Friday, 25 May 2012

A long train journey and the benefits of chainmail

During the first fifteen minutes of our East Coast six hour journey down to Birmingham New Street on Saturday morning a couple of young Irish dancers, who were sitting in the seats across the carriage’s aisle from us, chatted, argued and passed crisps and juices back and forth to their Mum and their Gran who were sitting in the two seats ahead of Ka and myself. A large group of girls all sat further down the carriage decorated in various birthday attire, one girl draped in a 30th banner, squawking, laughing and howling.
“There’s no way she’s 30!” Ka scoffed under her breath, as the birthday gaggle started, Ka drinking her coffee that had been hastily purchased on the way for our soon to be departing train in Glasgow Central from a girl that asked us how to make a Mocha.
After having looked forward to a quiet journey down to Brum it looked like those chances were dashed as the tinny tunes of JLS started ringing out from one of the girls phones. It had taken four hours to go down to London in a Virgin train at the end of March with Adventure Ted but if the chatter between the family members around us along with the shrill, tinny versions of JLS songs emanating from the girls’ phones was going to last all the way down to Brum this was going to be one long journey.
As it turned out the journey wasn’t too bad. As the journey progressed Ka ascertained, with her uncanny knack or earywigging, that the family were on their way down to Newcastle for an Irish dancing competition. A girl lying over the two seats in front of the two kids, whilst comparing phones and exchanging dial tones, told the Irish dancing girls of her trip down south to see her husband who was currently spending time in Durham. When the kids got a little more wrapped up in their iPhones the girl started chatting with the Mum and Gran revealing that her husband was in fact presently residing in Durham at Her Majesty’s pleasure. He ‘had been naughty’ apparently. Whether ‘naughty’ means murder or drug dealing I’m not sure, unsurprisingly she didn’t go into that much detail.
A loud unpleasant, liquid like cough started gurgling out from the seats behind us after Edinburgh as the train coasted along on it’s journey. As we travelled over and through the fields of the East Coast on our way down to Berwick the bright sunshine glittered over the sea on the horizon, a sign of the great weather to follow on our week off. Just as we were about to start eating our lunch, a picnic, prepared earlier by the ever organised Ka, the gurgling cough was almost spat out from it’s corner of the carriage.
At one point one of the happy girls from the all female birthday party stopped to chat to the source of the gurgling throat which made the irish dancers suddenly suspect the cougher of being famous. The cougher was an elderly, tall man with an enormous grey beard, sitting quietly, observing. A lot like Gandalf, except with more of the catarrh problem. The irish dancers inquisition continued and they asked him if he was a singer. Not with that throat, I thought. Although I’m sure he could have had a go on X factor, belting out the old classic “While my catarrh gently weeps”.
Another guy then started harping on about independence to the Grannie and the Mum in front of us, ranting about what the British Government don’t want us to know and how independence will be a bed of roses. This rant as he travelled down to York for work.
Upon arrival in mid afternoon we met Colin and Heather outside the Upper Crust in Birmingham New Street Station and headed up the escalators into the darkness of the Pallasades Shopping centre.
When I left Birmingham, back in 2004, New Street station and the surrounding Pallasades shopping centre was being renovated and modernised.
Not much has changed. Unfortunately the place is still a state. Lighting and wires hang down from the dark tileless ceiling over the drab surrounding shops and cracked old floor tiles. We walked out into the light, just off New Street itself, to an old pop tune crackling out over an ancient tannoy system, which, Colin informed us, usually played Rolf Harris, and then made our way down Stephenson Street. A lot of the work in progress that had been going on when I left approximately eight years before, was now hidden by wall boards, each with their own wonderful, colourful illustration depicting what the station will look like in some far and distant future, perhaps when we’ll have hover trains and flying cars.
Other areas have shown some signs of improvement though. The Bullring Shopping Centre is now at least twice the size it was since I had last milled around the end of New Street. What was a temporary ramp made of cardboard and wood which stretched from the end of New Street down through the old St. Martin’s Square to the large indoor market and Upper Dean Street was now a large, open, curving, clean, town square surrounding the still standing St. Martin’s Church. Looking out from a viewpoint, high up on one of the balconied steps of the town square, at the foot of the statue of Lord Horatio Nelson, a good view of the south eastern side of Birmingham stretches out before you. The brown brick and spire of St. Martin’s Church looks a little ill at ease amongst the modern, pale tiles and brick of the new square unashamedly contrasting with the form of the weird, gleaming silver, bulbous architecture of Selfridges on it’s left.
