Wednesday, 22 December 2010

The Nightmare Of Berlin

It's pretty hard knowing where to start in telling this story. Like Blackadder's Palladium stage show it starts badly, tails off a bit towards the middle and the less said about the end the better.

And yet I feel it should be documented.

We'd planned a trip to Berlin. Emma's mum and dad had invited us. They had been a number of times before to visit the Christmas markets. This didn't sound much like my sort of thing but Emma seemed keen, and I could certainly put up with a few hours shopping if it meant I got to spend my evenings in quaint European bars drinking interesting German beer.

Since we only had three days (Friday to Sunday) we needed to get out there early on Friday morning. Unfortunately, this meant that we were unable to fly from Manchester because the only flights on offer from there would have got us to Berlin a little too late. Instead we decided to fly from Heathrow, leave the car there and meet up with Emma's mum and dad who live in the altogether more Heathrow-friendly location of High Wycombe.

This left us with a four-hour drive which we decided to take on the Thursday night straight after work. There's always problems on the roads around that time but we got to the Premier Inn (when we eventually found it) for around 9.15. Whereupon we encountered our first problem. We hadn't eaten since lunchtime and were told that while the restaurant was open, it would only be open for around another half an hour. As quick as possible we dumped the bags and sat down to eat.

The service was abysmal. It seemed like forever had been and gone by the time our food arrived and even then we still had not been given our drinks which had been ordered first. In mitigation the restaurant was quite busy, but that is a situation not helped by service staff standing around talking to each other about the weather. Well, they may have been talking about the weather. I couldn't tell because none of them appeared to speak any English.

At 3.00am on Friday the alarm went off. We had to be at the airport for around 5.30 for our 7.05 flight. I was feeling groggy but still optimistic, and so it wasn't such a wrench to be out of bed at that hour. Emma's mum and dad (we shall henceforth refer to them as Susan and Roland, because those are their names) met us at the hotel and we drove on to Heathrow's long stay car park. It was here that it first dawned on me how cold this weekend was going to be. Despite my thick gloves my fingers stung as I waited in the bus shelter for the bus to take us to the terminal. Perhaps it hadn't helped that I had momentarily taken my glove off so that I could use my phone to check the cricket score on the internet.

We checked in without any fuss and went for a cup of tea. There were screens all around displaying flight information but, having been told we would be met by the gate at 6.15, this time came and went without any gate information. There was going to be a delay. All of which was unsurprising given that it had snowed in Berlin. At around 6.40 the information flashed up and we proceeded to the gate. I fended off the usual attempts by airport staff to manhandle me (what is it about my form that drives them so crazy that they feel they have to touch me, and why doesn't that work in the world outside of airports?), and was assisted without too much incident on to the plane.

Where we sat and waited. And waited. Susan rather unhelpfully began telling us a story of a friend of hers who boarded a plane recently which remained on the ground for four hours because of a delay in obtaining clearance to depart. Not wishing to hear the denouement of this sorry tale I closed my eyes and put some music on until it was time to take off. Eventually we received our clearance from Berlin and the flight began. We landed in Germany only around 90 minutes later than scheduled (what were those flight times from Manchester I wondered, but daren't ask) and I waited for more man-handlers.

Again more fending of unwelcome advances. I transferred to an aisle chair and as we got close to the exit I became a little nervous that the plane had not managed to stop at an airport terminal, but that instead a bus was waiting at the bottom of the steps to take us inside. This meant that I would be carried down the stairs by the man-handlers on the aisle chair. The same steps about which the other passengers had been warned because of the amount of ice covering them. If they were dangerous for able bodied people to walk on, what status would you attach for people carrying an overweight biff on an aisle chair? I looked upwards to the sky the whole time and hoped for the best.

It was snowing heavily. Germany was arse-achingly, ball-breakingly, finger-stingingly cold. The good news was that the bus to take us to the hotel was waiting right outside the airport terminal once we had cleared the usual immigration shenannigans. German transport links are far superior to ours. I cannot imagine being refused entrance on to a German bus because there's already a wheelchair user on board. All of their buses are fully accessible (except annoyingly the city sightseeing tour buses) and it was very easy for us to get to our hotel. The bus dropped us off right outside the Park Inn at Alexanderplatz. Despite this convenience, I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed to have travelled so far to end up in a Park Inn, given that there is one next to Tesco in St.Helens. And that one probably has tea making facilities in the rooms.

It took an age to check in. Where Germany does not differ from England is in their outright fear of disability. The lady took one look at me and panic set in. The rooms we had booked were mere double rooms, and so she spent a lifetime scrambling around to find me a wholly unnecessary disabled access room. She has no idea of the amount of non-accessible rooms I have slept in particularly on basketball trips, where shuffling to the bathroom on one's posteria is par for the course. That's bloody difficult to do after a skinful of Stella but you just get on with it. In the end they gave me both a double (which we would use) and a single which had extra disabled facilities should I need them. Since I had them available I ended up using them, but couldn't help but feel a bit grumpy about the fact that the disabled room was a single. What were they saying socially about disabled people in doing that? Like I say, not that different from England after all........

And so it was time to hit the Christmas markets. I was overwhelmingly underwhelmed, if I'm honest. The heavy snow didn't help, but trudging around from stall to stall looking at what can only be described as Christmas tat did very little for me. There didn't seem anything special about the markets. There's supposed to be an 'ambience' they say, but I couldn't feel it. All I could feel was the cold. It was around -13 which wasn't really a problem while we were moving around, but became one when we stopped at one of the stalls for a drink. The others drank Gluhwein, a kind of hot wine very popular with the locals. I didn't like the look of it, but then I'm extremely fussy with food and drink. To my mind it looked like some kind of flu remedy. I can drink Lemsip, but I tend not to do so for pleasure. Instead I sampled a local beer, the name of which I probably couldn't spell even if I could recall it. Something like Schofferhoffer, but I'd be guessing wildly. Roland informed me that it was a wheat beer, and said he was surprised that I liked it. It was good stuff, but clinging on to the icy cold glass while I drank it was beginning to make me shiver.

We took a train (yet more high quality transportation to be fair) to another Christmas market but it didn't change my view. There was more Gluhwein and more beer and so I loosened up a little. We were refused entry into the Hard Rock Cafe due to a private party which is almost unfathomable, and instead found a restaurant nearby. I was almost dancing. A warm place where I could drink local beer and eat junk food. Determined to avoid sausage I scoffed down a baconburger and a couple of Berlin Pilsners. Again this disappointed me slightly on account of the fact that I can get Pilsner at home. What I really wanted was something a little more specialised.

Day two was a sightseeing day. We took a bus down to the Reichstag, the parliament building of the original German Empire in the early 20th century, and where modern day parliament often meets. However on this day it was closed to the public. There was a large police presence and barriers all around. Susan had said that it had been open not long ago but there had been some sort of terrorism scare which forced them to close it to the general public for a while. It is still an impressive sight from the outside and certainly something for enthusiasts of architecture to go and have a look at.

So too is the Brandenburg Gate. This is the only remaining gate of a series which once signalled the entrance into Berlin. It was built as long ago as 1791 but restored at the start of the 21st century. Perhaps more interestingly, and as Roland pointed out as he gestured to a spot just further on, it is where Gary Lineker and the team based their television studio while presenting the BBC's coverage of the 2006 FIFA World Cup. Now, at around that same spot there were men dressed as border guards and, rather more cryptically, bears and even one kitted out as Darth Vader. He was quite a small man, which made him look a little more like the Space Balls version of the Dark Lord rather than anything George Lucas had in mind. He was clearly a fraud, as at one point he removed his helmet and there wasn't so much as a slight singe mark on his face and head. This was not a man who had been cast into the molten lava on Mustafar.

On route to Checkpoint Charlie we were getting very lost, and were fortunate enough to bump into a local man with at least a rudimentary grasp of English. It turned out we had reached the location of part of the former Berlin Wall, and as he pointed towards it he also informed us that we may be able to visit the Gestapo museum. All of which seemed a little 'Allo Allo' to me, and put me in mind of an otherwise awful film called Rat Race, in which in response to his daughter's request to visit the Barbie Museum, one of the characters takes her instead to the Museum of Klaus Barbie, a Nazi Captain and notorious war criminal.

"Socialism. It crazy idea ya?" said the man. You can forgive Berliners their dislike of socialism. It's only just over 20 years since their people were being shot for trying to escape into the West through Checkpoint Charlie. Close to that site there is a wall of large photographs depicting some of the people and events from that time. Their stories are truly harrowing but genuinely fascinating too. There is one shot of American and Soviet tanks facing off just yards either side of Checkpoint Charlie in 1961. Now around the actual checkpoint there are more mock border guards and it is all photo opportunities and laughter. There's even a McDonalds, into which we quickly dived for a much needed drink and to plan our next move.

The Gestapo Museum was closed. There was a foot of snow all around it in any case, and so we resolved to move on. Herr Flick would have to wait, perhaps forever. Any enthusiasm I had for Berlin was already wavering at this point. Maybe things would pick up with a visit to the Olympic Stadium. It was there that Jesse Owens defied Nazi logic on racial supremacy to win four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games. It was only a short train ride away, and the snowy roads around it did at least have clear pathways around and about so that I could get closer. Unfortunately, and as was becoming the theme for the day, it was closed.

Emma and I had been to Barcelona's Olympic Stadium last year and were fortunate enough to be able to view the inside, albeit from a fairly lofted position at the back of the stand. There was a souvenir shop enjoying a roaring trade. There was no such activity here. We were met only with high walls and locked gates. The only tell-tale sign that this actually was an Olympic Stadium were two towers between which hung the iconic Olympic Rings. A man jogged down the path running the entire breadth of the stadium without once looking up to admire it. There was nothing to see here.

I could compel you with more tales of Christmas markets and restaurants. I ate a salami pizza and enjoyed a few more of the local beverages but in the context of a European weekend excursion it was uneventful. So we'll leave me there to my pizza and beer and skip to Sunday.

