Tag Archives: Chester

A man walks into a bar (and other clichés)

I love a good cliché. With my unrivalled ability to roll out a casual inanity for every occasion, I could probably have been a football managercoach were it not for a terrifying lack of ability and an underlying loathing of anyone whose ego is so large that it can’t even be carried on to an airplane as hand baggage.

Nonetheless, I consider it a personal failure if I don’t manage to crank out at least one over-used phrase per day. You’ll simply not see me happier than the moments after I’ve just managed to slip a cliché into an otherwise normal conversation. Well, unless you happen to catch my pumped-fist salute coming out of the toiletbathroom, after a painful four day bout of constipation has triumphantly been brought to an end, that is.

Personal favourites include ” actions speak louder than words”, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”, “it ain’t over til the fat lady sings” or “no pain, no gain”, although try as I might, I’m yet to find a way to fit “there’s a thin line between love and hate” into a meeting without being given the look generally reserved for the moment when you realise that the falafel you just bit into was actually a breadcrumbed sheep’s testicle.

The fact is though that most clichés are borne of the truth. And none more so than “it’s a small world.”

Last night I walked into a perfectly everyday American bar just around the corner from where I live in the depths of Brooklyn. Faced with the choice of American beers that look and taste like water (or, worse still, look and taste like urine), I opted for a taste of Britain, in the shape of a ‘pint’ of Bass.

Bass is a strange thing. I’m not even sure that there still is a beer sold under the Bass name in the UK, and if there is, I probably wouldn’t order it (although to be fair, drinking canned Shandy Bass as a kid was one of my great not-as-illicit-as-it-seemed pleasures). But here, Bass seems to have a connotation of high quality – a seemingly safe bet when faced with mountains of six packs of Coors Light, Bud Light, and that weird lime tasting beer that I’ve never quite understood the point of.

Reader, I digress. Having downed my first beer with a speed that would make Usain Bolt’s face blanch, I walked to the bar to buy my second libation.

“Where in the UK are you from?” asked Woman Who I Would Call A Barmaid In The UK.

In the United States, being asked this question fills a Brit with joy and unabandoned glee because it means three things . Firstly, it means they’ve heard of the UK (not a given, trust me). Secondly, they haven’t confused you with an Australian, a Swede or a Canadian. And thirdly, there’s a vague chance that they’ve heard of some British city that’s not London.

“I come from a place called Chester,” I said meekly, readying myself to give directions from London or – at best – Manchester.

“Oh right. I spent my first day in the UK in Chester. My husband’s from Liverpool. I like Chester, although it’s a bit strange.”

I laughed at the thought of an American being confused by a city that has anything older than 500 years in it, and walked back to my seat.

A few moments later, a completely unrelated guy came over to our table.

“Excuse me, mate. Did I hear you say you’re from Chester? I’m from Wrexham actually. Nice to see you,” he said, before wandering out of the door.

Wrexham’s probably eight miles from Chester. I used to date a girl from Wrexham, and one night drove all the way home without realising I didn’t have my headlights on. I rarely came across someone from Wrexham when I was living in London though, let alone in suburban Brooklyn.

I’m now on eager alert for the random appearance of somebody who lived on my street as a kid, or who used to drink in the pub I used to work in and remembers the low cut Hawaiian style shirt I was forced to wear. After all, don’t these things come in threes?

Or would that just be a cliché?

The way we were

When I left home to live in London (to discover that the streets were not actually paved with gold, but actually covered in discarded chewing gum), returning home to North Wales or Chester was always an eye-opener. Not because I was now some big city kid who laughed at the little people and their provincial ways. I’ll still be a black pudding munching Northerner who reads the Chester Chronicle online when I pop my clogs. But whenever I went through my home town, even after eight weeks away, it always seemed that another city landmark had closed down, to be replaced by luxury apartments or a new restaurant.

As far as I’m concerned, time has stood still in Chester since 1992. So, when She Who Was Born To Worry tells me that the shop I need is two doors down from the Liverpool FC club shop, I have no idea what she’s talking about. Of course, if she’d told me it was near the old Athena store or Our Price, I’d have had no problem. Similarly, if I’m told that we’re going for a beer in the Slug & Lettuce, there’s not a chance in hell that I’ll be there before closing time. Tell me we’re having a drink in the old Owen-Owen’s on the other hand, and mine will be a pint thank you very much.

