Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Shrovetide Football

I couldn't let Shrove Tuesday pass without tipping my hat to Shrovetide football in Ashbourne (UK). For hundreds of years, every Shrove Tuesday, a giant game of 'football' has been played on the streets. The two goals are three miles apart. The town devides into the Up'ards and Down'ards, several thousand compete on these two teams. The shops and banks are boarded up for the day. A colossal brawl ensues as the two teams try to get the ball to their respective goal posts. Oh, and muder is banned.

These videos (1,2) will give you an idea. Heaven!

There's a town still plays this glorious game
Tho' tis but a little spot.

And year by year the contest's fought
From the field that's called Shaw Croft.
Then friend meets friend in friendly strife
The leather for to gain,'
And they play the game right manfully,
In snow, sunshine or rain.

For loyal the Game shall ever be
No matter when or where,
And treat that Game as ought but the free,
Is more than the boldest dare.
Though the up's and down's of its chequered life
May the ball still ever roll,
Until by fair and gallant strife
We've reached the treasur'd goal.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Life on Mars

I walked out of the interview, out into the snowing streets of Paisley. A walk and a pint were in order. The interview was good; enjoyable, in fact. However, I needed to feel a more tangible reality, and wanted to explore the area.

The snow was fine – more like dust than flakes – and, rather than falling, was driven by the wind, round the buildings and horizontally down the streets through which I wandered without direction. Nonetheless, the streets were busy; wiry Scots with no outer apparel, dashing between house and pub. Old women, proud and staunch as the granite hills, scurried in their coats and scarves, trailing their shopping trolleys behind them. Most of them are Grans; they’ll live forever. The shops were universally interesting. A local butchers. A charity shop with a row of cheap shoes, old paperback books and a wedding gown in the window. A piano trader; the shop hardly wider than the keyboard of a full grand. Local hardware stores and electronics shops. Kebab shops, chippies and Indian restaurants. People from all walks of life were everywhere. A constant background of the whistling wind, snippets of conversations, traffic rumble. The smell of partially burned diesel from a town-centre bus drifted up my nose. Snow was blowing in my eyes. All my senses were alive. The place is gritty. Dirty. Real.

I followed this bustling street for some time, not knowing to where I was headed. Then, there it was. Through a gap in the stone buildings, as I crossed a railway line, was a grassy hill with a few trees scattered on its slopes, protruding from the surrounding town. A small path led past the railway station, and I began to climb
Saucel Hill, a natural mound which seemed to have been designed for the express purpose of sledging – just the perfect average gradient and undulations. The ground was clearly waterlogged, but the surface was frozen, so I crunched my way to the top. Through the low lying clouds, the town surrounded me in all directions, layered in shades of grey toward the distant weathered hills, starkly standing watch over the valley, still conscious of times before the self-consciousness of humanity had ascended to these lands. The grass of the hill was dusted finely with snow, looking like faded green denim. I stood for some time – a lone dark figure against the pale grey of the clouds above, the white hill underfoot – slowly lightening as the snowfall strove to integrate me into the landscape.

I descended, passing kids playing football in the street – their old foam ball with great chunks missing from one side. I stopped for a pint on my way back to the guest house, where I bumped into a friend and we went for dinner at a good local restaurant, in which I had a most delicious half of a wild grouse with wild Scottish mushrooms, with some potatoes, parsnips and carrots, and a glass of red. Suitably fed, we joined the locals of the nuclear group in the Bull Inn, an excellent 100 year old pub, with original interior and some first-class snugs. A Belhaven 80-shilling and a Caledonian IPA later, and then a few whiskies (Bowmore and Lagavulin amongst others) fueled an evening of excellent conversation. After kicking-out time, we bought some chips over the road (which, post drinking, tasted as fine as the wild grouse ever did!) and staggered back to the Ash Tree. We piled in, and were enjoying our feast when the proprietor materialised out of the woodwork. Apologetically, we asked if we were a disturbance. “Och, noo!” came the answer. “I just wanted to see if I could get you anything.” The word ‘whisky’ came up, and he returned a little later with a bottle of The Glenlivet. We stayed up another hour or two chatting amongst ourselves and with him. He’s converting the old coach house into a very special bar. It will carry 350 different single malts. Heaven!

I love this place. I love these people. It's Life on Mars. The only problem is, Annie’s not here.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Travelling Fight

Traveling has upsides and downsides, which are rarely more keenly demonstrated than on Tuesday. After much of Britain was hit with significant snowfall (the most in the past 18 years) in the last 48 hours, Southampton airport was closed that morning. Their website stated this, even for some hours after it had been reopened (as I was more reliably informed by phoning them). Not knowing whether my flight was running or not, I decided to take the Cat and cab to So’ton in case. I entered an airport in disarray – most flights were cancelled, a few were delayed, there were people all over the place and a queue as long as the terminal trying to reschedule cancelled flights. After a minor battle to check in, I had time to down a coffee, a sandwich, and start on a pint before being called to board.

We stood on a bus for ages. Then we boarded the plane. Then we waited. And waited. Then we were told we were waiting even longer for de-icing. We waited some more. We were subsequently informed that the flight was cancelled due to the weather, so we’d be moved to the 18:15 flight. It was fine outside, and other planes were flying. We piled back into the bus to return to the terminal. They wouldn’t let us off the bus. “We’re trying to convince the pilot to fly” was their excuse. Convince the pilot to fly! That sounded like a great idea. Their powers of persuasion failed, it would seem, as we were soon kicked off the bus and asked to wait around to collect our checked bags, so that we could check them in again. There was, at least, a friendly atmosphere of comradery amongst the passengers, who were generally taking things in good spirits.

However, after queuing for some time to get assigned to the later flight, things kicked off. The handling of the entire situation was erratic at best. Some people were given tickets for free food in the terminal. Others were not. It culminated in a confrontation between a very mild-mannered Scottish guy and the airline. He wished to take in violin on as carry-on luggage. He’d done it many times before with this airline, on the same planes. But this time, he was told it was not possible. After talking with them for some time, he said something awful – something utterly and unbelievably offensive. He said: “This is stupid.” They called the police. The Special Branch, no less! He was asked, at one point, to stand back because he was offensively close to a staff member. When, later, a staff member stood that close to him, I was pleased that he said the same to her. The copper was very reasonable, but in exasperation said that the easiest way to get out of this is to cave and apologise to the staff.

So, it seems that in this country we are no longer allowed to express an opinion about services for which we pay. It won’t be long until we won’t be allowed to return a poorly cooked meal to the kitchen, or a faulty TV to the shop. Just in case we offend someone. Which would be awful. Just awful.