Thursday, 25 October 2007

What I Did On My Holiday, by Scott, Aged 30

Ah, Madrid. A city I had never previously been to, and one I knew very little about, other than it was probably going to be warmer than the Wirral in October. So the BF and I boarded our EasyJet plane and made our carbon footprint even larger so we could get a little short break action.

And, as it turned out, some International Supertarting. I couldn't help myself. Mark Ovenden's fantastic Metro Maps of the World book ( had said that the Madrilenos were obsessed with their Metro, and it's true. My travel guide was only a year old, but the map of the system was out of date already - about a dozen new stations had been added to it.

So I had to collect the stations. It's a disease. To try and minimise the inconvenience to the beseiged other half, I only collected them when we were forced by connections or missed trains to loiter on a platform, which didn't happen that often over the course of the five days; it is a very good system. I'm forced to apologise, therefore, for the lack of Opera, Atocha Renfe, and Goya, despite all of them being graced with my presence; sorry stations, but you had your chance. Goya was actually particularly disappointing. Baker Street, on the London Underground, is tiled with images of Sherlock Holmes; while on Merseyrail, as we saw, Aintree's one big Horse of the Year show. I expected a long mural of Goya's works along the platform (perhaps not his Black Paintings; descending underground and having Satan Devouring His Son welcoming you there could perhaps induce a few more one-unders than intended). Instead it had a tiny little portrait as you hit the platform - impossible to read as it was at the foot of a flight of stairs, and commuters harrassed you constantly - and that was it. You could say, yes, but look at their huge expansion projects and excellent transport links, but I don't care; I want portraits of befuddled royals while I wait for my train!

Santo Domingo: location of our rather lovely hotel, and also the location of a less lovely red light district a few hundred yards away. Being naive homos, it took the searching glances from a good few scantily dressed whores before we realised we were in that kind of area (go for a night out in Birkenhead and you will see girls wearing a lot less and not even charging for it). We beat a hasty retreat, finding refuge in a decent looking restaurant to escape the prostitutes. I have nothing against sex workers; I'd just rather not see it, ta.

We seemed to spend half our life going through Banco de Espana. Partly this was because we fell for the massive Parque del Retiro, and wandered through its leafy environs on a couple of different occasions. Also, it's convenient for the Prado, which we visited one day, but were seriously disappointed by. They had run out of English-language guides, which unfortunately meant that we had no idea what we were looking at; as a result it sort of descended into a melange of stern looking 15th century aristocrats and various pictures of Christ and the Holy Family. It all became a bit wearing, frankly, and we ended up rushing off. There wasn't even a decent shop.

(Insert hilarious bowel related reference here). Colon is ugly, I'm sorry. It's one of those 70s developments where everyone was tremendously excited that they had invented concrete, and so used it all over the shop i.e. it was now used as a vast skateboard park.

O frabjous day! Callao! Callay! (You really cannot have too much Lewis Carroll). Callao was the location for our local El Corte Ingles department store, a Spanish national treasure. Actually, one of our local El Corte Ingles, because at the other end of the street was another one. I had a cup of hot chocolate in the cafe here, and when I say hot chocolate, that is literally a description of what it was. Pure, melted chocolate in a cup. Why not just inject it into my waistline? It was also the location for a number of large cinemas - sort of like the Leicester Square of Madrid.

The big gay station of Chueca, hub of Madrid's big gay scene. I'd love to say that this district was superior to Canal Street, or Old Compton, but it was just a bit... well... tawdry. Of course, all homo districts are - the huge sex shops tend to lower the tone - but we'd actually walked through Plaza de Chueca and dismissed it, thinking that nowhere that downmarket would be the centre of the city's queer zone. On the plus side, the station literally empties out into the Plaza; Old Compton Street is yet to get its own stop on the Picadilly line, so one up for the Spanish I feel.

Lawyers have advised me not to mention anything involving certain illicit substances here, so I won't. We were only changing trains anyway, so I have no idea what entirely legitimate practices were going on above my head.

