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Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Ice cold in Iceland


I was passing time surfing the internet when an advert appeared on the screen, ’Fly to Reykjavik for only £x.’ Forget what it was exactly but it was cheap. Price included the hotel as well. It caught my imagination. Take in the Blue Lagoons, a trip to see the Aurora Borealis otherwise known as the Northern Lights, maybe even a whale watching boat excursion, I thought ‘let’s give it a go!” 

Thus on Tuesday November 4th 2014, I was rudely awakened by my alarm at 6.45am to begin my journey to Iceland, a country siting on the top of the map near Greenland. Peering out of my bedroom window I was alarmed to find we were shrouded in dense fog. Not ideal when you have to drive to an airport early in the morning. Or any other time of the day if it comes to that. 
I was knackered from the previous night’s Rockingham Arms Quiz and consuming a few pints of Sam Smith Old Brewery Ale. I wasn’t ready for the drive to Birmingham but a cup of coffee helped ease the fog in my head, if it didn’t the weather. 

The drive to Birmingham was slow, the fog failing to clear at all. Took me an hour and a half when normally the journey would be around 50 minutes. My head being hazy didn’t particularly help. I wasn't used to these early mornings having been retired for over a year. The Airport Car Park was pre-booked and paid and I dropped the car off thinking ‘this was all too easy’. I felt hesitant and asked a Security Guard for assurance, showed him my paper-work and he confirmed I was in the right place, but I was still not entirely convinced but by now I was in the building and there was nothing I could do. Funny how you get these feelings of doubt and that something isn’t quite right..
A cup of coffee was called for and it was then that sinking feeling that something wasn't right dawned on me.
‘My phone!’ I couldn’t find it. Searched my bag, my pockets -  nothing!
I then remembered putting my mobile on the seat in the car. Damn! I knew then what it was that had been bugging me. God I hate these early mornings!
I realised without my mobile the only other connection with the outside world while exploring Iceland would be my iPad. 
An ignominious start to my break it was fair to say.

The aircraft was a propellor job which was only the second time I had flown on one. Compared to the 747s the plane resembled a bus. Flying northwards towards Scotland and the Mull of Kintyre before crossing the North Atlantic only took a couple of hours.

Keflavik Airport is approximately 25 miles from Reykjavik. A bus to the city centre awaited. The journey giving an opportunity to view the rugged landscape of Iceland, an island of volcanoes. It looked more like the moon!
It was dusk by the time I arrived at the Central bus station and not having a clue where my hotel was I decided the easiest thing to do was jump in a taxi. The driver looked slightly surprised but nonetheless off we went, and less than five minutes later I was at the hotel! Just round the corner!
The hotel was up a backstreet, the entrance, at the top of wooden stairs, looking more like something leading to a warehouse. The reception was inside a cubby hole but if I was feeling less than impressed, the people seemed friendly enough, giving me a warm welcome. My apartment was spacious, clean, and colourful. Bright greens and yellow everywhere. Made me think that the lack of daylight in Iceland at this time of the year, bright colours was an attempt to cheer things up! I was aware the suicide rate in Iceland, which is part of Scandinavia was high and a few days of this and you can understand why.

 Over the next couple of days I discovered daylight didn’t happen until around 10am and dusk would begin to descend at around half three! Giving us around five hours! 
First task once settled in was to get something to eat and stock up the apartment’s fridge. A supermarket wasn't too far away. I bought milk, tea, crisps, rolls, a few nibbles, sausage rolls etc. and then went for a brief look around the immediate area. It was too cold to go far, but I found a pub where the Real Madrid v Liverpool European match was showing on the TV. The Reds lost 1-0. A couple of pints, some splendid fish and chips and I headed back to my hotel for an early night. 
Switching on a 42” TV screen on the wall at the bottom of my bed I was amazed to get the U.K ITV channel. Suddenly felt like home!

First surprise of the morning was waking up and finding it completely dark outside. It was 9.30am. I turned on the television, all the channels we get back home available! I flicked through them and ended up watching the Jeremy Kyle Show! Here in Iceland! I found that remarkable. Watched it for a bit but soon grew bored and I got up to make myself some breakfast. Not being an expert on the mechanics of the kitchen it took me half an hour to figure out how to turn the electric hob on! Ridiculous as it sounds. Course this was never my territory. 40 odd years of living with Sue and suddenly Im having to learn all the intricacies of living on your own. I had mastered how to turn the washing machine and dishwasher on thanks to some coaching from Sue in her latter days. Shameful really. As regarding ironing I didn’t have a clue, I was taking baskets of clothes up to my daughter Carly in Widnes for her to iron. I mentioned this when skyping her brother Gareth in Stockholm. “Ironing? That’s a woman’s department.” He scolded me; “that’s embarrassing dad! What a chauvinistic attitude!” Gareth is a modern day liberal thinking dad but I have to confess, he did make me think. Anyway, back to my breakfast. A boiled egg had been placed in a very large saucepan, that’s all there was in the cupboard, half an hour later I was still waiting for the thing to boil! And there wasn't any eggcups either! Not a great start to the day you could say.

I had booked the Blue Lagoon trip, the bus was leaving the station at 11am and it was freezing out there. The country was living up to its name, Iceland!
The Lagoon was in the middle of nowhere, looked more like the moon than ever. The weather was miserable, cold and drizzling. I was wondering what I was doing here feeling dejected, when suddenly I got my first glimpse of the steaming blue water. Now that did look inviting. Before going for a dip I discovered there were a few rituals to adhere to. Queueing up for a dressing gown took me by surprise. Onward to the changing rooms, all very clean and white. A series of communal rooms with coat hangers, lockers, showers, reminded me of schooldays and school changing rooms. First of all you have a shower before going into the lagoon. Swimming gear and dressing gown on, towel in hand I made my way outside. It was still drizzling. Dipping my toe into the blue water my reservations soon disappeared and I joined the throng of fellow worshippers in the pool. It was like a bath! Absolutely wonderful, the scent of sulphur adding to the experience. There was even a bar in the pool where you could have a pint. I wasn’t sure how you would pay for it or where you put your money but either way I didn’t have any on me. Some did though, amazing. The Lagoon was huge, I walked around, up to my waist, immersed myself to my neck in this amazing blue water, didn’t want to get out. It was just like having an hour soaking in a bath at home, and similarly after a while you start going all crinkly and reluctantly have to get out. I asked a couple to take some photos of me first, my iPad was on the side, and I went back for another shower and to get changed, Completely refreshed. Lovely! 

