Archive for December, 2011
It’s the town where I was born. And it’s the town where I have lived over half of my life. (If I can stay away from living there for another three years, though, it will be less than half of my life.) And it is called Lincoln. It’s a cathedral city in the county of Lincolnshire. It used to be the capital city of the Roman Britain before that London. About 85,000 people live in Lincoln (120,000 if you include towns and villages on the outskirts). And I now live in a city with nearly nine million people (over 21 million in the metropolitan area). Here’s a quick chart to try and take your mind of that utterly awful first paragraph:
It’s interesting being back. There are some nice things, some shitty things. Shouldn’t be surprised by that, cos every day in every city is like that. Lincoln seems to have some sort of sponsorship deal with Super Dry to make every man’s jacket, and UGG to make every woman’s jacket potato-esque boots. That’s if the men are wearing jackets. There is all together way too much under-dressing. I saw a fat man in his twenties, with a pink head, shivering as he walked down the High Street in a grey Nike JUST DO IT t-shirt. Just do it, in his case, should mean, “buy a fucking coat, you idiot.” Women on the town in skimpy dresses. Skin mottled like corned beef from the cold. The only baseball caps you see – caps of actual baseball teams, that is – are Yankee caps.
Men walk funny there. If they’re not doing the stupid walk that Liam Gallagher popularised, they’re hobbling. Lots of Lincoln men seems to either have sports injuries or are just too fat for their legs to cope. Every time I pass McDonald’s there are huge queues. Every time I walk by KFC, more than half of the tables inside are occupied. Living outside of the UK, certain foods are fetishised in your head. Marmite, of course. Branston pickle. A good pork pie or Scotch egg. Fish and chips. On this trip to Lincoln, though, every time I’ve been near a chip shop, the smell of gallons of hot fat has made my stomach turn. It also turns when I walk past the Walkers Crisps factory; a place that I was fascinated with when I was little. That place! It’s FULL of crisps! There is a Mexican take-away place in Lincoln now. It’s called Cactus, obviously. And the sign above the window has a man in a big hat and poncho sleeping next to an acoustic guitar. Pretty accurate, that, cos that’s what all of my Mexican friends do. Just like I, as an Englishman, wear a pinstripe suit and bowler hat all day long.
Drizzle. Wind. Rain. Cold. I’m not gonna pretend that I’ve forgotten what cold weather is like, but after five seasons in Mexico, you get used to a certain niceness to the temperature. The bad weather in Lincoln wasn’t a shock, but I’m no longer used to having constantly wet nostrils. I’d forgotten how a bit of exertion, something as simple as walking into town instead of getting the bus, can leave your exposed extremities cold, while my abdomen sweats under the layers. I walked a lot, actually. It was nice. Mostly to save a few quid, because it seems somewhat ridiculous to pay over three pounds for a return bus ticket. But the walk from my mum’s house into town can be quite nice. There’s a point where you can access a footpath along the edge of the River Witham, and it’s nice to go along there instead of along the main road.
A man in a van pulled up alongside me and gestured for me to open the passenger door. (I am no longer walking by the river; this was at a different time.) I did. He asked where Branston is. It’s a village not far outside of Lincoln. And I absolutely could not remember where it was. The driver had a London accent. I have a Lincoln accent. I’m the one that should know. So I pretended, and sent him further along the road towards a roundabout, told him to take the third exit, and go up the hill on the left. I checked Google Maps when I got home. I’d sent him the wrong way.
Things are slow. Life is slow. It takes some getting used to. I used to notice it when I returned when I lived in London, but I notice it way more now that I live in a busy, over-populated city like Mexico City. People ring the STOP button on the bus, and amble off once the bus has pulled to a stop. I queued for nine minutes in Starbucks. The three employees looked like they hadn’t a care in the world. But it is me with the problem. My fancy big city ways where life is faster, and less frivolously friendly.
There’s a new store in Lincoln selling Apple products. It looks like you might expect inside. But the store is a reseller store, not an official Apple store, and it is called Stormfront. I have no idea who chose that name, but if you asked me what things they would sell at a store called Stormfront, I’d fairly confidently predict it would sell Neo-Nazi paraphernalia. But then, maybe there’s a Neo-Nazi group somewhere called iConnect or something. Who knows?
I had a haircut while I was in Lincoln. Went to an Italian barber shop called Luigi. As I entered, Luigi wasn’t cutting hair, just chatting with an elderly fellow about alcohol. They were just naming types of drink they liked. Whiskey. Vodka. Rum. Brandy. Beer. The other would either concur or say something they didn’t like about the drink. The old guy left, and Luigi said he’d seen me walking past and looking in for a few days. It’s kinda true. I did look in the day before, and saw him stood against the far wall looking bored. I asked him how long he’d been in Lincoln because his accent was quite strong. “Since 1967,” he said. He couldn’t have been much older than mid-fifties, so I kinda got the feeling the accent might be an affectation. I took off my cap, and he asked why I wore one. I told him it’s cold here. He asked where I live. I told him. “Oh yes, I bet it’s nice and warm in South America.” I didn’t correct his geography. He asked what I did for a living. I told him, and he proudly pointed to the mural of a kind of tropical seascape on the wall behind me. We got talking about the economy, and he told me the barbering world is suffering now that “anyone” can go to college for two years and open a salon. I mentioned how strong the memory of being in a barber shop when I was a child is: that smell of hair products, cigarette smoke, and pictures of topless women. He again gestured to the mural, pointing out a topless mermaid on a rock. He answered the phone and spoke in Italian. He spoke for a couple of minutes. It was his wife. Back to my head, a few more snips and he was done. All in all, it took him less that ten minutes.
