Jute, jam, journalism, high-jinx & Joop!

There are two reasons why I wanted to travel to Dundee from Edinburgh Waverley Station rather than Glasgow Queen Street.  The first is that I was keen to stop off for a couple of beers in one of my favourite bars, Brass Monkey, seeing that it had been nigh upon twenty months since I was last able to venture in.  It didn’t matter that at two o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon I was the only person in the pub for much of my time there.  I was just glad to be back, sitting in blissful solitude with a pint and my Bill Bryson book.  Notes From a Big Country and peace from an empty bar.  On my way back to Waverley to catch my train north, I stopped into The Piemaker on South Bridge for a quick steak pie – not that there is ever any other kind.  As I sat devouring my meat and gravy encased in pastry, I listened as an American woman entered the store to enquire about the ingredients of a cottage pie.  She left immediately upon learning that it contains mince and potatoes, and I couldn’t stop thinking for the rest of the day that this American woman had most likely been disappointed not to find a pie with a traditional sweet filling, such as apple, cherry or pecan.

My main objective for making the journey to Dundee through Edinburgh instead of Glasgow was the anticipation of seeing the Forth Bridge, which was completed in 1890 and was once voted Scotland’s greatest man-made wonder. The bridge is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the subject of one of the country’s most popular colloquialisms for describing a never-ending task – that it is “like painting the Forth Bridge”; a saying that comes from the famously mistaken belief that the bridge is so vast that it requires a fresh coat of paint as soon as the previous one has been applied completely. My nose was pressed against the glass windowpane as the train began the crossing between the villages of South Queensferry and North Queensferry, eyes eager to catch sight of the iconic landmark. Across the glistening Firth of Forth, I could see the new Queensferry Crossing sitting behind the Forth Road Bridge, which was around the same point that I realised that of course I wouldn’t be able to see the rail bridge when I was travelling on the rail bridge. I could hardly mask my disappointment. It was the first time in hours that I wasn’t thinking about the cottage pie.

Scotland’s fourth-largest city had never appealed to me in the same way that it did now that we have been through a pandemic.  Dundee has always had a hard-earned reputation, both at home, where the 19th Century judge Lord Cockburn once described the city as “a sink of atrocity which no moral flushing seems capable of cleansing” and abroad, such as when the American travel writer Paul Theroux wrote of it as being “an interesting monstrosity”.  People in every part of Scotland will often use the unflattering moniker of Scumdee in reference to the city, which was historically the most industrialised in the country.  A problematic relationship with alcohol pervaded the place, something which particularly irked the infamous poet William McGonagall – often referred to as the world’s worst.  

Despite regularly denouncing publicans for the perceived sin of pedalling alcohol, McGonagall would frequently recite his terrible poetry in pubs, knowing that he could make money from the drunks. During his performances he was often pelted with bags of suit, tins, rotten eggs, and old boots, until he was finally forced into retiring from the stage when he received a brick in the stomach, making my own spoken word performances seem like a resounding success. Back in those days, it is said that Dundee had 389 pubs – one for every 43 people in the city. Today it has 115 such establishments, approximately one for every 1,278 people. I just had to find the right one for me.

Directly outside the entrance to my hostel stood the statue of one of Dundee’s many comic book legends, Desperate Dan.  How funny that there should be two of us in the same place, I thought, with no one to make the joke to.  There are statues to be found all over the city centre, from Minnie the Minx to Oor Wullie, and from an enormous green dragon that stalks the main shopping precinct to the titular Lemmings from the popular computer game that was created here in the early nineties, whose bronze beings can be found climbing a wall on Perth Road if you follow the right route.

