Sunday 28 December 2003

My awful wedded wife

2003 - the year of the wedding, at least, that's how I'll remember it. My year so far has been one big morass of marriages, a confusion of ceremonies, a bevy of betrothals, a parade of pairings, a...I think you get the picture.

I've received eight invitations, bought nine wedding presents, attended four ceremonies, danced at three ceilidhs and too many cheesy discos, been on two hen nights and one stag night. I've given up nine of my precious weekends (SIX in the last eight weeks) to travel around and outside the country for assorted friends' celebrations. It's been time-consuming, tiring and downright expensive and when asked I express jaded sentiments about my participation in repeated nuptial fandangos.

But my world-weary expression is just a facade to impress the naive and inexperienced, in truth each wedding has been an absolute joy. Every event has put its own spin on the particular pleasures of weddings. I've seen the four most beautiful women in the world get married to the world's most handsome men.I've seen four brides' nerves translate into relief and then beaming pleasure on that short passage from door to fiance, I've watched four pride-puffed fathers find nervous but touching words of love for their daughters in front of four happy crowds. And best of all I've basked in the luminosity of the collected happiness of scores of friends.

A quick note for any friends considering a wedding for next year, if you could all go for a simultaneous Mooney style mass wedding at somewhere convenient, say the Landmark Hotel in Marylebone that'd be much appreciated. Ta.

Wednesday 17 December 2003

A life of grime

One of the conditions I imposed before I accepted the offer of becoming a Linhope resident two years ago was to get a cleaner to come weekly to try to impress cleanliness on the cluttered house. A simple rule for a tidier life is not to trust three busy, lazy and male city-types to expend much effort on domesticity; the fur-lined coffee cups and overflowing bins I saw on my first visit bore out my suspicions.

It was a wise move, our current cleaner is excellent, cleaning every exposed surface well enough to reveal quite how old and tatty the house really is. Her efforts have made it possible (but not necessarily advisable) to walk on the carpet in socks without stepping in last week's leftover pizza crust, to have a cup of coffee without rooting through the washing up, and I can almost guarantee that at least one saucepan will be clean at any given time.

Hard though she works she never can never quite make Linhope resemble the white-linen and mahogany bachelor pad that lives in my dreams and numerous Ikea catalogues, Morph look-a-like flatmate Davis makes quite sure of that.

Davis' trick, extremely straightforward but difficult to counter, is to never put anything quite where it might be expected to belong, and never, ever, ever, put anything away. For example, whilst it might look trivially simple to put washing-up straight into the dishwasher, Davis places used bowls and pans directly into the sink, where they may prevent easy usage of the tap and foster friendly bacteria.

The unused armchair in the corner of the lounge is so busy being his ersatz clothes-horse and wardrobe it could never be pressed into seating service. The wonky dining table, suitable for one at a time to eat at, shelters empty shopping bags and suitcases between its legs, whilst the table top proudly exhibits an ever increasing amount of unopened junk mail addressed to Mr S. Davis, out of date Time Out copies and half empty packs of chewing gum.

He is a voracious reader of newspapers, consuming them like an earthworm: for a short while they are in front of them, then there is copious rustling, and then they are behind him. And around him. On the floor, on the tables, on the chairs; on any fixed surface. The grubby blue carpet in the lounge is only intermittently visible at weekends as draughts from under the door swirl the sheets of yesterday's news to pile in great drifts of print against the table legs. Some days I get home from work, and, surveying the lounge, conclude I am alone, only for the large pile of papers on the armchair to ask me how my day was as Davis burrows his way through Wapping's output.

Davis' own bedroom is relatively clutter-free, not altogether unsurprising given how assiduous he is in distributing his belongings evenly and fairly over the rest of the house. He would make an economical house painter such is his ability to spread thinly a relatively small amount of objects to efficiently achieve uniformity of clutter coverage. The genius behind it all is that it's difficult to ever throw away any of the mountains of tat without his permission as buried somewhere deep in the stack of last week's papers could be the TV license, a spare set of house keys or a long forgotten guest.

In the face of this sustained tide of litter my feeble Sunday night tidying up efforts make me look a bit of a Canute*.

* (c) easy jokes 2003

Thursday 11 December 2003

The Cloud Factories

Vague shapes demarcated by flashing lights rolled through the thick fog draped across Heathrow. From the lounge only two planes could be seen, the rest of the world had disappeared. Despite the gloom the fog layer was thin, perhaps a hundred metres high, and twenty seconds after take-off I was blinded by the sun as the plane left the clouds below.

power stations in cloud

From six miles up the fog was white crayon childishly scrawled over the drab khaki of Britain, as flat and still as a puddle of spilt milk. The blank, bright surface ruptured only by power station cooling towers, fountains of cloud pumping more and more frothy white foam over the landscape.

Wednesday 3 December 2003

From behind the decks

"Play something funky,", she smiled, swaying uncertainly to either the music pulsing from the speakers close to her head or the hammering effect of the cocktail she was sipping "yeah, play something with a bit of funk in it.".

I had to lie, "Sorry, I left my funk records at home.". I don't like funk, never bought any funk records, never owned anything funkier than an Orb dub track, but I couldn't insult her by immediately dissing her taste.

"Oh go on, play something funky.".

Just for a few seconds, I hated being a DJ.

We, that is Ruffles and Spankee (I am Graham Spankee*, Scott is Justin Ruffles**, together we are Ruffles and Spankee***), threw a party this weekend. Although we let my flatmate Barry pretend it was for his birthday, it was really just a chance to get a lot of people we knew, and a fair few we didn't, into a bar and play on our record decks in front of them.

Playing music I like to large groups of people is such a buzz, I have nothing to liken it to in terms of gratifyingly immediate feedback but it must be a similar to performing stand-up or live theatre. I first felt the high ten years ago when I ran The Pav, the cheesy college disco. Every week I'd play the same records - Bulletproof by PWEI, Sympathy for the Devil, What Can You Do For Me? by The Utah Saints - for the same drunken hordes, every week I'd listen to countless irritating requests for Take That or Wham! or Abba and every week I'd get the same joy from looking at a roomful of people dancing and smiling to something I was doing.

People misunderstand the skill of DJing, either dismissing it as just pulling one huge tune after another from the record box or believing it to be about the turntablist arts of beat mixing, scratching and cutting. Whilst a combination of good tunes and technical skills is useful, the art of good DJing is picking records to control and drive the mood of a night. A good DJ won't play the biggest acid party monster of a track at 8:30 whilst you're still ordering your first drink, and they won't play Leonard Cohen when you're in the mood for dancing. No amount of seamless fading or rapid scratching will help people to have a good time, picking the right music is the only way.

The amount of control over a crowd a good DJ has is phenomenal. A few years back, Prime Cuts played at the excellent The Bomb in Nottingham. He's one of the world's greatest turntablists, part of the all conquering Scratch Perverts, so I went along to listen to someone who could create new music from a pair of decks and a hundredweight of black vinyl.

A couple of run of the mill hip-hop DJs and some live MCs were on beforehand, but their uninspiring performances left the audience listless. I was bored and tired and desparately wanted to go home to bed but I hung around hoping to see an impressive if ultimately rather dull display of scratching and cutting skills. Instead I saw a virtuoso performance of top DJing. Ten minutes after Prime Cuts started the whole room was alive again. The crowd were laughing and happy with all signs of boredom gone, I was re-energised and couldn't stop dancing. By the end of the night he had the entire club bouncing up and down and cheering as he created a rhythm from crashing the needle into the side of the empty platter.

With neither the skill nor experience of Prime Cuts, but with plenty of enthusiasm, Ruffles and I soundtracked the whole party on Saturday night. We played party hip-hop and recognisable house, we got people grooving to that Fatboy Slim track they once heard and kept them moving through Audio Bully remixes of Groove Armada tracks. And although there were moments when the eighty records in my box seemed to telescope down to just one poor choice, and moments when we misjudged quite how the crowd would react (in retrospect the Junior Cartier mix of Women Beat Their Men was just a little hard) by the end we even had some dancing on the tables.

We didn't even need any funk.

* just 'cos.

** just 'cos.

*** Just. 'Cos.

Wednesday 5 November 2003

In a darkened underpass I thought, Oh God, my chance has come at last

Apparently, perennial J-Lo botherer P Diddy was presented with the chance of competing in the Stevenage Half Marathon, but he opted for the balmy climate and iconic architecture of New York over the undulating cycle lanes and busy roundabouts of Hertfordshire's finest. Wuss. I'm made of sterner stuff than the hip-hop has-been and on Sunday I lined up with about six hundred others outside some anonymous leisure centre just off the A1 to compete in my second ever half marathon.

