Sunday, 30 May 2010

I've Got Butterflies ...

Saturday was Eurovision; not much of a milestone in many people’s books, I know, but for me it marks a significant event – a full year of blogging (or offering my unsolicited and unqualified views on a variety of subjects).  I really can’t believe a full year has flown by since I first began tapping away on the keyboard, anxious to share my opinions with whoever might be out there and at something of a loose end.

So as it’s Eurovision time again, I thought I’d best mention it.  Regrettably, last year saw the pure unadulterated lunacy and silliness – that is, the fun part that made the whole thing worth watching – pretty much vanish, and this year’s offering was as bland as a speech by David Cameron.  Sadly, all countries are now taking the contest seriously, and getting proper artists to perform songs written by musicians (or in our case, Pete Waterman).  Many of the nationalistic characteristics have disappeared, along with the silly outfits, gormless and gawky presenters who have never been in front of a camera before plus, of course, the contestants themselves – many of whom often resembled a very drunk bunch of students at an international karaoke event.  Now it’s a couple of hours of bland Euro-pop or Euro-ballads.  That’s your choice.  Indeed the only charismatic act last night turned out to be a gate crasher who jumped onto the stage during the Spanish entry and performed a bit of a routine – although to be fair, I thought he was part of the act.

Spot the imposter.  It took me a while, and I was there.

The voting system caused a bit of an outcry.  This year, the phone lines opened before even the first, let alone all, of the acts had performed.  It meant that you could vote for an act you hadn’t seen, several hours before they even thought about going on stage.  Commentators made much of this, but hang on – it’s a very British way of doing things.  After all, haven’t we just voted in a General Election with a choice of three parties – not one of whom would actually tell us what they intended to do given power to govern?  

The end result (of Eurovision, not our election) went to Germany, for the first time in – well, a long time.  A very pretty girl-next-door 19-year-old student called Lena performed an instantly forgettable ditty and cleaned up with it.  Nevertheless, she was utterly charming when she won; totally blown away and genuinely in shock.  My favourite line in the show came at the end when Lena was told that she now had to reprise her song.  “You mean I have to sing?  Again?” she gasped.  I got the impression that all she wanted to do was get down to Oslo’s equivalent of the Bigg Market.

The only old-style pure Eurovision moment came during the Belarussian entry.  The song itself was a ballad called Butterflies, quite well written as it happens – the sort of thing Michael Ball would sing.  It was performed by a group of 3 girls and 2 boys going by the highly imaginative name of ‘3+2’.  Clearly the sort of name dreamed up in panic over a few WKD’s at an Oslo bar the night before the contest.  Fortunately considerably more thought went into the costumes.  After considerable searching on your behalf – and believe me, it took some finding – I’ve found a video of the song as performed on the night.  YouTube and the official Eurovision website are putting out a totally different studio version that is highly polished and professional.  Ignore it.  Belarus is a very individualistic and quirky nation - I know, I had an amazing week in Minsk in 2008.  Truly, there is nowhere else like it on the planet.  Indeed, if I may divert your attention for a moment, yours truly wrote a book about it which is available on Amazon.    Therefore, when I realised that Belarus had finally got themselves into Eurovision, I was hoping that they would do something off-the-wall and unique that would remind me about the place and its inhabitants.  Well, they didn't let me down.  Like many things Belarussian, it starts off quite normally and goes into la-la land two-thirds of the way through.  The moment is quite unexpected and if it doesn't brighten up your day then nothing will.  It’s only four minutes of your life that you won’t get back, so not that much of a hardship, really.  But if I’m asking too much, then read on below.  I’ll understand.

When the song begins, the five of them are attired in evening dress, and very smart they look too.  At the obligatory key-change two thirds of the way through, the three girls suddenly sprouted huge butterfly wings from behind their dresses, but rather than majestically glide out like wings, they popped out at high speed with an uneven jerk that put me in mind of Thunderbirds.  Graham Norton summed it up with his comment beforehand – “These girls wear dresses that every 8-year-old girl in the country will be putting on their Christmas list.”

Belarus came second last in the results, beating only – guess who – into bottom of the pile.  Yes, that’s right – Great Britain.  Us.  The bloke who performed our lamentable pop blancmange put in a creditable performance, but coating a turd with sugar don’t make it a doughnut.

