To The Girls Of The Malt Cross, Nottingham

The Malt Cross is a former Music Hall on St James Street, Nottingham. It opened in 1877. Many of the top stars of Music Hall, such as Marie Lloyd, played there. It ceased to be a licensed premises in 1914 after problems with prostitution. It is now a bar and mixed arts venue.

Whatever happened to the whores of old?
The girls in the shadows of the text,
Hinted at in the facts and figures by Mayhew,
Or mentions – nameless, or as good as…
Polly, Molly or Meg – in some narrative
Of a more celebrated personage
Who entertained himself with their sex?
Pox riddled, clapped out, too old, too drunk,
Beaten, cheated, grasping through a life
That dealt them a hand that would never play out,
Or elevated to unwanted fame by murder…
Maybe glimpsed in an old photograph,
Or a workhouse record, a Magistrates report
In some discontinued rag,
Before the quiet rest of the grave.

Waiting for what? Redemption and resurrection?
Judgement passed on the men who used them?
This their one last throw of trust?

God, Time is a bastard to us all
But more so to the sparrows that fall
Nameless into the dust.

06/MAY/2017

Bees versus Wasps

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Over the 2017 April Fool’s weekend, Reddit carried out an experiment. It created a blank canvas and allowed its users access to create a community artwork. Each user had a pixel and a palette of sixteen colours. They could place this pixel anywhere on the canvas. They then had to wait something like ten minutes before they could add another pixel. The experiment lasted seventy-two hours. Millions of people all around the world took part.

This is what the internet is for. That and porn, obviously. And Wikipedia. And watching people fall off roofs, down holes etc. on YouTube.

Many people think that bees and wasps are the same. They both live in hives, they buzz about getting pollen, they’ve got black and yellow stripes, they’re insects… But they’re not the same. Bees are community driven, chirpy little souls who want to work together to make a better world, not just for themselves but those that they share that world with. Wasps, on the other hand, are cunts. Wasps use the hive for their own ends, will eat the eggs of their neighbours, steal their food and squat in their nests. They are selfish, grabbing little bastards. Bees are socialists. I’ll let you decide the most appropriate socio-political/economic label for the wasps.

When people swarm they come together as either bees or wasps.

You see the wasps everywhere. The road is a good place to observe them. Wasps are the ones who don’t indicate (which I find especially cunty behaviour at roundabouts), park on double yellows when there’s ample free parking around the corner, speed everywhere, and so on. Wasps are all about me, me, me. Bees are the ones who let you out at a busy junction.

However, Reddit’s experiment created results more complex than a simple battle between bees and wasps. There was also a sophisticated series of conflicts between factions that existed inside each camp. For instance, you get German bees and German wasps, British bees and British wasps, etc., so that loyalties are divided between what people think is fundamentally right or wrong and what people are told they should believe in (for centuries British and German bees have been killing each other on the say so of British and German wasps). And so different collectives were created, with organised projects and objectives – some artistic, others (like the sea of blue that aimed to paint out everyone else’s work) destructive and aggressive. Feuds were started, peace deals negotiated through online forums, agreements made to get jobs done. And repeat. It was reassuring to see the swastika that emerged above the German flag was blotted out – the bees fighting back. But I found the other flags disappointing, though not unexpected – some level of national predilection is still seen as natural and relatively harmless; which is one of the reasons, post-Brexit, in the era of Trump and America First, with the Bond villain in control of North Korea, the malicious distortion of Islam, and so on (add your own example of human idiocy) that the world is such a worrying place at the moment. People can be made to believe in the most stupid ideas.

The page I’ve linked gives a more comprehensive break down on how the experiment played out, and what it tells us about human behaviour. But what it boils down to for me is that the world would be a better place if we were more like the bees. Start by letting someone out at a junction. And indicate the next time you approach a roundabout.

PS It’s nice to see a traditional cock and balls amongst the artwork. And the Australian effort is reassuringly down to earth.

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315, Huddersfield

315, Wakefield Road, Lepton, Huddersfield, HD8 0LX

http://www.315barandrestaurant.co.uk

315 is housed in a former pub made out of stolid West Yorkshire stone, and where there was once a pool table, Space Invader machine and one arm bandit, it now boasts – these gastro places are all about boasting; boasting about the chef, boasting about the manner of cooking a signature dish, boasting about the Michelin star and the positive Tripadvisor rating, and, for the clientele, boasting that you’ve been there, I came, I dined, I posted on Facebook – a spa and hotel, as well as the restaurant which had brought me out on a drizzly evening in mid-March.

