31 December 2012

 "...we die, my Friend, 
Nor we alone, but that which each man loved 
And prized in his peculiar nook of earth 
Dies with him or is changed, and very soon 
Even of the good is no memorial left."
- Willam Wordsworth, The Ruined Cottage

It's hard to start the new year with a loss. We all do from time to time, I suppose. I've not the words, so I'm using Wordsworth's. I'm more of a Coleridge fan usually, but there you go. This is a somber moment of reflection before revelry and the embracing of friends in a rocky little village in Cornwall. The knowledge there's one less in the world will make those embraces a little longer, and a little warmer.

25 December 2012

and to all a good night...

My whisky glass wants not for a top up, and Shane McGowan and Kirsty MacColl serenade me for the first time this year. On a chair behind me sleeps the cat. Aside from the two of us, the house is empty. I decided against a tree in the end. My presents sit in a pile behind the chair the cat sleeps on. There are four, and I know what three of them are. I still leave them unopened. They're there for the morning. 

It's quite a shift going from The Pogues and 'Fairytale…' to The American Boy Choir singing 'Once in Royal David's City', but it seems right. The organ kicking in in the latter lifts in much the same way as the rapid duet in the former. 

It's a strange Christmas this year, but that's ok. I don't quite know what I expected. I don't really know if I expected anything. 

That's a lie. When you don't really expect anything, you expect everything and are just curious as to which eventuality pops up.

Happy Christmas, folks. hope it's a good one.

23 December 2012

some sunday notes (undecked edition)

I'm writing this because writing is preferable to shopping, and no, I've not really done any Christmas shopping yet. I bought a present in desperation, having browsed for an hour and not seen anything that clicked. I like getting presents, usually. Or I used to. Buying the perfect gift for someone is an admirable skill. My sister, Suzanna, possesses it. And I used to. But now I stumble from shop-to-shop and stare at bits and bobs and wait for something to leap out and grab me. To shout out "OH MY GOD, BUY ME, I'M PERFECT FOR X,Y or Z".

There's no leaping or grabbing this year. I did have one spectacular idea for someone, but the problem with great gift ideas is that the particular gift has to actually exist. Sadly, it does not. I could attempt to make it, I suppose, but I'm neither a cartographer, book-binder, or 19th century printer. Were I those things, I know what everyone would be getting from me this fucking Christmas. 

My Christmas tune this year has been AC/DC's "Mistress for Christmas". It may be my Christmas tune every year from now on, you never know. I've got the house to myself this season and as I'm going to Christmas dinner at a friend's there's been internal debate as to whether I'll bother with a tree. The not bothering side is winning for a couple of reasons, the primary one being general laziness. I might put a wreath on the door. I don't mind privately being a grumpy shit, but it's my folks' house, and the neighbours shouldn't think they're being unseasonal. I may change my mind; I could see myself rushing up to the high road tomorrow, desperate to get the last tree and decorate it before midnight; who knows? But for now my halls remain undecked. 

Friday night I cooked for the first time in ages, rediscovering my love for prepping my mis en place. I used to hate it; loathe it, in fact. I'd farm out prep to any unwitting sucker who dared ask if I needed help in the kitchen. On Friday evening I put "Four Days In October" on my iPad and chopped away at shallots, onions, mushrooms and potatoes and the stress of a week of wine-merchant-ing in the lead up to Christmas just disappeared. 

Dinner was good, though somehow I managed to lose a bag of scallops between the high road and home. We opened bottle after bottle of wine and stayed up until the wee hours. It was the perfect sort of revelry to kick off a holiday with, capped off with swigging Madeira from the bottle and better than average misbehaviour. Old friends, new friends and friends not seen in far too long all seemed to get along just great. 

It meant yesterday, however, was a write off. I spent all of three hours out of my pyjamas, and two of those were at the pub, bathing in the quiet and nursing a restorative pint or three. The bar staff wore Santa hats and sympathised kindly with my state.

That's enough for now. Time to gird my loins and get some shopping done. 


Buy My Book. Please.

14 December 2012

morning tumble

I find it easier to get out of bed at 530 than at 715. I'm not sure why, but at 530 there's no flailing for the snooze button and crawling back under the duvet, curling back into the bit still warm. I tumble out and rub my eyes. The cat looks at me funny, if he's there. Sometimes he's gone for an early breakfast, and is returning up the stairs, surprised to find me stumbling down in the other direction. My legs take awhile to work in the mornings, due to a condition called 'getting older' and getting down the stairs is precarious to say the least. At 715, I know I can get away with a minute here or there. An extra 9 in bed can be made up by skipping a shave or espresso. In fact, my espresso machine is on the fritz at the moment. Verging on calamity, that.

At 530, though, there isn't time to mess about. If I've set my alarm for so ungodly an hour, it's because I have something to do. Make wine; catch a plane; make a train. Something that just won't wait is afoot, and somewhere along my staggered road to being a grown-up, I've managed a degree of diligence in such things. I don't like it. I like waking up at 930.

930 is early enough that you can have breakfast without it reducing the appetite for lunch, while still giving you the satisfaction of not waking up at 530, 630, 730 or 830.

In any case, I made my train with ten minutes to spare. The tube was quiet, and the train nearly empty. Heading north as the bleak turns to dreich. It's a random trip, this. I'm not sure what on earth I'm doing, but hopefully I'll work it out by the time I head back tomorrow.

03 December 2012

every bit as crowded

The tube home at about midnight was every bit as crowded as the one heading into town at about six, though there were a fair few more drunks. 

The plan was BBQ, but the BBQ place had a 2 hour wait, so we traversed Soho and hit the Mexican instead. There wasn't a quiet restaurant to be seen, but the Mexican had only a half hour wait and a tequila bar downstairs. So downstairs we headed to get margaritas and quickly the girls accompanying me became fixated with our bartender as danced with the cocktail shaker.

The drinks were good. I was hungover, so the sweet and sour and salty citrus acted as a sort of rejuvenating ambrosia. By the time they were finished, our table was ready. More margaritas an another beer. The chat turned towards veganism, as we were to be joined by a vegan. We all agreed it was probably best not to talk about it at all once she arrived. So we howled with incredulity that anyone could be a vegan and then the vegan arrived and shortly after that, the food came. Bright, technicolour dishes laden with veg and spice and meat and cheese and sour cream. 

We ate and talked and I felt somewhat bemused at being the bloke at a table of 4 women but there you go. Full and shocked at our gluttony, we stumbled out the door and headed towards a cocktail bar that's something out of the 20s. Dark and moody, with pristinely prepared drinks we sat and sipped and soon the conversation slipped me by. They talked about boys and men and sex and laughed at jokes told in some sort of code. I sipped my drink and nibbled on the odd spiced nut or olive. 

I faded fast; we all did. Out into the cold London air we poured and went our separate ways. I went Westbound Piccadilly, where the tube home was every bit as crowded as the one I took into town, though there were a fair few more drunks.

26 November 2012


Yesterday was a quiet Sunday. I wrote and baked bread and stole away for a pint at my local while the bread cooled. I sat at the end of the bar and made some scribbles in a notebook, outlining a chapter with some details, happy with the flow of it. There were arrows and bullet points and even something verging on a diagram. It's the 'history' chapter of the book. Since it isn't a fiction, I feel more comfortable doing all this laying out of things. It wouldn't do for me to put the Battle of Dunkirk (very different from the evacuation) before the Albigensian Crusades in a fit of writing fervour, as the former took place nearly 400 years after the latter. 

While scribbling notes and sipping a pint, an army of neck-tied student pub-crawlers invaded the quiet confines of the local. I think it was a rowing team, but if so there were too many coxes. They were loud and drank Fosters and every time I thought that must be all of them, more arrived. Soon the bar was packed, and they just seemed to get louder. One or two gave a couple of locals a bit of lip, and for a split second it looked like it would get a bit messy at the other end of the bar. I just kept scribbling.

They left faster than they arrived, off to annoy some other folks enjoying a quiet Sunday pint. The echo of the door shutting behind them was followed by a loud 'What a bunch of cocks' from on of the guys at the other end of the bar. I shut my notebook and nursed the very end of my pint, remembering that it wasn't all that long ago that I was like that. Bursting into bars, thinking I owned the place. Possessing no volume control and the firm belief that everything I uttered was important.

I always drank better beer, of course, but still. 

And now I'm the quiet, grumpy one at the bar, trying to ignore them, cursing their invasion of my little corner of the world. And they don't give a shit.

