King of the Streets

A man with an umbrella.

I like rain and always have, as far as I can remember.

I started thinking about this late last night as I drowsily browsed Alexandra Harris’s 2015 book Weatherland. In her survey of how English writers and artists have looked at the weather she says this of Dorothy and William Wordsworth:

Cumbria is now officially the rainiest county in England, dripping with twice as much rain as some other parts of the country. This didn’t bother the Wordsworths. They were both phenomenally tough, able to walk for hours in steady rain, their woollen coats heavy with the wet, and still consider the experience pleasant.

When I was a kid growing up on a council estate in Somerset I would feel absolute elation if I woke up to low contrast grey light and the tip-tap of rain outside. Not only did I find the cool, subtle atmosphere pleasing in its own right but I also knew that, for a few hours at least, the streets were mine.

Three tourists in the rain.

I wasn’t a tough kid but wandering the avenues, alleyways and closes during a downpour I felt harder than all those wimps cowering indoors.

I could walk from one end of the estate to the other — further than I usually roamed — without seeing anyone, except the occasional face behind a fogged car windscreen.

The shortcuts I usually avoided because they were the territory of rough kids — like mad-eyed Chantel who would have given the Pope a Chinese burn if he’d been reckless enough to wander into her park — were suddenly open. Even if I did bump into someone scary they wouldn’t be inclined to bother me, not with the rain soaking into their trainers.

An anorak-wearing walker on the prom.

When I was small I liked to pretend I was a soldier enduring harsh conditions on patrol. In adolescence the daydream changed. First, I was a private eye going down these mean streets, neither tarnished nor afraid, imagining my very unsexy anorak a trench-coat. Then, becoming a serious student, I did indeed start to think of myself as a Coleredgeian Romantic, reading poetry under trees, partly sincerely, but also because I hoped a girl might see me and be impressed. (Girls, I for some reason imagined, craved damp boys reading wet paperbacks next to the dogshit bins in Cranleigh Gardens.)

I’m still thrilled by the rain, even as I’ve learned to appreciate sunshine too, and I still scoff inwardly when I see people running for cover: ‘It’s only a bit of rain! Doesn’t bother me. I am English, after all.’ Yes, apparently in my more pompous moments I imagine enduring wet trousers to be an English national superpower.

The only problem is that, entering middle-age, I find myself wearing glasses, and speckled, misty spectacles are no fun at all. Perhaps my days as king of the rain-slicked streets are over.

The Likes of Us

council_houses

‘University? Don’t go. It’s not for the likes of us.’

I sometimes wonder if I might have been the last person in Britain to be on the receiving end of that phrase.

When my grandmother spoke those words to me over a cup of tea at her council flat in the mid-1990s it was already an anachronism — a cliché, or joke. But she really meant it.

I only got to know this grandmother well after she was widowed. As long as there was a rum-soaked bully with Navy tattoos in the corner we children weren’t made to feel welcome beyond a tense and gloomy visit a week or so before Christmas each year. Once he’d gone the house seemed brighter and she became lighter on her feet. For the first time I heard stories about her father and grandfather, East End hard men and bastards to varying degrees, and realised that she smiled so much because, however hard her adult life had been at times, it was infinitely better than where she had come from.

She worked until the day she died, cleaning the house of a wealthy local family who I gather thought they were doing her a favour by letting her scrub their floors despite her bad heart and busted knees. She never complained about them and always called them Mr and Mrs even as I sat on the chintzy sofa steaming with indignation on her behalf.

When I told her I’d been offered a place at a good university I thought she’d be pleased. I was used to adults being impressed by my achievements. In fact, that sweet hit of approval was what drove me through school and exams. — I was addicted to being told I was a clever boy, like a laboratory hamster conditioned with a controlled feed of sugar water.

But Nan… Nan looked horrified, as if she’d had a vision of the disastrous fate that awaited me. She did, after all, read tea leaves and regarded herself as having The Gift. It was a reaction and perhaps the most emotional I ever saw her.

I was upset and angry, not so much at her as at whatever accident of programming had made her think that way. What did she think was going to happen? That I’d be laughed at or bullied? I brushed it off and I never got to find out exactly what she meant because she died not long after.

I’ve quite often thought about her advice over the years. At various times I’ve suspected she was broadly right — it wasn’t for the likes of me and I didn’t have a huge amount of fun. When the university kept phoning and writing asking for donations after I’d left, as if we’d been great pals, I told them to stop.

Now I wonder if the bit she got wrong was specifically, ‘Don’t go.’ We have to keep going, even as more obstacles are placed in the way, and even if it’s a difficult experience. Otherwise the breach in the wall will get sealed up and we’ll back where we started.

Smiling Somerset

Grey concrete in black-and-white.
The sea wall at Burnham.

