Saturday, 30 June 2012

Ramblings: The Customer is Not Always Right

A couple of incidents over the last couple of days have made me reconsider my approach to customer service. Maybe trying to be bright and breezy is the wrong approach. I’m taking lessons from these two incidents.

Number One: I decided to stop off and have a quick coffee and read. I’m in the midst of an amazingly good novel and work was unusually steady so I thought it would be pleasant. I was almost right.

I asked the Japanese lady behind the counter for a small decaffeinated latte and here’s what happened:

“You want big latte? Have BIG! Big is good. Is better, no?”

“Erm, no. Just a small one please.”

“OK, decon you say? DeeeCON! Decon?”

“Yes, a small decaff latte please.”

“NO! You have BIG. Is better big. No?”

“Small please”

She then proceeded to dollop a minute amount of coffee into a caffetiere and add a tiny amount of water. Leaving it to stand for approximately thirty seconds she then poured it into some hot milk and handed me a glass of steaming pale grey liquid.

“You want bacon? Bacon is good. Very good bacon.”

“No thank you.”

“CAKE! You having cake. OK?”

“No” I said firmly.

“Bacon? Is hot!”


“No cake, no bacon? What matter with you? You have right change? Is £1.80.”

I had the right change but the next customer wasn’t so lucky.

“Ten pound note? No chance mister. You go. No change.”

He left looking crestfallen. The latte was hideous but the entertainment value was priceless. I may go again. Looking round I noticed a massive sign on the wall made up of random words. It said “Smile! Crisp. Refresh. Crisp” It was professionally printed but I suspect she had either composed the sign or learnt English from it. I think I may love her.

Number Two: I took a taxi to see my psychotherapist the other day and the taxi driver was moderately talkative. Luckily he wasn’t too annoying and was actually kind of wholesome looking but diminutive. He’d worked as a translator and was actually fairly interesting to talk to, which was refreshing.

Last night I called another cab to take me to a friend’s house and it was the same driver. He tried to engage me in conversation about the Olympic torch which was a definite conversational cul-de-sac for me. Then he asked me about my day and asked if I was married, apropos of nothing,

“No, but I have a partner.”

“Do you live with her?”

“Actually it’s a he and we don’t live together yet.”

“Oh! You’re a gay. I like gays. They’re always such nice people. I’m not a prejudiced man. I have nothing against the gay at all.”

I’m not sure I agree that all gays are lovely. I’ve met a few rancid ones in my time.

“I hope this won’t offend you.” he said “but I was talking to a friend the other day and he told me that when he was on holiday he once got an amazing blow job from a gay man.”

I didn’t point out that this was perhaps an oxymoron and straight men don’t generally suck other men off.

“He told me that getting a blow job off a gay man is the best ever. He said they suck cock better than any woman. Is that true?”

I was non-committal.

“Perhaps one day I would like to try a blow job off a gay man. I would let a man suck my cock. Do you think I should?”

His eyes had taken on a strange gleam. I changed the subject back to the Olympic flame. It felt safer.

Maybe I’m doing something wrong. Maybe it’s the new way. I could try shouting at my patients and demanding they eat pork products or over priced cup cakes. I’m not sure it would go down well. I’m definitely not going to start hinting at fellatio. That’s never a good idea. I’ll stick to genteel inquiry and kindness. Much safer.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Ramblings: Rules of Engagement

I’ve had an absolutely lovely weekend. Paul and I spent the weekend in Nottingham and it was almost perfect. We ate out, perused exhibitions, watched a film and had a few relaxing walks. I say almost perfect because nothing is ever perfect when you’re a perfectionist like me so almost is actually good enough. Is that a paradox?

I was thinking yesterday about one of my favourite mottos: Do Not Engage.

Paul and I contrast in our behaviour on this one. If I see my neighbours in the garden I’ll duck behind the fence and crawl back into the house on my belly. I get splinters but it’s worth it. It’s not that I dislike them (although those Russians do bang about a lot). I actually quite like the gay couple who live on the other side. They’re very interesting women. I just can’t be bothered to make tedious small talk. If Paul sees his neighbours he’s happy to stand and chat and would gladly invite them in.

