The Golden Gate Bridge Isn’t Blue

San Francisco Street

City, Mountains, Ocean and a lot of Road: I recently returned from three weeks in California. This series is an account of my time in the Golden State. Oh, and we were on honeymoon. So there was a lot of free stuff too.

WE MET Greg over breakfast in a place called Posh Bagels that on first glance didn’t quite live up to its name, but on first bite did. I liked the place, as much as anything because the woman behind the counter silently handed me back the extra $50 that I accidentally gave her when paying for our bagels. I was awash with the milk of human kindness, and began talking to Greg. I asked him where home was. “Here,” he replied. But where are you from? I pressed him, curious about who actually lives in San Francisco.
“Nowheresville, Washington. Nobody ever knows where it is and it’s full of farms and cows. Everything smells of cowshit.” He took another bite of his bagel. “No one is from here,” he continued, “everyone runs away to here. Especially gay people,” he gestured at himself, mouth already full from another bite of bagel. But what do people do in San Franciso? I asked him.
“Good question. People don’t seem to have jobs. You go to West Park at 2pm on a Wednesday when it’s sunny and the ground is covered in people sunbathing, and you think: haven’t you people got jobs? Everyone’s working an angle.” And with that, he stuffed the last piece of bagel into his mouth, said his farewells, and was gone, evidently in a rush to go and work his own angle. Or at least to escape from two nosey tourists.

THIS CONVERSATION has stuck with me. More like chewing gum at the bottom of my shoe than a faithful hound, but it’s stuck with me nonetheless. I’ve been thinking a lot about my experiences of the people in San Francisco and the city more generally. When I visit a place I like to think that I’m like some great explorer cutting to the heart of a place. Seeing sights. Getting inside insights. Exploding expectations. Etc. You get the picture. I can only deal with the whole travel-place-shoe-gum-problem by trying to make sense of the things I see, to weave those things into some kind of narrative. As if I could nod sagely about San Francisco and pronounce upon it with the certainty of a 19th century explorer. Clearly this is impossible.

But I realised that I still had stuff to say about San Francisco, and Greg’s comments were my jumping off place. Or the start of my angle on the city. So, San Francisco. What’s that all about?

A lot of people seem to hang from the sides of street cars, certainly more than you would ever imagine could safely fit there. But when we travelled on a street car our driver seemed to know at all times how many spaces were left and where, politely telling people where to stand when they got on. They were all tourists, of course.

A lot of people seem to hang from the sides of street cars, certainly more than you would ever imagine could safely fit there. But when we travelled on a street car our driver seemed to know at all times how many spaces were left and where, politely telling people where to stand when they got on. Of course, they were all tourists.

UPON FIRST arriving in San Francisco we sought out the sights, like any other tourist. No they wouldn’t tell us what the city was about, but step one upon arriving somewhere new is, surely (or is this my father speaking?), always to orientate yourself.

This picture is one of a series with the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in the background, or the Bay Bridge as its known locally. We could have done with some of that local knowledge, because we spent the whole morning completely underwhelmed by the Golden Gate Bridge. "It's supposed to be orange," I whined at my wife, "I'm sure that it's supposed to be orange. It is in all the films. Why is it blue?" As we snapped more pictures of the underwhelming bridge she breezily reassured me that the light reflecting off the water made it look blue. I nearly tweeted some witticism about how the GGB was the wrong colour Thank God I didn't, because then I would have looked like an IDIOT.

This picture is one of a series with the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in the background, or the Bay Bridge as its known locally. We could have done with some of that local knowledge, because we spent the whole morning completely underwhelmed by the Golden Gate Bridge. “It’s supposed to be orange,” I whined at my wife, “I’m sure that it’s supposed to be orange. It is in all the films. Why is it blue?” As we snapped more pictures of the underwhelming bridge she breezily reassured me that the light reflecting off the water made it look blue. I nearly tweeted some witticism about how the GGB was the wrong colour Thank God I didn’t, because then I would have looked like an IDIOT.

CA4-4The next day we actually looked at a map, which is a good job because we were planning to cycle over the Golden Gate Bridge. We wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Why did these San Franciscans get so exercised about their bridge? It was the wrong colour, for a start.

