Monday, 22 December 2014

The Widnes Wild

It’s not often I get anything free from my publicity-shy, anonymous employer but at the weekend I had a new sporting experience at their expense when I took in a Widnes Wild ice hockey game.

I can’t really describe myself as an avid ice hockey fan. It’s a wonder I find time to eat and sleep (much less work for a living) considering all of the sport that I do watch, but ice hockey has never really been included alongside all of the football, rugby league, cricket and NFL that I regularly submerge myself in. At this time of year I even find myself watching darts. Who can resist the temptation to watch fat men throwing small arrows at a circular board while thousands of drunk onlookers shout ‘boring, boring table’ at each other? It’s a masterclass in witlessness but it’s also sport apparently. Not only that, but St.Helens is prominent in the darting world with at least three of the PDC’s top men either hailing from, living in or having once visited the old Woolworths in the town.

But I haven’t seen much ice hockey. It’s on Premier Sports to which I don’t yet subscribe despite their holding of the rights to NRL rugby league in Australia. One of the wonderful benefits of the end to Sky's monopoly on sports is that you have to have 17 different sports packages to be able to see all of the sport you want, meanwhile Sky steadfastly refuses to lower its monthly subscriptions despite the loss of content they have endured. Also, ice hockey is broadcast at times which are hardly suitable for the working man. Unlike the NFL which has games at either 6.00 or 9.25 on Sunday evenings, you’re looking at something around 1.00-1.30am before you get anything resembling live NHL ice hockey action on British television even if you have paid for that 17th subscription. The closest I have got to any kind of ice hockey-related activity is playing out my own version of the 2010 NHL season on the Nintendo Wii. That’s unless you count being in New York when it was hosting the Stanley Cup Finals earlier this year. In Madison Square Garden, which is not a garden and is not in Madison Square. And I never actually attended any of the games so it probably does not count in any case. We walked past the Garden one night and could hear music blaring from within which we assumed to be the pre-match entertainment and rituals, but getting in was never an option.

So anyway when the opportunity arose to see some real, live ice hockey I was uncharacteristically keen to respond to my employer. I say uncharacteristically because on the rare occasions that my employer emails me offering something for nothing I don’t get to the end of the second paragraph before the email gets deleted. I have no need in my life at this particular time for Indian head massage though I am sure it is every bit as relaxing and revitalising as is claimed. It’s just not for me, in the same way that Jeremy Clarkson isn’t. I’ve heard he is quite popular but I won’t have him on my telly. But ice hockey, well that sounded much more like my kind of thing. And Emma’s. She used to go to watch a team in Sheffield and since one of the games on offer through my employer was the Widnes Wild versus the Sheffield Senators it seemed like it was worth a go.

Whether it was or not is a matter for some debate. We arrived around half an hour before the start of the game to be looked at blankly by the two girls at the box office. I explained that I had come to pick up two tickets and that it had been arranged by my employer. Fortunately I had an email advising me that all I needed to do was explain this at the box office and present my staff card. Had I not kept the email I might very well have spent the rest of the evening trying to persuade the girls at the box office to let us in. Instead they just looked at each other before one of them muttered something to me about how nobody ever tells them anything. Then she issued what passes for a ticket and sent us through into the rink. The first thing that immediately strikes you is how cold it is, a fact which should have been and was obvious but even with my heavy coat on I could still feel the chill. To our left were a set of steps leading to the seating area which were clearly going to be inaccessible. We were advised by the man on the door that someone would be along in a moment with the key for the lift to take us up to the upper deck. At the time that seemed like a relief. None of the arena was visible from where we were by the door and the barrier stretched all around the playing area. It was not transparent plexiglass so you couldn’t see anything of the arena through it. After a few minutes wait the man on the door told us that someone was now at the lift waiting for us and we made our way around the arena to the lift. We were taken up one floor and led to our viewing area.

Which was a café bar. And all sense of relief turned to mild bewilderment. It had those plush comfy seats you find in hotel bars but mostly there were high stools and even higher tables. The kind that I spent 10 days moaning about in New York. There was no viewing area, as such, you just had to find a place to sit where you could see the action. Except there wasn’t anywhere fitting that description for someone of my height using a wheelchair. For reasons that would be exhaustively explained to me later on and which my brain has already dumped into the trash-can marked ‘not necessary to retain’ there is a barrier which has to be a certain minimum height. Like kids trying to get on the rides at Alton Towers. Speaking of whom, there was also a kids play area directly behind one of the two areas where it was possible to sit, in this case directly behind one of the goals. The other such area is along one side of the ice but that is interrupted by a wall, leaving you craning your neck around said wall whenever the puck goes up the other end of the ice. Predictably and despite the fact that there was a national league ice hockey game going on which some people had paid £6.00 to watch, the play area remained open for the kids throughout the night. When Emma went off to find someone to complain to, a man arrived to discuss our concerns and promptly and angrily chased all of the kids out of the building. They were running around in the open play area. Playing, you might say. The nerve.....

The man we found happened to be the same man with whom my employer liaises to get our staff free tickets for the games. He turned out to be a great bloke to be fair, who went a long way out of his way to try to help us. However at first he was confrontational and at one point I thought we were going to have to leave because he could not agree with us that this area was not suitable for disabled people to view ice hockey games or anything else held at the rink for that matter. He was a disabled person himself so perhaps should have known better, but nevertheless he claimed that I was the first disabled person to raise any concerns and that every single member of his sledge hockey team had tested it and declared the area fit for purpose. He must have some very tall sledge hockey team mates. Either that or their expectations are markedly lower than mine. As he sat in one of the comfy chairs next to me I knew very well that he could not see what was going on in the game while all the while he was arguing that there was nothing wrong with the view. By the end he was downsizing his claims by insisting that nobody said that the area was fully accessible and that actually it has no intention of being such. Rather, it aspires to be inclusive. All of which sounds like a vomit inducing, catch-all phrase for people who live under the noble but absurd misapprehension that disabled and able-bodied people can all live together in a fluffy world completely devoid of any bitterness and acrimony. Not if I have anything to do with it.

The outcome of what was becoming an increasingly circular discussion was that I felt that I should have been advised that the area was not fit for purpose before I travelled, but that there are plans to improve the facilities for disabled people in the future. They are going to introduce plexiglass to the upper deck viewing areas where there is currently only a thick, high barrier which should go some way to appeasing your average, angry disabled observer with an overwhelming desire to blog to all of his mates about the outrage of it all. I might be back to test that theory in the new year as our friend (his name is Matt, a former Paralympian sledge hockey player) showered us with freebies including season tickets for the rest of this season and a pledge that we could also go to any Sheffield Steeldogs (yes, really, Steeldogs) game if we just get in touch to let him know we are going. He gave us free tea, offered us free food which we declined, and regailed us with tales of his Paralympic career and titbits of information about the players in the Wild team. One works at the local Tesco and has played at the Elite League level but doesn’t want to travel any further than across the car park from his place of employment. Apparently he turned up one night at their training session with some extensive ice hockey kit and ran rings around his potential team-mates. When asked why he wasn't playing at a higher level he just pointed out that he worked at the Tesco over the road and said 'I play for you'. He's Czech or Polish or something. No doubt the Daily Mail will be furious to learn that he is taking the place in the team of a local Widnes lad. Another player is a plumber and others are electricians and builders. Only the referees get any financial reward which sounds a lot like the wheelchair basketball arrangements I remember from my former life.

I managed to repel several attempts by Matt to get me to go along to a sledge hockey session, by the way. Thursday nights are sledge hockey nights down at Widnes but I pointed out to him that you would have to be madder even than I am to get on the ice and have a go at that. He responded to this slur on his good name with another story, the one about how half his teeth came out when keeping goal in one fondly remembered game or other. If that doesn't put you off basketball stars then consider the fact that there is no classification system like in our namby-pamby game. Be prepared to be smashed into the ice by an array of seven foot ex-soldiers. Matt tried to argue that a classification system is not necessary and that moving the sledge around the ice quickly is down to core muscle strength and nothing to do with balance or anything like that. Which is, frankly, horse shit. Curling was of more interest to Emma, and I would be willing to have a go but due to a complex process which can also be found in that ‘not necessary to retain’ trash can (something about having to prepare the ice overnight) they can only offer the sessions on Friday mornings. Now we are left wondering whether a game of Curling is worth a day’s leave or flexi which, if it is anything like a night at the ice hockey, it won’t be. Besides, I have accepted my Paralympic failure. I’m not one of these biffs who is going to try every sport he can possibly get involved in before making his Paralympic debut in sausage eating at the age of 51. I’m over it, really.

The game itself, or the bits of it that I could see, was very entertaining. The Wild lost out 8-6 to the Senators in the end, with the last goal scored just a couple of minutes from the end as the frost-bite inducing possibility of an overtime period lingered. Emma pointed out that although it was entertaining, it was a pretty average standard even by comparison to the Elite League games that she has seen in the past. Nevertheless I’ll probably give it another go at the end of January by when Matt assures me that the plexiglass will be in place and I’ll be able to see a lot more of the skills of the shelf-stackers, electricians and plumbers of the Widnes Wild.

Until then I’ll stay in and watch the darts.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

A Different Kind Of Access Problem

Time to break that rule about not writing about work again. Of course we will avoid the specifics. Under absolutely no circumstances will I reveal the name of my employer, which is a shame because it single-handedly cured Ebola just the other day.

But this is not about that. This is about what MOAFH specialises in. My foolishness and subsequent humiliation. A bit of background for you. My employer is very security conscious, as it needs to be. They wouldn’t want the wrong sort of people getting into the building, let alone areas of said building where the wrong sort of people could wreak various kinds of havoc. I am not sure what type of people they have in mind. Perhaps the locals, which gives rise to all sorts of brilliant gags about what you call a scouser in an institute of higher education (careful……). But I’m not doing any of those gags about scousers. Some of my best friends are scousers. Salt of the earth, God-fearing insurance fraudsters that they are….. I, on the other hand, do not fear God as we know because I am a Godless atheist. So anyway on account of the security consciousness of my employer we have staff only access to many areas of the building including the office in which I conduct most of what passes for my daily business. I know, I was as surprised as you to learn that I’m not actually a proper writer. And that a disabled person has a job. Back to the plot. Access works like this. You have a staff card and you swipe said staff card along a reader outside the office door. The reader clicks and you are granted access. I have been gaining access to this place of business in this precise way for six years.

