Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Am I shallow... ?

Today, at lunchtime, I watched Prime Minister’s Questions. Because of the amount of time I have been away it seems like an age since I was last in the Boardroom, with my Pret a Manger sandwiches, fending off calls to switch to something more interesting. Among the studio commentators was Daily Mirror political editor Kevin Maguire, using sophisticated expressions such as “Socratic debate” (which he would never use in his newspaper).

The Prime Minister was much more competent and confident this session. He has adopted a strategy of listing the achievements of the government whenever he is fielded an awkward question. This is exactly what our PR executives tell our clients when they are appearing on television (“work out in advance what you want to say, hone it down to a four or five point sentence, then keep saying it no matter what the context or however riled the interviewer gets”).

During the exchanges across the Despatch Box Gordon Brown called David Cameron “a shallow salesman”. Only someone who has spent his life in the public sector (spending other people’s money) could use “salesman” as a term of abuse. Does he not realise how many millions of people in this country work in sales (in call centres, out on the road, in campaign planning etc etc)? Is he not aware that every single penny raised in taxes originates at some point from the sales process? And the jibe hit home personally, since although my job title is “Account Manager” I am undeniably a salesman. Am I shallow and worthy of Gordon Brown’s contempt?

If I had a vote in tomorrow’s elections I would punish Gordon Brown for that remark.

Above: Kevin Maguire’s column in today’s Daily Mirror. I have been reading the newspaper every day for some weeks now as I have a client who wants to use it (they normally target mothers via Practical Parenting etc, but TGI reveals young fathers read the Daily Mirror). Kevin Maguire’s piece was full of clichés and invective, with none of the developed arguments he used in the Daily Politics studio.

I never seem to be able to buy a copy of the Daily Mirror that has been finished neatly - the central seam always seems to be off-kilter so that the pages are hard to turn (especially bunched into a small seat on an inter-city train, holding a styrofoam cup of tea in your other hand). If they want to attract more readers they should invest in better photography for the sports pages. Use of colour is indiscriminate throughout the paper - less colours would definitely have more impact (especially drop the dirty-pinks and dirty-mauves around the Dear Miriam pages).

The Daily Mirror is run by Sly Bailey, who is famous for having sacked Piers Morgan. Editor of the Daily Mirror is Richard Wallace who is expected to boost circulation with no promotional budget (“Richard I’ve-got-plenty-of-nothing Wallace” as Terry says). The Daily Mirror used to publish The Perishers cartoon strip (famous for The Eyeballs In The Sky).

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

People who make things happen

Above: the segmentation item was so interesting I watched it again on the BBC podcast.

At lunchtime today I watched Andrew Neil’s Daily Politics. It included an interesting item about how the Conservative Party is “micro-targeting” new segments of the electorate defined as: Holby City worker (middle-ranking health service employees); Top Gear man (angry with petty bureaucracy); Apprentice generation (young professionals coming to terms with political and financial reality); and Grand Designs (aspirational family pursuing an ethical lifestyle). I find this kind of segmentation and motivation fascinating.

It was also very useful in the afternoon planning meeting as I could quote “the latest research” and talk about new segments without anyone else being able to challenge me.

The programme also had Nick Wood commenting on the research. Nick Wood now has his own agency Media Intelligence Partners. He used to be media director for the Conservative Party and before that was a senior correspondent for The Times. He has a very good reputation for his network of contacts and the way he can manipulate news stories. Media Intelligence Partners is handling the PR for the Centre for Social Justice. In the programme he came across as very open and frank.

The interview I would really like to see would be with Steve Hilton, who is credited with much of the rebranding of the Conservative Party (which has to be one of the image renewals of the decade). He is one of the “people who make things happen” (Terry famous list). If “Dave” wins the general election Steve Hilton is poised to become one of the most important people in the country.

