Postcard #8: Wembley

The man has a piece of paper. On it is written ‘Black Ford’ and ‘11.30am’. Up and down, up and down he paces along the footpath, glancing at cars and then at the paper. With the non-note hand, he nudges his sinking spectacles hard against the bridge of his nose, sighs and slumps against a wall. Luton Airport’s pick-up area does this to you.

He shows me the piece of paper. “Have you seen a Black Ford, mate?” I have not the heart to tell him that I couldn’t tell a Ford from a motorbike, that cars have long eluded me, but I settle for what I hope is a sympathetic shake of the head. In front of us, a man in shades performs an Irish jig around a ginger-haired bloke who looks like he wants to cry. Drivers toot and gesticulate at one another, their arms like the branches of some demented tree in the wind. My fatherly lift arrives and we leave the man looking for his Black Ford. It is way after 11.30am.

Wembley

Football brings me to the Deep South. This is not just any football. This is Middlesbrough. For 27 of my 33 years they have tormented and delighted me. They are my curse and my family. If – and millions are like me here – I put the toil into another pursuit that I do following this football club, I would be useful and perhaps even beautiful. We are going to Wembley, rhythmic, magic-fuelled words when you are lost to this game like I am. Me and 40,000 others, all convincing ourselves that getting the upstairs front seat on the bus or finding 20p on the floor are lucky omens. Not only are we going to Wembley: we are going to win.

On the morning of the game, we travel to 1957. A relative has brought mementoes of his footballing career to show us. There are prim matchday programmes and newspaper clippings gone brittle. He played in the Spartan League, a fair level if you happened to be in Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire or beyond in the 1950s. In fonts that take me far away, I read about Boreham Wood and Ruislip FCs, Tring Town and Sandy Albion. ‘Brown’s Brilliant Goalkeeping Prevented an Utter Rout’, a headline shouts at me. Another tells of ‘The Massacre of Stonecross Road’ (Hatfield Town 8 v 3 Baldock Town).

Old adverts take your hand and lead you gently down the high street. J. Hartrop Tobacconist (‘Dutch and English Whiffs’), Days’ Off Licence (‘For all your drink in the home’) and Hollier’s Tuberculin Tested Milk. How about we look in on EC Careless, Ironmonger or Peter Goodfellow with his Distinctive Menswear? And let us not forget that Boreham Wood Cage Bird Society meets on the first Wednesday of every month.

I am still thinking of Bob the Barber and the Hankin Drapery as we jolt and grind through Metroland and into London. The old beast fascinates me. As ever, it is not the parts or buildings I am supposed to be interested in, but the housing estates and scruffy shop parades. All those lives, all those stories, piled together like chaotic toys on a jumble sale table.

This, though, is a football day, and therefore one for the heart rather than the head. My fellow reds swarm around King’s Cross. Half of Middlesbrough is here, the old with steel in their blood and the young who may well have to take their chances elsewhere. Work for the latter has vanished since the days when ‘Made on Teesside’ was chiselled into bridges straddling Sydney Harbour and the Tyne. Here is a town and team whose identities are interspersed. Hope is pinned on shirts with lions on the crest, and hope is important.

The escalators down into the earth are caked red too. I feel wildly, hypnotically optimistic. What is the point of going to football if you don’t? I look across the Tube carriage at my Dad. We were first here to see our team in 1990. I remember flashes of the game, and more about the riot afterwards – Police horses bolting and me picking up a Middlesbrough flag with Doc Marten prints across it, a spoil of war. I still have it. I ask him if he thinks we will win. “Of course we will.” He looks as petrified as I am beginning to feel. Somewhere between Kilburn and Dollis Hill, I am remembering that we actually have to play another team to win, and not a bad one at that. Wembley Way feels like the centre of the world. This is an occasion. We sing our way in. We are going up.

Norwich City score two early goals and the game is over, really, by half-time.

Again and again, I look around our half of the ground, up and down, up and down. We needed this. Our town needed this. All those hopes and stories turned to sadness and thoughts of work tomorrow. The final whistle goes. Other people’s joy is hell. We trudge and dredge away. “I bloody hate Wembley,” says my Dad. … More Postcard #8: Wembley

Postcard #7: Strathpeffer

The taxi driver was in the army. Eighteen years in the army. He tells me about some of the places he went to, some of the things he saw. I decide not to moan about my leaking shoes. When I mention the rain, he recalls the sound Afghan raindrops make on the roof of a British Army tent. I try to steer the conversation away from Helmand and towards the Highlands, but the driver is not for turning. “I lost my best mate out there. Blown to bits. That’ll be £7.60 please.” It’s an unconventional sign-off, I’ll give him that much.

At the hotel reception, there is a queue. Leading it is an American lady in a hotel-issue dressing gown. “Is my shower supposed to be cold, is that, like, a Scottish thing?” she asks the Spanish man behind the desk. He telephones someone called Stevie and says “the water has gone again”. I check in and squelch to my room. There is no milk for my cup of tea. I phone reception and get the Spaniard. “My apologies, sir. I’ll get  Stevie to bring you some.” Stevie never materialises. He has a lot on, I decide, and head out.

