Dig For Victory to Do It Again

COMMON belief will tell you that Dirty Water by The Standells was inspired by producer Ed Cobb and his girlfriend getting mugged near what was, back in the sixties, the polluted River Charles in Boston.

The Charles is now, thankfully, much cleaner and – in most places – a spot to be savoured, not avoided. And, having learned from personal experience, you no longer “have to be in by 12 o’clock” in Boston.

But the first, slightly fuzzed up guitar notes of the distinctive intro can still be heard across one part of Boston – and any number of bars – throughout the summer months. The more often the better for those of us who pledge some sort of allegiance to Red Sox Nation.

The rather cleaner water of the River Charles
The rather cleaner water of the River Charles

Each time the Red Sox win a match – sadly not often enough in the last two seasons – Dirty Water soundtracks the celebrations around the wonderful old amphitheatre that is Fenway Park (disproving any theories that bigger and newer is best), those unmistakeable opening notes often ringing out before the winning run has actually reached home plate.

It’s not the only song that has somehow been co-opted by Red Sox fans and ask most people which is the club song and they would go for Sweet Caroline – played in the middle of the eighth inning and aired in a show of solitary by the hated New York Yankees after the marathon bombing of 2013 – but there’s a fair few of the Fenway faithful who see that as too much of a sop to the fairweather fan.

Throw in The Dropkick Murphys’ double header of I’m Shipping Up To Boston – soundtrack to multiple championship celebrations across the city in the last decade or so, as well The Departed, and walk-on music for former Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon – and Tessie and they are not short of options for backing music on the highlight reels.

Normally, not a huge fan of too much music and gimmicks being used to create an atmosphere at sports grounds (especially rugby, bar the traditional songs like Fields of Athenry or Calon Lan, but please God not the abomination that is Swing Low…).

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Fenway Park pre-game, looking back towards Downtown Boston. The fact Hurricane Irene may be about to hit may explain the lack of crowds

Generally means the fans are incapable of doing it themselves, especially in the new breed of marketing concepts that seem to be supplanting traditional rugby clubs (mention no names, but anyone playing at football grounds or bigger stadia to create an occasion – or on plastic pitches to match their fans).

That all may have something to do with growing up a Gloucester rugby fan. We make do with one traditional chant of “Glawsterrr, Glawsterrr” and the nearest we have come to a football-esque chant for any of our players was the stirring, imaginative “Terry Fanolua, Terry Fanolua…” and, of course, the odd rendition of La Marseillaise when Philippe Saint-Andre was on the wing or, latterly, our coach.

At American sports grounds, it somehow all seems to work (even the singing of The Star-Spangled Banner before every game, so easy to sneer at from afar, makes sense at the ground). Maybe if is because of the way American sports are more attuned to the entertainment industry, with the inherent pauses for commercial television, are occasions to be enjoyed beyond the actual sporting event or, just maybe, due to the shortage of away fans at many matches due to the sheer distances involved.

But just how did a boy who learned all about sport in The Shed at Kingsholm feel just as big a draw to a seat in the bleachers or down the first base line at Fenway? Or, possibly more pertinently, become willing to stay up most of the night to watch a game against the Yankees that went to extra innings scoreless?

Late-night baseball on Channel 5 had provided a grounding before my first trip to the States – amazingly 10 years ago this September – which started with a week in Boston and several nights spent in bars around the city watching the latest game, a scene repeated throughout our six weeks on the road.

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Fenway under the lights

A move around the corner in the office meant working until the early hours of Sunday morning. Late to bed, later to rise and with no return to work until Wednesday (bar popping in before our weekly Boozeday Tuesday afternoon sessions), Sunday’s bedtime moved well after midnight and the only thing to watch on TV for much of the year was, you guessed it, baseball.

That season of late-night watching just happened to coincide with the Red Sox winning their second World Series crown in four years and they had got their hooks into me – even with the warnings that such success was fleeting and supporting them was far more about frustration and false hope.  As a Gloucester fan, that just seemed natural.

