28 February, 2006

Dictionary corner III



M is for...

Liverpool isn't on or next to or served by the Mersey. The Mersey serves, swallows and surrounds Liverpool. The city is only one instrument in the river's orchestra of sounds and sensations. It commands dozens of different landscapes, emotions, even weather systems, as it makes its way into the Irish Sea through one of the widest estuaries in the country. It's impossible to turn your back on the Mersey. If you're down by the riverside, you can't stand facing away from it. Its ponderous expanse of weight, watery potential hypnotises you and draws you towards it. As one of the most majestic but untamed rivers in the land, the Mersey also demands your respect. I saw it on my first visit to the city, cloaked in a misty rain, and I knew there and then this was the city in which I wanted to live. I later realised I'd mistaken gloomy romanticism for plain gloom. Yet in its own way this was just as alluring. For what use are rivers unless they reflect, not only your image, but also your mood?

N is for...

This demented means of transport operated around the city in the mid-90s, ostensibly offering the lowest prices in town a la Kwik Save, after whose budget range the bus was colloquially dubbed. It was painted completely white save for a horrible giant logo on the side, and nobody I knew ever rode it. In fact, I never saw it ever picking up any passengers. As such it cultivated an attitude of bemused mystery amongst those who glimpsed it, fuelled chiefly by puzzlement at how it actually made any money. Suffice to say the No Frills bus vanished with just as little announcement as it arrived, in a selfless manner befitting its selfless name. That was back when a student bus fare to anywhere in the city was 40p. It's treble that now.

O is for...

The cinema, not the dialling code. I used to go to this estimable venue once a week, in the days when I made it my business to go to see a new film every week, and also coincidentally when I worked as a reviewer on my student newspaper and was hence able to occasionally get free tickets. I remember seeing The Pillow Book by Peter Greenaway in this cinema and being the only one left by the time it ended. It was the most magnificent of establishments with the nicest, largest, most comfortable, most seat-esque cinema seats I've ever found, but with an attitude to self-publicity which positively invited its closure. Which dutifully followed in the late 1990s. This happened around the same time as another cinema, the one on the corner of Lime Street, also shut down, which was another cruel act given this venue boasted an even more regal, though not necessarily comfortable, interior complete with Victorian balcony, titanic curtains and a hole in the floor from which an organist would once emerge to accompany silent films. I remember seeing Speed in this cinema and declaring it, on leaving, to be one of the best action films I'd ever seen - such was the impact watching it in such overpowering surroundings had wrought on me. The day it closed it showed Casablanca. Entry fee was a shilling.

P is for...

I'm sure these must exit in other cities, but I've never seen them anywhere but Liverpool. I'm talking about females of mixed age who appear quite content to go outside at whatever time of the day or night in whatever weather and parade around wearing nothing but a pair of pyjamas and an optional huge overcoat. No proper clothes of any description. Just the pyjamas they (presumably) sleep in, slippers, and a massive fuck-off knee-length fleece if the temperature is a shade on the freezing side. So attired, the titular ladies go into shops and buy things. They get onto buses. They stand on street corners gossiping. They push babies up and down the pavement. And nobody takes the slightest bit of notice of the fact they look the way they do. I once saw a pyjama woman arrive outside a newsagents in a black cab, totter inside, emerge with an armful of cigarette packets, then proceed on her way. Another time one stood outside a newsagents waiting for someone else to offer to go in and buy stuff for her. On both occasions nobody batted an eyelid. So are these women unique to Liverpool? If they can afford armfuls of cigarettes, can't they rustle up a few pennies for, say, a jumper or two? A pair of shoes? Feel free to dress you answers up any way you like. Except in tatty, oversized, flowery pyjamas.

27 February, 2006

Downtown lights

From my new window I can see right out across the entire northern sweep of the city, a view that gains in scope what it loses in clarity, and which looks best round about this time of night when all the hard edges and grimy angles are blacked out and only the illuminations are visible. The M1 curves round from behind my left to disappear somewhere in the middle distance, enveloped in its ambiguous terminus just north of Cricklewood. At the moment I think of it as my one link with everything I've left behind, and to be reminded of its presence, replete with a neverending steam of vehicles both heading in and out of London, is somehow intensely reassuring.

23 February, 2006

Estuary English

Down by the Mersey last Saturday:

22 February, 2006

Dictionary corner II



G is for...

At some point during my time in Liverpool it became fashionable to sport what, if this were the mid 80s and I was Mrs Thatcher, would be derisorily referred to as "a skinhead". It supplanted the previous all-pervasive bowl cut, and over the years has become near ubiquitous amongst males under the age of 16. It's also more common amongst middle-aged men than possibly any other part of the country I've seen. I've no idea why it has ended up so prevalent, but it's presently as much a part of the city's uniform as grey track suits, hooded tops and iPods. Not that there's anything wrong with it whatsoever; and it's not that people weren't shaving their heads in Liverpool before 1994. It's just been a particularly sharp (literally) change in the population's appearance while I've been here, and I haven't the faintest idea why.

