Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Bully For Me

Let me tell you about a thing that happened to me once. It’s not a story; it’s a real thing that really happened. Consequently it doesn’t exactly have a neat ending or a moral. Maybe there’s a lesson in there, but I don’t think it’s a very nice one. I don’t know. You read and decide.

This is what happened to me in the first year of secondary school. I suppose these days you would call it year 7 of high school or some such, but back in the early 1980s it was most definitely secondary school, or what we kids sometimes called Big School.

Big School was different to the junior school which I had just left. There was a uniform for a start; where before I had run around all day in jeans or cords and t-shirts or my mum’s hand-knitted jumpers, now I was expected to wear a shirt and tie and a blazer and a cap. And trousers of course, you mucky thing. I don’t think the whole uniform thing agreed with me, especially the shirts and ties, but that’s a longer story for another time.

The other thing about Big School was that it was big. Obviously. Big in size (there were, I don’t know, almost a thousand children, compared to maybe 250 at junior school), big in buildings, big in teachers (there were like twenty or more of them and some of them were old men who reeked of cigarettes and pipes – I’d been used to a handful of nice mumsy teachers) and big in terms of the other pupils. Some of them were seven years older than us little kids, for goodness’ sake – they still looked vaguely like children but were impossibly huge and stretched out with deep voices and weird hair and an almost palpable aura about them that warned Little Kids Keep Away. You could just sense it. There was a lot for a little first year to be intimidated by.

The playground game of 1978.
I blame Dave Gibbons.
But what I wasn’t intimidated by were the other first years. Not to begin with anyway. Despite being one of the bright ones and somewhat on the skinny side, I had never had a rough time at junior school. Far from it, I am ashamed to admit I had been a bit of a violent horror when playing football at break times. Actually it had briefly transformed into Aeroball, as one of the others had got ahold of an early 2000AD issue and decided that running around with the ball in one hand whilst pretending to fly an invisible jetpack up to a floating ‘aero-goal’ (I suppose) was definitely the playground sport of the future. It was the Quidditch of 1978.

As I say, I had had my moments of being a little hooligan, lashing out at the other kids in my team when we were doing badly. And for that I should like to apologise to Andrew, Nigel, Duncan and anyone else that I think I might have punched in a 10-year old rage. Sorry. I was horrible.

So I had made it through junior school with nary a whit of bullying, save for that which I had inflicted myself. All of which made what happened during my first few months at Big School a massive shock.

The school was streamed, so that children of a similar educational ability were grouped together into classes of around 30 each. The idea being that they could all then receive something like a similar schooling without leaving some kids behind and boring others to death. Essentially what streaming meant was that it became screamingly obvious who were the clever kids and who were the slow kids. The way they determined this for we first years was to just put us all in randomly sorted classes (chunked up alphabetically, as I recall) for the first month or so, set a few basic tests in English, Maths etc, and then allocate each child to one of 6 streamed classes, ranging from 1Alpha at the top, to 1A, 1Beta, 1B, 1Gamma and 1C at the bottom.

Is it just me or is this bloody sinister?
Yeah, not exactly the Sorting Hat. But actually there is a bit of a Potter parallel here – I can’t imagine what the kids who got sent to Slytherin thought when they were ’sorted’, but unless they were already outright cackly junior Death Eaters I suspect they might just have been a little peeved to have been shoved in The Evil House and practically expected by all the others children – and the teachers - to be duplicitous, cruel, malevolent little shits – talk about your cultural programming. And as for the Hufflepuff kids, you might as well just tell them not to bother with anything, as they are basically The Fat House (apart from Cedric and look what happened to him).

No, the parallel with the Sorting Hat is that streaming in schools, for good or ill, marks out everyone in the school year as being either bright, brightish, above average, so-so, a little slow, or a complete thicky. And that sort of sets expectations – expectations in the children’s work and in how they behave to each other. Where in junior school you had much smaller school years, maybe just two classes, where children of all abilities were mixed in together, now they were separated. Marked out. Ghettoised even. A whole class of average kids. A whole class of clever clever little swots. A whole class of children with learning difficulties, some of whom might not be well disposed to the clever clever little swots.

Anyway, back to the story. Incident. Thing. I ended up in class 1Alpha. Hooray for me. I made one or two new friends. We started proper classes. I learnt how to write the symbol for Alpha on all my exercise books. So far so good. Except there had been a bit of a glitch in the streaming process. You might say that the Sorting Hat had had a bad hat day. What had happened was that one of the boys who should have been placed in 1C or 1Gamma had somehow ended up in 1Alpha.