Having dropped my luggage off in my modest private twin room, I ventured over to Trades House bar & restaurant for something to eat and to watch the football.  It was there that I was reminded of the absurdity of dining on a solo trip, when you usually end up feeling like an exhibit in a wildlife park.  It’s similar to the sense of utter dread and shame I have if I am ever sitting on a public bench eating a bacon roll I have bought from Greggs, when I can’t help but think that every passer-by is viewing this strange and unbecoming scene in judgment as I try to catch the brown sauce before it trickles down my chin, even though I am perfectly aware that everyone has much more important things to be doing than watching a stranger eat, such as checking their messages, pushing a pram in a straight line or keeping their eyes on the road.

Upon walking into the bar, the waitress began to wipe down a table for four, and already the scene was playing over in my mind.  Groups of people staring at the three enormous empty chairs surrounding me, talking amongst themselves, speculating on the reasons why I wasn’t with company.  It was only when the waitress had concluded her duties in line with current Covid protocol that I suggested I might feel more comfortable if I could sit at the table for two by the television, something I could never have done without the security of a mask stopping my lack of confidence from spraying all over her.

My order of beer-battered halloumi with sweet potato fries was simultaneously the best and worst decision I have ever made. Everything on the plate was perfectly palatable, but the three chunks of halloumi were as thick as a child’s fist, and after eating them I worried that I might never be able to sleep again. Matters weren’t helped by the fact that at the table facing me sat a couple who, on all available evidence, appeared to have tattoos on every part of their bodies. Arms, ankles, faces, scalps. Virtually every inch of visible flesh on the pair of them was inked. I could hardly concentrate on finishing my food or watching whichever game of football was being screened for wondering whether the couple had as many tattoos before they met one another or if they just became hyper-competitive during the course of their relationship.

It was with a belly full of barely digested Cypriot cheese that I waddled forth, onwards to The Pillars Bar a street away.  Any lingering discomfort soon dissipated once I walked in and found a pub that looked just like any of my other favourites.  The bar seemed busy for a Wednesday night, though something told me that you would find most of these same people here regardless of which night you happened to drop in.  There was a crackle in the air, and it wasn’t just from the sound of voices.  You could tell that something was going to happen; it could have been anything.

One guy ordered a pint of Peroni and sat it on the bar next to where I was standing.  He was around my height, needed glasses like I do, had hair that was maybe a little shorter than mine is, and wore a thin layer of stubble on his face.  Everything about him was like watching a bad sci-fi doppelgänger version of myself, with the exception of the multiple piercings he had in each ear and the Dundonian accent he spoke with.  The Dundee Doppelgänger abandoned his lager and wandered around the bar, trying unsuccessfully to engage in conversation with various people.  It was uncanny.  He managed to convince one guy to show him how to operate the jukebox, which was free, but he couldn’t get the hang of it.  I could tell that he was becoming exacerbated, so I nudged him in the ribs and reminded him that he still had a pint to drink, knowing that lager usually helps soothe me in such situations.  Whether he could see the same similarities in me that I was seeing in him I’ll never know, but he started talking to me all the same.  That is when I should have known there was something odd about this guy.

The Dundee Doppelgänger was incandescent with curiosity about why someone would want to visit a city that he regarded as “a shithole.”  It was difficult to find a complimentary way of phrasing the words “it seemed easier than organising a series of PCR tests to travel somewhere I really want to go”, so in an effort to evade the question I instead asked him to focus on one positive element of his hometown and suggest the best place a tourist should visit. He recommended the Verdant Works, a restored 19th Century jute mill, but since it is ranked a lowly #2 of 120 things to do in Dundee on TripAdvisor, I decided that I didn’t have time to fit it into my strict schedule. 

As the minutes passed, it was becoming ever clearer to me why others in the bar were giving this character short shrift.  He had suddenly grown insistent that Pillars is the biggest gay bar in Dundee, which didn’t seem plausible when I glanced around the place and observed groups of poorly-dressed middle-aged men, elderly heterosexual couples and your traditional bleak bar decor.  Yet he repeated the claim often, before adding that although he isn’t gay he doesn’t mind drinking in a gay bar, sort of like the old Seinfeld joke; “not that there’s anything wrong with that.”  It turned out that the Dundee Doppelgänger had been going around the pub asking people if they are gay.  I heard him ask the middle-aged barmaid the question twice.  He asked the only single woman in the bar about her sexual orientation, and when she informed him that she isn’t gay he inquired, “are you sure?  Not even bi?”  In ordinary circumstances, I might have been able to somehow spark conversation with this young woman, but even my doppelgänger is ruining my prospects with the opposite sex.  Of all the 1,277 other people I could have found myself in a pub in Dundee with, it had to be this guy.

