Tuesday, 30 August 2016


We'd planned a trip to Ventimiglia, which is in Italy. A work colleague had told me that it is only a 35-minute train ride from Nice, which is less time than it takes to get to either Toulon or Cannes. Why not take in a different country and a different culture when you get the opportunity. I could go to the border and be like Homer Simpson hopping in and out of the Australian embassy in America and so managing to be in two different countries in one step. Or one push.

No I couldn't. As we've established if you want to use a train in France as a wheelchair user you have to buy your ticket before you can organise the assistance you'll need. Or you may need. Sometimes the train is low enough to the platform to render the whole thing unnecessary, but that won't stop the staff fussing over you and insisting you wait for them to produce the ramp. So we buy a ticket only to be told by the man booking our assistance with us that we cannot travel to Ventimiglia. It's not surprising to learn that the station there has some access problems but it is rather more perplexing to find out that to overcome said problems you need to give the Italian rail services at least 48 hours notice before travelling if you are using a wheelchair. And there's me whining on and on about how bad the French service has been these last 12 days.

I can't fathom this. How is it possible in the 21st century for a service to be so ill equipped for disabled users that it takes a full two days to organise a solution? Frankly, it is a flagrant breach of our human rights. Which may sound dramatic to you but then you take this sort of thing for granted. Naively, I had thought that Italy might be subject to the European laws which have done so much to improve access in the UK. Apparently not. Quite where this will leave us if Tory Theresa implements Brexit I just don't know. Probably back to the days of my childhood when I couldn't do something as routine as going to the cinema. Still, at least we won't have as many of those foreigners, coming over here performing life saving surgery and what not.

When you meet with outrageous injustices like this on holiday, where you have a limited amount of time in which to make the most of things, you have to be prepared to let it go pretty quickly. We had another option, after all. If Ventimiglia was off the table then we would go to Antibes, another of this area's beautiful port towns. A return ticket to Antibes is a little cheaper than one to Ventimiglia (€18 as opposed to €31), so we are taken through to the ticket office and given a refund of the difference between the two as well as our tickets to Antibes.

After the traditional French lunch of cheese and ham baguettes we stroll around the narrow, cobbled streets where I miraculously avoid vacating my seat. I don't get on so well with cobbles. I don't think many wheelchair users do. I have landed face first in both Stratford and Bath to name but two, probably York as well now I think about it. And Swansea, although that was less due to cobbled streets than it was to trying to stop too quickly while carrying a huge overnight bag on my knee. I had the strap wrapped around my back and so when I started my inevitable descent towards the tarmac the bag came with me. At least it cushioned my landing a bit.

The sea front at Antibes is spectacular. If we are being picky then the wall around it is a little too high for someone of my height to get the very best out of the experience. But there are enough points where the wall is low enough to that you can see out to sea, and to the stunning landscape around the port. On the way you pass through the impressive marina, which looks a little something like this;

Like most places in the south of France that we have visited Antibes has its share of hills. At the top of one is the cathedral. Unfortunately it is not accessible but as I've said before if a building's main selling point is its history then I don't have any real problems with this. As an atheist I'm not that enamoured with churches, but where there is access I would usually have a look around because I enjoy the history and the architecture. I felt the same way about the palace in Monaco and Buckingham Palace during our trip to London last year. Sack them all and keep their castles and palaces for tourists I say.

Emma goes in to have a look around which is unusual for her. Usually she doesn't bother going anywhere that doesn't have access for me but as cathedrals go it is a relatively small one. A look around shouldn't take that long. I wait outside and take a few photographs and 10 minutes or so later the doors to the cathedral close. There's obviously someone inside trying to prise them open again to get out but they are locked. The thought crosses my mind that Emma is now stuck in the cathedral for the rest of the day and that we are going to have to spend the rest of our time in Antibes waiting for some kind of emergency service to turn up and free her. Just then, a group of people start funnelling out of a side door, and at the back of the group is Emma. She thinks they must be closing up. It's obviously not just my kind that they don't want in there.

After the cathedral we turn down another cobbled street towards the shops. Our path is blocked by a car but before I can manoeuvre my way into position the lady in the driver's seat gets out and says something to us in French. Our looks could not have been any more blank had they been a question on Blankety Blank. She realises, and then repeats it to us in the perfect English of someone born and bred in the UK. I can't even remember what she asked now, something about whether the car was ok where it was (which it wasn't, not really). She is however very helpful in helping direct us back to the square where we had lunch so that we can visit a tasty looking ice cream place we had noticed earlier. It's still above 30 degrees so a bit of ice cream would go down a treat at this point.

We make our way down the cobbled street back towards the square. Suddenly Emma stops in her tracks and makes a face like she has just eaten a Fisherman's Friend. She doesn't speak, instead just pointing to something near the wall. At first I don't see it, but then, metaphorically speaking, it whacks me right across the chops. There, doing not much of anything to the point where you might wonder what possible reason there could be for its existence, is a large, bright red beetle-like creature. I can't tell you exactly what it is but it looks like the sort of thing you don't want to be getting all that close to. Its colouring seems to serve as a clear warning. If this thing bit you or something you could very well start foaming at the mouth before all of your main organs start oozing out of your orifices. Take a look, it's not pretty. Click on it and enjoy...;

It all reminds me of when I was in Australia in 1993. I was out there for 10 days with the Great Britain Under-18s wheelchair basketball team. We were taking part in the Australian national junior championships. Junior wheelchair basketball has come a long way since then. There's World and European championships at under-23 level now. I'm just about young enough to have been involved in the first World event in Toronto in 1997. It was the beginning and the end of my Paralympic ambitions as I am sure I will mention 438 times on these pages once the Rio Paralympics get underway next week. Back to Australia, where bright red, often luminous and ominous creatures regularly fastened themselves to walls, lying there perfectly still yet somehow remaining demonstrably threatening. Emma has a friend at work who has an interest in insects and various other things that can kill you as soon as look at you, but he is yet to come up with an identification for this unattractive grub. If you have any knowledge on the subject please feel free to get in touch and let me know what you think it might be.

The ice cream parlour was lovely, thanks for asking, except for a noisy American family on the table behind us droning on and on about the various amounts of tat they had purchased from the many shops which line the streets. Yet if you can shut the world out then it's a pretty idyllic spot to pass the time just watching the world go by. Nowhere on Earth seems so peaceful despite the recent troubles in France.

Back in Nice the evening's entertainment is at a bar named De Klop. This may sound like someone who played right-back for Liverpool under Rafa Benitez, or a Dutch relative of their current manager, but is actually quite a nice looking if small bar off a side-street in the centre of Nice by the main square. Our Tahitian friend from Akathor had tipped us off that he would be playing here tonight, so faced with that prospect versus taking our chances at Akathor again we decided to plump for De Klop. We knew what we were going to get. He has a different playing partner tonight, a guitarist as opposed to the percussionist who joined him on Monday but the music is still hugely enjoyable. A waitress helpfully visits our table at regular intervals to make sure we are topped up on lager and cocktails. With our flight home not scheduled until 7.20 the following evening we are able to stay long into the night and enjoy the merriment on our last night in France. It seems a fitting way to end a fantastic 12 days that, while it has not been without its difficulties and problems, has been extremely memorable.

Left: The Tahitian musician and his bandmate entertaining the drunks.....

Monday, 29 August 2016

Nice - Lightweight Gambling And The Super 8s

Wednesday night we returned to Akathor. For once the journey back to Nice had been straightforward. No delays, no unhelpful railway staff, no incredible disappearing stations.

There's no sign of Danger Joe tonight. The two large tv screens either side of the main entrance at Akathor are showing Monaco's Champions League Qualifier with Galatasaray. This is the game the Monaco players were preparing for when we weren't able to take the tour at Stade Louis II a couple of days ago. Not that anybody here seems to care. Nice has its own top flight football team and if you're not from Nice then chances are you support Manchester United or Liverpool. So why do you give a shit about the Champions League?

There is a band on. Another duo, but these lads look a bit younger than our Tahitian friend and his percussionist. Several centuries younger than Danger Joe. The singer and guitarist has long hair, held back at the front so that it doesn't get in his eyes. He looks like a low ranked European tennis player. He plays and sings with the kind of anguish you'd expect to feel if you kept getting bounced out of tennis tournaments in the early rounds. Whereas Monday's band were much more upbeat and made you want to drink more and sing along, this pair wear you down a bit. Even when they play something we know and like they do it with an air of outright agony and despair. They start to play Oasis' 'Don't Look Back In Anger' but they're not so much looking back in anger as they are in pained, irredeemable melancholy.

It's not that late when we leave. Along with the misery they take breaks every 20 minutes during which they sit at the table next to us and leave us in no doubt that the downbeat mood is just for the show. They're joined by a young girl and though we have no idea what they are saying they are no less annoying for it. I'm happy that they're not really that miserable, especially at their tender age before they've even had a chance to find out about water bills and pubs on Duke Street. But as they're not even entertaining us when they are playing it's time for us to try and find somebody who will.
We fail to do this. To equal measures of surprise and dismay we find that most if not all of the bars around Nice are shutting down for the night. But we both agree that going back to the hotel now, before 1.00am, is still a better option than going back to Akathor as long as it's tortured soul night. We still have two more nights after this one before we fly home. We'll make up for it.

