Saturday, 5 August 2017

Project No More Nice Guy: An Update

In which The Author's plan starts to bear fruit
Some six months after its inception, I'm pleased to report that Project No More Nice Guy is really showing some positive results. It's been a long time since anyone conned a drink or a meal out of me, and even longer since I went on a wild goose chase after an unsuitable female.
In fact, I've managed to pretty much avoid one unsuitable female since embarking on this research project. I don't bother going to the karaoke in the Lighthouse any more, which means that the Incredible Vanishing Girl 2 and I are very rarely in the same room. It's happened a couple of times. Both times, she seemed to think I was going to say hello to her. It didn't happen. Even when she asked me if anyone was sitting in Tony Abbott's regular chair, I just shook my head and turned away.
To be honest, I've almost quit the karaoke scene entirely, because it's just bloody boring these days. There are so few of us (and I was one, remember) who ever venture away from the Great Valleys Songbook that you might as well stay at home and listen to Heart FM.
Monday afternoon karaoke is dying on its arse. Gareth had the push a couple of months ago, and Phil the bar manager/chef/DJ/singer/whatever now hosts Performance and Cock-ups himself. His PA is far more suitable for a rock band, and his mixing desk settings reflect that as well. There's always way too much reverb on the vocals, and his backing tracks seem cheap and amateurish in comparison to Gareth's. He also doesn't have the range of music that Gareth and Jocelyn have on their systems.
The biggest problem is that he has his own little clique of favourites (Clare, Adrian, the Incredible Vanishing Girl 2), and hardly anyone else gets called to sing. The exception is Danelle, who (by some weird act of Goddess) actually gets measurably worse over time. She'd be lucky to carry a tune in a bucket anyway, but every week she gets more and more tuneless. It could be a good comedy act, like Les Dawson's piano playing, if only she had the imagination to market it as such.
So I find myself between the two camps – not nearly as good as Clare or Adrian, but nowhere near as entertaining as Danelle.
As a result, I've been dropped from the squad. In fact, I was in there a few weeks ago, toying with the idea of another pint. It was early in the school holidays, and I assume most people were on holiday. After about an hour, when it seemed that Clare and Philvis had made other plans – and nobody else had grasped the nettle – Phil came over to where I was sitting.
'Where are the singers today?' he asked.
'Well, there was one here,' I said.
And I made my excuses and left.
As for Thursdays …
I had a pint with my brother earlier, and he mentioned something he'd heard on the radio this morning. A Sunderland FC fan had phoned in to Danny Baker's programme, saying how much she was looking forward to the new season. They're no longer in the Premiership, so they're not up against the likes of Manchester Utd, Arsenal, Chelsea, and so forth. There are no multi-million pound deals, and no players sitting on their hands (despite the expectations and media hype) because it's all about the money. They can get back to doing what they do best – playing football.
The Lighthouse decided a few weeks ago that Thursday karaoke was going to go the same way. It's all about the money. A series of 'heats' would decide who went through to the 'final', with £100 up for grabs at the end. After it was announced, I had a chat with Adrian, who is on the circuit anyway. He and I agreed that it would spoil the whole karaoke experience.
As I've pointed out before, plenty of people think they're singing in front of Simon Cowell et al. on an average Thursday night. With that sort of bait dangling, it's going to attract semi-pro singers from across the whole area. On that other hand, people like me, who just get up on stage because we enjoy it and have no illusions that we're ever going to hit the big time, aren't even going to bother.
Friday night karaoke in the Bonki seems to have finished very abruptly. In fact, the Bonki itself seems to have finished very abruptly. A few weeks ago Gareth told us that it had closed. I went past on the bus yesterday to double-check this rumour for myself. There was no sign of life, and no obvious reason for its sudden closure. It seems a bit strange, because it's one of the key venues for the Cwmfest music festival next month. More importantly for me, it's home to one of the Anthony Nolan Trust collection boxes. I'll need to get in touch with Simon and Kylie to find out what's going on, simply so I can retrieve the box and find it a new home if necessary.
So, in a few short months we've gone from five decent karaoke events (Lighthouse twice a week, Bonki, Cambrian, and Lindsey's fortnightly damp squib in the Glandover) to just the two.
By a strange coincidence, about six weeks ago the ChavMackworth announced a similar competition to the Lighthouse's. Clare entered them both, of course. She qualified for the Mackworth final straight away. I didn't stay for the results of that 'heat' – I hate the pub, and won't be going for the Grand Final tomorrow night. Clare asked me last night to go along and support her, but I think I might have to decline. I don't have that much cocaine to inhale in between the performers.
