Thursday, 20 April 2017

Pointlessly Pressing The Down Arrow At Tescos

Over the road from where I work, an institution which dare not speak its name on these pages, is a new branch of Tesco. The shop floor is below street level but, this being 2017 and all, they have installed a lift to allow access for those of us who still somehow baulk at the prospect of a flight of stairs.

It’s one of those self-operated lifts with room for only one wheelchair user. It has a simple set of controls which even a UKIP voter could understand. An arrow pointing down to take you down to store level, and an arrow pointing up to take you back up to street level. Simple. The only thing left to negotiate is the narrow aisles between goods but it is only a small store, and to make it totally and easily accessible for wheelchair users you would probably have to evacuate everyone else. It’s a bit of a scrap to get around but that’s ok because at least there is a lift. That’s all I ask. I don’t want it to be evacuated. I’m not the Queen.

Except the lift doesn’t work and they don’t care. I haven’t been counting but I would estimate that on each of the last 10 occasions that I have tried to shop there for my lunch (and who doesn’t want to eat Tescos strawberries and grapes instead of a bacon butty at the cafe down the road?) the lift has been broken. I’ve managed to get in every time. The staff eventually notice me fruitlessly pressing the down arrow but going nowhere like Brian Potter on his stairlift. Never mind that smell, I’ve been stuck up here all night… When they finally notice me they rally round trying to fix the useless fecking thing and eventually, after some knob-twiddling, they manage it, all apologies and we’ll-get-someone-out-to-its.

So because I always eventually get into the store for my strawberries and grapes, and the Magnums that I often buy for my colleagues in the summer (ah, you think it is a problem now, don’t you?) I have managed to say nothing to the management beyond a polite suggestion that they should really get someone out to it to fix the problem once and for all. But yesterday they couldn’t get it to work. There were four of them milling around it fiddling with knobs and switches, opening and closing the gate like Ace Ventura in that scene where he is trying to prove that the balcony door is soundproof. Eventually I gave up on it and, I’m afraid to say, slightly lost my shit with the manager.

I’ll summarise it for you without the haughtiness. Basically I told him that if everyone who uses the store needed the lift to gain access to it then they would fix the problem overnight. The reason that they haven’t is that the people like me who need to use it are in the overwhelming minority. Who cares if I don’t go in there and spend my three or four quid twice a week? Extrapolated, capitalist scum like Tesco don’t give a flying shit about the purple pound, that is the money poured into the economy by disabled people. It’s not significant enough for their all-conquering business to take even half a hit, so why should they bother their arse spending money on piffling things like maintaining a working accessible lift? It’s another example of first rate lip service to disability access. They are bound by law to provide a lift but not, it seems, to maintain it. So what is the fucking point? It’s like giving me a Magnum and then cutting my fucking tongue out.

Their apathy is further encouraged by the fact that the nearest accessible supermarket is……a bloody Tesco!! This is what comes of allowing one company to open up 746 stores within a two mile radius of each other. Even if you protest by refusing to enter the guilty store you end up spending your money with the same company anyway just for your own convenience. Tesco have us all by the balls, especially those of us with mobility issues. Also, there is a whacking great hill between the office and that other Tesco and frankly I am not at home to it. And it slopes upwards on the way back, not on the way there. You can't imagine the level of demotivation I have for pushing up a steep hill for the privilege of going back to the office for the afternoon.

Emma has already written a far more reasoned and less huffy complaint letter than you are currently ‘enjoying’. She’s pointed out that it has happened on several occasions, that not only does the lift not work but that it is also regularly blocked off by empty shopping trolleys (an interesting variation on the pub classic of shoving everything you have no room for into the disabled toilet), and that all of this shows a total and complete lack of respect to customers with access needs. And do you know what they did in response? They sent it to the wrong fucking branch, didn’t they? There hasn’t been this level of absolute apathy to disabled people since I turned over live coverage of the Paralympic sitting volleyball because I didn’t want to miss Eggheads.

We await further response from Tesco who have at least assured us that the complaint has now gone to the correct store, but it is a fair bet that whatever they do I won’t be able to go in there for a good while yet. And they won't give a flying shite.

Monday, 27 March 2017

Stop Crying Ironside

If you're not a rugby league fan you may not know that I have a couple of weekly columns on an inedpendent Saints supporters website called One previews the week's game while the other is a much more in-depth and hopefully entertaining analysis of the game once it's finished. It's reasonably popular, but as we'll see not everyone who reads Redvee has me on their Christmas card list.

Along with my work and that of one or two others the main feature of the site is its fans forum. A message board, in old new money. Here fans can gather to offer their opinions on everything from Jack Owens' spacial awareness to the standard of the pies in the kiosk and all points in between. It can get a bit tasty when the debates heat up and like all forums it is home to its fair share of wind-up merchants but largely it features sensible, intellectual debate on the absolute state of St Helens Rugby League Football Club and the sport in general.

It's surprising then to note that one night last week I became the victim of what I would describe as the Diet Coke of hate crimes. Somehow discussion had turned to the rights and wrongs of former Saints back rower Andre Savelio parking his car in a disabled bay at Tesco late at night. Irrespective of the fact that this has nothing to do with rugby league the argument rumbled on. One bright spark told someone to 'get a life' for condemning Savelio's alleged parking habits, claiming that the use of disabled bays by clearly non-disabled professional rugby league players is fine after dark because there is 'nobody around'.

I shouldn't have, but I couldn't resist chiming in;

"Aye," I said;

"Cos disabled people don't go out at night."

My irony had been noted but not appreciated by one user. Notably, it was not the same user who had tried to argue the case for illegal, inconsiderate parking earlier, proving that ignorance is widespread from the safety of the keyboard. The response was withering and surprising despite also managing to be puerile and laughable. It read;

"Stop crying Ironside. We all know you're disabled."

If awkward silences existed on website forums there would have been one right there. Then slowly the condemnation from the sensible majority started to appear as several other users pointed out in no uncertain terms that this sort of abuse has no place on a rugby league forum. I received private messages from several other users condemning the comparison between me and a ropey 70s television detective. And that's an important point to make. Though it gets a bad press from certain unbalanced, disenfranchised snowflakes, the Redvee forum is a welcoming place where anyone who has an opinion on Saints or rugby league is encouraged to offer it. If people disagree they'll say so, but the slanging matches and insults are still rare and remarkable enough to inspire blogs like this one when they occur. You don't really need a thick skin to post on Redvee. You just need to be able to tolerate having someone disagree with you.

And so to the abuse itself. What's the word for it? The phobia? We have homophobia, transpbobia, xenophobia, but what phobia describes hatred of the disabled. We're so marginalised we haven't even got a phobia dedicated to us. And Ironside? Really? Has this person not changed the channel on their television since 1978? I can barely remember Ironside but regardless I stopped getting upset about this sort of thing in around 1984. At that time the youth of the day were driving past me on Elephant Lane shouting 'spastic' out of car windows. I'm still not sure who those boys were referring to but what I can say is that of all the things about disability that do bother me name-calling straight out of Grange Fucking Hill is way down the list.

I have often thought about whether it is appropriate for me as the main contributor to Redvee to continue to post so often on the forum. As if keeping my opinions for my columns would afford me more gravitas and elevate me above the din. But bugger that. I'm not special. I enjoy being part of that online community just as much as I enjoy writing and the slightly loftier perch that comes with it. Contributing to the forum reminds me and the others that I'm really just another fan who just happens to have the ability to articulate my opinions in a more structured and professional manner and with the aid of the Big Book Of Glib Remarks. If the aim of the Ironside remark was to put me off posting and writing my columns it has had the opposite effect.