Our bike ride began down by the piers, a gentle perambulation along the waterfront, weaving in and out of tourists and joggers. After the tourist-madness of Fisherman’s Wharf, the piers gave way to streets of mismatched houses, some with turrets, some with grand old 1920s-looking fronts and others evidently owned by once-hippies, still-new-age San Franciscans, their gardens all hanging glass wind chimes and vegetables. Every house was a different colour. Not a hundred yards from their front doors, the pacific ocean lapped at marinas and boat moorings. A nearby sign helpfully warned people that they were in a Tsunami high risk zone, and advised that when the wave comes, they head for higher ground. It all felt very SF.

Further round the bay still, and the Golden Gate Bridge appears (“I told you it was orange”), small enough that you feel you could almost lean forward and pluck it out of the bay in one hand. Much pedalling and several hills later it stands above you, massive and hulking, ethereal and elegant all at once. Then you’re on the bridge and so is everyone else, pedestrians and cyclists weaving in an out of each other, all looking at the view, no one looking where they’re going, and the bay is a long long way down. Yes, it’s a health and safety nightmare.

The sun was shining as we rode across the bridge, and it was hot despite the strong wind blowing in off the pacific. We kept stopping to take photos of ourselves, of the bridge, of the bay beyond. Frankly we couldn't have been anywhere better at that moment. This is not always so with everyone who visits the bridge.

The sun was shining as we rode across the bridge, and it was hot despite the strong wind blowing in off the pacific. We kept stopping to take photos of ourselves, of the bridge, of the bay beyond. Frankly we couldn’t have been anywhere better at that moment. This is not always so with everyone who visits the bridge.

The view from Alcatraz.

THE THINGS that stay in the memory about a city are most often not the iconic sites. It’s the vignettes of city living peculiar to that place that stick in the mind. In the City Lights Bookshop, where Allen Ginsberg first read Howl, where Jack Kerouac hung out, and which was heavily involved in the beat movement, I remember not sitting in the chair that Ginsberg sat in, but the view out of the window of somebody’s apartment. It was peaceful inside the bookshop, but the apartment seemed chaotic. Washing was strung across the fire escape, and inside the place looked cramped and untidy. All cities are places of contrast, but San Francisco seemed at that moment to like its contrasts all on top of each other.

The City Lights Bookshop was a wonderful place, with great books and great history. Its till was staffed by two men perhaps in their mid-twenties, dressed in a boho style with hair scarfs and plenty of tattoos. They literally couldn’t give a shit that we existed, and smiling seemed to cause them physical pain. I made sure that I wished them a great day when we left. I encountered this too-cool for school attitude a few times when we were in San Francisco. Why is it that counter-cultures and the places that breed it can be so intolerant of other ways of living?

City Lights Bookstore

City Lights Bookstore.

San Francisco is not a place of suits. Even at the height of the early morning rush hour, there are few people in suits, even fewer in ties. Most are in denim, many in T-shirts. Stand on a London street at rush hour and you can spot the Londoners a mile off – from the way they dress, how fast they walk. In San Francisco, it’s not so easy to spot the natives.

The only people who seem to belong are the homeless. And there are so many homeless people in San Francisco. They stumble along the sidewalks, pushing all of their belongings in a trolley, or towing them in makeshift trailer-bags, or just carrying them in shopping bags. They loiter around the entrances to parks and in the squares, along the edges of streets and under the awnings of buildings. On three separate occasions I literally had to step over homeless people in the street – and this was not on quiet streets. The tide of humanity, myself included, just flowed around them. On two consecutive days I saw a man sitting next to the Powell MUNI station with a sign that said “Iraq Vet. Need a little help.”

According to the San Francisco Public Press (“Independent, Non-Profit, In-Depth”), which I picked up a copy of,  two years ago the city estimated that 6,455 people lived without housing. The city-funded shelters take in 1,139 single families and up to 10 families a night – giving about 18 per cent of the homeless population a bed on any single night. Mental health problems are rampant amongst the homeless population. I lost count of the amount of times that I saw people talking to themselves or shouting at walls.

I understand that America is different to the UK, that there is no social safety net like in Europe. But this isn’t just about helping people who can’t help themselves: it’s about helping a city. Homelessness is ruining San Francisco. It increases crime, makes places unsafe to go at night and the whole city a less desirable place to be. For me, it profoundly coloured my experience of the city.

