Once upon a time in America I managed to have a letter about the NHS published in the Florida Times-Union newspaper of Jacksonville. Today I managed it a little closer to home, getting published in the Yorkshire Evening Post. This latest piece was about the proposed HS2 railway from Leeds to London, and was a response to a letter from Cllr Andrew Carter (Cons) supporting the coalition government’s announcement. It follows below in full…

I am the son of a retired railwayman, and given our family didn’t own a car until I was 12, I grew up using rail and public transport as the main means of getting around. That resulted in a lifelong love of railways, and that mode of travel. So you might think I would share Cllr Andrew Carter’s excitement about the HS2 line to Leeds (YEP 09/02/13).

But I don’t. I would love to see the £33 billion spent more wisely on the rail infrastructure to improve the travel experiences of the majority of passengers, reduce ticket costs, and reopen former lines to increase the network. Renationalisation would be my ultimate aim because the public paid far less subsidy to British Rail than it does now to entice private firms to run trains for profit.

The £33 billion for HS2 will build a line for business people to shuttle to and from the capital for fares that ordinary people will struggle to afford. It will do nothing to alleviate the overcrowding and capacity problems of the current network, and it will wreak environmental damage in some outstanding countryside. Research shows that rather than benefiting places like Leeds, the benefits will flood to London.

I share the Green Party’s view that HS2 is not good value for money. Spending the same amount of money – more than £1,000 for each household in the UK, on improving local and regional links, producing a truly integrated transport system to get people around home-work-school-leisure in an affordable way would be a far better use of the money, and would create jobs.

Remember it was a Conservative government that gave us Dr Richard Beeching. Can we really believe this wretched government, with its history of poor judgments, can make the right decision about our railways?

Downtown Jax from Maritime Museum
After an enjoyable meeting and meal a few nights before, a trip downtown with Tina’s father and step-mother Lloyd and Rose was organised for my parents. First we visited a local thrift store as it was “seniors’ day” and many items were marked down even further! I found what appeared to be a brand new Jacksonville Jaguars cap and swooped for it to add to Dad’s birthday present collection. A proper souvenir that could be worn with pride rather than the usual tourist offering! ;-)

There’s never a dull moment with Lloyd and Rose and so it proved with the parking. A church friend of theirs had offered free use of a bay on a private car park where they had several reserved spots. Firstly there was the drama of finding the car park due to incorrect directions, next was realising all the bays we could use were full, and then finally getting in to the tightest of spots at the end of a row which was not one we were actually allowed to park in. All this to save $3, and leaving me hoping that the traffic wardens were not as vigilant as in Leeds. Meanwhile Tina was joining us on her lunch break which involved tracking us down and finding her own parking spot. Eventually the two of us settled for a nearby public car park but could not find any sort of pay and display meter or attendant. Fretting about the likelihood of a ticket we joined the others to stroll towards the river.

Main Street BridgeFirst up was a wander over the Main Street Bridge which was opened in 1941 and has a centre section which lifts up vertically to allow vessels to pass underneath it. It was a piping hot day and the 1680 feet crossing was proving hard going for Lloyd already. At the other side we made an unplanned stop in the Maritime Museum next to Friendship Park where for a small donation we hid for a while in the air-conditioning so Lloyd could sit down and so Dad could give the curator a lecture on the Titanic!

From the Maritime Museum we braved the afternoon sun once more to make a ten minutes walk over to the San Marco Skyway station. For 50 cents a ride (10c for seniors) the Skyway is reasonable value if it actually went anywhere of use. Sure it links the Rosa Parks Transit Station (Bus station to you and me) with a few downtown locations that are within walking distance, the convention center, and some parking garages over the river, but you get the impression it is more novelty ornament than actual use. skywayOn the couple of occasions I have used it most of the small group of patrons seemed to be tourists or homeless. If it could extend down towards historic Riverside in one direction and out towards the football stadium and beyond it might be more useful. It’s total length is 2.5 miles and the initial section was completed in 1989. The elevated monorail is fun to travel on, getting up to speeds of 35 mph, particularly enjoyable when it crosses the Acosta Bridge to give views down the St Johns River. We initially rode over the river to the Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center terminus because the night before I’d seen a news report about a steam loco on static display in the car park. The center was once the old Union Railroad Terminal, a fine piece of architecture and thankfully saved from demolition in the 1980s.