Back at the apartment I had the egg that I had boiled in the morning, put it in a sandwich. It was early evening, the wind was howling outside, it was still raining but I couldn't just stay in, I wanted to venture out and discover what the nightlife was like in Reykjavik. I didn’t go far, it was bitter. Opposite the street where my ‘hotel’ was, a crowd had gathered around a store window. All wrapped up in winter gear they seemed oblivious to the conditions and were transfixed with a singer/guitarist entertaining the milling crowd from the warmth inside the shop. Sat on a chair he looked like a bluesman as he strummed away and sang. He was really good. Made me wonder though, don't they have any music venues in Reykjavik? Still, it was different. I headed into the town centre, had a couple of pints, some more fish and chips and called it a day. 

The following night, weather permitting, I was booked in for the Northern Lights adventure.
I awoke next morning feeling knackered. Thanks to a combination of the howling wind rattling the window all night and a disco bar round the corner blaring out crap music to all hours! Sounded as if the place was mobbed with all the noise emanating from the place and drunken revellers hanging around the streets. Maybe this is why the hotel was cheap I mused!
With the limited time I had most of the morning was spent, once the gloom had lifted, of walking around taking photographs. Wrapped up to keep the chill at bay I took in the harbour area and walked along the front. There’s nothing much to see in Reykjavik apart from whaling boats but I suppose its not exactly the Med. You’re not going to see sun seekers or bikini clad ladies roaming around  in these temperatures. Instead what you have is a nation of bearded people, battling against the cold. That includes the women! Joking there obviously!
Some nice scenes to snap though, murals and trawlers, statues of a kind. Good way to pass the time while waiting to find out if the trip to see the Northern Lights was going to be confirmed. I called in at the ticket office in the bus station twice before they gave the go-ahead. It was leaving at 5.30pm which gave me time to get something to eat and freshen up.

There was about sixteen of us on the bus which left on time prompt. I sat at the front, the odd one out amongst the couples. A guide sat alongside the driver. I felt quite excited. After all the Northern Lights is a phenomenon rarely seen and by not many people either. 
We had been going for about thirty minutes when the driver pulled over to a spot which was obviously a sightseeing vantage point. Everyone alighted and gazed into the night sky, looking in vain for a hint of bright coloured lights. 
The driver did say sometimes you could see them from here, but not always. ‘We will carry on’ he informed us. Well thank you I thought, thats what I paid good money for!
We stopped a couple of more times, way out in the wilderness. Everyone got off each time, and stood, staring with crooked necks into the sky. The driver and guide were clearly getting as frustrated as the rest of us. Doing their best to assure us there was a good chance we would catch the lights he repeated ‘we will carry on’. Reassuring, yeah..
Time was getting on, we drove for miles, and miles. Didn’t see anyone or any place of habitation, this was getting boring. As if to placate everyone the bus driver announced he was going to make a detour to show us another Icelandic phenomenon, a geyser. He was doing his best to salvage something out of the trip. Murmurings resounded around the bus, I stared out of the window. 
We pulled up and the guide warned us not to get too near the geyser because the water ‘is boiling hot and could explode anytime’. Well that made it a little more interesting. Into the black of the night we traipsed across the barren land, the geyser was shining lightly as if to beckon the spectators forth. To say it was underwhelming would be an understatement. Steam rose from the stream meandering from the geyser, there wasn’t much else to see apart from that. The driver and guide were almost urging the geyser to spout, or the blessed Northern Lights to make an appearance. I reckoned everyone was thinking it was all a waste of time and money!
Where’s the geyser?
Back on the bus, the driver announced we would, yes, ‘carry on’. I couldn’t have been the only one bored off his tits by this time, I would have welcomed it if he had told us ‘we’re heading back, there’s no point carrying on’. But he didn’t. Maybe he had some sort of schedule or timetable and didn’t want to get back to base too early. Who knows? Might have docked him his pay. Nothing much you can do but sit patiently and believe that eventually we would achieve our goal. We stopped again, same old story. Bloody neck was a stiff as a board by now. On we went, and all of a sudden, there it was. No, not the Lights, but an oasis in the distance, a cafe, similar to a Little Chef. It was deserted. We had a half hour break, a cup of coffee and a sandwich and I guessed that with it getting quite late, we would indeed, give up the ghost and go home. How wrong can you be?
Fuck me, the driver was determined and onwards we went. Miles and miles. I began to think that at this rate we would end up in Greenland or somewhere. Course I do know there’s an expanse of sea between the two countries but you get my drift.
At long last the driver and his guide admitted defeat. Everyone had cricked necks gaping into the sky, enthusiasm long since gone. Half of them were falling asleep only to be disturbed for yet another pit-stop on the return journey. ‘Give up for Chrissakes’ i said to myself. Turned out we had travelled a 100 miles, a 200 mile round trip. Bored shitless, hungry, thirsty. An absolute and complete waste of time! Ok you are warned beforehand that it’s not guaranteed you will see the lights but all the same. Getting back to Reykjavik, to make matters worse, the driver dropped everyone off at their respective hotels and you’ve guessed it, I was the last one! It was 1.30am!

