Inspooration from Faecesbook and Shitter

A photo of a man dressed as the shit emoji
Shit, man or shit man. Punctuation matters.

Is it all beginning to pile up, the shit with which you have to deal? If some rancid astrologer were to compile your horoscope, would he find your sun sign to be the manure from some stellar Augean stables where Taurus and Aries, Capricorn and Sagittarius have all been crapping since dawning of the Age of Aquarius? Well, I am here to provide you with some inspooration.

Sorry, not sorry.

It really is amazing how all the shit piles up. What’s even more amazing is that in spite of everything we can still somehow climb the monstrous heap. We might slip a bit on one noisome turd or another on the way but somehow, we find the strength to keep going, to reach the summit. On top of Old Smelly, all covered in flies, all we can really do is admire the view and try to ignore the smell.

Think of me as the Oscar Wilde of shit-based metaphors and keep fucking going. You’ve got this.

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Mid-life Crises are a Sign of Privilege

My sister is a funny woman. She has many talents and gifts and among them are an excellent sense of humour, turn of phrase and comic timing. Once, when were were both young, she introduced me to the concept of the mid-teen crisis. I heard the phrase first from my sister and she was ha-ha, only serious kind of funny.

It’s a real thing. All the pressures of being a teenage girl in a world of teenage boys combined with all the pressures of school life – it was a wild time back then and I can only imagine it’s become worse since I won’t tell you when. I will say I’m a lot older than she is. I have friends now who are parents to teenagers and all I can say is, good luck, cling on.

Can we talk about the male mid-life crisis? Just for a bit? The classic one – the sports car, the stupid affair, the ill-advised clothing, all the cliches. That one. It’s a gendered thing, I think. I seldom hear about women having one. It seems to be one more thing the Patriarchy arranges for its favoured sons, another indulgence, another affront.

Getting old happens for most of us gently; a slow boat to the islands on a calm summer evening. I remember coming back from Stornoway to Ullapool after a stormy week on Lewis, past the Summer Isles, past Rhue and up Loch Broom, the calm water only disturbed by the slapping bow wave of the Cal-Mac ferry. The ferry terminal came into view so slowly that it hardly seemed to move at all. I thought I would spend the rest of my life rumbling gently and quietly into port. That’s what I thought life would be like.

It’s not. There’s an old man in the mirror every morning, face crumpled like packaging on the floor of a neglected goods room. It’s all creases on the face in the glass, wrinkles and lumps and wild, wild hair. Yesterday, or it feels like yesterday anyway, yesterday the face in the mirror was smooth, almost as smooth as the water on Loch Broom was thirty years and more ago. And that’s the thing. Thirty years is a long time to be getting older.

I am definitely in the second half of my life. Another few years and I don’t think any but the most charitable would call me middle-aged. I’m still at that awkward age. I think I’ve always been at an awkward age but let me talk this one through. Were I to die next week they’d say – you’d say if you knew me – “He was still so young.” I’m too old to be a young man and granted the innocence of the young. I’m too young yet to be granted the status of elder. In other words, I’m ripe for a mid-life crisis.

The thing is that mid-life crises are a massive expression of privilege. Even taking for granted that I should somehow, some day have the status of an elder anything is a statement of privilege. I am still a middle-aged, middle-class white man. I don’t need to worry all that much about my personal safety when I’m out and about. I’ve had a very good education at the expense mostly of the state and my parents. I didn’t have to work very hard to achieve the little I have achieved. I take for granted that people will help me when I’m in trouble and by and large that is what has always happened. It’s an accident of birth. I was born at a certain time in a certain place. I’ve done nothing myself to merit special treatment. To act as if I have or to fail to acknowledge the reality of my circumstances would be an expression of privilege.

I haven’t woken up disappointed in what I have failed to achieve. I don’t think that I deserve more just because of who I am. The crisis some men go through is the realisation that they have reached forty- or fifty-something and that they will never be the man they should have been, or wanted to be, or someone else wanted them to be. They deserved more, somehow, than what they have. More money, more recognition, more success, more sex. Different sex.

