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freddie gilroy 1Overnight rain dries to a clear, sunny morning. Breakfast at the Park is rendered comical by the positioning of my table next to the kitchen doors and the breakfast buffet. With each passing soul, diner or staff, the floor rocks beneath me on account of wobbly boards underneath. I resist sea-sickness and enjoy a fine full English breakfast.

There is always something one could complain of in life, but I am rested and magnanimous this morning, after a mostly sound night’s sleep. And I can smell the coffee. Only the lusty, squealing climax of the amorous couple across the landing disturbed me, and then only briefly. Afterwards they passed out and slept as soundly as I. I see them at breakfast, not a young couple by any means. Clearly youth is not everything when it comes to bedroom gymnastics.

I make a quick check on the Mazda – the carpark here is small and steep and I am fearful of accidents. I have snicked her into first gear in case the handbrake fails and she rolls. Mr. Happy sits against the gear stick, a note in his hands reminds me: “car in gear”. I’ve been driving four four days, and I’m letting both her and me rest today.

Instead, I walk to South Bay, along the marine dive. There, I loiter around the harbour for a bit, then sit with mug of sweet tea enjoying the bustle and the sunshine, before returning, taking pleasure in the sea air. The promenade here is not natural, North and South bays being originally isolated from one another by the steep headland, atop which sits the castle. Heroic engineering works, begun in 1907 finally established the marine drive and an impressive thing it is too.

Of the two bays I prefer the North. Here, on the promenade, raised up on his supersized bench, we pass an impressive and highly emotive sculpture of local old soldier, Freddie Gilroy, a sort of “freehand sketch” in welded steel is how it’s described by its creator, the county Durham sculptor Ray Lonsdale. Freddie represents the millions of ordinary people thrust into the extraordinary circumstances of the second world war, where they saw things the likes of which few of us can imagine. Freddie’s regiment finished the war at Bergen Belsen, where he tells us he could smell the death from three miles away. He was 24, “celebrated” his birthday amid the horror of the camp and wept. He tells us he wept every birthday afterwards. Now he sits staring meditatively out to sea. This is a work held in great affection by residents and visitors alike, and unlike many a piece of public sculpture it tells a powerful story.

The I am thinking back to breakfast and imagine Herr Gruber of the Maison Du Lac, asking me why I do not complain about my table. Is it my stereotypical Engishness? my aversion to making a fuss? I reply that the English can be as rude as anyone, and any way, I may not be so English as I seem. And sometimes I prefer to be positioned where others might not. Or is it more that I fear asserting my true nature?

On the return walk, I catch a scent of the sea. It surprises me. I have also smelled coffee in the last few days, raising hopes my anosmia is once again cycling into remission. I have smelled nothing since June. The sea is briny, of course, but also faintly and beautifully perfumed. The latter is possibly an aberration of my errant senses, but delightful all the same. The tide is in, the breakers pounding on the sea defences. A colony of killer gulls inhabits the pale sandstone cliffs of the headland. They screech agressively and hurl poop at passers by. (Only joking)

scarboroughA character enters my head and begins to converse, to open more possibilities for my story. He is an old man. Late Seventies, impeccably dressed in country tweeds and tie.

Let me see: thus far we have Finn, a man who has lost everthing and is facing the remaining decades of his life without purpose or meaning. We have the Goth woman at the Sea View Cafe, and now we have the old gentleman. He is lonely, bears it stoically. And we have a young man, challenged by the lack of opportunity in Carrickbar, a run down seaside resort. He is capable of much but lacks the intellect to be pulled to safety by education. And of course at some point we have the Queen of Carrickbar.

She is Russian for now – eastern European certainly, stranded in Carrickbar by divorce. She’s a looker, a mature woman, blonde, shapely, perfect except for having a mouth like a fishwife. She used to be wealthy, but is now living in faded glory and clinging to her dignity by whatever means she can. And she is dying, I think – at least this is what she whispers to me – though at present this seems too mawkish. Finn must help her, but without making a lover out of her, and he must help the young man, her son. And he must help the old man.

The goth woman, Hermione? is in love with Finn from the opening chapters. But he doesn’t know.

