Travels in 2012 (Part 2 of 4): A Plastic Union Jack in Devon

Object 2: A Plastic Union Jack**Ok pedants, let's get this out of the way: I know that it's technically only the Union Jack when it's flown on a ship (otherwise it's just the "Union Flag") but everyone calls it the Union Jack, so I'm going to call it that that too. The only time this fact ever emerges is either in pub quizzes or at particularly slow parties where conversation is sparse ("actually, did you know..." If you're at a party and someone begins a sentence with this phrase, it's probably best to cut your losses). Wikipedia totally backs me up on this point: "The Union Flag, commonly known as the Union Jack, is the flag of the United Kingdom." And Wikipedia's, like, always right. Right?

Object 2: A Plastic Union Jack*
*Ok pedants, let’s get this out of the way: I know that it’s technically only the Union Jack when it’s flown on a ship (otherwise it’s just the “Union Flag”) but everyone calls it the Union Jack, so I’m going to call it that that too. The only time this fact ever emerges is either in pub quizzes or at particularly slow parties where conversation is sparse (“actually, did you know…” If you’re at a party and someone begins a sentence with this phrase, it’s probably best to cut your losses). Wikipedia totally backs me up on this point: “The Union Flag, commonly known as the Union Jack, is the flag of the United Kingdom.” And Wikipedia’s, like, always right. Right?

YES, 2012 was a special year for the Union Jack, its big outing. Sure there had been that Royal Wedding thing back in 2011, but that was really just practice for the Main Event. The Diamond Jubilee. Oh yes and the Olympics, that was happening too. Man there was going to be so much flag waving! And all the the little Union Jacks, all in a line, flapping along as bunting. It made an old Jack smile just to think of it. All over the UK, the Union Jack snapped back and forth in the wind. Well actually, it mostly hung in a damp kind of way, twitching limply in the drizzle. But in its mind, it was flying straight and true.

They grow up so quickly...

They grow up so quickly…

THE BEGINNING of June 2012 was special for those of us living in the UK, because we all got an extra bank holiday in honour of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. This was combined with a bank holiday that usually happened at the end of May but had been moved to June to make a Super Mega Weekend of four days. As is traditional for bank holidays, it rained throughout. London was the epicentre of it all, culminating in a Royal Regatta down the Thames with all the Royal Family in attendance. What a treat.

Naturally my partner, Beckie, and I decided to leave London, to escape the Jubilee madness. After consulting transport information, road atlases, the stars and a palm reader, we decided that the most auspicious time to leave this city of 8.2 million people would be the Friday evening before the beginning of the four day weekend. What could possibly go wrong?

The advantage of this plan, I discovered, was that it mitigated the risk of the car breaking down. How? Because when you’re stationary, it doesn’t matter whether your engine works or not. The car didn’t break down, but if it had, we could have pushed it all the way to Devon and we’d still have got there at the same time. We finally arrived SEVEN AND A HALF HOURS LATER.

Rather than staying in a hotel, we were house sitting. Which is to say, we have friends who live in Devon who were on holiday during the Jubilee weekend, and we invited ourselves to stay at their house. When we arrived we were met with a note apologising because they hadn’t had time to clean the oven for our arrival. We have never cleaned our oven. In my entire life, I think that I have only ever cleaned an oven once, and then under duress.

Rather than staying in a hotel, we were house sitting. Which is to say, we have friends who live in Devon who were on holiday during the Jubilee weekend, and we invited ourselves to stay at their house. When we arrived we were met with a note apologising because they hadn't had time to clean the oven for our arrival. I have never cleaned our oven. This picture of a nearby structure of ambiguous history and utility - such as are found scattered across the south west of England - was actually taken the year before, when we'd last stayed with them. Then it was sunny. During the jubilee weekend it rained perpetually. Whenever I walked in the house and saw my muddy footprints, all I could think of was the dirty oven. Don't clean your oven when I come to stay? Don't expect me to wipe my feet. No sir.

This nearby structure of ambiguous history and utility I actually photographed the year before, when we’d last stayed with our friends in Devon. Then it was sunny. During the Jubilee weekend it rained perpetually. Whenever I walked in the house and saw my muddy footprints, all I could think of was the dirty oven. Don’t clean your oven when I come to stay? Don’t expect me to wipe my feet. No sir.

IF WE thought that in leaving London, we were leaving the Jubilee celebrations behind, we were wrong. Devon is a place of winding, single track roads, hemmed by ten foot hedges. We’d round a blind corner (which is every corner on every road in Devon) to discover that we’d entered a small village or hamlet – every single one bedecked in bunting and Union Jacks. For those non-Brits reading this, please understand how odd it is for us (or how odd it was before 2012 anyway) to have flags anywhere. We’re not like North America, where everyone has a flagpole in their garden. Once, when I was on business in the US, I mentioned to one of my US colleagues that I”d heard that some people in the US wanted a constitutional amendment to prevent flag burning. He nodded vehemently, and proudly showed me a picture of the flag that he has hanging outside the front of his house. “It just makes me mad when I see flags that are all raggedy,” he told me, “when people just aren’t caring for them. I think, have you no pride?” He was driving at the time, and stared moodily at the road, no doubt picturing all the injustices that flags were suffering around the world, before adding: “If I saw someone right now setting light to a flag by the side of the highway, I’d stop this car, get out and punch them.”

