Category Archives: Only in England?

Number 27

Mr N has gone back to Australia for ten weeks. It might seem a long time, but it’s his last stint away on this project and he’s already excited about all the things we can do when he’s home for good. We’re playing a Whatsapp game, taking turns to build a list and so far we’re up to number 26. Some of these things are quite mundane, like ‘go to see Gran’ (he hasn’t seen her since before he moved to Houston, now over three years ago); some are things he/we used to do, like brewing beer, orienteering, and walking up hills; some are plans we’ve long harboured, like cycling from Land’s End to John O’Groats or getting the Eurostar to Paris; you get the idea, I’m sure. Lots involve other people, friends and family. They’re not all local or even UK based, but there’s definitely a home theme.  When you’re away, it does focus your mind on what you can’t have.

I’m sure this applies to most people. I love Britain, and more specifically England, not because I believe it’s the best place in the world but because I understand it, I slot in and it’s mine. When you go somewhere new, you see it with alien eyes, without this rooted context. While living in Houston, I wrote a couple of these blogs on the subject of the weird things about America that Americans don’t see (bloody massive flags everywhere, for one thing). I could’ve written about 15 more blogs on this subject alone. For me, perhaps the weirdest things about the US were: a) the irony of the Communist-feeling aura around the overt patriotism (school kids chanting daily allegiance to the flag, grown adults singing the Star-Spangled Banner with genuinely proud fists on hearts at any opportunity) and the rigidly conventional, collective teen dating rituals around Homecoming balls, football games and horror movies in a country in which being an actual commie is an anathema, and the term ‘socialist’ is an insult; and b) the depth to which religion permeates society: not just that “I’m blessed” is the usual and undeniably earnest reply to the question “how are you?” even from the homeless that I used to serve breakfast and lunch to who so clearly weren’t favoured or fortunate, nor just in the simple fact that I didn’t meet a single American who didn’t believe in god, but also in the sorrowful reaction of those to whom I ever did admit my atheism; there are plenty of religious people in the UK, but they’re never surprised to meet someone who isn’t. I don’t pretend to understand this, but I can see that these are ingrained cultural behaviours and beliefs which provide comfort and grounding and connection to something very deep.

So, there, in Texas, I missed, particularly, the feeling of home which, now here, in England, is succour to the soul, but it’s not easy to pinpoint. The weather’s often shit, but I share the obsession with it and like the sense of ‘what the hell, no-one’s to blame’ that its uncertainty brings, both to what you’re going to do with your day and, in a bigger sense, to one’s outlook on life; we Brits are good at shrugging our shoulders and accepting that it’s raining so we’re going to get wet. That doesn’t sound so great, I know, but when we do get a perfect day (and we do!), we don’t half make the most of it: there’s nowt like camping in Derbyshire (no.10 on our list) by a river when the sun shines till ten at night. It’s not quite the same as taking pleasure from banging your head against the wall just to enjoy not having pain when you stop, but you get the gist.

This is, of course, about making the most of it. And I don’t mean just the weather. I did indeed pine for home at times, but mainly I didn’t and another year or two in the States would’ve been fabulous. Now I often dream of being there, with the friends I made, enjoying the lifestyle, the bigness, the easy charm of the people, and more. Mr N, while undoubtedly missing us, appreciates the idyll that is Perth in full Summer. And I’d jump at the chance to do it again (who wouldn’t?).

But, and it’s a big but, the UK belongs to me and us, and America doesn’t. It’s a part of us that is more than just fond memories and fun and adventure; it’s roots and it’s culture and it’s temperament and it’s nurture, and it’s memories that are not all fond. So here, I’m no fan of Farage and his ilk, but I get why some people are. Not only can I vote, but I comprehend the issues I’m voting on. I might not actually be so sure who I want to vote for, yet, but I know why I’m not so sure. I can engage with the debate, have an opinion that’s valid, agree or disagree, understand more than just the headlines, and maybe even make a tiny little bit of difference.  It’s my place to do so and it’s the only place I can do it. That feeling then, I suppose, is about ownership and belonging, and it sort of doesn’t matter whether I actually prefer it here or not. Maybe it takes more than two years away, or maybe, for me, it would never change, I don’t know.

I guess, though, that’s our number 27 sorted: walk down the road together in May to Green Lane polling station to vote in the General Election.

Come to Belper, reach for the sky

Two quite bizarre things happened to me last weekend, both involving  HBC, an old friend of mine and Mr N’s who lives in Bristol, and who we hadn’t seen for about four years until three weeks ago, when he and Mrs BC kindly helped us to drown our sorrows after we’d dropped F at university nearby (my, how we drowned them).  And while there, HBC mentioned that in a couple of weeks’  time, he was coming to Belper, which is where I live,  for a boys’ weekend away.

