Thursday, 26 June 2008

The Lord of Abbeville Road

I'm reading George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris in London at the moment, having rather a lot of time to myself and little else to do.

There aren't many similarities between my current situation and Orwell's experience - for a start, I'm not in abject poverty and Orwell's celebrated memoir described some very tough times in the 1930s.

But I have now joined the ranks of the down-and-outs in south-west London. OK, so being unemployed in Balham is not quite the same as being forced to pawn your only overcoat, or having to work eighteen-hour days as a plongeur in a filthy Paris hotel. But, like Orwell in Down and Out, it does expose you to meeting people who don't do the traditional nine 'til five day, and the sorts of characters you will never meet stuck in the office. A person without a job and who lacks structure in their life gets stuck in a very strange, basic sort of existence, as Orwell finds even more so in the second part of the book.

In the relative affluence of Abbeville Road, where I went for a mid-morning latte today after visiting my GP, there are plenty of people inhabit the coffee shops in daytime because they've either got kids, are retired or they're not working for some other reason. A much stereotyped 'yummy mummy' gossips about a friend who's doing Versace's advertising and an argument rages in an Italian cafe across the street. In Starbucks, a well-dressed, Wildesque figure with a long-flowing mane greets from the terrace:

"Good-day to you sir, would you fetch my drink from inside?". He pointed to his cane, and a cigarette in his other hand, thus rendering it impossible for him to safely convey his iced hot chocolate from the counter.

I brought the drink out and took a seat next to him, hoping to make the most of the sunshine. James David Cameron (no relation to the film director or the Tory leader) wore a crisp linen jacket and had a colonial air about him. He seemed relieved that I was reading the Guardian, a 'friend of mine' and acknowledged everyone who passed through for their morning coffee. Some ignored him, others had a cheerful greeting for him. He complained loudly to the staff about the lack of whipped cream on his drink and the wobbly tables. He even managed to give graphic accounts of his sex life with his girlfriend. A Bulgarian woman was gently teased about her poor spoken English. Cameron excitedly told anyone who'd listen about his upcoming role as an extra in a film with Russell Crowe - and "did I want to be in it too, £3,000 for a fortnight's work?" He insisted on taking my number, just in case.

It seemed appropriate to meet James after watching an outdoor screening of Withnail and I last night, for unlike Richard E. Grant's character he made unemployment seem so civilized. But , who desperately tries to appear superior and aloof despite his alcohol and drugs binges, there was nothing incapable about James apart from having suffered from MS since he was 17. The self-styled "Lord of Abbeville Road" was engaging and entertaining, and pleased to have company.

So, here's to being a 'bum', and as my friend Greg and I have recently discovered, you can 'rest' in style, and have a lot of fun at other people's expense whilst you're doing it!

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Friday June 11 2004, Wisconsin - South Dakota

To Badlands National Park, America's smallest. It is basically a lot of sandstone and unusual looking rocks, once engulfed by a vast sea millions of years ago. Not much opportunity for hiding here or doing my own thing, but lots of photo opportunities. We are lucky tonight in that we have the use of a cabin lodge at our campsite - a proper bed and decent shelter! But it turns out to be a peaceful evening anyway.

A highlight of this stop is the 'Corn Palace' in a tiny little town called Mitchell. The corn palace is essentially a large town hall decorated with....err...corn. Oh well, whatever amuses the locals I suppose...

Thursday June 10 2004, Chicago - Jackson

In Britain, the country is going to the polls in the European elections, which I helped campaign in before I left. President Reagan's funeral also takes place today.

We're on the road to Jackson, having left Chicago at 10am. Weather is poor, much cooler and raining all day.


There is not a lot to do or see in Jackson. I suppose this is God's way of making Kesgrave* look exciting. The campsite pitches are gravelly and the weather's getting quite miserable. I don't sleep well.

*The village I grew up in.

Wednesday June 9 2004 - Chicago

Weather clear, fine and humid - a little rain later.

Awoke a little later, but perhaps I'm justified as I had some good news - I've been awarded an upper second class degree with honours in Politics and International Relations. My stepfather, Rob, called me at 7am in the morning in my hotel room from to announce my results - so I'm very happy indeed! This is all despite my atrocious performance in a statistics module last year, which I resented every moment of, and the slog that was International Law.