Strathpeffer

Strathpeffer has a calm beauty. It is solidly, reassuringly Victorian, all titan houses with frilly doorways fit for parasols and bulky skirts. Gardens are roomy, many with monkey puzzle trees, lush souvenirs of Victoriana. Decorative iron streetlamps line the main road, a dainty sentry guard. The Grand Spa Pavilion entices my eyes, suddenly the only girl in the room. Its crescent window is like a sad eye offering you a look into another time, but there is nothing morose about the place. It is a work of art, on the one hand evocatively Rule Britannia, on the other like a New England town hall. White and wooden, it is a portal taking the viewer somewhere pleasing. Here once tourists danced, here once locals fell in love. It was a place of learning and fiery oratory too: the walls whisper of the night Emmeline Pankhurst dropped in, of George Bernard Shaw holding court.

Strathpeffer’s setting adds to the feeling of being in another place, in another time. It sits beneath hills, onto which are lodged houses and hotels in cream and stone. It means a content feeling of being cut off from the rest of time and the world, hidden away, ghosting around. The wild west wooden shops are set back from the road and I feel cheated that they don’t have a balcony and a lone rocking chair swaying in the wind.

Inside the mini-market, a lazy store cat refuses to move away from the crisps section. Not even an ear flickers as I climb over it. Two women in their thirties are talking about a mutual acquaintance. “She gives me the boak, that woman. Ties my stomach in knots when she speaks.” The store noticeboard advertises a Snail Race.

Back outside the shop, a boy in that purgatory cusp between happy boyhood and intense teenagedom is on his bike. He is not riding anywhere, just circling, occasionally performing a wheelie. Growing up somewhere like this gives you a permanent sense of waiting for something, even if you never quite know what. In my village, it was waiting to leave. A dog tied to a lamppost looks on, an indifferent audience. It feels like both of them wish they had been raised not here but beneath the bright lights of Dingwall.

I walk down to the old railway station, last train departed 1946. Its autumn-red wooden plank walls have been kept exquisite, shops and things to look at or eat sold from within. The platform is intact too, but look down for tracks and all you see is long grass; listen out for steam rising and all you hear is a waterfall and happy birds. Occasionally railway station aromas waft by, scented ghosts hanging in the air – nothing specific, just tar or mucky steam water.  It’s all nice enough, this Little House on the Prairie end of the line, but a shame. Why not trains fizzing here from Inverness, bringing us to this glad timewarp of a town? Screw the sums and the feasibility studies. Give us life and railways.

Back by the shops, the bike boy is still prowling. My bus to Inverness pulls up 15 minutes late. The driver doesn’t take a fare, instead ushering me on. I am the only passenger and he turns up the radio during a news story about a murder in rural Scotland. I don’t know if it’s a good or a bad thing when we stop to pick up a school-age lad. Another couple of kids get on elsewhere, one carrying a trumpet. At least we can use it to bludgeon the murderous driver, I think. Somehow we arrive at Inverness unscathed. “Is this bus always free?” I ask trumpet boy. “Aye, it’s the school bus mate.” The driver gives me a friendly goodbye. … More Postcard #7: Strathpeffer

Postcards #6: a train south

At Barrhead, a lady in fingerless gloves gestures towards the train driver and convinces him to wait for her. She has bright red hair and milk-bottle glasses. “Ach, she’s no’ quite right” says the man in the seat behind me, before breathlessly moving to “Oh hello Sheila, hen” when she enters the carriage and he realises he knows her. “What you up to, darlin’?”

The train sounds ill. It is just after Christmas and everything has taken its toll. As it pulls into Dunlop it seems to let out a scream. Perhaps it is possessed by the Dunlop Warlock, Tam Giffen. In the 1860s Tam, say stories passed through air and time, did evil things, often with comical elements. Once, he tried to blow a roofer from the top of a house, but could blow only his wig off. In the end, Tam was killed by fairies for giving away their secrets. Shit happens, as they say. Or maybe not.

Dumfries

We trickle into Stewarton and I watch the breath clouds of cold people on the platform. They bellow in sequence as if rehearsing for a brass band. As the train stops an old lady appears suddenly at the window, startling me. She has lines and sadness on her face. She looks for someone or something in the carriage, her hand up against her forehead, and then walks away.

The train all but empties at Kilmarnock, spilling out lives and errands. Here is a neglected town speckled with old buildings worth caring about and thick prim houses on leafy hills.

On the spluttering train, there is no-one else around me and the Ayrshire day has decided to be beautiful. The sun does not climb beyond the blue sky’s knees, but it strains away and licks things golden. It lights bobbly countryside and low white cottages. Just as you expect to see Rabbie Burns himself emerging from such a cottage while pulling up his trousers, the 21st century slaps your chops: a road caked in lorries full of logistics; the noise of silver and bronze clinking and chinking in the pockets of the bored and fidgety train guard.

Neat, proud council estates half-mask the purging of Auchinleck, robbed blind when its mines shut. Maybe nothing seems so bad when you are but a stroll from air that smashes you in the face with its freshness. As if reacting in opposition, a man gets on with his roll-up still lit. The smell fills the carriage and feels foreign, exotic, historic even. I want him to light another.