H is for...

One of the largest city hospitals in the country, the Royal Liverpool glowers down at Liverpool from its berth up on high just behind the Catholic Cathedral, its combination of menace and omnipotence epitomised by (what I can only guess is) a giant incinerator tower that snakes into the sky like a truculent tower of Babel. Part of it is also permanently UNDER CONSTRUCTION (QV). Inside, though, it's a totally different matter, as I found out when I was an outpatient there for a spell in late 2003/early 2004 - clean, reassuring and accommodating (well, as much as any hospital can be these days) and imbued with a sense of that somewhat outmoded notion, "the good old NHS". I felt safe every time I stepped through its giant revolving doors.

I is for...

Unlike Princes Avenue in Toxteth, which I used to feel safe walking down until I was attacked by a mugger on Bonfire Night 1999 who threatened me with a knife and demanded I hand over all my money. It happened in broad daylight with cars passing nonchalantly by a mere few feet away. The bloke took my wallet which had all of two pounds inside, but did contain my bank card and hence, as I later discovered thanks to an intriguing inventory sent me by the police, was able to visit various service stations in Southport, Salford and, to my bemusement, Exeter before being apprehended. Of course before he did that I'd cancelled the card so I didn't lose anything. Other than my dignity, of course, and my ability to live my life on my terms. The trauma was so great that to this day I've never walked down that street again. I felt so stupid. Why even presume to walk through Toxteth in the daylight during rush hour with loads of people about? Anyhow, even attending an identity parade a few weeks later was an ordeal, especially as I foolishly wore a white T-shirt, parts of which could be glimpsed from under my black jumper and so could be seen from behind the one-way glass. The sight of my attacker's eyes following me as I walked along the glass stayed with me for months.

J is for...

Apologies for this being a somewhat gloomy instalment of my A-Z. Liverpool is a city built on slavery, an unforgivable trade with which my ancestors were unforgivably associated. My grandfather used to work in one of the Liver Buildings down by the MERSEY (QV) for a shipping company that had been founded upon the exchange of enslaved peoples from Britain's former colonies for goods and services. His own ancestors had made a fair bit of money out of the slave trade and ostensibly owned portions of land quite close to where I currently live near WOOLTON VILLAGE (QV), but over the centuries the money disappeared along with (conveniently for them) all tangible evidence of my family's disreputable past. The whole affair always reminds me of that line from 'Rocking The Suburbs' by Ben Folds: "It wasn't my idea. It never was my idea."

K is for...

Once I was on a bus going into town during that most, well, lively of periods, hometime (c. 3.00-4.00pm). As usual the place was crowded with schoolchildren, even the lower deck in which I'd wisely chosen to sit. The atmosphere was actually pretty relaxed and amiable, with some amusing argument going on between various kids about the respective depravity of each other's mother ("Your mum owes me £5 for last night!" "Yeah, well your mum owes my dad £5 for last night!" "Your mum couldn't pay five pence!" "And your mum couldn't pay attention"). Then, suddenly, the whole mood changed when someone produced a knife. It was as if the wind had suddenly altered direction. The knife hadn't been brought out to threaten anyone, just for show. All the same, the switch from relaxed bickering to heightened tension was palpable. As it was a fellow passenger reported the knife owner to the driver and he was made to get off at the next stop. But for the remainder of the journey everyone sat in silence.

L is for...

When you step out of Lime Street you are met by one of the finest views of a city that a traveller can experience in any of this country's railway stations. As long as you leave by the front entrance, that is, not the side one with the CRACKED PAVEMENTS (QV) and casinos. Lime Street is a hugely evocative location and one of my favourite places in all of Liverpool. It's always desperately cold, always boasts at least one malfunctioning toilet, and always has wet floors even in the middle of summer. Even so, it's built like all stations should be, with a huge curving roof, great sprawling platforms and a giant clock high above the main concourse. The whole place had to be evacuated once when a tea urn blew up. I've lost count of the number of times I've felt a huge wave of relief well up inside me as Lime Street has come into view. I've also lost count of the number of times I've arrived back in the terminus and wished, unlike seemingly every other passenger ever, there was someone there to meet me. Everything starts and ends at Lime Street.

21 February, 2006

Hear here

I only got round to discovering the Liverpool Central Reference Library in 2001. I had no call to know of its existence before then, but when I found myself needing to look up information in some old magazines for an article I was writing I guessed there had to be somewhere in the city which held just such an archive.

Sure enough, the Central Reference Library had precisely what I was after, and a whole lot more besides: volume upon volume of carefully preserved journals, newspapers and listings magazines, along with innumerable references works and maps, all housed in the most magnificent rotunda right next to St George's Hall in the grandest and most elegant part of the city.

It took my breath away, to be honest, but the first time I visited I was too busy being mortified by the acoustics to remember much else. Even the slightest tap of my pen against a piece of paper was echoed a thousand times. I hardly dared breathe for fear of causing the kind of tiny rustle that would immediately be transformed into a tidal wave of sound.

