Madrid

Word to the wise, if you want to stay central when visiting Madrid, book early! On the contrary, do as ourselves and venture out a little. We stayed in Coslada, a interesting municipality with its own identity and strangely youthful population. Away from the tourist eye, it provided early respite before heading into the busy capital. However, it’s also a town where you can’t apologetically bumble your way through the simplest of transactions with broken Spanish and God knows what else. In the local bakery which became our first stop each morning, asking for a coffee with milk wont cut the proverbial (you will end up with 20% coffee, 80% cold milk). We quickly found out that a ‘café con leche’ was the way to go.

A quick ride on the overground brings you into Madrid’s Atocha Railway Station. It had 10 years since I last visited the city, and though it was largely unrecognisable, there was the returning sentiment of one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. The streets are alive with art and the building awash with culture. The parks, *sigh*, numerous and resplendent, and a telling example of what Manchester is so desperately missing. With each capital city visited, it is becoming increasingly obvious to me that magnificent public squares and parks are mere manifestations of past oligarchs and monarchs. The famous ‘Parque del Retiro’ is a perfect example of this, only becoming publicly owned in the 19th century, after it began to fall into disrepair.

Madrid Park

Jardines de Sabatini

Japan solved its demand for residential space in constricted areas by building upwards rather than outwards. Perhaps Manchester can adopt this approach to combat its lack of green space. The ‘vertical garden‘, created by Patrick Blanc, serves as a permanent art installation, tourism spectacle and free shower when the intermittent irrigation system kicks in (a feature which would be unrequired in my hometown). Above all else, it adds an extra dimension to an otherwise uninspiring facade, a former power station nonetheless.

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Blanc’s Green Wall

If travelling to a place where you can’t speak a word of the lingo is bad enough, imagine doing it in the aftermath of a Brexit vote and Leicester City away fixture. Here’s two fingers to your union. You can stick your fucking churros up your arse. Gibraltar is ours, etc. Needless to say it was a tough act to follow, but I think we succeeded in our attempt to keep up with the Jones’s.

Here’s a handy survival guide which helped extinguish some of the animosity:

Restaurant etiquette

“May I have the bill, please” – “La cuenta, por favor” (invisible cheque scribble gesture not essential but encouraged).

A pot of olives to share” – “Una olla de aceitunas para compartir”

Excuse my ignorance, my country is still clutching to a frayed sense of imperialism” – “I didn’t trust the Google translation of this one so decided to leave it out”.

Which way is the bathroom?” – “Donde esta el inordoro?”

Though I couldn’t get tickets to El Clasico (much to Ali’s disappointment), we were fortunate enough to find ourselves in the city on the same day Real Madrid hosted Barcelona at the Bernabau. Heading to a bar to watch the match with the locals seemed like the mandatory thing to do.

El Clasico

El Clasico

Madrid had a chance to extend their lead at the top of La Liga, in a game which would have all but wrapped up the title, so watching Lionel Messi single-handedly tear them apart in the presence of Real fans was a bittersweet experience. Whether you judge a player’s success on silverware or prodigious performances, it was a prodigious performance then did not result in silverware. Although the result put Barcelona at the top that evening, Madrid went on the win the league a few weeks later, and the GOAT debate rolls on.

Crisis in the Middle East seems to have hit the capital in the same manner as other mainland European cities. The council have made their stance clear, with a giant ‘Refugees Welcome’ banner hanging from City Hall, and a general tolerance towards the influx of street sellers in high-tourist areas. The sellers display their items on large square blankets, with string tied to each corner, meeting in the middle. We marvelled at how quickly they could make a quick exit at the first sign of trouble, turning their wares into a sack with one tug of the string. They moved together in scores over the parks and streets, bringing the extent of the problem to light, but their actions were relatively innocuous and this is not the time for a Giuliani-style clampdown.

Refugees welcome

Refugees welcome

After two full days in Madrid we made our way back down to Atocha for the 3 hour train journey to Seville. The Renfe Operadora, Spain’s State-owned rail service (emphasis on state-owned). had all the hallmarks of a Virgin Train first class experience, but cheaper per mile, more spacious and with airline style service. That’s all I have to say about that.