Which is fine. When I was their age, I didn't give a shit either.


25 November 2012

ikea desks and bad bookshelves

There's no rain to wait for today, but still I sit here with a coffee and ponder awhile before heading out for my run. I wrote around things yesterday rather than through them, but it cleared enough of the to-do list to give me some breathing room.

I'm sat at my dad's desk instead of my own. Mine's in my room and I find it somewhat tough to work when I know my bed is behind me. My father's retired and so his desk goes much unused. It's become a storage shelf for the mountains of paperwork having a pension generates. There's also an unused MacBook Air, one of the "Fenway Bricks" with his name inscribed along with the years that he was a batboy for the Red Sox. It's not his proper old desk, sadly. That's in storage. This thing came from Ikea. I helped my mom build it some years ago. On the wall to my left is a large, Victorian print of Boston from the air. It's only just occurred to me that it must have been sketched from a hot-air balloon. On the wall in front of me is my dad' degree from The Naval Academy, the odd commendation and a beautifully calligraphed print of The Prayer of a Midshipman. Next to these is a window that looks out onto the back garden, where the leaves seem greener than they should at this time of year. The other half of the room is the library, though it represents so small a percentage of the family's books that it seems a bit of a misnomer. The rest are in storage. Next to the horrid black bookshelves are tall stacks of volumes for which there is no room. There's a tv in here as well, but you'd barely notice it if it wasn't on. 

We moved in here in a rush, in 2006. Our old house sold and we had nowhere to go. I found this place for my folks as kind of a stop-gap, as somewhere nearby to set up home until something better came along. We didn't want to sell the old place, but shit happens.

I don't feel quite at home here, which is fine, I won't be here for long. I'm used to a sense of displacement. 

But nor do my parents, which is a shame as it is their home, or what's passing for it at the moment. 

24 November 2012

poor lager and cocktail sausages

I'm waiting for the rain to stop, so that I can go for a run without drowning. The cat is feeling mischievous and lingers just around the corner, or peeking out from under a chair, somewhere he feels unobserved, where he can watch and plot. As soon as he realises I've seen him, he bolts, disappearing up the stairs. Or he just starts nonchalantly licking a forepaw, as though he was never really interested anyway. 

Last night I brought a few wines to my local, wines that I'd made, as they'd asked to try them. The owner and the manager liked them. I liked them. It was that nice time in a pub just before it gets busy on a Friday. Everyone walking through the door genuinely happy to be there, to be finished with the week. We sat and we chatted and tasted and folks arrived and drank their beer while we sipped wine in the corner. A spittoon made a brief appearance but was put away because it was a Friday evening, and there's little point spitting on a Friday evening.

After the pub and wine I went to a friend's office for beer and nibbles. Friends and strangers milled about and when the good beer ran out, the bad beer was drunk. It was late when I left and the walk home seemed particularly long. I was full of poor lager and cocktail sausages. It wasn't raining, but the streets sounded damp and wet. 

The rain's just got harder. I ate some eggs and bacon so have to wait a bit longer if I want to run. By then it will be dark and the mud along the river thick. The cat's not hiding anymore. He's napping on a chair behind my desk. 

It seems the perfect sort of day for ignoring everything I have to do.

23 November 2012

stop. hermit-time.

There's a dangerous friction between the number of words I have to write in the coming weeks and the amount of times I'm expected to appear in either a social or professional context. I'm not good at saying no to people. I like seeing my friends, raising a glass or two. I'm easily flattered - the idea of being needed professionally plays well to my vanity, and having spent a year unemployed (freelancing, of course), I'm loathe pass up on opportunities to help out, and even get paid for it.

I like being useful, and around friends. 

But I like writing more. I love it. It's what I want my work to be. I like having my cup of tea next to my keyboard, my notebook open while I try to decipher my scribbled missives and improve on the words as I transcribe them. I like wearing my big headphones and listening to Miles Davis or Beethoven. I still find it hard to write to music with lyrics. The only words I want to hear are my own. I like the give of the keys beneath my fingers, the abstract rhythm they reveal when the letters turn to words turn to sentences turn to paragraphs turn to chapters turn to a book.

I lose myself in it, and that's a good thing. 

Time to decline invites. Switch my phone to airplane mode and make sure my polite 'no's' will not be easily converted into 'just the one'. It's time to go back to the writing hermit that I was 6 years ago, to place the book in front of everything else save maybe remembering to breathe and wash. 

Time to remember what I love doing, and do that. 

19 November 2012


Once again the weekend went too quickly, and I find myself having crossed out nothing from my rather long to-do list. In fact, quite a few things got added to it. Big things, important things. The road isn't so much forking as it is dividing exponentially. As a recovered comic book reader, it's as though I'm staring at a multiverse of futures, with the only constants being irksome, inescapable truths. 

And so I wake up on a Monday with a clenched chest and play decision-tennis in my head while I sip my espresso, munch on toast and catch up on Twitter. And then I look at the clock and see these brief moments to myself have taken too long, the decision-tennis rally is on-going, like those old Sampras/Agassi Nike adverts. 

So I write something, anything, to break the rally. To be doing instead of pondering and worrying. 

And so I'm late.

17 November 2012

saturday morning notes

I didn't bring any wine or whisky back this time. My train was early, and goodbyes at this point seem as clichéd as commenting on the weather, or asking whose round it is. I thought maybe while I was up there I would set in stone a date for my return, but I didn't. There are possibilities, some quite close, but nothing solid. Like a spun out yo-yo, there's nothing yanking me back up. Well, nothing except nostalgia and missing my mates. 

We ate at the local last night. My oldest sister's over from Ireland, and while I'm sure she's still crazy, it was lovely to see her. The pub was warm and all the tables seemed happy with their respective company. It was loud and lovely and the food, beer and wine all tasted great. 

The future's a little clearer. Well, parts of it are. The book and the books that follow are no longer mirages in the distance. Slowly, potential new adventures take shape. 

It was raining earlier and now it's not. Instead, a grey Saturday with puddles to dodge and closed umbrellas. Might go for a run. From downstairs I can hear the espresso machine pushing out coffee and I think maybe I'll have a cup first.

The last of the coloured leaves cling to the branches, holding on to the autumn and refusing to let winter blow them away. 


Buy My Book. Please.

13 November 2012

visiting rights

A somewhat barren and grey autumnal England gave way to some sun north of the border and white horses riding the waves of the sea to the east. I have two small rucksacks with me and that's all I'll be bringing back after this brief visit to Scotland. Both may be laden with wine, but there won't be any more baggage. What's there will just be heavier. 

This trip was planned awhile ago, before I left the last time with a van full of all my stuff. I knew I would be back for this. I'd sorted out a place to stay, two lunches and a nice bottle for my host. As of yet, though, I've no return planned. When I leave Thursday morning, that's it until next time, and I don't know when that next time is.


And that's a little strange for me.

12 November 2012

back on the path

The following was written Sunday, 11 November, but I thought the Vonnegut quote more apt to post that day:

It rained last night. Quite a lot, as it happens. It woke me up in the wee hours and I got up to shut the window. The cat wasn't too bothered. He thought maybe for a moment that I was getting up at 4 in the morning to feed him, but then he's not very bright. He's just a cat, after all.

It had stopped by the time I rolled out of bed. I put my running kit together without too much of a problem. Everything where I left it over a month ago. I wore a hoody over my t-shirt because it's November. I selected the short run playlist on my iPod. 

It was muddy, damp and crowded. My legs felt caked in rust; muscles, tendons and joints shrieked in discord and disharmony. Two miles in and my lungs got used to it, at least. It felt wretched. Every other runner was faster, and seemed a great deal less on the verge of death.

I tripped at one point, and somehow managed to right myself with out careening head first into the mud. Ninja-like reflexes revealed themselves that have never been there before and I doubt will appear again.

I reached the end and staggered through my cool down walk. Armies of runners passed me; fitter, faster. 

But I made it. And I'll do it again. And it will get easier. 

Or that's what I keep telling myself. 

11 November 2012

…and all music is"

From Kurt Vonnegut's 'Breakfast of Champions' - 

"I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, and when Dwayne Hoover was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.

Armistice Day has become Veterans' Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans' Day is not.

So I will throw Veterans' Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don't want to throw away any sacred things.

What else is sacred? Oh, Romeo and Juliet, for instance.

And all music is."

There are some quotes, some pieces of writing, that I cling to; that I clutch in my head and heart and hold tight. I call on them to remind me of the beauty and truth of great writing. This seemed a good time to share this one.