The flight home was at 6.00pm. We still wanted to visit the Berlin Wheel. You know the drill by now. Every city seems to have one these days. You get into an enclosed carriage and are lifted around in a giant circle at vomit-inducing heights, but on the plus side you get some spectacular views of the city. After a large breakfast we made it there for about 10.45am and it was.......well.......closed. Thankfully we were told that it should be open for business by about 11.15 so we dived into a little hut for some tea and warmth. There were an awful lot of tea and warmth stops across the whole weekend, but this one was particularly welcome given the inactivity outside.

There was one carriage wide enough to allow my wheelchair to pass through but once inside I decided to jump out on to the seat. Spinning around at ludicrous heights is less comfortable in a brake-less wheelchair. Helpfully, they offer blankets inside the carriages to keep you warm. It is exceptionally cold inside, so you'd be well advised to make use of them should you ever find yourself there. Finally settled, I really can say I enjoyed the experience. There were some awesome views as advertised, and there is nothing like coming to a grinding halt at the very top of the cycle for what seems like a fortnight, but was probably no longer than about 30 seconds. We moved on again just in time before Susan began to scream, which she had promised us she would if things got a little hairy.

Shortly afterwards it started to snow once more. We made our way back to the hotel, still with around three hours to kill before it was time to leave for the airport. Emma and I managed to sneak off for some light lunch, a seriously poor cheese and tuna baguette from a cafe next to the hotel. There was a Burger King opposite which may have been a better option. Yet we hung around, for once enjoying the privacy and for another thing, there was only the chairs in the lobby to rest on. There was more room on the restaurant benches.

Now apparently you've had some snow over the weekend here in the UK. Blissfully unaware of this we reached the airport to find that our flight had been cancelled. Roland went to investigate, and reported back that there was a queue of people similarly affected heading towards the Lufthansa ticket desk. We would have to join and try to book another flight. We reached the end of the queue (some distance from the start of it) and waited. And waited. And waited. It was fully four hours before we reached sight of the ticket desk. The only crumb of comfort came when airport staff moved along the endless line with a cart dishing out free drinks. Small drinks. Cans the size of those you might get on board your flight. Thirsty or not I took them and stored them. I was going to need them.

Finally we reached the desk and were informed by the airport agent that Heathrow was closed, and that therefore there would not be an available flight there until 7.20 on Tuesday morning. While slightly inconvenienced by this I reasoned to myself that if we could guarantee being on that flight and that it would go I could cope with another couple of nights in a hotel, provided the airline was paying for it. Roland, however, could not. He wanted to find another way home, and so began the debate about where else we could fly to to then get a connection. They came up with a flight to Zurich and then a further one to London City airport. I didn't fancy the idea of two flights but foolishly did not intervene. Even the thought of being lugged on and off two flights in the most undignified manner imaginable could not stir any response from me given Roland's reluctance to wait. It was ok for me, I could quite easily get an extra day off work, but he was clearly more worried about his situation.

So I kept it shut, and we went to the airport hotel at the airline's expense. They had given us a voucher for food, but we were told that we would only be able to have whichever meal they were offering with the voucher. In the event it was a rather dry looking potatoes and turkey. I paid eight and a half Euros for a sickly cheese omelette. At 6.15 the next morning Susan phoned through to our room. Roland had been up half the night on the internet and found that there was no accessible transport from London City airport to London Heathrow, where the cars were parked. We had to go back to the airport, back to the four-hour queue, back to the desk to get our tickets changed again.

We had been in the queue for around two hours when a member of staff strolled by. She wasn't pushing a drinks cart, but instead picked us out of the queue and told us to follow her. She led us to the front of the queue. It was a miracle, freak occurence, whatever you wanted to call it. This was it. It got better, as we reached the desk and were told by the agent that the best solution would be if we were to go straight on to the plane that was waiting to leave for a temporarily re-opened Heathrow right there and then. She printed our tickets and we raced off to check-in.

There was endless security, so the 11.20 to Heathrow was going to be late, but we were going to be on it. A man-handler tapped me on the shoulder and shouted 'Board' at me. I brushed him away and pushed down the tunnell to the aircraft. Poor Emma was carrying what seemed like all my worldly goods as I was carted down the aisle to my seat. It was an indignity, but we were going home. We were sat on the plane half asleep. Half an hour or so had passed before the captain announced that he was sorry for the delay, but the aircraft had a broken tow bar. No matter, they were in the process of moving a new one into position and we would be on our way soon.

Another passage of time. It could have been half an hour, maybe more. I was still drifting in and out of consciousness, still dizzy with relief at finally being able to go home. And then it came. The captain addressed us again;

"Well ladies and gentlemen I'm afraid I have some bad news."

What? England lost at cricket? We had to stop off at a Berlin Christmas market on the way? The in-flight meal was sausage? Er......none of these........

"While we have been waiting for our new tow bar to arrive Heathrow have imposed further restrictions and are cutting flight arrivals down to 33%. Ladies and gentlemen I'm sorry to tell you that this means that we will not be able to take this flight today. In a moment we will ask you to disembark the aircraft and re-enter the terminal building."

It was like being kicked in the genitals by a Grand National winner. I felt physically sick. We were now not going home, but instead going back into the queue to get our tickets changed again. Only this time, though we didn't know it at that point, the queue had grown. The monster of this morning had quadrupled in size. The Lufthansa ticket desk is near to gate 11. The queue began just outside gate 5 where we had disembarked. This time there would be no staff member to pull us out of the queue and fast-track us to the desk, no Heathrow-bound plane waiting at the gate once we got to the desk. None of this. Just an unhelpful woman who insisted that we could not book on a flight to Heathrow but that she had to book us on something, regardless of the fact that nothing else seemed sensible in terms of access.

Staggeringly, it was a further two hours before we got away from the desk. The agent had insisted on booking us a flight to Cologne and then a connection to Heathrow for Tuesday afternoon, but then found that computer had said no. She couldn't print out the tickets because Heathrow was still closed on her system. I wanted to ask why she had suggested it then, and why she had been able to print out one ticket and not the others. It was 11.30pm. We had disembarked at 1.15pm. Even now, Emma and I were sent on to another hotel without Roland and Susan while they waited to resolve the ticket problems.

This hotel was 20 minutes away in a taxi. On arrival we were told that the restaurant would be closing in 25 minutes. We dumped the bags in reception and sat straight down. It was a buffet meal and, being the fussiest eater since Ian Brady, I couldn't find anything that I could digest. I had a go at a chicken and potatoes concotion but in truth the whole experience was making me sicker by the minute. I couldn't even bring myself to enjoy a beer, instead gulping down a couple of cokes like they were tequila slammers. When we were all together again we discussed plans for the next day and got nowhere. Should we settle for the Cologne plan and go the airport for that 2.55pm flight, or go early again and queue up in the hope of Heathrow re-opening? We went to bed still undecided.

Sleep was impossible. I woke up at regular intervals suffering from shortness of breath. No matter how much I tried I couldn't get enough air into my lungs. I was wheezing and feeling sick. At 4.30am the phone rang again. Susan. They had seen on the airport information screen downstairs that the Cologne flight had been cancelled. Our decision had been made for us. We would have to get up there and then, and go straight to the desk to change our tickets once again. This would be the fifth flight plan we would be booked on, and still we seemed no nearer to getting anywhere resembling England.

We arrived at the airport at around 5.00am. It's just an enormous circle. There's around 15 gates and the building just loops around all of them until you end up back where you started. Most likely that is in a queue. It's The Circle Of Despair. Mercifully we'd arrived before the queue got really serious, and found Roland at the check-in desk having been told that a flight to Heathrow was scheduled for 7.20am. It was full, but there would probably be cancellations. This being far from a given, Susan and I went back to the Lufthansa desk to see if we couldn't guarantee some seats by outright unfair and desperate means. It was only a half-lie, but when we again reached the desk we told them that due to my disability we were fast running out of medication and other necessities, and that if I didn't get home that day I would be in a Sticky The Stick Insect situation.

Miraculously, she didn't question it. On the contrary, she issued us with four tickets for the supposedly full 7.20 to Heathrow there and then. We later met a woman at the departure gate who told us that she'd been issued with tickets for it the previous evening, the evening when computer said no to us, but only because she had told them of her son's arthritis. Either they like seeing people suffer, or the airlines deliberately leave some seats vacant in case passengers come forward with problems of this type. The woman also told us that this was the sixth flight she had been booked on, and that if this did not leave she thought we would not get home for Christmas.

It was going to be a nervous old wait. It didn't help that we were asked to board two hours early. Apparently they do this because they then have to send a ready signal to the destination airport and await clearance. We had a time slot of 9.20am UK time, three hours later than scheduled. The captain told us that this had been brought forward to 8.55am but we still faced an interminable wait. I have never been more nervous and terrified in my life. The prospect of having another flight cancelled at that late stage again made me very ill. There was nothing to pass away the time except Susan going over worst case scenarios over and over until even Emma snapped at her. The only mild diversion was the de-icing machine they use which looks rather like a little Star Wars droid. It lights up and sprays the body and wings of the plane. It's a very clever little piece of kit.

More waiting, and more, and more. And then, wonderfully, we began to back away from the terminal. The impossibly nice stewardesses began the safety demonstration, a stage we had not reached on the previous day's aborted flight. Again they checked overhead lockers and underneath seats before finally we started to taxi towards the runway. At that moment I recalled another story from the woman with the arthritis boy, one in which they had once taken off on a flight and been re-routed to Dublin. Even if this thing got in the air we were seemingly not out of the woods.

We gathered speed as we entered the runway and the plane lifted. I forgot about Dublin and began instead thinking of London. The nerves slowly eased, though I stopped short of eating anything. Touching down in London was one of the greatest feelings of relief I've ever experienced. And this is a place I normally refer to as England's toilet. We still had a pain-in-the-arse bus ride and a four-hour drive ahead of us before we reached home, but at least at that moment we were in control again.

