Tea with D’Artagnan: what am I doing?!

And so it is decided: on the 1st November, I will take up my pen. As part of National Novel Writing Month, I will write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. But why, I hear you ask? I thought you didn’t do fiction? Well, I do have a good reason, but it requires a little help.

You see, my friends, I am going to Bolivia in January, and while I’m out there I will be volunteering for a wonderful charity called BiblioWorks. Their aim is to promote literacy and education by setting up and running libraries for isolated communities in rural Southern Bolivia. I think we all agree that’s a pretty cool project! And so I ask one thing: read the novel if you like, let me know what you think, but most of all check out their website and donate if you feel able: as much or as little as you like, every little helps!

As an extra incentive, I’m offering a special prize: the biggest donor will be able to choose a mystery guest from any novel or TV series that they like to appear in the penultimate chapter. Can’t say fairer than that: a novel written to measure! (The closing date will be midnight on the 25th, to give me time to write it!)

Extracts will be available on here, and the full thing will be available, chapter by chapter, on Tea with D’Artagnan.

The Lesser-Spotted Woman Cyclist (or, why do we even need to gender that description?)

There are many gender gaps in life (and in my life): it’s not exactly the moment to rant about how a subject with such a female-heavy intake as Modern Languages at Oxford still has the statistical anomaly that men are significantly more likely to get a first (is it the girly handwriting that does for us?), but I am becoming increasingly aware of one in my day to day life at present. The cycling gap. At any given set of lights on my morning commute there may be a dozen or more cyclists waiting. I will often be the only woman. This is not a piece of feminist irrelevance.

Google ‘women cyclists London‘ and you are offered a range of news articles about the deaths of women cyclists, and why they are more likely to be involved in fatal collisions than their male counterparts. The most recent of these incidents happened last week, at Bank, in morning rush hour traffic, and it involved a HGV. A lot of ink has been spilled about this, so much so that a previous, apparently similar, incident, was described as having ‘all the hallmarks of a “typical” London cycling death – a woman cyclist killed by a tipper truck turning left’. No amount of inverted commas can excuse the way that phrase normalises an unnecessary and horrific death, and, whether or not this was the intention, how it allows for the implication that women, really, ought to know better.

Cycling has become another one of those areas where we need to look after women, because they can’t look after themselves. The Evening Standard article from last week quotes the cautious advice that the problem might actually be the lorries rather than the people (which is surely basic logic: who drives an HGV across London in rush hour anyway? Surely that’s just common sense?), but midway down, after rehearsing the usual arguments about a slower average speed, being more likely to hug the curb, less likely to run a red light, more ‘cautious’. The kind of casual generalisations supported, in fact, by the photos chosen to illustrate its article, which is headed by a photo of the latest cycling victim in her wedding dress, and then shows a selection of ‘cyclists at junction’ in which one woman appears, dressed in blouse, skirt and patent black shoes. The men around her (other than that one bloke in the beigey jacket with no helmet) are sporting a variety of sportswear. This, I think, is the image many people, many journalists, many drivers, have of The Woman Cyclist. It’s what we see here (note skirt, hair drifting around, cardigan), and it’s what allows us to suggest that the problem is somehow with being female, unavoidably associated with that second X chromosome, rather than being something we, you know, maybe ought to stop. I read a wonderful article the other day (and you really should too), but I somewhat object to the assertion that a six foot tall and, in his own words, ‘surprisingly hairy’ man is able to establish that women are given more room by passing cars simply by putting on a long wig. Are our assumptions about gender really that straightforward? (I’m not even going to comment on the quote in the BBC article about how women are less likely to cycle because they may be cooking, looking after their children or carrying shopping, or the comment that men have better spatial awareness and are more likely to be familiar with HGVs than women. I ask you this: in what century are we living?)

I think, in short, what I’m trying to say is this: I despise gender generalisations, and I think using them in the cycling fatality context offers the dangerous opportunity to apportion blame rather than admitting that our roads and other road users are a danger to cyclists. Yes, I see women heading to work in flip flops and frilly skirts, hair blowing everywhere, handbag over their shoulder. Yes, I see them hugging the curb, ‘pootling along’, as one article puts it, being slow and indecisive and annoying and potentially dangerous. I also see them whizzing past me, helmeted, like me, on drop handlebars, with clipless pedals and All The Gear. And I see wobbly men in suits, with headphones in, refusing or unable to look over their shoulder to check for oncoming traffic, a briefcase balanced on their handlebars. I frequently overtake men and am overtaken by women, which shows that the theory of going at 8mph or slower being more dangerous than going at 12mph or faster is all well and good, but more or less gender irrelevant (your age, your bike, your fitness level, the length of your journey and how fast you want to go are a lot more relevant in gauging your speed than your gender). There’s a wonderful ring to phrases like ‘Being highly visible in public spaces is something women are going to be less comfortable with than men’, but it doesn’t actually mean anything, doesn’t help with anything, does nothing but basically say that women have no right to be on the road, that if we don’t get ourselves killed it’s only thanks to good luck and the indulgence of male drivers who forgive us our traffic-delaying sins.

Cycling is ‘too young, too male, too middle class’, but the way to improve that situation is not to create a climate where every time I tell someone I cycle they wince and tell me to be careful (trust me, I don’t go out of my way to be reckless). Easy generalisations will not stop cyclists, male and female alike, being killed in traffic incidents involving roads not fit for cyclists (because, quite frankly, the cycle lanes of London are not fit for purpose. Superhighway? It’s a bloody blue cycle lane, and nothing more.), and they will not help to create a culture in which cycling is the norm and every investment in improving infrastructure and saving lives does not have to be justified.

(PS. Google ‘man on bike’. Then Google ‘woman on bike’. Then tell me our society doesn’t make unfounded gender generalisations.)

I didn’t know I had to vote for some basic humanity


I don’t tend to read BBC news: it’s a bit wishy washy, the epitome of dumbing down, failing to ask searching questions (or, from the looks of it, any questions) and way too fond of the over-simplistic bullet pointed list. But although I can dismiss and despise The Sun and the Daily Mail from afar, confident that my peers more or less agree (the debate over the problem of a two-tier media which feeds people what they want to hear and thus alienates the intellectual class from the rest of society is one that I am fully aware of, but we’ll leave that for another day, shall we?). The BBC is different, because it enjoys a certain degree of respect, taken as a benchmark of more or less neutral news reporting. (Again, the question of whether it panders to/ is run by the champagne socialist left-leaning liberals is one for another day, although here’s quick heads up: if that’s the current state of the left, I’m Karl Marx.) And it publishes the kind of mediocre tripe you see in that article there on a daily basis. And people read and absorb it and parrot it and are skewed by its attitudes, and we wonder where our basic human values went and when and why it became acceptable to start a sentence with ‘I mean, I would consider myself left-wing’ and end it with a disparaging comment about migrants, unemployed people or anyone from any kind of ‘marginal’ (if those inverted commas could get any more heavily ironic, believe me they would be) group.

This is a rant, I appreciate. And so let’s try a systematic dissection of this piece of dross, published in ‘UK Politics’, with 1640 comments to date and one of the BBC’s highlighted top stories of the day.