The sketch of it deepens, but I hold back for now. Things will change as the characters interact and shape things to suit themselves. The theme of the story I think is that life can have no meaning if we look only to life for what we can take or recieve from it. In taking from life we can all too easily lose our way. It is only by giving back, and selflessly, do we find ourselves again. Only by givng does the emptiness dissolve and the love of and in life return. This is how Finn must act, how his thoughts must lead him if he is to find the will to live on.

It’s a long walk to South Bay and back. I meet many hardy elderly people, meet them again on the return. One of them is an old lady, her dogs make it one way only. On the return she pushes them in a perambulator. I am not conscious of working the story in my head as I walk. It’s more that the characters know I am open and avail themselves of the opportunity and the space of my emptiness.

scarborough 2Coffee in the room and courtesy biscuits for lunch. Then I test my assertiveness at reception and ask for my table to be changed. Dinner is not cheap here, and I would not want to find the experience irritating. Tables are juggled at once, and I am reassured I will be more out of the way – though I worry about what “out of the way” means. I also feel guilty that someone else will be sitting at the wobbly table by the kitchen doors. My assertiveness brings me comfort but note it comes only at the expense of someone else.

There is a band concert in Peasholme Park. The bandstand is in the middle of the lake, its pagoda roof is colonised and thoroughly pooped upon by ugly killer gulls. The band is more of a brass quartet, but very competent and enthusiastic. They play the theme tune to Coronation Street and Dad’s Army, and in the interval it rains. The audience materialise umbrella’s and mackintoshes. An English summer brings out an English resolve to see the thing through.

I return to the hotel, consider a swim but the pool is accessed from the conservatory and there is a posh-frock gathering in there at the moment and they have a smoked glass view of the pool. I decide my strokes would make for poor entertainment, so instead I read out the rain in my room.

I have finished the Coelho I picked up in Leyburn. The Devil and Miss Prym. His thoughtful reads have long been an inspiration. By contrast I am struggling with Toibin’s “The Master”. The rain settles in and raises a hiss from the passing traffic.

Dinner is traditional and plain, the table a good one. The staff are all very young, attentive and smiling. I choose the Sirloin. I did not know it was tradition in Yorkshire to serve the Yorkshire pudding as a separate course between starter and mains. To my relief I note no one is sitting at the wobbly table at my expense.

It is the longest leg of the tour tomorrow, 70 miles, back to the Dales, to Pateley Bridge and the Half Moon Inn.

peasholme park 1A very poor night in Masham. Music throbbing up from the restaurant until 1:00 am, rendering sleep impossible. Instead I play Survivalcraft on the ‘droid, rather than struggle with a sweaty pillow. There is nothing like lack of sleep for making me irrationally ratty. When the music is finally cut, I manage to sleep about five hours. It starts up again at seven.

I do not stay for breakfast, (which is charged extra) but check out and load up the car. Did I enjoy my stay, asks the girl? Am I honest? No; she was but eighteen and I had not the heart to be honest to her sweet face. I am such a coward, and would sooner leave complaining to others.

Anyway, the Bordar Cafe restores Masham to my good books with tea and nicely poached eggs. It’s market day, and the square presents now a more colourful scene than it did yesterday. I resist the urge to buy a Fedora hat – they are not ideal for open top motoring, and make me look ridiculous. Anyway, I remind myself I am saving money for nice vintage wristwatch off Ebay to tinker with when I get back. Meanwhile, the offending hotel preens at my departure, all glitter in the morning sunlight, but I know it intimately and know it possesses very little by way of charm or substance. I will not be staying there again.

I drive off with the room key in my pocket – lack of sleep makes me forgetful.

It is sixty miles of good, fast road to Scarborough, and a sunny day so the top is down all the way. There is a terrible jam of slow moving traffic crawling up Sutton Bank. It’s bottom gear all the way up this notoriously severe incline. The Mazda would normally have no trouble if the road were clear and we could get a run at it, but in a convoy for which the speed is only just above stalling, it adds spice. I catch her on the clutch a few times. The cause of the jam is a tractor hauling an unbelievably big trailer of hay. They have such low gears they can crawl at half a mile per hour all day. Motor cars cannot.