Mars

What’s the big infatuation with Mars? Talk about running away from your responsibilities. Have we sniffed out some oil? It’s hundreds of millions of miles away, takes months to get to and hasn’t been proven to sustain life. Not to mention it’s pretty dull. Very dull, actually. There’s probably not much to do after drawing dicks in the dust. Billions of dollars spent on exploring a curiosity perpetuated by 19th century Scientific falsehood. A nation’s infrastructure in tatters, a healthcare system on its arse, and they blame the Mexicans! Mars is America’s HS2, or that really big leafy bridge in London which may or may not be built. We’re in too deep, needing to find answers to make it all worthwhile. What a strange priority to be shooting for, just to remain relevant on the world stage.

There goes the neighbourhood

In 2010, George Monbiot partook in a risque comparison between newly released blockbuster ‘Avatar’, and a period of history of which I had no prior comprehensive knowledge of: the 17th Century European-orchestrated genocide of Native Americans (ooh, that’s a bit wordy and forbidding) also known as the ‘Civilisation of the Western Hemisphere’ (much better). Between 2010 and present day, I had worked for a company owned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida, who reacquired land and assets from the US Federal Government between 1940 – 2000, after the introduction of the ‘Indian Claims Commission’ – an enormous compensation package set up as a cause of restitution for over half a millennia’s worth of maltreatment.

Monbiot’s article had been stashed in a draw for 6 years until a recent reviewing of Mel Gibson’s ‘Apocalypto’, which culminates with a Conquistador ship breaching the horizon of Guatemala (much to the bemusement of the indigenous Mayas). It reminded me to revisit the topic, Monbiot’s article and US scholar David Stannard’s core text: ‘American Holocaust’.

“I am the Nina, the Pinta, the Santa Maria…”

There is an argument which serves to suggest that there is little point in criticising rationale for an event which a) happened centuries ago, and b) has no direct connection outside ones influence. However, to be aware of these happenings surely serves to help understand the tensions between cultures and how certain animosities between peoples are formed over substantial periods of time. What has spurred me to place a marker is the sheer ignorance we have displayed towards these events, events which – by Stannard’s reckoning – led to the extermination of 100,000,000 natives by the end of the 19th Century (displayed in numerical form to lay bare the atrocity in its fullest form).

Regardless of timescale, how can it be that such a wholesale slaughter of almost an entire race be brushed aside like a historical irrelevancy? Furthermore, how can the standard-bearers of this genocide be revered in such a fashion? One suggestion is that when you destroy 95% of a population and become the official mouthpiece of its outcome, it is relatively easy to tell the story you want to tell, especially when you have the backing of the state, the Church and countless other benefactors.

The majority of accounts detailing the events come directly from the Europeans. The most puzzling of all is the degree of admiration shown towards the natives before the skirmishes, like a hunter appreciating the beauty of a lion before the kill. One of Stanndard’s extracts recalls the account of an English settler Edmund S. Morgan, who recounts:

Wingina [the local chief] welcomed the visitors, and the Indians gave freely of their supplies to the English. By the time the colonists were settled, it was too late to plant corn, and they seemed to be helpless when it came to living off the land.

The natives were praised for their advanced farming methods, efficiency and consideration for the Earth’s resources, and welcoming disposition towards ‘visitors’. It was this latter naivety – coupled with a natural inertness towards conflict – which ultimately led to their near-extermination.

The Indians could have done the English in simply by deserting them. They did not desert them, however, and in that act they sealed their fate.

In many cases, everything from smallpox, typhoid and yellow fever preceded Columbus, Cortez and Cartier, destroying a population who had not previously been exposed to such plague. Through the eyes of the Conquistadors and colonialists who brought the diseases, this was God’s ruling, making them impervious to the same bacterial infections that ravaged the indigenous.