This singular sensation, akin to that you get when up in the Whispering Gallery of St Paul's Cathedral, contrived to render the place a crucible of mutterings and murmurings and to carpet the building with a hum of gentle, polite activity. It took a bit of getting used to, but I quickly warmed to this striking, if not unique, atmosphere - a kind of cocoon of quiet amiability in the middle of the often raucous, impersonal city, the perfect place for an hour or two of self-absorbed contemplation and information gathering.

I've been there more or less once a month ever since, and today was my last visit. I couldn't quite believe as I left the place that I'll probably never ever step foot inside it again. What will happen to all those bound volumes of Radio Times which only I ever seemed to want to look at? Will they ever take down that interminable exotic bird exhibition which has been draped around the walls for what feels like years? Will the giant bronze clock above the fire exit ever start working? And will I ever find a place that boasts the same potent mix of whispered conviviality and long-forgotten knowledge?

No need to all shout at once.

20 February, 2006

Dictionary corner

Apropos an au revoir...



A is for...

Yes, accents, not accent. For there is a plethora of dialects across Merseyside, and in each of the eleven years I've lived here I've discovered at least one or two more. The nicest hail from the Wirral, preferably West Kirby. The least tolerable seem to originate from Crosby. The ones I've had most difficulty with have involved girls or PYJAMA WOMEN (QV) adopting such flat, languid vowels that they sound like men (think Margi Clarke) or men combining a strangulated-sounding squeak with a preference for missing out important syllables (think Craig off the first Big Brother). Suffice to say, only people impersonating Liverpudlians sound like George Harrison in YELLOW SUBMARINE (QV). And all old people with Scouse accents sound ace.

B is for...

The quality of bakers in Liverpool is unparalleled in this country. Well, in all the parts of the country to which I've been. There are just the right number across the city, and they have just the right selection of goods. For many years there was a monopoly in the shape of Sayers ("So Fresh We're Famous" - a textbook non sequitur), but then Greggs came along and ruined it by opening outlets either next to or opposite them. To this day I've never set foot in a Greggs on account of brand loyalty, and the fact that Sayers make the nicest toast to takeaway in the whole world. Well, in all the parts of the world in which I've eaten toast.

C is for...

Heaven help anyone who believes in bad luck and who finds themselves leaving LIME STREET STATION (QV) by the exit opposite The Crown. For here lie the most uneven, damaged and ugly looking paving stones you will ever see, and you will be hard pushed to navigate your way across them without tumbling into the many lethal cracks and crevices. Plus it's all on a slope, so chances are you'll end up on your forehead or your arse. For as long as I've lived here Liverpool has always entertained clusters of cracked pavements, which combined with the amount of RUBBISH (QV) that's always swirling about the place makes it one of the grimmest of places to explore on foot, and one of the least sympathetic terrains for flimsy footwear of any shape and size. And hence the pavement is, literally, the city's Achilles' heel.

D is for...

For several years in the mid-90s a phalanx of locked-out dock workers turned the city into a bastion of mid-80s style crusading activism, which in turn was (inevitably) hijacked by the Socialist Workers Party, who in turn rendered the dispute an anathema to first the Tory then the Labour Government, and which in turn led to the dockers ultimately caving in and accepting pay-offs. But for a while the flames of solidarity burned brightly on Merseyside, attracting support and attention from the usual suspects (Billy Bragg) and the not so usual (Noel Gallagher, who did a "secret" gig at The Picket in Hardman Street), plus spawning a huge line in customised Calvin Klein T-shirts, famously sported by ROBBIE FOWLER (QV) during at least one crucial Liverpool FC match. It was a weird time, when Liverpool seemed trapped in a time bubble utterly separate from the rest of the country, forever threatening to burst and flood the place with unwelcome resonances of former battles and grisly defeats.

E is for...

Three cheers for the pound shops, of which there used to be loads in Liverpool, and which would furnish any property with the basics (a bin, a doormat, a toilet brush, teatowels, coasters, fridge magnets, broken biscuits et al) for, yes, a pound. These domains were a godsend when I was a student (and not just for the endless hours of amusement to be had by asking the checkout staff "How much is this?"), as were all branches of Home And Bargain, now stupidly rebranded as Home Bargains. There used to be a 50p shop in Bold Street as well, but that closed. And I always thought if you looked after your pennies, the pounds would look after themselves.

F is for...

I met him once. He was sitting by the bar in The Rose in Mossley Hill, completely alone, sporting watery eyes and a worried frown. As I walked in he stared straight at me, as if daring me to come any closer and engage him in conversation. Naturally I did nothing of the sort. I believe at the time he was the greatest footballer Liverpool had ever produced.

19 February, 2006

Ventilator blues

Seriously, why did they bother?

