Wednesday 26 February 2014

The Road From Wigan Pier

Regular readers (hello you!) will remember that I had a fairly disappointing customer experience with in the New Year.  I had a bunch of points on my account which were wiped out on the 31st December.  I used every weapon in my arsenal - complaint e-mail, miserable tweet, snotty blog post - and this resulted in a grand outcome of absolutely sod all.  So I resolved never to use them again and flounced off.

Only problem was, I had a bunch of actual railway vouchers on the account which would need to be spent.  If I was properly flouncing off, I would never have darkened their website again, but I resented them getting to keep my reward and me getting nothing.  Besides, if they were going to pay for it, why shouldn't I take advantage and get a free trip out?  After a bit of poking around I found that I could get a return to Wigan without having to hand over any actual cash, so I booked that up and set off on a crisp Tuesday morning.

Last time I came out to Wigan I didn't actually make it as far as the famous Pier, so I took the opportunity to right that wrong.  The Pier may be the most famous piece of sarcasm in the world; one theory as to how this little canal basin got such an exotic name is that people from Southport (home of a rather more impressive Pier) passed the little stretch of water on the train and joked that it was Wigan's version.

Orwell, of course, claimed that it had been demolished and so didn't bother going.  During his time in the town Wigan was a scarred, blackened home of slag heaps and destitution; I passed a Domino's Pizza and an HSS Hire, so things have improved slightly.  I crossed the busy road and stood next to a cast iron man to take in the scene.

Sadly, there's not much to see.  Wigan Pier was just a dock, a place to unload canal barges, and so its fame far outstrips the reality.  The locals tried to make it into a tourist attraction when the industry collapsed, but it didn't work.  There are blistered signs for the long closed museum of Victorian life, and The Orwell pub is closed and boarded up, about as far from the Moon Under Water as it's possible to get.

This, and the area around it, now forms the "Wigan Pier Quarter".  New flats have been strung along the canal edge, but there are still plenty of vacant warehouses and mills.  The Trencherfield Mill stabbed the skyline, odd windows showing occupation but mostly empty.

I had the towpath to myself for the most part.  It was just after nine, too late for commuters, too early for walkers.  It was carefully paved with smooth cobblestones, which look charming, but are awful to walk on; their surface was rounded with age too, and I ended up walking right on the edge where the stones were smooth and level.  I pictured myself toppling in and drowning because, whenever I find myself in a mildly perilous situation, I like to get a ghoulish thrill by imagining the worst case scenario.  I decided that I'd probably be able to haul myself back out of the canal - it wasn't too wide or choppy - but my camera and my phone would be ruined, so it was probably best not to try.

At a footbridge, a solid man dressed entirely in black swept onto the path ahead of me.  His rolling walk and long, thinning hair reminded me of Fish in the video for Kayleigh; his shoulders were hunched and he had an iPod rammed in his ears to soundtrack his stroll.  We walked in tandem for a while, the distance between us staying a constant couple of metres, until he stopped by another lock and lit a cigarette.  He eyed me as I passed, suspiciously, leaning against the gates.

I continued past a mooring point with the unromantic name of "Girobank"; there were office blocks, and tables had been put on the grass for al fresco lunch breaks.  A little hut on my side, meanwhile, promised showers and "sanitation facilities" for barge users.  Worryingly, it also had a "no naked flames" sign, making me wonder what exactly canal trippers ate.

I climbed up off the waterside into a traffic jam.  The road into the town centre was a solid length of nose-to-bumper cars, barely moving.  Some of the drivers had even switched their engines off.  I wondered what the traffic must be like at eight o'clock on a Monday morning, or if there was an accident; it didn't bear thinking about.  Though I have to admit to a slight feeling of smugness as I strolled past.

I was headed for Ince station, past rows of red brick terraces and traffic calmed side streets.  The one-way system was unfathomable - it seemed to be channeling all the traffic into dead ends, and none of them came back out again, raising the very real possibility that there is a wormhole in Wigan.  Maybe.

An impressive red Victorian office block with Council Offices emblazoned on the top was in the process of being refurbished; it had a sign alongside advertising one of those mysterious quangos who move into old Town Halls.  I'm not exactly sure what they did.  Presumably it was something that Wigan Council used to do quite happily until it was forced to privatise it as a "money saving" measure.