I avoid people’s eye in the street. I scuttle into doorways to hide from people. I hate that thing where you’re the only person in the shop and feel the impending doom of being trapped by a shopkeeper. It can be ghastly. I loathe having to interact with the chatty person who sits opposite you on the train and keeps you from dipping into the corking novel you’re enjoying.

I sometimes wonder if my job makes me a bit like this. My work involves a lot of talking. Talking and listening, trying to assess what is going on with the patients’ physical and psychological health. It can be intense too. The noise of a hospital can be overwhelming and almost an assault. I like to retreat afterwards and have peace.

Paul broke the rules and engaged with people yesterday. I don’t mind at all. I can always slip outside or carry on if it gets too terrible. He ended up chatting with gallery attendants, artists and an unusually boorish shopkeeper. I really didn’t mind at all, although I wouldn’t have done it.

Walking back afterwards, Paul fed back a few snippets of the information he’d learned. It was actually very interesting and useful and possibly made the tedium of the rest of their droning worthwhile. I sometimes wonder if it’s time I broke all my rules. Maybe I need new ones.

Ramblings: Novel Ideas

I’m coming out of the closet and admitting my secret. I’m trying to write a novel. I find that a bit embarrassing to admit. It’s what deluded people often say. For some strange reason everyone seems to think that they can write a novel and it will be really easy. I don’t think that at all. I think it will definitely be a labour of love. People say that everyone has a novel in them. I’m not sure that they do and if they do, then a lot of people’s would be horribly dull.

There are a few barriers in the way and the biggest one is my self confidence. In spite of having had a few articles, flash fictions and stories published, lots of objective praise and constructive criticism and winning a few competition prizes, I still struggle to believe that I can write. It seems a conceited thing to think. It’s a clich├ęd English trait to be self denigrating and embarrassed if we have any talents. I’m very good at that. I sometimes wonder what it would take to make me actually believe that I can write. If I won the Booker Prize, I’d be saying: “Well, it wasn’t the Pulitzer.” If I won the Pulitzer I’d say “Well, it wasn’t the Nobel Prize for literature.” If I won the Nobel, I’d claim it was a fluke.

I think I’ve done my ground work. I’ve been on a few writing courses which helped furnish me with techniques to cope with my confidence ebbs and flows and hone some skills. I’ve seen enough writers talk about their work, spoken to a good few writers, read books about writing and I’ve read thousands of novels. I still read a couple of novels a week. Reading is the only way I really relax. I can’t get enough of it. This can cause problems. I write some prose then settle down afterwards and read. I leaf through a Helen Dunmore, Jennifer Egan or an Ann Patchett and wonder how I could ever construct such magnificent sentences. I then remind myself that these are major prize winners and giants in the fiction writing world. Maybe I should be reading “Fifty Shades of Grey” or “The DaVinci Code” to remind myself that terrible writing styles sell books too. I’m pretty sure that that would depress me though.

I’m under no illusions that writing will make me rich or famous and I’m not sure that being rich and famous is so fantastic anyway. I’m always careful what I hope for. There’s an old Chinese curse which says that “May you get what you wish for.” I’m writing the novel because I want to and because I’m enjoying what I do mostly.

Just keep me away from the internet, the delete button and keep my bad neck at bay and I’ll be fine. I hope to keep up some blogging too and not be too shabby with my posts on here. I’ll keep you updated.

I won’t give too much away about what the novel is about but my motivation in writing it is to examine how people get from A to B (or more colloquially, what makes us become such fuck ups). The main character is a nurse who struggles to connect with people outside of work. Before you ask, that isn’t me and no, you’re not in the book either. Sorry to disappoint but the only living thing in my book who is taken from real life is the cat which lives next door to Paul. She’s getting a star cameo.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Ramblings: Carpet Burns

Looking back on your life you imagine things have always been quite similar to how they are now and that you were pretty much the same person. I translate my memories somehow and look at them with a contemporary slant. Thinking about it more I realise that it’s not the case. I was thinking this weekend about the first time I went abroad 19 years ago.