They must have known they weren't going to break the world record for the largest audience, previously set - erk - by Rod Stewart. They don't need the money, the exposure or the coverage, and heaven knows they can't have thought it'd regain them any credibility, because they lost that once and for all in the early 80s when Mick used to go on stage sporting yellow tracksuits and pink leg-ins while Keith did all the riffs in the wrong octave.

Strolling to the gig via a specially constructed walkway from their hotel (a short car journey obviously being out of the question), what was there to prove about rattling through 20 or so songs, all of which they must have played over a thousand times, and all of which are now performed with dull mechanical precision by the anonymous rhythm section, bedecked with duelling guitar wankery courtesy of Messrs Richards and Wood, and topped off with Jagger shouting all the lyrics because he can't hold a tune anymore? Bugger all.

By all accounts most people couldn't see the band in the flesh, and amusingly some didn't even appear to know who the Rolling Stones were ("I've never heard their music but I had to come"). The selfless pride exuded on the part of the locals - "If they love our country, that's good" - contrasted utterly with the cynical machinations of the Stones's business empire, parcelling up and commodifying this gig so as to become a multi-media, multi-revenue generating cash cow.

As for the new songs, they have all sounded the same for the last 20 years, because that's the only way the remaining members will agree to work with each other. Musical eccentricities and diversity cannot be tolerated. The songs cannot be conceived on Keith or Mick's terms; they have to be anonymous and half-familiar, able to be traced back to a non-specific rocker or lazy ballad. This way avoids temper tantrums and hence the chance of losing out on another million or so tax-free earnings.

Ah well. It'd be laughable were it not so pitiful. This gig was nothing to do with music, just profit margins and tapping another world market. To hear they'd retired would be bliss indeed, not least so I never have to read another newspaper story which begins "Even though they've been rolling for over 40 years, the Stones still can't get no satisfaction..."

18 February, 2006

Carriage return

I'd rank travelling by train as one of my all-time top five favourite pastimes. So speaks someone who doesn't have to commute for a living, you cry, and well you might given that's shortly about to change. But for now, at any rate, train travel is one of the most amiable and reinvigorating experiences in the world.

I'll always remember Michael Palin's astute observation, on returning to this country after his 80-day round-the-world trip for the BBC, that "there is no better way of getting reacquainted with Britain than over afternoon tea and the view from a train." You're soaking in the landscapes and environments segueing endlessly past your window, watching for resonances of the familiar and reassuring, processing glimpses of the unusual and unexpected...and all from the privileged position of just sitting still and letting quiet towns, serene meadows, tiny villages, sprawling cities and towering urban sprawls come to you. It's bliss.

You may worry about where you're going, but you don't have to give a moment's thought as to how you're getting there. Trains don't hide the peripheries and non-essentials and all the minutiae of everyday life from your gaze like aeroplanes, which transport you from one soulless cargo bay to another with only seven hours of cloud for company. No, trains take you from right in the heart of one place to right into the heart of another, allowing you an unfettered panorama of all the lies in between, grim or graceful, majestic or miserly.

Train tracks snake their way through the most remarkable scenery and equally astonishing feats of architectural engineering, alternately teetering on the edges of cliffs or seafronts then charging deep underground or high above valleys and across estuaries. Train passengers are also the most well-meaning and resourceful you'll ever find, not blinkered and pissed off like air travellers, nor selfish and single-minded like car drivers. They may not say much to you, but that's because they know to respect your relationship with what's going on outside the window, or the dialogue inside your head between you and your thoughts.

When you board a train, moreover, you know you're going on an adventure. Anything could happen: unexpected landscapes, unexpected diversions or delays, unexpected incidents taking place inches from your nose, unexpected glimmers of distant memories far on the horizon.

Getting on a train to a new place is the biggest thrill of all. You'll arrive right in the heart of an entirely unfamiliar place with all its sights and sounds laid out before you, ready for the taking. If you like the place, you can stay a while. If you don't like, you can board the next train and try the next stop down the line.

Before privatisation you could buy special tickets that let you travel on any train in any region of Britain over a set period of time. You could even get one that allowed unlimited travel right across the nation. Those days are long gone, sadly, along with notions of pride and respect for railways that ensured they were promoted and maintained as a primary means of public transport.

Still, one of my ambitions remains to go on a grand railway journey from one end of the country to another, partly for the same reason that people climb Everest (it's there) but partly because I know it will showcase all of the above and serve up an unforgettable cavalcade of impressions and associations. And I reckon it'd be the perfect way of discovering your country and rediscovering your self.

17 February, 2006

Woolton village

A few photos I took during a recent rainswept Sunday morning.

16 February, 2006

Gardening leave

I've just over two weeks until I start my new job, which would make for a nice fortnight of holiday were it not for the small business of upping sticks and moving 200 miles south. The potential ordeal of such a relocation completely overshadowed the fact that today was my last day in my present job, or rather my last half day, as due to the way my leftover holidays were calculated I only had to work until lunchtime.

