If only

I want to retire. I want to retire and spend my days travelling and writing about travelling.

I have this image in my mind of me sitting in the window of a pub overlooking the beautiful village where it is situated. I’m sitting enjoying a pint of ale while exchanging stories of my travels with the locals who are telling me all the ins and outs of village life.

Suddenly they burst into song. A local ditty made more joyous by their local dialect. I buy them all a drink and the landlord tells me about a local character who I should talk to. The evening eventually ends with me standing on a table singing a raunchy sea shanty taught to me by the retired fishermen of Cork who were featured in chapter seven of my third travelogue.

The next morning I’m up early and following a ‘Full English’ I set off to meet up with Bert. He’s got plenty to say about the village and even more about the folk who live and lived here. I’ve taken lots of notes and I’m just about the leave when Bert asks if I’d be interested in hearing about his grandfather. I’m already running late for a meeting with my publisher but it would seem rude to leave now that Bert is in full flow.

“My grandfather was on the Titanic. He’s one of the few crewmen that survived.” He worked in the engine house and his story of survival is astonishing. Bert shows me a letter from his grandfather written to his son, Bert’s father, detailing exactly what happened.

When Bert’s father died thirty years ago they found all sorts of documents and letters about the Titanic in the attic. No one had any idea they were there. There was even an unpublished memoir which finally set the record straight about what the orchestra were really doing when unsinkable did the ultimate in not doing as it was told.

Bert tells me he’s read all my books and wants to hand all of his grandfather’s archive to me to, “do with it what you see fit”.

Friday night on Colchester Station

Friday night on Colchester Station

He offers me his collection of First Day Cover stamps, a 1933 penny, the formula for Coca-Cola and the recipe for Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls. In fact there’s a load of other stuff he wants me to have also. The only condition is that the Picasso is given to the National Gallery. I can “do whatever” with the Monet and Lowrys.

Of course in the real world I’ve been stuck on a freezing cold Colchester Station for two and a half hours listening to people exchange stories of past fatalities on the line and their long nights of Hell waiting for replacement buses. But still I dream of travel writing.

As for Bert, he’s probably warming his hands on a log fire, sipping a 25 year-old malt and wondering what on earth he’s going to do will all that crap in the attic.

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Cafe Leffe, Lille

A huge glass of Leffe Brune

A huge glass of Leffe Brune

I’m at the Cafe Leffe in Lille. What to choose? Leffe De Saison, Leffe Blonde, Leffe Royale, Leffe Rituel, Leffe Brune, Leffe Ruby.

A smartly dressed elderly couple sit down at the next table. They’re typically French. I can tell by their language. I’ve still no idea what to have, so when in France and all that… He orders a Bloody Mary. It’s not on the list.

I have a Brune. Large. When the waiter steps away I notice a poster advertising Leffe De Noel. My Leffe Brune arrives. It’s in a punch bowl.

It’s hard to describe how it feels to be in a cafe surrounded by people talking in languages you don’t understand. I’ve never been good at learning languages, ask Miss Hunter my French teacher. So told me to master my own language before atempting to conquer another. I dropped French.

But sitting here listening to people’s stories is like enjoying songs for their tunes not their words. French is beautiful to listen to when you’ve no idea if they are talking about the Christmas market that’s just opened or all the atrocities in the world. (My auto-correct suggested that what I was actually trying to type then was ‘auto cities’. See it knows me so well and my ability not to grasp the way we spell words correctly).

That'll be the steak and chips

That’ll be the steak and chips

I’ve finished my large glass of Brune and have now asked for a steak and a small Blonde. The waiter brings me a bowl of nuts. I didn’t ask for them. I eat them anyway. He brings me another one. I eat them too. He brings me another one but I’m saved by the steak.

I never used to be one for sauces with my steak. I think it goes back to my own waiting days when Steak Diane was all the fashion and having it cooked at your table was the meme of the day. But recently I’ve been having Bearnaise sauce with my steak. It’s just seems to work. Although lettuce drowning in mayonnaise isn’t my idea of ‘salad’ But I guess when you come to a place called Cafe Leffe it’s the Leffe more than the Cafe you’re after.

Having said that the food is flavourful and plentiful.

Now if you excuse me I have nuts to eat.

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Back to school

Part of my old school (not to scale)

Part of my old school (not to scale)

My old primary school was used as a Polling Station. Years after leaving I revisited the old place to mark a cross on a piece of paper – something my teachers had been doing for me for years.

The thing that struck me was the size of everything. I felt like Gulliver after being washed ashore in Lilliput. Was I ever really that small?

In my school days it was the building itself that seemed enormous. It would take you all morning to get from one end to the other and without the luxury of Sat Nav. Visiting years later it had shrunk into something resembling a dolls house. Tiny chairs. Tiny desks. I had to turn sideways to get through doors.