I retired to my hotel to be greeted by another belly-aching wall of sound coming from the damn disco outside my window. Just what I needed. I buried my head in the pillow and did manage to drift off to sleep. Exhausted, aching from head to toe! 

The third and final day of my vacation was spent wandering around trying to catch up with a few sights I had so far missed. A church towering over the city from the edge of town. The National Football Stadium and to cap things off a visit to the famous Penis Museum!

I walked along the seafront first, until I was nearly blown off my feet. It was like battling against a hurricane, and so cold. I did manage to get some photos looking out across the bay and also the football stadium. Pity it was locked up though, sometimes there is an entrance somewhere you can sneak in for a peep. Obviously not today though. There were no vehicles parked  outside, no sign of life at all. Perhaps it was too cold even for the hardened Icelanders to play football in November. 
Back in town I searched out the Penis Museum, asking a couple of guys if they knew where it was and receiving some funny looks! I told them I wasn't a weirdo but this museum with a display of knobs pricked the curiosity if you excuse the pun! They laughed, admitted that they too had been there.
A seedy looking old gentleman took the money, £6 for the privilege, somehow that seemed appropriate, not the £6, the seedy looking bloke.
Inside were glass cabinets, photographs, examples, donations! Full of pricks! Everything from a mouse to a bloody elephant! As well as a display of human meat. There was something strange though, no veg! What did they do with the nuts? 
There’s only so long you can look and study these type of artefacts and twenty minutes was long enough. For those interested. The elephant knob was the largest on show. Proudly hung in the centre of the wall. 
Weirdest exhibition I’ve ever seen, I have to say.

It was back home next day, back home to a slightly better temperature and another twist in the tail.

Departing Birmingham Airport Car Park, I placed my pre-paid ticket into the machine, only for it to be rejected. An alarm went off in my head, my fears confirmed when a message came up on the machine. I owed them £500!! What! Panic set in!
I pressed the button. A voice on the other end explained I was in debt. I explained I had pre-paid and was then informed me I had parked up in the wrong car park. I was told to back up from the exit and go into a blue office on the right to sort things out. I was raging, admitted I had made a balls up but to charge me £500?! “It’s £100 a day in this car park sir” the guy behind the desk said. To be fair he did phone his superior and had a conversation about the mistake I had made etc. Eventually he gave me the ‘good news’. “My boss has agreed to waiver the full payment due in this car park and to only charge me £129”. 

Well my instinct told me; ‘I suppose its better than 500 bloody quid!’ The end of a very odd adventure!

Sunday, 22 March 2020

Getting the blues in Chicago

Getting the blues in Chicago

Monday 18th June 2018
Following my adventures in New York and Detroit I was embarking on the final leg of my tour and heading for Chicago. Passing time until my train journey started I took in the Sweden v South Korea World Cup game on the television in my hotel room. Supporting Sweden of course! Sweden won 1-0 to progress in the tournament and I was sure Gareth, Jenny and Polly would be celebrating in Stockholm.

I ordered a taxi to take me to the station, which didn’t appear to be too far from my hotel as it happened but in the heat, 64o, it would have been silly to walk it. Railway stations always hold an interest for me, particularly foreign ones. I like comparing them to those back home and in my experience I have to say, most of the ones I’ve visited don’t compare at all. Detroit was no exception. A nondescript building which housed the ticket office and waiting room beset on a sparse piece of land conjuring up an image more akin to a mid county branch line, was disappointing. Maybe railways are not that important or cherished in this part of America I pondered. Sitting in the waiting area with nearly an hour to spare the time was spent studying my travelling companions who gradually came in to fill all the seats. One I couldn’t miss was a huge black lady taking up two seats on a bench who immediately filled me with dread, should she have a perch alongside me on the train. Thankfully she didn’t.

We embarked the Amtrak from the platform which was in the open air, a narrow strip the health and safety merchants at home would have a field day on. So began the 8 hour journey to the ‘Windy City’.
If I was looking forward to replicating the memorable Memphis to New Orleans journey I had undertaken the previous year I was to be disappointed. The air conditioning was nil, and the scenery was the same. Dull. You imagine criss crossing America by train to be full of wonderful landscapes, peaks, lakes and isolated townships with their own peculiarities. Which had made the New Orleans run, transgressing through Louisiana and Mississippi, the swamplands, a really true experience. Detroit to Chicago was far less inspiring. Tedious. Only place that distracted the boredom was Kalamazoo which had me straight away singing the old Glenn Miller song in my head; 

‘A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H, I got a gal in Kalamazoo
Don’t want to boast but I know she’s the toast of Kalamazoo
Zoo, zoo, zoo, zoo, zoo’

They don’t write lyrics like that anymore! Or maybe they do. 
All the same it had me thinking; ‘so this is where the place is!’

The journey was monotonous, I was surprised by the lack of anything remotely interesting to look at. And it wasn’t helped with the train stopping regularly in a loop to allow one of the legendary mile long freight trains to pass. I did pass some time in the buffet bar where I  managed some idle chat with other bored passengers. One guy proved to be a music nut like myself and an engrossing conversation passed an hour, talking about the early 60s rock and roll scene both here in the States and in the UK. Unsurprisingly he had never heard of Marty Wilde, Billy Fury, Cliff Richard, Mark Wynter… but was intrigued when I told him about The Tornados being the first British group to have a number one hit on their Billboard Charts in 1962. And I was co-writing the biography of the Tornados drummer Clem Cattini. 

Contrasting with Detroit, the Union Station, Chicago was like an airport. Negotiating my way through the complex which reminded me of Brazil’s São Paulo International Airport, endless, (I had a connection flight there from Johannesburg to Buenos Aires in 2016, a nightmare!) I eventually found my way to an exit and a taxi rank, where the queues were stretching way way back into the station. Took me some time and then the journey to my hotel, the Raffaello was equally as long. Rush Hour apparently! 