Seeing a game at Fenway appeared and was quickly crossed off the bucket list. As was seeing them against the Yankees. And, finally, came seeing them beat the Yankees – courtesy of a Mike Napoli walk-off home run in the 11th inning, sparking another rendition of Dirty Water at just before 1am on a sweltering July night.

The Red Sox were back in the World Series that same season. The same Red Sox that had collapsed amid acrimony in the closing weeks of the season after my presence at a double header win over the Oakland A’s. The same Red Sox that had finished bottom the AL East the previous year.

And they only went and won it, ensuring everybody who saw it would remember just where they were.

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A press box with a better view that many

Which in my case, about 4am in the morning back home, was desperately trying to tune in my radio to catch the final outs.

Having stayed up to watch the potentially decisive win over the St Louis Cardinals, my Virgin Media box decided it was a pretty safe time to switch itself off and go through a series of updates just as the game entered its final inning.

My frustration, nay anger, was matched only by my surprise that somebody was still manning Virgin’s media Twitter account and responding to some less than complimentary tweets.

When the television came back on, the game was over, the World Series won and even Dirty Water had faded into the night.

It resurfaced – as any of you paying attention will probably have worked out – on the latest batch of songs in the A-Z iPod Challenge that took us from Public Service Broadcasting to Queens of the Stone Age.

And an interesting batch of songs it was, from the old faithfuls (Belle & Sebastien, Echo & The Bunnymen, REM, The Pogues), an excellent rediscovery (Divine Hammer by The Breeders) and some interesting, relatively new discoveries – be they new acts, songs that have just passed me by or just ones that are among the huge backlog that passed me by on the road in Africa.

John Grant’s Disappointing is definitely in that category (the album has yet to catch my attention like the previous two did), Waxahatchee continues to intrigue with Dixie Cups and Jars and The Civil Wars stole my attention with a lovely cover of Disarm (followed swiftly by The Smashing Pumpkins’ original).

May just have to listen to some of them on a plane back to Boston this summer.

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Boston Strong

“This is our f–king city! And nobody’s going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong.”
David Ortiz, Boston Red Sox

IT is not, in the words of David Ortiz ahead of the Red Sox’s first match at Fenway Park following the bombing at the end of the marathon a year ago today, my f–cking city.

But Boston has, over the past few years, become something of an adopted second home on the other side of the Atlantic.

It was the first port of call on a maiden trip to the US – mainly because my travelling companion hailed from near Boston, Lincolnshire and was keen to see the city which carries its name – and one which instantly won our hearts.

It is a city comfortable with its place in society and history (a lengthy one by American standards) and is unusual among major US cities in that it is best explored on foot, with plenty of places to stop and break the journey with a swift – or not so swift – drink.

And, of course, it has the Red Sox, who are responsible for far too many late nights following their contrasting fortunes from afar.

We will explore Boston and my love affair with the Red Sox in future posts, but to mark this sobering anniversary, here’s an article written for the Gloucester Citizen the day after the bombing.

The shock of that evening remains, but it is matched by the delight and even pride at discovering how the city has recovered on my last visit just a few months later.

And the Red Sox winning the world series didn’t hurt.

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The Carnival Is Over

Original posted on London to New York blog, June 22, 2010

New York, New York

WHO would have believed that arriving in Manhattan would provide something approaching a return to normality? The city that never sleeps as the place to kick back, relax and draw breath?

But after 94 days, 21 border crossings, six birthdays, two May 10ths, one rampaging bug and temperatures ranging from about minus 10 degrees C below to up in the 90s, we have arrived in New York.

And after 13 weeks living in each other’s pockets, we are having to adjust to life on our own again.

New York
End of the line – Toasting arriving in New York (well, Jersey City over the Hudson) with Phebes

Well, almost. There are still seven of us staying in the same hostel and there’ll be a select gathering in Boston at the end of the week, but numbers are gradually dwindling.

The first overland trip from London to New York is over. We are out on our own again, left to plan our own travels, our own destinations, our own futures – which, in my case, means working out just what to do next.