Six years.

Two days ago my six-year-old battered, tatty old card gave up. As an amusing aside the photograph on my staff ID card was taken with something odd in the background hanging above my head and because my head is shaved it looks like I have a Mohican circa David Beckham 2001. Without the good looks, clearly. The card had been very erratic in recent months, only allowing me access when it was of a mind to do so. All of which was much to the chagrin of my long suffering colleagues, particularly those who sit nearest to the office door and to whom it therefore most commonly falls upon to get up from their seat and press the button inside the office which unlocks the door. By now the card had decided that it didn’t care what mood it was in, I was not getting into that office unaided and so I went downstairs to the security desk to get an upgrade. I came back to the office and swiped in. Nothing. Nada. Computer says no. I went to the printing room down the corridor and swiped the reader outside that door. A beep later access was granted. Something was beginning to whiff a little. How could it be that I could use the card to get into the print room (and as I subsequently discovered through the barriers just inside the main entrance, the barrier to the disabled car park and the main door at the rear of the building) but not to get into the office? There are those who would point out how typical and predictable this is. Of course I would be able to get everywhere else but into the room that I move in and out of most often. The Law Of Sod was written with people like me in mind.

I went back down to the security desk twice to obtain new cards, believing that on each occasion they had just issued me with duds. I spoke on the phone to the security manager who assured me that everything was fine with the technology and that he also was baffled by the whole affair. Today he visited me at the office and we went out to the reader so that I could demonstrate the problem. You’re ahead of me, aren’t you? Well not quite perhaps. I swiped it twice more, in the way I had been doing for six years. Nothing. He took the card from me and swiped it twice more in the way I had just demonstrated. Nothing. At this point I should point out that the reader has a little screen at the top where it says something like ‘please swipe card’. Below this screen is a keypad. For six years I have been swiping the card across the screen and gaining access. Never have I swiped it across the keypad. Presumably for shits and giggles he thought he would give the latter a try. He swiped the card against the keypad, just below the top row of numbers.

There was a click and the screen lit up. The door was open.

I have been back out there several times since and even now if I swipe my card anywhere above the top row of numbers nothing happens. An inch or so below and I’m in. Upon our discovery the security manager gave me a look which I cannot reasonably describe without having the company arrest me and lop off my head. Suffice to say he was suitably and understandably unimpressed at having been dragged probably half way across the city from a different site to explain to the disabled person that he has been swiping his card incorrectly for the last six years. Actually, I’m not sure that he believed that I have been swiping it that way for six years but I can assure him and all of you that I have. Nevertheless I have at best assured my place in one of his ‘people at work are stupid’ anecdotes when he is out with his family and friends over the Christmas period. At worst I have earned a place in a rather darker ‘disabled people are stupid’ lament.

Maybe it’s me with the attitude problem but this always seems worse because of the prickly problem that is disability. When you have what might otherwise be referred to as a blonde or senior moment it’s magnified enormously by a wheelchair. You can multiply what you think you would feel in that situation by about 10,000. As a disabled person in that predicament you can’t shake the feeling that everyone thinks that in the first place you are thick, and in the second place you are thick because you have a wheelchair and it is all you can do to avoid slavering in the corner while rocking back and forth and shouting ‘sausages!’. My path will likely never cross that of the security manager again so what kind of first and last impression is that to leave him with?

But that’s me isn’t it? Always doing my bit to promote disability and obliterate tired old stereotpyes…..

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Whose Accessible Bus Seat Is It Anyway?

This column is among the louder trumpeters of disability rights that you might awkwardly stumble across as you trawl the internet looking for pictures of Miley Cyrus. Barely an entry goes by without it venting at some wretched wrong-doing by the able bodied community who are, as regular readers will know, a villainous rabble. But it draws the line at this bloody bus row.

Now a proper journalist would review the facts of the case in great detail. However, I stopped being a proper journalist around 2001 so let me summarise for you. Some time in the recent past it was declared lawful that disabled people should be given priority over people pushing prams when it comes to blagging the pitiful amount of accessible space on offer. Then it was decided that actually, no, that is a lot of old nonsense and the pram-pushers were favoured. Notwithstanding the fact that you could never create a bus big enough for the pram pushing population of Thatto Heath, it is my duty to report that this latest decision is being challenged again by the disability rights campaigners. In particular, one disability rights campaigner who scored the Paralympic level own-goal of allowing himself to be photographed boarding a bus with his piss-bag sticking out of the bottom of his trouser leg for all to see. Now tell me how he gets priority?

So anyway the point I am making is that despite being a disabled person myself, and one who spends his life crusading for the rights of such people, I am against the idea that all disabled people should be given priority for the aforementioned pitiful amount of accessible space on offer. Some of us just should not. I have experienced all too often that awful moment when the bus driver, who is already confused about who should get priority it seems, makes some poor girl with 13 children move from her seat so that I can reverse into the space, being careful to place my head against the headboard and apply the brakes on my chair which exist only in the minds of the able bodied. It’s embarrassing and it will serve only to demonise the disabled population with young mothers in particular. What red-blooded male wants to be demonised by young women anyway? I say we are demonised enough. You have the space, love, I will use the fucking allowance that the government pay me to have a motability car (for which I am exempt from paying insurance), and we will all get to where we are going anyway. If I want a drink I will use yet more of my benefit or, Heaven for-fucking-fend my WAGES to get a taxi.

As I suggested this does not apply to all disabled people, just the likes of me actually. Yes there are people who for whatever reason can’t just jump in their mobility car and drive themselves to wherever, or who have trouble persuading that most common sufferer of back injury, the taxi driver, to help them into the back of their hire vehicle. Perhaps those people have a case to be given priority, but for it to be spread across the board and to be applied to all disabled people is loony leftism of the worst kind. The kind of strange, woolly thinking which leads to Mario Balotelli being punished for an anti-racist tweet in his second language while the institutional racism he has to endure in his daily life goes virtually unnoticed by the shitclowns at the FA.

Now wouldn't the answer be to provide more access for buses, and spare everyone the legal wrangling over who gets the last crumb on the island before we have to start eating each other?

This blog was written in 10 minutes at the end of a working day and you can’t half tell.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Three Things That Happened


Following possibly the most unimaginative title in the history of Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard comes this routine but thankfully short trundle through the madness that is my daily life. For the over sensitive, every effort will be made not to mention the name of the organisation which employs me and which recently cleared third world debt.

First of all let me relay to you that I have again managed to display my other-worldly talent for needlessly embarrassing myself. This morning I was talking with a couple of colleagues while in the process of passing over a form or something equally mundane. As I made my way back over to my own desk one of them whispered a polite ‘see you later’. Nothing unusual about that. We work on different sides of the office so we don’t see a lot of each other. We actually might aswell be in different rooms. Yet this does not justify the way in which I then proceeded to bellow;

‘SEE YA’ ……………


Excruciating. Again, it’s always a female.


Later on I had just finished another piece of work and was carrying out the equally mundane and in fact suspiciously similar task of passing the form to a staff member at the other side of the office. She wasn’t there so I just left it on her desk. Lucky for her, lest I scream some inappropriately loud greeting or goodbye at her. Some hours later I was informed by someone else that this staff member is in fact no longer with us. I don’t mean she’s passed away. As far as I know they haven't started killing people yet. I just mean she has moved to another site. Taken seemingly in the night like in some bizarre kidnapping. No email, no collection that I know of. Nothing. How does this happen without my knowing? Am I so oafishly unaware of what is going on around me? Everyone else in my team knew that this had happened but that is possibly because they spend large parts of their day huddled over their computers whispering darkly while I remain soundlessly bricked up behind my screens. Rendered deaf to the banter by the security measures which are no doubt in place to stop me spreading Spina Bifida here, there and everywhere. To be honest, that is not always a bad thing.


And then I went to the toilet. Except I couldn’t get in. I waited a few minutes as I always do when someone who I suspect is not disabled is occupying the disabled toilet. If you are going to make me wait then be advised that I will shame you. She emerged just in time to stop me pissing in my pants and she was all apologies and so forth. Apparently she didn’t know. Didn’t know what? That she was in a disabled toilet? That she was not disabled? That I am disabled? It’s unclear. What is clear is that if I didn’t need my job so much then many of her necessary administrative documents which reside within our department might find themselves being posted to Portugal. But I do need my job and so her documents won’t make it any further away than a shelf in the corner of the room. And then at some point, unless someone mercifully beats me to it, I’ll have to help her out with said administrative needs while all the while seething quietly as I remember that she is the kind of person who craps in a disabled toilet and makes me wait my turn.

At least I didn’t fart today. Well, not loudly anyway.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Incontinence And The Blag Bee Gees

I farted in work today.

And not just a little silent one like the kind that girl’s do. I’m talking about a long, sustained rumble of a fart. The kind that makes you take a large breath in through your nose just to be sure. This happened just as I approached my colleague’s desk to pass on a phone message. Of course it was a female colleague. It’s always a female. It was a female the time I fell out of my chair on the threshold of the exit to the building, why wouldn’t it be a female when every last breath of wind escapes through my back passage in one go?

This is clearly an acute embarrassment. Mortifying. We both somehow managed to ignore it but we both knew. It was an unspoken truth. We just got on with talking about what I had gone over to talk about but it was there, lingering, like a fart does. Had it been a male colleague we might well have been able to laugh it off, gently jabbing each other with a fist and shouting 'har-har' like Edmund and Bob in Blackadder II. In my defence it is not my fault. I have no idea this is going to happen until I hear the beginnings of the sound itself. By then it is too late. You could shove a cork up there and it would be like the story of the boy with his finger in the dyke or whatever it was. King Canute trying to stop the tide. Steven Gerrard trying to play as a holding midfielder without Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge to keep the ball at the other end of the field for him. A fools errand.

