Christmas Cheer and Kippax

‘Tis the season to be jolly and traipse around an interminable number of pre-Christmas entertainments performed by large numbers of enthusiastic children.

To be fair, I traipse around far fewer than I once did. The manic round of nativity productions and carol concerts involving four children across a wide age range has now been reduced to just one glorious Nine Lessons special and a few motley musical add-ons.

One such add-on was at The Leeds Minster the other night. Youngest Daughter was scheduled to appear on the double bass in a string ensemble as part of an eclectic seasonal fund-raising effort alongside a number of unknown local celebrities from local tv, ex-Blackpool Pleasure Beach entertainers, a group of West Yorkshire Scottish émigré Highland pipers in full kit amidst the Victorian Gothic surrounds… and the Kippax Brass Band. Och aye and Eeh bah gum.

It was a perfectly surreal evening interlude and after joining in an original rendition of a vaguely familiar carol Hark! The Herald Angels! Hark!, in which God and Singers were reconciled and where we Hailed the Sun of Righteousness (other programme typos were too excruciating to read), I began googling Kippax.

I just wasn’t quite sure where it lay in terms of Leeds metropolitan territory and I was interested in finding out a bit more about a place which sounds like a story character in a children’s picture book.

I wasn’t disappointed when I finally hit the wiki entry. Well, I was to the extent I had had to tell off 21 and 19 year old daughters minutes earlier for giggling, and now I found myself in uncontrollable hysterics amidst the Gothick carvings.

No prizes for guessing where I’ll be heading in the New Year.



Friday and the Leeds International Film Festival #LIFF27

It was a no-brainer.

The beef casserole and Swedish red cabbage was in the oven on a timer, the chicken soup (conquered after two decades of trying) was simmering on the hob, and a chocolate ginger cake was cooling on the rack. The house was in scarily tidy post-show no-studio-phase sort of way, and I reckoned if I got my act together I could just make a 3 o’ clock film showing of a 1970 French cop flic at Leeds Town Hall and be back in time for Friday night dinner.

I hadn’t seen Le Cercle Rouge, a classic heist thriller starting Alain Delon and Yves Montand (both worthy of gazing at over a couple of hours in their day) and it was time to rectify that. I adore French cinema from that era. Only slight downside was the length (140 mins) on the hard seats at the Town Hall. Everyman seating it is not. And in concerts you normally get a break. Unlikely in this instance unless the projector went on strike.

It is currently the 27th Leeds International Film Festival, an annual event which only adds to the joys of living in Leeds generally. The festival has an amazing packed programme and my only regret is that each year I don’t ever manage to clear my diary early enough to do more indulgent daytime viewing.

There’s something very strange and surreal about lurking in the Town Hall foyer mid-afternoon with a small disparate group of other solitary figures. Who were they? How had they freed themselves up on a Friday afternoon? Did they feel as guilty as me?

Unlike normal cinema showings, festival
film screenings start at the precise time indicated with no ads or trailers. So the group darted through the doors at 2.58pm, and was presented with hundreds of seats to choose from in front of the large temporary screen. I opted for fairly close up (subtitles) but not too close (neck ache possibility) and found myself in pleasant isolation in the middle of the dark chamber.

The film was great. Slow, precise action and Clouseau-style belted trenchcoats much in evidence worn by baddies and goodies alike. A few barely believable scenes (an empty Place Vendôme; a car driving across a muddy field without getting stuck; and the slowest imaginable escape run from a train) and some classic 1970s Parisian interiors which transported be back to memories of the first flat I lived in in Paris in the mid-80s.

I hardly noticed the seating or the passing of time.

I’m now studying the programme with serious intent and planning out the next week. This afternoon is a domestic drama set in Berlin, and this evening I’m tempted by an Israeli crime thriller. The big challenge though is a nine hour Kobayashi film being screener over three days next week. I’m very very tempted.

Disneyland Hinterland: Hyperreal Suburbia

20131031-115541.jpgThe outskirts of Magny, Disneyland Hinterland

For Youngest Daughter and Friend, Paris trips are still synonymous with a Disneyland excursion.

Last time we’d visited The Magic Kingdom, my brother in law was so upset by the very unmagical crowds (we managed two rides in six hours) that he was moved to officially complain.

