The Herefordshire border sign proudly says: you can.
But apparently we can’t.
May 2013 – my local Council declares that libraries, museums and theatres are no longer important, and that the staff toilets in Thorntons chocolate shops and Thomas Cook travel agents must now be used in the absence of public ones.
Having buried its rustic head in the Herefordshire hop fields since Camshaft and Clogg said public services should be taken over by The Big Society – my mum at 92 quickly stepped in to run Brighton and Hove Libraries on her own – Herefordshire Council now finds it has run out of money and needs to take more drastic action than if it had spent the last three years making a plan.
But I’m okay with this. The removal of services called “inessential”, but which can enrich people’s lives and offer a social focus for communities (I wasn’t thinking of the toilets), will simply add to my no-frills existence. I’m used to it.
And, being only human, Thorntons counter assistants will appreciate the public’s dilemma.
‘Morning, sir. A 200gm assortment box? Mix of Soft Centres and Chocolate Truffles, gift-wrapped for the lady?’
‘No thanks, luv. Just the lav today.’
‘Thank you, sir. Straight through there. Enjoy.’
Until recently, I’d only associated “no-frills” with air travel. I’d thought Ryanair was the pinnacle (sorry trough) of this, as wonderfully expounded in the song Cheap Flights by Fascinating Aida. That is, until I came across Air Explore. In 2012, this Slovak airline was hired by Monarch when they couldn’t meet demand with their own fleet. It was a mistake. Amidst unsettling stories from fellow travellers with prior knowledge of Air Explore, we’d sat for an hour in the stuffy atmosphere of a 737 on Birmingham apron while security officials dealt with the captain who’d allegedly failed a breathalyser, only to be sent back to the terminal until a replacement plane was found after another hour.
Out and return, shortage of legroom forced passengers to wrap knees round chins, uncomfortable for older people and unseemly for those in skimpy clothing for Albufeira. Consuming the soggy cheese melt and cold mock-coffee was awkward, though being bandy I had a natural gap through which my friend could feed me succulent tit-bits and run a straw.
In the likely event of an emergency landing, we were at least in a brace position, albeit upright. Not that we’d have understood what this meant had we been first-time flyers. An expressionless, disembodied voice guided us through the safety instructions:
‘Lifebel-iz-under-sit-and-ossigin-iz-above-and-fall-down, own-first-then-children-iz-order, and-no-smoke-in-lavatory-haz-alarm.’
‘What-that-sound-from-speaker-iz-above?’ my friend asked me.
‘Iz-procedure-for-likely-event-emergency,’ I explained. ‘Iz-we-die-when-seatbelt-snap-and-plane-plunging-and-no-ossigin.’
So – “no-frills” is relative. Air Explore made easyJet look like the saints of the skies, though even it must think we’ve got it too easy as it announces a 64% reduction in the permitted size for hand luggage. No coincidence that it’s just taken over CabinBaguette, a manufacturer whose speciality is cabin baggage for short-haul travel. Buy shares now! And Ryanair, on a further cost offensive, still vies for bottom spot, announcing that from 2014, without payment of a fee, engines will be reined back at 30,000 feet and passengers must flap madly through aircraft windows while a whip-wielding cabin crew patrols the aisle like Vikings in a longship.
Back home, and Herefordshire Council mounts a further challenge in the no-frills race. My car already baulks at entering petrol stations:
‘Not at that price,’ it tells me. ‘We’ll just go out occasionally.’
And so it sits outside my house except for a weekly trip round the block to keep itself happy, when, to avoid Council-sponsored potholes the size of Vesuvius it veers wildly from side to side, dodging mobility scooters which navigate straight up and down the deep craters, looking from above like rows of egg-carrying ants.
Then I hear the Council might only collect my rubbish fortnightly, meaning the front of our neat terrace goes to back-alley squalor as wheelie bins overflow and black sack mountains attract foraging cats and rats.
But my bus pass is free. And while Council subsidies are fast disappearing, there’s still a good service to Hereford on top-range buses and a no-frills service to Gloucester on a shaking, breaking fleet with bold notices saying:
Stagecoach advises that passengers may experience upset stomach, severe nausea, giddiness, hearing problems, tremor and total breakdown. Please tell us any other side-effects, so we can add them to the list.
As my income is ever pinched by Camshaft, Clogg and Council, I plumb the depths of no-frills shopping, embracing Peacocks for underwear at a penny, Greggs whose Fatty Melts™ fill me for a quid, and Lidl where I can joust with other shoppers for the last box of Class 5 strawberries, nibbling quickly at the edges before white fur encases the fruit.
At home, I pamper myself in a bubble-bath of Strippit™ from the 99p Store, on offer at 20p when purchased with Skinright™, a soothing balm for burnt skin. And afterwards, my treat – a Special House Chow Mein from my Chinese takeaway, Wing On, cheaper than I could make it, and with ambience and service that leaves Air Explore looking classy.
Sadly, holidays are a thing of the past, though an occasional overnight at a Travelodge is affordable. The youthful receptionist at a pasting table babbles about breakfast packs and points you in the general direction of a bare-walled room, with its bathroom door that doesn’t quite shut, and its small balsa bed which, as you turn at night, moves in circles away from the wall, leaving you disorientated when you get up to look for the one-cup kettle that’s no longer provided.
But in one vital way, life is rich. My girlfriend, happy to share my no-frills existence, is first-class. Unlike an early girlfriend, Nancy Everett, who dressed plainly, had a figure like a plank and spoke in a muttered monotone. No-Frills Nancy, she was known as. She killed our relationship by yanking off the tabs on my long socks one day when it was Cubs after school. Which made me cry.
Paul Costello © May 2013
Utterly Undiscovered – comic Bed & Breakfast Memoir by Paul Costello.
Publication: spring 2013.
Fineleaf Editions http://www.fineleaf.co.uk