A Derby Expedition


If you wonder why I’m having a day out in Derby, a place I have never been before, have only ever been through before, and which, except to its inhabitants, is not known as a place to attract tourist attention, then I have to confess it’s self-inflicted.

My previous experiences have all been in transit: a couple of coach journeys, returning from Manchester to Nottingham when the route swung south to pass through Derby first, a diversion on the way back from Belper to Droylsden when one of our players suffered a serious ankle injury when playing and had to be collected from the hospital after the match, and possibly going both ways on the day of my Sunday League visit to see Lancashire play away at Leicestershire. This is all of my relationship with Derby to date.

But I’m off there for at least some part of the day today, through nobody’s fault but my own. Last Sunday, I picked off an Amazon Kindle Fire from eBay for a mere £16.00, crowing to my clever little self, until I read the bit I’d not taken proper cognizance of: Local Collection in Person. ONLY.

Thankfully, Derby isn’t too far to travel, though it’s a damned stupid thing to have done, so I agreed a time to attend on my buyer and collect my item. And in the grand tradition of making lemonade when you find yourself up to your arse in lemons, I’ll treat it as a chance to get away, to see what it’s like there and give myself a Saturday out.

I’m at Stockport Station in my usual ample time, having picked up sandwiches in Mersey Square and a couple of tubes of Hall’s Blackcurrent Soothers for my ravaged throat. There’s half an hour to spare before my train but I can’t initially tell which platform I want, especially with the crowds milling about on the main southbound platform, platform 2. There’s a tall, slim woman with long legs and a short skirt, her long straight hair dyed a particularly appealling shade of dark red who keeps my eye from straying to the blonde who’s paired her equally short-skirt with knee-length boots: you’d think it was 1971 again.

Both disappear onto the Euston train, freeing up enough room to consult the Board and discover I want Platform 1. The 10.28 is the Cleethorpes train, announced two or three times as stopping at Sheffield and lots of points east, that is until two minutes before it arrives, when it’s transformed into Sheffield only, due to an ‘operational incident’ at Grimsby.

This very late change has me recalling a story of queuing for tickets at Old Trafford in the Nineties, when it took them 25 minutes to count no tickets, a feat of mathematical ingenuity. This draws a chirpy remark from a woman in a hooped woolly hat who’s a Blue, but despite that we’re talking as we get into the carriage, sit on opposite sides of the aisle and keep the conversation up all the way to Sheffield. Though she’s Mancunian, she lives in Prague and is here for the weekend, visiting family.

Talking means I miss the best scenery in the best weather, but we talk football, politics, Europe. If she didn’t live in the Czech Republic I’d have asked her for her name and maybe a telephone number. In fact, at Sheffield she thanks me for the conversation: her sister died six weeks ago and her last trip to Sheffield had been for her funeral: I have saved her from weeping all the way.

It’s now a beautiful blue day and the journey’s a mainly flat, rural one, with standing water in practically every low-lying field from here to Derby. We virtually sneak into the Station with almost no signs we’ve even entered a city.

I follow the nearest Way Out signs but find myself out the back in the middle of nowhere. This is actually the Pride Park exit, and the stadium roof is visible five to ten minutes walk away, but it’s no good to me and I have to ask to be allowed back in to get out the front, to the bus stop. There’s an additional parallel to Portsmouth in that I’m catching a no. 1 bus here as well.

Not immediately. The cashpoint at Stockport Station was switched off earlier so I need to find one here. In doing so I miss the first bus, which was actually a 1A, leaving me standing in a ferocious wind.

I have to make my way to Alvaston, which takes about fifteen minutes on a route that pivots around a single Urban Wind Turbine that, in such a useful wind, is not moving. A single bus journey is nothing on which to judge a city, but my instant reaction is that Derby is, well, bland.

As my seller indicated, the stop is literally outside his door, which is plastered with sheets warning off unwanted callers, with specific reference to UKIP, Brexit and racists. One of them gets particularly sarcastic. Needless to say, I approve. I sign a receipt, cross the road to the return bus stop, which is about ten yards away, far enough for a bus to come shooting past before I can signal. I have fifteen minutes to wait for the next.

This is on time (this is so not a 203 route) and we unwind ourselves out of the narrow, twisty lanes of this estate, onto the main road. There are far more stops inbound than outbound and we’re very slow returning but I’m still at the Station only 65 minutes after I got off the train.

Time for a gentle explore, but first a swift half in the Merry Widows, mainly as an excuse for the Gents. There’s lunchtime football on that I’d happily watch a bit longer if it weren’t for the racist conversation: I haven’t heard ‘P*ki’ used so frequently since about 1974.

The rather lovely barmaid, with near waist-length straight blonde hair, confirms it’s only about ten minutes walk to the City Centre on a straight road outside the side door. This leads to the back of a massive shopping complex called Intu Derby, which is sprawling and crawling inside. I look for bookshops – always a very important factor about a new place – but the best is a decent-sized W.H.Smith: no brownie points there.

Outside, I wander along a series of pedestrianised streets, mentally mapping every step for my return journey. I stroll amiably, mildly uphill, passing variously a steel sculpture of interlocking rings in an almost square, the Assembly Rooms (which I used to joke, when I lived in Nottingham, was one of ‘our’ local concert venues), and ultimately to the Cathedral.

