This Is Manchester – We Do Things Differently Here

I’ve just walked through Manchester Piccadilly Station and there’s a sombre mood hanging over us all this morning, armed police at each entrance and on every concourse reminding us of the seriousness of what’s happened.

Exactly two weeks ago, I was at Manchester Arena seeing Iron Maiden. After the gig I remember being herded down long concrete corridors for what seemed an age as everyone shuffled along with Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life ringing out from the Arena speakers. I can only imagine how different a scene it was last night.

When the news came through last night we all thought, maybe hoped, that it was a false alarm. A blown speaker or some balloons popping alongside other social media reports of stampedes. It’s only upon waking this morning that the full horror is apparent.

After the Bataclan I raised a defiant middle finger in support of live music. I may have been horribly nervous going back into a crowded public event but I did what we all have to do again now, put our faith in those who protect us and in the vast majority of the human race. A lot will be asked again about how these acts can keep happening, how people’s minds work but there’s important things to remember, Live music will win. Manchester will win. Terror won’t.

At this truth we have arrived, God damn it’s great to be alive.

Greater Manchester Police has established an emergency telephone number in response to the attack. It is: 0161 856 9400.

Everyone You Meet Is Fighting A Battle You Know Nothing About

Depression isn’t something I’d really considered until recent years. Everyone feels a bit down now and again don’t they? The media just go all sensationalist on things. Surely contemplating taking your own life is selfish when there are so many things in this world that take loved ones from us unfairly and far too soon?

But it is a thing. It’s a thing you can’t see by looking at someone’s face. By looking into their eyes. By seeing them enjoy a seemingly innocent night out with friends. No, it’s something that can usually, frustratingly, only be truly experienced by the sufferer and this merely serves to cause more hurt, more heartache, more despair.

All I want to say is, don’t always assume all’s well. Check up on your friends. Will they confide in you? Probably not. Just be ready with an arm to wrap around a shoulder or the offer of a friendly drink as and when required. One day it might make all the difference.

http://www.mind.org.uk/get-involved/giving-to-mind/donate/

Peace, Love, Death Metal – How Live Music Can Live On

EODM - Jesse Hughes

Eagles Of Death Metal’s Jesse Hughes @ The Ritz, Manchester, 7th November 2015

It’s taken me a few days to come to terms with what’s happened in Paris. And when I say ‘come to terms’ I don’t think it will ever be the case that I’ll feel in any way accepting of the tragedy that has unfolded.

I can’t help but think about the fact that I’d been at exactly the same gig only six days previously. Eagles Of Death Metal were playing the Ritz in Manchester, and it was sold out to the tune of 1500 fans in attendance. As similarities go, it all still feels a little bit too close to home.

The show itself was one of the most enjoyable I’d ever seen in over 20 years of gig-going. I’d never seen EODM live before and I really wasn’t prepared for how much pure fun they brought to the live arena. Frontman Jesse Hughes in particular was instantly likeable and endlessly funny, the embodiment of hip-swaying, tache-curling boogie for a good two hours of incredible rock and roll.

The show culminated in a light-hearted duel between Hughes and guitarist Dave Catching that saw the frontman emerge from the Ritz’s balconies to throw down riffs at his partner in crime. The crowd lapped it up too, kids, adults, skinheads and folk on the hairier side of the spectrum all cheering each comedic battle with grins as wide as the stage.

Then only six days later, the Bataclan in Paris sees the most awful tragedy that live music has ever had to witness. It doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things which band was involved, but there’s something about the fact that it was such a good-time group like EODM and their fans that were caught up in all this that makes it seem all the more awful. I haven’t been able to listen to any EODM songs since, quickly skipping tracks if anything’s been coming up on shuffle. I’m not trying to ignore what’s happened, it just doesn’t seem right at the moment to try to get enjoyment from their music.

But life does go on. On Saturday I was fortunate enough to go over to Huddersfield to see Eureka Machines and Tropical Contact play at The Parish. I’d been looking forward to this one for a while, despite having seen both bands loads of times before. I knew that in attendance would be all the like-minded folk I see at so many gigs across the country and that if any combination of bands and crowd were going to help each other get over what had happened the night before it was these.

What ensued was every bit the group therapy that was required. From staff at the venue through to the bands, punters, even other people milling around in the pub out front, there was a good time vibe in that leaky room that simply would not be quelled by recent world events. Even when an obviously emotional Chris Catalyst (the Eureka Machines frontman) took to his mic to pay tribute to his friend who had died at the Bataclan (EODM’s merch man Nick Alexander) it wasn’t with a sense of revenge or anger, it was to encourage and enlighten, ensuring that the show went on and that expression didn’t die along with all of those who lost their lives in the French capital. Needless to say, that outpouring provided some of the biggest bouncing of the night as we all joined together in thanks that we were able to enjoy live music, freely and without fear of judgement or censure.

