Saturday, 5 June 2010

Not Quite True

Watching the news while I was on the plane yesterday, I saw several reports about the recent shootings in Cumbria - the 'cabbie rampage' as some news outlets have begun to call it. Among them was the following statement from a reporter on the ground: 'I am standing in the idyllic little holiday village of Boot, a long-time favourite of families and walkers. Sadly, its carefree atmosphere has been shattered, possibly forever, by the tragic events of the last few days.'

No, sorry. The murders in Cumbria were shocking, appalling and horrible - that is undeniable and a heavy enough reality to absorb. There is no need whatsoever to add to the burden of dreadfulness by making things up. The loss of many lives is clearly tragic. Boot's reported loss of carefree innocence is not. In the circumstances, such a thing would be too trivial to worry about, even if it were true. The important point though is that it is not. As far as Boot is concerned, there has been no loss of anything. Boot never was a carefree place. Boot was, is and always will be a depressing, dismal dump.

Believe me, I know. I spent the worst summer of my life in Boot. It was not long after my parents had finally divorced and the first holiday my father had attempted with us on our own. He had rented a cottage on the recommendation of a colleague, who had told him that not only was the fishing good but the food was superb. We drove from London in a Hillman Imp, which, as everyone knows was a lousy car for anyone (apologies to any Hillman Imp enthusiasts [do they exist?]) - but particularly for a man as tall as my father (his knee hit the indicator every two or three minutes, causing traffic behind us to become maddened by the incessant and increasingly insane signalling).

It was a long journey, and we were tired when we arrived. Our first impression of the tiny main street (actually it is the only street - and it leads nowhere) was that we'd arrived at the most dismal place on earth. Exhaustion, we told ourselves, was the cause of our dismay, but as the days went by things did not improve. There was, we soon realised, a cheerlessness about Boot that was something you could very nearly see and touch - a permanent mist of grim dreariness that pervaded everything.

The 'cottage' where we were to stay didn't help, of course. It was a tiny, very dark, two-up, two-down in the middle of a terrace of similar dwellings. The furniture it contained (and 'contained' is the right word, for the place felt more like a storehouse than somewhere anyone had arranged things in to make a nice living space) was all ugly, heavy and far too large for the tiny rooms. Electricity and heating (and we did need heating - it was August in the Lake District after all) was supplied by meter and as we were always running out of two shilling bits and the village shop had a strict (some might say cussed) policy of not giving out change, we spent a lot of time peering at each other in the dim flicker of candles or my father's Dupont lighter , an object whose elegant (if somewhat flashy) aspirations served only to highlight the dispiriting dinginess of our new surroundings.

To top it all, I, for some reason, had brought absolutely nothing to read. In the end, I turned to the cupboards and drawers of the little place, which were all lined with old pages from the Women's Realm. These provided stories of suburban romance that would not in ordinary circumstances have been of tremendous interest to a 9-year-old. However, I had nothing else and so quickly became glued. As with everything else that holiday though, my strategy led quickly to disappointment, for none of the pages were in any kind of sequence and, by a cruel trick of fate, not one drawer contained an ending to any of the tales. That is why to this day I still wonder about trainee nurse Kate and her dog and whether they ever hooked up with the mysterious but attractive man whom Kate met fleetingly on the common - and about lonely librarian Helen and whether she ended up marrying (or indeed even conversing with) the boy she saw each day at the bus stop.

Was the fishing any good? I can't say. I know that we went to a river every morning and that hours were spent by father and son, casting and waiting, while I sat on a tree-stump reading my sheaf of cast-off bits of Women's Realm. I don't ever remember a fish being caught. My father did once manage to catch my brother when hurling out his line. Instead of hitting the water, his hook plunged right through the flesh between thumb and forefinger on my brother's right hand. My father reacted with an uncharacteristic display of Edwardian outrage when my brother quite naturally let out a loud yell of pain. 'No son of mine should ever admit to pain', he shouted, an outburst that must surely have been the product of frustration after so many wasted, fish-free hours. In this scene I like to think I played a plucky role, leaping from my stump and tackling my father's shocking behaviour, but memory often has a way of gilding one's own actions.

If our mornings were a bit dull, our afternoons were drearier. In those days, I should point out, walking and trekking and rambling were not things people did in the way they do now - some unusual souls tackled big hikes, but mostly that kind of activity was regarded as rather hearty and eccentric. So, although Boot is, apparently, the gateway to Skafell Pike, I wasn't aware of that fact during our stay. And, even if we had been outdoors types, my father was in the grip of one of his periodic bouts of hypochondria - centring, on this occasion, on his digestive system - so instead of going anywhere we stayed at 'home' and listened to him groan.

Perhaps it was the food that did it - it turned out to be unspeakable (far worse even than school). It was provided in the upstairs dining-room of the pub across the road from our cottage, but after a day or two of being faced with dishes that played variations on the colour khaki and always arrived cold and covered by a slick of something that looked very like the stuff filling the Gulf of Mexico at the the moment, we gave up going. There was an alternative - the one and only edible item offered for sale by the village shop. It was a locally-made substance called Kendall's Mint Cake and, according to its wrapper it was exceptionally nutritious. How lucky it was, since we ate it for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day until we were released - I mean, until it was time to go home. At least my brother and I did. My father ate nothing. Progressively more convinced that his days were numbered, he would sit on the front step in the weak afternoon sunshine, holding his head, sighing, very close to tears. My brother and I, clutching our slabs of Kendall's, would sit on each side of him, munching steadily, trying, always unsuccessfully, to think of something that might cheer him up.

I should point out that I am not being heartless about my father's sufferings - he really was all right. When the 'holiday' was over and we returned down south, he consulted a number of Harley Street specialists and not one of them could find anything wrong at all. Eventually, dispirited and still deep in the clutches of his symptoms, he stepped out of yet another great man's consulting rooms and into a nearby pub. 'You look rough, guv' the landlord informed him, by way of greeting. Once again my father unfurled his tale of woe. The landlord listened and then reached behind him for a packet of tablets. 'These should fix you up' he said, 'they're made in Switzerland and they worked wonders for me.' And they did - my father took one that day and never had to take another. He had to have them in the house though. That was all that mattered. If he didn't have them in the bathroom cupboard, the wracking pains returned.

In the decades since that trip with my father, I've often wondered if Boot's lack of charms had become exaggerated in my mind. That is why, when we were doing the Coast-to-Coast walk a couple of years ago, I took a detour just to take a look. They'd whitewashed some of the buildings and hung a few baskets of geraniums from the municipal gallows - sorry, sorry, I mean lamp posts - but these feeble gestures only seemed to emphasise the little town's miserable air. Standing there, remembering that awful summer, it finally dawned on me though - that colleague, that recommendation, it can't really have been an error of judgment. It was suddenly so clear - my brother and I were the innocent victims of some complex act of workplace revenge.


  1. Really rather heartbreaking. I'm not sure it was revenge. After all, there are loads of miserable little places that people insisted on going on holiday to (my own childhood horror was Borth). Some of them must have enjoyed it, surely. The particular sad flavour of your story for me was imparted by the presence of your hapless-but-trying, newly-single Dad. Anyway, thank God for package tours to Spain.

  2. perhaps this is the true birthplace of the slur 'miserable old boot'?

  3. Gaw - you would have to have known my hilarious, charming but not entirely altruistic father to appreciate how little he deserved your kind sympathy (much as I love him)
    Worm - of course, (or maybe they named the place after the slur?)

  4. i love this post mum. hilarious and tragic

  5. Spin - Shall I bring you over some Kendall Mint Cake as a special treat?