During a recent rainy Monday morning, I popped into Canterbury Cathedral, a UNESCO world heritage site near to where I live.
My car was having its MOT nearby, and with the rain showing little sign of abating, I was hopping from place to place for shelter. The coffee crawl was fun to start with but by about Americano number four I wanted to head somewhere a bit different, and looking out the window towards Cathy’s Bell Harry tower, I felt inspired to be a bit of a tourist for the day, and made my way over.
I have visited the Cathedral tonnes of times over the years. It has played a notable part in our family history, and there’s so much more I could write about it beyond the content of this post, but those can be stories for another day.
Instead, for now, I’ll just tell you a little anecdote about a particular tile in the photo above, the tile with the reddy-orange stain on it next to the black rug.
During one of my first visits to Canterbury Cathedral, in the early 1990’s, I was too young to really understand anything beyond a very basic, watered down version of history. I knew that the Cathedral was famous for being the site of the murder of somebody called Thomas Becket – who had clearly irritated somebody (King Henry II it turned out) – and that it had attracted many visitors due to the belief in miracles which took place at the site after he was killed.
It all sounded quite scary and gory to a seven year old, like what might happen on Eastenders or one of Bowser’s Castles, but nonetheless it was intriguing too. As we walked around the particular area where the famous assassination had taken place, my older sister pointed down at the reddy-orange stain and looked at me with a grimace:
“That’s the stain from his blood when he was killed.”
Suddenly, a scary story became scarier and my infant self felt a shiver down her spine. Numerous questions abounded within – will we see his ghost? Will we have our heads chopped off too, if we stand here too long?
Well, evidently we didn’t, as I sit here writing this almost thirty years later, but there was certainly one long-term impact of this narrative which has made me look incredibly foolish over the years, and that’s the fact that it was only an embarrassingly few years ago that I realised that my sister hadn’t been telling the truth about the unusual stain on the floor.
It had absolutely zip-all to do with Becket, not then, and certainly not ever! I have lost count of the number of people I have given this misinformation too over the decades since; no wonder my Religious Studies teacher didn’t look overly impressed as I shot my hand up in class during year 10 as we learned about Becket, to tell a bunch of nonplussed teenagers of what they could see at the Cathedral.
And there’s an interesting lesson in all of this I suppose. Not to believe everything you’re told, for sure, but on the flipside I ask myself: would I have found the Cathedral as interesting as a seven year old if it weren’t for my sister’s gory story? Probably not. Would that one piece of stone still make me smile and recall memories of a family day out in 1992, thirty years later? Definitely not.
So yes. There’s a lot of history in Canterbury Cathedral. And that small, almost invisible speck, is mine.
On the surface of it, the idea of a weekend away in which you spend almost half of your waking hours in the car may not sound overly appealing, but after being grounded from travel for a couple of years, any time away at all seems a privilege now, and that’s probably the way it should always have been.
We had booked flights to Oslo because neither of us had ever been to Norway and the tickets were really cheap. Granted, this meant going away with nothing beyond an acorn in an envelope for luggage, but that alone was quite liberating, and substantially reduced the amount of time spent packing for the trip. And the number of items that we could lose.
Our decision to rent a car from Oslo airport derived from the main perception that we’d had of Norway, that of green fjords and snowy mountains, and we were keen to see them during our weekend away. From research it became clear that in order to fulfil this we would need to venture several hundred miles north of the city; and from the safe distance of four months earlier, a ten hour journey in the car each way seemed a breeze. Yeah, we can manage that, just need a few snacks and a couple of breaks and we’ll be fine. And we really were, but we hadn’t anticipated some of the characteristics of Norwegian road-travel which we would encounter on the way.
The grand plan very nearly fell apart within the first thirty minutes of our arrival into the country. Just as we were about to be handed the keys for our rental car, we discovered that the allocated vehicle was an Automatic, despite our booking confirmation stating otherwise. The slightly nervy lady behind the desk, backed up by her more aggressive sounding boss on the phone, advised us that they didn’t have any Manual cars available, and that it was this or nothing. Neither my friend or I felt comfortable driving a car with an unfamiliar transmission type on unfamiliar terrain, so we had to almost consign ourselves to a whole weekend in the city but for the fortune of a rival car hire firm who happened to have just the one remaining Manual car available. We snapped it up immediately. The shiny red Suzuki Swift became not only our saving grace but our passport to the fjords and mountains which we had so nearly missed out on due to the rising prevalence of Automatic transmissions in Norway.
After an evening in the city, during which we ate baked potatoes and took out a small mortgage to pay for the overnight parking, we set-off first thing the following morning towards Bergen, around five hundred kilometers north, on predominantly mountain roads. It was a long time to be sat in a car, but it was so worth it. Cruising round the perimeter of Tyrifjorden – the country’s fifth largest lake – within the first thirty minutes of our journey seemed breathtaking enough and I was incredibly excited to see snow-capped mountains in the distance, but this only proved to be the beginnings of some of the best landscapes we’d ever seen.