There are particular reasons why American Holocaust grabbed me in the way it did. Firstly, for what seems to be such an integral moment in the human chronicle, it receives less attention on the UK educational syllabus than the Normans, and the majority of Americans would rather celebrate Columbus Day, albeit certain states choose the counter-celebration Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

There is a new trend which attributes historical acknowledgement to ‘white guilt’, with political writer Shelby Steele relating it to Black Power:

Whites (and American institutions) must acknowledge historical racism to show themselves redeemed by it, but once they acknowledge it, they lose moral authority over everything having to do with race, equality, social justice, poverty and so on.

I am more inclined to say that my source of outspokenness has derived from a lack of information around such events, and if everyone had grown up with better understanding of our origins, our past discrimination and piousness, perhaps we would have evolved to become a more tolerant society.

My generation may end up being defined by the Brexit vote, by Donald Trump, Theresa May and Assad, but it will come with a dose of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, democratic revolution across the Middle East, the lowering of the Confederate Flag in South Carolina, ‘Fearless Girl’ and Gay Marriage equality in Ireland to name a few. In these instances, people have overcome oppression and prejudice in the face of adversity – in whatever form it may take – but there are those who still believe that they are more entitled, more inherently deserving of special treatment than others, simply because of their birthright.

Amazon: American Holocaust, by David Stannard

Americana

“Do you want the 32-ounce, or the large?”

“Shit, how big is that large?”

“You goin’ to want to pull yer car ’round back, I goin’ start the pump”.

Bill Hicks viewed his country through the eyes of a travelling Englishman, who saw the ridiculousness in America’s fixation with excess, and exposed it in a way only an outsider could. The opening dialogue between Hicks and a truck stop clerk is not a million miles from reality. Rob enters the car from stage left with a elbow-catching bucket cup draped in DNC colours and slogans – “When I realised it was Republican, I had to find a Democrat cup and decant from one into the other”.

It was my fourth trip to the States, after two jaunts to New York City (2005, 2011) and a third to Florida in 2013. After every few years, the itch regroups and inevitably must be scratched. This particular trip took myself and three friends up and down the length of California, beginning and ending in Los Angeles and visiting all the ‘gap yar’ hot-spots you have come to know and love from recounts of countless other fuckwits before us. The difference, or course, is that we were embarking on this trip at 27/28 years old, complete with contact lens cleaner, travel sweets and netted socks.

Even with our ‘experienced’ touch, we were still caught out by the routines of American life, arguing over tip entitlement like pensioners, and failing to use our British naivety to negotiate our way out of toll fares when we ran out of change (the charm turned to panic when the attempt failed and we frantically rifled through glove box and seat crevasses to make up the difference). We were eventually let off the outstanding 90 cents but I think this was out of pity than panache.

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Once out of the clutches of America’s interstate, tutting at carpool lane chancers as we went, we were ready and free to explore California’s vast, beautiful landscape.

A note on California’s vast, beautiful landscape: allow me to clear up the mystique surrounding travelling imagery which so often finds its way onto your social media pages, making you feel under-accomplished and untraveled. California is a spectacularly serene place, but still has all the tourist hallmarks of a coaching holiday around the Algarve. The idea of a zen explorer gazing longingly over sequestered scenery is wholly artificial in the majority of cases. In their photography, they hide behind the fourth wall and successfully restrict the viewer’s gaze towards a vista to which the subject faces out to. Pan the camera back and you will see the car park, the picnic tables, the scores of camera-clutching tourists and bin-circling wasps.

Furthermore, why travel thousands of miles to one of these places of beauty, only to turn your back on it for the purpose of a ‘selfie’?  Consider these wanderlust wankers firmly placed in Room 101.

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Yosemite National Park

In the interest of myth-busting, the one idiosyncrasy of American lifestyle immune to prosecution is its love of ‘fried everything’. Over the course of two and a half weeks, we sampled the finest fast-food delicacies the US had to offer – if it didn’t end in ‘y’s’, we didn’t eat there. The commitment to the cause became almost laughable (where else can you get a breakfast milkshake on the side of your peanut butter omelette?) The country has a slight eating problem, and I don’t think anyone cares. My personal highlight was hearing a proud patriot announce “I don’t push drugs, I only push chicken”. This, by its very nature, is what has made America great for its 69% larger than life population.

