If you ever have a day free when you’re up early and have a bit of energy, you could do a bit of laid back cooking. This does not get too involved and you can take your time. I did this today. There was no stress or mess.
I did have the day to myself but I wanted to be creative. You could do this with your other half or a friend or just on your own with some good music in the background; although for me, music is never a background. Last night I unleashed a lamb half shoulder from the freezer. It was a Tesco New Zealand job of just under a kilo. ~(£7.00 I think.) This morning, I prepared its coating. This was easy. I can only use one hand and I’m restricted to a wheelchair and it was trouble free. At the time the dishwasher was busy from the previous night’s indulgences so I kept a neat tidy pile ready to go in.
Here are my players. First I sliced onion and tomato for a base Then I built the paste. Turmeric, coriander, cumin and garam masala powder went into a little bowl. Then it was time for the crushed garlic (two cloves) and chopped ginger.(A lot) I love my ginger chunky so it saves time on the chopping. Here is a family portrait of the lamb’s coating:Tucked in there is tamarind paste. It gives a real piquancy to the actual dish. (Sorry, that was a bit of a twatty thing to say.) I squeezed some lime juice in as well. At nine thirty this morning, with final additions of tomato puree and yoghurt, I completed the paste before coating the lamb with its bed of tomato and onion, wrapped it in foil and put it in a low oven. About 120c is the norm for a whole day’s roasting. I had intended to make a complete parcel of it and use the slow cooker but with one good hand and a flappy left hand I made complete mess with the foil. Along with parchment paper and cling film, foil is the devil’s work. So I was going to be all smug and describe how I used a deep baking dish to help form the parcel. The parcel was to save on the washing up; which it did, even in the oven. And that was it.
Eight hours later there was a gorgeously tender flavoursome lamb curry.
I used a deseeded green chilli so it was mildly warming.
To go with it I roast some cauliflower and broccoli after dousing it in a spiced oil and yoghurt mix.
There was also a side dish of tomatoes, cumin seeds and finely chopped onion with a little red wine vinegar and sugar.
But I’d scoffed most of that while the veg was cooking. On the whole the standard measure was a teaspoon of spices and four tablespoons of yoghurt. With the tomato puree I just did a satisfying big squeeze.
You can use any basic flavour to go with this style of lamb. Moroccan or Italian is good. You can even go further east with more oriental spices, coconut and lemon grass. Adding sliced almonds or any white milky nuts will add more texture. Brain fog prevents me from remembering the name of the ones slightly bigger that peanuts. Grrr. But the day was cool and needed smooth soft flavours. I’m not going to stress about the name of those nuts.
In the sixties and seventies, I remember some of the more unusual residents in our road. When I say unusual, they were considered by others to be different and carried some form of stigma. I cannot deny that through my inexperienced young eyes they seemed plain weird. They even had nicknames. Thinking back, some of them had serious mental issues. But stigma was stigma. Stigma is a cruel beast which punishes those who are already at a disadvantage.
Even today stigma still spreads it poison to those willing to mock those who refuse to recognise the terrible spectre of mental and physical illness. When I think back to the persistent trouble makers I shared a class with at school, I often wonder how many had some form of Asperger’s, autism or ADHD. Even today, these complex life affecting conditions can draw cynical condemnation as an excuse for being naughty or lazy.
Across the road lived Norman Jones. Norman was elderly, well spoken and articulate. He lived alone in a squalid little house in need of major repairs. It was hidden behind an monstrous hedge left to grow wild and high. In all weathers he would don a threadbare overcoat and trilby and trek through the streets of Wallasey.
His grey stooped figure and shuffling gait were a familiar sight. Occasionally he would call on our neighbours to request the use of a tin-opener. He had a dog. Rex was fiercely loyal. He was a stray puppy and had already gained legendary status with the children of the street. But as soon as Norman had offered him the kindness of his own home he became a one-man dog. I was glad. The two deserved each other. They became inseparable.
Some of the children and teenagers around were not kind to Norman. Norman was volatile. “What about the busses?” they would shout. Norman would flip into a torrent of hapless abuse. For me as a child and teenager, any notion of amusement soon turned into sympathy for this poor man. It was cruel. He was old enough to have fought in the second world war. War messes up heads.
In 1975 someone bought his house. I assumed he’d paid little or no rent for it. It was completely renovated. Yet still Norman remained; even when the new owners moved in. It was a kind if temporary gesture.
Then one day Norman disappeared. I didn’t see him leave. I don’t know the details but the road seemed emptier for it. I wonder what happened to Rex?