I had just turned 22 and had never left England before. It’s hard to believe now as everyone goes abroad but it actually wasn’t that rare for people my age not to have travelled much. We went to Norfolk on holiday. My partner at the time had inherited some money when his mother died and he decided he wanted to go to visit his brother in France. I’m not sure what possessed me to think this would be acceptable. My ex was a raving alcoholic and his brother was even more of one. I was yet to develop my heavy drinking habits which would later cause me a few issues. I was in for a week of alcohol spectatorship. There’s not much fun to be had in watching two brothers holed up in a flat trying to out-drink each other. It doesn’t matter where the flat is. It could be a flat in Monaco. Its’ still boring as hell being with two alcoholics.

We caught a train to London and I smoked all the way. Travelling down the escalator on the tube I was quite horrified that I wouldn’t be able to smoke for a full thirty minutes. We got on the plane and I was horribly nervous. The flight had cost almost £250 each. There were very few cheap flights at the time and we had to fly into Switzerland to get to Northern France. It all felt very glamorous indeed but not enough to justify the price. The stewardesses were all dressed immaculately with so much make-up on that it was a wonder they could hold their heads up. I got to my seat and lit a nice refreshing cigarette. The flight was short but somehow we managed to cram in several cigarettes, a full three course meal, a hot towel (I wish I knew why?) and a complimentary boiled sweet for landing.

We were picked up from the airport and of course, Barry’s brother was a little tipsy. I wasn’t especially horrified. His driving was erratic but we certainly got there quickly. Naturally we smoked in the car too. He drove most places a little drunk. It was strictly illegal but no one seemed to mind too much.

I fretted a lot about my French. I could speak a few words gleaned from my O level exams but as the exam had consisted in part of translating an article about Liz Taylor, I felt I’d had an unfair advantage at school. I knew the life of Liz like some children knew their biblical tales.

When I look back I was horribly shy at the time. I’d sit quietly and let things go on around me, often blaming myself if things weren’t good. I feel a strange puzzlement now and wonder why on earth I put up with spending huge portions of my time bored senseless and with a man I resented. For me, being able to express my needs came a little later in life along with more confidence. I was quite daunted by Barry and his brother and because they were so much older than me, accepted their authority. Although I’d left home at 17 I was still pretty much an over grown child. That can be a pitfall of living with a much older man when you’re a teenager. You feel an obligation to remain a teenager.

I hated being in a strange flat and accepted that their bad behaviour, general rudeness and total lack of consideration was, although not right, maybe the way grown-ups behaved. His brother belittled his girlfriend constantly, mocking her occasionally comic attempts to speak English. He sulked a lot and retreated to his room and also spent two days in bed groaning following a party he held with a bout of pancreatitis.

We were alone in the flat a fair bit and I didn’t dare touch anything. I was however impressed with the air freshener they had. It was mint scented. I recall being amazed at that. I was horrified when the doorbell rang. I tried to persuade Barry to answer it but he laughed and pushed me forward. I answered the door and a small fat woman was standing there spouting very rapid French. Under her arm was a carpet.

This wasn’t like the French we’d learned at school. It was more guttural, faster and wasn’t about pet monkeys and pencil cases. I was at a loss.

She gesticulated wildly and kept thrusting the carpet at me. I tried to shut the door but she pushed her way into the door frame and refused to budge. Suddenly a flash of inspiration hit me. We’d passed a carpet shop the day before and the sign said “Tapis”

“Je n’aime pas le tapis!” I said. She spat and turned around, marching off with mock indignation.

I told Barry what had happened and he laughed at me.

“I think my brother was expecting some stuff back from the dry cleaners. You’ve just shouted at the dry cleaner that you hate his carpet! He will be pleased.”

I blanched. Luckily it turned out that the woman wasn’t the dry cleaner (he came later) but a random rug seller. I was rattled for a while. Nowadays I wouldn’t have cared. It was a nasty rug. At my age if I see a bad rug I call it a bad rug and don’t care who knows. Maybe there’s something to be said for getting older. My younger self perplexes me.

