For me, the trip sort of resembled watching a 50 hour-long film on a tiny LCD screen called Ben Norris Walks In And Out Of Focus A Lot And Occasionally Gets Into Cars.
You may think I needed some persuading to hitchhike through the crap towns greatest hits package with a super-sized camera and a regular-sized poet but you’d be utterly mistaken. Truth is, I jumped at the chance. Forget Dubai, the Seyshells and Monte Carlo, I holiday amongst the bright lights and heady thrills of Welwyn Garden City (still there, it turns out). Thank God for the DSLR; it could sex-up the frumpiest service station foyer at a lick and did wonders for Ben’s ragged roadside complexion.
Health & safety enthusiasts, cabbies, expensive car-owners, other car-owners, the public transport sector, all those who’ve ever tried it and failed and Ray’s mate Marcus might disagree, but hitchhiking is one hell of a way to get about. Life on the road is the idle fantasy I can’t get over. I’m forever nourishing my inner traveller with a succession of romantic clichés and brazenly ignoring all the reasons why it would be a shit and lonely and loveless and futile existence if taken up full time. Five days hitching, plus friend, plus theatrical imperative, however, was exactly right. Somewhere in amongst all the Travelodge ridicule and bear-based photoshoots was a sort of point… *
I’d expected to dismiss the half-remembered anecdotes about the formative years of my friend’s father as told by distant relatives and one-time companions with ease. To me, after all, they were meaningless. Names like Rose and Terry were bandied about with abandon whilst I wrestled with such challenges as keeping the camera vaguely upright. I had no faces, nor memories to put to these oft-quoted characters, but as the trip wore on and we delved deeper into Ray’s past, the detail of their lives began to take on significance. A humdrum legend. An epic myth of everyday ordinariness. By the time we rocked up at Wickham Street in Lambethto gaze up at what was likely Rose’s birthplace, she was as much Zeus as she was Ben’s Nan. Where were the hordes of praying pilgrims and near-empty donation boxes, I probably wondered.
Also, it’s just really nice to get out of the house and see a bit of the world isn’t it. Not a good bit in this case, but unmistakeably, a bit. England’s concrete, camera-shy backwaters are characterised by rural snobbery, urban multiculturalism, the scary prevalence of Tesco and Costa, football fever, pints, pies, meal deals and a dead badger by the road. If you’re willing to overlook the alarming chlorine stench that may well indicate a nearby Travelodge, you’ll find a land of full of friendly human people, happy to talk about their lives and their past and their communities and their dogs and the size of their long-dead mate’s dick. I’m not patriotic, but I noticed my country to an extent I’m not sure I ever have before. It’s alright really.
It wouldn’t be a blog about a show about a hitchhike about a family without some unashamed self-promotion now would it? If the hitchhike taught me anything, it’s that you don’t need a degree in Norris family history to get something out of this show, you don’t even need a family, you just need to get your ass over to mac birmingham on Saturday the 6th September. I can promise laughter, tears, an over-50 percent chance of not falling asleep, and far more integrity and structural elegance than I’ve managed in this post!
And if you’ve decided not to come, I don’t think it’s going too far to say you’re significantly less of a person. Go sit in a corner and have a bloody good think about what you’ve done.
* A critically acclaimed, sell-out run at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2015 followed by a national tour and knighthoods for all.
Last night we left you in a bit of a hurry, denying you pictures of Day Five in the process (now uploaded for your viewing pleasure). But for good reason, dearest readers… We decided last minute to rush back to see Luton Town’s pre-season friendly against Colchester United. It seemed strange being at Kenilworth Road on Monday and not watching a match (after all, I’d never been to the ground with my dad when nothing was happening!), so when Jess mentioned that the Town were playing we vowed to return if time allowed. Thanks to Bea and her functioning car and empathy gland, time did allow.