This is impressive, architecturally if not necessarily religiously, and would make a great photo for this post had I thought to bring my new digital camera along. As it is, you’ll have to make do with a stock shot of it.

By now, I’m looking for food. I ate my sandwiches on the train from Sheffield to Derby. Once again, I’ve set my mind on Pizza Hut, or at a pinch Kentucky Fried Chicken but, just like Portsmouth, the homogenisation of our High Streets has been exaggerated. Apart from Mac(hack, plew!)Donalds and Nandos, the sit-in hot food places are either too expensive or too crowded, or both, so I settle for the nearest Greggs.

On the long walk to it, I can see a young couple staring intently at the baguettes and not moving, as if they’re trying to ingest the nutrition visually. My hot sausage roll is still in the oven and is too hot to eat directly from it, so I sit down outside. The wind is still scything along, continually blowng the chairs over, and these are metal, not plastic ones.

As soon as I move, the wind switches round 180 degrees to behind me. Derby has, sadly, lived down to my initial impression of it as flat, both geologically and in terms of interest.

There’s no rush about getting back yet. There are three Stockport trains every hour between 28 minutes past and 15 minutes too, each changing at a different Station: Sheffield, Stoke, Chesterfield. Of course I’m back at the Station when the forty minute gap starts, so I pop in a fast food takeaway and takeaway a double burger and onions. I eat this in the covered bus stop in peace, until an old tramp wanders in, talking or singing to himself (the difference is imperceptible). For a moment, I think he’s going to sit down next to me, unnecessarily and I’m ready to get up and leave. Instead, he drops down three seats away, lights a fag end and says, out loud, “That’s sweet, that is, it’s fucking sweet”. A few last, fast munches, and I’m gone.

The train leaves from Platform 5. I don’t bother hurryng, so I end up arriving just as a Sheffield-bound 09 minutes train has locked its doors. Says it all, really. There’s not much else to say. Our only stop before Sheffield is Chesterfield, where I see the twisted spire: the last time I went out for the day with my old girlfriend Mary was to Chesterfield and we visited the Church with the Spire.

From Sheffield to Stockport is an express. The light’s gone in the Hope Valley and besides I’m getting tired and a bit achey. There is, wonder of wonders, a 203 in the Bus Station: in fact, there’s two. No last wait and I’m in in time to watch United tea-time game.

So Derby, I’ve been and seen you now, and I can rest on my elongated loyalties to Nottingham and say, honestly, that you’re dull. I shall stick to going through in future. But thank you for creating the chance to share a journey with the Prague Lady, who I hope has a safe flight home.

 

Nottingham Expedition


It’s been five and a half months since my last Expedition, the ill-fated one that didn’t get me anywhere near Patterdale. Today’s Easter Saturday, the sun is up, the skies are flat blue and I’m awarding myself a day out. This one is to a rather more prosaic destination: I’m going to Nottingham.

Nottingham? Why? The East Midlands is not high on anyone’s list of outings, especially in this sort of weather. Couldn’t I find somewhere better?

Put in those terms, the answer is obviously yes. But I spent two years of my early Twenties living in Nottingham, I’ve written a novel rooted in those experiences, and I’m currently working on the second of two sequels, which includes scenes in Nottingham, so the Expedition is split down the middle between nostalgia and research. I wonder if I could claim the train fare back against my taxes?

The plan is to catch the 9.54am train from Stockport to take advantage of the much-reduced Off-Peak fares. My paranoia about missing trains is under reasonable control these days, but I was on Platform 0 with no mishaps or panics with fifteen minutes to spare. Which is just as well, for what arrives is the Norwich train, which is two coaches only and most of the seats reserved. I quickly found one that wasn’t and stuck to it like glue.

But the train was crowded, and chaotic, and I was on the aisle with no possibility of looking at the green scenery. No room for anything but my mp3 player, my book and the occasional swallow of Diet Coke.

There was a real shock at Sheffield when, having debouched some of the passengers and taken on thankfully fewer, the train backed out the way it had come in. Nobody seemed fussed and the next stop was still Chesterfield, when the crowds thinned out enough to lose the standing passengers. I was grateful of that: I’d already spent more time with a bloke’s arse rubbing up against my upper arm than I’d budgeted for my whole lifetime.

This was only the third time I’d gone to Nottingham by train. The first was for my interviews (two, at different firms, both of which I flunked) of which I can remember nothing but the excellent instructions on getting there from the station. The other was New Year’s Day 1979, when snow and ice had made the roads too dangerous to risk, and I needed two trains, change at Sheffield, and my Principal was stunned to find me there when I was supposed to be because of the travel problems.

Now, there are direct trains, when once it was nothing but changes.

I’d been travelling backwards since Sheffield, and I  wish I could say I was doing so mentally or emotionally. It would be neat, appropriate, literary but it would also be untrue, not just a mere exaggeration. But though I used to make regular trips down here, in my car, I haven’t been to Nottingham since the last century, and I have had no contact with anyone here in all that time. Several of them have died, which is understandable: my contemporaries are all in their sixties by now. No, this is not a pilgrimage.

