Tuesday, 8 November 2011

The Jackson Debate

I'm tired of writing about me. There's nothing left to say. The well is dry. I am quite sure that my current malaise is as dull and uninteresting to you as it is debilitating to me. Let's have a look at someone else's problems instead, shall we?

One man with more than enough on his Russell Grant-sized plate is Dr Conrad Murray. Those of you not too engrossed in fucking TOWIE and the X-Factor to open up a newspaper or switch on a news channel (which is most of you because obviously this blog only attracts intellectual types) will know that Dr Murray is the man who yesterday was convicted of the involuntary manslaughter of Michael Jackson. He will be sentenced in three weeks time and could serve up to four years in prison.

Yet as with everything relating to Michael Jackson, opinion is divided as to Murray's guilt. The hordes of Jackson fans awaiting the verdict outside the Los Angeles court last night were clearly of the opinion that their idol was taken from them by foul means, while others argue that Murray is merely a scapegoat to help the fanatics deal with their overblown, melodramatic sense of loss. The general public do tend to over-react following the death of a celebrity - witness the hysterical outpourings of grief when Princess Diana was killed in 1997 or the similarly berserk reaction to the death of the tragic but hardly talented Jade Goody in 2009 - and Jackson's untimely passing was always going to provoke this sort of reaction. While many loathed him for his eccentricities, pretensions and his as yet unproven involvement in child abuse (more on which later), Jackson's body of work ensured that he became a legend in his own lifetime. Michael Jackson was a man who, more than most, polarised opinion.

That Murray has now been found in some way responsible for Jackson's death by a court of law might in some ways help protect the star's legacy. He can once again be held up by his supporters as a victim. Poor Michael, bumped off by a shady and/or incompetent medical man who should have known better. Certainly, Murray is guilty of extreme naivity in administering a drug which should only have been used under strict supervision in a hospital, but how much pressure was he under? There are those who would argue that Jackson would have insisted on receiving the drugs on which he was becoming increasingly reliant, and that if Murray had not agreed to these demands then Jackson had the money and the celebrity to find himself a doctor who would. Looking after Jackson was a pretty significant gig for Murray, and not one he would have wanted to lose. Hindsight is always 20/20, but perhaps Murray may now reflect that he would have been better served allowing Jackson to look for another doctor in any case.

Still, as much as Jackson's fans might hope for it, the singer's role as the victim in Murray's crime does not wipe his own slate clean. There is still the very grisly question of those child abuse charges. In 1993 Evan Chandler accused Jackson of sexually abusing his then 13-year-old son Jordan. It is interesting though not entirely compelling to note that it was Evan, and not the child himself who brought the allegations to light. What is more persuasive to my mind is the fact that Evan Chandler agreed to settle this matter financially out of court. The figures vary according to which media source you rely on but the Chandlers received something in the region of $20-25million between them. I remain childless, but can say without hesitation that if I genuinely believed that my child had been abused in this way there would not be enough money in the world to prevent me from seeking justice. Surely any parent in this situation would want to see the perpetrator appropriately punished? We are talking about a huge amount of money, but what price can you put on the physical and psychological well-being of a child not just at the time of the alleged crime, but for years into the future and maybe for the rest of their lives?

But not everybody is satisfied that Jackson is innocent of these charges. The old saying that there is no smoke without fire is often trotted out in relation to some of Jackson's unusual behaviour around children. It is hard to deny that there is something quite odd about a man who, 34 years old at the time of the alleged incidents, spent so much time with adolescents and even admitted in a television interview to letting them share his bed. Jackson may or may not have been guilty of any sexual abuse but he surely should have known that this behaviour was inappropriate and frankly, a little bit weird. Again there will be those who defend this, suggesting that his own abuse during childhood together with his punishing work schedule (Jackson was just 11 when the Jackson 5 recorded their first hit) contributed. He never had a childhood of his own, they will argue, and so was only trying to recreate one as an adult. Maybe, but he was a grown man and grown men are not permitted to behave in this manner without some serious questions being asked. Fuelling the fires against Jackson further are some of his other alleged eccentric behaviours such as keeping chimps as pets, sleeping in oxygen chambers and the multiple facial surgeries which left him dependent on the drugs that eventually killed him. I have heard it said that his surgeons should have stood trial alongside Dr Murray. Either way, some of Jackson's lifestyle choices made him a hate figure for some well before Evan Chandler's name appeared in the newspapers nearly 20 years ago.

And finally to the music. Michael Jackson is not, cannot be to everyone's tastes but it is an undeniable statement of fact that he has made a massive contribution to the music industry. The early years of his solo career produced albums of bewildering quality which sold like the proverbial hot-cakes. 'Thriller' remains the best-selling album of all-time, while 'Off The Wall' and 'Bad' are also musical triumphs which would, had they been achieved by a less controversial individual, have been enough to provide a lasting legacy to rival any of the great composers, never mind any modern contemporaries. He failed palpably to reach that level in the latter years of his troubled life and career but in many ways Jackson had already revolutionised song and dance to the point where now, there are a plethora of high profile stars adored by millions who owe much to him in terms of the way they have been inspired by him.

But perfect, he was not.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Tales From A Wednesday

I don't know about you but I'm sick of this fucking blog. Have you read the last few entries? I mean, seriously, come on! It's all doom and gloom isn't it? There is nothing to entertain, which was the original aim when I started writing this moronic, manic monotony. I got up, I felt bad, I had a crash and felt several degrees worse, I'm actually clinically depressed blah blah blah. So what if I am? There's plenty of people come up with quality writing while in the midst of an 'episode'. So they're all more talented than me too, but try and get into the spirit will you?

So I'm going to try to write something more cheerful and all I have to go on are the events of today. The trouble is it's just a normal Wednesday. A Wednesday at work when it has been my turn to cover reception for the afternoon. What humour could possibly come from any of that? Well none, actually, and anyway it is a strict rule never to write about work just as it is a strict rule never to write about taking heroine or sleeping with girls on the game. I can only vaguely refer to work (see above example regarding reception) otherwise it just gets too complex and dangerous, like trying to tell your girlfriend that you don't like her new hairstyle. Just don't do it.

So what else have I done today? Well I have been to the gym. Around a month ago I decided to take advantage of an offer for LJMU staff (ooh, careful......) which allows me to visit the gym half price. For £13 a month I can get unlimited access to the myriad of pain-giving machinery that lies within the walls of Lifestyles on Victoria Street. What else am I going to spend £13 a month on anyway, other than heroine and girls on the game? Exactly. I had to have an induction at which a strangely small young man called Dave (why is everyone called Dave?) took me through the hows, the whys and the do-you-mind-if-I-dont's of a training regime. Dave's not a great advert for Lifestyles in terms of his own physique. All of the other instructors are either muscly men or girly girls with impossibly small arses. If I had a psychiatrist (which I desperately need, no doubt) he or she might reasonably ask why, if I had to point out anything about the girls it would be the smallness of their arses. Anyway, Dave is different, Dave represents the man on the street and in a way that works. When you meet Dave you instantly feel better about the fact that your last workout prior to joining the gym was when you moodily threw basketballs at (literally at) a basket on the night you decided to give up playing basketball five years ago. Well that's how exercise ended for me anyway. Raising your heart rate by looking at girly girls with impossiby small arses doesn't count.

The best (or worst depending on which way you look at it) thing about Lifestyles is the arm bike, or the Top-XT as they pretentiously refer to it. Basically it's like an exercise bike for people like me who just can't find it in them to get their legs to move. You operate it by rotating your arms in a forward motion, a bit like doggy paddle only with your fists closed because you're holding on to a handle. Two handles, to be precise. I do 10 minutes on this and the level of resistance goes up and down every two and a half minutes. Dave did tell me exactly why this would benefit me at the induction and I bought into every word. What he didn't tell me is that after three minutes I'd be breathing like Anakin after his fiery dust-up with Obi-Wan. But you can't stop. If you stop it becomes 10 times more difficult to get the thing moving again and you're entering a whole new world of pain. I learned this the hard way, naturally.

In terms of weights machines there is nothing really that can be done in a wheelchair, particularly one which doesn't have brakes. Which is most wheelchairs. Taxi drivers, bus drivers and train guards are regularly aghast when I roll in to position on their particular mode of transport and inform that I don't have any brakes. If I'm feeling sexist and partuclarly lacking in wit I will tell them that brakes are for girls, but the real reason I don't have them is that I have experienced the near self-harming agony that is trapping one's fingers in said brakes on too many occasions. Frankly, they just get in the way and I would much rather take my chances that I will roll down the bus aisle and out of the emergency exit onto the St.Helens Linkway than put my fingers anywhere near those contraptions ever again. My legs don't work, I really need my hands and fingers. So, back to the weights machines.

Unfortunately for the less mobile than me it is necessary to transfer from my wheelchair on to the seat to use the chest press, shoulder press, pec-deck and vertical something or other. What is more, if you are small like me you have to raise the adjustable seat to it's highest possible point in order to get your body in the right position for the exercise to work properly. On more than one occasion I have failed to lock the seat properly and have found myself suddenly, sharply and without warning slumping down two feet towards the ground mid-lift. Every time a disabled person has a minorly dangerous episode of this nature the able bodied general public react as if we have just been pushed parachute-less out of a helicopter. It doesn't matter how many times you explain that you are ok and that your arse hasn't actually left the seat, able bodied people will never fail to be mortified by this kind of thing. Many of them compound this by trying to help in some way, like the train driver who saw me pull up on to my back wheels to prepare to roll down the ramp to leave the train, didn't like the look of what I was doing (although I do it almost every day) and decided it might be a good idea to try and instead pull me down the ramp by my shoulders from in front of me. I nearly died. Note to all able-bodied people: If I am not bleeding and all my limbs remain attached, don't try to fucking help me, ok?

