On a recent trip to the Peak District, I stopped by Hadfield, the location for Royston Vasey in the TV series The League of Gentlemen. I didn’t see Tubbs and Edward, unfortunately, but I did see a Daily Mail branded newsagents wishing us Merry Christmas and a surprisingly sexy pie advert. Also good to know British Rail still run there, as I could have sworn it was privatised in 1993.
What is it with Europeans and castles? Why did they have to build so many? Why are they so big? And why, as I once overheard an American tourist say in Edinburgh, did they have to ‘build them so goddam far from the train station?’
You build castles for lots of reasons, but mostly:
1. To show off, of course.
2. To protect your family from invaders intent on the whole rapin’ ‘n’ pillagin’ thing.
3. To Live out your powdered-wig-wearing-fantasy of being Louis XIV, even though it’s, like, 1895 and you’re German.
4. Because you’ve just decided ‘I am the REAL pope and that charlatan in the Vatican will have to come and get me if he wants to argue the toss’.
5. Because you’re mad (see 3. and 4.)
So, dear armchair traveller, here is a not very exhaustive and extremely biased (but awesome!) list of the best European castles.
5. Conwy, Wales
Welsh castles were mostly used as places to avoid the Welsh. Marauding hordes intent on pillaging your women and raping your livestock are best avoided, let’s face it.
4. Carcassonne, France
Even the throngs of shouty middle class Anglais on Range Rover powered booze-and-fromage-athon holidays cannot ruin this one. Strictly speaking, Carcassonne is a fortified town, but whatevs.
3. Versailles, France
Built by this mad guy who wore powdered wigs and thought he was Louis XIV or something… oh, hang on…
2. The Alhambra, Spain
In spite of being strict Muslims, they chose to name their castle after a pork product and a piece of underwear. Go figure.
1. Kalemegdan Fortress, Serbia
Anyone foolish enough to attempt to mess with the Serbs had better have a game plan for this bad boy. It’s been fought over by everyone from the Romans to the Nazis. They even have a US stealth fighter plane they shot down, in the castle museum. Rad!
For the last few years, I’ve kind of enjoyed watching with bemusement as the kids of today re-live the 90s. It’s sort of like being in a fairground hall of mirrors, where you can recognise the original image, but it’s been hideously deformed. All the while, Corona’s “Rhythm of The Night” plays in the background.
So far as I can tell, there are three main looks in the 90s revival.
1. The first is the one I call: ‘Oh My Eyes’
I honestly don’t know if it’s meant to be ironic or not. It’s stuff like salmon pink shiny shirts with african patterns, pastel shellsuits or anything that would have been described as “Jazzy” by your parents.
When they bought it you as a Christmas present. Which was then hidden down the back of your wardrobe and never worn in public. Until 2011, when it ended up in a vintage shop and on sale for £75.
2. The second is what they’re calling ‘Grunge’. But is really like Blossom. If Blossom was a slutty Goth.
3. …and finally, is the look I’m going to call ‘Crystal Peaks’.
Crystal Peaks was a shopping mall built near my house whose sole purpose was to introduce consumer debt into the former coalfields of South Yorkshire. The people who shopped there looked like this. They also wore Kappa trackie bottoms with press studs. And Naff Co 54 jackets from the market. Which are now 20 quid on Ebay. I shit you not.
So, that’s it, guys.
We were totally wrong about the 90s. We thought Barbie Girl and Mr Vain were shit, but it turns out they were great. Tricky, Jeff Mills, The Pixies and Radiohead simply will not stand the test of time compared to the likes of Dr Alban and Apache Indian.
While we wistfully imagined ourselves singing timeless classics like Wonderwall or End of a Century in 20 years’ time, we had no idea that singing Here Comes The Hotstepper whilst wearing Kappa was where it would be at.
How foolish we were to watch Twin Peaks, when the true pinnacle of popular culture was in fact Saved By The Bell.
