Bialetti, oh Bialetti

I reconnected with an old squash foe on Tuesday – Colin Eye. Colin and I have had innumerable court-based battles over the years, and he has often emerged victorious, being younger, fitter and faster.

After a long squash-playing hiatus for both of us, however, the disparity in athleticism is less marked, middle-aged portliness being a great leveller, and movement around the court could best be described as lumbering. I found myself wistfully recalling the days when I was able to change direction swiftly and without the assistance of the momentum gained from having crashed heavily into a wall immediately prior.

The result of the contest shall remain forever shrouded in mystery, as it would be churlish and graceless of me to be anything other than magnanimous in victory. Even a victory so crushing as that one.

Afterwards, between gasps and gulps of water, we wondered aloud when the pain would kick in properly. The next day, or the day after that? 

The next day, it turned out. My body, impatiently, decided it couldn’t wait for the day after tomorrow to arrive, and protested loudly regarding my reckless attempts at athleticism every time I tried to stand up, or perform any other routine function.

Wiseman got in touch on Wednesday. Sent me a link to an article he thought I’d appreciate. The article was entitled The Humble Brilliance of Italy’s Moka Coffee Pot. In it the writer regales us with not only the history of Bialetti’s stovetop coffee pot, but the history of coffee, and in particular its brew methods, from the dawn of time. Or the dawn of coffee being discovered, at least.

It was a wonderful and fascinating read, and I did appreciate it. I love my moka pot. I’ve made coffee that way every morning  for more years than I can now remember, even taking it with me on my travels, excepting those mornings when I was staying somewhere with an induction hob. Although I note that Bialetti now make an induction hob-compatible version, which I am considering purchasing purely for the five days in every four years or so that I spend in an induction-hob-equipped house.

I’ve found the moka pot provides a more consistently good, strong cup of coffee than any other home brewing method I’ve used. I have recently become a fan of the Kompresso espresso maker too, especially while travelling, but at home the moka pot remains my default coffee brewing device. 

The article, splendid as it was, was irredeemably spoiled by the news, right at the beginning, that Bialetti – the company that invented the moka pot, and still make the best version – is in serious financial trouble and struggling to compete due to the proliferation of pod machines. Globally, but even in Italy.

*&!!%# pod machines. *&!!%# George Clooney. 

Learning that Italians are choosing to make coffee at home from artificial capsules rather than their trusty moka pots is a hammer blow akin to discovering that Starbucks had successfully opened stores in Paris. And, only last year, in Milan. 

Oh Milano, Milano, how could you let this happen?

Is nowhere and nothing sacred anymore? I am grieved, dear reader, grieved. I feel sure that these events are referenced in the book of Revelation as signs of the end of days.

I could tolerate pod machines while they remained in their place, their place being in the kitchen of the undiscerning coffee drinker who values speed and convenience over taste and quality. But now that they’ve successfully wormed their way into the homes of even discerning coffee aficionados, my own dear sister and the whole of Italy included, I am most grievously vexed. The urge to panic-buy 3-cup Moka Express stovetops is strong.

It’s time to take to the streets. Or at least start an online petition.

Hold tight, Bialetti. I’ll be over here drinking proper coffee and listening to records, while the real world gradually digitises itself and becomes available only through a Virtual Reality headset on a streaming subscription basis.

The five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I think I’ve maybe skipped denial and gone straight to anger. Bear with me, dear reader, while I work through this…

Siri Problems and Extreme Laundry

It’s a Tuesday morning in early February. Leith smells like damp cabbage, and Radiohead are playing in the Hideout. Not literally, of course, but on magnetic tape, which is surely the next best thing.

Before leaving the house, I asked Siri for the temperature. 1 degree, she said, rising to 9 tonight. NINE degrees, Britons. Spring is surely not far away.

Sometimes, on days when I am going to be in Balerno (that’s most days), I ask Siri for the forecast for Balerno. Occasionally this is a surprisingly warm and sunny report, which seems too good to be true, and so I check the screen, and it turns out it is too good to be true, as Siri has delivered the weather forecast for Bologna. Or sometimes Palermo. One’s diction is not always crystal clear early in the morning.

But sometimes my articulation is not to blame. On one occasion I was driving along Seafield, with its plethora of car showrooms and garages lined up along the shore. Impulsively desiring some car-related window-shopping, I requested that Siri tell me where my nearest Honda showroom was.

“Hey Siri, where’s my nearest Honda showroom?” I asked. Just like that.

“The closest one I see is Honda Showroom & Service Centre in Penang. Is that the one you want?”

Penang. Yes, of course it is.

“OK. Would you like me to get directions?”

Yes, yes, I really would.

But, unaccountably, she was unable to provide me with directions to my nearest Honda Showroom, 6,420 miles away in Penang.