Thinking about it, smoking on planes wasn’t such a great idea. I suspect the smoke may have just drifted a little onto the non-smoking passengers and perhaps incendiary things aren’t so good on planes. The holiday wasn’t all bad. I saw a bit of foreign culture, enjoyed the food and met some lovely French people. I also came back with a suitcase full of very cheap cigarettes. Now they certainly don’t exist anymore.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Ramblings: Ring Ring

I have a little O.C.D. thing about my phone. Sometimes I get this indescribable panic that my phone is connected to someone. I always imagine it’s someone who I absolutely don’t want to hear what I’m saying or doing. For example: sitting talking to the psychotherapist I’ll panic that my mother will be listening in. During sex I’ll imagine that my phone has somehow rung one of my more straight laced friends. (This actually happened to a friend of mine who knocked her phone as she reached for some lube on and accidentally rang another friend who got a more interesting call than she bargained for)

This isn’t such a random fear though. Like many phobias and anxieties it’s born of bad experience. An ex partner of mine was separated from his wife. He’d tried hard to be straight as men often do. Thankfully, being a tad effeminate, I couldn’t get away with trying that manoeuvre. It would have been quite laughable.

He had children so we had to have contact with his wife to collect the children. We decided that as we had been together a while it was best that I meet her. The (soon to be ex) wife and I tried hard to tolerate each other. It wasn’t easy but we both made an effort. I kept my mouth shut most of the time, which wasn’t easy. In effect we were like two quite peeved cats circling each other with our hackles up. Kind of like the bitches of Dynasty but with smaller shoulder pads. She wasn’t really my kind of person and we didn’t understand each other but I didn’t hate her either. Now don’t pity her. She wasn’t the wronged woman. She left him. So she was married to a gay man but is that so bad? Being married to a gay man means endless hair advice when you need it and better curtains. One friend had an Uncle who when he got married hand sewed the wedding dress for his wife and baked the cake. No one was surprised when he ran off to run a gay bar in Spain.

One day we’d been and dropped off the children and we both noticed something different about her. Namely: a huge mouldering love-bite on her neck. We got back in the car and began to chuckle as only two gays can.

“Did you see that bloody hickey on her neck?” (Him)

“Ha ha ha! The dirty cow!” (me)

“I wonder who it was?”

“Well, I’m surprised there wasn’t a tide mark there where the dirt had been licked away. Maybe it was her weekly bath day.”

We heard a strange noise coming from somewhere which sounded like a scream. Of course it was his phone and it was connected to her.

We spent the next few days looking sheepish and kept giggling nervously waiting for the backlash. It came a short time later when she managed to present him with some “evidence” of my infidelity. It wasn’t true of course. I was never unfaithful to him. Who can blame her for trying though? She made a good effort and even plucked up a friend as a witness. I’d have wanted revenge too.

Needless to say, we stopped pretending to get on. I stayed in the car after that (with my phone locked).

Like I said, most irrational fears have an origin. I’m very careful with my phone since.

Ramblings: The Boy in the Bubble

Its that time of year when I remember that I have hay fever. I always forget about it and always expect that this will be the year I’ve outgrown it. I’ve been expecting this for 30 years. I never outgrow it. It only last a few weeks, is nowhere near as horrendous as when I was a teenager, but it’s still a pain.

As a child I would spend the months of June and July with an itchy throat, swollen eyes and a runny nose. It used to drive me insane. On the plus side, it did give me an excuse to stay inside and read. I also discovered later that this excuse could be extended to sports lesson. I would get my mother to write a note in May stating that I would not be able to go outside until September as I had severe hay fever and this sparked off asthma. This was of course a major exaggeration but no one can argue against the note from a mother.

I once went for allergy testing as my hands kept getting itchy and bleeding. It turned out that I didn’t have a latex allergy (phew) but just washed my hands too much. The nurse applied a control substance to check for a response and my arm swelled up to mammoth proportions. She was very impressed. Apparently I have an amazingly good histamine response, which conversely, is bad.

In the mid nineties, the stress of qualifying as a nurse used to make me come out in random hives on my face. The busier the ward, the worse the shift, then the bigger and redder my facial lumps got. My amusing and lovely friend Angela used to go on hive-watch and started calling me the Boy in the Bubble. She advocated that I was allergic to so much stuff that I should live in a giant hermetically sealed bubble. That sounds like bliss.