All the machines at Lifestyles are operated with a key which contains all the information about your training programme and allows you to access training results at the end of the session. I'm still trying to persuade Dave that it would be useful if he could programme my key to let me know how far I have travelled on the arm-bike (sorry, Top-XT) each session, but he just keeps repeating that if I want the resistance altering I just need to tell him. Thanks. It's all a bit of a pity because the training results have 'neat' little diagrams showing a Tour De France map and the Statue Of Liberty which are a half-way interesting way of showing you how you have done that day. If only Dave could be arsed to tell me what the rest of it all means, strength index, performance index, all of that crap. He steadfastly refuses but to be fair he has got his hands full making sure I don't hurt myself. Though he didn't apply that logic to the last female customer I saw enduring one of his inductions. I don't know what he had said to her but she was genuinely in tears. Poor girl, the gym hurts.

On the way home I was approached by a youth dressed as a clown. I say youth because his mask and clown suit made it difficult to tell how old he was but surely nobody over the age of 12 would engage in such shenannigans just because the date happens to be within a week of October 31. His mission to scare the living shit out of me failed only because I saw him coming from hundreds of yards away around the corner. By the time he got close enough to growl at me and thrust his mock dagger (I know?) in my direction the whole thing was about as scary as Andrew Flintoff in a tent. What was of more concern was the distinct smell of dog turd which prevailed throughout the journey back from the train station and the brief conversation I had with a friend about his gambling problems. I arrived home to find that the last number calling my home phone was my home phone number, and during the writing of this entry the phone rang again, and again it was my home number which apparently called. I'm so glad I pay BT so much for their excellent service.

Just another Wednesday, then.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Binning The Booze

I was off sick on Tuesday. I didn't have a fever, a bug or a biffy water infection. I was depressed. Mentally unwell, if you will.

I'm aware to some that seems ridiculous, overly dramatic, attention seeking, whatever. It's how I felt, and hauling myself out of bed and dragging my sorry arse to work that day seemed impossible. There are several contributing factors to how I arrived in this desperate state, some of which I don't even want to talk about here. These pages are supposed to be candid, open and honest, warts and all. But if I had to rake over some of that shit again now I might not make it to the bottom of the page.

And nor would you.

So let's stick to what we can control, shall we? Booze. On Tuesday morning I had just come off the back of a weekend in Bristol during which I drank far too much. Lager and red wine flowed generously for three consecutive nights, the last of these being Sunday when Emma and I were the last ones left and went for a meal at La Tasca. It is little wonder that my recent problems felt immeasurably magnified. It is now Thursday, and nothing has changed other than the fact that I have not had any more alcohol. While I would stop short of suggesting that I am ready to dance the lambada bollock naked on top of the Liver building, it would be wrong also to deny that I feel better.

I know this because something happened at work yesterday which, if I had come back to it on Tuesday, would have pushed me over the edge. As it was it wasn't pretty and it did affect me, but not nearly as much as it might have done had it taken place a day earlier. Basically I screwed up, not for the first (nor probably last) time. I apologised but there was obvious disappointment all round. Yet I handled it reasonably well, managing at least to avoid plunging into mental meltdown. Progress, considering the hopelessness of Tuesday morning.

So I've decided to stop drinking. Completely. That is altogther. The first test of my ability or otherwise to do this will come tomorrow (Friday). Liverpool John Moores University are the Revolution COW (Company Of The Week, clever eh? No) and as such we are all eligible for 2 for 1 deals on food and drink up until 8.00pm. Now the old me, or me as I am otherwise known to myself, would have seen this as a wonderful opportunity to get twice as lashed for half the price. Instead I am viewing it only as an opportunity to prove to an unsuspecting work force that I am capable of acting sensibly and soberly on a Friday night.

And I will do it. I have never felt motivated to stop drinking, no matter what ridiculous scrapes I have got myself into in the past. I've always been rescued by my delusion and my sense of 'ooh it'll all blow over, is it Friday yet?'. No more. Now I have the motiviation that has always been missing. My recent malaise has finally taught me that the consequences of drinking myself into a stupor are far too grave. That it has taken me 17 years to realise this is a moot point. It is better late than never, is it not?

One can only hope.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Back To Bristol

Emma's niece Elizabeth celebrates her first birthday this week. It's a doubly special week in her young life as this was also the weekend of her christening.

Now my religious views (or lack thereof) have been made abundantly clear elsewhere on these pages so I'm not going to bore you with them now. Suffice it to say that my feelings on this have only been enhanced and strengthened by the steaming turdiness of how I have been feeling since the early part of last week. Yet family is family and so it was one's duty to drag oneself off the metaphorical canvas and go down to Bristol for a few days and bloody well enjoy it! Even the churchy bit.

Surprisingly I did. Well maybe not so much the churchy bit. To my mind the female vicar ranted on for far too long about things which seemed to me to have little to do with Elizabeth's christening. In parts she was like a humourless version of Dawn French's Geraldine Grainger from The Vicar of Dibley. As Godmother Emma had had to get to the church early and so by the time we left, it was all I could do not to rip my eyeballs out. Of paticular irritation to me was the lady who came around at the end with a small velvet bag in which, so I am led to believe, we were expected to drop any spare change. Actual hard-earned English currency. To the church. To a God that, if he does exist, is ritually torturing me. I'm sorry, I said I wouldn't witter on about the church but I really do feel THAT bad right now.

So back to the good stuff then. We arrived Friday afternoon following an uneventful journey save for the two or so hours that I refused to speak to Emma because she wouldn't let me play my Joss Stone album in the car. I'm not sure if she actually noticed that I wasn't speaking to her, you would have to ask her. Anyway, the point is that it takes 40 minutes to listen to that album and 40 minutes is not a large sacrifice if it's going to make me feel better. Sadly I am in too much of a savagely desperate state of mind to believe that arguing points like this does any good. So I left it, and we listened to Journey or whatever it was instead. And my blood boiled and my head ached. Over an album. I'm really not all that well. Did I say this was the good stuff?

It's not, but I promise there is some. We met up with Emma's parents Roland and Susan for a few drinks on Friday night. We went to a Wetherspoons known as The Commerical Rooms in which every seat was taken, and which had taken about 20 minutes to get to thanks to some interesting navigation on Roland's part. When we did find a table and settle down with our drinks it was all very agreeable and nice, even the bit where I announced to everyone that I was going to quit drinking next week because it's killing me. With simply perfect timing, it was in the midst of this conversation (nobody thought it a bad idea, by the way) that a man dressed as Isambard Kingdom Brunel came over and offered us free glasses of sparkiing white wine. Even in the last throes of my life as a stupid, retarded heavy drinker I can not bring myself to consume white wine, but I took a glass anyway safe in the knowledge that one of my companions would find it a good home. I was not wrong. Amusingly, Isambard offered me a glass but then had to go back to the bar to fetch another one as the only one remaining on his tray was his. Drinking on the job Isambard? Brunel achieved many great things in his lifetime, so maybe alcohol doesn't ruin everything for everyone. But I'm still quitting, so fuck you.

We moved on to the Harbour and took in a couple of bars overlooking the River Avon. This was a place we hadn't managed to reach on any of our previous visits to Bristol to see Elizabeth and the family but I'm glad we did on this occasion. It's very picturesque and the bars we went in were populated and atmospheric without ever taking on the heaving horror of say.......that one bar that used to sit at the end of Wembley Way.......on Challenge Cup Final day when the only other place you could get a beer was Tesco. We talked about all the usual things, the fortunes of Sheffield Wednesday and Rotherham United being particularly prominent, aswell as plans for the following night and how we were all looking forward to everyone getting together. We moved on to Las Iguanas where I wolfed down some extremely spicy chicken wings and then sat back and felt the burn. Well, it was better than some of the other things I'd been feeling that's for sure.

Saturday morning we pursued our dogged interest in experiencing as many city bus tours as one lifetime will allow. After a quick bacon buttie for breakfast we enjoyed a small victory when we found the bus to be accessible and more or less on time. Our driver was Bob, and he almost drove past us, lamely explaining that he couldn't get the bus near to the kerb because there were too many other buses in the area. It transpires that they have moved the bus stops and Bob thinks it's a nightmare. Either Bob is fond of overstatement, or he really does have a wonderful life in which the inability to park a bus by a kerb can be considered nightmarish. His beautiful assistant was Pam, the tour guide who took us through the points of interest or otherwise on our journey through Bristol and in partiucular, Clifton. We enjoyed several views of the Clifton Suspension Bridge without ever actually using it, while Pam regaled us with stories of the city's great history and introduced us to it's fantastical architecture. Unfortunately time was short as we had agreed to meet Roland and Susan, and Emma's brother Andrew in time to see Liverpool play Manchester United.

We did so in a harbourside bar but the view was, shall we say, restricted. There were only two small screens, one of which was partly obstructed by a pillar in the style of a traditionally old-fashioned football stadium. Our seat was also some distance from the screens, so concentration on the match was difficult. What's more, the others left at half-time, instructing us to meet them at somewhere called the V-Shed, further up the Harbour at 7.00. We just about managed to stay until the end of the 1-1 draw, then sneaked in a cheeky kip before re-emerging at the agreed meeting point.

Everyone else was late, naturally, but soon enough friends and relatives started to arrive. Emma's uncle Chris is a particularly engaging fellow, and I managed to take my mind off my melancholy as we moved on to Bella Italia and what can only be described as a 'shit-load' of red wine. Chris is a straight-talking sort of guy, the kind of character with which Yorkshiremen are routinely saddled. But in his case it is true. He was telling it like it is the whole night and I couldn't help but enjoy his forthrightness and no-bullshit approach. We ended up having a drunken, decidely low-brow debate about the wonder and majesty of the Grand Canyon which we had both been lucky enough to experience recently. Chris's daughter Louise is getting married next September and Emma said something to me later about her asking if I would sing at the wedding. I couldn't tell whether Emma was joking or not, or whether Louise had been joking. It was all very confusing, but either way I'm quite sure nobody wants Uncle Kracker turning up on their big day. Besides, it's 11 months away and I can't guarantee my safety for the next 11 minutes, frankly.

