Saturday, 20 August 2016

A Fishy Conundrum

Mackerel don’t like sunshine – according, that is, to the amateur fisherman on whom we were relying for our supper. When we first arrived at the campsite he told us that he goes out in his boat every day and, in the evening, sits outside his motorhome with his catch for sale at 50 pence per head – DIY gutting: what he neglected to mention was that when the sun shines – as it has for the past few days – the mackerel disappear into the depths so he will inevitably come home with an empty bucket. When I asked him why he even bothered to go out on sunny days he looked at me as if to say “What else would I do?” We had expected that our hike along the Wales Coast Path would put us in the way of abundant freshly-caught seafood but this has not been the case. We came across just one fishmonger – and he was closed that day. Whatever is caught by whoever remains in the fishing industry must be sold elsewhere. Fortunately, that evening, we had a carnivores’ option on board for the BBQ – again.    
But the unavailability of fish has been partly compensated by another type of produce. Curiously, the coastal towns – large and small – have been rescued from culinary desertification by Italians: there is no shortage of prosciutto-and-rocket panini, fancy Tuscan wines and authentic espresso. The Welsh descendants of Italian immigrants are challenging the ubiquity of the chip-shop and pub-lunch offerings for so long associated with British seaside holiday resorts and the effect of this competition can be seen in an apparent fight-back by the traditional outlets. It is recognisable in the adoption of the Farrow & Ball colour palette so familiar to visitors to the resorts of Suffolk and Norfolk, chalk boards proclaiming trendy menus, chairs and tables spilling out from fashionably stripped interiors and welcoming staff who have been taught to smile at customers.   
But the hike is not all about sustenance, any more than it is all about invigorating exercise and magnificent views. It is also about appreciating the peculiarities of infrastructure that enhance the individuality of a place.  For instance, what to us is a continuous path is actually divided by county into sections for the purpose of administration, so that the rivalry between Cardiganshire and Pembrokeshire as to which has the most beauteous coastline is evident in the resources devoted to the adequacy of the signage, its branding and the state of maintenance of the route. And, tourism being such a crucial part of the economy, there are little ‘hopper’ buses that ply the single-track roads from cove to cove. These are useful indeed but the traveller must be alert to the fact that the brightly-liveried and cutely-named Strumble Shuttle, Poppit Rocket and Cardi Bach buses are run by different contractors whose policies on ticket pricing and customer-friendliness can vary alarmingly.
And, at this, the height of the summer season, the holidaymakers themselves provide much to interest the observant. The path is not what the majority come for – most of the time we saw no more than one or two other hikers – but when it drops down to an accessible beach there is the expected throng. Beaches can be busy places: little children run about excitedly, dig pits and paddle, squealing; older children play cricket or volley-ball with their parents; water-sports enthusiasts launch their various forms of transport – dinghies, surfboards, paddleboards, kayaks – I never thought there could be so many variations of flotation fun; and professionals take boatloads of people out to see dolphins and seals. We spotted dolphins once – a mother and calf we were told, although it was hard to tell from our cliff-top view-point. We watched them frolic for a while before they swam off.
“Dolphins like the sun then,” said my partner.
“Yes”, I replied. “So, how come you never see dolphins at the fishmongers?”

Friday, 12 August 2016

Lost but Found

Driving off in the campervan, our mood was one of eager anticipation at the prospect of a couple of weeks away and a mixed programme of activities – a brace of social engagements, plenty of time for un-planned bimbling and a background project, walking a few more sections of the Wales Coast Path to add to those we had already bagged. As if on cue, a rainbow appeared over the M6, a vivid, perfect arc of colours, shadowed by another, paler version above it: an augury, we agreed.
On day two of our travels, however, I lost my phone. Well, I didn’t lose it exactly, I left it in the back of a taxi and the next fare appropriated it. There is a certain kind of sinking feeling that accompanies the moment of realisation that you have lost something valuable – it used to apply to wallets but now that they are likely to contain nothing more than a few quid, a couple of unusable credit cards and old receipts, it’s more likely to be phones that are the cause of grief. Lost your car keys? It’s a negligible setback: call a cab to get home and fill in the insurance form for compensation. Lost your phone? Lost your life. I woke up in the night fretting about identity theft. Eventually I calmed down, reasoning that I had locked the phone with a password, my partner still had hers and, in any case, where we were going – the west coast of Wales – the chances of catching a cell signal would be slim. I resigned myself to being off-grid.
We had ticked off the social engagements and it was time to do some exploring – of the tame kind i.e. National Trust properties. First up was Claydon House, a vanity project which brought financial ruin to James Verney, partly because he employed Luke Lightfoot, a wood-carver but not an architect, to build it for him. Huge chunks of it were later demolished lest they collapse but it remains a grand house – with some extremely fine wood carvings adorning the interiors. The family’s descendants made a good bargain with the National Trust: they get to live there and have the maintenance taken care of in exchange for allowing the public limited access to the most spectacular parts.
Visits to such places are a snooper’s delight: they afford insights into the families’ intimate histories, as well as revealing socio-historical context. Llanaerchon is a good example. The manor house is at the centre of a self-sufficient country estate, the whole of which has been uniquely preserved by an accident of history. When the lady of the manor was widowed early she did not inherit the property but only the right to remain there as a tenant for the rest of her life and, as such, was not allowed to make any alterations to the place. She lived to be 104.
By the time we set off on our first ten-mile stretch of coast I had almost persuaded myself that I was free from digital enslavement. While my partner expressed periodic frustration at not being able to check email, or even text messages, I exuded an annoying disregard for the urgency of any such communication. ‘Be in the moment’ became my motto. The following day we tackled a 14-mile section of the path, from New Quay to Aberporth, where it rises and falls steeply between the sparsely-populated cliffs and river mouths. Porpoises and seals can be seen out in the sea, they say, but they were too elusive for us. We did, however, spot a radio mast atop a promontory and, for a while, even I became hopeful of a Vodafone signal. There was no such thing, however, and as we passed close by we saw the reason why: “Ministry of Defence Property. Keep Out.”