Which won't please everyone.....

Thursday, 2 March 2017

A Short Memoir Of Feeling Better

Two days ago I had one of my now legendary down days. I couldn't see the positive in anything and I had to sit, basically chained to my desk, and contemplate all of this negativity and a level of pointlessness that would have Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman spontaneously combusting. It was the purest, most wretched agony. But if I'm quick to always tell you about that either on my social media accounts or on these pages, then I think it is only fair that I throw you a quick few words on how things don't always have to be that way. You know, in the interests of balance and all that.

It is rather strange that today I feel better than I can remember feeling in a long time. On your average working day I mean. I am usually a whole lot chirpier at weekends, or if Emma and I are away somewhere during the week or if I'm out boozing with friends from home or work. Today though, today is just an ordinary day when all of the same things that whirred around and around in my head and made me miserable on Tuesday are exactly as they were then. And yet I feel fine, better than fine maybe. Although maybe we shouldn't push it.

This started last night. I said something passably funny on Facebook. All of which may not seem significant, but I could not have come up with it on Tuesday. You can't crack weak but undeniably funny gags about disability when it's a down day. You can't be all you can be or any of that positivity fascist bullshit. It's all you can do to get through the day, which I did and by the end I even found myself in a fair enough mental state to enjoy the utterly glorious pancakes that Emma made. There's another religious festival I've stolen from the God Botherers while I continue to chortle at them for their faith in their all-powerful imaginary friend.

By the way if you are interested the joke was about International Wheelchair Day which, believe it or not is A Thing. Every year on March 1, like St David's day. It's when wheelchair users 'celebrate the positive impact that their wheelchair has on their daily lives'. So I made a joke about celebrating the positive impact that a kick in the bollocks has on your daily life on International Kick In The Bollocks Day. Trust me, it was funny. There were people laughing in baths and everything. I get what are trying to do with this but if you asked the average wheelchair user whether said wheelchair has a positive impact on their lives or whether they feel like they just get on with life in spite of it then I think you would get a pretty mixed response. Tellingly, not many wheelchair users found it funny so maybe I touched a nerve with some. I can only speak for myself and I can't see how my wheelchair has positively impacted my life in any way since I was about 14. Everything I have done, which isn't much since I'm a depressed frustrated writer working in a low-level admin job, has been done despite my disability not because of it. You could argue that I wouldn't have had wheelchair basketball without my disability (although that is not strictly true now that able bodied people are perfectly free to get involved providing they can get their hands on a wheelchair) but the flip side of that of course is that I would have had football and rugby league and....oh I don't know, climbing trees and stealing birds eggs like a pre-pubescent shitbag does. Or used to before X-Box Live.

Anyway, just because I feel better I don't want you to think that I'm crowing about having conquered depression. I'm fairly certain that it will come back and bite me on the arse again soon but for now I'm just going to try and enjoy the break that it is giving me. Besides, everyone's depression is different. What works for me may not work for others and so forth and there are very varying degrees of it all of which have various effects on the individual sufferer. I think my own depression is merely the absence of delusion. I know that there are certain things about life that are utterly, irretrievably shite but if I can convince myself that it doesn't really matter and that I can be happy anyway then I'll feel like I do today. Considerably better. But if I can't, if I remember all of that negative stuff and dwell on it and let it consume me then I get days like Tuesday and the others I have written about here, some of which was powerful enough to upset some people. Funny that, you don't realise when you are mashing away at your keyboard that what you are writing might make someone else feel sad or anything. That's another thing about depression though. When it's got you it's all about you and there are very few boundaries in terms of what you think you can or cannot say out loud or write on these pages. Depression effects the filter.

So there we go. Short but sweet this one and I'm sure you will agree a pleasant diversion from the kind of incessant moaning about disability issues that normally goes on in Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard. I hope you enjoyed it in any case because who knows? Tomorrow I could be face down on my desk refusing to speak to anyone who tries to convince me that I should be happy that it's Friday. And even if I'm not depressed tomorrow I still have the bittersweet chore of watching Saints at home to Wakefield to look forward to in the evening. Have you seen Saints play recently? If you are prone to depression you perhaps shouldn't bother.....

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Being Treated Like Cattle Without So Much As A Discount

Where are you going on your holidays? Yes, I know it's February and all but there's no harm in having something to look forward to. Especially for me right now since for the last couple of weeks I have been setting world standards for absolute prickery, such is the level of my anxiety, frustration and overwhelming sense of worthlessness. I really must do better.

I'm going to Florida in July. The 17th to be precise, which is fully 149 days away. Not that anyone is counting. But I didn't come here to gloat and anyway due to the aforementioned anxiety, frustration, overwhelming sense of worthlessness and its resulting absolute prickery 149 days might just as well be 149 years. I'm really only focused on getting through single days at a time. No, the reason I mention my holidays is because it ties in with the actual theme of this piece which is the standard of assistance given to wheelchair users in airports. Or lack thereof. Those among you with mobility issues will already know what I'm talking about but the rest of you might not have considered what some of us have to endure just to get on board an aeroplane.

Disability campaigners have. When asked as part of a BBC investigation into the matter Disability Wales said that the service, provided at most of the UK airports by a company called Omniserv, was 'shocking'. A Mrs Mel Davies, a wheelchair user from Pontadawe near Port Talbot complained that she was left in pain on two occasions after being incorrectly lifted by Onniserv assistance staff. Mel crossed her arms over her chest in anticipation of being lifted by her arms only to find that the staff had their own ideas as to the best technique for the job. One grabbed her under the armpits while the other attempted to lift her by the chest. By the fucking chest! Now, I know that it's the era of alternate facts and that the current President of the United States actively encourages the grabbing of women by whichever part of their anatomy takes your fancy, but surely in UK law this constitutes some sort of sexual assault? Have we really reached the point in our society's decline that we now think it impossible to touch disabled women inappropriately because they're just not bothered about that sort of thing anyway? This sort of de-feminising, de-humanising palaver cannot stand. It is little wonder I spend large parts of my day silently fuming at Other People.

To put the top hat on it, it turns out that Mel has had surgery for breast cancer. So as well as the indignity she suffered, the teen-like fumbling of Omniserv's staff also caused her a great deal of physical pain. For an encore, they then left Mel waiting at the aircraft door when it was time to disembark, leaving the airline staff to help her off the plane. I can especially relate to this. Every flight I take ends with at least a 20-minute wait after all of the abled passengers have left the scene as the highly complex task of finding two blokes who can push an aisle chair is undertaken. Thankfully I don't need lifting on or off said aisle chair which is just as well as it would waste even more time than is already written off during the traditional argument about whether or not they bring my own wheelchair to the aircraft door. For reasons best known to people who can wiggle their toes (and why the fuck do you want to do that anyway?) they seem to think that any old wheelchair is acceptable until you get to baggage reclaim. As if wheelchairs are a one size fits all thing and are in no way personal. Like fucking condoms. I steadfastly refuse to leave my seat until they bring MY chair which wastes my own time but is far better than the alternative.

Mel is not alone in having problems with Omniserv. Jen Crispin from Hampshire suffered similarly. Her assistants were so technically inept in the lifting stakes that the person she was travelling with had to do the honours, while on another occasion she was left waiting to exit the plane for over 90 minutes, by which time someone had taken the bizarre decision to shut baggage reclaim! Ah....what does it matter? If cripples don't qualify as sexual assault victims then perhaps they don't need luggage either. They're not real people, after all..