Alcatraz tower

OF COURSE, San Francisco is full of natives, all of whom are from somewhere else, and they’re all happy to tell you about their city. With the exception of the too cool for school crowd, everyone talked to us. Although the moment that this really struck me was when we arrived back in London and were travelling home. Because we had big bags, we got the elevator up from the Underground instead of the escalator, and we shared our lift with a man on crutches. Standing in such close proximity in such a confined space, it seemed natural to strike up conversation. But then I realised this was London and not San Francisco, so instead we stood there in silence whilst we made our slow ascent.

On our final day in San Francisco I struck up a conversation with Chris, who was originally from Northern Ireland. He had, he told me, been in SF for “fucking ages.” When I met him, in the line for the men’s room in a coffee shop, he was complaining that there were no public toilets in the city. “They can put a fucking laser guided bomb on a target in Afghanistan, but they can’t public toilets in San Francisco.”

I asked him what he thought of the city, and he told me that he was “jaded” because he’d been there too long. “Sure,” he said, “it’s good now, but it was fucking unbelievable in the 90s. The rave scene was happening, you know? And it wasn’t so fucking expensive.”

“People say I just think it’s not as good because I’m not young anymore,” he continued, “and I’m not getting laid all the time. But I’m 46 and I’m still having a good time.” I asked him why he thought that he wasn’t having as good a time as in the 90s. Partly, he thought, it was down to the “facebook culture” of everyone being on their phones rather than talking to each other. “But partly,” he told me, “it’s because San Francisco now thinks it’s so cool. I mean, California’s cool, but it’s not that cool. People need to remember that sometimes.” Then he was next in line, and we said our goodbyes. “Happy trails,” he wished me on his way out.

San Francisco is a great city (especially for its food), but is not without its problems. Its a city of many angles, some seemingly contradictory. For me, the big test of a place is: could I live there? At first I dismissed it, and decided I could never live there. But I find myself revisiting the question, like a puzzle you can’t solve, mulling it over in my mind. Or perhaps the gum on my shoe that I can’t seem to shake. Maybe I couldn’t live there – but I seem to have taken a little piece of it away with me. Happy trails, San Francisco.

Wires

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Saturday Snapshot: Outside the George & Vulture, City of London

In a new and ENTIRELY ORIGINAL feature I arbitrarily choose a day of the week and a suitable alliteration to bring you vignettes of travel past and present. Today it’s the SATURDAY SNAPSHOT and we’re outside the George and Vulture pub in the City of London.

Something witty

The George and Vulture is one of those old London boozers that you find hidden away in backstreets. Allegedly there’s been an inn here since 1268 (thank you Wikipedia) but the current establishment was built in 1748. It’s heavily featured in Charles Dickens’ novel The Pickwick Papers and still retains a strong link to the Dickens family. 

Something equally witty

Being in the City of London  of course this place hosts archaic and utterly ludicrous groups for dinner. For those not up on their London Boroughs, the City of London isn’t one. Administratively it’s an entirely separate city and authority which, confusingly, sits in the middle of the Greater London Authority. You may also know it as The Square Mile, or simply “the city.” Anyway, whilst the GLA worries about things like transport, poverty, crime and other urban things, the City of London Corporation – serving the 7,000 inhabitants of the city and the 350,000 people who work there – is composed of such groups as the The Worshipful Company of Bowyers, whose website tells us that: “the Worshipful Company of Bowyers can trace its detailed history back to 1363 when the craft of making longbows first appeared on the list of taxation for the City of London.” As I’m sure we can all agree, making longbows is pretty important. The City also has something to do with finance and helping people to make money, but since 2008 we don’t talk about that.

But on the other hand, the City of London does have a pretty wicked crest - a dragon with a St George's Cross - and it's everywhere. So: swings and roundabouts.

But on the other hand, the City of London does have a pretty wicked crest – a dragon with a St George’s Cross – and it’s everywhere. So: swings and roundabouts.

Something even wittier

London is full of these little gems of history that you often stumble upon quite by accident. I remember at one of my old places of work, on Fleet Street, there was a fire alarm and we had to leave the building by a door I’d never gone through before. It exited us into a little courtyard and there, on the wall in front of me, was a little blue plaque telling me that James Boswell,  18th century author of the London Journal and the Life of Johnson, had lived there. Amazed at this litte  slice of history I’d uncovered, I pointed it out to one of my colleagues. He stared in silence at the plaque for a moment, obviously as moved as I was, before saying: “that’s amazing. Now can we go back inside? It’s bloody freezing.”

The WalkFast Philosophy: Commuting in London (Travels in 2012, Part 4 of 4)

Object 4: A 1960s Soviet Fed4 Camera. No I have no idea what all the knobs on the top are for either.

