Sunday, May 09, 2010


It was wet yesterday, so I decided to take my family to Rochester. The alternative was an indoor soft-play centre - the sort where several hundred children run around screaming while their parents sit drinking coffee and reading the newspaper.

I'm a big fan of drinking coffee and reading newspapers, but my visits to the horribly named "Monkey Bizness" never quite go according to plan and I usually end up having to sit in the soft-play area, trying to dodge a succession of overweight children with poor motor skills. Even worse, while these children's parents are enjoying coffee and croissants, as the one grown-up present, I end up attracting a string of hangers-on.
I remember one occasion when a boy and his two younger sisters decided to adopt me as a surrogate parent and wouldn't leave me alone. "Look at me. I can jump!" said the boy for the ninth time, as he leapt from a 15-inch high cube. I wanted to say "Go away, child. That's boring enough when my own children do it and I love them. I don't love you and I want to read my paper, so shove off ." But instead I just smiled benignly and made encouraging noises.

I must have been with these children for the best part of an hour before their mother finally appeared and when she did, all I received was a suspicious glare that said, "And why are you talking to my children?". Sadly, I hadn't perfected a return glare that could have reminded her that whilst she was enjoying her Daily Mail and latte (which she would have called a lar-tay), I was working as an unpaid childminder, being bored to death by her children.

To add insult to injury, in the seven seconds it took for me to put my belongings in a bag, my youngest son managed to escape from a supposedly baby-proof enclosure and merge into a crowd of 300 people. The ten minutes it took to find him were among the longest in my life.

So that's why soft-play centres are out.

Rochester, on the other hand, has a medieval castle, a very good museum with free entry and lots of hands-on exhibits, plus a cathedral with some fairly spooky cloisters. That might sound terribly worthy, but boredom is good for children.

Given the choice, my sons would always choose to visit a theme park or zoo, but in the slightly more austere surroundings of a ruined castle, they often end up having more fun, using their imaginations rather than being spoon-fed a succession of experiences.

Officially a city, Rochester is, in reality, a tiny enclave of olde England, sandwiched between two towns of unremitting ugliness. Rochester likes to trade on its Charles Dickens connection. Many of the shops, like Pip's Bakery, alude to Dickens and even the local Indian restaurant is called "A Taste of Two Cities", but the Dickensian atmosphere is slightly ruined by the constant roar of traffic thundering to and from neighbouring Chatham.

There is no discernible boundary between Rochester and Chatham from the air, but on the ground it is quite a different matter. One minute you are walking past genteel restaurants and half-timbered houses, the next, you are surrounded by people in hoodies with the tell-tale rodent-like faces of foetal-alcohol syndrome. The sudden change reminded me of the time I unwittingly entered the Tenderloin district of San Francisco.

There were some strange shops in Rochester, including a charity shop called "Hospices of Hope" (I thought that hospices were where you went when all hope was lost) and an art gallery, which, in addition to the usual insipid landscapes, had pictures by Banksy for sale:

Are these official Banksys? A few years ago, it would have been a typically subversive gesture of Banksy to place his art alongside paintings of country cottages and sailing ships. Has he completely sold out? On the strength of this encounter, perhaps we can now expect to see limited-edition prints on sale in the Mail on Sunday?

The museum was a success, mainly thanks to an exhibit which allowed my sons to control the local CCTV cameras and spy on the locals. The zoom function had a scarily good resolution, to the point where I felt like a rather unsavoury voyeur. Never again will I confidently perform dance moves from West Side Story in empty car parks.

After the museum we tried to visit the cathedral, but our route was blocked by a military parade. Apparently it was the 150th annivesary of the Kent Cadets and I overheard a steward saying that there were several V.V.I.Ps present. Here they are, applauding the cadets:

I don't know why these people were classified as very very important people, but I was very taken with the moustache of the gentleman in the middle:

Although I prefer to be clean-shaven, I do enjoy facial hair in other people, male or female. I remember a woman in Richmond who, in addition to wearing a striking leopardskin coat and bright red lipstick, sported a fine black beard. As fashion statements go, she made Vivienne Westwood look like Iris Murdoch.

A service of thanksgiving was about to begin and the cadets filed into Rochester Cathedral, watched impassively by this weathered figure:

There was something both very poignant and slightly absurd about the sight of hundreds of teenagers in military uniform, marching past a small group of World War Two veterans into a 900-year-old cathedral. Tradition and continuity. A century ago, it would have been all too easy to feel unmitigated pride and admiration at a sight like this, but that was before the Somme took away people's innocence.

