Dan Dare The Audio Adventures: e01 – Voyage to Venus


Dan Dare Audio 1

They’ve been around for quite a while, since 2016 in fact, and they’ve been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra as well as being issued in rather expensive triple CD boxsets. The pair of these, each comprising three full-length episodes, have been around my compacted dwelling space for quite a while too, albeit measured in months rather than years, awaiting time amongst all the other things I do for me to just sit down and listen undistracted. Now I have begun and, late though it may be, I’m going to set out my response.

The Dan Dare The Audio Adventures Project was set up by B7 Media, using a team of scripters, with Andrew Mark Sewell as Director and Simon Moorehead as Producer. B7 have a lot of experience in SF Audio books, having done a number of Dr Who projects beforehand. However, I have to give them massive black marks for Volume One for claiming that Dan Dare was created by the Reverend Marcus Morris and only ‘written and drawn’ by Hampson. Dare was entirely Hampson’s work and Morris gave him full credit for creating everything about the character. It got my back up a long way.

Six stories have been produced, each taking their titles and at least the shells of the subjects of Frank Hampson’s original Eagle stories in mostly chronological order. I remember reading brief synopses of the planned stories, which had been freely adapted. Indeed, there’s a charmingly self-congratulatory note from episode 1 scripters Richard Kurti and Bev Doyle about the sterling ways in which they’d not just updated Dan Dare to accomodate changes in scientific knowledge and technology in the years since his debut, but how they’ve revised the whole thing to put female characters on a par with male and to remover ‘all traces of cap-doffing class deference’ out of the Dan/Digby relationship. I reserve making comment.

Anyway, what of the actual adaptation? Let me credit the good things first. The acting is generally excellent throughout, though I have reservations about Geoffrey McGivern’s portrayal of Digby, though much of that has to do with the writing of the character. Ed Stoppard (son of playwright Tom) is very good as Dan himself whilst Icelandic actress Heida Reed plays Professor Peabody. These three are the central characters, alongside Raad Rawi fighting his way through several effects as The Mekon and Bijan Dameshmand arriving late as Sondar but clearly intended for a more major role in the ongoing series. The acting is good, the production very clear and precise and the effects effective.

Those are the good things.

You all know me as a lifelong Dan Dare fan, wedded inextricably to the original Frank Hampson version of the character. Richard Kurti and Bev Doyle say the character had to be updated. I say that’s not necessarily true. BBC Radio once did a four part play, which I also have, that adapted the first story pretty closely, so it can be done without dipping into satire and cynicism about older and simpler ideals. But I’m not so stupid as to imagine that most attempts at a modern Dan Dare will be of a modern Dan Dare. That means changes.

There are three principle types of change that have gone into this episode. Advances in scientific knowledge and technology have been catered for. They preserve the science of the original stories from seeming foolishly outdated. These I am ok with. The other two types, changes of character and of plot, which are inter-related, are much more serious and for me, only Dan Dare, of the central cast of characters, remains a fair representation of the character worthy of the name. He’s solid, he’s intelligent, he thinks quickly, he is an inveterate optimist, free of cynicism. Overall, he tends more to the flippant that the original, but he never goes OTT with this, and at least one of his quips is laugh-out-loud funny, if rather obvious. In the comic, these lines would have come from Digby, but we don’t have that Digby with us.

However, cynicism is the word I would apply, in spades, to both Professor Peabody and Lieutenant, not Spaceman, Digby, though both of them would prefer it if you called them pragmatic. I’ll go into these interpretations in a little more detail shortly, but their ‘remaking’ is part and parcel with the overall episode.

It’s the same old story. This is a perfectly good, in fact probably very enjoyable radio SF series crucified by having Dan Dare and other quasi-random names attached to it surgically when these names lack the associations they’re earned. Dan is the only character to remain properly true to his original: everyone and everything else is no more than a label.

As for the story, it is, naturally, about Earth’s first contact with Venus and the first encounter with the Treen (not Treens, the name is here plural instead of singular) and their Supreme Leader, the Mekon (whose title is Supreme Leader, not Mekon, mking the name by which he is known illogical). That’s all the similarities, though. As for the set-up, where do I begin? Practically every detail has been changed. Let me try.

Ten years ago, due to a spaceship crash on Birmingham, for which the Pilot, William Dare, left on life support ever since, was scapegoated, the ISF (Interplanetary Space Fleet). His son Dan, a Colonel and a Test Pilot (Colonel in what? Test Pilot for what? Never explained) is committed to clearing his father’s name (resemblances to Geoff Johns’ revised origin for the Barry Allen Flash, written 2009, 100%). He also applies to be transferred to ISF every year on the anniversary of the disaster even though it no longer exists, because he believes it will once again.

He is unaware that seven years previously an alien spacecraft crashed in Lancashire, chock full of advanced alien technology and instructions from Sondar on Venus, explaining how to build a spaceship to travel to Venus and meet him. ISF was revived, secretly, still under Sir Hubert (we assume Guest, his surbame is not mentioned) but supported by private enterprise – the Eagle Corporation, natch – who leading scientist and premier free-market worshipper and all-round corporate shill is Professor Peabody (Jocelyn, mentioned once). Dan will pilot both the ship to Venus and the massive publicity campaign over the return to space, because he has a pretty face.

Meanwhile, very much against Dan’s wish, the final member of the crew is Lieutenant Digby (we assume Albert, also not mentioned, probably too old-fashioned). What Digby is Lieutenant of is never mentioned: we assume it’s of ISF since Sir Hubert sends him to fetch Dare, but then Dare is disgusted by him because he represents military brass, and is the warmongerer and weapons master on the mission.

I think that is enough to demonstrate just how different the audio adventure is to the original story. Only the shell of the latter is preserved. Nevertheless, I have one more serious example to put before you, and that’s The Mekon. Yes, he’s the Supreme Intelligence behind the Treen but he is portrayed as almost a benevolent dictator. He runs everything and everyone along lines devised by himself and which guarantee an orderly and peaceful environment for his subjects. He has no desire to take over Earth, not yet anyway.He is content where he is. As for Sondar, he’s a terrorist.

This is a much-diminished version of the Mekon, and I have to say that he loses traction by being only heard and not seen: the brilliance of the character and his true menace lay, like the Daleks over decade later, in his being simultaneously an easy shape/design to recognise yet by that being utterly unhuman. And it is painful to listen to both Peabody and Digby calling him ‘Supreme Leader’ (Christ, no!) and theformer sucking up to him and talking about corporate mergers, sharing his technology and off about ‘No profit, no freedom’.

Yes, true colours come out at the end. The Mekon intends to send the Earthmen back home infected with a disgusting, fatal, rapid-spreading virus that will trigger as soon as they’re in Earth orbit and basically kill off the entire population, leading Peabody to flutters of self-disgust at how she could even have thought of collaborating with him, but by then she has touched pitch.

And as for the Mekon, once he’s forced into flight off-planet by Dare’s ingenious trick that raises the Treen mindlessly against him, he decides on revenge by taking over the entire solar system: better late than never. Meanwhile, he’s taken the only virus antidote with him, so Dare, Peabody and Digby can’t go homde and are forced to go chasing after him, thus setting up the sequel.

So, overall, the same old story. A potentially good audio adventure crippled by tagging it to an existing creation with only minimal and superficial connection to the original, mostly in name only. Why do that? The audience that knows Dan Dare will only be offended, the audience that doesn’t won’t know the difference. Give the characters new names – if you have a spark of originality in you. After all, based on the first episode at least, this is substatially the best effort I’ve seen, read or hurt – in its own terms.