07 November 2012

away from it all

I woke up with a bit of a start this morning. The cat was delighted, thinking my purpose was to fawn over and feed him. Instead I rolled out of bed and checked my phone to see the results. Getting info like that from Twitter is hilarious, because often the 'news' tweet is lost in the endless stream of reaction tweets. You don't find out what's happening, just what people think of what's happening. 

I voted over a month ago. Scoured the web regarding all the little, poorly written amendments to work out what they actually meant. Checked the record on the judges up for reelection and whatnot. Tried to be thorough and make an informed enough decision. Some of them required more research than others. 

My home nation seems a very different place these days. Some different for the better, some different for the worse. It's never not strange to be so detached from it and yet still be able to look in. To watch The Daily Show, read the NYT, Boston Globe or Washington Post. To see the news as it happens, to watch the thoughts of millions pouring out into the internet and yet not be in it, not really.

To feel a sense of pride, but from a distance.


Buy My Book. Please.


06 November 2012

long goodbyes

So I've had a couple of those goodbyes recently. They were simple and short. In no way commensurate to what was said goodbye to. There was beer; whisky. So much more left unsaid than said. I've run out of fingers to save the pages of all the chapters of my life I'm moving on from. 

05 November 2012


I've not gone for a run this morning. It's been about three or four weeks, and that was just a four-miler. It's driving me slightly crazy. I feel myself getting that little bit unhealthier and more out of shape every day. It's sort of like writer's block, in a way. The further I get from doing it the more I forget how easy and natural and right it feels. The more it seems impossible, and fraught with effort. I set my alarm early but it was so dark, I just chickened out. It was just so easy to hit the snooze button this morning and climb back into bed. I have a running light. I even have a headlight, though I'm not sure how to wear one of those while still wearing my Red Sox hat. I've run in the dark before, lightless. This shouldn't be any different. It isn't. 

Tomorrow. Honest.


Buy My Book. Please.

04 November 2012

rainy sunday

I wished for a rainy Sunday and here it is. Boxes and bags to be emptied and arranged and put somewhere properly. I've not started yet. I've no idea where I'm going to fit it all. I've also the sense that it shouldn't be unpacked for very long. That sooner rather than later it will all be packed again for some yet undetermined location. 

Last night was beer and burgers and old friends. Birthday toasts raised and loads of chips covered in Parmesan and truffle oil consumed. I headed home in the cool London night. For some reason I thought cocktails would be a good idea on the walk home and conveniently one of my new favourite cocktail bars was right there. So I popped in. 

A last orders Old Fashioned and then one of their new concoctions on the house. I don't quite remember the walk home, but I do remember not having a whisky before I went to bed because that would have been foolish. I cherish these small triumphs of decision-making. They are rare in my life. 

Before I unpack there are some errands to run in the rain. Convenient excuses are as rare as triumphs of decision-making these days.


Buy My Book. Please.

02 November 2012

in storage

I pulled in with the van just before ten on Tuesday and unpacked it into my parent's garage by myself. It took awhile, but nowhere near as long as loading it did. I put the heavy boxes on the bottom and the few light ones on top. While I dread moving again, and want a bit of a break, I hope they're not in there too long. 

The small amount I did bring into the house is still packed. That's a job for a rainy Sunday.

Last night I walked to the pub before going home. It was quiet and candlelit and both the fireplaces crackled in the dim light. The staff were a touch too chatty, but it didn't matter. I found a small corner and wrote and thought. From where I sat, the pub could have been empty, which is just what I wanted. I was going to go home after two pints, but a good song came on so I stayed for a third.


Buy My Book. Please.

29 October 2012

forward momentum

Writing is more important than packing, I'm sure of it.

We sat on the balcony last night and drank Ardbeg. The sky began crystal, and Orion's Belt twinkled above the sea to the east. Jupiter shone just above it. The moon loomed high in the south. The night was bright, lit by the moon and the stars. It was cold, too, but the whisky warming. We spoke more about the future than the past, which is for the best. It clouded over, seemingly from nowhere, and we finished our drams and threw the glasses into the sea. The last Braydram at Shorehead.

I'm so ready for this chapter to finish. I'm moving on. But my finger's still saving the page.

28 October 2012

books in boxes

I slept in the extra hour this morning. My phone reset itself, so I wound my watch back. The clouds hung low, a grey ceiling over St Andrews that suited the waning days of October so well that I didn't miss the sun at all.

I started with my books. There are many. It's a healthy balance of read and unread. I hate putting them in boxes. They do no good there. Placing Chandler and Faulkner away where they can't be read feels like betrayal, or censorship.

My paperwork came next. Endless statements, bills and scraps. I keep them out of some sort of fear that were I to burn them, I would immediately be required to produce them again for some manner of desperately important Bureaucratic necessity. I all but poured the contents of my desk into one box, including the annotated draft of my unpublished novel. I labelled that box as 'not for the garage'. That big purple binder needs to be on my desk again as soon as possible.

Amidst all these bits and pieces are the memories that come with them. A piece of paper from a tasting four years ago, the host now dead two years. It comes back with perfect clarity; a dinner in London, a lunch the next day. The food; the wines; the measured, wise conversation. The company.

I'm no hoarder by any means, but that's why I keep these things. Bits of paper that unlock so much more than what's scribbled on their tattered leaves. I'm packing memories away, but taking a long, lingering look at them beforehand.

Because I've no idea when I'll see them again.

25 October 2012

and again...

I'm jumping on a train today to head back up north for a final time. Well, not final in the last-time-ever-never-again sense, but final in the, I'm-packing-up-all-my-shit-and-bringing-it-South-with-me sense. I'll be in Scotland again next month, but for very different reasons. 

They say moving and divorce are two of the most stressful things folks do, and I can buy that. I feel they're quite similar to each other, really. There have been a few sleepless nights in the last week, turning over in my head the large catalogue of 'things' I have accumulated in the last four years. Then there are the things I had already. It's not the sort of collection that should belong to someone still renting. To possess that much shit, I should have a house or at least of flat to shove it all in.

The hope is that once the move is done and I've squeezed my life into my parent's garage (for the time being), that some degree of routine and normalcy can commence. No more commuting to Scotland, just the odd long weekend. The flow of both the book and the new job and rediscovering London and all that can proceed without the nagging sense of displacement and unfinished business. 

The truth is, though, that I'm an ex-pat, and there's always a nagging sense of displacement. 

And I've yet to meet anyone without unfinished business.

But I'll take a brief respite, regardless. And the train up will be good. Infinitely superior to driving a van down, I've no doubt. 


Buy My Book. Please.

22 October 2012

too dark

It's too dark in the mornings. I should be expecting this by now; it's a yearly thing, after all. But the sound of my alarm in the dark feels more like an interruption to sleep than a call to start the day. I get up regardless. Everyone's getting up in the dark, I guess, my own grumbles about it make a pretty shallow dent in the universe, if any. 

And so the cat hears I'm awake and headbutts me to make sure I stay that way, and that while I'm that way, I feed him as soon as possible. 

I check the baseball scores, lamenting the lack of Red Sox in autumn ball, and try to get the balance right for the caffeine in my life.

21 October 2012

life keeps happening

My diligence slipped again, and this blog has gone unloved and unattended for over a month. 

Between getting my book funded and written, understanding my new job and moving to London, there never seems the appropriate moment to sit back and pour it out here. Throw the words of my life into the world and see what makes sense. Pausing for reflection these days only leads to yet another mental to-do list. It's not so much reflecting as trying to figure out what comes next. 

It's different. I'm beginning to enjoy this life-in-progress thing. I do miss whimsically staring out to the North Sea and wondering idly if that was it. I was doomed to sit on the edge of Scotland, jobless and watching the waves. I miss the sound of the sea, but not so much the sense of doom. 

Next weekend I must rent a van and move out of the flat in St Andrews. That's probably the largest and most angst-laden item on the to-do list. No idea where I'm going to put all my shit once it's down here, but there you go. My flatmate's been diligent in steadily reducing his possessions over the last few months and I have not. I have a library of books, a library of DVDs and god knows what else. Boxes of outdated computer kit and a shoebox of birthday cards going back to the last century - just the essentials, really. At least I'm not buried under broken old laptops anymore. I did manage to get rid of a few items along the way. 

