Saturday, 24 January 2009

Desire Paths

What was I saying about being the happiest I've ever been?

This week, I've been reading The Selfish Capitalist, a readable work of popular psychology in which ranting psychologist Oliver James has some agreeable things to say about the link between excessive materialism and mental illness.

At the moment the only paid-for product I'm coveting is an internet radio, so that I can listen to wonderful programmes like this sans laptop in the kitchen, before realising - inevitably - that good radiophonics only happen at stupid o'clock.


Today delivered the mighty Quakers to the Midlands, through the medium of Shrewsbury Town. I felt moved to go. I'd never visited Salop's new stadium, though I knew that it couldn't match the cobbled-togetherness of Gay Meadow.

So, I abandoned my car on a link road between the Park and Ride and Sainsbury's. The Meole Brace area of Shrewbury harbours an enormous retail drag-net that conceals the adjacent football ground. In these places, all roads really do lead to nowhere, unless you're looking for a parking space.

It seems that with no obvious pedestrian access to the rest of the world, the disenfranchised fan must find his own path. The New Meadow was clearly built for the car but features pre-bought permit-only parking. The developers were also keen to force pedestrians to circle the stadium at a distance before the pavement descends and sweeps towards gates at the far end.

None the less, just as at the 'pioneering' Sixfields, real people have forged 'desire paths' between foliage and on either side of crash barriers, and by eking out treachorous footholds on deadly-looking slopes.

I like this - the map would probably suggest that a giant octopus had fallen roadkill to a large alien spacecraft. The [relative] directness and occasional daring append some downtrodden humanity to an otherwise aseptic scene snapped together in fresh concrete and perspex.

Believe it or not, I do acknowledge - whilst casting around nervously - the superior and onobstructed views in these new stadia, with their echo-free PA. Guilt. Must spend evening flogging self in penance.

So what did we learn from this game? Rob Purdie, he's important. Franz Burgmeier can play. As can Pawel Abbott - so skilful, so slow, so good to see him back. And Ricky Ravenhill, there's a ball-winner who at best plays like the pimped-up progeny of a mini motorcycle and a combine harvester.

And that, moreover, I don't believe in fate - but fate trumps form, every time. The latter-named fellow was shown the red card amid a 20-man brawl, a good 77 minutes after the Shrewsbury winner that all seasoned Darlo fans know we never come back from. We're always crap at Salop - but at least we played football this time.

Later, as I stared hard and close at newly-pointed breeze blocks following the final whistle, I could only wonder why the urinals are always seeping over, even in grounds with such recent plumbing. I don't know the answer, but I'm sure as dammit that it's a significant motif.

Homeward bound. The skies darkened around Market Drayton, and a Spanish radio broadcast bled into Five Live - it was a phone-in on the subject of La Primera Liga, of which I am ignorant. There were grumbled cliches worthy of Lawro himself: witness, "futbolistas que jugan por la camiseta" (or better-rendered, better-remembered Spanish to that effect).

In Sainsbury's, I had bought hot-cross buns. In the one-basket queue I overheard a shopper confide to his companion that, "they don't know what eventually killed her." But me, I'd hazard a guess - and venture a few quid on a season ticket at Leek Town or Kidsgrove into the bargain.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Note to my autumnal self

Enough introspection.

You have no money to throw at the problem. You still haven't a clue how you're both going to keep on top of things after September, be it this or the next.

There are simply too many ifs, ors and buts. You'd (still) rather just ignore the small-if-significant iceberg that's looming ever larger on the horizon.

But you know what? That's fine.

At home you've been the happiest you've ever been in your adult life. You should require no reminding of the reasons for this. You've never loved your work so much. Your long-term friendships remain mostly intact.

Life is very, very good. Step back and look at the big picture. You'll muddle through, and you should be thanking your winter self for this helpful missive.

The devils lurk in too much detail. So shut up, look up, and you might just perk up.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

I ain't lost, just wandering...

Winter weekending in Warwickshire

And so, another trip to the place of my birth, where the air is neither thick nor opaque. Mainly to catch up with family, friends and the like. But in between meals and ales, a chance for a moment's nosey around the neighbourhood where She and I shared our first flat together.

There's a real north-south divide here, with the south - reached by dodging the pigeon poo beneath a steel railway bridge - often regarded by 'northerners' as the wrong side of the tracks.

It's a peculiarly affluent prejudice - the south, playing the student neighbourhood to a well-heeled university, has gone upmarket in recent years as a visibly (and probably healthily) mixed-up place.

None the less it retains its posh cooker factory, the old rec, the scruffy canal, the dated flats and maisonettes, the cheap shops, and the drunks shuffling up and down to no purpose.

Since I moved away, it has also acquired bustling Portuguese and Polish grocery stores to go with the nearby Thai supermarket, and communities to frequent them.

