Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Don't Stop Me Now I'm Having Such A Good Time...

The aforementioned Queen song is probably my favourite of the band’s and a tune I figure would make great ‘closing titles music’ for a move about my life. I can see it now: I walk off into the sunset, the picture fades to black, the credits roll and people leave the cinema unable to rid their brain of the repeated line “Don’t stop me, don’t stop me, don’t stop me…”

Unfortunately for me those very lyrics could find no escape from my head the entirety of my recently completed holiday; despite the fact it was Freddie Mercury’s final hit that was more appropriate for our first destination.

So, to a brief preface of my holiday: my ol’ mate, Hayley, was making her way back to New Zealand by way of Portugal, Spain, Italy, Spain again, Germany, America, Canada, Mexico, finishing up in Howick – as you do. So, for her month in Europe she enticed her Uni friends to keep her company along the way. Cess accompanied Hails through Portugal, I met them in a Spanish city of which I’m sure you can guess by now, Hails and I then went on to Italy, she then went back to Spain to meet Kaisa and finally the Hayley baton was passed to Mick for the last leg in Berlin.

With that short backgrounder out of the way on to the holiday itself. Unfortunately all good holidays don’t start on the Spanish coast. They start, instead, at Stansted Airport – a locale that Mr. Mercury would never dream of writing a song about. And with a 6am flight requiring I check in at 4am I did the seemingly sensible thing and spent the night at the airport. That would be sensible if you enjoyed sleeping on a cold concrete floor. Desperate times call for desperate measures; so I was forced into reading my first book in over four years just to pass the time. Many torturous hours later I boarded my ‘luxurious’ Ryan Air flight to Barcelona…

Or so I thought. It appears that Reus, where I would embark the plane, is some 90 minutes from Barcelona itself. This came as a surprise to me as on Ryan Air’s website Reus was accompanied by the word ‘Barcelona’ in brackets. That’s like Air New Zealand’s website listing Hamilton with ‘Auckland’ in brackets or Ashburton with ‘Christchurch’ in brackets.

No sleep, no Barcelona and I was given a further kick to the teeth thanks to T-Mobile not switching my mobile to international roam despite spending 15 minutes on the phone with them the previous afternoon making sure it was good to go.

One 90 minute coach ride later I arrived in Barcelona with no way of organising a rendezvous with Hayley and Cess. Alone, lethargic, languageless – this was turning into the worst holiday of my life and I was only one morning into it. Eventually I won a battle of persistence with a Spanish coin phone with an appetite for Euros. I made contact with the girls who said to meet them by the fountain in the plaza. “Wicked, I’ll see you there in half an hour!” Click. What fountain? What plaza? Where?

Anyone that’s been to Barcelona will know that fountains and plazas are as common as abandoned Olympic Games’ venues. Alas, I jumped on the Metro and headed in the direction of the first place on the map that said ‘Plaza’. I got off, come up above ground. Bingo! One plaza, one fountain, and two familiar faces. My holiday could finally start.

Having dumped my bags it was time for a wander ‘round. The girls had already been in town for a day (hence their over-familiarity with fountains and plazas) so they gave me a whirlwind tour where I become acutely aware that I was the only ginger in Barcelona.

I was now beginning to regret my decision to get in the holiday spirit by sporting an untrimmed beard. Looking like Osama Ginge Laden is a sure fire way to draw attention to yourself in Barcelona. Thankfully my chin now had much needed extra cushioning; a positive seeing as my jaw spent a considerable amount of time over the weekend dropping to the ground as I spied the stunning Spanish women every five metres.

The Spaniards aren’t just famous for their beautiful chicas (or txicas as they are known in the province of Catalonia); they also have a reputation for their tapas. We happened upon an amazing tapas restaurant so good we returned six hours later for diner. It was the complete dinning experience as we were treated to some local entertainment where the illegal French-African immigrants, with portable shop of fake Gucci belts and Prada bags, played cat-and-mouse with the local police.

Another thing the Spanish do well is fall asleep around 2pm. So with all the shops closed for siesta we decided to be proper tourists and visit La Sagrada Familia: a church, of sorts, designed by Antoni Gaudi – known in Spain as “God’s Architect”. It seems every building in Barcelona worth a look was built by Gaudi. But what makes the Sagrada Familia so special is that Gaudi died – in 1926 – before he had completed the building and it is now a masterpiece in progress. Ancient stone steeples are accompanied by modern scaffolding. And for this reason tourists come flocking; and thusly wait hours to journey up the centre of the towers. It made about as much sense to me as people queuing for 90 minutes to ride an unfinished roller coaster.

It was also of little surprise to learn that Gaudi had a penchant for mind-altering fungi. And so the Sagrada Familia was a hotchpotch of gothic-looking Catholic facades juxtaposed against steeples adorned with multi-coloured fruits to represent the four seasons. He even managed to sculpt his own image amongst a scene of Jesus’ birth. Like most geniuses he was a proper nutter.

Having completed our first Catalunian must-see it was down to the waterfront for €1 San Miguels. And what else should you do in Spain at 9:30 on a Friday night? Go to the local shopping mall of course!

This city kept crazy hours – which wasn’t a good sign since a big night out was in order and I had yet to sleep. If the locals slept at 3pm, shopped at 9pm and ate dinner at 11pm, then what time did they party? 3am is your answer.

The girls, armed with their Lonely Planets, were in charge of the sightseeing itineraries and my job was to have planned a good night out in Barcelona. My choice was City Hall where Derrick Carter, a DJ from Chicago, was spinning – it made sense to me. Besides, you can be inside a dark club and still take in the sights of Spain. A good night was had by all and three of us did well to make it through to 6am (just as the locals were hitting their stride).