Conditions were not particularly good, wait, let me rephrase that, conditions were foul, appalling, disgusting. As I arrived torrential rain fell from the low, dark ceiling of cloud and was whipped in all directions by squalling gusts of cold wind. Ankle deep puddles of murky water lined the kerbs and the pavements were covered in a skin of slippery leaf mulch.

I met up with my virtual running partner*, Helen, as she pulled another fleece out of her bag and hurriedly wrapped it around herself. She quickly informed me she wasn't going to compete against the elements as well as her own fitness and I would be racing alone, she'd provide occasional cheering support on the route and a cup of tea at the end.

Somehow the rain managed to get heavier as I lined up on the start line, my long-sleeved top and tracksters quickly soaked through, and I had to bounce up and down on the spot like a gormless boy-band member just to keep warm. Unsurprisingly I was surrounded by runners, proper pink-of-thigh, ruddy-of-countenace runners. I like running, it's a portable way of keeping fit that suits my lifestyle, but I don't think of myself a runner; my frame is altogether too well upholstered to be considered lithe or athletic and I don't own a pair of much too revealing shiny shorts. There were plenty around me who did.

Barely audible over the howl of the wind, the starter blew his whistle and we were off, six hundred people first walking, then jogging, then running over the chalk line being washed off the cycle lane tarmac.

Whilst I picked a path through the crowd I kept a close eye on my stopwatch as I had no idea how I was going to perform. A time of 1hr 50m (about 8.5 minutes per mile) seemed a respectable target given my minimal training schedule. Ten minutes in I still hadn't seen the marker for the first mile and my heart rate was at the upper limit of my normal endurance range - I started to worry about quite how long I'd be jogging the wind-blasted wastes of Stevenage. Eleven minutes passed, twelve, thirteen, and still no sign. Finally, and with much relief, bang on sixteen minutes, I passed the two mile mark, the one mile mark had probably been blown to Dublin. I relaxed a little and switched the watch off to remove the distraction.

Anyone who says they go running to give them time to think over a particular life-problem is a bare-faced liar. Whilst I'm running there's no room for contemplative thinking or problem solving, my mind fills with bizarre little loops of thought - snatches of songs, finishing time mental arithmetic, wandering why club runners have such leathery necks - that spin around and around, occasionally interspersed with worries about how much my calf is tightening up. This time I played "Where's Wally/Waldo" to spot Helen amongst the crowds lining the course. It wasn't difficult, there weren't any crowds. Plenty of cheerfully damp yellow clad marshalls pointed the route through the maze of cycle-paths but there was no happy throng cheering on the runners. Helen popped up every three miles in an alarmingly bright Gore-Tex anorak to provide a welcome smile and shout.

On the stroke of eleven miles the wind, the rain and I ran out of energy. The clouds started to lift and some blue sky appeared, but I wasn't really taking it in. My stomach yawned for food, my head span and my legs felt distant, the world narrowed to the few metres of track immediately in front of me. I kept my legs moving as my mind tried desparately to ignore the pain. Over the last half mile other runners cheerfully belted past, picking up the pace to hit their own personal bests, but I had nothing left. Only in the final hundred metres did I find the energy to sprint past the small crowd, now containing two supporters calling my name, Louise having joined Helen, but I was so exhausted that I couldn't work out where the finish line was and a marshal had to catch me before I ran through the back of the timing and reception area.

I recorded a time of 1hr 48m 35s, good enough to win the Female Over 65 category if I'd only had the foresight to enter it.

So then, Sean "Puffy" Coombs, I'll be seeing you at the Gt Barford Half. I'm ready for you.

* Virtual as we never actually run together, merely send each other occasional motivational e-mails and text messages.

Monday 3 November 2003

Geeking out

Non-technical readers please look away now.

OK, those still with me, prepare for some self-indulgent geekery and a small drum roll - compared to Friday, this website is now totally different. I'll admit it's not different in any visible way unless you're someone who uses a text browser or takes great pleasure in viewing the page source, but nevertheless I spent most of my weekend on a redesign and I'm rather pleased with the result.

I've had a nagging feeling I should be doing something with CSS after reading people's bletherings on various blogs, but I never really understood what they were talking about and dismissed it as handwaving by standards-obsessed arty designer types. Then I found this excellent presentation and, with a bit of work-avoidance surfing, realised that CSS was probably fairly straightforward.

Like a work related version of the Fire Triangle I remember from GCSE Chemistry, the perfect alignment of motivation, time and the spark of inspiration came together this weekend to migrate everything to CSS and rid my site of the horrendous crossword puzzle of nested tables and <div> tags it had become.

Now everything you can see is CSS driven (go on, view the source, it's a thing of <p> and <h1> tag beauty) and I only use tables for image alignment in my walking pages. There are still a couple of minor issues, but I've tested in IE, Opera and Firebird and everything looks alright - IE's ridiculous inability to centre tables properly notwithstanding. I also took the opportunity to simultaneously migrate most pages to PHP so that I can unleash more functionality which in turn has let me reduce my dependency on Blogger for page generation so that I can migrate to Movable Type or similar if or when the fancy takes me.

I know it's all a bit pointless really, I don't have a wide enough audience to worry about text-browsers or full standards compliance, but I feel...virtuous. Yes, virtuous.

If I'm being far too smug too soon and this page doesn't render properly in your browser, please let me know.

Please update your bookmarks

I tweaked this site a lot over the weekend, and some of you might be experiencing problems with your bookmarks. The proper address for the home page is (as you should know if you managed to get here). Sorry for the disruption.

Thursday 23 October 2003

Walk Like a Cairene

After the success of last year's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe trip to Paris, Cairo was selected as the destination for the second annual Linhope Memorial Weekend. The whole of Linhope - that's disorganised Hoxtonite Davis, vociferous paddler Barry and myself - headed to Egypt for three days to meet up with one time Linhope resident Gus, currently working through a three month secondment in Alexandria.

Ginger Tours Bus

Gus acted as tour guide, his time in Egypt giving him knowledge of Cairo and a useful command of Arabic vocabulary. Alas, Gus is rather more fluent in brazen self-confidence than any particular foreign tongue and his frequent emphatic corrections of amused locals became the comedic highpoints of the trip. We didn't mind that his entertaining version of Cairo's history:
"The pyramids were built 150 years ago using Victorian steam shovels."
didn't quite tally with the guidebook's stories when we could watch him tell the amused waiter with strident fury
"I said four quails, not four salmons. You can't speak Arabic properly, you are embarrassing me in front of my friends".

We hired a driver, Mohammed, whom Gus had located through circuitous family connections from the receptionist in his Alexandrian office to the proud owner of the oldest car in Cairo. Cairene traffic is an anarchic morass of cars treating lane markings and traffic signals as decorative rather than instructive displays, but Mohammed was skilled in the use of the car horn as an advanced land-based sonar system, sending and interpreting toots on the horn to construct a mental picture of the seething maelstrom of vehicles surrounding his own aged Peugeot. The routes he threaded through moving cars on wide highways would have amazed even the most tartrazine-wired 12 year old PlayStation junkie.

Gus having advised that Egyptian Customs generally didn't like CDs or CD players, we had to provide our own soundtrack to the trip and with a display of bankrupt imaginations the most popular option was The Bangles' finest moment, Walk Like an Egyptian. The riff was whistled everywhere and such was the natural hilarity inherent in the juxtaposition of music and location we never once bored of its delightful melody. Being more deliberately eclectic I employed 808 State's Nephatiti to similar effect, no-one noticed.

Despite an attractive location in the middle of the Nile, our accommodation was architecturally uninspiring; from a distance the Cairo Marriot appears to be just two bland and faded 20-storey boxes of rooms. Up close it becomes clear the central section has been converted from a plush palace. Lights drip from the wood-panelled and lushly decorated ceiling, symmetrical fountains guard the arched entrance, and an extensive terrace around the pool is the ideal place to be served drinks late into the warm evenings. I felt like a turn of the century imperialist striding around a colonial home, at least until I saw the Oktoberfest stage and rubbish oompah band in the corner of the gardens.

One of the mosques in the Cairo Citadel

Friday is a religious day in the Egyptian Moslem weekly calendar and a day to be home with the family, the equivalent of an old-fashioned British Sunday. Traffic is accordingly light, although not so light that near-misses with jaywalking pedestrians might become uncommon, and we took the chance to be driven around some of the more central Cairo sights.