Before we knew it we were up high within those very same mountains I’d marveled at from hundreds of meters below. There was nothing to see beyond white: lodges caked in thick layers of icing sugar, some visible only by the tops of chimneys poking above the ground, and the occasional flashes of colour from kites being flown by people from Oslo Kiteklubb, decked out fully in ski gear. The sunshine, which gave the white rug around us a warming buttery glow, belied the temperature. When we stopped to take pictures and stretch our legs, we were reminded that whilst it may have been May and the sun may have been shining, we were still on land level with the Shetland Isles, and we felt it! After a quick photoshoot, it was a swift return to the Swift, and on we went.
The landscape on the journey continued to astound, regardless of the number of hours that passed and the number of joint-swiveling seat exercises required to prevent ourselves melting into the seats. Much of it evoked memory of studying Ibsen’s ‘Peer Gynt’ during school. Looking out upon miles upon miles of sparsely inhabited deep green valleys, forests and fjords, you can understand how imagination may run wild in these parts, and how well-known Nordic folklore such as trolls and elves came into being. I wouldn’t know where to start with trying to guess how many Norwegian square meters have remained untouched for decades, but I would imagine that it is a considerably greater percentage than those in the areas we are more used to here in the UK. I also wouldn’t be surprised if spruce trees outnumber people by about a thousand to one.
One of the defining moments of our Norwegian road trip came as we were on the cusp of excitement at being just forty five minutes away from our destination. After hours on the road we were absolutely exhausted and itching to take a break from the Swift for a day, and to actually feel the fjordland, not just look at it. It wasn’t the ideal moment for the Sat Nav’s loyal pink line to mysteriously break by a circle of blue on the screen.
Oh yes: archipelago = an abundance of car ferries. We needed to take a boat to the peninsular on which we were staying. Of course.
It would no doubt have been a wonderfully exciting addition to the trip, were it not for the fact that there was absolutely no sign of the life at the port and no boats about to leave any day soon. We had no choice but to go back on ourselves for at least thirty minutes, before taking an alternative, much longer, route which added a further hour onto our journey. We were tired and a little fed up by this point but still able to absorb an important lesson which would stand us in good stead for our return journey:
Of course, what we also hadn’t anticipated about our Norwegian roadtrip, and what would create a nail-biting delay on our tightly time-bound journey back to the airport on our final day, was the sudden appearance of a fella in a high-viz jacket waving a red light on a stick instructing motorists to wait for an undefined period of circa twenty minutes whilst the world’s slowest traffic emerged from the tunnel ahead during roadworks. With little in the way of visible signage to explain what the wait was about, we had wondered whether the stick denoted a temporary or more permanent stop to traffic, and even reached the point of getting out of the car to ask Mr High Viz, only to be met with a very stony-faced response which was thankfully followed shortly afterwards with a green light on a stick. Phew.
When we had turned down the Automatic car at the car hire at Oslo airport, and refuted Mr. MoodymanonthephoneatSixt’s assertion that “everybody else just takes Automatics, why can’t you?” we had done ourselves an even greater favour than we first thought. On the day of our return journey to the airport, further snow had fallen in the mountains and we were driving through it before the gritters had made their way up there. To say it was a precarious thirty minutes of driving would be an understatement. Not only was my friend driving an unfamiliar vehicle, across sheets of black ice, but a heavy goods lorry had decided that this was the perfect time to tailgate us, and became quite unjustifiably irritated by our caution, flashing its headlights and casting us a long, bullying beep as it eventually overtook us on an icy decline. My friend did remarkably well to manage this and keep us safe, and neither of us feel we would have quite known how to do this on a totally different gear transmission.
From the ice and snow, the unanticipated delays, the lengthy tunnels and breathtaking scenery, it’s fair to say that this roadtrip had been one like no other, and back when booking the trip earlier in the year we could have had no idea about what would be awaiting us.
We returned the Suzuki Swift to Oslo Sandefjord airport just an hour before our flight was due to depart, and having set off from our chalet south of Bergen at 5:30am. We had spent a long time in the car but seen so much of the country that way, way more than we would have seen otherwise, and it only compounded my growing belief that there really is no travel quite like slow travel, no matter how much time it takes and how narrow the window with which you have to do it.
The sun sets every day. No matter where you are, No matter what you’re doing. And it’s been doing so for billions of years…
The sun sets as people dice onions, dust cupboards and stand in queues. And as they fill up petrol tanks, buy yoghurt and watch the news. The sun sets whether you’re happy, hopeful, scared or depressed. No matter how your day went, that orange duvet permits you to rest.
And it never gets any less impressive.