Well, as far as angst-laden goes, there's that and writing the book. It's coming along, peaks and troughs and whatnot. The lovely folks at my publisher, Unbound, are incredibly helpful. There has been a remarkable number of people offering to help and very kindly buying the book. Friends going back to my youth and complete strangers have all become patrons. It's humbling in a sense. But I'm greedy. I want it fully funded so that it's one less thing on the to-do list. 

I'll be around here more. I feel there's a lot of writing to be done, in all directions.


Buy My Book. Please.

14 September 2012

salt & old vines

I'm back in London now, after a good two weeks working vintage at Mas Cristine. There's that post-vintage feeling, where my body heals itself while my heart and mind miss the work, the sunshine and the friendships. My hands and fingers are still leathery and calloused and a touch arthritic. I open and close them for a few minutes in the morning to get them working again. 

I need them working, as I've a lot of typing to do. You see, I've a book to finish. A book that has a publisher and everything. It's a story about wine, which is appropriate. A story about making wine down where the mountains meet the sea.

The publishers are the lovely folks at Unbound. They're a new-fangled publisher and raise support for their books in a crowd-fund-y kind of way. Most of their authors are terribly exciting and some even very famous. How they found space for an aspiring writer and hopeless wine nerd is beyond me, but I'm happy they did. 

So if you read this blog and would like to buy my book, please sign up to support the project here. You get your name in the book and everything. Isn't that exciting?

08 September 2012

some spare vintage thoughts

I'm sat in the Café Sola in Collioure at the moment, sipping coffee and a mineral water. The mineral water is there to wash to the taste of the coffee out of my mouth. French coffee is awful. I complain about it where ever I write: this blog, twitter; my disdain for it even gets a mention in my new book. I've not written a letter to The Times yet, but I might.

Outside the café, car horns sound in celebration of a wedding. It's a local thing, apparently, to drive around after a wedding service, blaring horns with gleeful disregard for those who may not give a shit about their nuptials. It seems to only end when a mother with young children at naptime threatens the lead driver with an ancient rifle usually reserved for hunting wild boar.

Today's a rare day off. Can't believe how fast it's gone. I'm back to London on Wednesday, and I don't think we'll have done any red at Mas Cristine by then. It's been a funny harvest thus far. Some spectacular fruit, some not so much, and not a lot of juice per ton. Sad to miss the reds. I've not even been to Banyuls and Coume del Mas yet.

I should be working on the book during these rare times I get a chance to write, but like running I feel I need a little warm up first. It amazes me how the world goes on while the harvest goes on. I've missed the RNC and the DNC, the continued Red Sox collapse, the Paralympics, cabinet reshuffles, sunny weather in London, dreadful weather in Scotland, the end of the Fringe, Freshers Week in St Andrews and goodness knows what else. It's not terribly concerning, just curious how much happens regardless of whether I have the time to pay attention.

I'll rejoin the world shortly. Too soon, as usual.

26 August 2012

south and then further south

The train's sat in Kirkaldy for longer that it should be. Bright August sun pours through the window and the surface of the Forth dances and glimmers in the morning light. A few cargo ships sit scattered on the water.

It's been a long week. Good food and old friends, fine wine and gallons of beer, all shared and some spilled. Laughter so strong and hard that you clutch your chest and fight to get air into your lungs.

I see across to the Lothians now and to Arthur's Seat, sat to the left of Edinburgh, dwarfing the city.

There were birthdays and singing and dancing. I woke to the sun and the cat asleep at the foot of my bed. I suffered only one or two hangovers, but maybe deserved a few more.

One story ended the only way it could, no matter how much I wanted to rewrite it. It's not a tale to tell, but I'll turn it over in my head for a time to come.

Loads of people board the train at Inverkeithing. I don't blame them. I'd get out of Inverkeithing too.

London this evening and then France tomorrow. I fly to Toulouse and then head down to Collioure to make wine for my fifth vintage. I bought new boots and took my wine-stained shirts out of the closet. I'm bringing good whisky with me, and a thirst for good wine.

We're now sat for too long at Haymarket. Still miss the Caley Ale House. The gap where it stood looks simply as though it's been erased, and never was.

I've been moving a lot recently. South and north like a yo-yo, and soon even further afield. I'm bored of packing and fretting about what I've forgotten. But I like the sense of motion, the sense of movement and progression. Another mile travelled, another blank page filled. New stories to start, perhaps without the sad ache of inevitability.

24 August 2012

should be

I should be editing right now. The document's opened on not one, but two screens. The task itself is not a major overhaul, but a minor tweak. Well, two minor tweaks, really. Merely a matter of a sentence or two. Outside, the sea is silver and calm, its waves minuscule and constant. Inside, the cat refuses to eat spiders but will devour mosquitos, moths and daddy longlegs (the British ones, with wings; American daddy longlegs are themselves arachnids and thus would not appeal to the cat). 

I like the edits. I feel no sense of injured pride that my publisher read my work and said 'that's great, but…'. Well, none right now. I'm sure that with the passage of time disagreements and bruised egos will run rampant. But for now it's a nice feeling to have someone read my stuff and make the odd suggestion. It helps that they're additions, rather than subtractions. 

I should be editing right now, but I keep looking out the window at the calm of the sea and feeling the light sting of jealousy.

21 August 2012

little progress

I made a mistake a few months ago. I was chatting to my publisher and he asked me how the writing was going. I told him it was going great, and that you can always tell when the writing is going great because I invariably am writing more of everything. I blog more, I email more, I scribble in my notebooks more and, of course, I write the book more. The urge to pound out prose doesn't stick to one particular project; words spill out onto everything. It's a nice feeling. 

Of course, since that little chat, I've not blogged or written very much of anything. He's not asked me about progress on the book since then either. He can easily check this blog and the wine blog and see ever-lengthening time between updates and surmise that there's been a bit of a lull. It means I don't have to stammer out excuses, at least.

I can't attribute the lull to any one particular thing. It's a convergence of scattered bits and pieces that drag my fingers away from the keys and my pens. Some good things; I finally signed my publishing contract for the new top secret book that will be revealed imminently. Some bad things that will go unmentioned here, but cause me to furrow my brow and sigh with all the world's weight when I think no one is listening. 

I'm in Scotland at the moment, until Sunday. The cat's good company and the weather's almost summer-like. I know so few people here now that it's easy to hide and write. The lull's retreating, and hopefully the words will return. 

29 July 2012

missing the cat

I'm sitting in my room in London with comically large headphones on, writing, listening to tunes and keeping one eye on the Red Sox game. The game's muted; Fox has the broadcast and I can't take that level of stupid on my own time. I say it's my room. It's not, really. My room is in Scotland. I'm in the room I stay in while staying at my parent's house. It serves mostly as my mom's office. On the shelves next the desk I see a picture of her with her sister and a card I sent her for Mothers Day. But there's a bed and I sleep in it, so for the time being it's my room. 

It's a job that brings me south, a temporary contract at a small and rather lovely wine company in West London. It looks like this is the beginning of a more significant move for me, back to a city I used to know better. There's a lot to do in the meantime. I've got this job, I've got a book to write, I've got to fly to France at the end of August, all the time looking for a permanent job and splitting time between Scotland and London.

I've got a page in my notebook devoted to a scrawled calendar, dotted with question marks and asterisks. There are can't-miss events and shouldn't-miss birthdays. If I've not looked at the page for a day or two, it takes me awhile to decipher. Such is the next three months. Written on paper and sound in theory, but nothing set in stone.

It will all be fine. I'm not stressed, though going from unemployed and the odd bar shift to this is certainly a change. It's a change for the better. But I miss the smell of the sea and the sound of the waves and my cat asleep at my feet.

11 July 2012

the big soak and back again

There should have been a middle post. A post from the train south, a post from London, and then a post from the train back north. But I'm on the train back north and there was no post from London. So now the flatlands rush by the window and the memories of the last five days skip by along with them. My finger traces the bit I missed shaving this morning. I wonder if it's too OCD to grab my razor out of my suitcase, nip into the WC and sort those three or four of whiskers out once and for all. I decide against it. The train is not entirely stable and I'm pretty sure my punishment for such fussy vanity would be for a sudden jolt to result in me gouging a chunk out of my cheek.

A few memories draw a smile. Cowering under a gazebo, catching up with friends, hiding from the rain and swirling a glass of Burgundy while toddlers play and shout in the bouncy castle. Standing on a terrace by the Thames, sipping a pint and watching the party boats slip by under Hammersmith Bridge whilst the sun begins to set. Sitting in a pub with my publisher as he scanned the first scraps of my book with enthusiastic approval. A long awaited interview, with a long awaited result.