This time, conscious of an astrologically troublesome confluence of French and English half term holidays, Himself and I suggested escorting the girls there, accompanying them on a couple of decent rides, and then getting the hell out by lunchtime and leaving them to enjoy the queues all by themselves.

We had a far, far better ride in mind: the local bus which shuttles around the satellite villages comprising Marne La Vallee administrative district: a little tract of suburban USA in the French countryside.

It was surprisingly easy to find the bus stop. The whole visitor-processing aspect of Disneyland tends to infantilise everyone stepping out of the RER station. From off the train, it appears there is but one path: that leading inexorably towards the parc and Cinderella’s castle. It’s an extraordinary revelation to discover the possibility of turning left and finding a whole series of local bus stops.

I could barely contain my excitement as we boarded. Himself was sceptical about the whole plan. He checked with the driver that the bus would indeed transport us to Val d’Europe shopping heaven by way of Magny-Le-Hongre, Bailly-Romanvilliers and Serris.

“Ben, ouay,” grunted the driver, and muttered there was a better, more direct route. Not a problem, we assured him. We wanted the scenic route.

As we trundled past a hitherto unknown set of newly built Disney hotels, we had a greater understanding of why the magic is fading from the kingdom. In the good old days, you could arrive at the park opening time and have five rides done and dusted in the first hour. Now, the hotel residents have first dip at the attractions for two hours before the day trippers are allowed in. So there’s already a backlog on the fast pass system before you’ve crashed the rope barrier at 10am.

But I digress. There were no queues in sight on the route of the Number 34. Indeed, there was no traffic in sight and not a pedestrian to be seen anywhere in the Hyperreal Hinterland.

We had a clear and completely unobscured view through the bus window of an interminable series of pocket handkerchief estates, picture perfect dwellings and a constructed, somewhat dystopian, urban utopia for the employees of Disneyland Paris.

It was as intriguing a 45 minutes of sightseeing and suburban exploration as any I have done anywhere. Regretfully I could not explore on foot: Himself had a greater goal in prospect, and if we were to sample the delights of possibly the nicest designer outlet village in Northern Europe, I was not to be allowed to escape my seat on the Number 34. Another day, methinks.

Still plenty of construction opportunities in the perfect suburban setting.

Amusing Parks

Plenty of space for all visitors to gather at the sane time in the same place for lunch

Two daughters off tomorrow: one to Jordan for a year and one starting university. What better way to celebrate their last full day in the glorious north of England than a visit to an amusement park? A grey misty schoolday in October and no teachers on strike would mean a nice quiet amble around the rides and no queues.

The man examining our entrance tickets seemed very happy. He announced there were only 41 visitors in the entire park including babies. We ran through in delight and woke up the young attendant on the nearest roller coaster for our first personalised timed ride.

We quickly discovered rides were as long as we wished and often longer. An easy familiarity built up amongst our fellow 38 visitors of the day. We were able to make many new friends and felt we were becoming welcome regulars on a number of the rides we returned to at various intervals.

Naturally the immediate gratification of being able to run around and hop on every ride without a queue in sight had a few downsides. We were soon rewarded by acute motion sickness and dizziness. I noticed I was not alone in this as I spun on the giant swings high above the park paralysed by the violent nauseous response to the constant movement every which way, and one seat I had to sit on for a particularly fast corkscrew ride had a vague whiff of vomit about it.

By 2pm, I was slumped over a takeaway cup of Yorkshire tea in the Jolly Sailor restaurant and had lost the will to live.

There was an out of season tawdriness to the place, and the rust and broken wood fragments and hard hats and rolls of masking tape littering the ground were not Disneyesque decorative additions but rather signs of a park struggling to maintain appearances on 41 visitors a day. Catching sight of a faded red first aid container floating near a water attraction, I didn’t know whether to feel relieved (it had never been needed) or appalled (in case it was).

But I was pleased to see in the spirit of the British holiday maker, the ride assistants still bravely sported khaki shorts despite the damp October chill.


Exploring Strange Parts

I’m a fraud. I write reams about my urban wanderings and have deluded myself into believing I am some sort of great contemporary urban explorer, seizing every opportunity to wander off the beaten path to discover places no one else is interested in.

