Friday, 21 December 2012

The End Of The (PC) World

I have a new laptop computer. This is a good thing, and it is not normal practice for Good Things to be reported on these pages. However, it came at a price, and I don't just mean the £349.99 it cost to get PC World to part with it.

It all started when our desktop PC finally gave up on us. I don't know if it had been listening to the Mayans about the end of the world or something, but a few days ago it decided that it wasn't worth carrying on. Not fully anyway. You can use the intenet on it. You can play music on it. But you can't do both at the same time. Maybe it's just a male PC and can't multi-task, but whatever the reasons for it's one dimensional nature it had to be replaced.

So yesterday after work, a long and quite wretched day in work I might add, which most of them are, we decided to pop into PC World, pick up a laptop that runs Windows 8 and go home happy. Simple. Not simple. We had the misfortune to be set upon by 'Dave'. I've changed Dave's name to protect the guilty. Someone might know him, you never know. So anyway Dave didn't want to sell us a laptop, not within this calendar year at any rate. He wanted instead to show us every single laptop in the building, and in the process barf on about processors, gig, graphics cards, security software and back-up CD's.

What is it about people who work with computers that they want to blind you with science rather than sell you something simply and quickly? Why do they want to feel so superior to you? It's a sickening, nerdy ego trip and is probably there only to make up for the fact that they either can't spell or they smell of cider. Or both. I made the shocking, schoolboy error of asking Dave whether this particular machine would run the latest version of Football Manager. I'm not even that keen on Football Frigging Manager. I just thought I'd ask to see if I could maybe have the option when Emma's watching Grimm or Grey's Anatomy. But Dave didn't know. He knew everything else about computers, but not that. He had to take it to a colleague to run 'some research' to find out. Quite what this entails I don't know, and don't really want to know. What I do know is that he came back half an hour later (no, really, half an hour, bearing in mind that I had already been to Emma's friend's house in Aigburth to pick up Goodness Knows What and that I still had to get over to Boots to pick up my ever-increasing prescription) and informed me that he was '85% sure that this machine would run Football Manager. Ten minutes after that he came back again and informed me that he was '100% sure that it would NOT run Football Manager'. Something about a discombooberator and the lining of the planets and the various moons of Saturn.

Now I don't know about you but I'm pretty incredulous about this. How is it possible in the first place for a man whose business is computers to not be able to tell from reading the back of a box whether or not a game will run on a given machine? How are the rest of us supposed to purchase any games then?

'I know, it's madness.' offered Dave as he then tried to sell us something called The Cloud which may or may not have made it rain. At this point I was hoping that the Mayans were right and that they would just bring their absurd prediction forward a few hours. The will to live had left me completely, to the point where I couldn't even look Dave in the eye when I passed him my debit card to buy the laptop. This is the point. I was always going to buy the frigging laptop. And Microsoft Office which now comes separately for an extra £70 which Dave assures me is Bill Gates' fault. Probably is, but I bet Bill Gates could tell me whether or not a computer can perform a specific function without having to write home to his grandmother about it.

Turns out I could have bought a laptop which would run Football Manager comfortably aswell as all the other things I needed it to do. For the princely sum of £799.99. Or one for £899.99. I didn't want it that much. I'll stick to my kindle the next time a certain fairy-tale-based crime series or hospital drama appear on my television screen.

I'll leave you with this. Emma has a friend at work who has a 10-year old son called Ewan. Ewan was asked by someone whether he knew what the initials PC stood for. He replied, with absolute certainty as if it were the most obvious thing in the world......

'Plastsic Cock'.

Did you get that, 'Dave?'

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Let Me Entertain You

Seriously, I am such a tool.

Regular readers (both of you) will know that I don't write about work but I do write about alcohol-related fuck-ups. When the two collide then documentation is unavoidable.

We went out last night. On a Tuesday. We went to La Tasca in Liverpool and, it being a Tuesday, the plan was to have a sociable few and head home at a reasonable hour to avoid the crushingly turgid Wednesday that I am currently experiencing instead. Had I not ruined my spell of sobriety at the weekend (one pint on the way home from work on Friday and several more watching Ricky Hatton hit the deck on Saturday) I probably would have stayed completely sober and drove home. But I didn't, so I thought 'what the hell' and got on the San Miguel.

Any time I say 'what the hell' disaster is but a short step behind me. And so it turned out that I annoyed everyone by getting progressively louder as the evening wore on. By the time we hit the darkest Wetherspoons you have ever seen on the corner of Queen Square I was rambling on and on about something and nothing. Why didn't I just shut the fuck up? I couldn't, it was well beyond my control as soon as San Miguel got involved. It all culminated in me falling asleep in the back of my colleague's sister's car. She has only met me twice, and on both occasions it involved her driving me to St.Helens, very probably for my own safety. If first impressions last, then I am a drunkard and a blathering imbecile. And I sing too much.

Which brings me to the point, the nadir, of this entry. While I was in the toilet a man approached my colleagues and asked one (the boss, actually, whose birthday it was) whether I was alright. Nobody really knew what he was talking about. Of course he's alright. He's just Ste. Loud, annoying, pointless, but perfectly safe. The man seemed a bit surprised by this and said that he just thought he would check because he had just been in the toilet alongside me, and I had been singing Robbie Williams songs. FFS as the cool kids say. I watch 10 minutes of Take The Crown Live before I arrive at work on an otherwise average Tuesday, and I end it in disgrace in a public lavatory.

Let Me Entertain You. No Stephen, you're a c**t.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

An (abridged) Honest Answer

What follows, like all anecdotes featured in this column, is 100% true. I may yet choose to embellish it for the book that I am still laughably trying to write, but this is what actually happened, not what could happen given a certain set of circumstances.

Incidentally I have not managed to add anything to the word count of the aforementioned book tonight. I have been to see the new Bond film which is utterly splendid. A proper Bond film. There's no mileage in me promising a review however. I still haven't done that review of The Campaign which I saw over a month ago. At the end of the day you're not reading, either because you want to see the films and therefore don't want them spoiled for you, or because you have no interest in the films at all. Or because I'm shit.

So let me take you back about eight hours. It's Wednesday lunch time. I have been to Burger King in the city centre and am on my way back to work. I'm pushing up the hill near to Moorfields station, wishing I hadn't eaten quite so much and/or that I wasn't quite so old and heavy. A man with a walking stick is limping slowly towards me. He smiles at me knowingly, slows his limp down even further and says;

"Excuse me mate, do you mind if I ask you a question?"

Oh fuck. This is going to be about wheelchairs. Strangers do not stop me in the street to ask me where I bought my jeans. And if he just wants directions then in the first place he is shit out of luck because I'm out of my comfort zone, and in the second place he probably would not have asked whether I minded. For the briefest of nanoseconds I consider pushing on and pretending that I haven't heard him. I'm disabled. If I have a wheelchair then who is to say that I'm not deaf aswell? And blind while we're at it. Or just simple minded? I could easily carry off the notion that I haven't seen or heard him at all. The moment is devoured by a rare moment of guilt and responsibility;

"Of course mate, go ahead." I hear myself say.

"The thing is I am going to be in one of them soon and I just wondered how you get on?"

He points to my chair with his walking stick but the penny has already dropped. He's referring to the wheelchair. One of them. He can't even bear to say the word;

"Yeah, I've got MS, and I'm going to end up in one of them so I just wondered what it is like for access and that round here?"

At this point I lie, or at best offer a highly censored, truncated version of the truth. I'm late back as it is. What I would do if I was being brutally honest and if I had the time is take him to the nearest pub and warn him exactly what awaits him over a pint. Explain to him in great detail how it will slowly but surely turn him into an emotional fuckwit. But I stick to answering what I have been asked in the time I have. I have to. I'm down on my flexi;

"Well I'm used to it mate, I've had it all my life so it doesn't bother me." I lie.

"Really mate?" he asks with a smile, bouyed by my deceitful, smelly, matter-of-factness. He is soon to be brought down from his cloud of optimism;

"The wheelchair will be the least of your worries, mate. It's other people's attitudes to it that are the problem." I announce, more coldly than I had intended.

"I know, bastards aren't they?" he answers, without elaborating on who 'they' might be.

"Good luck mate." I say finally.

He'll need it. Especially when that first person approaches him on the street and says;

"Excuse me mate, do you mind if I ask you a question?"

Friday, 2 November 2012

Just the (Speeding) Ticket

Friday night, October 26 2012. I'm at home on my own. Emma has gone out for a meal with some friends from work. It's the end of the first week of my self-imposed six-week alcohol ban so it is pretty uneventful. I'm watching a documentary about Ronald Reagan (what a bastard he was, by the way) and another about Pablo Escobar (what a total, total bastard he was, by the way).

It's around 8.30. I get a text. It's Emma. Comically, I have left my phone in the car as I write this so I cannot tell you what it said verbatim. I'd been waiting in the car while she did the shopping at Tesco and kept my phone to hand so that I could bollocks about on Facebook to keep me occupied. The car stereo is all very well but if you play it for long enough the car starts beeping at you threateningly, as if the world will come to a screetching halt if you don't just bloody well give the battery a rest.