On Thursday afternoon we visit the casino. It's next door to the hotel but we somehow haven't got around to popping in until now. When we were in Las Vegas in 2011 we did little else but visit casinos, most of which you can read about in the archives of this disreputable collection of tales and opinions. No really, please do go and have a look if you haven't already. But this is not Las Vegas so this particular Casino on Promenade des Anglais is a little more modest than the huge behemoths that dominate the strip on Las Vegas Boulevard. The casino here looks fancy, it's just a little scaled down.

Size isn't the only difference. In Vegas general practise is that you sign up to the Players' Club and they give you an amount of what is called free play. That's pretty much what it says on the tin, but instead of actual cash or tokens, you have a card with credit on. Via free play it is possible, as we proved often, to have a few drinks and still leave the casino with a few dollars more than you came in with. They're basically letting you have a small win while waitresses come around plying you with alcohol. It's customary to give a small tip for this but if you wanted to be really tight about it you could give nothing and the girls would still bring you drinks provided you are engaged in some form of gambling. They're banking on you being unable to stop gambling even when you start to lose which must work if they are prepared to take a small financial hit from the likes of us whom even after several whiskies, know when to stop.

There's none of that generosity here. Instead we spend what change we have (about €13) and play the electronic poker machines for a while. We build up a small profit at one stage as the winnings go up to €17, but since we've only been playing for 10 minutes at that stage we don't cash out. There aren't many other casinos to take our winnings to and there aren't any cocktail waitresses walking around encouraging you to get drunk. So we play on until the money is lost which, unsurprisingly, happens as quickly as it had been accumulated. Though there are no cocktail waitresses there is a bar, so it would be rude not to pay a short visit. Especially since it's no more expensive than any of the other ludicrously priced bars in Nice.

We visit many of said bars on Thursday evening. Saints are playing their first Super 8s fixture at Warrington tonight and so the task is to hopefully find a bar that might not mind putting it on for us. If you are not a rugby league follower then I'd probably need a whole new blog entry to explain the mechanics of the Super 8s. They are more complex than the lucky loser permutations on Only Connect. It's sufficient to say that the Super 8s are important. As season ticket holders we have had a stroke of luck in having our first game scheduled away from home. I'm hoping that luck extends to enable us to see it in a bar.

The biggest stumbling block to this is, as ever, football. It's the beginning of August so there isn't any domestic football. The Euros finished three weeks ago which helps, but there is still the small matter of the Olympic Games to consider. The opening ceremony isn't until Friday but the football tournament flouts such convention and gets underway early. Tonight's offering sees host nation Brazil taking on South Africa.
A few hundred yards from the hotel is a sports bar. It has four or five televisions dotted around, all of which are showing the build-up to the Brazil game when we arrive about half an hour before Saints are due to kick-off. The waitress comes over to take our order and before she turns to leave I ask if she can put Sky Sports on for the rugby league. There are very few people here and none of them are paying any attention to the Brazil game. She flatly refuses, telling me in her limited English that she's not allowed to change the channel on the tv.

I'm on holiday so I probably shouldn't be worrying about Saints and the Super 8s. I'm about to let it go and concentrate fully on lager consumption when I see a man pottering around behind the bar. He seems to have no intention of serving anyone, a suspicion confirmed when he takes his paper and his pint to a quiet corner of the bar. I seize my opportunity.

Fully expecting him to have trouble understanding English I tentatively enquire as to whether he wouldn't mind changing the channel. He answers in a broad northern English accent, possibly Yorkshire but certainly somewhere where rugby league is not an undiscovered mystery.

"Rugby league." he says with what I now think is a fair degree of suspicion..

"No problem."

And it's that easy. As I watch the pre-game bile from the likes of Stevo and the other clowns I think of the lady I met on the train back from Monaco the other day. I wonder if she's been as lucky? I hope so, although if the truth be told all 80 minutes are fairly agonising. It's a really tight game and as my alcohol consumption increases my ability to stay calm rescinds in direct proportion. Midway through the second half Emma decides she's had enough and shushes me. She actually shushes me. She points out that I don't get like this when we go to the home games which is true, but then I drive to the home games straight from work on a Friday night. As such I don't drink, and in any case I don't normally have the energy to call LMS a bellend at the end of another mentally taxing week in our office.

I'm outraged at the shushing and spend the rest of the game in mortified silence. With two minutes left and with Saints holding a slender two-point lead Warrington's Rhys Evans looks to have scored the winning try for the Wolves. Yet with video replays in use for all televised games it is rare for a referee to give a try these days without sending it up to the video referee to have at least one look at the slow-mo. This one is no different. The replays show that Evans' toe has brushed the side-line before he grounds the ball. There's inches in it, but it's clear. Remembering the shushing and still feeling suitably peeved by it I offer no celebration. Not so much as a fist pump or an exuberant clap. I simply turn around and leave the bar without a word, a probably slightly perplexed Emma following on.

The next time I speak it's Friday morning.

Sunday, 28 August 2016


As predicted Tuesday was a write-off. We'd drunk far too much on Monday night at Akathor to even consider getting up early and battling it out with the French rail service. There's no pool at Hotel Mercure so after a quick visit to La Boulingerie and the Spar (really) we spend much of the day in the room recovering. Even the maid can't get in to change the sheets. There's something on the telly. A film, in French, but to be honest I'm drifting in and out of consciousness so much that I can barely make out any of the images on the screen. For all I know it could be hardcore pornography or, worse still, The God Channel.

I remember hitting one or two bars along the prom in the evening, and eating chicken and chips at a restaurant out that way. It's one of the best meals we have while we're out here. But we keep the other, wetter excesses to a minimum so we can be up early on Wednesday to go to Cannes. Like Monte Carlo it's all about the glitz and glamour in Cannes. The glitz and glamour of the film festival and, if the rest of the south of France is anything to by, it'll also be about some absurdly steep hills that no wheelchair user in his right mind would go near. You're ahead of me.

Regulars will know that, in the spirit of various Sean Bean internet memes, one does not simply go on a train in France with a wheelchair under one's arse. Our trip to Cannes introduces us to a whole new world of railway pain. We'd arrived at the station just after 9.00am, fully expecting to be made to wait until nearer to 10.00 before departing. To our amazement the lady at the information desk had told us that actually she could arrange to get us on the 9.30. We'd be in Cannes just after 10.00 and even have a couple of hours before lunch to mooch around buying mugs and looking at tat.

Would we shite.

We crossed the track at 9.20, I with the latest red t-shirted buffoon on the railway staff and Emma by the staircased subway. All seemed well when Red T-Shirt Man began fiddling around with the lift and invited me to roll on to it in preparation for boarding the train. He wound the lift to train height and told us that the train would arrive in just a few minutes. Then he noncholantly walked away without explanation, crossing the track the same way we had earlier before disappearing into the crowds shuffling around the opposite platform.

Nine-thirty comes and goes and I'm still parked on top of a portable lift. There's no way off without help from Red T-Shirt Man and it's especially comforting to know that if this mobile lift should roll off the edge of the platform and on to the track then I'll be joining it. It's perhaps an irrational fear but there is something intensely disconcerting about being left on a busy platform on top of a mobile lift without explanation by strangely absent railway staff intent on doing whatever the fuck they like.

Finally he returns. It's about 9.50 by now and he manages to blurt out that the train has been delayed and so won't arrive until after 10.00. Still he does not release me from my steel prison. Not that is until 10.00 passes and he informs us that due to some unscheduled tomfoolery on the railway line the train will not be arriving until 10.30. Even then he just winds down the ramp, opens it out at the front and invites me to vacate the lift despite the fact that he has moved it to a position from which I would, if I were to roll straight off, very probably come to a halt a few inches from the edge of the platform. I'm obviously not comfortable with that but it takes a while for this particular penny to drop for him. Eventually he closes the lift again and turns it so that I can roll off without ending up on the line. Not that there is much chance of a train coming along to run me down.

Eventually we board the train, some 75 minutes after first being invited to cross the track. The train still doesn't leave because first the guard needs to wait for his mate's girl to turn up. They hold the doors for fully three minutes for her and then the lot of them go and sit up front away from the less important passengers.

By the time we arrive in Cannes it is around 11.15. Again we've skipped breakfast to get to the station early, a cruel irony since we could have eaten three square meals in the time we spent on that pissing platform. So the first thing we do is address our peckishness. There's a small but attractive cafe on the front by the sea, next to a children's fairground area. Toddlers pretend to drive fire engines and helicopters while I put away beefburgers on a whopping baguette and Emma tucks in to the biggest fish I've seen outside of the Sharknado franchise. No really. Get on to the Syfy Channel.

After lunch we visit the tourist information centre and are told that there is no tour bus, but that the petit train de touristique is accessible and is probably the best way to take in the sights of the city. As we head back to buy our tickets for the train tour we stop to view the handprints in the Cannes version of Hollywood's Hall Of Fame. I take a photograph of Paul McCartney's just because I'm amused by how much my mum loathes him. I resolve that this will be the first photo I show her when I get home, but unfortunately the joke's on me because the camera doesn't show his signature below the handprints all that well.

