Wednesday, 14 June 2017

My fear of birds

As long as I remember I've had a fear of birds - my mum (God rest her soul) was no stranger to this phobia either. She once told me that my dad had taken her to the cinema to see Alfred Hitchcock's, The Birds, and she'd spent most of the film hiding under her seat. I often wondered if this is where I'd been conceived, and in some macabre twist of fate I'd adopted my own fear whilst still in the womb. I remember watching the film myself late one wintery Friday night, on my 14 inch black and white portable TV. Well I say I watched it, what I really mean is that I peeped at the screen from beneath the covers every now and again. Each time I emerged from my safe haven it would seem that somebody was getting their eyes pecked out. For months after I'd watched it I was too afraid to go to the toilet during the night for fear of having my toes pecked off by the murder of crows that had somehow wound up under my bed.

The real origins of my fear lay in an equally gruesome tale which I'm about to fill you in on now...

For the first 6 years of my life my family lived in a quaint little cottage (Sykes Cottage), in a picturesque little village called Osbaldeston. Sykes cottage was located next to Sykes Farm, which was a working farm run by the farmer John Walmsley and his wife Doris. The rent for the cottage (£6) was wavered because my mum did the milk round on a daily basis. The cottage may have been quaint and all, but luxurious it was not. The only bathtub was located under the sink in the kitchen downstairs, and the only toilet was in the back yard, next to the coal shed which housed as many cats and kittens as it did coal. The only form of heating was a coal fire in the small living room, which would have been fine if the windows were not single glazed. However, for all it's faults we loved Sykes cottage, and if the truth be known it's the only house that I've ever really considered to be a home. It oozed personality from its every damp pore, and believe me there were lots of them.

Our family had to be the poorest in the village. Sykes cottage was surrounded by enormous houses, where people with unimaginable wealth dwelled. For example Jack Walker, the steel magnate, and future owner of Blackburn Rovers football club lived just down the lane. Well, I say he lived just down the lane, his house and grounds practically occupied the whole of it. We'd go for family walks down Higher Common's Lane, and gawp at the wealth as we passed by in our hand-me-down clothes, or go for cycle rides and gawp, as we rode past on our hand-me-down bikes. It was on one of these walks that I truly became gripped in the clutches of ornithophobia.

To a toddler Higher Common's Lane seemed to go on for ever, although in reality it was only about a mile long. As we walked its length there were many landmarks, the most sinister of which was a cottage which had been vacated and left exactly as it was before the owner's daughter had been killed in a fall from her horse. Of course, I was compelled to look through the window, I mean what 5 year old wouldn't be? At the the bottom of the lane stood Oxendale Hall, and beyond that Oxendale Woods. On very special occasions, usually long summer's nights, my mum and dad would treat us to a walk in Oxendale woods, and it was in these very woods where my fear of birds truly began.

As we crossed the small brook, no doubt searching for eels, my mum was stopped dead in her tracks. Her face was drained of all colour, her body became rigid, and a loud shriek exited her lips. We all turned to face the object of her displeasure, and were confronted by a large black crow which was not long dead. Just like my own fear is now, my mum's fear of dead birds was even stronger than her fear of live ones. Seeing my mum petrified was not an emotion I was used to. My response was to grab her hand, and to run as fast as we could to get away from the dormant creature. My dad's response was of an entirely different nature. Rather than doing the gallant thing and ridding us of this hideous beast, or at least covering it up so that we no longer had to witness it, he picked the stricken bird up, and charged after us with it in his hands as if he was a child, and it was a paper aeroplane. My sister meanwhile stood there and watched the whole scene unfurl.

As my mum and I headed deeper into the woods, my dad was closing in. If you've ever seen the film Deliverance you'll be aware of the fear that we felt. My dad's manic laughter echoed through the trees, as the wind resistance opened up the crow's wings, and it appeared to come back to life. The bird's neck (obviously broken) flopped from side to side, its dark beady eyes seemingly targeting our every effort to escape our fears.

As dad launched the crow, its wings totally spread out, and it flew as majestically as an eagle circling the foothills of the Himalaya. Mum and I dived to the floor just in time, the rush of wind the crow created ruffling our hair as it whistled over our heads. I looked up to see the beak of the crow stuck in the ground only inches from my face. Its eyes burrowing into my soul creating a fear that lives with me till this day.

I may have found the explanation for my fear of birds, but this doesn't mean that I've found a cure. In fact I'd say my fear has intensified over the years. And I'm pretty sure that birds prey on to this. On 2 occasions over the past 26 years I've even been attacked by creatures of the feathery variety. The first of these occasions came when I was walking the Rossendale Way in 1991. My friend Chris and I had almost completed this 18 mile hike, and our legs were feeling a lot worse for wear, when we entered a farmer's field somewhere in Haslingden. We were halfway across the field when we were spotted by a wayward turkey, who seemed intent on attacking me (not Chris). I pegged it across the field as fast as my legs would take me, but this was not fast enough. This ugliest of beasts was in hot pursuit, and about to peck the back of my legs, before I took evasive action and leapt headfirst over a drystone wall. I lay there for the best part of a minute trying to regain my breath and my composure. When I felt ready I pressed the palms of my hands against the floor and was about to push myself up when guess what I saw mere inches from my face? That's right a dead crow! Once again staring into my soul. It was as if 16 years of my life had never happened.

The second occasion I was attacked by an avian creature was only a few years ago in 2014. At the time I was on a trip around South America, travelling with my Australian friend Annie. We'd just spent a horrible night on a bus between the Bolivian towns of Sucre and Uyuni. Uyuni is the start/end of the Bolivian salt flats route that has become a right of passage for any travellers travelling around South America. You've probably seen the photos that people take with people seemingly sitting on  outstretched hands, popping out of arses, or with their contorted bodies spelling out rude words. Despite the excitement of our forthcoming trip Annie and I had literally frozen our bollocks off on what has to be the coldest bus journey I've ever undertaken. The cold was so bad that it even penetrated 3 layers of clothing, including the gloves that we wore on our hands and our feet. By the time we arrived in Uyuni we looked like we'd just escaped from a cryogenics laboratory. It was only a few hours until the trip was due to begin, but despite our desire to budget we decided to book into a hostel just to get a few hours warmth and sleep.

Suitably defrosted, although still tired to the core, Annie and I headed into the market square at 9 am to get some supplies for our forthcoming trip. The sun had risen to a nice level by this time so I chose to close my eyes and bask in the heat it was radiating, whilst Annie went into a store to complete her shopping list. To me these moments are what travelling is all about, sat in a Bolivian market square, surrounded by people going about their everyday business, whilst finding great pleasure in the sun's rays. What could be better? So you can imagine my shock when I felt an almighty smack on my head. At first I thought it was kids kicking a football at me and I spun around with the aim of challenging them. But guess what I saw? A freshly dead pigeon that must have spotted my bald head glistening in the Bolivian sunshine, and decided to dive bomb it (and it fucking hurt). More than a little stunned, and in too much shock to move I took a moment to observe the stricken bird. My observation complete, my fear kicked in. I was about to run away when a scruffy street dog casually sauntered over to form a triangle between me, the bird and himself. The subservient hound stared me in the eyes with a pathetic expression upon its face, before turning to look at the bird. Once more the dog turned to me, as if asking for acceptance, before digging its teeth into the carcass, and devouring it with the vigour of, well a starving dog. By the time Annie emerged form the shop the market square was a mass of blood and feathers, and my head was smarting from the blow that the creature had dealt me. My fears had once again come back to haunt me.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Grozette are you better, are you well, well, well

When I arrived in the small village of Harmelen, The Netherlands in September 1996 I could barely speak a word of the mother tongue. Not that this is a necessity for an Englishman moving to the Netherlands - the Dutch are so well versed in the English language that they put most British people to shame. In the run up to my arrival on Dutch soil, I'd bought a book called Teach yourself Dutch, which I'd used to teach myself the basics. The first sentence I learned to say with confidence was "Ik wil vijf aardbeien alstublieft " - I would like 5 strawberries please! Quite why I chose to teach myself this sentence is beyond me now, but if it was 5 strawberries you were after, I was your man. Realising that my employment choices would be vasty increased if I took some time to learn the language I decided to absorb myself in the book before going to the job agency to try to gain employment. Within weeks I was armed with enough words to feel brave enough to go to the supermarket to try out my new skills. This proved more difficult than I'd anticipated because upon realising that I was English, the guy behind the till insisted on having a conversation in English with me. A pattern that was pretty much repeated throughout my entire 5 year stay in the country. However, I persevered, when people talked English back to me I spoke Dutch back at them in a louder voice. This often ended up in a battle of the languages until the recipient of my Dutch skills realised that I wasn't going to give up.

Within a few months I deemed my Dutch skills good enough to approach one of the agencies in the nearby city of Utrecht. When the lady asked me what type of job I wanted I told her in Dutch that I just wanted any job, I didn't really care what kind of job it was. This is probably why I ended up working in the Mona yoghurt factory on the nightshift when one of the machines had broken down, and it was all hands to the deck to try and get yoghurt supplies on the supermarket shelves before the next morning. I'd been used to factory work so the environment didn't really bother me. This was my first step on the ladder of Dutch employment, which would be ascended at an accelerated rate depending on how fast I learnt the language.

Over the next year I had a succession of jobs of similar ilk, packing flowers for Alber Heijn, stacking enormous lorry tyres for Kargro, loading magazines onto a conveyor belt for Albrecht, order picking garden furniture for Blokker, and eventually loading parmesan cheese pots onto a conveyor belt for Grozette. It's this last job that I want to focus this story on.

The Grozette factory was located in the nearby town of Woerden. To get there I would ride my very nippy Honda Camino (complete with pedals) moped down the bike paths and through the fields for 8 miles, whilst being treated to the wonderful odour of baking bread, as I passed by numerous bakeries. Needless to say, the ride to work was the best part of the day. But once I'd clocked in I was in for 8 hours of sheer misery.

From the moment I was introduced to my new team I knew that we were going to have nothing in common. Albert (the line manager) was OK, sweet enough, but nothing much really going on upstairs, if you know what I mean. His English skills were limited, so our conversations were limited to very basic Dutch. How are you? Nice weather today? etc etc. Not an ideal situation for me, because I like to chew the fat all day long. It was Albert's job to oversee the machine that I was to work on, a rather large conveyor belt which it was my job to keep loaded with enormous cardboard trays of pots. Each tray probably held a couple of hundred pots, and the trays were stacked 5 high onto the conveyor belt. If the trays ran out, I had to run as fast as I could, across the factory floor, up some steep wooden steps into boiling hot loft room, which housed a seemingly endless stock of new pots on trays. I'd then have to grab 5 trays at a time (so a 1000 pots) before running back down the stairs and loading them onto the conveyor. Those few precious seconds I spent in the red hot storeroom was the only time I got to myself in the whole shift. However, I couldn't linger in there too long, or the fully loaded pots of parmesan would fall off the other end of the conveyor belt. It was also my job to unload the full pots at the other end, and stack them into new trays.

Along with Albert and myself, there was a girl working on the potting line by the name of Dafne. Now, if Albert didn't have much upstairs, he was positively a professor in comparison to Dafne. Don't get me wrong she looked OK, all her parts were in the right place (apart from her brain). She'd apparently missed out on a few evolutionary jumps, and was stuck somewhere between the primate and the caveman. Any attempts for me to speak to Dafne were met by a vacant stare and an inarticulate "uggghhhh", as she tried to decipher my Dutch. It was Dafne's job to sit on a stool, directly opposite me, at a distance of a few feet, and to feed blocks of cheese into a mechanised cheese grater. She would literally sit on her arse all day, usually filing her nails, whilst reluctantly bending down, every now and again to pull another block out of a box and load it into the cheese grater. The lazy fucker didn't even replenish the boxes of cheese when they were up. That was left to me, in-between running from one end of the conveyor to the other, loading and unloading pots of parmesan, and legging it upstairs to the store room to retrieve more trays. When Dafne ran out of cheese, she would tap me on the shoulder and point at her empty box. Obviously my internal dialogue was saying "go and get your own box you lazy bastard", but in the end I always politely smiled and got a new box for her. Whilst I was gone, she would file her nails with renewed vigour, whilst making no effort whatsoever to pick my pots off the floor as they inevitably spilled off the end of the conveyor. Albert would then intervene by shutting down the machine, whilst irritatingly saying "Chonga yongen yongen" -or the Dutch equivalent of "boy, oh boy, oh boy". Every time Albert had to shut down the machine, a giant of a man called Theo would come storming across the shop floor, donned in a pair of denim cut offs and a massive pair of jackboots. I'd hear his jackboots coming across the floor and cower, for I knew that I was in for a grilling. Theo was the factory floor supervisor, but to be honest he would have looked more at home in a wrestling ring. The guy must have been around 7 ft tall, and built like a brick shit house. My only salvation was that my Dutch was far from perfect, and I was not therefore able to fully understand the tirade of abuse I was being subjected too.