Whilst he was outside smoking a cigarette, the barmaid confided that she was finding the inebriated interrogator deeply uncomfortable and intended on cutting him off if he ordered another drink.  Upon his return, he asked me my name and where I was staying while in the city.  Realising that he had clearly forgotten that I had made the mistake of telling him my real name earlier in our conversation, I decided to take the opportunity to improvise a new backstory.

“My name is Mikey and I’m staying at the Holiday Inn for a few nights.”  I couldn’t be sure that Dundee definitely has a Holiday Inn, but I figured it was a pretty safe bet that they do.

“Mikey?  Are you sure that’s your birth name?”

“Aye, that’s the name my parents gave me.”

Smelling a rat the way I could smell the stench of tobacco from his breath, the doppelgänger challenged me.  “What’s your full name?”

I stumbled.  “Michael Alan Ross.”

“Ah-ha!  So Mikey isn’t your name!”

I had long suspected that I didn’t have the skillset to make a successful secret agent, but all the same, to have it confirmed in such a shameful manner was a bitter blow, and it left me resenting my doppelgänger so much more.

Fortunately, my ability to improvise false information on the spot wasn’t going to be needed for much longer, since when the doppelgänger moved to order another drink the barmaid was true to her threat and refused him service.  You could tell he knew it was coming.  This was just as another man, who looked like he had been teleported in from the 1990s, was kicking up a fuss for being asked to leave by another barman.  He was dressed in a dusty nylon tracksuit and looked about as drunk as I felt.  His main gripe, apart from the fact he was being thrown out, was that the bar doesn’t serve Buckfast.  The guy was adamant that he was going to have a tonic wine, and challenged the barmaid to phone the police if she wasn’t going to let him have one.  She picked up her mobile phone and did a better job of a fake dial than I could ever have managed, at which point the man staggered away, ranting and raving to himself, a couple of locals standing by the door to make sure that he didn’t think about coming back.

As soon as both men were gone, I pulled my notebook from my pocket and immediately scribbled down as much as I could remember.  The barman from the adjoining lounge bar reappeared, and on seeing my prolific penmanship asked what I was writing.  I told him about how I occasionally produce a blog detailing the everyday things I witness, and that I need to make note of my thoughts as soon as they occur to me, otherwise I tend to forget them.  He smiled warmly, in a manner that suggested he was interested, and proceeded to tell me about the night he was closing up the bar when he hadn’t realised that there was still a customer in the toilet.  “He was locked in the pub all night, and of course, he helped himself to all the drink he could manage.  When I opened up in the morning there was money on the bar for every drink he’d taken.  That’s what people are like here.”  This long-haired barman promised that he had hundreds of stories he could tell me, and I believed him.  It wasn’t until later that I learned he is the proprietor of the pub, and that Pillars has been there since 1864, making it the oldest location for libation in Dundee city centre.

After my experience in Pillars, the very first thing I would do when visiting a new joint was to reach for my notebook and either hold it in my hand or sit it in front of me. I liked to think that folk take me more seriously when they see a notebook before me on the bar or table. I imagined that they probably believe I am writing things of great significance, when the truth is that it’s usually something along the lines of: “Thursday 16 September – Henry’s Coffee House: I saw a bald guy who literally has a face tattooed on the back of his head. An entire face. It was possibly even his own face.”

