Tuesday, 31 August 2010

What Friends Are For.

I was at a wedding on Sunday.  

During the speeches, a friend at another table caught my attention and pointed to my socks, which were bright yellow.  He gave me a thumbs up and nodded, with an expression of stern approval – Like a wizard acknowledging great wisdom in a young apprentice.

Monday, 30 August 2010


Swearing can be tremendously satisfying if done properly.  Overdone, it can lose its impact, but generally speaking it serves a noble purpose and can add weight and even humour to the most mundane utterance.  It can serve as a mild anaesthetic, like when one stubs one’s bastarding toe on the bastarding corner of the bastarding bed.  It can help show disdain or even contempt by its mere presence, without any other words being necessary, such as in the case of Phil fucking Collins. 

As a child, I was vaguely aware of this family of strange-sounding words which had the power to shock and to silence whole rooms, and I was keen to get involved.  Sadly I decided to start before I really knew what I was doing.  

I was about 6, and my elder brother had just given me the latest in a succession of dead legs, when I decided the time had come for some swearing.  I had had quite enough of being treated like this, and it was high time he started taking me seriously.  I realised my vocabulary might not be quite up to it yet, but I figured that could be got round with some improvisation.  So I called him a bunky stooker.  Initially the effect was exactly what I was after – Stunned silence.  Flushed with this success, I had another go, and called him a drumby pranks.  

Swearing can be tremendously satisfying.  And it can add weight and humour to the most mundane utterance. But if you try it without actually knowing any swear words you will be laughed at for the entire duration of the school holidays.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

A mistake I only made once.

1981 was a cold winter and it had been snowing for the last few days. Leaving for school one morning I noticed some huge icicles hanging from our garage roof. I got my Dad to break one off for me so I could carefully carry it to school to show everyone. However, on arriving at the school gates with the precious foot-long icicle wrapped in paper under my arm, my instinct for showmanship got the better of me, and I thought “wouldn’t it be better to wait til lunchtime and get the teacher to do a special announcement?”.

I thought of the professionalism that my teacher could lend to the occasion, she was good at that. She’d probably gather the class round and do a speech, and then the grand unveiling to amazed gasps and wondrous eyes. There would probably also be a round of applause for me, for having a garage that got ace big icicles on it sometimes. So I waited.

The morning passed more or less without incident – Rebecca knelt on a drawing pin, Shaun locked Lewis in a cupboard, Euan spelt his name wrong again. As lunchtime approached I decided my public had waited long enough, and I went to Mrs Paisley’s desk to tell her the good news and hear how she wanted to organise the unveiling.

“Mrs Paisley, I’ve got a really big icicle and I’d like you to show it to everyone please.”

“Really? Where is it?”

“In my bag. I brought it in this morning”

Far from being impressed, she seemed concerned. Probably jealous, I thought, as I followed her over to the cloakroom. She picked up my bag from the small puddle that had formed around it, and opened it for me to see inside – No icicle, just the wet newspaper I’d wrapped it in.

She started explaining what had happened but by that point I wasn’t listening, I was introducing new parts of my brain to each other and making them promise they’d stay in touch.

Lesson learned.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

All style and no substance.

I've come to realise something about my writing recently, something that bothers me.  How can I best illustrate this…

These Creations
                     emoTional truths,

But then I suppose you can read too much into these things.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

If Only

The writing would be witty and entertaining, that’s for sure.  From left to right all along the first line and then on down through the paragraphs the prose would sparkle, an erudite effervescence. The scope of the subject matter and the accomplished style would probably fuel suspicions that the author was a professional writer of some kind, any suggestion of which he would modestly bat away.  
Such would be its popularity, it would be discussed far and wide – on online forums, in the morning papers, on the news.  Couples would discuss it over breakfast, strangers would read it over each other's shoulders on the train to work, children’s faces would glow under the covers after lights-out as they caught up on the latest instalment.  
It would make people smile, it would make people frown.  It would cause laughter, tears, and missed appointments. Some would be inspired to write themselves, others would see the futility of trying to reproduce the inimitable, but for those few minutes everyone would be in the same space thinking the same thing and in a small way the world would be all the better for it.
Yes, if I wrote a blog it would be much better than this one.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

I Am Often Wrong

I’m not ashamed to admit it.  I am often wrong.  Until I was about 25 I thought that tripe was a fish.  I put this down to it sounding a bit like “trout” and “pike”, which are fish, and to not believing anyone would actually eat offal.