Object 4: A 1960s Soviet Fed4 Camera. No I have no idea what all the knobs on the top are for either.

What has a 1960s camera made in the USSR got to do with commuting in London? Absolutely nothing. Except for the fact that it actually made me take a closer look at my everyday travels. And take some really dodgy photos of London. Let’s call them vintage.*

Some would call it scraping the barrel, I would call it being innovative. Whatever your views on blogging about the daily commute, the journey to work is one we all have to make. (Unless you’re one of those people who make a living by writing witty and/or informed and/or misleading articles about the next best travel destination whilst sipping margaritas next to a beautiful white sand beach; if that sounds like you, then please stop reading now. This really isn’t for you). Even if you work at home, we all have some regular journey of drudgery. Perhaps yours is to the gym or the supermarket. Mine is the daily commute into Central London.

One of the Fed4 photos....

Sometimes I take do take the underground, but mostly I take the train. It’s like the underground, but better.

Picture the scene: it’s the 07:42 into London Waterloo. The carriage is full, but not uncomfortably so. People are standing in the aisle between the seats but people can still step onto the train without having to plant their face into someone’s armpit. People either read, fiddle with their smartphones or stare out the window. As ever, no one talks. The only permissible human interaction is to ask for a window to be opened. But it’s not silent, because a man is listening to his music at an unconscionably loud volume. He’s listening to Jay-Z. It’s offensively loud. I am standing right next to where he is sitting, pretending to read a magazine whilst internally raging against this stranger and his music. He writes a text to someone. I read it over his shoulder. This is what it says:

Don’t think that the stuck up fuckers on this train are enjoying me playing my Jay-Z at full volume. Oh well!

I am a cauldron of hatred and resentment. I stare blankly at my magazine, fantasising about how I might say something to the man and how the rest of the carriage would join in to support me, moved by my stirring words and my willingness to stand up against the tyranny and oppression of loud music. Twenty minutes pass like this; then we reach London Bridge, my nemesis gets off and I have said nothing. Instead I update my facebook status to share my frustration. Three people like it almost immediately. I still can’t help but feel that I lost.

Fed11

PERHAPS THREE weeks later I am standing on the 507 bus from Waterloo, also on my daily commute. A girl with ipod-white earbuds is standing in front of me, sharing her R&B music with the rest of the bus. I ignore her. A woman seated nearby taps Ipod-girl on her arm and, in an Aussie accent, asks her to turn down her music.

“Is it bothering you?” asks Ipod-girl.

“As a matter of fact it is,” replies the woman, “and it’s bothering everyone else on the bus as well, it’s just that they’re all British and so they’re too polite to say anything. But I’m Australian, and I am not too polite.”

Ipod girls turns her music down.

In my mind I am cheering for this Australian woman, this commuters’ champion. It’s victory for all that is good and just in the world. But I say nothing, give nothing away. Perhaps because I’m British, this is London and she’s a stranger.

Officially, the only time that you're permitted to speak to a stranger in London is when it snows. Usually in this instance, it's to share frustration about the disruption to transport.

Officially, the only time that you’re permitted to speak to a stranger in London is when it snows. Usually to share frustration about the disruption to transport.

something

I sometimes forget the thick skin that you develop in London. Recently, family from out of town came to visit. When we met them at our local station they looked shellshocked. “We’ve been up and down I don’t know how many escalators,” they said, “and there are so many people, everywhere, walking so fast and all going to different directions.” Yup, I thought, ThisIsLondon: I do this everyday.

But sometimes something happens to break down that barrier that Londoners put up against everyone else. Snow brings people together. After all, it's hard to ignore someone when they're throwing a snowball at you.

But sometimes something happens to break down that barrier that Londoners put up against everyone else. Snow brings people together. After all, it’s hard to ignore someone when they’re throwing a snowball at you.

The advantage of a sledge as a mode of transport is that there's not going to be someone listening to loud music behind you.

The advantage of a sledge as a mode of transport is that there’s not going to be someone listening to loud music behind you.

LONDON LIVING makes you rush everywhere. I don’t know why, it just does. Walk fast, weave through crowds, dodge tourists. Always ignore the world-class history and architecture around you – that’s for the tourists. And they walk SLOW. You don’t want to be like them, do you? You might miss your train.

There are two incidents that have made me question this WalkFast philosophy. The first cost me a suit. The second cost me my dignity.