Home is always a mixed bag, though, and the passage of time tells more in some places than others.

Things are looking up, though, and I'll be back soon.

06 July 2012

worn path

I've lost count of how many times I've made this trip over the last 18 years. It's homeward bound either way, north or south. Southbound today, the countryside looking particularly green. A vivid emerald that only comes when the rain has poured forth for weeks. At this time of year, the barley and wheat fields that cover these parts alternate between green and silver; it looks like someone is growing gemstones.

Like Treebeard, going south always feels to me like going downhill. I've no idea why. The stretch between Leuchars and Edinburgh always feels like an unnecessary preamble. Like the overlong introduction to a book that you've started but wish you hadn't. The introduction, not the book. The journey doesn't really start until Edinburgh, once the commuters and day-trippers have been shaken off.

I've written down a lot of these trips, here on the blog and in notebooks and sometimes just scribbled into the back of my mind. It's strange that something so familiar should always make me want to write about it. But then I'm ceaselessly noting the rain and haar, so maybe it's not so strange at all.

My coachmates seem either very old or too young. There's a guy with a Red Sox cap on and what seems like a hundred grandparents, aunties and uncles. Some orange ladies got on board at Kirkaldy. Their fake tan is too loud for the quiet coach.

Between Edinburgh and Berwick we hug the coast and as always I promise myself to return here in a car, with a camera and a notebook, and write and snap and take in this stretch of coast that seems a gift of the sea to the land. No one can see this strip of shoreline and not be moved. The surf laps at the front steps of a ruinous cottage.

We quickly traverse the north and reach the middle in York. It's all flat and landlocked from here to London. The rains have turned most of it into fenland, though some it was like that already. I wanted to write more, but instead I stared though the window and watched the words slip by with the country outside.

05 July 2012

discard pile and pirate ghosts

My university degree is laying on the floor next to a bookshelf made out of an old wooden wine box. It's protected in its tube, the lid adorned with the St Andrews coat of arms. The tube is dark blue, maybe navy. I should move it before the cat decides it's a toy. It's just the standard piece of paper, not the elaborate illuminated text. I keep meaning to buy one of the nice ones, the grand parchment announcing to the world that, yes, I did get a degree, even if it took me a little longer than most. The intent is there, but it gets pushed back for things like bills and wine.

It deserves better. It shouldn't be on the floor. It should be somewhere safe, or framed. I look around my room at all the things more deserving of the discard pile and they're plentiful and daunting. I fear the clear out because I'm close to chucking it all, save the books. Well, the books, the camera and the computer. It's just doubt that stops me, a creeping worry that something will go that shouldn't. It's ridiculous, a hoarding cocktail of cowardice and sentimentality. Somewhere in here is a box of birthday cards going back a decade. 

Tomorrow I'm off to London, delaying decisions about the fate of the majority of my useless belongings for a few more days. Of course, there's a garage in London with even more of my stuff in it, but it's hidden so it can't haunt me. 

St Andrews sits under a blanket of haar, and has done for days now. Writers are never supposed to start with the weather, but in Scotland it is inevitable that it should show up eventually. I'm pleased I was able to hold out until the fourth paragraph. With the haar comes a pervading damp, a cool wetness that reaches everywhere. It clings to the pillows and sometimes I wake in the night, cold but sweating, feeling as though a fever's broken. 

I used to tell tourists tall tales about the haar. They would pop into the shop to browse for wine, whisky or beer, and they would marvel at the fog that rolled in from the sea. Bright sunshine one second and a cold grey duvet the next. I would pour them a sample dram and explain that the sea fog on the east coast of Scotland was called the haar. 

'Oh, really? Why's it called that?' they would ask.

'Well, it's quite the legend. You see, the waters around here are treacherous, with hidden reefs and dangerous headlands. And when that fog would roll in, without warning, there were many a ship wrecked on the rocks. And many of those ships were pirate ships, as they used to prey on the traders sailing in and out of the towns along the Fife coast. But being strangers, they didn't know the coast as well as they should, and couldn't navigate its perilous, grasping shores. And so they were wrecked, the fog silencing their cries. And to this day, it's said, when the fog rolls in, so too do the spirits of those drowned and wrecked pirates, seeking once and for all to escape the sea's pull. And as they drift in with the mist, you can hear their faint cry, "hhhhaaaaaarrrrrr"… and that's why it's called the haar.'

I don't know if they believed me or not, but the story got better every time I told it.

27 June 2012

miles smiles

I'm listening to a lot of Miles Davis at the moment. Classic stuff; not the later years. I've been getting the odd headache and find that the long, meandering trumpet notes untie the knots tied up in my skull. The drums are gentle, along with the keys and the bass. It's usually 'Kind of Blue', with some 'Birth of Cool' on occasion. I find 'Sketches of Spain' too sad at the moment. The notes too piercing. Those notes tighten the knots.

I don't know anything about jazz, other than I like it. Well, some of it. That could pretty much be my blanket statement about music, really.

26 June 2012


There's a dead puffin behind the dunes on West Sands. Its body lies on the grass next to the West Sands road. The bright orange beak stands out in the green summer grass. It's quite a bit smaller than I expect a puffin to be. For the last two days, I've dodged it on my run and wondered. I wondered why it was there. Puffins don't tend to hang out in St Andrews. The Isle of May, sat in the middle of the Firth of Forth, is more their scene. Especially at this time of year, as they're nesting. Maybe it got lost, I thought to myself as I ran on, or maybe it just wanted a change of scene from the volcanic pipe that guards the entrance to the Forth. Then I wondered how it died, if it fell dead from the air or was ambushed on the ground. I feel sorry for it as my legs ache. 

It saddens me, somewhat, as it means the only puffin I've seen is a dead one. 

Which is quite a selfish way to look at it.

25 June 2012

the weekend passes

There was wine and beer and old friends and new friends. I cooked and we all drank. In a tremendous fit of nostalgia, we re-canted wines from decanter to bottle and wandered down to the end of the pier in the never-dimming light of a summer evening. We swigged merrily from the bottles as we navigated the cobbles and kept far from the edge and the water below. The pub beckoned, but we only lasted a pint before staggering home.

Sunday felt rather dreadful. But it was worth it. 

22 June 2012

late nights and shallow graves

We sat around a wooden table in a bungalow in the suburbs. 

I don't know how many glasses of red I had, but there were four bottles on the table and only three of us. The Doors played through the speakers while I topped us up using the the careful precision of a drunk. My friends rolled cigarettes as the grey light brightened through the window. Like the glasses of wine, I've no idea how much they smoked but the room looked as though a low fog had rolled in. The cat joined us for awhile, but left when our chat got bad. 

I sipped the nth glass and we spoke about the future and old times and explained just what we were all doing wrong to each other. Beads adorned the doorways whilst old beermats adorned the doors themselves. A lifetime or two's accumulation filled the house with bygone trinkets and energy efficient bulbs cast it all in a sepia light. 

Day arrived and still we drank and chatted, though the pauses became longer and themes shifted with rambling fluidity. The ashtray filled with the scrunched ends of rollups. 

We finished the wine and gathered our things. I was in the kitchen when she discovered the cat. It had died on the porch, in a pool of its own urine. Less than an hour before it had sat on my lap as I scratched its ears. Shortly after that it lapped fresh milk from its bowl. And then it died, ears scratched and full of milk. It wasn't her cat. It was her flatmate's cat. Her flatmate was on holiday in Portugal. 

The other guy and I offered to dig a grave. It was the least we could do. She was upset. He and I were trying not to laugh. It was horrible and hysterical, and there was nothing more we could do than dig a grave and try not to laugh. 

We found a spot shaded by trees and set about it with a shovel and spade. There were roots everywhere, and we were drunk. It was slow going. I nearly took my toes off a fair few times. The earth wouldn't break. Before long we were sweating. The hole didn't seem to get any deeper. Birdsong rang out and the odd car drove by. Eventually we got it dug.

She put the body in a bag and noticed that rigour mortis had set. She lay it in the hole and while we helped to fill it in, she did most of it herself. Then she disappeared inside for a moment, returning with a bottle of silver tequila. Her eyes were red on her pale face. We swigged straight from the bottle and took a moment to pour some over the freshly-filled grave. 