After Sunday's elongated ceremony I spent more time righting the wrongs of the world with my friend Chris, and also trying to explain to Emma's sports-mad uncle Ray how Saints managed to lose last week's Grand Final. It really wasn't something I wanted to relive but I battled on gamely, offering excuses about a young team in need of more experience, and how they managed to have the misfortune to run into a rejuvenated Rob Burrow. That might not mean much to some of you but Ray understood every word. He's a very quiet, nice fellow but if there is one thing that can enthuse him it is sport and anything related to it. He's a regular at Rotherham United, which makes me feel somewhat ashamed of whinging about my suffering with St.Helens and anyway I can assure you that things have got much worse since then. So I'll stop. We lost, that's it.

And so the last word on the weekend should go to the star of the show, Elizabeth. Blissfully unaware of the reason for all of this fuss she spent Sunday afternoon entertaining the crowd doing 'Things That Babies Do'. Crawling around towards places she probably shouldn't go with a total lack of regard for any possible danger. Climbing up on the first thing available to show everyone how close she is to standing and walking on her own. Pulling funny faces, staring at stupid adults who have no idea what to say to a child. You know the sort of thing, all done looking resplendent in red.

Happy Birthday Elizabeth.

Monday, 10 October 2011


Two days ago I had another of those birthday things. I got another year older. Another year without succumbing to chronic kidney failure or my neurosis. Can you die of neurosis? Anyway, seems like kind of a moot point since I'm not dead.

It was supposed to be a celebration. It happened to coincide with the Super League Grand Final, an event which saw the Super Mighty Saints (they're officially called that, you know?) take on Dirty Leeds Rhinos for the fourth time in five years. We'd lost all of the previous three, aswell as last year's Grand Final against the even dirtier, downright filthy Wigan Warriors. Surely this would be our year, and what with it being my birthday and all?

Well no actually. We lost again. Stunningly and explicably, given that we were eight points up and cruising with about 20 minutes left. Well, maybe not cruising. Chugging along in a half way satisfactory fashion. Rumour has it that when Michael Shenton scored in the corner to give us a bit of breathing space I actually smiled. May even have punched the air. These reports are of course unconfirmed, and in the cold light of day I should like to deny them strenuously.

In light of what followed in the 20 or so minutes after Shenton's try I would like to request to the RFL and Super League that they do not schedule any more Grand Finals for October 8. Instead, I propose that next time October 8 falls on a Saturday that, should the SMS's be involved, the Grand Final be cancelled and the trophy just be handed to our opponents. Even if it's Wigan or Leeds. Especially if it's Wigan or Leeds. But in secret, in a discreet manner so we don't have to witness it. It's going to happen again in 2016 and, quite frankly, I'm not sure this is far enough into the future for comfort. I'll only be 41 then, and even on this most pessimistic of Mondays I am still reasonably confident that I will still be here to have to bear it. At the current rate, I could be sat there watching us lose our 10th successive Grand Final. All of which really is too awful a thought to even entertain. Honestly, it was like watching your wife sleep with your worst enemy. Ok, it was like watching your mistress sleep with your worst enemy. Excruciating. And all made worse by consuming the kind of quantities of lager normally reserved for Wayne and Waynetta.

Now it is just possible that some people (mostly men) take their sport too seriously. It really is only a game. Except it's not. Not really. At this point, under this kind of stress and pumped full of that amount of alcohol you start posting your every thought on Facebook. Everything shy of 'I'm going for a poo now.' found it's way on to the screens of over 200 unfortunate souls. So if you are one of them let me apologise. All I can say in mitigation is that you have no idea what it feels like to watch your team lose it's fifth consecutive Grand Final on your birthday. It really does put a dampener on things. The champagne, had we had any, would have gone decidedly flat. Even our hysterically drunk rendition of Oasis's Slide Away couldn't really cheer the soul too much, and as for the lady with the mullet who I am quite certain was chatting me up well........Christ. I can tell you it makes you think twice about bringing out Uncle Kracker, or at least it would do if you weren't monumentally pissed and entering a period of mourning for your team's loss. So I carried on regardless, and then the microphone broke, which was probably a sign but I went through the whole rigmarole again anyway. As rubbish as things get, I never bloody give up. Like Saints. Keep trying, maybe you'll get the chance to lose again next year, boys? Brilliant. Saints are becoming a metaphor for my life and I love them for it. Wasn't it rubbish when we used to win Grand Finals? Hmm.

So it was a pretty traumatic birthday, all in all. My mate wrote on his Facebook yesterday that I fell asleep in the pub. I don't remember this, but then I wouldn't, I was asleep. It was probably the only time after about 3.00 in the afternoon that day that I was genuinely at peace with the world. He should have just left me there. Instead what I do remember is rolling home in the rain and thinking, isn't being 36 crap so far? I could have stayed in and watched Russell Grant on Strictly slo-mo, or listened to another desperate wannabe pop star whail their way through another Damien Rice gem.

But it wasn't all bad. I confess to being rather overwhelmed by the number of birthday messages I received. I took the time to reply to each and every one of them (I hope). If you are one of those people then can I just thank you again for thinking of me, especially at what turned out to be such a desperate and dismal time.

Being 36 is crap. So far.

Thursday, 22 September 2011


Forgive me if this gets a bit 'stream of consciousness' and a bit less structured than some of my other musings. It's an emotive subject and you can't really do that part of it justice if you are quibbling with yourself about where to put an apostrophe, about word order or about which Ben Elton sit-com to quote.

So there's none of that. This is all my own work. I want to talk to you about Paul. Paul is no longer with us. If he had been, then today would have been his 40th birthday. As it turned out he didn't get more than a couple of months past his 26th birthday. The circumstances around the illness which took him are complex and still not absolutely clear to me even now, nearly 14 years on. But then they are not really the point of what I want to say here. I wanted to focus on his life and the effect he had on me, not his death, although that has had a pretty profound effect on me aswell.

Now it is often said that nobody ever has anything bad to say about someone after they pass on. We can all think of people who were considered a bit on the irksome side when they were alive but who turned into legends and geniuses after their death. Yet the plaudits from those who knew Paul came long before he left us. He was possibly the most geniunely nice bloke you could ever have the privilege to meet or be around. Totally and utterly devoid of any malice, Paul was generous, thoughtful and funny. Just well liked. Everybody liked Paul. If it didn't make you a bit of a stalker, you could search my Facebook friends list for anyone who knew him and just ask the question, and without exception they would all agree that he was a top class bloke, and they could all come up with a Paul story. Something that he said or did which made them smile, laugh or just feel better.

Like the tiime he and I were helping out with some wheelchair basketball coaching for some younger kids at our club in Fazakerley. It goes without saying that he was able to pass on the benefit of his 10+ years of experience in the sport, but he made it fun for them too by going that extra mile to entertain. During a break in the session he swapped chairs with one young kid to let him have a go in a proper basketball wheelchair. The only problem was that the chair Paul had agreed to temporarily inherit had no large wheels. This meant that he had to be pushed by someone if he was going to make any headway. Out on the street he would not even have sat in such a wretched contraption. He had that fiersome desire for independence that many of us with physical disabilities possess. Yet here he was letting some kid's dad push him around the sports hall in the name of comedy and entertainment. At this point it should be remembered that he was unable to stop himself since he could not reach down to the low wheels. The entire team falling off the bench laughing as he gamely careered into the wall of the sports hall once the offending parent had given him one big shove and let go.....

He laughed as hard as any of us, which kind of summed him up.

Though that one example may seem like a pretty ridiculous thing to do, he was far from stupid. I geniunely doubt that I would be here now were it not for the benefit of his wisdom over many years. We were pretty much inseparable for a period of around four or five years and he would often stay at our house when I lived with my mum and dad. During such times there was no problem too small for him to help me with or vice versa. We would sit up and talk for hours (sometimes after far too many shandies it must be said) and he would always be the one offering the logical solutions. Where I would fly off the handle and wallow in the hopelessness of whatever drama had beset me that week, he was always the rational presence I needed. He was a genuinely steadying influence, I found, and his absence over all these years may be a contributing factor to some of my, shall we say, less glorious life decisions. Not that I mean to blame him. I'm 38 in a few weeks time, old enough to know better than some of the lunacy I have engaged in. I'm just saying that he helped because he was wise and kind. And now I don't have that and I regret it deeply.

One of the things I am sure he would be able to help me with if he were here now is the darkness of some of my thoughts since his passing. Barely a day goes by when I don't wonder how it came to be that it was he and not I who developed such a tragic illness. Without wallowing again it just doesn't seem fair or just. We were a similar age, proud owners of the same disability and had pretty similar fitness levels since we trained together up to four times a week in those days. Though I have long since learned that the question of how this came to pass is one of life's unanswerables, it does not stop me wondering all the same. In many respects it has never quite sunk in that he has gone. I've always felt pretty terrible about the fact that I never screamed or shouted or cried or ranted or did any of the things that most people would do having suffered such a traumatic loss. Maybe that is just not me, not how I react to genuine trauma. I'm not sure because I have been fortunate enough not to lose anyone else as close to me as Paul was. He was a one-off in so many ways.

So happy 40th birthday Paul, wherever you are. You'll appreciate that I'm not a religious man but I do believe that you are somewhere better now. No doubt there is a bar nearby and that everybody around you thinks the world of you. I'm certain I'll see you up, down or around there one day but for now you'll forgive me if I plod on with this thing called life, with its early mornings and its stigmas and its Wigan Warriors Challenge Cup victories.

And for any of you reading this who knew Paul, well I hope it has brought back some of your own happy memories of him and not made you focus too much on the sadness of his absence from our lives. I'd like to think that he would have enjoyed and approved of every word I have written here and if not, well, we would have thrown a few handbag haymakers and had a good laugh about it in the morning.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Stratford-Upon-Avon: Macbeth

It was Emma's birthday earlier this week. I'll not tell you how old she is, but what I can tell you is that we decided to go to Stratford-Upon-Avon for the weekend. It's one of her favourite places. Mine too, and with good reason for it is chock-full of beauty, culture and er..........swans.

