On The Rails

September 30, 2011

Public Transport is a great way to get to know the Great British public. It’s like a window onto the world. If, say, an alien wanted to know about our culture I’d buy his a train ticket and tell him to enjoy himself. Oh, and to make sure he had a notebook to take an accurate record of the things he’d see.

When we went to London earlier in the year, there was that awkward moment on the tube. No, not the moment when you accidentally make eye contact with another customer. Something that, like crossing the streams, must never, ever be done because it will cause a total protonic reversal and that would be bad. Very bad. Almost as bad as the first time I went to London with Carole and she sat opposite me on the tube miming the words “We’re going to London, we’re going to London” and dancing in her seat. Until someone looked at her with, I don’t think I’m exaggerating here, a glare that could have stopped a clock. Anyway, the awkward moment I’m referring to is when I glanced down the tube carriage to see a Jewish man seated on one side of the carriage. Nothing unusual in this, nothing at all. Perfectly normal. Opposite him was a made reading a book about the life and times of Adolf Hitler.

This time, as I rode the tube back from some form of show in Leicester Square, a man on the tube declared that the Earth being round was debatable. Now, before you start being all picky and saying that actually it bows out a little in the middle so it’s not technically round, I will just point out that the man on the tube wasn’t even willing to plump for any kind of spherical form. It just wasn’t happening. If Galileo had been in my carriage that night it would have all kicked off and, had he been able to get any mobile signal, I suspect he’d have called on Copernicus to put the boot in as well.

On my first trip to Leeds, a man staggered up to me on the platform at Huddersfield and asked me if this was the train to Leeds. I confirmed that it was and he seemed happy with that. He got on and sat down a few seats away from me. During the course of the journey, he started talking to the person next to him. Yes, he was one of those. I’d dodged a bit of a bullet by only confirming his train destination, it would appear.

“I’m going to Leeds. Having a bit of a trip out from Huddersfield. I’ve heard there’s a really cheap pub where it’s only £1 something a pint.”

It was ten past seven in the morning. Ten past seven. Even the fact that I paid £4.50 for a bottle of Budweiser last week doesn’t even pray on my mind that early in the morning. Although, as you can tell, it does occasionally float through my consciousness – a bit like that muffin and two drinks that came to nearly a tenner when we went to the Lake District.

But seriously, who catches a train at ten past seven in the morning to go to Leeds because you’ve heard that there’s a cheap pub somewhere? We once went to Edinburgh and the guy sitting opposite us was travelling up – all the way from Leeds, a four-hour journey – just to go for a chinese in the restaurant next to the station because they had a really good lunch menu.

And then I wondered if he was one of those people. The people you see queueing outside places like the Post Office at some ungodly hour in the morning. Just waiting there, one hand on the door knob, for the place to open so that they can pile in and get served as soon as possible. If they came into town a little bit later, they might have sold out. Or run out of money. I know it can be a problem with places like Post Offices – if you’re not in first there’s almost no chance of getting a stamp that’s still sticky.

I haven’t seen him since. Obviously the cheap pints haven’t swayed him that much. Or he realised that he ended up standing outside this fabled drinking establishment until 11am and that his early morning trip was slightly unnecessary.


Soul Stealing

September 29, 2011

I went to get my travel pass yesterday. There’s nothing like the feeling of £122 slipping through your fingers in the blink of an eye to make you feel depressed. And what do I have to show for it. Two pieces of cardboard in a flimsy plastic wallet thing.

Yes, it does mean that I can travel the length and breadth of this fine county of West Yorkshire to my heart’s content (mainly by bus I think). I’m thinking that, in order to get my money’s worth out of this pass, maybe I should do that. Maybe Writing Wednesday should be a mobile thing. Today I’m writing in Huddersfield, next week Bradford, the following week maybe I should go to Hebden Bridge and do some writing down there, soaking up the hippy vibes and all that jazz.

The thing I dislike the most about my travel pass is that it has my picture on it. I’ve had a bus pass in the past and nothing really prepares you for the moment when you get on a bus, show your pass and the driver just looks at your picture and laughs. Like really laughs. Not a little smirk, or a wry smile. A proper chuckle. At the picture of you staring out of the cardboard pass.

