It’s a chilly Saturday morning, and you’re hard at work enjoying the idea of a quiet, customer/writing-deadline-free day ahead. In no hurry, you get coffee and breakfast (a nicely gloopy banana smoothie) ready and sit down to catch up on all those blog posts that have been piling up on your RSS feed over several busy weeks.
Right around the point where you realise than you’ve been so tardy at reading other people’s blogs that some have actually had children in the meantime that have grown up and themselves had children – about the same time you realize your 30-litre caraffe of coffee is empty, something catches your eye. A familiar name.
As the leaves turn golden and Christmas approaches, our thoughts naturally turn to what truly sucked about 2009.
Top of my list? “Staycations”.
Oh, you horrible, horrible word – a wretched portmanteau of “stay” and “vacation” (and perhaps a silent “bullshit”).
British media coverage has been intense. Every newspaper, every radio presenter – such as this one – and every inch of travel-themed newsprint seemed obsessed with it. I think I understand why. You know when you wake up in the morning and there’s a song lodged in your head, and it stays there all day – and you loathed it to start with? This is what happened with ‘staycation’ in the Great British Media Consciousness this summer.
And not just in the UK. You can’t blame us – it all started abroad, well before 2009. My fave online travel read World Hum charted an arc from pioneering fascination to a premature obituary and lately to weary resignation. Staycation. It lingers, like a persistent grease-spot or a kippery smell coming from the carpet. It’s unstoppable. We pump round after round into it, and it just keeps coming.
But…what is it?
At the height of the summer madness, the Times Online noted that because of the recession, Brits were staying within Britain for their hols – day-trips, weekends away, or gallivanting around in a camper-van. You stay in the UK, but you travel. The Guardianagreed.
Meanwhile, the Telegraph was defining it as staying in your own home – putting your feet up, ordering pizza, catching up on Lovefilm DVDs, and attemping Do-It-Yourself that resulted in a couple of grand being knocked off the value of your house. In other words, “a luxurious time in your own home”. I recently listened to BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine take a similar tack.
So which is it?
I’m all for exploring your home country, your home county, your home town. I hardly know York, and now my nomadic plans are starting to crystallize, I’m going to undertake a protracted written goodbye to this city that has housed me for a decade, with articles for fun in here, and other, better articles pitched at paying markets. I’ll thoroughly explore York – and part of that will be staying elsewhere in York, in bed & breakfasts, hotels, campsites, you name it. (This appeals to me greatly, being an idea both adventurous and faintly stupid).
Britain is a wondrous place, I hear. I can’t confirm that, because like 99.9% of the population, I don’t know it very well as a whole. I’ve been here, I’ve been there, but on average I’ve missed out absolutely everything there is to see. I could spend the rest of my life traveling around the UK.
Just as long as I’m traveling.
Staying at home is not traveling. Staying in your own home, no matter where you go for the day, is not the same experience as being truly Elsewhere. Home is a mass of habits, complacencies, commitments and interruptions, and when you stay at home, these suck you right back into the everyday world you long to escape from.
Travel is escapism – maybe even escapology. When you’re at home, there is no escape.
If a staycation is about traveling around, I like the idea (hate the word; like the idea).
If it is about staying at home – please let it die.
Camping in Britain. There’s a right way…and a wrong way.
So here’s both.
Spoil Ye Not
Look for pitching sites that have already been used – but not overused.
Aim for the ones that have already been churned into a quagmire, or are so spectacularly well-kept that they can only be bowling greens or prized lawns. Why do this? Because it’s funny.
Cook lots of sumptuous food that smells heavenly, and allow the aroma to waft hither and thither. When your neighbours look interested, holler that there’s plenty to go round if they’d like some themselves. This is the best way to make new friends – even better than offering them cash. It’s one of the most powerful social bonding rituals at your disposal (archaeologists call it “feasting”). Just make sure your food is terrific. And if you’re barbecuing next to vegetarians, don’t expect them to offer to take a bullet for you anytime soon.
Kippers at 5am. Tripe patties, anytime. Reeking, poor-quality takeaway food that smells like a very old cat was involved somewhere down the line. Just as aromatic good food brings people together, stinkingly crappy food will drive them away faster than almost anything else (barring noise). So engage in a bit of nasal terrorism.
