Monday, 20 June 2016

London - The Day Before Bruce

I’m in London the day Muhammad Ali dies. Before that, I watch the breaking news of his death at home over breakfast. Tributes pour in. Tony ‘I am Everton’ (what? mediocre?) Bellew even goes as far as to claim that Ali invented sarcasm. This seems a stretch, but there is no doubt about the influence of a man who is widely regarded as the greatest sportsman of the 20th century and who also was one of the leading figures in promoting civil rights during the troubled 1960’s and 70s. The word ‘legend’ is over-used, as is the phrase ‘the word legend is over-used’, both by this writer and the roll-call of slebs who are cold-called by the BBC to offer their thoughts in praise of ‘The Greatest’.

Four hours later we’re in London. After the excesses of the Britannia International last week, Emma has chosen the rather cheaper and more cheerful Tunes Hotel for this weekend’s visit. Like the Britannia International it is in Canary Wharf but is much smaller, has no bar, and we’re not allowed in our room until 3.00pm. We arrived at 12.30pm. I’m not complaining though. It’s a nice enough place and frankly, if Emma didn’t make the decisions about where we stay when we go on our little forays then it just wouldn’t get done. I’m just one of those people who puts things off. I’m currently late completing my application for my blue badge, which runs out in a fortnight and I regularly receive red letters from United Utilities having forgotten to pay the water bill. This particular problem comes from a stubborn refusal to open most of my mail since I developed kidney disease. I don’t want to read any more bad news.

Since we have to fill some time before the room is ready we set off to find Camden Town. We’re in London for Sunday’s Bruce Springsteen concert at Wembley but if you are going to go that kind of distance you are as well to make a weekend of it. There’s a million gazillion things to do in London, which has transformed in my mind’s eye from England’s toilet to one of my favourite cities in the world. Well, at least of those I have been to but they include Adelaide, New York, Toronto, San Diego, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Barcelona, Minneapolis, Orlando, Amsterdam, Brussels and er…..Leeds. London is right up there with any or all of them and if it had a guarantee of good weather it might just top the lot.

We take the DLR (Docklands Light Railway) from just a short walk outside the hotel at West India Quay. This takes us to Stratford, sight of the London 2012 Olympics and now home to Taxpayers FC Bloody West Ham United. We were last here in November for the England v New Zealand rugby league test match, since when the outside of the stadium has been emblazoned with the happy hammers logo. We can see it from the train as we pass. No doubt next time we are here it will have been completely daubed in claret and blue and there’ll be huge scary billboards of Slaven Bilic all over the place. Did you see him jump on to the table in the ITV studio just because one of his happy hammers scored a goal for France? Bilic isn't even French, yet the way he climbed up beside Manu Petit's coffee mug, arms aloft, would suggest that he grew up just down the road from Petit rather than in Croatia. Perhaps he knows there won't be too much to celebrate from Croatia during the Euros so he's living it vicariously through France.

From Stratford we have to get on an overground train and this is where it gets a bit complex. There doesn’t appear to be anywhere to buy tickets. Finding the right platform is a bit of a minefield too, but we get there and talk to the man at the information desk about where we might be able to get tickets. He tells us that they are sold at machines downstairs, which means that Emma has to go back downstairs to get them. There are currently two trains to Camden Road on the platforms, one of which leaves in three minutes and which the man at the desk informs me we are going to miss, and one which leaves in 10 minutes. We’ll have to take that one, he says, because it will take more than three minutes for Emma to get back downstairs and get the tickets. It does. And while she is away a train pulls in and 20 million people get off it and start funnelling down the stairs leading towards her. I got that figure from the same people calculating immigration statistics for the Brexit campaign. It might be a bit high. Still, I don’t know how she finds me in that crowd but she does and we board the train, but not before the officious man at the desk insists on bringing out the ramp. Access on overground trains is as abysmal in London as it is anywhere else, it seems. The step from the platform is doable for me with Emma to help, but had I been on my own I would definitely have needed the ramp. The man insists on making me use it anyway, which delays things a little and I start to worry that the 10 minutes is probably up by now, but we make it.

Miraculously, there is someone there to meet us at Camden Road with a ramp to again insist on helping me get off the train. This wouldn’t happen anywhere on the line between Thatto Heath and Liverpool Lime Street. Not all of the time, at any rate. On one occasion I was visiting a friend in Seaforth and ended up in Waterloo. The step between the train and the platform was much steeper there and I could have ended up on the front of the local paper if I had tried to get off by myself. Had there been nobody to meet us at Camden Road we would have been ok but it is good to know that they make sure, even if they are a little over fussy about it for my tastes.

Camden Town is the busiest place I have been to bar Manhattan. The narrow, often cobbly pavements are more tightly packed than Tom Daley's trunks. There’s some kind of rock music festival on somewhere in the vicinity, so quite a significant percentage of the people blocking my way are leather-clad, Mohawk-sporting, walking tattoo easels. This being Saturday lunchtime and with the weather co-operating for once, the famous Camden Market is bursting with shoppers just desperate to part with their money in exchange for all manner of assorted tat. But we’re starving having by now. It’s after 2.00 and we haven’t eaten since about 7.30 so instead of scouring the stalls and shops for said tat we are only interested in finding somewhere for a feed. Which is difficult. There’s lots of pubs and restaurants in the area but they are all very, very busy. And loud. If not because of the general hum of chatter then due to various kinds of music blaring out of the open windows and doors. We find a place with a few spare seats outside and pay close to £30 for what is essentially two chicken burgers, one portion of fries and a couple of soft drinks. London is great, but London is not cheap.