I’m not going to get into the politics of it all, as far as I’m concerned, killing innocent people anywhere in the world is wrong, tragic and heartbreaking. What I will say is that I hope live music somehow comes out of this stronger. It’s always been a place where people from all different backgrounds and of all shapes and sizes can come and forget all of their troubles for a couple of hours, united in a shared joy and euphoria that’s difficult to match and without these little pockets of escapism, the world would be a far, far poorer place.

Paul Spragg 1975 – 2014

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As of now, there are only four people left on this planet, still in my life, who I’ve known personally since birth. I lost the fifth this week and I will probably never fully understand why.

I am of course referring to my brother, Paul, who so suddenly passed away at only 38. I’ve lost count of how many things I’ve written over the years but this is the hardest piece and one I wish I didn’t have to write.

Growing up we were very close. Our shared allergy to the summer (or hay fever as it’s more commonly known) meant a lot of time together rattling through Final Fantasy books and hammering away at Dizzy or Horace on the Spectrum 48k. When we did make it outside, his sporting prowess (he won’t mind me revealing), wasn’t the best, but he still took great delight in kicking footballs in the general direction of my nether regions, admittedly with often quite accurate results.

Our play often took the form of TV show re-enactments, most frequently helped by a cardboard box TARDIS as I became the Adric to Paul’s fifth Doctor. We actually met Peter Davison at the opening of a Nailsea housing estate I believe when we were only five and eight years old respectively, neither of us realising quite how far that passion for Time Lords would eventually take him. But more of that later…

When you’ve got an older sibling it’s like having an extra parent. Paul ‘bought’ me (my parents may admittedly have funded it) a big fluffy cat that sat between my pillow and bedside table, pretty much from my birth, always there to protect me from banging my head on the wooden furniture. Little did he know that wouldn’t be the only time he looked out for me, whether it was finding me work experience or simply spoiling me rotten each Christmas, Paul always took great pleasure in my own happiness.

Of course, this didn’t stop him chasing me on holiday when I was about five and causing me to fling headlong into a chair, the scar from which still serves as a reminder today. Come to think of it, the one on my ankle from the see-saw incident has always been suspicious too… But I digress.

Did we fight? Of course we did, like any siblings who care about each other would. Whether it was playfully converting spring-loaded He-Man figures to fling mashed potato at one another over the dinner table whilst Mum’s back was turned or a more serious throttle here and there, my immaturity would wind Paul up just as some of his straight-laced attitude would me. But for every fight I always grudgingly knew he was right. Older and wiser, although obviously not as attractive (but he couldn’t hope to rain on my ENTIRE parade) Paul was always someone you’d want on your team in the battle of the intellectually superiors.

As an inspiration, I obviously had my parents there who both pulled out all the stops for the two of us, but I also had an older brother who would test-drive all those important life experiences for me. From hitting university to working in the big smoke, Paul did all the things that he could then handhold me through.

Over time I overtook him and not in a good way. I became the cynical one, always finding fault with modern society and the people within it. All the while Paul would retain the innocent joy that could be found in everything, from comics and radio shows to films and even an annual bag or three of Mini Eggs. He kept life pure, pulling the curtains on the badness out there in order to settle down with a board game and a Ribena.

Would I have gone down the journalistic route if it wasn’t for him? No. Would I be such a nerdy sci-fi and comic book guy if Paul hadn’t picked my Green Lantern comics up for me from Forever People and leant me his Target Dr Who novelisations to read? No. Would I be half the man I am today if Paul hadn’t been there? Of course I wouldn’t, because that’s what Paul always did; he saw the best in everyone and brought it out of them with patience, good humour and a childlike glint in his eye.

It’s these qualities which I’m so pleased others have seen in him as I read so, so many tributes to my big bro. His dedication, his passion, his enjoyment of life was so prevalent, he rarely let anything get him down. And of course, he always wanted to help others. Even as recently as last year whilst we were away on holiday at the Edinburgh Fringe, he’d still boot up his laptop each day to answer Big Finish customer queries because of his empathy towards others and his passion for the business.

Talking of the business, Paul’s career choice was a stroke of genius, combining hobby and salaried income in one fell swoop. Through the years of working with Visual Imagination and Big Finish he’d often message me a ‘look who I’m with’ picture of someone we’d grown up idolising on the telly together. He was so, so happy doing a job that he loved and I can only hope to find such gratification in what I do.

Paul got to meet his heroes and today I miss mine.

Edinburgh Fringe 2013 – The Cream of the Crop

Richard Herring

Blue Herring

Mildly delayed due to other writing commitments, better late than never, here we go with a round up of my top picks from this year’s Edinburgh Fringe!

NB – I’ll try not to give away too much in these summaries as each show will probably tour later in the year or in 2014, so feel free to read away spoiler-free.

Knightmare

Round the horn.

Knightmare Live

One show that I knew I had to get locked in before I even hit the country was Knightmare Live. The legendary children’s show that ran from 1987-1994 is one of my all-time favourites and I still remember having the show’s address written down on a piece of paper in a drawer in the living room table ready for mine and my brother’s application to take on the dungeon.

