Bridges and Punctuation.

My Peebles sojourn has drawn rapidly to a close.

Last night Gary sallied forth from his country house headquarters to join me for a walk. We ambled over the Tweed Bridge and down into Hay Lodge Park. Peebles, being a town that is built around a river, has a pleasing number of bridges punctuating the landscape. A bit like New York, really, with a rather more sedate pace of life. And the bridges are, in general, very old and quite lovely. Although it’s probably easier to find a postcard for sale in New York.

Earlier in the day a friend sent me a picture from Pitlochry, of a rotating postcard stand, crammed with quality-looking Colin-Baxter-esque postcards. So that’s where all the postcards are these days. I was a little envious.

Gary and I wandered along the river bank, climbing and descending along uneven dusty paths broken up by gnarled tree roots and ancient sandstone rocks, the Tweed burbling along happily below. I was minded of my recent reading of Night Soldiers, the story featuring a grander European river, known to us as famously as the Danube, but known by many other names as it snakes eastwards across the continent: from its Black Forest source as the Donau, into Vienna, then as the Dunaj through Slovakia, splitting Budapest in two, flowing as the Duna along the western edge of Serbia, before serving as the Romanian-Bulgarian border and emptying out, now as the Dunărea, into the Black Sea.

The Tweed, to my knowledge, remains the Tweed for its entire and somewhat shorter existence, and Strauss probably never wrote a famous waltz about the Tweed, but still, a river holds a certain fascination, especially when viewed from a bridge, and can be watched for hours as it goes on its way.

The path climbed alongside a beautiful viaduct, built at an angle across the river, which brought purrs of pleasure from Gary, something of a connoisseur of buildings and architecture and many other things besides. At the top we walked along the route of the former railway line, and continued on to meet a quiet road, where we were beset by giant killer winged creatures. However, we prevailed against them mainly by running away, crossing the Manor Brig, dating from 1707, and climbed a lung-burstingly steep hill, requiring a pause at the top, for thought, and chocolate and water, not to mention the recovery of air into the lungs. We had an exquisite view looking southwest along the Tweed valley, and, once we’d set off again and rounded the next corner, of Peebles itself nestled comfortably in its glen. 

It was downhill all the way from there, past a serious-looking horsey establishment, with a floodlit enclosure, and impressive looking horses grazing in a field. There was a sign on the roadside as we approached the main buildings.

On Tuesday I had walked on the other side of the glen, and as I neared Peebles Hydro and the main road I passed the end of some forest trails which are clearly well-used by mountain bikers. On the roadside near a cluster of houses was a sign, which I contend could have benefitted from some punctuation. It read

CYCLISTS SLOW DOWN CHILDREN & ANIMALS

I don’t think the writer of the sign intended to convey the message that children and animals were slowed down by cyclists, much as I don’t think the person who had created this sign with the wording

SLOW HORSES AND CHILDREN

intended us to think the local horses and children were a little dull.

But a little punctuation would have helped their cause.

We found ourselves in the southwestern suburbs of the town, sparking memories for me of house visits to a nearby client in my audiology days, and followed John Buchan Way signposts from there to the car park, once nearly heading down a driveway by mistake due to a questionable signpost placement.

This morning I reprised last night’s walking route, only running this time. I should say that I ran most of it, but punctuated the running with some walking at times, notably on the aforementioned hill climb.

It being earlier in the day, the giant killer winged beasties had not roused from their slumbers, but at that point in the route I stayed as quiet as I could, just in case, as quiet as someone whose lungs are bursting can, at any rate.

From the top of the hill, and the Peebles and Tweed Valley panoramas, I followed the same route into the suburbs, past houses with names like The Croft, and The Anchorage, the garage door of which was being raised just as I ran past. I glanced over hoping to see a fine boat moored inside, but sadly there was only a Jaguar SUV.

Along lanes squeezed narrow by tall nettles, dodging these with what I considered pretty nimble footwork, past the High School’s playing fields, and grass hockey pitches where a whole platoon of rabbits were performing various manoeuvres.