That’s the root of the mid-life crisis. The old man in the mirror where the young man once was. Maybe he wants the return of the whole, huge, meandering, senseless possibilities he once could almost taste even if he never really had full possession of them. Maybe people have stopped noticing him so much. Fewer opportunities at work. Fewer sexual encounters. Falling fertility, failing potency. Aches and pains and hints of mortality. Less feeling great, more feeling just meh. Meh-ddle age.

Mid-life crises are expensive too. You need a certain income to indulge one thoroughly. You have to believe that your needs and desires are more important than those of the people around you and that is difficult to sustain when more than a thousand people are dying with or from Covid19 every single day. Staying at home, washing your hands, covering that aging face when you do venture out all militate strongly against the full expression of the middle-aged man in crisis. It’s all privilege.

I don’t think I’m immune. I have a very silly, bright orange bicycle, not a sports car. I still harbour athletic ambitions. I squeeze myself into Lycra and try to ignore the belly that wasn’t there five minutes or five years ago, depending on my state of mind. However, my wife and I made promises to one another and I’m not going to break them just because I’m feeling unreasonably mortal. Promises matter. That’s one of the things I’ve found out.

I have a sample size here of one. I know I’ve been lucky in lots of different ways. I think I am going some way to recognising my own privilege in all of this and that makes a destructive mid-life crisis less likely. I can only hope so, anyway.

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Do You Remember?

I sometimes eat Butterkist Toffee Popcorn. It was the sort of thing we would normally only get when we went to the pictures when I was wee. We didn’t often go as a family because there were lots of us so it would have been expensive and dad worked shifts as a polis so we would seldom have weekend evenings together for a trip to the cinema in Edinburgh. Finally, my mum only learned to drive when I was in my early teens. Still, we’d go to the NPH in St Andrews when we were on our hols in Fife and the weather was too Fifey to do anything outside.

I remember one trip across from St Andrews to Lundin Links in a more than usually Scottish thunderstorm. There were almost two very Catholic families crammed into a Volkswagen Beetle. We were like one of those record attempts where students would see how many people they could cram into a small car to raise money for charity but we were doing it to get fish suppers. Anyway, one Beetle, lots of noisy kids, several stressed out adults, rain stotting knee-high and arm-thick off the road, lightning flashing all over the place, and my grandmother yelling at us not to touch the sides of the car in case we were struck by lightning.

There is something about the smell of Butterkist. It has a sweaty, sweet smell sometimes that reminds me of something else and I can’t quite place what that is. There are loads of things like that, smells and tastes which trigger a hazy memory and nothing you do can drag the rest of the memory out into consciousness. The synaesthesia doesn’t quite kick in all the way. You taste the madeleines and there’s something there but it’s not enough. The messages go from the tip of the tongue to the back of the mind and get stuck.

There’s a spice I can’t quite identify but it’s in some curries and it’s another of those subtle tastes which almost trigger memories. Maybe it’s not a single spice. Maybe it’s a combination of them. Asafoetida does odd things to other tastes but I like adding it to my curries. I just have to remember to keep the jar tighly sealed, inside a Tupperware box which I bury in the back garden. I can’t describe the flavour because it flits chaotically across my memory, a butterfly sent hither and yon by the currents of other, stronger thoughts. I can’t even tell you the last time I tasted it or what I was eating, just that something almost tripped the switch in my head.

Do you ever feel something in your shoe on a long walk on a cold or wet day? You put up with it because it’s not quite annoying or painful enough for you to go through the faff of finding somewhere sheltered to remove your boot and sock. Nonetheless, finally you find somewhere out of the wind and rain, remove your rucksack, loosen the laces on your boot getting mud all over your hands in the process, take off the boot, waggle your foot in the air so you don’t get your sock wet in the puddles on the ground while you take it off only to find bugger all there. That. That’s the search for that memory. I’m not sure there’s anything really there at all.