What I can tell you about the text is that the gist of it was that she would like me to pick her up from Liverpool because she 'might be blotto'. Now you might think this quite ordinary and no good reason to panic, but the last time Emma was 'blotto', without going into detail, was somewhat problematic. Rightly or wrongly I am panicking at this point. I get in the car, lug my chair across my knee, pull up at the local petrol station and wave my badge in the air and point a lot until the nice lady comes out to help me fill the car up, and I'm on my way.

There's a little tension between us because Emma is semi-blotto and I am fearing the worst. Not only that, but she has asked me to meet her at the Adelphi and I've been there for 10 minutes or more before she finally showed. My panic had increased to some other state of uber-panic or something. As it turns out she is not so bad. She's drunk but not in an offensive way and not so much that she will be unable to function properly in the morning. All's well that ends well then?

Well no. Fast forward a week and I arrive home after the aforementioned Tesco vigil to find a letter has arrived from Merseyside Police. Keep in mind at this point that I have been back on the road for 37 days. Thirty. Seven. Days. Not long enough to get myself into any trouble you wouldn't think. And surely I would be especially cautious on all things driving-related after my 11-year driving 'sabbatical' ended so recently? No. I panicked remember. Those wretched Cumberbitches at Merseyside Police inform me that I was driving at 66 mph on the M62 at 9.06pm last Friday. Now that doesn't sound like much of a problem except for the fact that apparently the stretch of the motorway I was flashed on was a 50mph zone. Who knew? The bitter irony in all of this is that I drive that stretch of motorway every day on my way to work. Normally, there is about as much chance of driving at 66mph on that piece of road as there is of Mark Clattenburg going out to dinner with the Mikels. Gridlock is very much the watchword Monday to Friday mornings. Great book Gridlock by the way. By Ben Elton, has a lead character called Geoffrey Spasmo. What could be more splendid?

I tell you what isn't splendid. The fact that now, in order to avoid a fine and to limit the damage to only three penalty points on my still dust-covered license, I am going to have to attend a road safety course. Now I could write an entire blog about how much I hate courses about anything. Normally they are about as useful as self help books and as real and authentic as Bruno Tonioli's face. No doubt my explanation that I was having to stay above 50 to avoid blowing up Sandra Bullock will not wash and I will instead be preached at about my future conduct on the road. After just 37 days. Thirty. Seven Days.

Of course I am not the first person to have been caught by a speed camera. Even my dad, who ordinarily drives at the kind of speeds normally reserved for Noddy and Big Ears was once subjected to a road safety course. Back when I was a student in Barnsley they didn't have such things and my only other driving indisgression was settled by the payment of a fine. I'd be tempted to pay the £60 fine they offer as an alternative on this occasion if it didn't come with a six-point license penalty. Three I can live with, six seems a little too much to bear. Particularly after the day I have had. No check that, the WEEK I have had.

But that's work and we're not allowed or even advised to address that here, lest I be sent on a course to teach me about Social Networking And Blogging Awareness.

So instead I will just finish by saying.....fucking, twatting bollocks!


Wednesday, 31 October 2012


You may not like this. Not unless you are a fan of my less than subtle Meldrewisms. There again, if you were not a fan of my less than subtle Meldrewisms you probably wouldn't be here.

We were going to the cinema tonight. The plan was to do something that would involve not being in the house on Halloween night. I hate Halloween night, you will not be surprised to learn. Put it on the list with Valentine's Day, Christmas, Easter and all of the other card manufacturers' wet dreams which mean absolutely nothing to me. Forced fun is abhorrent. If I want to get crazily arse-faced and disgrace myself then I do not need to be put up to it by the owner of Clintons. I'll do it cos it is Wednesday, thanks, and doing it on 'special occasions' is the preserve of people who feel guilty about it and therefore need to justify it.

But anyway we didn't make it to the cinema, despite leaving work a full 70 minutes before the scheduled start time of the film. The drive home was apt for the date on the calendar, the sort of journey normally reserved for soon to be forgotten extras in an outrageous horror flick. Except there is nothing too atmospheric or tense about Edge Lane Drive even in the pitch dark and the driving rain. It doesn't help that Emma's MP3 player has a spooky insistence on playing the same three or four songs in a woefully undersized loop. She says it's the car and not the MP3 player but while we are at it how did we get to the point where Emma's MP3 player is the musical choice in my car? It's another spooky, unsolvable mystery. I suspect she has kidnapped Joss Stone.

Tired and frustrated by the time we arrive home I have never moved so quickly to get back into the house. The rain isn't helping but the real reason I am so keen to get off the street is decidedly more sinister. Trick or treaters. Little bastards with their crap fancy dress and their unshaking, unstinting belief that you should give them something for nothing because it is October 31. Yes I know they are only children, but is it really necessary to validate begging in our culture? One friend reported on his Facebook tonight that some demon child stood at his door shouting through the letterbox that he knew he was at home because he could see the light on and hear the television. As if being at home somehow obligates a person to answer the door in the first place, and in the second place part with their change. I don't answer my door at the best of times, but certainly not if there is a chance it might be some shabbily dressed little wretch with a sense of entitlement harrassing me in the name of tradition. Emma has the same view, as witnessed earlier when some kids knocked on our door when she was in the kitchen.

"Ey!" one of them shouted, seeing her through the kitchen window.

"Ey! Open your door!"

"No." she said brilliantly. This is one of the reasons why I love Emma.

"She said no!" reported the startled child, affronted at her sheer temerity. How dare she refuse to let gobby delinquents see inside our home.

I try to think back and remember if I was ever a trick or treater. To my horror I was, of a fashion. My friends and I had no tricks. We were not hardcore. We wouldn't throw a firework or a box of faeces through your letterbox if you refused to open the door and give us your money, but the fact that we even went as far as to stick a candle in a pumpkin (probably a turnip actually, if memory serves) and ask the question is something which troubles me deeply. What were our parents thinking allowing us to carry on in this fashion? Did they? Or did we just think ourselves rebellious? It's hard to remember.

The parents among my readership will most likely be thinking that my disdain for Halloween and other trumped up festivals of it's kind owes much to the fact that Emma and I don't have any children. You'd probably imagine that if I had children I would not be writing this column now, but would in fact have both hands tied behind my back trying to fish apples out of a dirty bowl with my mouth. You'd be wrong. Today is Wednesday and Emma and I do that on Thursdays. The point here is that I appreciate that there is pressure on parents to play along with the whole Halloween thing, and shouldn't I just lighten up and not take it so seriously anyway? Well no. The fact that other people's children boil my blood in this and a multitude of other spectacular and inventive ways is exactly the reason why I don't have any of my own. Really, don't feel bad for me. I'm not missing out.

I just wish I had made it to the cinema on time.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Strictly Sober

Once again I haven't thought this through. It's Monday night. There is nothing on the telly. Without the feintest clue what I am going to ramble on about I have nevertheless deemed it necessary to once again stain the pages of MOAFH with the first things that come to mind.

Acronyms are shit, by the way, especially when, as in the case of MOAFH, they aren't actually words. For those of you struggling to keep up it stands for Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard, the piece you are wasting your valuable life force reading right now. I mean really. MOAFH? Where did that come from? Why did I do that? I'm just glad I don't work in St Helens Information Technology.

So what can I tell you? I have been sober for nine days. I can hear the woos. It is easy to stay sober, relatively speaking. What is difficult is staying in, and therefore having to endure Saturday night television. In our house this means Strictly Come Dancing as opposed to X-Factor. Both would be too much to bear for either of us. We'd be finding brain cells down the back of the sofa as they literally shrivel up into a sticky liquid and pour out of our ears. MOAFH is all about the imagery. So anyway Strictly. Fourteen (now eleven) celebrities of varying relevance trying to learn how to dance with the help of bronzed, shudderingly perfect professionals. Each week one is voted off but unfathomably Bruce Forsyth makes it through to the very end.

Staggeringly it is the 10th series this year, despite the fact that the formula barely changes from year to year. You get a couple of doddering oldies who usually get the boot early, several flat-footed and awkward buffoons whose role is to provide comedy and who are routinely saved from the exit on that basis, and it's all blended together with a few beautiful people who generally have some experience of dancing of sorts or at least stage performance. All of which gives them an unfair advantage but it is not about the competition. It's about laughing at the z-listers and them not caring because they are getting paid sacks of cash and they won't be getting up on Monday morning to talk to students about their bursary and it's possible whereabouts.

As mercilessly trashy as all this sounds it is frankly unmissable. There's something addictive about it. I don't know whether I just enjoying looking at Ola Jordan and fantasising about how many times I would need to punch her gobshite husband James Jordan in the face before his nose actually fell off. You thought I was going to write something else after the word 'fantasising' there didn't you? MOAFH is a clean-cut, family column. You twat. So anyway, James Jordan. The judges are supposed to be the villains on this show but we all know that the real baddie is James, with his crap John Terry haircut and his smug self-assuredness and his ability to do the splits. A friend of mine broke his leg doing the splits once. He couldn't feel it because he has Spina Bifida, but it is not to be advised. So think on, Jordan.

