Postcard from Torquay

Dear Uncle Harry.

I’m on a short break in the English Riviera – a grand name embracing the likes of Torquay, Paignton and Brixham.

And what better way to spend my first day than a boat trip from Torquay? With the weather set fair, mackerel fishing seemed a good idea, and from the fierce competition for a two-hour trip I picked a vessel called Wave Rider – rather romantic I thought.

A mile out, my suspicions were aroused when the captain – called Ahab according to the name emblazoned across his stained tee shirt – began layering up with woolly sweaters and oilskins and removing the component parts of what looked like harpoon equipment from a box near the bow.

‘Are we looking for giant octopus too?’ I asked, feigning interest.

‘No-o mate,’ he said, with gnarly know-how. ‘Whales – if we can find the migration path.’

‘Oh,’ I said, going along with a joke that was clearly part of his patter, especially for soft southern targets like me. ‘That’s all right then.’

I looked around at the twenty or so other passengers. Worryingly, half of them were now also kitted out with cold weather gear and heavy duty waterproofs, while the rest of us were in flimsy summer clothes, skin gleaming with Factor 50 Nivea Sun Lotion to protect against the strong midday sun and brisk sea air.

‘How about some coloured feathers to catch the mackerel?’ I said, uncertain of my ground and aware that my short shorts and white Matalan tee shirt with “COOL AT 65” on the back might be inadequate for whaling on the high seas.

‘Aa-rr, this is all you need,’ said Ahab, tapping the harpoon affectionately. ‘People don’t read the small print, you see. It’s Silver Flash for mackerel. This is Wave Rider – we’re whaling.’

Other mackerel fishers overheard our conversation, some vigorously contesting the legality of the small print, others cowering on their slatted seats, muttering about never seeing their loved-ones again.

‘Don’t worry,’ Ahab said, after keeping us on tenterhooks another hour. ‘A mackerel relief boat will be along later.’

By the time the mackerel transfer arrived, Wave Rider was plunging into the troughs and surging to the peaks of a strong Atlantic swell. Land had long since disappeared and Ahab’s assistant, Ishmael, was in a raised basket on top of the cabin looking out to sea with a brass telescope.

From time to time he’d cry, ‘Thar she blows!’ making us rush to one side before he invariably added, ‘Sorry, just an iceberg,’ or, ‘Only kidding,’ staring at us madly with what we later found out was a glass eye – which being the one he used for the telescope didn’t bode well for serious whale catching at the business end of the trip.

Back on the quayside, having finally tamed a few mackerel, I was ready for supper and a pint of Doombar. Set on the harbour front, Wetherspoons seemed a good bet. Outside, all seemed well as I passed the cordoned area where people were tucking into spicy chicken wings and breaded Camembert bites washed down with, perhaps, San Miguel or spritzer.

Inside was different. Unlike the usual dominant clusters of men with thinning hair and agitated stammering, I found the entire seating and bar areas occupied by stocky, bearded gentlemen in yellow oilskins and black sou’westers.

‘Aa-rr, DOOMbaa-rr!’ went the call down the length of a bar where staff must have had the dickens of a job remembering who they were serving.

‘Aa-rr, DOOmbaa-rr!’ echoed the seated many, as they clinked pints to celebrate another day at sea. ‘Aa-rr DOOMbaa-rr!’

Having bought a pint of the pub’s favourite beer and ordered a Right Whale Fillet with Seaweed Sauce I sat in the corner, feeling underdressed yet fascinated by what I saw unfolding. Several yellow people stood up alongside each other forming a line with outstretched arms resting on their neighbours’ shoulders. Others joined in, pushing back chairs to make space, and eventually there were forty in the row, with the men at the two extremities stretching out their free arm in an exaggerated fashion. Then at a given signal, in unison, the forty shouted:

‘And it was THIS long!’

No wonder Wetherspoon’s Tim Martin, ever the man to spot a perfect tag, had called this former trading exchange The Giant Sperm!

