2 April 2006

















































Anatomy of a WoS mission failure

It was all the stupid Moon's fault. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Many years ago now, for reasons which have long since faded from memory if there were ever reasons in the first place, your intrepid reporter went on a day-trip to the seaside in the company of three other former editors of Amiga Power, the celebrated and often very slightly drunk videogames magazine. Myself, Jonathan Davies, Steve Faragher and Cam Winstanley got on a train to Weston-super-Mare one sunny spring morning, and spent a while playing games in the arcades, eating ice-creams on the pier and all the usual sort of stuff. But then Cam, ever the adventurous outdoorsman, insisted that we all undertake something a little more daring and - QUITE LITERALLY! - off the beaten track..

It's not the most promising opening shot to a feature ever, is it?

Cam, y'see, knew about something we didn't. Perhaps half-a-mile from Weston's main tourist strip, hidden away from view behind a convenient headland, is the town's second pier. We were all impressed enough by this exciting revelation, and marvelled up close at the rusting ironwork and extremely uncompromising warning signs, along with some of the nastiest razor wire ever. But Cam wanted more, so dutifully we followed as he yomped his way along the precipitous cliff that flanks the pier on both sides, until he found what he very optimistically described as a "path". Not so much a set of steps as one big cliff broken down into several slightly smaller ones, we nevertheless made our way down using a cunning mix of scrambling and falling until, with hardly any broken bones, we were all at the bottom.

We thus found ourselves on something resembling not so much a beach, rather more like one of the rougher districts of Stalingrad in early 1942. A primeval landscape of jagged, vicious rocks and treacherously smooth slime-covered boulders ran from the foot of the cliff to the water's edge, but the interesting thing was where the water's edge actually was. The sea was evidently off on a day trip to Wales or something, and the murderous ankle-trap lunar rubble stretched all the way to the island at the other end of the pier, perhaps 300 yards away. He couldn't mean that, could he? Could he? Dear God, surely not.

"Look, just piss off, okay?"

Of course, he did mean that, and about 15 frankly terrifying minutes later, we'd all picked our way gingerly across the Slippy-Slidey Knife-Edged Rocks Of Certain Death and out to the island. The slipway down to the ground was completely free of razor wire, fences or dire warnings of imminent fatality, presumably on the grounds that nobody would ever be so spectacularly, suicidally stupid as to think of trying to approach the pier by such a route, and we strolled in considerable relief up the concrete ramp and into what very much appeared to be a real-life set from a classic-era Scooby Doo cartoon.

The pavilion and other structures on the end of Birnbeck Pier are eerie in a way that's very reminiscent of WoS's other outings to Imber and Bangour Village Hospital, except perhaps even more so because the neglect and decay in evidence there is so much further advanced after decades of disuse. Crows squawked in the holes in the clocktower where the clock used to be. Rotting floor beams creaked ominously and afforded unwelcome glimpses at the rock dozens of feet below. Faded posters and signboards emptily promised what was once the state of the art in thrill-seeking, reflecting an austere time when an ice-cream and a go on a waterslide were the furthest a Briton could dare let his fantasies dream. And every few minutes we'd glance nervously out towards the ocean, wary of the moment when the muddy brown waters would once more remember their duty, rush back in, and swallow up our narrow causeway back to land leaving us stranded with only the ghosts for company.

(Incidentally, if you were wondering - it turned out to be the old caretaker all along!)

The Castle Of Doom lurks menacingly ahead. Sharks patrol these waters.

But anyway. Having explored sufficiently, we left the island and retraced our steps back to shore, spent the rest of the day recovering from our difficult ordeal at a table outside a ("Café" - Ed) with a few refreshing ("Glasses of Tizer" - Ed) and went home, and that was that. But Birnbeck Pier has haunted your correspondent ever since, and I vowed to return sometime across the Slippy-Slidey Knife-Edged Rocks Of Certain Death and record the ruins for posterity, by which I mean the viewers of WoS. (Whom I presciently foresaw would one day exist.) And by a fortuitous concurrence of events, it appeared that an otherwise-unremarkable Wednesday in the middle of last month was going to be that day.