In New York, I’ve got none of the same historical touchpoints. I have no idea whether the current home of the Apple Store is an old hospital or a former squirrel warehouse, and I can’t join in the conversation when it turns to the eight restaurants that have been on the site of the latest here-today-gone-tomorrow hotspot. In any case, most restaurants stay open for less time than it takes to me get around to writing a new blog post. My memory is good, but I’ve got no chance of remembering that place that was open from May to September 2003, even if their French onion soup was to die for.

Of course being away from a whole country rather than just a small part of it makes the whole “what the f***?” moments all-the-more frequent. Except now it’s more like losing whole chunks of my heritage, rather than little fragments of it.

For instance, there’s not a single person under 40 who has not bought pick’n’mix sweets in Woolworths, and yet now it’s on the verge of going under. You now can’t say that you’re going to Virgin Megastores to pick up a CD or DVD, but have to resort to confessing that you’re making a trip to the patently ridiculous Zavvi. And the way things are going with the credit meltdown, it won’t be long before you have no need to say whether you’re a customer of the Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds or the NatWest – we’ll just all be patrons of The Bank.

But today I’ve just been pushed over the edge. I turn my back for five minutes and suddenly Carol Vorderman’s gone from Countdown. America, imagine losing (*quickly surfs to Wikipedia*) Alex Trebek from Jeopardy, and you’ll still have no idea of the country’s loss right now.

It’s time for Britain to start getting its act together, and look after the things that are important to us. Otherwise, next thing you’ll be telling me that Princess Di is dead.

Absolute filth

Just before I went to university, and was living at home with She Who Was Born To Worry and Little Sis, I managed to get a job as a barman working in a new pub in a renovated warehouse in Chester. To be fair, I wasn’t strictly honest when it came to the interview process. I may accidentally have suggested that I was pretty confident that I had completely messed upflunked my exams, and was going to need to take a year off. After all, no one was likely to take someone on with no experience of bar work, train them up, and watch them leave three months later.

Of course, my cover was well and truly blown a few months later when a picture of me and some classmates celebrating our exam success was printed in the local newspaper. But by then I’d found out plenty enough about the bar trade to get a job in any pub if ever I was to fall on hard times.

I’d like to say that all the lessons I learned were positive, but that would be a lie. Let’s just say that the management of the bar weren’t exactly scrupulous when it came to matters of consumer hygiene. Especially if it meant saving a bit of cash. If the wrong drink was ever poured, nobody was allowed to throw it away. Instead, it just waited on the side until somebody really did want that drink, and then it would surreptitiously be brought up from underneath the counter and proudly placed on the bar. And I always tried to steer clear of the kitchen if humanly possible. I went in a couple of times, and suffice to say that I never ate there even once afterwards.

The practice that horrified me most involved the barrels of beer that lay in the cellar beneath the pub. Every night, the landlord would collect up the slops that had collected underneath the beer pumps, take them downstairs, and empty them into the barrel of his choice. The fact that the collected drippings contained beers of all kinds, and probably every liquid from orange juice to gin, was neither here nor there to him. Let’s just say that the pub’s food wasn’t the only thing I didn’t consume.

Of course, it’s not just management that are guilty of unhygienic acts in bars and restaurants. From the chef who provides some of his – erm – ‘special sauce’ in the dish of a customer who has spent back his food one too many times, to the waiter who accidentally-on-purpose spills some water in the difficult diner’s lap, staff aren’t exactly innocent bystanders in the lack of cleanliness game.

That said, is it really necessary to make every American restaurant display a sign in their toiletrestroom proudly proclaiming that ‘all employees must wash their hands before returning to work’? I mean, if I’m in a restaurant, enjoying a foam of this or a ceviche of that, the last thing I need to think about is a collection of people who would be walking around with filthy toilet-soiled fingers if it wasn’t for a little notice on the wall. And to be honest, if you’re the kind of person who needs a sign to remind you to wash your hands, you’re probably not the kind of person who’s going to take notice of a sign urging you to wash your hands.

Maybe this is the first step in a series of restaurant and bar signs that do nothing more than state the obvious? Next time you’re in a swanky Michelin-starred eaterie, watch out for notices reading ‘employees must not scratch their arses when walking past a customer’s table’ or ‘please remember not to help yourself to a customer’s wine’.

As for a certain bar in Chester, the management have moved on and the name of the place has changed. But I still wouldn’t drink the beer, just in case…

Take me to the river

One thing that I really do miss about being in the UK in the summer is the ability to sit having one-for-the-road in a riverside drinking establishment. Obviously this Brit Out Of Water is a complete tee-totaller (ahem), but the opportunity to drink a nice pint of, erm, ginger ale in a pub garden overlooking rowers and marine life as the sun gently sets is one that should never be turned down.

