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.
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).
This morning we escaped the hellish furnace of Luton Travelodge (that’s the only Travelodge dig of the post, promise) and headed to Kenilworth Road, home of Luton Town FC. Home also, it seems, of half the neighbourhood. The ground is literally hidden behind a square of tight terraced houses, the floodlights barely visible above the rooftops and the turnstiles situated between front doors. It is genuinely quicker for these people to pop out for professional football than it is for them to pop out for milk. Indeed, everything about Luton Town is similarly, endearingly, ramshackle: the club shop is a portacabin and its reception a cave off a carpark…the seats in the main stand long ago abandoned their ambition to spell out the club’s initials, and now concentrate solely on being seats, of all different colours, shapes and styles, some without backs at all. To get a television camera onto the designated gantry you have to post it up a ladder! But what The Town lacks in finesse it more than makes up for in passion and authenticity. For, after the camera is posted up the ladder, the commentator(s) must follow suit, whether they work for Diverse FM or Sky Sports. Standing on a wooden scaffolding platform for two hours in the harshest Bedfordshire January is enough to keep anyone honest. We were shown round by lovely Jess, and pretty much given free reign of the ground (except the pitch, which we were told – in no uncertain terms – was North-Korea-levels of off limits…they have a pre-season friendly there tomorrow night, having despatched Royal Antwerp 4-0 on Saturday). I went in all 3 stands, walked down the tunnel, and sat in the dugouts, imagining a fourth official holding up my number in LED lights, checking my studless hightop boots, imagining anarchically running onto the pitch, being chased from the ground never to be allowed back. I was tempted. But I kept the lid on my idiot 7-year-old self and instead tapped into other aspects of my childhood; memories of coming here with my dad (I think I’ve seen about 10 games at Kenilworth Road) and going elsewhere to see The Hatters (my first professional football game was Luton v Notts County at Meadowlane, when I still thought I supported Man Utd, on a soaking wet Tuesday night. It was 0-0, and I distinctly remember the stadium smelling of wee. I left wondering what all the fuss was about.). But, like your mother’s love, the thick-and-thin romance of the game works its magic on you over time. David Mitchell is right, the football will never stop, because if it did, so would a nation’s Saturday afternoon plans. If there wasn’t football to talk about, then for a million men (it is mostly men) there would be nothing to talk about. But we’ll get there later. Jess told me that what I know as the away stand hasn’t always been the away stand, and that if my dad was coming to watch Luton in the 70s and 80s (which he was), then he’d probably have sat there. I sat there too, mentally made the shorts shorter, mentally gave everyone questionable moustaches and cigarettes that were good for you, and I was right with him. (I used to be a long distance runner, so the short shorts bit was easy.)
We left Kenilworth Road and fended off some hostile questions about our camera with the truth – ‘this isn’t an undercover documentary about the surrounding area, but a theatre show about my dad’. Mostly through confusion rather than interest, and having heard the word ‘theatre’, the man wisely backed down, fear written all over his face. The camera has two very different effects on people – some put their guard up, and put it up hard, but some are all too keen to have their turn in the limelight. The pubs were particularly funny (‘Don’t tell the wife I’m in here. If you’re filming Langford’s Most Wanted and I’m on the tele tonight then I’m fucked!’). And today, on our way to the ground, with The Who’s Baba O’Riley ringing in my ears as I retraced our exact route from where my dad always parks his car cos it’s free and he’d rather lose a limb than pay for parking…on this walk, we were chased by three very excited kids, who interrupted their game of footy to take turns at jumping in front of Oscar, one insisting that we ‘tell everyone I’m Ronaldo yeah?’. His mate told him he wasn’t and he replied ‘yes I am though, I skill you both all the time’. Oscar and I have conferred at length, and would like to announce that he is, indeed, Ronaldo. Well done him. This despite him tripping over as he ran towards us and staying on his feet, which was a troubling curveball.