It wasn’t all that obvious at first, at least not to us kids. It wasn’t like we were looking at each other’s homework marks, or at least I wasn’t. Maybe the teachers knew or guessed that not everyone in the class was coping with the level of the lessons, but if so, they took their time about dealing with the problem.

Not Peter Kay's finest hour.
The problem, as far as 11-year old me was concerned, was a boy called Mark. Mark was chunky but not big, pale and a little freckly, with messy dark hair and fat wet red lips, the lower of which always seemed to hang open in a fashion that perfectly captured his attitude of slack-jawed, open-mouthed adolescent male hostility. Looking back on him now, he looked a lot like a truculent 11-year old Peter Kay, if you can imagine such a thing. A sort of bizarro Kay-child that might fail to spend his teenage years storing away childhood observations for later regurgitation in a nan-friendly stand-up routine but move straight on to becoming a real live Abzorbaloff.

For all I know Mark had done really well in his early tests and completely deserved his place in the top class. Maybe something had gone wrong subsequently and he wasn’t able to cope with the schoolwork. Maybe a parent had just died or he’d recently been hit on the head by a frying pan repeatedly; I don’t know. What I do know though is that Mark, from the moment he was put in a class full of clever little boys and girls, started bullying the rest of us.

Don’t ask me how he bullied us; I can’t remember. I’m pretty sure it was physical, of the pushing / kicking / tripping / spitting variety. And I think there was an awful lot of verbal intimidation as well. Quite possibly he called someone a Joey. The details elude me after thirty years, but I remember how it made me feel. See, I’d never really been bullied before and now here was this piggy-eyed, dough-faced chubber shoving me and the rest of the skinny swots around. I didn’t know how to react.

Sadly the only picture of the Softies I could find,
so you'll have to imagine the detail on Spotty's face.
Actually, the ‘skinny’ bit’s an interesting point – all the boys in the clever class were, with the exception of Mark, physically unimpressive. As I recall, we had more than our share of skinny kids (hello), several minor handicaps (a missing finger here, a blind eye there) and a fair few who were just a bit, well, spacky. If you had to put together real-life models for Walter the Softy’s softies, we were it. Maybe one tall or big – but smart - lad in our class would have made all the difference, would maybe have given Mark someone who he couldn’t naturally overwhelm with his weight and pudgy fists, but as it was, the vagaries of the genetic lottery had conspired to make 1Alpha a class full of weedy boys. And girls of course, but I think they had largely managed to escape Mark’s bullying. They probably had their own girl-bullying thing going on with some sort of nasty name-calling cowbag, but the girls were effectively In A Different Comic to the boys at the time. DC rather than Marvel, if you will.

So I had no idea what to do. Here was this kid pushing us all around, apparently because we were all gay joey boffs or something, day in day out, and there seemed no end in sight. Of course, nobody said anything to the teachers. You just didn’t. I think it was called the sin of Telling or Splitting or Grassing. Whatever it was called, we didn’t do it.

You're a bum, Rock. You're a bum.
Parents were different though – you could tell them and they’d tell you what to do. I’d seen it on Happy Days, so I knew it was the right thing to do. And so it came to pass that the parental advice Chez Ocelot was as follows: Hit him. Just hit him. Whack him one on the nose. That’ll sort him out. You just have to stand up to bullies. They only get away with this sort of thing because people let them.

Hey, it all sounded good to me. It was true that nobody was standing up to him, and if that was all it took, I was happy to step up the stumps and take a swing. I had my parenty Mickeys in my corner, giving me all the encouragement to sort out my own problems without splitting. The code of the playground would be honoured and the bully would bully no more.

I guess it was the very next day after the parental conflab that my moment came. Since Mark was pretty much giving us all a hard time whenever there were no teachers around, it didn’t take long for him start throwing his weight around. And when it came to my turn, instead of feebly trying to avoid his spitting or elbowing or Chinese burns (I forget) I hit him. Hard. Right on the nose.

Now, if this really was a story with a decent ending and a moral ending, it would then play out like this: the bully stands dazed for a few seconds, then collapses, or runs off, or starts crying. That’s what happens in stories. That’s what happened when George McFly hauled one off at Biff Tannen, and as you know, George’s life was instantly and forever changed for the better by that one single punch, that one act of bravery against a big old bully (this works better if none of us brings up George’s murder in Back To The Future 2, OK? OK).