I was awoken four hours later to commence Saturday’s events. It began with possibly the best breakfast known to man. Txurros and txocalate. Quite simply, this was small fried bread sticks that you dipped into a cup of hot chocolate - which had a consistency just below solid. For a sweet tooth like myself this made a morning meal of Coco Pops and Nutella look like child’s play.

We then gathered some picnic supplies and headed to another of Gaudi’s creations - Park Güell. No prizes for guessing that this is a park. Set on el Carmel Hill with an amazing view over downtown Barcelona, it was designed by Gaudi based on an English park. Clearly he’d never been to Hampstead Heath as Park Güell didn’t have any grass… which made picnicking on dust and pebbles a touch unpleasant. Luckily the stunning views and more of Gaudi’s tripped-out architecture more than made up for the discomfort.

From there we headed back down town and into Barri Gothic – the Gothic Quarter – for dinner. And then it was bedtime for me having had four hours sleep over three days. Even a city as amazing as Barcelona can only keep you awake for so long.

Sunday morning and I arose with a great sense of excitement. Today was the day I would go to Camp Nou – or the Nou Camp as the Hispanically-challenged would say. Home to the best club in Europe, FC Barcelona, the Nou Camp holds just over 98,700 fans! I had figured I would be doing this slice of sightseeing by myself but whether it was the chance to see some architecture of a different kind or the lure of sweating Spanish soccer players both Cess and Hayley were well keen to come along for the evening’s match against Sevilla.

What was more of a surprise was that the game sold out. A city of 1.5 million and almost 10% of the population paid to see their local team? It didn’t compute. Auckland has almost the same population and you can barely get 30,000 of them to show up to a home game. Perhaps it’s ‘cause the Auckland rugby team is rubbish? But that’s a debate for a whole other blog.

I went out to the Nou Camp alone that morning hoping to purchase some returned tickets at the gate. It quickly became evident I wasn’t the only one given such a hot tip. Next and final option – touts. I spoke no Spanish and the touts spoke no English. If it weren’t for the fact both parties were keen to see some Euros change hands then the 20 minute ‘conversation’ would have been excruciating. Sense was made but unfortunately no dollars and cents were exchanged as I couldn’t source three tickets at a good enough price.

Having failed at the Spanish Hustle my consolation prize was to do the official tour of Camp Nou. For any Wellingtonians out there that dote over their WestpacTrust Stadium you need to learn what a real sports arena should look like. I knew it was going to be big and I knew it was going to amaze me but I had no idea just how spine-tingling amazing it feels like to stand inside a stadium that holds near on 100,000 people. I instantly promised myself to make sure, before I die, that I’m in this stadium again when there’s a game on.

The tour itself was genuinely interesting. From the dressing rooms, to the chapel, to the press room, the chairman’s enclosure, the commentary box, to the museum - where I learnt the fascinating history of FC Barcelona. Founded by Joan Gamber the club was viewed as a centrepiece for Catalunian nationalism. Gamber was also using the club’s success to campaign for an independent Catalunian sports team to compete in the Olympics in the mid-1920s. His downfall began when an English School’s choir came to Barcelona to entertain the home crowd. Of the nine songs they performed one was mistakenly the Spanish national anthem. Not surprisingly the Catalunian crowd booed the kids, the Spanish government weren’t having it, Gamber was exiled to Switzerland, where a combination of pride and depression got the better of him and he knocked himself off.

My tour was completed with a bonus exhibition in the museum were the best newspapers in Europe were invited to display their greatest ever football photos. Needless to say I spent more time in the museum than in the Sagrada Familia.

I rejoined Hayley and Cess well after my specified time but still soon enough for a lunch Neptune would be proud of. Cess had spied a seafood restaurant that took picking your crayfish out before it was served to a new level. It wasn’t just crayfish to be selected but every edible species under the sun… er, sea. Prawns, calamari and deep friend whitebait washed down with, of course, San Miguel.

Keeping with the ocean theme we then went downtown to the beach. It’s been over a year since I’ve set foot on the sand and it’s frightening just how therapeutic the beach can be. The three of us sat there for hours doing nothing but debate what lyrics followed the triumphant line ‘Barcelona!’ in Freddie Mercury’s song of the same name. The argument has yet to be settled.

The evening was finished with a sunset photography competition, which I’m sure you can tell without even seeing the other entries that I unanimously won, and then a meal 20 metres back from the Mediterranean Ocean.

The final Monday morning was spent with a brisk walk down La Ramblas – Barcelona’s famed, tree-lined main street – just so I could say I’ve ‘been there, done that’.

So as the sun set, the picture faded to black and the credits rolled the three of us flew out of Barcelona with the ‘wrong’ Queen song ringing in our heads. Well, it wasn’t that inappropriate. We had had ‘such a good time’ in Barcelona – a city with a very Australasian feel: from the inner-city beaches, to the seafood, to the underdog feeling of being Catalunian. If it weren’t for the language barrier it would be an incredibly easy city to live.

And on that alarmingly sincere note I shall wrap things up. Next stop: Mafia, magma and more scooters than you can shake a strawberry, vanilla and chocolate gelato at.

Monday, May 15, 2006


Just completed a pretty hectic week that’s taken me up to Liverpool and back to down to Lord’s; so here’s the low down… not terribly humorous but we are talking about house music and sport – two forms normally fun pursuits that I seem to take rather seriously. This will merely serve as a historical account of how I misspent my *cough*youth*cough*; while providing a detailed backstory in case I ever become a character on Lost.

