Tues Sept 11th 2018
I enter the Bull and Stirrup on a bleak day (weather wise) , expecting it to be full of early morning drinkers but find it mostly empty. Wetherspoons, everyone’s favourite Brexit backing pub chain have done a great job on the restoration incorporating Chester history and local notables and I pick a table next to a plug socket as I wait for todays special guest, magician John Holt.
To pass a few minutes I have a quick read through the glossy Wetherspoons news. Unelected man of the people Tim Martin, Wetherspoons CEO takes a few pages to air his political views and offers “both sides of the argument” in a Brexit centre page special. This balance is neutered by a sarky comment/introduction for anyone who disagrees with him. Hence terms like fanatic, cosy elite and fantasist are thrown down, along with one commenter attacked for the sin of “owning a hotel in France.” Its a good magazine if you like Wetherspoons, and good news that JDW have named their fleet of 95 Lorries after their pubs.
The Christmas menu catches my eye: turkey breast risotto, and the chicken and stuffing burger sound great, but the “melty mallow stack” a biscuit/brownie/mallow combo looking odd with a biscotti wedged in the top like an unexploded bomb. ” No need to travel across the Atlantic” the mag declares with reference to its new American breakfast. Sadly it doesn’t launch until Sept 26 and we are too early to enjoy it.
“I’m in a pub at 930 in the morning, my life has already gone down 67%!” booms Magician John Holt, who is also a comedian. I still haven’t made a purchase after 15 minutes but the atmosphere is relaxed. I think back to the opening of the pub last year and the infamous Ricky Tomlinson/Richard Whitely was an MI5 spy incident : that was one of the good days! Since then Wetherspoons have banned dogs, axed all their pub social media pages and introduced self service machines for hot drinks. This takes customer service to a new low, but maybe they justify it with the cheap price. It costs £1.5 for a refillable coffee. Presumably you cant sit here all day and watch your life slowly fade. Just watching the wheels, as John Lennon might say. “You’re just one man on a Ferris wheel!” laughs John. “I can see that being the title of your auto biography.”
“Do I need that or do I just want it?” I asked John. About a pancake stack. I download the app to avoid unnecessary social interaction. “This makes it more fun!” I say. Like a walking stick with a mickey mouse handle, or an asthma inhaler with a Russ Abbot sticker on it.
“I’m going to the loo, do you have to use an App for that?” laughs John. I first met John way back in 2014 when he was performing as part of Chester Fringe. In the depths of the city’s cultural desert, the Fringe set up a series of quirky pop up performances including belly dancing and medieval musicians. John performed card tricks in the Grosvenor shopping centre. I was asked to photograph the press launch in the absence of anyone from the official press , another of the good days. John went on to be a valuable part of the ” SC team”, or what normal people would call, a “friend”. “I just remember a vague man stalking me taking photos” jokes John.
The toilets are particularly impressive. I post a photo of the urinals with a caption that references a classic Star Trek: The Next Generation episode. One person gets the reference.
The surreal moment arrives and the waitress brings over 2 empty coffee cups. “Two cups!” she says cheerily provoking much laughter from me. We then have to make our own drinks.
“I wasn’t being offensive I just find it really funny” I reassure the member of staff. The staff in here are excellent, a Polish male who looks like a young David Moyes offers to close the window if I’m cold, a neat link to John’s Everton notebook. In the blue book he has researched questions to ask today’s extra special guest the actor and performer Ray Quinn. We both muse if cups are easy to steal, musing only, we aren’t law breakers… You could easily get a scam going with a big mug. Somehow we end up discussing the dark web and wondering what kind of darkness lingers there.
“Old episodes of Countdown!” John says.
Its time to move on so we cross the road to The Second Floor, retail space and creative hub. We receive a warm welcome from co founder Kim. I admire the view of the Fountains roundabout as well as the appealing product ranges, with every corner bursting with Instagram potential.
The Oscar the Grouch (TM) bin of shits and giggles is a fun addition to the business which was founded 6 months ago by Kim and Carrie (absent today due to band duties with Campfire social). I select a package and receive a purse which I will probably never use. However inside the purse is a Star Wars Tazo, a laminated card disc which were issued free with packs of crisps in 1996 to promote the Star wars trilogy re release. This one depicts the AT AT walkers attacking on the ice planet of Hoth, long before Luke Skywalker got all depressed and gave up on life. Its a unexpected and moving link back to the past, as I own a full set of these which I lovingly collected and placed in a collectors binder.
We chat with Kim about the business and the trials of being an independent, given that Chester people allegedly crave this kind of shop. The Chester character seems reserved and stuck in the past, and anything new is always dismissed by a vocal mob. People moan about there being no independents and then scoot off to Cheshire Oaks. Recently I posted a picture of Costa in Hoole and was lectured by tweeters about why I shouldn’t have purchased a cappuccino and a croissant from there. Maybe the virtue signallers will feel the same that I spent £4.55 in Wetherspoons.