There was not a thing I remembered about Nottingham Station, though it marked the first place that I needed to research. I exited onto Carrington Street and immediately turned left, assuming this road would, at some extension, take me to Trent Bridge, Forest’s ground, the Cricket ground and the road to West Bridgeford. But I was wrong. Proving that irony still runs rampant in my life, this was where I was asked for directions by a pretty young woman in a car and a very short skirt.

My primitive bump of location worked better in the opposite direction, leading me to and through the Broadmarsh Centre and into Lister Gate. I emerged into my memories, knowing where I was, and that forty years hadn’t wrought enough change for me to possible lose myself.

Out of the Broadmarsh Centre

From that point on, I felt as if I was walking an invisible maze, it’s walls defined by recollection. Names that used to be the network of Saturday afternoon shopping trips. Up Low Pavement, into Bridlesmith Gate, where the original Selectadisc used to be, though I couldn’t spot where exactly. The heat, exacerbated by the jacket I’d insisted on wearing because, you know, drove me into Waterstones, a source of temptations. But I had a list of second hand bookshops I wanted to visit, and I was determined only to buy from any of these.

The Market Square was not too far away on my left but ahead was dear old Clumber Street, where our offices were. I gently weaved through the tide of people, but try as I might I couldn’t work out where we’d been, we being Hunt, Dickins & Willatt, Solicitors, which hasn’t existed for a long time.

I moved on, just as I used to at 5.00pm, when I could go home, but I turned left into Upper Parliament Street, circling the Market Square. What used to be merely the Nottingham Building Society – and how many mortgages did my customers take out with them? – was still there, recalling to me their fantastic window displays, one of which was endless Sunday pages devoted to Winsor McKay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland that I would study for ages.

Selectadisc has also gone the way of all things. I passed the front of the Theatre Royal, scene of my third of only three gigs – The Chieftains – in Nottingham in that whole forty-eight months (I saw more in Manchester during that period) and turned down Market Street. I picked up a cheap DVD in Oxfam that’ll soon be appearing in my Film 2019, then visited the legendary Page 45 independent comics shop, where I bought a Lynda Barry hardback, which had my taste applauded. Worryingly, I was one of only three people in there all the time I looked round.

No more shilly-shallying. I made my way down to the Market Square and turned to the narrow end of it. Needless to say, the ABC is gone, a great old-fashioned massive screen cinema where I took my ‘special friend’ to see the first Christopher Reeve Superman, and where I first saw 2001 – A Space Odyssey as it really should be seen.

Across the Market Square

The main part of the Square was home to a big tent advertising performances by the Lady Boys of Bangkok: yes, well. Instead, I turned up Friar Gate (which has a memory all of it’s own that has my right knee throbbing in sympathy as I write this), into Spaniel Row to St Nicholas Street, where stands my favourite pub, Ye Olde Salutation Inn, est. 1240 AD. Mind you, it was crowded, and full of Heavy Metal music, so the cool atmosphere of the ages had a bit of trouble getting through.

A pint, a burger and a half hour studying the streetmap I’d bought in W.H.Smith’s and I was ready for another go.

I found one of the bookshops I’d marked out the night before, whose address I’d written out then left behind, but it was small, cramped and didn’t have anyting I wanted. I re-emerged on Upper Parliament Street and walked down to the Victoria Centre, which used to be my favourite Shopping Centre for its high ceilings and wide interior, a sense of space that, yes, you’ve guessed it, no longer exists. The Indoor Market’s gone, as has the space it used to occupy. Do I have any tangible memories left?

At least the exit onto Mansfield Road hasn’t been bricked up or anything like that. That was my way home, but I wasn’t going to go up to Woodborough Road or Alexandra Court: that’s a nostalgia that needs no refreshing. Instead, I wandered back to Clumber Street where, after consulting the streetmap, I worked out where the firm used to be.

I used to work above there

I also found the second of the bookshops, down a long, quiet alley, but again nothing.

For a while I sat in the sun in the Market Square. There was a Revolutionary Communist haranguing the crowd, starting off on Climate Change but transitioning to a denouncement of Capitalism (and Imperialism, don’t forget Imperialism) with a rapidity that didn’t betoken much real enthusiasm for Climate Change, and then a long and hagiographic spiel holding up Cuba as the world’s ideal. Frankly, he bored the arse off me, and he wasn’t convincing anyone else, so I moved on.

But I’d seen what I’d come to see, more or less. My next attempt at an extended sit down, with a triple replenishment of my liquid supplies, was disturbed by another Saturday afternoon ranter, this one a God-botherer. Then he was replaced by a blues singer/guitarist busker. Sigh.

When I lived here, they used to say, and may still do, that Nottingham girls were the prettiest in all England. And whilst I am and always will be a chauvinist for my home city, on today’s evidence, the 2019 crop aren’t letting their forerunners down in any respect.

It was all over by now. I’d had the refreshers I wanted, but on top of that I’d demonstrated that there is no continuity to this slice of my past. Nottingham was a city in which I lived for two years, two vital, engaging, educational and essential years, but only the City remains and that’s the lesser part. Simon, Heather, Liz, Richard, Sharon, Jeremy, Alison, Roger, Anne, Gary, Jill, Graham, Rose, Ken, Jane, Murray, Sandy: we will never be in each other’s company again and without the people, Nottingham is only lines in brick.