So when I was invited to a 50th birthday bash at a local primary school I had an idea of what to expect. I wasn’t disappointed. Small chairs, narrow corridors and fragrant pump bags hanging on the pegs in the cloakroom.

The walls were decorated with the pupils’ work, a weather chart and a photo montage of a trip the little people had taken to the Lake District.

The biggest big/small difference was the toilets. I can’t speak for the Girls, but the Boys was tiny. Not wanting to displease the King of Lilliput by ‘making water’, I decided to just check my tie and hair in the mirror. I had to bend double to see myself.

Heading back along the corridor I passed the Headmasters’ room. A chill ran down my spine. I flashed back to my only ever visit to a headmaster’s study. On his desk a long thin cane. On his face a stern look. I clenched at the sight of it and again now at the thought of it. “I’m not going to cane you, Fair. But let this be a warning to you. If you forget your pumps again you will be disciplined.” Mr Dutton ran a tight ship but wasn’t the type to whack you for a first offence, those teachers were waiting for me at ‘big school’. But his words did the job and from then on I used more creative means to avoid PE.

But this is 2014 and I head back into the sports hall where the band (The Incinerators) are belting out Brown Sugar by the Rolling Stones. One or two of the guests are sitting in very small chairs eating pie and mushy peas. Even more are gathered near a couple of trestle tables which are bowing under the weight of bottles and boxes of alcohol. The whole place is in giddy excitement, celebrating 50 years of someone I didn’t even know but it still makes me feel like one of the family. You know, I’d love to join in with the dancing but I have a note from my Mum.

It all starts to get a little surreal when a group of women rustle cheerfully into the room dressed (quite elegantly, it must be said) in black plastic bin bags. The band have suddenly switched to Deacon Blue and conversation has turned to the use of Kiwi birds as an alternative unit of measure for both distance and weight.

School was never like this. If it had been, I might have actually enjoyed it.

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Autumn picks up the pace

Beautiful colours on the rose plants

Beautiful colours on the rose plants

It’s one of those autumn days that doesn’t seem able to get going. It’s early afternoon but it’s still misty. It’s damp too and my breath hangs in the air like a speech bubble waiting to be filled with some clever observation.

A chocolate labrador nuzzles my leg. It’s not my chocolate labrador.

I missed coming to Catton Park last weekend and I’ll not be able to come next, so I was determined to get here today to see how autumn is doing.

It’s doing just fine. The ground is a mass of red and green. Freshly growing ivy and the fallen berries from Yew trees. The carpet of ivy dances as drops of dew fall from the trees.

All the leaves that are expected to change colour have either gone all the way and fallen off or are well on their way. Anything green now on the trees, I suspect, will stay green all year round.

A brown dog and a black dog chase each other around my legs. Neither are mine.

When I arrived there were some youngsters digging with spades near Hayman Lodge, by the end of my circuit they’d gone and a carefully built bonfire had appeared even closer to the Lodge. It’s a timber-clad building, but I guess they know what they are doing. Like the folk who set up all those fireworks on Cromer Pier each New Year.


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Cars and trains

View of Plymouth from the train

View of Plymouth from the train

I spent a day down in Cornwall earlier this week in a converted farm house on the edge of Bodmin Moor. It’s where I met a guy who’s mother is recovering from a nasty car accident.

It happened in a supermarket car park and involved two other vehicles, neither of which had drivers. “How terrible,” I said “I hope she’s OK.” She will be.

It turns out she’s one of those drivers you read about in the newspaper driving the wrong way round a roundabout.

Her previous escapade involved a dual carriageway, a lot of police and even more frantic motorists driving in a different direction to her. Apparently she took her driving test that many times that she got a long service award from the DVLA.

When I planned the trip I decided to leave the car at home and let the train take the strain of the long trip from Norfolk. I’d booked my tickets in advance in order to take advantage of cheaper fares and guaranteed seats.

On the return journey I was given seat A73 which meant a walk along the platform almost as far as France. I was right at the back. Seriously, all that was between my back and the open rails was the echo chamber where the guard makes announcements.

I’m sat in my seat looking out of the window at the beautiful coastline when this slightly scruffy looking guy appears beside me. There’s nothing about him to suggest he’s part of the train crew. I’m not even sure where he came from. There’d been an announcement earlier about keeping your eyes open for anything suspicious and reporting it to the train manager. Disturbingly, this chap was between me and the door to my saviour.

From his large rucksack (did I mention he was wearing a rucksack?) he produced a pair of blue rubber gloves and snapped them onto his hands. He also snapped open a plastic bag.

Eye contact. What was I thinking?

“Let’s do this shall we?”

“D-do w-what?”

“Do you have any rubbish?”

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