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.....