I don’t think the photo booths help, though. I got my pictures done yesterday as, sadly, I don’t possess a ream of passport pictures of myself. As I rocked up to the bus station and located their machine the first thing that struck me was the price. This one was £5. There was one, a little bit further into town, that only cost £4 but I was rapidly losing the will to live (I’d barely started by this point) and I seemed to remember that the last time I tried to use it all my coins just rolled out of the bottom. It was a bit like the time I tried to buy a tube pass in London, a couple of years ago now, and thought it would be a great way to get rid of all my shitty change. I stood there and fed it all into the machine. I was about 40p away from completing my transaction when the ticket machine decided I was clearly taking too long and deposited all the change in the hopper. All of it. It didn’t even have the decency to change it for other coins. It just gave me back all the crap I’d put in it.

Anyway, back to the photo booth. So, I fed all my coins in. And then the instructions kicked in. They went on for what seemed like forever and a day. The majority of it didn’t apply to me. A lot of it was to comply with passport regulations – don’t smile, don’t close your eyes, don’t look like a terrorist. That kind of thing. I particularly enjoyed the thing about glasses. Take your glasses off, it said. If you can’t take your glasses off then don’t have thick rims otherwise the picture won’t be allowed. If you insist of keeping your glasses on then make sure you centre your eyes. I tried that in one of my three allowed shots – I looked like a crazy person staring. I don’t know how doing that would not make me look like a terrorist. A particularly fanatical one, at that.

My favourite instruction about glasses, though, was this.

You cannot have anything reflected in your glasses. Nothing. Any kind of reflection is a no-no.

Which is great, until you realise that the light under the camera, the one that helps to provide even lighting to your face for the upcoming photo, just can’t help but be reflected in your glasses. It doesn’t matter how straight you sit up, or how far you lean forward or back, it’s always there – haunting the bottom on your lenses.

I thought about trying one without my glasses, just to see how I’d look, but I couldn’t tell if I was still facing forwards when it came for my photo to be taken.


Writing Wednesdays

September 28, 2011

“So, how did you get here?” asked my colleague.
“On the train,” I replied. For it was true. “Well, the train and some bad career decisions.”

Yesterday was the first day, for me at least, in our new offices in Leeds. I’m working compressed hours which means I cram a week’s worth of hours into four days this giving me a Wednesday off each week. For writing. Writing Wednesday. It’s a thing. It has a title, with capitals and everything, so it’s official. Writing Wednesdays.

It also means that it’s one day of the week when I don’t have to get up at 6am.

The last time I used to get up that early was when I had a paper-round. And even then I didn’t always manage to get up and the newsagent would ring my house and I’d be like, “Shit!” I’d leap out of bed, race to the shop, race round my route and be home quicker than if I’d got up at the time I should have got up at and employed dawdle mode. That’s the weird thing with accidental lie-ins – you can be up, ready and out of the house in a far quicker time, having done all the same things as you’d normally do, than on a conventional morning.

But that still doesn’t address the 6am issue. It was still dark outside when I got up yesterday and, as the days shorten, it’s only set to get worse. Nice dark mornings and nice dark evenings. I’m going to be going to work in the dark and coming home in the dark.

But I’m trying not to let it phase me. I’m looking at it in a different way. Yes, it is a chore to have to go all the way to Leeds, at my own expense, to do a job that I was perfectly happy doing in Huddersfield. But if I strip that bit out of the equation then it’s an extra 40 minutes or so at either side of the day when I can catch up on my reading, or do a little bit of writing. That’s how I’m thinking of it. I’m not letting it grind me down – and believe me, it’s trying. But I won’t let it. I’m going to turn the extra travelling time into a positive thing. And as for Writing Wednesdays… well, with a bit of luck they’re going to be phenomenal.

So when I’m crammed on the train on the way home, I’m going to see the positive side. It’s a good thing. It gives me thinking time. Even if I’m standing up and packed in so tightly I can’t move my arms. It’s a good thing.

