Friday, 29 July 2011

On the side

I'm not sure exactly when they arrived. One day the sides of the motorway were just plain banks of grass, the next, there was a swathe cut through and a tarmac path running parallel to the road. Suddenly there were three caravans, parked nose to tail on the concrete, traffic cones marking their space like a red and white picket fence.

There are net curtains at the windows; a strange suggestion of homeliness, and once or twice I've seen a man emerge blinking into the early morning sunshine as I pass by on my way to work. He wears the violent lime-green overalls of a construction worker and I wonder if he is actually living at the side of the road.  The transition from my quiet home to the hectic madness of the motorway is always a shock to me; I can't imagine what it must be like to have no transition at all, to spend your working days and sleeping nights on the side of the road. This is one of the busiest motorways in the country, there is no end to the roaring traffic, and as the lorries thunder past rocking the fragile trailers, I think it must be like living in a constantly churning tumble dryer.

I wonder what the workers do once they've finished for the day. I picture a thick-set man in his late forties, ducking his head to step through the small doorway. He takes off the hard-hat he's been wearing all day and tries to rub away the lines it has left on his forehead. Then he eases off the heavy boots and places them together just inside the door. I see him trying to wash the grime of the road off his hands at a small stainless steel sink, before heating a tin of beans on a tiny two-ring stove. What does he do for the rest of the evening? Perhaps he's slumped back against the geometric-patterned fabric of a thin bench, peering at a portable TV; he must be frustrated at the quality of the picture, the poor reception caused by the constant traffic. Does he sit at the small table playing game after game of solitaire,or quietly reading until his eyes get heavy and he realises he's almost asleep and missing half the words? I smile at the thought that one night he might order himself a take-away;  at the image of the bewildered pizza-boy, trying to find the right lay-by.

The roadworks are scheduled to last until the summer of 2012; twelve months of contra-flow systems and traffic cones; a whole year of speed limits that the crawling traffic has no chance of breaking, and speed cameras that threaten us should we dare. As summer turns to autumn, winter, then spring, I'll pass through this way on my journey  to work each day and back again in the evening. I've no doubt I'll complain when the traffic is bad, swear when I get held up. I won't enjoy the journey, but I will be grateful that, unlike the imagined residents of the roadside caravans, I am just passing through.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Staying over

It's sometimes blindingly obvious - that link between childhood fascinations and grown-up obsessions. It takes no effort at all for me to trace the journey from standing with my Dad, on the terraces at Crystal Palace football club, to standing with Philip behind the goal at Bromley FC.  It's almost as easy to see how my my love for Formula 1 racing started when we walked beside the wide tracks of the one-time racing circuit in Crystal Palace Park, or listened to the roar of the engines from the back door step at home.

It isn't always quite as simple to understand the impact of the things we never did, those things that went unnoticed and unremarked at the time.

Looking back I think we must have been fairly self-contained as a family; the characters in my memory bank are always my parents, grandparents and sisters. Apart from an occasional aunt and uncle, I don't remember any other visitors. Perhaps there were friends of my parents who made quiet calls after I'd gone to bed, but if they did, there were never any traces of their presence the next day. And, apart from the time when my Nan was really sick, I never, ever, remember anyone coming to stay.

No childish sleepover ending in a top-to-toe bed-share; no late night dinner party leading to a blanket- draped figure on the sofa. No strange coats thrown over the banisters at the bottom of the stairs, no odd toothbrushes in the bathroom, no politely embarrassed conversations over breakfast.

Our house wasn't big; five of us and only three bedrooms, but it never felt too small to me, certainly not like Maria from school, who lived with her six brothers and sisters in one of those tiny houses overlooking the cemetery. We didn’t have central heating, but hardly anyone I knew did then –we were used to the winter frost on the inside of the bedroom windows, to cowering under the wall heater in the bathroom, to sitting in the kitchen with all the gas rings blazing to keep us warm while we ate. But the house was always clean; properly clean. not just a tidy-away-the-newspapers-and  flick-the-hoover-round clean. 