I can’t add anything to that, so I won’t.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

A Bigg Boys Night Out

For the fourth weekend running I found myself visiting my native North East again – but this trip was aimed purely at relaxation and an opportunity to unwind after all the planning and preparations for the various events that have taken place recently.  A group of us from ‘The Old Days’ decided to recreate a good old fashioned lads night out in Newcastle on the premise of celebrating my brother’s birthday – a few beers, see a comedian, have a few more beers then a curry followed by a few more beers.  It’s 25 years since I last had a Newcastle night out, so I am somewhat out of practise.  And not half feeling my advancing years, now that I’ve just read that bit back.

The comedian was BBC’s Mock The Week Frankie Boyle at City Hall.  You either love or him or hate him given his forthright style.  Personally I find him something of a tonic and antidote to our health-and-safety-politically-correct-wrap-em-up-in-cotton-wool-and-don’t-offend-anyone obsessed society.  The warm up man was a Canadian whose name I promptly forgot, and he got us off to a good start with a half hour slot.  Then we had a 20-minute break so that all 400 people in the audience could visit the single thoughtfully provided toilet at the same time – who didn’t think that one through, then?  At-seat buckets would have been practical in the circumstances, but I won’t dwell on that point.  So we moved on to the main event, Frankie Boyle.  He’s a unique comedian these days – what he thinks, he says.  In an age where everything is regarded by those in power as xxx-ist, it’s refreshing to hear someone just get up and come out with it.  Frankie is topical and his humour is observational – and of course, extremely funny with a cruel, cutting satirical edge to it.  It was a great start to the evening.

Emerging from City Hall about 10 pm, Newcastle’s nightlife was just getting into first gear – the city starts late and pretty much goes through to dawn.  The condition that people are in by morning is down to the individual, and this varies widely depending upon how one likes to enjoy oneself on a night out.  It is quite likely that a participant will end up in bed – this could be your own, or it could belong to a 19 year old student you think was called Lucy if you’re lucky, or a 47 year old out of work shipbuilder called Eric if you’re extremely unlucky and the WKD took a stronger hold than you imagined.  Less comfortable but popular options are the gutter outside KFC; platform 7 at Central Station; banged up in a Police cell or waiting to see an overworked doctor who pulled the short straw in A&E.  Some serious revellers end up in the morgue for various reasons – being dead is the most common one - this is a city that knows how to party.

 The Sue Pollard Appreciation Society enjoy a big night out.

Being middle-aged Grumpy Old Gits on Tour, we decided to have a curry at Newcastle’s famous (or infamous depending on your point of view) Bigg Market, and watch the evening unfold.  Essentially this an old cobbled street that winds down a steep hill, with pubs, clubs and eateries of every description lining each side of the road.  It is the place to go for a night out, and revellers flock there every weekend for an evening of laughter and merriment over a drink or two.  Actually that’s not quite true.  There seems to be just one activity - to get blind drunk, preferably beyond reason and certainly to enter into a state of comatose delirium.  At this stage of the evening the romantic overtures begin, usually in shop doorways or up against parked cars on Grainger Street.  Whether you pull Lucy or Eric is more down to luck than personal choice given the general level of intoxication.  Either way it will end in tears but it won’t matter because you lost your mobile when you were being sick round the back of Argos so they can’t call you up anyway.  The atmosphere was fairly tame when we entered in the Koh-I-Noor Indian restaurant, but by the time we departed at around midnight the evening was in full swing.

The first thing that hits you is the noise – walking into the street you are greeted with a carnival roar of revellers spilling out of every pub, club and takeaway in the area.  Although I observed a huge police presence around Bigg Market, it was noticeable that all of them were young enough to be my grandchildren, and quite how they are expected to cope when it all kicks off is open to suggestion.  And it always kicks off.

The place is a riot of colour, thanks to the large number of hen and stag nights that take place every weekend, most of which seem to be in themed fancy dress.  We saw parties of naughty nurses, St Trinians schoolgirls, bunny girls and vicars and tarts.  Actually there weren’t any vicars, so it was just tarts.  Or students.  Some groups were more adventurous with their costumes, and just dressed up in whatever was to hand in the garage.  What can I do with this rubber dinghy, three paint-rollers and a showerhead?  I’ll wear them!  It gave the appearance of an early episode of Doctor Who crossed with a Timmy Mallet summer special featuring the Teletubbies on crack.  It really has to be seen, words alone cannot do the costumes justice.

I wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of that syringe ...