And when I’m travelling to work in the morning and the rising sun glints off the man standing next to where I’m sitting, the same man who seems to think it’s okay to rest his genitals softly on my shoulder, I’ll try to find the positive in that as well.

I’m just not quite sure what it is yet…

 


Let The Train Take The Strain

September 27, 2011

I came home from London yesterday, by train from King’s Cross.

I started out by getting the tube from Belsize Park where, it turns out, I was about to sit my Advising Other People On The Tube practical. Now, as an informed visitor to the nation’s capital, I kind of knew what I was doing, so I pretty much aced the test. Let’s gloss over, for a minute, that there’s only the Northern line that runs through Belsize Park – after all, it does go two different ways. Anyway, I advised the man correctly, aced my test and was allowed to leave. Even if I hadn’t advised the man correctly the fact of the matter is that I’m from Huddersfield anyway, so the chance of me seeing him again would be fairly slim.

When I arrived at King’s Cross, I was accosted by a woman who was trying to get to King’s Cross. It was all I could do to stop myself from going “ta-daaaaah” with some sort of exaggerated arm flourish, as though I had transported her from wherever she thought she was to the fabled railway station so beloved of the Harry Potter fans. In the end, though, I just said “You are in King’s Cross.” She seemed happy enough with that.

And then my train came. After that agonisingly long wait for the platfom to be called. The bit where’s it’s just flashing up “being prepared” on the departure board. As though someone’s there talking to the train, coaching it on what it needs to do to be a successful mode of transport. Or, if you’ve got a little less active imagination, just time for the train gremlins to put those reserved slips in all the seats.

So, I made my way onto the train and had the dubious pleasure of being the youngest person in the entire carriage. It was as if Cocoon had been remade by East Coast Trains. There’s always a little part of me that hopes, as I get on the train, that the seat next to me will be empty. It’s human nature. If you’re travelling on your own, you always wish that you’ll get some space to yourself.

Sadly, yesterday, I was surrounded. Opposite me was a very well-to-do woman who spent most of the journey asleep on her hands, or slagging off some company or other on the phone for their poor customer service skills. Next to her was one half of an elderly couple, while I got the husband.

Mrs Old talked through her teeth a lot. I got the impression that she was slightly long-suffering. She kept asking her husband if he had his tickets.

“Have you got your tickets?”
“Yes, yes…”
“Get your tickets out, then you have them ready.”
“Ok…”

Mr Old fumbles through every pocket he owns. Every pocket. Suit jacket. Trousers. Coat. Wallet. Everything.

By the end of this he’s got the seat reservation part of the ticket and a blister-pack of chewable Gaviscon. Now, I’m not an expert on the ticketing standards of East Coast Trains, but I can’t help but think that that isn’t a suitable travel document.

So it was back through the pockets for the second time. And a third.

He found his ticket, in the end. Which was just as well, because Mrs Old had a mouth like a duck’s arse and there was a chance that if she’d tightened up any more she’d actually have folded in on herself.

I love travelling on the train.

 


Souvenirs

September 26, 2011

Between the two of us, we’ve started a sort of tradition. It’s an unintentional tradition and, for me, it’s quite an uncomfortable one.

When Carole went to Paris this summer she bought me back a pen. A pen with the word PARIS written on the side. A pen with the word PARIS written on the side and a little plastic model of the Eiffel Tower floating in it. And there were tacky dangling plastic bits at the top of it as well. It just screamed tacky – in a nice way, obviously. And now, here I am in London trying to find something equally disturbing.

I hate souvenir shops. I hate the wall-to-wall tat that is available for the discerning tourist. There are about a gazillion souvenir shops in London. I visited about half of them yesterday trying to find the perfect gift – the perfect bit of tat that Carole would pretend to love but that would mysteriously get lost at some point in the future.

As I visited each store and gazed upon the wares on offer, a little part of me died. A little part of my soul went, “You know what, if this is what you’re doing this afternoon you can count me out.” Every shop carried the same stuff. The prices were different – the multi-buy offers were different – but the tat was the same.