Less trashy but no less embarrassing is Boardwalk Empire, which follows the ballroom bonanza on what my dad used to call 'the other side'. It was ok to refer to tv channels as 'sides' back then because there were only four of them, like a square. Now, there is so much manure on my television, that many 'sides', that the geometrical permutations are frankly incalculable and distinctly whiffy. Boardwalk is great, in a slow-burning, build tension and keep everyone guessing sort of way, but is not something I recommend you watch with your mother. Hardly an episode goes by without some poor actress being required to simulate some scarecely believable sexual practice. This week's delight involved a man being choked with his belt whilst engaged in the act. One can only speculate as to how many Prohibition-era gangsters were actually involved in this type of thing. More likely there were none, and it is merely a device to wake you up during the bits when the plot slows down to somewhere near a total standstill.

Sod it! Next week I'm going to down 17 Jagerbombs while watching Merlin.

Saturday, 13 October 2012


It's late on a Saturday night. The Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard stats page informs me that I haven't written anything since August 31. As uninspired and useless as I feel tonight, I'm doing it. This is me forcing myself. It may show.

So what's new since the end of August? Well, I had another birthday last week. Last Monday I turned 37 years old. The day itself was notable only for the kind messages of over 60 of you on Facebook, for which I thank you profoundly, some garlic bread, peri-peri chicken and creamy mash at Nandos and a ridiculous Will Ferrell film called The Campaign.

At some point you will be able to read my thoughts on that in a little more detail on my film blog, but for tonight I'm going to ramble on about age again. I have just finished reading back through the blog I wrote on the day I turned 36. It's grim reading to be totally honest. In that respect not a whole lot has changed. I woke up this morning feeling like the world's worst person. A night out with my work colleagues was all it took for me to over-indulge, and leave myself with that old feeling of rabid paranoia and a general lack of self worth. I was selfish and stupid enough to point this out to the 300 or so Facebook friends that I have. I don't know why, I just felt compelled to tell everyone how I felt. All of which probably worried some people unnecessarily for which I profusely apologise. It was nice to know that you cared.

The trouble is that this is becoming a theme in my life. Shortly after my 36th birthday an almost comical set of circumstances sent me spiralling towards the basement mental health-wise. One month after that I showed my stunning flare for the childish hissy fit by shutting this blog down. I just couldn't physically write. It was all too negative. By February I was borderline depressive and so started to seek some help. I'm still getting that help and the good news is that it works. Until you get crazily blasted and your alcohol-flooded mind starts telling you that you are actually a useless tit. At that point you are heading back to square one and it might be time to knock the alcohol on the head again. From October to December last year I quit drinking alcohol altogether and it wasn't that difficult. I will do it again this year I'm sure. I just have one more birthday night out to overcome.

If I don't drink I will have more opportunity to drive. I have just got back on the road after an 11-year absence. A protracted and pointless spat with Motability which began in the summer of 2001 finally ended early this summer when they agreed to waive the debt on my last vehicle and allow me to lease a new one. That first day behind the wheel was nerve-wracking for a while. Who knew that driving through a McDonald's from St.Helens Ford and back home again would be so stressful? I was quite convinced I was going to cause a 42 car pile-up. Yet by the time I drove down to Sheffield for the wedding of Emma's cousin on the last weekend in September I was finding it all a lot more easy. Now it is second nature again, although hilariously I was unable to advise Emma yesterday on how to get the gear stick to move and had to push back to the car park from the pub near work to do it myself. Even then I couldn't work out why it wouldn't move until I actually got in the car and tried to reverse it. You have to hold the brake down to enable you to put it in gear. Turns out I only know this when I do it and can't describe it, like some kind of complex move on a video game.

The second and only other goal I have in mind in my 38th year is to write a novel. If this sounds like an oft told tale to those of you who who have known me long enough well yes, you're right. It is. But this time, unlike my other two fairly successful but utterly unpublished attempts, I am going to do it in a single month. November, aswell as being known for inspiring people to grow ludicrous moustaches in the name of charity, is also Nanowrimo. Nano-what now? National Novel Writing Month. I've read all the bumph and apparently it is not only plausible to do so but actually quite simple. Really. Right. I've already started my planning and researched some techniques.

I just need to find the time in between entries in Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard.

Friday, 31 August 2012

Paralympics 2012: An Evening With Channel 4

The first day of Paralympic competition being a Thursday, I was at work. This, despite what the more cynical among you might suggest, meant that I was unable to follow events live on Channel 4. Instead, I put my faith in Sky+ and recorded the whole blooming lot, intending to fish through the dregs to get to the good bits with the aid of the fast-forward button.

It all sounds so simple. It was, though I never expected to be able to get through over five hours of programming and still be in bed before midnight, bearing in mind that I also used the hours between 7.00 and 9.00 to watch Great Britain Men's first match in the wheelchair basketball tournament against Germany. Which was a thriller, but more about that later.

Trying to take things chronologically I put the morning session on first. I had been hearing some whispers of discontent from some people, who complained that there was too much chat from the presenters and not enough action. Their complaints were justified it has to be said. In just around three hours of air-time Channel 4 managed to broadcast eight swimming heats and a cycling heat on their main stream. The rest of the time was taken up by the man fast becoming the scourge of the Paralympic Games, Jonathan Edwards, chatting to his fellow presenters. Add in the endless commercial breaks and the exhaustive flogging of Giles Long's LEXI system explaining the various classification systems in Paralympic sport, and there wasn't actually that much air time left. Some of the swimming heats looked suspiciously less than live also, with the very first heat of the very first event being screened, but then the remaining heats dispensed with in favour of more chat from Edwards and Long. We did manage to see Jonathan Fox break the world record in his heat of the men's S7 100m backstroke. I'm almost sure I hear the commentator say that this is the second world record broken in the pool that morning, the other being broken by Ellie Simmonds, but if that did happen it is a piece of footage conspicious by it's absence. I think I might have imagined it, to be fair.

What I did not imagine was the lack of actual commentary in a heat of the men's men's S8 100m Butterfly featuring Great Britain's Sean Fraser. As he raced his way to the final, we get more of Edwards and Long, with the former in particular sounding like a man who has never left the desert trying to describe a snowstorm. I didn't get to see Fraser's final at all, in which he finished sixth, because the recording stopped seconds before he entered the pool as Channel 4 chose that moment to switch from one broadcasting slot to another. Before that, I did at least manage to see Hannah Russell pick up a silver medal in the women's S12 400m Freestyle and also Nyree Kindred earning the same accolade in the women's S6 100m backstroke.

Away from the pool and in fact away from that first morning session things were much improved, but not before a little more disappointment came my way. I was a little frustrated at not being able to see Scott Robertson or Sara Head's table tennis matches against the brilliantly named Ningning Cao of China and Hyun Ja Choi respectively. I have a greater interest in these two, having been on a sporting trip to Australia with Scott many years ago, and played basketball against Sara on several occasions. I couldn't get their matches online, and I couldn't find them on any of Channel 4's broadcasts. Scott lost 3-1 unfortunately, but this is something I found out via his Facebook page rather than any official media outlet. Thankfully, the table tennis competition is operating a league format for the early rounds so Scott will live to fight another day. Better news for Sara, who won her match 3-2.

Yet the lack of table tennis coverage was the last negative I'm going to bore you with today. Maybe. On condition that someone can explain to me how the GB women's basketball team's 62-35 defeat to Holland could be so heavily butchered? We see the last few minutes of the third quarter in which they slip behind by around 10-12 points, only to then be told in an instant that they were actually well beaten and we're all off to the Equestrian now if that's ok. Well no, it isn't. Not really.

Coverage of Great Britain's first gold medal, won by cyclist Sarah Storey in the women's C5 individual pursuit, is excellent, as is that for Mark Colbourne's silver medal in the men's C1-3 1km individual time trial. Interestingly, times in that event are factored down, so that the more severe the disability of the athlete, the more time is lopped off their time at the end to give them their overall placing. It can be complicated to follow, especially when you have Phil Liggett trying to explain it to you, but it was every bit as exciting to watch as the exploits of Hoy, Pendleton, Kenny and Trott in the Olympics.

So too was the men's basketball I mentioned earlier. Great Britain make a slow start against Germany, with Jan Haller shooting the proverbial lights out in the first half. At one point GB trail by 16 points in the second quarter, but fight back brilliantly to force the game into overtime at 66-66. However, they run out of steam in the extra five minutes and go down 77-72. Our former team-mate Dan Highcock is unused until the game is up well inside the last minute, which maybe due to the fact that he has had an injury recently, but is nevertheless a disappointment for people who like pointing at the telly and saying 'I know him'. Like the table tennis, the basketball competition has a league phase early on and so there is plenty of time for both the men's and the women's teams to make up for their opening day slip-ups.

I'm hoping Channel 4 do the same, but I must just leave you with one word of credit for them. The extra channels they have created to cover the main sports such as swimming, basketball and athletics are superb. None of this red button stuff you got from the BBC, but actual recorder-friendly channels which make it easier to avoid missing the best of the action. If only I had known about them a little earlier, I could have saved myself the bother of having to put up with Edwards and the main stream. I'd receommend this as the preferred method for following the Paralympic Games from now on.