Forgot about the misleading signpost, found myself in the driveway briefly, made a sharp exit, down the lane I was supposed to, and then into the town itself, across bridges, up braes and down various wynds and gates, along the edge of Eddleston Water again, back to the caravan, a shower, lunch and a siesta.

Peebles, you were lovely. Deserving of more postcards.

Peebles and Postcards

It’s Monday, and I find myself in Peebles. Not entirely accidentally, you understand, there was a certain amount of planning involved, although one couldn’t describe this holiday as over-planned, as I began thinking about it approximately twelve hours before I left the house.

I am here courtesy of Wiseman, who, along with the lovely Mrs Wiseman, are custodians of a static caravan here. And they offered it to me for a short break, and I jumped at the chance, relishing the opportunity of a change of scenery.

And so here I am basking in the glorious sunshine, or at least I was until I got too hot and retreated inside, because the long hot Scottish summer has finally arrived, as I knew it would. Were I to be sitting on the caravan’s decking, as I was earlier, I would be surrounded by rolling hills. Albeit I wouldn’t really be able to see the hills on account of all the other static caravans in the way. But I know they’re there, and imagine they must be very picturesque indeed.

This morning I went for a run, my first foreign run, as I like to think of it, and promptly got lost multiple times. I also found the tarmac considerably more unyielding than sand, although I had taken the precaution of wearing socks and trainers, which helped.

I ran alongside Eddleston Water into Peebles. I was the only runner I saw, and consequently had the midges almost all to myself, which was pleasing. The only people around to share the midges with were a few dog walkers, and I was only attacked by one dog.

What with the midges and the attack dogs, I wouldn’t say I’ve felt immediately welcome here, but I returned from my run and consoled myself with an iced root beer on the caravan decking, and suddenly everything seemed better again.

In the afternoon I walked back into Peebles, ostensibly to look for some postcards, but I knew there might be an ice-cream opportunity lurking along the way, and indeed there was, and it was very good.

Postcards, however, were harder to pin down. It seems like postcards are now relics of a bygone era. Has the selfie killed the postcard star, as it were? Eventually I found a shop with a considerable amount of tourist tat, and asked the proprietor if he had any postcards. He replied that they did, and pointed to the floor, where there was a box of assorted postcards depicting various Scottish scenes, mostly from the Highlands, some of snowbound Munros.

They didn’t feel all that local, I would say. Where are the rotating racks out on the street, full of local postcards portraying pictures of the local town hall? Am I the only one to mourn the loss of these?

I purchased some assorted postcards of Scotland, only one of which showed a glimpse of Peebles (in its bottom right hand corner), and a classic cheap touristy pen with Peebles printed on it, with the full intention of finding a beer garden where I might write.

However I couldn’t find my way to the beer garden I was hoping to, and besides, I was beginning to develop concerns for my staunchly Irish complexion, which was reddening slightly under the full force of the blistering Scottish sun, and so I retreated back to the caravan decking, where I consumed an Irish-inspired Scottish beer, and remained there until quite recently, when it all got a little too hot.

I wrote postcards to my nephews and niece, apologising for my handwriting, which was never that great to start with, and has deteriorated due to being out of practice at writing with an actual pen, and more recently has deteriorated even further due to me dislocating my finger last week in an unfortunate accident. I gave my nephews and niece three separate stories explaining the finger injury, all of which were more exciting than the truth, but I feel one must maintain one’s mystique as an uncle.

And with that, I think it’s time for tea. 

The COVID jab and Neighbourhood Apps

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

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

“Are you Edward?”

“No, I’m Andrew.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, should I, now.

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

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

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

I message him about the Joppa Neighbourhood App.

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

It’s a fair point.

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

Running, skiing and pancakes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plus it creates an appetite. Mmmm, pancakes.

Skiing and Communism

And just like that, it was February. 

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

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

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

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

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

I queued outside for about ten minutes. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are you doing New Year’s Eve?

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

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

“Nipun is coming inside.”

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

We moved on.