Adrian didn't enter a similar contest in the Bush a couple of years ago. He's in a no-win situation (literally): if he trousers the first prize, everyone will say it's fixed because he does this for a living. If he doesn't, people will turn around and say 'Well, we all knew you were crap anyway.' It's easier to sit on the sidelines.
As I've done.
Although my sidelines are strictly metaphorical, consisting of my armchair and a decent book. That Sunday night aside, I haven't bothered going along to either of the competitions. I've heard all the competitors before and (with one or two exceptions) there's nothing to get especially excited about. I can't imagine Tina blasting some Katy Perry our way, or Martin suddenly deciding to add 'Light My Fire' to his repertoire.
However, I've noticed that Clare has started trying some more songs since we first chatted about taking up the guitar again and going to the Open Mic nights in Aberdare. It could just be a coincidence, but they're all from the Great Valleys Songbook (a John Legend song, that bloody Adele song, some modern crap which I wouldn't be able to identify in a quiz). I blame the Incredible Vanishing Girl 2, who really does pepper her set with modern crap. She's sort-of working the circuit with Phil and his band, and we all know you can't venture off the straight and narrow when you're a semi-pro musician.
Clare obviously thinks she can compete on that basis. With no transport, no equipment, no proper experience, no contacts (apart from the precious few I've given her) and no real stage presence (in spite of my encouragement), I think she's going to be strictly a Session Musician. There's nothing wrong with that, of course. You can earn decent wedge from session work. But you still need transport, equipment, contacts … See what I mean?
Anyway, last night the three of us got back together for possibly the last time.
Philvis, who at best gets the sympathy vote because of his disability, and who really can't take constructive criticism or follow helpful advice, was still sulking because Clare had got into the final of the Mackworth competition and Tina (deservedly) had won the Lighthouse competition. He's still convinced he should have won both prizes outright. He's convinced he'll clean up at the Porthcawl Elvis Festival next month. A short, short-haired, bearded, glasses-wearing bloke, with a decent voice but only a vague knowledge of the words (even wearing a white jumpsuit that cost his parents a fair few quid) isn't going to stand a snowball's chance against professional tribute acts from across the UK and further afield.
But we can't tell him that.
To do so risks unleashing the Incredible Sulk for hours (or even days) on end.
So, last night, Philvis and I sang a couple of Elvis songs together to mark the fortieth anniversary of the King taking up his job flipping burgers in a Midwest diner (please see the hilarious and totally warped Good Omens by Sir Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman for full details). Philvis won't admit it, but he had to admit defeat during 'Jailhouse Rock', when I left him standing with only my sketchy knowledge of the song.
And there's a story behind that, too.
Clare's most recent Fuck Buddy is in prison at the moment. I won't go into the details, but it seems she only decided she really wanted him when he wasn't there. Since then, her sole topic of conversation has been her Fuck Buddy. Apparently she's going to move in with him as soon as he's released, and this time she knows it's for real, as the song has it. I got bored to tears of her talking about 'their' flat when we were in Pontypridd a fortnight ago. Considering that his rented flat won't even be there when he gets out, that could be a bit of a problem.
Her brother is more fed up of this single-minded obsession than I am – hence our choice of song last night. About two hours of ignoring her hyperactive babbling about the journey to visit Fuck Buddy on Monday, we decided that taking the piss might help the message to sink in. It fell on deaf ears, though.
And talking of people who've got themselves into trouble: the Incredible Vanishing Girl 2 might end up on Pubwatch after kicking a bloke in the head. I wasn't in the pub when it happened, of course. It was a Thursday karaoke night, so I was at home watching a film. I found out about it the following day. Lucky escape, or what? It meant that I was fairly safe to go to the Cambrian with the others last night.
Only fairly safe, though. We'd been there for half an hour or so when one of the occasionals (shaved head, tattoos, muscles, no real brain functions) embarked on an argument with some of his friends. Needless to say, because I once appeared on a TV quiz show over a quarter of a century ago, I was the obvious person to adjudicate in this particular case.
Or so he thought.
My Facebook status from last night pretty much encapsulates what I told him:
Project No More Mr Nice Guy (v 5.0) now live. No, pissed steroid head, I am not under police caution, in a job interview, or taking part in a quiz. You can't ask me a fucking question. You have a smartphone and access to the Cloud. Fucking use them.
And at about 10.30 we all made our excuses and left.