A handsome gateway, built of the same stone as the church opposite, marked the entrance to Ince station.  This is Ince (Manchester) according to National Rail, which differentiates it from Ince & Elton in Cheshire, but probably puts the back up of quite a few Wiganites.

Later on I'd visit a number of fine stations further down the line, but Ince isn't one of them.  It's too close to Wigan town centre to attract suburbanites, too far from Victoria to get Manchester commuters, so it's now a strip of platform between rubbish-filled hedges and barely used.  A lot of trains pass through without stopping.

It has attracted a minor reputation as a venue for the very best of street art.

Now, "wanker" I understand.  Same with "pass the spliff", though if you called me a wanker first, I'd be less than keen to share my drugs with you.  But "haha fat cheese"?  No idea.  Is it young person's slang?  Oh dear.  I'm turning into the Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey.

I wrung my hands to get the cold out.  As I waited a few other people joined me, a pensioner, a mum with a toddler, a lady in an extravagant faux-leopardskin coat.  We eyed up the tracks, watching for our train, disappointed every time it turned out to be a non-stopper.  February faces.

Friday 21 February 2014

My Adoring Fans

Last autumn, in a thoroughly bizarre moment in my life, I appeared in the Guardian travel section.  I was mildly (ludicrously) pleased.  I prepared a little post for anyone who came rushing over to the blog following my appearance on one of the most popular newspaper websites on the globe.

No-one came. 

Or at least, that was how it seemed at first.  In the months since I've noticed a sudden upswing in people leaving comments that flatter, compliment and frankly gush.  It's been an absolute joy reading these adoring posts, and I'd love to share them with you now and ask: why do my regular readers never write anything quite so lovely?

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Let's be honest: a command of the English language is deeply overrated.  Not sure why she mentioned her boobs at the end.  Ah well.

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Thursday 13 February 2014

Confessions of a Teenage Fare Dodger

Northern Rail has launched a new campaign, one with hashtags and videos and everything else you need to be modern! and successful! in 2014.  It's called #getaticket, and deals with the somewhat controversial idea that if you want to ride on a train, you should get a ticket.

I should confess that there was a time when I didn't always buy a ticket.  I know; I disgust myself.  It was one stop on the train from Leagrave station (where I lived) to Luton (where all the shops were), and it took about three minutes.  For a hard up teenager, this was a quick and easy way to save myself a couple of quid.  Yes, for some people their adolescent rebellion is drink, drugs, and bacchanalian excess; for me it was getting a free train ride.

That was twenty years ago.  I've changed now.  Matured.  And I always, always buy a ticket.  If I don't have one - because there's no ticket office or machine at the station - I become anxious and sweaty.  I practically pounce on the conductor.

It means I also whip myself up into a frenzy of self-righteous fury if I realise people are getting away without paying.  It's just rude.  As the #getaticket website says, you're taking something without paying for it.  There's really no excuse.

I do have a small complaint though.  Conductors on the trains can sometimes be a bit... elusive.  On my last journey out, he didn't pop up until we were practically into Sheffield.  Saying "it's your responsibility to buy a ticket" is all well and good, but they often barricade themselves in the rear cab and you only see them when they operate the doors.  Ticket checks between every station would be a great help.

I'd also like to see Penalty Fares rolled out where there's a ticket machine or office.  I've been on trains out of Lime Street where passengers have bought a ticket from the on-board conductor.  Just to get to the platform they'd have had to walk past machines, ticket windows and a Travel Centre.  The conductor turns up, and suddenly they've got a fiver out to pay.  You know, and I know, that they had no intention of buying a ticket unless they got caught.  But the conductor simply sells them a ticket and moves on.

There's no excuse for that.  If you board at a manned station, you should have a ticket.  End of story.  Merseyrail introduced a penalty fare scheme, and has run it pretty successfully; it helps that all of their stations are staffed so it's hard to argue that you couldn't get a ticket.  Northern could implement a similar scheme - if you boarded a train at Leeds or Sheffield or Preston and you don't have a ticket, it's because you went out of your way not to buy one.  End of story.

(I've just realised that the the hitch hiker in the first video is getting a lift off the food thief in the second video.  Who is stealing food off the hitch hiker.  Which implies this is less a tale of people trying to get something for nothing and more like a war of attrition between two vengeance obsessed maniacs.  Perhaps.)