Britain’s river banks are littered with boozers, and the river has played a key part in my social upbringing as a result. My earliest days of boozing with The Beancounter et al saw us frequent places like The Boathouse in Chester, although we were admittedly in part attracted by their flexible approach to the legal requirement that you be 18 years old to get a drink. At university, lost afternoons might be spent at The Mill or The Anchor watching punts sail by as we collectively and conveniently overlooked the fact that we should probably be sat in the library. And then to London, where I never looked back after a first job that saw the nearest boozer located next to the water. Sadly it’s been demolished now. Rumours that its revenues never recovered after I moved on have yet to be confirmed.

I’ve already talked at length about the great difficulty in drinking outside in the US. But the fact is that it’s difficult getting a meal or a drink even in sight of the river(s) in New York. Sure, there is the occasional exception to prove the rule, but it’s almost as if the health and safety police have decided that anybody drinking (heavily or otherwise) near a river will automatically feel duty bound to leap into the water at the end of the evening. And just to make sure, New York has put some its major roadways next to the water, in the shape of the FDR Drive and the West Side Highway, making sure that anyone tempted to build a temple to hedonism anywhere near the Hudson or the East River is put off by the fumes and incessant car horns.

Desperate for some waterside relaxation this Friday, The Special One and I made our way down to South Street Seaport at the base of Manhattan, and one of the few areas of the city to combine the words ‘river’ and ‘food and drink’. I had images of the gentle breeze coming in off the water as we quaffed a deliciously dry Pouilly Fume and ate mountains of impossibly fresh seafood. I was, quite literally, in my element.

When we got there, it was like a cross between Covent Garden and Blackpool, with thousands of tourists combining with local office workers to create an atmosphere more redolent of an overcrowded amusement park than a peaceful riverside paradise. We walked straight past the chain restaurants, had a lukewarm glass of chardonnay in a plastic glass as we looked at the New York waterfalls, and quickly hightailed it out of there.

Next time I get the urge for waterside drinking, I’m buying a paddling pool and putting it in the back yard.

The war on New York’s streets

Back in the days when The Special One and I were dating, and I was still a Brit Very Much In Water, the two of us made a pilgrimage up to my home city Chester so that she could meet my mum for the first time. The day beforehand, The Special One had experienced one of the UK’s finest summer traditions at a lunch at The Best Man’s house, although it has to be said that ‘eating a barbecued sausage that is incinerated on the outside and practically raw inside’ won’t generally feature in Vanity Fair’s catch-all feature on the Things That You Simply Must Do In London. Still, it does mean that The Special One will always be able to say that the first gift her future mother-in-law gave her upon meeting was a package of pharmaceutical cures to address the, erm, ‘issues’ associated with food poisoning.

Thankfully, the symptoms quickly subsided, and the three of us were able to take a walk around the city to see some of the sights. For those of you who are not acquainted with Chester, it’s an entirely walled Roman city that was founded in the first century AD. Originally known as Deva, the city has been intensely developed over the years, but there are still Roman remains throughout the centre including an amphitheatre, ornamental gardens, and a shrine to Minerva. Hell, there’s even a shopping centre called The Forum, although that admittedly owes more to the great god of Greggs The Bakers than to the Romans.

Strolling around, The Special One was struck by just how much Roman ‘stuff’ (I think that’s the collective noun for a lot of Roman artifacts, but please do correct me if I’m wrong) there is scattered around. There are bits of pipe outside the library, an old strongroom near the Dublin Packet pub, and various columns all over the place. It’s pretty much impossible to walk for more than ten minutes without seeing a remain or two.

Of course, Americans are fascinated by old stuff. Not to say that the British aren’t, but I guess it’s always a bit more impressive to see Roman remains when in your own country a McDonalds wrapper from 1973 counts as ancient history. Sure, there are native Indian remains in various places, and the current Republican presidential candidate must surely have been around when the Liberty Bell was cast, but American cities aren’t exactly blessed with a wealth of history. That doesn’t make them bad places, I hasten to add – it just means that there’s a profound contrast for Americans when they see Roman remains in Europe.

None of this fascination, however, explains New York women’s current obsession with wearing sandals that make them look like gladiators going into war. The first time I saw somebody wearing a pair of these, I had to look around to see if I had missed a battle reconstruction that was going on down the block. Sadly the lack of 800 centurions in full costume led me to the reluctant conclusion that the woman was doing it of her own free will. Clearly however, I assumed that she was a one-off – a Russell Crowe fetishist with a talent for leatherwork and a high tolerance of people pointing and staring, maybe? But now I seem them every time I leave the office, in all manner of shapes and sizes. New York has quite literally gone gladiator sandal mad.