Friday's action is already in the planner.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Paralympics 2012 - Opening Night

After the massive success of the London 2012 Olympic Games, the Olympic Stadium saw the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games last night (August 29).

I could just start and end this piece by telling you that it was utterly phenomenal. It really was inspiring, moving, spectacular, all of the things that you would hope for but dare not expect from an opening ceremony charged with the daunting responsibility of following on from Danny Boyle's superb extravaganza a month ago. It was well after midnight by the time it finished and I got to bed, but when it finally came to an end it left you in no doubt that the Paralympic Games were here, and that they were huge.

I have to say that at the start of Channel 4's live broadcast of the ceremony I wasn't expecting to feel quite so enthused and excited about the event by the end. I just didn't trust Channel 4 to be able to convey the magnitude of the thing to our living rooms. The previous evening's edition of Jon Snow's Paralympic Show had been a bit of a write-off. Jonathan Edwards missing his cue and then looking rudely over the shoulder of the person he was meant to be interviewing did not inspire condfidence. Nor did Snow's apparent lack of knowledge of all things sport, never mind Paralympic sport. He's a newsreader, and it showed.

Snow and Edwards are in attendance again for the grand opening, and they are joined by Paralympic wheelchair basketball bronze medallist and television presenter Ade Adepitan. He's a much safer pair of hands. I'm loathe to pepper this piece with clanging examples of name-dropping, but he is the first of several faces familiar to me throughout the night. Being around the same age, I played against Ade at junior levels and in the league on countless occasions.

The junior matches were particularly intense. It seemed like almost every year the national junior title would be between his London-based Tigers and our North West-based Meteors team. We won some, we lost some but they were all great battles. There is an old cover of the Great Britain Wheelchair Basketball Association Handbook which has a photograph of Ade and I contesting a ball. It is not a word of a lie that a split second after this photograph was taken I lobbed the ball over his head as he over-stretched to try and take it away from me, and then I had the whole court open to drive straight in for an easy lay-up. Well, as easy as lay-ups ever got for me. Which wasn't very. I can't remember whether we won or lost that game but I'm doing aeroplanes around the room just thinking about that moment. It doesn't get any better. Unlike Ade, who got an awful lot better than me and most other players very quickly.

Back to the plot. There's a countdown to the start of the ceremony appearing intermittently in the bottom corner of the screen. We only have about 18 minutes at this point, but this is time enough for a truly humbling and inspiring film about one of the athletes competing in the games. Martine Wright is part of the women's sitting volleyball team, and her back story is of her experience of the 7/7 London bombings of 2005. Just a day after it was announced that London would be hosting the games, Martine lost both of her legs when a device was detonated on the tube train near Aldgate Station. Her journey to this point has been a remarkable one. She feels lucky, she says, which is a stark reminder to all of us that as difficult as things get from time to time, there is always something to be grateful for, to be positive about.

And then it starts. Snow hands over almost seamlessly (almost) to Krishnan Guru-Murthy and Jeff Adams. Adams is a former Paralympic athlete from Canada, six times a world champion on the track. The relationship between the two should work. The vastly experienced broadcaster and news man and the sporting expert, but they have their moments. When the Canadian team enters the parade Guru-Murthy instructs his co-commentator to stop talking about his country. He's only half joking and there is a troubling silence for a couple of moments afterwards.

The parade has several moments of uncertainty and intrigue, moments when you wonder whether what you have just seen was really meant to happen and when you wonder what might happen next. An Australian athlete stumbles on the track and nearly incapacitates himself before competition has even begun. An Algerian waves a two-fingered salute to the camera. There's a Danish athlete propelling his wheelchair around the track using only his legs and feet, and to help him do so more quickly he is doing it backwards. A Brazilian enters fully into the spirit by painting his face entirely in the colours of his national flag. There are Irish and Belgian athletes accompanied by helper dogs. All this aswell as Ghanaians dancing, Mexicans decked out in faboulously colourful ponchos and sombreros, and German ladies in striking pink outfits.

But there's a gripe. There's always a gripe, unfortunately. In the Beijing Paralympics of 2008 China topped the medal table by the proverbial country mile. Their Paralympic team is vast, almost epic. They are expected to lord it over everyone once again here in the UK. Nobody has told the producers at Channel 4 however, who within a few moments of the emergence of the Chinese team into the stadium, choose to go to a commercial break. Now, we all understand the need for commercial channels to raise the funds to be able to afford to broadcast events of this importance, but really, does the timing of ad breaks have to be so well......untimely? Undeniably it takes something away from the event. The Chinese athletes are set to become some of the biggest stars of the London 2012 Paralympic Games. I'm sure the audience would have benefitted from a little introduction.

It's not that Channel 4 haven't considered the need for their audience to get to know the athletes. They have taken certain steps to do so which would never have been taken for the Olympic Games. Several athletes (including the Australian who later stumbles during the parade and our very own Martine Wright) are interviewed by Claire Balding as they wait to enter the stadium. This just would not happen during the Olympic Games opening ceremony. Not a second of Boyle's show was sacrificed to add in interviews with athletes outside the stadium. It's hard to say whether Channel 4's alternative approach helps or hinders the viewing experience. It's a debate we could have I suppose. But alternative is exactly what Channel 4 are. It's always been pretty much their raison d'etre.

So what are we potentially missing during these sometimes unwanted interludes? In short...Englightenment. This is the title of the ceremony which, introduced by theoretical physicist and author Stephen Hawking, has just about everything. There's Sir Ian McKellen as Prospero from Shakespeare's The Tempest, an unrecognisable Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson (among many others and yes I did meet her once) suspended from a wire above the stadium, hundreds of dancers (including one double amputee ballet dancer), Birdy, Beverley Knight, a model of the statue of Alison Lapper - a double amputee as pregnant as one of the pauses during a conversation between Snow and Edwards - and finally Margaret Maughan, the first Brit to win a Paralympic gold medal all the way back in 1960. Maughan lights the flame, but not before it is brought into the stadium on a zip-wire by another double amputee and aspiring Paralympian Joe Townsend. Swimmer Liz Johnson takes the athletes oath and then there are the speeches, plenty of speeches.

Following Lord Coe is Sir Philip Craven, President of the International Paralympic Committee. Clang, there goes another name-drop but the paths of Sir Phil and myself have crossed many times. He was involved in wheelchair basketball long before I was born and, from what I have heard of that time, was among the very best players in the world in his day. When I played against him he was a little way past that, but he was still outstanding. He had this metronomic, almost faultless shooting technique and was just deadly from anywhere inside the three-point line, particularly from either baseline. I remember him trying to pass on some of this wisdom to me at the many junior international training camps I attended years ago. Before the beer and women. Before Haj and Nigel. That's a whole other blog. Suffice to say that not even Sir Phil Craven could have drummed the requisite attributes into me. does bring me nicely onto what for me was the spine-tinglingly bitter-sweet highlight (and lowlight) of the whole shebang. Just after the parade, and just before Maughan lit the flame, the Olympic flag was carried into the stadium by members of the Great Britain Men's under-22 wheelchair basketball team. You can probably fill in the rest yourselves by now but just for the avoidance of any confusion...I used to be in that! I can't explain to you what it would have been like to be a part of the opening ceremony, carrying the Olympic flag into the stadium with my team-mates. No really I can't explain to you because it never happened. I was 15 years too late, as I explained immediately and somewhat impulsively on my Facebook page. One man who does know now is Billy Bridge, a member of my former side the Vikings and one of the lucky ones able to take part with his under-22 team-mates. We also have a former Viking in the men's squad competing in London in Dan Highcock. Another former Viking, Dave Heaton, will be competing in his sixth Games in the sport of wheelchair fencing. It's a proud time to be associated with the club.

But this not about me and the Vikings. Much. So we'll move to the finale. It was well past my bedtime but I wasn't missing Beverley Knight's jaw-droppingly rousing rendition of 'I Am What I Am'. If it didn't move you then the bad news is that you're dead. Choosing a Gloria Gaynor number might ordinarily be considered a little cliched, but somehow it just seemed to fit. The brilliance of Knight helped win me over here, I have to admit. The cynic in me might normally have argued that we want to focus on the sport itself and not the overcoming of adversity or the ongoing fight for acceptance in society. Sometimes as a disabled person you feel like there is no in between. You're either a hero and an inspiration or you're an embarrassment. I don't want to be either and I don't feel like either. I'm just a bloke from Thatto Heath.

As I finish this I have just started my lunch break and I'm into the action. Spain are making short work of Italy in the men's wheelchair basketball (yes, for the umpteenth time, the place I maybe could have been if I hadn't been railroaded by my alcoholism and my lack of ability). It's really here.

Enjoy it.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Pushed Too Far

You can let something go once, but when it happens twice it becomes a trend. Or if not a trend, then at the very least it becomes blog-worthy.