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

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

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

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

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

Quite remarkable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Shortest Day

Today is the shortest day for the UK. And the whole northern hemisphere, I daresay. For confirmation I looked up the sunrise times for Edinburgh on timeanddate.com, and was quite startled to discover that tomorrow the sunrise will be a minute later than today. And then another minute later on 27th, before finally beginning to recede on 30th December. The good news is that the sunset also started getting fractionally later four days ago, and so today really is the shortest day.

Incidentally, while entering my location into the website, I also discovered that there’s a place called “Edinburgh of the Seven Seas” in St Helena – nestled sort of slap bang in the middle of the South Atlantic between southern Africa and South America. They have a fair bit more sunlight than us at this time of year. I made a mental note to visit Edinburgh of the Seven Seas one day. Ideally in January. 

On a windy day, back in October, I ran a 5k along the Promenade at Portobello. Actually it was closer to 6k, but I don’t like to brag. The sky was bluish-grey, indeed almost everything looked bluish-grey. It was blowing a hoolie, and the breakers were in good voice. 

To the east there was a golden stripe along the coast, as the stretch from Musselburgh round to Longniddry still caught the early evening sunshine.

I think it was that day I decided to move to Portobello.

The sound of waves on the beach, most recently experienced on my much-documented stay in Aberdeen and the North East, have seduced me.

So I moved, and here I am. I found a great little flat – just back from the Promenade. If you crane your neck at a certain angle through one of the windows you can claim a sea view, but – more importantly – I hear the waves every night.

I have successfully quashed, without a great deal of difficulty, the wild spirit within me that has wanted to join the open-water swimmers, who take to the sea on a daily basis; sometimes wet-suited, sometimes in a two-piece (they’re nearly all women), and all looking either a little mad, or bad-ass, or frequently both.

I saw one today on my beach walk back from the Post Office, in a swimsuit, with woolly hat and proper wetsuit-type gloves. Still trying to make sense of that particular combo.

The flat I’m in is one of a block of six, in a little development of several blocks. The neighbours are friendly. I recently encountered Irene, who has been here since the development was built in 1986. I like to think of her as the Scheme Tsar. Then I met an old dear – Joy – while we were out emptying our bins.

“Are you the new man?” she asked.

I replied that – yes – I think I was. 

“I’m Andrew!” I said, with that knowing look which says I would shake your hand right now under normal circumstances, but I can’t, so I’ll nod my head slightly, which will have to do.

“Oh I know who you are,” she responded. “Irene wrote about you in The Newsletter.”

I have a fairly strict and entirely self-inflicted “no-emoji” rule when writing in this blog, having occasional and loosely-held pretensions to being “a writer”.

However it would be now that I would insert a face-with-wide-open-eyes emoji to adequately reflect my response to this bombshell. Possibly the face-screaming-in-fear as well.

We have a “Newsletter”? And I was featured in it?

I have still not seen any sign of this publication, but I promise to report back when I do.

In other news, my move to Portobello has precipitated a grave and serious change in my circumstances, in that I have now moved outside my GP Practice’s Boundaries of Care. And so, being a Good Citizen and thus unwilling to continue to claim medical care from a distant practice, and also conscious that GPs can be inordinately prickly about such matters, I have re-registered with my local practice in Porty.

At least, I think I have. I posted my lengthy application into the box that I was instructed to. I only lied (accidentally) about one thing, in the box where I was to note my weekly alcohol unit intake, in which I unthinkingly put a number which would have definitely been true pre-Covid, but has now been somewhat, um… superseded.

Thereafter I was expecting to receive, if not a glossy Welcome Pack, at least a brief email acknowledging my existence and that I had kept my handwriting inside the correct boxes. None has been forthcoming. I realise that a GP practice is not exactly a country club, but surely this is not too much to expect?

This morning, while the sun is shining and I (craning my neck at the appropriate angle) can catch a glimpse of sunlight glinting on the sea, I find myself inside, glued to the HMRC website, where I am trying to gain access to a webchat with an advisor.