That was all a bit self-righteous and petty, wasn't it?  Sorry.  Mind you, if you thought that was bad,  you should hear me on the subject of feet on seats...

Saturday 8 February 2014


The Colour Tsars have got in there again.  Yesterday, Maarten Spaargaren unveiled the new look for Merseyrail trains.  You'll be unsurprised to hear they're going to be yellow and grey.

The trains have been wrapped in vinyl to allow a series of designs that plug the wonders of Merseyside - or, as the Merseytravel press release puts it, "the Liverpool City Region".  That'll cause a few pursed lips in Meols.

Is that Jeffrey Archer above the knife?

The vinyl wrap is becoming more and more common as a way of livening up the exterior of trains and, incidentally, bringing in advertising revenue.  There are a number of Northern Rail trains featuring pictures of local attractions - the York skyline, items from art galleries and museums - while Merseyrail already has its Beatles Story train.  No word on whether that's disappearing.  The vinyl's also been used to enable companies to plug their product to innocent passengers.  I won't hear a word against this practice, because it resulted in East Coast's really quite amazing Skyfall train last year. 

These designs are far simpler for Merseyrail, far more abstract, which is good because you're going to be seeing them every day.  You really don't want some nightmare inducing laser printed horrorshow pulling up to the platform for your commute of a morning.  Hopefully these transfers will last better than the Merseyrail Ms of the last refurb, many of which seemed to fall off the trains and never get replaced.

The whole fleet should be finished by early next year, with a refresh of the interiors following soon after.  All this is just a stopgap to keep the trains running until they're replaced towards the end of the decade, but it's nice to see them pay some attention to keeping the existing rolling stock from looking tired.

Wednesday 5 February 2014

Automotive Incinerate

I've been shortlisted for another blog award.  Honestly, it's just getting boring now.

Not really.  I am, of course, deeply thrilled and excited to be shortlisted for the National UK Blog Awards 2014.  I'm thrilled whenever anyone says something nice about the blog.  Hell, I'm chuffed that anyone even bothers reading it.  I do embarrass easily though - I was out for a meal the other night with someone I hadn't seen since August and he said so many complimentary things about the blog I wanted to crawl under the table and cling to the leg.  I don't take compliments well; at least you believe someone when they insult you.

The gist is: thank you, National Blog Awards, and thank you to anyone who voted for it.  I am not breaking out my diamond tiara and floor length Stella McCartney, though, for a number of reasons.  These are as follows:

  1. I'm one of eight nominations in the "Automotive" category - alongside seven blogs about cars.  It's my own fault - the nomination form seemed to say that this was a kind of "transport" section, so I figured it was the best place for me to chuck my hat in the ring.  Now it turns out I'm a train shaped wallflower at the party, hiding behind the stage curtain and eating all the vol-au-vents because no-one will want to dance with me.  
  2. The judge for the "Automotive" category is The Stig.  I wonder what his transportation preferences are?
  3. There are only eight nominees in my category, but there are ten in all the others, which implies that they just nominated everyone who qualified.  A bit like when Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron was up for the Best Animated Feature Oscar.
  4. The prize is to be presented at a glitzy awards evening in That London in April.  The tickets are rather expensive, and that's not even counting the fact that I have to get down to the capital and find somewhere to stay and pay for the copious amounts of booze I would need to get me through the ceremony.  I'm not a hobnobber, and so the idea of hiring a tuxedo so someone can tell me I'm not as good as someone else doesn't appeal.  (I have not ruled out a video link, if only so I can say "Bienvenue Londres!" before congratulating everyone on their fantastic show and making everything overrun).
  5. Again: I really don't think I have a hope in hell.  I was First Loser at the Blog North Awards, and there were only five nominees then, and they were all from the north of England.  This includes the south of England too, PLUS Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.  And the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man and, oh who knows, probably the Falklands and the Pitcairn Islands as well.  Point is, I'm a much smaller fish in a much bigger pond.
  6. Did I mention I'm in the "Automotive" category?
Still, as Glenn Close has bitterly hissed through her teeth year after year, it's an honour just to be nominated.  Ian has also been nominated, for his superlative 150 Great Things About The Underground blog (but in the Travel category; he's not daft).  Perhaps we should pal up and bitch about the winners as they come out over the awards' Twitter feed.  Perhaps not.  My competitive side may come out in an extremely ugly fashion if Ian won and I didn't, and then who'd clean up the blood?

