Saturday, 28 April 2012

God's Waiting Room(s)

The flight from London to Sydney is a long one for a restless and impatient young man – such as I was when I first experienced it. To have to sit for so long felt like a restraint, a constraint and a waste of precious time. The person next to me, a very old, very small lady, appeared to have no such problem. I was amazed that she barely ever moved, ate almost nothing and did not initiate any conversation. I recalled this when I took a coach trip to Scotland last week. My intention was to get away from my routines for a few days and to relish the hours of sitting (time to read), the degree of regimentation (time to think) and the possibility of meeting interesting people (something to write about).

The coach seats were pre-allocated and mine was next to a very old, very small lady who smiled at me in welcome but said nothing until I spoke to her. We had a polite exchange - the sort you would expect of two strangers who are going to have to get along together in enforced proximity for several hours. Her name was Pauline and, like the lady on the plane, she had a remarkable propensity for sitting still. She was, however, open to conversation and, fairly soon, had outlined her circumstances: she lived alone, her husband having died some ten years previously; she had moved to a flat near her son’s home and now she was at leisure to do as she pleased. She had taken five such trips as this in the past year. She didn’t ask about my situation.

We drank coffee together at the first stop and talked about our preferred blends. Back on the coach, where there were plenty of empty seats, I could see I had a choice: to resume my seat next to Pauline, thereby allowing no respite from each other’s company, or to suggest a separation which acknowledged the fact that we were, after all, strangers, no longer obliged to sit together. I took the latter course but with a compromise: I excused myself, saying I would like to stretch out in the seats across the aisle - not far enough away to cause offence but close enough to maintain occasional eye contact – and suggested we meet again at the lunch-time stop. This arrangement served well enough to bond our mini-relationship so that, when dinner was served at our destination hotel, we gravitated to the same table where we met fellow travellers (and previously established couple) Barbara and Jim. For the second time that day I was involved with the polite introductions and tentative conversations which are critical to the development – or otherwise – of relationships.

Over the next few days, at the bar, in the restaurant or on the coach, we made incremental progress in getting to know each other. Conversations moved beyond Q & A sessions and shifted towards those exchanges of views and feelings which underpin the foundations of friendships. But Pauline did not join in this process: declaring “I don’t let things bother me these days” she would ignore any conceptual talk preferring, if she could, to recount the events of her past. The nearest she got to anything happening in the present-day were examples from her son’s life – as if he were living vicariously for her. The past history of an 84 year-old is very likely to be interesting but unless its recounting bears upon the present it soon loses its allure. So, as Barbara, Jim and I grew closer, Pauline refused to engage, as if to say “I won’t be here long, so I shan’t bother making an effort”.

Yet Pauline did have plans for the future: she had booked at least two more holidays for later in the year. Was she being adventurous, I wondered, or was she simply moving from one waiting room to another? 

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Give Us a (Scottish) Break!

The hamlet of Tyndrum, although just 55 miles north of Glasgow, is well into the Highlands and surrounded by Munros. It straddles both the A82 trunk road and the West Highland Way footpath, drawing its economic lifeblood from all who stop by - which includes me.

I had made the mistake of choosing porridge for breakfast and was desperate for coffee to wash it down. I found it in the Real Food Cafe where, as I was savouring a surprisingly decent cappuccino, I heard a woman behind me place her order in broad Scottish:”Two portions of cheesy chips with buttered rolls and two cans of Fanta please.” Knowing the Scots’ reputation for unhealthy diets I was unsurprised until, getting up to leave, I turned and saw that the Scot in question was a sari-clad woman of Indian descent. Things have really changed in Scotland: cappuccino never used to be available except at Valvona & Crolla’s Edinburgh deli.

There is a long way to go before the reign of beige food is overthrown in the tourist cafes of Scotland. The Real Food Cafe may be heading in the right direction but the best efforts of its barrista were overshadowed by the kitchen’s main activity - the frying of fish and chips. I should have realised that not much had changed when, at a stopover in the border town of Gretna Green, I was offered the choice of chips or boiled potatoes with my ravioli. The sign there which welcomes travellers from England to Scotland ought to incorporate a warning of Enhanced Levels of Carbohydrate.