I was 31 and sitting in an Italian restaurant in Edinburgh when I first discovered that anchovies were not a vegetable.  I think I had them confused with artichokes, and I’d never previously ordered anything in which anchovies had been involved.

Going further back there were constant misunderstandings, such as my belief that the Beatles lived in my parents’ record player, and that my primary school gym teacher, Dundee United’s star striker and our next-door neighbour were all the same person.

Thankfully, as the years go by, these mistakes are cleared up.  Sometimes this comes as a surprise (as in the case of anchovies), sometimes I feel like I really should have known that already (as with the idea that the Beatles were each 1 inch tall and lived in Aberdeen, inside a piece of electrical equipment in my parents’ sitting room).

But there are also times when it’s everyone else who believes the nonsensical, and I find myself in the unusual position of being able to speak without fear of contradiction.  During a recent walk in Greenwich Park we were talking about the old adage that a rich crop of berries was a sure sign of a hard winter to come.  I have given this issue a great deal of thought over the years.  I saw my moment, and I grabbed it.

“A rich crop of berries is not a sure sign of a hard winter to come, because if it was that would mean vegetables had the ability to correctly predict the future”

Argue with that.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

My Dad's Enforced Silence

My Dad is an expressive person. He talks a lot, and sings a lot, and when he’s not talking or singing he’s happy just to scat or make noises. On the way home from the football once, I had to ask him to please be quiet - He was bored, and consequently had been blowing raspberries intermittently for about 20 minutes, on a busy train. He is an expressive person.

Adolf Hitler and my Dad both developed a growth on their vocal chords which had to be removed. In around 1940 in the case of Adolf Hitler, about 2 months ago in the case of my Dad.

So last week he went into hospital to have his one taken out (a procedure which happily passed without incident) and before I knew it he was conscious again and sending me texts.

“No cups of tea for 24 hours, and no talking for 48!”

I can only imagine how daunted he must have felt at the prospect, and how delighted my stepmother was.

The following day, he decided to go out for a walk to get some exercise. Realising that this would expose him to other people, who would expect the usual enthusiastic chatter and might not know about this imposed rule of silence, he prepared a note of explanation:

“Sorry, I can’t talk. I’ve had surgery on my vocal chords, and I don’t like you anyway”.

I love my Dad.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

I Hate Arthur C Clarke

He wrote the book and the screenplay of 2001: A Space Odyssey. He came up with the idea of geostationary satellites, which revolutionised communication, television broadcasting and weather forecasting across the world. He has a type of orbit named after him. He has a species of dinosaur named after him. He has an asteroid named after him. And he was responsible for a disastrous misunderstanding in 1983 which resulted in me standing in front of my entire class at school and crying like a girl. And I’m not a girl.

By far my favourite book in those days was Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World, not a single word of which I understood. But it had pictures of crystal skulls and real actual ghosts and monsters, which was good enough for me. And what’s more, because it was a book for adults rather than 8-year-old children, and it had been on TV, it was Definitely All True.

As with so many other things in my life back then, I wasn’t content keeping this to myself. The world had to know. So I took my tattered copy of the book in to school one day and told Mrs Paisley the deal – ghosts and monsters and stuff are real and it’s Definitely All True and it’s in this book and everyone should know. To my absolute delight, she agreed, and arranged an impromptu reading in the library. I remember my excitement at the prospect of having my book leant the unquestionable authority of being read to us by Mrs Paisley.

But then disaster struck. As everyone was getting settled on the floor around Mrs Paisley’s chair, she gave me back my book and said “here you go, remember to read it loud enough that Samantha and Suzanne at the back can hear”. Then, turning to my classmates “now everyone, Andrew has brought in a book that he would like to read to you all, so be nice and quiet and when I come back we can talk about what you all thought”. The blood drained from my face and my ears started ringing.

