Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Amble Side Story



The photographer would have had to stand in the middle of the A591 to take this particular northern portrait. After clicking the shutter, their best bet would have been the Royal Oak, the welcoming Tudor-era free house that takes up the right-hand side of the picture.

Retracing their steps, strolling across the threshold, we spot all yer proper pub necessaries: the fruit machine, the dartboard, the "Support the Lifeboats" window sticker, the roll of dishonour that lists the score of locals barred from this and seemingly every other boozer in the village. Pumps for a trio of Keswick ales are on proud display - the Thirst Oak is allegedly brewed exclusively for this very hostelry - but like pretty much everywhere in the Lakes now, the main trade is being done in Guinness and lager. There's Carlsberg on draught: the bubbles rise, dance. We partake.

On one wall of the drinking hole we'd just left, the Churchill Hotel, there was a signed portrait of the appropriately Churchillian figure of Terry Butcher: the famous pose where he troops off the field with his head wreathed in bandages, the three lions on his shirt drenched in blood (possibly his own). The Royal Oak is not so bellicose, long having shed previous, rather more aggressive monikers (the Fighting Cocks, anyone ?). Instead, its walls warm traditionalists' hearts by boasting framed diagrams of beer engine fittings, porcelain spirit measures and brewers' sundries; sepia photos of old Ambleside; and an action shot of Skelwith Force in full torrent. From the ceiling hang wooden skis, an old-fashioned ice-skate, a vintage lacrosse stick: the usual random pub paraphernalia. No mazy neon or glimmer globes in here.

The snug rooms either side of the Oak's front bar contrast in character. The space to the right is carpeted, with stools and saloon chairs upholstered in deep, ornate, reds: their incumbents appear to be happily slumped fellwalkers, taking the weight off aching feet as ITV Sport flickers on the back wall. On the emptier left-hand side of the bar, the decor is more parsimonious: white walls, a wood-panelled floor, dark oakwood chairs and Channel Four news. Unsure as to which side to plump for, we take our glasses out front instead.

Here, back in shot on the patio, the canopies are now green, but otherwise it's pretty much as you see it (though there's a disappointing lack of people taking happy snaps from the middle of the road). Passing tourists come and go, on their way from guest houses and B&Bs to ambitiously-priced restaurants. The local youth gabble with their mobiles and each other, while a lone old dear necks a G&T at the adjacent table. As for the beer "garden", the shrubbery consists mainly of firs and wilted pansies nestling forlornly in pots of earth, overrun with stubbed-out cigarettes. As evening interlopes, we breathe in the traffic and the teenagers' Lambert & Butlers. The sky cools.

Once the bubbles are spent, we venture to the yellow-washed eating house, the Priest's Hole, on the left hand side of the photo. What this picture doesn't show you is the vicious curve of Church Street as the double yellow lines veer down to your left: you might step inside the restaurant at street level, but you're a good storey above the A-road by the time you reach your table, with a whole Oxfam shop beneath the floorboards. We dine until late amongst jaunty Mediterranean music, hearty veggie options and copper kettles that dangle from the rafters. And so today's Cumbrian chapter closes.

* * * * *

Er, yes, Half Man Half Biscuit. The Prenton Park regulars and onetime indie darlings who surfaced halfway through Thatcher's time at the helm, who were feted for singing so succinctly about the twin travails of that era (unemployment and daytime TV), who are now most fondly remembered by many only for their first - arguably their weakest! - LP, "Back In The DHSS". But who, over eleven albums and 22 years now, have been ever expanding their lyrical range.

Nigel Blackwell remains essentially a storyteller, always beckoning us to confront the humour, the romance and the occasional toe-curling grimness of our lives. So HMHB still vividly sketch out the healthy absurdities of pop and pomp, still breezily prick the cult of (micro)celebrity, still deliciously max on the sarky, snarky and surreal. Yet they've also patented a new strain of defiantly British road music - the shambling guitar travelogue of "Keeping Two Chevrons Apart", "M6-ster", "Bottleneck at Caple Curig", "Asparagus Next Left" - which casts Blackwell as a latter day Alfred Wainwright, unafraid to describe every hill and dale, every peak and trough of his journeys, in his own inimitable prose.

Cast a glance at the band's touring schedule over the years: inbetween wowing the likes of Rock City, the Queen Elizabeth Hall or a packed LA2, they've made trips to Ulverston, Charlbury, Frome, Bilston, Holmfirth, Stourbridge, Matlock, Penzance and darkest New Cross... it's all grist to the mill, to their tales of crawler lanes and cats-eyes, street signs and tailbacks. Blackwell is a quiet evangelist, coaxing us insular urbanites outside: whether from mews houses and Georgian crescents, or stifling estates and dank alleyways, the listener is implored to explore the myriad byways of rural and semi-rural Britain he celebrates. It's no coincidence that the new record's sleeve contains a quote from another eminent traveller, George Borrow: "There are no countries in the world less known by the British than these self same British islands".

That's why we thought this pilgrimage of sorts was the least we could do. Besides being a good chance to get away from it all (we do still love London: just not those 4x4-driving bastards in Bexley & Bromley: even if,and hey, let's be fair to Boris, so far only a quarter of a million Londoners are worse off as a result of his policies).

* * * * *

Anyway. Every 2 or 3 years we write pretty much the same thing about HMHB (here's last time round). Our schtick basically boils down to recording that (a) they're social commentators par excellence, (b) their two decades or so of unfailing post-C86 aceness have been brazenly, unfeelingly overlooked, and (c) as befits this pattern the kids are gonna ignore their latest album. Maybe the overlooking is partly down to the fact that HMHB are usually ahead of their time in what they choose to champion or disdain (their falling out of love with football song, "Friday Night and the Gates are Low", was released when everyone else was starting to pretend to like the sport, when the zeitgeist was Britpop, ladmags and wannabe cool Britannia: though we feel sure that Nigel would have appreciated the local paper's Ambleside FC promotion supplement as much as us).

And we could witter on for England about how HMHB are also one of the best singles bands in world history, despite only intermittently releasing any: their discography on 45 includes the likes of "Eno Collaboration", "Dickie Davies' Eyes", "Look Dad No Tunes", "Jarg Armani", "Trumpton Riots"... many of indiedom's very finest songs. But there comes a point where you've heard it all (though we've tried a thousand times, a thousand times to change your mind). If you don't like HMHB now, you never will: if you somehow still think they're a novelty band, you always will.

Plus, we've got hillsides, tearooms and churchyards to explore. So we'll dispense with even the pretence of reviewing "CSI: Ambleside" (brief memo to Lake District felony stat fans: the parish newsletter notes approvingly that crime in Ambleside has fallen by 6% in the last year). Suffice to say that if you're a fan, and you don't already have it, it won't disappoint.