Town Hall, looking round the Lady Boys

So I headed back down Lister Gate, and through the Broadmarsh. There was time enough to hunt for London Road and the way to Trent Bridge, to see what Steve and Lottie see when they walk along there, but it had been hot too long and my feet were starting to ache so, like the route round the Boulevards that Steve navigated for Lucy and Pam, it’ll have to come from the streetmap, and the memories that are closer to what I need than the streets now.

I was on the 15.47 Liverpool Lime Street train with time and space to spare, a table seat, facing the way I’m going. Except that for the second time today, we set off backwards. At least, it seemed backwards to me, but the ticket-inspector assured me we were going the only way the train through Stockport goes, but I still can’t work out how I got 180 degree arse about face.

Never mind, I just switched to the other side of the table, then again when we re-reversed out of Sheffield. This latter cost me sight of two attractive young woman (whose collective age was still much too young for me) but enabled me to enjoy the hills as we motor through Edale (which has four separate memories of four separate women). They haven’t distinctive shapes, nor nearly enough rock, but they form a skyline, and they rouse the hunger to walk it. One ridge has two arcs of para-gliders above it.

I was back at Stockport for 5.30pm, straight onto a 203 home when I got down to the Bus Station, and in for six o’clock. It’s not like going to the Lakes, and that’s going to be the next expedition, before too much longer, but a day out is a day out and this was a good enough one.

Brainfart


For the past four weeks I have been getting up early on Monday mornings to go to Chinley, in Derbyshire, for counselling sessions organised through Occupational Health at work. It’s very CBT oriented, and I don’t do CBT, but I’ve managed to orient the last couple of sessions towards orthodox face-to-face counselling, which has been a lot more useful.

The point is that Chinley – which is the nearest place the organisation actually has a Counsellor – is very difficult to get to from Stockport by public transport. There’s no direct route. After a lot of online research, I worked out that I needed two buses – one into Stockport, then one to Marple – and the train from Marple to Chinley, each way. And be back for work in the afternoon.

There’s only one train each way stops at Chinley every hour, at 14 minutes past for Sheffield and 5 minutes to for Manchester. Given that my appointments are at 10.45an, and there’s a twenty minute walk from the station to my Counsellor’s cottage – 95% of which is uphill in the current heatwave conditions – I can only arrive on time by leaving Stockport bus station on the 9.14am to Marple, and hanging around Chinley for the 12.55pm train back.

Given that my shift starts at 1.00pm, this has meant that, except for the week I was on leave, my manager has had to book me an hour’s Medical Appointment Leave from 1.00 to 2.00pm.

All has been well so far until last week when he started querying this. He was certain there was a direct train from Stockport that would be quicker, cheaper and more convenient, and he found it for me on Network Rail’s Journey Planner.

I was stunned. none of this had shown up on my research, and I’d sat at Chinley Station watching trains not stop enough times to be dubious, but there it was. I didn’t need that hour’s Medical Appointment Leave.

So, despite many misgivings, I put his plan into practice this morning, going out later to catch the 10.02am train at Stockport Railway Station, to arrive at 10.21am. I’d just have to be that bit more brisk up the hill. Atleast it was cooler today, and I was better able to maintain a decent pace than I’ve been lately.

On the other hand, I nearly made a mess of it and triggered that old paranoia by suddenly realising I should have started off sooner. The 203 being late, for the millionth time, didn’t help. I sweated, strained and marched to the Station, baulked at the queue in the Tucket Office and paid on the train. And at 10.21am, I hopped off. At Disley (for Lyme Park). On the A6. Nowhere near Chinley. With no chance of getting there for 10.45am.

How did this disaster happen? That’s why this post is titled Brainfart. Because last week I had one. I completely lost the word Chinley and talked about my Counsellor being in Disley. I couldn’t even remember the name Chinley until my Counsellor mentioned it when I rang her from Disley Station to apologise.

So, it was all my fault. My mamager’s well-meaning help – he’s in the process of moving to Disley, hence his knowledge of its train links to Stockport – was correct, but for the wrong parameters. If i get charged for missing thissessio on less than 48 hours, I have no-one else to blame.

And one more thing to worry about. I’ve noticed that I can forget things I know, usually in matters trivial, but this is a bit more important.Did I just have ‘a senior moment’? Or is it the first sign of something a bit more sinister? I really don’t need that on top of everything else.

 

The Sight of Hills


(I am currently confined to the flat with stomach gripes and a persistent diarrhoea that has me shambling towards the loo far more often than I like. Unable to work, I am busying myself with bits of digital housekeeping, which has led me to a short piece I wrote a couple of months ago but never got round to posting.)

 

From where I sit at work, on the fifth floor, I have a view of a small section of the Pennines as they border the eastern flank of Greater Manchester. As views go, it’s not inspiring, not when compared to the vast majority of the skylines in the Lake District, which does have its dull patches but only a few. It keeps me in touch with the hills.

A long time ago, when I needed to undertake two years of Articles of Clerkship to qualify as a Solicitor, I found myself visiting the City of Cambridge, for an interview with the City Council. I was not successful and it was a long, long day of traveling, three hours on the train each way: Manchester to Birmingham to Ely to Cambridge, Cambridge to Leicester to Sheffield to Manchester.