Everyone slept on the drive home - was Rochester that enervating? I listened to a review of David Mitchell's new novel "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" and was disappointed to hear mostly negative comments. I shall have to wait for John Self to review it. Two of the best books I've read this year were recommended on the Asylum blog and I'm not surprised that John's status as a reviewer has grown to the point where he's now quoted in the Sunday Times.

As we reached Lewes, my wife dutifully said, "Let's thank Dad for a lovely day." I heard muted, half-hearted responses from the back. Later, my oldest son said "It wasn't that interesting. In fact it was quite boring. Next Saturday, please don't try and find any other places to go to, because Rochester was rubbish."


The Poet Laura-eate said...

'people in hoodies with the tell-tale rodent-like faces of foetal alcohol syndrome'

Superby encapsulated in a diagnosis worthy of Professor Wells himself. More a syndrome than a race. I wonder what the cure is for all these gangs of ferel hoodies. A 12-bore, I suspect.

Yes, I hate adults whose children proposition one and in some cases trampoline on one mercilessly who then have the gall to stalk over and glare at one as if one had some unhealthy grooming-type interest beyond reluctant politeness in them. Or as if their evident failure to drill them in stranger danger is my fault. Invoice them for your 'free' babysitting next time, I would. Just to make sure they get the point!

Little kids seem drawn to me like a magnet for some reason, but frankly I prefer kittens. Less hassle.

Steerforth said...

I always talk to children if they approach me first. I don't wish to mitigate the horrors of child abuse, but I feel that the current climate of paranoia is a form of abuse too.

Knackered Mother said...

Soft play centres are the work of the devil. That is all.

Jim Murdoch said...

I first grew a beard when I was eighteen and my father, who hated facial hair of any sort, berated me constantly from then until the day he died to be without it. When he was around I kept it tidy but now I've finally managed a full beard that pleases me no end. I think if my dad were still around he'd disown me.

John Self said...

The problem with soft play centres is that the nice ones (ie the ones that aren't entirely populated by feral children whose parents have sodded off for a couple of hours) are always busy because everybody wants to go there at the same time. We recently had the novelty of a new, clean soft play centre open near us, and it was standing room only the two times we were there (ironic, perhaps, as our son couldn't stand at the time).

I'm glad you liked the books I recommended - what were they? If you can contain your water until then, I'll be writing about the David Mitchell this Thursday.

Mrs Jones said...

Could your Bearded Lady of Richmond now, in fact, be the famous Bearded Lady of Guildford? I offer photographic evidence although it comes from Facebook and I'm not sure you could open it -!/photo.php?pid=2137758&op=1&o=global&view=global&subj=2235899665&id=603929466

Steerforth said...

Good God - that's her! It all makes sense now, as the only time I saw her outside Richmond was during a trip to Guildford.

She had black hair when I last saw her, but the coat was identical.

What do you know about her?

Mrs Jones said...

Her name is Brenda, she's 66 years old and she has her own MySpace page!!! Just put 'bearded lady of guildford' into google and be amazed at how much turns up. She's a legend in these parts....

Mrs Jones said...

This is fab -

Anonymous said...

I discovered your blog whilst doing some research about my intended trip to Rochester, when you blogged about it previously.

I didn't find any decent books in the numerous charity shops, but very much enjoyed perusing the shelves in Baggins and City, but I have to say I much preferred our stop in Royal Tunbridge Wells on the way home which we discovered is home to three excellent secondhand bookshops.

Anonymous said...

Oh, more of my Kentish memories jogged here! I still love visiting the castle, though I must have been there hundreds of times. If you can get the boys there during the Dickens festival or the Victorian Christmas they might find it more interesting as it is a lot busier and there are plenty of strange (non feral) people to look at.

simoom said...

On a side note, I'd like to thank you for recommending M.J. Hyland's wonderful 'This is How'. My husband and I both read it and thought it extraordinary. I loved how it captured so many scenes of English awkwardness, though it also reminded me a lot of Camus' Stranger. Great understated writing and a truly compelling novel. Thank you.

Steerforth said...

Glad you enjoyed it. I was also reminded of "The Stranger" - that naive, detached voice and spare, understated prose.

There is a really interesting interview with M. J,. Hyland here:

Jim Murdoch said...

If anyone's interested you can read my review of This is How (which for some reason I keep calling How it Is) here.

Steerforth said...

I clicked on the link and I think that your post is far more thought-provoking than some broadsheet reviews I could mention.

I'd urge anyone who's interested in this novel to read Jim's review.