It's much the most compelling part of town, and the only one I'd really consider moving back to.

While mooching about after popping into the shop formerly known as Kwik Save, I noticed these unregenerated bits and pieces (as here pictured) that I loved when I used to pass them every day.

In other news, this is one of my favourite forum posts of recent times. I've no idea why. Come to think of it, I've no idea generally.

Monday, 12 January 2009

We were not moved by them

By means mysterious and enforced, I've been meditating a lot on the many station platforms and points failures of Greater Manchester in recent days.

A few years back, at Sandwell and Dudley, I recall watching as one businessman's good humour evaporated following a diversion away from New Street - he hurled his expensive briefcase onto the tracks in a torrent of anger. Helpfully, a man from Central Trains offered up insight aplenty: "your papers are all over the shop there, sir."

At best, the huffs and sighs are understandable. Situations of this sort can be stressful, but I'm fortunate that it doesn't happen to me often. Still, there's something I enjoy about the enforced slowness of it all - it's a bit like an involuntary version of lying in bed, staring at the ceiling.

So. I stared out at Manchester through the January gloom. The city seemed to lose its visual unity - or at least its long-standing mishmash of built coincidences - in the mist. The tall buildings were divorced from their skyline and stood about awkwardly as if blindfolded in an empty room.

Momentarily, I abandoned myself to the hypnotic reveries of urban winter fog, to mills named Daisy, and to oily canal bends. Nothing at all happened until the train began to whisper its way into the terminus.

An hour later, I hung around for another half an hour at Gatley station having run an errand at the end of my half day. Every few minutes, an airport express busied by, whipping up the drizzle and stirring a tumult of wrappers and polystyrene kebab trays.

I sniffed deeply, and resolved to polish my shoes. Enormous barques of cloud shifted silently over the M60. I listened to the gentle hum of the live wires, and thought about Kate and Sam. Good, glad thoughts - nothing deep, that's all.

Every waking second brings something to be neurotic about - one reason why I don't equip myself with ubiquitous computing capability. I think it's good to have time imposed on you, to allow yourself to daydream, and not to be bored by sweet nothings.

On that vaguest tangent, I've always loved these simple lines, which I'm quoting completely out of context here. They entered my head as I boarded my train home:

And the times that we all hoped would last
Like a train they have gone by so fast
And though we stood together
At the edge of the platform
We were not moved by them

Thanks, Billy. Meanwhile, here's a link to a long-forgotten version.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Zombie Movie

Having secured Saturday afternoon off without delaying to dither over the weather forecast, I embarked for deepest Lancashire harbouring some noble intentions - principally to travel north via Rawtenstall, there to imbibe invigorating herbal nicenesses in its Temperance Bar before taking to the windswept terrace in the cold fourth division weather.

Alas, 'twas not to be. So after a short Sandbach sojourn to assess my options - very few - I chose to screech left at Thelwall and set a course for Goodison Park.

This, as it happens, was the first football ground I ever visited - back on 5 May 1990 with my Swedish pal Jaws - and I last visited in 1994, a rare punctuation mark in my mostly televisual relationship with the Blues.

Family never bequeathed me a football team. Instead my parents sent me to a different school at which all 'the glories' (except Jaws) supported Liverpool. I dutifully chose Southall, Nevin, and Stuart McCall. Everton remains my second eleven - but I grew up, started to go to football, and - critically - never got Sky.

One fact remains: I still need some motivation to watch Match of the Day infrequently.

That summer day, I can still recall, we followed a group of Aston Villa fans with an airhorn past freshly-planted beds in Stanley Park. The roaring nineties were barely underway, and teams could get away with fielding moustachioed centre halves like Derek Mountfield.

We blinked in the glare as we ascended to our seats from the dank intestines of the Bullens Road stand, with its vast and gloomy shadows. I remember the visceral impact of seeing more people than I'd ever seen in one place before, and that huge Main Stand opposite. I can still hear and feel the thudding of feet on the balcony at moments of excitement.

The place felt epic, as things do when you're a child. That was my first experience of a football stadium, and it still shapes my expectation. While I've downsized since then (a lot), I still like a football ground to have a relationship and a sense of interaction with its surroundings.

Goodison epitomises this, and feels both lived in and lived around. This part of Liverpool is among the purest of tarditional football landscapes in England. Grandstands from the 1930s, 1970s and 1990s (boooo - the old Park End looked great) tower above tightly-packed terraces and narrow streets, a picture offset by a majestic Victorian park (currently under restoration, looks good) and the occasional glimpse of a distant dockyard crane.

Today, Hull City were the visitors. I haven't been to a top-flight game since Highfield Road (RIP) some thirteen years ago.