I hate this modern trend of thinking you’re allergic to anything. I don’t believe half of them. If people tell me they’re allergic to gluten I’m not generally convinced until they show me a lab report of their celiac serology. It’s often affected nonsense.

Although I scoff at others for being precious I’m allowed to have a list of drugs, foods, substances and animals that send me off on one. It’s one rule for them and another for me, of course. I reacted badly to two anti-depressants and ended up with a strange syndrome where my serotonin levels were so high that I couldn’t sit still at all and had to be sedated. I developed total insomnia for two nights after taking a simple painkiller. I get migraines if I so much as look at all the migraine trigger foods (chocolate, red wine, monosodium glutamate, Cola, citrus fruits and strong cheese). Certain breeds of dog make my face swell up and my hands and neck itch like crazy. Excessive amounts of fruit make me come out in huge itchy lumps on my legs and abdomen. Certain aftershaves bring me out in blisters. My favourite allergy of all is pine trees. I’m literally allergic to Christmas. One brush against a tacky old Christmas tree and I’m scratching until dawn.

I spent half my childhood being painted in Calamine lotion. I thought it was normal to have powdery white stuff coating your body. Maybe it is if your life is one long Bukake party. I never went anywhere without my inhaler or Piriton and thought it was pretty standard to spend a lot of time with a wet flannel on your forehead.

Some days that bubble seems like an inviting prospect but only if Paul is allowed in there with me and i can access the internet. Thankfully, I have yet to develop an allergy to books too but sadly I have yet to develop an allergy to tobacco.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Ramblings: Dilated to Meet You

I sat across from the middle aged doctor. He was kind of cuddly looking with a big round African face and huge white dentures.

“In the past six months have you been the active partner in anal or oral sex? Have you been the receptive partner in anal or oral sex? Have you had sexual intercourse with someone who isn’t a British citizen? Have you used condoms?”

“Yes, yes yes and yes.”

“What nationality of person have you had intercourse with in the past six months?”

“Let me think…Spanish, German and Iraqi.” It had been a busy year. There hadn’t been much on TV. I was single and always careful. I was just in the Genito-urinary Medicine Clinic for a routine check up.

“Iraqi? Ha ha ha! You are a first! A first, my man. I have never in all my carerr met a person who has had sex with an Iraqi!”

It seems I had made his day. He in was in fits of laughter and reached across and shook my hand firmly as a congratulatory gesture. Maybe he thought I’d been doing my bit for relations with the Middle East. I hadn’t. I’d just indulged myself with a rather dashing man one night. He had a lovely complexion.

I got used to the G.U. clinic in the mid 1990s. I’d finally plucked up the courage to undergo a screening and an H.I.V. test and I ended up spending many hours there. Not because I was carrying anything; I actually got a clean bill of health. I’d had a course of vaccinations for Hepatitis B as a student nurse and they hadn’t taken. The doctor in the clinic decided this was terrible as I was of at double risk of contracting the disease due to being a nurse and a gay. She told me about a new vaccine that had just come on the market and they were eager to have a patient to try it on. I jumped at the chance. I’ve always loved a nice prescription drug and I love to be a guinea pig

I had to attend the following week and they made no bones about telling me that the vaccine was currently very expensive and had cost around a thousand pounds. It’s much cheaper now. I was very pleased to be getting my money’s worth. I had the vaccine and then came the sting in the tale. I had to sit in the waiting room for 45 minutes, in case I reacted to the injection. I also had to attend twice more for the follow on jabs and sit there for a further 45 minutes each time.

I read all the dog eared back issues of the dull magazines. I read all the leaflets and posters. I should have been granted a diploma in S.T.D.s. I also saw it as an amazing social occasion. I saw half the gay people I knew during those hours spent in the waiting room. It was great. Some were a little sheepish but why be like that? Having a sexual health check up is a good thing to do.

I saw lots of improbable people. There were people so ugly that it amazed me that they’d ever had sex at all. It sent my mind down avenues I didn’t want to think about. There were also some very elderly men attending, one even staggered in on a zimmer frame. The mind boggles. Good luck to him though. He could barely walk but clearly other parts of him functioned a bit better.