The Raffaello was well situated, just a couple of blocks from Lake Michigan and well placed to explore the city’s delights. Settled in, refreshed, the time was 8pm and tired after a long day I strolled down the avenue to get a feel of the area and find somewhere to eat. A bar about half a mile way looked comfortable and aching for a drink I entered, sat on a stool at the bar, ordered a beer and a Fajita Mexican meal which went down a treat. Pleasurable it was!  As was the chat with the barman who enlightened me on the blues clubs, which was the main reason I had wanted to come to Chicago.
Nice way to end the day. But not before I took the elevator in the hotel to the rooftop ‘speakeasy style’ Drumbar, 17 storeys up. Surprised, not sure why, the bar was busy, background music and the phalanx of guests providing a relaxed and cool backdrop. 
View from the rooftop

Described; ‘The moody yet energetic bar boasts an intimate indoor lounge area and a beautiful outdoor terrace with views of Lake Michigan and the Hancock building. Drumbar’s spirits menu is comprised of an unparalleled selection of earnestly sought after whiskeys, scotches, bourbons and cognacs. Many of these are limited released, one-of-a-kind, highly allocated products meant to offer some of the world’s most unique spirits to guests. Drumbar also has a unique partnership with The Scotch Malt Whiskey Society, an organisation that selects and bottles single-cask scotches from distilleries all over Scotland.’

All of which would have impressed my friends back home.. but I settled for a couple of bottles of cold beer! And called it a night.

Tuesday 19th June
Chicago is famous for many things but I guess none more so than the blues clubs, and the infamous and legendary Al Capone. We all grew up watching the great Hollywood gangster movies depicting the 1920s and 30s prohibition era, starring James Cagney, Edmond O’Brien, the Dead End Kids. ‘Top of the world Ma!’ and all that. One of my favourite movies was the 1967 ‘St. Valentine’s Day Massacre’ starring Jason Robards. The story of Capone’s henchmen gunning down members of his rival 
Bugsy Moran’s gang in a garage situated at 2122 N. Clark St. in the Lincoln Park area. For me, this was the main port of call I really wanted to see.

I bought a ticket for one of the ‘gangster’ tours and joined a gang of around a dozen others on the so-called ‘Black Bus’. Good way to see the city apart from anything else I figured, but it was the mobster sites I really wanted to see. Turned out to be, I have to say, slightly disappointing.
The guide, a youngish student looking type at the front of the bus was very informative, and amusing but after around 20 minutes it all just sounded like waffle to me. As if he was trying to think of something else to say. First destination on the tour was the Biograph Theatre in North Lincoln Avenue where back in 1934 another famous gangster, John Dillinger, was gunned down by the police. Now to many, Dillinger was decidedly second division compared to Capone, probably not as many films made about him! He was in fact, the more you learn about him, an interesting character achieving legendary status ‘of near Robin Hood proportions’ our guide informed us. America like their ‘gangs’, the Bonnie and Clyde Barrow Gang that rampaged through the States around the same time for instance. And of course before them the Jesse James Gang in the Wild West days. Well John had his ‘Dillinger Gang”, hitting the road and robbing a couple of dozen banks AND four police stations, which must have been a tad embarrassing. John escaped from jail twice, and obviously believing his own hype, ‘courted publicity’ which the media seized on to build him up as a right character with a ‘colourful personality’, ‘full of bravado’. J.Edgar Hoover, Director of the F.B.I. thought otherwise however and decided enough was enough and set about cornering him.

Dillinger had managed to escape from four states with the police on his tail, for almost a year. Returning to Chicago in July 1934 he found refuge in a brothel owned by Romanian prostitute, Ana Cumpănaș, who, suspicious, informed police and federal agents of his whereabouts. On July 22 the police closed in on the Biograph Theatre where he was enjoying an afternoon out with his girlfriend Polly and Ana who by the sounds of it, invited herself along, eating popcorn and watching ‘Manhattan Meldrama’ a gangster film, naturally, starring Clark Gable. 

Exiting the theatre they were confronted by Federal agents, led by Melvin Purvis and Samuel Cowley. John drew his gun and tried to run, but was shot in an alley adjacent to the theatre.
And here we were, in the alley, listening to this tale and trying to imagine what it must have been like to witness the scene that occurred here some 70 odd years ago. Fascinating really. Made Capone sound boring!

Well that was interesting but I really did want to find out more about the St Valentine’s Day Massacre. Our guide gave us some info on Al Capone’s exploits, how he virtually ran the whole of Chicago in the 20s and 30s, the speakeasies, the liquor rackets, the lawyers - and his battles with Bugsy’s mobsters. What he didn’t do, was enlighten us much on the infamous St Valentine’s Day massacre. Sure, we went down Clark Street where the garage was, but we virtually drove right past it! Ok, a lot has changed, the garage is no more, long gone, but the wall where Bugsy’s men were lined up and machine gunned was still there. Truth be told, set back from the street, nobody would know or be any wiser of its significance. But surely we could have stopped and got out to have a look, take a picture of the wall even if it has been re-painted and re-pointed! 
Anyway, we moved on, around a few streets which I could have sworn we drove around about three times. Stopped opposite a store where another battle had ensued, ‘you can still see the bullet holes’ and the tour was finished off with a visit to a bar where the walls were adorned with framed copies of front pages of 1930s Chicago Tribune news reports on the gangsters.

I don’t think I was the only one who left the Black Bus a little underwhelmed but there you are.
The Windy City Rebels
So, back at base, refreshed and changed, I set off to find the House of Blues Club. A venue of particular interest for me in that Gareth had played there with Speedhorn just a few years before. Impressive it was too. A large quite imposing building, a couple of floors, bars, a souvenir shop. The venue reminded me a bit of the old Bailey’s Clubs we had in the U.K. back in the 70s. Good vibe there. A fellow called Mike Wheeler on acoustic guitar entertained the crowd before being followed by The Windy City Rebels, great name, and a great band. After buying a couple of tee shirts I settled in for some beers, and a meal, hamburger and fries, which was crap! Didn’t really surprise me. Ive never been that impressed generally with American cuisine. But never mind, the music and beer was good. Most enjoyable way to spend an evening. Tomorrow would be another good day, I was excited and looking forward to visiting the famous Chess Studios. 