But give me real off-the-beaten-track, and I wimp out.

Thunderous weather yesterday meant no private coral beach for me or anyone else, so whilst Middle and Youngest Daughters hunkered down to watch an exorbitantly priced Harry Potter video rental, and Himself sought consolation in the spa and gym, I decided it was high time I tackled the 10km jogging trail. On a bike.

It’s true the trail was clearly marked throughout and there was no real chance of me getting lost. But the hilly terrain strewn with volcanic rock was a challenging (hrrrum) bike ride, and the rest of the world wasn’t out enjoying the damp greyness. It was one of those outings where you think intrepid daring thoughts at the start, but increasing distance from the bubble-like security of our idyllic resort was reflected by increasing nervousness at the overwhelming sense of isolation.

Early on I thought, Well I’ve got this far so no point going back, but that is always screwed logic when you aren’t yet half way round. At what I judged to be the farthest point out, I was off by a factor of 100%. At least. My pedalling became ever more frantic, and every time I dismounted to weave through volcanic rubble, I practically ran. The tropical foliage closed in on me at every turn, and I lost all sense of direction. This was the moment when I realised: I am no explorer.

So I am all the more in awe of those Dutch, Portuguese, French and English navigators of the 16th and 17th centuries who sailed the high seas with only the stars and sun to guide them. And what they did on cloudy days, I have no idea. It’s a miracle not only that they found anywhere, but that they also found their way home again to report in. I’m currently reading a 1901 travel guide to Mauritius penned by some 19th century German eugenist. His remarks on the natives he encountered are eye-watering, but his accounts of the discovery of these Indian Ocean islands is quite fascinating.

I can say one thing with certainty: left to me, no one would have discovered anything.


Crawley Crawl


I love going on holiday, and I love the whole pre-holiday ritual of nighttime check-in at some soulless hotel in the airport hinterlands, and then fighting my way out next morning onto some service road or dual carriageway for my morning walk. Without Google maps and the iPad it would be impossible to navigate towards civilisation, but the little blue light dot is generally up to the challenge.

This morning sees us en route to Mauritius via Crawley. The surreal contrast of this morning’s walk and tomorrow’s will be a magical moment.

There was never a shadow of doubt that we would investigate Crawley. One of Himself’s colleagues on hearing of our travel plans emailed him thus:

“I see from your calendar that you’re staying in a hotel in Crawley this evening. Having lived just outside Crawley for 7 years, I should warn you that it is one of the, if not the, most depressing towns on this planet.”

So 7.15am saw us clambering roadside barriers, sniffing the air, keeping an eye on the position of the sun, pondering ambiguous road signs; and reconciling all intel with the blue light dot. In the grand tradition of Livingstone, we wended our way upstream tarmac to a deserted Crawley town centre. The usual collection of Poundshops, Poundlands and Money Shops, although on a far grander scale than, say, Goole. We are talking affluent south east England here, and it shows in the sparkling glass emporia and gargantuan dimensions of the local pound shops.


I actually found sixties Crawley positively exhilarating, though maybe my excitement today is more due to the prospect of Mauritius. The grim expanse of stained modernist architecture in the centre is testament to an unerring sense of aesthetic vision. When Crawley was designated a New Town in 1947 (one of a number across the UK intended to solve a mass housing crisis through an attempt to create utopian urban living) the town planners were driven by the sort of admirable mad courage and conviction now all too rare in a 21st century generally driven by caution to be nervous about anything other than mundane nostalgic replication of past architectural glory.

Crawley is not without its requisite bit of urban pastiche: the sparkling but boring anonymous County Mall was the complete opposite of exhilarating. But there is also some remarkably nice contemporary building. We wandered past the magnificent solicitors’ office of Thomas Eggar, and reflected that any lawyer working anywhere could do a lot worse.

Glories of Goole

I think it was the experience of Selby last week wot did it. That, and the inspirational You Are Awful (But I Like You travels through Britain book I blogged about recently. Most of the places Tim Moore visited were appealingly awful. Goole, sadly, didn’t even possess a subversively horrible attraction. My occasional flashes past the place at 70mph on the M62 viaduct had prompted not the slightest desire to exit and visit.

