State of the Union

Friday, 16 September 2022. 

I’m on the way from Edinburgh to London, much like the Queen a few days ago. There’s a fraction less media attention on my journey, which is perhaps just as well, since I noticed on leaving the house that my trousers were already travel-stained. I like to think of this as an ecologically-sustainable wardrobe approach, and know that it will mitigate the disappointment when I spill something on them in the train, as will surely happen.

I have an invite in my pocket, although it’s to my sister’s 50th birthday bash and not a state funeral. I expect the international dignitaries to be largely absent at my sister’s party, although who knows? She does enjoy a bit of pomp and circumstance. 

The past few days have prompted some personal reflection on the monarchy, the constitution, and the Union. On Monday and Tuesday of this week I made the trip into town, feeling surprisingly strong emotions in the aftermath of the Queen’s death, and aware that the presence—in Edinburgh—of her coffin, the King, and the Royal Family, was the rarest of events, possibly completely unique. Given that the lying at rest in Edinburgh only occurs when the monarch passes away in Scotland, it has never happened before, and may never happen again.

On Monday afternoon I walked most of the Royal Mile from Holyrood Palace to St Giles’ Cathedral, and along George IV Bridge, witnessing at every turn the outside broadcast trucks, TV gantries, cameras, reporters, and the beginning of the enormous queue of mourners. I cut a few of the corners and walked into George Square and the Meadows, where I bumped into an old friend. He had joined the queue there at 5.15pm and would eventually file past the coffin just over five hours later. 

I returned home. 

On Tuesday morning, after receiving messages from friends that the queue had lessened dramatically overnight, I made the trip back to the Meadows and joined the again-rapidly-lengthening line just after 11am. My queue buddies immediately in front were from Northern Ireland, and over the course of the next two hours we struck up a friendship, as we moved slowly but steadily through the Old Town, in sunshine and shade, on a beautiful September day.

On the stroke of 1pm I made it into the dignified, reverential atmosphere of St Giles’. With the line of people continually moving, there wasn’t time to stop and reflect at the Royal Standard-draped coffin itself. I found myself simply thinking “Thank you, Ma’am,” as I passed.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity, for I am grateful for her life, her service, and her sacrifice. 

I was saddened to hear of protesters, both in Edinburgh and now in London, holding placards displaying slogans such as “Not my King” and “We don’t need a head of state”.

I confess I am a little ignorant of the precise role and duties of a head of state, but on the basis that someone needs to represent us on the world stage, I reckon we do need one.

However, Edinburgh doesn’t really need the Scott Monument. Nor, for that matter, Edinburgh Castle. Perhaps we should raze them both to the ground and build some utilitarian pre-fab offices instead.

Or perhaps we should acknowledge that beautiful architecture, historical monuments, sculptures, paintings and art are worth holding on to. So too are things that link us to our past (even though our past hasn’t been entirely glorious from start to finish) and are part of the fabric and history of our country. 

It is, I think, the prerogative of the young, and students, to protest loudly about things. But I find myself, with advancing years, increasingly amused by those who seem to think that they get to choose everything about their life.

If you’re a citizen of the United Kingdom today, then King Charles III is your King. You might wish that were not the case, you might think the monarchy should be abolished. You have the right to hold those views and express them, too. But to say he isn’t your King is to deny a fact of life, and is as pointless as protesting that you’re not one gender or the other, although it is seemingly inflammatory to say such things, these days.

Should we have a democratically-elected head of state? Maybe, strictly speaking, that would be more in keeping with a democratic country. However, practically, would it make any actual difference?

I think my friend Jon should be head of state. He speaks well, and diplomatically, and is well-educated. But a friend of mine wouldn’t be head of state. Were we to get to vote for a head of state, we would be given the choice of a few candidates which had been shortlisted by some complex voting system or other. They wouldn’t do a better job of representing me than the monarch currently does. The risk would be that they would do a considerably worse job.

Queen Elizabeth II did a wonderful job of diplomatically representing the UK on the world stage. Who’s to say Charles won’t do the same?

We elected a new Prime Minister recently, or at least, the members of the Conservative Party did. Prior to that we did elect one as a nation, and arguably we didn’t choose very well. We don’t actually have a tremendous track record of voting for people of integrity, dignity and honour.

Later in the week I met some friends on the prom at Portobello for a coffee and catch-up. Talk turned to the prospect of Scottish independence. They are warmer to the idea than I am. I remain unclear as to how being independent would benefit us in any way.

I accept that Scots feel perhaps ignored by Westminster, and that the ruling Tories, bloated perhaps by the complacent corruption and excesses that a long hold over power seem to bring, do not represent them well. I understand that. But ruling parties come and go, and while the Tories have been in place now for a long time, it will not always be so.