It’s proving to be an experience similar to the Pool of Siloam. Every time the “speak to an advisor” link appears, I click on it, at which point a pop-up box asks for my name and question. Which I provide, as quickly as possible. The question has been reduced to “hi” in the interests of speedily initiating a chat. However, regardless of how how little I type and how fast I type it, I am invariably met with the response “All our advisors are busy at the moment, try again.”

The reason I am here is because I have been trying to help my mother with her self-assessment tax return. The HMRC system, in its infinite wisdom, has decided it cannot verify her identity. It requires two pieces of identification from her to do this, one of which is a passport, which she no longer has.

They have an alternative way to prove you are who you say you are, which involves registering with a Trusted Company (I chose the Post Office), who proceed to ask you for details about yourself, stopping just short of asking you how many freckles you have on your left forearm.

Even with this inquisition completed, the System was unable to verify my mother’s identity. And thus it has deemed her unable to submit an online tax return.

We can still submit the paper version, of course. Deadline for that was 31 October. But doing this, and paying the resulting fine, seems the only way forward. I find it somewhat unacceptable that my mother has to pay a fine as a result of HM Government being unable to verify her identity, even though her identity hasn’t changed even slightly since this time last year, when we successfully completed an online tax return. And the year before that…

Here in Scotland we go into Tier 4 (ie the maximum) from Boxing Day. Tougher on everyone, but still not as bad as March. London is properly locked down already.

And I note from a brief visit to the Post Office today, that all services to Europe have been suspended. Brexit AND Lockdown. It’s quite the dysfunctional cocktail.

But today is the shortest day. Tomorrow, we begin the long slow climb into brighter days. Days when the light burns a little longer, and a little warmer. And though the climb is long and slow, and it’s hard to note any difference for a while, it’s happening nonetheless. 

Slow and steady, but from tomorrow, we’re climbing again.

Stay safe, and happy Christmas to all my long-suffering readers. ❤️

(It’s only a fairly strict no-emoji policy).

When this whole thing is over

It’s October. Summer in Scotland has waned, the light has gradually faded, and with it, gradually, many of our social freedoms. In the process, ‘normality’ is being gradually redefined.

At the onset of the COVID-inspired restrictions in March, it was broadly understood that there was a need to keep one’s head under the duvet for a few weeks, after which we would re-emerge like hibernating hedgehogs, get ourselves a proper haircut, and then gleefully put into place all the sous-duvet plans we had hatched on Zoom and WhatsApp, for “when this whole thing is over.”

But autumn has brought our burgeoning freedom to a shuddering and slightly traumatic halt. Proper lockdown is back on the agenda, and there are reports of alcohol panic-buying in the New Town.

I ordered one of those armband-phone-holders the other day, like those real runners wear.

I should have ordered one months ago, but have finished every run breathlessly reluctant to countenance the notion that I might ever go for a run again. Thus I was reticent to spend money on something that was about to become an ex-hobby.

When this whole thing is over, I will never go for a run again.

Today there was a noticeable chill in the air. I put on a thermal base layer and it felt good. I embarked on a sortie into town on the bus, to get a proper haircut, and fired up some Christmas carols in my ears. They sounded great.

This marks a turning point. Last week I tried listening to Christmas music while in the queue at the Post Office. It just wasn’t working. The air was too warm, the light wasn’t quite right.

Today the sun is lower.

I make it to Bruntsfield and get my haircut. I’m Kenny’s last appointment of the day. It’s 10.30am on a Saturday. This should not be. I knew something wasn’t right when I called on Thursday for a Saturday appointment and was given a choice of times.

“How’s business the rest of the week?” I ask.

“Up and down,” he says, grimacing. “Hard to predict.”

On my return journey, I jump off the bus on Princes St, and get a lemon-and-sugar crêpe from a van at the bottom of the Mound. Then I sit in the sunshine in Princes St Gardens, and eat it while listening to In the Bleak Midwinter. It’s just like being at the Christmas Market. 

Except that they would be playing Santa Baby at high volume, and the crêpe would have cost £3 more.

