Actual blogging

January 27th 2010

Sheaf Square, Sheffield, 27.01.2010

I scythed through the crowd and ducked into the warmth of the bookshop, basking in the jet of reheated air from the fans above the sliding plate glass doors, pulling off gloves and stashing them in my satchel.

Picking up books on reputation. Jon McGregor, reasonably cool but accessible. Nabokov because it made you look like you read Russian literature because most people haven’t worked it out yet, and more books set in New York. Don DeLillo, Americana.

I bought books quicker than I could read them then, almost invariably three at a time, more usually from charity shops or the rare, surviving independent secondhand bookshops. There was one just a moment’s walk from my front door, which I passed twice a day. It was stacked with dusty, yellowing paperbacks marked up in pencil and sold by a man who clearly lived above his little kingdom, letting his personal collection spill over into the shop stock. Indeed, were one to come across a book without a price carefully pencilled into the top corner of the first page, it was best not to take it to the counter for fear that it was indeed his; business was usually so poor that the man could hardly refuse an offer of money, but the crestfallen look that bestrode his features sucked what was left of the joy out of the experience for the buyer. This particular browser liked to formulate what I thought of as Bookshop Man Paradox; being a man who ran a bookshop (substitute “ran” for “sat behind the counter reading Calvin, Hobbes and Calvin & Hobbes) it was impossible that such a man had not at least come across Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, yet having done so, it seemed equally impossible that he could not have seen himself reflected in it, become horribly disillusioned and at the very least felt moved to go outside occasionally.

This, however, was the glossy high street alternative. Books piled high, books as commodity, 3 for 2 deals and ambient lighting arranged to a single, nationwide policy distributed in document wallets from an office in Kettering, or Slough, or some such anonymous grey hole. Little cards stuck to the shelf edges bore messages supposedly from the staff, extolling the virtues of particular books in a personal, chatty tone too consistent to have been written by anyone working behind the counter at this place.

I was spending other peoples’ money, an undeserved, guilt-inspired Christmas present voucher. Just killing time.

An hour or so later I was flicking through the first pages of the most accessible of the three tomes that had eventually made their way to the till with me, sat at a table with a view of the doors to the coffee shop. Her lateness was good in a way. I could finish my coffee before she arrived. All the benefit of appearing to have enjoyed it without actually having to do so. This way she wouldn’t see me wince slightly with every mouthful.

Twenty minutes, four text messages later, she arrived. A sudden influx of cold air, swept in from the slushy streets by the swing doors, heralded the event.

Gingerbread latte. Even a pretend coffee snob could look down on that, right? Tall, milky and full of cinnamon, this was what the western world had done to coffee

It was impossible to actually have an awkward silence, and in that sense I was relieved; each potential pause was steamrollered by another thought voiced straightaway without moderation in the purgatorial chamber of the mind as one or other of us, high on caffeine and having come in from the cold, neglected to rein in our narrative tendencies.

Conversation about how terrible the world is nowadays. Reality TV. And, when the girl came round to shoo us out the door at 6pm, another rant. Why don’t coffee shops stay open late? In America… Ice cream parlours… Perhaps if there were places to go, we opined noisily to no-one in particular, obliquely referencing unspecified dark events in our generation’s collective teenage past.

Sheaf Square and Sheffield Station, 27.01.2010

Instinctively I walked her through the beautiful parts of town. The bits lit up in the dark to try (in vain, naturally) to discourage the gatherings of teenagers in pools of ambient light. Even the Winter Gardens were closed, forcing a detour round a high-rise hotel built, it seemed, purely to spite those who wanted to take a more direct route towards the station.

Even before we reached the plexiglass cocoon of the bus station I knew that it would be a stilted farewell.

The doors slid open again and the full extent of the coldest winter since the mid-nineteen-sixties resumed battle with my overcoat. I walked quickly, avoiding eye contact and looking furtively over my shoulder for an unspecified threat.

Coming in, I stamped the snow off my boots and shut the door behind me, easing my shoulder into it to encourage its damp, swollen form back into the frame before locking it and pocketing my keys. I stuck my head around the door of the front room.

After a silent moment’s observation I turned away, peeled off from the back of the standing crowd around the television and backed away slowly. The crescent of figures obscured the flickering glow from the screen, sending jack o’lantern shadows onto the ceiling. Stopping by the kitchen I picked up a glass, filled it at the tap and retreated upstairs. I sat down at my desk and turned on his computer. I looked up at the news.

Salinger was dead.


Daisy Hill Puppy Farm

Franks International Mens Hair Stylists, Boar Lane, Leeds

I took this photograph in the spring of 2007 in Leeds.

At the time, the place seemed like a relic, a break in the space-time continuum just one shop-front wide.  Junk mail was piling up inside the door.  Combs sat in jars of Barbicide, doing whatever it is that things do when they can’t fester because they’re suspended in disinfectant.  The sign was like something from another age, hand painted and full of promises about what treasures lay within.

I was back in Leeds a few weeks ago.  The place is boarded up, destined to be gutted, renovated and turned into something else as yet unspecified.