I tried a different tack.

“Hey Siri, where’s my nearest Honda garage?”

“Garage Zollig”, she said. 993 miles away, in Switzerland. Am probably not going to make it to either of those places and be back in time for dinner. Another day, maybe.

On the domestic administration front, the laundry has been taken to a whole new level. One of my Christmas presents this year was a fine-looking v-neck jumper. I proudly wore it to the last Akva of the year, shortly before we failed to go clubbing.

Somebody, I can’t remember who now, commented on how fine it looked. I was gratified.

“Extra fine merino wool,” I announced, grandly.

I believe time stood still at this moment. I am sure that all 140 people inside Akva, as one, raised their eyebrow. There may even have been an audible drawing in of breath.

“Ooh,” said one.

“Hand-wash,” said another.

“No. Please no,” I said. When a label says hand-wash only I tend to read that as single use item – please dispose of responsibly after use.

I found the care instructions on the label. The machine wash symbol did not have a cross through it. I was mightily relieved. However, the paragraph of tiny almost-illegible text beneath contained all kinds of arcane wording. Something about wool detergent, and a cleaning net.

Unaccustomed as I am to such extreme clothes-washing techniques, I did what any right-thinking nigh-on 45 yr old man would do. I visited my mum.

Mum had a cleaning net. Mums always have these kind of things. She even had some silk/wool detergent, which, she assured me, she had acquired from me, circa 2003 I think. It didn’t look like the kind of product that would go off, exactly, so I gave it a whirl last week.

I may have been too generous with my application of detergent. Peering in, worriedly, mid-cycle, there seemed to be an unfeasible amount of foam behind the glass. However, while I haven’t worn the v-neck in question just yet, it’s looking good. Perhaps a bit less shapely than it once was…

January on the Wane

January is on the way out, dear reader, which can only be a good thing. The days are steadily getting longer, although not especially warmer, just yet.

Lying in wait is February, and in the blink of an eye it’ll be March, with a ski trip to the Dolomites. I am imagining much in the way of leisurely slope-side pizza-consumption in the early spring Italian sunshine. Followed by Tiramsu, and almost certainly an espresso. Then, with a sigh and probably a burp or two, strapping on the skis and hurtling down the hill towards Brexit Day.

The country feels in a state of some turmoil as Brexit approaches. Personally, I can’t help but think the whole thing was an extraordinarily bad idea.

While I accept that Mrs May possibly hasn’t done as sterling a job as she might in navigating these choppy waters, I do have some sympathy given that she wasn’t for leaving in the first place. And I find myself grieved by the overall air of grasping self-interest that seems to be prevalent in the country, not particularly unusual in Westminster at any time, it must be said, but seemingly magnified just now. It feels like the country’s in a bit of a pickle, and rather than everyone rallying round to try to find a solution, everyone is instead fighting their own corner all the more fiercely, with Ms Sturgeon eyeing an opening to sell independence to the Scots again.

Along with worries about the Irish border, the long-term loss of GDP for the UK economy, loss of jobs, port blockages and the like, of immediate and pressing concern is the state of the nation’s Empire Biscuits, and in particular, the depth of icing. Last Friday the icing was unacceptably thin. This week the Admin Supremo attempted an early EB acquisition on Thursday night at Tesco.

“Never seen such pale Empire biscuits” was the report Friday morning. 

Bring on a second referendum I say.

Meanwhile, January has seen a marked decline in the use of the washing machine at Only Here For The Cricket Towers. Over the festive period in particular, I was delighted by how long my clothes were lasting between washes. It belatedly occurred to me that, in employing the tried-and-trusted Sniff Test each morning to determine my clothes’ eligibility for another day’s use, I had neglected to take into account the cold that I’d been suffering from for weeks, and thereby unable to effectively smell anything.

I do apologise to all my friends, particularly the huggers.

January has also seen a marked upturn in my sleep quality. On becoming more and more aware of the shape and hardness of the springs in my mattress, I petitioned the landlord for a new one, and received the go-ahead a week or so ago. I was reminded of a previous flat tenancy, twenty years ago now, when I inherited a room in a flat on Magdala Crescent. Lovely flat, quiet street, perfect location.

After a month or two living there, I began to question the cuts that were appearing on my torso without any apparent cause, until one day I noticed that some of the springs in my mattress were actually poking through. Not an awful lot, but enough to draw blood periodically. Somewhat timid in nature at this point in my life, I never mentioned it to anyone, and instead found a narrow strip along the westward side of the mattress which was unmined, so to speak, and lay very still every night.

