I have books all over the place. They are in piles by and under the bed, in boxes all over the house, on the shelves in the living room, in Anne’s wee office and the dining room where I have my workspace. They are also all over the dining room table, in piles as high as your head. The ones I am reading just now have bookmarks in them of various kinds.

Last spring I was in Paris for the marathon. I bought a couple of books in St Pancras on the way to the train. One was a book on the the Mongol Empire. I read it over the course of my trip and it now has a Paris Metro ticket slipped into its final pages. It’s one of those 10-trip carnets you can buy for about sixteen euros and I used each of the trips over the four days I was away. I used all of them and more, in fact. There’s another book somewhere in the house with another Metro ticket in it but I can’t remember which was the second book I bought while I was away so I have no idea where that ticket is.

Italy is good for train tickets. The trains aren’t very expensive and the tickets make for good bookmarks. They’re longer than most paperbacks and pole out the top and bottom like a tall man in a short bed. The first one you buy ends up tattered and battered after a few days’ service. You have to remember to validate the tickets in the machines by the platforms or you could face a fine if you come across an inspector. The one time I did encounter an inspector I had of course forgotten to validate my ticket. I was saved from a fine by his unpleasant racism because he was much more interested in putting the black men further down the carriage off the train for travelling while black. So then, Italy: magnificent, inexpensive trains as long as you’re not a black man.

One last wee story, better than the one above. I have a waistcoat which belonged to my grandfather. He was a fine man, a trades unionist and artist. I am very fortunate indeed to have original art hanging on my walls because of him. My grandmother gave me one of his landscapes and it hangs on the wall above the piano here in my living room. There are other paintings, drawing and etchings hanging here done by my mother and my wife. Ours is a decorated home.

My grandfather died when I was about six or seven years old so while I have some memories of him, they are vague. I remember a slightly grumpy old man who was still happy to see us visit him in his shed at the bottom of his garden where he did his painting. He was very good at still lives and I never really understood the process whereby fruit went from bowl to canvas. He said that he used a knife. I thought he sliced it very thinly with his palette knives and smeared the flesh onto the surface of the canvas. The flesh of peaches and apples shines in two dimensions more than ever it does in three.

He taught me to draw. Well, he tried. He showed me how he could draw a profile and create the impression of an eye with only two or three brief strokes of a pencil. I was young and inept. I might have improved with practice and tutelage but we never had enough time. Fast forward a few years and my grandmother gives me a waistcoat which he had owned. It’s that mid-1960s old man’s yellow checked pattern, has mustard yellow buttons up and down the front and four pockets, two with little flaps over them and two without. One day I was having a rummage in one of these pockets for a coin I’d slipped in there to pay my bus fare and I pulled out a piece of thin paper, as thick as you might once have used for rolling a cigarette, rolled up tightly. It was a payslip from 1968 or 69. It’s about a quarter of an inch wide and sixteen or seventeen inches long and records his pay for one week in tiny, faint, near illegible handwriting. I can’t read it at all now, any more than I can remember his face. All that’s left is a handful of hazy memories of a man who gave me slices of peach in a shed, paintings on my wall and this long, strange strip of paper.

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Brothers in Arms

1985. What were you doing in 1985? I was a year out of school, a year into an electronics apprenticeship, and a year out of my depth. I was working in a factory and wondering how the fuck I’d managed to find myself doing something for which I had neither skill nor notion. In truth, as much as I wanted to go to university, I just hadn’t wanted to stay at school for another year to secure my place. I’d applied a year earlier but failed my maths and so didn’t get in.

I applied for the job on a whim and got it just before Christmas 1983. I’d no real idea what it meant to work or how my life would be changed. I’d been used to prospectuses telling me how wide my choices would be, how wide my horizons would become and then at the job interview them telling me how my future would depend on the interests of the business. I should have run away then. I didn’t. A year and a bit later I was sitting in windowless room with a soldering iron, some schematics and no real clue why either of them were important.

I worked Monday to Friday but the weekends were mine. I would get on the bus or sometimes borrow my dad’s car and go up to Edinburgh and visit the shops. I didn’t really do much shopping. I never really returned home with much of anything. I would go into John Menzies and HMV on Princes Street for magazines or records. There was a music shop just down from the King’s Theatre off Tollcross where I would go and ogle the instruments. I liked to have lunch in the cafe between the Lyceum Theatre and the Usher Hall. I had a season ticket for the Lyceum that year and once a month or so, on a Wednesday night, I would go and see each new production the theatre had in rep. There was a Liz Lochhead translation but maybe not production of a Moliere play. I think it was Tartuffe that year. I also saw Sandra Dickinson and Peter Davidson in Barefoot in the Park which I remember really enjoying, mostly I think because she appeared on stage at one point in her bra. I was young. I was smitten. Please don’t judge me.