I don’t want to tar all disabled people with the same soiled old brush. The reason I don’t know about this before it happens is my disability but it is just that…my disability. We’re all different and Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard does not claim to represent all disabled people. It is based only on the experiences of one disabled person in particular. And not a particularly well adjusted disabled person at that. Not everyone has my shortcomings. At the same time there are people who are worse off. On Sunday I spent a good 15 minutes with a good friend of mine which mainly consisted of anecdotes about various people of varying disabilities soiling themselves in ever more impressive and amusing ways. At one point I was falsely accused of shitting in my own hair in an incident that can only be described as a shite shampoo. It wasn’t me but I sympathise with anyone who has had this happen to them. As my wise friend said, it’s not whether you shit yourself, it’s how you deal with it. If this amuses you it’s ok. Incontinence can be funny, it just takes a few years or so for the person suffering the incontinence to join in with the joke.

Incontinence is sort of linked to what I really wanted to tell you about tonight which is Nights On Broadway…The Story Of The Bee Gees. Only the incontinence there was mostly in the audience due to their average age. The show was staged at the Theatre Royal in town and that, owing to my previously positive experiences of theatres, was enough to persuade me that it might be worth a go. It’s not cool to say so, but the Bee Gees were brilliant. Their body of work rivals that of anyone you can name. Yes, even that of Cheryl Whatever Her Name Is This Week. As songwriters the Bee Gees were peerless and prolific so I am well acquainted with their material. On the other hand my previous experience of the Theatre Royal extends to my participation in a school production of War Of The World’s which must have been held there some time during the early to mid 1980’s. I can’t remember what part I played. I was either a Martian or a tree but frankly what is the difference when it comes to wheelchair dance? All I can recall is the gruff narration of Richard Burton and the haunting soundtrack. If we performed it now and you came in expecting Tom Cruise running around shouting you would be gravely disappointed. I’m not exactly proud of my performance, put it that way. Or of the production as a whole. If I was to summarise it I would say that it was marginally more embarrassing than farting in work, but slightly less embarrassing than shitting in your own hair. I imagine.

First of all I would take issue with the title of the show. Nights On Broadway. Emma and I have had a few Nights On Broadway and they were nothing like this. Though it was cancelled due to an invasion of Philistines, the Rocky musical was utterly, jaw droppingly fabulous while the Motown show we saw was chock-full of people you had never heard of who nevertheless had bucket loads of talent. That these performers remain anonymous while middle aged women from GodKnowsWhere achieve fame for baking a cake is a fact which makes my eyes bleed. As such we will end the discussion there before I have another accident. Oh, and Bee Gees Story, you say? Story? This implied that we might emerge at the end of the show having learned something that we may not previously have known about the Bee Gees. That would have required acting and dialogue, of which there was precisely none. What we had here was effectively a tribute band, and a very iffy tribute band at that. This lot didn’t need the Theatre Royal at £17.50 a clip at all. They were strictly Chicago Rock on a Wednesday night, By Jovi, Robbing Williams, Zoo 2 material.

Barry Gibb was played by Bjorn Borg, I’m sure of it. Aswell as being a Swedish tennis legend Borg is known for the fact that he doesn’t bother getting out all that much these days. It is unlikely he would subject himself to attempting to replicate Barry’s famous falsetto. Yet the man playing Barry was a dead ringer for Borg. Barry-Bjorn’s falsetto jolted you out of your seat as he screeched to find the smoothness with which the real Barry delivers his vocals. Robin was probably the most competent singer of the trio but probably the one who looked least like a Bee Gee. Which is saying something when you consider that you have a five-time Wimbledon champion playing Barry. Maurice looked the part but rather like the real Maurice, that was mostly down to his ability to grow a beard and wear a hat and then just blend in.

When Emma pointed out to me that they weren’t even playing the instruments they were holding, and that the only truly live music was coming from the band at the back of the stage I was starting to think in terms of a refund. The guitarist may or may not have been our own Johnny Vegas but as for the others, I couldn’t see them due to the location of the accessible seating. Should you have the temerity to turn up to the Theatre Royal without the ability to walk you will be placed at the end of the row and in your eyeline there will be a large speaker blocking the screen behind the performers on stage. Thankfully, all I seemed to miss on said screen was an inexplicably inappropriate Kenny Everett sketch from his 1970’s television show in which he mercilessly lampoons the Bee Gees while ironically remaining blissfully unaware of his own shiteness. Saying that, when I was about six the sight of Everett crossing and uncrossing his legs and saying ‘all in the best possible taste’ at every opportunity was the very height of comedy as far as I was concerned. But I was six years old and I do fart in work.

The lack of any acting or actual story may or may not have been compensated for by an attempt on the part of the band to sound like the Bee Gees when they were talking to the audience in between numbers. But they were Irish. So Irish were they, in fact, that they sang ‘true’ instead of ‘through’ and ‘dis’ instead of ‘this’. At various points along the way they repeatedly mentioned that this (dis?), humble old St.Helens, was the last stop on their UK tour. Where the bloody hell else had they been? My mind whirred with the possible permutations. But don’t worry, they told us, they would be available in the lobby at the end for photographs and to sign copies of the DVD. The DVD? At this point my thesaurus isn’t up to the job. They have a DVD? The Bee Gees did a live show in Las Vegas or New York or somewhere exotic which can often be seen on Sky Arts and indeed, with some irony, was broadcast by that channel again on Sunday night just past. You would have had a far greater Bee Gees experience, and learned more about the band and their ‘story’ by staying at home and watching that show than we did by going out on a damp night in November.

Afterwards we stumbled bewildered into the nearest pub and unexpectedly found Stillia, a local band made up of teenagers with loud guitars, playing live. They were very good as it turned out and you can see them again this Friday night at The Glass House in town if you are so inclined. They play everything from George Ezra to The Killers, The Stereophonics and some of their own stuff. No Bee Gees alas.

But for us, at that particular point in time, that was a good thing.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Introducing The Rugby Football League To The Existence Of Fans With Disabilities..........

This time next week I will be on my way to Manchester for the Super League Grand Final at Old Trafford. It’s Saints v Wigan. One of the great rivalries. Up there with Liverpool v United, Benn v Eubank and Ken Barlow v Mike Baldwin. The fact that the Super League title is on the line makes it all the more unmissable.

On Thursday night Saints took their place in the Grand Final with a 30-12 win over Catalan Dragons. Tickets for the Grand Final went on sale the following day to season ticket holders only. The Saints website proclaimed that season ticket holders would have all of Friday and Saturday to secure their tickets before they were to go on general sale on Sunday. Only right and proper. You’ve followed the team throughout the season and forked out a fortune for the privilege so you should have first dibs on the Grand Final seats. Only this does not apply if you happen to be a wheelchair user.

I am a season ticket holder, and have been since the club moved to Langtree Park at the start of the 2012 season. I’ve had to watch Josh Perry in driving rain and sub-zero temperatures. Yet when I rang the club to book my tickets I was informed that the RFL (Rugby Football League) had not sent the club any tickets for wheelchair accessible seating in the West Stand, where the majority of Saints fans will be housed on the night. All they had was ticketing in the East Stand among what would later that day be confirmed as the Wigan end after they edged out Warrington to take their place. They advised me to ring the RFL ticketing hotline to see if they could help.

They could not. They advised me that there was no wheelchair accessible seating in the West Stand available. But I’m a season ticket holder, I said. Where is my right to secure my place during all of Friday and Saturday along with the rest of the season ticket holders? I was told basically that I have no such right, that they are there to sell tickets to any old bugger who phones up to ask for them, and that they have been selling them all year. Having no choice at this point I managed to get tickets in what the RFL claim is a ‘neutral’ area which they tried to sweeten up by describing as the ‘ability suite’. This means that me and my friends won’t have to queue for our drinks but oh, by the way, you can’t drink inside a football stadium anyway. Anyone who has ever had the misfortune to spend 80 minutes with me while Saints are playing Wigan in a game of this magnitude will know anyway that even if you could, my nerves will be far too shredded to even contemplate the idea of leaving my seat to buy a drink. All that will be done in the bars around Manchester before and afterwards.

I emailed both the RFL and St Helens RFC to suggest to them that they might not be treating wheelchair users fairly. And that if it is not possible for a season ticket holder of one of the participating clubs to book tickets among his fellow supporters on the very day they become available to season ticket holders only, then Old Trafford is an unsuitable venue for the event. I don’t have the statistics to hand but it all suggests to me that Old Trafford is palpably failing to meet the minimum requirement of wheelchair accessible seating available which is now law in English football stadia. If I had been trying to book late having ignored the advice published on the Saints website then I would understand their position. But I didn’t. I did exactly as I was advised and was blatantly treated differently and unfairly. The RFL tried to hide behind the idea that the Grand Final is for all Super League fans and that they want an ‘eclectic mix’ of fans to generate the atmosphere. But surely the participating clubs should be given the opportunity to meet their fans’ ticketing needs before the rest of the rugby league supporting community get their hands on them? All of which reminds me of an exchange in The Simpsons featuring Lisa Simpson and her dance teacher when Lisa is overlooked for a part in the production;

Teacher; I'm sorry, Lisa, but giving everyone an equal part when they're clearly not equal is called what, again, class?

Class: Communism!

Beautifully, the RFL advisor who I spoke with and who took part in the subsequent email exchange is called Chris Burns. Stop chortling and saying ‘Smithers…..’ at the back. Mr Burns has advised me to write to Mr Ralph Rimmer who, aswell as being on something pompously called the Executive Board of the RFL has a beard of many colours. Perhaps he is trying to promote an eclectic mix of beard colours to appease all rugby league fans.

