Thursday, 22 September 2011


Forgive me if this gets a bit 'stream of consciousness' and a bit less structured than some of my other musings. It's an emotive subject and you can't really do that part of it justice if you are quibbling with yourself about where to put an apostrophe, about word order or about which Ben Elton sit-com to quote.

So there's none of that. This is all my own work. I want to talk to you about Paul. Paul is no longer with us. If he had been, then today would have been his 40th birthday. As it turned out he didn't get more than a couple of months past his 26th birthday. The circumstances around the illness which took him are complex and still not absolutely clear to me even now, nearly 14 years on. But then they are not really the point of what I want to say here. I wanted to focus on his life and the effect he had on me, not his death, although that has had a pretty profound effect on me aswell.

Now it is often said that nobody ever has anything bad to say about someone after they pass on. We can all think of people who were considered a bit on the irksome side when they were alive but who turned into legends and geniuses after their death. Yet the plaudits from those who knew Paul came long before he left us. He was possibly the most geniunely nice bloke you could ever have the privilege to meet or be around. Totally and utterly devoid of any malice, Paul was generous, thoughtful and funny. Just well liked. Everybody liked Paul. If it didn't make you a bit of a stalker, you could search my Facebook friends list for anyone who knew him and just ask the question, and without exception they would all agree that he was a top class bloke, and they could all come up with a Paul story. Something that he said or did which made them smile, laugh or just feel better.

Like the tiime he and I were helping out with some wheelchair basketball coaching for some younger kids at our club in Fazakerley. It goes without saying that he was able to pass on the benefit of his 10+ years of experience in the sport, but he made it fun for them too by going that extra mile to entertain. During a break in the session he swapped chairs with one young kid to let him have a go in a proper basketball wheelchair. The only problem was that the chair Paul had agreed to temporarily inherit had no large wheels. This meant that he had to be pushed by someone if he was going to make any headway. Out on the street he would not even have sat in such a wretched contraption. He had that fiersome desire for independence that many of us with physical disabilities possess. Yet here he was letting some kid's dad push him around the sports hall in the name of comedy and entertainment. At this point it should be remembered that he was unable to stop himself since he could not reach down to the low wheels. The entire team falling off the bench laughing as he gamely careered into the wall of the sports hall once the offending parent had given him one big shove and let go.....

He laughed as hard as any of us, which kind of summed him up.

Though that one example may seem like a pretty ridiculous thing to do, he was far from stupid. I geniunely doubt that I would be here now were it not for the benefit of his wisdom over many years. We were pretty much inseparable for a period of around four or five years and he would often stay at our house when I lived with my mum and dad. During such times there was no problem too small for him to help me with or vice versa. We would sit up and talk for hours (sometimes after far too many shandies it must be said) and he would always be the one offering the logical solutions. Where I would fly off the handle and wallow in the hopelessness of whatever drama had beset me that week, he was always the rational presence I needed. He was a genuinely steadying influence, I found, and his absence over all these years may be a contributing factor to some of my, shall we say, less glorious life decisions. Not that I mean to blame him. I'm 38 in a few weeks time, old enough to know better than some of the lunacy I have engaged in. I'm just saying that he helped because he was wise and kind. And now I don't have that and I regret it deeply.

One of the things I am sure he would be able to help me with if he were here now is the darkness of some of my thoughts since his passing. Barely a day goes by when I don't wonder how it came to be that it was he and not I who developed such a tragic illness. Without wallowing again it just doesn't seem fair or just. We were a similar age, proud owners of the same disability and had pretty similar fitness levels since we trained together up to four times a week in those days. Though I have long since learned that the question of how this came to pass is one of life's unanswerables, it does not stop me wondering all the same. In many respects it has never quite sunk in that he has gone. I've always felt pretty terrible about the fact that I never screamed or shouted or cried or ranted or did any of the things that most people would do having suffered such a traumatic loss. Maybe that is just not me, not how I react to genuine trauma. I'm not sure because I have been fortunate enough not to lose anyone else as close to me as Paul was. He was a one-off in so many ways.

