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.

 

Camping and Clapton, pt II

Phoned the Oval on Wednesday, to see if they had any tours of the ground running in the next couple of days. The nice lady apologised, and explained they didn’t have tours on match days.
“Oh? There’s a game on?”
Even better. After a morning’s camping and travelling in planes, trains and automobiles (and boats, come to think of it), I took the tube from Bethnal Green to Bank, onto the Northern Line, and down to the Oval. Had lunch at the Oval Lounge, and then wandered round to the ground and took in most of the afternoon session. The sky remained clear and blue, save for some hazy cloud. The same stands that reverberated to the sounds of England’s Ashes triumph a month ago were mostly silent. The metal framework which would have supported the giant Sky Sports screen was still there, but was now framing only a section of the housing directly behind it. Gone were the noisy fans, the singing and the Barmy Army. In their place were a couple of hundred spectators at varying stages of cricket-watching experience, enjoying a meaningless end-of-season fixture between Surrey and Glamorgan. Gone too were the dramatic batting collapses of the series in general, replaced by steady and fluent batting from the Welsh openers, resulting in a score of 271/0 at stumps in reply to Surrey’s 430. I left just after tea, when Cosgrove, who, as the gentleman behind me in the stand had kindly pointed out, was “two stone overweight”, completed his century. Wickets seemed hard to come by for Surrey, now languishing near the bottom of the County Championship despite Mark Ramprakash’s twinkle-toed batting heroics.
Headed back into the City, somewhat bravely I felt, as rush hour was fast approaching, via a short visit to the Imperial War Museum shop to pick up a few bits and pieces. I had been there two days ago, and had been tempted by a poster of Winston Churchill brandishing a tommy gun, in his trademark pinstripe suit and bowler hat, fat cigar protruding from the lips-that-launched-a-thousand-soundbites. After having visited many of the exhibitions that day, I felt somewhat chastened and, well, a bit melancholy, and not inclined to spend money on what seemed like such a light-hearted comment on war. Two days on, I felt fine about it. Took the tube from Elephant & Castle to Bank, where I bottled out of fighting my way onto Central, and surfaced for some much-needed air. Walked along Threadneedle Street past the Bank of England and RBS, along Bishopsgate past the Gherkin, and cut through Spitalfields Market to Rough Trade, and on to Coffee@Brick Lane. After some caffeinated respite, I donned the manbag once again and caught the 242 back to Clapton. That’s Lower, rather than Eric…

Adventures in the South

Mum and I spent a very enjoyable Christmas in London this year. Maggie, my mischievous niece, is nearly two. She finds noisy toys a little frightening at this stage, so perhaps a plastic chainsaw, complete with pseudo-realistic sound effects, wasn’t the perfect gift. Never mind, she got approximately one thousand other presents, and won’t have noticed. The chainsaw can remain in the toybox until her little brother arrives in March.

I managed to acquire a cold at the beginning of Christmas week, and so I lived mostly in self-imposed exile on the top floor of my sister’s house, and read books. Part of Christmas Day, however, was spent pram-racing in the back garden. It’s backbreaking work, pushing a tiny pushchair with a snowman passenger through the mud, and after each lap I longed for the blessed words “Dinner’s ready”. But the light would be snuffed out at the end of that particular tunnel with a cry of “Again!”, from about four feet below me and to my left, and off we would trundle.

Now that the festive period has passed, our two week holiday on the French slopes is fast approaching, although it hasn’t felt desperately fast as I’ve been looking forward to it eagerly for some six months. However, now that it’s actually imminent, I have upped my McDonald’s intake accordingly in order to be ready, expanding my usual order to not only include the scientifically-proven-to-be-helpful chocolate milkshake, but actual “food”. I use the term cautiously. I have taken a liking to their Chicken Selects, which, I feel, are a marginally less synthetic version of Chicken McNuggets. And they’re bigger, which is always a bonus. But back to the milkshakes. Why do they always taste of banana, even when you order chocolate or strawberry? And is there really any milk in them? I was reminded recently of an occasion in the mid-nineties when I fetched three milkshakes from McD’s in a friend’s brand new (only recently launched) Audi A4. Not a good moment to spill strawberry milkshake all over the footwell, so that’s what I did, swinging extravagantly into the car-parking space after having been the very model of ultra-cautious driving all the way home. The pink stain remained in the fabric until my friends replaced the car, but curiously, it never smelled… which if there was any milk involved, you would have expected it to.