It began last week with the Southport Weekender… no quite in Liverpool but, as I’m sure you can guess from the name, it’s in Southport – a beachside town about 30 minutes from the ‘Pool. It’s pretty difficult to describe the Southport Weekender other than it’s a three day/three night dance music festival with the advantage of staying in chalets onsite. Kinda like Band Camp… but with Soul, Hip-Hop, R’n’B and House Music and not so much of the flutes. It was a a dream come true for me to make it to Southport – it’s been going twice a year for almost 20 years now and I’ve known about it for probably five years and figured by moving to London I’d get a pretty good shot and making it along to one or two of them. If I were to conjure up a fantasy music festival Southport would be it: all my favourite house DJs and funk/soul/jazz acts playing over the period of some 28 hours.

I should consider myself very lucky to have got there as tickets sell out months in advance. Thankfully my mates, Ben and Cookie, have a show on Ministry of Sound Radio so I managed to “win” a ticket through them. Everyone I had talked to about going to Southport had told me things like “It’ll change your life”, and “You’ll have the best weekend of your life.” Needless to say that expectations were high as I took the train north of London to Watford where Ben and Cookie live; and from there a couple of cars convoyed their way up the M6.

Don’t be fooled by the accompanying photo – my chalet-mates were sound. I'm guessing it's a traditional Watford trait to flip the bird when some yells "cheese". You’ll also notice in the photo our humble abode. When the Soul Weekender isn’t held at Southport each May and November it is otherwise known as Pontins – one of those dreary holiday camps the Brits migrate to across their fair country each summer. Yes, think Hi-De-Hi and you’re getting the picture. Although that sitcom was set at Butlins, whereas, Pontins is ranked second - to Butlins - amongst Britain’s chain of holiday resorts. Again, I’d like to say the accompanying photo doesn’t do Pontins justice but unfortunately that wasn’t the case. This was no sunsoaked bach in Takaka or Whangamata… but the harsh reality of how the Brits spend their precious few weeks off each summer.

Of course, we weren’t there for a summer holiday – we came for a good old fashioned knees-up. And thankfully the organisers knew a thing or two of how to run a dance event; thusly the dinning hall was converted to the Funk Base, the pub was converted to the B-Bar, and Pontins’ main entertainment hall was converted to the Powerhouse – where I, amongst 2,000 others, spent a good deal of my weekend.

My mates who had hyped up Southport weren’t half wrong. I kinda knew I was going to have the time of my life but it’s always nice experiencing said time-of-your-life rather than predicting it. I could’ve spent my 40 years in Auckland and not seen this many world class DJs… and here I got them all on the same weekend. And what stood out most to me is that all the visiting US DJs knew it was a special occasion, too. Instead of taking the money and jetting back to the States like they normally do; they also stayed on site for the weekend… they hung out in the DJ booth or sat on the speakers watching their comrades play, lapping up the atmosphere. Hell, some of them even had a boogie on stage as evidenced by NY’s Quentin Harris in this clip: http://www.davidgroove.com/quentin.wmv. They don’t call him Queertin Harris for nothing!

One of the many things that makes Southport unique is that you have the best weekend of your life clubbing safe in the knowledge that your “house” is situated literally 300 metres from the “club”. So when your legs finally turn to jelly you needn't worry about catching a night bus or shelling out for a taxi - you just wander back to your chalet and sneak in a couple of hours sleep. That said, I was roughing it more than most. Because I was a last minute tag along with the Watford massive there wasn’t a bed for me. I didn’t let that deter me as I took my roll mat outside and slept on the pathway. Summer had just arrived and I couldn’t think of a smarter way to catch some rays and some winks all in one hour. The fact our neighbours tip-toed over me, dropping their spare change into my upturned cap, would suggest they don't understand my logic.

Sleep-time is a valubale commodity at Southport. With the DJs playing the night sessions, on Saturday and Sunday afternoon there are live acts and other special performances to rouse you from your slumber. And Saturday produced my highlight of Southport – the Sounds Of Blackness. They’re a 40-person gospel group who have performed at the opening ceremonies of the 1994 Football World Cup and 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Over the years they’ve also done private performances for a couple of American bigwigs with the last name Bush. I would’ve loved to have been a fly on the wall when Bush Senior and Junior saw Sounds Of Blackness because this troupe managed to whip 2,000 jaded clubbers into a complete frenzy and minutes later would have the majority of the Powerhouse in tears.

But that was just the halfway point of the Southport Weekender and the good times kept rolling. Time for a spot of namedropping for those in the know: my highlights, aside from Sounds of Blackness, were sets by Frankie Feliciano, Dennis Ferrer, and Una doing a live performance of “Sanctuary”; all on the Friday. On Saturday night Kenny Dope played a two hour hip-hop set, followed by Carl Craig playing music I never knew existed let alone you could dance to! While in the Powerhouse Terry Hunter and, especially, Kerri Chandler both had me with my jaw on the ground. And it wound up on Sunday afternoon with live PAs by Monique Bingham and the legendary Byron Stingily.

But the comedy PA award has to go to the equally legendary Alexander O’Neil who, whilst having technical difficulties, started filling the silence as if he were Eddie Murphy with stories of when he was a shoes salesman. He finished with the memorable quote that: “'Nobody can tell me sh*t about shoes… if those muthaf*ckers hurt in the shop, they're gonna hurt ALL the time!”

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end… unless it’s the Southport Weekender where people refuse to let the good times finish. So, on Sunday night you can head along to any number of pubs in Southport town and there you’ll find parties, followed by after-parties, followed by lock-ins. And excpect the odd guest appearance by the US DJs who, like the patrons of the Southport Weekender, can’t bring themselves to go home. On this occasion it was Kerri Chandler who played a free, unannounced set over the road from Pontins at a lazy watering hole called The Sands.