At this point, I could wax joyous about the glorious architecture, the dusty cupolas and russet ziggurats that climbed into a clear blue sky, the vast quietness of mosques where thousands of people pray several times daily, the beautiful interior of the Gayer Anderson museum. But other elements of the day stand out more than the architecture and museums: Davis' refusal to be cowed by a different set of social norms (or it may have been his sloth) saw him lying full stretch on the floor of mosque, bare feet on prominent display; Gus' ferocious arguments with the taxi driver on the best routes between The Citadel and the City of the Dead; the black market economy of baksheesh buying us entry into places like the roof of Mohammed Ali's tomb.

Most memorable was the extreme affability of everyone around us. Gus' ability to speak Arabic was a constant source of hilarity for the locals, and combined with friendly kids' insistence on practising their rudimentary English on the foreigners meant our walks around Cairo resembled an election campaign - Gus for President - and Gus never missed a chance to shake hands and chat with someone; spice salesman, cafe owner or papyrus hawker.

The Bent Pyramid

Before our excellent evening meal we headed off to the souk and sat in a cafe, smoking sweet apple flavoured shisha through hookahs and, in a retail system I'd like to see in operation in Dixons, being entertained by an unceasing supply of hawkers offering tat ranging from Groucho Marx moustaches to heiroglyphic bookmarks to novelty cigarette lighters. The souk is full of tourist oriented rubbish; camel saddle stools, plastic pyramids and cheap looking hookahs, but the mass of people and goods crammed into its narrow lanes make it an engaging shopping experience.

Saturday was Pyramids day. Alas, here words fail me. I guessed the Pyramids might be big and impressive and worth a photo and a comment, but dammit, they're BIG and IMPRESSIVE. The ancient Egyptians may have failed in their attempts to help the pharoahs progress smoothly into the afterlife but my word, they built mountains to last four thousand years. I've seen bigger buildings, taller buildings, wider buildings, but I've never seen constructions as obviously heavy as these enormous wedges of stone.

The Great Pyramid

We had the discipline not to spend all of Friday night in the hotel casino and were up early enough to arrive at Dahshur before anybody else, so we got to descend the cramped and steep passageway into the heart of the Red Pyramid alone. The interior is simultaneously underwhelming and impressive. No glittering gold death masks or fearsome traps, just three empty, tall, dark rooms, but there is a sense of enormous volumes of worked stone sitting impassively above.

Other pyramids are equally imposing, the Bent Pyramid's smooth facing is still largely intact and presents razor sharp edges to the sky, Saqqara's massive stone steps look down on temples full of heiroglyphics and carvings and Giza, wow... At Giza the pyramids are simply enormous. With a margin of error smaller than one inch, the Egyptians marshalled over two million blocks of stone weighing six million tons into a building that for four thousand years, until the construction of the Eiffel tower, was the tallest on the planet.

Seeing the Pyramids makes everything else in the world seem temporary and inconsequential.

Next year, Linhope goes to Vegas.

Wednesday 8 October 2003

Docking with the mothership

After eighteen months working on a selection of assignments; creating user interfaces in Ipswich, debugging Java code in Glasgow, running requirements workshops in Hereford, I'm back in the corporate head office in London. It's a bit of a culture shock.

Every client I've ever worked for has been a corporate idiot, unable to make the correct decision or build a new system without my colleagues and me shouting instructions in their ear and guiding their trembling hands. Working full-time on site with a client has always been frustrating and infuriating.

But the best bit about being a consultant is that all the times I've smiled at these fools and ignored their dreadful theories, I've known full well that they aren't my direct employer*. I can sneer (under my breath of course, the professional veneer on my face never cracks) at their lack of direction, technical incompetence or poor canteen facilities, smug in the knowledge that in six months time I won't be working for them. I get all the fun of switching jobs every year with few of the hassles.

Sitting at an ergonomically designed Scandinavian pine desk surrounded by Docker wearing colleagues at my employer's head office I don't have that luxury.

When I entered the corporate rat race seven years ago I believed I was about to be consumed by a gleaming machine. I imagined life as a brand new graduate joining a management consultancy, I would enter a fast-paced and slick world where effortlessly competent people rushed around in designer suits to important meetings.

I would become a small but useful cog in a super-efficient enterprise. An enterprise that wielded scientific rigour and unassailable logic to inform all its principles. A company dedicated to the use of clear thinking and precise writing to generate industy-defining insights. Petty idiocies would have no place in this enterprise, poor arguments and weak ideas would be mercilessly crushed beneath the mighty wheels of corporate intelligence.

It's taken me seven years to realise that it's not really like that. I'm surrounded by plenty of funny, clever, interesting people, and I enjoy my job. But we're just like every client I've ever met. My colleagues wear badly fitting designer suits to attend dull strategy meetings where people gossip and flirt over coffee. We like to think we wield logic and truth like unstoppable weapons, but actually we are easily swayed by entrenched beliefs and internal politics. We write long, dull documents no-one will ever read that labour to make more than one interesting or relevant point per page. We overuse words like enable, ensure and empower. We douse our language with qualifiers like 'better', 'significant' and 'rapid' without any justification or figures to back them up. I have to work alongside people that talk about 'enhancing the spiritual nature of web user interfaces' without recourse to irony.

I'd still like to believe Accenture or McKinsey's are the relentless and awe-inspiring powerhouses of my undergraduate imaginings, but chances are they're full of normal people too.

* Just to try and undo the damage to my reputation this arrogant statement might make, I do like a lot of the client staff I work for, it's just their companies and companies' policies I take umbrage at.

Monday 22 September 2003

You dancin'? You askin'?

As well as picking up something of batholiths and synchrotrons, Rutherford and Hutton, I learnt to dance at University. Prior to the tutelage of my college dance mentor I hated dancefloors and the mysterious transformation that occurred to those that strayed into their grasp. I was shamefully unable to move my body like Gary Barlow on Top of the Pops and I despised friends for trying to drag me into their swaying circles at rubbish birthday discos. Jigging to crappy Abba and Europop tunes wasn't fun, it was just a mechanism for humiliating me and my poorly co-ordinated geek comrades. Fortunately, the social life of a small-town boy did not hold many occasions organised enough for dancing, particularly when all events were a reluctant parental taxi ride away.

University life increased the embarrassment opportunities, Thursday night was dancing night. Everyone in college congregated at The Pav, a free disco in the cricket Pavilion and the night out partner to Super Hall; the formal dinner for the drinking societies. A non-drinking, non rugby player, I couldn't access the apparent elite of the drinking societies, and I sure as hell didn't want to dance, but to maintain my giddy position in the college social hierarchy I needed to somehow get involved. So I volunteered to run The Pav. Perfect. I felt an integral part of the evening without drinking or dancing, I just cued up the records and weekly watched my friends incomprehensibly enjoy themselves on the crammed dancefloor.

Unlike me Simon S_____ could really move. Not for him the white man's overbite and off-beat shuffling that sufficed for the masses, he stood on the plinth and let fly with kick steps, syncopated arms, the works. Smoothly keeping time during the verses and breakdowns, when the chunky breaks hit the speakers he cut loose; crazy long blonde hair and baggy trousers energetically frozen in the strobe light as he stepped and slid. He was mesmerising and I was awestruck.

One Thursday he helped me carry the the sound system and record boxes up to the deserted pre-disco pavilion. I put on his favourite record and he decided to teach me to dance like him.

The first lesson was easy: simply step in time to the beat. Snare snap - step with the left foot, snare snap - step with the right foot.

Delighting in my previously hidden ability to accurately keep time I stepped across the empty dance floor, trainers stubbing the dusty floor. Left, right, left, right.

Good he said, now mix it up, change the order you move your feet. Beat - right foot right, beat - left foot right, beat - left foot left, beat - right foot left. Repeat.

Now I'm moving I thought, now I can dance just like the others and not feel a fool.

And then, the third lesson: the running man. Bounce he said, bounce and jump a little on each beat. Now on the same beat, one foot goes forward to land on the heel, the other goes back to land on the toe. On the next beat bring the back foot forward and up and the front foot back to the middle, swap feet and repeat.

WOW. It was hard to keep balance at first but then... then... not only could I hold a rhythm, not only could I dance better than all of my friends, not only was I now free of embarrassment, but this was fun. From nowhere a smile appeared on my face and wouldn't move.

More lessons followed: clear a space for yourself, keep your movements controlled, adopt different styles, but I'd already learnt the most important part, that dancing was enjoyment.