I was in a bar waiting for friends to arrive. I’d arrived ten minutes early. Sat down with a pint on an upholstered bench that ran the length of a wall. In front of the bench were small, round tables and some chairs. I sat right at the end of the bench. A few moments after I arrived, a group of nine or ten young men with no jackets arrived. A few feet away from me, at the next-door-but-one round table were three women. Just as the men got their drinks, the women got up and left. The men chose to sit on the bench. There were enough of them for them to take up the whole of the rest of the bench. I sat there, tapping away on my iPod, using the bar’s free Wi-Fi. To anyone else in the bar, it must’ve looked like I was a part of the group, just in a huff.
Still, though, when I walk up Lincoln’s pedestrianised High Street, that feeling I had as a late teenager still exists: one of the tough guys is gonna kick my head in for having glasses and looking “weird.” I had a couple of good nights out, though. Good to see old friends. And there are some nice pubs left. It’s good to know that the Lincoln I see as a visitor isn’t the real Lincoln. There are certainly elements of that, and my friends are all too aware of it, but, I guess if you stay there or in any small-ish town, you carve a life out for yourself where the good things are, on the whole, all you experience and care about. Lincoln was a good place to grow up. A bit boring at times, but on the whole: nice. It made me who I am, for better or worse. I feel guilty about the snobby feelings I have when I walk around the city centre. I often wonder how miserable I’d be if I ever had to move back. And I imagine there’s a funny novel or something to be written about life in Lincoln, but when I left yesterday, on the train from Lincoln Central, I had an odd feeling. To leave Lincoln knowing that I won’t be back for a while. I don’t know how long. But likely not during 2012. Part of me is sad to leave, the part that enjoys seeing people that I’m fond of; but there’s also an ecstatic feeling to be done with it for another year or two. I spent the entire journey from Lincoln to Newark (anagram: wanker), where I’d catch the connecting train to London, staring out at the fields and that utterly magnificent, huge huge sky. I will miss that.
At Newark, I listened to a playlist of Super Furry Animals songs. As the train pulled in, “Slow Life” started. My favourite song of theirs. And somehow, it seemed quite apt that a song with that title was to accompany the start of the high(ish) speed journey to whisk me away from home.
Every 8.11 days of this year, I attended a sports event. An ice hockey game, a day at the races, and a night of lucha libre, three football games, and 39 baseball games. On Boxing Day, I went to the last of those sporting events, the Blue Square Bet Premier League game between Lincoln City and Grimsby Town at Sincil Bank. The league is, to me, still called the Conference. It’s the fifth tier of English football. What used to be called (and probably still is) “non-League football,” meaning it’s not part of the Football League. It’s all quite confusing; all you need to know is it’s four whole divisions below Liverpool, Arsenal, etc.
Lincoln City were the first professional football team I watched regularly. In the late eighties, in my late teens, with a job in a supermarket, I had a few spare quid to go now and again to watch them. They had slipped out of the fourth tier the year before, and I watched them play in the Conference and go straight back up. Lincoln City have never really been that good. For all of my life, they’ve never been higher than the third tier, and most of the time, they’ve been in the fourth tier. But, on the last day of the 2010/11 season, they lost and were relegated.
Grimsby Town, their opponents on Boxing Day, were relegated to the fifth tier the season before. Grimsby, for those of you unfamiliar with the geography of the United Kingdom, is also in Lincolnshire. Prior to the Grimsby game, the highest attendance for a Lincoln City home game this season was 2, 448 (on the first home game of the season). There were 5,506 there for the Boxing Day local derby, around 1,700 of which had travelled the 37 miles from the north Lincolnshire coast to the, ahem, big city.
A ticket in the Lincolnshire Echo Stand, along one of the sides of the pitch, costs £18 at the turnstiles (EUR 21.58, USD 28.21, CAD 28.75, MXN 395.31). You can see a Toronto Blue Jays game and have enough money for a beer for the same price. It wasn’t too cold; a bit nippy. Windy, though, so I got a cup of tea from the little place selling snacks and drinks. The milk was already in the tea when it came out of the big urn. Players from both teams warmed up on the pitch. Running little drills. The PA played a few pop songs, stuff that I assume is in the charts. Closer to kick off time, the PA played The Jam’s “A Town Called Malice,” and “All or Nothing” by the Small Faces, who, Wikipedia tells me, played at Sincil Bank in 1966 with the Who and the Kinks.
Closer to kick off, the music ramped up a bit. First, with the Dam Busters March, the theme tune of the film about the World War II operation where No. 617 Squadron set off from RAF Scampton, a few miles outside of Lincoln, on a mission to bust the shit out of dams in the Ruhr valley with bouncing bombs. That was followed by Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. And then we were ready for football!
Being a local derby, there was a fair bit of back and forth chanting between the fans of both teams. Both sets of fans taking turns to shout “Who are ya?” at each other, and minutes later shouting “You’re the shit of Lincolnshire” at each other. That seemed odd, considering they’d both been asking who they were.
On the field, it got off to a frustrating start. Not much space on the pitch. Well, actually, there was a ton of space on the pitch, but like pre-teen children, all the players seemed to be following the ball around. It was all too crowded for anyone to do anything. If any player showed any element of skill, it seemed inadvertent. A nice touch here, a yard of pace, a pass into space: all let down by the team-mates who hadn’t seen what might happen.