In the interests of doing something new and special to celebrate, we took the opportunity to visit the Royal Shakespeare Theatre on Friday night for a performance of Macbeth by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Now, I know very little about Shakespeare. The very limited educational opportunities afforded to anyone with a physical disabilty during the 1980's have seen to that. Actually that's a bit of a cop-out. When it comes to learning about Shakespeare I'm like the man begging on the streets paved with gold, imploring passers by to spare some change when in fact it is strewn all around me. Yes, my schooling was more limited than that of those horrible bastards I like to call ABLE BODIED PEOPLE, but the real reason I know so little of Shakespeare is because until last Friday night I did not care to know.

The performance began at 7.15 and so, after leaving work at lunchtime and being held up in some horrendous Friday afternoon traffic there was just time to eat, and hit one or two of Stratford's picturesque bars. The Encore is one such quaint establishment tucked away on the corner of the main street which faces the main square leading down to the river Avon. And the Swans. Acquiring any liquid refreshment in the Encore looked unlikely at one point as hordes of similarly minded folk gathered at the bar, manned only by a single person. That is to say he was working on his own. I did not enquire as to his domestic arrangements. Again I did not care to know. Dinner (tea, to you and me) was at The Golden Bee and to be quite frank I almost threw it back up when the curse of my hiatus hernia struck once more. As is the norm these days ownership of a wheelchair means that one has to raise one's hand at the bar and ask Miss for permission to spend a penny. I ended up having to ask Sir, in fact, and while I was waiting for him to locate the keys to the fortress that is the lavatory I very nearly barfed my chicken burger over a very pretty lady sat on a stool by the door. Obstructing the door, actually.

So anyway, the theatre. A quick and sneaky glass of red later (£9 for two if you want some tips on where not to drink before you take in a show) we entered the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. It is small. I don't know why but somehow I had imagined a much grander and more spacious venue might host the performances of arguably the most famous acting collective in England and quite possibly the world. Not so. Even from the raised section near the rear which accommodates wheelchair users I could have been no more than about 20 feet from the front of the stage. It's emtpyness at that point made it look an even less likely venue for something of such magnitude. The stage managed to look dusty and battered, like something we might have performed one of our God awful school plays on when I was seven. I hated those plays and I hated always having to play Joseph in the nativity especially. Were my current, atheist, nay-saying self to be placed in to the body of that naive seven year-old he would pretend that he was unable to read and thus render himself ineligible. It was a good enough excuse for half of the people at that school at that time but I have already bitched enough about the standard of education among the physically challenged under the Thatcher government. Yes I'm blaming Thatcher. What of it?

At performance time the tiny, dusty Royal Shakespeare Theatre undergoes the most mesmerising transformation. It gains atmosphere as the seats around you become filled and then, when the lights go out and the spotlight hits the centre of the hitherto modest stage area, something genuinely inspiring begins. Being so close you immediately feel part of the action, a sensation that is only heightened by the actors' running on and off stage via the wings which run so close to the seated audience. Quite often you can hear a character entering the fray before you see them, giving the whole thing a sense of expectancy and anticipation. You can't always understand what is being said given the old English in which it is written, but the acting is so expressive and the delivery so powerful that even a rudimentary overview of the plot will enable you to pick up much more than any of my fellow Shakesperian virgins might imagine.

And so to the plot. The Macbeth of the title has done some spiffing things in battle, saving the life of Malcolm, son of Duncan, King of Scotland. As such he is chosen as the subject of a prophecy which decrees that he will become something called Thane of Condor (quite a privileged position I'm told, several rungs better off than say.......Minister of Transport) and then eventually King of Scotland. You might know something of this prophecy being delievered by witches in the original play. Hubble bubble, toil and trubble? All that? No? How about the scene in The Young Ones when Vyvyan is told by the witches that he will be king of the whole house hereafter, and Thane of that little gravelly patch next to the garden shed? Well anyway, the witches are considered to be quite central to the plot of Macbeth but in this particular version they are conspicuous by their absence. Their place is taken by a trio of the most spooky children I have ever seen. It's quite difficult to transfer to the written page the way they say 'Macbeth', with an endless delay on the second syllable, almost like in song. It all adds up to maximum spookiness in any case, as does the way they enter the stage, suspended from the ceiling on large hooks. At first it looked like they were hanging, but that could have been the wine.

So anyway, driven a little squiffy and power mad by the prophecy, our man Macbeth (played by the strangely but not off-puttingly Irish Aiden Kelly) proceeds to kill just about everyone he sees as a threat to his predicted destiny. His wife (Aislin McGugan) tops herself when she realises how up the wall things have become, while the excellent and dreadlocked Banquo (Steve Toussaint) is a constant and ghostly presence. It all leads to a sublime climactic duel with MacDuff (Daniel Percival) who tells us brilliantly that he 'has no words, my sword is my voice' before finally giving the throne-hungry Macbeth the damn good thrashing that he ends up so deserving of.

At almost three hours in length (including an interval of around 15 minutes or so) it is surprising how quicky the time passes, a testament to the quality of the acting and the power of the drama. And of how quickly time flies when you are trying to understand something written in a version of English used 425 years ago.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Benidorm - The Black Chicken

Now it's not a surprise to even the occasional reader of Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard (yes, that's you, where have you been?) to note that I love a good karaoke bar. Good job really, since they make up the vast majority of your entertainment options in Benidorm. One in particular, the Black Chicken, became a regular haunt throughout the week and so, if Sir or Madam will allow, I should like to take this opportunity to tell you a bit more about some of the vile goings-on therein.

The Black Chicken should carry some sort of health warning. All local spirits are sold two for the price of one, meaning that both Emma and I could consume a generous helping of rhino strength vodka with a mixer for 3 Euros and 50 cents. They are served in large glasses so that lightweight, slow drinkers like us can easily kill half an hour before another trip to the bar is neccesary. A second, third or fourth trip to the bar meant that oblivion was imminent and that we had killed enough half hours to kill ourselves. And any passing Rhino.

Before oblivion there was Justin. Justin was a teenage boy on holiday with his family. He was tucked away in the corner trying very hard to mind his own business, but was doomed to fail in this regard thanks to the spectacularly inappropriate meanderings of the Black Chicken's resident DJ and karaoke compere. A group of four or five girls were sat at a small table in the middle of the room (for the Black Chicken is not much more than a room). Their attempts to mind their own business were similarly ill-fated as with each dodgy pop video, each botched rendition of a karaoke favourite, our compere would make some sort of Justin-related proclamation designed to extract maximum embarrassment from the young man. Totally convinced of his own comic genius, our compere ordered each girl in turn to go and sit next to Justin for a while, all against the backdrop of another lazy sexual innuendo. One or two of the girls were old enough to be Justin's mother but neither they, or to be fair, Justin seemed cowed by any of this. With his eyes almost hidden behind his long, straggly hair, Justin took all of the abuse in good spirits, even suffering the final indignity of having to slow dance with the oldest of the group, Jean.

"She's a very clean lady..............Hi Jean." quipped the DJ, abysmally. We laughed anyway. That vodka really was powerful.

Jean was a character. Somewhere in the middle of Justin's systematic humiliation, she bounded over to the quiet corner of the room that we had hoped to find and introduced herself. She was 38, from Cumbria, and upon learning that we live in St.Helens she thought it might curry favour if she chose this moment to announce that she actually supported Widnes. I let it pass, and it was Emma who ended up catching the full brunt of Jean's bolshy blah-blah-blah. It transpires that Jean has a daughter with multiple sclerosis and she hates it, I mean hates it, when people try to put people in wheelchairs in the corner. You can insert your own Dirty Dancing/Patrick Swayze joke here I'm sure. Now to be fair I had wanted to sit in the corner as soon as I feasted my eyes on the obvious beauty of the Black Chicken. The fact that the DJ dude helped me achieve this objective by moving some tables and chairs around had obviously caught Jean's eye while she, thoroughly and royally, caught the wrong end of the stick. And thus in her mind the possibility that I might have had some influence on my own seating arrangements disappeared in favour of the sinister notion that I was being pushed around by a bad comedian armed with only a microphone.

At some point during our Black Chicken Odyssey Emma slapped me in the face for telling Jean her real name. Twenty seconds later the unthinkable happened as I looked up and saw Emma standing with Jean on what apparently passed for a stage. They were singing something, but I can't remember what it was. I have just asked her and she won't tell me because she does not care to recall the episode. Pity really, it wasn't even 10% as bad as I would have expected it to be if you had asked me about it beforehand. All the while, the unfunny compere moved around the room with Jean's camera, taking pictures of everybody in the room. They were mostly couples who just played along with this slightly odd violation of Jean's holiday momentos. He did not approach me thanks to the temporary absence of Emma.

Another night we met a Scottish man calling himself Foggy, and his wife/partner/whatever they are called these days Jackie. Jackie was from Aldershot and delighted in telling me that she visits Benidorm every year, sometimes twice a year. I remember thinking that, as harmless and fun as Benidorm had been to this point, telling me that I would be visiting twice a year for the rest of my life might very well bring about my demise. If you are going to spend this much money on a holiday then fine, spend it on a tacky blast out every once in a while but please, for the love of THAT BLOKE WHO MAKES EVERYTHING GO WRONG AND WHOSE EXISTENCE I CONTINUE TO DENY, get some culture will you? And yet at the same time there is a case for admiring Jackie's attitude. She's clearly a lady with simple tastes. A two-minute conversation with Foggy, none of which I could understand through the drunken Aberdeen dialect, only served to provide further evidence of how easily pleased Jackie really was. She actually complained at only being able to spend six nights in Benidorm on this particular visit, and began chastising poor old incomprehensible Foggy for his part in that particular booking fiasco. Foggy got up and sang something but again my inability to take notes while drinking too much vodka has let me down on the business of identifying what it was. I can tell you two things about it. First it was categorically, undeniably and unshakeably shit. Second, Jackie dutifully loved it with all of her simple heart.