Don’t worry, there’s going to be no musing at length about my options (although if any travel editors or anyone looking for freelance writers stumbles across this…).

But having given non-committal answers (or long, rambling ones that don’t really address the question, depending on how many drinks have been downed) to any questions about my future over the past few months, the time is drawing near when some sort of plan emerges from the vague outline in the back of my mind.

Not yet though. For a little while longer at least, the USA is my backyard to explore.

And having gone through the rigmarole of getting an American visa, it would be churlish not to use it.

The Bean
The Chicago skyline (and me in there somewhere) reflected in The Bean

It lasts until mid-November, although the chances are the Atlantic will be crossed well before that.

But between now and then, there’s a lengthy stop in Boston to join in the July 4 celebrations, toss some tea about and cheer on the Red Sox.

After that it’s a bit sketchy, although a road trip down to Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans and, possibly, Austin, Texas, is on the cards before the coast starts calling – just haven’t worked out yet whether it is back to the east coast or head on west to spend some more time in the cities we flew through on this trip – San Francisco, Seattle and, maybe, back over the border to Vancouver.

But that’s all in the future, this blog is supposed to be reporting on what has already happened – starting with the fight to remove the smell of cheese from our laundry in the small town of New Ulm, Minnesota.

The good news is the smell appears to have gone (not that you want to unzip my laundry bag to find out), but the bad news is the impact the whole drama had.

The second wash and several cycles in the dryer to dispel any lingering cheese odour stranded Phil and myself in town long after the bus had gone back to the park.

It all meant a very pleasant, if hot, walk back through the suburbs wearing sandals which don’t really fit me properly and are more often used for short journeys to the shower or around the bus.

Buckingham Fountain
Buckingham Fountain, Chicago

The end result was that while Phil was racing the children of New Ulm to be first into the open-air pool when the lifeguard returned to duty, the huge blisters which had appeared on the soles of both feet were attracting my attention.

Just what you want when the next day’s task is to cover as much ground as possible around Chicago in little more than 12 hours and more of the sweltering temperatures which have accompanied us over the last week or so (tomorrow’s forecast, up to 96 degrees C).

Patched up and joined by Phoebe, Pam and Nick, we headed into the centre of Chicago from the suburb of Lincoln Park – via the lovely Nookies diner where Phebes and I were left debating whether that was Oscar-winning actor Adrian Brody on the adjacent table.

The rest were not much use as they had no idea who he was, but Phoebe claimed the sighting as genuine and as we split up to do our own thing, there was an extra little spring in her step.

My step was not quite so bouncy but, with the help of the open-top tour bus to eat up some of the miles, managed to cover a fair amount of ground.

Four years ago, on my first visit Chicago didn’t really rate that highly on my road trip – it was all a bit too concrete, stifling and vertical.

But its charms began to seep in a bit more this time.

John Hancock Tower
Cocktails on the 95th floor of the John Hancock Tower

Millennium Park has undergone a bit of a facelift (and provides a perfect setting for a break from sightseeing, even getting me to experience a bit of open-air opera) and the whole lake front area buzzed with activity.

A little too much activity by the Shedd Aquarium where free entry had drawn two-hour long queues which ended plans to visit what memory tells us is a must-see, but at least getting off the bus saved me from the breakdown which stranded Julie and Gerda on the top deck.

The initial four Chicago raiders reconvened on the 96th floor of the John Hancock Tower for a quick cocktail before coming down to earth or, more accurately, under it for a few rounds at the Billy Goat Tavern.

Made famous by John Belushi in a Saturday Night Live sketch and a curse on the Cubs baseball team, the bar has few frills, even fewer niceties and was once the fabled hangout of the Chicago Tribune’s sportswriters. My kind of place.

Enlivened by the tavern, we headed back uptown and, via a brewery pub and dingy blues bar we stumbled back onto the bus for another night on the road.

Canada
World’s second biggest country. Just in case you missed it.

