December: A Manic Month of Mayhem! (Time for a rest?)

If I thought there were lots of gigs in November, the pace was set to continue, with lots more gigs and events – and that’s on top of Christmas and the New Year.

During the start of December, I was working hard, and gently starting to prepare for Christmas. But that was all about to change.

The 11th December had been in my diary for months. I was lucky enough to have a ticket for the Manic Street Preachers, playing The Holy Bible album in full. It feels unbelievable, but 2014 was the twentieth anniversary of this harrowing, critically acclaimed and essential album, an album influenced by angular post-punk, rather than the glam metal and grunge of the previous two albums. In the months after its release, lyricist and rhythm guitarist Richey Edwards disappeared from a London hotel room, and has never been found.

Against all expectations, the Manic Street Preachers continued as a three-piece band, and they have now released twelve studio albums. They seemed busier and more productive than ever in 2014, having released Futurology in July. A tour to commemorate The Holy Bible was fervently wished for by fans, but it was unsure if the band would want to revisit old ground that invoked such painful memories of their friend’s disappearance.

But in late September, the band officially announced the tour dates, and my friend Louise managed to get tickets for the  Albert Hall in Manchester. On a stormy, sleety afternoon (I didn’t dare to cross the Pennines by the Snake Pass or the Woodhead) we drove to Manchester, arriving in good time at Louise’s boyfriend Peter’s flat, where he cooked a lovely meal, and I opened a bottle of red wine as a reward for battling the rain and the rush hour.

The gig was everything I hoped it would be. The Albert Hall was build in 1910 as a Wesleyan Chapel (very fitting when you think of the Methodist upbringings of the young Manic Street Preachers and the religious title of the album they were about to play in full. Ornate tiles, stained glass and cast-iron pillars added to the atmosphere of the venue. There was no support band, and we enjoyed the DJs and drank beer with mounting excitement.

The band appear onstage. The thing that hits me first is the empty space – the space where Richey Edwards used to perform – front left. This space has always been left, but as they launch into ‘Yes’, the first track from the album, about prostitution and exploitation, it feels incredibly stark. The stage is draped in camouflage netting, and James, Nicky and Sean are wearing their combat chic, just like in 1994. Nicky is all in black, his face half-hidden by outsize shades, and James Dean Bradfield wears a black sailor’s top. The songs are tight and powerful, and in such an intimate space, it becomes obvious what an outstanding guitarist James is, and also how hard he has to work: carrying the weight of these songs about human suffering and cruelty. It was brilliant to experience The Holy Bible being performed live, but the gig went far too fast to take in.

After all the emotional intensity, the Manics then delivered a brilliant second set with songs from the rest of their career. A particular highlight for me was Dreaming a City (Hughesovka) from Futurology, really allowing James’ guitar heroics full reign. The Manics ended with their traditional closing number A Design for Life, before we were kicked out into the pouring rain. It had been an amazing night!

The next day, I was doing it all again, this time seeing another of my all-time favourite bands, Gogol Bordello at the O2 in Sheffield, with my friend Kirsty, her husband Mark and old uni friend Katy. After stopping off in Pennine town New Mills to take photographs for an adult education session, the drive back was a little stressful, due to a blizzard in the Peak District. I didn’t fancy taking any of my usual shortcuts on minor roads as it looked too slippery, but luckily, but the time I arrived back in Sheffield, the long way round, there was no sign of snow!

The O2 felt pretty chilly though, but support band Mariachi El Bronx, who combine punk with Mexican Mariachi music, including tiny and gigantic guitars, trumpets, violins, accordions and maracas! I think it was Mark’s Santa had and Christmas tie (he’d just come from his work Christmas party) that made the singer announce that he was feeling Christmassy for the first time! The band looked great in proper gold-fringed Mariachi outfits.

Gogol Bordello themselves were a riot of colour, attitude and fun. Singer Eugene Hutz is the only person I can think of who would get away with wearing satin boxer’s style shorts and pointy black and red cowboy boots. Since I last saw them at Download last year, they’ve had some line-up changes – a leather-clad accordion player called Pasha, and bald, Les Paul toting guitarist Michael Ward (Eugene Hutz lied in his announcement – he’s American, not from Sheffield!) They played songs from their breakthrough album Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike, right up to their latest album Pura Vida Conspiracy. Gogol Bordelo have built up a big cult following over the years, with a devoted audience wearing the t-shirts and outfits inspired by Hutz’s off-kilter colourful sense of style. The place was packed, but the crowd were friendly and up for a good dance/mosh.

Their sound is fresh and still evolving, with heavier guitars combining with Latin rhythms. They are one of the most multi-national bands I know of, formed in 1999 in the cultural melting-pot of down-town New York; the vision of Ukrainian immigrant Hutz, who was hungry for success as a musician and actor. A Gogol Bordello gig is a very entertaining experience – each member of the band is a stunning musician, and although Eugene Hutz is one of the world’s most engaging frontmen, every member of the band has a chance to shine, and violinist Sergey Ryabtsev deserves a special mention for his virtuosity and on-stage antics. The first time I saw them, in 2006, at Rock City in Nottingham, I hugged him! That’s my claim to fame, anyway. He looked quite surprised! This time, we just left with smiles on our faces and our ears ringing.