Personally, I wouldn’t expect Scottish politicians, running an independent Scotland, to be any better. I put this to a pro-independence friend around the time of the referendum in 2014.

‘Ah, but at least they’d be our corrupt politicians,’ he replied.

Now, it may be because I’m not Scottish, but this seems like a weak argument. I am, for the record, Northern Irish, and grew up in the Unionist side of the ideological divide, and so perhaps I will forever be biased towards that viewpoint. However, other mindsets that I grew up with there I have now discarded, with an objectivity that comes with living outside the Province.

As a very happy and now long-time resident of Scotland, while I will perhaps never have the viewpoint that a true Scot has, I do have a right to an opinion on how Scotland should be governed.

And Scottish Independence continues to make no sense to me.

Along with the sense of being ruled from afar by politicians we didn’t vote for, I accept that Brexit perhaps highlighted a fault line and disparity in thinking between Scotland and England, since “Scotland voted to remain”, and “England voted to leave”.

This, surely, is a massive over-simplification. England is not a single entity, neither is Scotland. England, like Scotland, is a collection of diverse peoples with diverse views. From the independently-minded Cornwall, through the Midlands, Yorkshire and the North-East, I would wager that large chunks of England feel disenchanted with the ruling Conservatives and feel that the majority opinion on various matters doesn’t sit well with them.

This is the challenge of living in a democracy, and as a Union. It’s much like being part of a family. We don’t always get our own way. Often the louder voices shout us down, and we feel marginalised. I daresay many would say they didn’t vote for Boris Johnson, but—as a United Kingdom—we did. Being part of the Union is being part of the “we” and taking collective responsibility. 

It’s not perfect, but that’s life.

Over thirteen million English people voted to remain in the EU, but over fifteen million voted to leave. And England’s population being approximately ten times the size of Scotland’s, the big brother’s overall view held sway.

Is this galling for Scots? Perhaps. Certainly for the Scots who didn’t get their way. Presumably the one million Scots who also voted to leave aren’t feeling the same sense of grievance.  

What the Brexit result highlighted for me personally was how inadequate an instrument a binding referendum of this nature is. Your average Joe in the street, me included, is woefully incapable of making a fully-informed decision of such magnitude. It’s why we elect politicians, who—we hope—are more adequately informed about the ramifications of such decisions, or at least have advisers who are. 

But back to Scottish Independence. How would we survive as a small nation?

Right now, we do have a voice in the UK Parliament. We do also have a devolved Government that can take lots of decisions in the interests of the local population, as they see fit. But…Scotland is not a single entity, with one viewpoint. Given a future independent Scotland ruled (say) from Edinburgh, how long before the Highlands and Islands complain that they’re being ignored by the ruling classes who are out of touch with their needs and desires? How long before Glasgow and the West, with its very different mindset, revolts against Edinburgh? Where does it end?

If Scotland secedes from the Union, and joins the EU (as I understand it, not even a guaranteed outcome), would we not have discarded a centuries-old alliance with nations that we have a lot in common with (e.g. language, culture (with variations), shared history), and within which we do have a significant voice (no matter how it feels at times) in favour of a relationship with neighbours with whom we have very little shared history, very little in common, and as a brand new member probably dependent on financial handouts, very little influence and voice?

It makes no sense to me. Perhaps someone can explain to me how becoming independent will ever be worth the immense logistical and financial pain of separating two countries that have been joined at the hip for three hundred years.

Meantime, I remain a committed citizen of an imperfect United Kingdom, and a loyal subject of our new King, knowing that if I got the chance to personally select every member of all our Parliaments, and for that matter, the Royal Family, they would all still be imperfect, because humans are involved.

Pyrrhic Victories

On Saturday morning, Ireland beat New Zealand, in New Zealand, for the first time ever. It was the second Test of a three Test series. In the first Test, the All Blacks had won convincingly, on the scoreboard at least, and the commentator was ringing alarms bells about how badly this series could turn out for Ireland.

It was lazy commentary, in my view. He was commentating on the score, and not the game. In the game itself, Ireland made a few critical errors, and seemed to switch off for ten minutes or so in the first half. NZ also got away with some stretching of the laws of the games. They usually do. Most teams do, to a degree, but NZ are perhaps the most adept at getting away with it. They are also more adept than most teams in the world at punishing sides for mistakes, and clinically taking any chances that are presented, and they did this, and scored some good tries.

But aside from the lapses which cost Ireland a couple of tries, they caused NZ problems with the variety of their attack, scored three tries of their own, and were held up over the line on another couple of occasions. The final scoreline of 42-19 didn’t so much flatter NZ as it was harsh on Ireland, but was a true reflection of the ability of each team to take their chances.

