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Category Archives: The Ugly

In which life becomes even more like The Five Year Engagement

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“Ann anbor wshg st” by Traveler100. Wiki Commons

When you are little and you think that life has all these big plans for you, that in some manner you are special or chosen (oh come on, everyone thinks this. Why do you think Buffy and Harry Potter were so successful?), little do you bargain for the slow, painful line-up of moments that prove this not to be the case. Educational moments, character-forming moments, ridiculously sucky moments.

Yet there have been a few times when my life has resembled a movie, for example:

  • Rock of Ages (2010) I was on holiday in New Orleans when some 80s rock god *cough – Tommy Lee –cough* kept tuning up wherever we went, I like to think he was stalking me. He did actually walk over to me at one point and I ran off squealing like a little girl – soooo mature.

These are pretty terrible films admittedly, but that’s OK. It’s when your life starts resembling an Oscar-worthy movie that you should be worried.

The world gives us so many challenges that are not celebrated despite the heroic way that we deal with them; death, serious illness, chronic illness, redundancy, bankruptcy. So many people take on these troubles with a strength that comes only from knowing that there is no other option. No wonder we crave celluloid escapism.

Over the past year, my married life has resembled a movie which in Michigan terms has proved divisive, The Five-Year Engagement. Overly long (like this post), moderately funny, and in our case so very true, the film sees an Anglo-American couple move to Michigan for career reasons only to see one partner succeed while the other flounders. I am the flounderer in our case. Just like Jason Segel, I have yet to find my career niche over here, find my homeland instantly preferable and retreat sulkily into my knitting. Home brewing is one Michigan step too far though.

To compound matters, we have just moved to the town where the movie is set, Ann Arbor. Home to the University of Michigan, a thriving restaurant and brewing scene, a liberal outlook and most importantly a successful infrastructure (no small thing after seeing the lack of it in Detroit and its suburbs)!

I think The Five-Year Engagement gives Ann Arbor a raw deal. Yes, Michigan is bleak and cold during the brutal Midwest winters, but the idea of a chef not being able to find work in AA is pretty laughable. Segel’s character eventually gets a job at Zingermann’s which is a deservedly lauded foodie empire (there is nothing at that deli which isn’t made from scratch and agonised over in terms of ingredients and food trends). As a chef, his character should be impressed.

Gone to seed stitch: some seriously bad knitting in The Five Year Engagement

Gone to seed stitch: some seriously bad knitting in The Five Year Engagement

He goes all back-woodsy, which doesn’t scream AA to me. He does start to brew which is definitely a Michigan pastime but in case you haven’t noticed it has become the American pastime too. Even in the UK, micro-brewing is taking off.  He starts knitting (without using a tailor’s dummy, or blocking, or apparently using anything but mohair). I haven’t seen any really great yarn shops in AA yet (maybe the Metro-D has AA beaten on that account) but am open to suggestions. Segel’s character uses all the distractions he can think of to avoid taking a long hard look at himself and what would make him happier.

I like to think that Mr Segel wrote the story about any town that isn’t San Francisco/New York/ LA and then taking advantage of the Michigan Film Initiative, had to slot Ann Arbor in to that generic non-cosmopolitan role. Does he sometimes lie awake at night, wondering briefly if he gave AA a bad rap before plumping his money-filled pillow and sleeping like a baby? OK, that’s harsh. My brother-in-law actually met him during filming and said he came across as very decent.

The point is, maybe I, like Jason Segel in The Five Year Engagement, need to alter my outlook. We shouldn’t rely on places or people to save us, but harness what stands out where we are, and use it to drive us forward to a self-made happily ever after. Here goes…

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The Most Irresponsibly Reported News Story of the Year

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British_tabloids_-_July_5_2011

Since Saturday, it has been quietly appalling to read and watch the media coverage of the ‘Virgin Killer’ tragedy.

For a start, the name gives even less dignity to Elliot Rodger’s six victims.

Certain UK and US newspapers in particular have shamelessly raked through every mucky aspect of this massacre and its perpetrator’s history with no sense of decorum.

From reprinting the killer’s so-called manifesto, to providing links to his YouTube channel (which is, nonsensically, still available to view). Every aspect of good journalism has been sacrificed on the altar of sensationalism.