We were left to our own devices in California. Without restraint, the Golden State would have happily let us eat ourselves to death (or diabetes), and I am convinced that we would have – I gained over 7 pounds in the relatively short time we were there, and showed no sign of slowing.

Sporting fixtures gave us another reason to continue our food odyssey. Our first taste came in Oakland, as the A’s marched to an uncharacteristic win over the Texas Rangers, complete with a 7 run haul in the 2nd inning. The fortune did not spread to the AT&T Park, as a lacklustre performance by a Wild Card chasing San Francisco Giants team failed to get so much as a man on 3rd the entire game. Seemingly, they saved their best performances for after we left the city, winning five games on the bounce to secure the Wild Card spot over the Cardinals and the Mets. The Giants had won their most recent World Series titles in 2010, 2012 & 2014, and were riding on the crest of a superstitious wave, looking to continue their ‘beliEVEN’ run in 2016. It wasn’t to be, and they lost the post-season playoff to the Chicago Cubs.

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Giants vs Rockies – 29.09.16

We were as active participants on the music scene as the sporting scene, with an impromptu visit to Whisky A Go-Go in Los Angeles to discover Manchester based ‘Partisan’, before catching Abbey Grange at the The Viper Room, famous for being the venue where River Phoenix suffered an overdose and died, or perhaps more famous for being the venue where Jason Donovan suffered a drug-induced seizure and survived.

The most eventful gig came with Echo and the Bunnymen at the Regency Ballroom, San Francisco, where talking at any point during the concert was supposedly prohibited, and Lee was quite openly discriminated against for being too tall. The exchange went something like this:

“You’re too tall, can you move to the back?”

“Erm.. no?”

“Fuck you”

“Fuck off”

“Fuck you”

“Fuck off”

“Excuse me, can you both stop talking, I can’t hear the music”.

Ian McCulloch was so blissfully unaware, and spent most of the gig dishing out Scouse phrases and asking the crowd if they understood what he was saying.

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“The last time I checked, this was America”

I expect that if Donald Trump succeeded in becoming President, this is exactly the kind of nonsense he would overturn. Who are Jack’s Diner to say that you cannot go pant-less in your own country? IN YOUR OWN COUNTRY! The sooner Trump takes office and starts removing the buttoned shackles of oppression, the better.

We rocked up at San Francisco in the hope of catching the first Presidential debate with some locals. Indeed we did, and shared moments of uncertainty and frustration with a nation being torn apart by two unstable parties and an overall obsolete political system. San Francisco, according to the barmaid, was overwhelmingly Democratic (or anti-Trump, whichever way you want to look at it) and declared as a rule of thumb that the coastal states share a similar ideology, whereas centre states go the other way. Give or take a few swing stakes, and you have the same patterns and allegiances as told throughout history. The barmaid said she was embarrassed for us to see US politics in such a light as the debate was presented, but we were quick to reassure her that British politics wear the same masks, only in different suits.

Mark in Monterrey held a very different opinion of his country’s destiny. In his own words, he “fucking hates Hilary Clinton, that evil bitch”. When asked where this resentment hails from, the answer was a little skewed, with a cocktail of Bill-bashing and ethical criticisms (imagine!). When faced with what Jake described as a gentle Theroux-esk probing, the responses became more fallacious.

“Since Angela Merkel let immigrants swarm into Germany, one thousand women have been raped – one thousand! ONE THOUSAND!”

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Mark, whose possessions are safe and guns are plenty

We decided to grab a late dinner/early breakfast with Mark, who continued on his one man crusade, carefully explaining that for ‘every shooting of a black man by cops, ten cops have been killed by black men’. We asked him about gun possession, Mark – a Vietnam veteran – owns a lot of guns, and proceeded to tell us which gun he would use to dispatch a potential intruder in various different situations. The AR-15 seemed to be his weapon of choice for most scenarios: “If you’re going to come into my house, I’m going to fuck you up”. Strangely, Jake and I found ourselves unable to disagree, but in the same instance, admitted we would try to negotiate an outcome beneficial for both parties, and failing that, reach for the frying pan.

