Monday, 10 February 2014

Benefits Street

If you live in the UK, you probably already know about the Channel 4 programme 'Benefits Street', a documentary series which has attracted an awful lot of attention and controversy over the past month or so.

For my overseas readers, a very brief synopsis - 'Benefits Street' is a crude nickname for James Turner Street, a suburban avenue in a rough part of Birmingham in the West Midlands. According to the programme, the street has acquired this nickname because the majority of residents there are unemployed and living on benefits, with some never having worked at all. The series documents these people's lives over a year by shoving cameras in their faces and talking to them etc. The programme has generated controversy because many believe that our current Government - with the help of their friends in the media - are demonising poor people/people currently living on benefits. We're encouraged to believe that these people are "scum", are an inferior race, and should all be shot, or something.

The first two episodes of 'Benefit Street' were grim. Episode One centred on a chap called Danny who has a penchant (great word, I'm pleased with that one) for nicking things, selling them, then buying drugs with his "earnings". We saw Danny's tactics - lining a shopping bag with foil to stop the alarms going off - and we saw him being forcibly arrested in Birmingham city centre.

Episode Two wasn't much better. This time, we saw a group of Eastern Europeans move in to James Turner Street, having been promised work doing fruit picking on a farm, or something. To their horror they soon realised that they were being treated as slaves, and with no money and about twelve grown men trying to share a house suited for a family of four, they upped ship and cleared off, presumably back to their own country. They originally fled their country for a better life - one guy's sole aim was to earn some money and send it back home to help feed his starving child - but they soon found they were being treated worse over here than they were back home.

Grim stuff, but Episode Three was painfully tough to watch, and the episode which has made me want to put pen to paper (or the blogging equivalent, anyway). Episode Three centred around a young couple, Mark and Becky, who - and I'm kind here - aren't going to be winning Mastermind any time soon. Mark has never worked (more on this later), and spends his time with Becky looking after their two young children, Casey and Callum.

Callum is, to be polite, a problem. Over the course of the episode we see Callum demanding a bowl of cereal at midnight, not going to bed until 5am, not going to nursery because ????? and having rather impressive temper tantrums that see him ending up in 'Punishment Porch' - a lovely little prison cell for him between the front door and a stairgate contraption.

Watching between my fingers, I soon began to realise why I found Episode Three so much harder to watch than the first two episodes. It was because I was watching a child's life being utterly destroyed. A child destined to grow up without a fucking chance of making anything of his life.

Callum's childhood seems to be a vicious circle of bad behaviour, violence, imprisonment, no education, verbal abuse and a twisted body clock. Unless there's an urgent intervention, we can see Callum's adult life following an eerily similar pattern - bad behaviour, violence, imprisonment, no education. Callum has no chance in life. None. And it isn't his fault. When he hits his mother and screams "Me hate mummy" it's hard to disagree with him, or blame him for his incorrect grammar.

As I touched on earlier, Mark, the father, has never worked. During Episode Three we saw him - to the obvious shock of his partner Becky - land a "job" doing door-to-door for a charity for 100% commission. Yep, that's right - any penny Mark received had to be off the back of a successful encounter. He absolutely tried his best - he put on a smart suit, and grafted all day, but he wasn't very good, to be kind to the lad. He came home shattered having earned precisely £0.00.

Now Mark might not know what the capital of Andorra is, or the square root of 225, but he's not thick enough to know that this was a load of bollocks. "Hard work pays" shouts our Chancellor, but for Mark it didn't. He jacked in the job and went back to his benefits. Blame him? I don't. I really don't.

Instead I just feel sorry for Mark. At one point he reflects on how nobody is going to give him a job, and to be fair to the lad he's absolutely right. I know how hard it is to find work at the moment, and I have a degree and work experience, am astonishingly intelligent, good looking, and modest. Mark has nothing. He can't put anything on his CV. He can't win - a problem which then filters down to his child, who can't win in life either.

When I think about the residents on James Turner Street, I sit back and I wonder what their dreams were when they were, say, 10. White Dee, Fungi, Danny, Black Dee, Mark and Becky - I bet none of them daydreamed as a child about a soul-crushingly boring life on benefits, going through life "existing" rather than "living", until they die and they're buried somewhere and nobody gives a shit.