On the corner of one of the groves, in one of the bigger houses in the road were the vampires. Well that’s what my father called them. The house had once been adorned in a deep olive green paint. By the time we had moved into the road it was an excuse of dried caked flaking crumbs of colour. The windows were darkened by the incessant build up of urban grime.
Our road was in a smokeless zone where domestic fires burnt coke. But these stains preceded that. The vampires only ever appeared after dark. I have no idea who did the shopping. The woman, Mrs Jones (no relation to Norman) was as broad as she was high. There was a husband and another relation.
We called the third person Tommy Molineux. Every evening he would troop off to one of the local pubs and proceed to cast a shadow of doom and gloom over any aspect of brightness or optimism. But it was his solo parade home which caught the road’s attention.
Tommy turned into a clown. He would direct traffic, act out silent monologues or just adopt a silly walk. If there were any road works around, he would pick up one of the flickering night lights and stand cruciform in the middle of the road. As a child, it made us laugh. I’m sure he was playing to the audience. Maybe it was his release valve from a life of utter depression.
I’m sure Mrs Jones was deeply depressed too. Too embarrassed to face the world in her current enormous unkempt state, she had gradually isolated herself from any social interaction. She had withered into her own personal world of desperate loneliness. They disappeared too.
The house was refurbished and a very polite, smiling Afro Caribbean man moved in. I was less sympathetic to the Jones family. She would come out and scowl at any children who dared make a noise resembling joy or happiness. But again, there were deep mental issues within that household.
Down towards Brighton Street was another house encased in a vast hedge. It was occupied by two brothers. Charles was an outgoing social type of man. He had many friends. He was a primary teacher of the old school. The desks were in rows and he would take his place at the head of the classroom and spout forth his wisdom and knowledge. His brother Ted on the other hand had serious issues. He attended the Adult Training Centre by Moreton Cross. That meant our paths would often cross. He had a tendency to stare. I started saying hello to him. We had occasional brief conversations; nothing deep, just day to day stuff. I think he was lonely. But having a problem with communication was never going to help him in that respect.
After I left school I saw progressively less of him. The hedge grew ever higher. The last time I saw his brother was in Lingham Lane school in September 1989. I had a two week placement there before my PGCE course. Charles was his usual ebullient self; I felt uneasy about asking after his brother Ted. I wish I had now.
The road also had its fair share of quirky characters. Next door but one was “The Nurse.” She was the end of a terrace and raged against anyone bouncing a ball against her wall. She was one of those diminutive determined Irish ladies. She was probably an excellent nurse. There would be honest to goodness no nonsense care. I’d never heard of a shillelagh until she brandished at us one Friday evening. She looked serious and threatening.
Some years later she befriended my two brothers and I. We used to play with her nephews (could have been grandchildren) in the park. But in 1974, she had a turn for the worse. I don’t know why but she became agitated and persistent. She would knock at our door and never go away. One night the fire brigade were called to extinguish a minor fire in her house. The next day an ambulance came and we didn’t see her for months.
When she returned she never spoke to us again. The poor woman looked sad and broken. I hoped some good neighbours had given her the time of day to chat or share a pot of tea. I don’t know if that ever happened. Sometime in the eighties, she disappeared and the house was renovated and put up for sale.
At the top of the road was Mrs James. Her house was painted brown inside and out. She was a true character. Again she was one of those people who had a problem with playful children. Yet she was always willing to chat. My mother had found out that she possessed a heavy duty drain plunger. Our’s was blocked. My dad in his wisdom sent me down to collect it.
As she handed it over, Mrs James embarked on a raucous public espousal of the benefits of Izal Medicated Toilet Paper. No detail was spared. And by the time she’d finished I suspect all the other residents of her cul-de-sac knew of our drain problem.
Finally there were two brothers round the corner. The liked a drink. I can’t remember their names but I would often see them around town staggering about. There had been a few charges of drunken disorderly. But the best incident made the local newspaper. The headline was a masterpiece of local reportage:
“Man leapt at PC.” These are part of my recollections of Kenilworth Road. Dad still lives there.
Well, the north wasn’t frozen. It was cold though. The wind follows you around enshrouding you in its blanket of winter chill. Like the bully behind you in school, it flicks away at you ears and aims icy blasts at any weakness in your defences. Any gap between your scarf and collar is all it takes for the cold fingers of the north to slip onto the contours of your cold vulnerable neck. Even if you cover up it’s too late. The beast has breached you guard and it stays.
