East to Stockton


We move out through Widnes’s motley sprawl under jets sailing into John Lennon. We gain the motorway and all signs of locality vanish, the endless stream of vehicles hypnotic and stultifying. We are now five having picked up Dave, the sound man and Derek, the opening act at Runcorn railway station. Luminous fields of rape rim the verges, the sky is strewn with smoky puffs stretched in formation beneath some high white sheet. Our satellite lady huskily intones instructions. We remain, as ever, in her wayward hands. A church spire looms like a rocket in a thicket of blast-off trees. The van’s occupants fidget at phones, thumbs like busy mandibles mangling insect words. The air is filled with them – look you! Death threats, appointment arrangements, compliments, football scores – thrown into the roar of the universe.

The last time I was in Stockton I ventured with some frands (that’s fans who become friends) to the casino for a late drink. I became mentally dishevelled and considered joining some Chinese women at their mahjong table. My mother was born in Hong Kong before the war and we all grew up playing. I was never much cop and always tried to collect the same hand – characters – because I liked the look of them. I’d have been eaten alive if those women had let me into their game. Somebody must have dragged me away with the offer of further libation. Talking utter bollocks with a drink in hand is my area of expertise. I’d get a silver medal at a minimum.

We pass the famous farm on the M62 where the landowner refused to be moved and the opposite lanes of the motorway divide around the plot leaving a teardrop-shaped island of countryside in the middle of the road. Or so the tale is told. I think he had to build a tunnel to get his sheep out, the intractable sod.

We cross the scrappy plateau of the Pennines and dip down into Yorkshire, the great maverick domain of England’s hinterland. We’re all nodding with the contours of the blacktop and nodding off, suspended in animation. We approach the flat industrial expanse of Teeside, those beautiful cooling towers squatting about the horizon like sharkskin Buddhas. The hotel is in downtown Middlesborough, a strange mishmash of a place hacked about by town planners and corporate retailers. I patrol for some coffee and am forced by time constraints into an Arsefucks in a godforsaken precinct. They insist on taking your name in these places now and I toy with offering up “Horatio” but I feel it might cause bad blood. I slink into a corner with my grog and paper. A little boy with a plastic lawnmower in tow comes over for a chat. We exchange hellos. Then he points to something in the street and says – Look. I look. I am presented with a thoroughfare of exquisite grimness populated by the shuffling dead. So I smile and say – Yes.

The people up here are straight-talking and genuine. There is a little line of well-wishers for me to greet after my show. These folk are touching and warm. I accept their compliments quite readily which is not always the way with me. I feel my smile turn from a stiff construction into a satisfied smirk. I have always liked characters. A friend of mine turns fifty later; we are on the phone at midnight and she is the best friend I’ve ever had.