Friday 28 January 2011

24 Hour Party Person

I crossed the Pier Head and looked up at the glowing white lights of the Ferry Terminal. Deep breaths. Calm. I'm going in.

It's safe to say I'm not a party person. I've had just one birthday party in my life, when I was five. The anxiety of it was so much - I was convinced nobody would turn up - my mum effectively put a stop to them for my own health. And today, as a fully grown adult, I prefer to loiter somewhere at the back, hidden away, generally with a drink or six. Or I just don't go.

"Don't go" was my first instinct when I got the following e-mail:

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

Merseyrail New Year Reception 2011

The Merseyrail management team and I would like to invite you to join us for our annual New Year Reception on Thursday 27th January 2011...

I mean, good God no. A party full of people I don't know? People I respect? Bart Schmeink? What am I going to do there? The Bf intervened at this point, however, and practically forced me to accept. "It'll be good for you," he said. And, after just the one panic attack, and doped up on my anti-depressants, I was walking through the door into the party and accepting a champagne cocktail and thinking, "how bad could it be?".

The invite had promised "entertainment". I wasn't sure what that would be. My only knowledge of corporate entertainment comes from Showgirls, where Nomi dances on top of a boat in a sparkly dress and then gets sexually harassed by a sleazy Asian businessman. Merseyrail have a different concept of the term; they had pupils from the Archbishop Beck Catholic High School playing the Theme from the Muppet Show on a trumpet. Hopefully none of them were molested by a skeezy man in a suit later in the evening.

I did a couple of rounds of Matou, clutching a Jack Daniels and Coke, before I found a suitably tucked away corner and installed myself there. I was almost instantly leapt upon by two men, who turned out to be Rudi and Matt; the publicity mavens of Merseyrail. That's the problem with sticking your face all over your blog - people tend to recognise you. They were really nice, however, welcoming me to the party, offering to get me a drink, and not mentioning the fact that I was turning bright crimson throughout.

After a little chat, I went on another wander, and I found a seat at the back of the restaurant. Great. I could relax a bit. Which is when another man turned up and said, "Excuse me. Are you the Merseytart?"

Suddenly I wished I'd chosen a less daft name.

This guy turned out to be Ian from Merseytravel, who again had read my blog. "When are you going to finish it?" he asked, leading me to bluster about "enjoying it too much", which is a polite way of saying, "no idea". Ian then called over his colleague, Emma, who's responsible for the Art on the Network programme. I was reminded of a quote I read the other day, about blogging being all power and no responsibility, when she said "I understand you're not keen on the Grant Searl artwork?"

I managed to hold my own, I think, and I said that I really didn't like its positioning on Platform 2 - it competes and fights with Dream Passage. I did also say that I loved the other artwork, and the whole Art on the Network programme in general. Ian also explained about the riddles, hidden inside each painting; when all five are complete, the answer to the riddle will become clear. He said the actual solution is inside a safe at Merseytravel HQ right now, and I made a mental note to break out my leather all in one catsuit and burglars tools when I got home.

As we were talking, the speeches began, but sadly I was too far away to hear any of them, so I went out on the balcony for a bit of air. When they built the new Ferry Terminal, I remember thinking it was the wrong way round; the balcony was at the back, not overlooking the river. When I was up there though, I suddenly understood it. Firstly, there was hardly any wind, despite it being a blustery January night - the main block of Matou shielded it perfectly. Secondly, the view was beautiful. The three buildings of the Pier Head, high above me, glowing in the light (well, two of them were; the Cunard Building's currently covered in sheeting). It was awe-inspiring.

The speeches had all finished by the time I got inside, and a comedian was up there, telling jokes I couldn't hear instead. At that point, someone else introduced themselves to me. "Hello, I'm Mark. I'm the man responsible for the square loop on the map."

I don't know what went through my head at that moment, but I'm sure the word bollocks was in there somewhere. I wanted to just crawl away and die.

Fortunately, Mark was a very nice bloke, and he explained the rationale behind the square: there's a surfeit of tourists getting on at Lime Street, thinking they can go round and round the loop, and ending up in Birkenhead. The square was his initial suggestion as a way of making it clearer, but as he said, he's an engineer and he planned it out on Excel; he assumed the design team would make it look great. Instead, they just shoved a square on the map. He wasn't happy with it. Phew. Plus he's the man responsible for the line diagrams that are all over the place, which I love.