Colin and Heather took us home to Yardley Wood where we had a good catch up over tea and chocolate cake before we freshened up and headed out once more to the Mailbox back in the city centre.
Another piece of Brum that was only really just kicking off when I left the Mailbox was a location I visited only once or twice. Considering it’s main attraction was a large Harvey Nichols store at the time I didn’t have much reason to go. The most expensive shop I could go to back in those days was Solihull Morrisons. Along with many designer shops and companies, including BBC Brimingham, the Mailbox now houses many restaurants and bars one of which, Bar Estilo, in which the four of us enjoyed some brilliant tapas and a bottle of red, annoying the waitress by ordering up seconds. We then went on to the lively bars outside on the canals of Gas Street, struggling to fit in to some of them through the crowds watching the Cup Final on the big screens. A little later we took a short walk up the canal eventually ending up in the Pitcher and Piano where we managed to get a seat (a very important factor when your on a night out and getting on a bit). There we settled for the majority of the night, enjoying cocktails, beers and southern comforts before heading out on to Broad Street to seek out a taxi, but only after meeting a friend of Heather’s from work who decided to take us on a wee mystery tour around the bar, apologise and leave us to get on our way again. He had been looking for their boss, I think, but neglected to mention the fact he was four hours late in meeting him.
Broad Street, the Sauchiehall Street of Brum, hadn’t changed a bit. Still full of hen nights, folk in whacky outfits and rows of police cars waiting for trouble. Just before midnight in the taxi home, Heather was interrupted by a call regarding work, and whilst the rest of us were hassling Heather to tell her colleague where to go she remained patient and polite as always trying to give reasonable, polite answers before a squeaky voice started emanating from somewhere. At first I thought Beaker, the Muppet, had popped up somewhere whilst Ka thought I was throwing my voice, presumably attempting to be the voice on the other end of heather’s phone. It turned out to be the taxi driver asking for directions. Directions which Colin gave and the driver ignored with another indecipherable squeak. After arriving back at the Main residence, and being charged double the fare we paid to go into town, we settled down for the night with a night cap, or two, not counting the large amaretto, which would be three. Which then turned into three in the morning.
Colin woke us up the next morning with a good dose of tea and rolls and sausage before we decided to head out to see some Hobbits in Sarehole, a place with an unfortunate name if said in a Scottish dialect.
The local park, The Shire Country Park, was holding a Middle Earth weekend in it’s Sarehole Mill, which I talked everyone into going along to, at least for a walk and to see some sights.
Sarehole Mill, along with Moseley Bog, were childhood hangouts for JRR Tolkien when he lived in Brum in the very late 19th century as a kid and provided the writer with his inspiration for Bilbo and Frodo’s home, Hobbiton.
Though I can’t recall seeing any blacked up Morris dancers in Lord of the Rings. We were met by this merry bunch of decorated dancers as we entered the park. Whilst the drums beat and the bells jangled, Colin, Heather, Ka and myself sauntered in and around the park among the milling crowd, in which a few folk wandered around in Wizard and Elf costumes along with one or two Hobbits. I was half expecting to hear a familiar catarrh shredded spluttering cough from somewhere.
A lot of the attending kids were dressed up in cloaks and hoods, awaiting the dragon parade at 2, running around whilst their parents chatted with neighbours. Tents were set up, some selling pottery, traditionally made food, wood works, crafts and jewellery. In one tent a lady was going over various attendees costumes in fine detail, asking one lady where she managed to produce her lovely elven cloak to which the lady replied the Bull Ring Indoor market. At one stall a man was selling and showing the benefits of wearing chainmail to a rather unconvinced audience. Other larger tents hosted face painting, stalls and stages for performances which, unfortunately, we did not manage to see. We had a train to catch.
So after another drive into Brum town centre and a ridiculous treat in a cake shop which successfully made the four of us feel ill for around an hour or so, we headed back through the Pallasades Shopping centre, Rolf Harris singing ‘Two Little Boys’ over the tannoy behind us, to get our train at 4. Thankfully there were no irish dancers, Gandalfs with throat infections or prisoner’s wives this time round although unfortunately there was a guy sitting across the aisle who liked to sit with his hand down the front of his shorts vigorously scratching himself. Unfortunately, again, I think we were halfway through our Sunday picnic dinner when Ka noticed this.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Are we human?

