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. 

The COVID jab and Neighbourhood Apps

Back in March, I got myself a new high-backed camping chair for beach sitting, in preparation for what will surely be a long hot Scottish summer.

I was inspecting this in the scheme’s car park when Irene bustled over.

“Are you Edward?”

“No, I’m Andrew.”

“I’m Irene. I’m the chair of the resident’s committee here. Have been for 20 years.’”

I know, I thought. And the editor of The Newsletter.

Irene was clutching a fairly nice-looking tablet, in the manner in which a highly-organised teacher would clutch a clipboard on Sports Day.

“I’m just waiting for family to arrive,” she said, and bustled off towards the car park entrance.

Not a word about The Newsletter. I’ve been here for five full months now, and still not seen an issue.

Last Thursday I got my COVID-19 jab in an East Lothian drive-thru. The whole process was super-organised. I almost fell in love with Ruth, the lady injecting me in the arm, she was so sweet. This may have been an overly emotional reaction to finally seeing the daylight at the end of the COVID tunnel, as she was clearly too old for me. Although with the mask, it’s not always easy to tell these things, these days.

Straight afterwards I felt like I’d drunk a mid-strength lager a bit too quickly. When I moved my head it felt like the contents of my head took just a fraction of a second to catch up.

But after my self-monitored fifteen minute recovery period sitting in the car, I drove off home, stopping off for a McFlurry in my second drive-thru of the day, as a reward to myself for being so brave.

At 4am the next morning I woke up feeling achey and shivery, and stopped just short of crying for my mummy. In the morning it had all subsided a bit. But I took what I am confident is a well-earned break from running for a few days.

The same day I got an envelope through the door, addressed to ‘Joppa Neighbour’. This, in itself, is controversial, as my mum is insistent my flat resides in Joppa, and I maintain it’s in Portobello. I have not shown this letter to my mum, as it would strengthen her case. 

But I was excited that perhaps the envelope contained a Newsletter.

Alas, it was an invitation to join the local Joppa neighbourhood app.

“Your neighbourhood is using it,” declared the letter, “and you should join too.”

Well, should I, now.

It felt very much like Irene had a hand in this letter.

Apparently, downloading and using the app will provide a host of benefits, like lost pet notifications, and safety issues in the neighbourhood

Disco Dave and I have had mixed experiences of neighbourhood social media. At his previous address, he was a fully paid up member of the street’s WhatsApp group, and reported on several occasions getting messages that the water was off in the street, which would then be confirmed by fifty other people immediately. Similarly when the water came back on.

I message him about the Joppa Neighbourhood App.

“You should join. 100%,” he affirms. “Otherwise how will you know when your power is off?”

It’s a fair point.

Today is 17th May. Still waiting for the hot Scottish summer to begin. Must be any day now.

Running, skiing and pancakes.

Well dear reader, we are nearly through Lent. Or Forty Days and Forty Nights of Pancakes, as I’m pretty sure it was originally known, before its true meaning got lost in the mists of time, and instead we ended up trying and failing to give up chocolate for the duration.

I am crusading hard for a return to the Pancake Festival approach, mainly by making and eating pancakes as often as I can, but am also considering creating an online petition. I trust I can count on your support.

Here at the seaside, it feels like spring has finally sprung, with some warmth in the sunshine, and more sunshine to feel the warmth in.

It doesn’t feel that long since we had some serious snow here in Edinburgh – in fact it was a touch over five weeks ago that the snow was so good that I packed my skis into the car, somewhat diagonally (it’s not a very long car), and headed to Arthur’s Seat. Not that I was planning to ski some gnarly descent off the Crags… but there was a longish slope that I noticed sledgers making good use of last winter, and made a mental note to myself to do a spot of skiing if we ever had decent snow again.

As expected, the piste was packed out with sledgers, but there were a few fellow skiers, and some boarders sitting around on their backsides, as they are wont to do.

Given the proximity of the slope to one of Edinburgh University’s halls of residence, it was perhaps unsurprising to see a number of slightly taller children improvising on various ‘sledges’. There were actual sledges of course – some plastic and some of the old fashioned wooden variety with runners, but there were also a number of body boards, de-wheeled skateboards, plastic bags, and even some plastic trays that looked like they’d been borrowed from the Pollock Halls cafeteria.

There was also a group of four students attempting to slide down on a sleeping bag. It didn’t work.

The skiing was good fun. Took almost a full minute to get to the bottom, and a slalom course could be fashioned by avoiding the dogs and small children on the way. Once at the bottom, of course, one had to pick up one’s skis and schlep back up to the top, but it was worth it.

On one of the trips back up I saw a man, who was old enough to know better really, sliding down the hill on a borrowed triangular metal road sign, which was working remarkably well, until he was attacked by a spaniel.