I had thought this would make for the perfect exit: understated, underplayed, and straight out of the door when everyone's minds were on food. I was completely wrong. I ended up getting all my stuff together and putting on my coat while the entire rest of the office watched me in stony silence. Had I been leaving at the end of the day this wouldn't have happened, given how everyone would have been putting on their coats. Instead I felt like I was on stage, doing a turn for an audience, and it was really uncomfortable.

How should you feel when you leave a place of work after three and a half years? The principle thought in my mind as I walked back home was the fact that I wouldn't be doing this walk again ever, after what must almost be 1000 trips (2000 if you count walking there and back). I then thought about why I should be thinking of that, rather than the people and places I was leaving behind and which I would surely never see again in my entire life.

Even now, from several hours distance, the significance of my departure is beyond my grasp. It feels like I have expended so much energy and emotion straining to get to this point, I have nothing left with which to appreciate its actual passing.

So many of my private diary entries from the past couple of years have been filled with bile directed towards my employers. Now I've left them, I've also left myself with the problem of what to write about. And, for that matter, to whom I should direct whatever traces of malcontent lingering inside me.

Ah well, at least I've suddenly got a lot of thinking time at my disposal. And top of the list, you'll be glad to hear, is thinking myself out of a negative frame of mind.

15 February, 2006

First century

This is the 100th entry in Visions Before Midnight. It's a total that seemed hugely distant when I first began writing last November, but which grew steadily closer with the passing of the season and I (more or less) stuck to my original plan to post something new every day.

It's a hugely artifical watershed, of course, with just as little literal significance as 31st December. But it gives me an excuse to indulge in a bit of shameless self-absorption (yes, just for a change) and prod myself into considering just why I am maintaining this kind of commitment.

I suppose that from the outset I've approached this blog with something of a procedural, mechanical mindset, prematurely appreciative of the rituals I suspected would be involved in writing a daily entry, spending time thinking about what to write, choosing a headline, selecting an image and so on. I also wanted an outlet to pen something different to the kind of entries I've long mustered in my private diaries, as well as being an arena for freewheeling whimsy and rhetoric, a pot pourri of thought and suggestion, and a crucible for preoccupations and obsessions.

I embarked on the blog with a grand plan to tackle life's great mysteries and eccentricities with ruthless satirical insight and pithy observation. That lasted all of three days. Interestingly (well, irritatingly), the business of maintaining two different kinds of journal initially had the side-effect of keeping me awake at night. Then came the decision about whether to use other people's real names or keep everything anonymous. Then I wondered if it were best to stop talking about real people and places at all and make the blog full of conversation rather than reportage. Then I realised I could use up an entire day's entry by simply posting one photo. Bingo!

In truth my attitude towards this place changes every day, which I'm taking at the moment to be A Good Thing. Hence if I'm bored of it tonight, chances are I'll be enthused by it tomorrow.

As is inevitable, I can't help but continue wondering who (if anyone) is reading any of this stuff, and if so how they came by it. I know I compose different entries with different audiences in mind (a hugely pompous assertion), and then strain myself listening for the sound of inaudible applause. Perhaps that's de rigeur for anybody and everybody, day in day out, year in year out. Perhaps it's best I don't know who's out there, so as to avoid striking deliberately artifical and false poses and points of view.

As it is, I've clocked up my first hundred and, to dip into my well-thumbled book of cliches, it's been a pleasure. And while I'm there, you can have this one for free: as you were.

14 February, 2006

Life laundry

Aware of the amount of clutter I've been throwing up during my half-hearted attempts to pack, and equally aware of the amount I've been throwing out, I decided to take a dozen or so unwanted items into work today and see if I could persuade my otherwise unknowing colleagues to make a purchase.

The boss was away, of course, as were a couple of other naysayers and killjoys, so the atmosphere was properly conducive to a bit of amiable auctioneering. And sure enough, I managed to flog the majority of artefacts, albeit for shockingly low prices and to an almost universally reluctant audience of bidders.

I don't know what they made of my eccentric haul of esoterica, nor my alternately befuddled and angry attempts at salesmanship. Nonetheless, I emerged from it all £10.65 better off, and with the knowledge that unlike most days of late I'd actually gone to work and achieved something.

Items sold
- One circular non-stick baking tin
- One lemon squeezer
- A limited edition (well, of 5000) mug marking the 1999 eclipse of the sun
- A thunderously boring book called Planet Simpson about the titular cartoon series, of which I'd barely read 20 of its 200 plus pages
- 'Tiger Milk' by Belle And Sebastian on CD
- 'London Calling' by The Clash on CD
- Band Of Brothers video box set

Items not sold
- One green plastic tray
- Two cork place mats
- 'Pop' by U2 on cassette
(All offers gratefully received)

13 February, 2006

Smoke signals

Further to yesterday, here's another thing I assuredly won't be seeing for a long time: views from my office window.

12 February, 2006

Final cut

I've started to work through a series of "lasts".