Actually I didn't let it go last time. I wrote it on my Facebook. But there didn't seem any way that it would stretch to an entire blog entry. Until now. Until it has happened again. A few months ago I was getting off the train at Thatto Heath station. This is something I do around 100-150 times a year (when I am in one of my sporadic gym phases in any event). It is important to remember just how routine this is for me. As I pushed up the admittedly large and fairly steep ramp towards the main road leading home, I felt a hand on my back. Then another. I actually took a push up the ramp with two as yet unidentified mits upon my personage. A little startled, I turned around to find a middle-aged man nodding at me and continuing to push his hands into my back in a hopeful attempt to propel me up the ramp;

"No thanks, mate. I'm alright." I said.

His hands did not move. I took another push, still with his hands upon me. I turned around again, only this time I didn't say anything. I just gave him a look. A look that said everything I needed to convey. A look that said 'take your frigging hands off me now, you moron. Do you really imagine that I only make this journey home from work this way in the hope that someone like you will kindly offer to push me up this fucking ramp?'. He got the message and shot me back a look that said 'I was only trying to help, God, chip on your shoulder or what?

Yeah mate, deep fat fryer, now fuck off.

And so to today. I have had an appointment at the doctors. I have been having regular appointments at my surgery for reasons which, while they would make hysterical blog material I am sure, are too personal to discuss here. It went well anyway, thanks for asking, but just as there is a large ramp between me and the exit to my local train station, so there is a similarly whopping great hill on the road between the surgery and my house.

I had almost reached the top of said hill when I heard a car engine behind me. This hapens a lot because I tend to forget that I am not in possession of an engine, and only take into account the fact that it is easier to push on the road than it is to push on the pavement, which is often uneven, sloped or, horror of all horrors, cobbled. So I moved sideways wearily, further towards the unfavoured terrain of the pavement to allow the car to pass me. Only it didn't. Instead the driver, another ageing man who looked no more capable of running up a hill than I, actually got out of his car and asked whether I might like a push up the hill. Now I know he might mean well, but again I must enquire as to whether people really believe that a person who needs a push up a bloody great hill would be out on his own trying to conquer a bloody great hill?

I have already commented elsewhere that the man offering me a push today is likely to need a push up a hill himself before I do. He was not exactly young and not exactly in the peak of his physical fitness. Yet he took one look at my wheelchair and decided that he was the best man for the job of lugging my arse up to the top of the hill. That there were only around ten yards remaining to the summit at that point in any case seems a moot point now.

The Paralympics start next week. You will see disabled people performing physical and mental acts which make pushing up a steep hill near a local park look like rolling over in bed. I just hope that the man I encountered today, and his predecessor from the train station a few months ago, actually witness some of Channel 4's coverage and adapt their perceptions of what disabled people can and can't do for themselves.

My hope is very probably a forlorn one.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Lord Morris - What's Changed?

Before yesterday I had never heard of Lord Alf Morris, who passed away earlier this week at the age of 84. Most disabled people will, if they are honest, tell you the same thing. But those of us now in education, employment, involved in sport, indeed who are integrating into society in all sorts of different ways owe Lord Alf a great debt of gratitude.

The perception of members of the House of Lords is one of old farts nodding off during readings of legislatory bills which have already been passed elsewhere. While that may be true of many, Lord Morris is one whose political career has seen him make a real difference to the lives of a great many people, myself included. It was Lord Morris who was at the forefront of the very first UK disability rights legislation back in 1970. It was a model which has been copied throughout the world and it laid the foundations for all of the greater freedoms we now enjoy.

You might not believe me if you have been trawling through my photographs on Facebook (which you have, admit it), but I wasn't around in 1970. I can only imagine what it must have been like for disabled people in Britain at that time. Regular visitors to this page will probably have been persuaded that it is not exactly shits and giggles even now, but it must have been far worse back then. Many disabled people were institutionalised, denied education and employment, locked away from the rest of society lest they bring about embarrassing attention. Sport was mostly off the agenda too, yet millions will tune into Channel 4 to see the best disabled athletes in the world compete at the London 2012 Paralympic Games in a couple of weeks. That we have come so far is due in no small part to Lord Alf and that first piece of legislation.

It has been a slow process. Improvements did not happen overnight. Where now we take disabled toilets, ramps, lifts etc for granted in many places, this was not always the case even after 1970. I started school in 1979 (at the age of three!) and was straight away unable to attend the same school as my sister, my cousins and all of the other children who grew up in the same area. None of the mainstream schools had the structures in place to provide access for a child with a phsyical disability back then. By the time I was 11 and ready to enter secondary school it was probably possible for me to attend a mainstream school but I never really considered it or even looked any further into it. There was still a social barrier which I feared could not be overcome. It was too much of a wrench to leave the familiar environment that had been created for me over the previous eight years. I was too comfortable, but I was contributing to my own social exclusion. I'm still paying for that.

Instead I was sent out to local mainstream schools to get myself a more rounded education. The special school I attended, as wonderful as all the staff there were, could not provide teaching to the standard that we were now showing that we required. Because we were able, because we could progress academically just as well as the able bodied children. This was somehow not thought possible before, or at least not important. We weren't going to be able to go out and work, so they thought, so why bother educating us? People like Lord Morris changed all that, but it hasn't been an easy transition.

During the time I spent at mainstream school I got a taste of what it might have been like had I attended full time. At Sutton High School my friend Phil and I studied French, Media Studies and Science to GCSE level. The vagaries of the timetable had it that on one day of the week we would have a session in all three of these subjects, so we spent the whole day there and just tried as best we could to fill in the gaps between lessons. That proved far more difficult than it should have been. It was the early 1990's but still our segregation from the others was plainly obvious. The school had social areas for the pupils to use during breaks and at lunchtime. Yet some pupils had damaged some of the seating, meaning that no students were allowed in from then on. Fine, we will all go outside then, right? Not you two. We can't have you going out in the rain or rolling over that dangerous concrete. We were told to stay in the social areas, indoors. We couldn't go outside, the other pupils couldn't come inside. It's too strong to compare it to Apartheid, but it was clearly segregation through lack of trust, through fear of what might happen. To us, to the other children. To society.

Even today we still have an awful long way to go in my view with regards to social attitudes and genuine integration and that is a two-way street. For every person who devalues you and thinks that you can't do your job or play sport or contribute to a debate because of your disability, there is a disabled person sat on his or her fat arse asking him or herself why they should bother and therefore doing nothing.

The government don't help, regardless of which party is in power. As much as I would relish the opportunity to call David Cameron a twat again, this is not a party political issue. I didn't start working until I was 31 years old, simply because they were paying me too much money to sit at home. There is still a perception among many disabled people that they are better off not bothering, and this extends to sport, education, socialising, everything. It's a miserable, sad state of affairs in many cases but then when you consider how poorly some of the older generation of disabled people were educated it is hard to argue with the notion that they have become too far disadvantaged to be employable now. Positive discrimination will get you an interview if you know what they are looking for in the job spec and you can communicate that effectively in writing, but after that you are on your own. The treatment they have had has made many disabled people set in their ways and lacking in belief. In themselves and in others.

I think in many ways, the younger you are as a disabled person now, the better chance you have of fully integrating. I have friends who are 5-8 years younger than me and it is noticable how much better they communicate with able bodied people their own age than even I do. I know able-bodied people who, if you asked them, would tell you they are my friends but whom I know are distinctly uncomfortable in my company, particularly if it is my company alone. Yeah it's cool to knock about with a disabled person, it shows you have an open mind and you're not shallow, heaven forbid. But don't take a disabled person out on the pull with you, is very much the philosophy. More and more, the young just don't think this way because they have dealt with it at an earlier age. Like learning a foreign language from the age of five instead of trying to learn it when you are 11. I'm sure if you took a camera into a school now you would find it hard to notice any difference between the treatment of disabled kids and any of the other kids. Maybe in 20 years from now people won't even acknowledge or notice disability in any meaningful way at all.

If that happens it will be largely down to the efforts of Lord Alf Morris.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

The South West - Part One

Perhaps he won't thank me for telling you this but Emma's Dad celebrated (if that is the word) his 60th birthday recently. To mark the occasion we spent the weekend in a cottage in a place called Keinton Mandeville near Yeovil. That's Somerset for those of you who get lost once you turn off the East Lancashire Road.

Since Emma and I had the whole of that following week off from work the plan was to spend a few nights in Bath also. As ever when I am involved, what followed was a heady mixture of chaos, farce and shouty Scottish men.

It starts in Bristol. It's quite a long drive to Keinton Mandeville so Emma wants to break it up by staying somewhere along the way. So we check into the Arnos Manor Forestdale Hotel. This isn't a bad little place, but it has to be one of the colder places I have been to in mid-July. An apalling summer isn't helping, but someone somewhere has clearly decided that air conditioning in the restaurant is a good idea. But it's not. It's freezing cold and it feels even colder for the fact that it is all but empty.

There is just one other couple in the restaurant tonight and while I am tucking into my fish and chips I can hear the gentleman complaining to the waiter about immigrants. It's real Daily Mail stuff about how those rotten foreigners have taken all the jobs but the man has managed to miss two superb ironies. Firstly, that the basis of his story centres around a son of his who lives in Australia. Immigration? You bet. Secondly, the waiter unfortunate enough to be listening to the man's archaic ramblings happens to be from South Africa. It's unfathomable how he hasn't realised this since the waiter is chatting away in the kind of accent which makes Kevin Pietersen sound like Boris Johnson. Regardless, the man ploughs on, bemoaning the invasion of foreigners and no doubt the demise of capital punishment. I don't know, I've stopped listening by now.

