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 2020 Staycation Diaries. Lighthouses, but still no dolphins.

Friday 4 Sep

I rise early, with the forecast having promised a clear sky in the morning. The Airbnb I’m staying in is about 50m from the beach, and right beside where the River Dee flows into the North Sea. There is a steady stream of ships making their way into port as dawn breaks.

I walk down to the beach to watch the sun come up. There are several mad Aberdonian women swimming. And a guy with a drone. 

The sunrise is beautiful. On returning to the flat for coffee, my Airbnb host asks if I saw the dolphins, which were frolicking off the end of the pier. I didn’t.

I head north to Cruden Bay, and hike along the clifftop to Slains Castle. Before that I stop off in Boddam for a quick photo of the lighthouse.

Lighthouses. They fascinate me. Sometimes short and stumpy, but more often slender and elegant, beautifully engineered, and yet capable of withstanding the worst that the seas and the elements throw at them. For hundreds of years.

I grew up with the light from St John’s Point Lighthouse in Co. Down illuminating my room every night. It’s the nostalgia, no doubt, which has fostered an ongoing fascination with them for me.

The locals here have funny accents. The facemasks aren’t helping. I find myself, in conversation with a local person, hearing a full sentence and fully recognising it as English, and having a vague sense of understanding, and yet they get to the end of the sentence and I haven’t a scooby what they said. I adopt a ‘nod and smile’ approach at these times.

The locals here also have fast cars. I am losing count of the number of high-performance cars that I find agitating on my rear bumper, harrying like a sheepdog at my heels. And I’m not a slow driver.

The next stop on the Harbours, Castles and Lighthouses tour is Rattray Head. This, I reckon, is positioned at the most north-easterly point of Great Britain. There are no signs to tell me that, indeed there are no signs to advertise its presence at all, which is refreshing.

Rattray Head Lighthouse is what I later learn is called a ‘rock tower’ – a lighthouse built on a rock out from the coast, not on land. As such it sits in the sea, and looks all the more dramatic for it, I think.

It takes a bit of getting to, mind. After a long-ish drive down an increasingly ropey lane, I abandon the CR-Z on a grassy verge (avoiding sheughs) and walk the remaining mile or so, past a French campervan (of course) and over the dunes.

When I crest the final sand dune, there it is, rising out of the sea like a lone sentinel. And there’s only one other person to share the beach and the view with. I park myself on a sandy slope, facing the sea and the lighthouse, and make espresso, like the UK’s most northeasterly coffee hipster. There are seals, and crashing waves, and the sun is shining. 

I spend a large part of the afternoon in the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses in Fraserburgh. Thanks to COVID, all tours (which I have booked ahead on this time) are for bubbles only. Ergo I get a personal tour at no extra cost. My very own personal tour guide – Michael – is interesting and engaging. Although clearly a local, as from time to time incomprehensible phrases float past me, like a cloud of random syllables. I can only wave at them as they drift past. And smile and nod, of course.

The lighthouse at Kinnaird Head, where the museum is based, was built in the 18th century, inside a castle. It was the first one owned and run by the Northern Lighthouse Board, which used to be called the Commissioners of the Northern Lights. I think they should have kept their old name.

The original lighthouse at Kinnaird Head has now been replaced by a newer automated one. Which prompted the question – are lighthouses really necessary these days given the effectiveness of modern navigation systems? I was desperately hoping he’d say yes.


Turns out sailors have more confidence in an actual lighthouse showing them where they really are, than a GPS system telling them where it thinks they are.

I continue west, picking my way along the coast, taking every right turn that looks like it might have something interesting at the end of it. It always does. I visit Pennan, and Crovie – both not so much villages as single rows of houses, squeezed into the space available between the cliffs and the sea. It’s a massively steep gradient to get down to both villages, and back up again. How do the residents get up those hills in the winter? 

