May 03, 2008

Is This England? Eject, Eject!

ANOTHER day another shitehole. Still reeling from last weekend’s jaunt to Coventry but no less in need of distraction, I decide to hit the next Big Smoke - Birmingham.
If anyone asks I tell ‘em I’m hunting for guitar strings but really I need much more than that. Anything at all in fact.
This ain’t the my first trip to Brum. The first time I came here was about eight years ago. Back then, it was on a clubbing campaign. My partner in crime shot town convinced that his dick was disappearing and I ended up terrified that Andy Pandy and a violent houseplant were out to kill us.
None of that was directly Birmingham’s fault but the experience was enough to keep me away for another seven and a half years.
My second Birmingham ‘trip’, about three months ago, was less deranged but revealed a similar to the city’s psyche.
Once again, I’m ostensibly looking for guitar strings. Some students in a second hand book shop had directed me to Professional Music Services on Curzon circular. It’s a great firm and one of Birmingham’s only redeeming features. I make myself known, buy the most expensive but beautiful-sounding guitar strings and leave. There’s a busy road outside so I stand at the side and wait for a gap in the traffic. No gap presents itself but an old Asian lady slows down and signals at me to cross the road so I cross. Pleasant enough, I thought, until the motorist behind Granny Singh stops, gets out and screams blue murder at me.
Perhaps, thinks I, he’s just venting his frustration at the broader socio-economic conditions that have shat his little corner of urban England spiralling into post-Thatcherite meltdown. Right in front of him, I reason, his neighbourhood has nosedived from a regional hub of home-grown industrial might to a piss-pocket characterised by nothing more than a good music shop, dual carriageways and courteous Pakistani grannies.
Whatever. While I’m mulling over this chap’s quandary he comes at me so I do the manly thing and run.
Surely, downtown’s gotta be better. Surely Major and Blair and Brown and countless Government agencies have devoted the same endless time and resources to stopping the rot and rust. I think of Manchester, Glasgow, Newcastle and Liverpool. Great British powerhouses hammered in the ‘80’s but reincarnated as vibrant regional destinations.
You’d think.
I pass a bar I remember from the Andy Pandy expedition. It’s burnt out and shows no sign of being rebuilt.
Closer to town I witness a grown man attack a ten-year-old girl. I don’t know if it was a racist attack but the girl and her father are clearly traditional Muslim Asians and the attacker is a white thug in his late teens or early twenties.
The two parties are walking towards each other when the Scally runs at a bin using it as a springboard from which to fly through the air and body slam the father and daughter, mainly the daughter, who falls down and starts crying. The father can’t do anything. He has to attend to his daughter but is helpless anyway faced with a gang of laughing lads who run off.
That was my second trip.
Three months later and I need new strings.
In Glasgow or London or any other British town, you expect to see policemen on the beat and Birmingham’s no different but you immediately notice that all the cops are busy.
A market trader tries to convince two officers that he’s selling genuine Versace. Round the corner a homeless man is having his bag rifled through by a WPC. Someone gets dragged out of McDonald’s for reason’s best known to him. All the cops seem too busy to do anything about two gangs of teenage girls fighting in, and possibly over, a bus stop.
These crazy fools are losing it. I dive into a record store for cover and make a few selections. The girl behind the counter is pretty and smiles as she scans The Killers. Kings of Leon. Still smiling. The Enemy. Still smiling. The Smiths. Smile turns to smirk. Deacon Blue. Lost her. Gotta go.
Back on the street another pretty girl stops me. I’m pretty hot at avoiding charity Chuggers having lived for a year on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow but this one’s incognito. She isn’t wearing a uniform or a badge and I hope for a moment that she may just want to introduce herself or complement my sartorial taste.
‘Have you ever had a stress test Sir.’
‘I tend to find visiting Birmingham to be a stressful test. Does that count?’
‘No. I mean a test to see how stressed you are.’
I’m intrigued. ‘I don’t think I have as it happens. Are you about to offer me one.’
‘Yes I am. We’re offering free stress tests today.’
She seems nice so I bite. Curiously, she leads me down a dark alley.
This is kind of weird. We enter an anonymous doorway an my eye catches a large blue sandwich board sign propped in the corridor.
‘Welcome to L Hubbard’s Church of Scientology.’
‘Shit. This actually is holy shit,’
I think.
‘Is this about scientology.’
‘Well yes it is but don’t worry. I’m not going to try and convert you. I just want to give you a stress test’
Holy shit. So this is how they do it. They kidnap people off the streets. I’ve heard about their weird machines. That must be how they got Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Just caught ‘em on their way out of Primark or Woolworths or something.
‘Honestly, I think that’s a lie and also, I’m already a monk so my spiritual needs are well and truly satisfied. I have to go.’
I half jog out the door and round the corner then pause and start kicking myself. Attempts to convert me to Scientology would have made great material for this blog.
I mentally prepare an apology for my rude behaviour then about turn and look for the girl. I wait for ages but it’s too late. She’s gone. Scientology will have to wait for now.
Two hundred yards down the road I’m stopped by a big black guy with a woolly hat who asks me if I want to support charity work in India. I’ve heard this one before and recognise him straightaway as a Hare Krishna monk. All the niche religions round here must carve up the streets like Big Issue sellers.
‘Are you Hare Krishna? ‘Coz if you are you should just come right out and say it’
‘I am my friend. Let me ask you. Are you stressed?’
‘Not in the slightest. To be honest, I‘m a bit of a monk myself. I’ve actually already got quite a lot of your books and tapes. Indeed, may I say just how much I enjoyed Gouranga Mosh Vol III.’
‘That’s good to hear brother.’
‘In fact, I’ve even spent a night at your headquarters. That farm down near Watford.’
‘Really. Brilliant. What were you doing there.
‘Well, I was on my travels, spreading the word, like you. It was late one night and I had nowhere to stay so I drove a little way down a track, pulled over and slept in my car. When I woke I was surrounded by rabbits, cows and bald people.’
‘Brother! You should have gone in for breakfast.’
‘They do breakfasts?’
‘The best.’
‘I wish I’d known. Lord knows you guys owe me enough breakfasts.’
My friend doubles over laughing and I leave him like that; unable to talk.
If there were more like him then maybe there would be more hope for Birmingham.
In the future, I decide, I'll get my guitar strings in Coventry.