Heather McQueen from Perth missed her connecting flight because of similarly piss poor Omniservice and has vowed never to fly alone again as a result. While understandable, this is not the answer to the problem. In the first place you miss out on travelling which closes all sorts of doors for you personally and professionally at a time when there are enough right wing bellends trying to do that for you. In the second place it means one less disabled traveller, and the fewer of us there are the more likely it is that those of us who do persist will be treated with complete disregard. You have to keep going, keep persisting and keep reminding them that disabled people aren't just going to go away, unsightly though we are.

It's not just when boarding and leaving planes that we experience the ineptitude of airport services. Emma has been asked before now whether the wheelchair has a name, while I love to reminisce about one joyous episode in Salou when a member of staff came up behind me and put his hands on my back in an attempt to push me towards the gate. In what world is it acceptable to just grunt, nod and put your hands on someone? A paying customer? We don't get a fucking discount for being treated like cattle.

I often think that the worst part of all this is that in 2017 they haven't thought of a way to make aeroplanes wheelchair accessible. I mean, try having a piss on one when you can't stand up. On our flight to and from New York three years ago they had to physically remove the door from the toilet cubicle to stop me from pissing on their seats. Meanwhile, anyone who can't walk can expect to be routinely dragged backwards down the aisle to the seat furthest away from the door as possible in full view of the other passengers. Which on one occasion included a rather impatient looking Rio Ferdinand. What Rio? You think YOU'RE the one being inconvenienced?

Still, I'm looking forward to Florida should my neurosis allow me to make it that far. It's more likely to stop me than the cringe-inducing incompetence of airport staff.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Using A Bus To Drive A Big Fat Wedge Between Us

Today I'm going to talk about buses again. Which you might think mundane because you able bodied folk can afford to take them for granted. There's absolutely no prospect of you being denied the opportunity to get on board a bus. Not unless you've just thrown up the evening's alcohol intake and it's all over your shirt. Yet for wheelchair users doubt about whether they'll be allowed to travel with the other Loser Cruiser passengers is the stark reality of the situation. I drive so I really only use buses when my intention is to drink enough alcohol that it ends up all over my shirt, but I have enough painful experience to know that when I see that 10A heading towards the bus stop it does not necessarily mean that my wait is over.

A bit of background. In January of this year a man called Doug Paulley took successful action against First Bus at the Supreme Court. He had been denied access to a bus in 2012 when a woman with a pushchair refused to move to accommodate him. The Supreme Court ruled that bus drivers need to do more to accommodate wheelchair users even if there are already people on board with pushchairs. None of which helped wheelchair user Kirsty Shepherd when she tried to get on a bus in Wakefield just five days after the Supreme Court ruling. In fact, this particular bus driver went that extra mile in his bid to avoid helping Kirsty on to the bus, and if he could humiliate and demonise her into the bargain then so much the better. Not only did the driver not ask anyone to move to accommodate Kirsty, he still refused to let her on to the bus even when the person with the pushchair voluntarily offered to move.

An argument ensued and this is where the lines get blurred. When I'm in this situation I tend to let the bus go. The 10A stops outside my local every 10 minutes so it's really not worth getting into a shouting match with a jobsworth driver who hasn't lived a day in my life and would cry himself to sleep at night if he had to. What-fucking-ever. Be the bigger man. Yet why should Kirsty take my view? She may have needed to be somewhere more important than The Running Horses and the bus she was trying to catch may have been less regular. None of which matters anyway. It's 2017. She ought to be able to ride a fucking bus when she wants or needs to for whatever purpose. Yet because she chose to argue her case instead of taking the hit and catching the next one which, remember, offered no guarantee of accommodating her either, the other passengers became restless. They started shouting at her to get the next bus because they had homes to go to. Note that they did not shout at the driver to just let her on. Why not? The woman in the accessible space had moved so there was room for Kirsty, yet she was vilified by the public. The same public we are repeatedly told are no longer prejudiced against anyone regardless of race, gender, DISABILITY, religion, sexual orientation, rugby league persuasion....all that. It's such horse shit. Prejudice is alive and well in 2017.

For a delicious encore, and after Kirsty had met with the same resistance from the driver's manager over the telephone, the driver refused to continue the journey and made everyone get off the bus!!! Now, you can imagine what happened to Kirsty's approval rating in a quick poll among those passengers. Yet they were directing their fury in the wrong place. I would have every sympathy with them in having to stand around in the cold on a freezing January night had they not chosen to make Kirsty the bad guy. Who knows...? Perhaps a little more support for Kirsty among the other passengers could have resulted in a quicker resolution for everyone.

What it tells us that you able bodied lot, instinctively and by your nature, still want to blame us for the fact that the law says you have to adapt. Relations between wheelchair users and single mums are at an all-time low and not just because of the behaviour of me and my mates on a Saturday night. There's only so much space on a bus for wheelchairs and pushchairs and instead of spending money to create more the government would rather drive a big fat wedge between bus passengers who use wheelchairs and pushchairs and those who don't, all the while boasting about what strides we have made in equality and diversity.

Arriva, the company which runs the bus, said that it had had 'extensive conversations with Ms Shepherd about the incident' and that it was 'investigating this as a matter of urgency'. In addition, it said that it was 'in the process of downloading the CCTV footage and speaking to those involved'. So, I can expect to never again be told by any Arriva driver that I can't board his bus, can I? And presumably this disability-hating Disciple Of The Alt Right bus driver will lose his job?

You'll forgive me if I remain sceptical.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

York - Golden Eggs Laid By The Golden Goose

I like spending money. I just do. If something is overpriced but I want it I will still buy it if I can afford it. I’m the sort of person who would rather get slightly ripped off than go without. Yet even I had to draw the line when faced with the prospect of buying breakfast for the two of us at the Yorkshire Bar And Grill, you remember the place adjoined with the hotel, on Saturday morning.

We never got as far as finding out what breakfast fully entailed. There might have been golden eggs laid by the golden goose herself, served by topless dancers while a video of Saints greatest ever games played on an endless loop on a big screen on the wall. We’ll never know because as soon as the restaurateur informed us that it would be £14 per person we decided fairly hastily to look elsewhere. Fourteen quid? Who pays fourteen quid for a breakfast? I would want it to fly me to Tenerife for that. Dick Turpin is said to have lived and been hanged in York. At least he wore a mask. It all reminded me of our now infamous visit to Palm Desert when we entered a restaurant called Ruth Chris. On that occasion we sat down, ordered cokes and perused the menu to find that a piece of chicken by itself would set us back $23. That was before you tried to buy anything to go with it. We left. It was all very embarrassing.

In some shock from this latest attempted extortion we journeyed on towards The Cross Keys where we had been late the previous evening. They do a more civilised two for a tenner deal on breakfasts although this doesn’t include your cup of tea. No golden eggs, no golden goose, no topless dancers and no Saints videos but a good brekkie for a fairly reasonable price. Even if they did serve the beans in a separate pot which for some reason I find slightly off-putting, and even if the milk that came with the tea was served in jugs from which it was impossible to pour without covering the table with the stuff. Yet still I was glad we hadn’t paid a combined £28.