We’ve been very lucky with the weather up til now, the last two days looking more like a low budget episode of Escape To The Country than two recent graduates on a hitchhike, but we knew it couldn’t last. And not just because we were no longer in the country. The heavens opened shortly after we’d replenished our depleted Sharpie supplies, so we hid in a petrol station forecourt to make our one and only sign of the day, and our longest of the entire trip. The forecourt attendant conveniently didn’t notice us – or decided not to say anything – until I’d written all but the final ‘Y’ of ‘WELWYN GARDEN CITY’, so we packed up our hastily-assembled squat next to the pumps, and struck out toward our destination. Unfortunately, getting there involved walking through Luton city centre, a proudly culture-free zone since the dawn of time. We passed Galaxy, a multiplex cinema and bowling emporium; the unhappiest arranged marriage in entertainment history. We passed a ‘car trap’, a bin with a cock drawn on it, an abandoned shop window advertising coma sessions (which seem frankly surplus to requirements in Luton), and a pub admirably admitting its faults in a kind of anti-advert on a chalkboard outside. Despite our transparent commitment to (good-naturedly) taking the piss out of almost everything, we only took photos of less than half of these things, so desperate were we to leave.
The road to Welwyn was a busy, winding, glorified country lane, with fields or dry stone walls on both sides and absolutely nowhere to safely walk or pull over; cars, vans and lorries speeding by at 50+mph. With each passing vehicle came another tsunami of oily water and the very real danger of being run over. But at least we were no longer in Luton. Just as the water had fundamentally breached my shoes (by this point Oscar was long gone; more rain and dirt than man), Nick pulled over in his people carrier, really annoying all the less generous motorists behind him, the value of whose cars decreased with each second they were within 10 metres of hitchhikers. Nick’s car was the colour of a baby bird’s sick, but it didn’t matter because its driver was nice, it was heading loosely in the right direction, and we were inside it, where we wouldn’t have to look at it anymore. He dumped us halfway between Luton and Welwyn, in a village whose name we don’t know – not because we’ve forgotten it but because it’s so insignificant that its inhabitants appear not to have named it – and we trudged onwards, buoyed by a tentatively re-emerging sun, and being yet further away from Luton. We stopped for a now institutional wee-and-Oreo break, and I had barely buttoned up my jeans when Dylan & Mitch pulled over in their white van. Oscar made himself right at home in the windowless back, getting cosy with the home-counties’ widest range of miscellaneous electrical equipment. I told Dylan about the purpose of the trip, in a spiel I’ve now streamlined to about 30 seconds, and he told me that he’s been to Nottingham once but he can’t remember anything other than that he woke up in a park over the road from his hotel. Close. If getting to bed was a game of golf then he was definitely on the green, and would’ve elicited at least tepid applause from the crowd.
Dylan & Mitch were kind enough to drop us right at our Premier Inn, kind enough even to let Oscar out the back, like a dangerous dog finally sufficiently far away from children and the elderly to be allowed a quick run around. We permitted ourselves the small indulgence of a cup of tea and the rest of our Oreos, but NOT a change of socks…there were still a couple of significant visits to make before we could shower and get into dry clothes. My dad and his family lived in Welwyn from when he was 4 to when he was 13 or 14, and quite a few of his cousins remain here. We popped in to talk to Beryl, my dad’s aunt by marriage (i.e. my nan’s sister-in-law). I decided not to ask her why Welwyn Garden City was founded on a web of lies – a city not of gardens at all but, disappointingly, of houses – and instead asked her about my dad’s time in Welwyn House-and-Garden City. She was funny, warm and generous, and very self-aware. It’s hard to describe other people’s feelings, she said. In the case of my dad’s side of the family, it’s hard to describe your own. Beryl’s lively chatter was peppered with quiet poignancy. She fell out with Rose over some trivial miscommunication, and both are too stubborn to patch it up. They used to write to each other all the time, but now haven’t spoken for 5 years, which seems such a shame given how many times I’ve listened to my nan tell me she’s lonely (my granddad Bill passed away in 2004) and given how readily Beryl told me about her own loneliness in our conversation today (her husband Reub, Rose’s brother, passed away the year before Bill). I promised her I would try and persuade Rose to pick up the phone when I next saw her. Only if you want to, Beryl said. I do. She packed us off with the warning that if we left it any later then we wouldn’t catch my dad’s cousin David (her son) before he went to bed, because he’s leaving early tomorrow morning to watch Chelsea play in Holland. It was 7pm and still broad daylight, so I privately thought we’d be alright, but who was I to disagree! When we posed for a photo, she took my arm as if we last saw each other only yesterday rather than 10 or so years ago, as if she’d recognise me in the street and not need reminding who I was.