I was having a pint in the Glosters this afternoon when Clare messaged me. It's always a sign that she's at a loose end. She asked me to join her for a pint in Merthyr. I don't know why she was in Merthyr. I can probably guess. It was about 3.30 at the time. I told her that I wasn't going to spend eight quid and half an hour on a bus, only to have to head back to Aberdare in less than three hours' time. For just over double that price, I could spend a whole day in London, for fuck's sake.
She messaged back to say she was on her own.
But she never is, of course.
As long as she can log on to the Cloud or pick up mobile data, she spends most of her time messaging random people she's met on Facebook. It doesn't matter that the Fuck Buddy is in prison – in spite of how much she professes to love him – as long as he's out of sight and out of mind. She told me a little while ago that she was determined to stay 'single' until he got out. Considering that she was to all intents and purposes 'single' all the time they were together, it seems to me that she wants to have her cake and eat it.
Like the Incredible Vanishing Girl 2, and many other young girls I've met in the past couple of years in fact, it seems that Clare is perfectly happy as long as her vagina is occupied. It doesn't really matter who the current occupant is, either, just as long as he's muscular, tattooed, trendily dressed, and has his hair cut in one of the town's dozen or so Turkish barber's shops who churn out clones by the hundred. Once the vagina is unoccupied, Good Old Steve gets the inevitable phone call for company and free drinks.
Which, if I'm not very much mistaken, was the inspiration for Project No More Mr Nice Guy in the first place.
Anyway, there's much more to report in detail from my Facebook statuses and Tweets over the past six months or so, but that's a very brief summary of the research so far. The full analysis will have to wait until the experiment is complete, of course.
But at this rate it could continue for the rest of my natural life.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

And, on Guest Vocals ...

In which The Author doesn't join a rock band
I was round at my brother's house this morning when Radio 2 played 'Walking on Sunshine' by Katrina and the Waves. Instant flashback to the summer of 1985, when three of my mates from school, and a young lad they'd found en route, formed one of Aberdare's legendary bands – Trevor and the Sprouts.
There's a story behind the name, which I won't bore you with. Suffice to say that Takka Tim (bass and vocals), his younger brother Deke (guitar and vocals), Doctor Paul (guitar and vocals), and Gerwyn (drums), occasionally augmented by Kinky Steve (I know – there's another one) spent much of the summer holidays in the Scout Hut in Trecynon, rehearsing and refining their set for their first big gig.
When I say 'their first big gig', I'm not talking about Reading, or Donington, or even Brecon Jazz. I mean an all-day piss-up outside the Michael Sobell Sports Centre in Aberdare. Our pal Stuart Turville had organised the whole thing, which was a fair achievement for a guy in his late teens. He and our mate Darren Broome had been in a band, and Stuart had networked most of the Aberdare music scene to pull together a fairly impressive line-up. Trevor and the Sprouts were pretty much guaranteed to draw a crowd, if only because by the time all their friends and relatives turned up there'd be about a hundred people there.
Every weekday, from mid-morning to late afternoon, the boys lugged their gear to the Scout Hut and worked through their set list. I was there most days, too. My job was to man the stopwatch, to make sure that if Paul shaved a few seconds off the solo in 'Lady Eleanor' we'd get to the end without Stuart pulling the plugs.
Anyway, one day we convened to find ourselves a man down. Paul was on holiday. Even though Kinky Steve was able to fill in on lead guitar, it still meant that 'Walking on Sunshine' was a non-runner. Paul took the lead vocal on that song, so the boys dropped it for the afternoon. It buggered up the timing. Steps needed to be taken.
But I was already networking, even at that early stage.
The following morning I rang Darren to ask if he could pop up to Trecynon and fill in while the rest of the boys refined the set. Fair play to him, he came up as soon as he could.
Paul was (and is) a very fine guitarist, whose biggest influence at the time was Steve Howe of Yes. Darren was (and is) also a very fine guitarist.
Unfortunately for a band whose major influences were the Beatles, the Kinks, Lindisfarne, Man, Fairport Convention, Bill Oddie, and the Rutles, his biggest influences were Lou Reed, Robert Fripp, Steve McGeogh and Bill Nelson.
And I'd never sung at all, apart from doing the usual teenage girl singing into a hairbrush in the bedroom mirror nonsense.
But I knew the words.
Thus it was, for one afternoon only, that three quarters of Trevor and the Sprouts played 'Walking on Sunshine'. I sang the lead vocal in Mark E. Smith fashion. Darren played the most bizarre snatch-and-grab chorused and flanged lead solo since Mr Fripp himself guested on Brian Eno's first solo LP. With no malice aforethought, we murdered one of the best British pop songs of the year.
