What a day it has been ...

Life I've just had one of those days.

As part of my ongoing attempts to make myself more locally culturally aware, I decided to visit the Astley Cheetham Art Gallery in Stalybridge. The description in the Public Art Collections in North West England stretched to three pages which is more than most and well, I was just curious to see what Stalybridge was like, having heard its name mentioned almost every time I get a train to Manchester. I've passed through by rail before of course, and it looks picturesque through the train carriage window, a massive hill looming over the town (somewhat like Ilkley in Yorkshire).

It also had the bonus, of there being a direct service from Liverpool Lime Street. Two in fact. The city express and a local service. Listening once again to the maxim that the journey is as important as the destination and that I'm probably going on these trips because I enjoy train travel, I opted for the local service which takes twenty-five minutes longer just so that could see what all of the smaller stations looked like from a standstill instead of a blur as the carriage speeds through. Oddly enough, by the time I got the station it was apparent that actually even though I was taking the more time consuming journey it would reach the place before the express.

Local trains at least in the north west generally have none of the luxury of the expresses. They're like the old corporation buses except on rails - hardly any legroom and dirty windows. I often forget this, because sometimes you do get lucky, sometimes they have such innovations as tables. But generally it's bus seating and mere inches of space between your face and the back of the head of the passenger in front. No room for broadsheet paper reading and certainly no chance of clean air. As the train left the station I wondered why I hadn't just waited for the express. But I decided I was doing my bit for local transport too.

Just outside Huyton the train lurched to a halt. It was bit of a shock, not least because in the pretty turgid book I was hacking my way through, a planet had surprisingly exploded at much the same time. I swore and the rest of the passengers looked around wondering what was going on. Then hitherto unseen men from the rail company began charging up and down the isle of the carriage looking slightly perturbed, glancing at their watches. The sun was out and I was baking so I moved to a different seat in the shadow.

Time passed.

"Sorry folks," said the guard eventually, "A tree's fallen on the line. We have to protect the rails."

I looked out of the window as best I could given the angle, and it had. A tall thin trunk had surrendered o the high winds, broken in two and lollopped onto the line in front of us. People sighed. Most took out their mobile phones and began the range of phone calls to whomever they were meeting wherever they were to tell them they'd be late. For some that meant at the next station along the line. One of them wondered if they could simply walk there along the railway line.

I mostly took in my stride. You hear about these things when standing on platforms at stations as the excuses why the train you're waiting for is late and you're never completely convinced that they're true, the wrong kind of leaves on the line and whatnot. The fact that I was actually witnessing one of these reasons offered proof that sometimes the good people at Network Rail aren't always lying.

Curiously whenever these things happen despite the fact there's nothing that can be done until it's resolved, an estimation culture descends. How long? One woman, obviously desperate to get wherever she was going began to haring the driver because he couldn't tell her how long it will take to clear the tree away. I mean what is he supposed to say? 'Ten minutes, tops.' How is he to know this if he's never cut through a tree before and even before he's seen the bloody thing.

There's also the 'I could do that' people, the blokes who think that it's a simple problem that they could resolve it themselves in minutes, probably expecting to be called upon to leap forth and offer their services. There was one of those here - he went to have a look through the front window of the driver's cab - then sat back down again confidently saying that it was only a small one and could easily be pushed out of the way (which must have been a disappointment for his wife). Thankfully he was rebuffed by the two women sitting in front of him, pointing out (correctly) that there health and safety issues involved.

I couldn't help but go and look myself and it wasn't some twig, this was a substantial piece of wood. Some rail maintenance people arrived in bright orange coats. The guard drifted through carrying a hack-saw. Branches began flying and within minutes the line was clear. By now we'd been delayed, as the announcer at the station might say, by approximately twenty-five minutes. Oh well. Clearly I should have got the express after all. This is the rail transport equivalent of changing queues in the supermarket during your lunch hour and the person in front then deciding to pay using cheques from three separate accounts.

"It's all clear now - we're ready to go."