So happy 40th birthday Paul, wherever you are. You'll appreciate that I'm not a religious man but I do believe that you are somewhere better now. No doubt there is a bar nearby and that everybody around you thinks the world of you. I'm certain I'll see you up, down or around there one day but for now you'll forgive me if I plod on with this thing called life, with its early mornings and its stigmas and its Wigan Warriors Challenge Cup victories.

And for any of you reading this who knew Paul, well I hope it has brought back some of your own happy memories of him and not made you focus too much on the sadness of his absence from our lives. I'd like to think that he would have enjoyed and approved of every word I have written here and if not, well, we would have thrown a few handbag haymakers and had a good laugh about it in the morning.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Stratford-Upon-Avon: Macbeth

It was Emma's birthday earlier this week. I'll not tell you how old she is, but what I can tell you is that we decided to go to Stratford-Upon-Avon for the weekend. It's one of her favourite places. Mine too, and with good reason for it is chock-full of beauty, culture and er..........swans.

In the interests of doing something new and special to celebrate, we took the opportunity to visit the Royal Shakespeare Theatre on Friday night for a performance of Macbeth by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Now, I know very little about Shakespeare. The very limited educational opportunities afforded to anyone with a physical disabilty during the 1980's have seen to that. Actually that's a bit of a cop-out. When it comes to learning about Shakespeare I'm like the man begging on the streets paved with gold, imploring passers by to spare some change when in fact it is strewn all around me. Yes, my schooling was more limited than that of those horrible bastards I like to call ABLE BODIED PEOPLE, but the real reason I know so little of Shakespeare is because until last Friday night I did not care to know.

The performance began at 7.15 and so, after leaving work at lunchtime and being held up in some horrendous Friday afternoon traffic there was just time to eat, and hit one or two of Stratford's picturesque bars. The Encore is one such quaint establishment tucked away on the corner of the main street which faces the main square leading down to the river Avon. And the Swans. Acquiring any liquid refreshment in the Encore looked unlikely at one point as hordes of similarly minded folk gathered at the bar, manned only by a single person. That is to say he was working on his own. I did not enquire as to his domestic arrangements. Again I did not care to know. Dinner (tea, to you and me) was at The Golden Bee and to be quite frank I almost threw it back up when the curse of my hiatus hernia struck once more. As is the norm these days ownership of a wheelchair means that one has to raise one's hand at the bar and ask Miss for permission to spend a penny. I ended up having to ask Sir, in fact, and while I was waiting for him to locate the keys to the fortress that is the lavatory I very nearly barfed my chicken burger over a very pretty lady sat on a stool by the door. Obstructing the door, actually.

So anyway, the theatre. A quick and sneaky glass of red later (£9 for two if you want some tips on where not to drink before you take in a show) we entered the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. It is small. I don't know why but somehow I had imagined a much grander and more spacious venue might host the performances of arguably the most famous acting collective in England and quite possibly the world. Not so. Even from the raised section near the rear which accommodates wheelchair users I could have been no more than about 20 feet from the front of the stage. It's emtpyness at that point made it look an even less likely venue for something of such magnitude. The stage managed to look dusty and battered, like something we might have performed one of our God awful school plays on when I was seven. I hated those plays and I hated always having to play Joseph in the nativity especially. Were my current, atheist, nay-saying self to be placed in to the body of that naive seven year-old he would pretend that he was unable to read and thus render himself ineligible. It was a good enough excuse for half of the people at that school at that time but I have already bitched enough about the standard of education among the physically challenged under the Thatcher government. Yes I'm blaming Thatcher. What of it?

At performance time the tiny, dusty Royal Shakespeare Theatre undergoes the most mesmerising transformation. It gains atmosphere as the seats around you become filled and then, when the lights go out and the spotlight hits the centre of the hitherto modest stage area, something genuinely inspiring begins. Being so close you immediately feel part of the action, a sensation that is only heightened by the actors' running on and off stage via the wings which run so close to the seated audience. Quite often you can hear a character entering the fray before you see them, giving the whole thing a sense of expectancy and anticipation. You can't always understand what is being said given the old English in which it is written, but the acting is so expressive and the delivery so powerful that even a rudimentary overview of the plot will enable you to pick up much more than any of my fellow Shakesperian virgins might imagine.

