Withdrawn and ruinous it broods in umbra: the immemorial masonry: the towers, the tracts. Is all corroding? No. Through an avenue of spires a zephyr floats; a bird whistles; a freshet bears away from a choked river. Deep in a fist of stone a doll’s hand wriggles, warm rebellious on the frozen palm. A shadow shifts its length. A spider stirs … And darkness winds between the characters.
Yet it's also a city that announces its age at every opportunity and, unless you travel there for the heritage, that heritage can sometimes plainly wear on your nerves. I think of it as a city that wants to play me for a fool; where the price of everything is inflated to maintain the mock Elizabethan standards.
The moment you step out of the station, you're greeted by paralyzed history. The arch over the entrance to the Queen Hotel car park proclaims 'Carriages & Post Horses For Hire', whilst across the road another hotel, one of the city's many listed buildings, is proudly titled the 'Town Crier'. Everything wears history but it's a history that only a naive fool (or American) would believe is real. Wikipedia dates the building to only 1865, originally titled either the 'Queen Commercial Hotel' or the 'Albion Hotel', whilst the role of the city's town crier it itself a recent re-innovation, reappearing sometime in the 1990s. None of this really matters, of course. Not to the tourists.
I've never been a tourist. I've visited Chester so regularly since childhood that I no longer have any sense of its novelty. At one point, I was hoping to get a lecturing job in the English department at the university (I didn't) and at another point I was working on the city's outskirts, often travelling into the city on my half-days to enjoy the shopping. It's distant enough to be only an occasional day out but close enough to be completely familiar.
There was a time when English towns retained some distinctive quality but every town in the UK resembles every other town and Chester, despite its pretensions, is still really more town that city. There are the ubiquitous shops and anything more is usually worth disregarding or cherishing intensely. Whether it's the self-important town criers, the struggling actors dressed as Roman centurions, or the old fashioned open-topped bus that carries tourists around, Chester is different and yet, for people who aren't tourists, there's also something about it that feels wrong. It's a veneer of special which really doesn't run that deep. This is that vintage England which you're not entirely sure is real or an illusion.
Because, these days, my visits to Chester are usually to support my sister who makes occasional visits to see a consultant there, we often use Abbey Taxies on Foregate Street. It's a small office, wedged between a couple of cafes, Argos and a Bargain Booze across the road, all the buildings like much of the city centre: a mixture of styles but with the popular black and white timber the dominant theme. Inside there's a cattle-pen turnstyle arrangement, which I assume is for weekend use, where drunks probably stack up for their taxis home. However, it's always empty during the day and you walk straight through to an office at the rear, ask for a taxi, and you are then directed through the building towards the street at the back. You emerge in an alley that resembles grubby backstreets everywhere and the city's Tudor spell is immediately broken by the endless red brick. The timber history, you realise, was skin deep and the real history is to be found elsewhere in the Roman ruins dotted around the outskirts of the city centre.
Yet, the illusion is not entirely why I never enjoy visiting Chester. It's hard to criticise any place that tries to be different in these days of mass produced shop fronts and, despite my cynicism, I know much of the history is real and I always feel a thrill when I remember that my favourite poet, John Donne, attended the funeral of Sir Thomas Egerton at the Cathedral. What I suppose I dislike is the ethos of the place. There was a time when there was a free bus that ran from the station into the city centre. Manchester has that and I think many other great cities have the same. It's a small thing but it makes you feel welcome. Chester now charges visitors for this honour and I begrudge the £1 you have to pay for each five minute journey on the cramped bus, four additional pounds for the two of us in addition to the already exorbitant train fare. It means that right from the moment you leave the station, Chester doesn't feel welcoming and it gets no better once you arrive in the city centre.