I've never been so pleased to see my front door. Even if I couldn't get to it until Emma had cleared the path with a shovel. Poor Emma.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010


I've started to tweet.

Or should that be Tweet, with a capital 'T'?

I've always been pretty resistant to technological advancements. I don't like change. I'd no more have a Blackberry or an i-pad in my house than I would have a student with a very heavy axe to grind. The very idea of Kindles instead of real books makes me vomit, and I pray for the day when Hollywood studios finally stop trying to make everything 3-D.

But Twitter is different. Either that or I'm a hypocrite. Either way, it is because of this very blog that I thought Twitter might be a good idea. I already post the link on Facebook, and I thought anything that might help give it further exposure must be considered A Good Thing.

I struggled at first. I'd set up an account a year ago, so I didn't have any trouble in that area. My problems started when I realised I had nothing to say, or 'Tweet' and nobody to really say or 'Tweet' it to. So I posted the link to my blog. And nothing happened. Well it wouldn't. That was mostly because; a) I had nobody to read it and b) I hadn't written http:// in front of it. I'd just typed the address, because I'm just that technologically retarded.

So I thought I had better get myself some people to follow. After a little advice from some friends I started to build up a list of people to follow. They're mostly sports people, sports teams, sports organistions and the like. Or fit birds. Joss Stone is a given, but I'm also following Sarah-Jane Mee and Georgie Thompson (though even the latter two are connected with sports). Karen Gillan from Doctor Who has so far eluded my clutches but I fear for her sake that this is a temporary state of affairs.

Of course the thought has occured to me that 'Tweeting' is a form of stalking. Why do I need to know that Joss is back in Devon for Christmas, or that Sarah-Jane was interviewing Duran Duran on Sunrise this morning? I don't, but the way I see it if they didn't want me to know all this they wouldn't have plastered it all over Twitter now would they? I have discovered that very little is private on Twitter, so if you are going to start Tweeting my advice to you would be to keep your innermost thoughts out of it. You could start a blog for that. Just don't tell anyone about it and don't, under any circumstances, post the link on Facebook if you don't want anyone to know that you got stuck on your driveway or fell out of your chair in your local park.

You can send people personal messages, but only if they are 'following' you. At this point the rules and conventions of 'following' and '@usernaming' get a little complex and I have to admit that I am still learning as I go. To date I have offered only 9 'Tweets' because I'm still not sure who is reading what and what it all means. If you send someone a direct messsage it means that only they and you can see it, whereas if you write @username before your 'Tweet' then whoever follows the person you are 'replying' to will be able to see it also. I think. One of my eight or so readers will correct me if I'm wrong I hope. Get it? No, me neither.

What I do know is that some people must spend an awful lot of time using Twitter, whether it be on their pc's or by mobile phone. There are certain users that I have inadvertently ended up 'following' who seem to post something new every few minutes. Disappointingly, it's often just a link to a story they have blatantly lifted from somewhere else. As if they are spending their day reading the news on the internet and passing on their findings to you. As helpful as this may or may not be, I can't shake the feeling that Twitter lacks a bit of creativity at times. I don't think it helps users that they are limited to 140 characters per 'Tweet', and so it is crucial to be succinct. The trouble is, if you're being succinct the chances are you are not being altogether insightful.

Where it does entertain is when some celebrity with too much time on his or her hands decides to impart their wisdom on us. Sir Ian Botham has been offering odds on who might score the most runs in England's first innings in the Third Ashes Test due to start in Perth tonight, while James Anderson and Stuart Broad are locked in a FIFA 11 tussle as they try to while away the hours before the start of the match, whereupon England will win the toss and bat and they'll be looking for ways to while away the hours. Broad is injured anyway and will not play, and I didn't need Twitter to find that out.

Elsewhere NFL superstar Larry Fitzgerald is telling me not to worry about failing, but instead to worry about not trying (as if I haven't got enough to worry about!) and Sunderland striker Darren Bent is 'rocking the Air yeezy Net today'. No, I don't know what that means either but you can't help but be strangely fascinated by the mad meanderings of a one-time England centre-forward.

Well, I can't. If any of this sounds like your sort of thing, or even if you are just a completely nosey bastard like myself, follow me @Stephen9021.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Still Dancing On Ice

Emma's car is in the garage.

A light keeps coming on. There's a dizzying array of lights that keep coming on. We've spent hundreds on putting out lights. This one is a fetching yellow light in the shape of a car engine. I've never been interested in cars so I don't have a clue what it means, which makes me about as knowledgable as Emma on the subject.

All of which illumination ignorance means that we have to go to work on the train. What is more, we have to get to the train station under own steam. The first part of this was more straightforward than I had feared. Inexplicably, my next door neighbour has took it upon herself to grit my driveway. Perhaps she saw my farcical antics on Monday night (see blog below - Coffin Dodging) and felt sorry for me. Whatever the reason, I should like to thank her wholeheartedly, which is just hard luck because there is no way she is reading this.

So Emma and I are on our way to the train station and we get to the park. The quickest way to the station is to cut through the park, otherwise it is quite a trek all the way around and up the hilly main road. There is a slope leading into the park which, not unexpectedly given recent conditions, is covered with thick ice. Laziness took over at this point. I just couldn't face the long way round at 7.45 in the morning in temperatures that polar bears find a little fresh. In addition, I feared missing the 8.01 train and having to wait another half hour for the next one in those same freezing conditions.

So I went for it;

'Stephen, please don't go down there, you will fall.' Emma said, not unreasonably;

"I'll be fine." I said, unreasonably.

I knew I wouldn't be able to do it on all four wheels so I tipped my chair backwards on to two. At first I felt fully in control and it wasn't until about half way down the slope that things began to change. Suddenly my wheels were no longer gripping and I found myself wheel-spinning dangerously. I was convinced that at that rate I would fall backwards which would have almost certainly led to my hitting my head on the ice and a possible concussion. So I put my front wheels down.

As soon as I did the chair took on a life of it's own. Most people think it has a life of it's own but that's another, far darker and grumpier blog that we just don't have time for. I started to slide down the slope with Usain-Bolt-like speed. There was a point where I thought everything would turn out fine, when as I approached a small post at ludicrous speed I hit upon the idea of grabbing it to stop myself. The plan was to throw an arm around it and use it to turn the chair in the opposite direction. I put my arm out, but just as I did I hit what must have been either a crack in the surface or a pot-hole of some description........

I was flung head-first towards the cold stuff. I put my arms out to stop myself and crashed to the floor with a sickening thud. Todd Carty's ice-skating exploits sprung to mind as I smashed into the rock hard ice beneath me. My hands are scratched and cut and my knees are still sore from the impact. It took me some time to get up off the floor and when I did I had still to negotiate the task of getting back into the chair. I couldn't put my hand down on the floor because the ice was just that cold, so I had nothing to steady myself as I pushed myself up towards my seat. Eventually (and with a bit of help from Emma), I managed to get hold of my chair frame and hoist myself back into position.

Hands and knees still stinging, we made it to the station on time to catch the train at least. Emma has just emailed me to say that the car will be ready today so there should be no repeat of this slippery chicanery tomorrow.

Unless another bloody light comes on..........

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Coffin Dodging

Are There Many Left?

At the weekend I went out with some old friends from school. You wouldn't call it a reunion. These are people I keep in touch with regularly via the gift of Facebook, or who I see socially on a fairly regular basis. Nevertheless it was exclusive in the sense that I only invited people who had that particular school in common, which meant they all happened to be disabled people.

I was relaying this tale to my taxi driver on the way;

"Where is it tonight?" he'd asked. He and I are quite familiar, given the number of times he has rescued me from a town centre gutter at 3.00 on a Sunday morning;

So I explained where I was going and who with;

"Are there many left?" he asked.

I had to ask him to repeat that.

"Are there many left of all them disabled people?" he said, astoundingly.

Now, it's fair to say that I have tragically lost more than one or two friends down the years. It's fairer still to say that their passing might have had quite a lot to do with their disability. However, the implication seemed to be that death is a minor inconvenience, and fair game for polite conversation in the way that one might start a discussion about the snow or last night's telly.

Worse was to come, when he went on to question me about my own life expectancy;

"How long do they reckon you'll live, then?" he asked.

I was going out drinking so the thought crossed my mind that if I'd made it to 8.00 the following morning it would be something of a triumph, but I didn't tell him this. Instead I told him about how my kidney specialist once told me that there was no reason why a man with Spina Bifida shouldn't live until 'well into his 60's these days'. He seemed relieved by this, almost as if he were the one affronted by all of this death. Why should he have to put up with picking up passengers whose friends won't stop bloody dying? He only came out to make a few quid!!

We arrived at our destination just in time to stop his own life expectancy from being greatly reduced......

On Thin Ice

Alcohol is not the theme here but again I was out with some friends yesterday. We went for our office Christmas lunch. It wasn't a silly one, so I left Liverpool at about 6.00pm and headed to my local to watch Liverpool v Aston Villa on Sky. A few more beers wouldn't hurt an already tortured mind, I decided, and it helped that Liverpool actually managed to play well and win for once.

The trouble started when I went home. As you will have noticed it has been pretty chilly in recent days. The snow of last week has been replaced by great big thick slabs of ice which pepper the pavements, turning them into mini death traps. There's a narrow, unlit path which leads diagonally towards the main road past the doctor's surgery close to where I live, and it was here that I first discovered that getting home might not be so straightfoward. I slid on a patch of ice half the size of Brazil, hit a crack in the pavement and tipped slightly forwards. Fortunately, four wheels returned to the ground before I ended up in the bushes, but I had been warned.

