One thing we confirmed during our cheery jolly to Shrewsbury is that, according to Salopians (as Shropshire folk are called), it’s pronounced Shroosbury, as in ‘Taming of the…’. We also discovered that it’s tranquil, polite and stuffed with interest – from amazing ‘olde worlde’ architecture along Dickensian streets with quirky names to match to an embarrassment of watering holes and eateries to suit all tastes and pockets. And rain didn’t stop play – well this was the wet West Country (or rather the West Midlands as pointed out by an old friend – you know who you are). It’s west of East Anglia so that’s good enough for me. In fact, the number of Welsh accents we heard almost convinced us we were actually in Wales.
After a good old gander round the narrow streets and little lanes, we happened upon ‘The Nag’s Head’, a bijou pub on Wyle Cop (yes, that’s the name of the street) to be welcomed by an old codger at the bar supping Guinness. He said…
I knew you were comin’ so I put ABBA on.
‘Dancing Queen’ was followed in quick succession by Freddie Mercury, Elton John and George Michael. As Liam slurped his large Merlot, I googled ‘gay bars in Shrewsbury’ and guess what came up? Yep, The Nags Head.
Britain’s longest river, the Severn, wraps around Shrewsbury like a leafy boa (very much like Norwich’s Wensum) which presumably provided an effective defence against the marauding Welsh way back when. These days the calm waters provide a pleasant riverside stroll and opportunities for a tipple or two on sunny days.
Day two was spent in lovely Ludlow, a genteel medieval, Tudor and Georgian assortment sitting on top of a hill overlooking rolling Shropshire countryside. Poet Laureate John Betjeman described Ludlow as ‘probably the loveliest town in England’ and we could see why. The sun poked through the clouds for market day and judging by the posh merchandise on offer, we knew Ludlow was a notch or two above. The town is famous for food so, after a good look around, we settled on delicious Thai for lunch provided by an Anglo-Thai gay couple. We seem to have a nose for the gay thang.
So that was Shrewsbury and Ludlow. Are they on the leader board for our dotage? Shrewsbury certainly, Ludlow less so. Lovely as it is, I don’t think we’re nearly posh or genteel enough.
A foul afternoon of driving rain pushed us through the doors of Cinema City to catch ‘My Old Lady’, starring Kevin Kline, Kristen Scott Thomas and the incomparable Maggie Smith. We sat in the back row and watched the film above the nodding heads in fifty shades of grey. Kevin Kline plays a penniless, ex-alcoholic, never-to-be-published New York author who inherits a rambling run down Parisian apartment from his philandering father. He thinks he’s in the money but finds out that he’s also inherited a sitting tenant in an equity release arrangement, French-style; she can’t be evicted and he must pay rent to her. Step forward Dame Maggie as the feisty old madame with her foot in the door and Kirsten Scott Thomas as her brittle spinster daughter. It’s a salutary tale of how your parents fuck you up (along the lines of the Philip Larkin poem) and how not to let the truth get in the way of a fine romance. Set in the trendy Marais district of Paris, the BBC production oozes cool Gallic va va voom laced with arty pretensions. The film has had mixed reviews but we found it well worth stepping out of the rain for.
As a card-carrying, dyed-in-the-wool, bleeding heart pinko liberal (though not in the party political sense), I don’t have much time for the UK Independence Party. To me, it looks like a motley crew of disaffected Tories, the swivel-eyed variety, bible-thumping zealots, little England xenophobes and closet and not-so-closet fascists – not the kind of people I’d give my last Rolo to. Just sit back and watch as they trip themselves up with their own silly rhetoric, something that happens with embarrassing regularity. Cue the nice UKIP town councillor from Henley-on-Thames, David Silvester. Mr Silvester raised a few eyebrows when he wrote a letter to his local rag, the Henley Standard. In it, he claimed that the floods which recently beset these soggy islands were divine retribution for the legalisation of gay marriage. He wrote:
“The scriptures make it abundantly clear that a Christian nation that abandons its faith and acts contrary to the Gospel (and in naked breach of a coronation oath) will be beset by natural disasters.”
