Friday, 25 June 2010

Minchinhampton: Escape from Novotel

One of the more challenging features of any expedition is accommodation in the field. The very names of the modern hospitalliers strike fear into the soul of the freelance: Best Western , Jurys [sic] Inn, Novotel.  It does not do for the freelancer to ponder exactly what “Holiday”, “Inn” or “Express” may be behind the brick wall next to Junction 39 and a half.

Here we pause for all who labour in such terror within the Campanile chain that they fear to tell the boss the difference between a belfry and a rabbit-hutch.

Spot the difference:

Send not for whom the buzzer buzzes:
“this is your automated wake-up call.”

Therefore, when an outing is in the offing, I turn my surviving synapses to the challenge of escaping the shackles of the hotel chains.

Relatives are ideal: they are cheap, hospitable, and are generally approved by Mrs M. My relatives and I are always glad to see each other, and we can all be confident that I will be gone in a day or two.

So it is that I find myself in the company of my mother – Mrs M, Senior, of course – in her new Gloucestershire home.

* * *

Mrs M Senior is moving around her new manor with alarming speed.  As the garden is about 15 feet across, this takes her no time flat – in fact, just long enough to advise me on the depredations of the rose chafer beetles on her perfect pink blooms. “They eat the buds, and if you get anywhere close, they drop to the ground and you’ve lost them. So I hold a jar of soapy water beneath the bud. Plop!”

The move to Minchinhampton, near Stroud, appears to have been wonderful for my mother. Some two years ago, after approximately the third hip replacement - if that is possible - she double-locked the front door of the old family pile in Newcastle upon Tyne for the last time. In exchange, she took possession of a double-glazed apartment in a new courtyard development of Cotswold stone, attached to someone else’s old pile.

Two-thirds of the way across the garden, Mrs M has made a handbrake turn, thus swinging around to face the back door. A jar of soapy goop stands innocently on the shelf above the dustbin. Half a dozen iridescent blue-green chafers float beneath the surface in various states of decay. She smiles wickedly at them, and holds them up to me to share her delight.

“The secateurs are in the bucket, I think. Would you mind fetching them so I can take the heads off this clematis?”

For some time now, I have been seated on one of her surprisingly comfortable teak garden chairs, with my spurs resting on a less elegant plastic one, and my sword against the water butt. Somehow my mother manages to cram every room, and in this case her garden, with rather more furniture than it can tolerate.

She discourses on the budget and the welfare system. I hazard a comment on the historic advantages of tax credits to the Mandall household. Then her conversation switches back to her new manor. “By the time the builders got to this end, they’d run out of money, so the garden is just rubble. Nothing grows. I keep on digging out rocks.”

I can just hear this over the racket made by the French beans which have just broken the sound barrier. They are climbing so fast that they will soon wind themselves around the clock tower above the new Courtyard development, where they will imprison the golden heron weathervane. (“Such a waste of money, ” says Mrs M, Senior.) Any minute know a giant (or perhaps Mr Osborne) will descend the bean-stalk to wreak unearned revenge on my mother. I check that my trusty sword is still within reach, before settling back into my chair.

“We’ll need some parsley and mint for the potatoes. The scissors are by the Telegraph.” I rise from my seat again to fetch the herbs, and observe that she has nearly finished the crossword that I was tackling in vain over lunch. She has also cut out an article concerning the advantageous effect of the bacteria in bovine manure on the rate at which laboratory mice navigate a maze. “These scientists keep changing their minds, don’t they?”

I hack through a jungle of sage, thyme and flowering chives, to reach a large bush with the most delicate crinkly heads of glistening green English parsley.

Mrs M’s white trainers with the Velcro fasteners flash past me into the tiny kitchen. By the time I have brought in the parsley, she has executed a soft-shoe shuffle between the hob and various stores of raisins and dried worms with which she is tempting a large female blackbird. “This one’s so greedy,” she says. We debate whether this is an overweight youth or a mother preparing meat and two veg for the chicks.

“There’s so much to learn, y’see,” she says. “Look at these chafers. If you touch the rose, they just drop to the ground – plop!”

“You’ve told me already.”

“Have I? Short term memory’s terrible.”

“Have a sherry." 
Haven't we had this before?

* * *

Must dash: castles to capture, dragons to slay.

"The bell invites me.
Hear it not Duncan; for it is a knell
That summons thee to heaven, or to Novotel."