I am sometimes surprised that really obvious things aren’t more memorable. Scotch Abernethy biscuits are much sweeter and crisper than ordinary digestives but they leave a particular paste and taste across the roof of my mouth and it’s not completely pleasant. It’s why I don’t have them very often but every now and again I’ll forget that and buy a packet because they go very well with a glass of milk as a nice wee afternoon snackette. I remember I like that but not the slighltly offputting mouth feel.

The trouble for me with talking about memories is that mine isn’t great. I forget names and titles of books very easily. I have picked the wrong sport to follow. Athletics is one sport but it’s so many different disciplines. I have trouble remembering the names of even my athletic heroes. It took me ten minutes to remember Michael Johnson’s name yesterday. I had to go an look stuff up to be sure of his name. I can’t always remember who does what, even if I have a vivid visual memory of an event or a perfomance. I’ve talked before about all the labels falling from the memory so I can’t tell you the identity of someone even if I know exactly who they are and what they’ve done.

I’m off to reinforce some memories now by rewatching The West Wing. That’s apparently what we need to do to make sure memories hang around for longer. While I write, I’m listening to The Buena Vista Social Club which is triggering memories from years ago when my ex used to sing along to Omara Portuondo singing Besame Mucho on a Saturday evening in the house we shared in Oxford. It’s a surprisingly sweet memory to end on.

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Rich Talks Shit

That’s not a surprise to anyone. I do talk a monstrous amount of shit. I know hardly anything about lots and lots of different and mostly very tedious subjects. I can combine that with a pointlessly in-depth knowledge on a very narrow range of stuff. Now, that makes me God’s own gift to an under-achieving pub quiz team – just don’t ask me about pop culture after about 1985 or any sport, especially athletics – but a stream of bemused women from the Grauniad’s Soul Mates pages in the early years of this century will almost certainly roll their eyes and say “Oh him, yeah. No.”

I know that names come and go in popularity but were there an especially large number of Catherines or Alisons born between say, 1965 and 1975? I met several Kates, one Kat, a Kaz and memorably but very briefly “Call me Catherine, please.” A story for another blog if I can cope with reliving that one. Over the years I’ve had crushes on several wonderful Alisons too. Sorry, an aside.

Back on topic, let’s talk shit.

A screenshot taken from Word HippoHippo.com of the entry for "talking shit"
Fun with Word Hippo.

I think this misses one of the most basic senses of talking shit. There’s talking nonsense, making up stuff, like writing speeches for Boris Johnson or Donald Trump. I’m a fan of Horrible Histories which does a most excellent job of talking shit about history. It’s proof of another form of talking shit, where you just riff off an idea. You take an idea like exploring past lives in the form of a chat show where Death mocks people for dying in a particularly stupid way and calling the whole thing Stupid Deaths. You probably know that when a singer riffs on a musical theme it is called scat and scat is another word for shit and I am in love, deeply in love, with the notion of Cleo Laine shit singing.

There is something a little more vivid and visceral about shite when you compare it to shit. Compare “ya wee shite” with “you little shit” and there are worlds to explore and possibly PhD theses to be done between them. Differences of class and geography are laid bare. Think about the voices saying those words and the circumstances where they say them. You can go and do some role-play now if you like. You might find it cathartic.

As an example of my wide but shallow pool of knowledge, I found out about mining fossil shit in Cambridge recently. They did it on Coldham’s Common and down between Trumpington and Hauxton. These rather pleasant spots was once mined for Cambridge green sands, coprolites that were ground to sand and mixed with acid to produce a kind of fertilizer. Of course, you can use turds laid down much more recently to make fertiliser. Stinking fortunes were made importing and processing guano to make fertiliser or explosives. The USA had something called the Guano Islands Act which empowered US citizens to take over uninhabited islands unclaimed by other states if they contained guano. More recently, and dealing with even fresher shite, my dad was a mounted policeman in Edinburgh. He would occasionally drop by to see his mum if he was passing her house in the Colonies in Stockbridge. He’d tie the horse up by the front gate, pop in for a quick cup of tea and before very long one or another of the neighbours would be out with a shovel to pick up the very fresh manure the horse would leave behind.

