Tuesday, 19 August 2014


And so I find myself doing this again. To pay tribute first and foremost, but also I suppose to get it off my chest because it is another shocking , unfathomable loss for those who knew him.

On Sunday we lost Martin. I’d known Martin since we were about 13 years old, some 25 years. We met through playing wheelchair basketball. I’m not going to lie and say we were best friends. My policy of never answering my phone to anyone made life very difficult in that regard. He lived quite a long way away, but we had enough text and Facebook communication to make sure we met up fairly regularly long after we had both given up on active sport.

Imagine my shock then as I idly logged on to Facebook from my phone on Sunday night to see pictures of him plastered all over the place, accompanied by messages of condolence. On Saturday afternoon I wrote a typically glib status from my anti-Man United repertoire about Gary Neville crying. Martin ‘liked’ that status. So he was alive and well then, yet just 24 hours later his picture was all over my timeline along with RIP’s and tributes. I can’t even find the right words to describe that. I’d need all day to study the thesaurus. It was just completely unbelievable. At times like that you wonder about whether social media is such a good thing. Before Facebook I might have got a phone call from a mutual friend to break this to me gently. Now you get an instant, sharp shock shared by hundreds. All of them mean well. I even posted the news myself so that any of my friends who knew him would be aware. In the old days you would have had to ring around which is a difficult thing to do with news like that. But Facebook is just not a very subtle, gentle way of letting people know that the worst has happened.

I don’t know how it happened. All I know is that he was found in his flat by his sister. Can you imagine that? My thoughts are with her especially at the moment because that must have been an indescribably horrific experience. The only clue I have about how all of this might have come about is that I know Martin was due to go into hospital for surgery this weekend. He was vague about it because I think it was quite personal, but what was clear is that he was frightened. Which was not like him. He’d been in and out of hospital a lot, and sometimes even pestered them to run more tests if he didn’t feel quite right, all the while being assured that he didn’t have this or he didn’t have that. If he was genuinely afraid then it suggests something was seriously amiss, although at this point I just don’t know. There could be any number of other reasons for his death and I would not like to speculate too much.

So let’s focus on his life. If I’m looking for a Martin anecdote I should look no further than his relationship with my beloved St Helens RLFC. I managed somehow to get him into Saints even though he was a scouser and a couple of games he attended will live long in the memory. The first was at Wembley in 1997 when we won the Challenge Cup for the second consecutive year against the Bradford Bulls. At the old Wembley wheelchair users were led to their seats through the gate underneath the steps and the royal box. As we made the journey he caught sight of Shola Ama, a much forgotten singer who had a couple of hits in the 90’s and who was due to perform before the kick-off. Or maybe at half-time. Either way, all I remember is Martin freewheeling after her and loudly (and drunkenly) making one or two impolite requests.

Yet the crowning glory of his Saints-watching career was at Knowsley Road one Good Friday for a traditional Saints-Wigan derby. Martin, Paul and myself had been drinking heavily all day and when the time came for him to get his train back to Seaforth he was in no fit state. The story goes that he was refused permission to get on a train and so attempted to push back home down the East Lancashire Road. Unfortunately if not surprisingly he then at some point was struck by a car and landed himself in hospital. The doctors told him he had been lucky to escape with only minor injuries and it wasn’t until a few weeks later that the blundering quacks managed to figure out that he had in fact broken his arm. Sadly, this experience put Martin off travelling to St Helens for matches, or at least from travelling back in a state of intoxication so we didn’t share too many games together after that. Yet he remained a Saint nonetheless, travelling down to a pub near to where I live in 2006 to join Emma and I for Saints’ Grand Final win over Hull FC. It remains the last Grand Final we have won. The last time I visited his flat he had a framed shirt on the wall belonging to former Saints star James Graham. I have no idea how he blagged his way into getting hold of that but I’m guessing it involved the same fearlessness that he’d used to get a bit closer to Shola Ama at Wembley.

Until his health started to concern him Martin always worked as hard as he played. While I was still pissing my benefit away on lager and waiting around pointlessly for another weekend to begin, Martin was earning his crust at Merseytravel. In a climate in which so many people shy away from work with their dodgy backs you have to have a great deal of respect for that. He was generous with it, always inviting the boys round for the weekend and helping you out if you were short of a few quid while he was, at that stage, a little more flush. Paul and I used to spend a lot of time with him and it wasn’t all plain sailing all of the time. Like all of us he could sometimes be hard work. If he had drunk too much it was difficult to get him home whether Shola Ama was around or not, but then you could say the same about any of us. I remember one memorable occasion in another friend’s flat when a half naked Martin decided to climb on top of Paul who responded by hitting him with a teapot.

It seems somehow unjust to look back on those times now and realise that I am the only one of the three of us still around. It’s hard to get your head around. How many more people will we lose? Will I last the pace? You can’t help but wonder about your own mortality when you lose people of a similar age with similar disabilities, albeit in the knowledge that everyone is different and some people just get dealt a shitty hand.

Martin certainly has had that, ultimately. But I’ll never forget him or the stupid things we did and I just hope others remember him as the generous, fun-loving, loyal pain in the arse that I knew. That's loyal, not royal.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Rain, Rocky And Turd Tiramisu

More rain. Friday’s weather is rank. Drearier than a Vince Vaughan DVD box-set. We’ve been here almost a week and we still haven’t done any of New York’s three biggies. Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, Rockefeller Centre. They’re all out in this weather. You don’t want to go up there on anything but a clear day unless you really have to. The views would be decidedly underwhelming under these dark skies.