Perhaps the worst aspect of this case has been the media’s short-sighted and uncaring decision to name the girl included in Rodger’s tirade. This is a girl who was barely a teenager when she unknowingly slighted him, and he subsequently developed a fixation on her and girls who looked like her. This incidence should not be leading to accusations. The girl was unfortunate enough to have attracted the attentions of a stalker. Why is the paper naming (and by association shaming) an innocent party? Instead, the media has thrown her to the wolves. From now on she will be prey to the rantings of every tech-savvy misogynist on the internet.

Press standards: The New York Daily News shows how this SHOULD have been reported.

Press standards: The New York Daily News shows how this SHOULD have been reported.

 

Not content to ruin a girl’s life over an incident that may or may not have happened during her early adolescence, the papers have also felt the need to run pictures (perhaps gleaned from social media pages) of her in bikinis/ bunny ears in an effort not just to cast misplaced blame but also just to get those all-important ‘bikini body’ shots (underage in this case) of an attractive female.

Since media coverage of serial killers began, there has been a tacit understanding that the air of publicity should be denied to the guilty party. After all, what good does it do to try and let the insane try and justify the unjustifiable? It is rather like keeping a rabid dog alive in the hope that he will stop biting.

Instead, the media has positively encouraged the public to read the misogyny, misanthropy and dangerously narcissistic delusions of a mentally ill killer. And the results are worrying. Young girls with Hybristophilia are apparently releasing sympathetic YouTube videos lamenting Rodger’s fate and fawning over how ‘cute’ he was.

Message boards all over the world are debating the reasons not just for Rodger’s deplorable acts, but for his mindset. For as many who are repulsed by  this story, there are just as many comments detailing adolescent rejection from people who recognise that particular kind of loneliness (even if they don’t agree with Rodger), deluded diatribes from the ‘Pick Up Artist Community’, and a number of posts proclaiming support of Rodger’s manifesto.

When did the tide turn with media coverage of killers? TV interviews and documentaries have not helped. It seems that if the killer has an ability to articulate their ‘victimhood’ (an aspect of narcissistic personality disorder) or some level of aesthetic attractiveness then the media is prepared to give them a platform. It happened with Ted Bundy and it is happening here. Hollywood even made two documentaries on Aileen Wuornos before the inevitable feature film.

#YesAllWomen was not Elliot Rodger’s planned legacy. Good.

 

If one good thing has come out of this misplaced media frenzy, it is the #YesAllWomen campaign on Twitter. It details the incidences of women not feeling safe around particular men, and the reasons that sexual harassment is unacceptable in our age. It has also gathered a lot of support from men. The message that all women should have dignity in their dealings with the opposite gender is admirable. If it can change one misogynist’s view of women, or prevent one rape or assault, then we should all be glad.

But Elliot Rodger’s unexpected legacy would doubtless be lost on him.

 P.S. Long time, no see – my fault entirely. So sorry.

Brum Legends #2: The Birmingham Vampire

 

Kurt Barlow

70s vampire: Salem’s Lot’s principle vampire Kurt Barlow

Over the past month, Northampton has been spooked by a grown man dressing as a clown. He seems to be harnessing the image of the scary child-killing monster Pennywise from the Stephen King novel It.

This character keeps a Facebook page and claims not to want to frighten the town’s residents, despite creeping around their streets in the dead of night, knocking on their doors, and staring at folks until they run away. Some think his creepy antics are amusing, others accuse him of exploiting Coulrophobia (yup, there’s a scientific term for the fear of clowns).  People have been worried that he may be disturbed and gathering attention in advance of doing something …worse (a la every serial killer on Luther). He even has his own vigilante. Fun or foe?  Here is a film of him so you can make up your own minds.

The Northampton Clown makes his rounds.

The Northampton Clown makes his rounds.

Anyway, around this time each year, I dig out another Stephen King novel, Salem’s Lot to reread while the nights are steadily drawing in. I’d thoroughly recommend it – very atmospheric and scary (the first time I finished it, I had to ring a few people up to make me less frightened – at 4.30 in the morning. You’re welcome). Now it is an autumnal ritual, the same as pumpkin carving, sloe collecting and the Halloween Tree.

