Oddballs, eccentrics, toe-curling incidents – my life seems to be full of them. The country is full of them; the world is. The other day I was sitting in a manky and claustrophobic office with a man of business, trying to come to an agreement. The desk was against a wall, so we sat not on either side of it but right next to each other, virtually knee-to-knee. In the middle of our conversation his phone rang. “Do you mind if I take this,” he said. “It’s my doctor.” Of course,” I said, expecting him to leave the room for some privacy. But he didn’t leave, this man o’business, he stayed right where he was and proceeded to give a long and extremely detailed account of his blood pressure, his heart rate and the stress levels brought on by his wife’s impending back operation and his brother-in-law’s cancer. All this just inches from me. When he finally hung up he merely acknowledged the interruption with a rueful shrug, then carried on with our chat. Throughout the impromptu medical consultation I fiddled with my phone in furious concentration. Smartphones, I’ve found, are a Godsend in such situations and worth the monthly fee just for their value as Pavement Panto™ props.
Pavement Panto™ – for those who haven’t read my Think of England blog – refers to those contrived actions one performs to mask, disguise or somehow ‘cover for’ any public behaviour about which one feels awkward or obscurely embarrassed, usually for an entirely imagined audience. The simplest example is the business of making a 180 degree turn in the street. Sometimes when walking it becomes necessary to stop, turn, and walk back the other way. This might be because you have walked past the shop you meant to go into, or you’d forgotten where you parked the car. In extreme cases of absent-mindedness you might even have strolled past your own front door. Now for some reason it’s hard to perform this U-turn without covering it with some sort of Pavement Panto™, as if people are watching and judging. One might, for example, stop and pretend to look with interest at a shop window for a few moments, and then, when a reasonable time has elapsed, walk back the other way as if the original direction of the walk and the stop were all part of your plan. There are many other interesting techniques and examples, which you can read about here.
So Serbian football is full of rotten old racists then. I haven’t been to Serbia but my dad drove through it a few years ago with his brother-in-law on their way to Greece. The corrupt border guards ripped them off and the ‘hotel’ they stopped at was so indescribably horrible that they preferred to sleep in the car. They got the hell out of there as quickly as possible and vowed never to go back. Come to think about it, I felt much the same about Reading.
So Starbucks are a bunch of rotten old tax-avoiders then (tax avoidance is, of course, the new racism.) It grates that they don’t pay any corporation tax here, but I find this annoys me far less than their excruciating new habit of asking your name so they can ‘personalise’ your coffee order. This is surely one of those grisly American imports that just can’t work in this country, like MacDonalds’ short-lived attempt to sell root beer, or when Burger King tried to get its British staff to say “You got it.”
Anyway I prefer Costa to Starbucks, it doesn’t have the lifestyle pretensions. But it does seem to be proliferating at an alarming rate. Proliferating and diversifying: there are tiny Costas in petrol stations and just outside Swindon recently I spotted a whopping great ‘drive-thru’ one, if you can believe such a thing.
Both Mrs Brit and I have become fully dependent on coffee since we’ve had the children. We got a really excellent espresso machine last Christmas and I think we both secretly hug it when nobody’s looking.
I haven’t yet tried Ozzy Osborne’s ‘Red-Eye’ formula, which involves making a jug of filter coffee, then filtering it through the beans again, pouring the resultant caffeine soup into a mug and adding a shot of espresso. Not so much a drink as an enema, that one. Strictly for hardened experimenters in mind-altering substance abuse, like Ozzy. I wonder if Worm has tried it?
I write this section of the Diary on the 12:03 First Great Western service from London Paddington to Weston-super-Mare. It is Sunday, I am queasy and my skull is a thin, throbbing membrane. Yesterday the Dabbler’s two Editors, its Managing Editor and its Editor-at-Large convened to make important decisions about the future of this site and of course polish apples and swill chardonnay. Actually chardonnay was about the only alcoholic beverage we didn’t swill. The afternoon started with an Agenda and ended in incoherent twaddle-spouting and, disgracefully, the Co-Editors urinating into a hedge in Angel like a pair of Frenchmen. I also lost the Agenda. But as Homer Simpson once put it: it wasn’t my fault, liquors drunkened me. The length, depth and breadth of this morning’s hangover is a solemn reminder of why daytime drinking is best left to students.
Macclesfield. MACculs-field. Is there a better word to pronounce in an exaggerated northern accent? MACKLEsfeeeeeeeeeeuuuu-ulllllllllll-d. Almost as good a name as ‘Leamington Spa’. I changed trains at Macclesfield last Thursday as part of a complicated series of commutes on the Northern Rail network. The electronic notice board told me nothing useful about the next train but did advise passengers, in capital letters, to TAKE EXTRA CARE IN THE WET AND WINDY CONDITIONS. The day was dry and still. Furthermore, what was I supposed to take extra care about? Did it refer to some particular activity, or was it just a general warning of danger? It was unsettling, and I took extra care for the rest of the afternoon.
Later I stood on the platform at Poynton and without warning the heavens opened: a Biblical, sense-obliterating downpour during which three Virgin trains screamed by at murderous velocity. Flashing thoughts of suicide leaps and smashed and bloodied limbs. As the third train passed the downpour ceased as abruptly as it had begun, and the air was greasy and the sky dark. I shivered to recall the prophetic words of the Macclesfield electronic notice board.
Turning, I noticed a blue door, locked, which looked unchanged since the golden age of steam and carried an antique sign saying “Lamp Room”. Lamp Room, Lamp Room, Lamproom. Like ‘Macclesfield’, the words began to hypnotise me. Lamp Room, Lamb-broom. The Lamp Room at Poynton Station. National Lamp Room’s Vacation. What did it signify? It was surely all connected. If only I had the key to that blue door, I feel sure I might have solved the mystery: of the Lamp Room, of the Macclesfield Oracle, perhaps even – who knows? – of Leamington Spa itself.