Monday, 31 January 2011

Just around the corner

 ……the Cheltenham Festival that is. Not the kebab house. Six weeks to go. Touching distance. Tickets bought, gaff sorted, travel planned. And most importantly, ante-post bets being struck and demolished on a daily basis. That’s how I know it’s close enough to smell. It’s been the highlight of my year - something like Christmas, birthdays and holidays rolled into one big adrenaline-soaked betting frenzy - for the last 10 years.

But my participation in the 2011 version has been in some doubt. I’ve shared that glorious festival decade with my erstwhile pro-punting mate Bacchy. We have ridden the highs and lows together. Confided the intimate details of rash exactas, embarrassing Lucky 15s and salvage trade-outs. We’ve eaten monumental kebabs, tackled Auntie Mona’s mountainous high teas and ridden the Queens Hotel party wave. In that time Bacchy has graduated from a £10-a-bet mug punter (like me) through escalating commitments of disposable income and finally to fully fledged, full-time gambler. Some journey.

Strangely, Bacchy’s emergence as horse powered income generator didn’t change the relationship of our punting. The common enemy was the bookie. He and I had very different profit margins riding on winners. But you would never have guessed so. An unremitting joy has been the camaraderie, competition and gentle rivalry in both the fervent Cheltenham build up and the festival hothouse itself. The period has been characterised by exultant moments of triumph – often shared – and genuine pleasure/commiseration in each others’ individual successes and failures. All this despite the massively different staking plans.

And now it’s over. After a couple of years at the top table, Bacchy has found it necessary to supplement the gambling income with regular paid employment. I understand that. His punting numbers were big, but not quite big or regular enough. Cashflow is always going to be an issue in that line of work, particularly in a jumps game that suffers regular bleak-midwinter closedowns. In these straightened economic times, the job Bacchy has secured is a business manager in a local school. It’s a good job, I’ve no doubt. But the Cheltenham Festival is run in term time. There are no holidays for school staff in term time. These facts are irreversible and non-compatible. So that’s it. No more festival antics for the deadly duo.

Needs must, etc, etc. I understand all this. But when Bacchy e-mailed me to confirm the grizzly truth back in the Autumn, I was in bits. I felt choked, breathless and dizzy. Hyper-ventilation and cold sweats. I would have wept if I wasn’t a hard northern bastard. Bacchy must have been worse. We both knew this was on the cards. It wasn’t entirely a bolt from the blue. But that didn’t soften the blow.

In my inconsolable grief, Mrs A was going witless. “Surely someone will go with you to the bloody festival.” She didn’t understand. “You don’t understand. It won’t be the same. It won’t be the same”, I wailed, rather pathetically. “You are going to be insufferable if you don’t go. I don’t think I can take it”. There was no trace of mirth around her lips. She was deadly serious.

Slowly, from this wreckage, a tentative solution shimmered into view. Like the Champion Chase field cresting the Prestbury Park Hill. Dad and bruv Paul are in to their racing now like never before. They’ve never experienced that magical atmosphere, that sharp thrill as the tapes go up on Tuesday afternoon, the need for nervy, incessant, barely comprehensible banter of utter, utter drivel before each race. Could this be the year?

I floated the idea just before Christmas. Dad and Paul were warm to the prospect. Almost as if they’d read my thoughts. We toyed with a modest appearance on the Tuesday, with a B&B overnight and then home for the coverage on telly. I could settle for that. Better than nothing and Champion Hurdle Day is always my favourite. Dad and Paul came down for Christmas. By Boxing Day we’d planned an assault on the first two days with an option on the third and a cosy rented cottage in Stroud. It felt like the cavalry coming over the ridge to save the day. Come on!!!

So I’m fired up for this one. Just like every year. It won’t be the same. How could it be? But it will be excellent. Different. A new chapter. New experiences. I’ve told Bacchy there’s room in the cottage for him in case he gets a sudden reprieve. The chances are slimmer than a Monsignor come back, apparently. But we’ll keep a slug of laphroaig in the bottle, just in case. He's delighted I'm maintaining the tradition. 

I can feel the slack jawed babbling starting to well up inside. I can sense the quickening heartbeat as I survey the ante-post mayhem. And I can’t wait.

