The C-19 Diaries. Mausoleums and Meanderings.

Day 61 [cont’d]

On the way home from the park, I notice that the price of a litre of petrol had fallen to below £1. I checked my records. Last time petrol was so cheap was in April 2009.

I would like to claim that I checked some sort of online archive to find out that particular stat, but no – I do indeed have records of the price I paid for fuel, and indeed the mpg of my cars, stretching back to 1999. It’s quite the spreadsheet. There’s a spreadsheet for every activity under the heavens, as a little-known translation of Ecclesiastes 3 reads.

Day 64

Fascinated by Christie Miller, I dig around on Wikipedia and find out that he was in fact the nephew of William Henry Miller, who owned the whole Craigentinny area of Edinburgh. I discover that old WH, towards the end of his life in 1845, commissioned an extremely grand mausoleum to be built over his final resting place. Now known as the Craigentinny Marbles, it has spectacular bas relief marble friezes (of those words I properly only recognise ‘marble’) on both sides, depicting Biblical scenes. He also stipulated that he was to be buried 40 feet under ground, in a lead-lined coffin, a task that took 80 labourers to complete.

It seemed disrespectful to not pay a visit, so today I did, on my way to my new Ghetto Squash venue in Seafield. At the time of its completion in 1856, the mausoleum stood in the middle of a windswept moorland. Now, it’s surrounded by 1930s bungalows, and is immediately adjacent to a bowling club. It’s a surreal sight.

Day 67

The FM eased the Lockdown situation today. We are now allowed to have furtive meetings with other households in our respective gardens.

Day 68

I miss Proper Lockdown already. I head to the corner shop to get some sausages, and have to wait actual minutes to cross the road it’s so busy. 

I surrender after two attempted corner shop visits. They’re both mobbed. Plus they didn’t have sausages. I consider a Morrisons trip, but I can’t face it. 

I return to the flat and make a lunch based on what’s left in my fridge. Last time I this happened I had a bacon, mushrooms and cheese toasted sandwich. This time I have no mushrooms but I substitute in a fried egg and all is well.

Day 77

I am on annual leave this week.

I considered a walk along the old Innocent Railway path, but I think it’s going to take more commitment to complete than I can muster right now. So I amble around Duddingston Village instead, where I discover a community land area complete with allotments and benches in the sun. 

I sat on one of those benches for a while, and tried and failed to listen to a couple of podcasts. I am hopeless at podcast-listening, and I’m not entirely sure why. It feels like I don’t have the requisite attention span, and yet I enjoy watching Test cricket. 

I wander round the Duddingston Kirk graveyard, and skirt round Duddingston Loch for a bit before climbing back up to the road through Holyrood Park. I walk past the fountain where I kissed my second girlfriend for the second time, and on through the little valley between Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags, which I’d never been through before. 

Stopped off at Usave and picked up some cream and bacon with a view to making a pretty decadent dinner. 

All the time, having abandoned the podcasts, I was listening to Wiseman Wedding – a playlist I put together for the great man’s big day in 2012. I remembered this collection of great tunes as comprising some upbeat stuff followed by more laidback stuff suitable for dining to. 

Turns out it was 24-carat melancholy from start to finish. I think the most upbeat song was about the day Frank Delandry died. 

Sorry about that Wiseman. I guess my subconscious was mourning your loss to the ranks of the married…

The C-19 Diaries. Essential Shopping and Disco Dancing.

Day 23

My mum turned 80 today. My Sister and I had arranged for a hamper from a nice Edinburgh deli to be delivered. She seemed pleased with the contents. The nice man from the deli had described them to me over the phone. I recognised roughly one word in three, and by this I knew that mum would like it.

I sat in my car outside her house and joined a family Zoom call to sing her Happy Birthday. She also passed some cake out the window to me, which felt borderline illegal, but I took it and ate it while sitting on the wall.

Day 30

Many of my friends seem to be succumbing to the current fad of cultivating their own sourdough cultures with the aim of ultimately making bread.