21 June 2012

The bright yellow ball has disappeared and rain peppers my window. Outside, on the harbour, the swans appear to have lost a cygnet, and are down to only two. Inside, my desk is covered in mountains of paperwork. Some of it is hand-scrawled, some typed; all of it demands some sort of attention. Among it all is a little too much correspondence from NHS Tayside for my liking. I can't choose what letters I receive, just the ones I reply to.

19 June 2012

bright yellow things

A bright yellow ball hangs in a sky that has taken on an unfamiliar 'blue' tint. I can step outside and not get wet. I'm not sure what to make of it all. 

Confused by this lack of weather, I've been mostly writing and/or intending to write. Chapters take shape and as they take shape, their problems become apparent and I note them down. I fear and loathe rewrites. They raise second-guessing oneself to dangerous heights and sometimes there is no coming back from them. As with most things in life, balance is important and difficult to obtain. I've instituted a rule that I can't start rewriting a chapter until I've finished it and am writing the next one. It's a simple rule, but important, as it means I move forward regardless. 

There's one particular piece that needs rewriting now, quite urgently. It's not part of the book, but it's sort of essential to it. I should probably be working on it instead of blogging and reading about the Red Sox. I need a bit of distance. It's bad, and there's always hurt pride when something you make is bad. It's not that it's poorly written, it's just not fit for purpose. I wrote one thing when I should have written another. The more I think about it, the more I feel the need to start from scratch. 

Which is a good thing.

Because starting from scratch isn't really rewriting. 

15 June 2012

triathlon in progress

There are signs around my building claiming 'triathlon in progress'. In spite of their assertion, there is no such event taking place. It has since passed, though the signs remain.

I check regardless. I look around me, expecting to see numbered competitors all around, swimming, running and cycling with singular purpose. Instead it's just an oft-empty walkway winding up a steep hill.

A silence surrounds the irrelevant signs. I see them and think someone should be clapping their hands, blowing whistles and getting people lined up on a starting line, or ushering casual walkers, like myself, out of the way.

If there's a breeze, the signs flap in it, and as I climb the the hill and walk into town I think about the quiet, and words that lose their meaning with the passage of time.


12 June 2012

early mornings and an expectant gaze

The cat knows when I'm waking up before I do. I think my breathing changes, because he pads right up to my nose, without touching it, and waits there until my eyes open. And so my return to consciousness is greeted and punctuated by his expectant gaze. If I just close my eyes to drift off again, he'll prod the pillow in front of my face with his paw and utter a small meow, weighted with impatience. 

If my strategy works, and it's a big if, he'll bugger off, usually climbing to the top of my closet to cover whatever jumper that isn't yet entirely encased in cat hair with his fur. Most mornings, though, it works. It works because he knows I'm waking up anyway. So up I get, hobbling on my morning legs to check his food. If there's more than a bite left in the bowl, I swear at him and go back to my room, trying not to wake my flatmate. 

Not many mornings have been warm enough to crack the window open. When it is warm enough and the window is opened, the sounds of the lobsterman, the seagulls and the harbour drift through my room. The cacophony acts as audio caffeine. I'll slump into the chair at my desk and fiddle with my glasses, wondering whether they're dirty or if my eyes just can't quite focus yet. 

It's usually around then, after my eyes focus, that I check the clock and realise it's before 6. And so I swear at the cat again and go back to sleep. 

11 June 2012

more of the same...

Another piece I started and never finished/posted. This was about three weeks ago. Stewart and Colbert are no longer on hiatus, but you could bookmark it and save it for when they are.

Colbert and Stewart are on two-week vacation and even the podcasts I listen to are on reruns at the moment. I flick through Netflix and I've watched everything I feel like watching. My shelves of DVDs are full of movies I know all the lines to. A pile of books sit on the table next to my bed that I haven't read, but books require commitment and I fear commitment at the moment. I've started two of them: the Faulkner and one of the history books. 

There are three history books in total: two mediaeval histories and one that covers the first world war. The Faulkner is The Hamlet, one of his epic tomes that covers an epic southern lineage during a time of upheaval and change, with a healthy dose of illicit distilling thrown in for good measure. One sentence in the first chapter stretches out an entire month.

There's also a cookbook. It's a favourite of mine, but that's no excuse for it to be sat next to my bed. Cookbooks belong in the kitchen; reading them in bed seems more gluttonous than eating in bed. I'll move it immediately. 

Further along the shelf next to my bed sits a Complete Works of Shakespeare. I think it's a Penguin, but the pages face me instead of the spine, so I'm just going to have to guess. It's not on the reading pile, per se, but it's on the 'always reach for pile'. The 'Essays of E B White' sits there too, always ready to dispense considered wisdom and calm thought in an emergency situation.

Being surrounded by books feels far better than being surrounded by movies. I think I might open the Faulkner.

Just a wee note - the cookbook is still on the pile next to my bed. And I didn't open the Faulkner, at the time, but I plan to this evening.

10 June 2012

grey sunday

Just a wee blog to waste some time before getting stretched and going for a run. 

The sky's low at the moment, but higher than it's been for much of the week. Between March and June, we've had maybe two weeks of acceptable weather. I've been thinking a lot of the South of France, and making wine in the bright sun. 

The new book is coming along. It's hard to describe at the moment, as it's all still a bit of a secret, but it's great to be writing again and doing all the things that come along with it, like scribbling notes out of context because something has popped into your head while waiting to get served in the pub. The more you pound the words out, the more lightbulbs pop when you're not, and you've got to be ready. I'm keeping a notebook and pen next to my bed again. 

When not working on the book, I've been writing about India. It's been four years and it was a short trip, but for some reason it's never far from my mind or the end of my pen.

When not working on the book or writing about India, I've been applying for jobs. If anyone knows of anything for an insufferable wine dork with great research skills and a mild baseball obsession, let me know. Will travel.

It's not been a weekend for Boston sports. Hoping the Red Sox can pull out a win, avoid the sweep and get back to .500 today. Very sad to see the Celtics knocked out by the Heat in Game 7. What a team. Seemed always just one or two less injuries and you have three rings instead of one for those guys. 

There's a lot unfinished on my plate right now. Things that need some waiting on before talking or writing about them. I'm thinking of doing crosswords in the meantime.

12 May 2012

something broken

I wrote this over a month ago. I forgot about it and it just sat there, digitally speaking. So here it is. 

So the microphone on my phone died the day before yesterday. There was no cataclysmic event to signal its passing, just a phone call from a friend who couldn't hear what I was saying. At first I suspected one of the periodic bouts of terrible signal my flat suffers. But then the second call came and went with yet another person screaming "What?!" and "I can't hear you!!" followed by a small explosion of expletives cursing their phone, my phone, the networks and technology in general. I hung up and did much the same. Folks claiming we have replaced god with technology may be on to something - we curse both virulently when we feel they fail us.

My love-hate relationship with technology is such that I hate that I love it. There's a side of me that wishes I had only a landline, never had a Facebook account and thought the biro to be the only writing tool I would ever need. It's not a sense that technology is evil, it isn't, it's just a discomfort with my reliance on it.

And there's no more painful reminder of that reliance than a microphone dying. Or a hard drive failing. The things for which there are no real means of prevention, only measures to make the inevitable less painful.

So on the only day of snow this year, I jumped in the car and drove to Aberdeen and the quietest Apple store I've ever visited. The young genius checked my phone and then took it into the back room, no doubt checking to make sure that I hadn't dropped it in the toilet after hitting it with a sledgehammer. I hadn't, and so he gave me a shiny new iPhone (not a new new iPhone, sadly) and with an update and a login, I had my phone back, minus 2 texts I'd received between my last backup and my replacement. Fairly painless, and I enjoyed driving past the snow-blanketed fields of Angus and Aberdeenshire.

On a run about eight weeks ago, I sprained my right ankle in a fall so bad that the elderly couple I had been attempting to pass heard the crunch of tendons and ligaments as I collapsed. Only in the last week have I been able to run again, and it's been tough going. The weeks intervening, the recovery weeks, drove me slowly crazy with immobility and, most importantly, the sense that my body had failed me. Failed attempts to run again saw me barely able to make it around the block.

Rehabbing included stretching, ice packs and swearing profusely. Then there were the aches and pains that came from elsewhere, because of my limp. Injury begat injury.

I curse my reliance on technology and simultaneously fear its failure. I complain, whine and grumble about an app crashing or a corrupted file. But when I'm the damaged hardware, that's a different story. It throws it all into sharp relief. I'd rather drive to the Apple Store than Ninewells every time. 