Maybe I wanted a teapot shaped like a bus? Maybe I wanted a clock in the shape of Big Ben. Maybe I wanted a plate with iconic scenes from London painted on it. Or a fridge magnet of a jolly looking policeman. Or maybe I just wanted any old tat with the word London on it. That’s what a lot of things seemed to be. Just a picture, but someone had printed the word London on top of it. So, therefore, it was a bona-fide London souvenir. Look, a picture of the serial killer Charles Manson. Ah but it says “London” on it, so that’s ok. £10 please.

There’s one store, in Piccadilly Circus, that’s just packed with tat. I was heading there. That’s how desperate I was. We went in there the last time we came down to London and I was assaulted my a “hilarious” clown and his comedy glass of water… oh I’ve tripped and spilt my water on you… oh my glass is empty really…. oh look I have a whistle. Peep. Peep.

That clown.

I really couldn’t be arsed facing the clown again. I’d already lost most of the will to live by this point. The clown would have finished me off. Plus I’d have had to walk past that bronze statue of those horses on the corner of Haymarket. It’s a nice statue and all that but, as we discovered last time, once you’ve clocked that the sculptor has gone all out in recreating horse genitals in bronze, it’s very hard not to just stand and stare at them. That’s not me being childish, or sniggering because someone’s made a bronze todger. It’s just a fact. A cold, hard fact, if you will.

On my way there, though, I spied a shop at the entrance to the Trocadero. A souvenir shop, brightly lit and calling my name. As I was getting desperate I gave it a try. It was just the same old tat as before. The same stuff I’d seen in a million different shops. But this one had someone taking pictures of someone else they were with browsing the souvenirs. Like some kind of incredibly low-rent paparazzi, this man followed his companion around the store and took snaps of her looking at the items on the shelves, holding them up, perusing them. All that. I can only imagine how exciting it will be when he returns home from the trip and shows all his friends the photos – here she is looking at pens, now teapots, now mugs, plates, prints and, yes, that is a picture of serial killer Charles Manson with the word London on it.

There was also a man considering buying the light up Big Ben. An incredibly tacky Big Ben model which, well, lights up. He was in two minds about it. He wasn’t completely sold. But then, like Arkwright from Open All Hours, a shopkeeper appeared to put his mind at rest and guarantee a sale.

“No, no, my friend. You just unscrew the bottom. It is easy. Push two batteries in and it will light up.”

When he said light up, he held his hands out to signify the level of glow you could expect from this piece of gold-plated crap. Let me tell you, if there is ever a need to create an impromptu landing strip and the people of London are all out of flares and other more practical methods of providing light – get a shed-load of these bad boys. The glow they’ll put out would be amazing, judging from the radius of the man’s arms. There’s also a slight chance you could go blind trying to turn it off, but hey, it’s still an amazing souvenir of your trip.

I bought something in there. It’s not even crap. Well, it is crap, but it’s not massively crap. What I bought was small enough to put in my pocket. But now, I had to have it in two bags. Two. One paper. Emblazoned with a union jack. And one plastic – emblazoned with a union jack and the words “Cool Britannia”.

“No, it’s ok. It’s fine without a bag.”
“I give you bag. Thank you.”

I started to cry.


Tourist vs Informed Visitor

September 25, 2011

I don’t consider myself a tourist. I consider myself to be an informed visitor. I know my way round London, I know where I need to be, where I am and how to get between the two. I have a reasonable idea of where things are – apart from the Imperial War Museum, not sure I could find that again at all.

But, as I was walking around yesterday I couldn’t help think that the one thing the nation’s capital doesn’t need is a load more people walking around not really knowing where they’re going.

Take yesterday, for instance.

Trafalgar Square was the site for the Eid Festival yesterday. There were stalls selling things, and food vans wafting out the most gorgeous smells. And there was a massive stage with people performing on it, all beamed to that big screen. I didn’t see much of it – I’d merely perched on a wall to finish off a coffee but what I did see was good. And then I heard a load of horns beeping behind me, so I turned round.