Most of them are oblivious to me until after the event. Last Friday, for instance, was the last one of my present job, and hence the last time I'll ever feel that rush of release as I step out of the building and into the weekend. My trip out to the Wirral eight days ago was the last I'll see of the Irish Sea for, I'd imagine, a fair few years (and the same probably goes for the sea itself). I would imagine I've also taken the last bus over to the giant Tesco on Allerton Road, which is just as well given the last couple of times the driver has got lost and I've had to show him the way.

In each case I wasn't fully aware of the finality of my actions until much later, I suppose because I was too distracted at the time to pay enough attention. But yesterday's "last", the last time I'll ever go to get my hair cut in Liverpool, was one that I embarked upon knowingly and, it has to be said, something of a heavy heart.

I don't particularly like going to get it cut, not that it takes any longer than ten minutes, and I've always made a point of going first thing of a morning (when possible) so I can have the thing done, come back here, have a shower, and start the day again. Yet I've been going to the same place for just over 10 years. Given I tend to go every three to four weeks, I reckon that adds up to at least 150 cuts. And given the price averages out at £5 a time, that makes for a grand total of around £750. There's an investment for you.

During that time I've lived in four different places in Liverpool, each further away from Penny Lane than the last, but I've never once considered getting my hair cut somewhere else. It's the convenience of familiarity. It's the reassurance of walking into a place, recognising the faces of the staff, knowing the kind of job they'll do, and not having to think any more about it. The peace of mind which routine brings.

All of which made yesterday's final cut a particularly poignant occasion. Not that I made anything of it while I was there, or said anything to the staff - oh no. You introduce bits of your personal life into a tonsorial transaction at your peril. No, it was before and after that I felt the most emotion, I think because the whole process was such a tangible illustration of how my life is changing and how every single thing I've come to take for granted is about to be thrown up in the air and fall back to earth reassembled as...well, who knows.

So farewell to the otherwise unknowing personnel of Tony Slavin's on Church Road on Penny Lane roundabout. I'll miss the friendly and efficient service, the shameless Beatles photocopied prints, the giant photo of when Jamie Redknapp and Jason McAteer dropped in, the buses of tourists passing by with flashbulbs popping, the harmlessly trivial overheard chit-chat about lotteries and school uniforms and car tax and obscenities in pop songs and the weather, and the very fact it was always there, always open and always the same.

11 February, 2006

Truth ache

The book I'm reading at the moment is one for which I might very well have been imprisoned were this 1986 and not 2006. Indeed, it's one that was effectively banned in this country for much of the late 80s, despite being sold with relish in airport lounges right around the world.

It's Spycatcher, by Peter Wright. And ever since I bought it, I've experienced a frisson of excitement each time I glance at its distinctive cover, an image viscerally burned into my memory thanks to the massive, seemingly unending coverage which surrounded its notorious publication. Even this morning, when I picked up the book to read another chapter, I couldn't help but feel a jolt at its significance.

I have so many vivid memories of countless news reports documenting Mrs Thatcher's attempt to outlaw the titular tome, reports which seemed to drag on for years and years, and which were forever accompanied by the same piece of video footage: its wizened author limping along a path in a giant floppy hat, somewhere in the backwaters of Australia.

I also remember with equal clarity the massive furore that greeted the ostensibly illegal serialisation of extracts from the book in the Sunday Times, which given my mum and dad took the paper at the time I was able to eagerly devour, if not quite comprehend.

In retrospect it's possible to see the vestiges of worth in the Government's argument that a book which effectively laid bare the entrails of Britain's secret service operations from 1945 onwards should have been due some kind of attention. But because the Goverment bungled the entire affair, all the way from not paying Peter Wright's pension to deciding to ban the book but not knowing how, it ended up the cause celebre of final Thatcher years, and one which the Prime Minister failed to handle with any kind of tact and discretion.

20 years on, inevitably the text now resembles a fairly harmless protracted point-scoring exercise. In fact, it reads very poorly, the author coming over as a pompous troublemaker who's always right when almost everyone else is wrong, who spent the bulk of his life in a profession he despised, and for whom spying brought nothing but unhappiness. It's a wonder he was employed for so long, the amount of grumbling and badmouthing in which he partook. He's not that much cop as a scribe either - and that's despite the input of a ghostwriter, Paul Greengrass.

Very much not the sum of its parts, Spycatcher is best remembered for the outburst it prompted from the then Cabinet Secretary and head of the Civil Service Robert Armstrong during one of the many court hearings the Government mounted to get it banned. Sometimes in his job, Armstrong declared, it was necessary to be "economical with the truth". Twenty years on, that, at least, remains as potent a maxim as any that can be associated with the book.

It all adds up to a somewhat salutary legacy for a once impeachable publication. Especially one that I picked up for £2 at my local Oxfam.

10 February, 2006

Swing time

This is the kind of news it's great to wake up to: sudden, exciting, revelatory.