So, my free day in Chicago went a bit like this; after leaving the hotel I had a Starbucks breakfast (club sandwich) and a large mocha, which is about twice the size of the British equivalent. Then, a lot of fuss and walking to get a Transit card, and a bus to the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry - an enormous nineteenth century building a little way from downtown. Only spent an hour here, but it was worth a visit even just to see an early diesel-electric Streamline locomotive plonked in the middle and a Boeing 727. Then, back to the hotel and North Michigan Avenue to buy a new shirt in H&M. I'm constantly impressed at how globalization has made all of these stores so homogeneous, for the moment I walk in I know exactly where I'm going. The men's section is never on the ground floor, of course!

In the evening we take a trip by taxi to the Second City comedy club, where some of America's greatest comics have started out. There are two acts - the first is a troupe of women whose show consists of patchy character comedy, which when it's great is very sharp, but I'm not hugely impressed. The second act is is 'experimental' to put it diplomatically. The act is based on a rock band and the gags are cringe worthy and painful to watch.

Weather much cooler, and wetter.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Tuesday 8 July 2004, Sandusting, Ohio - Chicago, Illinois

Weather fine, clear and humid

It's exam results day today - and I'm on the road to Chicago - the windy city,and home of the blues.

Arrive in Chicago - such a contrast to New York. The weather is wonderful, but a sticky, humid heat. The skyline is similar to NY but the place has a more prosperous air about it. I really like Chicago.

Check in at the Cass Hotel in downtown Chicago - for a budget hotel it's quite pleasant. OK, it's costing me $90 for two nights but I'm sure can live with that. For the most of my trip I'll be camping, in all weathers, except in the larger cities where camping isn't practical. In the evening we take a walk to the visitor centre, then to Cafe Due for a rather scrumptious pizza meal. After the ten of us somehow all manage to pile in a taxi to the Sears Tower, one of the tallest buildings in the world, where we watch the sunset over Chicago, and the lights of the city begin to turn on. It is serene and rather beautiful.

Kingston Mines is our final visit of the day - not some sort of underground workings but a lively and surprisingly good Blues club. I had no idea I enjoyed Blues until this evening. Cori, our driver, becomes drunk and disorientated - I'm quite glad she's not driving tonight! I must look really young as everyone expresses surprise at my ID - 21 is the legal drinking age in the US, and in most states I've only just hit that milestone. Back at the hotel I'm absolutely knackered, and hit my bed straightaway.

Monday 7 June 2004 - Niagara Falls - Ohio

9:30 am - weather fine, clear and humid.

Up at 7am this morning for a return to the Falls, this time for the 'Maid of the Mist' boat ride - taking us right to the bottom of the Falls. We are issued with plastic ponchos and waddle lemming-style on to the boat. It is an incredible, beautiful experience. Bought some postcards to send to the folks back home, then hit the road to Sandusting, Ohio. Pass through some rather run-down parts, such as Cleveland.


My views on the political hues of this country seem to be reinforced. Yesterday at a gas station I saw a whole host of patriotic memorabilia - including that famous playing card t-shirt with the the words 'Saddam Hussein - we got him!' on it. What a load of gung-ho crap.

Friday, 20 June 2008

Sunday 6 June 2004, New York - Pennsylvania - New York

5:45am, Gershwin Hotel, New York

Despite the somewhat unfamiliar surroundings, I quickly check out of the Gershwin and head for the subway. Well, that's the plan anyway. I like to think I've got a good sense of direction generally, but I don't really know where I'm going, and two ladies endeavour to help me as I scan the system map. But despite being native New Yorkers, they don't really know where I'm supposed to be going either. Someone tells me to get the New Jersey train - that can't be right? Eventually I tire of their misleading directions and ask a policeman who helpfully directs me back to street level. The familiar sight of a yellow cab hoves into view - sod it, I'll pay $11 to get to the Hotel Belle Claire if I have to. It gets me there on time - and it must be the distant Scottish ancestry which keeps my hawkish eye fixed on the meter as we progress through deserted early morning New York.

Meeting the fellow Trekkers (this being the plural for the group of travellers on the Trek America 'Transcontinental North' trip), I notice we're a surprisingly British bunch of people. The only non-English person is Astrid, an Australian who I consider an honourary Brit for the trip. So our full contingent are made up of me, Dave from South Wales (who I met last night), Pete (who's from Dover originally, and used to do a politics show on Invicta FM back in Kent), Martin (the oldest of the group at 34), John and Jo (a couple), Sara and Sarah (also a couple, and from South Wales). The two couples have just finished the Transcontinental South trip, which started in Los Angeles and ended up in New York, so they're already on chummy terms with Cori Tucker, our zany tour leader.