With my new skills Simon and I owned The Pav, we ruled the top step with our top steps. Our peers applauded when we both cut loose at the big moments in the big tunes.

It's ten years since I left University and I've forgotten the intricate details of the late Cretaceous mass extinction, I can no longer find a solution to the simplest form of quantum wave functions, but I still know how to dance. I can still draw admiring glances on those rare occasions when I persuade friends go clubbing at decent club nights instead of the lager fuelled chart fests they prefer.

When the music's right and the speakers are loud and I'm on the dancefloor everything clicks into place. My mind fills with joy and beams an uncontrollable smile from my face. My feet trace a complex co-ordination across the dark floor, my hands and arms clutch and wave at the light and crowd, sweat pours from a face that won't stop gurning with happiness. There is nothing else, no world, no time, no people, no problems, just my body and the music weaving an intimate pattern.

And you don't get that with Abba.

Monday 8 September 2003

Law of the Hen

For Jo n Brian's recent wedding I was given the choice of attending the hen night or the stag night. In bald terms, one of the following options:

Option A: Go to Glasgow for the weekend with a large bunch of hard-drinking Scots, Australians and Irish that I don't know. Get beaten up at the Celtic game for being as English as EastEnders and Tim Henman. Get left behind to be picked up by the police when collapsing in gutter outside seedy strip joint.

Option B: Spend three days on the beach in Mallorca with my bestest friends. Ogle bikini-clad beauties. Eat paella and drink sangria. Get pink as Pink by being English in the sun.

I didn't need much help in selection Option B, but there were unforeseen consequences; apparently I can no longer be considered a man at all. At least that's the inference I drew from the reception I and the other male hen night attendees got at the wedding.

I sat at the officially appointed 'singles' table - the table smugly and inevitably put together by the married couple, blithely believing that being single we'll all have so much in common and we can discus the most nutritious Findus Ready Meals for One or which are the best tissues for sobbing bitter, lonely tears into late in the cold, cold night, and that all the happy, joyful romance floating around will rub off on us, knocking us out of our unavoidably miserable single lives and into the arms of the one we wish to spend the rest of our lives the night with - you know, the singles table.

At one corner of the table sat a man born to define the phrase "man mountain", so large that he didn't just wear his clothes he sailed in on them, so big that when he moved his arms stars in distant galaxies changed their orbits. Something in my demeanour made him instantly suspicious and he asked me in a voice like a land-slide:

"D'you go on the hen do mate?"

Of course he was Australian.



And that was it; over a three hour dinner he directed not one more word at me and took great pains to avoid even looking in my direction. He wasn't the only one, the other stag do attendees, when they weren't moshing to "Fairytale of New York" on the dancefloor, were either ignoring me or calling me Simone.

I've done some thinking about this and I think I've managed to understand the axioms that underpin all hard-drinking Celtic and Australian, macho, big hairy chest, wrassling, manliness that I've been hitherto unaware of:

  • Being gay is bad.

  • It's possible to catch gay by being around girls for extended periods of time, any time longer than say, five minutes.

  • You can catch gay by being around people who have been around girls.

  • You can also catch gay by dancing (with girls), laughing (with girls) or being suspiciously English (with English people).

  • Ceilidhs can make you gay.

Despite my recent discovery, I shan't be amending my behaviour any time soon as I got to dance camply all night long with the women and wasn't once sick on my own shoes.

Thursday 4 September 2003

Under the weather

Glasgow skies

Glaswegian weather is a capricious beast. Although UK weather is notoriously changeable, Glasgow takes meteorological indecisiveness to a higher level, flip-flopping between low grey clouds and soaring blue skies on an almost hourly basis. Opening the heavy hotel room curtains at 8am is a voyage of discovery - the previous night's light drizzle could have been replaced by glorious clear skies, or may just as easily have attained downpour proportions.

Bright and clear days are much more common than Scotland's damp, precipitative reputation might ascribe, but the sunlight frightens the pale-faced locals who are used to carrying umbrellas but not sunglasses. Photophobes, they scurry across the broad streets, squinting at the reflections from the white paving stones and glass clad buildings, speeding between dingy offices, dark shops and shady basement bars.

To Glasgow's discredit, the town's facilities mirror the locals' vampiric dislike of sunlight and the city centre holds no pavement cafes or roof terrace bars. This architectural oversight would be possible to ignore in an ugly new town or a city centre overwhelmed by skyscrapers, but Glasgow's streets are broad and spacious enough to afford a view of the sky in all directions. And what a magnificent sky it is, much has already been written praising the infinite subtleties of Scottish light and cloud and those words hold just as true wandering along Sauchiehall Street as they do in the Highlands.

The light is best along the riverside, recently reclaimed from heavy industries and now studded with low flats and long straight pavements. The evening sky paints the steep glass wall of the Science Centre and silhouettes the tower but the paved banks contain nowhere for people other than marathon training management consultants and drunken derelicts to enjoy the show.

Monday 1 September 2003

Life Partners

At school, you had friends who liked you when you were unformed, before you became the person you wanted to be. In real terms, they are the last group of people to accept you without judgment or proviso. Scary, isn't it?

Barbara Ellen, The Observer Magazine, 31 August 2003

It's not scary if you still list eight or so of your schoolmates as your closest friends.


Geography enforces long periods during which we don't see each other en masse (although I can be found watching bad TV in the Ruffles's front room of a Sunday afternoon more often than not) but when important ceremonies overcome separation you'll find all of us laughing at each other on the dance floor as if it were a more relaxed version of a school disco.

We congregated on our rural Oxfordshire homeland this week, travelling from London, Aylesbury, Nottingham, Jersey, Australia and New Zealand to celebrate the wedding of one of our number. We went to Mallorca for the hen do (yes, I went to the hen do), visited each other at parental homes, sang in the church that I last stood in during a primary school Harvest festival and danced in a hall not three miles from the school that brought us together.

And, as at last year's wedding, I became overwhelmed by the ferocious affection I have for this group of onetime class mates, I beamed with broad smiles and overflowed with hugs for a whole week. I have other friends I love just as deeply, but since leaving school I've not found and kept a group such as this.


The happiness and support this network brings is so precious that I'm almost scared to analyse it in too much depth lest it somehow evaporate under scrutiny, but there is much truth to the quote above. We know each other from times before we learnt to use the tedious straitjackets of social norms to judge new acquaintances. There are too many embarrassing haircuts, misjudged clinches and jack-knifing life changes in our collective past to let any one of us pass judgement or take the moral high ground. In front of this group I'm not an IT Consultant, or a show off Lotus-owner, or a nerd, or any of the other lazy categories I drop easily into in front of others, I'm just me.


The glorious upside of this deep, warming love was illustrated last weekend in Mallorca. We were drunk; Jo's hen night had brought with it beer, wine, Tia Maria, Baileys, Sambuca and Guinness. We sat in a booth in the Irish bar, the last punters to leave, cackling and hooting, laughing and poking.

As tradition dictates, the equivalent of truth or dare started and deeply personal questions were tossed over the alcoholically lowered barriers of inhibition onto the table for all to answer. A particular measure was asked for, and one by one all those sitting around the table were forced to answer. In private moments I assess myself using the same personal metric and always come up wanting, now I was being asked to reveal it to those closest to me.

Fearful I might suddenly be judged under a newly unflattering light, I nervously threw the number out into the voracious crowd and waited for the disapproval to start... and... and... nothing... just laughter, a couple of raised eyebrows and onto the next question. There is little I could say or do that would ever cause them to judge me more harshly than I judge myself, and there's nothing more to ask of friends than that.

I'm aware that with these friends I'm living through a glorious Golden Age that can't possibly last forever, on dark, long Sunday nights I wonder what pain such closeness might bring in the future as the Universe and Life wield their uncaring weapons on us and our friendships. But fear of future heartache is no reason to hide away from current happiness.

I'm proud to call these people my friends, happy they are the ones I'm marching through life with, I want to be sharing stories, jokes and love with these people for years and years and years to come .