When I tell people I’m from Somerset they usually say, ‘Oh, lovely!’ recalling holidays they’ve had. But my home town, Bridgwater, isn’t lovely. I mean, I love it, but it’s a working town, with barely a touch of twee about it.

When I bumped into one of my former A level tutors in a pub in London years after leaving home he described Bridgwater as being ‘Like Barnsley or Bolton dropped into the middle of the rural West Country.’ Someone else once summed it up as ‘a small town with inner-city problems’. And a graffito left in the town centre, on display for many years, was pithier: ‘All this town cares about is fucking carnival.’

I should explain Carnival. It takes place every November and is the town’s pulse — an obsession for many and something of which the town is rightly proud. To understand the scale and drama of the event you can do worse than listen to this excellent episode of The Untold narrated by Grace Dent and produced by Polly Weston which goes behind the scenes of  a friendship rent asunder by competing carnival club loyalties.

One of my favourite things is to make habitually unimpressed sophisticates watch videos of Carnival on YouTube; imagining bumpkins prancing about on the back of flat-bed lorries, their jaws drop when they see the fully illuminated mechanically animated behemoths thundering along in clouds of noise and steam. It is amazing. Barmy, brash, camp, yes, but truly amazing.

Then there are the holiday resorts of Burnham and Weston where the sea is merely a concept, once popular with working class Brummies and northerners who would pass us on the motorway as we headed towards Fleetwood and Blackpool. Again, there was no twee in Burnham, just full-throated fun when there was sufficient booze and sun, or oppressive uniform greyness when there wasn’t.

Wintry scene with morning colours of pale purple and orange.
Frozen nettles on the Somerset levels.

When I started to take myself for long walks as a teenager, it was along the banks of drainage ditches, in the orbit of the sinister Royal Ordnance Factory. However far I walked, I could always hear the sore throat of the motorway and occasionally military aircraft would thunder low overhead. There were pillboxes everywhere, unremarked upon, brutalist cubes in the middle of otherwise pretty fields.

As a young man my council estate conditioning and a comprehensive school cringe made even the most ordinarily pleasant town or village feel intimidatingly posh so that for many years the prettier side of Somerset felt all but inaccessible. It didn’t matter, though, because I liked the flat, grim, gritty, gleefully tacky version that I understood. I never called it a ‘shithole’ like some of the other aloof university-bound kids. I never really wanted to leave.

More recently, fuelled by homesick reading, and with the chip on my shoulder finally beginning to disintegrate as I enter middle age, I’ve begun to explore — to appreciate the nature, architecture and deep history of a place I thought I knew. I’ve realised it’s not all institutional severity — there are orchards, forests, cliffsides, ancient churches and a thousand other delights. And I like that version of Somerset too, even if I still feel like a tourist there.

It’s In Swindon

Edwardian photograph: a grocer's shop.

I have a skill that I have yet to work out a way to monetise: finding places on Google Street View based on a single photograph and limited data.

You know when some account or other Tweets a black-and-white photo with some variant on, ‘Any idea where this is, Twitter peeps?’ Once I’ve finished vomiting over the use of ‘Twitter peeps’, I’m the bloke that spends an hour switching between Street View, census records, online photo archives and about 60 other sources to work it out.

It reminds of a jigsaw puzzle based on an M.C. Escher drawing I once helped the other half with. All the pieces looked the same, it seemed utterly impossible, but slowly we learned to distinguish between mostly black, cross-hatched black, sideways hatched dark grey, stippled dark grey, and so on. With an old photo, the more you stare, the more details pop out — a church spire in the background, a number on a nearby shop, the name of a brand of horse food, a faded sign…

Only this morning I cracked a puzzle set by the ever-fascinating @ghostsigns by spotting a war memorial in the bottom right corner; searching the Imperial War Museum’s war memorial database for NEWCASTLE UNDER LYME OBELISK and then exploring the area around Chesterton Park (where I’ve never been in real life) on Street View.

It’s satisfying on several levels. First, it’s pleasing to help someone else. Secondly, as someone who often wants help from others solving pub-related mysteries, I hope it earns me some Karma or something. Then there’s the pleasure of the hunt — I didn’t know anything about Newcastle-under-Lyme when I got up this morning, but now I feel as if I’ve lived there. Finally, there’s the reason most people do puzzles: the sense of elation that comes with a deferred resolution. I may have punched the air discreetly over my porridge.

My greatest triumph came closer to home a couple of years ago. The photo at the top of this post is of my partner’s great grandfather. We knew he ran a grocer’s shop in East London between the wars on a particular street (Orford Road, Walthamstow) but couldn’t work out where it was exactly. I stared at that picture, at Street View, back at the picture, back at Street View, until hours later I declared, ‘It’s in Swindon. Here, look.’

