‘It’s like a circus up there’ – man in tourist office, Fort William.
There’s far worse places to wake up hungover and aching than the foot of Ben Nevis. Intuition guided me to a good spot behind a large fug of ferns on a Glen Nevis back road. Rain is gently falling, horizontally as well as vertically it would seem, and a thick mist hangs over the head and dampens the ears. It’s no day for scaling peaks, but in the distance I hear groups of men in the distance visitor car-park psych themselves up with Maori-style chanting. I picture David Brent leading them on, clapping and leering.
I head into Fort Bill in anticipation of a special event. The Queen’s Baton relay will be passing through here, aye, on its long and meandering way to Glasgow, but it’s not that. My younger brother’s decided to come up here on a bit of a whim and see me for four days. He’s about to turn twenty six, and feels the need to leave the capital, even just for a few days.
It’s timed well, as there’d be little to sustain two lazy mid-twenty-somethings in the average Highland hamlet or harbour village I pass along. Fort William has at least four pubs, two chippies, a supermarket and a bakery, I count as I drift into the centre. He’s recently sprained his ankle, ruling out more climbing or any cycling, sadly. I think we’ll be catered for a day, but what after…?
In Card Factory a teenager unhappily dressed as a 1920s gangster sits behind the counter of an empty store, gazing longingly at some distant and impossible source of happiness. The radio plays when you’re young, bitter comfort to that most melancholic of life eras, as this lad and countless others I’ve met seem to evidence. I’m not here to take notes but to get a birthday card for a two year old and a gift bag. Tesco provides a carry-out of Tennents lagers, WH Smith supplies a copy of the Viz, and the town’s bakery completes the birthday package with a Scotch pie and a sausage roll. Happy birthday bro!
Outside Tesco, two local women occupying both extremes of the weight spectrum shake buckets for a local charity. A sorry looking jakey staggers by and is harassed by the pair in a bawdy carnival scene worthy of Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair. ‘Come on pal, you must have 2p man. We’re always giving yous money. Give it here!’ They tug at his arms as he limply tries to drag himself away.
Fort William is a large settlement by Highlands standard, but to the modern city dweller it feels more like a large built-up village. It has a long shopping promenade, pedestrianized, with a library, camping shops and cafes, pubs and a small museum. There’s a mix of materials in the structures, but it’s largely a tasteful and sober Victorian sturdiness. Statues are scattered with some attention to detail. There are few chain stores here. I summon an image of south London, home, and picture its plethora of betting shops, chicken shops and pawn shops. I shudder with anger and disgust. A sign announces that this is the end of the West Highland way. It’s tipped one end by a job centre and a string of B&Bs, and another by a public rectangle-square, train station, and behind that, a large Morrisons supermarket and a ten pin bowling joint.
I wander into the tourist office to find a map and see if there is actually much more than this (nope). A grumpy young southern English feller suggests I hire a car. On hearing about my misadventures up Ben Nevis, he snaps ‘was there much litter up there?’ He hopes for some further empirical evidence of his pessimistic assumptions about human nature, or Fort William visitors at least. I disappoint him. His eyes flicker aghast, sick of the place and its people. Just picture his abject misery when yet another American wanders in and asks for car directions to Edinburrow.
My younger brother Christy arrives at the station in the pouring rain with a grin on his face and a backpack twice his height. He’s taken the warnings about midges and ticks seriously! It’s been months apart from a person I’d play in bands with several times a week, and blimey, it’s quite moving again. Self-sufficiency is a wonderful discovery. Take a trip like mine, even for a fortnight, and this becomes clear. But it’s an oasis in an abyss of intimacy and familiarity.
We head onto the Great Glen, the town’s Wetherspoon’s pub, and start catching up. Mutual friends and bitter old London are today’s hymns. Christy tries to dampen my new love of Scotland with a defence of England. Insisting that creating the rules of the game means the English invented modern football, he makes the persuasive case that creating sporting rules reflect intrinsic principles of fair play and egalitarianism in English culture. Beers flow at the speed of our conversation, and there’s some good brews here. Hours start to tick-tack together into a sticky bundle of early evening inebriation. Fine and happy times. As we chat, a line of police appear out the front looking bored. It’s the baton! It’s an unnecessarily heavy-handed cortege for the solitary runner who appears carrying a small stick. Torrential rain has long extinguished its flame. People cheer limply for this pisspoor display then retire back into their respective boozers.