I reckon somebody in a shop somewhere in Manhattan is convincing gullible consumers that these things are genuine centurion’s footwear, excavated from just outside Salisbury, and polished up for the modern-day consumer market.

Thankfully, as with all fashions, it’s just another passing trend. Sadly, next week is probably due to witness the olde worlde doublets and breeches revival. There’s no accounting for taste.

Speed bumps

Everything goes so fast in New York. An official city decree in 1967 removed three seconds from every New York minute, meaning that the pace of life is actually 5% quicker than anywhere else in the world (and around 500% quicker than Newark Airport in New Jersey, where every minute spent feels like an eternity). Whether you’re ordering food or having a chat in the corridor, everything seems to be done at breakneck speed. Either that or everybody’s desperate to be in my presence for as little time as possible.

It’s not as if everything in London is slow either. Compared to my upbringing in sleepy Chester (and even sleepier North Wales), London was a veritable Formula OneNASCAR race. After all, even the lunchtime sandwiches are pre-packaged that morning to ensure that you don’t even have to wait for your cheese and pickle sarnie to be made. But nothing can really prepare you for the look of contempt you get from someone in New York if you dare to dawdle over an important life choice. Such as whether to have brown rice or white rice, for instance.

The pace of life in New York means that impatience is an overriding characteristic of a large number of residents of the city. The car horn must be more utiliszed in this city than most places on earth, with a quick blast being all it takes to ensure that drivers get to their eventual destination approximately 0.5 seconds before they would otherwise have done. Such impatience even affects The Special One, who could walk into an empty Starbucks and still be annoyed that the ‘barista’ had the audacity to blink before taking her order.

The need for speed translates onto the subway, as well. Don’t get me wrong, waiting for a train can be more painful than having your wisdom teeth extracted with only a non-alcoholic beer for anaesthetic. But once you’re on an express train, you get the distinct impression that the driver has just remembered that he’s left the iron on at home, and his favourite TV show is about to start. In particular, the run from Union Square to Canal Street on the N train is vaguely reminiscent of Marty McFly’s De Lorean-powered race against time on the streets of Hill Valley. Certainly, I’ve never been at the back of the train, but I assume that fire tracks are left in our wake.

Of course, the problem when you’re a 6ft 2 bloke with about as much balance as a gin-soaked flamingo, standing on a train that’s racing around the bumps and bends of the transport system can be dangerous. Not so much for myself, but for those standing in the immediate vicinity of my size elevens.

Sadly, there’s a dainty open-toe shoe-wearing young lady in the New York metropolitan area who’s almost certainly walking with a pronounced limp this morning.

‘Sorry’ may seem to be the hardest word, but it’s definitely never felt quite so inadequate.

A whole new world

It was a packed subway train that hurtled me into the city for my first day at work today, with more people crammed into one carriage of the enormous silver train than you’d likely see on the terraces of Chester City FC on the average Saturday. Nobody talks to anybody, obviously. New York’s no different to London in that respect. But even with the Bat For Lashes album blasting out over my iPod, it was pretty obvious that there was some kind of commotion going on a few doors down from my strap-hanging position.

A high pitched jabber, punctuated by occasional shrieks, attracted the turning heads of the commuters around me, each of us looking for the source of the strangely unidentifiable noise. With each stop that went by, the sound got closer, louder and more irate, until the train came to a halt in a tunnel a few stops from my destination.

And there she was. A short Chinese woman, well dressed in her beige rain jacket, with a polka dotted bag containing a paperback book and a wooden handled umbrella clutched in her hand. A picture of normality, you might think. If it wasn’t for the stream of invective issuing forth from her never-closing mouth, that is.

I’m not sure what it was she was saying, although with the occasional angry spluttering of words such as ‘yellow’ and ‘racist’, I suspect somebody had done something to annoy her. And a 25 minute barrage of Chinese and English abuse must have seemed the best way to deal with it. Whatever the cause, she successfully cleared a two metre radius around her with her relentless tirade…no mean feat in such a burstingly full carriage.

As the woman finally departed the train, ranting still as she stepped down onto the platform, the remaining passengers breathed a heavy sigh of relief. And – shock, horror – they even began laughing and sharing war stories with strangers around them, each with their own tale to tell about their encounters with craziness.

Something tells me the New York subway will provide an endless source of stories for this blog. Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.