Above: the Conservative Party has come a long way since Norman Tebbit’s abrasive advice to the unemployed.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The two-hour ferry crossing

On the ferry back I managed to get one of the tables by the window. As foot passengers are allowed on first they tend to get the best seats. Gradually the car passengers came up from the lower decks and the remaining seats began to fill up (not that it was really crowded).

The seats at my table remained unfilled, and I congratulated myself on having a quiet voyage ahead. I got myself a cup of tea while the ship was still stationary, and took out a book and a copy of a local newspaper (the only serious paper I could find - is it unreasonable for me to expect to buy copies of English newspapers in a European capital city?). Just as I began reading an elderly couple moved into the two seats opposite me and settled themselves with a lot of fussing and rustling.

My heart sank, as they looked the sort who were going to make a lot of noise. They looked aged in their mid-sixties. They were so wrapped in layers of warm clothes that they appeared shapeless, and the woman was wearing a woollen Fair Isle hat which she kept on even though the cabin was well-heated.

“You don’t mind if we sit here?” the woman asked, after they had sat down.

Presumably something in my demeanour must have made them doubt whether they were welcome, so to appear a bit more gracious I asked if they had been on holiday, where they had been, whether they had enjoyed themselves.

We talked the entire journey.

Their names were Ron and Margaret. They were from a town in the east of England and were on a coach holiday. They had worked all their lives in the NHS as had most of their family (the total years worked amounted to over a century).

Instead of being aged in their mid-sixties they were, incredibly, aged in their mid-eighties. After announcing this fact Margaret went off to buy some teas, despite the ferry rocking from the rough sea (most younger people would have been wary of carrying hot liquids in such circumstances). She came back with one cup for her husband, then went back again to get one for herself.

They had only recently started going on holidays. Previously their hobby had been showing a vintage car which they had restored. About five years ago when Ron had been driving the car around a show he had suffered a stroke at the wheel and collapsed (this had been in the west country).

He had been rushed by air ambulance to the local hospital where the medical staff were quick enough to be able to save his life (when someone suffers a stroke there is only a brief opportunity to prevent more serious damage). From the west country hospital he had been transferred to their local hospital. Although they had worked in the NHS they were completely unprepared for the decline in hospital standards since their retirement (the dirt, the slovenliness, the disinterest).

In disgust Ron had discharged himself from the hospital and made his way home. Margaret attempted to look after him at home. Their GP had then come to their assistance and arranged for a nurse to visit.

The GP had also given them some serious advice:

“She said we were in the evening of our lives, which I thought was a nice way of putting it. She said we should just keep about two thousand pounds for emergencies and spend the rest on enjoying our life. She said we should go on lots of holidays, which is what we are doing.”

Reading between the lines, the GP had obviously told her that Ron was not going to get any better. That soon Margaret would be left on her own. That she would need memories to sustain her through the years ahead.

Ron looked lively enough, but he couldn’t talk properly, and had trouble remembering specific words. He would stumble over phrases. After long minutes of stuttering he would wave the lost words away with a defeated “doesn’t matter”.

I asked where their next holiday would be, and Margaret told me they were going to the Isle of Wight in June. I asked whether they would go to Osborne House while on the Isle of Wight. Margaret hadn’t heard of Osborne House, and when I described what it was like she was so captivated that she produced her small appointments diary, turned to the page where “Isle of Wight” was written in wavering old-person’s writing, and insisted that I wrote “Osborne House” underneath so that they would be certain to go there.

We talked continuously the whole of the two-hour ferry crossing. When we docked and the announcement came that motor-vehicle passengers had to make their way to the appropriate decks Margaret seemed amazed at how quickly the time had passed. They made their way off towards the stairs, two people determined to make the most of every day.

A very rewarding conversation - I was glad they had sat down opposite.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The journey back

I had to get up at 4am to catch the train, which left at 5.15. The night porter at the guesthouse made me a cup of tea which I drank on my own, sitting in the shabby-genteel guesthouse lounge. Outside in the dark the driver was waiting for me - he had got up early to drive me to the station even though I said I could walk (I felt obliged to give him a good tip, which was possibly his main motivation).

