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AA Gill is away

AA Gill has travelled the globe (and the M1) in pursuit of, in his words, being able to ‘interview places’ – in other words treating a place as if it was a person…

Mad in Japan Tokyo
On the face of it, the Japanese are very like us. We are both island nations, about the same size, both mongrel populations with constitutional monarchies; it rains a lot, they drink tea, we drink tea. We’re both obscurely addicted to odd sports (cricket, sumo), both had empires, are bellicose, mistrustful of foreigners, and are passionate gardeners. Neither of us are particularly good-looking, we are both repressed, both suffer a class system, drive on the left, and only in Britain or Japan is having a stiff upper lip explicable as a compliment. But that’s just on the face of it. Underneath, we’re chalk and tofu.

You don’t have to go to Japan to have an inkling that the Japanese are not as the rest of us are. In fact, they’re decidedly weird. If you take the conventional gamut of human possibility as running, say, from Canadians to Brazilians, after ten minutes in the land of the rising sun, you realise the Japs are off the map, out of the game, on another planet. It’s not that they’re aliens, but they are the people that aliens might be if they’d learnt Human by correspondence course and wanted to slip in unnoticed. It’s the little things, like the food. They make the most elegant, delicate food in the world and then make it in plastic for every restaurant window. Only a Japanese person could see a plate of propylene curry and say: ‘Yum, I’ll have that.’

And the loos. Heated loo seats are slightly worrying the first time you encounter them, but after that they’re a comfy idea; and there are buttons for jets of variable power, warm water, one for back bottom, one for front, with pictures to tell you which is which and hot air to help you drip-dry. All of which is strangely addictive and makes you question your sexual orientation, or at least wish for diarrhoea.

But it’s not that which gets the canary of weird coughing, it’s the lavatory paper: it’s like rice paper. They have 21st-century bogs and 13th-century bog roll. Your bum’s clean enough to eat sushi off, but you need to scrub your fingernails with a boot scraper. This is a country where the men pee in the street but it’s the height of bad manners to blow your nose, and they wear woolly gloves on their feet.

Kyoto has the most famous rock garden in the world: the ultimate Zen experience, 15 stones set in raked white gravel. You’re supposed to sit and ponder. Nobody knows who made it or why, but it’s deeply aesthetic, and fundamentally risible. Look, I’m sorry, but this is the emperor’s new garden, an impractical joke. It’s medieval builders’ rubbish. Oh, but then, silly me, of course I don’t understand. I’m constantly being patronised for my coarse sensibilities and told that naturally I couldn’t comprehend the subtlety, the aesthetic bat-squeak of Japanese culture.

No country hides itself behind the paper screen of cultural elitism like Japan, which, considering they’ve bought their entire civilisation from other people’s hand-me-downs, is a bit of a liberty. When it comes to Japanese civilisation, it’s mostly eyewash. Kabuki theatre is only just preferable to amateur root-canal work. The three-stringed guitar is a sad waste of a cat. Japanese flower-arranging is just arranging flowers. Their architecture is Chinese, as are their clothes, chopsticks, writing etc. The samurai were thugs in frocks with stupid haircuts, and haiku poems are limericks that don’t make you laugh. Indeed, they are so aesthetically difficult, one haiku master managed to compose only 23,000 in 24 hours, including gems like: ‘The ancient pond, A pond leaps, The sound of the water.’ Marvellous.

And then there are the geishas. In Kyoto’s wooden old town hundreds of Japanese tourists loiter, cameras at the ready. Nothing happens in Japan unless it happens at 400 ASA. Kyoto has seven million tourists a year, 90 per cent of them indigenous. It’s a pleasure to see that even at home they travel in gawky, bovine groups. They’re waiting for a glimpse of a geisha slipping into a teahouse. There used to be 200,000 geishas in Kyoto; now there are fewer than 200. They hobble out of their limousines, bowing in all their pristine extravagant absurdity. Geishas are trained to devote their lives to rich, drunk men.

Only the very, very rich can afford geishas. The salarymen dream of them. The trainee geishas, the backs of whose heads are dressed to represent vaginas, clip-clop down the road, their smiling white faces making their teeth look like little cherry stones. A geisha’s raison d’etre is to pour drinks, giggle behind her hand, tell men they are handsome, strong and amusing, listen to boastful lies, and never show any emotion except bliss. Occasionally, for a great deal of cash, some will allow men to copulate with them. We, of course, have geishas back in Blighty: we call them barmaids.

Haven’t you always wondered about the brown signs on motorways, wondered and been a little curious? They plague me, fill the small, sleepless hours with visions, they niggle. What are they? Who decides on them? What lies beyond them?