The train tour is not accessible. Not by any sane person's definition. The man selling tickets tells us that it is, and when the time comes to board he purposefully fiddles with panels and seats to make space for me. I'm expecting some wondrously clever lift to jut out from somewhere, but instead the ticket seller and his mate physically scoop me up and plonk me on to the train. Access south of France style.

The tour takes you around the city to view all the posh hotels and casinos, all with an in-depth commentary in several languages via your own personal headset. The problem is that it's not loud enough once the engine starts running so you only catch some of what is being said. Still Cannes is fabulously picturesque so you get plenty out of the one-hour ride whether you listen to the commentary or not. There's an awkward moment for wheelchair users when the train stops at one of the highest points to allow the passengers to get off and enjoy the views. But not you Wheelie Steve as my uni mates used to call me. The driver hasn't brought his mate with him and it clearly takes two out of shape, middle aged men to haul your arse off this thing.

Tour done and dusted, we decide to find out whether the city's big wheel is accessible. Think the London Eye. It's a sightseeing thing. I only have one rule with these things, provided they are accessible, which is that they need to be enclosed. I can't be going up that high and be exposed to the elements. I'll vomit. And what if my shoes fall off and hit a passing child beneath? I could be done for manslaughter.

As we make our way to the wheel we pass the Grand Theatre. This is where the slebs and stars flock to during the festival. A place where world premieres are aired but mostly a place to be seen for the rich and famous. There's nobody famous here today but I took a photograph which I include for your viewing pleasure below.

The wheel has a ramp leading up to the ticket kiosk. That has to be a good sign, right? We approach....

"Is this wheelchair accessible?" I ask. He doesn't seem to understand so I ask again, this time pointing helpfully at my chair. Finally he cottons on, as they where I come from.

"Oh!" he starts....


Surprised but impressed we move on to the entrance, watching the pods go by, the people getting on and off. There's somebody supervising this so we wait patiently for him to give us the nod. Finally he stops the wheel again and beckons us towards the pod. Two things are immediately noticable. Firstly, there's a fairly sizeable step up to the pod. Secondly, the pod is about the width of a toilet door in a Spanish bar. A little less roomy, perhaps. By now the ticket seller has got involved. The two of them are trying to pick my chair up to lift it on, blissfully ignoring the minor detail of its width. It takes what seems like several days to explain to them that the pod isn't wide enough and that I'm not going to develop the ability to stand in this lifetime. I know, I'm so negative.

We soon give up and go for a beer instead. After all, it's about a 15-minute walk back to the station and we might have a long train journey ahead of us.

Friday, 26 August 2016

Nice - A Familiar Accent, Danger Joe, Joe Brown And A Right Good Knees-Up

Meltdown narrowly averted, let's go back to the France story shall we? I know, I know it is a frightful bore having someone go on and on about how they went to a lovely paradise destination and you didn't but for once in my blogging life I would very much like to finish the story of one of my travelling escapades.

We left me arriving back at the port at Nice after a quite ridiculous journey back from Monaco. On that train back to Nice I met a woman from Eccleston. That's Eccleston in St.Helens just for clarification. The train was absolutely jam packed, probably dangerously so. A group of young Americans got on board and rudely stomped their way through everyone to find space. This had led to Emma ending up at the top of a flight of about three steps leading up to another seated area. She was soon surrounded by bodies, American and otherwise, to the point where I could not see her at all much less talk to her.

I was wearing a Saints shirt circa 2009, a largely boring year for rugby league which involved everyone running from dummy half ad nauseam, Saints beating everyone heavily but then losing the Grand Final to Leeds in soppy conditions at Old Trafford. The queue for the tram back to the city centre in Manchester that night was about as busy as this train between Monaco and Nice. Thankfully, both journeys are fairly short.

"Nice shirt." said a female voice from over my shoulder in what appeared to be a familiar accent. When you have spent a week hearing nothing but French spoken for the majority of the time you tend to do a bit of a double-take when you hear someone speaking your language in an accent which sounds suspiciously like your own. She never actually tells me her name and I don't ask. She's travelling with her daughter who is demonstrably also a Saints fanatic. We talk about our chances this season (which at the time we met were significantly slimmer than they are at the time I write), and obviously about how mental it is to meet someone from your own home town for the first time while on a train between Monaco and Nice. It reminded me of my first night in the student bar at Barnsley all those years ago when I met a lad who lived in my street and who had done so for years without ever crossing my path. Whether or not that was a deliberate act on his part was never established, but we got on pretty well all the same.

We meet on Monday. Saints are playing their first Super 8s fixture on the forthcoming Thursday at Warrington. We both fret about how on Earth we are going to be able to see the game in Nice, a place that is about as synonymous with rugby league as I am with action movies and Olympic high jumping. As yet neither of us have found anywhere reliable and we face the unenticing prospect of spending Thursday evening constantly looking at our phones for updates while simultaneously trying to hold conversations with our significant others. Don't hate us. Fanatics should be pitied. Go and read Fever Pitch and then come back to me on that.

Our Monday evening is spent in Akathor, the live music bar I was telling you a little bit about in a blog which now seems to reside a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. We get there about 9.15 to find that we are therefore 15 minutes too late to take advantage of happy hour. It's going to be another expensive one. Undeterred, we take a seat outside the bar on what is another spankingly wondrous evening weather-wise. If the weather was like this in Thatto Heath it wouldn't conjure up quite the same images of Shameless. The waitress, who must be over 18 but looks about 15, takes an eternity to get around to serving us but I don't mind so much. Outside the entrance to the pub we are being 'entertained' by a man calling himself Danger Joe. He's playing folk songs, Dylan and the like. But rather than Dylan, he physically reminds me of a crap 80's comedian called Joe Brown. I regret that I didn't take a photograph of Danger Joe now, but to give you an idea of the sort of thing we are dealing with here is a photograph of Joe Brown;

The weird thing about Akathor is that they don't serve halves. If you want lager then you have to have a full pint. For reasons that are not just financial I throw in a couple of cocktails in between pints. Four or five pints on the bounce will have my bladder screaming at me for a divorce and I am not hopeful that Akathor has a disabled toilet anywhere on the premises. Wherever we have been in Europe facilities for relieving my disabled bladder have always been notoriously poor. In much of Spain, for example, I can't even get my chair through the narrow toilet doors to even find out whether there are any steps or other inconveniences inside. The doors to public toilets in Spanish bars are, in my experience, so narrow that you don't even need to be a wheelchair user to have trouble using them. Anyone reasonably fat would also struggle to get through.

As 10.00 rolls around Danger Joe is replaced by a new musical act. This nameless duo take their talents inside, presumably due to some French law about noise pollution after a certain hour. We're curious to find out whether they are any better than Danger Joe, and we are sufficiently lubricated to fancy a bit of live music by now, so we take our drinks inside. It proves a wise choice. The set list is rather more modern and to our tastes. It's not that we don't like Dylan, although Emma does have trouble remembering his name, it's just that he's generally not much fun to listen to. He could be accused of being melancholy. Not these two, who strum and drum their way through several pearlers from Jason Mraz's "I'm Yours" to Lukas Graham's "7 Years" and all points in between.

Before the end I'm singing at the top of my voice, and the only real singer in the house compliments me on my efforts. We get chatting and he tells us that he is from Australian Polynesia. Thinking he means Tonga, Fiji or Samoa or somewhere like that I ask him if he has any interest in rugby league but he just looks at me blankly as if I'd asked him if he has any interest in the history of pottery. As it turns out Australian Polynesia is his way of saying Tahiti, admittedly an island less well known for its blockbusting second rowers.

It gets late, and we are on the point of leaving when to my equal measures of surprise and delight I discover that there is a lift in the building which takes you to another floor where there is A Disabled Toilet. Wow. The Spanish can learn an awful lot from a place like Akathor. Bladder sorted, we order more beer and listen to our Tahitian friend some more. We stay so late that the 15 year-old who served us our first pint is sat next to us looking at her phone, having finished work and transformed herself into the young adult that she really is. The musicians try their luck but even our drinking powers have limits so we are not around long enough to find out how successful they have been.

A great night has been had by all, but Tuesday could be a slow day.

Once You Pop You Can't Stop

This is just a quick one for my Twitter followers. Anyone who has me on Facebook will already know about it as, during my blogging meltdown earlier in the week, I posted a status about it. A microblog if you will. Please yourself. Anyway the 140 character limit imposed by Twitter on its users meant that I couldn't do the story justice on that particular platform. So you get the extended version now.

I work at a well known university in Liverpool. I can't tell you which one it is because I never have anything nice to say about it and...well....saying nasty things about it apparently violates their social media policy. By which they mean their policy of controlling your thoughts. Across the road from said unnamed university is a small branch of Tesco's where most days I can be found purchasing my lunch. My last visit ended in the kind of ignominy that is reserved only for me, and here's why.