Friday, 18 June 2010

Travel Advice for Marple Bridge


Uncle Percy in South Africa tells me that his compatriots have got the hump about the way the foreign press is portraying their wonderful country during the World Cup. Apparently we all expect to be charged by a rhino, preferably bearing a machete with menaces, on every street corner in Johannesburg.

Now, come on, ladies and gentlemen of the press, you know this simply isn’t true. Indeed, I remember a number of young men explaining most emphatically on the beach front in Durban 35 years ago that rhino were not to be found in “whites-only” areas. They thought it was a very good joke. After I laughed a bit, they left me in peace to eat my Kentucky Fried Chicken. Fortunately, some things in South Africa have changed more than the sense of humour.

I sympathise with Percy: surely even Sky News must have got the point by now: no rhino in its right mind would risk going out after dark in Durban, let alone Johannesburg.

Funnily enough, Uncle Percy, Mrs M and I had quite a close encounter with a rhino in South Africa, but it wasn’t in Johannesburg. It’s not the sort of thing you can prepare for, except by memorising prayers for a) deliverance and b) thanksgiving. Otherwise, my top travel tips are:
  1. Wear a seat belt, however much the natives laugh at you.
  2. Wrap your cafetière in your spare clothes: there is nothing worse than celebrating your survival, with a cup of broken glass and coffee grounds.

All this set me thinking about our preparations for the 2012 Austerity Games in Marple Bridge. I bumped into (so to speak) my fellow freelancer, Sir David of Cestria. He specialises in that hardy British perennial, health-and-safety. I asked Dave to suggest how we should alert travellers arriving in Marple Bridge, so we can put it on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office web-site (which is excellent for every country except the UK).

  1. Drivers should take care near 20 MPH signs when travelling through the Bridge. Certain village elders, typically driving a red Honda Jazz, observe these limits, without any consideration for others.

    By contrast Hummers driven by sensible toddlers do not normally pose any major threat to visitors, provided they are also in a Hummer.
  1. Loitering around our primary schools can result in expense, embarrassment or prosecution at almost any time of year. Visitors should resist offers from ladies and even young children of cheaply photocopied tickets to dubious entertainments. On no account, accept an offer of a “strip” for £5. These offers should be treated as highly suspect, particularly when accompanied by the terms “nativity play”, "raffle ticket" or “picnic hamper”.
  1. Improvised Litigious Devices (ILDs) are common throughout the North West, and are increasingly sophisticated. The paved drinking area around the Royal Scot is known to be frequented by celebrities, as well as bankers, solicitors and philosophy lecturers, many with connections in Liverpool. At all times of day, there is a severe risk of criminal and civil litigation in relation to libel, fraud, trips, match-fixing, driving under the influence and metaphysics.
  1. Ethnologists visiting the St Thomas’s church should not be surprised to find the door open. There is no need to call the police. Old Anglican churches are frequently left open, in the hope that Roman Catholics will take them back again and fix the roof. It has been reported that some Anglican minds are open too, but this is not confirmed.
  1. Sponge-cake rolling trials may take place without warning in any location with a gradient greater than 1 in 10, during the preparation for the Games. One of the few places safe from rolling sponges is therefore the Royal Scot, op cit.
  1. Despite warning signs, there are no traffic cameras in Marple Bridge. Visitors wishing to be photographed are encouraged to wear burqas, flowing robes and/or heavy beards. This may persuade the Anti-Terrorist branch to fund real cameras, so we can take action shots of the bob-sleigh course through Moor End, just like at Alton Towers.
  1. Visitors may photograph the Iron Bridge, the Roman Bridge (again), the Regent Cinema and other landmarks. However, care should be taken before snapping natives, particularly staff of the Royal Mail: they are quite within their rights to bite you or your pet in retaliation.
  1. Do not approach camels or donkeys travelling up Church Lane in the season of Advent. They may contain nuts.
  1. Orange peel is an eyesore. Visitors are strongly warned against displaying it. Exposure is regrettably wide-spread during sunny intervals, and whenever Boots has fake tan on special offer.  Orange peel displays are presented by the members of the species homo so-called sapiens sapiens of all ages, genders and persuasions. A Posterior Double Outspan was exposed outside the Royal Oak by a visiting football enthusiast after England’s unfortunate game with Mexico. Visitors are advised that PC Potter and his Peelers will not tolerate excessive exposure, and may well tear a strip off offenders.
  1. It rains a lot in Marple Bridge. It is entirely likely that you will find a flood on Town Street. As rhinos are rare, a collapsible canoe is indispensable.
Please let me know of any additions or amendments to this list, before we submit it to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for inclusion in its helpful website.