Grinning like an idiot, we queued up in the Gilded Balloon and took central third row seats for this live re-imagining. Hosted by nu-Treguard (Paul Flannery) the show obviously does away with the technical wizardry of the show (look, it was the early 90s, it looked like ACTUAL magic) and instead uses simple screens and ingenious props to recreate the dungeon feel. Flannery is an excellent dungeon master, slotting in all of Hugo Myatt’s catchphrases and ad-libbing brilliantly when things can and do go slightly wrong, never once breaking character.

Meanwhile, Tom Bell’s authentically-helmed Lord Fear is a delight, quipping his way through the show with lines that ooze with sinister sarcasm. Throughout the absolutely hilarious hour there’s no pause for breath as a dungeoneer is navigated by two comedians through doors, around obstacles and past a rogues gallery of supporting players. Faithful to the original but also brilliantly bonkers in its own right, you could watch this show every night and never have quite the same experience twice. An absolute joy.

Tim Key

The Masterslut

Tim Key

I’ve seen Tim Key twice before and was utterly blown away by how madcap but likeable the guy is, so it was a no-brainer to go and check out his ‘Work In Slutgress’ .

Entering the Pleasance Dome venue, Key is up to his usual trick of being there already, acknowledging the audience as they walk in with THAT cheeky grin and naughty wink. And this time, he’s lying on a bed in the middle of the stage, casually sipping a beer…

What then ensues is an absolutely hilarious, surreal show that combines Key’s trademark poetry, tales of bizarre experiences in the movie industry, audience interaction and even contemporary dance. This show really sees Key take it up a notch and is mesmerizing in both its material and its execution. One thing’s for sure, when it ends, we’re all left gasping for more.

Tony Law

The law (no pun intended) of the Edinburgh queue is an odd one. many people seem to get down to the venues super early and then pick not the front row, but maybe seats in the second or third section. Being perennial mid-queue people this suited us as it meant that the front was often free and for Canadian madman Tony Law we were literally in spitting distance. A regular on shows such as Never Mind The Buzzcocks, Law is another comedian who plays with surrealism, riffing off stories that begin based in reality before veering into utterly insane territory. Law is a whirl of wordplay, and to some may seem intimidating as he rants right into your face. But underneath it all there’s the grin of a true tease and Law is utterly infectious as he draws you into his darkly comic world.

Marcus Brigstocke

A regular on radio and TV, it’s not that I don’t find Marcus Brigstocke funny, it’s just that he appears on the sorts of programmes I tend not to go out of my way to watch or listen to. Fortunately, at Edinburgh he had a couple of shows to pick from and on our very first night we went to see his ‘Je m’accuse – I Am Marcus’ outing. I probably wasn’t quite prepared for just how physical a comedian Brigstocke is, so seeing him hobble around following a recent foot injury, he initially appears a little frustrated before the adrenaline takes over. Telling hilarious stories about his life, from growing up in Devon to the bizarre jobs he’s taken on until now, Brigstocke is utterly engaging, brilliantly vulgar, honest and tear-inducingly funny. This is simply some great material performed brilliantly, but you can tell what a master Brigstocke is at doing just that.

Josh Widdicombe

A relative newcomer but one whose star is rising fast, Widdicombe is one of those comedians who can have you in stitches with the most basic of concepts. Taking a look into his seemingly banal home life, it’s when he hits that high-pitched incredulity that things become totally infectious and you’ll struggle to see a sombre face in the vicinity.

Love Hearts, Super Noodles and The Snowman are some of his targets as he meanders through old-school observational comedy that is delivered with so much warmth that it becomes bizarrely obvious, yet charming, despite some choice language that even your Mum would excuse him of spouting as she ruffled his curly hair. Belly laughs aplenty from the

Max and Ivan

The Wrestling II

Max and Ivan. Wrestling with comedy.

My surprise hit of the festival has to be Max and Ivan. I fully admit I hadn’t heard of the duo before this year’s shindig but after being advised to go and see them I was in no way disappointed. The pair echo the brilliant, bizarre characterisation of The League of Gentlemen in their latest show ‘The Reunion’ with all manner of wild and wonderful creations coming to vivid life despite being played solely by the energetic two.

Telling the tale of unrequited love re-emerging at, obviously, a school reunion, Max and Ivan throw themselves around an hour-long play that is full of hilarity and yet also utterly engaging. Helped by the relatively small size of the venue, the pair prove to be completely at ease with each other as well as the audience, and you will find yourself rooting for the good guy by the end. This kind of comedy is sorely missed on our screens at the moment and if this lot don’t have their own TV show by this time next year, I’ll eat a not inconsiderably-sized marsupial.

Extra props to the pair for participating in the annual Wrestling-meets-comedy show The Wrestling II where both proved themselves to be decent competitors both in and out of the ring.