I make a brief stop for lunch at Thornton Le Dale, where my ‘Droid cause confusion by actually ringing. (My ‘phone rarely rings). It is the hotel at Masham enquiring about the key. Searches confirm my being still in possession of it. Their rationing does not run to keeping a spare, though they are frantically searching for it. Am I far away? I am forty miles, I am tired and headachy on account of their small-hours entertainment so do not offer to drive back with it. I purchase a Jiffy bag from the post office and a stamp. They shall have it Monday.

Then it’s on to Scarborough and the Park. I use the ‘Droid to negotiate the last bit of the journey through the centre of Scarborough, but it gives up, overheating under a full sun with the top down, abandons me in heavy traffic, leaving me to my own devices. After a flutter of panic, and amid curses, the old senses revive sufficiently to bumble my way across town in roughtly the right direction. A few ups and down through residential side streets, and the Park is revealed.

It is crisp white, seventies style on the outside, fresh and modern on the inside. It is spacious and chilled. I will be all right here, I think.

I take a walk down through Peasholme park, Chinese dragon boats on the lake, then a look at the promenade at North Bay. I’m tired after last nights lack of sleep and a longish drive across Yorkshire, but the sea revives me. This is a far cry from the profound stillness of Malham, or indeed the gentle bustle of Leyburn or Masham. Scarborough is, well, Scarborough, a throbbing, thriving seaside town, pavements packed, fast food, ice cream,…

**Voyo Crashes**

…, squealing kids and screaming gulls.

I note the front pages of several newspapers today tell us we are to be afraid of gulls. They are becoming aggressive with people – shades of Hitchcock’s “The Birds”. It must be a slow news day. Gulls are gulls. And yes, sometimes aggressive. The Mazda has already survived several dive bombing attacks. But the risk with gulls as with buying newspapers is merely poop.

Anyway, against my better judgement I find myself in a fast food fish and chippy on the sea-front, ordering a huge cod and chips, mug of tea and a mountain of bread and butter. I am expecting nothing here but indigestion, but the chips are good, the fish well cooked and exquisitely battered. And the woman who serves me, a tattooed Goth, calls me darling and wins me over at a stroke because I know a daemon when I see one, or rather when I’m projecting one, and she takes her place at once in my story, mistress of the Sea View Cafe, muse to Finn.

It is the briefest of encounters and certainly not enough to know this woman in any real sense, but sufficient to give a nudge to my story. I have no name for her yet (Briony? Hermione?). I have only her opening line, her greeting when Finn walks in to the coffee shop, her words as she spoke them to me this afternoon:

“So, what can I get you, darlin’?”

It is my first time in Scarborough. I find the town centre traffic a little intimidating, a little overwhelming, as with all big and unfamiliar towns, but having found my bearings a little now, I venture to cruise the marine drive, taking in both the North and South bays. The south is clearly the more commercialised with one arm bandit halls and casinos, but it also possesses a charm, courtesy of the Georgian architecture which still dominates. North bay, I suspect was once the quieter but there has been recent development with beach side apartments.

Scarborough has been likened ungenerously to Blackpool. But I know Blackpool, and Blackpool this is not. There is still an austere grandeur to Scarborough that Blackpool long ago abandoned. And the landscape still dominates, cliffs soaring and occasionally tipping a hotel into the sea.

Quick snooze on the bed before visiting the old town this evening, threading the Mazda along narrow streets. The ‘Droid has recovered sufficiently now to navigate me to St Mary’s parish church and the grave of Anne Bronte. The original headstone, arranged by Charlotte, is now badly eroded, and a more modern stone preserves the details. There are fresh roses on her grave. A family of Italian tourists have made the long climb up from the old town to pay their lingering respects also.

Last tasks: I book dinner at the hotel for tomorrow night, then post my room key back to Masham.

 

 

Grey, warmish, threatening rain all day but without following through. Managed to keep the top down. The driving from Leyburn is excellent on good roads, fast and curving. As usual the Mazda seems to take about 30 minutes to warm properly, then she purrs and revs sweetly, and with a sharper responsiveness. I enjoy a relaxed run to Richmond. It’s my first visit, and I rely on the ‘Droid to navigate me. This turns out not to be necessary. I park by the Cricket ground and make my way to the Market Square – seemingly ubiquitous to all Yorkshire towns.

