The Bryson Sequel is Approaching . . .

So the blogs below have become part of a book – Dear Bill Bryson: Footnotes from a Small Island – whose final chapters I am currently writing at the Shakespeare And Company bookshop in Paris.

at work 2 bwAs of tomorrow – that’s April 22, 2015 – I’ll be running a Kickstarter campaign, to help raise some money to print the books nicely and get them distributed. If you want to help me out by pre-ordering a book, visit Kickstarter and search for me.

Notes from Scotland (It’s near England)

flag-of-scotland

Arriving at Edinburgh Waverley Station I was unable to receive the city in the thoughtful, kindly way Bryson had, who noted commuters shuffling home happily to have haggis and tatties and cock-a-leekie soup, whatever the hell that is. Instead, I walked in rain along South Bridge and Nicholson Street, noticing nothing, until I came to my hotel (the Ceilidh Donia), where I was told I could take breakfast at 6am with a group of Belarusian swimmers in town for a breaststroke gala. My room had all the things vital to effective travel: biscuits, several dressing gowns and a hair-dryer. Portsmouth had lost at home to Newport that afternoon, which really was saddening, given how weird and shit Newport is. To console myself, I ate the biscuits and dried my hair in a dressing gown.

I walked down the Royal Mile towards the Palace of Holyroodhouse, where the Queen comes every summer to illustrate her importance to Scotland by having a square-sausage sandwich in the rain. I passed many shops selling the Scottish Experience, which seems to be limited to wearing cashmere and eating shortbread. At the bottom of the Mile I came to what I thought was a very large Vietnamese restaurant, but was in fact the Scottish Parliament, where only the day before the leader of the Scottish National Party had suggested that the case for independence had never been stronger, on account of strong shortbread exports and the Queen’s failure to finish her most recent sandwich.

alpen

I saw the tombstone of Adam Smith (I think he played for Leeds), which is the size of a breakfast cereal bar. Four Spanish physiotherapists asked where they might find somewhere to eat fish and chips and ‘compressed peas’ and I said you’ll not find anywhere open at this time but why don’t you come with me instead to the Brew Dog bar on Cowgate where we can talk about ligament damage and the intercostal muscles in broken English. They said they’d rather keep looking for the compressed peas.

intercostal  Intercostal Muscles

***

At breakfast I decided that haggis is better suited to loft insulation, before heading up to Arthur’s Seat, passing a young boy halfway up moaning about the climb to his mother. ‘Just think of the sense of achievement,’ she told him. ‘I don’t care about the sense of achievement.’ I went to St. Andrew’s Square in the New Town, where there was a shortbread festival carrying on. On one corner of the square is a pub called Tiles, where twenty years ago Bryson had a piece of haddock and found everything ‘cherishable’ and ‘fetching’, but the place promised about as much serenity as a Job Centre in Middlesbrough so I carried on along Princes Street, which is still waiting for its new tram system, a hundred years after councillors first dragged themselves out of bed to okay the project. (What a cynic! Lighten up, Ben, for God’s sake.)

dogs Dennis and Margaret, by Will Collier

Downstairs at the Royal Scottish Academy, where Bill had another piece of haddock, all the artworks are numbered and available to buy, as they were in 1994. I fancied number thirty – Dennis and Margaret – a shot of two dogs sat outside Greggs the Baker moaning about the prevalence of Eastern European biscuits, but it was four thousand pounds or something. I asked what they had for under fifty quid and was directed to a blank space on the wall. There’s nothing there, I said. ‘Exactly. You can have that for fifty quid if you want.’ Cheeky bitch.

I went in the rain to the renovated Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street (shut) and then to a bar called The Villager (open), where I spent a couple of hours speaking with a philosophy student (handsome) who plans to be a freelance political analyst when he graduates. I asked him whether he was up for independence. He ran a hand through Harry Styles hair, before confessing that he hadn’t really thought about it. ‘In which case,’ I assured him, ‘you’ll almost certainly become a political analyst.’

harry Harry Styles and Hair

I gave the castle a once-over and liked it on facebook and then headed down the steep curve of Ramsay Lane, thinking to myself that here is a city to fall in love in, to hold hands in, to decide upon life’s project in, to dream, to climb, to invent. Something of the city’s scale and beauty and epic topography must find its way into the daydreams of its people, its small fleeting ordinary people, who walk its streets and cross its bridges and skirt its puddles with a spring in their step, sensing in spite of the steady cloud cover, perhaps because of it, that all is possible. At least that’s how it seemed to me this evening, as I drifted down the Lothian Road, tempted by a strip-club called G-String in C-Minor, which offers a pre-theatre menu.