2013 – A Year In Review

Black Spiders Brewery Tour

Fuck You 2013



So there we have it kids, another year has been and gone. Was it just me or did 2013 seem to fly by? I honestly can’t believe that my Vegas trip was in 2012 or that it’s time to compile my annual awards for album and gig of the year already, but there we go.

I’m not usually one for resolutions as Big Ben chimes 12, but it’s always useful to look back over a year to put into perspective just what has gone down and to make yourself realise that you didn’t just sit around in your pants thrapping like a spider monkey for the entire year.

For me, 2013 was the year I got closer than ever to music. Since I resumed my gig-going in October 2009, I’ve found myself uncovering more and more music I like as well as re-appraising some old favourites, and 2013 gave me all that and more. Helped considerably by joining the team over at Daily Dischord, I found myself listening to all sorts of new CDs and hitting more gigs than ever.

I even got to interview up and comers TesseracT as well as old-stager (and one of my favourite frontmen) Ricky Warwick of The Almighty fame. It’s been a number of years since my journalism degree, but armed with my little notebook and a paranoia over whether my phone would record, both chats turned out well and it was good to appreciate music with those responsible for making it in the first place.

I also chatted to a few other musically-minded people this year, bumping into the incredibly friendly Baby Godzilla and Hawk Eyes boys on more than one occasion, seeing Napalm Death legend Shane Embury in a toilet and most importantly getting royally sauced with Black Spiders.

Black Spiders Table Football

In a non-World Cup year, there was only one tournament worth talking about.

As many of you will know, I’m rather partial to the ‘Spiders‘ brand of good old rock and roll and when one of the options with their Pledge Music campaign was to go on a brewery tour with the band, I couldn’t possibly turn it down. And what a day it was. Not only was the brewery tour great fun, (there was more beer than anyone in their right mind could wish for) the fun didn’t stop there, instead continuing round some of Sheffield’s finest watering holes until we were all in various states of disrepair. The band themselves were brilliant fun, utter gentlemen and it was a great way to not only support the recording of their new record but to participate in a true one-off experience. Thanks guys!

Ginger Wildheart

Greetings From Shitsville

As well as the above mentioned rock star hobnobbing my biggest achievement of 2013 was meeting three idols of mine. By chance I bumped into Ginger Wildheart before a …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead gig, chatting to him and my old Turbowolf muckers for some time. Unfortunately this did mean I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to grab a photo like a fanboy, but the shit-eating grin suggests I had few regrets.

Tony Wright

Pretend Best Friends

Around the same time I got into The Wildhearts, I was also massively enthusiastic about Terrorvision. The Bradford scoundrels produced the soundtrack to my youth, so when it was quite frankly scandalous to NOT buy lead singer Tony Wright a pint and thank him for his work over the years, I had no choice. Again, cue ridiculously happy photo opportunity.

Tony is not only a comedic mastermind in lyrics as well as on social media, he’s also a hilarious guy in ‘real life’ coming out with all sorts of anecdotes during our drunken natter. Once again it was great of him after a sweaty show to want to bother mixing with the likes of me for a pint or two and I can’t wait until T’vision hit the Northern realms again.

Andy Cairns

Bad Mothers

Last but by no means least, my favourite band of all time; Therapy? had a decent year, producing a career-spanning boxset of epic proportions, but no doubt lead singer Andy Cairns’ highlight was going on his first ever solo acoustic tour and getting to meet the adoring rabble including me…

As for the gigs themselves; wow. Without giving anything away ahead of my Gig of the Year award I can reveal that I’ve witnessed some amazing shows including an astonishing Manic Street Preachers comeback performance in a relatively intimate venue which really took my breath away, and other shows throughout 2013, both big and small were nothing short of incendiary.

I’m not just talking about metal either, as the always reliably leftfield Manchester International Festival out-did itself this year with an amazing line-up. The spellbinding Adam Curtis Vs Massive Attack event was nothing short of astounding, whilst Rocket Number 9 and a triumphantly returning Neneh Cherry produced a mesmeric show. The whole atmosphere of the festival made a strangely warm summer even more enjoyable and it’s always sad to see it go.

In the comedy world, I hit the Edinburgh Fringe and had some banter with QI’s John Lloyd and Mitch Benn as well as taking in shows by more performers than I can actually remember. Another crowning glory of 2013 was when I finally got to meet one of my childhood comedy heroes, Rob Newman, who was a truly lovely man. Humble about the success with David Baddiel that made him a megastar, deep down, Newman is still that shuffling, slightly bumbling comic that drew us all in with The Mary Whitehouse Experience.

More recently I achieved another childhood dream of performing magic with Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee, and I rounded off the year by hitting Ginger Wildheart‘s 5th Annual Birthday Bash which featured guest appearances by everyone from Snow Patrol to Starz.