At the beginning I mentioned how 'Benefits Street' has proved controversial. Many believe that programmes like this are put on solely to demonise these people, to encourage society to label them as "dossers", "scum", "lazy scroungers" etc etc. When I watch the programme however, I can't bring myself to think this. Instead, I just feel sorry - sorry for them, but also sorry for society. Mark and Becky went to their local food-bank during the episode - not because they particularly wanted to, I don't think, but because they had to, just to feed their child.

Think about that. In the United Kingdom, 2014, people are having to use food-banks to feed their children, whilst the Government tries their hardest to turn one section of society against these people. It's enough to make you weep, and think "There but for the Grace of God...." I wish I knew what the answer was, but in the short-term, sniggering at these people and thinking of them as a hopeless underclass probably doesn't help.

Help. That's what these people need, but right now they're not getting much of it.

Shame on us. Shame on us all.

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Bucket List 2013/2014

Well then, here we are.

Another year is (almost) in the books, and in the process we've again said our farewells to a load of talented, famous/infamous people. Off the top of my head, 2013 has seen us lose: Nelson Mandela, Margaret Thatcher, James Gandolfini, Tom Clancy, Dennis Farina, Peter O'Toole, Seamus Heaney, Lou Reed, Paul Walker, Stan Musial, Ken Norton, Sir David Frost, Marcia Wallace, Michael Winner, Richard Griffiths, David Coleman, Iain Banks, Richard Briers, Paul Shane, Lewis Collins, Mel Smith and Bill Foulkes.

With the exception of Thatcher, we will miss them and look back on their lives fondly for ever more.

But how has the 2013 crop affected the result of the Bucket List Game? Unless something rather dramatic happens in the next 12 hours, here's the final scores:

Margaret Thatcher, Nelson Mandela, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Clint Eastwood, Denis Norden (2)

Nelson Mandela, Paul Gascoigne, Bruce Forsyth, Denis Norden, Kirk Douglas (1)

Fidel Castro, George Bush Snr, Christopher Lee, Andy Kershaw, Paul Daniels (0)

Nelson Mandela, Prince Philip, Bruce Forsyth, George Bush Snr, Margaret Thatcher (2)

Nelson Mandela, Prince Philip, George Bush Snr, Margaret Thatcher, Maradona (2)

Nelson Mandela, Prince Philip, Margaret Thatcher, Keith Richards, Christopher Lee (2)

Margaret Thatcher, Rupert Murdoch, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Hulk Hogan, Dick Cheney (1)

Margaret Thatcher, Prince Philip, Eileen Derbyshire, Liz Dawn, Lisa Scott-Lee (1)

Ian Watkins, Barbara Windsor, Mickey Rooney, Dave Whelan, Dame Maggie Smith (0)

Nelson Mandela, Margaret Thatcher, Muhammad Ali, Dennis Skinner, Frank Worthington (2)

Arsene Wenger, John Bardon, Jimmy Carter, Phil Taylor, Sol Campbell (0)

Margaret Thatcher, Prince Philip, George Bush Snr, Justin Bieber, Harry Styles (1)

Nelson Mandela, Bruce Forsyth, Susan Boyle, Sir Alex Ferguson, Giovanni Trapattoni (1)

Raymond Briggs, Englebert Humperdinck, Paddy Ashdown, Sir Bobby Charlton, Brian Blessed (0)

Bruce Forsyth, Nelson Mandela, Scott Hall, Muhammad Ali, Kirk Douglas (1)

Bruce Forsyth, Margaret Thatcher, Prince Philip, Hugh Hefner, Ian Watkins (1)

Nelson Mandela, Prince Philip, Kirk Douglas, Betty White, Pete Doherty (1)

Norman Tebbit, Alex Reid, Mikhael Gorbachev, Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell (1)

A) Yes, Kirk Douglas is still alive.
B) With two deaths each, it's a 5-way tie for the win between me, @conorobyrne, @gongclough, @Boro_Monkey, and @snideysimon1919!
C) Apart from the "big two", our predictions this year weren't terribly successful....

Many thanks to all who took part in the Bucket List 2013, but the fun doesn't end there! Like London buses, here comes the next one - it's the Bucket List 2014 Game!

"This looks like fun, but tell me, what are the rules?"