Though I’ve more recently had enough acquaintance with Cambridge to come to like it and feel comfortable there, my first response was a combination of awe and disquiet at how flat the landscape was. That was emphasised by the downwards journey: waiting for my connecting train at Ely, and traveling across the edge of the fens on my final leg impressed upon me how wide the horizon was, and that there was no horizon, not as I understood it, from our holidays in the Lakes, from the bus into Stockport and the line of hills bordering it when the bus crossed the edge and started to descend into the Mersey Basin.

I was glad not to get that job: I couldn’t imagine how I could cope without the sight of hills.

A Day Out (Clutching At Straws)


I been there.
I been there.

This was not, technically, A Day Out, not in the tradition of this year’s Museum Trips to That London or the Annual Birthday Week Visit to the Lakes, but after the last couple of days I’ll take anything I can get. Trains were involved, I visited somewhere I haven’t been in years and I got myself out of this pokey little flat for the first time since work on Wednesday, so as far as I am concerned, it counts.

Since reporting on my sore throat the other day, I have actually been proper unwell. Two days of going into work, unable to speak because of how painful it was for my throat, restricted to mind-numbingly repetitive, essential but wearying back office housekeeping tasks, were bad enough but Wednesday night was when the sore throat started to develop into a wet cough and from there into industrial-scale runny nose. In the interests of decency, I will not detail how many hankies now need wringing out.

Put on top of this that Tuesday night was one of those nights where, having failed to tire the mind during the day, it retaliated by refusing to switch off. If I did sleep more than a couple of minutes at a time, it wasn’t before 4.15am.

So that put paid to going into work for the last couple of days, especially Friday when I was so woolly-headed, I couldn’t keep my mind on anything for more than a few minutes and was a positive danger to shipping.

But I had to go out on Saturday. I’d returned home Wednesday night to one of those familiar cards from Royal Mail, informing me they’d tried to deliver my latest modest capture of Eagles through eBay and inviting me to collect it from the Sorting Office. Only it wasn’t the familiar address at Green Lane in Stockport, this time it was in Wilmslow.

Ok, it’s not that far and it’s not that inconvenient to reach, but if they’d shut the Stockport one down for some reason, having to go there every time would be a major bugger.

Still, it’s a nice enough place and I used to know it well over many years, from visits and stuff and having an old friend that lived there, though I’ve had no contact with her in nearly twenty years now, so I could make a bit of a trip out of it, look round the place, have something to eat. You know where my instincts take me in such circumstances, but unfortunately Wilmslow had nothing so downmarket as a Pizza Hut.

Never mind, I would improvise, and as you know me as a fellow of almost infinite resource (except when it comes to money and sexual allure), I would find a way. If nothing else, I could always come back to Stockport.

Besides, the worst was over. Friday had been a quite crappy day in all respects, and I’d shut down fairly early: laptop off, tablets taken, lights out, head down and wondering what sort of night I was going to have, when I could feel everything start to go clear in my head. The worst was over: all I had left was physical symptoms that would fade away in their own time.

I even put the light back on, fired up the laptop and found myself adding a few paragraphs to the novel, although only a few before real, honest-to-goodness tiredness overwhelmed me. I slept properly.

I was still snuffly, but the cough wasn’t anything like so bad (mind you, my stomach muscles have been wracked enough that it hurts them more than my throat.) Though my physical urge to get up and go was a bit lacking, I pushed myself into a healthy and cleansing shower and out into a crisp but sunny morning. Deadlines are good for one thing at least.

There was no need to rush that much, and even less capability for it, as I was moving somewhat like a brontosaurus who was past its best days. Bus to Stockport, Free Bus to the Railway Station, Day Return (under a fiver) and immediately onto a three quarter empty train for Crewe.

I’ve never before gotten off (or on) at Wilmslow Station, but I knew its whereabouts and was pretty confident I’d measured the inadequate map of the Sorting Office onto its streets. The Town Centre was immediately familiar, though I’d have been pushed to find where Linda and Ray’s house used to be, even if I could summon up the energy to walk there.

Thankfully, I didn’t leave it too long before asking for directions to the Sorting Office. A pleasantly blonde and healthy-looking blonde lady in boots and a sleeveless red quilted jacket told me I was nowhere near, but directed me simply down the pedestrianised street, bear left at the pedestrian crossing. I reset off.

It was a busy mid-morning and Wilmslow was full of Wilmslowites. I was as out of place as a Hottentot at a formal dinner, simply from the lack of value of my clothes. To be truthful, I’ve never really been ‘in’ place in Wilmslow, and not all of it was down to the lifelong lack of self-confidence that I’ve mostly managed to dispense with this last decade. I worked in a very respectable middle-class profession for thirty years, lived a respectable middle-class life, but I was born and brought up in a working-class street, at a working-class school, and whilst there were many ways in which I didn’t fit into that environment, and I don’t share much of its ways, it’s never left me and I’ve rarely felt truly comfortable, underneath, in the environment my parents aspired to for me.

Wilmslow-ladies, with their polished and powdered faces, their make-up imacculate, their clothes quietly, off-handedly, speaking of quality, talking and thinking in codes I cannot begin to want to decipher.

