Saturday 31 October 2015

Riding Through The Glen

How do you wash the taste of sexism and grease out of your mouth?  RAIL RELATED ANTICS OF COURSE!

Nottingham really shouldn't have trams.  I mean, Liverpool hasn't got them.  Nor has Glasgow, Cardiff, Belfast, Newcastle.  Even London's only got a few, squirreled away in Croydon.  There are bigger, more important cities that should be higher on the list.

It has a network thanks to two reasons.  Firstly, good timing: it managed to have its plans ready to go for that very brief period of time when the Labour government loved trams, in the late nineties.  Secondly, it had a council who was absolutely committed to the scheme and willing to push it through.  Nottingham's city and county councils were totally on board with the tram concept, unlike say, in Liverpool, where boroughs who wouldn't benefit from Merseytram were able to vote down the idea.  (Damn you, Wirral).

The result was an instantly successful network, the Nottingham Express Transit or NET.  It was so successful, plans for extensions were quickly approved, and two new routes to the south of the city opened this year.

Everything about the system oozes class and style.  You buy a ticket before boarding - no Supertram-style conductors here - then board a swift, silent tram that glides through the city centre.

I rode out to David Lane, to the north of the city centre, where it splits into two branches, then turned round and went back into the city again.

And I haven't even mentioned the new tram vehicles, which are sexy as hell.  There are older ones, slightly boxy like the trams in Manchester, but the new Nottingham trams look like science fiction vehicles.  Pointed fronts with a centrally positioned driver, like a lost Thunderbird.  Even that deep green colour is damnably attractive.

I returned to the city centre and found, perhaps, the ideal English town.  It was big, but not overwhelming.  Busy but not a crush.  There were extravagant moments of civic pride, like the Old Market Square, a European-style open plaza surrounded by shops with the elaborate Council House at one end.

The streets around it mixed new build with heritage, plus the occasional moment of local colour, like the statue of Brian Clough.

It was what you wanted from a town centre.  There were restaurant quarters and high-class districts, a big ugly mall (the Victoria Centre - she would not be amused), a beautiful theatre.

And, of course, there's Robin Hood.  Anyone who thinks that Liverpool harps on about the Beatles too much should travel to Nottingham and see their obsession; even a local utilities company, handing out flyers in the Old Market Square, was called Robin Hood Energy.  At least John, Paul, George and Ringo were real.

I crossed over Maid Marian Way - an unlovely dual carriageway that slices through the city centre; they make the typical English mistakes as well - and walked up to the Castle.

Regular readers will know I am extremely cheap, and so there was no way I was going to pay to take a look round the Castle, not least because it was nearly five o'clock.  They also appeared to be setting up for some kind of event; I strongly suspect that was Robin Hood related as well.

I crossed back by some wonderfully 1960s buildings, passing a cat cafe - yes, the type that lets you pet a kitten while you have a coffee, and no, I didn't go in; I'm a dog person - and did another circuit.

Nottingham didn't cause palpitations like Newcastle or Sheffield do; it was rather more small scale.  I felt like I'd seen most of its charms.   This is not to denigrate it in any way; what I saw mostly lovely.  I decided to have a pint and a sit down, and settled on the Lord Roberts, a theatre themed gay pub.  Posters of West End productions adorned its walls.

It was charming, quiet, interesting.  It was Nottingham.

Monday 26 October 2015

Tits, and an Ass

I'm thinking of starting a petition.  Perhaps one of those 38 Degrees campaigns.  It's called, "get Nottingham off the Northern Rail map".

It doesn't belong.  This is a NORTHERN map, not "NORTHERN, plus some bits of the Midlands".  I mean, Stoke-on-Trent is pushing it.  Nottingham is the Midlands and it has no place on that map.  And don't even get me started on Derby.  "Limited Service" - yes, mainly limited to driving me into a RAGE.

