A tale of two cities (part three)

The first part of this story can be read here
The second part of this story can be read here

One of the downsides of solo travelling is that it invariably requires a person to spend a considerable amount of time in their own company.  While that wasn’t entirely different to my everyday experience as a single occupant at home, it was really noticeable when I was sitting by myself in a place like Ellátó Kert, which was another ruin pub in the Jewish Quarter.  All around me there were groups of people gathered around long tables, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes, talking away in all sorts of different languages. Even when such a scenario presented itself in a place like Edinburgh, London, Dublin or New York City, I was able to listen in on the conversations and in a strange way feel like I was a part of them.  The others around me would never know it, but in my mind, I was making all sorts of interesting and amusing contributions to their anecdotes.  But when all I could hear coming from the bar’s DJ was an instrumental version of the John Lennon song Imagine being played on what I was sure were the panpipes, everything suddenly felt very silent and melancholy.

In an effort to spend less time by myself and to become a genuine member of a group, I took part in four free walking tours around Budapest, which was three more than I had originally intended.  Although the tours were advertised as being free, they were presented by freelance guides who don’t receive payment from any employer, and therefore participants were encouraged to contribute whatever they felt the walk was worth.  This was understood before the group set off, although it always left me eyeing the others in my walking group with suspicion as I tried to work out what a reasonable sum would be to put into the guide’s wallet at the end of the tour.

Budapest’s Great Synagogue

The walking tours were a good way of seeing parts of the city I hadn’t planned on visiting and small hidden gems I would have absent-mindedly strolled past if I didn’t have a local guide pointing them out, such as the tiny figurine of Theodor Herzl which could be seen on a gate outside the Great Synagogue on Dohany Street.  Herzl was considered the father of modern political Zionism and promoted the effort to form a Jewish state, and his birthplace was next to the site of the colourful synagogue.  Some other aspects of Budapest that I might not have picked up on without taking part in the walking tours were the tree outside the hotel where fans of Michael Jackson eagerly gathered during his trips to the Hungarian capital in 1994 to film the promotional video for HIStory and again in 1996 when he performed for the only time and which since became memorialised with his images following his death, as well as the enormous piece of street art which celebrates the fact that a Hungarian was the creator of the Rubix Cube.

On the Communism tour, which was led without a hint of irony by a woman named Barbie, we were told the story of the only remaining monument in the city to the Soviet liberation of Hungary from Nazi German occupation and how it was built in Liberty Square, which houses the United States Embassy on its western side.  In response to the landmark, the US erected a statue of President Ronald Reagan on the opposite side of the square which marked his role in bringing down the Iron Curtain.

The House of Terror

There were some sights which I tried to enjoy in my own time, such as the House of Terror and the Hospital in the Rock, where the English guided tour group I was on momentarily halted to allow another group to pass from the opposite direction in the narrow underground cave and their guide said to mine, “thank you for your patience.”  I wanted to believe that the pun was intended, but it seemed too good to be true.  After all, how could a man who has English as his second language come up with a joke that even I would probably think twice about trying?

The temperatures in Budapest weren’t quite leaving me in need of hospital treatment, but as a typically pale west of Scotland male who had packed nothing but jeans and long-sleeved check shirts, I was struggling with the days which came with uninterrupted sunshine.  My most difficult experience came after my encounter with the man who had spent the summer working in a kitchen in Basingstoke.  It was only when I woke up that morning that I appreciated how terrible an idea it was to have downed two measures of apple flavoured Jim Beam whiskey as shots, something I ordinarily would never do with whiskey.  Everything was happening in achingly slow motion, like watching a YouTube video on a poor internet connection.  Even getting out of bed was a dramatic theatre production in the style of a tragedy.  

At Szent Istvan Bazilika, Budapest’s largest church, I found myself in awe of the majesty of the building, which is named in honour of Stephen, the first King of Hungary.  Even though I hadn’t set foot inside a Catholic church since my mother’s funeral in 2014, I felt a compulsion to dip my fingers into the holy water on the way in.  I couldn’t be sure if I did it because many of the people in front of me had done it and it seemed like the right thing to do, if it was some desperate attempt to cool my beating forehead or if it was out of the hope that it might bring me some luck.  In any event, the holy water was lukewarm and I only felt self-conscious about whether I had blessed myself correctly.  It has been said that once you learn how to ride a bicycle you never forget, but there is a reason no-one has ever said the same about which shoulder is touched first when a lapsed Catholic blesses himself.

Szent István Bazilika

Amongst the rich fine arts, the bright mosaics and prominent statues, the basilica also houses the “incorruptible” right hand of Saint Stephen in the reliquary.  The relic was stolen by a cleric and later discovered in a county of what is today Romania in 1044.  For several centuries it was transferred around different parts of the Ottoman Empire before eventually being returned to Hungary in 1771 and, finally, displayed in Szent Istvan Bazilika since 1950.  Crowds of people were gathered around the holy right hand, which was held inside a treasure chest within a large glass case and didn’t really look much like a hand at all.  A metre or so away from the religious artefact was a slot machine which carried an invitation to insert 200HUF (approximately 60p), which would in turn light up the display for two minutes.  

There was an inescapable feeling that tourists were just waiting around for someone else to put a couple of coins into the slot so that they could see the hand lit up, the way that everyone wants to feed someone’s pet dog a scrap of food, but they don’t know that it’s acceptable and so they wait until they see someone else doing it first.  I must have been standing in front of the hand for a good ten minutes before a tour group eventually arrived and the woman leading them advised everyone to have their cameras ready as she positioned herself by the coin slot.  They all huddled around the holy relic like it was an exhibit at the zoo, and I was right behind them, just as eager to see it.  The coins fell into the slot and the case was brightly lit like a Christmas carousel, and the only disappointment was that it didn’t rotate or play a musical hymn.  It was another example of the Catholic church making money hand over fist.

I had set the remainder of the day aside for walking up the long and leafy Andrássy Avenue, where the iconic statue complex Hősök tere – Heroes Square – sits at its top, and then onto the City Park beyond.  The square is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has three main columns, the centrepiece being the Millennium Monument, which was constructed in 1896 to mark the thousandth anniversary of the formation of the Hungarian state.  I hobbled onto the vast space in the manner of a wounded soldier, although my woes were entirely self-inflicted.  I was grossly hungover, tired and sweaty from the heat, and all the while feeling very sorry for myself.  Around me, I could see other pedestrians, groups of two or three, who were shading themselves from the heat under umbrellas, and I couldn’t even summon the energy to feel fear of the threatening spokes.  In Heroes Square I was little more than a vanquished villain.

Hősök ter

If Hungarian beer wasn’t able to cure me of my ills and holy water wasn’t going to bring me any fortune, then the local food would usually do a pretty good job of making me feel better.  While a traditional goulash soup or a paprikas dish was what I enjoyed most of all, nothing would sort a hangover or line the stomach for a night of drinking better than a lángos did.  The idea behind a lángos seemed so simple and yet so wild at the same time, like mixing apple with whiskey.  It was dough deep-fried in oil, which was then smothered with a coating of sour cream and finally topped with grated cheese which would never melt due to its cool shield below.  I had rarely encountered genius in my life, but the concept of this treat came as close as anything.  As I was enjoying my greasy saviour at the large street food site Karavan on Kazinczy Street, a North American couple was standing at the opposite end of the table from me.  While I was devouring my lángos, they shared one between the two of them, taking one small bite each at a time, like a modern-day Lady and the Tramp.  For the first time in a long time, I was feeling thankful to be single.

Although I had spent the majority of my trip alone, I had still managed to suffer an athletic bed-time injury during my time away.  It happened at the end of my second full day in Budapest, when I was feeling exhausted from the heat and worn out from another day of constant walking.  My hangover from the previous night was enough to stop me from drinking more than one beer, and I had decided that I would get an early night so that I could enjoy my final full day.  I undressed and collapsed onto one of the twin single beds with so much force and exasperation that I immediately bounced off the other side, hitting my right shoulder on the bedside table in the process.  I was lying in the small space between the bed and the wall, no different to the pile of clothes I had left strewn at the other side.  I must have been there for ten seconds questioning why I hadn’t elected to sleep in the bed that was pushed in safely against the wall, though I supposed that it had been so long since I had something to cuddle in next to in bed that I couldn’t be sure how it worked.

When I saw the large mark on my shoulder the next morning it reminded me of the kitchen worker who had spent the summer working in Basingstoke.  My aches were beginning to mount up.  Already my calf was strained and it was hurting every time I walked.  Rather than stride up and down escalators like I normally would, as though I was on an urgent mission, I would stand still and wait to be carried to my destination.  The Metro stations in Budapest were so far underground that the escalators were the longest I had seen anywhere; from bottom to top they were the length of two Slash guitar solos in the Guns N’ Roses song Don’t Cry.  It was always around a quarter of the way up that the sweet smell of freshly baked goods from the Princess stall on the station concourse would waft its way down.  Every Metro seemed to have one, and they all had the same pleasing aroma, a combination of pastry, cinnamon, almond, chocolate, apple, caramel and coffee, all enticing weary travellers to the ground.

Great Market Hall

Even that couldn’t compare to the sight which unfolded in Great Market Hall, which is the largest and oldest indoor market in the city.   Once you walked in through the grand neogothic entrance your eyes were greeted with every colour imaginable, and there was food as far as you could see.  Traders come here every day to sell their fresh produce to locals and tourists, who would also shop for souvenirs on the upper two floors.  There was a cacophony of chattering voices, fragrances and foods on offer.  Salami, strudel, chicken, pork, venison, paprika, pickles, bananas, broccoli, coffee, vodka, wine, cheese, chocolate, bread, fish, fresh lemonade, candles, bath soaps.  You could spend the whole day walking around the vast hall, taking it all in.

The more I was walking around Budapest and learning about the place, even with strained muscles, a bruised shoulder and sweat on my brow, the more I found myself falling for its old-world charms.  The entire country has such a desperate history, having at various points in its past been occupied by the Ottomans, the Austrians, the far-right terror of the Nazis and the far-left dictatorship of the Communist Soviets.  They spoke with great pride that, after it all, Hungary had gained entry to the European Union in 2004.  I visited the country in the week where the British government had shut down its Parliament in an effort to leave the European Union without democratic debate and without a deal of any description.  

On all four of the walking tours I took it was said how Hungary had lost every major conflict the nation had been a part of.  It wasn’t clear to me whether they were unlucky or hopeless, or perhaps a combination of both, but whatever it was, I was relating it to my own long history of defeats in the field of pursuing romantic relations with women.  I felt a certain kindred spirit with the nation, even if my own independence was somewhat less desired than theirs.

My final night brought with it one last awkward experience with language when I returned to the bar around the corner from my hotel, where I had previously found the cheapest beer in Budapest and the dusty barman who kept a clean floor.  On this occasion, the elderly gentleman had been replaced by a woman who was a little younger and whose features were not quite as set in stone.  She smiled the way everyone did when I attempted to greet them in Hungarian.  Yo a Stevie.  And I quickly appreciated that as with most people I encountered who were of a certain age, the barmaid didn’t speak any English.  I ordered my Borsodi and handed her a blue 1000HUF note in exchange for the cold beer.  She returned with a pinkish-red 500HUF note, similar to the colour of my forehead after days spent strolling in the September sun, which I subsequently placed on the surface of the bar to indicate that I was leaving it as a tip, partly as a form of compensation for the guilt I was feeling over my broken pronunciation and the fact that I was speaking almost entirely in English, as well as being part of my endeavour to get rid of all of my Hungarian Forints before leaving the country the next day.

