Hogmanay 2019

Christmas has come and gone. I am relieved on one score at least – no more Christmas music with its abundance of glockenspiel tricking me into thinking I’m getting a tonne of WhatsApp messages.

Around this time of year, during the inbetweeny-bit, a strange compulsion comes on me – to clean my living space, and tidy things. I suspect it’s a pagan tradition, but every year I succumb. 

Mon 30 Dec

I set about it with vigour. Bags for the charity shop, the Recycling Facility and the bin (quite a number of socks in the latter) were filled. Older clothes, even those with precious memories attached, were ruthlessly discarded.

I even changed the bed linen.

Two hours in, the scale of the task was becoming apparent, but with bulging sacks and a vacuum cleaner – taking momentary respite from its endeavours – littering the hallway… as Van said many a time, it was too late to stop now. Out with the old, in with the new.

Hogmanay

The purge complete, I flicked through a ski brochure online, trying to decide if I have the time and money to fit in a second ski trip this winter. I don’t, but I’m figuring out if this is a non-negotiable situation.

My niece and nephew no.1 bought me the most elegant trilby hat I’ve ever known for Christmas. It’s yellow, and covered in gold sequins. It will make the perfect accessory for this evening’s Hogmanay celebrations. 

A thought occurred. I realised I hadn’t seen the trilby hat for a while.

Panic momentarily set in, before I located it in the laundry bin, where it had probably fallen during a particularly frenzied dusting episode.

Freshly showered and shaven, wearing a shirt not necessarily clean, but freshly-ironed, I closed the browser, clamped the trilby – smelling faintly of stale underpants – on my head, and set off to the party, clutching a few beers, a half-full bottle of Jack Daniels, and a packet of stripy doughnuts.

New Year’s Day

Sometime after 3pm I climbed into my car, after an evening, night and morning spent in the company of some truly great friends. The Jack D a little emptier than it was… the doughnuts, however, still intact.

When I plug my phone into the car stereo, sometimes the System remembers what I was last listening to and picks up where we left off.

Sometimes it chooses a random song instead. Today it pulled up the near-forgotten Natalie Merchant. 

Maybe it’s the time of year, the wispy melancholy that pervades a grey New Year’s Day, the contented tiredness from a Ligretto session that began before the bells and ended shortly before 3am, but Natalie Merchant’s liquid-silk vocals prove to be a serendipitous choice.

Farewell today // Travel on now // Be on your way

Go safely there // Never worry // Never care // Beyond this day

Raising a glass to you all, wishing you a year of hopes & dreams fulfilled. Here’s to great friends that make the world a great place to be.

Thank you for reading my random musings in 2019! 

<clink>

Turmeric and the General Election

Turmeric. It’s all the rage among the hipsters, you know. Lots of internet-proven* health benefits including anti-inflammatoriness, being a natural painkiller, and basically eliminating cancer, Alzheimer’s and depression. Also, it provides a glow and lustre to the skin.

Having come down with a cold earlier in the week, I am now fighting fit again. I am confident that my daily intake of turmeric has helped me recover quickly. But it’s always hard to prove these things, and the turmeric may in fact have only made my hair more lustrous.

Meanwhile we’ve had a General Election here in the UK, with a seismic result. South of the border, England and Wales have returned the Conservatives to power with an overwhelming majority. Up here in Scotland, the SNP have further increased their domination.

Which has produced an even-more polarised Great Britain, with England and Wales almost entirely blue, and Scotland almost completely a turmeric shade of yellow. And the inevitable and obvious conclusion that the two countries are completely different, justifying the renewed call for another Scottish independence referendum.

I have three objections to this obvious conclusion.

Firstly, does a resounding win for the SNP on Thursday translate to reasonable justification for a second referendum?

The SNP are – very cleverly – both a party whose main reason for existing is to achieve Scottish independence, and a political party who have proved they can govern competently. I am confident that this second facet of the SNP has gained them more and more votes in both local and national elections in recent years. And so, despite their overwhelming support in Scotland of late, most recently on Thursday, it cannot be inferred that the same number of people are pro-independence.

Secondly, the fact that Scotland has, pretty much en bloc, voted differently to England and Wales, is not especially relevant. The SNP don’t field a whole lot of candidates in English constituencies, you will note, and so English voters don’t have the option of voting for them. Therefore it’s no real surprise that Scotland and England vote differently. If England had a nationalist party which was a credible political force, the map might look different.

