The Lost Towns

In another life I was helping build a market research company. Between the two of us, we did pretty well at starting with pretty much nothing and unlike Seasick Steve, by the time we’d done with it we didn’t still have most of it left. We got some big clients quickly and we did very good work, although quite often it was a lot better than some clients knew they were getting. 

The oddest thing, maybe the best thing about it was the amount of England I got to see. Unlike a lot of pretend researchers we knew something about sampling, making sure that the necessarily limited number of people we could interview or talk to were representative of the many more people that we physically couldn’t. I’d had to learn about sampling and probability, T-Tests and R factors at university. I wasn’t much good at it at first but the uni solved that by telling me they’d throw me off the course if I didn’t get my finger out, so despite my meager C-grade Maths O Level I managed to come third in my entire year in QMD. It meant Quantitative Methods and something beginning with D but I never knew quite what. ‘Disciplines’ didn’t sound right.

We had an agency who couldn’t handle their contract with the Ministry of Defence as our first client and basically did their job for them at a fraction of their fee to MoD. We picked up work for a High Street computer magazine company and tested and evaluate their existing and putative magazines and artworks, hindered slightly by our direct client there wanting to spend much of the consultancy time talking about her issues with her husband, which I felt were somewhat unavoidable given that she was also shagging the CEO. We had a client whose major source of capital was the Barons Court townhouse he’d bought decades previously, who had to hang on doing group discussions in Newcastle suburbs until he could cash it in. A client who pretty much only worked on cigarette packaging who endured evening after evening in hotels munching his way through curling sandwiches while he listened to respondents arguing over which pack they’d put over here with this pile because of the colour, or because of the embossing of the lettering, maybe over here with these.

I remember a misty trip to a closed, out-of-season Chessington Zoo to interview a chef about squirty cream with wild animals grunting and roaring damply just out of sight; another fog-bound trip in the opposite direction, going back with a taped interview about Chantilly cream if not lace, back from some hotel somewhere on the Fosse Way near Loughborough that I wouldn’t now recognise apart from the black stagecoach standing outside it in a glass case. For reasons that were never made clear as Hunter Thompson said so often, for reasons that were. Hotel after odd hotel in the fog, hideous flock-wallpaper commercial hotels near Swansea, Fawlty Towers dosshouses on the red light strip in Leeds but none of them as glowingly remembered as the trip to Plymouth just as Spring was starting nearly thirty years ago. 

Plymouth was about 150 miles away from where we were; it’s never been easy to get to and more so if you confuse it with Portsmouth when you’re planning the trip. It’s absolutely nowhere near there at all. It was very early April and where we were just outside London it had been rainy and cold for weeks. We got down to Plymouth and entered a world of bright sunlight. I’d never been there. Or rather, I think maybe I had; there’s an inexplicable childhood memory of walking with my family through a deserted naval dockyard, back then still full of big white ships with huge guns on them. Improbable as that sounds, out of all the improbable things I remember from being six years old I think that memory still seems one of the more probable. 

On the journey back from Plymouth we went cross country. I’d been to Brixham on holiday when I was six or seven and it was just about on a roundabout route we could take, so we did, skirting the edge of Dartmoor, stopping at a little town that might have been Kingsbridge with a big crossroads somewhere south of the moor, visiting a great shop that sold marvellous things we didn’t buy, with Django Reinhardt music playing on their CD on every floor. Thirty years ago. I’ve never been back and couldn’t if I tried. Shops like that don’t last, certainly not for thirty years, out in the middle of nowhere, however keen and smiling and alive the two women running it ever were. 

We left the town quietly and drove east, out into more nowhere, taking a short cut towards the sea, driving along a deserted flat beach that went on for what seemed like miles, then turning inland just slightly to find a wartime American Sherman tank painted black and parked on a concrete plinth at the side of the road. 