It’s £2.00 to park, £2.00 for coffee in a pretty little tearoom that used to be the bus company office and waiting room. The coffee is worth the trip. The day is gloomy-overcast, so I enjoy the castle walk for free. There is something about the town that reminds me of Knaresborough. I pass an hour, then retrace my route back to Leyburn, then south to Middleham. Parking is free at Middleham’s little market square, coffee also free courtesy of thermos and guest house kettle. There are some spots of rain on the run south from here to Masham but I keep the top down and teeth gritted as the car feels so much better when she’s driven al fresco. We avoid a soaking and arrive at Masham for 2:00 pm.

Masham is grey as the sky and the hotel room is not ready. There are twelve rooms to be serviced by an overworked and overheated teenage lad, no doubt slaving on minimum wage. It seems my anosmia remission allows only the sweetness of sweaty bodies.  And coffee.

The room is finally ready about 3:00 pm. Room not great. Grey, dour. It is also strangely corporate and lacking welcome. Courtesy coffee and tea are clearly rationed. I am by now a little tired, and feeling off-song. The room looks out over dour cobbled backs and buckled rooftops. I can still smell sweat.The windows are prevented from opening by more than a crack to admit air, lest I should instead wish to end my life by leaping from them. This smacks of corporate risk assessment. Not cheery.

By 4:00 pm I am already looking forward to checking out – 60 miles to Scarborough tomorrow. For the promised free Wifi one must enquire at the desk. I cannot be bothered.

A 20 minute snooze improves things a little, but I am woken by man in the corridor asserting his displeasure to staff at lack coat hangers, soap, bath mat, and functioning bulbs in his room. I’m clearly more fortunate in that my bulbs work. I also lack bath mat and soapy things, but have brought my own. Decide to make do with a spit-wash. Serious penny pinching here. As for coat hangers I shall manage without unpacking my case.

The Guardian runs with a picture of Kayne West (rapper) and Bob Dylan (legend) on the front page. Scientists have analysed their lyrics and a computer algorithm pronounces the somewhat obvious fact that rap makes greater use of vocabulary. In other parlance it is more wordy. But this equates to nothing; it is a statement of the obvious, and the article puzzles me. I cannot decide if newspapers deliberately make scientists out to be stupid by paraphrasing them, or if such things really are considered worthy of PhD study. Personally I prefer Dylan, but then I am of that generation, and not fond of rap.

The newspapers are also in a lather at the possible election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, some suggesting it is an appalling idea, others more sanguine. The thing that excites them is Corbyn is very left of centre and we have not heard a Socialist voice in a long time, or at least not one grossly caricatured in the largely right wing press, which of course Corbyn will be if he begins to look like a serious contender. Yet anyone familiar with the Dao knows current times make his appearance more or less a certainty, and some might even say long overdue. Personally I would welcome it, though I am not the Shang-ri-la socialist I once was. Militant socialism is as stupid as swivel eyed conservatism. Left wingers also divide the Labour party, though it was founded on altruistic and inclusive Socialist principles and a Corbyn ascendency would raise the possibility of a bifurcation into left and right flavoured Labour parties. I wonder what they will be called? It will certainly enliven political debate in the coming years.

Anyway, dinner in the restaurant: Brewer’s Chicken and not bad. The restaurant also presents a better face than the hotel’s rooms, though I note the poor couple at the next table are unable to pick anything from the menu that the kitchen has remaining. The waiter keeps returning to them with apologies. They are good natured, though exasperated and settle finally for what the kitchen has rather than what they actually want.

I’m letting the story settle for today. I shall pick it up again in Scarborough. I feel a change of working title coming on – Mending Time, perhaps? There will be something about watch repair. The main protagonist, Finn, repairs worthless old watches as a hobby – reflecting my own recent interest.

It’s late now. It’s difficult to focus on anything. The room is hot and there’s an irritating music beat vibrating up from the restaurant below. I hope it doesn’t go on all night!