Anyway. Last Team Gym session this week, and it looks like having a record attendance, as we all strive to become lean mean skiing machines. Even Wiseman has hinted at an appearance. DC has still not darkened the door, but claims to have climbed two mountains last weekend. He may also be spending the time profitably by devising inventive ways of spending as little money as possible in France, what with the Euro pounding us into submission at the moment. Leisurely lunches in mountain restaurants look to be a relic of years gone by. Current proposals include having picnic lunches on the piste, using the snowboards as a windbreak (knew they would come in useful eventually), and taking flasks of espresso onto the hill and adding it to mugs of free hot water from the bar.

The potential reduction in café time may explain why Nasty Jen has elected not to join us this time around. In her absence, it follows that someone will have to take up the mantle of being the sartorial envy of the pistes. I feel I am up for the challenge, what with my sister having knitted me a hat for Christmas and everything. And having taken some ski lessons recently from a pretty dark-haired Austrian ski instructor, I may even be able to ski while looking elegant, something Jen never managed…

Cambridge, Day 3

Cambridge being not a million miles away from London, Saturday provided me with a rare opportunity to have lunch in the Big Smoke with Maggie. Regrettably, it meant I missed a day of lectures at the conference we’ve been attending down here. But them’s the breaks.

I emerged from Liverpool Street Station into bright London sunshine. The weather has been glorious the last few days, which has been a tonic for us Northerners, suffering as we have been under a grim grey cloud recently. I installed myself on a stone seat outside the station and absorbed the warmth. Before long my phone buzzed, and I wandered across the road to greet Maggie and her parents.

We meandered along Brick Lane and around the area famous for being Jack the Ripper’s domain, stopping for coffee somewhere that my sister promised me was authentically independent. “Although they have four shops now.” How many outlets can a local independent outfit grow to before it loses its character and identity and becomes a faceless chain? And further, can a company long deemed the underdog in its field, making esoteric products for the discerning minority, become a corporate global success without losing its appeal to its hardcore fans? Like Apple for instance – their success with the iPod has meant they are the iconic brand for mp3 players. However, Microsoft retain their stranglehold on the PC OS market, and Apple Macs are still the underdogs as a result. Some part of the British psyche (or maybe it’s just mine) likes the underdog and wants them to succeed against their bigger brothers. However, if they do succeed and continue to grow market share, they inevitably become the big bullying brother themselves and, to some extent at least, lose their appeal. Perhaps this explains the Tall Poppy Syndrome so prevalent in our media.

Anyway, the coffee was good, and I tried not to look overtly out of place in the ultra-chic interior. We moved on to a 24hr Jewish bakery where Alison replenished the family’s bagel supply, and then headed on somewhere for lunch. I almost passed a record shop, then thought better and popped inside for a browse. I had already succumbed to a Van Morrison LP purchase in Notting Hill earlier in the morning. This time, a triple-pack Groove Armada record caught my eye – one of the Back to Mine series on the DMC label. I have no real idea what any of that means, apart from guessing that there should have been three discs in the sleeve. There were only two. The shop assistant, spotting me looking puzzled, apologised for the missing disc and offered to chop a third of the price. I was just glad that triple pack wasn’t some street term for two LPs, and decided to take him up on his offer. I know only one Groove Armada track – “At the River” – which is probably highly unrepresentative of their general output, but is absolute genius.

“I actually work for the record company – DMC – that the Back to Mine series was released on,” the assistant told me proudly.

I tried to look impressed.

“We’ve got Coldcut doing the next one – it’s due out next year. “Very excited about that!”

I nodded and smiled.

“Cool.”

I really wasn’t. I tried to look like I was equally excited, despite only having vaguely heard of Coldcut.

Better to stay silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt – so says the adage. I think perhaps that could be adapted, in my case, to:

“Better to stay out of cool record shops in East London and be thought square and unhip, than to go inside and remove all doubt.”

Oh Mary, this London’s a wonderful sight

Oh, Mary, this London’s a wonderful sight,
With people all working by day and by night.
Sure they don’t sow potatoes, nor barley, nor wheat,
But there’s gangs of them digging for gold in the street.
At least when I asked them that’s what I was told,
So I just took a hand at this digging for gold,
But for all that I found there I might as well be
Where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea.

(Percy French, 1896)

Friday last, I found myself in London for the day, courtesy of my work. I had the luxury of travelling down by train, in first class, which was very pleasant. Free tea and biscuits only takes you so far, however, so just outside York I headed for the restaurant car. One lucky and unsuspecting lady got a high-definition close-up of me on the way, as the train rounded a bend suddenly and I lurched into her lap. I muttered my apologies and carried on without looking back to see what her partner had made of our close encounter. In the restaurant a nice Aussie waitress took my order for breakfast.