Only slightly better was Steve. Not me, there is no 'v' in Stephen. Whether or not my versions of 'Valerie', 'She's Electric', 'When You Say Nothing At All', 'Everything Changes', 'Staring At The Sun' and 'Don't Go Breaking My Heart' (no, really) were even slightly better than Foggy's efforts is not for me to say. I remember absolutely loathing my 'Staring At The Sun' endeavours while Emma charmingly blamed it on the fact that the words were wrong on the screen. Is this a good time to mention that I wasn't reading the words on the screen? I know that song just too well, sadly. Anyway Steve, well Steve was an ageing rocker of the highest order. He seemed incredibly tall and awkward to me, arms and legs everywhere, although being seated for 90% of the time has led to my developing difficulty in gauging heights. Everyone is tall, are they not? Steve certainly was, and he barked out some God-awful, clumsily delivered Tom Petty number that quite befitted such a tack-filled, desperate, hovel of guilty pleasure like the Black Chicken.

I loved it. Can we go back twice a year, Emma?

That would be a 'no'.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Benidorm (Featuring An Idiot From Thatto Heath)

"What time is it, Stephen?"

"Quarter to nine."

Sunday. Breakfast is on between 7.00 and 10.00 so as we drag our weary, slightly hung over arses out of bed we reckon we have just over an hour to get some food down us before heading to the beach.

Except we don't. At some point while I am in the bathroom (having carefully closed the door so that it might have half a chance of re-opening) the realisation hits me that I have forgotten to put the clock forward on my mobile phone. It was certainly 8.45 in Manchester, but here in Benidrom it was most definitely 9.45. Despite my extra care with the door, we have missed breakfast.

So, the beach it is. A day before the flight, and remembering that the plan while here was to do as much of nothing as possible, I spent an unreasonable amount of money in the Waterstones in Liverpool. Usually I can just wave a gift card around in the likes of Waterstones and WH Smiths. So predictably dull am I that if ever anyone bothers to ask what I might like for a birthday or for Christmas, there is a 90-odd% chance that I will suggest a voucher for a book store. That's not a hint. Nothing I say is a hint, unless you're going to do it.

Anyway somehow I was as good as voucher-less (there was actually about £3-something on my last Waterstones card) when I bought ANOTHER Grisham novel, YET ANOTHER Bill Bryson tome, and one by an author entirely new to me called Jeremy Dyson. I'm trying to broaden my horizons. Or something. I remember wondering how I could have arrived at the point where I needed actual English currency to obtain books in Waterstones, and then I looked into my wallet and found a gift card for HMV that had been there for over a year, and one for Gamestation which may very well pre-date the original version of the Atari.

So where were we? The beach. I'm not good with sand or water so what am I doing here? Correction. The wheelchair is not good with sand or water so what is it doing here? I'm stuck with it, but fortunately there is enough of a wooden ramp to help me get within jumping distance of a pair of loungers and a parasol. Beaches all seem to have those ramps with grooves in which jolt you each time a wheel hits one. I don't know whether it is meant to slow you down so that you don't mow down a passing toddler, but whatever the reason it makes it more awkward. Awkward is the beach's middle name.

We pay 12 Euros for the privilege of lounging around all day in that spot. An old man who knows almost no English other than to ask for money (my Dad used to say that about me and my sister) walks by and collects a small fortune. It's quite busy here, but thankfully everyone seems to have the same idea as us (i.e. to do nothing except maybe read) so we are not disturbed until one of the old man's colleagues, similarly challenged with her English, walks by to check that we have indeed purchased tickets enabling us to do nothing.

Somewhere in the middle of Bryson's first chapter a drinks vendor wanders by. His English is slightly better than that of the man selling loungers and parasols. Aswell as asking you for money, the drinks vendor knows how to shout the names of beverages at you very loudly;

"Coca-Cola, lemon (suspiciously pronounced limon but we'll let him have it), Fanta, beer!" he booms at regular intervals, scouring the beach for someone who might be interested. There is a huge supermarket not two minutes walk from where we are yet he does a roaring trade. Such is the nature of people, they will pay more for their drinks if it means they can have them brought to them by loud, pushy blokes rather than have to cross the street just off the beach.

One particular set of customers are winding our drinks vendor up somehow. They've asked for something that our man hasn't got and it's prompted a bit of a tantrum. He storms off to get the right drink for his bemused customers and as he goes about completing the transaction, he begins throwing items of his belonging to different parts of the beach. One such missile gives a fright to a pair of sunbathing girls nearby, while another lands on the lounger of his customers as he fannies around in his bag, probably looking for the requisite change. The woman buying the drink is not put off by this. There is no way that she is walking the two minutes over the road don't forget, so she calmly picks up his discarded goods and hands them back to him. He walks on grumpily.

In terms of causing a disturbance he's nothing compared to the vendor we encountered on the beach in Alcudia. Every day the same chubby, middle-aged lady would patrol the area trying to sell her liquid refreshment in the same aggressive manner. And her English was worse;

"Melon and melon and melon and a melon and Co-Co!" she would bellow, which we presumed to mean she had some Coke somewhere on her person which might be for sale. We dared not ask. This was a very scary woman. I swear one afternoon I had drifted off to sleep (nursing another hangover, no doubt) and her overly-enthusiastic brand of salesmanship actually woke me up. We lay at different parts of the beach on different days, but there was no escape from her town cryer act.

Back in Benidorm it is time for lunch. Having missed breakfast this is the first chance we get to visit our restaurant. We're full board and at a fairly hefty price too I might add, so it would be nice if there were something palatable on offer. Even better if the service was something approaching acceptable. We wait to be seated and are greeted by a short, balding man we assume to be the manager. Head waiter at least. There is something slightly sinister about him. He reminds Emma of an actor she has seen in films playing eastern European characters. I can confirm that he does. Google Peter Stormare and you will get some idea of what greeted us every meal time.

Lunch is more cheese and ham related products and while Emma has gone back to the buffet for something or other I notice our movie villain head waiter has a slight quirk upon greeting some of his dining guests. A couple walk in and he smiles at them happily, turns to the gentleman and says;

'Ello sirrrrrrrr'

.......before switching his gaze and coming out with the quite brilliantly inappropriate....

"Ello lovvvvvv"

He's calling him 'sir' and her 'love'. What's more he is doing it in a such a way that the botched pronounciation only accentuates the faux pas. Or whatever the Spanish is. I have no idea which customer service courses he has been on. Later that day, one of the waitresses manages to top up Emma's glass of Diet Coke with half a glass of regular Coke. She hasn't even asked for a top-up. In fact, she has declined the offer.

Back at the hotel bar in the evening the live music is getting worse. Comparisons to Raw Sex are entirely superflous at this point but that is as best a description I can offer you of the type of entertainment on offer. A very old man bashes away at his organ (oh, really) while half a handful of people scarcely notice. The white-haired grape-face from last night is back again and he has managed to age even more. Again we don't stay long.

The only new bar we visit thereafter is the Western Saloon. My sister had told me that she and her friends had had a 'riot' in there when she last visited Benidorm. That may be an unfortunate term at the moment but that is exactly the one she used before the residents of Tottenham decided to start tearing their neigbourhood apart. Perhaps she is something of a prophet. Anyway, for 'riot' read Irish duo performing the kind of patriotic ditties that one needs to be highly innebriated to enjoy. One of the men consumes a ridiculous amount of lager throughout his performance without really showing any ill effects. It's quite phenomenal.

Aware that they have utterly screwed up the theme by inviting this dubious pair to their establishment, the Western Saloon staff make a bit of an effort by dressing up as cowgirls. Now this is mildly diverting to me but there is no wheelchair access to the bar and so, another ludicroulsy large vodka or two later, we are on our way again. Back to the same old karaoke bars from last night, avoiding Uncle Kracker and trying instead to add to my repertoire.

There's time yet.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Benidorm (No, Not The TV Show)

By the time we check in to Hotel Riviera we have missed lunch. We're full board, but lunch is only on till 3.00 and we're not going to make it. So the plan is to get in, get a quick change and freshen up, then go out and find somewhere to eat while sizing up some of the local entertainment.

Standing between us and our first proper meal of the last 20-odd hours is the fact that I am stuck in the bathroom. It has a sliding door which I am sure is supposed to make access easier, but I have pulled it too far over and it has become separated from it's runners at the bottom. I don't realise this until I am ready to come out, and so I at least have the consolation of being in a fit state of dress during my ordeal.

And ordeal it is. Emma's not Bob The Builder, so she can't fix it. She has to tell the staff at reception that I have managed to get myself stuck in the bathroom. It's like a scene from 'One Foot In The Grave' that doesn't make the editor's final cut. A few minutes of contemplating spending my week in a small but reasonably well adapted bathroom pass by before the hotel's handy-man is knocking on the front door;

'Hola.' I hear him say, gruffly as he enters the room.

He begins tugging at the top of the door in what passes as an attempt to assess the problem. Predictably it doesn't budge. He mumbles something in Spanish, probably aimed in the direction of Emma since there is a whacking great door between the two of us. His voice is raised at the end as if he is asking a question, and the fact that she has no clue what he has just asked or how to answer it does not deter him. He continues to chunner on in Spanish as if we understand him perfectly. Soon, he is answering his own questions, nodding and saying 'si' to himself after every misunderstood utterance.

Finally, after several minutes of pushing, shoving and banging he identifies the problem. Mercifully, he is able to re-attach the door to it's runners quite quickly after this, and it is not long before I am released from my temporary confinement. For the first time I lay eyes on him and I am quite taken aback by the sheer magnitude of his moustache. It hangs for miles either side of his face. It's like something from a cartoon;

'Hola.' he offers as I sheepishly roll out into the main bedroom. I nod a hopeful nod of grattitude, but any real expression of my thanks for his efforts is clearly going to be eaten alive by the language barrier. So that's it. He leaves, but just as we are about to leave the hotel and get a now rather delayed lunch, the receptionist calls the room to say that he will have to come back for something not quite specified. We wait a few more minutes but he does not return. A few more, still nothing. Perhaps he is tending to that enormous moustache. Or freeing some other idiot biff from his bathroom.