I will write to Mr Rimmer with absolutely no hope of getting anything done differently in the future. They will pay me lip service, perhaps follow Merseytravel’s lead and send me a £1 voucher to be spent on something only they offer, and then go back to their firm conviction that seating arrangements and the fan experience as a whole are only important when applied to people who can walk into a stadium.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

This Is A Rant

This Is A Rant.

You should already have been asked this before reaching this page but it you are offended by liberal use of profanities you should probably stop reading about now. This is not a jolly story about where I went and wasn't it nice and didn't we only have just the 237 access-related problems. This is not a comedy anecdote with a serious moral about disability awareness wedged deeply, almost invisibly into my manic prose. This is not about anything that happened. It's about how I feel. And if this blog can't be about how I feel aswell as about what I did and what I saw then it can fuck off aswell. I once stopped writing for about eight months because of my dark days but I refuse this time. Far better to get it down and let everyone puke at the sight of it, squirm for me if you want in your Ivory Towers in HappyHappyLand. The signpost marked 'I Give A Shit' is 30 miles down the road in the opposite direction. Besides, some of you might even identify with it and if it helps one other person feel better about the fact that they have days when they hate everyone and everything almost, then it is not for nothing.

Still here? Then we'll begin. Today I want to ram a sizeable skewer through my brain until, to paraphrase Hugh Laurie in Blackadder Goes Forth, it really hurts. I've made great strides with my depressive tendencies over the last couple of years but today I've fallen off whatever the depressive's equivalent of the wagon is. I'll try to explain it but don't expect anything on the scale of Mark Rice-Oxley's brilliant memoir on the subject Underneath The Lemon Tree. That's all far too coherent and considered. This, as you may have gathered by now, is made up on the spot. Saints are playing tonight, by the way. I want to mention that now because I want this entry to reflect the fact that in the hours leading up to the game that will decide whether they get to the Super League Grand Final or not, I have almost forgotten that I am attending this game. Ordinarily I would have had trouble thinking about anything else. That's because what little energy I haven't devoted to doing my job today has been used up trying to summon the will not to punch anyone full in the fucking face or hit them flush in the nose with a ring binder.

I have a reason for this which obviously I can't discuss lest I be arrested and executed by The Company. But the point is, as fellow depressives will know, that I don't actually need a reason. Some days, probably those days which follow a poor night's sleep in my case, I just sit quietly with a seething fury inside me. It's completely overwhelming. I can't even participate properly in a discussion about where to hold an office Christmas night out without wanting to pick up my own head (if that were possible) and thrash it repeatedly on the desk until someone assures me that it's all over. That I don't need to bother because it's now fucking June. Maybe my depressive tendencies are seasonal. I don't remember feeling like this in July even though I was surrounded by the same people and most, if not all, of the same problems. Like I said though, I've made great strides. But that thing that is unique to September at work. Well, I can't mention that. Except to say that if it were a living thing I would kill it. Burn it. Shred it. Shove it up the collective arse of those on high whose idea it was to have the fucking thing in the first place. I have made the point vocally already that I don't want to do this thing, just to get it out there and with absolutely no intention of ever refusing to do it. It's work after all and I need to pay the mortgage. Although I'm sure there are people who would refuse. I'm certain there are, in fact. But I'll say it again on these pages just to get it out there again. Just to confirm it, if you like. I don't want to fucking do it. There. Don't we all feel better?

So this is for you, if you have ever felt like this for no good reason that you know of. Or even if you have a good reason, it's still for you. We are not alone. We are not the mentally weak. Especially since for the most part we get on with it, albeit in my case on the proviso that I can offload it all here heavily disguised in hushed tones and dark, violent metaphors. Sorry it's a bit shorter than your average MOAFH entry but again it's about how I feel and unless you are as good as Rice-Oxley, a lower word count is inevitable when you are writing about how you feel rather than something that actually happened. If you really want to be informed about a depressive state of mind and how to recover from it, read his work.

And anyway This Is A Fucking Rant.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

London Continues

Stevo is talking about the following day's Challenge Cup Final between Leeds Rhinos and Castleford Tigers;

"I think if Daryl (Castleford coach Powell) lets them play they'll give Leeds problems at Wembley." he says.

Ah yes, the wide open spaces of Wembley. One of the truly great sporting myths. It comes from a time during the 80's when Challenge Cup Finals at the old Wembley were played out in a more open style than you see in the modern game. When Wigan beat Hull in '85 nobody seemed to be worried about 'getting through the sets', 'winning the arm wrestle' or my personal favourite...'interfacing at the ruck'. But which do you prefer? An era of open, flowing rugby in which Wigan win everything or an era in which coaches rack their brains to find ways to strangle the game but in which Saints have a reasonable chance of picking up silverware each year? The latter for me. The former was just too Hellish.

Stevo seems genuinely disappointed when we tell him that we are not going to Wembley tomorrow. I explain to him that we don't book early in case Saints don't make it (which of course, they haven't) and we end up watching 'that lot from over the lump'. He laughs, but he gives me a look that suggests I'm being a bit harsh which is rich coming from a man whose job is to upset everyone who doesn't support Leeds. I want to stop for a while longer and ask him how he comes to the conclusion that the club that has topped the Super League for most of the season (and would go on to win the Sky devalued league leaders shield) is in crisis. But there's lots more to do down here in The Smoke. Stevo was never part of the plan.

We head on down towards Trafalgar Square from Whitehall, past the Queen's Horse Guards. The horses are particularly skittish today but then you might be if you had to spend your days surrounded by tourists who just stare at you expectantly. You'd probably be thinking 'I'm a horse, what do you want?'. On board these impressive beasts are the fabulously over-attired guards who, like those at the palace, seem to be employed for their ability to remain utterly motionless in the face of persistent annoyance. We stay a while but we can't get a clear view of 10 Downing Street. The road itself is cut off from the public and watched over at all times by policemen. Who would have thought that David Cameron would need such high security? As if anyone would want to lob half a brick down the street at his putrid little bonce. Anyway, the result of all this police presence is that even the famous door to the Prime Minister's home is not visible from where we are.

We carry on down towards Trafalgar Square and it is only a few minutes until we arrive at Nelson's Column. It's so tall that it is impossible to get a photograph that features both the Column and a five foot nothing biff. Not helping is the fact that there is a road going right around the square so you can only step so far back to try and get everything into shot. Nevertheless it is another brilliantly iconic monument. It is over 51 metres tall and almost 175 years old. At its base are four huge stone lions of the kind that used to frighten me when I was a kid. I've got issues around lions, even stone ones. I have a recurring dream about mammoth-sized lions roaming free in local parks. It's only the males. It must be something about the mane, the magnificence of it all which awes me a little. Yet I have no problem seeing them at the zoo or at Safari Parks. They're quite beautiful so long as there is an excessively large fence between us.

Next it was on to the London Eye. The Tourist Attraction Formerly Known As The Millennium Wheel. It's a long push over to the other side of the river and we have to cross at a bridge some distance away due to a broken lift by the Millennium Bridge. Still, it's a nice day so it is a pleasant enough journey. We are greeted at The Eye by queues. Lots and lots of queues. It's like an X-Factor audition except those patiently waiting are hoping for some eye-catching views of the capital as opposed to the opportunity to prove to the world that they sound like a particularly cack-handed schoolboy scraping a pair of scissors down a blackboard. The levels of delusion which feed that show's very existence are a grave concern for me. It's one thing to have a go at the karaoke at the local, and quite another to whail your way to inevitable disappointment in front of millions of people with nothing better to do on a Saturdy night.

Happily we managed to skip most of the queuing. Staff opened gates, unhooked ropes and cleared pathways as several thousand irate tourists looked on. This is where people's utter lack of respect for the disabled comes in handy. The kind of people who think that using a wheelchair makes you deserving of their pity aren't going to complain when you are fast-tracked past them to the London Eye. I have yet to see anyone vocally take issue with my staff-assisted queue jumping racket. They just stand there thinking 'aw, yeah let him go first'. Morons. Still, as I have always said, if you are going to deal with the shit that disability throws at you then make sure you take the perks. I resist the temptation to wave at anyone on the way past.

The Eye itself is majestic. I knew that the capsules were much bigger than those on the versions at either Sheffield or Berlin but it really does feel like you are in a small room. A small room which just happens to be crawling around the circumference of a 440ft wheel. Curiously it never stops, except to let me on with my wheelchair. Most people are expected to step on board while it continues to move, albeit at the kind of pace that would have your average slug tapping his watch impatiently. It almost stops, but it never does. The only fault I can find with it is that it is maybe a little overcrowded which obstructs my views at times. Nevertheless we get some dizzying looks at the Tower of London, Wembley Stadium, St Paul's Cathedral and the Shard amongst many others. The Shard is somewhat ubiquitous the whole weekend. Every street we turn down we seem to be able to see some or all of The Shard. It takes about 30-45 minutes to get back to the bottom of the eye to disembark and at £29 for the two of us we had little to complain about in terms of value. Which is a shame because this column is at its best when it is complaining about something.

Included in that price is the London Eye River Cruise along the Thames. This again is a quality experience, far better than those we have had elsewhere. We have access to both decks of the boat and, get this, we can even hear the commentary fromoura very knowledgable guide. She spends a little too much time telling people off for standing up on the top deck (which we have decided to stay on for a bit of air) but she makes up for that by pointing out everything from the many and varied bridges which cross the Thames (and the stories behind them) to the headquarters of sinister but comic London Mayor Boris Johnson, the ITV Studios, Westminster Abbey, The Houses of Parliament and, of course, the ever present Shard.

The evening is spent in Leicester Square taking on some liquid refreshment. Towards the end of the night we run into several gentlemen hailing from the borough of Wigan. Or pie eaters, as they are more commonly known. They torture me by trying to force a Wigan flatcap on to my head. I'm drunk, but I've never been that drunk. One of the men tells me that he has not missed a Challenge Cup Final in 35 years, proving that the tales of Wiganers and their obsession with the greatest game is not just a story. Paul used to tell me that some of the disabled fans at Central Park must have stayed there for a fortnight watching the grass grow in between games because no matter what time he got to a game they were always there in the best spaces. This was long before common sense prevailed and they started letting us purchase season tickets. Or indeed any kind of tickets. What they haven't worked out yet is to make it possible for you, as a wheelchair using season ticket holder, to go to the game with another wheelchair user and be able to sit together. Or indeed for anyone else other than your chosen companion to be able to sit with you. How did this blog turn into a complaint about disabled access at sports stadia. I told you I was good at complaining.