So I’m already starting to wonder just how long this day out is going to last when I get to the Sorting Office and it all falls into place. The man behind the counter is puzzled. Then he’s apologetic. Yes, the card says Wilmslow, and he doesn’t know how it’s happened and it shouldn’t have but one of their cards has gotten onto a Stockport van, and I’ve drawn it (because if it’s going to happen it’s going to happen to me, I know this). He’s really sorry, but I need to go to Stockport.

There’s no point in getting worked up about it, even if I had the energy with which to get worked up. If there’s anyone to blame, it’s me for accepting that card at face value. If only I hadn’t been so unfocused…

It’s 11.45am. If I’m lucky with transitions, I can get to Green Lane before 1.00pm, when it closes until next week. But it doesn’t look like I’m going to be lucky. It takes me about ten minutes to tramp back to the station but there’s fifteen minutes to wait for the next train, which is full of light-blue shirts, Bitters going to the game. The journey is only made bearable by a beatifically beautiful blonde ticket inspector who takes at least ten minutes less time over my return ticket than I consider to be the proper application of her duties.

I’m back at Stockport Station for 12.30pm. I can still do it with a pretty damned immediate appearance from the Free Bus and the same from the bus to take me to Green Lane, and that’s just not happening. It’s testament to my still fuzzy perspicacity that it takes me five minutes to work out that Green Lane isn’t that far from here as the roads lie and there are taxis over there…

Mission is therefore accomplished and I take possession of a box-shaped brown paper parcel. Unfortunately, I cannot pop my parcel into the Bag-for-Life I carry around in my shoulder bag. On the way through, a couple of hours earlier, I bought and partly consumed a small bottle of Diet Coke. Unfortunately, I failed to tighten the cap properly. It has run out all over said Bag, which is too soggy inside and out for such precious cargo. The bottom of the shoulder bag is also somewhat wet, which has already transferred itself from there into the thighs of both legs of my jeans.

Where’s the bus to Pizza Hut?

For once, there’s a substantial amount of tuna on an individual Pan Margarita with Tuna and Onion, enough to enable me to turn an indulgent ear to the birthday party nearby, to which every eight year old girl in Stockport has been invited, or so it seems. ‘Happy Birthday’ is sung with such gusto and enthusiasm that they relight the candles and do it again. Several times, in fact. If they burn through birthdays that quickly, Donald Trump will start perving over them before we even reach the Election.

I’m low on food but it’s only a five minute walk to Tesco‘s, but this is where the the Wall interpolates itself very firmly in my way. I stagger to the bus stop where, thankfully, I am able to get a seat on the bench, for it is half an hour until the bus home, and when I do get in, I haven’t the energy to unpack my pathetic shopping before I hit the bed, drifting in and out of sleep.

As I said, not what you’d really call a day out, but at least it proves that I don’t have to go all the way to London to create a shambles of a day.

 

The Hottest September Day for Over a Century


Today, we were warned, was going to be the hottest September day in the UK since 1961, on the strength of which, not to mention the rich blue sky in Stockport this morning, I set off for work jacket-less.

Apparently, at the time of writing this, it’s the hottest September day in the UK since 1949 (if you’re at Heathrow, that is). In Stockport, it’s dry, but the sunny promise of the morning has long since dissolved. We’ve already had dark, glouring, hee-hee, we’re going to rain dark clouds in the west, behind the building, and at the moment, at only 4.30pm, the Pennines are lining up like pale blue cut-outs – and even as I am typing this, it starts to pour, with the sound of a jetliner.

It’s vertical rain, not yet streaking the windows of our building but already hammering down with a consistency that suggests its ultimate aim is to fill the Mersey basin this afternoon.

The air has filled with grey mist, like a thin soup of rain, and I sit here in the shirt-sleeves that I will have to travel home in if this persists to 9.00pm: deep joy.

Those air conditions on the Pennines that caught my eye have vanished. It is just about possible to see as far as the church tower on the far side of the Town Centre, but anything beyond that might as well not exist. The enfilades of light that seem to lie between the distant lines of Pennines have soaked away.

Later: this is now the hottest September day in the UK since 1911, since when we have had two World Wars and I am staring at clouds built up in the west that look like armies clad in dark grey, ready to swoop down out of the hills and slaughter us all. Technically, this is still only 5.50pm but the sky is set to 3.00pm on a particularly dismal November afternoon.

Given that we’re on the fifth floor, I have requested that a cabinet of chemicals be hastily procured and set up beside me so that, when the inevitable lightning bolt strikes (and the bastards are striking thick and fast directly overhead), I can be thrown through it and turn into Barry Allen.

One of my colleagues reassures me that there are taller buildings around us, but over the course of a long life, there is little that I’ve been spared on the grounds that it was more likely to happen to someone else.

The lightning is still striking, even after the height of the storm has passed eastwards. The rain is still roaring down, like the storms in Key Largo when Edward G Robinson won’t let the locals take refuge in the hotel when the storm reaches its height. I’m wearing a white shirt, and I’m remembering an evening over thirty years ago, when Chris and I went down to London to represent our firm’s London Office cricket team.

Our trip coincided with a late afternoon cloudburst, making our coach trip to the ground, in South London, somewhat tricky. At one point, we had to go under a bridge, over a dip, where the water was so high, local kids were swimming in it.