Needless to say, I was not cut out for this job. However, it wasn't for lack of trying. I probably worked harder at that job than I've ever worked in my life. But the repetitive actions that was my job, was not something that my brain could handle too well. It would go OK for a while, but then I would drift off into a daydream, and before I knew it the floor was knee deep in parmesan pots. This was always followed by a gorilla of a man shouting in my face.  Even when I thought things were going well Theo would walk past me and shout "TEMPO, TEMPO" -"Faster, faster". Sometimes I'd retaliate and shout back at him in English, "fuck off you knob end!" - only I think this was more in my head then out of my mouth. Theo could have no doubt picked me up with one leg and dropped me into the grating machine.

In Holland (at that time at least) every temp worker had one eye on the holy grail of a permanent contract (or vast contract in Dutch). These usually came around the 3 month mark if you were deemed capable enough of doing your job. In hindsight I have no idea why, but at the time I was hanging out for a permanent contract at Grozette, and when I managed to last for the first 2 months, I thought that I'd eventually become a permanent employee of the factory. It would seem that the management of Grozette had a different idea.

My hatred of everything to do with the job was building by the day, even the sound that the clocking in machine made was grinding on my nerves. This wasn't the only sound that irritated me. Theo's jackboots storming across the factory floor, Dafne's incessant nail filing, Albert cursing me under his breath, and the sounds of pots falling off the end of the conveyor were all contributing to my misery.

One Wednesday afternoon sometime in August of 1997 it all came to a head. To be honest I was ready to flip, tensions had been building for weeks, and I'd reached the point where I couldn't take any more. All it took was one tut out of Dafne's mouth, who was showing her disdain at my apparent incompetence, and I totally saw red. Grabbing a handful of pots from the conveyor belt I proceeded to throw them at her. Dafne, who was taken by total surprise and spontaneously burst into tears as pot after pot of parmesan crashed into her head. Until this point I'd don't even think I'd ever seen Dafne leave her seat (apart from breaks). But in her attempt to get out of the way of the projectiles I was launching at her, she dived off her chair, and crawled out of view on her hands and knees. But that wasn't going to stop me, I jumped onto the conveyor belt, and from my elevated position I continued an arial bombardment of my enemy, whilst shouting "kutwijf, teef, and stomme koe" - "cunt wife, bitch, and stupid cow". Kutwijf, is by the way a very popular insult in the Dutch language - not something I made up.

By the time Albert had noticed what was going on, and hit the off button, I had practically exhausted the whole supply of pots, and was already searching for the next thing to throw at her. It was at this point that I heard the jackboots of Theo storming across the factory floor. Before I had a chance to escape Theo he had me in a headlock and was marching me away for the scene of destruction that I'd just caused. I thought that they were going to get rid of me there and then, but I guess they needed the work doing so they kept me working. Dafne, who was hysterical by now was given permission to go home, and Albert reluctantly sat in her chair to feed cheese into the shredder for the rest of the day. It was during those few hours working with Albert that he chose to reveal a better level of English to me. This was largely because he took great delight in informing me that Dafne's boyfriend was enormous, hard as nails, and would probably be on his way around to rip my head off.

I did contemplate never going back to Grozette, but the next morning I jumped on my Honda Camino, road down the bike paths, through the fields, and past the lovely smelling bakeries, to the place I considered to be hell. As I entered the building I was petrified that I was going to get pounced on by Dafne's fella. I walked over to the conveyor belt, half expecting Dafne to have taken the day off. But there she was (filing her nails). We continued as if nothing had happened, and I began to think that I'd got away with my outburst. But at 4 pm, just as I was about to go home, I was summoned into the office to have a meeting with the big boss.

"I don't think you're cut out for this job", he told me. 

"You're obviously heard about what happened yesterday!", I replied.

"No, what happened", he said.

I have no idea whether he already knew or not, or whether I'd let the cat out of the bag, but by the time I'd given him my account of the tale there was little chance that I was ever going to work at Grozette again. I got my stuff, walked out into a perfect August afternoon, jumped on my moped and rode off like easy rider. I would never have to load and unload parmesan cheese pots again.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Spike Island

By 1990 the Stone Roses were massive. Their eponymous first album had been stratospherically received and there was lots of talk being thrown around that they were going to be bigger than the Rolling Stones. At the height of their fame they announced that they were going to play a massive concert on Spike Island. From the outset this gig was being dubbed Woodstock for the chemical generation. But hold on a minute! Where the fuck is Spike Island? Was a question that everybody wanted answering. I mean, Hendrix and Dylan (amongst many others) famously played the Isle of Wight festival, and the Isle of Man was hugely famous for its TT motorcycle races, but Spike Island!- nobody seemed to have heard of it. And that was for good reason. Spike Island it turned out was a tiny island in the Mersey river, separated from the mainland by a short bridge, and situated close to Widnes in any area dominated by chemical factories. Not as glamorous as it first sounded. But that didn't matter it was all about the event, and specifically the timing of the event. It tapped right into the zeitgeist of the nation's youth with their penchant for acid house music, the drug ecstasy and the desire to be liberated from Thatcher's iron clasp. It was a great time to be alive especially if you were from Manchester, with a glut of bands originating from the city dominating popular music. When the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays both featured on Top of Pops in November 1989, the nation woke up to the fact that Manchester was the place to be. Everybody wanted a piece of the action. During this time there was an astronomical increase in university applications for Manchester universities. The secret was out, Manchester was officially the centre of the universe.

In May 1989 I'd returned from my first spell of travelling, and after a few months of searching I'd found steady employment in a printed circuit board manufacturing company in Whitefield (on the outskirts of Manchester). 1989 was a long hot summer, and to a 20 year old, who loved his music it felt like anything was possible. I distinctly remember Wiggy (Sharon) coming out of her office to inform me that the Stone Roses had announced that they were going to play a massive concert on Spike Island. Ripples of excitement made their way around Manchester Circuits as the news broke. That was it, I had to have a ticket, and when one fell into my path for the mere price of £10, I was like the cat that got the cream.

In October 1989 I'd met a girl called Karen at my mates house party. Karen was also a fan of the Stone Roses, in fact it was her that got me into them. Imagine how many brownie points I won when I managed to secure a ticket for her too. We counted down the days until the gig, and before we knew it the time had come, May 27th 1990. We jumped in my little blue Mini Clubman, and headed off down the M56 in the direction of Widnes. I know this may seem a little strange and all, that I was off to a concert in a car, and I wasn't even camping at the event. Wasn't there going to be loads of drugs there? And what about alcohol? Well, I can't even imagine it right now, but to my 20 year old self it was Ok to drive there and back without even partaking in anything apart from a few glasses of wine spread throughout the day.

We didn't know at the time but we were heading to one of the most highly revered concerts in British rock history. It was a time of great political change. In the UK Thatcher's reign was drawing to a close and something new was about to happen. Further afield in Eastern Europe communism was crumbling away with the wall, and dictators were being deposed at a rapid rate of knots (in the case of Ceausecu brutally assassinated). Whilst in South Africa apartheid was being rejected in perfect style with the introduction of a black Prime Minister. But more importantly rock music had a contender to its throne in the form of electronic dance music in its many forms, techno, acid house and drum and bass, to name but a few. The Stone Roses were still a guitar band, but heavy influenced by what was happening in the clubs around the UK (specifically the Hacienda). When they released the single Fool's Gold on November 13th 1989, the union of rock and dance music was complete.

By the time we arrived at Spike Island I was in possession of a farmer's tan. As we blasted down the M56 the sun blasted down on us. It was one of those perfect British summer's days, the kind of day that makes you wonder why people go abroad on holiday. It didn't matter if it pissed it down with rain for the rest of the year, on Saturday May 27th 1990 the day belonged to us.

We arrived in the vicinity of the island around 1.30 pm, and then took a further 30 mins or so to negotiate the bridge to get on to the island itself. It didn't matter though, all around us were young scantily clad people buzzing with (amongst other things) adrenalin. An ocean of white fisherman's hats were being worn to pay tribute to their hero Reni - arguably the best drummer of his generation. I stole a moment to look around, and take in the enormity of the event, before taking a mental snapshot. An image that will stay with me forever. Young lads and girls in Joe Bloggs flares, dancing like they were possessed, out of their minds on speed, ecstasy and a combination of the 2 drugs. A plumage of marijuana smoke offering sweet relief from the putrid stench of chemicals that permeated the entire island. To a young lad that had never done a drug in his life it was like I'd landed on another planet. And that planet could well have been called Planet Bez, for the dance of choice involved arms and legs flailing around like a rag doll whilst the dancer moved backwards and forwards in an haphazard manner. This was a dance that had been perfected by their hero Bez, the dancer and talisman of the Happy Mondays

As we wandered around the island it soon became apparent that I was only semi involved in the world around me. I mean, I was there and all but I wasn't sharing the same plane of existence as the vast majority. I found their contorted faces and dance moves comical, yet I was transfixed, and longed to be fully submerged in this subculture that I had thought I was part of, but in reality had totally passed me by. Even their language was different "nice one", "top one", "sorted". I kind of understood what they were trying to articulate, but they were using terms unfamiliar to my ear. I attempted to join in with their dance moves but I felt too wooden, if you've ever seen Mr Bean dance you'll know what I'm talking about. To the drugged up kids I must have been as much a source of amusement to them as their dance moves were to me. I was approached en masse, hugged, massaged and kissed, whilst all I could offer in return was a formal handshake as if I was about to be interviewed for a job.

Karen and I found a spot on the grass and sat down to sip our wine. By this time it was only 2pm and entertainment in the form of bands didn't seem to be happening. Don't get me wrong the DJ would pump out some classic tunes (Adamski, Killer, and Beats International, Dub be good to me etc) and the kids would go wild, but I was there to see live music. It was a grave disappointment to both me and Karen that nobody was taking to the giant stage that dominated the landscape. "Happy Monday's in the area", the MC shouted over and over again. This created waves of euphoria with the crowd, intensifying their Bez-like moves. When they'd calmed down a little the Dj would shout it again "Happy Mondays in the area", "Happy Mondays in the area" -and off they went. The crowd were convinced that it was going to happen. "They're definitely here", "not long now" and "I'm buzzing for the Mondays kidda", were sentences being passed around. There was a genuine belief that the Happy Mondays were going to take the stage - the perfect Madchester (as it had been labelled) moment. But as the DJ after DJ took to the decks (many of which I'd never heard of), it became apparent that the crowd were giving up on this expectation, and for that matter the expectation that any live band were going to take the stage. I was growing tired fast, without the aid of uppers I was ready to go home to watch Casualty by 7pm.