I don’t quite know how to break it to them that someone seems to have got there first. It’s actually quite easy to just walk into a supermarket and buy a loaf of sourdough bread. I just did – at Morrison’s. I feel they will crushed to discover this, so haven’t had the courage to bring it up.

Day 39

Nicola and Disco Dave organised an actual disco over Zoom tonight. I became somewhat reluctantly involved as the technical director, which then by default meant I became the DJ. As a result I had to download a considerable number of tunes onto my laptop which would – under normal circumstances – never have been considered for inclusion into my music library. I am still actively seeking software which cleanses microchips from the corruption they have been exposed to.

One of the tunes on the playlist was Tragedy. I assumed they were looking for the Bee Gees’ version. It turns out that it had to be Steps. I was apoplectic about this, but my hands were tied by my contractual agreement. Steps it was, alongside S-Club and various other non-bands. Not even an Atomic Kitten track in sight.

Day 43

Mum coerced me to do some shopping for her. She “needed” some items from Waitrose. On pointing out to her that this might not be considered “essential shopping”, she quite deliberately played the “vulnerable persons” card. What could I do?

I consoled myself with the knowledge that I might find myself in a better class of queue outside. The sort of people that the Rector’s Administrator would associate with.

As it turned out, when one enters this particular Waitrose via the lifts from the car park, one bypasses the queue and the Supermarket Bouncers completely. Who knew? I proceeded guiltily into the fruit and veg section, and duly found myself in aisles stacked with products with unfamiliar-sounding names. Like “tomatoes” and “flour”. Except there was no flour. Seems like everyone’s baking these days.

Later, I went for a run again. Achtung Baby is the album spinning on my turntables – both real and virtual – this week. It brings back a hazy memory whirl of sixth form schooldays, my friend Raymond, who became obsessed with U2 around this time, and the excitement of newly-possible drives up to Belfast to buy records and books. The sound of Achtung Baby was such a departure compared to U2’s previous two releases – the inordinately successful Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum, which has always felt like a non-album stopgap to me.

Anyway.

As I labour, gasping for breath, up the cruel gradient of Holyrood Park, I have Achtung Baby in my ears.

“Is it getting better?” asks Bono, gently.

No, Bono, it’s really not.

“Or do you feel the same?”

Yes, Bono, I do. I still feel out of shape and desperately unfit.

And I miss people.

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.

Life in Music City

 

My good friend Kat emailed me from Edinburgh back in mid-February.

Subject: Good beards
Message: Avett Brothers @ Bridgestone Arena on 18 May

On seeing the subject I thought she had caught sight of my facial hair (an ill-advised experiment earlier this year) on Facebook and was writing to compliment me. It seems not. Kat has her finger on the musical pulse and goes to more shows than anyone else I know. She even knows the upcoming shows in Nashville, and emails me when she sees something coming up which will enhance my musical education.

I had never heard of the Avett Brothers, which is pretty much par for the course where her musical suggestions are concerned.

There is an abundance of live music in Nashville, as you might expect. But more than that, music pervades the culture, in such a way that they have guitars slung on the walls (and decent music playing overhead) in the grocery store. Overheard conversations at coffee shops will frequently reference technical aspects of record production. At any given restaurant your waiter or waitress is probably an exceptionally talented musician or singer waiting for a big break.

This can make life interesting for touring bands. My roommate informs me that artists hate playing Nashville, sometimes avoiding it altogether, because at any given show in the town, a significant proportion of the crowd will be professional, semi-professional or good amateur musicians, who stand with their arms crossed, and an attitude which screams “Go on then, impress me!”

And that makes sense.

But the enormously refreshing thing is that at church (at least at Grace Center) that attitude doesn’t seem to exist. At least not within the worship team, in my experience. I have never before come across a place where there was such a proliferation of phenomenally-talented musicians who were still excited by playing music and yet apparently indifferent to their own skill and achievements.

Last night was a case in point. Before our midweek worship service, the bass player, a former member of Sonicflood, recently back in Nashville after playing for several years with Jason Upton, and about to depart on a tour of Asia with Don Moen, asked our guitarist if he listened to bluegrass at all.