I note with some alarm that Facebook is about to integrate Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. Quite what that means I’m not sure, but I’m alarmed mainly by the implication that WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, a fact of which I was unaware. I was becoming quite fond of WhatsApp too. Ickle Bef uses it to send pictures of swans on the canal, which is charming. And Nicola, sporadically occupied in the Caring Profession between documentaries about the state of the Polynesian rainforests [subtitled], sends occasional informative updates to us all from drug dens in Leith.

If WhatsApp takes a Facebook approach to life and applies its cursed algorithmic approach based on one’s “liking” and “posting” activity… well, no-one will ever see anything I say, ever. 

I might have to start speaking to people in person from here on in. Eek.

The January Blues

And, just like that, it was January. Christmas is all but forgotten, schools go back in two days’ time, routines are gradually rebooting.

I’ve spent New Year’s Eve in a variety of ways over the years.

I’ve been at other peoples’ house parties, I’ve hosted my own parties, been shut out of a Banbridge nightclub and had to bribe the doorman to get in. Been on Edinburgh’s Princes St, kissed a strange girl and then nearly crushed in the exit rush, the year before they made it a ticketed event.

I’ve watched Scottish fireworks from Calton Hill, Australian fireworks over Sydney Harbour, been behind a keyboard trying and failing to play ceilidh tunes as folk whirled in the new millennium, been in church watchnight services, in prayer meetings, sat with friends doing a jigsaw, watched Jools’ Hootenanny.

Over the years and across the experiences I’ve learned that my favourite way to bring in the new year is less to do with the activity, and even the environment, and more about the company. Just simply being in the company of friends is how I like to close out the old, and bring in the new, no matter what we’re doing. 

The older the friends, the better, I reckon, but it takes time to grow an old friend, as the fridge magnet says, and one’s friend-circle is an ever-evolving thing. So time with new friends is an investment worth making. This year’s new friend could be next year’s old friend. A year can be a long time in a friendship.

Maybe there’s a comforting reassurance, as something familiar ends, and something new begins, that we’re not alone, there are others on this journey with us.

And so the NYE festivities, 2018 edition, began with dinner out with friends.

My flatmate joined us for dinner. I put it to him that a worthy Flat Goal for 2019 would be to defrost the freezer, seeing as it’s currently quite hard to close the door without an application of one’s size 11s. He concurred. Much fruitful conversation was had with the gang on the best technique for defrosting our freezer. Hairdryers, hot knives and towels were recommended.

My flatmate and I are a little lacking in the hairdryer department, on account of not being overly endowed in the hair department. But hot knives sounded fun.

Most of the party retired in a southwesterly direction back along the canal to Ickle Bef’s flat for a heady late-night combination of quizzes, many rounds of Ligretto, and a smidgeon of Jack Daniels.

It was here that one of the party dropped the bombshell that Jools’ Hootenanny is not, in fact, filmed live, but pre-recorded early in December. She was, by her own admission, deep in Prosecco at this point, and thus I’m not sure her testimony can be considered valid. I remain in denial to this day.

At 23:59 it was suggested we put on the TV for the bells, which – it turned out – was cutting it a little fine. The TV had been disconnected from its box earlier in the evening for quiz purposes, and the New Year arrived, technically bang on schedule but slightly earlier than we were prepared for, with Ickle Bef wrestling manfully with HDMI cables underneath the TV.

Many, many of the NYE parties I’ve attended, and especially the ones I’ve organised, have neglected to remember that midnight – the climax of the evening – actually the whole point of the evening – was fast approaching, until it was fractionally too late even for the 10 second countdown, and someone hastily shouted HAPPY NEW YEAR! And then it doesn’t really matter that one missed the actual moment, because the round of glasses-chinking, hugging and well-wishing can be just as effectively enacted at one or two minutes past the hour.

And anyway, as Bono says, nothing changes on New Year’s Day.

I woke up New Year’s Day morning. Checked my phone. My flatmate had texted.

09:05

Happy New Year! Freezer Done!

There goes my solitary goal for 2019.

Bono’s right, and wrong. It may only be the calendar date that changes, but still, it somehow affords a fresh start, a reset of thinking and priorities. The days are getting longer, albeit not noticeably so just yet. 

No blues over here, just January.

Here’s to fresh adventures in 2019!

Almost New Year

We’re midway through the festive season, in that strange lull between Christmas and New Year, when some have gone back to work and some haven’t. It’s an odd time of year. All through December I look forward to the time off that comes at Christmastime, and then when I get there I’m not always sure what to do with it.

Late on the eve of Christmas Eve, I began packing for my early morning flight the next day.

Packing, I find a relatively straightforward business, when going somewhere for a decent length of time – heading to the US for 10 days, for example. Or when going skiing. In both of these scenarios there is a lot of underwear to pack, not to mention a shedload of compassionate chocolate for my American friends in the former instance, and thus the which-bag-to-take decision is an open and shut, er, case.

