Gentleman of Leisure: Plymouth — like Geelong, but with worm charming
Somehow I have found myself living in Plymouth. When I first arrived here I jumped to the conclusion that Plymouth was basically Geelong – or more accurately what Geelong would be like if it had reached the peak of its cultural significance in the Elizabethan period.* After some consideration this remains essentially true, but nonetheless I’m actually becoming quite fond of the place. Albeit in the kind of way one becomes quite fond of the animatronic Gary Ablett at the Smorgies in Geelong, but still doesn’t really want to live there.
[*You could of course mount a fairly strong argument that Geelong actually did reach the height of its cultural significance during the Elizabethan period.]
To begin with we have finally found a good pub. As it turns out, the best pub in Plymouth is also the oldest pub in Plymouth, The Minerva which has been open since 1540. It has roughly the dimensions of a shoebox, and if you are of average height you bump your head. Francis Drake lived across the road for a while in the 1560s, so its pretty good odds he probably popped in for a cider at some point. Most nights about half the people bring a musical instrument. A few too many guitars for my liking, but there are always at least one or two piano accordions and a man who has the most amazing collection of Irish whistles you could imagine, as well as a set of Uilleann pipes. There is even an ancient upright plunkety plunk piano squeezed into the corner which is usually the realm of an 80 year old man who wears a red cravat. A regular fiddle playing is sorely missed. Otherwise, The Minerva is an EXACT cross between this…
And they have Doom Bar ale on tap, so its pretty much perfect.
You have probably heard of Plymouth. For a town of a quarter of a million people it punches above its weight historically. The Pilgrim Fathers left England from here. As did several ships in the first fleet. Francis Drake was mayor for a while and famously finished his game of lawn bowls on the Hoe before defeating the Spanish Armada. More recently, Plymouth was in the international press for this story about someone who was arrested for driving though puddles and splashing school children, then posting a video of it on the internet.
So all in all it is pretty famous.
For the last few months my wife and I have been living in a flat in an old Victorian mansion. Our bedroom window looks over a park called Freedom Fields where there was a famous battle during the siege of Plymouth in the English civil war, and now people take their dogs to shit. We are at the tallest point in the city and beyond the park I can see down to Plymouth Sound and watch the ferry come in and out on the way to France, and replica Elizabethan ships sail up and down to create atmosphere. If you walk outside and stand on tiptoes you can see a ruined castle.
As well as being home to my second favourite English pirate, Plymouth was also the place where at least one or two of my ancestors left England to come to Australia (I like to think they stopped for a drink at the Minerva) So, given all this information, you could be excused for expecting Plymouth to be fairly quaint.
Unfortunately the city got the bajeezers blown out of it in the Plymouth Blitz and was almost completely destroyed. No British city was more shattered by the war. To add to the devastation, the entire place was then rebuilt by post-war council architects. At least all the suburbs still have evocative names like Mutley Plane, Eggbuckland, Drake’s Circus or Estover Industrial Estate.The last one is where I have been working for a big TV production company based in a converted helicopter factory. The Wriggleys factory is across the road and every day the walk from the bus stop smells of a different flavor of chewing gum. Spearmint Thursday for example.
We are right on the edge of town, and the moorland national park is close enough to go walking in the woods on my lunch break. One week I actually got lost and found a cave. It was like being in the Famous Five. There is a large herd of roe dear which I often startle as they come to nibble on the lawn round the chewing gum factory. For the last few weeks there has also been a band of gypsies camped in the neighboring field.
I say gypsies, and if you are like me you will probably imagine some swarthy mustachioed flamenco guitar playing types with gold earrings and horse drawn carts. Wrong. Technically these ones are not gypsies, but pikeys, or tinkers or knackers or travelers. Basically Irish gypsies, not Romani gypsies. This group suffers from a large amount of racism from everyone else in England.
Based on the 30 or so that I walk past every day on the way to work I am not surprised. I have never seen humans living in more filthy conditions (And I have lived in a shanty town in sub-Saharan Africa). The council provided them with portaloos when they first arrived but they burnt them down and choose to shit on the foot path instead. It’s actually hard to explain quite how mucky and weird they are.
What’s really strange is when you talk to them they seem really proud of the way they are living. It’s kind of like a little kid who’s proud about not brushing his teeth. Like they are getting away with something. I feel like pointing out that if they all just opened a bank account on the Isle of Man and then they could evade tax without having to shit in a plastic bag. Although I haven’t raised the idea with them yet. I’m a tiny bit afraid they will shoot me. The field is so muddy now that they will have to move on again this week or they will be stuck until spring.
Meanwhile, in Sunny Devon, things carry on as usual. Birds chirp, tractors burble. We’re still in the depths of a very cold winter, but the black ice is beginning to melt and already people are starting to look forward to this year’s worm charming season. As far as sports go worm charming isn’t very complicated. Each competitor gets a patch of ground and a certain amount of time to bring as many worms to the surface as they can. More or less any method is allowed, but for some reason the use of dishwashing detergent has been banned. Drinking cider during competition is not only acceptable but in some competitions encouraged. It’s even more popular than darts.
They also race ducks. So here in Plymouth things are OK.
Living overseas and travelling overseas are two similar but actually completely different things. Your understanding of a place changes completely once you stay there, rent a place, find a job, make local friends. The series Gentlemen of Leisure — nope we’re not being sexist, simply referencing Norman Lindsay’s iconic Magic Pudding — is stories of Australians living overseas. Got a post you’d like to pen? Email firstname.lastname@example.org