Anyway, here’s the vampire bit…

So yeah, you’re probably wondering where I’m going with this. Salem’s Lot is about vampires – and not the simpering Twilight model-ish, veggie ones. We’re talking back to basics, bad-ass, soulless demonic entities (click here if you dare *). We have so many variations on what a vampire is these days that the air of fear at the prospect of a human acting like an animal and biting us, has pretty much become extinct.

But back in January 2005, it returned for a while in the Birmingham neighbourhoods of Ward End, Saltley, Small Heath and Alum Rock. Reports of a man who attacked a family on Glen Park Road in Alum Rock by biting them on December 19th 2004, apparently led to a police report being filed. In the following weeks many more ‘incidents’ were alleged to have taken place.

The suspect was supposedly a Somalian man in his mid-20s, and each time the incident at Glen Park Road was reported, new embellishments were added; that he’d started his feeding frenzy by a biting a fully grown man before working his way through the family and then biting a chunk out of a female observer, that he was just after the Bangladeshi community, that he was just after women and children.

Suddenly it was in all the local newspapers, then the nationals, the Beeb and Sky News, and even Richard and bloody Judy. Worried parents at local schools plagued the head teachers with phone calls, in case the vampire had rabies and went after the ‘little ’uns’.  Imams and priests were being asked to speak out against the fear engulfing their communities.

vampire-mouth

Here’s the thing; the police had never had any reports of people being bitten, not one. Neither did any local hospital see any bite victims coming through their doors. Nor were there any reports of nut-cases with biting fetishes on the loose.

Since there were no victims on record, the authorities had no idea what the vamp looked like. But when did that ever stop people making crap up? Lots of forums had fun with this one.  The Birmingham Evening Mail in typical ‘crazy human interest story’ style, dispatched one of their number to the scene of the alleged crimes armed with garlic and a crucifix, to scrounge for more witnesses.

But try as they might, there was nothing to latch onto. Because it was a hoax. At least the people of Northampton have concrete footage of their creepy psycho, not for them the desperation of the urban myth. But as urban myths go, this was quite a good one, just plausible enough to keep people looking behind them on those dark winter nights. And just imaginative enough to fill the yawning gap we have for a little carefully contrived fear in our lives.

vampire-trick-or-treat-thumb

 *I actually find the 1970s TV version (directed by Tobe Hooper of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist fame) quite creepy but you may just find it quaint. Anyway, just try the book, it is properly scary.

 

 

Gypsy Curses, Knitting Needles and Afternoon Tea: Peaky Blinders Episode 2

Peaky Blinders

The Spaghetti-Western tones of Nick Cave’s  ‘Red Right Hand’ are kicking in on a Thursday night, and that can mean only one thing – it’s ‘Paykey Bloinders’ episode two,  y’all! Here’s a handy link to last week’s review.

The haircuts are still so terrible that it’s impossible to fancy any of the male characters, the accents are still all over the place (brother Arthur’s is straight up Brummie, Aunt Polly’s is apparently ‘historically accurate’ Brummie and Tom Shelby’s just sounds Scouse), Tom’s sister Ada is still managing not to let the Horny Bolshevik’s (HB) mop-crop get in the way of lust in the back-to-backs, Aunt Polly is still wandering around churches like Patricia Morrison possessed by Mama Fratelli, C.I. Campbell is still making his presence felt in between afternoon teas, and undercover spy Grace is still insisting on singing her maudlin songs, weakly, at every opportunity. This is what happened before X-Factor, people; we just let them carry on with their ‘dreams’. In public.

Add the looks of Patricia Morrison...

Add the looks of Patricia Morrison…

Now, it appears that the gang has run up a spot of enmity with a family of gypsies, who proceed to curse Tom’s beloved white horse, making it lame, and forcing him to shoot it. Where did these gypsies come from all of a sudden? I have no idea. Anyway it did give the director an excuse to shoot the most self-consciously cinematic fight I’ve seen on TV this year. In ultra-pretentious slow-mo, Tom and co proceed to show the world the meaning behind their not so scary name. Hair mops were a’flyin, coat tails a’billowin’ and peaky blinders were a blindin’. That’s right, we saw gypsies getting slashed in slow-motion. I hope someone from Big Fat Gypsy Weddings writes in to Points of View.

To the personality of Mama Fratelli...

