Wednesday, 17 December 2008


Stoke-on-Trent Station

"Deeply fascinating" debates on the new rail timetable have some distance to run perhaps. We'll not go into that right now. Not much, anyway...

Upon inspecting the new destinations on Stoke station's departure boards this morning, my first thoughts raced straight to Ninian Park, Whaddon Road and Ashton Gate... with no need to change at Birmingham. Wu-hoo!

This is wonderful news. Our horizons seem instantly expanded and the service seems generally better on paper. A nice empty Pendolino to Manc at 7.45 replaces the crowded four coaches at 7.36, but - nnngh! - the return journey is now totally out of sync with The Glorious XXI, making it infinitely more difficult to arrive home in time for Sam's bath.

And there's no improvement to the Longport service. Many northbound trains in the morning, with crap all coming back. Not that one would ever expect it - nice new information screens, but barely a departure to display... (it would seem all the Londoners want to visit Kidsgrove instead)

And now the last train home is even earlier! FFS! It's a very personal slant (ok, an unpolishable rant) on the issue, but there's surely mileage in the idea that this stuff - that is, being able to access opportunities afforded by adjacent big cities at night, be they work, education or leisure - is fundamental to persuading people to live and stay in Stoke.

Monday, 15 December 2008

"Try pulling your eyelid down as far as it'll go..."

Away at Morecambe.

It's not quite often one of Britain's leading football bloggers can be tempted from his secret scribing facility somewhere in deepest Staffordshire (I've seen it: think your cool best-mate-from-school's Optimus Prime toy, but with more with more grounds under its belt) for a brief encounter between perhaps the two giants of the modern game - that's Morecambe versus the mighty Quakers to you.

Saturday's fixture at Christie Park presented just such a temptation, and our guest expert was kind enough to buy me a pint of Black Sheep into the bargain. For my part, I hope to bust my Brightonian cherry at Edgar Street in February. There may be foine coider on hand, albeit in very small driveable quantities.

Thanks to Groundhog for the company and continued tolerance, in any case.

And so on towards Morecambe through the mist and HGV spray, up the M6 and down the A5105 Coastal Road, passing en route through the mighty-sounding Bolton-le-Sands and Carnforth, of Brief Encounter (the real one) fame. All the while wondering if - like last year - this afternoon's game was somehow predestined to be postponed or abandoned.

Neither of us was too confident, least of all myself - and thus I delivered my finest Celia Johnson:

"If we control ourselves...
and behave like sensible human beings...
there's still time!"

If. And. Would we have a sufficient window to make Fylde or Squire's Gate - if the Gods were with us?

Speculatively, I fumbled the radio buttons for information. None was forthcoming from the once-rocksteady 693 Medium Wave (nowadays "the home of live sport," long vacated by "useful information delivered in a timely fashion.")

Alas, Radio Lancashire starts its football broadcast at the ungodly hour of 2pm, and so we listened respectfully to some homely programming about humble garden wormeries instead.

Happily, anyone familiar with last year's corresponding fixture - or, with the wormicide witnessed at the hands of Darlington's River Skerne a few years back - knows that this course of action was entirely appropriate.

In any case, Morecambe shows its best side when approached in the roundabout fashion. Last year I shunted through Lancaster's seasonal traffic for what seemed like hours (maybe it was just Lawro-on-the-Radio effect).

Taking the Coastal Road, on the other hand, lays the seafront before you like some magic carpet made of asphalt and salt water. It was high tide, and a winter murk hammocked the air, nearly abolishing the tonal difference between sea and sky.

Wading birds pottered around in the wet sands and standing water. Groundhog vaulted the concrete wall and ninja-rolled like Bruce Lee onto the promenade. Self-consciously, I probed for an ample gap to squeeze through. He is more athletic than I, despite his advancing years...

We stared out towards America, and contemplated its possibilities. Or those of Grange-over-Sands. Not for too long, though.

While we're here, I'm disappointed to learn that Morecambe's Jug-of-Tea is no more. And I keep meaning to go and see the Midland Hotel, but I'm sure its resplendence won't quite measure up.

Onwards to the ground, featuring a high-class chippy by the away end - om nom nom nom! - and with a whole would-be grandstand accounted for by the presence of an ARC car wash where the lukewarm pie counter should be. With a little under an hour till kick-off, we plumped for a short walk to the York Hotel.

Cantering briskly along, I liked the way that the intermittent terraced street was composed of short-then-tall house and shop frontages, looking a bit like the joined-up letters of a child's handwriting. Out and about in Morecambe, there's plenty of rambling shorthand for faded grandeur and past glories, but most of all there's a welcoming humanity.