Which is precisely why, when lonesome Eldest Daughter was looking to play with someone, anyone, I proposed a day out to Goole.

She loved the idea, despite not having studied Moore’s writings, and we loaded up Google maps, identified a route avoiding all fast roads, and duly pootled reflectively through the flat greenness of East Riding M62 hinterlands.

After interminable circling with Drax power station ever present on the horizon in the manner of an all-seeing omniscient Being, we found ourselves approaching Goole.

I worried as only middle-class liberal-leaning artists can do about this being a rather patronising outing, and sought reassurance. “You’re OBVIOUSLY being patronising” yawned Eldest Daughter, so I threw the guilt out of the window in the direction of the fluffy white Drax clouds, and settled down to enjoy myself.

We flashed past our first missed photo opportunity: a large welcome sign proclaiming Goole: Haven of Opportunity. I might have slammed on the brakes and backed up to position Eldest Daughter beaming against this optimistic backdrop. But I was distracted by innumerable brown heritage signs directing us to a waterways museum and the Viking Marina.

Waterways? Marina? Museums and Vikings? In the middle of Yorkshire?

I was starting to think this might not be such an ironic pleasure outing at all, and that had I taken the time to research this properly, I might have found a whole section about Tourist Goole in Gateway to Yorkshire information at Leeds City Station.

Minutes later, our suspicion that this was no typical small boring town was confirmed when we caught sight of a massive Associated British Ports ad, and realised we were in fact in the largest, most important inland port in the UK.

I can’t tell you how excitedly we followed the signs to the museum.

An interminable dusty road eventually ran out of Tarmac and murderous speed bumps and led us to a hut. The museum, sadly, was only open on weekends. We u-turned in a sand and grit complex, and picked up the brown signs to the Viking Marina. The docklands scenery and industrial buildings were spectacular, and we had high hopes of the marina, though we were struggling to see the water bit of this great inland port.

The brown signs disappeared and we found ourselves peering through the windscreen at a wire gate beyond which were a mass of old barges, presumably floating on water though our sight line made this hard to assess. But nothing Norse in sight.

Jettisoning the water attractions, we headed for the town centre, and I can heartily recommend Goole for parking. It’s brilliant. Spaces everywhere you look all around the pedestrianised heart.

There was a covered market where Eldest Daughter found a treasure trove of exceedingly jokey smutty cards to send to all her mates celebrating 21st birthdays this year.

And in a quiet dark corner, a self-proclaimed Sweeney Todd barber shop looked scarily unappealing.

But outside, the public conveniences were five star quality: automated water, soap and hot air without even the need to press a button with a dripping soapy digit. The only downside was the generous amount of free-flowing liquid soap still being dispensed when the hand drier airstream activated. Eldest daughter was so taken by this amusement, she washed her hands three times whilst I tried to capture the antics on video. O how we laughed.

Refreshed and exceedingly clean, we ambled along the high street to look for a coffee spot, and were spoilt for choice. Even better, not Nero, Costa, or Starbucks in sight. We wanted authentic, so we rejected a surprisingly attractive deli, and then an Italian place, on the grounds that the coffee might be great. In the end we found some nice chairs on a bit of paving near our car, and opted for tea and hot chocolate. The whole coffee basis-for-selection was a red herring. Who on earth goes for coffee when there’s Yorkshire Tea to be had?

We could tell we were in a nice place. Despite the Cheque Centres and pawnbrokers and pound shops, it was a trusting friendly community where noone felt the need to chain and padlock a bike. Just fling it to the floor, go shop, and come back with no messing and contorting to fit a key in a lock inaccessibly trapped between spokes.

Ah Goole!

We weren’t the first to discover the appeal of the town though. The second language of the place appears to be Russian.

Now how did Russians end up in Britain’s largest inland port? Did they hit Hull (sorry Hull) and think there had to be something better somewhere? And just carried on up the Humber?

Super Selby

In my WordPress drafts file, I see I have three unposted items about my recent fresco-painting studies in the Tuscan countryside. Wifi issues prevented publication, and now they feel out of date.

A pity therefore that the next impulse to post occurs when I find myself in the Yorkshire town of Selby with an ancient abbey in my sights, and a heap of closed mobile phone shops, hairdressers, estate agents and grim fish n’ chip shops. At 5.30 pm on a Friday evening in July, this is not a place which lends itself to relaxed summer fun.