We return the following morning for breakfast. We are greeted by an incredibly smiley young woman. She looks around the room with a puzzled look on her face as if she doesn't quite know where to place this strange individual who has insisted on bringing a wheelchair to breakfast. Finally she hits upon the brilliant idea of putting us at a table next to the wall, just in behind one that is already occupied by two men. One of the men is decidedly portly, and you can see the crack of his arse from Leeds. He is wearing trousers, but only in the same way that Rihanna wears trousers when she wants to promote a new album. But the man is no Rihanna in visual terms. Not unless Rihanna has put ten stones of weight on and developed a serious problem with body hair since her last performance. Mercifully, I take the seat facing away from butt-crack man, and Emma can't see it either because I am now blocking it out.

There is considerably less meat on a woman sitting just across the room from us. Excess skin puts you off your sausage and egg. The woman is, shall we say, mature, and is as bony as it is possible to be without being in an Indiana Jones or a Sinbad film. I'm finding it hard to look at her, but I'm also finding it hard to look away. I start to feel like Austin Powers looking at Fred Savage's mole. These really are the major issues concerning me from our otherwise uneventful trip to Bristol.

Skipping the journey down to Keinton Mandeville almost completely (we took quite a while to find the cottage itself once we had found the right street because they all look the same) we arrive at the grandly named Coombe Hill Cottage. The path outside is covered entirely in gravel, and the woman we are renting from happens to be at the house and advises us that it will be ready in a couple of hours once they have finished cleaning. She also tells us that the entrance we need to use is around the back of the cottage, which is great news for anyone who thinks pushing a wheelchair on gravel might be fun.

With the car parked and a couple of hours to kill we hobble back down the path out on to the main road and head up the street to find a pub. We stop at a small local shop for local people for reasons I cannot and care not to remember, but I am pleasantly surprised to find that it is only a further minute or two to the pub. The Quarry is a very nice little establishment and it helps that finally, after what seems like three months of solid rain day after day, the sun is beating down. We order a drink and spend a very agreeable hour in the beer garden. The couple of beers I down when we get back to the cottage have an effect, and I'm still asleep when the rest of Emma's family get to there at around tea-time. I had been watching golf also, which might not have been the best way to keep my mind occupied and stave off the lethargy which inevitably results from afternoon drinking. And normally I like golf.

We're not going to elaborate on the evenings in Keinton Mandeville. Principally this is because I find forced fun quite traumatic. I can summarise thus; There were barbecues, quizzes and beer and it was unseasonably cold especially given the warm temperatures in daylight hours. If there was a highlight then for me it was the sight of Emma's one-year-old neice smashing the pinata with a stick and shouting 'whack' with every swing. Then her mother, Emma's sister-in-law, took a turn and knocked the donkey's head clean off with one swing. The head then found it's way around the dinner table and it was all a bit like something out of a Godfather movie. Whack.

So anyway we will stick mostly to the daytime activities because that is when we travelled around and experienced a little of the local south west culture. On Saturday morning, after an interminable wait for everyone to get ready, we venture towards the city of Wells. Test Match Special is on the radio in the car and England are taking a fearful pasting from South Africa. They have been bowled out for 385 and the South Africans are something like 4,384 for no wicket. Or something. Prospects for the team are so bad that the commentators have already started ignoring the action and instead playing word games or making up lists of the best left-handed South Africans and so forth.

Wells is one of the smallest cities in England and is best known for it's cathedral and other religiously associated architecture. Again I must re-iterate my utter disdain for religion, but that doesn't mean I'm not interested. We go into St.Andrew's Cathedral and end up on a short guided tour. The guide is called Elizabeth something or other, and she's informative enough but you get the feeling she wishes she was elsewhere. There are only myself, Emma, her mum and another couple on the tour which, considering it is free, is a pretty poor return. Religion might be crap, but what about history and architecture? It seems that they are not enough to interest the public of Wells today and so we press on in our uncomfortably small group.

Wells Cathedral of St.Andrew is the seat of the Bishop of Bath and Wells who, on the balance of probabilities, does not eat babies. It dates back to the 10th century but now, by far it's most pleasing attribute is it's clock. Alongside the large 24-hour clock face sits a model of a man called Jack. When Jack kicks his legs a series of wooden soldiers on wooden horseback appear from the top of the clock like demented cuckoos. They play out a brief battle in which one soldier is killed, only for him to re-emerge patched up to go through the whole thing again five or six times. It's a kind of mini-purgatory for the poor wooden soldier, but given that he is wooden and therefore devoid of any feelings it is all good, harmless entertainment.

Our guide gives up after around half an hour of shining her torch at the 'monsters' she finds carved into the architecture and speculating on what they may have originally represented. She seems very unsure of herself throughout and is particularly befuddled when one man asks whether Wells Cathedral is the final burial place of King Ethelred or some such. She doesn't seem to know, but she doubts it. Shortly after she is gone, wishing us a nice day and convincing us that half an hour touring Wells Cathedral of St.Andrew is probably enough. To be fair, she might just be right.

We find a cafe by the riverside and meet up with the others who had chosen not to take the cathedral tour. Maisie the cathedral cat is patrolling the area very protectively. Several small children try to pull her tail but she remains unphased by their gropings. She merely trotts off to a grassy area away from the cathedral and takes a nap. While we are enjoying a drink a man dressed like a member of the committee at Lords Cricket Ground strolls by. He is delivering some sort of message to a newlywed couple, and in doing so he is making quite a scene. I have absolutely no recall of what he actually says, but the bride is impossibly polite to him and thanks him for his efforts, calling it 'lovely'. The man turns to Emma's dad and asks;

"Care for a poem?"

"No thanks. I'm trying to give them up." he replies.

A little wounded, the man moves along the river to bother his next victim. We would be seeing him again later in the week.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Barcelona - Part Three (La Sagrada Familia)

Tuesday. The second day of our bus tour of Barcelona. Having again failed to find anywhere suitable for breakfast (we don't manage a single breakfast in the entire week we are here as it turns out) we are heading towards the Olympic Port, the starting point of the bus tour's alternative route.

Our first destination is La Sagrada Familia. This is the unfinished work of the much talked about Antoni Gaudi, the architect who designed pretty much every significant building in Barcelona, and with whom there is something of an obsession in the city and in Catalonia in general. He's even more popular than One Direction and Justin Bieber. Imagine that. Gaudi knew he wouldn't live long enough to finish his last great masterpiece, but it probably still came as something of a shock when he was knocked down by a tram and killed in 1926. He was 74 years old, and probably not quick enough to get out of the way.

What he did manage to do was leave strict instructions to others working on the project as to how the finished article should look. Eighty-eight years later they still haven't quite managed to fulfill his vision, making it about the longest running project since David Beckham started his GCSE in Spanish. Despite it's incompletion, La Sagrada Familia is still open to visitors, and attracts them in their thousands.

There is an enormous queue as we get off the bus and approach the vast building. Queuing creates a most complex dilemma for wheelchair users. To join or not to join? You never quite know what to do. I've been dragged out of queues by fussy staff, looking at me as if I am from Mars for having taken the ridiculous decision to try to wait in line with the 'normal' people, but I have also been left to wait, and wait, and wait, and wait in queues. Both of these extremes took place on the same day in Berlin airport in December 2010, but that is a story you can read elsewhere on these pages.

We decide to play dumb and ask one of the many tour guides patrolling the line about wheelchair access. Then with a nudge and a wink and a 'know what I mean?' we are ushered to the front of the queue and asked to wait by a small turnstile. Earlier, I had noticed that admission to La Sagrada Familia is 16 Euros each. Normally you would have to pay me to go into a place of worship, but this is in the name of tourism and is therefore different. I needn't have worried as the guide is soon opening a small gate and waving us through without any reference to the small matter of paying to get in.

We are now inside the gates, right in front of this ridiculously large structure. La Sagrada Familia is a basilica, as opposed to a cathedral. Despite appearances, La Sagrada Familia is not a basilica because of it's barely credible massiveness. Rather, and since you insist on knowing the difference, a basilica is a place that has received a Papal blessing. All of which means that Pope Benedict the whatever-he-is approves of it on some level and has publicly demonstrated this. Well, he can't fault the architecture. Unless he is overly fussy about the fact that it is not finished, obviously.

To our right is a small kiosk selling headsets. You could, if you were really troubled by the idea of spending an extra 2 Euros, just go inside La Sagrada Familia and try to find your own way around. After all, it's only an overgrown church, right? However, if like us you haven't spent anything yet and are far too lazy to try to work out for yourself what any of it means then you will be well served by picking up a headset. It provides you with an audio guide, although at certain points during the tour mine keeps stopping as if the commentary is being provided by the same people who edited the clip of John Terry shouting obscenities at Anton Ferdinand. That's problematic enough, but when you are in an environment about which you know precisely nothing it makes things all the more difficult.