I was looking for a word for talking shit. I thought of kakaglossia. Kaka, caka, or cack are common enough. I think cack-handed is a euphonous word, better than butter-fingered. Does it mean inept rather than clumsy, do you think? Oddly, English gets cake from the Norse or Swedish kaka which almost uniquely doesn’t mean shit. Kakaglossia means shit-tongued so it’s a nice new word for getting a bit sweary. I used to have “erudite fuckmouth” on my Twitter profile as a warning for those of an unsweary disposition. Not everyone enjoys my use of language. Should I have put a content warning on this post?

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Can’t Wait To Get Into My Pants

Do you have trouble getting into your pants in the morning? Assuming, that is, you get into your pants in the morning. I’m not being pervy, or anything, you might have problems standing up and keeping your balance, or with bending your arms so you t-shirt or vest doesn’t go on as smoothly as it really should. Basically, are you getting old?

My wheelchair racing friends will no doubt just say “Dude, really?” and get on with getting on. Me, I’ve had about six weeks of reduced flexibility, an ongoing problem with cellulitis on my shin which finally seems to be clearing up, an extra bout of falling down when I stand up, and a bit more forgetfulness than is normal, even for me. Basically, I’m getting old.

Typically, at least until recently, I have been a bit of a dressing gymnast. Nobody likes a show-off in the morning, but I had been able to stand on one leg while I pulled my boxers on and then one morning, round the start of December, I couldn’t.

Do you ever just blank in the middle of a really routine action so that you couldn’t, on pain of cattle-prod, remember what you were supposed to do next? PINs and passwords are like that. If you remember the first digit or character, then muscle memory takes over and everything flows nicely. I remember guitar chord progressions being the same. If ever I had to stop, I wouldn’t necessarily be able to pick up again where I left off, I would have to start again al capo. On the odd occasion when I come across one of those upside down number pads at a petrol station, I am completely buggered. I don’t remember the PIN, I remember how my fingers move.

So, one morning, around the beginning of December, I was standing in my usual spot between bed and wardrobe, left leg in my favourite blue-striped boxers and when I went to lift my right leg into them I couldn’t remember how exactly to do it. My arm seemed to be in the way and when I tried to lift my knee high enough, there was a pain in my hip and groin. Now, I’ve never exactly been Stretch Armstrong when it comes to my flexibility, but I hadn’t until then had a problem getting into my pants in the morning. I managed after a couple of confusing seconds to sit down on the edge of the bed and cover my embarrassment.

Now my normal degree of gymnasticism is not exactly Olympian. I’m not going to impress or intimidate Louis Smith or indeed the Russian judges with my Getting Dressed routine in the mornings. However, it’s not supposed to hurt or be difficult, is it? Of all the things I do with and to my body, covering it so the rude bits don’t dangle offensively has been relatively straightforward to date. Getting dressed is a low-tariff event, after all.

Still, I’ve nearly finished my second course of antibiotics in an attempt to clear up some cellulitis. I’ve reached the stage now where taking the pills, two of them, twice a day, has become routine and that’s a problem. A bit like adding salt to my porridge, I can’t always remember whether I’ve taken them and a couple of mornings I thought I had when of course I hadn’t. Sometimes I end up with very salty porridge and sometimes I might as well eat gently boiled mud. Similarly, a 10-day course of antibiotics has so far taken 12 days. I should finish it tomorrow, as long as I remember to take the last three doses between now and then. That’s not a given.

Now, what about standing up? My balance problems have so far been a source of comedy rather than frustration or worry, but there’s been a bit of deterioration over the past few months. Most mornings, unless I’m very careful about how I get out of bed, I immediately sit down again on my first attempt to rise. I need to make sure my feet are closer to the edge of the bed to make it on my first attempt. My memory for names and things has never been great but I haven’t until now forgotten events. I noticed my first example of that last week and of course I’ve now forgotten what it was. D’oh. I even had a wee tremor at the weekend which resulted in my ground coffee spraying irritatingly over the counter instead of going into the holder thingie in my vesuvio.

