Hitchhiking is pretty old school. But when you’re on a mission to find out more about your family history, perhaps it is the perfect mode of travel. All that waiting gives you extra time to reflect, and the sense of uncertainty and unpredictability perhaps suits the mood on a voyage of self-discovery. Writer and UK All Stars Poetry Slam champion Ben Norris went on such a hitchhiking journey, trekking around the country, following the story of the man that would become his father. He spoke to The Wee Review about it…
Tell us about your Dad. Who is he and why did you feel you had to make this journey?
My dad is a man of few words, or – rather – a man of many words when it comes to football and things people have done in the office. But when it comes to matters of the heart, he is a little less loquacious. And that extends to talking about his past; when I was growing up, I knew next to nothing about it, other than what I’d gathered from his mum – my nan – who is rather better at talking, as you’d expect from a proud 92 year old former publican! So I wanted to make this trip to try and better understand my dad’s childhood and adolescence and see the streets on which he did his growing up, in the hope it might allow me to better know him in the present.
Not easy to hitchhike these days I imagine, what with everyone assuming you’re a serial killer. How did you get on?
It’s trickier than it used to be by any account and there certainly is a lot of suspicion and cynicism. But, despite hours of failure and increasing desperation at Trowell services and other bleak bastions of Great British motoring culture, I was always, eventually, picked up. And all the drivers said the same thing: how nice it is to see someone still trying to hitch a ride. It often prompted them to tell me stories of hitchhikes they’d done themselves. Notably, I met a man who used to hitchhike back to Nottingham from work in Halifax every Friday night! Makes my modest sojourn seem frankly unambitious!
Where did you end up? Anywhere you’d recommend visiting?
I went to a lot of crap places, which were probably only interesting to me because of their personal connection with my dad’s past. But, really, it was sort of magical, in the way that a firework display in a multi-storey car park would be sort of magical.
I say ‘crap’ with an enormous smile on my face and a warmth in my heart. Because they were all, mostly, charming in their crapness. Kenilworth Road, home of my dad’s beloved Luton Town FC: crap – but brilliant. I’ve many fond memories there. Welwyn Garden City: a bit crap – but the setting of a handful of brilliant, inspirational conversations with relatives. And it’s got some decent roundabouts. And Hitchin, Langford, Breachwood Green… they are genuinely very lovely towns and villages, and extremely picturesque. Despite their almost violent opposition to wind farms…
And who did you meet? Any long-lost relatives you were discovering for the first time?
Aside from the fantastic, wonderful, insightful loons and lift-givers I met on the road, I had fantastic conversations with Beryl, my dad’s aunt, and met her son, David, for the first time, dad’s best friend in his early teenage years. Speaking to him and his wife Gill was hugely revelatory in terms of what inadvertently became one of the big themes of the show: masculinity and emotional articulacy. Men + Feelings = Nope. Nine times out of ten. I also went for a very confessional curry with David’s successor as dad’s best mate – from his early teenage years onwards – Marcus. But no spoilers…
What about the low points? Did you ever have a cold Ginster’s for breakfast?
Plenty of low points. Luton in general is low enough. Travelodge is low enough. But Travelodge IN Luton is a fresh hell. By which I mean a stale purgatory. And then RAIN in Luton, and having to walk the first couple of miles to Welwyn Garden City while everyone ignores you and drenches you in oily water, that’s rough. Also, one of the people who picked me up turned out to be quiiiiite racist. Which made for an uncomfortable half an hour of motorway. There’s a lot of things wrong with Luton, but its multiculturalism is not one of them – indeed, it’s one of its redeeming features. Sadly she didn’t agree.
What did you hope to get from the journey and did you find it?
A lot of this shapes the show itself and I don’t want to give too much away but I will say this: I went in search of something – something empirically knowable – and came back having learned something much more important. Less tangible, certainly, but that’s why it was such a revelation. And I learnt a lot about myself as well as about my dad.
What does your Dad make of your show?
He is actually very supportive of the whole affair. I haven’t talked to him in great detail about the content because I want him to see it and hear what I’m saying for the first time there. But he read the blog as I hitchhiked (he even printed it off to show his mum the pictures of the pubs they used to live in) and I know he’s shown his brother the trailer as well. So he’s interested. He’s coming to see it in Edinburgh, about which I’m obviously nervous, but the show – I’ve realised – is one half of a conversation… with him. So it’s a conversation I clearly want to have, however difficult that might be.