Wednesday June 20th
Waking up on my penultimate day of this trip/ tour around New York, Detroit and Chicago I lay thinking about the highlights and sights I’d encountered so far. I’d had an agenda of sorts, to visit as many of the music establishments/ venues I could as well as the obvious points of interest like Central Park, Times Square, Greenwich Village. 

Being a blues fan since the days of the ‘British Blues Boom’ of the mid 60s and the earlier British R & B scene of the Stones, Kinks, Animals, Downliners Sect a visit to the Chess Studios here in Chicago had always been high on my list. I knew it lay on South Michigan Avenue, number 2120 to be exact. I remembered that from way back when I bought the Stones ‘Five By Five’ EP, which included an instrumental track titled with the address of the studio. Not that I realised it at the time. 
Getting around these cities is fairly straightforward when you get the hang of it. All grids and blocks. Michigan Avenue was running along just behind my Raffaello Hotel and I assumed that going by that, finding the Chess Studio would be a doddle. Which isn’t too far from the truth….
I decided to walk for a bit to view the shops, restaurants and bars before with one eye on the clock, deciding to get what I thought they called the metro. Chess was about five miles away! 
This was an unexpected delight as well, much of the ‘metro’, which I discovered is referred to as the ‘L’ line is overhead, ‘L’ is short for elevated’  and the ironwork constructions are exactly like you see in the old films of Chicago. Gives you a feel of walking around history. Nearest station to the studio was Cermak-McCormick Place. A new station opened only couple of years before in 2015. Walking distance about ten minutes. With time to spare, the studio wasn’t open until 12 noon, I investigated the surrounding area, back streets where you always find items of interest. And I came across a graffiti daubed row of units under the ironworks of the ‘L’. Not the usual scribbled mess you normally see, the graffiti was very artful, decorative, and two coaches parked outside were equally impressive. Think of the days of Sgt Pepper and John Lennon’s psychedelic Rolls Royce and you get the idea. 

Standing waiting patiently outside Chess I was joined by another chap, a bespectacled student looking type with camera over his shoulder and notebook in hand. We acknowledged each other before the lady in reception opened her door and invited us in.

A brief history and parting of a dollar or two, forget what it was exactly but that didn’t or doesn’t matter, and Mel, a charming and enthusiastic receptionist took us on our tour. First of all she asked us to introduce ourselves. ‘I’m Clive” I said, “from England’ . The other guy introduced himself as “Chris Reynolds, journalist for the L.A.Times”. What! I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d told us he was a Vietnam vet! He looked the part.

Mel had an MP3 player, interjecting stories about Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and so on recorded in this very studio. Which was almost surreal. ‘Johnny B.Goode’ came blasting out. “This was recorded in this very room”. Then Etta James, 'At Last', Bo Diddley. Felt as if I’d been transported to heaven, really quite emotional. Then finally, Mel told us tales about when the Rolling Stones recorded here back in 1964. ‘It’s All Over Now’, one of my all time favourites came out of the speakers. I visualised Charlie set up in the corner, Bill, Keith and Brian Jones perched on stools with their guitars. Mick behind the mic. And it sounded great! Surreal. What an experience. I’ve been to Stax and Sun in Memphis, Hitsville in Detroit, Capitol in L.A. For me, this, Chess, topped the lot.
Mel showing us around.
Before leaving I bought a couple of C.Ds and managed to have a chat and swap emails with Chris Reynolds. Thought he might come in handy somewhere down the line. 

Rest of the day was spent wandering around the shops, bars and down by the river where Pier Park  is situated.
'The epitome of fun. Its where you'll find the amazing Centennial Wheel, the Pepsi Wave Swinger, a 1920's inspired musical carousel, and other nostalgic fairground rides. The Centennial Wheel soars to near 200 feet, with year round climate controlled gondolas for the most spectacular Ferris Wheel ride ever.. It's an iconic part of the Chicago skyline and treasured piece of Chicago history, harkening to the City's 1893 World's Fair. You can even book a VIP Centennial Wheel experience in a glass bottomed plush seated gondola.'

Indeed. Wonderful. If you like fairgrounds. Chicago River at one time polluted the city until authorities decided to miraculously alter the flow so that the pollution, sewage flowed out in to the lake instead. Remarkable!
I came across a bookshop which was excellent. Bought four music books. Nothing I love better, mooching around a bookshop.
And that was about it. Next morning I was getting picked up by Uber for my ride to O’Hare Airport and my return to Britain. As it normally does, it felt as if I’d been away for weeks. I had crammed quite a bit in though..
Like to think I’d return to all these places again sometime..and I’ve a feeling I will.

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Travelin’ Man - Teignmouth

                                                         Travelin’ Man

July 2012. 

Sue retired as a Phlebotomist on Friday 7th July. Three days after we had returned from a ten day holiday in Moraira Spain. A holiday that was booked a long time before her retirement and to help us get over our daughter Carly’s wedding in the May just gone. Shopping in the Duty Free at Alicante Airport something was clearly amiss as Sue tried hard to remember a perfume she wanted to buy. Prompted and cajoled, she just couldn’t recall what it was. She looked blank. She grew more and more exasperated and finally gave up. I dismissed this as ‘everything is catching up with her’, weariness, but all the same it was disconcerting. This just wasn’t like Sue.
Over the weekend, it got worse. Sue became quiet, couldn’t respond to simple questions, she looked drawn. Sue was always bubbly, always on the go, except when watching her favourite soaps on the TV. I was worried. That Saturday afternoon I called her over to me on the settee, sat her on my knee. I said to her; “Sue, I think we better see the doctor …”.
Normally she would have brushed this off; “Its’ nothing, only a headache..” or something along those lines. 
She looked at me…. and said “I know..”
This freaked me out.