1985 was the year Dire Straits released Brothers in Arms. Dad’s car didn’t have a cassette player. It didn’t even have a radio. Lada’s didn’t, not in those days. What we did in the absence of a cassette player was install my cousin in the backseat. He had a travel radio cassette player which he would put on his knees and we’d listen to it. When we ran out of tapes or the player ran out of batteries we’d sing. We could do a reasonable three or four part harmony version of Fat Bottomed Girls. Of course that meant that we had to have a band. Another story for another day.

I bought the vinyl version of Brothers in Arms and played it on my new hi-fi which had a record deck, twin cassettes, a graphic equaliser and an amplifier. It didn’t have a CD player because that would have been another £200 and I couldn’t afford that. I would buy some albums on vinyl and others as cassettes depending on whether Iiked the artwork on the sleeve. I had every Sky album bar the first one on vinyl, including Cadmium and The Great Balloon Race when they were just getting a bit weird. There were bloody vocals on The Great Balloon Race. What were they thinking?

So, Brothers in Arms. Douglas Adams went all music journo about Mark Knopfler and I didn’t really get it. Guitarists have always been over-promoted. Bassists and drummers do all the hard work and lead guitarists and singers just have to turn up and put the flashy stuff over the top. Wankers.

I listened to the album today for the first time in a quarter of a century and to be honest, it doesn’t really stand up any more. I quite like the lyrics in Money for Nothing but Brothers in Arms as a track is overworked and a bit histrionic. The rest is really just padding. In spite of that, I was carried back 35 years to the sights, smells and sounds of 1985. I can smell the solder in the technician’s room and I remember what that new hi-fi smelled like when I pulled it out of its box for the first time. In a bag, up in the attic, there are Iron Maiden tour t-shirts from Powerslave and Live after Death and if I had a head for heights I would go and dig them out. I have even managed to briefly conjure up that feeling of uselessness I used to have whenever I was around a girl I liked. That wasn’t weird at all.

It’s the same distance in time between now and 1985 as there was between 1985 and 1950. That really needs some serious thinking about. I’m not sure there was much conception of such a thing as popular culture in 1950. Music sales depended on sheet music. Mass communication was via print or radio. International travel was more likely to be by boat than by air. Very little that we take for granted now was common or even possible then. And in 1985 we still had phone boxes and coal mines, two things whose importance at the time I’m not sure I could explain now to someone born since then.

You get this in lieu of a birthday post. I was too busy enjoying myself yesterday to write. Thanks to everyone who took the time to send me a message. I had a lovely day.

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All The Books I Am Not Writing

“Write a book,” they say. They don’t say it often and there aren’t many of them but people tell me I should. Some people, anyway. Sometimes. I have tried from time to time to sit and write more than the 800 or so words I put into most of my blog posts and it has never amounted to anything. However, we’re living in strange times so here is a brief run down of all the books am I not currently writing.

Fitness After Fags

I had the idea for this a few years ago. It’s a physical fitness programme for people who have recently stopped smoking. I wrote the introduction and the first chapter on what you need before you start a fitness programme and the second one which was a Couch to 5k plan. I even bought a website domain for the project which I renew every year just in case I ever remove my thumb from my bum and get on with it. I thought I could get other coaches to write similar chapters on swimming, cycling, what to do in the gym and make it inclusive by pointing out you don’t need to become a sporting beast to become fitter when you stop smoking. Just walking, or gardening, or vacuuming the carpet can all count. Of course, that project runs into the sand again just after I renew the website domain every year because I am fundamentally feckless.

There are other books in the Fitness After… series I am not writing or editing too. You could have books on gaining or returning to fitness after heart attack or stroke, and a very timely book would be Fitness After Covid19. Books like this would need a lot of research on rehab after insult which I am just not qualified to do. I am not prepared to give poor quality advice to vulnerable people. However, it’s a good project to take forward at some point.

John Knox: a biography

I was brought up in Haddington, John Knox’s home town and there hasn’t been a major biography of John Knox for years now. It’s a surprise given his status in the history of the Scottish Reformation. I read a short biography of him about six of seven years ago which I thought was interesting but far too brief. So, given our common background in East Lothian, I am the ideal person not to be writing a book on Knox’s life. I don’t think he would approve of me at all – a former Papist and apostate, and to be honest I’m not a huge fan of him in return. At least I’m not writing a hagiography. Or I’m not writing what wouldn’t be a hagiography. It’s easy to lose track of the progression of senses in that sentence.