* * *

Ronald Regan died yesterday at the age of 95, and with it a whole epoch of American politics. I guess no-one's seen or heard much of him in recent years, as he had suffered the debilitating Alzheimer's Disease. There are flags at half mast everywhere, and tributes appearing in all the newspapers. Presidents Bush Snr and Jnr have both been quite visible, as have Reagan's European contemporaries Gorbachev and Baroness Thatcher. Apparently, Thatcher recorded her tribute two years ago - she won't speak at Reagan's funeral in person as some brave Chelsea doctors have banned her from doing any more public speaking. But America seems to be carrying on as normal in the wake of this loss.


10:30pm - Niagara Falls - USA and Canada

We are now in Niagara Falls, which to quote every visitor to this place, is 'awesome'. After arriving at the Four Mile Creek campsite I manage to capture a gorgeous sunset with my new digital camera. After dinner, we go back in the van to see the Falls fully floodlit. The Falls are divided into two parts - American Falls and Horseshoe Falls. The latter is the most famous part and tends to be the picture postcard depiction. It is absolutely amazing, and I had no idea it was so close to Canada. The city of Niagara Falls is lit up on the other side of the border. We visit Hard Rock Cafe and get our passports stamped by the amicable Canadian immigration controls people. Coming back across the bridge to the US their counterparts are abrupt and unfriendly. In the space of just an hour, I notice a small cultural difference between the US and Canada.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

New York, Saturday 5 June 2004

Weather: cloudy but fair.

Sitting in a branch of Wetherspoons at Heathrow's Terminal 4 eating a £5.99 'traditional breakfast' - trying to relax, with a cup of Tetley's tea. This will be my last taste of British culture for five weeks - quite literally.

There is something reassuringly grim about British airports - the staff working in the bars, cafes and overpriced designer shops are no more friendly or personable than anywhere else. Terminal 4 is the newest of all the Heathrow Airport termini but it's style seems refreshingly bland and quite unlike its European or American counterparts. No glamour, no frills, no inspiring architecture. But, you bet you can find an absurdly expensive perfurmery or a Sunglass Hut that boasts of tax-free prices.

I feel ridiculously nervous and tense, because I hardly got a wink of sleep last night. My erstwhile housemate had been out drinking until the early hours, and upon stumbling back home with his new 'companion', continued his hedonistic pleasure with my supplies of Irish whiskey and Bombay Sapphire. I woke up late for my flight, with my Dad on the doorstep, ready to drive me to the airport, wondering why I haven't showered or dressed yet. The bathroom graphically displays the regurgitated evidence of last night's partying, so I decide against it and opt for a quick bath instead. So, after my panicked start to the day, you can see why I'm not exactly in the best frame of mind, and I don't even look back to wave goodbye to Dad, Molly and Mary as I go through security in to the departures area. This is the first time I've flown by myself - I'm 21 and looking forward to another 'liberating' experience, which I'm supposed to enjoy. Perhaps it's the coldness and systematic procedure of the airport that makes me feel so close to 'the edge'.

Ah well, give it a few more gins once I get on the plane and I'll be fine...

10:00 PM - Gershwin Hotel, 7 East 27th Street, New York. Weather, cloudy but fair. Rained this evening.

Well, here I am. Arrived in John F Kennedy airport at 4:00pm, surprisingly earlier than I expected. Went through the usual bureaucracy you have to go through when coming to the US, so that I can check I'm not a terrorist, communist, or a homosexual (oh, hold on...). Headed straight to the SuperShuttle, which is somewhat more low-key than its brandname suggests, being more of a glorified Ford Transit. But they're full, and a typically upfront taxi driver quotes me $19 for the ride into town. He actually charges me $33 in the end, but I'm so keen to get to the hotel I don't quibble with him. The ride does include an interesting trip through downtown Manhattan though, so we get a good view of the skyline, Time Square etc.

My hotel, the Gershwin, is quite a funky sort of place, with a retro, Sixties feel and lots of abstract art adorning the walls, and it plays house music in the entrance lobby. I can't imagine anywhere like this in London. We're just a stone's throw from the Empire State Building here, and Macy's department store, the biggest in the world. At ground level it all feels a bit unimposing now that the World Trade Centre is gone.

I meet Dave early in the evening, who joins me on the trip. Dave is from South Wales, and staying in a different hotel prior to beginning the tour proper tomorrow. later, who's closer look at Time Square later - it has an amazing vibe about it, absolutely bustling with life and very exciting. Weaving our way back to my hotel, I'm struck by how filthy the streets are here - perhaps it's because it's the weekend? Or is it that these giant overflowing trash cans still aren't capacious enough to serve the hearty appetites of Americans? I do give London a hard time, but for a supposedly world-class city there's litter strewn all over the streets and a general smell of decay. I suppose that's a sign that this is a living, breathing city which, like London, is a bit rough around the edges. In any case, New Yorkers are wonderfully friendly and seem to go out of their way to help you.