Result was a CT and an MRI scan and then both of us being called in to see the doctor at Studfall Surgery. The news was devastating. Two tumours on the brain and one on her lung. 
“I’m so sorry…”  We sat there speechless and in total shock. 
Having to inform Carly in Widnes and Gareth in Sweden was a nightmare and something I somehow had dreaded I would have to do when Gareth moved over there to be with his girlfriend Jenny in 2002. A phone call with bad news… a dread that someday I would be the harbinger…

What followed was 18 months of hell as Sue went through three courses of draining chemotherapy, months of radiotherapy. The side effects were horrendous, traumatic and invasive. When Sue’s hair began to fall out is when it really sunk in. We were distraught and I felt totally helpless. 
We were determined to fight and beat this dreadful disease as many finding themselves in this situation will tell you. What else do you do? Give in? Accept it? Or fight it. 
Carly was a Radiotherapist at Christie’s Hospital in Manchester, one of the leading cancer hospitals in the world. We had hope. She immediately contacted, arranged and organised, with the help of her consultant, Dr Favour-Finn, to have her mum’s records and treatment transferred to Manchester. 
As the months went by, all was going better than we had dared hope. Each time, following a course of treatment, the scans revealed the tumours to be shrinking, no sign of the disease spreading. Relief was palpable.
Then came the bombshell. It was June 2013.
Dr Favour-Finn looked strained, could hardly look us in the eye. We sat in this little room, Sue, myself and Carly, wondering what was forthcoming. First of all Dr Finn told us; “The tumours are continuing to shrink…..but…”, a pause… “I’m afraid the cancer has shown up on your pancreas”. Silence. It was Deja Vu. A re-run of the meeting in Studfall Surgery when Sue was given the diagnosis.
“How long have I got?” Sue somehow gathered the strength to ask. Stunned beyond belief, we looked silently at Dr Finn. “With treatment…months. Without…weeks’

How do you deal with news like this? The inevitability of the outcome coursing through our bodies like a lightning bolt. 
We left the hospital in tears, holding onto each other as we made our way back to the car. Sue suddenly stopped, looked at Carly…her voice almost a whisper, shaking, she asked Carly.. “Who’s going to look after your dad..”
Some things will stay with you forever. That in her moment of overwhelming distress she should think of my well-being and future was too much. I broke down. 
We had been together for not far shy of 50 years, since we first met on a blind date when we were 17. I couldn’t contemplate life without her.. but with two granddaughters Polly and Ruby to look after, both miraculously born midway through Sue’s treatment, which gave her the spirit to fight on, I had to. 
Of course, I had to. Apart from my own grief I had to help both Carly and Gareth through this terrible ordeal.
Sue lived to see her grandchildren's first Christmas, that’s all she wanted she told me a month before as her body became more frail and racked with pain. She passed away peacefully, if there’s such a thing, with all her family, including sisters Barbara and Christine, at home on Saturday January 4th 2014. 

                                                             Devon and Cornwall      

May 7th  Teignmouth..

“I wish I was coming with you” my old mucker John ‘Wilf' Wilson said as he dropped me off at Corby Station. In a way I wished he was too. We share a load of memories from as far back as the 1960s when we used to travel around the country following Liverpool F.C. and going to gigs. “Where's the rucksack?” Wilf asked, laughing. In 1971 we had headed off down south with just that, and a tent on our backs. We were hitch-hiking and bound for the Isle of Wight but ended up in Ramsgate! Not because we didn’t have a map, more because it was done on a whim. The abiding memory is of causing mayhem in shops nearby Ramsgate Station as we knocked boxes of sweets off shelves with protruding tent poles from our rucksacks and being told angrily to “Get out!”. 

Here I was with a hold-all that weighed a ton! I was off for eight days to wander around Devon and Cornwall. Something I had been looking forward to since Sue had passed away. 
There are no rules in coming to terms with and handling grief. At times it catches you unawares, anything can trigger a bout of depression. Loneliness, photographs, memories..You tell yourself, ‘life goes on’, ‘It’s what Sue would have wanted’. Indeed there were times during the latter stages of her life where we discussed just that, candid conversations at night in bed.
I decided  that I had to get away. Away from the house, anywhere, where nobody would know me. I didn’t want to talk to anybody, didn’t want to see anybody. To disappear. And then an idea entered my head. To re-trace our footsteps over the last fifty odd years and visit places from our past and also to where I had never been before. 
Sue was never one to partake in such adventures, she loved her holidays abroad but asking her if she fancied a day out to the coast or a weekend away didn’t really interest her.

Thus I was heading south to Devon and Cornwall where we had enjoyed holidays in Newquay, Bude, Torbay.
I had spent some time since Sue’s passing with Carly in Widnes and Gareth in Sweden, where the legendary Swedish actress Great Garbo rests in peace, in a cemetery not far from where Gareth lives in Stockholm. 
I understood what Garbo meant …“I want to be alone..”