The Mutt’s Nuts
If you’ve brought dogs – and why not? – then keep them under control. Everyone will forgive barking as long as it’s immediately shushed. Over-excited dogs are normally forgiven if they’re followed by a firm manner and an apologetic word. And carry those little poop-bags at all times – when they’re camping, people often go barefoot. ‘Nuff said.
Just because you love boisterous dogs, surely everyone else does as well. If your mutt knocks someone over, shout “good BOY“. If he tries to have sex with someone’s tent, cheer him on, or lay bets on how long before the guy-ropes explode. Throw dog chews into people’s tents like a real-world version of Paperboy.
Hear No Evil
Obey the unspoken Noise Watershed: 9pm if families about; 10pm if it’s adults. It’s not like being at home – the walls of your tent won’t stop any noise you make. So whatever you’re doing (and I’ve no wish to pry) – keep it down.
You’re camping – so it’s time to PARRTAAY! Have a few lively games of Stereo Wars (“Only One Can Be Loudest”). Why not share your love of classic music – like this? Or everybody, hands in the air for a singalong of Eiffel 65’s I’m Blue (Gargle Pee Barbie Die). It may be 3am, but good music is timeless.
If your campsite allows, what could be more toe-wigglingly inviting than a blazing fire? Potatoes baked in tin-foil in the ashes, marshmallows on sticks, the firelight in the eyes of your other half – what’s not to love? So build yourself a safe, well-constructed firepit, skewer some goodies and get crackling.
Overhanging branches? Nah, they’ll be fine – it’s green wood, innit? And no need to worry about lining the edges with stones, runaway fires are easy enough to stamp out – so keep chucking wood on, I want this baby to be a pillar of flame that can be seen from space! Leave it roaring while we get beer. Hey – can you smell something?
(Don’t) Chop Chop
If you’re collecting wood for your safe, neighbour-friendly campfire, check with the campsite owners about where’s good to forage. (If you flutter your eyelashes and play the newbie, they might even chip in).
Pull out a machete and start hacking the life out of nearby trees. Grab overhanging branches and pull with all your weight until they r-r-rip away from the trunk. Kill kill kill.
Ooh, We’ve Got Some Lovely Filth Over ‘Ere
It’s unavoidable that you’re going to create rubbish. So make provisions. It’d be lovely if your campsite was kitted out with recycling bins – wouldn’t that be nice? You could mention it to someone.
If it’s food waste, it’ll rot. Doesn’t matter if it’s in a landfill or in the bushes – and the bushes are nearer. Also, it doesn’t matter if the campsite rubbish skip is full – because you’re perfectly within your rights to either pile your junk on top of it, or shove it half-under the lid so it scatters everywhere when the skip is opened. They just love that.
Featherplucking Bar Stewards
Family campsites have families in them. That’s easy to forget when you accidentally mallet your thumb instead of a tent-peg, or discover an adventurous slug in one of your shoes. Try to filter your language. However, let’s face it – sometimes particular words will punch their way out of you and there’s just no stopping them….
…but that’s different to listing your partner’s faults at 30 potty-mouthed decibels, and having them reply in kind. That’s excruciatingly different. Remember, nothing breaks the ice faster than a public tantrum.
Games People Play
Over here, son, on me ‘ead! Camping is the perfect time to spark up impromptu sporting bouts – cricket, softball tennis, football, running around aimlessly like the clappers – keep the noise down, stick to communal ground, and it’s all good family-friendly fun.
Skeet shooting! Or car rallying. I’ve also seen that noblest of sporting endeavors, Tent Hurdles, where the contestants try to lap the campsite by diving over all the tents, tearing out guy-ropes and terrifying occupants. (This is exactly why I never go camping without my trusty antique cavalry sword).
Put That Caravan The Right Way Up Or There’ll Be TROUBLE
Children should be seen and not heard? Well, kinda – because giggling kids can transform a glumly quiet campsite. Kids are also a great way to meet the parents – in the neighbourly fashion, not in the “I found him hotwiring my car, is he yours?” way.
Teach your kids to hotwire cars. Or rifle tents for cash. Or form militias that go round collecting protection money. But above all those things – and mean this deeply and sincerely – allow their musical talents to flourish. Because something like this might happen.
Respect the unofficial, unspoken zones of residential influence. Invade these personal spaces, and you risk people getting shirty – even if they don’t quite know why. (A good demonstration at a personal level: have a meal with someone, and throughout the meal, oh-so-slowly, move your plate, wine glass, cutlery and chair closer and closer to them. If you’re careful enough, they won’t know why they’re feeling so deeply twitchy).