In the second Test, Ireland were out of the traps quickly and scored first, as they also had the previous week, but this time didn’t cough up easy tries. What the first half was most notable for, however, was a lack of discipline from New Zealand. They had one player red-carded for a head collision with Garry Ringrose, which certainly looked accidental, but fundamentally was due to bad tackle technique. They had another player yellow-carded (which entails ten minutes in the sin bin) for connecting his shoulder with Mack Hansen’s face, and—frankly—he should also have seen red.

Ireland went on to win the game 23-12, quite deservedly, for an historic first ever win on New Zealand soil.

And although I was overjoyed with this result, I found myself wondering later if it was really worth it. As I saw Garry Ringrose departing the game, and various other players from both sides going off for head injury assessments (HIAs) throughout the game, I wonder at what cost are rugby match victories being bought?

The number of HIAs in this game was far from unusual. It’s a common occurrence in every rugby match—every international match at least. And so I have to ask—is it worth it? I love sport. I love rugby. But are the long-term effects on the players a price worth paying for sporting success/gratification in the short-term?

Jonny Sexton, an experienced and world-class player who seems to be pivotal to Ireland’s success, failed an HIA during the first Test and was taken off. He was declared fit for the second Test, and murmurs abound as to whether he should have been, given the time it takes to recover from a concussion. I wonder, personally, if the decision to play him was taken in the best interests of his health, or Ireland’s chances, or sponsors’ wishes.

In the middle of a Test series, that—because of Ireland’s win—has now taken on a greater degree of importance for both teams than it might have if New Zealand were 2-0 up, it’s perhaps hard to step back and look at the bigger picture. But the bigger picture, in this case, is the long-term health of guys who are repeatedly taking knocks to the head, and the long-term prognosis for that is not good. And the long-term importance of this series is, honestly, not that great. Sure, the squad that won the second Test will probably get together again for a commemorative dinner in ten years’ time. And if Ireland go on to win the series, the team will “always be remembered” for that accomplishment. In a sporting context, it would be an immense achievement, and worthy of being lauded. I just wonder if—because of the inherent violence of the sport—the result is worth the price being paid.

Because I fear NZ’s response in the third Test, with the series on the line. The “series” is not a Championship, there probably is some random silverware at the end of it, but it’s a bilateral series, and so—in the context of the global game—not that important. However, for New Zealand—a team and a country that is not used to losing—another defeat would be potentially catastrophic for the team coach and management. The ABs have now lost three out of their last four Test matches, to Ireland, France, and now Ireland again.

I fear not their sporting response, although it’s not impossible they will go up a gear and play Ireland irrepressibly off the park. This is what we have come to expect from the All Blacks over the years.

I fear the violence of their response. New Zealand are not sporting losers. The desire to win, and the desire to not lose a series to Ireland—a team who until only a few years ago they had never lost a game to—could provoke an ugly reaction.

In early November 2016, Ireland beat the ABs for the first time ever, in Chicago. Two weeks later, New Zealand came to Dublin, and “beat Ireland up” in a return fixture, featuring off-the-ball cheap shots and a high degree of thuggery. They prevailed on the scoreboard as well, which they may well have done in any case, but I lost a degree of respect for them that day.

I seriously hope that the final game of the series will be a fitting sporting climax—two excellent teams pitting their skills and wits against each other for eighty minutes. But I fear that instead we might see a cynically violent response, even more head injuries, and the very definition of a pyrrhic victory, for either team. 

Narrow Bathrooms

I must have been to York train station before, because I distinctly remember taking an early-morning train down from Edinburgh, many years ago. All of my recollections of this long-ago trip are of the journey itself, perhaps because it was my maiden voyage—so to speak—in First Class, and I recall that being an excellent experience. I have no memories of the railway station itself.

I am mildly embarrassed about this as I stare up at the curved, arching iron and glass roof, which must have been a considerable feat of engineering when it was built in 1877, and is really quite spectacular. I, of course, have no idea of the identity of the architects, but Wikipedia knows, and so I hereby doff my cap to Thomas Prosser and William Peachey.

I am on my way to Harrogate, on the next leg of my 2022 UK Tour, and have missed my connection in York. I would like to say I missed it because I was enjoying the roof so much I forgot to board my train, but the reason was much more prosaic, there being some sort of problem with the overhead lines between York and Doncaster.

No matter, I am not in a rush. I make it to Harrogate eventually, and settle in to my digs, my Airbnb host showing me round on my arrival, and being really quite proud of showing me the bathroom I will use, which they converted from a corridor during Lockdown. It is, as one might expect, a long and particularly narrow bathroom.

Since I last wrote in these pages, I have spent a short stint in Horsham, a very pleasant little town in West Sussex, with some cobbled streets, nice buildings and an Everyman cinema (I didn’t visit it, mind).