Mazda MalhamBreakfast is slow at the Buck, the dining room dominated by one overlarge group of family and friends who manage to monopolise, confuse, and run ragged our genial host while the rest of us wait our turn. It is irritating to me, this proximity to the assertiveness and the voluble presence of others,  and I wonder what part of my shadow I am revealing by it. That I am not assertive enough in establishing my own presence in the world perhaps? I don’t know, but at least this observation of human nature, in the wild so to speak, provides rich mining for the writer.

So,… checked out, bags dragged to the car, which has survived the night unscathed. Slept well, comfortable bed. The morning tastes fresh.

It is 10:00 am and a cold start to the day for July. Grey clouds. I wear a coat and drop the top for the sporting run to Kettlewell, across the bleakest of moors, a long and lonely road. Change comes but slowly here. A photograph taken in the 1940’s would look no different to one taken today. I recall I have driven this road before, long ago, did it in an underpowered Mark 4 Cortina, but recall nothing of this narrowness, this zig-zagginess, this up and downness. I meet only two cars, going in the opposite direction. Both are fat four by fours, in the middle of the road, and going too fast. My how we moderns like to armour ourselves against the world, and in particular against the wild.

A topless roadster renders us more vulnerable, and appreciative. The sound of birds as I drive is as memorable as the dynamic, buttery light illuminating both the near and far distance.

Kettlewell is a coffee stop, the coffee not worth a mention beyond the odorous, Lycra clad cyclist with whom I share the tearoom. My anosmia can pick the most inconvenient windows into the world of scent.


kettlewell church glassKettlewell is also the Parish church, St Marys, which is definitely worth a mention, and a visit if you should be passing. Original construction is around 1120, but nothing of that founding Norman architecture remains, the whole of it being flattened in 1820. The whole of it was flattened again, excepting the tower, and rebuilt in 1883. Most striking about this church are the stained glass windows, by William Morris (but not that William Morris). Both Morris’s were good at stained glass. One achieved celebrity, the other did not.

After Kettlewell it’s the long run up the higher Wharfe, over the tops and down into Wensleydale, and finally Leyburn. Leyburn is the charity shop for books – a Paulo Coelho for 50p! Then the ubiquitous Cooperative store for this evening’s dinner, and finally a welcome return to the welcoming Grove for tonight’s bed, and tomorrow’s breakfast.

Leyburn is looking festive this afternoon, making preparations for its 1940’s weekend. I’ll be in Scarborough by then, and wish I’d timed my visit a little better.

The Voyo crashes within a few minutes of settling down to write. I am definitely auto saving every minute now, so lose nothing. I tickle through the Queen of Carrickbar (not sure about that title now) while overlooking the market square. Also, I recount the day in the journal, comb it for impression and meaning: lonely farms, quiet lives, a lonely land toured by armoured cars for the insulated rich to eat the roads.

I note the picture illustrating the Times (2) supplement is of a well heeled, nicely suited gent (with six figure salary) and his squeeze, a dauntingly posh looking woman in a figure hugging dress (who has a PhD and her own company). It’s a feature on an upper class dating site. They are posed to exude an air of aloofness. “You want to be like us”, they say, “but you aren’t affluent enough, darling”. I wonder if they are in love; undoubtedly they present a sexy aura, but I wonder if their lovemaking is as premeditated and utilitarian as their search for a suitably dynamic and wealthy match. We know the foolishness in this but we just can’t help ourselves indulging in it. Perhaps Ouspenski is right and we are indeed doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over. Is it because most of us are in life for what we can get out of it, rather than for what we can give?

So, day 2, and a spectacular drive, top down all the way, ending in a sunny Leyburn, a pretty little market town that is fast becoming my second home.

I retire early, and write.

The house was up the hill he supposed; he’d not bothered to seek it out yet, and would not be bothering unless his mood improved in the next half hour. Instead he had pulled in here by the promenade where he remembered being raised upon his father’s shoulders, on the evening of the last day of their holiday.

“We’ll come again, Finn? Eh boy? We’ll come again next year.”

Finn could hear him now, the enthusiasm in his voice, something durable, heroic even, and the firm feel of his father’s shoulders beneath him, and the certainty the man would not let him fall.

“They say you can see all the way to Ireland from here, Finn. Well, do you see it boy?”