Northern Ireland has been voting for Northern Irish parties for years, but it’s never been taken as a justification that the Province needs an independence referendum. Of course, none of those N Irish parties were campaigning for independence for N Ireland, in the manner of the SNP. But that brings us back to the first question – how many of the SNP’s recent votes were votes for independence? We don’t know.

Thirdly, this is a snapshot in time. In this late-2019-snapshot of the political mood of the nation, the Conservatives appear to be rampantly popular in England, and the SNP are equally popular in Scotland. Twas not always thus, and – one imagines – it won’t stay that way forever. Or even, perhaps, for all that long. Political parties have a knack for puncturing their own success, through various means including corruption, scandal, and general incompetence. Leaders change, and lose popularity. Moods change. People change. The electorate shifts.

I have lived in Edinburgh for 27 years. For most of this time, Edinburgh’s political landscape has been utterly dominated by Labour. Now, they hold only one seat. In fact, it’s their only seat in Scotland. This was a completely unimaginable scenario not so very long ago. But things change.

If the SNP, riding a wave of popularity that has been swelling for less than ten years, manage to inveigle the Scottish people to take a decision that will echo for centuries to come, I for one will be monstrously unhappy.

Brexit gets rolled out as another justification for Scotland to leave the UK. Scotland voted to Remain, goes the narrative, whereas the overall UK result was to Leave. That shows how different we are to England and Wales, it’s said. But the Brexit referendum was not based on regions, or constituencies, but on individuals. From the rhetoric, you might be tempted to think that 100% of Scottish voters opted to Remain. They didn’t. 62% did. The remaining 38%, when put together with the results from the rest of the UK, helped vote for the UK to leave the EU.

The majority of voters in Northern Ireland also voted to Remain. Again, no banging of the independence drum there. 

“Westminster doesn’t represent us” goes the cry. Here’s the thing. If Scotland was an independent country, Edinburgh wouldn’t represent the Highlands all that well either. There would be local biases, and parochial interests. Just on a smaller scale.

We’re a nation full of lots of very different people, with different views and priorities. We have a parliamentary system that affords representation to every area in the corridors of power at Westminster. It’s not perfect, it never will be, but let’s stay together Britain. Let’s stay together.

It’s part of being in a union. It’s like being in a family – you don’t always get your own way. Not getting your own way shouldn’t mean you leave.

I apologise for the political post! I promise to revert to whimsy before too long.

The Lost Art of Letter-writing

I confess I get a little suspicious whenever anyone entitles something “The Lost Art of…”. There’s a degree of presumptuousness in declaring something a lost art. And so I will begin by asserting only that the art of letter-writing has been lost (for a while) to me. Although perhaps also to those who would once have written me letters, as I haven’t received any for some time.

Today I decided to write a letter for the first time in the longest time. Immediately I began, I was struck by a few things.

  • You think through your sentences more, because you can’t just backspace your way out of trouble.
  • If you do commit yourself to a word that you then regret, even in the most innocuous way, you have a decision to make. Either you can re-craft the sentence around the word, adapting on the fly. Or you can score the word out. However, you know that the reader – unless you score it out so thoroughly and heavily that it leaves a shiny black dent in the page – will read your wrong word and try to work out what you were going to say. And why you changed your mind. 
  • Even if you make the shiny black dent the reader is going to wonder what on earth you wrote that you now so desperately don’t want them to read. And there’s still a possibility that the word can be read by turning the page over and holding it up to the light.
  • In such a way was my prepubescent crush on Lynda McCann in P7 discovered. I sent her a Christmas card, along with a cuddly toy gift, with the intention of being a mysterious anonymous sender (plus I was scared). Sadly, however, I forgot to NOT WRITE my name in it, as I was on a Christmas-card-writing roll at the time, working my way through all my Christmas cards to all my friends, most of whom I had no desire to conceal my identity from. Hence I resorted to the classy approach of Tippexing my name out. Which didn’t really work when the reverse-and-hold-up-to-the-light tactic was employed. In front of the whole class, if I remember correctly. For such moments were counselling sessions created.
  • If you get creative, and make up a whole new word, an angry red dashed line doesn’t appear underneath it. Nor does the system automatically change it into another word that you didn’t remotely want to say. Because there is no system. There is only you, some paper, and a pen. 

The letter I wrote was to my 12 year old niece. I expect it to take her by surprise. I began the letter by explaining what a letter was, which may have been mildly condescending, but I suspect it was needed.