A brief aside – when Pope John Paul II came to Scotland, a group of us went to hear Mass at Murrayfield. There were buses from schools all over Scotland. When we returned to it at the end of the day, the bus driver had placed a huge sign in the front of the bus saying KNOX ACADEMY. Just as well everyone else was on their best behaviour. I was fully expecting it to be covered in eggs or for bricks to crash through the windows.

Judas Iscariot: 2000 Years of Excuses

Eve is probably the most put-upon figure in the Bible. She is excuse for thousands of years of misogyny. Judas probably comes second. I never understood the loathing for him. His role in the Passion is as vital as Jesus’. I’ve never really understood the Biblical justification for anti-Semitism. Even 1,600 years ago the notion of blaming the Jews for the death of Jesus must have been bizarre since anyone involved was long dead. Poor Judas paid an awful price for his role in the capture of his friend. What happened after the most infamous kiss in history was not up to him. For his name to be attached to betrayal for the next 2,000 years appalls me. I don’t know whether the stories of the Judas goat are true. I hope they aren’t for all sorts of reasons.

I was once sitting towards the back of the top deck of a nearly empty number 16 bus, travelling through Morningside. It was a lovely, sunny day, about this time of year. I was sitting minding my own business, nose in a book, mind on walkabout, when I became aware that the bloke in the seat just ahead of me was muttering under his breath. “Judas,” he was saying, “Judas, Judas.” I looked up just as he turned in his seat. His eyes were unfocussed blue and his dark hair was longer than mine, his beard even stragglier. “Judas. You killed me, Judas. You killed me.” There is not a lot you can say in reply to that, not when the person is a complete stranger. The bell rang and cracked the moment. The bus slowed for the next stop. The man turned round a moment, and a different man turned back. “Oh, this is me. Cheerio.” I watched his head drop down the stairwell and then it bobbed along on the top of his body as it disappeared up a side street towards the Royal Edinburgh Hospital.

Spies Like Them

I did make quite a lot of progress on a comedy spy thriller about two Russian agents in Britain in the 80s until someone pointed out that it was basically the same as Spies Like Us to which I said “Oh yes, so it is” and promptly forgot about it. I wrote an absolutely stonking first scene in which a man breaks in to someone’s house, burgles it and does a big jobbie on the living room carpet before leaving. Two weeks later, I read Quite Ugly One Morning by Chris Brookmyre which has more or less the exact same opening. That was dispiriting.

All Power! Early Soviet Art & Design

This one’s been done quite a lot but I think there is room to revisit the new art created for a new society in 1920s Russia. There were innovations in graphic art which were peculiarly Russian and were set to serve a new sort of society. That’s one for when I can put aside five or six years to go through some archives doing the picture research properly before I start on anything else. It would be chuffing expensive to produce. Words are cheap and you don’t need to pay someone else for the right to use them if you mix them up in your own order. I can’t imagine getting the rights to some of the pictures I want to use would be cheap. Anyway, here is El Lissitzky.

El Lissitsky's
The text reads “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge”

Those of you of a certain age might remember the Red Wedge arts activists from the 80s. This is where they took their name and I suppose their inspiration. If you remember them then you probably know that already. I don’t remember being all that inspired by Red Wedge even when I was at my most Socialist.

Collected Worse

Bad poetry. Bad, bad, bad poetry. All my own work. Let’s just leave it there, shall we?

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You People Are The Best

After Friday’s post, I have been reminded yet again just how blummin’ amazing you people are. I know that sometimes people, other people, use a particular intonation when they say “you people” that really puts a big distance between them and “you people.” You know those people. You know what I mean. The sort of people who think there are “fine people on both sides” and yet still manage to deny personhood to the people they don’t really like. Nevertheless, you people are the best. You people are my people and you humble me.

(I know that I’ve just othered a bunch of wankers and racists but fuck the fuckers. Seriously, just fuck them. However, the irony of my doing that is not lost on me.)

It’s true to say that life in self-isolation had been getting to me. I was feeling lower and lower and I couldn’t really see a way out. A couple of things changed at the end of last week. They first was being told I could take my car to find a quiet spot in which to exercise and the second was the cathartic brain dump I posted on Friday afternoon. I have had so much support and loving-kindness shown to me following that that I really have to acknowledge it publicly. There’s a difference between knowing that there are people around for you and feeling those people around you. The self-isolation means that the usual hugs and fist-bumps and hand-holding have all gone. Physical touch from my friends is no longer a habit. However, the messages I have received from so many of you have been more than enough to feel your support and I am truly, madly, deeply grateful.