Thanks for asking! Here are the rules:

A) Five famous people who you think will peg it in 2014. How do I define "famous"? For this game, the definition is that they must have a Wikipedia page, and be 'known' to some extent.
B) Entries are NOT limited to British people - figures from across the world are acceptable entries.
C) Famous figures with terminal illnesses are NOT allowed. That would be cheating. Poor health is acceptable - so, at this moment in time, you could select Michael Schumacher if you so desired - but a figure with a terminal illness is not allowed. Final call on that one ends with me.
D) Please do not kill the people on the list yourselves, or arrange for them to be bumped off. This will find you disqualified from the game.
E) If you played in 2013 (see above), you CANNOT pick any of the five figures you picked for 2013. They must be different. However, you can select figures which other people picked in 2013.
F) There is no prize for winning. I'm not that morbid.
G) There is no time limit for submitting entries. You can submit your entry next December, if you want.
H) To play, either: Leave a comment on this blog entry, or tweet/DM me at @Bruno_Di_Gradi

2014 is going to be interesting, mainly because the two traditional entries - Maggie and Mandela - have shuffled off, meaning those two predictable/obvious choices can't be chosen any more. A bit more thought is required. Is this the year that we lose a Royal? Are Zsa Zsa Gabor and Kirk Douglas finally going to prove that they're not indestructible? It promises to be fascinating.

So here's my List of Five for 2014:

Kirk Douglas, Carl Douglas (not related), Ian Watkins (paedo one, not the one from Steps), Peter Fonda, Ken Rosewall

Good luck y'all!

Monday, 9 December 2013

Feel the Moyes

Supporting Manchester United can be a funny thing. People always seem to have a question for you, eager to know what you think about the club, the players, and so on, or to offer you their opinions. Wayne Rooney, David Moyes, The Glazers, the atmosphere at the ground, the pies they sell there, etc etc - every thing is fair game when it comes to United. Sometimes, when a stranger asks me who I support, I'm tempted to say Aldershot, or Bristol Rovers, or Cheltenham, just so I don't have to answer their questions for the next twenty minutes about what's wrong with Patrice Evra, or listen to their opinion on Roy Keane.

Of course, this is particularly the case at the moment, as every fucker lines up to give their thoughts on our manager, David Moyes - a 1-0 home defeat to Everton the latest twist in the United roller-coaster which shows little sign of levelling out any time soon. So as I'm a massive big head, and this is my blog, here are a few of my thoughts on everything that's going on down M16 way.

(I wrote that bit before Saturday's game, so the "latest twist" is another 1-0 home defeat, this time to Newcastle, why aye mon)

First and foremost, I genuinely believe Sir Alex Ferguson is the greatest manager of all time. Now whether he is or he isn't, it's fair to say that David Moyes (or whoever) was never going to replicate what Ferguson did. It wasn't impossible, but it was, frankly, unlikely. To expect that would be foolish in the extreme - I'm a believer that us United fans have been spoilt rotten, but surely not even the biggest spoilt brat believed that Moyes would just waltz in and 26 years later leave with a bundle of European Cups and a statue of himself outside the ground.

We're not going to win the league this season and that's fine. Our realistic targets at the beginning of the season should have been a Top Four place (more on this later), the knock-out stages of the Champions League, and runs in the two domestic cups. In terms of Moyes, our thinking should have been that he'd be given time - and by time I mean "years" - to take the current, inherited squad and shape it the way that he wants.

So let's look at where we stand right now, Monday 9 December 2013. We've qualified for the knock-out stages of the Champions League, so Moyes has landed that one. We beat Liverpool in the League Cup and are still in it, so that's great, and we haven't played an FA Cup tie yet. The case for the defence, however, breaks down there. Because it's the league that's the worry - the big worry.

United HAVE to get a Top Four finish. HAVE to, because their business plan is based on continued success. You get Top Four, you get into the Champions League, which = lots of ££££, your good players wanting to stay, and the continued ability to attract the big name players from elsewhere.

(At the end of last season, the Arsenal players celebrated on the pitch when they had sealed fourth place in the league. That seemed pathetic at the time, but Champions League football enabled them to sign Mesut Ozil, a top class player - an impossibility if they had missed out)

You don't finish Top Four, and you get stuck in a cycle which is very difficult to get out of - you can't attract the world class players, and the good players you do have will want to leave, meaning you either have unhappy players playing against their will or a happier dressing room without any world class players in. You're pretty much fucked either way.

At this moment in time we've lost 5 games out of 15, and are 7 points off fourth place. That isn't an insurmountable gap, particularly as we'll (presumably) strengthen in January and United tend to finish the season strongly, but blimey, it's a worry - we're nearer relegation than Arsenal!