In Britain, we have a different relationship with our flag.

Plastic Union Jacks are excellent at keeping you dry when it's raining. In fact, this particular bum-saver was actually one of many distributed in the Olympic park during the 2012 Olympics. We never even had it in Devon. So how can it be the object of my post for Devon, you ask? Well, it was raining in Devon, there were lots of flags and, more importantly, the Jubilee weekend and the Olympics have come to be the same thing in the popular consciousness, eliding the gap in time between the two events. See my helpful chart below, which explains this phenomenon.

Plastic Union Jacks are excellent at keeping you dry when it’s raining. In fact, this particular bum-saver was actually one of many distributed in the Olympic park during the 2012 Olympics. We never even had one in Devon. So how can it be the object of my post for Devon, you ask? Well, it was raining in Devon, there were lots of flags and, more importantly, the Jubilee weekend and the Olympics have come to be the same thing in the popular consciousness, eliding the gap in time between the two events. See my helpful chart below, which explains this phenomenon.

JubilympicsAnyway, thanks to the Jubilympics, Union Jacks are cool again. And there was no escaping them in Devon. Or the rain.

BUT ON our final day, the sun came out, we went to a Jubilee Party and I almost felt patriotic. We were in the tiny village of East Prawle, on the coast. We lunched in the tiny  pub, the Pigs Nose; it was the kind of place with boat hooks, nets and smuggling paraphernalia on the wall, exclusively cider on tap, and where everyone talked like a pirate. It was exactly what I love Devon for. And, yes, everyone was very understanding when the barman announced over the PA that a car with my registration number was parked on the village green and was preventing the village’s Jubilee party from being set up. Very understanding.

Dear People of the Pigs Nose: coming from London, I'm not used to green space. That's why I mistook your village green for a car park.

Dear People of the Pigs Nose: coming from London, I’m not used to green space. That’s why I mistook your village green for a car park.

We ate some pie, drank some cider, and went for a walk along the coast.

Sailing Coasting

And when we came back, we joined the East Prawle Jubilee party. There was a folk band, there was sun, there were Union Jacks. Yes the ground was a bit wet and yes some idiot had left tire marks all over the village green, but for a few wonderful hours, I was happy to wave a flag, cheer on kids in swing boats and dance with strangers. I’m not sure how much it had to do with Queen and country, but it had everything to do with community.

Ok, so some people took the whole flag thing a bit too far.

Ok, so some people took the whole flag thing a bit too far.

Exactly where my car was parked only three hours earlier.

Exactly where my car was parked only three hours earlier.

I'll be honest, I don't think that this chap really is the captain of a ship.

I’ll be honest, I don’t think that this chap really is the captain of a ship.

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Climbing the Stairs in Penrith: Or, Proving Larkin Wrong

I AM a control freak. I know this because I am always the one with the map, I am always the one cooking the roast, I am always the one who thinks that he’s got a plan. I tell myself (and others) that I’m being helpful, that I’m being organised. But I’m not. I am being IN CONTROL.

Does this look like a man in control? I’m actually holding on for dear life. Needless to say, this picture wasn’t taken in Penrith.

I know that this control freakery can be annoying for other people. I know this because my own father has stood over me before and told me how to butter bread the correct way. And I have found myself doing exactly the same thing with a friend chopping garlic (the mortifying thing is that it was also caught on camera: never has anyone ever looked so disapproving at another person for the way that they were chopping their garlic).

In This Be The Verse, Philip Larkin famously had this to say about what your parents give you:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

So it was with those cheerful words bouncing around in my head that I boarded a train destined for Penrith, where I would be joining my parents and family friends – let’s call them cousins and my aunt and uncle, because they’re the closest thing that I have to either: three generations in the same cottage for a weekend of eating, drinking and walking. What could possibly go wrong? A lot, Larkin would have me believe.

About an hour and a half into my train journey, somewhere around Wigan, I got a phone call from my dad:

“Dave, we’re at the cottage. But there’s been a bit of a calamity.”

“What is it dad, what’s wrong?” Is the kitchen flooded, I was thinking? Have they lost our booking? Has a tractor crashed into the car? Has someone broken their leg?

“It’s the gin, Dave. We forgot the gin…”

Fortunately, it turns out that they do have shops that sell gin in Penrith. What a relief! The wonderful bookend to the gin saga is, as we were leaving on the Sunday, my mother running up to me just as I was about to step out the door, an empty milk jug in her hand. “Dave, we’re staying on an extra night… Can you leave us some of your gin?”

