Monday, 28 February 2011

Liverpool 1, Sport 0.

Until recent years sport had passed me by. I had no interest in it. Ergo it was not interesting. After a few years living in Manchester, a close friend did me the service of pointing out that I was isolating myself socially; his theory being that, if you live around here, you need to connect, somehow, with sport - preferably football - for the purpose of creating a balanced portfolio of friendships. And so I tried.

I persuaded another close friend to take me along to a proper football match. Unfortunately I embarrassed both of us by applauding a nice move by the visiting team and was not invited again. I tried once more, paying a small fortune to sit in a state of the art stadium. The rainwater cas­caded off the carefully designed roof onto my seat which, despite its proximity to the pitch, offered a poor view of the players. The so-called banter seemed to me, no more than naked vituperation, and the pervading ambience one of hatred and barely controlled aggression towards the visiting team. Although not a sportsman myself, I had been taught the concept of ‘sporting’ behaviour, and felt strongly that all those who indulged, players and spectators, should be jolly good fellows practising decent, character building pursuits. I left at half time.

But it’s not just Manchester where sport matters. The other night I returned to the art gallery I had recently visited in Liverpool to collect a prize - not for art, but for the raffle. I had bought a ticket on that previous occasion and had won a magnificent, bound volume of my friend’s work along with an individual, signed print for framing. There was a modest presentation ceremony. You have probably guessed that I was in a tricky situation here. First I had to overcome the suspi­cion that I had fixed it with my friend. Then there was the issue of being not just an outsider but from Manchester. As I carefully picked my way through a gracious acceptance speech, I felt obliged to apologise for having won the raffle, though I knew deep down that this was unfair, since we had all had a sporting chance.

Later, in the pub, the conversation grew convivial until the need to catch that all-too-early last train cut things short. Even in my haste, I managed not to forget my prize, and said a friendly farewell.  On the train I chose to sit next to a middle aged man with two cans of cider and a free newspaper on the table in front of him. Across the table sat a demure looking young woman, con­stantly absorbed in texting, her huge handbag claiming the seat next to her. Nobody spoke. Half a dozen young men carrying a dozen bottles of beer then piled into the nearby wheelchair space and, pretty soon, started to sing. Cue conversation. The man next to me had perked up and seemed to be identifying with the choir. Even the young woman looked over her shoulder at them and turned back to us with an amused smile.
“What are they singing?” I asked, unable to make sense of what sounded like “garymakker, garry, garrymakker” to the tune of “Alouette, jolie Alouette”. The man next to me had just been to the same football match as the singers and could barely believe his luck. He was a Liverpool FC fan and here he was - sitting next to an innocent who was quite obviously in need of educating regard­ing his club, their one-nil victory that evening, their heritage of glorious player-heroes and the repertoire of hymns to their prowess (of which this was but one). Even the young woman wrenched herself from her screen long enough to cast a glance of pity and scorn at me. It turned out that she, too, had been to the match.

We got into a friendly discussion on the origins of fan-dom. He wondered where I was from and how it was possible for me not be a supporter of some team or other. I proposed the theory that team allegiances were tribal, an idea which he seemed not to comprehend. For a while this line was explored intellectually until a train official arrived requiring the singers to calm down. Whilst this mildly fractious exchange was taking place, my neighbour began to side with the aggrieved singers. He said he could see no reason at all why anyone on the train should object to their tedi­ous, repetitive, cacophonous singing.
I could feel that luck was turning against me now. Tribal behaviour was beginning to break out, I was in hostile territory and my best hope would be a nifty exit.

Fortunately, the train began to slow for my station just as my neighbour was getting into full voice with the choir. There was just time enough to shake hands and part company under the pretence that it had all been good natured banter.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Legs, Tums & Bums

So, the day after the last Pilates class, I took up the challenge and attended the Legs, Tums & Bums session. Aware that my outfit is neither state-of-the-art nor quite this season, I tried to blend into the background, but there really is nowhere to hide, since the walls are lined with floor to ceiling mirrors. The ladies in the class are not all perfectly formed, but they are at least stylishly turned out. Maybe I should enter into this more wholeheartedly by investing in some proper kit. I have a notion to get down to TK Maxx, since I lack the confidence or experience to enter a real sportswear shop although, on reflection, I can see that even this plan has the potential to turn farcical at my expense. Maybe I could take advice from a personal shopper.

