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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Trip (part 2)

Hello dear readers,

Now, some of you may expect my account of the coach journey to involve a very public panic attack or act of indiscretion, such as immediately removing my shoes or unwrapping a Stilton and cress sandwich to enchant the nasal cavities of my fellow passengers. Well, though I may not travel much, I am no animal.

I sat quite quietly and put on the I-Pod given to me by my good friend Piotr for use over the holiday. And yes, it was a real I-Pod, not some sort of Polish knock-off, called an I-Pol, with only one earphone and the capacity for one and a half songs. He is in IT and very savvy about technology. He even loaded the contraption up with some of my favourites, which I believe he may have pirated from the internet, the first of which was 'If I Can't Have You' by the Bee Gees, which was apt given I recently spent so much time, emotional currency and physical currency on a futile pursuit of my lady friend from work. Truthfully, my heart ached.

Yet, I resolved not to cede my spirit to despondency. I also resolved to be mindful of my breathing exercises and take no notice of my fellow passengers, even those who felt compelled to speak at volumes high enough to drown out the velvety harmonising of the brothers Gibb while providing a well-detailed, blow-by-blow account of some bint's naked escapades.

The first 90 minutes was fraught with anxiety and frankly I had doubts as to my ability to stay seated and silent. Thankfully the late hour cast the coach and its human cargo into a contemplative lull by the time we were shot of the city's gravity. At this point Mrs Donaldson removed our near-odourless sharp cheddar and pickle sandwiches from their wrappings and I removed my earphones.

We chatted about our possible itinerary over the next four days, agreeing to do some of the typical tourist activities - the Roman baths, the Jane Austin Centre and the city walk. I inquired as to jaunts to Stonehenge, which thankfully she dismissed as ridiculous, and Stow on the Wold, which elicited a snort of disgust.

'The countryside is reputed to be rather stunning,' I ventured.

'I've no need for countryside. I'm not a farmer.'

Now, I have long known of Mrs Donaldson's aversion to rural life. Her evacuation from London as a child during The Blitz was a defining experience in her life, yet one she has long refused to discuss in any detail, despite my many subtle inquiries. The odd scrap of detail has emerged, of course, such as that she was told very little by her parents about what was happening and was physically labelled like a parcel before being shunted onto a train. I know she has a soft spot for orphans and the like...

'What can you learn from a bleedin' tree,' she continued.

As our relationship is largely founded on aimless debate and being contrary for the sake of conversation, I argued that the entire canon of Romantic poetry had been based on the pastoral.

'A complete waste of time. And to think they cut all those beautiful trees to print their poems.'

I replied to this by reciting the first two stanzas of Shelley's 'Ode to the West Wind', which was forced into my brain in secondary school by a Literature teacher fond of heartfelt poetry and throwing chairs at his students.* Despite my best efforts, I have not been able to remove Shelley, Keats or several passages of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar from my grey matter. Mind you, my keen mind kept me from ever being struck by a chair.

'What good has a poet ever done anyone?' Mrs Donaldson asked.

'They have sustained me in many a dark hour.'

She then went on a rather long monologue about how people needed to work, not think so much. Apparently the solution to death, disease, depression, heartache and hair loss can all be found by picking up a broom or spade and rolling up one's sleeves. As I've mentioned before, despite her advanced age, Mrs Donaldson is forever doing work with the church or coercing other ancient types into inappropriate social activities (see past posts re: elderly improv).

'No starving man ever chose a book of poetry over a hot supper.'

'I would,' I replied. 'I spend my wages on books. What's left over I waste on food and drink.'**

'Turn away your food tomorrow and I'll buy you a lovely meal or any book you like in the shop the following day. I suspect you won't be dining on DH Lawrence.'

I pointed out that most book shops on the high street were dead or dying, so there were no guarantees she could fulfill her part of the wager. We lingered in silence as the darkness hung outside our window. I then inquired what the Blitz was like, in case our proximity to countryside had stirred the faintest hint of melancholic nostalgia.

'You're the flippin' writer,' she said. 'Use your imagination.'