I was late to a meeting. I can’t even remember what it was about, but it was terribly important. So I was running, running past the Houses of Parliament to my meeting.

BigBenByNight

Unlike in this photo, it was the middle of the day. There were tourists everywhere, gawking at Parliament and Big Ben. As I dodged inbetween them, I slipped – unsurprising considering that I was running in a pair of leather soled shoes with as much grip as an air hockey puck. Tourists flashed before my eyes as I fell headlong to the floor, skidding on the writing pad I was carrying and sending my papers flying. “Great dive dude!” someone shouted in an American accent. My suit was ripped in three places. I had lost some buttons. A crowd formed around me and a German man helped me up, telling me in impecable English how his 11 year old son did something similar last week whilst ice skating. There wasn’t any ice here, though, he added. I thanked him, collected my papers, and scurried off. I was the first person to arrive at the meeting.

London people are busy people. Stay out of their way, tourists! Unless they fall flat on their face. In which case, please help them up and don't comment on the quality of their dive or how stupid they look. Thank you.

London people are busy people. Stay out of their way, tourists! Unless they fall flat on their face. In which case, please help them up and don’t comment on the quality of their dive or how stupid they look. Thank you.

The second incident happened equally as quickly. I was at Waterloo station, on my way home, rushing for a train (are you detecting a theme here?). My train was at the platform, I was not. There was another one soon, but that was seven minutes away. I ran for the train; I was nearly there, then the doors started to beep to warn that they were closing, but I was going to get on that train; the doors started to close; I jumped on, got trapped in the doors as they were closing, and forced them apart again. I stepped into the carriage, out of breath but triumphant. Everyone was staring at me. The train doors tried to close again to allow it to depart but one of them got stuck because some idiot had forced them apart when they were trying to close. I felt the eyes of everyone in the carriage boring into me. I leaned over, gave the doors a shove, and they closed. And suddenly it hit me: I WAS THAT GUY. I was that guy who was too impatient to wait, so self-important that I delayed an entire trainload of people from departing and forced myself onto the carriage. I might as well have been listening to my music at full volume.

I got off at the next station. No one said anything to me, but I knew what they were thinking while they pretended to read their magazines. Because I’d thought it myself a million times about others.

So now on my commute I try and walk a little slower, look at my surroundings a little more and speak to strangers where I can without looking like a lunatic. All in all, I’m trying to be a bit more of a tourist. I find that a camera helps with that.

Red phonebox

*In case anyone’s interested: the Fed4 pictures featured on this post were developed in matt with a white border and then simply scanned in. For the most part I haven’t applied any filters or tweaked them in any way, as I normally do. I haven’t totally figured out how to use the camera yet. That’s why the images are so… 1980s family holiday.

The End of Autumn in Cumbria: Or, How I Am Not A Country Boy

Sheep Sign

“I THINK that it’s going now,” I said, staring at the wood burner. Behind the glass sat a stack of kindling, gently smoking. There were no flames. “Yup,” I nodded, more hopeful than believable, “definitely going.”

I was in a small self catering cottage in the tiny village of Maulds Meaburn, East Cumbria, in the North West of England. In a manner completely unfitting of someone who attempts to maintain a travel blog, this was the third time that my fiancée and I had stayed there. How did that happen? I blame London. We’d both been working crazy hours, and as the long-booked week-off crept closer, everything seemed too much hassle. It wasn’t that we wanted to do something easy, it was that we wanted something edifying for the soul; some peace and solitude away from walking up escalators on the left hand side; some peace and solitude away from the hiss of bendy buses’ doors, endlessly swallowing commuters; some peace and solitude away from the six inches of dirty grey seat where, if I’m lucky on my train journey into work, I might attempt to place my backside inbetween two impossibly large people seated either side, one of whom is inevitably listening to One Direction on their ipod at 600 decibels.

And what could be more edifying than this view from your window every morning?

The funny thing about this photo is that moments later the seven year old girl who was herding these cows (apparently they start them early in the farming world) walked past and looked straight at me, the lunatic London man up for the week and taking pictures of cows out of his window. I can only imagine what she thought. When she and her cow walked past on other mornings, I was altogether more furtive in taking pictures. This probably did little to help her impression of me when she caught me a second time. Somewhere in East Cumbria, a small child thinks that a bad private detective is on her tail. Either that or she thinks that all Londoners are morons.