New Cumnock and Kirkconnel are similar, though I imagine residents would not agree, and fair enough too. Stopped coal has changed lives. Two old ladies in purple get on at the former, spend their short journey talking about Eastenders, and alight at the latter. And all the while out of the window, the countryside gladdens me. It is still and spacious, an open palm as opposed to the clenched fists of the Highlands. The hills are not dramatic, but pleasing. Their outline resembles a dangerously slow heartbeat on a hospital bedside monitor.

The train heaves itself into Sanquhar. Two women with rhythmic accents which seem to jolt in places sit opposite me. One is in her twenties, the other, her Mum, in her fifties. Both have tiny tattoos of tea pots on their wrists. Mum opens a Fry’s Orange Cream and daughter takes the piece offered, which is also a tablet of permission for Mum to speak almost nonstop until Dumfries. “Ah said the wrong thing. I know I did. You cannae say anything to him. He’s obsessed with Aldi. Won’t even go in Lidl anymore.” There is brief respite when her phone rings: “Is that you Dougie? Aye, I knew `cos the wee screen said ‘Dougie’.” Then she continues. “You should see the size of the hoose. It’s too much for her. It’s even got a dining room! Ah’d love a dining room, I would.”

Dumfries station is as close as I have seen in Scotland to that of a model railway. On each side  steady Victorian redbrick buildings wear white brass shelters. I expect to see a porter clumsily rolling about a laden wooden luggage carrier with a lady in a fur coat walking ahead of him. The toots and fizzes of a steam train would fit more than the panting train I have stepped off. It seems to look onwards to Gretna and then Carlisle with dread.

An entire class of schoolchildren squeezes into the small station café. They queue in as orderly a manner as their hormones and personalities will allow them. Chips, chips and more chips are ordered. I join in. Four workmen in bright coats wedge themselves through the door and up the chip count further. I sit for an hour and watch the café empty. At 2 o’clock an ancient man shuffles in with great effort. “Portion of chips please, son” he croaks. “We’ve none left, I’m afraid,” replies the man behind the counter. The old man looks like he could cry, but he orders a toastie instead. … More Postcards #6: a train south

Postcards #5: Nairn

Their names are in a log book. Toppy, Ting-a-Ling and Whistling Dan. Dozy, Peekie Ralph and The Stoor. Big Ian, Bigger Ian and Mole Catcher. Indeed Indeed, Jimmy Two Times and Paraffin Tommy. There are hundreds more, from Browser to Watery Dan via Mad Golfer. Every one of them was a fisherman of Fishertown, Nairn. There were only a few real names to go around, so each became known by a characteristic, an incident or a misfortune. I stand in old Nairn Museum and feast upon every one of them.

Nairn

“It’s ever so quiet in here,” says one museum volunteer to another, “I wish we could play music or something.” But the names and the stories are noises that speak to me. Old pieces of paper in gilded frames talk about Geordie Patience, who ‘was never known to have done a day’s work and lived entirely on his wits, and had a glib tongue and personality which made him acceptable and tolerated by everyone.’ They whisper the story of William Gordon, known as Tiptoe due to a foot injury. The injury left him crippled; he ‘spent his life fishing and rabbit trapping. He chatted to all the visitors at the harbour who would listen to his weird and imaginary tales.’ This is history by tittle-tattle and it makes for a dusty old heaven of a museum.

I walk back into town thinking about creases on sepia faces and sailors’ ganseys, each with a pattern unique to their boat. In the back room of a bakery is a café, all clinky-clanky and ‘och, I see that’s Tam Malcolm died now too’. A German couple poke at pasties with plastic forks and next to me a mother and daughter, both pensioners, chew the gristle. “It makes you go, but it doesn’t make you GO, go.” “I’ll have to try that. Sen-o-kot, did you say?”

The early evening high street is a soothing place to be. The air is crunchy and smells of young bonfires and the coming winter. This high street is sprinkled with independent shops of the sort that make standing and looking-on like watching a 1970s sitcom. Nairn: now in Technicolor. I half expect to see Frank Spencer zooming past Burnett and Forbes clothes store on rollerskates, almost knocking over an old lady leaving Clark’s of Nairn (‘Complete House Furnishers’) before smashing into the window of Pat Fraser Electrical Contractor (‘Radio, T/V, Video…Fishing and Shooting’).

Down another street is The Nairn Pet Shop, ‘Pets Birds Fish etc Upstairs’. In smalltown Scotland, the intrigue is always in the etc. Postcard adverts in the Co-op offer ‘Victorian Antique Mixer Bath Taps £10’ and ‘Victorian Style Bath Taps £15.’ There is too a mattress for sale, ‘Only used occasionally’. In Bloomers a florist neatly sets out tomorrow’s delivery on the front desk. It is four flowery letters which together read ‘GRAN’.

I cross an impolitely busy road into Fishertown. The scale changes, Duplo to Lego. Tiny adjoined cottages peck at the cheeks of thin streets which crisscross eachother. Here lived the tightest of communities, fisherfolk separate from the hoity-toity Nairn folk uphill. They built their houses side-by-side, their backs turned to the sea which gave them work and sometimes death, shunning the other world.  I walk along Society Street and see the sturdy Seaman’s Victoria Hall. In the days of Toppy and Ting-a-Ling, this hall was a social and cultural beehive for fisher families: weddings and parties, political meetings and Band of Hope classes that ended in rousing songs about the evil of drink.

