21 December 2007

The gifts of Christmas past

*Christmas 1979 - "Gis a croggie!"
- a red Tomahawk bike, with smart new hexagonal seat and the notice which said This bicycle is not designed to carry passengers. I was still riding it at the age of nine. The photo depicts the old style seat of the early 70s, which my brother had on his purple version of what was a much underrated machine for a boy of six.

*Christmas 1980 - "No, it's FOUR away for hitting the yellow!"
- a 6ft snooker table and balls (ten reds) with cues, rest and triangle. My maternal grandad and I were never off it, and there's a great photo of us in my dad's slide archive somewhere of us posing with cues. I'm in an Adidas T-shirt and a light blue wristband, giving the thumbs-up. Every boy got into snooker in the 1980s thanks to Pot Black, and my primary school even had an internal competition. The table remained in regular use for most of the decade.

*Christmas 1981 - "Yorkle the yellow dragon is afraid of the gold key and will run from it..."
- the Atari console of the time, along with Space Invaders, Asteroids and Adventure. This was a joint pressie to my brother and I and our parents left us alone all day to play it rather than get us involved with family stuff, unusually. I later found out that it was because I was due to be admitted to hospital on Boxing Day for my long-standing tonsil removal op, and so they'd wanted me to have the best possible Christmas Day, which meant not having to do the polite stuff with aunties et al, before quietly telling me last thing at night before bed. Bless them. I was scared, especially when I found my hospital bag had been quietly packed by mum and left in my room during the day. I was home and playing that Atari again by January 3rd, and it lasted a good few years.

Christmas 1982 - "Can you help me put the chain back on?"
- the Tomahawk's replacement, an 18-inch Raleigh Arena, my first racing bike. I was a short nine year old so needed a short bike, and the Arena was the predictable model of the time, but I loved that bike. I had it for four years prior to my brother getting a moped and handing over to me his superb Cyclone. Great photo, though I don't think I had those yellow taped handlebars.

*Christmas 1983 - "Plug those bloody earphones in!"
- a Casio MT-45 synthesiser, a gift so synonymous with my childhood that my brother mentioned it in his best man's speech at my wedding last year. Eight drum beats (pop, disco, bossanova, waltz, samba, swing, beguine and tango) and eight instrument sounds (piano, electric piano, organ, erm... nope, forgotten the others) and before long I'd mastered New Song (well, the melody line anyway) and the Cuckoo Waltz theme. The pic is of the slightly better MT-60. My mate Tim Pakyurek had the MT-65, which had more sounds and more drumbeats. I was profoundly jealous.

Great presents through those important years. I was very lucky and very grateful, and still am.

From 1984 onwards it became the early adolescent mixture of cash, vouchers (I hated vouchers - basically they restricted what you could buy and gave the impression that the giver knew what to get you but couldn't be arsed to get it), records and clothes.

The last great motif of my childhood Christmases still exists - there's a selection box for me courtesy of my mum and dad under the tree every year. Bless them again. One year they forgot to give us (erm, give Santa) the boxes and ended up finding them, by accident, in July. So we got Christmas chocolate in the summer. Fair enough.

Your year-by-year gift memories would be most welcome.

Maybe it's because I'm not a Londoner

My trip to London for a Christmas bash was carefully planned. Hull Trains are reliable and clean, and their trains a refreshingly minty colour, and their direct routes through from Paragon and Kings Cross have never let me down.

On this occasion, once more they didn't let me down. But I still couldn't catch either of their trains I had booked.

A car journey from my home to the railway station takes approximately 15 minutes, depending on the regulation factors like weather, time of day etc. So, the Natural Blonde agreed to drive me from the village (we haven't had localised services to the vast terrain of small towns and villages east of Hull since Dr Beeching decided in 1964 that they were no longer necessary) to the station.

We set off on a 15 minute journey with half an hour to spare.

We got stuck behind a succession of 25mph transporters carrying those mobile offices, which take up two lanes by just enough of a margin to prevent you from overtaking.

I missed the train.

There's nothing more frustrating than trying to get somewhere and being late through no fault of your own.

We then tried, with the help of a growing speed limit and the Natural Blonde's accelerator, to pre-empt the train's next stop at Brough, a smart and small town west of the city where the trains always stop. The train goes there at a car's pace because of the shortness of the time involved, so we had a fighting chance of making it to Brough before it arrived.

We indeed got to Brough before the train (the track is visible most of the way from the A-road) and if we got one set of green traffic lights as we travelled, I'd have reached the platform on time.

They were red.

They stayed red.

When they changed, the person in the MR2 in front of us stalled his car.

There's nothing more frustrating than trying to get somewhere and being late through no fault of your own.

I missed the train.

It was a fraction of a mile in the distance when I got to the platform. I half-expected to see some woman waving a white handkerchief of farewell at it.