Headline: ‘Calais migrant scenes unacceptable, David Cameron says’. What exactly does that mean? Why do we have a hanging verb at the end of that sentence? And what exactly has it told us? PM is anti-immigrant. Yes, that is what I mean. Because he is quite clearly, there in his security-guarded house, not just opposed to the phenomenon of human migration but to the people it affects. Watch that video, watch that smug little man saying that his primary concern is security, that “we’ve got to do more to make sure that Britain is a less easy place for illegal migrants to come to and work in” and tell me that it doesn’t make you despair. These “illegal migrants” are people, for crying out loud! And quite frankly, I don’t want to live in a country where my so-called security depends on the expulsion of people who have suffered the kind of poverty I will never be able to imagine. So cheers for that one, Dave.

Then we have the strike bitMaybe it’s because I grew up in a northern mill town, but I cannot and will not forget that the right to strike was hard-won and fiercely guarded, as the one means of expression of the collective will of an oppressed mass of the population. And now we, with our petty bourgeois self-interest, bemoan queues on the M20 and mock the French for their culture de la grève. How did we get to the point where we feel so foundlessly secure that we can complain about inconveniences to our leisure time rather than standing in solidarity with the demands of our fellow workers? (And yes, I know that sounds like something out of the Morning Star. Get over it. Maybe accept it.) How have we lost the collective mindset to this extent, losing sight of the greater good and overall happiness to bury our heads in tunnel vision, forcing ourselves through work we loathe with the chimeric promise of a happy retirement, a pension and a home by the sea, private health insurance and a holiday in the sun twice a year? Why do we see a piece of news about the group, our society, our world, and think only of ourselves?

Cameron blames Italy. Having just said he wasn’t going to blame the French. Who clearly didn’t get that memo. It’s just a bit sad, how they all score points off one another and refuse to actually accept any basic responsibility. Maybe if you hadn’t fucked up the Middle East, actually sorted out climate change and done some decent development and aid work you might have helped people not need to come to the UK. Because if you really think they’re clinging to lorries and aeroplane landing gear as an easy option, then you’re unbelievably deluded. We need to ‘stop the problem at source’, he claims, ‘breaking the link between travelling to Europe by boat and getting settlement in Europe’. So, he made a sensible statement, and then ruined it by a needless bit of scaremongering. Yes, we need to fix the mess we made of a continent we ploughed into, ripped apart and divided amongst ourselves a few centuries back. And yes, if we do that, maybe less people will need to go to such desperate measures to get into our frankly overrated island. But let’s not do that because we don’t like the idea of these undeserving people scrounging off the taxes we would (and do) gladly dodge. Can we not grant them a bit of human dignity? And can we not try to forget about ourselves and our non-existent migrant problem for just a moment?

The Labour lot jump into the fray and repeat what the Tories said. With abuse of the word ‘integrity’, defined firstly as “adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty”, and then and only then as “the state of being whole, entire, undiminished”, which is presumably what the shadow immigration minister means when he claims the French authorities should ensure the integrity of British borders. (And as the French bloke rightly points out, we’re an island. So if we can’t stop the people we don’t want getting in, that’s basically our own fault. And this is how we’ll end up sleepwalking out of the EU, as we casually blame our continental neighbours for everything we don’t like about everything that happens.) 

Then we get to the bit with stereotypical stories about migrants sneaking in by dodgy means. Seven people were arrested in Bedfordshire. Truck driver Andy says that the hundreds of migrants waiting in Calais just ruin his day. Good for you, Andy. I’m pretty sure they’d love to be in your place, but that’s OK, you just have a complacent moan about how you’re just doing your job and what they’re doing isn’t right. And let’s leave the horrifying fact that there are around 3000 migrants thought to be living rough around Calais to a caption. Because they don’t even matter enough to count them properly. We just want to stop them getting in, to send them back, to make them someone else’s problem, after all. And then, and then, the killer line. The ‘Sudanese man’, not even worthy of a name, who asserts his belief that “They will receive you with food… house, then after that you will get a chance to ask for asylum.” Anyone who’s ever come into contact with the asylum seeking process will want to weep at the unfounded optimism of those words. And yet, as the comments that spout bilious, hateful rubbish about do-gooders and vagabonds, so-called pull factors and ‘human mice’ reveal, a large proportion of the population is willing to read this as an indictment of human weakness, rather than the depressing precursor to the shattering of hopes. We claim that we are soft, that we are suffering, that building a fence is the answer. How about we tried a bit of basic respect, justice and humanity? Or is that too left-wing for you?

This was, I realise, a rant. But because I don’t want to end on a depressing note, I leave you with this. I first discovered it at A-level, and then I wrote an essay on French immigration policy which I sent to Oxford when I applied. And five years later, it’s truer than ever. The bit where he says ‘Nous avons le droit de choisir notre immigration’ [We have the right to choose our immigration]? Please tell me I’m not the only one who wants to stand up and say that no, actually, you don’t.

Dusty, much? (or, Ali in the London…)

And so… I’m back! After not-really-a-year of hibernation/ enforced shutdown that came from the somewhat abrupt transition from a pretty relaxed existence by the seaside in Anglet (reading on the beach) to *shudder* the horror of being an Oxford Finalist. (If ever a word deserved a capital letter it was that one!) My creative juices (and indignant rage) were being channeled elsewhere, and, to put it simply, when you spend your day staring at a computer screen willing the information to stick, you don’t want to waste your free time staring at a computer screen trying to think of something to say. And trust me, unless you wanted a regurgitated essay on Medieval Spanish literature, nothing blogworthy happened to me over this past year.

But now I’m back, from’t Finalist space (prizes if you suss out what tune you should be singing that one to!), and loitering in what my inexplicably French Wikipedia calls ‘Le grand smog de Londres’. This is not the first time I have been to The Big City (sorry, part of my chippy Northern DNA somehow compels me to dig out my metaphorical clogs and flat cap every time I go Down South, and so the vowels get flatter and the temptation to start exclaiming ‘ee by gum’ at key moments becomes almost irresistible. But more of that later.), but somehow age/ wisdom/ post-Finals weariness have tinted my rose-coloured spectacles a kind of grubby brown and I find myself quietly despairing at the thought of ever having to actually, you know, live here. I mean, who would choose to move to a place where your standard household chores include removing mineral deposits from the inside of your kettle?

I’ll be brief: much as I like the idea of London, I don’t like London. I’m not quite sure why, since Manchester is a big grimy city and my home and will always exercise a kind of visceral pull that means I instinctively tell people I live there (the day I say I’m from Oxford is the day the music dies), and I loved Paris (and the Parisians) despite my best efforts and their horrible driving. And I smile when I see the London Eye and have to cross the Thames and spot St Paul’s and get the train to Paddington (no bears, though) and follow road signs to Tower Bridge and Buckingham Palace. But London itself is big and sprawling and dirty and noisy, its people are grumpy and never smile, its roads are a mess and I’d prefer it if it numbered its districts à la Parisienne rather than giving them less-than-logical names that don’t-quite-ring-a-bell. I spent about half a day revelling in having other cyclists waiting with me at junctions, before realising that selfish cyclists hogging the cycley bit in front of the cars, going on either side of lorries, suddenly stopping in front of you, swinging out, doing the macho man/ teenage boy overtake thing, not looking where they’re going and other assorted irritating things is not worth the brief feeling of solidarity you get hanging around with someone else waiting for this bloody bus to actually move. And as for those buses, in no other place has it seemed quite so ridiculous to put two such diametrically opposed modes of transport in one single lane; nowhere else is it so obvious that this isn’t urban planning but a wish and a (secular, non-denominational) prayer. Leaving aside the assorted grids, potholes, parked vehicles, random holes in the road (as in gas mains type holes, not just bad road surfacing) and mutant bits of melted-looking tarmac, to put it bluntly, bikes are small, travel at a pretty steady speed and are potentially vulnerable to being whacked by a great lumbering red double decker thing. Buses are big, unwieldly, forever pulling in and out of stops and have whopping great blind spots. Stick the two together. What could possibly go wrong?

