Interseason is holiday time, and once again rather than heading for the exotics we find ourselves back in Blighty, this time driving round Wolverhampton on a Saturday afternoon when the local footy team is playing at home, looking for a canal. This is reminiscent of most of my childhood, during which I completely failed to compete in the holiday oneupmanship stakes, having been always obliged to admit to a fortnight spent somewhere underneath spaghetti junction while everyone else had tales of far-flung destinations like the Costa Brava. (Look, this was the middle class 1970s all right? We didn’t have long haul in them days.)
Not that I was ever unhappy with tootling round the backwhacks of Birmingham on a narrowboat, you understand – camping on the water, what’s not to like? You even get flushing toilets and heating and everything these days, not like when I were a lad and you had to hold your breath while having a wee in case you got asphyxiated by the Elsan vapours.
So round the waterways it was once again, stopping at a variety of hostelries for food, beers and the Great British pub experience (recommend the Spittal Brook in Stafford over the closer-to-the-canal Radford Bank carvery place, which was so appallingly bad it was funny, just in case you ever find yourself in the vicinity).
The annual Blighty trip is always good value, partly beause in places it’s actually quite nice, honestly (though one of those places is not Wolverhampton on a Saturday when the football’s on I have to admit) and partly because it reminds you of all the reasons why you prefer to live somewhere else. The weather, for a start. I know from experience that it’s always colder on the water than off it, but full ski gear in mid September is just taking the piss.
But what generally sends me screaming for the nearest port is the constant galloping infantilism which seems to have taken over during the past 15 years or however long it is that I’ve been frittering my life away up a mountain. Is there any particular reason why everything has to have rounded edges and be made of brightly coloured plastic all of a sudden? I didn’t notice that everyone had developed any kind of palsy which might make them walk into things all the time. Besides, most of them seem to be carrying enough internal padding that it wouldn’t do much damage if they did.
It doesn’t stop at Tonka toy furniture, bright lights and jolly music either (note to motorway service stations: could you just SHUT UP please and leave me to eat my tasteless plastic sandwich in peace) – for some reason the bossy nanny who has clearly staged a coup while we weren’t looking feels the need to explain the most basic aspects of daily living. ‘Use this bag every time you shop at Tesco’ she tells me helpfully in nice big writing on the side of something which is quite evidently a shopping bag. Dammit, and I was going to try brewing beer in it as well, tsk.
Nanny is also permanently out of her mind with worry about us all hurting our little selves on hitherto comletely harmless parts of the everyday environment. Patronising signage on the station steps in Dundee tells me to “hold the handrail and don’t run”, something which prompted both of us to go charging up the middle taking two steps at a time. The act of riding a Sheffield bus is considered so hazardous that we need safety signs telling us how to do it without winding up in casualty. Odd, they seemed quite innocuous when I rode them as a student and they even had pointy corners on them then and everything. Clearly I am lucky to be alive.
More signage at the Eurotunnel terminal tells me that ‘for my safety’ I must rush off to my car the minute I hear the first call for boarding. I dread to think what happens if you wait until the second call or even (horrors) miss your train altogether. Presumably they send some staff over to give you a good baseball batting just to teach you a lesson – I can’t see how being a bit late is likely to compromise anyone’s safety otherwise. Admittedly missing the train might piss you off a bit, but it’s hard to imagine it being any more dangerous than actually getting on it as scheduled.
The alarming thing about all this is that everyone seems to expect it. Is all the safety gear compulsory they ask me in the summer when considering mountain bike passes, and look thoroughly shocked when I say no. But that’s so dangerous! Look madam, you can see what the sport involves – if you think it’s dangerous, rent the body armour. You don’t need the cashier to make the judgement for you, you silly bint. I have visions of them all logging onto some helpful government website of a morning in order to find out what to wear (remember your vest today or you might get hypothermia) before creeping downstairs clinging to the handrail and then failing to make a cup of tea because they’re frightened the kettle might get hot.
It’s a Brit-in-France habit to grumble about a ‘laissez faire attitude to health and safety’ (usually in connection with electrical wiring – it’s a little-known fact that being in a foreign country makes you an instant authority on all sorts of building regulations), and it’s quite possibly the case that the French are dropping like flies as a result of casual encounters with buses, polythene bags and shallow flights of stairs. But at least they don’t feel the need to explain to me what a shopping bag is for.