The only people we knew at the time who could have afforded a video camera were Paul's parents. Luckily for us, they were on holiday as well. These days, such a debacle would have been live on Facebook within seconds. Like many of the key moments in rock history, if you weren't there, you won't be able to experience it ever again.
This afternoon, after telling my brother about the whole shambolic session, I logged onto Facebook. My pal Louis M. (who's been playing guitar since his very early teens) was raving about King Crimson. I shared a couple of YouTube clips which only die hard fans would know about. And then I heard 'Walking on Sunshine' again. It's funny how memories interconnect at times, isn't it?

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Operation Motorcycle Silencer (Phases 1 & 2)

In which The Author rewrites his July plans
For the second year in a row, I decided a couple of months ago to put Operation Motorcycle Silencer into action.
Living where I do is a bit of a two-edged sword. The good part is that you're a few minutes' walk from one of the loveliest Victorian municipal parks in South Wales. On the other hand, at the end of July everyone in Trecynon, Glandare, most of the Gadlys and – probably – a fair chunk of Cwmdare and Llwydcoed, is subjected to the noise of the Aberdare Park Road Races. These take place on the circuit around the park, and attract professional riders, bikers and motor sport fans from across the world. (I once met a very pleasant couple from Finland in the Carpenters one Saturday night many years ago.)
It's a great boost to the local economy, of course. When Dad was a councillor he was an advocate of reinstating the races. When the bikes finally returned in 1978, it was just for the Saturday. Now, however, it's a weekend event. After moving to Trecynon last year, Rhian and Steff realised that they'd be right on top of the uproar for two whole days – as, of course, am I.
As an alternative, I suggested spending the Saturday in London. We'd leave long before the first of the bikes arrived, and get home hours after the event had finished for the day. They don't start as early on the Sunday (the local chapels objected), so we'd have a break from the usual routine and get away from the noise as well.
Last year's trip wasn't especially successful, because I think it might have been Steff's first time in London. (Actually, I think it might have been her first time outside the Cynon Valley.) Rhian and I had a great time, as always, as I decided to show her some of the parts we'd yet to explore together.
I've been wandering around the City of London during my recent trips, discovering strange buildings and obscure aspects of history that aren't on the tourist maps. We decided to take advantage of the day to explore in more detail, taking in most of the key buildings (with no intention of going into any of them) so Rhian could see how the whole place hangs together. We'd already done the whistle-stop tour of Westminster the first time we were there. She wants to see the Changing of the Guard, though. As that takes place after the first available coach from Cardiff arrives in town, we've pencilled that in for an overnight stay.
After our first visit I suggested that we tackle the place in stages, just so that I can show her where everything is and how easy it is to get from one part to another. The Bike Races weekend was the perfect excuse.
Needless to say, Steff invited herself as soon as she found out about the trip. I presume she was afraid Rhian would meet an amazing girl halfway down Regent Street, fall immediately in love, and kick Steff firmly into touch. (I wouldn't have blamed her if she had, quite frankly.)
I equipped the girls with Oyster cards (after explaining the advantages to Steff about ten times), an Eyewitness pocket guide – courtesy of The Works in Aberdare – and a small A-Z, hopelessly out of date but covering the centre in enough detail to be useful. I roughed out an itinerary on paper, all of which could be covered on foot and by bus, and we agreed to return to the West End before heading back to Victoria Coach Station.
Earlier this week, the Facebook Memories thing popped up my status from 2016:
London on Saturday to avoid a whole day of bike races. Taking two friends, one of whom is really excited about it, and the other of whom is determined to hate the whole thing before we even leave Aberdare. Wondering if I can convince Person B to install a Pokémon thing on her phone and then send her on a wild goose chase Рpossibly for ever.
Person B was Steff, of course, and nothing we could show her stood a chance of competing with what was happening on her phone.
We caught the Tube straight to Tower Hill, from where we were heading back through the City towards the West End. Steff didn't like the Tube. It's too far underground, apparently. Rhian was freaked out by it the first time we went there together. Once she'd studied the map and realised how it all works, she was quite happy to follow our route. I even suggested that she could navigate for us. (Easy journeys to begin with ‒ just the one line, with no interchanges. Baby steps.)
We emerged above ground and Steff pronounced herself well and truly underwhelmed. I explained that when it was completed, at the end of the eleventh century, the Tower of London would have been the tallest building in Britain. In Steff's eyes it was too small. And that set the tone for the rest of the day, pretty much.
