Things That Aren’t the Smell of the Soil After Rain

I was out and about this afternoon and there was a certain amount of moisture in the air and it raised thatsmell, the one whose name you can never remember when it comes up in a pub quiz. You start running down the list of words you think might be it but on reflection, very definitely aren’t. Here are some of those words.

Ichor (n) In Greek mythology, ichor is the substance that flows through veins of the Gods. Of course it is. Gods can’t have ordinary blood. That’s not special enough for the bastards. They have to have something else to help them be self-serving, sex-addicted arseholes. There isn’t a single one of those gods – sorry, i meant sods – I wouldn’t happily set on fire so I could have the pleasure of not pissing on them. In ancient medicine, presumably any time prior to the invention of the medical malpractice lawyer, ichor was also the watery, foul-smelling discharge from a wound. That would still make it more attractive than 20 minutes in the company of Boris “Fucking” Johnson who thinks his new nickname is a compliment.

Melchior (proper n) Would I get into much trouble by calling it Christian mythology, do you think? Well, in Christian mythology, three magi, or kings, turned up bearing gifts for the newly-born “king of the Jews” and one of them was Melchior. The Bible doesn’t mention the names of these wise men, or tell us how many there were but people are people and people want to know stuff. Who were these wise men? Where did they come from? And other people want to supply information like that and we end up with Caspar, Balthazar and our very own Melchior, each one responsible for one of the gifts mentioned in Matthew 2:11. These days, we like to give the baby some cute clothes bearing slogans like “Daddy’s Little Princess” or “Say Goodbye To Sleep, Motherfucker” and maybe something for mum, like a bottle of gin and some condoms and a vasectomy voucher for dad. Back then, these allegedly wise men brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They brought these things to a homeless family living in a shed. I hope Mary stuck them on the first century equivalent of eBay as soon as the wise men were off round the corner.

Chordate (n) In short, a chordate is an animal with a dorsal nerve of some kind. They also have a notochord, pharyngeal slits – whatever they are – and a post-anal tail. You can do the post-anal joke yourselves. I’m going to stop Googling science and insert a spineless politician joke here. Surprisingly, a notochord isn’t a guitar effects pedal and is instead a flexible rod. Straight face emoji.

I am really going to have to do something about this filthy mind of mine.

Petits fours (n) Teeny-tiny biscuits and cakes designed to turn you into a fat bastard one slender, elegant mouthful at a time. Not to be confused with plus fours which are only there to make you look like a twat on a golf course.

Det cord (n) In excitable books for improbable boys, or improbable books for excitable boys, or most often just really bad books, det cord is the thing that attaches to explosives to make them explode. Explosives are no good if they just explode willy-nilly, they’re only worth having if they explode Willi Wellnigh, or somebody else, or something else and only when you tell them to explode.

Poor Willi. Nice chap. Handy with a spatula in a tight spot.

Patrick Orr He’s a palaeobiologist at University College Dublin. I would hope he’d be better on the evolutionary history of chordates than I am.

I’m hallucinating now and need to stop. The word you’re looking for again is petrichor.

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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 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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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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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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