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Episode 10: Shakespeare and the Merchant of Menace.

Royal Shakespeare Theatre

For the past four months I have struggled with the worth of finishing my blog about my bucket list trip.
On reflection, it just seems to be an ego-driven rant that I should just keep to myself and file away with my other unfinished projects.

Like the thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle that’s just the Union Jack flag. The $100 huge Airfix model of Henry the 8th’s splendid ship the Mary Rose that sank on its maiden voyage. Like the ship, my model is sunk in the bottom of my drawer that is labelled “TIME WASTERS”.

Or my project for plastic containers that all have different depths but the same size lid. Or my electric golf buggy that follows you around when you press ‘FOLLOW’ on the key fob. Happy to start crowd funding of any of the above, except Mary Rose and the Union Jack.

Anyway, it has dawned on me that for most of my life I have perused some fairly fruitless tasks that often fall very short of my true goal. For instance, about 38 Sundays in every 52 for the past 50 years I have awoken and religiously checked to see if Birmingham City are any closer to winning the Premier League.

It’s a fruitless and mercilessly brutal task. But every Sunday I awake optimistic and I still harbour a faint glimmer of hope that one day I will see them win. I might have to wait for a few more lifetimes, but you never know.

So, what the hell, my hope that one day millions of people might read what I have written and get some scintilla of pleasure from it seems somehow less ridiculous than Birmingham City winning the Premier League. Therefore, here goes, Episode 10 of The Justin Case Farewell World Tour.
In the morning the day after my last foray into London, Wembley and my great escape, I made my way north. I had planned a little trip through Coventry then onto Stratford-upon-Avon and then to Solihull, my birthplace.

I got to Coventry far more quickly than I thought that I would. Coventry is probably best known for Lady Godiva. Legend has it that in the 13th century she rode naked through the streets of Coventry in protest against taxes levied on the poor by her husband. It’s also the source of the phrase “Peeping Tom” because of a man named Thomas who was sneaking a look at the naked Godiva and was struck blind.

I found myself at a shopping centre on the south side of Coventry called Cannon Park. It was just like every shopping center in the western world, but I was very happy to not be chased by thugs and able to get snacks and replenish my fishing stuff.

I found a civilisation that I knew existed but was beginning to think was no longer alive and kicking in England. Fortunately, the Wembley side streets are the exception and not the rule.

With two carrier bags overflowing with snack foods, fishing stuff and beer, I left Coventry without searching out the famous naked Lady Godiva statue or either of Coventry’s other two attractions.

By noon, I found myself winding down Warwickshire B roads heading haphazardly towards Stratford-upon-Avon. B roads are usually windy with hedgerows and dry-stone walls lining them. They go from village to village, sometimes from farm to farm.

Most B roads were originally just horse and cart tracks laid down a thousand years ago. You often find yourself on a road that undulates and switches about from one side of a valley to the side of hill, governed in direction by a horse’s desire for flat ground and farmers’ desire to get to market.

I stopped a few times along the way at rivers and streams, casting a line in any where I felt I might catch something. My feelings were generally wrong, but I still stopped and cast many times along the way.

Coventry to Stratford-upon-Avon is 20 miles; it should take no more than 40 minutes to travel between the two. But so many were the watery distractions, that five hours after leaving Coventry I was still over 10 miles from Stratford-upon-Avon.

In England on a summer’s day around lunchtime, I love the diversion of a beer in an old pub. I have enjoyed a beer in lots of really old pubs, and this was going to be a pattern I would follow determinedly as I travelled through Britain.

In 1986 my favorite pub was the Crabmill. William the Conqueror undertook a census in 1086 to find out where he could levy taxes. The book was eventually called the Doomsday Book and it lists an inn now called the Crabmill in Preston Baggot.

That afternoon, when I should have been in Solihull, I was in Preston Baggot. After finding an Airbnb nearby, I walked into the Crabmill for the first time in 30 years and nothing had changed since 1986. I know I shouldn’t be surprised, because in the thousand years since the Doomsday Book, they have only added stables and subsequently converted those stables into a dining area.

I marveled at the flagstones that lead up to the bar that have been worn down so much that there is a visible eroded path from the front door to the bar. A thousand years of thirsty patrons have carved a path into the stone pavers.

I loved the place with its low ceilings and the step down to where the old stables would have been. The nook that housed a giant half barrel that was now fashioned into a bench seat big enough to house a table of eight. I loved the polished horse brasses, copper kettles, ancient ploughs, huge leather horse collars and rusty scythes, solid oak long benches that had once been church pews, all of it real. Nothing faked like masses of gastro pubs that have sprung up over the past 20 years with their fake brass and squeaky chicken in plastic cane baskets with reconstituted crinkle cut chips. The Crabmill is the real McCoy and I loved it.