Now if this was bad luck, I'd be OK - if we had hit the woodwork five times against Newcastle, and Tim Krul had a blinder, and their goal hit Rafael on the arse, then hit a goat who had somehow wandered onto the pitch, then went in - I'd be content that our luck couldn't get any worse. But the football is TERRIBLE. It's really, really, really poor. Newcastle deserved to win, quite frankly, and against our friends on the blue half of the city we were humiliated. It was 4-1, it could have been 8-1.

I'm prepared to give Moyes time, as said earlier, although I do have three concerns. Firstly, clearing out the old coaching team and bringing in all your own men seems foolish. I understand why he did it - Moyes proving he's his own man, new broom etc - but to bring in coaches who have won nothing, to coach players who have won everything? Is the apple cart worth upsetting that much?

Secondly, as mentioned, the football is REALLY bad. There seems to be little/no creativity, a lack of accountability, a lack of leaders on the pitch. I've always enjoyed watching United, and I knew that after a bad performance, the backlash was up next. Right now though, watching United is a bit of a chore - there's no pace in the team's play, no urgency, no flair.

Thirdly, some of the things David Moyes has said recently are a bit worrying, to say the least. Before the Newcastle game he threw out there that "we're going to make it as hard for them as possible"; afterwards he admitted he didn't take van Persie off (when he needed to come off) because he was mindful of the reaction of the crowd/pundits. Think Sir Alex would have said either of those things?

(One final thing - how much better under Roberto Martinez do Everton look?! Eeek!)

So, what to do? Well, I'm not a hypocrite. I was happy with the appointment of Moyes, and as said earlier, he should be given time - so I'm sticking by him. (Besides, if we did sack him now, who the hell do you appoint then?) Nevertheless, some of the things he's saying and the football on show makes me sympathise with those who believe he's a Ford Mondeo driver asked to chauffeur a Rolls Royce, and that he simply isn't up to it.

Time will tell, and that's how it is at Manchester United - there's always intrigue around the corner,  there's always something to talk about.

Would we have it any other way?

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

I Miss Her

I miss her smile
So cute and pretty
I miss her dad
Even if he supports City

I miss Carluccios
Our favourite Italian food
I miss being with her
Whatever her mood

I miss The Wrekin View
But not the hill to it
I miss their quiz machine
Even when it went shit

I miss her at the quiz
Stealing my pen
I miss kissing her
Over and over again

I miss her hair
Brown and frizzy
I miss how she made me feel
In love and so dizzy

I miss her accent
"Dawley", "bath" and "looks"
I miss our shared interests
Books, books, more books

I miss teasing her
For being short
I miss "Together, forever"
Or so I thought

I miss her little phone
Including the flags game
I miss her beauty
Including her surname

I miss "credit the bank"
I'm almost ashamed to say
I miss our time at TCAT
Especially Albert Hay

I miss Monty
Particularly his yap
I miss our language
"Stahp, bby, stahp"

I miss making plans
Whenever, wherever
I miss holding hands
Whatever the weather

I miss the ideas for the future
Greece? Cyprus? Siena?
I miss the places I had in mind
Edinburgh. Paris. Vienna.

I miss Stratford upon Avon
Where scribes go to die
I miss the mad landlord
With his bow tie

I miss Ironbridge
My favourite date
I miss her kindness
Love, never hate

I miss Shrewsbury
The Quarry, the castle, the river
I miss making her scared
With my exaggerated shiver

I miss her eyes
Big, beautiful and blue
I miss the free McDonald's tokens
Very very sad, but true

I miss the Severn Gorge
The night it all started
I miss those days
Before we parted

I miss Twister
And Saturday night's shit TV
I miss LoTR
Despite my scepticism - all three

I miss the meals out
"Who's doing the talking?"
I miss spending time afterwards
Walking and walking and walking

I miss her quirks
The costumes, the cosplay
I miss all of them
Even the anime

I miss her
More than she'll ever know
I miss her
Why did she have to go?

Tuesday, 3 September 2013


**AUTHORS NOTE - Every section of this blog entry in italics are directly taken from the book in question. Enjoy them.**

I like books.

I like the feel of them, the smell of new ones, the cover designs, their colour (or lack of, perhaps), how they feel in my hands, and many other things. I like good books (obviously) and I also take a perverse pleasure in bad books. It's a lot of fun reading Dan Brown.