Dark is falling, the glow and scent of the Friar Tuck Chippy calling. I eat my chips outside, as God intended, ambling beneath old lights which once knew only gas and gossip. I reach the harbour, and then hear sea slapping at walls, ringing last orders for the beach it will soon hide. Oil rig lights can be seen in the distance, for there are still pennies in the ocean just as Jimmy Two Times and Paraffin Tommy always said. Water that could have come from the sea or the sky lashes my face and I have never felt more awake. All I need now is a tale from Tiptoe.

I settle for the pub. “Twenty-three years I’ve been on my own now” says a lady to her gin. Two men in golf jumpers, their faces ruddy yet tanned so that they resemble the surface of Mars, talk about a bar they once went in. “Wall-to-wall homosexuals, John. I didn’t know where to look.” I make mine a half and walk back into town, finding the war memorial. Chiselled letters recall that one of many lost boys was Private George I. Wildgoose. This is a town of names and yarns. It has a glint in one eye and a tear in the other. … More Postcards #5: Nairn

Postcards #4: Saltcoats

The town hall clock has stopped. It hasn’t worked for years, a lady in the café tells me. She tells me this shortly after she has asked me if I know anything about Henry vacuum cleaners as hers is playing up.

Saltcoats

The clock is one marker of decay, the sealed-off promenade area another. When the waves aren’t climbing over the wall and scratching your face, the Isle of Arran is visible from here. Then comes Ailsa Craig, a crumbly pyramid. The skies are big, the seas gloopy and tempting. I walk to Nonsuch Amusements, where a teenage boy skives school to put pence in slots. Orange and red lights flash against his pale face, his eyes besotted with apples and pears, pushes and holds. I look at him and I want to believe that one day the joke will be on the boys and girls who swotted up and studied hard, that one day he will make a home and a name but most of all dollars for himself in Las Vegas.

The high street has a sad shell but a busy heart. A church has become Best Buys (‘Everything £1’). It sits near Pound Express and the Pound Plus Mart. The pound goes far in Saltcoats, if you avoid the amusements. A shivering old man in a kilt walks by me and waves a gentle hello to a lady selling the Big Issue. “I’ll get mine the night, Magda hen” he assures her. “Give me a smile” says a graduate-voiced twenty-something in a deceptively expensive woolly hat. He has fingerless gloves and a clipboard and wants me to hear about Greenpeace. I avoid him but a second clipboard warrior is not far behind, like the mole-bashing game back at the amusement arcade. These are Direct Debit magpies, bussed into a poor area full of people with sound hearts. I stand and watch one of them nearly walk into a bloke in overalls. “Look where you’re going” he shouts, “and not at that bloody phone.”

Queues linger in Alex Bicket Quality Butcher and men sense a snifter in the Labour Club can be had before ‘she’ finishes her appointment in Salon 71, home of ‘Massage Body Treatments Cosmetic Injections Teeth Whitening Ear Piercing’. It is a busy, breathing, Usborne book of a town centre, albeit one whose pages are curling at the corners.

Beyond it, there are two grand theatres gone by, one now a Wetherspoon’s, and rows of wide streets where Victorian boarding houses have become family flats. Here streamed the Fair Fortnight Glaswegians, because after the pavement comes the beach. There is no plaque, but in one of these homes was born Otto Kiep, a man killed by the Nazi regime for plotting against Adolf Hitler. History daubs the streets as it always does in smalltown Scotland. Where there are bricks there are stories.

I walk slowly along towards the sea, looking into these houses and catching glances of lives. Three men watching daytime television and laughing. Shift workers from somewhere east? Lonely unemployed Dads finding solace in human company and property programmes? An old man on his own with an empty budgie cage. Where is the budgie? Exercising or buried in the backyard? A young Mum and a smiling bairn, both of them lost in each other’s eyes and in the exultancy of besotted, unreasoning parent-child love. A dog walker asks me if I am lost and I suppose I am, really.

Down by the harbour I stand and look outwards, to islands then…Newfoundland? The seafront stretches languidly, to Ardrossan one way and Stevenston the other, ‘The Three Towns’. I try to hear yesterday’s whispers in the wind, the bustle of holidays being had, of people rolling up and rolling up to shows at the Beach Pavilion. A gust shoves some clouds apart and ushers in the shy sun. It closes its eyes, counts to three and then lets out an almighty burst of sunrays. They skim the sea and illuminate the bricks of Saltcoats houses.

At Greggs I sit-in, underneath an old bicycle strapped to the wall, or perhaps a replica of an old bicycle made in a factory to be strapped to a wall. A daughter tells her baffled mother about graffiti: “It’s a competition thing. They have to get their Tags everywhere.” “But, why?”, pleads her Mum. I talk to a lady called Marion who moved to Saltcoats during the war when her home in Clydebank was bombed. In early peacetime, she tells me, Marion and her family hated the Germans and the Japanese. “Then you meet them, and they’re all just the same as us really, all just trying to live their lives and be happy.” She puts on her anorak. “Ach well,” says Marion, “It’s not such a bad place, this. It just needs someone to smile on it.” … More Postcards #4: Saltcoats

This is Scotland – notes on a book from a writer and a photographer

Here’s a piece that appears as the cover story in this month’s Leither magazine, in which we explain away a book.