Now, unless you live in a happening city or olde worlde chocolate box village or heritage hotspot, or by the sea or lakeside or halfway up a mountain, then you don’t really expect folks to holiday in your home town, do you? Take Houston, for example. Love the place, really truly, and I could give you 100 recommendations for stuff to see and do if you’re thinking of visiting, but the likelihood is that, unless you know someone who lives there, or you or someone close to you works in the oil and gas industry, you’re not.  Which is how it should be, really, because there are, perhaps, several hundred places that are more obviously tempting on most people’s ‘where I’d like to go in America’ wishlist. So, who’d have thought it but in a peculiar, small town, East-Midlands-of-England-ish sort of way, Belper’s a bit like Houston – way down on (if indeed on at all) the average person’s list of ‘must visit’ places. But here was HBC, last weekend, staying down the road, 11 pals in tow.

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Pulpit and hoover

They’d booked themselves into a holiday cottage that, if we were in France, I’d be calling a gîte – large, old and grand in a faded way, a whiff of sloshed aristocracy about the place, its life history nudging through. It was once a Methodist chapel and still has the pulpit in situ, now overlooking the lower living room and home to the hoover.  Even more surprising (to me – I would hazard a guess that I’ve driven/cycled/run past this place at least 3,000 times), it sleeps 23 in eight bedrooms, has two living rooms and – get this – a sauna!

That, then, was the first bizarre thing: not only do I discover that lil’ ol’ Belps is a destination, but all these years there have been huge hordes of happy holidayers sweating out their hangovers in the sauna right under our noses.

You can imagine how keen I was to check the chapel out for myself. [Who doesn’t love a nosey round someone else’s house?  Never been to view a house for sale just because you can? No? Well, you’re missing a treat – really doesn’t matter if you like the decor or not, a bit of aspirational envy or superior-taste-confirming condescension can really cheer you up on a wet weekend, believe me. Anyway…] With Mr N away, oldest two out of the nest, and R filling the house with his friends, an evening down the pub next door to the chapel with the Bristol boys was just the ticket.  And here it was, down the pub, that bizarre thing number two occurred.

We met – or, rather, experienced – the fantastical Rob Lowe of the Ship in Space enterprise (“Rob-dot-Lowe-with-an-e-at-ship-in-space-dot-com” as he thoughtfully introduced himself to us should we need to follow up the encounter with an email). Briefly, Ship in Space is a rival to Richard Branson’s passenger rocket, only more affordable at the snippy price of £36,000 a ticket. It will be launching within the next seven years “or your money back” from Snowdonia and will, apparently, offer a better space experience, weightlessness-wise and views-of-Earth-wise too, as Rob-dot-Lowe-with-an-e demonstrated, in close-up, to me and the Bristol boys by the trajectory of a lit cigarette (we were outside with the smokers). He also gave us a lot of technical safety design information, to put our minds at rest over any possible fears about comets and meteors and take-off or re-entry explosions that he thought we might be having while we considered whether to get our cheque books out and invest, there and then.  What nearly sold it was the BSGOF offer. BSGOF? That would be ‘Buy Seven, Get One Free’. Bargain!

Roll up, roll up...

Roll up, roll up…

And in case we were in need of further convincing, we were invited to “International SpaceWeek in Duffield” – a week of Ship in Space presentations, noon till night, every day this week, at the King’s Head. [Duffield is a small village two miles down the road.]

Rob-dot-Lowe-with-an-e simply appeared, looming up and launching his rocket pitch, right there, outside the Holly Bush, in semi-rural Derbyshire, in the dusk of a Saturday night in October, selling in all seriousness his £36,000 boarding passes amidst the pints of real ale.  Throughout his presentation, for that is what it was, I thought he was one of the Bristol boys and the Bristol boys thought he was with me, so seamlessly had he penetrated our group. Quite where he came from none of us knows. He left as suddenly as he’d arrived, with a confident flourish, his email and website signature hanging in the air, as he walked off down the lane in the dark to the next pub of potential investors, fully expecting to be hearing from one of us soon.   Anyway, I shan’t do any more of his sales work for him, you can all look yourselves at the brilliance that is the Ship in Space website (spoiler: “The whole design has been built with complete and utter safety as the primary objective by building everything as safely as possible”). But, based on the sales pitch, the website and the sign that has been outside the King’s Head all week, who wouldn’t empty their bank account, cash in their pension and spend their life’s savings on the chance to be a two-minute spaceman with this lot?

Clearly, Belper’s the place to be, just ask HBC and his Bristol boys!