Just to make it clear, we’re fine. We’re well, we’re putting a stash of supplies away not to be touched unless one or both of us falls ill and we will continue to be self-sufficient physically at least as long as Anne can get into a supermarket and I can drive her home afterwards if she needs it. If any of that changes, we know we can count on our friends to help and you already have. I have now lost count of the offers I have had to go and get some shopping or collect prescriptions. Emma dropped round with some of her amazing bread and I thank her with every delicious morsel I eat.

A plate of rye bread and cheese.
Emma’s rye bread with unsalted butter and some very nice cheese. Lunch yesterday.

That I got out and onto the Roman Road for a walk yesterday was very special. It’s just about my favourite place on Earth. It’s just behind my pillow next to Anne at any time we’re both in bed, and the end of the pier at St Andrews but ahead of that wee cafe next to the gates of the Arsenale in Venice where I go for a quiet skulk every time we’re in the city. Somebody had told me the weather was a bit cold so I was wearing far too many layers including a waxed jacket and big scarf and got stupidly sweaty after only five minutes walking. I parked the car near Worsted Lodge and headed out towards Balsham.

A large bush of very pale pink blossom.
Full bloom is amazing.

There’s a reason that cliches become cliches. I usually avoid them like the plague but these are strange times. The banks of blossom along the hedgerow were alive with life itself. They buzzed, bee-filled and beautiful. The blossom itself was white or palest pink. There were blue flowers and yellow flowers spread across the grass beside the wide path, benign Lego bricks to catch the eye and stop your breath with the smallest of joyful gasps. Skylarks sang invisibly above, the only soundtrack after ten minutes as I left the traffic behind. I saw not another soul for almost half an hour and turned back as soon as I did. There was a family out walking their dog coming the other way.

On the way back, a cyclist came down the path towards me very slowly. It could have been a roaring downhill for him but he slowed right down and I made my way up the bank so we could observe a socially-distant three or four metres as he passed. Another couple were coming down towards me as I got close to the car. The woman wished me a good morning at almost three in the afternoon and then giggled in her confusion. I replied saying that nobody really knew what time it was anymore anyway. We were able to give one another room again. I was up on what had been the top of the road 1,700 years ago and they were strolling along the bottom of the drainage ditch. All was well.

All is well, or as well as it can be. Anyone who thinks this will be over in three weeks is deluding themselves or preparing to lie to others. We have weeks of this yet to come but for those of us who avoid infection it won’t be too bad. I have my friends and I love them dearly.

Thank you.

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You Don’t Have To Be Mad To…

Trigger Warning: mental illness. Don’t read on if you’re having a bad day. This probably won’t help you today. It’s also a bit self-indulgent in comparison with everyone who is really struggling today.

A white mug with "you don't have to be mad to work here, but it helps" printed on it.

I’m sitting here on my sofa, arse gently aching from overuse, or underuse, or whatever. It’s sore, is what I’m saying. So, I’m sitting here tapping away at my keyboard while my cat sleeps beside me. She is not an ‘on’ cat. There are ‘on’ cats, who must always be on your lap or your legs when you’re sitting down. They are on your head when you wake up at three in the morning with a mouthful of cat fur. They are on your case All The Fucking Time. That’s ‘on’ cats for you. No, Tilly is a ‘beside’ cat. She sits quietly next to me, allowing whatever is happening inside my head to happen there and stays in her place, one part of her back or her leg touching my hip while my arse gently aches and my whatever it is that is currently living in my head stamps its feet and shouts and screams and.



There is a pair of robins nesting in the ivy by our kitchen window. The kitchen in this house is unusual in my experience. It’s at the front of the house so that when I’m standing at the sink, I can see the postie or delivery drivers coming up the path to leave whatever it is they’re leaving. The robins watch them come and go and one of them, I’m not sure which, was absolutely not put on Earth to give a fuck about you or your opinion. It’s the most in your face robin I have ever seen. There are drug lords or medieval kings who would back off from confronting this wee psychopath.

I am not about to take the fucker on.