To the personality of Mama Fratelli…

Back in Brum, little Ada finds out she’s preggers while HB is on the run.  Tom and Aunt Polly are appalled. Tom orders everyone out of the cinema where Ada has sought refuge (it’s all getting a bit Catherine Cookson by now, will Ada bring up her child in the projection booth?). Later he orders everyone out of the pub too – if I were living in the Brum of Peaky Blinders, I’d just throw house parties, any other night out would just be a big gangster-thwarted anti-climax. Ada and Aunt Polly have a heart to heart during which AP extols the virtues of the backstreet abortion.

And you have something approaching Aunt Polly.

And you have something approaching Aunt Polly.

“I did it to myself” she boasts to the increasingly scared Ada. That really puts all my Dad’s rugby stories about swallowing a bottle of Vaseline before each match to shame.  Yep, to Aunt Polly, feminism is a bleached knitting needle. And soon she is marching the reluctant Ada to the train station to meet a lady-who-does, only to find that Freddie the Bolshevik is waiting at the platform with an underwhelming ring and orders to get-the-hell-out-of-town-with-my-sis from Tom. What chivalry.

The smile that lights up Ada’s face as she dreams of running away to a land where barbers offer haircuts that appeal to women’s loins and never having to imagine another haircut whilst doin’ the do with Freddie is genuinely endearing. Then he promptly smashes her fantasy by declaring they will be going nowhere, and Ada will have to live in Bad Barnet Brum for evermore.

Ada and the Horny Bolshevik reach a compromise that she'll stay in Brum if he keeps his hat on.

Ada and the Horny Bolshevik reach a compromise that she’ll stay in Brum if he keeps his hat on.

Suddenly, another gangster (this time of the East End persuasion) has turned up and declared war on the Shelbys, but silver-tongued Tom twists this into a collaborative plot against the gypsies. And then he lands the biggest surprise of the series so far on his brother:

“Get yerself a good ‘aircut – we’re goin’ to the races.” YES! AT LAST!! That prospect alone has ensured I’ll tune in next week.

Broadwalk Empire: Birmingham gets its own gangster drama Peaky Blinders

Cillian Murphy sports a Peaky Blinder

Cillian Murphy sports a Peaky Blinder

Wow. Nothing happens here for ages and then suddenly two new big-uns in one week. First we had the library opening, but all the other bloggers in town were writing about that so I thought I’d zoom in on Peaky Blinders, the new five-part prime-time offering from the BBC.

Weird name huh? But apparently the Peaky Blinders were a real gang and despite sounding like something made up by Stewie from Family Guy, it has a bad-ass origin; members used to sew razor blades into the peaks of their caps to give an extra I-love-you whenever they head-butted someone. Nice.

The real thing: Bloods. Crips. Sharks. Jets. Scorpions. Sons of Anarchy. Let's face it Peaky Blinders as a gang name is right up there with the Pink Ladies.

The real thing: Bloods. Crips. Sharks. Jets. Scorpions. Sons of Anarchy. Let’s face it, Peaky Blinders as a gang name is right up there with the Pink Ladies.

The set-up works thus: Tom Shelby (played by Batman/ Inception star and Nolan bros go-to man Cillian Murphy) is a member of crime family and Birmingham uber-gang the titular Peaky Blinders, who ran Small Heath and the surrounding neighbourhoods from the 1880s onwards. They work protection rackets, gambling operations and maybe the odd IRA gun run. But with a new Chief Inspector in town (Sam Neill) planting undercover agents, an expected communist revolution and even Churchill taking an interest in proceedings, how long will our boy’s luck last?

I couldn’t help but be reminded of Boardwalk Empire watching tonight’s opener; the sepia tones, the ruthlessness even within the family, but mostly because the character of Tom Shelby is so much like Boardwalk’s Jimmy Darmody. Seriously, they’re both scions of crime families, both World War 1 heroes, both struggling to balance their ruthless tendencies with an inconvenient streak of humanity. And they both have utterly disastrous haircuts. Except the ‘dos sported by antihero Murphy and horny Bolshevik Iddo Goldberg make Jimmy’s slicked back undercut look positively sophisticated. Nobody smiles in this programme (they’re probably depressed about their haircuts.) Things really were bad in Brum back then.