All in all then, you’d say it was a pretty eventful 2013 and with trips to Edinburgh, Munich and Belgium planned for 2014, the new year’s off to a promising start too…

The Edinburgh Fringe 2013 – Super Scotland Shines Through

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I often used to avoid attending major events as they seemed at odds with my dislike of the vast majority of the population. However, after thoroughly enjoying London during its most busy period, the Olympic Games, I decided this year to take the plunge and immerse myself for a week in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

2013’s Fringe saw around 3,000 shows take place across 300-odd venues all over the city and the first thing that hits a newbie is how well organised everything is. Bearing in mind that the city is also catering for the usual tourists as well as its local population during the Fringe’s run, it’s remarkable that the atmosphere doesn’t degenerate one bit whilst I’m there. Getting around is also made far easier than it has any right to be, thanks to numerous signs and helpful volunteers and even when veering off the beaten track you’ll still bump into something of interest.

Going for full immersion, I had booked some shows before even arriving in the city and each day I pretty much decided my itinerary for the next; an easy system and helped massively by the multitude of box offices spanning the city. For the uninitiated, there are key areas of the city that each hold numerous venues, mainly The Plesance, The Assembly, and The Caves, although the more traditional comedy club, The Stand, also expands out into its surroundings and hosts shows across four venues during the festival.

Udderbelly @ Edinburgh Fringe

The size of a cow – laughs galore in an upside down heifer.

These main venues each have their own set of bars, street food stalls and other entertainment, meaning that whether your wait for a show is ten minutes or an hour, you can quickly grab a beer and enjoy some Scottish sunshine. I was hugely impressed by the fact that I did not have to queue for a pint even once, as the bars are so plentiful and efficient there simply is no slowdown, unlike other large events with which I’m familiar such as the Manchester Christmas Markets, where even getting a half seems a chore to rival two week’s worth of laundry.

Pretty much every square foot of potential show-space is utilised during the festival, and unlike so many other cities where traditional boozers are closing down left, right and centre, here they use each upstairs room and cellar bar for shows of all shapes and sizes, with the artists themselves often running the technical aspects themselves.

The other beauty of this festival is that it is pretty much self-policing. Admittedly there were doormen at the drinking venues, but largely the venues are open, welcoming places with none of the frustrating bag searches that you get at so many other major events. The shows are so tightly packed in that the staff have to be ruthlessly efficient but they do so with a smile each and every time, whilst the comedians keep to schedule (knowing they get fined if they run over). The punters even take their rubbish with them meaning the venue is ready for the next set of show-goers without being deep-cleaned by a team of DustBuster wielding off-duty students. All of these aspects ensure that even the tightest of schedules can be planned and achieved with relative ease.

Something else you’ll see across the city are hordes of flyer-profferers, but unlike Las Vegas where the flick of a titty ad card is almost aggressive in its execution, those offering you one-sheets to shows you may not know about are friendly and are often the artists appearing in said show themselves unafraid of self-promotion.

Something you may be surprised to see is the sheer amount of comedians who potter around, largely unbothered by fans, checking out friend’s shows whether they’re performing at the festival themselves or not. Over the course of the week I ‘bumped into’ Jimmy Carr, Steve Pemberton, Tim Key, Daniel Rigby, Richard Vranch and many, many others, all of whom appeared to be enjoying things just as much as I was.

Is there a downside to the whole experience? Well, it is expensive. Let’s not forget this is a European capital city where the standard £4-a-pint minimum always applies, but there’s so much choice of food that you can pick up tasty bargains or even self-cater with ease. Shows themselves range from free (although a donation is always appreciated) up to about £20, so if you’re packing in a lot it all adds up. You may also struggle to fit in every last show you want to attend, even if going for a week, so be prepared to rank your key events and get them in early.

You can also expect to pay through the nose for accommodation, but if you hunt early enough in the year you might drop lucky like I did with a perfectly central, huge apartment that you can share with a few friends to cut down costs.

The city’s layout can also be baffling (especially to pig-headed idiots like myself) with its quite literal underbelly being on a level that often seems impossible to get to, so a day of familiarisation is going to be useful to the first-timer.

And then, what of the shows themselves? Having seen 35 shows over the course of the week, featuring a total of over 70 artists, I thought it would be impossible to write about it all. And with such massive variety within the programme of events I also thought it would be tricky to discuss my top picks. But being the glutton for punishment that I am, I thought I’d give it a go…

TO BE CONTINUED…

Surviving The Zombie Apocalypse – 2.8 Hours Later Style

When I think about the zombie apocalypse, I don’t tend to think of it as starting in Manchester and involving more orienteering than the average cub camp. But when the opportunity arose to play kiss chase with the undead on a dark Thursday night, I jumped at the chance.

Let me rewind a little. A while ago, some of us at work were discussing horror films, tv shows, and video games, as per usual, when the subject of survival tactics in the event of a zombie holocaust arose. After discussing how to defend deserted castles and the best way to make supplies last, we stumbled upon a company running something called 2.8 Hours Later. Being big fans of the namesake films, we explored it a bit more.