The self-isolation is definitely beginning to affect me. I have imagined a robin has psychopathic tendencies and I don’t think avian psychopathy is a thing, not a real thing anyway. I have had insomnia since the lockdown started and it’s getting worse. I am remembering more of my dreams when I do manage to sleep and to be honest, I’d much rather I didn’t. I am saving up all the daytime anxiety and it percolates through my brain in the wee, soulless, terrifying hours when the bats, the owls, the rats and the slugs are doing their thing outside. Or mostly outside.

I woke myself up with my somniloquence last night, my mumbling in whatever freak show was running on the I-Max inside my eyelids gradually getting louder and louder until the point I roused myself and I lay there, confused and bereft. Anne was still asleep next to me, as reassuringly there in the night as Tilly is during the day. At least I hadn’t woken her. That was a relief.

There are all the places I cannot go, too. All the small joys of life have gone. The cafes along Mill Road where I would sit for half an hour for coffee and cake. Bumping into a chum and having a gas for a few minutes. I know self-isolation is necessary. I know why I’m shielding myself away. I get it, I really do. I’d be completely fucked if I were infected. I am concentrating on the positives, like the constant presence beside me of cat or wife but it’s not always enough.

I used to see that zany mug, the one that says you don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps, you know, that one. I saw it everywhere and at first it was funny. Years go it was funny. Years ago, I didn’t really know anyone who was mentally ill. I’m not going to tell you about my first encounter with mental illness because it’s not my story to tell. It surprised me and upset me, just a bit anyway because when you’re that age just about everything that happens which isn’t about you doesn’t matter because it isn’t about you. Anyway, the mug thing and the mental illness thing. Do you remember when everything was absolutely mental! A night out, getting pissed and just about not getting into trouble was absolutely mental! Teachers were often absolutely mental! There was often someone in the group who was absolutely mental! It was just words and then I saw someone lose it and they were absolutely mental! And absolutely mental! wasn’t what I thought it was.

Maybe we’re back in the realms of the inadequacy of vocabulary rather than inappropriateness of response. Love is seldom what we thought it would be. It involves a lot less shagging and a lot more listening than I thought it would, for a start. That’s a really good thing, by the way. The language we use to describe emotions and values comes from a culturally limited pool. It’s like having to fix a problem with your plumbing when all you have is a cycle repair kit and half a dozen Ikea Allen keys. Only plumbers really have the toolkit to fix plumbing problems and only people who have dealt with emotional problems or mental illness have the language to express concepts which will make thing better.

I’m not really one of those people. I’m doing the basics. I work my way through the Headspace stuff to try to deal with my anxiety. To be honest, I’m not sure it’s working. I am aware of the negative thoughts and I am not falling into the old habits of not dealing with them but I’m not really going anywhere with it. I’m lazy and I’m not quite uncomfortable enough yet and there is always someone around for when things get bad.

It’s very quiet though. I can hear the blood running through my ears just under the now constant tinnitus. I’m going back in time again for a moment but do you remember when the test card came on television at night and they played music for a bit and then they started playing a tone, maybe because the music got a bit expensive? My ears are playing the tone from the test card.

There is nothing a long walk in the fresh air and plate of soup won’t sort for me now. I can have the soup, no problem. It’ll do for a start. In better but still indoor news, you can watch Alice Fraser’s absolutely brilliant show Savage on Amazon Prime and I wholeheartedly recommend that you do.

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Have You Lost Track Of Time?

To take account of our new reality, the days of the week are now to be known as Monday (because Mondays have always sucked and we see no reason for this ever to change), Tuednesday, Wedthursday, Kevin and/or Karen, TFIFday, Tomorrowday, Sitdownday, and That Day When We Don’t Feel Guilty About Not Going To Church Any More Day Day.

Months are also being renamed. We will now have Janruary, Febrarch, Marpril, Surprisingly Cold, Probably Won’t, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, Lies, Boris (in thanksgiving for His miraculous recovery), Remember What Schools Are, Octdumber, Newdumber, Monthy McMonthyface and Presents!

The numbers of days in the week or months in the year are liable to change, possibly at short notice, for operational or cost reasons.

There is an outside chance that 2020 will be extended by up to eleventy-seven months if Priti Patel has anything to do with it.

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Being Human

There are two seemingly contradictory tendencies in the very act of being human and acting them out leads to conflicts and dissonances that are almost impossible to avoid or to reconcile when or if they are ever acknowledged. The first is the urge to find out our origins and root ourselves in time and space. The second is the urge to explore, to go beyond what we have now and seek out the new. These two tendencies can drive the same person at the same time, or influence them at different times in their lives. They have political and cultural consequences and just one of them is Them And Us.

