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Tailgating & Tom Petty

Image: Wikipedia

Image: Wikipedia

I don’t know about you, but during my childhood, eating before an outdoor event involved a cheese and pickle sandwich, munched on in near silence inside the family car with unrelenting rain cascading down the windows.

In the States, it’s very different. They have actual long hot summers, the jammy sods! Last week, I experienced my first American tailgate at a Tom Petty show.

Forget baseball games. The tailgate is the quintessential American experience. It’s a sort of makeshift camp involving parking along side friends, lighting up barbecues and imbibing pre-event beer. A very convivial atmosphere abounds that shows American friendliness off to its best advantage. Don’t have a beer? – have one of ours. Hey man, you like TP, I like TP – come and eat some brats.

BBQ at our tailgate.

BBQ at our tailgate.

 Although the tailgate is a staple of America’s summer culture, it has remained dormant in the foreign consciousness. For unknown reasons, it hasn’t crept into Hollywood films until fairly recently. But Silver Linings Playbook and How I Met Your Mother have included tailgate scenes if you want to get a visual.

We ended up tailgating with the head brewer at Short’s Microbrewery: a brewer in the vicinity is guaranteed to be the most popular man in the room around here – next to Tom Petty.

I don’t think Tom Petty is as big a deal back in the UK but over here he is revered, retaining a cross generational appeal. Just look at this clip from the 2008 Superbowl.

Quite strange really; mention TP to an American guy, and they either go ‘F*%$ Yeah, Tom Petty!’ (young men), or a fond smile steeped in nostalgia sweeps across their faces (baby boomer men), and at one point during the concert, a young woman leaned over to me and said ‘I know he’s really old, but I’d still totally tap that!’ Disagree on whatever you wish but Tom Petty is probably America’s best bet at achieving world peace. I suspect it has something to do with weed.

As we pulled into the car park at Pine Knob ski hill, the air was thick with the stuff. The irony of our location was not lost as we drove past countless fifty/sixty-somethings cranking up the car stereos and partaking of the ’erb (somewhere, a 20-something graduate is going without a house down payment). As the designated driver, I could tell this was going to be a long night.

Ugh: Tall people.

Ugh: Tall people.

 It seemed our group had enjoyed the tailgate a little too much. By the time we had climbed the steep steps to the top of the hill it was packed. We set our rugs down right at the top of the hill and the warm up act, Steve Winwood (yes, he of the ‘Valerieeeeeeeeee – call me’ dirty aerobics video that was always playing at Pure Gym on Broad Street) was a minute spec at the bottom, our view blocked by a shifting array of tall people and their Amazonian girlfriends who never pass up the opportunity to sit on their boyfriends’ shoulders.

Galling! The sound wasn’t up to much from our alpine perch, and eventually half of us descended the hill in search of better acoustics (and beer). The difference was immediate; suddenly Tom Petty was at least a centimetre bigger and I could hear the lyrics – something about Mary Jane? Ahhhhhh. We took advantage of this position until the penultimate song, scrambling up the hill to be reunited for ‘American Girl.’

Ah, that's better: closer to the music.

Ah, that’s better: closer to the music.

 The Aftermath: I was keen to vomit – the contact buzz from thousands of politely shared joints was finally overwhelming me. Rubbish littered the site like a last minute Glastonbury. Last night (Kiss) was sold out too – how do the staff clean up so quickly? The stairs were rammed – a bottleneck caused by someone vomiting down the steps. A boy on crutches decided to bypass this by swinging himself down the ski hill. The inevitable happened – crash, bang, thud – looked like the good leg caught it this time. It turns out that no matter what country you’re in, binge drinking will turn us into arseholes.

I started driving back to settle my stomach. My husband reclined, dozily in the passenger seat.

‘Now that baby,’ he slurred, complete with nostalgic smile, ‘was the real America!’

A Brum Romance. Is Birmingham Romantic?

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sorry about brum 2

The director Danny Boyle once said that Birmingham would make the ideal setting for a romantic comedy. Obviously he wouldn’t direct it himself but some Brummie enfant terrible might come up with a way to make our rough diamond of a city into a sparkling gem like Notting Hill or er… Aberystwyth.

As he said this in 2005 and now, 8 years later, there is still no sign of Brum And The City, I have to wonder if Birmingham is up to the job as a destination for a romantic date night or a dirty weekend. And with Valentine’s Day imminent, I conducted a little investigation of my own …

I celebrated my third wedding anniversary  a few weeks ago, and being short on money, we elected to scamper back to our old neighbourhood for the night. The first disconcerting sign that Brum may be a fireworks-free zone came when selecting a hotel. I’m a member of Mr & Mrs Smith, the boutique hotel booking service but there were no Birmingham-based offerings on their website. Unperturbed I soldiered on.