I think it's had such an impact because of the way by-elections haven't been such potentially devastating events under Labour as they were under the Tories - especially the last Conservative Government of 1992-97, where cumulative by-election defeats achieved the magical mathematical coup of wiping out John Major's entire majority. Since then the number of these parliamentary sideshows has gone down, as has the number of upsets, and hence the once common association between by-elections and potent political earthquakes has dimmed.

Last night's result has confirmed my belief that we're now into the most dramatic twelve months for British politics in a hell of a long time. So many things can be read into the Liberal Democrat victory. It was a constituency that, a generation or so ago, was held by a Communist. It was Gordon Brown's first practice run at being Prime Minister. It was an outcome genuinely unexpected by every single candidate. It was a result that saw the Tory Party's share of the vote fall, and their number of votes almost half from 4,400 to 2,700, despite David Cameron's love-in as leader. And it was a success for a party that, up to a matter of days ago, was being all but written off as a broken, bankrupt folly.

All of the above confound the majority of ostensibly sensible and measured political commentaries penned since Christmas. And just like the twin defeats over the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, nobody saw any of it coming.

So far this year there seems to have been at least one unforeseen political rupture, shock or turnaround every single week. Only those without a soul could fail to be moved by the excitement of a country in such a democratic flux. These are heady times. We should treasure them.

09 February, 2006

Flat mates

This miniature quartet sits opposite me on my desk at home, resembling reassuring echoes from birthdays gone by. I'm not quite sure where the white dog hails from, but the mouse is (of course) from Bagpuss and the origins of the other two should, as it were, ring a bell:

08 February, 2006

Blue-sky thinking

The sun came out this morning for the first time in ten solid days. It felt like the lid had just been taken off my life, and I could walk a bit taller.

Just for the record, here's how it looked on Saturday down by the shore in Hoylake on the Wirral. You can't tell where the sea meets the sky:

07 February, 2006

Block party

After a couple of months absence, it appears that my noisy neighbour upstairs is back. The past few nights have witnessed the return of those tell-tale signs: the TV on well past midnight, the resolute repetitive thud of a walking frame on the floor, the endless procession of relatives passing through at all hours...

As such I'm back to my tried and tested strategy of sleeping with my radio tuned to a fuzz of static, which I've trained to convince myself is actually pouring rain outside my window.

Again and again I ask myself: how can an eightysomething wreak such havoc? I actually had to confront her just before Christmas, when I had a card through the door from the postman telling me he'd left a parcel upstairs. Steeling myself for my first face-to-face audience with this Grand Dame of Noise Pollution, I rang the bell and after waiting an age could hear someone shuffling towards me. A million or so locks and bolts then had to be undone before the door finally swung open to reveal...well, it was hard to take in. Sure, she was fairly bent and withered, but her hair was festooned with dozens of curlers, she was wearing what looked like a 1920s evening gown, and attached to her walking frame was to all intents and purposes a giant shopping basket populated with clutches of powders, potions, smelling salts, electrical appliances, magazines, crisp wrappers and probably a lot more had I had the time or inclination to investigate further.

As I left having retrieved my parcel as swiftly but politely as possible, I rued how I'd let such a singular individual become such a bizarre hate figure, and reflected on just why she wanted to cart a load of crisp wrappers around with her as opposed to placing them in some kind of refuse facility. Like a rubbish bin, for instance.

Within a day or so she'd promptly buggered off, handing me some wonderfully peaceful nights and equally noise-free weekends. Until now. I'm guessing she's either back from a spell in hospital, or she's just returned from a luxury cruise in somewhere like the Aegean. Her presence also means my small block of apartments is almost back to full capacity. So by way of a salute to my neighbours, with whom I have exchanged occasional pleasantries through Venetian blinds for the last three years, here's an honour roll:

Flat 1: A gay businessman who once put a Christmas card through my letterbox wishing me "a F.A.B. time".
2: Me.
3: A single man in his 60s who's lived here for 30 years.
4: The lecherous bewigged pensionable driving instructor.
5: Mrs Noise.
6: A woman whose boyfriend turns up every week in a different sports car.
7: A surprisingly mobile old woman called Doris who I once found sitting on the stairwell chatting to pigeon.
8: An ordinary bloke. The closest I have to a "friend" in this block.
9: A 70 year-old crossdresser with a wooden leg. I haven't seen him for months. I think he's dead.

05 February, 2006

Apropos nothing

The Guardian have represented the entire history of popular music as the London Underground map. Which is all very well, but where are the Inspiral Carpets?

03 February, 2006

Pea souper

I realised earlier today that I hadn't seen the sun since last weekend.

It's been stuck behind an unpreposessing wedge of dirty cloud since, as far as I can recall, before Monday morning - that's over five days ago. And it's made the week unremittingly dank and grisly. Every time I've got out of bed and lunged at the curtains, the sight revealed to me has been the same: millions of inlets of condensation, and behind that only grey. At which point I just want to give up and head back under the covers for another 24 hours.