All being said, I still have a incurable obsession with America, and California is a treasured jewel. I very much enjoyed coming away from Las Vegas in the black, after two consecutive nights winning on Blackjack (I figure I won $150.00 and lost around $140-145.00). We revelled in the majesty of a Nevada sunset, and watched the temperature plummet in a matter of minutes. We gazed at the Hollywood hills – albeit from afar – and placed our hands in the casts of Monroe, Crosby.. and Segal.

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Elephant Seals along the Highway 1 Coastline

On the return flight, the subject of a 5 hour delay and greeted with the British compo contingent, I watched three crap films and attempted to spread a rock-solid stick of butter onto a bread roll. The Metrolink photograph in Terminal 2 showed the expressions of dull-faced commuters, welcoming you home with a ‘please don’t talk to me’ outlook. The rain poured in Manchester and our taxi got caught in the rush hour traffic. And yet, we are still somehow revelled over in the states. As one taxi driver put it, “Britain is our last remaining Ally”. Is it any wonder that our trains are on the same tracks?

A note on neologisms

Occasionally a newly coined word, phrase or acronym derived from the Internet will make its way into everyday conversation. It’s a form of dialogue which I have yet to come to terms with.

I find it downright bizarre when a respectable media outlet popularises a term which originated online, usually conceived on a Reddit or 4Chan forum. Brands are as equally at fault, and can often result in embarassing consequences when used without consideration of the term’s origin.

There is no place for Internet speak in the real world, but it is staggering how easily these phrases firstly get picked up, but more importantly, how quickly they are incorporated into modern day speech. I’m not in support of throwaway words such as “selfie”, “bae” and “twerk” gaining dictionary status, mainly because they will expire not long after its inception, but also because they make my face contort uncontrollably. I can’t think of any longstanding words or phrases which have the same affect, and I blame Delia Smith for non-phrases becoming hastily recognised before being quickly forgotten.

The terms troll/trolling/don’t feed the trolls is equally perplexing to me. Such a name legitimises and almost encourages online abuse. Believe it or not, people take pride in being labelled a ‘troll’, so if you want to stop ‘feeding them’, start referring to them as what they are – lonely, faceless, mysogonist, rasicist. ‘Trolling’ is not prosecutable, but online abuse is. It is essentially the same thing, but the variation in terminology makes one term sound more innocuous than the other.

Now go and think it over with a muffit of tea:

He was only a hobo, but one more is gone [Part 1]

Amidst the ongoing economic resurgence of Manchester, something lurking in the city’s underbelly is beginning to ruin Osborne and Wharton’s tea party.

Ali explained the concept of ‘Swan Upping’ to me this weekend – the annual census of the swan population. It’s a majestic and well regulated tradition, dating back to the twelfth century, when the Crown claimed ownership of all mute swans throughout parts of the River Thames.

Similarly in Manchester, the council undertake the less glamorous task of documenting rough sleepers in the city centre. It’s a process of which published data from the recording is both lauded and ridiculed, depending on the motives of the recipients. Where councillors will declare that there has been a reduction of homeless people of Manchester’s streets, others will be quick to point out that the figures have been somewhat skewed to create a false sense of achievement. This may include ambiguous terminology relating to the status of a homeless person, or offering rough sleepers accommodation on the evening of the census taking to downplay the issue.

For Manchester residents however, no degree of data manipulation can hide what is visible to them every day, and it is the citizenry rather than the powers of influence which have risen to the challenge of tackling this sociological problem.

To continue the ongoing observations into Manchester’s city centre homeless crisis, here is a list of some of the organisations, individuals and the like I have had contact with over the past couple of years:

The Booth Centre (@BoothCentre)
The Booth Centre provides activities, advice and support to people who are homeless in Manchester.
BoothCentre.org.uk

Mustard Tree (@MustardTreeMCR)
Combatting homelessness and disadvantage.
mustardtree.org.uk

No Place Like (@NoPlaceLike_)
Perspectives on homelessness/the housing crisis in and around Manchester. Currently on the lookout for creative work to share via zine/blog.