My Airbnb room there featured what I reckon must be the World’s Smallest Ensuite, a short, narrow room, so short and narrow that I’m sure it must previously have been a small cupboard. It had a shower at one end, the toilet at the other, and the World’s Tiniest Sink lodged in between. These three were in such proximity that—had one tilted the shower head slightly—one could have taken a shower, and shaved, while sitting on the loo, thereby performing three morning necessities at one time, making for commendably efficient ablutions, albeit fraught with various risks which might be better not to detail. I did not attempt to pull this off, at any rate.

After Horsham, it was London-Edinburgh-London on the train, followed by a camping stint at the Wildfires Festival in West Sussex, where I got alternately burned by the sun and drowned by the rain, as is the way of British camping, really. I expected nothing less.

Then once more to London for a few days before returning to Edinburgh for some extended respite.

Now Harrogate for a few days, another pretty town with an Everyman cinema, and an Airbnb with a lumpy bed, which might be the reason I’m writing this at 2:33am…

Grown-Up Wisdom and the Boy Wonder Jnr

My sister’s brood of three collectively straddle the Threshold of Sleep Attractiveness, that point in one’s life where sleep changes from being a nuisance—something that gets in the way of relentless energetic activity, to an impossibly addictive drug that one simply can’t get enough of.

Thus the elder two are largely impossible to prise from their beds of a morning, whereas the youngest still rises early, and forcibly resists all encouragements to return to his bed of an evening. I am unsure as to when exactly this threshold is reached in life, but suspect it is automatically awarded to a child upon attaining the status of Teenager.

So it was, as I descended kitchenwards on Saturday morning, somewhat bleary-eyed after a night of fighting for sleep against the noisy soundtrack of a neighbour’s garden party (having triumphed in the fight only when I belatedly remembered the existence of my earplugs at 1.30am), that I was accosted by The Boy Wonder Jnr, who appeared to have been up for hours, demanding to be taken to the park. He needed to do an experiment, he said, having watched a YouTube video which had demonstrated that it was possible to drop a raw egg from a helicopter, several hundred feet above the ground, onto grassy turf, and the egg wouldn’t break. It was in the Guinness Book of World Records, apparently.

I was sceptical, and attempted to stave off the park excursion, protesting that I didn’t have access to a helicopter. I even tried applying Grown-Up wisdom, suggesting that it really might not work, but he was adamant in the way that an excitable nine-year-old sometimes is of a morning, and after I had breakfasted we set off to the park, armed with permission to raid two eggs from his mother’s kitchen, and some gloves and a food recycling bag, just in case.

On arriving in the park he threw an egg as far up in the air as he could, to replicate, as best he could, the altitude of a helicopter, and watched as it came down.

It exploded on impact. With quite a satisfying “pop”.

We repeated it with the second egg, over a patch of slightly longer grass, so as to make it scientifically official, or something, but only managed the same result. 

The Boy Wonder Jnr was crestfallen. I was secretly pleased, that Grown-Up wisdom had triumphed over YouTube. 

The previous evening, Radio 2 was playing in the kitchen during dinner, when the opening bars of Sweet Caroline drifted over from the portable speaker, bringing a degree of animated excitement from the Grown-Ups present. It’s very hard to not experience a lift in your spirits when Sweet Caroline comes on, at least if you’re a certain age.

Alexa was instructed to turn up 3, and I was so inspired I grabbed the nearest musical instrument and played along. Regrettably, the nearest instrument was a recorder belonging to the Boy Wonder Jnr, and it’s been a number of decades since I tried my hand at recorder-playing. Accordingly, the resulting accompaniment was subtly off-key, perhaps on account of my rustiness, and perhaps not being quite in the correct key to start with. And a slightly out-of-tune recorder, being played badly, is quite something.

Inspired by his uncle’s musical virtuosity, the Boy Wonder Jnr commandeered the instrument, and began to play something that was, if anything, even more tuneless and out of key. 

And so it was that the recorder was wrestled from his grasp by my sister and deposited unceremoniously in the food recycling bin.

The Boy Wonder Jnr was, again, crestfallen, and tried to remove it, whereupon I realised the genius of my sister, who has been a nanny/childminder for decades, and has learned a trick or two.

‘No! It’s been in there with the raw chicken. It’ll need sterilised before it can be played again…’

This was perhaps more Grown-Up Cunning, than Wisdom, per se, but worthy of respect all the same.

I mentally doffed my cap.

In the footsteps of Beckham

Hackney Marshes, 6am. The sun is up, but only just, and the vast expanse of grass is still damp with dew. There are a few fellow runners out at this hour, along with a dog walker or two, as I circumnavigate a number of cricket outfields, and several football pitches. It was on these pitches that a young David Beckham honed his skills, maybe even was spotted.