On Christmas day of 1995, I decided to drive up north. I left at five thirty. Next door’s lights were already on and I heard muffled squeals of wide-eyed delight floating from their windows. I’d borrowed a car for the trip. Sadly my faithful old Fiesta was having brake trouble. But I was in a brand new Fiat Uno. What could possibly go wrong? Cruising round the sweeping bend to take up the familiar path of the M1 the back wheels slipped. Ice was everywhere.
It was a cautious journey. As the harsh white sun began to rise, sending a dazzling ray gun to the rear view mirror, the whole winter’s scene began to emerge. It was beautiful. All around the green of the fields and trees were covered in the static white of a deep frost. Long dark shadows were stretching from the trees pointing their skeletal fingers to the north west. By Junction fourteen on the M6 there were only two lanes available. But the whole point of an early start on the day itself was to avoid any delays.
My parent’s road was a sea of rough ice; as if the choppy water of a gusty day had frozen in an instant. Getting out of the car I noticed the unusual direction of the chill wind. It was coming from the north east. A Siberian special. It was a memorable break. On that journey I decided to open the bonnet to see why the screen wash wasn’t working. I knew it was frozen but I just wanted to check. The bonnet lever came off in my hand. I laughed.
It was significant because the return journey took over seven hours. It wasn’t because of the traffic; I had to stop at every service area to clean the windscreen.
The wind this year was a more normal north westerly; hardly friendly but it brought the brightness of the blue sky and the pinkness of your ears like the familiar old school bully. My father had put the ramps out. I scampered up the clattering aluminium into the pulsating warmth of the snug little terrace. It’s impossible for any stealth in that house. The now familiar gouges out of the door frames and skirting, exactly five inches from the floor had left a (t)rail of destruction on the ground floor. Upstairs was also a challenge. After the safety of the stair lift it was no-man’s land. It was a minefield of flat floor and sharp bends. I only fell over once. The para-medics were quick. Job done, minimal embarrassment.
It was six days of mayhem and calm. I wanted to spend time sitting with my father. We had plenty of family visitors. Children and adults alike showered us in cascades of Christmas cheer. Next door cooked our Christmas dinner. I was touched. In amongst the flattened spaces and closed down shops and pubs of Seacombe, is a community of kindness. It’s always been like that. Our road has been full of big families and big hearts. As a child I was never alone. This is part of the magic of returning to Wallasey. The houses may have been transformed by double glazing and paved front paths but the big heart is still there.
Let me talk about Monday. My older brother Tom had assumed he’d turned up to give me a lift to Liscard. Well I had a list of things for him to do. My dad now refers to our able bodied relatives as “those strange people who can see and walk”. I asked Tom to search for my dad’s missing wallet and then to get a few things for me. The wallet wasn’t found.
My other brother had that pleasure; unearthing the little minx from under the armchair. But Tom just carried on with his usual optimistic demeanour. I went to the pub. It was an old friends’ reunion. But it wasn’t a reunion. We were re-asserting our bonds. We are now going to meet up many times. It’s a new chapter.
Straight after the pub I was driven to my old friend Julie’s house. This is a little cottage down a mysterious little driveway. No-one knows they are there. That’s part of their charm. The irregular bumps and potholes of the improvised path jolt us into a turbulent welcome to these exclusive little dwellings.
Julie now shares her house with Colin. Colin is a big part of her history but now their clandestine trysts are also in the past. They are together and it shows. Julie has always had a restless side. But it’s gone; replaced by the generosity and comfort of a couple happy in their own existence. I’m delighted for both of them.
The following day, was another time for doing nothing. Phil and Rosie arrived. Phil found the wallet. My dad feigned a romantic reunion with his missing friend. The laughter reflected our relief. Between the two of us, Dad and I had searched in vain. If only we could move chairs. “That’s because he’s a strange person,” commented a relieved man referring to people who still had functioning bodies.
The following day, Julie and Colin arrived at seven fifty to take me to the station. It was another little comfortable moment of benign humour. Julie describe me as “chipper”. Well I was. It had been a brilliant break. Again the train was heaving. But I had my space. I arrived back home at one fifty.That was just over five hours from door to door. I love trains.
Everyone has a story of Christmas. The original story is universal. It’s there to be believed or not believed. It’s up to you and what you think. I have many Christmas stories. I could give you them all year by year but there would be a sense of deja vu. Almost every time the day would end with some kind of grovelling on all fours after a day of merry roistery. The subsequent night’s sleep could only be described as a power nap between sessions of alcoholic abuse.
But in those days I was invincible. I had a feverish appetite for sitting with friends and making holes in the drinks cabinet. This year’s holiday has been very different. I’m now the king of the train. The train is my friend and I rejoice in its power. The very build up to a long train journey sends a tingle up the spine. I now travel in a chair. Tied to the chair is my temporary world. Two bags and a man bag carry my world by means of Velcro straps. Nothing argues with these straps and their limpet-like grip.