All of this is just me getting old. I can do things to work on my flexibility. I’ve dug out my yoga mat and subscribed to Yoga With Adrienne on YouTube. I’ll get started on a training plan with the aim of running a marathon in June, if it goes ahead. I should have done the first run on that plan today but I’m wiped after a truly bad night of sleep. Starting tomorrow isn’t going to make much difference. I can still walk and run and it’s all going to be fine, I’m sure. If it were bad, I would go and see my lovely doctors who all assure me that the surgery is open for business.

I’ll finish with an old news piece from the Institution of Engineering and Technology. Ford Motor Company has been carrying out research for years now to ensure that its vehicles are as accessible as possible. To give its engineers some insight into how people with limited mobility, or flexibility, interact with their cars, they developed what’s become known as the Third Age Suit. Very much the opposite of one of those robotised exoskeletons that in sci-fi or liberal nightmares turn wimps into supersoldiers or robocops, this suit stiffens and limits mobility in all the limb joints, has a neck brace so that the wearer can’t fully turn their head, a wee spasm generator so they can experience the joy of not being able to fill their coffee pot, glasses that mimic glaucoma or cateracts, and ear muffs to limit hearing. Basically, think Bibendum with a bit of malice aforethought.

All of this is intended to make driving or operating the passenger controls in one of their cars easier for those with movement or mobility issues compared to the general population. It’s one thing to ask users what they need but experiencing problems for yourself can give you better insight into possible solutions.

Of course employing more disabled engineers would also help but that’s a different blog post. So would waiting a few years until things don’t bend, shake, collapse or go blurry all on their own.

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A Certain Jane Austen Thing Going On

Most of us lead small lives. Our consequence rarely extends much beyond our acquaintance. It’s easy to forget that. We’re the centres of our own universes, most of us anyway, the protagonists in our own narratives. What we say and do goes only as far as the people closest to us, even now that what Jane Austen called our connexion can be world-wide.

That’s not to say that we’re unimportant, or what we do lacks value and worth. Nor does it mean that our actions have no impact. What we say and we what we do has consequences in the lives of everyone we touch. It’s especially important now. Nerves are raw for all sorts of reasons and it’s really easy to make things worse, not better.

To limit the spread of Covid, we need to wear a face covering, keep apart, wash hands and open up enclosed spaces where we meet other people to winter. Not easy in this weather. All I want to do is huddle with chums by a roaring fire, glugging hot chocolate and eating slices of Victoria sponge wider than my face. That’s not something we can do under Tier 4 restrictions. I had a look at the data on both the BBC and Project Zoe’s websites and infections are rising round here really quite markedly so all the public health messages are not getting through.

Some of us lead more public lives and I really do wonder at how the people with the most influence over our lives are using that influence. I stopped watching the news years ago because when I wasn’t depressed after a broadcast, I was deeply, gammonly angry. Anne barred me first from listening to Any Questions and Any Answers on a Saturday lunchtime and then I stopped listening to live news broadcasts altogether. The stupid, it burns, dude. Anyway, as a result, I don’t really have much idea of an overall news narrative. I take my news in bites from various newspapers’ websites, the BBC and from NGOs and other organizations which interest me. I haven’t watched any of the government’s briefings live because I don’t need that stress in my life.

I don’t want to get all political because infectious disease doesn’t really give a stuff about radical approaches to societal problems. Between Brexshittery and Remoaning, or between Maomentum and Bliarites, whether you fell for a slogan on the side of a big, red bus or you keep your star safe, none of that matters to wee strands of RNA that only exist to replicate. Don’t even get me started on Bill Gates and injectable tracking devices. Nobody really wants to take unpopular decisions because who wants to be unpopular when your job security depends on your popularity?