The funny thing about this photo is that moments later the seven year old girl who was herding these cows (apparently they start them early in the farming world) walked past and looked straight at me, the lunatic London man up for the week and taking pictures of cows out of his window. I can only imagine what she thought. When she and her cow walked past on other mornings, I was altogether more furtive in taking pictures. This probably did little to help her impression of me when she caught me a second time. Somewhere in East Cumbria, a small child thinks that a bad private detective is on her tail. Either that or she thinks that all Londoners are morons.

The first day of our stay in ruralville was a bright, cold day with clear skies and not a single bendy bus in sight. We resolved to make the most of the fine weather, the country air and the peaceful tranquility. So we went to the pub.

Yes some people might see this as a missed opportunity to hike up a mountain, but we saw it as an important opportunity to visit the heart of this small community. And drink some beer.

We didn’t waste the short walk to the nearest (and only) drinking establishment, either. It was about a mile. It took us an hour and a half, on account of the fact that I had my camera  and Beckie had her foraging book. Our journey was therefore punctuated by me doing a passable impression of paparazzi to the countryside, and Beckie failing to identify the various fauna we passed on our way (“Is it fat hen? I think it might be fat hen.” “Great, what can you use it for?” “The book says it’s good in salads, but some types are poisonous.”).

This is what we saw:

The deepening shadows of shortening days.

The deepening shadows of shortening days.

The way autumn leaves gather together in rushing water.

The way autumn leaves gather together in rushing water.

The contrast of metal and petal.

The contrast of metal and petal.

A cemetery coloured by dead and dying leaves. Actually, I really had to resist the urge to inspect the graves here: as longer term readers of this blog will know, I have developed a habit of photographing old headstones. I'd already convinced one local seven year old that I was A Bit Weird. No need to make the good people of Maulds Meaburn think that I was also A Lot Creepy.

A cemetery coloured by dead and dying leaves. Actually, I really had to resist the urge to inspect the graves here: as longer term readers of this blog will know, I have developed a habit of photographing old headstones. I’d already convinced one local seven year old that I was A Bit Weird. No need to make the good people of Maulds Meaburn think that I was also A Lot Creepy.

Eventually, we reached the pub.

The Butchers Arms is a community pub in the tiny village of Crosby Ravensworth. When the oub closed down several years ago, the local community grouped together, bought the pub and refurbished the place.

The Butchers Arms is a community pub in the tiny village of Crosby Ravensworth. When the pub closed down several years ago, the local community grouped together to buy and refurbish it. On the walls there are pictures of the Prime Minister in front of the pub, from when he came to open it as a shining example of Big Society in action. We arrived just after the kitchen had closed, so we lunched on roast chicken flavoured crisps and a local ale. Whilst we were there, lots of locals in funny socks and funnier hats arrived for what appeared to be a post-hunting knees up. Or it could have been that they had been Morris Dancing. Or maybe they always dress like that on a Saturday? Who knows: it was a mystery. We hunkered down in the corner and tried to look casual. I decided not to tell them that they’d missed an apostrophe off the name of their pub.

All in all, going to stay in a tiny village in East Cumbria made me feel overwhelmingly urban. It’s strange the feeling of otherness that you can experience in your own country sometimes; I find this especially so considering that I live in a cosmopolitan city which has most nations on earth represented in its inhabitants.

A FEW weeks later I found myself in Borough Market – one of London’s busiest and best known food markets. People jostled me, I jostled people. I joined the crowds wandering from stall to stall, searching for the ultimate, most satisfying, most outrageous lunch. Elk burgers?  Exquisite sushi? Slow cooked rabbit? Caribbean curry? Scallops the size of my hand? This is what Borough Market is about: the choice, the quality and, of course, joining the biggest queue possible because that’s surely where the best food must be, right? ThisIsLondon. This couldn’t be more different than Cumbria.

Something witty

Enormously busy, discerning and important foodies charge around Borough Market, tutting at idiots with cameras who get in their way and opining on the best place to buy organic veg. Through a popular process known as ‘queueing’, they then assemble in lines to work themselves into a feeding frenzy.

So that's what I'd been queueing for! It's always a relief to get to the front of a queue and discover that it's all been worthwhile.

So that’s what I’d been queueing for! It’s always a relief to get to the front of a queue and discover that it’s all been worthwhile.

Something witty

The sign tells you that the prices are eyewatering, but it’s too late now you’re at the front of the queue. You’re not going to quit now, are you?