The barmaid seemed taken aback that I was attempting to leave gratuity which was equal to the cost of the beer I had bought, though at a total of roughly £3.03 the drink and the tip was still cheaper than a pint of Tennent’s was at home.  She picked it up from the bar and tried to hand it back to me, clearly believing that as well as being unable to understand Hungarian, I also didn’t know what I was doing with the currency.  I shook my head and pointed at her, the universal language meaning “for you.”  She smiled shyly, and as a display of her appreciation, a few minutes later she shoved in front of me a small piece of green plastic which held the details of the pub’s wifi connection and password.  The writing was difficult to read and I continued to use the local 4G instead.

Long before I had finished my first drink, I was already starting to worry about how I was going to pay for my second beer.  I was concerned about appearing overly lavish or crudely flirtatious if I continued handing over 500HUF tips, as though I was trying to buy her affection seeing as I couldn’t go through my usual means of talking to a woman and having it fall apart from there.  So when I paid for my next beer I instead left 300HUF in coins.  Some time later the barmaid appeared at the other end of the bar, where she picked up a stool and carried it over to where I was standing.  She pointed at it, encouraging me to take a seat.  I thanked her in both Hungarian and English, and as I was perched upon the barstool a local man who had been sitting to the left of me was at the jukebox requesting the 1992 Bruce Springsteen song Human Touch.  I considered what could possibly follow a wifi code and a barstool if I left another tip at the bar, and feeling uncomfortable about it all, I finished my beer and left as the barmaid was standing outside smoking a cigarette. 

The Hungarian Parliament building

I returned to Scotland after five days in Budapest and spent a night at a Travelodge hotel in Glasgow, before taking the train home to Oban the following morning.  The climate was much cooler than I had become used to on the continent, and by the time I had reached the reception desk the jacket which had spent a week stored in a wardrobe was wrapped tightly around me.  I was standing in the vacant space for several minutes before a short young woman whose hair was almost the colour of one of the seven towers at Fisherman’s Bastion emerged from the back room.

“Sorry, I hope you haven’t been waiting for long.  I was eating a chippy.”

“I haven’t been here too long.  Sorry for disturbing your chippy.  What did you get?”

The almost-blonde receptionist told me that she was only eating chips because although she wanted a chip butty, the shop had run out of rolls.  I enquired if the absence of a roll from her dinner would mean that she would be grumpy for the rest of the night, and she laughed and checked me in while I was checking her out.

I dropped my baggage off in my room and freshened myself from my cabin fever before returning downstairs to the hotel bar some twenty minutes later.  The bar area was deserted, with the exception of an elderly gentleman who was sitting upon a stool.  He was wearing a polo shirt that was the colour of paprika and had a plastic patch over his left eye, the result of a recent cataract operation.  I took a seat at the end of the bar, and the elderly man reached over and pressed the button at the front of the bar which activated a bell that had a sound not too dissimilar to the chime of a doorbell from the 1990s.  The noise alerted the receptionist who hadn’t had her roll, and she appeared in a different role as our bartender.

“I remember you from before,” she said to me as she opened the latch to step behind the bar. 

“It was maybe around two years ago.  You were really drunk and I think you were telling me that you were worried about wearing double denim.”

The barmaid had done a pretty good job of recalling my plight, especially when even I had forgotten the details of that particular defeat, but I knew the phase of double denim doubt she was referring to.  I ordered a pint of Guinness from her, which cost around the same as two-and-a-third pints of Borsodi, and revelled in the triumphant feeling that the Travelodge girl had remembered me.  She returned to her post at reception, while the old man with the eye patch told me about how he has a friend who also likes to wear denim.  He continued to describe the way that his much younger friend has a method of rolling the bottom of the legs up and how it is considered to be very fashionable, although he himself had never worn a pair of jeans.  I was listening to the man, all the while considering how much better things were when nobody could speak English.

I pressed the button which summoned the receptionist to transform herself into the barmaid, it was as much an alarm bell as it was a doorbell.  She appeared a short while later, though the Guinness that she poured from a can would be the last act of her shift and she was replaced by another multi-purpose Travelodge employee.  Soon the hotel bar became busy with four members of a stag party from Sunderland who were loud and each dressed in a Bavarian dirndl.  Later a larger, though quieter group who were also on a stag from Manchester arrived, and suddenly the tiny Travelodge bar had become like Szimpla Kert.  I finished the last of my drink and took the lift back upstairs to my room.  Not for the first time I was feeling overwhelmed and defeated as I climbed, carefully, into my bed.  Already I was missing Budapest.

The full version of this story can be found here

A tale of two cities (part two)

The first part of this story can be read here.

I had written four Hungarian phrases into the first page of my notebook in order to help me get along in Budapest.  The variants of good morning/afternoon/evening, the word for ‘thank you’, how to ask someone whether they can speak English, and in the event that they couldn’t, “kaphatnék egy sört.”

It took me until eleven o’clock on my first night, and my second drink in Budapest, to find a pint of beer which worked out at the equivalent of £1.51 and was, therefore, better value than the £1.69 I had paid for a bottle of water at the branch of WH Smith in Buchanan Bus Station in Glasgow earlier in the day.  The pub was on the next street from my hotel, and the first thing I could see when I walked in was a popcorn machine sitting on the bar facing the open doors.  Inside, the barman was sweeping the floor with a hard-bristled brush.  He looked as though he had been working there, brushing the same floor, since the Stalin era.  His complexion was cement-like, grey and brooding, while his olive coloured apron was the most colourful item in the place.

The dusty old bartender was the fourth person I had encountered in Hungary, after the woman at the BKK ticket desk in the airport, the man on reception at my hotel when I checked in and the waiter at Gettó Gulyás, where I was served my first – and best – bowl of traditional Hungarian goulash, and he was the first who didn’t speak any English.  I tried out my version of good evening, which by now was already beginning to sound like I was trying to get the attention of a Spanish Steven.  Yaw aeshtayt was how I had, phonetically, written the phrase in my notebook, but even I could hear that it was coming out of my mouth more like a “yo a Stevie.”  A smile cracked across the features of the barman.  I imagined that it was his first experience of smiling since around 1991, and it was warming to see.

Almost all of the local people I encountered in Budapest had a very good knowledge of the English language, and often my trouble was more with understanding them than the Hungarians understanding me.  On the first morning of my trip, I walked across the Széchenyi Chain Bridge to see the Buda side of the city.  Originally Budapest was three different cities – Buda, Óbuda and Pest – until they were unified in 1873.  While linked by several different bridges across the Danube River, the Buda and Pest sides of the city have very distinctive features.  Buda is more residential, quieter and is set upon rolling hills, where Buda Castle and Matthias Church are found.  

The chalk-white towers at Fisherman’s Bastion

The chalk-white Neo-Romanesque towers of Fisherman’s Bastion is where I spent a large part of my first day.  On my way up the winding stairways, my progress was often stopped by the couple ahead of me.  The woman was dressed entirely in black and seemed to be her partner’s photoshoot project, her red hair bleeding against the white stone.  While I could see the attraction, the panoramic views of Budapest from the lookout terrace were much more appealing.

It was when I returned to the area which I had been gazing down on from up high that I experienced my first real difficulty with language.  I had ventured on to Három Holló, a speakeasy bar which had attracted my attention whilst researching my trip online when it was described as being a hub for Budapest’s “socially sensitive, musically-inclined, left-wing intellectuals.”  I had aspirations of being at least one of those and turned up just as the seating was being arranged for what looked to be some kind of performance.  The pint of American Pale Ale I ordered was almost twice the price of the Borsodi I had enjoyed the previous night, but as a socially sensitive intellectual, I couldn’t be seen to be complaining.

Széchenyi Chain Bridge and Szent István Bazilika

I took a seat in the corner of the room with my notebook, and it wasn’t long before the place filled up and a woman was reading to an audience at the front of the bar area.  The performance was entirely in Hungarian, and I couldn’t be sure if it was poetry, drama or spoken word, though the absence of laughter from the group was leading me to think that it might have been a Hungarian female version of one of my Diaries of a single man readings.  The more I was drinking from my beer, and the longer the performance was going on, the more awkward and uncomfortable I was beginning to feel.  There was an attentive silence in the bar, no-one was going to order drinks and nobody was leaving. How sensitive would it look if I got up and waded through the entire audience to leave, or if I was to make one of my efforts to attract the attention of a Spanish Steven at the bar?

It was impossible to even judge from the tone if the performance was anywhere close to being finished.  I was nursing my beer, trying to make it last as long as possible, when two young females entered the bar and sat at the only available seats left, which happened to be at my table in the corner.  I could scarcely believe that such a situation would arise where two beautiful young women would sit at my table in a hipster bar. They were obviously reluctant to potentially interrupt the live reading by ordering drinks for themselves, and then it occurred to me that I couldn’t talk to them, or at least attempt to talk to them, even if I was feeling brave enough to try.  It was a scenario where the only red face I had was from the heat of the sun I had been walking in all day.

After twenty-four hours in the city, I had picked up a habit of trying bad Hungarian on barmaids who ended up having perfectly good English.  This manner made itself most known when I visited Szimpla Kert, which is Budapest’s most iconic ruin pub.  When I first became aware of the term ruin pub, I thought of the condition I have been in when leaving Aulay’s on any given Friday, where I have been ruined by Jameson.  In actuality, a ruin pub is a bar which has been created in an old derelict building, where the furniture is second-hand and everything has utilised as little renovation as possible.  They were popularised in the early 2000s when more and more buildings in Budapest were falling into a state of disrepair after the end of Communism a decade or so earlier.

Szimpla Kert

Szimpla Kert had numerous bars spread out over three or four different floors, many of them having different themes or atmospheres.  It was at one of those bars that I thought I was being smart when I tried to impress the barmaid by asking for “a sört of beer.”  Apart from my phrase literally translating as me asking for “a beer of beer,” the Hungarian word sört is supposed to sound similar to the English word sure.  The barmaid looked at me with incredulity.  “You want a shot of beer?”  She questioned.  I thought it better to offer my apology in my native tongue and accepted a full pint of beer instead.

Although Szimpla Kert was a stunning sight to behold, it felt a lot like being in one of the “Irish” pubs that every city seems to have, where they are crowded with English stag parties and everyone is at an incredibly high volume of drunkenness.  After exploring the multiple layers of the ruin pub, I returned to the area around my hotel, which was less populated with tourists.  Across the square, I found Imperial Pub, which like the place with the dusty barman the previous night, was a quiet watering hole for locals.  Three men were sitting at the bar as I entered, and the woman who was pouring their pints spoke nothing but Hungarian.  I was able to make it clear this time that I was hoping for an entire glass of beer, and upon hearing my voice the youngest of the men spoke to me in English which was almost although not quite as broken as my Hungarian was.  He told me that he had spent the previous summer working in a kitchen in Basingstoke, which was one of those places that I always knew existed, but I was never entirely sure where it was or had met anyone who had ever been there.

To emphasise that his story was true, as if my reaction had somehow suggested to him that I didn’t quite believe that he had once worked in a kitchen in Basingstoke, he extended his right arm across my chest, where he pointed out a gruesome burn which was across the bone of his wrist and was the colour of modestly milky coffee.  I presumed that it was healing.  In an effort to make conversation I asked the Hungarian with the burn scar how he had enjoyed his time in the United Kingdom, but it turned out that his grasp of the English vocabulary extended as far as to literally tell me that he worked in a kitchen in Basingstoke, and our exchange fell flat.

Regardless of there being only one common strand between us, that being that the Hungarian had briefly lived in Basingstoke and I had heard of it, he offered to buy me a shot of his liquor of choice, which was Jim Beam apple flavoured whiskey.  I hadn’t learned the phrase for “no thank you, I don’t enjoy apple flavoured alcohol” and so over time I ended up with two of the things.  I bought him a beer in return, by which point I had become a sort of musical carousel, an object which nobody really quite understands, but that they take an interest in any way because it is new and emits a peculiar sound. 