At 9 pm precisely our heroes took to the stage. We'd been teased by the MC all day, so it wasn't until the unmistakeable sound of Mani's bass rumbled through the stadium that the crowd exploded. And there he was Ian Brown with the world in his hands. No really, he entered the stage holding a large inflatable globe. "Do it now, do it now!", he urged the spectators. To an overexcited crowd who'd been waiting for months for this moment it was all too much. 30 000 people surged forwards as though they wanted to be on stage with their heroes. Karen and I were carried along with them before she went down in a heap. As those behind us trampled all over her I was forced to jump into action. Like a knight in shining armour I pulled her to her feet, held her tight and fought my way through a sea of the drug addled youths, who cared for nothing apart from the Stone Roses. "I wanna be adored, I wanna be adored", Ian Brown bellowed from the stage. "Give me a minute Ian, and I'll be ready to adore you", I thought to myself. "Right now I'm trying to prevent my girlfriend from dying in a stampede". Karen and I had been situated pretty much in the centre of the crowd before she'd been flattened. Our fight to the periphery was always going to be long and arduous. To the masses of people I either pushed over or punched in the back of the head that day I'm truly sorry.

Once we got to the edge of the crowd (and we'd both stopped hyperventilating) we stood back and attempted to listen to the rest of their set. I use the word attempted because whoever had planned to have the concert on an island in the middle of the Mersey had not taken the acoustics into account. The wind whipped in from the Mersey river taking the sound with it. From where Karen and I stood we could barely hear any singing at all, and we were so far back that the distant figures of the band were virtually unidentifiable. But it didn't really matter. Everybody at the gig knew that this was going to be a day that went down in history, one of those moments that we were going to watch documentaries about 25 years later. It was all about being there. It's 27 years almost to the day that the Spike Island gig took place. I've been to a lot of concerts in those years, and seen some far better performances, but as I sit here on my sofa in Liverpool, only 11 miles down river from where the event took place, I swell with pride that I was there at a gig that defined my era.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

It's a small, big world - part 2

This is when the small world experience (SWE) goes off the scale.

After travelling though Asia for 8 months my 2 year global trip was coming to an end. I saved the best for last, a 4 month trip through India and Nepal, during which time I decided to go tee-total and vegetarian - mainly because I didn't want to get sick, and I wanted my money to last. By this time I was travelling alone, although I was never alone for long as I met many characters along the way. One of these characters was a lad from Worcester called Richard Stokes. It didn't take long for me to realise that Richard was a bad lad. In fact he was on the run from the police after battering a lad in the face with a glass ashtray. Needless to say when I left Richard a little over a week after I met him, it was with a sense of relief. However Richard was to re-surface again (in conversation at least) some 6 years later in the year 2000.

By the year 2000 I was living in the beautiful city of Leiden in the Netherlands. After a failed relationship, and a spell of living in a caravan on the outskirts of the village of Zoeterwoude, my apartment in Leiden came as sweet relief. But a new adventure was long overdue. Unfortunately my salary did not afford me this luxury, but when a largish tax rebate fell into my path there was only one way that it was going to get spent. I'd heard great things about Guatemala through the traveller's grapevine, so that's where I decided to go. A flight from Amsterdam to Guatemala City, with an overnight layover in Houston, and a return ticket from Managua, Nicaragua a month later would give me ample time to see some of Central America. Once again I was off to see the world.

From Guatemala City airport I boarded a bus to Antigua Guatemala, which I'd heard was stunning. The rumours were not wrong, Antigua Guatemala was incredible. Everything that I'd expected it was going to be i.e. beautiful Spanish Baroque-influenced architecture, set against a mountainous background, with the Pacaya volcano dominating the landscape. After booking into a wonderfully run down hostel, I headed to the hostel bar to sample the Guatemalan beer (Gallo) in case you're interested. Beer in hand I headed out to the hostel courtyard to see who was around. It was here that I met Posh Josh, a well-educated, handsome fella from London. Josh had been in Antigua for a few weeks, and had a solid group of friends in the city, who were there to learn Spanish. We drank a few Gallos in the courtyard before Josh asked if I wanted to go to a DVD bar to watch a film (The Beach), and to meet up with his Dutch friend Marielle. Given that I lived in the Netherlands I enthusiastically agreed.

Marielle was typically Dutch, I'll leave this description to your imaginations. She'd been in Antigua for nearly a month, and had a group of fellow Spanish learning friends who she agreed to introduce me to the next evening.

The following evening a bunch of us met up in a bar called La Chiminea, where we downed an obscene amount of gin. As promised Marielle introduced me to her fellow Spanish learning friends, and one girl particularly caught my eye. Her name was Sarah, and as we engaged in conversation it emerged that she was from Worcester. Remembering my travel companion from 6 years earlier, I blurted out "Ah, I met a bloke from Worcester in India 6 years ago, he was on the run from the police because he smashed somebody's face in with an ashtray!" Sarah stared at me in amazement and said "was it Richard Stokes?" Not only did she know Richard Stokes, but she had a bizarre story to tell me about him, and here it goes.

Sometime prior to 1994 Sarah had been at a party in Worcester, and at some point all the booze had run out. All the booze that is apart from her bottle of wine, which she hung on to for grim life. In fact her desire to have the bottle all to herself was so strong that she hid under the kitchen table so that nobody could steal it from her. As she was selfishly consuming her bottle the table came crashing down on her, closely followed by a poor bloke that had just been hit in the face by an ashtray by none other than Richard Stokes. To add to this, a year or so later, when Sarah introduced me to her mate Polish Dave for the first time, I told him the story of how Sarah and I had met. In another bizarre twist of fete Polish Dave's dad was the dentist that had fixed the poor kid's teeth.

Our lives it turned out we're even further intertwined. Sarah had not only lived in Holland, but had lived in the same village, Zoeterwoude Dorp. There was I thinking that I was the only English person for miles around, and unbeknown to me she was there at the same time. I'd heard a rumour that there were a group of Irish people squatting the old thatched roofed bakery, although I'd never bothered to investigate this further. Had I done this I would have met Sarah years earlier (although she definitely wasn't Irish).

Sarah had left some money in her Dutch bank account and she was eager to retrieve it, so given that I spoke Dutch, and it gave us a good excuse to meet up again.With this in mind we exchanged email addresses. By the time we met she was living in Manchester and studying at Manchester Uni, so it would be easy for her to get a budget airlines flight to visit me in Holland. After spending a week together in Antigua and then in San Pedro (Lago de Attilan), Sarah and I parted ways.

After parting ways with Sarah I met a German girl by the name of Helen. The chemistry between us was laboured, but we were both heading in the same direction, and shared the same musical interests, so we hung out together on the banks of Lago de Attilan for a few days. Amongst other conversations one of the conversations we had was about a rock festival in Holland called Pinkpop. She loved to go and I intended to go in the following year. Well guess who I bumped into the following year, whilst in the swirl of a mushroom high?- none other than German Helen herself (and the chemistry was still shite).

Once my Central American trip was over I emailed Sarah, and thankfully she replied. Over the next few weeks the emails started to become increasingly more frequent, until a point when we decided to start ringing each other. When ringing was no longer good enough Sarah decided to come and visit me in Leiden, under the pretext that I would help her release her money from the Dutch bank that held it. Her trip was successful on all fronts. We managed to liberate her money from the bank, and our relationship became firmly cemented. Over the next year Sarah would fly over to Leiden many times, and we would meet up several times in the UK.

One of my good mates in Leiden was a Scottish fella by the name of Del. At the time Del was living in a tent on a campsite, so I used to let him come to stay at mine from time to time to watch some television, and generally chill out on my sofa. One day the door bell rang and when I went down to answer it, there was Del with another lad that Del introduced as Max. "Hi Andy, this is Max, do you mind if he comes up and watches some TV with us?" Of course I didn't mind, I love to meet new people, because as far as I'm concerned new people mean new stories. So Del and Max came up to my apartment, and as I often do I hit the new guest with a barrage of questions. The answer to his first question totally aroused my interest.

Me: Where are you from?

Max: I'm from Worcester.

I bet you can see where this is going, can't you?

Me: Really! My girlfriend is from Worcester!

Max: What's her name?

Me: Sarah Blake.

Max: You're kidding me! Is she small with blond hair?

And, yes she was, but Max didn't know her from Worcester. No, things are never that straightforward! Max had only met Sarah in a hostel (The Office) in Tel Aviv Israel. Sarah had been working there a number of years earlier, and Max had been a long term resident. I couldn't wait to tell Sarah  about this. This is off the scale nuts. She was coming to visit in a few days so I waited till she got there. Somehow in the midst of the excitement of her being in Leiden I totally forgot to mention it to her. That is, until we were in the Albert Heijn supermarket in Leiden centre. As we weighed some apples in the fruit and vegetables section I suddenly remembered about Max. "You'll never guess who I met in Leiden last week!" I said to her. And when I told her she couldn't believe it. Max it turned out was always drunkenly half in and half out of bed, as Sarah (the Chambermaid) attempted to clean around him. So she's telling me the story of how she knew Max, when we turn around to go and pay for the apples and lo and behold there is Max at the other set of scales weighing his own apples. Now if that is not bizarre, I don't know what is!

Well, actually I do... and here it is.

After a year of our long term relationship I decided that I was going to move back to England. Sarah had convinced me that I was never too old to do a degree, and I somehow managed to get myself onto a Geography degree course at Liverpool, John Moores University. I say somehow because I left school with an embarrassingly low amount of qualifications. But anyway I digress! After 5 years in The Netherlands it was almost time to go back home. Sarah decided that she would get one more trip to Leiden in before I left. It was going to be a sad farewell to Holland. I'd come there for love, and I was leaving for love, some 5 years later. It must have been sometime in April 2001 that Sarah came for our final weekend together. On the Sunday afternoon I caught the train with her back to Schipol (Amsterdam airport), and as we were getting off the train I experienced the most weird feeling I've ever felt. It was as if I'd been plugged into the electricity supply. My whole body started tingling and I felt hyper alert. It was a feeling that I'd never felt before (nor ever again), and I knew immediately that there was somebody that I knew in the airport. I have no idea how I knew this, I just did. I turned to Sarah and said "there's somebody in this airport that I know, I don't know how I know them, or why they are important to me, but I just know that there's somebody here." Sarah (who was in a rush), said "Yeah, whatever I really need to get this flight." So we rushed through the departure lounge and I kissed her goodbye until the next time we met up in England. You're never going to believe this but as I was making my way back through the airport to the train station, who should I meet but Marielle the Dutch girl that had introduced us in Guatemala- spooky, or what! Spooky it may have been, but it all made sense.

But that's not the end of the weirdness, the final part of this very strange period of interconnected times came a year later whilst Sarah and I were in Dahab on the Egyptian, Sinai peninsula. I'd been to Dahab back in 1989, and how it had changed since then. When I went there originally it had bee nothing but a small village with a few guesthouses. When I went back in 2001 it was a fully developed resort. It still retained and element of charm, but it was definitely not the hippy hole it had once been. That was OK though because we were there to scuba dive. Sarah was doing her dissertation on coral erosion, and given that she was a dive master, and I was open water qualified we were able to hire equipment and dive without any further supervision. We were there for around 5 weeks, diving, drinking, eating and partying. This was to be my swan song before knuckling down to some hard academia, so I was eager to make the most of it. It was whilst we were out partying in a ship themed bar called Tota that I suddenly hear a voice from my past. My head spun around to eavesdrop on a couple who were sat at the other side of the bar.  I've know idea how I managed to recognise the voice because I'd only met him for a week at the most in Adelaide back in 1993, but there he was Sander the Dutch man, and the name I told you to make a note of earlier. It took a lot of explaining for him to recognise who I was, I must admit, but then again I'd actually had some hair back in 1993, and my belly didn't look like Homer Simpsons. But in the end he fully remembered who I was.

So it seems that it is true, you are only ever 6 steps (or less) away from somebody who knows you. I'm unsure why these SWE's seem to reveal themselves to me more than your average person, but maybe it's because I travel so much, ask lots of questions, and generally throw myself into many situations.

But in any case I hope that they continue to happen.

Monday, 15 May 2017

It's a small, big world - part 1

Whether it's bumping into your neighbour whilst visiting a different town, or a chance encounter with an old friend years after you last saw them, we've all had a "small world experience", I'm sure!

Being somewhat of a globetrotter I've had more than my fair share of these experiences, which I'm going to share with you in this account. I've probably forgotten as many as I'm going to write down, but the most outlandish ones are about to be recorded in this story, for time immemorial.