When one is flying down to London for only four and a half days, however, there is much opportunity for vacillation. And when there’s an opportunity to vacillate I like to grab it decisively.

It seemed easy enough, initially. I had the option of checking a bag into the hold for free. It was a no-brainer.

So I dragged out the big guy, and started to fill it. Got everything in, room to spare. Looked a little under-filled, frankly. Began to wonder if I could have got it all in the carry-on-appropriate little guy. 

Vacillated.

Got the little guy out. Decanted everything from the big guy into the little guy and packed it to the gunnels. It fitted, just. Although there remained the ‘morning of’ items that would need added. Would be tight. Decided it was going to be ok.

But now… all the toiletries needed to be in 100ml containers. Dug out some clear plastic bags and began to fill them. Realised my Travel Size tube of shaving gel is probably 4 years old now. Wondered if I’d made the right decision. Would I have to re-check in?

Vacillated.

What settled it in the end was the thought…

“What if I receive a gargantuan Christmas present this year?”

And that did it. There was simply no space for a gargantuan present. 

Everything out of the little guy, back into the big guy.

Arrived at London City Airport, and my sister picked me up, with my oversized suitcase, at what we both thought was the pick-up point.

Cue the arrival of an Official at the driver’s window.

“I’m terribly sorry, madam, but I need to inform you that you haven’t got a ticket YET, but as soon as you drive away you will incur a £400 charge. This is a drop-off area only.”

My sister protested her innocence. No signs, she said. This is where she’d always come to pick up people, she said, channeling a classic Northern Irish argument for right-of-way. I was waiting for “My father and my grandfather ALWAYS picked up people here y’know” but it never came.

The Official, as Officials are wont to do, failed to acknowledge anything she was saying and simply repeated the script.

“…as soon as you drive away you will incur a £400 charge.”

With the option of ‘driving away’ now effectively off the table, I began to think we might be spending Christmas there, just me and her, in the car. Maybe Deliveroo could bring over some turkey sandwiches to keep us going. I had some Christmas tunes on my phone. It might not be so bad. Just four and a half days, then I could leave the car – mildly odorous and slightly itchy I would presume – and go back into the terminal to fly home, and she could safely drive off, having legitimately dropped me off at the drop-off point.

Mercifully, a compromise was reached, which involved me guiltily exiting the car, walking a few hundred metres to the official pick-up point, where my sister picked me up again, legally, for £397 less than she might have had to pay, and Christmas was saved. Hurrah!

Christmas Day duly arrived. Christie (6) declared to anyone who would listen that he had seen Santa and his reindeer flying into the garden the previous night.

“I literally saw Blitzen fly down into the garden.” 

“Oh really?”

“He nearly crashed into the SHED!” he proclaimed, joyful and triumphant.

I need to have a conversation with Christie about his use of “literally”. Maybe next year.

Over Christmas much turkey and many pigs in blankets were consumed. 

Of course, no gargantuan presents were received. However, I did receive a triple-pack of white hankies with my initial embroidered in the corners, which made up for the slightly disappointing absence of socks.

After a muddy visit to the park, and a family outing to see the wonderful Mary Poppins Returns, having been warned in a dream, I returned to the airport by another route (the bus and the DLR). This foxed the Official completely.

Back in Edinburgh Friday evening, it being the last Friday of the month, me and the gang were at an unusually-quiet Akva for a festive G&T. Or two. Or three, in some cases, but no names will be mentioned.

Post-Akva, there was an ill-conceived and ultimately abortive attempt to go clubbing by a few of our number. Once again no names will be mentioned. On our initial foray into an establishment on Grindlay Street, we appeared to have stumbled upon an underground table-tennis club. For children. 

Bemused, we beat a hasty retreat and retired to a nearby bar, where there seemed to be some other over-16 revellers, and we shouted at each other at close range for a couple of hours. It was great fun, although I really don’t know what anyone said, and just nodded and smiled a lot. 

Last words of the year go to Over the Rhine

Happy Almost New Year. There is still so much music left to be made.

 

Shower Screens and Jim Reeves

’Twas the Thursday before the Saturday before the Saturday before Christmas, when all through the house, was heard a resounding crash as the shower screen collapsed into the bath. Came right out of its wall fixings, and took a couple of bottles of toiletries with it. My flatmate’s caffeine-free shampoo was almost severed in two.

Mercifully, I was not having a shower at the time, or my glittering sporting career might have been rudely brought to an end before it had even begun.

Thinking the crash had come from outside, I didn’t investigate at the time, and thus didn’t discover the scene of devastation until I went into the bathroom for a mild ablute (no.1 flush button only).