A questionable role model for bullied youngsters.

This is what actually happened: Mark stood there dazed for about a second. And then hit me back. And hit me again and again. By the time our chemistry teacher came into the room to start the lesson, my head was being repeatedly smashed into the top of a table. I know that because I remember seeing the entire classroom at a strange 90 degree angle as my head bounced up and down. Everyone else looked like they were standing on the wall, which would have been cool in any other circumstances.

Like an idiot, or like a stupid 11-year old kid who’d never been in a real fight before, I’d missed an important vital step in the How To Beat A Bully plan. You have to hit him more than once. People don’t go down after a single punch. Not generally. Not unless you’re Lloyd Honeyghan or Bruce Willis in The Last Boy Scout. It literally had not occurred to me that I might have to do anything more than psych myself up for one single punch. I should’ve sacked my trainers.

What people did to get in shape before
the invention of the WiiFit.
Ultimately, the upshot of my abortive standing-up to the bully had the desired effect, but not exactly in the Hero Of The Beach style that I had imagined. When the chemistry teacher, one Mr Rattigan (known to us variously as Ratty or Zoom, on account of him being fat, like Fat Larry of Fat Larry’s Band. Hey, I didn’t make the nickname up. Blame Martin Baudrey) burst into the classroom to see Mark bouncing my head up and down like a basketball pro, all hell broke loose and the bully was rapidly detained (detention, more like) and subsequently relocated to another class where he might find fewer easy targets for his ill-defined hostility. So the bully was gone. Hooray. Bully for me.

As I said, this was a real incident, not a story. The bully didn’t go down after one punch, I wasn’t hailed as the hero of the class, and my life didn’t change for the better thereafter. Ironically, the lesson I actually learnt was that standing up to bullying fat kids is a good way to get hurt badly. Only in later years did it even dawn on me that the problem was just that I didn’t hit him enough. But that revelation would come years later, long after I’d left school, and far too late to spare me a teenagerhood of dodging bullies when I could have simply given them a taste of their own medicine. Instead of overcoming my swotty cowardice as George had, my own showdown with Biff had actually broke what little nerve I had for standing up to a bully. That’s real life for you.

So is there a moral to this tale? That real life sucks? That everybody had a crap time at school and I should just bloody well get over it? That you shouldn’t believe anything Robert Zemeckis tells you? I wouldn’t like to say. It was a thing that happened and I thought you might find it interesting. Probably nobody else in 1Alpha that day even remembers what happened, apart from myself and maybe Mark, wherever he is. But it had an effect on me and taught me two important lessons: If you don’t stand up to a bully you’ll get your arse kicked. If you stand up to a bully a bit you’ll get your arse kicked a lot.

So just keep hitting the bully until he goes down.

Next week: jokes and japery.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Everything I know about Rochester

Disclaimer: Apologies in advance to all Kentishmen and women of good standing.

Neither a port in Kent nor a 19th century byronic hero

Rochester is in Kent, the Garden of England. It is not to be confused with Rochester in New York state or indeed Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson, the eye-rolling stooge of Jack Benny, both of whom are now long deceased. It is situated on the north coast of Kent - the bit that seems to be a tentacle of London formed by God grabbing hold of Woolwich in one big holy fist and squeezing until a stream of housing estates and retail parks squished out like a worm between His fingers.

No, it is actually named after Mr Rochester, the bloke from Jane Eyre or one of them stories. The one who had a mad wife stashed in an upstairs airing cupboard. And then spontaneously combusted all over Mrs Bennet. I think.

The town is on a river that is some sort of tributary of the Thames. The Medway possibly, or the Med. The river squiggles away from the town in a most unseemly fashion, barely making contact at all. Perhaps like Rye, Bruges and ancient Ephesus, the constantly meandering watercourse has deposited silt in such a fashion as to gradually divorce town from river, leaving Rochester looking confused and embarrassed at the altar. The river meanwhile is enthusiastically meandering westward to Gravesend, in a frantic attempt to woo it away from the Thames.
Welcome to Rochester. Grr.

Rochester itself consists of the following landmarks: a bridge, a castle, a cathedral and a high street. The bridge is rather cool and covered in all sorts of heraldry and cast iron lions and such. If it weren't for the newer, unadorned bridge which has been bolted alongside, it would look rather splendid. To get the full effect of the funky heraldic side of the bridge, close one eye when you drive across. Just kidding. No I wasn't.