Westwards again, accompanied all the while by Natalie Merchant…

By what my eyes have seen

Through MacDuff, and the best fish and chips of my life in Whitehills, near Banff. My faith in the region’s fish suppers is restored. I eat it in the car while watching a farmer gathering up round bales and stacking them in groups. It’s that time of year. Already I have driven past many fields of wheat, or barley, or corn. Or hay. Or something. I am a little fuzzy on the horticultural specifics. It’s golden, at any rate.

This farmer is whizzing around his field in what looks like an agricultural sand buggy, with a front loader pincer thing which carry the bales. It’s all a bit different from my childhood, when bales were almost always rectangular (round bales were a new-fangled thing) and they were small enough that they could be lifted and stacked by hand.

I drive on to the iconic Bow Fiddle Rock, hoping it would be catching some late evening rays from the setting sun, but the sky is overcast. Still, it’s an awesome rock formation. I’m the only one there.

A long day over, I drive a cross-country route back to Aberdeen. Halfway through the journey I come across what I now believe to be Aberdeenshire’s only slow driver. I am stuck behind them for 10 miles.

[Update: apparently Duncansby Head, near Wick, is the most northeasterly point on the GB mainland. I do apologise.]

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… 

You’re never too old for a paddle


Sunday last I enjoyed the pleasing coincidence of a hot and sunny day off. I visited a different church in the morning (a change is as good as a holiday and all that), napped in the afternoon, and decided to make the most of the long summer twilight and headed to the beach in the evening.

I realise that a visit to the beach means that for the next week I will be finding sand everywhere, in all of my possessions, even the ones I didn’t take to the beach, but I decide it’s worth it.

So after a high-speed 57mph trundle out to East Lothian, I arrive at 6.20 — 10 minutes before the chargeable parking period expires. It’s £2 to park for the whole day, and while that’s entirely reasonable, £2 for 10 minutes isn’t, so I sit tight for a bit. My phone has ZERO reception, which makes the minutes drag by.

Eventually at 6.25 I decide that a parking official would have to be vicious to penalize me for 5 minutes of unpaid parking, and so I sashay confidently towards the beach, meeting lots of families coming the other way, possibly because a shark has been spotted offshore, or perhaps because it’s getting towards the kiddies’ bedtime.

I head straight for the water, which feels surprisingly warm. It should be said that I measure all seawater temperature against the benchmark stored in my head, which is the Atlantic in October. At that temperature, the initial meeting of feet and water produce a shock to the system that results in not only a sharp intake of breath, but a momentary suspension of all life-systems, which of course gradually (over the course of say 30 minutes) gives way to a “come-on-in-the-water’s-lovely” feeling. Then a marginally bigger wave comes in, and brings about a meeting of the icy water with part of one’s leg that has hitherto not been exposed to such extremes. At that point the bubble of one’s “come-on-in-the-water’s-lovely” delusion is burst most emphatically.

So, with the context now firmly set, the water is surprisingly warm. I paddle along the water’s edge for a fair bit, making it round a couple of headlands, before returning the way I came, carefully avoiding jellyfish all the way. I meet a few fellow-paddlers, some of which, it must be said, are dogs. But one gentleman calls out as we pass

“You’re never too old for a paddle!”

“Pardon?” I reply. Too old to hear well, it seems.

I retreat from the water, and wedge myself into the seaward slope of a large sand dune, whereupon I am immediately set about by a plague of flies.

The Bass Rock is off to my right, Fife is straight ahead across the Forth, and a small rocky island with a lighthouse is on my left. The Lighthouse Island (I later learn it’s called Fidra) looks like something straight out of the Famous Five, and I have a strong urge to get in a boat and row across to it. But there are no boats, and I forgot my swimming cozzie. Plus, y’know, there may be sharks. So I Instagram it instead.

It’s Father’s Day. I sit on the sand dune and remember my dad, while the grains of sand gradually work their way into my bodily orifices and the flies continue to annoy.