I don't know quite what she was expecting, but Tower Bridge was 'boring'; the sight of the Shard failed to ignite her imagination; the skyline from the middle of Tower Bridge – the magnificent Wren churches defiantly poking their Baroque towers and spires between the plate glass skyscrapers – was lost on her. I lost count of how many times I had to explain why the City of London was so quiet at weekends, and why the one pub I'd have liked to have taken them to – Ye Olde Mitre Tavern (see Life in the Slow Lane) – wasn't open at all.
In fact, the City of London was even quieter than usual. In a masterpiece of bad planning (on the basis of which I'm retained as a freelance consultant to the Welsh Government), we'd managed to go on the day of the Prudential Ride London cycling event. Okay, so they aren't motorised, but there are still bloody bikes everywhere. When I logged into Facebook at lunchtime, I was amused to find that Cerith and Alyson (both keen cyclists) were also in town. A little bit of forethought would have put us in the same place at the same time, so we could have had a pint together.
With major road closures throughout the West End and the City, our plan to see the sights from the top of a bus (why pay £25 when you've got an Oyster card and the TfL bus map?) went out of the window. I was in Unofficial Tourist Guide mode, pointing out interesting buildings and filling in bits of history – which Rhian always enjoys. If Steff could have used her phone to play games throughout, I think she would have.
We headed along boring Watling Street, down to the boring Monument (Steff didn't want to climb it, naturally; Rhian and I did, and that’s a story in itself), past the boring Bank of England and the boring Mansion House, making for the most boring sight in the entire City of London. Unsurprisingly, Steff wasn't at all impressed by 'the big church' (St Paul's Cathedral), and instead found herself irresistibly drawn to the tacky souvenir shop nearby.
These are an interesting phenomenon in themselves. They've been there for ever, of course – I remember them being dotted all along Oxford Street and Regent Street when I was a student. They're full of model Routemaster buses and red K6 phone boxes, keyrings with tiny Big Bens attached to them, Union flag mugs, T-shirts and biscuit tins, jigsaws of Buckingham Palace and the Palace of Westminster, notebooks with the Tube map printed on the cover, postcards of the obvious sights, and all manner of assorted crap (pencil sharpeners, stickers, mobile phone cases …) to prove you've been to the greatest city in the world.
Nowadays it's almost impossible to turn around in one of these places without bumping into Chinese tourists stocking up on the 'authentic London experience'. It must be quite disheartening for them to take a bag full of crap back to their home city, only to discover that it was all made by their cousins working in a factory down the road.
But Steff had promised to take something back for the kids.
She'd already spent half an hour browsing through overpriced tat (and much more besides) at the 'official' Tower of London tourist information centre trap. But this was the 'official' St Paul's Cathedral tourist information centre trap. Same shit, different location. Literally the same shit. Meanwhile, Rhian and I repaired to the nearest pub: Ye Olde London, on Ludgate Hill, with a fine view of the west front of St Paul's from the entrance. We had a very nice lunch, a pint, and a light-hearted chat with the Spanish barmaid before Little Miss Happy rejoined us and put the mockers on the occasion. We walked around the corner to the boring Central Criminal Court, then on to boring Holborn Viaduct.
We were heading towards Holborn Circus when the rain started. As if the day could have got any worse.
The cycling event meant that a bus into the West End was out of the question. We only wanted to get as far as Piccadilly Circus. I let Rhian work out the route again.
I've already told you that Steff hates the Tube. And escalators? Yeah, those too.
We picked up a couple of books in Waterstones in Piccadilly. Steff wanted to go to Soho – which these days really is boring – because someone had told her that there were gay bars there. (It seems to be fine for her to go to a gay bar and eye up the talent, but if Rhian does the same all hell breaks loose.) Fortunately, we were running short of time. We walked to Leicester Square and down Charing Cross Road to boring Trafalgar Square. The bike race had closed most of the roads around there, too, so we had no choice but to get the Tube back to Victoria. Did I mention that Steff hates the Tube?
All of which brings us to July 2017.
As soon as the dates of the Road Races were announced, I hit the National Express website and found out the fares to London. I got in touch with Rhian (she and Steff were still an item at this point) and asked if they fancied a rematch. They did. I booked the tickets weeks ago; Rhian booked time off work; we were ready to rock and roll.
Over a drink on Tuesday evening, we drew up our plans for the day. Steff shocked us both by expressing an interest in something – namely, 'the Cutting Shark' [sic]. I'd last visited Greenwich in December 2014 (see Going Deeper Underground), when I decided to have an adventure I hadn't had since my student days. I grabbed a bit of paper and started drawing out an itinerary. How does this sound to you?
