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.

Asbestos in the Memory Cupboard

An unknown tower block shot with black-and-white film c.1998.

Reading Katrina Navickas’s post about what she calls ‘Brutalgie’ I felt a momentary pang of guilt: am I being dreadfully superficial when I swoon at a photo of a tower block?

To some extent, yes, clearly. When all I have to go on is a picture and my only response is ‘Phwoar!’ then I’m reacting to it almost as a piece of graphic design — it’s the contrast, the geometry, the texture that’s titillating me.

But, at the same time, that strikes me as a political act in itself — a way of saying, ‘This is beautiful’, in defiance of people who are scared of public buildings and municipal housing, who can only see failure in it. Finding something to appreciate in the bus station, the tax office or a squat tower block is a way of flicking the Vs at those who insist the true England is only that of stately homes, Victorian townhouses and Cotswold villages.

deep_water_1998
The Ponds at Cranleigh Gardens, Bridgwater

I spent the largest part of my childhood in a house made of slabs of precast reinforced concrete on a council estate in Somerset. I generally resist extreme or simplistic points of view which means, in practice, I irritate everybody by responding with some variation of, ‘Well, to some extent yes, but…’ In the case of life on a council estate, here’s the fence I sit on:

First, my experience was apparently less rosy than some people’s. We didn’t leave the doors unlocked and wander in and out of each other’s houses as I’ve seen some people I was at school with suggest through shared ‘Do you remember when…’ memes on Facebook. In fact, anything we left outside the house (or in the shed) after dark got stolen — clothes on the line, a garden bench, the bike I got for Christmas, Dad’s toolbox, and so on. Some neighbours were friendly, sure, but slightly too many were damaged, violent and scary. The back door would rattle ominously in the evening when Dad was working nights so that Mum ended up sitting with the riot club my Uncle brought back from Northern Ireland at her side. I can therefore understand why people tend towards a narrative of ‘escape’ when they talk about growing up Council — if you’re anything less than a raging hard-case, it’s a constant challenge.

But, at the same time, it’s not hell on earth. In my town there were two big estates and the residents of each thought the other was an Escape from New York style no-go wasteland, which I think illustrates the problem. If you don’t live on a particular council estate, or even occasionally walk through one, it’s easy to see photos of burned out cars and ‘hooded youths’, or hear grim stories of psychos and drugs, and think that’s all there is. You don’t see the old bloke tending to his gooseberries, the summer afternoon barbecues, or the quiet kids indoors drawing their own comic books. They can be tranquil places with lots of air and green space — pleasingly repetitive and well-ordered, with outbreaks of personality in the garden ornaments and decor. When my parents decided it was time to ‘escape’ when I was a teenager I went into a furious sulk — the estate was my home and I loved it. Or maybe I had some form of Stockholm syndrome. Who knows.

west_street_1998
New Cross, South London, I think

The photos that accompany this post weren’t snapped on a smartphone and then processed with some retrovision app or other. (Although I am guilty of that.) They were taken around 20 years ago using the second-hand East German SLR my parents got me for Christmas one year. (Not because they were hipsters — because it was cheap.) I didn’t really know how to use it and most of the pictures I took were under- or over-exposed but this handful make me realise just how long I’ve been looking at the supposedly grim and grey and seeing something else.

When I went to university, which was all wood-panelling and classicism, I took photos like this with me as a reminder of the landscape that made me. Fuel for the chip on my shoulder, I suppose.

The point is I can honestly say that when I stand in the cathedral-like space under the motorway bridge at Dunwear, the M5 blasting its white noise overhead, or walk through a ‘blighted’, ‘troubled’ estate in some strange part of the country, that the feeling of peace I feel might not be contextualised or politicised, but nor is it ironic or superficial. It’s emotional. For better or worse, that’s how I’ve been programmed. Concrete makes me calm. That’s my kink.