Speaking of which, it was a little rubbery, perhaps because it quickly became saturated with lemon juice, and by the time I was done my hands were a sticky mess. In days gone by, this would have been a great annoyance. But now I have a handy mini bottle of hand sanitizer, oh yes, and the stickiness is quickly vanquished.

When this whole thing is over I will never be without hand sanitizer. For crêpe-related emergencies.

What will normality look like, when this whole thing is over?

The 2020 Staycation Diaries. Solo travelling, loneliness, and singleness.

Sunday 6 Sep

Time to head for home.

I make a mid-morning stop in Stonehaven. Sit on a sunny café balcony overlooking the harbour, with a substandard coffee and an A+ traybake, and read about lighthouses.

Read about the prolific Stevenson family – how four generations of them built most of the lighthouses in and around Scotland and the Isle of Man.

About how one of these Stevensons – Thomas – was greatly disappointed when his son Robert Louis announced that he would be pursuing a career in writing instead of lighthouse engineering. Perhaps he forgave him after he wrote this:

“There is scarce a deep sea light from the Isle of Man to North Berwick, but one of my blood designed it.

The Bell Rock stands monument for my grandfather; the Skerryvhor for my uncle Alan;

and when the lights come out along the shores of Scotland, I am proud to think that they burn more brightly for the genius of my father.”

And, y’know, when he forged something of a successful career in writing.

This has been a great trip. I have not, generally, enjoyed solo holidays. When attempted in the past I have found myself longing to share the experiences with someone. But this time I was surprised by how rarely feelings of loneliness overtook me.

And in this I need to acknowledge the positive effect of social media. It helps with this. It really does. Sharing photos of places visited and sights seen via Instagram, and Facebook, and written experiences via this blog, and seeing people respond, help provide that sense of connection that otherwise is missing.

Strikes me now, fourteen years on, that this was probably the main driver for me starting this blog in the first place – keeping a record of my trip to Australia in 2006-7, a diary of my travels for posterity – of course – but also a means of staying connected with friends and, in a relatively non-immediate way, sharing those experiences with them.

Big shout out to Nicola and Disco, my virtual travelling companions on this trip. 

But on the occasions when feelings of loneliness did catch up with me, I found the best way was to embrace them. Briefly. It’s perfectly normal to experience feelings of loneliness at times. No sense in pretending they’re not there. So I embraced them, and even dwelt in them, for as long as I needed to. 

And no longer than I needed to. Any longer, and I get lost in a miasma of self-pity and spiralling thoughts that take me nowhere good.

I sometimes view families in a curiously detached way. It doesn’t escape my attention that the parents are my age or younger. I sometimes idly wonder what it’s like. I know, cognitively, what it’s like. I have enough friends who have told me. Told me of the sleepless nights. The constant demands for your attention. The tears and the tantrums. Balanced with the joy and the pride. 

And I have experienced these things in a detached way, as an uncle and a friend of the parents. But I don’t really know.

Nor do I want to. Not at all. And yet there’s a fascination, which is similar to the detached fascination I experience when I see couples on the bus. Or in the street.

I wonder what it’s like. I know what it’s like. But I also don’t.

And so I walk the road less travelled. Viewing couples and families with detachment. Wondering how one decision can make life, ten years down the road, say, so different. So very different. 

Sometimes I feel like Peter Pan. Like I’ve never grown up. Proper grown ups enter into committed, lifelong relationships. Get married. Have children. I haven’t. I go to the cinema a lot. Sometimes at antisocial hours on a school night. Frequently on my own. It’s ok, going on your own. It’s actually pretty good.

I invited my friend (married, with young children) to the cinema the other day (pre-COVID). He didn’t come. “Our lives are very different,” he said. It was a 9:30pm showing on a Sunday night.

The first times I ate out in restaurants alone, I was on training courses with work, far from home. It felt weird. I was in a strange town, far from everyone I knew, and it was just weird. Now, eating out alone is as normal as breathing. 

I have great friends. I love hanging out with them, going to films, eating pizza, ice cream, meeting over coffee. I love these encounters. But at the end of the evening, we wave goodbye, and go our separate ways. 