Five or so minutes later I approached my house. I was cold and tired from my excesses and so quite keen to get inside, make a brew and go to bed. I approached the pavement outside my house fully expecting to mount it with the usual ease, but had reckoned without the ice. My wheels stopped spinning mid-ascent which sent my chair veering to the right, back down the ramped part of the kerb and into the middle of the road. It was going to need a bigger run-up. Luckily I live in a quiet road where traffic is slow, especially at 10.00 at night. This meant that I could cross the road towards the house opposite, and take a full run (wheel?) up to get enough momentum to conquer the troublesome pavement ramp.

Mission accomplished. Or so I thought. There is a large ramp leading towards my house. It is meant to be a driveway for the car, but Emma never uses it as such. It isn't very wide so the car would probably block me from getting to the main entrance located at the side of the house. There isn't the same room for a run-up so I just had to try and make do. It wasn't happening. I started to push up the ramp and succeeded only in pulling off more wheel-spins. Using what passes for my initiative I grabbed hold of the wall which runs between the front garden and the driveway. It was excruciatingly cold. It reminded me of the mock iceberg that can be found at the Titanic-themed museum on International Drive in Florida. They get you to put your hand on it and try to keep it there for 10 seconds, which gives you some idea of how cold it would have been in the Atlantic that night. It's much more difficult to last than it sounds, and if memory serves me Emma didn't last the full 10 seconds. Which is usually my domain.

I digress. The wall was freezing my hand rapidly but I knew that it was a case of either trying to pull myself up by that, or letting go and sliding all the way back down the driveway and into the road. Sliding backwards down the driveway didn't seem the safest option so I hung on in great discomfort. I was stuck. Horribly and hopelessly stuck. And not even particularly drunk. Time for more initiative, so I took out my mobile phone and rang Emma, who to this point had been sat in the house blissfully unaware of my presence and it's dramatic struggle. Trying not to laugh, she dutifully came out of the house and walked down the path. Slipping everywhere herself, she had to physically push me up the driveway and on to the ramp outside the front door.

All of which is mortifyingly embarrassing, and set me wondering what would have happened if I had been single. Many of my disabled friends live alone. Who is going to rescue them from their driveways if they are ever stupid enough to venture out to watch a mediocre football team in arctic conditions? These are the sorts of things keeping me awake at night.

Luckily, there aren't that many of them left.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

A Comedy Of Errors

This could only happen to me.

It all started with a broken wheel. Right hand side at the front of the chair. Something had gone badly awry, and the whole wheel and castor was swinging off at wild angles. It looked like Eduardo's leg must have done when Sky refused to show it following THAT injury at Birmingham a couple of years ago.

Having nearly fallen down the toilet and crashed into a wall outside the office, I made the emergency call. Very kindly, the NHS pays for a company to come out and service and repair chairs when needed. All of which sounds good, but it doesn't always work out how you might expect. Last time I dealt with them they insisted on taking my chair away with them for two days because they couldn't provide something as simple as a ball-bearing. Anyway, choice is not something I am blessed with in this matter, so I arranged for them to come out to see me at work this morning.

The traditional thirty minutes after the agreed time they managed to do this. I was contacted from the security desk downstairs (we work on the third floor of our building) and told them that I would be down shortly. Except I wouldn't. Seemingly at that precise moment, and with a beautiful irony the likes of which I have never seen, BOTH lifts on the third floor stopped working.

Absolutely in no way panicking I reported this to the security desk. They never let the facts get in the way, so they informed me that one of the lifts was still operational. It wasn't. I tried again. It wasn't. I rang back to inform them of this and they finally agreed to 'send someone up'. A few minutes later, someone came up offering to lift me down the stairs to meet the chair mechanic. I declined, and instead a colleague was kind enough to go downstairs and ask him to come up to our office. At this point the mechanic informed me that I had a pin missing from my front caster, and that he didn't have one with him. Of course he didn't. Why would he when I reported to him yesterday that the caster was swinging away from it's normal position and that something in it would probably need replacing, if not the whole thing?

He took the chair away and I carried on working. No chair, no lifts, third floor. The only usable disabled toilets are on the ground floor. I was reminded of that scene from Phoenix Nights in which Brian gets stuck at the top of the stairs because his stairlift is broken. Gerry comes in and asks him what the smell is, and he says 'never mind that smell, I've been stuck up here all night!' A mercifully short 10 minutes later the man returned with the chair. Lo and indeed behold he had found a pin that earlier he definitely hadn't got.

So with the chair sorted I could now go to the gents at least. But lunch? I was living the dream if I thought I was going to be able to go out and get some lunch. Another kind colleague finally had to go downstairs and pick me up a sandwich from the canteen (I bet you can't guess which floor that is on?). The lifts are still not working as I write, although one or two colleagues say they have at least now seen men working on them. Earlier reports that they would be here to do it within half an hour of my reporting it proved to be somewhat exaggerated.

My boss has just asked whether I want to go home now, because there is no guarantee that the lift will be fixed today or that the relevant people will be around to assist me down the stairs at the normal finishing time of 4.30pm if it is not. I have declined this kind offer because I'd rather spend the afternoon doing my job and give myself the opportunity to eventually go downstairs safely and in comfort, than suffer the indignity now for the sake of a couple of hours off. If it is not fixed by 4.30 then it's the evac chair I suppose, but no need to do anything as rash as that just now. It's finally lunchtime, just in case she's wondering what I'm doing telling you this story right now. She might read. Apparently it wouldn't be the first time.

I really need a wee now.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Children In Need

This probably won't flow. I just felt the urge to write about it.

Today saw the annual Children In Need telethon. Every November BBC1 clears it's schedule for one night to put on a star-studded night of entertainment. In return they repeatedly ask you to call their hotline or go online to donate some of your hard earned money to help the more disadvantaged youngsters in the UK.

And when I'm finished writing this that is exactly what I'm going to do. Visit if you'd like to follow suit. I think you should. Here's why;

I'm nobody's idea of a sensitive bloke, but Children In Need affects me every year. I challenge anyone to listen to some of these kids stories and not feel suddenly overcome with an urge to do something to help. I don't like to think too much about how a child can end up so poor that their family cannot even afford a fridge, or a bed which is not infested with insects. Or of how a child with cerebal palsy can be bullied to the point of feeling a complete sense of worthlessness. Or even of how children as young as five can find themselves in the role of 'carer'. I just know it's all wrong and that through events like this there is something we can do to help.

The entertainment itself is mixed at best, but it's uplifting to see what kind of difference celebrities can make to young people, even in trying circumstances. JLS are musically rank, but if they possess the power to light up a child's face, to make them so excited that they scream and shout manically, then they're doing some good in the world. It's ever so easy for me to sit and sneer at them and their like, but to do so in these circumstances misses the point by a breathtaking margin. I'm even going to give Cheryl Cole a big pat on the back for her involvement. Although she was shite.

Not all celebritites have the power of JLS, but it is nice to see them try. John Barrowman disguised himself as a paramedic visiting a school to give a demonstration. When he removed the disguise to surprise twin girls they seemed to look at him as if he had just landed from Mars. There was a genuine moment where they did not seem to recognise him. Or if they did, they weren't impressed. Thankfully, he rescued the situation beautifully by informing the twins that they were about to meet the stars of the Harry Potter films, and attend the premiere of the first installment of Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows. That Emma Watson's new hairstyle makes her look like a boy without a winkle hardly seems to matter.

While the Eastenders meets Coronation Street sketch could have been cut in half and still been twice as good, the script had genuinely funny moments in it and a clever ending. I'm not even that irritated by the crap interpretation of Bat Out Of Hell by the Hairy Bikers. And did you know that Dr Who sex-pot Karen Gillan and I share a phobia of moths? It's a sign and you know it.

But the highlight so far has to be the performance of Take That. It's the first time I've seen them perform live since Robbie Williams rejoined and I have to say it seemed a bit odd. There he was stood on one end almost breaking into a dance, but you got the feeling all along that he was just bursting to grab his microphone, move to the front and centre of the stage and start barking 'come on!' and bellowing about power chords. The showman in him looked as if it might have to be physically restrained. Meanwhile Jason Orange and Howard Donald missed notes badly, but Mark Owen seemed beside himself with joy at the prospect of finally getting to perform 'Never Forget' with five members.

As I leave you, Peter Andre is murdering Man In The Mirror. This is a great song made famous by the late Michael Jackson and I have a majestic cover performed by James Morrison on my MP3 player. Yet Andre's act of sacrilege is still not going to stop me going over to the BBC website right now and splurging a sizeable (for me) wedge for the cause.

Follow me. Please.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Dancing With The Doc

I've been to see the doctor this morning.

I didn't mean to. I had to. See, I've had this infection. It's a biff thing. We're prone to it. It's all about foreign bodies. My bladder is in ruins, which in turn damages my kidneys which in turn gives me a bad attitude towards doctors, the NHS (though I strongly believe it should remain free), and a general mistrust of anyone known simply as Mr So and So.

Consultants have no people skills. Mr Singh had nothing positive to say to me at our last meeting three years ago except 'Stephen, you do know that there is no reason why someone with spina bifida shouldn't live into their 60's these days, don't you?' On reflection I'm not sure how positive that was. He spent the rest of the time shaking his head and telling me that my kidneys were 'chronically impaired'. Much like my character and my faith in humanity, then?

So I am in the doctor's room, and I meet Dr Richards for the first time. Dr Richards looks in several directions at the same time, which is quite a talent, but distracting nonetheless. He trots out all the old hits.....'You need to have your bloods done'......'We'll need to take your blood pressure'........'Have you had a flu-jab?'..........and of course the crowd pleasing 'The consultant will know better than me but.........'. He's very little help, but we both know why I'm here. Neither of us are very comfortable with it but it's a necessary evil so let's get on with it. I feel like a virgin in a brothel.

He sends me away to provide a urine sample. I'm being nostalgic here but does anyone remember the days when it was easy to provide a urine sample? Any male with even modest endowment should be able to pee into a bottle, right? That was too easy, so they've freshened up the challenge. Now you have to pee in a plastic cup, drive a plunger with a straw attachement into the revolting, smelly cup, and press to draw your liquid wastage into the specimen bottle. The same specimen bottle that is about a quarter of the size of it's predecessor. The changes are all in the interests of hygiene. Hygiene and misadventure.