On a completely different note to the Southport Weekender I managed to get along to Lord's for the first test of the year. Again, like Southport, this was a dream come true - after all, this is the home of cricket. Similarily to my Southport experience I had a big stroke of luck getting a ticket. You see, cricket is awfully popular in England of late because last summer they beat a nation called Australia which won them a trophy called The Ashes. Face value for tickets to Lords these days are around the £40 mark. And given the sport’s current popularity the ground sold out on the day tickets went on sale; meaning Matt and I had to resort to ebay. And given the scarcity of tickets they were going for around £80 - £100 each on ebay. But we managed to put in a bid for a pair of tickets that went on sale a week before the test. We started off with a very conservative tenner each knowing that things would escalate faster that Willy Wonka’s Magical Elevator as the deadline neared. But strangely ours was the only bid and we got the £40 tickets for £10 each!

I’ve got to say that Lord’s is an amazing venue. Its grandstands are a world away from the dilapidated stadiums I’m used to in New Zealand. But the playing field itself holds all the quaint charm you expect of an English cricket ground.

Not only could you feel the history and reverence this ground holds but the patrons that come to watch cricket here are a different breed from that in New Zealand. They drink maturely, clap politely and cheer only when it is warranted. In fact, when Kevin Pietersen brought up his century every single person inside the ground all stood and clapped at the same speed, same volume, for 45 seconds and then sat down as if they’d rehearsed this kind of celebration before. It was amazing to the point of being eerie. This was all the more staggering when you factor in that you're allowed to bring alcohol into the ground!

The action wasn’t thrilling, in fact I fell asleep at one point which was jointly due to my pervious weekend at Southport and the fact the English and Sri Lankan teams have about as much appeal as a pair of dirty undies. So, during the lunch break Matt and I went for a walk around the ground and where I spied the special banner they’ve put up to commemorate Dion Nash’s 11-169 bowling figures for New Zealand in 1994. I was also surprised to spot a banner celebrating Daniel Vettori’s 5-30 – the best bowling figures in a One Dayer at Lord’s.
I've already got another day of cricket lined up at Lord's in June. And I can't see myself missing another Southport Weekender so long as I'm this side of the equator.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Sleeping Is Cheating...

A tale of two cities, perhaps not. But after a weekend in Manchester I can assure it’s a world away from London.

Manchester – the spiritual home of Northern Monkeys – got a visit from a couple of Southern Fairies from London. Me and my mate, Greg, made a spur-of-the-moment decision to journey north to the epicentre of modern British music to check at DJ from New York. Odd, I know, but it wouldn’t be the strangest decision we made all weekend.

It was a busy week up Norf, with the Grand National on and Arsenal playing Manchester United, so accommodation was at a premium. To be brutally honest, there was no accommodation anywhere in the city on the Friday night. But being a couple of plucky young lads we figured if we're gonna be in club till 5am on Saturday morning there was no point paying for a hotel room anyway; we'd just kick about the streets of Manchester until we could check into our Saturday night rooms at 11am.

So Friday night, and like a couple of eager beavers, we jump on the train to the promised land of Manchester. Alight at around 22:30 and head straight to the club – weekend bags in tow. It got quite embarrassing when the bouncer started rummaging through my toiletries in front of a long queue of Northerners but nothing to put me off a good night out.

And that it was. The DJ we had come to see, Joe Claussell, never plays in London – hence the decision to travel halfway up the country. His ability to EQ (or knob twiddle) is the stuff of legends. But seeing Joe in action is better than the legend itself. Picture a cross between Ralf from The Muppets and Bill Cosby: eyes rolled back into his skull, head shaking about as if he's getting an electric shock, and elbows out. As any good DJ knows, it's always about having the elbows out... Check some mobile phone footage here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tcgNUDYcCT0 – I’ve yet to see it so I hope I don’t play a staring role!

That night was drawing to an end so Greg and I prepared ourselves for a dawn tour of the City of Manchester. What we weren’t prepared for, as we emerged up the stairs from the club, was a snow storm! In April! When we’re homeless! Lost! In a strange city! Suddenly our spur-of-the-moment decision was starting to seem like a really, really stupid idea.

Shivering in the entrance to the club we surveyed our three options: We could 1) continue to huddle in the doorway like the bums we were; 2) we could try and find an after-hours bar, or 3) we could build a snowman. We decided on the second option; but were informed by the bouncers that the only after-hours establishments were to be found in the Gay Village, on Manchester’s infamous (C)anal St.

Slushing our way towards the Gay Village I had an inkling things were gonna get worse. But we were due some good luck… we stumbled on three locals lasses who were also looking to continue their night without being surrounded by hordes of crazy Northern queers. So after hours of wandering aimlessly through the back streets of Manchester City we resorted to the only place left open in Manchester… the train station.

It was there we sat for four hours. Self deprivation does funny things to one’s sense of humour and it’s amazing how much of a laugh we had at people trying to limbo under the pay barrier to the toilets or the Goths dancing to James Blunt on the PA system. If this was an insight in Manchester then surely they were the most comically gifted people in all of Britain. It was also and opportunity for Greg to teach me an old trick from New York where you feed your legs through your bag straps in case you were to fall asleep and get bum-rushed by the homeless.

My fondest memory of Manchester was our next destination – the OK Café. There’s your typical English Greasy Spoon café and then there’s your typical Manchester Greasy Spoon café. And the king of all Manchester Greasy Spoon Cafés is the OK Café. The moment we stepped inside I got the feeling that Britain's Food Standards Agency inspector must be blind, and probably had no sense of smell either when he paid the establishment a visit. And we may as well have been deaf – the owners had the broadest, nonsensical Manc accent I had ever strained to hear. They were characters all the same: the emaciated, ghostly grey, old man who took our orders had all but three teeth missing and the lady who brought our Builders Breakfasts’ to the table had a fag hanging from the corner of her mouth. This may all sound like Jamie Oliver’s worst nightmare but not even Coro St could capture Northern charm like this. And at £3 for two sausages, bacon, eggs, beans, tomato, toast and a Ribena we went away very satisfied customers. So satisfied, in fact, that we would return 24 hours later to the beloved OK Café… the King of Café’s.

