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)

Siri Problems and Extreme Laundry

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penang. Yes, of course it is.

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

Yes, yes, I really would.

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

I tried a different tack.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ooh,” said one.

“Hand-wash,” said another.

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

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

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

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

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

Work trips and substance abuse

My colleagues Tuckett, Stupot and myself are holed up in a Hilton somewhere near Warwick for a few days, for the biennial BSHAA Congress. The hotel is fairly average, and has designed their showers for people of average height. I found a letter on my bed on Thursday evening apologising that the bed linen had not been ironed. It looked fairly ironed to me, at least compared to my bed linen at home. Although all my other washable items are pristinely ironed these days. My washing machine has, sadly, spun its last 30 degree eco wash, and I have been seen traipsing down to my mother’s on a bi-weekly basis, clutching a bin bag of dirty washing. It reminds me of being a student, except that I never did that when I was a student, since home was several hundred miles away. So it reminds of me other peoples’ student experiences, really.

Once cleaned chez maman, I collect the clothes in neat colour-coordinated piles from her house. My clothes have never had it so good. I was tempted to phone John Lewis and ask them to postpone the delivery of the new machine, as this arrangement seems to be working quite well for me. However, I needn’t have bothered, as the washing machine delivery man threw up his hands (and quite possibly gasped “Oh, my!”) at the sight of my old machine, it still being plugged and plumbed, and declared that he couldn’t possibly unplug or unplumb it, in case he flooded my flat, or broke a fingernail. I would have expected someone au fait with washing machines to be able to safely eliminate the flood risk before unplugging an old machine, however, as it stands I am quite happy. The new washing machine is proving an attractive feature in my spare room, it having a largish surface on which to dump things, and mum is still doing my washing.

She hasn’t complained, yet, but then she hasn’t had anything particularly flavoursome to wash yet, since I haven’t been doing any exercise of late. CIA has been avoiding playing me at squash recently, possibly afraid of how hard I will be able to hit the ball with all my new-found weight behind the shot. I am developing a bit of a paunch you see. It is most distressing, and work trips don’t help matters much. Having resolved to put Friday’s large cooked breakfast, twin-dessert lunch, and sumptuous Thai evening meal behind me – despite all evidence of them still being very much in front of me, hanging over my belt in fact – I was enjoying my cereal this morning with milk so anaemic is must have been skimmed, looking forward to some toast. But then Tuckett rather cruelly thwarted my plans my mentioning how nice the sausages were, and indeed they were very nice, I could remember how nice they were from the day before, and in the face of this relentless taunting from my colleague I’m afraid I caved in and headed off to the cooked breakfast counter. Tuckett himself was cutting down in the breakfast department, having decided to forgo the toast this morning, which only left him with bacon, sausages, eggs, baked beans, mushrooms, hash browns, and possibly one or two other items that were buried under all that lot. An ascetic chap, is our Tuckett.

Friday night, after the aforementioned Thai meal in Leamington Spa, we retired back to the hotel bar for a nightcap, and an early-ish night. I found time to watch a DVD which chronicled the making of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours album. Absolutely compelling viewing. Since my recent discovery of the joy of sitting down and deliberately listening to music, brought about by my ‘new’ turntable and amp, Rumours has rarely been off the deck. It’s one of my favourite records, and hearing the full story of the circumstances and atmosphere in which it was recorded only adds to its allure. For those of you who don’t know the background, Fleetwood Mac at the time consisted of five members: Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, Christine McVie, Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham. Mick Fleetwood’s wife was having an affair and he was understandably cut up about this. But his problems paled beside the others – Christine & John McVie’s marriage was breaking up – she was having an affair with the band’s lighting director, and Buckingham and Nicks were also a couple in the middle of splitting up. Christine McVie, Buckingham and Nicks were the main songwriters in the band, and so unavoidably most of the songs on the album were written quite directly about themselves and the other members of the band. And they were all quite heavily on drugs, which was de rigeur for the music industry at the time – even more then than now. What came out was a stunning album, which is still great over 30 years on.

What is it about creative genius that is so stimulated by raw pain and substance abuse? Almost makes me wish I had smoked a few joints when I was splitting with my girlfriends over the years. Who knows what would have come out when I sat down at the piano?

I said “almost”. Relax, mum.