She then closed her eyes and feigned sleep.

Stay well,

*I know the first five stanzas
**I believe I may have stolen this line from someone... I can't recall from whom

All conversation approximated from notes. NF

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Trip (part 1)

Hello dear readers,

Yes, I have borrowed my title from Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon's spectacularly uneven series about their adventures driving through the north of England eating in swish restaurants. Of course, the difference in my and Mrs Donaldson's tale of exploration is: a) we are more erudite and sophisticated b) Mrs Donaldson does not do excessive Al Pacino impersonations and mug for the camera c) we have fewer BAFTA nominations and d) most of our meals are budget.

Still, we did leave our local area in search of adventure and a pleasant way of celebrating my dear neighbour's 79th birthday on the tab of her only son, who 'does something with numbers with the government' and has been doing so for long enough not to fear the swath of forced redundancies sweeping the nation. So may I begin by first saying, Happy Birthday, Mrs Donaldson. You look younger than your years and are as spry as a 60-year-old with mild arthritis, an ambitious hair colourist and a King's capacity for sweet sherry.

Now the plan to leave London began in jest, a remark on my part in relation to my desire to write a Bill Bryson-style travel book. Being carbonated with vim and vigour, and feeling somewhat low about the turning of another page on the ever-shortening calender of life, my dear neighbour practically goaded me into action, making the arrangements herself and doing everything short of packing my bag. I suspect she would have pressed and folded my pants and socks if given the chance, which would have left me terribly uncomfortable.

The bare facts:

Mrs Donaldson arranged for us to travel via National Express coach, leaving from Victoria Station at precisely 7pm (give or take a cup of tea and the last bit of pastry being consumed by the driver) for the princely sum of £13.50 (one-way). Apparently she paid the same rate, due I would suppose to our late booking, proving rather emphatically there really is no good reason to get old anymore in our ruthless modern society. Because of her languid joints and our desire not to be separated for the journey, we also paid the £1 surcharge for priority seating. When did this blatant money grab come about? You tell me, ruthless modern society. You tell me...

Now, for international readers, to get from Islington to Victoria Station we had two options. The first was to take one of our city's famous black cabs, helmed by a well-trained and regulated driver who would have had to have passed a rigid exam. These chaps possess an intimate knowledge of both the intricate geography of the city, as well as its vibrant soul, and are tremendously professional (as long as you do not vomit or act like a prat/lunatic/French Prime Minister). 

Instead we opted for a mini-cab, because frankly, they are considerably less expensive and I have an aversion to people driving and speaking, which black cab drivers are also famous for... It seems like a potentially deadly distraction. I get a tad nervous and nauseous.

Now, the key is to pre-book a mini-cab, as basically any rapist-cum-serial killer can plaster some signage on an automobile and agree to drive you to Luton. The other rather disagreeable problem with mini-cabs has largely been solved by GPS, but a decade or so ago (when I travelled more) one had a 70-30 chance of the driver either asking you to give him street by street directions or hurling an A-Z into your lap. To be fair, this only happened if you were going somewhere atypical he didn't know, like for example, your home. Drivers were more adept at locating major landmarks and airports, or a shop selling rugs owned by his uncle.

Anyway, the advent of GPS has changed the game completely. Our driver was a pleasant enough chap, and after Mrs Donaldson had thoroughly inspected his license, we settled into the back of the vehicle and had a fine 20-minute ride to our destination.

Being a dedicated walker, I admit having been somewhat agitated by the rapid acceleration and braking, tooting and hand gestures of the city's vehicular life clattering around me, but was calmed by Mrs Donaldson's firm suggestion that I 'buck up and stop moaning'. To an outsider this might sound harsh, but what my dear neighbour was actually saying was, 'It's all fine, Nate.' Communication is a generational thing...

And so, we arrived with body and soul intact for our journey to Bath, Somerset - an outpost of the Roman Empire established around 60AD as a temple to Minerva - sister city to Shower, Loofa and Bidet - home to the most remarkable natural hot springs in Britain.

Now if only I could keep my supper down on the three-hour journey...

Stay well,