I feel I’ve certainly seen England from every angle in the past three months while touring in Full Circle, and it has surprised me how gorgeous the English countryside still is, and how hideous the infrastructure of some of our cities can be. In France and Italy, most towns have some sort of cohesion in their one-way systems and in the architecture of their civic and municipal buildings. By contrast, some of the English town centres seem to have been structured by saboteurs bent on uglifying them. One regularly finds a 21st-century monstrosity built out of giant glass eggshells sitting next to a classic 16th-century steepled church, which is in turn adjacent to a concrete bunker. I thought town councils were particular about the way their towns looked, but after 11 weeks witnessing the lunacy with which town planners have embraced every faint architectural breeze that has wafted through the last four decades I’m no longer sure about that.
There is little beauty to be seen other than in the countryside, and each high street is identical to the one in the last town, with its KFC, McDonald’s, Gap and M&S. There are few unique individual shops that specialise in one-of-a-kind clothing you won’t see every girlfriend wearing, and almost bygone are the days of butchers and fishmongers and the shops that used to sell highly desirable chotskys. Replacing them are M&S and huge malls and complexes offering us mass-produced ‘Made in Taiwan’ vases, lamps and photograph frames.
What is individual, however, is every British hotel room. Each has its own unique kind of light-switch, a/c controls, TV remote, telephone system and bathroom works, with every shower and faucet offering new mysteries and challenges which I am invariably incapable of surmounting. Taps don’t even have ‘H’ and ‘C’ on them any more, so you have to guess while either scalding yourself or risking frostbite. Adding further frustration to the British hostelry experience is the lack of bathroom cabinets or drawers in which to put things away and, since you may already know I do not travel lightly, our suite often resembles an Oxfam shop by the time I’ve unpacked. I presume the reason for this is that in the past guests would leave things behind in drawers and hotels would have to send them on. May I suggest that hotels simply put up signs saying they are not responsible for items left behind and simply open an Oxfam shop of their own in an unused room?
I haven’t been on a bus since I was 18, but in the suburbs of one of the Midlands towns recently I had no choice. I’d gone to an afternoon movie with Nickolas Grace, who is also in the play, and when we came out the temperature had dropped to below freezing (in April). Gamely braving the frigid air, we started to trudge the three miles back to our hotel while searching for a passing taxi. ‘Niko, I don’t even do walking in the summer,’ I huffed, the wind so cold that my teeth ached. ‘Right, let’s grab a bus, then,’ said he. ‘A bus!’ Edith Evans would have been proud of my incredulous inflection, but before I could protest Niko hauled me on to a passing double-decker and pulled me to the upper regions. My trenchcoat dragged on the stairs as I stumbled up the narrow corkscrew and a few passengers glanced at me, but red-nosed and baseball-capped I bore scant resemblance to the glamorous creature we saw on the posters plastered all over town. Several women were excitedly discussing their visit the following night as I slid further down into my seat, pulling the cap over my ears.
The 17-year-old daughter of a friend of mine was recently travelling with a girlfriend in broad daylight on a train from the country into London. Their carriage was empty, as was most of the train, until a group of Asian youths came aboard. Within minutes the 12 angry men clocked the girls and started making suggestive and lewd remarks. Although terrified, the girls ignored them, which infuriated the boys, thus prompting them to undo their trousers and expose themselves. They then started calling them ‘white bitches’, among other epithets, and when the girls got off at a station and were followed by the screaming yobs hurling abuse, they were unable to find a porter. Reporting the event to the police, they met with indifference and a ‘this happens all the time’ attitude. Had the situation been reversed and a group of white girls terrorised a couple of black boys, calling them ‘black bastards’, I’m quite sure one of the racial equality groups or the racial crime hotline would have been filing vigorous complaints to get the gang into court. It seems the double standard is rife, as evinced by Melissa Kite, the deputy political editor of the Sunday Telegraph, who was racially abused in her bank. She points out correctly that racial tolerance will not work until the respect flows both ways.
There are apparently more than 95,000 rules, regulations and edicts in the proposed new European Constitution. Already market traders are being fined for marking their produce in pounds and ounces rather than kgs, mgs, gs, mls and ls. I simply cannot work any of that out and still order from my grocer in imperial rather than metric measures — although, having said that, no doubt Interpol, in Orwellian fashion, will now be listening into my phone ready to pounce at the mere hint of my next grocery order in pounds and ounces. Why should we have to adopt this strange method of weights and measures? The Americans don’t, and English hospitals still refer to newborn babies as weighing seven pounds six ounces rather than three and a half kilos, which makes a baby sound like the Sunday joint.
‘DCOL’ was the cry that echoed through the bars, bo