Archive for the ‘a working tour of Britain’ Category

Trowell Services

I am on my way home after setting up cameras in Long Eaton near Nottingham. The fuel gauge hovers tantalisingly between just-enough-to-get-me-home and not-quite-enough. Trowell Services is a mile away and I resolve to stop as I also need to pay the loos a visit.

I have been avoiding Trowell Services since a peculiar incident which took place there a couple of years ago. It was around 3 a.m. when I went in and the station was deserted, a grotesque Mary Celeste with inedible food and unpalatable prices. That day I could have served myself with the most expensive revolting food money can buy for free as the place looked literally abandoned. “No doubt asleep on the floor behind the counter”, I reasoned to myself as I made my way to the toilets.

Standing facing the urinals, there was a deathly silence broken by a sudden shuffling sound. I turned and looked towards the cubicles. All doors were open apart from the one furthest away. My gaze automatically dropped to the gap under the cubicles and there came that shuffling sound again followed by a mop of blond frizzy hair sliding under the partition into the neighbouring cubicle. I stood motionless for a second as the mop then, exorcist-like, slowly rotated to look me directly in the eyes. Had I not been weeing already, it is quite probable I would have done so at this point. Even so, as I ran from the toilets, I didn’t care whether or not I had quite finished what I had gone in to do.

Now facing the same urinal I did that night, I glance over my left shoulder at the cubicle once again, and it then becomes clear I must have imagined the whole scene: the partition gaps are not wide enough to fit a head through it. Could I really have been hallucinating?

Presently at the pump, I hold the trigger until it clicks to signify the tank is full. I thrash it about to clear any fuel left in the nozzle and as I draw it out a stream of diesel dribbles down my expensive Diesel jeans. I look up and notice I am being observed by a woman with blonde frizzy hair who is using the other side of my pump. She smiles half amused, half flirting.

“No matter how much you shake it, some always ends up down your trousers”, I say.

“Your flies are open”, she says.


Brighton Pier

If you ever make good your promise to take your girlfriend for a stroll around the rather cool city of Brighton, seeing as she’s never been, you may find yourself before long standing outside the Brighton Pavilion. While marvelling at the architecture and its incongruous juxtaposition with the buildings that surround it, you may then start impressing her with your historical knowledge of the Regency period. Later, after a long walk on the pebbly beach, it’s very likely that you may venture as far as the end of the pier. May I then humbly suggest that you refrain from embarking on any of the various fairground rides available there, especially the deceptively named ‘Booster’ ride?

Any notions you may at this point form in your head about coming across as cool and tough in front of your ‘chicken’ girlfriend by taking your seat with a benevolent air of carelessness will quickly be dispelled the moment the apparatus is cranked into action.

You may find your girlfriend unimpressed by the sudden change in your voice from its regular gruffness to that of a 9-year-old choir boy. In between her guffaws of laughter from the safety of the ground (audible even from the Booster’s apogee), she may become mildly alarmed by your desperate pleas for ‘someone to stop the fucking thing’, and will more than likely be a little disgusted by the copious amounts of dribble which accompany such pleas, uttered in your newly found falsetto voice.

And yes, you may even discover that after her initial amusement has turned to alarm and eventually disgust, projectile vomiting while being flung around the relentless circular motion yet again may well lead her to question her entire commitment to this particular relationship.

Mocketh not, you have been warned.

Portsmouth And The Fatally Wounded Admiral

‘So, what will you be doing tomorrow with all that time in your hands?’, asks Sylvia, sawing off another forkful of steak. She is a naturally charismatic woman, impossible to ignore even when silent. Her Yorkshire accent is smooth around the edges, which would make her a great voice-artist for radio and TV ads. A handsome woman, she is probably in her mid- to late-forties and still managing to retain a certain endearing girlishness.

‘Oh, I will probably be employing Yuri Geller’s technique for willing away ugly wallpaper – and watching the movies channel, I suppose’, I say wistfully.

