that, ex post facto to my experiment the realisation belated hits me that this very trait - the desire to "kick against the pricks" as it were - is itself very British. And I also consider the ethics of my experiment. It was, I conclude, wildly unethical, and slightly threatening. I could perhpas be reported, although all I did was act wierd.

Friday, 16 April 2010

All quieter on the Eastern Front...

Gradually, imperceptibly, and frankly a bit sneakily, doings, goings-on, situations and I-wont stands-for-that's in the East Riding of Yorkshire have crept away. I would not be stupid enough to allow that this is a permanent situation, its more like one of those old cowboy films where the sixth, seventh or eight cavalry are riding through a canyon and the grizzled old trouper says to the lieutenant "I dont like it, Sir. It's too quiet". In those movies anyway, I was, child of the sixties ever, always on the side of the "Indians" - the oppressed, the glorious braves, the people with a cause. And causes mean chaos. So where, I suppose, RHB and self could just concentrate, for the immediate future, on making money, doing the house up, fixing the garden, walking the cats, it is very unlikely that the situation will last forever.

For the moment though, I take great pleasure in announcing that almost nothing of significance has occured recently. There was of course our attempt to visit Great Meg and the Legal Eagle in Glossop......

"Are you sure we'e got everything?" asked RHB.

I nodded, which immediately sent shards of pain across the balding cranium. Last night we had been to JJ's for "a few drinks".

We set off from Large Mansions in good spirits, settling into gossip about everyone we knew as soon as we hit the motorway.

"Should I put some music on?" asked RHB

I thought for a second.

"Actually, I forgot to bring any" I admitted.

"OK. No problem" said the Boffin.

"Shall I take a look at the map, just to check where we're going?" asked my co-pilot

"No need" I said "its pretty straightforward. We just head down the M62 and sort of turn left-ish once we've crossed the Pennines. Or maybe just before. Or maybe at the top of the Pennines. Anyway, it doesnt matter, its signposted. "

Two hours later, we were passing signs for Liverpool. The promised signpost for Glossop seemed to have been removed.

"Should I check the map?" asked my partner

"Well, you could if I hadnt forgotten to bring it" I admitted, continuing "I think we've come a bit far." We pulled off the motorway at the next sliproad, crossed over, headed back down the sliproad on the other side and headed back in the sirection we had come.
soon we were climbing back into the Pennines, but there was no sign of signs for Glossop. We decided to call Great Meg to ask for directions, so I pulled off the motorwayagain , while RHB called her mom. Directions were negotiated and noted, so we re-crossed the motorway confidently set off again, heading, as instructed for Huddersfield.

An hour later, I tentatively asked RHB if her mother was prone to drinking this early in the day. The directions we'd been given bore as much connection to reality as if we had been issued some text from a science fiction novel 'Head for the Alpha Centauri, turn left just past Proxima Majoris, tuck into the slipstream of the nearest comet and our house, number 23, is first on the left'. We were in a small town called, I think, Milford. Or Milltown.

We decided to consult a map, so we pulled into a roadside garage. We found the big stack of roadmaps near a leaking coffee machine at the rear of the store, and furtively opened on, pretending we were considering a purchase. Quickly turing to the page representing where we thought we were, we memorised a route, based on our locationary estimates:

"Left out of the garage to the crossroads. Then, if we are here, it should be a right on the A63 to B2354. Turn left on the A56, then immediately right on the A65, across the roundabout then ten miles to the B6384. We should then pick up the A64, follow it round the reservoir and take the B....Well, I cant read what that last road says, but I'm sure it will be signposted. Got it".

Leaving RHB to purchase some of the worst coffee I had ever imbibed, I walked back to the car, repeating the directions under my breath to aid memory. At this point, it should be noted that, on occasions such as this - ie being completely and utterly lost due to one's own stupidity - between self and RHB, a characteristic emotional reaction occurs. It is not however, the reaction which we were surprised to later learn, a reaction that typifies most partnerships in similar situations. In short, the giggles had well and truly set in. Every wrong turn had increased, and exagerrated the previous mistakes, resulting in what I can only describe as hysterical giggling. At times, driving had become dangerous as tears streamed down my face blurring the vision, and I had concerns that RHB might suffer an asthma attack, or choke to death on a cup-cake. Telling her this made things worse, so her usefulness as a navigator was significantly decreased below her baseline level. While an excellent driver, RHB's navigational skills are compromised slightly due to an inability to identify, or name, certain terms essential to navigation, such as "left", "right", "up", "down", "South", "North" or "that way". Informational processing interruptions, such as giggling fits, that diminish that baseline level of ability do not improve matters.

Twenty minutes after leaving the garage, we were sitting at the base of a 200ft viaduct at the end of what had looked like a promising slip-road, admiring, between tears, the magnificent engineering ability that made such an edifice possible, while trying to work out from the shadows cast by it's arches which way was South. Of course such information is mostly useful if one actually knows where one is, in that the identification of where South actually is only helps if one has any degree of certainty whether one is, in truth, South of anything. We didnt, but emerging from the hills that backed the viaduct was a man walking a dog. I wound the window down.

"Excuse me" I breezily cried "Do you know where Glossop is?"

"That's in Derbyshire, isnt it?" he replied.

"Yeah" I answered, glad for his knowledge.

"This isnt Derbyshire" he helpfully noted before picking up another stick and throwing it for his dog.

As he walked away, we hit on a brilliant plan. We would go back to the garage, and purchase a map. So we reversed the car, and headed back to the garage. Map secured, we navigated the remaining hour to Glossop with a kind of ruthless efficiency, passing many familiar sights along the way. It was a shorter than planned visit, but Great Meg's soup, was, despite several reheatings, as fantastic as always.

Of course, other things have happened recently. Sue and Ethan visited which was lots of fun, RHB went to Barcelona and mostly enjoyed a holiday(an occasion in itself), I did a bit of paid work locally, but on the whole, life is quiet and routine. We risk as few journeys as possible, occasionally venturing outside to do some gardening, altthough I make sure I do not explore further than the back gate. We go to the gym. I work on my novel (honestly - most of you lot are in it). I am heading towards exams at the end of term, and write far too much about determinism. Summer is, for me, only six weeks off. I plan to do some exploring in the Wetsern Isles of Scotland on the Crosstowner. And a massive volcano has grounded all airtraffic over the UK. Over the last two days, life has, if anything, become quieter.