10 May 2012

muscle memory

This is always a sore time of year for me. Once, longer ago than I really like to consider, I played shinty for the University of St Andrews.

Shinty, for those who don't know (probably most people), is a sport played mostly in the Highlands and on the Islands of Scotland. It's a stick and ball game, frequently described as field hockey without rules. It does have rules, but not very many. If you get hurt, and lots of people do, it's generally considered to be your own fault. The pitches are huge. Camans (shinty sticks) are made of wood and are wedge shaped at the business end. Shinty balls make a pleasing whistling noise when you hit them hard. It's thought to be a progenitor of both golf and ice hockey.  

I didn't play very well, but I made up for it by drinking hectolitres of beer on their behalf. That's one of the joys of sport in higher education - lack of athletic ability is easily forgiven for drinking prowess.

I'm fitter than I was then. I drink less and smoke zero. Depending on how happy my legs and joints are, I run 28-35 miles a week. And so, the first weekend of May, I look forward to playing in the annual old boys match and sixes tournament in St Andrews. Sixes shinty is much like rugby 7s for five-a-side football, except for that it's 6 players on each team.

It serves as a reunion, a general booze up, and an opportunity to play a huge amount of fun, dangerous, sport. There's also a large number of middle aged men doing a lot of 'back in my day' grumbling, which is always good for a laugh, if you're into that sort of thing. Most folks aren't. 

What it also serves as, is a reminder of just how much the years and the mileage take their toll. By the end of the two days, my joints, bones and muscles shrieked in symphonic discord. Any part of my body left untouched by the sport was amply shattered by the colossal hangover. This year was tamer than some. There were no fights and nobody set their rental car on fire. But it left its mark nonetheless.

And so, battered by attempts to recapture the remains of my youth, this week has been spent in pursuit of my future. Job-hunting and book-writing have already polished away most of the memories of pain, discomfort and aches. I know I had them, but I don't really feel them anymore. Writing about them now seems dishonest; memories that actually linger to touch are those of fondness for old friends, the unmatchable deliciousness of the first pint after a day's sport and the hope that it's not a whole year before we all meet up again.

If it is a year, though, no doubt I'll dive right in with both the shinty and the beer, the joy of reunion blocking out entirely the memories of aches and realisation of age. My muscle memory is short, and quite selective. It's quite happy to forget the pain.

08 May 2012

music in a library

A few weeks ago I met with an old friend. She's a musician, and a bloody good one. She's also successful, which means her time is somewhat scarce and catch-ups are usually a juggling act of multi-tasking, rather than a relaxed pint or cuppa. On this occasion I sat in on an interview and an acoustic session for a podcast. The session took place in an ancient library; the sort with high ceilings and a balcony. On the windowsills sat busts of great thinkers. Islands of wooden bookshelves created a grid of words. I found a seat at a desk placed near a section of ancient Hebrew texts. I switched my phone off and sat as comfortably as possible, willing my entire being to be quiet. It's so much easier when surrounded by books. The instinct to soften all noise in their presence is one of humanity's more civilising traits. A warm silence results, even in a cold old library. 

Two cameramen and a sound engineer spoke softly, readying everything. The countdown switched from vocals to hand gestures and my friend plucked and strummed and sang. The sound was soft and warm, even when the songs were sad. The music bounced off the books and this temple of words and silence changed and filled with harmonies. The quiet retreated for each song and filled the room between them.

I sat in awed silence, moved by the music in the library. 

When it was over, she packed her guitar with little noise and greeted the next band with a hushed smile. The silence took the room again. The music was only borrowing it.

12 April 2012

maintenance and giant magnets

Today I posted my watch to the manufacturer for a service. It's a nice watch, a present from my folks for my 30th birthday, and it bothers me when it's not working. I like the weight of it on my wrist, but not enough to wear it when it can't tell me the time. And so I dispatched it in the hopes it will be back soon, good as new.

Soon my camera will need the same. The pre-sets have gone funny and as such I can only shoot in manual mode. I should have sent it off ages ago, but I hate not having it around, especially if I'm going somewhere. It's like leaving the house without a pen or a notebook. Should something happen, I would only have my memory to record it.

As I type this on my iPad, my laptop scans a hard drive for erased and damaged photos, about 500 gigs worth. It's a slow process, the scan, that leads to another slow process, the recovery. Once they're both complete comes the re-organising, which is also slow but more rewarding than the first two as it's something I actually do myself. I don't send anything away and I need not cross my fingers and hope that the software doesn't crash 48 hours and halfway through the scan (which has happened three times now). That level of control and self-determination is somewhat comforting.

Tomorrow I drive up north to a small hospital for an MRI. Just before New Years, I sensed a small itch on my back, just below my right shoulder. As of now, about 40-50% of the right side of my body is either numb or has that odd tingly-ness that comes just before pins and needles. The progression has been slow and consistent whilst my dry neurologist's theories have ranged from benign to rather scary. My blood tests came back negative for viruses and vitamin deficiencies, so I'm hoping the MRI reveals something, just not something rather scary.

I'm also hoping there are no shards of ferrous metal embedded in my body that I am unaware of, nor that I have a hitherto unrealised problem with claustrophobia; lying in a giant magnet for an hour can aggravate both those things.

And so, like my tools and toys, I need some manner of maintenance. I just wish that going in for a service was as easy for me as it is for them.

10 April 2012

april showers

Last night was the Red Sox's first night game. I swore I would only watch the first inning and by the fifth, I finally called it quits. It was two am, so it could have been worse. We were trailing 2-0 to the Blue Jays. I knocked on my wooden headboard as I rolled over to get some sleep, wishing them luck for a comeback with my last conscious thoughts.

Baseball is not the only indicator of Spring in my life. It's mild outside with persistent rain. There's more white in the fridge than red in the rack. The light wakes me just past seven, and the cat makes sure I stay that way. I see flowers, as much as guys do.

Job-hunting and book-writing continue apace, but I find it hard not to look out the window for that little bit longer, to watch as the world wakes up and enjoys the new season.

22 March 2012

strange swans

A strange swan showed up in the harbour uninvited this morning. I assume he was male. Immediately he started antagonising our resident swan couple, first chasing away the female and then charging after the male. He never flew. He just squatted his neck, tucking his beak into its tight curve, and motored after the resident male. Never have I seen such a wake follow a swan, and I've seen a fair few swans in my time. The newcomer pursued relentlessly, caught up, and outside the mouth of the harbour, between the pier and the beach, they fought. At that distance, I had a hard time telling who was who, but in the end one pulled away, shaken, and it seemed to be the resident. The victorious male then turned his attention to the female, lingering in by the smaller pier, and to my surprise, he chased her away too.

I don't know much about swans, other than that they are as aggressive as they are beautiful. I've lived near many in my life, and have always appreciated their presence and aesthetics. I find their proximity bizarrely comforting and admire their familial loyalty. But my admiration is mostly aesthetic. I am fond of art, but I'm not an expert by any stretch. So it goes with swans. I like them because they're pretty to look at and it is richer to have them around than to not have them around.

And so this morning's fight saddened me. Our current couple has been here for a couple of years, and to see them chased off by what I assume was a rogue male, well, that's unsettling. I couldn't be an ornithologist. Standing on the balcony in the sunny but cold spring morning, my sense of loss far outweighed my fascination at the display, and I doubt the newcomer will endear himself to me with time.

Speaking of newcomers, sat on my desk is the growing, scribbled outline of the new book. It turns out, to my surprise, that not all blank pages are created equal, and that getting lost in writing new fiction is very different from writing new non-fiction. And so yesterday, with high hopes and genuine enthusiasm, I set to it and within two or three paragraphs came to a screeching halt. With the novel that was no problem - I could just be creative; ideas could, would, and did come.

I'm not writing a novel at the moment.

And so I pushed back the laptop and pulled out the notebook and a pen, and started the clarifying task of building a scaffolding, a structure from which this new project can grow. It turns out that writing into the void is not always possible, or even preferable, and while the pages may be blank, the mind can't be.

As the newcomer swam triumphantly back toward the inner harbour, I looked towards the bank on which the old couple nested. Floating next to it was a female swan. The female swan. I turned back towards the male and realised what I should have guessed from the beginning: the newcomer was no newcomer at all, but the resident, defending his nesting area from another couple. Triumphant, he returned to his mate while in the distance the vanquished invaders sought safer harbour. My heart lifted at the return of the familiar and I shook my head at my mistake.

I guess I really don't know enough about swans.



