Real Travelling? ( Thoughts on a Mexican bus.)

8 Jan

I’m sitting on a long distance coach in southern Mexico. It’s an 8 hour journey from Palanque to San Cristobel de Las Casas. There are 2 drivers working in shifts. The coach may stop at some point for a leg-stretch and a toilet opportunity( we all have our 5 peso coins at the ready.) On the other hand we may not stop, so we’ll have to cross our legs and stick it out. It seems to depend on the whim of the driver. I am in a small group of travellers and at least half of us have dodgy tummies. In this part of the world they call it “Montezuma’s revenge”! There is a toilet at the back of the coach but we are not encouraged to use it because of the smells.

Every now and then we slow to a near standstill because of major road-works. Sometimes it seems as if the diggers have only scraped the road into being just before we arrived! Periodically, we stop at toll-booths or get stuck in jams as we slowly grind our way through an unknown town or city. Some passengers try to doze or read but are constantly disturbed by the on-board “entertainment” — a second-rate Hollywood blockbuster badly dubbed into Spanish. Why am I telling you all this? Well, my question is: ” Is this real travelling?” Elsewhere in southern Mexico, holiday-makers are sunning themselves on the beaches of Cancun, flopping by their hotel pools or wallowing in jacuzzis. Many have flown huge distances to be there. Are they “real” travellers too?

This debate first started in my head when I heard someone describing a planned overland journey from Italy to Serbia by road and rail. It sounded like a really interesting and exciting thing to do and I was quietly envious. But then I was informed that this wasn’t “real travelling.” When I enquired what was, the answer was: roughing it in the back of a lorry crossing Ethiopia or some other remote area of east Africa. It seems that the journey from Milan to Belgrade was :too comfortable,  too predictable and too safe to be considered as “real travelling.” Maybe to be thought of as “real” by the seasoned traveller, a journey has to have elements of: risk, unpredictability or even danger. These are the ingredients designed to give one a real “buzz”. It’s when the adrenaline really starts to flow. Maybe this is why for some, travel is so addictive. It is a form of tourism but with a real edge to it. Unlike the everyday vacationer, the intrepid traveller does not seek out comfort, safety and relaxation. It is just the opposite that is the name of the game. In his book” The Great Patagonian Express”, Paul Theroux writes: ” Travel is not a vacation, and it is often the opposite of a rest.” He goes on: ” I craved a little risk, some danger, an untoward event, a vivid discomfort.” He even courted loneliness in order to achieve these aims.

I sense that there is a sort of travelling hierarchy in play here. The term “real” suggests that some forms of travel are not genuine and therefore are less valuable experiences.. These “lesser” travellers are given labels such as “tourists” or “holiday-makers.” Maybe we should not be judging travel experiences as “real” or “not real”, but should just acknowledge that they are “different.”

Travel for some is a kind of religion. They talk of having gap-years or career- breaks in order to go travelling. They congregate in hostels, bars and cafes, and swap travel stories. They ask questions such as “How long have you been on the road?”, “Where have you been?” and “Where are you going next?” For them, it seems as if it’s the journey that is more important than the actual destination. The implication is that this is not just a physical journey across time and space, but a journey of personal development. It is often said that travel broadens the mind. It helps one to escape the confines of everyday life. I agree with that. It’s why I look forward to my trips so much. However is there such a thing as a hierarchy of travel, or putting it less judgementally – can travel and travellers be categorised into distinct types?

Serious travellers live out of back-packs, endlessly journeying for months on end, visiting town after town, country after country. Some of the people we met in Central America were amazed that we were only visiting Mexico, Guatemala and Costa Rica. Why weren’t we going on into Panama and then the countries of South America? These long-term travellers are always restlessly moving on, travelling but never arriving. The journey’s the thing, not the destination.

The next category I suggest is the “ordinary” traveller, for want of a better description. For this person, travel is more of a hobby rather than a full-time occupation ( or obsession!) This person makes a journey, even quite a long one, but once he/she gets to the destination, tends to stay in that vicinity, exploring places of interest within striking distance of their base. The ordinary traveller is more likely to use a suitcase rather than a back-pack and only usually has to unpack it once. This person is often interested in the culture and history of the place being visited and is open to new experiences. He or she may well go to quite an exotic destination and suffer a mild bout of “culture shock.”  However, this type of traveller’s trip has definite parameters in terms of both time and distance. The journey has to be tightly organised and packaged to a certain extent because the traveller has only a limited amount of time and has to return, sooner rather than later to: work, family, the post, bills and all those other things that stabilise and ground many of our lives. I think for this type of “traveller”, it’s the destination that lures them to leave home rather than the journey.

To answer my own question, I think I am more of a “traveller” than a so-called “real traveller” I have only gone on 3 really long journeys in my entire life and all have been embarked upon in the luxury of my retirement years. This central American odyssey is one of them. Before, I was too busy working and raising a family to contemplate anything too ambitious or expensive. I had “staycations” in Britain or ventured on short trips into western Europe. On this trip I told a few stories about my youth-hostelling days in the English Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales. ” Did you go back-packing when you were younger?” asked a young Aussie in our group. The answer had to be “no” because I always had to get back to work on Monday morning. Thus, although I travelled around on these trips, I couldn’t be regarded as a “real” traveller. They wouldn’t have been able to make much of a road movie out of my rambling weekends or music festival trips. I had to make my precious time count and didn’t have the luxury of being perpetually “on the road.” After-all, my name is Stuart Bates, not Jack Kerouac!

Our coach has slowed to negotiate a series of bumps that announce the arrival of a village. Street sellers laden with oranges and bananas move amongst the slow moving traffic trying to sell their wares. An old man sits under the shade of his little, improvised stall, his table stacked with pineapples. People walk around under umbrellas because the sun is so hot and high above. Others have a snack in a tacos restaurant. Another old man trundles slowly by on a sort of cycle-rickshaw. I’m surprised because this is rural Mexico not China or south-east Asia. We are on the coast and just out at sea I watch brown pelicans dive-bombing into the water to catch fish. Yesterday, we saw toucans and howler monkeys in the jungle and visited an ancient Mayan temple complex. Now, we are passing fields of swaying sugar cane. My leg itches and I look down at 3 red insect bites on my right foot and leg. Repellant is as essential as sun-cream on this trip. Is this “real travelling”? Maybe it is — I don’t know.

My final category of traveller is the humble and much derided tourist. In a sense, all people visiting places away from their own homes are tourists. They are on tour. They are so obviously different from the local inhabitants. However, for some tourists, the main attractions of visiting a different place are the hotter, sunnier climate and the chance to have a rest. They simply fly and flop. Their interactions with the locals involve mainly hotel and restaurant staff and the owners of souvenir shops in the resort. They primarily only meet local people who provide them with services and goods that make their holidays smooth and comfortable. In one sense, this can be seen as a sort of “Downton Abbey” scenario with the rich tourists playing the part of the aristocrats and the poorer locals being cast as the servants. It can be an unequal relationship based on the disparities of wealth, especially when people from the so-called “Developed world” visit a “Developing Country”. On the other hand, one could argue it’s a “win- win” situation. The tourists get an enjoyable, relaxing holiday, while the local people earn much appreciated cash and are provided with employment.

The question remains though –Is this type of tourism “real” travel? It depends on what one means by “real.” If one’s definition involves getting to know the country that one has travelled to, then this type of more sedentary traveller might not qualify. Is lying on a beach in Cancun learning about the real Mexico? Is visiting the expensive shopping malls of Dubai, enhancing one’s knowledge of Arab culture or of Bedouin lifestyle? The answer is probably “no”. Mass tourism with universal entertainment and international cuisine does not encourage an appreciation or understanding of local culture. However, hardworking people deserve rest and recreation, and are obviously free to spend their money as they wish. I may not categorise them as real travellers but I don’t suppose they give a fig for what I think. After-all, I myself am not a real traveller. I spend much more  time at home than on the road or up in the air.

We are now driving up into the spectacular mountains near the Mexican-Guatemalan border. My ears have just popped. We have been journeying for 7 hours with just one twenty minute break. The drivers decided to have a quick snack at a roadside café. Most of the passengers are asleep after eating too much pop corn to keep their stomachs happy. A young Liam Neeson is incongruously speaking Spanish on the coach video. It is nearly Christmas but nearly 30 degrees outside in the late afternoon. Is this “real travel”? Who knows and who cares anyway?

 

Now I Know the Way to San Jose.

26 Dec

As Chris and I set off on our recent travels, I could barely contain my excitement! We were journeying by taxis, trains and planes to San Jose! Ever since the classic Dionne Warwick hit; “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” in 1968, I had dreamed of visiting that magical sounding place. Penned by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, the song tells of someone desperately wanting to escape the Hollywood rat race, where people seek fame and fortune on screen but often fail. They end up as gas pump attendants or in other menial jobs, thinking sadly of what might have been. The singer yearns to get away “to find some peace of mind” in San Jose, apparently her home town. So now, unbelievably, we too were going to San Jose. It would be a dream come true. It would be almost as thrilling as meeting the girl from Ipenema!

Our journey however, didn’t involve slipping on to the L A freeway and gliding off into the Californian sunset. It would involve catching crowded trains from N E England to London, chugging west on the interminable Piccadilly tube line to Heathrow, staying at an airport hotel and then flying across the Atlantic early next morning. We would then change planes in New York, an exciting event in itself, before flying on to our legendary destination. We would at last be following in the famous footsteps of Dionne, Hal and Burt.