Teacher herself has a gammy leg, and kept rolling up her trouser leg to show off the apparatus that keeps her knee from falling apart. I told myself to stay calm. Perhaps she had fallen down the stairs, and all this exercise was supposed to make it better. Nevertheless, I took good care not to put undue pressure on my knees when she wasn’t looking. The good news is that there is another man in this class, so Teacher can use the term ‘guys’, and I don’t feel like I’m being singled out. The bad news is that the other guy has a pony tail, and is a yoga expert who can touch the floor with his nose while sitting with his legs stretched out in front of him. He assured me that it comes with experience. Why do I get the feeling that everyone is being nice to me? Even the Russian girl, whose blank expression normally seems to say “you don’t exist in my world”, nodded at me when I greeted everyone with a cheery “hello” at the beginning of the session. Perhaps she is getting used to the idea that I am now a part of her world, whether she likes it or not.

OK, the outfit is only the start of my woes. Exercises which are specifically designed to improve muscular tonality of legs, tums and bums are also, by definition, inelegant. If I had any modesty, I would really not be posturing like this in public, in front of those mirrors, and in a pair of floppy, baggy, pyjama pants and a grey T shirt which rides up over my belly and soon gets visible sweat patches in odd places. But hey, it’s not just about me. I begin to get over it when I catch glimpses of the others. They may all be dressed in snazzy outfits, but they don’t all look as serene as Jane Fonda. So I press on, comforted by the thought that no one is about to whip out a camera and post me on Facebook.

After the exercises, came the choreography. This is a complicated set of movements involving a plastic step. The idea is to dance a series of preordained routines which include jumping onto and off from the step. Mr. Ponytail has this off to a tee. Mr Wonderman is finding it difficult. Jumping on and off the step is not a problem but, doing it in the right sequence and in time with the music is another matter. Its mastery must involve months of concentrated rehearsal. Teacher is preoccupied with what must be her only pleasure left in life - selecting suitable tracks from her music collection. But she still finds time to look at me every so often and give me a weak smile and a thumbs-up sign.

At the end of the session, as we roll up our mats and stack up our steps, Mr. Ponytail smiles (or was it a smirk?), Mrs. Russia stomps off, and Teacher speaks no more of Merce Cunningham.  I am left with a sort of grim determination not to give up, and resolve to attend the next session, although I am having second thoughts about wasting money at TK Maxx.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Attempt on Bury No. 2

They say that if you enjoyed your first visit to a place, you should not go back again (unless you are prepared to be disappointed). The purpose of my second trip to Bury should, therefore, be self explanatory.

Top of my list was the the famous market which, this time, was fully open for business. I deliberately sought out the traditional fare, buying black pudding and a tub of beef dripping. Although I could not get enthused about the cow heal and tripe, I am quite desperate to like black pudding, being really keen on the Spanish version of it, morcilla. Despite several attempts, however, I must conclude that the Bury equivalent comes a distant second. As for the beef dripping, I remember my grandmother eating it spread on bread and sprinkled with salt, so I gave it a go. Gran must have been pretty desperate for sustenance back then! The tub is now pushed to the back of the fridge until my determination to give it a second chance finally wanes, and I use it instead to lubricate door hinges. The rest of the market experience washed over me - a sea of pies, leather goods, smelly pet accessories, cargo pants and assorted household goods. I still don’t get markets.

Next up, the municipal art gallery, and I was impressed to see a tourist coach parked outside, the last of its passengers making their way up the grand, stone steps. I was delighted to find that the party comprised ‘Friends’ of Manchester’s Whitworth Gallery, and included actual friends of mine. So it was that I came to tag onto a guided tour, and learned more than I otherwise would have done. For example, my assumption that the main benefactor of the gallery must have been a cotton magnate was shattered. The fact is that Bury had been an international centre of excellence for the manufacture of paper, and that a certain Mr. Wrigley made so much money from this business that he was able to gentrify his social standing by buying paintings, which he eventually bequeathed to the town. In fact, there is a rather nice Turner on display which Mr Wrigley had acquired from Mr. Gillet, a neighbouring manufacturer of pen nibs, thereby perpetuating the legendary relationship between pen and paper.

