Magic Moments

He’s quite the sage is Uncle Ben. I’m talking here about my dad’s youngest brother and not the old bloke who does the savoury rice dishes. Not for the first time, I’m very pleased I took his advice.

‘Lake Como, chap. You don’t need too long in Milan, boy, get yourself up there for a bit.’

He’s right. Alan Partridge’s über-glib put down of London; ‘go there and be stabbed or under-appreciated’ could apply equally to Milan. More so, if anything.

In the fast-paced hustle and bustle of the one of the world’s couture capitals, I concurred with Steve Coogan’s character’s first point. Thankfully, the second even more tangible point doesn’t happen.
I spend much of my time in the city seemingly swimming against the wash of the immaculately sculpted and impeccably groomed. Frankly, if style’s not your thing (And with my hair and dress-sense, it’s fair to say it’s never been mine…) there’s little reward for spending much time there.
And, if money’s not your thing either (again, something I’m not great at…), then there’s much to see but little to do here too. Don’t get me wrong, Milan is well worth a visit, but I had hoped for more from the first stop on my maiden Italian adventure*.

Como, on the other hand, is a treat. Walking down from the station through the city’s walls, an instant calmness becomes the visitor. Alpine vistas stretch into the distance, the greenery pockmarked by the hill top residencies of the savvy Savoys. Stowed boats lol passively**. The autumn colours and bright sunshine make for a transfixing blend with the serene skies. The gentle lapping of the lake upon the shore and the boastful fly pasts of the local sea-planes all add to the peaceful scene.

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A stroll by the lake soothes the soul. A walk through the labyrinths of stone clad courtyards likewise. All in all, Como is a very acceptable choice for a lazy Sunday morning.

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Admittedly, by the time I choose to take my leave, Milanistas and visitors from further afield have cottoned on to the majesty of the Southern Alps. I climb the steps back to the station and get ready for my second big night of the weekend…

*Not a euphemism. Sadly.
**Hello Nasher!

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

It did. Kind of. As I disembarked the Metro at Assago Forum, I bumped into a bloke who looked like Bernard Cribbins.

But if we’re using ‘funny’ as in a ‘bit odd’ as opposed to Eric & Ernie funny then, yes, there were one or two things to relay. Mind, I doubt you’ve ever seen a blog post, or indeed anything else, dedicated to the Lads from Les-tah with a Frankie Howerd inspired title before? Witter ye not!

Assago, situated to the south west of Milan is industrial with a capital ind. Charmless swathes of neon-noon lighting illuminate the Lombardy dusk. No bewildering gothic architecture and pleasantly cobbled streets.
Just lines of faceless international conglomerates and identikit factories, hulking, sulking hotels and enough roundabouts to keep the by-now-doddery planners of Britain’s 70s new towns happy in their retirement homes.

I reel as I take in my new surroundings, and not just because of my brush with the Cribbins clone. Right said Fredo, hang on uno momento!
I’ve come all the way over here, me plus no-one, hundreds of miles away just to see my favourite band play in Mil….

…ton Keynes.

Really?

Only the Italian signage gives the game away. Then the unmistakable sound of a mighty-agh Tom Meighan cry-agh at an early soundcheck splits the Assagoan air to remind me why I’m here. It’s not Eaglestone. It’s not Conniburrow. It’s not even Downs Barn. Thank goodness.

What it is, is Kasabian. The greatest British band of their- ok, my- generation. In Milan. The Mediolanum Forum, Assago.

A quick shufti of the local surroundings reveal no pre-match boozer to catch the Empoli-Juve game in. Because ersatz English pubs full of football and foreboding pop up everywhere. Yes they do. I even glimpsed one in the heart of Milan’s fashion district earlier. Clearly, nothing is sacred. Clinging to this flight of fancy, I reasoned there might be one close to tonight’s venue too.

There isn’t.