At least, that's how I felt until I settled down to read a book I had bought for £2. "What a bargain" I had thought at the time - a book by the great American novelist and celebrated scribe, Don DeLillo, for just £2! Sorted! Alas, dear reader, alas. Because the old pearl of wisdom is true - sometimes things are too good to be true.

The book in question is "Cosmopolis" and, having finished it earlier, I can now take great pride in announcing it as the most hateful thing I've ever had the displeasure to read. How bad is it? Very. Look, it's antagonising enough to make me dust off this blog and write about how much I hate it, for God's sake.

He said, "My prostate is asymmetrical."

"So is mine," Benno whispered.

They looked at each other. There was another pause.

"What does it mean?"

I'm so full of bile about this book that I need to be careful that this blog entry doesn't just become a rant. So, let's take a deep breath and try and walk through this one together.

"Cosmopolis" is about a man called Eric Packer. Eric is a billionaire, and a cunt. He really is - I can't sugar-coat that in any way. In fact, every character in the book is an obnoxious, horrible, aggravating shit.

So Eric is in New York and he wants a haircut, because damnit he's Eric motherfucking Packer! So Eric gets driven in his limo through the NYC traffic in order to get his haircut on the other side of town. Along the way he encounters protesters, a rapper's funeral, a visit from the President and the collapse of his business empire, caused by his own greed. Meanwhile, there's a former employee of his waiting to kill him.

There's not much story there, and the book isn't very long - 209 pages in fact, mercifully - so DeLillo fills his pages with the most extraordinary pseudo-philosophical bullshit AND the most awful dialogue you have ever seen.

I used to lick coins as a child. The fluting at the edge of a common coin. The milling it is called. I lick them still, sometimes, but worry about the dirt trapped in the milling.

On and on it goes, page after page of the most tiresome, awful nonsense, the likes of which you'll have never seen before or since. I've disliked books before. I've read bad books before. But Cosmopolis is the first one I've actually felt embarrassed to read on a train. "Oh God" I think, as I pull it out of my bag, "What if people think I actually like this book?"

He had mass but no flow. This was clear as he lay there dying. He had discipline and a sense of pace, okay, but no true fluency of movement.

But wait a second. Let's go back to one of my earlier gripes - that the characters are all shits. Packer's downfall comes through his own greed, and the book is heavy with the themes of capitalism gone bad - DeLillo wrote this garbage when the dotcom bubble was bursting. So maybe this is an acute commentary on the dangers of capitalism, and DeLillo should be applauded for his stand and his perception?

If it is, however, DeLillo blew it. There is no subtlety here. Packer et al are so egregious in their awfulness that there is no joy here - no pleasure in understanding that this is DeLillo attacking decadence. Instead, the whole thing is so "in your face", so ghastly, so sledgehammer-esque that even getting through the 209 pages is difficult. "HATE THESE PEOPLE!" DeLillo screams at us, and we do, but we hate him along the way more.

He liked paintings that his guests did not know how to look at.

At the end of the book, Packer is shot dead (I'm sorry for the spoiler but you shouldn't be buying/reading this book anyway). We feel neither happiness or sorrow when this happens. Not even relief. We're so fucked off with the whole debacle and so angry with ourselves for committing time/effort to the book that the ending matters not.

He said, "Stun me. I mean it. Draw the gun and shoot. I want you to do it, Kendra. Show me what it feels like. I'm looking for more. Show me something I don't know. Stun me to my DNA. Come on, do it. Click the switch. Aim and fire. I want all the volts the weapon holds. Do it. Shoot it. Now."

The film version of Cosmopolis was released last year. It "stars" Robert Pattinson and currently has a not-very-good-at-all IMDb rating of 5.1/10.

"Say the words."

"I want to bottle-fuck you slowly with my sunglasses on."

It's still better than the book.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

The Day We Caught The Train

It is 7:50am, and I'm standing on a cold platform (serious question - why are railway stations ALWAYS cold?). I've been doing this for two weeks. The train I'm about to board is heading to Wolverhampton, where I now work, so every weekday morning my alarm goes off at 6:30am and I wake up bleary eyed and wondering just what the fuck I'm doing up at this time and whether I could go back to bed for a few more hours and tell my boss that all the trains were massively delayed or something.