I am reasonably confident that any athletics coaches in the vicinity will not be spotting me today, as I lumber around the white-lined perimeter of pitch N7. The mercury is to hit 26C today, and even at this unearthly hour it’s warming up.

Multiple circuits complete, I run back along the towpath by the River Lea, over a deserted footbridge, and past several tied-up barges with quirky names.

A fox emerges from the bushes, and darts back in again, before I have time to question if it was the culprit responsible for distributing the contents of my sister’s food bin across the garden path during the night, and then defecating in the middle of the gateway. On arriving back home, I find myself increasingly keen to find a fox to help me with my enquiries in this matter, as I clear up all the food detritus before the heat of the day causes a stink.

Today’s work venue is Chingford, where David Beckham went to school, as it happens. It’s my sixth day there, and all has gone well, apart from some momentary confusion on Day 1 when I blindly followed the citybound crowds at Clapton down to Platform 1, when I really needed to be on the quieter Platform 2, heading out of town, towards Essex and the M25.

I experienced the glory of the M25 on Friday night, heading north to visit some old friends for the weekend, but despite my trepidation it was child’s play compared to the static queues on the M1. However, I was in no rush, and made it in time to have a decent burger near Kenilworth Road, prior to taking in a raucous first leg of Luton Town’s Championship play-off v Huddersfield Town. 

There followed a weekend of mostly sitting around in the sunshine, watching play at the local cricket club, who conveniently have their ground just on the other side of my friends’ garden gate, making it perhaps the best back garden known to man. Cricket-loving man, at any rate.

So, the London leg of the tour has been a reasonable success. I am developing quite a fondness for bagels from the Jewish bakery on Brick Lane, and crumpets, and the warmer temperatures.

This weekend I head southwest to Horsham for the next date on the tour. I am unsure if David Beckham ever made it to Horsham. I shall enquire.

Moments on the M6

Thursday in Wombourne was a picture of how I imagine an English country village looks in the summertime. The sun obligingly came out, and the first floor windows of the practice where I was training overlook the village green – an immaculate cricket ground in the centre, flanked by tennis courts and leafy trees. There was no cricket on Thursday, but there was some village tennis going on from time to time.

The day’s work done, I pit-stopped at McDonald’s, and then hit the road for London.

Prior to leaving Edinburgh, conscious of the amount of time I would be spending in the car, I lined up a few playlists for the journeys. I’ve been doing this since the days when making an actual mixtape was required. It is a somewhat faster process in the mp3 era.

For this trip, I decided to playlist some classic albums, all of which I worked my way through as I headed down the road from Edinburgh on Monday.

For the Wolverhampton-London leg on Thursday I kicked off with August & Everything After.

Something I love about music is the way that a single specific phrase in a piece can arrest your attention, and no matter what you are doing at the time, compel your attention to drop everything else, tune in, and savour that one moment again, every time you hear it. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve heard it, and the song itself might not even be a favourite – the moment itself transcends the song.

There’s a syncopated horn part right at the end of U2’s Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of. It’s subtly low in the mix, you have to listen to pick it out. And it only appears once, in the penultimate repeat of the chorus. But I can feel its approach as the song nears its conclusion, and it brings a smile every time. Many times I’ve wondered why they didn’t make more of it, even give it a second airing. But they didn’t, and it remains an almost-hidden gem, and maybe that’s better.

Grieg’s Piano Concerto, second movement. Starts with two full minutes of lush but muted orchestral parts, setting the scene. Then…the piano comes in. A single note, high in the register, not clamouring for your attention, but completely unmistakable. I think it’s the most quietly dramatic entry in music.

And, as ever, it’s all about context. You can’t smash all these little moments of genius together in a highlights reel…they have to be listened to in the surrounding environment of their song to appreciate them.

Arguably, in the same way, songs benefit from being listened to embedded within their albums. It’s where they make the most sense.

Raining in Baltimore is a largely morose, perhaps unexceptional track. But there’s a moment, just before the two minute mark, when the accordion comes in with a slowly descending motif, and it just…lifts. 

I enjoy this moment somewhere on the M6, working my way south-eastwards. It might be raining in Baltimore, but the Midlands are dry and warm, the clouds gradually dissipating as the evening wears on, the sun sinking lower, catching my wing mirror first, then appearing in the rear view.

I don’t think I’ve ever driven into London before, certainly not from this direction. I negotiate my way through bustling Wood Green, and feel transported back in time as I reach Stamford Hill, with ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jews materialising in every direction, on foot and on bicycles, sporting black hats, coats and long sidecurls. It’s genuinely surreal.