I have too many opinions on cycling to wedge into this overview, but since it makes up a big part of my time here I thought it was worth mentioning. When people told me I was brave/ mad to cycle in London, I laughed and said I had done Manchester, Paris, Oxford (and not La Paz, because I don’t actually have a death wish). What I hadn’t taken into account is how a city can have so many people riding bikes on streets so unsuitable for them.

And then, of course, there is the gender politics, the class war, the regional prejudices. I’m currently working in a female-dominated office, with the growing realisation that I’m not a big fan (does that make me a terrible feminist?). I have heard the words ‘incomprehensible accent’ applied to just about everyone, from an elderly ‘Northern’ man at a wedding to the office building staff and someone on the phone (when was that ever an acceptable thing to do, to blame your inability to listen on their pronunciation? Why have the upper classes always felt the need to protect their superiority through mockery of their underlings, belittling them and thus undermining any prospect of respecting them and allowing for their own self-respect?), and I have silently willed people to understand that in my pre-Oxford existence I was state school educated and probably incredibly naive about contacts and privilege and such things. I sometimes wonder whether the fact that my heart sinks when I read the word ‘networking’ is part of my genes (the Irish farmer ancestors being too busy digging up potatoes to be handing out business cards. And yes, I’m being chippy. It’s my standard state. And that was a chip/ potato pun. Possibly intended.), or my upbringing, or simply a personal preference to avoid awkward self-promotion. In some ways I know that I’m the model of a supposedly aspirational generation that will leave the Regions (yes, that is more ironic capitalisation, well spotted) to move to London and live in tiny flats working horribly long hours and doing ridiculous commutes as we sell our souls for a slice of a dream that isn’t even ours and nobody will quite own up to having. But actually, if it’s alright with you I might give that one a miss.

Where did all the flat vowels go?

I suppose it’s partly my own fault: it’s what happens when you spend too long doing pretentiously highbrow things like listening to Radio 4 and taking a vague interest in culture. Such activities are the preserve of those with family trees the length of the average oak, whose university education was cheaper than their primary school, and who differentiate between the pronunciation of aunt and ant.

Anyone who has ever watched a film with me will know that there are certain actors I can’t abide. And yet, one of them actually came out and said something sensible this week. Judi Dench, she who has been found lurking in everything from Pirates of the Caribbean to James Bond, was quoted in an article that, quite rightly (although it is also stating the obvious, really), pointed out that, “the ever-growing list of public school-educated actors dominating British film and television is often offered as proof that posh actors are squeezing out working-class talent. Acting, some fear, is increasingly the preserve of those with cut-glass accents whose parents can afford to bankroll them when starting out.” Another Guardian article recently pointed out, more generally, that it is becoming increasingly different for people from working class backgrounds to become successful in the arts. When even the Daily Mail is offering lists of ‘posh people’ in the sphere, you know you’re in trouble.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a personal thing, some kind of bitter diatribe about being rejected by the establishment that controls the arts in Britain (well, not yet, anyway). It is a simple statement, or maybe a question: where did all the flat vowels go?

It is, of course, always dangerous to draw conclusions from anecdotal observations. But that’s what I intend to do. Because, to be honest, that’s how we form opinions, isn’t it? Now, living in France, I am reasonably isolated from the English language, certainly in a spoken context (hearing it spoken by the French doesn’t count, since they’re going for intelligibility, not the nuances and potential prejudices of implying they’re from a particular region or economic background). Maybe that’s what makes me a little more attuned, or maybe it just makes me chippy and/ or nostalgic. But either way, my daily podcast listen (yeah, I’m a glutton for punishment, and I listen to reviews of British cultural things as I walk to my French office), has, over the past few weeks, more and more frequently ended with me fuming at my desk. Why? Well, I’ve begun to notice a pattern, you see.

There are a selection of presenters. All of them have what I shall call, for the sake of (a vague pretence of) neutrality, an RP accent. And then they interview people, or get critics to give reviews of things. In theory, these are people from across the arts, and since there are, say, four to six of them each episode, you wouldn’t expect there to be much of a connection, right? Wrong: there is one key link. Almost without exception, they share that same accent, pronunciation, and, dare I say it, background. We have the bloke from Downton, two actors playing Prince William and Kate, an art historian, several TV critics, a poet, an author… All of them sound like they went to the same elocution lessons. And then, because we need to pander to the masses, after all, since they pay their TV licence fee and fund the BBC too, after all, and they might have accidentally been looking for something about fish and chips or the Job Centre or benefits or something, we throw in something regional. Doesn’t matter what. Scottish referendum next week? We’ll get Val McDermid to review a crime drama. Moves to empower the north? What about the drama about Cilla Black, that’s got Scouse in, that’ll do for them, right? Rural areas feeling neglected? What about something with farmer-y types from somewhere vaguely Somerset-cider-sounding? And so on and so forth.

Am I imagining it? Maybe. But I shouldn’t be able to. Because what this is currently telling me is that there is a hierarchy of culture that is still very much defined on socio-economic lines. I know that Matthew from Downton has an English degree (as in, the actor that plays him), but does that really qualify him for the Booker Prize judging panel? Or, to put it another way, would one of the actors who plays a Downton servant have been offered the post? I doubt it, somehow. But the one that really set my teeth on edge was the fictional Prince William from some faux-Shakespearean thing about the future of the British monarchy. Asked if the plot might offend the real prince, what does the actor respond. “Oh, I couldn’t disagree with you more. In a world of hysterical, ill-educated clamour over our “celebrity” royal family… this play is an educated and thought-provoking, thoughtful counterpoint to every hysterical tabloid headline.”

I nearly choked on my coffee. And yet the interviewer made no response, just moved onto the next question without batting an audible eyelid.

So that’s where we are, is it, as a country and a culture? We observe a dividing line, in which we can either be well-educated, intelligent, thoughtful, privileged and upper-class, or be part of the Great Unwashed, ignorant, hysterical and inherently Wrong.

I’ve said before that at times I feel that the great deception of my generation (because I suppose every generation must, at some point, realise that they do not live in a social utopia) is that we are taught to believe that we live in a post-class society, and then, suddenly, the scales are torn from our eyes and we realise that nothing could be further from the truth. It’s not quite as simple as me saying that I woke up and knew that I would never be a Radio 4 presenter. But it is about acknowledging that our inherently rotten society still makes judgements based on a whole host of irrelevant factors, puts us in boxes and then tapes up the top and leaves us to rot away in there.

Am I exaggerating? Possibly. But here’s something to think about. How often, when you watch a drama (I don’t mean a soap, I mean something that somebody might label with the eternally vague ‘critically acclaimed’) does someone have a perfect, private-school educated RP accent for no reason, when it is utterly incoherent with their character’s back story? And now think about how many regional accents, of any type, that you hear with that same lack of explanation. Noticing anything? Who decided what was ‘standard’, what was acceptable, and why do we still think it’s OK to complain that we can’t understand Peter Capaldi’s Doctor Who and wish he’d ‘speak properly’ and ‘enunciate clearly’, as though we still believed, as we clearly do, that there is a hierarchy of spoken English, and that if an actor breaches the boundaries of what we consider ‘normal’, we have a right to complain?