Striding between vehicle and tent, singing rousing camping songs like “Blood For The Blood God” or that old fireside classic “Killing in the Name“. Leaning against vehicles and tents, reading Mein Kampf and shouting at people when they emerge. Moving their tents and their vehicles to give yours more room. Using their tents and vehicles as pieces in an enormous campsite-wide game of Monopoly. The possibilities are endless…
…but there’s a good reason this one is last in the list.
You can set dogs and children on British campers. You can swear at them, throw rubbish at them and insult them with inedible filth. You can terrorise them with fire and song.
But if you invade their personal space…that’s the limit.
By morning, expect to be staked out spreadeagle in a field (using tentpegs), surrounded by curious cows and the smashed, tattered remnants of your possessions.
Because there’s a reason we choose to live on an island, you know.
Now, I’m part Scottish. You’d think I’d have a smattering of understanding at a genetic level about how to translate accents like this into English. But this isn’t Scotland, it’s Orkney – and I’d be better equipped having Norwegian ancestors. No luck there, sadly.
“Lighthoos – uhhr!”
I didn’t really need to ask for directions – the map was clear and the road didn’t deviate. It led unambiguously away from the spectacular archaeological excavation taking place at the sea-stack called the Brough of Deerness (official website here), through a few turns, over a couple of low hills and theoretically deposited me somewhere called Lighthouse Corner. Wherever the hell that was.
But the golden rule is Always Chat To The Locals.
Actually, there’s an important rule to obey before that one, which is Make Sure You And The Locals Speak The Same Language Before You Attempt Conversation. But this is Orkney – and I thought I had that one covered.
“Coonah! You wirru clart ooonan gurble blivey Lighthoos.”
With this, he gesticulated in a wildly uphelpful 180-degree arc, covering both the road ahead and the road behind. Now at least I could be sure that my destination wasn’t in the sea, or in Shetland.
He noticed my arm. “Flees! Arglbarglelaaaarpfaggras!”, at which he broke into a cough that started somewhere near his knees and threatened to propel his hat down the road. What had interested him – as it would anyone – was the exciting rivulet of blood running down to my elbow. The day was baking and sticky, and the horse-flies were out in force. One had formed a temporary yet meaningful attachment to my arm, which would spend the next two days swollen and itchy.
I was getting nowhere – and with just twenty minutes before my bus arrived, the only bus that afternoon, I couldn’t afford to. I tried to wrap things up.
“I’m heading down this road now. The bus will be along soon”.
“Boos. Aye, BOOS.”
Now we were talking.
“Yes – uh, ‘BOOS‘.”
Triumphantly, with the air of a wise, friendly old salt who knows every scrap of local knowledge and has the goodwill to bestow it on hapless tourists, he pointed down the way I’d just come. Or possibly out to sea. It was hard to tell, because he used both arms, moving in opposite directions.
“Oh bugger it. Look! The map says…well, actually the map says very little, frankly. There’s no ‘Lighthouse Corner’. The bus timetable says Lighthouse Corner, yes, but it’s not on the map. I wish someone from Ordinance Survey was here right now, trying to take notes as the flies sent arterial sprays fountaining off them like the gardens of Versailles. But they’re not, and I’m pretty damn sure it’s down this road because I’ve just been down the other one, and all that’s down there are some holes in the ground and archaeologists and tea and biscuits and filth. That’s all. No booses. I’d have noticed, trust me”.
He stared at me pityingly as I hauled my rucksack onto my shoulders again, yelping as my wind-cooled sweaty shirt met my skin, and extended the arm of my wheeled suitcase. (It was getting noisy – and I discovered why later, when I noticed that one wheel had locked solid and been ground down to a semicircle by days of dragging). Waving my free arm convulsively at the flies, I strode off. This had to be the way to Lighthouse Corner.
And so it was.
The thing is – and this is so very, very Orcadian – Lighthouse Corner isn’t really a corner, and it doesn’t have a lighthouse. This is understandable, since it’s inland. It’s entirely unannounced. There’s no sign that says “Lighthouse Corner” in large friendly letters. And being a crossroads, there are lots of corners, where all you want is a nice reassuring right-angle of flyblown tarmac. Or an “s”, tacked on the end of the name. Not this perfect marriage of ambiguities.
As I headed up the road for my thankfully destined appointment with Lighthouse Corner and the X-4 service to Kirkwall, I looked back – but he’d gone inside, probably to load up a WordPress blog and tell the world how stupid and ungrateful English tourists are.