With the sun now below the London horizon, and just as fat Charlie the Archangel slopes into the room, I turn into my sister’s street in Hackney. A fox darts across the road.

On arrival I learn that Maggie has, this very day, acquired a bass guitar and a practice amp.

I am earplug-ready.

The Boy Wonder and Wolverhampton

On a Saturday, early in April, the Boy Wonder and I made our way east along the Golf Coast Road. He and his mum – my sister – were in Edinburgh for a long weekend. It was a breezy and mostly sunny day in East Lothian. We made quick work of Longniddry, Aberlady and Gullane.

‘Turn your phone off and talk to me,’ I said.

He killed his screen and put it back in his pocket, only semi-reluctantly.

‘Can I drive?’ he asked.

‘You’re thirteen,’ I reminded him.

He seemed to find this an unacceptable reason for his request to be turned down.

On the beach at Yellowcraig, we kick a ball about, with the wind making it awkward, and a bit chilly. We passed and volleyed our way along the beach eastwards.

‘Hang on,’ he said. The football was suspended for a time, while he found a rock pool and attempted to recreate something he saw in a TikTok video. It didn’t work. I suspect trickery may have been involved in the original. 

Back in the beach car park, he suggested I let him drive for a bit. I resisted. We set off for North Berwick, and the conversation turned to lunch options. Having earlier hit up McDonalds for Second Breakfast, the gastronomic bar for the day had been set high. My suggestions of “fish and chips” or “a sandwich from Costa” were met with a disapproving silence.

We were no further forward on this most important of issues as we rolled into the neatly kept streets of the East Lothian seaside town, round the one-way loop, past the award-winning toilets, and back up the High Street, passing Greggs. 

‘Oooh, Greggs,’ he said. ‘I’ve never been to Greggs, but my friend says you can’t beat it.’

And that was the lunch decision made. We sat on the beach and ate sausage rolls and chicken bakes in the spring sunshine.

‘Well? Was your friend right?’

‘He wasn’t lying.’

Now, one month later almost to the day, I find myself in Wolverhampton. A change of career has landed me here, on three days of training courses, learning about outer ear disorders and cerumenolytics. All in all, I expect to be away from home for a full month. How does one pack for being away for a month?

I wasn’t sure, so I threw the limoncello, some chocolate and a spare pair of pants in the car and set off. I stopped in Moffat, having taken rather longer to get there than I would have liked, finding myself behind an especially-slow-moving caravanette for a long stretch of the Beeftub road.

The public toilets in Moffat, I discovered, are most definitely not award-winning. It’s been a long time since I drove south with any regularity, but many things remain the same. Most of the buildings and shops in Moffat, for example, and certainly their paintwork, which doesn’t appear to have been refreshed in the last twenty years. And the increasing southward busyness of the M6, peaking around Manchester, and settling down thereafter.

Wolverhampton is a new destination for me. It has an interesting-looking mosque, a lot of roundabouts, a city layout designed by someone with a one-way street obsession, and a grimly industrial vibe. 

My travelling companion Shona and I were booked into a country hotel near our training venue. I collected my room key at reception, made my way along several corridors, through multiple double-doors, passing bizarrely mirror-lined alcoves along the way, and found my room. On entering it, I was reminded forcibly of Mordor, although I confess I’ve never been.

The paintwork was in poor nick, the taps were tenuously attached to the bathroom sink, the light switch for the bathroom gave way a little on pressing it. There was a bare bulb in the light fitting beside the bed, the shade having been broken by some earlier occupant. The mattress springs in the bed introduced themselves to me, individually, when I lay down. The mains socket nearest the bed didn’t work, but the lamp on the dresser did pass a PAT test in 2018, so that was something.

We stayed one night, Shona faring much worse than I with a sleepless night brought on by a full-scale domestic abuse situation unfolding in the adjacent room, before she headed home, and I beat a retreat to an Airbnb in Wolverhampton. 

Tomorrow is the final day of courses, and then it’s on to London, where the Boy Wonder will no doubt want to drive my car again. 

I shall resist, again.

September Swimming

Today—15 September—was the last day of the official bathing season in Scotland, a day that would have previously passed me by as just the fifteenth of September. I didn’t even know there was an official bathing season in Scotland. I thought that sea swimmers were just mad women trying to reap the benefits of cold water therapy.

On 21 June this year, The Outdoor Swimming Society organised an event they called The Longest Swim for the Longest Day. There was an article in the Guardian the next day, with photos and interviews with many of the people taking part, including some at Portobello. It was a horrible day—grey and cold.

The next day was sunny and warm. At 5pm it was 20C. I wandered down to the edge of the prom, looked at the water, felt the warmth in the sun. 

‘If I’m ever going to do this,’ I thought, ‘it’s going to be today.’