Yesterday evening I met with a friend and was due to head home at around the same time the sun was due to set. The original plan was to get home as quickly as possible – calling in at Sainsburys to pick up a sandwich – and curl up in front of the t.v whilst devouring it.
Even though I was feeling peckish and daydreaming about supermarket aisles, something prompted me to head to the nearby hamlet of Conyer instead, where I could take a short stroll along the creek in the springtime evening sun.
As I walked, what first appeared to be a blazing bullet hole in the distance gradually blossomed into a marbled blanket of pink, orange, peach and purple that cloaked the entire sky. It felt like one of the most tremendous sunsets I’ve ever seen, an evening of magic for which I hadn’t paid a fortune – but instead had the fortune – to enjoy.
As I walked around in wonder, I thought about how easy it would have been to miss this. I thought how about how I could have easily been swapping sunsets with sandwich aisles at that very time, and how much of a shame that would have been. I’d never have even known what I was missing out on, and that ignorance too, would have been a shame.
I marveled at just how much richer my day had become simply from enjoying a show that has happened every day since time began, and wondered how many of the previous episodes I’d lost to dicing onions, dusting cupboards, and standing in queues. And I know that I’m not alone in that, as I only saw half a dozen others during my walk, out of thousands who could have been there. Yet despite what could have been perceived a lack of interest, the show went ahead anyway. I liked that.
I set myself a personal goal for the Summer: see more sunsets! Give that splendid show an audience more often! I think I’ll enjoy this one, and suggest you do it too!
Song of the Day:Dosh – Um, Circles & Squares
I am very much into instrumental music at the moment whilst working on a number of different projects. I find it much easier to keep focused on what I’m doing without the shift of mental direction that lyrics can enforce. Dosh is a multi-instrumentalist based in Minnesota and this is a nice, whirly, almost meditative piece, which is great to study to. I bet it also sounds good whilst walking underneath a sunset 😉
There’s a field near to my home which I first encountered on the same day that we were plunged into lockdown for the first time, in 2020. It seemed to pop out of nowhere and I remember that initial view so well, a golden field of rapeseed baking in the unseasonable warmth of a Monday teatime in March. It somehow seemed to bring instant comfort. I had been strenuously trying to “walk-off” the anxiety surging within about the prospect of weeks blocked from everybody I cared about, whilst also trying to process unfathomable stories of death worldwide, and the only thing I knew I wanted to do in that moment was to keep walking and to take any turn I’d never taken before, and see somewhere new. That’s how I ended up discovering my “yellow square of hope”.
During such a dismal time, nature served as the most wonderful nurse. Like many, I felt that the daily walk we were permitted to do served as a bit of a lockdown lifeline, an opportunity to get into the fresh air and to see other living things, even if we couldn’t engage with them: Fellow walkers. Joggers. People walking dogs. Swans and ducks. It was as close to normality as one could reach back then, and it meant everything.
It was also a time during which I discovered – and fell in love with – much more of the area around me, especially my yellow square of hope. There was a particular route around it which I enjoyed doing each day for the first few weeks of lockdown, a route also including a pond favoured by swans and a gorgeous view of the church spire, but also one twinged with the lingering regret that I wasn’t able to share its beautiful discovery with the people I was missing. I longed for the day when I would be able to retrace that route with them, the day when all of the fear and sadness would be over, the day when I’d be able to take a moment to reflect back and be even more appreciative for their company than I ever had been before.
It would happen some day. The bright colours and soft, warm winds convinced me of that every single time I went on that walk.
Yet despite (fortunately) having plenty of opportunity to have since made that moment, I’ve found myself not really wanting to walk that route again because of its association with a really sad time. Perhaps others have found this with their equivalents. It’s a time nobody really likes to think about though on the second anniversary it’s only natural that we find ourselves doing so.
Nonetheless, the other day, I decided to go there. It was my first real walk in days having been in bed for a week following some surgery. Nurse Nature, with her fresh air-filled inoculations, was needed again and I was prepared to finally resist the mental block that had prevented me from returning previously. I was so excited to see it.
Yet despite it being exactly the same time of year, I was to find that my yellow square of hope looks markedly different now. Still a square, but somewhat bare, almost as though it only glowed when it knew the world needed some sunshine.
But though we are no longer in lockdown, the world still needs some sunshine, perhaps even more so, as it faces a war-shaped battle at a time when people are weary enough from the previous one.
This wasn’t quite the return I had in mind during those 2020 daydreams, but I’ll keep returning and perhaps that yellow square will appear once more. I certainly hope so.
Song of the Day: Weezer – Say It Aint So
During an anaesthetized slumber last week I found myself able to search for only the tried’n’trusted on Spotify: enter Weezer’s Blue Album, which I’ve been enjoying since I was ten years old (thank you to my older sister for having such a great taste in music and buying the cassette in the ’90s). Every single song on this album is amazing to be honest, but if I had to choose a favourite, it would be this one. What an incredible band.