The whole experience was quite rewarding, and brought back some long-forgotten memories. Like Basildon Bond writing paper. I am fairly convinced that I (on at least one occasion) received some Basildon Bond writing paper as a Christmas present. Possibly a pack of envelopes too.

My niece, I’m afraid, received no such luxury – I wrote to her on a piece of lined paper torn from a student’s notebook. I should point out that it was a student’s notebook that I had just purchased – I didn’t tear a page from the book of a nearby student.

I addressed the letter, put a stamp on it, and posted it in a red pillar box. I felt like a relic from a bygone era. It was great.

Islands in the sun

The summer has faded here in Scotland, although not without a welcome September reprise of beautiful sunshine and warmth. Many of my off days these past months, and not a few lazy evenings of extended twilight, have been spent wearing out the Golf Coast Road to Longniddry, Yellowcraig and North Berwick. 

In August I made my now-annual pilgrimage across the Irish Sea to the Openskies festival, once again in the excellent company of Ickle Bef, on a ferry which charged £1.65 for a cup of tea and £2.00 for a cup of hot water. 

The weather forecast for the weekend was absolutely apocalyptic. We camped anyway, praying madly that the weather would miss us, which it did, and we came away with tents and belongings mostly dry and all intact. Even the fairy lights – a lovely set of plastic pink flamingoes generously donated by DL – survived. The deluge, it transpired, had been diverted towards Wales, where it landed with full force where my sister and her family were camping. Our diversion prayers were non-specific in a directional sense, and my conscience is clear.

Sports-wise, England won the Cricket World Cup, failed to win back the Ashes despite Ben Stokes’ monumental heroics in Leeds, and the Red Sox had a disappointingly average season.

Ireland appeared to be alarmingly ill-prepared for the Rugby World Cup, but still I approached their opening game against Scotland with hope and a degree of expectation.

Sunday 22 Sep | Ireland 27-3 Scotland

Later that day Ryan texted me from Nashville.

“What’s happening to Scotland?”

I was feeling slightly daunted at the prospect of figuring out what, indeed, was happening to Scotland in the current Brexit and IndyRef2 climate, not to mention how to condense that into a text, when a further message clarified that he was talking about the rugby. 

I reminded him of my Irishness, which is something I am happy to do for people when they are inclined to forget, and especially when Ireland are doing well and most especially when they’ve just beaten Scotland.

Six days later, Ireland faced the hosts Japan in Shizuoka. 

I woke up early. Like, 4am early. Three hours later I gave up on further sleep, and made my escape to Sainsbury’s, which I had discovered to my surprise was open at such an hour on a Saturday morning.

I returned home with bacon and croissants. The croissants were freshly-baked and still warm, and so good it sort of made me want to get up early on a Saturday morning more often. Sort of. 

Then I watched Japan puncture the hopes of an island, and I wished I’d stayed in bed.

Saturday 28 Sep | Japan 19-12 Ireland

The afternoon was sunny and breezy on the coast. A few friends joined me on a fast boat trip from N Berwick, which skimmed over the choppy waves to three islands in the Forth – the Lamb, Craigleith and the Bass Rock. The Lamb, we discovered, is now owned by Uri Geller, who is convinced that the ancient Egyptians buried treasure somewhere on it. Our guide explained that the Lamb was made of basalt, one of the hardest naturally-occurring substances known, and openly wondered how the ancient Egyptians would have buried anything in it.

Having completed a slow circuit of the Lamb, we sped through the sea spray to Craigleith and did the same, and then on to the Bass Rock, and its 150,000-strong colony of gannets. At this time of year their numbers are thinned out somewhat, but there was still enough to make a considerable din, and their guano was, well, fragrant. 

As we circled the island I discovered that it not only has a lighthouse, but also a 14th century castle. In fact, the lighthouse has been built inside the castle. This makes the Bass Rock, in my view, about as epic as it could possibly be. An island with a lighthouse AND a castle? I feel sure the Famous Five must have visited.

Curate’s Egg

It’s been quite a summer. As the curate of Punch’s 1895 cartoon said of the stale egg he had been served by the bishop, parts of it have been excellent.

During the last few weeks, there have been days which have been among the nicest I’ve ever known in Scotland. But when it hasn’t been excellent, the rain has been apocalyptic.

At the end of June I travelled down to London to watch the Red Sox play the Yankees. I was excited about this. It would be the first time Major League Baseball had played a proper game (ie not an exhibition game – one that mattered) in Europe. Two games were scheduled – on Saturday and Sunday.