Tuesday 5 August 2003

Tier Bonus

My hard work has paid off and I have achieved the exalted status of Silver Card holder for both Radisson Gold Points and the British Airways Executive Club in the same week. It may not sound like much, but just look at these benefits:

  • Access to all BA lounges worldwide, no matter which class you travel in

  • Gather 15% more points for each hotel stay

  • Enjoy FREE drinks at the bar on weekday evenings

  • 10% discount on food and drink during any of your hotel stay

Wait, that's not all:

  • FREE accommodation - weekend nights in anonymous corporate hotels located in unappealing industrial estates or horrid concrete Midlands towns

  • MissManners® Club - be 15% more violent and obnoxious whilst barging past those unfortunates who are not members of a loyalty scheme

  • MissManners® Club - be up to 25% more supercilious to all staff before they retaliate and spit in your drink when your back is turned

  • MissManners® Club - queue jump an extra four places ahead (valid only in hotel, but please behave as if this applies globally)

  • More mail - GUARANTEED 220% increase in junk mail and spam of all kinds

  • Lowered irritation threshold - moan at the even the most trivial inconvenience. Where previously you may have suffered in silence with the colour of your hotel room carpet, you can now whine at our reception staff

  • Baggage guard - two personalised luggage tags in tasteful silver that positively shriek "I am a wanker" when attached to your bags

  • Game advantage - increased bragging rights during your daily conversational game of Loyalty Scheme TopTrumps with fellow hotel dwellers

I go Gold at the Radisson this week, I can hardly contain my excitement.

Monday 28 July 2003

In the hands of experts

My back weighed twenty tons and was made from solid concrete. Invisible hi-tensile hawsers anchored on each shoulder blade left me contorted like a butterfly pinned in a display case, my head was brought up short by unyielding knots of restraining rope when I tipped forward. Pressure was building in the cramped, tight dorsal muscles and could only manifest itself in tension and headaches. It was time to leave the stresses of the office, take advantage of the Radisson Hotel's spa services and book a massage.

In the sterile white treatment room new-age type music tinkled pathetically from the stereo and lightly scented nightlights sat in carved crystal holders on the shelves and ledges. I lay face down on the treatment table covered from the waist down by a towel and waited for Alice to return to the room and start the massage. I knew I was going to hate her, this detestable aromatherapy drenched, alternative hippy pseudo science crap would annoy me, the appalling music would grind my patience, she would try to tell me about the healing powers of inert crystals and I would be riled. My back twitched in pre-emptive anger.

She slipped quietly back into the room, told me to place my arms by my side, dimmed the lights and started the massage.

I lost track of time after six months and fifteen seconds. Eyes closed, face pressed into towel, all I could feel were hands like steam irons smoothing warm oil into the skin of my back. Soon vision closed down, sounds became muted, I was nothing more than a field of pliant muscle and flesh being kneaded and furrowed by two, twenty, a thousand hands the size of battleships and the consistency of toffee. I tried to think, but there was no room for thoughts, as soon as they popped into existence they were squeezed out under the steady rain of pressing hands. I fell out of the world.

After three seconds and twenty years she finished, placed a warm, damp towel on my back and gently retethered my free-floating mind to the rest of my body. When I stood up for the first time my back had disappeared and in its place sat a cloud, a weightless, bright, clean confection of measureless dimensions that draped around my shoulders. Muscles tensed and relaxed smoothly, internal hydraulics unfettered by the grit of stress.

Crystals or no crystals, I'm going back for more.

Wednesday 23 July 2003

Time flies like an arrow...*

When I was ten it was obvious that my two remaining grandparents weren't real people. A production line in a distant factory created old folk by the bus load (a mould of olds creating a cast of casts) and distributed them around the world to do old people things like drink tea and talk to each other for ever and ever about motorways. There was no connection between their slow, quiet ways and my non-stop zipping and dashing.

My mother showed me the black and white photos of twenty five year old Doreen and Jim that hung in the cool, dark hallway, but I couldn't connect them with the aged versions that gave me pretend pipes to smoke and let me help with the crossword. Nor could I connect them with me, twenty five was too far a stretch for my childhood imagination, it was an impossible lie that grown-ups over sixteen grew from us kids under twelve.

At twenty, one grandparent poorer, I could mentally rewind time's arrow and turn my grandad's friendly, lined face into that of the handsome man in the hallway portrait, could see that he had once been a young man like me. But I couldn't do the opposite and run life's videotape in fast forward to preview my appearance at his age. The breathtaking vitality of my peers, the smooth, glowing skin, bright eyes and oh so much laughter and fun protected us all from the possibility of aging, there was nowhere on the taut canvas of our bodies and faces to write time's marks.

Now the canvas has slackened, I am thirty and all my grandparents are gone. I've grown up enough to understand that age comes to all of us and to see where the future will fit on our faces. The eyes of my friends, still full of fun and laughter, are slightly crinkly at the edges where they were once smooth, the skin is slowly clouding. When I pinch my own hand, the flesh thinks twice before returning to rest. I feel strong and powerful, but my knees creak and I have to take care playing football.

It's unwise to fear something as inevitable and obvious as aging, and, although I'm slightly sad and slightly scared at the changes time has brought, I'm relieved to finally understand that my grandparents were real people too.

* ...but fruit flies like a banana.

Wednesday 16 July 2003

Dringy does Dallas

Spat out from the Peru flight into the sticky heat of Dallas Fort Worth airport at 9am on a Saturday morning, with seven hours to kill before my next flight, I decided to play intrepid traveller and see what attractions downtown Dallas had to offer.

The US's famous car culture is not particularly welcoming to those without wheels and I'd neglected to pack my SUV in my hand luggage. Naoka, the friendly Terminal A voluntary airport ambassador (what's all that about? my kindly Aunt Sylvia used to be a Friend of the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford, but the American transport infrastructure does not strike me as a particularly worthy recipient of volunteers' time) suggested a $40 cab ride to the town centre, or better still a $20 cab ride to the nearest swanky mall. Schooled by Dervala's minimal spending habits over the previous weeks I balked at the expense and struck off to uncover public transport.

Three dollars, one shuttle bus, one half hour wait, one train - a big, shiny, two-storey train to excite the not particularly well-hidden trainspotter in me - and one replacement bus ride I stood, satisfied, in downtown Dallas.


Not alone in the no friends sense, although I was, but alone in the sense that there was no-one else there.

It's difficult to pick up social cues in an alien country, even an alien country with so much that is disconcertingly familiar from its numerous cultural exports, but empty, sweaty block after empty, sweaty block populated only by drunks and thrift stores did not indicate a thriving neighbourhood to me. I walked a mile up, I walked a mile across, and still there was nothing to do.

At first I searched hard for indications of life or commerce so that I could buy the cheap electronic ephemera I craved after Peru, or some cheap jeans, or even a can of Coke. I was excited by the spinning Budweiser sign in the restaurant, but the grubby metal shutters prevented entry. Perhaps just around the corner there was somewhere I could spend my imported dollars on something other than shabby seven buck shoes, instead there were more closed shops and empty sidewalks. After half an hour in the heat I changed the focus of my hunt and flagged down the first cab I saw.

Cyril, the chatty cabby, once over the amusement at the way my English accent contrasted with my apparently Germanic features, had known I was a foreigner as soon as he'd seen me as none of the locals would be walking around those streets in such heat. Dallas gets more interesting in the afternoon he explained, and the West End was the place to go he said as he waved vaguely at an urban area the size of Hampshire. I was relieved to get back to the air-conditioned comfort of Terminal A, and relieved of the $40 I'd tried hard to keep earlier.

Dallas probably does have a vibrant heart, a pulsing cultural scene of arguing coffee-house writers and edgy, raw underground clubs, it's probably even got electronic discount stores. I managed to miss the lot.

You see, the thing is, I've been busy, and they're working me hard, and I'd like to be writing more, but, well.... what she said.

Friday 27 June 2003

Inca Trail photos online

After a few quiet nights in the hotel, I've finally got around to putting up my Inca Trail photos - here.

Sunday 15 June 2003

Day 3 of the Inca Trail

Sunrise over the Andes

A series of muffled raps and shakes of the tent poles was followed by the sound of the zip opening, then grubby hands thrust two cups of coca tea and a quiet buenos diaz through the open door. Outside it was still cold and 4am dark but the electric-blue washes of dawn were starting to push above the distant mountains.

Extremely early mornings induce a state of quivering, adrenal, apprehension in me which fuelled me through the mechanical camping routines of stuffing body into clothes and spare clothes and sleeping material into bags. Dervala needed little encouragement to do likewise and soon we were stretching and yawning in the cool, damp air of a high mountain dawn.

At a sleepy dinner the night before, Raul, our guide, had persuaded us that an early, early start would see us free of the hordes of other trekking groups. He was right, around us lay the grey toadstools of myriad tents, each full of quiet snuffling or snoring noises. Our porters were breaking camp with stage whispers and good humour.