It turned out that it was in fact a city-wide zombie chase game, the objective being very simple, get from checkpoint to checkpoint without succumbing to the ‘infection’. The game takes place on specific dates in selected cities around the country and begins in a secret location. From there you are given co-ordinates, and using a map you move from one place to the next chatting to the odd survivor and obtaining important information along the way.

As part of a colleague’s 21 years of service at our company, we bought him four tickets to the Manchester one and left it up to him who to invite, knowing that we could snaffle some more tickets if he had a few interested parties.

As they day of the event drew near, we started to research what we could expect. We didn’t want spoilers as such, just a bit of a head’s up as to what may occur and how the whole thing worked. We saw videos on YouTube of zombie hen parties, car park horror and mad sprints to the safety of the finish line. All of which seemed pretty ruddy TERRIFYING.

On the day itself, it’s fair to say that a fair few nerves were jangling. We prepped by buying torches, expecting a few pitch black haunted house style moments. Other than that we didn’t really have much else other than ourselves to rely on when we hit the first location in a slightly less than salubrious locale in darkest Ancoats. After a briefing and a bit of a queue, the four of us were released along with our two additional team mates with the simple job of heading left and then right, and it wasn’t long before we encountered a lady in a dressing gown, out in the street.

Not too uncommon a sight in the area, we soon realised she was actually our first zombie apocalypse survivor. She told us that she was looking for her paramedic husband and gave us the co-ordinates of where she heard there may be more survivors. Following the road around, we had our first undead episode. Feeling cocky, and seeing the slow pace of the zombie in question, we decided to sprint nearby rather than taking a wider berth. It wasn’t until halfway down the street that we realised there were three and that their taste for human flesh gave them a decent lick of pace.

Arriving at the next location, we waited outside a small housing showroom. One slight problem with the game appeared to be that the sheer amount of players meant there was some bunching at key locations, but it did thin out later on. After a bit of a queue our group was let in by the salesman. As the situation turned nasty, we were ordered out directly past two zombies, our legs a blur as we pegged it clear.

Heading towards town we entered a church. The vicar was sat near the altar, deep in prayer. Knowing we needed information, we accepted her offer of helping to pray for the missing, only for her to lash at the nearest of a group as it became apparent she was chained up and infected.

Next up, we encountered an office block and were let in and told to follow a stairwell up. After a fair few flights, we emerged onto an empty, but brightly lit office space…with a zombie in the middle. Needless to say we wasted little time in hurtling to the door, and up another flight, only to encounter another member of the undead. Another quick trot and we came to the office boss who gave us further co-ordinates.

As we headed towards central Manchester it started to dawn on us how odd it probably seemed to the Thursday drinkers and shoppers that loads of luminous-arm banded people were navigating around the city. But it wasn’t until we got to the main shopping stretch, Market Street that things got even stranger. Realising we had to get from one end to the other, we soon noted that to do so, we’d have to run through a group of three or four zombies.

As they shuffled around they appeared harmless enough, so I chose a pretty direct route, only to find that they were quick. Very quick. I didn’t look back as I was very much in flight mode, but by all accounts they were on my shoulder for much of the dash. We lost a team member in this section, discovering she’d been tagged as she ran through. The tagging took the form of the zombie touching you, which meant you had to stop and be marked by said zombie, and at the end of the game, everyone was scanned for signs of having been caught.

At the bottom of Market Street we encountered the paramedic we had seen in the picture earlier. After telling him we’d seen his wife previously, he gave us a map reference for St Anne’s square, another prime, busy, city centre location. The task here was to help a diabetic lady by getting her some of her sweets from outside a shop on nearby King Street. This truly was a challenge considering the road was relatively narrow, and filled with shoppers. Oh and three prime zombies.

This was our first real attempt at tactics as we tried a few times to draw them from the bag and allow another runner to go for the target. After a few attempts we succeeded and headed back to receive our reward.

Our next location was outside Urbis, where a scientist was claiming to have found a way to tame the zombies. She encouraged us to get closer and even pet them, before once again, the inevitable happened and they ran directly for us. Another brilliantly jumpy moment, which we laughed about as we went on our way. We eventually got to a skate park where a woman was asking for help for her prostrate boyfriend. Not trusting the situation this time we were quick to get our next location and prepare to dash, as sure enough he rose to his feet and chased us out.

Approaching two and a half hours in, we presumed the end was near, and encountered the safety of a pub housing a single lady. Once again though, all was not as it seemed, and in a brilliant nod to Shaun of the Dead, the opening bars of Don’t Stop Me Now struck up on the jukebox and a zombie appeared behind her. Not hanging around we, legged it once more and onto our final location.

We encountered a square, on the other side of which was the solace of the survivor camp. Unfortunately, the narrower of the two routes through had two female zombies lurking, whilst the other was a wider path but had two male zombies present with a couple more tucked around the corner for good measure. After a few test attempts, we all ended up choosing different tactics. I preferred to try the wider route and it was here that I was finally infected, on the home stretch.