Me read it out to them? What the hell are you talking about? I can’t do that, I don’t even know what any of these words mean and the sentences go on forever! Are you insane?”

...was what I wanted to say, but didn’t. Instead I turned slowly to the sea of expectant faces, looked down at what was now my least favourite book in the world, and tried to read some of the stuff that wasn’t the pictures.

I remember very clearly that it had fallen open at the chapter about sea monsters, and I gave the first sentence my best shot. On the third attempt, however, I caught sight of my friend Geoff, who was sitting in the front row and pulling faces at me. So I decided the best course of action would be to set the book aside for the time being, tell Geoff that he was in Big Trouble when Mrs Paisley got back, and then burst into tears.

I still have the book somewhere, and I still haven’t read it. It has caused enough trouble already.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Protesting about being allowed to protest.

Islamic fundamentalism as I understand it is a threat to western society. But as with most issues, we shouldn’t judge without making an effort to understand. And I have to admit, after a recent protest in London, pictured below, I feel rather more encouraged about their intentions than I used to.

Firstly, some of their anger is clearly based on a simple misunderstanding: I’m sure a quick chat is all that’s required to point out the ridiculous hypocrisy of loudly and visibly decrying the existence of free speech by the chap in the centre of the photograph. After all, only a genuine idiot would protest about having the right to protest. So that’s good. Easily cleared up.

Also, at first glance I thought the placard on the right of the picture was announcing the arrival of the “fanatics”, which didn’t sound at all promising and would be a genuine cause for concern, but I was wrong. Evidently at some point over the next few months or years we are going to be visited by “the Fantastics”. I don’t know who they are, but I think they sound like fun:


Thursday, 29 July 2010

O Dreamland

It was lying on a dusty pavement in Athens, Greece, 15 years ago, and I saw it and I picked it up and I kept it. I know nothing, absolutely nothing about it, and I don't ever want to know. According to Oscar Wilde the very essense of romance is uncertainty, and this small piece of paper occupies a space in my life which is entirely romantic.

All I need to know is that the image itself is beautiful and evocative and suggests too many scenarios and stories to recount. The words have no origin for me, so they suggest something different every day - A delicious slumber, an unattainable ambition, a cruel joke. The figure is sometimes a boy, sometimes a girl, sometimes waiting, sometimes escaping. The hills and the landscape are real today, but might all be in the child's imagination tomorrow.

I had this image enlarged from the scrap of paper I found in the dust, and it is now framed and hung and part of my daily life. It is a thing I love without understanding.

If anybody knows what this is, where it came from, what it means, please don't tell me:


Wednesday, 28 July 2010

No Ball Games

Being a goalkeeper was a lonely existence which suited me down to the ground. On arrival at the Big School, cross-country running soon took its place as the only activity I was any good at. It transpired that I could run quite fast, as long as it was over uneven ground, past foliage, through puddles, and between trees.

Again, as with my career in goalkeepery, this was perfect for a young aesthete such as myself. Firstly, it was a reasonably safe option. There was very little danger of being tackled, and still less danger of being knocked out or impaled by a badly aimed projectile.

It also afforded ample opportunity to let my thoughts rise above the mundanity of everyday school life, and tackle the real issues: Can Mark Mitchelson really arrest me just because his Dad is a policeman? Will I get into trouble if I go the Long Way Home tonight? Is it true there’s a school in America where you don’t have to do any work?

I had done it again. I’d found a sport that allowed me to ponder life’s great mysteries, to extract myself from the unseemly business of being about 13. Not for me the painful bewilderment of being hit in the face by a size 5 mouldmaster football. Not for me the missing teeth and brutalised shins of a hockey team changing room. Never for this thoughtful child the twisted human carnage of an adolescent rugby scrum.

And crucially, as with keeping goal, my newly adopted sport had its place in outsider art – as a film that would for years allow me to pretend I’d read the book of the same name. It completely validated my choice and confirmed my long held belief - that I was a misunderstood antihero. From assembly until lunch. Every Thursday.


Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Albert Camus, Peter Handke, Erland Tangen.

In some ways I was a late developer. In others I was an old head on young shoulders, setting myself up for a future as a self-regarding gobshite with aspirations of poetic and artistic grandeur. I think this is best summed up in my choice of sports - more specifically school sports. I was a child who, even as the Savlon was applied to the latest grazed knee, always had one eye on his memoirs.

At the age of about 7, there was a decision to be made as to what kind of sport I would subject myself to: I could have chosen hockey, but those sticks didn’t seem to have much give in them. Rugby always looked to me like a game being played by far too many people at once, on the same pitch. So football it was. But not for this child the camaraderie that comes of pulling on the same shirt as all your tiny team-mates, nor the concerted everyone-running-after-the-ball tactics, as drilled into us by our foul-mouthed and foul-tracksuited manager. I wanted to be the goalkeeper. "It was good enough for Albert Camus", I’m sure I thought, "so it’s good enough for me". Naturally too, by that age I had already enjoyed Peter Handke’s excellent novel about murder and the dilemmas of free will "the Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty Kick", so really it was a no-brainer.

Then came four years of standing alone in the pouring rain, ignored as my team-mates celebrated each goal, vilified for each one I conceded. Four years of staring into space while I tried to invent lyrics to go with the Superman theme tune. Four years of standing exactly in the middle of the goal because Princess Leia would be executed if I didn’t. Four years of being caught unawares by lightening-fast attacks while I was figuring out whether I’d prefer to be Batman or Robin at playtime on Monday. Four long years, in which time I think Cults Primary School won about three games.

As an aside, special mention should now go to Erland Tangen, a slightly odd Norwegian boy who scored an absolutely spectacular goal against me in my second season. A right-footed volley from the edge of the box, which fairly thundered into the roof of my net. It was like a proper grown-up goal, and would have been goal of the season had Tangen not been one of our own defenders trying to make a clearance during what became a 7-0 defeat.

But then came the step up to the Big School, where the team’s manager had it all wrong. He made no mention of the importance of a goalkeeper letting his thoughts wander all over the place. Nothing about cultivating an air of aloofness that would stand me in good stead for my adult years. He wanted his ‘keeper to pay attention, bump into people, get in the way of the ball, even catch it. My goalkeeping career was over.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Vampires, Castles and Cocktail Parties.

I recently finished reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Loved the first half, where not a great deal happened but it was creepy and there was a sense of impending doom. Wasn’t too fussed about the 3rd quarter where nothing really happened and the doom seems to stop impending. And then really didn’t think much of the last quarter, when everyone spends the whole time congratulating each other on their bravery, their manners, their fastidiousness, and proclaiming their love for one another. And then they find and kill the Count literally in the final 2 pages. I can’t help but feel that Stoker ran out of story at about page 200 but had promised himself it would be 400 pages long.

One of the places thought to have inspired Bram Stoker to write Dracula, and certainly an evocative location in its own right is Slains Castle, a few miles north of my home town of Aberdeen. Stoker spent time here as a guest before starting the novel, and few places have made such an immediate and lasting impression on me – The bleakness of the setting, the precipitous cliffs and the hollow sadness of the building itself. Even though it dates back to the 16th Century the more recent work left it looking like a late 19th early 20th Century stately home, and the ruination always seemed to carry echoes of week-long cocktail parties and late-night music – The chatter of guests dancing into the darkness of the First World War and everything that would mean for their way of life (the owners had to leave and remove the roof to avoid taxes by the mid-1920s). The ruins themselves won’t carry this sense of melancholy for long though, as the site is braced for redevelopment, the nature of which I dread to imagine. I love the place.

Slains castle in its heyday:

...and today:

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Death, maps and books

I have spent the past year or so watching more costume dramas than is probably healthy, and yet healthy is exactly how it has made me feel. All these depictions of 18th and 19th Century England have served to emphasise what an absolute pain in the backside it must have been living in an age when people died at the drop of a hat.