The hour long train journey to London gave plenty of time for reflection. Making my way from St. Pancras to Paddington for the Teignmouth train via the Underground however, brought me back to the present. 
“Single please” I requested at the ticket office. 
“That'll be £4.70p” 
Seemed a bit steep for a ride that passed through only five stations I thought. For some reason I still imagined the Underground was a cheap way to travel. After all, didn’t we used to hop on and off these trains for a couple of bob in the 60s when we regularly came down to watch Liverpool games? 
I know time has moved on, inflation, wages etc have increased too, but £4.70p?
“Do you have concessions for senior citizens?” I asked hopefully. 
“Not for single tickets sir” 
I shrugged my shoulders, smiled, conceded; ‘Typical. If anyone can rip you off in this country they will.’
On reaching Paddington and with an hour to spare I went for a drink at the lavishly named Cafe Rafitta on the concourse. 
“Hot chocolate please” 
“£2.60 sir” 
‘At least everyone is polite but they always are when they are knifing you in the back at the same time’ I  mused. I was slipping into my cynical mood. Sipping the chocolate, which was lovely, I had to admit, I was thinking; 'the Cafe Rafitta? What's that all about? Though I guess it sounds better than a greasy spoon eatery called Joe’s Caff or something’. 

The Cafe Rafitta was apparently of Portuguese origin, which explained the price of a simple egg custard on display, £1.89. 'Stick Portuguese in front of an Egg Custard and hey presto, you have something exotic' I pondered. 'You can pick up a pack of two in Asda for 50p! Outrageous!’ 

Moaning to myself passed the time and I eventually boarded the train for Bristol where I was to change for Teignmouth. I had been looking forward to this but was disappointed not only to find the train crammed, but the journey boring, the view of the countryside boring. One thing that amused me though was the TV screen on the back of the seats, like they have on aircraft and I thought to myself; 'Blimey the Great Western Railway is slowly creeping into the 21st century.' There didn't appear to be much to watch, switching the stations as you do but one item did catch my attention. 'We are travelling at an altitude of 243 feet'. Now that did tickle me. If there’s a more piece of useless information going I don’t know what it is!
Changing at Bristol Parkway I was surprised to discover I would be joining the Manchester to Paignton Cross Country Special. I was even more surprised to discover when it rolled in that it only had four coaches with everyone again packed in like the proverbial sardines. God almighty, wouldn't you think that for a journey this long they would have a full compliment of coaches? Making matters worse was that I ended up being hemmed in around a table by laptop maniacs. All with the obligatory set of earphones to emit the impression they were high profile and typing something really essential; an occasional break to sip a bottle of pure Mountain Spring Water; a nibble from a Marks and Spencer Cheese sandwich and then it was off again. 
They were doing my head in. Bloody posers! 
Then, out of the blue, the ringtone on my mobile went off. Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues blasted out and stopped them in their tracks. It was a call from my mate Danny Coyle. I swear the lap-toppers all paused and looked at me with disdain while I answered Dan the Man. 'Yes' I thought, 'I can be a poser too!'
So far this trip into deepest Devon had been one of disappointment. I had imagined there would be scenes of great beauty, but it was rather bland. Daydreaming about this brought the TV show Fawlty Towers to mind. This is where the show was based, Devon. I gazed out at the passing landscape. Basil Fawlty's diatribe to a deaf old woman complaining about her bedroom view brought a grin to my face. I didn't exactly expect to see the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or herds of Wildebeest galloping by either but it did occur to me. The countryside is really rather dull.
Finally I arrived in Teignmouth at 7pm, it was drizzling, the sky was grey, nobody around at the station. As I took the scene in it suddenly occurred to me; ‘Where the hell is the Bay Hotel where I'm staying?’ I wasn’t even sure what the address was! I decided, easiest way was to get a taxi, simple. But no, there wasn't a taxi to be seen! I began to walk in the direction of the Town Centre. My eyes peeled for a cab coming round a bend. Not one came. A sign pointed to the seafront. I carried on. There was nobody around and thoughts were circling in my head; ‘Christ this place looks lively!’ A young girl appeared out of nowhere, heading my way, oblivious to everything with her headset on. 
“Excuse me”, I stopped her, “Any idea where the Bay Hotel is?” She took her headphones off and I repeated my question.
“No” she said, and put her headphones back on. Ah well! I carried on walking and then much to my surprise and relief, there was the Bay Hotel, right in front of me. A four storey pink building which didn’t particularly look that inviting and I recalled at that moment that I had been forewarned that the hotel had a dubious reputation. I never look at Trip Advisor but Carly and my mate Pat McMahon had both checked it out and both had cracked up, Pat laughing his head off! Carly wailing “Didn't you check this out dad!?” 
“Can't be that bloody bad” I had said. The owner was an alcoholic by all accounts, pissed up at breakfast every morning, she was insulting, the hotel was dirty. My answer to Carly and Pat was the same. “Well I'm only staying there for four nights and I'm not living in the bloody place.”

Knackered and hungry, I just wanted to get checked in and sorted so I could go out for a pint and a bite to eat. A young guy was on the desk. “Ah you must be Mr. Smith?” he announced. Did I detect a hint of impatience? Was he waiting up for me or something? I looked at him; “yes” I replied and asked; “don't you have any taxis in this place?”
“Yes” he said without lifting his head up from the paperwork he was sorting.
“Well I've just walked all the way from the station and I didn't see one!” 
“Oh, we do”
It was clear this conversation was going nowhere, so I left it there. He picked a key up and showed me all the way to the top of the building, up four flights of stairs. Must be packed I figured. No, I was wrong again. Turns out I was the only one there! And they shove me up in the attic!
The room was tiny but adequate. The single bed squeezed in under the window, looking out over the rooftops which was covered in bird shit. It was still pissing down.
‘I've come all the way for this’ crossed my mind. I had a quick wash to freshen up and went out. Looked around the seafront for a while, took some photos of various things, the Lighthouse, Lifeboat Shed, usual mundane things and went and treated myself to a fish supper from the wonderfully named Rock and Sole Fish Bar. Sitting on a bench opposite to enjoy my dinner I was immediately set upon by a hungry seagull. “F—- off!” I shouted. If anyone walking nearby had witnessed this they’d have thought I was a vagrant or a nutter but the gull didn’t bat an eyelid. Whatever, it was getting fuck all.
Two pints in the adjacent Blue Anchor pub to wash my fish supper down and I was ready for bed, which was quite comfortable as it happened. I drifted off into the land of nod, thinking; ‘tomorrow should be a better day. Pat and his wife Yvonne are coming down on their Trike from Bude to meet up before heading home to Corby. It’ll be nice to have some company..’.