We got to the end, pretty exhausted but exhilarated with the reward being a zombie disco full of survivors alongside the infected players who had been made-up to look like the undead.

A few members of the general public along the way did ask what we were doing and we were happy to give out free promotion for something which can only be called a very different way to spend an evening out and about.

Yes it was just a game and we weren’t going to get chomped for real, but I fully admit that I took it all pretty seriously and even succumbed to a few zombie movie cliches in my attempts to survive. Overall, the night turned out to be a brilliant, exhilarating, energetic event that any genre fan should have a go on. Be prepared to run, be prepared to be scared. But most of all, be prepared to be entertained by a great one of a kind night out.

The Greatest Show On Earth – Part Two

St Pancras International

St Pancras International getting into the Olympic spirit.

After the Olympics threw up such a stunningly golden day for Great Britain, I was full of anticipation leading into the event that I was due to attend on the Sunday afternoon. I was also pleased to know that if the previous day was anything to go by, my public transport fears would also be well and truly allayed.

Setting off from Croydon, I decided to take the scenic route to the ExCel Arena. The Olympic organisers had been trying to discourage people from using London Bridge Station after identifying it as a hot-spot for potential congestion, but ignoring this advice, i was pleased to see that it wasn’t too full at all. Quickly diverting to the tube, the Jubilee line took me efficiently to North Greenwich, and it was at this point I realised just how well planned the whole event was. Every route map of the City, in tube carriages, at stations, on buses, had all been replaced by new ones highlighting (in the Olympic brand purple) where to go for every Olympic venue. This must have been a mammoth undertaking and no expense was spared; these weren’t just stickers over the top of existing maps, every last one had been re-printed and replaced.

Secondly, Olympic ticket holders had all been supplied with a Travelcard for use on the day of their events. This one gesture probably saved hours upon hours of confusion and queuing, preventing tourists from having to try to figure out for themselves which ticket they needed to travel across town. A simple touch but one that no doubt worked a treat.

The Emirates Air Line

High wire fun at Olympic time.

On arriving at North Greenwich I made the decision to try the new Emirates Air Line. A £60million, one kilometre cable car trip over the Thames, the Air Line links the Greenwich Peninsula with the Royal Docks. Originally, it wasn’t intended to be ready for the Olympic Games, but as it provided such a handy (and gimmicky) route straight to the ExCel, I scanned my Oyster card and boarded a pod. Departing every 15 seconds, the cable cars take passengers over 90 metres into the air, showing them stunning views across the City. Admittedly on this particular day it was a little moist to truly get a clear view, nevertheless it proved to be a quick and thrilling route to my venue.

Despite knowing it was unlikely that Team GB had an athlete capable enough to enter into the Greco-Roman wrestling tournament, I still looked forward to seeing something that won’t often be seen on these shores in my lifetime. The venue itself is absolutely enormous, and needed to be whilst playing host to so many spectators watching all forms of martial arts as well as boxing and fencing among others.

My tickets allowed me to see the 55kg and 74kg wrestlers compete across three mats in the ExCel’s North Arena 2, and after a brief run through of the rules and regulations, it was all systems go. Initially baffling, the first round saw three matches being competed simultaneously, so it was tricky to focus on one individual or match up. Nevertheless, you were soon warned to interesting goings on in another bout by the crowd’s roar and so the frenetic action was easy enough to follow.

Greco-Roman Wrestling

Olympic-level cuddling.

Progressing quickly through to the quarter-final matches where only one bout occurred at any one time, I was then pleasantly surprised to see that in a change to the published schedule, the semi-finals were also going to be part of my session. The crowd in these later matches started picking their favourites and really hollering them along, whether they were old or young, British or Hungarian, there was a great atmosphere and a true Olympic spirit.

After the matches had finished, we were pointed efficiently towards public transport routes and I picked the Docklands Light Railway to get back to Bank from where I could get the tube towards King’s Cross. Sitting at the front of the driver-less DLR, I was reminded of how long it had been since I was last a tourist in our capital and also how much the place now has to offer with iconic sights everywhere.

After a couple of quiet pints of Suffolk cider in The Betjeman Arms in St Pancras International Station, watching the Eurostar trains come and go, I meandered to Euston and headed home, thrilled with every aspect of my first and maybe only Olympic experience.

So far, criticisms of the Games have come from all sources. Some say the events are elitist niche sports which the every-man on the street couldn’t possibly aspire to be a part of. I can’t disagree more on this; anyone can walk, run and even jump if they put their mind to it and if they put enough hard work into being the best they can possibly be. I agree that fencing and dressage may be a little pricey for the average punter to take part in, but that hasn’t hampered my enjoyment of watching events unfold at all.

I can honestly say that I will be sad to see the end of these Games. They may not have been as flashy as Sydney or Beijing but by God they’ve shown what Britain can do, both on and off the track. This truly is something for us and our children to be immensely proud of for many, many years to come.