Mr Silvester was once a Conservative councillor (nuff said) but defected to UKIP because of the Government’s policy on marriage equality. I wonder how the wise councillor explains the Great North Sea Flood of 1953, the very year of the Coronation. It was a time when England was still largely the God-fearing, church-going, gay-jailing, warm-beer drinking, class-ridden, women-know-their-place, whites only earthly paradise that, presumably, Mr Silvester pines after. The flood claimed the lives of 300 souls in England alone (with more in Scotland, and the Low Countries), badly damaged over 24,000 buildings and forced 30,000 people to flee their homes. God really does work in mysterious ways.
Mr Silvester’s words unleashed a firestorm of ridicule on social media. So much so, that he’s now considered too extreme even for UKIP, who have since suspended him from the party. The delicious furore has even spawned some spoof news items. My personal favourites are:
The UKIP Shipping Forecast
Married Gays to Tour Drought-hit Countries
Liam is packing our saddle bags as I write but we think the Sahara might be a challenge, even for these two unrepentant sinners.
Unlike many of the stately old homos of my generation, I never quite developed a taste for the torch-song trilogy of Garland, Minnelli or Bassey. And I can take or leave the new old girls on the block – the fallen Madonna, nip and tuck Cher or crazy Diana (Ross not Spencer). But, my spot is very soft for a classy dame from Surrey, a woman who first hit the streets in the year war broke out. Then, she was performing with an orchestra in the entrance hall of a Kingston-upon-Thames department store for a tin of toffee and a gold wristwatch. She was seven. Seventy four years on, she is still going strong and is currently on national tour. I am, of course, referring to the iridescent and timeless Petula Clark – child protégé, forces favourite, Hollywood starlet, Sixties pop princess, chanteuse Française and West End superstar.
Autumn was fashionably late this year but made quite an entrance when it did eventually arrive. We were battered by brolly-snapping weather as we wandered the windy streets of Ipswich in search of the Regent Theatre, East Anglia’s largest. We had a stiff double at the bar while we dried off. The drench did nothing to dampen our spirits and as we took our third row seats in the auditorium, the crowd buzzed with anticipation. Miss Clark has been treading the boards for a very long time and this was no better illustrated than by the giddy silver-haired fans who surrounded us. Every care home in Suffolk must have been drained that night. I swear I spotted a St John’s Ambulance crew on standby just in case the excitement got too much; mercifully, we were spared a medical emergency. Still, our Pet raised the blood pressure with a superb performance, giving those X Factor wannabees, a fraction of her age and a fraction of her talent a marathon for their money. From Gershwin to Lennon via Elvis and Gharls Barkley, Miss Clark stepped through her set with style, humour and remarkable agility. Naturally, ‘Downtown’ got the biggest cheer but, for me, it was ‘I Couldn’t Live Without Your Love’ that got me all dewy-eyed. You see, I’d chosen it as the soundtrack to the champagne reception at our Civil Partnership (“Ah,” I hear to cry in unison).
Come the finale of the two-hour gig, the wrinkly congregation got to their feet for the much-deserved standing ovation (though, in truth, it was more of a slow stagger than a youthful leap). Even a wheelchair-bound man in a turban found his legs, Twas a miracle from the lady who famously played Maria Von Trapp’s favourite singing nun. Hallelujah, sister.