I'll start this account with my first recorded memory of a "small world experience" way back in 1977. A year clearly defined by the Queen's silver jubilee, and associated street parties that took place in most streets up and down the country. My family had not long moved to the lovely little village of Helmshore, where I'd started Broadway County Primary school the previous year. Every weekend my sister and I would go to my grandma's house in Burnley for 2 nights, so that my mum and dad could have some "alone time". One particular Saturday afternoon we were taken to Towneley Park, where lo and behold I bumped into my class mate Steven Bentley, who was cycling around on his Raleigh Commando bike. Now from an adult view point and in this connected world, this seems like a minor thing, but to an 8 year old kid back in 1977, this literally blew my mind. There I was in a park a full 10 miles from home, and there was my classmate Steven Bentley showcasing his new bicycle whilst I was there to show off my own new pride and joy - a maroon Raleigh Tomahawk, complete with a shiny blue horn (beep beep).

I've started off small so lets up the stakes. The next "SWE" I'm going to tell you about happened some 11 years later in 1988. I'd not long got back from a lads holiday to Callela, Spain, where I'd met legions upon legions of people. Amongst these people were a group of lads from Liverpool, who if the truth be known were a bunch of tossers. Anyway I digress! A few months after the trip had ended my mate Dave Grime and I decided to head to London in my Ford Escort Mk11, whose big end had gone (the cars not Daves). On the way down the car was going so slow that I started to fall asleep at the wheel. The small amount of pragmatism that we had between us led us to a pit stop at Watford Gap services, where we decided to park up and sleep for the night (it was OK to do so back in those days). The next morning Dave and I were rudely awoken by a group of lads banging on the car windows whilst giving us the wanker sign. A situation that was very scary until I realised that the offenders were the same lads from Liverpool that I'd met in Callela a few months previous. They hadn't even realised that it was me until I woke up startled and looked straight at them. What were the odds of that? The lads by the way were off to see Liverpool play one of the London football teams.

Right, so things are starting to get a little bit weird, lets hit you with another one from later in the same year. Since my little trip to Spain I'd decided that a "normal" life in a dead end job was not for me, and after hearing about my mate Jim Corrigan's brother's adventures on a kibbutz in Israel, I decided that this sounded like the life I wished for. Having just come out of a 3 year, awful first love, with a highly jealous girlfriend, I'd lost touch with all my friends. Something prompted me to ring my mate Luke, out of the blue, to inform him of my plans. You'll never believe this but he was about to ring me because he'd come to the exact same decision to go on a kibbutz. The deal was sealed, we went to a meeting, bought our tickets, and were on our way - the beginning of my wanderlust.

I'd been working in a circuit board manufacturing company before I headed to the kibbutz, and I'd started working there on Bonfire Night 1986 (November 5th) - the same date as my now longstanding friend Ian. Ian also decided that travelling was a life he desired, and was eager to come to Israel with me and Luke. However, as we had already been given our start date, we were reluctant to wait around. We left without him and were placed on Kvustat Schiller, one of around 500 kibbutzim, spread around the country. By February 1989, Luke and I had been on the kibbutz for a month, and our daily routine of early rise, pick 10 (massive) crates of oranges, finish work at lunch, before heading into the nearby town of Rehovot, had become firmly established. One afternoon we got back from Rehovot to be informed by our kibbutz volunteer mates that somebody from the neighbouring kibbutz had been looking for me. Having my suspicions that this could be Ian I crossed the orange fields, wandered through the banana plantations, passed Shiltex (the kibbutz factory), until I eventually arrived at Givat Brenner. And there he was my mate Ian, who had randomly been placed on the next kibbutz to my own. It's all getting a bit Twilight Zone around here! How can this get any spookier?

Well I'll tell you! After returning from the kibbutz with a few months in Egypt and Italy/Sicily thrown in for good measure, I found myself working in another circuit board company, this time on the outskirts of Manchester. This was a good time to be in Manchester, with the Madchester scene (Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets, Hacienda nightclub etc), going off in a a big way. I worked at Manchester Circuits for 3 years, and they were 3 of the best working years of my life. But it was time to move on, my itchy feet once again got the better of me. I'd met somebody at Cairo train station who had just done a season at an American children's summer camp. The conversation had struck a chord with me, and 3 years later I was on my way again, to experience this for myself. Once again Ian (who had incidentally also been working with me at Manchester Circuits) decided that he wanted in on the Camp America action. And once again it was not possible that we could get placed on the same camp.

On June 9th 1992 I headed to Crane Lake Camp, on the state line border of Massachusetts and New York State, where I took up my role as kitchen assistant, along with 13 other mainly British people. The nearest big town being Pittsfield, which was home to the Berkshire Mall. I can't imagine it now, but to my 22 yr old self a trip to Berkshire Mall was an exciting prospect.  However, I'd been on the camp for 3 weeks before this became a reality. As a group of my camp mates and I were wandering around the mall for the first time, taking in all the new fast food joints such as Wendys, Arbys and Taco Bell, who should we bump into but my mate Ian. He'd only randomly been placed on Camp Winadoo, one of the neighbouring camps. Now take a minute to think about this! America is huge, and there are literally thousands of camps, spread across every state. We'll come back to Crane Lake Camp for the next "SWE".

The chef on our camp was a despicable human being by the name of Al. Al spent the entire summer intimidating the male kitchen hands, whilst trying to sleep with the female kitchen hands. He preyed on the fact that we only got our flight tickets bought for us if we completed the whole summer. As he regaled us with tales of how he'd slept with many of the kitchen hands from previous years. He even bragged to us that one year the entire kitchen staff had been fired. None of us really believed him, instead electing to tolerate his bullshit for the sake of an easy life.

When I left Crane Camp in late August of 1992, I travelled around the States for a few months by train (Amtrak). This was followed by a month in Fiji and New Zealand, and 3 months of living in Sydney, Australia. After a terrible bout of irritable bowel syndrome, and a week of hospitalisation on nil by mouth, I decided that I'd had enough of Sydney, and headed west for the grape picking season in Mildura. Before the season started I stayed a few days in Canberra for a bit of rest and recuperation before the hard labour began. And it was here that I met a nice bunch of English fellows who were also on a world trip. But what happened to the SWE story I hear you cry? Well, get on this! I'd been hanging out with the guys for a few days before realising that one of them had spent the summer of 1991 also working on a summer camp. The conversation went something like this.

Me: Nice one! So did I, where were you?

Lad: I was in Massachusetts.

Me: Me too, where about's in Massachusetts?

Lad: It was called Crane Lake Camp.

Now hold on a minute, let's rewind. Remember that there are 50 states in America, and a I said earlier there are literally thousands, upon thousands of camps littered across every state. The chances of this happening are microscopically slim. As it turned out the lad (whose name I have long forgotten) was also (spookily) working in the kitchen, and was one of the kitchen staff that had been fired by Al. It wasn't a lie after all. But hold on! If you think that this in itself is a crazy coincidence just wait till you hear the next part.

Whilst I was working at Crane Lake Camp I was sharing a room with 2 other kitchen staff, Hugh and Daniel. Our room was right above the kitchen and was tiny, just about big enough to fit a bunk bed and one single bed. We flipped a coin to see who got the best/worst bed, and I ended up with the top bunk (which I fell out of on 3 occasions), with my face literally pushed up against the ceiling. Inches from my face was some graffiti of a huge face labelled Harry the Hood. Harry the Hood being the a cartoon character that was emblazoned on milk cartons. I spent the entire summer of 1992 eyeballing Harry the Hood. But what's this got to do with anything? I'll tell you! In fact I'll do this in the form of a conversation.

Me: Which room did you sleep in?

Lad: Do you know where the top of the stairs came up from the small dining hall, next to the kitchen?

Me: The far stairs or the near stairs?

Lad: Near stairs. If you went up those stairs and turned left, walked down the corridor and turned left again, I was in the small room on the left.

It took me a minute to follow his directions, but upon doing so, I realised that he must have been in the same room as me.

Me: No way! That's the room I was in! And which bed were you in? (in my head, I'm saying please be the top bunk, please be the top bunk).

Lad: The top bunk.

Me: You've got to be kidding, that's the same one that I slept in.

And then both at the same time we shouted out "Harry the Hood", before grabbing each other, and dancing around the hostel common room like a pair of loons. The chances of that happening have got to be so incredibly slim, that a higher force has to have been at work. But once again, if you think that that's bizarre just wait till you hear my next SME.

After the grape picking season I spent a month in Adelaide partying at the Adelaide City Backpackers, where one night on a journey to the cinema to watch the plane crash movie Alive, a large bunch of people bumped into each other at a crossroads. Bizarrely, everybody seemed to know each other from different places - but this is not as strange as you may think on the backpacker circuit. It was at this crossroads gathering that I was introduced to my now good mates Andy and Danielle, who I was to spend lots more time with years later when I move to The Netherlands. I was also introduced to a Dutch guy by the name of Sander. Take a note of that name he's going to crop up again 8 years later.

From Adelaide a group of us headed off up the red centre of Australia utilising our bus passes on the way. It was on one of these bus journeys that I got talking to an English girl that had also travelled around the States the previous year. This next story is going to blow your mind.

During our conversation the girl and I talked about our experience Amtrakking around the States, and we eventually fell upon the subject of an Amtrak bus that you could take for free from Seattle to the Canadian city of Vancouver. Ian and I had taken this bus during our trip, and found ourselves to be the only passengers. Our bus driver, a man by the name of Jerry, had convinced us to get off the bus for an hour in the city of Bellingham, where he was knocking off a married lady. According to Jerry he had a log cabin in the woods, which he used to take women back to for a bit of carnal pleasure. Before going off for his surreptitious meeting Jerry took Ian and I into the bar, and introduced us to the barman, "you don't mind looking after these 2 British guys do you?", he asked him. "Of course not", came his reply. And with that Jerry took off to meet his chick. The barman meanwhile went above and beyond the task of looking after us, and introduced us to practically everyone in the bar - who were all heading to a house party. By the time Jerry came back an hour later, Ian and I were having the time of our lives. To cut a long story short, Ian and I ended up going to a house party, whilst Jerry took his woman off to his log cabin. The next day he arranged for his bus driver mate Sanjay to pick us up on the next Amtrak bus that blasted through Bellingham. An adventure in itself one might say, but it's the next part that makes this story all that more bizarre.

So, I was telling the English girl the story about our night in Bellingham, when all of a sudden she went quiet, and a little awkward looking. Something inside me told me that she'd also been a victim of Jerry's philandering. Not being one to hold back I came right out and asked her "you didn't get banged by Jerry did you?", and of course she did. The girl had found herself in the same situation as Ian and I, but instead of meeting up with his married woman, he'd taken the girl back to his log cabin. Could my SWE's get any weirder? Well yes they could!

Later on that year in the November of 1993, Ian and I found ourselves travelling through Indonesia. Starting off in Bali, we travelled through Java and into Sumatra. It was here in a place called Bukit Lawang that my next SWE experience was to take place. After a fun packed day rubber tubing down the Bohorok river, our group of travellers were more than a little tired. The others went off to bed for an early night, whilst I decided to go for a drink in a real cool jungle hut bar. The bar was practically empty apart from a few youngish Sumatran lads and one bespectacled English fella. I approached the English chap, and as per usual when you're travelling our conversation revolved around travelling. The English bloke had been travelling around South America for 6 months, but had returned home for a friends wedding in London, before heading off to travel around Asia for 6 months. By the time he reached Bukit Lawang he was a month into his Asian odyssey. During the flow of conversation I asked him what he did in England, and he told me that he'd just finished studying at Cambridge University. "What were you studying?", I asked him. To which he replied "electrical engineering". "Oh, my best mate's bird was studying electrical engineering at Cambridge", I informed him. "Her name is Sarah, Sarah..... Sarah" (shit I'd forgotten her surname). "Sarah Neale", came his reply. And by Jesus, he was not only friends with Sarah Neale, but he had also been out 5 weeks earlier in London, not only with Sarah, but with my best mate Dangerous Dave. I'd not seen Dave since I left for America 18 months earlier. The odds of bumping into somebody that even knew Dave were slim enough, never mind somebody that had been out with him in a bar in London 5 weeks earlier, and was now the only other white guy in jungle hut in Sumatra.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Aboard the Trans Siberian Railway (St Petersburg to Irkutsk)

"I've got it, I know exactly where I want to go!", I informed my (then) girlfriend (now wife) Lee one Sunday night, in our shoebox apartment in Changwon, South Korea. Without removing her gaze from the TV, and between sips of wine, she replied "ah ah", as disinterested in my latest journey proposal, as I was in her TV show.