It did bring to mind an incident from student days, where, having failed to acknowledge – much less deal with – a burgeoning bulge in the ceiling directly above the shower, we were rewarded one Sunday morning by seeing a flatmate emerging from the bathroom, somewhat discombobulated, with remnants of plaster in his hair, the ceiling having collapsed on him mid-shower.

It wasn’t all that rewarding for the flatmate in question, naturally, but it tickled us greatly.

Anyway, I rescued the dented shampoo bottle, and washed my hands with some ADVANCED hand wash, the label of which promised would protect me for a full 3 hours, and contained MARINE MINERALS for extra reassurance.

I felt extra-reassured by the presence of the marine minerals, but really I was only wanting to wash my hands. Important thing to do at any time, but perhaps particularly when one is suffering one’s second cold of the winter. Even if one is being a particularly brave little soldier and trying not to complain too much about it to all and sundry.

It’s now 4pm on Saturday, and outside the windows of the Hideout, night has fallen. The hanging hipster light bulbs reflect dimly off the glass, nearly opaque with condensation.

Tomorrow it’s our final Carol Service at church, the final ‘big’ service of the year, the end of Carol Service Fortnight. Thus the workload will ease on Monday, and the wind-down for Christmas will begin.

Thursday night, driving home from a long day at work, I was tootling along Grange Road, quite the thing, dreaming up the culinary delight that I was going to treat my taste-buds to when I got home. 

Belatedly I noticed, through the evening darkness, a cluster of hi-viz jackets at the side of the road. The middle hi-viz jacket appeared to be pointing a contraption at me. I braked reflexively and checked the speedometer. After braking, I was coming down towards 20mph.

I suspect Lothian and Borders will be sending me something this week, and it’s unlikely to be a Christmas card.

There’s a Maserati driver in Edinburgh, who has made his or her feelings clear on the subject of our 20mph speed limits, by obtaining the registration plate

F20 MPH

I hear you Maserati driver, I hear you.

In happier news, my sister has already sent me my first Christmas present of the year – Jim Reeves’ 12 Songs of Christmas. On vinyl. I am made up.

Growing up, until the release of Phil Coulter’s Christmas, Jim Reeves was the definitive Christmas soundtrack for us as a family. 

I was mildly surprised to discover later in life that there were in fact more than 12 Christmas songs out there, and initially viewed any of these pretenders with suspicion.

Too late for another coffee now. Time to head home. It’ll be 19 mph all the way…

Saturday at the Hideout

And so I wake in the morning // And I step outside // And I take a deep breath and I get real high // And I scream from the top of my lungs // What’s going on?

It’s Carol Service week at our church. Carol Service fortnight, really. In my world, this means longer hours – prepping, planning, emailing, video editing, and picking up kit. Crossing task after task off the to-do list, without the Tasks-Still-To-Do figure seeming to reduce at all.

It’s late morning on Saturday. Nicola is probably at the Cameo watching a foreign subtitled documentary about a year in the life of a rural French primary school teacher.

Money’s too tight to mention // I can’t get an unemployment extension // Money’s too tight to mention.

I am ensconced in my new favourite coffee shop, in Leith, having picked up some hired sound equipment from the nearby Warehouse. Another thing off the list.

My new favourite coffee shop has those hipster lightbulbs hanging in the window, slightly oversized, with filaments glowing brightly enough to emanate a sense of warmth, without, probably, any actual warmth, and very little actual light. But they look great.

I just wanna dance the night away // With señoritas who can sway // Right now tomorrow’s lookin’ bright // Just like the sunny mornin’ light

The coffee is decent, and the almond croissants are epic.

Nailed to the wall are a cluster of box-shelves, housing a variety of historic museum pieces. There are a couple of old alarm clocks, an old telephone with one of those rotary dialling mechanisms, a gas lamp or two, and a hand-operated coffee grinder sitting alongside a stovetop espresso maker. It brings me a perverse sense of pleasure that I am using a museum-worthy method to make my coffee every morning.

It’s just a little crush (crush) // Not like I faint every time we touch // It’s just some little thing (crush) // Not like everything I do depends on you // Sha-la-la-la, sha-la-la-la

The place has an unmistakable whiff of nostalgia. It’s winter, and in the middle of the room, contravening all manner of health and safety regulations I imagine, is something I haven’t seen for a serious number of years. It’s what I want to call a Calor Gas heater, although I daresay that’s like calling all vacuum cleaners Hoovers.

But by far its most prominent nostalgia-inducer for a child of the 80s such as myself is a wall-full of stereo cassette decks. Some single, mostly twin, there’s even a TRIPLE for maximum-efficiency mixtape-making. And on another wall, sitting atop an emptied-out TV cabinet (now jammed full of cassettes), is the cafe’s working model, a white plastic Sharp with stickers proudly advertising its main features.