But I am grateful. Can’t you tell?
Useful link:if you’re going to Orkney, print this off (pdf) at least 20 times and duct-tape it to books, camping equipment, items of luggage or even your body. Because you *will* need it. To survive in Orkney you need 3 things: food, shelter and a bus timetable. (And with a bus timetable, you have access to the other two. ‘Nuff said).
No, forget the sightseeing. Forget the daytrips, the beach walks, the clambering up sea-stacks to watch intrepid archaeologists braving the elements while hugging filthy mugs of tea (more on that topic another time). Forget visiting. We’re talking living up there.
I know of a number of people who are intending to move up there – and they intend for their jobs to follow them, either via remote working (a slow but steady trend) or self-employment. They’re transplanting their careers, not going in seek of an Orcadian vocation – and they’re moving there because of the place, not the economy. (Everyone falls in love with Orkney. Well, nearly everyone).
So what is the local economy?
Building work is at the start of everything. I chatted to a couple of Scottish guys who had landed a building contract in Kirkwall, arranged elsewhere – and they had enough work to last them until 2011, at least. Not just housing, mind: Orkney is expanding at an impressive lick, thanks to being a renewable energy powerhouse. When I visited Westray – where I worked as an archaeologist for a few summers – plans were afoot to build two new wind turbines, weaning the island off the national grid and presumably allowing it to sell excess electricity to the likes of Scottish Power. (If it follows the model adopted by neighbouring island Sanday, the turbines are paid for by a community fund).
And that’s just the wind, which is nothing compared with the potential offered by the sea. Take the Oyster project, featured today on Click Green. Every day, two oceans push back and forth across the Pentland Firth, creating some of the most excited water around Britain. Once modern engineers find a way to ward off the Orcadian winter storms – no small feat – the small abandoned islands around Mainland Orkney (such as Stroma) are going to start filling up.
Despite all that, Orkney’s is still an agricultural economy. The soil is bursting with fertility. Farming is the most important activity on the islands – if you’re going to get run over while in Orkney, it’ll probably be a tractor. Forget forestry – there aren’t any trees apart from a few timid examples cowering behind wind-breaks or crawling along the ground. There are so few that in the whole of the island chain, there’s only one Tree Preservation Order in place.
Fish. Beef. Lobster. Fish. Whisky (Highland Park). Cheese. Fish. Seafood, generally. Fish. I should also mention the fish, which is worth repeating because it appears to be uniformly superb quality. All the service-based jobs you’d expect from a gently popular tourist attraction – and if the oft-mentioned Orkney Tunnel gets built, these industries will boom.
(I’m not forgetting the arts and crafts industries here, as impressive as you’d expect from a place with such an extraordinary heritage. But on those, I’ll write another time).
It’s recently struck me that Reader’s Digest, one of the most popular magazines in the world, is a paper-based blog.
Staunchly populist – and conservative and anti-communist, depending on the era – the magazine has been publishing condensed news stories and adverts in a visually arresting fashion since 1922. It’s uncluttered, breezy and the kind of thing you’d read when you’re waiting to do (or putting off) something important. There are lots of adverts. The reader’s comments are important. It’s distinctly bloggy.
(As a 15 year old budding writer, it made me want to write in. I submitted a few pieces to their Laughter Is The Best Medicine column, hoping to win some pocketmoney. And…nothing. Evidently I’m not funny – or I am funny but wholly useless in conveying it).
But this post isn’t about the magazine – it’s about the books.
My gran had groaning shelves of Reader’s Digest Condensed Reads. While the family caught up on familial gossip downstairs over tea & biscuits, I’d work my way through the bookcases, looking for anything violent or racy. I was entranced. 4 books in one book! It was like something by M. C. Escher. But then came the terrible, bleak day when I discovered the full meaning of the word “condensed”, and realised that these books had bits taken out (probably the violent and racy bits). It was worse than when I set my wind-up Evel Knieval on fire for the full-bore stunt spectacle – and discovered I couldn’t put him out. It was bad.
But there are the other books.
I’m reading one right now. It’s part of the People and Places series, and it’s called In Search Of Australia And The South Pacific. And I’m enjoying it immensely. The writing is superb and the photos magnificent. It’s the kind of coffee-table book that has you poring over it for hours, leading to awkward situations when it’s not your coffee table.