“How would you like your eggs done, sir?”

Unprepared for such a question outside of the USA, I was just trying to remember how I liked my eggs done (Over easy, as I recall), when she clarified the options.

“Fried or poached?”

Ah. How naive I was.

Today sees me in London again, for the weekend this time, at the beginning of a holiday. I have never been desperately fond of London, finding it intimidatingly big, dirty and generally unfriendly. But it does have rather a lot going for it, too. Quite apart from the obvious (my sister lives there with her partner, and my mischievous bundle of a niece), there’s always plenty of things happening. And it’s noticeably several degrees warmer than Edinburgh. On Saturday I spent the day in Hyde Park, at a Hard Rock Café-sponsored event, soaking up the sun, Sheryl Crow, John Mayer and Eric Clapton.

Sheryl Crow was great, John Mayer, one of my principal reasons for going, was excellent, although restricted a little by only getting a 45 minute set, and Clapton was simply awesome. The sequence which closed the show (prior to the encore) was Wonderful Tonight – Layla – Cocaine, with barely a pause for a breath. The other guitarist in Clapton’s band was a left-handed wizard called Doyle Bramhall II whose guitar strings were in the wrong order. My eagle-eyed festival companion Iain noticed this. Mr Bramhall clearly learnt to play on an upside down right-handed guitar without restringing it. Genius. Either that or he has so completely mastered the conventionally-strung guitar that he got bored and reversed the string order to give himself a challenge.

So my sojourn in London is almost over. In addition to the Hyde Park show I had the privilege of worshipping at Soul Survivor yesterday morning, and what’s more, watching the afore-mentioned Eagle-eyed Iain playing bass there for the first time. As far as I could tell he had all the strings in the right order. There’s been two barbeques in one day, and the usual quality time with little Maggie, lying on our backs in the garden, considering the sky and philosophising. And kicking our legs in the air, which seems quite popular.

But that’s my digging for gold in London over for now. I’m off to where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea, to see if Mr French had it right after all…

London, unexpectedly

Sitting on the train at King’s Cross, waiting to depart for Edinburgh and the snowy north. Four Geordies have commandeered the table directly ahead, but they seem of a well-behaved generation, and are tucking into panini rather than bottles of Newcastle Brown.

I found myself in London courtesy of my boss being a bit under the weather and unable to travel to a product launch he was booked on. So I took his place, and his room in the Tower Bridge Hilton, which was, I have to say, very well appointed. Modern but comfy furniture, a huge bed, and trendy lighting. Perhaps the only downside was the disabled access shower, which flooded the bathroom very effectively. I have previous with these showers – it is a mercy Wiseman wasn’t sharing my room and distributing his follicles all over the bathroom floor.

The sink was outfitted with some sort of chrome designer tap, which had a joystick on the top controlling water pressure and temperature. However, the water pressure seemed fairly oblivious to my joystick-wiggling, if you’ll pardon the expression, and remained resolutely medium. Not a problem, and in fact, something of a bonus, as the tap was so close to the edge of the (beautifully contoured) basin as to make it tricky to wash one’s hands without flooding the immediate vicinity. A high pressure tap could have been a disaster. Another example of style winning over substance, as it so often does in our modern venti-triple-shot-skinny-latte society. I read a comforting article on the BBC News website recently which announced that a recent survey had decreed that the coffee offered by the large chains (Starbucks, Costa, Caffe Nero) was of low quality and seriously overpriced. Comforting because it made me realise I wasn’t alone in my assessment of their coffee and prices. Coffee is a matter of taste, of course, but that doesn’t mean that people who like Starbucks coffee aren’t completely misguided.

But back to taps. In the same hotel, the public toilets were kitted out with equally trendy automated taps, which were even more useless. I acquired some liquid soap from the ultra chic dispenser on the wall, and then placed my hands under the tap. Nothing happened. The sensor which detected your uncleansed hands was, altitude-wise, just underneath the output of the tap. Which was high above the rim of the basin. So I raised my hands a bit, and lo, the water flowed, onto my hands and all over the polished inter-sink surface (what exactly does one call the worktop-like area around the sinks in a public loo?). Lowering my hands into the basin, in an attempt to prevent this haemorrhaging of water, abruptly stopped the water flow. Genius.