It was raining heavily. The plan was to visit the new Richard III Experience (also at Monk Bar, but isn't everything?) in the morning and maybe carry on the history and monarchy theme in the afternoon with a mooch around the Henry VII Something Or Other. Though I'm about as anti-royal as you can be without actually bursting into Buckingham Palace and opening fire, I do have an interest in history and in particular Richard III after firstly watching tacky but somehow unmissable BBC drama The White Queen a few years ago, and after visiting Leicester where the hunchbacked king's remains were found under a car park by some nosey buggers. A monarch with a disability is something I can get on board with. Yet inevitably another access problem is hurtling its way inexorably into this story. We should have done our research, then we would have saved ourselves the bother of trudging through the rain only to find that the 'Experience', such as it was, was located within the city walls. You can guess what is coming if you were with me for the Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate debacle of my last entry. Accessing the Richard III Experience required passage through an arch barely big enough to accommodate Mose Masoe (and he would have to duck) and certainly required the ability to walk. A non-starter.

So instead we made our way back towards York Minster. Access fans will be interested to know that this again requires a lot of negotiation of cobbles and uneven paving, but had it not been for the rain it would have been a pleasant enough stroll. I had stopped to take a picture of the Minster, something to which Emma was totally oblivious which resulted in us getting split up. It took me quite a while to get to the door of the Minster which is so vast that it is one of those places you can see from everywhere giving the appearance that you are near to it when in fact there is still more distance to travel. I had to make my way through a large grassy area (although there is a path) before I got to the entrance. Once there I avoided the majority of the queuing by taking the ramp which is situated over to one side. Nobody seemed to mind, even when Emma eventually found me and dodged the now massive queue that was forming at the centre.

Nor did they seem to mind paying £10 each to gain entry to the Minster. Had we had any better ideas and had it not been bouncing down with rain I might have lodged some sort of objection. But we're back to how I just spend money if I can afford to. Entering the Minster didn't really qualify as something I couldn't do without, but there were few credible alternatives beyond sampling more of York's 365 pubs. That would have led to an early bath, so we sucked it up and paid the entrance fee. It's not all bad. I know I hate churches every bit as much as I hate the monarchy but as with the castles and palaces of the UK the cathedrals and basilicas have great history and blinding architecture which you can't help but appreciate. Also, there is now a museum down in the basement of the Minster which celebrates the history of the place and of the city of York itself. And yes, it is accessible. I spent a good 45 minutes to an hour wandering around the museum and messing about with its interactive gizmos which certainly softened the blow of the entrance fee. Actually, I probably spent a good 10 minutes of that time contemplating whether I should push on to the glass floor above the digs exhibition. No matter how many times I push on these things there is always that moment beforehand where I hesitate. It's irrational, illogical and well...utterly typical of my behaviour. Despite my enjoyment of the museum I stopped short of putting any of my change in the containers dotted around which are adorned with signs asking you to help pay for the upkeep of the place. If you are inside the building then you already fucking have!

Time for a photo. York Minster in all its glory, obviously enhanced by my dazzling photography skills;

Ye Old Starre Inn

An hour or two in York Minster was both an interesting diversion and a handy way to dry off, but that wasn't going to stop us from getting thirsty. We decided to take some liquid refreshment at Ye Old Starre Inn back on Stonegate. It's another of York's very old watering holes and is reached by passing through a small covered passage, the kind of thing you might have seen fat blokes from dramatic adaptations of Dickens novels ducking under at some point. It's filthy and depressing to be honest but what lies beyond it is much more attractive. It was busier than any pub in St.Helens I've ever been in on a Saturday lunchtime which is perhaps even more surprising given that they are not showing the football. Since I can't see it, I'm annoyed by how often I find myself checking my BBC Sport app on my phone to find out how Liverpool are getting on in their FA Cup tie with Wolves. They are losing 2-0 as it turns out. I tell Emma that they will score and lose 2-1, because it is the hope that kills you. They score and lose 2-1, because it is the hope that kills you. This shot of Ye Old Starre Inn shows its rather grandiose, booming banner which lets everyone who passes know exactly where it is. Otherwise you might not see the passage to the entrance which is just underneath the Walker & Preston's banner to the right of the picture. You'll see it if you click on the photo;

Strangely I need some jeans. This is what happens when I don't do my own packing. Normally a couple of pairs of jeans would do me for a weekend but the weather has intervened. They don't do denim in the shade of mud that my jeans tend to turn to in wet conditions. Happily, I've got vouchers for Debenhams so we go there and fix that small problem and also to Mr Simms Olde Sweet Shoppe, one of my favourite haunts in historical towns and cities. I buy jar of mixed sweets for my work colleagues and a jar of cola bottles each for me and Emma. I'm forced down this route as they have somehow managed to not stock cola cubes which we bought on our last visit to one of Mr Simms' stores in Shrewsbury last year. After that it is back to the hotel for a refresh and a rest. I've had one beer by this point but if I keep going there'll be trouble. Pacing myself.

Snickleway Inn

We revisit the Royal Oak but it has lost much of its magic from the previous evening. There's no live music on and the only seat available is the one closest to the door which seems to be constantly opening and shutting as punters come in off the street. I don't stay long enough to necessitate the removal of the sandwich boards from the disabled toilet. It's one and go, as we move on to the brilliantly named Snickleway Inn. As Emma is at the bar I pull my usual stunt (without trying I hasten to add, this is never my fault) of attracting the not so great and good of the establishment who are keen for a chinwag. This time it is Max, whose mother is a scouser (from Aigburth) but has not passed on her local knowledge to her son who has no idea where St.Helens is when I tell him where I am from. As Emma returns we make small talk for a while before trying to find a seat. I even do the joke about how I don't need a seat because I've brought my own. Brings the house down that one. Eye roll. Max is not discouraged either way, as when we find a table in the corner of the pub he asks if he can join us. What do you say? No, go away strange local person? No. So against my better judgement I tell him it is fine and he takes up a seat opposite us and begins regaling us with his knowledge of physics. He has an assignment to do by Thursday, and the biggest problem he has is that the question the assignment is based on is three pages long and he doesn't understand it. It's for a PHD. I haven't got a PHD but I know that at degree level you can pretty much come up with any crap you want as long as you can find some resource somewhere which backs it up. There are no right or wrong answers so Max will be fine. Although I can almost guarantee you that he failed geography.

The conversation turns to the troubled world, to talk of Donald Trump and the implications of his racist regime on Max's four-year old daughter who is back in London with her mother. We'd love to stay and discover what Max's great plan is but we still have over 350 pubs to fit in to our itinerary. It's another case of one and go I'm afraid. The access report is mixed also. I didn't try to find a toilet as the need did not arise, but what I can say it is that it is another of those 'snug' pubs you tend to find in York which make moving around a challenge if you have the extra baggage that is a wheelchair. But it's nothing that you will find insurmountable if you are thirsty enough.