The Greatest Show On Earth – Part One

Hyde Park - BT London Live

Hyde Park – BT London Live

I still remember where I was when it was announced that London had been awarded the 2012 Olympic Games. It was Wednesday 6th July 2005, and I was about to be made redundant from my job. Topping that, the very next day, some idiots decided to set about blowing up half of London’s transport network. As much of  a juxtaposed euphoric high and terrible low as you can imagine, suddenly the enormity of what London was taking on became clear and the seven years to play with almost didn’t seem long enough.

Fast forward to 2011 and after the police shot dead Mark Duggan, riots erupted in the capital and across the country. One year away from the Olympic Games and England had become some sort of feral wasteland. Surely there was no coming back from this?

I’m proud to say that the country would not be beaten. The British media have desperately tried to destroy the event before it even kicked off, claiming Danny Boyle’s opening shindig would be too ambitious, that the weather would be the worst in human history, and that security would be abysmal. I’ve debated with many (including Doctor Who companion Peri, via Twitter, randomly) whether these stories are truly in the public interest or whether the press were just desperate to derail the games and give themselves more headlines throughout the month. I for one truly believe that media and public alike should unite behind such a once in a lifetime event,  and at this point, I’m pleased to report that all of the media scaremongering hasn’t proven to be true. The only headlines we have been seeing are about the fulfilment of golden dreams.

I admit that the event hasn’t been without its teething problems. I’ve been to four Olympic football matches at Old Trafford and have seen some shoddy organisation. From slow moving frisking queues and rammed trams through to the unforgivable lack of pies before half the matches had even kicked off, you’d expect better. Even so, the atmosphere at the events has been nothing short of electric, and these specifics appear more the fault of Old Trafford and Metrolink (who really should know how to cater for large crowds) rather than the Olympic organisers themselves.

But football 200 miles from the main event isn’t really what it’s all about and this weekend I was privileged enough to journey down to London to soak up some of the Olympic buzz. And what a weekend to do so.

The event for which I had tickets, the Greco-Roman Wrestling, was on Sunday, so I decided to travel down on Saturday morning. The Virgin train was typically rapid and pulling into Euston at midday I could already see the huge number of purple-shirted Olympic helpers, pointing punters in the right direction with a smile and a giant foam hand.

My intention was to head towards Hyde Park where the BT London Live event was showing loads of the action on multiple big screens, mixed with some live music and special guests. Knowing that the triathlon had taken place in and around Hyde Park earlier that morning, I was dreading how awful and crowded everything was going to be, but getting the tube from Russell Square to Hyde Park Corner was effortless. Straight away, you could see how much thought had gone in to moving people around quickly and efficiently. Regular readers will know my thoughts on how the general public can be zombies at the best of times so it was pleasing to see that megaphoned transport workers were ensuring all spaces were filled and that people kept on moving, all the while keeping a smile on their faces.

Getting to Hyde Park, I had to wait to cross a couple of inner park paths whilst cyclists zoomed through but again, the crowd control workers were friendly and chatty, making the experience far more pleasant than it had any right to be. Arriving at the gates to the Hyde Park event I was again filled with dread at the prospect of queuing for hours to get through the airport-style security. I had my man bag with me with all manner of weekend essentials inside; iPad, tail shine, bullet belt. Yes, I was one of those people they really hate when it comes to prohibited items and general idiocy. But once again, all fears were unfounded. I found a queue that was short and the guys and girls on the gate were polite and friendly, allowing me to nip through the scanners in no time at all.

It was a gloriously sunny day at this point, made all the more wondrous by the buzz around the park. Although not as full as it would be later that night for the big athletics finals, the crowds were certainly gathering and picking a decent spec was tricky. Eventually we plonked ourselves on a picnic table next to one of the screens and took in some tennis and hockey whilst relaying beers back to the group from one of the nearby bars. Once again, the refreshment side of things was where the organisation was let down a little, as despite beer pumping machines churning out 20 pints at a time, the tent always seemed to be devoid of Heineken and the staff appeared to be more interested in flogging souvenir cups than any actual liquids. I found out later that they had a competition going to see who could sell the most cups, which wasn’t really in the spirit of the whole event.

Nevertheless, with careful queue picking, getting a little snifter in wasn’t too tricky (but was pricey) and as the sun shone down on us and our new multinational friends (hello American lady and random table of Dutch folk!) we soaked up sports from all around the event, checking in for golds over on the cycling screen, a live appearance on stage from Sir Bradley of Wiggins and even a set from snotty upstarts McFly.

Having over-indulged in sun and shenanigans it was time to head out to my accommodation and once again, all was well. A short walk to Victoria and a train to East Croydon was simple, and with every stop the news of further medals kept the atmosphere electric.

Rounding off the day with Ennis and Farah’s heroics on the track, Saturday 4th August had truly been momentous, and I was honoured to have played a small part, all before I had even attended the event for which I had travelled…