It was fantastic to – if not be back in Luton so soon – be back at the ground, and this time with other Hatters. Walking among a sea of orange shirts was exactly the ritual that Monday had lacked. The attendance was modest, but this didn’t matter much. The fact it was a pre-season friendly, however, didn’t stop one man wishing death upon the linesman and all his children, which was a great shame. (He clearly hadn’t done his research either, as the linesman is famously childless.)
The experience was made all the more special because it was Oscar’s first professional football game in the flesh. He had a nice time. In a minute you’ll see various pictures of his face, having a nice time. He has said that he already feels a greater affinity to Luton Town than to any other club (if his dad – a life-long Hammer – is reading this, he says sorry), which tells you way more about his previous indifference to football than it does about Luton. Or perhaps not. Also, we had a pukka pie, because if it ain’t broke…
Thankfully, we managed to escape Luton before we had to spend another night in its clutches, only to remember half way home that we were returning to a fresh hell, to spend the night in a different identical building, the Nowhere-Near Wembley Travelodge. Shudder. This morning marks Travelodge Saturation Point, having spent the maximum number of nights it is possible to spend in one before going absolutely and irretrievably insane.
It was 2-2, by the way, so that was nice for everyone.
Que Sera Sera. Whatever will be, will be. We’re going to Wembley. Que Sera Sera.
And we’re going there really easily, without any problems whatsoever. We’d been standing next to a beautiful lake on the outskirts of Welwyn Normal City for about twenty minutes, enjoying the sun and the bemused looks on the faces of passing leisure cyclists, when Bea pulled over. She wasn’t going to Wembley, she said, but she could take us as far as the A1 (about a mile away). She then drove us all the way to Wembley. Because #yolo.
Bea is a professional tennis player, and an amateur lovely woman. She’d just finished morning training, and had five free hours until afternoon training began…what better way to fill that time than to chauffeur two possibly knife-weilding (very sweaty) maniacs to the spiritual home of global football? (She was admittedly very sweaty too, so that bit didn’t matter so much. We left the knives in our bags.) She’s on the long road back from a serious injury which culminated in her recently having a rib removed (so she’s now even more inferior to men, like Eve -1), and she and I talked a lot about the psychological repercussions of top class sport (I quit athletics after a series of immensely demoralising mystery knee injuries). Anyway…
We were there! We had done it! Nottingham to Wembley via Bedford, Langford, Hitchin, Breachwood Green, Luton, and Welwyn Garden City, all without setting foot (or bum) on any public transport! Well done us. Aren’t we great.
Feeling more like tourists than anywhere else on the trip, we took a lot of photos and had a look round the shop (an actual shop this time, not Luton’s portacabin, but equally depressing and equally overpriced – at least Luton’s had more windows and less Nike!). I stood next to Bobby Moore. As did a chinese man, each spoiling the other’s photo in a succinct demonstration of why there ought to be one Bobby Moore statue per Wembley visit0r. The ravaging effects of the 2006 Bobby Moore statue shortage are still being felt, eight years on.
Before heading to check our bags in to yet another Travelodge (we’re both too exhausted by the very idea of Travelodge to make any more jokes at this stage), we went to Brent River Park. River is a generous way of describing Brent River, which is more like a toxic trickle of rancid piss, which London generously allows to flow away rather than obliterating from the face of the planet. That said, the park around Brent “river” is quite nice. We’d come to try and find one of the flagpole towers from the old Wembley (the Wembley at which Luton beat Arsenal 3-2 in the 1988 Littlewoods Cup final), which was demolished in 2003. But when an initial circuit of the park proved fruitless, we gave up. We ate some lunch and – mid-olive-and-houmous-feast – realised that the tower was essentially right next to us. Like almost everything on this trip, it was so unimpressive as to be easily and instantly overlooked. Like almost everything on this trip, its sentimental value more than made up for this – the old Wembley playing host to many of my dad’s most cherished football memories, and some of hi biggest disappointments too. I stood near it, I stood on it, and photos were taken. It was weather-beaten, mouldy and crumbling, but the very fact it was still there was all that mattered.
