NUTS IN MAY
The above is the title of an achingly funny 1976 film by Mike Leigh, about an obsessional and wondrously boring bloke called Keith (Roger Sloman), who insists on educating his docile almost autistic girlfriend Candice-Marie (played by the genius, Alison Steadman) at every stage on their camping holiday. As they drive along in their tatty little antiquated saloon through the Isle of Purbeck, Corfe Castle and Lulworth Cove included, he drones gobbets of local history, attempts excruciating folk singing, orates fascinating if little known facts about somnolent Dorset towns, the lot. It is just this side of being painfully credible, and you could say that the camping context is the real backbone of the comedy. Camping among other things is synonymous with economy accommodation, which can sometimes oscillate with innate masculine stinginess and anal retentiveness, as well as the preposterous chauvinism of the smug and pisswise male who likes to be a virtuoso with a mallet and a tent peg, and is a genius at building a makeshift windbreak around a camping stove in the always horizontal English rain.
Camping when you are 40 plus, and certainly when you are 60 plus, is often a brave attempt to pretend that can still do what you did easily at 25, especially when it come to that appalling life-stopper known as The Bad Back. It is perhaps comparable to experimenting with fancy Kamasutra-style sexual postures with your partner, just to prove there is life and strength in the 2 old dogs yet. Though on second thoughts, it is probably only sexagenarians and septuagenarians who go in for yoga-style contortions in their sex lives. Kids in their 20s and 30s are so pantingly rampant they don’t have the patience to read any sort of manual, and can’t wait to get to the jackpot in any case. Pause a while for one of my parentheses, and this time a very important one. There is a pub in the, apropos the Kamasutra, interestingly named Cumbrian town of Cockermouth, with an equally interesting and complementary name. It is called The Rampant Bull. The truly fascinating thing is that only today, 40 years after I first clapped eyes on it, do I take in the precise symbolic significance of the name.
I first went camping when I was 24 and travelled for the first time to the beautiful and then remarkably unspoilt Scottish Hebrides. I visited the isles of Mull, Iona and Tiree in the sweltering June of 1975, and I camped because I was on a budget. Incredibly I had £25 to last me for 2 weeks, but as I was hitching for 2 of the 14 days and spending virtually nothing en route, I had all of £2 a day to go wild on. Once I got to Mull my accounting had to consider breakfast = fried eggs and bread, dinner = a packet of vegetable soup, with potatoes and onions all boiled up on a stove, Nescafe and Crumble Cream biscuits to wash it down, and one drink in the handy pub down the way (every rough camper always pitches near a pub for water, for the toilet, for a sneaky wash down, and of course a sociable and midge-free drink at night). The drink was invariably a bottle of Tennents’ Sweetheart Stout, which possibly is no longer obtainable. As well as being delicious, rather like Mackeson stout without the bitter edge, and virtually alcohol-free, it had the charming and innocent fizzogs of glamorous pin-up lassies/sweethearts on the labels, blond as a rule, and doubtless from central Auchtermuchty, and in need of a bob or two.
I hitchhiked everywhere I went, aside from Iona which is so small I walked, and on Tiree I hired a bicycle at 40p a day, cheap even in those days, but one that had no brakes and needed my galloping if decelerating feet to effect the frictional resistance. The pin-up sweet stout was 25p a bottle, a calor gas canister 50p, and everything else cost almost nothing. Hence £2 a day was more than adequate, and I never once borrowed from tomorrow, as alas I have been doing all too often ever since. The significant thing was that I slept in a sleeping bag, but never even thought of putting any kind of inflatable mattress or even a folded blanket down to protect my back. If I had done that any time after the age of 40, I would have been crippled for at least a week. But in 1975 I slept very well, apart from maybe needing to leave the tent to micturate (oh yes, me and my big words) the Sweetheart Stout. If someone had suggested I lie on an inflatable, I would have laughed them to scorn. I was 25 and therefore immortal, and I was not going to load myself down with a variation on an incontinence rubber ring. The only real surplus weight I had was an ex-army radio with FM reception and an aerial, and to my astonishment I could get BBC Radio 3, the classical music channel, on far-flung Mull. In fact I could listen one evening to Bach’s Mass in B Minor on a lonely and exquisite bay en route to the capital Tobermory, and as far as I remember I was happily out of my body for an hour or so with the transcendent joy of it, the Hebridean littoral, and the sublimely resonant language of the divine composer. Beat that if you can, is I all I can say.