Today, if we go two or three weeks without hearing from a particular friend, the worst we are likely to assume is that they have lost their phone or are busy with work. 150 years ago there was a very real possibility that it would be because they were dead. People died all the time.

And of everything. They died of colds. They died of fright. They died of toothache. They died of headaches. They died of broken hearts. It must have made it hard to make plans, and I would imagine the phrase "if I’m still alive" was used a great deal more than it is nowadays.

I write this having just returned from the British Library’s Magnificent Maps exhibition, which was predictably ace. There were more women there than I had expected, as I’d always presumed maps to be a peculiarly male interest, in the same way that directions and preferable routes from A to B via C are a default conversation topic for all men struggling for common ground, so to speak. I went on my own because I had presumed nobody else in their right mind would have fancied it, but it now turns out that there would have been several candidates had I only had the strength of my convictions. Mind you, if I’d gone with someone else I wouldn’t have felt as comfortable spending half an hour playing with the big magnifying glasses they had for enlarging the computerised copies.

Yesterday was a victory for second-hand bookshops over common sense, as I bought the following:

A history of the American Civil War by Shelby Foote,

A Short History of Africa by Roland Oliver

Martin Amis’ the Moronic Inferno,

Simon Winchester’s A Crack in the Edge of the World about the SF earthquake of 1906,

I Shall Bear Wintness a jewish memoir of nazi Germany by Victor Klemperer

Sebag Montefiore’s gimungous biography of Stalin,

For Love and Courage, a collection of First World War correspondence from the front,

Collected stories by M.R. James,

and something called Within the Context of No Context by George Trow, which looked amusing.

And all that because we happened to “pop in on our way past” a small bookshop with 5 minutes to kill on our way to afternoon tea. I don’t know where we’ll shelve them, and I’ll be lucky if I’ve read that lot before Christmas. On the plus side, at least the 21st Century has given me a decent chance of living that long.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Always Stick with your First Answer.

I recently attended a pub quiz in Whetstone, near the end of the Northern Line and beyond which the elastic that ties me to Camden and Hampstead boings uncomfortably tight. On having the answers read out at the end of the quiz we learned that lack of sleep kills you quicker than lack of food.

I had said that would be the case, but allowed myself to be dissuaded by my very good friend Graeme, who said "no way, you’d get tired and nod off before you died". It was one of those statements that is impossible to argue with at the time, despite it completely ignoring the premise of the question. The correct response would have been "yes, but if you were unable to nod off, if you were denied sleep...". My actual response was

[short silence]

"...aye, obviously."

The record for the longest scientifically verified time anyone has gone without sleep is held by a man called Randy Gardner, who absolutely positively has to be from the USA. This has prompted me to google the name "Randy Mann" of which there appear to be thousands, all in the US. No doubt Americans would redress the balance by laughing at all the people in the UK called Horny, but there aren’t any.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

On Dreams and Socks

There's only one thing for it. We'll start with a description of a recent dream, and see where that takes us. I should clarify though - I tend to have what's left of other people's dreams. The ones nobody could be bothered having or that would be too confusing to tell anyone else about.

We were experiencing some sort of environmental catastrophe whereby the weather got worse and worse, and that was about it. Set in my hometown of Aberdeen (thus rendering the incredibly shit weather perfectly plausible), the lowest stratum of cloud was shooting across the sky super-fast and the wind was creating a deafeningly loud whistle, all of which looked and sounded impressive but in the context of the dream was bad news. My Dad got his hands on a rocket launcher but I don’t remember how that was going to help matters.

It was faintly disappointing to wake up and find that in fact my father hadn't tried to save the world by firing missiles at the weather.

If I could order dreams in advance, then tonight I would have a long and vivid dream the moral of which would be unavoidable - Always pay attention to what happens at the bottom of your legs if you put your socks on after you put your trousers on. Because this morning I did not pay attention and arrived at work with one trouser leg tucked into my sock.

So all the way in to work this morning I was one of those people that you see on your way in to work in the morning, and you look at them, and you think "come on mate, make an effort".

And with that, he finished his first ever blog entry.