Having bought my lunch I was on my way out when my chair suddenly came to a complete stop. I pushed off again but it was going nowhere. Something was catching on my right hand side wheel. I looked down and noticed that my ruck sack, emblazoned with St Helens RLFC logo and available from the club store at a probably not very reasonable price (I wouldn't know, it was a present) had got tangled up in my wheel. One of the straps had got wrapped around the spindle to the point where it would be impossible to unwind it without removing the wheel. So in full view of Tesco's lunchtime customers I took the only course of action available to me and jumped out of my chair on to the shop floor. There I sat by the shelf stacked high with Pringles, unwinding my troublesome strap from my now one-wheeled chair.

I put the wheel back on and climbed back in. But not before two men asked me if they could help in any way. Usually, my misfortunes of this nature in the vicinity of work are witnessed only by female students under the age of 25, so it was a blessed relief to only get caught looking like a dickhead by two middle aged men. Still I declined their assistance. If you need help getting back into your chair then you should never get out of it on the shop floor at Tesco's by the Pringles or anywhere else. That's a basic rule among us Undateables.

The next day one of my colleagues, who had completely ignored the Facebook post on the subject, came back from her own visit to Tesco's and told me that she was considering buying me some Pringles. All of which caused her and other colleagues much merriment at my expense. But then what else is new in that barnyard? I wish she had bought me some Pringles anyway because a) I like Pringles and b) It would have been funny. What it does prove is that you never know who is reading the nonsense that you put out on social media, even if they don't join in with pillorying you for it online at the time.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

The Superhumans

When I disappeared from the Bloggosphere the other day I reckoned without the one or two very kind souls who continue to read my work, but do so in total silence so that I don’t know they are there. One such reader lamented my decision to tank Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard over the head with a large brush, in particular because he had hoped that I might contribute something about the forthcoming Paralympic Games in Rio.

So being back and yet not being back at the same time, I now have the opportunity to do that without actually subjecting myself to the tough crowd that is my Facebook page. Anyone can view this but only a select few will. That’s fine. What’s worrying is when you look at your stats page and see that 70-100 people have visited your blog that day without ever having indicated that they were there. It’s like you’re so bad that they aren’t admitting to having wasted three minutes of their life on you. Stop it. Also, with Twitter the only people who follow me do so because they have a common interest in St Helens Rugby League Football Club and enjoy my work for Redvee.net and the18thman.com. Ninety-five per cent of them have never met me and as such are fairer judges. And when they don’t like my work I can either defend it in a hopefully highbrow debate with them, or I can shrug and consider that I don’t know the person having a pop at me anyway so maybe it isn’t a crisis. Facebook is full of real people who I have met several times and will meet again. Their rejection is hard to take. Even if they are fucking philistines.

On to the matter in hand. The Paralympic Games get underway in Rio in just 15 days time. Presumably the downtime between the start of the Paralympic Games and the end of the Olympic Games is to give the people on 20% of what we would call a minimum wage enough time to clear up all the shit left behind by Ryan Lochte and his mates. At the time of writing the event is threatened by the prospect of financial difficulties making it impossible for some smaller nations to attend. There has also been talk that not all of the venues used in the Olympic Games will be available for the Paralympic Games due to financial jiggery-pokery. All of which is a major concern at best and a bloody outrage at worst as it was my understanding that any host city bidding for the Olympic Games would not be successful unless they could put on what my nan used to call a full spread. You have to be able to fully stage the Paralympic Games also.

Whether we see a slightly scaled down version of the games or not, it won’t stop Channel Four in their relentless crusade to promote disability sport while driving an enormous wedge between elite athletes and people who work in….say…..universities at the same time. Channel Four’s insistence on referring to the competing athletes as ‘The Superhumans’ in the promos is something way beyond hyperbole. It has left hyperbole at the door and gone out on the lash to a strip club with Inspiration Porn. Paralympic athletes are not Superhuman at all. Rather, they are elite athletes who have devoted their recent history to mastering their chosen sport in the pursuit of glory. I don’t know, because the closest I ever got to Paralympic sport was being benched in the Great Britain under 23 team for a bloke who had ambled in from the athletics track outside, but knowing a few people who are or have been Paralympic athletes I wouldn’t mind betting that they would prefer to be seen as athletes rather than a group of bionic superheroes recently bitten by spiders or blasted off dying planets towards Earth by Marlon Brando. Ask your dad.

Look, don’t take this the wrong way. I’m all for the promotion of disability sport and will be as hooked as the next person when the live coverage gets underway in September. I just think that more and more now, in the eyes of the media a disabled person is either an all-conquering superhero or they are an undateable sub-species who, bless them, need that extra £30 per week that IDS is using to pay for his second home because they can’t be expected to earn their own living. There is no in between with labelling of this nature and it is utterly unhelpful for those of us who are just ordinary members of the public who happen to have a disability.

Not that we don’t get a taste of what it feels like to be seriously over-rated also. Inspiration Porn is part of life for us all. There are people who don’t mind telling you that your getting out of bed that morning and managing to avoid a trip to Dignitas is an act of heroism deserving of a day out at the palace with Her Maj. It’s brilliant what we do, you know, that breathing in and out 24 hours a day thing? Yet in many ways this Inspiration Porn serves only to illustrate to us normal crips out there what little is expected of us. If only we could be more like that David Weir, a photograph of whose dinner once amassed 635 Facebook likes. But we can’t because he’s Superhuman.

Never Meet Your Heroes (or find out what they read)

I shouldn’t be here. This used to be Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard. Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard was basically a travel blog with a disability slant which would often extend to blazing rants about disability access or lack thereof, as well as about the still appalling and lazy prejudices of the able bodied population in regards to disability. But then since a failed experiment at publishing elsewhere has persuaded me to come back to Blogger, you could just trawl through any of the posts on the front page and you would know all that.

Me and my partner Emma travel a lot. We have just come back from the south of France (Marseille, Nice, Monaco, Cannes, Toulon, Antibes) but down the years we have been to Tenerife, Salou, Orlando, Las Vegas, Benidorm, Barcelona, Vilamoura (Portugal), New York and Rhodes as well as cities all over the UK from York to Bath, Stratford to London, Leicester to Manchester, Nottingham to Sheffield.

The reason I say I shouldn’t be here is that on Tuesday night I decided to banish Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard, to consign it to history. This was mostly due to reading a disability-related travel blog by another writer which, although very good, was not spectacular or special or what you might reasonably suggest as being written to a professional standard. I am not a professional myself but I know one when I see one. I have a degree in journalism from the University of Leeds and as well as Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard I have written for FourFourTwo magazine, the Huddersfield Daily Examiner, St Helens Star as well as the now defunct London Football Review. For the latter I interviewed former QPR striker Kevin Gallen who seemed to get quite offended when I asked whether he would accept that he never really fulfilled his potential.

The blog in question was hugely and deservedly well received. There were scores of comments and something like 50 likes on Facebook. In seven years writing Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard, across 260 articles, I have received 67 comments and never more than 10 likes. This led my admittedly depressive mind down a dark path which could only end with a total and utter loss of self regard and motivation to continue. Yes yes, I know. Writing is its own reward (why do you think I’m doing this for nobody in particular?) but after a while a lack of interaction starts to wear you down. My work on my recent trip to France has been completely ignored by the few people I considered my readership, which means either that it is shite or that I am very unpopular personally. Either way, Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard had to die.

Yet the urge to write hasn’t left. Or at least it has reappeared less than two days after this crushing realisation hit me. So here I am. What I really wanted to talk to you about was Victoria Coren-Mitchell. I absolutely love Victoria Coren-Mitchell. She’s clever, sexy and funny. And very likely wealthy. What’s not to like? I’ll tell you what in a minute. First I have to mention her quiz show Only Connect. It’s a modern marvel. That rarity among the genre that is both entertaining and fiendishly difficult. But not in a University Challenge sort of way where your lack of knowledge of 15th century artists leaves you out of the game and disinterested. Only Connect requires some depth of knowledge but is more of an IQ test also. It’s not enough to know facts, you have to be able to identify connections between the things you know. If you haven’t seen it do so this Monday night at 8.30pm on BBC2. It’s a team competition, the format for which is in keeping with the mind-boggling questions, so hard is it to understand.

I’ve been trying to tweet Victoria. Every week I tweet her with some hopefully witty quip about something that happened in the show, or something relating to her Sunday column in The Observer. She has never tweeted me back. The only famous people who have ever tweeted me back are Rod Studd, voice or rugby league and darts on Sky Sports, and Bobbie Goulding, former Saints scrum-half, part legend, part nutcase. Yet I remain encouraged to do this because I see from her feed that Victoria tweets people back all the time. Like Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard, my tweets just haven’t been good enough to elicit a response just yet. Unlike Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard, I haven’t given up.

Last week’s Observer column concerned Sir Ian Botham volunteering to have fertility treatment while remaining at pains to point out that he does not need said treatment. This is when I discovered that there is something not to like about Victoria. In the normally witty preamble to the point of her story, she happened to mention that she had been sifting through the Sunday papers to find an article about Botham and his absolutely not faltering penis. One such paper, appallingly, was The Sun.

Now coming from the Merseyside area The Sun is obviously going to be on the dislike list. It is Room 101 fodder. The disgusting and vile way they reported on the 1989 Hillsborough disaster will never be forgiven. It was a Tory rag before then, but since then it has been nothing but toilet paper. To find that Victoria is among its readership was a cruel blow, a shock to the system. They say you should never meet your heroes. You should never find out what papers they read either.

