Saturday, 27 June 2009

Hockey Sticks and Wheels of Steel

Ronald Searle* has a lot to answer for. Had it not been for him, I wouldn’t have had the most boring weekend of my life in the middle of nowhere – or rather, on the edge of nowhere, as I was right on the east coast of Suffolk, next stop Holland. I could only be talking about the Southwold model railway exhibition.

For several years, the exhibition’s friendly but persistent Chief Exhibitions Promotions and Public Relations Guru & Advertising Manager (or another grandiose title that clubs love so much) had been trying to persuade me to take my modern image lineside accessories range to the show to trade. And for several years, commonsense had told me that an isolated seaside town still living in 1959 wasn’t going to make enough profit for the Ferrari F40, holiday home in the Bahamas and the nubile beach bunnies who’d bring me my drinks to the beach hut that I aspired to. In fact, I estimated that I’d be lucky to get a McDonalds on the way home.

But, Jerry is tenacious and didn’t give in, and he waxed lyrically about footfall, the large number of visitors, average spend and the interest of modern image at the show, etc, etc. Still, my answer was ‘no’. Then he said that the show was held at a posh private girl’s school, and exhibitors stayed overnight in the bedrooms. Ah ha! Now you’re talking my language. At this point, all rational thought and business acumen went out of the window, and flooding in came visions of sixth form St Trinians pupils at a wild after-show party – the sort of party where pianos get thrown out of windows, flutes end up in weird places and Stoke Summit gets set on fire. In short, my kind of event. I’m in.

Feel the fear, we're maniacs!

In the event, I wasn’t quite in, because a couple of days before the show I had an accident at work involving a fork lift truck, sacks of potato flakes and a broken pallet. Guess what happened next?

So it wasn’t until the following year that I ended up on the A1095, which is the one and only road into Southwold. The town is located about 70 miles from Norwich and around 50 years from present day Britain. The journey took forever, going down endless twisting and turning roads – tracks, really – the sort populated by tractors, caravans, Rovers, horseboxes and sheep. Owing to the early hour, I didn’t encounter too many of these obstructions and made good time to the school which was located out of town in it’s own huge rolling grounds, known locally simply as ‘Suffolk’. Money really does talk.

Education, education, education - but only if you can afford it

Finding the exhibition hall was easy enough, so I drove up to the main doors to begin the long job of unloading and carting all my stuff in. I was greeted in the customary way, “You can’t park there.” I poked my head out of the tailgate, to see an apparition before me – a 1950’s British Railways Guard, in full uniform, topped off with the predictable peaked cap.
Oh great, it’s the ghost of exhibitions past. I have no real issues with fancy dress, in the right time and place of course. A Rocky Horror party, vicars n’ tarts or maybe an 80’s theme night – then bring it on. But dressing up to play trains – that sends a shiver down my spine.
“I’m not parked, I’m unloading.”
He pondered this, and then said, “Well, when you’re finished, you have to move your car to the exhibitors car park.”
“Yes, I know that.”
“So you’ll move it then?”
“When I’ve unloaded, yes. Where is it?”
“Over there.”
“Where’s there?”
“What did you say?”
“Yes, that’s right.”

That sorted that problem out, then. Thanks ever so much for your help in pinpointing the location to somewhere in the west. I’m sure I’ll find it. Die soon. So I lugged my stand in, and then went to move the car. Not, I hasten to add, because a British Railways Guard had told me to, but simply as a courtesy to other exhibitors who needed access to the doors. The exhibitor’s carpark was some distance away; in fact it was in Hertfordshire, owing to most of the available space being taken up with disabled parking. I needed a car just to drive to my car, which was ludicrous, so I simply made alternative arrangements that were rather more convenient and wouldn’t require a taxi.

Before opening time I took a quick tour of the exhibition to seek out any relevant layouts that were using my products – always a good selling point at shows. However, given that the most up-to-date layout was set in 1961, and some layouts pre-dated the invention of the wheel, this wasn’t likely. I began to have some bad feelings about the show.

The doors opened to the public at around 10, and the Mrs Slocombe Appreciation Society rushed in. Well, no, they didn’t exactly rush – they hobbled, wobbled, creaked, groaned, wheeled or drove those annoying dodgem things into the show – it was as if all the old folks homes in Suffolk had kicked everyone out while they did a spring clean. Nobody was interested in what I was selling; these were just pensioners on a day to the seaside filling in an hour or two. I began to feel that some of Jerry’s claims were just a tad overblown. He was bang on about the numbers – boy, do they get some people coming through the door – but I would have done better business by opening a bacon butty snack-bar in a mosque.