I'd been working as an English teacher in South Korea for the past 4 years, and Sunday nights were a time that Lee and I would wind down from the weekend's excesses, with a few slow glasses of wine to help with the fear of the coming working week. For Lee the winding down process meant tuning in to the History Channel, which I was able to focus on for approximately 2 minutes before the carousel of my mind spun some more, and I was onto the next thought. This particular evening my mind was fully consumed with the prospects of my forthcoming holiday. Lee and I had signed our contracts at different times, which meant that our holiday dates were not the same. Since our interests are vastly different, this turned out for the best.

"Do you want to know where I'm going?", I blurted out, unable to contain my excitement. "Ah ah!!", came her reply, as she remained transfixed on some ancient stuff on the telly.

"The Trans Siberian Railway", I shouted, as I clapped my hands together and bounced around the room in glee.

"Oh wonderful honey!!", came her reply, as she attempted to brush me out of the field of vision of her TV programme. If I'd told her that I'd booked us in for a swinger's weekend, I'd probably have got the same response.

Before the ancient stuff on the telly was even over, I'd messaged a specialist travel agent, 3 hotels, and worked out which flights I was going to take. The Trans Siberian Railway was going to happen!

Three months, a Russian hat, a shopping bag full of dehydrated food, and a shit load of planning later, and I was at the airport waiting for a flight to St Petersburg, with a connecting flight in Moscow. Now the purists amongst you will say, " But the Trans Siberian starts in Moscow!" And yes, I agree, the Trans Siberian does officially start in Moscow, but I really wanted to see St Petersburg, so I thought I'd add a few days there onto the beginning of my trip.

As I waited for my flight at Gimhae airport, I read the news on one of the free computers there. Would you credit it, the main headline was about a meteor that had crashed to earth somewhere in the middle of Siberia. It was a sign for sure!

I was feeling slightly nervous as I passed through customs, largely due to the fact that my knowledge of Russia was mainly related to the cold war, and all those 80s films that portrayed them as the bad guys, I'm talking Rocky 4, Red Dawn, War Games et al. I handed my passport to a surly faced female customs officer, who I smiled at without realising that smiling was the sign of a fool in Russia. She examined it and allowed me to walk away 5 paces before calling me back. As I slowly walked back to her my knees were knocking. She looked me in the eyes, and without cracking anything that resembled a smile she said to me in a full on Russian accent "Vee share the same birthday - velcome to Russia". To which I replied "yeah, me, you and Adolf Hitler."

"It is true, it is true", she responded, "me, you and Adolf Hitler." I can' be sure, but I think I saw a glimmer of a smile upon her countenance.

My first taste of Russian trains came on a Sunday night. I'd just spent 3 entertaining days in St Petersburg, and now I was on my way to Moscow, aboard a 12 hour overnight locomotive. I shared my carriage with 3 very attractive young Russian women, who had spent the weekend partying and were heading to work the next day in Moscow. Apparently this is a thing in St Petersburg. I spent a few hours chatting to them, as they all vied for my attention, in the most obvious manner. I've never considered myself to be anything of a fanny magnet, but it seems that foreign men are in short supply in Russia, and I was in high demand.

I was awoken the next morning to the sight of the 3 ladies getting dressed for work, which seemed to be a work of art. Once again, it appeared that they were all trying to outdo each other, as they applied makeup, pursed their lips, and flicked their hair around. By the time they alighted the train, they looked like they were ready for a fashion show. As the last of the 3 Russian beauties got off the train she turned to me and said "make sure you've got your tickets!". Casually I removed my tickets from my pocket and gave them a cursory glance. As if I would I would ever....... AAARRRGGGHHH FUCK!.... OH NO!.... SHIT!....  (Half of my tickets were missing). Observing my concern, Lolita (I'll call her this because she was the youngest of the 3, and I've long forgotten her name), came to my rescue, and despite being late for work, wandered from window to window in the railway station as she attempted to get me some new tickets printed. A task which took 2 hours, and miraculously had a positive outcome. I thanked her for her valiant effort and bade her farewell, whilst wrestling with my conscience that she was now 2 hours late for work. This guilt was soon to be increased when I arrived at the Apple Hostel, and the lady behind reception said "Mr Mitton, we have envelope for you!" I'd only gone and ordered the rest of the tickets to be posted to the hostel, and then forgotten all about it. Whoops!!

I spent 2 delightful days in Moscow visiting all those famous sights, The Kremlin, Red Square etc, whilst the snow came down thick and hard. By the time I boarded the Trans Siberian I was ready for the comfort of my cabin. I'd been warned to bring my speedos because they cranked the heat right up on the train. I must admit to finding the concept of travelling through the middle of Siberia in winter, donned only in a pair of speedos to be highly amusing, and I did consider buying a little pair of red, thong speedos with a hammer and sickle emblazoned on the front.

I'd elected for the relative luxury of a second class sleeper and I was eager to see exactly how much comfort this would afford me. I had also been pre-warned that if I wanted a lie in, I should aim for the top bunk. In the day time the bottom bunk became the seat for the other people in the carriage, whilst the person in the top bunk could carry on sleeping for as long as he/she wanted. Being a lover of a lie in, I was eager to claim a top one.

I burst through the doors of the carriage full of excitement, and curiosity, wondering who my carriage mates for the next 3 nights were going to be. Only to be disappointed when the carriage was completely empty apart from bundles and bundles of magazines which were tied together with ribbon, and rather annoyingly occupying the 2 top bunks. Reluctantly I took one of the bottom bunks, and started to spread out my possessions. After all I was here for the long haul. But wait! Something else was rather unpleasantly filling the room, and that something just happened to be possibly the worst pop music I'd ever heard in my life, which appeared to be emanating from a speaker located behind the humongous pile of magazines. And that is why I spent the first 2 hours of my Trans Siberian trip frantically pacing around the carriage, searching in vain for the source of this excruciatingly bad Russian pop music. In the end I could find no way to turn it off, so I resigned myself to a sonically torturous journey.

The spartanly furnished carriage offered little in the form of luxury. Apart from the 4 rickety red leather seat/beds, there was a fixed table beneath the window, a lamp for each bed, and of course the speaker that bellowed out the incessantly awful music, which appeared to have no switch to turn it off, nor down. I'd been told in advance that there would be a samovar at the end of each carriage, hence my carrier bag  brimming with de-hydrated foods. Do you know what a samovar is? No, neither did I!  Well, I'll tell you, a samovar is a large metal urn of piping hot water, which was to become my best friend over the coming days. For want of anything better to do I pulled out my newly purchased plastic mug, which I filled with a tea bag, and a few sugar cubes, and did what any self respecting Englishman would do in this situation, poured myself a cup of tea. As the whistle blew, and the locomotive chugged into life, I sat on my own on the bottom bunk, with a cup of tea in my hand, staring out of the window, as thick flakes of snow fell from the sky. Holding my cup in the air, I made a toast to my own reflection in the window, "To the Trans Siberian - and all that she may bring." - we we're off.

I'd read that the Trans Siberian operates on Moscow time, although I wasn't entirely sure what this meant. To be perfectly frank I'm still not sure what it means, all I know is that every time I was able to communicate "what's the time please?", the answer that came back was "Moscow time". This meant that the entire 9289 km journey was to be spent not knowing what time it was. A concept that I found most enthralling, but did not prevent me from asking the time on more than one occasion. The best answer I got was "when the sun goes down vee drink wodka, that's all vee need to know." And of course he was right, why else would the time be relevant?

And so it was that the first 5 hours of my Trans Siberian adventure were spent sat on my own in the carriage listening to god awful music, whilst drinking cup of tea after cup of tea, and contemplating 3 questions. 1. When should I crack the wine open?  2. What time is it! 3. Was I going to have the carriage to myself for the entire journey?

Four hours into the journey the train came to its first stop. I was to find out later that the train made a stop every 4 hours to let new people on, and for those that were on the train to replenish their supplies from the babushkas that occupied the snowy platforms. As the train drew to a grinding halt, I contemplated getting off to stretch my legs, but I was afraid that the train would leave without me as I wandered the platform looking for something meatless to eat. This had happened to me once in Albany, New York and I was keen not to repeat the mistake. The fear of losing my bunk was also a factor, I'd already had my dreams of a lie in destroyed by a pile of magazines, the thought of being relegated to the grimy carriage floor did not fill me with glee.

As I sat protecting my sleeping quarters the door opened, and in stumbled Sergey, who attempted to have a conversation with me. Sergey (that's the only bit that I could decipher) had the most horrendous stutter. If you think trying to understand somebody in a different language is bad enough, try understanding them with a stutter. After hours of going around in circles we decided that alcohol was the best solution, Sergey placed his vodka on the table with all the determination that his speech lacked, and I matched him with my wine. Sergey seemed far more interested in my wine than I did, or for that matter he did, in his vodka. He signalled me to open it, and then picked it up and glugged from the bottle. When it was time to drink his vodka he became far more ritualistic and civilised. For each shot that we slammed, he insisted that I eat a piece of sausage on bread. It took me the best part of half an hour to get him to understand that I was vegetarian. It's good job that charades is international. Sergey looked on in absolute disbelief as I ran around the carriage pretending to be a chicken, and thrusted my crossed arms in his face to signify that I didn't partake in the eating of meat. When I eventually came to a halt, he looked at me as though I was demented, before offering me the sausage again. This charade got repeated many times over the next 3 nights, by which time the recipient either thought that I was stark raving mad, or actually understood that I didn't eat meat. Given the Russian penchant for eating meat, I imagine they would think I was stark raving mad for not eating it anyway.

I decided upon a change of scenery and headed to the bar. Apart from the barman there was only one other person in the carriage and he appeared to be drinking Coke. Upon noticing my arrival, which was not difficult in a space that was 6 meters long by 2 meters wide, he looked up, and began conversing with me in perfect (posh) English.

"Excuse me good sir, and where may you be from?", he asked me - understanding from first appearances that I was not a Russian, despite my fake Russian hat from River Island.

"I'm from England", I replied.

"And why would you be undertaking a journey on the Trans Siberian Railway?", he enquired.

I informed him that I was just on if for the journey itself, and I had no specific reason to be travelling. This seemed to baffle him, and aroused a suspicion in him, that I was unable to quell. I offered him a drink instead, an offer which he turned down. It seemed that I'd found the only Russian in the world that did not drink. The conversation just sort of fizzled out, and I sat there sipping my beer (expensive beer) whilst under constant gaze from my posh, tee-total carriage mate.

Gladly I returned to my sauna-like sleeping chamber, which had been plunged into darkness. The Russian pop music however still assaulted my ears. Sergey had fallen into a deep slumber, and his nostrils were emitting the most awful accompaniment to the music. The only way I was going to be able to sleep was with the aid of alcohol, which was rather unfortunate because Sergey appeared to have supped the lot. In an attempt to drown out the music, I rammed my ear plugs deep into my ears, and stuck on some Prodigy. I'm not suggesting that "Firestarter" is by any means a lullaby, but it offered sweet relief from the Russian pop.