Next time, we aimlessly hunt down an inaccessible pub, drink off lemonade in a branch of Bella Italia and pop round for a brew with the Queen at Buckingham Palace.

Monday, 22 September 2014

London Calling

Today would have been my mate Paul's 41st birthday. Because of that it seems appropriate to write something. Not necessarily about Paul, but just something. Something I can look back on in six months from now and know that I marked the occasion by doing something I enjoy doing and should do more of. I think he'd like that. Whether he would think I should do more of it is another debate.

I've had an odd sort of day. Work is work and I'm not allowed to write about it anyway, but it was just one of those days when I spent much of my time talking to the backs of people's heads while they consistently failed to respond. Part of that is due to my almost soundproof barrier of a desk, and the rest is either because my colleagues are ignorant or because I have nothing interesting to say out loud. Which is possibly why I write.

So anyway let's talk about London. Having spent much of my time dismissively referring to it as England's toilet I have changed my view completely. I hadn't experienced it properly before. My previous experiences amounted to the odd basketball game in Hackney or wherever and a few trips to Wembley to see Saints. With varying degrees of enjoyment. For every Goulding-inspired Ultimate Comeback of '96 there is a 27-0 thrashing by Wigan of '89 to look back on. During the latter, Saints played very much like you might imagine Blackbrook Under 10's would have done against Ellery Hanley and company. It wasn't pretty. Which made the joy of Bobby's bombs and Nathan Graham's generosity in repeatedly dropping them seven years later all the more enjoyable. Before Super League, success for Saints was about as frequent as a referendum on Scottish Independence.

Refreshingly, my enjoyment of a weekend in London with Emma did not depend on the fortunes of an incredibly unreliable rugby league team this time. We drove down on the Thursday before the August Bank Holiday. We weren't doing this on the cheap. I'm not sure it is possible to do London on the cheap, not if you have access needs. But also we wanted to stay somewhere that would give us reasonable access to the Jubilee Line. Only certain stations are accessible so you have to do a bit of research. To be fair, Emma did the research. She's very good at that. Left to me we'd be staying in the first hotel to show up on a google search. In the event we stayed in the Marriott at Canary Wharf. It is conveniently located very close to a row of bars and restaurants so the first night was spent getting a feel for what was around. After a couple of drinks in The Slug & Lettuce and The Cat And Canary (we passed on the Dog And Bollock) we ate at La Tasca. You might think that such a Johnny-Come-Lately, bandwagon-jumping organisation would be all kitted out with disabled access but I regret to report that when it was time to spend the proverbial penny I had to be led out to a restaurant three doors down because the disabled toilet in La Tasca wasn't working. Or maybe it didn't even exist. I think it did exist but either way if it is not usable then it may as well not exist. Like a Manchester United defender. The whole thing was massively undignified and it did nothing to change the negative view of London that I had lazily held until then. A friend of mine had messaged me earlier in the afternoon to let me know that his cousin has a bar in the same area. Henry's Bar. I should maybe have taken his advice and paid them a visit instead. Thankfully the La Tasca episode was not a sign of things to come.

On Friday morning we were booked in for a tour of the Houses Of Parliament. The route from the Marriott to the underground station at Canary Wharf is not a particularly long one but it is littered with dizzying twists and turns, making it impossible to find your way from one to the other without making at least one navigational mistake. We made several over the course of the weekend and we cut this first journey pretty fine as a result. We were due to start our tour at 9.20am and the advice is to get there 20 minutes before your tour starts. We failed to do this, especially since we had to pass through the kind of security that would make New York's JFK Airport's look like the border between England and Scotland now that Mr Salmond's bid for freedom has hit the buffers. Fortunately the tour had not begun by the time we had finished being checked over by armed policemen and passed through security doors which don't let you through until a painfully slow door has shut behind you. I remember being a little awed when we moved through towards the accessible exit at Westminster and caught a glimpse of either Westminster Abbey or the House itself. Last time I felt that way when seeing such an iconic building with my own eyes was when my dad first took me to Wembley in '87. We lost that day too. Oddly, I didn't feel quite the same way about the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State buildings. Not when I first caught sight of them, impressive though they are.

There is one part of the tour that is not accessible. Our guide explained this to us before we started but again we were already armed with that knowledge thanks to Emma's research. St Stephen's Hall used to be the site of the House of Commons until a fire in 1834. I'm really glad that it isn't now because it is this part of the tour that I wasn't able to see. Our guide had just finished explaining that we would be taken down a different route to meet the others in the group once they had finished at St Stephen's. I remember thinking it ironic that Stephen did not have access to St Stephen's Hall. Not even 180 years after it was rebuilt following a fire. I didn't dwell on this unhappy coincidence for long. My attention soon turned to our guide again who was instructing a member of her staff to 'come and get my wheelchair' when the group arrived at St Stephen's.

Her wheelchair? Where was her wheelchair and why wasn't she telling her staff to come and get the gentleman using a wheelchair, HIS wheelchair? Later, when we arrived at the House of Lords and she waxed lyrical about it and how the system isn't broke so why fix it I wanted to ask whether someone could come and get my elitist bag of a guide and replace her with a much younger, less prune-faced member of the parliamentary staff. By the way did you know that when you see an elderly, overweight Lord slumped into his chair in the house it is because he is trying to listen to the reading of the bills through the speaker in the back of the seat and not because he's grabbing a cheeky Friday afternoon nap? I know. I was skeptical too.....

In the Members' Lobby there is a terrifying sight. The Members' Lobby is used by MP's when they are not busy filling in bogus expenses forms or engaging in sexual activity with fruit. It's a place to congregate for discussion. It houses a number of statues of former Prime Ministers and there, at one side of the room, looking down on you and pointing as if to once again give the order to destroy industry, start a vote-winning war, sell off every playing field in sight and take milk away from schoolchildren is Mrs Thatcher. I had a passing fantasy about beheading the statue there and then. Only my respect for an historic institution, the fact that the building was swarming with armed police and the fact that I haven't done anything illegal since I recorded the top 40 on Radio 1 in 1982 persuaded me to let it pass. We're shut of her now anyway. Dragon. Also represented in statues here are Winston Churchill, David Lloyd George and Clement Attlee.

The House of Commons itself is surprisingly small. Six hundred and fifty members were elected at the 2010 General Election and there isn't room in the house for many more than 400. It's pretty much first come, first served at Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday lunchtime. Those not in listen from outside if they wish but what is more likely is that they find a television. Probably in the pub around the corner. The House's green seating and speaker's chair are as iconic to me as the outside of the building, Big Ben and all. I must confess though that a combination of work commitments and a growing disaffection with all political parties and the system itself mean that I haven't seen it for a while. You don't really feel part of the political process if you've had to vote in a Tory defector to New Labour who then proceeds to do whatever the Whips tell him to for the sake of his career. All without a second thought for the actual wishes of his constituents. They could put Peter Sutcliffe up as their candidate for election and I'd still vote Labour. Perhaps I'm at fault but the system is hugely flawed.

In the corridors behind the House of Commons is Hansard, a painstakingly accurate record of everything ever debated in the House. Our guide then told us about the aforementioned pub, where MP's go for their swift halves or sherries. Seeking a bit of history, we paid a visit but before I tell you about that I should mention the Queen's Robing Room. It is here in this slightly wilting, decoration requiring and small space that Her Maj prepares for the State Opening of Parliament. As a committed republican I'm not that taken with the idea of being in a room frequently occupied by our long-reigning monarch, but if we're going to have a royal family then the least they can do is continue to uphold English traditions. The State Opening qualifies. Apparently they stopped chopping off their spouses' heads some time ago.

And so to the pub we learned about by Hansard. The Red Lion is just a few streets away. The sense of history is palpable. Any politician, Cabinet Minister or Prime Minister you care to name has probably been here for a pint. Probably not Thatcher, actually. Fun Loathing Criminal Thatcher. As we entered there was a man with a familiarly flabby gut and bald pate stood talking on his mobile phone. No, not me. It's Stevo. No, still not me. Mike 'Stevo' Stephenson, Sky Sports' rugby league summariser and champion of the mythical momentum rule. I remember meeting him once before at Wigan. I was there with Paul. He would have had something to say as Stevo and I briefly discussed the following day's Challenge Cup Final between Leeds Rhinos and Castleford Tigers. Some kid, somewhere was going to have his own first experience of a newer Wembley, which seems a reasonable place to stop.....

Tuesday, 19 August 2014


And so I find myself doing this again. To pay tribute first and foremost, but also I suppose to get it off my chest because it is another shocking , unfathomable loss for those who knew him.

On Sunday we lost Martin. I’d known Martin since we were about 13 years old, some 25 years. We met through playing wheelchair basketball. I’m not going to lie and say we were best friends. My policy of never answering my phone to anyone made life very difficult in that regard. He lived quite a long way away, but we had enough text and Facebook communication to make sure we met up fairly regularly long after we had both given up on active sport.

Imagine my shock then as I idly logged on to Facebook from my phone on Sunday night to see pictures of him plastered all over the place, accompanied by messages of condolence. On Saturday afternoon I wrote a typically glib status from my anti-Man United repertoire about Gary Neville crying. Martin ‘liked’ that status. So he was alive and well then, yet just 24 hours later his picture was all over my timeline along with RIP’s and tributes. I can’t even find the right words to describe that. I’d need all day to study the thesaurus. It was just completely unbelievable. At times like that you wonder about whether social media is such a good thing. Before Facebook I might have got a phone call from a mutual friend to break this to me gently. Now you get an instant, sharp shock shared by hundreds. All of them mean well. I even posted the news myself so that any of my friends who knew him would be aware. In the old days you would have had to ring around which is a difficult thing to do with news like that. But Facebook is just not a very subtle, gentle way of letting people know that the worst has happened.