Consequently the long, hot day wore on without sales, and I got more and more bored. Had it not been for the St Trinians aspect, then I’d have sneaked out of the doors and gone home, after picking my car up from Luton on the way. Once the trading day finally ended, I made my way to the man who was sorting out the overnight accommodation. Who was terribly sorry, but due to unforeseen circumstances, couldn’t put me up in the girl’s block, and exhibitors were staying in the boy’s block instead. Whoa, rewind a bit – no one said anything about a boy’s block when I was booking the show. If I wanted to sleep in a schoolboy’s bed I’d have become a fucking vicar. In every sense. What, exactly, were the unforeseen circumstances? Well, it transpired that the main obstacle was the fact that even though it was school summer holidays – which seem to begin in April and end around Christmas these days – some of the girls were staying at the school as they were on one of those Outward Bound adventure courses. "Yes – and your problem with that is …..?" That stumped him.

It got worse. The girl’s block had recently undergone a refurbishment programme, and the photos proudly displayed in the lobby looked as though the bedrooms resembled those in The Dorchester. Whereas the boy’s block had last seen a paintbrush shortly after the war, and looked like a council flat in Manchester. I was not impressed. The room was the size of cupboard, and featured a cot instead of a bed. There was a sink with limescale covered taps, out of which dribbled a pathetic trickle of cold water. As I’d been stuck in the blast furnace of the hall all day, breathing in the stale air and medical ointments of 1500 wrinklies, I was badly in need of a shower. These were located down the corridor, but didn’t work – because it was the holiday, and the school was shut, they had been isolated. I was seriously unimpressed.

Equality rules, OK!

But, in a rare flash of inspiration, I had a brainwave. Presumably the girl’s block had working showers, so I made my way over there and found, without too much difficulty, the P.E. shower block. Thus I was able to have a long and invigorating shower, and emerge suitably refreshed in order to face the horrors of the night ahead. I should point out that the block was, sadly, deserted – everybody was participating in rock climbing or white water rafting or white-knuckle texting somewhere in the county, I presume.

The school was located some distance from town, so I’d signed up for the in-house catering. This turned out to be a fish n’ chips supper, which sounded great, except that no one had thought through the potential logistics of turning up at the local chippy and ordering 75 cod and chips to go. So when it finally arrived, it was cold and soggy and looked like the sort of meals that get served in the Guantanamo Bay Rest Home for Retired Terrorists. However, I was starving, and food is food. I sat with the club members of the layout positioned adjacent to my stand in the show, who thoughtfully invited me to join them. I soon wished I hadn’t. The conversation for the first 20 minutes consisted of why every train had derailed at a particular place on their layout whilst heading eastbound throughout the day. The discussion got highly technical and involved, and I think I was the only one who figured it out – it’s because your track laying is shit. Pass the ketchup, please.

After that, the conversation moved away from trains, and onto a higher plane – the relative merits of throwaway plastic cutlery. I swear that I am not making this up. Apparently, the plastic cutlery provided by KFC isn’t a patch on that included with Marks & Spencer salads, but even that pales into insignificance compared to the hand crafted knives and forks issued by dusky maidens on long haul Air Singapore flights. I had to leave. I won’t name the club, as they tried hard to be pleasant and hospitable; they just need to get out more. A lot more.

My cell had no obvious entertainment other than curtain swishing or cleaning the limescale off the taps – and I’d left my Cillit Bang at home. Bugger. So, I decided to find a pub and have a drink. I sought out the BH Boys to join me, but they were driving down to Felixstowe to go trainspotting. Great. So it’s just me then.

The walk into town took an hour, and I have to say that whilst it was all very genteel and attractive, it just wasn’t what I wanted at the time. I didn’t pass a pub, but eventually arrived at the seafront. It was as if I’d been transported back in time, to my dim and distant childhood. It was exactly as an English seaside town should look, and indeed, as they used to look before everyone discovered Benidorm and the British seaside resorts entered their terminal decline.

When I were a nipper ...

The beach was long, clean and sandy, with wooden breakwaters (I have fond memories of playing on just such beaches during family summer holidays). A row of brightly coloured beach huts lined the promenade, and to top it all off, there was the quintessential British seaside resort accessory – a pier, complete with wooden buildings, all finished in gleaming white paint.

Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside,
as long as I can get a bloody coffee.