The notebook was as much a social crutch as anything else since I didn’t have anyone to talk to and I couldn’t carry my Bill Bryson book with me after the strap on my leather satchel broke in Edinburgh.  It was when I was traversing the Discovery Walk in Slessor Gardens that I learned that I am not the only person to have ever used a notebook in such a way.  The walk has around a dozen plaques celebrating the achievements of people who have lived and worked in Dundee.  One such plaque was commemorating the physicist Sir James Alfred Ewing, who it is said kept a notebook on a table by the front door of his home.  In this notebook, he would ask visitors to draw a pig with their eyes closed and then sign it.  Down in the bottom-right corner of Ewing’s plaque is a sketch of a pig.

Many of the historical sites of interest in Dundee are within easy walking distance, which seemed fortunate when the bright blue sky and blazing September sun were making a mockery of my casual jacket. In City Square, there is a public arts display by way of the carvings in the four fountains, each representing one of the elements, either that or a popular seventies soul band, Earth, Wind & Fire (and air). Each one has a quote from a local poet or author, such as Mary Brooksbank, who was the first woman as well as the first Communist to have her words inscribed into the wall of the Scottish Parliament. From City Square, you can see Caird Hall, the concert auditorium that is named after its benefactor, the jute baron Sir James Caird, and which like many other places today serves as a Covid vaccination centre. The statues of the five marching penguins on the wall of Steeple Church are nearby, as is the plaque commemorating former local MP Sir Winston Churchill and, further on, the birthplace of the feminist abolitionist Fanny Wright; a building which is now a solicitors and estate agents.

Eager to enter some more notes into my book, I returned to The Pillars on my second night, only to find that none of the characters I had been introduced to the previous evening were there, yet the bar was just as busy as it had been.  To nurse my disappointment I went straight to the Jack Daniel’s.  I expect that I was cutting a fairly forlorn figure standing at the bar with my notebook in hand and nothing to write about.  After a while, an elderly gentleman over my left shoulder asked me if I knew where he could get a German Shepherd.  I informed the guy, who had a graveyard tan and a white moustache that trembled like a pigeon on a telephone line as he spoke, that I’m not local and wouldn’t know where he could find a German Shepherd.  We returned to our respective drinks.  The silence was excruciating, and eventually, I had to ask why he was looking for a dog.

“I killed my last one.  The vet wanted to put him to sleep, but I don’t believe in that shit.”

I could tell that this guy is an animal lover.  He spoke fondly of the loyal companionship he has been afforded by his three German Shepherds, each of whom he has had to kill for one reason or another.  But killing his dogs out of mercy was always more difficult than taking the lives of men in combat during his military career, which seemingly came to an end after he suffered a head fracture in the Falklands.  

Soon the conversation had transcended into his time in Spain, where he claimed that he had befriended a wolf.  Said wolf would often follow him on his daily walks, into coffee shops and bars; they had formed a bond beyond words.  Apparently the key was respect, each knew their place within the pack.  People would approach him and ask if they could clap his dog, and he would firmly tell them that it wasn’t a dog but a wolf, he didn’t own it, it was merely with him, and that they could pet it at their own risk.  It sounded like the terms and conditions when you click on the ‘cookie consent’ button.

The Falklands veteran’s fondness for animals extends beyond canines to donkeys, which are seemingly a popular mode of transport in the area of Spain he was living.  He told me of an occasion where he witnessed a local who was using his whip much too vigorously on his donkey for an animal lover’s liking, so he approached the man, snatched the whip from his hands and proceeded to beat him with it.  Evidently, this attack was witnessed by a crowd, because the vengeful veteran was arrested later that evening and subsequently spent ten days in a Spanish prison.  “They fed me bread, cheese, tomatoes, and wine.  I was quite happy.  And the best thing is, the guards searched me and they never knew I had a knife in my sock.”

I noticed him reach into his backpack for a flask, which he unscrewed the lid from and discreetly poured his entire glass of whisky into.  He unhooked his cane from the lip of the bar, clearly making to leave.  Unlike the previous night, this wasn’t a departure from Pillars I was ready for.  As he pulled the straps of his bag over his shoulders, I bid my farewells and chanced to ask the man’s name.  “They call me Hawkeye.”  There wasn’t much more that could be said.