A good few years later I was attending for a check up again and a camp male nurse was asking the screening questions this time.

“Do you swallow when performing oral sex?”


“Ooh, you’re no fun are you?” He winked.

I gave him a steely glare whilst laughing to myself inside. It was a highly inappropriate comment but it amused me and he meant no harm.

Later, I was in a compromising position with the doctor. He was inserting a swab into a rather delicate area. The door opened and in marched a small nurse, as wide as she was tall.

“Oh hello! How are you? I’m Bob’s sister. You looked after him last month when he had a gastric bleed.”

I smiled back and acknowledged that I recalled her brother. It is difficult to make polite conversation, though, when someone is poking something down the end of your most delicate area. I rose to the occasion though. I can always make chit chat.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Ramblings: An Exercise in Futility

Have you seen the article on the BBC website about the latest research into exercise and depression?
For me it feels like a liberating thing. I’ve always hated exercise and never been keen to undertake it and episodes of depression have lead me into hideous battles with myself to be active. Now, I can be free from the dreaded self imposed exercise regime.

I always hated sport. We weren’t a sporting family. Reading was more our thing. My father would watch the occasional cricket match but that isn’t really a sport; its men standing around in a field. Any game where they wear jumpers is surely not a real sport? I always admired darts players. They could drink and smoke, brandish huge bellies and be called sportsmen. Nice work if you can get it.

Hours of torture in school physical education lessons reinforced my distaste for all thing sporting. As a child, sport equated stupidity to me (I now see I was wrong about this. It’s not true that all sports players are stupid, just a fair proportion). The sports teacher was one of the most asinine people I’ve ever had the misfortune to meet. I judged sporting people by his example. Hours of being shouted at, insulted and called homophobic names by him made me realise that it definitely wasn’t for me. I was quite good at running (probably a good thing, given that it was a British comprehensive school in the 1980s and I was a very effeminate boy). I was urged by the teachers to represent the school at running but was revolted by the idea. I had a television and a shelf full of unread Agatha Christie’s. Why would I forsake that joy to sweat and pant and end up all achy and sore? They were less than pleased and very mystified by my lack of competitive interest.

I once decided to join a gym. I’d given up smoking, hit 30 and gained a little paunch. I went to the gym. I looked round the gym. I didn’t join the gym. I ate a bit less and the weight went.

When I became hideously depressed I tried everything I could. I read everything I could about it, sought therapy, took the pills and ate the foods I was told would help. I remained horribly depressed. Eventually I came to the conclusion that I needed to try to exercise too. I thought about it for a good while.

It was a supreme effort. I’d drag myself out of bed and spend hours trying to force myself into the shower. Eventually I’d force myself out of the house and go for long walks. I’d walk for several hours each day in all weathers, hating every minute of it. I saw no joy in any scenery I passed. I didn’t like the music on my I-pod and was fearful and apprehensive of everyone I saw. Such is the nature of depression. It robs you of all ability to experience pleasure. It didn’t help at all. I just felt more defeated. I walked every day for weeks, months and still got no better. I felt even more of a disaster at life.

Of course, I eventually did get better after several months of taking pills, seeing therapists and being off work. Who’s to say that the walking didn’t help a little? It’s hard to unpick if it did or didn’t. I know that I was malnourished and rapidly losing weight, sweating a lot from the pills and was utterly exhausted. Not a good starting point for a long walk. It never felt especially good.

I do know though, that activity helps me a little when I’m depressed, although it’s hard to do. A simple walk to the shop can distract me a tiny bit and help minimally. A minor household task can make me feel a miniscule sense of normality and achievement. Maybe exercise helps in that way. For me, depression tells me that I can’t do anything and it’s a major struggle to counteract those defective instincts and be active. It’s usually worth it if I do though. Sometimes it only helps the tiniest bit which is barely noticeable but it does always seem to help a little. When I’m really bad I can do nothing at all. It’s like I’m weighted down.