It was there because a local man had put it there. He’d pulled it out of the sea and it was there because of lies and a massive accident. Before the invasion of Normandy it was obvious that maybe it would be a good idea to practice landing on a beach in force, so one night the US Army practiced doing exactly that, at Slapton Sands, which has much the same beach as those across the Channel. Thousands of untried, untested but trained American soldiers were fully kitted out with the same full load of gear they’d have for D-Day, loaded onto ships, taken out into the English Channel, turned around and brought back in to the simulated looks-just-like-it landing beach. Just before they got there it all went horribly wrong, as wars do. Somehow, by luck or accident, German boats got mixed up in the Allied armada. When they opened fire the Americans on the ships thought it was all just part of the exercise. Around 750 of them were killed. “Around” because only about 250 bodies were recovered, which was important because some of the bodies had belonged to people who knew exactly where the invasion was going to take place. Slapton Sands looked like Utah Beach. There was a massive effort to find the bodies of these key figures in a bizarre inversion of normality where it was better to find a dead body than to hope they’d been captured instead. Dead people tell no tales. And ‘around’ because the Allies weren’t exactly going to advertise any of this just weeks before the invasion. And ‘around’ because governments tell lies. There was a mass grave, as you’d need with 750 dead soldiers. Decades later the British government was still lying about the whole episode, not least as it had been a disaster from start to finish, beginning with a friendly-fire incident that was rumoured at the time to have killed 450 soldiers before the Germans started. Fishermen’s trawls got snagged on things on the seabed that according to Her Majesty’s Government were all in their imaginations. It was harder to officially deny the Sherman tank that a man called Ken Small hauled out of Lyme Bay in 1984. 

We stopped and looked at the tank and wondered why it was there. We didn’t know anything about it at the time. Most people didn’t. They probably still don’t. There was nobody around to ask, just our car, the deserted road with the sea on one side and a lagoon on the other and a tank that shouldn’t have been there.

We drove on again and got to Brixham, where the sun was shining and the tops of the palm trees were slightly swaying in the sea breeze and the English Riviera looked like a Real Thing. We stopped at a cafe near the replica of Drake’s ship, the Golden Hind. I’d last seen that when I was six or seven, but this time I had coffee and the distraction of a couple about my age at a table just behind me to one side. They had Northern accents. He looked a bit weedy. She had the largest breasts I have ever seen in my entire life. Blond, unremarkably dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and a denim jacket, completely average-looking except for those most remarkable things of all. Just astonishing. My partner was somewhat less than impressed.

I know, OK? I mean, I’ve gone on training courses and everything. I do know how un-right-on, how dehumanising, how sexualising, how un-personing all that reducing a woman to a single physical attribute sounds. And probably actually is. But they were unbelievable. Even now.

We drove on in the sunlight back through the West Country I grew-up in. I stopped again at some little silent town to stretch my legs. I walked through a yard of some kind, perhaps an old bus station or something to do with a cattle market. I could hear no sound of any kind at all. It was the West Country I remembered, the beautiful old place you have to leave because there’s nothing there any more, or not for me anyway. Some time later on the A303 we stopped again in a picnic area and saw birds bursting out of a hedge, small birds, twenty or thirty of them, and then saw why as a buzzard or a hawk of some kind swooped low over the hedge in pursuit.

One other trips we discovered Iron Masters’ lodges around Sheffield, a gourmet luxury hotel run by an architect who’d gone bust, where I was asked to return a restaurant critic’s trousers to him next time I saw him, which I never had. I remember an almost perfect Georgian town somewhere in the Midlands, somewhere I’d never heard of before and will never see again, one of those places that was doing rather nicely thank-you until it decided it didn’t need the railway to call there. I wondered about all the people who lived there, what they did for jobs, if they knew there was an outside in the Great Not There as it snuggled itself into the darkening night with another three hours of driving ahead of me before I saw home. 

All of this I’d never seen before. I think most people never do. It was the best part of market research, for me; finding out where I came from, seeing the lost towns of England, wondering where home would ever be. 

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