Now, back in the B&B, I’m planning the rest of my stay. I might try Paignton Pier tomorrow. According to the leaflet, this was once popular with anglers, but with local Councils seeking to increase revenue, fishing was banned and the staging at the end adapted for carrying out sentences imposed by local magistrates. Apparently, for minor offences a lesser sentence of being strapped to the stanchions at low tide and freed when the sea reaches neck height is common; whilst for more serious cases there are boards that extend over the sea electronically at high tide, with individuals ‘walking the plank’ or, for gang crimes, several villains jumping at the same time – a sort of synchronised sentencing. Hopefully there are still tickets on sale for the ten o’clock (high tide) sitting. I’m told the two grandstands fill quite quickly.

And on Friday I shall check out the Golden Hind in Brixham harbour. Whereas this replica of Sir Francis Drake’s galleon was once at a fixed mooring for day trippers to pore over, it now offers full day excursions to the French coastline, where passengers in period costume can fire live ammo from the ship’s refurbished cannons, and give the residents of Brest and St Malo something to think about. I really fancy this! It sounds so much more hands-on (and probably warmer!) than the whaling trip I got caught up in.

Uncle, I’m SO impressed by the locals’ willingness to diversify, and make use of the rich maritime resources that endow this area. It’s the kind of initiative the Tory government would be proud of in these troubled times. But sadly, I fear it won’t live up to some of your tales about the merchant navy!

Best wishes – Paul

UTTERLY UNDISCOVERED by Paul Costello

Utterly front cover - final 30.5.13

Available through bookshops (ISBN 978-1-907741-30-2) or direct from Fineleaf Editions

www.fineleaf.co.uk/titles/utterlyundiscove.html

A fabulous holiday read!

www.paulcostello.me

@PaulCostello8

Monsieur Costello va au bord de la mer

‘Vous parlez Français?’ says Jean-Yves after a hearty handshake.

‘Un peu,’ I say with the wide-eyed smile inculcated in me at American Convention-style training sessions – in Hackney.

‘Vous, Anglais?’ I say.

‘U-u-r-r …’ he says with raised shoulders and a palm-down swivel of the right hand.

‘The last skill you’ll need is speaking French,’ a colleague, Jetty Jones had assured me, having worked with the French-speaking Monaco team in the Olympic sailing a few weeks earlier. ‘They all want to practise their English.’

Except that is Jean-Yves, the Chef de Mission of the French Paralympic sailing team, who it seems doesn’t have much to practise. Jean-Yves cuts a grandfatherly figure and is utterly charming. And he is the man I shall be working for while the rest of the squad focuses on its real concern – sailing.

I’d spent three months revisiting the subject for which I got a ‘2’ at GCE, but which was thick with rust after half a century. Being offered a Games Maker role with the French delegation in Weymouth and Portland was a privilege, but could I cope with their mother tongue?

“Monsieur Dupont prend le petit déjeuner à sept heures, et part pour la gare où il achète un journal et une pomme.”

In Living French – Complete with CD borrowed from my local library, the lingo felt familiar despite the time lapse. Breakfast, newspaper, apple – this would be a cinch.

“Pierre était assis sur les rochers avec Madame Leblanc.” Rocks – that might be useful, what with being by the sea.

“Il a vu un homme dans un bateau de pêche.” Fishing, sailing – boats, just the same!

Armed with Jetty’s assurance and knowing I could make a real contribution when it came to men buying apples and women meeting friends in the park for coffee and cake while they watched pretty, green ducks, I was ready for action. Until, that is, Jean-Yves did the palm-down swivel. Bloomin’ French! The language I mean, not the people. The pressure was on.

Enter my French colleague Christine who’d lived in England for years and, like Jetty, had carried out the role of NPC (National Paralympics Committee) Assistant the month before – in her case with the French Olympic sailing team. To ensure Jean-Yves got the right support, we agreed she would be his main contact. For the next two weeks Christine translated at meetings, made transport arrangements and dealt with unexpected visits from French schoolchildren wanting to wish their heroes well, while I stood by like an apprentice waiting to pass the 15 mm spanner, ill-equipped to join in quick-fire conversation about sail measurement, registration of radios and the likely impact of a deep cyclone tracking through the Channel.