So of course I tweeted Victoria to ask her to please say it wasn’t so. Her non-response, though predictable and entirely what would have happened had I been tweeting her to tell her that she should be made Queen of England, was still telling. She’s clearly ashamed of her dubious reading habits but doesn’t want to discuss it with a failed blogger who just won’t leave her the fuck alone. It probably won’t take many more tweets before I’m blocked completely.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Monaco - An Episode Of Lost, Too Far Fetched To Make The Cut

What better way to start August than with a trip to Monaco? Happily it is just a 20-minute train ride from Nice to the principality. I have been there before when I was about seven years old but unfortunately, rather like my last year at university, I don't remember an awful lot about it. I mention my university days because I have just found out today that Hedonism, the old nightclub we used to frequent on Monday nights (student nights, beer prices that would make the residents of Nice and Marseille's eyes water) has been damaged by a fire. I don't think it was a nightclub anyway, but now it looks like it won't be very much of anything. It's virtual gutting is....well....gutting as the place has so many humorous and frankly unprintably embarrassing memories. Still it has put me back in touch with a couple of old friends via Facebook. But there we go......

Back even further in the mists of time and to my 1980's trip to Monaco then. My dad tells a story about how he carried me and my chair up 4,875 steps to get to somewhere or other only to find that there was a lift that he could have used. I have some sympathy with him about how this could have happened as we will see later. For now I'll just explain that there are a series of lifts which help people with mobility problems get around Monaco, which is not so much hilly as utterly mountainous. You might think that this is rather more fun on the way down to the marina than it might be on the way back up to the train station. Not necessarily. Stopping yourself careering down the steep hills is an equal physical challenge and a good deal tougher on the hands. I do have brakes, but as most wheelchair users know using brakes isn't an option if you want to keep all of your digits in place. Which is especially important if your legs aren't doing their job.

We share a pizza for lunch in a café bar half way down one Everestian mountain. It's all very pleasant except for one tiny terrier shrieking its head off at everything and everyone in its path. Then we crack on down the burn and blister inducing paths toward the marina. We pass through the famous tunnel which makes up part of the famous race track where the Formula One Grand Prix takes place. I have to be honest and confess that I don't watch Formula One. If there was some grass growing or paint drying on another channel, of an endless loop of old Keith Chegwin quiz shows, I would opt for that over the latest endeavours of entitled rich boys fucking around in their over-sized penis extension go-karts. Yet as you see the traffic pass under the tunnel in both direction it does leave the mind to boggle somewhat at how they go about racing down here at 180mph. Overtaking must be an adventure to say the least.

Having almost but not completely worked out the system of lifts we reach the end of the tunnel and find that the tour bus picks up from a stop just off the marina. Or at least it would do if it were not for some temporary work going on. As the bus pulls up the driver gestures to us to get back out on to the main road before coming to a stop. Tour buses are the only buses in France in our experience which have genuine wheelchair access, so I am spared the help of the French public and instead board the bus in the manner for which the automatic sliding ramp was intended when it was added.

For a while we sit back and let the bus do its work. It takes us further on the Grand Prix circuit, offering stunning views of the landscape on the way up through the mountains. We get off the bus at a particularly scenic spot just by the palace. Or Palais Princier de Monaco. Monaco is the second smallest sovereign state in the world after Vatican City but is all the better because it is not home to God bothering paedophiles masquerading as moral crusaders. The view of Monte Carlo from the top of the road where we have been dropped off is breath-taking. So much so that I am at a loss to describe it again, so here is a photograph;

Some other fun facts about Monte Carlo;

As well as Bore-mula One it also hosts world championship boxing matches, the Grand Final of the European Poker Tour and the World Backgammon Championships.

The Monte Carlo Masters tennis tournament,regularly hoovered up by Rafa Nadal, is not played in Monte Carlo at all but in the neighbouring town of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin which still belongs to France.

The Monte Carlo casino featured in both Never Say Never Again and GoldenEye.

Ringo Starr, Bono, Shirley Bassey and Paula Radcliffe all have homes in Monte Carlo.

We move on over to the palace, which looks a strange pink-ish colour with perhaps a hint of yellow. How should I know? I'm a man and we're all colour blind to some extent. It's an impressive piece of architecture, home now to Prince Albert following the death of his father Prince Rainier in 2005. He was married to 1950's actress Grace Kelly, subject of Mika's God-awful song, who met an untimely death in 1982 when she had a stroke and lost control of her car while driving on these narrow, highly dangerous looking mountain roads. I remember hearing this tale of woe when I was here as a child and becoming convinced that the coach we were on would soon career over the edge and wipe us all out. What I didn't know then that I know now is that she'd had a stroke.

Just like at Buckingham Palace, Palais Princier de Monaco is manned by smartly dressed statuesque guards. And as with Buckingham Palace tourists are somehow compelled to gawp at the guards and take multiple photographs of them in their shiny white garb. You can just make out the tiny figure of one of them if you click on this photograph which is admittedly far more focused on the building itelf;

We get back on the bus and the real fun starts. We can see that a bus goes from Stade Louis II to the train station, so we decide to get off the bus there, have a quick look around or maybe even take the tour before heading back. It takes us several minutes to find the entrance to Stade Louis II (which will become a theme). The stadium is, among other things, the home of Monaco FC. They are notable to English football followers only because they used to be managed by Arsene Wenger who had, among his charges, one Glenn Hoddle during the late 1980's. Despite claiming to be independent of France they play in the French league in a kit that is red and white split diagonally from bottom left to top right. They reached the final of the Champions League in 2004 where they were roundly gubbed 3-0 by Jose Mourinho's FC Porto.

Unfortunately the tour is off the agenda for the day. The players are training at the stadium for a Champions League qualifier this coming Wednesday against Galatasaray. If nothing else that does at least spare us the prospect of being spoken to about football history in French and trying to decipher any of it. We get back on the tour bus instead of taking the public bus to the station at this point. There's more of the area to see and we still have a bit of time now that we won't be spending it at the stadium tour. The idea was to eventually find somewhere we recognise to allow us to make our way back up to the station, hopefully by-passing most of the massive hills and mountains. We go one better than that (or so we think) as we discover that the tour bus stops at the train station. It's odd. It feels a bit different, not like the place we arrived at from Nice this morning, but a train station is a train station so we get off and start looking for a way back to Nice.

As we enter through the main entrance there are screens displaying train times and destinations. This may look more like a public lavatory than a train station but it is definitely the latter. We take the lift up to the next level which brings us out at the end of a long corridor. Half way up on our right are signs for the platforms with escalators leading to them. Further on at the end of the corridor are a set of lifts which we quite reasonably believe will take us up to the same place as the escalators. They do not. Instead they take us to another level on which there are two more lifts and another escalator. We try both lifts. Both lead back outside with no sign of anything resembling a platform. Not quite believing any of this we try all of the above again.

We meet one lady who advises us to go back outside the lift and travel up a very steep road where, she assures us, we will find the accessible entrance. What we find is a couple of Italian men who speak little or no English, and another man who does speak English but has absolutely no clue where the accessible entrance to the station might be. He assures us there is no way around on this road which has come to a dead end. We can see the railway bridge and the platforms above us but there is no way to get there. Finally, we go back inside, taking all the many lifts once more before Emma goes up the escalator to find out more.

While she is away I am approached by two people who speak English, both of whom ask me if I am ok and where I need to go. All of which reminds me of the many times as a child that I would be approached by strangers in town who thought I had got lost because I happened to be waiting outside a shop or something.

"Are you lost?" they'd ask.

No. I'm not fucking lost. There's 47 flights of stairs in this shop that sells Commodore 64 games and all of my mates are in there looking for the latest edition of Barry McGuigan's Boxing.

I convince everyone that I will indeed be ok, which just leaves me as the only person yet to be certain of this. I have been at the bottom of this escalator for some time now and Emma has not re-emerged. Finally she comes out of the lift, telling me that she thought I would be meeting her on the floor below. It's all very confusing when you are in an unfamiliar building which has a huge array of lifts leading to precisely nowhere. Emma confirms that the platforms are at the top of the escalators but that there is no lift to get us there. That's escalators. Plural. There are three of them, she says. When I was younger and away on basketball trips I saw several of my team-mates negotiating escalators in their wheelchairs with the minimum of fuss. They just placed their front wheels on a step and hung on. What could go wrong? I never had the cojones to have a go myself and never felt the need. Everywhere we ever went had lifts and if you took the escalators as a wheelchair user you were just showing off. The wheelchair users equivalent of doing the Grand National. Not the famous Aintree horse race, but jumping over the garden fences outside every house in your street until you fall flat on your face and break your nose. However, in this situation what choice do we have? We take the escalators. All three of them.

