Thursday, 15 June 2017

Darkest Warwickshire

I spent the first eighteen years of my life in the county of Warwickshire, then five years in Kent, and the rest of the time in cities up until I came to move to Texas in 2011. By my mid-twenties, Warwickshire had become something like a foreign country. I visited only infrequently because I had no reason to do otherwise. My parents lived in different parts of the city of Coventry and I'd lost touch with more or less everyone I'd known at school. The countryside in which I'd grown up was reduced to a lost rural idyll occasionally seen as decorative background on a television programme.

In 2009, I moved from London to Coventry in preparation for  the larger transatlantic leap. My job in London had turned to shit, as had my domestic situation. It was time for a change.

The first revelation which came to me once I'd relocated to Coventry, was that I could cycle out of the city and find myself in the countryside in a matter of minutes. This hadn't been possible in London. Having become so accustomed to an environment comprising endless lines of vehicles belching fumes across a panorama of fried chicken outlets, rural England seemed newly magical to me. Everything sparked off some long-neglected childhood memory - grass verges blooming with cow parsley, tiny colourful birds flitting in and out of hedgerows, the silence of just wind and maybe some distant aircraft crossing a landscape of fields dipping down towards hidden church spires. I found myself in quiet lanes wherein my existence would have made no sense at any point during the previous two decades. I was entirely free of the pressures I had endured for so long. Even the novelty of it being ten in the morning and there I was not breaking my back whilst getting yelled at by an overpaid metropolitan idiot was astonishing, and such realisations continue to astonish me even today.

In 2015, I spent a couple of weeks back in England, visiting my parents, both still living in Coventry. The visit included excursions out into the country, into rural Warwickshire, even to Shipston-on-Stour where I had attended high school. Neither of my parents had much reason to visit the old places, and so my presence allowed for the indulgence of low-level nostalgia, just seeing how things had changed. One such expedition took us back through Newbold-on-Stour, a village at just a few miles distance from where I once lived. The White Hart was still there so my dad and myself stopped in for a pint. Wouldn't it be funny if we saw Gordon, I said to myself, and there he stood before us, right on cue as though summoned into being by my thoughts.

Of the people I'd known at School, only Juliet and Gordon had been associated with Newbold-on-Stour, so far as I could recall. Juliet had turned up on facebook a few years earlier with creepy messages about how she'd always loved me, which I probably could have lived without. Gordon on the other hand had remained mysterious. We'd been friends at school - close, but apparently not so close as to have stayed in touch past the age of sixteen, and I'd never quite been able to work out why. I remembered him as one of the gang, perhaps a little too fond of puns, but generally decent. The two jokes which had stayed with me over the years, both of his own composition, had been as follows:

1) Proposal for a verdict which might be delivered by an official judging a competition comparing girls' fannies: On the hole I'd say it's all been very good.

2) Get the Murphy habit, a phrase spoken whilst giving a thumbs-up gesture, but with the thumb concealed in the palm of the hand as though partially severed. This riffed on get the Abbey habit - the slogan utilised in advertising for the Abbey National building society, similarly accompanied by a thumbs-up gesture - and the fact of Mr. Murphy recently having injured or possibly even lost one of his thumbs. I think Mr. Murphy may have been a woodwork teacher. Gordon took some pleasure from the delivery of the joke, and I recall being slightly irritated because I had no fucking clue what he was talking about or why he thought it was funny. I responded with a combined slogan and gesture of my own, a variation on Mr. Spock's live long and prosper thing accompanied by the wilfully unrelated phrase don't ask Arthur for a cheese sandwich. I could just have asked Gordon to explain, but I suppose I didn't want to pass up the opportunity to be a bit of a cunt.

I'm not sure why I should still recall these two jokes in particular, but I suspect it's something to do with their being the same sort of shite which I probably once produced, so it may stem from some sense of relief that I hadn't in these instances. On the other hand, Gordon lent me The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle when it came out, and we even had him as guest on a Pre-War Busconductors cassette, announcing I'm Gordon Everett and I don't appear anywhere on this tape. So it felt as though the two of us should be more than just fellow carbon blobs who merely happened to have passed through the same educational colon at roughly the same time; and when I realised that this was the older version of himself stood before me in the White Hart, I experienced a feeling of immense pleasure. Unfortunately, an hour over a pint in a pub with my dad present wasn't really adequate when it came to catching up on the previous thirty years, but it was a start.