I watched Saturday’s game on a giant screen in a sun-soaked beer garden in East London. The Yankees were in front most of the game, and despite an 8th inning rally from the Sox, New York prevailed.

Sunday, nephew Sebastian in tow, we made our way to the stadium – London Stadium, which had been converted to a baseball field for the occasion. The sun shone again. 

I disappeared to get a couple of Cokes for Sebastian and myself, and came back £9 lighter.

Our neighbours in Row 37 were Violet and Joe, and their son Eddie, all the way from Boston. Eddie had trained as a vet at Edinburgh University.

Sebastian, meanwhile, was hungry. I got him a burger, averting my eyes and handing over my debit card, wincing slightly.

We returned to the game. The Sox were winning. Sebastian was still hungry. He seemed to be treating London Stadium as a huge open-air restaurant with some baseball happening as in-meal entertainment. I fed him some of my chips.

The Yankees had a massive 7th inning, and from then on the Sox were always chasing the game.

Sebastian, meanwhile, was still hungry, so we got doughnuts. Six of them, just in case.

The Red Sox lost again, despite threatening with another 8th inning rally. The game over, I bid goodbye to my new Boston friends, and promised to say hi to Edinburgh for Eddie.

It’s been a curate’s egg of a summer for the Red Sox too. There have been flashes of last season’s excellence, but no consistency. Following the inaugural London Series their record against the Yankees reads won 1, lost 6.


It’s now late July. It’s another sodden Saturday in Edinburgh, and I’m back in the Hideout. Cricket has been rained off again (third Saturday in a row). Boris has just been made Prime Minister. The country is unsure of what lies ahead, as it always is, but probably more so now than ever.

Tuesday this week, it was swelteringly hot. SCORCHIO! As the red-tops used to scream on days like this. Perhaps they still do.

I spent the morning paddling in the shallows at the beach, before meeting a friend in town. We lunched in the sunshine on Victoria Terrace. The Terrace overlooks Victoria Street, which was reputedly the inspiration for JK Rowling’s Diagon Alley. There is meagre evidence for this beyond Victoria St’s proximity to the Elephant House – the self-proclaimed ‘home of Harry Potter’ – but the tour parties come by, one by one, complete with excitable HP superfan tour guide.

It is, however, a pretty magical street, Victoria Street.

I had the Eggs Benedict, which was excellent. I managed to spill a quantity of hollandaise sauce down the front of my t-shirt, ensuring I (and everyone I met) had a visual reminder of the excellence of my lunch for the rest of the day, which was pleasing.

In the still-warm early evening, Ickle Bef and I sat on a rock in Holyrood Park, looking out over Holyrood Palace, the National Monument and a forest of giant cranes putting together the new St James Centre. We discussed our camping plans for Openskies, so that – this year – there wouldn’t be any unnecessary duplication of the important provisions. Not that Ickle actually brought any pine nuts last year, to my memory.

On Wednesday, apart from Boris becoming PM, the other main news was that the milk Ryan and Katie kindly bought for me to use while I was in Tennessee – in early May – went past its sell-by date. These dates are always conservative, as we know, so there’s a chance it may still be usable.

Thursday night the Red Sox finally got to play the Yankees again for the first time since London, and the first time at Fenway Park this season.

They thumped them 19-3. They thumped them again last night. The summer is looking up…

The Longest Day

It’s getting on for the end of June, dear reader. The country remains in unresolved Brexit turmoil, although attention has now shifted to the Conservative Party’s leadership election, which will determine our next Prime Minister. Once this is resolved, for better or worse, Brexit will again, I imagine, consume us all. 

In Edinburgh, the summer so far has been unusually damp. Unusually damp, I say, for it has been damp even by Scottish standards. 

Accordingly, the cricket season has been patchy. Last Saturday the Holy Cross 2nd XI, of which I had been carelessly – but happily only temporarily – left in charge, played their first game in a month.

We were away to Musselburgh. I lost the toss. This was the first indicator that it wasn’t to be a good day. We were asked to bat on a damp wicket, and bowled out for 21, which – for those not in tune with cricketing matters – is a pretty low score for one batsman, never mind a whole team. 

Captains and managers in sport are frequently said to have “lost the dressing room.”  I took this a step further by losing the dressing room key, which went missing from the scorer’s table at some point during the first innings. Fingers were pointed and accusations levelled.