...And so, we head back. Lovely modern station, and huge too. By this point I just wanted to be home, as you may be able to tell from my thousand yard stare. Madrid was very nice, and it's certainly a great plus to wander around in a t-shirt in mid-October; but it just didn't do it for me, not in the same way London and Paris and Amsterdam and Berlin did. It just felt a little bit... small. The capital of one of Europe's great nations should have been more than it was. It didn't feel impressive enough. But its Metro is lovely, and they should be given every round of applause under the sun for realising that a good, efficient, clean underground system is worth every penny you can throw at it.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Horses for Courses

The Wirral Line, so far, is pretty much sewn up. Two branches complete and a couple of random ones polished off along the way. But I felt I was neglecting the poor old Northern Line. So early Saturday morning, I board the train and head out for the Ormskirk line to polish off a few more.

This line is very familiar to me. I was a student in Ormskirk, at Edge Hill College of Higher Education/University College/University (delete as applicable). I used this line with alarming regularity. Ormskirk is a very pretty little town, but when you're 19, you crave the big lights, big shops and especially, big pubs of the city, so I'd be on the train into Liverpool the first opportunity I got. But that was of course over a decade ago now, so it's all a bit stranger, a bit more alien.

Travelling along the line I was struck by how things had developed. As you rise up out of the tunnel onto the viaduct, the train gets a magnificent view of the dockside estate. What had changed in the intervening years was that the crumbling warehouses were being replaced by office buildings, new industrial units and, in some cases, luxury apartments. Yes, it's a slow transformation, and there's still an awful lot to do. The massive hulk of Stanley Dock still rots in the distance - the world's largest brick building, and no-one quite knows what to do with it. There was a family of tourists on the train, and the dad got quite excited by the huge warehouses. Bless him; he tried to interest his small daughters in the industrial architecture ("Look! A bonded tea warehouse!"). They couldn't give a toss; quite reasonably for six year old girls, I think.

I carried on going, past Sandhills, Kirkdale and Walton, heading for Orrell Park. Walton, I've already done; Sandhills, I'm leaving until it's redeveloped, which should be soon; and Kirkdale is somehow tied into the Kirkby line for me, mentally, so that can wait. In my head the priority was Orrell Park, Aintree and Old Roan, because - OCD alert! - I always liked the O-A-O symmetry of their names.
I knew nothing about Orrell Park whatsoever. I didn't even know where it was. But it was quite a sweet little station, tucked away on a side road, with a man actually cleaning the platform of litter as I arrived. Yes, reader; someone clearing up litter.

It actually turned out that Orrell Park was just moments away from Walton shopping centre, a long messy conglomeration of shops threaded along a busy main road. I like this sort of thing. I come from a town where, if you want to shop, you go into the town centre; that's it. I sort of like these neighbourhood shopping areas, that have a tiny branch of Boots and a little Woolworths next to green grocers and butchers. It's interesting, and it's just another "big city" thing for me.

I walked from here to the next station, Aintree. Perhaps I'm educationally subnormal, but until I moved up here, I had no idea the Grand National was held in Liverpool. I don't know where I thought Aintree was, I just didn't think it was round here. The racecourse has taken idiots like me on board and has helpfully signposted their main attraction:

Merseyrail have also embraced the whole equestrian theme to a quite ludicrous degree, viz:

The horses! The horses! They're everywhere, and I think they went to my head a little, so I went a bit daft when I decided to collect this sign. There was just something about the whole positioning, that made me decide to go for the railway-alien-antenna look. I probably did it just to distract myself from the colossal shitness of that station building. Seriously people, if you're going to spend all that money building a brand new station, how about building one which doesn't look like a public toilet?

Still, I thought, Aintree: home of one of the most famous racecourses in the world - at least I'll get a decent ALF out of it. I was shocked - no, disgusted - to find there was not a single ALF on the platform. In fact, this was to be an entirely ALF free excursion. This is the best I got:

"Aintree Station: Alight here for Aintree". Really? Do you think so? Consider me outraged. My stern letter to Merseytravel about the quality of their ALF boards just got even sterner. It's one thing to not have a board at all. It's quite another to be patronised by the signage.