Some people really, really want to find out who they are. The family historians and the amateur genealogists. They can tell you what their ancestors were doing and who they were doing it to in some remote and rural part of the country when Jack Cade was having his rebellion. They’ve been through census records online, rocked up to local museums and record offices, taken photographs of church yards, caught obscure lung diseases from the dust on long-unread muniments, and all to find documentary proof that some distant ancestor once could have been ignored by Henry VI or something. I don’t know.

Others might want to prove a long-standing connection to a place or a thing. Some families have been in the same area for generations. Even now, when we have a very mobile population and your neighbour can come from the other side of the world, you can still find people living a handful of miles from where they were born and brought up. I don’t know whether people have a deep connection to a place like that. Some might, others just haven’t moved away because it never really occurred to them to do so. I know that we are supposed to be explorers but now we have settled just about everywhere where settlement is possible. Now we prefer to stay put, by and large, if only because there seem to be people everywhere else we might care to go.

The Out of Africa Hypothesis suggests that there were a number of small scale migrations out of Africa, across the Middle East and Asia and up into Europe by our ancestors from 70,000 years ago, give or take. They spread out by about 10 miles per generation along coasts and up rivers. Even when it was possible to go anywhere at all, people didn’t really stray very far from familiar territory, until they had to cross oceans to reach Australia.

(I really would like to know who thought that was a good idea, and even why they thought they should stay there given everything in Australia can bite, scratch, kick, poison or just swallow you whole. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were some fucking vampire butterfly down there waiting to be dredged out of my nightmares and into reality in suburban Perth.)

Anyway, nobody wanted to stray far is my point even if there weren’t many people elsewhere preventing them. I’m assuming that people were able to walk and carry what they needed with them even if they had no pack animals for the first 60,000 to 65,000 years. I am not at all certain that anyone would want to claim ancestry back that far but there have been studies in the UK which have shown descendants of people buried in medieval graveyards in an English village still living locally. You might remember Julian Richards’ BBC series Meet the Ancestors which covered this. I remember the series mostly for the anthropologist who did the facial reconstructions who kept coming back every time anyone on telly wanted a facial reconstruction and they methods she used changing from modelling clay to computer graphics.

Adam Rutherford in his book A Brief History of Everyone Who has Ever Lived said that we’re all related to one another anyway, at least everyone in Europe. I think that’s what he said anyway. It’s a while since I read it and I can’t find my copy to revise so I might have to issue a correction once I’ve had a chance to read the relevant chapters again. Since we all have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, sixteen great-grandparents and so on, the number of ancestors doubling with every generation, it takes surprisingly little time before we find that any two people in the country have the same random ancestor. It’s not quite Six Degrees of Separation, or your Bacon Number or your Erdős number but somewhere in the past 600 years it’s very likely that the same person will crop up in the family trees of both me and my wife and we come from very different parts of the country.

Now this is a bit of a contradiction, given what I said earlier about people tending to stay in the same part of the world but even so, some people chose to move or were forced to move for work, or to avoid famine, imprisonment, oppression or just because they were a bit more restless than the norm. Whatever, it seems that if you come from one part of the country then you come from all parts of the country and if you go back further in time, then you come from all parts of Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Everybody essentially comes from everywhere. That’s not the same as saying that we are rootless and it’s the need to feel rooted to a place or to find our family’s place in the world that the amateur genealogist does their thing.

I’ve mentioned the urge to go beyond where we are geographically. Gene Roddenbury’s “Space, the final frontier” line is one with which nearly all of us have grown up. That urge to boldly go is not one with which I am personally familiar. I’m too comfortable where I am now, although I do like standing at the counter in a cafe in Venice with an espresso doppio hearing but not really understanding the conversations going on around me. Some of us are explorers and without them we wouldn’t have ever left Africa and ended up all over the world.

As well as the physical explorers, there are the people who have to explore the limits of our understanding of the world. The theorists who come up with new ideas and the experimentalists and engineers who then have come up with ways of testing those ideas, sifting facts and sticking them together. It’s not just scientists and engineers. There are artists and poets and philosophers and athletes and teachers and even priests continually pushing beyond what we know and what we have achieved and showing us that the limits are just a little further away than we had thought.

And in spite of the wonder of it all, the unceasing expansion of What We Know and What We Can Do there are still countless arseholes who can’t see the value in any of it. If you can’t stick a price tag on it then it’s worthless, they think. And if you can put a price tag on it, then it better be a small one unless they are setting the price, in which case add a couple of zeroes before you get to the decimal point. And the people from Over There can’t come Over Here because this is Ours and We don’t want Them because they look different, have funny ideas, smell odd, eat the wrong food and will use up all Our Stuff. It’s all bollocks.