Why do I care? It is, after all, just the wishy-washy world of the arts, nothing life-changing. Except maybe the arts are actually a symptom of a wider phenomenon. I challenge you to find me a regional accent in the three leaders of main British political parties. Ed Miliband has more problems than his accent, of course, but I can’t exactly say that his vowels scream ‘workers’ solidarity’. (As for David Cameron, he wouldn’t know a glottal stop if they sold it to him in a Portuguese fish market). The one obviously regional accent at the top of British politics at the moment belongs to the man who has brought a referendum to Scotland and led a campaign that is now ‘too close to call’. And could you really blame a Scot, of any age, looking at the ‘leaders’ of ‘their’ country in Westminster and failing to find any point of contact with them, for deciding that an Edinburgh government was the only solution?

I leave you with a final thought. 2011/12ish saw the meteoric rise of Danny Boyle and Guy Garvey (we say Elbow, of course, but I challenge you to name another member of the band). And when that first happened, it was a matter of pride for me, and a lot of other people from our area too, that they were ‘our’ boys. But you know what? We’re sick of it. We’re sick of them being identified as Northern, and us being identified as them, just as we’re sick of Oasis and Morrissey and Coronation Street. We don’t want to be loveable and bearded and bacon butty-eating, or, at least, that’s not all we want to be. We in the regions are not a novelty. And who decided where the centre was anyway?

A class act

It was, in the nineties, suggested that Britain was moving towards a classless society. A few years ago I read an article in which the journalist set out to find someone who self-indentified as upper-class (even the landed aristocracy, it turns out, are ‘middle-class’, at least in their eyes). In 2013, the BBC announced that there were now seven social classes, and made a little Internet quiz thing that, asked you five questions and then judged you based on whether you knew any bank managers or electricians, used Facebook or went to the theatre, handing out ridiculous-sounding titles like ‘Emergent service workers’ to state the obvious.

They were, of course, all hopelessly wrong, and desperately attempting to find a way to describe something that is hopelessly entangled in our heritage, and yet doesn’t quite fit into our current society. The traditional markers of income, social status, political affiliation and pastimes have, if indeed they ever existed, become so murky as to be almost incomprehensible, leaving the matter of class to be more of an instinct, a sort of self-definition that, nevertheless, still manages to provoke us.

I remember being at school, aged around 14 or 15, and a teacher remarking that the results of a social experiment carried out by our group proved that we were inescapably middle class. It seemed odd at the time, perhaps because it quite simply wasn’t something any of us had considered. The school was a comprehensive, its facilities not astounding (and a little dated), with its fair share of orange foundation, rolled-up skirts, nearly-shaved heads (number 1 cuts were technically banned) and other such indicators of not belonging to the leafy suburbs of middle England. We were, now I think of it, in the middle, somewhere between the privilege of our counterparts on one side and the deprivation of those on the other. And yet we lived in a Labour stronghold, our local history was of mills, factories and the Industrial Revolution, and at least some of our top-set double science, would, I suspect, if asked, been more likely to identify as working class than middle. And yet, this arbitrary judgement based purely on the level of our education was perhaps a hint at the odd situation we would find ourselves in a few years down the line.

Class is not about wealth. For if it were, surely East End gangsters would be in the same bracket as the Camerons, and bankrupt former millionaires grouped in with factory workers and the terminally unemployed. Nor is it political: a member of my former running club, a builder by trade, used to use our warm-up jogs to regale us on the greatness of Margaret Thatcher, whilst the allotment-going, Guardian-reading, nice-bit-of-London-dwelling (in their own home) parents of a friend were some of the first people I ever met who agreed with Ed Miliband. (Incidentally, before anyone explodes with rage at these generalisations, I know, and I’m getting to that.)

Is it education or employment? This is something I have debated for a long time, because it is where this really gets personal. Is it possible to be a working-class Oxford student? And, to fast forward (to where I will most likely end up in) five years, a working-class Oxford graduate with a London-based desk job? Where does it end? Are we born into a class, or do we decide for ourselves? Is there a system of promotion and relegation? Maybe it should be based on points – my degree is in the arts, but I’m entitled to ‘opportunity’ funding, so do those two cancel one another out? If I row but have flat vowels, what does that do? Where does that put me?

These are, of course, questions without answers, and slightly ridiculous ones at that, but perhaps the sentiments that lie beneath them deserve consideration. Oxford and Cambridge in particular are engaged in a drive to recruit students from ‘non-typical’ backgrounds, and yet what no-one has really stopped to ask is what we will do with them next.

There are often fears, fed by the media, of course, that the new working-class (sorry, non-typical background) arrivals at these great institutions will feel so out of place amongst the chandeliers, gowns and rowing regattas that we’ll take off immediately, our flat caps flying in the wind, leaving our whippets to shit on the previously-immaculate lawn. Or possibly that we’ll huddle in our damp-riddled windowless rooms for three years, living off Value baked beans on toast, then emerge with a Third and retreat back to our rightful place and begin a lifetime on the dole, or working at McDonalds. That we might actually enjoy the pomp and ridiculosity of dressing up and being waffled at in Latin, that we’ll happily absorb the odd terminology (and not be rusticated for failing to pay our Battels), that, heaven forbid, we’ll make friends and spend our summers on internships and sports training camps and at the houses of a whole string of people whose lives are utterly different to ours, never really seems to be considered.  Nor, indeed, worst of all, that we might accidentally end up doing quite well.

And yet there is something we tend to ignore. On focusing on whether those of us with state school backgrounds and regional accents will make it through those three or four years, we forget that university is the easy part. It is then, suddenly, at the end of it all, after all of the essays and the studying and the revision and the exams, when we emerge from an odd Latin ceremony, dressed, for (possibly) the last time, utterly preposterously, and clutching a piece of paper that seems too flimsy to truly reflect its significance, that we are thrust out into the real world. And then our class is suddenly, once again, brought to the fore.

I am just under a year away from the heady joys of graduation. And it is now, as I tentatively begin to realise that the question ‘what are you going to do afterwards’ cannot remain unanswered forever, that I start to understand this whole class thing, this whole question of an (un)privileged background. There is no obvious path amongst my family, close or extended, that I will follow. Nor do their friends offer any kind of clue. No contacts, no leg up, not even really a hint of where to start. The kind of jobs I ‘ought’ to be looking for, the ones I am apparently qualified and suited for, are utterly outside my personal experience. Even their location is strange: I had never considered living  in London, until I realised that it just so happen that I end up there. Social mobility is an ugly, awkward term, but even odder and clumsier and more uncomfortable is finding yourself in the midst of the process.

A friend once jokingly accused me of being ‘chippy’ when I described our school project on the mills. Another spent an inordinate amount of time getting his head around ‘t’ and ‘ta’. My grammatically incorrect use of ‘was sat’ has been queried, and my pronunciation of the letter ‘u’ in various words has baffled the unwitting South Americans, and the French, who attempted to learn vocabulary from me. I still don’t understand rugby, I first rode a horse aged 21 (and a half), I instinctively shudder slightly when David Cameron appears on TV or, infinitely worse, my Facebook feed. And yet I am Oxford educated, I adore literature and the theatre and Impressionism and drink wine and shop Fairtrade and travel. So where is that dividing line, the one that instinctively makes me tick one box, rather than another. Is it in the security of my past, a sense of belonging to a tradition, even if said tradition (of socialism and trade unions and solidarity) is a ghost, a faded, fleeting fragment of something that no longer exists? Or is it the uncertainty that I face as I stare into a future of uncharted waters, a fear that, like something out of an Oscar Wilde play, I will one day find myself at a dinner party unable to make polite conversation about golf and hold my knife and fork correctly? And what about the next generation? Does it all just begin again?

