My son called me yesterday evening to gloat because of the outcome for him of a BBC quiz he’d just completed, entitled ‘Where would you be happiest in Britain?’ (The quiz can be found here, if you’re interested. I assume, for readers of this blog who live outside Britain, that it will guide your choice should you wish to emigrate from your country. 😉 I should add that, since the way into it is by selection of a miserable three photographic choices, I rather suspect that it has an equal paucity of possible places to put participants!) It told him that the place in which he’d be happiest is Lewes, in East Sussex (also its choice for my husband – QED my point about the limitations of the quiz), but his reason for calling was to let me know it also forecast the place in which he’d be most miserable. The prediction for him was ….Spalding! Where, apparently, the inhabitants are bereft of several character traits that those of other places have in spades, including friendliness. My son was delighted because he’s always affirmed that I, a native of Spalding, was born among bog-dwellers with webbed feet (and, in point of fact, my paternal aunt did have webbed feet!), whereas he is one of God’s Yorkshiremen.
Not willing to take this lying down, I decided to complete the quiz myself. It told me quite firmly that the place I’d be happiest living in would be Oxford (where there is, allegedly, a very high ratio of ‘cultured, conscientious and’ … ahem… ‘neurotic ’ people, just like me, apparently). And the place in which I’d be least happy? You may have guessed it already: Spalding!
Now, apart from pointing out the obvious – that the BBC must have a real down on my home town; so much so, that I wonder if the quiz might have been compiled by Jeremy Clarkson after he found out that all the restaurants serving food (hot or cold!) there are closed by 10 p.m. – I’d like to take issue with this.
First of all, I know Oxford well and have never considered it to be my idea of residential heaven. It’s pleasant enough and I’ve been to some good concerts there and eaten some excellent food in its (largely overpriced) restaurants. I have a significant number of friends and acquaintances who live or work there, most of whom are cultured and conscientious and some of whom are undoubtedly neurotic.
But, over the years, I’ve also had some pretty duff experiences in Oxford. Here are a couple of examples:
When I was working for a Scottish library supplier, I was once booked into a hotel (called Green Gables, but there, its resemblance to the home of L.M.Montgomery’s heroine ended), a turn-of-the-twentieth-century building that sat right in the middle of a run-down housing estate containing a maze of roads through which feral dogs and glue sniffers roamed at large. The hotel didn’t serve food and I didn’t dare to go out after dark in search of any, so I dined on a cereal bar that I had in my brief case and a glass of tap water. My room looked as if it hadn’t been decorated since 1930 (the décor was bottle green and cream) and the ‘en suite shower’ (cunningly concealed behind a clear plastic curtain) was fitted with a rubber mat which, when lifted, revealed a thriving family of wood lice. Not very Oxford as Oxford conceives of itself!
My second example, however, is quintessentially Oxonian. I was visiting a publisher who persuaded me to attend an evening soirée featuring a ‘traditional African music ensemble’. Intrigued, I changed my train ticket and turned up at the event, hoping to feast on some of the exotic music and dancing I’d seen executed by a visiting troupe from Zimbabwe when I worked in Huddersfield (another awful town, according to the BBC). Imagine my chagrin when the ensemble turned out to consist of a quartet of upper middle class white Oxford ladies of a certain age playing its own arrangement of ‘native’ music on some very European instruments! I couldn’t capture my idea of Oxford better than by telling this tale, which does indeed demonstrate that Oxford is conscientious (if self-consciously so), cultured (in its own inimitable way) and neurotic (possibly).
When I think of places which have made me miserable, therefore, I’d have to include Oxford in the list. There are more deserving candidates, however. Among these, I’d cite Rotherham, a town that seems to have had nothing going for it since its magical (definitely, then, before the Industrial Revolution snapped it into its jaws!) ‘merry England’ manifestation, described by Sir Walter Scott in Ivanhoe; Solihull, for several years home of the HQ of Dillons and Waterstones, a place which never seemed to have anything to recommend it except a larger-than-average number of dress shops catering for ‘the fuller figure’; its much bigger and uglier sister, Birmingham (though I admit the canal system there is superb and worth a visit); Bridgnorth, a place so benighted that even the local copper didn’t know where the library was; and, last but not least in the misery-making-for-me stakes, Middlesbrough, which I’ve visited twice and where I had my car broken into on both occasions.
And places where I’ve been happiest? Sometimes in London, spending delightful evenings with friends, though I’d hate to live there; often in Surbiton or Mawdesley, basking in special friends’ wonderful hospitality; at my God’s-own-Yorkshireman son’s various homes over time, both entertained and amused by him and his wife; and – yes – in Spalding; certainly, in Spalding, that sink of human baseness by BBC reckoning. I spent the first seventeen years of my life there, so I’d have experienced a childhood of Dickensian deprivation if I hadn’t been very happy some of that time, and an unusual teenager if I hadn’t also sometimes felt melodramatically sad. Finally, I do actually like the place I live in now – otherwise, why would I have chosen it? – even though the BBC thinks it is only 54% suitable for a person with my character traits.