‘Indonesia’ – a name that will immediately evoke images of the exotic. An archipelago characterised by colour: blue seas, white sands, lush green palms and dazzling yellows of Durian flesh alongside the ravishing reds of the ‘rambutan’ (it means ‘hairy fruit’). Not to mention, of course, the ‘Angkots’, which are painted in bright purples, blues and oranges and zip dozens of huddled passengers wearing colourful hijabs round dusty streets whilst blaring out that same old D’Bagindas album from 2010 through speakers that crackle under the pressure of the driver’s desired volume. Sun-faded knick-kacks, accumulated over decades of travel, dance around on the dashboard, never failing to resist gravity with each sharp turn the vehicle makes.
…And the ominous dark grey skies that hang over the nation’s capital, Jakarta, as I sit alone inside a fast-food outlet at Arion Mall in the east of the city. Outside, the rain hammers down on traffic that will choke up the streets for hours to come, but the inevitable arrangement of horns thankfully cannot be heard from the refuge provided by this Mall. Instead, I am heckled by a quartet of teenage girls who marvel at the colour of my skin. Tourists don’t really come to these parts. I am here visiting friends who grew up in neighbourhoods not far from here, and if it weren’t for them, I doubt I would have come here either.
The young girls ask me a series of questions and take it in turns to pose with me in a picture. Picture after picture. The forced smile slowly dwindling into complete lack of expression with each flash from a Blackberry emblazoned with emoji stickers. I have humoured this contact for a while, but now I really just want to be finishing the half-eaten plate of fried chicken that sits before me. The girls ask for my Instagram username and when I eventually return to a place with WiFi I’ll suddenly see that I have four new followers. They’ll upload the photos from our meeting and decorate the captions with #foreigner.
Before I leave the Mall, I decide that it’s time to buy some Batik garments. I have always liked Batik, with its bright, bold colours and patterns. The clothes are always so unusual, and so unmistakably representative of the country I have come to love since completing a voluntary internship in 2010. An assistant with a huge smile approaches me. He is wearing a waistcoat and looks like he could be about to break into song. “Hello Miiiiss, can I help you?”
I immediately reply in basic and broken yet better-than-nothing Bahasa Indonesian that, “I like Batik. I look for Batik”
The assistant’s smile extends further and he begins to rifle through the collections passing me every single item of Batik to try on. He’s a natural salesman who no doubt has Rupiahs flashing in his eyes as I strenuously attempt to voice my approval of each piece using a very limited vocabulary of “Saya suka” (“I like”) or “Bagus” (“good”). Having trialled around a dozen or so garments, I eventually emerge from the changing rooms with the couple of dresses I have selected to go on and buy. The assistant eagerly waits by the door, enthused to hear about how I got on. He is pleased with the items I’ve chosen, but is also keen that I reconsider my decision not to buy a surprisingly rather dreadful-looking black and red piece. Whilst watching him redundantly point out all of its merits another dress catches my eye, and it looks like the size I see on display would fit me perfectly. I go and take a closer look.
“Errr maybe not this dress for you Miiiiiss as we only have this size, and errr you have fat”
For a second I take offence though it’s hard to continue to do so when it’s clear that none was meant. What amuses me most is the way in which a steadily growing rapport could suddenly cease due to a moment of lingual naivety. I smile at my new friend – my new attentive stylist – as he goes on to initiate the payment process before we bid one another Selamat Tinggal(goodbye) forever. Who could’ve guessed that this inconsequential scene, which lasted only 20 minutes and involved a man whose name I can’t even remember, nor probably never even knew in the first place, would’ve stayed in mind in the way it has all these years later? What is it about the characters we meet when travelling? Is it something to do with the language barriers, and how they enable us to view people in different ways? The smiles, the looks, the way in which any verbal exchange ends up holding considerably more weight because it took more effort? Maybe it’s to do with the scope for brutal honesty that is actually somewhat refreshing, for it is harder to maintain tact when you can only speak a few words of the language.
I go out into the rain and join the traffic on the Transjakarta busway back to my friend’s house. A five minute journey takes half an hour due to the clogged nature of the traffic. Equatorial rule dictates that daylight is limited, and so it’s already dark outside. It’s September 2015 and this is worlds away from the Indonesian experience of 2010, where I taught English to orphans in the beachside city of Padang, West Sumatra. Padang hosted a landscape much more reminiscent of the opening paragraph to this piece, but it doesn’t matter, because these real, rugged, unfiltered experiences are all just a part of the world I love. A world that hides beneath a map. A world that doesn’t make the guide-books because it’s not always deemed interesting enough, but a world that’s real and which leaves a permanent impression in the mind of a 29 year old (back then!) woman who originally set off only to eat some fried chicken in order to pass the time whilst waiting for a friend to finish work.