I don’t know how it happened. All I know is that he was found in his flat by his sister. Can you imagine that? My thoughts are with her especially at the moment because that must have been an indescribably horrific experience. The only clue I have about how all of this might have come about is that I know Martin was due to go into hospital for surgery this weekend. He was vague about it because I think it was quite personal, but what was clear is that he was frightened. Which was not like him. He’d been in and out of hospital a lot, and sometimes even pestered them to run more tests if he didn’t feel quite right, all the while being assured that he didn’t have this or he didn’t have that. If he was genuinely afraid then it suggests something was seriously amiss, although at this point I just don’t know. There could be any number of other reasons for his death and I would not like to speculate too much.

So let’s focus on his life. If I’m looking for a Martin anecdote I should look no further than his relationship with my beloved St Helens RLFC. I managed somehow to get him into Saints even though he was a scouser and a couple of games he attended will live long in the memory. The first was at Wembley in 1997 when we won the Challenge Cup for the second consecutive year against the Bradford Bulls. At the old Wembley wheelchair users were led to their seats through the gate underneath the steps and the royal box. As we made the journey he caught sight of Shola Ama, a much forgotten singer who had a couple of hits in the 90’s and who was due to perform before the kick-off. Or maybe at half-time. Either way, all I remember is Martin freewheeling after her and loudly (and drunkenly) making one or two impolite requests.

Yet the crowning glory of his Saints-watching career was at Knowsley Road one Good Friday for a traditional Saints-Wigan derby. Martin, Paul and myself had been drinking heavily all day and when the time came for him to get his train back to Seaforth he was in no fit state. The story goes that he was refused permission to get on a train and so attempted to push back home down the East Lancashire Road. Unfortunately if not surprisingly he then at some point was struck by a car and landed himself in hospital. The doctors told him he had been lucky to escape with only minor injuries and it wasn’t until a few weeks later that the blundering quacks managed to figure out that he had in fact broken his arm. Sadly, this experience put Martin off travelling to St Helens for matches, or at least from travelling back in a state of intoxication so we didn’t share too many games together after that. Yet he remained a Saint nonetheless, travelling down to a pub near to where I live in 2006 to join Emma and I for Saints’ Grand Final win over Hull FC. It remains the last Grand Final we have won. The last time I visited his flat he had a framed shirt on the wall belonging to former Saints star James Graham. I have no idea how he blagged his way into getting hold of that but I’m guessing it involved the same fearlessness that he’d used to get a bit closer to Shola Ama at Wembley.

Until his health started to concern him Martin always worked as hard as he played. While I was still pissing my benefit away on lager and waiting around pointlessly for another weekend to begin, Martin was earning his crust at Merseytravel. In a climate in which so many people shy away from work with their dodgy backs you have to have a great deal of respect for that. He was generous with it, always inviting the boys round for the weekend and helping you out if you were short of a few quid while he was, at that stage, a little more flush. Paul and I used to spend a lot of time with him and it wasn’t all plain sailing all of the time. Like all of us he could sometimes be hard work. If he had drunk too much it was difficult to get him home whether Shola Ama was around or not, but then you could say the same about any of us. I remember one memorable occasion in another friend’s flat when a half naked Martin decided to climb on top of Paul who responded by hitting him with a teapot.

It seems somehow unjust to look back on those times now and realise that I am the only one of the three of us still around. It’s hard to get your head around. How many more people will we lose? Will I last the pace? You can’t help but wonder about your own mortality when you lose people of a similar age with similar disabilities, albeit in the knowledge that everyone is different and some people just get dealt a shitty hand.

Martin certainly has had that, ultimately. But I’ll never forget him or the stupid things we did and I just hope others remember him as the generous, fun-loving, loyal pain in the arse that I knew. That's loyal, not royal.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Rain, Rocky And Turd Tiramisu

More rain. Friday’s weather is rank. Drearier than a Vince Vaughan DVD box-set. We’ve been here almost a week and we still haven’t done any of New York’s three biggies. Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, Rockefeller Centre. They’re all out in this weather. You don’t want to go up there on anything but a clear day unless you really have to. The views would be decidedly underwhelming under these dark skies.

On a day like this the most sensible way of getting around the city looks to be the hop-on, hop-off tour bus. Most major cities now have buses that take you around all of their major sightseeing landmarks with the freedom to get on and off whenever and wherever you like along a pre-determined route. Serving its role as the access police this column should point out that the versions in Stratford-Upon-Avon and Los Angeles are inaccessible. Happily there are no such problems here, so the plain is to ride down to Wall Street and the financial district, hoping that the weather improves enough to take a peek at the Brooklyn Bridge.

Tour bus tickets are sold aggressively in New York. There’s an agent seemingly on every corner and they seem a pretty determined bunch. They have the persistence of Scrat from Ice Age, chasing that stupid acorn all across the frozen lands. But it's a means to an end rather than a permanent demeanour. The one we encounter drops that act as soon as she gets our attention, opting instead for the air of someone who has done us a monumental favour. She was garbling on about
doing us a deal on the Brooklyn route and the uptown route but we don’t want either. We leave her to her self-satisfaction and trudge over to join the queue at the nearest stop, just across the street. Waterproof ponchos are the order of the day. There’s barely a single person in the queue without one. Well, there is. There’s us. But as
it turns out we have the least need for precipitation protection garments. Another aggressive agent tells me to jump straight to the front of the queue, assuring me that we’ll be on the next bus. I have no qualms about playing the disability card in this situation. I don’t throw my hands up and protest about how I want to be treated equally or
else I’m going to chain myself to a fence. Disability is a turd flavoured tiramisu, so take the perks.

The pendulum swings again when we get on the bus. I don’t know how old this bus is but it has not been designed to withstand this kind of soaking. The floor resembles that of your average gents toilet as great puddles of water decorate the surface. There’s only a very small area of accessible seating (see what I mean about the pendulum and taking the perks?) and Emma finds out just too late that the seat closest to where I am positioned is soaked right through. Her mood
matches the weather for the majority of the bus’s slow crawl through the heavy New York traffic, but it’s understandable.

It takes the best part of an hour but by the time we reach the financial district the weather has improved considerably. The sun is out and things are quickly drying up. The streets are unexpectedly and inconveniently cobbled. We wander (and in my case judder) through the financial district which is not as plush and polished as I had imagined but you get a real sense that something important goes on around here. We pass the New York stock exchange and I'm again surprised that there aren't that many people walking around on the street outside wearing sharp suits and carrying possibly empty brief cases. Maybe they are all inside shouting about money that doesn't exist. If you believe what you see on terrible Hollywood biopics then maybe they are all out engaging in various methods of crass and humourless debauchery. Or maybe there is more truth in the far superior Wall Street films and they are all out preaching that greed is good. Either way it is quieter than I had expected.

We pass on through the picturesque harbour area, stopping for the obligatory photo opportunities. We can see the Brooklyn Bridge from this vantage point so it is suprising that it takes around another 20 minutes or so to get to it. It's hot and uphill for most of the way. I'm starting to flag but I'm not going to stop here. I eventually make it around three quarters of the way across the bridge but it's a painful, mostly uphill slog. My shoulders are screaming at me. It's fair to say my fitness is not what it was when I was masquerading as an athlete all those years ago. I stop for a short rest at the first of the bridge's giant arches before carrying on to the second. One or two more and I'm probably in Brooklyn but the view is pretty good from here. I can see the Statue of Liberty in the distance. It's a tiny dot from this far away but I can clearly make out the green of the world's most famous torch and tablet carrier from across the Hudson. That clump of land underneath it must be Liberty Island, then. If we can manage a reliably clear day before we fly home then we will get to see it from much closer quarters. The weather forecast is much better for tomorrow. It's getting late and so taking the tour bus back is not really an option. We have another visit to the theatre tonight and the endless fight through the traffic will make us late. So, having learned the lessons of yesterday's fiasco, we take the subway. The closest station to our current location is inaccessible, naturally, so we amble up to the next one in the heat with my back and shoulders burning more from over-use than from the hot sunshine. I complain when it rains, I complain when the sun shines.

After tea it's off to Winter Gardens on Broadway for the main event of the evening. Rocky The Musical. Pardon the punnage. Is punnage a word? The beer is slightly more expensive than even in the Lunt Fontanne, but that is my only complaint about a splendid evening. Unfathomably, Rocky The Musical is closing shortly. If I remember rightly this is due to mixed reviews. I'm not sure anything should close down due to mixed reviews, particularly not anything this good. After all, reviews are only the opinion of writers and many writers, regular readers may have noticed, are noticably more entertaining when they are being negative. It's just easier to entertain that way. Nobody reads Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard because they want to know about how happy I am and what a fantastic day I have had and how good Rihanna
is. They read because they want anecdotes about the ignorance of the able bodied population, and comparisons between desserts and human waste. If they read, that is.

For me the only slight disappointment is the music. The famous Rocky theme is used liberally and there's a welcome outing of Eye Of The Tiger, but if you ever do get a chance to see it don't go in expecting Hearts On Fire and No Easy Way Out, and that spectacular training montage piece so beloved of television producers in the 1990's. That said, the music holds it's own but it is the performance of Andy Karl in the role made famous by Sylvester Stallone that really stands out. The actor playing Paulie, Rocky's loud-mouthed and obnoxious brother-in-law, is too tall and too hairy to evoke memories of Burt Young's epic turn, but his is a solid performance too. The climactic fight scene is astonishing as the boxing ring slowly juts out towards the audience as those in the first several rows leave their seats to take up new ones on the other side of the ring to create what looks like an authentic boxing arena. Specifially the Philadelphia Spectrum. Then there are the ring entrances. The actors playing Rocky and Apollo Creed enter from the back of the theatre, walking down the aisles right in amongst the audience at the front of the newly positioned ring. The fight itself is clearly coreographed but not lacking in excitement for all of that. The whole thing is just brilliantly done and indescribably enthralling. Or maybe you have to be a Rocky fan like me.