Having killed a total of seven hours we finally got to check in. Onto the tram we jumped and off to our modest digs in Sale. The lady behind reception must have thought us crazy as we checked in and she didn't see us reappear for half the day as we tried to catch up on some sleep. Three hours max, as I was adamant I wasn't gonna miss the opportunity to see Manchester in some daylight.

Of course, when it comes to sight-seeing in Manchester I challenge you to name a monument, civic area, bridge, clock tower, statue, or other such significant focal point that is a must-see when visiting the pride of the North. Yup, there was only one place for us to go - Old Trafford. The sacred home to a football team neither Greg nor I support. In fact, I don't even "get" football. At least Greg went to America on a soccer scholarship so perhaps once in his youth he may have aspired to play at the Theatre Of Dreams. If that was the case, then I feel sorry for him because there was no way I was giving up £10 to the sickeningly rich Manchester United Football Club just to look inside their empty stadium. A team that can afford to pay a player £90,000 a week can surely allow a couple of sports nuts a look at their grass. We tried to sneak into the stadium through the museum but like a team of Mancunian Ninjas the security guards appeared from who-knows-where and turned as in the opposite direction. We cursed under our breath how no one likes their fat-cat team and we don't know why we even wanted to look at 70,000 plastic seats.

With some daylight left we headed back in to the city for a walk around. Having spent my last 10 months in the densely populated capital you forget that city centres should be spread out, with room to move, and no stampedes to avoid. If there is a term for anti-claustrophobic then a wave of that rushed over me.

Dinner time and we stumbled upon Matt & Phreads Jazz Club for what the sign outside claimed to be the best pizza in town. If I had a slice for every time I've read that statement then I'd be as big as Tony Soprano. To be fair, it was a quality pizza. Not a patch on the chicken and pine-nut pizza you get at Hell's Pizza in Auckland but tasty all the same.

From there we moved to a busy bar... one thing I noticed about Manchester is that it was hard to find a typical corner pub the way you do in London. It wasn't that I expected to stroll into the Rover's Return but we had hoped to find a nice public house to drink away the evening. That would have been the ideal scenario. Instead, many hours and many pricey drinks later, I found myself lost in the streets of Manchester yet again. I must have taken one wrong turn, my internal compass scrambled as I was the closest to the Northern Pole as I've ever been. Before I knew it I was wandering through the most destitute, barren and scary industrial estate imaginable. This was Manchester at its rawest all right, but not one I wanted to visit at 9 o’clock on a Sunday morning. Again, I'd love to have taken a photo just to prove how chillingly ghostlike this part of Manchester is but I feared more Mancunian Ninjas would pounce from the rubble and disappear with my camera. I wouldn’t have been surprised if Oasis’ Gallagher brothers were crouched in the window of one of the abandoned warehouses ready to hurl bricks at me. And if I survived that the Ryder brothers were waiting around the corner to kick me all the way back to Old Trafford. A lone car slowed as it passed me and I realised it was time to find some civilisation. The only sign I saw pointed me in the direction of Liverpool – who needs an internal compass when you see a sign like that you know it’s time to turn around and head in the opposite direction.

All's well that ends well, as the say, although you've never read that sentiment on a gravestone. After our return leg to the OK Café we had time for a little record shopping. I always enjoy second hand record shopping in a foreign locale because what another city generally thinks of as disposable music is usually what I like. "One man's treasure...", I believe, is the term best used here. Again, not something you'd read on a tombstone.

I'd like to say that Greg and I boarded the train home to London and slept the entire journey. Instead we continued to deprive our heads of sleep and did another direct trip from the train station to a club. You can take the boy out of London but you can't take London out of the boy.

That you can put on my gravestone. Hopefully no time soon. Although, escaping Manchester with my life I'm probably fresh out of luck in that department.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Sending out an S-o-S...

There are certain cities and locales in the world where the reputation of its population proceeds them. Parisians, for example, are world renowned for their aloofness and pungent odour. New Yorkers are famous for their over-hyped level of self-importance, and thusly their implicit coolness. Another such place where no matter where you go in the world people will have heard the stories and be aware of that populations’ reputation is Essex. And it is there I ventured last weekend.

If it’s not the cockney villains you’ve heard of then I’m sure you’ll be familiar with the reputation of the infamous Essex girl: fake tan, peroxide blonde hair - pulled back tightly in what’s known as an “Essex Facelift” – frighteningly short mini-skirts, white heels, and badly thought-out tattoos. And, unbelievably, this is actually a case of style over substance. Yes, Essex is a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah.

I should point out now that I can’t offer any photos of said females, or any other eye sores for that matter, as taking a $500 digital camera into the County of Essex is the definition of stupidity.So why venture into such a dire location? Well, it promised to be a cultural experience void of any culture; but, more importantly, my two mates Matt and Tom, had promised to take me to their home town for a true Essex experience.

Geographically I didn’t know too much about Essex except it was out of London. I first learned that it costs just £9 and takes 45 minutes by train to get there – which surprised me because I can travel for 45 minutes from my house and barely be in the next borough. Nevertheless we arrived in Southend-on-Sea, where Tom and Matt grew up. It’s a small town at the head of the Thames River; and if, for example, you were a whale and swam past Southend-on-Sea it may be a good idea to turn around and head back to the Black Sea or a confusing few days and ultimately death awaits you up river.