Just Dad, Tina, and I went to see the loco as it was a fair walk to the car park entrance, an indication of how large the station complex was and how many platforms there once were. The others waited and rested keeping out of the sun. The Atlantic Coast Line (ACL) #1504 was built by American Locomotive Co. Richmond Works in 1919, one of 81 “light pacifics”. Convention Center LocoIt saw service on the ACL for over 30 years, mostly hauling 10 to 12 car passenger trains at 70 mph. After diesel power was introduced, these engines were put into freight service, and #1504 continued to work in the Tampa area until withdrawal in 1952. Surviving in almost original condition, she was selected for preservation and put on display at the Prime Osborn Convention Center, which is the old ACL depot. The local council are to vote about making the loco a designated official historic landmark, offering it protection and possibly a new permanent and more prominent home.

Back at the Skyway we made the short trip to Central station to walk over to the Jacksonville Landing. Jacksonville LandingOpened in 1989 the Landing is shopping centre, with restaurants bars, and an open air stage for events. It is the only retail centre of note in the downtown area, most of the shopping experiences are out of town malls. No sooner as we entered the heavens opened with a torrential downpour. While Lloyd and Rose sat down to take a breather on a bench opposite a bizarre Zoltar automated fortune teller (which had the annoying habit of speaking to you), the rest of us went upstairs to the food mall to find something for Dad to “keep him going”. It was now nearly 3pm and past lunch time, the culinary delight in question turned out to be a hot dog.

The storm passed and the sun back out we wandered the few blocks back to the car parks. Thankfully neither car had earned a ticket and on departing we discovered a strange wooden honesty box where each car parking spot had its own slot to insert three dollars. We had neither the bills or coins to make that, and as far as Tina is concerned if it doesn’t take plastic it’s got no chance! My change had gone on the Skyway. We departed feeling guilty and hoping the car number plate hadn’t been noted. Back at Lloyd and Rose’s place late lunch was served and then Lloyd, after much persuasion it has to be said, treated us to a tune on his electric organ. Then rather unwisely Lloyd attempted to teach me to play. The audience and my inability to remember the notes sent the frustration levels rising but luckily I managed to refrain from turning the air blue! It was a tad Eric Morecambe – all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order!

More Photos

Modis building Jacksonville

Convention Center

Skyway boys

Skyway girls

Oi stop it!

Cummer GardensTina’s Mum Linda is getting married in October to long term partner Shawn. At the moment the couple are investigating suitably romantic locations for the ceremony. On Tuesday, which also happened to be Linda’s birthday, we all met up at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Riverside. Tuesdays evening also happens to be free to the public due to a sponsorship deal, giving us the opportunity to appraise the gardens’ suitability without parting with a few dollars! The gardens were beautiful and included a 150 year old oak tree with a huge canopy. Sadly there was little time to examine the art treasures too (something to do another quiet Tuesday evening), and photography inside the building is forbidden. However here are a few photos of the gardens which overlook the St John’s River.

Cummer Gardens

Cummer Gardens

Cummer Oak

Butterfly Tree HillFinding reasonably priced and engaging entertainment for Tina’s two youngest boys can be a challenge, but a bit of internet research had turned up the option of Tree Hill Nature Center, so on Saturday we decided to try it out. Remarkably given that it is short distance from downtown Jacksonville, Tree Hill is home to 50 acres of trails through woodland, a Florida Natural History Museum, butterfly and hummingbird gardens and native animals. Furthermore, Tree Hill attempts to provide environmental and energy education to the local community, and has been doing so for over 3 decades. As a “Green” and someone who likes trails it seemed a good choice for a family outing. And the entrance fee was rather cheap ;-)

After a picnic in the company of a rooster and a few hens, we visited the butterfly enclosure, got friendly with a pen of aimiable goats, and then headed off to do one of the longer trails. Goats Tree HillIt seemed like it was going to be a fairly uneventful walk until an armadillo was spotted as it scuttled under a boardwalk leading to a small pool. Waiting quietly paid off and the armadillo eventually made a break for the undergrowth at some speed, but not quick enough to evade my camera. About ten minutes later when we paused for a rest another armadillo scurried its way behind us, too quick for me to swing round, switch on the camera Armadillo Tree Hilland snap if before it became obscured. I enjoyed the trip to Tree Hill, and I intend to return probably on my own so I can sit patiently somewhere with my camera and see what turns up. There are meant to be raccoon and the occasional bird of prey. A remarkable nature enclave amidst the busy city, and Arlington district.