And so we walk for a few minutes, around the corner from our hotel. It is noticable that there are a number of bars closed. Some have signs outside proclaiming that Saturday is their day off and I remember thinking that, as close to British pub culture as this place so obviously is, closing bars on a Saturday would never work at home. Well I say culture. It's not really. Benidorm is a place so utterly devoid of it's own culture that it has to be seen to be believed. It's a slice of Britain, most likely Blackpool, picked up and plonked into a hot climate. Though they are closed on Saturdays, it is telling that some of these bars are actively advertising the fact that they show Eastenders and Coronation Street on their big screens through the week.

Lunch is a simple cheese and ham toastie affair in a place called 'Beefy's'. The girl serving there possibly knows no English. She's exceptionally quiet and seems utterly indifferent to our presence. There is one other couple in here. If Benidorm has a reputation for being rowdy and loud then they didn't mean this place. We tip her a Euro or two in the hope that she might smile.

Opposite Hotel Riviera is a place called Uncle Ped's. This dubiously named establishment really should attract more custom than it does, given that one can buy a bottle of Budweiser here for 1 Euro. That's less than 90p which, for those of you unfamiliar with the price of alcohol, is what is known as 'bloody cheap'. It is here that we start our first evening in Benidorm. The aim is exploration so we won't have to hang around here for long, despite the fabulously cheap beer. There's more evidence of Benidorm's Britishness, with screens lined along the walls showing pre-season football friendlies involving Liverpool and Arsenal. The other customers are mostly young families. Something to be avoided.

As we leave Uncle Ped's we notice that there is some live music on back at Hotel Riviera. Remembering our enjoyment of the wonderfully tacky live acts on show in Alcudia all those years ago, I suggest to Emma that we call back in for one drink and take in what Brian Potter might refer to as 'the turn'. We sit down at a table in the nice outdoor bar I noticed on the way in, and the waitress brings our drinks. She pours half a bottle of vodka into my glass and offers me a barely visible amount of orange juice with which to dilute my lethal tipple. The first three or four sips are barely palatable. They are pure vodka, strong enough to kill a herd of rhinos. It is only after that fourth or fifth go that I am able to squeeze enough of the orange juice into my glass to adequately take the sting out of the thing.

Two long-haired, probably local men are playing in a makeshift performance area. I would hesitate to call it a stage. In fact, I would hesitate, think about it twice more and finally decide that it is not a stage. Among the hits they belt out are The Police's infamous 'Every Breath You Take'. The singer is certainly taking the Sting out of this, but puts the top hat on it by playing the Black Eyed Peas' 'I Gotta Feeling' where the instrumental should be. Even P-Diddy didn't screw this song up this badly, and yet it is greatly entertaining. We love this sort of crap.

A man sitting opposite catches my eye. Not like that. But I can't help but notice him. He must be in his 70's, and he has a mop of bright white hair shaped into the most outrageous mullet. It's the kind of hairstyle that only the Gerry Francises of this world truly believe they can get away with. Emma calls it wretched, and it really is. His skin, wrinkled to within an inch of it's life, is dark purple, possibly as a result of too much sunshine. He looks like a black grape, and for some reason I can't stop looking at him. Like he's a car accident.

The 'turn' plays on, but when the vodka is gone we walk on in the general direction of all the noise. We end up in a bar called 'Morgan's', in which there is another 'turn' in full swing. This lot are a Queen tribute band, and they are quite a draw. There are no seats in the house, so we order our rhino-strength vodkas and find a seat outside. Helpfully, there is a screen above the outdoor bar showing the entertainment. They call themselves One Vision after the old Queen number, and consist of three men and a woman. I'm being picky when I point out that I can't ever remember a woman being in Queen, but 'Emma-Louise' certainly adds something. She's dressed more like a vampire than a member of Queen, but she can certainly belt out a tune. Though 'We Are The Champions' is cut criminally short to my mind.

Soon they are replaced by a trio calling themselves Joyful Joyful, and their 'thing' is to rattle of numbers from the Sister Act soundtracks. This really isn't my 'thing', and I'm distracted by a man trying to sell flowers. One man has already bought flowers somewhere else, and tries to sell them back to the flower salesman here. His female companion just laughs, and I'm blown away by such romanticism. Nevertheless I decline the offer when he gets to our table. If I know Emma she can think of nothing less romantic than me buying her flowers from a pushy chancer in a tacky European bar.

And so to our last stop, The Last Stop. This is the sort of bar that I was promised I would see so much of and enjoy so much. More vodka kicks off the Karaoke Tourettes and before you can say 'Uncle Kracker is a one-hit wonder but doesn't half go down well when people realise they remember it' I'm up there, belting out my country/pop party piece. Emma makes a remark about how I always sing the same songs and I make a drunken promise never to sing the same song twice while we're here.

When I am not on stage there is much else to baulk at. A 10-year-old girl belts out a torrid version of Lady Gaga's 'Poker Face'. Now call me old fashioned but I think there is something inherently wrong with a girl that age singing about getting people hard and showing what they've got but it doesn't seem to bother the adults responsible for her. They're egging her on and taking photographs despite the risque lyricism. I start hoping that they haven't noticed how inappropriate this song really is because I dread to think that they know and have just let her get on with it regardless.

A man called Paul sings with an older lady called Norma. They offer us the most tuneless version of 'I Got You Babe' I have ever heard, and to make matters worse he adjusts something on the inside of his shorts in the middle of his performance. I'm assuming that Norma is his mum. She pretends she hasn't noticed which is probably best for everyone. Other 'highlights' include Scouting For Girls' 'She's So Lovely' performed in the style of Joe Pasquale, and a Scottish folk version of Status Quo's 'The Wanderer'.

And this is it. This really is Benidorm.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Benidorm - The Journey

Well it must be at least two months since I went on some berserk travelling escapade, so thank God for the sake of this column that Emma and I spent a week in Benidorm recently.

The idea was to do nothing. As exciting and as much fun as it was the American trip was hectic and hard work at times. We needed to get away to somewhere where we could just lounge around a lot, where it would not be possible to run out of petrol on the freeway or get hopelessly lost on the local transportation. While this may not seem like fertile ground for what is fast claiming to be a travel journal, it is surprising how much can happen when you are doing nothing.

Our flight was Saturday morning, August 6, but the adventure begins a day earlier. For both Las Vegas and last year's Florida expedition we had used possibly the only wheelchair accessible mini-bus in the western world to get to the airport. Believing we were playing it safe we had booked it again this time, but receive a phone call late on Friday afternoon informing us that our booking is cancelled. The lift on the bus isn't working. Oh, and sorry, and all that.

All of which means that Emma will have to drive us to the airport. Now this is not a particularly great inconvenience to her as far as the outward journey is concerned, but it means that she will have to be a little careful about how much she drinks on the final evening. Our flight home is the following Saturday at 11.45am, meaning she will have to be fit to drive home from Manchester by about 3.00 in the afternoon. This may not seem like such a big ask, but she has previous in this field.

In 2004 we went to Alcudia in Majorca for a week. On the last night there we decided to go out with a bit of a bang. It was a place with several 'social attractions', and the long and the short of it is that we were still in one such establishment at gone 4.00 in the morning. We had to be up by 6.45 to get on the coach to the airport. At a certain point I decided that enough was enough but Emma steadfastly refused to come home. She was well past the point at which sensible communication was possible and so, in one of the less intelligent of my drunken moments (and there are MANY to choose from), I left her there.

When I woke up in the bed alone at 6.45am with the alarm blaring away you can imagine my anxiety. What I had forgotten was that our room was split into two separate parts, and to my relief I found her in the other side flat on her face, completely dead to the world. Thankfully, what with all the arsing around that surrounds air travel, she did not have to drive us home until much later in that day but nevertheless, that journey was 'interesting'. The memory is still clear enough that I'm quite certain she will never make that mistake again. She wouldn't have had to worry about it but for a broken lift, but then this is us and our travels so it was always going to happen.

So she drives. Thankfully you can arrange this sort of thing online these days so it is fairly simple, right up until the point when the machine fails to register my debit card. Thus the car park barrier is not inclined to raise at this point, and somewhere along the line Emma pushes the wrong button and ends up having a parking ticket spewed out at her. We might have ended up having to pay for the parking twice had we not spoken to another silly machine to explain the mix-up and quote our booking reference number. It would be fine, the voice said. Right.

An example of my infamy is waiting for me in the queue for checking-in. I bump into someone I used to go to college with about 15 years ago. He is with his wife, someone else I used to know because she worked in a pub I used to go in about eight years ago. I have a friend who relentlessly tried to get off with her every week for about two years. I don't think he ever achieved it, sadly. I never knew that she and my former college friend were together and I remember thinking that the world is smaller than I had imagined. They have one, maybe two little people in tow and a conversation about the last 15 years is crammed into about 20 seconds until it is our turn to check-in.

The flight is going to be delayed. We are hit with this bombshell even before we have a chance to lug the suitcases on to the conveyer belt. Instead of leaving at 7.00am we will be leaving at 9.00am. It is now around 4.20am and suddenly, Benidorm seems a long way away. We go through the usual charade of the check-in girl asking Emma stupid questions about whether I can walk (she never bothers to ask if I can speak for myself, they never do), and go off to find something to do for the next three and a half hours before the revised boarding time.

Having not had much sleep we decide to go for a much-needed brew first. Though the tea is expensive they try to sweeten you by offering you free refills so long as you keep your cup. That probably proves cost effective for them on the whole, but given the amount of time we spend sitting around in airports they might just have picked the wrong mark in the pair of us. Welcome though a very early morning brew is, it is not long before I declare the holiday officially open by going for a pint of lager. The thought crosses my mind that 5.50am (which it is by now) is a tad too early to be consuming alcohol but I've never been one for conformity. We find a seat in the obligatory overly expensive airport bar and go about the difficult business of passing the time.

