dubiously true stories and cartoons

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Great City in the North

I’ve lived in Carlisle for almost two years now, the past year living on my own in a rented flat in the city centre. I was here previously (and briefly) in 1990, as part of a hand-picked team of six men tasked to design and deliver bespoke training throughout the Royal Air Force. We were given six weeks to design the training, after which we were divided into three two-man teams, each covering different areas, both at home and abroad. It meant six months on the road, visiting every RAF Station in Scotland, North Yorkshire, Wales and Cyprus as well as Berlin, Stafford and 14MU, Carlisle. It was a job that required dedication, teamwork, focus and lots and lots of alcohol.

I seemed to be lucky in the other half of my team, Paul, an eternally happy man who liked driving, but didn’t like drinking. In Scotland, during our spare time (of which we had lots) we embarked on the Malt Whisky Trail and he cheerfully drove me to all the distilleries and I happily drank his complimentary whiskies as well as my own. He was, it seemed, the perfect partner for someone like me to be on the road with. But everyone has a dark side, and Paul’s was his taste in music. He had brought along a selection of cassette tapes to play on the long journeys we had to make between locations. The word ‘make’, is really a substitute for the word ‘endure’, because his taste in music was truly awful.

He had about fifteen cassettes in his collection and they were all recordings by either Belinda Carlisle, Gilbert O’Sullivan or John Denver. He even had John Denver and the Muppets at Christmas in there, which would have been fine if it had been December. But it was the end of August and we were travelling in bright sunshine. And it was hot. Even in December, listening to John Denver and The Muppets at Christmas is such an awful experience that the only way to counteract its relentless sickly, syrupiness is to go immediately to Newfoundland and club to death a few baby seals. The experience of listening to it was made even worse on my journey from Stafford to Carlisle by being trapped in a hot car in the middle of a heatwave with the happiest man in the world.  They say happiness is infectious, but, trust me, it’s not, and after a while it just gets on your nerves. And so, when we stopped at a service station on the M6, I went into the WH Smith shop and bought three cassette tapes. These were Never Mind the Bollocks by the Sex Pistols, London Calling by the Clash and Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd.

I know what you’re going to say here: What the hell did you think you were doing buying Dark Side of the Moon alongside two classic punk albums which addressed working class anxieties and social unrest amongst the disaffected youth of the mid to late seventies, and which were the complete antithesis of what Pink Floyd and countless other middle-class, masturbatory high-concept bands of that time represented? Hey, stop judging me! Just because I had embraced the giddy, anarchistic nihilism of punk didn’t mean to say that I had to stop liking Pink Floyd. Give me a break – at least I didn’t walk out of the shop with Tales of Topographic Oceans by Yes.

As we set off again, serenaded by the sickening jolliness of Calypso by John Denver blasting out of the car’s stereo system for around the tenth time, I said, “I’m sorry, Paul, but if I don’t turn this off and put something else on I’m going to go mad.”

“OK,” he said cheerfully, “You can put Gilbert O’Sullivan on instead if you like.”

“No thanks,” I told him. “I’ve got something better.”

I ejected the loathsome John Denver cassette out of the stereo and slammed in Dark Side of the Moon. Paul listened with fascination as the heartbeat started and the crescendo of instruments and voices led into the track Breathe, followed by On the Run and then the ticking clocks and heavy bass-line of Time. Without taking his eyes off the road, Paul asked, “What’s this, then?”

I gave him a look of utter astonishment. “What do you mean, what’s this, then? It’s Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd. That’s what this is.”

“Oh,” he said. “I’ve never heard of it.”

Let’s consider Paul’s reply for a moment. Dark Side of the Moon is one of the best-selling albums of all time. It has sold over 50 million copies worldwide. On a ‘slow week’ it sold between 8000 and 9000 copies. The tracks Time and Money were played almost every day on the radio and from the date of its release on 1 March 1973 it never left the Billboard album chart for a total of 741 weeks. That’s over fourteen years! It was estimated that one in every fourteen people under the age of 50 (in the US alone) owned, or had owned a copy of it. Which meant that when I slammed it into the car stereo, pretty much everyone in the entire world had heard it.

Except for Paul. 

Paul had never heard it.

Even worse, he had not even heard of it. Even my mum, who used to constantly tell me to ‘turn that bloody heebie-jeebie music of yours down’, had heard of it, and her taste in music was even worse than Paul’s. Her complete lack of any taste in music was undeniably confirmed when she told me once that she thought Cliff Richard, the Peter Pan of Pap, was better than Elvis. 

This huge, gaping hole in Paul’s musical knowledge made me wonder where he had been living since 1973. In a lead-lined container with no newspapers, radio or television, and with just his treasured collection of Belinda Carlisle, Gilbert O’Sullivan and John Denver cassette tapes to keep him company?