TiS cover png

The writer – Daniel Gray
Photographs annoy me. I research and toil away on 5,000-word chapters, and then a person points a camera at something and in a second writes 50,000. If your lap can take the pressure then a browse through Phaidon’s Century will transport and electrify and horrify you more than any history book. Photographs are better than television documentaries and even films, because they let you join the dots and write your own stories; whisper it quietly, but men with footnotes do not know everything.

I met Alan one morning while we were both putting out the wheelie bins. It was clear from his performing of this role that he too was an Alpha Male and a skilled craftsman. Within days, we were staring longingly at photographs of old football grounds and discussing the best way to slice an aubergine (I’ve always been of the long slither school, Alan is a disc man, but we got over it, we moved on, this creative partnership was built to last).

At that point, Alan was a few months into his 100 Weeks of Scotland project. He had the scars to show for it: a car overflowing with Ginsters sheaths and a knowledge of B-roads up there with a highly-efficient rural serial killer. I hadn’t written a book in a while and needed the naked ego rush of pretending to be a proper author. One afternoon while discussing a large section of tarpaulin gifted to Alan by his Dad, we decided to mould words and pictures into what would become This is Scotland. It was, too, we both felt as Marxist-Feminists, about time the mothers of our children spent more hours with them.

Tirelessly intrepid, we began by walking about Leith and then stopping for a brew in the Now Rest cafe, sadly now forever rested. It is possible that the Now Rest closed because its proprietors feared it becoming a living shrine to two artistic icons. Alan fired up the old Citroen, her suspension now so low that to sit in the passenger seat was to chafe one’s bum-cheeks on road markings, and we roared on to California, near Falkirk, to Grangemouth and to Cowdenbeath. Onwards went this hot tin tank of art, conveying us up to Pitlochry and down to the bad bad Borderlands. We went to other places, too, some by train or boat, but I’ll leave Alan to mention them in case he is struggling with reaching the word-count.

What happened was the capturing of a place in time, but an every day one. This is not shortbread-tin Scotland; we both prefer battered disused petrol pumps to hills and glens. I sketched the outline, recounting conversations overheard and tales gone by, Alan coloured the rest. And then we went home and put out the bins.

Govan-9

The photographer – Alan McCredie
The title and premise of our book sound great – This Is Scotland: a Country in Words and Pictures. What a noble idea to search for the heart and soul of a nation. And what a massive fib that is. The true title of our book should be The Search for the Perfect Chip Butty because it was this, and only this, that drove us on, into the wilds, backwoods and urban landscapes of 21st century Scotland. Every photograph and every word was merely a means to get to the nearest chippy or café, and there to wait apprehensively, for those slender, crispy potato nuggets to be placed lovingly between the two perfect lobes of a soft floury bap.

Galashiels was very good, Pitlochry first class. Grangemouth was old-school – two chips rolls on a Saturday afternoon listening to the football on the car radio. Govan remains the great unknown, as for reasons neither of us can now remember we left this surely fertile butty hunting ground for the barren wastes of Byres Road. A truly disappointing savoury fry experience ensued where, in the back of a dark ‘gastropub’ (shudder), two smalls bowls of thin batons appeared. To try and save the day I was forced to do something I never do: I applied ketchup. It was that bad.

Slowly something began to emerge from the scribbled words in Dan’s notebook and the hundreds of images that I now stared at on my laptop. Without properly realising and without seemingly any effort whatsoever we had crossed Scotland from top to bottom. We couldn’t really call it a road trip as most of the time we managed to get home for our tea. We didn’t travel in style – my 1999 dirty blue Citroen will probably never be used by a fictional TV detective. However, having driven for 40 miles with a tank full of petrol instead of diesel, I was happily informed by a mechanic: “Son, these engines were built by the Nazis to take over Europe. Indestructible.”

All around us, though, Scotland seemed to be subtly changing. Something was beginning to awaken under the grey winter skies, and as the seasons advanced would come more and more to the fore. Here was a nation seemingly looking at itself and being slightly startled by what it saw. The hills were alive with the sound of rhetoric. It was a pleasure to be out and about in the country at this time. Not judging, just watching. In a slightly creepy way, going by some of the images…

Now, as my word-count reaches a happy end I have no need, as Dan speculated, to talk of journeys by rail or sea. What goes on the boat will stay on the boat. And as for the greatest chip butty of all? You’ll have to wait: we may yet wrench a book out of it.

'Doon the watter' on board the Waverley Steamer from Glasgow to LargsMore This is Scotland – notes on a book from a writer and a photographer

Postcards #3: Holiday

Padstow new medley

On the blue wooden door there’s a sign. Its words are written in black marker pen. ‘Sadly Cat Rescue has once again been targeted by a thief who manhandled the padlocked moneybox off the front door. He was about to depart with it until a neighbour managed to photo him before he ran off, without the box.’ It is a story in forty-or-so words, a tale of cruelty or desperation. The testimony is signed ‘Dora and Belle’, a human and an animal whose names together sound like a cutesy fashion label or 1970s Eurovision entrants.