Should we not be at the independent pub? There’s a common antipathy to Wetherspoon’s pubs I hear among the more cultured connoisseurs of craft beers. Are they not killing off local pubs with their consistently good, low price beers, a McDonalds of booze, and the lack of music, cosy unpretentious interiors and cheap food? Possibly, though the greater problem is large pubcos that rip-off their landlords in the purchase of drinks and the payment of rents. But this is less often heard, as it overlaps with the more nefarious and subterranean world of property ownership and speculation which is devastating civil life across England and Scotland.
There’s a grating hypocrisy currently at work in the purchase of food and drink that’s related to new expressions of cultural class, albeit sustained by credit. In terms of problems like low pay, or unhealthy processed foods, or diluting the character of high streets (something people are far less interested in than they claim, if we consider their purchases), eating from a McDonalds (oh no!) is surely not dissimilar to eating a supermarket’s meal deal (what, only £3!). At root is a judgement and rejection of what are distinctly working-class places and pastimes, from Primark, betting to watching television. The growing hostility to welfare recipients is often tied to a class judgement (‘why should I work when some guy can just sit on his backside and smoke and drink to his heart’s content?’).
Getting back to ‘Spoons’ and the decline of the pub, supermarkets have managed to avoid much blame here. I wonder if, along with reforming pubco tie-ins, it’d be better to heavily tax the sale of booze in supermarkets, in order to bring people back to their locals? (And reduce taxes there…). At the same time, supermarket meal deals have easily wiped out the trade of local cafes. Wouldn’t preventing the sale of sandwiches also bring custom back to local businesses?
Unfortunately, arguments about the decline of the high street are still stuck to a belief that consumers can voluntarily change their habits. Give people enough information, and they’ll choose to spend more on one thing in the pursuit of social acceptance. This draws on subtle moral attitudes (‘I always shop at my local market…’) and inevitably stigmatises those who can’t afford to pay more.
Public health campaigns against smoking were in operation for decades before the marked decline in smoking began in the mid-2000s. And what led to that? It was banning smoking in public places, making stop smoking treatments readily available on prescription, using taxation to make smoking very expensive, and spending a good deal of money on a range of campaigns to transform smoking from something cool into something likely to cause the growth of an extra limb and make one’s genitals rot and fall off. It has been a marked success in using a combination of punishments, threats and fears alongside messages of hope, like a longer life-span, and increasing the ease of quitting.
Much could be learned in reducing alcohol consumption or obesity. Organ damage caused by binge drinking could be reduced to an extent – pre-drinking shop-bought booze would be too expensive, and pub staff will refuse to serve drunks in a way a fridge full of tins and wine, and a freezer of vodka will not. But instead of tobacco companies, it is supermarkets and their cut-price booze and promotions on junk food standing in the way. And who can afford to voluntarily refuse the bargains that will just about feed a family on low pay or benefits?
So here is a hypocrite and his brother in the town’s Wetherspoons (don’t worry, we will end up getting pished in every pub here…). Christy draws a colourful self-portrait with kids crayons, Kandinsky meets Francis Bacon, and hands it into a baffled barmaid to go on the kids’ noticeboard with the other stick men and spindly suns. We’re both older and still unwise.
We move from the Glen in the early evening and head to the Grog and Gruel on a local tip. The booze is making its mischief and we need a meal to keep going. They sell a lovely beer made from heather here, one of the oldest forms of brewing in the British isles, and there’s a wide choice of heady potions on offer. A man nearby tells me about having had to put his dog down that day, grief in his eyes, a bereavement as wounding as the loss of a child. Two groups of amiable and equally drunk middle-aged northerners re-enact the Wars of the Roses over a cheery argument over the respective virtues of their native counties. The claim that Yorkshire men make for better lovers is the unlikely clincher.
We squeeze into the Crofters next where Brazil and Holland are playing for third place in the World Cup. It’s really lively inside, and a Ska band play in the background as locals pour into the boozer to trade their wages for something a little more titillating. Many people I’ve seen in shops or the streets over the last day or so appear. The atmosphere’s charged and fun. Our beers are now followed up with shots and doubles and the lights begin to blur.
It’s getting late, and after the footie we head into the Volunteers Arms. Behind the bar is an invisble magnet that is simultaneously drawing the most drunk people from the surrounding pubs into this cheap and cheerful boozer. A disco kicks in. Local women pull each other about and tug local lads onto the dance floor, whilst men look on confused, hoping to find the secret of rhythm at the bottom of their glass.
