Over the past few weeks I have witnessed our Brazilian house guest taking in Britain’s top tourist destinations. In the very few hours she has when she is not studying English, she boards coaches bound for our “sights” to explore Britain’s heritage. She has been to the cities of Bath, Oxford, Brighton. She has taken in a West End show, been awe-inspired by Stone Henge, and enjoyed the delights of Blenheim Palace and Windsor Castle. Today she is in York. Next weekend Edinburgh.
All of this on top of the fact that we live in central Cambridge – a city that swells with over four million visitors every year. We have a quirky and interesting history here, churches, museums, a river with boats (punts) – all the usual stuff that attracts tourists.
As I trekked up the A1M this week on a pilgrimage to the small town of Hyde on the outskirts of Manchester, I couldn’t help think of myself as a bit of a tourist, and I certainly felt like one when I got there.
Two things drew me to Hyde. The first – as the old stomping ground to my favourite melonchony signer – John Bramwell from I Am Kloot. The second, a more serious research assignment – as the old stomping ground of British Artist, Harry Rutherford. Like Bramwell, Rutherford frequented Hyde’s public houses and found inspiration there.
“It’s a shit hole” I mumbled to myself incredulously on first impressions. I parked up on a dusty stoney patch of land and fumbled with a pay & display machine. Not knowing my car registration number caused a queue to form behind me. Expecting the usual tuts and impatient sighs I apologised profusely for holding everyone up. I needn’t have bothered, people were smiling warmly in a kind of “she’s not from round ere” kind of way. Someone asked “do you know where your’e headed?” A phrase from the film Withnail & I sprung to mind: “I’ve come on holiday by mistake”.
I didn’t say that, instead asked for and was offered directions to the cash point: “Is’ through the mall”. The “mall” had more of a bus-shed feel to it – and seemed to offer the poorer versions of franchised retail outlets from home. Even the charity shops looked in more genuine need than the charities they were supporting. A couple of young men pointed to a bucket and asked me to give some cash for soldiers in Afghanistan. My excuse of not having money was genuine, but clearly not believed. Grey-faced smokers stood around chatting, in the same, not-in-a-hurry way that I had encountered buying a parking ticket.
Outside the mall, down side-streets, tatty England flags fluttered, and an increase in visible neck tattoos meant I switched to using eye contact and nods of the head. I certainly didn’t look about me like a tourist, and made my step intentional, despite not really knowing where I was. It’s a built in safety feature, I use when in apparently “hostile” environments. Or shit holes.
Lunch was appropriately in a Wetherspoons pub. I didn’t know until later that Rutherford had hung out at the Clarendon (as, possibly, had Bramwell), but Wetherspoons was fine. I shared lunch with a Kashmiri friend of mine who’s complexion attracted a few hostile glances. He shrugged it off with mild amusement. Next to us a table of inebriated white people were arguing about where the Falkland Islands were. An old lady in a tatty fur coat tried to put on the television. Our pierced “waiter” had no idea where the sauces were. I found myself wondering if they would marvel at the diverseness of their pub, or spit in our food. Fish and chips for my friend, who was blending in better than I with my vegetarian sausages. Through lunch we fittingly talked about identity and notions of “home”. Nobody troubled us and I was warming to the place. If I didn’t have a three hour drive home, I could have replaced my diet coke with a strong northern ale and settled down for the afternoon. Maybe even pulled out a sketchbook.
I said goodbye to my friend who returned to his native Bradford. Passing a hand-painted sign that offered singing lessons I decided to stop a man who looked not unlike Rutherford himself – with a flat cap and shopping bags. He was delighted to be asked where the library was, as if I had restored what little faith he had in the town. “Not from Hyde, then?” he asked – and seemed disappointed when I told him no, I was from Cambridge. I wanted to add that I was originally from Bristol – as if this would boost my credibility a little in the eyes of this seasoned northerner. But south is south whichever side of the country you are on. He waved his stick in the air and wished me good luck.
The library was perhaps Hyde’s finest building. A grand, red-brick beauty, I wondered how it had escaped being turned into swanky apartments. Hopefully because in Hyde there is more use for a library than for swanky apartments. The Rutherford Gallery – which is shortly to relocate, so please don’t look for it there – was housed in a high-ceilinged, light room. It was beautifully curated with Rutherfood’s actual easel, paints and hat collection as the centrepiece. But more fascinating were his archive sketches, letters and photographs held in a room not more that four foot high – adding a quirky “Being John Malcovich” tone to my research.
I emerged from the short space hot and excited. The sun had come out in Hyde and although the faces on the street were still grey (with the occasional orange tan), coats were coming off and arms exposed. I heard the hearty husky laughter of a long-time smoker. Young people were drinking tea in a scuffy, cheap hairdressers.
I hasten to use the word “real” as I know there is no such thing, but perhaps it is the same gritty northern-ness I love about Bramwell’s voice, that I witnessed in Hyde. I wondered whether the betting shops and boarded up buildings of Hyde could offer the same insight into Britain as York Minster or Brighton Pier.
I know I will make the seven hour round trip from Cambridge to Hyde again – to find out more about Rutherford, and have a proper drink in the pub. I might also come back for singing lessons and bring my Brazilian house guest with me.