A second member of the party shuffled closer to me.  He had asked the barmaid to play some songs by the rock band Guns N’ Roses through her YouTube screen, which had been linked to the bar’s speaker system.  I found it fascinating that even though he didn’t speak a word of English, this man was delighted to hear Axl Rose’s voice, while I too was thrilled to be able to listen to the music.  He was speaking at me with emphatic Hungarian, and I was talking back to him in English.  We didn’t understand a word that the other was saying, yet when it came to the guitar solos and he was wildly strumming his hand down the imaginary guitar on his torso, we both knew exactly what it meant.

A tale of two cities (part one)

It was six o’clock on a Monday morning and I had been up and out of bed for around eighty minutes, which when added to a week of nights that had been merely peppered with incidents of sleep meant that I was feeling a lot like a wet bath towel.  I could hear the rain falling onto the already sodden tarmac outside, and even though the streets were almost entirely deserted, I was still forced to confront one of my worst fears – a pedestrian carrying an umbrella.  I never really understood where my fear of umbrellas had come from.  Usually it follows that these things are the result of some childhood trauma, the way that an entire generation of people developed a phobia of sharks after the 1975 movie Jaws, or how my own difficulty with talking to girls came after many red-faced rejections.  But umbrellas were different from great white sharks and women. There was never an incident with a spoke to speak of.  It didn’t seem reasonable that whenever I saw a person approaching me with a rain-splattered umbrella held over their head I would have this uneasiness in the pit of my stomach that one of the sharp metal spokes was going to spear me in the eye, having already broken through the lens of my glasses.

As the bus was leaving a dark and wet Oban, I was feeling tired and miserable, and I wasn’t really sure why I was sitting there.  Two nights before, I had read from my notebook at The Rockfield Centre, and while the performance itself didn’t seem that bad, there were only around sixteen people there to hear it.  The numbers would have made for a great dinner party, but not so much an open mic event. While it was a nice feeling that the small number had been swelled by the late arrival of some of my best friends who had made a spur of the moment decision to come along, the experience didn’t do much to alleviate my recent feelings of loneliness and of there not being anyone I could talk to who would understand me, which had resulted in my decision ten days previously to book a solo trip to Budapest.

In the Ryanair non-priority boarding line at Edinburgh Airport I found myself involved in a discussion with an older Scottish couple, involuntarily, as a conversation in a queue usually is.  The older man looked like Santa Claus, bearded and with a jolly belly, and sounded like Robbie Coltrane.  Our flight had been delayed by approximately thirty minutes, although there was no indication of this anywhere around the airport.  John wasn’t upset about the wait to board the flight, although he reasoned in a passive aggressive manner that it would only be fair to those passengers who had the potential to become annoyed that some announcement should have been made as to why we were still waiting at the gate.  “If you’re standing on the platform at Milngavie and the non-existent train you are waiting for isn’t going to turn up, they at least have the decency to tell you.”

John and his wife were on their way to Budapest to join a fourteen night river cruise.  This would not be the couple’s first excursion on a cruise ship, and he regailed me with the story of a previous holiday where an Australian radio personality of modest fame was due on board to perform a DJ set for the holidaying guests.  The tale went that because this presenter had encouraged so many elderly Australians to join the cruise, his cabin was rewarded to him for free.  The first night of sailing departed without any live music, and the following morning the expansive breakfast lounge was buzzing with hushed speculation.  According to John, no-one from the crew on board the ship was allowed to confirm it, but the Australian disc jockey had died of natural causes. As the tall, booming, Father Christmas-like figure reasoned, of five thousand passengers on any given cruise ship, it is likely due to the demographics of the guests that at least one of them would perish each week.

Upon hearing this story, moments before we were about to board our flight to Budapest, where John and his wife were going to join a cruise on the Danube, I found myself worrying that I could inadvertently have become the last person John would ever talk to.  All he wanted was to pass the time whilst waiting to board his plane by talking to a stranger about which cities have the best hop on sightseeing bus tours, and the whole time I was hoping that he would turn to his left and tell it to his wife instead. And now he might be the one in five thousand who dies in a tiny cabin on the river. 

To make matters worse, the gentleman’s parting words as we were opening up our passports and slowly advancing forward in the line were to say:  “I hope you find yourself sitting next to the person you’re looking for.” As though he wasn’t Santa Claus at all, but rather he was a wise old wizard who could tell just from the shape of me that I was a single occupant seeking company.  As it turned out, I was in the middle seat of the emergency exit row, in between a man who minutes after take-off had disembarked his feet from his brown loafers and ordered a hot chocolate and two Cadbury’s Dairy Milk bars, and a senior woman who was on a golfing holiday and had in her hand a copy of the Daily Mail.  He wasn’t even going to get his final wish, though it was difficult to reason that I would have deserved to benefit from it anyway.

Budapest would prove to be a leafy city, this being the pick of the trees

Three hours later our flight arrived at Ferenc Liszt International Airport.  It was thirteen hours after I had left Oban, although with the addition of a Central European hour it was technically fourteen hours.  I saw John and his wife in the line at passport control and was relieved that he had at least survived the flight. Although it wasn’t yet eight o’clock at night it was dark, which was earlier than it had been falling dark back home.  Whilst waiting for the bus into the city a light rain was falling from the sky, caressing the lens of my glasses and dripping down my face.  I huddled inside a shelter, away from the weather and the threat of any oncoming umbrellas.  

This is still life

It occurred to me recently, some time on a Saturday night, I think, that nothing ever really changes.  I get out of bed at the beginning of the week, brush my teeth and do my hair, and go back to bed when the week has finished.  In between, there are a series of events which repeat themselves in a loop, like a fairground ride – though more often it is something slow and safe, such as the teacups, rather than the Big Dipper.  It was when I was standing in The Oban Inn debating whether a puddle of beer on the surface of the bar looked more like an angel or a map of the country of Ireland as viewed by a bat that I decided that I could do with a day or two away from the town.

The puddle in the Oban Inn looked either like an angel or the map of Ireland turned upside down

With a rucksack three quarters filled with my most precious belongings and a change of underwear for two days, I made a midweek trip to Glasgow and Edinburgh:  two cities which I have seen enough of for them to no longer wow me, but which are affordable and close enough for a single man who relies solely on train timetables to travel to.  If nothing else, it was at least going to give me something grander to look at.

On the way to Edinburgh, a Spanish woman wearing a red knitted jumper was bounding from one end of the carriage to the other taking photographs of the countryside, the way I urgently leap up from my sofa if I think I have forgotten to switch off the towel rail.  To me the scenery was unremarkable, nothing I had not seen before, but to this tourist everything was new and worthy of capturing forever.  Frolicking lambs, horse boxes, green hills looming on the horizon, an ambulance with its blue lights flashing, road signs, an advertisement for a vintage car show, a heavy goods lorry.  I was worrying for the health of her phone once she saw the sights that Edinburgh had to offer

The warm, cloudless sky in the west was growling with grey the further east we travelled.  Out of the window on the left, the sun could be seen hiding behind a sprawling white cloud, giving it a crackling pink hue, like dropping a rose petal into a glass of Alka Seltzer.  On the right side of the train, the clouds were ominously black, and it was as though the sky had been split in two.  Switching my attention between the pair of opposing views put me in mind of the moments shortly before I decide to go up and talk to a girl at the bar and I can foresee the two potential outcomes:  the idealistic blue sky scenario where she smiles at my jokes and we hit it off like the sun nestling behind a cloud, or the imposing black clouds which loom large and only spell trouble.  Soon the sky erupted and a mighty rain cascaded down against the windows of the train, the drops as big as passion fruit seeds.  For a few minutes all anyone could see was rain.

In Glasgow I had visited some of my favourite bars for a few early afternoon beers, although at one o’clock Nice N Sleazy is more nice than sleazy and in Variety I was the only patron.  Edinburgh demands a more cultured approach, however, and I decided that I would go somewhere I had never been before and take a walk around the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

The Scott Monument sitting against a blanket of grey clouds

While I have often enjoyed visiting art galleries, I have never really known how to react to art.  I always preferred words because they tell me how I should be feeling, and I know where I stand with words.  With paintings and photographs there is a lot more room for interpretation, which is troublesome for me when my interpretation of things is often wildly different to what was intended; something which has become increasingly evident the more I try to wear pink socks to match a tie which everybody else insists is coral pink.  One painting which featured, amongst other figures, Mary Magdalene washing the feet of Jesus, carried the description that the woman was displaying remorse and repentance, when to me it looked like she had drawn the short straw.

As I worked my way around the various displays, I was spending more time reading the descriptions on the cards positioned next to the artwork than I was studying the actual art, though even they did not prove terribly helpful.  In the gothic room, I was vexed by such phrases as “the suggestive tying of a garter” and “the placement of a glass jug indicating that the sitter was a glassmaker.”  All I could see was a man who cared deeply about fashion and a clumsy mistake, like when a selfie is botched by a thumb which has crept over the lens of the camera.

The employees of the National Portrait Gallery were floating across the floor without it being immediately obvious what they were doing.  In the section dedicated to Scottish art, an expressionless bearded man, dressed in the uniform of a white shirt with an emerald green tie, was sitting on a chair which was backed against the wall.  It was as though his features were sculpted from marble, and only his eyes could move as he observed the room.  Although I was looking at a piece by David Wilkie, I couldn’t stop myself from wondering if the people working in the gallery ever become bored with seeing the same things every day, the way the rest of us suffer the mundane things in our own jobs such as spreadsheets or grinding coffee beans.  In my mind’s eye, I could see the man turning up for work at nine o’clock in the morning, buoyed by a walk under pale blue sky, and he reports to his supervisor to find out which room he has been assigned for the day.  “Rembrandt again,” he sighed to himself, his wispy white beard ruffled with disappointment.

Near the Van Gogh, a pair of employees in matching tartan skirts were discussing their imminent lunch plans.  One of the women was scheduled to take her break at one o’clock, while the other was going to have to wait until two, although she was meeting her boyfriend at Yo Sushi and it was probably going to be worth the wait.  I had worked my way round to the portrait of the Three Tahitians, by which time I was feeling like the man who was caught in the middle of the woman offering indulgence with the mango and the second woman in the painting, who was offering convention with the wedding ring.

The only piece of art which really grabbed my attention was the 1708 work by Thomas Warrender titled Still Life;  a portrait of a random collection of the artist’s belongings, amongst which were a quill, a comb, some playing cards, and a baby blue bow tie.  I was entranced by the picture, which was presumably the 18th century equivalent of me lining up a small pocket notebook, a Zebra Z-Grip Smooth pen, a pocket square and a bottle of Joop! aftershave and taking a photograph with my phone.  I was staring at it until it went black, completely immersed in the whole idea, until somewhere in the distance a mobile phone went off, and the owner took a call on loudspeaker.  On the other end, a woman with an elegant and well-prepared voice was asking if the recipient of the phone call could spare a few minutes to take part in a survey.  The person with the phone, whose face I never saw, disappeared into the next collection, and it didn’t take much to guess what their own Still Life portrait would look like.  At times of intense loneliness, I have often thought about the way that the whole world can feel like our own enclosed space, and this seemed like another of those instances.

With culture firmly in mind, I thought that I would retire to my favourite bar in Edinburgh, Brass Monkey, to consider all that I had seen.  On my way there I walked past a man on North Bridge who was dressed in a robe which was the colour of a baboon.  On his head he wore a red beanie hat, while his dark beard was dishevelled and stained with shades of grey.  He was standing on the pavement ranting loudly at passers-by, with it becoming clear as I approached that the subject of his discontent was Robinson Crusoe. It wasn’t obvious what his trouble with the character was, but he seemed upset by it all the same.  Further up the road on Infirmary Street, a large group of people, presumably on a walking tour, were stopped outside Cafe Nero listening to a man speak.  Meanwhile, on the nearby stoop of an empty premises, a man was wrapped in a blue nylon sleeping bag.  Life is insecure, and hope full oft fallacious as a dream.