I have noticed that in some locations a certain physiognomy among the local population can be identified. For instance, I have observed the prevalence of a certain shade of violet-blue eye-colour among the inhabitants of Bishops Stortford, or cleft chins along the Suffolk coast near Felixstowe. Possibly this is all my mistaken imagination, but once you start to notice peculiarities you see them everywhere.

Anyway, on the journey back from “the west” it seemed that the country was inhabited by variations of Colin Farrell getting on and off the train. At one point there were five Colin Farrells in the train carriage. By saying they looked like Colin Farrell I am also saying they looked completely ordinary.

I arrived in the capital city about 8.30. The sky was overcast and threatened rain. The air was cool to cold.

Because I was short of Euros (the tip to the driver had been very generous) and because I had a couple of hours before I needed to be at the port, I decided to walk through the city from one terminus to the other.

Above: the terminus I arrived at - a neoclassical building designed by Sancton Wood. At the front of the station a cold wind was blowing that nearly made me catch a tram. You can see people queuing for trams on the left of the picture.

Above: most of the way I walked along the river. Occasionally spots of rain fell, one or two every minute or so. The river is lined with Georgian buildings that give this part of the city a resemblance to the Nevsky Prospect (seen from one of the canals).

Above: the central law courts designed by the architect James Gandon. The building you see today is a restoration as the original was destroyed during civil disturbances in 1922. This was a disaster from a historian’s point of view as the building contained the new state’s public record office. A thousand years worth of historical records went up in smoke. The burning of the public record office remains controversial to this day, with many accusing the insurgents of deliberately destroying the records (which contained almost all of the state’s genealogical archives and Anglican parish registers) in an act of ethnic and cultural cleansing. The insurgents have denied the accusation.

Above: hostel on the opposite river bank to the law courts. Notice the two figures outside, who were talking in an eastern European language. Seeing this hostel reminded me of The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel, an ancient epic poem (I have read it about once a year for the past ten years or so).

Above: I remember this pub from my visit years ago.

Above: behind the Georgian frontages you can see building work everywhere, evidence of the tremendous economic growth there has been recently.

Above: and then I saw the Ormond Quay Hotel where I stayed on my previous visit (years and years ago, when I was a teenager). It looked a lot smarter than I remembered it - then it needed a refurbishment, smelt of damp inside, and had piles of chairs in front of the nearest fire exit to my room. That visit I made a special study of the Boyne Valley culture (stone age mounds, passage graves, high crosses, round towers, crannogs, sweat houses etc).

Above: Christchurch cathedral, on a hill overlooking the river. Dating from 1038. Although an Anglican cathedral, this building is claimed by the Roman Catholic church as their rightful property, leading to accusations of nascent religious cleansing of the city’s ecclesiastical history.

Above: the former parliament building of the colonial administration (up to 1800). It is now the state bank. It is impossible to take a good photograph of this building, which is one of the finest in the city.

Above: also associated with the colonial administration is the “castle”. Originally a medieval castle in the traditional style, it has been rebuilt many times and mostly now dates from the 18th century. Despite its associations with the “murder machine” policies of the colonial administration the castle has remained the ceremonial centre of the successor state. When I walked up there the place was deserted (this was about 10 o’clock in the morning). I walked through to the Upper Castle Yard where rows of windows were veiled by dirty net curtains. This is how I imagine Kafka’s castle to look.

Above: statue of Justice above one of the castle gates. In wet weather the scales would fill with water and become lopsided, leading people to say that British justice in the territory was biased. The emptiness of the courtyards was unsettling.