And so to the plot. The Macbeth of the title has done some spiffing things in battle, saving the life of Malcolm, son of Duncan, King of Scotland. As such he is chosen as the subject of a prophecy which decrees that he will become something called Thane of Condor (quite a privileged position I'm told, several rungs better off than say.......Minister of Transport) and then eventually King of Scotland. You might know something of this prophecy being delievered by witches in the original play. Hubble bubble, toil and trubble? All that? No? How about the scene in The Young Ones when Vyvyan is told by the witches that he will be king of the whole house hereafter, and Thane of that little gravelly patch next to the garden shed? Well anyway, the witches are considered to be quite central to the plot of Macbeth but in this particular version they are conspicuous by their absence. Their place is taken by a trio of the most spooky children I have ever seen. It's quite difficult to transfer to the written page the way they say 'Macbeth', with an endless delay on the second syllable, almost like in song. It all adds up to maximum spookiness in any case, as does the way they enter the stage, suspended from the ceiling on large hooks. At first it looked like they were hanging, but that could have been the wine.

So anyway, driven a little squiffy and power mad by the prophecy, our man Macbeth (played by the strangely but not off-puttingly Irish Aiden Kelly) proceeds to kill just about everyone he sees as a threat to his predicted destiny. His wife (Aislin McGugan) tops herself when she realises how up the wall things have become, while the excellent and dreadlocked Banquo (Steve Toussaint) is a constant and ghostly presence. It all leads to a sublime climactic duel with MacDuff (Daniel Percival) who tells us brilliantly that he 'has no words, my sword is my voice' before finally giving the throne-hungry Macbeth the damn good thrashing that he ends up so deserving of.

At almost three hours in length (including an interval of around 15 minutes or so) it is surprising how quicky the time passes, a testament to the quality of the acting and the power of the drama. And of how quickly time flies when you are trying to understand something written in a version of English used 425 years ago.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Benidorm - The Black Chicken

Now it's not a surprise to even the occasional reader of Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard (yes, that's you, where have you been?) to note that I love a good karaoke bar. Good job really, since they make up the vast majority of your entertainment options in Benidorm. One in particular, the Black Chicken, became a regular haunt throughout the week and so, if Sir or Madam will allow, I should like to take this opportunity to tell you a bit more about some of the vile goings-on therein.

The Black Chicken should carry some sort of health warning. All local spirits are sold two for the price of one, meaning that both Emma and I could consume a generous helping of rhino strength vodka with a mixer for 3 Euros and 50 cents. They are served in large glasses so that lightweight, slow drinkers like us can easily kill half an hour before another trip to the bar is neccesary. A second, third or fourth trip to the bar meant that oblivion was imminent and that we had killed enough half hours to kill ourselves. And any passing Rhino.

Before oblivion there was Justin. Justin was a teenage boy on holiday with his family. He was tucked away in the corner trying very hard to mind his own business, but was doomed to fail in this regard thanks to the spectacularly inappropriate meanderings of the Black Chicken's resident DJ and karaoke compere. A group of four or five girls were sat at a small table in the middle of the room (for the Black Chicken is not much more than a room). Their attempts to mind their own business were similarly ill-fated as with each dodgy pop video, each botched rendition of a karaoke favourite, our compere would make some sort of Justin-related proclamation designed to extract maximum embarrassment from the young man. Totally convinced of his own comic genius, our compere ordered each girl in turn to go and sit next to Justin for a while, all against the backdrop of another lazy sexual innuendo. One or two of the girls were old enough to be Justin's mother but neither they, or to be fair, Justin seemed cowed by any of this. With his eyes almost hidden behind his long, straggly hair, Justin took all of the abuse in good spirits, even suffering the final indignity of having to slow dance with the oldest of the group, Jean.

"She's a very clean lady..............Hi Jean." quipped the DJ, abysmally. We laughed anyway. That vodka really was powerful.