I thought he was joking when he told me that he had never heard of it. “You’re joking,” I said, incredulously.

“No,” he said, “it’s not bad, though, is it.”

I spent the rest of the journey to Carlisle in moody silence.

After checking into the hotel that had been booked for us, we went out for a bit of sightseeing. We looked round Carlisle Castle and the cathedral and then I suggested we go for something to eat. In a pub. I can’t remember the pub we went to but the beer was good and I had a little too much to drink. On our way back to the hotel we passed a van selling Doner Kebabs. I’d never had a Doner Kebab before and, although I’d eaten earlier, the glutton in me insisted that I buy one. I don’t usually eat food prepared in vans. One such van, which the personnel stationed at RAF Halton endearingly called ‘The Van of Death’, was parked every night outside the main gates. It sold greasy food to all the drunks who spilled out of the pubs at closing time, and whose ability to reason clearly and rationally had deserted them several pints earlier. The food served there, by a man of indeterminable age and nationality, had somehow mysteriously lost any nutritional value it might have had before it was plunged into the boiling hot fat. Flavour, provided by red or brown sauce, was optional. Food poisoning, however, was compulsory.

The van in Carlisle didn’t look nearly as uninviting as the one parked outside the main gates of RAF Halton and so I ordered a Doner Kebab with everything on it. It was delicious. 

It was so delicious, in fact, that I returned there the following evening before I went to the pub and ordered another one. I was expecting it to be as flavoursome and lip-smackingly delicious as the one I had eaten the night before. It was the same van and I was served by the same man using the same ingredients, but I was completely unaware of the fact (known only to nutritional scientists and Turkish people) that a Doner Kebab sold from a van is a unique form of cuisine, in that its flavour depends entirely on the amount of alcohol an individual has consumed before eating it. If the kebab is eaten before the required amount of alcohol has been consumed (as a general rule this is ‘one too many’) a magical transformation occurs within its cellular structure, rendering it both revolting and totally inedible. 

That was my abiding memory of Carlisle until I returned to live here almost two years ago.

Bitts Park in Winter

Carlisle has changed a lot since I was here in that summer of 1990. The city centre has undergone the homogenised overhaul that all major cities in Britain seem to have been subjected to in recent years. It’s been pedestrianised and its shops are mostly the same shops you can find wherever you go. But you don’t have to walk far to get away from all that. Bitts Park is a lovely green space that I spend half an hour each day walking around. The cathedral is spectacular and Tullie House, in the old part of the city, is a fantastic museum that also holds film nights and some great art exhibitions – a retrospective of the inspirational German contemporary artist Anselm Kiefer, which also contained two new pieces, has been one of its many highlights. There’s history, art and culture all around – you only have to look.

Carlisle Cathedral in Winter

One thing I have noticed is the abundance of the word artisan attached to items in some of the high street shop windows. It’s a word I never really noticed before and one I certainly never came across in the six years I spent abroad. It’s a noun that’s used to sell any number of ordinary items at inflated prices, mainly (but not exclusively) those everyday useful objects you tend to find in your kitchen. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary definition of artisan is this: a skilled worker who makes things by hand. Now, I don’t consider myself to be the smartest person in the world, but as I glanced into the window of an overpriced kitchenware shop and saw several identical electric kettles that looked like they had just come off an assembly line, and which were described as artisan kettles, I did struggle to comprehend how they could all have been made by hand and by skilled workers.

Carlisle Castle in Winter

And what do all these skilled workers who make identical electric kettles by hand do for entertainment in Carlisle? Perhaps they spend their Saturday nights on Botchergate, a long, wide road that accommodates a vast array of pubs, restaurants, takeaways and nightclubs. Botchergate on a Saturday night is bursting with men emblazoned with tattoos or sporting big, bushy, lumbersexual beards and young women who are out on the pull and scantily dressed, no matter what the weather is like. Even on the coldest Saturday night in the dead of winter you would be hard pressed to find anything resembling a coat anywhere on Botchergate and if, as scientists have predicted, global warming does precipitate a new ice age, it would do nothing to deter these young women from going out wearing as little as possible. To the unenlightened observer it might seem like a vision from Dante’s Inferno, but it is, in fact, a great night out. People don’t ignore you if you’re on your own. They say, “Hello”. They engage you in conversation. They talk to you, not at you. And as you walk along the wide road, which is closed off to all traffic on a Saturday night, dodging the odd drunk or two who blearily stumbles in front of you, it may appear, to the untrained eye, as if you have inexplicably wandered on to the set of John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, but I’ve never felt threatened there and I can’t think of anywhere else where I am able to buy a pint for as little as two quid in one of the many pubs down its length. 