It was a cold day. There was an icy wind under a blanket of grey. But the grey didn’t matter. It was a train journey.
My first train journey was memorable. We all went to Southport for the day. It was an electric train. In the sixties, I thought they were cooler than steam trains. The first stop from Exchange Street Station was called Sandhills. “Can we get off here?” I asked. “It’s got sand hills.” I’ve learnt since that Sandhills is predominantly light industry and docks. I still think it’s silly name.
It was a hot day and the train was crowded with like minded families. Children were bored and baying for attention. I stared at my parents sitting in stony faced silence whilst they secretly prayed for the journey to end. My two brothers and I remained silent. I’ve always been happy just to sit and watch. Southport beach was amazing.
I couldn’t see the sea. The tide went out for miles. I loved the feel of the grainy soft dry sand as it ran through my open fingers. I put as much as I could into my pockets. On the way back the gentle cadence of the rocking carriage weaved its soporific charm as I rolled into a deep sleep. The next thing I knew was the sound of the old 92 bus as it screamed down the fast bit of Longmoor Lane.
Last Thursday was a smooth journey. Apart from the taxi between Charing Cross and Euston. The cabby was an old boy of the old school. While I went up the short sharp ramp, he gripped the back of my chair to ensure a safe transition. But the chair was in turbo. His valiant efforts to stop me from falling backwards pressed my neck forward into a position only a contortionist would voluntarily assume. The poor fellow was mortified. I’d wrenched my neck but I wasn’t going to tell him that. It was an accident and accidents are opportunities for learning. Next time I’ll check my wheelchair setting. We might live in a claims and blames culture but I’m giving it a miss in this lifetime. In that respect I’m old school too.
Euston was a forest of bottoms and legs with the usual suitcase minefield.
Oh the temptation just to shout excuse me and charge through those multi-coloured plastic wheeled boxes. I could scatter them like nine-pins before shifting responsibility onto my faulty chair or my faulty brain. It was like the start of the Grand National. Everyone was waiting, eyes trained on the board, waiting for the platform number. I couldn’t actually look at the board due to a tender neck. I just waiting.
Then the shout came up: “Platform two,” they bellowed before setting off on the rampant charge to the elegant slimline pendelino, waiting in powerful majesty at the assigned spot.
I raced along the undulating platform to coach B. The man put the ramp out and my little chair scampered up its ribbed escarpment. No stopping-all in one beautiful smooth gesture. “Cheers mate,” went my passing response. And there was my space. All ready.
The rest of the train was nose to tail. I took out my paper and that was it. Liverpool came within the scheduled two hours and twelve minutes. A nice stewardess offered to bring me some tea. Virgin tea is good tea. She didn’t even charge me for it. The end brought me back into the cold winter wind of Liverpool. I’d left my little cosy cocoon to face the cold concrete of Lime Street.
When I was a child, Lime Street used to scare me. It was a short cut between T.J. Hughes. and Lewis’s. I didn’t like the dark and the noise. In my little eight year old eyes it was dangerous. Cars and vans were all over the place. And they were noisy. My mum, as ever was very matter of fact and assured me that no car or van was going to run me over. I was still uneasy.
Perhaps the biggest impact of the journey was a final return to the Wirral Loop Line. It reminded me of the many times I’d stood on its hard wind swept platform.
The draught was always freezing. One year, just a few days before Christmas, I was awaiting the clattering mess of steel and plastic we called a train. A whole family turned up on their way to Birkenhead market. Why a grandmother in her slippers, her two daughters (smoking like chimneys), the reluctant teenager who pouted for England and her two pre-school sisters would want to go to a smaller market than was on offer in Liverpool beats me. But there they were chatting away between drags, scowls and matriarchal pessimism. One of the little girls went trotting down the platform to look along the blackness of the tunnel while it spewed out its cruel icy breath. The mother noticed and paused from her intense chatter and smoking. I wondered what name was to be screamed along the station. I was not disappointed: “SABRINA” came the cry. I laughed. In fact I laughed uncontrollably. They all turned to me. I stopped.
But last Thursday, I explained to the helpful man on the platform that I was lacking a ticket: “Oh just tell them at the other end,” he said, unperturbed by my oversight. The train itself brought it all back. I sneaked a look through every portal, desperately trying to recall the days when I would bounce through the station on some important mission or other. There were days when I had stood there with my mates after a session at Yates’ Wine Lodge. We’d be gearing up to hit the heady heights of New Brighton. There would be somersaults and high jinx on the way. The evening would be set fair. Oblivion awaited.