Above: Looking from the river down along the main street in the city. Behind the yellow bus you can see part of the general post office, scene of an insurrection in 1916 and subsequently becoming a sort of feldherrenhalle for nationalists. The spire you can see is a sculpture that was put up to mark the millennium - it is on the site of the former Nelson’s Pillar which was blown up in 1966 (leading to the inevitable accusation of cultural cleansing or removal of imperialist symbols, depending on your point of view - so frequent are the accusations of cultural, religious and ethnic cleansing that you would think this country was part of the former Yugoslavia rather than western Europe).

Above: the Customs House. Designed by James Gandon, built in 1781, and easily the most beautiful building in the city. It is right by the terminus where I caught a train to the port (going along the shore, the sea was so rough that spray washed through when the doors opened at the intermediary stations).

More on The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel:

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The way in which a society would like to be seen

Whenever I am in a foreign country I notice public art as that is supposed to reveal how a society sees itself. Actually I have come to regard public art as the way in which a society would like to be seen (as opposed to the actual reality). Anyway, while I was away I noticed that the art on show was almost uniformly realist or naïve, mostly featured male subjects and represented social classes C2 and D.

Some examples:

Above: Framed reproduction of a beer advertisement. This was on display in the hall of the guesthouse where I stayed. The style is self-consciously romantic, nostalgic and idealistic (images formed more by John Wayne and The Quiet Man rather than real life).

Above: Naïve painting of agricultural labourers flailing grain. The artist, Sean O’Seadhachain, worked as a farm labourer before emigrating to America. This work was on display (along with other naïve paintings) in the entrance hall of the Institute of Technology.

Above: Realist painting of working-class-by-origin underclass hoodies. In England these people are classified as NEETs. This work was on display on the painted breezeblock wall of the students’ centre.

Above: Sculpture memorial to a trade unionist, socialist and insurgent. Note the plough and stars design in the background. The Plough and the Stars is the title of Sean O’Casey’s 1926 play about socialism and insurgency.

More on NEETs:

More on The Plough and the Stars:

Friday, April 25, 2008

I couldn’t see any glyphs

Very late (by which I mean 10 o’clock) I crossed the road from the guesthouse and went into the university. Gentle rain was falling, but not enough to make me feel wet. I walked uphill to the Victorian bit of the campus to look at “the stones”.

These stones are lined up in a corridor known as the Stones Corridor. They date from the 4th century AD, and are remarkable for a series of notches that correspond with a debased Latin script. I looked at them in the gloomy corridor, but I couldn’t see any glyphs.

It was a bit of a disappointment.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Author - Elizabeth Bowen and a visit to Bowens Court

Four o’clock and the driver came back. I told him where I wanted to go and he said he had never heard of it. I told him generally where it was and he responded with an infuriating sort of dithering, as if we were playing riddles (“is it over by…” “do you mean the road out to…” “are you sure you don’t mean…”). I even told him the road number but he said the roads don’t always have numbers. I produced a map I had printed out from Google (“where did y’get this map from” he asked, even though it clearly said Google). Eventually I told him to drive to a town in the north of the county and we would pick up the road from there.

We set off through the congested city traffic.

I sat in the back of the car, which I think offended him a little. To repair relations, since I was dependent upon him for the success of the trip, I asked him about his life and he responded with such a wave of friendliness that I was effectively co-opted into his family. He had been thirty years a driver, his wife was a teacher, when his wife had her teacher friends round he always liked to work late…

We left the city and drove through winding lanes. The driver pointed out a ruined castle, behind trees, where there was a supernatural stone that confers the gift of rhetoric upon all who kiss it. I told the driver that there was enough rhetoric in the world without me adding to it.

We arrived in the town in the northern half of the county. This town is entirely dependent upon the processing of sugar beet. We found the address Fiona had given me years ago and I knocked at the door. There was no answer. I thought of asking at the neighbours’ doors but then thought: some things are not meant to be. We got back in the car and drove through the very congested centre of the town (magnificent ruins of a castle).