I was reviewing my notes in Brass Monkey when my attention was caught by something I had never before seen at a bar.  The barman sat a glass which was around two-thirds filled with ice on the bar in front of a man who was of average height and wearing a grey t-shirt.  Next to the glass was a green bottle of Schweppes tonic water, which the man proceeded to pour into the glass, which I presumed to have a measure of gin or vodka on the bottom.  Floating on the surface of the drink, cradling the blocks of ice like a buoy at sea, was what appeared to be an egg – still in its shell and all.  The more I looked at the scene the more certain I was that I was seeing an egg garnishing an alcoholic drink.  I waited for around twenty minutes to find out what would happen when the man reached the end of his beverage, as to that point all he had been doing was drinking around the egg as it bobbed against his hairy upper lip.  Finally he was on the last mouthful of his refreshment, and I was eagerly anticipating the moment where he was surely, I imagined, going to crack the shell against the rim of the glass and down the raw egg.

Is this an egg?

Instead he ordered another drink – the same again – and when he finished the first, he set the glass aside with the egg still intact, before pouring a fresh bottle of tonic water into the second glass, which also had what seemed to be an egg floating in it.  The process was repeated all over again, and it struck me that I would have been as well looking at an impressionist painting in the National Portrait Gallery, because I couldn’t understand any of it.  Why was the egg in the glass?  Why didn’t he break it?  Was it even an egg?  If it wasn’t an egg, then what was it?  I asked an Italian waiter each of these questions later in the evening and he only stormed off uttering words in his native tongue which sounded like they were indicating confusion.

Even though I had only been out of town for two days, I returned to see that Aulay’s Bar had been painted on the outside.  The coat was so fresh that the fumes could still be detected inside the bar, though the smell was probably no more intrusive than the regular fragrances that linger around a pub.  Over an intoxicating pint of Tennents Lager, the plant doctor and I resumed our usual topics of conversation as we discussed which of us would be more likely to be my brother’s best man if there was ever a scenario where he was getting married, Paolo Nutini puns, the merits of whether a disagreement is a £5 argument or a £10 argument and later in the night we both received a goodnight kiss on the cheek from Geordie Pete, which we agreed had a familiar feeling.

For a change of scenery we ventured to the Balmoral after watching the Scottish Cup final, where there were more people than the last time I had drank in there years earlier, and the carpet wasn’t nearly as sticky.  On my left-hand side appeared a woman who was a lot younger than everyone else in the bar.  Her hair was the colour of shaded sunlight, and she ordered a pint of Magners Cider.  The barmaid was a quick server, leaving me little time to consider my options.  As she took the glass in her hands, I blurted out the only thing I could think of and asked how her day was going.  The woman was having a good day, and our conversation seemed to be developing well.

In the space of a few minutes I learned that she was twenty-six-years-old – which was older than I had guessed – and that she was visiting Oban from Glasgow for the weekend with her mother, as it was a town they had come to often when she was younger, and she had promised to take her mum once she returned from a year living in Australia.  It was all I could do when she mentioned this fact to let her know that I had recently watched the Australian film Wolf Creek, which was based on a true story about a group of young travellers who were abducted and brutally tortured by a psychopath.  The woman didn’t respond to this piece of information, and instead took her drink and returned to the company of her mother at their table on the opposite end of the room.

I left the Balmoral a short time later, while a steady rain was falling from the bleak sky.  After a week during which I had a brush with Van Gogh, Gauguin and Da Vinci, I was still going to bed at the end of it all, waiting to get back on to the teacups to start it all over again.  I had seen the blue sky, but I was still searching to understand the meaning of it all.

May I make a playlist? My Spotify soundtrack for the month of May

A weekend of failed flirtations and unexpected bonding (aka U2 @ Croke Park, Dublin)


When you are standing in Croke Park and the lights go down, at least as much as they can go down at an outdoor show in the middle of summer, and you’re suddenly hearing Sunday Bloody Sunday followed by New Year’s Day on a Saturday night in July, you are entitled to ask yourself:  is this some kind of U2 concert?  And, of course, it was.  

The opportunity to see one of the world’s greatest rock bands perform one of music’s most iconic albums – The Joshua Tree – in their home city on the 30th anniversary of its release was too good to pass up, and it was an excellent reason to make my second trip to the city of Dublin; a journey which proved to be both one of the feet and the mind.

One of the best ways, though not necessarily the only way, of getting from Oban to Dublin is to travel first to Glasgow, and it was here that I stayed overnight on the Friday prior to the gig.  The stayover enabled me to enjoy a few craft beer refreshments at the Hippo Taproom, which became one of my favourite bars in the city when I visited months earlier.  I quickly learned on that first occasion that it is not advisable to enter the Hippo Taproom in the expectation, or at least with the faint hope which I had on that initial evening, of being served your IPA or chocolate porter by a hippopotamus.  Because even though the name almost definitely suggests that you might encounter a hippo for a bartender, you will only find yourself bitterly disappointed.  Besides, when you really think about it, how could a hippopotamus pour a schooner of beer with those massive clumsy paws?  It would result in far too much leakage for any business to remain sustainable and the cleaning would be a nightmare.

As I was sipping on a pint of milk chocolate stout which had been poured by a barman with a beard, once again recalibrating my expectations, I became the subject of the attention of a silver-haired gentleman who looked to be enjoying a few after work beers with a couple of colleagues.  The group was standing over my left shoulder, and this one guy who was less of a silver fox and more of a weather-beaten cherub, took a step towards me and asked how I decide which beer I am going to drink out of the many taps on offer in a bar which is focussed on selling craft beer.  I wasn’t sure if he was under the misguided impression that I am some kind of expert of the hops, or whether he could see that I am a man who has enjoyed a few beers in my life.  The silver-haired cherub told me that the reason he was asking was that he finds most IPA’s too bitter and acidic to enjoy, and I responded with a series of words which fell from my mouth with no particular reasoning or meaning.  

Our conversation moved on beyond beer, as most of them do at some point, and it was when he took it upon himself to tell me that he is 52-years-old that I began to realise that there was a chance this man was flirting with me.  When he proceeded to speculate that I “must be early forties” I recognised that, if he was flirting with me, his technique of seduction is worse than my own.  Once I corrected him and pointed out that I am actually thirty-three years a man he attempted to make amends for his flawed flirtation by touching my arm and suggesting that his mistake was an easy one to make when I speak with the eloquence and wisdom of a man in his forties, which he certainly would not be saying if he knew me.  

Some minutes passed and the first man to have ever hit on me in a bar left with his colleagues to catch the last train to Edinburgh.  I ordered some pistachio nuts at the bar and contemplated if, in the scenario I had just experienced, I was the nut or the shell.


Despite my libations the previous evening I made it to Glasgow Airport in good time on Saturday morning.  Whereas I frequently arrive at railway stations with barely minutes to spare before the train departs, I always get to the airport much too early.  There have been two occasions in my life where this has not been the case:  the time I was so hung over that I couldn’t possibly make it to London Gatwick and consequently had to spend more than £100 on a single train fare to Glasgow, and the Monday morning of this trip, when I was so hung over that I arrived at Dublin Airport with around fifteen minutes to spare.

There is part of me that thinks there is an over-emphasis put on the need to be at the airport hours before your flight to allow time to go through security.  I feel this deceit is probably concocted by Starbucks – and probably other retail operations – because what else is a traveller going to do when they have cleared security and have two hours to idle away in an airport other than spend £5 on a coffee from a man who adds four letters to your two letter name?

The moment I received my styrofoam cup of froth addressed to Jay-Jay (always with a hyphen) wasn’t the most awkward of the air travel experience for me, however.  It was far more uncomfortable trying to decide whether to start a conversation with the woman sitting next to me on the plane.  I am not at ease opening a discussion with a stranger at the best of times, but I find silence equally as unsettling.  Others appear to be terrific at talking to new people, even the weather-beaten cherub in the Hippo Taproom, but I have to deliberate over it if I do it at all.  

As the air stewardesses were going through the onboard safety procedures, I was finding myself increasingly drawn to the passenger who was seated to my left.  I couldn’t turn to get a good look at her face, but I could tell by her presence that she was one for me.  The stewardess was a few feet away, gesturing towards the emergency exits, when all I could think about was the question of how other people begin a conversation with a stranger on a plane.  I surely couldn’t ask this woman beside me where she is going, because unless one of us had made a hugely unfortunate mistake or there has been a serious breakdown in the process of boarding passengers it should be fairly obvious where she’s going.  

So I was sitting there anxiously processing in my mind the various possible outcomes of talking to this unknown woman:  falling in love with her, making a terrible play on words that ensures the rest of the flight is more awkward than it would have been if we had sat in silence, discovering that she is a serial killer on the run from the law, finding out that she had a deeply disappointing night in the Hippo Taproom when she learned that her beer wouldn’t be poured by a hippopotamus.  Eventually, I came to realise that so much time had passed that it would likely just be weird for me to speak to her thirty minutes into the short flight, and so I suddenly developed a fascination I never knew that I had with looking at clouds and nondescript land mass from above.


Dublin is a city of many bridges – 23 if you’re keeping score or don’t have access to Google – but on Saturday it appeared there was only one place people were going.  Nobody mentioned it by name, almost as though they were trying to keep it secret, and I don’t think that I heard the name U2 spoken the entire day.  Instead folk would simply refer to “the concert.”  “Are you going to the concert?”  They would ask.  “It’s busy with the concert on tonight,” it was said.  There were U2 t-shirts everywhere.  Mostly the black Joshua Tree anniversary tour novelty shirts, but there were some men who wanted to show that they were of a certain vintage by proclaiming their love of War or the Vertigo 360 tour through sartorial selection.

There was one place in Dublin where the concert wasn’t a consideration, though.  Across the River Liffey in J. W. Sweetman craft brewery, a tall building which was painted a creamy white like the smooth head of a pint of Guinness and which was dressed with a number of hanging baskets blooming with an assortment of colourful flowers, there were groups of people gathered together watching the hurling whilst a riotous hen party was competing with the sounds of whooping and cheering.  The hens were most definitely from Liverpool and some ordered pints of Guinness, which seemed like an especially bad idea at four o’clock in the afternoon.  Some chose to dilute their Guinness with blackcurrant juice, which seemed like an even worse idea and immediately caused me to dislike them.  

In my position at the bar, I ended up with two hens, one at either side of me, possibly due to congestion but probably down to poor organisation.  They were talking loudly across me and my pint of Barrelhead IPA, and the sound of their Scouse screeching was still nesting in my eardrum like a small startled bird which has gotten itself stuck in a chimney stack and is still too afraid to leave after two days. 

The hens became concerned with the gaelic sport which was playing on the television screens above the bar.  One of them asked me, “why are they playing lacrosse?”  

In my mind my face had been planted firmly in my palm, but as I couldn’t actually conjure an image of what lacrosse looks like I didn’t feel confident in disputing this assumption.  “I think they call it hurling over here, and they’re probably playing it to determine which is the better team.”

“Oh,” replied the hen with a faint hum.  “It looks like it would hurt.”  I nodded in agreement with this observation, as it did look like hurling could be quite painful.  The hens took their pints of cloudy Guinness and rejoined the rest of their flock in taking photographs with large novelty inflatables.  The barmaid remarked that I would be featuring in all of the pictures the women were taking.  I told her that they would be appalled to find that in the morning and confided in her that while the situation of being surrounded by a large hen party would be the stuff of dreams for many men, I was finding it utterly terrifying.  She laughed wildly, presumably out of an acknowledgment of my ineptitude.


I hadn’t really researched how I was going to get to Croke Park, believing that I probably wouldn’t be the only person attending the concert and so shouldn’t have any trouble finding the stadium.  Even still, after four or five pints of beer it wouldn’t usually be advisable to blindly follow a large group of people in the hope that they are going to the same place you are.  It worked out for me on this occasion, and the whole thing felt like a procession of sorts.  Thousands of people in uniform marching slowly, if not solemnly, towards the same place with a single goal in mind.  The sky was blue, like in the U2 song Bullet The Blue Sky, though a quartet of raindrops splashed my face as I lined to enter Croker, lending to a fear that my decision to leave my jacket back in my hotel would prove to be foolish.  Fortunately, there was no rain to follow and the only wetness I came to experience was from the sorely overpriced bottles of Carlsberg on offer pitchside.