And then three come along at once…

It is the biggest transport cliché of all time, and one that has become applicable to almost every and any facet of modern life. You wait ages for a bus and then three turn up at once. And as a confirmed public transportophile, I must confess that there is a certain amount of truth in there.

It must first, perhaps, be acknowledged that I use public transport because a) I am not currently residing in my native country, nor indeed in one in which I have a permanent residence (I’m in the south of France for four months, and I flew here), and b) I haven’t learnt to drive yet. Not just not passed my test, but never taken a lesson, not sat my theory test, not got a provisional licence, not even sure I’ve even ever sat in the driver’s seat of a car. Yes, I really am that far off being let loose on the roads. This is one of my constant personal dilemmas. Driving would be easy. I would be able to get anywhere. I would get there quickly. I wouldn’t have to dodge awkward questions about why I have yet to grow up and get a car. And yet, I hesitate, and not just because I don’t have the time or money and am in the wrong country.

Quite simply, I am not sure that it would be moral to drive. I like to think of myself as environmentally conscious, and driving is certainly not that. Petrol is not. Carbon emissions are not. Roads are not. And anyway, cycling is cooler, no?

But anyway, the fact is, that I do not have a car at my disposal, and the automatic consequence of this is that I have a pretty good knowledge of public transport systems. In La Paz, you can get wherever you want to go, since every other vehicle is either a bus or a taxi (I mean, come on, we wrote an entire magazine issue about the topic). In Paris you have the Métro, London the Underground, New York the Subway (not to be confused with the place that prepares baffling butties and smells like piped-in bread scent). And Manchester has GMPTE.

The 135 was the bane of my life for just over a year, as I got up before 7 every morning to get to college for 9, and desperately wished it wouldn’t get stuck in traffic or stop at too many of the points designated every fifty metres or so. Returning from South America, I simply couldn’t bear taking it, not least because it would be by far the slowest and least cost-efficient leg of the whole mammoth journey. It isn’t just the lack of speed, or the incredibly high-pitched beep every time someone requests a stop (I’m sure it’s one of those anti-young people devices), or the drunks or the smelly people or the overcrowding or the buggies full of shopping (but not children) or the ridiculous design that means there are no seats or the way they charge significantly more to go into Manchester than Bury, even though Bury is cheaper. It’s also just the sense that you, as a passenger, are somehow making unreasonable demands upon the system.

The fact is, that not everyone has a car. In many places, that is acceptable. In rural Bolivia, if a vehicle is heading where you want to go, you flag it down and they give you a lift for a nominal price (or, if they’re excited to have a Spanish-speaking foreigner in the car, they’ll let you off for free). If you tried to do that in Europe, you’d be either ignored, run over, reported to the police or kidnapped, robbed and/or murdered. It is your decision, is the assumption, you chose not to join the automobile club, and so you obviously want to walk. The assessment of the circumstances goes no deeper.

Biarritz is a small town of narrow streets and a limited number of key attractions. It has a large seasonal influx of holidaymakers. It is, therefore, surely perfect for an efficient bus service, thus cutting down congestion and easing the pressure on limited parking spaces. (And trust me, two months of living by the beach and, more significantly, the beach car park, means that I can affirm with complete authority that if you arrive any time between 10am and midnight on a sunny day and/or a weekend/bank holiday, you have absolutely no chance of even getting a dodgy double-parking-on-the-kerb spot). There is a bus system here, and quite a cheap one too, as well as a free shuttle bus linking town centre car parks to the beach. Unfortunately, the buses of the BAB agglomeration (as the Biarritz-Anglet-Bayonne area is not-so-affectionately known) take utterly illogical routes that go, quite literally, round the houses. There’s weaving around housing estates, impossibly tight left turns, roads that are quite simply not wide enough for a bus to drive down (even when there’s no illegal parking going on) and one rather odd stop that involves the bus driving all the way past, looping around the roundabout to get on the opposite side of the road, driving back the way it came and ultimately carrying on in its original direction. I have never seen anyone get on or off at the stop, thus rendering this palaver utterly pointless. A single journey only costs €1, but is also highly likely to endanger your sanity. Because if the bus wasn’t bad enough, there’s the cheerful voice telling you the number, route and next stop every 30 seconds (because yes, the stops are that close together). There’s a very good reason I walk to work.

It is a generally accepted fact that we cannot continue to use energy and fuels at our current rate. We cannot sustain a society in which every adult has and drives a car. But we do not make it easy for those who do not drive. Some places are simply inaccesible by bus, or are at least very complicated: transport stops running for a lunch break, or on a Sunday, and basically shuts down for Christmas and/or the summer holidays. Websites for tourist sites offer detailed information about car parking, and utterly uselessly inform you that the nearest train station is 30km away. It is as though we cannot imagine that someone would choose not to have a car, and so we simply choose not to cater for them. And yet it seems increasingly probable that at some point in the not-too-distant future, being a non-driver will not just be a choice, it will be a necessity. Maybe then, when we who walk and cycle and ride buses, trams and trains are in the majority, we will finally have a public transport system that makes sense.

I read the news today…

Incidentally, I have an early memory of walking home from the paper shop with my dad, dodging the uneven bits of pavement and singing about ‘4000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire’. My musical indoctrination clearly started from an early age.

But anyway. I am currently in the grips of what I think of as a news dilemma. There’s the minor issue of being in France: reading Le Monde for Tour de France updates or international events is fine, but when you start getting bogged down in ‘Aquitaine Aujourd’hui’ or ‘Sud Ouest Ce Soir’ (NB probably not their real names) you start to despair. But far more problematic is attempting to relate to British news. Ah, but the Guardian, you cry. It’s full of lefty righteousness, look, today it has articles about sexism in the workplace and how Jon Snow should be allowed to express his opinion on Gaza on TV. OK, fair enough. it also has a somewhat unhealthy obsession with Ed Miliband (find me a day when there isn’t an opinion piece on him, and I’ll give you a pair of red socks), an irritating tendency to London-centrism (the odd article about the Edinburgh Fringe or disparaging review of Bettys Tearooms doesn’t make you representative of the whole country) and an increasing habit of including an awful lot of not-news. ‘Bake Off series 5: Meet the Contestants’; ‘Should we abandon handshakes in favour of fistbumps’; ‘The eight rules of photobombing – as revealed by celebrities’. A selection of what was on offer for me to read this morning. Nothing like getting your teeth into some cheery types wearing aprons and holding mixing bowls to prove your credentials as a serious left-leaning newspaper.

But if that’s bad, what is infinitely worse is the comments. Not just on the Guardian website (although, really, 99 people had bothered to post statements like ‘I love Bill Murray’, which is clearly proof that they have nothing better to do with their lives. I wouldn’t object to the people who are always tapping away on their phones if they were sussing out strategies for world peace, cures for malaria or writing a sequel to Anna Karenina (OK, that one might be a little tricky because *spoiler alert* she dies at the end. But you get the point.). But if they’re using their data allowance to contribute to lowering the ratio of intelligent observations on the website of a reasonably respected newspaper, well, that’s quite sad, isn’t it?), because in some ways that is a self-selected group. No, in the wider media, things are infinitely worse.

I should know by now not to follow the links on Twitter articles. Because it’s there that I find myself thrust into contact with what can only be described as the casually accepted narrow-minded bigotry of the general population. That is, perhaps, a big statement to make. But then, I ask you, how else do you describe the comments made on this article about England cricketer Moeen Ali being banned from wearing pro-Gaza wristbands? It somehow seems to be taken for granted that expressing support for people suffering the kind of atrocities we cannot even begin to imagine is ‘too political’ and therefore inacceptable, but that an institutionalised support of an organisation supporting people who chose to go to a warzone with the intention of  killing, maiming and causing mass destruction, is totally normal, to be expected, even.