Stationary in traffic I saw this shop window displaying garden gnomes in green waistcoats (at the Institute of Technology earlier in the day, while we were having tea in the upstairs room, a member of staff had told me about her researches into “the local shaman tradition which is in touch with the fairies, the Otherworld” pronouncing “Otherworld” impatiently, as if annoyed she had to explain herself - “da Utter-worlt”).

In the centre of the town a sign pointed to the road we were looking for. We were soon driving out into the countryside (“it’s a grand straight run”). I was conscious of a very gentle gradient that over several miles took us uphill.

The driver (“call me Brendan”) asked why I wanted to go to such a remote place. I told him I was interested in a great writer who had once lived there. He asked me the name of the writer, and when I told him said he had never heard of her.

We arrived at the place. I told the driver to slow down and look for a pair of gates and a church. We saw the church on the left and pulled off the road, parking on a square of gravel before the iron gates.

Leaving the car I walked up a steep narrow track to the church. It was still light although the sky threatened rain (one or two spots occasionally fell). The time was just after 5 o’clock.

The left-hand side of the track was bounded by a stone wall, and peeping over this wall was a herd of calves. I fell in love with these calves, the shy way they looked at me, the mock-fear with which they ran off to a corner when I raised my camera then quietly crept back again. I know it is ridiculous to anthropomorphise animals, but I felt we were all friends (“we are all in this world together and have to get through it as best we can”).

The Anglican church was teetering on the edge of abandonment. The windows were too high up to look through, the glass showing cracks and one or two small holes. Another ten years and the roof will be off and ivy will be smothering the walls.

Notice the inscription above the door. Notice the school-room attached to the right - an Anglican bequest to the children of the village. Both religious traditions are buried in this graveyard.

The door was locked. The inscription above the door said Domus Mea Domus Orationis (the words of Jesus when cleansing the Temple: My house is a house of prayer…). And for some reason into my mind came the Latin inscription above Gavin Maxwell’s fireplace: It is no will-o'-the wisp I have followed here.

Looking through a window of the schoolroom (obviously disused) I saw that a few photographs were on the pink-washed walls, and propped on the mantlepiece was a painting of a big house - the “big house” of The Author. This must be the painting she had done when, already exiled in Kent, she had sent the painter over to record her old home and he had found it already in the process of destruction (notice in the painting the steps leading up to the front door).

On a grassy ledge at the back of the graveyard, abutting the demesne wall, was the grave of The Author. From left to right the stones are: The Author’s father, The Author’s grandmother, The Author (and her husband). She died aged 74.

From the graveyard I could look down into the demesne. The Author wrote with such sensitivity about this place that I was slightly reluctant to go on, not wanting to have my imagination dispelled. The Author was so associated with this place that the air, the local water, the produce of the surrounding fields must all have contributed to the sustenance of her mind, in its way as perceptive as Jane Austen.

I returned to the gates. It was a du Maurieresque encounter (“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…”). Both du Maurier and The Author published their greatest novels in the same year - 1938.

With a little effort I opened the gates. My intention was to carrying on walking until I was challenged. But actually I did not see another person the entire time I was in the demesne.

I followed the winding drive as it curved along the swell of the sloping hill. Past an iron-bar gate, half off its hinges, partially overgrown by long grass. This is the iron gate The Author mentions twice in her 1929 novel (and a wonder it has not been carried off to the University of Texas as a literary secondary relic).

To my right were trees supporting a large rookery. The noisy rooks were settling down for the night. In her 1942 “biography” of her big house (an enigmatic work in which nothing is what is first seems) The Author describes how she would be wakened by the noise of the rooks in the morning.

I arrived at the site of the former house. Even with the dereliction, overgrowth and dumped vehicles the place was unmistakeable. Although no walls of the main block were standing I could see clearly the wide dry moat of “the area” that surrounded the house and gave light and access to the basement level.