It had stopped raining by the time we reached the ground, though the groundsman was reluctant to let us play and would only let us start if we promised to limit ourselves to 15 overs a side. It didn’t take long for the rain to return and, with the exception of the over in which I attempted to purvey slow right arm offspin, with a wet ball, and with rain running down my glasses (that’s my explanation for conceding 12 runs), I spent most of the innings in the outfield, staring down at my soaked white shirt, counting my bedraggled chest hairs through its translucency. We did win, though, no thanks to me (I didn’t get to bat).

Now it’s been raining and throwing lightning about for two hours and it hasn’t ceased once. One of my colleagues saw the entire east to north-east skyline it up by chain lightning, though I didn’t get my head up in time. On the other hand, the night sky has just seconds ago been riven, due north. My colleague Neil is convinced this is actually Ragnarok coming to pass, though I think this is just wishful thinking. That lightning could be striking in Levenshulme, and I don’t think many people will miss it.

Come 9.00pm, it was dry and I made it home without a drop falling on me, though my bus, which is supposed to go across the Town Centre and climb up Lancashire Hill, found its way blocked irretrievably by something and had to return to the bus station to start a new, completely off-route attempt, which didn’t actually join onto the official route until two stops before I got off.

Yes, the Hottest September Day in the UK since 1911. I am not impressed.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Angelettes’ Don’t Let Him Touch You


The Infinite Jukebox is not just for great songs, classic performances or emotional favourites. In its banks of tracks are oddities, obscurities and the completely improbable. Such as ‘Don’t Let him Touch You’.

The Angelettes were, and forty plus years later still are, an all-girl band, a quartet of Manchester lasses or rather, assuming my memory is not being too partialised, four teenagers from Stockport in 1972, when this debut single was released.

In my memory, I always link this song to Jonathan King, and a glance at the disc on YouTube that it was written, produced and directed by him: it was the girls’ only release on Decca, after which they signed for King’s own label, UK (which already boasted another Stockport fourpiece that King named 10cc for reasons we shall not, in good taste go into). ‘Don’t Let him Touch You’ can’t be described as anything but a novelty record, in an era when King was already building up a head of steam as performer and producer of a mystifying array of tracks, such as the heavy metal version of ‘Sugar Sugar, attributed to Sakkharin.

The Angelettes were plainly decent singers, though this single goes a long way in not showcasing their abilities. It’s slow from the beginning, based on a cello as the leading instrument, and the song was constructed on a solo lead voice singing awkwardly structured verses to a background of only the cello, interspersed with the band in harmony singing the chorus in a slightly more uptempo manner, to a walking pace beat.

Improbably, the song started to pick up airplay on Radio 1, enough to start a slow increase in sales that saw the single break into the Top 50. But this was still the era of Top 30 radio, and the song was still short of that line when it climbed to no 35. This was enough to secure a Top of the Pops invitation, and an advantageous appearance in the second half of the programme, two slots from the Number One. A leap into the Thirty the following Tuesday was on the cards.

I was interested to see the group. I liked the song, and the knowledge that it was so local a product, and the girls being of my age, had me glued to the screen. There were two disappointments. 1971 had been the Summer of Hotpants and the prevailing fashion the following year was for maxi-dresses, as most frequently seen around the legs of Lyn Paul and Eve Graham of the New Seekers. And this quartet of schoolgirls were not just decked out in maxi-dresses, but in frilly, cabaret dresses horrible years out of fashion and completely wrong on girls that young, turning them all into frumps, proto-Beverleys in Abigail’s Party.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. About sixty seconds in, before the Angelettes had even finished their first chorus, the sound went out, a technical problem, and it stayed out for the rest of the song. It was a disaster. There was no sales bump, no Top 30 entry, just a slide back into going to school. No other Angelettes single was played on Radio 1, not in my hearing.

It’s very strange. A new band, an up and coming group of young women, and an accident happens and wipes out the sound for most of their track, and no other part of the show, nor any other Top of the Pops that I ever saw thereafter, and we are talking another twenty years plus. A promising career (maybe) wiped out. We live in an age where it’s too common to impute malice to what could simply be stupidity, see conspiracies in every shadow.

But ‘Don’t Let Him Touch You’ was a strange record. We had lived through the Sixties, through tremendous changes in everyday life and thinking. even now we were still in a place where Sixties memories were still fresh and green, and what were this girl group singing about? Yes, they were singing about sex, as rock and pop has done since time immemorial, but ‘Don’t Let Him Touch You’, as you may begin to guess from the title, came from a very different place.

In 1961, the Shirelles had sung ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’, one of pop’s greatest songs about Sex and the woman’s age old question of whether to or not. It’s about wanting, about wanting to believe the promises that this is about more than bodies and orgasms, but about love and what happens when bodies draw back into two people and what then. A decade ago, the girls of the Shirelles had looked into their would-be lovers eyes, wanting to share everything with them, fearful of trust. It’s always been so with the great girl group pop of that time.

