Wednesday, 8 April 2015

The Pard of Avon (the first part of several…?)

Thou hast seen these signs…

Perhaps it was the poor council intern from K.E.S., pulling the trolley up Chapel Lane, loaded with identical-shaped and -sized R.S.C. bags, in the sweltering heat, narrowly avoiding a collision, firstly, with the last open air bus of the day, and then a man, with sunglasses and closely-cropped greying hair, badly parallel parking in the Disabled spaces? Perhaps it was the yells emanating from the opened windows of Elizabeth House, as the councillors who had held their seats for the fifteenth time quizzed their new, fresh-faced colleagues as to whatthefuck an “app” was anyhow; and how were they then supposed to downsize it on their mobile telephones, anyway? Perhaps it was the row of white vans on Henley Street, all labelled – some considerably better than others: which did not bode well for the results of their work – with the words “sign”, “design”, “print”, or “type”; and the endless hammering from men with muscles, hard hats, and sweat: all perched precariously on a parallel row of stepladders, and a serial row of planks? Perhaps it was the rapid desecration and sacking of the dictionary corners in what were currently Waterstones and WHSmith – the raping and pillaging of books leaving anything behind, scattered on the floor, not synonym-, paronomasia- or Bard-related? Whatever it was, some powerful plague had infected – or some virulent concoction had been injected into – the retail arteries of Stratford-upon-Avon. And all just before nine o’clock, one unseasonably hot Friday night at the end of May (just as the shops were about to close).

In her first week as the United Kingdom’s second female Prime Minister, Nicola Sturgeon had declared that localism – or “subsidiarity”, as she preferred to call it: seeing as how it was so badly tarnished by Cameron’s feeble, skewed attempts – was the number one policy that would unite a nation riven by the petty squabblings of a general election campaign that, in its final days, had dissolved into name-calling and, sometimes, even outright racism. It was therefore “up to local people to take back local control” – and the newly-formed Stratford-on-Avon District Council (with an unlikely make-up of one representative from each major party – including the freak selection of an SNP member for the newly-defined Red Horse constituency – several ‘outliers’ – including a 97-year-old woman claiming to represent all Warwickshire badgers and hedgehogs – as well as an Independent ‘poet’ named Steve) had interpreted this (or was trying to) as meaning that every single business – especially those which ‘interfaced’ with tourists (and whose onrush was already making its mark in the town) – should be named – and relevantly – with an apposite Shakespeare quote, term, character or play name. Puns were allowed – under certain circumstances (which would be determined by Steve) – but no bastardizations or misspellings. Oh, and all retailers had to apply for their Shakespeare Nominative Outline Term (or S.N.O.T.) licences by midday, the next day. Hence, the “rush into the secret house of death”; or – less poetically – the long tailback from the council offices all the way down to Holy Trinity.

At the head of the queue was a man with a strong French accent screaming that a café sold food: so why could he not retain “Ze Food of Lurve”…? And, for what felt like the forty-seventh time, wafting her face with a battered copy of Twelfth Night, the poor girl behind the counter, trying also to hide behind the necessary rotating fan, now that the air-conditioning had sensibly retired, not wanting to get involved, replied “Because it’s to do with music. Music. M. U. S. I. C.. Not food. And it says here that your ‘appetite may sicken’, and you’ll ‘die’. D.I.E.. I know. I did it for G.C.S.E.. Is that what you really want…? To be associated with food poisoning…? And it’s already been given to the guitar shop, anyway….” But her fading words went unheard.

What was needed was someone (or something) with authority. But, in a building centred around politicians (that is, people with skill-sets that ill-prepared them for government: especially of a town whose population increased, tsunami-like, at the beginning of summer; and whose definition of multiculturalism was a takeaway Balti from Thespians Indian Restaurant), this was as likely as not stumbling into parading columns of famous actors with vast, flaunted, velvet cloaks, pacing perpetually up and down Bancroft Gardens – even in this heat – waiting to be accosted (“Oh: how did you know it was little meee? I was trying sooo hard to blend in, my dear boy…”); or a drunken ex-Hamlet in a dark corner of The Dirty Duck (“Itsh wash my finesht hour, you know. My very finesht. Yesh: mine’sh a double. Thank you, good man. Oh. And a pint of Stella…”).

But, as the Man once said: “A most high miracle!” [Tourist tat and legal potions; 26c Union Street; surprisingly, perhaps – or maybe not – run by an arrogant, and, of course, bearded, hipster, named Sebastian (or so he says).] And, in through the front door – miraculously parting the infinitely long, increasingly stressed and dehydrated crocodile of shopkeepers – entered a tall, quiet, man; in fact, entered what can only be described as a tall, quiet, very wizardy-looking man. Just detectable was his voice. And, just detectable in that voice was a distant Irish brogue – as distant as Dublin and Dubai, maybe; or Dudley and Dundee – but detectable, nonetheless. But was there also a tinge of rural Warwickshire in there…?

“Excuse me,” he said (or possibly whispered: the only noise now was the whirring fan – and even that seemed to have dwindled in the man’s mysterious and powerful presence). “I’m trying to find Fairer Fortune. [Tourist tat and predictions; 26d Union Street; predictably run by a raven-locked woman of indeterminable age and thickly-applied make-up, named Helen, of course.] I have an interview there in ten minutes. But none of the shops have signs on them. And it looks like the street names are all being removed.” The receptionist gave him a map, and scribbled directions – a long arrow, basically – on it. He said “Thank you”; hesitated for a moment, and added: “It looks like you’re having some sort of trouble. I’ll be back. Later.” By the time she had looked up, after putting down her pen, all that was left in front of her quizzical, grateful eyes was an impression of wayward, wispy white hair, a kindly smile, and spectacles that somehow glistened mischievously. She didn’t even wonder why anyone would attend an interview so late. And on a Friday night, too.

The following morning, all the hubbub had died down; the street signs had returned; and finally, after decades of complaints from furious letter-writers to the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald, the fascias on every shop in the centre of town were not only aesthetically pleasing in themselves; but, somehow, magically, you may say, formed a rather wonderful grouping and concatenation of hues and typography. There were even gaps in-between catering establishments – some, even, not purveying “tourist tat” at all. Or coffee.

And yet, for a while, no-one noticed. Only a couple of weeks later, wandering along by the theatre, did a man named Jack notice that Sheep Street’s clothing shop, All the Men and Women, was next door to Merely Players, the gaming-related souvenir shop; followed by Exits and Entrances, the funeral directors; One Man in his Time, the clockmakers; what used to be Mothercare; their offshoot, selling school uniforms; Ann Summers; a sheet-music shop; an Oxfam specializing in ex-military uniforms; a new public house (specializing in roast lunches and dinners); and an old-people’s home. And, on Ely Street, Flat 2b was – possibly amusingly – next to a flat labelled “2c (not 2b)”; next door to a philosopher’s; and then a gun shop; the relocated, and much-expanded, Fairer Fortune; Games Worskshop; and another funeral directors.

But, by the time he reached what he was convinced he believed he knew to be Pizza Express, all thoughts of abnormality had been replaced by hunger: and he singularly failed to notice, that, although the logo looked similar and familiar, his favourite restaurant had been renamed, weirdly, The Proud Man’s Contumely; and the previously friendly waiters had somehow become very rude indeed.

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