Travelpogue, or The Rocky Road to Birmingham

Publication: Travelpogue on

Firehazard, a regular contributor to this web site’s fora, has kindly agreed to document the trials and tribulations he and his family endure as they make their way to The Pogues’ 2005 shows in Birmingham.

Preamble: Tears were shed

It must have been around October 2004, I guess, when it started. The Pogues announced their Christmas Reunion Tour. Suddenly a possibility thought long gone opened up. I’d been listening to the band since they first began, but somehow had never got to a gig.

Now the kids, brought up on a diet of the Pogues, were old enough. And all were agreed. “We have to go.” Tickets were bought for Birmingham, and the gig of a lifetime promised.

Friday 17 December dawned, dank and grey, but with the prospect of something to brighten any day. The car was loaded with the kids, the wheelchair and the rest of the necessary paraphernalia. The nice people at the Academy had told us all about wheelchair access, and would be waiting to get us in. Tickets in pocket, audio tapes at the ready for in-journey entertainment.

There wasn’t much need of the entertainment, because the journey lasted about two miles. For it was then that the car in front suddenly – without warning, without reason, halfway through a green traffic signal – stopped. Foot hard on the brake, wet road, and the only possible evasive action would have mown down a bunch of pedestrians. And so we collided. With a car full of boys wearing caps. Who immediately accelerated away and disappeared into the distance. Unreal, but it had happened.

Reality crashed back in. It wasn’t a major accident in the great scheme of things, but the vehicle wasn’t going to get to Birmingham. No bones broken, but we limped back home. No Pogues. The nice people at the Academy were told not to expect us (and promised us a deal on tickets “next time around”, bless them). But how do you tell a trio of mad keen young Pogues fans that they’re not going to see their heroes after all? Tears were shed.

Over the weekend, a certain determination grew. The Brum gig was over. But this could not be missed. A weekend spent on eBay brought the suggestion it might still be possible to get tickets for Brixton. Eventually four were acquired, and all from true Pogues fans who were gutted not to be going (and weren’t just after large profits).

But how to get there? No car, obviously. No prospect of public transport with the wheelchair. A chance phone call uncovered an unforeseen possibility: a devoted band of Pogues lovers who had hired a minibus. We made contact. They’d be glad to have us on their bus – but they weren’t sure how many seats they had spare. So on the day, new tickets in pocket, we set off for a walk in the dark with little more than a glimmer of hope. The youngest hadn’t even been told where we were going, as more destroyed hopes couldn’t be borne. And there, in the car park of the local pub, was a minibus of Pogues devotees – and four spare seats!

Getting on a minibus is not as easy as it sounds. A set of steps can be not far short of a mountain. However, Pogues lovers are wonderful people. They were even willing to carry me on and off the bus. A bit of dignity was lost, a few bruises gained, but we were on the road to Brixton!

Others have told of the glories of those gigs. This is not the time to repeat those stories. The bright lights and the dark streets of London. Drink and drugs and rock and roll were all involved. And a gig, and a night, that will long be remembered.

And now the time is coming. Once more the family Firehazard have tickets for Birmingham (different venue, so goodbye to that Academy deal on tickets...). “You’re not trying to go to Birmingham again?” is the reaction from those that know. Will we get there? How will we get there? At the moment, no one knows. But no doubt there is more to be written...

Preamble the second: The lowest bidder

Now strictly speaking, I know this isn’t a travelpogue. Because no travelling has actually happened this time. Not yet, anyway.

So here’s how it is. Just like last year, tickets for the Birmingham gig have been purchased. All done in that mad upsurge of excitement and reckless optimism that happens when the Pogues are concerned.

Once again, we looked into all the possibilities. Once again, on the face of it Birmingham appeared to be the best option. Easier to get to than Brixton (the only realistic alternative), in theory at least. The venue looks more accessible for my wheels (still haunted by memories of being manhandled up the wall-of-death-style ramp into the Brixton Academy). The last Brum gig was reckoned to be fantastic. And there’s also that deep-down dogged determination not to let last year’s debacle defeat us.

The way I tend to do things (for better or for worse) is to get the tickets first, and to work out the practicalities later. So the tickets are safely bought and tucked away somewhere. And even Madame Firehazard is coming this year too – first time for her. Now to sort out the whole travelling bit. How to get to the gig?