I don’t tend to talk about politics, perhaps because I am aware that, unlike most of the British population, I am infinitely more suspicious of members of the British army than I am of Muslims. I wasn’t brought up to be patriotic, and I have no inner conviction that ‘my country’ is superior to all others, or that it is inherently ‘mine’ and therefore to be protected against all outsiders. Partly because the latter attitude is entirely illogical: the entire history of the population and settlement of the British Isles is a story of immigration and the mingling of cultures, so why have we suddenly decided that this is a negative thing, something that we should (and can) prevent? But I am becoming increasingly aware that this is an unusual attitude: when even the leader of the Labour party is saying that immigration needs to be controlled, you realise that there isn’t an awful lot of hope for a rational approach to this question.

It is, of course, an issue of British hypocrisy. Freedom of movement across the EU is something that we take for granted, an inherent right. We just don’t want to reciprocate by receiving people from the other 27 countries. We retire en masse to the Dordogne and the Costa Blanca, using services but without registering as residents and exploiting the tax system. We don’t bother to learn foreign languages, we demand baked beans, bacon and sliced white bread. We are loud and obnoxious and drink too much, and yet maintain that air of not-so-quiet superiority, and we wonder why we aren’t more popular with our neighbours.

I recently read an article in a French magazine about David Cameron’s recent sulk about the EU and promise of a referendum. The French, understandably, are slightly baffled by why anyone would want to leave. After all, there are countries that have been clamouring to join for years. What are the British playing at? I can’t say that I understand the economic logic behind an exit, or not, but what I will say is that I am inherently sceptical of the right-wing press and its screaming protests that ‘Brussels controls us all’ and ‘We’re not even European’. Because, for a start, one quick glance at a map will show the geographical inescapability that yes, in fact, we are. I mean, we even have a train connecting us to France.

There are countries in the world whose geograhical position makes their political or cultural isolation logical. In South America, I was told time and again that children learn English so that they can go to work in the US. No-one speaks French or German because, well, what would be the point? The continent is dominated by Spanish speakers, with Brazil as a Lusophone representative. This is not the case in Britain: budget airlines, a high speed train and some surprisingly efficient ferries link us to what is perhaps the world’s most linguistically and culturally diverse continent. And yet instead of being proud of that, and of our privileged position as a member of this exclusive organisation (and yes, we forget that we had to try pretty hard to get into it in the first place), we continually turn our back on the countries with whom we share centuries of cultural heritage and history.

I don’t really want to end on a negative note, because that’s not my experience of Europe. I am the Englishwoman in France, and as I curl up on the sofa in an Oxford t-shirt to read Cyrano de Bergerac or discuss the odd Gallic fascination with Midsomer Murders (they call it Inspecteur Barnaby, which sounds even more ridiculous than you think in a French accent), debate whether to say ‘Hola’ or ‘Bonjour’ to the woman in the ticket office for the Hendaye-San Sebastian train, or watch an interview with General Pinochet and a documentary on the Sagrada Familia, both subtitled in French, I am thankful to be able to dip a toe into this diversity. Our British identity is formed by contact with and opposition to that which surrounds us, and, lest we ever forget, here is a short reminder…


L’anglaise et la mer

I grew up on an island. A reasonably sized island, a country, where we eat fish but don’t necessarily live by the coast. (Indeed, even when I was taken to the ‘seaside’ as a child, it was often the Blackpool-Southport area, where the tide goes out so far that you can’t even catch a glimpse from the prom. And trust me, you wouldn’t want to jump in there!) Of course, I have fond memories of beach holidays, of the one where we found a beautiful little bay with the disadvantage of hundreds of steps to get back up to the town, or a stunning, totally deserted, windswept, freezing cold and totally exposed bit of Irish coast where a cup of hot Vimto was a more appropriate post-swim treat than an ice cream. But the sea is the sea is the sea. It’s big and salty and cold and full of grime and hazards.

At least, that’s what I spent three landlocked months in Bolivia saying. For a country that had a coast and lost it in a disastrous war (and one that has considered buying or creating an offshore island and building a tunnel under the sea and neighbouring Chile to have access to it), the blue stuff seems pretty special. Documentaries have been made showing elderly people being taken to see the sea for the first time in their lives. A multi-million pound development project is being proposed for the nouveaux riches and wealthy expats in Santa Cruz (unless, that is, you believe the rumours that it’s just a money laundering scheme, but we won’t go into that here…). Excessively emotive posters are displayed around La Paz’ Plaza Avaroa showing a little girl running along a beach with a Bolivian flag streaming behind her: an impossible dream. The country may have an ongoing case in the International Court of Justice at The Hague, but anyone even slightly realistic knows that it isn’t getting a coastline any time soon.

I went to Chile, to a part of the northern coast that was lost by Peru in the same War of the Pacific. And the beach was dirty and covered in broken glass, the slog up to the top of the big hill revealed a lovely view of the industrial port and its lorries, and it took nearly 24 hours to get home. Overrated, I assured the Bolivians. You’re not missing anything.

And then I came to Anglet. The only place in Western Europe with more red flags than Oxford. Where gusting winds blow your laundry onto tourists’ heads and the lifeguards get more practice at keepy-uppies than swimming. Where clinging too tightly to your umbrella might get you swept away, Mary Poppins style, and you can easily get three pairs of shoes drenched in one day. Yes, this is the French Atlantic coast.

My landlady is the world’s biggest fan of Anglet, and should probably have a job working for its tourist board, (or, considering the amount of time she spends lauding its many wonderful qualities, perhaps already does). And while I may not always agree about its preeminent position as ‘the best place on the Atlantic coast/ in France/ north of Australia/ in our galaxy’ (delete as appropriate), one thing is for certain. Its beach is amazing.

It was, in fact, the first thing I discovered, when I dropped my bags off and went to explore. I followed the path north, as far as one lighthouse, and then I came back and went all the way south to the cliffs and the lighthouse at the other end. And there, all the way along, are the rolling waves and the clouds and the limitless horizon that stretches off into the distance of roughly-where-I-was-a-while-back. It is not, like Biarritz, all sheltered in little bays and coves and with rocky things that break up your view and add twee little touches to your photos. There are no little pools for small children to fish for seaweed in, there is no diving area, and there is definitely no dolphin. I’m not even sure if there’s an ice cream man, although, this being France, there are a million and one places to get a coffee and/or a glass of wine. The sand is rough and pebbly and simultaneously massages and rips the skin off your feet. The areas you can actually swim in are strictly limited, because nasty currents (or possibly angry raisins) threaten to whisk you far out to sea or dash you against some unforgiving rocks. And looking inland, the view consists of a golf course and a few new holiday apartment buildings. It’s not exactly picture postcard material.

And you know what? I don’t care. I leave the house, cross the road and am at the beach. I head down to the water, attempt to wade through the first wave, fall over and get a face full of salt, and that’s it, I’m giggling and splashing and like a small child again. I dig in my feet and wait for the footprints to fill with water. I forget to hold my nose as I dive through a rising wall of water, and surface spluttering. I bob on the waves, floating on my back with my eyes screwed shut against the spray, the sun making patterns on the backs of my eyelids. I twist and turn and duck and dive. It is a million miles from the lengths that I swum in the municipal swimming pool of Paris. And, as I float there, waiting for the holidaying families to head home for baths and team and leave me with the soothing almost-silence of the wind and waves, I realise that there is something innate in human nature that draws us to the water.