Still, while it is on the map, I had to visit.  Fortunately there is a direct Liverpool-Nottingham train; less fortunately, it takes three hours to get there.  This is a ludicrous state of affairs.  If you want to travel north-south in this country, you move faster than Concorde on speed; go east-west, and you'd best have packed a good book.

To add a positive note to what has, so far, been a slightly fractious blog post: Nottingham station is great.  It's recently had an overhaul in connection with the tram extensions, and it's worked very well.  Walk down the incredibly long platforms and you pass red platform buildings, carefully restored.

Because it's principally a "through" station, Nottingham doesn't have the opportunity to dazzle arrivals with an ostentatious roof or a staggering display of fretwork.  Instead, when you climb the stairs to the station building, you get a beautiful space.

It's wonderfully open and light.  The tiles on the walls, while extremely practical, also add a gleam to the ticket hall.

The building dates from 1904, surprisingly late for such an important station, and it definitely feels more modern than its slightly overbearing Victorian cousins.  That clock, for example, is understated elegance.

The redevelopment works have helped with that feeling of openness.  The front of the station was a porte-cochere; very handy for pausing with your coach and horses, a bit of a dead space in the 21st century.  As happened at Newcastle, the front has now been glassed over, meaning that the retail outlets don't crowd into the ticket hall.

The coffee shops and Morrison's Local cluster here, leaving the area for railway customers uncluttered.  It means you can stare up at that magnificent clock tower without getting wet in the rain.

The terracotta tiled frontage is just as impressive, though you have to dart across a busy road to get a decent look.

The works are still ongoing to fully restore the look of the station.  I love that this is how we're rejuvenating our cities; turn to the railway stations and make them better.  Make people love them.

As usual, my main complaint is the poor quality of the signage.  I found the British Rail totem behind hoardings at the worksite end of the station; I suspect it'll be taken down soon.


After my three hour train journey, I was tired and hungry, and I needed some food to pep me up before I started exploring the city.  Luckily, there was somewhere to eat just round the corner.

Hooters is an American chain of restaurants whose emphasis is on chicken wings, beers, sports and, of course, women with large breasts.  You can see why I'd want to visit.

Actually, the idea of Hooters has long fascinated me, because I don't understand it.  I don't understand why you'd want to visit a restaurant where the waitresses are big-boobed.  A strip club, yes; you get to see naked people.  A regular restaurant, yes; you get to eat good food.  I don't understand why you'd want to go to a place just because of cleavage.  The girls aren't going to take their tops off, so it's not like you're going to get a thrill.  They're just going to walk around with breasts, and I don't know if you knew this, but all women have breasts.  Regular waitresses in normal ordinary cafes have breasts, and they are just as likely to whip up their shirt and reveal their nipples to you as the girls in Hooters - i.e. they absolutely won't.

(I should add that this inability to understand is not based on my general lack of interest in boobs in general.  If there was a restaurant where all the waiters were hunks in g-strings, I still wouldn't understand why people would want to eat there.)

Adding to the fascination is the fact that Nottingham is Hooters' sole UK branch.  They've tried in other places, Cardiff, for example, and they were horrible flops and soon closed.  Which makes me proud to be British, to be frank.  Nottingham, however, manages to cling on there, and is actually one of the biggest restaurants in the chain.  I had to visit it, really.

Normally I'd feel awkward about eating alone, but I figured Hooters was the kind of place that regularly got lonely male diners.  My waitress showed me to my seat and I took a look at the laminated menu, trying not to think too much about the roll of kitchen paper on the end of the bench.  I guessed it was for tidying up after eating sticky chicken wings, but in this kind of place, who knows?

The building that housed Hooters was a converted Victorian warehouse, but you wouldn't have known that from the inside.  Here it was all pine paneling and road signs and pictures of girls in bikinis; it was like being inside the bedroom of an American teenage boy circa 1983.