Continuous Play™. 2-way 4-speaker. 14W PMPO, for goodness’ sake. Made in Malaysia.

That’s what is providing the tunes. Right now it’s a Simple Minds number which I can’t quite remember the title of, and can’t quite hear the words to Google them, because they’re just a touch too muddy.

None of your digital multi-room wireless bluetooth remote app-controlled streaming devices here. Proper music, without too much bass OR treble to speak of, and, Continuous Play™ notwithstanding, the periodic need for a staff member to come and turn the tape over. 

Wake up it’s a beautiful morning // The sun shining for your eyes // Wake up it’s so beautiful // For what could be the very last time

I had a Sharp twin cassette deck myself, back in the day. Featured hi-speed dubbing as I recall. But what sold it to me way back then in 1989 was a fully separate subwoofer speaker, positioned on top, slightly off-centre, pointing upwards. “X-BASS” proudly emblazoned on the speaker grille. This speaker could be activated by pressing the almost magical X-BASS button, which brought a definite and noticeable additional boominess to the music, without any extra bass as such.

It was such an amazing machine that someone’s made a Youtube video about it.

Billy, Billy don’t you lose my number // ‘Cause you’re not anywhere // That I can find you // Oh, now, // Billy, Billy don’t you lose my number // ‘Cause you’re not anywhere that I can find you, oh no

It cost £100, and I saved up for it with my own pocket money. I remember using it to play Def Leppard’s Hysteria on repeat, and used it to record U2’s 1989 New Year’s concert – broadcast live on Radio 1 – as they brought in a whole new decade at the Point Depot, Dublin. Heady days.

So take, take me home // ‘Cause I don’t remember // Take, take me home // ‘Cause I don’t remember // Take, take me home // Oh Lord, // ‘Cause I’ve been a prisoner all my life

It now seems to be Phil Collins on repeat. Nostalgia can put a gloss on only so much. Take me home, indeed.

Highlander and the Christmas Market

– Stop procrastinating and go write a blog! scolded my friend Nicola.

We had been discussing the recent bombshell that a remake of Highlander is slated for 2019. This has, apparently, been on the cards for around 10 years, but now it seems is coming to fruition. I am simultaneously excited and dismayed by the news. Highlander is one of my top five films of all time. The potential for ruining the memory of a classic movie is huge.

Nicola seems unperturbed. She’s never seen Highlander. I am shocked and horrified by this. Granted, she’s more into her daytime visits to the cinema to watch high-brow subtitled Japanese releases, at which she is usually the youngest viewer by a margin of several decades.

Discussing Highlander didn’t seem like procrastination to me, but might have for her, since she should really have been tending to the sick and the infirm, however I gave up on trying to convince her of the merits of a film which cast the Frenchman Christopher Lambert as a Scot, and the Scot Sean Connery as a Spaniard, and resolved to write an overdue blog post. 

But first I headed up town, on the 44, and made my customary December visit to Edinburgh’s Christmas Market. Shrugging off an auditory Bublé assault, I marched onwards, defiantly passing the purveyors of glühwein and hot chocolate, resolutely past the waffles and crêpes, ignoring even the aromatherapy bath salts and anti-ageing face cream.

The organisers of the Christmas Market now have signs up, arrows here and there and warnings to KEEP TO THE LEFT. These are being blithely ignored by all. 

I find a stall selling pottery-related items, and score another thing off the Christmas list.

Back out of the Market, Santa Baby firmly embedded in my head, and onto a 23. Up the Mound, southwards along George IV Bridge, and eventually to Bruntsfield. 

The December sun, despite its best efforts, is unable to reach the heights required to bathe both sides of the road in its watery light. I get off the bus in shadow and cross over to the sunny side of the street.

Pick up some coffee beans and a quick double espresso at Artisan Roast, and on to Kenny’s for a haircut. Kenny’s been cutting my hair for 20 years now, I reckon. I used to live in a nearby neighbourhood, and have continued to frequent his establishment ever since, despite now living on the other side of town.

Freshly shorn, I jump on an 11 heading for town. One of the joys of getting an all-day bus ticket is that you can, provided you’re not in a desperate hurry, jump on an unfamiliar bus number, and if it doesn’t go quite where you expect, you can jump off and try again.

I get off at Tollcross and try a 47, which lands me in Newington, so I nip round the corner to Meadows Pottery, and cross something else off the Christmas list. It’s fair to say that I’ve drained the Pottery-Related Items Fund of my 2018 budget today.

Back onto the 49, which I’m confident I’ve never been on before in my life. It takes me along streets, though, that I absolutely have been on in my life. Past Record Shak, and Vogue Video – a film rental shop – both of which have been there possibly since the dawn of time itself, but certainly since I was a Newington-based student in the 90s. I was actually a card-carrying member of Vogue Video, and am mildly astonished that it is still a going concern in this digital age.