The trip ended as the skies threatened rain, and sure enough the drive downtown was through heavy rain as we crossed the St John’s River. The intention was to have a ride on the monorail, and at first a lack of quarter coins and the rain made it look unlikely. But in a scene uncommon in Britain, a friendly hot dog salesman changed some money without a grumble and we were away. The photos from the ride were disappointing because of the murk so I intend to dedicate another blog post to a repeat experience some point in the future.

More Photos

Butterflies Tree Hill

Goats Tree Hill

Billy goat Tree Hill

Armadillo Tree Hill

Rainy Five Points junction Riverside, Jacksonville. Keep Right is a local political instruction as much as a traffic order
As you might imagine, gasoline here is relatively cheap at $2.35 a gallon, (it passed $4 when I was here last June) so it comes as no surprise that the car is king, and gas guzzlers are aplenty. As a result the bus service is frowned upon, considered the transportation of the poor, a last resort. Not for me, it is the transport of choice for longer distances beyond my capabilities on a bicycle. Yesterday I arranged to meet with my friend and fellow Stoke City supporter, Calvin, to have a coffee or four, moan about the state of football at the Britannia Stadium, and generally put the world to rights. Calvin lives in “historic” Riverside not far from downtown Jacksonville. My journey from the beach was some 20 miles, but cost only $1 on the bus to downtown, and 50 cents on the Riverside Trolley to get to the coffee shop at Five Points. That’s about one Pound Sterling. Admittedly I needed two different buses to get home which brought my overall journey cost to $3.50 (£2.20) for 40 miles. I travelled in air-conditioned comfort and was able to relax and read my book, an autobiography by Stoke City legend Denis Smith, which incidentally is very entertaining but clearly was never introduced to a proof-reader before publication. One passage describes team mate Eric Skeels as being only five feet nine inches, but being able to compete with forwards who were five or six inches tall. I should hope he could. I didn’t realise that the Stoke City team in the 1960s and 1970s regularly encountered opposing sides with a couple of Smurfs upfront.

Anyway if any Jacksonville residents are reading this I recommend using the bus more. It’s cheap, comfortable, and you avoid parking fees. Also you can relax and enjoy the journey rather than fight the traffic, plus you’ll be doing your bit for the environment. As usual Calvin and I somehow managed to pass nearly five hours together. I’m not sure where time goes when we meet but it must be a sign of good company. Fire truck in the Riverside downpour 28th May 2009Alas our usual spot outside, perfect for people watching, had to be abandoned shortly after arrival due to a freak downpour which appeared from nowhere, dissecting a hot and sunny day. So we scurried inside and continued our discussions there. Calvin is already a stalwart of this establishment, it is his regular haunt. However the owner recognised me from my last visits, and my coffee was on the house complete with warm handshake. Thankfully the storm passed by the time I had to head back to the beaches, but it didn’t ruin my trip to Riverside in any case. I enjoyed seeing Calvin again. The return was not without drama, a police car with siren blaring pulling over a jeep right in front of me as I waited at the bus stop. I did my best not to look like a gawping tourist and adopted a nonchalant pose, acting like bus stop busts were two a penny where I come from. Actually in Beeston it’s usually police helicopters…

It’s a few minutes into 2009 and I sit on my sofa back from a New Year’s Eve party I attended almost out of a sense of compliance because to be honest I don’t particularly enjoy New Year celebrations. However 2008 was such a remarkable year personally that I feel it deserves some moments of reflection. It was a year of many highs, a few lows, but it was never dull, and provided some very special memories.

The year 2008 actually started in a sad way. After spending a wonderful couple of weeks around Christmas with Tina over from the USA, 1st January 2008 was the day I had to take her back to Manchester Airport for her flight home. We didn’t know when we would next see each other, although it was likely to be late March or April when my Annual Leave entitlement was replenished. December had marked the flourishing of our relationship to something stronger than just “friends with benefits”. On the way back from the airport I tried to cheer myself up with a trip on the East Lancashire Railway, but the drizzly day, and the feeling of missing someone special beside me prevented a real upturn in spirits. The house seemed empty, I felt like a part of me was missing, and the year was off to a bad start.