The pub was ace, the bouncer very personable. The back room was what all "sports bars" should be and won't ever be, one day.

OK, so the big screen with Sky Sports is concessionably a necessary evil, but the walls - all festooned with the scarves of lower-divison and non-league opposition - rendered the place welcoming and inclusive.

Here's a place that feels like it belongs to Morecambe, full of the names of old mutual acquaintances you didn't know they knew: Bedlington Terriers, Droylsden, Farnborough Town, Kidderminster Harriers...

The ninety minutes were disappointing, Darlo losing 1-0 and slipping to sixth. "Never at the races," sighed the bobbing, twitching woolly headgear at the full-time urinals. And, having announced that I felt like some "atmosphere" we had taken our place behind the goal amongst fans who'd decided that referee Jarnail Singh's alleged resemblance to Monty Panesar was too hilarious to let pass. Much of the first half was spent warbling on about it. Wonderful. We were so going to get on...

But when all's said and done we've been here before. We've been much worse before. Good results, most fans understand, are far more exhilirating in adversity. In fact we've rarely been much good at all, ever since 1883. Who can claim honestly that the prospect of success is what it's all about? Though admittedly it is nice to have a decent team this year...

For me, the great thing about following your team away (and I think it's better in nearly every respect at this level), is that you spend time in all kinds of places you'd rarely venture otherwise.

Each season brings a new promise of peregrination. Were it not for the football, instead of Boston (a few seasons back, that one) you'd choose... well, would you ever need to make that choice anyway?

There, we sat in some pub on the old Lincolnshire harbourfront, a little spooked by the fact that a middle-aged couple were taking notes on us and exchanging giggles in a fashion they clearly thought clandestine. Like two kids at the back of the class. More likely stories on Boston here.

As often than not, there's a wonderful sense of place both outside and inside the ground (though this is changing, as I'm sure to discover at Shrewsbury).

Morecambe is a great example, but there's something to recommend every seasoned ground, even in the places that otherwise privilege grit and character over any ostensible charm - see Dagenham and Redbridge's pie and mash (and of course, liquor) shop and the beautiful 1930s pub round the corner from their Victoria Road ground (one that looks a dive from the outside, but which is stunning within).

It's not that the football isn't important. It's the fact that it comes embedded in the landscape, with such a rich hinterland. More on this in future posts, no doubt. But I think that's why I rarely go home disappointed.

This is England

At least, it is today. Painted, chipped boundary walls, shoulder-high. Next door's dog soiling the back yard (just out of shot). Chimney pots. Plant pots. Sheds and prefabricated garages. Gable ends and hotch-potch bathroom extensions like the connectors in a fragmented jigsaw. Redundant pegs and plastic shower caps on the washing line. And skies that should be leaden, but aren't.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Now Pirates Get PMT!

[clarification for outsiders]

A truism, perhaps, but it's great fun when toddlers reimagine everyday stuff.

Last Friday, as Sam and I were plotting a course to the library, we briefly watched some workmen erecting Burslem's new bus shelters and scoffing chocolate hob-nobs ready for the Saturday switch-on of the lights.

Slinky windbreaks, so they are. Steely curvacious numbers with wavy wanderings printed on the glass. Each one has its own lofty spike which I take to be an aerial for the bus info feed. About as burlesque and suggestive as a bus shelter can possibly get. Appropriate for Burslem.

Well, maybe.

It appears they're also designed to echo the old Ceramica shop. Prepare for a letters-page boreathon in the Sentinel...* Luckily, two-year old skippers have no time for such petty seditions!

"A PIRATE SHIP!" boomed the potty-training privateer, perched with outretched finger 'pon the foc'sle of his speedy caravel. And a very sci-fi pirate ship at that, if slightly landlocked there in its berth beside the Methodist Mission. Indeed, a sci-fi pirate ship with live bus information!

And thus was the precedent set for the remains of the day. Cool day. The bus stops aren't bad really - maybe a bit slimline for the demands of the Potteries microclimate.

And expensive? Fuck it. Motorists are far more subsidised than bus users anyway. Not a point you'll see made very often in the Sentinel, although I do remember one comment to that effect by Tom Whiteley a couple of years back.

Credit where it's due, see! But as for: "*" ... ok, ok, I'll give it a rest...

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Hymn to PMT

Hanley, 5.45pm.

Five lads, beered and bullshitting, mounted my homeward bus at that very special stop outside Cheque & Pawn, and thence lunged for the back seats.

A polyphony of choking and coughing commenced in earnest as the chari passed Staples. Small lakes (no solids) formed in the time it takes to reach Pets at Home - possibly the shortest geological period yet recorded.

