Scrambled Tofu and Biplanes

Soon the university and school terms begin in the Northern hemisphere, and that is the harbinger for shorter and colder days. The cat has already started spending her days sleeping inside the house, ideally on clean washing! It has been a pleasant August here in Norwich, and I have actually been in Norfolk for most of the month, which is really quite remarkable. We did do a trip up to Goole to visit Ailsa’s mother and help with the house. We decided to spend four away. On the first we drove to Hull via Lincoln, where we met friends from in Durban. We had lunch at a rather disappointing vegan restaurant. It was subsequently pointed out to me by my family, with much hilarity on their part, that what I had thought was scrambled egg was, in fact, tofu dyed yellow! Talk about misleading! The plum bread, what a promising name, was a meagre slice of fruit cake, in which plums may have predominated, but it was served with butter.

As we reached Hull at a reasonable time we were able to walk round the city centre. Hull was awarded the title of UK City of Culture 2017. This award is given every four years to a city that ‘demonstrates the belief in the transformational power of culture’. I really liked Hull, it is gritty, real and, of course, is where poet Philip Larkin worked as the University librarian from 1955 until his death in 1985. Most people know, at least, of his famous poem This Be The Verse that begins:

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do. …”

His corpus of work is extensive and worth reading, but is gloomy. The Wikipedia entry has quotes about him:

“a very English, glum accuracy about emotions, places, and relationships”

and

“lowered sights and diminished expectations.”

We booked into the Royal Hotel at the railway station in Hull. It was very reasonably priced and is one of the old railway hotels built in the 1850s. These hotels are being renovated across the country. They are grand and convenient; indeed I recently lunched with a colleague at the one at King’s Cross Station in London. We ended up eating dinner in the hotel restaurant after searching, during our tour, for a reasonable restaurant in the town. Hull might be ‘2017 City of Culture’ but it is certainly not the ‘2017 City of Decent Restaurants Open on a Sunday evening’.

Our table overlooked the station concourse. The food and service were both excellent. There were just two tables occupied, both parties lurking at the very edge of the dining room, thus creating the maximum distance for the waiting staff to cover. Our waiter was from a middle European country and was wearing a rainbow gay pride bracelet. He was pleased to be asked about it and told us that they had had an event in Hull a few days previously. Philip Larkin wrote the poem Friday Night At The Royal Station Hotel. I quote just six lines:

“Through open doors, the dining-room declares
A larger loneliness of knives and glass
And silence laid like carpet. A porter reads
An unsold evening paper. Hours pass,
And all the salesmen have gone back to Leeds,
Leaving full ashtrays in the Conference Room.”

Full ashtrays are now a thing of the past. Very few people smoke. Those that do used to huddle in doorways, now they are expected to go some distance away as there are special locations for these modern pariahs of our western society. I wonder if we can yet identify them and load their insurance policies accordingly, a topic I shall return to below. This is relevant because Douglas and I had a day out London and went to the science museum.

I travelled to Cambridge and London on two successive days and had a bizarre experience going back to Norwich from London on a late train. I was towards the end of the train, which means that, as the time for departure draws near, people get in the first open door, then walk up to find seats nearer the front. There were about four minutes before departure. I had grabbed a seat, putting my bag on it and the Guardian on the table. I was standing in the section between the carriages making a phone call, (I hate speaking on the phone when there are people sitting reading and relaxing). One of the latecomers walked up the aisle, picked up my paper and went on past me.

The last Monday of August is a Bank Holiday. The weather was spectacular: sunny and very warm. My sister was visiting from London, so we headed for the beach at Mundsley. This is the closest bit of coast to the house; has the advantage of being sandy (not a given in Norfolk where some of the seashore is shingle or flints); has plenty of parking; and is the location of the Beach Café, which I have raved about before. They don’t have a website but are on Facebook if anyone wants to look them up and I can strongly recommend the food, the view and the ambience.

On the way we saw a signpost for the ‘village’ of Bradfield and so turned off to visit it. We had been talking about the village the previous evening. The reason for the conversation was that my sister has been tracking down ancestors and it turned out that my paternal grandmother’s family lived in this area of Norfolk. Sure enough the churchyard was full of people with the name ‘Hall’. The church was built in the 14th century and it is a plague village. What this means is the church sits in splendid isolation, the village it once served has disappeared. This is also visible on Google Maps, both the church and a faint impression of buildings in the fields around it. It was such an interesting visit and gave us a real sense of history and connectedness.

In the last week of August Douglas and I went down to London for the day. His suggestion was that we go to the Science Museum in South Kensington, and a very fine idea it was too. We took the 09:30 train from Norwich and were at the museum by 12. It is huge. We walked up to the top floor which was on the theme of flight. As it happens Douglas had just bought me a second hand book, Martin Buckley’s Absolute Altitude: A Hitch-hikers Guide to the Sky, (Random House, 2003), which I had devoured. It is partly a history of flight and partly the story of Buckley trying to hitch-hike around the world with various pilots. This meant that I was really in seventh heaven at the museum. It is sad to note that the major advances in the science of flight came during the first and second world wars.

There are various themed exhibitions and we saw fewer than half of them. The most interesting temporary one was ‘Our Lives in Data’. It was about just how much of ourselves we give away all the time through interactions with technology as well as all the transactions we engage in. The nature of the surveillance world we live in is that people can find out a great deal about everyone else. Who would think that checking a Facebook page is something a potential employer would do before offering a position? Perhaps, working in the favour of people who want to be unwatched, is that there is just so much data out in the world.

We spent hours wandering the halls. By late afternoon our feet hurt, and we had simply seen too much to take anything more in properly. This was a pity as we did not really see the section on ‘Space’, and I would have liked to spend more time in the fascinating exhibit on medicine and medical statistics. It is certainly somewhere we shall go back to. Indeed right opposite is the Victoria and Albert, and I have no idea what treasures are there.

After we left we took the tube back to Liverpool Street Station to meet my sister for an early supper before catching the train back to Norwich. It was a great day out, and as this was the first cool and wet day of the autumn, going to a museum was an appropriate thing to do. Interestingly the museums in London are free, although there is a suggested donation of a minimal £5 per person.