We had a good old chat, actually, about different design standards for the network, and the influence of Harry Beck's Underground diagram. I recommended he get Mark Ovenden's Metro Maps of the World, and actually I'd recommend it to anyone - it's a great read, and not too geeky.

Rudi came over again, and said he liked the blog, then Matt asked me how I felt about being mentioned in Bart's speech?

"Eh?" I replied. Yup, apparently, HRH Bart Schmeink had actually told the room that I was there, but I hadn't heard it because I was at the back. Thank God, is all I can say, because I probably would have become the first person to cringe themself to death otherwise.

And then I was recognised again, by Steve, who manages the guards on the Wirral Line. I was actually starting to enjoy it, like the big old fame whore I am. It was nice to have other people making the effort to talk to me, because otherwise I'd just have hidden away and been silent all evening, and everyone was very complimentary about my blog. It was also nice that people seemed to read the blog for its entertainment value, not just in case I said something rude about Merseyrail. Steve and I had a chat, and he introduced me to Natalie, who's a newly appointed internet wiz; we talked about how she wants to really increase the web presence, and embrace social networks, and all sorts of exciting sounding things.

It was getting towards eight o'clock, and the party was thinning out, and I had to go home and get some dinner. There was lots of lovely looking finger food on display, but my tense stomach had twisted itself into a figure eight and there was no way I'd be able to swallow food. I just had one more thing to do: meet Bart Schmeink.

For the first time that evening, I went up to someone and introduced myself. And he recognised me! Really, by this point, I was starting to feel like Angelina Jolie, but without the breasts. Or Brad Pitt, unfortunately. What followed was a bit of a mutual appreciation society - we both said nice things about one another, we had a bit of a talk, he offered to buy me a drink - it was all very pleasant. And then he gave me his card, which was a silly move on his part. It's a bit like From Russia With Love, where Bond unknowingly invites Grant into his cabin on the Orient Express - he seems nice, but he's actually a raging nutcase underneath. (Please note: I'm the stalking nutcase in this scenario).

Well, nothing could match up to that, so I made a swift exit, behind two ladies. One of them turned to me and said, "I hope you're going to write nice things about us!" and I burbled some kind of reply through my blushes.

When I got outside, and I was halfway across the Pier Head, I just stopped and laughed. Really laughed. It was one of the strangest nights of my life but I'm glad it happened. I can't say I've overcome my party fears, but heck, I had a good time. That's something at least. Thanks to Merseyrail for the invite, and for being so nice. You didn't have to but you did, and you just went up about twenty notches in my estimation. (Yes, I'm that easily bought).

Tuesday 25 January 2011

Vanity Plates

Oh dear; I've finally given in to being full of myself. The new website address is I apologise for how self centred this is. However, you may want to update your bookmarks to totally indulge my ego. Don't worry - if you stick to the freebie address, you'll still be redirected. I'll just have to kill a puppy to make up for it.

Sunday 23 January 2011

Here, There and Everywhere

Last week I talked about the new piece of art at James Street station, the first of five commissions by Grant Searl. As I was passing from Lime Street Underground to the main line station en route to Widnes, I figured I could get a look at the second piece, The Madness of King John.

The good news is it's better than One Love One Life One Liverpool. The surrealistic imagery is much bolder here, with its clear and wittily executed homages to Magritte. It's a much more interesting piece as well, with plenty to take in - probably because it's sited in the Lime Street subway, so people have time to stop and get a closer look.

It stretches the length of the subway, subdivided by smaller portions and writings from the artist:

You could probably while away a good half an hour spotting all the allusions. If you could stand listening to a busker the whole time.

My biggest problem with it is John Lennon. Not him personally, but the fact that he's the subject. Again. Liverpool's rightly proud of its Beatles heritage, and it brings in a lot of visitors and a lot of money, but the city's moved on. Can't we just restrict it to the Beatles Story and the Cavern Quarter? It's all a bit tedious now and I don't think it presents such a great image to people who aren't in Liverpool for the Beatles - businessmen, day trippers, shoppers. It runs the risk of being "bloody hell, John Lennon again?" (And poor old Paul, George and Ringo, incidentally).

If there was going to be a tribute to Liverpool's musical heritage, how about all of it? How about a piece of work that interwove Billy Fury and Frankie Goes To Hollywood with Sir Simon Rattle and John Peel? How about a painting depicting OMD linking arms with The Coral, while Heidi from the Sugababes waved them on from the sidelines? Why not an Atomic Kitten triptych? Ok, maybe not that last one.