I can tell you it was Emma's favourite part of the whole holiday.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

New York - Ball Of Confusion

The way to combat the lack of low seating in the watering holes of New York City is to find something else to do in the evening other than drink. As drastic as that may seem, it is the only sensible course of action.

With this in mind we visit the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on 46th Street on Thursday morning to see if we can get tickets for a show. We notice this theatre in particular because they are advertising their Motown musical in garish colours all over the outside of the building. I love all things Motown and have done from an early age. When we were kids Helen and I got into trouble for getting on the train to Liverpool without permission but it was worth the trip just for the fact that we came back with an album of 40 Michael Jackson songs from the Motown era. The Michael Jackson Mix, I think it was called. Old enough so that there was not a shamo in sight. I might not have spelled shamo correctly, to be fair. I never watched much of Bo Selecta. As someone wise once said, that lad hasn’t got enough material to make an advert. Ironic then that I’m quoting him in an attempt at humour in my own work.

Our luck is in this morning and we pay $59 apiece for the tickets. In the queue in front of us I hear a woman loudly telling her companion that she moved to New York from Philadelphia because Philadelphia is too violent. This strikes me as the very definition of moving between a rock and a hard place. Frying pans and fires spring readily to mind. I’m just glad that I hadn’t learned this little nugget of wisdom before our trip to Pennsylvania yesterday. It’s bad enough not knowing where you are going in an unfamiliar city without having to contemplate the possibility of getting shot to shit.

Breakfast had been an expensive and sickly affair at a place called The Blue Fin on Broadway opposite The Winter Gardens. We’ll be seeing the inside of that place tomorrow (Friday) when we see the much anticipated (and since unfathomably cancelled) Rocky musical. Emma had french toast that made her feel sick, and another hugely unreasonable bill was enough to turn anyone’s stomach. A long walk was planned for this morning and was now very definitely in order. We headed out down towards the Flatiron Building on 5th Avenue. Built in 1902 it is so named because its wedge shaping is similar to that of a clothes iron. It’s the centrepiece of the Flatiron District and is one of the most iconic and recognisable buildings in the city. We don’t go inside. The fascination is all in the curious looking exterior.

We want to find Little Italy. In two days time England will kick-off their World Cup campaign against Italy in the Amazonian city of Manaus, Brazil. I have this idea that watching it among a packed crowd of stressing, gesticulating Italians might be fun. A good atmosphere. Good atmospheres have been lost in the field of watching football at pubs in recent years. Remember Sol Campbell’s disallowed goal against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup? The Springy was packed, pints and tables flying all over the joint as Campbell illegally rose to nod England into the quarter-finals. Or so he thought. I’m not sure who was the slowest to realise that the referee had disallowed the goal. Campbell, or the hordes of people crammed into The Springy. What I do know is that we all got wet. Since then The Springy’s decline seems to have had a direct correlation with the increase in apathy among the general public towards the England team. Most of the time fans complain that England games get in the way of their preciously pulsating mid-table squabbles. Then every two years those same fans scream blue murder when another tepid England performance culminates in an early flight home.

We travel for about 45 minutes down 5th Avenue and stop for a drink and what tennis players call a comfort break at a Pret A Manger. That’s one of the pitfalls of moving fairly aimlessly down New York’s main avenues when you have mobility problems. It’s not easy to find places for comfort breaks so you end up going into places you wouldn’t normally bother with. Once, in Salou, I visited a hotel every evening solely for the purpose of spending a penny because the access in all the bars was so sub-standard. The pubs around New York with their high chairs aren’t open yet anyway. It’s another hour until our map starts to suggest that we might be getting within range of Little Italy. We pass through the varyingly beautiful surroundings of Union Square and Washington Square Park and are randomly spoken at by a local man bemoaning the cost of home owning in the area. The houses don’t look anything special but it’s pretty scenic in this neck of the woods. You can imagine it is not cheap to live here. Later in the week we would meet a bus tour guide who openly expresses his outrage that high taxation is driving rich people out of the area. If rich people left the area where I live because of high taxation I’d wave them goodbye. I don’t want to sound too much like one of Harry Enfield’s Self Righteous Brothers but if that Gary Barlow came around here….telling me Love Ain’t Here Anymore I’d…….

Enough. We turn left off 5th Avenue and find ourselves in the part of town where the streets have names , not numbers. It would be much easier to get lost here. Finally we turn down Mulberry Street and we’re where we want to be, in the heart of Little Italy. The idea is a scouting mission for suitable England-watching venues but it’s not long before we are coaxed off the streets and into a café bar by a pushy bar owner. Two hours pushing around in the heat has worked up a thirst so we order a couple of beers and enjoy the rest. We ask about the football and he points to an underwhelmingly small television set in the back of the dining area. This is not Sol Campbell in 1998 material, even though the bar owner assures us that they will be showing the match. The fact that our Englishness hasn’t provoked him into any Anglo-Italian banter ahead of the game at the weekend serves as further evidence that this is not the place to be for it.

We move along Mulberry Street and I spot another bar which looks a little more like the sort of thing I’m looking for. But again access looks dubious at best. I keep it in mind without exploring further at this stage. We’ve covered miles and we need to get back in plenty of time for our night at the Lunt-Fontanne. We go into the nearest accessible subway station and are again bemused by the numbers, letters, gates, booths and platforms therein. A train comes along which we think might take us back up towards Times Square but we’re a little uncertain. Eventually we decide to take it so Emma takes a step forward to board. I try to follow on behind but the step up from the platform is just that little bit too high. But Emma hasn’t noticed. She turns around from inside the train and gestures for me to get on and just as I’m about to explain that I might need a push the doors close.

The next thing I see is the train pull away with Emma on board. Amid the mild panic there are nothing but 'What The Fuck?' gestures as the train trundles away. On the night we are heading for a slice of Motown, it's a Ball Of Confusion.

Had it not been for the incredibly fortuitous fact that my phone has available text credit this situation would be right up there with the LA to San Diego petrol debacle of 2011. Then, we hung around on the freeway helplessly like two dead cert victims from an episode of Criminal Minds until with the last shred of battery from Emma’s phone I was able to call 911 to get assistance. Having available text credit is by no means a certainty for me these days. My phone is an infuriatingly inconsistent entity which, whether I top up by the required amount to trigger my free texts or not, could leave me without communications at any time. Often it claims that there is not enough storage space to receive texts and I have to spend minutes of my life that I will not get back deleting data from apps that I never use. So I’m lucky on this occasion. I text Emma to find that she is at the next stop and I tell her I will try to get on the next train. Even that isn’t straightforward, and I have to be helped on by a random girl who sees my frustrated attempts to haul myself on from the platform. These two trains are the only two that I have any trouble boarding the whole time we are in New York, accessible platforms permitting. I think they call that Sod's Law.

While Emma rests I watch the Brazil beat Croatia 3-1 in the opening game of the World Cup thanks largely to the most dubious refereeing decision since W G Grace refused to leave the field having been clean bowled. Grace told his conqueror that the crowd had come to see him bat, not the bowler bowl. Brazilian striker Fred would struggle to make the same argument if questioned about the scandalous penalty he is awarded which turns the game in the hosts' favour. When we get to the Lunt-Fontanne there is a queue outside but it is not long before we are ushered in. I notice a sign that says that table service is available for wheelchair users. However, none of the staff appear to have seen the sign. I ask the lady who shows us to our seats and she looks at me like I have asked her to perform sexual favours. We’ll be getting our own beer. If the prices in the restaurants so far have been steep, the price of a beer in the Lunt-Fontanne is terrifying. Thirteen dollars buys you a Bud Light, but you get to keep the container. Refreshingly, they do at least have a low service area for wheelchair users so there isn’t any queuing involved when I go back during the interval. And I do, despite the price.

The show itself is a bloody marvel. It’s basically Berry Gordy’s story. Inspired by a radio broadcast of Joe Louis winning the heavyweight championship of the world in the late 1930’s Gordy borrowed some dough from his sister and set out to prove that a black man could be a success in the music business in America. Aswell as Gordy all the other famous Motown players are here from Smokey Robinson to The Supremes, to Marvin Gaye and The Temptations. The young lad playing Michael Jackson turns in a quite astonishing performance, albeit a little too fleeting for my liking. But this is very much Gordy’s story and centres heavily on his relationship with Diana Ross and the eventual ship-jumping that went on as artists fought to take their careers in a different musical direction. The story of Mary Wells is particularly unfortunate. The 'My Guy' singer left the Motown label for a better offer financially and faded into obscurity before dying of cancer before her 50th birthday. Sad stories notwithstanding, musically the show is sublime. Helen would love it.

During the interval the man sitting in the next wheelchair bay comes over to speak to me. This happens a lot on holiday. In Portugal it was Brendan, the Irish gentleman on the beach who along with his wife Gill managed to bump into us on several occasions. We had alerted them to the fact that there were free loungers to be had in the area of the beach we were in. I suppose other wheelchair users feel a connection, particularly in a foreign country where we’re all fighting against the same absurd access issues. Tonight’s kindred spirit is from Germany and he waxes lyrical about his love for Motown and musicals in general. It will be our only meeting, however, as he is setting sail for Folkestone tomorrow. It will take eight days to get there before he then flies on home to Hamburg. Rather him than me. Say what you like about American Airlines (and I do) but at least they will get me home in a matter of hours once I’m on board. The risk of wetting myself is worth taking for a swifter end to my journey. Eight days on a ship does not really appeal too much.

Not if it is going to Folkestone.

Saturday, 5 July 2014


What's the best film ever set in Philadelphia?

The city itself is the title of one contender. I haven't sat through it myself but if Tom Hanks can win an Oscar in the lead role then Philadelphia must have some merit. I could make a strong case for Silver Linings Playbook which, were it not for the fact that its main protagonists played by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are stark staring bonkers, might otherwise be an ordinary rom-com. It is much more than that. It's a modern classic which I heartily recommend you watch if you haven't already.