I’m not supposed to be driving at the moment (complex reasons, not to be gone into here...). So the most obvious solution is out of the question. Public transport? Anyone who’s ever tried it in a wheelchair knows the problems. And anyhow, the gig’s on a Sunday evening, so it all shuts down early. So it looks like we’re hiring a minibus and driver. Many hours have been spent on the phone, many questions asked: “Can you get us to Brum and back? Can you fit a wheelchair on your bus? Are you free on the 18th? What’s the cost?” That last question was all too often followed by a shocked silence at my end. But in the end, the transport was booked.

And now the tour has started. Medusa is awash with excited reports of the gigs so far. And we just can’t wait. So here I sit, once again on the verge of a trip to Birmingham. Waiting and hoping... and vaguely wishing that I hadn’t chosen the cheapest by far of the minibuses...

A Rainy Night in Birmingham
December 18, 2005

Well, let’s get the suspense out of the way. This time we made it.

Initial fears about the advisability of opting for the cheapest form of transport faded as the big yellow cab turned up on time. The enormous crack in the middle of the windscreen was disconcerting, and I did spend two hours there and two hours back banging my head on the roof, but it’s good to have a bit of excitement on the way. “What are you going to see?” said the driver. When we told him, his face lit up. Turns out he’d been a Pogues fan for years, and was gutted not to have got the tickets he wanted for Brixton. And off we set for Brum.

A couple of hours later, we were cruising through the suburbs, following signs for the NIA, with plenty of time to spare. “Good signposting,” said the driver, as we caught sight of the venue in the distance. And then we lost it. “I think we’ve been this way before” became the refrain as we embarked on a scenic diversion round what seemed to be called the Jewellery Quarter. (There’s a Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham? You learn something new every day.)

The plenty of time to spare was running out, and the prospect of a pre-gig pub meetup had vanished by the time we caught sight of the venue again. Or was it the National Sea Life Centre? They seem to be adjacent. “We want to see the Pogues, not a load of fish,” came from the back of the cab. Big place, the Sea Life Centre, by the look of it. Thousands are swimming.

And finally there we were, being dropped off at the NIA. “Is it sold out?” said the driver. “I might see if I can get a ticket.”

So in we went. Time to overspend on merchandise and chips before finding where we were supposed to be. Up in the balcony, not a bad view though further from the stage than I’d have liked. A bit of a domestic when Daughter No. 3 got abandoned because some heartless bar steward wouldn’t let her in the bar when Madame F and Daughter No. 1 were on a Guinness hunt.

Eventually, right on time, the Pogues are on. And starting off with a personal greeting from Philip that made the girls jump up and down in their seats with excitement. Yes, Mr C, we did make it this time!

A great set. Set list scribbled on the back of an envelope, legibility decreasing as the evening went on. Young Ned Of The Hill from “Navan’s answer to Jean Jacques Burnel”. Spider (stylish with pulled-down cap and turned-up collar) celebrating his other half’s birthday: “I’m going to sing the French national anthem. Nah, I’ll sing this...” Philip dedicating Thousands Are Sailing to Medusa’s very own MissWalshy. And Shane, looking cool in black, voice getting better and better as the gig unfolded: “We were going to sing a Nick Cave song. But this is Bottle Of Smoke.” Shane and Jem joining the percussion for Body Of An American. James’s flying accordion seemingly everywhere on the stage.

Time does something strange in a Pogues gig, the evening races by. Back for the encores: a wonderful Rainy Night In Soho, as Shane says, “Because the night belongs to lovers...” Then back again, Andrew on vocals, Darryl on drums for Star Of The County Down. Ella Finer, looking and sounding beautiful in a Fairytale with Shane, dancing in the snow. And finally a tumultuous Fiesta, Spider’s discarded beer tray almost decapitating a steward. And then “Good night. Happy Christmas”... and it’s over.

Time to make our way out into the Birmingham rain. There we found the big yellow cab, and a beaming driver who’d managed to get himself a ticket and worked his way to the front. “I hope I don’t get breathalysed, I had beer thrown all over me.”

Opinions on the venue? Good access — important when you’re on wheels. Different from Brixton, different atmosphere: “Not as dirty,” said Daughter No. 2, and I know what she means.

Back on the road, a couple more hours banging my head on the roof of the cab, this time surrounded by a pile of sleeping girls.

It was another great night with the Pogues. The lucky people who have tickets for Brixton and Dublin have a treat in store. Daughter No. 1 and boyfriend have tickets for Wednesday, and I’m trying not to be jealous. But for me I think that’s the Pogues adventure over for this year. Though the Pogues will never be over...

Thanks, guys, for something special once again. Here’s to the next time!

Discussion is here.

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