If someone is telling you that a third party is not One of Us, have a look at that person with some criticality. Do we share the same values? How much do we really have in common? Do they express their values in actions you find acceptable? I don’t like the politics of class, really, but I understand why class politics has its place. I’m not a fan of nationalism, in spite of being very proudly Scottish. The history of nationalism is not a happy one, especially in the 20th century. Going back to the start of this paragraph, if someone is telling me that someone is not one of us based on their race, ethnicity, religious beliefs, cultural practices or anything else and yet I have more in common with that third party based on values, aspirations, fellow-feeling, economic status and physical proximity then fuck it, the Us is me and that third party not me and, just for a random example Vote Leave, Leave.EU and Jacob Rees-Sodding-Mogg.

There’s a book in this. There are several, in fact. There are political manifestos and campaigns and all sorts and if we ever find a new kind of normal when all the travel and social restrictions are lifted, I hope I’ll have some to sell. I’ve proven already that I lack the concentration and organizational skills to write more than random, ranting blog posts myself. There will be a life after Covid19 and it will be different. If we allow the politics of Them and Us to continue, it will be a narrower, sadder, much, much stupider life than it could be. This emergency has shown that wherever borders have been drawn, we need to co-operate across them. There really isn’t a Them. We need a more inclusive approach to everything.

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Twelve Angry Men*

So, how are you dealing with this unrelenting stream of shit? My Twitter stream has almost ceased to mention anything if it’s not related to coronavirus, social isolation, lots and lots of dead people, crap policing and clapping for the NHS. Last weekend, there was a brief break in the Twitter weather and there was a lot of silliness, #Caturday posts, hashtag games and all sorts of other nonsense but that seems to have passed and we’re now back to Angry Twitter and nothing does anger quite as unremittingly as Twitter after a couple of weeks of confinement.

Anger can be a useful emotion. It can be a driver for necessary change, and God knows we need that. The thing is I don’t have room for anger right now, I’m too busy dealing with fear and trying to avoid despair. I saw a couple of posts yesterday, this one from Siena Rodgers:

…and another from Carole Cadwallader:

…and to be honest, I don’t find either of them helpful right now. The former implies that anyone who doesn’t feel the same as she does just doesn’t understand what is going on or is somehow a moral failure. The latter thinks we’re just lazy.

We’re not. For the most part, we’re terrified, or we’re anxious for the safety of ourselves, our friends and family, or we’re confused or we’re just fed up because we’ve been stuck indoors for what feels like months when spring has finally decided to show up. It’s a really bad idea at the best of times to tell people how to feel, or to dismiss someone who doesn’t feel the same way as you do as lazy or inattentive.

It’s not that I’m content with the way our government has dealt with things, or with the way some of the media has held them to account on our behalf. I’m really not that impressed with the parliamentarians who haven’t done that much to do their job either. However, I just don’t have the bandwidth for it. I have been indoors shielding from this sodding virus for almost two weeks now. I can’t go for a run – which would be my usual mechanism for dealing with stress or distress – because even if social distancing measures were relaxed, I could still contract the virus and end up in Addie’s or Papworth.

There is nothing I can do to change our government’s woeful lack of preparedness for this emergency. I’m not going to get angry about that. There is nothing I can do to ensure that the NHS, the people working in social care, driving buses, delivering food, working in supermarkets, or fulfilling any of the hundred other vital roles in our society get the PPE they need right now and I’m not going to feel guilty about that. I am going to remain grateful that they are there. I will certainly make sure that I don’t forget the work they have done in extraordinarily difficult circumstances when I next come to vote.

And I need to remember not to allow my resentment at being told how to feel by people who don’t know me nor even know that I exist turn into anger at them. Life’s too fucking short as it is.

*Women can be angry too. I only borrowed the title for a blogpost.

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Pie And Chips

I know that as an athlete I really need to have a nutritious diet. It’s important to have the correct balance of carbohydrates, fats, proteins, salts and micronutrients to fuel performance during and sustain recovery between sessions. That’s all well and good but I am an afflete sometimes what I really, really want is a pie and chips.

The previous post about chocolate really should have been a clue to my attitude to food. Food isn’t just fuel. I’ve written before about the complex relationships some of us have with food. I enjoy it – cooking, thinking about it, preparing it, even peeling potatoes. Food for me is a celebration and how do you celebrate something as mundane as getting to the end of a Monday? Pie and chips.