Jed Austin (The Urban Poet) & Brogan Fox (@BroganProduction)
Currently working directly with Manchester homeless community to instil change and encourage debate. Also creators of recent #OutsideTheBox exhibition.
‘The Urban Poet’ YouTube channel
broganstudiosmanchester.co.uk

#ManchesterHomeless

The end of Peep Show: What’s next for British Sitcom?

It may not be the most pressing issue at the moment, but the harsh fact is that Peep Show is kaput, leaving a requiem of great British comedies in its wake.

Admittedly, the long-standing series had run its course, and I think most would agree that the time was right to wrap it up – albeit perhaps a season too late. Either way, the door has been left wide open for the ‘next big thing’ to announce itself on the comedic stage and sweep up the easy pickings.. but from where?

With so many outlets now available, one would expect a plethora of new ideas, battling for viewers’ attention with original and exciting content, but inspiration seems to be lacking.

I feel there are many contributing factors to this, one being the way new shows are critiqued and subsequently lambasted in real-time, creating an almost instant aura of negativity around shows that lack the ability to strike an instant rapport with its audience. Pilots may no longer be an adequate method of forecasting the perceived response of viewers, and with ever-shortening attention spans, writers must make the discourse more exuberant, the scenes more snappy and the conclusions more rewarding. What you end up with is an undaring plot with conspicuous characters who no real substance or back story.

Canned laughter – if used sparingly – can add an extra dimension and compliment a show. This is not the case for this era of British comedies, which instead possess a frustrating commonality, almost insulting to viewers who are being reassured that what is occurring on screen is simply hilarious, and you are a pariah for not joining in. Canned laughter within older sitcoms tend to be more subtle, as if it is the producer’s intention to make you believe that the show was filmed in front of a live audience (incidentally, it is known that the laugh track used in many old shows originated from the live audience recordings of I Love Lucy).

I watch through my fingers and notice that in a post ‘Sachsgate’, post Deayton and post Clarkson universe, such institutions as the BBC have become so embroiled in their own self-censorship that all aspects of racy comedy has been replaced by safer slapstick and/or unfunny one-liners, usually delivered by accomplished stand-up comedians who have tried their hand at situation comedy, such as Lee Mack, Miranda Hart and Tim Vine.

Comedy without controversy is doomed to fail. Ben Elton and Rik Mayall’s ‘The Young Ones’ shares many qualities with Peep Show, not only for identifying with a disassociated youth, but by tangling with sub-cultures, poking fun at political ideas (namely Thatcherism) and putting petty squabbles on a pedestal.

The Young Ones’ postmodernist take on 1980’s London

It’s easy to create a joke out of a subject matter which already carries ridicule, whether it be Catholocism (Father Ted), Parliamentary behaviour (Yes Minister) or social degradation (Phoenix Nights).

If ideology is one thing, then content writing is another. Some of the best British comedies were hampered by restrictive budgets, which often led to confined sets. Whether it be Del and Rodney’s flat in Only Fools and Horses, or the sepia-toned living room in the Royale Family, the show requires an exquisite pen behind the camera, such as John Sullivan or Caroline Aherne (it is no coincidence that these shows lost their spark once they passed on or quit).

Peep Show ran for over 12 years with a captive audience

My biggest peeve is (both in comedy and drama alike), is the inclusion of modern technology within a plot. It’s lazy, unflattering on screen and above all panders to a demographic who cannot focus attention without a popular branded devise being present. At a recent test screening for a sitcom set to feature on Comedy Central, 4 out of 6 of the storylines heavily featured smartphone technology. In one particular episode, two colleagues struggle to explain the concept of ‘Snapchat’ to their boss.

I’m waiting to be impressed by a new and original British comedy (Matt Berry’s ‘Toast of London’ is the only thing coming close at the moment). Until then, I’m happy to revisit the genius of Barker(s), Cleese, Jason and Atkinson, whose prowess is everlasting, and who somehow remain just as prominent and applicable today – how many current comedy characters will you able to say that about in 30 years time?