Wit

Seating is few and far between in Borough Market. Those victorious sit and laugh at the standing. It’s cut throat.

By contrast country life is, I feel, of a slower pace, with different concerns. There were a few signs, in particular, that I came across in Cumbria which made me feel alien to this land.

I didn't see any horses in the town centre, but evidently this has been enough of a problem in the past that the local authority felt the need for a sign.

I didn’t see any horses in the town centre, but evidently this has been enough of a problem in the past that the local authority felt the need for a sign.

What does the Red Squirrel Ranger do to any grey squirrels that he finds? And does he ride a horse?

What does the Red Squirrel Ranger do to any grey squirrels that he finds? And does he ride a horse?

Slow day on the local paper, or big news? I had no way of telling.

Slow day on the local paper, or big news? I had no way of telling.

It’s easy for me to mock to these signs; perhaps people who live in East Cumbria do too. Taken together they give the impression that not a lot happens there, that in some way East Cumbria is a fragment of the past in the modern day. That’s not true, of course, but it’s easier to mock something for its strangeness than it is to understand difference. And my week away in the beautiful village of Maulds Meaburn has convinced me that there’s lot I don’t understand about rural life. I am not a country boy. I probably knew this deep down, but travelling to this place where I’ve been before, in my own country, and yet experiencing otherness has caused me to re-evaluate how urban I am. It turns out that I like the city.

Home. I guess.

Home. I guess.

But I also dream of living in a place like this:

brew16

So how do I square these two desires? Am I a cityboy who wants to live in the country? Is it possible to have one foot in both? I’m not sure, but if I hadn’t visited Maulds Meaburn I wouldn’t have been thinking these thoughts. I suppose that the message to take away is that travel, even to somewhere you supposedly know, makes you think, makes you look at the way you live your own life.

But it turns out that I may not be alone in my city/country divided self: we like staying in East Cumbria because it’s less crowded than the rest of Cumbria, i.e. the Lake District. And the problem with the Lake District? It’s full of people from London.

I am, however, one step closer to becoming a country boy: I lit the fire! It only took four days of trying.

I am, however, one step closer to becoming a country boy: I lit the fire! It only took four days of trying.

Goodbye To All That: After the Olympics and the Paralympics

It’s called the O2 again.

TRY NOT to look for too much meaning in it all, those of us watching the Paralympics Closing Ceremony in the UK were told by the Channel Four commentators. That’s what the  director of the Closing Ceremony had reportedly been telling people. Try not to look for too much meaning in it all.

It’s got to be tough, coming fourth amongst all the ceremonies. I mean, the central London cityscape has been done to death. It’s in London, Big Ben’s there. We get it. There’s some music that Britain has made, and a bunch of other stuff (no real mention of Empire though, I noticed, or our imperial past – no Rudyard Kipling riding an elephant behind a group of redcoats massacring the natives, the survivors herded to a concentration camp from the country that invented them).

Instead the Paralympics Closing Ceremony seemed to focus on a vision of what London might look like after the apocalypse, if it had been turned into a giant Mad Max film set:

After over a month of Olympic and Paralympics, meaning had been spun out of the Games by countless column inches and broadcast hours – sporting, cultural, economic, historic. It had all been pored over. In London, even if you weren’t watching any of the events, it would be hard not to have seen the headlines and impossible not to have been in at least one conversation about Mo Farah.

Even the Westcombe News (“Free to 3800 homes, and in libraries & some shops”) my local community newspaper and the home of rampant nimbyism, picked up the prevailing wind and realised that to come out openly against the Games would have resulted in their offices (if they had any) being stormed and the editorial staff (volunteers) being lynched in Greenwich Park. Still, as headlines go about the greatest sporting event that this nation has ever seen, “Was it worth it?” is hardly the unambiguous headline of unwavering support one might have expected.

The WN hedges its bets by first quoting random people saying how amazing the Games had been (including one from Sandra Barnes “writing from Philadelphia in the US” – you ran out of people in the area to say positive things and you had to go across the Atlantic to find someone else?). It then moves on to talk about the impact on local businesses (bad), the stationing of Rapier surface to air missiles near Greenwich Park (unforgivable, but “at least locals did not have them placed on their roofs”) and then transport: “the surges of passenger numbers on the tube and the railways were better managed than predicted [i.e. we thought we’d all be plunged back into the dark ages]: but many drivers, defeated by traffic jams, simply gave up any attempt to get to where they needed to be [i.e. I couldn’t drive to Sainsbury’s because of the one way system, so I gave up and came home]. They end with the standard disclaimer which now by law must be added when criticising any aspect of the Olympics: “Overall, most people agree that the games were a spectacular success.” This is journalistic gold.