The carriage applauded. I love that. Our society could only be a better place if people spontaneous applauded all the time like this and not just when we've seen something at the theatre. He shifted into the other carriage and said the same thing. And they applauded too. There was even a woop. "Yey - we're half an hour late! Woohoo!"

Clear path then to Stalybridge. I settled back into my book even though I didn't want and carried on listening to the less than impressive All Saints album (most of the tracks sound the same and not in that cuddly Diana Krall way). We reached Manchester Victoria - the train emptied. I looked about feeling sorry for Stalybridge that more people didn't seem to want to go there. Then, and this is important, I took off my headphones and looked about. The driver had gone. The guard was chatting to some elegant looking lady at the other end of the train.

He walked away as I approached. I took it personally
"What's happening?" I asked the elegant looking lady, "Are we going to Stalybridge?"
"We should be."

I went and sat back down once again underlining my bizarre propensity for prioritizing the information of total strangers over my own instincts. Then a different guard got on, stared me down.
"Are we going to Stalybridge?"
"Trains been cancelled, mate."

I swore. Again. And packed my bag and stalked off the train and walked over to the ticket barrier. It is now 11:15 about the time I should have been in Stalybridge.

"I've just been chucked off the Stalybridge train because it's been cancelled" I ask, "When's the next train to Stalybridge." I think I said it more politely than it looks written down/typed up/whatever.
"Where are you going?"
"Erm." He turns to the person on the other side of the gate, "When's the next train to Stalybridge."
"Three minutes to."
"Twelve?" I ask.
Before anyone can answer the guard from the train whose former destination was Stalybridge arrives and without prompting points over to platform four.
"You'll need platform four. 11:27"

I hope I thanked him. I just remember running, then walking fast, then strolling over the stairs with purpose (I'm so unfit). At the platform there's some vague confusion when a train rolls in as to whether its for Rochdale, but eventually I'm on a train to Huddersfield calling at Ashton-Under-Lyne and (yes) Stalybridge. I reached my destination at 11:52.

I don't know what I was expecting from Stalybridge, but I wasn't expecting that. The place is curiously quiet - I mean, empty. I suppose I'm so used to the city life and that when I visit towns, particularly nearly mid-week I'm always amazed by how few people there are. But even looking through show windows there's no one around. Same thing happened in Ormskirk (which it resembles in some ways) but this was eerie.

Plus - it's closed. Only every third shop seems to be trading - all the rest have their shutters up and don't look like they've sold anything for quite some time. There a couple of charity shops, some pet stores, some clothes shops and about fifty sandwich places. Oh and a bingo hall right at the centre which seems to be the focus of area in much the same way that the Minster is in York.

That hill still loomed and the canals and waterways that wind through the town are lovely. I began searching for the art gallery - I'd popped into a newsagent and asked where it was and the owner had excitedly described the place as being next door to a Post Office, which was good because I needed to buy a stamp, and a library. Turning a corner I was unamazed to discover a massive Tesco, which was good because I also needed a toilet.

As I washed my hands afterwards I pondered whether Stalybridge was a precise example of what happens when a supermarket opens on the edge of a town - the independents close on mass leaving the heart of the town an empty shell. Obviously I don't know anything about the history of the town or when Tesco Stalybridge opened but if the anti-supermarket lobby were looking for a perfect example of what they're fighting against, was this it?

Leaving Tesco I walked up a street I'd missed out before and saw the Post Office sign, just past a massive, closed, market hall. There was a sign taped to the inside of the window explaining that a computer had gone down and they were closed until it was working again. So no stamps. A pensioner stepped up and tried the door then saw the sign. I nearly apologized to her because clearly I was a jinx today.

Astley Cheetham Art Gallery (like many of these local galleries I'm discovering) is in the same building as the library. It's on the first floor. For some reason I look around the library first probably to see if there's a stock sale. If there is I can't find one so I start up the steps. I notice a sign on the wall offering opening hours. Monday - Wednesday 10:00 - 12:30 (closed for lunch) 1:00 - 5:00. I look at the time on my mobile phone. It's 12:25. I hope it's an old sign.