David took a while to respond to my knocking, and only then stuck a hostile head out the bathroom window to ask what I wanted. I’m Ray’s son, I said, and started to explain the idea behind the trip and the show beyond it. Whose son?, he asked. Ray’s, I responded, and in an unnaturally short amount of time the front door was flung open to reveal a considerably less hostile David, bald, tanned, shirtless and smiling, looking like the spit of my dad on one of the rare occasions that he drops his guard and really lets himself smile. We talked a lot. David and dad’s families grew up together, moving from London to Welwyn together after Bill got Reub a job fixing typewriters with him in the area, David and dad going to Monkswalk comprehensive together and watching football together. They’d watch a lot of it on tele, David told me, but never go to the same games because he was a Chelsea fan and my dad a Spurs man. SORRY WHAT?! Bombshell. Apparently, my dad supported Tottenham before he moved to Breachwood Green and started following Luton. This was something I had absolutely no idea about, because dad had never mentioned it. Oscar and I won’t go to White Hart Lane on this trip because 1) these sorts of things have to be comprehensively risk assessed, and 2), moreover, the very fact I knew nothing about dad’s sordid Spurs secret tells you everything you need to know; it formed nothing of our relationship at any point, and consequently holds no sentimental value for us as a father-son duo. I then asked Dave what dad was like as a boy. Whether, as Beryl testified, he was a quiet and sad child. Not really, said David, I always quite liked him, as if it’s impossible to like someone who’s quiet and sad. Halfway through telling me about games of monopoly and chess, and first cigarettes in the park, Dave’s wife Gill came home. She was surprised to have visitors, particularly ones on such a strange mission, but really invested in the idea after we told her what the hell we were doing in her lounge. We got to talking about talking. About why my dad just doesn’t do it, and why Dave – said Gill – doesn’t either. Unless it’s about Chelsea, in which case he won’t stop. The few times in my life that my dad has wanted to talk to me, he’s managed to do so only in spite of himself, palpably battling his way through some self-imposed emotional barricade, like storming a private Bastille. Each time he’s wanted a hug, Paris has had to burn inside him. We talked, mostly to Gill at this point, about why men of my dad’s and David’s generation don’t tend to talk, while many younger men do. Is it that talking is no longer considered effeminate? The women stay at home and natter away, while the men work and drink? Is it hard to fit feelings, let alone the space to air them, between a full time job, the callused skin of male pride, and the pub? I don’t know, David didn’t say too much on that.
I’ve been in a state of meditative calm since those two encounters; not just because we had our first brew with real milk in ages – instead of the uht sachets of plastic compromise you get in cheap hotels – but because we got some full fat confidences too. To Jess at Luton Town, Nick, Dylan & Mitch on the road, and Beryl, David & Gill in their own front rooms, thank you. Next stop Wembley, because – as David already told you – the football will never stop.
Hello! I’m Ben, and this is Oscar (hello, says Oscar). Welcome to a blog about a hitchhike about a family, which will become a show about a hitchhike about a family, specifically The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family! What a convoluted way to start…but convoluted is the name of the game. Why do things the easy way – getting a train to London – when you could hitchhike to Watford Gap, and Bedford, and Hitchin, and many more of your favourite home counties market towns, on a meandering journey taking you far away from home, but hopefully delivering you to some home truths.
Tomorrow morning, we will set off from Mapperley, Nottingham (famous for being Ben’s childhood suburb) on a 6-day adventure into the unknown. Anything could happen. We could (and hope to) meet some wonderful, generous and interesting people, who will offer us lifts and stories and help us on our way. We could, however, meet some utter bastards, who will rob us of our camera equipment, lunch money and carefully laundered clothes, leaving us naked and lost in the unforgiving wetlands of middle England. Only our semi-official looking lanyards can save us. One thing is certain: come rain, shine, or near-death (heavy rain), we will be blogging about it here each evening, and tweeting pictures and terrible jokes throughout the day. Please come with us (digitally; there isn’t any actual room for you), and share in this ridiculous, wonderful escapade.
WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS? says everyone, quite understandably. Erm, read this.