It's all a bit like a science experiment at school. The son of an engineer, I nevertheless hadn't the first clue about science and hated every minute of it at school. At that time the science teacher was the worst person I could think of in my life. Thatcher had yet to make an impact, and what I knew about Hitler was horrific but it seemed so long ago. And he never made me spend two hours trying to work out which was live and which was earth.

So I'm back with my bottle of wee and the hits just keep on coming. And the dance begins. 'Take another sample in a week or so when you've finished this course of leeches. It'll check how much protein is in there and that might give us a better idea of kidney function' he says. Ok, but so what? It's all negative. Sorry to sound selfish but there's nothing in this for me, so I'm wasting my time. I've said that before.

If there was anything that checking my bloods or peeing in bottles could achieve I might be more motivated. I've already been told there isn't, and been given drugs to protect what little remains of my blancmange of a bladder and kidneys. I'm happy with that. Ignorance is bliss. Must we keep doing this bewildering boogie every three months when I rock up with a bit of a whiffy waterwork? The medical profession has become like an overbearing mother whose 14-year-old still can't cross the road on his own lest he drop his ice cream on the way back.

I'll take my leeches, the problem will go and I might be something approaching myself once more. I have been a little zombified these past few weeks. I've been drifting, letting the infection get worse because I don't want to do the dance with the doc and I don't want to take any more time off sick. But I'm not completely stupid. I know that eventually there's a stage when I can't just ignore it, when the pain becomes debilitating and I end up on the sofa watching Angela Griffin's day time chat show for a fortnight.

Which is even worse than the dance with the doctor.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Pizza-Poor Performance

You won't know because none of you read about it, but Emma and I went to the cinema the other night. I mention this because prior to the film, we took the outlandish leap of faith that is a visit to Pizza Hut.

We don't seem to have much luck in that place. I recall an episode some years ago when we almost missed our film, so long did it take the service staff to fulfill their highly complex duties. We ended up leaving the premises with a boxed up pizza which, when you get it home, never looks as appetising and leaves you wishing you had passed on the whole thing and gone straight home to order one in. I can't remember which film it was, but the experience ruined it. Probably.

This time they surpassed themselves. Our film began at 7.30pm. We both work in Liverpool so even allowing for the drive home in the currently gridlocked traffic jams around The Royal, we still had plenty of time. Emma finishes work at 5.00 and has a short walk of less than five minutes to the University where I work and where we park the car. We were back in St.Helens for 6.00.

So on arrival at the serial offender of a restaurant our first problem was not time. It was the cold. It is the middle of November, and so to be greeted by a notice telling us that the premises might be 'a bit cool' due to a problem with the air condiditioning was not ideal. Describing the temperature in there as 'a bit cool' is a bit like describing Wayne Rooney as 'a bit greedy'. If there is anything it was not, it is cool. It was very uncool. Freezing is a better word.

Undeterred we allowed Cathy the waitress to show us to a seat (cue gags about me bringing my own). Foolishly we took our coats off briefly, before having an even more brief moment of indecision. Should we make a run for the warmer climes of Wetherspoons now while we still could? By then, laziness had set in and we stayed put, stubbornly freezing half to death like extras in Titanic. The coats went back on and we ordered. Cathy seemed nice and helpful, but the relationship was about to go sour very quickly.

Occasionally, and especially in such frugal times, fat-cat companies like Pizza Hut like to tempt you with offers. Forgetting that you never get anything for nothing we took the bait. Two courses for £8. We'd share a starter, have our own individual pizzas and then share a dessert. I eat like a caterpillar and Emma may or may not be on a diet this week, so it seemed more than enough for us. And it would have been, had it worked out that way.

Fighting the formation of icicles around our extremities we otherwise happily began and everything was fine. We finished the starter, but it was some time before Cathy could arrange for the pizzas to make an appearance. Yet still we were not really clock-watching. We'd given ourselves 90 minutes to have a pizza, remember. Time passed, and passed, and passed. Then the pizzas arrived. By when it was around 6.40 and things were getting a bit tight. And things were beginning to get frozen too.

I eat pizza slowly. I'd imagine a caterpillar would take a long time to get through a Hawaiian all to himself, and I did. Yet by 7.00 I was done and dusted. Still 30 minutes to get through dessert. Easy, right? Cathy could make us four desserts in that time. Wrong. Again the clocked ticked by and the realisation sunk in that, like the Titanic extras, we were not about to be rescued. It was 7.25 by the time Cathy emerged from the kitchen all smiles and 'what's the problem?', dessert in hand. Emma explained that we didn't have time for dessert, and to be fair they knocked £3 off the bill. But it's not about the money. I'd rather pay and have good service than get crapped on for free.

As I mentioned this is not the first time we've had problems at Pizza Hut. I can now also recall an occasion when myself and my work colleagues visited the branch in Liverpool One. We were offered pizza and garlic bread for £4, and quickly found out why it was so cheap. The pizza was straight out of the freezer from Iceland across the concourse, and one colleague is still mocked for having a slice of pizza missing from his plate. He's always been once slice short, but elsewhere there were furious complaints and one or two justifiable refusals to part with a hard earned £4.

Food could be the death of me. On the way home from work today Emma reminded me of an occasion a couple of weeks ago when an entire crate of food fell off the back of a lorry in front of us on Edge Lane Drive. It was early in the morning on the way to work. The truck's doors inexplicably flung open and it unloaded, missing us by a matter of feet. I could see boxes of cornflakes amongst other things hurtling towards us.

Emma seems to think we have cheated death but so far I've just shrugged it off. But should I? It was a heavy vehicle carrying a heavy load, so maybe she's right. It's all a bit like that scene in Pulp Fiction when Travolta and Jackson are sprayed with bullets by a gunman bursting in from the next room. Only all of the bullets miss. Jackson thinks it's a miracle and just wants Travolta to 'fucking acknowledge it'. Travolta shrugs, no big deal.

Anyway, I told Emma that things falling off the backs of lorries in Liverpool was not a freak occurence by any means. It's an industry to them.

Monday, 11 October 2010

35 And Not Dead

As most of you will know (and thanks for all the kind messages by the way) I had another accident with my calendar at the weekend.

Apparently, and according to something called 'time', I turned 35 years old last Friday. All of which seems barely conceivable but I'm going to have to accept it at some point. So I thought I would start now, and here, in the one place where my inner-most thoughts are kept. That way I can rest assured that only about 20 of you at the most will ever find them.

The most striking thing about being 35 is the fact that if you are, then most if not all of your mates are. Or older! This causes all manner of social problems. Having arranged a post-work gathering we got to Friday lunch time in the frankly embarrassing predicament of having only four people confirmed to attend. Everyone else is too old. They're 35. They've gone off to do grown-up things like have kids, go to ASDA or put shelves up in their spare rooms. I'm 35, but I don't want to do any of those things. I want to get drunk, play on my Wii and watch Match Of The Day. All at the same time if possible.

And so I'm in some kind of tragic limbo. I'm staggering around drunkenly, looking for the sign on the wall where it says I'm supposed to grow up now. I have a mortgage and a long-term girlfriend but that's about as far as I'm willing to embrace adulthood. Even shaving my face really grinds my gears. I reach the point where I haven't done it for over a week, by when those cheap disposable razors that the infinitely more grown-up Emma buys from ASDA struggle to get through the thick carpet that has slowly developed around my chin. And then I cut myself, but it's more to do with clumsiness and cheap razors than any desire to self-harm.

Because you see I'm not unhappy. Not really. Yes I was close to some sort of mental breakdown on Friday lunchtime when I realised just how unpopular I could be, but the moment passed. It always does. In fact I was rather pleased with the turn-out in the end, and as I alluded to earlier there were dozens of good wishes from some very nice people indeed.

I have many things that I want. I want to be in a long-term relationship AND unmarried. I want to go out to my local and drink (on my own if need be) on a Saturday night if the alternative is the bloody X-Factor. And I can. And I do. The only problem is I feel I am being judged by the family-orientated people my age. They're all so much more mature than me, and therefore they're just better people. They're leading a good life, doing their bit to maintain the human race, whereas people like me well.......we're all about ourselves. Ourselves and our Wiis and our beer. Who needs kids when you are one?

But I'm not. I'm 35.

Yet that in itself cannot be all bad. Another birthday means another year passed without the buggers getting me. Three years ago my specialist looked at a scan of my kidneys, rubbed his chin and told me they weren't going to last much longer. I'm no specialist (though I like to think I have better people skills than most of them) but I know that continuing to exist becomes difficult without kidneys. I'm quite sure that many people have died from the lack of any functioning kidneys. And so it is with some relief (with the odd slice of weariness on bad days) that I continue to breathe your air, eat your food and drink your beer. If and when I reach 40 I'm going to throw a huge party to celebrate not being dead. I'll get drunk and wake up feeling like I am dead.

But I won't be, and that's the important thing.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Strange But True


Assuming you've even heard of the place, Thatto Heath gets a bit of a bad press. It has a reputation as being a little rough around the edges. Yet apart from the odd murder and the occasional discovery of infant remains that have lingered there for over 20 years, there's very little bother.

Not where I live anyway. I have lived on our estate in not one but two houses and until yesterday had never encountered anything even approaching crime. Somebody once told me that 'Heathers' don't rob from their own. I was quite prepared to believe it too, but my illusions are now well and truly shattered.

It was a twist of plot more bizarre than anything seen before on these pages. More surreal than the hedgehog or any of the antics of Northern Rail. I'd taken the day off work via the magic of flexi, and had spent most of the day slumped on my sofa watching Europe win back the Ryder Cup. Considering the misery of the Super League Grand Final at the weekend, this was as close as I was going to get to enjoying a perfect day off, when I was rudely interrupted.