Our guitarist drawled “Yeah man, that’s mainly what I play.”

Bass player: “Ricky Skaggs? Man I grew up on that stuff.. Kentucky Thunder..”
Guitarist: “Yeah man, I played in that band for a year”
Bass player: “Whaaaaaaatt?!?”

And he starts looking around for a piece of paper and a pen to get his autograph. Half-jokingly. Conversation turns to Ricky Skaggs’ recent collaboration with Bruce Hornsby and the live album that ensued.

Guitarist again: “Aw man, I’m on that record somewhere.”
Bass player: “Are you SERIOUS?!?”
Guitarist: “I had no idea they were recording the shows until I got a cheque in the post and thought ‘What’s this?'”

Meanwhile the drummer, a successful recording artist in his own right, is sitting quietly on the sofa minding his own business. Looking on is the worship leader, a songwriter with several worship albums under his belt. And I am standing off to the side, (last musical achievement: Grade 7 piano twenty years ago), wondering “WHAT AM I EVEN DOING HERE?”

But here’s the thing. This is worship, and not just music performance. And so although these guys operate in a different musical stratosphere from me, I can still contribute. It’s taken me a while, but after a year and a bit of teaching on it and exposure to it, I’ve learned the reality of the supernatural/spirit realm and how my actions and words can have an impact there as well as in the earthly, visible realm. And for that matter, how the spirit realm can have an effect on my thoughts. And so I understand that when I play, it’s heard in heaven and not just in the room on earth where I happen to be. And people in the room are not just hearing the notes and chords but are being ministered to by the Holy Spirit.

I realise that this is an ‘out there’ concept, but am fully convinced that the supernatural realm is just as real as the wind, while being just as invisible to most of us, most of the time.

Overheard conversation between the sound engineer and a guy I only know to be a car park attendant as I left the church..

“You have a demo tape?”

“Yeah”

“Ok, well, we’ll probably do the drums in the morning..”

Four weddings & the Maple Leaf Bar

 

Having been at a ministry school for the best part of a year, I feel I am now entitled to include a Verse Of The Day in my blog posts. Verse for today comes from Ecclesiastes:

“Better to spend your time at funerals than at parties.
After all, everyone dies—
so the living should take this to heart.”

Especially, one suspects, if the funerals are in New Orleans. Sadly(?) we didn’t see or hear any funerals while we were there, but did see four weddings. No, seriously. Parading through the streets with jazz band and second line. Was awesome. New Orleans was a lot of fun all round. Great food and great music.

One evening we lined up for a show at Preservation Hall – a venue which has been showcasing New Orleans jazz since 1961. It was a smallish room – held about 100 people – mostly standing. Ryan, Katie and I found a little bit of space at the back and, not to be put off by the humidity and an absence of air conditioning, “danced” for most of the 45 minute performance.

During the 8 hour drive down from Nashville, we were forming plans about what to do and where to go. Being a man of great awareness, I, all of a sudden, remembered that the Maple Leaf Bar was in New Orleans, and was the primary reason I had wanted to visit the place for years. So Katie, who was in the back researching activities and venues online, checked it out.

The Maple Leaf came across my consciousness because of one man – James Booker. A friend in the hearing aid industry introduced me to a recording of Booker playing some live show in Switzerland, and I was blown away. Blues piano like I’d never heard. Sounded like he had four hands. Further investigation online revealed that he did in fact only have two hands, he was from N Orleans, was the house pianist at the Maple Leaf from 1977 to 1982, and had done some recordings there. Mostly, to be honest, his recordings are patchy, as I understand a lot of his performances were, due to various addictions. Booker died young, probably as a result of said addictions, and became another tragic-tortured-genius statistic. But any hearing of him play at anywhere near the top of his game is breathtaking.