It was so much fun that I went back at the weekend, getting there early in the morning, and was joined after lunch by Filipideedoodaa, and possibly another ski friend, which may or may not have pushed us over the two-person limit allowed under the current restrictions, and so, for legal purposes, we bumped into this other friend in a happily coincidental manner. In case anyone’s asking.

Before their arrival, I had wandered into Edinburgh in my ski boots to find some coffee and lunch. With no ‘proper’ skiing allowed this year, it was surreal to experience the familiar sounds in an unfamiliar environment… the tsssht tsssht salopetted walk into town, the squeaky snow, the clump clump of my ski boots as I walked around a supermarket foraging for provisions. And of course, the joy of taking ski boots off at the end of a day’s fun on the slopes. Or slope, in this case.

With the local four-day-long ski season now officially over, I have stepped up the running. I have found a fun route along the beach which involves hurdling, or in some cases climbing over, the wooden groynes (fences) spaced along the beach. The climbing of these doesn’t always go smoothly. On various occasions I have failed in my initial jump and fallen back onto my derrière, much to the amusement of anyone watching. This has frequently happened on the very first fence I approach, whereupon I take some consolation in the fact that I have fallen at the first hurdle. It’s always fun to live out an actual cliché.

On another occasion I attempted to jump straight onto the top of one of the lower fences. I had envisaged a Colin Jackson-esque hurdling leap, placing my right foot firmly on the top of the fence, and kicking off athletically, somewhat like an Olympic long-jumper.

It didn’t turn out quite like this, in the end. My right foot landed perfectly on the fence as per the plan, but then slipped forwards, the bottom of my shoe being somewhat coated in wet sand and not the grippiest, which resulted in my left shin landing on the fence in an unplanned development, and sliding forward until my ankle arrested my forward movement, my momentum spinning me round so I was facing the way I’d come. My right foot then found a ledge halfway down the fence, and I kicked off it, spinning another 180º in the air, and landed and continued running without breaking stride, to the cheers of onlookers.

This is how I like to remember it. I had my earphones in the whole time, so I confess I didn’t hear any actual cheers, but imagine they must have been there.

Running has become an unexpectedly good friend. We didn’t get off to the greatest of starts, and approximately 400 metres into every single run I find myself asking the question

“Why didn’t I take up carpet bowls instead?”

but the combination of the endorphins, the fresh air, the sunshine (sometimes), the sea breezes (always), the sand and the sea itself (sometimes I run barefoot through the shallows), the views over the water to Fife (on the way out) and East Lothian (on the way back) is a winning one.

Plus it creates an appetite. Mmmm, pancakes.

Skiing and Communism

And just like that, it was February. 

Which means one thing, dear Reader, which is that we both survived January. Again. Punched it on the nose and landed it, looking slightly surprised, on its slightly frozen derrière. Much like a snowboarder, apart from the ‘looking surprised’ bit, as they seem to want to sit down on their frozen behind at every available opportunity.

And for myself, I survived January without my usual January Coping Mechanism which is to escape to the Alps for a week’s skiing. In fact, at the time of writing, I should be supping a hot chocolate in a mountain restaurant, preparing for the very final run of the week down to the village, or chalet, or bus stop. Or something.

But I’m not, I’m here on my sofa, looking out at leaden skies through bare windswept branches. However the skies are a brighter shade of lead than they would have been at this time on a January day. So let’s raise a glass to that.

Speaking of which, on Hogmanay morning, I got up early for a smart meter installation. It was snowing. I wandered along the promenade. There were people in the sea, swimming, and four guys were getting one of the beach volleyball courts ready, raking the frozen sand.

I picked up a newspaper, solely for the crossword, and headed back via Twelve Triangles, my local bakery and purveyor of not-underpriced sourdough loaves and excellent croissants. I’m glad they seem to be considered an essential shop.

I queued outside for about ten minutes. 

“Hi! How are you today?” asked the cheery girl when I finally arrived at the counter.

“I’m great!” I replied, “although queuing for bread, in the snow, makes me feel like I’m in Communist Russia.”

She said nothing to that. I fancy she may have been something of a Communist herself.

Am reading quite a lot of books these days that were set in the last days of the Weimar Republic in Germany, ie before the Nazis came to power. That, and a recent watching of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, have served to remind me that the Communist Party were a force in Western Europe, and even in Britain, not so very long ago.

It’s intriguing to me to think that it had such a toe-hold in the west in (relatively) recent times. Growing up, as I did, in the 80s and 90s, Communism was always a Russian/Eastern Bloc/Chinese thing. 

And has remained so, except when I confess to my sister that the newspaper I buy for crossword purposes is the Daily Telegraph, which sparks such a vigorous reaction that I wonder if Communism hasn’t in fact gained a toe-hold in my own family.

A few days ago, right at the beginning of my week of non-skiing, I made an emergency run to Sainsbury’s, on account of developing a sudden but quite definite hankering for a Croque Madame and an equally sudden realisation that I had no eggs with which to make this happen.