That was our dream, but now, sit tight and I’ll tell you about the reality. The journey began on a small branch line with our train grinding its way through industrial Teesside. ( We live in a lovely seaside resort, but the industry is not far inland.) Finally we reached the delights of Darlington, the nearest station on the East Coast mainline. The express train arrived to whisk us down to the capital on this British leg of our exciting journey. To our surprise we were greeted by a large contingent of transport police! They seemed to be guarding the train from some terrible threat. We hadn’t heard of any terrorist alert so were completely bemused as we stored our luggage and sank into our seats. All the other passengers seemed to be quite relaxed so it couldn’t have been anything too scary.

Then we heard it — the loud, raucous singing of a large group of inebriated Scotsmen. They made a mockery of the concept of the “Quiet Coach.” The penny suddenly dropped. It was the weekend of the England vs Scotland World Cup football match at Wembley. The train was travelling from Edinburgh to London. The good humoured singing and chanting continued all the way south. We were quite safe but unable to use the toilet as it was permanently being occupied by an unending queue of kilted revellers. One wag in our coach commented that this was an interesting experiment in recycling, as the Scots fans were draining cans of beer as they waited to relieve themselves! It made for an interesting journey south. At Kings Cross we were treated to a spectacle of: hairy legs, bulging tattoos, swaying kilts and jaunty, tartan hats. Emblazoned on the backs of their dark blue football tops were the names of legendary Scottish footballers — Dalgleish, McLeish, Strachan. The echoing vaults of King Cross station resounded with the songs and chants of the eternally optimistic Scottish fans. Sadly, their beloved team got hammered 3-0 by England at Wembley, the next day.

By then we were up in the air, having survived the soulless automation of Heathrow Terminal 2. Instead of meeting a real person we were confronted by a row of machines. Presumably, many of the real employees have sadly been made redundant. It reminded me of the supermarkets back home where machines are rapidly replacing people. We now had to scan our passports, print our own boarding passes, print our own labels and attach them to our luggage by following the on- screen instructions. I quickly re-entered “grumpy old man” territory. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be getting a part-time job at an airport! We eventually made it through to our United Airlines plane which proceeded to sit on the tarmac for an hour and a half because some paperwork hadn’t been done properly. Finally we launched ourselves up into the sky and damp, grey Britain soon disappeared beneath the clouds. We were on our way to the blue skies and constant sunshine of San Jose. Once again  60’s tune and Dionne’s beautiful, velvety voice played in my head. ( I didn’t need head-phones.)

The journey to New York took 7 hours or so. I lost count. They tell you to sit back, relax and enjoy the flight. This is nothing but a joke because basically we are stuck in a droning metal tube, squashed into seats with little leg-room. Attendants bring drinks and an excuse of a meal. Fellow passengers retreat into their head-phones. Chris tried to nod off, drifting in and out of sleep. I read my book for a while but got distracted by the movies being played on people’s laptops. I only saw the pictures as I wasn’t plugged in to the soundtrack. I was treated to the Ninja Turtles rescuing New York from a ridiculous looking monster. It was a clichéd blur of: fights, car chases, explosions and other daring exploits while hanging off skyscrapers or helicopters. This was mixed in with the adjoining person’s dated rom-com about 2 couples going to a tropical island holiday camp. It was the usual mix of: misunderstandings, flirtations, jealousies, confrontations and reconciliations. The break-ups and the make-ups were all laced with clumsy, slapstick comedy.

I drifted off for a while, then decided to check where we were on my back-of-seat screen. I studied a route map charting the plane’s progress. To my surprise and excitement the map showed we were just skirting the south-east corner of Greenland! The nearest town, hundreds of miles away was Nuuk ( or Godthab.) Now there’s a destination! I’ve never been to and never seen Greenland. So, trembling with anticipation, I leaned toward the window and looked out. And there it was  — Greenland, its rows and rows of snowy mountains glistening in the bright sunlight. Miraculously, the clouds had parted to reveal this magical, other-worldly sight. We were 1855 miles from London, flying over the North Atlantic Ocean and I was looking at Greenland! Suddenly every penny of the airfare was worth it.

I gazed at the myriad of mountain peaks, fjords and islands. The sea surrounding them was dark blue and very still. No breakers washed up on the shore. It was a completely empty, pristine landscape, seemingly untouched by man. There were no buildings, no roads, no people. The sea was devoid of ships. There was no vegetation either belying the island’s name. As far as the eye could see stretched long ranges of jutting, snow-capped mountains, fringed by the dark, still sea. I imagined being down there, alone and isolated. The hairs stood up a little on the back of my neck with the thought of it, a combination of excitement and fear. Wasn’t there a William Golding book about a man stuck on a rock in the middle of the ocean? “Pincher Martin” it’s called. Maybe I should read it. It was difficult to imagine an existence stripped of all the multiple technologies of the modern world. Imagine– no TV, no radio, no phone, no roads, no Internet! In reality, I wouldn’t have lasted more than a few hours in Greenland, what with the cold, the isolation and probably: the polar bears. However, looking down at this empty, beautiful, almost surreal scene far below, made me feel strangely calm and content. Slowly the islands and the mountains receded into the unfathomable distance. As we flew towards Labrador, the curtain of clouds returned. If I was being corny, I would say it was all like a dream!

We were now on our run-into New York City, crossing Canada and then New England. New York is another place I’ve never visited, but always wanted to. As we approached I could see nothing but cloud. By now I had forgotten all about the Ninja Turtles and the antics of the rom-commers. I kept looking out of the airplane window. As we descended towards Newark New York airport, another minor miracle occurred. We passed through the clouds and there were the clustered sky-scrapers of Manhattan, spread out below us. This was the second most thrilling moment of the journey because, as I’ve explained, I’m a New York virgin.

I had expected to be gob-smacked by the sheer, soaring size of the buildings, but to be honest, from up in the air, they looked like toy-town. At first I wasn’t even sure whether this was central Manhattan, until I spotted a small island in the bay with the instantly recognisable statue of a lady in flowing robes thrusting her hand up into the sky. We were too high up to distinguish the Statue of Liberty’s famous flaming torch. The sight of this huge statue was the welcome that millions of  poor migrants got in the 19th and early 20th centuries. After their difficult, dangerous sea passage from Europe, Liberty summarised all the hopes and dreams of a better life in the New World. Like the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal, the Statue of Liberty is something that every serious tourist yearns to see and tick off their “bucket list.” Now we’d seen it and it was definitely one of the highlights on our way to San Jose.

With the terrible threat of terrorism stalking the world, America gives a very suspicious, even paranoid welcome to its visitors. The passport queues are long and tiresome as each arrival is interrogated at length. The security checks are extremely thorough and the officers often brusque and rude as they bark out their orders without a “please” or a “thank-you” in sight. Sniffer dogs check your hand-luggage, presumably looking for drugs or explosives. But New York was not as bad as Houston, Texas on the way back, where we had to endure whole body scans and being shouted at for not carrying out an order immediately. It was all very intimidating, especially as we were merely tired travellers and not terrorists.

After another wait, we finally boarded our early evening flight to San Jose. We flew across the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan’s scrapers once more, and then New York disappeared. At last we were on our way to San Jose!

But now I must come clean. We had known all along that we weren’t travelling to the  idyllic-sounding Californian city made famous by Dionne Warwick’s hit song. That city, north of San Francisco, is now known as the “Capital of Silicon Valley.” Thus thousands of people have made their way to San Jose since the song was written in those far-away, pre-internet days. It doesn’t sound such a lovely or restful place anymore. Would I have really wanted to go there , only to be thoroughly disillusioned? The reality would probably have shattered my long-held, romantic dream.

No– we were actually travelling to the capital of Costa Rica, a tiny country in Central America. It’s chief city is also called San Jose. The Spanish conquistadores must have loved their saints as they murdered their way around the New World — San Francisco, San Diego, San Pedro, San Salvador, San Jose. They were named after favourite saints and Saint Joseph( or Josephine), must have been more popular than most.

We weren’t flying to Dionne’s “Mecca”, but were travelling to the Costa Rican capital to begin an exotic, wildlife spotting tour. We would be visiting rain forests, cloud forests, mountains, lakes and coast. We arrived at the Costa Rican San Jose after dark. We were exhausted and ready for journey’s end. Only one more passport queue and one final security scan and we were in. The hotel had sent a taxi to collect us. There was  just time to change some Dollars into local currency (Colones) and help an old, confused American lady who had lost both her luggage and her tour group. We drove into the city. a mish-mash of old and new dominated by traffic. It wasn’t exactly the kind of place to find “some peace of mind.” When we walked out into it the next morning we found a lively town full of street sellers shouting out their  wares in the local version of Spanish. We saw numerous people selling colourful-looking lottery tickets and street entertainers such as xylophone bands and contortionists. It wasn’t the idyll that Dionne had sung wistfully about 50 years ago. It wasn’t even the right San Jose! But it was the beginning of a fascinating and memorable Central American adventure!

Ditching the Comfy Blanket.