The Old White Swan

It's a pity it is not summer. We had walked past The Old White Swan a number of times already and it has a really nice outdoor area before the main building which is set back from the street. You could have a nice meal and a few refreshing beverages here if the weather was warmer. Since it is January we go inside for our feed. Eating is cheating but we have to have something if we are going to last the pace. Again there is only one table free and again it is the one nearest to the constantly opening door. How does this keep happening to us? Fortunately, a couple on the table behind me are getting up to move into a table in the corner that has just been vacated, so we move on to their table which, although it is a little too close to the aisle next to the toilets for my liking, is at least a little bit warmer. The food's decent, but we only go as far as garlic bread, chips and onion rings or something. Eating is cheating, remember. And that is just about as much as one can say about The Old White Swan. Except to say that it does have a disabled toilet, the only drawback to which is that it is right next door to the ladies and so if you have to wait for someone else to vacate it then it is quite likely that the ladies exiting their toilet will think that you are just sitting there waiting to look at them. Which of course you are absolutely not. This kind of thing is maddening. Why do we even have disabled toilets anyway, as if we are some sort of third gender? Why do we not have accessible toilets inside the gents and the ladies? I have made this point before and it continues to fall on deaf ears. My local MP has just been made Shadow Minister for the Disabled. Whatever that is. Maybe I will have a word.

Aside from that there is no Max-like character to chew the fat with and so we just talk normally in the way that a couple out celebrating their 18th anniversary of being together might do. Nothing to see here Except perhaps a shot of the pub;

The Golden Fleece

Our last stop is one that, according to Emma, we had visited before on our last visit. We are all just going to have to take her word for that because none of the pieces I wrote on these pages about our last visit to York contain anything about any pubs we visited. Which at least means that you are not having to read the same piece that you might have read seven years ago. We are sat at a table near the entrance (again) and Emma reckons that just next to the bar there is a passage which leads to the area we were in on our last visit. I don't test this theory out as there is no real need to. We're happy enough here, whiling away the rest of our evening in a slightly drunken stupor.

The background noise to Sunday morning breakfast back at The Cross Keys is a group of locals out for an early boozing session. I don't know how they do it so early. It makes me vom. I have my back to them but listening to them talk about Leeds United's prospects at Sutton United (they end up losing which costs me £30 on a five-team acca but that is by-the-by) conjures up images of Keith Lemon again. One of them is unfortunate enough to have to use a voice-box like Peter Baynham's character in that episode of 'I'm Alan Partridge'. Now your're talking my language, he says to Alan when he is offered a pint. I hope not, comes Alan's typically unsubtle reply.

After breakfast I want to go back to the Minster to get a few more photographs, specifically one of the statue of Emperor Constantine. He was hanging around the city in the early part of the fourth century and is, among other things, responsible for the naming of Constantinople which is now known as Istanbul. So if you are a bitter Manc you can take up any complaints you have about the events of May 2005 with him. Constantine is said to have united the Roman Empire, though in this picture he is only lolling about doing not much uniting of anything. He actually looks a bit bothered by the sun but again that is just down to my poor photography skills;

And that is York, in all it's pub-riddled, cobbled, crazily paved expensive breakfasted glory.

Monday, 30 January 2017

York 2017 - Singing In Tune After Waiting Around Pointlessly On Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate

If you trawl back through the archives of Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard (which I just have to be able to bring you this sentence) you will find an account of our last trip to York which was in the summer 0f 2010. Or rather, three accounts. One for each day that we spent there. Actually, let me save you some time. They can be found here, here and here. Almost seven years later we decided to go back there on the occasion of our 18th anniversary. That is to say we have been together for 18 years. We are not married. How are we going to afford weekends away in York if we get married?

We travelled over on Friday morning having booked to go on a walking tour of the city. Footprints walking tours don’t charge you for their services, but they talk a lot about tipping and how it is up to you to decide how much you think the tour is worth. Which isn’t an awful lot as we will see later but first let me tell you a little bit about the hotel.

We stayed in a Best Western called the Monk Bar Hotel. For me this evoked amusing memories of a contestant on University Challenge called Monkman who is fast becoming a cult figure. If you pay a visit to University Challenge’s Twitter feed you will see that their avatar is an image of the intense, slightly scary looking Monkman who represents one of the Cambridge colleges. He’s amusing due to his appearance, his intensity and the absolute sense of betrayal that he feels every time he gets a question wrong. As if he knows better and Jeremy Paxman is just taking the piss.

Presumably the Monk Bar hotel is so named not after the fierce television quiz star but after the area in which it is situated. Everything in that area seems to be known as the Something Something at Monk Bar or the Monk Bar Something. The disabled access room we were allocated (there may be more than one but don’t bet anything valuable on it) was set back away from the main hotel in a different building. Like an outhouse or the outside loo that used to sit in the garden at my nan’s house. Only bigger. And colder as we would find out when we returned from the walking tour to have a rest and get ready to hit the boozers. It also has no parking, something we didn’t find out until we had parked in what looked suspiciously like a car park at the back of the hotel. We were told we’d have to move the car to a car park just around the corner which Emma did, but if you are a wheelchair user driving there on your own then you will benefit from knowing that we had this problem. It will mean that you won’t have to make the mistake that we did before lugging your fat arse and your chair back into your car in order to move the car about 50 yards to a different car park and then have to push all the way back to the hotel to check in.

With an hour or so to go before the walk we went next door for lunch at the Yorkshire Bar & Grill. It actually joins on to the hotel but, this being us, we hadn’t realised this and so went outside to come back in again. Like that clip from The Simpsons of Abraham Simpson walking into his house, taking his hat off, turning around, putting his hat back on and then walking outside again. All while cheerily whistling along to himself. Twelve quid got us two meals (but not the drinks, they are extra) and it was all very nice. We were pretty much the only people in there at 12.30pm on a Friday so it was nice and peaceful too. Very different from Wetherspoons which I love but where you can't seem to get away from the inane chatter of Other People, many of whom try to put you off your breakfast by drinking pints of bitter at 9.00 on a Sunday morning.

We met for the walk on Stonegate, one of seemingly thousands of streets in York which has a name ending in Gate. As well as Stonegate there's Colliergate, Davygate, Coppergate, Deangate, Goodramgate, Fishergate, High and Low Petergate and the brilliantly named Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate among others. Everything short of Watergate and Pizzagate. Our guide was Matt, a young looking and incredibly posh-sounding chap who it turned out was studying at York University. Well that explained the well spoken accent. Everyone else here sounded like Keith Lemon. Matt was slightly scatty I think. The website for Footprints says that you have to book on to the tour either by phone or online, so he has an idea of who will be turning up before we start. After introducing himself he told us that it would be me and Emma and a school party! Just as I started to wonder how I would cope with 30 screaming children running off in different directions and asking 'why are you in that?' the so-called school party arrived. Fortunately, they were all well into their adulthood. What is more, none of them even worked in a school. Matt had no clue where he had got the idea from that they were a school party but I couldn't help but feel a wave of relief that we now wouldn't have to spend part of the tour looking for little Johnny who had broken away from the group and could be in any one of the 276 Gates or tea-rooms that line the city.

Here's another access bit. York is difficult to get around if you have a wheelchair. The first example of this was at Barley Hall, built nearly 700 years ago by monks (monk men?) with seemingly nothing better to do other than pray to their false God. Yet disappointingly, the hall we were actually looking at by this point has only been there for around 30 years after it was rebuilt in the 1980's following that prolific scourge of all things historic, decaying structures. You thought I was going to end that sentence with...that prolific scourge of all things historic, disabled people, didn't you? Go on, admit it. It's ok. Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard is exactly the sort of place where you would find that kind of offensive glibness. If you are a wheelchair user then you will be familiar with the concept that some buildings are just so historically important that they cannot be altered in any way to allow the likes of you inside but it does happen more often than you would think. But mostly buildings are altered in historical cities either because they are becoming unsafe due to structural damage or because they have burned down.