The coach party was moving on to Oldham, the next stop on their tour of Lancashire mill town art galleries, so my friends were unable to join me in refreshments at the large, old pub across the road which had earlier caught my attention. They missed a bit of a treat, for the young musician in residence proved to be a talented and expert interpreter of old classics by Roy Orbison, the brothers Everley and Walker and many others. The late-lunching, smartly turned-out audience must have been regulars, for they were apparently unfazed by the lone, wizened old character, meticulously dressed in the American Confederate Army uniform, who hovered enthusiastically at the front of the stage, and played air guitar through Sultans of Swing, his Tesco shopping bag at his feet. As my second pint of Bombardier drew to its dregs, the magic of nostalgia began to swell inside me, and I felt dangerously inclined to tap my feet or sing along. But I too, was on my own, with a plastic shopping bag at my feet and, moreover, in unfamiliar territory. The musician promised that his dad was about to turn up and do a few numbers, but I am not used to having so much fun on a Wednesday afternoon, and decided it was time to move on.

I am planning my own coach party for Attempt on Bury No. 3 for. You don’t have to be a southerner to be included, but you might find that it adds piquancy to the experience if you are.

Friday, 18 February 2011

History Repeats Itself, Repeats Itself...

Our history discussion group the other evening focused on studies, carried out in the 1930’s, of the socio psychological effects of unemployment. Perhaps it won’t be a surprise to learn what they concluded; that, after a period of time, eagerness to find another job is often replaced by feelings of hopelessness, despair and exclusion from mainstream society. I could have told them that. Well, the chap I had heard on the radio earlier could have. He described his own, recent experience as identical to that ‘discovered’ by the researchers.

Walking through the city a few days before, I passed the man who hands out free newspapers to passers-by. He was wearing his woolly hat, his ‘hi-viz’ vest and his identity badge slung around his neck, as usual. His attention was properly focused on his potential customers, and he greeted the more familiar ones, as he usual. What was not usual, however, was the fact that he had no newspapers to give out. I wondered whether he had been fired and, with nowhere else to go, and nothing else to do, had returned to his pitch in the hope that things would turn out all right in the end. As a matter of fact they did, for on my return journey, I saw that his allocation of newspapers had arrived, and I no longer needed to worry about him becoming a forlorn, dispossessed and socially excluded individual. I was quite relieved, even if it had not been on his mind.

The Professor leading our history group told us that the word unemployed had first been coined here, in England. I could have told him that. Well, I could at least have worked it out by the following logic: Industrialised society originated in England. Before that, individuals were not employed – assuming the definition of employed entails being paid by somebody else to do some job or other. Later on, the shortcomings of the industrial system, such as the sometime failure of industrial enterprises, and the consequent loss of jobs, were therefore experienced in England before they became apparent elsewhere, hence the need to coin the word unemployed. (It seems they hadn’t seen that one coming).

Surely it is time to take into account the fact that the Industrial Revolution, responsible for spawning mass production and mass employment, has long gone. Society has now morphed into a different model, where regular jobs are no longer commonplace. What would the newspaper man have done if his supply had not turned up (which, one day, will happen)? Rather than rely on some other person or organisation to come up with a regular wage or salary, more people are turning to a model that predates the Industrial Revolution – that of self reliance. OK, we can’t all grow our own dinners, but we can refine the culture of expectation that there should, somewhere out there, be a ‘job’ for everyone. Many of the people I know don’t have regular jobs. Some of them have never worked for a regular wage or salary. That would really be just passing the responsibility on to someone else to provide them with a regular income. Nice work, if you can get it!

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Misery Mall

If you had to guess where to find the UK’ s largest man-made dome (after St. Paul’s Cathedral), you probably wouldn’t bother to look in Dumplington, Greater Manchester. And how about the world’s largest chandelier? Yep. Dumplington again. But, if you want to see them for yourself, don’t bother to try to find the place. Ask instead for ‘The Trafford Centre’, where both these wonders are incorporated into a huge, eponymous out-of-town shopping mall which has dominated the area since 1998.  Dumplington, a hamlet first recorded in 1225, has been elbowed aside by the massed ranks of our national retail outlets, its lowly brand dumped in favour of one which has more worldwide recognition.