Wiseman’s Back, and Broon the Parsnip

The Northern Ireland trip passed off peacefully. It was great. In fact it was dead-on, so it was. There have been some changes since my last proper visit (where a proper visit is defined as lasting more than 24 hours). The now relatively well-established peace (I describe it thus with some caution, as our Admin Supremo, volatile enough to spark a civil war in Switzerland, is actually holidaying VERY NEAR to the province at this very moment) has caused house prices to sky rocket. However, some things remain the same. You still get offered a choice of chips or rice with your Chinese takeaway.

I made my escape back to Scotland and drove straight to the Strathclyde Hilton, where an old friend was having a ceilidh to celebrate her recent marriage. Needless to say, with dancing to be had, much of the chatroom was present. Jen, on her way rather predictably to the bar with a couple of friends, where she was no doubt planning to convince someone to buy her a drink, was accosted by an older gentleman and his mates.

“It’s alright, ladies, I’m HERE,” he announced.

“YESSSS!” replied Jen, rather more audibly than she might have planned, while punching the air triumphantly. Whether the trace of sarcasm in this response was picked up or not was unclear, and she spent the rest of the night looking nervously over her shoulder.

Wiseman, out of circulation of late due to spending time with the missus, no longer has a missus to spend time with, and hence had to make do with our company instead. Having booked some rooms at the hotel and stayed overnight, I got up early and sneaked into the gym the next morning to watch the great man at work.

A picture speaks a thousand words, they say.

Tonight I made my yearly visit to my mum’s GB Display. The GB is an organisation for young girls that gives them something to do besides buying shoes and talking about Big Brother, namely playing games and learning about God, and their Display is the annual end of year show. I realise that openly admitting that I spent the evening watching young girls cavort about a hall might not do any good to either my credibility or my status with Disclosure Scotland, but I can only protest my innocent involvement as the musician. Don’t shoot me, I’m only the piano player. I might hope that Broon, who was also present, would back me up here, but realise that my acerbic character profiling might just come back and bite me on the bum. Oh well, such is the lot of us satirists.

Mum, who is captain of this particular company of girls, waited until halfway through the minister’s opening prayer before deciding to check if the radio mic was working. She switched it on and blew hard into it. It was working, what’s more it was turned up quite high. After the subsequent explosion she turned and smiled, apparently pleased that the whole hall now knew the PA was switched on.

We moved on to the first song, during which my music book made several attempts to pitch itself headlong onto the keys. My playing wasn’t that great, I’d be the first to admit, but I didn’t consider it so bad that the music book itself would seek to intervene and call an abrupt and atonal end to matters.

These evenings tend to include games with audience participation. Early on in the night we witnessed a game which involved one of the leaders “making soup” by waving her arms vigorously as a number of girls-pretending-to-be-vegetables ran round her at speed, before they shot off back to the corners whence they came.

“You got the idea?” she asked the audience, confidently. I chanced a look across to Broon, skulking in the back row on the opposite side of the hall. Broon clearly had as much idea what was going on as I did. Which was unfortunate, as shortly afterwards she was deemed to be a leek and was summoned onto the floor. It wasn’t long before she got confused and tried to pass herself off as a parsnip (no-one was fooled), and ended up back in her seat red-faced.

And that’s about it. Colin Eye informs me that the pesky IT people at his workplace have blocked his ability to make comments. Perhaps they have read your comments, Colin. One can only surmise how long you can remain in the Cabinet without being able to make comments… shame really, since you’ve just made it in. And it’s such a nice photo…

Melancholy and chicken kebabs

Melancholy. What a word. I was discussing its beauty with Judith, a lurker on this blog, this morning. So beautifully… poised, it whispers sweetly of the warm darkness you find deep within a slough of despond. I have recently discovered some new melancholy music (it’s new to me, folks, ok?) in Quasi and Ray LaMontagne. The latter’s album ‘Till the sun turns black’, as if that wasn’t mournful genius enough by itself, includes songs with lines such as:

“I never learned to count my blessings
I choose instead to dwell in my disasters”

Gorgeous. Then there’s Quasi.

“Life is full life is grey:
At its best it’s just OK.
But I’m happy to report
Life is also short.”