With Emma there to help it isn't that difficult. She just has to stand behind me to make sure I don't fall backwards as I hang on to the moving rails. If she falls backwards well then we're both fucked, but fortunately she has the ability to stand upright for long enough to get us to the platform. When we get there it still looks like a different station. Everything here is underground. We ask the lady on duty about trains to Nice, and about booking some assistance and she just tells us that she doesn't know if she can arrange it for the next one which is due to arrive in 10 minutes. By this time it is about 5.45 in the evening. When it arrives she has done nothing to assist us, so in the spirit of everything else that has happened in this station so far we attempt to get on the train unaided. The problem is that there are two steps up to the carriage, and they are as steep as anything we descended in Monte Carlo this afternoon. There is no way we are getting on there, especially not with hordes of people barging their way through. It's organised chaos.

The lady comes back from wherever she has been and we try to explain our predicament. We need assistance or else we are not getting back to Monaco by train. What is more, if we do have to find another way home it could mean descending those escalators to exit the station. They might not be so easy to negotiate on the way down as they were on the way up. Only then does the lady inform us that there is a lift. She has been telling us to go back downstairs to organise assistance and we have been trying to explain that there is no lift, and that we had to take three escalators to get up to the platforms. She insists that there is a lift and points in its supposed direction. Unconvinced, we follow her instructions more in hope than expectation.

And she's only right. It must be 200 metres away from the escalators, not remotely visible from where we have been waiting and trying to get on trains, but it exists alright. It takes us down to the information desk and as we exit it we realise that we are actually in the same station we have been in this morning. Interestingly, we were to meet a couple in Nice airport on the way home who told a similar story of how they had been to Monaco by train but could not find the accessible entrance to the station when they returned to it. It's like the island in Lost, some fucker has moved it in the struggle to provide credible material for that 834th series.

The drama is still not quite over. We queue patiently at the information desk (we already have return tickets so no need to worry about that this time). When we get to the desk we find the one helpful person in all of France, who tells us that it will be fine, she will organise the assistance and we just have to wait there for them to meet us. But while I am in the toilet it transpires that our friend from the platform has been back down to see us, taken our tickets and promised to return. In the meantime, the helpful lady at the information desk has given up for the day and shut up shop. So we are completely in limbo now, relying on a hugely unreliable member of staff to come back with our tickets and someone who might reasonably be expected to be able to operate a ramp.

It happens, but the train we board is the 7.10 having arrived at this unendurable station at around 5.30pm.

And there the story ends. I had hoped to tell you all about Cannes, Antibes, and about the man from Tahiti who entertained us at Akathor. But I won't because...well.....you're not there any more. Either because I don't have the requisite talent or because you're sick of being offended by my views and my tone. When you sift through 'Other People's Blogs' and see how greatly they are outperforming yours it is perhaps time to knock it on the head. It has been fun and I did try. Thanks to Rob for reading the French stuff, and to Mark and Anne for trying to convince me that this shit is worthwhile. I shall of course continue to write for Redvee which I enjoy hugely, especially since there are a great many people who are actually interested in it and regularly interact. The same, sadly, cannot be said of Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard which is taking an indefinite break from......now.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Nice - Beggars Belief

As July ends so too does our time in Marseille. We're moving on to Nice for the next six nights. I know, we flew to Nice six days ago but let me explain. We wanted to see Marseille, but knew that it was going to be too far away to take a day trip from Nice and besides, we wanted to spend a decent amount of time in Marseille. Nice was always part of the plan and, having flown to Nice, we then have to fly back home from Nice. So the best thing to do was to get the train down to Marseille from Nice, have six nights there before taking another train back to Nice, staying there for six nights before flying home. Got it? It works, honest.

Since this is a long journey (around two hours 40 minutes) we are back on the nice trains. That's nice with a small 'n'. However, any hope of having the spacious compartment to ourselves is obliterated by the presence of a hugely irritating young man in a Manchester City shirt with the name 'Aguero' emblazoned on the back. He looks to be somewhere in his early 20s. It is quite possible that he spent the majority of his childhood having no clue about the existence of Manchester City, but that's what billionaire owners will do for you. Aguero can't keep still. He shuffles around in his seat endlessly and stares at people intently in between taking extremely short phone calls and generally messing about with his phone.

Soon we are joined by a group of about six people of a similar age to Aguero, who targets one of the girls among them for the full-on stare treatment. It's slightly creepy but I'm not sure she has noticed given how engrossed she seems to be with whatever she is reading on her own phone. Most of the others fall asleep. If Emma and I were not here this girl could be under serious threat from the fidgeting, leering Aguero. He gets off the train at Cannes, where we hope to spend a day later in the week. I can't shake the feeling that we will run into him and he will annoy me again. That is if he hasn't been arrested for his top level leering by then.

Thankfully there are no suicide attempts on this train journey, so we arrive in Nice just after 3.00pm. We take a taxi to the hotel (past the shop with the word 'SEX' written in large blue letters across the front). We'll be staying at Hotel Mercure, the first thing about which to note is that it has a small step up to the entrance. The staff hurriedly carry a small ramp out to the front and promise that they will be available 24 hours a day to make sure that I have access to the hotel as and when I need it. Which is all very well, but in the end we tend not to bother them with it. If we are leaving the hotel I can bump down the step myself, and if we are heading back inside I just need a little shove from Emma. Still, it's a trifle naughty of them to claim full accessibility if that accessibility depends on hotel staff rushing out with a ramp as it no doubt would do for many other guests.

This first thing we do and probably the first thing that anybody does when arriving in an unfamiliar place is go for an exploratory wander. If you have a television, the internet or a local newsagent it will not have escaped your notice that Nice suffered a heinous terror attack on Bastille Day. That's just 11 days before we flew out to Nice, and only 17 days before we return today. We are staying right on Promenade des Anglais where Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel deliberately crashed his lorry into the crowd over by the beach before shooting at the police and being shot dead himself. Eighty-four people were killed in the carnage, and an 85th was to pass away from their injuries before we landed back in Manchester.

Opposite the beach there is a park at the centre of which is a pile of tributes to the victims. Cards, messages and cuddly toys all cover the middle area of the park where a constant stream of visitors mill around paying their respects. I decide it would be inappropriate to take any photographs so you'll have to take my word for it when I say that it is both moving and unbelievable. Unbelievable to think that something so utterly shocking could happen right here in such a beautiful place which at the moment just looks so peaceful. Credit is due to the people of Nice. Were it not for the tributes and the odd quartet of armed soldiers (who were visible in Marseille also) then you would never know that their city had suffered so much. They just get on with the daily business of enjoying the total majesty of their home town. There's no edge to the atmosphere. Bouhlel has not taken away their freedom. I don't feel unsafe at any point.

We turn left off the Promenade, pass through an arch and find ourselves on a busy street loaded with bars and restaurants. We stop at one called 'Atmosphere' which has lime green canopies and waitresses who like to dance to awful music which they crank up to Spaceballs-esque 'are you nuts?' levels of volume. We discover that Nice is no less expensive than Marseille. It costs €4 (around £3.35) for less than half a pint of lager but it is extremely pleasant to sit there in the sunshine soaking up the surroundings. Perhaps that's it. Perhaps it is a sunshine tax that they place on beer in the south of France which we will never have to worry about in the UK.

We carry on browsing the bars and restaurants, passing one promising live music every night called 'Akathor'. There'll be more from that place as the week goes on but for now we head back to the hotel for a quick refresher and then head out down the main street where Hotel Mercure is situated to see what else we can find in the way of evening entertainment. We stop at a bar called 'Red Kaffe'. While we are enjoying our still overpriced lager I notice an old lady loitering around on the street outside the bar. The bars sprawl out on to the streets in this area so she is just metres behind me. She approaches the people on the table next to us and asks one of the girls for a cigarette. The girl looks a little surprised but she obligingly takes out her packet of cigarettes and hands one to the loitering old lady. At that point the owner of the bar comes out and says something to her. It sounds like he is politely asking her to stop bothering his customers and move on away from the front of the bar. She's probably a homeless person or some kind of beggar. The bar man will have seen this sort of thing many times before, no doubt. It's rife here. We had one experience in Marseille when a young boy approached our table in a cafe and gestured to us to give him some money. He was accompanied by a woman who was probably his mother. I don't know what is more tragic, the fact that people use their children in this way or the fact that they feel they have to. They were not the only ones. Day after day in Marseille we would see the same two or three people hanging around cafes and bars trying to persuade people to give them their money. Looks like things won't be any different in Nice.

The old lady responds angrily to the bar owner's request, shouting at him and gesticulating. The argument continues for a while and I'm half expecting four armed soldiers to turn up and settle it with their huge machine guns. Which is not a euphemism. Then, just as the begging old bag is reluctantly walking away she aims a floating missile of sputum back in the direction of the bar. It's Rijkaardian in its audacity and outright foul rudeness. It misses my head by a matter of centimetres and comes to rest in a wretched pool of vile greenness in a spot just behind my rear wheels. At first I thought she had got me. It was that close to the side of my head. If I had a mullet like Rudi Voeller's she would have scored a direct hit. Being bald has been helpful on this occasion. The bar man rushes over all frenzied apologies and offers of piles of tissues to clean up any stray gob that might have found its way on to me. Thankfully there isn't any and we just sit there and finish our drinks in stunned amusement at the whole affair. What a perfectly pleasant way to end our first day in Nice.