In due course the key was located, in one of my team-mates’s pockets.

Normally at this point we would all ‘take tea’, which would involve picking at whatever meagre fare the home team had produced, before commencing the second innings. However, such was the low score that Musselburgh needed to chase, we simply went back out again.

Four overs later, Musselburgh required 7 runs to win. I threw the dice, and made my first bowling change, bringing on Ollie the Offspinner. Ollie delivered his first – entirely respectable – ball, and the batsman, in an act of considerable discourtesy, deposited it over long-on for six.

It bounced on the path which ran beyond the boundary, right over the wall, into trees and dense foliage, and was lost forever. We found another ball from somewhere. The same batsman edged this one through the slips and it was all over. 

We trooped into the changing rooms. The showers were cold. We emerged again, and the tea, sadly, met our expectations fully.

A dismal performance, a lost game, a lost ball, a lost dressing room key, cold showers, and a poor tea. At least it wasn’t raining.

The following Friday we celebrated 2019’s longest day, on an East Lothian beach. We really should have been at Akva, our monthly Swedish haunt, but the weather had taken an upturn, as if acknowledging that the longest day deserved better. So we cancelled our booking, in the process denying ourselves Akva’s pagan midsummer celebration complete with flower crowns and frog dancing, whatever that is.

Suitably equipped with fish and chips, we wandered down the sandy path to the beach. The tide was in. The fish was excellent, the chips too, although sand – unfailingly able to find its way into every available orifice – found its way into my box of chips, and became a most unwelcome garnish of the grittiest possible kind.

Nicola, garlanded most appropriately with a flower crown, produced a couple of bags of Haribo from somewhere, and we watched the sun sink slowly in an almost flawless blue sky, painting a pencil-thin orange stripe towards us across the water, and the wet rippled sand.

We walked eastward to the end of the beach, on the way enacting what we thought frog-dancing might be, and parked ourselves on a massive piece of driftwood, as the sun sank even lower. Eventually, just after 10pm, it dropped behind that little hill across the water in Fife, whose name escapes me now. 

I remember someone telling me that there are parts of the village of Falkland which are in shadow for six months of the year (or thereabouts), due to their proximity to that hill.

We returned along the Golf Coast, courtesy of Sonic Boom Bef’s thrill-a-minute driving, and stopped for a McFlurry at Fort Kinnaird.

It was at this point that I noticed TK Maxx. It was looking as good as a TK Maxx ever has, I would venture to say. The distant horizon, still burning a fiery red, was reflected in its polished glass frontage. This, combined with the odd solitary tree and manicured grass of the Fort Kinnaird car park, made for a striking image. Made me think of Malibu.

“It’s just like Malibu,” I remarked to Nicola.

Nicola snorted.

I’ve never even been to Malibu. Later, I found a picture of the TK Maxx in Malibu (although of course it’s TJ Maxx there). It was surprisingly unimpressive-looking, although there were real palm trees in the picture. Fort Kinnaird for the win, I say.

We found a table by the window, with a gorgeous view across the roundabout to Screwfix, and Bef had her first ever McFlurry. It was a momentous day.

The Nashville Diaries, part III

The reminder of my time in Nashville was spent profitably, with many root beers, tacos and great friends. 

The entire root beer research could be summed up by:
Kroger’s own brand root beer: terrible and to be avoided.
Everything else: pretty great.

With a special mention for Sarsaparilla, which is the best. I still don’t know what Sarsaparilla is.

Saturday’s back porch party was a whole lot of fun. The sun went down and the fairy lights came up, and I sat sipping root beer in the warm night, catching up on old times and new with some of my favourite people in the world. Much insect repellent was applied, as Ryan’s pre-party deck-spraying had not proved to be effective at keeping the mozzies at bay.

JJR proved to be a leading authority on insect repellent, as he is on many matters, and also regaled us with tales of his recent roadtrip to New Mexico.

Flying home a few days later, I found myself randomly upgraded to an emergency exit seat, with effectively infinite legroom. This pleased me greatly.

Across the aisle in the central block, there were two N Irish girls, with an American lady to their left.

The American lady was volubly excited to learn that her travelling companions were Irish. I overhead the beginnings of the “I have relatives from Ireland!” conversation. 

Meanwhile I was trying to work out how to ask my own neighbour to remove his elbow, which was protruding over our shared arm-rest by 3-4 inches.

“I had a DNA test. You can get that done with your saliva now y’know…” floated over from my left.