But even that isn't the best. As we all know the best film ever to be set in the city of Philadelphia is Rocky. Not the fun but hysterically bloated sequels but the 1977 Best Picture winning original. Do you remember the scene where Rocky is on a training run around the city and all the children chase after him? It ends with him climbing the steps to City Hall (except it's not, more on which later) at which point there is much jumping up and down and air-punching. Right there is where I'm going today. We're going to Philadelphia.

We're risking life and limb again by taking yet another form of New York public transport. Following our travails with the subway we're going to dabble in the use of the regular rail system. Penn Station sits between 31st and 34th Street between 7th and 8th Avenue and, though the trains which leave from it are not subway trains, it is based solely underground. It sits underground because above the ground on that particular patch of land you will find Madison Square Garden. Madison Square Garden is not in Madison Square. It has been moved around New York several times but it seems that the owners just liked the name and wanted to keep it. Maybe they recognised its value as a brand but as noble as that would be it strikes me as very old fashioned to hang on to a name for that reason. Stadia don't have names like Petco Park, Met Life Stadium, The Etihad and The Emirates because they're recognisable and iconic. And that's not a cynical suggestion.

As is the way of things we have to carry on down to 31st Street to find the accessible entrance, and do so after initially getting into the wrong lift at 33rd Street. However, and brace yourself because I am about so say something positive about access in New York, the Amtrak rail company is several worlds better than those I have experienced in the UK. It takes a while to wade through the queue to buy the very expensive tickets ($98 or around £60 return per person) but once we have done that we find that there is a designated area for passengers who require assistance boarding the train. We are met by someone who leads us through several corridors via multiple lifts but within a few minutes we are right next to our train. I could board this by myself because the platform, unlike most in the UK, is at a sensible height in relation to the train. However, I decide it is more polite to wait for our assistant to get the 'bridge' for me. The bridge is basically a very small ramp which helps smooth out the path on to the train. Some wheelchair users might be glad of it but a lot would be able to do without. Either way it is a far cry from home, where you get left on the train and end up in Waterloo and they send you a £1 voucher by way of apology. You also get free Wifi on board an Amtrak train which allows me to annoy everyone by announcing my whereabouts and my destination on Facebook.

The journey to Market Street Station in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania takes around 90 minutes. We arrive around 11.00am and are directed by an unusually polite customer service person towards the city centre. It's a long walk before we reach civilisation. Having skipped breakfast to make sure that we got to the station on time the first priority is to find somewhere to eat. For what seems like miles but in reality is probably about 20 blocks there is very little except 7-11s and pizza places. A man stops me in the street and tells me to never give up. I'm not sure if he is talking about my quest for food but I ask him for some advice on the matter anyway. He says something about great beef steaks or something somewhere or other but even as he is explaining where we might get them I know it isn't my thing. We're looking for a cafe or a pub.

Eventually we find one. In Panero Bread they call your name out when your order is ready. Over a microphone for everyone to hear. And they sell cookies and cakes for 99 cents. The only other thing it is possible to purchase for 99 cents on this trip is a generous slice of pizza. You take the bargains where you can find them. We head back out on to the street and almost by accident come across the main visitors centre. The first thing I notice is a small statue of Rocky, not like the one from the film which we will get to later, but more like how he is on that training run. With that gray jogging suit on that he says brings him luck and which Mickey says brings flies. Then I notice a man dressed in full Founding Fathers get up walking around the centre. He's trying to drum up business for a walking tour of the city. This is something we do in a lot of cities we visit and since we haven't really got a clue where we are going, only an idea that we want to see the Rocky statue, the steps and the Liberty Bell, we decide to join him.

His name is Clark De Leon. That alone makes him a suitable tour guide. We almost get a freebie as he starts telling us the first of a thousand tales of Benjamin Franklin. Unfortunately we're too honest for our own good and so Emma points out that we haven't actually paid yet. It's $19 each, about £11.50. From the moment that Clark discovers that we haven't paid to the moment we receive our tickets he doesn't say another word. Almost as if he is coin operated. No money, no information. Once we are on our way he takes us outside the building and points out the building where the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. Philadelphia is often desribed as the birthplace of America. It was the original capital city before Washington was built and housed all of the important political buildings. Independence Hall is where the Declaration of Independence and the United States Consitution were debated, while just across the square you will find the former residence of George Washington, the first President Of The United States. Congress Hall was the seat of the United States Congress until 1800.

On top of City Hall which is the house of government in the city there is a statue of William Penn. Penn founded the state of Pennsylvania when King Charles II awarded him a huge plot of land west of what is now New Jersey. The statue made City Hall the tallest building in Philadelphia and, according to Clark, it was agreed that no building in the city should ever be taller. This agreement was forgotten about in 1985 with the start of the construction of One Liberty Place, a skyscraper containing offices and a shopping centre. It is said that Penn, who lest we forget had been dead for 267 years by this point, was neverthless so miffed at having his statue usurped that he placed a curse on the city so that none of its sports teams would ever win a national championship. Or a world championship as the more hysterical and insular Americans like to call it. For 23 years after 1985 Philadelphia's sports teams failed miserably to carry off a title until finally, the Phillies won the 2008 baseball World Series. It is said that the curse had been lifted when a group of men working on the 975ft Comcast Center in Philadelphia placed a small figurine of Penn on one of the beams.

All of which seems a likely story. As do several of the tales of Benjamin Franklin with which Clark regales us throughout the tour. One of the original Founding Fathers, Franklin was apparently an inventor and a scientist aswell as a politician and the founder of Philadelphia's fire service and university among many, many other things. Ironically the fire station is currently closed because it burned down a few months before our visit. That wouldn't have happened in Benjamin Franklin's day, you imagine if you listen to Clark for long enough. He just loves the bloke. I doubt today's politicians will enjoy that level of popularity over 200 years after their deaths. If they are not remembered for their infamy then they should be forgotten about altogether. Unless they invent something, maybe.

Now normally there is no place for the church in this column but I should point out that we did enter Christ Church during our walk. This is the place where Penn was baptised and which still, to this day, brainwashes otherwise intelligent adults with the foolhardy notion of creationism. There's a man there who seems to know Clark and he stops for a chat with us. He might be a religious man like a priest or a vicar or something I don't know. I'm too militantly atheist to care. He might just look after the place. Good on him for that if he does because, as much as I dislike religion, rather like the monarchy churches have historical value. Also, amid the God bothering there is one interesting artefact, one of the original bells which rang to signify independence from those pesky Brits. When he learns that we are from England the man is keen to let us know that he is a big Liverpool fan. Clark looks mystified by our brief conversation and even more so when the man turns to him and says that Liverpool has 'the best motto in sports';

"You'll Never Walk Alone" he says proudly.

I'm not sure it is a motto exactly but he's right about its unique significance. Also, I'm charmed by the fact that he can make a reference to walking without feeling the slightest bit guilty or embarrassed about it. And then he loses all credibility as a Liverpool fan by declaring that he loves Sir Alex Ferguson.

"You have to respect what he's done." I admit reluctantly, and he nods as if he agrees that 'respect' might be more appropriate than 'love'.

When we get back to the visitors centre we pass a large queue. Hordes of people are waiting to get a look at the Liberty Bell. After a quick drink in the centre café we join the queue. A woman is loudly and wrongly telling anyone who will listen that Ryan Giggs could have played football for England but chose Wales instead. It's nice to think that we might have been able to avoid all those years of Stewart Downing and Darren Anderton but it's just not true. The Liberty Bell used to hang from Independence Hall and it is widely and perhaps wrongly believed that it too was one of the bells which rang following independence. Perhaps the woman in the queue with the Ryan Giggs story started the rumours about the Liberty Bell too. What we do know is that it was taken down when it was cracked (exactly when and how it was damaged is unclear) and was subsequently adopted as a symbol of freedom by abolitionists in the fight to end slavery. Funny how things turn out. When we reach the front of the queue we are led through a small exhibition detailing the bell's history before reaching the bell itself. It is a small wonder that it has not fallen to pieces completely such is the size of the crack running through it. Yet somehow it survives and attracts millions of visitors worldwide. Most of them in that queue today.

For some reason we believed that the steps made famous in the Rocky films where outside City Hall. They are not, but had we not made this mistake we may not have got a close look at the place. With time running out until our train back to New York we decide to take a bus out to where the real steps are located, the Museum of Art. The museum is also home to the Rocky statue. You might remember its unveiling being rudely interrupted by Mr T, or if not you may recall Rocky throwing his motorcycle helmet at it in anger at some point further along, well after the whole thing had got a little too Thunderlips crazy for my tastes. But I still want to have my photograph taken with it. The bus ride is nervy, not just because of our track record with American public transport, but because I don't know how far it is to the museum and whether we will have enough time to get back for the train at 6.50pm. If we miss that train we will be looking for a hotel.

Fortunately we don't, and I get that photograph with the Rocky statue. Most people of a similar mind are adopting various boxing poses but I don't go in for all that. It's enough to just be in the photo with an iconic cinematic prop. And I look silly enough in photographs without giving it 'Rocky On Wheels'. It's a little less shiny than I remember it from the films. It's old now, I suppose. Across the park is the museum and those famous steps. The statue is on top of the steps in the film, but they have dispensed with that idea here. Presumably they don't want hordes of people standing outside the entrance to the museum posing for photographs with Rocky before buggering off home without learning a single thing about art. Disappointingly, not one person runs up the steps punching the air and pretending to have a stitch. While wearing a fly-infested gray tracksuit.

We still have an hour to get back to the train station so we skip the bus ride and get there by ourselves. We're not completely sure of the way but again the block system helps and we're back in good time. Again the Amtrak staff are absurdly helpful, heaping more shame on Northern Rail as the minutes go by. Knackered but enlightened we stop for a late meal at Pigalle next door to the hotel having ticked off another on the list of American states to visit.

"She turns and says are you alright, oh I must be fine cos my heart's still beating"

If anyone can work out the significance of that they get a free pint......