Victoria Station to Blackfriars, so Rhian could see the Millennium Bridge; Ye Olde London (a five minute walk away) for lunch; walk to Bank station and join the Docklands Light Railway. Go past Canary Wharf and through the Isle of Dogs to Island Gardens. Walk through the tunnel under the Thames. Steff could visit the Cutty Sark, I could call to Waterstones, and together we could check out the Old Naval College. After that (time permitting), we could go across to Woolwich, cross the river on the ferry, take the DLR to Stratford (passing the Olympic Stadium), and head to Waterloo via the Jubilee Line. Cross over to Trafalgar Square and catch the number 11 bus to Victoria Coach Station, taking in Whitehall and Parliament Square en route.
Please note that I did all this without any artificial aids, boys and girls – no A-Z, no Google Maps, and no TfL website. It's nowhere near enough 'Knowledge' to get me a London taxi licence, but it’s good enough for jazz and always impresses the ladies. (It's just a shame that they're usually gay.)
On Thursday I checked out the area beyond Greenwich, to make sure we wouldn't stray into Zone 3 and end up paying extra on our Oyster cards. I topped mine up at the same time, knowing I could activate it as soon as we got to Victoria. (Rhian had suggested topping theirs up on Friday evening, but Steff apparently decided it wasn't worth 'wasting' two minutes online.)
Then the Facebook Memories thing popped up with last year's status. I shared it along with the following comment:
The plan for the weekend is exactly the same. Remember, folks, on the Tube you're never more than a judicious elbow nudge from a live rail.
Now for Today's Topical Tip: When you see a taxi firm advertising a '24 Hour Service', remember to ask them how many hours are in a day.
It was absolutely barrelling down on Friday afternoon, so we decided a taxi for the morning would be a good idea. The girls rang half a dozen numbers to try and book ahead. Not a sausage. One guy even told them that they’d be lucky to find anyone to do a run at 6.00 a.m. Thus it was that we walked through Robertstown to the station on Saturday morning.
We were so early that the train driver was able to chat to us for a while. He was a bit shaken, because coming non-stop through Cwmbach on the first run from Cardiff, he'd nearly hit someone. The guy in question was walking along the railway track, and wearing camouflage gear to boot. It's that sort of idiocy alone that makes you wish they’d hurry up with electrification.
We got to Cardiff without any further incident, and called into Sainsbury's to pick up newspapers and a snack for the journey. We walked up to Park Place, where there was already a large queue at the stop. Our seats were bought and paid for, but we knew that we probably wouldn't be able to sit together. As it turned out, a fair number of people were catching the Megabus, which now leaves from Park Place as well. About half of the others were catching the Birmingham coach. Even so, we ended up in separate seats, but not too far apart.
Note to National Express: It's not sufficient to simply sell tickets – you really need to sell the bookings for individual seats, as train companies do.
The selfishness of one family meant that two young boys had single seats. (The seat next to one of them was occupied by a large rucksack, which should have gone into the luggage compartment anyway.) I ended up next to a sulky teenage girl, who'd seemed quite content to stretch out across two seats until I told her she’d have to shift her legs.
Anyway, we made good time out of Cardiff and got to Newport slightly ahead of schedule. While we were waiting for passengers to board, I heard a familiar demanding whine from behind me:
'Why have we stopped?'
Oh yes, Steff was in her accustomed sunny and life-enhancing mood.
She'd had to wear a jacket because it was raining when we left the house. She'd also put a jumper on, because we were out early and would be getting home late. She'd been too hot walking to Aberdare, then too cold on the train when she took her jacket off.
With the scene set for the rest of the day, I buried myself in my book, Rhian read the paper, and together we more or less ignored her.
Something in the paper had caught my eye while I was flicking through it, so I logged onto the TfL website to confirm it. For the second year in a row we'd managed to get to London during the Prudential Ride London event. It wouldn't bugger up the first part of the plan – the Tube to Blackfriars – but it buggered the last part totally. Never mind.
We disembarked at Victoria Coach Station and walked to the mainline station, about five minutes away. It was at this point that Rhian told me they hadn't topped up their Oyster cards. The queue to use the machines was three deep, and snaked around to halfway up the steps from the concourse. To make matters worse, last time we were there Steff had failed to 'touch out'. Instead of going online (as I'd told her to at the time) and completing the journey, she'd incurred a penalty charge. I was in London with the only person I've ever met who's managed to go overdrawn on a fucking smartcard! Instead of spending two minutes online, she'd managed to cost us nearly twenty minutes in the Real World.