And so it was that Ryan, Katie and I traipsed into the Maple Leaf Bar at around 10pm one evening. There was a live band advertised as starting at 10. As is the way of these things, the live band were mostly not there, and certainly not ready to play. So we wandered through what was the sketchiest looking bar/venue I’d been in for a while, and headed towards the back – because that’s always a good thing to do in a sketchy bar in a town that you don’t know very well and has a reputation for random shootings.

There was another bar at the back, with a couple of customers chatting to the bartender. We kept going, out the back door, into the walled beer garden, which was so dimly lit that we could only tell a couple of the tables were occupied by the sounds of people talking and the interesting aromas wafting across from where they were. (Note to any HX readers: this was the safest beer garden I’ve ever encountered)

Sat there for a bit, then wandered back inside. The two customers at the back had gone, so I approached the bar and asked the barman if this was where James Booker had played in the 70s/80s.

“Aw yeah, this is where Booker played, man.”

I turned and pointed to an old, frankly knackered upright piano in the corner. It seemed implausible, but the piano was certainly old enough.

“Um, that wasn’t the piano he played, was it?”

“Yeah man! That was Booker’s piano, and Jamie Foxx also played it in the Ray Charles movie! It’s kinda wrecked, but the manager is looking to get it tuned and fixed up so people can use it in live shows and stuff.”

Mildly stunned, I made my way over and played a few keys.

“EASY THERE SOLDIER!” came the warning from the bar. I froze.

“Aw I’m just kidding man, fire away.”

Breathed out. And played it a bit more. Truth was, it was so wrecked so as to make it unplayable. But man, it still felt good. The keys that *did* work had a really easy action, like they’d been hammered into submission by someone who really knew how to hammer a piano into submission.. which they had.

In due course the live band came on. They were terrible. At least, they probably weren’t terrible, but I have a limited tolerance for 6 saxophones playing modern jazz. What a racket. But nothing could spoil that night.

A documentary on Booker’s life has, I understand, recently had its premiere at the SXSW film festival earlier this year. If that movie comes anywhere near Edinburgh or Nashville while I’m in town, I’ll be all over it.

Three more days here in Tennessee, and then am heading back to the UK, and work again. This will be the biggest shock to my system since I first sucked orange juice through a straw as a small child.

But on Saturday I have a date with Wiseman at PizzaExpress. So it’s all worth it.

Curry, cricket and Charleston

 

Found myself at an Indian restaurant the other night. Nothing unusual in that, except that Indian restaurants aren’t that common in Nashville. And this was a vegetarian curry house, which I’m reasonably confident I haven’t had the dubious pleasure of experiencing before.

It turns out Mushroom Masala is very similar to Chicken Tikka Masala, but without the chicken, and with more mushrooms. Who knew? It was extremely tasty. And since poppadums, mango chutney and peshwari naans have no meat content, not too much of my regular Indian restaurant experience was disturbed.

A bunch of us from the school were meeting to mark 3 weeks since we graduated. Three weeks is not especially significant, I think we were all just missing each other.

As the meal was winding down, I asked the waiter if he liked cricket. I always do this in Indian restaurants over here. The last time the guy was Nepali and liked football. Very disappointing. This guy was more rewarding. We dived straight into a conversation on corruption in the IPL and spot-fixing in general. I felt like I was getting reacquainted with proper sports chat, after many months of double plays, RBIs, and rosters. It’s going to be wonderful to again watch a game that’s allowed to finish with the scores level.

And then, just as my internal sporting equilibrium was returning, news filtered through that the Holy Cross 2nd XI had won a game. What gives?

Since school got out I have done a bit of travelling around.. toured the Jack Daniels distillery, which I discovered is located in a dry county. Alanis, that’s ironic. Spent a week in Charleston, South Carolina and then a weekend in Memphis. Charleston was beautiful, unusually walkable-around for a US city, and very relaxing. Memphis was sketchy, run-down, full of deserted buildings, and jammed with music history and history in general. Loved them both. Tomorrow morning Ryan, Katie and I hit the road south again, for New Orleans this time. Katie is nervous about spending yet more extended periods of time in the car with Ryan and I, on account of us both being extremely talkative. We have both promised to tone it down and try hard to maintain periods of silence now and then.