The thing is, most Reader’s Digest books are this good. It’s curious. You’d expect them to be plainly-written regurgitations of facts you’re wearily over-familiar with already. In my experience, that’s not the case. (Flaw in this argument: maybe I’m ignorant. Remedy: disregard entire blog post. Kthx). They’re usually high-quality overview reference books, the kind to bring your children up with. The good ones are well worth hunting down – particularly the atlases.
And the great things is that hunting them down is easy. As anyone knows who has received Reader’s Digest promotional material through their letterbox, or put differently, ‘As everyone knows’ – there are approximately 500 of these books written and published every second. Fact. And this has been going on for decades, so there are at least…oh, you work it out, I’m too busy thinking up my next ludicrous exaggeration for artistic effect.
There are so damn many of these usually damn fine books in circulation that all second-hand bookshops and charity shops in the West are stuffed with them. Amazon has barrowloads. They’re everywhere. Close your eyes and walk ten paces with your arms outstretched: chances are, you’ll bump into one on the way. Another fact.
And they’re all like reading really good blogs. (The useful kind, not like my kind of blog).
So next time you’re browsing the shelves of your local tome-vendor, pull out the Reader’s Digest books and have a look. You might be pleasantly surprised.
For some time now, I’ve been working diligently behind the scenes to secretly bring about a brave new global order.
(I haven’t talked about it before now for hopefully obvious reasons).
There will be many sweeping changes, and I look forward to discussing them with you – or, to be more specific, telling you about them in advance. For example, a number of noxious substances will be banned and removed from circulation, including polyethylene telephthalate (PET), supermarket carrier bags, Marmite and Paul Burrell. I’ll be throwing vast sums of money into the space programme, expanding the United Nations and making it illegal for Bill O’Reilly to speak – which are three deeply humanitarian measures that I think are key to the future success of our species as a whole. Wind turbines will have pipes on them so they’ll play a fun tune, instead of that dull whup-whup sound. All sorts of vital stuff. You’ll love.
If you live in the UK, or have experienced its delightfully eccentric (ie. depressingly ludicrous) rail system, you’ll be happy to hear that I will be running my broom through that as well.
1. If you are at one end of a train carriage and you can clearly hear the voice of someone talking at the other end when a train is underway, you are perfectly within your legal rights to push them off the train at the next stop, independent of where they are actually going. This applies to staff and passengers alike.
2. Ticket inspectors will be fitted with low-power sirens that emit a woowooBLARRG-like noise similar to that currently used by British ambulances – or possibly using the brand new American Howler. Either way, it will be impossible for an inspector to creep up on you and yell “TICKET!!” in your ear, sending you into a panic and into the depths of your bag whilst momentarily forgetting your ticket is on the seat next to you. When all your possessions are fanned out in an excitingly organic circular pattern over two radial metres, the inspector “suddenly notices” your ticket and stamps it “TLD” (I’ve discovered that this stands for ‘Total Loss of Dignity’). This practice will end forthwith.
3. Passengers who fail to clear away empty food or drink packaging will be recorded on CCTV and have their council tax doubled for the period of 1 year. If the packaging is beer cans, 3 years.
4. Rail tickets will reflect the price of all the cheapest single journeys on a route added together, and these totals will be listed as a series of immediately obvious pricing options. As opposed to the current system.
5. If you discover that someone is sitting in your reserved seat, once you show the evidence to them and it is clear that they are aware of the situation, they have 60 seconds to vacate that seat. Beyond this 1-minute period, you are allowed to pull the Emergency Stop cord and bring the train to an unscheduled halt. The person will then be led off the train, trussed to a fence or tree, and pelted with rancid fruit by all the passengers (note: an extra carriage will be supplied to all train services, amply stocked with over-ripened fruit and hand-towels).
6. It will be illegal for anyone over 30 years old to wear shorts on a train. This will be enforced.
7. Describing anything British as “quaint” in a loud American drawl carries the death penalty.
8. All the seats within 10 metres of the onboard toilets will be removed, and special sealed plastic doors will be fitted across the gap, similar to those seen in movies about biochemical terrorist attacks. The toilets will also be fitted with a an automatic sliding door that opens to the outside air, and every 20 minutes, they will slide back for 30 seconds, letting sweet, fresh air roar in. (Note: as a passenger it will be important to be deeply aware of the timing of your visit to the restroom, or alternately how strong your grip is).
I should make it up to a nice even 10, but nothing springs to mind right now.
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