Maybe it is something about drinking at that time of the morning that brings out the very strange in people but Emma has the misfortune of standing next to one of those people who talks to you as if he has known you all his life despite having never met you. He also assumes that you know all of his friends and family by name and can therefore put any rantings he might have to impart on you about them into perfect context;

"I was just saying to Carol!......" he begins

Who? Never mind.

"No, I mean, I was just saying to Carol about them two women behind us, if I ever get like them you can shoot me."

Turns out that the two in question had been bitching about something or other and Man At Bar had obviously found them a little too intolerant for his tastes. He goes on to order Carol a glass of wine and when asked what size glass he might require, replies;

"Ooh, large one I think. Doesn't matter, Carol's paying!"

Good old Carol. Finally Emma manages to escape Man At Bar but it doesn't help that when she attempts to pay for the drinks (no, it's my money I'm just lazy and have trouble seeing over bars from this height) she is met with a classic 'computer says no' moment. The girl has to swipe a card and type a pin number or some such arsewash just to get the till working, but when she does so it refuses to co-operate. 'Till Closed', it tells her. Computer says no. Man At Bar talks more about Carol.

Emma leaves me to pay a visit and then an even more terrifying demonstration of my infamy ensues. Emma hates this about me (among other things, probably) but it is fair to say that we can't go anywhere without someone knowing me or at least thinking they know me. I'm expected to remember them all and to my shame I hardly ever do. But they have an unfair advantage in that I have a distinctive feature, shall we say. Quite often, however, I am not the man they think I am and it turns out that in fact that they have just seen some random bloke in a wheelchair and decided that I am him. Either way, we spent an inordinate amount of time on nights out and such like being delayed because I am having pointless conversations with people I may or may not know.

As I said she is elsewhere so she misses this one, and we're not really going anywhere anyway. The terrifying thing is that the person approaching me is carrying an enormous machine gun. Two armed police officers are patrolling the area and as they walk towards me one of them approaches me, quite matter of factly, and asks me if I live in St.Helens. I look at the size of his gun (stop it) and decide that I don't really feel I can say no. I would have agreed to almost anything. I feel like Lieutenant George when he was asked for his hand in marriage by General Melchet.

He tells me that he has seen me 'in town'. I find this worrying because anyone who has only ever seen me 'in town' will no doubt be convinced that I am an alcoholic manic depressive prone to sporadic outbursts of unnecessary aggression. This is not the sort of impression one would wish to give to a police officer carrying an offensive weapon. There isn't time to explain, however, that I am not like that all the time (shut up, I'm not) and so instead we just discuss the fact that he lives in Wigan now, but is also from St.Helens. I decide against offering him my sympathies for his current choice of residence.

Emma returns from the ladies and conveys an amusing tale about how she has to wee standing up. My view is that she should be grateful for the ability to do so, but she's not happy because not only is the toilet seat noticably absent, but the door won't lock either. A few pints later we are on the plane. It doesn't seem all that long since we arrived, because beer will do that for you. It makes time go quicker. Another pint and it might very well have been time to come home.

The flight itself is uneventful until we land. At which point we notice that water is dripping from the ceiling above our seats. Forced so sit there and wait until they have retrieved my chair from the hold there is very little we can do about it except vigilantly avoid the occasional heavy drops. Laughably, we are 'assisted' by an announcement advising us that 'passengers requiring wheelchair assistance should remain seated'. Really? What else are we likely to do? I'm so glad you told me that because now I won't have to go crawling down the aisle like some demented Orang-Utan!

Much fannying about on the internet had led us to a company who had the decency to offer accessible airport transfers. Unlike the mini-bus company on this side, they are true to their word. A short, middle-aged man holds a sign with Emma's name on it. As we pass through Arrivals, past the crowd of people waiting to pick up passengers, I notice a woman holding a sign that simply says 'BALD MAN'. There's a moment when I think she might be referring to me but there's no time to consider it any further. Our driver is lugging our suitcases through the crowds and he is not stopping for anyone. He leads us past a huge queue of people waiting for the lift and we are left with no choice but to follow. He's single-minded. He's got his passengers and he's buggered if he is going to let anyone get in the way of him finishing the job off.

Close to Benidorm, he drives us through a very narrow road which looks like it belongs in the middle of nowhere. I am thinking there can't possibly be anything even resembling a holiday resort anywhere near this shady, dusty road. Later, Emma tells me that she thought he might be taking us somewhere quiet so he could murder us without fear of being seen. However, we reach the other end of the road and suddenly there are bars and hotels and holiday-type things to be seen. Given the bad press Benidorm gets I am pleasantly surprised. This is exactly the sort of place that one could spend a week in doing absolutely nothing.

He drops us off at Hotel Riviera, newly refurbished and looking rather nice actually. Nothing flash, but certainly acceptable in comparison to some of the places we have stayed in on our relentless journey around the world. It's unbelievably, searingly hot as we move up the driveway to the main entrance to check-in. There's a nice outdoor bar area that I make a note to make excessive use of during our stay. It's about 3.00pm local time. Must be time for a pint.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

The Wasp

I'm not meant to be here. I'm not meant to be anywhere. If anyone asks, you ain't seen me, right? I just had to share this with you.

I've just had another of those 'why do I bother?' days. Increasingly these days, I am starting to feel like the wasp who flies headlong into what he thinks is an open window, only to slam into the glass at high speed. Unlike the wasp, I never end up splattered, just a little dazed. In time, usually within a few days, I have forgotten all about the slam into the glass and I come back for another go. Always with the same result. What follows is another such example.

Two days ago Emma took the car to the Renault dealership on Sherdley Road for it's MOT. I never gave this a second thought until she informed me that not only had the car FAILED it's MOT, but that it would cost £450 to make it roadworthy again. She's driving down to Buckinghamshire to see her family at the weekend so she has to have the car. No choice. She doesn't have the money, so I pay.

All well and good. Except that within a day those nice people at Renault are back on the phone to Emma to let her know that actually, there is something else wrong with the car and well.....it's going to cost £511 for the car to be roadworthy again. And seven pence. Having just forked out over a grand for our holiday in Benidorm (yes, there will be blogs when I can summon the life force) an additional £511 (and seven pence) is nobody's idea of a fun spending spree. Yet still, I puff out my cheeks and reason that since I am fortunate enough to be able to afford it at the moment I will write a cheque or wave a debit card and just neglect to look at my bank balance until the next pay day arrives.

So this morning we go together to pick up the car. Only we don't. They hand us the keys, deliver the usual speed-waffle about what they have 'had' to do to it to bring it back to life, and send us on our way £511 (and seven pence) lighter. Some spark has parked it too close to a railed fence that runs along the back of the car park so Emma has to roll it forward in order to get my chair into the boot. She does this without too much fuss, but when it comes to turning the ignition key a second time to actually get the thing started, it's having none of it. There's no sound, no lights are coming on, nothing. Now, I'm no Charlene Mitchell (come on boys, you remember?), but I'd say that means it's buggered.

So, not only have they charged us an outrageous fortune (and not of the kind Shakespeare wrote) but they have handed the car back to us in a worse state than it was when we took it in on Monday. Late for work and losing flexi rapidly I storm back into the office, positively seething. I haven't been this angry since.....ooh.....four days previously when the staff at Manchester Airport tried to explain to me why my wheelchair was at baggage reclaim (it's a whole other blog, that one).

"How is it possible for you to charge me £500 and give the car back to us in a worse state then when it came in?" I demand to know of the Customer Relations Assistant Manager or some such garbled job-title faeces.

"Sir, we don't actually check the battery during an MOT" he replies.

I'm as stunned as any forgetful wasp can be at this point;

"Don't you think you should check it for that amount of money?" I am about to ask, before Emma, usually the one to kick off first if there is any complaining to be done, calmly strolls in and asks the Customer Relations Assistant Arsehole what might be going on.

"Battery is flat." I say. I've gone a bit John Cleese by now and follow up with;

"And they are going to charge us EVEN MORE than the £500 we have already paid!"

"Sir, nobody is saying we are going to charge you again but if there is a problem with the battery then it will be chargeable."

Come again? You're not saying you are going to charge me but it will be chargeable? Do you mean chargeable as in you will be able to re-charge the battery and get the fucking thing working again? Or do you mean chargeable as in you get your grubby hands on ANOTHER extortionate amount of money that your dimwit mechanics have not come even remotely close to earning?

Undecided what he means, I just spout;

"Shut up, you and I both know we are going to pay extra for this so don't take the piss out of me."

"Sir, I'm not I....."

Emma leads me away, and they offer to take us to work. I won't stay in the car with them for the whole of a ride to Liverpool because I am far beyond the signpost marked 'fuming'. So they drop us off at the train station and I try to forget about it.

And I do, until the cakes are mentioned. There is something of a tradition in work for buying cakes. There has to be some semblance of an occasion to mark, but it need not be a very important or prominent one. My coming back to work from my holidays is reason enough. So yesterday I said I would get the cakes in.

However, having turned up an hour and a half late for work because of the aforementioned car shenanigans it slips my mind. By the time I am reminded of it, close to lunchtime, I don't have the time to go out and get them. You see I've made a mistake and I'm busy fixing it. Not a grave error, but one on the scale of...say.... a forgetful wasp flying into a pane of glass. Either way it is something that needs fixing because otherwise I dwell on it. And you know what happens when I dwell on things? I start blogging.

By mid-afternoon every other piece of office banter (and one or two Facebook posts) are about how I promised everyone cakes and failed miserably to deliver. Deepening my predicament here is the fact that I have left my ruck-sack in the stricken, flat-batteried, £500-to-fix car so I have nothing to carry said cakes in anyway. A couple of my colleagues kindly volunteer but by then it is mid-afternoon and once I have fumbled through the 257 20p pieces in my wallet to scrape together enough cash for the cakes (it's all gone on that fucking car) it's getting a bit late. Sure enough, my colleagues return without cakes because there are none at such a ridiculous hour of the day.