(But once again, thank you.)

Saturday 1 February 2014

Green and Pleasant Land

January 2014 was the wettest January for a hundred years.  Sensible, right thinking people would hunker down in front of the fire in a onesie with a hot chocolate.

I am not one of those people.  Not least because I think onesies are an abomination.  (It's a babygrow for adults!)  

Instead I hauled myself aboard an early train and went cross-country to the rural Hope Valley line to collect some railway stations.  The choice of destination wasn't entirely mine.  Blogger and human will-o'-the-wisp Diamond Geezer had suggested we meet up and collect some stations together.  Sheffield is two hours' train journey for both of us, so it seemed like a good spot to rendezvous.

Getting to Grindleford meant taking a rattling Northern train through the Totley Tunnel.  As was fairly typical for the Victorians, they took a look at the steep rises of the Peak District and thought "no problem", whacking what's still Britain's fourth longest railway tunnel through the hillside with barely a second thought.  It's an impressive piece of engineering, even though it's 120 years since it opened.  It's three and a half miles long and still carries huge amounts of traffic - indeed, my train from Liverpool had passed through it earlier.

Grindleford station is less impressive, just a couple of platforms and shelters.  It can't live up to its name, which sounds like a dwarf from The Hobbit.  DG and I got off the train with a single other traveller, a hardy looking hiker who was no doubt about to walk to Bristol or something.  He had a beard and everything.

Up on the roadside I persuaded the normally camera shy DG that he should make a guest appearance under the station sign too, and he graciously agreed to be photographed.

That's odd.

After that, all we had to do was walk to the next station, Hathersage.  There was a longer route via the road but, come on: where's the fun in that?  My Ordnance Survey clearly showed a footpath that went through woods and beside a river, and an odd part of my brain thought that would be an ideal route to walk in drizzle at the back end of winter.

We trekked slowly upwards on a side route, through a strip of quiet houses.  It wasn't much after nine o'clock and some of the residents were still opening their curtains.  We turned off the road eventually, to cross the railway line via a muddy footbridge.

"Hang on."  DG reached into his bag and produced what looked like a pair of blue condoms.  Being a gentleman, I averted my eyes so he could slip them on.  I say "slip"; what actually happened was I heard a series of groans, squeaks and exclamations.  I didn't like to look, and it was actually a relief when he joined me at the end of the bridge wearing waterproof trousers over his jeans.

The footpath sloped downhill rapidly, taking us to the side of a frothing, foaming River Derwent.  We were glad to see that we were high above the torrent - there was a part of me that had been concerned about flooding - but it was still a wet, sodden trudge.  Our boots squelched out brown water with each footstep.

Things only got worse as we entered the Coppice Wood.  Water pooled in fossilised footprints; we were ankle deep in mud.  Even the side paths, created by desperate walkers trying to avoid the morass of the main path, were damp and messy.

It became clear that DG and I had very different attitudes to the mud.  While he backed up, tried to find a route that was drier or clearer, I just yomped through them, splashing and sinking.  I'd seen The Hunger Games that weekend, and read Catching Fire on the way over, so I think I was in a Katniss Everdeen frame of mind.  I admit there weren't genetically altered beasts chasing after us or psychopathic teenagers trying to blow our foreheads open, so it wasn't really a direct correlation, but there was still that slight frisson of adventure and exploration.  I like wandering off the metalled roads and into the undergrowth.  It did mean, however, that I was quite regularly slipping, almost but not quite ending up on my face in the soil.  I'm not gifted with tip top physical co-ordination on dry ground - I must remind you that I once broke my foot by falling off a welcome mat - and the slick earth tested my balance to the maximum.  I knew things were bad when I realised I had stuck my tongue out so I could concentrate better.