Get your hankies ready…
As far as British summers go, 2013 wasn’t that bad – a nice opening, a moist middle and a glorious finish (sounds like someone I know). A few rainy days but little to write home about, apart from one late evening a few weeks ago. Mother Nature threw a hissy fit and chucked a squally storm across the flatlands – snap, crackle and pop, with water coming at us from all angles like an out of control car wash. I was busy tippy-tapping when I noticed a small dribble of water gently trickle down the wall from the corner of the ceiling, rolling behind my laptop screen. Liam and I ascended to our boudoir tucked into the eaves to investigate and, yes, you guessed it, the roof had sprung a leak. An urgent call to our landlady led to a quick inspection by a middle-aged builder sporting a beer-belly and fetching multi-coloured socks, chosen by his daughter, he told me.
Erection day came. I was minding my own business when my attention was drawn to a fella in the semi-buff with more muscles than Brussels playing with his poles right within my line of sight. Yes, him and his tools were only feet away. It was all a bit like a car crash – you know you shouldn’t look but you just can’t help it. Not a lot got done that afternoon, I can tell you, not with the steamed-up spectacles and dripping windows. It all brought back cheerful memories of my x-rated peak-time thirties and that Diet Coke Ad (the original, not the recent sequel). Who said life in Norwich was boring?
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The minor inconvenience of existing tenants meant that we had to wait a while for our medieval Weaver’s cottage in Norwich. To avoid continual sofa-hopping, we decided on a budget tour of east East Anglia. Our first stop was Lowestoft, England’s most easterly town. We were greeted by blustery squalls blowing in from the North Sea and a large ugly concrete water tower (can someone tell me what they’re for?). Lowestoft itself is a neat but empty little place. The population seemed to have died off from terminal boredom. The only person we noticed strolling along the prom was a bottle-blond Norfolk broad, subtly bedecked in hoop ear-rings, stars-and-stripes lycra leggings and a bubble jacket. We booked a cheap night in a Winelodge. The solitary person on duty was a thin, tattooed boy with retreating hair. He acted as concierge, waiter and barman. It was just as well there was nobody to serve. Our room was a designer postage stamp overlooking the bins. Making a cuppa was a delicate operation: the mini-kettle was so close to the mini-flat screen TV, I thought the steam might blow it up. The only excitement was a power cut at 7am. I had to dump and douche in the dark. The first person on duty fed the meter and lo, let there be light.
We took a drive through Great Yarmouth, a sad and rusty little place with a magnificent beach but its greatness firmly behind it. Despite being Liam’s playground of choice as a slip of a lad, we decided against stopping for a windy trip down memory lane. Apparently, Yarmouth is one of the most deprived areas of East Anglia. The great and good of the county have decided that granting a licence for a super casino will provide the answer to a fed-up seaside resort on its knees. Las Vegas-on-Sea? The entire concept reminded me of Edmonton Green Shopping Centre near Liam’s folks, a tired little enclave where the betting shop is next to the pawnbrokers.
Pontin’s Happy Campers
Blazing June in Blighty is a damp squib. As Bodrum hit the low forties, we were welcomed home by angry black skies and our first walkabout around Norwich was blasted by blustery showers. We didn’t let it dampen our spirits. Norwich’s cobbled medieval quarter was classy, if somewhat ghostly. Perhaps the inclement weather conspired to keep the crowds at bay. Norwich people are a fruity cocktail – fake Burberry chavs, silver-studded hippies, scruffy students, chalky professors, smart-tailored henrys, well-appointed pensioners and middle England mothers in Barbour jackets and sensible shoes. We meandered casually through the smart shops without being dragged in by the scuff of the neck and browsed the shelves without being stalked by the retail police. English politeness reigned supreme; we overdosed on thank you, excuse me and after you.
We ended a hassle-free day by feasting on Thai, toasting to our safe arrival and the adventures to come. We observed city street life from the warmth of the elegant linen-tabled restaurant. Norwich at night was strangely sleepy. Perhaps the deep recession has imposed a financial curfew on the worried masses. Squiffy and sated, we wandered back to our lodgings at a Premier Inn – the best in show of the low cost boarding-houses – to splash about in the reviving waters of a deep bath and canoodle in the comfy bed. We still need to find a roof over our heads. That’s for another day.