Prior to the concert, I had given a lot of consideration to the question of tactical use of the toilets.  Urination is not always easy to predict in ordinary circumstances, but I have found that I can generally get a feel for when it is going to happen.  One of the downsides of drinking beer – or any form of liquid, I suppose – is that the need to expel urine is bound to increase in line with the quantities which are taken.  So when you are drinking bottles of beer at a concert, even terrible beer like Carlsberg, you are going to need to get rid of that shit at some point, and usually at several points.  I had developed a dire fear that I would find myself in desperate need of relief just as U2 were about to launch into the rarely played Red Hill Mining Town, so I had forensically planned my toilet breaks and was hoping for the best.  

My strategy after going from, and going at, J. W. Sweetman was to make immediate use of the facilities at Croke Park and then pee again around the halfway point between Noel Gallagher finishing his set and Paul Hewson and the lads taking to the stage.   Naturally, I wasn’t needing to use the toilet at that moment.  Only an hour or so had passed and not enough beer was requiring to pass through me when I strode up to that urinal with a mask of confidence.  I was standing there hoping for something to happen.  Anything.  I just wanted a drop to trickle from me, enough to justify my strategy.  But I was met with the same sound of awkward silence that I had experienced earlier in the day on the plane.  

After a few moments but no urine had passed, the guy to my left spoke to me, his thick Irish brogue distracting me from the task at hand.  I can never remember what his opening line was, but I recall admiring his ability to start a conversation over the urinal at a U2 concert when I had struggled with the issue on an airplane.  The Irishman noted that I was a fellow ‘shy pisser’ and we bonded, although I couldn’t be sure if I was a ‘shy pisser’ or just had terrible timing.   He expressed sympathy for the men who were waiting in line behind us, acknowledging that they were likely cursing us and the refusal of our genitals to perform their natural function.  I said that what I was finding especially frustrating about the situation was the sound of urine cascading from every man to our right, as if mocking us.  How do they do it?  How can they walk up to this urinal and just piss like there’s nothing to it?  It felt like we were there for at least twelve minutes exchanging tips on how to convince our bodies to pee in pressurised social situations and discussing the strategic need to urinate at this moment rather than when The Edge would be belting out those glorious opening chords from Where The Streets Have No Name minutes from now.  

Then it happened.  That wonderous thing of wastewater trickling from my system.  I apologised and left.  It was the first time I had ever been sorry for peeing, and certainly the only time I have ever felt comfortable and relaxed whilst talking to a fellow-man with my penis in my hand.


The U2 show was a triumph.  It is difficult to recall such peace and love and harmony at a gig and the set was worked perfectly around The Joshua Tree.  I can’t compare it to the Innocence + Experience tour two years earlier.  That is still my favourite gig experience, but there was something very special about seeing the band in their hometown and to be in the place that moulded these songs.  You know that with U2 you are going to get a visual and musical experience that no other act in rock can provide, to the extent that when an aircraft flyover painted the sky with the colours of the Irish tricolour it somehow felt understated.


I wasn’t entirely sure how to spend a Sunday in Dublin without U2, but as it turns out U2 has a way of finding you in Dublin.  After spending an afternoon taking the enjoyable tour at the Irish Rock ‘N’ Roll Museum – which obviously is laden with artifacts related to Bono, The Edge + Friends – I embarked on the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl, which was something I had greatly looked forward to after my experience of the New York City version the year, despite having a limited knowledge of Irish literature.  As it turned out I had been drinking beer since one o’clock on Sunday afternoon, so when the literary tour began at 7.30pm I was in little mood for enlightenment and had greater interest in the pub crawl aspect of the event.  As individual groups of people began to assemble upstairs in the Duke pub on Duke Street two things became evident:  almost everybody on the tour was both older than I am, and American, and I was the only solo attendee.  

I remained unperturbed, however, and continued to nurse the Jameson’s on ice with a slice of lemon which I was becoming fond of.  Straight whiskey isn’t something I normally abide.  I am typically a lover of Jack Daniels and coke, but someone who should know about these things had recently advised me that whiskey is best consumed sour and without sugar, and this trip to Dublin convinced me of the merits of that argument.  The only trouble with my enjoyment of this tonic – other than a single measure proving to be so small that I soon decided to double up – was that I found myself drinking a lot of it.  And more frequent visits to the bar resulted in my wallet becoming choked with coins due to my inability to tell the separate pieces of currency apart by sight.  I was always finding it easier to hand over another pink note rather than force a barmaid to watch me attempt drunken mental arithmetic as I fished around the coins in my wallet for the correct change.  

Back at Duke Street, when my wallet was still relatively light, I spied that three of the American visitors were female and approximately of my age, if not younger.  One of the ladies caught my eye in the sense of being physically attractive to me, but in reality, all three were pretty pleasant in comparison to how I must have appeared to them.  I made it my goal that by the time we reached the next bar on the tour I would have imbued myself into their company, like a slice of lemon in a glass of Jameson.  After a stop at Trinity College where we discussed Oscar Wilde, we walked to a pub the name of which would completely escape my memory by the end of the night.  This bar had multiple rooms and the group dispersed to explore the different floors; I simply wanted to drink Jameson.  As I stood at the bar watching the barman inexplicably pour a single shot of whiskey into a large glass I became aware of the fact that the American who appeared physically attractive to me was standing beside me waiting to be served.  This was my opportunity.  

The question might be asked:  how could I possibly talk to this attractive American woman at a bar when I couldn’t bring myself to open a conversation with a woman on a plane?  But I could, for two reasons.  I was still in admiration of the confidence of the shy pisser the previous day, and I was drunk.  So I feigned ignorance and asked her if she was on the literary pub crawl.  It was an abysmal opening line, but it was better than nothing at all.  Within a few brief lines of conversation, I had learned that she and her friends were from Boston, at which point I speculated that she must have a little Irish in her.  It was another poor line, particularly when I am not even Irish, but it didn’t prevent the American from revealing that one of her friends had also attended the U2 concert the night before.  She wasn’t a particularly good conversationalist, but by the time we reached the next bar on the crawl, it didn’t matter.


I drank another two double Jameson’s at the third bar on the route.  Its name would also remain nameless in my mind by the end of the night, although it was the subject of a quiz question at the conclusion of the quiz when we learned that its former name was ‘The Monico’.  The Americans sat at the far end of the bar and didn’t acknowledge me and I didn’t feel any haste in wanting to talk to the poor conversationalist again.  So I drank my whiskey and waited for the cowbell that would signal the end of our allotted twenty minutes in this particular bar.  As I rose to my feet and left at the sound of the ringing of the bell one of the Americans asked me if I was the Scot who had been at the U2 concert the previous night.  I looked around and was fairly sure in deducing that she couldn’t have been talking to anyone else, so I engaged with her.  

We talked all the way to the next and final bar on the tour, Brendan Behan’s.  We made a pact that seeing as we had a limited grasp of what was actually happening, literature wise, on the tour we would not take the end of tour quiz seriously and instead offer joke answers to the questions in the hope of winning the booby prize of a miniature bottle of whiskey, as opposed to the star prize of a t-shirt.  Unfortunately she betrayed me and answered a question seriously, though I maintained her favour by insisting that Oscar Wilde excelled at ten pin bowling and Bono was one of only four Irish men to be nominated for a Nobel Prize in literature (that wasn’t so much of a joke answer as Bono was nominated for the Man of the Peace prize in 2008.)

By the end of the tour, I was invited by the three Bostonians to sit with them and join them for a drink.  We discussed U2, a little, at least, how it might feel to discover that you have inadvertently turned up for dinner at the home of a couple of swingers, the Claddagh ring which the American I was most enjoying talking to was wearing and the Scottish accent.  I walked them back to their hotel, which was far, far away from where I was going, via a stop at the statue of Oscar Wilde, which one of the Americans had to climb over a locked gate to get a photograph with.  On the way to their hotel, the American with the Claddagh ring who attended the U2 concert and I walked several paces behind the other two Americans, talking nonsense and making each other laugh.  She gave me a guided tour of Dublin whilst putting on the worst Irish accent I have ever heard, and we both discovered the only bar in the whole of Dublin which sells Guinness.  Even though I had no idea where I was it was the finest walk I have taken.

As we reached their hotel in the middle of nowhere in Dublin 2 I suggested to the American with the Claddagh ring that we take in a drink together at a nearby bar.  She seemed enthusiastic and tried to convince her friends that one more drink wouldn’t be a terrible idea, but they were travelling to Belfast by bus the next morning and she ultimately convinced by her far too sensible companions that it would in fact be a terrible idea.  It was just another example of the north taking from the south of Ireland, yet this failed flirtation didn’t seem quite as bad as some of the others experienced over the weekend.  Instead I walked a few feet to another nameless bar and indulged myself in a few more double Jameson’s on ice with a slice of lemon as I contemplated the night and the weekend I had just been a part of, which truly was a terrible idea on account of the fact that I reached the airport with around fifteen minutes to spare the next morning.

This post was originally published on 24 July 2017 and can be viewed in its original form here

Posts similar to this:
Twenty-two hours in Belfast (Ryan Adams @ Ulster Hall)
The day I realised that I don’t want my bones to go on display in a museum (aka Ryan Adams @ The Olympia Theatre, Dublin)
The day my flight was delayed (aka Ryan Adams @ O2 Apollo, Manchester)

The day the horse left the stable (aka Ryan Adams @ The Sage, Gateshead)


When I left Dublin towards the end of last week with the realisation in mind that I hadn’t engaged in a single conversation with another person I couldn’t have expected that by the end of my brief stay in Glasgow on Saturday I would have experienced a deluge of vocal interactions.  I talked to exactly as many people as Celtic scored goals against Ross County:  four.

I had hoped that my recent twenty-two hours in Belfast would have given me a greater capacity for understanding the accent of the Northern Irishman who sits two seats along from me at Celtic Park.  In the past I have found myself nodding along to his every utterance, trusting that he hasn’t been saying anything contentious that I’ve inadvertantly agreed with because I can understand only every seventh word he says.  I took my seat a few minutes before kick-off, sharing a nod of acknowledgment with the older gentleman as I passed him.  After some moments of silence he reached across the two empty seats between us and tapped me on the arm.  I turned my head in his direction and felt an anticipation I have rarely felt when waiting to hear what a man is going to say about a game of football.  This would be my moment of truth, the first test of my newly discovered understanding of the Northern Irish accent.  He said something about Moussa Dembele – that much I know – but I will never know what, for his accent remained almost completely indistinguishable to my ears.  I nodded and smiled.  It’s good to see him back.  I took a wild assumption that he wasn’t complaining about Dembele returning to the team from injury.

This scene was to be repeated often over the course of the afternoon:  him stretching across the empty green seats, his bulky hand crashing against my forearm with a force that would probably crush a grape if I was in the habit of keeping them in the sleeve of my jacket, me taking my eyes off the game to face him and eventually nod in acceptance of whatever opinion he was offering.  I began to wonder if his increasing act of striking my arm was in some way a recognition of my inability to understand his words and he was urging me to try harder.  You better understand what I’m saying to you or I’m going to keep hitting you.  In that event I had better bring padding to the next game.