That’s the least of it.  A restaurant unit I ate in (with the same person both times, now I think of it) as both a Hard Rock Cafe and a Felicini pizza place is empty once again.  There are 900 new bedrooms on campus, built on stray bits of lawn, garden and car park they found along the northern edge.  New cafes spring up, old ones disappear.  A whole chunk of the city centre retail district has been flattened, and for a while Holy Trinity is blessedly free of its usual three-sided cage of shopping centre.  Not for long.  It’ll be back, bigger than ever we’re assured.  And, I expect, virtually unrecognisable from the cache of memories I cherish from my three years living there.

As Snoopy once remarked of the demise of the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm at the expense of a multi-storey car park, “You stupid people!  You’re parking on my memories!”


Manhattan Sky, originally uploaded by pourdownlikesilver.

Like everyone who passes through and falls in love with the place, I feel a strange pull today, a desire to be there, to stand beside New Yorkers and remember. To stand once again on the perimeter of the chasm left in downtown that they called Ground Zero. To stand beside those who will rally today in support of the Islamic Cultural Centre and all that its construction represents, in the knowledge that tolerance and mutual understanding is the only way out of these dark days.

In Memoriam

Tapers: A Rant

I do not understand tapers that get upset about people using mp3. So rare is it that the final file format is the limiting factor that it’s just a non-issue for most of us. How often is a recording made by a microphone on a stick 20 rows back in a windswept acoustic nightmare of a concrete bowl going to be further compromised by file format? Does the resolution of the recording impair your enjoyment more than the comments of the people around you, the noise of them opening beers, standing up to get past, singing along…

Even in the best case scenario of a great desk mix with audience mics, I’d be surprise by someone who could tell the difference between FLAC and mp3 encodings of it.

All this for recordings you’re probably going to listen to on standard-issue iPod earbuds on the Tube.

PS.  I’m sure there are people out there who love to collect high-quality recordings of their favourite band and then sit in front of highly accurate, expensive hi-fis and listen to them, and these are the people for whom this sort of thing makes an actual, measurable difference.  To them I would simply say step outside, walk/drive/catch a train to your nearest pub/club/venue and stand in front of an actual band.

Photobox “Around The World in 80 Days” – Shortlisted

Photobox, my online digital photo printers of choice, are having a competition to celebrate 10 years in business.  It was divided into categories by continent on a theme of Around the World in 80 Days.   I submitted a number of my American shots and promptly forgot all about it.  Until today.

Four rows down, in the centre.

Chicago and Lake Michigan

No idea why they chose this one of all the American stuff I submitted, but I’m sort of glad they did.  I can’t see it winning, somehow, as there’s some stiff competition, but it’s nice to be in all the same.

Prague: budget air travel, hostels, gadgets

Malostranksé Náměstí

Budget airline travel is a lot like binge drinking – you end up with a dry mouth, aching head and swear you’ll never do it again…

Budget airline travel is fucking horrible.  My recent travels have been either by rail (InterRailing Italy) or on proper airlines where at least the memory of the glamour of air travel lives on.  This had allowed me to forget just how unpleasant it is to be corralled into a 737 with 250 other people and kept there for two and a half hours at your own expense.  Or to spend over three hours airside in Manchester Airport Terminal 3 because your plane is late.  Or to be penned in to a small glass box in Prague and told nothing about the whereabouts of your plane, which is late, again, subsisting on vending machine fare and shooting angry glances at the screens insisting that your plane left on time when it hasn’t even arrived yet.  I know, I know, it’s cheap and we should put up with it, but if someone offered a “Be treated like a human being” surcharge I’d be at the front of the queue. (more…)


In London to hear Bret Easton Ellis discuss Imperial Bedrooms on Tuesday, I took an early train and spent the day.

A wander through Soho and the dubious delights of Carnaby Street led to a veritable treasure of sandwich-making.  Thanks for Franks is nestled just off Carnaby St itself (Yelp) and styled like an American diner-cum-deli.  It serves the kind of giant, meaty sandiwches that characters in American TV shows eat at their desks, dripping teriyaki sauce and/or Thousand Island dressing everywhere but miraculously not on their clothes or any important documents (Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo, I’m looking at you…).  I had the chargrilled chicken, which at £6 wasn’t too bad given the location, and sat outside watching Soho’s wildlife.  Highly recommended.

Denmark Street might not be what it once was, but it’s still a pilgrimage I have to make from time to time.  There are still gems to be found every now and again, such as the lovely 1969 Gibson EB-0 I played.  Can’t afford it at the moment, but someday it’d be a lovely addition to the stable someday.

St George’s Bloomsbury is a pilgrimage of a more traditional sort, one I’ve tried and failed to make a couple of times before.  This time I called ahead. Simply the best preserved and most elegant of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s glorious Baroque London churches, it is a treasure.  My love of English Baroque churches probably stems from a couple of other examples, Derby Cathedral and Holy Trinity Leeds, but St George’s trumps them both for sheer elegance.  The nave is a perfect cube, which seems an unremarkable fact until you think about it for a moment, stood within its geometric simplicity. (more…)