Still, she wasn't the only useless person on the Tube yesterday. A guy with a massive suitcase and a paper ticket (Do they still make those? — Ed.) was making very heavy weather of the barrier to the Circle Line platforms. After he got through on his fourth attempt, I just glanced at the guy in the next queue and said, 'Bloody Muggles.' He nodded and smiled knowingly. Sufficiently advanced technology and all that jazz.
At Blackfriars we met a pleasant young guy, who I think was Italian. He approached us to see if we could change a pound for the station toilets. Steff was already in there, and Rhian and I were wondering if we could give her the slip before she got back through the turnstile.
'First time in London,' he said when he emerged.
I pointed at Steff and said, 'Second time.' We laughed and wished him a pleasant stay before moving on.
We headed into Queen Victoria Street and immediately encountered a stream of cyclists. We found some interesting nooks and crannies, including the College of Arms, on our way to the Millennium Bridge. (I've shown you photos of this in Life in the Slow Lane already. It's boring.) Then we walked back to 'the big church', where – just as last year – there was an exhibition of stunt cycling in St Paul's Churchyard. History was definitely repeating itself.
We found Ye Olde London without any problems, and managed to sit at the same table as we did last year. While the girls were deciding what to eat, I logged into their WiFi, checked into their location, and updated my status:
Waiting for lunch. According to Facebook I'm 'within 20 metres' of the pub. Good thing about London is you're never more than 20 metres from the pub.
I sent a quick Tweet while we were waiting for our lunch to arrive:
Time for lunch in Ye Olde London. Hope fish and chips is as good as last time. Haven't even lost Chief Muggle on the Tube yet. Still time.
I'm pleased to report that the fish and chips was every bit as good as last time. The staff were very friendly and welcoming, and we had a good laugh while we were ordering. I had no qualms whatsoever about commending the place on Facebook earlier today, when a feedback box popped up. I also started a mini-thread on Twitter, which I'll update as and when the chance arises.
London Advantages (pt 1): Sitting in a pub and nobody putting bloody Stereophonics on the jukebox.
London Advantages (pt 2): Taxi firms that claim to offer a '24 Hour Service' realise that there really are 24 hours in an average day.
London Advantages (pt 3): the Docklands Light Railway. That's it – nothing more needs to be said. #properpublictransport
We finished our lunch rather later than we'd planned, so I knew the extended East London plan was looking rather doubtful. We headed for St Paul's again, because I'd spotted an interesting little street sign as we were passing the first time. Fans of 1960s rock music should recognise this name:
I'd seen it on the street map, of course, but I'd never bothered to walk past this unassuming little spot. Slightly further north we found this remarkable building.
This is the headquarters of one of the many craft guilds which form part of the quasi-medieval structure of the City of London's governance. Some of the larger halls are marked on my A-Z, but this one took me by surprise. There's a great carved frieze running the length of the building, too, but without a tripod (I know, I still haven't replaced mine) it's difficult to get a decent shot. Here's a small section of it to go on with.
I think I've accidentally found a new project – photographing all the halls. I think I've managed to persuade Rhian to join me for the Lord Mayor's Show one year, as well.
We walked around to Cheapside, but the road closures were making it rather tricky to get around. Rather than take ages to get to Bank station, we decided to cut our losses and go one stop on the Central Line.
Did I mention that Steff hates the Tube?
As I reached the platform the train doors closed. Rhian was just a few paces behind me, but Little Miss Happy was still about halfway down the escalator. Pretending to be really pissed off with her, we told her we'd have to wait half an hour for the next one. She was really apologetic, and suggested reverting to the original plan instead. Needless to say, the next train was only three minutes behind – and then the fun really started.
I've only ever used Bank station as an interchange once. It was difficult enough to navigate the place then. Yesterday one of the escalators was out of commission, which really fucked things up. We found our way to the concourse without any problem, but then all the signs seemed deliberately placed to send people in circles.
Even I – a veteran explorer of subterranean London – had to concede defeat and ask the guy at the barrier how to get to the DLR platform. Steff was decidedly unimpressed when we had to go down the escalator, back along the platform we'd just left, up another flight of steps, and Goddess knows where else. We eventually got to the DLR platform in time for the Lewisham train, and set off for the next stage of our adventure.
Rhian was completely blown away by Canary Wharf and the whole Docklands development. I'd already told her it looked more like Tokyo or Shanghai than London, and it didn't disappoint her at all. Fortunately for Steff, she was able to play games on her phone for the entire 'boring' journey. When we got off at Island Gardens, I knew she'd complain about being expected to do the foot tunnel as well.