And Finn replied that he could see it clearly, and that they must come again. But they did not return; his father was dead by winter, taken by a sickness that must already have been eating him hollow, even as Finn sat tall upon his shoulders, and it was just a myth that you could see all the way to Ireland from here. Words were just words and mostly empty. And on a day like this, you could see no distance at all.

malham cove

A short hop to Malham; M6, then the A59 to Gisburn where we slip across the border into God’s own county, then Hellifield, Otterburn, and finally Malham. Rain most of the way rendering pointless yesterday’s wash down and chamois finish. Pulling onto the carpark of the Buck the Mazda already looks like it’s been parked a week next to a concrete factory. However, the afternoon dries up sufficiently to take a stroll into the Cove. There are falcons soaring, and dippers exploring the beck, and there are men making ready to climb the seemingly impregnable face of the limestone precipice.

Then it’s back to the Buck for a doze on the four poster. I’m travelling with the Voyo, a 7″ Windows 8 tablet, made in China. It was cheap as chips, packs into a modest man-bag, but has the habit of randomly crashing. I use Jarte for my jottings, set autosave to once a minute and learn to live with surprises.

As I wait to go down to dinner I run through the early part of my new story, which I’m calling Carrickbar at the moment, or maybe the Queen of Carrickbar sounds better. The Voyo tips me out after a couple of paragraphs, and discards the changes because I mistook the one minute autosave option for the ten minute. I discover I can live with it. As writers we should never become too attached to anything we have written. What we think sounds just perfect, the moment before we are about to lose it, would rarely rest without change the next day.

malham cove 2It’s a tentative opening sketch, this first chapter, setting the scene and seeing what runs. Thus far it is rather a bleak story, one I’m not sure I can live with for the next couple of years in the writing of it, and I’ll be needing more of a reason to carry on. The characters are forming though, moving into the wings, looking to see if they can fit in, to see if they can help. Then there’s always that certain someone, the increasingly eccentric muse, and I suspect she’s waiting for us up at the Sea View Cafe.

The Mazda felt a little stiff on the run over, but that was me. I’m holding on to tension from somewhere and can’t seem to let it go, still fearful of the clutch failing. I need to lighten up; we have three hundred miles ahead of us, some tough hill climbing and some fast roads.

Dinner was lamb roast and very good too, no alcohol as I wanted a run out afterwards. The evening clears to sunshine and a straw coloured light, so I take the top down and drive the circuit up by Malham Tarn, then back down to the village. This is an exceptionally beautiful drive, both the Mazda and I relaxing at last into the curves of the road as if somehow enchanted. The Dales have never looked better to me than this evening. It is open and golden. I left my camera in my room at the Buck, but remind myself we are mistaken in believing we can somehow hold onto these things, that we can somehow capture them. But it’s impossible to capture them because the faculty of imagination is lacking in the photograph, present only in the nowness of the moment as we experience it. It is, I’m afraid something I cannot fully share with anyone.

Buck Inn MalhamI return to the carpark of the Buck and begin my usual nannying about, nervous of parking slots that are too narrow. The Mazda is getting on in years but miraculously preserved and my nightmare is that she will get side swiped by a carelessly opened door. I also avoid parking next to cars with kiddie seats – or worse the detritus that indicates the presence of older children. The alternative spot is under a pine tree, but that won’t do either as it is dripping sap and leaving sticky speckles on the screen and paint. In the end I settle for a tight spot and no evidence of kiddies. I really must learn to be more accepting of the risks; it’s bound to happen one day.

So, day one and a successful start. Some rain, but clearing to a beautiful evening. I retire to write:

He was a child when he last saw Carrickbar. That would have been ’67 or 68; he couldn’t say for sure exactly when but what Finn did remember was how the summer had glowed cosily that year in the orange of the sunsets, how it had blazed joyously in the yellow of the afternoon sands and shimmered with a delirious bliss in the perfect crayon blue of sea and sky. Remarkably though, he was not conscious of having carried this memory with him, and had indeed passed the whole of his life in ignorance of it. Until now.

Remarkably it was amid the ruin of forty years, he had fallen asleep, and had dreamed of Carrickbar. He had dreamed of the colour, and of the heat and of the wide smiling sea, and on waking the memories had risen from the depths perfectly preserved. It was as if the Gods had taken pity and cast him a line back into the living colour of the world, and in the morning all he could think of was a place he had not thought of since he was a boy.