Naturally, that was where I headed, as I was bound to be able to find something likely – maybe a café, bar, an amusement arcade or a pole-dancing club. Well, it did have a café, and it looked lovely – I could have spent all night there over a drink, watching the sun slowly settle over the millpond sea and reading my book. Except that it had shut at 6pm, because it was August and therefore the middle of the season, and if it stayed open then people might stroll down for a drink and watch the sun slowly settle over the millpond sea while reading a book. And they don’t want that kind of rowdy troublemaker in Southwold, thank you very much.

Wearily, I trudged into the town centre. The buildings, I have to say, were magnificent, with some really beautiful architecture, thankfully lacking the almost obligatory tacky neon signs or hairdressers called ‘Upper Kutz’ that dominate every English town. The streets were spotless, and I just couldn’t believe that I was in England, at around 8pm, on a Saturday night. It was as dead as Gordon Brown’s career, with no sign of life anywhere. There were some interesting looking shops, and quaint family owned cafes – none of your plastic Starbucks rubbish here - all of which I would happily have patronised, had they been open. Southwold goes to bed very early it would seem. Certainly, the accoutrements that accompany all other English towns on a Saturday night – gangs of drunk teenagers shagging each other, yobs urinating in shop doorways, tramps begging a for a holiday home in Tenerife, fast-food packaging discarded in every gutter, pools of blood and / or vomit, car alarms wailing, car horns blaring, drug dealers doing business to a background orchestration of police sirens – was missing. It was deathly quiet. It was serene, calm and pleasant. I felt homesick.

This isn't a photo, it's a video. Such is the pace of life in Southwold.

At length, I happened upon a pub. Well, not a pub, but a hotel with a lounge bar, which is as close as Southwold likes to get to the unwashed masses. At last, I could get a drink – until I entered and found myself in a Colonel Blimp theme night. The sea of white and grey hair that turned to face me was probably the same crowd that had been at the exhibition, but now they were all attired in cream or beige lounge suits and flowery summer dresses. I walked in attired in jeans and polo shirt, and immediately felt like a turd in a swimming pool. No one said anything, but I could feel them thinking, ‘By George, that’s one of those working class oiks, isn’t it? Thought we’d had ‘em all shot, you know. Bad egg, what?!’ Naturally I wasn’t inclined to hang around, so I beat a hasty retreat back into the deserted streets.
I looked in vain for a decent pub, but every hotel lounge bar was full of Hyacinth Buckets (“It’s Bouquet”) and before long I was heading out of town and returning towards the school. Oh well, back to St Trinians, and lets see if the rave has started yet. But sadly, the girls were out all night – they had some sense – doing an orienteering exercise and learning how to read maps or operate Sat-Navs so that they could escape from Southwold forever. I returned to my small cell, wrote up some notes in case one day in the future I could find an outlet for all my exhibition memoirs, and then finished my Clive Cussler novel. That ended the longest day of my life, bar none.

Sunday beckoned, and I was up early, very early so that I could nip over to the girls’ block for a shower. Then to the school dining room for a very presentable cooked breakfast, served buffet style so that you could eat as much as you could possibly consume, unless you’re from Essex. As my next meal would be around 9pm at McDonalds on the way home, I fuelled up accordingly. Breakfast over, I heaved myself out of the dining room and proceeded to the exhibition hall. There followed another boring day of sitting behind my stall doing absolutely nothing, except listen to old dears blathering on about the bloody weather, and discussing their ailments.

If I see one more colostomy bag, I'll wet myself.

Towards the end of the day I did the accounts, and discovered that I had made a net profit of £17.17 for two days work. The Ferrari F40 would have to wait a bit longer, the beach hut in Barbados would become a buffet in Barmouth, whilst the beach bunnies in bikinis were clearly going to be the blue rinse brigade at a coffee morning. So, not entirely a worthwhile experience, then. When the club treasurer arrived, with palms outstretched and grinning from ear to ear I mentioned this, plus the grotty accommodation problem, and he did at least reduce my bill for the cell by £10. So now I was in profit to the tune of £27.17, so I performed a little jig around my stand, which was more physical activity than the entire show had seen in two days. You can imagine my response to his, “… and would you like to come back next year?

I couldn’t wait to leave, so approaching closing time I retrieved my car from its hiding place and parked it outside the doors in order to speed up loading and departure. The minute the show shut, I was out, tailgate open and chucking the stuff in. Loading took longer than normal, given that I hadn’t sold any stock, but even so, I was on that only road out of Southwold and heading for England 2006 in double quick time. Going down the long gravel drive of the school, a large group of St Trinians sixth formers were returning from their adventure weekend. You know, maybe I could give Southwold just one more night …

* Ronald Searle is, of course, the original creator of St Trinians.
But you knew that already.

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