At the top of the stairs is a stately looking grandfather clock and a potted history of the gallery displayed in some picture frames. It's a late Victorian building - opened in 1897 and designed by J. Medland Taylor known for his Gothic style churches throughout the Manchester area. This has a Jacobean influence. The gallery was opened in 1932 when the collection of the Cheethams, local cotton spinners was paced into the care of the library service which they'd helped to found.

With time marching on I step through the entrance of the gallery and turn to the reception desk. I ask if they still close for lunch. They do, I'm told, but it's ok. So I carry on into the first room. The walls are covered with the paintings of local school children, brightly colour patterns and pictures on a range of themes. I take out my guide book and prepare to see the permanent collection.

Except I can't see a door to the next room. There's a tall wooden slab of oak with 'Staff' printed on it - but nothing else. There's a woman sitting at a table in the centre of this room sorting through more school pictures. She asks if I'm ok.
"Am I at the right gallery?" I ask.
"I don't know." She says logically.
"Hold on - I'm looking for the aaah" Mental rictus prevented me from saying the name of the place I was looking for. I furiously flick through the book looking for Stalybridge, apologizing a lot, "the Astley Cheetham Art Gallery?"
"That's here. You're in the right place."
I relax. I smile.
"Can you tell me where the permanent collection is?"
"Oh it's not on display at the moment."
"We've got this exhibition up instead."

You see if I'd read the entry in the guide book before coming - something I never do because I don't want to spoil the surprise - I would have read that the room I'm standing in was a lecture theatre before it was converted into the gallery - the one room - and evidently the permanent collection is never displayed permanently any more which is shame because they have (I now read) some excellent early Italian altarpieces that were at one point thought to be the work of Giotto and a something by Watts showing Sir Percival during the quest for the Holy Grail.

As I ponder my wasted journey, the woman asked me if I'd traveled far. I told her. She looked me over sympathetically then asked her colleague when the collection would be displayed. Some watercolours would be shown from April and the oils would be up for a few months from September. Like the branch on the railway track there's nothing much you can do so I take an events leaflet and begin the short traipse back to the station.

I've just missed the Liverpool train (obviously) so I decide to get a single to Manchester and see if there's anything on at the cinema. I find a copy of the Metro free paper on the train and typically there's nothing on at the multiplex but notice that ViVA! The Spanish and Latin American Film Festival is playing at the Cornerhouse, although there's nothing to indicate what any of the films listed are about. I'm back at Manchester Victoria by 1:30. I'm certain that the man on the ticket barrier recognizes me. I imagine he's wondering why I'm back so soon.

Tram across town, Boots for a mean deal (triple chicken) and a dash up Oxford Road and into the Cornerhouse foyer knowing that a film will begin in just a few minutes. I grab a brochure, hoping upon hope for a romantic comedy, something fluffy to cheer me up. The options are (a) The Chair, an existential black comedy about a chronically lonely man who becomes obsessed with -- a chair -- and (b) Switch Off a documentary chronicle of the battle for justice by the Pehuenche-Mapuche people of Chile against ENDESA, the Spanish-Latin American hydroelectric corporation.

I choose (b) because at least it'll be about something and I might learn something which I do. It's an amazing work - a collage of the Broomfieldian attempt by the filmmaker to get an interview with the head of the company, interviews with the Pehuenche-Mapuchians who've essentially been kicked off their land to make way for an electric dam and whose protests have essentially been rendered illegal. It's shocking stuff and the slightly languid pacing heightens the effect because as the camera pans slowly through the now flooded valley we have time to think of the injustice.

Of course, the film was out of focus at the start which no one else in the screen seems to notice or care about (the subtitles weren't even legible) and I end up being the one to stick my head around the door at the back to tell someone. But somehow in the midst of everything I'd managed to see and do something worthwhile. Then the train home was delayed but by then I'd returned to the calmer attitude I'd had on the local train deciding that even though sometimes your day never quite works out the way you expect, but that can be ok.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous11:35 pm

    How's the job hunting going then ?