Throw-ins and goal kicks would see the teams assume their formations in small areas of the field. Every outfield player is in about a sixth of the field for the free kick that the goal keeper is taking in the photo below. It was depressing to watch. This wasn’t football. And if this style were to somehow sweep the globe so that Barcelona and AC Milan were playing like this, I’d stop watching football all together.
(More depressing than the style of play, though, was hearing someone behind me refer to Lincoln City’s black French midfielder Jean-Francois Christophe as being “just like a gorilla.”)
One good thing, though, was that the ball they played with was like the black-and-white panelled ball you automatically think of when you close your eyes and think of what a football looks like (that is, like this Adidas Telstar ball). I can understand that changing the way a soccer ball looks might be a good boost for sales of balls for Adidas or Nike or whoever, but it seems like a bad idea. A baseball is a baseball, and pretty much looks like it always has. Basketballs, American football balls, tennis balls, hockey pucks: they don’t change every few years. Why should soccer balls change so often?
After ten minutes or so, Lincoln City began to take control of the game. They had more possession, and it was quite often in Grimsby’s half of the field, and just after half an hour, Conal Platt put Lincoln ahead. Lots more chanting from the Lincoln fans:
“We are Imps! We are Imps!” (That’s Lincoln City’s nickname.)
“Sit down, shut up! Sit down, shut up!” (Directed at Grimsby fans.)
“Stand up if you love Lincoln, stand up if you love Lincoln.” (I stayed in my seat.)
And my favourite, the profound, humorous, and subtle “We hate Grimsby and we hate Grimsby, we hate Grimsby and we hate Grimsby, we hate Grimsby and we hate Grimsby, we are the Grimsby haters!”
Lincoln were good for the lead; had a couple more chances too, but, half time score: Lincoln City 1 Grimsby Town 0. I spent the break watching the clouds and some pug-faced Lothario who was chatting up a woman while her companion was away buying tea. I listening to people talk, listening to the Lincoln accent, the half-time analysis, and the post-Christmas chit-chat. The smell of Pukka pies and burgers, instant soups and halitosis. An air raid siren sounds, and the Dam Busters March fires up again. Grimsby Town kick off, Player A touches it to player B, as is customary. Player B passes it a few yards back to player C. Player C hoofs it as hard as he can into the far corner, and his team mates all set up in the defensive formation I’d spent 45 minutes watching before the break. Clearly the Grimsby Town manager must be an NFL fan, cos he certainly doesn’t seem to be a fan of soccer.
On and on. No real skill. The wind picked up and so did Grimsby. Lincoln, who were looking good for a win at half time were doing nothing in the second half. It was all Grimsby, and after just seven minutes, Scott Garner equalised. The visiting fans celebrated. Because the visiting fans’ area of the ground was small, they were compact and loud. They sang that they were the pride of Lincolnshire. They taunted City fans: you’re not singing any more. That was quickly followed up with a take on the old standard chant, “you only sing when you’re winning,” instead re-fashioned to reflect the town’s maritime industry: we only sing when we’re fishing.
The old man sat behind me said to his companion, “It’s not the same game, is it?” He was referring to Grimsby’s utter dominance early on in the second half, but conceptually, he’s right. It’s not the same game at this level. This is, and it bears repeating, not football. Grimsby scored a second goal nine minutes later. And from then on, the City fans were pretty quiet. The Grimsby fans were loud. They sang the team’s nickname in three elongated syllables: Ma-rin-ers. I had forgotten that that was their nickname. And my mind drifted for a while, as my eyes followed the ball on (and quite often, in the air above) the field, my mind drifted to thinking about the Seattle Mariners. That leaping mind trick where a tiny thought chain links other things, places, and events, and I was thinking about my time in Bellingham, Washington. But it didn’t last long: there was a fairly cavalier challenge by a Town player on the edge of the penalty box. Players were in a huddle, pushing each other around, and when a player from either team was subsequently shown yellow cards, the home fans questioned the integrity of the referee. The resulting free kick was at least on target. But the keeper saved it.
It did seem, though, that it had sparked a bit of something in City. With less than ten minutes to go, they looked like they were trying a little. The Grimsby fans, though, were gearing up for victory. All on their feet, singing “Grimsby ’til I die” (a horrendous thought, frankly), and “Mariners black and white army.” The latter chant was sung pretty much solidly over and over and over again for the last seven or eight minutes of the game. It was probably the most impressive thing that I got for my £18.
The final whistle blew up. Imps 1 Mariners 2. I walked into town, overhearing amateur Alan Hansens and Mark Lawrensons dissect the game. Because of the local rivalry, there were a fair amount of policemen gathered along the High Street, especially outside the pubs nearest the ground. But I just trudged home, kind of shocked that the style of football was so bad. It makes me wonder if it was that bad back in the 1987/88 season when I went to a lot of games. I don’t remember it being that bad, but that’s just a biased memory: I don’t want to remember it being that bad because, on the whole, I used to enjoying going to Sincil Bank.
Maybe one day, though, I’ll somehow become a multi-billionaire and I’ll want some sort of sporty plaything, and I can buy Lincoln City, build a fancy new stadium, invest in expensive players and watch them rise swiftly through the divisions, and then one day, they’ll challenge for the Premier League title, and everyone else will hate Lincoln City for being a tacky nouveau riche club; but I will sit there in a fancy coat, with fancy friends, and I will watch Lincoln City beat Manchester United 5-0, as I happily wolf down a Pukka pie.
This is around the corner from me mum’s house. More finger painting here.