Song of the Day: D’Bagindas – Apa Yang Terjadi
The most apt choice. It would feel impossible not to hear this song at least five times a day whilst out and about in Indonesia, impressively during each of my visits there (2010, 2012 and 2015).
It was early January and it was grey, cold and wet. Extremely wet. Rain ricocheting off the kerb and into your already sodden boots wet. “Why on earth did I venture out in this muck when I could have stayed home and watched ‘A Place in the Sun’?” wet. “I need a new cagoule and a waterproof bag” wet.
And don’t get me started on the cold. It was very cold. Knuckles rattling round pockets like Maltesers being shook in the box cold. “I could be on the sofa with my hot water bottle and duvet” cold. “Should have brought along some soup” cold.
And we may as well discuss the grey. Murky, dirty, shirty grey. Doom and gloom, CHRISTMAS IS OVER, back-to-reality, grey. “I could be in a restaurant having a colourful lunch” grey. “Definitely didn’t need my sunnies today!” grey
And I wondered why I was out doing this lengthy trudge. Through puddles, past roadkill, and wading through sludge. But I didn’t need to wonder for long…
Seasalter Beach, Graveney Marshes & Faversham Creek
Song of the Day:Moondog – Do Your Thing
How on earth has it taken me until now to come acrossMoondog? A blind composer and poet who was known for standing silently on New York pavements for hours at a time in the 1950’s and 60’s, and died in Germany in 1999. This song was written in 1978, but is still completely on point.
A celestial-sounding melody echoed around the dark hostel room as rain pattered relentlessly against the window. As the phone from which the sound was coming vibrated against a vinyl floor, sleepy eyes widened to see a square of black glass, peppered with raindrops and the silhouette of the mountains of Snowdonia.
We are in Llanberis, North Wales, at 5.30am one Tuesday in August, 2021.
My friend and I had set our alarms with the intention to take a sunrise kayak trip across Llyn Padarn, a breathtaking, glacially formed lake which stretches two miles in length and twenty nine metres in depth at the foot of a host of rocky peaks, Mount Snowdon being the most famous.
However, a combination of Samsung’s contemporary cock-a-doodle-doo and the prospect of getting completely drenched was enough to make us reconsider the idea we had conjured whilst basking in the heat of the previous afternoon. But, if the last couple of years have taught anyone anything, it’s that you have to do these things when you get the chance. There haven’t been many opportunities to wake up away from home in the past year, and if you postponed all of your plans until the arrival of better weather you’d barely do a thing.
So there we stood, a few minutes later, shivering hands stoically inflating our kayak by the side of the lake. The skies were fading from black to a watery, charcoal grey and there was absolutely nobody else about, beyond a lone swimmer who offered us a chirpy greeting about having the lake to ourselves as she stepped out into the water and started gliding about contentedly.
By the time we were out on the water the sky had turned into a sheet of off-white wool and there was just enough daylight to make out the mountains behind the clouds. We paddled in a southeasterly direction, taking in stunning views of Snowdon behind the thirteenth century ruins of Dolbadarn Castle. To our left were a cluster of features symbolic of Welsh heritage and history: the National Slate Museum, the Llanberis Lake Railway, and the former Miners’ hospital building. With virtually the whole of this impressive body of water to ourselves, and so much around us to see, the early start had gifted us the kind of mentally energising experience which can completely shift internal paradigms and conjure new dreams. I want to do this every morning, and just who exactly says that I can’t?
We savoured this moment for as long as we could though it was only a matter of time before the weather caught up with us. It was a beautiful morning but it was also extremely cold, and the water – whilst calm in its demeanour – had managed to find its way into our shoes and soak our clothes. Teeth were beginning to chatter. Fingers were starting to freeze. Minds were being seduced by the thoughts of warm hot chocolates and cooked breakfasts. It was time to get out, and shiver on the banks for thirty minutes whilst waiting for the kayak to be deflated enough to fold into the boot. Maybe I shouldn’t do this every morning. Or maybe I wear ten fleeces, boxing gloves, and a spacesuit next time!
After what was the quickest turnaround ever back at the hostel to get changed (nothing challenges the concept of time like the prospect of a massive hot chocolate with cream and marshmallows) we were stood on the pavement in the rain forming the queue for the cafe, Pete’s Eats. Each of the tables inside were occupied and we were still in a pandemic, so “budging up” could not be a thing in this instance. I watched through the window and willed the diners to eat up quickly, though my friend had assured me that it would be worth the wait, and she was right.