We left the woods behind and returned to fields, heavy with the January rains and dotted with giant puddles and miserable looking sheep.  I imagined all that wet wool and shuddered at the smell.  Now and then we diverted off the path to try and avoid a small lake that had been formed by the rain.  Finally we were on a proper, tarmacced road, and dog walkers appeared as if to herald our return to civilisation.  I wonder what we looked like to them: wet, bedraggled, mud up to our knees.  One dog saw us and laid its stick on the path in front of us, backing away as though it had presented us with a religious artefact.  I choose to believe this is because of our God-like auras, and not because the poor animal was terrified.

"What time is the train?" asked DG.

"Umm... a quarter past?" I said, scraping around in my memory banks.  He checked his watch.

"Then we've missed it."

"Ok, maybe it wasn't a quarter past."  I pulled out my mobile to check the National Rail app.  It turned out we still had ten minutes before the train arrived, but it was a fair walk.  Our footsteps became quicker, a bit more urgent; thankfully we had pavement now, so there was no more battling the mud.  Our tight schedule meant we couldn't stop to take in the David Mellor cutlery factory, but they only offered tours at the weekends anyway, so we'd have missed the full thrill of watching teaspoons being made.

The railway bridge appeared on the horizon, but there was no sign of the station; a hoped for path up to the platform didn't exist.  We broke into a run, my flabby lungs wheezing to try and provide the oxygen for the brief dash.  There was a pause, while DG captured my red-faced exhaustion for posterity...

...and then we made it up to the platform with a minute or two to spare.  Enough time for me to phlegm up what was left of my internal organs and gasp for the slightest breath.  I tried not to think about the fit bastards working out in the health club overlooking the platform, laughing at my lack of physical fitness as they hit their eighteenth mile on the treadmill.

Still, we had a rickety Pacer journey to get the blood back from our extremities.  DG was of course fascinated by these cripplingly awful workhorses of the Northern rail network; he was even more fascinated to learn that there's actually a society devoted to preserving them, when the appropriate thing would be to burn them in a large bonfire while grateful commuters celebrated their death by dancing around the funeral pyre in a Bacchanalian feast.  Never underestimate the rail fan's ability to wax nostalgic.

Bamford still has its station house.  It's a private residence now, but it was lovely to see, and the owners are clearly respectful of their home's history.

There was a heady scent of fireplaces in the air, a happy smell of country hearths.  We passed a Network Rail van with a worker in his orange vest reading a paper, no doubt on some very important job that we wouldn't understand.

Best station sign so far.  It was so good I persuaded DG to pose under it as well.


Never mind; there was a walk to Hope to get through, one that would be a lot less fraught as the trains were now every two hours and we were walking on pavement.  The walk was along the surprisingly busy A6187, which sent a constant stream of trucks and cars past us.  In the distance, Hope cement works rose up, a refreshingly ugly bit of industry in the middle of the national park.  I've always said that too much attractive nature starts to get dull - it needs a good dose of filthy human intervention to make you appreciate it.

I had made a pair of plans for the next station.  We could take the easy route, and get a train from Hope to Edale; or we could walk across the hills to Edale and then come back to Hope.  One look at the distant peaks convinced us that would be a bad idea.  It wasn't exactly cold, and it wasn't raining, but there was a slow anger to the skies.  I imagined that we would be at exactly the point when mobile phone reception and human contact were distant memories before one of us plummeted to our death down a ravine.  Hopefully it wouldn't have been me, as I had the ticket home in my coat pocket.  Not only would DG have lost his walking partner, he'd have had to pay £6.90 for a train back to Sheffield.

Instead we headed straight into Hope village, bypassing the disappointing Market Square (basically a car park by the church) to go to the Old Hall Hotel.  It was too early for the pub - and it pains me to write that sentence - but the tea rooms were open, and a sign said that "muddy boots are welcome".  We found a table for Earl Gray, and DG tucked into a turkey sandwich that was roughly eight foot square and needed to be disassembled like a particularly tricky Lego house before you could eat it.

Meanwhile, I wrestled with the delicate bone china, managing to spill tea over the table and then struggling to hold the dainty cup.  I could only fit one of my chunky man fingers in the handle at a time, leaving the cup unsupported and wobbling dangerously.  I flashed back to those ungainly steps in the woodlands, and panicked about smashing the china on the authentic stone flagstones.