More finger painting here.
More finger painting here.
Selectively taking photos of my hometown because I’m an arty snob.
Spelled the name of their own church wrong here:
I wonder: does the use of Comic Sans cancel out the rest of the stuff on this shop front that just screams “I hate people who aren’t like me!”? Nope, it doesn’t.
The below was written as notes into my iPod on Saturday. I’ve not really done much to it other than tidy things up a touch.
62 quid. A return ticket from London to Lincoln. Seems excessive, that.
The company that operates the train that goes that was gives you 15 minutes of Wi-Fi use for free. It’s free all the time if you are a first class human being. I, though, am a second class citizen, so only 15 minutes. Well, there would’ve been 15 minutes had the sign-up process for the free Wi-Fi not had been like applying for a bank loan. Honestly, all you need to do is ask me if agree to your terms and conditions, which, I will say yes to without reading, and then I tap the CONNECT button. Easy. Why do they need my address?
The girl sat next to me, in the window seat was read “The Outsider” by Albert Camus. The man sat next to her in the aisle seat was playing cards on his iPod touch. She won the battle of intellects.
There seems to be a lot smaller areas for luggage than I remember trains having.
Some guy walked by: very difficult to tell if he’s got body odour or has just eaten or been near to a warm Cornish pasty.
Change trains at Peterborough. My first taste of non-London UK. Chatty girls working at the train station coffee shop. A stag do of men on the other platform. All in fancy dress: a couple of soldiers, one guy as Hulk Hogan, another as Mr. T, and one in a shiny blue leotard with a Union Jack wrapped around his shoulders.
A teenage kid with his mates dropped litter, and one of his mates chastised him for doing so: “there’s a bin just there!”
A guy getting on the Peterborough to Lincoln train with a New York Yankees fitted hat with the word “Trevor” stitched on the side in a gothic font. When we got on the train I asked him about it. All he said was, “got it done in the States.”
Did a couple of quick drawings on my iPad, looking out of the window. Interesting to do something like that, with the light changing so fast. (There’s no Wi-Fi at me mum’s house, so I can’t put them online at the moment.)
I turned off the podcast I’d been listening to. I didn’t want my first experiences of being back in my home county tainted by thoughts of the specifics of the current baseball news. Listened to some Baxter Dury instead. Music that could enhance the Englishness. (After Baxter, I put on MGMT’s second album. That’s an album I adore. Way better than the first album. One of my favourite records of the last couple of years. But it’s also an album I totally associate with Mexico. I have listened to it a lot in Mexico City. And it does feel a little out of place for the mental diorama I have laid out for that record. That diorama had sunshine and a t-shirt, not clouds and cold toes. And I do have cold toes: the ankle level air vents on the train seem to not be pumping warm air, despite the date being 17th December.)
An old lady that looked very much like a snowman got off at Sleaford.
Sat at that station for twenty minutes. Dusky light turned dark, whitey-blue signs turned sodium orange as we waited for another slightly faster train to overtake us.
It wouldn’t really be dark were it not for the cloud cover. As we left Sleaford, as the town’s outskirts gave way to fields, the true scale of the Lincolnshire skies showed itself. Just a huge 180 degrees of grey. And just above the western horizon, a long thin slash of peach-coloured setting sun. The hugeness of the Lincolnshire skies is my favourite thing about the county.
And what to do when I arrive? I’d told my mother I’d be arriving home a couple of days later. I hate surprises. Hate is way too strong a word for that. And I get the feeling that saying you hate surprises is the new “I hate clowns.” But, I am surprising my mother. Terrible. But, as the train trundles along a track as bumpy as former DDR autobahns, I’m wondering if I should go and have a pint first. Just sit in a pub and let the Lincoln accents soak in for a while. I imagine I’ll delete these words from the blog post if I don’t go for a pint. And that makes it all the sillier that I am writing in a way that is acknowledging the presence of a reader.
The train pulls into Metheringham station. This is a village I’ve not thought about for a very long time. Frankly, I can’t picture it in my head either. But then, I do have problems with remembering names of places. Plenty of the towns in Lincolnshire, or towns I visited on childhood holidays are mapped out quite well in my brain, but the signs and names don’t exist. I lived in Lincoln for 22 years of my life, yet I still can’t tell you the name of the street where Ritzy nightclub is.
The darkened reflection of my face in the window. And the train seats, too. They soon begin to become punctuated with rectangles of yellow kitchen and living room light from houses that back up to the track; the occasional street light, and eventually the street lights on raised ridge to the north of Lincoln.
Then the lights of Monks Road and the industrial estate between that street and the train, and above it all the cathedral, illuminated, always there like a very fancy, yellow cherry.
Off the train, to the Jolly Brewer. A pub that I spent many nights in during my late teens and early twenties. Accents! Accents! A shock to hear my real accent being spoken back at me by the woman behind the bar. A couple of faces that I recognise in the pub. Not people I know, just faces. Older. Craggier. I ask for a pint of Kronenberg. “Pardon?” Even in my hometown people don’t understand me. I’d often thought, in Berlin or in Mexico, it was my pronunciation of things, but really, I guess it’s because I often mumble quite quietly. “Insomnia” by Faithless was playing in the pub. I have gone back in time.
I drank the pint quickly and left. Wandering slowly to the bus station, I look at faces, but the wrong faces. I look at the faces of young people to see if I recognise them. But there’s no point looking at those people. They were toddlers when I lived here. I should be looking at the middle-aged people.