The castle is rather imaginatively called Rochester Castle. Like most castles I have visited, it is essentially a tall stone box with pigeons roosting inside. All the wooden floors are missing, but there are some nicely drawn visitors' signs dotted about the stone shell depicting what it would've looked like back in the day. Look, I'm all for preserving the past as it now stands and all that, but isn't there perhaps an argument for sticking some of the floors and rooms back in? I mean, it's getting to the point where I don't think I can be bothered to pay out to stand looking up through a yawning roofless stone chimney, trying to picture what it used to look like. I paid my money goddammit - I deserve some floors and walls and draperies and soft furnishing and shields on the walls and long feasting tables surrounded by yapping dogs eating scraps of discarded meat from the straw-covered floor.
90% of the castles you will see in Britain look like this

But no historical re-enactors please. I know it's wrong and cowardly of me, but I instantly clench the moment I round the corner of some historical manor house only to be confronted by an actor in a big floppy white smock and a funny hat, who wants to talk to me about how to grind wheat or press his Lordship's breeches in the correct manner. It's the human interaction I can't manage, I think. Give me a poorly animated dummy and a pre-recorded voiceover any day.

Rochester castle features excitingly perilous stone stairwells, worn smooth and slopey by centuries of plodding feet, first complaining about the unsanitary state of the garderobe and the unjust rule of King John, then later complaining about the lack of floors and how much a postcard in the gift shop costs. The view from the battlements is quite impressive, but only if you look in the direction of the nearby cathedral. Ignore all other views. The non-existent roof has been replaced by a massive net, ostensibly to keep the pigeons from doing what pigeons do in castles. Interestingly, some vandalous scamps have succeeded in lobbing small lumps of stonework onto the net here and there, causing it to sag worryingly in places. Do not be tempted to test if the net can support the weight of a human body. I was, but fortunately Herself pointed out a sign explaining the difference in weight and mass between the average human body and a that of a pigeon. A lucky escape then.
One these is a genuine historical character

The castle's one notable moment in history came in 1215, when rebellious barons were besieged by naughty King John - the one played by the skinny lion in the big crown in the Robin Hood Disney cartoon. History fails to note if Sir Hiss accompanied John at the siege, but I imagine he served as a spy or sapper, undermining the north tower. The siege of Rochester castle is also the subject of the recent Hollywood swordfest Ironclad, which is not about a Victorian steamship as I had assumed. Surely they could have come up with a better name than that. Bloodcastle perhaps. I haven't seen the film yet so I couldn't say, but watch this space.

I do know though that it stars James Purefoy and Jason 'Hey, it's that bloke' Flemyng, so we're not exactly talking Troy or Braveheart here in terms of star power. Even so, I think the castle management has missed a trick by not sticking some footage or posters of the movie up here and there; at least the film shows the castle with floors and other wooden bits. Fools. When I visited Trim castle in County Meath, their gift shop had shedloads of pictures from Braveheart stuck up on the walls, so you had a really good feel for what the castle used to look like (via the imagination of Hollywood set builders). There was even a picture of Mel Gibson having a fag. Brilliant.

Moving on from the castle, we enter the cathedral, imaginatively called Rochester cathedral.  Unlike the tour of the castle, which largely consists of clambering up and down stairs, the cathedral experience is entirely a horizontal one. No sniggering at the back. Your first question when entering any large church is in which direction should you walk - straight up the middle (the nave) or along one side (the septerns), and if so, left or right? By the way, I don't know the correct names of all the parts of a cathedral, so I'm making some of them up. See if you can spot which.

For my part, I like to adopt a 'keep left' policy in the cathedral, which invariably means you start off looking at a load of noticeboards boards about the diocese's good works in the local community and baptising people in Burkina Faso or some such. But once past the modern bulletin boards, you can work your way round the walls of the building. These mainly consist, like most CofE churches, of carved stone memorials to dead people. In Rochester cathedral, many of these dead people appear to be of a military persuasion, doubtless due to the area's naval connection (see later). One such chap is a captain who survived the battles of Balaklava and other 19th century bloodbaths, only to drown while swimming off Malta. Tch.
Check out that enormous organ

Other features of the cathedral include: a large marble carving of a near naked bearded angel with a scythe looking like a vengeful Old Father Time, a massive brass bell commemorating Kent's involvement with the Falklands (I think they dated once) which is almost impossible not to ring (I resisted but only through superhuman willpower), a vast array of organ pipework through one must pass to reach the central transquire, numerous alcoves in the stone walls which infuriatingly lead nowhere, some rather fine velvet padded seating which has been selfishly roped off to keep it from being soiled by the heathen bottoms of the hoi polloi, and most splendidly of all, an emergency bishops' crook in a long glass case. Situated near the prebendial duct, the crook is to be used in cases of dire need, such as a shotgun coronation or vampire apocalypse. I like to think it would fly to the bishop's hand when called, much like Thor's hammer, mighty Mjolnir.