On a day like this the most sensible way of getting around the city looks to be the hop-on, hop-off tour bus. Most major cities now have buses that take you around all of their major sightseeing landmarks with the freedom to get on and off whenever and wherever you like along a pre-determined route. Serving its role as the access police this column should point out that the versions in Stratford-Upon-Avon and Los Angeles are inaccessible. Happily there are no such problems here, so the plain is to ride down to Wall Street and the financial district, hoping that the weather improves enough to take a peek at the Brooklyn Bridge.

Tour bus tickets are sold aggressively in New York. There’s an agent seemingly on every corner and they seem a pretty determined bunch. They have the persistence of Scrat from Ice Age, chasing that stupid acorn all across the frozen lands. But it's a means to an end rather than a permanent demeanour. The one we encounter drops that act as soon as she gets our attention, opting instead for the air of someone who has done us a monumental favour. She was garbling on about
doing us a deal on the Brooklyn route and the uptown route but we don’t want either. We leave her to her self-satisfaction and trudge over to join the queue at the nearest stop, just across the street. Waterproof ponchos are the order of the day. There’s barely a single person in the queue without one. Well, there is. There’s us. But as
it turns out we have the least need for precipitation protection garments. Another aggressive agent tells me to jump straight to the front of the queue, assuring me that we’ll be on the next bus. I have no qualms about playing the disability card in this situation. I don’t throw my hands up and protest about how I want to be treated equally or
else I’m going to chain myself to a fence. Disability is a turd flavoured tiramisu, so take the perks.

The pendulum swings again when we get on the bus. I don’t know how old this bus is but it has not been designed to withstand this kind of soaking. The floor resembles that of your average gents toilet as great puddles of water decorate the surface. There’s only a very small area of accessible seating (see what I mean about the pendulum and taking the perks?) and Emma finds out just too late that the seat closest to where I am positioned is soaked right through. Her mood
matches the weather for the majority of the bus’s slow crawl through the heavy New York traffic, but it’s understandable.

It takes the best part of an hour but by the time we reach the financial district the weather has improved considerably. The sun is out and things are quickly drying up. The streets are unexpectedly and inconveniently cobbled. We wander (and in my case judder) through the financial district which is not as plush and polished as I had imagined but you get a real sense that something important goes on around here. We pass the New York stock exchange and I'm again surprised that there aren't that many people walking around on the street outside wearing sharp suits and carrying possibly empty brief cases. Maybe they are all inside shouting about money that doesn't exist. If you believe what you see on terrible Hollywood biopics then maybe they are all out engaging in various methods of crass and humourless debauchery. Or maybe there is more truth in the far superior Wall Street films and they are all out preaching that greed is good. Either way it is quieter than I had expected.

We pass on through the picturesque harbour area, stopping for the obligatory photo opportunities. We can see the Brooklyn Bridge from this vantage point so it is suprising that it takes around another 20 minutes or so to get to it. It's hot and uphill for most of the way. I'm starting to flag but I'm not going to stop here. I eventually make it around three quarters of the way across the bridge but it's a painful, mostly uphill slog. My shoulders are screaming at me. It's fair to say my fitness is not what it was when I was masquerading as an athlete all those years ago. I stop for a short rest at the first of the bridge's giant arches before carrying on to the second. One or two more and I'm probably in Brooklyn but the view is pretty good from here. I can see the Statue of Liberty in the distance. It's a tiny dot from this far away but I can clearly make out the green of the world's most famous torch and tablet carrier from across the Hudson. That clump of land underneath it must be Liberty Island, then. If we can manage a reliably clear day before we fly home then we will get to see it from much closer quarters. The weather forecast is much better for tomorrow. It's getting late and so taking the tour bus back is not really an option. We have another visit to the theatre tonight and the endless fight through the traffic will make us late. So, having learned the lessons of yesterday's fiasco, we take the subway. The closest station to our current location is inaccessible, naturally, so we amble up to the next one in the heat with my back and shoulders burning more from over-use than from the hot sunshine. I complain when it rains, I complain when the sun shines.

After tea it's off to Winter Gardens on Broadway for the main event of the evening. Rocky The Musical. Pardon the punnage. Is punnage a word? The beer is slightly more expensive than even in the Lunt Fontanne, but that is my only complaint about a splendid evening. Unfathomably, Rocky The Musical is closing shortly. If I remember rightly this is due to mixed reviews. I'm not sure anything should close down due to mixed reviews, particularly not anything this good. After all, reviews are only the opinion of writers and many writers, regular readers may have noticed, are noticably more entertaining when they are being negative. It's just easier to entertain that way. Nobody reads Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard because they want to know about how happy I am and what a fantastic day I have had and how good Rihanna
is. They read because they want anecdotes about the ignorance of the able bodied population, and comparisons between desserts and human waste. If they read, that is.

For me the only slight disappointment is the music. The famous Rocky theme is used liberally and there's a welcome outing of Eye Of The Tiger, but if you ever do get a chance to see it don't go in expecting Hearts On Fire and No Easy Way Out, and that spectacular training montage piece so beloved of television producers in the 1990's. That said, the music holds it's own but it is the performance of Andy Karl in the role made famous by Sylvester Stallone that really stands out. The actor playing Paulie, Rocky's loud-mouthed and obnoxious brother-in-law, is too tall and too hairy to evoke memories of Burt Young's epic turn, but his is a solid performance too. The climactic fight scene is astonishing as the boxing ring slowly juts out towards the audience as those in the first several rows leave their seats to take up new ones on the other side of the ring to create what looks like an authentic boxing arena. Specifially the Philadelphia Spectrum. Then there are the ring entrances. The actors playing Rocky and Apollo Creed enter from the back of the theatre, walking down the aisles right in amongst the audience at the front of the newly positioned ring. The fight itself is clearly coreographed but not lacking in excitement for all of that. The whole thing is just brilliantly done and indescribably enthralling. Or maybe you have to be a Rocky fan like me.

I can tell you it was Emma's favourite part of the whole holiday.