We climbed away from the dormant campsite, into the moutain gloaming. Head-torches were needed at first, but the sun was racing up behind the deep notches of the far, dark ridge faster than we were and soon we could see well enough in the half-light. Still all was quiet. After half an hour we reached Runkuracay, one time Inca observatory and now our private viewing platform. We were halfway up a deep corrie cum valley, above us the higher peaks were being painted with amber, their splintered crags sticking above our shadowy deeps.

Five minutes' walk further up we gazed in silent wonder as light poured downwards on the hills, claiming boulders, cliffs, whole folds of land. Distant peaks changed from dark, terrifying monsters to honey drenched rock spires as orange light resolved their features. Still we were in shadow.

From below wafted the sounds of a flute, traditional mountain music played by a porter as he patiently climbed the ancient stone steps of the trail. And as his music reached us, so did the sunlight, the cold, dark dam of the far sawtooth ridge was breached by the inevitable sunrise and warmth and light silently splashed across us.

Far beneath us, the campsite slumbered on in the darkness.

Sunday 8 June 2003

The Rendezvous

The late cancellation of my flight to Cusco and subsequent combination with a later departure meant my window seat on a half-empty plane became an aisle seat on a full plane. Instead of Andean panoramas and glorious cloudscapes I had to content myself with silent comedy films and the annoying bletherings of a middle-aged American woman assailing her travelling companion with stories of healing the scarred Andes with Amazonian river water and quite how wonderful the jungle tribes were.

The fortuanate side-effect of such arrant nonsense was that irritation overwhelmed apprehension until I stepped from the plane into Cusco's bright daylight and prepared myself to head for the town centre to meet Dervala. Suddenly, and rather belatedly, nerves and questions popped up in my mind like some mental Whack-a-Mole. What in heaven's name was I doing in the middle of Peru? What was she going to be like? Would we get on? For two weeks? Three hours and thirty e-mails is surely no basis for a fortnight's holiday. Would I harsh her travelling buzz, on unwanted piece of extra baggage for a year long solo traveller?

I was so busy tardily questioning the wisdom of my trans-continental venture as I strode to the baggage hall that I had to perform a full Vaudeville double-take before I worked out that the attractive woman with the black trousers, white shawl and white hat was waving at me from behind the glass above the walkway, and on balance of probabilities that meant it was Dervala. I waved tentatively back, quietly thankful that I was indeed able to recognise her, and bolted for the unobserved safety of the baggage carousel.

I waited impatiently, buoyed by the impressive feat of weaving thousand mile, year-long paths around the globe and have them intersect at such an alien location. Eventually my bag spilled onto the carousel and I walked from the shady building into the glare of the car-park where Dervala stood, mirroring my excited smile, for a re-introduction of nervous, stiff-upper-lip hellos (from me) and a long, firm hug (from her).

Whew, made it.

Saturday 7 June 2003

A personal hang-up

Like Marstonճ 6X and Sardinian Canonau, I donմ travel well.

Well obviously I travel well, I can pick my tickets up from my secretary, get on a plane and check-in to a Holiday Inn like I was born to it, but when it comes to sticking a pack on my back and stepping out into a foreign country with nothing more than a sheaf of funny looking money in my wallet and a book of somebody elseճ thoughts on the place I get a dry mouth and itchy palms.

Iխ sure Freud would have a field day attempting to identify the deep-seated reasons for all of this, but the fact is when my destiny is placed in my own hands and I have to do something all on my own, such as finding accommodation in a strange town in a foreign language, I get even clammier hands than normal.

Personal history is not on my side; at 18 I failed to complete two months of inter-railing across Europe (my peers' plan was some kind of drunken Nirvana soundtracked tour of various cheap campsites), opting instead to spend a month lying on a beach in the South of France. At 20 I cut short my geological field trip to Zimbabwe by two weeks and missed out on Victoria Falls and the beautiful Chimanimani national park to go home. At 23 I gave up on a round the world sailing voyage having got as far as Portugal. Now when I travel I have to contend with the weight of memory-derived knowledge that I don't travel well as well as any local difficulties.

Now Iխ alone (I'm meeting Dervala tomorrow), in Lima, in deepest darkest Peru. Oops.

Friday 6 June 2003

Into the unknown

Bored with life's predictable eddies and swirls at Christmas I decided to do something unpredictable and different this year, to step a bit further out of my normal circles and see what the world had to offer. I toyed for a while with the idea of voluntary work sabbaticals or large career switches but couldn't summon up the courage needed for such life-wrenching changes. I needed something challenging but not too disruptive, a source of anecdotes and experience, turning everything upside-down is next year's project.

In February an e-mail invitation dropped into my inbox. It was from Dervala, whom I had met for one evening last July, and had been in occasional e-mail contact with as she travelled the world. I had been following her excellent website (which now forms part of my daily work-avoidance half-hour before I reluctantly convert my computer from internet-browsing device to word processor) and knew she was heading to South America. Did I want to join her for a bit of Andean trekking?

The perfect opportunity. I knew the answer right away, but deliberated for a couple of months as I attempted to generate the impetus to get over the "Travel? In a strange country? For two weeks? With someone I've only met once?" kneejerk reaction. Then I booked my plane ticket to Lima and told her I was coming over.

So tomorrow morning I report to Heathrow for 18 hours of flying and a step into the unknown. I'm about to travel halfway around the world to hook up with someone I've only met once for three hours and exchanged a grand total of thirty e-mails with. My paranoid side tells me that I could be her money-mule, she's gone bankrupt and she'll mug me at Lima airport to run away cackling with a fistful of US Dollars as my pathetic figure lies prone on the unyielding Peruvian formica. Or maybe this is all an elaborate hoax - she's moved our rendezvous point twice in the last month, from Lima to Cusco and now she's suggesting Puno - I'll spend two weeks criss-crossing Peru looking for a non-existent Irish lass while my increasingly desperate movements are filmed from space for the delight of the Fox Network subscribers (I'll admit it's unlikely).

Oh well, here goes nothing.

Wednesday 4 June 2003

The Whimsy Generator

I keep a small machine in the bottom drawer of the chest in my bedroom. It's portable and lightweight, but can only be deployed when conditions are perfect. It runs on numerous different ingredients including Sundays, bad journalism and breakfast tables. It can be part-fuelled by fatigue, the metabolic remnants of Saturday night excesses or it can run solely on like-mindedness and banter. It acts as a lens through which different interpretations of life's underlying truths can be seen. I present to you my Whimsy Generator.

A previous use of the machine during a long train ride from Brussels revealed the cow that lives in Phil and Gareth's Putney flat. Its bovine duties were initially restricted to milk production, but after proving trustworthy, its role has been extended to light domestic cleaning and a part-time minicab service named "Tom Harris Cow Taxis" specialising in picking up drunks from Southfields station.

A long time ago the Whimsy Generator proved conclusively that I was the sixth member of Take That. I would wait, warmed-up, in the wings at their concerts lest Robbie twist an ankle or Howard be overcome by a spell of extreme dizziness. Alas, my opportunity for fame as a travelling minstrel never arose.

On the most recent occasion conditions were appropriate to fire up the generator - a long, long Ridgeway walk this past weekend - it showed that Boo is a lesbian Vampyr, energised by Satanic rituals and unable to cross either moving water or the thresholds of holy buildings. Also, the quintessential English country village of Bledlow is populated entirely by bears, from a rather cute ursine barmaid to the grizzlies that live in the large house next to the church.

Quite a nifty little contraption all-in-all, a shame the uses are relatively infrequent.

Friday 16 May 2003

From the Glasgow Hilton

The best word to describe the Glasgow Hilton is unappealing. It is a tall, narrow building, a twenty-storey architect's photocopy of myriad other undistinguished hotels and office blocks around the world. On one side lies a red-light district, on the other lies a flaking concrete morass of motorway, bridge and slip road that writhes around the incongruously well kept front lawn. The pedestrian's approach from the city centre is through an unlit tunnel coated in pigeon crap and up the slip ramp dodging taxis.

From my room on the fourteenth floor all the architectural and locational tediousness is easily forgiven. I can see far beyond the fringes of the city, where the low hills that fringe the entire horizon stand grey and quiet. I am part of the sky that fades from a clear blue above to a dark blue and sunset oranges elsewhere, scabbed in places with small cloud scuds. In the further reaches of the city, the shiny metal dome of the exhibition centre glints in the remaining sun, and the glass front of an office block holds a funfair mirror up to distort the surrounding houses.

