We left the B&B after a quite terrible breakfast – embalmed sausages resting like logs on the side of the plate. Bright morning light now bathes Blackpool, but we find ourselves instead in a dark amusement hall playing bingo with the old ladies. Casinos in Las Vegas, so I’ve read, have no clocks on the walls and pump fresh oxygen in to keep punters awake and gambling. Here, Gavin goes round offering a free tea to anyone playing on the 10 penny games. It tastes like milky sink water. I take three and never win the bingo once. We leave, walk around the town once more – all soundtracked by the comforting background groan of hundreds of fruit machines resolutely refusing to pay out and little old ladies frantically dropping endless two penny pieces in the Penny Falls games. We pass the advertising boards outside Happpyland’s Amusement Arcades: ‘Cheques Cashed Here – Wages, Benefit, Insurance/DSS’. We drink some more tea. While Blackpool still seems quite the most absurd of places, able to be simultaneously hopelessly mundane and utterly crazed at the same time, the joke is starting to wear a little thin.
Shall we carry on Northwards? We discuss what lies beyond Blackpool. Giristroula tells me that one of the only places in Britain that she has seen already is the Lake District and so as she has already been there, and as we’ve only just seen lakes and, far bigger, mountains in Snowdonia and, more conclusively for me, as she went there with an ex Greek boyfriend, we decide to look for somewhere else. We had talked before of seeing Anthony Gormley’s ‘Another Place’ – the life-size iron cast figures, of Gormley himself, dotted incongruously on an off-the-beaten-track beach near Crosby. So with the arcade games still juddering in our ears, we decide to leave and head for Crosby sands. I check the published times of high tides and with the adopted style of some old salty bearded seafarer deduce with certain pin-point accuracy, that we only have a few hours before the statues will be totally submerged. We race to the car and hug the coast down south again, past the seemingly endless golf lynxes, the gull-marked sand in the bunkers and an in-coming smell of seaweed and the mist of the sea.
Through sturdy, well-to-do Lytham St Annes and polite Southport – echoes of Llandudno’s ornate Victorian canopes, but also with a sense of a select seediness attached to it too. I smile as I spot pampas grasses outside in some of the Southport front gardens – that secret signal for people into swinging that this is the house for them – and can easily imagine the couple-swapping that must be going on behind these respectable double-fronted houses. Naked couples rolling about on upholstered settees bought on a weekend shopping trip to a Sofa Warehouse. A great British pastime.
I tell Giristroula to put her foot down, I’m convinced the statue figures on the beach will soon be totally gone. I hassle her so much that we zoom through a red light. I see a flash and let out a little cry in anguish. Giristroula doesn’t understand.
“There was no one there. I didn’t see a policeman…”
The concept of cameras positioned to capture all miscreant doings is an alien one in the Greek world. In Greece you are at the mercy of the lounging police captain on his motorbike: mirrored sunglasses, stubble, cigarette. If he says you went through a red light, you went through a red light. Nothing you can do about it – aside from perhaps a discretely handed brown envelope of bank notes of course. Nevertheless Greeks are appalled by the very idea of cameras positioned to track our movements. Cameras that the Brits are so inured to now – as commonplace as pigeons looking down from lampposts and rooftops on every trip down every High Street.
With the spectre of this ticket haunting us, as it will for the rest of the tour round Britain, just like the parking ticket at Glastonbury Tor, we race through Crosby backstreets. But we never seem to get any nearer the beach. I’m sure the water will have left nothing now of the statues and throw my hands up in the air, telling my harassed driver “What’s the point? All we’ll see is the sea.” Finally we arrive. A huge, open, exposed beach is laid out in front of us. The incoming tide I had so confidently predicted is nothing more than a rumour out somewhere miles away in the middle of the Irish Sea. Every statue figure stood on cold, bare sand. The sea so far out you’d wear your legs down to stumps trying to walk out to reach it. We stare at the statues. Take the art in meaningfully, as if shuffling about in some gallery, though of course there’s no need to exit out via the gift shop, past the postcards and tote bags here. There is a peace all around us, as these dumb, inert objects stand under the silent-faced clouds, gazing at the vast openness before them.
Having paced the beach, visiting each spaced out figure, we walk back to the car park, past the couples sat in their cars staring out at the big sky, chewing slowly on sandwiches, refusing to leave the haven of their Vauxhall Astras. I see a mother and her grown-up son – she in a headscarf, him with flat greasy hair, in unfashionable trousers and a zipped-up kagool – sat on a bench, watching a child play in the pools in the sand. I shuffle in a little closer and listen to their conversation.
“Oh look,” the old women says “He’s got a soggy nappy.”
“Well as the mayor of Nagaski once said,” says the son “‘There’s nothing worse than a soggy nappy…'” He says this in a dull low voice, as he turns his head away from his mother, a tone of mockery brewed in tense silence for years, I imagine.
“I know,” says the mother. “It’s such a shame…”
Giristroula and I head back for Liverpool, both of us thinking of the statues and the distances in space, and in life, and in relationships. And thinking of the red light ticket.
We decide to leave the road to the others for a bit, and to make our next long trip, heading far further northwards, in less agitated style.
Glasgow Central’s old dark wood-lined train station has a real beauty to it: designed with long flushed curves, to keep the passengers moving along. We hail a taxi outside in the growing dark, aiming for the West End where we’ve booked a room for the night. I sit back in the cab and watch the city passing my window. I can also in the reflection the agonised face of Giristroula trying to understand the Glaswegians taxi driver’s conversation. I offer no help to the pained looks in my direction. I couldn’t if I tried. He seems to be arguing with himself anyway. Some perceived slight, niggling away at him.
“And I said to him ‘Get tae fuck ya wee shite. Why ya havering oan, speaking out of ya bahookie? You can chew ma banger, that’s what yous can do.’ That’s what I said to him. ‘Get away and take your face for a shite’. That’s what I said…'”
Giristroula nods intently.
Glasgow looks similar in its Victorian grandness to Liverpool, The dark brick of the centre giving way to redder buildings as we drive on and then finally, in the West End, sand coloured – similar, in my mind anyway, to those great Regency buildings back in Bath. We get out the taxi. Giristroula thanks the taxi driver.
“That’s nae problem, hen. Yous two have a guid evenin’. Don’t get too pished now. Heh heh heh…”
“Yes,” she says.
We walk around, past the Botanic Gardens, through a handsome district of privilege houses. It isn’t the Glasgow you often hear such bad reports about. I realise there is a world of high-rise tenements in the city of course, and streets of cheap booze and loan shops. I saw them as we drove along in the taxi. Men in tracksuits outside pubs containing no furniture, bars built unusually high so as to protect the bar staff from the occasional hay maker from one of the punters. Betting shops next to payday lenders next to betting shops. But there is a strong, proud, elegance to Glasgow too, and when I tell a very reluctant Giristroula that we must eat something deep fried in this city, it’s clearly me that’s got this very wrong.
There are no deep-fried mars bars here anyway, but I do find a chip shop selling deep-fried pies. I tuck into one, trying to allay the Greek grimace with a mumbled mouthful of “It’s what they eat here!” Three well-heeled young Glaswegian women arrive after their night out and frown with distaste at the counter.
“I mean,” says one in a gentle, soft brogue “Just what kind of person do you think eats these things?”
They turn to look at me as I brush the crumbs from the front of my shirt.