I’d never been to a Humanist ceremony before. With no religious connotations, no inclusion of a religious service, at which only half the congregation know what’s going on, no prayers or strict readings from a big book and a less formal environment, it seemed a lot more relaxed and enjoyable. But maybe that’s because I wasn’t the one standing waiting at the end of the aisle.
Alan Cameron stood at the head of the hall, making nervous conversation with his two or three best men as all his guests gathered in the seats of the large hall behind him. We were in the National Piping Centre, on Hope Street in Cowcaddens, a venue Ka and myself had looked over when we had been touring the possible Wedding venues of Glasgow and it’s surrounding areas. The Piping Centre was our second choice, only just trumped by the House for an Art Lover, thanks to its gardens and Piano room.
The Piping centre was a great venue with the initial gathering of guests upon arrival on the ground floor museum and bar area, surrounded by exhibits and artefacts from throughout the long and wide reaching history of the bagpipe. A young spectacled female piper greeted us all at the old church’s entrance door before Alan greeted us upon arrival on the bright, sunny afternoon. We were immediately served a glass of golden cava and joined other guests having a wander through the small museum as we awaited our call to move upstairs and take our seats in the large decorous hall. When the waitresses all started milling around informing everyone to proceed upstairs, we downed our cava and headed up the old, spiral stone steps. We took our seats, surrounded by family from both sides, including many Finnish people from the Bride’s side who had travelled over especially for the occasion.
Malin soon arrived in her beautiful white gown, her Dad walking her down the aisle, and the camera phones started clicking, buzzing, bleeping and flashing, all held up to get a good view of the Bride and the waiting Groom, small devices all crowding the scene, seemingly one per couple, whilst one of Alan’s mates dived around the floor with his big, proper, digital SLR.
The Humanist priest, sorry, celebrant, told the story of Alan and Malin’s meeting, their lives together since their meeting and the hopes and dreams of their future lives together. Alan and Malin exchanged vows, Alan getting a little teary eyed as he did so, and they both exchanged rings with large grins on their faces. The signing of the register followed with yet more mobile phones, iPhones, cameras and SLR’s dancing around over and around peoples’ heads and after a few more words, a big kiss, and some applause we all followed the husband and wife downstairs for more Cava whilst the ceremony hall was transformed into a dining hall for dinner.
The bubbly, golden cava flowed as bottles were constantly being produced from large silver ice buckets at drinks tables whilst the guests were invited to writes well wishes on cards and tie them to a small fir tree which would follow the happy couple to their new life in Finland where they are to move next year. After tying our wish to the tree, Ka requested I get her a glass of iced water, which I was told by one of the many waitresses, was only available at the bar as the drinks tables only supplied the seemingly unending flow of cava. So off I went to the Piping Centre’s bar, next door to the museum.
Whilst I waited in the short queue at the bar I started chatting to the gentlemen getting their drinks before me after hearing them mention the lovely city of Prague and the good old Glasgow School of Art. Before long I was happily chatting away to the two of them, one of which, a friendly, bearded chap by the name of Ian Reid, turned out to be a tutor at the School of Art and knew the tutor, who still teaches there, that had started taught me in my fourth year (or a third of it anyway. He done a rather neat disappearing act a third of the way through the year). The other, Tony, was one of the best men and a former musical colleague of Alan’s and offered me a pint to which I refused politely saying how I couldn’t possibly elbow my way into someone’s round in such a fashion.
Around ten minutes later I got back to the museum, Ka glaring at me, as I sipped from my pint of Tennents. Apparently whilst I’d been away and whilst Ka had been standing, looking a little lonely awaiting her glass of iced water, she had been chatted up by the Humanist.
Now a little happier with her iced water Ka let me off the hook for abandoning her, and we went out to pose for a large group photo in the Saturday afternoon sunshine, before once more going back indoors to the museum to mingle with various friends and family of the happy couple, some of which understood me, some who didn’t and simply nodded politely.
We met Alan’s sister, Sandra and her husband David, who chatted away to us whilst Ka spoke to Alan’s Mum. Unfortunately whilst speaking to David, I may have accidentally referred to Sandra as Alan’s Auntie at some point, but once more, got away with it. David, the brother-in-law, shrugged it off and didn’t seem too bothered by my mistake and I could tell he probably wasn’t the sort to tell his wife of my little gaffe, though, come to think of it, she never did speak to me for the rest of the day.