So I’ll make a point of listening to the test of the series, and I’ll drag out the BBC radio series as well, of which I think I’ve got two DVDs. I shall keep you posted.

A Manchester Metrolink Expedition: The Trafford Centre Line


Trafford-arial

Technically, it’s the Trafford Park Line, and it runs from Pomona on the Eccles/Media City Line to the Trafford Centre, so the last of this series of Monday afternoon trips (until the Eccles section is opened in October, as a coda) will be a two-tram each way expedition.

This is the newest line in the Metrolink Network, having only been opened in 2020. I have never travelled on any part of it before, and my only connection to it comes from a few years ago when I had to go out to Trafford Park to collect a parcel that couldn’t be delivered. Having got as far as I could by bus, I had to walk almost half an hour there and back to my destination, including crossing the future line just before a roundabout on a dual-carriageway, where the channel for the line across the roundabout and along the central reservation had been cut but the rails had not yet been laid. I wonder if I’ll be able to recognise it?

I’m not much more familiar with the Trafford Centre itself, having visited it not even as much as half a dozen times in the twenty-four years since its opening. It’s a massive shopping mall and indoor leisure complex, to which I am by temperament averse and if that weren’t enough, on my first visit I walked from one end to the other without seeing a single book shop, at which point I wrote it off as a temple to barbarism. It has been the biggest centre of its kind in Britain but is currently the second-largest. This will be my first time back since the mid-2000s.

Not that Wikipedia was consistent. In print it has the line starting from Pomona, on the map from Cornbrook. Go figure.

It rained, heavily, in the night. I didn’t sleep well but woke up to a fresh day, warm enough to choose t-chirt and jeans again, and get out earlier than usual. I paid that back firstly in terms of a long wait for a Media City tram at Piccadilly Gardens and then a long wait at Cornbrook, where the Trafford Centre tram was actually the tenth along.

Where the Airport Line was almost endless, the Trafford Centre Line was about the shortest of the whole Network. Six new tram stops. Wharfside is for United and Old Trafford, Imperial War Museum very familiar, Village completely indeterminate and Parkway is that crossing I crossed years ago. Then there are two stops for the Trafford Centre itself, one each for the west and east ends respectively. The former was the terminus and where I got out.

I got inside the Centre via a multi-floor Selfridge’s. The next half hour was a nightmare. Everywhere I turned there were broken escalators and crowded lifts slower than growing. The crowds were everywhere in my way as I tried to find my way around. Even the ptrsence of a Waterstones brought me no mental relief because the one thing they didn’t have were exits. Seriously, once you were inside you couldn’t get out, and I wanted to. When I finally found some one to seek assistance from, I got directed back to bloody Selfridge’s, and that was a maze. This was worse than the Airport last week. You won’t get me in there again without tracker dogs.

Once I’d filled my lungs with fresh air again, I crossed over to an ASDA Superstore for a sandwich and a drink. To my relief, and frustration, it had basic things in stock that my local store has jettisoned in favour of less popular variants so I grabbed a couple and queued another half hour at the tills to get out of there. I’m not going to be coming all over here to get an Iced Madeira Cake.

That was it, I was done. I walked to Barton Dock Road Station where a departing tram took me away within seconds. Coming back, I changed trams at Pomona, to stand a better chance of getting a decent seat, and was back in the City Centre for ten to three.

I was not impressed, making it a damp squib of an ending. All I’d got out of it was travelling the line, but then, to be fair, that was the whole point of the exercise. I’ve now travelled practically all the Metrolink Network and seen nearly every station, and if some days have had better destinations than others, those were bonuses.

So I took myself to Pizza Hut for a proper feed and then home on a frustrating bus ride with a driver determined to go as slow as he could, which, with my sleepless night catching up on me, wound me up good and proper until I was glad to get in.

A Manchester Metrolink Expedition: The Manchester Airport Line


Airport

Properly, the Manchester Airport Line was the final part of Phase 3, added during the second stage, as a spur from the East Didsbury Line from St Werburgh’s Road in Chorlton. It was one of the most obvious lines to be added and needed, giving passengers incoming from flights access to the City Centre without the expense of taxis or hire cars or leaving their own vehicles in long-term parking for a week or longer.

I haven’t been out to the Airport for a flight in nearly fifteen years now but I have had one trip on the Airport Line, coming back, in 2015, having gone out there very early one midweek morning to help as part of a Welcoming Committee for the American-based founder of an Internet Forum on which I was then active. I wasn’t really needed: another Manchester-based member was meeting her and her son, collecting bags and giving them accomodation, but I thought it rude not to make the effort, seeing that I was on the spot, so to speak.

Once we’d got them over to H’s car, and everything stowed away, they drove off and I was left to make my own way back. What puzzled me is how I got there in the first place, without a lift of some sort myself, because it wasn’t until I turned to go, at something like 9.00am on a beautiful summer morning of spotless skies, that I had the bright idea of taking the Metro for my return.

So that’s my only experience of the Airport Line before today.

I’m reverting to standard approach today, no one-way trips but the full two-way monte, there and back.

It was a cold, greyish day, with rain an obvious threat: typical Bank Holiday Monday, then (hey, professional writers aren’t the only ones with access to the Cliche Drawer). Bank Holiday Monday means Bank Holiday timetables so it looks like slow going. On the other hand, stops for passengers were well down, but it still took forever to get to Piccadilly Gardens. For the final third of the run I was sat opposite a man desperately clutching to his chest an unwrapped bundle of two framed paintings and three hardback books, all about Football. That two of rhem were about Kevin Keegan and the other about Manchester United made for a puzzling mixture.

There’s no direct service from Pccadilly Gardens to the Airport so I hopped on an Altrincham tram intending to change at St Peter’s Square for the East Didsbury line, imagining this would have to be a two-change ride. But a chance glance led to me spotting a direct Airport tram coming from the same direction I had. Of course: it runs from Victoria, via Market Street. I live and learn.

From there to St Werburgh’s Road, the route was familiar, not just from last week but, in earlier sections multiple expeditions. Here was where the new ground begab, spinning away right towards Barlow Moor Road and almost immediately running down the central reservation along Mauldeth Road West.

This was another part of the old Manchester I used to be able to access freely, but it wasn’t long before I was trying to work out just where the hell I was. We crossed the M60, the Manchester orbital motorway, though I was already so confused I thought it was the M56. Not until later, much later.

Originally, the Airport line was planned to be extended by the Wythenshawe Loop, giving access to Manchester’s most notorious sink estate but escalating costs put paid to that, and to an extension to the Manchester Airport High Speed Train Station. Both are still on the table as ‘aspirational’ but unfunded. The HS Station is the more likely as the cheaper to construct but there’s tremendous public support for the Wythenshawe Loop, especially as this will include a station serving the somewhat remote Wythenshawe Hospital, which is only easy to get to if you have a car. Roll it on.

Despite all that, there was a lot of track and a lot of stops that seemed to be making for, and working their way through Wythenshawe, including a stop in its Town Centre. Though not until the way back did I see the Forum Theatre, where I went on my only previous visit to Wythenshawe itself, instead of the Hospital. Thety were showing a Mike Harding play, set in a vasectomy clinic, which was notorious for the male lead doing a long monologue whilst walking stark bollock (literally) naked. This being Wythenshawe, I’d gone to the Saturday afternoon matinee so that it would still be light when the play was over, and I could jump into my car and shoot off before anyone nicked it, or vandalised it, or made off with the wheels…

After that, we crossed the M56 but I still had no idea where the train was. The line was sharing small streets and alternating with off-road verges, there seemed to be no end of stops, and the line was edging round more 90 degree bends than any other line I’ve yet used. On the ground, the route must look like a sea serpent with its back broken in several places.