pole dancing

 

The Christmas market was taking up four fifths of the city, and was replete with long sausages and apfelstrudel and mulled wine and mulled cider and mulled chicken soup and everything else that can conceivably be mulled.  Lovers were ice-skating in orange boots, falling deeper into love with each calamitous tumble.  I tried to hire a pair of skates so I could join the lovers on the ice and, by osmosis perhaps, absorb some of their happiness and pride and longing, and maybe collide with one of the Spanish physiotherapists, but they didn’t have my size.

Notes from Wales (It’s near England)

moustache

I had a pie at the Chepstow Castle Inn, where a five-year-old occasionally plays the piano. On the 69 to Monmouth a moustache with a man behind told two ladies about an immigrant who got £10,000 to train to be a pilot. The ladies confirmed that British Airways had gone to the dogs. The moustache then mentioned his nephew who had graduated from Bristol University but couldn’t get an interview at Greggs the Baker. ‘They reckon he’ll jump ship when something better comes up. But it might never. There’s something up with that.’ The ladies reasoned that Greggs the Baker was very well-priced though.

***

monmouth church

I took a walk along the River Wye. As I passed the Rowing Club a dozen Pippa Middletons in identical leggings hauled a boat from its slumber. The boys were already on the water, being told through a megaphone to keep it up, which is surely a given when boating. I saw a small white church and found it pleasing because it was modest. (An important aspect of religion must be humility, and rarely is such a quality suggested by religious buildings. The more ornate the building, it can often seem, the more impertinent its clergy.) My thoughts were broken by the heavy breathing of a dozen Pippa Middletons, and also the A40, with its evergreen cargo hurrying this and that to here and there: pens to Bangor, cabbages to Pembroke, keyboards to Cardiff.

***

I spent much of the one hour journey along the North Wales coast looking out for miserable holiday resorts and talking with a man heading to a town neither of us could pronounce. He was going there to secure custom for his recruitment agency. We discussed the nature of his work for a while, agreeing that agencies are at best a necessary evil and at worst a sure way to drive down standards, waste money and disaffect staff.

toilet 14.20

At Llandudno (pronounced pot-fang-pink, or something equally unlikely) the station toilets are locked at 14.20 each day. It was 14.35 when I arrived. I wasn’t desperate or anything, just fancied going, so I asked a man in the ticket office why it was shut at this time, but failed to understand a word of his response. (Bloody Welsh immigrants.) I tried to perform my enquiry, charades-style, but this only served to embarrass him.

I went to my hostel and was checked-in by the two owners, one of whom was a kindly and soothing lady who quietly got on with the requisite paperwork, the other a younger man who finished all of his utterances, even the most inconsequential, with a short roar of laughter, which I enjoyed very much. I asked whether the continental breakfast happened to include Eggs Florentine (Florence being on the continent etc.) but was soberly assured that it was just Weetabix really, and that I would be sharing with a certain Mr Williamson, who had been behaving well this week. As I unpacked, the younger man acquainted me with the tea and coffee making facilities and demonstrated how a bunk-bed worked, waiting for a sign from me that I had understood perfectly before moving on to the next thing he wanted to demystify, like the sink. It was very sweet, really. I think he was just glad for the company.

ai weiwei The White House, by Ai Weiwei

I found, by chance, the Mostyn Art Gallery, established in the 1900s by the wife of one Lord Mostyn to exhibit the work of women artists. The current Lord Mostyn owns much of the town and much of London besides. I asked one of the gallery staff whether his Lordship cares for much of the artwork, which is of a subversive, anti-establishment bent. She said he comes in now and again, giggles a bit, tells everyone to keep up the good work and then sods off, no doubt to shoot something or fix up a cousin with an Austrian relative or order another miniature steam train for one of his stately homes.

And with that I went to Scotland.

Notes from a Posh Hotel: wherein I enjoy Nigella Lawson in the bath

As I paid the taxi-driver on the forecourt of Rudding Park Hotel, Harrogate, a bellboy came to the window, hoping to assist with my designer suitcases. But I had only a muddy backpack – actually my sister’s – that had two bruised bananas escaping a side-pocket. I tried to refuse his service but he insisted and took it off me, before struggling to carry it in a way that both suggested my importance and concealed the fruit.