20 March 2012

wiffle ball and the point of contact

We played wiffle ball over on West Hill Place, just off of Charles Street, by the T-station. Drivers would use it as a shortcut to get to Storrow Drive, even though they weren't supposed to. It interrupted the game. We'd have to move the traffic cones or undo the chain to let them through. There'd be dirty looks shot and much huffing and puffing, but the drivers didn't care. We were just kids playing wiffle ball. West Hill Place was essentially a circle. Car bumpers played the role of bases and a convenient manhole served as the pitcher's mound. You got a homer if you hit it fair over a second floor window. We weren't exactly power hitters - we had more luck scoring runs by grounding the ball under parked cars. On the rare days there were no cars, there weren't a lot of runs scored.

There were usually only three or four of us playing and so we had to adapt the rules a tad. You could throw the runner out by hitting him with the ball. It was a dangerous strategy as a miss would almost always result in a run scoring. We also always underestimated just how much that little white plastic ball stung when it slapped against the flesh. Shrieks of pain resulted in derision, so you had to grimace, bear it, and take your place out in the 'field', fiercely rubbing the point of impact and wincing.

Contact was sublime. It always is, whether it's a proper ball against a wooden bat or plastic on plastic, there are few better feelings than the shudder of a bat when it hits the ball, that split second of unity and ultimate harmony that comes when the ball's trajectory reverses and it becomes part of the bat's motion, exploding forward with a crack that staggers the forearms. The hitter becomes a motor; an engine generating propulsion. The balls sails and as it does an incredible sense of forward motion flows through you. There's no time to appreciate it; you have to run and maybe, if you reach base safely, you smile and clap your hands together hoping to feel again the moment of contact.

I'm writing a new book. I can't really say much about it yet, but it's not fiction. It's not about baseball or wiffle ball either. But it's new. Instead of sifting through countless pages in the big purple binder, buried in words I've already written, I've got blank sheets staring back at me, waiting to be filled. Some writers fear blank pages, but not me. For me it's a thousand points of contact, hit after hit, as each page fills so goes the forward motion and as I type I feel the shudder in my forearms and so it flows.




13 March 2012

the toy grabber

The words filled my heart with a mix of despair and dread. I'd look through my toys, through Star Wars figures and Legos, squirt guns and Matchbox cars to no avail. Defeated, I went to my mom.

'Mom, I can't find my Boba Fett.'

'Where did you leave it?'

'I dunno - the floor somewhere? I can't find it anywhere!'

'The floor? Oh dear, I guess the Toy Grabber got it.'

The Toy Grabber. My nemesis. A mythical beast that, in my mind, looked like a cross between a large rat and a Jawa. Its mission was singular. Any toy not put away properly became its property. It struck swiftly and with little warning; toys left in communal areas of our apartment, especially the floor of the hall, disappeared the fastest. I never saw it. My room tended to be sanctuary, though sometimes, if it got really messy, The Toy Grabber broke the truce and something special would disappear. Something like a Millenium Falcon. Anguish and resentment followed; dejected, I would tidy what toys that remained and sulk. Or I would throw a belligerent-brat of a tantrum. Often it was a mixture of the two.

I begged, pleaded, bargained and bellowed for the swift return of my toys to little avail. The Toy Grabber didn't work that way. It heard no pleas and felt no compassion. I imagined it stood atop a mountain of neglected toys, not just mine but all of the neglected toys in the world, ignoring the chorus of calls for their return.

Weeks, sometimes months would pass until prodigal toys reappeared. By then I had forgotten they were missing, perhaps that I ever owned them at all. It was almost like getting new toys.

It was only after about a year that I realised that my mom was The Toy Grabber. It made little difference. Its stoicism remained. Only now I knew that there was no mythical mountain of missing toys; now I knew that the missing toys were hidden somewhere. And so my pleading became merely a token gesture, and my efforts shifted to discovering my mother's hiding place. I searched everywhere: closets, cupboards, under beds, behind couches, high and low. I remember one large, silver plastic bag - I think it was from a shoe shop - that I became convinced was The Toy Grabber stash. It lay at the bottom of my parents' closet. It had those hard plastic handles that could be snapped shut. It was always snapped shut.

I never mustered the guts to open it. Eventually, I learned to pick my toys up after myself and The Toy Grabber faded with the rest of my childhood.

There's a small wooden cigar box that sits on the floor to the right of my bed. It's a Cohiba box. It used to hold Siglo I's. Now it holds countless bits and pieces: green stems from Poppy Appeal poppies, hair ties, short pieces of plastic tubing, zip ties, wine foil, paperclips, fake mice and many more. They're the cat's toys. If he plays with them on my bed while I'm trying to sleep, they get confiscated. They get put in the cigar box.

They get put in The Toy Grabber.

10 March 2012

shire horses

The field on the left used to hold horses. Driving by on my way to Naughton, I slowed and glanced and smiled when I saw them. Sometimes, on the way back (when the field was on the right), I'd pull over and stand by the fence and they would wander over, hoping I had a snack for them. Their breath heavy, they'd mumble and mutter their horsey chat and nuzzle and batter my shoulders, hoping I would draw from my pocket a sugar cube, a polo mint, or a carrot. I never remembered to bring a snack, and as I got back into my car they no doubt wondered why I bothered to visit at all. I thought they were Clydesdales; they were certainly some manner of shire horse. Long manes hid their eyes and shaggy hair adorned their dinner platter-sized feet.

A few years ago I drove by and the shire horses were gone. As time passed the field on the left filled with trailers and now there is a small hamlet of shoeboxes on breeze blocks. It's a stark contrast to the surrounding countryside, especially when compared to the previous residents. This development lacks a deft touch. The land still looks like a building site and seems a tumour amongst the surrounding scenery.

Passing last month I noticed the next plot colonised as well. More trailers, more breeze blocks, more mud and more detritus strewn across raw earth instead of grass. Walls and an entrance gate far more grand than what they guard had been erected.

I could turn this into a metaphor about the passage of time; a resentful missive on how progress is a mixed blessing. I could draw contrasts of my own hopes and dreams and the stark realities they bump up against. How life is so rarely what we imagine it should be, and regardless of what's in our heart, the world moves on whether we like it or not. Those things are all true. The connections are all there in my head. But in the midst of all that is sadness. My heart sinks a bit when I drive by the field on the left now. Shoeboxes stood on breeze blocks are a poor replacement for horses stood on shaggy feet.

07 January 2012

10 years and a few days ago

I quit smoking. I didn't tell anyone about it at first. Quitting was a frequent thing for me, and I figured people were bored by my attempts. Cravings came strongest when drink was involved, and readers of this blog and folks who know me can correctly ascertain that drink was frequently involved. Days would end with me thinking 'I didn't smoke today'. Those days then stretched into weeks until it wasn't that big a deal to me anymore. I was proud of myself, don't get me wrong, but I never puffed my chest out. Not that I remember, anyway. Some folks I know may disagree.

I picked up some odd habits to help me cope. Hanging out outside with assembled smokers always appealed to me and I kept doing it, in spite of never sparking up myself. If friends are smoking, I still like to join them outside while they light up. Sometimes, usually in the pub, I would ask if I could borrow a cigarette and play with it, unlit. I would even mime smoking it for a second. That usually satisfied any hitherto dormant cravings. The lender - always a friend - would  shake their head at the weirdness of it all.

Some quitters find the smell still torments them. I never did. I didn't really like the smell when I smoked, and so it grew more abhorrent to me once I quit. I missed the finger movements though, and to this day I still clumsily flip pens around my digits.

I have hazy memories of some friends, quite early in my cigarette abstinence, making hashish infused-yoghurt for my benefit. It tasted wretched and got me high as a kite. I never tried it again. After a couple of years, I indulged in the odd cigar, though the hangovers of Cubans mixed with booze led to far more regret than pleasure. The odd joint passed my way and I would partake, though as I get older all it seems to do is make me tired.

Perhaps the strangest thing I've done since quitting is also the rarest: to treat a cigarette like a cigar, puffing on it but refusing to inhale. I've never done this sober and memories of the act are always blurry. I don't know why drinking brings on the urge to once again burn a trail down my lungs, but it does.

From time to time, I imagine starting again. It never lasts for more than a moment or two and it's never with any real urgency or need, but the thought crosses my mind nonetheless. When I dismiss it, it's not with revulsion but with a reassurance that I am not a smoker anymore. The various hangovers of the habit suffice and dwindle in frequency with every passing year, though I will probably always flick pens clumsily around my fingers.