I went there to gawp when it first opened for business, and I returned recently to make sure that I really wasn’t missing out on a wonderful shopping experience, but I suppose that depends on what your parameters are. Certainly, the place is impressive in its lavish ornamentation. It is full of statues, murals, columns, marble staircases and gold leafed adornments, yet it felt to me that I was the only one taking notice of them. The people I observed were resolutely focused on shop windows that could have been lined up in a giant tin shed. Maybe they were regular visitors who had become blasé about the grandeur of the place. Maybe the grandeur seeps into their consciousness, working its magic in subtle ways, elevating the spirit and loosening the purse strings.

Anyway, it was coffee time, and there were so many establishments to choose from that Carluccio’s were advertising reduced prices. Refreshed by a very good, reasonably priced cappuccino, I walked methodically through the mall, trying to maintain an open mind and some of the curiosity which had sent me there in the first place. About fifteen minutes later my resolution began to wane, and I started to fantasise about being back in the city centre. I passed a grandmother, mother and daughter, all sitting together on a bench outside Thornton’s. They were staring into space while they ate their way through a box of chocolates. It was 10.30 in the morning. I needed to split.

The bus dropped me back into the city centre, and I walked the long way round, through all the back streets. Here are the second hand book stalls, the ‘adult’ shop, the army surplus store, the vinyl shops and all the scuzzy characters that inhabit and frequent them. The Big Issue sellers never seemed so welcoming, and the buzz of city life never so intense. The shiny, expensive mall, with its army of minders could never be home to all this. I felt cheerful again, stimulated by an environment which has an edge, and encouraged by the diversity and energy of human endeavour. Like I said, it depends on what your parameters are.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011


My birthday is on the day after St. Valentine’s day, which can be a great advantage if I should want to book a restaurant table and drink remaindered pink champagne. It’s like buying a holiday out of season: it’s a bargain, but it feels a bit flat somehow. Can you imagine how those born on December 26th. or January 1st. must feel?

At lunch with friends the other day, while I wasn’t paying attention, talk turned to stationery. I know two things about this subject. One is that the post-it note was invented as a by-product of research into adhesives. I expected this fact to be received with polite interest, but was almost knocked out of the way as two members of the party jumped forward to proclaim their reliance on the sticky little patches of paper. “I love post-its”  said one, “Post-its make my day more interesting” claimed the other. They settled down eventually, but the incident did confirm the other thing I know about stationery,which is that some people find it irresistibly seductive.

Now, this is good news for the stationery industry, the demise of which was predicted more than twenty years ago when computers threatened a paperless office. It didn’t happen then, but the industry faces a new threat in the form of internet social networking. Nowadays there is an alternative to snail-mail greeting cards. I’m quite sure this does not explain why my mailbox wasn’t overflowing on St. Valentine’s day. On the other hand, nor does it explain why it was pretty well stuffed the following day.

Walking behind a couple of women returning to their office from lunch, I heard one say “coloured envelopes are actually quite hard to find”. I could have taken issue with her, since I had, just that morning, slit open quite a few of them. Coloured envelopes are one of the weapons in the armoury of stationers fighting back against electronic communications. Their charms are tactile as well as visual, making them are easy to buy, and difficult to consign to the recycle bin after extracting their contents.

Some people, however, are yet to be taken in by sexy stationery, and opt for Facebook postings (which do have the advantage of broadcasting events to the unknowing), or text messages, which nudge into one’s day like unexpected encounters. Some still use the telephone to speak or even sing their greetings. The sung ones are sometimes best heard as a recording, lest my inadvertent wincing communicates itself down the line.

Overwhelmed thus by the full panoply of different forms of greeting, I can only be pleased for the stationery industry’s continued survival, grateful to social networking for spreading the word, happy with SMS for the constant reminders, thankful for answerphones for sparing my blushes, and chuffed in general that so many friends and relatives have wished me well, one way or another.