I was put in the bridal suite, which is probably the only time I will get to stay in such a room, on account of my inability to commit to any relationship for more than forty-five minutes. I immediately drank the fizzy water and read a magazine about prep-schools and ceviche, for no other reason than that it it was free to do so. I hunted for the complimentary nipple-piercing kit, so I could make use of that as well.  (I joke, but there’s something regrettable about how my behaviour bends to meet expectation or exact value. I lose myself trying to achieve either, I feel.)

nigella 3

I hadn’t had a good wash for a few days, so I had a go in the bath, which took an hour to run, such was its size. I put the television on and climbed in, but the water and bubbles still only covered my ankles and bottom, so I had no choice but to keep the tap running, which meant I could no longer hear Nigella Lawson saying something poetic and suggestive about meringue peaks. (And let’s be honest, the only reason one watches Lawson, in the bath or otherwise, is for her ample vocabulary.) Indeed, so well does Nigella enunciate certain words that the lighting system, which is voice-controlled, threw me into a black-out when she mentioned pomegranate.  That’s the thing with luxury – it’s often too luxurious for its own good. In my private steam-room, for example, I could only manage four pages of Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, which simply won’t do. (I tried again in the morning with goggles: same result.)

I put on both dressing gowns and listened to Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher analyse a Midlands derby – which did little to commend north-western comprehensives – before going down to the hotel bar. There was a wedding reception going on, which confused me, given that I was in the bridal suite. I couldn’t help fearing there had been a mistake, and that the married couple were presently consummating their vows in a single-room with no view.

Before anyone could accuse me of getting in the way of some King-Size sex, I went to my room and locked myself in. After some light reading on the matter of squatter’s rights when staying at a five-star hotel,  I went to bed, but struggled to get comfortable. The various rugs and sheets and tapestries were so tightly tucked under the mattress that even some fierce kicking and writhing failed to release them, with the result that I was unable to sleep on my back (as is my custom) without snapping a metatarsal. (This is the trouble, you see, when chambermaids do their job properly.)

clinton

After breakfast the next morning I was given a tour of the hotel by Peter Jenkins, who had previously done the same for Bill Clinton, John Cleese and Mikhail Gorbachev, when they came here to use the steam-room. I had hoped to avoid Peter’s tour in case he asked me why I looked nothing like the respectable man of letters he had imagined or whether I was planning to actually eat either of those bananas. But, alas, I had no such luck, for Peter was at reception waiting when I went down to check-out. As he whizzed me around, Peter kept-up an imperious commentary on the hotel’s evolution. Never have I met such a formidable hotelier! Were Jenkins posted to the Middle East, he would surely quell all the hubbub in that region with a single monologue about Victorian extensions. I wanted to ask if Gorbachev had approved of his tyrannical manner, or whether John Cleese’s funny-walk had confused the bellboys, but Peter didn’t seem the type to test jokes on.

As I pretended to wait for a taxi into Harrogate (I was actually going to get the bus from up the road) Jenkins told me that the original owner of Rudding Park had a fantastic neo-gothic church built for his son’s twenty-first birthday. Confident that we were now on good terms, I told Peter that for my twenty-first I had gotten an electric cheese-grater. ‘Yes, well, one reaps what they sow, young man.’ And with that I went to Manchester, where I knew I’d be safe from luxury.

Notes from Cambridge: wherein I get expelled from Clare College

cambridge sign

Bill stayed at the University Arms Hotel in Cambridge, and complained of its functional modern style and ghastly façade. I sought a room there nonetheless, but they were full. I poked about in Christ’s Pieces (pleasantly arranged) and a few shopping streets (Green Street, Rose Crescent), before chancing upon Clare College, where I asked for a room. The porter told me matter-of-factly that there weren’t any. I informed him, with careful ambiguity, that I was ex-Cambridge. Within minutes I was in room P1 boiling the kettle and trying on the various academic costumes I found in the cupboard.

I had a pint in the college bar, where a burlesque show was carrying on. I bought a round of drinks for god-knows-who, and found myself at a table where a lot of clever things were being said about beauty, mostly in relation to Cambridge’s buildings and a girl in the second year called Christina. My suggestion that a lot of this beauty is built at others’ expense, and thus has something shameful about it, was not taken seriously, nor was my suggestion that Christina, who I was shown photos of, was a six-out-of-ten.