6 Nov

I am just about to leave the safety of my own home, to fly halfway across the world to an unknown, unpredictable destination. OK, I know I’m going to Costa Rica, followed by southern Mexico and Guatemala, but I’ve never been to Central America before, so I truly don’t know what to expect. Am I going to be walking into danger? Is there a robber out there just waiting to relieve a naïve, innocent tourist of his money and valuables? I’m travelling with my wife, Chris, so I won’t be completely alone. But it’s interesting that when we tell people of our forthcoming adventure, for every person who expresses excitement, there will be another who points out potential dangers or problems. “Mexico. isn’t that where you can catch the zika virus?” “Mexico. isn’t that where there are violent drug wars?” I’ve tried to shrug these worries aside and let the excitement of exploring 3 new, exotic countries, take over. However, my initial thrill at being able to visit such far-away destinations, to immerse myself in cultures very different from my own, has often been tempered by fears. It’s funny how the negative often seems to outweigh the positive in our lives.

Maybe its our advanced age. Chris and I are both in the second half of our sixties. It’s the age when travel insurance companies get nervous and charge higher premiums. It’s the age when we are not as strong as we used to be. We don’t have as much energy as we used to and thoughts of rest and sleep are more to the fore than in the past. Our long experience of life has informed us of the potential problems that could arise from any situation. The recklessness and bravado of youth has gone. I normally look forward to a foreign holiday and relish the new experiences I may undergo. However, this holiday build- up has been tinged by worry and by careful perusal of the insurance policy small print. The phrase “What if?” had often been on our lips. What if we fall ill? What if we get bitten by a mosquito or a rabid dog? What if we get lost or get robbed of all our money? Unbelievably, we’ve even discussed death and the repatriation of bodies! It’s been ridiculous at times. We’re supposed to be embarking on a fascinating and stimulating adventure, yet, at times, we have been beset by fears. Yes, maybe it is our age.

We are going on two organised tours. One is to see the wildlife and tropical landscapes of Costa Rica. The other is to explore the legacy of the Mayan civilisation in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico and in neighbouring Guatemala. It should be great. But these are not luxury tours, travelling by air-conditioned coaches and staying in 5 star hotels. ( We couldn’t afford that anyway.) We will be lodging in clean but basic hotels and travelling around on public transport and mini-buses. What’s more, horror of horrors, we will be expected to carry our own luggage! In the strong tropical sun, will be able to manage? The tours are not high-octane, adrenaline pumping, outdoor-activity affairs, but are mainly sightseeing with the occasional small nature hike. However, when the company found out our great age, we had to answer a comprehensive health and fitness questionnaire before we were allowed to book. I suddenly realised that I’m getting old. Soon I’ll be getting to the stage where my body can’t keep up with my mind.

Another exciting but also worrying aspect of the trip is that we have to make our own way out there, changing planes in big, busy American airports, and will also make out own way back. This is very different to some tours that I know of, where a taxi picks you up from your own doorstep and drops you back there at the end. Such companies pride themselves on organising absolutely everything for their clients so that they don’t have to worry about a thing. The holiday makers are completely spoon-fed. The reasoning is that a holiday’s purpose is primarily to relax and enjoy. All anxiety must be taken away. Tour reps guide you through the complexities of air-travel and meet you when you arrive. The transfer from airport to hotel is taken care of as is everything else. The whole experience is, in theory, free from worry. Chris and I are not going to have this comfort. But, despite the anxiety, I am also very excited about organising my own journey and will get a great sense of satisfaction that “I did it my way.” The other way is reassuring and comforting, but is also a bit like being treated as a school child. I still like to think for myself, instead of letting other people, or technical appliances, do my thinking for me. Thinking, I believe, is becoming an endangered activity. How else can one explain the inexorable rise of the sat-nav and the smart-phone, contraptions that do our thinking for us. In the middle of our double holiday, we have to transfer ourselves from Costa Rica to Mexico. An early flight from an airport I’ve never departed from, where everyone speaks Spanish. ( which I don’t.) There’s plenty of scope for worry and confusion there. What if the bus or taxi doesn’t turn up? What if we cannot find our check-in desk? What if we lose out tickets or passports. What if we cannot find our way to the departure gate? Airports are busy places — what about pick-pockets? Oh, shut up Stuart! It’s going to be great! It’s not everyday you fly from Costa Rica to southern Mexico with a stop-over in El Salvador! It beats catching the local bus into Middlesbrough. Yes, despite the nagging worries. and despite my age, I’m actually really looking forward to it!

I visited my 90 year old mother yesterday, in Chesterfield, Derbyshire. At her age my mum loves and thrives on the predictability of routine. Church on Sunday, hairdresser on Friday, coffee morning on Saturday, cleaner on Monday and Thursday, carers 4 times a day. Her short=term memory is slipping away, but mum’s regular routine helps her to cope and make sense of her existence. Routine is her comfy blanket. Can you remember what a panic it was when, if you were a parent, you mislaid your 2 year old’s comfy blanket? How will he or she get to sleep without that comforting, familiar object to cling on to? It’s funny how the beginning and end stages of one’s life can be so similar. Both the very old and the very young like the comforts of routine and familiar surroundings. In between these two age extremes however, many people, including myself, crave and seek out the excitement of adventure which inevitably involves leaving the familiarities of home and striking off into the unknown. This is why I find travel so intoxicating. I may experience confusion and culture shock, I may be beset by niggling worries, but the sheer adrenaline-producing excitement of visiting new, strange places and discovering new things often makes for an unforgettable experience. Foreign travel, I have had to remind myself, is stepping out of one’s comfort-zone and entering the unpredictable unknown. I still experience the spine-tingling thrill of expectation. I’m not going to be completely in control of my own destiny. ( Sometimes I think we are too hung-up about “control.”) Surprises lay in wait to ambush me on my journey and not all of them may be pleasant. However, I still want to go. The potential thrill of the new still outweighs  the comfort and predictability of the old.

I’m going to abandon my comfy blanket and set out into the unknown. In a way, I know how Tolkein’s “Hobbit” felt at the beginning of his great quest,  except I hope my adventure will not be quite so exciting as his!

Musical memories of the 1990’s.

16 Oct

My music listening reached an intensity in the 90’s that I had not experienced since my late teens. For much of my adult life, as family and work responsibilities crowded in, the luxury of listening to music had been pushed aside. But now, in my early forties, deeply wounded by divorce and the destruction of much of my previous life, music became my solace and my saviour. After a hard day at work, I could unwind at home by putting on the headphones and listen to a whole album without interruption. I switched off the light and allowed myself to be completely taken over by the sounds feeding into my head. It was a blessed escape and a small but important consolation for the pain of separation from my family.

As the 1990’s dawned I was freshly ensconced in my post-divorce flat in North Tyneside. It was the beginning of a new era for me. Upon leaving my marital home I had grabbed my most precious vinyl LPs (Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish, The Doors , The Velvet Underground etc) to take with me to my new life, but most of the family’s large record collection stayed right where it was, for the hopeful edification of my children and my ex-wife. So I wasn’t only starting again emotionally and socially, I was starting over in music too. I had to build up a new collection, beginning almost from scratch. As it was, many music fans were also busily re-purchasing their record collections, this time on CD , the new format which was rapidly replacing vinyl. That was a great trick by the music industry– getting us all to buy our music collections twice! It’s yet another example of how technology drives our lives in the modern world. However, as it so happened, it suited my circumstances to abandon vinyl ( though never completely jettisoning it). I now embraced the new format. I purchased a second-hand music player from a friend, erected a neat stacking system of shelves and started filling them with shiny new Compact Discs. My old vinyl LP sleeves, I used to decorate the walls!

My musical experience in the 1990’s and beyond was not just about listening though. It was also about taking part. No I didn’t form a rock band, but I did join a folk choir. I heard the Caedmon Choir singing in a Friends of the Earth anti- nuclear festival at Druridge Bay in Northumberland. ( This beautiful stretch of coastline was being threatened by the building of a Nuclear Power station.) They were (are) named after an Anglo-Saxon monk in north-east England, who was supposedly given the power of song by God. I was so impressed with Caedmon Choir’s performance  and repertoire, that I decided to join them. I knew I had a decent bass-baritone voice but had previously only sung at church as a kid and in a school production , as a teacher, of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado.” So I travelled to Gateshead’s Caedmon Hall one dark, cold Tuesday evening and joined the acappella, 4 part harmony, mixed choir that  was to become a regular feature of my life for the next 14 years or so. ( I later joined other choirs and still enjoy being a member of the excellent Middlesbrough Town Hall Choir.) We sang a mixture of folk, pop, gospel, classical and World music, led by the renowned singer-songwriter Sandra Kerr. We did gigs and even recorded a couple of albums.( I later found a cassette version of one of them: “Angry, Gentle People”, being sold for 50p in a charity shop — so I bought it!) It was all very exhilarating. Apart from enjoying the music, I made lots of good friends. Amongst others, I sang alongside  Rachel and Becky Unthank ( and their mum Pat) who were later to become famous alternative- folk recording artists.( I promise this will be the last name drop in this blog!)  We sang at concert halls, community halls, hospitals and care homes, as well as in shopping centres and on street corners. The whole choir experience sharpened my musical skills. It  developed my musical knowledge and appreciation immeasurably.

