Working my way through a creative writing exercise book I came across this task, which I undertook with my Dad.
‘Go on a walk or a journey with someone; make notes, and write two passages about it afterwards. Compare the different styles, topics and conventions of your accounts of the same event.’
We went to a cafe near my parents’ home, and had a cuppa whilst waiting for Mum to finish work. Here are our alternate-generational travel reports on our trip to a rubbish British high street.
The rather dilapidated frontages of Wimborne Road, showing the effects of recession, neglect and age, creep by, offering sometimes surprising things. A funeral director’s with an England World Cup display in the window; betting shops without one; a Big Issue seller dozing in the Sun. The traffic flows around us as we cross some of the many roads that feed into the main ‘drag’, as people used to call it. Traffic seems to me sometimes like some huge organic entity, every cell destined for a specific location and flowing according to the dictates (signs and lines) of the body of the city: Bournemouth and Poole are much bigger than most people think, about half a million people crammed into a seaside sprawl, their numbers inflated by students both British and from abroad, the latter attending the many English colleges around. Thought the foreign student who spat forcefully on the pavement as we passed was letting his nation down a bit.
One of my favourite lorries passes: Suttle Stone Quarries, it says. I wonder about these subtle stone quarries. Do they tap gently with small picks rather than use dynamite, to avoid disturbing the neighbours? Do they fit extra-quiet engines to the lorries, and let them out only during the day so everyone can sleep? Is there a rival firm called Blatant Stone Quarries, noisy, brash and with monster trucks that screw up the environment and infuriate the locals?
In the café where we pause, the man at the next table turns out to be one of the Self-Righteous brothers. He has a negative opinion on most things, and dominates the conversation with the woman opposite him. “Brazil? Not likely, get stabbed on the first day, probably by little kids; always used to be sunnier in June but look at all these clouds, global warming of course; so I said to ‘im, look, if you do it that way there’s no way you’ll get her back…..” .
Trawled the charity shops on the way back, and find of the day was an unopened Solar System jigsaw. Perhaps the child I sell it to will do what I did, and be inspired by it, as I was by a library book at age 10, and become a planetarium person or a professional astrophysicist…
“There is nothing of note about this,” I thought “except for how bland and unremarkable it is.” It was as ugly a British high street as the majority of its counterparts, but it was long. Long enough that it persisted over the horizon in royal blue and stark red takeaways; deep pink nail bars; and plastic pubs painted to look like wood, as though desperately trying to be nonchalant about how real they were. The endless commerce peeled, and the brighter its colours, the more drab it appeared.
As Dad and I continued through the forced, stained rainbow (stainbow?), a wall-mounted metal ashtray hung glaringly open by the door of one of the rubbish pubs.
“There! Now that’s true.” I exclaimed, privately. I lamented my lack of camera; there was something suddenly exciting about this filthy high street owning up to itself. I could see its insides, and it was gross. I loved it. A black molasses of Embassy, Mayfair, and Rizlas buried under a more recent layer of rainwater and orange, and once more by the grey remainder of pacifier after pacifier, slumped together in a redundant, toxic paste. I was once again reminded why I quit, and felt smug. Then uneasy, as I thought of all those wonderful human insides still inviting that deadly, anti-feeling syrup to be a part of them.
Just seeing it made me more aware of the atmosphere around me. I’ve noticed recently that pollution makes the inside of my nasal cavity hurt. To quell my paranoia I asked Dad how far away we were.
“It’s just on the horizon there, you see?”
I did. Finally.
As I continued up the hetero-high street in my ill-fitting dress, I wondered whether my multifarious and vague sense of unease was rooted in multifarious and vague geography. Being back in and around my hometown is a comforting and compromising experience; like a sudden scent, it can transport me from being back in the nest to being back in the grip of a particularly unhappy time – 12 onwards – one of fierce self- and peer-cruelty. I had to remind myself that I wasn’t in danger.
“Focus on the writing task. The present, not the past. This is about this, not that.” I couldn’t extricate my feelings about this place from my feelings about my adolescence.
The woman who ran the cafe was very sweet; as I ordered a decaf latte she glanced at me and smiled, looking pleasantly surprised. As I tried to decipher why, the wheel slowed in my head and clicked to a halt at “she thinks my accent is funny.” I never decided whether that funny was joyous or condescending. Her American accent was very charming. I wondered if this strip-mall road was like a quaint model village for her.
Finally we sat, and after a wholly negative pull on the walk so far (the guy sitting next to us was basically Jay’s Dad from The Inbetweeners: “Brazil’s a deathtrap and no one speaks English, I wouldn’t”), sitting down with Dad reminded me how privileged I am to come from this particular family in this particular lame, homogenous seaside town. I wondered what he was making of this – things rarely faze him. He is much less particular than I…I think. He’s so unfazed I can never be sure.
A bus chugged away outside the open cafe door, and the warm fumes poured into my face.
“That’s French, that.” noted Dad.
“See on the bus there: ‘Yellow Buses, RATP Group’, that’s the Regie Autonome Transports Parisiens, they own the Metro and bus services etc. in Paris. It’s like EDF Energy, you know them? They’re French. And SITA. That’s a French company.”
“Globalisation, innit?” I always feel like an ignorant teenager in conversation with Dad – luckily he’s a very good and kind teacher.
“It’s like countries are trying to take each other over, push each other out. But everybody wants it, it seems. So that’s how it’ll be.” I don’t subscribe to his matter-of-factness, however.
“It is changing though, Dad. There’s a massive anti-consumer and anti-capitalist movement growing, and it’s organising…” I trailed off with disappointment as my lack of evidence at the changing tide of society and the Good Revolution sapped at my enthusiasm.
“Well, yes. A couple of McDonalds’ were burned down in France, although I think it was a protest at the debasement of cuisine rather than a protest at globalisation. And BP, of course, stands for British Petroleum, right? But on their website, they’re…” Dad made a fancy hand gesture – “Beyond Petroleum!”
We both snickered. “I think ‘No you’re not.” he said. “You sell petroleum.'”
As the Francais-owned bus, the one sign of multiculturalism in Winton besides the American cafe we sat in, rolled away, I thought again about leaving Britain for somewhere. I wonder where I will settle, where I will be when I am Dad’s age? Will there be enough petroleum to get me back to him?