Those who weren’t in fancy dress were simply dressed up to the nines - and I’m talking about the girls, of course.  Geordie blokes simply put on their favourite jeans and the ‘pulling shirt’ each weekend and they’re done.  The ladies go to considerably more effort in order to wear the smallest, tightest, and most revealing outfit that they can get away with (or think that they can get away with in certain cases).  Lest there be any doubt, I am in favour of this (excepting the certain cases mentioned above).  Newcastle girls have always taken great pride in their appearance for the girls’ night out and keeping your tongue in your mouth becomes quite an issue.  Apparently this is not a good look – but let’s be fair here; in my current hometown of Grantham dressing up is so stylish that some of those who are just waiting to cross the road are mistaken for bin bags.  The only reason that they don’t get carted off to the tip, sorry, Polar Bear Aware Recycling Institution of Excellence, is that collections are only made along London Road on Tuesday mornings.

If only we had another dress we'd have enough material to make a hankie.

Geordie girls do have a mean streak, however, because the super sexy size 8 girls in tiny ubiquitous little black dresses advise their rather more portly friends that they’d look good in something equally skimpy.  This is a useful strategy for eliminating the competiton when it comes to pulling time later in the evening.  Pulling is an essential part of the night out because the outfits are so minimalist that there is nowhere to put anything useful.  Like money.  So if they want drinks and a taxi home, they need to pull.  And the last thing they need when the chase is on is ‘best friend’ Amy trying to get in on the action.  So, size 28 Amy is advised to squeeze into a size 10 dress that resembles a suitcase packed 5 minutes before leaving for the airport on the way back from holiday.  And if bursts open en route – well, do I need to draw you a picture …?

Okay, I'll draw you this picture.  Someone – and it was definitely a man – designed the area around Bigg Market to take care of this issue in a most interesting way.   The road is cobbled, and it also descends at a steep angle to Collingwood Street.  Onto these descending cobbles – always slippery with spilt drinks, broken bottles of Bacardi Breezer, discarded burger wrappers, remnants of something from Puke-U-Like plus other less savoury substances – try to get a bunch of drunken girls tottering around on stilettos to walk from one end to the other without falling down.  You don’t need to watch Last Man Standing when you can see a hen party go down like a full strike of skittles before your very eyes.  That’s when the suitcase bursts open – eyes left for a very full house.  Or a black eye if you’re too close.

Don't worry Chloe; another 8 pints of Vodka & Windolene and you'll feel fine.

On top of all this entertainment there are the usual boyfriend / girlfriend fights – always very public, raucous and usually caused when boyfriend is caught by girlfriend ogling a gaggle of St Trinians who’ve just caught a heel on a piece of discarded pizza and are now skating down the cobbles whilst frantically trying to maintain some kind of balance before crashing out of control into a parked up Vectra.  Fortunately they’re so plastered that their hair and dignity remains intact, which is more than can be said for the Vectra’s nearside wing - although the wailing car alarm does add a tuneful backing track to the naughty nurses who are now blasting out I Will Survive at full volume further up the street.  As the night progresses the blokes start fighting amongst each other, frequently caused by a variation on the theme of an accidentally spilt pint in a crowded bar, before the main event of the evening – the inevitable catfight.  Sometimes this begins as a disagreement within a hen party so you get a fancy dress scrap - which is quite a visual spectacle, believe me.  More common are the catfights at chucking out time, when, after hours and hours of consuming Domestos and T-Cut cocktails, several thousand partygoers descend onto the six available taxis to take them home.  And every last person who is still capable of coherent thought wants that taxi NOW.  It’s not a pretty sight.  The majority of revellers seem to be aged between 16 to early 20’s, and this is not a group who are accustomed to waiting for anything.  So if they’ve queued for an hour to get a taxi to ferry them back to Wallsend and someone jumps in, then they’re going to get their face smashed in, end of.  And you’d be amazed at the variety of places where you can stick a stiletto.  The upside of this is that whoever loses the taxi gains an ambulance ride, so it’s win-win in a surreal kind of way – but surreal is what a night out in the Bigg Market is all about. 

Is that skirt halfway up or halfway down?

So if you’re ever stuck for an evening out, then head up north and go primeval with the Newcastle crowd.  All human life may be seen on a Saturday night, and indeed it is fascinating to observe close up.  Much has been said and written about the activities of the Bigg Market, mostly by commentators or various self appointed social behaviour analysts who clearly have chosen to conveniently forget any past indiscretions of their own youth.  But in truth, it’s mostly a bunch of teenagers out enjoying themselves in their own way, and if they take some things to extremes – well, be honest – haven’t we all been daft at some point in our lives?  And let’s remember, given the way that the so-called sensible and respectable people who are supposed to lead and inspire have totally screwed up the country – and the very future of these youngsters – well, I for one don’t blame them for getting a little out of hand and letting their hair down on a Saturday night.  Are they any worse than Fred Goodwin or our expense fiddling fraudulent MP’s and bankers who’ve left them a legacy of debt that even their grandchildren will be paying for?  They deserve their pleasures – however mystifying some of them may be – given the outlook that they face in the so-called real world.