“Hey man, I’m going to have to ask you to move that…” I began, pointing at the offending elbow in my airspace.

He moved his arm and grunted an apology. And then, shortly after, crossed his legs in such a way that his right foot was now encroaching on my lower airspace. But I was rich in legroom, and I didn’t feel the need to mention it.

“I’m three-quarters Irish, one eighth Polish, one eighth Dutch!”

“Where were your relatives from?” enquired one of the N Irish girls, politely, as we always do, in these circumstances. 

“Oh… I don’t know! Their name was Lynch!”

Well, that’ll help.

Midway through the flight, I glanced to my left and noticed that the Irish girls had retreated. Somewhere. They didn’t reappear for the rest of the flight. It was a full flight. I am fairly convinced they were hiding in the toilets.

Today it’s my day off. I decided to spend the middle part of it driving out to North Berwick, with Steampunk’s Communal Work table in mind as a destination.

There are more direct routes to North Berwick, but the Golf Coast Road remains my favourite. I have tested the mettle of most of my cars through Longniddry, Aberlady and Gullane, and the bends and straights in between. But particularly the bends.

Just as I was passing Longniddry Bents, the blues groove of Gary Clark Jr.’s When My Train Pulls In kicks in. It inspires a head bob, not a completely horizontal tennis-watching-style one, but more of a shallow ‘V’ shaped one, with the chin hitting the bottom of the ‘V’ on the beat. It’s very very hard to not head-bob to this tune.

I find myself behind a slow-moving Volvo, still head-bobbing. When the overtaking opportunity finally arrives just before Aberlady, I turn Gary Clark Jr. down a little so as to better enjoy the sweet engine note which comes when the accelerator is floored in third gear.

Despite several of these moments occurring recently, I am still well on my way to attaining 2-leaf status on my dashboard plants. It occurs to me that vegans might not enjoy this car so much. Looking at those plants all the time must make them hungry.

Later in the afternoon I bus it up to Lauriston Place in an attempt to give away some of my blood. However, not for the first time, I am thwarted. Perhaps the insect repellent hadn’t worked, but whatever, having suffered from a tummy upset on my return from Nashville, I am persona non grata. West Nile Virus, maybe. I catch a 44 home again.

This evening will be spent at the opera. Nicola is going to be there, and has promised to wear face glitter and leopard print. It’s a while since I’ve been at the opera, but from memory I am confident she’ll fit right in.

The Nashville Diaries, part II

Sunday

Sunday morning the coffee-making travails continue, as, having laboriously ground the beans, and successfully decanted the resulting grounds into the basket thing, I then accidentally catch the edge of the basket and flip the whole lot onto the counter-top.

Ryan saves the day by producing a sheet of paper (quality cardstock, none of your cheap 75gsm stuff) and I brush the grounds onto the paper. Then, curving the paper, I get most of the grounds back into the basket. Katie helpfully points out, somewhat after the fact, that it would have been easier if I had used the paper in portrait orientation instead of landscape.

Later I visited Wholefoods. Picked up some Maine Root Sarsaparilla, and Maine Root root beer. Plus some A&W at Kroger.

(4) Maine Root Root Beer. Decent but unspectacular. A little bland even. 6/10.

Ryan disagrees, but this is my blog so it’s getting a 6.

Monday

Monday morning the Robinsons’ sweet children involve me in one of their games, which involves Jude (3) chopping off many of my body parts. He starts with the arms and doesn’t stop, at anything, really, naming each body part as he goes, and it turns out his genital vocabulary is pretty extensive.

I am relieved that we’re only pretending.

Every time I come to the States I get a temporary sim from Zip Sim. On activating it, I get assigned a US number. Two years ago I was given a number that had clearly belonged to someone who had signed up for daily parenting advice texts.

This morning, at 09:26 I get a text from an unknown number

GET YOUR ASS IN HERE!!!!

I am unsure where I am to get my ass in to, what’s more Jude has only recently chopped it off, so I stay where I am.

Tried to have a Maine Root Sarsaparilla but couldn’t get the top off. Nearly shredded my fingers before I conceded that it probably wasn’t a twist-off cap. Searched for, and failed to find, a bottle opener. So I have one of the A&W cans instead. It’s ok.

(5) A&W root beer. Really not that bad. 7/10

Tuesday

Get a text at lunchtime:

“Who is girl next to Patrick. Have not been here since break”

I research the area code of the text-sender, which is 267 – the same as my temporary number for the week – and it belongs to Philadelphia. Which is funny, because I am currently reading Silver Linings Playbook – set in Philly – and watched Creed on the plane on the way over, also set there. I am feeling a lot of connection to Philadelphia right now.