There was a man just walking slowly up the middle of the road, casually smoking a cigarette. Every time the horns honked he’d take a puff of his cigarette and make a “I don’t know” gesture with his shoulders. He eventually moved onto the pavement, and then he stood looking at the traffic as though he couldn’t quite understand what the heck it was doing driving where he wanted to walk.

A bit later on, as I strolled through Leicester Square I went with the masses and had a look in the M&M’s shop. I spent quite a while looking at the stuff in there – partly out of curiosity and partly to see if I could work out why anyone would want four floors of shopping and fun (mainly shopping, though to be honest) dedicated to M&M’s. When you enter the shop you go through an arch cut out of a London bus and you’re blasted with the smell of chocolate. And then you’re presented with walls and walls of M&M’s-based merchandise. Photo frames, t-shirts, cuddly toys, plates… you get the idea.

And footballs.

So, a group of lads come into the shop and start playing keepy-uppy.

In the middle of the shop.

I mean, admittedly most of the things in the M&M’s shop probably won’t break. While everything looks quite fragile, the majority of it – aside from the mugs, anyway – appears to be made of very strong plastic so would probably just bounce around the floor but still… who starts playing keepy-uppy in the middle of a shop? In the middle of busy shop, as well?

According to the countdown in Trafalgar Square it’s something like 339 days until the Olympics.

That’s going to be fun.


Meep

September 24, 2011

The other day, as I walked through Leicester Square, there was a bin on fire.

It was a scary moment for me, being a small-town boy from up North and having seen the startling images of a couple of months ago when the riots were in full swing. A burning bin – that was a sure sign of a riot. It had to be. After all I was in our nation’s capital and that’s where it all kicked off the last time. And now, right there, there was a bin on fire.

And then one of the staff of Burger King came out with a large cup full of water and put it out.

It wasn’t actually the start of a riot, it was just a carelessly discarded cigarette end which had caused the inside of a Pizza Express box to smoulder somewhat. So, with the collapse of civilisation as we know it halted for the moment I continued on my way.

Leicester Square is an interesting place, especially at the moment with the building work going on in the centre of it. Presumably it’s some kind of amazing spit-and-polish job for the Olympics but a cursory glance through the gaps in the big metal fences separating you from the hard-hat wearing grafters reveals surprisingly little. There’s some paving slabs, I saw that. And a hole. The mind boggles, but my thoughts go – immediately – to the body under the patio storyline in Brookside.

I went to a comedy club in Leicester Square the other night to see, amongst others, Pippa from Showstopper! do her solo stuff. It was very, very good. All three acts were excellent and it was all a good laugh. But I did, at the start of the night, find myself making an involuntary noise.

Now, I was on my own – I had invited others to come with me but they had decided not to with some sort of feeble excuse or other – so I was in the bar on my own. I know. Awww, etc. So, I used the time before the show started to write a blog and some other bits and bobs – it wasn’t time wasted – and, bizarrely, bumped into someone else I know from Twitter in a completely random fashion. We did that thing you do when you stare at someone in the semi-dark and then they stare at you and you start to point and mouth things like “Are you..? You’re..?” and you nod at each other and then say hi. And that’s that. It was nice though. Random, but nice.

Anyway, so I was there – fashionably early or, if you prefer, completely mis-timed. I’d turned up early to blag my way in because Pippa had added me to the guest list (exciting in itself). So I got in, hand my hand stamped – it’s come off now, huzzah,  and headed down to the club. I went to the bar, so that I could pretend I was waiting for someone and enjoying a drink at the same time.

“Hi, can I have a bottle of Bud, please?” I said in my most polite way.

The barkeep turned and got a bottle of Bud from the fridge. He took the lid off. He handed me the bottle.

“That’s £4.50 please.”

That’s when I made the noise. It was completely involuntary. I made a kind of “meep” noise. I think I made it quietly enough that it went un-noticed. Unfortunately, my eyes bulging out of my head in shock knocked my glasses clean off my face which kind of gave the game away.

£4.50.

It can’t have been that bad, I suppose, because I did go back for another one and – on reflection – I had gone to the club for nothing in the first place so maybe I shouldn’t complain too much.

But still…