Sometimes I think it’d be nice to have someone who would still be there tomorrow.

The 2020 Staycation Diaries. Sunrises and Smugglers.

Saturday 5 Sep

After yesterday’s full and busy itinerary, with its 6:17am start, I resolved to take things a little easier today. I gave myself an additional two full minutes in bed and got up for the sunrise at 6:19.

I can’t quite remember the last time (before yesterday) I witnessed a sunrise. And the thought of having seen two on consecutive mornings is frankly mind-boggling.

Singing along to Justin Townes Earle in the car later

Ain’t seen a sunrise
Since I don’t know when

I (with, I admit, a dash of smugness) change the words to

…since THIS MORNING!

Which doesn’t, I confess, fit the song rhythmically or thematically, but I’m on holiday.

Faced with a plethora of beach choices, I settle on Balmedie Beach, on the basis that it’s the closest, and thus will maximise the good weather beach time, given that the forecast is for it to cloud over by the afternoon.

Walking from the car park, I crest the final sand dune to discover a massive sandy beach stretching away to the north and south, but my heart sinks just a little at the eleven wind turbines rising up out of the sea just offshore.

I am not entirely proud of this reaction, since I know that wind-generated energy is clean and green, and therefore A Good Thing, and also subsequently discover to my dismay that my views are momentarily aligned with Donald Trump on something, finding out that he complained to the Scottish Parliament in 2012 that the turbines would spoil the view from his golf resort.

And, what’s more, just yesterday I was eulogising over the beauty of a lighthouse in the middle of the sea.

I kick off my flip-flops and carry them, walking northwards through the fringes of the surf, away from the turbines. It’s breezy, and clouds frequently obscure the sun, but it doesn’t rain.

I come across a bunch of sandpipers scuttling backwards and forwards with the incoming tide – it looks like they’re playing chicken with the water.

After a few miles, with the beach still stretching endlessly off into the distance, I park myself on a sand dune once again, make coffee, and eat my lunch, pondering the difference between wind turbines and lighthouses.

It’s a curious one. Both the lighthouse and the wind turbine are entirely man-made. Both are there for laudable reasons. Both are brilliantly conceived and (especially when built in the middle of the sea) genuine feats of engineering.

But the lighthouse is somehow more beautiful to me. The achievement of the lighthouse engineers is also considerably more impressive when one considers that they were built in the 18th and 19th centuries, without the assistance of modern shipping and helicopters. But, purely from an aesthetic perspective, the turbine is too sharp, too angular, has too many edges for me. But like them or not, I guess they’re here to stay.

I walk back the way I came, with the wind getting up and the tide coming in. The beach is deserted. I take the opportunity to run, and fling my arms wide, and sing at the top of my voice. And maybe even skip and dance a little. Then I notice there are two people sat back on the dunes, watching the antics of a crazy person, no doubt preparing to call the police if I turned in their direction. Ah well, I’m on holiday.

I drive a little further north, to Collieston, purely on the basis that it has an ice cream shop called Smugglers Cone, and in doing so stumble across perhaps the most glorious find of the trip – another gorgeous little seaside fishing village, built in a natural cove, flanked by cliffs on one side and dunes on the other, with a great little harbour and a rich gin-smuggling heritage.

In the late 1700s an estimated eight thousand gallons of foreign spirits were being landed here, and the surrounding area, in a given month.

I eat ice-cream and read a book, sitting on a bench overlooking the harbour, where wet-suitted youngsters are jumping off the harbour wall, and a young family paddle-board their way around the cove.

In the evening I attempt to eat local (at Brewdog!) but they’re fully booked, and so I walk along Union Street to the familiar surrounds of Pizza Express, a chain in some trouble even pre-COVID.

With sparsely-arranged tables and furniture stacked in the corner, it looks like they’ve just moved in. With so few diners, it was a fairly soulless experience, if I’m honest. Made me wonder: how much of our enjoyment of a meal out is conditional on the atmosphere?