Having now become a dab hand at this "commuting" lark, I know I won't get a seat, so I decide to not bother trying and instead take the next best option - to lean on the nice cushioned thingy just by the doors where a commuter can leave his/her bike. Meh, it'll do. I pull my phone out of my pocket, and fire off a quick "good morning!" message via Facebook to my girlfriend whilst I'm in an area where my 3G works, and then I put it back in my pocket. Gaming apps don't really appeal at 8am.

(This will get more interesting very soon, I promise. I'm just setting the scene, OK?)

I decide to survey the people around me. There's a few, and they're all the same - they all look really bored, they all are wearing business suits, they're all holding cups of coffee....apart from one man. He's...well, fascinating. He's an elderly man - I'd place him roughly about 60 - and he has white hair and glasses. He is wearing a long tan coat, and he's carrying a battered old blue suitcase. He is fascinating me because he simply cannot stand still.

He paces up and down. He goes into the toilet, then exits 30 seconds later. He puts his suitcase down. He picks it up. He walks into a carriage, then walks back out again. He walks past me, and I realise he smells a bit. He holds the rail that I'm holding, then he lets go of it. He seems...troubled. He isn't talking to himself, or making strange noises, or anything that suggests serious mental illness. He's just...behaving a little oddly. "Maybe he's anxious about being on/having to stand on a train, and he's just fidgety" I think.

It is 8:05am. We're just outside Wolverhampton when the ticket conductor walks into our little area. I've bought a monthly season ticket, so I'm OK, but our friend in the tan coat isn't. Putting down his little suitcase, he admits to the conductor that he doesn't have a ticket...

"I have no means of paying" he begins. "My wallet was stolen, and it's been handed in at Wolverhampton police station. That's where I'm going."

"Sir you shouldn't have boarded the train. Why did you not speak to someone at the ticket office? Why didn't you come and find me?"

"I'm very sorry, it's very unfortunate..."

And this conversation carries on for about another 30 seconds. I'm trying not to listen, but when it's happening right in front of you it's difficult not to, isn't it? The chat ends with the conductor moving on through the train, and the man picking up his suitcase and waiting to get off the train at Wolverhampton, presumably to walk straight to the police station.

It is 8:10am.

My routine is pretty set in the mornings. I'll get off the train, pausing only to pick up a Metro paper from the concourse, before striding out of the station and to my place of work. It takes me about 10 minutes, and once I'm in I'll make myself a cup of tea, and then sit down at my desk to have a browse of the paper. My colleagues don't tend to arrive until sometime between 8:45am-9am, so I have a little time on my own. I quite like that.

Not this morning, however. Because this morning I'm too intrigued by our friend in the tan coat, and I can't shake off the feeling that he's lying. If your wallet was stolen, and handed in at a police station, would you take a suitcase with you when you go to fetch it? Wouldn't you hitch a lift, or sort out a train ticket somehow beforehand? No, there was something "Dodgepot McDougal" about this man - this elderly man, with white hair and glasses. He looked like a typical grandfather, not a criminal. I'm being stupid. This man isn't a liar.

I need to get to work.

But I don't, do I? Not yet, anyway. I'll be sitting in the office on my own for about 30 minutes, if I head straight to the office, so why don't I follow this story to a conclusion? Is this man a model citizen, or is he a big, fat liar?

(See, I told you it would get interesting)

We're now off the train. He walks slowly out of Wolverhampton station. Turning the collar of my coat up and fancying myself as the next Dick Tracy, I follow him, about 20 paces behind. "God I'm good", I think to myself, before about 3 seconds later he stops and pulls a cigarette out of a packet in his coat pocket. Shit. I stop, then decide a change of tactic. I walk past him, and begin making my way up the path towards the bus station. At a convenient point I stop, pull my phone out, pretend to text someone and look back towards the train station. I can see him, puffing away on his fag. I hate cigarettes, so I instantly change my opinion of him to "fare dodging, criminal bastard". Funny how we think stuff like that, isn't it?

A few minutes pass. He walks past me, and I give him 20 paces before sloping off after him, putting my phone back in my pocket. God, this is amazing. I'm a real life spy! I begin to imagine the screenplay. I see a sexually frustrated blonde wife, a complete brat of a child, and a really fit mistress who I have sex with in an apartment whenever I want to. It'd be awesome. I'm too busy thinking about this when I realise that he's stopped yet again. I let out a little sigh. This "following" lark is proving to be a little harder than I anticipated.

It is 8:15am.

What do I do? I pull out my phone again, but this time I actually do send a text. I message my friend Dan, who is undoubtedly still asleep but what the hell, I'm not really after a response:

"8:15am and I'm following an old man through the streets of Wolverhampton. No time to explain!"