Which brings me to my final point. Supposing that I do exhibit more than average conscientiousness, cultural awareness and neuroticism, why should I want to ghettoise myself with a massive bunch of people just like me? My immediate neighbours are as unlike me as possible. They include a racehorse trainer, a physiotherapist, a lawyer, a doctor and several businessmen, as well as a number of retired people. Their passions include horseracing, greyhound racing, playing the harp, planting rare snowdrops and keeping bees, in none of which I have more than a passing interest. Some are bluff, hearty, hail-fellow-well-met and extrovert; others are quieter, more reserved, but fascinating once engaged in conversation. Some take three holidays a year; one lives in the South of France for six months out of the twelve; others never have a holiday and hardly leave the village at all. We all appreciate the surrounding countryside. We all like being within a short drive of several major cities and towns. Other than these common points of consensus, mutual variety is the spice of our lives in so far as we share them.
So there you are, BBC. Mood and character createth the individual woman… or man; but not the place. In my book, anyway.
I’ve been planning several posts about my recent narrowboat holiday, but have been struggling to find the time to write them! Today, I’m determined to start, not only because that whole week provided some wonderful experiences that I’d like to share, but also because I want to celebrate a brief meeting with an extraordinary volunteer.
The background circumstances of our meeting were inauspicious, but it might never have taken place without them. It was a baking hot Thursday afternoon and our boat (endearingly named ‘Short-toed Eagle’) was approaching Birmingham City Centre, gradually being steered by my husband up the thirteen Farmer’s Bridge Locks, the final steep (eighty feet) flight into the city’s heart, while I manipulated the lock-gates; not far into the flight, we heard an explosive argument taking place, just out of sight, on the towpath. I should explain that this particular section of the BCN (Birmingham Canal Navigations) is a very public place to be negotiating locks, as office and shop workers take their lunches here and joggers, cyclists and families compete for space on the restored towpath. We were accompanied some of the way by a group of locals on bikes, who watched the whole process of ‘locking up’ several times over, but didn’t volunteer (sadly, for moving the gates is a hard job on a hot day!) to help!
This lock flight, as I hope you can see from the photographs, is an astonishing blend of old and new, for it passes through (and under!) the commercial centre of Birmingham.
Anyway, back to the ‘tiff’: The vocabulary of the two participants was ferocious but limited. ‘**** you!’ bellowed one. ‘**** off!’ screamed the other. After a few minutes, a couple in their early twenties strode into view: she, tanned with dark hair, wearing a short but chic black dress accompanied by stiletto heels; he, less surprisingly, perhaps, sporting a baggy T-shirt, jeans and baseball cap. The tirade continued. Sixteen or so rounds of expletives were spat back and forth with very little sub-text, ricocheting off the walls of the tall buildings around the canal. Eventually it became clear that he wanted to borrow her mobile phone to get a score from his dealer and she wasn’t having it (although she actually seemed higher on something than he was).
Their mood was volatile, so I thought it best to be discreet; as they passed me, I focused on trying to shift the paddles on my lock-gate, the ratchets of which were ancient and troublesome. As I was leaning my full weight on my windlass, I became aware of a man standing beside me. I looked up to see an athletic and well-preserved gentleman in his sixties. He offered to help. I saw that he was also carrying a windlass, and thought that he must have come from a boat further up.
He was very anxious to tell me that the incident that I’d just witnessed was not typical and that the towpaths were safe places. He was obviously quite proud of the local canal complex and even more of Birmingham itself. He told me that his name was Michael Payne and that since his retirement he had worked a few shifts each week as a volunteer for the Canals and Rivers Trust. I asked him if he also had a boat and he replied that he had a part-share in one, which was currently moored at Royston in Leicestershire.
Michael was a mine of information. As we worked our way up the remaining locks in the flight, he pointed out to me an offshoot of the canal that had been buried in the 1950s and rediscovered during excavations for a new office block and showed me an impressive building that had once housed a large coffee-importing business in Birmingham. This had been abandoned decades ago and opened up only recently, when the copper industrial coffee-grinding machinery had been found there, still intact. He said that all this has been restored and the building will shortly be opened as a museum dedicated to coffee. I was fascinated by this story and wondered under what circumstances a building could be left like this. Did no-one own it? Had all the owners died? Why hadn’t the machinery been sold off when it ceased trading? Perhaps the answers will come from the museum itself.
Michael’s shift was due to end, but he said that he’d carry on helping me until we reached the top of the flight. I was grateful, as all the lock mechanisms were misshapen, old and extremely unyielding. My husband, who was joining in the conversation from the narrowboat, told him that I was a crime fiction writer (not sparing my blushes!) and Michael said that he was a big Donna Leon fan. Apparently he and his wife have visited Venice several times, where they’ve joined the walking tours that are arranged to allow devotees to follow in Inspector Brunetti’s footsteps.
I thought that this was a very intriguing idea. Should I myself organise walking tours in order to introduce my readers to the Spalding (and South Lincolnshire) of DI Yates? I’m not sure, however, that it would help me to curry favour with my Fenland friends and fans who have been so hospitable and generous with their support since DI Yates was born! On the whole, I think I’d sooner organise a walking tour of the Farmer’s Bridge Flight, but I’d have to engage Michael to lead it.
If you’re reading this, Michael, may I just say that it was a great pleasure to meet you and to have the benefit of your conversation for an hour or two. We owe you a very great debt of gratitude for your skilful management of the (to me) troublesome ratchets of the Farmer’s Bridge flight. And if there ever is a DI Yates walking tour of Spalding, I shall make sure that you hear of it.
[Thanks to my husband for all the pictures, which he managed with his camera in one hand and the tiller in the other!]
All text and photographs on this website © Christina James