This is my photo and I was there. We’d been to the Olympic Park, of course, but hadn’t got tickets for the Stadium and utterly failed to get any tickets for the Paralympics. So receiving a phonecall from friends offering us two unwanted tickets to see athletics in the Stadium on a Saturday morning is in the same category as seeing people you know on the tube: impossible until it happens to you.

This is Richard Whitehead coming off the blocks in the men’s 200m final, just before he won gold for GB. Beckie, my partner, screamed herself hoarse during the race. I was slightly distracted because after taking this photo my memory card filled up, I couldn’t take any more photos, and I panicked. How will people know that I was here? I thought to myself. I can’t just see it with my own eyes! I hurriedly tried to delete photos. As it turns out, this takes longer than it takes Richard Whitehead to run 200m. Consequently, I actually missed him crossing the finish line. But I understand that it was very impressive.

This is how I know it was impressive. From the crowd’s reaction. That’s the wonderful thing about being in a crowd of 80,000 people. You really don’t need to do any thinking for yourself.

This kid was all about the flags, less about the sport. It would be wonderful if his name was Jack.

Some were more interested in the running than others.

During the Paralympics, there was a sense in London that the Olympics had been normalised. It was heralded as the biggest, most disruptive event since WW2 to hit the city, and yet everything had kept going. It felt like the city had absorbed the Games and moved on. There were still the pink shirted people at stations (not the same ever-cheerful volunteer Games Makers as at the Olympic venues, but dour, humourless people employed by the train companies just for the duration of the Games), still telling people to keep to the left. But, every morning, as the commuter crowd surged off my train and herded itself down the corridor to the barriers and the station exit, the calls of “guys, keep to the left,” fell on deaf ears. These were the same business-suited people who’d been walking on the right since before the Olympics, and would be doing it long after the pink shirts had disappeared. At North Greenwich station, the people handing out walking maps of the area (“why not walk? public transport is going to be very busy”) looked bored next to their human-sized piles of maps (I now have ten walking maps of Greenwich and Woolwich, all identical. I felt sorry for them every time I passed). And on the day after the Paralympics finished there was a ‘Victory Parade’ in Central London, and the Red Arrows flew past my sixth floor office window, spewing out patriotic clouds of red, white and blue. I was on the phone at the time, and I didn’t even mention it to the person on the other end.

It’s just a building site now.

The Westcombe News will be happy.

Yes, London had reasserted itself. That brief, wonderful time when you could talk to strangers and they wouldn’t blank you was drawing to a close. It’s like when the snow melts every winter and people wake up to the fact that those people they’ve been joking with about slipping and sliding are actually just people-in-the-way.

And with the closing of the Paralympics, the weather turned. After one last gasp of summer, the leaves began to fall from the trees, and conkers were trodden underfoot by the boots of the workmen dismantling the equestrian stadium in Greenwich Park.

Don’t be fooled by that sunshine. It’s autumn. Only downhill from here…

Sweet Chestnuts. In a few weeks’ time, when they’re at their best, Greenwich Park will be full of people sweeping these up into carrier bags. Don’t worry, though, you’ll see them again – when you pay £5 for a bag of them roasted, at a Christmas market.

So where is the meaning in all of this? Was it all, like the director of the Paralympic closing ceremony would have us believe, all spectacle to be consumed – like a bag of roast chestnuts bought at a Christmas market, a rare treat that we forget about until the next time? I will refrain from answering that question directly, and instead offer you what I’ll take away from the Games:

Omar Hassan of Djibouti. He was lapped twice by all the other competitors in the men’s T46 1500m race, and finished in 11m 23s – nearly seven minutes slower than his nearest competitor. At the end, he was the only man left running – or doing any kind of sport – in the Olympic arena, as 80,000 people got to their feet and cheered him on. At times it felt like he’d pack it all in (he was suffering from a foot injury, as it turns out), but he was there to the bitter end. “I thought of stopping,” he said afterwards. “But I kept going because I wanted to finish.” By far and away my best experience of either the Olympics or the Paralympics: a man who came last and registered one of the worst times in any major international championship, ever.