(Sometimes I think we should replace our elected Parliament with a big jury that gets selected every couple of years. Once you’ve served, you can’t serve again. No more elections, just jury service.)

So, I wish that some people who have a big stage and fill it with amplified sound would either shut the fuck up, or tone down the nonsense when they do speak. I’d rather that notions of self-sacrifice and service were more evident in the behaviour of our leadership. I would be much more inclined to believe them if their actions matched their words more closely. Duty is a bit of a Jane Austen concept these days. Only the queen mentions the word with a straight face, I think. For everyone else who does so, it’s rather something to be encouraged in others than undertaken themselves.

Another rambling post. Sorry. I’ll end here with Mr Knightley in Emma. “There is one thing, Emma, which a man can always do, if he chuses, and that is, his duty; not by maneuvering and finessing, but by vigour and resolution.”

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Just Another Arbitrary Moment In Time

“Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Space might be big, vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big but our orbit of the Sun scribes out such a small part of it that it takes only a year for us to come back to the same spot on it again. The Sun itself has moved on in its own orbit of the Milky Way so it’s not the exact same spot in space. For me, that just adds to the arbitrariness of the notion of a New Year.

The thing about time I really don’t understand is why it’s on such a strong ratchet. Our experience of time passing changes depends on how bored or tired we are but we don’t experience the future before the past. I really should insert a get me the lottery numbers joke here but while you can’t know what’s in the future, some tropes are predictable and therefore boring and good bloggers should avoid them like the pl…

I’m not going to mention transmissible diseases today.

I am going to mention general relativity. I’m probably going to mangle it and get dragged off by the Physics Police for some re-education but here goes. Time slows down when there’s a lot of gravity around the place, but only from the point of view of an observer where there is less gravity. That’s your actual time dilation, that is. I think. It also slows down the faster you’re moving but that’s special relativity and I’m just going to ignore that. It’s irrelevant to the point I’m almost certainly going to miss because I’ve forgotten what I was talking about at the start of the paragraph. For you, lovely reader, probably only ninety seconds or so have passed. For me, it’s been about an hour while I read up on Einstein and black holes and pointedly avoided looking up stuff about quantum physics.

Frames of reference are important in relativity and there are equally important frames of reference in reading, and in creating a narrative. I am aware that I’m letting you peek behind the curtain here and nobody really wants to see how political deals, sausages or blog posts are made. Nevertheless, an hour, that’s how long it took me to create what was supposed to be a brief linking paragraph and now you’ve wasted another minute on my excuses for its rambling nature. Onwards.

In spite of time slowing down in the presence of a strong gravitational field, it doesn’t ever start going backwards. The biggest, strongest, weirdest objects in nature can’t change the direction of time. That’s what I meant about time having a ratchet on it. One of those nice clicking screwdrivers that let you screw your things together but not unscrew them unless you slide the slidey mechanism over a couple of notches, a bit like that.

We can’t go back in time. We can only go forward in our frame of reference at the rate of one second per second, one minute per minute, one hour at a time, one day at a time, every week of every year. This particular spot we’re passing through now is not the same spot we were passing through this time last year. Everything is moving in relation to everything else, and it’s moving with what Douglas Adams would have called mind-boggling speed and we can barely tell. It’s only noticeable if you pay close attention to the sky on dark nights, months apart, and who has the time anyway? Who has the time to do that other than astronomers and dreamers?

To a certain extent it doesn’t really matter. Our days, this year just gone of all years, have all melded into one. Ironically, as far as this blog post is concerned, only the longer nights and shorter days give us much sense of change. The gentle, relentless, pulse of the seasons as the year proceeds is what gives our year a rhythm. Without that, we’d have no marker of change. That in turn is a result of another arbitrary thing, the tilt of our good Earth on its axis.

I’m going to try to wrap up some stuff here. Space might indeed be sphincter-wiltingly big. The passage of time is absolutely relentless. We can’t change that. All we can do really is find people with whom to share the experience as we complete another orbit of the Sun. If you feel the need for a start to things I’m just about human enough to wish you a Happy New Arbitrary Moment In Time. Happy 2021, people. Be nice to one another.