I sat and ate at the bar talking to lawyers, farmers, doctors and vets. I played darts, and sometimes I hit the board. I was told I got my “arse handed to me in a hand cart” after a little old lady thrashed me at darts while leaning on her walking frame. She then explained that the arse in a hand cart expression dated back to the Shakespearean pound of flesh days.

Those were the days when, if you failed to pay your debts, then you lost a pound of flesh. This flesh usually had to come off your arse because if it were cut off anywhere else, it would kill you. I was then told that upon having it cut off your arse it was handed to you on a hand cart; therefore, explaining the origin of yet another wonderful English expression, “Kiss your arse goodbye”.

Sounds about right to me, but after six pints of Theakston Old Peculiar I would probably have believed the flat-Earth theory. I walked to my temporary home on very un-flat earth and slept the sleep of the old peculiar drugged.
When I woke up and opened my eyes, I saw a very scary little bug-eyed pug looking back at me. For a split second I thought, “Oh no, I stopped drinking so I wouldn’t wake up with girls looking this bad”. Apparently, my snoring had awoken most of the house very early, and out of spite, the landlady had let her pug come and wake me.

After licking all the spit that was a spider’s web from my mouth to and all over my pillow, Mike the pug had started on my face and this is what had woken me. Not the door opening or the little pug jumping onto the bed. Not his very smelly breath or his arse in my face while he licked my pillow.

The landlady was incredulous over just how much noise, action and doggy activity that I could sleep through. I too marveled at the stupefaction qualities of Theakston Old Peculiar. Perhaps mercifully, I never found another pub with a supply.

After a quick shower, I had a fight with Mike the pug, who had found my stash of pork pies and was trying, very hard, to tunnel into the side pouch of my rucksack. I didn’t think his eyes could bulge anymore but I am sure they did as I skulked down the path with pork pies still safely secreted in my rucksack.
Instead of heading to Solihull, I passed the next day dawdling through Warwickshire countryside, fishing where and when I wanted and drinking and eating what and where I wanted. It was a very pleasant day only haunted by the thought, why didn’t I want to go home?

My aim had been to make the 10 miles to Stratford and in the afternoon do some touristy things. But again, the day skated away with me. I caught a couple of very small trout during the day and even a small roach. None of which were so big that their tail would stick out one side of my fist and their head out the other side.

One of the trout didn’t survive the encounter after swallowing my hook so far down it was snared in its stomach wall. I vainly threw it back into the stream and it resurfaced accusingly, creamy white belly up and started to float away downstream. I always hate this but was very pleasantly surprised that when it was floating upside down along the river just 20 feet from me, a pike surfaced, jaws open, and snatched it in one rapid movement. I have always marveled at the majesty of Mother Nature, and I was extremely glad that she was around to mop up my latest fuck-up.

I had pre-booked a bed in Stratford for the night, so I pushed on past a few tempting fishing spots and dumped my rucksack there. I quickly found my way to The Garrick pub. Reputedly the oldest pub in Stratford, it’s named after Garrick, the Shakespearian 1790s actor, but there has been an inn on the site since the early 1500s.

The pub is supposedly haunted by a young apprentice weaver who died of the plague on the premises in 1564. The subsequent spread of the Black Death killed nearly a quarter of all Stratford’s residents. Miraculously, one William Shakespeare was born in 1564 and he and his mother both escaped the ravages of the plague. So virulent was the plague in those days that Shakespeare’s only son Hamnet (no, not Hamlet) died of it in 1596. After a pint of Stella Artois, and then a second to completely satisfy my thirst, I skulked out of The Garrick to find a curry.

Everything in Stratford-upon-Avon is predicated on and dependent upon Shakespeare. If there had been no Shakespeare, then Stratford would not be an “upon Avon”. The rows of faux thatched roof cottages would be selling for 300 grand, not a million. Stratford would be a little town on a river that supplied water to a canal.

Instead, the Bard who changed the world of literature is today celebrated like Bethlehem does Jesus. In a recent survey, 55 per cent of residents have never seen a single Shakespeare play, and 70 per cent say they would rather sit through a Taylor Swift concert than go and see Maggie Smith and Kenneth Branagh killing Macbeth.

As children, we were brought a few times for the odd matinee performance at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. I do not like Taylor Swift, but give me Tay Tay any day. What we had to endure was mostly very bad actors doing very bad renditions of their own modern day takes on Shakespeare’s ancient works.

Matinees have stand-in and support actors. Not that even Gielgud could have made Elizabethan English understandable and enjoyable to an audience of eight-year-olds full of red cordial on a wet Wednesday afternoon. I am fully convinced that the seats and carpets at the theatre are red to disguise the years of school kids’ vomit.