Jean was a character. Somewhere in the middle of Justin's systematic humiliation, she bounded over to the quiet corner of the room that we had hoped to find and introduced herself. She was 38, from Cumbria, and upon learning that we live in St.Helens she thought it might curry favour if she chose this moment to announce that she actually supported Widnes. I let it pass, and it was Emma who ended up catching the full brunt of Jean's bolshy blah-blah-blah. It transpires that Jean has a daughter with multiple sclerosis and she hates it, I mean hates it, when people try to put people in wheelchairs in the corner. You can insert your own Dirty Dancing/Patrick Swayze joke here I'm sure. Now to be fair I had wanted to sit in the corner as soon as I feasted my eyes on the obvious beauty of the Black Chicken. The fact that the DJ dude helped me achieve this objective by moving some tables and chairs around had obviously caught Jean's eye while she, thoroughly and royally, caught the wrong end of the stick. And thus in her mind the possibility that I might have had some influence on my own seating arrangements disappeared in favour of the sinister notion that I was being pushed around by a bad comedian armed with only a microphone.

At some point during our Black Chicken Odyssey Emma slapped me in the face for telling Jean her real name. Twenty seconds later the unthinkable happened as I looked up and saw Emma standing with Jean on what apparently passed for a stage. They were singing something, but I can't remember what it was. I have just asked her and she won't tell me because she does not care to recall the episode. Pity really, it wasn't even 10% as bad as I would have expected it to be if you had asked me about it beforehand. All the while, the unfunny compere moved around the room with Jean's camera, taking pictures of everybody in the room. They were mostly couples who just played along with this slightly odd violation of Jean's holiday momentos. He did not approach me thanks to the temporary absence of Emma.

Another night we met a Scottish man calling himself Foggy, and his wife/partner/whatever they are called these days Jackie. Jackie was from Aldershot and delighted in telling me that she visits Benidorm every year, sometimes twice a year. I remember thinking that, as harmless and fun as Benidorm had been to this point, telling me that I would be visiting twice a year for the rest of my life might very well bring about my demise. If you are going to spend this much money on a holiday then fine, spend it on a tacky blast out every once in a while but please, for the love of THAT BLOKE WHO MAKES EVERYTHING GO WRONG AND WHOSE EXISTENCE I CONTINUE TO DENY, get some culture will you? And yet at the same time there is a case for admiring Jackie's attitude. She's clearly a lady with simple tastes. A two-minute conversation with Foggy, none of which I could understand through the drunken Aberdeen dialect, only served to provide further evidence of how easily pleased Jackie really was. She actually complained at only being able to spend six nights in Benidorm on this particular visit, and began chastising poor old incomprehensible Foggy for his part in that particular booking fiasco. Foggy got up and sang something but again my inability to take notes while drinking too much vodka has let me down on the business of identifying what it was. I can tell you two things about it. First it was categorically, undeniably and unshakeably shit. Second, Jackie dutifully loved it with all of her simple heart.

Only slightly better was Steve. Not me, there is no 'v' in Stephen. Whether or not my versions of 'Valerie', 'She's Electric', 'When You Say Nothing At All', 'Everything Changes', 'Staring At The Sun' and 'Don't Go Breaking My Heart' (no, really) were even slightly better than Foggy's efforts is not for me to say. I remember absolutely loathing my 'Staring At The Sun' endeavours while Emma charmingly blamed it on the fact that the words were wrong on the screen. Is this a good time to mention that I wasn't reading the words on the screen? I know that song just too well, sadly. Anyway Steve, well Steve was an ageing rocker of the highest order. He seemed incredibly tall and awkward to me, arms and legs everywhere, although being seated for 90% of the time has led to my developing difficulty in gauging heights. Everyone is tall, are they not? Steve certainly was, and he barked out some God-awful, clumsily delivered Tom Petty number that quite befitted such a tack-filled, desperate, hovel of guilty pleasure like the Black Chicken.

I loved it. Can we go back twice a year, Emma?

That would be a 'no'.