After walking away from Wembley for several years, both estranging ourselves from our families and growing knee length facial hair, we arrived at Travelodge Wembley. And then we wrote this. And now we have to go. The hitchhike may be over (and thank you so much to everyone who has helped us!), but we still have lots to do in London. That’s for another time (specifically tomorrow).
Both valiantly trying to endure our post-curry hangovers, we set off from The Firs Hotel, Hitchin, towards Breachwood Green, our first port of call for the day. After a short but hairy stroll along some more un-footpathed A-roads, the route became much more rural, and thus much less densely populated with cars. And those few cars that did pass us tended to look at us as one would look at a piece of shit on their shoe. A really expensive shoe. A really stinky shit. According to Google maps, the walk from the hotel to The Red Lion in Breachwood Green would take 2 hours 19 minutes, which Oscar and I gallantly prepared ourselves for. After an hour of walking and only a pleasant conversation with a cheery hedgecutting chap in Gosmore to show for it, we were starting to think we were right, the hitchike now like a crap Duke of Edinburgh expedition, with less Kendal Mint Cake and livestock, and more threat of instant death by big, expensive car impatient to bed down for the night in lavish double garage.
We stopped for a rural-wee-and-oreo-break (as I believe it’s called in the military), thinking that it’d be at least another hour til lunch at the pub, but how funny it would be were we to be picked up immediately now we’d stuffed ourselves. We were picked up immediately. Susan’s BMW can step the fuck aside, for Richard’s gold Dodge had arrived. We expected him to be pulling over in order only to shout something about poverty, hitchhiking and the broken benefits system, but actually he coolly beckoned us in. Richard said lots of interesting things but nothing as interesting as his car, so for the sake of brevity, he delivered us, as all good English men ought, straight to the door of the public house.
I was really pleased to find it was still open; a viscious rumour was recently circulated by the national press but mostly by my immediate family that one of the two pubs Bill & Rose ran had closed. Given that we yesterday saw The Plough if not thriving, at least definitely still serving beer, I feared for The Red Lion’s life. But it was literally in bloom, its hanging baskets overflowing with flowers and its bar overflowing with one or two people buying things. Just as with The Plough, I was sure that I’d been here before, probably through photos I now don’t remember seeing as a child. But either way, it was a nice first return. We headed out into the beer garden, the weather once again glorious, to admire the view of cornfield after cornfield after major international airport. But despite the proximity of London-Luton’s runways, it was truly idyllic. We ordered a roast and set to meeting people. David, the landlord, much like Tracy at The Plough, hadn’t been there long enough to know an enormous amount about the history of the pub’s tenants, but he kindly pointed me in the direction of Peggy & Joe Farr, 91 and 95 respectively, sitting in the corner and waiting for their food. They were with their son Ivan and his wife Chris, who between them seemed to know the entire history of the pub, stretching back as far as 1900! Joe’s brother Jack ran The Red Lion before Bill & Rose took over, and his sister ran it before him. It has since been back in the hands of the Farr family; Ivan & Chris’s daughter Debbie ran it before current incumbent David took over. Joe can remember Bill & Rose, and can even remember Terry, my dad’s older brother who would’ve been around 15 when they moved to Breachwood Green. Terry, according to Joe, would help behind the bar, but he can’t remember anything about my dad, other than the fact that Bill & Rose had a second son. Where was Ray in all this then? If Marcus’s tales of drunkenness and debauchery are anything to go by, he was pissed out of his mind, (unsuccessfully) seducing women in Lagos.
We went for a stroll around Breachwood Green, which is even smaller than Langford, and happened upon the playing fields. There was the home straight of an athletics track painted on the grass, and I did a couple of hundred metre sprints for old times’ sake, wondering if my dad had ever done the same, on this very field almost 50 years ago. He has told me before that he used to sprint at school (he did specify competitively, not just away from the police), so perhaps…perhaps. Oscar and I did a quick circuit of the playground, established that everything was far too small for us both and our very presence was probably really creepy, and headed back to write a ‘Luton’ sign and get on our way.