Behind us in the queue stood a man with his young son, discussing what they were going to eat. The rain was falling faster at this point, and whilst it seemed a sauna in comparison to shivering on the banks a short while earlier, it was still bitterly cold. I kept thinking about swirling my spoon round a receptacle of molten chocolate, and how the marshmallows would melt into a fluffy goo that would ooze down my throat and radiate heat round my icy insides. As transfixed as a dog by a bone I watched a pair of diners finally stand and take their jackets from the back of their seats, and when the waitress simultaneously approached the door we knew our turn had finally come. The newly vacant – and only available – table sat six, and it made no sense for just the two of us to occupy it, so we invited the man and his young son to get out of the rain and join us.
The breakfast exceeded expectation, and neither of us held back. After the early start, the freezing temperatures and all that paddling, we deserved our massive hot chocolates and our morning feasts. Whilst eating we started engaging in a fascinating conversation with the man. He explained how they were traveling around North Wales in a camper van with uncomfortable seating, reliving his childhood holidays and giving his son an experience to remember. He also shared with us his voluntary work rescuing chickens and the values behind it, an incredibly eye opening conversation about an issue I had known very little about before we met. As we chatted and chatted, his son contentedly dined quietly on his toast. The pair of them consumed very little compared to us, and were gone within about thirty minutes, bidding us goodbye and wishing us a nice day as they put on their jackets and walked back out into the rain, back to their van and back to South Wales. My friend and I remarked about what a nice pair of people they were. The inspiring, kind-hearted man. His well behaved young son, who just let us chat, no screaming, no fuss.
We stayed in the cafe nursing our warm mugs for a little longer to bring our fingers back from the dead, then motioned the waitress over to pay for our banquet breakfast. She seemed a little stuck for words:
“Erm, well actually, there’s no need. That man who was at your table. He paid for you.” “What? All of it?” “Yes. All of it…he said he enjoyed the -“ (unfortunately we’ll never know exactly what, as her vocals were doing battle against the clattering of cutlery in the background at this point, but it’s fair to guess that dining with us had obviously not been the worst experience in the world).
Now it was our turn to be stuck for a words! But why? We had ordered so much more than them. We didn’t even know their names. We thought back to the moment the man had gone to pay for his bill. He had gone up to the counter, outside of our earshot, obviously not wanting us to know what he was doing. He clearly wasn’t after praise or anything in return; he knew he’d be long gone by the time we found out about his gracious act. He knew that we would never be able to contact him to say thank you, or identify him as a hero.
He was just genuinely, purely and beautifully kind. And after eighteen hard months of this pandemic, during which as a society we have seen some of the worst examples of human behaviour ever and been challenged in ways beyond comprehension, these acts of genuine kindness mean so much more than they ever would before. This was about way more than saving fifteen quid each, it was about just knowing that people like that exist, people who infuse the mantra to “be kind” into the world around them not just by posting those couple of words online to look good but actually by being kind. If I ever happened to meet this man again, I would thank him for that first and foremost, and then I would thank him for the breakfast.
We were still speechless as we returned to the car and looked out over Llyn Padarn again, taking in the same stunning views as the morning but this time appreciating the warmth of the heater and human kindness. Not every stranger we share a table with in life will pay for our meals, in fact the vast majority won’t. The vast majority might even snap at us to move, scrape their cutlery loudly against their plates, constantly curse, or use the last of the ketchup before it’s our turn.
But it’s not always about the vast majority, and a majority is still not everybody. The most inspiring and memorable people you will come across in life won’t always be those you have the most exposure to. They’ll often be the ones you encounter by chance, in tiny cafes in tiny towns on rainy days, strangers who aren’t after reciprocation, strangers who are just peaceful and kind, strangers who will always be strangers but who raised a smile and left an impression that you’re still thinking about several months later as you reflect back upon a year. Strangers who inspire a blog post.
Llanberis, North Wales, at 5.30am one Tuesday in August: the morning nature and kindness breathed optimism into the midst of a pandemic where it had so often seemed scant.
“RICKAYYYYYYYYYY!!!!” Harold & Madge “You are the weakest link, goodbye!” Beek-her Grerrrv – ha-ha, ha-ha, ha-ha. “Here’s our Graham with a quick reminder”
If, as reading the above, you either heard or visualised them within, then the chances are that you are a similar age or above to me and would have seen them on the television at some point. I feel confident that most people can identify all five and I feel that way because for many years the majority of us were all watching the same things, and I miss that.
During the 1990s there were several things I would religiously watch: Grange Hill / Byker Grove at 5:10pm, Neighbours at 5:35pm, The Simpsons at 6pm, Eastenders at 7:30pm (or 8pm on a Monday!) as well as all of the Saturday evening classics: Noel’s House Party (gutted I never received an invite),Blind Date, Casualty, Gladiators, and all the rest. Does this sound familiar to you? Chances are it does. Just the other week, among a small group of friends, we randomly established that half of us were still haunted by an episode of Michael Buerk’s 999 where the lady got her long hair stuck in a jacuzzi filter and almost drowned. It was probably only broadcast once or twice, in the mid-90s, yet several of us remembered it well. We think about it every time we affix our hairbands in the swimming pool changing rooms, yet I can’t tell you anything about what I watched last year.
