Saturday 25 October 2008

It's All Downhill From Here On In

Funny thing, the Cosmos.  You're tripping along, playing patsy to its random whims - having a great time?  Bam!  Have some cancer! or perhaps Lovely girlfriend you have there.  You know what?  Bam!  She's Jaye Davison with a frizzy perm and you've just become a punchline.  Sometimes its arbitrary whims contrive to exalt you, sometimes it wants to bring you to your knees.  And sometimes, just sometimes, it contrives a series of coincidences to make you think "ooh, higher power!" (if you wasn't a committed atheist since an early age).

This week is a case in point.  For some reason I couldn't find a single book in my collection to read on the train; therefore for some reason I picked up my copy of Merseyrail Electrics: The Inside Story by T B Maund.  For some reason, I then continued to read this book, even though I was in a public place and everything.  And so for some reason, on the 22nd October 2008, I read the following sentence:
The climax to this part of the story was achieved on 25th October 1978 when the new lines were officially opened by H M The Queen.  A plaque at Moorfields was unveiled followed by a trip to Kirkby...
Now leaving aside the fantastic mental image of our Sovereign sat on a yellow and green  MerseyRail seat to Kirkby of all places - perhaps nipping off at Rice Lane for a Maccy D's at the outlet by the station - the cosmic coincidence of the dates was staggering.  The following Saturday would be the thirtieth anniversary of MerseyRail's official opening.  

I'd been planning on nipping over to the 'Pool that weekend anyway - the Bf and I hadn't been to Liverpool 1 since they'd opened its second phase, and we wanted to poke around - but suddenly we had a cosmically ordered reason to go.  It almost makes you believe in all that bollocks Noel Edmonds goes on about.

Pedants might be aware that the Queen's official opening was purely a case of right monarch, right time: she was in Liverpool anyway to open the cathedral, so they might as well have got their money out of her.  The Loop and the Link had been in operation since 1977, and Moorfields station itself had been opened completely in May: Her Maj's approval was just a token tap on the head for a job well done.  None the less, they got a plaque out of it, so I figured: why not take a look?  The cosmic significance of MerseyRail's core being thirty one years old, just like me, but pretending it was thirty, like... erm... some people, was also not lost on me.  

I knew exactly where the plaque was too: just inside the doorway at Moorfields, between the kiosk and the escalators.  I'd decided: since MerseyRail itself wasn't going to commemorate this momentous occasion, I'd have to do it for them.  But the plaque isn't there any more.  They've built some toilets in the ticket hall.  Firstly, I was shocked that they'd done this and I had no idea: I'm usually quite good on station improvements.  But secondly, where's the plaque gone?  Please don't say that ER II's best unveiling efforts can now only be seen if you're having a piddle.

A true journalist would have poked his head inside, but there were penny for the guy kids loitering nearby, and I tend to avoid them like the plague.  (This isn't a fear thing: I just object to giving children money because they stuck a Ghostface mask on top of their mam's tights, and therefore enable them to buy gunpowder-based devices.  I'm funny like that).  Also, I suspected that the plaque was in the ladies', and my urge for knowledge only goes too far.

So a disappointment really (though Liverpool 1 was really rather amazing - geographically confusing, economically draining, and emotionally stirring, when I realised that USC was on the site of The Escape, legendary gay club which was indirectly responsible for my cherry popping).  None the less, I will take this opportunity to say: Happy 30th Birthday, Link and Loop - you may be a bit ragged round the edges, but some of us still love you...

Tuesday 21 October 2008

Viva La Deva. Or Don't. See If I Care.

I like London Midland, I really do. I like the nice green trains, the little route diagrams above the doors which go Liverpool-Birmingham/Birmingham-Nottingham/Nottingham-Euston, the smiley smiley ticket inspectors (there is in particular a lovely Asian woman who is an absolute joy first thing in the morning). But when a train is cancelled, they are absolutely rubbish, as I discovered yesterday trying to get to work. All Lime Street's destination board said was "Cancelled"; no please, thankyou, we apologise for the inconvenience, nothing. It just flagged up, in tiny letters, that there was a bus service to Crewe.
Well, sod that; getting up for work at 7am is bad enough, without being crammed on a Green Line full of grumbling commuters in a traffic jam outside Runcorn. So I dashed back down the escalator (and incidentally, fat woman with suitcase: IT SAYS STAND ON THE RIGHT. Thank you for your time) and caught a Wirral Line train to Chester for the Arriva shuttle to Crewe.

Can I be brutal here? Of course I can - it's my blog. I don't like Chester. I just don't. Even before I spent four and a half years slaving there in a thankless capacity, I didn't like it. It's just so... smug. It's an appalling generalisation, but I feel it's a valid one. There's just a sense of self-satisfaction oozing out of its ancient walls, and dripping from the Rows. An implied sense of superiority over you, the visitor; like they're doing you a favour by letting you have a gawp at their stupid clock (am I the only one who doesn't get what's so special about the Eastgate Clock?).
As a city, Chester seems to have built up this impression that because it has a Roman name, this entitles it to a seat at the top table. What it actually means is the last time Chester was important or interesting was two thousand years ago, so stop harking on about it. I especially dislike the snobbery that the city has towards the mighty city of Liverpool to the North. When I worked there, and it was race day, people would suddenly start ranting about "pissed up Scousers". Because apparently only Scousers went to the races to drink; everyone one else was there for the racing. Obviously. I know there's a bit of residual bitterness because the Dee silted up and made the Mersey important, but if the Mersey had silted up as well, Chester would be as important as Oswestry right now, and no manner of black and white faux medieval Rows (because they're Victorian copies, you know) will save you. Chester should be grateful that it's getting some reflected glory, and Chester station should be glad that platform 7b (as seen above) is there to bring interesting, vibrant people into the city every half hour, before the rest of them contract terminal rigor mortis and their lips purse themself into oblivion.