It was a thrill (I am not exaggerating) to see that the stones strewn about at my feet were from the steps that The Author writes about so often (the steps as family history, the steps as literary motif, the steps as symbolic bridge between two worlds). How long before these steps are purchased, transported and reassembled at the University of Texas, as a tangible adjunct to The Author’s papers? I picked up two tiny fragments of the steps to keep myself.

The bridge that used to support the steps was still in place, and so I could walk across the area and onto the floor of the house itself, where the main entrance hall used to be. Thrown onto the ground was part of the surround to the front door (I recognised it from a photograph of The Author’s father). Isaiah Berlin, Rosamund Lehman, Iris Murdoch, Sean O’Faolain, Carson McCullers, Cyril Connolly… I thought of all the great authors who had walked on this floor when the house stood. Now everything was a jumbled wreck. To paraphrase Shelley: look upon my works ye aspirant writers and despair.

Trees torn down, walls smashed, lawns ploughed up. It was as if, after two hundred years, the house had produced The Author and so had no further need to exist. In return The Author made sure the house would endure on a metaphysical level through the beauty of her prose.

In England the site would be owned by a Trust and tidied up. There would be a teashop selling postcards. Once a year there would be a literary festival attended by Melvyn Bragg.

Stumbling a little I managed to climb down to the old basement kitchen. The brick ovens were still in one of the walls, the oven doors rusting in the grass. Beneath the grass the flagstone floor was still in place.

At the back of the site were a few of the estate offices put up by The Author’s grandfather at the end of the nineteenth century.

Looking inside, I saw one of them still had a moulded ceiling (I didn’t go right inside in case it collapsed on my head).

From the old stable yard I could see in the distance the hills that harboured the insurgents. The Author writes of how exposed the house seemed in the early 1920s. Insurgents walked across the demesne on their way to burn neighbouring houses and shoot at the police in crossroad ambushes.

The literary history of a nation fitted onto a postcard. This montage illustrates the official canon of dead male writers. There is no place for The Author, even though she is as good as any of them.


Obviously she was a woman, and even today women writers struggle to be recognised.

More problematic, she worked as a spy for the British government during the Second World War, watching the activities of the Germans in the neutral state. This identification as a spy is expressed in her 1949 novel (as all her characters are aspects of herself, the shock she recounts at discovering her lover is a spy should really be taken as an inward accusation). In an anthology of local writers The Author’s name was included but struck out, as a demonstration of repudiation by the community (although it cannot have been in their interest that Germany should have won the war).

I went back along the drive. Just as I got to the car the rain began. I suddenly realised how cold it was, and how long I had been gone.

The two fragments of the steps I brought away with me.

Monday, April 21, 2008

We talked about engineering

I awoke in a small room in a guesthouse on the Western Road. Originally I had been booked into the Kingsley Hotel, a five-star establishment near the client’s HQ, but not wanting to be stranded in a suburb I asked Angela to change the booking to something more central. The room was clean, the bed was soft, but the en suite shower room was so tiny I kept banging my elbows on the walls.

Downstairs by 7.30, I was the second person in the dining-room - a long room crammed with furniture. The guesthouse is famous for its breakfasts (“we’ve been on national television with our breakfasts”). As the national character has a reputation (from marketing analysis) to over-promise and then not deliver, I was interested to see how exceptional the breakfast would turn out to be.

I asked for tea and a pot of tea arrived. Toast arrived shortly afterwards. The waitress was aged about twenty, low-cut trousers and high cut white shirt so that a tattoo appeared on her lower back whenever she bent over (which she seemed to do frequently to get items out of sideboard cupboards, revealing voluptuous curves to her body that reminded me of the Odalisque by Ingres).

The menu listed over thirty different breakfasts. The guesthouse operated an all-you-can-eat policy. Had I sat at the table long enough I am sure that all thirty of the breakfasts would have been put in front of me, one after the other.