Back at the Gershwin, I am sleeping in a shared domitory, and I arrive to find evidence that it's definitely lived in. I shower and settle down for the night about 10:45pm, only briefly woken by a girl who sneaks in during the night, realises I'm in bed, and then scampers off - "Sorry!". I didn't realise I had the place to myself, though I wake up constantly throughout the night worrying that I'm going to oversleep - again - and miss my tour departure!

Some travel writings

It's about time that some of my travel writings made it to my blog, rather that sit in scrawled ballpoint in a little red Fidel Castro notebook. In the next few weeks I'm hoping to transcribe some of the entries, and maybe, in the style of thelondonpaper's City Boy, embellish them a little. I've also got another trip coming up in a few weeks' time, to Sweden, where I might be able to entertain you with some more thoughts and experiences.

The forthcoming posts will deal with my trip to the US in June 2004 - blimey, that's four years ago, when I was just out of university and making my way in the big wide world. It's not blogging in the true sense of the word, as everything happened a while ago now, but this seems the most appropriate channel for it, rather than letting it get dusty in my box of junk!

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

The need to be self-indulgent

So, I’m unemployed for the first time in my life. Apart from being a student and having the odd gaps between study and proper ‘grown-up’ jobs, this last week has been the first time I’ve ever had to think about the structure of my day aside from the usual getting up, eating, washing, sleeping and checking my emails, as I do first thing anyway. Besides the very important job-hunting, there’s little else to do and being essentially a very social person who needs other people to bounce off, I’m finding these long daytimes don’t exactly stimulate me.

On the other hand, it feels strangely like being eighteen again, in that long hot summer before university started. Well, it might not have been that long and hot, but everything looks rosier in retrospect! I had my mum’s car at my disposal, plenty of friends in the same position and what seemed like unbridled freedom. I hadn’t got a care in the world and a hugely exciting three years of being away from home ahead of me.

Seven years on I’m lucky to have been able to shape my life quite happily, and I’ve reaped the benefits of being a bit more sorted and with somewhat more direction in my life. Leaving my last job was a temporary setback – perhaps knocking my self-belief somewhat – but it was the right thing to do and those eight months have now been safely deposited in the dustbin of history. At least I’ve got the time and mental space to meaningfully look for something else. Every morning I’m getting quite excited by the prospect of working for more dynamic and exciting organisations, so there’s hope yet. And a holiday in a few weeks time should help recharge my batteries even more, in preparation for the next challenge.

This evening I’ll be doing my volunteering at the London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard, which I’m looking forward to, as I’ve not done a shift in a few weeks. At least I can listen to other peoples' problems on the phones in the knowledge that my worries aren’t all that bad!

Friday, 13 June 2008

A referendum on personal vanity

I'm really looking forward to the pending by-election in Haltemprice and Howden (Con, David Davis) because the definite abstention of the Liberal Democrats and the likely ignorance by Labour means that Davis has a good chance of digging his own political grave without the other main parties being involved.

By-elections aren't for single issue politics, and 'principle' of opposing 42-days detention is not served well by creating a publicity-seeking by-election for the benefit of an embittered right-winger with leadership ambitions. Under the British constitution a member of the Cabinet must accept collective responsibility. The minister or shadow is bound by the decisions made by his or her colleagues as a whole, and resigns when the issue is such that they feel they can't accept the decision and stay in their post. Going the whole hog, and resigning your seat as well as your shadow cabinet post is baffling, and high-risk

He says he wants to 'lead a national debate on civil liberties' but by resigning his seat he's making sure that debate is most firmly centered around....erm....him!

The Irish are counting the results today of their own referendum on the Lisbon treaty - now, that's the proper way to have a national debate about a big issue! Davis was, until yesterday, an elected representative of the people of Haltemprice and Howden who most probably voted for him because of his stance on many issues, and has forced a referendum in his own constituency. Meanwhile, the constituents of Haltemprice and Howden will face a pointless by-election in which they get to vote for the (a) dangerous right winger , the (b) nutcase right winger or the (c) facist, assuming that the usual shower of lunatic parties decide to stand a candidate.

(STOP PRESS: Need I say more, Kelvin MacKenzie, erstwhile editor of The Sun has announced he might be interested in standing in the seat - roll on this ridiculous showdown!).

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