Grumbling, I boarded the train for what I intended to be my final destination, Old Roan. This is another station which has had a load of money thrown at it. Sorry, it's not a station: as the sign shows, this is the Old Roan Bus Rail Interchange (well, it would if my fat head wasn't in the way). What this means is a train station with a load of bus stops outside, but still, I admire the commitment to integrated transport.

I nipped out of the station in search of a little bit of history: the infamous Paradox. When I was a student, they used to organise bus trips to this legendary nightclub, a huge edifice towering over the railway line. The reason it was legendary was because it was cheap, it was scuzzy, and you were virtually guaranteed to come away from there with at least one filthy sex act under your belt. I never went because, as a sensitive young homo, they didn't quite cater for the filthy sex acts I wanted to commit (I had to go to the Curzon in Liverpool for those) but I would sit enraptured as my friends came back with tales of bacchanalian debauchery. That may be a slight exaggeration; usually they just got a few gropes and perhaps a happy finish, but still.

A friend had said he would be in Aintree, at the vast sprawling retail park that stretches between the station and Old Roan. But he hadn't texted me to say he was there so, on a whim, I went back and caught the train to Maghull instead.

Maghull was always going to be difficult to reach, because it's impossible to walk to. This is because of Switch Island, the charming sounding but actually nightmarish road junction which is to the south of the town. At this point, the M57, M58 and A59 all collide in a huge level junction, above a canal and below a railway line, in the kind of half-finished mess that transport projects sadly seem to descend to. Originally the M57 was meant to carry on to the coast, and the M58 would have integrated into it, and it would have been impressive; instead they just sort of gave up (see here for the full story: It's just a roaring confusion of lanes upon lanes which make no sense. I felt quite smug whizzing past it on my train.

Maghull is an unattractive name for a not terribly attractive place. Try saying out loud; it's like you're clearing your throat. The townspeople seem quite proud of it - I was so desperate for an ALF I took a photo of the sign - but really, it's a not very nice town. It's the proud possessor of the ugliest town hall I have ever seen in my life, out on the dual carriageway (in another signifier of what a rubbish town this is, the station is miles away from the middle of it, so I couldn't go and see it; do a Google Image search, if you can bear it). And its station has a level crossing which, as I've indicated previously, I think are just awful. No wonder I don't look happy.

Full disclosure: I'm prejudiced against Maghull because, when I was at Edge Hill, there was a group known as "the Maghull lads". These were a bunch of lads who seemed to be rotated between all the women of Edge Hill, breaking hearts everywhere they went. Anyway, they were quite unpleasant to my friend Jennie, who to this day pronounces Maghull as if it were a gum disease, so perhaps I shouldn't be so blinkered. I'm sorry Maghull. I'm sure you have many charming hidden features. Somewhere.

Maghull also had a little bus station attached, which contained one of the early signs of the death of civilization:

There are about 15 different things about that poster which depress me inutterably. Fortunately, my mate arrived at this point to stop me from throwing myself under the next train. He whisked me away in his car so he could buy a new fish from a local garden centre. He picked an unattractive brown lumpy thing, which he then promised to name after me; surprisingly, I continued talking to him after this, and after a bit of lunch he dropped me off in town for the train home.

I got off at Hamilton Square. I was going to leave this one for later, but I was there, and I was keen to finish off my day of tarting, so I snapped a couple of shots. Hamilton Square is where the original electric train between Liverpool and Birkenhead ran to, and its very attractive station building still bears the signs. "Frequent electric trains" - how marvellous is that? The huge tower was a water tower, constructed to run the hydraulic lifts which took Victorians down to the subterranean depths. It had a twin in Liverpool, at James Street, which like so much in the city was bombed in the war.