After yet more cava, and another pint, we were back upstairs for dinner, getting the speeches out of the way first, of course, in which Malin’s Dad tried his best to speak English, Malin and her sister got a little teary and Alan was made to look like a Scottish dork by his best men, who’d obviously had a field day in Glasgow’s best pound shops.
At our dinner table sat Malin’s camper van travelling Auntie and Uncle, who again, we had to slow our Scottish burr down for a little. The Uncle was called Leaf, or Lieaf, a very nice gent with a beard and glasses who reminded me of the Tolkien artist John Howe. Along with them was Alan’s Sister (yes, Sister) Sandra and brother-in-law David, along with another couple, Vicki and Russell, who sitting right next to us, heard all Ka and my conversations (or, in most cases, arguments). Another friend sat on the other side of them, who’d apparently done the bridesmaid’s make-up, but whose name has long been shrouded in the alcohol tinged mists of time. We all got on great as a table and all continued to sit with each other, even after being chucked out the hall following dinner in order for the room to be transformed for the night party.
The Highlander Fyne Ale was the drink that made up the rest of the night, fuelling many a dance on the dancefloor, started, of course by Alan and Malin, who, by this point, was sporting a rather fine pair of green trainers under the white’s of her dress.
The DJ on stage belted out the tunes helping the dancefloor remain largely busy for the majority of the night. Ka and myself ventured up more than a few times particularly for The Killers and a bit of Bon Jovi, which I really hope nobody was filming. I danced with the Bride to Tony Christie’s (Is this the way to) Amarillo in wonderful, true Peter Kaye fashion and even pulled Alan’s old Mum up to dance. She only lasted half a song with me, before protesting and walking off.
I even got Malin’s camper van Auntie up to dance to The Proclaimers’ 5000 miles. Ka and myself had spotted the Auntie, and her husband, Lieaf, dancing on more than one occasion earlier on in the night, strutting around the dancefloor quietly, ballroom style whilst everyone else jumped around wildly around them. The two of them glided, elegantly and sanely, like two peas in a pod, poised and expressionless, with perfect body alignment, all footsteps and maneuvers.
Of course when 5000 miles started up from the DJ on the stage I turned to see the wee Aunt humming along politely and took it upon myself to show her some dancing, Proclaimers style.
Needless to say, she accepted my invitation but once we got up on stage things went a little differently than planned. After she gave me into trouble for my initial jumping about and calmed my waving arms around, she took a hold of both hands and started leading me up and down and around the dancefloor, instructing me on my footwork all the way, chin held high. Brilliant, I thought, though I’d of rather it had been Aliona Vilani teaching me (or Kristina, or Ola for that matter!).
As the last notes of Loch Lomond ended, the gathered party surrounding the Wedded couple and the crowd on Runrig’s live track faded, we said our goodbyes. Alan gave each of us his now traditional bear hug, and we made our way back to the hotel room. A journey I couldn’t quite remember making the next morning.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Asteroid field of vision

I have spent the majority of May feeling either ill, blind, or dizzy and it certainly wasn’t anything to do with any initial excitement of getting our new fridge.
After Ka’s little head on collision with a collapsing fridge door we had immediately visited the Currys website. Unfortunately we made a slight error of judgement. The fridge we ordered doesn't fit milk. Of all the fridges looked over online, we inadvertently opted for a model that doesn't fit milk.
A fridge that doesn't fit milk. What kind of idiot designed that?
What kind of idiot buys that?
We've had to remove a shelf, from halfway down the inside of the door, off it’s plastic moulded brackets, in order to fit a normal bottle of milk in the door's largest, lower shelf. The middle shelf fits snugly further up the door but has no brackets and thusly cannot hold more than the weight of two spring onions (or sibies) inside it making it very little use whatsoever.
In fact, we're struggling to fit all our usual copious amounts of food in the rest of the fridge. It all seems so much smaller. We can barely fit the salad bowl into it. It’s now a minor task getting the butter out the fridge. Before you nonchalantly reached in, pulled the tub out and flung it on the worktop, now you now have to move things to the side, take things out, balance yoghurts on tomatoes, make sure you don’t hit the door’s bracketless middle shelf and reach to the back of the refrigerator in order to pull the tub out.