Then past South Side Community Centre, which I have only ever visited because it was a polling station for the Scottish Regional Elections in 1994. I went along to vote with my flatmate Tom, and he absolutely insisted, since we were intending to vote for different parties, that we toss a coin and vote for the same candidate. Otherwise it was a wasted vote, he maintained. 

I seem to remember I lost the toss, and our block vote of two didn’t help our candidate all that much against the relentless red Labour tide that year. In those days, the idea that Edinburgh as a whole might not back Labour at every available opportunity would have been a fantasy.

Off the 49 onto the now re-opened Leith Street, and briefly back into the heart of the town, breaking rank with lines of hesitant kerb-bound tourists, timing street-crossing by traffic and traffic lights with confidence born of local knowledge. 

On Princes Street I look up to see an oncoming 4, with a 44 hard on its heels, both a suitable ticket home, and me caught neatly at the point where they diverge, equidistant from both stops. I missed both, but catch a 26 shortly after.

Brunswick Street, Abbeyhill, Meadowbank Stadium, home.

A slice of choc chip panettone, a reckless late-afternoon coffee, and I go to work on this year’s Christmas playlist.

Now about that blog post…

Competitive camping and raw worship

I put it to Ickle Bef that I couldn’t quite recall if I had packed my tent.

– “That’s ok,” she reassured me. “You can sleep in the lee of mine.”

What a generous offer. IB’s tent was so tiny as to afford lee to perhaps my lower shins.

Having not over-communicated with each other in the run-up to this camping odyssey, the duplication of camping items did indeed turn out to be significant. Ickle, of course, had to turn it into a competition.

– “Did you bring saucepans?” I wondered.
– “Yep.”
– “Kettle?”
– “Of course.”
– “Washing up liquid?”
– “Absolutely.”

She took a narrow lead by destroying me in the “out-of-date food” micro-category. Given the questionable nutritional quality of out-of-date food, and its danger to our health on a trip already fraught with danger, being in the wild outdoors, only a narrow lead could be awarded.

– “Hand gel?”
– “Yeah.”
– “Cereal??”
– “Mmm hmm.”
– “BLANKET?”
– “Yup!”

– “Chopping board?” she enquired.

Dang. I was now slipping behind to the tune of one chopping board and a few past-their-sell-by-date items. Time to play my trump card.

– “Black pepper?”

Her face fell. Triumphantly, I applied the coup de grâce.

– “PINE NUTS?!?”

Her shoulders slumped. I dialled for my smuggest expression.

Then she produced the fairy lights.

FAIRY LIGHTS.

Game, set, and match.

I set about that evening’s pasta dinner with one of the sporks I had on loan from Wiseman. In a misplaced attempt at being grown-up, I initially attempted using the -ork but quickly realised that the sp- was much more efficient.

We returned to our tents after the evening session. They were easy to find, being the only ones in the whole field with fairy lights entwined around the guy ropes.

It was a cloudless, starry night. I might have paused to appreciate the grandeur and majesty of creation, but it was baltic. The mercury plummeted to 7C that night. That’s only 2 degrees warmer than a fridge.

Saturday morning I queued for the use of one of the four showers available to the several hundred campers. It was, I discovered, one of those showers with binary water temperature settings. I spent a few minutes, shivering, with hand held under the freezing water, until it warmed up slightly. Stepping properly into the flow of water, I realised it hadn’t actually warmed up – my hand had gone numb and couldn’t feel the cold any more. The rest of my body could, however.

I jumped back out. A few seconds later, it did warm up. I jumped back into the stream and started lathering up. At which point the temperature shot straight through Comfortably Warm like an express train through a rural station, and onwards to Scalding Hot. Fast enough to be one of those French trains. I jumped out again. Fiddled with the dial. No effect whatsoever.

Eventually the temperature train, maintaining its enigmatic French unpredictability, came back the other way, entirely of its own volition and at a time that suited it, and not me, and in the few seconds it took to rocket through Comfortably Warm I managed to rinse off most of the lather.

Ickle Bef and I breakfasted in the sunshine that day.

The following morning, we breakfasted in a steady drizzle. Sitting with one’s back to the drizzle direction, with one’s rain jacket hood up, one can get quite effectively drenched before one realises one is wet at all.

As the drizzle intensified, we packed up our arsenal of camping stoves and retreated damply to the coffee shop, with its array of sizeable traybakes. Anyone who’s been to Northern Ireland, or been hosted by a Northern Irish hostess*, will surely be aware of the Province’s not-unwarranted reputation as producer of the world’s best traybakes.