It's only when it's not around that you value the sun being around. Its absence has been all the more obvious thanks to my office being at the top of the building, surrounded by the kind of views which demand rays of light flooding all over them, rather than ugly squats of murky mist. And being high up, I sometimes see traces of cloud down beneath me as well as above, which is doubly depressing.

The BBC offers a kind of explanation for the present bleak circumstances, but chooses to end by claiming that "after months of (seemingly) never-ending rain it is a relief to many of us to see the river levels falling and the fields becoming hard enough to walk on." No it isn't! Just from the fact it hasn't properly rained here for weeks tells me there's going to be a drought this summer, a conclusion borne out by stories earlier this week on - yes - the BBC.

There's a fair way to go to match the all-time record of 1947, when the Kew Observatory recorded no sunshine at all from the 2nd to the 22nd of February, and when the temperature didn't rise above freezing for twelve days. The way things are shaping up, though, I couldn't call it unexpected.

02 February, 2006

First eleven

I've now finished reading 'The Prime Minister - The Office And Its Holders Since 1945' by Peter Hennessy, which more than lived up to its reputation and my expectations. It's also inspired me to compile my own rundown of who I'd rate to be the most significant PMs since the war.

Now this isn't a list of the best; that'd make for a wholly different inventory. Rather, here's how I'd score the respective heads of Government on grounds of impact and influence - for good or ill - upon the day to day lives of their citizens:

1) Clement Attlee (1945-51)

For building the welfare state, establishing the NHS, initiating the end of the British Empire, nationalising the country's chief industries and utilities, reconstructing the country after the war, establishing the "special relationship" with America and pursuing the development of Britain's own nuclear bomb. And doing it all in a way that meant it became the political status quo for 40 years or so until...

2) Margaret Thatcher (1979-90)

For ruthlessly dismantling the basic ideas behind and the actual apparatus of the post-war settlement, and doing it in a way that has made a liberalised, deregulated and privatised mindset the political status quo for, well, 20 years and counting.

3) Harold Macmillan (1957-63)

For giving the country its first taste of affluence, thereby giving all generations enough money to fuel the consumer boom and cultural revolution of the 1960s. And avoiding taking us to nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

4) Harold Wilson (1964-70, 1974-76)

For creating a climate where the social, technological and philosophical currents of the 1960s could flourish, for opening education up to a greater number of people from a greater number of backgrounds than ever before, but also for making the public familiar with, and wise up to, the art of political gimmickry and PR.

5) Ted Heath (1970-1974)

For taking Britain into the EEC, thereby changing the very fabric of the country, and for ushering in a period of unparalleled industrial strife and economic decline which killed off the post-war settlement for ever.

6) Jim Callaghan (1976-1979)

For prolonging that industrial strife, culminating in the worst period of strikes and stoppages ever, in the process formalising the equation Labour=incompetence in millions of people's minds and accelerating the transition to Thatcherism.

7) John Major (1990-1997)

For being one of the most hands-off, hopeless yet perplexing nonplussed Prime Ministers ever, somehow managing to cling onto power for seven years, cementing the ideas of his predecessor into a less full-on but no less palatable rubbishing of the welfare state and making the victory of his successor all the more suffocatingly overwhelming.

8) Tony Blair (1997- )

For being one of the most hands-on, ubiquitous and vexingly powerful Prime Ministers ever, blessed with two massive landslide majorities, yet for achieving so little in terms of changing actual people's lives, and for becoming associated solely with an illegal invasion and illegal war.

9) Anthony Eden (1955-1957)

For turning his brief period in office into one grand folly of an escapade to retake the Suez Canal, declaring war on Egypt and Russia if necessary, and doing it all while ingesting elephantine quantities of pills.

10) Winston Churchill (1951-1955)

For doing bugger all for four years, but somehow contriving not to undo all the good work of his immediate predecessor.

11) Alec Douglas-Home (1963-64)

For doing bugger all for twelve months. But being very polite about it.

01 February, 2006

One upmanship

The team at Revolts make the pertinent point that last night's twin Government defeats in the House of Commons weren't the second and third under Blair's Prime Ministership, as most of the papers proclaimed this morning, but actually the third and fourth.

It seems it wasn't just one vote that was lost during the terrorism debate last autumn - it was two. And adding these all together, you end up with a tally that brings Blair equal to that notched up by none other than John Major, who in the space of five years (not eight and a half), and with a majority which declined from 21 to zero (rather than 66), also suffered four defeats on whipped votes as a result of dissent. This really is the twilight time of the Blair era - especially when the man himself can't even be bothered to turn up and vote for his own Bill.

Philip Cowley, Mark Stuart and their colleagues are doing us all a favour by dissecting the present combustible state of Parliament in cool, clear and enjoyable prose. Unlike the debate their findings sparked off online at The Guardian, which at the time of writing remains - remarkably - completely unmoderated, disturbingly offensive and profoundly pointless. Rather like last night's Bill, in fact.