The green, blue and white signs are all written with a direct, Anglo-emphatic common sense. Travellers’ health warnings and timely topographic explanations. But the brown signs are oblique, runic, frankly weird. What, for instance, is Owl and Otter World? Or the American Adventure, in Derbyshire, or Butterfly World, or the mysterious Billings Aquadrome? They’re like the goblins’ and sprites’ incantations in fairy stories, tempting you to turn from the familiar mortal straight lines into some windy, wooded enchantment. They seem totally at odds with the know-it-all instructions of the modern mall, black-and-white tarmac world, like the guesses and rumours on medieval maps that explain the gaps: ‘Here be dragons’, ‘a land of blue men with two heads’, ‘monsters and giants’, ‘fountains of eternal youth’. They flash past as we humdrum up the road to some pedestrian destination, and we think: ‘Better not, not this time.’

I’ve always yearned to visit every brown sign on the M1. One day I’d do it, and then one day I did. In search of the brown signs of Middle England, I needed a car fit for an adventure. Just standing still, the AC Cobra fair takes your breath away. It’s every boy’s image of the perfect sports car. But it has one glaring design fault, one terrible oversight, or rather way too much oversight: there’s no roof. Not even anywhere to put a roof.

Having got the car, I needed a driver, and the promise of being able to belt on the Cobra brought Jeremy Clarkson panting.

The M1 ought to start with a triumphal arch. In practice, it sort of sidles out of Brent Cross shopping centre. I’ve always considered that its real beginning is the Scratchwood service station, now Blairishly renamed London Gateway. It’s here that you feel you’re leaving behind the safety of the city, all that is comforting, familiar and, well, just civilised. Ahead of you stretches Oop North in progressive shades of ee-by-gum intensity. Jeremy took off with a squeal and a great roar of exhaust. Then we got into the car, which, being red with two white stripes, in a fit of Arthur Ransome whimsy I’d named the Rasher. Under a blissfully sunny sky, with the wind playing croquet with our sinuses, we motored up the lads’ land of the M1.
The first brown sign wasn’t far off: Whipsnade. Not much of a surprise there.

I suppose I must have been to Whipsnade before during some desperate half-term, but I have no memory of the place. It returned with a torpor of amnesiac familiarity. Whipsnade was the first of the ‘I can’t believe it isn’t a zoo’ zoos. It’s meant to be a new habitat, somewhere between the interesting high security of a real zoo and the tagged freedom of the Serengeti. The great endangered stand in miserable huddles in the middle of off-season rugby pitches. Rarity is not necessarily concomitantly interesting. Relieved of the need to avoid predators, little bands of animals have not another single thing in their heads, and stand imbecilely chewing gum, staring at postponed extinction. A drab gene museum, their only purpose and excitement is the annual 30-second legover. Sancho Clarkson is as bored as a desert oryx.

The Rasher sped on. Gulliver’s Land was the next sign. I asked the lady in the kiosk for two adult tickets and she said: ‘Where are your children?’ Choosing to believe this was Midlands warmth rather than insufferable nosiness, I told her: ‘In the south of France, actually.’ ‘Don’t you have any children with you?’ ‘No, do I need some?’ ‘Everybody else does.’ ‘Well, can I rent any?’ ‘You want to come in without a child?’ Preferably, yes, I’ve already got him. Her eyes wandered over to Jeremy, then to her lap, where I expect there was a cut-out-and-keep News of the World I-spy monsters page. ‘I expect it’s okay, but there’s nothing in there for you.’

And there wasn’t. Gulliver’s Land is the sort of place I’d imagined disappeared with teddy boys and the Pathé News. The sort of can’t-complain, jolly decrepit Portakabin and cupboard funfair with rides that anywhere else in the post-moonwalk world would have been mechanised. There was a misshapen sculpture in the middle of the kingdom just before you got to the MDF fantasy castle.

I think it was meant to be Gulliver. Michelangelo’s David it wasn’t. Billings Aquadrome. I had no idea places like this existed. Actually, there can’t be another place like this, a trailer park set around some flooded gravel pits. There are pubs, shops, roads, a couple of funfairs. It’s a holiday park perched on the edge of the motorway. Traffic hisses just the other side of the trees. But here in the meadows is a perfect working-class getaway.

I don’t mean that snidely. But Billings is, unselfconsciously, tabloid fun. Aesthetically nude. Unencumbered by improving good taste or Tate Modernish, Domish sensibilities. It’s a little spot of England where Channel 4, The Guardian, Alessi orange squeezers, ciabatta and the Booker short list don’t exist. Its denizens, who have paid up to £20,000 for a hut, are all from the north. This is as far south as most of them want to get. It’s Catherine Cookson without the cobbles and smoke and abortions. Here all the doors are open and it’s safe for the kiddies. Men stand and chat on the communal lawns, handing out beer cans, watching their crop-haired sons juggle footballs. Men and boys are dressed identically in bright polyester football shirts and tracksuit bottoms. The only things that distinguish the generations are the beer guts and tattoos of the mature adult.

It was with great reluctance that I left Billings. I was truly envious of this comfy, ugly Elysian field. As we scraped over the kiddie-friendly traffic humps, past the pedalo swans, it struck me in a sadly typically smart-arsed, brittley intellectual, cosmopolitan way that this was far more like one of Swift’s kingdoms than anything I’d seen. And I would dearly love to be unshackled from my bookish heritage and have the culture, freedom and nerve to join in.

photos Shutterstock

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