As is usually the case the half-time break afforded me with an opportunity to escape my translation issues for at least fifteen minutes and I took my place in the queue for a pie.  For a change the food stall experience was relatively unchallenging and I got the pie I wanted with minimum fuss.  The real task at Celtic Park these days is finding brown sauce.  I ventured to no less than three condiment stations in search of the savoury accompaniment and found nothing but tomato sauce and sachet upon sachet of salt and pepper.  I wondered of what use pepper is to anyone eating the standard pie, chips or even pizza.  No wonder there is so much pepper; nobody needs it!  I cannot think of a single food on offer at Celtic Park that would be enhanced by a sprinkling of pepper, whereas a pie practically demands brown sauce.  I could tell that the search was once again forlorn and the pie was beginning to burn my hand – which at least reassured me that it was hot – and I resigned myself to a pie without brown sauce.
That evening I would find myself sitting at the bar in the Travelodge prior to meeting my friend with the pink hair, my arm suitably recovered from the football to hold a pint of beer.  My thoughts were lost in the blandness of the setting:  the decor which was more beige than beige, the mundane pop music filtering from a speaker over an otherwise empty room, the subtitled BBC News 24 on a television in the corner, an offering of Stella Artois or Bud Light on tap.  A curly-haired blonde barmaid appeared behind the bar as I was nursing a cold pint of soulless beer, looking entirely different to the balding middle-aged man who had poured me the pint minutes earlier.  

“What brings you to Glasgow?” I heard her say, and I automatically assumed that she was speaking to another guest, even though I knew I was the only person who would be drinking at eight o’clock in a Travelodge bar.  I looked up from my glass and, sure enough, she was looking in my direction.  My natural instinct is to answer such a question with a response along the lines of “the train”, but since this promised to be my first actual conversation with another person since I left Oban on Monday morning I decided that I would try to not fuck it up by being myself.  I assumed the unfamiliar role of a normal person and responded by telling her all about my trip seeing Ryan Adams perform seven gigs in six cities in four different countries, adding the usual caveat about him not being the Canadian rocker with the letter ‘B’ in front of his name.  This story remarkably did not cause her to lose interest and she continued to talk to me.  We discussed the iPod she received as a gift last Christmas but has not yet used and I noted how they are coming back into fashion like the vinyl record player, even though I have no idea how true that is.  We touched upon the way that Google Maps has taken all the fun and adventure out of getting lost in a city – a conversation I am certain I had in Belfast – and she told me all about her equestrian studies and her hopes to eventually earn a living preparing horses for shows.  She clearly enjoyed talking about horses and so I indulged her, and she talked and talked and talked — until eventually I asked what certainly ranks amongst the most stupid questions I have asked a girl.

Is there a drink riding limit the same way there’s a drink driving limit?”

I don’t know why I wanted to know the answer to that question, and quite naturally it seemed to be something that had never occurred to the barmaid.  She did her best to try to formulate some kind of response but it was evidently a subject that was yet to be covered in her equine lectures.  I left the Travelodge bar to meet my friend with the pink hair and I couldn’t help but sense that my interaction with the barmaid would have ended better had I not introduced the idea of riding her beloved horses whilst intoxicated.  I suppose it could have been worse and I might have suggested getting the horses drunk prior to dressage.  This was all on my mind when I entered Variety and considered the etiquette of sitting at a booth when your friend has already arrived.  Is it appropriate to sit on the cushioned area next to them or is it more polite to sit across the table from them?  I bought a beer and sat on what appeared to be a miniature representation of a stool which, upon glancing around the bar, seemed to make most other men who were sitting on similar stools look like giants.  I suspected that to them I would look like I was afraid to sit next to a girl.


I returned to my hotel some hours later and, safe in the knowledge that the equestrian student had finished her shift at eleven o’clock, I headed to the bar for a nightcap.  This seemed a particularly questionable decision considering that I was scheduled to be getting on a train to Newcastle little more than seven hours later, but there reaches a point in any night when drinking Jack Daniels that any decision can easily be justified.  I found myself in conversation with another talkative barmaid and I can remember querying the spelling of her name on her badge; ‘Kaitlynn’.  I suggested that the second ‘n’ seemed unnecessary and I think she broadly agreed and blamed the whole scenario on her parents, which seemed reasonable considering she probably had minimal input in the discussion.  I asked her when they stopped serving at the bar and she informed me that 2am is the cut off, though they will sometimes continue to sell alcohol if it is busy and the guests aren’t too drunk.  I was the only person at the bar and my watch clearly stated that it was about five minutes past two.  Out of ten, how drunk am I?  I asked, hopeful of enjoying at least one more Jack Daniels.  “You’re definitely an eight out of ten.”  I accepted this score without dispute and suggested that we still have two points to play with, so she poured me another Jack Daniels and the 09.30 train to Newcastle was a hellish experience.

Conversation returned to being found at a premium in Newcastle, though I was able to share in the thrill one barmaid had in being handed her first plastic £10 note when I caught sight of her photographing it before putting it in the till.  I questioned whether she was some kind of currency enthusiast – perhaps hoping that she could help me identify some of the coins in my wallet.  She explained that she had not seen the new £10 note until being handed it by another customer now and I asked if it is the one with the face of Jane Austen on it.  She didn’t know and handed the note over to me to examine.  I realised that I don’t know what Jane Austen looks like but didn’t want to admit this to the barmaid.  Oh yeah, that’s the one with Jane Austen on it alright.  I noted that the plastic money is supposed to be practically indestructible but she claimed that she can tear the £5 notes.  How?  “You just have to keep trying…they’ll tear eventually.”   I felt both impressed and suitably threatened.


Ryan’s set at The Sage was another unique occasion on this tour.  He was feeling sick and therefore was “low energy” which seemed to contribute to the set being at least a couple of songs shorter than previous nights and to him indulging the audience – which was entirely seated – in far more inter song banter than elsewhere.  He acknowledged early in the night the awkward nature of playing a rock show to a seated crowd, and it was certainly a strange experience.  His humour added a different dimension to the show compared to the rest of the tour, and his theory that the couple he spotted leaving on an upper tier were “probably away to make out while listening to KISS — though hopefully pre-1982 KISS” was joyful.  That he and the band played Tired Of Giving Up – one of my favourite songs from his eponymous album – for the very first time anywhere made this a memorable night.

Bars visited:
The Raven – 81-85 Renfield Street, Glasgow
Variety – 401 Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow
Nice N Sleazy – 421 Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow
The Union Rooms – 48 Westgate Road, Newcastle
Bacchus – 42-48 High Bridge, Newcastle
The Bridge Tavern – 7 Akenside Hill, Newcastle
The Head of Steam – 11-17 Broad Chare, Newcastle

Next stop:
O2 Academy, Bournemouth – Tuesday 19th September

Final scores:
Celtic 4-0 Ross County
JJ 0-6 Ryan Adams gigs

The night I ate dinner (aka Ryan Adams @ Usher Hall, Edinburgh)


It occurred to me as I was leafing through the menu at The Beer Kitchen on Edinburgh’s Lothian Road that I would shortly be eating my first proper dinner of the week – assuming that regular people still aren’t considering a cup of dry roasted nuts a proper meal.  It’s not that I have been avoiding food:  I have eaten the occasional portion of chips at a couple of bars, and I did once enjoy a delicious breakfast at the Art Cafe in Dublin.  It’s just that generous servings of food aren’t really compatible with pre-gig drinking.  That is to say that I often forget to eat.

I have been wanting to dine at the Innis & Gunn owned Beer Kitchen for some time and made a point of remembering to eat on this night of the tour, given that the restaurant is but a stone’s throw away from Usher Hall if you have a really strong arm and a precise aim.  I would consider it to be a stone’s throw followed by a few paces.  I had made a reservation for 7.30 and in keeping with that I was directed to a table in the corner where I was seated as the hostess began to clear away the second place setting in a manner which was considerably more emphatic than I would have hoped.

I sat with the palm of my hand drumming on my knee under the table – not to any particular beat or rhythm, I just didn’t know what else to do with my hand as this table for two was transformed into a table for a single person.  The hostess gathered up the side plate, the cutlery and the empty water glass in a fashion which suggested she had done this before.  Then a knife fell from the side plate in her arms and clattered against the table, making what was surely the loudest sound ever to have been made in that particular restaurant, certainly, and perhaps anywhere ever.  It felt like every eye in the place darted towards my table.  Why couldn’t she just leave the cutlery where it was?  At least that way people might assume that I am waiting for someone:  a friend, a date, even a Tinder date.  I appear anxious enough for that.


She muttered an apology and once again picked up the knife.  She asked me if I would like a glass of water and I intimated that a pint of beer would be fine.  Even if she had left the place setting as it was so that I could look over at it longingly every so often, then at my watch, and then again at the lone place setting, as though I had been stood up.  At least then I might get sympathetic stares rather than glances of pity.  I wait for my beer to arrive and consider resting my denim jacket over the empty chair opposite me so that it might appear that I am anticipating company returning from the bathroom, but I quickly realise that ruse would be quite ridiculous when I am still waiting an hour later without a hint of concern on my face as to why my company still hasn’t made it back to the table.  Has she done a runner on him?  People would naturally think.  I wonder what he said to make her lock herself in the toilet for more than an hour?  I bet he made some really laboured play on words and he was on his final warning for it.  They would speculate in hushed tones.  He probably listens to Ryan Adams.

A pint of Innis & Gunn promptly arrived at my table and I ordered some food as a small tealight candle flickered like a beacon drawing attention to the fact that a single man was sitting and dining by himself.  I pulled my notebook and pen out from my pocket and placed it on the table next to my right hand, as though to suggest to anyone happening to notice that I could at any moment open it up and write some words of world-changing significance, rather than the reality of it being some pun I had thought of.


The Ryan Adams set proved to be a unique night on this tour when his pedal board malfunctioned after three songs and he suddenly decided to ad-lib a mini acoustic set of five songs while engineers desperately tried to solve the technical difficulties.  That he was able to do this off the cuff and to such a high standard was most impressive and it allowed the Edinburgh audience to hear what will surely be the only performances on this tour of Ashes & Fire and Jacksonville Skyline, which was worth the price of admission alone.

Bars visited:
The Advocate – 7 Hunter Square
Brewdog – 143 Cowgate
Shakespeare – 65 Lothian Road
The Beer Kitchen – 81-83 Lothian Road

Next stop:
The Sage, Gateshead – Sunday 17th September

The day my flight was delayed (aka Ryan Adams @ O2 Apollo, Manchester)


I had done everything right in my preparation for flying out of Dublin on Thursday afternoon.  Following on from my security faux pas when travelling to the north of Ireland the previous week I ensured that my socks were fully functional in keeping my toes covered and that I removed all illicit items from my possession prior to going through security.  I timed my departure so that I would reach the airport just short of the two hours they recommend, because nobody ever truly needs two hours in an airport lounge.  I was cleared through security leaving exactly the right amount of time to order a Guinness at the bar.  I wasn’t drinking Guinness out of any great love for the beer – though it is abundantly true that it tastes superior in Ireland – but moreso because I knew that it would take longer for the barman to pour and so would assist me in wasting a little more time before boarding my flight.  Everything was going as smoothly as the rich, creamy head which had settled on the peak of my pint.  There was even a surprising and pleasing absence of a hangover from the previous night.

My last night in Dublin felt like an exercise in solitude.  There was no Ryan Adams gig after his two exemplary nights at the Olympia Theatre and as a result I found myself chasing the ghosts of past experiences and emotions.  I booked myself onto the literary pub crawl I had so enjoyed the last time I was in Dublin, partly because I had ended up so drunk on that occasion that I couldn’t remember much of what was discussed, but mainly because I ended that night in the company of three women from Boston and I was hoping that my luck would repeat itself – and indeed better itself –  this time around.  I spent a considerable part of Wednesday afternoon revisiting some of my favourite bars in the city, in complete contradiction of my vow to not drink before four o’clock.  Though I felt greatly vindicated by this decision when a tremendous rain shower pounded the streets no later than around three o’clock, a sight which I enjoyed with smug interest from a barstool in Brew Dock as hapless pedestrians sprinted by seeking shelter, like the Rolling Stones song.

