CAMPING IN ENGLAND ~ Steve Wheeler

I was driving around England on sulphate. Everyone was doing it. Housewives, carpenters, people who worked in the London Zoo and the parks. Everyone I knew. Everyone was into it. My other major concern was the horses. Yes, I was hooked on the ponies.

One Scottish woman made a pointed remark about her friend, “the bookie’s boy” when she obliquely criticized my obvious weakness for gambling on the races.

To me there was nothing like going down to Ladbroke’s on Saturday mornings and placing a few small wagers on combinations and parlays then walking home to eat breakfast while watching the races on tv. Leisurely gratification. Not many winners but many hangovers were nursed that way. I know it happened in England and Scotland and I suspect it’s still the same in Ireland and Wales as well.

To be able to afford the life I was living on my two weeks onshore and in preparation for the upcoming two weeks offshore on a drilling rig, I started sleeping in the white Ford van I bought. Not a big van, a small one. An Escort I think.

With Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA and Bruce Cockburn’s Lovers in a Dangerous Time on my tape deck, I drove around to different races.

The sound of horse’s hooves on cobblestones as I parked and the sight of the sleek hind end of a thoroughbred disappearing around a corner as I ducked into a pub in Newbury or Cheltenham stuck in my memory. It didn’t help much with the feelings of disappointment as I tore up the last of my losing bets at the end of another day, but as I followed the stoic bookies into the parking lot while they carried their signs and platforms and bulging briefcases. I realized that I was certainly doing something different. If I was at home I wouldn’t be doing this.

Sulphate was called “the poor man’s coke”. It had a energetic buzz and, like coke, it enabled you to drink all night without getting sleepy.

It was probably crushed up speed of some kind. It came in aluminum paper and everyone was doing it.

Two guys in Aberdeen, a Dutchman and a South African, quit their roustabout jobs on a drilling rig because they could make much more money selling sulphate to the welders who worked long shifts for big money on pipe laying barges. They had a connection in Amsterdam and captive customers.
For North Americans in England learning how to drive on the opposite side of the road than the side you’re used to is easy once you’ve negotiated the first stop sign and then the first stoplight then the first roundabout. After that it’s easy. Once you begin to drive in England or Scotland, you are convinced that Monty Python is alive and well and exists every day, all around you and it is like a weight lifted off your shoulders. There is less pressure to be perfect.

It was probably a race which drew me to the south of England but it could have been an escape from the urge to spend uncontrollably when I got to London from Aberdeen and the North Sea.

Robert, a Swedish derrickman I had worked with, lived somewhere in the south. He wasn’t home when I called so I gave the tip I had for him to the woman I talked to and he later got a job out of it.

I was savvy enough by this time to find a campground near the Newton Abbott track and set up my one man tent before I found the nearest pub.

I had entered Scrumpyland.

That part of the country was known for its Scrumpy Cider and I vaguely remember one pub which had seatbelts on the barstools for the customers’ safety.

Naturally I overindulged in the Scrumpy and when I was too drunk to care, asked a few of the shadier looking characters if they knew where I could score some sulphate even though I still had some. I was lucky: everyone ignored me.

I later heard the saying “Beer on cider makes a good rider but cider on beer will make you feel queer’. It’s true. Queer meaning ill.

Somehow I drove to the campsite when the pub closed and prepared to read Aleister Crowley’s Moonchild by the light of several candles in my pup tent.

I woke up with a headache and burped up the smell of Scrumpy cider. It had defeated the sulphate in my system and knocked me out.

When I opened my eyes I was looking at the sky. Then the bent aluminum tent pole appeared. I looked upward down by my feet. Another tent pole arching over me. The skeleton of my tent.

I sat up when I realized that only charred pieces of fabric hung from the poles. The candles were pools of wax. Somehow the candles had lighted the tent around me, burnt it up and died out as I slept. There was not even a burn on my sleeping bag.

I staggered to the Escort and drove away silently in the dawn.

I drove North, glad of a hangover for a change. If I didn’t see it for myself, I wouldn’t believe it. This wasn’t what camping in England was supposed to be like.

Forget the races. I knew a sign when I saw one.

The image of the tent skeleton and the perfect pile of ashes circling the spot where my sleeping bag had lain kept recurring as Dancing in the Dark and If I Had A Rocket Launcher played on my tape deck and I headed for Scotland.

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