The pressure was off, but I needed to contribute more. On the second day, at coffee outside the team’s storage container, I slipped a banana onto the makeshift table, silently rehearsing what I’d practised to perfection in my B&B:

‘J’ai acheté cette banane dans l’épicerie à côté de la gare à sept heures trente ce matin.’

In spite of moving the banana from side to side and repeatedly glancing at Jean-Yves and the banana in turn, he didn’t take the bait. Nor did a personal approach bear fruit the following day. Jean-Yves seemed every bit a family man, so I casually left my wallet open when he and Christine were (I think) discussing the ballasting differentials of the 2.4 yacht being raced by Damien and the Sonar yacht of Bruno, Eric and Nicolas. As soon as Jean-Yves noticed the photo of my daughter Lily I was ready to say:

‘C’est ma fille Lily. Elle a seize ans. Elle vit dans un joli village où ils ont un boulanger, un boucher et un petit lac. Elle prend son petit déjeuner à huit heures avant d’aller à l’école, et prend toujours une pomme à manger plus tard.’

He never did. Despite freezing like rabbits in headlights when the other asked a question in his native language, Jean-Yves and I always managed a friendly smile, but our longest exchange was him pointing skywards and saying ‘vent’, which only led to a mutual chuckle and nod of the head, leaving me no wiser as to whether there was too much or too little wind for sailing.

After a few days I realised I was missing the point. And it was the Games Maker uniform that did it. From the first day I dressed up I’d felt proud to be one of seventy thousand volunteers chosen to represent Great Britain. The camaraderie and mutual respect between Games Makers reinforced this, as did drivers on the workforce shuttle buses who always offered a cheery: ‘Morning, how are you today?’

But I soon saw what the uniform also meant to those we were supporting. Each team had different needs. Singapore sought physical help preparing their boat, the Spanish wanted escorting to Weymouth to look around, the Danish liked domestic support at their house, and Jean-Yves looked for language and organising skills. But a common demand of athletes and officials across the twenty or so teams was simply for us to be there, in our conspicuous purple and scarlet, as a point of reference.

I forgot about contributing in the narrow way I’d expected, and helped however I could, displaying my uniform and wide-eyed smile with pride. Now I could detect the joy in a loud ‘Good morning!’ as the Japanese man and his wheelchair tore past down the slope like a seventeen year old in a Peugeot 106; I could feel the appreciation of a lone Argentinian whose boat trailer I helped push to the measuring sheds; and in the coffee queue I could share the frustration of a Brazilian sailor when zero wind meant no sailing.

In return I enjoyed the privilege of seeing dedicated athletes tend their boats, jumped at Jean-Yves’s invitation to follow races on a tracking screen in the athletes’ lounge, and basked in watching with the public from the ruins of Sandsfoot Castle. And it was utterly uplifting hearing Games Makers greeted in such glowing terms by athletes, crowds and the media.

Sailing finishes, with no medals for the French but a clear pride in taking part. The nine-man team lines up for the coach that will unite them with colleagues in London for the closing ceremony. I play down my joy at Helena winning gold for GB in the 2.4 class and Alexandra and Niki bronze in the Skud, but frankly my loyalties are divided after being attached to the French for so long.

As they board, there are air kisses and prolonged French farewells with Christine and a genuine handshake and ‘au revoir’ for me. Last in the queue is Jean-Yves who, outstanding manager that he is, courteously sees each colleague onto the coach first. He then takes me quietly to one side and with measured diction says:

‘This morning I got up at seven o’clock and walked to the beach. On the way I went to the shop with the little yellow door and bought a small bag of red apples. This one is for you. I shall eat two on the coach, and the rest I shall feed to the pretty, green ducks in London when I go to the park for coffee and cake. Goodbye Paul.’

‘Merci. Moi aussi, j’aime les pommes rouges,’ I say. ‘J’ai toujours deux kilos à la maison sur un plat bleu dans ma jolie cuisine. Au revoir Jean-Yves.’

Paul Costello © September 2012

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