The plan was to hit their favourite club, The Pink Toothbrush. While the club’s name may seem absurd it’s not a patch on its former incarnation. Known as The Croc, it was named so because a live crocodile resided in the entranceway. The RSPCA soon closed it down so it was to The ‘Brush we ventured.Thankfully this was one of the classier venues in Essex so I needn’t worry about getting a crowbar in the back of my head from a jumped-up Cockney. But there were a few well-heeled Oompa-Loompas with Essex Facelifts to remind that I was no longer in London. What was most memorable (or perhaps not) about The ‘Brush was the drinks menu… most of the “cocktails” on the list were devised and institutionalised by Tom and Matt’s friends and named after characters such as Del-boy and Rodney from Only Fools and Horses - my favourite being the latter. A Rodney is concocted from half a pint of lager, with the remainder of the glass filled with cider, fruit juice and a shot of blackcurrant concentrate. You barely knew you were drinking an alcoholic beverage… which I guess is the point of these things.

The night fast turned into a culinary experience; when the club closed everyone ventured round the back to Daryls - quite simply a takeaway caravan in the club’s carpark. It was apparent the signwriter made two major mistakes when working on Daryl’s caravan; firstly he left an apostrophe off the massive “Daryls” sign that emblazoned the top of the caravan. Secondly, on the chalkboard menu he included chips… and, as has quickly become legend across Essex, Daryl doesn’t serve chips. Those feeling brave enough ask: “Are there any chips tonight, Daryl?” To which Daryl yells: “No, there’s never any bleedin’ chips” as he chases you down the road waving his spatula violently. I ordered a cheeseburger, without chips, and scampered away.

The next day we headed into Southend for a look at the waterfront. This included the world’s largest pier. I was unable to walk along it as, not for the first time in the town’s history, the pub that proudly occupies the far end of the pier burnt down setting fire to the entire structure. Southend now boasts the world’s longest piece of charcoal.Also on the waterfront was an amusement park with all the usuals: Merry-Go-Rounds, Log Flume rides, Mini-Golf, Ferris Wheels and Haunted Houses. I had a crack at the suspiciously complicated goal kicking competition. No one seemed to find my Johnny Wilkinson impersonation as funny as I did. They got the last laugh and my £2.

I should mention now that this amusement park was no Disney Land, or Walt Disney World, or - worse still - Euro Disney. Hell, the Caroline Bay Carnival in Timaru would give this fun park a run for its money. This was more of a straight man’s Brighton.

And things got more ghastly along “Electric Avenue”; which is the road running the length of the waterfront. Casinos, arcades, bowling alleys – a sea of art deco draped in neon lights with all the style and elegance of an Essex girl.

I may sound like a high-and-mighty Londoner poking fun at this slice of small town kitsch but I had one of my more entertaining nights out, ever, and thoroughly enjoyed Las-Vegas-Essex-Style. I came to Essex with the promise of knife attacks, bitch fights and stolen cars.

But I’ll happily return for a chance to win a Bart Simpson doll at the goal kicking competition and the even greater challenge of getting some hot chips of Daryl.

Because, afterall, a true Essex experience is all about being robbed blind or chased down the street.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

One Potato, Two Potato...

So what’s December like in London? Cold? Yes! Dark? Yes! White? Any day now. I’ve got to admit that it doesn’t feel as Christmassy as I thought it would. Considering I work in a music store I thought I’d be bombarded with that big-city pushy, angry, rushed, commercial Christmas spirit. But we don’t even wish our customers Merry Christmas... yet. Although I am wincing in anticipation at the variety of Christmas albums that will make their way onto the store sound system any day now; two favourites are White Snake’s “White Christmas” and Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Merry Christmas”.

HMV Islington is a decent place to work as far as retail goes. It’s considered small by London standards but it’s in fact the size of Sounds Mega Store on Queen St in Auckland. There are nine of us temps and about 15 other staff all together. Three of us temps are Kiwis joining another fulltime New Zealander (from the Shore); plus an Australian temp, two lesbians (one who’s Polish), and two Allans (who get differentiated by the names ‘Gay Allan’ and ‘Games Allan’; which when pronounced by the two Eastenders who work there isn’t a differentiation at all).

Adding to the multiculturalism are our two security guards; the quintessential odd couple. Rob is Irish but grew up in the Eastend, so can barely pronounce any word as the Queen intended. Starting with the shop’s name… “Haytch-M-V”. Being of Irish descent his “th” is just “t” as in “t’ink” instead of “think”. But his Cockney upbringing means a “v” is pronounced as a “th” or an “f” or a slurred combination of both as in “guf’nor” instead of “guv’nor”. Which is why I had to stop myself laughing when he told me his job was “to catch the all the teething bastards”.

Of course Rob was probably being ironic as most of the theives coming into the store are merely babies.

The other security guard (or Loss Prevention Officer as HMV likes them to be known) is a Pakistani who’s no taller than me. His name is Mo… which is short for Muhammad. Now, while a 5’ 6” Pakistani may not strike fear into most criminals I can assure you he’s one dude I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of. One Sunday afternoon a young crackhead (and I assume he was a crackhead because he had some sort of vessel underneath his Umbro track top with a crackpipe poking out the top of the zipper and dangling near his mouth) was suspiciously hanging about the 50 Cent CDs. I informed Mo who approached the chap and as he did the crackhead reached into his pocket and before I could even see it was a knife Mo had knocked it out of his hand and into a display of Madonna DVDs.

Last Saturday we had our staff Christmas party. We resisted the urge to hire a fancy bar, put on a spread, or hang some decorations. So off we all went - boys and girls, gays, lesbain Jews, and Gentiles - around the corner to our local pub and we put the entire budget on the bar. Within two hours the management had asked us to leave (the Shore girl had emptied her stomach across the pool table). The next day at work wasn't any prettier: two people called in sick, two didn’t even show up and one girl had five epileptic fits on the stock room floor. As bad taste as it sounds I secretly hoped the paramedics would take me away on the stretcher and nurse me back to good health.