For me, this new research tells me nothing new. I already knew exercise is never going to make me happy. Endorphins don’t seem to figure in my make-up. At least I have a damn good excuse now, though, when my inner bully tells me to get up and walk and lighten my mood. I can present it with a piece of research and tell it to do one.

The main point I’d make, is if you think exercise helps then do it. If it doesn’t seem to then don’t. Simple. For me its vive le sofa! Have you seen the facial expressions on some of those joggers? No thanks.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Ramblings: Roots

I saw “Roots” the other night. Not the 1970s drama with the beautifully named Kunta Kinte but the Arnold Wesker play. I really enjoyed the play, a great 1950s work about a young woman who returns to visit her family in rural Norfolk and finds herself at odds with their unthinking acceptance of their lives. I spend most of my time feeling like I’m an alien and wanting to shout “Look the Emperor is naked!” so it struck a chord.

The actors adopted perfect Norfolk accents with lyrical intonations and at times I felt I needed a translator. Hearing the accents took me back to our family holidays when I was growing up. Childhood memories are odd, suffering the distortion of nostalgia but my memories aren’t all idyllic.

My parents rented a cottage in a small Norfolk town called Wells-Next-the-Sea for a few years running when I was aged about 10. Even the name of the town is odd, implying a archaic way of speaking. It was a pretty little place, with narrow streets and a harbour where we’d lure crabs out of the water with bacon rind on a fishing line, put them in a bucket for half an hour and then throw them back. There was a lot of point to that activity.

There was one amusement arcade which was run by an elderly lady and which served mugs of Horlicks and rubbery cheese sandwiches with mushy tomatoes. I’d never tried white bread or margarine before, as my mother was a food snob, so these were a sordid treat. There were a few pubs which served things in baskets (scampi, chicken or sausage to be precise). There was also one miniscule theatre were a repertory company put on funny little shows which I sat watching in amazement.

We stayed in a small cottage which could have been still in the 1930s. The cottage was one of two and the two were interconnected. They were owned by an elderly lady, plump and whiskery and a little bit scary to a delicate ten year old. She played the organ in the Methodist chapel, was a spinster and had lived there with her sister, now deceased. Her accent was almost indecipherable.

The cottage had two rooms downstairs: a sitting room with a lumpy Victorian sofa which smelled fusty and was stuffed with horsehair and a kitchen with a huge sink and an ancient gas cooker. Upstairs were two large bedrooms. My brother and I shared the dark back bedroom which you had to go down a couple of steps to get to. There was a high bed, a dresser and a nightstand containing an ornate jug and bowl to wash with. The wallpaper was dark and highly patterned, held on with tacks and drawing pins. There was no bathroom, no inside toilet and no television. This meant traipsing down the garden to use the loo, washing in tepid water in the bedroom and missing “Charlie’s Angels”.

Lack of television aside, I loved the adventure of it all. There was a perverse fun in having to wash your hair over the sink. My head was filled with little stories and I often imagined it was the 1930s and thought about who would live there. I found a little milking stool in a cupboard which delighted me and I took to sitting on it to read my C.S. Lewis and E. Nesbitt books.

I was slightly perturbed by the interconnecting doors, imagining the whiskery old lady would swoop out in the night with a smell of boiled cabbage and archaic scent and terrorise me. She always forgot who I was. She’d greet my parents and my brother and then go on to ask “Who’s this little ‘un? He not be yours is he?”

I loved this, secretly believing that I was adopted and had been stolen from a wealthy aristocratic family. It was an understandable mistake. Where my parents and brother were dark and plump, I was white blond and thin as a rake.

“He’s a big healthy lad!” She proclaimed on seeing my brother. “Mind you, if you be from big stock then you be going to be big too.” She said, eyeing my offended mother.

We went to the beach each day and ate packed lunches, walking back through the pine woods. I remember the strong howling winds of the East Coast. In the evenings we’d be allowed to accompany my parents to the local pubs, sitting watching people with fascination as I sipped orange juice.

I remember lots of idyllic things: fresh nectarines (a rarity at the time), ice creams and scented pine woods. I remember my dad’s constant bad jokes and the joy of coming upon a tiny dolls house in the woods which someone had made out of sticks and stones. Unfortunately, I don’t just remember the good things. My mind doesn’t work like that. I also recall my father’s fury at my inability to coordinate oars on the boating lake, painful sun induced headaches and lots of boredom and restlessness at having to spend so much time in the bosom of the family. I always preferred to be alone, reading where I felt less disapproved of.