The bishop of Rochester
Two bishops stand out in Rochester's history. One is Odo, a member of William the Conqueror's family, one of those 'hands-on' bishops who got stuck in with the fightin' and the conquerin'. I imagine he got a lot of use out of the emergency crook. He also lived in a bucket. That's OK, nobody got it when I made that joke in the cathedral either. The other notable bishop is Gundulf who built the castle and whose name Sounds Quite Like Gandalf. Believe me, as bishops go, that's pretty bloody fascinating.

So this brings us to the last interesting feature in Rochester - the high street. It is a pretty cobbled street full of pretty shops, and is quite the tourist trap I would imagine, if you weren't visiting on a dull Tuesday afternoon like we were. It has more than its share of tea rooms, book shops, antique dealers and refreshingly non-chain outlets. You'd be hard pressed to find a Starbucks, a Tesco Express or a Nando's here, and the street is all the richer for it.

I would particularly recommend the Tiny Tim's Tea Room, for the splendid decor and complementary tea and coffee refills. Every corner of the walls and ceiling are covered in life-size depictions of Dickens characters, from the eponymous waif himself snivelling in Mrs Cratchet's arms, to Marley's ghost hovering translucently by the kitchen door. It's a work in progress, but jolly splendid nonetheless.
Mr Tumnus is just round the corner

Also recommended is Baggins, the England's largest second hand bookshop (it says). If you can stand the unique smell of second hand bookshops, this is the place for you. It's rambling, exceedingly well stocked and massive. Not in a Waterstones / Warehouse 13 sort of way, but in a 'three shops on different levels knocked together and crammed with bookcases and steps and corners and random artwork' sort of way. The place rambles on for miles, up and down floors, and round mysterious, gloomy turns. I honestly expected to end up in Narnia if I went any further back into the recesses of the shop.

They seem to have the world's supply of old Blue Peter annuals and Analog sci-fi mags from the 60s. Herself managed to locate one of those jigsaw puzzles where the image on the box is not what's on the puzzle itself. I managed to resist instinctively scratching myself after inhaling the dusty, musty, papery atmosphere, but my face still felt like it wanted to crawl off my skull, even 10 minutes after leaving the place. Those of a less-allergenic nature will love it though.

The remainder of the high street is a pleasant mixture of shops offering antiques, books, cakes and knick-knacks. It also boasts (well, I boast on its behalf) the most spacious tourist information centre I've seen in Britain, and a smattering of buildings 'sort of featured in Dickens novels, if you accept that he changed the names'. The town is all about Dickens. He lived here, he ate there, Edwin Drood was murdered over there (by persons unknown). But unfortunately we managed to cleverly time our visit so that every one of these historical buildings was closed by the time we got there. I guess dull Tuesday afternoons just aren't peak visiting time for the Guildhall museum, Restoration House or the Six Poor Travellers house (which I hope is something masonic). Ah well.

As worn by the baddies
Worth a quick peek is the Rochester Armoury shop just off the high street, if only for the amazing amount of Do Not Touch signs covering every item of weaponry and armour. Honestly, it would be easier to just put up one sign next to one designated object, maybe the 'gladiator' helmet, which says 'Hey, touch this one! Knock yourself out!'. Nip in there in there and see if you can find the Nazi fez. Yes, there are Nazi fezzes. With skulls on.

You should also spare a couple of minutes to press your nose against the window of a gift shop which stocks an alarmingly large array of small porcelain figurines of humanoid dogs. Dogs as policemen, dogs as soldiers (Victorian and modern), dogs in every conceivable human uniform. Tellingly, the dogs are largely of the bulldog or bull terrier breed , which I think indicates the sort of people they are aimed at.

Insert music from Deliverance here
There's also a massive cutaway bronzed bust of an English bull terrier, which again appeals to certain people. An English bull terrier for God's sake. I mean, I don't want to come across all breedist or something, but your EBT is not the handsomest of dogs. They look like they're trying to evolve into crocodiles. If dogs could play musical instruments, and by jingo I wish they could, then your English bull terrier would be strumming a banjo on his porch, rocking back and forth on an old chair, giving you an inscrutable look from those weird eyes inching up the sides of his misshapen head. Anyway, I preferred the porcelain models of Desperate Dan and the Bash Street Kids.