I avoided a curry house called Thespians which was brimming to the pavement’s edge. It was full with tourists, all eyeing other tables in vain, looking for Sir Kenneth Branagh. Instead, I went to a very nice establishment called The Balti Kitchen. In Birmingham in the 1980s, a kind of curry called the balti took a hold that left all other curries way behind. It became a running joke that the national dish of England is roast beef on a Sunday afternoon; but if you are in Birmingham on a Monday, you can have all the roast leftovers in a nice meat balti.

Our favourite balti house was The Ring of Fire. A legendary Indian restaurant that took a joke and milked it for all it was worth for over 15 years. The patron was an Indian man who at some stage had wanted to be a country and western singer. He was often seen in the Birmingham karaoke clubs trying to bang out Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire or Folsom Prison Blues. He took his love of country and western so far that he even changed his name to Johnny Cash.

Indian Johnny opened his own restaurant calling it The Ring of Fire, the greatest ever name for a curry restaurant in my humble opinion. The format followed through and as opposed to the screeching sitars and traditional Indian music of most balti houses, at The Ring of Fire the music was the real Johnny Cash’s back catalogue with the odd break out of Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton.

This environment worked for us immediately. We very much preferred Johnny Cash to Sitar Sanjay. To us, Johnny Cash was the first true punk rocker anyway. And a Country and Western themed curry house complete with an owner who would encourage you to stand on your chairs and scream along to Ring of Fire was just awesome.

He was strangely adamant though about anyone getting up on to a table. I remember the music stopping a couple of different times; then watching Johnny jumping off his chair and rushing across to admonish a table-standing offender. All the time shaking his finger and saying the words that still to this day bring me laughingly to tears “Hey you; Snidley funking Vuscous; didn’t your mother ever bloody tell you? Keep your bloody feet off the table”.

We quickly became regulars at The Ring of Fire, to the point that Johnny could often be seen clearing space for us as soon as our cars pulled up outside. Pushing other diners onto other tables and moving the already fed from their tables to the bar; pushing together tables so we could all sit close to the window.

On average, any group of eight thirsty and pleasantly drunk boys could eat quarter of their body masses in balti and drink the rest in lager. Probably the only place most of us could claim to be above average. Balti is not really a curry strictly speaking. The dictionary will tell you that it is a steel bowl or bucket in which a curry is cooked.

The cooking process of a balti is also different. It’s more like a stir fry than a curry that has been simmered for hours. Seems to be onions, capsicum, chillies, mushy fruits, meat and lots of spices all folded together till you have a cross between a stew and a soup. At The Ring of Fire, it came to your table still boiling in the steel pan and served with hand towel sized naan breads. No knives, forks or spoons, you used the naan bread to scoop up the curry, and man it tasted like heaven. Only a food preceded by lots of lager, mixed with good friends, with loads of joking added in, could taste like that. I loved it. Johnny was always dressed all in black and made everything come together wonderfully.

Once or twice, boys brought along their latest girlfriend and this was never a good idea. Jokes that would normally be told were left unsaid like sneezes that remain muffled. The pressure would build and we would all wait for the girl company to ask for a salad or a martini; in fact, anything that wasn’t lager or meat balti. All such requests were met with seven boys all simultaneously saying sorry, they don’t do that here. Eventually the jokes started and generally they broached any and every subject. No girlfriend was ever brought, or ever wanted to come to The Ring of Fire twice.

In five years at The Ring of Fire, I never saw a menu. Johnny would come to the table and ask us how many beers we wanted and if we wanted garlic or plain naan. The acceptable answer was always “two each” for beers and “what do I look like, a gay Frenchman or Dracula? Give us plain naans, Johnny”. To which Johnny would signal the kitchen and then a bowl the size of a monster wok full of balti would start coming from the kitchen. If the timing was just perfect, and it often was, the procession was accompanied by Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues. We would stand up and join in but with our own lyrics.

I See the balti train comin’, it’s bubbling in the pot
And I ain’t shit any solids since I don’t know when
We love eating balti, and mattress-sized naan
Just keep bringing Delhi lager comin’ until it’s all gone

The curry was accompanied by enough naan bread for Jesus to feed a million. Then the beers would start coming. Hot delicious curry and fresh naan bread washed down with cold beer and a fantastic atmosphere is the perfect recipe.

One guy who never got another invite did insist he wanted to know what kind of meat was in the Balti. Johnny shrugged his shoulders and looked outside and told the guy it depended what or who the chef had run over on the way to work. We didn’t know or in fact care at the time, but there was potentially a fair bit of truth in that.

We always joked with Johnny that we were not eating anything until we checked that his cat was still alive. One night one of the boys slipped a cat’s steel name tag in to the bowl when no one was watching. It was hilarious; Johnny was like a goldfish when shown it. His defence was that no one in that area had a fucking cat called Tiddles…

When questioned about the lack of cats in the neighborhood, he would often fight back with, “no, no not tonight boys; cats’ meat is far more tender than tonight’s loins of hedgehog”. Long after my farewell dinner at The Ring, a random health inspection found skinned fox in the kitchen. Johnny fought the ensuing charges claiming that he was taking it home for personal consumption.