Now it's 2017, and I'm back in England once again, and Gordon is right at the top of the list. We've enjoyed sporadic communication through social media, but it's not the same as having an actual conversation, and this is why I haven't spent too much time worrying over any political differences we may have developed over the intervening years. This has been a matter of concern from time to time, particularly now that the internet has brought everyone any of us ever knew back into present day reality. It's not that I expect everyone I've ever known to have stayed the same, or even to subscribe to views compatible with my own; but I dislike it when a person of whom one might once have thought highly turns out to be a complete fucking knob.

I once assumed, somewhat arrogantly, that it was my having spent my life moving from place to place which granted me some enhanced sense of perspective, allowing me to be right about things. This view was mostly based on my having stayed in touch with Tim, who had lived his entire life in his mother's shadow in the house in which he grew up, then married a woman closer to his mother's vintage than to his own count of years when his mother passed away, and then eventually ended up standing for election on behalf of UKIP because he didn't want his beloved United Kingdom to become like America or Japan. I didn't really understand this view or just which episode in the vast wealth of his worldly experience it had been drawn from, but this was apparently because I had run away from England, as he put it. Thankfully, as I have come to appreciate, Tim's brand of myopia tends to be an exception rather than the rule.

I set out around midday, allowing for three hours by bike, it being somewhere between twenty and thirty miles to Newbold from Coventry. I could have blagged a lift or taken a series of buses, but I need the exercise and I'm excited at the prospect of all that countryside. I avoid the worst of the traffic by following my own meandering route along minor roads, down through Leamington Spa, then on to Wellesbourne by way of Bishop's Tachbrook. One of the worst hills I've ever had to push a bike up is on the A429 just south of Wellesbourne, so I attempt to circumnavigate it by heading west through Loxley, after which it's mostly downhill to Alderminster then another couple of miles to Newbold. Taking the Loxley road inevitably means I nevertheless end up having to scale the same slope as I would have tackled on the A429, but in less concentrated and more scenic stretches. The entire journey is scenic, excepting the crappier bit of Leamington Spa. I stop every half hour or so to photograph lambs and sheep, or to gaze in wonder at rolling hills, or to munch on the pork pie my mother insisted I bring with me. I spend much of the journey talking to myself, mostly exclamations of would you look at that, because the landscape seems once again magical to me, despite the distant familiarity of childhood. It rains a little but I don't care, and I stop to watch pheasants strutting around in the fields - usually a spectacular male with the green and scarlet head, and his harem of little brown ladies. I stop in Alderminster to stare at my first primary school, long since converted into a funny looking house. I was only there a couple of months before being moved to Ilmington C of E Junior and Infants, but I can still remember my first day. All these memories have become like something I may have read in a book, intangibly exotic; and along such lines I'd intended to look for Whitchurch, a settlement abandoned in the sixteenth century of which only a farm remains, along with a Norman church in the middle of a field. My mother has told me about the place, and I'm astonished to have spent the first decade of my life living within two miles of this ghost village. I had intended to look for Whitchurch, but three hours has turned out to be an uncannily well crafted estimate and I don't have time.

I arrive at Newbold village green. There is a line of cottages running down the left hand side and Gordon lives in one of them. He didn't give me the address, instead suggesting that I phone him when I arrive, but he emerges grinning from the cottage on the corner before I can make the call. I'd guess we were about the same size when we were at school, but now he's large and imposing in a way which suggests a life of pounding fence posts into the earth with just his fists. He wears braces without it seeming like an affectation, and he has an oddly distinguished appearance. He looks thoughtful and confident. I expect I've changed too.

We chuckle amongst ourselves, discussing the weather and variations on holy shit, here we are; and then we wander across the green to the pub, taking Bumble the dog with us as we go. I later discover that Bumble was born on the farm constituting all that remains of Whitchurch. We talk about how things are, how things were, and the probable causes of how the latter became the former. We talk about people we knew, people who've died, people who are doing quite well for themselves, and how one of the hard cases of our shared youth has spent the last three decades as a one-man reenactment of the film Trainspotting. We always knew he wouldn't amount to anything, and it seems he hasn't.