‘You really should try to see Nelson’s ship, HMS Victory. It’s right here in Portsmouth’, she says.

‘Isn’t that the ship he died in?’, I ask, raising an eyebrow.

‘Yep, that’s the one’, chirps Sylvia’s husband, David, with a mouth full of Caesar salad. David and I have been friends for many years. Almost twenty years my senior, he is a sort of father figure to me, my own family being so far away, although we get on far better than I ever did with my Brazilian father. ‘Take the tour, it’s really worth it’, he says, pointing his knife at me.

We’re on our second bottle of wine and the general feeling of bonhomie is increased with each sip. As is so often the case in modern social gatherings, the conversation inevitably turns to Big Brother.

‘It’s terribly depressing that this once great nation of Horatio Nelson has been reduced to applauding the antics of morons whose IQs struggle to get into double figures. Jade Goody is our overdue comeuppance’, I say, rather hypocritically, I thought, since I too am guilty of watching it, even if only to know what the fuss is about, you will understand.

‘I think it’s a fascinating social experiment’, says Sylvia, slightly defensively.

‘What would make it a fascinating social experiment for me’, I retort, ‘would be to throw in a few Molotov cocktails and see who lasts the longest’.

Sylvia looks a little taken aback. ‘Millions of people watch it every day. Surely it can’t be that bad?’

‘Well, millions of flies eat shit every day; it doesn’t mean it’s any good’, I say and check myself. Steady, old boy, let’s not get overexcited now. These are friends, remember?

David, who has been watching this like a tennis spectator, turns to me smiling and fires his cannonball so decisively, it would have made the good Admiral himself proud, ‘our daughter has auditioned for the next series. She’s been shortlisted and they want to see her again next week’.


You stupid, stupid boy. Not for the first time, you walked right into it. Who are you to pass judgement when you yourself have an exceptional talent for putting your foot in your mouth anyway?

‘In that case’, I say, raising my glass in appeasement, ‘they are clearly raising the standards and I will of course vote for her, should she get in’, and swallow a big gulp of wine, but it’s too late: a bullet has already been fired into my chest and my deck is ablaze.

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.

The Laptop Fairy of Darlington

It’s good to be back online after the Laptop Fairy snatched my pc from a Sainsbury’s car park in Darlington. Her gift left in exchange for my state-of-the-art machine was nothing flasher than a cement-encrusted brick lying in the footwell and I don’t mind admitting to feeling a bit short-changed.

I wasn’t overly impressed by her smashing the window to get in approach either. I would have expected a little more grace and elegance from a fairy.

The glass has become a ubiquitous and omnipresent feature of the van, however many times I hoover it. I’ve even gone through the seats with an industrial strength masking tape, and just when I think I got rid of the last of the tiny shards, I get viciously surprised by another.

Later, while I waited for someone to come replace the broken glass, guarding the stable door after the horses had bolted, I watched eagle-eyed the embankment where the Darlington Laptop Fairy would have sprung from, convinced that if I looked hard enough I would see a rustling in the bushes or maybe even hear the gleeful laughter, in utter amazement that someone would be stupid enough to leave such a precious item lying in full view.

And sure enough she turned up again. An ugly and hairy knuckle-dragger of a fairy. No need to wait for this unsatisfied customer to clear off before the next swoop: she carries on her regular beats, not unlike a computer-animated bot, following the same circular path around the car park while peering into the cars and texting her accomplices after completing her reccy mission.

A word of warning to future victims of the Knuckle-Dragging Laptop Fairy of Darlington: don’t bother asking for advice from the Sainsbury’s staff. Apparently, they can’t even provide you with the local police phone number as whatever happens in the car park is not their problem!

A special request to the Ugly Knuckle-Dragging Laptop Fairy of Darlington: if you get the chance, could you send me the pictures of my holiday in Umbria and Majorca? They’re the only ones I have. No? Ah well, worth a shot.