Back at the ranch, the point I was making is that you will have trouble getting around this area due to the uneven paving and the cobbles which are pretty much a feature of the whole of York. Matt told me that his brother is in a wheelchair (at least he didn't say he has a brother who is 'like me' because I can almost guarantee you that he isn't) and that he has trouble with cobbles. I replied that I do too, and that it wouldn't be the first time I have come a cropper if I should hit one or a crack in the pavement and end up sniffing the dirt. Fortunately I managed to stay in my chair throughout which, though disappointing for the humour content of this column, is a good thing for me.

Now Matt had explained to us before the tour started that there was a part of the tour that is inaccessible. This is not uncommon, especially in cities so rich with history and...well....cobbles. Fear not though, he assured us, as we could just take an alternate route while the others climbed the steps to walk along what remains of the city walls. Again this is something we have experienced before and usually takes no more than a few minutes out of the tour for before we meet up again with the group fairly quickly. Not this time. Matt advised us to head to Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate via the arch close to where the city walls begin where he and the group would re-join us for the rest of the tour. It took about 10 minutes to get to Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate and we arrived to find that the rest of the group were conspicuous by their absence. So we waited. And we waited. And we waited. Like the old Guinness advert. We waited there for another 15 minutes on top of the 10 it had already taken us to get there. So that is 25 minutes of a two-hour tour (which is actually only about 1 hour and 45 minutes anyway despite what the website tells you) that you won't be experiencing if you happen to be a wheelchair user. To my knowledge there is nothing on the website about this and actually there is no information whatsoever there about wheelchair accessibility or any other kind of accessibility needs you might have. So it's not great form, really. More than once while we waited we discussed the possibility of giving up on them and going into The Terrace, a pub right across the road from where we were waiting. York apparently has 365 pubs within its city walls and we had only been in one of them to that point, and that was only for lunch. We needed to make a start. And it was just there, staring at us and softly whispering 'come in, have a pint and forget about Matt's loopy Michael McIntyre schtick.'

But we didn't. Eventually Matt and the group turned up all apologies and have-you-been-waiting-longs. The wait wasn't really worth it. Before the rude interruption we had been walking for about an hour so I fully expected another half an hour at least, even allowing for the time we had missed. But that didn't happen. There were only two more stops on Matt's tour, the most memorable story of which had been the one of how catholic women were pressed to death hundreds of years ago if they were caught practising their religion. This meant basically being laid flat out and having a variety of heavy objects piled on to you until your spine literally snapped. Now everyone who has ever seen this column knows I care little for religion but this seems just a tad harsh just for being misguided enough to practice Catholicism. And we worry about Donald Trump. The final stop was Clifford's Tower, sometimes referred to as York Castle. There is a museum right by there but having done it before during our 2010 visit we don't bother again. However, you can read all about that in the blogs I linked to earlier if you so wish.

And so it came to the thorny issue of the tip for the walk. How much was it worth? We forgot to go to the cash machine and so only had a tenner between us anyway, but we actually debated whether or not we should give all of that to Matt following the Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate debacle. Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate-Gate, if you will. In the end the wastefulness that I inherit from my mother's side of the family won out and I just gave a yeah-whatever shrug when we were talking about it. We ended up giving him the tenner. That's only five pounds each after all and there were some worthwhile moments on the tour. Yet anyone who reads this column for advice on access issues in all of the strange places I visit should know that I would probably advise you to look elsewhere for your guided tour of York. Most of them will probably include some sort of alternate route to the part where you walk along the city walls but I wouldn't mind betting that most of them could do better than to have you waiting 25 minutes for them while you contemplate whether you might just be better off getting drunk.

Which, predictably, is exactly what we do on Friday evening;

Keystones Scream

As I mentioned York allegedly has 365 pubs within the city walls and we set out with the intention of seeing as many of them as we could over the two nights of our stay. The first of these was just around the corner, literally about a minute's walk from the Monk Bar Hotel. It's called Keystones Scream, which is an interesting moniker if nothing else. Unfortunately its name is just about the best thing about it. It was standard student fair, which would have been my absolute utopia when Emma and I met and for a few years afterwards, but now seems somehow inappropriate. We found a place to sit, a sofa situated in front of a large screen showing the Derby v Leicester FA Cup tie in which even I had absolutely no interest. Behind us the students were playing pool, drinking heavily, chatting loudly and generally being students. Not only that, but Emma said that the sofa she was sat on is what my scouse friends would call 'minty'. What she actually said (because she wouldn't actually say minty, it would sound ridiculous) is that it feels like someone has pissed on the sofa. Not recently. It wasn't wet. But it was tatty and stained. I stayed in my chair but I have to be honest and say that just looking at it did remind me of a brown and white sofa that my mum threw out about 100 years ago. From the outside, it looks a little like this. But really, with 365 to choose from you should probably save yourself the bother of going in;

I don't mean to pick on students. As we know I was one once, and what great times they were. In fact, being in Keystones Scream with all those long-haired idealists brought back great memories. As unattractive as Keystones Scream is it has nothing on some of the absolute shitholes we used to frequent back in my student days in Barnsley. Browns was a particularly gruesome venue but I absolutely loved it. They sold shots of whisky with a mixer for 50p. You don't need palatial surroundings to enjoy that. There were others. We used to flock to The Pheasant which was a short walk from the halls of residence where we all lived for the simple and only reason that it was a short walk from the halls of residence where we all lived. It was an absolute and total dive without a single redeeming feature. Same goes for The Firkin, a loathesome place but a place which could be relied upon to show live football and serve drinks to students at silly prices. It would all end in Hedonism nightclub, a place which was both dingy and smoky (this was before the ban) but which for young people with no responsibilities absolutely and completely lived up to its name. The things that went on. If anyone heard 'Sit Down' by James in any of the pubs I frequent now, and actually sat down next to me as people were fond of doing in Hendonism, I would punch them squarely in the face. How times change.

The Royal Oak

Remember that plan to visit as many pubs as we could in York? This was where it all started to go wrong, but for the right reasons. The Royal Oak is a relatively small place, and when it is busy it obviously seems even smaller. We had to fight our way to the only empty table in the place. It was empty for a reason. Just next to it, on the sofa literally about two feet from where we sat down, a man was setting up his keyboard. I took the opportunity to make a cheap joke about organs on Facebook (standard) and waited for what I thought would be an inevitable deafening from the man once he started playing. We still expected at this point to have one beer and move on. Normally when someone sets up musical equipment close to where you are sat in a pub it means the end of any possibility of conversation between you and whoever you are there with. But then the man, whose name was Adam, started playing and pleasantly surprised us with both his musical talent and his ability to keep the noise down to a level that it was possible to not only withstand but also to hear other sounds. He never touched the keyboard as it turned out. He played an acoustic guitar, all of which was right up my street. I was singing along to The Beatles, Oasis, Crowded House, Mumford & Sons, Jamie Lawson and even a bit of Ralph McTell!

So we had begun to enjoy ourselves to the point where we decided to stay for a few more, at least until Adam finished playing. Not only was the music good and the atmosphere pleasant, there was only an accessible toilet! Oh what joy was this? It meant fighting my way back through the huddled masses enjoying Adam's little sing-along but this was a small chore considering the number of pubs I have been in where wheelchair users can't even get through the door of a toilet. Strictly one and move on territory and even then only if you haven't been drinking heavily since your last visit to the bathroom. Having got through the crowd I had the usual problem of having to ask Miss behind the bar for the key (we had somehow neglected to remember the radar key - again) and then I had to ask her to move a number of sandwich boards which had been stored inside the disabled toilet. This again is a common practice in pubs where there are facilities. It's total lip-service to comply with the law. Install a disabled toilet and use it as a store room. Don't worry, nobody using a wheelchair will actually come in. Well, sometimes they do.