The rain subsided and I sauntered along to the Black Sheep on Capel Street, where my confident attempt at ordering my favourite IPA on this trip – Full Sail by Galway Bay Brewery – was halted by me both forgetting its name and having my attention stolen mid-sentence by a glimpse of a grisly feature on the ceiling above the bar.  How many flies are up there?  I pondered as the barmaid presumably began to consider that I might be some sort of incompetent.  I didn’t know they still made flypaper.  What kind of fly would choose the sweet fragrance of sticky killer paper over the sweet intoxication of the killer drip tray under the beer taps?  The barmaid looked at me as though I was someone who had completely forgotten why I was there; which I was.  What’s the name of that IPA?  I eventually asked as I looked down and to my right and saw it looking back at me.  She poured me a pint of Full Sail and I considered whether or not it would be appropriate to ask her about the fly paper.  It almost certainly could not be translated as being some kind of a crude pick-up line and she would surely see it as the genuine human curiosity that it is.  I settled into my barstool as she continued her duties and I stared up at the fly cemetery which was not entirely dissimilar to some of the exhibits I had seen at the Museum of Archaeology the other day.  I’ve heard about flies on sheep, but flies in the Black Sheep?  I began to count the number of flies on the paper and the barmaid cannot fail to have noticed my interest in the ceiling.  Eighteen, I counted.  Though some of them are quite close together.  It could be twenty.  I glanced around the bar to ascertain whether anybody else had taken such a morbid interest in this memorial.  It was just me.  How many flies do they want to catch before somebody takes it down?  Is it there as a warning to other flies?  I decided that the barmaid wouldn’t have any interest in answering these questions and so finished my pint and left.


Suitably lubricated, I went to the Duke Pub for the literary pub crawl in good spirits and with high hopes.  The tour was busier, perhaps even busier than when I first went on the crawl seven weeks earlier.  There were various different groups of people swarming around the tables and none of them immediately offered any encouragement that the wonderful night I previously enjoyed would be repeated.  There were Americans, of course, but they were older and much too dignified to enjoy the drinking aspect of a literary pub crawl.  And there were Germans who appeared intelligent enough to recognise that talking to me would only result in awkward issues of translation – them speaking fluent English and me talking some drunken, mangled form of English.  I drank alone for the duration of the tour, learning far more about Irish literature than I could ever care to know whilst indulging in my own self-defeat.  At one bar I ordered a single Jameson as I sought to rekindle some of the memories of that last night.  I handed over €4, believing that  to be what the barman asked for.  “You’ve only given me €4,” he noted.  “How much is it?” I asked with some trepidation.  “€8.50,” came the response.  I wondered how much I had spent drinking doubles in July.

There was little evidence of a hangover as I approached the gate for my 13.50 flight to Manchester.  I had finally mastered the timing of travelling by air.  I began to consider all the things I would do with my time when I arrived in Manchester when it was announced that the flight would be delayed by an hour.  I stared at my shoes for a while and then back up at the board, hoping that they might have realised that they had made a mistake and removed the red text stating that the plane would be “delayed until 14.50.”  They hadn’t.  People began to leave the boarding line in search of food or simply a more comfortable place to wait for an hour.  I was reluctant and unwilling to give up what I felt was a pretty good spot in the queue, knowing that I could get on board early enough to fit my bag into the overhead locker and be able to reach my window seat without having to suffer those arduous few moments waiting for the two people already sitting there to puff their cheeks and stand up to allow me in.

I glanced around the gate and considered whether it would be worthwhile giving up my fortuitous position in the boarding queue to go and sit next to a young lady who appeared both alone and alluring.  I thought about how I struggle to even start a conversation with the person next to me on the plane and imagined it would be significantly more awkward if I ignored scores of empty seats around the lounge to sit beside this sultry solo traveller.  How does THAT conversation start??  I concluded that with the enhanced security around airports these days it would be preferable for me not to be the source of some tense scene, and I realised that I was leaving Dublin without having talked to a single person.

My flight eventually arrived into Manchester approximately 102 minutes later than scheduled and I decided to forgo styling my hair into an acceptable appearance in favour heading to the bar closest to my hotel near Piccadilly Station.  It was here that I encountered further farce with my currency as the more familiar Sterling coins became mixed with some rogue Euros which I had forgotten were still in my wallet.  I fumbled blindly with my fingers and hoped for the best, the coins being offered an insight into my romantic techniques, until I was finally successful in paying for my beer.  This scene would be repeated often over the course of three hours, even when my favoured Shindigger IPA ran dry and I was forced to scramble for an alternative.  What would you recommend?  I asked the barmaid, more in the manner of hoping to appease her disappointment at disappointing me than anything else, because no matter what else you drink it is never the same as the beer you really wanted.  


Even with the curtailed drinking hours prior to the gig I felt myself a little unsure of which way I should be walking when I left the O2 Apollo afterwards.  I knew it wasn’t a particularly challenging route and that the venue wasn’t far from my hotel, because I had walked it without hesitation no more than two hours earlier, but I felt uncertainty as I surveyed Stockport Road.  After some hesitation I decided that I would  simply follow the cars travelling in the direction away from the venue, because surely they must know where they’re going.  It proved to be a logical logistical solution and within fifteen minutes I was standing at the hotel bar wondering why, in a certain light, the boots I believed to be black now appear to be blue.  Maybe blue or navy blue?  I pondered this over an expensively poured Jameson and wondered how this establishment deals with their flies.

 

Bars visited:
The Duke – 9 Duke Street (Dublin Literary Pub Crawl)
O’Neill’s – 2 Suffolk Street (Dublin Literary Pub Crawl)
The International Bar – 23 Wicklow Street (Dublin Literary Pub Crawl)
Davy Byrnes – 21 Duke Street (Dublin Literary Pub Crawl)
Piccadilly Tap – Piccadilly Station approach
Motel One – hotel bar

Next stop:
Usher Hall, Edinburgh – tonight

The day I realised that I don’t want my bones to go on display in a museum (aka Ryan Adams, two nights @ The Olympia Theatre, Dublin)


It has been nigh upon seven weeks since my last visit to Dublin, a trip which left me with a warm familiarity with the city and the things that are possible here.  Of all the stops on my manic journey to see Ryan Adams perform seven times in twelve days it was probably the three nights in the Irish capital that I was most looking forward to.  There were bars I wanted to drink in again and places I wanted to see between the two performances at the elegant old Olympia Theatre.  So it was perhaps a little disconcerting to find that staying in a slightly different part of the city from my previous two visits would completely throw off all my bearings and cause me to lose all familiarity with the place.  I felt like a baby who is learning to walk, finding myself wandering across bridges without knowing it and down unidentifiable cobbled lanes, leading me to places I had no idea of.  And it was even worse when I was sober.

I have developed this remarkable knack – in cities and in life – of having no discernible idea of where I am going but yet still finding my way to where I need to be.  Part of the trick to this in a city is to pinpoint a landmark or a memorable place of interest in your mind, so that when you see it you know that you are on the right track.  Mine was a brightly coloured building on the opposite side of the River Liffey from the Custom House building which in the map of my mind appeared to resemble a gay jigsaw puzzle.  The Spire also proved particularly useful for this purpose.  On my first two trips to Dublin I could not see the point of the Spire, and I thought that was a pretty good joke as well as a pertinent observation, but it turns out that the tall phallic landmark does have a very good and important purpose:  it is essentially a 4million homing device for drunks.  Because at night, when the sky turns dark (or at least darker than during the grey, rainy day) the point of the Spire will glow, helping even the most inebriated of people to see it from almost anywhere – and when you see the Spire you know where to find O’Connell Street, from where you can find your way home.

The point of the Spire tells me exactly which way I should be going


I wanted to use my time in Dublin differently from when I was last here.  That is to say I wanted to stay out of the bars until at least four o’clock.  This was partly out of a seemingly noble sense of actually wanting to do something useful and also because, at a minimum of £6 for a pint of beer, I would otherwise have to re-consider my 100 daily food and drink budget.  I was successful in achieving this exactly one-third of the time, and on Tuesday I embarked on a three-hour walking tour of the city and followed that up with a wander around the National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology, having been told that they had on display 2,000-year-old human sacrifices and thinking that would be a cheerful way of spending an afternoon before a Ryan Adams gig.  

Observing the well-preserved religious artefacts from Celtic Ireland along with the books and the tools from Medieval Ireland was an interesting and thought-provoking way to pass a couple of hours before heading to the bar.  I thought about the type of museums people would be visiting a hundred years from now and what kind of displays they might have.  There probably won’t be physical museums, as such, and we’ll only have to push a button on the microchip implanted in our wrists to bring up a virtual reality vision of a ‘museum’ in our minds.  Instead of books and important religious documents they’ll display kindles, and there will be iPhones from the age where we had to actually dial numbers or send emojis to communicate with another person.  There won’t be plaster cast representations of how a mummy might have looked, but instead you could swipe through an array of selfies.  And there will, of course, be digitally stored Tweets from the time when people used so many characters to express an opinion.  They might showcase a pen as a token joke exhibit and still nobody will make the suggested donation.


It was the room dedicated to the Vikings which really had a profound effect on me, though.  The very first display houses a skeleton from an excavation of an 11th Century site in Dublin and staring down into the glass case of this brutal warrior brought me to the realisation that, at the end of the day, we’re all really just a bag of bones with a very big fucking sword.  I looked into the hollow eyes of this Viking and decided there and then that I do not want my skeleton put on display in a museum.  The thought of tourists in the future standing around the exhibition of my skeletal being and criticising my bone structure filled me with dread.  I could hear them commenting on the state of my tibia and how “I’m surprised he managed to go as long as he did with femur like those.”  Women would question the need for preserving my penis when surely museums should only exhibit items of usefulness, and there would be a general consensus that “his ribs are surprisingly bony, considering…

The only natural place to go after viewing an exhibit of a skeleton is for lunch, particularly if for some reason my posthumous orders are to be defied and my bones will be put on display for ridicule.  I’d better get some more meat on those things.  Down the road from the archaeological museum is K.C. Peaches, one of those self-service canteen style restaurants.  It is the kind of place which encourages the most ridiculous food combinations a person can think of.  I scooped pork cheek marinated in red wine onto my plate, alongside a helping of spicy Malaysian chicken and lime with some white rice and peas and dropped on some cold Japanese noodles with celery.  I walked around this island of various hot and cold foods and simply piled everything I could onto my plate because it’s food and it’s available and you can.  There is no consideration for diet, taste or aesthetics.  So I took this plate of multiple ethnic cuisines to the counter where as I approached the young woman behind the desk remarked:  “That’s a large plate,” and I wasn’t sure whether she was making an observation or a judgment – she would have been correct either way – so I panicked and ordered a medium cup of coffee (what else would you drink with spicy Malaysian chicken?) in an effort to relieve the stress of the situation, hoping that she might recognise that even though my food order was large my drinks order was medium, so I can’t really be that much of a sloth.

It wasn’t just canteen style hostesses who I was struggling to communicate effectively with.  By Tuesday evening I had reached the point in my interactions with the various barmaids in town where the only banter I could engage was some arduous routine whereby I would empty all of the coins from my wallet, as though to imply that I couldn’t tell the different denominations of currency apart.  Of course, the more I tried this ‘bit’ the more I realised that I really couldn’t tell the coins apart.  Nevertheless, I would count through the coins in my hand, trying to make up the 6 whatever cost of a beer and I would apologise and say something like:  “Sorry, I’m struggling to make any cents (sense) out of this.”  Which was invariably met with stony silence each time, or occasionally a “don’t worry, take your time,” at which point my faux stupidity had been translated as actual stupidity.  One time I repeated the joke, hoping that I could make the North American barmaid laugh, or at least crack a vague impression of a smile in recognition at my attempt, but there was nothing and I would eventually just hand over a twenty and add to my collection of coins.  