The next stop was Selby, a good distance away and therefore the train could open its traps and pick up its pace. My last chance of catching it had gone.

So, I had a cheap £50 return ticket in my bag, one half of which was now entirely useless. It was not transferable to any other Hull-London service, even with the same company, and the next Hull Trains service was three hours away, so that was a non-starter for another reason.

All I could do was buy a new, single ticket for the impending local service, with a change at Doncaster (Doncaster gets a lot of stick as a town, but the rail system in this country would be utterly lost without Doncaster's station) which would get me into King's Cross via an East Coast train about half an hour later than planned, and £74 lighter - yes, somehow a single ticket for this service was £25 or so more expensive than the return ticket I already possessed. I hate train companies, the greedy sods.

I thanked the Natural Blonde for her efforts and waved her goodbye as she drove away. The train arrived at Brough, I boarded, got to Doncaster, switched to the East Coast service and spent the journey sitting cross-legged on the floor of one of those small foyer-like areas between carriages, as every single seat in standard class had been pre-booked (this, of course, doesn't stop some people sitting down in such seats and then look incredulous when someone has the nerve to ask them to shift). I arrived at Kings Cross and put it down to a one-off experience.

Underground to Great Portland Street, met Callum, the pal I was staying with, ate well at a smart Italian restaurant (including raspberries and cream as a dessert - yum), then off to the Christmas do on Tottenham Court Road. Had a great night. Some of it is mentioned below. Underground to North Acton, where Callum collected me. Kipped on his floor.

My return train - the one on the £50 ticket - was at 9.48am. At 9am on the dot I was dropped off at Willesden Junction tube and Callum and I wished each other good Christmas cheer.

The tube train arrived within three or four minutes and I scoured the map to see where I needed to change for Kings Cross.

The options seemed to be the Circle or Hammersmith & City line at Paddington, or the same again at Baker Street. Or I could hold on until Oxford Circus and catch the Victoria line, which was a mild southbound detour but familiar to me.

I wish I had done the latter.

I got off at Paddington and was ten minutes and five stops from King's Cross with 25 minutes to my train. A piece of cake, despite my unfamiliarity with Paddington's set-up, as I ran from the Bakerloo line through the overground platforms in order to get to the H&C line. I chose this course because there were notices on walls and regularly parroted recorded messages on the tannoys about severe Circle line delays due to staff shortages.

There were also H&C delays, but the announcements only mentioned westbound, and I was going east. I got to the platform and looked at the clock.

0928 hours. Not a problem.

A westbound tube train arrived. The one with supposed delays. I thought maybe it was one which had been delayed considerably already. A few got on, a few got off.

Two minutes later, another one arrived. Fewer got on and off.

Two minutes later, another one arrived. Nobody got on, nobody got off. Literally.

Meanwhile, nothing had arrived on the eastbound platform during this period, making a mockery of the announcements still sounding every other 90 seconds on the speakers above my worried head. We were assured that the problems were westbound, but the evidence seen by our own eyes told a different, frustrating story.

Finally, a tube train arrived for us. I boarded it but already I knew I'd not get to Kings Cross on time. This didn't alleviate the rage I felt when it stopped at Baker Street and decided to switch off its engines for five minutes. You find yourself briefly clinging on to hope once the last leg of your journey finally starts, then something like this happens.

Had I gone through to Oxford Circus, I'd have arrived on time.

I got to Kings Cross a whole six minutes after my train's allocated departure time. Hull Trains are never late in setting off, so even a perverse desire for an ineffectual train service - the one we hear about constantly - didn't materialise for me.

There's nothing more frustrating than trying to get somewhere and being late through no fault of your own.

I missed the train.

So again, as I couldn't wait for the next one three hours later for work-related reasons, I paid through the nose for a daylight robbery single ticket via East Coast to Doncaster and then a local service to get me to Paragon. Those £50 tickets, purchased weeks ago and in my possession for four days prior to travelling, were now unused and unusable, bound for the bin.

So it cost me an extra £148 than initially planned, in Christmas week.

And environmentalists and politicians wonder why people don't catch trains when they could. It's because they're overpriced!

I don't do blaming; but on this occasion I know neither missed train was down to my own lack of organisation. A convoy of mobile home transporters brought a city's traffic to a standstill for just enough time for me to believe I'd be able to step on the train, breathless, just as the guard was waving his plastic sign to get the doors shut.

No chance.

Then, on the way back, a staff shortage (which is acceptable) and incorrect looped announcements (which are most certainly not acceptable) robbed me of my paid-for, comfier return home. I'm glad I had no hangover on this occasion (which was a fluke - again see below) and that my only physical discomfort was a mildly stiff back from sleeping on my mate's floor.