But at last, at Shadowmoss, they announced that the next station stop was the Airport, at which I heaved a sigh of relief, both at arrival and at the need to stand up and relieve my numb bum. This was where things got strange. I could have sworn that, on my previous visit, I’d hopped onto a tram at a typical stop, light, bright, freshly painted and in the open air, but here was the terminal, a dark, dingy, third class hole-in-a-corner wedged in beside the Railway station.

Nothing looked remotely recognisable, except for the Skylink, a long, wide, glass-sided tube crossing the Airport at second floor level. Streams of people, mostly trailing luggage on travelators that were switched off, flowed both ways. I remember this from our honeymoon, using it to check in on the Sunday night as part of our package, and then get to the Terminal in plenty good time on Monday morning for the flight to Madeira.

Looking for somewhere to explore, I descended a level to Terminal 1 Arrivals: no, not in the least bit recognisable. Exploring consisted of buying some lunch in a Spar Local, looking at books in a W H Smith, discovering that there was nothing else there to look at except more food suppliers and endless streams of people arriving home and wanting to get out. Logically, there must have been planes landing just to get them there but I’m hanged if I could see any of them! When Dad first brought us here, after tea one midweek evening in 1967 or 1968, there were Observation windows from which you could see the planes take off and land. If they have equivalents in 2022, I had no idea where they could be found so, dispirited, I decide to head back.

This meant that I spent a long time gazing at the Radisson Blu Hotel, where we slept the night after our wedding, ready for our honeymoon. Memories.

I needed to top up my water bottle so I stopped off in a smaller W H Smith branch on the way. The woman serving was bored, chatty and from Blackburn, but I didn’t hold that against her. Once I’d told her why i was there, she urged me on visiting Clitheroe, very enthusiastically. There’s only one Metro like to explore after today, but I’ve a short list of short distance train Expeditions to follow, and I’ll add Clitheroe to that.

The return to Manchester was uneventful. I descended at Market Street to join the obstacle course that is Manchester in late afternoon, and arrived at the 203 stop just as one pulled out: of course.

Needing to also top up my Electricity, I stayed on the bus two extra stops to get to ASDA. This was where things went wrong. Their Pay Point Machine was broken again. |The woman at the counter pointed me towards an R S McColl where I could get the top up but neglected to tell me how far it was to walk there. Twenty-five minutes later, all of which spent getting further away from home, I found it at a very familiar road junction near to Stockport Road. I refused to walk back and headed for the nearby bus stop, even though it would take two buses from there.

After ten minutes of no buses – there would have been one, the last of the day, ten minutes later, if it was on time – I decided to walk over to Stockport Road. It was still two buses from there but at least I could see them passing with some frequency, and besides I could sit down at that stop.

Not that I needed to for long. A 192 arrived within ninety seconds and took me to Mersey Square without any halts and, after a walk across the Town Centre, I got onto a waiting 203 that pulled out immediately. What’s more, at the next stop, on got one of my old colleagues from Sky, still doing well there, and we had a brief chat until I finally reached to my stop. All told, it had taken me over two hours to get back from Manchester and I was knackered both mentally and physically, which is why this post is coming so later.

Still, seven down, one to go.

A Manchester Metrolink Expedition: The East Didsbury Line


East_Didsbury_Metrolink_station

Once again, this is to be a one-way Metrolink journey, this time to go there and not come back. There are two reasons for this. One is that, once the Metrolink Tram deposits me at East Didsbury, I am actually nearer to home than to Manchester City Centre. The other is that, as the photograph demonstrates, there is practically no more to East Didsbury than the Metrolink Terminus.

That’s not wholly true. There’s a Tesco Superstore about five minutes walk away, diagonally opposite an Entertainment complex including ten-pin bowling and a massive Multiplex cinema, plus expensive places to eat fast food and drink, this latter partially constructed on what used to be Parrs Wood High School, as attended by my younger sister. And in the opposite direction, and just round the corner, is the house that I lived in, the Nottingham years excepted, from 1966 to 1999, where I last saw my Dad before he was taken into Hospital, and that’s too much of a memory for me to want to reawaken after last Monday.

Technically this is the South Manchester line, the last of the Phase 3 group, originally ending at St Werburgh’s Road in Chorlton before its second stage brought it round to here. You have to enquire, why have a Metrolink line end at such an insignificant place? The answer to that was that the South Manchester Line was the intended basis for an extension into Stockport, which would put it on a par with all the other destinations. East Didsbury used to be a railway station, on a line extending into Stockport, one that was closed down before we moved round the corner fifty six years ago in December. It seemed perfect.

But that was before it was discovered that too many sections of the old line had been concreted over, so that the cost of digging them up and restoring them from decades of being buried became absolutely prohibitive. The extension to what will be the new Stockport Bus Station and Interchange when it’s finished – two years already and all they’ve done so far is knock it down – will never happen. Instead, there’s some anomalous idea to extend it to the Railway Station, even though that’s about a hundred feet or more higher, is simmering on some back burner. Probably in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.’

Though if there ever is any significant money in and development of any part of this country beyond London, there are nebulous plans for an extension from Stockport to Stalybridge, through the Tame Valley, which would then open up the possibility of a shorter link from the latter to Ashton. Maybe in time the Metrolink network could be not just radial but circular.

As always, I just missed a 203, but the next one was almost supernaturally early so I barely had time to burn when the sun broke through the patchy cloud. Burning sunshine: just wait until the afternoon really gets going.

One thing these rides into Manchester have reinforced is my unending amusement and bemusement at the peoplw waiting at stops who immediately surge forward to board before having to step back before passengers getting off. It’s the way that so many of them stand back with a look of absolute shock that there are people disembarking at all. What the f…? What do they think buses are for? Or do they believe they have riubber sides, expanding infinitely to encompass the ever-increasing number of passengers, none of whom, as if in some truly mundane horror story, can ever leave?

It started to rain as we rolled into the City Centre and I missed two trams that could have transferred me to St Peter’s Square whilst the bus was approaching its terminus. The mix of services should ensure I don’t have to wait too long, but on the other hand the next Altrincham tram is due in three minutes for a terribly long time.

Though this is the first time I’ve travelled the whole line, I have passed through all the stations before: every stop from St Peter’s Square to Trafford Bar on the Altrincham Line, and every stop from East Disbury to Firswood and back on my visit to Old Trafford during the last Cricket World Cup. The only new experience due to me today is the length of track from Trafford Bar to Firswood.

When I hopped off at St Peter’s Square, an East Didsbury tram was just leaving. This might be a short line but fate seemedto be conspiring to drag it out. However, I barely had time to write one three-line note before the next one arrived. We crawled, literally, in the wake of a Media City UK tram as far as Deansgate, where we changed drivers, a hold up long enough for us to then travel normally.

The most severely attractive woman on the tram disappointed me by alighting at Cornbrook to transfer to another line whilst I continued towards Trafford Bar. As for the only new section, there was nothing to see except a massive tram depot and the floodlights of Old Trafford Cricket Ground rising behind it.

We passed through Chorlton and St Werburgh’s Road, where Phase 3a originally terminated. After that it was Withington and Burton Road, where I decided I must one day find out where they’ve put the stations, and lastly the three Didsburys – West, Village and East. As the whole of this line runs on a former railway, we’re passing through cuttings all the way, with nothing to see. Though I haven’t lived in this area for fully half my life, this is still old home country to me, and I feel very conmfortable here.