Nowadays, even though my television gets turned on almost every evening in the hope of being mind-blown, there is nothing I regularly watch, and if I do get really stuck into something, chances are I’ll only chat to one or two others who watch it too.
It’s easy to understand why this is. In the halcyon days described above, there were far fewer channels, no such thing as Freeview, and only a fortunate minority of the population owned a satellite dish. The internet was still several years off being something the majority had access to, and barely anybody owned a mobile phone on which they could while away time sending yellow faces to friends. When the weather was a bit rubbish (and remember, this is England) there was only a choice of about four things to do of a typical evening, and they each had their own button on the remote.
There were no such things as spoilers, no world wide web to give away the plot, and you either watched a programme at the same time as everybody else or you didn’t watch it at all (okay, strictly speaking you could watch it back on a recordable VHS, but the success of that was always at the mercy of whoever was in charge of setting it up). Our interest in soaps, sitcoms and dramas was always about the characters, and not the cast’s messy personal lives. Those two things never intertwined, like the media manages to make them do today.
Whilst these days watching television would not be something I endorse people doing too much of, I do – in some ways – miss how it used to be. That’s not because I believe the standard of programming has decreased in quality, but that the way in which we watch it has.
As of December 2018, there were around 460 available television channels in the UK. Of course, not everybody will have access to all of these, but on Freeview alone there are at least 70, and that’s not inclusive of the fact that you can essentially watch any programme hosted by the main channels at any time if you have access to their free streaming hubs.
This magnitude of choice may have sounded very appealing back in the 1990’s – when the likes of the Antiques Roadshow being on would decrease the likelihood of an evening being fun by twenty five percent – but in my experience, it’s turned out to be anything but. In fact, it’s probably one of the key reasons why I don’t tend to watch much anymore.
Earlier this week, I returned from an evening walk feeling shattered and cold and in need of a nice Winter evening on the sofa. I liked the idea of being ensconced in a bit of escapism in the same way I was in the past, and after making myself that little bit more comfortable, took a look through the numerous channels to find something that I could get stuck into for an hour or so. Snacks were prepared for this event.
But it just didn’t happen.
By the time I’d found something I felt compelled to watch for longer than ten minutes, the snacks had long gone, but it wasn’t because there wasn’t enough on the listings to interest me – just the opposite – and I found it hard to settle on one. If I wasn’t fully absorbed by a programme within the first five minutes, my mind wandered to the other listings I’d seen and I’d change the channel and start watching something else. This wasn’t an isolated incident either; flitting between various channels and applications is often the rhythm of my television viewing, and maybe that’s why – in my mind – there isn’t a modern day equivalent of ’90’s soaps and game shows, even though some of those same ones still run.
But this post isn’t meant to sound as though I’m trying to make a first world problem of not finding anything mesmerising enough to watch on the telly. It’s about the identification that sometimes, you can have too much of a good thing. More options to choose from – whether they’re television channels, music streaming apps, careers, profiles on online dating sites, travel destinations or varieties or McFlurry – are undoubtedly a product of the modern age for which we can only be thankful and I would not wish for this post to undermine my gratitude for that. But are they really making us happier, or have they diluted the joy we once took from these things when they were that little bit more rare: classmates bonding over their opinions of Who Shot Phil Mitchell because we’d all watched it (Google now tells you within an instant, it was gravel-voiced Lisa, IF you’d forgotten); Growing to love Track 9 on the New Kids cassette because there’s no quick option to skip and only three other cassettes to listen to; that place you kept going back to on holiday every year because you loved it so much; that one conversation you had time for on MSN Messenger because you couldn’t access the internet for more than fifteen minutes a day. It seems to me that we used to appreciate these things so much more.
My recent fiddle with the remote is just the latest manifestation of something that I have realised numerous times. It’s not always what you want, or even what you have, that makes you happy. It’s just as much about what you do and how it makes you feel. The programme can only be good if you’re watching it. You may never realise how much you love a song if you always skip it after the intro. Distance from home is unlikely to be the reason your favourite holiday was your favourite holiday, and just how memorable can a conversation be if you are having three others at the same time? Spreading things too thin is only a good idea if the jam is toxic. You’re less likely to die after one bite. But if it’s a really tasty, non-toxic jam, you’ll enjoy that bite so much more if you’ve more of it on the bread, even if it means eating a smaller piece.
One of my favourite things about the television is that I learn a lot from it; I didn’t always realise how much.
Something else many will recognise: The BBC testcard was in use from 1967 and 1998 and its predominant function was to freak the bejeezus out of anyone who turned the television on too early in the morning. And some other technical function apparently.