I drive back to Franklin, swinging past the Drake Motel, where I stop for a quick selfie to send to Nicola, as it features in the film Wild Rose, of which she is a fan.

Then onto my old haunt the Jam Coffeehouse. The sat nav takes me down South St, and on impulse I hang a left into my old neighborhood. It’s radically transformed from when I left 5 years ago. All around are brand new houses and condos, with boats in the driveway. The house immediately beside ours, which at the time belonged to a local drug dealer, has been pulled down and some tall construction is going up in its place. 

On arriving back in Franklin, Ryan shows me where the bottle opener was, so I could finally try the Maine Root Sarsaparilla, and then opens the bottle for me by twisting it off with his fingers anyway. I feel weak and unmanly.

But the MR Sarsaparilla is good, really good. Sarsaparilla, whatever it is, seems to be the thing. In discussion with Ryan, we concur that the Sioux City was marginally better, so this one gets an 8.

Maine Root Sarsaparilla. Pretty excellent. 8/10

The Nashville Diaries, part I

Thurs 9 May

After a pleasant and comfortable flight from Heathrow which was just a little longer than three feature films laid end to end, I landed at BNA, and was met by the full Robinson family. Well, I would have been, if I had come out on the level they expected me to, but I didn’t, and so we found each other in the car rental section instead.

Their sweet kids are holding Welcome Quinn signs, adorned by hand-drawn pictures of aeroplanes which do look slightly like they’re on fire.

I pick up my rental car. This year I opted for the “Compact” size, one up from “Mini”. Any concerns I had about the size of my transport are eased when I get to the car and realise that “compact” is American for “generously-sized family saloon.”

Ryan and Katie have organised a ‘welcome back’ party for me for Saturday evening, on their back porch. I am excited to see lots of old friends, and just to have a party on a back porch, which is not something that happens too much at home.

I have a breakfast date early tomorrow morning in Nashville, so set my alarm for 7:15am. 

Fri 10 May

7:15am was always hopelessly optimistic. Woke up at 4am.

Descended to the kitchen around 7am and made myself breakfast. Found milk in the fridge. I always check the expiry date on milk before using, ever since going camping with Ickle Bef. The milk in the fridge will expire on 24 July. American use-by dates scare me.

A sweat-soaked Ryan appears in the kitchen, returning from a run. We strike up a root beer conversation.

Each year I come and stay with the Robinsons, and each year, Ryan and I conduct extensive research into which root beer is the best. Never, though, have we taken any notes on our findings, and we forget from one year to the next, so every year we have to start all over again. 

This year, Ryan’s preliminary grocery store trips have indicated that a vastly-reduced range of root beers are available. I blame Trump. It wasn’t like this before he took over.

“Have you had a root beer?” Ryan asks.

It’s 7:30am. I do not feel the need to dignify this question with a response.

Instead I make myself coffee with my Cafflano Kompresso. Ryan is intrigued by this process, especially when I have to lean bodily on the plunger to force the water through the grounds.

“I think I packed the coffee a bit too tight,” I explain, through grunts, as a single bead of espresso finally drops into the clear container at the bottom. Some minutes later, I have a double shot of espresso with the most incredible crema, slight shortness of breath and a round mark imprinted on my right pectoral muscle.

Ryan looks bemused. He doesn’t drink coffee, he wouldn’t understand the lengths one has to go to sometimes.

Later that evening, I have my first root beer of the trip. It wasn’t good.

(1) Kroger Private Selection with ginger. Weird. Why add ginger? 4/10

I followed it up with a Sioux City. Made with cane sugar. That was pretty fine.

(2) Sioux City. Pretty fine. 7/10

The forecast tomorrow is for thundery showers, so we postpone the party to next Saturday instead.

Saturday

Saturday morning, I am leaning on my Kompresso and grunting again. Ryan comes into the kitchen.

“Looks like you packed it a little tight again,” he observes.

“It needs to be 9 bar of pressure,” I explain. “To produce genuine espresso.”

“Looks like you’re getting at least 11 bar there.”

I console myself that the great artists in history probably received criticism for their finest work too.

The other noteworthy thing that happened on Saturday is that I had a Sioux City Sarsaparilla and it might have changed my life. The label proudly claims it to be the Granddaddy of all root beers. I believe it.