There's a lot of bitterness there - can you tell? I speak as someone who grew up in Luton and now lives in Birkenhead, so clearly I'm harbouring some kind of inferiority complex; but those towns are gritty and unpretentious, while Chester is home to Hollyoaks, where not even the tits or the hair colours are real. And even that's filmed in Liverpool.

Anyway, the gist is: I stayed away from tarting it. Even though I've travelled through Chester more than any other MerseyRail station, I couldn't bring myself to snap it. This was also tied into the aforementioned job, which I loathed with a passion exceeded only by the passion with which I hate my current job. Snapping the station for this blog would mean I'd have to write about it, and pour out my thoughts, and then, when I was done, I'd still have to go there every day. I thought: I'll tart it on my very last day. It will be my last goodbye. As it turned out, on my very last day, I got so drunk I missed the train home and had to get the Bf out of bed to come and pick me up, so it remained uncaptured.

Until today. (Cue DUM-DUM-DURRRRRR!!!! music).
Yes I know I need a haircut.

Once called Chester General, that's the frontage of Chester Station poking up behind me, and more importantly, the "Station Square" that has been contrived in front of it. It's another one that's being redeveloped, and it was ages since I'd visited. Last time I'd been here, about four months ago, the coffee shack had been demolished and they were serving lattes out of a trailer. The toilets were a load of portaloos behind the ticket office - the ticket office which had been opened by Giles Brandreth MP. Anyone who disagrees with my Chester dislike should know this: Chester voted for Giles Brandreth to be their MP. Twice. Case closed, don't you think?
I'm not sure about the blue. This new, funkily shaped pavillion now squats in the brick hall of the station, and it doesn't completely work. As regular readers (hello you!) will know, I am not a heritage buff, and I like my stations modern and gleaming. Amongst the good quality Victorian artistry of Chester General, however, this modern confection jars. I think the turquoise is somehow meant to remind us of the green of a copper patina, the ancient metal corrupted through years of time; instead, it just reminds us that notorious barrel scrapers Arriva are responsible for maintaining this station (the only one on the MerseyRail network not run by Serco, which is why this most ALF-worthy location has no ALF) and so it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. The design is as though someone said "build me something modern" and didn't care how it looked inside the station. I applaud their refusal to comply with the heritage facists of Chester, who forced that Grosvenor Court on the city (it's the building in the roundabout at the end of Foregate Street, which is a modern office block forced to pretend it's a Georgian terrace even though it's surrounded by a dual carriageway). But couldn't the architecture have been... well... better?

No matter; there are still a few little touches around to make you enjoy the station. This sign, for example, which is pleasingly visible from the platform where trains to London and Holyhead depart. It's stunningly "romance of the rails", and I'm glad that it's one of the first things you see as you enter the station. The ceiling's been cleaned up in the refurb, too, and I believe WH Smith are going to move out of that cubby hole by the entrance into a proper shop that won't be 1000 degrees in the shade and melt all the Mars Bars.

There's also a tribute to one of Chester's most famous sons, right behind Russ Abbott. Thomas Brassey was a great engineer, who travelled across the globe building railways, starting out with the Stephensons, and then striking out on his own to take contracts for routes across Europe and the Americas. He's basically a Primark Isambard Kingdom Brunel. I should also point out, in deference to my theme of Chester-bashing, that he grew up in Aldford and didn't achieve any greatness until he moved to Birkenhead, but no matter: when they redeveloped the old goods yard behind the station into a load of anonymous flats, they called it Thomas Brassey Close, so clearly it was all worth it. His plaque on the concourse, however, I will concede is understatedly charming, and I gave a metaphorical tip of my equally metaphorical stovepipe hat to him.

My favourite architectural feature at Chester, though, isn't Victorian might or Noughties glamour: it's beautiful, traditional, evocative British Rail. If you head towards the East Car Park, there's a barely used platform which still retains its old fashioned light features:

Wonderful thing. It smells of steam trains, and tea urns: it shouts drab fashions and powdered eggs. It's British Railways, and I love it, and I love that for all the Chester Renaissance gubbins, someone, somewhere has recognised that these seemingly mundane light fittings are actually part of our heritage.

I did enjoy romping through the station, now that it had been shorn of associations with That Bloody Job; I'm especially pleased that it slices off the foot of the Wirral Line from the MerseyTart map. In fact, there are now only three stations left on the Wirral Line (apart from the Loop, which doesn't count). I almost don't want to go and get them, to be honest, because that will mean the end of a chapter. Everything west of James Street will be finished with, and I don't want it to be: I like it too much. When I started romping round the railways I thought I'd polish it off pretty quickly, but as I'm getting near the end, I'm realising I don't want it to stop. There have been a few times when I've thought, "Ooh, shall I go and collect some stations?" but have put it off because... well... I don't want it to end. Being the MerseyTart has brought me a good deal of pleasure, and I'd like to think there's a lot more tart in me (oooh, cheeky! Etc, etc).

Tuesday 14 October 2008

Can Margaret Drabble peg down a sleeping bag in a blizzard?

I saw this when it first aired, and I adored it. And I just found out that they repeated it on BBC4 last week and I missed it. And they haven't put it on iPlayer. And this person has posted only the first six minutes on YouTube.


You cannot beat a bit of Victoria Wood. Or even a lot of Victoria Wood. "Whenever I take an Intercity, I always end up sat opposite the woman who is eating the individual fruit pie by sucking the filling out through the hole in the middle." That's not in this documentary, it's in As Seen On TV. (That's not a documentary, it's a women's cocktail bar - sorry, once you start quoting Victoria Wood you can't stop).