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 .