Yet there were plenty of highs too. I lost almost a stone in weight, getting myself fitter and leaner for when I next saw Tina, and making myself feel more positive about my appearance. I started being mentored by our Head of Department in February and the first session alone went a long way to raising my confidence and increasing my positivity. In early March I obtained a worldwide recognised qualification in software testing, and later that month the wait was finally over – I was heading to Florida to see Tina. Those 17 days opened my eyes and I went from showing general disdain for all things American to contemplating a whole new lifestyle for myself over there. Tina and I did some touring around, some highlights being the Ocala National Forest area with Juniper Springs, the JFK Space Center, and walking in the Apalachicola National Forest.

I enjoyed myself so much that I returned home and immediately booked to go back in June. In the meantime I went to Coniston in the Lake District and was taught how to drive a 7.5 inch gauge steam locomotive for the first time, something I’d continue to do regularly for the rest of the year. Furthermore I had a fantastic trip to Brussels in April, meeting fellow Stoke City message board users who have since become friends, and with them experienced the quite surreal moment of being introduced former Stoke manager Johan Boskamp. A week later I was in Scotland walking in the Cairngorm mountains when news trickled through that Stoke City had won promotion to the top flight of English football for the first time in 23 years.

May was finished off by a trip down to the South West walking in Exmoor and Dartmoor with my friend Jen, and taking in two preserved steam railways during the Bank Holiday period, while the final Saturday of the month presented a beautiful day in the Lake District walking up 4 peaks around Buttermere. Then came another trip to Florida in early June. Another Stoke message board name became a face as Tina and I met Calvin and his wife Margaret for the first time, and another friendship began, while again there were road trips to see parts of Florida neither of us had seen before. I also met a new addition to the family – Hadley the kitten – and Tina’s youngest son. The trip was enough to make me decide I wanted to spend much longer in Florida, so plans were made to rent out my house, ask for a sabbatical at work, and spend several months with Tina to see how the relationship developed.

This is where the year took a bit of a nose dive. A new boiler and double-glazed windows were needed to get the house up to scratch to rent it out, and I hoped this work might be done by August and October was suggested as a best case scenario for my arrival in Florida. However delays with projects at work, the complexities of arranging finance and the availability of the contractors meant that the house improvements were finally completed at the end of October! I still had decorating and minor DIY work to finish too. I was not in Tina’s good books. The excitement of meeting Johan Boskamp again when he brought his team FCV Dender to a friendly game at Leeds Utd, plus Stoke City starting their first ever season in the Premiership punctuated the downturn. But when it became obvious that Tony Pulis was going to deliver his usual brand of negative football, it took the shine of things. The obstacles in the way of an extended stay in America seemed to becoming more difficult to overcome, leading to a growing malaise and a growing waistline as I put back on the weight I had previously lost. Still I did turn some of my energy to positive things like discovering my political activism again, joining the Green Party and attending an anti-war demonstration in Manchester. Overall the tail end of the year was bleak, and I was angry with myself for not achieving what I had set out to do. Self doubt had returned.

Yet the year ended on a positive note. Tina secretly arranged a wonderful gift for my birthday in November – a ticket to see Leonard Cohen live at the M.E.N Arena – and I also decided to spend Christmas in Florida, luckily managing to obtain a cheap fare. How can anyone complain about a year that saw three trips to Florida?! The final visit in many ways was the best of the three. There may have been no road trips but there was plenty of quality time with Tina and two of her boys, seeing Calvin and Margaret again, and spending time with Tina’s family. It reinvigorated my desire to spend some serious time over there, and strengthened my belief in our relationship at a point where I was beginning to wonder if it could actually work.

The year 2008 has been memorable. I have been exceptionally lucky to experience what I have. Only a perfectionist like me would pick fault with it. Despite the achievements and experiences I still feel a certain disappointment about not being able to see though all my plans and not completing what I intended. This coming year has a lot to live up to, but if I do manage to achieve those dreams then 2009 will be equally memorable. Now it’s time to strap myself in and enjoy the ride however choppy.

I suppose as a Green I should be supporting Green candidate Cynthia McKinney or Independent and environmentalist Ralph Nader in the US Presidential Election. However I am also a pragmatist and I realise that this is a two horse race between Democrat and Republican.