We awoke somewhere in Austenburg Ohio for a quick breakfast in a Waffle House ahead of a complete contrast to the previous day, a lazy afternoon on the beach and swimming in Lake Erie before heading to the banks of the Allegheny River in Pennyslvania to set up camp.

It provided the base the next morning for our final bus clearance and kitchen clean before the final sprint to the finish, accompanied by a flurry of card signing and form filling as we rolled into Niagara Falls.

Having been to the Falls before and instantly impressed, the underwhelming reaction from several travelling companions a little strange, even when we’d walked over the Rainbow Bridge into Canada to get the more spectacular view of the Horseshoe Falls.

Maybe we’ve been spoiled over the past three months and have come to expect a little bit too much from places.

Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls

Don’t expect too much from the town on the Canadian side which is a neon explosion of casinos, tacky tourist traps and attractions – like Blackpool if it was modelled by Americans. Phoebe loved it.

But we did find one dive bar to belatedly toast Freddie’s 19th birthday freed from the drinking laws across the border, although what the American immigration staff thought of us as we crawled through our final border in dribs and drabs is anyone’s guess.

Somehow they let us all through and we settled down for our final night drive, waking in Jersey City on the banks of the Hudson River, complete with the classic vista of the Manhattan skyline for the obligatory end of tour pictures.

And that, pretty much, was that as the group began to fragment – some taking the ferry across to Manhattan, others riding the bus to the hostel with the bags and then heading to wherever they were staying.

Those of us who opted for the ferry, meandered our way to the hostel via a Times Square brunch and waved goodbye to Freddie – the first of the gang to leave as he jetted back home in the evening.

Times Square
Times Square marks the end of the trip

The rest of us reconvened in a Times Square bar for one last supper as more goodbyes were said.

And one by one they peeled off until, just after midnight, left alone playing darts in an Upper West Side bar with drivers Lukas and Charlie and life outside the group became a reality once more…

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Why Pamper Life’s Complexity?

Original posted in London to New York blog, February 28, 2010

WHEN I handed my notice in at work three months ago, this whole trip still seemed way out there in the distance, scarcely able tp convince myself that this was really my life now.

But all of a sudden, and remarkably clear-headed after a leaving do which somehow involved being in the same pub for more than half of a 30-hour period, it is very real.

All that stands between me and this trip is three weeks, a To-Do list which has taken on remarkable expanding properties and an increasingly frantic search for someone to rent my house.

So how did we get here – a question Steve Cram must have been asking as he commentated on hour after hour of curling?

It’s been a little more than three years in the making, starting with a six-week American road trip with Nick Machin.

It wasn’t so much out on the American highways that an attack of wanderlust took hold, it was more amid the increasing struggles to settle into life back home.

The Blues Cafe, Beale Street, Memphis - and two blokes from Cardiff
Nick, right, Me and Mr Heineken on Beale Street, Memphis – 2006 US Road Trip

One change of job and a fairly traumatic year or so later and it was still there – early attempts by two of us to head off again being squashed by work’s refusal to grant us a sabbatical and the postponement of the early plans for the London to New York trip.

But at some point last year and fresh from a trip to Boston and New York – cementing a growing obsession with the Boston Red Sox – it all became too much.

All that prompted one of those pub conversations which normally go nowhere and are forgotten about the next morning – the two of us pledging to jack in work and head out on the newly re-advertised trip.

Normally, what seemed such a good idea after a few pints is dismissed out of hand when morning and sobriety take hold

But not this time – even the post-beer e-mail sent to the trip organisers the night before had been coherent. It still made perfect sense and, barely before the hangover had faded away, we were booked on the trip.

And that’s how we got to this point – not sure Steve Cram would be able to give you such a clear answer.

The last few weeks have been dominated by visas – from the high security, nothing which would help to pass the time allowed four-hour wait at the US Embassy in London to the same trip to the Mongolian Embassy, which saw us get the visa back in half an hour. Russia and China – still waiting – have involved hour after hour trying to fill in forms.

And now it’s time to start making a dent in that To Do list…

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