Wheeling Lennon out again feels regressive, predictable, dull. No matter how good Searl's work is - and his style is far better suited to this than the James Street piece - it's a bit Liverpool by numbers. It also makes me wonder what the last three pictures will be. We've already had "football" and "the Beatles"; perhaps Moorfields will soon be graced by a painting of Terry and Barry from Brookside stealing someone's hubcaps, just to continue the theme of Liverpool cliches. I'd like to see something a bit more rounded and defiantly Scouse. A piece of art that really inspired and made you think of Liverpool in a different way.

Saturday 22 January 2011

Can I Get A Widnes?

I've been accused of having something against Widnes, but that's not the case. Due to a series of circumstances that are frankly too dull to detail here, I managed to miss it off the Warrington branch of the City Line. It was nothing personal, just one of those things. Ever since then I've been meaning to go back, but either haven't got around to it, or something else has got in the way.

Finally, on a January Saturday that could best be described as "miserable as sin", I managed to drag myself to Lime Street for a Northern Rail train to Halton. I believe it was a train; the amount of dirt clinging to the side made it look more like a recently surfaced hippo, but fortunately once you'd got on you couldn't see the filth (or out the windows). To try and pep up the journey, I'd invited Robert along to bring his unique blend of sarcastic rudeness and railway factoids.

He joined the train at Liverpool South Parkway, and brought with him a present - a "sorry I forgot your birthday" card. Yup, I turned 34 a couple of weeks ago, and, incidentally, THANKYOU constant readers for remembering. It's not like I don't dwell on my own impending mortality every year about this time, but there you go; you people are fickle and uncaring, I understand that.

The train whizzed through depressing, January countryside towards Widnes. It really is an astonishingly miserable time of the year. England gets shaken down, stripped of anything beautiful and made ragged and rude; even the green grass looks like it's been molested by a drunken suitor. It's bare and cold, and it wasn't helped by the clingy fog, obscuring views of more than twenty metres.

Incidentally, I'd like to make a complaint; the old lady in the seat behind me had a Merseyside-only travel pass, and the ticket inspector chose not to charge her for the trip from Hough Green to Widnes. Outrageous! If she'd been a teenage hoodie, he'd have whipped the pennies out of her pocket, but just because she's got a blue rinse he let her get away with murder. I made sure to direct particularly resentful psychic energies in her direction.

So: Widnes station. It's a pretty standard Cheshire Lines building, like the ones at Hough Green or Sankey (for Penketh); a little pointy roofed station house with an extended single storey side building containing the ticket hall. The house had been converted into "Debbie's Salon", which promised eyebrow perming. I have no idea what this involves, and nor do I want to ever find out. Thank God I'm a man.

Inside the ticket hall was a little plaque commemorating a moment in 20th century pop music:

"At Widnes station in 1965, Paul Simon wrote the song Homeward Bound."

A couple of points about this. Firstly, it's pretty much agreed that he didn't write Homeward Bound at Widnes station. The generally agreed location was the now-closed Ditton station, which is on the Liverpool-Runcorn line, with Warrington Bank Quay throwing its hat in as a secondary bid. Paul Simon himself seems to think he wrote it at "Liverpool" station, so I'm guessing he just assumed anything north of London in the Sixties was "Liverpool".

Secondly, Homeward Bound is a rubbish song, and doesn't deserve a plaque in the first place. Paul Simon's done a grand total of two good songs in his life: (a) Mrs Robinson and (b) You Can Call Me Al, though the latter is mainly because I really liked the video when I was young and I actually thought Chevy Chase was the singer:


Anyway, Homeward Bound is a sentimental dirge, so frankly I wouldn't bother commemorating it. Even if Paul Simon was married to Carrie Fisher once and is therefore amazing-adjacent.

The above sign in the car park commemorates the fact that we're in the Farnworth parish of Widnes. Which is nice, and totally relevant.

Since I had a second body to play David Bailey, you've been spared the up-the-nose shot:


From there, we headed into town. I already had the adjoining stations, so there didn't seem much point in going and checking them out. Instead Robert and I decided to look at the wonders of Widnes town itself. First up was Victoria Park, almost directly opposite the station and a classic example of 19th century gentrification. It had it all - a pond with a fountain, a war memorial, a band stand. It also bore the signs of a National Lottery-funded rebirth, in the form of a glass and steel pavilion serving coffee. There didn't seem to be anyone in it though.