My stubble trimmer had inexplicably run out of charge by the time I could use it on Friday morning, leaving me with no choice but to further explore Dundee with more than the 0.5mm of stubble I usually like on my cheeks. Like my face, the sky was noticeably more grey on Friday, though the look definitely suited the city better than it did me. Despite the rough-around-the-edges reputation Dundee has, the 30-year £1billion regeneration of its waterfront is a true triumph. From the Discovery Walk through Slessor Gardens, past the bright new railway station, down to the splendid V&A Design Museum, the whole area is impressive. Beyond the car park of the Premier Inn and Beefeater restaurant, there is a spectacular view of the Tay Rail Bridge.

The V&A is the first built outside London and the only design museum in Scotland.  Sitting next to the RRS Discovery, which was part of the successful 1901 British National Antarctic Expedition, the pair make for an aesthetically pleasing coupling.  I gorged on the sight from a nearby bench as I enjoyed an Italian bagel and coffee from the nearby Heather Street Food pop-up van.  Even with little pieces of mozzarella dropping from the bread like they were lemmings and balsamic vinegar threatening the integrity of my shirt with every mouthful as museum-goers walked by, it couldn’t spoil my enjoyment of the view.

As far as buildings with an ampersand in the title go, the V&A would rank high in my list of most beautiful. It is a piece of art in itself. Reasoning that it would be foolish to travel all the way to Dundee to eat a bagel outside the V&A without stepping foot inside, I wiped myself down and entered the museum. The thing I noticed most about the place was how much empty space there was. In a way, it reminded me of my living room, where parts of the walls are decorated with prints or photographs, and there is a collection of barely living plants on the mantelpiece, but there is a gaping emptiness amongst it all. The V&A has a mighty stairway from the ground floor to the exhibitions, and the room on rave culture was fairly interesting for what it was, which was basically a series of photographs of a young woman taking drugs in different places over a couple of decades. One room, titled “What if…?”, asked communities from across Scotland to share their hopes and dreams for the future of their hometowns. A host of cards dangled from the ceiling, each one containing a written wish. Things like, “I wish more homes were homes, “I wish the train would come to my town (St. Andrews)”, “I wish we had paths at the side of the road for cyclists and pushchairs,” and “I wish my neighbours could club together for a government grant to put solar panels on the roof of our flats.” It was a nice idea, but for me, it wasn’t any different to what you might hear said in any pub. “I wish I could find the company of a German Shepherd,” or “I wish gay pubs were gay pubs.”

I left the V&A feeling very underwhelmed.  For such a beautiful building on the outside, there is a disappointing lack of substance inside.  I imagine it is a lot like the way anybody views me after seeing me in a tweed suit and then spending a few moments talking to me.  A much better introduction to Dundee was found at the McManus Gallery not but ten minutes away by foot.  There you can not only learn the story of Dundee’s heroic homing pigeon Winkie, who earned a Dickin medal for saving several stricken RAF bombers during the Second World War, but you are also afforded the opportunity to view her taxidermied torso, which is on display in the museum.  There are exhibits dedicated to the city’s pioneering role in Scottish journalism, comic books, and video games, as well as other aspects of everyday life on Tayside.  Ideally, I would have spent much longer than I did in the McManus Gallery, but I still had some drinking to do during my time in Dundee.

Though I have long since grown out of being the sort of Catholic who insists on eating fish on a Friday, I was very much looking forward to a meal of beer-battered fish and chips in the St Andrews Brewing Company.  The place was vast, like an aircraft hangar for craft beer.  It struck me that they probably needed such a large location to store all the fish they are serving, since when mine arrived it was the biggest piece of fish I have ever seen.  If the haddock was still alive it could surely have swum in the puddles of beer-batter grease on the plate, which probably went some way to explaining why it was so delicious.