I was invited to an after-party in the quarters of a known eccentric. In a pitch-black room snippets of classical music were being played while a score of students lay on the floor trying to guess the composer. (And to think the tax-payer once subsidized this shit.) I wondered out loud what the prize was, hoping it was a time-share in Tenerife, and that they all won it, and took themselves off there, leaving this wonderful building to be put to better use, as a Bingo Hall perhaps. I suffered the game for about twenty minutes before requesting, in a pique of proletarian rebellion, a piece by S-Club-7. I was asked to leave.

***

Next morning I had a croissant and an espresso at Indigo Coffee House (what a prole!), whose proprietor argued that given how encapsulated and infantilized the students are at Cambridge it’s a wonder they don’t fuck-up more when in government, which struck me as a generous assessment. Later, and following Bryson’s lead, I sought out a mediocre curry-house – not easy to get a restaurant to admit to being such – and then an ‘empty pub for a lonely pint’. I found such a pub (The Fountain), entered, paid six quid for a pint. ‘It’s a craft beer. Small batches. / ‘I don’t care if it was crafted in Machu Pichu by the goddamn Dalai Lama.’

And then Simon Richard Pistol entered, looking like a toothless De Niro, and immediately got wound up because they didn’t serve Strongbow. I didn’t want him to notice the young lady to his right, so I asked him what part of London he was from, and got this in reply: ‘Brixton. Joesphine Road. I’m the craziest bastard you’ll ever meet. Ex- SAS. You know Maggie? 1982. She phoned me up. What do you want, I said. Paul, go and have a look would you. Falklands. So I went over by submarine. Course I did. It was like Clapham bloody Common. There was this bloke living in a shed. I knocked on his door with my gun. Course I did. He said come in for tea. I only drink Assam. / Assam? / Assam. But he didn’t have it. So I shot him. / Bit of an over-reaction. / Don’t judge me. Don’t fucking judge me. I could nuke this city. Oi, barman, get this bloke a drink. / (I was tempted to get another pint of the Machu Pichu stuff.) Paul, I can’t. I’ve got to go. / No you haven’t. No you fucking haven’t. Get this bloke a fucking drink. / No, really, I’ve got a date. / Ah, fair enough. Where you taking him? (He actually said that.) / Er, for an Indian. / Good tea the Indians.’ Then he gave me directions (precise and accurate, as it happens) to a good curry-house, shook my hand, bade me farewell. A part of me was reluctant to leave. Not because I was enjoying his company – I felt constantly one slip away from a smack in the mouth – but because I could sense that the others in the pub would have no time for him, which would only wind him up further.

I collected my bag from Clare and went to Anglia Ruskin University, where I was to spend the night on the floor of a Brazilian exchange student. As I waited for my host outside the library, perhaps a hundred students shuffled past, and not one of them had a white face. They weren’t international students. They were British. Sure, Cambridge has non-Anglo-Saxon students, but they’re mostly invited internationals from wealthy backgrounds with stellar academic records. Ruskin, which is at the other end of the university spectrum to Cambridge, is full of Britain’s ethnic and racial minorities. I couldn’t help but find this shameful. I don’t mean to suggest that Cambridge and its students are complicit in some grand, elitist plot to systematically recycle privilege and opportunity. But I nonetheless had the urge to clear some of Clare’s corridors and re-house a batch of Ruskin students there, where they would no doubt excel and graduate into positions of social and civic power, and fare very well indeed. I don’t know. The dichotomy got to me, is all.

I ate Fish-style Fingers with the Brazilian (vegetarian) and drank whisky from pint glasses because the smaller ones were irrevocably dirty and spoke about Rio and corruption and the government’s attempts to clear certain slums – ones that tourists might chance upon after a beach-volleyball bronze-medal play-off – of drug dealers et al., which, when cleared, have their power vacuums readily filled with one militia or another. (See Iraq/Syria/Libya, ad infinitum.) We rode bicycles across Parker’s Piece and Midsummer Common and past the Grafton Shopping Centre and along Mill Road and King’s Parade, arriving, somehow, back at The Fountain. I asked the barman how long Simon Richard Pistol had stuck around and he said long enough to kick-off and start threatening to kill someone and upending tables. I asked what became of him. ‘He was taken away by six plain-clothes policemen.’ Perhaps I should have accepted his offer of a pint.