As I’ve already said, there’s nothing to see at East Didsbury, but if you cross Kingsway and travel three stops on the 50 bus, it takes you to Fog Lane, and what is Fog Lane home to? Yes, the legendary Sifters, which at long last is open, though Pete is looking increasingly frail. It came on to rain just as I got inside, and I found it quite stuffy indoors. Given how generous Pete’s been to me over the years in buying my unwanted records, I always try to buy something whenever I’m here, but I’m not that confident. Once you reach retirement age, you’ve usually got all the music you want, and very little is beiing made for you by that time.

But a Shakira Live CD and DVD and a two-disc Punk Collection came under my eye at £2.99 each and I departed content.

By then it was hammering down. Kingsway was swimming in water. I took the bus back to East Didsbury and dropped into Tescos to use their loo. Having had no lunch, I crossed the corner and took refuge in Pizza Hut, trying not to drip too much on the table. My hair was soaked, my t-shirt was streak-soaked where the rain got inside my jacket collar, my jeans were soaked all down the front and my shoes and socks were soaked. But apart from that… My Pizza was very welcome. I may not have been much dryer when I left but I was much happier.

Outside it had practically but not totally stopped raining. I made it to the bus stop, finishing as I started by just missing a 23 bus. Apart from one slow section of pre-rush hour crawling that made Hyde Road look user-friendly there was nothing to write about on the bus home, by which time dry clothes and a hot coffee were my best friends. Six down, two to go.

Walking Coast to Coast


In 1972, Alfred Wainwright, who had had little enjoyment out of walking and mapping the Pennine Way, published a book about a long distance walk he had devised himself, taking advantage of public rights of way to walk and map a route from the west coast of England to the east, crossing three National Parlks en route.

Known simply as A Coast to Coast Walk, linking St Bees Head on the Irish Sea with Robin Hood’s Bay on the North Sea, the route became an immediate favourite and has remained immensely popular ever since, supporting the economies of all the places en route. Which was not what Wainwright wanted, since he never asked for people to walk his routes, and indeed part of his intention in producing such a personal and unofficial routes was not encourage people to follow his example, not his footsteps, and devise their own long distance walks, using their imagination, not his.

Some people have done so, but none have been remotely as popular, nor been walked so many, as Wainwright’s route.

Which makes it particularly pleasant, if contrary to the Blessed’s every instinct, to read that in its fiftieth year the Coast to Coast Walk is to be adopted as a National Footpath, with similar status to the Pennine Way. He’d never have seen it that way, but what a fitting tribute to the man who saw what was possible so long ago.

Coast

A Manchester Metro Expedition: The Ashton Line


Ashton

There’s a change of procedure today, to comply with a change of priorities.

As some of you will remember, today is the Anniversary of my Dad’s death, fifty-two years ago, when I was fourteen. With the exception of the two years I lived in Nottingham, and was unavailable, I have visited Dukinfield Crematorium every year since. Today will mark my 50th visit.

Today’s Expedition will see me travelling on the Ashton Line, officially the East Manchester Line. Dukinfield is a townlet up the hill from Ashton-under-Lyne, on the way to Hyde. It’s not out of the question to do my usual there-and-back routine, with a there-and-back on the bus in between, but I have more important things on which to focus today and no patience for that kind of faffing around.

So I will get to the Crematorium the way I usually go, by bus (the 330) from Stockport, crossing beneath Werneth Low and enjoying the wide views, throiugh Hyde and getting off at Dukinfield Town Hall for the uphill walk that gets steeper and longer every year. Then down again for the bus into Ashton and, in due course, the East Manchester Line into Manchester for a wide, wide loop home.

It’s a milder day than of late, enough for me to put on a jacket, but there’s still a heaviness in the air that’s playing its part in my low-energy state. Just the walk to the bus stop has me wishing there was a seat there. On the way down Lancashire Hill, the electric noticeboard that usually alerts to roadworks and traffic jams is warning of thunderstorms today. Yes please, but not now.

It’s a long journey on the 330, with some widespread views along the way so this is one of the services on which I head upstairs. It’s even more stuffy, so I slip my jacket off, and carry it around all the rest of the day. It was an uneventful journey apart from the suicide pigeon we clumped over before leaving Stockport, so uneventful that we passed nine stops before we had to let a passenger off and twelve before one got on, by which time we were in Woodley.

Beyond that we started to climb, along the fringes of Werneth Low Country Park, lovely open countryside. Views start to open up on the left, across Hyde to the hills beyond Ashton, marking the Saddleworth Valley, that I will see at much closer range from the Crematorium.

When I got off outside Dukinfield Town Hall, I was just as slow-moving as before and wishing the road up the hill wasn’t so long or so high, but once through the gates I forget such things. Though the inscription Mam chose for Dad for the Book of Remembrance celebrates him as the devoted family man he was, I cannot come here without thinking of the one chosen for Dad’s elder brother: I shall lift up mine eyes to the hills. So simple yet so perfect for both. I lift up mine eyes to the hills as I walk to the Plot.

Occasions such as this develop their own rituals. Mine is to clear my head of all thoughts about the day and what it means until I reach Dad’s plot. There I just say whatever comes into my head. Afterwards, I enter the Chapel of Remembrance but can’t stay more than a few minutes before my eyes start to fill. I am now older than my mother and more than half as old again as my father. It feels so wrong that I have had so much and he so little.

I was so dry by now that, walking back down the hill, I bought not only a diet coke but a water to refill my water bottle. Thankfully, there was a seat at the stop for the bus down into Ashton because I had to wait nearly ten minutes for a ride.

I let the bus take me all the way into the Bus Station where there was a Sandwich Pound, like the one I used to get lunch from in Stockport when working at Sky. Refreshed and surprisingly re-energised, if not for all that long, I headed for the Town Centre through the Arcades Mall. There was an impressive YMCA charity shop just inside, and another within two hundred yards, with a stunning offer to mix DVDs, CDs and Books at six for £1. It was too good not to take advantage of but I could only find two I wanted, and none I was interested in trying out. It turned out the offer was ‘up to 6 items’ so I bought them.

Once I emerged into the open it had started raining. One young woman from an outdoor cafe was dancing and singing about it but it was only the fine, powdery rain that takes ten minutes to get you wet. Then I spotted yet another CEX, where I was able to find the Borgen Trilogy boxset for only £3. And I highly recommended the Person of Interest box set to the pair behind the counter.

Of all the destinations on the Metrolink Network, Ashton is by far the one with which I am most familiar. I have been coming here, on and off for sixty years or so. As often as Mam would take me out shopping in Manchester, we would catch the 218 or 219 the other way, up the Old Road to Ashton. It was standing at a bus stop on Stamford Street to come home that she first realised I was short-sighted’ “This one is our bus,” she said, and I looked at her in surprise and said, “You mean you can see the number that far away?” She was shocked that I couldn’t, and within a week I was having my eyes tested.

And Dad used to work here too. He’d started out as a draughtsman but I’m not sure of his then-role at a company called Industrial Models Ltd, whose premises were on a narrow street parallel to Stamford Street, the main road through Ashton, but what I remember as being fifty feet or more lower. After he’d got his first car, if we were late enough leaving, Mam would take me down there and I’d look around in wonder at what my Dad did, and the cheerful, noisy men he worked with, and he’d drive us home if it wasn’t one of the nights he did overtime and got home so late that I was already in bed and didn’t get to see him.