Never panic buy household appliances online. Always wait until you can go along to the actual shop, the large open plan shops that make even washing machines look sexy. Up the back, behind the washers and the ovens, are the fridges, where you should open the doors, look inside, admire the cleanliness and check for a decent sized milk shelf.
Okay, there are factors which make an online purchase a little more attractive. No need to travel anywhere. No need to salivate over televisions you cannot afford. You don’t have to bother telling the usually grinning customer service folk to piss off as soon as you walk through the automatic doors and you certainly don’t have to put up with them trying to talk you into buying yearly guarantees for when ‘something goes wrong’ (that will always make me highly suspicious). Not seeing you appliance in the flesh, or it’s plastic coated, thermally insulated form, in this case, can go against you, especially when it turns out to be smaller than predicted. A bit like the opposite of what happens when you go out for a date with someone from The person you end up greeting at your table turns out to be a very different size, weight and perhaps even age, than the picture advertising themselves on their profile page. In fact, I’m sure those kind of match.comer’s could put away more food than our wee fridge can.
In the following weeks I started suffering a variety of symptoms consisting of various ailments ranging from dizzy turns and headaches to stomach problems (the polite term) and seeing things. Strange, blurry, out of focus shapes, floating around in my field of vision. My stomach was twisting and turning the whole time and at one point, during one day at work, I felt like puking one moment only to nearly collapse of dizziness the next merely sitting at my desk.
All very weird. So I paid my Doctor a visit who basically couldn’t see anything wrong with me at the time and suggested a possible allergic reaction. To me this was an unlikely reason as I usually felt worse in the office. This would make it an allergic reaction to work, something that a lot of other people seem to suffer from.
Great, I thought, what’s going to happen next? Next I’m going to be claiming benefits and appearing on Jeremy Kyle.
Still suffering with the symptoms in the following days I considered the opticians and made an appointment for Saturday morning, expecting my prescription to have changed, thus accounting for the strange, floating dots in my vision and the headaches. How it would explain the stomach pains I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t aware of anyone suddenly having an urge for a toilet pan whenever their vision changed. I suppose it can be quite scary but not to that extent surely.
So I popped down to the opticians on the Saturday morning and optometrist, a chirpy young girl in a grey cardigan, put me through the various tests in which I click buttons on seeing lights, read letters from a projected slide and get ‘pissed’ in the eyes. A rather uncomfortable device which tests your eye pressure. You rest your chin on a pad and look into the dark depths of a rounded black box through a glass lens and suddenly get air spat into your eyes. A test which I’m not afraid to admit, made me jump everytime, like watching John Hurt looking down into that egg again.
The Optometrist then had a thorough look at my eyes after dropping an eye drop, known as Tropicamide, into each eyeball and letting it settle, or sting, for around ten minutes. After administering the eye drops she advised not to drive for at least an hour which I shrugged at casually finding no particular crazy effects going on and quietly certain there’d be no problem in driving home straight after. Following a good ten minutes of looking around in each eyeball, the Optometrist informed me my prescription seemed unchanged but I did have something very interesting going on in my eyes which she’d only ever seen twice before.
Asteroid hyalosis. Asteroids? In my eyes?
“It’s quite nice to look at”, she told me. “It’s like looking into a snowglobe that’s been shaken up”. More like stars than asteroids to the optician’s viewpoint the condition is apparently like looking into a star filled night sky which shifts and circles around, glimmering in the moonlight.
Pleased that I had been able to entertain the Optometrist with my starry eyes for the morning I went to leave unconvinced but not before she insisted on putting me through the eye pressure test again, probably just to amuse herself for a little longer as I jumped and spasmed on the other end of the eye blowing machine again. I suspect she may have been filming me with her mobile phone in order to post it on YouTube for a laugh for all her Optometrist pals.
Afterwards, she insisted my eyes would be fine and I went on my way, almost banging into someone on the way out the shop and then realising I could barely see. Pretty soon I was wondering around the shops in the town centre like a confused Mr Magoo, everything around me blurred, out of focus and melting in and out of my field of vision. I couldn’t see a thing and I certainly couldn’t drive. The blurriness lasted for around an hour but before that hour was over I had to make my way home. I had a Wedding to get to and I was running late.