Notes from Oxford: wherein I get expelled from Christ Church College

I was stuck for a room in Oxford – on account of a quidditch tournament – so I went about the various colleges, knowing that some let rooms to visiting dons and queer-looking strays. (I can easily pass as the former; one merely needs to stand straight and refer periodically to Joyce and the ghastly weather.) I tried at Nuffield and St. Peters but was told, in no uncertain terms, to piss off. At Christ Church the porter spent twenty minutes trying to get me a room at the Premier Inn on Crawley Road, but grew frustrated by the automated phone service so hung-up and told me to clear-off. In the college’s launderette I overheard, in relation to a pair of socks, a discussion of Post-Kantian Aesthetics, which I found indulgent – I mean, do undergraduates really need to be washing their socks? I was eventually escorted off the premises by a Latvian porter, who found me on tip-toes peering into the canteen.

(To protect the health of my grandparents, where I slept in Oxford, and how I came to sleep there, is best left unwritten.)

***

boudelian oxford

For those eleven remembering minutes I was in the cupola of the Sheldonian Theatre (Wren’s debut, 1669). It is in the Sheldonian that Oxford’s students graduate, so I had a bit of fun and got up on stage and awarded myself an honorary degree for failing to distinguish myself on the world stage. The ceiling, by the way, is a patch-work of 32 paintings, collectively depicting a bunch of cherubs dicking about in the firmament (sp.?). Up in the cupola, or loft, I saw Broad Street laden with parked cars; labourers in orange laying this and setting that in the rain; Clarendon House and the Bridge of Sighs, across which grumpy undergrads scuttle after making a dog’s dinner of their finals; gables and statues and umbrellas and cameras and parked mountain bikes; the buttery rump of Radcliffe Camera, which reminds me of a bedsit I once squatted in Lowestoft; and a student in his room with a cup of something hot, bent over this or that magnum opus, perhaps another Wren or Shelly or Chelsea Clinton.

portrait

At the Ashmolean museum an old man was told-off for sitting on a sixteenth-century chair, probably sensing they had something in common. As I walked about, I wondered whether the portraits of this and that nobleman, which dominate so much of so many galleries, are the equivalent of modern ‘selfies’? And whether the depictions of gods and angels and other biblical-folk are the equivalent of glossy spreads of Katy Perry and One Direction? And whether the still-lifes of fruit and pheasant and hunks of bread are the equivalent of unironic photography of toilet-paper and microwavable lasagne? The museum’s rooftop cafe was my preferred gallery. Here the children took joy in flicking orange juice at one another, and nicely dressed couples had nicely worded discussions about what to have for supper that evening. I found the display of kindly patience shown by one waiter to another (the one having upset the tea-tray of the other) more affecting and instructive than any of the Ashmolean’s precious pieces. But, then again, I am a philistine.

I went to Evensong in Merton College for a remembrance service. I was worried that I wouldn’t last the whole ninety, so I sat at the end of a pew. It was difficult to judge when one was and wasn’t supposed to stand up. Accordingly, as the choir made a start on Away in a Manger, I was the only other person stood, which I quickly, and embarrassingly, rectified. During the drinks reception a ring of vicars discussed Chelsea’s equalizer, which oughtn’t, I gathered, have been a penalty. I don’t know why exactly but I have felt a little sad and lonely in Oxford – I’ve tears in my eyes now. Perhaps it’s because I have memories of failing here, so everything around and about me feels like a reminder of not being good enough. To cheer myself, I made a joke at The Bear on Alfred Street. A sign outside announced that the pub had been open since 1242, so I asked the barman (a weedy, good-for-nothing fellow) why he had opened late  that day.He looked at me blankly. ‘It’s just that it says outside you opened at a quarter to one.’ He asked me whether I wanted anything and I said no. ‘So you just came in to say that?’ I had, so I left, and went to Milton Keynes.

 

Weston-Super-Mare

Bryson stayed at the Birchfield in Weston, but it was fully booked so I took a room at the Seaward, which deserves its two stars. Cheryl on reception greeted me like an errant son that owed her money. (A waitress has already caught my attention; but what doesn’t catch my attention these lonely days?)

‘This the  Bob Bryson book, is it?’ Cheryl asks.  ‘The very one.’ I assure her. Then she does that thing that all people do when discussing a book they’ve no idea about, which is to look at both covers and then flick aimlessly through the pages, as if by assessing the font size they might gain a deep impression of the book’s narrative and prose style. ‘What did he do in Weston, then?’ ‘Chinese, arcades, had a go at his landlady, bed.’ ‘You’ll manage most of that but if you have a go at me I’ll clip your ear and make you go without breakfast.’