I’m pretty sure I never heard my father say he was proud of me. Truth is, I’m not sure if he ever was. It’s nine years now since he passed. I’m reasonably confident he would be proud of me, if he was alive today. I’m not overly concerned about this, despite these musings, as I have learned to get my significance from my heavenly Father. But it would have been nice to hear.

Just this last week I watched my good friend Alyn bury his father up in Dundee. His father was a good, godly man, as was mine, and neither of them, it’s fair to say, were given to incautious displays of emotion. But they were both doing the best they had with what they had been given.

Father’s Day these days produces not only nostalgic memories of my dad, but the increasingly acute awareness that I could, at my advanced age, not only be a father, I could be a father whose children have all gone to university. Or away somewhere, inter-railing, or on an angst-ridden gap year, finding themselves.

It’s interesting how life has worked out. I don’t regret anything for a moment. Well, of course, that’s not strictly true, there are many things in my life that I regret, many decisions I would reverse if I had the chance to do them again.

But I’m happy with all the big decisions I’ve made, and this particular evening’s somewhat smaller-scale decisions have all been successful too, culminating with fish and chips on the beach at North Berwick, with the setting sun casting a golden, undulating ribbon across the Forth.

Here’s to creating new memories.

Driving like a Grandad

I bought a pair of slippers the other day.

Normally one can rely on Santa to provide a steady supply of slippers, but Santa has been overly focussed on sock provision these last few years, neglecting to notice that perhaps the reason for all the socks wearing out is because they are regularly doing the job the slippers should be doing. A classic case of focussing on the symptoms rather than the cause, I would suggest.

If Santa were the Scottish Government, he’d be providing free socks for all right now.

Anyway, this is not a political blog. Nor is it a fashion blog, which the discerning reader (ie one that has read the last two posts) might be tempted to think. Be reassured that, what with my recent coat and bag purchases, and now a pair of slippers, I have completely drained my Personal Clothing and Accessories Fund for the period 2016-2020. If I need a new pair of underpants in, say, 2019, I’m probably going to have to misappropriate monies from another Fund.

NOT the Empire Biscuit Fund, for obvious reasons. I expect the Internet will agree with me on that one.

Earlier this week I found myself in discussion with my friends Peter and Pete. We were discussing commute times. As neighbours of the Finance Director, they are similarly dislocated from most of modern civilisation. However, when I mentioned my inability to make it from the Finance Director’s house to the office in Balerno in less than 30 minutes, there were raised eyebrows and questioning glances aplenty.

Then I remembered that I not only wear slippers, I drive like a grandad these days.

Most of my life, I have enjoyed driving cars with decent-sized engines, and mostly, I’ve enjoyed driving them in the outside lane on the motorway, breezing past those people driving at 57mph in the inside lane. Who ARE these people? Why do they do that?

Well, my current car is not over-endowed in the torque and acceleration department, it must be said. It contains an engine advertised as a 1.4L, which really is closer to a 1.3L.

(Dear America, engine sizes smaller than 3.5L are available! Who knew? And America, while we’re at it, why do you use metric measurements for your car engines, but nothing else? Curious.)

Accordingly, early on in the ownership of my slightly-underpowered car, I decided that, rather than trying to drive it fast, patently against its will, I would play to its strengths. Or, strength, really. Fuel economy.

Rather than getting frustrated when I get stuck behind a slow-moving truck on a narrow road, I now give thanks when this happens, as it forces me to drive more economically.

In general I find myself tiddling along, mostly in the inside lane, trying find that fine line between easing my foot off the gas enough to light up all six of the green ECO lights on my dashboard, without also grinding to a halt. Grinding to a halt on the motorway is, I’ve found, fairly economical, but relatively unsafe.

I’m now that guy on the inside lane, doing 57mph for no apparent reason. And I wear slippers. Somewhere I have a pipe too, must look that out…

The Induction

Dear Reader

Life in the Finance Director’s House is going well. Although, there being so many rooms, I do occasionally lose things, notably my shoes. It’s just hard to remember which room I’ve kicked them off in sometimes. And it being a large house of a certain age, sometimes things do go bump in the night, and occasionally doors open by themselves, creaking as they do so, which is mildly disconcerting. Especially when one has just watched an episode of Sherlock, which was prefaced with the warning “contains scenes that some viewers may find disturbing”. (Excellent episode that, mind, a real return to form.)