It's a conversation of a kind which I've occasionally found uncomfortable. I worry that the person or persons to whom I'm talking will make certain assumptions about where I'm coming from. Look at me, I will seem to say in between listing all the exotic places I've been and famous people I've known, allow me to regale you with tales of my many, many adventures in exotic lands far, far away from where we both went to school. So if I have anything exciting to impart - like my recently having become related to Johnny Cash by marriage, for example - I'll play it down and try to make it sound like it's no big deal, no more interesting than what happened to the bloke who used to run the Kerry Tea Rooms over in Shipston. This kind of pre-emptive humility ordinarily makes conversation awkward, something to be negotiated; but for once, it's different. Gordon seems genuinely fascinated by how the hell I ended up in Texas. He hasn't taken the fact of my having done something as an accusation suggesting that he hasn't - which is how it often feels; and because patently he has done things, he feels no need to prove it.

In the mean time we talk about Jason Roberts, because Gordon recalls all sorts of details of our school biology lesson which have escaped me. We both sat at the back with Jason, and possibly Graham Pierce. The teaching methodology of Mrs. Lewis seemed mostly focused on our spending the next hour copying something out of a book as she busied herself with other activities, and so the back row of the class became a sort of comedy workshop hosted by Jason. I'm still able to recall the vaguely jazzy theme tune, Jason playing the bench like a piano, singing and winking at us.

It's joke time...
It's joke time...
It's joke time...
So let's all tell some jokes...

Gordon recalls that many of the jokes were about a block of wood, the chicken crossing the road because it needed a block of wood, the big chimney making some comment about a block of wood to the little chimney, and so on. You probably had to be there.

On other occasions we plotted our first television series with proposals for sketches and the like, an example of which is one of Jason's many explorations of his fried egg theme, composed on one side of A4 which I kept for the sake of posterity.

Enter Brutus.

'Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your—'

There is a silent awaiting of Brutus' plea.

'—fried eggs!'

There is a great cheer from the crowd and Brutus is bombarded with fried eggs. The silence dies down and Brutus smiles proudly before his nation.

'Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your—'

The excitement is tremendous as the crowd await Brutus' plea.


There is suddenly an uproar in the crowd and an old man appears to come forward, looking up to face Brutus.

'But Sire, Sire - we have no bacon,' says the old man in a sorrowful voice.

'What? No bacon!?,' screams Brutus. 'How can we have fried eggs without any bacon?'

Jason really had a thing about breakfast foods and would randomly insert the words bean, bacon, or fried egg into historical essays; then proudly reveal the verdict a week later, very good work in red biro beneath a page claiming that Christopher Colombus was celebrated for having crossed the Atlantic to discover fried eggs in the new world. Mr. Lewis took the history class, and his teaching methodology seemed to have certain elements in common with that of his wife, our biology teacher.

I realise there's probably no-one else left in the world who finds this shit as funny as we do, Gordon and myself.

Following a pint or possibly two, we wander down the road so I can see what Gordon does, because as I mentioned, he's done things. We climb past hedgerow to a large, slightly knackered looking shed. Inside are a number of horse drawn carriages in various states of repair. Someone called Rod is in the business of restoring them. Gordon draws my attention to the plush finish of one, describing a process of layering paint which is then sanded down, then painted over many times until a perfect sheen is achieved, something like the quality of a precious stone.

'So you, er...' I'm still trying to work out Gordon's part in the equation, given that he's already told me this isn't his workshop.

He smoothly lifts a wooden box from the rear of one carriage, dark, brown wood richly polished, beautifully dovetailed joints, and inlaid fixtures of brass or similar, including a monogram. A tray lined with green baize lifts from the box and I see spaces for fluted glasses and wine bottles. Now I recall something he told me in the pub, something about having to start all over again with brass inlay because someone with too much money had changed their mind.

'Holy shit,' I say. 'You made this?'

He usually makes furniture, as I recall him having told me, but I didn't quite realise that he is a genuine craftsman. I think I imagined something like the shelving I habitually knock up from supplies picked up at the local hardware superstore. Aside from the presence of horse drawn carriages, the workshop is just a workshop, messy with a chemical smell in the air, crap blaring from a tinny radio, and pictures of women's tits on the wall.

'You must make a fucking fortune doing this,' I suggest, in direct response to a mention of Prince Philip having ridden in something tarted up beneath this very roof.

'You would think so, wouldn't you?' Gordon reports, then reminds me that very few of the filthily rich ever became filthily rich by paying their bills on time or agreeing to fair prices. It's the same with all those oil barons who live in Alamo Heights, back in Texas.

We walk back to the village green and, not for the first time, I curse the fact that I was unable to take the woodwork class past my third year of high school because it clashed with art.