It’s cold, yet there are a significant amount of young men and women in inappropriate clothing. Thin sweaters. Girls in mini skirts. Legs marbled red and white, the way cold British skin does.
I head to the place at the bus station where the bus going near to my mum’s house leaves from. Except it doesn’t any more. There’s been a change around. I walk around looking for the right place. I listen to “Smile” by the Beach Boys, a record that I fell in love with (well, bootleg tapes I fell in love with) when I lived here nearly 20 years ago. It reminds me of wanting to leave Lincoln, which felt funny, standing waiting to get the bus to my mum’s house.
The guy in front of me in the queue has a tattoo on his neck. It says BLAND. No words. I’d already seen a FATHER neck tattoo, and a bit-too-big green and black neck tattoo of a hand grenade.
“A single to Larne Road, please.”
“One pound ninety.”
Which is a 4.09km journey. If you take that price and apply it to a flight from Heathrow to Mexico City, it would mean the 8,919km flight would cost £4,168.84. So now you know.
I don’t go to many football (soccer) games these days. Only been to two this year so far: in July, I saw an MLS game between Toronto FC and FC Dallas, and on Wednesday, I saw the FA Youth Cup third round tie between Arsenal and Derby County. Youth, in the context of the Football Association means under eighteen years of age. Arsenal’s youth team play their games at Underhill Stadium in Barnet at the northern edge of Greater London. Handily, the stadium is about a cigarette’s length from my mate John’s house. Which is very handy for him, being an Arsenal fan. It was just £3 to get in. There aren’t many spectators at that level of football. Only one stand was open, and a significant amount of the seats were taken up by squad members of both sides. John pointed out that former youth players, current first team squad members, Emmanuel Frimpong and Ignasi Miquel, were in attendance. For me, as a Liverpool fan, I was more interested in the fact that former Liverpool player, current Derby County manager, and son of Brian, Nigel Clough, was there. After the last few years primarily watching baseball, it doesn’t really feel natural any more to be watching football. The 45 minute halves go by really quickly. A crappy hot dog and crappy hot chocolate at half time. But it was enjoyable, despite the cold weather. It was 0-0 at full time, so our cold toes were subjected to 30 minutes of extra time. Derby scored midway through the first period of extra time. And players were hobbling around; it seemed like half of them had cramp. If finished 1-0 to Derby, another quick cigarette, and we were home, toes slowly warming.
Last weekend, I met up with my friends Ian and Andy in a pub in Bethnal Green, in the east end of London. An aborted attempt to meet up earlier turned out well: he had a spare ticket for Saint Etienne’s Christmas party thingy, at the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club. Should you not be British or not know what a working men’s club is: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Working_men’s_club. Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club was a lot nicer than the one pictured on Wikipedia. We put our coats in the cloakroom (I wonder what percentage of items placed in a cloakroom are actually cloaks these days? Gotta be less than 0.001%, I’d say). There was a brass plaque on the wall in memory of some man whose name I forget, and whose exact role at the Working Men’s Club I also forget. But it was nice to see. Up some stairs, and into a decent-sized room. Probably a couple of hundred people in there. Ian got us all in with his magical piece of paper with some stuff written on it. Our names were checked off a list, and we were all handed a compact disc (St. Etienne’s “Xmas ’11 EP,” which, as I’m sure you will have already guessed is a limited edition thingy, only given to people in attendance at the event), a poster (that I gave to Ian to do with as he please; it would never survive un-fucked up in my backpack), and a raffle ticket (mine was number 202). The event was not a live show, but Saint Etienne were DJ-ing, playing their 100 favourite songs. Which I was kind of glad about. I like some of Saint Etienne’s music – “Avenue” is a wonderful song, and Good Humor was a decent album – but on the whole, I don’t really think they are a good as their own idea of what the band should be is. And Sarah Cracknell’s voice annoys me after more than a handful of songs. They do have good taste in music, though. When we arrived they were already well into their list. 10CC’s “Rubber Bullets.” A belter of a song. New Order’s “Ceremony” was next. It would be a good night if that quality continued. And it did. Bowie, Gainsbourg, Gentry, Wonder, Whitney Houston (“It’s Not Right, But It’s OK” is fantastic, but sadly, I was downstairs in the room with a pool table and a ping pong table having a fag at the time). One lovely thing about the night was the age of the people there. My guess would be the average age was definitely mid-thirties. Plenty of folks my age, too. It felt nice to be amongst people in the same age group. There was a pleasantness to the evening which was partly due to that, and partly due to the people who would be Saint Etienne fans. Whilst smoking, strangers would invariably end up chatting. At the bar, there was none of the usual scramble to be served first. Plenty of “you first.” And back to the chatting I mentioned the other day: it was just lovely to have a good natter with people. Spent a while talking to a couple of Ian’s friends who’d had pretty interesting lives, had a wee chat with a girl at the bar. She had lovely cheekbones. All interspersed with plenty of abrupt pauses when a new song came on: Oooh, “Porpoise Song”! T-Rex “Get it On,” Barry White “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little Bit More,” My Bloody Valentine “Soon,” Frankie Knuckles “Your Love.” After a handful of Newcastle Brown Ales (a beer I’ve not drank for many, many years), it was time to start glancing at my watch. Being the 24 hour city that it is, I knew I’d have to be leaving around 11pm to get the last Tube train home. Number 13 on Saint Etienne’s top 100 was “Sons of the Stage” by World of Twist. An absolutely wonderful song. But it would have to be my last. Time to say goodbye to a lovely night out, say goodbye to my lovely friends, say goodbye to lovely new people I didn’t know a few hours before. I found out from Saint Etienne’s Twitter feed that “Rock On” by David Essex was their number one. If you scroll down to the tweets they sent on 11th of December, you’ll see the whole list.