New Orleans is one of the few places in the world I have specifically wanted to visit for a long time. For the cajun, and the music. Not going to lie, am kind of hoping to see a funeral while I’m there. Not an easy thing to arrange, but you never know…

Worship

 

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.

Spotify and Steve Earle

Summer is definitely here.  I know this because I drove to Aberdeen and perpetrated mass bug genocide with my windscreen.  Several weeks later, my windscreen still remains a memorial to the fallen bugs of Fife, Angus and Aberdeenshire.

It appears that the Eyjafjallajökull (yes, I copied and pasted that) volcano has stopped erupting.  Hurrah.  Perhaps they have blocked it up with shredded tyres and golf balls.  Just in time for my flight down south to London.  With BA.  Although their strikes haven’t been affecting London City.  Double hurrah.

I am listening to Spotify right now, as I write.  And, marvellous though it is, I have discovered a second reason to dislike it.  As they are wont to do to us free subscribers, they interrupted my listening pleasure with an annoying advert.  “Ha!” I thought.  “I’ll fox them.”  I muted my speakers and switched them back on after a minute or so.  The advert was still running.  I muted my speakers again.  After another minute or so I switched back on.  The same advert was still playing.  In fact, it seemed to take up exactly from where I muted it.  They can tell when I mute my computer speakers and pause the advert until I put them back on.  The cads.  Whatever next?

The first reason to dislike it, of course, is that guests in your house can put on whatever music they like when your back is turned.  This is an embarrassingly obvious example of music snobbery on my part, but honestly, when someone hijacks your computer, in your own home no less, and forces everyone present to listen to irritating teen-pop, I am liable to splutter something I shouldn’t.

Having left my entire music collection in the seat pocket of an aircraft, I do hope the nice steward or stewardess who trousered it is enjoying my carefully crafted playlists and smart albums.  I’m not, obviously, and have had to resort to old-school listening techniques in the car, such as putting on a CD.  Due to a rediscovery of the joy of listening to a good album over and over, along with general inertia, I have become very closely acquainted with Steve Earle’s Transcendental Blues.  What an album this is.  Edgy country, bluegrass and an awesome ballad to finish.  I met Steve Earle once, just before Christmas in 2004.  He was playing a show with the Dukes at the Usher Hall, and they needed ear impressions taken to have new in-ear-monitors made.  I shuffled up the road to the Usher Hall on the day of the gig, and took impressions for Earle and his band in a very dimly lit Green Room.  I have no idea how the impressions turned out, my hands were shaking a fair bit.  I hoped the inadequate lighting would mask my obvious nervousness.  I chatted with him a little, asked him if he was looking forward to getting home for Christmas.  He wasn’t, really.  Loved it on the road, he said.  He went on to explain that his band (The Dukes) lived all over the place.  The bass player, Kelly Looney (real name, I believe.  Well, you probably wouldn’t choose it) lives in Paris, for example.

I have subsequently become very familiar with, and very fond of, a Steve Earle song called Ft. Worth Blues.  Wiseman will testify, wearily, to this.  It names a number of cities and places in the world – Amsterdam, London, Paris, with a recurring phrase: “It never really was your kinda town.”  And so at this point, if, as the man himself said on another occasion, I knew what I know now then, since Paris had obligingly popped up in the conversation, I might have casually suggested that it never really was his kinda town.  Many, many times since, in my imagination, I have relived this moment, and delivered this show-stoppingly dramatic line.  In my imagination, Steve Earle is impressed with my knowledge of his lyrics.  In reality, he might have thought I was taking the mick, and this could have been a dangerous thing given that he’s spent time in jail on a firearms charge.  Perhaps it’s better that I didn’t know the song, really.

