Manchester International Festival 2021 (part 2)

[THE SOUND OF THE DELTA VARIANT CHEERFULLY HOPPING BETWEEN BEAN BAGS]In previous Manchester International Festivals – look, just go back to part one of this piece and follow the links in there, I can’t be bothered typing them again – anyway, back then the hub of the event was Festival Square. For the other 102 weeks of the bi-year it was Albert Square, the big public space in front of the town hall. But at MIF time, it became a riot of food stalls, bars and tented stages offering mostly free entertainment.

This year was always going to be different, and not just for the obvious reason. Manchester Town Hall is in the middle of a massive refurbishment programme, meaning that Albert Square is closed off. So for 2021 (and probably 2023), Festival Square has relocated to the space outside Manchester Cathedral. It’s still offering booze, food and entertainment, but this time round entry has to be carefully controlled, with all visitors carefully spaced out into meticulously organised bubbles.

They would have managed it, too, if it hadn’t been for the inhabitants of Twat Island.

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Manchester International Festival 2021 (part 1)

[THE SOUND OF TRYING TO FIND SOME DECENT PICTURE CAPTIONS]As we walk out of our central Manchester hotel on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, we see a plane flying overhead. It’s pulling a banner behind it. Because of the sun and the altitude, we can’t see what it says. This is a much bigger problem for us than you might think.

Less than an hour earlier, The Belated Birthday Girl and I had arrived in the city, all set for an extended run of the 2021 Manchester International Festival. Regular readers will recall our coverage of previous festivals – we paid a flying visit to the first one in 2007, had a good excuse for missing the second in 2009, then covered the next four for Europe’s Best Website (see 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2017) before bringing it back in-house for 2019. All six of those visits had one thing in common – they only lasted a weekend, with us arriving late on Friday or early on Saturday, and on the train back to London by Sunday evening.

That’s how it usually works. This isn’t a usual year, though. With our planned foreign holiday kicked down the line for another year, we’re replacing it with a collection of short city breaks that don’t require us to leave the country. So this time around, we’ve spending a full five days (Wednesday to Sunday) at the Festival, although taking things at a slightly less manic pace than usual. The festival itself is an appreciably different shape to what it is normally – new outdoor and indoor venues to cope with social distancing requirements, a high proportion of online and hybrid content, a bit more public art than before – and so we’re going to be an appreciably different shape too. (Literally so, given some of the meals we’ve got lined up in the extended gaps between events.)

That plane I mentioned three paragraphs back is part of one of those public art projects I mentioned one paragraph back. It’ll all make sense in the end, probably – though bear in mind that this is a big enough festival to justify a two-part review, so scrolling to the end of the page won’t entirely help you.

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At Home We're A Tourist (part 2 of 2)

Us, underneath the i360, Brighton beach, 16th June 2021. (pretty sure we're in there somewhere)This story is about...

Well, it's part travel guide for visitors to London. It's part historical record of a city coming slowly back to life after months of lockdown. It's part review of a week's worth of culture in June 2021. And it's part pharmacological study, as we hurl everything we can at two people who've had two doses of AstraZeneca to see what we can get away with in public places.

It's part two (part one's over here) of my report on what The Belated Birthday Girl and I did around London on the week of our twentieth anniversary as an item. Awkwardly, it doesn't start in London.

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At Home We're A Tourist (part 1 of 2)

Us, north west London, 20th April 2013. (not to scale)This site has never shied away from celebrating big anniversaries. And this, to be frank, is probably the biggest. Because in June 2021, The Belated Birthday Girl and I are marking twenty years of doing that thing we do. I know, I know.

For some time now, we've been trying to work out: how would we commemorate our twentieth anniversary? For a while, we were considering a return visit to Hong Kong, winner of the Funnest Place On Earth award for the years 1993 to 2017 inclusive. Sadly, it's not really in the running for that award at the moment. Then, when our plans for our nineteenth anniversary fell through for covidular reasons, we realised that we could roll those plans forward a year to give us a rather spectacular setting for our twentieth. Those covidular reasons still remain, as you'd imagine, and we're currently planning to make that the setting for our twenty-first. Third time lucky, as they say.

In the end, it was a rollover booking from an entirely different holiday that helped us come to our decision: we'd spend our twentieth anniversary almost entirely in London. Because June 2021 in London had all sorts of interesting possibilities - the possible transition from the last stage of lockdown to a totally opened up city, leading to the various cultural hotspots of the capital slowly waking up again after many months of hibernation. We could take a week off work, and actually be part of that waking up process.

Over a ten night period, we may have taken that idea a little too far. Put it this way, this page is just going to be about the first five nights...

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BrewDogging #71: Cambridge

This picture by The BBG looks so utterly *alien* these days that I'm going to let you click on it to see it bigger. You're welcome.A Tale Of The Before Times (#5 of 5)

I'm posting this towards the end of June 2020. We visited our 71st BrewDog bar during the first weekend of March. There was a plan that by this point in June, we would be guzzling pints in our 72nd: but with travel restrictions being what they are, that isn't happening any more. (If you're wondering where that bar might have been, there's a subtle clue on one of the pages linked to in this piece.)

