Archive for January, 2007

Whitby, Dracula and Cupid

It is a geographical fact that no one in the UK is more than seventy miles away from the sea. As a man who feels happiest with the sea breeze on his face, I was surprised to discover this to be the precise distance from my house to the nearest coastal town, which if nothing else should at least stand me in good stead in the event of a major tsunami – provided it doesn’t happen today.

I am in the picturesque town of Whitby – of Bram Stoker’s Dracula fame. In the novel, Whitby is Dracula’s choice of residence in England.

Judging from the amount of closed curtains and the emptiness of the streets this crisp and sunny morning, it is quite possible that Dracula kept himself rather busier during his two-week stay than Bram Stoker would have us believe.

On the promenade, the only people I see at ten in the morning are dog-walkers descending the steps that lead to the beach, the sand still glistening from the ebbing tide. Whitby is a town of dog lovers, which makes sense, judging from the way they allowed Dracula to run out of his ship and into the country disguised as one. I think it is fair to assume quarantine laws were fairly lax in those days.

I notice with alarm and then awe a solitary surfer launching his board past the first breakers before throwing himself on top of it. That takes commitment. Or stupidity. The North Sea is freezing even in the hottest day of summer, and today the temperature is perishing. Anyone brave enough to venture in has to be prepared to be winched out inside a block of ice, the moment of entry recorded by the frozen expression of shock and horror on their face.

Whitby has a special place in my heart. Do you remember, Ginger, it was one of our first outings together? As I drive through the town, glancing at the places we walked around six years ago, I feel a pang of nostalgia for the days when we were still flushed with the newly discovered excitement of being near each other, like a pair of kids who got the toy they really wanted for Christmas.

The snaking hill where we parked the car; the pub with the tattooed barman who looked like a real pirate, the tarnished gold glinting from his tooth as we ordered a hot cup of tea; the short concrete pier where we got sprayed by the crashing waves; the fish and chips shop and the bench where we sat to eat, battered by gale force winds and rain – it’s all still here.

Who knows, it may have even been here that Cupid himself, while skulking around the grounds of the Abbey, on noticing the two of us climbing up the 199 steps, would have waited until we got within striking range, then slowly reached into his quiver, muttering to himself ‘stupid tourists, arms around each other without a care in the world, you never know who’s about…’

I scan the beach. No sign of the surfer anywhere. I wish you were here today…


Manchester… don’t you love it?

I am on the M62 crossing the Pennines for the umpteenth time towards the Red Rose of Lancashire. On Radio Four, a special marmalade with a bitter £3,000 price tang is being discussed and I am in good spirits as I wonder what a three-thousand-quid marmalade would taste like.

Traffic in both directions reverentially circumnavigates the farmhouse which refused to let itself be scared away by anything as inconsequential as a major motorway heading straight for it, and I am soon at the summit. ‘England’s highest motorway at 1221 feet’, it announces proudly. The lunar-like landscape here has a thin layer of snow today, making it look like a series of melting ice cream scoops with the protruding winter-burnt heather the sprinkled nuts.

‘Hmm delicious!’, enthuses the Radio Four reporter, finally getting what she came for, which makes me reach for the banana I brought with me as a snack. ‘It has an edible gold leaf in it’, explains the proud marmalade maker. Now there’s a thing. All this time we’ve been misusing gold as a form of decoration when we could have been eating it instead.

Manchester looks incongruous under the sunlight. I park the van and start setting my cameras up. A man wearing a waxed green jacket and tweed walking hat stops to watch me work. He looks to be in his sixties and has a neatly trimmed white moustache and goatee which gives him an air of respectability. ‘I could do with one of those’, he says pointing at the mast, ‘for my radio antenna’. I smile and carry on. ‘Later, when you’re gone, I could bring my pickup around and take it home with me’, he adds in a conspiratorial tone. I laugh, acknowledging his offbeat sense of humour. ‘Yes, yes’, he nods enthusiastically, and gives the impression of having a schizophrenic dialogue with himself ‘that’s what I’ll do’. He shoots me an enigmatic grin and walks away.

Typical loon. Most big cities have a steady supply of them but in Manchester they seem to be far above the national rate. Last time I was here it was a man on his way to court for assault. He looked like he was still recovering from a lobotomy, speaking slowly with unblinking eyes fixed on me. ‘They told me I cut someone in the pub with a broken bottle but I don’t remember it’. I encouraged him not to be late for his court hearing, and off he went with his uncertain walk, as if the pavement was strewn with landmines.

All this talk of gold-spiked marmalade made me hungry and I went into Tesco for a sandwich before driving home. This morning, my mobile rings. It’s my boss. ‘Marcos, the guy on site says there’s no camera outside Tesco. It looks like it’s been stolen.’

Camera Shy

Since my career as a freelance translator is still a sporadic event, some might even say an imaginary one, I have been prostituting my suspected talents by driving around the country in a white van setting up cameras at road junctions for the purpose of traffic surveys. As may be inferred even from such an obscure and evasive description, it is an occupation of devastating banality, tedium and loneliness. But that’s not the worst part.

Getting up at 3.30 a.m. and braving the elements to reach some God-awful town which could arguably only be improved with the intervention of guided missiles requires a particular kind of resolve and strength of character.

Then there is the public. There is something about a video camera in a public spot which gives the otherwise equable British public the heebie-jeebies. They come in various guises but can mostly be slotted into three main categories:

1) those who read George Orwell’s 1984 and due to their previous abuse of psychedelic drugs are no longer able to distinguish between fantasy and reality. These generally well-meaning folk tend to believe the information recorded is to be used for sinister government ends and scoff cynically when told otherwise;

2) unashamedly nosy busybodies, often belonging to a local parish council or other kind of residents’ committee (committed to keeping certain individuals out of their neighbourhood, I would imagine). With the Daily Mail neatly tucked under their arm, they demand to know why they weren’t personally informed that a camera was going to be placed within a 10-mile radius of their property. These are frequently followed shortly afterwards by their neighbour, with whom they have been at war ever since a couple of stray leaves from his unkempt hedge crossed over into the other’s property;

3) those living outside the margins of the law, anxious that their chosen clandestine way of life may suddenly become exposed. These include benefit fraudsters, dishonest spouses meant to be somewhere else, organised crime personnel, rapists, Conservative politicians, murderers, tax-dodgers, speeding motorists and petty thieves. Apologies to any I may have left out.

Sod’s Law would have it that this last category constitutes the vast majority of those keen to make my acquaintance. They stand there, legs apart, in a show of bravado designed to conceal their anxiety, and use a hostile and aggressive interrogation technique until they feel reassured that their criminal activities won’t be affected by my cameras.

Apart from when I’m in the middle of sorting out some tricky technical problem and time is of the essence, I don’t mind taking the time to explain that there is nothing sinister behind it, and to implicitly let them know that whatever illegal activity they’re engaged in, to please carry on, don’t mind me.

It’s all part of the job. No doubt, come the next Big Brother auditions, they will all be queuing up for days for a chance to live their lives in front of the cameras.