Friday, 11 June 2010

The Spirit of Austerity

... in which we look forward to the London Olympics of 2012

At least the Word Cup will provide an original reason for the boys to ignore anything I make or do. My shepherd’s pie was spurned by all three of them, on grounds of vegetarianism (M1), Facebook (M2) and preening (M3).

I have been been receiving intelligence from my fellow freelancers, for whom UMzantsi Afrika holds many attractions. A few years ago, Uncle Percival in Gauteng told me he had decided to invest in cement because of all the football grounds to be built across South Africa. He now tells me that the rebuild of Soccer City in Soweto is a billion Rand overspent, so I hope that next time I stay, the former “maid’s quarters” will have been rehabilitated.

As every freelance knoweth, there is nothing like unto a contract for over-spending it. Neither South Africa’s new stadia, nor my neighbour’s extension works, are exceptions. Plus ça change.

Workers fix a giant vuvuzela soccer horn on top of Cape Town's famous unfinished highway bridge (REUTERS/Mark Wessels)

I like the new addition. Is its creator hinting at an uncertainty in the national psyche, in this outsized plastic horn?

Closer to Mandall Mansions, my tax adviser Isolde tells me that the bill for constructing the Olympic facilities in London will make the South African over-hang look puny. She fears that even Sir Bors will not be able to prevent Dave’n’Nick from reducing the number of Olympic Rings from five to three.

Never mind: we islanders know how to put a brave face on things. As Mrs M puts it, we must look beyond the misery of cheese-paring, and embrace the Spirit of Austerity. What finer example for us than the famous 1948 London “Austerity” Olympics!

Informal soundings around here have shown that the spirit that gave us the Spam Fritter and the Bouncing Bomb lives on in our community. We have raised our eyes above the wobbly wheels of the paper mills and Winchester disks down in the lowlands. We have raised our eyes unto the hills.

Some readers may be aware that the harmless sport of cheese-rolling has fallen victim to the national shortage of neck braces. We were therefore especially pleased to receive the WI’s proposal to introduce Olympic Sponge Cake Rolling in Moor End. Former Moor End post mistress, Mrs Vivian Ayres, is to be approached to provide the official sponges, at a regulation unfilled weight of 1lb 3½ oz. Vivian’s cakes have long been prized at Mellor church fete and other events for their compression strength and high tensility, making them perfect for fantastic birthday constructions. A number of cake-rolling sites are being assessed for safety. Personally I favour the meadow that descends from the south face of the church down to Knowle Farm. I’m sure that John will be more than happy to keep the cattle out of harm's way for the day.

We have received several submissions in relation to the archery contest. Mrs M feels that the Devonshire’s garden-feature pergola offers more scope than the Royal Oak, even though the Oak would just about have room for a darts board if it rains.

There has been one disappointment. We have had to advise Chris Mann and the bell-ringing team that Teddy Bear Bunjee-jumping from the church tower is unlikely to be accredited as an Olympic Sport in time for 2012.

Great sporting events are so often marred by bad weather. We wish the South Africans well: the Johannesburg winter can be vicious. The winter of 1997, when I was playing my small part, ahem, in the preparations for the coming spectacle, was especially bitter. A hard July frost having cracked the yellow crust on top of the mine dumps, the Highveld wind mixed it with the sulphurous smoke from a million coal braziers, before blasting a fine, frozen, and toxic grit through my host's leaking office window, 100 foot above ground level in Soccer City. It was so cold I had to wear long-johns and a balaclava under my armour, even in my freezing Holiday Inn bed.

Our local contributors have considered every meteorological eventuality for the 2012 Austerity Games. For instance, if drought dries out the route for the canoe slalom in the River Goyt, we will build a bob-sleigh run down Moor End Road. M1 has been test-running this in the Fiesta.

He says he’s minded to compete. I say he’s off his head.

Come on, England!

Friday, 4 June 2010

Hokeh Tokeh

Does Tom ever do any work?
Le Club Med Africana, Tokeh Beach 2009 by Steph Malyon

It’s not that I pine for Mandallay on my excursions to foreign fields. Still, by the end of a Saturday that is too hot or wet to do anything much but listen to the air-con, I’m ready for anything: even a meeting of the Freetown Hash House Harriers on Tokeh beach, which they tell me is about 10 miles out of Freetown.