(In case you’re wondering, this post comes to you courtesy of Cardigan public library.)

Saturday, 6 August 2016

English, As She is Spoken

A newspaper headline got me in a tiz last week. It stated that Yorkshire is the most ‘British’ region in the UK because, according to scientific mapping of DNA samples, it has the highest concentration of Anglo-Saxon genes. But, given that the native British were in situ before the Anglo-Saxons arrived (eventually to become what we now call the English), the headline is incorrect and Yorkshire, according to genetic distribution, should be described as the most English part of Britain.
The headline typifies the confusion that surrounds the definition of nationality for UK citizens. Even the government can’t cope with it, as we saw in its drafting of the Brexit referendum. The ‘British people’ were asked to make a stark choice, without consideration of the fact that they do not see themselves as a unified entity with common interests: the result has left us with endless analysis of who exactly voted for what and why. Is it really feasible to address a series of complex social, economic and political issues with a simple yes or no question? People tend to live in bubbles defined by their social circumstances: those who occupy the ‘unemployed residents of devastated former industrial town in the far provinces’ bubble will have a different experience and outlook from those in the ‘wealthy inhabitants of another part of the country’ bubble. It is, therefore, surprising that any degree of commonality or national identity exists at all. Perhaps, as in a bowl of soap-suds, bubbles jostle around, occasionally bursting and co-mingling, but mostly remain bound together. In the UK, however, society’s bubbles exist within even bigger ones – the several notional, national boundaries.
I consider myself to be English but by what measure? Perhaps not being Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish helps to narrow it down, but that’s just a start, an elementary guide for foreigners who are unfamiliar with the complexities of the United Kingdom’s constitutional make-up. DNA testing might help in the definition but, as the aforementioned research also shows, the average UK resident is only 36.94% Anglo-Saxon and, given that the British Isles has been an ethnic melting pot for millennia, I doubt that the essence of Englishness is embedded in genes. I prefer to think of it as ingrained in the culture (sorry, Yorkshire) and believe that it is acquired through absorption, assimilation and diffusion.
I can, of course, only offer anecdotal evidence to support my theory (such is the unquantifiable nature of the beast) and am always alert to situations in which only an English person feels completely at ease. Like, for instance, a recent lunch with friends in a pub in the Essex countryside, where the bar-staff were home-grown and the closest thing to foreign was the word croutons on the menu. Tourists, had they ventured so far into that deep redoubt of the English, might have delighted in the authenticity of the experience. But tourists don’t need to stray so far to experience English essence; it is available – at a price – on the main tourist routes. Take, for example, Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, where I recently dined. The 185-year-old restaurant is reputed not to have changed much since its foundation. Certainly the interior is a well-preserved marvel of the Imperial Age and reflects, discreetly of course, English tradition (of the wealthy Londoner bubble variety) in every detail. The menu is from the glory days of English cuisine i.e. before the advent of WWI stopped it in its tracks and WWII finally put an end to it. But despite the perfectly orchestrated theatre of the ‘institution’ there was one thing that struck a discordant note with me: English is the second language of all the front-of-house staff.
             I was reminded that, comforting as it is to revel in one’s Englishness, the embracing of change is essential to ensuring it doesn’t become a mere sideshow in the greater historical pageant.