I felt a bit wrung out after two big gigs in a row. I don’t know how I hack it when I’m at a festival, but going to see a band in a proper venue is always a treat. I concentrated on Christmas and went back home to stay with my parents and see family members on the next weekend – it was good to calm down for a bit!

My mum is a volunteer room steward for the National Trust at Kedleston Hall, and she recommended that I visited the stately home while it was open for Christmas. My dad and I went along and I’m really glad I did. The sight of Grecian statues covered in fairy lights really made me giggle, and I loved the atmosphere of the grand rooms lit only by flickering LED candles. Even when it was lit for grand dinner parties and balls, this eighteenth century mansion must have been full of shadows and mystery. It was really a visit to spark the imagination.

The next day was the winter solstice. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll remember that I spent the summer solstice up Glastonbury Tor. That was a long way away, so I suggested that we should wake up before the official sunrise (8.15am) and walk to Bunkers Hill, a viewpoint near the ridiculously posh village of Quarndon, a mile or so up the road from my parents’ house. The sky was already turning red as we walked up Woodlands Road up to the park, but we got to Bunkers Hill just in time to see the sun rise above the horizon. We were lucky, because it started raining just as we got back to the house. Later on, we met up with family members and went to my Aunt Marion’s annual Christmas party. It was lovely to see everyone. I’ll always remember the 21st December as the anniversary of my grandad’s death, thirteen years ago, so my mum lit candles in his memory, which was lovely.

On Tuesday 23rd December, I gathered up some friends for a Christmas dinner (nut roast with all the trimmings) and lots of mulled wine. Eventually, we made it out of the house in time to catch the folk train! It was rammed, but very good-natured. Some of my friends managed to get seats, but the rest of us were crammed into the corridor but we didn’t mind! On the way to Edale, local choir The Sheffield Folk Chorale entertained us with Christmas carols and gave out song sheets so we could join in.

I hope the customers having a quiet night at the Rambler in Edale were warned about the hoards of people who descended on the pub in one go, once we got off the train! It was like being part of a huge procession walking from the railway station to the pub just around the corner. Surprisingly, we got served fairly quickly, and found a corner with seats to drink our pints. In the main room in the pub, the choir conductor stood on a table, and the choir started singing! They did a great version of Fairytale in New York, as well as more traditional carols.

On the way home, the choir sung some traditional Sheffield carols, such as Sweet Bells, which is a version of ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night’ which originates from Stannington in Sheffield and has now been made famous by folk singer Kate Rusby. It was a beautiful moment. At the other end of the journey, the choir sang around the Christmas tree at Sheffield railway station before we all headed off to the Sheffield Tap for a final beer.

I spent Christmas Eve collecting holly for a touch of traditional decoration, and preparing a mountain of vegetables for Christmas, even though there were only four people eating, enjoying listening to the radio adaptation of Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, followed by a selection of rockabilly Christmas CDs played by my other half!

Christmas Day went smoothly, except for my dad’s self-timer on his camera not working, and then the batteries ran out, but we used my camera instead, and we went for a lovely afternoon walk in the local park and took the chance to have a go on the huge swing that’s popped up near us! Even my dad had a go!

On the morning of Boxing Day, we had a bracing, if a little foggy walk to Stanage Edge from Redmires Reservoir, which was popular with a lot of other people trying to blow away the cobwebs after a Christmas blow-out! And then at tea-time, it started to snow…and snow…and snow… until we woke up the next day in a winter wonderland /nightmare, depending if you had to get anywhere. Luckily, we fell into the first category, and the snow looked very pretty, with lots of families enjoying sledging in Ruskin Park.

A few days later, and the snow had turned very icy and slippery on the pavements, which is tricky if you live in such a hilly city, so we caught the train when we went to meet an old uni friend in Castleton in the Peak District and went down the Blue John mine at Treak Cliff Cavern, which truly has some stunning sights, and actually felt quite warm underground!

And so we come to New Year’s Eve! The pavements were still icy, but I headed out to the city centre for some early drinks with a friend. It was very quiet, but I was due at another friend’s house for a small gathering with wine and pizza (I supplied my own vegan garlic bread and some Christmas cake – which I always seem to end up eating myself!) It was all very civilised, and for a while, it looked like we were destined to enjoy Jools Holland’s Hootenanny and the Queen concert that followed on TV. But my friend Angelina was determined to drag us out to enjoy ourselves, so we put our boots on and slid out onto the melting ice and headed first to the Three Tuns, a lovely little pub on the outskirts of the city centre, where the party was in full swing, with DJs playing some great music.

After a pint…or was it two? I can’t remember, we ended up at the Dada bar, where the Dub Central New Year’s party was happening. It was a bit quiet, but we know the lady who ran it, and I vaguely remember a round of aniseed flavoured shots! This was probably the point where things got a bit hazy.

We’d heard about a party in the Wicker Arches, so a group of us stumbled out of town, towards the Victorian railway arches. Over the years, several of the arches and the tunnels underneath have been used as party venues, and we headed to the last place we’d been to a party near there, only to find it all very quiet. Maybe the party was in one of the arches further along? I have vague memories of walking along the “spider bridge“, suspended over the river that runs through one of the arches. And then we found the party.