The decor is comfortingly expensive, if on the bland side. I got the impression of lots of stripes in lavish colours; as if George IV had done the makeover using tins of paint from his Dad’s shed. It reminded me of an affluent older person’s home whose ideas are slightly out of step with the times, so that even when they buy something new it seems dated. 315 offers a reproduction of the 1990s aiming for a country house style, done on a generous budget (Heal’s rather than SCS). A bit of imagination seems due.

There is a nod to the 21st Century in some heavily patterned wallpaper that I’m sure the older Managing Directors and their wives, who I felt constituted a major proportion of the clientele (I’m stereotyping and jumping to huge assumptions here, but so what), would refer to as ‘funky’ and, feeling flush with the Château Clerc Milon, consider trying themselves, perhaps tentatively as an accent wall in the orangery. It’s presence was a bit like when a divorced man gets a new (and younger) girlfriend who’s moved in and put a bit of her stamp on the place, the rest of the furnishings looking on, polite but hostile, sensing it’s got a fight on its hands.

Overall, 315 leans more towards corporate re-assurance than boutique bravura. Which is a shame, considering the quality of the grub they serve.

The menu felt slightly limited (the evening menu provided six choices). Included was a signature menu that came with (at £50 per head – or per mouth) specified drinks designed to complement the dishes served, or without the booze for £35. It’s a good idea, but restricted to only one series of choices, makes me wonder how many people it will suit (I’m not sure how often it changes). At a nearby table a couple who had obviously seen some merit in the notion (financial? Gastronomic?) had abandoned their Homemade Irish Cream & Chocolate Truffle Terrines, untouched. Perhaps they were more Golden Syrup sponge pudding and custard people. The dictatorial menu doesn’t allow for this. Like the politics of the Soviet Union in the 1940s, it’s Fillet of Beef Topped with a Pate Herb Crust, Brown Cap Mushrooms Cherry Tomato Confit & Hand Cut Chips Served with Merlot Wine Sauce with a The Crusher Pinot Noir, or on your bike, comrade.

And they don’t offer ‘any kind of stout’, the pregnant maître d’hôtel and potential secret police informer for Egon Ronay, informed me after I’d asked for a Guinness, the comment delivered as if I’d just requested the Ketchup. Stout is perhaps the gastronomic equivalent of wiping your arse on Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book in this culinary dictatorship.

The food – Pork Tender loin, Parma Ham & Slowly Braised Shoulder, Served on Creamed Leeks & Roasted Parsnips with Apple – was delicious and surprisingly generous (this was a definite meal as opposed to a strictly academic dining experience, for which 315 should be commended). There is a slight premium on the bill (two mains, one glass of white wine, one large bottle of mineral water and two pints of Ossett Yorkshire Blonde (£3.95 per pint!) set us back £54.25), but both quality and quantity compensate for this relatively minor hit to the wallet.

You can tell by the fastened top buttons on polo shirts and the un-seasonal outing of décolletage that this is a ‘night out’ kind of place. Somewhere to come for a significant event – Valentine’s Day booked, Mother’s Day, a Christmas party, that sort of thing. But for me, as much as I enjoyed my meal, 315 doesn’t quite deliver on ambience. Don’t get me wrong, the food was excellent and I’d be happy to return, but I came and went without feeling – other than the generous bowel movement I enjoyed the following morning – that I had interacted with the place.

Occasion – Fine dining
Food – 8/10
Choice – 5/10
Decor – 6/10
Prices – 7/10
Ambience – 6/10
Total – 32/50

Visited Saturday 18th March 2017

Sheffield in 8 pints

When it comes to Sheffield, the one thing everyone bangs on about is the Park Hill flats. Like a lot of things – HD eyebrows, Brexit, a Hollywood star’s face – the flats look better from a distance. Walk out of the train station into Sheaf Square (a space that shows that the city is at least trying [1]), past the water feature/sculpture that looks like a big urinal (‘The Cutting Edge’, which, according to Sheffield City Council’s web site, “combines the city’s famous resource – steel – with water and light”. OK) turn 180 degrees and the flats look down from the steep hill, their arms crossed in a ‘come and have a go if you think you’re tough enough’ attitude. Like the Zulus fringing the horizon at Rourke’s Drift as Michael Caine kept a stiff upper lip. To be honest, that’s about as close as you want to get to the flats. Unless you fancy the full on urban tours experience – there’s nothing like a fridge being dropped on you from a gangway (sic) to endear a place to you.