So I did. 

I pushed through the seaweed, the cold water shock, put thoughts of jellyfish and Leviathan to the back of my mind, where they didn’t entirely stay, and, after some lengthy consideration while the water lapped at my stomach, I dived headlong into the next wave. 

And, I have to say, it was quite lovely. There were distinct warm patches, which I initially thought must be where some kid further up the beach had peed in the water, but there were too many, and some pretty cold ones swirling around too, so I hunted down the warmer bits and stayed there as long as I could.

Since then I have gone for a swim once or twice per week. I always wait until 5pm or so, to give everything—the air, the water—time to warm up as much as it’s ever going to do.

Some days it’s been calm as a millpond, on others the waves crash into you and almost knock you off your feet. On these days, you feel something of the primeval power of the sea, inspiring a sense of awe, and the recognition it’s not something to be messed with.

It’s been invigorating, I’ve slept better on nights when I swam that day, and I’ve had zero menopausal symptoms since I started, so those middle-aged women are definitely onto something. It’s also been a means of some much-needed exercise, the cricket season once again having wound down, and some unidentified leg injury having thwarted my running efforts since my Peebles trip back in June.

I’ve swum on my own mostly, although you’re never on your own, swimming at Porty; occasionally with friends, twice with my sister and her family when they came up for an August visit; and the highlight was the day my 81-year-old mum tottered down to the water’s edge and joined us all in the surf—three generations in the water together. But not in the altogether. 

I have learned many things, including the phrase in the altogether, that SEPA provide daily forecasts of water quality across all the bathing waters in Scotland, that the quality deteriorates during and after heavy rainfall, that the bathing season runs from 15 May to 15 September.

And so, not having a wetsuit, my swimming odyssey has likely come to an end for 2021, with today’s swim being noticeably chillier than that first dip back in June. However, the forecast is good for tomorrow, and so the temptation to be even more hardcore—and swim outside the confines of the official season—is strong…I think I might have turned into a middle-aged woman.

Bridges and Punctuation.

My Peebles sojourn has drawn rapidly to a close.

Last night Gary sallied forth from his country house headquarters to join me for a walk. We ambled over the Tweed Bridge and down into Hay Lodge Park. Peebles, being a town that is built around a river, has a pleasing number of bridges punctuating the landscape. A bit like New York, really, with a rather more sedate pace of life. And the bridges are, in general, very old and quite lovely. Although it’s probably easier to find a postcard for sale in New York.

Earlier in the day a friend sent me a picture from Pitlochry, of a rotating postcard stand, crammed with quality-looking Colin-Baxter-esque postcards. So that’s where all the postcards are these days. I was a little envious.

Gary and I wandered along the river bank, climbing and descending along uneven dusty paths broken up by gnarled tree roots and ancient sandstone rocks, the Tweed burbling along happily below. I was minded of my recent reading of Night Soldiers, the story featuring a grander European river, known to us as famously as the Danube, but known by many other names as it snakes eastwards across the continent: from its Black Forest source as the Donau, into Vienna, then as the Dunaj through Slovakia, splitting Budapest in two, flowing as the Duna along the western edge of Serbia, before serving as the Romanian-Bulgarian border and emptying out, now as the Dunărea, into the Black Sea.

The Tweed, to my knowledge, remains the Tweed for its entire and somewhat shorter existence, and Strauss probably never wrote a famous waltz about the Tweed, but still, a river holds a certain fascination, especially when viewed from a bridge, and can be watched for hours as it goes on its way.

The path climbed alongside a beautiful viaduct, built at an angle across the river, which brought purrs of pleasure from Gary, something of a connoisseur of buildings and architecture and many other things besides. At the top we walked along the route of the former railway line, and continued on to meet a quiet road, where we were beset by giant killer winged creatures. However, we prevailed against them mainly by running away, crossing the Manor Brig, dating from 1707, and climbed a lung-burstingly steep hill, requiring a pause at the top, for thought, and chocolate and water, not to mention the recovery of air into the lungs. We had an exquisite view looking southwest along the Tweed valley, and, once we’d set off again and rounded the next corner, of Peebles itself nestled comfortably in its glen. 

It was downhill all the way from there, past a serious-looking horsey establishment, with a floodlit enclosure, and impressive looking horses grazing in a field. There was a sign on the roadside as we approached the main buildings.

On Tuesday I had walked on the other side of the glen, and as I neared Peebles Hydro and the main road I passed the end of some forest trails which are clearly well-used by mountain bikers. On the roadside near a cluster of houses was a sign, which I contend could have benefitted from some punctuation. It read

CYCLISTS SLOW DOWN CHILDREN & ANIMALS

I don’t think the writer of the sign intended to convey the message that children and animals were slowed down by cyclists, much as I don’t think the person who had created this sign with the wording

SLOW HORSES AND CHILDREN

intended us to think the local horses and children were a little dull.