I ask about Gordon's father. Their family used to live on a farm just outside the village as you head towards Shipston, a farm distinguished by a large complex of greenhouses full of tomatoes. The greenhouses are still there, as is Gordon's father, but everything else has changed, and not necessarily for the better.

'The countryside is dying,' he tells me.

The village is now mostly populated by people working in the city, or who have retired from working in the city. No-one makes any money from farming these days, and farms which can't adapt to what few niches are left to them are often sold off to developers. The news makes me feel somehow uncomfortable. It isn't like I was particularly tied into the rural economy when I lived here, but it's difficult to miss the changes and the sense of pessimism. Gordon doesn't even seem particularly angry about it. He's aware of it happening and is simply trying to adapt as best he can.

Here is the thing which I fear might divide us. He's quite clearly picked a side because he hasn't been given much choice, and that side is acknowledged by a Countryside Alliance sticker on the glass of the door of his cottage. I've a feeling I may be on the other side of this particular fence because I view fox hunting as unnecessary and probably barbaric, and suspect the Countryside Alliance to be mostly tweedy women in green wellies called Marjorie and people who believe that Nigel Farage is only saying what the rest of us were thinking. The thing I fear is discovering that I have no fucking clue what I'm talking about.

We resume drinking at the pub and Susie arrives with Floella - Gordon's partner and daughter respectively. Susie apparently regards me as famous by virtue of having read my blog, which is hugely flattering. The two of them argue about Yorkshire pudding. Gordon is cooking tonight, but Susie lacks confidence in his Yorkshire pudding, which tonight will be made using an arguably unorthodox recipe.

Gordon is philosophical, taking the position that the pudding may well turn out shite - in which case Susie will have been proven right - but asking whether any of us can really presume to know what the future holds?

Back at the cottage, I respond to a request to draw Floella. She giggles, but mostly sits still. She sends me shy glances but doesn't quite have the confidence to engage directly. Gordon tells me he has a loft full of stuff I drew at school, and I wince a little because I recall him being quite easy to caricature. Apparently there's a cartoon strip I drew called SuperGord which I strongly suspect to be a strip about a superhero with nose-based powers, Gordon being fairly well blessed in that department. I just hope I wasn't too cruel, and thankfully Gordon's report of having been immortalised in this fashion suggests that if I was digging him in the ribs, at least it wasn't with such force as to leave enduring scars.

As I draw, I marvel at being sat in a half-timbered cottage, and one which my old friend calls home. Living in the US, I now know people who have never even seen a building of such antiquity.

Dinner is wonderful, and the Yorkshire pudding is excellent. Gordon's seemingly reckless approach to cooking is vindicated.

Next morning we take the dog for a walk around the fields at the back. Gordon talks about the wildlife he routinely encounters, the hedgerows, and life in the country; but in case I'm making it sound like a lecture, it isn't. It's a conversation, and I have to admit I'm learning a lot. He even talks about fox hunting in a way which communicates points I'd never even considered. I'm still not sure I can budge on that particular one, but everything else he tells me has a terrifying underlying veracity, and his arguments, born from direct experience, are rock solid. The most basic distillation of his problem is that those attempting to make a living in the English countryside have been denied a voice, and even my own arguably skewed understanding of the Countryside Alliance would seem to confirm this; and because they are denied a voice, decisions affecting the rural economy are made largely by persons who remain unaffected by those decisions; and perhaps most crucially of all, human society as a whole - at least in the west - has become increasingly divorced from the seasons, from the cycle of life and death, and from the way nature works, which is possibly why we're all in such a mess, generally speaking. Perhaps it is because we don't like to be reminded of where our food comes from, that we don't like to be reminded where anything comes from. We, as a people, don't like consequences.

We walk and we talk about hunting and management of the land, controlling the populations of certain predators, and I realise that even where I disagree, or where I have reservations, Gordon lives here and he's the one who understands the place and how all its pieces fit together; and I remind myself that sometimes we need to admit that we just don't know, so we listen to someone who does; and that's what I'm doing.

We have breakfast, bacon purchased from the newsagent because the farm shop is closed this morning, and by chance we encounter Mr. Goodfellow on the village green. He was my French teacher thirty years ago. Weirdly, he remembers me, and weirder still. he doesn't appear to have aged. He laughs a lot more than I recall him having done back at school.

At midday I climb back onto my bike and head off towards Banbury, Oxfordshire, for a meeting with others from school, a day older and arguably a couple of years wiser.

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