I told her, 'Get back to the station, catch the first train south, and we'll meet you there.'
I knew she'd be too scared to go off unaccompanied, so she reluctantly joined us for our little stroll under the Thames and up the other side. She cheered up when she saw the Cutting Shark, though. By now it had started to rain, so we took refuge in the Old Naval College for a while.
I hadn't been in there for a good look around last time, and it's worth the visit. I was very impressed by the exhibit showing the locations of all the Wren and Hawksmoor churches. It's pinpointed the last two Hawksmoor churches I need to complete my collection, so I've pencilled them in for my next visit. I hadn't realised that Thomas Tallis is buried at St Alfege's, which I accidentally found at my last visit to Greenwich. Another excuse for a return visit, I think.
I left the girls to explore the ship at thirteen quid a pop. (I don't like sailing ships that much.) I walked around to Waterstones, where I had two books to collect. I'd ordered them via the website on Thursday: the new Ben Aaronovitch paperback, The Hanging Tree, and the paperback of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. The plan had been to collect the final stamp on my loyalty card, and then use the resulting ten quid towards The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, which I'd already reserved at Trafalgar Square. Unfortunately, both books were discounted, which meant that they didn't come to a tenner.
Thinking about it afterwards, I should have asked the guy to hang on for a minute while I grabbed something else. Instead, I paid for them and then spotted something else I fancied while I was on the way out. I got my final stamp, but not in the way I'd intended.
It didn't matter, as things turned out. By the time the girls left the ship we'd left it far too late to do the Woolwich – Stratford – Waterloo stretch of the journey anyway. It was pissing down, too, so we decided to cut our losses and head back into town.
I took the girls to the station (once again amazing them by heading straight there). While we were passing Waterstones, I reminded Rhian that she wanted to get a Roald Dahl book for her niece. Needless to say, like nearly other bloody girl in this story (in fact, nearly every bloody girl in this blog), Carys hadn't made her mind up what she wanted. We made our excuses without even entering.
We made our way down about a dozen flights of steps to get to the DLR platform at the snappily named Cutty Sark (for Maritime Greenwich) station. We only had to go one stop to reach Greenwich station – the one which existed when I first explored the area – and pick up the main line back to town. At which point something else happened which improved my day slightly. I'd never used Cannon Street mainline station until yesterday afternoon. Now I can colour in another small section of my Baker's Rail Atlas.
At Cannon Street, we decided to have a pint in Thereisnospoon on the station concourse. We had to leave before 5.30, though. Steff had somehow managed to convince herself that it would take the best part of an hour to get to Victoria from there. Maybe if we'd caught a bus during the rush hour, she'd have been fairly close. But the roads were still closed, so we headed for the Tube. Out of interest, I asked Rhian to time the interval between leaving the platform at Cannon Street and arriving at Victoria (six intervening stops). In the event, it took less than quarter of an hour. We could have had another pint at Cannon Street. Come to that, we could have had a pint in Victoria itself. Maybe two.
We walked to the coach station in the pissing rain. Actually, it's more accurate to say that I walked down Buckingham Palace Road, and Rhian and Steff tagged along quite some distance behind. We had well over half an hour before the coach left. After I found out our departure point, Steff wandered off to find a 'programme' (in other words, a paper timetable) for the coach services. Obviously she's planning another trip. Not on my watch, as the saying goes.
I don't know where she and Rhian went in search of this non-existent leaflet, but I eventually found them smoking outside ten minutes before the coach left. By this time the coach had started boarding, and I told them we'd be lucky to sit together. Once aboard, I found a window seat about six rows behind the driver. The girls grabbed a double seat a few rows in front of me. Rhian looked at me and indicated the seat opposite. I just shrugged. From where I was sitting, I couldn't hear that voice complaining about every fucking thing. It suited me just fine.
We got to Cardiff in good time for the 2141 train to Aberdare. By the time we boarded at Cathays it was standing room only with pissheads. We had toyed with the idea of a last pint in town, but we realised that everyone pouring off the train would have the same idea. The rain was still biblical. We decided to get a taxi home instead.
After quarter of an hour trying vainly to flag down a car at the rank, I decided that I'd get just as wet walking home as I would standing around. I'm too old to fuck around at the taxi rank on a wet Saturday night. Been there, done that. I walked up, toying with the idea of a takeaway. The girls must have got lucky, because their lights were on when I got home.
So, in summary, that's two trips to London under my belt, with one great friend who really enjoys herself every time and one acquaintance who hates the whole thing. You can probably guess what I'll be doing next July – and whom I won't be doing it with.