The thick double-glazing drains the road roar of volume so that the traffic forty metres below moves with a pleasant synchronicity. As night falls each car pours a shimmering pool of orange light in front, drags a glowing carpet of red behind it and dances a complex moonwalk through cones, lorries and exit lanes.

All this, and the room service breakfast is quite good too.

Wednesday 14 May 2003

Content-free content

I haven't felt much like posting recently, as the month gap between this post and the last demonstrates. I can't put my finger on why there's been a hiatus, I could say it was because I've been too busy, but that's always an unconvincing stand-in excuse for a deeper change in priorities. This entry is just to prove to myself that posting is no big effort and prove to you that my writing hands haven't atrophied.

More soon. Probably.

Wednesday 9 April 2003

A lot of good work for charity

For no particular reason I'm doing a 10K fun run around Hyde Park on May 18th. Although I'm not motivated through a desire to be particularly philanthropic, the event is raising funds for a charity called Help a London Child who (according to an e-mail they've just sent me):

  • distribute grants of up to 000 to community and voluntary groups all across London

  • fund projects that will help disadvantaged children and young people (18 and under) including: young carers, after-school clubs, disabled, terminally sick children and many more

Appallingly, I am indifferent to Help a London Child's efforts, but if you're feeling eleemosynary you can sponsor me online using nothing more than your credit card and typing fingers. Better still, why not use this as a spur to give some money to an unrelated charity entirely of your choosing.

Thursday 3 April 2003

A musical world

I wear my MiniDisc player like a coat for walking around town. When the tightly sealed headphones are slotted firmly home in my ears and Deep Dish are coursing through the electronic veins of the glittering little gadget I can ward off the city's roar and watch other's dance to the tune in my head.

It's easy to drown in the enormity of the music, and impossible to believe that the sounds wedged into my head are not filling the rest of the world. Soul of Man's enormous breakdowns must be syncopating the High Street's activities, Orbital's soaring riffs have to be forcing the sun to shine such a beautiful light, Digweed's soothing tracks are hushing and calming the train carriage. So I start to move in time too, occasional hand sweeps to introduce new bars, head nods to keep the rhythm, and huge, ear-splitting, pumped up, smiles as the bassline comes back fast and hard from the vertiginous breakdown.

I looked a bit of a pillock walking through Ipswich town centre the other night.

Tuesday 4 March 2003

Instructions for a walking weekend

Friday Night

  • 20:00 - Congregate at Linhope. Beforehand you must either have lugged inappropriately large bags of walking kit around your various business commitments all day, or travelled at least 100 miles to get there.

  • 20:15 - Pile into the car, ladies first and in the back, men in the front (it's 'cos the women have shorter legs, or something). Barry gets to pick the music, it's his car; there will always be Bob Dylan, other allowed artistes are The Streets, 2 Many DJs, Lou Reed and any Gangsta Rap (Barry likes to keep it real). On no account will Take That or Abba be allowed.

  • 20:15 - 22:00 - Crank music up very loud and drive very fast on a succession of nearly empty motorways. Have at least one major swearing session at bad drivers. If you are sitting in the back you must fall asleep before leaving the M25.

  • 22:00 - Swap drivers on a cold roundabout.

  • 22:00 - 00:30 - Drive just as fast down some smaller roads, overcook at least one bend.

  • 00:30 - Arrive at dark campsite. Ignore "No pitching after 9pm" sign and noisily pitch tent in the muddiest part of the field. Drink whisky and talk in stage whispers.


  • 08:00 - Get up and shower.

  • 08:20 - Wait for Carla to have a shower.

  • 08:30 - Pack bag, look at map.

  • 08:40 - Wait for Carla to finish in the shower.

  • 08:50 - Fiddle with kit, swear at broken gaiters.

  • 08:55 - Send Gus in to find Carla.

  • 09:00 - Head for hills.

  • 09:00 - 4:00 - Walk up at least one large hill. Simon will start fast but not last, Gus will spring into action about two thirds of the way up. Variously comment on good/bad weather, appalling lack/amazing surfeit of views, own incredible/atrocious fitness level. At 700m high enter the "Offensive Zone", like the Death Zone afeared by many climbers, but with more swearing. Make several lewd and offensive comments in earshot of troupe of cub scouts or young family.

  • 16:30 - Finish walk and shower (Gus may omit this step).

  • 18:30 - Go to excellent local pub, unless you're in North Wales, in which case, go to terrible and unfriendly local pub.

  • 18:30 - 23:00 - Drink seven pints of local session beer. Eat large plate of welcome stodgy food. Read gory elements of local Mountain Rescue report aloud in braying posh, London voice.

  • 21:00 - Fall asleep on table.

  • 23:00 - Walk back to campsite and collapse unconscious in bed.


  • 02:00 - Wake up desparate for a piss, and realise with horror that you will have to leave your warm sleeping bag in your semi-naked state to stand by a hedgerow in the night drizzle for an incredibly long time.

  • 06:00 - Wake up very cold.

  • 06:30 - Realise that putting the sleeping bag hood on will warm you up.

  • 07:00 - Put sleeping bag hood up.

  • 08:00 - 16:30 - As Saturday. Walk may be omitted in the case of bad weather or extreme hangover (or general laziness).

  • 17:00 - 20:00 - Drive back to London very fast along a succession of nearly full motorways. Listen to the Charts, swearing at the bland nature of modern pop music.

  • 20:00 - Drape sodden camping gear around house to annoy urban flatmate.

General Notes
  • Destination may vary, behaviour may not.

  • General conversational gambits include The Simpsons, Reading FC's recent form (tenacity, spirit, flair), the appalling laziness of the Linhope landlord, certain flatmate's Barleyesque tendencies, loud and socially unacceptable jokes.

  • On no account may the swearing be omitted.

See here for the latest implementation of these instructions.

Tuesday 18 February 2003

Escaping the hassles

My work to do list sprawls across an increasing number of pages in my notebook, I'm prevented from consigning entries to the forgotten wastebin of completion by being called into meeting after meeting. The instant I return to my desk I am assailed by yet another person or more documents left for review, and all the while e-mails sleet soundlessly into my Inbox.

As it is with work, so it is with my personal life, long term single status having drilled me into never turning down an invitation my diary is filled with all manner of engagements. The variety is fun and fabulous, although the sheer logistics I must master to drag myself and associated belongings across the country for walking in Snowdonia, a dinner party in Leicester, a housewarming in Brighton with a flat and car in Ipswich and a home in London has probably now qualified me for a senior post in the army.

And so my hours are filled with rushing and hurrying, ticking off objectives and tasks; type up the minutes, talk to the support team, phone Penny, book tickets for the football, catch up with Rob, get to Scotland for snowboarding, wash my shirts. Infrequent empty hours alone are used to achieve yet more goals, create a new mix tape, finish a videogame or just work through my backlog of books and magazines.

Fortunately, it's possible to escape the hectic dash. Occasionally my diary gifts me hours that have fallen through the cracks, particularly during travel, when a sentence of time abuts the full stop of arrival and I have ceded control to drivers or pilots and the entire transport infrastructure.

Air travel is the best for this - I don't just leave my luggage behind when I check in, I handover all obligations other to find my way to the appropriate gate. The comforting, anodyne anonymity of the departure lounge is a stress-free haven through the simple addition of MiniDisc player and a good book, delays to journeys merely increase the length of time to be spent in relaxing limbo.

The additional frisson of being paid for doing next to nothing makes workday travel an extra delicious use of time.

Monday 27 January 2003

Expanding the narcissism horizons

Of course I'm gurning, do you think I always look this way?

Amongst the excellent birthday presents deemed suitable for a thirty year old manchild by my friends - a helicopter ride, a pogo stick, remote controlled cars - my sister bought me a tiny, tiny digital camera.

Now to look for more instances of natural beauty.

Thursday 23 January 2003

Lie back in a cradle of love

Like the Queen, I celebrated my birthday twice. On the chronologically accurate date I had to go out for dinner with ten of my work colleagues. Ten days later I threw a big party for everyone I knew (and their friends too).

I'd forgotten how nervewracking hosting a party is. The first hurdle to cross (not counting arranging venues and timings) is writing the invite. The task of crafting an amusing, informative and succinct e-mail and ensuring the To: list won't cause offence now induces shallow, panicked breathing and trembling fingers far more than my infrequent public presentation gigs. The memory of previous mistakes such as concentrating so much on a good gag that I've got the directions wrong or omitted the date increases the pressure that is relieved only by that final click of the Send... button.