Meanwhile, back in my flat I bought an expensive, Japanese keyboard and started playing a lot more again. I had learnt piano as a child. I played light classical, pop, blues and a bit of jazz, though not very well. I acquired a lodger, M, who was a friend of a friend, and he just happened to be the editor of the periodical: “Keyboard Monthly”. He helped me choose the Korg and introduced me to new music and artists. One day he interviewed Tori Amos and later I went with him to see her show at Newcastle’s Opera House. She put on a mesmerising, dynamic performance, her sweet but powerful, soaring voice interweaving with the 2 keyboards that she played both alternately and simultaneously. ( shades of Keith Emerson here.) Tori Amos was to became one of my favourite musicians of the 90’s. I quickly acquired her first 2 albums :”Little Earthquakes” and “Under the Pink” and played them to death in my little flat. I then bought the rest of her output. I found her singing intense and unique. She used her mezzo-soprano voice as another instrument,  accompanying her piano-driven songs. Her lyrics were interesting too. They dealt with serious subjects such as sexuality, politics, feminism and religion. They even featured a tale of sexual abuse. I believe many of them were semi- autobiographical. Like most great artists, Tori Amos creates her own world which one can immerse oneself in. I missed my family, but one small compensation of living alone was that I had more time to listen to music. This meant that initially difficult music would become more accessible after repeated hearings.

To the uninitiated, Amos might have sounded like an American Kate Bush, with her high pitched, swooping and soaring vocals. However, once given time, she emerges with her own distinctive, compelling style. In fact, Amos ironically later led me back to the work of Kate Bush, particularly “Hounds of Love” and her 21st century albums. I had previously dismissed Bush as an irritating “screecher”, but now, I came to appreciate her genius and become a fully paid up member of the fan club. Better late than never, as they say.

Not surprisingly, the 90’s were just as complicated musically as the previous decade. The music scene had splintered into a  whole myriad of genres, styles and artists. I was now in my 40’s, so teenage pop had little interest to me, except to keep up with what my  pupils were listening to. Thus I didn’t bother with boy bands like “Take That” or girl bands like the pseudo-feminists, “The Spice Girls.” I ignored the bubble gum pop of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Although it is now highly revered, the so-called” “Grunge” rock of “Nirvana” and “Pearl Jam” , also failed to grab me, maybe because I wasn’t an alienated adolescent feeling disenchanted with the established adult world. My mid-life crisis had consigned my teenage angst to the dim and distant past. I was still a big rock fan though and the stuff I particularly liked was dubbed “alternative rock” by the critics.

I  loved the American garage rock band REM whom I had belatedly discovered in the late 80’s.  In the 1990s, they managed the difficult task of achieving mainstream popularity whilst still retaining critical acclaim.  REM were a constantly evolving band who kept their edge. I particularly liked their first two 90’s albums: “Out of Time” and “Automatic for the People”, which  achieved massive success on both sides of the Atlantic. The former had a baroque, acoustic feel using a variety of string instruments to go alongside the guitars. The latter had a more subdued, moody atmosphere with sudden, thrilling explosions of electric guitar. The songs dealt with deep subjects such as mortality and spirituality, had interesting lyrics and often beautiful melodies. I found Michael Stipe’s vocal style compelling. In the 90’s, REM emerged from their previous obscurity to become a major stadium rock band, although inevitably some of their subtlety and sensitivity had to be sacrificed in the live performances. Maybe this is why they put out a more strident, heavy rock album: “Monster” in the middle of the decade. I bought this but didn’t find it as satisfying as their earlier offerings.

I was lucky enough to see REM live at Edinburgh’s Murrayfield stadium which normally hosted international rugby matches. I lashed out and bought a transport and concert package for my eldest daughter, Joanna, her partner Al and myself. We travelled up from Newcastle upon Tyne in a large convoy of double decker buses, listening to REM classics all the way up through Northumberland and into Scotland. Unfortunately, our driver got lost in Edinburgh and we nearly missed the start of the concert. Even we diehard fans got rather sick of “Losing my Religion” and “Man on the Moon” by the time we had listened to them for the twentieth time! But we made it in the end and enjoyed a great show, even though we had to sit in plastic seats and swivel our heads to the left to see the stage. REM were supported by the Irish folk/rock band “The Cranberries” who were very popular at the time. I liked them too and bought their first 2 albums. ( strong melodies, beautifully sung and played.)

I continued to like folk rock. As well as the Cranberries, I kept up with the Waterboys’ output and had a spell of liking The Levellers, another celtic band with a more political edge, as can be deduced from their name. (The original Levellers were enlightened but ill-fated mid 17th century revolutionaries.) After a while their earnest lyrics and strident style began to grate on me, but not before I went to see them perform really well at Newcastle’s atmospheric Mayfair club, along with the equally good Chumbawamba. Unfortunately that gig, which I attended with my second daughter, Catherine, was marred by a terrible accident, when someone fell off a balcony and later died. It rather put rock music into perspective! Also in the folk-rock mode were the excellent Oyster Band, who like The Levellers featured an electric violinist and had a real edge.  The Oysters led me to the superb June Tabor as they made a joint album with her. Her wonderful haunting voice and melancholic folk songs made her one of my favourites. A Tabor gig was always totally engrossing.

June Tabor in turn led me to appreciate the excellent bluesy guitar playing and strong singing of her right hand man: Martyn Simpson. I regularly went to see him too, when he launched out as a solo performer. Although he moved from Manchester to far away New Orleans, he seemed to pop up in Tyneside very regularly.

I was lucky to live in the north east of England where there was a multitude of musical venues, large and small. My local Buddle Arts Centre in Wallsend featured lots of talented singers and musicians. I remember going to see  Robin Williamson, of Incredible String Band fame, perform there, lacing his other-wordly songs with magical stories. I also saw Peggy Seeger perform although she must have been well into her 70’s by then. The gig was uncomfortable though as she was still very much the militant feminist, blaming men for all the world’s ills, so being a man, I was made to squirm in my seat quite a lot! Tyneside also had its own resident singer-songwriter and superb guitarist: Isaac Guillary, who sadly only achieved local fame. Going back to the folk scene I enjoyed the celtic music of Capercaille, their reels and jigs interspersed with beautifully sung gaelic ballads. I saw them at the now defunct Riverside club. My lodger had bought me one of their lovely albums for Christmas.

I suppose one of the most famous musical “events” of the 1990’s was the emergence of “Britpop”. This was largely a contrived label made up by the press to help sell its papers. It also helped to sell lots of records of the four main groups involved: Oasis, Blur, Pulp and Suede. British pop/rock groups of the mid-90’s were hyped up to be the modern successors of the famous bands of the 6o’s. The media got excited that the Brits seemed to be conquering the pop world once again. A typical example of this hype was the so-called “Battle of the bands” when the latest singles by Oasis and Blur were supposed to be having a race to be Number 1. Just for the record, Blur won. Well, where did I stand in all this? I must hold up my hands and admit that, rightly or wrongly, I’ve never shown much interest in Suede. Maybe I should stream them now and give them a belated chance?  They just never caught my ear. One can never say the same about Oasis, who were probably the most hyped band of the four. Oasis were in your face all the time and seemed to take up permanent residence in the tabloids with their “bad boy” antics and controversial pronouncements. I didn’t like them at all despite their incredible success.( or maybe because of their incredible success.) I found their guitar based sound quite derivative of 60’s groups like The Beatles and their unsavoury behaviour to be a pale imitation of the Stones or the Pistols. I was irritated by their whining singing style and hated their sneering arrogance. I got to hear their songs because they were never off the radio but I never got to like them or their music. I felt they were greatly over-rated.

So that left Blur and Pulp. I liked Blur but never grew to love them. I could see their songs were clever and well performed and I admired the way they constantly experimented with different instruments and styles. I particularly enjoyed the LP “13” which included both electronic and gospel elements, which takes some doing in the same album. The lyrics of Damon Albarn were thoughtful and increasingly personal. They could also be great fun as in the highly enjoyable “Parklife” album which celebrated their cockney roots. However, I think much of my appreciation of Blur’s music came retrospectively, looking at their back-catalogue after listening to their strange but stimulating  “Think Tank” album in the early noughties.

Pulp were my big love out of the so-called Britpop big 4. My daughter, Catherine, put me on to them, as again, I was a bit slow on the uptake. With my advancing age, roles were now being reversed.  I was now getting recommendations from my children. Pulp had been going since 1978 but only hit it big  two decades on. I enjoyed all their excellent 90s albums: “His ‘n’ Hers”, “Different Class” and “This is Hardcore”. I also went to see them at Newcastle City Hall with Jarvis Cocker putting on a fabulous show-man’s performance. The group had a driving, pop-rock sound with catchy keyboards complementing the guitars. But it’s Cocker’s witty, earthy, often challenging lyrics that makes Pulp’s sound so distinctive. They deal with serious subjects ranging from sex to social class, from the perils of fame to the dangers of drugs, but they often approach them in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Much of the music is dramatic and often looks at the dark side of life. Some are like mini operas. I  remember listening to and thrilling to the tracks of Different Class, especially the title track and L.O.V.E. The latter struck a deep chord with me as I was embarking on a post-marriage love affair at the time and the lyrics captured the raw intensity of the feelings that were coursing through me. And at the same time Jarvis always had that ability to make you laugh with his wry comments on the absurdities of everyday life and his playful but compelling  vocal performances. Yes, to me, “Pulp” easily won the battle of the bands. A little later, Catherine also introduced me to the grandiose, lush pop and clever, quirky lyrics of Neil Hannon’s  brilliant”Divine Comedy” Thy became another long term favourite of mine.