Thursday, 13 January 2011


**Miserable blog alert**

I hate Preston.  I did when I came here as a student to visit my mates. I did when I came last January on a one-day work-related round-trip. And I do tonight when I’m here again on a return work visit, passing under the pigeon crap covered ‘Welcome to Lancashire’ red rose above the station exit.  Only this year, I need to stay overnight. 

It’s a soulless, bleak town. The wind whistles through the bland, exposed shopping and business area propelled unremittingly down the valleys from featureless surrounding hills. The buildings are unambitious, dull and utilitarian, filled with clone-town-Britain retail outlets and coffee purveyors. There is a lot of infill development conceived in the 60’s and 70’s as part of the Central Lancashire New Town, of which Preston is the hub (in a theoretical sense), granted City status in 2002.  

There aren’t many cities and large towns I dislike in their entirety. Manchester, all muscular and assertive civic and commercial architecture comes close. This isn’t an ant-Lanky thing: Wakefield is grim and further south Aylesbury has a lot to answer for. But Preston remains top of the list.

The gaff I’m staying in just about puts the tin hat on it. I plumped for a budget hotel round the corner from my meeting venue tomorrow. It’s positively the last time I try slumming it. The shoe-box room at the top of the house is mon repose this evening. The non-en-suite is two floors below. Lots of potential for stair case embarrassment in the wee small hours!

It’s stifling hot even in the middle of January. So I’ve opened the windows to let in some petrol-soaked air. The boy racers in fat-exhausted Nissan Micras and blacked out Ford Fiestas at the traffic lights below my window are taking on the many and often blue lights and sirens of the emergency services with their engine revs and drum n bass. It’s drowning out my telly and – almost - my neighbours’ too.  

Mind you, there’s free wi-fi here. Can’t complain about that. So I’ve cranked up the laptop. But suddenly, I’m getting serious pixilation and sound cut outs on the telly and the egg timer of death on the ‘pooter. Looks like the thin beam of ether power afforded my room  is being split between these two greedy applications. Who knows what it’s doing to my neighbours reception.

Maybe I should whisper through the hardboard walls and ask.

Maybe I should cut my losses and turn in. There’s always brekkie to look forward to!

Post script

Wake up this morning feeling surprisingly refreshed, despite the cloying mattress and shifting bed frame. Abluting is incident free and I enjoy a pretty good breakfast in an airy dining room with bottles of brown sauce openly on display. Always a hallmark of respect. So, after a successful meeting and in good spirits I think I should turn a more charitable eye to my host city. Give it another chance.

Well I try. The 20 minute walk back to the city centre is depressing enough: Garstang Road quickly becomes a stream of vacuous, anonymous DIY and trade stores. Carpets, tiles, plant, paint, timber, brick, skips. Vast car parks, cheap warehousing, strewn litter, skips (again). A few derelict buildings and disused land to break up the monotonous vista.

The city centre is not going to lift my spirits, I can tell: A concrete bus station surrounded by a temporary 6ft high metal grille, high rise car parks, concrete wasteland offices, vehicle dominated entry and crossing points. The crumbling 70’s guildhall is an eyesore. Even the Victorian statements of civic pride built by subscription on the back of the successful cotton industry are austere and forboding, crammed into narrow streets and pokey squares. The slab-sided granite block museum presents an inaccessible, moss-festooned wall to the front of the square.

I give up and climb aboard a train home. The people are this place’s only redeeming feature.  I’ve encountered nothing but charm and friendliness. I also remind myself that it is surrounded by some wonderful countryside. It’s good for a quick getaway, too. 

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Sun, sea and biscuits

Not much horse racing in Tenerife. I don’t think there’s a bookies on the island.

On the other hand, sunshine is ubiquitously available in glittering and glorious skyfulls. And I can’t recall a trip to see Mrs A’s sister (and there have been many) when Family Atkinson has appreciated the weather quite so much. Escaping ice-bound, frozen-track Britain for 10 days was pure pleasure.