I remember Mam saying once, after his death, that he’d built up a division within the firm, called Industrial Mimics & Electronics, very successfully, and then they’d taken it off him, devastatingly.

Not long after we moved from East Manchester to South Manchester, the firm moved premises, to Oldham, a longer drive for him and a more stressful one, having tp drive across the moors: one extra-snowy day he was back home about 10.00am, the moors impassable, cars getting stuck and he’d eventually managed to get the car turned round and come back. He hadn’t agreed with the decision, which was apparently made on the basis that the Oldham premises had great offices when, as far as Dad was concerned, offices were secondary to the factory facilities.

I have other memories of Ashton, of things and places and streets long since vanished, demolished and destroyed. If we came into Ashton for a couple of hours from a Saturday afternoon in Droylsden, we would always go round the Market, up and down and side to side between the stalls. There was a record stall that consisted on 7″ singles scattered higgledy-piggeldy in heaps, with no thought for scratches. Late one Saturday afternoon, my mother let me linger there despite being eager to get back for a warming cup of tea. She asked me if there was any record in particular that I was after, so I mentioned my then favourite song, a complete flop the previous year, Thunderclap Newman’s ‘The Reason’ (which I thought was titled ‘There’s a Reason’, from its lyrics.) So she went up the other end of the stall and came back about three minutes later, holding a single in the wrong record label’s sleeve and asked, “Is this the one?” and bloody hell it was! It’s the only copy of the single I’ve ever seen and I have it still.

But Ashton Market has other connotations of which I wasn’t aware but which I’m sure my parents knew, because this had been a favourite place of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley’s, from where they had taken at least two of their child victims. The age I was meant that I was a couple of years younger than their youngest abductees, but I doubt that my parents made that kind of distinction and, by the time they were tried and convicted I would have been very much in the frame.

What Ashton reminds me of most strongly is long gone, like my football boots. I used to get football boots for school here, insisting stubbornly on proper old-fashioned toecaps. Two pair lasted me two years each, the third one year, and we’d had to try every sports shop in the town, not to mention a lot of my mother’s patience, never infinite, to get toecapped boots that time. A year later they were consigned to the sportsbag of history and bloody good riddance to them. I was very uncertain of my new boots, at first. But where, in five years of my previous boots, I had scored a grand total of four goals, two of them flukes, with my modern pair I scored 33 goals in 32 games.

All of which means that the old Ashton is still much more familiar to me than the new one, despite forty years of coming here since those days. The new Outdoor Market mayb be better built but it’s only a quarter occupied and it was far too stuffy inside the Indoor Market for more than a cursory walk round.

Before I gave up and headed for the Metro, I strolled across to Stamford Street, to see what it looks like today. This took me past silent side streets that used to be thronged with shops but which now offer only closed shutters. The story of Tory England. There used to be a decent comics shop here, but the Arcade of which it was part is now for private businesses only.

I arrived at the Metrolink terminus as a MetroCity tram was sliding in and secured my favourite seat. I’ve ridden this service ponce before, from the first station stop, Ashton West, when FC United of Manchester were sharing Curzon Ashton’s ground and I came out of an evening game in the run-up to promotion at risk of missing the last 330 back to Stockport, and played it safe by going the long way round I’m doing today.

After leaving the streets and the cars, the tram picks up speed alongside sprawling trading Estates with acres of car parking space. Ahead lies Ashton Moss. Once this was a long buffer between Ashton and East Manchester, and even now there’s still lots of space, but you can see which way development is trending, insofar as there is still any development in the current economic climate. We can make good time all along here until The Snipe, where the Manchester-bound road did and does divide into Ashton Old Road and Ashton New Road. The Mtero goes with the latter, and has to slow down a fair bit because its tracks run down the centre of the road, dividing the traffic.

That’s as far as Droylsden, which was where Phase 1 of this line initially terminated, and after that we pull over into the left hand lane which we share with the road traffic. This is very much old home country for me, with my grandparents living here until 1982 and all my visits to play Squash at Carriages disco and squash club, and to watch Droylsden play. The names of the stations resonate: Cemetery Road, Edge Lane, the latter with its little parade of shops and my vivid memory the comics I bought in the newsagents, fifty two years and two days ago.

At Clayton Hall, reminding me of the infamous Clayton Anilene that had you hilding your breath driving down this section, tyhe tram swings away from the main road preparatory to crossing it and passing beside the Bitters’ stadium. I would prefer not to look at it, but even with my head turned, my peripheral vision still worked too well. But then the line descends, thrugh a tunnel, and then along deep channels where little can be seen and all sense of place on the surface was lost. Holt Town and New Islington mean mothing to me, just stops on the way into Piccadilly Station from the back.

From nowhere another memory jumped out. Early in our marriage we had some documents to sign which meant a joint trip to offices somewhere out along the Altrincham line. I had to take half a day off work to make it. The plan was to meet there. I got into Piccadilly on the train from Bolrton, she and her kids would catch the train from the local station. I came down the stairs to the Metro platform to find a tram boarding. The people boarding it at that very moment were my wife and her kids. These were the days when even an unexpected extra ten minutes in each other’s company was sheer delight.

The rest of it was the bus back down Hyde Road, which ran smoothly because I was ahead of the rush hour. I was stuck at the back, in a corner opposite a three year old girl and someone who I first thought must be her fourteen year old sister but, given just how big a tattoo she had on her right arm, was clearly her mother instead. Certainly she was concerned that the little girl, who was wearing a dress, kept half sitting on her seat, legs akimbo, and exposing her knickers, continually telling her to sit straight or pull her dress down, whilst I had to focus my eyeline at a level high enough not to see anything.

That’s now five lines explored, even if this week’s was only one-way. I’ll be doing the samev next Monday, though for a different reason.

Grease is no longer the word


ONJ

I almost paused to reflect on the death of Judith Durham such a short time ago, but now it’s been followed by her fellow Australian singer, Olivia Newton-John, news I have only discovered a few minutes ago.

Truth to tell, I enjoyed Judith Durham’s music, or rather that of The Seekers, far more than I did Olivia Newton-John’s, or ‘Livvy’ as we used to call her. I certainly heard far more of Livvy’s singng than I did the Seekers, throughout most of the Seventies, and for the same reason that I heard most of the Progressive Music I endured at the same time, though this time from only one source.

I had a mate from school who lived just rund the corner from me. Our tastes in music weren’t all that similiar but he listened politely to my albums as I did to his. With me it was Lindisfarne, 10cc, The Moody Blues. With him it was ELP, Yes, Pink Floyd. And Livvy.

A lot of it was that he had one almighty crush on Livvy, and let’s be fair, tall, blonde, slim, long-legged, with a sweet face, she was eminent cr ush material. I never minded looking at pictures of her, or seeing her on Top of the Pops, and some of her Seventies’ album covers were absolutely gorgeous. Girl took a good photo, certainly.

Musically, in this era, I had no means of classifying what she sang. Country-influenced MOR, I’d say now, with a hefty slant to the MOR side of it. There was nothing wrong with it, I didn’t dislike it, the way I did Tales of Topographic Oceans, but, with the odd exception here and there, I didn’t like it. I accepted it as a necessary hazard of life, like the way my mother never stopped telling me to be careful crossing Kingsway, no matter how old I got.

You’d think that, given all his other tastes, my mate’s obsession with Livvy’s music must have been something of a come-on, but no such thing. He genuinely adored her music. ‘he was so reverent to it that, every time she brought out a new LP, he would carefully wipe it with an anti-static dust remover, touching the vynil by the edges of the disc only, lower the needle onto the run-in groove as gently as a falling leaf, and would record the album onto cassette. And never ever play the vynil again.