Surely the two most obvious choices were the Hotel Du Vin off St Phillip’s Square and Malmaison in the Mailbox. Hotel Du Vin was booked solid and the most recent Trip Advisor reviews for Malmaison weren’t inspiring confidence with their candid photos of ripped sheets, frayed lampshades and unidentified stains. Trip Advisor isn’t currently too hot on Hotel Du Vin either and it looks like both hotels could do with a bit of a spruce-up and some staff training.

Sadly, we ended up at the Premiere Inn (!)* where the beds weren’t that comfy and the heating didn’t appear to be working. It was also very purple. Firework-free zone ladies and gents.

Carnage: Romance Broad street style.

Carnage: Romance Broad street style.

This is just the tip of the iceberg because Brum can be pretty darn unromantic. How can you take a romantic stroll when people are constantly spitting in the street and leaving you to dodge the resulting puddles? The Ibizian definition of ‘romance’ (ie a bunk-up) is still alive and kicking in the city centre. Broad Street has never been, is not and will never be romantic. Going out there in search of romance will leave you feeling unloved, melancholy and like you’ve spent the evening in an abbatoir – and that’s if you got lucky.

If Broad Street sounds like romance to you, you’re not going to like what I have to say very much so stop reading. I mean it – go away. If you can’t be bothered to have at least have a stab at witty conversation in the run up to your sexual encounters then I won’t waste your precious rutting time.

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But I know better. I know for sure that romance is alive and well here, unorthodox as it is, and that Mr Boyle might be on to something. Brum was the first place I lived with my husband so it holds very fond memories for me. So here I present to you The Romantic Guide to Brum:  

The Most Romantic Spot in Birmingham

Seriously, I can geographically pin-point it for you. It’s right here:

A little bit Love Actually, this. Yup it’s in New Street Station (I know, right?). Under a triangular hanging (probably a brutalist attempt to conceal some wires) will stand at any given time during opening hours, a girl or boy. Sometimes they are holding a bunch of flowers. They will always sport a slightly anxious or excited facial expression. And, often 20 minutes later than planned, it will open out into a wide grin just before they rush forward and deliver a passionate kiss to whoever it was they were waiting for. I’m talking full-on snogs here. Guaranteed, every time. I don’t know if this spot is on a lay-line or New Street was built on Cupid’s burial ground or what but I have witnessed this phenomenon at least ten times now. And it’s always heartening after I’ve trudged here, carefully avoiding spitballs.  

Most Romantic Bar

Strangely, despite my love of cocktails, I suggest the cocktail-free environs of Bacchus at the Burlington hotel. It’s like Liberace and an interior designer drank too much fabulousness and threw up all over a vault. In a good way. The dramatic curiosity of the place is a great talking point. They sometimes have live music, there are plenty of intimate nooks and crannies, it’s romantically lit and …well it’s a bar with a fake knight mausoleum. Go try it.

Most Romantic Restaurant

For my money I’d say Cote Brasserie in the Mailbox. Not because the food is amazing or because of the price but just because it is dimly lit and feels intimate. However, my husband feels that Brown’s Brasserie in the Bullring, with it’s New York ambiance and abundance of cocktail options is more fun. Especially when the remote controlled blinds come down at dusk.

Most Romantic Hotel

Well it’s yet to be built, sorry but there we are. But when the Grand Hotel on Colmore Row is opened, it will be worthy of Valentine’s days for years to come. The re-opening is expected in the spring of next year and looks great. In fact I’ve just been watching the interior tonight on BBC’s Dancing On The Edge as the ballroom was used as a location. Now if they could just add some horse-drawn carriages to trot you around Colmore Row, we might be starting to get somewhere.

Best Date

Watching a film at the Electric Cinema. Ok, ok, I know I always go on about this place but that’s because it’s great. You can duck in out of the rain, drink absinthe, eat cake then settle onto a squashy sofa at the back and cuddle up while you watch an old black and white movie. What’s not to love?

Best Place to Escape V-Day

Open mic nights are a good bet, because you’ll be in good company, no one will be paying attention to your perceived lonely-hearts status (especially if the act is really bad, trust me), couples will no doubt be heckled and it’s nice and dark. There’s an entertaining one each week at The Yardbird in Paradise Forum but on Feb 14th, Island Bar on the Suffolk Queensway is hosting one. There will probably be bad poetry – suck it up.