 'Night, night!'

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

The 75 Not Out Tour

Following on from my mother’s (me Mam’s) wedding in April, family celebrations continued last week with her 75th Not Out birthday festivities.  The event began in Sunderland on Thursday evening with a surprise party at her favourite Italian Restaurant – no, not Pizzahut – for a group of close friends and family.  This was a prelude to a mystery weekend away with several surprises along the way.

Friday resulted in an excursion from Sunderland to the National Trust’s Belton House in Lincolnshire, an imposing stately home with an even more impressive array of gardens.  Ken Bruce on Radio 2 kindly read out a dedication in his Love Songs slot that managed to be missed despite shouting their names out twice.  Fortunately I’ve managed to pick it up on ‘Listen Again’ and record it onto the camera so that they can hear it at home.  Oh well, there you go.

Staying overnight in Grantham, the next day saw a group of nine of us visit an extremely wet Ferry Meadows Country Park that had suffered (and was still suffering from) more than 24 hours of solid rain.  Unfortunately this put paid to the planned excursion on the River Nene with Poshboatz, a disappointment as it was one of the highlights.  However, a quick rewrite of the programme the night before enabled a contingency plan to swing into action – I am nothing if not prepared for summer.  But that’s what British days out in the country are all about, and at least it gave one of our party an opportunity to try out her new purchase:

We all took a Nene Valley steam train into Wansford, where Jayne and her girls served up a delicious home cooked lunch in our own exclusive dining car – tastefully decorated by Susana and myself whilst the rest of the party were despatched up to Yarwell Junction and back by train.  Here’s useful tip for you – when you accidentally knock the head off one of your carnations that are going into the vases, simply selotape the thing back on.  Can you see which flower it is in the picture?  Shows how effective it is, then.

Lunch over, we boarded another train heading for Peterborough.  Thanks to the generosity of General Manager Chris Rees and driver James, me Mam boarded the footplate of the class 14 locomotive at Ferry Meadows and took control of the loco to drive us to Peterborough, her favourite surprise of the day.  She suited the peaked cap remarkably well, and is she the only person in Britain to have managed to avoid being clad in a hi-viz jacket for 75 years?

Duties were not over yet; train Guard Robin then explained the duties involved in his job before Mam was given the green flag and whistle and allowed to give the ‘Right away driver’ to James as the train departed.  Don’t forget to jump back on yourself!

We left the train at Ferry Meadows to return home after a coffee in the cafĂ© overlooking the lake.  Despite the appalling weather everyone agreed that the country park is a lovely place to visit, and indeed a return excursion is being planned for the next family regrouping down south in July.

Meanwhile we all returned to Grantham for a special dinner at Kings Hotel.  We had an even larger party for this as more friends joined us in the evening.  Susana had organised a beautiful cake that rounded off a very enjoyable weekend before the Sunderland contingent left the next morning.  

I’m delighted to say that Mam loved every minute of her birthday treat, and it must be said that the weekend would not have been possible without contributions from many people who worked behind the scenes during the last six months to make sure that everything ran as smoothly as possible.  Despite numerous problems and alterations along the way – from coping with the unexpected weather to the breakdown of the booked steam loco on the railway, everything was done to ensure that the end result was delivered in a smooth and pleasurable manner, creating a very special atmosphere on the day.

Thanks must go to the following:

Bob Currell of Poshboatz – we will return!
The Nene Valley Railway – everyone on duty made our day very pleasant and enjoyable.  I must mention Chris for organising the footplate ride despite having to cope with a failed loco and sorting out a replacement; James the driver of the replacement loco who gave Mam the unique experience of a cab ride down the line; Jayne and her girls for the fantastic lunch and all the help with setting up our dining car; Robin the Guard for entrusting the ‘Right away’ to his new trainee, and ticket inspector Eddie who was dragged up and down the train by his new recruit complete with her helium balloons as she explored every carriage.

Susana at the Kings Hotel for arranging all the accommodation, our private function room and the birthday cake – not to mention decorating the dining car at Wansford.
Ken Bruce for reading out the dedication that will be heard one day – your work was not in vain!
All at Belton House for the warm welcome and help with planning the trip, and finally – everyone involved who kept all the secrets without letting anything out of the bag and ensuring that the events unfolded as one surprise after another.

After all that I’m knackered - next year it’s McDonalds in Silkworth.

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