The loop line was built in the seventies. Previously the underground stations were whopping great cavernous affairs.
The roof was a vaulted oppressive structure like a cathedral crypt. But the building of the line had made the stations more compact. It appealed to my tidy mind. Apart from James Street.
That was still open, dark and mysterious. When I worked in Burton’s the staff room was in the basement. The trains passed below us with an ominous rumble. I thought of all that space and darkness. It held me in awe. So did James Street.
I remembered the pub above. The Mona. I loved that pub. It was our chosen post-match boozer. It was lively and intriguing. We always found some shady characters. At Hamilton Square the man with the ramp showed me the way out. “Where can I pay?” I asked hopefully. “Oh your here now, it doesn’t matter,” came the response. I emerged into the dazzling low sun of a Birkenhead winter.
It felt cold and warm at the same time. The taxi driver was hilarious and for a few minutes I wondered why I’d chosen to live in the fat under belly of the South East. Well that’s how it goes. You follow your dreams but you remember your roots.
“That just cannot be so,” Mr Worthington interrupted. “The rain is given to us for our harvest and our ale.” I was desperately trying to think of something else to say when the first rumble of thunder gave me new impetus.
“Ah did you hear that? Now that’s thunder. That’s caused by increasing pressure and the expansion of air around-” A flash of lightning flickered brightly across their faces. “Lightning.” The timing could not have been better. “Lightning is caused by lots of tiny bits of ice rubbing together to make a charge.” The mumbled disgust of Mrs Abernathy and Mr Kenwood stopped. Now they were definitely listening to me! The thunder rumbled again. Mrs Abernathy’s shoulders and arms tightened.
“I am from another time.” I could sense surprise. I wanted to surprise them even more:
“I am from around here but not how you know it. I know so many things.” Mr Worthington looked taken aback. He had just declared me useless for not speaking Latin. Another flash of lightning lit up the grey walls. “Lightning is electricity and we will learn to make it and control it. We will make it firstly from coal.” I turned to Mr Worthington. “That’s a fossil fuel you know!” The thunder continued to rumble. Mrs Abernathy whimpered. “It’s something you get from under the ground. Then we will make more electricity from the sun and the wind and even the sea.” Mr Kenwood grunted. “Soon electricity will light up this house, but not in the way we have just seen. You will walk into a dark room and by the door will be a switch. You flick the switch to light up the room. It will be like daylight in the darkness.” I looked at all three of them in turn. They were all in a state of disbelief. Suddenly I felt good. I felt that I had some control back.
“Silence silence, you will anger God himself.” Mrs Abernathy’s tone was shaking and fearful. A loud clap of thunder exploded close by. She shrieked. As the rumble faded, the rain burst into a torrent. Outside, the stone began to glisten with its welcome moisture.
“Do not make Him angry,” echoed Mr Kenwood. I knew he was rattled. I could hardly contain myself. I was doing my best not to come out with a load of random nonsense. If I wanted to scare these people I had to keep some kind of order.
“Electricity will be passed around the country by pylons. They are tall towers of steel bearing massive cables of pure power.” I remembered that description from a poem I’d read. Mr Worthington’s stony face was turning a grey to match his expression. “But!” I held my finger up and checked they were still listening. “We don’t just have electricity.” Kenwood looked ready to explode. “Where I come from, we go round in cars. Cars are carriages without the horses. We don’t need horses. Horses are for racing or jumping over fences or just riding for fun. ”
“Cars have engines. They use petrol. We get that from another fossil fuel. It’s called oil. This Fossil fuel also comes from under the ground or even at the bottom of the sea. We have oil platforms which have long legs to stand on the sea bed. And cars go fast. Faster than any horse. Everyone will have a car.”
“Have a care,” warned Mr Worthington. “You speak the words of sorcerers.” His threat did little to deter me:
“But trains can go faster. They can run of steam, diesel or electricity. Trains are like lots of big cars all joined together. They go on rails. We have a train that goes through a tunnel all the way to France. Soon there will be trains travelling underneath London itself. And you will be able to get on a train and go anywhere in the country.” Outside the rain lashed down onto the windows while the lightning flashed in fits and starts. It was a noisy evening.
“Stop! You must be silent. These are the devil’s words.” Mrs Abernathy was now sounding terrified. “We’ll all be cursed, we’ll all be doomed!” The next bolt brought a genuine scream from the cowering woman. I was delighted. I had the power and I was going to use it:
“Oh we don’t just have a train to go France. We have planes that fly in the sky.” As I paused to catch my breath the following burst of thunder was the loudest yet. I noticed Mr Worthington begin to sink his head into his hands. He began squeaking frantically like a cornered mouse. I was impressed with the impact I was having.