The waitress came over to take my order, and I was took great care to look her straight in the eyes.  She was wearing a tight white t-shirt, cut low to flash her monumental cleavage, and ridiculously tiny orange shorts over tights that made her legs look shiny.  It was a warm day for October, but it was still autumn in the UK: she must have been freezing.  She took my order, and called me "darling", and I felt a little ill.

I live in the north.  I'm used to people calling me "love" and "dear" and "sweetheart".  It's a vocal tick and it's nice.  Here, though, it felt forced and cheap.  "Darling" isn't something British people say, unless it's in a romantic situation.

I looked around at my fellow punters.  There were a couple of tables of lads, and three men who looked like they were taking a break from a sales conference.  What shocked me was there were women.  Two male-female couples, tucking into curly fries.  I tried to imagine a circumstance in which any of my women friends would willingly eat in a breastaurant, and all I could think of was "hostage situation".  How do you have that conversation with your significant other?  "Let's get some lunch, preferably somewhere I can ogle the waitresses."  I would have judged them, but they were probably looking at me and assuming I was a sex pervert, so it was a wash really.

I wasn't enjoying myself.  What had seemed like an amusing little sidetrip when I was in Liverpool had ended up making me anxious and sick.  I was most concerned with letting the waitress know that I wasn't even slightly interested in treating them as sex objects.  Every time she came over, to give me my cutlery or to bring me my food, I made sure my eyes were at least one foot above her nipples.  Which is difficult, because even if you're a big gay, if a woman is thrusting her breasts at you it's very hard to avoid them.  I'd look her right in the eye, then panic that she'd think I was one of those weird patrons who was trying to CONNECT with her on a very deep level, and then I'd end up shifting my gaze elsewhere and stare at a pot plant or something.

As for the food... it was desperately ordinary.  I decided to forgo the "world famous wings" - "fresh, never frozen" - and went with the Western BBQ burger.  It tasted like a Wetherspoons burger.  That's no disrespect to Wetherspoons - it's plain, decent food for a fiver, with a drink thrown in - but this was a tenner, and you had to pay extra for chips.  Not chips, curly fries: lukewarm twists of potato that were soggy, not crunchy.  I trudged through it, forcing each mouthful.  It wasn't helped by the other waitress - a blonde, while mine had been a brunette - coming over to ask "is everything alright for you darling?" and bending right over the table so that, if I wanted, I could have stared right down her top.  I may have yelped in terror at that point.  I finished the food as soon as I could and, after a stop in possibly the worst bathroom I have ever seen outside of a Starbucks, I paid up and left.

I left Hooters with two over-arching impressions.  The first was surprise at how dated it all was.  Everything about it was Porky's, when it should have been Superbad.  The waitress's outfits (white socks with white trainers?  Really?), the stripped pine, the food - it was all revoltingly naff.  Even the jukebox played mainly 80s and early 90s hits with, bizarrely, the exception of Budapest by George Ezra, which they played twice.

My second impression was how unsexy it was.  I thought it would be cheeky, a bit risque, a bit of a laugh.  It wasn't that at all.  It was deadly serious about how sexy it was, which, paradoxically, made it incredibly grim.  It should have been Carry On, but it ended up as grinding hardcore amateur pornography where no-one is having fun.

Actually there was a third impression: I never, ever, want to go back.

Sunday 25 October 2015

As Seen On TV

I love TV.  Properly love it.  I can't see how you can't.  It's lots and lots of entertainment, delivered to your front room, and you don't have to do anything to get it except press an occasional button on your remote and pay your TV licence.  I don't understand people who don't own a television, and people who are proud about this are the worst.  No, wait; the actual worst people are the ones who say "I don't own television, I watch it all online so I don't need a licence."

Well said, Joey, and yet more evidence for Grace Dent's theory that there is an appropriate quote from Friends for every occasion.

I've grown up loving television in all its forms.  It's family legend that I would watch the Open University as a baby, and that one of my first words was "tellyon."  As in, "can I have the telly on?".  It didn't stop me from reading books or thinking for myself or any of the usual criticisms people level at the "idiot box".  It was just another fantastic way to spend my time.