There are, however, two enterprising local blokes with a coolbox roped to a sackbarrow standing by the Metro exit selling knocked off bottles of warm lager and water. Grinning in deference both at their daftness and of great memories of tucking into similar bootlegged bevies on the Galle fort while watching England play cricket, I pass up this unique opportunity to ‘keep it real’, and repair to the only place selling liquid refreshment of an interesting nature near the venue.

A Pret-A-Manger/Costa/Starbucks type homogenised eaterie throbbing with good-looking plastic types (there’s not really any other ‘types’ over here, in all honesty) deliberating over rows and rows of plastic-looking paninis and piling into plastic pint pots of Pilsner Urquell. And, bless the hosts, for all their brain-drain deco faults, they’ve not watered any of this Czech champ down. It is a very decent pint.

Ah, the plastic pint pot. The preserve of any gig worth it’s salt. I stroll into the venue head held high. Thoughts that I could be the only other English representative here, at the home of Italian basketball, are proved incorrect by the sight of a phalanx of middle aged Brits stood around at the back of the auditorium in rugby shirts and silly hats. The Great British Stag Do: ragazzi will be ragazzi. The stands swell as the crowds begin to pour in. Even the Slipknot cast-off God-awful crap-ness of the warm up act (“This song’s all about high-fives!” Really? Jog on, wuck-fits.) takes nothing away from the build up. The atmosphere of heightened expectation goes up notch by notch.

Can you feel it coming? It’s time to do this. Forza Milano! Forza Kasabian!

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Breakfast With Bergomi

‘How do you like your eggs in the morning?’ opens Dean Martin’s cheery refrain played out in breezy breakfasts bars and restaurants the world over. Ironically, and rather sadly, considering the connections of the aforementioned singer to the land of his forebears, that song doesn’t play here.

‘Here’ is an old hotel in Central Milan where the character is reserved strictly for the endearing structure crammed in among the busy alleyways of the ancient capital of Lombardy. Instead of Deano’s sublime warbling comes the unwelcome racket of the local MTV’s ad breaks for ‘Cheesy-peas’ or some such Fastshow-like nonsense. The hotel’s matriarch sternly keeps watch, oblivious to the over-bearing television. A ‘buongiorno’ is uttered without bonhomie and my coffee order taken without so much as a ‘va bene’.

Breakfast is free, thankfully. Which is the best thing that can be said about it. The TV barks out more shouty incomprehensible barf. A troupe of Korean tourists eagerly map out their days sightseeing, safety in numbers is clearly the way forward in this gaff. One or two more guests stumble in and are greeted with the same frostiness as befell my arrival.

The fruit juice is served in one of those cups they give you to swill your mouth out in the dentist’s chair. The contents taste the same as the stuff they give you to swill your mouth out in the dentist’s chair. I move on to the espresso. It’s as bitter as mine host’s demeanour.
The bread rolls are set out with the functionality of croquet balls in a rack. And taste as such. Croissants like puffy boomerangs are the alternative with a meagre selection of gold-foil wrapped soft cheeses and unhappy looking yoghurts.

Wedged into my corner table I watch as Mamma moves un-smilingly along the same route from her seat, elevated like the head of the convent’s might be, to kitchen, from kitchen to seat, and back again. Drinks orders taken, doled out and dispensed with the kind of welcome usually reserved for the lifers on death row.

In fact, I have seen this kind of growling, scowling uncompromising performance many times over before. Watching Football Italia as a teenager, this style of totalitarianism was doled out on a weekly basis by the then captain of Internazionale (Oh, go on then Inter Milan), Guiseppe Bergomi.
Hotel guests are put in their place like opposing forwards stealing into the penalty area. There’s no shirt pulling, elbows or other such intimidatory tactics. But then there’s no need to. Mamma rules by fear alone. The catenaccio of the cafe-bar, belligerent and brutal. Pure Bergomi.

Breakfast comes to an end. No sign of the eggs of Deano’s song. And thankfully, looking up for the last time at Mamma, no sign of that song’s kiss either. I grab my things and head, into the autumnal Milano morning air. Hopefully there’s a bit more ‘bienvenuto’ and a bit less Bergomi to this city….