Within fifteen minutes of sending the invite, I'd had six replies all telling me they couldn't come, geographic excuses ranging from Birmingham to Edinburgh to Paris to San Francisco to Thailand to Sydney. A flurry of rejection that was swiftly followed by weeks of disquieting silence from the majority, all preferring to leave themselves in Schrodinger's cat-like limbo and making me the anxious experimental physicist.

The appointed hour rolled round to find me sitting at a large wooden table, in a large wooden pub, in central London. It was all but empty.

Opposite sat my sister, next to me sat Ruffles, across from me sat Pieman. The barmen talked and laughed behind the bar while I nervously fiddled with the remote controlled cars my sister had given me and tried to get conversation moving. An hour later, and the group had tripled in size, conversation was even more obviously stilted as representatives of differing social groups rapidly ran past the opening gambit of "how do you know Simon?" and got stuck in a mire of sober small talk. I was still nervous at the venue's emptiness as the minutes dripped from the clock.

Then it kicked off.

People streamed through the door and poured into the bars smiling and laughing, suddenly there was a queue for drinks, walking across the room required circuitous routes around happy throngs and Ruffles' smooth grooves on the sound system seemed quiet under the roar of talk. I moved into social butterfly mode, a huge grin immovable from my face as I circulated and mingled, grabbing time with the next person I saw. Every time I turned round I bumped into someone else I wanted to speak to all night long, but could only manage five minutes until a tug on my shirt announced the arrival of yet more guests. I couldn't stay still, wouldn't be pinned down, didn't drink but was constantly drunk with pleasure.

By the end of the evening I was exhausted and hoarse, talked and hugged out, but brimming with love. And fulfilment too, my life is not being wasted; I may not have a clue about where I'm headed but I have a fabulous set of friends and I love them all.

This may be a soppy "It's a Wonderful Life" type sentiment, but it's true.

Thursday 16 January 2003

In which the author learns about winter walking

Gus and I packed the boot with winter walking gear; fleeces, coats, down jackets and sleeping bags, bivvy bags, ice axes. When we had no more bags to cram into the car we filled the remaining space with music and set off. A million snare drum snaps and guitar chords from The Streets, The Pixies, The Chemical Brothers and a tiny bit of Bob Dylan fuelled us through the sodium draped Midlands murk into the cold, dark clarity of North Wales.

Saturday dawned frost-covered, the sky empty and sharp. Snow-dusted mountains thirty miles away were etched into the cool blue backdrop like photographic negatives, tiny but ornately detailed through the icy air.

The car spooled the hills closer and closer until we parked at the base of Tryfan and started walking up Carnedd Dafydd. We soon ascended from the sub-zero shadow of Y Garn into the sunshine that cleanly coloured the steep mountain side. Even with our weighty packs we passed dawdling and unfit groups struggling up the scree and shale path, and were in turn passed by the park warden, metronomically stamping out time to a steady but unheard rhythm.

The ground proudly displayed its lowest snow at 400m, and the covering steadily thickened until the summit plateau where it lay inches deep and a thousand needles of hoar frost pointed from each stone. The climb revealed more of the world around us, from the craggy North Ridge of Tryfan, to the sheltered Cwm beneath the Glyderau, until eventually we could see the whole of Snowdonia, the Irish sea, England, the Lake District.

We strode the ridges as afternoon dwindled into evening and the day walkers left us to the empty amphitheatre of our secluded bivvy spot. The temperature dropped to minus 6 deg C just an hour after the sun left the moon alone in the sky and we could only keep out the chill by supping tea and soup and gazing at the dark mountains around us and distant amber lights of Bethesda. By eight o'clock I sought my sleeping bag to add warmth to the five fleeces, two trousers, hat and multiple socks and woke up sweating twelve hours later to a cloudy Sunday.

Strapping crampons to our boots we set off in the strong winds up the North ridge of Yr Elen. The twelve razor sharp points of steel underfoot creaked into powdering snow, splintered the shards of hoar frost and skittered nervously on rock, but turned previously slippery footholes into secure steps. With chilling hands we pulled through pinnacles of rock and over small crags, the ridge and sides of the hill dropped from the edges of the ground beneath our feet. We gingerly picked through flakes of rock and scree consolidated by frost, digging the ice axe shaft into anything trustworthy. We summitted alone, day trippers unable to compete with our advanced starting position, and jubilantly shook hands at our first serious winter ascent.

We walked off battered by winds and low clouds and droned back to London.

Friday 10 January 2003

So, this is how it feels to be thirty

I always thought the age thirty was a place other people went to, not me.

From a youth filled perspective, thirty looked like a glamorous place. I imagined that come thirty I'd be a confident professional of indeterminate occupation, immeasurably successful, simultaneously engaging in deeply earnest adult conversations with my interestingly grown-up friends and tousling the hair of an awestruck young nephew. My foibles would have long been ironed out by a gentle maturation, I would be able to achieve anything.

And by and large I suppose I've achieved my imaginings, I am a successful professional, I can hold earnest conversations with friends who are now all over 25, the only thing I lack is the awestruck young nephew. But thirty as a glamorous destination has been ruined by the presence of all the extra life baggage that unexpectedly came with me; I like Pickled Onion Monster Munch, I play videogames, I laugh at toilet humour, I show no sign of starting a family.

In The Art of Travel, de Botton writes of how daydreams of upcoming holidays never match the reality as the dreams always fail to account for your actual presence. The experience of lying on the sun-kissed beach beneath warm blue skies is spoilt by hunger or a nagging concern about the most recent haircut. The same seems to apply to being thirty. Despite the gap between my birth date and today's date implying that I'm more grown up than I've ever been, I still have difficulty matching shirts and ties, I don't like Brussel sprouts, I can't kick a football very hard.

That said, I don't seem to be having a particularly major crisis about it, partly because I've spent the last six months mentally ticking the next box on demographic forms so this January 9th wouldn't come as a wrench and partly because I've seen many friends step through thirty and beyond and remain happily themselves. I've looked both right and left and right again and I'm ready to step off the kerb, although there's a big chance I've missed something in my hurried glances and could yet get hit by a truck marked "Life Crisis".

Others have written more eloquently than I about this milestone.

Friday 3 January 2003

Poor little rich boy

Don't get attached to anything you can't walk out on in 30 seconds if you feel the heat around the corner.

Neil McCauley (Robert de Niro), Heat

The Sunday Times Magazine once published a feature (which I can't find online) on those who suddenly acquire wealth through lottery wins, unexpected inheritances etc., to determine if those tabloid stories of "Lottery Win Ruined My Life" had basis in fact. The conclusion was that too much money could spoil things and that five million pounds was the right amount to win, enough to ensure you could lead a comfortable life, but not so much that you could acquire stressful belongings. The downside of wealth was high maintenance possessions - the beach house in Malibu and collection of Ferrari's - that required time and effort to look after.

I'm a long way shy of five million quid, but my small, unkempt bedroom is heavy with belongings; CDs stack from floor to light switch, MiniDiscs engulf the toiletries, bag straps spill from the top of the wardrobe, shoe laces trail from the bottom. And books, my God the books, few are on display in the room's confines, but their heft weighs down the boxes that fill the corner, presses from the choked attic crawlspace and distantly tugs from the cases in my parents' home.

With no house or partner to maintain, I translate my pay into an ever-growing pile of things - a slowly expanding camping kit drawer, shelves of music and books, a creaking wardrobe, mountains of electronics. And while I love my slinky MiniDisc player and lightweight titanium camping cookware, each possession drags heavily and brings a weight of maintenance responsibility; the cordless phone has stopped connecting to the phone line, the car tyres are nearly bald, the MiniDisc player loses charge within fifteen minutes.

I daydream of Iain M Banks' Culture, a utopian world where automated production has so outstripped demand that every person can have anything they want, leaving them free to own nothing and be responsible only for themselves and their actions. One of my major joys now is to drive towards that ideal by jettisoning those items I no longer want, I grasp a large bag and a solid resolve and sternly yank out the unworn clothes from the wardrobe and the books I'll never read again to make the trip to the charity shop. The completion of each cathartic episode leaves me lighter, cleaner, stronger.

Peer pressure pushes me in the opposite, acquisitive direction; buy a house, fill it with a settee, a cooker, duvets, toilet roll holders, coat hooks, limited edition prints, throws, rugs, pasta jars, DVDs, but the sheer gravity of such a black-hole of objects would drag me over the event horizon into an adult world I'm quietly trying to reject.

Perhaps I should fill a rucksack and walk off into the sunset, leaving behind a disordered pile of unneeded things. First I'd need to buy a new rucksack...