Now I know why Londoners sometimes moan about their public transport system. In Hull, which is a large city but has only just managed to integrate its transport structure (the new bus and train combo-complex opened in the autumn) it's easy to scorn Londoners when we read of such whinges. After all, the underground has always been, for me, efficient, quick, regular and unfussy - and, compared to the price of everything else in London - damned good value.

Not any more. I now empathise entirely.

I really should have gone to Oxford Circus.

Maybe Ian Jones, the writer of the ace To The End Of The Line blog (linked on this page), could be on hand for advice next time.

I'm back in London again on Saturday for football reasons. I hope to have better luck, although my journey starts and ends at different stations and only briefly involves the underground.

Oh, as a postscript and a slightly lighter note, my journey home on the expensive East Coast train did at least find me sitting adjacent to Jane Moore, whom I've always really liked. So I got to watch her applying her make-up and writing her Christmas cards, which made the time fly by.

That's worth £148 of anybody's money... maybe.

"Same again?"

How much can you drink?

I was at a festive "gathering" on Wednesday night in London, and the topic briefly emerged about alcohol capacity as one of our band of merry media pros, whose blog is linked to here, seems to have a bottomless pit in which to place his ale.

Medical types say it's about metabolism, don't they? And I'll be content to accept that argument at the age of 34. But when you're 21, shuffling for a high placing in your peers' pecking order and also on the pull, the more you can drink is, of course, purely down to your levels of masculinity. Copious drinkers are also the fellows who have almighty sexual stamina, the best job, the most money, the finest brain and a level of charisma which could further galvanise even the most vibrant of social circles. Some genuinely idiotic, uncouth groups of blokes measure their manliness on how much ale they can quaff before having to visit the lavatory.

I don't know what measurements you apply to women who can take their liquor better than others. When I was a student, the ladies in my throng of associates either drank steadily, stupidly or not at all. The steady drinkers were fresh and no more at the night's end. The stupid ones were comatose, incoherent or, most likely when I think back, in a taxi two hours earlier and long asleep, unaware of the regret they'd feel when their head would wake them up in a few hours. The sober ones were actually the best company. But in any circle of comrades I have punctured in my various life stages, I cannot recall a genuinely prolific female drinker who was rendered unaffected by her ability to take plentiful amounts of her beverage. The recommended unitary intake is lower and women are affected by the stuff more quickly than men, so maybe it's harder for a lady to drink well, drink substantially and remain unaffected on the outside.

Which brings me back to the "gathering". The sponge-like gent in question has become known among us for his remarkable ability to imbibe a high level of ale without ever appearing slurry, unsteady on his feet or variable in his personality. It was pointed out fairly early on in our evening's japery that he had an empty glass in front of him from the same round of pints which were still three quarters full elsewhere at our table. He shrugged, laughed, and is modest in his achievements (and to many of course it's nothing to brag about, though this pal was just on a normal night out) - and I must say that despite my maturity threshold gaining naturally with the ageing process, I'm dead jealous. It's the Adrian Mole "thing" scenario all over again - "Donkey Dawkins says his thing comes off the end of a ruler, yet he is only a week older than me"; well, my liquid-friendly chum is, as it turns out, a month younger than me. It's not fair...

He also drinks lager which, when in my previous life as a lager drinker, was easy enough for my belly to accept but I often found myself "full" too early - not usually because of ale, but more because of gas. A smart, timely burp (with added subtlety, depending on the company I was keeping) was sufficient to alleviate this problem and on I could go. But not at this pace. Not ever.

Nowadays, it's Guinness which passes my lips on such occasions, and it's very much a Russian roulette system with me when the gorgeous black throat reformer is placed before me. Depending on how much I've eaten prior, the last time I consumed any alcohol, the pouring quality of the tap behind the bar and probably astronomical factors too, I can feel bloated and beaten after two pints, or sober and stoic after eight. It really is that much of a lottery. I was the latter at our "gathering" and enjoyed the party thoroughly; however, not even I in an on-form Guinness consumption mood could keep up with the stamina-levels of my friend. I'd be nowhere near, in fact. It isn't a competition and you'd be a fool to say it was, but fair play to him nonetheless. We had just one of those nights where he could relax in the company of friends, and we could gain some form of sly sport from observing his way of doing so.

Drink responsibly this Christmas... (I feel I should say this, but I'm sure you are all adults...)

18 December 2007

"Sign here for my grown-up friend who should know better..."

This is former Hull City captain Justin Whittle, one of the club's all-time heroes, signing an old replica shirt for a friend of mine this week.

My mate is 22, an intelligent undergraduate (no asides about contradiction, please), a holder of two gold cards and a largely sane, sober (well, in terms of his disposition, as opposed to his blood alcohol measurement), ambitious, worldly-wise and normal human being.