I had a few hours to kill on Thursday afternoon. I had a wander around central London, kinda pretending to be a proper tourist. I had a Marks and Spencer Christmas sandwich (turkey, stuffing, bacon, and cranberry jam-type stuff). It was lovely. Better than the Pret a Manger Christmas sandwich I had a couple of days ago. I will be trying to eat as many different sandwich shops’ Christmas offerings as possible. I sat down to eat that on one of the stone benches in Trafalgar Square, staring at the rather-underwhelming Christmas tree, the illuminated-by-different-coloured-lights fountains, and a big ugly thing that’s counting down to the London Olympics. Apparently, the London Olympics is two hundred and twentzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz, oh I don’t care how many days it is until it starts… I went into Sister Ray, a record shop on Berwick Street that was previously the location of Selectadisc. Still kinda looks the same inside. And still smells like a proper record shop, it smells of protective plastic sleeves and cardboard record sleeves. It’s a nice smell, an evocative smell. But, sadly, I have lost the skills needed to browse in a record shop. It’s been too long since I last did it. I flick though the D section, looking for the recent Baxter Dury album. It’s not there. I half-heartedly look at other sections, but I just don’t have that desire in me any more. Which isn’t a nice thing to realise. For most of my life, I’ve adored record shops, I’ve adored buying things that I knew nothing about, just because the record was on a good label and the sleeve was nice. CDs started the rot, but iTunes has completely ruined it for me. Damn you, Apple.
I went to get a coffee, not because I wanted one, really: mostly because I wanted to use some free Wi-Fi, to check email on my iPod. Just wandering around, doing nothing. Checking my watch. To the New Era shop to see if they had a baseball cap that I would like. They didn’t, and I had enough restraint to not just buy another for the hell of it. Back to Trafalgar Square to have a mooch around at the National Gallery. I’ve only ever been inside there once to properly look around. I think the great thing about that place, though, apart from the fact that the collection is owned by British public, is it’s a good place to go if you’ve got half an hour to spare. I’ve been in there plenty of times to do just that. It’s just a nice place to be. The wooden floors are nice, the different-sized rooms, the layout which means you can kinda lose yourself, but not enough to be lost. And it’s a fabulous collection. And if you go again and again, you can bypass the famous pieces with small crowds around them and check out paintings you’ve not really noticed before.
I walked through Charing Cross station. There’s things about daily life in London that I’d forgotten I used to do. Waiting in the concourse of a train station, looking up at the big boards to see which platform my train would be at is one of those things. But yesterday, I wasn’t doing that. I just walked past the hundreds of people doing what I did pretty much every week day for four years. I walked down the passage that runs along side the train tracks, over the footbridge across the Thames. It’s a beautiful view at night. The South Bank Centre loos great, the skyline to the east is pretty, lights reflecting off the river, and big red buses going across Waterloo Bridge. I sat by the river for a while, resting my feet, listening to podcasts about baseball. Had a wander down past the London Eye, had a good long look at the House of Parliament, up along Whitehall, and over to Covent Garden, to a Canadian-themed pub called the Maple Leaf. Felt a bit funny to be in a bar with Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Blue Jays jerseys on the wall having so recently been in Canada, and never seeing a pub like that. I met my mates Mark and John, and we got a wee bit drunk, chatting the night away. We saw Mike Leigh and Tim Roth coming out of a building, moments after Mark had wondered what it would be like to live in that building (it was squeezed between two pubs). Drinking and chatting and laughing. On the Tube home, a couple of girls sharing one pair of headphones sat down opposite us. They seemed to be having a fun night. One was Spanish, the other Hungarian. The Spanish girl was harassing the guy sat next to her. She kept talking to him, put her legs on his knee. All the time, he took it in his stride, never once taking his white earbuds out. He was a good sport. John and I said goodbye to Mark. We kept on chatting all the way home, where I plonked myself on the sofa, watched a bit of Bullseye on one of those channels that shows old stuff, just trying to drift off to sleep because my head was spinning a bit.
The following was written last night, into the Notes thingy on my iPod. I was a wee bit drunk. I have, though, gone through, corrected typos, clarified drunk ramblings and stuff, but on the whole, it’s the same as was written between Goodge Street and High Barnet on the Northern Line of the London Underground.
My feet hurt. A sentence that gives no indication of tense. My feet were hurting.
When I was in Toronto at the start of the month, I bought a new pair of boots. Boots that I call Chelsea boots, boots that my construction worker friend in Oregon calls Romeos. Boots that Blundstone call… whatever it is, I’m not sure what they’re called, I forget. I prefer Romeos, that’s a nice name. But really, in my head, they were called “replacement to the shitty, cheap boots that wore out way too quickly.”
I wore the Blundstones one day when it was raining. They kept the water out that the shitty boots would not have, but they hurt. They needed breaking in. So I kept the shit boots until I got to London. I bought some Clark’s desert boots. Clark’s make my favourite shoes: Wallabies. But, I’ve been in a boots mood for a couple of years, so figured I’d buy something different, and desert boots are great. I chucked out the shit boots because I’ve never had much problem with Clark’s before. Sadly, the desert boots still feel a wee bit stuff, so today, and for the last couple of days, I’ve been alternating between two pairs of boots that need a bit of breaking in. My feet hurt. I am typing these words as I stand in a hot Tube carriage. There’s a hipster with a moustache close to me. We made brief eye contact, and I found it difficult not to blurt out a laugh at both the ‘tache and his ostentatiously big glasses.