I like my hotel room. There’s less stuff to get off the bed before you can get in it.There’s no soap or shower cap or vanity pack to get confused by. The TV has an odd relationship with its bracket, tilting uncontrollably down and to the side, so it can only be watched sat in a corner on the floor. And, best of all, there’s no distracting view because there’s no window.

weston bird

There is something pathetic and affecting comparing what I have just seen of Weston (a fight in a kebab shop; several dozen TO LET signs; the Premier Inn on the front which is proud to serve Costa; The Argos on Waterloo Street, which ought to be listed to serve as an example of how not to build things; the forsaken promenade torn through by a lumpen carriageway; the locked-up pier; the careworn hotels with their careworn patrons) with the images of Weston in 1910 that hang in the Dragon Inn, which show a proud and prosperous place, its beach busy with blonde bombshells in red costumes.

In the morning I spoke with an old man working in a souvenir shop. He told me that many people think the new arcade is too loud, but that he just takes his hearing-aid out; that the tide is the second fastest in the world, or it might be third; and that it’s a shame Portsmouth has lost its shipbuilding, suggesting that the decision to award the contract to Glasgow might be an effort to squash the Scottish independence movement. I asked this wonderful man if he was happy here. ‘What more do you want? You can see Wales from here.’

 

Postcard from Barnstaple: wherein I eat a tuna sandwich and need a poo

I went to Barnstaple to have a tuna sandwich. I don’t like tuna sandwiches and I don’t particularly like Barnstaple. (I once suggested that cancer was better than tuna, and that the only good thing about Barnstaple is that it’s hard to get to.) But Bill Bryson had a tuna sandwich in Barnstaple so I would as well.

As the train rattled north from Exeter, my anxiety regarding the sandwich was compounded by a sense of utter pointlessness about the whole excursion. You see, Bryson went to Barnstaple with a view  to finding a connecting bus to Minehead, which proved impossible (and still is), and so was left with little option but to return, just an hour later, to Exeter, and start all over again.

So I really was taking a three-hour round-trip just to have a tuna sandwich. And yet my mood on the train, in spite of the futile and potentially disgusting hours that lay before me, was jolly. (There’s pleasure to be had, perhaps, in doing daft inexplicable things, like kicking autumn leaves, or visiting grandparents, or watching anything with Kiera Knightley in it.)

My jolly mood didn’t last, and as I walked from the station into town, past a fleet of commiserating retail units (Lidl, Tesco, Halfords, Pizza Hut, a Petworld drive-through), my bad knee started playing up, my backpack seemed to gain a few kilos, and I all of a sudden needed a shit. ( I should mention briefly here that my digestive system is such that, on average, only three or four minutes can pass before the first signs of needing to go are fully realised, which often led, during adolescence, to awkward moments slow-dancing at discos, or during French oral-exams.)

Thus it was that I found myself moving around the narrow streets of central Barnstaple, searching for a public toilet, in a sort of hunched and panicky waddle, stopping periodically to sit on a bench or at a bus stop, lest things got a little ahead of themselves. At one point I sat down next to an old couple eating chips, only for a third to come along, looking to rest her legs. Ordinarily I would have conceded my seat (there was only room for three), but that just wasn’t on the cards, and so I had to suffer the poor woman’s pleading stare, and her heavy sigh as she trudged off, and then the whispered disapproval of the couple next to me.

I found a public toilet in the covered market but it wanted a twenty pence piece and I didn’t have one. I thought about hurdling the turnstile but worried that such a move might hasten my bowel movement, and so I went to the theatre opposite and asked an elderly volunteer called Joe whether, if it were at all possible, and wouldn’t be considered rude etc., I could bring things to a head in the toilet.

Joe sighed in a way that suggested he’d been expecting this all along, before explaining (at some length) that he’d have to take me through as there was a performance of Sleeping Beauty in progress and he didn’t want me sneaking in. I assured him that I had no intention of sneaking in and that he really needn’t come through with me but he insisted, alluding to section seven of some little known piece of theatre policy, which states that no person shall be allowed to shit independently during a Disney adaptation.

Joe led me to the cubicle and then, as I made preparations, chose, inexplicably, to linger outside the door, where he began whistling the Great Escape theme-tune. I suggested to Joe, in no uncertain terms, that it really wasn’t necessary – at fucking all – for him to remain within earshot, but again he refused to budge, again on account of section seven, which he no doubt had a hand in writing. I did what I needed to do as quietly as I could and have never felt more embarrassed. And yet – and how very British this is – as we parted company, I to have a tuna sandwich, he to return to his sentry post, we thanked each other.