(Actually, I should admit to something. Though I was pleased to cross another station off the list, and architecturally it's the best of today's buildings, the best thing about Hamilton Square for me was the poster below.

How fucking gay am I? I can't help it. I just think the name "Lucky Santangelo" is simultaneously the worst and best name in Christendom. God bless you Jackie Collins and your limited command of the English language).

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Odds and Sods

I'm trapped under a cold. It's damned annoying. It's one of those persistent, makes you feel like crap but doesn't actually debilitate you colds, which mean all you want to do is wrap yourself up in a duvet with a cup of tea and a Futurama DVD. As a result I'm pinned inside the house with no chance of getting out there and tarting.

In the meantime, I've cobbled together a post from some of my leftovers. While I'm out and about, I sometimes see something which amuses me, or interests me, so I snap a pic in case there's room for it in the usual posts. When it comes to posting the thing, though, I find that the pics sometimes interrupt the flow of the writing; that I had an interesting picture, but it didn't fit in with my general thrust at that point, and so it got left out. So this post rectifies that with a few oddments that are hanging around the Merseytart folder on my PC.

This was at St Michaels, on the Northern Line. The local children had obviously been given the task of designing a logo to represent Liverpool for the Capital of Culture, and their efforts were turned into a frieze on the southbound platform. Something about the colours here just appealed to me. Shame about the blob of frigging chewing gum, though. Since terrorists intent on paralysing our nation's transportation system have taken to putting the bombs on themselves rather than litter bins, can we have our bins back? Not that the ignorant sods would probably use it. Really, random executions would stop these chewing gum abusers. That was all a bit Daily Mail, wasn't it? Let's move on. Well done children of St Michaels for your efforts, and well done people of Merseyrail for putting it on the platform. There should be more of this sort of thing, I think, little features on platforms to catch your eye.

Watch out for flying sausages. (Readers under the age of thirty: you don't know what you missed). This is in West Kirby, and it made me smile for a moment.

Sometimes a photo doesn't make it because my photography skills are somewhat, erm, lacking. The above picture does the dank, evocative, moody subway at Port Sunlight no favours whatsoever, which is a shame, because it's great. I'm probably alone in this opinion, but I like dark oppressive railway subways, and this is a great example of the type. (I should imagine my opinion would be radically different if I were, say, a thirteen year old girl using this subway at ten o'clock at night). It's strangely wide, and divided down the middle with this fence, for no apparent reason. It looks like something out of Children of Men; I'm expecting Pam Ferris to be herded down it with a load of screaming immigrants. Can I just add parenthetically that I loved Children of Men, and that it makes me cry like a baby every time? When they carry the baby out of the building and all the soldiers stop to look, I turn it a blubbing wreck of snot and tears, and I do not cry at any films, because, essentially, I'm dead inside.

The lovely 1930s concrete platform roof at West Kirby, two proud wings thrusting into space.

A rarity on this site: a picture of a train! This is taken at Walton station, and it shows a train headed towards Ormskirk. I am afraid I have little or no interest in the trains themselves. They look very nice, in their new grey and yellow livery, and they are usually comfortable and clean, but that's where my fascination ends. I'm all about the railway architecture, and frankly, I couldn't give a monkeys if this is train number 49728. I'm not sure if that makes me more tragic or less. (I will say that I prefer electric trains to diesels, but that's mainly to annoy someone I know who loves diesel trains - what fascinating circles I move in!) Gaol spotters will be pleased to note that you can also just about see the prison wall in the distance.

This is on the Birkenhead swimming pool, just round the corner from Conway Park. For years I had wandered past here and assumed the streak of silver was just an abstract piece of metal art, but no; in close up, it's actually a swimmer! He looks a bit Stanley Matthews in those shorts, but still; it's very nice. I actually now feel sorry for metal man, as he's sort of marooned on the side of a not very impressive brick building. He'd be much better out over the entrance.

That'll do. Normal service will be resumed soon, I promise - I'm hoping to get out next week...