Another 21st century intervention was a nature path, and Robert and I ventured into the trees to follow it. It had been specifically designed to encourage wildlife in the park, with birdboxes, bat boxes, and squirrel food all on show. There was also this:

which is a man-made nest for bats to hibernate in. Robert bravely peered inside, but couldn't see any. Neither did they all come swarming out to attack him like that bit with the Penguin at the end of Batman Returns.

Later on the path two nice middle class people dumped their dog's faeces on a Bug Home, like it was a bin, which shows that no matter how polite people are, they'll still get rid of a turd as soon as they can.

Beyond the park was Widnes proper. I was a bit disappointed that you could only see the Silver Jubilee Bridge in the fog if you really concentrated hard, and also squinted a bit. I'd imagined it rearing up over the town, dominating every view, but the filthy weather meant it remained shrouded. Robert was already regretting his decision not to wear a coat, and jammed his cold hands into his pockets to keep them warm.

We reached Widnes town centre and were greeted with this lovely notice:

Classy. After that it was a mish-mash of small pedestrian precincts, filled with a mix of chain stores and down at heel independents. It was a typical mid-sized town, struggling to compete with the big cities around it and maintain a vibrant shopping community of its own. We wandered round the WH Smith because I had a voucher, but it pains me to say there was nothing worth buying. I worked in Smiths in Birkenhead for nearly five years as the uberfuhrer of the Entertainment section; shelf after shelf of videos, CDs, DVDs and computer games. It was really quite depressing to see that all they stocked in Widnes was two drops of the most popular DVDs - no music, no software, nothing. (Though admittedly the pitiful excuse of a WH Smiths in Liverpool One is the most depressing thing of all). I couldn't find anything to spend my money on, which is a story in itself.

I should also note that Widnes has two Argos's (Argoses? Argosi?). I'm not sure why. Perhaps they take competition very seriously. The woman outside the one in Albert Square was very keen to hawk the new catalogue.

We eventually ended up by the market. While Robert had a quick pee in the gents, I took a picture of some interlinked shopping trolleys. It was that kind of place.

By this time we were both hungry and thirsty, but the first pub we came across was showing a football match, so that was out. We ended up in the FM Caffe, which we'd already spotted on an earlier circuit. I have to admit we hadn't been over keen, because they can't spell cafe. I know that sounds snobbish, and that's because it is.

Thankfully we put our prejudices aside, and consumed some delicious paninis and lattes. We managed to resist the incredibly tempting All-Day Breakfast, me because I didn't want to stuff my face, and Robert because he doesn't like baked beans. No, really. Freak.

It was very satisfying food though, and reasonably priced too. Plus they were playing Harry Connick Jr. Highly recommended. Just look at the joy on Robert's face.

And that, I'm afraid, was that for Widnes. I hope I haven't sounded too down on it. It was exactly what I expected: a mid-level North Western town, like Birkenhead or St Helens - a little dowdy, a little rough round the edges, but sparkled with the occasional gem that caught the light. The people seemed happy, friendly, the shops were compact, the architecture pretty and not excessively bland or horrific; it was a nice little average place. We didn't leave because it was driving us to drink - we just left because we wanted a drink in our regular pub, so we headed back to Liverpool, where Robert got a bit smashed and confessed things I shan't share on a public website.

A pretty satisfying day all round, I'd say...

Tuesday 18 January 2011

Painting By Numbers

It's a well documented fact that I love Merseytravel's Art on the Network programme. Just click the "art" tag on the right; you'll find a series of love letters to the various bits of art that have sprung up all over the system. To me this is a really good way to enrich the local area - the station environments are enhanced and artists are funded and commissioned by a big company. Win-win.

So far, there have been sculptures, paintings and word poems, and they've all rang my bell, so to speak. Stephen Hitchin's Time and Place at Birkenhead Park makes me smile every time I see it.

The newest series from Merseytravel is entitled "Animate the Underground" and is a series of five paintings - one for each of the underground stations - by the artist Grant Searl. The first, One Life One Love One Liverpool, went up in James Street last November, but I only got a chance to have a proper look at it today.

Now obviously, art is subjective, and one man's masterpiece is another man's toilet paper. But my immediate reaction is - urgh. I really, really don't like it.

Full disclosure - I hate football, so the topic of one city united by a love of the Reds and the Blues is not my cup of tea anyway. It's hard for me to engage with the subject. But leaving that aside, I can't help feeling that the work is just not very good. It looks like a greeting card, with the sickly green airbrushing and the hearts. It doesn't inspire or delight me in any way. It just sits there.