Of course there are outposts of gastronomic excellence one of which, the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar, we drove past while on a coach excursion to the coastal resort of Dunoon, our driver informing us, en passant, that the oysters were so good that they are sent daily to Claridges in London. There was also a micro-brewery attached. “Perhaps there’s an outlet in Dunoon” said a fellow traveller, turning to glimpse the disappearing venue.

But Dunoon which, like most British coastal resorts, has seen better times boasts neither oyster bars nor real ale pubs. As I tramped the streets looking for the best place to lunch I came across a small group of young women evidently with the same dilemma.  One of them was peering into a window “Is it one of those ‘old man’ pubs?” asked another. I could not have described it better myself.

I found help in an unlikely place - the community centre on the high street - where a travelling exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs was showing. It wasn’t busy so the lady curator had time to talk to me about the work, the benefactor (Anthony D’Offay), public reaction to the show and the perversity of those who pronounce the name Maplethorpe. She seemed like a woman whose judgment I could trust so I asked her if there was a decent pub in town. She denounced them all as ‘old man’ pubs - with the exception of the newly refurbished Braes, up the hill and beside the church. She was right: there I feasted on goat’s cheese salad, washed down with a crisp sauvignon blanc. In fact it was so nouvelle cuisine I had practically to beg for a piece of bread to accompany it.

Back in Tyndrum I resolved the dinner-dilemma by wandering in to Paddy’s Rock and Roll Bar. The joint was jumping - alive with beery hikers, bemused Japanese, a party of wary French tourists and several locals - and with a soundtrack of juke-box favourites stitching them all together. There was also steak on the menu - and good steak is one thing Scotland can produce.

I fell into conversation with a local couple and learned that Paddy had absconded and the bar was being run, on behalf of the receivers, by a jolly Jamaican chap and a couple of young women from somewhere in Eastern Europe. A few drinks later and Tyndrum, it seemed, was a more interesting place than it might first appear.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Doing Time

Many years ago I went to visit a friend who was serving time in a military prison. He gave me instructions on how to smuggle money in to him: roll up a ten-pound note and insert it into a tube full of toothpaste. I was a bit nervous about being caught but, not wanting to be a wimp, I agreed to do it. When the ruse succeeded I was relieved - and a little proud of my newly acquired criminal nous.

More recently I went to visit another detained friend although, this time, no test of my loyalty was required because he is in a very different type of prison - a privately built and operated facility for young offenders. It is a much less intimidating place where the restrictions on inmates’ freedom appear to be less onerous. Naively I attributed this to a modern and enlightened approach to punishment but have since learned that it has more to do with there being a variety of prison styles tailored to suit different types of offender.

From my friend’s perspective, of course, the difference is one of degree only since he will be spending about three years there locked away from his life. In one respect he has been lucky: there are prisons with harsher regimes to which he might have been committed, especially as he is not a young offender. He is, in fact, a family man in his forties and was sent there because at the time of his sentencing there was a shortage of prison places. Despite this one stroke of luck, however, he is a misfit because of his age and the cultural difference it entails. Still, at least he is easily distinguished from the others in the visiting room: he is the one not wearing Nike or Adidas.

Despite the comparative humanity of the prison regime, visits cannot be undertaken on a whim: they require permissions, forward planning, documentation and, unless you live nearby, travelling time. The on-site security procedure is as stringent as that at airports but with additional searches to detect smuggled drugs - despite which, drug use inside is rife. I have no idea how they get past the searches and the sniffer dogs but I doubt whether the old toothpaste trick is still in use.

Once past the no-fun security procedure, the experience of visiting was quite lively. In the actual visit-hall, a large, airy room with a tea and refreshment bar in one corner and a play-pen for children in another, the atmosphere was mostly convivial.  We were seated at allocated tables which are spaced just out of earshot one from another but, when my eye strayed, I could not avoid speculating about the other groups. The prisoners stand out because of their orange tabards; their girlfriends are easy to identify by their meticulous grooming and the lustful body language of their imprisoned lovers; but identifying who is mother, father, sibling or friend afforded plenty of opportunities for conjecture.