The travails of dining solo fortunately prevented me from asking for my second beer, the Yippie IPA, as “Yippie IPA, motherfucker,” though I believe that if I had thought to put on my mask I could probably have gotten away with it. At the table in my immediate eye line were two elderly couples who were toasting the beginning of a weekend getaway. Once their four drinks had been ordered, the organiser of the group pulled a sheet of paper that had been torn from a notebook out of her bag and announced that they were going to have to compile a shopping list for items they would get from Tesco in the morning. She had already taken care of the basics, things like bread, eggs and flour, but the type of milk they were going to need was the first source of debate. They were still working on this list when I paid my bill after my third and last beer. Who knew that writing a shopping list would be like painting the Forth Bridge?

My final destination in Dundee was Tickety Boo’s, which was another of those bars that looks and feels like every other pub you have loved.  Before doing anything, the young lady behind the bar informed everyone who came in that the card machine was out and they were only able to accept cash.  I hadn’t felt such panic since my first night in Pillars.  My worry was quickly replaced by the long-forgotten joy of discovering an unexpected £25 in my wallet.  It was probably around March 2020 since I had last paid for anything with cash, and just seeing and handling banknotes again wasn’t any different from one of those exhibits in the McManus Gallery that gave a glimpse into how it was to grow up in Dundee in the 60s and 70s.

Actually seeing money disappear from my wallet in a pub, as opposed to not seeing it leave my bank account with every contactless payment, was a reminder that £25 doesn’t take you very far, especially in a city centre bar.  Soon I was reacquainting myself with the lost art of counting change, and when I finally encountered a shortage of coinage, I leaned across the bar and asked the barmaid to pretend that this was my first time in Dundee and provide me with foolproof directions to the nearest cashpoint.  As well as furnishing me with the funds to continue drinking for the rest of the night, the remark also proved to me that I don’t necessarily need to wear a face mask to have the confidence to make stupid comments.  When I returned to the bar with my first cash machine withdrawal in 18 months, I beckoned the barmaid over and told her that her cashpoint suggestion was a success.  Somehow, the line wasn’t as flirtatious as I was hoping it would be.

Despite my inability to produce interesting conversation about the location of Dundee’s ATMs, the barmaid did kindly offer to take a high seat over to the bar for me to sit on.  I thanked her for her generosity and wondered if she was concerned for my wellbeing.  I assured her that despite my increasingly worn appearance, which doubtless wasn’t helped by the fact that my stubble was surely longer than 1mm by this time, I am deceptively good on my feet.  Declining the stool was a foolish act of bravado, however, since it looked very comfortable and I would have loved to sit down.  I asked the barmaid which style of chair she would like to have behind the bar if she was allowed one, and she instantly responded that it would be a rolling chair, as though she had previously given it some thought.  She would be concerned about the mess caused by spillage from serving customers on wheels, but it would be a fun way of getting around the horseshoe-shaped bar.

Three nights of the kind of alcohol abuse that would make William McGonagall seethe were beginning to catch up with me, and my last hour or so in Tickety Boo’s is lost in a haze of Jameson and ginger ale. The last thing I remember is ending up in the company of two people who I believe were the last pair standing from a work night out, some department from Dundee City Council, perhaps. In a break from the norm, the woman initiated conversation with me when their group first entered the pub and she was sent to the bar with the drinks kitty while the others took a table. She must have made mention of her status as a key worker, since there would have been no other reason for me to regurgitate my joke about being unable to understand why Timpsons was closed during the various lockdowns when they are surely key workers, too. Her laughter was a tonic, like the ginger ale to my whiskey. Even more delightful was to hear her recite the line when she returned to her group, though her delivery didn’t do it justice.