Human history is marked by the ocean. Any ‘discoveries’ that have been made, any great explorations of the past, the Drakes and Raleighs and Columbuses of our world, involved great sea voyages. We are drawn to stories of the sea, from Hemingway’s Old Man to the Titanic (in factual or Hollywood form), the Life of Pi or the Pirates of the Caribbean or Darwin and the Beagle. I cannot help but feel that what draws us to the shore and across the ocean, onto a boat and away from the port, is in fact all of the reasons that should keep us away.

The sea is not safe or comfortable or familiar. Standing on the shore, you can rarely see the other side, and almost never your destination, and thus, by definition, heading out into the sea is stepping into the unknown. Tales of navigating by stars, or of accidentally discovering a continent whilst looking to get to another, or simply of vanishing, become ever more enticing as we increasingly know everything about everything. We have little chance to get lost any more, but a look out of an aeroplane window on a transatlantic flight is enough to remind you of just how big the ocean is, and how easily it could and can swallow up a simple human life.

A town, however beautiful, will only ever exist on a human scale. We can control it, understand it, tame it even. But the sea, and those clouds and the wide, rolling expanses of open water and sky and a horizon that merges those many shades of blue, is vast and out of reach, and will ever be so.

Cultural Confusion in Cusco (or, 10 things that aren’t quite Peruvian)

10. The Peace Boat(s). We saw them wandering around Machu Picchu first, hundreds (or at least, it felt like it) of Japanese tourists, all in white gloves, oversized sunglasses and broad brimmed hats, and with a brightly coloured sticker on their chest with a picture of a cruise ship and the words ‘Peace Boat’. Their ‘group leaders’ were waving panels declaring them to be ‘Boat J-4’ or ‘Boat G-6’, and they were wandering around like slightly lost herds of llamas. Flash forward a day and they’re all over Cusco, in buses, clogging up pavements, blocking key info panels in museums. The most interesting thing about them? Their obviously Peruvian guides were all nattering away fluently in what I presume was Japanese. Makes learning French seem pretty easy.

9. How many falafel places have I come across in nearly five months in South America? None. How many are there in two streets off the main square in Cusco? About twelve. Even more excitingly, there is a Bagel Café, and for a resident of North Manchester still mourning the loss of Crusty Corner, it was a must-try for lunch. Was it authentic? Well, I arrived and was offered a menu in Hebrew, and let’s just say that I don’t think any of my fellow lunchers would be ordering the pepperoni bagel. But my bagel had no hole in! I felt somehow cheated by being given too much bread. Was easier to eat without the filling falling through the middle though…

8. There is a problem with having menus in English. It is that your waiting staff doesn’t always understand what’s being ordered. Cue me attempting to translate ‘choccie monkey shake’ into Spanish…

7. In my search for exciting and varied food in Cusco (getting a little bored of soup and unconvincing pizza by now), I was briefly led astray by the Baghdad Café on the Plaza de Armas. What kind of cuisine does it serve? ‘Tipical Food’. Typical of where, I hear you ask? Peru. There’s guinea pig on the menu, as usual. Not sure if they just pointed blindly at a map for the name, or if they even know where exactly Baghdad is: possibly near Arequipa?

6. In France, I quickly got into the habit of speaking Franglais at work, talking about bookings and check-in’s and transfers. Here in Peru, there’s ‘estorage’ (Spanish speakers have problems with words beginning with ‘s’), ‘Snack’ (describing a café that serves butties, coffee, cake and juices) and ‘trekking’. But my biggest dilemma? Is it pronounced WiFi or WeeFee? Oh, and the peanut chocolate bar that you might think was Sublime? Sub-lee-may…

5. Lonely Planet mentions a coffee shop in central Cusco with traditional roasted coffee and staff who chat to regular customers. The coffee (served in what was effectively a large glass tankard) was pretty good, but the only conversation I overheard was the elderly lady on the next table sending her chocolate back because ‘It should be drunk hot, and this is tepid!’ Well, if you had it when it arrived at your table, judging from the steam coming off it, you’d probably burn the roof off your mouth, love…

4. The Peruvians appear to be unsure as to whether to be proud of their national products or not. Some shops advertise ‘100% Peruvian products’. Others are selling Chinese minibuses, Bolivian salteñas, US wellies’. When I turned down the first insect repellent offered as too expensive, another was produced, literally from under the counter, and offered for half of the price. What’s the difference, I enquired. Oh, nothing, I was told, it’s just that this one’s Peruvian…

3. When your lasagne has broccoli, carrot and peas in it, and you overhear the group behind being reassured that its vegetables aren’t cooked in oil, you begin to wonder what exactly it is, and what an Italian would do if they saw it: laugh, start weeping uncontrollably or throw the plate at the wall?

2. The Natural History museum contains some rather gruesome specimens of various typical animals and plants: sloths, monkeys, snakes, hummingbirds, turtles, pumas, ocelots… and peacocks. Yes, that well-known South American bird…

1. Thousands of people swarm to Machu Picchu every day. So, if you’re travelling alone, what’s the odds of coming across someone from your home town. What’s the likelihood of seeing someone in a Bury FC shirt, that internationally know and renowned team from the bottom English league. Well, from my experience, there’s a pretty good chance of it happening, actually.

Huancayo, or Life in a Central Highlands Town

Huancayo: a town with a population of 400,000, and located at an altitude of 3244m above sea level. A place described by Lonely Planet as giving the traveller “the impression of arriving in some Wild West frontier town. Tumbledown outer suburbs, dusty, chaotic streets, people wandering seemingly at random and all around the mountains rise and surround”. Nine hours on a bus along a windingly steep and narrow road from Lima. Eleven hours on what is basically a dirt track (especially in the rainy season) to Ayacucho, which is another twenty-odd hours on from Cusco. What, indeed, am I doing here?

This is a question that I began to ask myself shortly after boarding a Lima-bound bus in Cusco. To be precise, it was around the time that the hairpin bends began, and the three children squashed into the two seats opposite me stopped smacking one another around the head with their rodent-faced hats and started vomiting. Was this really such a good idea? I was leaving a beautiful Incan city, all cute cobbled streets and plazas with fountains and mind-blowing ruins, travelling for the best part of two days to what the guidebook suggested was a bit of a shithole.

When I did eventually arrive, Huancayo was facing a bit of an uphill struggle to win me over. I hadn’t eaten anything other than bread, biscuits and crackers in rather too long, hadn’t showered in even longer and my bus had broken down in some mysterious place on the altiplano, nearly provoking a riot amongst the middle-aged women who made up 90% of its passengers. Oh, and my window had been covered up with black sticky-backed plastic, so I hadn’t even had a view of the mountains we were scrambling up. I had to bite my lip to stop myself from laughing out loud as a fellow passenger turned to me as we clambered out of the bus at our final (finally!) destination (and I smacked my head on the television for the umpteenth time: I wouldn’t have minded so much if I’d actually been able to watch the thing without dislocating my neck) and said “Bienvenida a Huancayo”. And then the heavens opened.

So, this was Huancayo. Ensconced in my hostel room that evening, showered and changed and fed on pizza, I pondered my situation. It is not a pretty town, and even less so in the rain. A poster advertising the infamous breakdown-bus company shows a photograph of a colonial-style church standing imposingly on a large, tree-filled plaza, various couples, families, children etc wandering by. And while it’s true that this square does exist (at least, in the right light it does), it’s not exactly what I’d call representative of the town. The place is dusty, dirty and messy, the roads full of angry drivers and the pavements (when they’re there at all) clogged with aimlessly wandering pedestrians.