For the average person, Chester flaunts both its wealth and your lack of it. It's the only place I know where I feel genuinely poor. On Eastgate Street, in the shadow of the famous clock (erected 1769, or so it says in the Latin pressed in gold onto the red sandstone), stands the Chester Grosvenor Hotel. It's the kind of hotel that has men in uniforms guarding the entrance with a rigid smile and ex-military menace. It offers an eight course 'Tasting Menu' for 'just' £59 per person, with a 'Tasting Wine Menu Selection' for only another £45. If I'd wanted to stay there tonight, the cheapest room is £195 for the 'Classic Bedroom' or £455 for the 'Deluxe Suite'. I'd have to hope they also offer a 'Standard Broom Closet'.
I know there's no reason to begrudge the rich their privileges but the problem is that Chester makes that ostentation so public. Because the hotel's entrance opens right onto the main shopping thoroughfare, the wedding parties often mix with the tourists and locals in a strange blend of real wealth and absolute poverty. You can quickly find yourself walking through a wedding shot or pushing past some huge Rolls Royce or horse-drawn cart thick with garlands. Handsome people are daily seen posing in their perfect lives at perfect weddings you suspect will end in a messy divorce six months later. Often the confetti (every piece cut into a heart shape, no less) sticks to your boots, in the lapel of your coat, in the creases of your hat. Today, there was a bright red Jag, a stunning F-Type Coupe, pushing its way through the crowds; it's deep throated roar clearing a path. I've never been so close to one as I was when its exquisite nose nudged me out of the way.
Yet for all the money, the pretty people in their fashionable clothes and their clipped accents, Chester has very little class. Get there late in the afternoon and you discover that most places close at five PM and the local baristas (the friendliest people in the city, especially those in the two Neros on the streets Eastgate and Foregate) tell me that the city is pretty starved of culture at night. Anywhere that stays open is catering to the stag parties or muscled gangsters hot on their winning streaks from the racetrack. At night, Chester is a place where women wear very little very brazenly, where there's as much wealth on show as there is flesh. Often, the clothes are of the leopard skin variety, as bereft of ideas as the wearers are bereft of manners. Today, I'd just emerged from Waterstones (I'd found a Kliban Cat calendar dumped in the bargain bin for £1) and I was walking along the Rows, which if you don't know Chester, are a raised pedestrian area a level up from the street, forming a continuous walkway cut into fabric of the buildings. It's all carved timber like the innards of the Mary Rose, winding and rising and falling as the constantly unique architecture changes from shop to shop. It's probably one of the city's great attractions, the stuff that makes Americans boldly declare 'quaint'. Yet it's also extremely unfriendly for anybody infirm or pushing a pram. So, at one of the many old well-heeled stone steps you find at the end of the Rows, a woman was standing with a baby in a buggy. She was trying to figure out how to get her pram down the steep steps. I was a good distance away, so I knew somebody would stop and help before I got there. In a city like Liverpool -- supposedly a tough working class city but the reality is that it's about the friendliest city you'll find anywhere -- somebody would help her in an instant. Yet that didn't happen today in Chester. It was some time before I reached her yet I found her still struggling. I stopped and helped her carry the buggy down to the street and I say that not because I'm particularly virtuous because I'm not. But it's what you do when nobody else will stop and help and Chester doesn't feel like a place where people help each other very often.
People are rich and with wealth comes a certain attitude which pervades the place. In reminds me of London in the way that people shove each other out of the way, rarely signal for you to go first and instead take every space as if it's already their own. On my rare visits to London, I've felt like Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy, smiling at unfriendly strangers and apologising should I step in their way. Hold a door open for somebody in Manchester or Liverpool and people usually smile and say 'thank you'. Hold a door open for somebody in London (or Chester) and they assume you're there to hold the door open for them. It's not deliberate. Taking you for granted is a habit of mind.
The same unfriendliness is carried over into the shops. Chester is the only city where I've ever been physically thrown out of a bookshop. It was some years ago now. I was about to go back to university to study English and I was in the classics section of W.H. Smith. I remember I was trying to figure out which edition of Shakespeare's collected plays to buy. If you've ever studied Shakespeare seriously, you'd know it's an important decision not to be made quickly. A young assistant came up to me. He asked me what I was doing. I said I was browsing the books. 'They have libraries for that,' he replied.
'If you want to browse books, you should go to the library.'