Being that my decision not to drink at the concert in Belfast on Friday worked out pretty well in terms of remembering details of the gig, and indeed remembering actually being at the gig, I resolved that I would do the same in Dublin and conduct all of my libations before and after Ryan’s set.  I was pleased that I came to this decision, as the two nights at the grand Olympia Theatre are almost certainly the best I have seen him perform.  To date this tour seems to have found him in a very focussed place where he is intent on playing the best two hours of his life every night.  His band is great and the set lists have been perfect.  I counted seven changes from the first night to Tuesday’s show and on Monday he played Love is Hell – which he had performed for the first time this year in Cork on Saturday night and I had feared I might have missed it.

Night one at the Olympia Theatre – though Magnolia Mountain was replaced by Shakedown on 9th Street


My relative sobriety did come with a downside, however, and that was my increasing disdain for the couple standing in front of me.  Firstly I failed to understand why a couple would even go to a Ryan Adams show together, and this question weighed on my mind as I watched them dance along to lyrics like “anything I say to you now but goodbye is just a lie” and “you and I together, but only one of us in love.”  But not only did these people have the gall to be happy in a relationship – they (more so he) also had to record every other song and upload it immediately to their Instagram account.  They didn’t want just me wallowing in their happiness; the entire world had to.  I think the true source of my irritation was the fact that they were filming only the more recent material, indicating that they have perhaps only been fans since the last album or two.  Which is fine and I would actively encourage anybody to listen to ‘Ryan Adams’ and ‘Prisoner’ – but when he put his phone back into his pocket and left for the bar when Ryan started to play Dear Chicago that got on my goat.  If you’re going to insist on taking your partner to a Ryan Adams show, at least stick around for the most depressing and miserable song in his back catalogue.

Night two at the Olympia Theatre


Bars visited:
The Black Sheep – 61 Capel Street
The Porterhouse – 16-18 Parliament Street & also Temple Bar
Beer Market – 13 High Street
Brew Dock – 1 Amiens Street
J.W. Sweetman – 1-2 Burgh Quay
Bad Bob’s – somewhere in the Temple Bar
Bad Ass Cafe – somewhere in the Temple Bar

Next stop:
O2 Apollo, Manchester – Thursday 14th September

Twenty-two hours in Belfast (Ryan Adams @ Ulster Hall, Belfast)

img_1598
Overlooking Belfast, Cavehill was imagined by Johnathan Swift to resemble the face of a sleeping giant.


In my experiences I have found that there are many ways to see a city.  You can visit its museums and galleries and become immersed in its culture.  You can study its architecture and walk amongst its people for a flavour of the life.  Or you can spend twenty-two hours in a panic-striken haze of beer, excitement over seeing your favourite singer-songwriter and the anxiety of making an early flight home on Saturday morning in order to attend a wedding reception you had absent-mindedly double booked yourself for.  I chose the latter because I’m an idiot and that’s the sort of thing an idiot does.

Matters of timing aren’t the only way I know how to make a trip unnecessarily difficult for myself, and flying to Belfast proved more of an arduous affair than waking up for the return flight would be.  I was already running a little later than I had anticipated due to a hangover weighing me down in my bed and clouding my judgment, and all I could think about was how I could possibly make an 8.20 flight from Belfast the next morning when I am struggling to reach Glasgow Airport in time for a 9.15 departure.  I went through the process at security of transferring my liquids (but not all of my liquids, as I could still feel quite a bit of Budweiser in my system) and gels into the clear plastic bags they like these things to be kept in and I unbuckled my belt and placed all of this into the dim grey tray.  As I walked away towards the scanner I had the realisation that I had forgotten to take my phone out of my pocket and the watch from my wrist.  I stopped in my tracks, sighed and cursed my ineptitude and decided that as my tray was already gone I would carry on and walk through the scanner with these forbidden items upon my person.  What’s the worst that could happen?

The scanner immediately went off to alert everybody that I am some kind of idiot and without hesitation I handed over the contraband like a naive criminal who has been caught red-handed in his heinous deed.  I was certain that owning up to my mistake straight away would let the security officer see that I had recognised the items which had set off the scanner and we could both move on with our lives without further incident, but he frowned as I placed my phone and watch in his hand then asked that I take off my shoes.  I am unfamiliar with other people asking me to take items of clothing off my body and it was in this moment that I remembered that I wasn’t expecting anybody to be requesting the removal of clothes on this trip either, and more specifically I wasn’t expecting that anybody would be looking at my socks.  I contemplated suggesting that he should at least buy me a pint first, but he didn’t seem like the kind of man who would appreciate sarcasm in this situation and I was probably going to have to come to terms with the knowledge that my socks are not suitable for public viewing.

I tried to plead with him with my eyes, as though to say:  Please don’t make me take off my shoes.  I’ve already owned up to my crimes and you can quite clearly see that I’m just a hung over idiot.  My socks are the clothing representation of what it would look like if there was a gathering of every Pope from history and Mother Theresa and Bono – very holy.  But there was no way I could actually say those words without drawing further attention to my socks, so I silently untied my laces and removed my shoes one at a time.  First the right shoe, and I felt a pleasant relief when I saw that my black sock was fully intact.  Then I slipped off the left boot and handed it over to the officer.  This sock initially seemed fine too and I was feeling quite good about myself, until I was directed to stand on the spot where two painted footprints suggest I should be standing and I noticed that the fourth toe on my left foot was attempting to make a break for freedom from its cotton prison, just this little pink blob wanting to take advantage of the slight glimmer of light seen through a gap in the material big enough for a sneaky toe to bundle through if it really tried.  Then the security officer consulted the picture which has just been taken of my insides and he confirmed that I’m just some idiot who forgot to take off his watch and hand over his phone and I’m left standing in my socks, one of them with a small hole in it, waiting for at least two minutes for my belongings to appear on the conveyor.  Now there’ll be an attack.  This is when those bastards will hit Glasgow Airport — when I’m standing here wearing socks with holes in them!  And this is how my body will be discovered and I’ll forever be remembered as the man they found with a hole in his socks.  He couldn’t run away because he was wearing his socks, they’ll say, and what’s worse is that one of them had a hole in it and a little pink toe was poking through it!

The Harland and Wolff crane dominates the Belfast skyline


I arrived in Belfast on Friday morning with no firm idea of what I was going to do before the Ryan Adams concert that evening – a feeling I am familiar with most days of my life.  I have prepared a Google Document outlining at least three pretentious hipster craft beer bars I would like to experience in each of the places I will be visiting during this Ryan Adams tour (eight towns and cities, seven gigs) but I knew that ten o’clock in the morning was much too early to start drinking IPA when I was hoping to be vaguely sensible on account of the early flight on Saturday, so I stopped off in an average-sized local coffee shop and ordered a large cup of caffeine in the hope of stimulating my mind and kicking the hangover.  It was because of this coffee that I was able to recognise that I could get myself onto the free walking tour of the city which began across the square outside City Hall at 11am.

A free walking tour (or, more accurately, a “pay what you want” walking tour) is a fine way of seeing the points of interest in a city if you are short on time and can’t decide which of the sights you would like to visit.  The guide on this particular tour, Gavin, was an engaging retired school teacher who spoke with a Northern Irish accent that was much easier to understand than others I have encountered.  He weaved a story of how Belfast became the city it is today as we walked around various streets, all while I was considering how best to strike up a conversation with one of the American girls in the group.  If there is one thing I struggle with it is walking and trying to think (or perform any kind of multi-tasking on the move, really.)  If there are two things I struggle with it is that and trying to talk to girls; so I was confronted with two of my greatest difficulties on this walking tour of Belfast.

I found myself walking alongside this American girl (who was presumably raised on promises and couldn’t help thinking that there’s a little more to life somewhere else) between several points on the two-hour tour but I never knew what to say to her.  Every time I tried to speak the words would become caught in my mouth like a little pink toe in a small hole and I would remember how I had already once been shown to be an idiot today and thought better of it.

I heard you’re from Tennessee.  How about that Elvis guy?”

“Shame about all those sectarian bombings Gavin has been telling us about…but you have such pretty hair.”

“Those knee cappings sound brutal, but on another note, I really like the way you walk.”

Nothing I could think of seemed right, so naturally I waited until the end of the tour when a handful of stragglers who weren’t sure how better to spend their afternoon – maybe six or seven of us in total – were invited to a nearby pub to buy Gavin lunch.  At least I knew that with the walking tour finished if my haphazardly blurted question about the American girl’s travels failed miserably and resulted in the peace wall being closed I wouldn’t have to endure the awkwardness of walking around the city with a group of strangers whilst feigning interest in this or that.

‘The Big Fish’ – the salmon of knowledge


In the end, after a couple of hours in this pub sheltering from the rain and talking to the American girl, and long since the remaining members of the group had left, I found myself wondering why I have spent much of my adult life as a man scared to talk to new people when there is so much to be learned.  Before yesterday I had no idea that the Belgian city of Gent produces exceptional mustard or that many mountains in Germany will have huts halfway up them that sell beer.  Nor did I know that the female outfit traditionally worn at Oktoberfest is called a Dirndl or that some people in the southern states of America will hunt frogs for fun.

With much newly acquired knowledge to ponder I reached for my phone and consulted my Google Document and Google Maps in an effort to locate some of the craft beer bars I had noted.  It struck me that even ten years ago this trip would have been all the more difficult to co-ordinate without so much information at my fingertips, but that after a couple of pints of Maggie’s Leap the night becomes a little less easy to co-ordinate and beer acts as a kind of counter balance to technology.  I didn’t get lost on that point for long (or at all, thanks to Google Maps) and worked my way back up Great Victoria Street towards Ulster Hall.  I had resolved to stop drinking beer before the gig in order to give me half a chance to wake up in time for my flight in the morning, but I had miscalculated the time it would take me to walk from The Garrick to the venue and ended up with too much time to wait before Ryan Adams was due on stage at 8.45pm, so I made a stop in The Apartment for a Jack Daniels Honey and lemonade.  At £5.60 I was convinced that this would be my last drink of the night.

Ulster Hall


It had been two years and two months since I last saw Ryan Adams play live and Ulster Hall seemed like an ideal venue for my twenty-first time seeing him, with its long history including the distinction of being the first place in the world where Led Zeppelin performed Stairway to Heaven.  It felt small for a ‘hall’, in a good intimate kind of way, and there was some kind of incense burning in the room which smelled exactly like I remember from attending mass as a child.  For the first few songs all I could think about was the memory of going to church on a Sunday with my mother and brother and sister, and I got to thinking about how different my life would be if I had been encouraged to listen more to the teachings of the Catholic church by Father MacKinnon rocking out on the altar like the KISS demon.

Without a plastic tumbler of Jack Daniels in each hand the gig going experience was a little different, and remains more fresh in my memory today.  I think I enjoyed the music more, although perhaps not as exuberantly as I might with a bellyful of whiskey, and I could become immersed in the emotional aspect of the event – especially when Ryan took the opportunity in the middle of the set to play a rare song with a happy, positive vibe:  “This is Stay With Me.  It’s about wanting someone to stay with me…and make my life miserable.”

After setting twenty-seven alarms on my phone in an effort to make certain that I would wake up for my flight to Glasgow at 8.20 on Saturday morning I found that one would have sufficed, as the anxiety of missing the wedding reception coupled with the unusual sensation of being not entirely drunk on a Friday night meant that I didn’t really sleep much at all.  I arrived at Belfast City Airport with more than two hours to spare and I wondered why I couldn’t suffer a security scare now.  With time to kill and socks which were fully intact this would have been the perfect opportunity for some security officer to find that I am an idiot.
Bars visited:
Unknown bar – unknown location
Bootleggers Bar – 46 Church Lane
The Dirty Onion – 3 Hill Street
The Garrick – 29 Chichester Street
Apartment – Donegall Square West

Next stop:
Olympia Theatre, Dublin – Monday 11th & Tuesday 12th September

img_1611
Courtesy of @TheRyanAdams, set list from Ulster Hall