Mention the name of Justin Whittle to him though and he turns into a gibbering wreck. Imagine the equivalent of a tartan turn-upped teen lass waiting for the Bay City Rollers to come out of the fire exit at some venue in 1975. This is the effect Justin has on this friend of mine.

However, we all have our heroes in adulthood and I admire him for being quite shameless about his. He gave me the shirt when Justin was booked as a guest on my radio programme and asked if his idol would be able to sign it for him. The shirt goes back quite a few seasons - Justin himself has long left Hull City - and has been worn numerous times. Now it's apparently going in a frame on his wall.

I have only once asked for an autograph in adult life, and that too was an ex-Hull City footballer, my own childhood hero. Garry Parker was seeing out his career at Leicester City when, as a 23 year old footie hack, I waited outside the dressing room on my Press card's say-so and got his signature when he emerged. I kept the signature, and even made a point of keeping the biro - a regular Bic one, in black - in a drawer, allegedly never to be held again. It took a few months before I told myself to grow up and retrieved it for use once more.

For my mate Joe then...

Look or listen?

Sky Sports News is sponsored by Ford, whose credits either side of adbreaks feature random people in varying social, recreational or vocational locations. There's a bloke on scaffolding in a hard hat; a bunch of minicab drivers outside their office; a woman on the touchline of a boys' match; and a bloke in a Ford Mondeo (in orange, a colour not available to me when I bought mine).

They all are doing the same thing - celebrating a goal as it's scored. Problem is, aside from the lady at the kids' game (who sees a goal before her very eyes), they are obviously doing so after merely hearing the goal being scored. The construction worker has a ghetto blaster next to him; the cabbies are inside and outside their office, but all leaping imbecilically; and clearly the bloke in the car has a radio on.

How does this benefit a television station, then? Sponsor credits which show people not using a TV to get their goal fix, but the very medium which, in the case of Sky, provides the only rivalry to their attempt to monopolise full match coverage. I don't get it.

"Email here in the event of an emergency"

My beloved father, who is 67, has just had to spend nigh on a fortnight in hospital. For his sake, I won't go into detail of why he was admitted, save to say that it was illness rather than injury, he has been released now and is mercifully on the mend.

I only visited him once, as he was taken unwell during a visit to my brother's house at the other end of England, so travelling was an issue. The Natural Blonde and myself drove the near-400 miles on Saturday evening, spent Sunday with Dad, then came back Monday.

Now it's been a long time since I was in a hospital ward. The last time I visited someone, almost a decade ago, they were in intensive care. Comfort and convenience for the patient therefore was a poor second to actual care. Dad was always in a general medical ward, albeit one with a specific function, and was therefore able to pass the time in the way conscious recovering patients do. But the toys and attractions available to him really opened my eyes.

For a few quid's worth of credit, he can watch TV (including the Freeview channels), listen to the radio (the hospital station and one local commercial station), play computer games (not really Dad's thing, admittedly) or, best of all, surf the net.

Internet access from your hospital bed!

And it's all from the same gizmo. The screen pulls down to wherever you want it, then a coloured button sequence, a bit like Fastext, switches from one medium to another. Opposite Dad was a teenage lad who'd had a motorbike accident, bashing away at a games console from a totally horizontal position. Adjacent was a chap who'd fallen off a horse, tapping his fingers as he listened to the hits. The other fellow in this four-man ward had chosen to stay asleep.

Dad, meanwhile, was watching the final of the snooker with his headphones on when we pitched up to see him. He'd not done anything other than watch TV with this contraption which swung above his bed, but he showed me how it worked nonetheless; essentially, it had a phone and ID number system akin to that which allows you to watch films or, erm, 'specialist' material in hotel rooms. So patients have to pay, but it's a peppercorn amount and considering the alternative is passing the time worrying about your health, it's a decent deal.

I appreciate that the NHS is about medical care, but I can't help but feel grateful that keeping recovering patients entertained and in touch with the world outside is also an issue to the powers-that-be. My last prolonged hospital stay was for the removal of my tonsils at Christmas 1981, and the only telly I saw was a grainy black and white thing which was in a room three floors down from the children's ward and therefore for two of the five days I spent in hospital I wasn't allowed out to see it. And there's only so many times you can read a copy of the Dandy before you get thoroughly bored of it.

Assuming that these multi-purpose entertainment systems are a standard in hospitals up and down the land, it means that anyone whose business relies on internet access could theoretically continue their work from their bed should they be taken ill. You and I can update our blogs while being intravenously nourished and having our catheters removed. And, best of all, my dad could watch an entire snooker championship without my mum whingeing for something else to watch, which I doubt he's ever managed before...

I'm obviously relieved that his health is returning, and for that we have the magnificent staff to thank; but I'm just as relieved that his stay in hospital was made as familiar and unstressful as possible, and something as daft as a TV/radio/console/PC, all on a playful pulley system above his bed, was able to help him achieve that.