(*I apologise for any perceived sexism there, but let’s be fair, the astonishing quality and volume of Northern Ireland’s traybake output can not be attributed to N Irish men.)

This cafe was determined to not only maintain, but enhance, Northern Ireland’s reputation. I passed by the giant muffins, and the titanic caramel squares, and enquired as to the ethnicity of the enormous scones. Two types, I was told. Strawberry, and Mars Bar.

I leaned in, and cupped my ear.

– “What did you say?”
– “Mars Bar.”

Boom.

We spent a great deal of time at the weekend, Ickle Bef and I, along with several hundred others, worshipping our hearts out in a big tent.

I spoke on childlikeness a few weeks back at my church, and this weekend I learned a bit more about it. Or at least, I learned something about the practice of it. Practical learning is the best learning, I reckon. This mostly looked like me dancing like a complete loon in worship. This is not something I’ve historically embraced, having preferred to value my dignity.

Dignity, for me, has been a shroud I’ve used to mask the life within. Dignity is a wonderful thing, but mostly maintaining my dignity has come at the expense of rawly expressing my worship. And the desire to maintain my dignity has been instigated and fuelled by the fear of what others would think.

We learn, as Christians living in our society, to live our lives without risk. We have learned to live in such a way as to mitigate against personal risk, financial risk, emotional risk, relational risk.

We have done this out of fear, I suspect. Fear of looking foolish, fear of the unknown, fear of not having enough, fear of getting hurt. Fear of God not providing for us, not coming through for us.

The antidote to fear is love. Perfect love casts out fear. If God is truly a God of love, and he really is our Father, then we have nothing (literally nothing) to fear.

This weekend, the love-fear scales tipped a little more towards love. My love for Jesus has gradually begun to outweigh my fear of what others might think.

It’s a journey, this Christian life. Sometimes it feels like treading water, like little progress is being made. Other times, it feels like strides have been taken. This is one of those times.

You’re my author, my maker // My ransom, my Saviour // My refuge, my hiding place

You’re my helper, my healer // My blessed redeemer // My answer, my saving grace

You’re my hope, in the shadows // My strength, in the battle // My anchor, for all my days

And You stand, by my side // And You stood, in my place // Jesus, no other name // No, only Jesus, no other name

– Sean Curran

Camping and Emergency Loo Roll

A week or two ago we welcomed an old friend back to Edinburgh – the traditional Scottish Summer.

The greatest, hottest, driest summer since records began, or at least since 1976, is on the wane, it seems. No more unprecedented experiences like selecting the second button on the electric shower, to make the water cool enough to step into. On a number of recent occasions, my thirty minute drive into work has necessitated the use of the holy trinity of sunglasses, windscreen wipers and headlights. Sometimes all at the same time.

With spectacular timing, our old friend has reemerged just in time for me to go camping for the first time in over twenty years. Admittedly a mere nine years ago I did go camping with my Sister and her burgeoning family, but that doesn’t count, since all the camping infrastructure (and a great deal of stately-home-infrastructure to boot) was laid on.

On this occasion I have had to give a great deal more thought to the supply and provisions.

Wiseman, after hearing of my camping intentions, and slowly lowering his eyebrow, kindly loaned me his tent, and camping stove, and various other arcane implements, the usefulness of which, I imagine, will become apparent at around 2am.

After one tutorial on the camping stove, and none on the actual tent-building, I reckon I am ready.

I wandered through Tesco, looking for camping-style easy-to-cook meal solutions, pretending to myself that this was vastly different to what I normally look for in Tesco.

In a flash of inspiration, I picked up some loo roll, for emergencies. Shea Butter ‘flavour’. Four rolls. You can’t be too careful with these things. And some paper towels. And a dustpan and brush. Must return the tent in good nick to Wiseman, or I’ll never hear the end of it.

My companion on this particular trip, to the Openskies worship festival in N Ireland, is Ickle Bef. We conferred about what we were bringing for the first time at 10pm last night. This was possibly leaving it a little late. Ickle confided she was bringing two camping stoves. I feel this is overcooking it slightly.

Loading the car at 6:15am this morning, I noticed that Ickle had her own dustpan and brush. I suspect the duplication, some of which is important for decency’s sake, like having our own tents for example, won’t stop there. I do hope she has her own Shea Butter loo roll, though, because I might need all four of mine. Depending on how the cooking goes, on our multiplicity of stoves, I guess.

Now, on the ferry, halfway across the Irish Sea, the sun is shining, and I wonder what could possibly go wrong. Ickle Bef is out on deck, wisely banking some solo time.

Openskies’ website states that campers have access to showers, charging points, and the presence of the Lord. You can’t ask for more than that, really.

Camping? I feel recklessly optimistic. Bring it on.

Did I remember to pack the tent?