In the 90’s I discovered 3  great American female singer-songwriters apart from the aforementioned Tori Amos  — Mary Chapin Carpenter, Alison Kraus and Lucinda Williams. For this I have to thank a friend and a magazine. G., the friend, was a fellow chorister who also became my squash partner ( a vitally important role) and music gig buddy. She went on a road trip to the southern states of the USA and while driving around in her hire car, she listened non-stop to some of the many American radio stations that crowded the airwaves.  She subsequently ended up spending much of her holiday money on CDs! She kindly “burnt” a few copies for me and it was through this that I grew to love Mary Chapin Carpenter. She had been packaged as a country singer but really she was ( and is) a superb singer-songwriter . I loved her 1992 album “Come On, Come On” and then quickly bought everything else she had recorded. She mixed up-tempo, driving country-rock with tender, emotional, personal songs. Her lyrics often spoke to me as I negotiated the ups and downs of my unstable post-marriage world . Most of all I found her rich voice so soothing and beautiful. I was also lucky to see her live at York’s Barbican centre — an excellent show shared with Shaun Colvin, who I also grew to like. The warmth of Mary Chapin’s personality shone through and made it a very special evening.

It was the same story with Alison Kraus. She possesses an absolutely exquisite voice and I fell in love with her blue-grass style music after acquiring several excellent albums and going to see her in concert. Kraus led me into an appreciation of a whole new genre of popular music, as I had never considered blue-grass before. It was exciting to branch out  and explore new musical worlds. I in fact became interested in American roots music in general, a genre that was increasing in popularity under the heading of “Americana.” I was to discover a rich vein of new artists by going along this route. All this brings me to the magazine that I mentioned earlier. “Uncut” specialises in music and film  and once I got into it and took out a subscription, a whole wealth of music fell into my lap. Every month it also included a sampler CD so one could listen to some of the music that was being reviewed. Thus I discovered the excellent Gillian Welch and her down to earth but lovely roots music recorded with Dave Rawlings, sometimes in her own living room. One day I read a letter from someone who said he couldn’t stop playing “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” by Lucinda Williams. So I took a risk and went out and bought it. This was before the age of music streaming and youtube. ( at least for me it was.) Pretty soon I couldn’t stop playing it either. It’s a classic southern country rock album, with strong, haunting songs and dynamic guitar work . Lucinda’s voice expresses raw, searing emotion, all delivered in her rich Texan drawl. Fantastic!

The trouble with music blogs is that it’s difficult to avoid boring lists. That’s often how we categorise pop music — into charts, and catalogues of names and titles. UNCUT magazine is a serial offender. The thing about “Best Of” music lists is that they are totally subjective. Someone will always disagree with your choices or get upset and even angry if you’ve missed their choices out. As this is a purely personal blog I make no apologies if I have omitted your favourites. When the list is retrospective, memory also plays a part in perhaps distorting the original picture. I’ve tried to give a flavour of my musical experiences and preferences from the 1990s, and some of the events surrounding them. Even as I try to wind this blog up, more musical memories flood into my mind: the thrilling feminist anger of Alanis Morrissette on her mega album “Jagged Little Pill”; the  futuristic, electronic soundscapes and weird but wonderful singing of Bjork: the 90’s offerings of Neil Young, especially “Harvest Moon” and “Rockin’ in the Free World”; the exciting  hip-hop tinged rock of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers; the powerful songs and sensational singing of Jeff Buckley, son of the incomparable Tim, on his only album “Grace” ( before his young life was cut tragically short); the bombastic, wild, witty art-rock of Oklahoma’s “The Flaming Lips”. I will even admit to obsessively listening to the top selling, radio friendly albums of Dido and David Grey, before I suddenly got sick of them. Then there were the artists such as Mary Black and Eddie Reader, whom I loved for their beautiful voices but whose material gradually got more and more comfortable and middle of the road, until I stopped listening. I also remember a phase of constantly listening to Cheryl Crow, but then dropped her as suddenly as I had discovered her. The Beat goes on, as Cher used to sing.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my musical journey through the 90’s. It was a turbulent decade for me personally, but no matter whether I was ecstatically happy or totally depressed, I could always find something to match my mood and lift my spirits. Playing, singing and listening to music help me negotiate through the emotional minefield.

PS — All that, and I still forgot to name-check The Verve! Their “Urban Hymns ” was one of my top albums of the later 90’s.

Vintage Man.

19 Sep

I’ve recently been feeling my age. I am 66 years old. The signs are all there. I have less energy and after a busy day, usually creep off to bed well before 11pm. I sometimes grumble about the younger generation and gently mock the technologies they are addicted to ( until I get into them  myself.) I have put on a late middle age/early old age spread and need to lose a couple of stone at least, but I cannot be bothered to join a gym or employ a personal trainer. Although I still look forward to plenty of times in the future, I increasingly hark back to the past. I recently had a coffee with my 90 year old mum and two of her chapel mates They all agreed that life would be much better if the “olden days” could be brought back again. Life seemed to have speeded up around them. They were increasingly bewildered by the frantic pace of change and multiple choices they are constantly bombarded with. I sympathise and empathise with the 3 old ladies to a certain extent. Even just going back to my own childhood in the 1950’s and 60’s, life seemed so much simpler, calmer and more pleasant. The roads were much quieter, there were only a couple of channels on the TV, there was no Internet and no social media sites to shower us with trivia and worry us about “keeping up.” With my rose-coloured glasses on, I can truly state: ” Those were the days!”

Yes, I should be feeling “past it” whatever “it” is, and should be gradually moving out of the main swim of things. I am retired and my teaching career is over. My children are all adults and no longer depend on my financial support. In many ways I have become a more peripheral figure in society. Yet, ironically, in recent years, it seems that I have become more and more trendy. This is because, you see, I am a genuine “vintage” person. “Vintage” is an extremely popular concept these days. People have “vintage” tea parties. Couples arrange “vintage” weddings. Cafes offer “vintage- style” afternoon teas. “Vintage” television shows are resurrected and rescreened, such as the current series of favourite BBC sitcoms. Collectors comb charity and antique shops for “vintage” items from tea sets to table cloths, from bric- a- brac to toys, inspired by daytime TV shows such as “Bargain Hunt.” Baking, the activity that was done in the past out of necessity, is now all the rage, even though we can easily buy all the items from the supermarket. The baking and cupcake craze is popularised on Facebook and other sites  and by phenomenally successful TV shows like “The Great British Bake Off.” For some reason, there seems to be a great thirst for items and activities from the recent past. Maybe some of this is generated by a powerful wave of nostalgia. Maybe people yearn for a simpler, less stressful time when Britain was still “great.” How else can one explain the enduring popularity of “The Archers” on radio or “Coronation Street” on TV? In those days, people talked to each other a lot more instead of being cut off in their private worlds of electronic devices. As far as I can work out, “vintage” means anything from the 1940’s, 50’s and early 60’s. And guess what — I am a real-life “vintage” human being! I don’t need to watch “Bake Off” to find out how to make cakes, bread and biscuits, as 60 years ago I watched my mum and my grandma doing it in real life. I remember being sent to the corner shop to buy the yeast that would later make the dough rise. I recall my mum placing trays of dough balls on the hearth near the open coal fire and the heat gradually baking them into delicious bread-rolls. This is why I am so excited! Surely a real vintage person will now be of great interest and be in great demand at the numerous vintage events? After-all, a tea-pot or a sundae dish cannot tell you what life was like back in the 1950’s , but I can!

I was recently at a vintage garden party for a charity I support. I wondered round expectantly, hoping to get into fascinating conversations about outside toilets, tin baths and coal houses. I was all ready to explain to an enthralled audience how we enjoyed a fruitful life without any need of the Internet and how we entertained ourselves before television. I wanted to tell people what it was like listening to the music of Vera Lynn, Perry Como or Val Doonican, before the age of the Beatles and Stones. Elvis had burst on the scene in the later 50’s of course but he was banned in our house. However, much to my disappointment, those “vintage” conversations never took place. The older people would have remembered those times anyway and probably wanted to forget about them. The younger people never asked me any questions and were never more than a few seconds away from checking their smart-phones. It was a very good crowd of people, all chatting away and eating their sandwiches and cakes off “vintage crockery” and drinking their tea from “vintage” tea pots. However,nobody was interested in finding out about real vintage life back in the day. I would have had to go to the Local History Society for that type of conversation. It was disappointing. I never got to tell them what is was like getting undressed in a unheated bedroom, or marvelling on a winter’s morning at the wondrous patterns “Jack Frost” had made on the window pains. Maybe I was just an old irrelevance after-all? I was just fooling myself, thinking I had become trendy at my advanced age. It was just silly, wishful thinking!  Then I remembered this blog, and decided to write a little bit about “vintage times” to my captive audience.

You see, I really do  remember the days before television came to rule the living room. I know it’s a cliché, but we truly did make our own entertainment back then. For example, my family loved doing giant jig-saw puzzles with up to a thousand pieces. My mum, dad, sister and I would all gather around the dining table to make our contribution to the evolving picture. The sky or trees were particularly difficult. One piece of blue or green was very much like another, or so it seemed. First of all, we had to sort out all the straight edged pieces, for these would make up the border. Then all the different colours or subjects would be sorted and placed into groups, ready to be eventually slotted into their correct places. It was a great family activity, bringing us all together after a busy day at work or school. It taught us patience and deferred gratification. It taught us categorisation and colour appreciation. It gave us socialisation and cooperation skills which stood us in good stead in later life. Sometimes it took many sessions to finish. If the jigsaw was unfinished when it was time to eat, we simply laid the table cloth gingerly on top of it and ate our meal extremely carefully, not wishing to spoil our emerging masterpiece. When the puzzle was finally completed we got a great feeling of satisfaction and pride. I particularly enjoyed doing pictures of railways featuring snorting steam locomotives. My dad was a railwayman. It helped to engender a lifelong passion for trains and keeps me linked to my father  to this day even though he is sadly no longer with us.