When I reached 13, I refused to go on another family holiday. I really couldn’t imagine staying cooped up with my family in a cottage for a week. It felt like a vision of hell. I was packed off, pile of books in a bag, to stay with my grandparents for a week. This same feeling lead me to leave home just after my 17th birthday.

I understand that Wells is much the same still but I have little desire to return. I’m sure the nectarines wouldn’t taste as good and the cottage probably has plumbing now.

The brilliant writer, Sophie Hannah, wrote a poem about Wells. I’ve included it below:


by Sophie Hannah

I came this little seaside town,
And went a pub they call The Crown
Where straight away I happen to see
A man who seemed quite partial me.
I proved susceptible his charms
And fell right in his open arms.
From time, time every now and then,
I hope meet up with him again.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Ramblings: The Lady is a Tramp

I’ve just returned from a couple of days in London. I went down primarily to see a few plays and managed to take in a couple of exhibitions too at the Victoria and Albert and National Portrait Gallery. I saw a double bill of David Hare’s “South Downs” and the sublime “Browning Version” by Terrence Rattigan, Joe Orton’s “What the Butler Saw” and “Hay Fever” by Noel Coward. They were all brilliant and almost worth the exorbitant cost of the tickets, the noisy train journey and the overheated poor night’s sleep in hotel in Kensington.

I was at a loose end for an hour before eating and decided to take a walk in St James’s Park. I love the pelicans. They amuse me and always make me think of that silly poem by Ogden Nash: “A wonderful bird is the pelican. His bill will hold more than his bellican.”

I strolled a bit, looked at the birds, looked at amusing people, avoided the pageantry stuff that was being set up for the Jubilee and meant I had to walk an extra half mile round to get to the park. The weather was muggy and as usual I was perspiring less than daintily (it’s the anti-depressants. They make me sweat like a navvy). I stopped on a bench to regain my composure and called Paul on my phone. I was telling him about the plays when I was pounced upon by a tramp who had over heard me talking about theatre and wanted to join in.

Now, where I live tramps tend to be a bit on the rough side mostly. This one was decidedly posh. She was wearing clean, if age inappropriate, clothes and carrying a huge pink leather handbag and had a look of a very aged Marianne Faithful. She had clearly been quite beautiful once and in spite of weathered skin and a faint nicotine yellow discolouration, retained some style. She only wore one shoe and I didn’t ask where the other one was. It was quite a nice shoe. Her make-up was tasteful.

She spoke with a cut glass accent and began to talk about the theatre as she sipped daintily on a can of Special Brew. It could almost have been a glass of Bollinger, the way she held it. She was extremely knowledgeable about modern drama and told me all the methods she uses to nab free tickets to plays and sneak into theatres without paying. She reckoned that they always reserve a seat for the Queen or the manager of the theatre and she often uses these vacant seats. I’m not sure if this was true but it sounded good and she certainly knew her plays. She’d seen a lot of good stuff and reckoned she was writing one of her own. I also wonder what the Queen might say if she did turn up and saw a middle-aged inebriated woman in her seat.

She didn’t ask for money, just one cigarette, which I gave her gladly. We sat and smoked and she told me about the time she was a dancer on “Ready Steady Go”, about her life living in Monaco, the mansion she once lived in next to Hyde Park and her many love affairs. She hinted at bitter relationship failures and told me about the fact that she was now in a hostel waiting for a housing association flat.

She was absolutely charming, funny and although a bit slurry, quite articulate. I actually believed all she said. Maybe I’m gullible or maybe she was telling the truth. Does it matter? She was entertaining and didn’t ask for much.

I set on my way and went off to dinner. I sat at a table outside next to a slightly drunk couple in business suits who were loud and annoying. I wished I was somewhere else as i ate my pasta and would have far preferred the lady tramp to have been beside me rather than these braying rich people and their over loud banal conversation. At least she had a little dignity.