But winter was not the best time to be seeing Carrickbar. Indeed it was to him, this afternoon, after a three hour drive, and through the murky lens of his road weariness, a cold, grey place, all the colour bled from it, frozen as his heart, pale as the ocean before him. And the ocean, he thought, as he gazed out at it, was just one more thing reflective of the lack of pity in the world. It was at this moment as if even his childhood had died and left him penniless, and the Gods were laughing.

It’s a start.

I think we’ll run with it.

Pre Trip

racy lady 2I’m a little nervous this evening – always am the night before a trip. I’ve checked the oil and the water, checked the tyres, taken her out for a spin and all appears to be well. The hotels are booked, the travel insurance paid, and even if we do have mechanical trouble, the AA will be earning their subs for once and getting us home.

Come to think of it the clutch felt a little odd during that spin, but I’m wearing new trainers and they lack the broken-in, wafer-thin sensitivity of my old ones. It was hard to judge to bite point and I’ve always had a thing about the clutch – the one thing you can’t check or mitigate against. And of course a failed clutch can ruin your holiday. But I’m sure it’ll be fine.

So, I’m off to the Dales in the morning, a week’s tour of the best of rural England, ending up on the East Coast by weekend. We have a new-ish Vauxhall Corsa on the drive that could do trip with ease and, with 20,000 on the clock I’d have fewer qualms about it, but where would be the fun in that? The Dales in a twelve year old roadster just coming up to 80,000 miles has to be worth the risk. It’ll be a trip revisiting the familiar – I know the Dales quite well: Malhamdale, Wharfdale, Wensleydale and hopefully with the top down as much as possible. Then a long run across country to Scarborough and a few nights off motoring.

I’m travelling light – not much choice in a little car. I have the kernel of a new story on the pad, and I’ll no doubt be tickling away at that in the evenings before bed. It’s late July now, the season maturing, and many a moon come and gone without anything new in the making. Thus far I’ve been reviewing older stuff and posting it on Wattpad, which has been satisfying in a way but a bit like treading water. I also finished off Sunita, a back burner project  and put her on Wattpad as well. Reception for Sunita was good, mostly thanks to fellow blogger and writer’s champion, Tom Lichtenberg. Reception for Langholm Avenue and Fall of night was more muted. But all of this has been somehow retrospective, and what I love most in writing is the new adventure. So, we’re pre trip in a number of ways this evening, and though I’m nervous, I’m looking forward to the road in the morning.

astral and timexHave you noticed how men’s watches have grown in size over the decades? For all our skills in miniaturisation, modern watches are much bigger than they were fifty years ago. Yes, they’re more accurate now but they achieve this with smaller mechanisms, so why are they so pumped up? Flip the back off a modern watch and they are mostly space inside. Is the bulging, blingy case perhaps merely to show off, to make a “statement”? And what kind of statement is it when it’s mostly air, wrapped in a shell of glittering deceit?

I’ve been working on a Smith’s Astral, one of the last classical mechanical watches to be made in England. I’m guessing it dates to the late 60’s, early 70’s. It has a clean, clear uncluttered dial, cream background, gold markers and a striking red tipped sweep seconds hand. And it’s very small. Indeed it’s miniature compared to my workaday quartz Timex Chronograph, but it’s also a very smart watch that purrs with an understated quality. The statement here is one of brevity, that so much is conveyed within so small a package. It is succinct, and to the point.

In working on the Astral I’ve fallen in love with the simpler lines of yesteryear, but it isn’t mine, so I’ve been looking around for something similar I can call my own. However my attempts to go retro have failed to turn up anything of latter day design even vaguely resembling the slim understated classics of the 1950’s and the 60’s. We’re talking here about the plain gentleman’s dress watch: small, gold plated – or even solid gold if you were a well heeled gent. My son complains that these are old men’s watches, and it’s true; they are the watches our fathers wore for Sunday best. And to wear such a watch after the bulging behemoths of the latter day? Well, you don’t even know it’s there, so light, so modest it is; why have I not noticed this before? This is surely a thing to be valued above the over-embellished and vacuous statements of today.

smiths astral strippedSo, I’ve been on Ebay, that veritable sea of second-hand stuff, where we find all manner of retro chic for the brave or the foolhardy to splash their cash on. But “Buy something second hand,” warns my Grandmother, “and you’re buying someone else’s problems!”