Why do I bother? Wasp. I will try again soon. I promised.

So then I'm stuck on the train between Prescot and Eccleston Park. Apparently some 'vandals' (do people still use that word? do 'vandals' go 'courting'?) have stolen the signals. I have had to get the later train anyway because I've worked longer hours to get everything sorted in the wake of my incompetence (I'm off tomorrow and Friday), so it's after 6.30pm when we eventually pull into Thatto Heath station.

When I do the guard asks if he can help me off the train, but he gestures as if to do so without the aid of a ramp. I think he was just going to try to pull me off (please) and hope that I did not become separated from my wheelchair (which as you may have guessed by now was successfully reclaimed from fecking baggage reclaim the other day). I ask him to look for a ramp, but my problems don't end there.

He places the ramp between the train and the platform, but puts his foot right in the middle of the thing. As I approach the part of the ramp where his foot is still placed I ask him to move it while I roll down the ramp. What does he do instead? He reaches forward and tries to pull me forwards by the shoulders toward the platform. Clearly he agrees with the Manchester Airport staff in their view that I have no real need to be seated in my wheelchair while I am moving.

The chair tips slightly to one-side, then the lean becomes more pronounced until it's Dukes Of Hazard stuff, rolling sideways down the flimsy ramp, back wheels in the air, guard looking frightened and flapping away unhelpfully all the while. Eventually, and I still don't know how, all four wheels find the platform and my arse is still in the vicinity of my seat.

And this is not untypical of the type of treatment I get from railway staff in Merseyside. Why do I bother?

Cos I'm a forgetful wasp, is why, and do you know what? I'll be back for another go soon.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Las Vegas: The Last Stand

As I write this it is August 2, some 66 days after our last full day in America. I didn't quite expect it to take this long to transfer the events of our rip-roaring road trip to the web, but I knew that the full story was still going to be something approaching epic.

So, it's the final day of our travels across the western United States. We have plans to see The Script at Mandalay Bay this evening, but are hungover enough to laze around in the hotel room till gone 11 this morning. We finally surface and start looking for somewhere to watch the Champions League final. It kicks off at 11.45am local time so there isn't long. Hennessy's, an Irish bar on the corner of Fremont, seems a reasonable place to start. It's not. It's pretty close to empty, and a rather too laid back man informs us that since the game is being shown on the FOX network, it won't be on in their bar. They can't afford it, clearly. Damn you Rupert, your influence is everywhere.

With all other avenues seemingly closed at this point and with so little time left, we settle on the sports book at The Golden Nugget. It's just next door to our hotel, where I had already paid a visit to the sports book and placed a $10 bet on the game. I needed the scores to be level at half-time, but Barcelona to be winning by full-time. It was 7/2, which for the maths geniuses out there among you is 3 and a half to 1. Still confused? You're such a girl. Basically, if both of those outcomes were to materialise I would win three and a half times my stake (that's the $10). So, $35 in other words.

Well, you need something to make watching Manchester United play in a Champions League final bearable. There's not enough time now to fully do justice to even an attempt at describing my contempt for Manchester United so I won't try. Besides, there is already too much football talk in this column and it's about a holiday in Las Vegas after all.

We are left with little option seating-wise (I was shrewd enough to bring my own), and find ourselves perched in front of a row of small screens. Most of these are positioned somewhere in the sky and all but one are showing baseball. There is always baseball going on somewhere in America, it seems, and in a Las Vegas hotel sports book there is always going to be at least 27 televisions showing whatever baseball happens to be going on.

We are near to a bar area (good news) which also serves food. I approach the bar and, since we have not had any breakfast and it is getting pretty close to lunchtime, we decide to order chips. Fries. Whatever. Unfortunately there is only one man serving and he seems doggedly determined not to notice that I exist (bad news). So desperate is he to avoid me that at one point I rack my brains to try and remember whether I might have got drunk and asked him out at some point last night. If I did I have really bad taste. Not only is he not my type, he's just downright rude and ignorant. Poor effort.

We are very close to kick-off when he finally acknowledges my existence and I am able to place my order. Instead of giving me a ticket with a number on it he asks my name. He's the one being a bit too forward now, if you ask me, but I want my chips and I want to watch United lose so I tell him. He asks me to go back to my seat (I'm in my seat you speccy knob!) and wait until he calls my name. I expect very little. I wait.

In the meantime a large group of men wearing either Manchester United or Barcelona shirts have entered the bar and somehow managed to blag the best seats in the house by the larger screens. It's the US sports book equivalent of towels on loungers I suspect. They must know the people who had been sat there previously. Anyway, despite their differing loyalties they seem to be getting on famously. There is no anymosity but then why should there be? How much can a group of men from America care anyway about the fortunes of one team from the north west of England and another from the Catalan region of Spain?

When the action starts they start whooping. They shout wholly inappropriate things like 'yeah, go Barcelona!' or 'whoooo, yeah Rooney baby!' and it reminds me of my shame at actually attending an NFL match or two at Wembley. This is how the American armchair viewer must feel when he sees the New York Giants going up against the Miami Dolphins in London. Large groups of people who can have absolutely no strong feelings either way about either team getting themselves all in a lather about a game they have a rudimentary knowledge of at best. All very undignified.

Barca score first, which means I need United to score by half-time to stand any chance with my bet. They do, and it's Rooney Baby. Or someone. I have never before even half-celebrated a goal by that granny-grabbing little wiener unless he's scored it while playing for England. Even then I begrudge it a little. But money and the kudos of being right are at stake here, so I allow myself to crack half a smile. Either that or the chips which have now finally arrived have given me a bit of wind.

The second half is a Barca masterclass, all of which I can enjoy without even a shred of guilt. The whooping is decidedly one-sided by now and one middle aged woman who you'd think might know better actually leaves in a full on strop when Barcelona's third goal goes in. The whistle goes, I'm $35 dollars better off (plus my stake, you remember the $10?) and I won't have to listen to any of my United supporting friends crowing about being European champions when I get back home tomorrow night. It's a win-win.

The afternoon is spent trying and failing to spend my winnings in the casinos on the strip. We need to get to Mandalay Bay by 6.30 and it is the very last stop on the journey. Rather than head straight there we had decided to get off half way down again and take in some liquid refreshment. Inevitably we would end up where we needed to be. What we had not reckoned with is the endless amounts of stupidly laid out walk-ways, lifts and unfathomable crossings which litter the bottom end of the strip. It took us the best part of an hour to walk the last part of the journey and in that time we did not have even a moment to take in another fabulously refreshing vodka and orange.

Finally we arrive at Mandalay Bay and join the queue. There is another wheelchair user waiting with us and when the usher arrives he takes us both through a side door, down a passageway towards a lift. The lady must have been listening to me and Emma talking along the way because she interrupts us with;

"Oh excuse me, I'm sorry, but are you guys from England?"

"Yes." I answer.

"Oh that's so cool, I was just saying to my girlfriend here that I have another girlfriend who lives in England."

She delivers this news as if living in England is the most revolutionary thing a person could do, and that the chances of an American actually achieving it are roughly the same as that of being killed by a slice of cake;

"Oh really." I say, trying not to sound too much like I am humouring her;



I am not a religious man as you know but I will swear on whatever you would like me to that this is the actual answer she gave me. To have the myth confirmed that there are Americans out there who think Wales is in England is just the most fabulously satisfying yet somehow depressing and annoying turn of events.

"Wales is not really in England though, is it?" I point out.

"No? Oh, I'm sorry." she says.

"It's ok. I'll let you off but I am not sure the Welsh would."

She is led to a row that is fairly central to the stage but I'm not so lucky. We are a long, long, long way up in the clouds in the House Of Blues and Emma and I are asked to keep moving and eventually arrive in what can only be described as a rather crappy location at the side of the stage. There is a particularly amorous young couple sat next to us and I remember wondering what their disabilities might be. No signs of any wheelchairs, canes, sticks, not even a good old fashioned limp in the brief moments they are detached from each other. Sex addiction is my best guess.

There is a perfectly pleasant warm-up act playing on stage. I can mostly only see the top of his head but he strums his acoustic guitar expertly and sings songs about love and angst of the type only a melancholy lunatic such as myself could endure, never mind enjoy. But I like him. Deal with it. I can't remember his name, but I like him. I can't remember the name of everyone I have ever liked. Can you? Honestly?

Somewhere in the middle of his set I get the munchies and head to the small kiosk at the end of the row of seating. I'm used to either salty or sweet popcorn but in the absence of either at this unique little location I settle on cheesy popcorn. Think Wotsits with an extra 'this is going to make you sick' kick. Emma tries them but declines any other offer I make for her to help me with the huge, cone-shaped bag. Half of it will be picked up by the cleaners when we leave our hotel room tomorrow afternoon.

And so to The Script. For the uninitiated they are a fairly successful Irish band who sing songs about love and angst. Right up my street then. Actually, they are and always were Emma's choice but there is much to enjoy with the likes of 'The Man Who Can't Be Moved', 'Falling To Pieces', 'For The First Time' and the agonisingly brilliant 'I'm Yours' belted out at volumes loud enough for you not to hear the whooping from the crowd. Maybe they were Manchester United fans and just didn't have the stomach for it.

The Script's guitarist, rather than it's singer, does most of the talking in between numbers and at a certain point he begins to annoy me. He's warming to his task as guitarist/compere and I'm sure at one point he is convinced that he is Ardal O'Hanlon. He's not. He's not even Frank Carson. Stick to the music, son, and you'll go far. Well, you have already got to Las Vegas, which isn't exactly round the corner from Dublin, now is it?

The singer's role, other than singing, is mostly to strut around stage as if he would eat himself were he made of chocolate. Or even liquorice. He's too vain for my tastes but Emma seems taken with him. I'm not the jealous type so I don't make an issue of it. Besides, it would be a little rich to pick a fight about that now when I'm fully aware that I'll be at some English venue screaming and crying like a bitch next time Joss tours the UK.

Anyway, it's our last night and there is no way in the world we are falling out tonight.