I found the hotel where Bill had his sandwich, which was full of more people like Joe, discussing fuel allowances and how little they would bequeath to their children. I ordered a tuna sandwich with so little enthusiasm that the waitress actually asked me if I was sure. When it came, the sandwich was cut into triangles, no doubt in an effort to make it seem less hostile. I managed two or three bites before attempting to hide the remainder beneath a charmless side-salad, lest some overbearing pal of Joe’s tell me to eat it all up.

I paid the £6.75 (mumbling under my breath what a load of bollocks this all was), tipped the waitress a quid, sent my best to her family, commended the chef, and then made my way back to the station, feeling really quite depressed. As I crossed the fine wide bridge that connects (regrettably, perhaps) Barnstaple with its station, I considered throwing myself off it, certain that the cold brown quickly-flowing water would be preferable to the solid world of streets and toilets and sandwiches. Then I remembered that I had a room booked for that night in a two-star hotel in Weston-Super-Mare, which cheered me up no end.

Notes from Exeter

The following notes are taken, unedited, from my journal, so be forgiving:

The X53, which I took from West Bay to Exeter, threatened to go backwards while trying to go forwards up a hill outside Bridport. The flanking hills are like a confused assembly of snooker tables, meeting to discuss the depth of their pockets. In Charmouth, paint only comes in tins of blue and lemon and pink. Descending into Lyme Regis, the bus has to slalom (sp.?) skilfully to avoid disrupting hanging baskets. The shops in Lyme – Rummage, Ruby Rockcake, The Ginger, Serendip – sound like ice-cream flavours.

Seaton’s centre is colonised by a Tesco/Costa complex. I ask a passenger about it: Tesco convinced the local council that the store would revive the area; it has done the opposite. The bus stops outside the Vault Bar, which looks like it needs a cuddle and a cup of tea, and wherein a fed-up couple tackle the low-season with another pint of lager. Across the bay up on the cliff a campsite huddles against the wind, a mere sneeze away from toppling into the unassuming sea.

In Beer, the buildings are made from old stone, and suggest wisdom and serenity and kindliness, just as old people do. There are animals along this route: a field dense with sheep (perhaps a thousand cardigans nipping at the grass); lazy cows; ponies; horses; pigs with snouts in mud or lounging in corrugated-iron sheds. At the head of Sidmouth a big Waitrose gapes (doing only harm?), while red phone-boxes house plants in front gardens.

In Exeter, the university campus on Barrack Road is opposite the police station – a prudent proximity. I wonder what Exeter would have been had it not been bombed so. The buildings that survived are some of the prettiest I’ve seen, while everything else, as Bryson rightly claims, is regrettable concrete, flanked on all sides by panicky relief roads, which seem to relieve nothing. Jack Wills (ltd) has a nice home (a pale neo-classic pile), as does the Wetherspoon pub on South Street, where I am currently, writing this, postponing the Chinese meal Bill has bequeathed to me. The pub was built as a Unitarian Church in 1760; now it’s a resort for lost lonely drinkers. Folk like me.

Where North and South Streets meet there is an evening market. I hunt for tea-towels and pegs and cheap socks but find only fresh fish, bread, beetroot, game and Devonshire cheese. (Have the artisans been forced onto the street; a travelling circus of once-a-week mongers and grocers whose High Street homes are now squatted by salons and nail-bars and pound-stores?) My market shopping is soundtracked by a violinist who looks how I imagine a young Bill Bryson might have done, which is to say the sort of chap you’d throw coins at so they could smarten up a little and have a good meal.

Inside St Pancras Church, small handwritten messages to God (tweets almost) are pinned to a cork-board: a boy wishes for a 17-inch flat-screen TV; a man for a holiday in Cyprus; a girl for her mother to be cured of Lupus. In the window of what used to be the Exeter Corn Exchange, ‘Buffet City’ is advertised hopefully – my mind fills with images of all-you-can-eat lampposts and traffic offences. On Fore Street the Old Curiosity Shop goes unnoticed, and old grand buildings are put to pedestrian uses: Fried Chicken, Hairdressing, Stationery.