I’m a bit boozy, a bit grumpy. Partly because of the boots, partly because of the idiot in the elevator at Goodge Street station who thought it would be funny to press the open button in the elevator just as they were closing, that kept the doors open for about 30 seconds extra. It meant that when I got to the platform, my train was just leaving. The next train, the one I am on, would be ten whole British minutes later. Even more frustrating, because of the bilious nature of my brain, was the fact that the southbound train that he was taking arrived just as he turned left to go to the platform. Yet, I am listening to Eloise by Barry Ryan, which should make any three minutes of my life – my life, your life, everyone’s life – better. It is a fantastic song. You know this, right? (And if you only know the version by the Damned, go to iTunes right now and get Barry’s version, cos the Damned’s version sucks balls. Balls made of dog hair and pigeon shit.) There’s a moment in the Ryan version about 3:45 in, after it’s broken down and gone slow for a while, when there’s a short Beach Boys-y bit, followed by a couple of drum beats and it kicks off again. One of my favourite moments in all of pop music, that.
Anyway, this is the problem I have and fear I will always have with the nation where I was born: the good things are difficult for me to appreciate when there’s bad shit. This is MY problem, I think. Glass half empty. I just had a lovely evening in a pub with a friend. It was perfect in many ways. We had a great meandering natter. She gave me a jar of her delicious home-made mustard. I drank decent beer, but, as seems to be the way, every beer brand in this damn country has its own specific glass. And because of the tedious world of branding, I was drinking a beer that was served in a tall vase. Those glasses are awful. They look like the centre of gravity would be too high to withstand an accidental nudge. When I was ready for the second pint, I asked the barman for it a regular pint glass. He said he wasn’t allowed to do that. He said that without even looking at me, and said it in a way that suggested he’d been asked before. But he could give me a pint glass. I could decant it myself. Yes. Thank you. Logic graffitied over by the vandal of marketing.
The diarrhoea-filled toilet bowl we call the economy seems to have changed central London. A familiar crossroads, where Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street meet, has changed. Not just because of the Tube station renovations, but big landmark stores are boarded up. No more Virgin. No more Waterstone’s. No more Other-Big-Book-Store-That-I-Forget-The-Name-Of. There’s a TK Maxx. That store seems to be an indicator that a shopping mall is going down the tubes. They sell cheap stuff. And now there’s one in central London.
But, that’s the part of my brain that wants to continue to think that leaving the UK eleven years ago was a good idea. I’m not saying it wasn’t a good idea, I’m still happy I did, there’s more to this planet than a tiny self-important island off the coast of Holland. And when I see things I dislike about the UK, it only helps reinforce the idea that it was a good idea. I’m not an impartial judge. And right from the moment I arrived, I’ve felt that. The border immigration control thing at Heathrow seems more American. There’s an efficiency and unsmilingness about it that was probably always there, but it feels more accusational now. Prove that you’re not a bad guy.
There are pork pies and chocolate Digestives, though. And that makes Britain ace. Currently my iPod is on shuffle. Rockerfeller Skank by Fatboy Slim just started. This song seems perfectly British to my tipsy ears. Crude and sophisticated. Stupid and clever. This is the first time I’ve been back in England for over a year and a half. Previously, living in Germany, there was a common European feeling that made the difference between the countries slighter. And visiting the UK after living in the States for a while, it only seemed superficially different. There are similarities between the two nations. But coming here from Mexico, the differences seem kinda big. I could point to specific examples, but it’s more like a feeling in my head.
I’ve been enjoying talking. A lot. I kinda think I’m a different person in Mexico. Tonight, for example, my friend and I spend a few hours together and we went all over the place with our conversation. But with my failure to get to grips with the Spanish language means I don’t really do that in Mexico. I feel like more of an observer. I tell myself that I just LOVE speaking English, but mostly, it’s probably because I’m too lazy, distracted, whatever, to properly give a shit about learning Spanish. I really need to give that a go. Do it properly or just leave Mexico, and live somewhere where English is spoken.
And sometimes, it feels like England could be that place. For all the positive reenforcement-y thoughts I have about England being shit, I do wonder if I’m just denying myself an opportunity to be properly happy. It is my home, after all. I have friends here, who I enjoy spending time with. The fact that a Travelcard costs more during the rush hour (a depressing thing, and something that seems indicative of this country’s ability to take just a little bit more money out of your wallet whenever possible) should not, really, compare when it comes to deciding where to live.
I’ve been in London for about a week now. I had big plans to make the most of my time. Galleries, seeing as many friends as possible. But on the whole, I’ve been happy to just sit around with my mates John and Sarah, and their two lovely daughters, and kinda have a break. I would love to go through the list of friends I want to see, have a packed social life, go out in Soho or Islington or the East End every night, but it’s exhausting. And one of my favourite things in the world is the knowledge that if John and I sit on the sofa watching telly, there’ll be some point in the evening where I’ll get the giggles and be laughing for ages. And that has happened several times since I’ve been here. It’s like a massage for my brain, that. And like you feel better after you’ve had a good cry, I feel so much better after a good giggle.