“They can get to the other side of the world in just one day.” Mr Kenwood stared back at me. His redness was now off the scale. At that point I was confident that I could both outwit and outrun him.
“In everybody’s living room there’s a television. A flat box with moving pictures. You can see what goes on in any country of the world.” A gust of wind threw a flurry of rattling raindrops against the windows. “Then we’ve got other little boxes called phones. If you’ve got a phone you can put in a code and speak to anyone wherever they are.”
“You are the devil’s child, the devil’s child.” Mrs Abernathy was now hysterical. “The ground beneath us will open, we’ll all go down.” Mr Worthington’s face was no longer visible. I kept a close watch on Mr Kenwood out of the corner of my eye. His horsewhip was at the far end of the table. If he wanted it, he had to step towards it. That would be the signal to run. Up to now he had remained rooted to the spot. But I wanted more revenge. I really wanted to spook them.
“Do you see the moon at night?” I gave a sort of evil laugh-it may have been a bit comical but it was genuine. “I know men have walked upon that moon.” The thunder, lighting, rain and wind were now roaring freely outside. “Men went in a rocket through space and landed on that moon. It was even on the television.” The chaos outside was now happening inside. Mrs Abernathy and Mr Worthington were both playing out individual performances of screaming blind panic. As for Kenwood, I knew I was playing it close. I knew he was ready to explode. I knew that what I said next would set him off:
“And I know the earth goes round the sun and there are other planets that do the same. The sun is just one star. And if you were to travel to one of them you would die of old age before you got anywhere near them. In fact there are millions of stars in the solar system, silently gazing, watching over-” Kenwood made his move. Like the storm, he was raging:
“This beast will desist. For I shall kill this beast, I will beat it out of your soul until it screams for mercy.” He reached for his horsewhip. I shot through the door. Now I really felt the power. I wanted to tease Mr Kenwood. I wanted him to try and catch me. I would let him think that he could catch me. Then I wanted to stand and laugh as he keeled over in exhaustion. After putting up with all the humiliation and cruelty of this hateful stinking man, this was the bit I was looking forward to.
One of the first alcohol free beers on the market was called Barbican. It looked like a beer but it was a substitute.
If you’re driving but want to enjoy a safe beer like drink it’s fine. The idea of drinking with impunity is a fantasy we can only dream of. Two days before the Christmas of 1989, my GP ordered me to stop drinking. I had been suffering with the early symptoms of MS but even though I knew what it was, I was desperate for a quick fix. The optimist in me gave me hope. I told myself:
“The doctor is right. I’ve been drinking too much and I’m stressed about my PGCE course.”
The course meant everything to me. I wanted to teach. I’d wanted to teach since the age of fifteen. As a result my Christmas and New Year was dry. And I was the most popular person in the world.
I was invited to every night out and every party, In fact I partied hard and sober. To party sober is a unique experience. I am grateful for the experience but I’m never doing it again.
The Barbican I know now is the arts complex in the city of London. A masterpiece of sixties design, it sits in the famous old city oozing a sparkling foam of aesthetic elegance offering a haven of music, cinema and theatre. The layout is complex. A narrow service road cuts through its heart.
The car parks appear misshapen and disorderly. We’re used to rectangular levels of cold grey concrete. Strangely enough, this tangled web of developed and adapted design has an air of revered mystery. It’s the lack of regular shape. Even the bar and social areas outside the concert hall appear to be tagged on as afterthoughts.
Behind the old Gladys Street terrace in Goodison Park, the catering area appears as a small appendage hanging on to the side of a large old stadium. I know that place well.
At half time we would queue for a cup of weak tea and a discussion of the first half. Yet above us, bats flew frantically between the eaves. No-one seemed to notice. Evertonian bats? Priceless.
Well outside the Barbican concert hall I am reminded of my beloved Goodison. There were no bats at the Barbican; I checked. But there was a similar sense of anticipation.
The anticipation of a performance by the London Symphony Orchestra is thrilling.
Unlike football, there is no chance of losing. We were going to hear two Mozart violin concertos. Number one was “like a summer’s day”, to quote my good friend Steve. Number four was totally exquisite. Both concertos used a chamber orchestra with the upper strings standing in true eighteenth century style. The soloist and director, Nikolaj Znaider was skilled and charming. He smiled through his performance. I can recommend Mozart’s Violin Concerto number four.