When I awoke the next morning I was stuck to my sleeping bag by a coating of sweat, and my crotch felt like a mushroom patch.  Sergey had already departed, and had been replaced by Sasha. Sasha's English was no better than Sergey's, but at least I didn't have to contend with his stutter. Within minutes of entering the carriage I'd managed to mime to Sasha that the piped music was killing my soul, which prompted him to casually walk up to a switch on the wall and turn it off. I followed this with a mime that I was sweating my nads off, and once again this was met with a positive response. He walked over to the window and opened it, something I'd been attempting to do since my arrival in the carriage. Over the course of the next 48 hours Sasha and I were to become well acquainted, thus proving that language is no boundary to friendship. He produced a small, plain paper notebook from his bag, and proceeded to draw his life in pictures. From what I could gather he was a 45 year old PE teacher, who had damaged his knee in a football accident in 1997, and was on his way for surgery somewhere in Siberia. I attempted to draw my own life in pictures but in all honesty I'm not sure he he had a clue what I was trying to depict. I once got 4 percent in an art exam, and I really had tried my best.

As the sun began it's descent the alcohol once again came out, and as we slammed shot after shot of vodka, language became less and less important. By the time the bottle was half empty (or full depending on which way you look at it) we were comrades. At this stage he pulled out his camera and began to show my photos of his wife, which started of innocently enough, but which ended with her in various states of undress. I wondered whether his openness came from his alcohol saturated mind, or the fact that he realised that beyond this night we would never see each other again.

We soon ran out of alcohol, but that, I was to find out was no problem. As the train drew to its 4 hourly halt I followed Sasha and a queue of drunken Ruskies out onto the platform, and down the embankment beyond the babushkas. This, I was to learn was the place where the alcohol shops were located -around 400 meters from where the train had come to a halt. A birds eye view of a line of drunken men running to the booze shop would have been priceless, especially when they were being led by a drunken English man in his pyjamas, slippers and fake Russian hat. By the time we reached the shop it was almost time to return to the train. Fifty guys, all in a line, looking at their watches every 5 seconds, wondering whether they were going to get served, was a sight to behold. Fortunately I was able to buy my stash before the train blew it's whistle and the whole process was repeated in reverse. Which is probably why half of the guys ended up in our carriage for the next stage of the journey. News of free alcohol passed down the train with lightening speed, and the whole evening was spent receiving drunken guests, who stumbled into the carriage, and proceeded to drink all my alcohol, whilst attempting to tell me their life stories. Of course I hadn't got a clue what they were saying, but that wasn't a problem because Sasha beautifully brought their stories to life with detailed illustrations upon his notepad. The best of which came from an extremely leather faced gentleman by the name of Bolot, who apparently made a living as a bear hunter.

As the drinks flowed to a dangerous level the atmosphere became quite sour for a while when the train conductor came into the carriage and offered me dried fish. An offering which despite my level of inebriation I was able to resist. After much failed persistence from the conductor he suddenly burst into perfect English to inform me that he'd been sent in because the man in the bar was convinced that I was a spy. Accusations which seemed to be adequately dispelled by a carriage of drunken men, to whom which I was a hero, due to the fact that I was the only one giving away alcohol. They sent the conductor packing, and the party continued.

My bladder full of vodka and red wine, I informed my comrades (by way of charades) that I was off to relieve myself. As I staggered off to the toilet compartment I was followed by Sasha, who seemed intent on me going the opposite way from the toilet carriage. When we reached a no man's land between 2 carriages he whipped out his Russian todger, and proceeded to pee through the gap where the cold Siberian air flooded in. He signalled for me to do likewise, a request that I eagerly followed. By this point even standing up straight was a gargantuan effort, never mind attempting to pee through a gap in the carriages, as the Trans Siberian did its best to cover us both in each other's urine. Our task complete, Sasha gave me a big smile, and then held out the hand that 2 seconds earlier had held his penis. I returned the smile, offered him the hand that had guided my own golden liquid into the icy wasteland, and we shook hands as if a secretive deal had been reached. It was a moment that will stay with me for ever, and a moment which was repeated around 5 times throughout the course of the same night. Much to the curiosity of the posh tee-totaler in the bar area, who scrutinised us every time we made the journey to our secret pee zone.

Soon the alcohol was gone, and our carriage emptied, even faster than our bladders had. I've no idea what time that was, but I can tell you for sure that it was "Moscow Time".

I awoke the next morning to the deep bellowing sound of Sasha's snoring, which continued well into the day. I'd drunk away my ability to do anything apart from sit and stare through the window, at the endless white landscape, with fir trees, and animal footprints offering the only break to this repetition. As the train reached the next big station Sasha suddenly awoke, and beckoned me to join him in the mad dash to the liquor store. A challenge that I quite willingly undertook, even though I realised that my success in completing the mission would only be of benefit to all the vultures who cheered me on. By now my train dashes had become a thing of wonder for the rest of the passengers, not only in our carriage, but also the neighbouring carriages. As I charged down the embankment towards the liquor store, the faces of my spectators pushed up against train windows. When the traction on my slippers failed to engage, and I went into a roll that Sonic the Hedgehog would be proud of, the looks on their faces didn't change one iota. Although when I returned to the carriage with my arms fully laden with alcohol, they all smiled like Cheshire cats.

The rest of my night was spent raising my glass to toasts (that I had no understanding of), slamming vodkas, refusing sausages, miming my vegetarianism, and pissing into a Siberian glory hole. Needless to say I woke up the next afternoon half dressed and half on, half off my bunk. The legions of free loaders had left the carriage, and the alcohol supply had left with them.

When Sasha finally awoke he was in a tearful state. I waited whilst he produced his drawing pad, and put pencil to paper to help me to understand the source of his sadness. When he finished he beckoned me over to show me his picture. He'd drawn himself (labelled Sasha), with tears dripping from his eyes, whilst he waved goodbye to a fat bald chap (labelled Andy). He then delved in his pockets and pulled out a very communist looking fridge magnet, which he placed in my hands and gesticulated that it was for me.  But wait! There was a catch! Sasha seemed to want a gift in return. For the next 5 minutes I rummaged through my possessions searching for anything that may be of interest to him, gifts that ranged from out of date condoms to a half squeezed tube of Colgate. The look on his face made me aware that these were not satisfactory. But then it came to me, my camera had ceased working properly in Moscow. I mean, it worked and all, but the autofocus had gone all wonky, and taking a picture of any quality was more than a little labour intensive. I pulled the defective camera from my bag, and handed it over to him. This resulted into Sasha (not a small man by any stretch of the imagination) grabbing me in a bear hug whilst tears poured from his eyes in cartoon-like fashion. All he could say was,

"Me magnet, you camera".

I didn't have the heart (nor the Russian language skills) to inform him that it was defective. In any case it would have been cruel to spoil his moment of total capitalist ecstasy The communist fridge magnet, by the way sits proudly on my fridge today, whereas his Nikon camera is no doubt in a Russian landfill site.

Within an hour the train had come to a stop, and a still tearful Sasha made his exit. A task which took the help of 5 guys (myself included), because apparently the magazines which had occupied the top bunks for the past few nights belonged to him.

With Sasha and the magazines gone, the rest of the journey to Irkutsk passed in silence - no terrible Russian pop, no vodka slamming toasts, no faces at the window waiting for my nightly alcohol run down the embankment to the booze shop - just me, the seemingly endless Siberian wilderness, and my wayward thoughts.

As the train chugged its way in Irkutsk station I gabbed my stuff, ready to alight the train. Behind me I felt a presence, so I turned to see what was going on. Standing in my shadow, his warm breath defrosting my neck was the tee-total fella from the bar carriage. I bade him farewell, grabbed my bags and exited the train. Halfway down the platform, I turned to see if he was still there, and through the heavy snowfall I could see that he was watching me like a hawk. Just to mess with his head I burst into a canter. It was as close to being James Bond as I'm ever going to get.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Hell sink he

I arrive in Helsinki on a cold November night, more than a little tipsy from my ritual abuse of airline hospitality. If there is free wine to be had, you bet your arse I'm going to have it, even if it means theft from the trolley, because I've been deemed a risk to serve any more alcohol to (we'll save this story for another time).

Once through airport security I make way by bus to the city, before catching a tram to the Eurohostel. After checking in, I head out into Helsinki to see what it's all about (nothing much, as it turns out). It's a dark, dreary Monday night, and it appears that the whole of Helsinki has decided to stay indoors (and I can't say I blame them). Upon finding a suitable eating establishment, I take a window seat, so that I can sit and watch the world go by, whilst stuffing my face with pizza, and keeping my wine buzz alive. Suitably fed and watered, I try in vain to find anything that stirs my excitement level.

An hour later, I've procured 4 more bottles of wine, and I'm back in the hostel's 16 bed dorm, trying to find someone to share a drink with.

Enter Gunter!

Gunter, it turns out, is a German fella, who has been living in the 16 bed dorm room for the past 6 months. He came to Helsinki with the sole purpose of finding a Finnish girlfriend, and to enable him to do this he has immersed himself in learning the language. It only takes a short conversation with Gunter for me to detect that he is a little on the anal side. His possessions are fastidiously laid out around his bunk, and his little corner of the dorm is an oasis of organisation, in an otherwise jungle of chaos. To say that he is not somebody that I'd normally choose to get further inebriated with, is a vast understatement, but such is my desire to find a drinking partner, that even Mother Theresa would have sufficed.

At first Gunter does not seem overly enthralled to be drinking with me, but when he realises that I am offering free wine, the miserly bastard changes his tune. Within half an hour he has loosened up a bit, and is helping himself to my stash in a very liberal manner. The cheeky sod is even offering it to the others in the room. Once he opens up, there's no stopping him, his lips become looser than my own after 2 beers (and that's saying something). Within 2 hrs we are getting on like a house on fire, and I know his life story. I also know his future plans. Mainly that he is very happy in the Eurohostel, and he intends to stay there until he has mastered the Finnish language. The usually reserved Gunter, tells me all the great things that I should see in Helsinki, and offers his service as my tour guide the next day. I am now his new best mate, in fact we are so solid that he can't stop hugging me.

As often happens when I'm drinking wine, I wake up the next day without a clue how I got myself to bed. On the nights when I hit it particularly hard I just pass out where I sit. It's not been unknown for me to wake up sitting upright with the glass still in my hand. Being one of those annoying people that never gets a hangover, I can easily remove myself from the sofa and go about my normal daily routine, as though I hadn't consumed a month's worth of alcohol units in one night. This night is one of those nights, although I some how make it to my lower bunk bed.

A few hours into my drunken slumber I'm awoken in the most intolerable manner. My body is being used as a punch bag, by an extremely angry person, who I appear to have pissed off in my sleep. Not being a person who is accustomed to being woken up in this manner, it takes me a good few seconds to work out what is going on, and another few seconds to work out the identity of my sleep saboteur. To my surprise it is my new German friend, and ungrateful recipient of more than half of my red wine, that is beating the living shit out of me. Before I have any time to respond, Gunter presses his face right up to mine, and bellows the words "YOU'RE FUCKING SNORING MAN!!" right into my ear. He then regains a modicum of self control, whereby he refrains from bludgeoning me, and shamelessly returns to his own bunk. Wow! I mean, really! How badly must I have been snoring to prompt such a dramatic reaction? Poor Gunter must have reached his German tether. He must have literally been lying there stewing over it for hours, before launching an attack on the hand that had earlier fed him. Well, either that, or he's a complete prick, and battered me as soon as I started snoring. With my attacker safely tucked up in his bunk, I return to sleep.

When I wake up the next morning I'm reminded of my early morning battering by the tenderness of my beaten body. As I get out of bed and head for the toilet I note that Gunter's bed has been vacated. And by vacated I mean everything, his entire possessions have gone. I can only assume that Gunter has been wrapped in guilt for beating up his new best chum, and decided to scarper before I woke up. Either that, or he couldn't stand the thought of another night with a human elephant as a sleeping partner.

With all our lovely plans that we had together being washed away in one irate beating I decide to head out in Helsinki to make my own entertainment. And quite wonderful it is too! But this story would be boring if I were to tell you about all the lovely museums I visited, or how I sat in a coffee shop, staring at the harbour, whilst contemplating life. You don't need to know all of these boring details do you? No, we don't I hear you cry! We want to hear about your further misadventures, and about how you came to be sat in a sex shop at 3.15 am, off your face, watching premiership football with a bunch of leather clad transvestites. Yeah, of course that's what you want to hear, and that's what I'm going to tell you about.