I never even heard the front door open. There is another door which divides the tiny hallway and the living room, and as I sat on the sofa trying to find something to watch that did not feature Anne Robinson or Noel Edmonds, it swung open and there before me stood a complete stranger;

"Who are you?" I enquired, not unreasonably.

"Erm......I've just come to buy some ciggies." he said nervously.

At this point I thought I had entered a Coen brothers movie and rather than a rational fear of a man who could have been carrying a weapon, I experienced only a blind fury at his temerity;

"Get the bloody Hell out of my house." I shouted, bewildered and outraged in equal measure.

"Can't you just serve me?" he asked.

I quickly got back into my chair and, trying hard not to butcher the English language too much, ushered him out of my living room and towards the front door. At which point the man pulled a fist full of £20 notes from his pocket and pleaded with me to sell him 20 Regal.

"Does this house look like an off-license to you?" I asked

"So you don't sell ciggies then?"

"No I bloody don't! I just live here!" I raged. I'd gone a bit John Cleese at this point, and was only moments away from giving him a damn good thrashing with a tree branch.

Finally the man grasped the concept that I was not a cigarette salesman and began to apologise as he backed towards the front door. Finally rid of him, it was only then that I started to consider the possibility that he was not just a mental case who genuinely thought I worked for Lambert & Butler. It was more likely that he was a grubby little thief who was sizing up the house for a good old fashioned ransacking.

Oh, and for whoever said they don't rob from their own, well he did have a scouse accent...........

Do you Peg Feed?

Turn the clock back two days, and our evening out for the Super League Grand Final. I'd rather not talk about the game if you don't mind, so instead I'll relay another strange tale. It's another true story, though I can scarcely believe this sort of crap happens to me.

I needed a wee. That's not a pleasant thought but there it is, we all do it. I entered the gents (no disabled toilets at the Springfield, you have to slum it in the urinals) and a burly and incredibly drunk man stood next to me;

"I'm not being funny mate but........." he started.

I hate that. Whenever I hear that phrase it is without exception a prelude to someone being funny. And not funny ha-ha, but funny rude or funny plain ignorant. He didn't let me down.

"I'm not being funny mate but do you peg-feed?"

"Do I what?" I asked, with no small amount of exasperation in my tone.

"Oh no mate sorry, I've got it wrong, I'm really sorry. It's just that I work with a lot of people with learning disabilities and a lot of them do so I just thought know?"

No I don't know;

"I haven't got a learning disability, mate. I've got a degree."

"Oh no no no, I wasn't saying you had I just........."

You just were assuming I had cos I have a wheelchair. Because you're a plant pot and because you are representative of Thatto Heath's staggeringly ignorant able-bodied community.

"What is peg-feeding anyway?" I enquired.

He wouldn't tell me. He told me it didn't matter and that he was sorry.

Other people eh? Bloody Hell.


I've just found out what peg-feeding is. The peg in question is an acronym, standing for Percutaneous Endoscopy Gastrotomy. Basically it is feeding a patient through a tube directly to the stomach if, for whatever reason, they are unable to feed themselves orally.

However I remain confused. The man in the pub clearly stated that he worked with a lot of people with 'learning disabilities'. With that in mind his assumption seems even more staggeringly ignorant. The term 'learning disabilities' surely relates to those with say, autism, or something not immediately obvious like dyslexia. Surely it is more likely that someone with a very severe physical disability would have a greater need for this type of thing? I have met and been educated alongside many such people, and can assure our burly pub-goer that they do not necessarily have anything resembling a learning disability.

On the contrary, they are more clued up than he obviously is.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Sheffield - Part Two - The Football

We were told not to have breakfast.

It wasn't that the food on offer was sub-standard, but rather that there was a buffet planned for us at 1.15. We were going to the football. To Hillsborough to be exact, to see Sheffield Wednesday's League One encounter with Carlisle United.

All of Emma's family on her dad's side are Sheffield Wednesday fans except for her Uncle Ray. To his great credit, Ray tolerates football at an even lower level by supporting Rotherham United. He does so avidly, and whenever we meet his main topic of conversation is the Millers, although I never fail to be impressed by his knowledge of rugby league and in particular, the goings on at Saints. Ray's my kind of man.

But this was Sheffield Wednesday and so Ray was not in attendance. On arrival at the stadium there was a lengthy debate about car parking. The club had informed us that we would be able to park in the car park just outside the club shop, but had issued us with a pass for a completely different car park. We were informed of this by a slightly dozey and bog-eyed young chap who clearly felt that it was more than his job was worth to turn a blind eye to officialdom. He did at least allow us to unload the cars while the drivers moved on to the right car park.

We met back at the club shop. Emma was looking for something to buy her new niece or nephew who is expected to arrive into the world some time in October, but she clearly hadn't found what she wanted. As I rolled around I browsed only half-interestedly at the replica shirts, tee-shirts, socks, hats and so forth on display thinking that you would have to be a real fan to buy any of this. It's not like in a foreign country where you can buy merchandise from say Barcelona or the Tampa Bay Rays as a souvenir. Being English, you cannot be seen in the colours of any other English side, lest you be arrested and hanged for treason. Someone once told me that watching another team was like cheating on your wife.

I haven't got a wife, but then I'm not buying a Sheffield Wednesday shirt either.

Another striking thing about the Sheffield Wednesday club shop is that, this not being the most successful period in their history, there are not too many recent highlights playing on the numerous monitors dotted around. There's myriad clips of David Hirst, Benito Carbone, Paulo Di Canio Warhurst in their pomps but not too much sign of Marcus Tudgay, Chris Sedgewick, Tommy Spur et al.

From the club shop we were led around the corner to a small door. An official and portly-looking man in a suit greeted us and led us into a window-less room with white walls. It had the feel of a prison cell, or at least my idea of a prison cell from watching Cell Block H and The Bill. This was not the kind of room you would want to be alone with Jack Bauer in. Not unless you find Jack Bauer attractive and are absolutely certain that you are not a mole behind a massive terrorist plot.

I'm not exactly sure what was on offer at the buffet but I stuck to garlic bread and potato balls. I was also still recovering my poise from the previous night's shenannigans and so decided to drink coke. There would be plenty of time for alcohol later. Soon after other families started to enter the room, all chomping on the buffet (I think it was chicken now I think hard enough) and downing a few pre-game lagers. Little did I know that you would need a stiff drink inside you if you were about to watch Sheffield Wednesday and the result could decide whether or not you had a nice week.

I should have known. At kick-off time Wednesday sat top of League One, but this was still Wednesday after all. This is a club which was in the top flight a decade ago but which has hung around in the lower reaches of the Championship for the last five years before finally succumbing to another relegation last season. Financial mismanagement has crippled them. It is only days since yet another threat of administration and of a winding up order has been staved off.

The view from our vantage point inside Hillsborough was first class. They have a ramp to ensure that wheelchair users are not left with a restrictive ground level view, and so from a position about half way between the half way line and the goal you can see most of the action clearly. Emma's only beef was that she was sat in a seat behind me as opposed to next to me. The row I was on had space only for wheelchair users, and initially she didn't seem happy. I remembered this happening at Castleford once and thinking the worst. My only other visit to Castleford resulted in my car window being smashed by youths who thought my car was that of referee Stuart Cummings so they are not happy memories.

Yet after a while we settled into the game which was, in all honesty, pretty average. Limited skill levels are more visible in the flesh than they had been on television during Wednesday's 1-0 defeat at Brentford a week earlier. At times it seemed like park football but with much better facilities and smarter kits. Carlisle had the better of it for the most part, with goalkeeper Nicky Weaver forced into two excellent one on one saves in the first half. Yet he could not stop Craig Curran from curling in from the left edge of the box as Wednesday players stopped to debate the thorny issue of whether or not to attempt a tackle.

Carlisle edged a similarly scrappy second half but could not add to their tally. There was a humorous moment when a Wednesday defender almost drove a screamer into his own net but apart from one close call at the end from a James O'Connor shot, Wedensday never quite looked like getting back into it. The majority of the entertainment came from the crowd, from the little boy sat next to me who constantly pleaded for the referee to give Wednesday a penalty regardless of where the alleged offence took place, to the man next to him telling Wednesday manager Alan Irvine to 'sowert it art!' at regular intervals, this was an unsettled crowd.

Wednesday's defeat saw them slip from top to sixth in the early snakes and ladders table. Despite their chants of 'We are top of the league' Carlisle's victory left them second, behind Peterborough on goal difference after the latter had enjoyed a thumping 5-0 win. For us it was back to the cell with Jack, for more tea and a post-mortem. Wednesday's former Wigan and Derby midfielder Gary Teale took most of the blame and it has to be said that his performance was one of perfect ineptitude. If Wednesday have serious designs on a quick return to the Championship, they need to show far more than what was on offer here.

And yet we are already making plans to go again. Despite the low quality of football, despite the white-walled, windowless cell and despite the car parking mix-up, it was a thoroughly enjoyable day. For the first time in a while I could actually see a reason why thousands of fans turn out to watch teams like Wednesday (and Ray's Rotherham) every other week. Suffering is all part of it.

They go to Tranmere on Boxing Day. But I'm having my breakfast that day.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Sheffield - Part One

Orlando was exotic, York less so but still respectably grand, so where better to continue this downward spiral than Sheffield?

On the occasion of Emma's something-somethingth birthday we decided to spend the weekend in the city of her birth. She has family there, and if you are still not convinced about our reasoning then how about the fact that one member of said family works at one of the city's Holiday Inn hotels and can therefore get us cheap accommodation? As my mother's son, there is a part of me that would buy two Jim Davidsons if one were free.

None of which was necessary as the Holiday Inn turned out to be quite a decent place to stay. Disappointingly for this column there were no access issues, and so the only thing to moan about was the South Yorkshire weather and the fact that going away for the weekend means you're missing the cricket. Still, I had a coat and the current England v Pakistan one-day cricket series is as predictable as an episode of Lie To Me. There was no excuse.