Mozart is not light music, it is not background music and it is not just relaxing. It’s thrilling but touched with sadness and pathos. Mozart had a wretched life.
Getting to the Barbican has its issues however. Basically if you live near Tunbridge Wells, you would like everything to be close to Charing Cross station. But the Barbican is in the city.
On the map it is tantalisingly close to the main arteries, offering a expedient route to our destination. London traffic however, is more than willing to put a sting in the tail of any well planned excursion. Nevertheless we arrived.
I’m on their disabled access register so we were able to find the appropriate car park and glide elegantly into our reserved parking place. We wriggled through the confusing warren of walkways and lifts to emerge outside our allocated door. The bar was pleasant, the whisky was pleasant and the company was more than pleasant.
The second half of the concert promised a real treat. Tchaikovsky’s fourth is a highly charged cannonball of electrified emotion.
He hates, he loves and he hopes. If you lock in to his rich blanket of of turbulent torment, you will become wrapped in a world of a man haunted by his own being. This long drawn-out statement of metaphysical angst will drag you screaming through a panoply of emotions. It is so sumptuous and engaging, you will feel trapped by the colossus of its beauty.
By the way; I like this symphony. I have memories of its previous performances. Tonight’s was no exception. The third movement was the man of the match. The frantic pizzicato was the harbinger of a demented finale. At the end, I bellowed my feelings of joy. I can’t help myself. It was the climax of a thoroughly pleasant evening with good friends. I am lucky. All those years; listening to , performing and studying music have given me such insight. And I appreciate the generosity of friends. Thank-you for reading.
Whatever you may think of long car journeys, they are always memorable. Disability may have ended my days behind the wheel but in my mind I am still a driver. In the passenger seat I think all the things a driver would do. I can’t look out of the window and watch the hedgerows fly past. I can’t read. I certainly cannot sleep. I’ve only ever slept twice in a car. The first time was after being picked up at Gatwick and driven back to Wallasey. I purposefully curled up on the back seat and woke up by Ellesmere Port. I think the long flight from Australia may have been a key factor there. The second time left me crawling with guilt. I’d skived off school to go and watch the second replay of Everton and Liverpool in the FA Cup. It was a night match and I was in London.
The irony of a teacher skiving off still tickles me. My old mate Doug drove us. That was fine. I chatted to him and our other London exile Mike all the way through a busy brutal journey. But coming back, poor old Doug drove whilst I just crashed in the passenger seat. This time I woke up on the North Circular Road. Some of my pupils claimed they saw me in the crowd on Match of the Day. At least three other members of staff had slipped away to watch their own team in a replay that evening. I felt less guilty.
I now come to another epic from Spain to England. This was business and not pleasure. My friend Steve owned a Chrysler dealership. Chrysler were trying to get a foot hold in the British market. The Cherokee and Wrangler jeeps had moderate success in the early years. Then they were bringing out an MPV in the spring of 1997. The Voyager was already available in Europe so Steve thought he’d steal a march on his rivals and get one from Spain between the Christmas and new year of 1996.
Such ideas may be conceived in the cold light of day but the spirit of the adventure flows as free as the ale when discussed in the warm snug of The Huntsman. We were going to fly to Bilbao, stay overnight in a friend’s in-laws in San Sebastian and cruise majestically back in the shining armour of the new knight on the block.
I must say, the taxi ride from Bilbao to San Sebastian was a masterpiece of Spanish bravado. “Did that man want to crash?” It was an hour and fifteen minutes of grip. I gripped the upholstery and my mind was gripped on the damp road ahead as it flew past with inflections of splash. I suppose aquaplaning saves on the tyres.
The following day we set of all safely strapped into our leather armchairs and shot through the Spanish gloom. By the way, San Sebastian has brilliant tapas. We both knew that French roads were expensive but brilliant. We were following my 1994 route so it seemed plain sailing. And it was up to a point. Going up through southern France the turbulence of the mild Spanish wind had give way to the sharp static frost we associate with the northern hemisphere.
We were mildly content. We were thinking of a late ferry and back home to bed in the wee small hours; job done, brand new Voyager on the forecourt by the following Monday. It was bound to attract interest. Good common business sense.
Then it happened. By mid afternoon the country was enshrouded in a familiar blanket of virgin snow. The outside temperature read minus seven. Like some shallow fop I began to fear for the vineyards. But up ahead the sign said FERME! The motorway was closed. Just south of Poitiers we had to transfer to the N road. That’s like our A road. We looked ahead as the road swept before us into the twinkling late afternoon lights of this famous old town. But the lights did not belong to the town. The lights were brake lights.