I started with orange juice and some grapefruit segments. Then a big fried breakfast, including items I was not familiar with. Then fresh croissants with jam. Then, completely unsolicited, the waitress brought me a pancake with honey. Then a basket filled with Danish pastries (although I was already full up, these Danish pastries were so delicious I had two and would have eaten more had it been possible). After the Danish pastries I stopped the flow of food from the kitchen and sat quietly for a while drinking from my second pot of tea.

An hour later I stood in front of the guesthouse waiting for the car that had been booked to take me to the client. The air was cool and the sky threatened rain. Nine o’clock arrived and still no sign of the driver, so that I wondered whether I should call a taxi.

From the crossroads a car hooted, the driver waving. He turned the car in the middle of the road and pulled up in front of me. A short stout grey-haired man aged about fifty-five gestured me into the car and then began to apologise for his lateness, speaking entirely without pausing:
“…there was a great fight you’ve never seen such a fight all because a young bloke cut up a car and the two cars hit and all the traffic came to a stop and the young bloke got out of his car and the bloke with two kids got out of his car and the young bloke was going to hit him even though the bloke with two kids was nearly twice his size and all the traffic was stopped and the two kids were crying and I got out and stepped in and another two blokes stepped in because we were all stopped and I was saying how I had to be somewhere and the young bloke was raging and then a bloke got out of his car and just held up his badge and he was an off-duty guard and so he told the young bloke he was at fault and arrested him and then a car full of guards arrived and all the traffic started moving again…”

We drove through congested streets to the client head quarters. The morning was taken up with a long meeting discussing their advertising plans in the UK. Several times I was told how much they appreciated my visiting them (the agency has had the account for three years, but so far I was the first person to go over to see them, although to be fair to Ian, when the client team visits London he makes sure they are well looked after).

In the afternoon we went to the local Institute of Technology where the client sponsors engineering research. We talked about engineering (or rather, they talked and I nodded as if I understood what they were going on about). I sat in on an engineering lecture, not understanding a word.

Afternoon tea (plastic cups) in an upstairs room at the college.

The window looked out onto the new college extensions. The visit was obviously winding down. Not wanting to out-stay my welcome I called my driver and arranged for him to take me back to the guesthouse.

As we drove back through the congested roads (“it’s all the students going home for the weekend”) I asked whether he wanted to do some private driving for me later on. He said he would, and we arranged a price.

At the guesthouse I told him to come back at 4 o’clock.

West of west


This post really needs a prologue. Some years ago, sorting through a second-hand bookshop, I came across a slim booklet from the 1970s entitled West of West. It was a fascinating book, and inspired in me a desire to make my own journey to the west of west.

For a long time nothing happened. It was not so much the cost, as the lack of time. Then one of my clients invited me (in a general sort of way) to visit their headquarters.

I accepted, and last Thursday set out…

The Journey

It was raining when I arrived at Euston station. Migrant women were giving out free magazines to anyone that would take them. Commuters standing under concrete awnings talked into their mobile ’phones (“great stuff, great stuff, yeah great stuff…”) while they waited for the rain to stop.

After standing around for half an hour (I was early) I got onto the nine o’clock train. In-between looking out of the window I read through the Guardian, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Telegraph, making notes with a green IFAW biro that only half-worked. Opposite me was a balding business man in a pink shirt working at a laptop, and a hoodie (wearing his hood over a baseball cap) listening to an ipod and reading a magazine about boxing.

The sun came out and made the arch of the new Wembley shine white against the grey sky - the stadium reminded me of a giant designer handbag. Ashridge woods smoky-grey on the horizon. Ivinghoe Beacon, in a trick created by the motion of the train, swelled up then sank down again.

Along the Trent Valley I saw small manufacturing firms, fields of rape poised to turn yellow, neat little farmhouses.