I hitch a lift from a “hasher” in a diplomatic Land Rover. I think it may have been one of ours, but off duty as it were.

The road from Freetown to Waterloo is paved with good intentions, and little else. At least as far as Tokeh. As long as I’ve been coming here, it’s been in the process of reconstruction. One day it may be finished, so that taxis and poda-podas can run up and down, taking people and produce hither and thither. Until then, Tokeh is a long way out.

A hand-painted arrow on an abandoned tanker directs us to the beach. We pass a heap of tangled concrete and steel bars, and drive onto the beach, a great arc of white sand, with a flat rocky platform in a crystal sea. We pull up in a glade by the only intact structure, a pleasant villa.

The Hash House Harriers tell me that they are “a drinking club with a running problem”. They give themselves curious names: Brown Nose, Black ‘n’ Pecker, Star Babe. I understand this last is in honour of a West African beer.

We stood around in a circle and shouted at each other. This advanced shouting technique is familiar to me as it is the way people got me to do things at school. I also practise it frequently with the boys. Several of the Hashers are, I understand, management consultants.

After the circle, some of the more energetic hashers ran around in larger circles shouting “On On” and blowing a horn. The rest of us had a very pleasant morning. It had rained heavily the night before, so it wasn’t too hot. We plodged behind the runners though soft warm flood meadows, green blades of grass shooting from glistening water. Every now and then, there would be a cry of “False Trail” when the paper trail the runners were following gave out. Soon afterwards, runners wearing fluffy ears in tooth-grinding hues of orange and green would dash back past us. So we could gently turn around, to resume our conversations and our ambling in the opposite direction. I met all sorts of people.

Then it was circle time again. This time they poured beer over their own or each others’ heads and other body parts, then sang “Swing low, sweet chariot” with gestures.

Several local people watched this patiently. A very persuasive villager called Barry sold me a coconut which he opened expertly with his cutlass. It was full to the brim with cool milk. His friend sold me half a dozen delicious oysters, after which I considered it safest to close my eyes, before anyone tried to sell me anything else.

Brown Nose must have chosen this moment to start telling me how, before the civil war, Tokeh was an outpost of that great French institution the Club Med holiday village: Club Africana Tokeh. It seemed, I reflected, a long way from the Mediterranean, but then M1 and myself are in full agreement that France is a state of mind...

“Bonjour monsieur Mandall, Gentle Member. I ‘ope you have travelled well from Angleterre. I am your Village Chef, Henri Toulouse Lautrec. You can call me Chef. And I will call you Gentle Member."

"Please don't. I find it embarrassing."

"But Gentil Membre, it is an indication of our respect to you. Montez dans mon ‘elicopter, and I will whisk you to ze Club Africana Tokeh. ‘Ave a meringue.”

“No thanks, chef. I’ve just put one out.”

We land in the palm-fringed bay, on the platform of rock. A bridge connects it to the shore. Little golf carts are taking us around like extras in Port Marion. Chef shoos away a film crew for a Bounty advert, and resumes his commentary.

“Ere we ‘ave ze village, ze village bar, ze ‘urts with all ze modern convenience, and ze hunderd bed hotel... and ‘ere is la piece de resistance, ze village dance floor for ze crezzy hokey tokey.

“We ‘ave all sort of diversion for your degustation. There is Jacques Cousteau making ze scuba. See, Gentle Member, where Presidents Mobutu and Giscard play at 'Risque' -"

"I said, please do stop all that 'member' business. I know it's different in France, but still -"

"It is, 'ow you say: "to err is 'uman'?"

I resist the temptation to say that Tou-louse is stupid.

"- et voila Jean-Jacques who runs his classe extra-murale de philosophie, and Brigitte Bardot who is modelling for Paul Gau - "

I awake to find the Hashers packing up the remaining cases of Star beer. I’ve missed the fried chicken and rice. Barry and his mates are drifting away. They did quite well with the coconuts, but, strangely enough, there weren’t any other takers for the oysters.

Some kids hang around hungrily, hoping for tips. Club Med kept Tokeh in work, before it got destroyed in the war: ten, twelve years of dreadful comings and goings. Just the busted concrete remains. I don’t look too closely for stains and chips on it.

Now there are a few fishing boats, but, with the road so bad, it’s hard to get it to Freetown to sell the catch. Still, there’s a new hotel being built. Maybe one day the road will be finished. Things'll brighten up yet.

I apologise for late publication this morning. We ran out of internet here.