Now the great thing about London is the best nights to go out are the nights that aren’t Friday and Saturday. So having survived that hellish Sunday at work I went off to my favourite club-night. It’s called Buzzin’ Fly and it’s at a club named Plastic People. Funny names aside it’s got the most amazing sound system and they play some amazingly cool tunes. And on this particular occasion I got to rub shoulders and have a boogie with Tracey Thorn from Everything But The Girl, Ed from Chemical Brothers and Bobby Gillespie from Primal Scream. Which, for those looking confused, are essentially the dukes and duchesses of early 90s British electronica.

I struggled to get through work on Monday but seeing as I had Tuesday off a few of the boys from work decided to have a few “quiet” drinks. Now, another really good night to go out in London is a Monday night. We soon found ourselves in a queue for this uber-cool club-night called Trash. It’s a really crazy place playing Glam Rock, Nu Wave, Synth Pop and 80s Electro. More crazy names, I know, but not half as crazy as the regulars who come to this night – the majority dressing like David Bowie and Debbie Harry in their prime. How we got let into the premises I’m not too sure. I think it had something to do with the French man in the queue in front of us, wearing a Yves Saint Laurent shirt and LaCoste specs, who got kicked out of the line for “looking like he came straight from work”. The bouncers felt they probably should let us in to set an example; despite the fact we were dressed like - and had come - straight from work.

Inside was all a bit too much of a timewarp for me; but I impressed these two Spanish girls who weren’t impressed that I was buying a Becks when there was San Miguel on offer. So they bought me San Miguel for the rest of the night… and I’ve never been one to turn down free beer from Spanish girls. When the club finished up the girls offered to take me and the boys to some private Spanish club a few blocks away. Despite their thick accents they didn’t need to ask twice. So we followed them down this dark street off Tottenham Court Road where they knocked on a random black door and uttered the password to get in: “Potato Potato”. That had us in hysterics but unfortunately the club was closed. So Maria and Ana set off into the sunrise and we grabbed a hotdog before the police officer arrested the vendor for selling dodgy food, jumped on the N19 back to Highbury & Islington, and got some much needed rest.

All of the above is really just stamina training as I’ve recently been informed that I’ll be working on New Year’s Day!

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Working 9 to 5…

I could have quite easily entitled this update as “Working Class Man” but for reasons revealed later Dolly Parton is a better choice than Jimmy Barnes.

So, as you may have guessed I’ve been doing a bit of work. For the last three weeks I’ve been temping at a company called Ascent Media. Sounds good so far. They run all the network operations for Discovery Channel. Still sounding good. My job is to put a barcode sticker on every single tape that has played and will play on Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, Discovery Home & Leisure, and Discovery Kids Channel… some 80,000 shows! Not so good after all.

Yes, my day plays out like this: I take a tape from the left hand side of the desk, stick a barcode on it, scan the barcode, type in the old barcode number, type in the show’s name, put the tape down on the right hand side of the desk. Repeat until 5pm. It’s mostly data entry but there’s also a bit of spatial management involved (stacking crates in the corner of the office); as well as some graphical alignment (making sure the barcode stickers don’t cover the tape labels. I try to keep myself amused with all the weird and wonderful show names you’d expect from the Discovery Network’s far reaching library. Favourites include “So There’s A Brontosaurus In Your Backyard”, “Going Bush With Goldie Hawn”, and “I Am Joe’s Repetitive Strain Injury”.

Luckily I don’t share this misery on my own. There’s four others; all contracted out from a recruitment agency comically called Beavers. The vibe is a lot like the movie The Breakfast Club in many ways. Five down-and-out youths confined to a room for an entire day, disgruntled with the system, all with far better things to do with their time, dreaming of being somewhere else. Whereas the characters on The Breakfast Club were repaying their debt to the school we are there to repay out debts, fullstop. Also different from the movie is that the six of us are more akin to the United Nations. Two Londoners, a Kiwi, an Irishwomen, and a Dane-who-was-raised-in-France-but-studied-in-Glasgow.

As well as giggling at ludicrously named animal documentaries we also pass the time with various betting games. Such as: 'Guess Who’ll Walk Through The Office Next' and 'Guess How Long Ellen The Irishwomen Will Take For Her Smoking Break'. I tried instigating a pooling of our lunches and the person who correctly wins a betting game would win the entire spoils; thankfully no one listened to me.

But on my very first day of Data Entry and Spatial Management I did have one person fooled. James The Londoner had popped out to the bathroom and the remaining two boys and two girls got into a discussion about body hair (I have a feeling it was inspired by the Goldie Hawn show). Anyway, James returned and I advised him we’d been having a body hair conversation; and that Russell and I had taken our shirts off to show the girls our chest hair. Without even questioning the notion he whipped off his shirt in front of the entire office!

That was as outrageous as it got. The days are mostly filled with stereo wars. We all get a turn at imposing our varied musical preferences on the others. Unfortunately Ellen The Irishwomen only likes two artists: U2 (not surprisingly) and Dolly Parton (which I regret ever putting on my ipod). I’ve got the others hooked on some Kiwi fare such as Fat Freddy’s Drop; while I urge you never to listen to any Franco-Danish Glaswegian Prog Rock.
Stereo liberties such as those are a thing of the past now… yesterday I started work at HMV (a big music store); and I fear all I’ll be listening to from now until the 25th of December is Robbie Williams and the Crazy Frog battling for the Christmas Number One.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Hitchin A Ride...