Senator McCain once impressed me in an interview many months ago before he had even entered his nomination. He seemed a reasonable man with principles unafraid to stand up against the ill deeds of the Bush Administration. However as this campaign has gone on, the vile side of Republican politics have appeared, using smear and deceit instead of forceful argument about policy. Any notion of putting “country first” went out of the window with the appointment of the horrendous Sarah Palin as running mate. This clearly was to help a flagging party and rightfully has made many people question McCain’s judgement. For me the Republican Party now represents narrow minded bigotry, the privileged, and corporate interests of America. It has little to offer the vast majority of Americans and hopefully voting Americans are waking up to that fact.

On the other hand while no means perfect, Senator Obama represents hope to the marginalised in US society, and the record registration levels show that rather than resigning themselves to their lot, many Americans now are engaging in a political process they feel might deliver them better opportunities. I read Obama’s “Audacity of Hope” a few months ago. Obama’s plans for health care, education, green jobs, and a foreign policy based on diplomacy not unnecessary force, offer real measures to combat America’s difficulties, while for me showing a better analysis and understanding of what America and the world now faces. McCain is a man of the past, Obama is a man for the future, and that’s why I hope he becomes 44th President of the USA.

Obama was in Jacksonville Florida yesterday on the final day of campaigning before Election Day. Tina was in the crowd and kindly provides these pictures.

Obama in Jacksonville 3rd Nov
Obama in Jacksonville 3rd November

Obama in Jax - Florida for Change
The crowd shows Florida wants change at the Obama rally in Jacksonville 3rd November
[c] CrazyHair Productions

Tina was working most of Monday so I arranged to meet fellow Stokie Dallas Cowboy for a morning coffee in downtown Jacksonville in the bohemian area of Riverside. Surely he should now be changing his Oatcake Message Board moniker to Jacksonville Jaguar?! Anyway I took the bus from the beach into town and then the recently introduced “trolley” to Riverside. I shall impart some wise words found on an advert inside the bus…

“Talking loud… saying nothing – don’t cuss on the bus!”

Dallas Cowboy (otherwise known as Calvin) wandered around the corner just as I was approaching the rendez-vous point. Settled down at a cafe table overlooking the famous Five Points junction, we supped coffee, talked Stoke City, and watched confused motorists try to navigate the junction without having a prang. There were a few close calls in a free for all, mainly due to dithering by drivers not aware they had the right of way. Our morning coffee stretched to lunch, and then to early evening. It was around 5:30pm when I finally left, walking back to The Landings along the St John’s River walkway, and then running the last leg to the bus station catching the bus just as the driver was closing his doors. Phew.
Old and new in downtown Jax
One of the many topics of conversation were the new Premiership fixtures out today which of course Stoke City will now be part of. It still hasn’t quite sunk in. But what is beginning to sink in is the enormity of the task in hand and the frightening nature of the fixtures. We start away at Bolton Wanderers on 16th August which is likely to be a Megson-Pulis bore-athon but we might get a point. That is followed by games against Aston Villa, Middlesborough, Everton, Liverpool and Chelsea. I can see us struggling to get a win until 22nd November when we play West Brom at home. They always seem to come unstuck against Stoke. Even more worrying is a recent piece from Stoke’s Director of Gardening Football John Rudge where he apparently said we just need a couple of new quality players. There’s being positive and there’s being downright deluded. I think saying we have a couple of Premiership quality players already and need about ten more is closer to the mark.

Anyway I was glad to meet up with Calvin for a second time during my visit, a thoroughly decent bloke and passionate about Stoke City and playing the game in the right style and spirit. Hopefully our paths will cross in the future. I loved listening to his graphic descriptions of his memories of past Stoke teams when we did have true quality throughout the side and were admired for our football style not pilloried for it. There might have been no cussing on the bus but there was plenty at our table during the day.

Just before I turn in for the night my bus journey made me think of another ludicrous thing about the USA (well certainly round here). So in the continuing series here is number 7.

7. The snobbery about bus use. Buses are seen as a last resort, the transportation for the poor who cannot afford a car, not a useful, cheap and environmentally friendly mode of travel.

Today I travelled around 40 miles. I had a seat to myself in a clean, comfortable, safe, air-conditioned bus and the trolley bus. What did I pay for this service? $2.50 in total. It would have been another 50c but I walked back from Riverside to downtown. You show me a car that could do 40 miles for that price, especially since it’s over $4 a gallon now here. I think a few Americans will start changing their views about bus travel…