Across Continents

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Old ‘arry’s game

I was waiting for a bus. Stop beside a stretch of dual carriage way, as much a rapid conduit for the icy wind as the traffic. A man wandered past in a cheap, thin fleece jacket, collar turned up to repel the sharp cold. Shiny black shell suit bottoms, stopping short six inches above his ankles. He probably lived here. Mine was a fleeting visit. Less if I had my way. But, at least when it did eventually arrive, the bus’s driver was cheery. Dunkirk spirit.

I’d imagined the place to be what I’d term Corby-by-the-Sea. Which isn’t a complement. Unless, that is, I’m told, you’ve been to Great Yarmouth. I haven’t and don’t plan to. And although I must admit to fairly scant knowledge of Norfolk fishing towns, I was certain my current location had always been popular with overseas visitors. In the 1940’s that’d be the Luftwaffe. There’s been few improvements since.

Inevitably, there’d been the odd claim to fame, dug up by the local council. Almost – well – literally. Another birthplace town. Famous writer of the Victorian era. Inspired, I quickly surmised, to leave. Never to return. Bit of a shame, shortsighted on his part, for he was something of a social commentator. And I thought there to be enough material here for an entire conference. Less generous writers have suggested the place has some of the densest population in the whole of the UK.

It’s not that there’s a shortage of things to do here, a lack of amenities. Plenty of Bingo Halls. A dog track. A hideous pyramid shaped leisure centre drawing in similarly unattractive individuals. Lots of public toilets, always somewhere to discard your sharps. Thoughtful. A wide esplanade popular with joggers, dancing nimbly around the innumerable dog faeces and discarded nappies. And a boating lake. Resplendent with some large plastic swans languishing at their moorings. The sort you could paddle about in if you were that way inclined. I wasn’t.

There’s also a football club. Quite popular by all accounts. Traffic chaos on match days. And frequently in the news, albeit more for the tax affairs of a former manager than their playing ability. Taking its nickname from an ancient Roman city buried under mountains of hot ash. But still no appeal. Or, much to my dismay, no rumbling volcanoes nearby. I’d grown up in Wales. Rugby. As a schoolboy it’d been a miserable affair, but at least it was a game where aggression was confined to the pitch.

A brief burst of Sixties civic pride, and a job lot of concrete, had led to the creation of an especially ugly shopping centre. At the time a much lauded example of Brutalist architecture (no really), it had aesthetic appeal even hardened Soviet era architects might have balked at. I’d tried to imagine it being opened to great fanfare by Miss Corby-by-the-Sea circa 1965. But then gave up. Eventually demolished by mutual consent, its demise had been a squalid, protracted eye sore. The lingering smell of chip grease and stale urine equally unpleasant on the other senses.

I’d tried an early morning dip in the local swimming pool. Squat building, bricks and concrete, that resembled the sort of thing that masked the entrance to a Cold War bunker. Harrowing experience. Reminiscent of scenes from Cocoon. My protestations that closing twenty minutes before the end of each advertised session fell on deaf ears. Probably needed fresh batteries.

The bus trundled on, frequently coming to an abrupt halt as it sought to negotiate parked cars and drifting pedestrians quite oblivious to the traffic. Of which there was always a lot. Along the High Street a fistful of loan shops offering tempting cash and exorbitant interest rates. A luxury bookmakers. Above a doorway a small sign said Samaritans. Together with the off-licences, the not infrequent criminal defence specialists, one of the few growth businesses. Smartest by far was a fast food outlet. Green plastic petal chairs in the window. Lava lamps on the tables would have nicely finished off the homage to the Sixties.

There wasn’t quite the same social and economic contrast between Corby-by-the-Sea and the neighbouring town where I was staying as I’d seen between Corby and public school Oundle. Or the separation. One bordered directly on the other. Discrimination was necessarily a bit more subtle, but there were clues. Dogs. One favoured the pit bull type, the other poodles. Mostly reliant on tattoos to tell mutts from masters. But the clincher was, as ever, supermarkets. Very clear cut. Tesco Extra and Waitrose. Chalk and Cheese. That’d be a farm matured cheddar made from a refined blend of organic milk.

I’d jumped off near a small cafe. Unpretentious, no-nonsense. Chance of a decent brew. Behind the counter a woman of Chinese descent. Rasping voice. Felt I was causing her discomfort as I asked for a small mug. A couple – late fifties I thought – rotund, bald chap and a lady with a sympathetically shaven head were, for a while, the only other customers. Another woman entered as I was packing up my belongings to leave. She was seeking shelter from the insidious damp cold outside. Smart pink jacket. I noticed it because it wasn’t cheap.

Back on a bus once more. Fellow passengers more numerous than before. And mostly wooden. Motionless save for the odd jolt. As if oblivious to life around them. Except for a Polish woman with her two young children. I’d offered her my seat, not because the bus was particularly full, but because I thought it might make it easier for her to supervise her playful charges on the seat in front. She politely declined, but seemed pleased someone had cared to talk to her.

Destination reached, another small cafe to meet up with an old colleague. Transfixed watching wisps of coffee, vapours swirling slowly upwards from my cup, as I waited his arrival. Soon the only customer. Quickly attuned to the conversation behind the counter. Another neat pile of empty music cassettes. Left on the pavement beneath the cafe window.

They must have sensed my interest. It happened, explained one of the women, a few times a week. Nobody ever seem to notice who deposited them. Or could explain why. Perhaps, I suggested, the choice of music might proffer a few clues. What, I asked, had been left this time? She shuffled the cases as you might a pack of cards. A short pause. Then she spoke. Kinks. Country and Western. Country and Western, I quickly responded? Emphatically. Was she sure?

[The author would like to point out that he’s not received any payment from the local Tourist Board to promote Corby-by-the-Sea. Just in case you were wondering… But he is hoping to train a dog to do his tax return for him]



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