I never asked then, and I wouldn’t dream of asking now, so I'll never really know why nobody came to stay.  But in the midst of all that didn't happen, I somehow missed out on a whole heap of life lessons, on the etiquette of staying over.

I never quite grasped how much cleaning in advance is a good thing or when to stop; I could never see the boundaries between thoughtful hospitality and force-feeding. I never learnt when it was ok to admit to tiredness, to suggest it was time for bed; and I never understood the proper arrangements for getting up in the morning or agreeing the order for the bathroom. I couldn't work out if it was better to take in a cup of tea and risk waking people too early, or to wait until they decided to surface and risk leaving them feeling ignored. I never reached that state of relaxed happiness where you know your guests are having a grand time and you can stop trying to fend off their boredom and disappointment.

For years I shied away from inviting people to stay; in my head I invented all sorts of reasons why it was a bad idea or simply inconvenient. 

This weekend I learned something I never found out as a child; if you invite good people because you enjoy their company, you end up enjoying their company. Your new house begins to feel a bit more like home and you start to see the place where you live with different eyes. You might even begin to feel a strange sense of pride that your village has the only listed duck pond in the country and the largest scale model of the solar system in the world. It might not even matter if you don’t quite get the etiquette right, you could still have a simply lovely time.

And this weekend we did.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Lazy Sunday afternoon

Leicester Square on a Sunday afternoon is all the very worst of London.

Crowds of people mill around, with no obvious sense of purpose or direction; tourists spill noisily from over-priced chain restaurants; the scents of sweat and grease mingle as their bodies and burgers are warmed in the sunshine.

Dark blue hoardings section off half the square, proudly proclaiming "we're getting ready for 2012". Here in 2011, people negotiate their own version of an Olympic steeplechase round the half-completed road works. As you pause outside the Odeon, imagining a red carpet rolled out across the upended paving slabs, you wonder what the Hollywood stars would make of this shabby London première; ball-gowns and high-heels mixed with JCBs and potholes.

Tucked between the restaurants and bars are the small shops, stacked high with souvenirs; in one, there are enough t-shirts to bestow an artless slogan on everyone in the square; in another a sea of red plastic - miniature London buses, telephone boxes, Royal Mail post-boxes. Do people ever really buy these as gifts for their loved ones, or is the whole world caught up in a game of "bring me back the worst thing…"?

In one corner of the square there’s a side street where tall buildings block out the sunshine; their shade acts as a deterrent to the crowds and it's suddenly quiet. At the far end there's an old-fashioned pub; the unwelcoming threat of its dark black exterior is mellowed by the gold lettering of the name picked out above the windows and a long cold drink is suddenly the thing you need most.

Stopping just inside the door, you take a moment to adjust to the gloom. There's a long bar on the left, and you're surprised to see how many people are standing against it; a part of you still thinks that Sunday afternoons are for sleeping off a roast dinner in front of the TV. At the far end there’s a seating area where padded leather benches line the oak-panelled walls. Red-shaded wall-lights are reflected in the wood, their glow a testament to centuries of polishing. Hanging between them, the glaring faces of lords and politicians send out their own gilt-framed messages of history and you begin to understand why this place is called The Imperial.

The leather benches are the colour of dried blood, and just for a moment, when you see the jumble of music cables spilling out over them, you think of entrails, but then you notice the guitar case that sits bolt upright and alone, quietly claiming the space, politely waiting its turn. You know that it's waiting for the singer to give it a voice, to introduce it to the crowd.  So you find a wooden chair and wait.

The afternoon wears on and an ever-changing stream of tourists, Londoners, drinkers, singers and listeners passes through the bar. You watch them come and go, see them stop for a drink and stay a while for the music. You notice how tense they seem when they come through the doors and how quickly they relax. You begin to realise the value of this place, so steeped in history but welcoming the new; happy to accept both young and old, strange and known.

And then you know, that this small place just yards from Leicester Square, is all the very best of London.