Luckily, it’s not too late for us to do the 90s the right way: The way we should have done it. Just need to head down the vintage store for a velvet dress, crop top and choker combo. And a Sabrina The Teenage Witch box set from HMV.
There is barely any photographic evidence of the 90s the first time round, anyway, so the 90s version 2.0 is going to be the one we remember, let’s face it.
It’s funny how time just moves on and, imperceptibly, things disappear without fanfare or farewell. Of course, technology is the reason for most things to become outdated. Among the recent cultural cullings are: Watching VHS, listening to CDs, using encyclopedias, knowing people’s phone numbers, arranging to meet someone at a specific time, booking your holiday at a travel agents (or through Ceephax if you were awesome), wearing a watch, writing a letter.
While the digital age has heralded much of this change, some of it is unrelated to technology and more of a fashion thing. It’s no longer relevant who is at number one in the charts. Neither is it cool to visibly belong to a youth subculture. Except in, like, Retford or Cumbria, where defiant Emo kids still cling longingly to the idea that thickness of eyeliner equates to emotional depth. As a DJ, I am no longer expected to announce people’s birthdays or ask “anyone here celebrating A-level results day tonight?” in a nightclub, thankfully.
But one thing that has passed imperceptibly into the past is Grannies. By which I mean real Grannies of the kind still depicted on TV like this:
Proper Grannies were so ubiquitous that we never thought we’d see the back of them. We thought that, as you got older, we’d all automatically start wearing nylon dresses and calling the radio the “wireless”. It seemed a natural part of the ageing process: As soon as your hair turned grey, you suddenly felt an uncontrollable urge to eat tongue sandwiches and switch to electric blankets and eiderdowns.
But something happened….
The proper Grannies went to the great whist drive in the sky and the baby boomers started reaching 50, then 60, then 70… Suddenly, your Granny has done more LSD than you have and makes better pesto to boot. Granny wants a Kindle Fire for Christmas. Granny has 2000 followers on Pinterest. Granny is glamping at Glastonbury (Emily Eavis follows her on Twitter).
So, before they are gone forever, let us remember:
Carriage clocks for 40 years’ loyal service
Listening to Perry Como/holidaying at Lake Como
Calling electricity ‘the electric’
Knowing/caring who Princess Grace of Monaco is
Motorbikes with sidecars
Tea urns in village halls
Saying ‘five bob’
Saying someone has ‘elfin’ features
Knowing how to play the piano
Thinking milk is healthy
Those brass lady/bell ornaments
What with the rise of British Bake-off and Sewing Bee, the hipster-fuelled return of knitting and the Swing music revival, some might argue that Granny culture is making a comeback. Or, like vinyl records, Caramacs and milk floats, it never actually went away if you knew where to look. More elderflower wine and damson jam is being consumed at more WI meetings now than at any time in the past 20 years. So while there is always a hint of tedious 21st century irony in the latter-day fad for bunting, shabby chic and Keep Calm and Carry On, at least we have some reminders of the Reenies and Mabels and Ethels who made our childhoods so full of joy. And Murray mints.
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Doing stuff ‘before it was cool’ is – generally speaking – a sound principle. Being that it might include such coups as seeing Blondie at CBGBs, or, I dunno, buying that JK Galbraith book before everyone knew it was JK Rowling, that sort of thing. But living in East London ten years ago? Please. This is not something to be proud of. It was flippin’ awful.
There was nothing trendy about living amongst dirty chicken emporiums, crackpot evangelical churches, unlit streets of bleak empty warehousing, derelict bombed-out wasteground (and some council estates you wished the Luftwaffe would return for), Pat Butcher lookalikes, Eels, liqour sauce, stabby pubs, handy shops where you could buy wigs and transfer money abroad all in one place, prozzies, squatters with rotweillers, Mitchell Brothers lookalikes and an overground train service that ran every other Tuesday, weather permitting.
Those were the days. The good old days before the overground when you had to spend three hours getting to Clissold Park only to find you were 10 years too early and were then unceremoniously lynched by 13 year-olds in Kappa.
