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

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Saucy Postcard from Brighton

Dear Uncle Ian

“I’ll have those two plump melons, please” seems tame today! But in the 50s it would have been banned for obscenity, like a lot of the original saucy seaside postcards by Donald McGill. I’m sure Aunt Fifi will appreciate this one when she gets back – bearing in mind the dance she stood up and did at your Ruby!

Earlier I was on Brighton Pier, and felt moved to write about their wonderful marine conservation programme. If you like, you can check it out at: www.paulcostello2011.wordpress.com/2013/02/01/postcard-from-brighton-the-pier/ – I’ve heard you’re into silver surfing!

Even in winter Brighton is thriving. It’s a student city these days, with an art college, universities and lots of English Language schools. When I lived here, to make a bob or two I did B&B for foreign students. The Swiss and Brazilians were nicest, but the Germans were hard going. One called Hans had no sense of humour at all. I once asked him: “Why did the chicken cross the road?” and, seriously uncle, he replied: ‘Vell, vee never allow our chickens to get on zer road in zer first place.’

The biggest change I found in the famous Brighton Lanes is that the countless dinky shops, once full of antiques, have become Brighton’s jewellery centre, all selling silver or white gold. The window displays are great! An antique ring marked:

A Marvellous, Amazing, Victorian, Silver and Diamond Ring

came next to:

A Truly Wonderful, Old, Marvellous, Silver and Amethyst Tiepin

and then:

An Absolutely Marvellous, Antique, Silver Brooch with Pretty Sapphire.

I realised there was a theme going on. With at least three hundred items in every shop window, shop owners worked hard to outdo their neighbours. Further along I saw:

A Rare, Marvellous, Fantastic, Edwardian, Silver and Diamond Engagement Ring

alongside:

A Superb, Wonderful, Marvellous, Amazing, Exquisite, To Die For, Grandma Would Look Great In It, White Gold Hat Pin.

No surprise that a sign in a nearby bookshop said: Roget’s Thesaurus – Sold Out.

I don’t know about you, uncle, but if I was going to spend hundreds of pounds on a ‘Marvellous’ ring, I’d want to know that as well as being the only such ring in The Brighton Lanes, no-one else in the whole world (or Margate) also had a ‘Marvellous’ one.

Beyond The Lanes is a fashionable district called North Laine, a ‘boutique’ area buzzing with Brighton’s alternative culture, and packed with vintage clothing shops, arty cafes, bars and galleries. I love it, uncle. I saw more studded noses than there are Catseyes on the A259, and people wearing racks of rings like mini orchestral triangles – each set playing a different octave. One enterprising shop owner had installed a battery-powered circuit on a heavily ringed employee, and was challenging customers to pass a metal rod through her rings without triggering a bell. A quid a go. I found the eyebrows quite easy but the lips were my downfall every time! Had I succeeded, I’d have won:

An Amazing, Delightful, Marvellous, Just Like A Baby Elephant’s Tusk, Every Auntie Should Have One, Ear Stretcher.

I was thinking – there’s no reason why Aunt Fifi shouldn’t have an ear stretcher just because of her age, is there? It would only need a ten millimetre hole. Let me know when she might be coming home, by the way.

Love Paul

Paul Costello © February 2013

 

Utterly Undiscovered – comic Bed & Breakfast Memoir by Paul Costello.

 

Illustrated by Emma Hames.  Header image above from chapter titled: Caught Napping    

 

Publication:  spring 2013.    Fineleaf Editions  http://www.fineleaf.co.uk 

 

ISBN 978-1-907741-30-2

 

Postcard from Brighton – The Pier

Hi Bruv

The Palace Pier is as vibrant as ever. You probably take it for granted, living down this way! The funfair at the end is great – I love the blaring hip hop club music, and usually stand near a giant speaker to watch the rides.

There’s a fantastic one called Adrenalin Rush. It’s like a windmill with two sails, each a hundred feet long with eight seats at the end. Once the riders are locked in their seats, the controller flicks a switch and the sails take them two hundred feet into the air at a fantastic speed. Hanging upside down over the sea, and with the g-force and bass boom below, they get in a right frenzy. One girl was even crying as she shot past, though I suspect this was more to do with the wonderful winter sunset you must see from up there.

Then things really take off. I’d watched the controller lock people’s safety harnesses with a hydraulic switch, but on the fourth rotation, with the sail approaching full height and spinning as fast as a wind turbine, I saw him pull another lever which must have released the harnesses, because the riders were suddenly hurled way out to sea. It reminded me of those whippy sticks with a cup shape at the end, which dog walkers use to throw balls. Now I realised why it was called Adrenalin Rush. Seeing eight tiny figures, then another eight disappearing through the December sky like little Lowrie people was a truly heart-thumping sensation for us spectators.

Where the sixteen riders splashed down, I couldn’t help noticing that a ripple on the glass-like sea, as if there was a localised breeze or turbulence from the geology of the sea bed, had turned to a bubbling froth. I realised it must be a marine feeding ground, because after five minutes the frothing stopped as quickly as it had started. The teenagers queuing for the next ride were so busy trying to outdo each other, they noticed none of this. And I knew my adrenalin rush wasn’t just from what I’d witnessed, George. It was because I could see that the pier was not merely a gratuitous money-making machine but had a major role in marine conservation.

Moving on to Lumberjack’s Revenge, better known as the Log Flume, where canoe-like logs are propelled round a water race, I began to see a pattern. One or two ‘logs’ never reappeared after going into the deep water stretches, yet with the thumping bass of DJ Khaled keeping riders and spectators enthralled for the three minutes it lasted, their disappearance was barely discernible. I took this as further evidence of the pier owner’s selfless dedication to preserving fish stocks in the English Channel, a supposition confirmed when I spotted that fewer chairs on the rickety Ghost Train came out at the exit than went in at the start. Being an indoor ride, it was impossible to see where the others had gone, but I imagine a lot of marine life feeds around the pier stanchions immediately below both the Ghost Train and Lumberjack’s Revenge.

And as I made my way back past the stalls dispensing candy floss or chips, just as they must have done since the pier opened in 1899, I couldn’t help noticing a dozen or so people whose heels were jammed in gaps between the shrunken, oak planks of the pier decking. Others ignored their plight and walked on by, knowing that the trapped people would, like flies tangled in a spider’s web, eventually stop struggling and accept whatever salt-water fate awaited them – proud to be helping safeguard the planet’s future.

I tell you, George, I headed off for the Brighton Lanes, glad I hadn’t been wearing my Cubans!

Cheers, Paul

Paul Costello © January 2013

Utterly Undiscovered – comic Bed & Breakfast Memoir by Paul Costello. Illustrated by Emma Hames            

Publication:  spring 2013.    Fineleaf Editions  http://www.fineleaf.co.uk

ISBN 978-1-907741-30-2