But apart from that, and the regular battle to remember which of the bank of 11 light switches controls the light I want to put on, I’m getting on famously well, to the point where I’ve begun to diligently research Squatter’s Rights.

And so far I’ve made good on my New Year’s Resolution (perhaps “resolution” is a bit strong, can one have a New Year’s Intention?) to do some exercise each week.

In fact, this is my second gym visit this week, no less, which is quite something. Technically my third, but I don’t want to brag, and really all that came of the first (and only, had I not been thwarted by a dastardly receptionist) visit of the week was to reschedule a visit for today.

On Tuesday I rocked up to my local (country) gym, fully intent on sweating profusely in a whole new postcode, only to discover that West Lothian Leisure Gym Receptionists are a little more enthusiastic at following the rules than their Edinburgh Leisure counterparts. On visiting a gym for the first time, she (the over-zealous* Receptionist) explained, one must be inducted, like into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, only different. (She may or may not have mentioned the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame).

My protestations regarding having visited a gym before were dismissed with a glance at my ‘physique’ and an airy wave of the hand, and with her feisty application of the letter of the law ringing in my ears, I found myself confused to the point of scheduling my Induction for 7.30am this morning. I have no idea what I was thinking.

But not to be completely thwarted in my fitness plans, and mindful of the fact that I would not necessarily be in much of a state to exercise properly post-Induction, at such an unearthly hour of the morning, I immediately drove to Edinburgh’s Ainslie Park, where I was allowed to work up a sweat without first having to prove my credentials.

Not much to report on this morning’s Induction. I sat down, and was rudely photographed (I propose that pre-8am portraits should be made illegal), before I broke the blood pressure machine, three times in all, and was taken on a tour of the facility, in the process learning about any number of new instruments designed to torture muscles I didn’t even know existed.

The flip-side to two gym visits in a week, of course, is the entitlement to have two McDonald’s chocolate milkshakes, which, as any athlete knows, is a post-exercise must.

In other news, the current spell of cold weather has revealed that my car dashboard pings and provides a helpful potential-ice-on-the-road icon whenever the outside temperature hits 3C. That’s regardless of whether the temperature is on the way up or down at the time. Accordingly, switching on the ignition when the temperature is minus 1 provides no warning at all, but should the temperature rise to 3, I get visibly and audibly alerted.

Stay safe out there, people, and avoid 3C at all cost. (That’s 37.4F, American friends. I haven’t forgotten y’all, nor y’all’s safety)

*zealous in the Mac dictionary is defined and then quoted in context thus “the council was extremely zealous in the application of the regulations.” I kid you not. How apt.

Churchill and road trips

With my current stay in the US hastening towards its end, I find myself with a yearning to visit places and make the most of my time here in the South.

So one Tuesday evening a few weeks ago, I texted my friend and at-that-time partner-in-unemployment, Samuel, and asked if he wanted to visit Kansas City the next day. Kansas City is a 10-hour drive away from Nashville, so it would take us all of Wednesday to get there. And he needed to be back in Nashville at 4pm on Friday, which would have meant departing KC by 6am at the latest Friday morning. Accordingly it didn’t really make sense. Naturally we decided to go.

After a quick gathering together of the essentials, some gas in the tank and air in the tyres, we set off around midday on Wednesday. Our route took us north from Nashville, into Kentucky (stopped for lunch at Chick-Fil-A), briefly into Illinois (stopped for gas and a quick baseball-throw in Nashville, Illinois just because it was there), into Missouri and right through St Louis and the gorgeous sight of the sun setting behind the Arch and the downtown skyscrapers. Then a long haul across mostly nothingness to Kansas City. Samuel, naturally, had to pee at a most inconvenient time, so we pulled off the interstate and found what appeared to be a legitimate old time country store, complete with a solitary gas pump out front. Sadly it was closed, and so Samuel did the business round the back. Back on the interstate, we passed a massive sign advertising the existence of a Churchill Museum in Fulton, MO.