And indeed there isn't, because he's off once again. He's walking down towards where the metro stops - walking away from my place of work, by the way - when suddenly I realise, to my absolute horror, that I don't actually know where the police station in Wolverhampton is. If I could find that out, it'd help. Out comes the phone again. I Google "Wolverhampton police station" and I'm greeted with a postcode of WV1 3AA. Splendid. I open up Google Maps, and, keeping an eye on our friend, I quickly type it in and ask it to go hunting for me. Seconds later, the app tells me where the police station is, and where we are in relation to it.

We're about 30 seconds away, and he's walking in the right direction.

How fucking stupid am I? I let out a little laugh - laughing at my own stupidity - before I stopped and turned round to walk to work.

But....not just yet. It was OK. I could keep on following him round the corner, and then when he went into the police station, I'd just continue walking straight on and up to the high street, and then just follow that all the way back to my place of work. I'd be in the office for 8:30am, it was OK. Another two minutes.

He walks past the police station.

And he keeps on walking. He crosses the road, crosses over the tram tracks, and walks down the road. He is now actively walking away from the police station. What do I do? "I've come this far" I think to myself, so I too cross over the road. Fuck it. I'm in the office every single day about 30 minutes earlier than I should be. I'm allowed to be a few minutes late just once.

I'm worried, though. I'm worried because I'm now walking into a part of Wolverhampton that I simply don't know, nor do I know where the frig our little fare dodger is going, and how long it'll take him. Thankfully, my fears are swiftly allayed. He turns left, and disappears out of my view. I follow about 15 paces behind, and, turning the corner myself, I'm greeted by the entrance to a Sainsbury's. Looking like any other kind, gentle and honest OAP in the world, he picks up a basket and serenely makes his way into the store, presumably to do his shopping.

Sneaky bastard.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Round The Wrekin

I'm overweight.

That's official, by the way. If you go by the BMI Calculator (which has its critics but for simplicity's sake let's run with it) I have a BMI of 27.4, as I'm exactly 6ft and I currently weigh between 14-15 stone (I'm 202 pounds, to be precise).

The BMI Categories are as such:

  • Normal weight = 18.5 to 24.9
  • Overweight = 25 to 29.9
  • Obese = 30 or more
So a calculation of 27.4 means I'm smack bang in the middle between "normal" weight and obesity.

I don't feel obese. I've seen obese people - they waddle down the street, stuffing their faces with pasties they've bought from Greggs, their disgusting bellies protruding out underneath their tops - and I don't think I'm one of them. I do know that I'm overweight, however. I could really do with shedding a few pounds. Christmas has been a big factor in this regard, as it always is. Pre-Xmas I was down to 14 stone exactly, the leanest I've been for a long time. I stopped drinking Coke at home, I stopped drinking alcohol entirely, I was cutting down on stupid foods quite successfully, I was doing a lot of walking. Then Christmas arrived, then the snow arrived, then the comfort eating arrived, and now I'm back up to 14 stone 6.

So what do I do about this? A quick glance at Twitter and Facebook alerted me to a thing called "Insanity". I pondered it, for roughly 0.7 seconds, then firmly said "no". What does it entail? I've no idea, but it's called "Insanity" for fuck sake. I can't run for more than a minute and I can do about 3 press-ups, so even the notion of doing an exercise regime called "Insanity" is well and truly off the menu. The longest journey starts with a single step. If I was to do this, I had to do this carefully. Giving myself a heart attack and dropping dead wasn't really what I had in mind. Then I thought about a gym, but again, no. Gyms scare me, quite frankly, and besides, I don't have the money. I can't see myself ever getting a gym membership and "pumping iron" or whatever it is the meatheads do in there, so that idea was out. What could I do, then, for exercise? I sat at my desk and looked out of my window, pondering this dilemma. "Where could I go" I wondered, whilst I sat in my chair looking at the woodland at the back of my house and The Wrekin off to the right. If only there was a place......hey! Wait a minute! What about The Wrekin?! It isn't the biggest hill in Shropshire - The Stiperstones is definitely more elevated - but I'd wager that The Wrekin is the most famous. It towers over Telford and Wrekin, and inspires local phrases such as "Going round The Wrekin" to describe someone rambling on almost as much as I am right now. I've walked up The Wrekin a few times - I've lost count, roughly about 7 - a record which is better than others, but still not great when you consider that I've lived here now almost 14 years. With this in mind, a plan came to mind.