If you think that all that sounds very exciting, just wait till I tell you about “clippy mats!” In line with the current craze for all things “vintage” there is now a big revival of interest in this old, home-based method of rug making. In the north-east of England, where I now live, they are called “hooky” or “proggy” mats. In Derbyshire they were known as “clippy mats” or “rag-rugs.” It was another family activity before the age of television. Maybe the radio would be on in the background. Making these rugs or mats was a common activity in working-class homes in the north up to the middle of the 20th century. Our family made them in the 1950s. They were hand made from old socks, rags and other recycled fabrics. These were the days of post-war austerity when many items were in short supply and it was regarded as a crime to waste anything. These were the days of darning socks and mending old clothes instead of throwing them away  or donating them to charity shops. Well known phrases were: “make do and mend” and “waste not, want not.” So it was that we made our own rugs from recycled rags. I know it sounds very Dickensian but it’s true. These hard-wearing rugs and mats kept our feet warm before the days of wall-to-wall carpeting.

First of all, the family would set to work, cutting the old material into little strips. They would be about as long as a match-box. Then a large piece of hessian or sacking would be stretched across a frame and secured. This frame was placed on the dining table. The hessian would be arranged with the wrong side of the mat facing us. Once the strips of material had been prepared, we armed ourselves with little metal “prodders” and set about pushing or prodding the strips through the hessian backing. Somehow each strip of material was secured ( I cannot remember how) and the result was that on the other side, a thick, colourful rug emerged. It had a shaggy, long pile. Once it was placed down in front of the fire, we were all very proud of our creation.

Nowadays, mat-making is all about pleasure, but in those “vintage” days , for poorer families, it was a necessity. As well as keeping our feet warm, the mats also made good bed covers. It was another great activity that brought our family together and strengthened our relationships. Recently my daughter has learnt how to make these “proggy” or “clippy” mats at a skills- sharing session up in Whitley Bay where she lives. I also came across a “proggy” mat maker at an arts festival in Staithes on the North Yorkshire coast. Seeing her pushing the strips of material through the sacking took me straight back to my childhood and the family rug/mat making sessions we enjoyed in the 1950s. I talked to the lady and she said quite a lot of people had spoken to her about doing this when they were children.

Obviously there are lots of things I could tell you about life in the real “vintage” days. It was not all hunky dory. I remember the long process of making a coal fire instead of merely flicking a switch to get heating. I remember bath-time, when water had to be heated up in a copper which was like a large kettle. The water was then poured into a tin bath which usually hung on a nail in the outside wall. My dad would wash me very roughly at one end, while my mum washed my sister, considerable more gently, at the other end. The most recent time I saw such a tin bath was in a museum! I remember the outside toilet which was very cold and uncomfortable in winter, and the hard, crackly toilet paper. I remember the excitement when we got our little 12inch black and white telly and then, a little later in the early 60’s, our first mono record player complete with stylus and our first 45 rpm vinyl records. Just for the record, my sister and I purchased “Bobby’s Girl” by Susan Maughan and “Let’s Dance” by Chris Montez.

I had a happy childhood in those far off vintage days, but don’t worry, I won’t bore you with any more of the exciting details. You probably know most of it already now that the 40s,50s and 60s have become so fashionable and popular. Maybe one day, as a real life “vintage” person I’ll be really sought after as an after-dinner speaker, but somehow I doubt it. These days people can find out everything about everything from their lap-tops and smart phones. Maybe I’m destined to have a quiet retirement after-all, thinking nostalgically back to my many “vintage”, real-life memories.

No Peace at the Piece Hall!

2 Aug

1. HOPES IN PIECES.

Halifax was going to be the highlight of our summer 2016 bus pass tour of West Yorkshire.  We descended into it on the 503 double-decker from Huddersfield, talking to an old lady about her little dog, Doris. When I saw the town’s sign, the excitement started to mount inside me. Yes, I know you must think I’m daft as Halifax is not noted as a hot tourist destination, but I was genuinely thrilled at the prospect of ticking off a long-time resident of my British “bucket list”: the Grade 1 listed Piece Hall, built in 1779. It’s not everyday that one gets to see a major 18th century building. When the hall was built, the French Revolution was still ten years in the future.

The Piece Hall has been described as magnificent and unique, a huge building where thousands of pieces of woollen cloth were bought and sold over many years. It consists of 4 colonnaded sides, 2 stories high at one end and 3 stories high at the other.( it is built on a hillside, as most buildings are in Halifax.) The columns enclose a very large central space where the wool markets were regularly held. It’s like a Greek or Roman temple except it was devoted to industry rather than to ancient gods. Here, in 315 rooms, hand-loom weavers from the surrounding towns and villages would display and sell their pieces of worsted cloth. The Piece Hall transformed Halifax into the commercial capital of the whole region. It’s a miracle that such a historically and architecturally important building has survived the ravages of time for nearly two and a half centuries. And now, I was going to see it! I had given it the big build up to Chris and now it was only minutes away.

However, as we approached, there was obviously something wrong! The entrance was covered in scaffolding and was blocked by barriers. Inside, we glimpsed piles of rubble and dumper trucks were moving around in clouds of dust. A workman in a yellow hard-hat was turning some other disappointed visitors away.  Yes — the Piece Hall was closed. A major 2 year refurbishment which should have finished in the spring of 2016, was still very much ongoing. Our hopes were in pieces. There was no peace at the Piece Hall!

So what were we to do? We were tourists in a non-tourist town and the main place we had come to see was a no-go area. The man in the hard-hat explained that he wasn’t allowed to give us even a brief, sly peek, because of the dreaded “health and safety” rules. He had let some other visitors have a quick look but had been “bollocked” by his boss. Apparently, in the previous week, he had had to turn away a whole coachload of German tourists who had travelled to Halifax specifically to see the historical Hall. The work was running seriously behind schedule because of financial cut-backs of the Tory government’s “Austerity Britain.” Now, the “Leave” vote in the recent European Union referendum was going to pose another serious threat, because much of the money for this prestigious project comes from the EU’s Regional Development Fund.

Back at the Premier Inn, the chirpy young lad at reception told us another big reason for the Piece Hall delay. While restoring the main courtyard, the workers had unearthed around 200 medieval bodies. So work had to stop while the archaeologists carried out their excavation. They found that the Hall had been partly built on top of an ancient churchyard!

The closed Piece Hall doubly snookered our plans as the Tourist Information Office was supposed to be in there, according to our Rough Guide of Yorkshire. We found out it was temporarily located in the central library, except that when we got there, we found out that Halifax library closes on Wednesdays. Guess which day we arrived on? Our hopes for Halifax were fading fast.

2. HANDSOME VICTORIANA.

But all was not lost. First of all, Halifax is, in my opinion, quite a handsome stone-built Victorian town. It has some fine public buildings. It is surrounded by a dramatic girdle of hills and moors.( the south Pennines.) We admired the stately, twin-turreted Victoria Theatre, named after a Queen who never visited it as it opened a month after she sadly died.( the opening was in February, 1901.)  The town has a spectacular Lloyds Bank HQ, yet another neo-Classical temple. Then we discovered the wonderfully atmospheric Borough Market ( 1896), a great place for people- spotting and sampling everyday Halifax life. Chris was very confused by the warren-like, old fashioned Ladies toilets. She entered through one door but somehow re-emerged through another. She still doesn’t know how she did it! The market has a decorative cast iron and glass roof, culminating in an eye-catching central dome.  Beneath this is an elaborate old clock guarded by 4 blue dragons. Around its base was a colourful, circular fruit and veg stall.

Halifax is not a tourist town. We didn’t see any postcards to send home to our mums. We struggled to find a decent café although I’m sure it has some secreted away. It is a busy, everyday town, which for me is part of the attraction. All the honey-coloured stone buildings contrasted with the sharp, shiny angles of the modern Halifax Building Society headquarters. ( now part of HBOS). It was once the country’s largest supplier of mortgages. Both Chris and I got our first home loans there. It is still one of the biggest employers in Halifax. In its large tinted windows I saw the reflections of its grand Victorian cousins.

3. SURVIVOR OF PURITANS AND VANDALS.

Leaving out the Piece Hall, the undoubted stars of Halifax town centre are the Minster and the Town Hall. We enjoyed visiting both. The Minster, first established 900 years ago, has many 16th and 17th century features. Outside it is smoke blackened, a legacy of its proximity to all those smoking mill chimneys of the recent industrial past. Being made of relatively soft sandstone, it has not been possible to clean it without causing irreparable damage. The Church of St John the Baptist, as it’s officially called, has a fine tower and dramatic, dark gargoyles sticking out from just below the roof line. A church member pointed out a deep dint in the wall near the entrance, caused by a parliamentary cannon-ball in the English Civil War of the 1640’s. Inside is a fancy Tudor font cover and delicately carved 17th-century boxed pews, a fairly rare occurrence. There were some Victorian and modern stained glass, but the most memorable windows were the plain ones. Puritan church rules in Cromwell’s time ( 1650’s) meant that the colourful glass had to be taken out. Nothing was supposed to distract the worshipper from the contemplation of God. However, this planned back-fired somewhat in Halifax because the delicate  lead-tracery that holds the glass in place was(is) exquisitely beautiful. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Unfortunately, these lovely old windows have been damaged by vandals and would-be burglars 3 times in the past month, at great expense to the poor congregation. It seems that the iconoclasts did not exclusively live in the mid 17th century!