“Can’t be. THE Churchill? WINSTON Churchill?!”

Samuel didn’t know.

I checked it out later. It is indeed a museum dedicated to the most tweetable prime minister in British history. Does the UK even have a Churchill museum?! I know that part of the Imperial War Museum is dedicated to him, but… why is there a full museum in his honour in Fulton, Missouri?

Turns out Mr Churchill gave a speech at Westminster College, Fulton, MO in 1946. In which he coined the term “iron curtain”. Incredible stuff. Sadly I didn’t have time to stop in.

Last week I did manage to visit a couple of museums that had caught my eye on a previous road-trip north.

Disappointingly, Samuel had acquired gainful employment after the KC trip, and so was unable to accompany me. Ryan and Katie, my travelling companions for pretty much the whole of last year, have between them now also got jobs. Slackers. Running out of actual unemployed people, I turned to a full-time musician friend instead, and we hit up the National Corvette Museum first, an hour north of Nashville in Bowling Green, Kentucky. This was actually a bit of a let-down, although not as much as it was early this morning when a sink-hole appeared and eight vintage Corvettes disappeared into it. Kind of glad we made the trip last week, although frankly it would have made the tour more exciting.

Then it was on to Louisville, KY to visit the Louisville Slugger factory and museum. Putting quarters in the parking meter, I was perplexed by it only giving us 7 minutes of parking time. I fed it a few more coins to make sure. Got no change out of it, either figuratively or literally. Parking on that street was not allowed after 3pm, but this was just before 2pm… and then I remembered that Louisville is in Eastern Time, not Central. Louisville, sitting a few degrees to the east of Nashville, has no business being in Eastern Time if you ask me. But it seemed pointless to argue about it with a parking meter, and so we found another, less restrictive parking spot, threw down a quick lunch, and made it to the factory for the final tour of the day.

Earlier in January I did manage to get on the road with Ryan and Katie (and Samuel), heading up to Indiana for a quick two-day ski trip. Indiana does not have mountains, but it does have a couple of hills and some lifts, and we had a blast for a couple of days. So much so that we’re going back on Friday. And against my better judgement (many, many judgements actually), I think I’m going to try snowboarding.

Wiseman, look out.



So, I am now the proud owner of a car. I managed to get hold of a car with a manual gearbox, and have been re-acquainting myself with the art of the clutch. Has proved extraordinarily difficult to translate many *cough* years of left-handed gear changes to the other side. Couple of times I have tried to change gear with the door handle. Several times, usually at intersections, I have stalled, which is not a failing I can blame on the location of the stick. The gearbox seems a little clunky at times, especially when going from first to second, even after a few hours behind the wheel. But it’s been fun.

Point of note: it’s intriguing that with nothing more than a driving licence acquired through making a couple of turns and stops in an automatic transmission-equipped car, I can, perfectly legally, drive off into heavy traffic in a car with a six-speed manual gearbox.

Worship times at church have been fun too. Not least because our worship leaders insist on singing songs several keys higher than I’m used to. And that’s just the male worship leaders. The song “In Christ Alone” which has made a few appearances recently, I have always played and sung in Eb. Here we have twice sung it in A. One of our worship leaders in particular seems to be possessed of a voice pitched high enough to minister to dogs and bats. Accordingly mass harmonies break out in the room during worship. At some points I am unsure if there is anyone left in the room either capable of, or willing to sing the melody. It should be said that this is Nashville, there is a significant number of talented musicians and singers in the room at any one time, and mass harmony would probably be breaking out anyway.