Despite the owner's apologies and his helpfulness, we don't return to Red Kaffe for the rest of the week.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Stade Velodrome

Friday night in Marseille is a bit of a blur. After the long trek back to the hotel from the railway station we headed straight out and drank too much. Five full days of paying €8 for a pint of lager does strange things to you, so I started on the cocktails. I have since had it suggested to me that cocktails are girls drinks, which is the kind of 1970's thinking that stops many women from going into a pub or a betting shop on their own. The bottom line is that cocktails get you drunk faster than lager will, and at €8 a pint they are not that much more expensive. I'm all for spending money recklessly, especially on holiday, but if you are going to avoid running out of money before you get home then some nights you are going to have to look for the value.

Saturday morning we had tickets to visit the Stade Velodrome, home of Olympique Marseille FC and one of the venues for Euro 2016. It was here that Woy's hapless England side drew 1-1 with Russia, sparking all kinds of frayed tempers among the Russian support and proving the catalyst for two or three days of violent scenes in the city. Quite glad I wasn't here for that one if I'm honest.

The stadium is in another part of the city, well away from the port with its picturesque scenery and expensive bars and restaurants. That means another bus ride and, you're ahead of me, the lift on the bus does not or will not operate properly. As such I am again lugged on to the bus by the nearest person eager to help. If, like me, you can bounce down steps then getting off buses isn't a problem so at least I only suffered this indignity one way. However, any disabled person who for whatever reason cannot manage steps in either direction is frankly risking their well-being twice as many times as I did. The willingness of people to help is all very well and good, but they know nothing of the safest way of providing that help. You can find yourself clinging on a bit, especially if like many wheelchair users you have the kind of balance that would embarrass Luis Suarez.

The bus drops off a short distance from the Stade Velodrome. Turn right at the top of the road and you will see it dominate the landscape. It's recognisable because of its curved roof in homage to the cycling events which were held at the stadium after it was built in the 1930s. This is different from the English football stadia I have visited which are all visible from the moon thanks to their lavish branding on the stands. Giant club crests adorn the stands at Liverpool, Everton, Sheffield Wednesday etc...but to look at Stade Velodrome from the top of the road where it sits you would not necessarily be able to identify which club plays there except for the fact that you are in Marseille and Marseille only has one professional club. Interestingly (to me anyway) Stade Velodrome was shared between Olympique Marseille FC and the city's rugby league team in the 1970s. Where did it all go wrong for RL in France?

The reception area has very minimalist décor. It's a big empty room except for the receptionist who sits behind a desk not paying very much attention to us. We tell her we have tickets for a tour of the stadium at 11.00 and she tells us in very broken English that we will need to wait for assistance. Stairs again which are circumnavigated by a series of lifts and it all starts to feel a little bit like the French railway service again. We wait outside and it has rained this morning for the one and only time during our stay in France. Only for a short time but quite heavily, and the drainage system mustn't be the best as the roads and pavements are gathering water in puddles in the way they would at home if it had rained solidly for two days.

Eventually we are led up to the Presidential Suite. A man is holding court with a group of visitors, talking enthusiastically about his experiences during Euro 2016. Apparently they had 'all the players....all the stars'. Chief among these of course is Cristiano Ronaldo. Between stifling a yawn and trying to figure out if this tour has actually started I catch half of an anecdote about how much attention the preening, footballing behemoth attracted when he deigned to rock up at Stade Velodrome with Portugal when they played Poland in the quarter-finals. But Ronaldo Attracts Attention is Man Has One Head kind of territory in terms of headlines and I quickly tire of his monologue. What I want to know is where was he when it all kicked off between the Russians and the English? Whose fault was it exactly and did, as I suspect, the media make it sound like the Spanish Civil War because football hooliganism is A Good Story?

Turns out the tour hadn't started yet. Our tour guide is going to be the lady from reception, the one who gave us that can't-really-be-arsed welcome earlier. The guy talking to the group in the Presidential Suite (from where you get an absolutely belting view of the pitch by the way) is going to be the one charged with helping me and another guest with some mobility problems get around to see everything. He's on crutches and he is from Norway, but that is as much as I find out about him. Nobody can get a word in as our chaperone likes a chat. He's from Algeria, he tells us, and when he finds out that I support Liverpool he reminisces about the atmosphere in an Algerian bar when Liverpool played AC Milan in that memorable Champions League Final in Istanbul. According to him half the people in the bar where shouting for Liverpool and half for AC Milan. Who shouts for Algerian teams in Algeria, then?

Having to be separated from the group to take different routes down secret passages and hidden lifts is not the biggest problem with the tour of Stade Velodrome. The biggest problem is that Aida, our tour guide, conducts proceedings entirely in French. Our Algerian friend (I never find out his name, regrettably) advises us that all tours are conducted in French but that if we ask her she might be able to at least summarise what she has been saying in something that resembles English. So Emma asks and Aida refuses. Point blank says that no, she can't do the tour in English nor explain anything about it in English. I'm feeling a little left out again. Like my friends are in the tent with the girls and I'm walking to the shop again. Even the Algerian man does not offer to explain any of it for us, which is pretty unfathomable considering that he is fluent in both English and French but does not consider either to be his first language. The staff here should wear badges that read 'Unhappy To Help'.

Another of their flaws is that they conveniently gloss over significant parts of the club's history. One of the main exhibits focuses on their 1993 Champions League triumph (helpfully there is some English text alongside the photographs to give you some context). What it doesn't tell you, is that due to financial irregularities that Champions League winning side was relegated from the French First Division the next season and blocked from defending its European title. Emma asks about this and the Algerian flatly denies it. The only part of what he says which is true is that they did not have that 1993 Champions League stripped and so it remains on their list of honours. However, it is plainly very far from the whole story.

The best part of the tour was the photo opportunities, some of which I will leave you with below. However, at €13 a ticket you might want to brush up on your French skills or else take a translator with you before you part with your hard earned for this one....

Tuesday, 16 August 2016


As busy as we were in France we did have some down time. That is, time just spent hanging around in the hotel doing not much of anything, usually when we had returned from a trip out or had decided to have a bit of a rest for a day or so. The French railway system can be a tiring experience.

It was during one such period of nothingness that I discovered that the television in our room had one channel which broadcast films in English. I found this strange. Despite literally hundreds of channels being broadcast on my Sky+ system at home there are precisely none which show French language films. The only place I have ever found those is on BBC2 late at night at the weekends when the schedulers think nobody is watching. They'd be right if I had a life.

One afternoon I decided that instead of falling asleep and waking up two hours later feeling like I had been hit by the 33, I would take the opportunity to watch an actual English language film. This isn't Sky Cinema where you have the choice of...oh....seven or eight films which were all broadcast the previous day and will be broadcast again on all subsequent days until you die, so there was only one option. The Invasion stars Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman and is a quite revolting tale of a zombie apocalypse. There is none of the humour of Shaun Of The Dead. This is a serious business. Whereas in Shaun Of The Dead victims would be zombified by being bitten (or having their insides eaten like Dylan Moran's character), the unfortunates in The Invasion become so by having one of the zombies basically vomit in their face. Apart from outraged revulsion there is no immediate effect from this. It is only when the victim falls asleep that they become an extra from Thriller as they awake.

Now, is it only me who finds the idea of vomiting into Nicole Kidman's face outrageous? Craig looks like someone has already vomited in his frankly, and no amount of smart suits, bow ties and girly drinks in any number of James Bond films can pull the wool over my eyes on that score. But Nicole? It's an absolute affront. What next? Taking a dump on Charlize Theron's marble floor? You're not going to bother to watch this terrible film so let me just tell you that there's an inevitable moment when Craig's character gets zombified and he tries to lure the sleep deprived Nicole towards him so that he can complete her transition. She's been trying to stay awake all night locked in some kind of warehouse, or maybe a supermarket, with her son. Whereupon she shoots Craig in the leg, which is apparently what you do when you really need to get rid of someone but you can't bring yourself to kill them because you love them. It was a load of old nonsense, made worse by the fact that when it had all come to its logical conclusion (Nicole having found some way to reverse the affects of the face-spewing which has by now escaped my memory) Craig was safely co-habiting with her and looking about as trustworthy as a Russian weightlifter. Perhaps they had a sequel in mind at that point. Perhaps there is a sequel out there somewhere. One can only hope not.

On Thursday we decided to visit Toulon. This meant a bus ride from the port to the Marseille St Charles station. Like trains, buses in France are accessible without actually being accessible. That is to say that the law says they must provide access features, but is fairly apathetic about whether or not those access features are operational or not. The theory is that a ramp should automatically slide from under the bus at the middle doors, leaving those not requiring access to board at the front as you would see on a traditional British bus. Only the ramps don't work. None of them. Of all the bus rides we took in Marseille (around four or five in total) the ramp was operational on only one occasion. That's according to an array of drivers who spoke little or no English, so in actuality I couldn't be sure whether the ramps really were broken, whether the driver did not know how to operate them or just could not be arsed to do so, or whether he was making an active stand and keeping my kind off his bus. Prejudice takes many forms. The likelihood of the latter is however lessened by the willingness of the Marseille public to physically drag a wheelchair user on to a bus when the ramp is not operating for whatever reason.