We'd done our research and to tell you the truth Sheffield does not rival York for it's tourist attractions. The principle reason for leaving the hotel on Friday afternoon was to visit the Wheel Of Sheffield. Or, should I say, the Hallam FM Wheel Of Sheffield. Yes, just like everything else with even the remotest market value, the Wheel of Sheffield is sponsored. As a consequence of this, the in-ride commentary comes from one of Hallam FM's dullard disc jockeys.

Fortunately you don't really think about the commentary when you are up in the skies overlooking the city landscape. This is no London Eye (that's according to Emma whose been on, I would just be making an arbitrary estimate), but though it lacks the Tower of London and Westminster, it does have Cathedrals and the Crucible Theatre, home of the World Snooker Championship. The view remains exciting and interesting enough to keep your attention.

All of which is a bloody good thing, for if you were to listen to the Hallam FM Wheel Of Sheffield commentary brought to you by Hallam FM in association with Hallam FM, Wheels and Sheffield you would be immediately reminded of Mike Smash and Dave Nice. Not half, but not really a reassuring or even an informative voice when you are hundreds of feet in the air wondering why your pod appears to be rocking. That is not a sentence I expect to be writing again in the very near future, but it is accurate nonetheless.

The Hallam FM Wheel Of Sheffield is somewhat quicker than it's London counterpart. For your £6.50 you get to go around five times (though some debate this suggesting that they have been on when it has been only four), and takes about 15 minutes of your time. Emma tells me that the London Eye ride lasts for the best part of an hour. For our part we definitely went around five times, but the pod only stopped for any great length of time on the first cycle. It is this moment which makes the whole thing worthwhile. It's a bit scary, but the scenery from that kind of vantage point really is breathtaking.

The other item on the 'to do' list from our research was the Winter Garden. As we dizzily exited the Hallam FM Wheel Of Sheffield we stumbled towards an even dizzier information guide who assured us that the Winter Garden was just a 'couple of buildings further down' to the right. Despite being advised that we could not miss it, we missed it initially. It wasn't until we had been moving for around 15 minutes and past several hundred couples of buildings that we noticed a sign for the city museums. It had to be that way, surely?

It was. So what delights does the Winter Garden hold? Well, to be honest you might be a little underwhelmed. That is unless you are an enthusiast of someone called John Ruskin. Ruskin has an entire exhibition devoted to him here, the bumph on which explains that he wanted people to acknowledge the power and beauty of nature and to themselves use nature to be more creative. I find that Ruskin's own contribution to this honourable goal is a little lacking in substance. I still can't work out whether he was an artist or a scientist or both, but I do know that he must have talked a lot to inspire this kind of tribute.

The Gardens themselves contain exactly what you would expect, lots of indoor plants. This time the blurb explains that these particular plants (the name of which has already escaped me) were the main source of sustenance for dinosaurs. However, whereas the dinosaurs died out in the meteor blast, these plants survived and evolved. Yet the philistine in me will always point out that their longevity and startling evolutionary capabilities do not preclude them from being as dull as a house plant. Or even as a Hallam FM Wheel Of Sheffield commentator.

A friend of mine had told me to sample the cakes in one of the small eateries in the Gardens, but time constraints and Emma's diet rather put paid to the idea. They looked nice though, I will concede. As many people were sat sampling their delights as were strolling around the indestructable greenery.

Once Emma's family joined up with us we decided to head for an Italian restaurant called Antibos in the city centre. By now I had lurched from worrying about the cricket to having seizures about the rugby. Saints were playing their first play-off game at home to Warrington at about the same time I was tucking into my enormous pizza. I have to admit to checking the score on my phone a little more often than might normally be thought of as socially acceptable at the dinner table.

I overdid it on the food aswell, and felt shockingly sick by the time Emma and I got back to our room. I'd preceded the pizza with a piece of garlic bread as big as Kent, and followed it with something resembling chocolate fudge cake which I ordered through sheer bloody mindedness and a determination to keep up. With a big day ahead I needed rest and besides, it was all I could do not to regurgitate the whole lot by then.

On the plus side, Saints won........

Friday, 3 September 2010


'There's cat shit on the floor in here' said Emma as she looked into what used to be our conservatory and is now a chaotic laundry room.

From my angle and with my 7.00am blurry eyed goggles on I couldn't see what she was talking about. I wasn't taking any chances though, and there followed a brief 'exchange' on the subject of who might have left the conservatory door open and who should therefore clean up the mess.

Thinking no more of this episode other than to resolve to remind Emma to shut the door next time, I went about my usual business. A full day's work, an evening meal, an hour-long soak in the bath, and a two-hour visit to my mum's house. It was Thursday, and my mum's house is the only real safe haven from Private Practice, Grey's Anatomy and Third Watch.

I got back late to find that Emma had already gone to bed. It was after 11.00 and so I put the television on with a view to having half an hour of the tennis and then retiring. James Blake's second round match against a man whose name I can't even recall now was never going to hold my attention for all that long, and so I headed towards the bedroom. As I did I could hear what I thought was something or someone shuffling around in the kitchen.

I called Emma's name. No answer. I tried again, no answer. Finally I approached the kitchen to investigate, and found that Emma was nowhere to be seen. Yet I could still hear something shuffling around. It sounded like it was coming from behind the washing machine or the fridge freezer but I couldn't be sure. And so I did the only thing that any rational man would do in this situation. I woke Emma to help me investigate further.

Emma's not at her best when she has just been involuntarily woken up, so it did not help my cause when she followed me into the kitchen to find that the shuffling had stopped. There was nothing. Deathly silence, and no sign of any living thing other than ourselves. We looked around hesitantly for five or ten minutes, decided there was nothing to see, and went to bed. It was well after 12 by now and we are not great at getting up for work at 7.00 at the best of times.

A short doze followed, but by around 1am I was awoken by what I thought sounded like the fluttering of wings. I now downgraded my initial assessment which had been that there must be a mouse or a rat on the loose, and decided instead that it might just be a moth at worst, and at best a butterfly with a seriously flawed sense of direction. Emma put the lights on. The noise stopped again. If he hadn't been dead for at least five years I'd have been waiting for Jeremy Beadle to pop his head round the bedroom door.

A moment later the shuffling noise returned, but it was much louder. We were still in the bedroom but we could hear it coming from the kitchen area. Emma shot out of the bed, opened the door and announced;

"Shit! There's a hedgehog in the house!"

It was pure Victor Meldrew from then on. I literally did not believe it.

When I got out of bed I found the proof. The hedgehog was there behind the sofa next to the telephone wires. We'd obviously startled it because it had decided that the only way out of this prickly predicament would be to curl up in a ball and do nothing. All of which meant that Emma had to physically roll it through the front door with some kind of cleaning implement. I sat guarding the living room in case it roused from it's stupor and made a run for the other sofa. Fortunately it did not and she managed to manouver it on to the ramp at the side of the house. We've found hedgehogs on the ramp before, but this was the first time one had managed to infiltrate the four walls of our home.

Before we returned to bed we contemplated the fact that, in all probability, the 'cat shit' from early that morning had in fact been hedgehog shit, and that therefore our spikey little intruder had spent the whole day somewhere in our house. The crafty little bleeder had managed to go 18 hours undetected. It is more than likely that he spent most of that time curled up and motionless, what with hedgehogs being mostly nocturnal creatures. They only wake up when Babestation comes on.

The whole affair is just incredible. We left the house this morning pleased to note that there was no more shit around, and that the hedgehog had left the ramp area. It must still be alive then, which was a relief to Emma who was mortified at the prospect of murdering an animal with a mop. A colleague of her's has warned us that hedgehogs are territorial creatures and so it may try to come back. He has advised us that if it does we should drive it at least one mile away and release it in a field or a park somewhere. Fine, just as long as it doesn't release any of it's waste in our house again any time soon.

I don't believe it.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

The Tony Blair Interview

For those of you who have been unable to tear yourself away from Ultimate Big Brother in recent times, I'm afraid I have to inform you that Tony Blair is about to release his memoirs.

You BB fans remember him, right? Great big toothy smile, softly spoken, never wrong about anything? He'd fit in well as a housemate were it not for the fact that his IQ is significantly higher than 30. Still sketchy? Ok, he used to be the Prime Minister. Got him now?

Ahead of the book release Mr Blair has given an hour-long interview to the BBC's Andrew Marr, screened earlier this evening (Wednesday) on BBC2. If I didn't know that all the book proceeds were going towards the British Legion to help those affected by the war that HE caused, I'd suggest that Mr Blair's interview is a shameless plug for the aforementioned tome. But I do know so we'll crack on. There's still plenty to complain about.

As I alluded to earlier Mr Blair is never wrong. Well, rarely by his own admission at any rate. This is a recurring theme in Marr's 60-minute examination of the man who held office for a decade. He was absolutely not wrong to stay on for a third term of office despite agreeing to hand on to Gordon Brown after two, absolutely not wrong to push ahead with plans for ID cards, tuition fees or foundation hospitals, and of course absolutely not wrong to authorise an illegal war in which the death toll continues to rise some eight years on. He's sorry about the latter, but he's not wrong.

The explanation of the decision to take military action in Iraq is somewhat confusing. Previous forays into Sierra Leone and Kosovo had brought about successful regime change. As such it came to pass that the removal of a despot was a good enough reason to start a war. All well and good so far. Perhaps Iraq and maybe even the world is a better place since the death of Saddam Hussein, but where's the consistency in that? Zimbabwe, anyone?

Mr Blair concedes that it would not be possible to go into Zimbabwe to remove Robert Mugabe and effect regime change, but doesn't explain the difference. This is where Marr misses a trick in not pushing for a more satisfactory answer. Perhaps both men think that the answer is obvious but, and you can call me thick if you like, I don't know the difference and I would have appreciated some elaboration on that. I'm plucking this from nowhere, but it might just be that Zimbabwe is a nation more capable of defending itself than Iraq, which has itself inflicted enough bloodshed on us. No PM wants to preside over a British version of Vietnam.