John Mayer and Costa Coffee

As previously confessed, I’m a big fan of John Mayer. So when a friend said he’d been on Jonathan Ross’ Radio 2 show a few Saturday mornings ago, I fired up the iPlayer with a certain amount of anticipation/apprehension. Meeting your heroes, it’s said, can be a disappointing experience. I find that even listening to your heroes on the radio, or seeing them in concert, has a certain amount of risk attached to it – how can you fail to be disappointed? Your expectations are so high. When I saw JM in Hyde Park a few years back, I was disappointed, because he didn’t set anything alight (I mean metaphorically. Although it’s true to say that he didn’t physically set anything alight either, this didn’t disappoint me). I consoled myself in the knowledge that he only had a 45 minute set, which didn’t allow him to express himself fully. And this was vindicated by his Hammersmith Apollo gig a few weeks ago, when he torched the place. Metaphorically, of course.
Anyway, back to the radio show. I’ve never found Jonathan Ross compelling listening, not because he’s not funny, because he usually is (IMHO), and not because he gets paid ridiculous amounts of money, because I don’t hold that against him. I find his show irritating in the extreme because there’s this bloke who sits in with him every time (possibly his producer) and laughs at everything he says. Everything. In a nauseating, sycophantic kind of way. Drives me crazy. Or at least it would, if I listened more.
I steeled myself for the sycophant, and tuned in. However, it was Ross himself who wound me up early on by first of all introducing the guitarist JM brought along to play live (Robbie McIntosh) as “his (Mayer’s) dad”, and then proceeding to either forget, or pretend to forget his name, and make up new ones for him every time he referred to him. Serious lack of respect for a fine musician. He then confessed that he knew of Mayer only through his appearances in gossip mags and the like, and expressed surprise when it transpired that he really could play guitar. Which is, quite frankly, lazy. Any small amount of research would have revealed that Mayer has played guitar with Buddy Guy, BB King, and Herbie Hancock. Oh, and Eric Clapton. And that he’s done stand-up, and writes well too. And he features heavily on my iPod. But I still don’t like his new album. Only two songs of any worth, I reckon. Neither of which he played at the Apollo, naturally.
I created an ‘evening’ playlist a few years back, containing songs of a more, um, reflective nature. Melancholy, some might say, and I wouldn’t contradict them. It’s my favourite playlist, by some distance. Wiseman’s response to my musical taste is usually a despairing kind of snort when yet another miserable track comes on the car stereo. On one occasion, I was driving Nasty Jen somewhere, and as Bill Withers wailed “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone,” I realised I was listening to the melancholy stuff. Jen is a teeny-bopper really, and should know better at her age, but I thought I would humour her and switch to my ‘pop’ playlist, which contains songs of a generally more upbeat nature. After a few seconds delay while the iPod found the new playlist, the opening track kicked in.
“Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone…” lamented Bill, again. I resolved to get some happier music on my iPod.
On a more recent occasion, Wiseman and I found ourselves listening to some tunes from the 70s on the car radio. Wiseman took great delight in identifying, usually incorrectly, the year of each track from these, his formative years. Sometimes he has even been heard to sing along to seventies tunes. It’s quite a sonic experience.
The car radio has been employed more often of late, since I neglected to remove my iPod from the seat pocket in front on arrival in Geneva last month. The airline was Jet2, and to anyone flying with Jet2 in the future, I would strongly encourage you to follow their advice and take all your personal belongings with you, as contact with said airline afterwards can prove a touch elusive. All “post-flight communication must be in writing” (that’s letters, rather than emails) and so far they have failed to acknowledge either of mine. Which rather stymies my as yet unborn insurance claim, unfortunately.
After lunch today I made the trip to Arbroath to see a client. Having plugged the postcodes into Google maps, China’s least favourite internet company advised me it would take 1hr 50 mins. For some reason I read this as 1hr 30 mins. Tapping the details into my sat nav as I prepared to leave, 90 minutes before the appointment, I was somewhat startled to note that it was predicting a journey time of 2 hrs 13 mins. I made haste for the M90. Once over the bridge, I encountered another problem. My body sometimes thinks it’s somewhere in the south of France, or Spain, and takes an involuntary siesta shortly after lunch. I was falling asleep at the wheel. This is never a good thing, I find, and so I have a couple of strategies to combat it. One is to pull over and close my eyes for forty winks (I find five minutes almost invariably does the trick); the second is to stop for a coffee, or any sort of break. I had time for neither, but having pondered the pros and cons extensively in the past, I have arrived at what I believe is a rather sensible conclusion. No matter how late you end up being for your appointment, and possibly all your appointments for the rest of the day, and whatever you were planning to do in the evening, annoying and stressful though this can be, it’s still better than killing people, possibly including yourself.
So I stopped at the Kinross services, and ordered a double espresso at the Costa outlet. Now, Costa. They’re not quite Starbucks, and their coffee certainly tastes better to me. But I don’t really like them either. They’re “Italian about coffee”, or so they claim. Now, I’ve been to Italy, once. I stayed in Milan for a week with my good friend Slid. It was June, it was hot, and humid. I remember sitting in a park with Slid watching some locals play football. Had it not been so hot, we might well have taken them on and shown them a thing or two. But it was very hot. They were playing in a classically slow, Italian style. It struck me that in these temperatures and humidity, there was no other way to play. And I immediately made a connection between the climate and the style of play: Italy and Spain – slow and languid so as not to get hot and tired too quickly, Scotland – fast and frenetic so as not to get cold by standing around in Baltic temperatures. It all made, possibly perfect sense. In that sense, Costa are very Italian. They are chuffin’ slow. Far too slow when you’re running late for an appointment in Arbroath. I lost eight minutes in the service station, although admittedly I had to take a pee as well.
Apart from the speed of service, I find nothing about Costa remotely Italian. Every time I had a coffee in Italy it was outstanding, and it wasn’t supplied by a chain, in an enormous bowl of a cup whose diameter is so great that the coffee sometimes dribbles down the sides of your chin. But perhaps that’s just me.
I was late for my appointment. And the next one. And my evening ‘appointment’ back in Edinburgh. But nobody seemed to mind too much. And what’s more, I’m still alive!