Such is the lot of parenthood, and more fatalistically, the penance I must pay for frolicking in the Italian sunshine for a week without a child or dog or spouse in sight.

I arose at 5.30 am to drive from Leeds to the Peak District to collect Middle Daughter from orchestra camp in order to drive her back north to York for a singing exam. Thence to Selby to rejoin orchestra for a City of Leeds Youth Orchestra concert to finish the season.

There is no time to drive to Leeds and drive back in time for the concert. Ordinarily I might wander on foot for miles absorbing the quirky oddities of a small boring English town with a massive factory glowering over the town square. But I am just too tired.

My only options are (1) sleeping on the grass of the cholera burial ground outside the Abbey or (2) a shady beer garden or (3) one of those loser benches in the middle of a pavement.

Beer garden, here I come.

Sugar Streets


Another paradox of contemporary life.

As the the Powers That Be reluctantly begin to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, sugar is more of a health challenge to society than lovely unadulterated raw butter produced from pastured cows, I notice a sudden mushrooming of confectionary outlets that are a million miles away from the old cramped and darkly mysterious corner sweetshops of my childhood.

These new consumer temples are all about candy-pink atmosphere with dazzling white-lino flooring and spacious display shelves. They offer all sorts of sucrose-based delights which would have John Yudkin turning in his grave, and sport enough E numbers to challenge a Bletchley Park code breaker. Young teens are drawn to them as proverbial moths to a flame, but the enticing Americana packaging encourages a bit of retro-escapism to adults of all ages.

There was a time, not so long ago, when Reese’s peanut butter concoctions and Jelly Belly beans were quite simply completely unknown in the UK. Now we are seeing a fresh invasion of yet another aspect of American culture: “candy”. On the plus side (which there will certainly be if you get stuck in to this lot), it’s slightly costly stuff for a cheap evening’s binge in front of back-to-back episodes of Friends, so maybe the financial burden on the NHS won’t be too apparent for a while yet.

And somehow the glamorous allure of such shops is lost when they find themselves away from the glossy malls in the centre of town, and find themselves instead awkwardly placed at busy traffic junctions on the city traffic loop.

The Modern Era of Train Travel


I’ve not blogged for weeks about the trivia of my daily life because I’ve had A Serious Matter to deal with: ridding my psyche of all-or-nothingness.

All-or-nothingness manifests itself in many things I do, and I concluded recently that it has never, ever served me well. Housework, diet, career and exercise have all at various times suffered fall-out from the nothingness resulting from incapacity to do it all, follow the rules, achieve perfection.

In social media exchange, it takes the form of “Oh, I’ve not done anything on Twitter for weeks so there’s no point in trying to catch up now.” Or, “I do unique original content posts in my blog, so there’s no point in reblogging that article by x.” Or, “This is my writing blog so I’m not going to post a photo with a one liner next to it.”

There’s one simple response to any of this rubbish thinking.

Why not?

Whatever’s wrong with doing something differently or breaking some ridiculous self-imposed rule? Just jumping in where I’m at? Or challenging some conventional received wisdom on the frequency and content of tweets? Would the world end?

Which brings me to today’s post, intended to be a simple photo with a one-liner, but I’m into my stride now so I can provide a bit of context.

I’m on a flying visit day trip down to London which has entailed me getting out of bed at 4.45am, and which will see me returning home in the early hours of tomorrow morning. After two days of heat and sunshine, I have been tricked at dawn yet again by my British optimism into thinking it is indeed summer and dressing accordingly, only to find grey clouds blanketing the North of England. And I arrived at the station to find my First Class ticket upgrade is for the return part of the journey when I plan to be asleep, rather than for the outward trip where I was greatly looking forward to breakfast served at my seat.

But as I sit here, chilled and hungry and half asleep, I can but marvel at my East Coast train, a miracle of technological waste-not, want-not. The welding seam presumably running down the centre line of the carriage is completely invisible. I’m in awe of the executives running this business who are determined to show the customer visible cost savings.

Bet this one though wasn’t travelling the length and breadth of the country during last year’s Olympics.

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