Preliminary research on Helsinki means that I'm informed that the area of Kallio is the place to head for a night out. This area, which was originally a working class neighbourhood, has been transformed over the past 20 years, into a vibrant place for hip young people. Definitely a category I fit into, I would say (takes tongue out of cheek). I head to Kallio on tram number 9, and immediately find a cool looking bar to get the night started.

I sit at the bar chatting to anybody who'll listen to me, whilst drinking pint after pint of Karhu. By the 5th beer I'm half cut, and suitably lubricated to try and find a night club. Upon spotting a bunch of hip looking young people I head over to where they stand, and ask them where I should be heading in Helsinki. The group seem eager to chat, and happy to inform me of places that I should go, They also inform me that all the clubs in Helsinki close at 3 am on the dot (a piece of information that I refuse to believe). Recognising that one of the group appears to be off his head, I enquire if he's been taking drugs, and if so, what he's on. To be honest, a few seconds observation of the way his mouth contorts as he attempts to answer me, ensures that he needn't answer me at all. This kid's on ecstasy for sure! I wait for a few minutes whilst he manages to communicate this information to me (whilst I'm secretly urging him on). A further few minutes of slurred communication, and I believe that he's offering me one of his pharmaceuticals. An offer I can't refuse!

Thirty minutes later, and I'm floating through the streets of Kallio, making my way back to Helsinki to find a night club. I forgot to mention that it's snowing, and it's not exactly a sprinkling - I'm in the middle of a fucking blizzard. Such is the pleasure that I'm experiencing that I couldn't give a monkeys about the adverse weather conditions. The driving snow enhances my pleasure if anything, making my senses feel alive. The walk back to the city probably takes me around 30 minutes, but in my head I've teleported there. And before me I see the neon sign of a nightclub, glimmering, beckoning me to come in, tempting me with the pleasure of loud music, and the possibility of female flesh. I'm sold! Lady Moon here I come!

Everything about the interior of Lady Moon resembles an 80s disco in England, from the billowing smoke machines, to the chrome plated bar, and full length mirrors that litter the place. The mirrors are so plentiful that it takes me a while to realise that the other 20 bald men in the club are in fact my own reflection. Such is my state of mind that I'm on the dance floor in a flash, and busting some moves to the pounding beat of 80s cheese. I'm raving, lips pursed and arms aloft making the T sign to all around me (Tuuunnnnneeeeeee), only it's not a T- une at all, it's Madonna's, Papa Don't Preach. But I don't care, I'm having it large on a Helsinki dance floor, whilst the snow swirls in the streets outside. This is living!! Before the song is up I notice a chick on the other side of the dance floor giving me the eye - or at least I think she is. Adapting my moves to a manner that enables me sidle through the crowd whilst maintaining an air of cool (absolute twat to anyone but myself), I edge towards her. Our eyes meet, or at least I think they do, but by the time I get to her she's embracing the real object of her desire. A Finnish hunk that's at least 15 years my junior. Oh well, never mind! The DJ is pumping out The Locomotion, it's time to raise my hands in the air again, in an act of worship. I'm full on raving to The Locomotion, and it feels wonderful.

The clock turns to 3 am, and is if by magic the place empties. Surely this can't be the end of the night I think to myself, there has to be somewhere else open! I'm surrounded by thousands of people that are so drunk that they can barely stand up, and they all seem to be heading through the snow in the same direction. I manage to find a slightly less drunktard that I can communicate with, and he tells me that the only place open till 5 am is a sex shop, which sells beer. Once again I'm sold! I head off in the direction he points me.

Just as I'm beginning to have doubts that I'm going in the right direction, I see a flashing red neon sign in the distance. I've never been so excited to see a sex shop, since, well since the last sex shop I saw actually. But this one is different, this one is going to offer me alcohol, as well as sex contraptions, and paraphernalia. My aims are to prolong my evening, enhance my buzz, and to talk the ear off anybody that will listen. As I enter the door to this seedy den of inequity I'm convinced that my targets will be met. I am not to be disappointed!

The first thing that strikes me as I enter the shop, is that I'm the only non-transvestite in the place. The room is only about 10 meters by 10 meters, but within its close confines lies a plethora of sin. I notice that a group of 4 people occupy a table, which is located beneath a large television. The table appears to double up as a make-shift bar, with a cool box full of beers underneath it, and a box full of cash lying on its surface. A blond wigged transvestite, with ridiculously oversized botoxed lips notices me staring, and beckons me over. He thrusts a beer into my hands, and shouts something at me in a language that I don't understand, but I assume is Finnish. When he realises that I haven't got a clue what he's talking about, he repeats in English "This one's on the house darling, the rest'll cost you 4 euros each!" The other occupants of the table urge me to sit down with them.

My appearance at the table arouses the interest of all the transvestites in the shop, who crowd around to converse with the new flesh in town. I'm surrounded by a crowd of around 8 full on trannies, who inundate me with questions. Where are you from? How old are you? What brings you to Helsinki? What football team do you support? This last question takes me by surprise. I'm not going to lie, I wasn't expecting to be talking football with a bunch of transvestites in a sex shop in Helsinki. The adverse weather conditions in the street outside, and the fact that I'm off my tits only adds to the weirdness of the whole situation. And as if this situation could not get any stranger, above me the TV (that's television, not transvestite) is blaring hardcore porn. It's not even gay porn, it's full on heterosexual porn. As I chat to them about my divided support for Manchester City, and Burnley FC, all I can see is a pair of testicles slamming into swollen labium. The sound effects that go along with this, do not lend themselves to a conversation on premiership football. The conversation goes as follows; "Hi, I'm Frans, I support Chelsea", "Hi I'm Aleksi, I support Arsenal" - but all that I can hear is some bird squealing in orgasmic pleasure, whilst the owner of the soon to explode bollocks, groans his way to the money shot.

These guys know their stuff. They seem quite unperturbed by the scenes of carnal destruction that's going on above our heads, as they talk seriously about David Beckham's halfway line wonder goal for Manchester Utd, in the 1996 season, or Wimbledon's unbelievable FA defeat of Liverpool in the 1988 FA cup final. By the time the sex shops calls last orders at the cooler box, I've become quite accustomed to my surroundings, and a little saddened to bid my new friends farewell. As I make my way through shelves full of plastic phalluses, and skin mags of every description, I'm followed by a legion of my new transvestite friends, who take it in turns to shake my hand and wish me well. I reach the corner of the street, and turn around to wave a final goodbye to my football loving transvestite chums. Aleksi, who is clad in a tight leather mini-skirt, fishnet stockings, red high heels and a revealing top, steps forward from the pack, raises his arms in the air and bellows at the top of his voice "AR - SE -NAL". My evening is complete.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Siberian theatre of nightmares

It's mid-February, and I find myself in the middle of Siberia - Irkutsk to be more accurate. I mean, obviously I didn't just wake up there, after a particularly heavy night on the ale. Although, I've woken up in some strange places before now, after a night on the aforementioned social lubricant. A frozen railway platform in Wroclaw, Poland, and enveloped in the arms of a Finnish Viking in a bunk bed in Helsinki, are 2 that immediately spring to mind.

The lead up to my arrival in this frozen wasteland has been an adventure in itself, but I'll reserve that for another story. Let's just say that it involved a long train journey, which began in St Petersburg, and delivered me to Irkutsk some 5 days later, although admittedly 2 of those days were spent in a very snowy Moscow. It was only on my second day in Moscow that I realised that I didn't know a single word of Russian, and I had until that point not met anybody that spoke any English. I'd spent the entire time until this revelation, getting by on a smile. I was to find out on my penultimate day in Russia, that Russians see smiling as the sign of a simpleton. A quick Facebook status, asking my FB friends what the word for thank you was in Russian, was to increase my vocabulary by 100 percent. And from that moment on, I was able to smile and say"spasibo" to anybody, and everybody that came within a 5 meter radius of me. How's that for proving that I'm not mentally challenged!

Anyway, I digress, as I was saying, it's mid-February, and I find myself in one of Siberia's largest cities. My arrival here is met by a flurry of snow, and by flurry, I mean a fucking blizzard of epic proportions. As I exit the train, in my fake Russian hat, from a British high street fashion store - (which I picked up in a bargain bucket for £5.99), I am quite literally pulled out of the door, by the wind, and deposited on my arse on the platform, much to the amusement of the Russian bystanders - who are too afraid to smile, for fear of been branded idiots. After a short wrestle with my rucksack, which had rather inconveniently landed on top of me, and numerous plastic bags, whose handles had become entwined around my ankles, shedding their contents of 2 minute noodles all over the platform, I pick myself up, and give a big smile to those that are stepping over me (as though I don't exist).

Although the icy Siberian temperatures freeze my face, and make my eyes contort like a 13 year old boy, thrashing one out to his favourite porn clip,  I can still see that I'm going to like this place. The tsunami of snow that's falling from the sky, gives it an other worldly feel. As far as I'm concerned, I'm in Narnia, surrounded by ice queens, lions, and witches. What's more I feel practically invisible, as the non-interested Russians go about their business, too involved in their lives, to notice a simpleton in a fake hat. This suits me fine, until I need to find my hostel, and I require assistance.

Eventually, I flag down a taxi and manage to get the driver to look at a hand written slip of paper containing the name of the hostel I've booked. A hostel name that I'm never going to forget, Hostel Auberge Theatrale (more on that to come). I observe with great pleasure that the taxi is a banged up old Lada, that emits so many pollutants, that it's single handedly causing global warming. The windows appear to be held together with duct tape, and the noise that this car creates, as the driver crunches through the gears, would cause most citizens of the world to dive for cover. In Irkutsk however, nobody even turns to see what's going on. It's all too perfect, I sit back and smile to myself, as the driver frantically searches for my place of residence.

As we splutter our way around this small city, I take note that most of the houses are made of wood, and many of them seem to be balanced at precarious angles, as if they could fall down at any moment. I nod to myself, satisfied that I've found a place that seems far removed from the clutches of capitalism. Now, if only we could find my hostel.

After much reversing up one way streets, numerous u turns, and lots of horn honking from other vehicles, the driver turns to me and shrugs his shoulders. This prompts me to delve into my printed notes, in search of a telephone number. I find the number and point it out to him. Fortunately he understands what I require, and to be quite frank, he is probably keen to get this smiling simpleton out of the back of his taxi. He pulls out a cell phone that's so large, it looks as though it would need an external battery supply, and taps away at the key pad. I breathe a sigh of relief when somebody answers, and an even bigger sigh of relief when the driver's face ignites with a semblance of recognition. He puts his put to the floor, and we accelerate off.

Approximately 5 minutes later we pull down a small side street, and I am faced by an extremely large wooden house, that is not too dissimilar to the Psycho house, except there seems to be a large tunnel leading to the front door. Let me take a moment here to explain how I came to choose this accommodation. The hostel was basically described as a hostel that doubled up as a theatre. The main level of the house was used as a hostel, whilst the attic was a theatre, which gave public performances. Being a person that actively seeks out the bizarre, this seemed like the most logical option for me.

I exit the taxi and crunch my way to the tunnel that leads to the front door of Auberge Theatrale. A more curious entrance to a building I've never encountered. It begins halfway down the garden, and then leads up the steps to the front door. To my left the taxi driver forces his car into gear, and disappears off into the snow storm. It's coming down so hard now that there is no trace of the car by the time he's driven for 15 meters; although I can still hear it 5 blocks away.

I pluck up my courage, and am about to start my ascent up the foreboding tunnel entrance to Auberge Theatrale, when out of the blizzard, to my rear, appears a figure. As he approaches, I estimate both that he is around 60 years old, and that he is of friendly disposition. The big smile upon his countenance makes this an easy observation. He wears a hat, not unlike my own, although I assume that his is a real ushanka, made from muskrat fur, not a synthetic affair like mine, from River Island. He introduces himself as Igor (of course he does), and although he makes no announcement of the fact, I understand him to be the proprietor of the hostel. I judge from his lack of breath, that he has rushed from afar to come and greet me. We go through the tunnel, and ascend the steps to the front door.