Into Crewe, which appeared to be an old-fashioned working town with colours of grey, brown and rust-red (as if the place had been bathed in a percolated extract of JB Priestley). The pink-shirted balding businessman got out and I watched him walk down the platform regretting that I hadn’t made an effort to speak to him and add him to my Modern Attitudinal Survey - how people talk, move, dress, where they shop, where they work, what sort of house they live in, even (if you get to know them well enough) how they met their partner, what they think of the government, what vices they might have. There was no chance of talking to the hoodie who was completely cocooned in his own world, eating home-made cheese sandwiches he took out one by one from a carrier bag.

Out of the station past RAC Auto Windscreens, Mecca Bingo, Pine Warehouse.

Through Cheshire, the landscape becoming hilly and wooded. At Chester the hoodie got off. Along the platform walked a railway worker in an entire suit (jacket and trousers) made of orange florescent plastic material - it was such a striking outfit I immediately thought of Karl Lagerfeld.

Then I was no longer in England

The train went right along the coast (a celtic coast). Weak sunshine glazed the choppy grey water. I saw a mass of wind turbines turning in the distance.

Yellow gorse bushes edged the track. Birds swooped alongside the train, as if in a race, undulating with the wind. Ordered settlements of trailer homes above the empty beaches.

The train pulled into a seaside resort - mature pines, isolated pier, rolling waves that were green, then blue, then green again. We stopped in the station for some minutes. No-one seemed to get on or off.

Past a concentric medieval castle. Past sheep in placid countryside. From the mainland the train moved imperceptibly onto an island, the sun now very strong.

The end of the line, and I got off the train and walked down the platform and into the port terminal. Completely rebuilt since my previous visit, the building had a central concourse and walls of glass that showed the sea. Inland a steep hill was studded with boxey houses and crowned by an obelisk.

I had to wait an hour until the three o’clock ferry. In the café I had a large cup of tea and read The Times. Looking out the window I saw a black woman sitting listlessly at a bench smoking until a Customs official went up to her, and she put out her cigarette and followed him through a door marked Private.

I went out and sat in the general waiting area. A party of Australians were scattered around. One of them came and sat in a chair opposite me. He put both his hands down the front of his jeans and began groping around. For a brief alarming moment I thought he was going to expose himself. From underneath his jeans he pulled out a money-belt and counted through the cash inside it.

Going through security the alarm went off and I was searched (politely).

On the ferry I managed to get a window seat on the starboard side. I drank a cup of tea as the ship eased itself out of the harbour. Through the spray-soaked window I saw the afternoon sun shining on the water (so that it resembled the sea in the background of Leighton’s Flaming June).

The crossing took two hours, and then I disembarked in another country.

From the port you have to get a train into the capital city. The line went along the seashore, then through suburbs. As the train neared the city it became crowded with commuters, many of whom seemed to be foreigners (obviously I was myself a foreigner, but these other foreigners were eastern Europeans, south Asians, a big group of French office workers).

Arriving at a terminus, I went down some steps to catch a tram. You get the tram tickets from a machine, and as I paused at the machine a young eastern European appeared from nowhere and worked the machine for me. He then asked me for some money.

The tram crossed the city at the height of the local rush hour. The late afternoon was warm and sunny. All the tram stops were announced in two languages.

Arriving at a terminus on the other side of the city, I had to wait about forty minutes for the seven o’clock train. I was beginning to feel very tired. At the barrier the man checking tickets was accompanied by two people who were carrying out a survey - they looked at my ticket and on their clipboard ticked a column marked “English”.

The seven o’clock train travelled deeper into the west. For the first half-hour the countryside reminded me of Norfolk. The sun was high in the sky even at eight o’clock (when it would be dark at home), as if it had been stopped for Joshua (but although the sun was shining the light seemed to be fading).

Eventually the sun went down behind a line of mountains and the landscape was briefly half-lit by the famous twilight written about by Simon Marsden, before everything became black.

It was ten o’clock when the train reached the end of the line. I got out and walked down the platform. I had arrived west of west.

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