In my blogs, I never like to use basic expletives but there is no other way I can express our sentiment: “Oh shit.” For an hour nothing moved. In desperation, Steve sitting crestfallen in the driver’s seat phoned back to England to get any news about the traffic in France. But this was 1996. Internet? No, there was Ceefax. Ceefax was great for the latest football scores but for traffic news in mid provincial France? “Tu plaisantes.” What self respecting Englishman would be driving through France whilst the rest of the nation was taking a much needed deep breath between the excesses of Christmas and New Year?
One late evening after too much whisky, we fantasised and romanticised about our heroic expedition through the immaculate Gallic highways. There was a wizened old little man gripping the back of our necks. It’s part of the “slightly drunk” package. Well that little man was standing directly before us laughing until the bell on his jester’s hat began to send an unbearable piercing needle of mocking laughter into our ears. There are untoward noises and there are untoward noises. At the purgatory end may be the sound of an air chisel, the drone of a hoover, nails down a blackboard, Barry Manilow, a happy Liverpool fan or violin practice. (Don’t knock it, they have to start somewhere.) But this little man went beyond that. He was visually gross and constantly beat our ears with the silent sound of static engines.
This stirred us into action. I looked at the map. I can do maps. Just ahead of this moribund snake of doomed steel and plastic was a D road. Steve risked a slip into the abyss of a roadside ditch to gain access. We were off. I was glued to the map. Take me home, country roads.
Oh no, this is another “oh shit” moment. It’s far worse than the plight I am currently relating. I have just inserted that dreadful song into my head. It will grace me with its tortuous presence for the next two days at least. If I crack on It may leave my ears alone for a bit.
Now you know the frustration of a never ending traffic jam and the sudden cathartic release of an open road results in a giddy sense of freedom and a rather heavy right foot. But this is less appropriate on an untreated country lane when it’s minus seven. That lovely old cheesy tune, the Skaters’ Waltz came into my head but the first violins were drunk and a semitone flat. There we were. skating about in unfamiliar land in a brand new Voyager. Fortunately Steve’s driving is impressive. He could handle a slide or two. But I was not going to say “did you feel it go” every time the rear end shifted a bit. Now the aim was to get north of Poitiers an back onto the motorway.
The route was involved but there were no wrong turnings. But the route was long. It must have taken over six hours. At one stage in mid evening we were parked outside a bar in the middle of nowhere. I said it: “I wonder if they do accommodation?” It was a fleeting thought but we’d made steady progress. We had to press on. We did find the motorway just before midnight. Was it time to sleep? No!
It was now a difficult journey through the tedium of the French auto routes in deteriorating conditions. We spoke of our hopes for the new year and of our hilarious past. We reminisced about university and did impersonations of our tutors and fellow students.
Talking of untoward noises; there was a student called Derek. He was a big hearted bloke but if he was in the room and you were listening to rock or pop, he would sing along, quite unabashed by his comedic Barrow-in-Furness accent. It was always :
“Derek’s coming. let’s play Shostakovitch”
“But I don’t like Shostakovitch.”
“Do you want him to sing?”
After a long continental drive, any form of replenishment on the Channel ferry is both deserved and welcome. People make bucket lists which may include para-gliding, bungee jumping or a trip to the great wall of China. But I recommend a P and O breakfast after a mega trip. Blighty is just minutes away whilst you chew away at the cardboard bacon, rubber eggs, sawdust sausages and lukewarm beans. There is nothing better.
Dover brought daylight to a frozen England. It was my turn to drive this elegant left-sided masterpiece of nineties American tack. The last leg of our journey was quiet and smooth; apart from those traffic calming things just before Tonbridge. I was slack and hit the kerb. We had to change a tyre. The frustration was apparent. It was snorting from our exhausted nostrils.
“Where’s the spare tyre?”
“Check the manual.”
“It’s in bloody Spanish.” Snort. I found it and we changed it. My only worry was the pub landlord. It was eight thirty in the morning and we were changing a tyre in his car park. Would he emerge red faced and cross in an ill fitting dressing gown not designed to accommodate his corpulent frame? Would he have this semi-mocking tone as he explained the basics of tyre maintenance or how he had personally campaigned for those traffic calming measures? Or would he just be helpful and offer us a cup of tea?
He didn’t show. Within an hour my head was on the pillow. Home is a sweet place. The previous summer, Steve and I were also sat on a cross channel ferry after a long but smooth journey from the Cote D’azure. “That was mega,” he commented. “We’re never doing that again.” But we did. Experience is the best form of education. Thank-you for reading.