We get drunkenly talking to other people our age inside, amused but interested in the journey. One girl has ‘bruised but not broken’ inked on her wrist. It’s a little feint to read, and could be easily dismissed in the high street as just another regrettable tattoo. Being too merry to restrain my curiosity, I ask why. Behind it is a story of a difficult break-up, of a girl internalising and blaming herself for the causes of its collapse. Struggling on, deciding to survive and to ‘stay with life’ as Father Michael would say. There’s stories inside every one of us well worth telling.
3AM is too late to put up a tent wherever you are. Now, factor these in: two very drunk men are struggling to walk; neither have any idea where may be well to pitch a tent, or the area of Fort William in all; one has a new tent and has no idea how to put either this tent up, or any tent in fact; that earlier pouring rain has kicked back with a vengeance. You can probably guess what happens next…
We straggle back to Glen Nevis, but it’s a long journey on foot. The area is very dark and it’s hard to make anything out at all. Christy quickly gives up on the new tent and throws its components into a nearby river. I am just about lucid enough to pitch my own one-person tent and we cram into that. It’s a perfect end to the day. Neither of us have developed much beyond the ages of seven and eight.
It’s a very tight sleep. My sleeping mat bursts under the weight. Water has got into everything, and dehydration is squeezing my skull. Outside the tent, some kind of amateur explosive has gone off, throwing wet socks, tent bits, empty cans of beer, newspapers and other oddities onto the nearby path and picnic table. Combine this with some impressive snoring, and picture the bizarre horror and confusion experienced by early morning Nevis hikers.
Chris has hardly slept and neither of us are capable of articulating word sounds. We straggle back into Fort Bill and find refuge in that same Wetherspoons where it all began. Refillable coffee and Irn Bru is knocked back at rapid rate but it’s as effective as using cough syrup to treat TB. We call up every hostel to find a place for him to sleep, but everywhere’s booked. Sharing a dorm with ten other people is firmly off his hungover agenda. Finally, a local hotel with a dire reputation has a double-room. It’s the only thing. As he heads off, I spend the rest of the day in that same pub, drinking free refillable coffees for about eight hours and writing. It turns out to be the best location for scribbling since Senate House library.
By the evening he’s up, and we drift around this small touristy town again, getting bad chips then heading to Crofters to watch the World Cup final, Germany against Argentina. Middle aged locals clutch two glasses each of spirits and carry on like forty years never passed. We find a spot to stand at the back and drink alcoholic ginger beers, the modern-day alcopop, while tourists pop in and out, or peer from tables. On the other side of the bar, a local Scot sports an Argentina shirt whilst chatting congenially to a young woman with the German flag painted on her cheeks.
You can’t sit on the fence with football. A woman asks ‘who are you supporting?’ ‘Germany’ I say, thinking of good times and people in Berlin and my friend Stephen in Coventry. ‘But you’re English?’ She looks at me in surprise. I guess I’m not so strong a part of the collective ‘we’ that I should be. Allying national politics or wars, or the fortunes of local football teams with yourself – ‘we won the war, we beat Arsenal’ – is just stupid, to be fair. It’s a false and arrogant claim. ‘We’ may have warred against the ‘Argies’ three decades back, but it’s rare to hear of a ‘we’ in other politics, like ‘we won the welfare state, we won the right to vote, we’ve got to work together as equals’.
It’s a Sunday night but the locals are knocking back the strong stuff like Lucozade on a charity 10k jog, and few can concentrate on this knife-edge staring content of a cup final. One lifts up his thick paunch and to his lady friends announces, ‘I’m pregnant!’ Another relies on hugging, handshaking or generally clutching onto any friendly face in order to keep himself vertical. A woman has us searching high and low after she can’t find a phone that turns out to be in her pocket. A guy nearby looks on a little hazily, then sips a dark coloured drink. His face contorts and twists in profound disgust. ‘That is shite!’ He offers me a taste of some coke-flavoured vodka then heads out for a snout. It goes without saying that we’re having a great time.
The match finishes after a lucky late goal in extra time. The town’s still alive and the Volunteers has karaoke on, though we’re still too hungover to brave a second night of it. We wander about, sipping disinterestedly on halves in the Ben Nevis pub, then get a pizza from a kebab shop. Inside, people are passed out on the tables, and in the outside doorway.
We return to Ossians, a tatty and large hotel in the centre of town with the faded air of an unloved seaside relic. Stairs creak as our toes creep over the hideous brown carpet. Nothing works inside the room, but there’s a bath and a chance to dry out some clothes and, what’s this, a roomy bed? Such luxuries!
We’ve spent ourselves and our money in Fort Bill. Brains and bodies are paying the price. With two more full days here, what on earth are we going to do?