Our friendship more or less died in 1978 when I left to go live in Nottingham for two years. That didn’t get me away from Livvy, not at first, for 1978 was the year of Grease and a combined seventeen weeks at Number 1 for her singles with John Travolta. But long before I came back we had stopped talking to each other. So after that I got to hear less and less of Livvy, which I never regretted. A friend of mine once played me a VHS tape of the film Xanadu, in which she starred, and which I thought was one of the most crass, soul-destroying, lumpen and demeaning films I ever saw. My heart bled for Gene Kelly, reduced to playing in shit like that, and subjected to almost on-stop degradation. I hope to God the poor bastard got paid shedloads for having to go through that.

I don’t remember hearing anything else by Livvy after that, and that now means nearly forty years.

This is not precisely a remembrance of Olivia Newton-John and it’s certainly not a tribute to her. A photo of her in tank top, long-sleeved blouse, hot pants and knee length boots, from 1971 would be how I’d choose to remember her, because yes, she was absolutely gorgeous, but she and her music played a big part in my life for a long time, and I know Alan will be devastated tonight, for his were feelings that would never be eroded by time. Sorry news, mate. Raise a glass to her for me whilst you’re at it.

A Manchester Metro Expedition: The Rochdale Line


Rochdale

After the Eccles Line was completed, Manchester’s Metrolink went on to its most ambitious and far-reaching expansion, phase 3. This was divided into two stages, both dealing with the simultaneous construction of three additional lines. The ultimate destinations of those three lines were Rochdale, Ashton-under-Lyne and East Didsbury (and the last of these was intended to be the basis for an extension ultimately to Stockport).

Stage 1 took the three lines initially to Oldham, Droylsden and St Werburgh’s Road in Chorlton (an address I have always had my doubts about given that the Satanist’s primary festival, Walpurgisnacht, draws its name from St Walburga…) The completion of these sections them formed the basis for the current lines.

Try as I might, I can’t find out online the order in which the three lines were completed, either in Stage 1 or Stage 2, so I’ve had to take other factors into consideration when deciding which to take first, in this case Rochdale.

The far north-east of Greater Manchester is not an area I know well. My experience of Rochdale is limited. Attendance at the County Court a couple of times, no more. Two visits to Spotlands, Rochdale FC’s home, for widely-separated FA Cup First Round ties, supporting different non-League teams, both won. And a couple of months going out with a psychiatric nurse (our last date was a New Year’s Eve Party. The next day, I took the coward’s option and wrote to her, explaining that it wasn’t working out and that we should stop seeing each other. Two days later, the day my letter would have been delivered, I received a letter from her, explaining that it wasn’t working out and that we should stop seeing each other. It made me feel a bit better.)

I’m watching a very cheap DVD boxset on eBay that doesn’t finish until 12.40pm so I can’t leave before then, but I get myself ready to go immediately (yes, I won it: the Complete Blackadder remastered for £1.99).

A 203 goes past the end of my road as I walk down it (I swear I am going to save that senytence into a Word Document so that I can just copy-and-paste ever after). I’d taken the gamble of coming out in jeans and a t-shirt and from the way I started burning up waiting at the stop, it seemed I’d done the right thing. Two stops away, the bus sits and waits. That’s only the 4th stop out of the Town Centre but the drivers always take a five minute break there, against the strictures of the journey. When it eventually condescends to collect me, it’s slow going all the way down Reddish Road. The traffic is busy and every stop sees the bus trapped and unable to pull out for traffic sliding past us.

On the other hand, we fairly fly down Hyde Road and I’m at Piccadilly Gardens for 1,40pm. There’sa scrawling message that services on the East Didsbury – Rochdale Line are liable to delay due to a fault. Checking on the possible impact of this, reveals an absence of planning on my part: that line doesn’t go through Picadilly Gardens at all!

I could walk down Market Street but it’s hot so I hop on an Altrincham tram as far as St Peter’s Square, change platforms and get the Rochdale tram there, also relieving myself of the need for a separate, small Expedition to cover the short stretch through Exchange Square. It may not be as hot as Bury three weeks ago, but the ladies have responded in like manner.

Leaving Victoria, we follow the Bury Line route until diverting off to the right, on a gentle gradient, heading initially for Monsall. I don’t know this quadrant of Greater Manchester at all well, except to drive through to somewhere else, and North Manchester has always been considered a sort of backwards cousin to South Manchester (but as I’ve lived in South Manchester since the end of 1966, I may be showing a degree of prejudice here). On the other hand, I am seriously impressed by the fantastic flyover canopies that distinguish Central Park Station (wherever that is in real life).

The further we travel, the more I enjoy the ride. There are a lot of woodlands from when this was a rail line, whilst clearer spaces introduce old mills and factories, and the backs of terraced streets. We descend into South Chadderton Station, after which we continue at a lower level.

On the approach to Oldham, the line goes through a loop that sees us bend left and return right to straighten out, which was unexpected because on the Metrolink map, it’s represented as doubling the opposite direction. There are three stops in Oldham. I know that only a little more than Rochdale, mostly for visits over many years to the excellent Oldham Colisseum Theatre. These Expeditions are primarily about travelling the entire Metrolink Network, but I will come here and look round once they’re done.

Beyond Oldham we really sail out into open country for most of the rest of the way. The Pennines rear on the near horizon, the M62 into Yorkshire, one of the biggest holes through which the bloody Tykes get into Lancashire. There are old stone cottages mingling with looks-like-stone-but-is-brick housing estates.

We pass through Milnrow, which was the first place I ever visited in Richdale. In the Drought Summer of 1976 I did some summer work for the now-defunct GMC, supporting a massive survey on traffic numbers into and out of the County. Mostly we were making maps/directions for the surveyors but they weren’t quite geared up so, on my first day, two of us were sent on the bus to stand beside a Motorway Junction in Milnrow and count cars coming off.

By the time we reach Rochdale Town Centre, I am ready to stand up, drink and eat in that order. We crawl downhill to the terminus at what I later learn is known as Town Hall Square. Much refurbishment is going on and large areas are blocked off by high hoardings. I’m about to say that I don’t recognise a thing, when I suddenly spot the very place my Rochdale girlfriend asked me to meet her on our second date (at the end of which she let me drive her home so I knew where she lived and invited me in for a coffee that went stone cold because we started snogging instead, which happened every time I took her home, at first: things went well to begin with).

What I can see of the Town Centre looks like it’s a good place to wander round. The River Roch, which runs underneath her, has been exposed to view to an even greater extent than the Mersey in Stockport. There’s a splendid Memprial Gardens with a small amusement park and an impressive monument to the War Dead of the Town, plus it’s Market Day, but there’s bugger all shops selling things like food and drink, or pretty much of anything else. A Town Map shows me that I’m heading in the wrong direction if I want that sort of thing. It also tells me that I’ve missed the Gracie Fields statue, which is a shame because I’m going to have to walk back pass it and notice it (actually, I’m in luck: it’s behind hoardings and I can only just see the head).

I ewalk through the Market coming back. it’s compact and bijou and busy but it’s quite clearly a serious market, all clothes and cloth, bags and handbags and housegold products: no fun stalls. By now I need a loo so I reluctantly enter a Wetherspoons. Inside it’s cool, but the bar staff are a ramshackle bunch, the service is ultra slow and I lose all faith that they’re aware I’m there and won’t start serving the people who’ve come up behind me, so I deposit rather than consume and go elsewhere.