The EQ4 bar, commended by the night porter at the Royal Clarence, gears itself up to receive packs of undergraduates desperate to extend, at any aesthetic cost, their Wednesday binge. Up a tight side-street is a Norman monastery, formerly the home of monks, latterly of merchants, which strikes me as an instructive change of hands. Salisbury’s ancient buildings are everywhere and become ordinary; Exeter’s pop-out from amid post-war Elizabethan mistakes and are all the more impressive for it. (For it is change that enlivens us, not continuity, no matter how pleasant the constant thing.) And now I’ve half a cider before me, sat at the bar of the Bike Shed Theatre, where the barmaids are openly discussing their love-lives. (They’re not happy, you know.)

On John Street there is a Fat Pig, where it is warm and there are books and a broad demographic and ales and ciders brewed upstairs which have won medals. It is convivial here but my mood is such that if I were asked a polite question I would only be able, in response, to stare back warmly. I am not in a bad mood, mark, merely a quiet one – though to many they amount to the same thing. I found and read a book on sociology (voting patterns in Rochdale) and then bought drinks for a musician-baker called Jimmy and his pal Tom, who lives on a barge and is researching reverse engineered silk, be that what it may. Jimmy and Tom took me, by car, to The Hour Glass, where we drank gin, neat, which tasted of lemon and juniper and the novels of George Orwell. The pub was excellent but I don’t know why. (Why is anything excellent? Why is anything this or that?)

I took a pee (had a pee?) behind a tree near the quayside, whose harmless shops and eateries (typical of such regenerations) were brightly-lit but empty, then walked along the old city wall (Roman?) to the cathedral, which was brilliant in the wet dark: I felt pleased it wasn’t hit like so much of Exeter. The Royal Clarence, where I am staying, disapproved as I ignored its warmth and walked further into the night. And now I’m back at the Bike Shed Theatre, because there is a barmaid here that I want to discuss sociology with. So it goes.

Photos from the Road: Dover to Dorset

shelter

Bill Bryson slept here in 1973. I opted for lodgings less wooden in Dover: a hostelry where the morning bacon is given twenty minutes in a sun bed. I found a modern Socrates walking her dog. Sensing I was an outsider, she issued a sequence of penetrating questions: Who are you, Where are you going, Do you know about salad packing, Does your mother know you’re doing this. She later bought me lasagne and a cup of tea.

outside hazlitts

Bryson stayed in a swanky hotel in Soho; so did I.  Sat outside a cafe I watched the passing profiles: an orthodox Jew with red headphones, a heavily made-up Italian, a beautiful Arab man, a punk, a pensioner, an African marching back and forth like a restless peacock. Across the street a girl spends her cigarette break scrolling empty pages of social media. I walk to the girl and ask what time her bar shuts. You should go now. It is happy hour. £3.80 a pint. What the fuck’s happy about that, I thought.

sammy

The manager of the Castle Hotel in Windsor reads what Bryson wrote about his hotel. He asks if I’ve been to Windsor before. I tell him that the last time I was here, when I was an undergraduate,  I spent a large portion of the evening in a shopping trolley.

mobile covers

In 1993 Bryson explored Windsor’s high street, spending  happy hours in a department store, testing the beds, fiddling with toys. I visit a shop called Glorious Britain and consider the array of mobile phone covers available, a testament to our shared quest for individuality. Eton is nearby but I refuse to visit, on account of my occasional communist principles.

sunrise

I walked to Virginia Water through Windsor Great Park, stopping at Guards Polo Club to enquire about membership. The chairwoman asked if I owned a horse or knew any royals. I answered yes to both questions and left. In Virginia Water, where Bryson used to live, there is a retirement home called Sunrise. When I start falling to bits I don’t expect to be told, in a vain effort to lift my morale, that life is just beginning.

two boxes in salisbury

Dying with a partner in Salisbury. The red phone-box is a symbol of Britishness; these two are beautifully cut-off. Are we so well connected that we can let these boxes wilt?

stonehenge i-pad

 

In ’93 Bryson lasted eleven minutes at Stonehenge. This Chinese lad did a lap with his i-pad in seven. In an effort to avoid the £3.20 bus fare, I walked to Stonehenge along the A303, nearly losing my head to the wing-mirror of an Eddie Stobart lorry. Life on the road, huh?

nudists

On Studland Beach, just west of Bournemouth, I was pleased to find two nudists enjoying the gale-force winds. I closed my eyes and zig-zagged towards them. When I could sense they were nearby, I asked bashfully whether they came here often. I was told to open my eyes and take a pickled onion.