It wasn’t even a good pie and chips. It was a dodgy chip shop pie and really ordinary chips but it hasn’t really been a very good Monday, as far as Mondays go. A better day would have meant I might have been more inclined to make some pastry, blind bake the bottom while I stewed some beef and onion before assembling the pie. Double- or even triple-cooking the chips so that the insides are fluffy and the outsides are crispy? A task for another day when I’m not knackered from work and then training.

And there’s the thing. If you’re serious about your training and performance (or you’re just not fit enough for what’s on the plan) then you’re going to be completely spannered at the end of the session. The last thing you can really cope with is putting together much at all. I had planned some grilled chicken accompanied by puy lentils and spinach tonight but leaving circuits with Mary I knew I was too tired to cook even that much. The chip shop would be open and they would sell me a sad pie and reasonable chips and I could at least fill my stomach with cheering food if not exactly good food. Sometimes that’s all you can do.

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Desert Island Discs

What’s the soundtrack of your life?

At school it was metal like Iron Maiden and AC/DC. There was quite a lot of hell invoked for a religious boy. It was probably part of the appeal for some of the people but not for me because first of all I didn’t really notice the lyrics so much, not when the guitar sounds and rhythms were far more exciting. Secondly, if you’ve hung around Christian people much, you soon realise that hell gets a lot more attention than heaven does. So, Hell’s Bells is my first track.

Afterwards, Leo introduced me to Talking Heads, especially Stop Making Sense. There is something that will always feel comforting about sitting in the near dark listening to that album over a pair of warmed headphones. Other people’s heads can be very warming.

I discovered The Grateful Dead at university. I would work through the night on a Thursday writing an essay due at 10:00am on a Friday morning with American Beauty playing quietly on a cassette radio so as not to disturb my flatmates. I had the room at the end of a corridor on the upper storey of our student house. Darren downstairs would either be sleeping the sleep of the dead or awake himself. The room next to mine was empty, I think. I would keep myself going by stopping every hour to light a menthol More and wait for the sun to come up before I headed in to town to hand the essay in. They weren’t good essays.

I bought two CDs before I ever bought a CD player. One was the soundtrack to Ally McBeal because… Well, I don’t really remember why except perhaps I really fancied her. The other was First of a Million Kisses. I mentioned this to Eddi Reader on Twitter once and she was kind enough to Tweet me back. She said that they’d explicitly intended it to be released on vinyl. I think she said that anyway. I was so astonished to have her reply to me at all that I may be misremembering what she’s said. Perfect is still one of my absolutely favourite songs.

I bought a CD of Kind of Blue not long after I moved in with Jane. I listened to it first one night over headphones like I did with Stop Making Sense in Leo’s bedroom 15 years before. It was late evening, dark outside and I was sitting at the dining table while my partner was watching television with her sister. I think my life changed because nothing else sounded the same after that. Nearly everything sounded too simple and not quite good enough. Thrust was all the right kind of funky though.

In order to find something interesting enough, I started to dig through J S Bach because that’s what you do. Once you’ve done the whole Toccata and Fugue in D Minor thing and got that out of your system, pretty quickly you fall into the Matthew Passion and you will never, ever climb out. You could be quite happy there for ever as well as long as someone tosses Thomas Tallis’ 40 part motet Spem in Alium in there after you.

I heard the Tallis Scholars sing that in Beverley Minster one night and I don’t think I have ever quite recovered. The moment all forty voices come in together hit me like an old girlfriend’s slap. The choristers were all around us hidden in galleries and spaces above our heads. If nobody tells you what to expect, if nobody’s there to nudge you and say, “Wait for it, wait for it, wait for it… NOW!” then you’re going to leave a changed person.

That’s a little out of sequence. It should have come after Perfect. 

My friend Alison threw parties in Oxford where as part of the evening’s entertainment she would sing Tom Lehrer’s Poisoning Pigeons in the Park with piano accompaniment by Ian. Some of the best fun I have ever had.

Last track is My Baby Just Cares For Me. Nina Simone’s song was what we played as we left the Registrar’s Office when Anne and I got married. It wasn’t strictly true that I didn’t care about cars and races but compared to Anne, even McLaren in their pomp were as mud to be scraped from the bottom of an icky, sticky shoe.

That’s nine but I’m having Nina Simone as my luxury only to play that one song and Anne’s Night’s Masque trilogy as my book. Another cheat because they are three single volumes but I’m getting a special single volume binding just for these cheating purposes. If that’s not allowed then I’ll have Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy so I can live with those characters for as long as I’m on the island.

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