Boarwalk Empire's Jimmy Darmody contemplates his future with THAT haircut.

Boardwalk Empire’s Jimmy Darmody contemplates his future with THAT haircut.

 But even that’s not an excuse, as the episode showed there was an Italian contingent in Birmingham at the time. Were none of them master barbers who could help these two handsome men out? It was becoming quite distracting after half an hour. Think soggy mop draped on brow.  

Apart from that, it did start to grip by the end. Plots and subplots are beginning to unfold, there’s a little bit o’ sex and post war feminism going on. It’s highly stylised with slow motion character introductions, blast furnaces reflecting into the canals, lots of violence and most noticeably the use of modern music. This is a Birmingham that feels like the Wild West (Midlands) – the opening shot was even Cillian Murphy sauntering on a horse, terrifying all the Brummies into their back-to-backs for Christ’s sake. I think most of it has been filmed up North, but some scenes did take place at The Black Country Museum.

Tom Selby's haircut in all it's chav-tastic glory

Tom Shelby’s haircut in all it’s chav-tastic glory

But the best scene for me had to be Sam Neill’s introduction to Birmingham’s nightlife. Glassing, vomiting, shagging in the street, drunken trolls and prodigious use of the word ‘Fock!’ (ah, Midlands swearing…) it was all there. He must’ve been riding down Broad Street.

Still, it’s intriguing if nothing else and I’m quite proud of Brum that it can inspire such an idiosyncratic/ potentially really interesting drama. God knows, since Crossroads, we’re owed a more decent televisual legacy. And no, Doctors doesn’t count.

First we had Benny, now we have Blinders - bit of a dichotomy, no?

First we had Benny, now we have Blinders – bit of a dichotomy, no?

Have you seen Peaky Blinders? What do you think so far?    

ISSUE: How are renovations to New Street Station affecting you?

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If you think the outside of New Street Station looks bad, you should see the inside.

If you think the outside of New Street Station looks bad, you should see the inside.

Perhaps the biggest change to Brum’s urban landscape in the past few years has been the overhaul of New Street Station.

The Gateway Plus project has really gathered steam this past year. What started as a few irritating road closures, has now become an obstacle course and wild goose chase with travellers having to  contend with half of New Street’s concourse being shut down whilst the other half of the new concourse is now open to the public.

Every week seems to bring alterations and the development has  allegedly been staggered in order to minimize disruption to rail users.

Yet in some respects, I feel that not enough attention has been paid to the needs of commuters. Comfort and speed have been left wanting despite their fundamental importance to rail journeys. Haven’t commuters in this country got enough to put up with from our rail services?

Come on New Street - we're desperate! More loos needed in the new concourse.

Come on New Street – we’re desperate! More loos needed in the new concourse.

As a regular train user, I have twice contended with out of order toilets on my commute during the past month (thanks London Midland). Imagine that senario if you will, coupled with the present lack of toilet facilities at New Street. Commuters have to roam the increasingly rabbit-warren-like interior of the new concourse, past the old (yet still working) bathrooms (oh the agony) without the promise of directions until they alight at The Pallisades and their porta-johns.  Which you have to pay for by the way (another terrible aspect of British railway stations).

Yet the spacious interior of the new concourse could surely accommodate such a temporary set up?

The outside of the new entrance looks like Marvin the Paranoid Android, the inside is, as many have commented, not unlike an airport terminal. Decide for yourself if that is a compliment Gateway Plus…

I’m not saying that New Street didn’t need this overhaul. The evidence to the contrary is stark; New Street earned the dubious honor of 2nd worst eyesore in Britain according to readers of Country Life in 2003, it is the worst station for customer service in the entire UK according to a BBC poll.

Need I mention the lack of an entrance on John Bright Street (the side of the city centre where most of its local commuting population are living), the subterranean fumes and darkness, the bottle-necking of trains entering and leaving the station. At least some of these concerns are being tackled, although mostly the aesthetic points rather than the structural.

Maybe New Street could install some of these handy commuter punching bags, seen here in Shanghai.

Maybe New Street could install some of these handy commuter punching bags, seen here in Shanghai.

Yet for all the shiny arrows, the snake-like pedestrian diversions add minutes onto the average daily journey. The two lines trudging in and out resemble the dystopian vision of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis for sheer dispirited spectacle.