That feeling in my gut is back, a feeling I lost when I spent seven months continually travelling in 2008, and it’s a feeling that I’ve managed to keep at bay since then. That feeling of dreading a journey. Mostly this is because of the idiotic security at airports making them wholly unpleasant places to be. But that’s not all of it. I have never lost that inability to sleep the night before a flight. Doesn’t matter if I drink less coffee, and have a couple of beers to make me sleepier. I go to bed around midnight, watch a movie to help me doze off. But it doesn’t work. I lay there twitching, awake, and totally aware that I need. To. Sleep. Now. And I’ll fret about sleeping through the alarm, but I never do. I’m awake three hours before I need to leave the apartment. And because I’m all packed and ready to go, there’s really nowt to do.
But the journey to the airport felt nice. I don’t really think of Mexico City as that alien a place any more. It’s still not entirely home, but it’s definitely not a strange, unknown place. Occasionally, though, I’ll be reminded of what it felt like the first time I visited. Something about the air, the smell, and the journey along the road near to the hotel. I see buildings that normally I don’t see. Industrial buildings, auto repair shops, half-finished buildings, restaurants that I will never eat in next to eight lanes of traffic, and when the road is elevated, a view over the top of buildings, so, through the smog, I can see a few landmarks that mark out parts of the city that I know, and other buildings that make me wonder is what up in that part of the city.
A tip for non-Americans flying from Mexico to anywhere: do it on Thanksgiving. Mexico City airport was pretty much the emptiest I’ve ever seen an international airport in the daytime. I walked straight up to the check-in desk. Got my boarding pass, went outside for one last smoke, and then to the security thingy. No queue there, either. The four lanes of security were empty. I was the only person there, so it was kind of nice to do the stripping off of shoes, belt, jacket, wallet, iPod, metal things, and removing my laptop; doing all of that without the hurried feeling of someone behind me nudging the tray along the conveyor belt area.
If you are like me – a curmudgeon – you’ll pick someone to hate in the departure lounge. Sometimes it’s tough (for example, in San Salvador on a flight to Belize City), but most of the time, it’s pretty easy. There’ll be someone who you just don’t like the look of. This time it was a guy with slicked-back hair barking into his Blackberry and walking up and down the rows of seats. Obviously his conversation was incredibly important, because he was kind enough to share it with everyone waiting for the flight.
They announced that passengers who need assistance and The Super Duper Better People could board the plane. Then the folks at the back, and then the folks in the middle. Usually, when you’re in that last group of people, there’s just a ton of scrambling, people neeeeeeding to be on the plane right now. But, with the whole Thanksgiving thing, there weren’t many of us. The plane itself was only about a third full. I had an entire row to myself. (Even though Thanksgiving can’t really explain why a flight that doesn’t stop at all in the U.S. would be so empty.)
The pilot came on the PA system, and introduced himself as Craig Something. I kind of felt a wee bit safer knowing we shared a name. He’d not let a fellow Craig die in a flaming mess of metal and cliff face.
Now that there are the fancy touch screen entertainment systems on planes (which, as a user experience, are even worse than using the iTunes store), with all the different movies, TV shows, music etc., it’s pretty difficult not to be entertained during a flight. They had “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” on there. It’s always gonna trump pretty much 99% of movie possibilities, that one. (“Those aren’t pillows!”)
Crappy lasagne. And then watched some of Cowboys and Aliens. Got about 45 minutes in and it was just kinda dull. There’s this moment early on, when they’ve been talking about a character, we know this character is powerful, and when we finally see him, the camera is behind him, the music swells, he turns around, and it’s Harrison Ford. Isn’t it a bit odd to include something in a story that is solely about us recognising an actor from other stuff? Aren’t you essentially saying, “Ta-da! Look! It’s Han Solo stroke Indiana Jones!”? And while Olivia Wilde is clearly an attractive human, I couldn’t quite get it out of my head that she looked a bit like the singer from Fields of the Nephilim.
I gave up on the movie, and stared out of the window, and watched the map thingy. Flying over the United States is enjoyable. And my brain does something that reminds me of when I worked for a record distribution company. Back then, if I met someone from, say, Chatham in Kent, I would know that their local record shop was called Loco. And now, being a fan of an American sports, I see towns on a map, and the journey is a beautiful collection of major league teams, minor league teams, defunct teams, Negro League teams: Pelicans, Black Barons, Biscuits, Lookouts, Redbirds, Sounds, Hot Rods, Colonels, Reds, Clippers, Indians.
As we flew over Cleveland, I knew that my friend Pete – who lives in New York, but is from Cleveland – would be somewhere in the sodium glow beneath me. It’s funny to think that he and I email each other pretty much daily, and we’ve only met once, two years ago, which was after a handful of work-related emails lead to us having a meeting, and this moment, 30,000 feet in the air, was the closest we’d been to each other since then.
As the plane got closer to its destination, we got lower and lower, the light pollution reflecting off the underside of the clouds created a nice effect where it was like looking out at some sort of nebula. Like when you’ve got a cheap duvet which has got a bit lumpy, and you look through it and some bits are darker. And there’s lots of white and orange points, street lights and buildings. But the cloud cover meant I couldn’t see the CN Tower. Toronto is kinda non-descript from the air at night.
This obviously will sound stupid to people who live in countries that have well-defined seasons, but after a year and a half being in a country where the winters are mild, and wearing a sweater is the most you’d ever really need in November or December, it was a nice novelty walking out of the airport and breathing in cold, crisp air. But, this is getting long, and this journey was a week ago, and I’ve been too busy to write about anything else. Not that I’ve done a huge amount. Hanging out with friends, mostly. And now I’m boring myself, so I will stop typing.