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Friday Morning, Coming Down

So it ended where it all began. The WACA, Perth.

Four weeks on from the beginning of the end for England’s men, I was back watching the start of the Women’s Ashes. Thirty degrees heat, the CBD dominating the backdrop, the Doctor on overtime blowing through an empty stadium, the field like fresh sheets, the anthem lustily sung (It was just me & Big G. The acoustics in a sparse stadium are rather wonderful, especially if it’s just you singing.), the players look pristine in the middle. The tension is at its most taut. The talk, talked. New beginnings.

I cannot get away from the fact that the opening moment of a Test Match is the most thrilling in thing in the world. But then, I guess, that also says everything you need to know about me. Till next time….

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I Hear The Train A Coming….

There used to be a donkey in the field next to our house. Jacob was his name. On summer mornings, before the SatNav sycophants and M1 detour merchants ruined the early countryside idyll with their relentless rush hour racing, as the gentle breeze shimmered in through the open window on the welcome dawn air, Jacob would wind up, like a high jumper at the top of his routine (all that was missing was the clapping crowd getting behind him) and just absolutely go for it in the most sonorous, yet almost breathless manner.

“Whhhheeeeeeeeehaaaawheeeehaaaawheeeehaaaawheeeehaaaawheeeehaaaawheeeehaaaawheeeehaaaawheeeehaaaaw.”

He’d do this a lot. Sometimes it annoyed me, but old Jacob’s wheezy rallying cry was infinitely preferable to the sound of the soul-jarring traffic.

Perth. Second time around. It seemed a good idea when I was booking it. I figured it would break me in for the longer leg of the journey between Australia and Blighty. I also planned to ‘go big’ for the last night and actually get a proper hotel room, you know, with tea and coffee making facilities, a TV to watch re-runs of Midsomer Murders, iron, trouser press, flailing room and the like. However, me being me, these funds were absorbed into the aftermath of the SCG defeat.

So I’m back in the hostel. Not the sweat box as referenced here a month ago. But another one. The YHA, a plush looking facility next to the hospital on Perth’s Wellington Street. Settling down to some sleep, a persistent hiss begins to boar into my skull. The hiss grows louder. Louder. It’s joined by a screech. Metal on metal. The shushing shush of metal on metal. And then the sound of the a pooh stick being carried by a child, dragged back and forth along the railings. All this is the friendly warm up to the main feature which is hurrying, unstoppable, to centre stage.

Pphhhwooooooooooaaaaaaaaarrrrppphhhh!!!!!!!!

Oh wow. That’s loud. That’s Jacob with a megaphone. With Coldplay’s stadium sound system for support.

My grandfather always used to love the railways. Right now, I have to say, I’m not a fan.

This continues, gratingly, on a loop for as long as I can remember. And it’s still there when I wake up an hour later. I’m transported to Chicago as I tiredly sculpt the hopeless pillow around my head and search for sleep.

Which is hard. Because, typically, there’s no air conditioning.

I really should’ve titled this post, ‘And So Say All Of Us…. The Return Of The Jolly Good Fellow’, but, bored of the whole nonsense, you might have sloped past it in a trance of ennui. Also, it seems a great opportunity to crowbar this little beauty in.

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Now then, do any of these trains run to the airport I wonder?

Jacking It In

The Rony Giuliano Ground, on a wet Wednesday in New South Wales. As may have been reported before, it hadn’t been an overly successful tour sport-wise up to this point. However, the chance for victory, any kind of victory, even this late in the holiday still beckoned. Not on the cricket fields, or the beaches, but on the bowling greens of Clovelly.

The battle of Room 702, a beer match in its finest traditions, was to unfold at Clovelly Beach Bowls Club, a tranquil spot for a tranquil sport. With views of Tamarama, Bondi and Coogee Beaches, the Tasman Sea as well as some dramatic cliff top scenery, the bowls club milks this for all it’s worth and for very good reason. The rinks were packed with beginners and old pros ambling about their business, the young and the old taking part in this rather fogeyish pastime which has, in recent years, risen in popularity over here.