Apart from the appearance of songs like “In Christ Alone”, which has been around a while, most of the songs we sing are fairly new, if not brand new. Most days we will sing at least one song that has been written in-house. I have learned a few new songs here, although I’m not sure I’ve learned the melody.

There is a tendency in the most recent worship songs to include a chorus or bridge which consists entirely of “oh oh oh oh” or “whoaaa whoaaa”. I’m not going to lie. I love this. There was a time when I would have wondered about the theological profundity of such a sentence, if oh x 4 can be considered a sentence. I would have given it a short amount of thought, and decided that it scored quite low on the theological profundity scale. Probably zero, on a scale of one to ten. And dismissed it as yet another inane modern worship song.

But here’s the thing. In worship we sing songs to our heavenly Father. And God isn’t, as far as I know, impressed with our lyrical eloquence. Were I a father, and my child came to me and told me, in a childlike and grammatically incorrect way, that they loved me, would I correct their grammar, or would the sentiment of their expression move my heart?

I think the latter. And I think God’s heart is moved when we come to him worshipping with our heart rather than our head. Further, I now think “whoaaa” is a deeply profound expression of worship. And much more versatile than most words. It can express wonder, awe, love, adoration, mystery and more. When the Spirit moves you (sometimes physically) in worship, or when God takes you by surprise with a revelation during worship, “whoaaa” is probably the only apt response.

Jesus said that unless you become like a little child you cannot enter the Kingdom of heaven. God has been reinforcing the importance of this to me, and I have discovered new levels of childlikeness recently. I am learning new things about the Kingdom every day. I’m still only moving from first gear to second, and it’s still a bit clunky, but I’m getting there.

The bed, the car, and the bad-ass boyfriend

So, I am now the proud owner of a bed. A Queen bed (please, please restrain yourselves), if you will, which it would appear is the American equivalent of a kingsize bed in the UK. The British double bed is apparently called a ‘full-size’ even though it’s only one size up from the smallest, which is itself called a twin. Of course it is. Nothing could be more obvious.

I test-drove a car at the weekend, which was a lovely experience. After driving for a bit in the gathering dusk, I realized I hadn’t yet switched on the headlights, which instilled a whole new level of confidence in my passenger. This was the saleslady, called Tammy, and she had this lovely southern accent. She also had a great way of phrasing things, such as “you can turn right here” which meant “take the next left.” And right there, if you’ll forgive the play on words, is another British-US difference, not that this blog is meant to be a list of our cultural and linguistic differences, although it might continue in that vein for bit until I run out of steam, or differences, or get bored, or forget what Britain is like. A Brit would say “take a left at the lights”. An American, particularly, I feel, in the South, might say “you can go ahead and take a left at the next intersection”. A few weeks ago, or, perhaps more accurately, before I visited Nashville for the first time in May this year, I would have thought this a terribly extravagant waste of syllables and energy. Now it just seems like a more deliberate way of engaging in conversation, and reflects the joy which is taken in even the smaller details in life here. Of course, I should really point out for the benefit of my American readers that not all Brits are as culturally and linguistically repressed as me, that would be unfair. But some of them are. Oh yes.

But back to that left turn. I did feel Tammy should really have put a comma after ‘turn’, thus:

“You can turn, right here” which would have clarified her meaning somewhat, given that only a left turn was available. If I had a copy of “Eats shoots and leaves” I would have presented it to her there and then, or possibly after I had safely made the turn. I can’t remember if this incident was before or after I had come off the interstate onto the off-ramp, and was remarking how good the car was in the corners.

“Yes. It gets a little twisty here.” she replied.

That I took to be an invitation to go right on ahead and find out how good the car really was in the corners, and so I think I might have accelerated into the “twisty” bit. Oops.

“Can you tell I was in a wreck?” she enquired, her voice possibly rising in pitch just a fraction.

“Uh, I’m sorry?” I asked.

“This bit is quite TWISTY!” she continued, in a crescendo towards fever pitch, banging on my arm with a rolled up.. sales schedule, or something. I got the point and went ahead and slowed right on down.