It's just a pleasant one hour on the train from Marseille St Charles provided you have the patience to get through the railway station protocol. On the way we took in Marseille Blancarde, Aubagne, Cassis, La Ciotat, St-Cyr-Les Lecques-La Cadiere, Bandol, Ollioules-Sanary-Sur-Mer and La Sayne-Six-Fours. None of which are pronounced anything like you might imagine from looking at their spellings. Helpfully the railway station is very close to the town centre meaning that we need not find out that day whether the bus services in Toulon were any better than those in Marseille. Having got up early to get through all of the railway station shenanigans we have had to skip breakfast and so by the time we arrive in the town centre finding somewhere to eat has become a top priority.

We cross the square (known actually as Place de la Liberte) towards a row of restaurants, passing the impressive Fontaine de la Federation as we head towards them. Built in 1889 it stands in front of the façade of the Grand Hotel and looks a little something like this. Except it doesn't normally have some behatted berk sat in front of it;

Photo opportunity taken we press on. At one end of the row of restaurants is a place called 'Ptits'n'Pins' which I find funny in a Beavis & Butthead sort of way. Yet we can't seriously sit in a restaurant with such a preposterous name so we choose the Brasserie next door. It's a choice we'll regret. Everything appears normal at first. We take a seat at a table and wait. Two waiters are hurriedly walking around tending to customers. They haven't even looked at us but that's ok. They're just busy. We wait, and we wait. Five minutes or so pass without either of the waiters even acknowledging our existence on the planet never mind within their restaurant until finally one of them comes over and offers us the menu. Though it is obviously going to be written in French I expected to at least be able to understand the basics of what was in each dish but with this I don't have a clue. My internal arty-farty food alarm starts ringing. I'm not going to find anything here that I would class as edible. Emma doesn't seem any more enthused at the options. So we leave, evoking memories of that cringeworthy moment in Palm Desert when we left a branch of Ruth Chris' because a piece of chicken, by itself before you get started on your chips and/or your vegetables, cost $23.

The waiter seems a little surprised, perhaps slightly offended. Yet neither of us have the linguistic skills to explain that we don't want to pay €15 for an item of food we can't identify. So we just apologise and go. Instead we find a small sandwich shop on the corner further down the road where we boringly eat cheese and ham baguettes but, boring or not, they're enjoyable which is kind of the point of being on holiday. After lunch we take a walk down by the harbour. It's just as stunning as that at Marseille. After a customary stop at one of the cafes for a beer we move a little further down and off the main promenade. We come out on to a road, and directly in front of us is the rugby stadium. Stade Mayol is a rugby union stadium, home to the town's RC Toulounnais Top 14 side. If you're acquainted with me, or with anything I have ever written either here or on redvee or the18thman, you will be left in no doubt about my loathing for all things rugby union. It's a quite tedious game played by lawyers and future Strictly contestants. But Stade Mayol is no less impressive for all of that.

Around the corner we find a place that is much more my sort of thing. It's a bar for starters, but not only that it is a bar called Le Saint. It even has a little stick man logo, harking back to the good old days when Saints logo looked like something from the credits of the old Roger Moore crime show. Those used only to the Super League era will know nothing of this but it's all a far cry and a safe distance from ludicrous animal nicknames and their associated logos which exist only to please the marketing men. The only problem with Le Saint is that on further inspection, having gone down a ramp to the side of the building, it is not accessible. There are two quite large steps at the front of it and well, it just isn't worth the hassle really. Not that I'd miss the opportunity to take a photograph like this one;

The road loops back around leading back to the harbour. We walk back along towards where the boat we have booked to sail on will be leaving. Unlike in Marseille there's no important tacky but brilliant film-related landmark to focus on. This will just be a nice, pleasurable cruise around the port area which looks magnificent. So much so that it is beyond my limited powers of description. This time we sit at the front of the boat, which inevitably turns out to be another mistake. The trip is accompanied by a constant commentary, entirely in French. In front of us a middle aged couple seem to find every part of the commentary wildly amusing. Worse still, they start throwing some of their own comments back in what can only be described as an attempt at banter, all of which is utterly befuddling due to the language barrier. What concerns me most is that nobody else other than this couple are laughing at the commentary or responding to it. This means that either nobody else on the boat speaks French or, more likely and mortifyingly, it's just not funny.

Compounding the lady's behaviour is the fact that the wind keeps blowing her skirt up above her waist so that you can see 'all the way to Florida' as Carrie Fisher once memorably described the main selling point of her iconic chain bikini from Return Of The Jedi. But this lady is no Carrie Fisher circa 1977 and there is no selling point. It all makes me feel a tad queasy if truth be told.

We snoop around the shops and I buy the obligatory souvenir mug. The awful truth is that our house is overrun with mugs but this in no way acts as a deterrent. Darth Vader, killer whales, Chicago Bulls, St Helens RLFC (three times), Barcelona FC, pandas, Disneyland Florida and Yorkie bars can all be found on mugs in our house. Add Toulon to the list. Another beer by the harbour later and it is time to head back to the railway station. We have a day of nothing much planned tomorrow except sitting around by our hotel pool which seems like as good a reason as any to get back in time to go and drink far more than is reasonable. If only the French railway system would co-operate.

Everything appears as normal as it gets in France at first. We buy tickets, book the assistance, all with no trouble at all. It is only when we get to the platform that our troubles start. On that subject actually, I just want to say how bloody rude it is that they send Emma down the stairs on her own to cross the track via the subway while I am whisked further down the platform to cross the track above ground. Why is it necessary to split us up? What harm does it do them if one more person has to be escorted across the track above ground? I'm not comfortable leaving her on her own like that even though she doesn't seem to mind. It's a small thing, but it's the small things that chip away at you and dehumanise you in my experience.

We wait on the platform but are informed by the staff member assisting us that there could be a problem with the train we are waiting for. They're trying to find out, something they fail to do fcr an eternity. Even when the train pulls in they won't let us board, still insisting that they are trying to find out whether it will be going on to Marseille or else terminating at Toulon. Finally it emerges that there has been an incident on the train in which the driver or the guard has been assaulted by a passenger. They don't say what they mean by assaulted but they do say that the police are involved and we are still waiting for an answer as to whether the train will continue on to Marseille. Eventually it transpires that it will not, and we have to board another train. There are trains everywhere, several of which looks suspiciously like they may be heading towards Marseille. Yet it takes fully an hour from the moment we arrive on the platform for us to board a train that we can rely on to take us to Marseille. It's a shambles but it's not their fault, it never is. They apologise.

I'm quite enjoying the views on the train ride back to Marseille when I see something startling and quite outrageous. A couple of things actually, though the first should perhaps be filed under ironic and annoying rather than startling and outrageous. At Bandol a couple board the train. Nothing unremarkable about that, until Emma points out to me that they are the same couple who had been bantzing with the commentator on the boat earlier. At least there is no wind on the train to interfere with the lady's attire but what are the odds? They must have taken a train to Bandol from Toulon immediately after they left the boat while we were enjoying our beers on the harbour. To be fair to them they are somewhat less annoying when they are not being egged on by a self-proclaimed comedian with a microphone on a boat, but their very presence is yet another indication that we are forever cursed by these kind of ironies and coincidences. At that point it would not have surprised me if we had been vomited on by Daniel Craig.

The second incident is much more troubling. A young man and woman board the train at a carriage further up from where we sit. They have a little boy with them. As they shuffle around towards our carriage trying to find a suitable place to sit the young man is shouting at the girl. Not loudly, but in a tone forceful enough to leave you in no doubt that he is not happy with her. She doesn't really respond and it becomes clear why soon after when he leans in towards her and blatantly headbutts her above the eye. She's clearly terrified of him and his psychotic penchant for domestic abuse. It is not clear whether they are a couple with their own child or maybe siblings travelling with their younger brother, but either way this kind of thing just appals me. Women go on and on about how infidelity is the worst thing that can be foisted upon them, but are quite happy to put up with this kind of bullshit. If I had the physical capabilities I would stalk the Earth ridding it of domestic abusers like some kind of vigilante superhero. Maybe someone will do something similar in that novel I have been promising to write since I was 21. Which works fine until you consider that a) I am now 40 and that novel is looking less likely than my presence in the 2017 TT Races and b) I hate superhero movies and stories and have not seen or read a good one since Superman II in 1978 when I was two years old. Oh alright, Watchmen was mildly diverting....

When the domestic abuser and his victim disembark the train at Marseille she has one hand over her right eye which is also hidden by the brim of her sunhat. He looks guilty but unashamed at the same time, and I want to punch him in the head repeatedly more thane ever. Instead we just get off the train and start looking for a bus back to the port. Except we don't find one. Somehow we have exited the station at a totally different point from where we were dropped off this morning and we can't find the number 83 bus for love nor money. Emma's idea is to walk back towards the port, the logic being that we will surely find an appropriate bus stop en route. Which we do, but not before we are within half a mile of the harbour and have been on the move for about 20 minutes to half an hour. We still manage to get out to the bars albeit much later than planned, but we're a little bit drained for anything more than the usual row of bars along the harbour. The next night is our last in Marseille. Perhaps we will make up for it then.