I got up at 6am, and left the house for my rendezvous with one of WoS's sinister network of shadowy agents in an industrial-estate carpark in a suburb of Bristol. After taking delivery of a package from the agent and discussing the subversion of various government departments for some time over a Bacon-And-Egg McMuffin, we parted company and I headed off towards Weston. Having recently been pondering the pier trip again by sheer coincidence, I'd checked the tide times about 10 days earlier, and knew that the low tide was due at 11.39am. I'd presumed that it would be low enough to permit access to the pier end for some time before that, and hence arriving in the resort at around 9.30 would give me plenty of time to reconnoitre and prepare unhurriedly for the mission. Heavy roadworks on the M5 meant that I didn't actually arrive at Birnbeck until 10am, where I was surprised and dismayed to notice that the sea was still lapping inconveniently at the foot of the cliffs. It dawned on me that perhaps the 10-day gap had slightly altered the tide timetables, so I decided to head back into town and kill an hour or so in the arcades until things caught up.

WoS readers of either a maritime or an astrological disposition will, of course, be chuckling warmly to themselves around about now. But shh - don't spoil it for everyone else, eh?

In my dreams, the gates of Heaven look like this.

Time quickly passed - your reporter is rarely happier than when he's in a traditional-style English seaside resort, even in a freezing-cold off-season March - while I shovelled handfuls of 2p pieces into the penny-falls machines and liberated a bunch of cuddly toys from the Perspex prisons of the crane-grabbers, including a rather sweet official Harry Potter owl (don't ask me) and a little chihuahua with a head so gigantic that it could only sit up and beg on its hind legs, toppling forwards onto its face if it tried to stand up in a normal fashion.

(I have a terrible mental blind spot when it comes to crane-grabbing machines. I'm really really good at them, so I always have a play, swiftly accumulating a small menagerie of cute stuffed animals for 20p a pop before realising that I'm a grown man who has absolutely no use for a small menagerie of cute stuffed animals. On holiday in Brighton once in the late 1990s I managed to forget this fact afresh every single day, and ended up dragging no fewer than twenty-one little Coca-Cola polar bears home with me on the train. Which looked weird. I foist as many of my trophies as possible onto female chums and young relatives, but I still have a huge box in the basement packed full of the damn things, along with a three-foot-high bright-red bulldog I won at a travelling fairground a few years back.) 

By lunchtime, then, I was still quite surprised when I returned to the old pier and found the sea stubbornly continuing to refuse to sod off. What the hell was going on?

Flagrant disregard for the law, there. Must be TERRORISTS! Lock 'em up!

Even a complete cretin, of course, would be starting to wise up by this point, and it slowly dawned on your alert reporter that... hang on a minute... aren't tides controlled by... (creak, grind)... the Moon? And therefore, wouldn't they be on (ratchet, clunk)... a lunar cycle? In other words (click... click... DING!)... monthly? Oh, for crying out loud. I'm a moron.

A signpost on the front, while providing reassuring information about the amount of sewage one would be swimming in should one suddenly lose one's mind and fancy a bracing ocean dip in what was still technically winter, confirmed your reporter's humiliating idiocy. In faded, almost illegible type, the tide times for the whole month were listed, revealing that on this particular day the sea would reach its low point not at 10.39am, but 11 minutes past six in the evening - a miscalculation of a mere seven-and-a-half hours. Good work, Columbus.

So now a dilemma presented itself. With five hours still to kill and most of the town's tourist amenities already exhausted, should I just give up the whole thing as a bad job and trek the 40-odd miles home, comprehensively defeated by a big dead lump of space debris? Or should I abandon my existing plans for the evening in Bath and stubbornly persist, and if so could I possibly manage to amuse myself in Weston-super-Mare in March for another half a day? Experienced WoS viewers will surely know the answer to those questions already.

Even in winter, Weston is an entertainment Mecca.

The possibilities for off-season fun are almost limitless.

Surely that second one's in rather poor taste, though?

A '99' with raspberry sauce, please. Hello?

Hang on - legally, doesn't that have to mean it's the real Robbie Williams?

Sadly, the 600-foot whale didn't come any closer to the beach than this.