'But I'm looking at these books intending to buy one.' I'd been stood there about five minutes and with student loan money in my pocket to buy my copy.
'Yes and we've had a lot of trouble with people like you...'
And then he escorted me out of the shop, despite my protests and requests to speak to the manager. I know I should have stood my ground but, also knowing Chester, I'd have probably ended up in the nick. I was too far from home to make a scene, plus, I guess, part of me felt like he was right. I didn't belong. A stinking letter to W.H. Smiths' head office did nothing. I suspect they'd mistaken me for somebody else. I never did find out. It was years before I even used that W.H. Smiths again.
Yet that's Chester. Despite the charm, there's a tricky undercurrent to the place. Walk the Rows and peer into the shops and you often see unfriendly faces looking back at you. Or, perhaps, just at me. I know the problem is partly how I look. I am shabby. I wear the clothes of my profession: lifelong student, writer, cartoonist, programmer, naive dreamer. And I know I dress a certain way because I want people to misjudge me because I also know that the suits and the tans mean very little in life. Or they mean very little to me. I want to be judged for who I am and not how I look. Yet the irony is that many of the shops contain the things I cherish. I now don't even bother trying to enter the few antiquarian bookshops. I stick to the charity shops. I don't enter the art galleries and I don't even go into the Cartoon Gallery, which is up on the Rows on Watergate Street. It should be one of my favourite places in the North West but I stopped visiting. Whenever I've gone in there in the past, I felt so out of place. Not that I've ever been made to feel out of place. The owners smile at me but I somehow know it's not for me. It's a shop made for golfing executives and their wives, not for would-be cartoonists only there to look at all the Bill Stott originals and, besides, Bill Stott gave me one of his originals. He's a good man. I suspect all cartoonist are, as I bet Albert is. Albert the Punch cartoonist who sits working at his desk at the back of the shop.
Yet I don't really know why I feel apart in the place I should feel most at home. Perhaps it makes me bitter to think that the guy there to buy an expensive cartoon for his den wall can't identify a Stott from a Bestie, a Mike Williams from a Bill Tidy.
And perhaps that's why I always leave Chester feeling disappointed. I know it's not really the city that disappoints me. I guess the disappointment is with myself. I realised this today.
We all go through life occasionally glimpsing lost souls, somehow outmaneuvered by fate. I saw a couple today, walking past me. They were obviously a couple and both wore glasses with extremely strong prescriptions. The boy looked cumbersome. The girl was attractive but in a slightly forlorn way and you know that she in no way would ever think herself attractive and you know that's one of life's small tragedies. She had a prettier face than many of those caked in fake tan and lip gloss. You might say the couple were a perfect match, each of them so ever slightly odd, and that forced me to mutter a lament of 'poor buggers' as they walked past. Yet Chester also makes me realise that I'm another of the 'poor buggers', only there because my sister needed another hospital appointment because she continues to be extremely unwell, continually failed by the NHS, having just endured another six months of suffering because the local GP managed to lose two blood samples she'd given without informing us, meaning that, six months later, we had to face a consultant explaining how the important blood work hadn't been done and she'd have to do it again, involving another six month wait... Two poor buggers in Chester and never a lucky break between them.
And that, I suppose is the problem I have with Chester. Chester really makes me hate myself and makes me hate my life, which is unforgivable. I can't think of another place that ever makes me feel so utterly abject, glad to be home but also sad to be home. It's not simply the fraud of the history, the wilful ignorance of the people. It's the sense that life really is a lottery and some of us can afford the great suits, the expensive hotels, the bright red cars, the cartoon originals, the first editions, and, most of all, the private healthcare. The rest of us are stuck with shit luck, the NHS, and the knowledge that no matter how hard you work, how kind you are, how noble your dreams, or how generous your spirit, you can still be heeling along at the bottom wondering when life will give you a break.
'Antiqui colant antiquum dierum' is the City of Chester's motto. 'Let the ancients worship the ancient of days.'
As far as I'm concerned, the ancients are welcome to them.