September 17th – 19th 2013
Everyone’s face is crippled with displeasure. The slanting rain and the callous wind are harrowing even hardened Mancunians. I pass a ditched polystyrene carry-out container, brimming with rainwater, a tomato quarter and some scraps of livid meat. Even the rats have taken cover. They’ve probably “…all got rickets” and “spit through broken teeth”.
The cinema is showing wall-to-wall shit, the museums are closed and walking is a thankless pursuit. I take a late breakfast in a proper caff full of bubbly regulars and shuffling OAPs. I watch a staff member chalk up a black A- board. He writes “Were close” which I think might be a comment on some football score until he thinks to add a “d”, squashed on the end like an unwelcome worm.
I wander about, hands in pockets. I am as aimless as a snowflake. This particular part of town is an interesting hash of ramshackle red brick and aspirational steel and glass. It looks thrown together but it’s not without appeal. A few more trees would be helpful. Actually, a lot more trees.
I return to my boudoir in the sky and gaze listlessly out upon the grey – the multi-storey car park and the faceless office block. Traffic oozes around my feet as I stand at the full-length window like a colossus. What to do…
At half past five I gaze down upon the stream of office workers emerging from the tower next door, hoisting umbrellas and flowing away like a 21st century Lowry painting. Then…nothing. I wait for the sun to set in a grey congealing clot.
The touring party regroups for a meal in a Hunan restaurant and after a few pints in a tiny pub we steal into a snooker hall opposite our hotel. We play pool and one thing leads to another.
Most of the following day is spent in the little flat that serves as The Brook’s dressing room in Southampton and I manage to fashion a comfortable bed from three chairs. The southerners are in good voice and it amuses me to hear how broad their vowel sounds are as they sing the words to Be My Downfall. Afterwards we get lost on the way to our hotel and find ourselves at a crossroads with high pines swaying in the wind leaning ominously over the van. A cyclist drifts past, and is illuminated in our headlights, ear buds in, oblivious. We’re on the edge of everywhere.
The trip to Exeter the next day takes us over high moorland in the New Forest and the special atmosphere of the southwest settles upon us. The sun breaks through, littering the fields with light, and I exercise my right to don sunglasses. I celebrate this turn of events with some local ice cream from a garage outside of Bere Regis. Rum and raisin: the greatest ice cream flavour known to mankind. I used to live on it when I was a sweet chef back in the days of flexi-discs, fanzines and hour-long nosebleeds.
We drive past sloping meadows and pretty copses of mature trees. Westward ho, boys. A great many caravans stream past on the oncoming carriageway as if fleeing from some nightmare vacation. The landscape is terribly pretty and it’s sweet relief to be off the motorway system. A wonderful view of the sea yawns before us suddenly, the shadows of clouds cast across the water in the same pattern as that on the Friesians grazing lazily in the foreground. All England dreaming in late September sun, everything right with the world. Hamlets nestle among chestnuts and weeping willows, engulfed by soil so rich you could spoon feed it to your children. When will this be swept away? When will England’s eternal destiny meet its unmaking?
Exeter proves to be rather quaint in parts with warped Tudor buildings and a lovely cathedral. Our venue is tucked away behind the main drag and proves difficult to locate electronically. It’s a seated venue with no stage like an arts theatre venue but it looks alright. Lethargy is the abiding atmosphere in the party today. We’re just starting to become rats of the road but it’ll all be over too quickly for the attitude to truly bed in. Times like these you yearn for a week off before doing a three month stint in the States. If only.
In the morning I pop in to BBC Radio Devon to do a rambling and enjoyable interview. I’m a little gig-lagged and find the fact that the studio is in the basement of an osteopath’s clinic unsettling. Bent old gents file in to reception as I’m waiting to go on air. They’re ready and willing to be manipulated. But I am less so.
Before the show in Wales I lie on my bed on the 13th floor of the hotel and watch the moon rise over Cardiff Bay. Its face has that usual perplexed expression; half joyous, half on the edge of tears. Seabirds keel through the still evening below my window as all the lights begin to twinkle in the darkling night.