So there we have it, whether you’re a voyeur, a nauseating couple, first daters, a long-standing couple who don’t want to speak to each other but feel obliged to mark the day or a misanthropic singleton, Brum could surprise you this year.

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Happy Valentine’s Day Y’all

*Seriously, do not ever take a girl here and expect all your fantasies to come true.

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?

The View from the Top: drinks at The Cube

Hey look mum, I can see my house from here: braving the vertigo to look through the Tetris blocks.

Call me slow but I finally made it up to the bar at the top of The Cube on Saturday night.

My friend has just scored a new job (and a pay rise – you go girl!) and feels on top of the world right now so we thought this would be a suitable venue for a celebration.

We really just went for the view. Another friend who has just moved into The Cube, says the building is rumbling discontentedly about the Marco Pierre White Steakhouse (the bar is part of this restaurant and attached to the Laurent Perrier Champagne Bar on the 25th floor). Rumours of problems with staff and management seem to be reflected in the decidedly mixed Trip Advisor reviews that point towards an establishment with much potential but many unresolved issues.

The Good:

After getting in the wrong lift (and being followed by a gaggle of similarly clueless bar seekers) we took the express up to the 25th floor. The elevator door opened on to throngs of Brum-glamazons, heading to and from the bar. The surprisingly narrow opening to the main room led out onto a large curving sun terrace.

The feted view stretched out before me, through the Tetris-like façade of the building on to the canals and Broad Street below. It stretched out as far as the horizon. For a moment I was Blake Lively in that perfume ad, staring in awe at the thousands of twinkling lights and the potential of the metropolis, while Midnight City thumps in the background. Then the record screeched off as the husband pointed out ‘ugh, look at the burned-out car and that derelict warehouse – what a view!’

I chose to look beyond this aesthetic bump in the vista. The city is its flaws surviving alongside its gems, after all. We took our seats at a table on the furthest edge of the terrace. I gingerly looked over the edge and my vertigo eased slightly as I discovered a small ledge on the floor below. There would be no tipsy toppling tonight!

And just then, the sky burst into colour. A firework display to mark the end of Arts Fest was beginning over in Centenary Square and we undoubtedly had the best view. The explosions were reflecting perfectly on the mirrored walls of The Cube and the whole terrace burst into applause at the end. It was unexpected and magical.

It was also bloody cold up there.  To make the most of the terrace, a few discreet but well-placed halogen lamps wouldn’t go amiss.

Another plus was the behaviour of everyone on the terrace. If this building was on Broad Street, there would no doubt have been a drunken tragedy by now. But here, everyone was polite, courteous and, well, refreshingly un-Brum-night-outish. It’s good for the city to possess a variety of nightlife and for its entertainment to extend beyond the predictability of Broad Street.

The Bad: Firstly, the bar needs more staff. A long wait to be served is expected on a Saturday night but when the bar area is permanently five-deep, something has to be changed. Is it really worth the expensive prices when the drinks are being made by inexperienced bartenders? I was told I could not order a B52 (one of the easiest cocktails I know) because no one had enough experience to mix it. Not good enough Marco.

The bar knows it has the best location in town. Why not make the rest of its features as special? Bring in some showy mixologists who can also train up the rest of the bar staff. Get in a pianist or a smoking- hot house jazz-band. Some of our group also thought that the bar and restaurant were too brightly lit for the evening. This bar could be seductive, grown-up and glittering with candles  to let the city lights speak for themselves but the over-reliance on indoor halogens means the atmosphere loses the dangerous allure of a truly great bar.

Drinking a martini, having a Blake Lively moment.

The Ugly:  The terrace was pretty well-behaved as I mentioned but over in the bar area there was some big-game hunting going on and we quite enjoyed the people-watching safari. On the way down, we realised why the lift area was so crowded. Gaggles of tactically undressed girls were scoping out who was in the lifts. Was it anyone worth flicking their hair for i.e. a footballer? There was a slightly mercenary quality about these wannabe wags. It can’t have done much for the self-esteem of the majority of male customers.

It wasn’t just the girls who exhibited questionable ‘animal kingdom’ manners. During a marathon wait at the bar,one of our group was surreptitiously felt up by the obligatory Saturday night ‘bar perv’, although this happens everywhere doesn’t it and just one is quite low for a bar in terms of bar-perv statistics.

So all in all it was a good night, but not great. We went up for the view but could have more drinks in better surroundings for a fraction of the cost. Yet I haven’t given up hope that this place will iron out some of the kinks and develop into a must-go venue in a year or two.

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