But a little punctuation would have helped their cause.

We found ourselves in the southwestern suburbs of the town, sparking memories for me of house visits to a nearby client in my audiology days, and followed John Buchan Way signposts from there to the car park, once nearly heading down a driveway by mistake due to a questionable signpost placement.

This morning I reprised last night’s walking route, only running this time. I should say that I ran most of it, but punctuated the running with some walking at times, notably on the aforementioned hill climb.

It being earlier in the day, the giant killer winged beasties had not roused from their slumbers, but at that point in the route I stayed as quiet as I could, just in case, as quiet as someone whose lungs are bursting can, at any rate.

From the top of the hill, and the Peebles and Tweed Valley panoramas, I followed the same route into the suburbs, past houses with names like The Croft, and The Anchorage, the garage door of which was being raised just as I ran past. I glanced over hoping to see a fine boat moored inside, but sadly there was only a Jaguar SUV.

Along lanes squeezed narrow by tall nettles, dodging these with what I considered pretty nimble footwork, past the High School’s playing fields, and grass hockey pitches where a whole platoon of rabbits were performing various manoeuvres.

Forgot about the misleading signpost, found myself in the driveway briefly, made a sharp exit, down the lane I was supposed to, and then into the town itself, across bridges, up braes and down various wynds and gates, along the edge of Eddleston Water again, back to the caravan, a shower, lunch and a siesta.

Peebles, you were lovely. Deserving of more postcards.

Peebles and Postcards

It’s Monday, and I find myself in Peebles. Not entirely accidentally, you understand, there was a certain amount of planning involved, although one couldn’t describe this holiday as over-planned, as I began thinking about it approximately twelve hours before I left the house.

I am here courtesy of Wiseman, who, along with the lovely Mrs Wiseman, are custodians of a static caravan here. And they offered it to me for a short break, and I jumped at the chance, relishing the opportunity of a change of scenery.

And so here I am basking in the glorious sunshine, or at least I was until I got too hot and retreated inside, because the long hot Scottish summer has finally arrived, as I knew it would. Were I to be sitting on the caravan’s decking, as I was earlier, I would be surrounded by rolling hills. Albeit I wouldn’t really be able to see the hills on account of all the other static caravans in the way. But I know they’re there, and imagine they must be very picturesque indeed.

This morning I went for a run, my first foreign run, as I like to think of it, and promptly got lost multiple times. I also found the tarmac considerably more unyielding than sand, although I had taken the precaution of wearing socks and trainers, which helped.

I ran alongside Eddleston Water into Peebles. I was the only runner I saw, and consequently had the midges almost all to myself, which was pleasing. The only people around to share the midges with were a few dog walkers, and I was only attacked by one dog.

What with the midges and the attack dogs, I wouldn’t say I’ve felt immediately welcome here, but I returned from my run and consoled myself with an iced root beer on the caravan decking, and suddenly everything seemed better again.

In the afternoon I walked back into Peebles, ostensibly to look for some postcards, but I knew there might be an ice-cream opportunity lurking along the way, and indeed there was, and it was very good.

Postcards, however, were harder to pin down. It seems like postcards are now relics of a bygone era. Has the selfie killed the postcard star, as it were? Eventually I found a shop with a considerable amount of tourist tat, and asked the proprietor if he had any postcards. He replied that they did, and pointed to the floor, where there was a box of assorted postcards depicting various Scottish scenes, mostly from the Highlands, some of snowbound Munros.

They didn’t feel all that local, I would say. Where are the rotating racks out on the street, full of local postcards portraying pictures of the local town hall? Am I the only one to mourn the loss of these?

I purchased some assorted postcards of Scotland, only one of which showed a glimpse of Peebles (in its bottom right hand corner), and a classic cheap touristy pen with Peebles printed on it, with the full intention of finding a beer garden where I might write.

However I couldn’t find my way to the beer garden I was hoping to, and besides, I was beginning to develop concerns for my staunchly Irish complexion, which was reddening slightly under the full force of the blistering Scottish sun, and so I retreated back to the caravan decking, where I consumed an Irish-inspired Scottish beer, and remained there until quite recently, when it all got a little too hot.

I wrote postcards to my nephews and niece, apologising for my handwriting, which was never that great to start with, and has deteriorated due to being out of practice at writing with an actual pen, and more recently has deteriorated even further due to me dislocating my finger last week in an unfortunate accident. I gave my nephews and niece three separate stories explaining the finger injury, all of which were more exciting than the truth, but I feel one must maintain one’s mystique as an uncle.

And with that, I think it’s time for tea.