For the week we are in Padstow, we don’t see Dora or Belle, just the latter’s empty window throne. Every day by the doorstep in front of her house, Dora sets-up a mini-shop. It reminds me of childhood and little girls with their street stalls. She carefully places disused ornaments in a small crate, stacks teddies and dolls in a wooden box and lines a small old drawer with thick novels by Maeve Binchy and Lee Child. Prices are set out on pieces of cardboard, no item costing north of 50p, and customers expected to choose their goods and place their coins in the moneybox. Until the thief struck, that is. Dora’s shop, despite the theft, lives on, defiant, monies now to be placed, the sign notes, through the letterbox. It probably gives Dora pleasure and worth, her life valid as all others – rich, poor…even desperate.

Ten footsteps from the former Alms House in which Dora and Belle mind their own, one celebrity chef has a café and a souvenir shop, while another has a restaurant selling pork, lettuce and eel for £29. Cornwall masks poverty and sadness well. Every day here we walk heavenly streets that all seem to lead to the same figure: a handsome young homeless lad who carries a board asking for ‘any type of work.’

We are on holiday, though. If nothing else, holiday is about shutting the world out. My daughter gives “Cat Girl” a holiday quid through the letterbox, and I suddenly feel better. Each day we walk tight and dandy streets of hanging baskets and ivy, chase living things across a meadow and warm the freezing sea. I become generally bewitched with an England I’ve only previously seen on ITV dramas. We hang about the harbour listening to tinkling boat bells and watching kids from Leeds and Leicester fish for crabs. “I can’t get any today, Grandpa” says one lad. “One day you’re the statue, the next you’re the seagull” says his Grandpa. The boy looks pityingly on this seemingly mad old man he loves and says “can I have chips now?”
Ice cream

The best in town are from Chip Ahoy. It has a rhythmic list of former owners on the wall, like a Rotary Club roll call of Chairmen: Ida Bat, Horace Jones, Peggy and Fred Norfolk, Stan and Cherry Withbread. We meet an old sailor on his way back from the more expensive chippy. He tells us of the boats he crewed, and lights up recalling some now berthed in Scotland. He has only a children’s portion of fish and chips: “I got there and it’s all I could bloody afford.”

One night, I sneak off to the pub nearest our cottage, a faintly glorious old boozer in which a swift pint is impossible. An Australian couple talk with a pair of locals. When the Ozzies leave, a pub regular joins the Padstonians. “Apparently they’re all like that down there,” he says. “Friendly, talk to anyone in a pub. Not like us miserable bastards.” At the bar, the natter concerns an agricultural show starting the next day. The bargirl will only go if she gets free tickets from “that bloke who stays every year…you know, the tall one with the hat.”

That next day comes. We visit a more functional town nearby. A lady falls from her mobility scooter and into the road. Six different people rush to help, each slightly less charitable when a half-done bottle of vodka rolls from underneath her jacket. The bus back to Padstow hits a traffic jam outside the agricultural show and I pass the time looking for a tall man in a hat. A teenage girl, her Mum and Granddad begin chatting to us, and a boy from the girl’s school joins in. They’ve never spoken before, but her Mum announces: “I’ve just worked out you pair are cousins.”

The Granddad needs help to get off the bus, and I fumble to some kind of assistance. His upper-half is ox-strong and the arms I grab are hard as lampposts and wide as beer kegs. “Two years” he croaks into my ear as we ease him down into his wheelchair, “two bloody years to turn to this. I was fit as a bloody flea. Now look at me.” I do, and I see eyes filled with stories to be jealous of.

dogsMore Postcards #3: Holiday

Postcards from Scotland #2: Wick

Wick Lowry
The door to the town is locked. Wick is closed for the night even before News at Six has finished. In the old fishermen’s cottages and in the dock owners’ serious mansions they have not yet done the tea-time dishes, but Wick is shut. I rattle the door, the entrance and exit to Wick Station, but it holds firm. ‘Ach well, best get back on the train’ says to me a lady hulking a wheelie suitcase about. Wick has a side door, though, and if you really want to get in while the sun is stickily collapsing, then you can.

On the curvy hill from the station, chiselled words proclaim ‘Some Distinguished Visitors to Wick’. The last left in 1923. The buildings here are silvery-grey and made of fierce bricks, and they line roads wide enough for whales on horseback. Ivy climbs up the library and among black houses with yellow pointing, giraffes in reverse. No-one moves and nothing stirs, though trees planted by a Victorian merchant here and a green-handed pensioner there rattle away. Wick looks at me with sad eyes, yet those eyes have a glint in them. History hangs about, resulting in a certain air, and modern life floats along contentedly, reminding you that this place still breathes. Schoolboys in white oriental pyjamas arrive for karate in the hall, dog walkers grunt their secret language to one another and Shona walks by the water to meet the Tuesday Night Girls in Wetherspoon’s. Someone has written ‘Lee is gay’ on a wall down Albert Street. Passing clocks and pillars and a street named Sunbeam Terrace, I find the concertina steps down to the harbour, steps LS Lowry thought monotonous and gorgeous enough to paint.

On this side of the water is Pulteneytown, on the other Wick proper. This was ‘the first industrial planned town’ according to an information board by an old brass canon. In 1790, Thomas Telford designed a harbour metropolis, water supplies and all, and shortly afterwards 1,000 fisherfolk sailed in and settled. Boats still crawl in and out, their bells ring in the breeze this evening. Rowing clubbers roll in all radish red, somewhere between ‘picture of health’ and ‘heart attack’. Their pints are now earned, and they can stretch the Wick evening in a pub.