I'm not into God. Let me tell you about God. Actually, don't. We'll be here all day with me ranting on about how he never makes anything good happen, only the bad, horrendous shit that I have seen happen to others in my life. In any case I have come to the view that God, while his existence is 99.9% impossible, is an effective placebo. God will never physically help you do anything, but if the mind convinces itself that God exists and that He has made wonderful things happen, then in a roundabout sort of way He has. It's like giving an athlete a suspicious looking pill and telling him that it will make him faster and stronger, and then revealing that it was only a sugar pill. Having believed he was taking something to improve his performance, chances are the athlete's perfomance will have improved. Or in the case of one person I know, sucking on a cider lolly at the age of 12 and believing yourself to be innebriated. God works for some people, despite his lack of basis in reality.

Before we even enter the building we take a wrong turn. Outside La Sagrada Familia (which by the way means the Holy Family) is some very uneven terrain. It's accessible only if you are profficient at pushing up mountains. I am a reasonably mobile wheelchair user but I would not have been able to take certain parts of this tour on my own. This includes my visit to the toilet, which involves rolling down a practically vertical drop masquerading as a ramp, while all the while trying to avoid the scores of people coming out of the toilet areas. I've never been absailing with a crowd around me, but if I did I should imagine it would be something like trying to use the disabled toilets at La Sagrada Familia. Anyway, the wrong turn. Had we turned left we would have reached Point 1 on the tour, the idea being to stop there and take in the views of the 'facade' (front) of the basilica while listening to the description and history behind it. Instead we turned right, only because we couldn't see Point 1 and, with no instructions accompanying the headsets we had purchased, had no concept of Point 1 or Point Anything Else until we had missed Point 1. We turned right because the path to the facade and the front door of La Sagrada Familia looked closer and flatter that way. Basic, basic error.

At this point I could describe the breathtaking architecture, the detailed, beautifully crafted sculptures and their religious and historical significance, but like the Grand Canyon and Dirk Kuyt's first touch, it is something which has to be seen to be believed. My describing it here would be entirely superfluous. To summarise, Jesus is fairly well represented, as are Mary and the Wise Men. And Pontious Pilate. Dirk Kuyt doesn't even make the subs bench, which is the way it should be and always should have been.

Once inside the audio tour comes into it's own. The numbered stopping points have started to make sense to me, althouth there is one occasion when we are instructed to leave the basilica by the open door on our right to view something or other, but look to our right to find no open door, or doors of any description. A look in all other directions tells the same story. There are no open doors leading to anything or anywhere. While looking around in a slight state of confusion I am asked by one staff member to remove my hat. Not being a church person I had forgotten that cricket hats aren't really church-going items of headware. Perhaps I should have brought my trilby. Anyway, I remove my hat feeling a little chastened, and never find the open door of which the audio commentary is still speaking. Near the end of the tour we come across a wonderful irony. A lift that is only accessible to people who can walk up a small flight of steps. To give tourists an even grander view of their surroundings, La Sagrada Familia has two towers, each of which is equipped with a lift to carry visitors to a higher vantage point. Yet the steps leading up to the lift's entrance exclude me.

Regardless, I never before thought it possible to spend two hours of any sort, much less interesting hours, in a place of worship. Until now. The tour is informative (in the main) and the architecture is a modern miracle.

And you have to remember we got in free.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Barcelona - Part Two

Monday, May 28 2012.

We're skipping Sunday. It was a day at the beach, which enjoyable though it was, was never going to be an event. A story. The only thing of note that I feel compelled to report to you was the disturbing practice of fat, hairy men paying to have their fat, hairy bodies massaged by women bonkers enough to offer such a service. No, not me. I'm not hairy.

At the risk of over sensitive types accusing me of some sort of racial slur, I nevertheless feel duty bound to point out also that the women offering this service on the beach in Barcelona all looked to have some kind of Far Eastern origin. I don't know if this is significant or not, it is just a fact. To their credit, they at least had the decency to carry out their irksome task with that weary look of 'it's a job' about their features. Job satisfaction is not something these women seemed to aspire to. Which was handy judging by the client list.

And so back to Monday, and the Nou Camp. The home of Barcelona FC is, I believe, the only place we visited on this trip that we had already explored thoroughly on our last visit here in 2009. I wasn't expecting any major changes in the three years since then. As it turns out there are differences, but they are subtle. In any case, you just can't go to Barcelona for a whole week and not visit the Nou Camp, even if you have seen it only three years previously.

One thing that has not changed is the lack of accessibility to the full stadium tour. Actually, I'm taking a slight liberty there. Last time we visited we were not aware that the stadium tour was inaccessible because we visited on a day when it was closed completely due to a U2 concert being staged that night. Yet if it is not accessible now, then it wasn't accessible then and we just didn't know it. Accessibility is a murky area, but we have not quite reached the stage where things that were once wheelchair friendly suddenly become wheelchair unfriendly. Apart maybe from a few women I know.

Anyway, the upshot of all this is that it will be the museum only for us (with a small, unexpected bonus near the end). We get this for a more than reasonable 19 Euros, or 9.50 Euros each. To put this into context it is far less than you would pay at Liverpool where the most recent trophy additions are bordering on antiques, or at Manchester United where there are new trophies but also new fans, than whom there is very little worse in football or even in life itself. The kind of people who will support Chelsea this time next year, or who can tell you all about the treble winning team of 1999 but look at you blankly if you ask about Jimmy Greenhoff or Arthur Graham. Who? Doesn't matter.

Getting from our hotel at Avenue D'Icaria to the Nou Camp involves a couple of bus rides, which you would think would cause all manner of accessibility problems. As those of you who have visited these pages before will know I can't go from Lime Street to St.Helens Central without great risk of ending up in Garswood, and anyone who has been to Garswood will feel that pain instantly. Fortunately, Barcelona is one of the better places I have visited in terms of accessible transportation. The number 14 bus stops right outside Hotel D'Icaria and drops us half way down La Rambla, where there is another stop nearby for the city's tour buses. Unlike in Los Angeles, all of Barcelona's tour buses are fully accessible, and so within an hour or so of leaving the hotel we are at the Nou Camp once more.

We have a late breakfast in Pan's, which is like Subway only nice. All around the restaurant there are television screens, some showing music videos and others showing Barcelona games from various eras. During one, Hristo Stoitchkov is abusing a referee using only hand gestures, while in another Rivaldo is performing sporting miracles which do not involve cheating. A double miracle, if you will.

The gangway leading in to the museum has changed, I notice instantly as we begin. Last time there were various exhibits placed in a row running along the centre of the gangway. Now there are only billboards with adverts. Barcelona is a club which prides itself on it's refusal to jump aboard the commercial gravy train currently dominating football, but if anyone knows how to advertise themselves they do. Most of the billboards advertise the club's own merchandise, others advertise goods used by their players. Boots, energy drinks, shirts, training tops, that kind of crap. Barcelona, run by the fans for the fans, is nevertheless as commercially savvy as Microsoft.

It takes a very long time to get around the museum if, like me, you read everything that you can. I have an interest in history, particularly sporting history, even if I seem to have a total and complete inability to retain the information I learn. So it is with great surprise that I discover that Barcelona was founded by Joan Gamper, along with a group of Swiss, English and Catalan footballers. This is why on the club crest you will find the St.George cross along with the Catalan flag. It does not explain why they have not had an English footballer in their ranks since Gary Lineker, who left in 1989 and can now be found delivering clunkingly awful gags with his other matey ex-pros on Match Of The Day. What explains that phenomenon is that firstly English footballers are terrifyingly over-rated, and also that they are equally overpaid here in England. The English Premier League is now the richest in the world and as such, believes itself the epicentre of all club football. Chelsea's recent bus-parking European Champions League win will have done nothing to dispel this kind of mania.

I digress again. Other stories of interest at the Nou Camp museum include the strange case of Enrique Castro Gonzalez. Quini, as he was known, was kidnapped at gun-point on March 1 1981 and held for 25 days. The police arrested one of Quini's captors when he was on his way to collect the ransom money. Shortly after his release, Quini scored twice in the Copa Del Rey final defeat of his former club Sporting Gijon. The following year, he scored the winner in the European Cup Winners Cup Final against Standard Liege of Belgium. Arguably, kidnapping boosted Quini's career significantly.

One of Barcelona's greats of the late 1950's was a chap called Luis Suarez. Suarez was not Uruguayan but Spanish, the first Spaniard to win the European Footballer Of The Year award. He also helped Spain to win the 1964 European Championship, 44 years before the current generation of Spanish players started to take over the world. As far as the available information at the Nou Camp goes, Suarez never racially abused or bit anyone, nor did he ever celebrate the missing of a penalty which he had deliberately conceded by blatantly slapping the ball away from the goal. None of which stopped Barcelona from flogging him to Inter Milan in 1961 when they were a little bit cash-strapped. He is considered one of Inter's greatest ever players, helping them to two consecutive European Cup successes in 1964 and 1965. Barcelona are really just a selling club.