My singing had obviously been noticed by Adam. He told me I was 'in tune' which ranks among the higher compliments I have ever received for my vocal exploits. For this reason, for Adam's entertaining segment and for its commitment to actually bothering to have a disabled toilet The Royal Oak had instantly installed itself as my favourite pub in York to that point. It looks a little something like this;

The Cross Keys

Four pubs out of 365 is not a particularly good effort, I know. But where is the logic in leaving a pub if you are having as good a time as we were in The Royal Oak? You could go somewhere else but you would be doing it for the sake of it and there is a high risk that you wouldn't enjoy it so much. And an even higher risk that wherever you do go won't have a disabled toilet and you will either piss your pants or else spend your time there performing the I Need A Wee Dance that people with full control over their bladder function are so fond of. In any case for every Royal Oak there is bound to be two or three Keystone Screams. So by the time we left The Royal Oak it was well after 11.00. Time for another before everywhere started chucking out. The next one we came to was The Cross Keys which sits at the corner of Goodramgate just in front of York Minster. It's very scenic from outside, but from the inside it is fairly bog-standard pub gear. It started to empty out not long after we arrived which may or may not be a coincidence so we just enjoyed the beer and the peace before ending Friday back at the hotel bar. It was pretty much the only place still prepared to serve us.

Here's a shot of the Cross Keys to end on. I have decided to split the weekend into two entries because this has gone on far longer than I had expected. I hope you will join me for part two....

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Not Being George

First of all I have to again apologise for the lack of material on these pages. What time I have had for writing has been spent putting together a series of previews of the new Super League season which starts in early February. You may have seen a few of these springing up on Facebook. To be honest I didn't really intend to publish them on Facebook as they are pretty niche. They're far more popular on Twitter where most people who follow me do so because of my rugby league writings. Most of them don't even know me. But that's no barrier to us being friends. The reason these pieces appeared on Facebook had more to do with my inability to use Buffer correctly. I'm sorry Steve. You taught me far, far better than that.

I went for a Wetherspoons breakfast at the weekend. To my mind this is one of the greatest pleasures in life, but that could just be a reflection of the woeful tragedy that my life has become. But for less than £4 I get a wonderfully unhealthy meal that means I then have no need for food for about seven hours. What is not to like about that? The reason I tell you about my visit to Wetherspoons this particular weekend is that it provided the latest example of my being mistaken for someone else. Oddly, I'm always being recognised by people who don't actually recognise me. It's like being a celebrity with none of the perks. Only the regular hassle they must endure from the general public on a daily basis. Like being Robbie Williams without the sex and drugs.

So as we entered Wetherspoons a man was stood outside smoking a cigarette. He looked at me with a smile and said 'alright, George?'

George? This was a new one. Usually when this happens I'm Lee, Paul or Phil. That's because these are the names of wheelchair users who are friends of mine (the confusion on some faces when they see us together) and who might reasonably rock up at Wetherspoons in St Helens on a Sunday morning. However, not to state the obvious but none of these men look anything like me. They just happen to use wheelchairs which is enough to confuse certain members of the idiot population. After all we're all the same from the wheels up, right? The differences between us are not that difficult to spot but just to recap. All of Lee, Paul and Phil have hair. Lee is eight years younger than me. Paul is five years younger and half my weight. Phil is around 10 years older than me. So we're all different ages, sizes and only I have no hair. And get this. Lee has ONE leg!! ONE FUCKING LEG!! You idiot population. You see a wheelchair and you lose the ability to count legs!

As I passed the man on the way in he made a remark about how I must have been warm with such a big coat on. When he did he again called me George so I thought I'd try again to protest my innocence against the charge of being George. I told him I didn't know who George was but that I felt this cold January day warranted the use of the big coat. Or words to that effect. It didn't convince him. When Emma went up to the bar to order our breakfasts (I could go but it would involve the use of a lift which hardly ever works, often needs operating by staff and would probably evoke memories of that episode of Phoenix Nights where Brian Potter takes his new girlfriend upstairs) she overheard the man telling the friends he was there with that he had just seen George! What the Hell kind of wft-ery is this? Who is George?

To be fair to the man since I don't know George it may well be that he is my doppleganger. There's a fair chance he has no hair and two admittedly useless legs, at least. I hope for his sake that he isn't a dead ringer for me with the added complication of having my disability. Looking like me and having my disability is no fun, I can assure you. Yet the fact that it is possible that George is burdened in this fashion goes some way to explaining why I don't believe in God. Why would he do that to two people? And make them both live in St Helens? Preposterous. If this has happened then it is nothing other than a tragic accident of nature. I suspect and actually prefer to think that it has not happened quite like that. Somehow I prefer to believe in society's staggering ignorance than in the idea that there is anyone else out there who has to put up with being me.

Later that day, having posted a much more brief version of this misunderstanding on Facebook I came across a video there of a wheelchair user swinging and doing pull-ups from a set of high bars and walking along on his hands, all while still strapped to his wheelchair. Yes, he did use straps. Contrary to the belief of some intellectually challenged folk we're not surgically or anatomically attached to eight pounds of metal. I don't sleep in my chair nor do I shower or bathe in it. Heck, I don't even watch Homeland in it. I know, who knew? So anyway having seen this video I shared it (another mention for Steve here, thanks for that) and asked the question about why I never get mistaken for that bloke. I thought that was funnier than the original story of mistaken identity myself but the figures (or likes if you prefer) suggested otherwise. There's no accounting for taste.

Not that taste comes into it if we're all the same as George.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Super League 2017 Preview - Warrington Wolves

The 2016 Super League season was not a classic. Conservatism ruled as clubs climbed over each other to see who could devise the most boring game-plan. It culminated in the most wretched of all conclusions, a Wigan Warriors Grand Final victory. Yet here we are, a month out from the start of the 2017 campaign and we’re all just as excited as ever we were, as if there is any hope that in the intervening months the coaches have all got together over a Christmas sherry and decided to do away with one-out, knees and elbows, third man in dross. Well, it could have happened….

If the excitement level does not change, neither does the structure of my season preview which is below for your delectation. It’s alphabetical so as not to inspire too many angry tweets about why Wigan are last (because Wigan are last….). So sit back with your brew and read on, all the while picturing yourself strolling up to the Totally Wicked Stadium on what is sure to be an icy, wet, horrific night when Saints entertain Leeds in the season opener on February 9. There’s nothing better, is there?


It was so nearly, almost, virtually, closely, well nigh, approaching their year. More or less. As good as. But in the end Warrington Wolves fell short in both major finals in 2016, losing to Hull FC in the Challenge Cup final at Wembley in August before going down to Wigan Warriors at Old Trafford. It was Warrington’s third Grand Final defeat in four years.

None of which will curb their optimism going into 2017. There is much for them to be cheerful and confident about after all, even if it has been a winter which threatened to be dominated by the sudden loss of Chris Sandow. While the RFL looked the other way (presumably glancing longingly at the buffet at the latest executive meeting) Sandow joined a growing band of players who saw fit to walk away from Super League clubs this off-season despite remaining under contract. The former Parramatta scrum-half cited family reasons for his need to immediately return to Australia, where he no doubt expected to be picked up by an NRL club fairly swiftly. That he has not done so yet is largely down to a charge of public nuisance hanging over him after he somehow became involved in a street fight in Queensland.