On recalling that I had picked up a croissant earlier from the aforementioned Essential Bakery, I did wonder if my subconscious might have been trying to make it up to me that I wasn’t actually in France.

Today I made my fourth lunch-time Croque Madame in five days. I think the subconscious has taken charge of things.

Here’s to being able to go skiing again. And to brighter days. Roll on Spring.

What are you doing New Year’s Eve?

A couple of days before Christmas, I met my friend Nipun for brunch at Dishoom. He had booked in advance, as one must do in these times.

A member of staff met us outside and briefed us on the Covid regulations. As we left her and made for the door, I overheard her speaking into her radio.

“Nipun is coming inside.”

After the obligatory hand-sanitising inside the door another acolyte explained that we would be dining downstairs today and presented us with our individual pre-sanitised menus.

We moved on.

“Nipun is on his way downstairs” I heard from behind me.

I felt like I was brunching with POTUS. An entirely appropriate level of deference to be shown to a former skipper of the Holy Cross Second Eleven, I’d say.

Christmas Day I spent with my mum, making occasional Zoom contact with London. It was a quieter Christmas than usual. Mum and I watched the original 1969 version of The Italian Job in the afternoon.

We then watched a “making of” documentary on YouTube. Among the many interesting things I learned was that BMC (manufacturers of the Mini at the time) were less than helpful to the filmmakers, despite the picture turning out to be a feature-length advert for their car, whereas Fiat in Turin bent over backwards to assist them. 

Perhaps the most startling discovery was to do with a scene set in a prison towards the end. As news of the success of the job filters back to the Guv’nor, the inmates started repeatedly chanting “England!” as he regally descended a stairway. The documentary revealed that the prison used was Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, which was used as a place of incarceration (and execution) for Irish Revolutionaries, by order of the UK Government. And all these ‘inmates’ in the film were Irish extras, and here they were chanting “England!” in a place where the Irish were historically oppressed by the English.

Quite remarkable.

I stayed over at mum’s Christmas Night, in order to make best use of the Bailey’s which I’d brought with me specially.

Woke up Boxing Day to the realisation that – despite remembering to pack many of the essentials, namely Bailey’s and marmalade (I was unsure of the Marmalade Situation in mum’s house) – I had forgotten clean pants.

By cutting down on the laundry in this way I like to think I was doing my bit for the environment, although perhaps not my immediate environment.

When I got home I watched the 2003 version of The Italian Job. I cannot honestly remember if I changed my pants first or not. I do remember noticing that the beautiful Passo Fedaia was featured in the film, which is a spot in the Dolomites that we skied earlier this year. Seems like a long time ago now.

So, what are you doing New Year’s Eve? 

Literally every year, I hear people declaring that the outgoing year has been the worst ever, and they’ll be glad to see the back of it. It always mystifies me, as if the calendar year has somehow been responsible for their difficulties – that their problems started on 1 January that year, and will assuredly end on 31 December.

Without even getting to Hogmanay itself, I have already read a version of this multiple times in the media, which is no surprise in this strange year, but it might be worth remembering, before we curse 2020 and write it off as a “terrible year”, that 2020 – in and of itself – didn’t produce Covid-19. The virus is not tied to a specific timeframe, and will, I imagine, continue to cause problems for us well into 2021.

Also, January and February 2020 were good to us. I skied the Passo Fedaia (quite badly, if I recall correctly) in January. I saw some great films – JoJo Rabbit, 1917, Parasite, and Bad Boys For Life. Well, that last one is possibly not in the “all-time great” category. I got to celebrate a friend turning 50. 

And then, as March wore on and the sense of something serious happening ramped up, my jury service was gloriously cancelled.

2020 was a year when my daily routine and job were redefined. It’s been a year of deepened friendships, long walks, a rediscovery of the beauty of my adopted hometown, a chance to slow down a little, and breathe more. For others it has been much, much more traumatic than this. 

But even so, it strikes me as a strange thing in which to put your faith for change – the turning over of the calendar year.

I like the way that a new year starting presents us with what feels like a fresh start, a chance to begin again. But really, nothing actually changes on New Year’s Day. Which might be at least part of the reason that so many feel so depressed in January – as the New Year celebrations fade and Hogmanay’s balloon is punctured by the sinking realisation that all the previous year’s troubles haven’t disappeared with the turning of a page. And January, in Scotland anyway, has more than its fair share of dark and dreary days.

This is one of the reasons that I love going skiing towards the end of January – something fun to look forward to during those days. Skiing is cancelled this year, of course. As are dinners out with friends, the way I traditionally like to bring in the New Year.

So what are you doing New Year’s Eve? Whatever you’re doing, let’s not blame all our woes on 2020. It had some good times too. Here’s to more of those in TwentyTwentyFun! (© Party Jen)