To walk up The Wrekin, at least once a month. But that was boring. I needed an edge to it, a target. Something that would make me interested in doing it. I pondered a bit more, then I picked up my phone. Because I have an app on my phone, Endomondo, which is like an exercise companion. You can start the timer, then when you complete your walk/run/bike ride you press "stop" and it tells you your time, calories burnt, average speed, top speed etc. I'm sure I had used it before, when I walked up The Wrekin last year....aha! All the logs are stored in the "History" screen. I had used it before - last Spring, I had walked up The Wrekin in a time, according to Endomondo, of 32 minutes. A slight shame that it hadn't been 2 minutes quicker, and so sub-30 mins, but never mind....hang on. That was it - there was my target. The foot of The Wrekin, to the top. 30 minutes or less. I could attempt it as many times as I liked, but I had to do it at least once every month. The cold of January, the heat of July, the possible snow of December. Every month.

A terrific idea, in principle, but there was no way I was going to do it. I'm overweight, and I'm asking myself to shave 2 whole minutes of the time I clocked up the last time I went up there? Nah, not going to happen. But it was worth a go, right? So last week, at the end of January and after the snow had finally gone away, I was standing at the bottom of The Wrekin, phone in hand. I knew I wasn't going to get anywhere near 30 minutes - roughly 35 was my aim - but I was going to give it my best shot. Off I trundled, putting my phone in my pocket for safety. I decided I was only going to look at my time once - half way up the hill, when I passed Halfway House (I've no idea why it's called that) - so that I could just set my mind on walking, and not worrying about the clock.

Up I went. Having walked up The Wrekin a few times I know the climb by now, which does help. A long drag up to Halfway House, then a kick up as you walk over three false summits, the trees giving way about 2/3 of the way up, the path leading to the peak of the climb now exposed to the conditions. At the top, it is always windy and cold. My brother's friend lives at Halfway House, and I've walked up there before. I know it takes roughly 15 minutes. Last week, as I walked past, I slipped my phone out of the pocket of my fleece. 11:30. 

11:30? Eleven minutes, 30 seconds? 

How the fuck? I panicked. Walking up The Wrekin has caused me to break down in the past, after I thought "Wow, this is easy!" during the first half of the climb, racing up it, before being made to really suffer on the second (and much tougher) section. It was 15 minutes to Halfway House, I was sure of it, but here I was over 3 minutes quicker than that. It made no sense. I slowed down a little, but I felt good. I kept on going. I scaled the three false summits, wincing as I almost went over on my ankle scrambling up the last upslope where the rocks are interspersed with loose stones. I kept on going however, and soon I was within touching  distance of the top of the hill, the trig point and toposcope so agonisingly close. I could almost touch them, I was 30 seconds away....

....and then came the wind. It had been blustery at ground level, but now, 1330ft up, the wind was unlike anything I had ever experienced. I gasped as the wind - literally - took my breath away. I couldn't look forward, I had to turn my head to the side and try breathing in snatches. I tried putting my hood up on my fleece, the wind just knocked it straight back down with contempt. I was about 10 metres away from the summit, but the wind was so intense I couldn't actually walk straight. I was blown sideways, off the path, and had to compose myself before even attempting to walk forward again. It felt like I was in a wind tunnel, yet I ploughed on. After an epic struggle with the wind, I touched the trig point. I was at the top.

I took my phone out, stopped the timer without even looking at my time, then quickly shoved my phone back into the safety of the pocket. I was terrified it was going to blow away. I couldn't stay here, at the summit, so I immediately turned round and began walking back downhill to a clump of trees about 100 metres away. With the wind now behind me, I was convinced that I was about to take off, to be airbone and go whirling through the air. I shoved my hands in my pockets and made it to the trees, where I sat down at the base of the tree right in the middle of the miniature woodland. Here I had a shelter. After sitting for a moment and getting my breath back to anything approaching normality, I remembered my phone, in my pocket. I was a little annoyed. I thought I had walked really well, yet my chances of getting anywhere remotely near 30:00 had been compounded by the ferocious winds towards the summit. This was only January, though. It was my first attempt at this mark, I had at least 11 more to go. It was fantastic to get a time logged regardless of what it was - I knew I could beat it in more favourable conditions. I got out my phone and glanced down at the screen.