The walk from Breachwood Green to Luton is much shorter than the walk from Hitchin to Breachwood Green, but not if you actually have to walk all the way. Save for 90 sweet seconds in the car of a man whose name with think is Phil but can’t say for sure, so short was our rendeszvous with him, we did walk the all the way. Disclaimer: Possible-Phil took us as far as he could without massively compromising his journey, and we hadn’t time to tell him about all the people who have massively compromised their journeys for us, so he knew no better and therefore should not be blamed.
Given that we’d already passed the ‘Welcome to Luton’ sign, a sign so apologetic it might as well read, ‘sorry, you’re here, but it’ll be over soon’, we figured we must be close-ish to our accommodation. Not so. We were 4.8 miles away. However, Luton is a gloriously multi-cultural city (say what you like about terrorists and the EDL (and please do), most people here – as with everywhere – are nice), and our walk from one side of town to the other took us through numerous nations; different languages, smells and rhythms wafting over us in the still-muggy evening air, the street teeming with life, like a shared front room, its vibrancy and energy the only things keeping us going.
Exhausted, deliriously slipping in and out of consciousness, and with shoulders more tender than even F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most marinated night, the never-ending climb and sense of impending doom reminded me of my Kilimanjaro trek in 2010. The only difference being that when I arrived at my destination this time I wouldn’t be atop Africa’s tallest mountain, but at Luton’s tallest (and only) Travelodge. When I reached the summit of Kili, I remember writing in my diary: ‘I don’t believe in God, but this is the closest to heaven I have ever felt’. All I can safely say about this experience, is that it is the closest to Travelodge Luton I have ever felt. The man at reception was a breath of fresh air, as if he was yet to realise he was employed by Travelodge, but a breath of even the freshest air in an otherwise rancid cave can only do so much. Like a drop of water in an ocean of urine. Our room is a sweaty cesspit, strewn with the sordid remains of two Tesco meal deals and three days on the road, but we have wifi, we have you, and we have each other. (Which is no consolation because we both stink!) Disclaimer: We have showered, separately, but with water made of cut corners and broken dreams, we were fighting a losing battle with clean.
Since we began this silly, serious escapade, we’ve had people queueing up to tell us how spectacularly we would fail. (They’re probably still queueing up, but the queue is in Nottingham, where they thought we would remain, but where – significantly – we are not!). The latest naysayer was Marcus, who last night told us that we would have to catch a bus from Hitchin to Breachwood Green, or we’d be buggered. Given that the bus doesn’t run on Sundays, and our shared desire not to be buggered, Oscar and I simply had to make it work. Despite the dying culture for hitchhiking in this country, there remain enough people who remember the time it thrived; remember their own hitchhiking adventures (Possible-Phil’s trip from Morocco to France, and Bob-from-Nottingham’s weekly commute from Halifax to home are cases in point). And they’re more than willing to pick us up, a spark in their tired eyes reigniting at the memory of life on the (side of the) road. We’re a rare breed now, but as we have discovered over the last few days – and dearly hope to continue to experience! – hitchhiking may be dying, but it’s certainly not dead.
Rest easy, dear readers, for we are not dead. We are, however, in something like death’s waiting room, known to the internet and the locals as Bedford Travelodge. We expected to blog tonight, if we were able to blog at all (and not stranded somewhere, freezing and ravenous), in a mood of triumph, having defied the odds and battled the indifference of the British motoring public to arrive at our first night stopover. But actually it was hella easy. Or at least hella lovely, and only occasionally worrying.
The sound of silence
The day began in the worst possible way (exaggeration for the sake of dramatic tension), with a pretty annoying technological glitch: our microphone (a really expensive one) didn’t work. Like, at all. We rang some people. They were as confused as we were. Or more confused, even, because they’d rented us the gear, and the gear was good! So we just had an apple, each, a pot of tea, between us, and went on our way. To the pub. Over a therapeutic sausage cob (and a less than therapeutic episode of me explaining to Oscar what a cob is (it’s a bread roll, you racists)), we drew up a hitchhiking sign in big black marker – it simply read ‘M1’ – and hit the road.