A side effect of all this TV watching is the thrill of visiting a fictional location in the real world.   When I was in New York earlier this year, I visited the spot for Monica's apartment from Friends, and 168 Riverside Drive, home to Liz Lemon.  I visited Loser Cafe from The Apprentice while I was in London, and my trips to Coronation Street are well documented.

Getting off the train at Hadfield, then, carried with it an extra thrill.  It looked like another cosy, purple and white Northern Rail station.  Shift perspectives, squint a little, and you saw the darkness underneath: this was the station for Royston Vasey, the end of the line, the place where Benjamin arrived and his nightmares began in The League of Gentlemen.

I was a big fan of The League of Gentlemen, the comedy show broadcast on BBC Two between 1999 and 2002.  I have all the DVDs - even the incredibly disappointing film.  I saw them live at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.  I have their books.  This was the first time I'd actually visited Hadfield, the place where the series was filmed, chosen by the stars because it was "shitty".

I'd left it too late.

I didn't realise that, at first.  I left the station forecourt and was immediately presented with the iconic War Memorial, the one featured in the titles to every episode.  Since the show filmed here, they'd added a seating area and gardens, but the wreath-bearing angel was still recognisable.  I could hear the bouncing notes of Joby Talbot's theme tune as I looked up at it.

Meanwhile, the D&D Newsagents had a window devoted to the show, its main feature being a poster for Papa Lazarou's Circus.  They sold postcards of "Royston Vasey", too.

A turn, and I was on that famous high street... but it had changed.  Obviously, I didn't expect the townsfolk to have preserved it exactly as it was when they filmed: I mean, in one episode, the army was called in to oversee a panicking populace, so you'd hope they'd at least tidy up.  But gentrification had crashed into Hadfield, and I imagine that the League would be disappointed if they returned for a fourth series.  It just wasn't that shitty any more.

Coffee shops had infested the main road, pastel coloured and filled with comfortable warm furnishings.  There were florists and a children's music school.  If I'd not known it from my telly, I'd have seen it as just another pretty Derbyshire town.  There were no references to its famous past.  Admittedly, I didn't expect the butcher's shop to refer to its "special stuff", but neither did I think it would now be an award-winning artisan sausage maker.

Even the Cafe Royston, still visible on Google Streetview, had changed its name to the Food Stop and advertised itself as cyclist friendly.  I'd hoped for a pint in the Mason's Arms, scene of Les McQueen's heartbreaking realisation that Creme Brulee had reunited without him, but it was a Tesco Metro now.

I headed into the back streets, in search of a bit of Royston Vasey shaped darkness, but it was disappointingly charming.  The coming of the railway shifted Hadfield's centre of gravity to Station Road, meaning that behind the Victorian streets was an old-fashioned village left preserved.

There were the occasional oddities; a cottage called The Old Slaughterhouse, a pocket-sized barber shop that could probably have been a bit sinister if you concentrated hard enough, but most of it was just... ordinary.  I rounded a corner and found the greatest sadness of all.

The Job Centre, the location for Pauline Campbell-Jones' petty torments, was now a development of charming flats.  It had become desirable and chic.

I realised that not everyone carried their televisual history around with them.  I've not watched The League of Gentlemen properly in years, apart from catching the occasional late-night repeat on Dave, but I could still see it overlaid on Hadfield.  I thought they'd still enjoy their moment in the sun, but it was just a tv show.  It was just a thing that happened once, folded into the history books and quietly packed away.

I walked back to Station Road, wishing I'd come sooner, when there was still League-fever.  I'd have to move on I guess.  The League have: Mark Gatiss is now a television magnate, with Sherlock and Doctor Who, and Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith have gone on to produce the equally dark, equally brilliant Psychoville and Inside No. 9.  Still good telly.  Still important to me.

