Nauticalia, indeed — the shanties strike up, unspecified, in my head. The word itself, which leaps out of the window display in the Barbican Glassworks Showroom, signifies the transformation of maritime instruments to objets d'art — compasses to be hung on the walls of dining rooms, sextants, steering wheels and sea charts to adorn the weekend flats of the rich. The existence of this material makes the boats in Sutton Harbour appear fake, even when most of them serve genuine purposes. The landscape, hollowed out, is a film-set in which weekend commodores from Sixties films patrol in roll-neck sweaters, smoking carefully angled pipes. What can be done about this? Nothing outside the weary realm of politics. The immediate solution is to turn away and walk.
It's Sunday, and locals and strangers alike are soaking up the atmosphere. I think of Sartre's Beauville — of, in other words, his thinly-disguised descriptions of Sundays spent in pre-war Le Havre — and am joining in with the obligatory walk around the western side of the harbour, down Madeira Road, past Mayflower Wharf and Dutton's Restaurant, to the slopes of Tinside. It's a raw day. Bony light mists the skyline and the water, making the Eddystone invisible and abolishing the outline of Penn Moor. The wind advances over the crest of Mount Batten. Around we go, families and singletons alike.
It's too cold for a pot of tea at Valenti's, or to stay on the Hoe for more than a few minutes. A single skateboarder attempts a wheelie, halfway between non-competitive sport and obsessive-compulsive disorder. This is the representation of a walk, rather than a walk, enacted rather than experienced — as if, and it isn’t quite that cold, I’d been encased in a mica-thin layer of ice from tip to toe.
The Café Rouge is a representation too, of a homely French café with wooden floors and Toulouse-Lautrec posters — and attracts the contemporary Plymothian equivalent of Sartre's bourgeoisie. I can cope with it usually, but today I can’t — walking out, I settle for a latte across the road, amidst the primary colours of Warrens' Coffee Shop.
The most exotic of environments can be transformed to a cloying tableau, expressing what might be termed the 'Portmerion Syndrome'. Amidst the relics of nauticalia, the attempted Gallic chic of the Café Rouge, or the scrubbed stones of the Barbican, I can feel as if I'm pacing the streets of a sealed-in terrain, no longer open to the wider world that created and informed it — grazing with the happy bourgeoisie of a twenty-first century Beauville, suspecting that an enormous sphere will force me back within limits if I stray too near to the edge. I know that I’m being unfair, but I have to ask myself just why I’m feeling this way at all. It's as if I were a barometer, just waiting to be tapped, in the window display of the Barbican Glassworks.
from Strangers’ Goods — a Plymothian sequence