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Just A Figure Of Speech

Ten days of jazz – the Manchester Jazz Festival – were about to commence and I was due to leave town three days in. I also wanted to attend at least one session of the concomitant Beer and Blues Festival and had a previous commitment to spend a day at the cricket. Suffering from FOMO (fear of missing out) I had to get organised in order to bag a few gigs, otherwise the bird would have flown and left me bereft.  So I sat down calmly to get my ducks in a row. That was when I noticed the cruelty of the metaphor. Surely, I thought, there’s an appropriate figure of speech that doesn’t refer so casually to the killing of birds? But I couldn’t think of one.
Anyway, my ducks refused to line up so I decided to absolve myself of the pressures of planning, go with the flow, wing it, free as a bird to attend whichever gigs happened to coincide with my available time-slots. I didn’t even study the programme in detail, but reasoned that a random approach would open my ears and awaken my senses to music that I had previously been deaf to or unaware of. In any case it’s a low-risk strategy: jazz is such a catholic genre that any festival worth its salt will include a variety of styles and interpretations, some of which I was bound to like. Besides, as we know, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush
The first performance I got to was a rather dreamy set by Solstice, fronted by the singer Brigitte Beraha. Although this kind of vocal jazz is not my favourite thing, I discovered that it’s not necessarily always for the birds. The circumstances of a warm Saturday afternoon, a glass of rosé and a marquee full of appreciative listeners lent the music a pleasantly soothing effect and, in one fell swoop, I felt my nerves calmed and my reasoning justified.
I returned for the next act, a Spanish outfit called De La Purissima, also fronted by a female vocalist. Julia de Castro, however, is chalk to Brigitte’s cheese. She takes a very theatrical approach to singing, using posture, gesture and costume to startling effect. Well, I at least was startled at the sight of this raven-haired beauty wearing an elaborately braided matador jacket, a tightly-fitting yellow tartan miniskirt and a tall peineta on her head. I would have liked more of a bird’s eye view but my ticket entitled me only to that of a worm.
The next day I was at the cricket with several fellows from the Heaton Moor Jazz Appreciation Society (birds of a feather do flock together) none of whom had been at the Purissima gig. I described how, after the second number, Julia had declared the temperature inside the marquee overwhelming and had asked some hapless old geezer in the front row to step onto the stage and assist her in removing her jacket. He did so with due gallantry, although he wobbled a bit returning to his seat and looked up in alarm when she later threatened to remove her skirt. None of this got much reaction from my pals: either they were sceptical about it having anything to do with jazz or there was something interesting happening on the cricket pitch which my uninformed eye had failed to notice. I tried again.
“I had a good night at the Beer and Blues Festival,” I said.
“There was a singer called Kyla Brox, daughter of Victor. Remember him?”
They all remembered the legendary Manchester bluesman. I had their attention.
“She was terrific,” I said “and the beer was good too.”

You could say I had killed two birds with one stone, I noted to myself.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Touring Modestly

Searching the shops for a new pair of sandals I am reminded that footwear-retail is mainly about fashion and that foot-shaped shoes are available only at hard-to-come-by specialist outlets. Alright, my feet may be more hobbit than human but, even so, does anyone actually have pointy feet? I am back in town after a week in the country and conscious that the rugged hiking sandals that had served me well on the coastal paths of Cardigan Bay are clumsy and inappropriate in a paved environment. The search is on for a pair of man-about-town sandals.
The hiking sandals had also served as driving shoes on our tour which, starting the morning after a party in Lymington, progressed rapidly up through SW England and mid-Wales to the west coast. Here we teamed up with two friends and experienced the relative novelty of staying in B&B accommodation. It has much to recommend it – assuming that one is open to random experiences and the eccentricities of others.
The first two nights were spent in a small hotel, a typical conversion from one of the many private holiday villas built in the 1890s by Birmingham industrialists who subsequently decamped to the Continent between the wars, leaving them to be used as schools, institutes or guest-houses. Fawlty Towers comes to mind, although the service, in this case at least, was professional: John Cleese has done us all a favour. The town, Barmouth, is still a holiday resort, though past its heyday when the railway brought visitors galore whatever the weather. Perhaps it gets busier during school holidays but, in the meantime, the absence of crowds suited our laid-back mood. We lingered awhile in a pub in eager anticipation of the live music but it turned out to be a come-all-ye and our enthusiasm waned soon after the first Tom Jones impersonation.
Moving on, each place we went to had something of interest, something to delight, amuse or surprise. In Aberystwyth there is a very sophisticated Spanish deli-cum-bar and a tiny Italian cafe which makes terrific panini to take away and eat along the handsome promenade. The village of Llangranog nestles picture-perfect into a cove and its two cafés are bang up-to-date with their sophisticated menus, while just next door traditional fish-and-chips are on offer. Tywyn is a coastal town which seems short of coffee shops, so we made do with a takeaway Costa from Spar and strolled – almost alone – along the impressive promenade, refurbished with EU money. Information boards describe the sea-creatures that can be spotted, although even they were absent that day. Another board warns of the ugly-looking weaver fish that lurks beneath the sand where its poisonous spikes present a hazard to bathers’ feet.
But the peculiar intimacies of B&B were experienced at a remote, former farm-house high up on the coastal path. The landlady, a woman of about 50, lives there with her mother (whom we didn’t see). She made it clear that we city dwellers were to be pitied and that she alone held the secret to a happy, fulfilled existence. She had a yurt in the corner of her garden which she used as a meditational retreat. She also had a grand piano in a music room and one evening she entertained us before bed time with a repertoire of songs from her days as a bar-room player. She was good but seemed, I thought, rather lonely and bitter.
On our last day the weather was warm enough for the beach. One of our party took a dip in the sea but soon came out complaining of a pain in his foot. The lifeguard confirmed that it was a weaver fish sting and treated it accordingly.

“What were you thinking?” I said “You should have worn beach-sandals.”