Came across Quasi on Cully’s iPod. Cully is a maverick musician/artist who works as an arts staff worker for UCCF. Cully’s iPod is an unplumbed depth of exotic-sounding bands like the Violent Femmes. Exotic, and unheard of, to a boy with a sheltered Church of Ireland upbringing. Anyway, Cully does a good line in quirky songs himself, and played a great set at a gig a few Wednesdays ago. The gig was held in order to raise funds for UCCF’s CU Leaders Training weekend (CULT, as we like to call it) which took place last weekend. I was doing sound at both the fundraising gig and the weekend itself, which is how I came to be in charge of Cully’s iPod. So now you know.

After that gig, I dropped sound kit off at various locations, including my church (where I set the alarm off at about 11.45pm – apologies to any local residents who may be reading), and then stopped off for a chicken kebab, having gone to the gig straight from work and therefore being reasonably peckish at this point. On exiting the kebab emporium at about 12.15am, I weighed up my options. The thing about kebabs is, they leave a bit of a pong (on your clothes, breath, and in the room where you’ve eaten them), often only really noticeable the morning after. So I did the sensible thing and headed down to my mum’s. Mum, of course, was awake. With me in the kitchen and her tucked up in bed, she insisted on holding an inter-room conversation.

– “Did you have a good night?”
– “What?”

– “Did you have a good night?”
– “Yes.”

– “Are you having your supper?”
– “What?”

– “Are you having your supper?”
– “Yes.”

– “Would you not rather eat in the living room?”

Now that is a superfluous and irrelevant question to be asking at 12.25am. No. I feel bad enough for stinking out your kitchen never mind your living room.

– “No, I’m fine here, thanks.”

One Saturday, not long after this, I popped into my mum’s for lunch. No mention was made of the foul-smelling kitchen. Parents can be so forgiving at times. Just as well, really.

Over lunch we discussed funeral plans, cremations and choice of songs for same. Dad fixed his gaze on somewhere unspecifically distant.

– “I would like ‘Crown Him with many Crowns’, and ‘the Irish one’.

– “Whiskey in the Jar?” I volunteered tentatively, but I think he meant ‘Be thou my vision’.

In other sad news, Wiseman has got a girlfriend. What’s more, another friend, Jamie, has just got engaged. I began to wonder if I’m the only sensible/stubborn one left.

Then I remembered DC, and smiled. A cursory glance at him and I feel reassured that I won’t be alone on the singles shelf for some time yet.

Operations, pancakes, and cricket

Operations first. My mum went into hospital today in preparation for getting her ankle messed around with tomorrow, yet again. She’ll be in until Friday probably, at which point she will return home and start waving her sceptre about and issuing decrees. Until then, she has left dad in my care, which is possibly a little foolish, but I am family and so she has to trust me.

So this week I am staying with dad. We had some discussions at the beginning of the week about our likely diet. Beer and sausages were proposed, and I have to say the old man’s face lit up, but sadly mum has stocked the fridge with proper food, and we’ll just have to make the best of it. How we’ll get through the week on my cooking is anyone’s guess, my dad has a drugs supply that would land him in serious trouble in Singapore, but whether any of them will be strong enough to counteract the effects of my culinary expertise remains to be seen. Those of you given to prayer might like to send some up for us both. Those of you who aren’t, now might be a good time to start 😉

I got a phonecall from a nice lady at the Yorkshire Building Society today, explaining that my fixed rate mortgage was about to expire and that my payments would shoot through the roof. I have to say I was more concerned at the time with trying to keep the jam on my pancake (this sounds like it could be a euphemism but it was completely literal this afternoon) as it was threatening to slide off. However, mortgage payments are a necessary evil (for homeowners at least) that one has to give one’s attention to from time to time, and so I tried to carry out an adult conversation about discounted rates and fixed rates and the like, while pretending not to eat a sticky pancake. It was quite a long conversation so I think I managed to get through 3 pancakes. Regrettably I managed to land a fair amount of the jam on my tie, which lent me a certain gravitas during my subsequent appointment with a client.

Bellevue finally took to the cricket field again last night, and managed to defeat our old friends D Mains for the third time this summer. We won by 5 wickets, despite my clumsy efforts behind the stumps. More here. Holy Cross also managed to win on Saturday – we beat Dunfermline by 6 wickets, which was immensely pleasing. I chipped in with 26 not out at the end.

Right, better get off to bed. Mum has left a list of commandments which must be obeyed in the mornings, and the morning isn’t my best time of day, so I’d better get some sleep. Don’t think too hard about jam and pancake euphemisms, although any printable suggestions will be received with interest…