Johnny was the ultimate in restaurant showmen and carried the ring of fire theme right on through. When you had paid for your meal, instead of the customary breath mint Johnny would hand you a small roll of toilet paper and say “Please you make sure to put this is the freezer tonight. In the morning your bum will thank you”.

The Balti Kitchen in Stratford was not anything like The Ring of Fire. The meat was identified as chicken or lamb and I never found any very strange bones in the bottom of the bowl. The staff were pleasant and helpful and the service was great. The food was lovely and tasty and the naan bread excellent. Everything was great…but it just wasn’t The Ring of Fire.

Plus, eating alone in a restaurant is not fun, and even the best food suffers from a lonely eater. Eating is best done in at least pairs. But it’s pretty much frowned upon asking a group of strangers if you can sit with them, and you can only eavesdrop for so long before you chime in with, “Yes, I agree, cousin Andrew does sound like a complete arsehole”. I love the American eating at the bar style. That way you can strike up a conversation with someone.

Not long after eating alone in Stratford, I found myself walking along the Avon River bank towards the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. They are now calling it the Royal Shakespeare Company so they can go and perform Shakespeare anywhere in the world, yet still drink from the Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespeare milky breast.

To me, it is still as it was when I was 12; it’s still the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. When I was 12, I spent a few days in Stratford on the river camping with my best friend Pete. We had our customary argument and went our separate ways; leaving me stranded just exactly where I was now standing over 44 years later. But back then, with no money and no prospects of getting home, ingenuity, cheek, guile, subterfuge and plain straight lying took over.

A few days previously, on a shoplifting spree in Woolworths, I had stolen a little booklet of cloakroom tickets. These are tickets that come in pairs and are numbered. You give one half to a coat’s owner and clip the other half to the coat and hang it up till the owner returns and retrieves their coat. I stole the tickets because they were the right size to slip up my sleeve, and looked ideal for lighting a campfire. Now I stood with a basket of fishing gear, a fishing rod, a sleeping bag and these tickets.

The parkland in front of the theatre runs beside Avon River full of majestic swans and gives folk a lovely place to have a picnic. In a moment of desperation that birthed inspiration, I spotted a chance to make enough money to get me home. This was a time long before anyone sold half-price tickets to events on the day of the event, but I did know of the concept. I formulated that of the hundreds of people massed picnicking on the lawn in front of the theatre, at least a few might like to go and see that night’s performance of The Merchant of Venice.

The ticket office was not open, but it was advertising tickets in the stalls for that night’s performance for two pounds. I went outside and started walking from picnic to picnic trying to sell half-priced tickets for that night’s performance for a pound each. It took a while, but I sold 20 tickets. I gave each purchaser the instruction that they could redeem their cloakroom ticket 30 minutes before curtain-up at the box office that night.

In those days, the average wage was about 20 pounds for 40 hours of hard work. I had just made that in 40 minutes. I had bus fare and the price of a new tent, which had blown away the night before. I left Stratford quickly, feeling very much like The Merchant of Stratford. I sat upstairs on the bus all of the way home intermittently giggling to myself, imagining the furore at the ticket office while 20 people tried to cash in cloakroom tickets for seats.

On the way home, I also ate and drank very well having bought a six-pack of the “exceedingly good” (advertising slogan) Mr Kipling Bakewell Tarts and I drank Dr Pepper fizzy drink, both things that I had never tried before and would never buy again. But whenever I see them sitting on a supermarket shelf, I am immediately transported back to Stratford-upon-Avon.

Forty-four years later I stood nervously on the same strip of grass surveying the scene of my crime. Even though it was now over four decades later, I was still fully expecting some angry tourist to tap me on the shoulder, proffering a much-wilted cloakroom ticket, demanding his pound back but with compound interest.

As I stood there, people started coming out of the theatre. Although it was 1974 when I perpetrated my larceny and England was then moving away from lipstick-wearing shock rockers towards punk rockers, the people who went to the theatre in 1974 still wore formal clothes. Then it was suit jackets and ties, ladies in frocks carrying handbags that were impossibly too small to hold anything more than a lipstick and two tampons.

Now in 2018, it looked like half the audience would be sleeping rough on streets somewhere. Finally, I saw one guy who had a shirt on, but it turned out he was just an usher. I marveled that now the smartest dressed person in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre was the one mopping up sick and sweeping up popcorn. Stratford-upon-Avon had also changed; it was time to go home. Not my temporary just-for-the-night home, but my where-I-was-born home. The trouble was, everywhere so far had changed so much. Was I prepared to accept what town planners and developers had done to my home in my absence?

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