Unsurprisingly, most of the organised entertainment in town didn't kick off until after the Easter holidays, so I did what any Briton would do in the circumstances (given that I couldn't drink because I was driving, and I couldn't find anything that hadn't already been vandalised) and went to Tesco. (Be grateful that I've spared you here the myriad and astoundingly convoluted details of how I also eventually - after many miles of befuddled driving around in circles far inland - managed to fulfil my secondary mission for the afternoon, namely to locate a remote stockist of bulk sacks of paper bedding for my rats.)

As a result, I can very highly recommend Tesco's super-tasty own-brand jelly beans, but as I wandered back towards town in search of further diversions, I passed an Odeon cinema which - as fortune would have it - was about to start a showing of V For Vendetta. I hurriedly turned round, ran back to the Tesco car park, drove out and back in again to a new space in order to foil their "camera-controlled" two-hour limit, and went to see the movie.

As WoS Forum readers will already know, I didn't enjoy it all that much, but it filled two and a half hours more cheaply than going back to the arcades, and as I and the Odeon's three other patrons emerged onto the streets it was already teatime. I headed back to the pier, nervous about the now-fading light but excited at the prospect of an intrepid clamber across the Slippy-Slidey Knife-Edged Rocks Of Certain Death and a successful mission finale.

The sea, annoyingly, still reached almost all the way from the pier-end to the shore.

Not this pier. The other one.

Turns out that the stupid Moon doesn't only generate a monthly cycle of tides, but also an annual one. What's with that? Irrationally, I waited the 20 remaining minutes until 1811, just in case the sea did a miraculous last-minute run for it, but of course it didn't, and if I waited all day and all night I still wasn't going to get near Scooby Doo Island. Damn and blast.

Fate had one last twist of the knife still to come, though. Sullenly I stomped off down a stairway, and spent a while kicking around on the bleak, rocky shore in hollow mimicry of the precarious journey I'd planned to be taking to my now-aborted goal. Having gotten myself to a quite isolated point, several minutes' orienteering away from any permanently dry land, I glanced up and saw the crushing sight of an RNLI lifeboatman making his way across the narrow reconstructed walkway on the pier (picture taken earlier through the razor-wired fence), to the operational lifeboat station which is still located on the island. Had I still been up on the promenade, I could have dashed up and asked him really really nicely if I could come along for five minutes to get a few snaps, in return for a donation or something. But I wasn't. And that, surely, put the tin lid on the whole messed-up day.


And as far as Birnbeck Pier was concerned, it did. (Just in case you were hoping for a surprise-twist ending.) That particular WoS Day Out will have to wait for the summer and a more favourable alignment of the Solar System. But this reporter has always believed that when life gives you lemons, you should punch life in the face and steal its wallet. And so as one door slammed in your correspondent's face, the shockwave broke a filthy, mud-covered window nearby and a shaft of light suddenly shone through the gap, in the form of an idea.

The poker league in which your reporter plays has outposts across the South-West, and it suddenly dawned on me that one of them was in Weston. A swift phonecall to my poker pal revealed that by happy coincidence there was indeed a game on in WSM that night, starting in less than an hour. JW kindly texted over the address, and 45 minutes later I was in KJ's Cocktail & Tapas Lounge. And, to cut a thrilling commentary mercifully short, kicking ass:


Because the moral of this story, viewers, is that even in failure, WoS IS TRIUMPHANT. Having hoped merely to salvage something worthwhile from an afternoon of disappointment in the shape of a few poker-league points, your proud champion instead emerged with a heroic victory, a nice winner's t-shirt and a score that, as it turned out, lifted his league standing just high enough - 50th out of the top 50 - to qualify for the March monthly casino final (which takes place, sports fans, on April 9th), offering the prospect of great excitement and - perchance to dream - a maximum possible cash prize of £500. And in all probability, it would never have happened at all if not for bone-headed stupidity and a terrible movie.

WoS humbly trusts that its beloved viewers have all learned something important from this positive and life-affirming parable. (Possibly, the lesson "Don't bother to do your research properly".) And even if you haven't, here's a nice picture to look at. Bye!

Popular astral body the Sun - the Moon's non-evil twin - sets over WSM. Hurrah for the Sun!


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