3 white vans and the christening of a bear
After being shouted at for correctly and responsibly using a pelican crossing by an angry young male motorcyclist who was clearly denied his mother’s breast, we walked along the Valley Road and eventually got our first lift! Oscar was bundled into the back, like the hostage in every Channel 5 drama you’ve mercifully never seen, and we surfed the ring road out towards Junction 26. The driver’s name was (and probably still is) Paul, and his passenger’s Dean. The bear, as promised this morning, was thus named Paul Dean the Bear, and is male. He is now just Dean to his friends. Try saying ‘Paul Dean’. It’s like ‘Pauline’ gone wrong. It’s like a poet being sick backwards. No no no.
We added a ‘SOUTH’ sign to our ‘M1’ and took up soon-to-be familiar residence by the side of the road.
Next was Andy, a renewable energy guru with dreads and patience aplenty, who took us right to the M1 slip before sadly heading north, no longer of use to us.
No sooner had Andy cast us aside because he inexplicably wanted to go to ‘Bradford’, were we picked up by Eddie, an arthritic Scotsman who really did not give a shit about why we were doing this, but was kind enough to take us to Trowell Services as long as we didn’t tell his boss he had picked us up because he would definitely lose his job. He works for Debenhams and his registration number is- nah nah nah, just jokin init.
We stopped at Trowell thinking we had made excellent progress after our frustrating start to the day, but thinking also that we were only going to get lifts from white men in white vans, to whom Oscar and I posed no greater a sexual threat than an injured daffodil would Ian McKellan.
However, this all changed when NO ONE PICKED US UP. We assumed that a service station on the south side of the motorway would be the easiest place to hitch a lift south on the motorway, but apparently not. Blank face after bald smug Range Rover owning blank face sailed past for what seemed like hours because it literally was hours. But as soon as Oscar took a picture of Dean looking forlorn, his beary head in his beary hands, seemingly never to get picked up, Lucy came to our rescue. Lucy is originally from New Zealand, where hitchhiking is a much more prevalent means of travel, and so had no qualms picking us up, throwing our bags in the boot of her car (not white van), and taking us all the way to Watford Gap, riding high on a sea of euphoria at having been rescued from Trowell, and a sea of mild interest at what she had to say regarding consumer science and her imminent holiday in Iceland.
Watford Gap, or Dante’s Greenhouse
It was hot. Really hot. Oscar’s Kit-Kat gracefully retired from solidity. So we got ourselves some innocent smoothies (other smoothies are available, although crucially they weren’t), and we set to work on making another sign: ‘BEDFORD’, undoubtedly our most aesthetically pleasing to date. I did special lines on it and everything. As Oscar rounded the Costa Corner (as the BBC Formula 1 commentators call it) I proudly showed him the sign, only to have the wind taken out of my sweaty sails when Susan of the Land of the Adjacent Table went ‘oh, Bedford, I’m going near there’. Sorted.
Susan’s wheels were our poshest of the day – her saloon BMW feeling inappropriately clean, the leather inappropriately sticky – but they did the job, in that they were wheels and they were driving towards somewhere near Bedford. She unceremoniously dumped us in a layby just off Junction 13, I went for a wee in a bush, and we set about sourcing what we hoped would be our final ride of the day.
Then Simon stopped, as if he knew his bit would come at the end of a long blog post of which we’re all growing tired, and dutifully drove us to our destination. He said some lovely things about Luton Town and Arsenal, and we had a lovely conversation about our respective fathers, which you’ll have to pay £5 to hear in September! Indeed, all our lift-givers today, with the possible exception of Eddie who genuinely did not give a shit, had gorgeous stories to share about their own families, their own hitchhiking stories, and all seemed to really invest in our story too. An earnest thank you to them (we gave them the blog address, so they could be reading this. Eddie won’t be).
See you tomorrow, for what we hope will be a tale of one less technical glitch, and many more a successful hitch. And that’s all the poetry you’re getting right now.