It's made worse by its positioning. Merseytravel have sited it on the disused platform 2 at James Street - alongside Chalk & Grime's Dream Passage. Now THAT is a great, beautiful piece of artwork, which is still as interesting and as unusual today as it was when it was installed twenty years ago. Beside that piece of intriguing art, One Life One Love One Liverpool looks trite and unimaginative. It should have been sited somewhere else - perhaps by the elevators, or in the ticket hall, or basically anywhere else. It just doesn't work on that platform. I might like it more if it were in isolation rather than detracting from Dream Passage.

Grant Searl has four more pieces to come; one has already been installed at Lime Street Underground. These might be more to my taste, as the other stations don't have artwork and could do with brightening up a bit. I should note that the Lime Street one is based around John Lennon though, which makes my heart sink some more. It's another unimaginative commission.

The results of the Art on the Network competition still haven't been announced, so there's still hope there. I still think Merseytravel's public arts policy is a wonderful thing. I guess they just can't please me all the time.

Monday 3 January 2011

Corporate Whore

Here's a little New Year viewing for your Bank Holiday. It's a Merseyrail corporate video, plugging their general amazingness to all and sundry. It's a pretty interesting ten minutes. My thoughts can be summarised thus:

1) Pretty overhead shots!
2) Bart Schmeink! Bart Schmeink speaking! Bart Schmeink being as wonderfully Dutch as I hoped he'd be!
3) Mention of the popular Christmas Cracker promotion. Whoops.
4) Footage from the Merseyrail New Year's party. Where was my invite, eh?
5) Lots of shots of pretty ladies going to the races, if you like that sort of thing.

With thanks to Robert, as is usually the case for this sort of thing...

Saturday 1 January 2011

You Can't Go Home Again

Happy New Year! I hope you all got drunk and threw coal at a first footer while singing Auld Lang Syne, or something. Personally I stayed in and watched telly, which was great. I'm not a big fan of New Year's Eve, but then I hate anything which demands I enjoy myself. It offends my misanthropic soul.

Anyway, before New Year, there's Christmas, and with it, the obligatory trip down south to visit the family. It was all very jolly, apart from that strange disconnect you always get when you return to the house you grew up in. Things look the same, but not quite; rooms are the same shape, but smaller. It doesn't help that my brother annexed my childhood bedroom a long time ago so I end up sleeping in "his" room. It all gets a bit alternate universey.

On the last day, I went off to catch my train and, in the process, capture Luton's three stations. I explained to my mum that I needed to visit all three stations, and she looked at me with the kind of expression reserved for elderly relatives with early signs of Alzheimers. She couldn't quite understand me, and thought it was probably best to just move on.

The first station was Leagrave, in the north of Luton, and the closest to my home. This was the station I used to regularly walk to for the trip into town, rather than piling on board the 23 into town. It's a proper old school station, built in the 19th century and well-preserved. In the snow it looked picturesque, and brought back a whole load of memories of trips to London and so on.

I risked the ridicule of the cabbies outside by getting the station shot and bought my ticket for the trip to Luton. £2.90! For one stop! Still, the one time I ever travelled without a ticket was when I jumped on a train to Luton from here, and I was caught by a Revenue Protection Officer. I was sixteen and the shame of it still burns inside me to this day. He took my name and address - well, a name and address; I wasn't going to give him my real one - and charged me a tenner. My cheeks are turning crimson just at the memory.

I stomped my feet on the snow outside. There was a fifteen minute wait for the next train, and I paced the platform, trying to keep the blood flowing. It was absolutely freezing.

The train might have been warm, but it no longer had a nice little picture of the London skyline inside. Boo to First Capital Connect, not least for that ridiculously contrived name. I miss good old Thameslink. It's especially galling when you see all the posters plugging the Thameslink Programme around the stations.

Readers with long memories will remember that Luton was declared the 8th worst station in Britain. The correct response to that is "only 8th"? It is - and I'm going to use a technical phrase here - a shithole. Luton station is one of the most unremittingly grim stations, anywhere. It doesn't so much welcome you to the town as spit on your foot and demand to know what the hell you want.

I'd hoped that I'd be able to report things had changed, that it was all sunshine and daffodils, but no. It's as horrible as I remembered. The building is angular, badly constructed, and falling apart. A new mult-storey car park looms over the platforms and cuts out the sky. There was water dripping into the bridge over the platforms as my fellow passengers and I shuffled out into the main concourse. Like Moorfields, the ticket office is built on the first floor; unlike Moorfields, Luton station's a dump.

