Conversations in a northern pub. Hope for the cynical. The fall of British Greatness? The Lake District and partying. The Old Man versus Swirl How. An adventure alone becomes isolation in a faraway place.
Back roads and lanes of Torver
Our accents stood out in a pub crowded with northerners. Not just as the only Londoners present, but as the only people present from anywhere else. The closest thing to multiculturalism was the Scottish barmaid. There wasn’t any overt sense of the famous north/south resentment the nation suffers. It’s my experience that on an individual level this doesn’t really exist and when it does, it’s good natured and mostly centred on sports rivalries and whether Oasis are better than Blur. We were regarded with general disinterest. People didn’t stop their conversations, put their drinks down, or turn to glower at us.
We found a cramped table in the corner and ordered food. A while later, on an equally cramped table to our right, an older couple sat down. This was Colin and Mary. The heads of a small farming family. They knew their trade and held a traditionalist respect for an honest day’s work. This attitude might be a luxury reserved for the fewer and fewer people that manage to retire with some of their mobility and spirit intact.
Colin was 63, Mary was younger. They holidayed in Torver every year, usually more than once. He was a white haired man, shaven and well groomed, in a white and blue chequered shirt, emblazoned with a fox at the breast, and blue jeans. I forget what Mary was wearing, but she had a warm personality that you could feel before she spoke. Her face had been well-aged by a disposition toward laughter. They reminisced about past travels. They smiled at one another and chuckled spontaneously and although their relationship was old, their love was still fresh, they’d managed to keep it in a perpetual springtime. Everything was brighter and more optimistic.
For a cynic and a misanthrope, it’s good to meet people like this. A generation of broken families must be inclined toward pessimism. Their joy in one another’s company came off so effortlessly, I considered that maybe I was looking at one of those happy endings I’d dismissed before as a fairytale. Then again, most relationships look good in public. It might be that at home they argue until the dark hours of the morning. It might be raised voices and cutlery flying.
On the downside, they were on that borderline just before racist. They planted a lot of blame for the fall of British Greatness at the feet of foreigners; particularly eastern Europeans. In reality, British Greatness, for what it is, is built on the backs of foreigners. Whether they’re staffing our health service or fighting our wars. Whether they’re contributing to the culture or contributing to the economy.
I said that immigrants aren’t so much the problem. Business is the problem. People from under-developed countries will work for less and so employers pocket more profit. Obviously they want to pay less and get more, which makes a poor immigrant population incredibly useful, and probably essential to the British economy. That probably goes for all the large, global markets.
Where would we be today without slavery? Where would British Greatness stand? All the great empires and civilisations lived on the backs of slaves; whether we talk Rome, Ancient Greece, The British Empire, the plutocracy we live under today. It’s all the same. All built by the desperate with a slim elite at leisure.
Colin and Mary, and lot of the pub’s patrons, were gone by 10:30. We moved from our table to the bar and started a conversation with the barmaid. She was a law graduate from Aberdeen who’d come to the Lake District on a whim. She saw an ad on Gumtree—accommodation included—and wanted to go somewhere new and exciting. She felt adventurous. The cliché of youth that tells you to run from home and find somewhere nobody knows you. Partly the same urge that had us travelling.
On this occasion, she was disappointed. Torver is a world away from the party heartland of Britain. She had no social life. Colleagues but no friends. A few days before, she’d spent her birthday trekking to the top of Old Man Coniston alone.
The Old Man is usually called the highest fell in Cumbria, however, this is a somewhat controversial claim. There’s another hill to the north, Swirl How, which, depending on whether you use a survey that puts it at 802 metres, or another that puts it at 804 metres, is sometimes given the perhaps dubious accolade of the highest peak in the Lake District. Whichever wins does so by such a dissatisfying margin it’s hard to care very much.
I felt for the barmaid, she’d taken a chance and it hadn’t paid off. Instead of gathering experiences, she’d ended up isolated, surrounded by old men and locked down in a small room above a small pub in a small town, waiting for the end of summer. The importance of travelling with a friend cannot be overstated. An adventure alone is barely an adventure at all, most times.
We asked about the night life.
She laughed and said, ‘One time I had a mad night out in Coniston. It’s the underground party scene.’
She served a few customers then came back and asked if we were students.
‘I knew you were,’ she told us and laughed. ‘No one comes in here talking about poverty and materialism.’ Looking around, seeing everyone in farm clothes, red faced with whiskey and hard expressions even when they smiled, it wasn’t such a surprise.
She’d overheard us talking earlier. Maybe more people had paid us attention than we thought. The pretentious fucking Londoners and their post-graduate degrees. The North is no place for philosophy, it’s a place for hard work. That’s something you can feel. While the south worries itself with what it considers the higher order concerns, the north keeps the country moving. It is home to most of the great and terrible symbols of British industry.
This is George Orwell’s description of his journey through the north, it’s 80 years old but still captures the reality of life in the cities here.
‘The train bore me away, through the monstrous scenery of slag-heaps, chimneys, piled scrap-iron, foul canals, paths of cindery mud criss-crossed by the prints of clogs… As we moved slowly through the outskirts of the town we passed row after row of little grey slum houses running at right angles to the embankment.’
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