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February 02 Issue

In search of the authentic
Robert Cooper
searches for the real Tunbridge Wells.
'I suffer from an uncommon condition that has yet to be officially recognised and treated; a complete abhorrence and reaction to consumerism and commerciality'.

Journey’s in search of the banal, is the title I was considering by mid way into the day trip taken to the unknown regions of the country, whereby I mean anywhere outside London. The weather should have been deterrent enough, as the rain lashed down buffeted into horizontal motions by huge gusts of wind. The tension of being cooped up for two days, waiting for a let up in the aforementioned weather was now unbearable. London felt claustrophobic and monotone; the air heavy with stench that constricted the lungs and no horizon to broaden the mind; come what may, stepping outside was now a must.

My travelling companion and I had decided, in the absence of a better idea, to simply pick a random place on the map as the goal for our journey. The only criteria being a) somewhere we both had not been to before and b) not so far as to encompass a long arduous journey remembering we had to leave, and at some point, get back into London. This last factor has in the past proven to be more of a quest than a simple journey, one that makes Dante’s tour of purgatory, seems like a pleasant alternative. After much reluctance in the face of this prospect, we left the flat after lunch and started out.

The wind and rain produced appalling visibility and all cars were reduced to a slow trundling in the left hand lane, making occasional violent readjustments to the cars direction as huge winds tried to blow our pathetic metal boxes in to the nearby ditch. Everyone that is apart from those devil worshipers who have their foot to the floor in all conditions, and hammer past you in the fast and soon to be taking off lane, oblivious to exterior factors such as hurricanes and other drivers. I can only assume they have some advanced ‘head up display’ in their four wheeled jet fighter cockpit that enables them to travel at similar speeds to their airborne cousins. As the next one passes in a blur of spray, I know I should have spent the extra on the Ghia model and not my Virgin Mary figurine that watches over me from the dashboard.

‘Ah ha, the turning for Tunbridge Wells’ went the relieved cry, as we neared our destination. I was imagining old narrow streets and quaint oak beamed houses and shops. Hopefully a Ye Olde pub or two in which to take refuge, a roaring heath to sit next to with a pint of local real ale, and the murmur of quite conversation and the crackle of the fires flame as a backdrop. We past through Southborough first and from our road Atlas we could see our goal was very soon after.

Southborough looked like a very ordinary town, with the old and new buildings appearing equally undistinguished and the centre of the town apparently being the main road we were on. I was happy to be passing through and nothing else, the scenery didn’t change much, with sometimes more and sometimes less on the roadside. ‘So how much further till we are there?’ I asked my co-driver, ‘we’re in Tunbridge Wells didn’t you see the sign?’ came the reply. My heart sank but the optimist in me held on to a notion that you couldn’t tell a town’s true nature from its outskirts, and once past the outer settlements some surprises may still be in store.

The further we ventured in, the more my optimism waned and upon following the signs for parking, we discovered a multi-storey facility, which was not a good sign in itself. I parked the car in ambivalence, and left it in hope. I left to wander the streets but instead found myself in a pristine and glowing white arena. My stomach turned and my heartbeat quickened, and a sweaty palmed panic quickly consumed me. I suffer from an uncommon condition that has yet to be officially recognised and treated; a complete abhorrence and reaction to consumerism and commerciality. Unwittingly I had stumbled into one of its most concentrated and deadly forms; the shopping mall.
Due to its vast size escape was not immediate in coming and it took a few precious minutes to find an exit, which seem to be erroneously located in an attempt to keep us trapped for longer, until we succumb to our new god. We fled outside into the welcome rain, taking any direction, happy to be free once again.

I had foolishly come out with out a hat and still infused with the spirit of Old England, despite everything, I decided to try and find one that would befit and English man in the worst English weather. Upon receiving directions to a suitable establishment, we quickly made our way to Robertson and Sons.
What a traditional mans paradise it proved to be; an oasis of wax jackets tweeds and hunting paraphernalia. I wandered through the shop, suffused with the musty smell of natural fabrics, wax and leather, over to the hat section. I tried on a few examples with brims of varying sizes and some with feathers and bands of leather around their circumference. Nothing suited, I’d have to wait at least twenty years and inherit a manor to wear such things.

I felt out of place and my sense of self started returning. About to leave I spotted a large rack of guns, and wandered over mesmerised by such an unusual and potentially dangerous sight. It opened up into an alley of armoury, containing rifles and shotguns of all denominations. ‘Can I help you’ said a friendly looking man at the end of the alley behind a desk. ‘Oh no just looking thanks’ I replied and he returned to conversation with his colleague. I felt astounded and uneasy looking at such things, their physical reality being so unfamiliar, their hand crafted form at times beautiful I wanted to touch them, but like a snake that might turn and bite I dared not. As I looked back to the assistants they were flicking through related magazines, ‘should have used a rocket launcher, ha ha’ one pointed out to the other. I imagined him looking up at us with shotgun in hand, a knowing smirk across his face, uttering the fateful words ‘You folks aint from around these parts are yer?’ and I quickly decided to leave.

Cold, wet and unsatisfied, we decided that some refreshment was in order, and there wasn’t anything else to do. Nobody knew of any of the public houses of the type I had in mind, and in fact looked at me strangely when I asked about such possibilities, suggesting instead a Wetherspoons pub. Clearly I was in the wrong place with the wrong people. Coffee it was then and we soon happened upon two large franchised chains of coffee shop on opposite sides of the road, vying head to head for punters. I opted for the one that allowed smoking to retain some sense of personal choice and freedom. While we sat in prefabricated and prescribed refreshment heaven, we were soon joined by scores of older school children, eager to be out of school and partaking in the cool adult world: smoking and drinking coffee. I smiled at first but then cringed at their mock behaviour, which added one more facade to the ever-growing mosaic, that of our societies socially didactic and unoriginal environment. My sudorific surroundings breached my defences once again, and we quickly left to start the journey to a London that once again seemed welcome. The coffee may not taste any better there but I can drink it in a café owned by someone who serves me, who painted it themselves to their own taste, who created and sourced their own menu, both of us happy in our delusion that there is nowhere else just like here.

© Robert Cooper 2002

Previously by Robert Cooper -

The Turner Prize

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