The reason the ticket office is a floor up is because the train station is because a public right of way runs right through it - a bridge connecting the High Town district with the town centre. The route to the town is via this charming edifice:

Would you believe me if I said that bridge used to be worse? It used to be clad with filthy frosted glass, covered in steel mesh - they may as well have put up a sign saying "Luton welcomes careful rapists" over the entrance. At least now they've taken the glass off, you can't smell the tramp's piss.

It's so depressing to find the main railway station in my home town is unrelentingly horrific. It's an outrage, a blot, and the council should have demanded action a long time ago. They have plans to build a new station square, with a bus exchange, but frankly they've been saying that for twenty years. I'll believe it when I see it. They can't even put hands on the station clock.

Just to compound the misery, there weren't any trains south. It turned out that there was emergency work going on between Luton and St Pancras - something to do with the snow, I should imagine - so there would be a replacement bus. All the way to London. Since I just wanted to go to the next station on the line, Luton Airport Parkway, I thought I'd walk. So yes, pedants, I didn't actually take a train to or from it, so it violates the Merseytart rules, but tough.

I'm not sure what goes on in the head of Luton's planners. I'm not sure if there are any planners. If there are, their default setting is "pug ugly". I didn't remember the town being so depressingly miserable. There's the Arndale of course (you can call it The Mall all you like - it's still the Arndale to me) - a massive, all encompassing, pile of hideousness that squats over the entire town centre. Back in the 1970s, shopping precincts were all the rage, and Luton didn't so much embrace it, as have a filthy love affair that gave it syphilis. Entire streets of historic warehouses were demolished and replaced by indoor malls, while the streets around it were reduced to access routes to car parks and delivery areas. At the time it opened, it was the biggest covered shopping mall in Europe - ridiculously oversized for a town of only 160,000 people. It's too big to destroy now, though, so it strangles the town centre with its cheerless bulk.

Beyond that, there are grim blocks of ugly offices and light industry, right in the centre of town. The main parish church - just about the only historic building left in the entire town - is hemmed in by dual carriageways, car parks, and 1960s concrete. Right behind it, the University of Bedfordshire - or Luton Technical College as it was - is building a block of student flats that are about nine storeys tall, higher than the church's checkerboard tower. It's as though they want to keep compounding that error.

At some point Luton decided to pledge its heart to industry above anything else. It invited all these big companies in, big strapping factories, and let them run roughshod over the town. They built what they wanted, where they wanted.

The industry's gone now, though, and what the town's left with is the ugly grey hangover. As I walked out of the town there were signs all around me of despair - the grim aftermath of a town that doesn't quite know what to do with itself. The population's still growing, but the new residents are commuters - they're using that fast train link to London, and using Luton as somewhere to sleep. The town's in danger of becoming one large bedroom.

Towering over me as I walked was the proud sign of Vauxhall House, the HQ of the company - but they don't build cars here any more. They're built in Spain or Italy or, yes, Ellesmere Port. How long before they pull out of Luton completely?

The only thing that will be left is the airport. This is at least one industry in the town that's still growing. When I lived there, I remember the celebrations when they hit three million passengers a year - now it's pushing ten million, and still growing. The terminal I used to visit on days out as a kid (we were simple folks) has now been subsumed into a much larger building.

And it's finally got its own train station. Opened in 1999, Luton Airport Parkway might still be a mile away from the terminal, but it's a lot prettier than Luton mainline. It comes in that standard grey and glass Network Rail chic, to the extent that the name of the station is barely visible in case it ruins the charming lines of the building. Squint and you can see it over the entrance.

I hurried inside and bought a coffee to warm my frost bitten fingers. Even though there were no trains, the ticket hall was packed - mainly confused tourists, trying to work out how to get to London. There was another queue for the free shuttle bus to the airport - take note, Merseytravel, this is what you should be doing from South Parkway.

I was left feeling deflated, sad. This was the first time I'd ventured out of Sundon Park, my little home quarter of Luton, and into the town for years. And it was awful. I was seeing it all with new eyes, spoiled by Liverpool and Birkenhead. I felt let down, somehow. Luton is my home town, the place I lived in for the first twenty years of my life, and I wanted it to delight me. Instead it just made me want to return to Merseyside.