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All About The Breath

Breathe in.

For me, it’s all about the breath. Everything is always all about the breath. From the moment it starts with a midwife slapping your arse to the moment it slips out with a final rattle, life is driven by a constant cycle of breath through your lungs. It’s not so much about the blood and the heart. Blood is just a means to carry air around the body and the heart is just a pump for the blood. No, breath is the real thing, as real as it gets.

Breathe out.

Blood is so obvious. Its red colour comes from the oxygen-rich haemoglobin it carries. We’re hyper-aware of the colour red as a result. We shouldn’t see red stuff leaking from our bodies. That’s our liquid breath oozing away. It’s a sign of danger. You see it and you have to act or you’re in deep, deep trouble.

Breathe in.

There’s also the sex thing, the vampire thing. I’ll never really understand the sexual attraction of vampires. Okay, there was Evil Leather Willow but that wasn’t about wanting her to drain me of my life’s blood: definitely not my blood. The twentieth century vampire iconography and mythology are completely bound up with sexuality and to be honest, I think it’s just to sell the films and books. Also, the trope is who wouldn’t want eternal youth and eternal beauty and health?

Breathe out

Your breath though? That gets ignored in most mythologies. God formed Adam from the dust of the ground. Adam only came alive when God breathed into his nostrils. There was none of that messing around with seminal fluid you get in some foundation mythologies in the Bible. I’m not aware of many stories about stealers of breath in the same way as I am about stealers of blood. The iconography just isn’t there in the same way as it is for those glamorous vampires and their blood-fixation.

Breathe in.

It started on the beach, late one night under clear St Andrews skies. Just one wee breath in, laden with cigarette smoke. I crashed the fag from her and the fag crashed into me. The smoke blessed my lungs and my head span and my heart sang and those far stars twinkled just out of reach. Their starlight had left them hundreds or thousands of years ago when nobody at all was walking along the West Sands. Nobody to breathe in the air coming off the sea. Nobody wanting to kiss those parted lips. Nobody watching the smoke slide from them and mix, dispersing out into the cold air and getting lost in the enormity of just one small narrow beach in one small narrow town stuck onto the side of Scotland. In the dark I couldn’t quite see the quizzical crinkle which would rumple the bridge of her nose when she didn’t understand what I was saying.

Breathe out.

Beer and fags. Life with beer and cigarettes is amazing. I miss the camaraderie of booze. Off for a drink after work, lighting up a cigarette as soon as I got out the door. Breathing in the fug of the pub at the entrance, that mix of hops and yeast, malt and barley, smoke and hope and then as the night wears on and the vision blurs, smoke and hopelessness. You can replace a fuckton of love with enough alcohol and nicotine until you can’t and you stumble off into the night and off down Spring Bank or Garratt Lane, racing your full bladder home and pretending to regret only that last pint.

Breathe in.

The cold days, when you huddle in groups round a Zippo, the cough is just one of those things. It’s so cold that you can’t light up from a match because your hands are shaking and you don’t know whether it’s really just the cold or because you need another drink. Head’s not that bad so it’s probably just the cold. Probably.

Breathe out.

One day, you breathe out and the next breath in won’t come. The air staggers into your lungs like a comedy drunk falling down a stairwell. It comes in fits and starts and it rattles and wheezes. It comes back up and out quick as a cough and a cough and cough. Your face is the same colour as the ash overflowing the tray on the broad arm of your single red armchair and enough still isn’t yet enough. The smoke rises silently from the end of the cigarette. It’s constant and changing at the same time, the patterns it makes in the still air of the quiet room a distraction from the book in your hand, the one that isn’t quite good enough to hold your attention.

Breathe in.