Not really. They are more than a club. The motto says so. 'Mes Que Un' Club is the message written proudly across the seating one one side of this great stadium, used by the club since 1957. There is also Nike tick on the other side. Commercial? Capitalists? No. Anyway, this brings me around to the little bonus I was telling you about earlier. The presence of Bono and his pals scuppered any chance of seeing the inside of the stadium last time I was here. Emma went in for a sneaky peak but she had to use a couple of steps to do so, and when she got there found that the pitch was invisible due to The Edge's tent. Or something. None of that on this day, however. In the three years since we were last here someone has thought to place a small ramp slightly away from the main stadium viewing area, and I am therefore able to get inside the Nou Camp itself for a look around. Feeling only slightly envious of the people I can see walking along the sidelines and off down the players tunnel while on the full tour, I am still happy enough to be able to view one of the best stadia in world football from an ideal vantage point high up in one of the stands. As much as I love Saints and Super League, it places a little perspective on nights out at Langtree Park.

We get back on the tour bus to explore the Palau Reial de Pedralbes, which until 1931 was the Barcelona residence of the Spanish Royal family. There is a long, gravelly path leading up to it, and the area is decorated with monuments and fountains of some grandeur. However, this Monday is a national public holiday and so it is shut. The door is almost guarded by a statue of Isabella II, Queen of King Alfonso XII. With a beautiful and curious eccentricity, this site is also the home of a ceramics and textiles museum. Which, this being a public holiday and all, is also shut. We take a short stroll around the grounds and head back, where the only place serving anything edible by the time we re-emerge are the fishy restaurants from Saturday night.

But we pass on the Grappa and the bread.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Barcelona - Part One

Yes, I know I said this was finished for good. Clearly, since I am writing this that must mean I am a liar, a cad and a bounder in equal measure. But the bald truth is that my integrity must take a back seat when there is a story to tell, and a week in Barcelona was always going to throw up a few tales.

So here we are. It's the end of May and we're at Hotel D'Icaria, predictably situated on Avenue D'Icaria a couple of miles outside Barcelona city centre, and just five minutes walk (I'm not bothering with the push gag, it's old hat, d'oh!) from one of seven beaches running along the city's coastline. Hotel D'Icaria is very business-like. It's not your typical Spanish holiday resort hotel but then Barcelona isn't your typical Spanish holiday resort destination. Ask the locals and they will tell you that they are not even in Spain, but rather in Catalonia. It's complicated and political, not furtile ground for humour. It's a nice enough hotel, but it isn't going to be offering the level of tacky entertainment found on our trip to Benidorm last August. That might be a good thing. This is proper tourism as opposed to holiday-making. We're not playing games.

We take a stroll beach-wards. Taking a stroll around your surroundings is always one of the first priorities when you are staying somewhere new I find. The beach is impressively accessible and clean, I note, as we move on to the pier. It's lined with restaurants stretching out as far as it is possible to travel without swimwear or a boat. Suitably impressed, we look down over the edge of the pier and there is another level of the marina which is similarly restaurant heavy, with one or two bars dotted around also. At this point we are optimistic about the social opportunities of the area. And we haven't even got within two miles of the city, with La Rambla and all of that.

So a few hours later we return to the marina area to examine restaurant options more closely. It's Saturday, so the plan is to relax with a nice meal and a few cheeky wines tonight, hit the beach tomorrow before starting to visit the city's tourist attractions on Monday. Whereupon we hit our first problem. Seafood. Now it seems kind of obvious that a marina area might have a lot of seafood restaurants, but we had assumed that there might be some variety on offer. Not really. Every single establishment looks as if it is run by Bubba Gump, who divides his time between the running of the restaurant and the capture of large, unappealing sea creatures to serve to his customers. We spend a long time, and clock up a lot of miles, looking for seafood alternatives.

We end up at La Taberna Gallega, on the bottom level of the marina which itself is a very picturesque sight. If it wasn't so tightly jam-packed with boats of all sizes then it might be even more idyllic. There's so little space around the boats that you wonder how they ever make it out to sea. We're ushered into La Taberna Gallega on the promise of free glasses of champagne. I don't even like champagne, but at this point I am so tired of pushing around looking for somewhere that doesn't have crabs (please....) that I'll take whatever else is on offer.

What is on offer is something called Grappa. After our meal and our bottle of wine, which is all very civilised in the end with no sign of any crabs, shrimp, squid, seabass or killer whale, the waiter brings out two short glasses containing a curious, lime green liquid. It looks as thick as glue. If it were a more sensible colour you could paint your walls with it.

'For you, from me.' the waiter announces proudly, as if he has just presented us with a bunch of flowers and the champagne that we were falsely promised earlier. Wine affects me less when it is accompanied by a good meal, but I am still tipsy enough to think that the waiter's lime offering might be worth a go. Nobody has been that mistaken since Ashley Cole thought about writing a book. I can barely describe the taste of Grappa. The smell should have been a clue, but once it passes your lips it's like a wonderous and befuddling fusion of vomit and fire. Like eating a hand grenade coated in snakes venom. Shot glasses are not designed to contain large amounts of liquid, so when I tell you that I only managed to digest half of the contents of my glass you will get some idea of just how little Grappa my insides could stand before they might well have exploded all over the Gingham. I'm not exactly sure if it was Gingham, actually.

Either way it was unpleasant. A further nudge to the nads comes when the bill arrives. We have been charged the equivalent of around £3.90 (the real reason I phrase it so is that I don't actually have a Euro sign on my keyboard, imagine that?) for a plate of bread covered in tomato sauce. We haven't ordered it, it has just been placed there by our friendly waiter when we sit down to look at the menus. A lot of restaurants put bread on your table when you sit down to peruse the menu, but they do so on a complimentary basis, or if they intend to charge they enquire as to whether you might like a plate of bread which has been soiled with the devils own juice, otherwise known as tomato sauce. Not here at La Taberna Gallega. So convinced are they that their bread will be greedily snapped up whatever the price they don't even bother to ask. Ok, so it is only four quid, or a bit less. But isn't it just polite to ask first? Dessert is a chocolate cake between us. We had resisted the temptation to order a whiskey tart. We just giggled at it like 12-year-olds reading the Daily Sport. I have never had a whiskey tart, nor even heard of one before tonight. I have had several hundred vodka tarts but that is another story entirely and one probably not fit for public consumption.

From La Taberna Gallega we move on to a strip of bars which run along the marina towards a large ramp which takes you back on to beach level. It still being reasonably early we decide to take in a bar or two on our way back to the hotel. The first of these is on the corner, naturally, as there seems little point in passing a place that sells alcohol if the next one along looks exactly the same. So we go in. It being so non-descript and rather dark and dingy, I can't actually recall the name of the bar, but we go in to find customers sucking on what can only be described as pipes as opposed to straws, beneath which is a bubbling liquid and from the top of which come great puffs of smoke. My initial thought is of the opium den in the opening scene of 'Once Upon A Time In America'. You know the one? De Niro is lying on a bed half-dead, while a telephone rings over and over and over again. Like the one in my house does when you ring me and I'm absolutely determined not to answer it in case you are a recorded voicemail message from Natwest or some mortgate loans company I have never heard of.

It doesn't look like a very pleasant pastime, whatever it is they are consuming. Probably not up there with Grappa in the vomit-inducing stakes, but something to be avoided nonetheless. Emma enquires as to whether I might like to try one of these bongy creations but I decline, settling instead for a dull, old fashioned bottle of beer. There is a small television in the corner of the room showing an international friendly between France and someone, followed by UFC violence which has more than a tinge of homo-eroticism about it. It's not for me. Much like the bongy concoction, which we later discover is some kind of strawberry flavoured tobacco. Fruit fags? The comedic possibilities here are fairly endless, but I fear you would never get to the bottom of the page if I started teeing off on that one.

From where we are now we can see another row of bars which were not visible from outside the bar. We are under cover in a type of tent area facing these hitherto undiscovered drinking establishments. One of these establishments is filling up with guests on someone's hen night. Pink clothing and lots of it, high hair, too much make up, that kind of thing. What I don't expect is for the bride-to-be to be wheeled in on a bed. Another guest enters the bar in similar fashion some time later and it transpires that there is some kind of doctors and nurses-themed event going on. It all sounds a little too kinky for me, particularly in present company.

I do try and enter the bar later just to use the toilet after several botched attempts to use other toilet facilites elewhere. One proprieter tells me that he is very sorry but he needs the disabled toilet to store great big piles of shite that he doesn't use but doesn't want to throw out. They might be my words, not his, but they are no less accurate than what he comes up with. The man at the hen night bar just shakes his head when I ask him about toilets, as if asking for a disabled toilet in a bar is something akin to asking for a tennis court. So you can come in on a bed and play doctors and nurses, but you can't emtpy your bladder if you don't have the capacity to vacate your wheeled vechile to do so. It's not the first toilet fiasco of the night, having been earlier invited to use the ladies by the manager of La Taberna Gallega because there are steps leading up to the mens. Obviously. I mean why would you need wheelchair access if you have a penis? People who use wheelchairs don't have penises. That's just basic, people.

We retire to Hotel D'Icaria for the night feeling all at once optimistic, bemused, but mostly tired from the travelling and the boozing.