Turns out she had been in quite a bad car accident a few years back, which instilled in me a new level of respect that she would ride shotgun with potential car buyers trying to find just how grippy their prospective purchase was in the corners. She mentioned her ex-husband in the conversation, and I wanted to ask her had she not thought about standing by her man, but being a model of self-discipline and restraint, I didn’t.

But back to the bed, so to speak. I found it (or rather AJ did) on Craigslist, which is the US version of Gumtree. Or vice versa. Anyhow, it was in search of this bed that I found myself driving into a dark deserted industrial estate in East Nashville tonight. I pulled up to the entrance of what might have been some sort of furniture storage facility, had I been able to see it properly in the dark, alongside the seller’s pickup truck, and was shown the mattress and box spring by this girl and her bad-ass-looking black boyfriend. There was no hip-hop pumping out of the pickup’s speakers, but there might have been. I had visions of me being found lying face down on said mattress with a single bullet hole in the back of my head, but perhaps I’ve watched too many of the wrong type of movies. Real life was, as ever, considerably less dramatic (I’m grateful), and twenty minutes later the pickup pulled up outside my new house in Nashville, where I am about to start renting a room. And so my brief sojourn in Franklin is almost at an end. Alyn and AJ, who probably didn’t find it quite so brief a sojourn, are looking to take on another lodger who would be willing to pay rent in root beer, cream soda and M&Ms.

Am quite excited about my move into Music City itself, and the resulting proximity to the live music scene there, not to mention some great indy coffee shops.  Cannae wait, like.

Driving tests and diapers


Following my successful foray into driving theory last Thursday, I booked my road test for the following day in a small town called Jasper (approx 3000 inhabitants), about 2.5 hours drive south of Nashville, close to Chattanooga and the county borders with Alabama and Georgia. You might think that it would be more convenient to take the test in, say, Franklin, or Nashville, or Canada, or really anywhere closer than Jasper, but I couldn’t find a test centre nearby which could fit me in any sooner than late October.

The ladies in the DMV place at Jasper were very sweet. I think perhaps they were pleased to see someone they weren’t related to.

I can’t begin to tell you how different this test experience was compared to my UK driving test in 1991. I was a little worried that the nice examiner lady would be put off by the stash of spare nappies/diapers and discarded root beer bottles in the back, but she seemed unfazed. She also declared that I would have no problem with the test. I can only presume that she took one glance at my “distinguished” appearance and realised I had clocked up a few miles behind the wheel, and was disregarding the fact that I would be driving an unfamiliar vehicle, on unknown streets, on entirely the wrong side of the road.

She was proved right though. The test consisted of a few turns at junctions. No reversing at all, never mind into a parking space, no hill start (bit redundant with an automatic box), no emergency stop. Perhaps just as well, or we might both have been wearing the diapers, so to speak.

Looks like I did just begin to tell you how different the driving test experiences were after all.

So, with Tennessee driving license in hand, the thoughts turn to what kind of car to buy. At the school we’ve been learning how to hear God’s voice, so I asked him what he thought of my idea of getting a massive twin cab pickup truck. He said he thought it was a little OTT for my needs.

So I found a reasonably priced sensible-looking car online, before discovering it didn’t have electric windows. I mean, seriously, this is supposed to be America. Can you imagine the tangle I’d get in at a drive-thru if I had to actually wind down the window first?

So, finding a car and a house are the remaining jigsaw pieces to put into place in order to settle into life here with a degree of independence, and thus reduce my sponging from my hosts and Charlene. Although living with Alyn & AJ has been, I feel, of mutual benefit. I get a roof over my head, food, a minivan (with multitudinous cup holders and spare diapers for emergencies) to drive when Charlene’s car is at the garage; they drink my root beer and get to reach their broadband supplier’s data download limit 3 days before the end of the month. Alyn is particularly pleased about this last benefit. I blame ESPN for streaming live cricket from Sri Lanka. And then there was the Ryder Cup…