See, Orford road doesn’t slope, I eventually remembered, which broke that hang up. Then, free to think beyond what I’d assumed was an established fact, I started to look more widely, starting by Googling ROLLESTON which, among other things, is a street in Swindon. That rang a bell — wasn’t that where the other half’s great-grandmother was born? I trolled up and down Rolleston Street for a bit but couldn’t find the shop. Then I zeroed in on this distinctive feature:

Window bracket

I’d seen this, here. But the window arrangement wasn’t quite right, and none of the other buildings nearby had the same arrangement. Then, the final move: I looked at the building from a different angle and found a shot from an older Street View survey: BINGO, THERE IT IS.

That’s clearly a converted shop premises, on a slope, with the right arrangement of windows and brackets. (I didn’t know then about the back-and-forward date slider in Street View, or maybe it hadn’t appeared at that point.)

I know, I know — this is incredibly bloody boring. That’s who I am. Deal with it. And if you get stuck with something like this, do drop me a line. I might be able to help and even if I can’t I’ll have fun trying.

Working Class Discernment and the Humble Avocado

An avacado viewed from above.

There’s a version of what being ‘working class’ means (usually championed by those who aren’t) that suggests a kind of pig-like, unquestioning gluttony — which implies that thinking about what you eat and drink, and expressing a preference, is bourgeois pretentiousness. Real first-against-the-wall stuff.

I’ve always found this weird because the working class family I grew up in talked about food and drink all the time. I’ve written about this before, albeit in a subscriber-only newsletter hardly anyone reads, so I’ll quote myself:

During meals, we invariably talked about what we were eating, how it could be improved, and how it compared to previous experiences of the same dish. Even if it was just egg and chips — ‘If you get a good heat on it, the bottom frills up and goes crispy, which is how it should be.’

It was partly because we were determined to squeeze as much pleasure out of life as funds would allow: wasting money on a bad dinner is annoying when you’re wealthy, but heartbreaking when you’re not.

We had a favourite chip shop, which changed frequently as we monitored the quality of the food with successive changes of management: their chips are over-cooked, the fish batter is greasy, they’re cooking it all in the same oil which isn’t at the right temperature for either. We turned our noses up at most bought-in pies but loved Holland’s Potato & Meat. (I still do — that buttery crust, the creamy quality of the potato… Oh, yes.) We debated who made the best roast potatoes — Mum, Nan or Aunty D? (It was, and still is, Aunty D — sorry, Mum.) Was a brand-name brown sauce worth the extra money over the supermarket’s own version? (Yes — less sugary.) We talked about cheese at Christmas when there was more than one to compare. When she had time, Mum made bread, and we all knew it was better than the supermarket stuff — crustier, more flavoursome, with a crumb that fought back.

I also remember Dad and his friends debating the quality of local ciders (Rich’s had the right balance of price and quality), beer (homebrew especially) and whisky.

And a bit more that’s just come to me: my late uncle, a former tank driver, latterly a mechanic, used to take account of particularly good meals he’d eaten to tell me about when he saw me. Sometimes, he’d keep back a slice of especially good bacon or a slice of particularly impressive boiled ham for me to try, serving it up with oil-blackened fingers. Food is love and all that.

I was thinking about this today because I’ve just eaten a particularly fantastic avocado. (95p from Lidl, avo fans — bigger, better, cheaper and more reliable than those from any other shop in town, for reasons unknown.) Stop, don’t hate me!

See, avocado defeated my family the first time we tried it in about 1984, when we were temporarily between homes (because, money) and living with Nan and Gramps. Mum had read about them in a magazine and, as we all liked to try new things, got one at the supermarket. The problem is, it was marketed as an ‘avocado pear’, which set up quite the wrong expectations. Then, on top of that, we had no idea what a ripe avocado felt like so this specimen had the texture of a cricket ball. I can still remember the sensation of eating it — the kind of tannic bitterness you feel on the skin of your teeth. We all tried a bite and grimaced before it went in the bin.

So for years I didn’t think I liked avocado until a holiday in Spain in my twenties where a woman running a market stall asked my partner and I if we wanted one ‘¿Para comer?’ That is, to eat now. She grabbed at them, prodding with her fingers until she found one that was just right — not in a twee lifestyle aspirations way but like a production line operator weeding out dented cans. The one she selected and hurled into a paper bag tasted like vegetable velvet and I felt (as I too often do) a surge of annoyance: why had I been letting middle class people keep good stuff like this to themselves? Good cheap stuff, too — denied to me through lack of experience rather than shortness of funds.

So, I like avocados now. Not because I’m a traitor to my people, or because I’m trying to impress anyone, but because they taste good.

Unless… Well.. You don’t think the act of writing this might betray a lingering anxiety, do you?