The doctor has prescribed you an inhaler for asthma and told you to stop smoking. You smell the cigarettes and mints on his breath and think “Aye, right.” He doesn’t quite meet your eye. Two puffs, twice a day and you’re sorted. The wee blue tube digs into your groin from its place in your pocket every time you sit down, as sharp a reminder as the wheeze it’s supposed to prevent. You’ve started on the jokes. You can’t afford a pension so you’re on the Marlboro plan: twenty a day for the next twenty years and you won’t fucking need a pension. And don’t tell me about the man-maths involved. I know, I know.

Breathe out.

Three inhalers now. Three different ones. The blue one and the brown one and the one with the disc thing to dispense it. Your morning wheezes have the same musical quality as a saw blade. Getting going in the morning with all the medication is like waking up a steam engine and takes barely less time. The day comes and you stub out the last cigarette, empty the ashtray into the bin and drop the empty fag packet on top. You keep the box of matches. It’s just opened, one or two strikes scarring the sandpaper side with black stripes.

Breathe in.

A month later there’s a note on the noticeboard in the gym for a beginners’ running group. You sign up. You miss the first week because you forget it’s happening but rock up on week 2 ahead of meeting your wife for a concert in town. You run around the edge of a football pitch for a bit, from corner flag to halfway line, walk from there to the next corner flag then sprint as hard as you can down behind the goal posts to the next corner and then repeating the process for three or four laps. Stretch, shower, change, into the car for the drive into town. It’s a bit difficult getting out of the car after 15 minutes but you totter off down Trinity Street to the concert in St John’s Chapel where the only seats left are in the boys’ choir stalls. You spend an hour folded into one with your knees round your ears and then cannot get up at the interval. You’re there for a while, wedged in by the pain in your legs. Physical exercise isn’t all it’s cracked up to be but you’re back the next week and at least there isn’t a concert afterwards.

Breathe out.

Running on Coldham’s Common again. You find a rhythm between stride and breath and suddenly everything clicks and you want to go faster, go further, run for longer. There are people out there with you, the rest of the group. Breathe in for two strides, out for two. Stride out a bit more, pick up the pace, the grass goes past underfoot, and you feel the air as it begins to move more quickly past your face. Just for a few seconds, you’re running like you did when you were in the playground and you had to run because you had to be everywhere else, all at once and the world was so full of things you had to see and do!

Breathe in.

It’s race day. Gulp down your inhalers, your breakfast, pull on your running shoes and your new socks, bought special, and out the door. On the start line, your stomach a butterfly farm, you take deep breaths to calm yourself and then everybody goes off. Try to find your pace, hit that magic rhythm. The crowd around you thins as the race goes on. Some gasp and drop away and you overtake the ones who have overcooked the start. Two strides for every breath in and two for every breath out, up the hills and down again. Just concentrate on the next breath, on the next stride, on the next runner or landmark ahead and then forget about it as you pass. The next one is just there.

Breathe out.

Swimming is a thing now too. Proper face down in the water front crawl and everything. You can see your breath as you push it out, bubbling away with the blue tiles of the pool bottom gliding oh so slowly by beneath you. Your lungs burn with the effort and that panicky feeling comes when you can’t quite get the timing right and you try to hold your breath instead. That really doesn’t work but you can’t force your body to do what you know it must to get to the next breath. Swimming is a thing now too, but it’s an infuriating thing that just doesn’t flow like you think it should.

Breathe in.

There’s a spot on Therfield Heath. I think there’s a trig point there but there’s certainly a board giving you distances to the various landmarks you can see from there. So many miles to Wimpole Hall, for example, which you can just about make out at the end of its avenue in the distance on a clear, still day. I also think it’s optimistic when it gives the distance to Ely Cathedral. At that distance it’s going to be little more than a couple of dabs from Bob Ross’ brush. It’s a good spot to stop and catch your breath on a run around the heath. If you start in the car park you’ve been going for four or five minutes, mostly straight up a steep hill. It’s steep for our part of the world anyway. I stop to catch my breath, adjust my laces and then carry on. I can pretend to myself that I don’t need to, sometimes but I am always grateful for the excuse of the view.

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Stubs

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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