(3) Sioux City Sarsaparilla. Proper good. 8.5/10

The new car, and the ageing process (contd.)

I got a new car a few weeks back. It’s a very fine car. Being somewhat sporty in appearance, it was suggested in certain circles that I might be having a mid-life crisis. I protested, with a certain degree of justification – I believe – that I have already had my mid-life crisis – having sold my flat, got tattoos, moved to the USA and bought a sports car.

In response to this, a certain member of said circles suggested that my crisis be upgraded to a three-quarters-life crisis. Which, I thought, was a touch harsh of him, or at least not especially charitable, since my mid-life crisis was only seven years ago. And since that gives me only another fifteen years to live, approximately.

Speaking of ageing, I also attained another year a few weeks ago. It’s a very fine age, and I’m quite proud of having achieved it. It’s taken me quite a while to get this far. But I still feel roughly 28 in my head. And even younger at times. Occasionally I feel mild surprise when somebody entrusts me with any kind of responsibility, especially when there isn’t an adult around to supervise.

Simon Zebo, the Irish rugby player now exiled in France and playing for Racing 92, received a certain amount of abuse from the Belfast crowd when returning to play against Ulster recently. Unfortunately this included some racist comments, which were – quite rightly – roundly condemned. But I noted with alarm that Mr Zebo’s tweeted description of his abuser included the phrase

“He was an elderly man, like 40-plus.”

Um, thanks Simon. Right on point, 27 Across in today’s Daily Telegraph:

Old tree likely hollow (7)

Back to the car. It is, as I’ve said, a very fine car, with something of a split personality, combining the frugality of a hybrid (for it is, indeed, a hybrid) with the performance of a sportyish car, if not an actual sports car. It has a hilariously useless back seat (even Ickle Bef doesn’t fit), and a surprisingly usefully-sized boot. I haven’t tried to fit anybody in the boot, yet.

It’s the first car I’ve owned which has the automatic start-stop feature so prevalent in modern cars. But the effect is not new to me – I did in fact master the manual start-stop thing quite a long time ago. My driving instructor, I recall, referred to it as “stalling”, being criminally unaware of quite how far ahead of my time I was.

In Sport mode, it handles and responds beautifully and slightly aggressively. And all the time, it looks great, and sounds wonderful. However, there is no question in my mind that Honda wants you to drive it like a grandad.

The onboard multi information display can display any number of different options, nearly all of which relate to the mpg or one’s driving efficiency.

Each time one turns off the engine, said multi information display shows a picture of a row of plants. One is awarded points over a driving lifetime (I’m not making this up, folks) based on the eco-friendliness of one’s most recently-completed drive, and the points are translated into leaves on the plants. Over time, the aim is to get four leaves on each plant, after which – if the good behaviour continues – the plants get a flower on top. 

It’s all very lovely, and slightly controlling.

The dash, filled with a bewildering array of gauges and information, glows green when one is driving carefully. Green for go. Green for eco-friendliness. Green for green and pleasant lands. Green is good.

Should one have made for oneself a sub-optimal gear choice, revving the engine slightly more than necessary and thus critically endangering the planet, a subtle (green) arrow indicates it’s time to change up. And the green-and-pleasant dash changes into a sterner ‘tsk-tsk’ shade of blue until one has complied.

But in Sport mode, the green and blue are replaced altogether by an angry glowing red. Red for danger. Red for stop. Red for shame-faced embarrassment.

And in such ways, Honda try to influence you to never really engage sport mode. Of course, for a Hearts fan such as myself, green is emphatically NOT a good colour. Red is the closest option I have to maroon, and so it’s sports mode all the way folks. At least until the Rugby World Cup or the Six Nations, when green becomes good again for me. Perhaps the car isn’t the only one with a split personality.


I, quite by accident, reconnected with an old friend yesterday. We stood and chatted, in the middle of a Balerno field, briefly catching up on the not-inconsiderable number of years since we last spoke, she keeping a watchful eye on her brood. I was reminded of a comment she made eighteen years ago, quite some time before there were any broods to keep an eye on, and long before I found myself in Balerno fields on such a regular basis. 

On discovering that I had acquired for myself an extremely sensible medium-sized estate car at the age of 27, she enquired if I was planning to use it to go “cruising for single mothers”.

Today I decided not to mention to her that I was now, aged 45, the owner of a small sports car. I can only – and prefer not to – imagine what she might have said…