Tuesday, 14 February 2012

In remembrance

It’s my favourite part of the week. The moment I sit down with a cup of tea and a Tunnock’s Tea Cake to watch The Biggest Loser. For some reason I find myself addicted to this show. I love watching fat people getting thinner. It’s one of the great cycles of life. It’s also a very emotional episode tonight. All the fatties have had makeovers and are meeting up with the loved ones they haven’t seen for weeks.

Today’s been quite full on. The headline is that I’ve now changed hotels. I woke up this morning in the Holiday Inn Express on Oxford Street, and am now in the Holiday Inn in Media City, opposite the BBC. It may not sound like much of an upgrade, but the two hotels couldn't be more different. The new one is very swanky. The lobby and bar are laden with really cool art installations and there’s even a mini-gym. The internet is free and I have a lovely bath. One assumes they’re trying to attract a funkier TV crowd here.
I went to the new-look post office in the City Centre today. It’s like a blood donor waiting room. You have to take a ticket as you enter and then a computerised voice says; “ticket number 506, please go to counter F.” What on earth is wrong with simply queuing? Counter A was surrounded by a curtain. It looked like something in an airport, and it confused me greatly until I was told it was the place to head if you're looking for a photo-pass. You pull the curtain around you, and instantly have yourself a photo booth. It was all a bit too cool for school for my liking.

Post office or airport? And check out the curtain!

After checking in to my new hotel, I took myself off to the Imperial War Museum on Salford Quays. It’s a curious metal building, probably designed by someone like Daniel Lieberskind, which feels a little bit like entering a bomb shelter. You go in through a tiny door and then snake your way through a series of aluminium corridors lined with various relics from 20th Century wars.

At a certain point – probably once an hour – the main viewing hall turns into a three-dimensional cinema, with enormous images projected onto all the walls and ceilings. They showed a little film about remembrance, which was terribly moving. At one stage they read a letter sent to the family of a soldier killed in action in the First World War. It was factual – almost to the point of heartlessness; “shot through the head whilst serving his country.” It obviously arrived with a parcel, because the letter drew reference to a few personal effects “that you might like as a keep sake.” A few personal effects to represent a life. The concept of letters like this going out to the relatives of the million plus men who died in the Great War pretty much broke my heart.

The thing that upset me most, however, was the Cold War display, where they were running the government’s 1976 Protect and Survive film; “what to do in the event of a nuclear attack.” The film is filled with cartoon images representing the sirens and warnings associated with nuclear war; three bangs, gongs or whistles to represent the dreaded arrival of fall out. I remember the time; the terrible fear of nuclear attack, the nights spent worrying about what we’d do in a fall out shelter and what would happen to my toys. The whole film is so profoundly bleak – scratch the surface and you realise that anyone sheltering within 100 miles of a nuclear strike would basically have been doomed. For a 36-mile radius, no one would survive for more than 14 days. I can’t believe I live in a world where someone would think to invent a bomb which could cause that much damage. Is life so unimportant? We think of 1976 as the year of the drought and the year of ABBA, but forget that rolling around in the background was this horrific possibility. Perhaps life in 2012 isn't so awful afterall...

During the afternoon, Nathan texted me a number of times. He’s presently having a rather major tattoo carved into his arm. I think the little film he sent me was the real bollock-clencher. There was blood, there was bruising and there was a noise which sounded a like a dental drill. I’m not sure I needed to see that, but am excited to see the tattoo.

It's weird to think that it’s Valentine’s Day. Brother Tim and his partner, John, came to see me at the hotel tonight, which was nice, and a surprise, because I thought they'd be doing coupley things. They literally live a five minute walk from the hotel and it’s lovely to be in a position where we can hook up for a quick drink and then go our separate ways without feeling like we’re not going to see each other again for months...

Valentine’s Day was a big deal in 1662. Pepys shunned an invitation to his neighbour, Sir William Batten’s house, whose daughter had been his Valentine the previous year. The tradition back then was that the first person of the opposite sex you saw on the day (unless, I suppose they’d already been claimed) would become your Valentine. A man would buy his Valentine gifts; gloves and lengths of fabric. It was perfectly reasonable – if not encouraged – for a man to have a Valentine who was not his wife, and people went to great lengths to make sure the right person was the first person of the opposite sex to be seen.

Pepys didn’t want Martha Batten. They hadn’t become great friends throughout the previous year, and he'd started to despise her father! Elizabeth ended up with one of Pepys’ mates, William Boyer, after spending the best part of the morning trying to avoid the workmen in the house. Pepys, however, didn’t seem to find himself a Valentine, which I’m sure was very disappointing for him, until he realised he wouldn’t have to shell out for a series of little gifts this year.

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