After the harbour is the cliff, after the cliff I don’t know what. It feels like the end of the world, and all the more pleasant for it. It is impossible to feel anything but contentedly unimportant and small when listening to ferocious, eternal sea thrashing the cliffs. The smell helps too: a mix of bonfire, chimney smoke and the distillery, which exhales among streets in seamless lines with perfect stone. The buildings look as if Lowry himself sketched them onto the sky. This place has a calculated, permanent beauty.

Back by the harbour I cross over into the original Wick. Above are wonderful skies of a sun that can’t keep open its eyes, changing blues and clouds like soup bubbling in a cauldron. The old high street is sad and beautiful, as embodied in the clock-towered building at its centre. This is two-thirds hanseatic glamour and one-third Original Factory Shop. D.R Simpson Bookseller has recently closed down. A long, final letter in its window ends: ‘I wish you, our customers, a safe and prosperous life and hopefully we will meet again one day, on better terms.’ Other shops survive and will not let Wick fade, their character and diversity seeing to that. Whatsits has two windows, one offering BB guns and the other alarm clocks. Hugo Ross sells televisions and fishing tackle, and has a rifle in the window. There are one or two shops with yellow cellophane draped across their windows, a homely trait from happier times.

Dark falls leaving the yellow glows of cosy insides. Houston’s chippy throws luminous light outwards. I pass by and hear the friers crackle, smell that saintly smell and see teen servers in white coats idly flirting, each hoping the other doesn’t recognise acne. De Vita’s, the town Italian, is cheerful beyond reason tonight. Not one of its red-and-white-checked tables is free. Balloons are tied to the backs of chairs and outside a gaggle of women suck cigarettes before mains are served.

Practice is swelling towards its beginning in the Pipe Band Hall. After martial arts, rowing and ballet girls by a youth club, it is the fourth hobby being pursued I have so far seen. No wonder there are not many people around; the men and women and boys and girls of Wick are busy being useful. Not like city folk, watching screens or hiding indoors. They are doing, and being. Small towns make you like that.

As I walk back to my bed and breakfast, I find myself whistling. I think it is because I want to be noticed and to join in too, to be part of this town at the end of the world. I am glad we didn’t get back on the train.

Wick signMore Postcards from Scotland #2: Wick

Postcards from Scotland #1: trains north

Train window
Long skies and the glowing sun, and that forlorn search for a seat. Those with a table to themselves dread the latecomer like me. ‘Is this seat free?’ I ask a man in a waxy coat and bulky wool jumper. He pivots his head, which carries skin not unlike corned beef, and says ‘I suppose.’

As the train guard ping-pongs and announces that one day we will land in Inverness, Corned Beef begins talking with the three blokes opposite. As far as I can tell, for they speak from a different dictionary to me, they are on their way to a shareholders’ meeting. One of the men speaks as if he is sucking on a golf ball. They are all wearing suit jackets with trousers which don’t match. It is not class war to say that men of this ilk always do. It is as if coordination is giving in to proletarian values; these are men of ramshackle country piles, not neat council houses with a ‘good room’ at the front.

Their faces are very satisfied. The furthest from me has a cloud of white hair which jumps towards the ceiling when he gets excited, usually about share prices or restaurants that serve seagull. It is the kind of hair that has never worried about paying a bill, the kind of hair that thinks all youngsters should be made to join the army. They discuss FTSE like it is alive and a world contentedly turned by oil prices. Worst of all, they flicker not a jot as the train clacks over the Forth Bridge. This is like walking past Audrey Hepburn in 1961 and not turning your head, like humming the national anthem over the Beatles.

They don’t see the hills and the water, the greens and the silvers. They don’t see Lothian skies across from us, or clouds lurking over the Pentlands like the end of time. They don’t see the men in wigs having a crafty last fag in Inverkeithing, or the two girls snogging like their lives depend on it at Markinch. Who is rich afterall?

They alight at Perth and the train seems to speed up. Even so, it always feels as though we are climbing uphill, the diesel engine going into battle with the terrain. We cut and jag through forests and above streams in landscape to make you blush. There are lumpy great hills tickled by mist, and sheep sucking on heather. At Inverness I change trains for Wick, just 25 stations away.

The train is almost empty by Muir of Ord, no-one gets on at Conon Bridge but Dingwall brings Belgian backpackers (two). At Alness, two more people get off and no-one gets on. I realise I have become Dr Beeching, ticking off passenger numbers, and give my reflection the evil eye, as if I’ve looked in the bathroom mirror and found I look like Hitler. A rig means we’re at Invergordon. Isolated churches and graveyards mean we’re definitely in Scotland’s north; grief is not grief without a 17-mile walk added.

The station at Fearn is someone’s house, and ‘Tain’ has 16 letters in Gaelic. The train makes lovely noises like one of Reverend Awdry’s, and I realise I haven’t looked at my watch for a long time. I have accepted that my fate is a day on the train. At Ardgay, a boy sits on a bench in the station. It is one of three things to do here, I imagine, the other two being: go to the shop and find it closed or sit on the swings for a bit. Invershin is a request stop which no-one requests, Lairg is ‘Lairg’ in Gaelic (I like the ones where the signwriter couldn’t be arsed).