The Riverside Centre seems to be the next best bet. It backs onto the Metrolink Station but doesn’t seem keen on you getting in. Another long walk later, I plumb its secret depths. There are still no ‘fun’ shops, books, music or a local CEX but there is a Gregg’s from which I can finally slake my hunger and thirst.

What else there may be to find in Rochdale, further afield, I don’t know. It has not filled me with enthusiasm to roam further. Besides, I need to be home by a certain time for another eBay item being offered astonishingly cheap (I am outbid on this but really the winner still gets it ridiculously cheap considering that the next cheapest signed copy is four times dearer: I settle for an unsigned copy cheaper than my failed bid) so there’s no point in delaying when I’m not really enjoying myself all that much. Another time.

Besides, the vast majority of the girls in very abbreviated and tight shorts are so young that I feel embarrassed just noticing them in my peripheral vision.

Return journeys are unimportance squared unless you get a disaster like my Bury Expedition. I came, I saw, I made rough notes. Been there, done that, already had a t-shirt on.

The homeward run is uneventful. I got off at Exchange Square and walked up Market Street, re-re-re-re-re-awakening my visceral loathing of crowds. I just miss a 203 at its stop but for once this is no bad thing, because I suddenly realise I’ve forgotten to tap out my Concessionary Card when I left the tram, leaving me open to a £100 fine, and have to hitch over to Piccadilly Gardens and do it there.

The bus ride is untroubled to, until we hit an horrendous crawling queue about a mile and a half from my stop, the cause of which I never get to see. When i say crawl, I mean I could have walked it faster. Actually, I get off one stop early and whilst I can’t claim to beat the bus to my stop, it was neck-and-neck until the last five yards.

Four lines done, four more to do. Next Monday will be a bit different.

A Manchester Metro Expedition: The Media City Line


Lowry Centre

Properly speaking, this should be a journey on the Eccles Line, that having been the next line to be added to the Manchester Metrolink Network, but as we now know the Eccles bit of the line is closed for improvements until October. That makes for a short outing today, and a familiar one, as the trams do not go further than Media City, the BBC’s home in the North, for the duration. Nevertheless, apart from Media City itself, there are the Lowry Centre, the Lowry Outlook (formerly Mall) and the Imperial War Museum North all in the immediate vicinity, so I don’t think I’ll be short of things to do.

A shorter trip out it may be but I prepare to set off earlier than usual. Partly this is because I want to stop off part way and leave a repeat prescription at the Doctor’s but mostly it’s because it’s a nice day, blue and white, the Council are mowing all the verges and strips again and I can smell cut grass as if it had been sprayed on.

Needless to say, I miss a bus walking down the street, leaving me to stand under a burning sun, not that this is anything like as bad as the Bury Line trip. It’s as if the sun is putting on a show to celebrate England winning the European Championships yesterday: I did love long enough to see it happen again.

At this time of day, the buses are every fifteen minutes, giving me time to stroll to the surgery and back and get time to sit down waiting for the next service. And stroll it is: I am very slow-movng today, lethargic and deliberate. It’s the same old crank out down Hyde Road, with plenty of stops nowhere and for nothing, and no, I’m not getting used to this by now.

To my surpriseand delight, a Media City tram arrives at Piccadilly Gardens the moment I do, but I;m not quick enough to snah a seat facing the way we’re going. As far as Cornbrook, it’s the same route as last week. I keep my eyes open for the chance to switch seats but that never comes.

There’s a twenty-something girl sat diagonally across from me, short dyed-blonde hair, dark roots, a nose ring on one nostril. She catches my eye beause she looks familiar, as if she resembles someone from film or TV, but I have no idea who. (I wondered for a moment if she might have been Analeigh Tipton, who played a cameo role in an episode of The Big Bang Theory I recently saw and it could well be). At the time, it just seemed like another of those instances I’ve been having for years: I mean, I’m getting on for 67, and I’m seen thousands of people throughout my life that it’s a wonder more of them don’t resemble peoplei used to know.

Except for the final stretch of track from Harbour City to Media City, this is the secition of the Network that I’m most familiar with for all sorts of reasons: visits to the Lowry Centre to see people like Shawn Colvin, Warren Zevon and Rhod Gilbert, unsuccessful job interviews, my then wife’s Graduation from Salford University and one night when I arrived at midnight Friday and sat outside the Lowry till 3.00am, but that’s a secret. Salford Quays is still a very strange place, looking nothing like a part of Manchester, or even Salford, at all. Office blocks of glass and either yellow-beige or red brick, narrow canyons through which the tram weaves slowly, apartment blocks of advanced design, built for yuppies in the days before we knew what yuppies were, old dockbays filled with glittering water far cleaner than was imaginable when this was Salford Docks, the end of the Manchester Ship Canal. It may now be thirty years or more old but it still looks like something delivered on an interstellarcraft and dropped down here to test the intelligence of the natives. I think we’re losing.

Media City lies off to one side of the Lowry Centre. It’s cdominated by the BBC but ITV have premises here, as do Salford University. Under the sun and surrounded by sparkle it’s busy and post booths and stalls offer over-expensive varieties of food and drink. I wander about a bit, see a nice redhead in a short skirt sat in a deckchair who buoys my spirits. But the twin demands of my bladder and my belly restrict the amount of time I can spend here, so I drift off towards the Lowry, and opt for Pizza Express. Their menu is a bit pricey and they don’t even do Deep Pan but on the other hand I can have Diet Coke, not Diet Pepsi, so swings and roundabouts.

The Lowry Mall, as it originally was, has moved on et again, from Lowry Outlook to Quayside. It offers little of interest – the only shop I enters is The Works – so I walk very slowly across the first of two wide and modern suspension bridges to the Imperial War Museum North. I’ve been here only once before, in the mid-2000s, when my then elder-stepson had a project to do for MGS and we came down here on Sunday morning. It was an intense and moving experience, and it is again. This time, however, it’s exacerbated by my wearing a facemask for the first time in almost twelve months. It’s stifling, and my escaping breath steams my glasses, making it hard to read the labels.

In fact, on my own, it’s too much for me and I barely last fifteen minutes before I have to get out. We did this. We did all of this. All those people, killed, slaughtered. And we still haven’t started doing any better. It’s too much for me.

Outside, in the air, I start to feel better, though not to move any faster. I head back across another bridge that brings me out between the two main BBC buildings, Blue Peter mega-badges everywhere. Across the square I can see an Ashton-via-Piccadilly tram in the station. Despite my complete absence of alacrity, I catch it and get a forward-facing seat. And I get straight onto a 203 back at Piccadilly.

Neither journey, tram or bus, is much fun. It’s stuffy inside and everything that halts us rubs my nerves up the wrong way. But at last I’m home. This was the least enjoyable trip on the Network to date, and I know that one of those yet to come is going to be even worse, but I shalln’t be taking that route for a few weeks yet. Time to recover before then.

A Manchester Metro Expedition: The Altrincham Line


Alty

The contrast to last Monday could only be more pointed if it were actually raining. It has already and any experienced watcher of the Manchester skies would be dismally certain that it will do again, but for now there’s merely a cloud-filled sky instead of the bright blue, cold air instead of hot and the complete absence of any weather conditions suggesting that this might still be July.

When the first Metrolink line was opened, thirty years ago, there was a single line split into two parts: Bury to Altrincham, with Piccadilly Station in the middle. Not all trams went into the Station, some went straight through, bypassing even Piccadilly Gardens. I know Altrincham better than Bury, again for professional reasons. I practiced Law with two firms there for just over five years, my first serious relationship was with a woman who lived in Hale, but less than ten minutes from Altrincham Station and, when I first started going to see Manchester United at Old Trafford, it was taking her daughter, for which we used the trainline that was taken over and adapted into the Metro line.