The inhabitants of Carlisle are friendly, open and chatty, but then again, this is the North of England. I was born in the North of England. Everyone in the North of England is friendly – well, maybe not in some parts of Yorkshire where surliness and an inbuilt compulsion to ‘tell it as it is’ is regarded as a righteous and noble local characteristic. When the floods hit the city last year everyone pulled together and assisted as best they could. Carlisle people look after each other.

The Flood

Carlisle is without doubt a beautiful city, especially the old part, but there are some days, when I’m walking through its pedestrianised centre, that my inherent grumpiness gets the better of me. This is mainly because I have to run the gauntlet of people wearing brightly coloured T-shirts who try to engage me in friendly banter, but who are just trying to get money out of me for some charity or other. Some days these cheerful, chatty charity fund raisers are so thick on the ground that I feel like Commander Stryker in the film Airplane, fighting his way through hordes of Hari Krishnas and other charity groups, to get to the air traffic control tower and save the day. I never give to street charities and it may be the eternal cynic in me, but I just don’t trust them. For me, the worst of these are the ones collecting for wounded soldiers. You give them money and they give you a swimming band. There are recognised official charities already set up to support wounded soldiers – Help for Heroes being one of them – and I doubt very much if they would condone any of these so-called charity fund raisers, many of whom have been exposed as chancers, lining their own pockets with the money they take from a gullible general public.

There’s also a guy who stands on a soap box with a microphone sellotaped to his face and a Bible in his hand, shouting about how we all have to accept the Lord Jesus into our hearts before we can be accepted into the Kingdom of Heaven, because if we don’t we’ll all suffer eternal damnation in the fires of Hell (or maybe it was Down South, I can’t remember which). As an atheist I find him highly offensive, but I can’t help feeling a little sympathy for him as I wonder how indoctrinated he must be to do something as embarrassingly idiotic as that.

What really sets my Grumpometer into overdrive, however, is a street musician, if, in fact, you can actually call him a musician. On the whole, the street musicians in Carlisle are pretty good. There’s a trio of old guys who play Ragtime music, a father and son who both play accordion, a young female violinist and several young men and women with guitars. And then there’s him – the didgeridoo player.

There’s an old joke in the form of a Q&A that goes: What do you call someone who hangs around with musicians? The answer is: a drummer. People of my age can still remember going to see rock bands in the 1970s and experiencing that stupefying moment when, without warning, the drummer began to launch into a solo of indeterminate and intolerable length. I went to see Emerson, Lake and Palmer in Düsseldorf in 1974, in which Carl Palmer did a twenty-five minute drum solo. I liked Carl Palmer. I thought he was a brilliant drummer, but I didn’t want to hear him demonstrating his percussive skills for twenty-five minutes because I thought (and still think) that drum solos are boring beyond belief and anyone who thinks they are enjoyable is either a moron or another drummer. I have since discovered, however, that there’s something I hate more than drum solos and that’s listening to someone playing the didgeridoo. The didgeridoo player who performs in the high street every day in Carlisle is usually situated outside Boots and the sound of his instrument of choice drives me insane. I’ve not thought about this until today, but maybe he is secretly employed by Boots in order to boost their sales of Paracetamol. Don’t get me wrong here, I think the didgeridoo is a perfectly acceptable instrument if played by an aborigine in the Australian outback where no-one can hear him but himself and the occasional kangaroo. But a white guy, probably not Australian, playing a didgeridoo in the centre of Carlisle – at Christmas


I wouldn’t mind if he played some Christmas songs on it, but he doesn’t, and hearing it droning incessantly away is about as entertaining as listening to a solo performer playing the choral movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on a triangle.

I’m sure he’s probably a really nice guy with exceptional table manners and if he’s reading this I apologise unreservedly, but that doesn’t alter the fact that he is wilfully playing what can only be described as an instrument of torture. Maybe he could find another use for it, something that could be of benefit to society perhaps. Using it to replace a damaged drainpipe on the outside of a house seems like a good idea to me. Just as long as I don’t have to listen to the perpetual, tuneless droning of it every time I walk through the city centre. It’s like being followed around by a giant bee.

But, saying that, enduring the sound of a didgeridoo is a small price to pay in order to live in such a wonderful city. And despite the fact that it is the northernmost city in Britain, it is surprisingly easy to get to other places. You can hop on a train and be in Edinburgh in less than two hours, Newcastle, Liverpool or Manchester in less than three hours and London in less than four hours. I have travelled throughout the Middle East, North America, Central America, Mexico, Asia, Africa, India, Europe, the Mediterranean and the Baltic States and somehow I’ve ended up here and, you know what? – I’m happier now than I have ever been. Everything I want is here. In fact, I have no intention of ever moving again. I will spend the rest of my days here. Because Carlisle is where I belong. 

The view from my flat in Winter

It’s my home.

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