I partnered Rex to form Team Wedges while the other Henry combined with James to become The Dogs of Shaw. The rules were laid down and the beers bought. Invoking the spirit of Sir Francis Drake, David Gourlay and, err, my Uncle Tom, we duly got out the mat and played to the west.

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Gentlemen in waiting: Rex, as he has with such élan and regularity this holiday, cradles a beer. James, meanwhile, performs something he has done with similar distinction in recent weeks.

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El Matador: Henry rehearses getting out of the way of a Mitchell Johnson bouncer. Or gets a glimpse of a blonde jogger running up the hill. Or checks the progress of his last bowl. Or something. Bless.

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All in the wrist: The sound you can hear in the background is of a nephew being disowned. The invitation to join the prestigious Wilstead Bowls Club must have got lost in the post. Again.

And the winner of this hastily-convened clash of the sporting heavyweights?

It certainly wasn’t bowls.

Pie Can’t Help Myself

Back in July, when all was rosy in the garden of English cricket, I booked the extra day just in case. Well, I reckoned, we’d have run up a hard-fought victory on the 5th Day at the SCG. A run-crammed epic Test Match culminating in one of the all time great England performances, with our vaunted middle-order taking it in turns to larrup and thwack those pesky Aussie bowlers all over the famous old ground in pursuit of a mammoth run chase.
I reckoned I’d need a night to take in the celebrations, a third straight Ashes victory and all this, wrapped up in the most dramatic way possible, would demand, nay insist, upon it. Endless toasts, shared stories, jugs, jeroboams, and jigs of delight.
I reckoned a lie-in of John & Yoko proportions would surely follow the previous night of Hogarth-ian hell-fire excess. Yes, an extra day would be the sensible thing here, definitely.

As it was, we got buried calamitously in three days instead.

Ashes Wednesday was a dashed Wednesday. Even the sun stopped working. My tan, the most ludicrous since the bloke who’s currently doing his best to ruin Cardiff City, would have one or two siennas stripped back by the gathered grey in the Sydney sky. The spring in my step was downgraded to a skulk. It poured with rain too.

Some gain assuagement from drink. Some chocolate. Others God. For me it’s pies.

Traipsing around The Rocks, an upmarket (ok, even-more-upmarket, it’s all a bit la-di-da in these parts) area of the city etched, like the legends of Cook, MacQuarie and Phillip, into Sydney’s legacy, I made for a traditional hotel for a spot of tiffin. Now, hotels here tend to be split into two categories. There’s the big chain hotels that you find festooned over the fashionable parts of any given metropolis and there’s the old style ones that you’ll find the next time Crocodile Dundee is repeated on telly. A lot of them don’t look like they do accommodation. Many more of them look like they really shouldn’t.

What they do do is uphold the Spirit of Donk. Beer, pokies (fruit machines as we know them in the UK), blokes and TVs that show an endless line of betting opportunities for the bored, the blasé and the believers.

This being The Rocks, the hotel in question was, naturally, a cut above the type Mr Dundee and his mates might hang out in. Cold, hungry, underwhelmed, I needed a pie to bring me back to life.

The Beef & Bock Pie did just that. Persistent pastry that clung on like a chugger sensing a sucker, unleashed a wondrous beery steam when finally prised open. Mushrooms surrounded tender chunks of thick beef in a rich, Bock lager steeped gravy. The odd garden vegetable popped in for a cameo too. It was melt in the mouth delicious, and the English mustard, in plentiful supply, added stardust to a very enjoyable meal.

The spirit started to soar again. I finished the accompanying over-flowery Hot Hog Pale Ale with a flourish. So the holiday’s sport had fallen quicker, flatter and harder than a pigeon from a farmer’s gun, it was time to make the best of the holiday’s last day with my roomies. Three top lads who’d been there with me through an eventful four weeks.

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To Clovelly Beach. And the bowling green…

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