Let's say it out loud: Cambridge may well be the last new BrewDog bar I write about on here for some time. At this stage, it's hard to tell how many of the bars we've previously visited will survive this mess: we know already that Helsinki hasn't, which is a damn shame. In the circumstances, it's incredibly weird looking back three and a bit months to March 6th-8th, seeing what we did over the space of that weekend, and how little of it we could get away with currently. Sure, there were rumblings coming from the east that we were heading for trouble, but the main way I remember Covid-19 from that weekend was having the official Vietnamese campaign song stuck in my head for most of it. There wasn't any sense that this could have been our last weekend away for some time: whereas just one week later, we were sitting in the Brixton Ritzy watching The Invisible Man with a growing awareness that we probably wouldn't be able to do that in a few days.

So, as we head towards the July 4th re-opening of English bars with an increasing sense of dread at the second wave they could be instrumental in stoking, join me as we get all nostalgic about what things used to be like as far back as last Spring...

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A Very Hamburg Christmas

"Not getting many hops off this." Xmas Eve 2019, and the view from the loft conversion at BrewDog St Pauli, or 'Clouds' as everyone insists on calling it. Photo by The BBG.A Tale Of The Before Times (#1 of 5)

I posted the following on February 23rd, at the end of a post about BrewDog Hamburg and our Christmas 2019 holiday: "...would seem like the perfect lead-in to a discussion of... non-BrewDog things in Hamburg generally. But let's pause for now, and we can talk about that sort of thing another time. You know how it works around here, it'll probably be Easter by the time I get around to posting that."

Well, that didn't entirely go to plan, did it?

Let's just forget for now that the world has gone to shit in the last three months, and instead recall a time when you could travel to a foreign country and mingle with people you didn't know. Here, as promised, is a discussion of non-BrewDog things that you could do in Hamburg as recently as last December (though probably not now).

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BrewDogging #69: St Pauli

That blue and red glow near the bottom of this tower block? That's BrewDog St Pauli. You can ignore everything above that, for now.You can almost imagine the board meeting at BrewDog plc. One of their execs is doing a PowerPoint presentation, pointing out that since they took over the former Stone brewery in Berlin there’s been a notable upswing in sales in Germany. It’s probably about time they opened another bar in the country. Maybe in Hamburg, perhaps?

Offscreen, we hear a quiet rhythm being beaten on the boardroom table, gradually increasing in volume: three beats, then a pause, then repeated. And as the camera turns towards James Watt and Martin Dickie at the other end of the table, we hear the vocal chant that accompanies their banging.

“Ree-per-bahn! REE-PER-BAHN! REE-PER-BAHN!

This (wholly imagined) chain of events will ultimately lead to The Belated Birthday Girl and me spending our first ever Christmas Day in a BrewDog bar: specifically one located in the St Pauli district of Hamburg, at the top end of the naughtiest street in Europe. Coincidentally, it’s the 69th bar we’ve visited. I thought this next sentence would more or less write itself, but it’s harder than it looks.

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I Got Seoul And I'm Super Bad (At Coming Up With Titles)


Not mentioned in this page at all (though it gets a passing callout in BrewDogging #63): the Cheonggyecheon canal walkwayApril 29th-May 6th, 2019, again

So a week in the capital of South Korea requires more than one page to do it justice. Who knew?

(And to head off a question that we've been asked a couple of times since we got back: no, we never made it into North Korea. It's not entirely impossible, you understand: there are organised tours of the DMZ you can go on, some of which even offer you the chance to wave a tentative toe over the border. We were under the impression that they're the sort of thing that a friendly hotel concierge could book for you, but that was never going to happen with the non-English-speaking landlady at the Haemil Hanok. It looks like Kim and his guys need you to book several days in advance for security checking purposes anyway, so bear all that in mind if you're planning to do something similar.)

Still. Enough of that. We've already covered the hotels, bars and restaurants of Seoul: let's talk about the other stuff.

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BrewDogging #63: Itaewon

마치 똥 힙스터 웨더스푼과 같다April 29th-May 6th, 2019

Well, you knew it was coming. We've done Japan: we've entered Korea via the back door of Busan: and now we've made it up to Seoul, where they've got one of these bad boys.

Was BrewDog Itaewon the only reason we went to Korea in the first place? Well, no. But it was probably the final nudge that drove us into visiting the country after several years of talking about it. And after a weekend in Busan bookended by horrendous weather, you'll be pleased to hear that our week in the capital is blessed with glorious sunshine throughout. It's a week that takes in two hotels, five palaces, and countless bars, cafes and restaurants. Plus, just like Busan, there's a bridge that needs to be named and shamed for its FILTHY LIES about a light show. (But that'll have to wait for another page: this one is just looking at the bars, restaurants and hotels.)

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Train (then bus (followed by jetfoil)) To Busan

'Do you expect me to walk?' 'No, Mr Bond, I expect you to GET A TAXI!'April 26th - 29th, 2019

When was the last time you picked up a leaflet from a tourist information office that read like a taunt from a James Bond villain?

I'm guessing you can spot the subtle subtext in the typography here. Even when you've just come from Japan, a country notorious for the impenetrability of its address system, Korea turns out to be operating on a whole other level. It's difficult enough finding out Korean addresses in English, but then you find that Google Maps is incapable of calculating walking routes - you'll either be told one doesn't exist, or made to take a three-mile detour along a motorway and back just to get across the road.

That's why, as we enter the Korean section of this year's holiday, you can expect to see lots of GPS co-ordinates shown for all the places we visited. Slap them into your phone mapping application of choice - maps.me is still my personal favourite on my vintage Blackberry - and you may be in with a chance of retracing our steps. Cool? Cool.

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