Modern life is like this. Full of fancy gadgets which look very nice, and purport to make your life easier (saving you the hassle of turning a tap on and off, for example), but don’t always actually do the job their manual predecessors did so well (providing water for you to wash your hands with, for example). Full of coffees in Label-embossed cups which make you feel like you’re at one with the hip iPod-wearing generation because you’re not drinking coffee, you’re drinking a skinny-venti-mocha-frappucino. But actually you’re drinking a bucket of frothy milk with a tiny drop of coffee in the bottom. (With apologies to David from London)

The automatic lights in my car are a bit better. Initially I was a bit disconcerted by them (You think I don’t know when to turn my own headlights on, huh?), and sometimes during heavy rain they don’t switch on. One of my pet targets for verbal abuse is the driver of an oncoming car who hasn’t switched on their lights in heavy rain or low visibility. I now fire the same volley of abuse at my automatic lights, who in fairness take it all on the chin and don’t answer back. They still don’t switch on, however.

(Yes, I could switch the auto function off completely and operate them manually, but… whisper it, I do like the way they switch themselves on when you enter a tunnel and the like. And yes, I have retained enough manual control of my life to override the automatic function when the rain is heavy enough to reduce visibility.)

Snow has been coming down heavily in the north of England this weekend, according to the news. I have now travelled through what I thought was the affected area, and haven’t seen any snow, although it’s kind of dark out there. Perhaps the train’s automatic headlights haven’t come on. The Alps have been receiving snow of late, which bodes well for my second skiing extravagance of the season, in March. The Admin Supremo, DC and an old flatmate Tom are joining me for some snow action underneath Il Cervino, which is how the Italians refer to the Matterhorn. Filipideedooda is unable to come with us due to carelessly allowing part of her foot to break off while boarding in Val d’Isère. She found out it was broken after deciding to have it x-rayed once she’d been reassured by the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary that it “definitely wasn’t broken and an x-ray wasn’t necessary”. It’s a shame she won’t make it, although she might have had a tough week coping with four lads.

It’s now February, and I’ve turned the page on the calendar to discover that I have only two things lined up in February: on 10 Feb I am buying a laptop and mobile phone for Nasty Jen, and on 22 Feb I am sending money to Hazel. Curious, don’t remember writing those reminders in…

London, Day 3 and the Losing of the Ashes

This is a poster up in my sister’s kitchen, espousing the good old British spirit which carried us through the war years.

Spent most of Saturday setting my a wireless network and generally tidying up my sister’s laptop. IT literacy, like most things in life, is a relative measure. To my sister and her partner Angela I am fully qualified technical support. To someone like Jones I am a technical disaster waiting to strike. He knows the latter is a more accurate appraisal of my IT abilities because he has to field the panicky calls from me whenever I blow something up. However, this time all appears to be working ok after my tinkering.

This weekend I also had the chance to meet Jo and Stewart, friends of my sister, who will be in Melbourne at the same time as me. They are heading over there for a wedding in Airlie Beach, and are very sensibly only attending one day of the 4th Test at the MCG. Rather less sensibly, they are taking their baby son Lewis with them on the trip. Although Jo, like my sister, is a nanny by profession, so if she can’t handle it, I’m not sure who can.

Looking forward to seeing them again in Melbourne, it will be nice to have a couple of familiar faces there.

Last night, I joined my friends Tom and Joy at a carol service at St Paul’s Hammersmith. Tom was one of three flatmates who put up with me for my final two years at university.

All three of my ex-flatmates from that flat are now married. Probably the first to go (my chronology of these matters is a little vague) was Koji – who married Hwee-Sng when he returned to Singapore after graduating. Hwee-Sng was also studying in Edinburgh with us. Tonight I fly out to Singapore for 2 nights – sometime tomorrow I will see them again for the first time in over 10 years.

My sister, with her customary sensitivity, stops outside my door this morning, and announces “I think you’ve lost the Ashes.” Like I lost them myself, personally.

“I know” I reply, gruffly. I had, at some point during the night, switched on Radio 4 LW on the little radio I put beside the bed last night for precisely this purpose. Mercifully I missed the denouement itself, but I got the gist of the way things had turned out, even in a semi-conscious state.

Mornings are not a time when I like people telling me things I’d rather not hear, especially if I already know them. Tom and Koji, I imagine, both learned this. But Alison sounds positively cheery about England’s capitulation. Having recently opined that “There’s too much cricket chat on your blog”, perhaps she thinks this will reduce it.

Ha! Little does she know. Plenty of cricket left in this series. Still time for England to win two Test matches, and cast a gloriously artificial sheen on the series result.

Come on England. Keep calm and carry on.