Sis-in-law is a tremendous host. We descended on her splendid apartment on Boxing day as wild-eyed daylight starved refugees and left after New Year as bronzed, wined and dined cats-that-got-the-cream. Thanks Auntie Sue. Don’t know who let those messy locusts in.
Sue's terraaaace
One of the best bits about visiting Sis-in-law at that time of the year is the chance to have a 2nd Christmas. So on Welsh National Day (that’s 27th Dec to the unititiated. Although, confusingly, it’s 8th Jan this season. And that’s subject a 10am inspection this morning. Still with me?), we had buck’s fizz, chocolates and more crimbo pressies. Sue and I have had a bad taste present battle that has ebbed and flowed over the last 20 years or so. Currently it’s flowing. In fact it’s a full spate raging torrent. I went first. Sue’s face as she unwrapped the Prince William and Kate Middleton Royal Wedding calendar was a study in horror. And even as she was using it to beat me round the bonce, I was punching the air with delight. It is the first time thtat our tacky present exchange has induced a physical assault! My victory was short lived. Retaliation came swiftly in the form of red Rock n Roll Father Christmas boxer shorts and an electric fly swatter (not to be used in combination, necessarily). Ouch. The four girls all exchanged tasteful, useful and sensible presents…..
The calendar

Fancy pants 

The area Sue lives in has grown massively since we’ve been visiting. A rash of holiday apartment complexes have sprung up, with enclosed pools and security gates. But recession continues to leave its mark and there are still many empty shops and restaurants. However, the village down the road feels entirely different. Las Galletas, mysteriously translating as the biscuits, is a fishing village with a newly completed marina, a bevy of good restaurants and plenty of real shops. We regularly spend lots of time down there on the beach, in the bars, eating lunch and mooching round the boutiques. There is a fantastic detour back to Sue’s apartment along the wild volcanic coast. One of my favourite bits of the island.
El Teide and Sue's rocks
New Year’s Eve was a blast. In a massive break with tradition, the five of us booked a ‘junior suite’ (no sign of David Pipe’s handicap chaser, I was disappointed to discover) in a posh hotel on the outskirts of El Medano, the windsurf capital of Tenerife. The Italian restaurant on the edge of the thronging square was a gem, although it did seem that we were making rather more use of the party bags than adjacent tables…..
Party bag...
Approaching midnight, the atmosphere was tremendous. The streets were packed with good natured exuberance, young and old.  The waiter brought us champagne glasses with 12 grapes in each. The Spanish tradition is to eat a grape on each bong of the midnight hour and wash it all down with champagne. (Mrs A’s wonderful Mum bought what she thought was a specially prepared tin of them in England last year. They turned out to be green olives! Quite a challenge to bolt them in time to the chimes).  We had come prepared: champagne soda for the girls in an authentic bottle that goes pop when the cork comes out and a vintage bottle of the real stuff for the grown-ups, together with picnic champagne flutes. We wondered at the firework display, drank deeply and danced to the samba band with the massed crowds in the square. This style of relaxed, good natured, full-on celebration is something we simply don’t quite achieve in England in the same way.

Gently massaging slightly fragile minds and bodies with coffees, cakes and ice cream (and later, beers and red wine) by the heated pool on the hot sun terrace all New Years Day was an indulgence I should no more than smugly drop in as a passing reference here. See how subtle I can be sometimes?
Hotel Las Arenas pool and sun deck
Later, after a night of cocktail making, in which I discovered the limitations of my Spanish interpretation when Sis-in-Law gamely battled through a Gin Sling that had more in common with lemon washing up liquid, we took a trip up to the north of the island. The Loro Parque, on the outskirts of Puerto de la Cruz, is the zoo to beat them all. If anyone wants to build a zoo from scratch, this is the blueprint: outstanding conservation, superb enclosures, sophisticated breeding programmes. Whatever ones views on zoos, there can be no argument with the care, welfare and commitment shown to the superb exhibits in this park.  Thanks for the tickets, Granny.
gorilla bum
Mrs A drove us back via the peak of El Teide, the massive volcano that spawned the island. At 2,200 metres high, Sis-in-Law and the girls were fast asleep on the back seat in the rarefied atmosphere. The landscape is spectacular, drawing regular comparisons with the Moon and Mars (from those who know presumably). It’s been the backdrop to myriad sci-fi movies. I love it.

Las Canadas, El Teide
So after some snuffly goodbyes and thanks for a brilliant holiday, we caught our flight back home. Mrs A, blubbing away because of the best sister she was leaving behind, had daughter no. 1 to comfort her. I had daughter no 2 to entertain me. Rain, wind, dark and cold enveloped us on leaving Luton airport. Nearly as miserable at the guy from the Airparks ‘meet and greet’ (ha!) service with our car. “Hi”, says Helen. “Bit delayed in arrivals. Been waiting long?”. “Yeah”, he grunted. “Quite a bit. And I missed me bus back. Sign here.” 

Welcome home.