“Oh, but what about gentrification? I was a ‘real’ person who had no money and had to live here. I’m not gamourising it. I’m legit”. Oh, congratulations. Here – have a medal. It’s from the people of Glasgow congratulating you on your working class credentials. I hear there’s a plaque with your name on it in the Miner’s Welfare in Merthyr Tydfil now, too.
Let’s not forget: You weren’t born East. If you’d have been born there, you’d be now residing in Chingford, topping up your perma-tan, glad to be finally rid of the life-sucking hell-hole once and for all instead of cycling round Stokey complaining about peak beard.
Getting into Oxford University is, like, really hard. And it’s, like, really expensive, too. But it must be cool, because David Cameron and Mr Bean went there.
… Let’s Hack it!
Option 1: The Brookes Blag
Oxford has another University. It’s called Oxford Brookes, which sounds a bit like Oxford. Especially to foreign employers. Even more so if you leave out the ‘Brookes’ bit. It’s also a lot easier to get into (though it costs the same amount in fees).
Total Cost: £9,000 per year.
The Pros: Oxford without the geeks. The word ‘Oxford’ in your degree. Life amongst the dreaming spires and all that.
The Cons: That nagging feeling at the back of your mind that whispers “you didn’t really go to Oxford, did you”.
Option 2: An Armchair Approach
While studying in Oxford is all very well and good, it has a fatal drawback: You have to actually be arsed to live in Oxford.
Why not use the power of the interwebs to watch lectures online? It’s like being in Oxford, except without the spotty geeks, three-legged pub crawl participants, hooray Henries and Cowley crack whores.
Total Cost: £0
The Pros: Learn from the greats at your own pace.
The Cons: It is an internet thing and therefore mostly ephemeral.
Option 3: A Scholarly Scam
It’s a not-very-well-advertised fact that members of the public can attend lectures at Oxford University. At the discretion of the college, you could attend a series of weekly lectures for as little as £60 per term. Basically, peanuts. Then you could buy a year’s subscription to the Bodleian Library, costing the princely sum of £38.
But what about the one-to-one tuition that Oxford is so famous for? Well, you could advertise in the Daily Info for a private tutor. You’ll find a PhD student or junior academic is willing to teach you one-to-one for £25 an hour.
The downside? You won’t get a degree. You’ll have nothing to show for your efforts except, like, actually knowing stuff.
Total Cost: £818 per year.
The Pros: An actual Oxford education, without the stress or the essay deadlines.
The Cons: No degree certificate, but then Oxford don’t give out degree certificates, so you’re fine.
Option 4: The Language School Lie
There are private colleges around Oxford which cash in on the ‘Brookes Effect’. You can spend a few weeks in Oxford doing a short course in anything from beginners’ English to advanced Calculus for a few hundred quid. And the colleges have names like ‘St Cuthberts College, Oxford’ or ‘Marlborough College, Oxford’. You also get to hang out in the Turf Tavern, go punting, pick up some received pronunciation and generally feel like an extra from Brideshead, Downton et al.
Total Cost: £200 for a short course
The Pros: A certificate bearing the words “Studied English at Regency College Oxford” or some such gubbins.
The Cons: ‘Con’ is the definitely the operative word.
Option 5: The Deuchars Deception
Sit in The Eagle and Child or The Lamb and Flag, wear tweeds and talk about Marxism. Soon enough, everyone will assume that you’re a Queen’s Fellow anyway.
Total Cost: £3.80 a pint.
The Pros: Beer
The Cons: Can’t remember. Whose round is it?
LIKED THIS? NOW READ: How To Pretend To Be Great At Piano When You’re Not.
This is what happens when you follow Google Maps
The quickest route back from Munich to the UK by road is quite possibly one of the dullest, scariest and most excruciating drives you would ever have the misfortune to experience in your life. Google maps suggests a route roughly taking in Stuttgart – Dortmund – Belgium – Calais – UK. Anyone insane enough to take the search engine’s advice will surely be forgiven for believing they must have died and gone to one of the innermost circles of hell.