So the point of today is that I am heading for territory I know very well. Or that I used to. I haven’t worked in Altrincham for over thirty years. What’s changed?

By the time I actually set out, it is raining, and giving it a good go as well. My trousers are soaked from the thighs down before I’m halfway down the street.

The Chinese say that a journey of a thousand miles begins with but a single step. They’re talking about patience and persistence, but when that first step is always the 203 bus, desperation enters the picture as well. Nevertheless, I don’t wait long, though the driver does. Once we get onto Hyde Road he’s forever stopping at stops where no-one wants to get on or off, not even a replacement driver once we’re opposite the Bus Garage. Whilst we dawdle, my trousers get busy on being very clammy on me. I might have to take a bath again this evening, if not for quite the same reason.

This is not a day for shorts, short skirts or braless tops. Indeed, it’s not for many travellers at all. The first short skirt I see all day is from the bus, just leaving Town coming home, and it is short, with a distinct inch of underbuttock peeking out under the hemline. Since the girl was no older than fifteen at the most, I averted my eyes.

By the time we reach Hyde Road, the rain has stopped, which is where the driver starts following suit. It’s very frustrating because I never feel like these Expeditions have properly begun until I’m on the Metro or the train. And I’m not just paranoid – though obviously I am – but on the approach to Piccadilly Gardens an Altrincham tram crosses our path, black cat fashion, but by the time I get to the platform it’s pulled out, and that’s seven minutes to the next one.

The wait’s not too bad but it’s cold enough, and I’m still damp enough, to welcome the Tram when it arrives. We slide slowly down towards St Peter’s Square, where Central Ref (the Main Library) stands, reminding me that I need to start booking more sessions to read Spare Ribs in the Daily Express, this time on the reels from which you can photocopy. After that, the tram takes to rooftop level as we pass between the Bridgewater Hall and the Manchester Conference Centre that I at least will always still think of as the G-Mex Centre.

I’m pretty familiar with the stretch to Cornbrook, where the Eccles line diverts across the Ship Canal into Salford Quays, though that’s down to visits to the Lowry Centre. The canal zone is all little basins and cool original bridges linking towpaths. It’s something of a student zone, or it was when my then wife was studying at Salford University and I had to keep coming out to fetch her from various ‘in’ clubs. I’ve always wanted to wander round there, maybe take a few pictures, not get chucked into the canal…

After Cornbrook, we descend to street level for the rest of the journey. The first two stations are Trafford Bar, which used to be Old Trafford despite not being the train stop for either the cricket or the football ground, and Old Trafford, which used to be, and as far as I’m concerned always will be, the famous Warwick Road station. Pulling in here and looking over to see the Ladies Stand Scoreboard and what was the score. Or getting off at or just going through the vanished underpass to get to one Old Trafford or the other and, on one memorable occasion, both, breaking a day’s cricket to see the first home game of the season before returning to finish off the sunshine day in front of the now much-overshadowed Pavillion. The ground’s re-development is horrible and unsympathetic.

Some stations from here to Altrincham have mixed memories for me. I think it was Stretford where, after breaking up with me for the third or fourth time, my first (reciprocated) love arranged to meet a mate of mine I’d introduced her to, when this was still a rail line. I hated the very idea and never went in that pub again, not even after she told me he’d blown it by not turning up: he’d forgotten all about it! It was unworthy of me but I couldn’t repress my (internal) glee.

On the other hand, Timperley was where Veronica lived. Veronica was the least serious of my longer relationships, ten years older than me but still very attractive. And I’m still ashamed of how I let that peter out in the end without telling her it was over in any way at all.

There’s a delay just before we get to Navigation Road, the penultimate stop. This is to let a Bury-bound tram get through the single track section but they don’t say anything to explain why we’re just sitting here, like piffy on a rock bun as my parents used to say.

Like Bury, Altrincham terminus is an Interchange: I exit through the Bus Station. I haven’t been to Altrincham for any length of time for years but reorienting myself to the streets is near instantaneous. What lines them now is another matter. Greggs supplies me with food (tuna crunch baguette) and drink then I stroll around a bit. The Virgin Store of which I can remember a few purchases and an argument over who could have the last copy of Nat ‘King’ Cole’s ‘When I Fall In Love’ on a CD single has long gone, but there’s a Waterstones now and though my trousers have more or less dried, it’s definitely cold outside and warm in there.

It’s ages since I’ve spent real time in a bookshop. I used to do it every Friday night, after a week’s work at my hated North Manchester firm, wandering around for at least an hour before my Friday night Pizza. For a long time now I buy my books online, so I only buy what I specifically choose, but I still love the atmosphere of a bookshop: the calmness, the warmth, the evidently civilised air. I miss the serendipity of books, of finding what you didn’t know existed but definitely wanted. Not that this happens here but the reminder is very welcome.

Virtually opposite was Altrincham’s version of CEX from where, yes, again, I emerged with three really cheap DVDs.

I don’t have the same degree of detestation for my Altrincham firm as I do for the North Manchester one I went to next, thinking I was escaping a dire situation (I was, but only by getting into an even direr one) so I have no problem about strolling up to their offices. On the way, I note sadly but unsurprisedly that the good bookshop has gone. I remember the intense shock of seeing R A Laffery’s Serpent’s Egg in its window, one lunchtime returning to work. And I remember seeing another new book there, going back in and mentioning to the Senior Partner that the new Kafka was out – and it was a cookbook! A joke that fell completely flat as he looked at me in total incoimprehension. He had never heard of Franz Kafka (the cookbook, incidentally, was by Barbara K).

The name’s still the same as when I left in 1991, which is amazing, though they’ve side-stepped offices to larger premises next door, with a more old-fashioned and ornate frontage. I didn’t visit.

On another street, the decent Secondhand Bookshop is still there but when I get up to it I can see it only opens Thursday to Friday so. From there though I can see a corner that holds too many memories for me to walk the short distance to it. When Mary and I first got together, our relationship was a complete secret from everyone else in our office. If we wanted to spend some time together at lunch, which we so often did, we would leave separately and by separate ways walk to that corner, and from there to the secluded little park the other side of Chester Road where we could have fifteen minutes cuddling.

I would always be first to the corner, hiding round it, walking in a little circle, and darting glances round it to see if she had begun that long, straight walk that brought her to me. I can see her even now. Long after, I wondered if the sheer frequency of our rendezvouses might have laid a psychic imprint on that place, so that the ghosts of us still meet at ten past one on a weekday afternoon to enjoy the most wonderful three-quarter hour of our working day.

That’s it for me. It’s even sunny when I get back to the station and I jump straight onto a waiting Tram, though the driver doesn’t for another five minutes. The only comment to make about the return trip is that there were no comments to make, until we’re passing the Conference Centre where a Degree Ceremony has clearly been taking place and the forecourt is chock-a-bloc with gowns and boards and faculty colours and justifiably massive grins.

So, Piccadilly Gardens again. A 203 pulls up just before me to disembark its load, giving me enough time to walk round the corner to its departure stop. I’m ahead of the rush hour but nobody’s told the half a hundred people queuing, that is if the Q word can really be applied to an amorphous mass that’s so loosely staggered that I get on with less than a dozen people ahead of me. At the other end, it’s trying to ran again but too fitfully to be registered as rain, so I am spared a fearful symmetry for my Expedition. Coffee is, as always, very welcome.