When the council worker returned to the bar for another round she asked my name, which was a lot less troubling than when the question was last put to me.  There was no need for improvisation this time.  I did my usual act in these situations of providing the two initials of my first name and asking the inquisitor to guess the rest, but she got them both immediately and took all the fun right out of it.  The tables were turned when she revealed that her first initial is also a ‘J’, which seemed fitting when there are three J’s everywhere you look in Dundee.  Eventually, the two work colleagues got a taxi to Broughty Ferry and I walked the short distance back to my hostel, passing the large green dragon – which is a much more imposing sight at the end of a night than it is at the beginning of the day – and the Desperate Dan statue on my way.  I had only seen a very small sample of the city in my time there, but it was enough to make me think again about Dundee’s reputation.  The place has a rich history with many quirks.  More than that, even in the 5% of the city’s bars I visited, I found the most interesting and bedevilling characters.  Enough to fill a notebook with sketched pigs.

Hard to believe it isn’t butter

It was always a tremendous source of amusement amongst our family when we would make our weekly visit to Poppies for breakfast on a Saturday morning and the dish with the small portions of butter would arrive at the table.  There would typically be around four or five of the little golden rectangles, and it was always a race to see which of either my niece or our father would notice them first.  Dad had the advantage of experience and the fact that my niece was usually distracted by whichever object was her favourite toy on that particular day.  A cuddly cat, a colouring book, building blocks, a sponge scouring pad.  Though she undoubtedly had the cuteness factor in her favour, and if she happened to spy the butter before anybody else, she was pretty difficult to beat.  

Their motives for wanting the butter were quite different and went far beyond simply garnishing a slice of toast.  My niece sometimes liked nothing better than to peel open the little golden parcel as though it were a present on Christmas morning, but what was hidden inside was no surprise to her; she knew exactly what it was and she wanted to eat it.  Even when there was a plate full of hot, fresh toast sitting on the table in front of her, all she wanted to do was to stick her fork into the smooth yellow blob and lick it. Sometimes she wouldn’t even need the fork.  Our dad, on the other hand, liked to gather a portion or two of butter and carefully wrap it in a red napkin which, after a quick look around the coffee shop, would be safely stashed away in the pocket of his jacket.  It wasn’t the most elaborate of heists, but it would require great care all the same.  No-one wants to take a gunshot wound on a bank robbery, just like nobody wants a grease stain from melted butter on their favourite jacket.

To begin with, none of us could really tell why dad wanted so much butter.  There had been plenty of discussion in the news of people stockpiling goods before Britain left the European Union at the end of October, but they had been talking about cans of tuna fish and baked beans, toilet rolls and medicines, rather than restaurant-sized portions of butter.  So one day we asked him.  He told us that he likes to collect them in case of a situation where he has run out of butter.  “You never know when you might need them.” It was essentially the same reason he would always give for the boxes of old VHS tapes he kept stored in various locations around the house.

I dismissed dad’s hoarding of butter portions as being unnecessary, wondering why anyone would go to such a length when butter isn’t exactly like a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow or a date on a Saturday night.  It isn’t difficult to find.  Sure, I would sometimes jump the gun and buy a bottle of washing up liquid before the one under my sink had been completely finished, and I always liked to make sure that I had a second tube of moisturiser in the bathroom cabinet, because nobody wants to be caught short and forced into spreading Lurpak on their cheeks, but otherwise I liked to keep my household supplies sensibly stocked.  At least that was the mighty impression I had of my own management when I got out of bed on Sunday morning to prepare an omelette.  

My omelettes were always very basic in their ingredients, although there would be enough of them to feed two or three single occupants if necessary.  It was rare if my brunch didn’t use bacon, there was usually an onion, too, and the grated cheese was piled high enough to cover a small molehill.  On occasion, there might be a red pepper thrown in if I wanted to spice the omelette up or I didn’t know how else I was going to use it.  The ingredients would be softened in a frying pan while I beat together a number of eggs which was typically dependant on how hungover I was feeling on any given Sunday.  Once the bacon pieces and onion chunks had been cooked, they were tipped out onto a plate and the frying pan wiped clean, ready to welcome a significant portion of butter, which would be melted to cook the eggs in.  At least that was how it usually happened every other weekend.  But on this particular occasion, I came to realise that I had used the last of the butter and forgotten to replace it.  There’s a handy reminder when it comes to preparing an omelette that to make one, you have to break a few eggs, but there is nothing to help you remember that you also need to buy butter.