I felt a guilty sense of anticipation, and, on approaching the ticket office, not a little paranoia. Like a tourist I clutched my wallet anxiously, especially since a real-lifeLiverpudlian had in real life offered to look after my car in exchange for a real-life tenner.

Ten notes, they tell me, is normal. Fourth division it ain't. Which is genuinely grim.

Very nearly deterred I demanded the cheapest ticket in the house. A large sum of money secured me a berth in what felt like steerage, an enclosed position way back beneath the upper tier of the Gwladys Street end, a steel-and-plank structure dating back to 1938.

It was close enough to the ceiling that I could inspect the botchy repointing of the balcony floor, and well behind two enormous steel girders with mighty rivets, big ones like they don't make anymore.

If you like traditional football grounds, Goodison is a thrilling survivor. There's only one Premiership-era stand at the Park End. The rest is true vintage. Even the titanic Main Stand, erected in the seventies, could never have been built to a standard pattern - it's wedge-shaped design created to accommodate the surrounding streets. In aerial photos, it doesn't look all that different to its predecessor - it's still a snug fit with its community.

Despite being built years apart, Gwladys Street (1938) and Bullens Road (1926) retain the unity of a pre-war Leitch design, although their upturned roofs are later additions. There's also an antique combination of wooden panelling and cross-hatched balcony trusses that inspires a real sense of timelessness if you've ever seen it in footage of Pele, Eusebio or North Korea in the 1966 World Cup finals.

To our right, the old church, St. Lukes. Offering refreshments before the match, it still occupies a corner of the ground, despite long-forgotten attempts to demolish it in the thirties.

So, what is Premiership football like in 2008?

Eek. It's different. It has those animated advertising hoardings that made Serie A look exotic in the last century. Gone are the ticket stubs (I rifled through my coat, convinced I'd lost mine) replaced by a swipey barcode system awkwardly appended to the old turnstiles (this had to be explained to me, step-by-step). Fancy.

Newly arrived are far-eastern tourists doing John Lennon peace signs next to a superhuman-looking bronze of Dixie Dean. Oh, and you're supposed to turn on your Bluetooth so that a low-resolution version of Mikel Arteta can invade your handset with various offers. Anthropologically, it's interesting, as academics like to say indifferently.

But - I also noticed how well-kept the ground is. Not in a flower beds kind-of-way, but just in the sense that it seems painted and looked after, rather than peeling and rusty. The scrawled "NF" and "Keep Everton White" graffiti seems to have been consigned to a bygone era, which can't be a bad thing either, with all of today's bile reserved for Nick Barmby, who moved across the park to Anfield back in 2000.

And - there's a strangely intensifying effect to be had when watching from a darkened vantage point that's way back beneath. The game - a 2-0 win for a striker-less Everton against a team that barely made its presence felt - wasn't that inspiring. But Goodison Park is like being in a rowdy zombie movie. The noise is amplified, hoardes rise and groan as one, and you can't see the sky - only the crowd and the pitch.

Since I normally spend long periods looking at other fans or at the surrounding landscape beyond low-rise terraces, it's a novel - or at least, half-forgotten - experience. It's a long time since I've been stuck in traffic after a game or swept along with the crowd through a narrow street, but it's one worth repeating once in a while.

Oh, yes - and this was very exciting indeed. For just a moment, I recalled vaguely the allure of following a team that can play a bit. But only a bit ;-)

Monday, 5 January 2009


Squinting and squirming my way through the .xml files from my old Wordpress blog, I'm thinking of restoring one or two of the posts that I still like or which diarise some of the personal things that I'd rather store as something other than a torrent of metadata. So, here goes - 2006 and 2007, reprised.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Textbook Toddleager

Happy 2009? Like, whatever. Dad.

We recently adopted a zero-tolerance approach to Sam's habit of mithering, whining and occasionally flapping at us when he doesn't get what he wants, and with some success.

I say "some" success - it's a pyrrhic victory, big time.

Gone overnight are the hallmarks of the so-called "terrible two"; now witness the studied savvy of the urbane toddle-ager:

Me: OK, matey, we're going somewhere nice...

Sam, hopefully: Are there steam trains / fire engines / cakes / angel babies [don't ask] there?

Me, wearily:
No Sam, I really doubt that.

Sam, pauses, considers screaming "but I waaaaant one!" Instead, deploys the verbal musicality that unlocks old ladies' sweetie jars: Hmmm. We'll see shall we - when we get there? I suppose you never know. Maybe later, eh? And mummy says yes too. And then at bed time we can have FIVE stories!

Me, speechless: O: Um...

Cue panic. How the devil am I going to outmaneouvre this slick operator when he's a sagely six?

Lesson learned, too late: Deploy only the simplest language when dealing with the Pampered proletariat - do NOT give them the tools to outfox you comprehensively before they are out of nappies!