Mr Blair does express mild regret about fox hunting and freedom of information. He confesses that having looked futher into both he can now see that legislating on both was a bad idea. Suddenly fox hunting is not just 'a lot of toffs running around hunting foxes' but actually an essential method of pest control. Pity we didn't have someone around to control him when he was being a pest, which was almost always post 9/11.

He calls legislation on freedom of information a 'disaster', arguing that it became impossible for government to discuss issues frankly, lest they fall foul of the potential to offend the public. What he seemed to be saying, unless I needed to adjust my television set (which by the way will be digital whether I like it or not), is that politicians can only make informed decisions if there is no chance of anyone ever finding out what has been said in arriving at those decisions. Mr Blair would have you believe that the whole political process is in danger of falling down if some lilly-livered careerist suit is too afraid to say what he thinks, just in case the public find out about it later on.

It's only when Marr moves on to the latter days of Mr Blair's Premiership that you fully realise what has happened to the former PM. The wild-eyed (actually he's still wild-eyed), ambitious left of centre Labour man of the people of 1997 has morphed into a tyrannical, opportunistic egomaniac whose facial expressions throughout remind me of the demonic villains portrayed by Tim Curry in that Musketeer movie with Kiefer Sutherland. By his own admission Mr Blair has turned completely to the dark side, although the way he phrases it is that he is not a Conservative or even a conservative but a 'progressive' politician.

'You can't run the country in 2010 like you did in 1950' he pleads. He may be right, but I'm pretty sure you can keep the Labour Party sufficiently left wing to be both true to it's values and electable in the space of a decade. So far has Mr Blair travelled ideologically since Things Can Only Get Better And All That in 1997 that he couldn't even bring himself to launch an attack on the present and shambolic coalition government.

'I don't want to start attacking David Cameron' he said;

'Why not?' asked Marr, not unreasonably.

Maybe because they are not that different now and he recognises a lot of himself in Mr Cameron. Yes the current Prime Minister has gone a little cut-crazy in the face of the financial crisis, but essentially he's an extension of Mr Blair. All spin, monumentally self-satisfied despite his propensity to commit astonishing gaffes, and more than a little too concerned by legacy and his place in history.

The sad thing is that Mr Blair, unlike Mr Cameron perhaps, started from a much better place. His new memoirs could have been so, so different.......

Monday, 30 August 2010

Knowsley Safari Park

I've been to animal parks as far afield as Orlando and Tenerife, aswell as Whipsnade and Longleat. Surprising then that until today I have no real recollection of visiting Knowsley Safari Park.

I'm almost certain I have. I have vague memories of being carted around there some 25 years ago or more in a Variety Club Sunshine bus. We used to cruelly refer to it as the window-licking bus. I don't know if they still have them now. It's been just that long.

Whether I had or I hadn't been before, I was certainly due a visit. Well, what else are you going to do on a sport-less Bank Holiday Monday in August when cinema options extend to another God-awful Adam Sandler 'comedy' or a tit-drenched re-make of Piranha? Actually.............

It was a pretty reasonable £14 for both Emma and I to gain entrance into the park. For that you apparently get almost five miles worth of what they call 'Safari Drive', plus entry to pedestrianised displays such as a sea lion show, a falconry demonstration and a house full of disgusting bugs. More on which later on.

This being England, there is an access issue straight off the bat. Were I in possession of fully-functioning legs I would also have been able to take a stroll through the woodland trail area. Since I am not I was not able to do so, and so missed out on whatever weird wonders lurked therein. I have seen something similar in the Lake District and so can only imagine that it is mostly greenery, birds (and not the kind found in the Piranha movie), squirrels and foxes and maybe the odd badger. You may take the view that I am not missing out on very much, whereas I take the view that any opportunity to complain about inaccessiblity at tourist attractions should be seized upon instantly.

With woodland trails out of the equation we began our Safari Drive. Accompanying the drive is an audio guide. In other words, a CD containing commentary on all the species living in the park. Unlike it's Longleat counterpart which is far more generic and therefore helpful, this effort was recorded during an actual Safari Drive taken by a broadcaster and someone called Dave (obviously). Dave was one of the people responsible for the foundation of the park in 1971, and clearly knows his stuff. What he doesn't know about animals could only be gleaned by repeatedly torturing Terry Nutkins and Chris Packham. However, since he is speaking during an actual Safari Drive, he is making reference to sightings and events that are clearly not happening back in the real world;

"Yes and now we have an emu blocking the road, and we could be here for a while." he says philosophically, while we were actually sat in a queue of at least 10-15 cars, the drivers of which had stopped to watch a group of elephants. There wasn't an emu within 400 yards. He went on to describe visits to his vehicle from squirrels and of course the obligatory baboons, none of which were present in reality.

The park was not busy considering today is a Bank Holiday, but at one point around the elephant section all three lanes of the road were gridlocked. This is all very well if you like looking at elephants, but even so it can only keep your attention for a limited amount of time. My advice would be to pause the CD at this point, lest you find yourself listening to a description of lions and wildebeest when all you can see are elephants. And some Mondeos.

If all this sounds like a complaint it isn't. It's preferable for the drive to take up a significant amount of your time. There would be little point in racing around there in 10 minutes, regarding these magnificent beasts in the same way that you would a group of cows in a field by the M6. They deserve better and they are going to make damn sure you pay attention to them.

The best examples of this came in lion country. Many zoos might have two, maybe three lions living on their land, all of which are cooped up rather sadly in hardly adequate caging. Not so here, where a full pride of what must have been 10 or so lions had the run of the woodland. Acres of space, as sports commentators would have it. One lioness brazenly crossed the road metres from the front of the car. She didn't even stop to look at the gormless people who had come to gawp at her. Instead she merely plodded on and returned to the rest of the pride for what lions love best, a bit of a lie down. Seeing a lion roaming around from those sorts of close quarters was something special, even if it didn't have the social skills to acknowledge us. Lions these days............

Other roadblocks were provided by a stubborn and slightly aloof camel and several baboons. We'd chosen the car-friendly route to view the baboons. We've had enough trouble with our car this year without subjecting it to the bottoms of potentially 140 mischievous monkeys. Barely a week goes by without some kind of warning light coming on and some mechanic stroking his stubble, taking a sharp intake of breath and saying.......'it's gonna cost you'. I pride myself on my ability to waste money but the budget is not limitless, and anyway there is the principle of not giving your cash to cowboys isn't there?

Anyway, back to baboons. Despite taking the safe route we were still offered a fantastic view of the animals. You can see close up all of the gullible folk who don't mind losing the odd windscreen wiper driving along with five or six baboons on the roof. To be fair most of these cars seemed to contain very young children with delighted faces. Perhaps it is worth losing a windscreen wiper or two to see your child's face light up like that. I can only speculate. What I hadn't expected was the sight of several baboons blocking the passage of many of these cars by simply lying in the road. Today has been a reasonably warm day but you would think they could find somewhere safer to sunbathe.

Now, remember that bug house I was telling you about? It was a truly horrifying place. People have offered me the argument that snakes and spiders are 'cute' and are perfectly acceptable pets but of course this is arrant nonsense. Snakes are ugly, spiders even more so. Matching them in the ugly stakes are crocodile newts, leaf-cutter ants, salamanders, brightly coloured poisonous frogs and the utterly revolting legless lizard. He's not drunk, he literally has no legs. The major difference, apparently, between he and a snake is the presence of eyelids. Snakes don't have eyelids. They don't have personality either. There's also beetles, tarantulas and scorpions on view if you are so inclined.

Of far more appeal to me was the sea lion show we witnessed following our escape from the bug house. Reggie and Biffo (falling out of my chair laughing at this point, Biffo? Tell you what, you can call him Biffo but he walked better than I can) performed an array of fairly standard tricks ranging from clapping when directed to leaping out of the water to head a football. Of course there was the time-honoured balancing of said ball on the sea lions nose, although at only 14 months young Reggie clearly still has much to learn on this one. You get the impression that Biffo could keep the ball up there all day, while Reggie can manage only a few seconds at the moment. Apparently he's getting there, which is a feeling I'm sure many of us can identify with.

From there it was on to the falconry display. A handler, complete with Sam Allardyce-style audio headset, gave us the lowdown on Max the eagle, Nibbles the vulture and Pablo the hawk. Quite how anyone can bring themselves to name a bird of prey 'Nibbles' is beyond me. It's not very macho, is it? Nibbles didn't do much flying, preferring instead to walk around a lot. By contrast Pablo went to town with the whole flight thing. His party-piece was to fly just above the heads of the watching public, every man-Jack of whom ducked as he approached. Our guide assured us that his vision is such that he will never crash into anyone during flight, though I am sure I felt his wing brush against the side of my head towards the end of the display. Maybe I was imagining things. I've probably become sensitive to it after being violated by Stitch in Orlando (see earlier blog, we are not going there again you'll be happy to note).

Max was my personal favourite of the three. He flew at a sensible, safe height, and he didn't look at you in the vein hope that you might keel over and die and thus provide an easy meal in the way that Nibbles did. Strangely, Nibbles was not bald as we imagine vultures to be. Although it could have been a syrup.

There's barely enough cyberspace left to talk to you about the meerkats, otters, giraffe and all of the farm animals residing at Knowsley. The pigs were among the noisiest creatures I have ever encountered, although to be fair many of them were only a month old and were spending the entire afternoon chasing after their probably exhausted mother. No wonder all parties were a bit tetchy. Ponies and donkeys offer a quieter option for the kids to stroke, and if you really want to see something cutesy then there are lop-eared rabbits also. And sheep and goats, but nobody likes them, do they?

Like them or not, there is certainly enough I do like at Knowsley Safari Park to suggest that it will not be another 25 years before I visit again.