Sandow left with a flea in his ear from Wolves coach Tony Smith, who has closed the door on a return for the increasingly desperate halfback by adding Widnes' Kevin Brown to his ranks. What else are you going to do when you have been wronged by one of your superstar players than pick on another club? Brown joins the Halliwell Jones Stadium club on a two-year deal and looks set to form a tasty halfback partnership with Warrington’s altogether more sensible Aussie Kurt Gidley. The former Newcastle man was a revelation in his first season with the Wolves scoring seven tries and adding 16 assists to his all around excellence in organising and kicking. He and Brown are an ageing but vastly experienced pair who should still have enough in the legs to cause all kinds of pandemonium in opposition defences when they are on their game. When Brown is on the treatment table, as he has been all too often during his stay with Widnes, then Declan Patton provides one of the better cover options at half that Super League has to offer.

The vast majority of the squad which reached both of those major finals in 2016 has been retained by Smith. Mitchell Dodds made only two appearances for Warrington thanks largely to an injury early in the season and has moved back to Australia with Brisbane Broncos, while the once promising James Laithwaite has struggled to recover from an horrific broken leg suffered at Leigh in a Challenge Cup semi-final in June 2015 and will be spending 2017 with the intriguing and arresting new Toronto Wolfpack outfit. Joining him in Canada will be former Saint and treatment room dweller Gary Wheeler, that after just 12 appearances in the primrose and blue. Prop Ben Evans leaves the side of twin brother Rhys to try to help London Broncos back into Super League.

Aside from Brown new faces include former Saints troubled soul Andre Savelio. The 21 year-old developed a full blown ski jump lip in his last year at Langtree Park yet the decision to allow him to join a main title rival for a bag of grapes and a fruit shoot remains baffling. Never mind, we’ve got Matty Smith back. What? Oh. Helping Savelio in the pack will be Mike Cooper who returns to the Wolves after stint with St George-Illawarra during which he impressed enough to make it into Wayne Bennett’s England team. He will add quality to a front row which already includes the best prop in Super League in the outstanding Chris Hill as well as 2014 Man Of Steel and dummy half nuisance on fast forward Daryl Clark and self-proclaimed enforcer and occasional pundit Ashton Sims. Matty Blythe follows Cooper back to Warrington after spending the last four seasons with the club mandatorily prefixed with the word ‘beleagured’ the Bradford Bulls. Blythe will add cover in both the centres where Ryan Atkins continues to get away with being deceitful and average, and in the altogether stronger second row which is currently shorn of Ben Currie. Twenty-two year-old Currie is one of the best prospects in the English game but faces a lengthy spell on the side-lines after suffering a torn ACL in late September. Still, Smith can call upon Jack Hughes, Ben Westerman, George King, Joe Philbin Sam Wilde and Savelio in that position before he has to shout Blythe’s number.

Warrington’s three-quarter line may not have had any real improvements in the off-season in terms of recruitment but in Tom Lineham, Kevin Penny, Evans, Atkins and Stefan Ratchford there is plenty of pace to trouble an underwhelming list of opponents. Ratchford can also fill in at fullback along with former Wigan man and Scotland international Matty Russell. Between them the pair scored 17 tries last term and contributed a further 14 assists as Smith remained one of the few coaches feeling the need to keep the concept of open rugby league alive. In all Wire scored 123 tries in 2016, seven more than their nearest challengers in that category, while the 858 points they racked up over the course of the regular season and the Super 8s was also a league high. This was helped by an offload count of 288 which was bettered only by a quite suicidal Leeds Rhinos outfit as Smith continued to make his side hugely watchable if laughably brittle on the big days. Defensively they were also top dogs statistically, conceding 553 points (excluding the playoffs) and were the only side to miss fewer than 500 tackles.

So can they, will they go one step further in 2017 and finally make it their year? There is enough in their squad to suggest that they will and with so many options in the halves (heck, we haven’t even mentioned Ratchford’s ability to fill in there) they look set to be among the more creative sides again this year. Yet they are nothing if not dogged in their determination to find ways not to win the big one, so don't be surprised if it is another season of nearly, almost, virtually, closely, well nigh approaching glory for the Cheshire side.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Choking Sam Allardyce In A Chain Bikini

Happy New Year then. I feel abysmal so the first Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard of 2017 is a little more brief than some of its predecessors. For those of you not familiar with my Facebook account I should explain that last night, New Year's Eve, I fell asleep on the couch at some previously unknowable hour of the morning. When I woke up it was light outside but still very quiet in the house. None of Emma, Susan or Roland were up so I thought all things considered I'd better go to bed. I got to the bedroom to find two things of note. Firstly, Moewinckel was climbing all over a blissfully oblivious Emma, which is what he does when he wants his breakfast. Secondly, the clock beside the bed showed that it was 8.30am!! No wonder he wanted his breakfast. It was an hour late and I was only just going to bed!

It was all caused by a whirlwind visit from Helen and Alex. Had it not been for that I would have been in bed just after 2.00. We'd only been in the Springy where nothing unusual or goutrageous took place. Even the karaoke was standard. Bang average. So the upshot of all this was that I didn't get back out of bed until around 12.30pm. I haven't stayed in bed till that time since I was about 14 years old. At that age your dad would tell you that the day had gone and you'd be left scratching your head wondering how that could be a bad thing. Or he'd say the day was wasted while you struggled to conceive of a way that it could have been better spent that didn't involve Kylie Minogue.

But now of course I am old enough to understand that time is precious. Never was this more boldly illustrated than in the space of two chilling days across the season of forced fun when 2016, that crazed celebrity killer, took both George Michael and Carrie Fisher. I get that referring to 2016 as the worst year ever as some do represents a gargantuan lack of perspective. Yet did it really have to rob us so many icons? Following David Bowie, Prince, Muhammad Ali and Ronnie Corbett were these two treasures. You can say what you like about what George got up to in public toilets it will not change my view that he was one of the finest vocal talents the UK has ever produced. Anyone who thinks otherwise has never tried blasting out Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me, which of course I haven't because I only ever do the Elton John bit.

As for Carrie Fisher well.....put simply she defined the childhood of millions. She apparently wrote books on how to deal with mental health problems as well as the odd screenplay alongside her acting. But Christ's bowels....she was Princess Leia. I'm as partial as the next man to Natalie Portman, Daisy Ridley and Felicity Jones provided the next man isn't George Michael, but none of them come close to Fisher's role as the original and best female Star Wars hero. And yes, Disney will no doubt try to convince us that Rey makes far more use of her Jedi powers in episodes yet to come. But I bet they won't free themselves from slavery by choking Sam Allardyce while wearing an iconic chain bikini. That's Leia wearing the bikini. Sammy The Hutt in such revealing garb would be absolutely revolting. Fisher on the other hand is quite literally unforgettable.

Apparently she had finished work on Episode 8 before her untimely death which means there'll be no need for the kind of CGI jiggery and indeed pokery that goes on in Rogue One. But I wonder, as I'm sure most Star Wars fans will, what their plans are for Leia in Episode IX. They have the technology to include a character with a very significant role without the need for the actor who played the character to continue taking in oxygen. Yet some take the view that too much CGI is irritating and so it may well be that they'll have to write Fisher out of the story.

And then we may all have to endure Princess Leia's death all over again.