It is a town with no bus terminal, but an infinite number of buses doing eternal loops, their conductors keeping up a steady stream of incomprehensible shouts in an attempt to entice an additional passenger onto a vehicle that is inching along in the nightmarish traffic of a 24 hour rush hour. The kind of place where even the main road feels a little dodgy, and more of the shops seem boarded up than actually open for serving customers. A town where the print shops are united by the ubiquitous presence of a blonde woman in skimpy underwear on their signs, even if all they sell is black and white photocopies. The sort of place where you only realise how conspicuous you feel as a foreigner when you walk past ‘Gringo’s’ fried chicken restaurant and are relieved to hear some badly accented Spanish from the grumpy man in the baseball cap scooping chips out of a deep fat fryer. Off the beaten track somehow doesn’t really cover it.

On my first morning here, waiting on the street for my first craft class, I see a collision between a car and a cyclist. No-one is hurt, not the cyclist or the girlfriend perched on his handlebars, and there is no sign of obvious damage to the car. Until the cyclist swings a punch at the driver, and the girlfriend starts kicking his tyre, that is. The accompanying shrieking and carrying on might, somewhere else, attract a great deal of attention. Here, I am perhaps the only person interested enough to watch. This, it seems, is life in Huancayo.

And yet, somehow, I have found myself here, and what’s more, I’ve discovered that I’m happy here. There is something wonderfully refreshing about a town that isn’t trying to be something it’s not, a place where even the street ice cream vendors look thoroughly bored (and are usually to be found eating their own wares). The odd touch of ‘class’, as you might (rather snobbishly) call it, usually comes with a large dollop of anti-climax, somehow refreshing when you arrive from a city so cosmopolitan and outwards-looking and tourist orientated that there’s a Starbucks, KFC or McDonalds on every corner and an English menu in every café. Walk into a coffee shop in Huancayo and you’ll probably have to track down the waiter (most likely lurking in a corner watching the television) before you can even begin to think about ordering. Should you make the mistake of opting for one of the fancy coffees listed on the menu, its service will probably be preceded by a frantic phone call to someone who (hopefully) knows exactly how one goes about making a triple-frothy-caramel-mocha-cappuccino, and whether the biscuit goes on the top of the cup or on the saucer. Even an old-fashioned milky coffee is served, rather oddly, as a mug of warm milk with an espresso on the side, and a request for the ‘Selva Negra’ cake (yes, that is a literal translation of ‘Black Forest’) is greeted by a look of confusion and query as to whether that’s the chocolate or the lemon one. Such innocence hasn’t been seen since the arrival of the café latte to my home town of Bury.

This, I suspect, is the reason I like Huancayo so much: I have spent most of my life to date in a Northern Town. Warnings about keeping a tight hold of your handbag (“there’s delinquents everywhere”), horrendously bad parking and an inordinate fondness for fried chicken shops are, I suspect, as much a part of my heritage as the cotton industry about which I enthusiastically talk to my weaving teacher. So is all of the tat for sale on the streets (the tacky mobile phone cases probably fell off the back of the same lorry as the ones back at home) and the sulky attitude of the shopkeepers (“What do you mean you’ve not got change? You’d better bloody go and get some then, hadn’t you?”). Huancayo even has, like Bury, a railway so inefficient that it’s geared purely to tourists, although I suspect they don’t have the problem of people turning up to the war weekend in Nazi costumes, and Santa might get a bit chilly on his Special going over a pass that reaches an altitude of over 4000m above sea level. The Peruvian station car park might be cheaper too.

When, on my first day in Huancayo, I was taken plunging into the labyrinthine depths of the local market, there were many aspects that might have overwhelmed me. There was the way the stalls were set up in the middle of the road, with no thought to the passing traffic, drivers angrily beeping their horns. There was the frog soup and accompanying tanks of live amphibians awaiting their fate, whilst salesmen proclaimed the restorative properties of the foul looking brew (I wonder if men are chosen for the job in order to avoid unfavourable comparisons with the opening scene of a certain Scottish Play). There was the way you could buy everything from boiled quails’ eggs to entire alpaca pelts, and there was the fact that people were openly urinating in the streets, right alongside the women cutting up bread, avocados and mysterious-looking meat for sandwiches. There were the open manholes and the litter-filled gutters, the surgically-masked women selling fruit juices and the bits of dead animal piled in cardboard boxes. Many a comparison could be drawn, from North African souks to … It was a travel experience, certainly, but perhaps not an entirely pleasant one, my main consolation being that I didn’t have my handbag with me and therefore nothing for pickpockets or petty thieves to steal.

Yet what struck me most of all was the utter normality of the scene: this isn’t a market for tourists, visitors or foreigners. There are no women waving baby llamas around in the hope of earning money from photographs, no calls to “Buy Miss, very good price”. To return to the Lonely Planet, this is “a glimpse of Peru at its most normal… the heartland of Andean Peru – its soul.”

Talk of souls tends to lead to sentimental, romantic or religious interpretations. But surely if our soul is the truest part of ourselves, then it is in fact this ugly, unadorned and undisguised face that we tend not to show to the world. If Machu Picchu is how this country wants to be seen, then the Darkest Peru from which Paddington Bear hails is probably somewhere around here. Life on the altiplano is hard, things aren’t pretty, the mountains are just a pain to get over and the food, whilst cheap, isn’t always the most exciting, being heavily based on potatoes, bread and rice. Half of the shops in the art and craft market are permanently closed, and the woman manning the tourist police desk seems so bored that she optimistically looks up every time I walk past, presumably hoping that I (apparently the only tourist in this place) have had some terrible misfortune befall me, just to give her something to do. Even getting out of here is difficult, since the many bus offices scattered around town have no sign of timetables, staff or even vehicles.

A traveller once told me that he measured the isolation of a town by the number of stray dogs it has: get beyond more than a couple per street and you know you’re really in the back of beyond. As I set off walking for the rock formations of Torre Torre, 3km from the centre of town, following “a sign and an obvious path”, I began to notice just how many four-legged creatures were wandering the streets. Canines, yes, generally either large and asleep or small and angry, but also sheep, pigs, and some strangely woolly things that, whilst definitely not picturesque to be llamas, could have been just about anything else, from a kangaroo to a koala bear. Wandering through the increasingly rural-feeling outskirts of town, I was aware of the open stares of small boys, elderly women and delivery truck drivers, all watching and quite clearly wondering what on earth I was doing in their neighbourhood. There was not, by any means, what I would call a clear path to anywhere. The prevalence of cow manure in the streets put paid to that. If this wasn’t the back of beyond, I don’t know what is.

I found my rocks, eventually, took my photographs and squeezed onto a local bus back into town, no doubt causing yet more astonishment. And then it hit me that this was entirely the wrong way to go about getting to know Huancayo. There are no famous sights here, nothing to be missed out on, no ‘must-sees’ or unforgettable experiences. Attempting to seek such things out is a rather fruitless effort: slog to the top of a hill and someone will have constructed a concrete monstrosity perfectly positioned to block your view. Frustrating, some might say, but also strangely liberating. Because without these tourist sites, without all of the pressure that they entail, you are free to aimlessly wander the dusty, chaotic streets.

So, mug of coffee, jug of milk? Maybe not...

So, mug of coffee, jug of milk? Maybe not…