Video of the Day:The Simpsons – Your Putter’s Name is Charlene
What more fitting for this post than to break from tradition by including a video as opposed to a song, and this particular one is an example of how the internet can ruin classic tv. For years I’ve laughed at the scene when Homer vehemently suggests that Bart call his putter “Charlene”. It just seemed so random, why Charlene? Is the putter reminiscent of Kylie Minogue’s character in Neighbours circa 1989 or something? Would the wedge be called Scott and the green itself, Madge? I would chuckle internally at my own poor joke whenever I saw this clip. But I recently found out that it’s actually just a copy of a line from a war film. So it’s nothing at all to do with Neighbours, and there’s a logic to it afterall. Damn. But still. A classic scene.
There are three kinds of people in the world: those who see the appeal of Dungeness, those who don’t, and those who’ve never been.
“You either love it or you hate it!” chimes the well-known slogan of a popular brand of yeast extract. A very similar slogan would look perfectly at home on a poster advertising Dungeness. I have already written about it once, almost ten years ago to the day in fact, and though this post isn’t intended to be a repeat of that one, it’s relevant to the context.
In summary, there is so much which is undeniably beautiful about the place – the bold light typical of a peninsular, the gently rippling sea surrounding it, the whispering marshland, and knowing that a third of all plant species in the UK are there around you. Yet there are lot of other features overwhelming on the eyes which are not so traditionally beautiful – rusted corrugated iron in every direction, weathered bungalows, angry handwritten scrawls in windows telling people not to look inside, a silence which is as deathly as it is otherwise comforting and – the biggest blot on the horizon of all – the Dungeness Power Station.
To understand the appeal of Dungeness you have to see how this fusion of polar opposites is – in itself – a thing of beauty and awe. But why?
I am currently reading a book over which I am already lamenting the fact that I will one day reach the end of the final chapter. Gareth E Rees’ Unofficial Britain was a recent random purchase which I started reading over a couple of cups of coffee in town one lovely Saturday afternoon. The topics of each chapter – which include pylons, ring roads and roundabouts – may sound somewhat unappealing, but just like the power station’s relationship with Dungeness (which unsurprisingly features within the book) Rees demonstrates how the brightest of colours can sometimes be found behind the most grey of facades. The stories he tells about some of our landscape’s “ugliest” features are all based on fact, and succeed in convincing the reader to view them in a different way. He inspires us to appreciate the fact that a building need not be medieval, timber-beamed or smell of cloves in order to have a history or magical qualities. I won’t say any more than that, but anybody who sits in the “I like Dungeness” camp needs to read this book. You’ll love it.
Since I started reading the book it’s fair to say I’ve been paying a lot more attention to my surroundings, and trying to see “the Dungeness effect” in more places. Near my parents’ home in Canterbury there’s a section of the North Down Ways which is a cluster of rapeseed fields and orchards which during Winter is just one large beigey-brown patchwork quilt. Stitched across it is a row of electricity pylons, which traditionally evoke a sense of danger and caution. Earlier in the week I took a walk around the area to get some steps in and found myself besotted with how it all looked and felt in the late October sunset: the colours, the hums of power lines, the coolness:
Towards the end of my walk, the cloud emerging from the left in photo three had cloaked over the whole sky with a watery navy cloak, and I felt the Dungeness effect wash all over me again, in the same spine-tingling way. The music I was listening to at the time intensified this. It was from a label called Ghost Box Records, which describes itself as “a record label for a group of artists exploring the misremembered musical history of a parallel world.” Think electronic music. Think production music. Think scary ’70s public information films. The music was recommended in my beloved book and was consequently swiftly Spotify-ed up and enjoyed. And it really complements all of this.
I have often asked myself what it is about the likes of Dungeness, or these kind of grey views, or Ghost Box music, that makes them so captivating and unconventionally beautiful, and the only conclusion I can really muster is that it’s something to do with the way in which they somehow serve as dynamite to the imagination. They get right in to your senses and they might frighten you a bit, but they’re also blank canvasses upon which you can let creativity and imagination run wild without the presence of the wider public to distract it with loud conversations which hook you back into a reality which – with its pandemic and rising fuel prices – can ironically sometimes look more grim than any pylon or sheet of corroded iron. It’s no surprise that numerous artists descend upon – and rave about – Dungeness, the most famous example being the late film director Derek Jarman, who even owned a cottage on the peninsular which can still be visited today.
Sometimes it’s not so much about what you see right in front of you but their invisible companions. The stories. The memories. The feelings. The character. The inspiration those things provide.
That’s the beauty: tudor beams, immaculate topiary, or not.
If this post resonates with you – buy that book! And if it doesn’t, if you’re really not sure what any of this is about, let me know and we’ll arrange a trip to New Romney to look at a bunch of nothing. I assure you, it’ll be mesmerising.