Yes, it’s a serviceable maxim: no one parts with something that’s running well and worth keeping. The question is therefore one of confidence in one’s ability to put right the faults that others lack the competence or the patience to address for themselves.

Sadly, the general technical ability of the Western man or woman in the street is on the wane. And things aren’t set to improve much with our children encouraged to get degrees, even if they’re not up to it. All their fingers are capable of is flicking at their phones. And they do this, not because they hold the factories in poor regard, but more because the factories, where technical skills are learned and disseminated into the community at large, are far fewer in number than they once were.

When I trained as an engineer, my mentors, all highly skilled engineers (without degrees in engineering), advised me never to admit to having any technical ability whatsoever, otherwise, they said, you’d just end up fixing those bicycle punctures, changing lethal smoothing iron and Hoover flexes, and replacing watch batteries for everyone else, and there is never any status in that kind of work. And more, they cautioned, you will never gain promotion to the dizzy heights of a managerial position because, as everyone knows, managers are, by necessity, full of air and cannot even tie their own shoelaces.

I smile as I remember this tongue in cheek advice, for there is a kernel of truth in it, but I never wanted to be a manager and have enjoyed working as a technician these past forty years; but what I think I always wanted to be was a watchmaker – it’s just that I was born a hundred years too late. In the West, proper making skills are set to die out with my generation – I mean the knowledge of how stuff is manufactured, how it’s put together, what it does, why it sometimes goes wrong and how to fix it when it does. I suppose the generation before me thought the same, but there’s definitely an issue now with companies unable to recruit skilled workers for any kind of technical work. This is hardly surprising since it is those same companies who have stopped training them, and apparently expect them to be found ready made among the population. If we want to re-learn our making skills in future, it’ll be the Chinese who teach us. But at least for now, with one eye on the door to retirement, I can say I’m not afraid to take the back off a watch. Yes, sometimes the workings fly out and never go back in, and that tiny screw so lightly gripped in my tweezers vanishes suddenly ne’er to be seen again, but that’s what you call “experience”.

AVIASo, I found this nice little AVIA on the bay, paid £20 for it. It was running quite well. Even without a clean, just the lightest touch on the regulator arm has it keeping 5 seconds a day. On the downside, the crystal looked like someone had taken an angle grinder to it, and the strap was missing, but these were trifles and did not detract from the value of the watch.

AVIA was a quality Swiss maker – not quite your luxury timepiece, not your Rolex or your Longines or your Omega, but something more for the pocket of the working man who wanted a respectable, affordable, name on his wrist. They’ve gone now, swallowed by the Fossil brand, result of the shake up in the industry caused by the invention of the quartz watch, an invention, ironically, first brought to the market by AVIA.

Anyway, watch crystals are a simple enough job. They cost just a few pounds and take five minutes to fit, which may surprise you if you’ve ever asked a high street jeweller to change one for you. And changing one will restore a “newness” to even the tattiest looking watch. The back was also tight, and I struggled with that. I could only fix it by removing the rubber grommet that makes the watch water resistant. A proper back-press will take care of this eventually, but I don’t have one yet, so I’m making do. The stem is a little stiff and the button settles in quite close to the case, making the watch hard to wind. A more comprehensive strip down might reveal the cause, but since the watch is running so well, I’m loathe to intervene at that level just yet.

So, the new crystal snaps in place and transforms the watch from something old and neglected into something fresh and functional. A nice Camel grain strap completes the fix and restores the watch to wearable respectability. All right, it’s an old man’s watch, but I’m half a century gone myself now and I see the world differently. Yes, it has a stiff winder and that may get on my nerves eventually , but there are plenty more old men’s watches like this on Ebay, and plenty more hours under a good lamp, peering through a lupe at a beating innards, oblivious to the world around me.

So, a good ticker, keeps excellent time. It’s pleasantly small on the wrist, but then, as all mature gentlemen (and ladies) know, size isn’t everything.

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