Welcome to Sheffield.

You have to be selective when visiting Sheffield. Much of it is a mess, made more for cars than people (and certainly not trees). And this accommodation of the combustion engine leaves the streets feeling dirty and greasy, particularly when it’s raining (rain or shine, West Street makes me feel grubby every time I walk along it), and it also generates a lot of dead space that needs to be crossed if you want to get anywhere. Its best bits are spread apart beyond walking distance. Namely Division Street and Kelham Island. Leopold Square (a bit too posh and self-consciously upmarket to be really welcoming), some pubs on Norfolk Street near to the theatres, and the Winter Gardens (a lovely space) are worth a mention. But the rest… Humph. Its main pedestrian thoroughfare, the Fargate, is a haphazard, clumsy and strangely claustrophobic collection of utilitarian boxes (flanked on all sides with shops you can see anywhere in the country) whose sole purpose is to flog things without any pretence at warmth or friendliness (some of the branches off Fargate, like Chapel Walk, have character, but almost always seem empty and lifeless when I’ve walked along them). Get down as far as Snig Hill and the Crown Court and, to quote Morrissey, every day is like Sunday – streets overlooked by passively hostile, anonymous office buildings, which are almost empty of people, except for the smokers gathered around the doors of the aforementioned Crown Court.

Scaffolding is the City’s main architectural statement, the ‘regeneration’ seems like a never-ending project that doesn’t appear to have any prospect of coming to any sort of cohesive conclusion. Sheffield is like the householder who asks you to excuse the mess, but they’re just in the process of cleaning up – but you know they’ve been at it for the last twenty years without it looking any better. The city seems to be continually under construction without – decade after decade – any real feeling of improvement or consistency.

Sheffield’s most iconic building from the present day – run any search for Sheffield on the internet and it always seems to come up as the main image – seems to be a multi-storey carpark known locally as ‘the cheese grater’. This is the Q-Park multi-storey on Charles Street (Allies & Morrison, 2008), just off the windy canyon that is Arundel Gate. The ramp is a tight corkscrew that climbs with such nauseating insistence that as part of his pre-space training Tim Peake used to drive his Ford Focus up the ramp at 70 miles an hour. It came third in a vote to find the coolest car park in the world (the winner was Michigan Theatre, Detroit, USA, and in second place the Veranda Car Park, Rotterdam). Below the Cheese Grater, across from a blingy, Hello! magazine, the Only Way Is Essex kind of place called ‘The Genting Club’ is the Roebuck pub, a squat relic of Sheffield’s past. Like an old foundry worker rubbing shoulders with the shiny suited office worker. The contrast works well. Let’s hope the town planners continue to think so. If not, I know which one will have to make way.

The ‘new’ nave (1966) attached to the side of the squat Cathedral (it was originally a parish church, and it shows) now looks like a uPVC porch bolted on the side of an old house – a good (and practical) idea at the time, but now woefully dated. Paradise Square (about the only old part of the city centre to be (slightly) praised by Ian Nairn in Britain’s Changing Towns [2]) has been taken over by solicitors and barristers, and is consequently a sniffy, lifeless place. The foreshortened square outside the City Hall (typically of Sheffield it accommodates vehicular access) is a pleasant area to congregate before a show, but what was once the first choice from visiting acts from Buddy Holly, The Beatles, Jimmy Hendrix, The Small Faces et al, now tends to get niche bookings, the bigger draws pulled out of town thanks to the Arena which is situated in what is essentially a city outside the city, i.e. the Meadowhall/Centretainment estate of buildings sited next to the M1. The Arts Space (clustered around its headquarters in an impressive neo-Brutalist building near to Sheffield’s only semi-legendary music venue, the Leadmill – the closest Sheffield got to something like The Hacienda in Manchester. The Smiths never played here, but they should have done, it’s that sort of place. I saw The La’s here in 2005) is a nice idea, but suffers from Sheffield’s main problem (as exemplified in the Meadhowhall/Centretainment excrescence) – it doesn’t feel to integrate with the rest of the city.

Recommended: Rare and Racy bookshop on Division Street (amongst a group of character buildings that the council is trying to pull down), you’ll always find something to read or a CD/vinyl that will brighten up your day and give your brain something to think about. Bungalow and Bears also on Division Street – a bar in an old Fire Station decorated in a shabby boutique style that serves great burgers and a range of craft beers. The Steam Room (Division Street again), for those who like their coffees from an independent shop (an arty relaxed space with some nice décor touches – great artwork by Tom Newell. Though the biscuits are over-priced). The Showcase Cinema which is the main home to the annual Sheffield docfest, housed in a building whose predominant feature is the art deco windows, with their narrow rectangular panels.