As we looked round the Minster, we were entertained by a musician practising for a recital on the very old organ later that morning. It had an impressive array of shining pipes. The music added to the spiritual atmosphere. We had trouble making our donations because the 2 volunteers were furiously making teas and buttering scones for the expected influx of visitors.

4. STAR TOWN HALL AND CELEBRITY ARCHITECT.

The other star of Halifax town centre is the Town Hall. built in 1863. It was designed by Sir Charles Barry, the famous architect of the Houses of Parliament in London. It was actually completed by his son, Edward Middleton Barry, following his father’s death in 1860. In 2008, it was voted as one of the top 10 Town halls in Britain by “Architect Today” magazine. It certainly is impressive. It is a masterpiece of the “high Victorian style” and was opened by the Prince of Wales( the future King Edward VII). No less than 85,000 people turned up for the Royal occasion. It must  have been one of the busiest days in the town’s entire history.

So why had a celebrity architect and the heir to the throne both been attracted to a small Yorkshire town which even today is not a tourist attraction? The answer is carpets! John Crossley, who commissioned the Town Hall, owned the biggest carpet mill in the world. It was in Dean Clough, a deep ravine just outside the town centre. His massive mill complex  ( in the end around 13 mills in all), is still there, in its restored form. They’ve done a great job, as it’s a spectacular sight, looking at it from the old iron bridge that still crosses the ravine.( along with modern concrete flyovers.) The mills are now used by modern businesses, shops, restaurants and galleries. We visited it during our stay. Crossley became very wealthy and influential through his development of steam-powered looms, clever use of patents and political activities. At its peak, in 1900, the business he created employed around 5000 workers. Crossley used his wealth and status to win a contest to build the town’s new Town Hall. He was able to attract a famous London architect to design Halifax’s most imposing public building. The road it is on is, not surprisingly, called Crossley Street. Crossley had managed to put his little home town on the map and secure his own lasting legacy.

The Town Hall has an impressive steeple with a clock and a carved figure on each of its 4 sides. The stone carvings represent :Europe, Africa, Asia and America, reminding everyone that at the time, Britain ruled the greatest Empire the World had ever seen. Inside is a grand staircase, a lovely blue and gold glass dome and ornamental plaster work with a repeated “H” motif. After we got past the rather gruff male receptionist at the top of the stairs, we stepped into the magnificent Victoria Hall. It has a stained glass ceiling featuring 12 little domes, marble columns and arch ways and a tiled floor featuring the town’s coat of arms in the centre. Here we met John the Baptist again.( remember him from the Minster?) He is the patron saint of wool weavers, a reminder of where all this wealth and splendour came from. On the fancy, wrought iron balcony of the upper floor, John’s severed head is frequently repeated. Beneath it are 3 vivid red drops of blood, a grisly reference to the saint’s fate at the hands of the spurned Salome.

Even the Gents’ toilets were magnificent. They had decorative tiles, marble sinks and urinals and shiny brass taps and pipes. I thought about taking a photo but didn’t want to get arrested! At opposite ends of Victoria Hall are large busts of Queen Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert, looking over to their son Albert Edward and his wife, Princess Alexandria. Crossley was obviously very keen to ingratiated himself with his Royal patrons.

5. CELEBRITY FACE-OFF.

However, John Crossley wasn’t the only wealthy industrialist keen to make his mark and put Halifax on the map. In the mid-19th century, the textile town experienced a bit of a celebrity face-off! From our 5th floor hotel window, as I looked out on to the nearby hillside, I couldn’t help noticing a Victorian church with a very tall, soaring spire.  It’s the biggest church spire in Halifax. This is All Souls Church, designed by another celebrity architect from London: Sir George Gilbert Scott and paid for by another fabulously wealthy mill owner: Edward Ackroyd. Gilbert Scott had also designed the famous and still very impressive St Pancras Station and Midland Grand Hotel in London. He always claimed that All Souls’ was his finest church. Like Charles Barry, he had been lured to this Yorkshire Pennine town by the money of a rich industrialist, desperate to make a name for himself and secure his legacy. Ego-tripping and celebrity culture are not confined just to the 21st century. The only difference is that in the 19th century, the “celebs” didn’t take to Twitter or pose in gossip magazines; instead they built town halls and churches and put up statues of themselves.

Edward Ackroyd owned textile mills in Halifax and nearby Copley. His mills produced worsted cloth, commonly known as “stuff.” The Ackroyds were the largest worsted manufacturers in the country. Worsted woollen cloth has parallel fibres which don’t trap air so it has a smoother, harder surface and was ( is) cooler to wear than other types of cloth. It’s surprising what you can learn when visiting museums! We visited the charming and quirky Bankfield Museum which used to be Edward Ackroyd’s Italianate -style mansion, built from the profits of his lucrative business. It’s grounds and gardens are now a pleasant and peaceful public park. Ackroyd’s statue stands in front of the church he commissioned in the High-Gothic style. Sadly, the church seems to be closed, a relic of a bygone era, when everyone wanted to ( or were expected to) attend Christian worship. Despite its magnificence, All Souls today looks slightly forlorn.

6. BENEVOLENT PATERNALISM.

On the slopes below the museum and church are the neat houses, shops and squares of Ackroydon, the model village that the mill owner had built for his workers. It’s like a smaller version of Saltaire which fellow industrialist Titus Salt had built in nearby Shipley. Akroyd wanted to look after his employees by giving them decent houses and facilities. However, this no doubt came at the price of individual freedom, as they would have had to follow all their employer’s rules and regulations. It’s another example of Victorian benevolent paternalism that can be found at Saltaire, at the Cadbury family’s Bournville, Robert Owen’s New Lanark near Glasgow , the Fry family in York and various others. It was another era. Sadly the man at the tourist office warned us not to visit Ackroydon after dark as it can be a distinctly dodgy area nowadays. Ackroyd’s vision has faded, his statue is largely ignored and his church lies empty. Still, Ackroyd, like Crossley, had his day and both helped to put Halifax into the national spotlight, at least for a while.

7. A REAL TOWN.

So Halifax has lots of interesting stories to tell and I haven’t even mentioned the infamous guillotine-style gibbet that stands on the edge of the town centre.( its a modern replica of the gruesome original which efficiently despatched many a thief and highwayman.) In spite of its lack of postcards and touristy tea-shops, it is a fascinating place to visit. It’s not on the regular coach tour itinerary or regularly featured in glossy  brochures, but that worked in our favour. We didn’t have to queue to get into places or run the gauntlet of souvenir shops. Halifax is still a real place, not an artificial tourist creation — and all the better for it. And, when the Piece Hall finally reopens, we shall visit it again.

 

 

 

 

Pennine Bus-Hopping — Huddersfield.

24 Jul

It all began when I read the unforgettable opening pages of J B Priestley’s great novel: “The Good Companions.” The reader hovers dizzyingly above the Pennine hills, which form the dark, “knobbly backbone” of northern England. Slowly, as if on some aerial computer image, we zoom in to focus on the central area of uplands, “where the high moorland thrusts itself between the woollen mills of Yorkshire and the cotton mills of Lancashire.” We hear the lonely cry of the curlew, sweep over brooding, dark peat-bogs and catch glittering glimpses of the moorland tarns. Finally, we home in on a town, a large mill town, with its “host of tall chimneys” and “rows and rows of little houses “climbing up the steep valley-side. This we find is “Bruddersfield”, a thinly disguised amalgam of real-life Huddersfield and nearby Bradford. Priestly was born in Bradford in 1894. Chris and I decided to visit Huddersfield to discover the modern reality behind Priestley’s classic creation, since he wrote those evocative lines back in 1929.

It was the second of our “Hills and Mills” bus-pass trips, pottering around the old textile towns of the south Pennines, using our free travel-passes.( one of the few perks of being over 60!) In our first odyssey, in 2012, we had explored the hills, moors and mill towns of east Lancashire. This time we were to visit their West Yorkshire cousins. I rather like the idea of holidaying in places that are not recognised resorts. They are not full of people taking selfies in front of famous landmarks but just consist of ordinary people going about their everyday lives. I sneakily enjoy the look of incredulity on some peoples’ faces when we tell then where we’re going. I think it’s good to do something unpredictable and to test out my theory that every place is interesting if one is willing to be interested in it. So Huddersfield it was, followed by Halifax, Hebden bridge and Heptonstall ( all the H’s!)

Thus, on a fine Monday morning in July, 2016 we found ourselves standing at the bus stop at the end of our street waiting for the service 5A to Middlesbrough ( we live in Cleveland on the north-east coast.) Inevitably it was a tense 9 minutes late. We worried about making our first connection. A friend in her car stopped to offer us a lift ( We daren’t tell her we were going to Huddersfield!) We declined her kind offer as we were determined that this was going to be a proper, eco-friendly public transport trip with no cheating. We would see local life, perhaps have impromptu conversations with complete strangers and feel part of a place instead of isolating ourselves in our private metal box. Luckily the 5A appeared at that very moment and we were off. At Middlesbrough we swapped our bus passes for our senior rail cards to take the Trans-Pennine train to Huddersfield via York and Leeds. True to form, it was a half hour late.( signalling problems in the York area.)