Behind me, a group of nice old ladies were enjoying their tea and cakes.  They accompanied their elevenses with a never ending, unbroken stream of gossip and conversation.  I don't think there was ever less than two of the four women talking at one time; their chat flowed in and out at baffling speed, never seeming to connect, until I started to wonder if they were actually listening to each other or if they just came here to talk and didn't care about response.  Perhaps this was some kind of theatre production, a kind of Elderly Vagina Monologues.

Having replenished our tannin levels we paid up - DG boggling that a pot of tea for two and a sandwich with salad could come to less than ten pounds; it's nice to occasionally remind Londoners about the joys of the provinces - and headed back out of the village towards the station.  A man in his fifties jogged past us in tight lycra, and we were united in our admiration for the older man and his activity, while sort of hoping that he'd fall over or have a heart attack or something.  Alright, you're in fantastic physical shape for a man your age - now get lost.

I think that missing "e" tells you all you need to know about the excitement levels of living in the Peak District.  Oh, it's charming, it's pretty, you're regularly overwhelmed by the sheer astonishing beauty of our nation and the bounteous wonders of Mother Nature, but what the hell is there to do of a Saturday night?  We'd seen a banner advertising the Hope Adventure Film Festival, but that was for one night only.  Plus, its definition of "adventure films" seems to mean "people climbing impossibly high rock faces and/or falling down waterfalls", which is interesting enough, but at the end of the day is just some people in cagoules and helmets trying to kill themselves.  I might have been tempted to attend if "adventure films" meant, say, Die Hard, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and one of the Roger Moore Bonds.

There was further disappointment at the station, when we discovered there wasn't actually a sign.  I had to loiter under a platform sign while DG risked plummeting onto the tracks to fit everything in.

There was a charming metal footbridge over the tracks, though, and some other passengers turned up for the train, making Hope very much the Grand Central of the Hope Valley line.

Edale station was architecturally disappointing.  But that view from the platforms.

Any kind of station building would have been cowed by that.  It would have been an impertinence, in fact.

We ducked down from the station and through a dark, soggy tunnel to the road.  There was a charming pub, lit up with fairy lights and once again welcoming walkers, and I had to wrench myself away from it to head into the village.

Edale is famously the start of the Pennine Way, and we decided that we'd head up through the village to take a look at this significant marker point.  I'd seen it marked on the map, but somewhere along the line I'd got confused about what the Pennine Way actually was.  I'd got it into my head that it went across the Pennines - a sort of walker's M62 - rather than running up the spine of England to Northumbria.  As a result, I couldn't really see what the fuss was about walking it.  I knew that Sheffield to Manchester by foot wasn't exactly easy, but I didn't get why people thought walking the Pennine Way was that much of an achievement.  Fortunately DG explained that the path actually went from south to north before I cockily wandered along it, thinking I'd be at Piccadilly by tea time but actually freezing to death on a hillock outside Glossop.

We passed the Moorland Centre, a tourist information kiosk and campsite which advertised that tent plots were available.  I bet they are, I thought, as a cold mist clung to the fields and the lenses of my glasses.  The Moorland Centre, meanwhile, was shuttered up and closed, meaning we couldn't poke around its displays or admire the fountain that cascaded over the living roof.

A tiny village school, its playground filled with all the pupils (i.e. about twelve hyperactive primary children) signaled the top of the village.  The Pennine Way sign was there, tucked in the corner of a yard.

We dutifully took a photograph of the finger sign.

"I thought it'd be a bit more impressive," I said, finally.  "I thought there might be an arch or something."  That was just a footpath sign.  If it wasn't there you wouldn't even know you were on the Pennine Way.  I may write to the Peak District National Park and urge them to consider some sort of elaborate entrance that would give it a real sense of destination.

The Old Nags Head, "the official start of the Pennine Way", was closed, so we turned round and walked back down through the village.  I was all for calling in at that pub, but DG quite reasonably pointed out that there were far more pubs in Sheffield, at the other end of the line.  So we went back to the station.

Up on the platform, with ten minutes until the train arrived, I said to DG, "I think you need to end your mysterious presence on the internet.  I think you need to show who you are.  Finally come out the shadows to receive the accolades you deserve."

He considered this for a moment, then said, "Perhaps you're right."

"Of course I'm right," I replied.  "I always am."  I lined up the camera and took a portrait of him to put on this blog and to finally reveal his secret identity to the world.

But that picture didn't come out.  So here's a picture of his foot instead.