I headed out of town, up a steep hill that quickly turned to countryside.  If I'd come here a few decades ago, there would have been more stations for me to collect, at Crowden and Woodhead.  Hadfield only recently became the end of the line; until 1981 the line continued up and through the Pennines via the Woodhead Tunnel, re-emerging on the other side to call at Penistone and proceeding on into Sheffield.

The Woodhead Line was a pioneer, electrified with overhead lines in the 1950s as a test ground for the brave new post-steam world.  Technology moved on and abandoned it though.  The electrics chosen were of a relatively low voltage, and when it came to the rest of the network, British Rail went with a different system.  It left Manchester-Sheffield via Hadfield as an orphan line; it had to have its own special trains that couldn't run anywhere else.  Combine this with the general feeling from the Sixties onward that trains were too much hassle, and bits of the line were closed down; passenger services beyond Hadfield ended in 1970, while freight services lasted another eleven years.  Then the Hadfield line was converted to the same electric system as the rest of the country.

Closing a route across the Pennines, that stark impassable backbone that runs the length of England, seems like madness.  Worse, the madness has been compounded; the National Grid took over the tunnel and used them for cables, meaning it's impossible to reuse them for railways.  Meanwhile, the one remaining, still non-electrified route between Sheffield and Manchester strains for capacity.  Northern Powerhouse, though!

I'd thought about walking up to Woodhead, to see what was left - the railway line was turned into a long-distance path, the Longendale Trail - but it was gone three, and I didn't fancy being up in the mountains when it got dark.  Instead I climbed up and over the hill and descended into Glossop.

Walking amidst kids who hadn't even been born when The League of Gentlemen first aired, I found a surprisingly elegant town centre. Glossop became rich from cotton and calico and was home to many mills; the families who ran the mills acted as generous benefactors for the town and built stately churches and reading rooms to improve the lives of their workers.

I promenaded down the stately main street, wishing I had a walking stick or a top hat.  Admittedly, it probably would have drawn the scorn of the lively, just out of school teenagers who filled the windows of the coffee and sandwich shops, but it was that kind of town.  It demanded a dandy.

The Howard Town development - named after one of those local worthies - was less successful, a converted mill towering over a Wetherspoons and - spit! - an Edinburgh Woolen Mill.  It was a retail park wedged in where it didn't belong, though I expect Glossop's well-heeled residents were glad to have a Marks and Spencer Simply Food arrive.

I stopped for a pint at the Norfolk Arms, right in the centre of town.  There was a young couple in there with a new baby.  They were valiantly trying not to let the mewling child interfere with their life as grown up, chilled hipsters, with dad rolling his own cigarette and mum's purple hair, but it was a battle they were destined to lose.  Her brown roots were showing, and when he asked if it she minded while he went for a ciggie, her "if you really have to" was laced with tiredness and fury.  I felt like leaning over and telling them to give up; just stick the Baby on board sign in the back window of your hybrid and resign yourself to a life of primary colours and total acquiescence to your spawn's every desire.

Refreshed, I walked to the station, past a beauty salon called Giallo; hopefully it's not named after the genre of lurid Italian thrillers, because that'd mean an awful lot of blood to mop up on a daily basis.  Half of Glossop station is now a Co-op, which is always a disappointment, but it was still a sturdy, proud terminus.

The main line bypassed Glossop, but it was important enough to get its very own spur.  Now it's the point where the train reverses to take in the next part of the Dinting triangle.  I was pleased that I'd finally got to visit this quirky anomaly on the Northern map.

Inside, the station was cool but beautifully restored; proud plaques commemorated various prizes won for the work.  It was like much of the rest of the town - stately, refined, understated.

On the platform, signs declared that Glossop was the "Gateway to the Dark Peak", which sounds like a terrifying Fighting Fantasy novel.  I had a two hour journey to get home, and I hoped there wouldn't be any delays.  I needed to be back in time for Only Connect.