All we can ask is that this difficult phase of the renovation process is swift.

I wish all the commuters out there zen-calmness this week.

Conservatives bring the party to Brum

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It’s George Osbourne on a balloon – what fun!

Living near Broad Street, I am frequently asked what the noise levels are like. The answer truthfully is: horrendous. Yes, everything is on your doorstep but there is a price to pay- and it’s not just your rent.

The Ugly…

Living in Party Central is no picnic. When I first visited our flat it was morning and the street was ridiculously quiet with hardly any traffic. In the back garden, the fountain trickled serenely and all was well. At the bottom of the street was the tow path and the Mailbox.  This is the way I walked back to the train, having been lulled into a false sense of tranquility. I took the flat. We needed somewhere near the station and quickly. We moved in and the very same night were introduced to the full consequences of Broad Street crossing the top of our peaceful side road.

Party-goers drive in en-masse from the quiet suburbs to vomit, drink their weight in alcohol, shout, fight (and sometimes other things) in our neighbourhood. Then they loudly drive back to get some well needed sleep and leave other people to clean up after them (by the way, it’s weeks before anything gets cleared up so thanks for that).

Drunken cat-fights, revving cars, motorcycle races. Ambulances turning up as stretcher-bearers. You name it we’ve heard it. We have developed tricks such as sleeping with a fan on to block out some of the noise. But rest unassurred, as soon as the pubs and clubs let out, the chaos begins. And it isn’t just confined to the weekends either.

Weirdly, for a while the worst night of the week was Sunday, when there was a bizarrely scheduled club night which let out a t 3 AM and prompted a traffic jam complete with rolled-down windows, turned-up base and competitive honking of horns.  And don’t get me started on the riots…

A few months after we moved in, a meeting was held at the Town Hall to discuss the anti-social behaviour blighting the residents of these unfortunate side-streets. I heard tales of residents going to their cars in the morning , only to find party-goers snorting cocaine off the bonnets. Then there was the time someone left a mattress on the gates of the opposite building. It was moved over to our side and just left on the floor in the rain. The next night we were awoken by a couple having sex on the dirty, wet mattress – euuughhhh, right? Not to mention the time my husband and I found a drunken, middle-aged Japanese businessman urinating into our street by the Jury’s Inn. Luckily a policeman was standing nearby and we  got him to deal with it. The police seldom venture down our road. Why not?

But the overwhelming response of the council was a big ‘so-what?’ They would not finance police patrols down the side streets even though these are mainly residential areas. They were mainly concerned with keeping the club and pub owners happy as Broad Street makes them a lot of money. Fine. But do not keep advertising this area of Birmingham as  glamourous and upscale if there is no thought for the professionals who live here and pay the high rent and council tax. The city can’t have it both ways.

And So To The Conservatives…

Now that the big three political parties have decided it’s worth holding their conferences in the heartland of their country, Broad Street plays host to a party conference. This year it’s the Conservatives so this week , there has been the stellar presence (and accompanying circus) of Boris Johnson and the PR-savvy Prime Minister clearing out the Mailbox for those all important ‘I’m just like you’ photo opportunities.

As I write this there is at least one helicopter circling the area 24 hours a day (James Bond and the Queen ready to make their entrance perhaps?)

The major differences on our street are to do with protests. We are normally informed when these are to take place. This year’s TUC protest was unhelpfully scheduled on Saturday as the residents  of our street recovered from the usual Friday night onslaught. Instead of the 2 PM start as planned, it kicked off at noon and as the area outside the conference was shut off to the public, the protest went right down our insignificant side street. Complete with whistles, drums, chants and several brass bands:

Oi! Keep it down! Brass bands marching down our street on Saturday morning.

So no lie-in then. We escaped to a cafe for breakfast. The evenings at the conference are not much better (those Conservatives sure like to party too) as taxis whiz down the street throughout the night and keep the engines humming as they wait in the oversubscribed ranks. The voices we hear outside our windows may be more well-spoken, but the drunken ramblings are pretty much still the same.

It seems a little rich when governments promise to tackle antisocial behaviour to make the lives of  quiet people better but then contribute negatively to the atmosphere of my little corner of the world.

Next time, keep it down will you, party animals?

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