My friend said he had learned to make the best of his situation by filling the time with every activity and every personal-improvement course on offer. He is also acquiring some nifty new jokes and a good line in black, prison humour. He seemed generally optimistic and cheerful throughout but, when time was up and he had to make his way to the exit, I thought I detected a little slumping of his shoulders. I counted my good fortune as I left through the visitors’ door but my relief was tainted with guilt and regret at having to leave him behind.

Prisons were originally used for temporary detention prior to the fulfilment of sentence - execution, flogging, banishment etc. - but they have since become the sentence itself. I am not the first to question whether imprisonment is an appropriate or effective resolution to anti-social or criminal activity but I am sure that, in this case at least, the outcome can only be harmful to my friend, his family and, by extension, to society.

Friday, 6 April 2012

All Aboard

I boarded the train and picked a seat which afforded me some seclusion: a refuge for reading through my backlog of weekend newspapers. I pulled them from my bag as I watched the stragglers hurry up the platform. A forty-something, overweight man in a blue suit bustled into our carriage, scanned the available seats and chose one facing mine across the aisle, claiming it decisively with his fat, scuffed black briefcase.

As the train left the terminus the “bing-bong” of the P.A. system sounded loudly and harshly to introduce Darren, our Train Manager, whose set-piece welcome speech was imbued with North Manchester nonchalance - in contrast to the automated, recorded itinerary which followed, with its disjointed, cut-and-pasted syllables.

My neighbour stashed his jacket in the rack above and, flopping into his seat, loosened his tie, patted his thin, sandy hair and began to busy himself erecting his laptop, checking his phone and spreading his papers.“Bing-bong.” Now it was Julianne, our on-board shop manager, inviting us to come and buy refreshments. I waited for the end of her spiel before settling at last to find something which was not too far past its read-by date.

“Hi Karen.” I looked up. “It’s Dave. Is Alan there? OK. Will you get him to give me a bell when he’s done? Yeah. I’m on my way back now. Right. Cheers”. So, now I knew my neighbour’s name, I wondered what his job was. Dave made several more calls, leaving messages each time, none of which provided me with any clues.

“Bing-bong.” Darren informed us we were about to arrive at Milton Keynes; auto-assistant reminded those alighting not to forget their possessions; then, as the train slid away, we listened to the welcome speech again – followed by another sales pitch from Julianne. Dave and I got our heads down until, “Bing-bong”, Darren announced our imminent arrival into the “Peoples’ Republic of Stoke-on-Trent”. He sounded more chipper now that we had left The South - but the tone of auto-assistant remained unchanged.

Nothing was moving at the Republic’s station. I wondered whether diplomatic relations had been severed. Then, in the hush of the motionless carriage, I heard the voice of Lou Reed singing “...and the coloured girls say...” Eventually realising it was my ringtone I scrambled to silence it.
“Is that Mr. Holdsworth?”
“Yes, it is.”
“I’m calling to fix your hospital appointment.”
“ Oh, good.”
“For security, could you just tell me your full address and date of birth please?”
“Er, well - just a moment.” I left my seat and headed for a more private space by the toilet.

My business concluded, I re-entered the carriage to the sound of Darren’s ritual welcome speech - and to Dave’s hitherto unheard ringtone “...gotta get up, gotta get down...” He checked the display and answered resignedly: it was not the call he had hoped for. He was being asked to choose his evening meal and opted for the quiche with salad - although I sensed that he felt somewhat coerced.

 “Drinks? Snacks?” Julianne had adopted a more pro-active sales approach and now came trundling down the aisle with her wares on a trolley. Dave bought a sausage sandwich, a packet of crisps and a diet coke to tide him over until dinner.

“Bing-bong”. Darren, now sounding almost excited, announced our approach to Stockport. Auto-assistant once more reminded everyone not to forget their stuff and Dave obediently started to pack everything into his briefcase. Just then a large, angry-looking woman stomped past shouting at her phone “... ‘cos if you don’t, I swear, I’m gonna have a nervous breakdown!” Dave and I exchanged glances, for the first time, our eyebrows raised in alarm. “I’ll leave you to it” he said, smiling wryly and nodding a goodbye as he made for the door.

Eight minutes later Darren cheerfully announced our final destination, Manchester. I abandoned my papers, read or otherwise, despite auto-assistant’s pleas, and stepped on to the platform. Amongst the few people there to meet the train was a slight, anxious-looking man. Walking towards him was the angry woman.