It was in the old “Arches” nightclub, which I hadn’t been inside for at least ten years. Angelina and I met in 2004, working together in a building very close by. The nightclub was already closed then, and shortly afterwards, the new ring-road was built, right next to the railway arches. Then the dramatic floods of 2007, when the river burst its banks and swept down the Wicker, must have caused terrible damage. But there it was, like some kind of mirage from 1999.

When we were students, a long time ago in the 90s, the Arches was a by-word for a crazy night out. Headcharge played dance music of all kinds, but mostly house, techno and trance. Rough and ready, it was the place to go if you wanted to rave all night long, with the main club inside the old railway arches, and metal stairs leading up to the bar, toilets (always a bit crazy in themselves), and a weird, corrugated iron-roofed chill-out area. It’s all still there. I was amazed. We just walked in through the fire escape, and it seemed to be a free party of some kind, but it was packed, and lots of people we knew were there – and lots of other people who were also veterans of the club scene in the 90s, who’d somehow ended up here. It was like being in a dream – a very strange, euphoric dream. It had to be a dream- the toilets had toilet paper! The music was thumping… it was like we’d taken a trip in the Tardis (although it had actually just been some wine, several pints of ale, that weird aniseed spirit, and some rum). I can’t even find anything about it on the internet…It was like a mirage.

Eventually, we looked at our watches and were absolutely mind-boggled to realise what the time was. It was about to get light! We were absolutely shattered. Within a few minutes, we’d flagged down a taxi and were on our way to a terrible New Year hangover. It was worth it though. The only clue that my Wicker Arches adventures were real was the mud on my coat and all over my boots. In my drunken state, I somehow managed to get the dustpan and brush and the carpet cleaner out before I stumbled into bed.

After all that excitement, I’ve been teetotal so far in the New Year. I’m looking forward to an action-packed year, when hard work and creativity are combined with good times with friends and amazing music of all kinds!

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

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“This,” she thought to herself cheerfully, “is where I break my neck.”

I’ve stolen a phrase from the book I’m reading at the moment, The Sword in the Stone by T. H. White. It’s the fantasy novel about the future king Arthur. The young Arthur, known as “The Wart” is the foster son of an obscure nobleman in a fictitious medieval England until he meets his destiny by pulling the magic sword out of the stone. Merlyn the magician becomes his tutor and helps him to achieve his destiny by sending The Wart on magical adventures and turning him into various animals. In this particular scene, The Wart has been turned into an owl and is about to take his first flight.

And that’s how I feel right now, knowing I should be scared of falling, but excited about flying.

Yesterday, I plucked up the courage to give my notice at work. Following the much reviled office move to Derby, I had a month to make up my mind whether I thought I could give it a go. If I decided it wasn’t working out for me, I could apply for redundancy with no hard feelings. And that’s what I’ve decided to do. It was a very calm, and very friendly discussion, very far removed from the scene in my novel Outside Inside when Miriam quits her job at the building society. I work until the end of April, I’ll get a small redundancy package, and that’s that – I’m free! A few months ago, that thought was a terrifying prospect, but I’ve been spending the last few months learning about myself and starting to plan for the future. This blog is one of the tentative first steps that I’ve taken into the wide world.

I do have a plan – I’m sure it will evolve and develop as I go along, but the biggest change is that I don’t want my life to be dominated by one job that takes up the majority of my time. I want to have my cake and eat it really. I’m going to get back into education so the sensible part of my plan is to sign up to be a supply teaching assistant; to gain experience in working in a wide variety of schools. But I’m also going to be developing my skills as a writing tutor, volunteering with the wonderful http://www.inspirerotherham.org/. I also want to develop my own creative writing business so watch this space! I should be terrified about leaving the security of a full-time job behind me, but I feel excited and inspired. I would like to thank my partner, family and friends who have been very supportive so far. I am also very grateful to Marianne Cantwell and everyone at Free Range Humans: http://www.free-range-humans.com. You should check out the Free Range Humans website, especially if you are feeling a bit pissed off with your job and are wondering what to do next.

I’ve been able to practise my “free range” career lifestyle today because Sheffield was buried under a rather large dump of snow today. There was no way I was able to drive to Derby as half the motorway was blocked. Instead I just fired up my laptop and got on with a full day’s work. However, it was a case of “death by spreadsheet”, so at teatime, I took a walk to the fetch my veg box from my local health food shop, Beanies, about a mile away. http://www.beanieswholefoods.co.uk/  It was a very bracing walk, in a blizzard, but I felt alive and a bit smug watching people in cars sliding all over the place on their way home from work.

I feel like my personal spring is starting, but everyone is waiting for the temperatures outside to rise. In just over a month’s time, when I finish work, it should be almost Summer, but outside right now, there’s about a foot of snow on the ground and the steep roads in Walkley are impassable.  Come on Spring!

Here are some photos, I took on my walk, including an ironic one with daffodils in my garden covered in snow. I told you I was feeling creative!

Things this blog is about…