April 13, 2008

I came, I saw, Ikea. (I'm back)

If you’re reading this, you may already have guessed that I’ve finally bought a computer. What you may not have guessed, however, is that today I had to go to Coventry to buy a suitable desk.
Coventry is my closest large town although to call it a town belies reality. It is actually a hideous sprawling shopping centre with a dedicated perimeter motorway situated slap bang in the heart of England.
Like Baghdad, it’s the sort of place best avoided unless you really, really have to go. Say, for example, if you need a computer desk.
The only other time I visited I was on my way to Spain which involved a short train ride from my place to the town centre followed by a cab ride to the airport. My taxi driver wasn’t even aware Coventry had an airport. It’s that kind of place. A completely forgettable smattering of portakabins and, I shit you not, a barn strewn around a lonely stretch of tarmac.
On Saturday, however, my mission was closer to home; a ‘quick’ jaunt to Ikea for a £15 desk I’d selected from the catalogue that morning.
Usually I quite like a leisurely perusal of budget Swedish design but not on Saturday. Ikea’s Coventry branch, however, is an exceptional piece of design in it’s own rite and almost worth visiting for it’s own sake.
Unlike most other branches it’s sited slap bang in the middle of the town centre thus forcing the architects to cleverly squeeze four acres of retail space into a gap the size of an average corner shop.
The exterior, predictably, is bold, angular, colourful and a pleasing departure from the depressing concrete shit heaps that surround it. One would even, at a stretch, expect the local cabbies to know where it is.
There, the compliments end. The queue to get in starts out on the motorway. You drive into the store and park on the second floor. Then you’re supposed find a lift up to the sixth floor. I recommend the stairs.
Outwardly, the cavernous elevators appear to have enough space for everyone but the Scandanavian designers could never have factored in the platoons of Brits who think nothing of spending family days out in soft furnishing stores. Nor could the have anticipated infuriatingly helpful kid who holds the lift door for their one-legged granny who’s hobbling across the car park a mile and a half away.
Things get worse when you hit level six. Pingers ping and I explode forth into the throng which is like getting off the train at Auschwitz. Only here, the inmates are irritating loved-up newly-weds pretending they’re not physically sick that the £200,000 two-bed semi for which they’ve just taken out a 100% fixed rate mortgage is now only worth £150,000.
‘HAHA. You may be in love but you’re gonna be stuck in that over-priced stack of bricks for the next ten years while all you’re neighbours move out and half of Romania moves in. Me? Jealous? Hell no! Serves you right for being so happy. Credit crunch that MoFo.’
Squealing kids run rings round arguing parents. There are no old people here. Thank God. They’re too wise and anyway, walking sticks could only compound misery in a hell like this.
I know exactly what I need. A 100x75x60 Vika-Curry desktop and four matching cream legs. Where to start though? I Consult a map and curse myself for leaving the GPS at home. It’s not looking good. I know that in strict geographical terms office furniture is less than 50 feet away but the suggested route, marked out by helpful little arrows on the floor, is several kilometres.
Those bastard Swedes are no better than drug pushers. It doesn’t matter what you came for, they assault all the senses forcing 20,000 bizarrely-named products down your throat from bottle openers to bathroom mats and everything in between. Forget GPS. What you need in here is blinkers and the unwavering single-mindedness to look at nothing but the floor and follow the arrows. I want to steal one of their display books but it’s in Swedish. They must do that deliberately.