Nearly 2 hours later we arrived at a rather grand Huddersfield station and, after grabbing a street map from the info centre, stepped out into a spacious square, surrounded by large, stately Victorian buildings, including the Grade I listed station itself, built in 1846-50. John Betjeman described it as “the most splendid station façade on England.” To picture it, think– classical, Greek temple. At the top of St George’s Square are fountains and a statue of Harold Wilson, Prime Minister in the 1960’s and 70’s, striding purposely forward ( but without his pipe!) He was one of Huddersfield’s most famous sons. To the left is the impressive George Hotel where Rugby League was born in 1895. The northern Rugby Union clubs decided to leave the Union because the largely more prosperous, public-school educated players, mainly from the south, had refused to allow payment of compensation for lost wages when playing. The split was acrimonious — an early example of the North-South divide.

On our first evening, we ate at one of the other grand buildings on the square: a former bank  which has now been converted into a very popular Kashmiri restaurant. it served one of the biggest nan breads I have seen!  So our first impressions were favourable. Maybe we had stumbled across a West Yorkshire version of Bath or Oxford full of historical, harmonious architecture? Second impressions quickly dispelled this however. We discovered the unattractive post-war buildings that took up whole swathes of the town centre. We saw, heard and smelt the road-works as a resurfacing operation was taking place. We experienced the heavy traffic grinding through parts of the centre near the bus station, and found the busy, noisy ring-road which encircled the centre like a tight, tarmac collar. We plunged down into a long, graffitied, concrete underpass! OK — I think you’ll have got the picture by now. The highlights of Huddersfield would have to be sought out — the “gems” amongst the “dross.” It was going to be fun! But first came the short trek to our guest house up the Halifax Road.

We couldn’t help noticing that most of the buildings on our road were substantial, fairly grand, stone mansions, sitting in their own grounds. Many had been converted to offices or hotels. One large, castle-like building was now a college, another a dancing school. Our guest house was in one of them, sharing it with a dental practice. Sadly, some of these mansions or villas are empty and in a state of neglect. It transpired that this area was once the comfortable, middle class district of Edgerton. It was a leafy suburb about a mile from the town centre on the Huddersfield-Halifax turnpike. The mill owners, merchants and other prosperous professionals would commute into town in their horses and carriages, before the age of the motor car. Sometimes there was a jarring clash of taste and style. One writer to the editor of the Huddersfield Courier in 1858 described Halifax Road as “too bewildering an affair to cope with; for you have Grecian temples, Swiss cottages, Gothic castles and Italian villas, all jumbled so closely together as scarcely to allow elbow room.” Many of these Georgian and Victorian residences were demolished to make way for a modern housing estate. ( I suppose they could squash a lot more people into the same area of land.) The survivors though, many in the neo-Classical style, are still impressive, bravely defying the relentless march of time, even though this once exclusive suburb has now been swallowed up by the town where all their owners made their money.

The wealthiest and most famous Huddersfield family was the Ramsdens.( nothing to do with the fish and chip shop chain, I don’t think.) They developed their huge estates agriculturally and then industrially, throwing up the textile mills that created so much of their wealth. They were responsible for many of the impressive civic buildings and also for the linking of Huddersfield to the burgeoning rail system as early as 1850. Later, in 1920, the Ramsdens sold their estate to the Cooperation for £1.3million, earning Huddersfield its nickname: “the town that bought itself.” Despite its large 160,00 to 170,00 population, Huddersfield is still only a town. It has never bothered to apply for city status, although it could easily do so. I read somewhere that it claims to be the largest “town” in Europe.

We started our heritage trail at the impressive, Art Deco, 1930’s Library and Art gallery. The art collection there is very good, including pieces by: Henry Moore, Francis Bacon and L S Lowry. ( Huddersfield matchstick people scurrying around in the shadows of the giant mills instead of Salford/Manchester ones.) Outside, by the steps are two  symbolic statues of a boy and a girl, representing the spirits of literature and art.(“Youth Awaiting Inspiration by James Woodford, 1939.) Near the Library is the richly decorated stone Town hall (1881) which doubles up as a concert venue. However, just opposite the lovely library is the controversial, modern Queensgate Market ( 1968-70) which is pretty ugly. Local people either love it or hate it. Surprisingly it is a listed building . Inside are 21 unique, concrete roof-umbrellas, looking like giant curving shells. I was all ready to be impressed and entered the market with camera poised. Unfortunately the concrete shells were mostly obscured by the mundane market stalls, crowded around them. So it was an anti-climax. I’m sure most of the people buying cauliflowers, potatoes or second-hand jewellery don’t even notice them anymore. On the outside of the Queensgate Market however is another surprise. Who would have thought we would come across the world’s largest ceramic sculpture? It consists of 9, brown-toned, large panels, covered in abstract swirls, entitled:” Articulation in Motion”, whatever that means. ( Fitz Steller, 1969.) Once again, these were largely ignored by the locals as far as I could see, especially as they face on to the southern section of the busy ring road.

I think it was brave of Huddersfield to try to embrace the “shock of the new”, instead of just falling back on to its Victorian heritage. The roof-shells and ceramic panels are not really my cup of tea but are certainly more stimulating than the bland diet of uniform shopping malls and chain stores that many town centres, including parts of Huddersfield itself, offer up. Huddersfield, in my opinion is a mish-mash of the old and new, the original and the mundane. It’s just like most towns really. Maybe one has to have the one, in order to appreciate the other.

We explored a couple of old arcades with interesting, independent shops and had a quick look at the Parish Church, even though its pretty gardens were frequented by quite a few unfortunate down and outs. This is a side of a town not highlighted in the tourist brochures. We enjoyed visiting the late Victorian Wholesale Market, like a vast car boot sale under a splendid wrought iron and glass, curving roof. The actual open -air market- place was interesting too, with its market cross featuring the Ramsden Coat of Arms. It’s surrounded by fancy, old Victorian and Edwardian banks. Their ornate stonework and statues contrast with the flickering screens of their modern cash points.

Another gem we found nestling amongst the everyday, was the Lawrence Batley Theatre on Queen Street, built in 1819. One side of Queen Street is stately Victorian buildings, whilst the other is unbelievable taken up by a multi-storey car-park! Going back to the theatre, it had originally been constructed as one of the biggest Wesleyan Chapels in the country, following a visit from John Wesley himself. Like Mary Queen of Scots, Wesley seems to have passed through almost every town in England, judging from the number of plaques I have read over the years. Lawrence Batley was a local businessman who helped pay for the theatre conversion and thus immortalised himself, at least in Huddersfield. Our jaws dropped as we entered the foyer because we were met by a wonderful display of colourful fantasy costumes created  by the graduates of the adjoining University for their Leavers’ show.

Contrary to the traditional image of the gruff, brusque Yorkshireman ( and woman), we found Huddersfield to be an open and very friendly place. In fact at times it was a bit too friendly, as when we had to make an excuse and flee from the Oxfam book shop because a man was regaling us with all the gory details of an argument he had had with his wife because he had spent £250 of the housekeeping money on 3 military medals in a display box! We also found Huddersfield to be quite multi-cultural. We found Persian and Lebanese restaurants as well as the usual array of Indian, Thai, Chinese and Italian outfits. In the art gallery we saw an exhibition of photographs of refugees from all over the world being welcomed to Huddersfield, something that was very heartening in post-“Brexit” Britain, with its sharp increase in racial and anti-immigrant incidents.

Priestley’s dark mill town, with its cloth-capped working men trudging en masse to the football ground, has now changed beyond all recognition. For a start the football matches now take place in a modern, all- seater, out- of- town stadium, constructed for the convenience of the car. The woollen mills have closed, their chimneys demolished. The trams have bitten the dust and many of the hill-side terraces have gone. The motor car has taken over. For many travellers, Huddersfield is now merely a convenient short stop-over, just south of the M62. Most of the hotels and guest houses are situated near to the motorway. I imagine the town is less self-contained than in Priestley’s day, with many residents  commuting to Manchester or Leeds for their work and their bigger items of shopping. However, the town’s glorious past as a wealthy centre of the woollen textile industry has not been totally extinguished. All those fine Victorian civic buildings remain, as do the mansions and villas on the Halifax Road. Then there are the atmospheric, early 19th century alleys and courtyards off King Street, restored during the construction of a modern shopping mall on the opposite side of the road. This juxtaposition of old and new, existing cheek by jowl, perhaps best sums up the contradictions of the place.

One thing that will never change is the town’s setting, nestling between the brooding Pennine hills and moors. As we walked back to our guest house on our final evening, I looked beyond the rooves of the immediate town, to two, prominent wooded hills beyond. On one hill was a dark church tower, probably blackened by the belching mill chimneys of the past. On the higher hill we saw the stone Victoria (lookout) Tower, built in 1899 to mark the Queen’s Jubilee. It’s a landmark for miles around. Back in 2012, we had trecked up to a similar tower in the Lancashire mill town of Darwin. However, the Huddersfield tower is much further away and we are 4 years older, so we just admired it from afar. All in all, it was an enjoyable and interesting visit and it whetted our appetites for Halifax, the next “H” on our bus- pass trip. Moreover, as soon as I got home, I searched the book shelves for my copy of “The Good Companions”, to re-read  that wonderfully evocative introduction to Priestley’s beloved “Bruddersfield.”