We enter Auberge Theatrale via the kitchen, where Igor kindly offers me a cup of tea, which I willingly accept. As the icicles thaw from my beard, and Igor's breath returns to a normal pace, he informs me that he must have messed up his bookings because he wasn't aware that anyone was arriving that day. His confusion soon subsides however when he starts to tell me about his hostel/ theatre. His enthusiasm is infectious, although I never need too much encouragement to get excited, I must admit. It turns out that Igor is a puppet maker and master, whose creations fill the walls, shelves and all surfaces of the hostel. As we move from room to room, I am both impressed and disturbed by his craftsmanship, the product of which seem to be staring at me with evil smiles upon their faces. Then there's the attic, which is reached by ascending a steep ladder. Of course, he reserves this for last. I mean, this is the epicentre of his whole existence, years of hard work, by the hands of a master craftsman, with a wild imagination.

As my head pops through the entrance to the attic I'm immediately faced by a puppet that is so evil that it makes Chucky from the film Child's Play look like a cuddly toy. The creation's eyes bear down on me as though they are burrowing into my very soul. Quickly I turn away, only to be faced by another, equally devilish beast, then another, and another....... I turn to Igor, whose face is beaming with pride, and for want of something to say,  I ask him how often his performances are. He informs me that winter is a quiet period, and he won't be doing any shows now till May. After a quick walk around the attic, which is home to a grand stage, complete with velvet curtains, we make our descent back down the ladder. Igor then retires to the kitchen, where he informs me that he is to give a French lesson in 15 minutes. I go to my hostel dormitory, which Igor has pointed out to me.

Upon entry to the dorm I notice that although there are 8 beds in the room, I appear to be the only guest. A quick walk around the hostel, confirms to me that I'm am definitely the only guest. Not entirely comfortable with this situation, I elect to go for a walk around Irkutsk. As I leave the property I see that Igor is in full swing with his French lesson, tutoring a girl in her early twenties. Ooo laaa la!

The rest of the day is spent perusing the fine streets of this small city, with it's wooden houses, grand buildings, and statues of great communist leaders. By this time the sun is shining, and reflecting upon the pristine snow. I feel fully content, and excited by life - a feeling that only travel can instil upon me. The pangs of excitement I feel, soon give way to pangs of hunger, prompting me to search for somewhere to grab a bite to eat, and a pint of Russia's finest beer. To my amazement, and total glee, I find a pub called Liverpool - the name of the city that I've lived in since 2001. Once inside, I find out that this pub is not only named Liverpool, but is a shrine to this great city. The walls are adorned with photos of Liverpool, The Beatles, and Liverpool FC. It's quite incredible! Here I am in the middle of Siberia, in a city that is knee deep in snow, and not another English speaking person within a large radius (not that I've found anyway), and it feels as though I'm back in Liverpool. Oh, the joys of travel!

As I often do when I'm travelling, I sit with a group of young people, who seem only too eager to chat to me, about Liverpool and Irkutsk. They tell me of the Decemberists revolution of 1825, where an army of people opposed to serfdom (and who wouldn't be), marched to St Petersburg, intent on getting the senate to sign a manifesto that would relieve them of it. This backfired miserably, and 5 of the leaders of this revolution were executed. The rest were banned from living in St Petersburg, or Moscow, and were exiled to Irkutsk. I'm fascinated by their interest in this subject, largely due to the fact that most young British people, couldn't give a flying fuck about their historical roots. I leave the Liverpool pub feeling informed, and totally inebriated.

Before heading back to the hostel, I head to a department store to buy an alarm clock, for tomorrow I will be heading to Lake Baikal, at an hour that requires such a device. The purchasing of the alarm clock proves more difficult than I hoped it would be, and involves me playing a game of charades with the store assistant. For the first time during my stay in Russia I see a person burst into fits of laughter, as I pretend to be asleep, and then wake up to a beeping noise, that I eject from my lips. She brings me a small clock, that would not be out of place in a museum, and which I pay 10 times more than I would do for a similar item back in Liverpool (well in 1972 anyway).

I slowly make my way back to the hostel, a little afraid of what I may find there, but excited for the following day. Once again I walk through the tunnel entrance, and tentatively make my way into the kitchen, which is filled with silence. As I wander to my room it soon becomes apparent that the whole house is filled with silence, and that's because I'm alone. Alone, only with my thoughts, and a shit ton of terrifying puppets for company. My only solace is the fact that I'm plastered, and that Igor has kindly left all the lights on for me. Without brushing my teeth I head to the security of my bed, where I set the alarm, and hide under the covers, too scared to move a muscle.

After a fitful sleep, I'm awoken not by the alarm clock, but by the intense heat in my room. With a mouth as dry as prohibition America, I run to the bathroom, and stick my head under the flowing tap. I have little concern as to whether I should be drinking from the water supply here, for 2 reasons, 1. I'm so desperate for fluid that I would have drunk from a cesspit, and 2. Irkutsk is located less than 60 miles from Lake Baikal, which just happens to be the biggest fresh water lake in the world; although after the amount of water that flows from the tap into my mouth I would be surprised if it could still lay claim to this record. Suitably re hydrated I head out to find a bus to the village of Listvyanka, which lies on the shores of Lake Baikal.

After many games of charades with the locals I find the right bus, and I'm on my way. The excitement of the day ahead frees my mind from my new found fear of puppets. As our bus chugs along, through snow filled villages, I take great delight in watching the world go by. People going about their daily routines, unaware that I'm on an adventure of a lifetime. Ninety minutes later, and the bus pulls in to the bus stop. I let the bus empty before attempting to get off, to make sure that this is the final stop, as much as an other reason.

As I step off the bus I'm hit by an intense drop in temperature, which cuts through my River Island hat like a hot knife through butter. Every item of clothing that I'm wearing, from my threadbare jeans, to my worn out, £25, 10 year old hiking boots, are ill equipped for these insanely low temperatures. By the time I reach Lake Baikal, I'm not altogether sure if I am possession of all my toes. But what it lacks in the way of temperature, Listvyanka makes up for in fresh air. Whilst the rest of my body is revolting by shutting down, my lungs are rejoicing at their new lease of life.

For fear of death, I rush around the village at a rapid rate of knots, trying in vain to keep my body temperature at a reasonable level. Fortunately there are enough things going on, to keep me interested, and help take my mind of my foolish choice of clothing. Everything about the place makes me feel as though I'm an alien visiting another planet. The sights, smells, and especially the sounds, are so unfamiliar to me, that my senses should be getting paid overtime. I't's all quite overwhelming, and I feel honoured to be experiencing it.

From my elevated position I look down on Lake Baikal, which currently resembles a giant ice rink. On the edge of my periphery I see something spinning around on the ice, and upon realising that it is in fact an old Lada doing handbrake turns, my body temperature returns to normal, with the excitement this creates. I'm toying with the idea of walking across the ice to try and see if I can get in on the act, when I spot a pack of Siberian Malamute dogs rushing towards me. By the time I've realised that they are there, they are gone. The speed at which they move is quite incredible, and leaves me eager to go dog sledding. This new thought, spurs me on, accelerating my pace to that of the Malamutes. Such is my determination to go dog sledding that there is no question in my mind that I won't find somewhere to do it. An hour of rushing around like a headless chicken passes, but my determination wins the day. I see a sign "Dog sledding 100 meters".

Ten minutes later, and I'm standing on a sled, being propelled through a Siberian forest by a pack of Malamutes. If it weren't for the sound of the wind whistling through my ears, I would be surrounded by perfect silence, and it feels wonderful. By the time my ride is over some 30 minutes later, I'm itching for more, and not for the first time in my life I'm annoyed that I elected for the cheap option. I muse over the prospects of going out again, but with daylight a very finite resource at this time of year, I decide to head back to Irkutsk. Thoughts of entering Auberge Theatrale in complete darkness are not an enticing thought.

As my bus makes its way to the city, my head is full of questions; will anybody be in the hostel? Will the heating still be on? Will the puppets come alive at night and murder me? By the time my bus pulls up in Irkutsk I'm a neurotic mess, convinced that I'm in for a night of terror.

Thirty minutes later, and 2 of my questions have been answered. No, there is nobody else in the hostel, yes, the heating has been left on (I'm soaked in sweat within minutes), but only time will tell, if I'm going to get murdered by puppets. Silence permeates the whole house! To add to the eeriness of the situation, a large grandfather clock (with a puppet perched on top) incessantly ticks. Tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock (I could on with this for pages, but I'm sure you get my drift). A profound feeling of unease starts to build inside me, with every tick and every tock. It's only early, but beyond the light of Auberge Theatrale, darkness has enshrouded the city.

I lie on my bed with a book in my hand, although any attempt to read is futile. In the back of my mind I can only think about one thing. Actually, that's a lie, I can think about many things, and they are all made of wood, with evil faces painted upon them. They know, oh they know alright! They can smell my fear! They can taste my discomfort! They can feel my sphincter twitching! They lie in wait, just waiting for me to sleep, so that they can disembowel me, and disseminate my flesh into the Siberian tundra. But I can defeat them! I'll drink strong coffee, I'll talk to people on Facebook to keep my mind occupied (luckily there's a computer connected to the net), I'll.... I'll...... I'll... go upstairs into the theatre, and scare myself even more shitless. And for whatever macabre reason my twisted mind decides to do so, that's exactly what I do.

A few minutes later, I've ascended the ladder, and I'm tip toeing around Igor's theatre of nightmares. In my head I repeat a mantra -puppets, puppets everywhere, and a grandfather clock that ticks (to the rhyme of the ancient mariner). I know right! Why would I do such a thing? I've no answer to this, other that my curiosity is far greater than any logic I may possess. Maybe I'm driven by fear, a perverted gene that I've inherited from a wayward soul. By the time 10 minutes inside the attic theatre have elapsed, I'm wishing 2 things 1. I wasn't so goddam fucking curious, and 2. I'd booked into a conventional hostel (like normal people).

I could go on, telling you about how I didn't sleep a wink that night, telling you about how I begged my wife to be, to stay online and chat to me. Or to tell you how for 12 hours I was convinced that there were hidden cameras all over the hostel. And that Igor was sat somewhere, maybe even in a hidden room within the theatre, watching me on many screens. Laughing at my fear, his penis stiffening, as he watched me pacing up and down the hostel, trying to locate cameras. Needless to say, by the time 5 am came, and it was time for me to go to the train station, to continue my journey upon the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok , I was more than eager to leave.

Leaving Igor the correct money for the room on the kitchen table, I left Auberge Theatrale, locking the door behind me, and hiding the key under the outside bin. I'd already left Igor an email to tell him where I intended to put it. Descending the steps, I passed through the tunnel of gloom, before turning to get one last glimpse. I half expected to see Igor peeping at me from one of the upstairs windows, a manic stare upon his countenance. As I made my way across the city, a new fear entered my mind. Maybe, I'd got the departure date wrong, I mean, this was not an irrational thought, because the Trans-Siberian train is forever on Moscow time. You're never going to believe this, but after waiting for 2 hours for the train to arrive, I was informed that I was indeed a day early. Seriously, I was left with no other option, than to return to the house from hell, and spend another entire day and night there - for in Russia, all accommodation has to be booked before entering the country.

Another night of very little sleep ensued, so by the time I finally boarded the train, I fell into a deep slumber, upon my bunk. This, I was to learn later, was an unfortunate mistake. For days, upon days, preceding my stay in Irkutsk, I'd sat and stared through the train window, only to be greeted by a white frozen landscape that rarely changed. For the 13 hrs I slept however, the train trundled along the side of Lake Baikal, and was a spectacle to behold.

And just when you though that this tale could not be any more incredulous..... 3 weeks after my return from my trip, I got an automated message from Hostel World to tell me to get ready for my trip to Auberge Theatrale. That's right! I'd only gone and booked it for the wrong month. No wonder poor Igor had not been prepared for my arrival, and I was left alone in his theatre of nightmares.