‘Please Sven. All I want is a desk. If you just give me one small desk I’ll be on my way.’
‘Come now. Shurely a new lampshade vood be nice for your bathroom. Or maybe a 3x2 photographic print of Honk Kong Harbour. No?’
‘No man. Just a desk. Just one. I know where it is. Please.’
‘Vy don’t you shit down our nice new Kramfors leather shofa. Zey are very well designed and competitively priced.’
‘No, you swine, I see what you’re trying to do. You entice me here with the promise of a £15 desk then sink your barbs in with offers of well-designed competitively-priced settees. Well not this time Hagar and not this sucker. You and me both know where this will end up. There will be no going back. Today a drop-leaf table tomorrow a whole kitchen. Well I’m onto you, you sneaky Swede. This is one mug who can see through your sinister ploys and beyond your dirty wares.’
I bolt. This place has shortcuts. They don’t put ‘em on the maps but staff and old hands know that you can bypass suggested routes by sneaking through the various sets of anonymous swing doors dotted throughout the store.
Horror of horrors. From the proverbial frying pan I’ve escaped to the fire of the kids department. Pissed students fool around with cuddly stuffed snakes whilst oiks let kids with names like Tyson and Tamaya run riot. Colour and noise and movement churn and simmer and force my retreat. Maybe the snakes aren’t real. Maybe the laughter is innocent. Maybe this is only the kids department at Ikea but I might as well have stumbled through reception at the Ministry of Truth. I’m beaten and the Swedes have won. The shop is spread over six floors littered with escalators, travelators and elevators. You can’t cheat. You think you’ve found check-out when you’ve actually found the car park. There’s no point trying. If I persevere I could be here till Christmas. I return to kitchens and follow the arrows.
‘Vellcome back Vinston. How voz it through the doors? Not so good huh? You’re vay didn’t work did it? Did you honestly think you could cheat the system? I mean come on. Do you honestly think ve vill validate your parking when you are taking shortcuts all over the place? Zink about it. Ve make very safe cars and very dangerous fighter jets, not to mention flat-pack furniture. Outwitting an old dope head like you is not beyond us. Now follow the arrows.’
So I follow the arrows, trying to keep my head down but beaten souls surround me, wandering slowly, glazed eyes raised skywards admiring curtains and houseplants. I try to focus but bump into a women. My groin inadvertently touches her bum. I’m embarrassed but she barely notices. So I too start to look up. Slowly, I succumb.
All I wanted was a desk but what’s that? A rather fetching throw that would look nice on the end of my bed? A handy-looking swivel-based lamp. A spice rack?
I’m done and they’ve won.
My parking’s is validated for three hours so I decide to see what else Coventry has to offer. Nothing, it seems. Just Ikea.
Travelling through sleepy English towns I’ve often found that in the absence of anything better to do Cathedrals can be worth a visit.
Not here. Looks like Hitler shared my opinion of the place and bombed the shit out of it in 1940. Nobody thought to rebuild it properly. At least not until recently. The result is a new chapel building cleverly tucked inside the ruins of the old but it but it looks a bit, well, Ikea.
I’m beginning to see why being sent to Coventry is proverbially regarded as a punishment and get in my car - feeling somewhat violated yet strangely satisfied that I now have a desk at which I can sit and write my lines.
The Monk, it seems, is back.

January 23, 2008

Gone Fishin'

Will be back as soon as have saved up for my own computer...