Outside Rogart an unidentified (by me) bird of prey claws at something I can’t see, at Golspie the line narrows so much I think the carriage walls are coming in. Dunrobin Castle, Brora and Helmsdale go by, the train picking its way between knobbly hills on the left and a twitching sea to the right. The only real revelation comes when one of the Belgians announces to her impressed Scottish table-mate that she is a train driver and a qualified welder. After Kinbrace the landscape grows huge and almost ridiculous, like some overgrown other planet. Forsinard ‘has been awarded Bronze Tidy Station Standard’ says a sign. Bronze?! It is bleeding spotless. Presumably you actually have to serve meals on the platform surface to achieve Gold.

Altnabreac is an unrequested stop like an unrequited love, and the Belgian talks about the orchestra she plays cello in, and Spanish dialects. Scotscalder, Thurso, Georgemas Junction; the names become functional and every now and again civilisation flickers through the window. The train speeds up, the driver wants his tea, and we arrive in Wick, where the people are wise enough to not give a hoot about share prices.
Wick pcardMore Postcards from Scotland #1: trains north

Midget Gems number 16

A Sunday morning walk across Leith. Up top the air is fresh, and below the pavements are sticky with vodka and coke. Dogs duck and dive to avoid broken bottles, and every 100 metres or so a three-quarters-full drink from last night rests on a wall or step, gathering dew.

The sky is eye-droppingly gorgeous, a blue somewhere between sea and heaven, its sun low and weary. Joggers run from something or other, dirty stop-outs carry stilettoes and secrets close to their chests and old ladies buy tabloids for housebound Mary in flat 2 and grieving Jimmy at number 67. A car pulls up and from its window someone shouts ‘Stevie, STEVIE’; in Leith there is always someone shouting ‘Stevie’.

I’m walking to a part of Leith I’ve not been to before, walking off my hangover with a stroll into the unknown. I’m walking to a place that no longer exists. I pass a church whose lanky spire stabs at the sky and cross cobbles towards a wall high as a lamppost and dense as a tomb. On metal gates in the wall someone has etched ‘VIVA LA FORT’, just as we used to etch ‘I LOVE DANA SCULLY’ into classroom desks with our compasses. ‘VIVA LA KINGDOM’ says the next gate.
Fort2Through a small door within the gate – think urban prison chic – I enter the Kingdom that was. The gatehouses remain, one on either side. On the wall of one is a noticeboard with events and benefit form deadlines that were once up-and-coming and are now dead-and-gone. One of the gatehouses was latterly home to the Warden. ‘Press for attention’ reads a sign, only someone has scrawled the word ‘unwanted’ before ‘attention’ in bright green marker pen. Rebellion is best served sardonic. Cobbles between the gatehouses mark a path to a further gateway. On one of its pillars a sign reminds us that after a Tuesday now gone ‘This stairwell will be secured’; ‘secured’ and then knocked down.

Before La Kingdom was a housing estate, it was, of course a Fort. There are boards up today to tell us all about it – something about men with boats and canons and moustaches, then later men with barracks and rifles and bunkbeds. It is, like much of Britain, a former site of something interesting, though this one has actual archaeologists and their volunteers scraping away like filthy dentists.

But guns and swords and uniforms don’t interest me. I’m interested by what it was next, the thing they have just knocked down in which thousands of lives were schemed and lived out for forty years until demolition day. Where the children of the middle-class now scrape – it is family day at the dig, and kids called Jonah and Martha have been brought along by ruddy-faced parents in Berghaus gear – it is not inconceivable that working-class people rejoiced over their first indoor toilets.

Beyond the pillars a ‘NO BALL GAMES’ sign stands alone in the mud. The wall surrounds this entire settlement, protecting (or hiding) it from the rest of the world. On the far far side I can see goalposts chalked onto it and a street sign for a street no longer there. The last of the cobbles before the mud carry orange letters still declaring this space to be for ‘EMERGENCY VEHICLES ONLY.’ Ah yes, the emergency vehicles, for towards its end the Kingdom was a troubled one – living in Leith you knew the scrunched up faces people pulled when you mentioned it, you knew the tales of stairwell fires and the cheapest drugs in town. In the end, the Kingdom’s heavy-hearted residents voted for its abolition.

A tall man in jeans and a gilet takes photographs with a camera worth more than me. As he snaps away, he talks. He grew up here and it was heaven. They walked on those walls, had real (but dead) canons to play with, and concrete mazes in each corner of the estate. All the kids round here wanted to live in the Kingdom. Everyone looking after eachother, families sharing laughs and deaths, lending fivers and bread. They should’ve had a motto: what’s Latin for We’ll no’ see ye’ hungry? The tall man sighs. He’s left his working-class castle, his magic magic world, and now he’s back looking at the space with sad eyes. He turns away, walks out of the metal gate and clambers into his Aston Martin. The Kingdom did him no harm.

A boy and a girl of 18 or 19 pass me so I turn to watch. They stop at the mire’s edge and look at where their homes once were. “Already seems like pure ages ago,” says the boy. “Aye,” replies the girl, “but we’ll always be fae the Fort, ken.” I walk off and I hope to fuck that life gives them an Aston Martin or anything else they want.
Fort1More Midget Gems number 16