Just over the road from where we sit is The Stables Market, inside which you will find what we came here for. The Amy Winehouse statue. It's my fault we are here. Despite the Heroin, the tattoo overkill and her willingness to put up with domestic abuse from half-wit no marks, I've always been a big fan of Amy Winehouse. The word legend is over.....Oh. Well, she was pretty bloody good anyway, especially in an era when most prominent singers are manufactured from somewhere beneath Simon Cowell's high waistline, or have made it through after having to compete with a dancing fucking dog. Amy was a proper singer, soul, blues, jazz, that kind of thing. She didn't dress up in leopard print or whatever it is and scream about how we are all going to hear her roar We can already bloody hear you love.. Nor did she want you to love her like she was a hot pie or any other such lyrical idiocy. As such she hasn't had a major impact on everyone, it seems. Our servers in the restaurant did not know where the statue was situated despite running a business less than three minutes walk away. I find that remarkable and annoying at the same time, but we Google it and crack on. No pun intended. Did Amy do any crack? I don't know, possibly. If she did Mitch probably won't admit it so Mitch, I'm not saying she did, right? In case you were thinking of suing someone who has less than 10 regular readers. Can we have a whip round?

Added to the huge crowds I am now faced with that old nemesis of wheelchair users everywhere, cobbled streets. Many is the time I have been separated from my wheelchair thanks to cobbled streets. My arse does come off the seat occasionally, in fact most of the most pleasurable things in life are practised without a wheelchair anywhere near my arse. So anyway I am moving along especially carefully, on my back wheels only which I'm sure most observers either find odd or think I'm showing off like some under 14's contestant on Kick-Start. Do you remember Kick-Start? It's main attraction was the chance to watch young people fall off logs into streams. It was very popular among young people who like watching other young people fall off logs into streams. There are no logs or streams here but there is method in the puerile manner of my movements. It's the small wheels at the front of a wheelchair which put the user in the most danger on cobbled streets, so if you can stay balanced on your back wheels then you are advised to do so here.

The statue is both smaller than I expected and life-size. Amy must have been smaller than I thought. Everyone looks tall though when you are five foot nothing and spend large parts of your existence sitting down. It's only when a group of girls come by and start having their photographs taken with the statue that I realise that it's probably about the right height. So if that's the case then we can safely assume that it is a realistic width also, meaning that Amy probably never had a square meal in her life. I haven't seen a waist as thin as the one on this statue in my entire life. Do you remember when Sir Bobby Charlton's daughter used to present the weather and Baddiel And Skinner did a sketch about the things people shout at the telly? One of the jokes in the sketch featured the Three Lions-warbling comics shouting at Charlton to eat something because she was so painfully thin. This is the kind of scale we are talking about.

Despite the fact that the Amy statue makes me look fat (I am fat) I have my photograph taken with it also. This is becoming something of a tradition now for me. I've had similar photographs taken with statues of Brian Clough in Nottingham, and with Rocky in Philadelphia. Having updated my phone recently (I had one of those that you have to hold in one hand while the other presses the ear-piece to your ear, popular in episodes of Poirot) I am now able to post my photographs to Facebook. But before I do I have to have the photograph taken again. I had forgotten to put my sunglasses on so my eyes are screwed up in the sun. If you have one of those faces that always looks miserable, like I do, arguably because I am bloody miserable perhaps, but if you do then the only way to make yourself look more ridiculous is to squint. I'm squinting, so I have the photograph taken again, which takes a while because by now a crowd has gathered around the statue, almost as if nobody else had thought about taking a look at it, much less having a photograph taken with it, until I rocked up. On my fucking back wheels like Eddie Fucking Kidd. His wife left him, you know, but that's another blog which I would get too angry about to finish.

From Stables Market it was back on to the train to Stratford and then the tube out to Southwark, where we took in a couple of the local watering holes. One such, The George, had featured on a recently aired programme in which The Hairy Bikers staggered around Britain visiting pubs of note or character. Not bloody Yates, basically. The George was lovely and very popular, with lots of people gathering outside to take advantage of the summer sun before it disappears again until next May. The only problem with The George is that a pint of lager will set you back £5.30, and a half £2.65. If nothing else, that is mathematically logical. But I told you London wasn't cheap. In the next Southwalk pub, the Old King's Head, someone tells me that they hope I have a license for that. Presumably they mean my wheelchair but I'm too dizzy from the witlessness of the remark to be absolutely sure.

I can't really tell you too much about the access in these places because nature doesn't call until we get back to Canary Wharf, specifically at a Wetherspoons just across the road from Tunes Hotel, which is handy. You can always rely on a Wetherspoons to have accessible facilities. Except for the one in Trafalgar Square which we once tried to enter and were presented with the kind of excuse for a ramp which you wouldn't attempt to ascend if you were a contestant on Kick-Start on your big brother's BMX. Less handy is the fact that there is a mouse scurrying around one of the rooms in Wetherspoons. The same Wetherspoons we will be eating breakfast at in the morning. We'll use another room....

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