By the time our young gods alighted at Commercial Street, there were damp little tributaries running all the way to the disabled seats, and - bizarrely - the strong smell of oranges. They all remembered to thank the driver: "traaa, mate."

Those boys need feeding so that they have the energy to learn about what beer is.

Being the sympathetic type, I was inspired to produce the following, which I'll proceed to devour at work over the next couple of days [edit: microwave FUCKED! This CANNOT be!]

Scaleable, simple piquant chick pea lunch thing

Many, many chick peas, soaked (like, 60% of it)
Lots of green beans, chopped
Some carrot, diced
Some shallot, chopped
Paprika, much
Cumin, some
Garlic, two cloves - um, whatever
Some root ginger - damn, I ran out
A few revolutions of the WC2006 souvenir peppermill
Mustard seeds
A little passata
Olive oil

Chuck it all in the frying pan and cook severely until it looks and taste nice. Disco!

Line thy stomachs, my children!

My kingdom for a window seat


One of the things I erred briefly about when I left behind my last job in the Potteries commuterland to work "up Manchester way" was the travelling.

So it transpires, twelve months on, that driving can be a faff sometimes (and, oh, the guilt of a Guardian reader!) but mostly the train service is very solid indeed, if expensive. In fact, some mornings it's an unequivocal pleasure. At worst, it's still preferable to wearing some Londoner's armpit in lieu of space for a hat.

Hopping on at Stoke, I can almost always secure a window seat before the chattering hoardes besiege the Quiet Zone at Congleton. For these forty revolutions of the clock (sometimes fewer), reverie is mine, punctuated only by the prodding enquiries of a ticket collector or the sudden snagging of a curious conversation.

The recent bad weather has only heightened this waking daydream feeling, even if the permanent way was really made for anything but. Northbound, we've Mow Cop and Bosley's Cloud resplendent in teetering silver. An ethereal flash of wending canal. The Dane whispering and winding far below us.

Later, we're retracing our stealthy slide-path, this time all wrapped up in provincial shadows and with only pale reflections of ourselves for eye contact. There are blue-chip cellphone accents and pinched corporate letterheads, things that only ever pass through Stoke on fast trains.

There are heads-in-notebooks and 3G wireless cards blinking neurotically. There are four seats, four Windows desktops and barely a waking moment as we shoulder-charge the A500 at Longport.

One face - uplit as if with a child's torch - scrunches briefly as a door beeps and plunks, letting in the cold Staffordshire air:

"How long to Euston?"

Tuesday, 2 December 2008


Journalists at the BBC have finally nabbed the exclusive that many of us here in the Potteries had been hoping to keep to ourselves until - OoooOh - at least 1993.

The results of their survey show that Stoke-on-Trent, our very own town(s) that time forgot, is(are) in fact the most marvellous place(s) on earth, most of the time. This is based, apparently, on the relatively low pervasiveness of anomie (feeling feint? wiki it instead).

This might have seemed a little strange to the researchers in question had the state of local politics been accounted for. As it goes, the vital signs seem to go uncorroborated by any kind of living, breathing survey based on attitudes - no matter, see a nice video here and get yer sweet, sweet schadenfreude here!

They'll be dancing in the streets of the Mother Town (or, at least, its hinterland).

Whatever. They'll also sigh knowingly and offer up a "right y'are then, duck," before ambling off down Waterloo Road with a wary chuckle. Still, we/they can rest contentedly in having the strongest sense of 'belonging' of any (ahem!) 'local radio area' in the UK - a finding that has spurred the most unlikely comparison between Burslem and Bayswater.

I've blogged about this before, from my own perspective as an outsider who is both peeping and creeping in with my swagbag full of anomie and dislocation. It's fairly clear that all is not well in Stoke-on-Trent generally. However it's great to see something so bluntly (if inarticulately) positive all over the national media, especially after this and other recent media beatings.

Incidentally, Bramhall, where I sometimes haul my trolley of job-related oddities, is supposed to be the UK's most 'rooted' community... *adjusts collar*.... spot the mysterious connection, folks!

In fact Sam and I were interviewed by Radio Stoke (token male at toddler group, see) on this very issue, but before I could slavishly reprise Benedict (or even Brett) Anderson, Sam had lunged at the terrified reporter yelling "scary biscuits!" at the top of his little voice.

Which is probably about right as an erudite response; for my part, I just blathered twitchily about knowing and trusting our neighbours, the toddler group being very welcoming, and so on - though I'm still not sure I'd commit to that fortnight in Benidorm out of 'street solidarity'...

Curiously, a quick bash on 'anomie stoke-on-trent' chucks you this beauty...