Pubs (conveniently starting from the train station): The Graduate, Surrey St, Sheffield S1 2LH. Head of Steam, 103-107 Norfolk St, Sheffield S1 2JE. The Brown Bear, 109 Norfolk St, Sheffield S1 2JE. Brown’s, St. Paul’s Chambers, 8-12 St Paul’s Parade, Sheffield S1 2JL. The Benjamin Huntsman, 12-18 Cambridge St, Sheffield S1 4HP. Bungalow and Bears (again), 50 Division St, Sheffield S1 4GF. The Original Bierkeller, 104 West St, Sheffield S1 4EP. The Botanist, Unit 5A and 5B Leopold Square Sheffield S1 2JG (the bar is not as good as the one in Leeds, but the restaurant, complete with a Victorian-esque pagoda in the middle of the room and some amazing period-feature sky lights, on the top floor is a delight (take the lift)).

[1] Sheaf Square is named after the river Sheaf (which obviously gave Sheffield its name, but it seems like one of those pieces of information I am obliged to impart) that runs underground at this point. The railway station flanks one side of this messy, busy space, whose low, unobtrusive Victorian façade always reminds me of those pre-fabricated suburban castles that could be bought from magazines in the mid-nineteenth century, like the one owned by Mr Wemmick in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (if you haven’t read it, you should).

[2] A word of advice to anyone following in Nairn’s footsteps (pubs) and looking for the Mulberry Tavern on Mulberry Street (in Nairn’s opinion the best of Sheffield’s city centre boozers) – it was pulled down in the 1970s.

Simenon’s Maigret

In the 1963 film The Wrong Arm of the Law (penned by Galton and Simpson in their pomp) Peter Sellers, as arch criminal-cum-ladies fashion designer, Pearly Gates, taps his skull and brags: ‘I’ve got schemes going off in here that’d make Maigret drop his pipe.’

I doubt it.

Writing in the so-called Golden Age of crime fiction, Maigret’s creator, Georges Simenon, stands head and shoulders above his crime contemporaries. This is largely because the Maigret books aren’t crime novels in the sense of say Agatha Christie – though there is generally a puzzle of some kind to be unravelled – but rather, they are expeditions into people’s lives. Which is what real police work – particularly that of the detective – is about. You are turning over rocks and looking under carpets, to see what is lurking there and what has been swept out of sight.

Other than a few contemporary touches – the descriptions of cars, the tendency to drink liqueurs, descriptions of life when goods were hauled on the canals, and so on – the novels feel very modern. The prose hasn’t dated (reading the books in English, I’m not sure how much of this is down to the translator). The novels are not twee, but neither are they unnecessarily hard boiled or callous. They are the inquiries of a pragmatic man carried out honestly and without artifice. Maigret sees people for who and what they are, money, social position (or the lack of) make no difference. He probes humanity, and it is the nature of the individual that interests (and occasionally impresses, more frequently disgusts) him. He is a good man, and fair, and values human justice above the artificial tenets of the law (The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien). And he isn’t a snob – which is perhaps one of the reasons his books have survived without shame, unlike many of Simenon’s Golden Age colleagues.

On almost every page there is something to admire. Some little touch of detail, or a reflection of Maigret’s. He had never paid too much attention to her. He’d thought she was a sturdy girl, well upholstered, but without a nerve in her body… Was it thoughtlessness, transcendent irony? In any case, she was holding something back. Maigret could tell. Not all the pus had come out… The weather was neither fine nor foul. A luminous grey morning sky, unbroken, like a frosted glass ceiling…

Simenon is obviously a little bit in awe of Jules Maigret, and clearly admires the detective’s imposing physicality – plenty of mention of his mammoth shoulders and imposing bulk. He imparts the idea that Maigret is there to put things right, and that Maigret’s size implies moral certainty. The detective couldn’t be a slight man (which is one reason I couldn’t watch Rowan ‘Mr. Bean’ Atkinson in the role – I don’t think Simenon would have approved of the casting).

The books are short (generally no more than 150 pages), but manage to pack a wealth of experience and insight into their slim covers. Were they longer I think they’d lose impact. And in some instances the intensity would become mentally tiring. Like a real detective, Maigret is in and out of the lives he encounters as quickly as possible. It’s healthier that way.