Finally, do have a look out for Restoration House and Abdication House, where Charles II spent his first night as king and James II his last respectively. Or it could have been the other way round. Damn those unimaginatively named Stuarts and their throne-hopping antics. Why they both chose Rochester for their ultimate/inaugural stopovers I cannot say. Perhaps it was England's Ellis Island, a natural embarkation point for incoming and outgoing monarchs. Or maybe the Stuarts had gold card membership and wanted to make use of the premier class passengers' lounge on their way to and from exile. Who can say? Only historians or anybody with access to Wikipedia and I am far too antisocial and lazy to enquire of either.

So there you have Rochester. That's everything I know about it. All the nice things. Off you go now.

Still here? I've said everything nice. If you hang around any longer you'll hear horrid things. Be warned. Oookay...

So, the high street. It's lovely and charming and historical and not too touristy (honest). I've got no problem with the high street itself. Not the buildings or the trees or the service in the shops or the price of the victoria sponge cake. No. I did find my fellow passers-by a bit of a disappointment though. They're a bit chavvy. Actually they're a lot chavvy.

Never have I beheld a more incongruous mass of slouching, shuffling, grunting citizens then I did on Rochester high street. They looked so out of place. A Quality Street scene populated with extras from a 'Britain's sink estates' docudrama, like someone in central casting had got their schedules mixed up. Actually, I think they must have been lost. Certainly you could vaguely detect a glimmer of confusion or dislocation behind those dull hollow eyes, as they dragged their corpulent carcasses up and down the street, wondering where the KFC and JJB outlets were. I have never seen so many tattooed calves jutting from so many overlong pairs of shorts as I did that day.

The good folk of Chatham scent fresh kebab

Remember the rubbish bit (OK, one of the rubbish bits) from The Lord of the Rings, when the hobbits go back to the Shire and it's been taken over by Saruman and it's all depressing and scummy? Imagine he'd brought along a bunch of orcs and goblins, who proceed to loaf about Hobbiton scratching their snouts and snuffling around. That's what it's like - they just don't fit in. Yes, yes, I know this sounds all very nimbyish, but it's not My Back Yard, so I'm allowed. Surely.

I can only assume this itinerant mass must have slouched roughly in from elsewhere. Surely the good folk of Rochester would not abide such tourist-repelling chavvery to reside within their own borders. Perhaps they stumble mindlessly across the bridge from humble Strood or else wander along the banks of the river from neighbouring Chatham. Possibly they come to Rochester to die in the manner of old elephants, to witness a slice of lovely, creamy old England before their arteries finally and fatally clog up with kebabs and piercings. Maybe Rochester is where they come to spawn, for spawn they most assuredly do, as we were to learn from our brief but illuminating mission further afield...

Like African explorers seeking out the source of the Nile, we left Rochester and traced the source of the chavstream back to Chatham. This proved to be most educational. Chatham, you should understand, is the Shelbyville to Rochester's Springfield. The Blob Street to its Bash Street. Actually, that should be the other way around. Rochester is definitely the aspirational, slightly snobby one in this relationship. Chatham the poor, down at heels cousin, consisting of three standout urban locations: an imposing military base hidden behind barbed wire-topped brick walls, an historic naval dockyard visible from the road only as a series of looming wooden boathouses, and a generic leisure/retail park.

Bricks, barbed wire, rusting boats and a Pizza Hut. No wonder the locals have nothing better to do than eat, reproduce and get themselves inked so they can tell themselves apart when they get confused. Never have I seen so many young people and toddlers than in Chatham, and so few elderly. We did see one ageing couple, bedecked in the standard beige garb of the oldster, frailly standing bemused at the entrance to an eatery, wondering where all the other senior citizens had gone. I suspect they were the last two left, the others having all been picked off by the spawning mass of youth around them, like the cubs in Logan's Run (look it up).

A nobly named vessel
In its defence, I will say that Chatham's multiplex cinema sports a massive external screen showing trailers, so you can sit in your vehicle in the car park and pretend to be at a drive-in. Watching very short films. Not only that, but the historic dockyard is the last resting place of a certain submarine, HMS Ocelot. And that is one of the few things in this article that I haven't made up.

Next week: everything I know about Belgium.