So it really was remarkable when Saturday dawned and I didn’t have a hangover (I say ‘dawned’, but what I really mean is when I was woken up at about 9.30 on Saturday morning by my mother coughing loudly and not at all surreptitiously outside our bedroom door. It made me feel like a teenager again). I attribute this lack of a hangover to the youngest member of the party: Callum, aged one. Callum has, apparently, discovered stairs. He loves climbing them. I mean he LOVES them. Set free anywhere in the house and he would unerringly toddle off to the stairs, like a very slow, very drunken heatseeking missile with zero collision detection technology. Is that a duplo car to play with? It can climb the stairs with me! Is that a Mr Men book? I can throw it up the stairs…. Even sharing the task amongst ten of us meant a regular trip to the stairs to act as safety net/encouragement/carry-down-the-stairs. I don’t have a huge amount of experience with kids, but it turns out that you can’t be a control freak with them. An appeal to reason just doesn’t work with a one year old (“why are you climbing the stairs again? I mean, wouldn’t you rather play with your car… no, no, WHERE ARE YOU GOING?!”).

Here’s another place where my control freakery fell down. “What’s the plan?” I asked, when we eventually got up on Saturday morning, confident that the parental control freak and the certified twitcher would have it all in hand. “Go to the end of the road and turn either left or right, I guess,” was the reply. “You don’t even have a map?” “Yes, we have a map but we don’t really need one….” This lack of planning both worried and disturbed me. I went and laced up my hiking boots quietly in a corner (“we don’t have a map, we don’t have a map, we don’t have a map, it’s going to be ok, it’s going to be ok…”). This road was the right hand turn.

Which way? I don’t know, we didn’t have a map with us…

Summer’s last hurrah.

THERE CAME a point, when we were standing in a field, staring at a wall, when we had to admit that we were lost. After a brief discussion as to the merits of climbing over the wall or not, someone admitted to having brought a map with them (not me!). A brief consultation later and we headed out in the opposite direction.

Look, it was like this when we found it, ok? We certainly didn’t try and climb it.

Ok, so this gate was locked and we DID have to climb over it, but the map told us that it was a perfectly legitimate right of way…

It became clear to me why the gate was locked when these sheep began chasing us. There was something sinister in their coal-dead eyes as they pursued me across the field.

We escaped the sheep in one piece and made it back to the cottage for a spot of lunch/stair climbing. Somehow trekking through mud and over stiles seemed less draining than chasing after a one year old. So that afternoon some of us went for another walk to take a break from the stairs. We found a church:

Those who have read this blog in the past might think that I make a habit of visiting graveyards to take pictures, but this was just a coincidence, ok?

There is a morbid fascination in looking at gravestones, though. The older the better. But when does it become not ok to take photos of a gravestone? This graveyard was unusual in that it had some very old (1700s) gravestones and some very recent (2012) gravestones. As we entered the cemetery we exchanged pleasantries with a couple who had obviously just been to visit a grave. It’s not ok to take pictures of those graves. The basic graveyard rule of thumb, which I would commend to any budding cemetery snappers, is: if the headstone is still shiny, don’t photograph it.

Life over death.

Whichever way you look at it, it’s pretty creepy having a hand coming out of your tombstone.

After the thrill of the cemetery, we headed back to the cottage. Halfway back, we were met by Callum taking his dad, Steve, out for a walk. This time he’d chosen the buggy as his preferred mode of transport, rather than being strapped to his dad’s back (Callum can’t speak yet, but his cries of “choo choo! choo choo!” seemed to me to be a fairly unambiguous “faster, faster!”). I guess that I realised something then, but it didn’t click until later that evening when I was making dinner with Steve and his brother, Mat.

As previously discussed, I like being in control in the kitchen. So playing second fiddle to another chef required a lot of will power. I was smarting a little bit from criticism earlier in the day from Mat about the way I stacked the dishwasher (“stop, just stop Dave. That’s a spoon you’re putting an area clearly intended for knives”). It’s ok, I told myself, it’s ok – I’m still in control, even if I am peeling the spuds.

Operation Potato Peel went without a hitch, but then I started to wash the mushrooms and… all I can say is that Steve saw red. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING? Never, I mean NEVER,  wash mushrooms, they go all soggy…” As I stood speechless (why would mushrooms go soggy? why would anyone question my authority in the kitchen?) Callum entered the kitchen, his grandmother in tow. He toddled over to me and grasped my finger in his tiny hand, tugging insistently, and I was led out of the room in the direction of the stairs by a one year old child.

Perhaps, then, our parents do fill us with their own faults, but somehow I’m not buying Larkin’s assertion that it only leads to more misery. After all, Callum’s decisive – and dare I say in control – action averted mushroomgate.

You can walk ahead of your parents, but you’re still walking in the same direction.