Cambridge, Day 1

Just before 6.30pm, we spilled out into the Quad. The sky, pale blue beforehand, had turned a deeper dusky shade while we’d been inside, and the moon was rising. The brightly lit windows in the ancient buildings around us promised warmth. The building we’d just left, despite being ostensibly a place of worship, had offered only cold austerity.

We had attended Evensong at King’s College, Cambridge. There is, undeniably, a beauty in the choral music at services like this. The choir of King’s College are world-renowned, and the interior of the Chapel is instantly recognisable from the annual BBC broadcast of their Christmas Eve Carol Service. But my experience of this evening’s service saddened me, because it removed God to such a lofty distance as to make him inaccessible. Raised in an Anglican tradition, much of the liturgy was familiar to me, and as with the music, there is an exquisite beauty in the words of the prayers and canticles.

But as the choir sang an introit, presumably in Latin, the candle-wielding clergy moved solemnly towards the altar, clad in vaguely sinister white hooded robes. Not all the robes were long enough to conceal the blue jeans underneath. Jeans, it may be deduced, are unsuitable attire for worshipping God and must be covered up. If the fundamental message of Christianity is that God reached out to us in grace, bridging the yawning chasm of separation because we were unable to attain anything like the level of holiness required, then why do we dress up to worship him? Will that impress him?

The service developed into a two-way exchange between the priests, at the top of the nave, and the choir – situated further down. We, the plebs, were in between. The clergy would intone a phrase, and the choir would respond. It was impenetrable for those of us without orders of service. It was, as I understand it, this kind of superfluous man-made ceremony and ritual that led to the Plymouth Brethren ditching the established church’s traditions and reducing church practice back its simple essence. And yet, I have met staunch Brethren who find it unacceptable that I should wear casual clothes to church on a Sunday.

Why do we keep missing the point?

We trod the gravel path around the edges of the manicured grassy centre of the quad. The lawn was immaculate, and quite beautiful, due no doubt, at least in part, to the KEEP OFF THE GRASS signs.

And there it was, right there. As the grass, so the church service. Aesthetically magnificent, but please remain at a distance.

This is not the God I know.