“It’s about buying into a brand and a story, that’s what people are buying into with an independent. ” says Kim. Of her clothing range she says that “my message for young girls is to love themselves in and out Getting out of that Kim Kardashian culture and being independent. In school, if you weren’t tagging along with the cool kids, you were bullied. Theres even more pressure today with social media.”
We then discussed the social media haze which has taken over all of our lives to some extent. “At gigs I’ve seen people take 15 selfies and then delete them unless they get so many likes. Its not how you should live your life!” says John. And when you touch the LIKE , do you even like it, or are you just doing it for the sake of it?? We head down back down Northgate street.
We enter Storyhouse, looking for a quiet corner for our pre arranged phone interview with Ray Quinn. In the dining area I notice a journalist from the Chester Chronicle (trusted news since 1775) speaking with the ring leaders from the Flat Earth society. I covered their story 9 months ago. Not wanting to speak to these individuals again I turn back and head to the market instead.
Chester market management very kindly allow us to use a meeting room for our interview. We interview Ray Quinn.
“You gotta chase the game, it won’t chase you!” says the ex Brookside star.
After the interview and a brief tidy of the Lego display, we take a quick break at Crustum, and I note the light bulb of milk. “No it a salt shaker” points out John Holt magician. I’m still angry about running into the Flat Earth society. No one ever told us what lies behind the mythical ice wall. I hope they get a rough ride from the paper instead of having their tummies ticked.
“What ambiguous love song lyrics are you going to stick on your Instagram today?” John asks as he ruefully shuffled a pack of cards.
“Er.. I’m not sure John. Don’t worry we’ve got a meeting with Cllr Dixon in 5 mins so that’ll cheer us up!”
Upstairs in the market meeting room, where just 45 minutes earlier Ray was telling us how his ideal summer holiday , we discuss council business with the Leader at one of her regular surgeries. Flanked by 2 PCSO’s she tells me about the forthcoming Big Dee Day (“last year we hauled a Canoe out!” she says, as well as the new home for the Credit Union at the end of Frodsham street. Its always good to engage face to face, more people should do it. Some problems can be solved by ranting on twitter or facey, but not all.
We leave and John looks for somewhere to eat, with out next meeting over an hour away. We pass the Miracles Cafe, in the hellish void that is the Forum. We discuss spirituality. Recent events have made me search, but nothing answers back or calls to me. Envious of anyone with Faith in anything, but still searching for meaning, its good to have a muse even if it stabs you innocently in the heart.
“I think its important to lose yourself in something bigger than your self to believe in” comments John. True, whether that be Jesus, the Jedi Order or Scientology, or running social media accounts.
“I like the young My Sweet Lord if that counts… Put that on the balance sheet on Judgement Day.” I reply.
“If only there was somewhere independent to eat! ” he says, before nipping in pound bakery. We bimble down Watergate street.
While John munches on a generic pasty, I point out some of the new businesses on the street, which seems to have turned the corner , with Chalk Coffee, Violet Palm and Beer Heroes all now trading. Compared to Wrexham and all the recent closures on Eagles Meadow, the rhetoric of a dying city is as false as ever. If it is dying its dying at a slower rate than some high streets that’s for sure. In Booth Mansion I sniff the scented candles. “This reminds me of someone’s perfume. ” I say.
Back in Storyhut , me daydreaming of the time Derek Acorah tweeted me saying he would love to appear in Chester (make it happen), John asks me what the future of the SC blog entails. “Who knows what’s gonna happen next week..” I reply. “Who knows what’s gonna happen in the next hour. No, that’s pretentious , we all know what’s gonna happen in the next hour, nothing.” The gloom is lifted by a coffee with artistic director Alex Clifton and community coordinator Nicola Haigh.
Alex is enthusiastic about opening night of Summer Holiday “Theres 18 on stage, 6 in the band. They’ve been on your since May, the tech team were delighted with the venue”. Full of positivity, Clifton jokes with me about #craftbeergate and early complaints about bookshelves. “There’s your pale ale on the bar!” he points out. Legend
Tiring after my 4th coffee of the day, last port of call is That Beer Place in the market. We record some words for another blog with the owner Lisa, inside the space which is currently being renovated ready for opening later this year. Another new business for the market now approaching full capacity following a series of bleak closures in 2017. So, things do change. I’m told that alongside the vast range of beers, artisan soft drinks will also be on offer, ticking another box.
Back home I anguish mildly over whether to attend the press night for Summer Holiday, or head down the Deva to see Chester FC play for the first time this season. No one is free to attend the theatre so I head to for an alternative “theatre of dreams”. I can’t remember the last time watching Chester gave me any pleasure. But theres a few close calls to make the heart beat a bit quicker towards the end of a dull nil nil. I end the day on a high discovering festive orange Aeros in stock at the bumpers lane Tesco.
Thanks to John Holt magician, Alex Clifton, Nicola Haigh, Sam Dixon, Ray Quinn, Bill Elms PR, Lisa Lord, Chester Market, The Second Floor