It would also be Sue's birthday. She would have been 63.
I woke up to find the weather was still glum, still raining. I was thinking about Sue. A lovely birthday message from her friend Gill on Facebook saddened me but I was determined not to be morose today. I’m forever been told; “Sue wouldn’t want you to be sad, she’d want you to get on with your life”. Of course I knew she would but it was still too early and raw.
I dressed and went down for breakfast, somewhat apprehensive. Where was the dreaded landlady? Was she going to be lying on the floor in a state of undress with a glass of wine in her hand, paralytic? Cursing everyone that came in looking for something to eat? Well, surprise, surprise, there was no sign of her. In fact there was no sign of anyone except a couple of young girls looking bored and hanging around in the kitchen sitting on worktops waiting for someone to come in. The dining area was laid out nice, it was clean, Good Morning television was on. ‘Take a seat Clive’ I said to myself, ‘take your pick’. One of the girls came out and asked me if I wanted a cup of tea first, followed by a Full English. “Sounds good” I said and she trundled off looking pleased to have something to do. Meantime I was waiting to hear some expletives, some crashing of crockery, maybe even a song. Perhaps the landlady's on a bender I guessed, or can't get out of her bed. Felt a bit disappointed to tell you the truth. I was looking forward to meeting this lady, warts and all. Think I could have taken to her. 
Breakfast was served and it was lovely. I don't normally bother with this but I figured that if I was going to spend the best part of my time roaming around in the fresh air, it’d be best to fill the engine up, as they say.

A text message informed me that Pat and Yvonne were arriving after lunch, they were going to stay overnight in an establishment called the James Luny House. Yes you read that right, what a name! I decided to spend this first morning taking a good look around the town and harbour. An ‘easy’ type day after yesterday’s excursion. I was keen to walk the coastal path to Dawlish but was dismayed to find it closed due to the recent storms that obliterated this part of the south coast. Not totally unexpected as the coastline and scenic railway had been decimated in February and was only now showing signs of recovery. A workforce was carrying out repair work as I approached. Nonetheless I walked as far as I could and had a chat with the site manager. Interesting and informative it was. “I’ll have to come back next year then” I said to him. “Yes, afraid so unless you’re around here in about a month”. I wouldn’t be though, pity. I headed into town after this, only small but with plenty of shops, including charity and junk outlets which I love to rummage around in. I bought a half pint Heineken glass jug emblazoned with its colourful logo. Only £1.25p. I have a collection of half pint glasses at home that I’ve nicked from pubs over the years. I don't like pint pots in the house. Think they look vulgar. 
With camera in hand I headed in the direction of the Shaldon to Teignmouth Road Bridge. On the way passing the local rugby club ground which was interesting as it was right next to the railway line and also the sea. How many balls to do they lose during a game I wondered? A big hoof by a full back would surely see the ball flying over the fence and into the harbour. 

Crossing the bridge I received another phone call from Danny. “Where are you?” he asked, “It sounds noisy”. 
“What?” I replied, “I can't hear you”. 
The traffic was constant walking over that bridge and it was noisy. “I’m walking across the sea” I said. That would throw him I thought! Dan laughed and said “Oh, right I’ll get to the point then” and then attempted to explain that he had booked a couple of single rooms in Llanberis, North Wales for an adventure of climbing up Snowdon in June. “Is that OK?” This all sounded like an excerpt from the TV programme An Idiot Abroad!  “Yea, whatever Dan, good stuff” 
I couldn't tell if he had heard me or not, the wind and the traffic noise was quite intense. Another burst of cackle and Dan signed off, I could hear him chuckling; “Good, enjoy the rest of the week, see you soon”.  
Time was getting on and instead of taking the roadway back into town which was hilly I decided to take the overgrown looking pathway running parallel to the railway line. Big mistake! Brambles were overhanging everywhere, snagging me at every opportunity, the path was mostly submerged with puddles from the recent inclement weather and I ended up bogging. ‘This was a bright idea’ I said to myself. My shoes were manky, jeans wet, splashed with mud. Emerging out of this quagmire I happened to pass the place where Pat and Yvonne were due to stay. I couldn't resist sending them a text. ‘I’ve found the Luny house Pat’. Thought that was quite amusing but I've always been one to laugh at my own wit.
The Luny House was owned by a retired Rear Admiral or Squadron Leader or something, ‘very posh’ Pat later told me, ‘bit well-to-do’.
The Lady of the House knew all about the establishment I was staying in; “Oh, yes, she's a barrister, and an alcoholic”.
Well, there you go; it takes all sorts don’t it. Although I still hadn’t seen her, I’d been back inside a couple of times since breakfast and the hotel still appeared to be bereft of life.

Meeting up with Pat and Yvonne we headed for a pub and chewed the fat for a couple of hours, talking about Sue which was nice, talking about a proposed show I was due to make with Pat on Corby Radio, talking about the future prospects of Corby Town F.C.
With it being miserable, grey and still drizzling, it was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon in a cozy, friendly little Inn. The ale was going down well too, enough to dull the senses a tad and cause Pat to crack his head on a solid wooden toilet door! ‘Bar steward!’ he exclaimed rubbing his head, “I’m going to complain, feel the lump on my head!” Sympathy was in short supply as me and Yvonne just laughed and said; “it was nothing to do with the beer then?”
At that we called it a day and went back to our respective hotels to rest, wash and prepare ourselves for the night, a meal and some more refreshment. 
It was nice having good company on such a poignant day.  
Pat and Yvonne were heading home next morning whilst I was going to begin my adventure in earnest. I was ready to make Looe and Polperro my first trip.