Part one: Bavaria
There are two main drawbacks to driving here. First is the tractors. They travel at 25 kilometers and hour and are driven by ruddy cheeked, lederhosen-wearing sausage munchers who will do anything to get that pile of precariously topplable logs from one place to another. If you thought leather shorts and green hats with feathers in were only a fancy dress costume worn at Oktoberfest, you were wrong. They are the look of choice for any self respecting German farmer.
The German farmer’s wife, however, is perhaps an even worse creature to encounter on your voyage through hell. She takes her sartorial advice from old newsreels of Russian peasants and spends all day wearing a headscarf and sweeping the pavement with a broom. Not a sweeping brush, mind, but a traditional straw broom like in Harry Potter, but without the quidditch. If you have the audacity to drive through her street, you can expect a piercing glare at best, or for her to keel over and die from the shock of seeing an Auslander in a right hand drive vehicle at worst.
Part Two: The Autobahn
The Germans are proud, staunch supporters of the lack of speed limit on their autobahns. In the closeted Catholic world of South Germany, it is one of life’s few freedoms.
There are two ways to drive on the autobahn. The first is to drive in the slow lane at 60mph, sandwiched between enormous lorries (usually laden with the aforementioned precarious piles of topplable logs). The second option is to drive in the fast lane, for there are only two lanes. This lane is populated by maniacal, arrogant Audi and BMW drivers who think that two inches is a reasonable stopping distance at 150mph. Drive for more than ten minutes on any autobahn and you will see burned-out Citroens littering the hard shoulder who have had to push their car way beyond its mechanical limit to avoid the hooting and flashing of an impatient Mercedes owner.
Part Three: The Ruhrgebiet
The Danube and the Rhine were the information superhighways of the middle ages, with people, goods and ideas travelling by boat across Europe. Along the Rhine sprang up mighty cities, which in time industrialised and became the powerhouses of German industry. The northernmost edge of this region is called the Ruhrgebiet. To drive through the Ruhrgebiet is to experience the very depths of humanity. Faceless concrete, billowing industrial smog and lashing horizontal rain await the intrepid motorist as she crawls through endless snarls of choked-up motorways.
Part Four: Belgium
Belgium is perhaps the most geographically unlucky place on the planet. Trapped between the channel ports and the rest of Europe, it is a thoroughfare for every conceivable type of truck, lorry, articulated freight vehicle, refrigerated lorry and delivery van ever. And we all know how awful these drivers are. Is there anything worse than the self satisfied, overweight, dirty fingernailed long-distance haulage driver whose only joys in life are king size Mars Bars and onanism?
If there is anything worse, it’s the Belgian road system itself. The potholed and cracked roads buckle under the strain of being the gateway to Europe. And for some inexplicable reason, the slow lane on the motorway turns into the slip road at EVERY exit, meaning you have to dart into the fast lane at every junction, lest ye be whisked off to Liege.
Part Five: Calais
Calais was owned by the English until 1558 and, dear God, it shows. Go to any town in France – and I mean any town – and you can expect a relatively pleasant town square, pavement cafes with dismissive waiters, a pretty church. Not in Calais. 500 years under the English yoke has had such a detrimental effect on the Calais-dwellers’ psyche that they seem to be modelling their town on either post-war Coventry or the slums of Glasgow circa 1935. Listless would-be-asylum-seekers pace around the town centre, awaiting the great voyage to the UK in the deluded belief it’s somehow better there than France. Gangs of sullen youths loiter in the train station, waiting for a train to anywhere except here.
Part Six: England
So you’ve made it back to Dover in one piece. Back in good old Blighty, with its considerate drivers, friendly policemen and polite pedestrians. After spending so long on the continent, your chances of a) Getting in the correct lane, b) Not undertaking on the motorway, or c) Remembering which way round a roundabout goes are about zilch. Good luck with that.