A decade later, here were the Angelettes, sixteen year olds prematurely cynical. In voices that rang with their mothers’ stifling advice, here were girls singing about the nervousness of youth, and first boyfriends, who seem nice, who walk you home, kiss you on the doorstep, and only after that are they emboldened to hold your hand, and then in tones of flat, deadweight cynicism, these teenagers tell you for themselves that he’s only out for sex, nothing more, one-time sex that will ruin your life and if you let him ‘have’ you, you’ll never see him again because he’s got what he wanted.

My mother expressed similar opinions to me about my sister’s boyfriend after she learned that they hadn’t ‘waited’. I thought that awfully cynical then, a dismissal of men having feelings that I instinctively hated, and given that my sister and her husband celebrated their twenty-eighth Anniversary this year, I think I was right.

But that attitude runs through ‘Don’t Let It Touch You’ like the Seine through Paris. There is no relief from it. He talks to you, listens to you, supports you emotionally, shows he cares for you. And back comes that chorus, with its implacable insistence that if you let him touch you, then touching will lead straight to his having you and then he’ll be off, before you’ve even finished quivering, because everything he does, every little gesture of faith, honesty and love he makes comes from nothing but the most cynical lust.

He is trying to see how much you will let him have, and if he has you, he will leave you.

It’s an unbelievably twisted song, especially in the mouths of sixteen year old girls, who should be singing about rather more cheering things or at least should be expressing such sentiments, if they feel them, in their own words instead of those of a grown-up who sounds to have had a particularly bitter experience, to say the least.

I do remember reading, with a certain degree of cynical amusement that was alien to me at that young stage of my life, an affronted letter in the Manchester Evening News from a sixteen year old boy begging radio stations not to play this record as it was making it even more difficult for him to get anything from girls!

And this most unromantic of ditties was the one whose sound, and lyrics, had been cut out of the Angelettes’ Top of the Pops debut. In these days when we all know about Jimmy Saville, it is hard not to wonder about a connection.

Still, the record plays every now and then in the Infinite Jukebox, repository of songs with significance. If you don’t remember it, if you were too young to ever hear it, if the whole thing sounds unbelievable to you, there is a link below. The picture above is of the group in their stage clothing: there is a 1972 photo of the band looking like real teenagers on their website.

The Seventies was a strange time and place. More of its forgotten songs are finding their way onto the Jukebox.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cZMadIrYxBU

The Stockport Steps War


Every working day, I have to go up and down the steps out of Mersey Square, Stockport, at the side of the Plaza Theatre/Cinema, to get to work.
Mersey Square is in the centre of Stockport, which, in turn, is in the centre of the Mersey basin, the same Mersey that Liverpool claims as its personal property. To get out of it, north or south, means a long climb.
There are fifty four steps up beside the Plaza, and it’s a point of pride for me, no matter the weather nor my state of generalised exhaustion, to climb them in one. They’re built in a series of twisting and turning flights.
The bottom section consists of twelve steps, eight of them broad and sweeping, the top four quite narrow, between projecting bays, and the space is further divided by a metal rail splitting this flight in two.
About two months ago, a stone rim slab broke on this flight. It was at the top of the broad steps, central to the narrower space above, and obviously dangerous to anyone coming down in a hurry, especially at night when the street lighting isn’t of the best. It would be very easy to step on this missing slab, and fall head first down into the Square.
So the Council blocked it off to enable them to make repairs and render the stairs safe again. Hazard tape was strung across the top and bottom of this half-flight, with the other side unobstructed. Within a day, it had been torn down.
The Council re-affixed it. It was torn down again. It brought in barriers, metal and plastic barriers, to straddle the approaches and close them off, with additional tape for those bits that weren’t covered. The tape was torn away and people forced their way past the barriers to go down the damaged section.
The Council kept trying. Every couple of days, it would come back and re-position the barriers, trying to indicate that this short section of stairs, twelve steps in total, was cordoned off for being dangerous, and every time these barriers were shifted, toppled over, folded up, moved, to open up these steps to traffic past this potentially dangerous, broken step.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the steps were closed and people were being forced to go a longer and less convenient way round. All that was closed, in theory, was the left hand half of the steps. The right hand half was open at all times. But, and this is what appears to be the point at which the rebels took offence, the right hand half was further away from the town centre. To use it meant going round the other side of the railing, at the cost of possible four or five extra steps having to be taken, and a delay of as much as two seconds in their progress up or down these steps.
And this war waged for weeks. Every time the left hand path was blocked off, the forces of opposition would unblock it again, refusing to accept this shackle upon their convenience, insisting on running the risk of tripping and breaking their ankle, or the ankle of any person happening to be below them when they were precipitated from the heights.
Or was the protest political? Was it a stand for libertarianism, and the right of the people to make their own decisions, free from the nanny state and its attempts to hinder their natural freedom by guiding them in this fascistic course? After all, the time and effort involved in continually breaking or shifting those tapes and barriers far outweighed the time and effort saved by not having to go round by the detour.
No, I think it was sheer, misguided laziness.
At the moment, the War may have come to an end. The barriers have not been reinstated. A preliminary layer of tar, already being kicked down the steps, fills in the gap of the missing slab brick. It looks ugly as anything, a cheap, tatty bodge, but maybe it’s what it takes to bring the war to an end and let both sides get on with something that makes a modicum of sense.
If it doesn’t, you’ll hear another report on this conflict.
For Author for Sale Blog, this is Martin Crookall, in Mersey Square.