There’s no clever or witty way of building into this; so I’m just gonna come right out and say it: I played my first game of rugby in eight years on Saturday!

And, boy, am I still suffering from it two days later!!

(Before any of the female readers decide that this will be nothing but a boring rugby tale I’d like to point out that it includes a very close encounter with Gwyneth Paltrow that you’ll need to keep reading to learn more about)

Despite having a rugby career that spans nine seasons and having watched the sport almost twice as many years as that this was a rugby experience I was completely unprepared for… mainly because I was text on midnight of game day asking if I “wanted to come have a run with the Hampstead 5ths?”

Given my biased opinion about the quality of British rugby and having assumed a little too much about what constitutes 5th grade rugby I figured to myself, and replied to the text, that “it can’t hurt”.

Famous last words.

The Hampstead RFC 5th Graders were about to give me a rugby experience far removed from what I am used to. For starters, the Middleton Grange Christian School First XV never met at the pub three hours before kick-off. Nor did my 1stXV have a 5’2” West Indian coach named (ironically for any cricket fans out there) Courtney. So there in the pub I stood, a complete stranger, in front of the Hampstead 5ths when Courtney asked me what position I preferred. “Lock”, I replied.


Laughter! Phew, I passed the first test; the team got my warped Kiwi humour. Of course lock is the last position a man of my stature would play. My preferred position is none other than halfback… or should I say scrum half; as it’s called in Britain. Yes, there are a few differences between Kiwi and British rugby. In New Zealand, rugby is a sport for every man (although our good friends from the islands seem to be the ones proving to be most successful); while in England rugby is a pursuit for those a little more financially prosperous. For instance, our No. 8 keeps his boots in a Louis Vuitton kit bag; and we all piled into an assortment of Alpha Romeos and Land Rovers for our hour long journey to the oppositions’ home ground.

Our opposition today were Hitchin 4th Grade. I have no idea where Hitchin actually is but to get there I saw parts of Greater London I could happily not see again. Now considering the late notice I was given I didn’t have time to gather together any decent attire… let alone a Louis Vuitton leather bag to carry it all in. To be honest it was a total embarrassment: my shorts were what I currently use as togs and my socks were my old 1stXV socks which drew many a smart remark. I don’t recall anyone making fun of Bob Marley whenever he was decked out in green, red, yellow and black. Worst of all I didn’t even have rugby boots; instead I opted for my old adidas Samoa trainers which I claimed were a suppositious choice and “helped me channel the power of Va’aiga Tuigamala”.


Laughter! Another close call avoided. Not surprisingly, I also passed the sprig inspection test and then it was game time. Courtney wisely choice to start me off the bench; meaning I’d have the second half to unleash eight years of pent-up rugby-less aggression. And when the second half began all eight years of pent-up rugby-less aggression was promptly extinguished as I literally collapsed after running from the kick-off to the first scrum. All Black debutantes claim that their first test experience is so quick it feels like it’s over before it’s even started. Well, I can tell you my first experience of 5th Grade rugby seemed to take forever as I willed the referee to blow that final whistle so I could lie down. Sadly, there were still another 39 minutes left when that thought entered my head.

Now, before the game my new team mates offered some good natured ribbing about New Zealanders having invented the art of rucking. I found this rather bemusing considering I believe the English to be the dirtiest bunch of sportsmen to ever step foot on a rugby field. And I was hugely conscious of this when I found myself at the bottom of a ruck just three minutes into the second half. Forgetting the little tricks I learnt during my 1stXV years I did the stupid thing of placing my hands on my head to protect it from the incoming storm of sprigs. Protecting one’s head may sound like exactly the action to take when being trampled upon but I assure you it’s not. What in fact you are doing is leaving your armpits exposed to the opposition. Now, it may seem incredibly homoerotic for the opposition to drag the soles of their boots across your armpits but believe me when you’re back in the changing room after the match and you forgetfully spray Lynx deodorant across the ripped and torn flesh you soon remember you’ve been part of a rugby match!

That shock was to come later because the second half was still underway. Despite the opposition being a grade above us we were dominant; winning 35-5. The person responsible for allowing Hitchin their one and only try was none other than yours truly. Hithcin had a five metre scrum and after screaming at my team mates not to let them cross the try line I followed the ball to the back of their scrum. Spying it pop out past the last man’s feet I hacked it away with my adidas. The ref’ immediately penalised me; and while I *cough* calmly *cough* discussed with the referee just how much of the ball he'd like to pass the No. 8’s feet before he constitutes it out the opposition halfback had taken a quick tap and dived across the line unopposed.

Still, a seven tries to one victory isn’t a bad way to come out of rugby retirement but my next mission was to make it all the way back into Central London’s West End for a red carpet premiere of Proof which Hayley was sneaking me into. Running a touch late for my sneaky entry I had to bustle my way through a maul of fans, swerve by a scrum of journalists, and side-step past the security before I had a clear run up the red carpet and into the theatre. But with the metaphorical try line in sight I was suddenly blinded by thousands of flash bulbs. Regaining my sight I realised I was but one metre from Gwyneth Paltrow’s shoulder who was proving to the paparazzi that those pregnancy rumours are false. A quick goose step and I was untouched in at the corner.

OK, so it wasn’t the greatest Gwynie story but you’re still reading. Which means you got to hear about my first game back and believe me it’s better reading about it than playing it. That old analogy about feeling muscles you never knew existed is very much a truism for me right out. I’ve got a “dead arm” in my lower back and my right leg... if that makes any sense at all. And my left arm is so badly crushed that I can barely undertake taskes such as tying my shoe laces, unlocking the door, and folding my arms - which is my favourite position when travelling on the tube.

But never fear I’ll be joining the Hampstead 5th Graders this Saturday… boots and all.