I camped on Iona too, and in those days there was a relaxed and atmospheric site immediately below the sacred Celtic abbey. Life is sometimes too good to be true, and the abbey ran a smart cafe up the top, which sold excellent posh salads and succulent tray bakes, alongside fragrant filter coffee at bargain prices. Sweet middle-class, middle-aged English ladies served the food, which is what you would expect. Go anywhere fashionable and modish anywhere in Scotland in the last 50 years, and be served by anyone who is not English, and you would expire with the shock. Lest you think this is my cheerful and puerile and gratuitous hyperbole, trot along if you will to that new star attraction, the much lauded Scottish Book Town, that truly morose little oddity called Wigtown, stuck way down in the deep south. Wigtown must have at least twenty 2nd hand bookshops, yet every single one of them is run by a beaming immigrant Englander.
Camping opposite the tranquil Sound of Iona on a warm June evening 40 years ago, and listening to the sweet skrarking burrs of now vanished corncrakes, was on a par with Bach oratorio and the deserted strands of East Mull, which somehow filled you with a haunting sense of infinite and aching yearning. Tiree with its umpteen massive shell sand beaches, and pure green water, was also truly transcendent, and I settled down with my sloping tinker tent on the common land next to the pub in Scarinish. There was an ancient wreck of a boat in the harbour, which looked like a skeleton of a whale, and young fishermen, again mostly English, were always going out for lobster which of course never got anywhere near the tables of Tiree, not even of its 2 hotels. Scarinish, the capital, then had its own village butcher, a man of thirty with the striped outfit and a perky straw boater, and in the broiling heat on the lovely shell sand, it was fascinating to see him discarding his offal by the nifty expedient of tipping it on the beach, then idly scuffing a tiny covering of sand across it. They speak Gaelic in Tiree, whereas it has all but disappeared from Mull. Both the hotel owner and the bar manager were English and in their mid 60s, and the latter was astonishingly patronising and rude to the locals, who of course kept his pub in funds for 12 months of the year. He had once been a domestic bursar at an Oxford college and gave me slightly more time of day than the Gaelic speakers, as I had been an Oxford student 2 years earlier. But any pride at his grudging affability was quashed a year later, when the same man looked at me amnesic and uncomprehending, and asked me was I the one he believed had been rusticated from my hallowed college as a delinquent student?
I went back camping a year later to Tiree, with my young nurse girlfriend Dinah, the one who subsequently deeply embarrassed me by telling people that she and I had holidayed in ‘The Hebs’. It was the molten August of 1976, and we had a great many curious adventures, including spotting David Bellamy the celebrity TV botanist, furiously scribbling in his notebook outside the Gott Bay Hotel. We were also chased by a big and very beautiful white horse running loose in a field by Scarinish, and came close to serious injury. One night in Mull where we had to dally to get the Tiree boat, outside our tent where we had placed the margarine and milk, there was the noise of manic animal ferreting, which sounded like nothing so much as two or three rats scrabbling away. I’m ashamed to confess it 40 years on, but in the pitch dark, half way between dream and wakefulness, I became filled with a strange and hellish fear. I somehow thought those rats would get inside our tent, and start devouring me and Dinah, most likely in the genital areas, and very likely extremely ravenously and horribly. Dinah had awoken at the noise too, and she noticed I was anxious, and asked me what was wrong. I coughed and admitted my craven fear, and Dinah squeezed my hand reassuringly. Fearlessly she stuck her small nose out of the tent, then told me tenderly that it was a harmless little hedgehog guzzling the marge, nothing more. But she knew I was still uneasy and she came and hugged me very tight and very caringly, speaking the words of reassurance you might to a child.
She knew how to comfort, did 24 year-old Dinah, even if she did call the Hebrides, the Hebs.