While the butter tub-shaped gap on the middle shelf in my fridge remained, under the kitchen sink there were two bottles of Fairy washing up liquid.  For more nights than would probably be considered dignified, I was unscrewing the red lid of the original bottle and running the tap in an attempt to rinse out every last drop of green soap.  I refused to move on to the new one until I was satisfied that I had gotten my money’s worth.  In thirty-five years I had never considered what value for money might be from a 99p bottle of washing up liquid, but it turned out that it was filling it with water until the amount of bubbles spilling forth resembled a children’s birthday party.  

When it finally came time to flip open the top of the new bottle, I was greeted by a fragrance which was strikingly similar to supermarket bought apple juice, the sort you might find in the breakfast lounge of a Travelodge or a Premier Inn.  I glanced down at the plastic container in my hand, realising that in my haste to grab a bargain from the special offers section in Lidl I had picked up a bottle of apple orchard scented washing up liquid.  I had never been in an apple orchard, but I felt fairly certain that it wouldn’t smell like apple juice which had been caught consorting with paprika in my kitchen sink.  For reasons I couldn’t quite put my finger on, I wasn’t feeling comfortable with the idea of flavoured washing up liquid.  If the purpose of using such a thing was to clean debris from dinner plates and associated kitchen utensils, then what good would adding apple do?  It would be like bathing in Chardonnay or using margarine to moisturise my clean face.  I didn’t want anything to do with the scented soap, but I had paid for it and one use certainly wouldn’t be value for money, so I persevered, resigned to the fear that everything was going to taste of apples for weeks.

The view of Lothian Road didn’t rank amongst the most scenic in Edinburgh

Even at the Edinburgh Fringe, where I went in search of an escape, I was finding it difficult to avoid the irritants of day-to-day life.  It wasn’t so much the flyerers or the insanely busy streets that I was being troubled by.  Even the older couple from Yorkshire who walked into Banshee Labyrinth, which frames itself as being the most haunted pub in Edinburgh but where the only spirt I have ever encountered came from a bottle behind the bar, and complained about the price of their drinks in the city centre didn’t bother me.  Indeed, I found my own spirits momentarily lifted when I watched the comedian Peter Brush perform for the third year in a row and his joke about the time he thought that his acting career was on the verge of taking off when he landed the role of understudy to the part of Godot in a school production of the Samuel Beckett play received the kind of reaction some of my own favourite jokes get.  I was one of three people in the small chamber room who laughed out loud, mainly out of sympathy and a recognition of the comedian’s plight of having his well-crafted joke fall as flat as a glass of breakfast apple juice.

My irritation came when I was sitting in the beer garden outside Brewdog enjoying a pint of their light Dead Pony Club IPA, which tasted a lot better than the name suggested and was a refreshing drink in the warmth of a late August afternoon.  The outdoor seating area was almost the entire length of the pavement and offered views of Lothian Road, which probably didn’t rank amongst the most scenic in the city.  Nevertheless, I soaked it in like I was looking out at Edinburgh Castle or the Scott Monument, organising my thoughts and contemplating where Peter Brush had gone wrong with his Godot joke, and me with my gag about searching for a self-help book in Waterstones.

At the table across from mine, a couple arrived and sat down with their craft beers.  No sooner had their buttocks touched the bench than both of them had a cigarette in their mouths, like synchronised swimmers, shrouded in smoke.  Clouds of nicotine were coughing across the narrow courtyard and I was cursing under my breath, which was more than the smokers would be capable of, I thought.  Their presence was irritating me more than it should have, especially considering that they were smoking exactly where they were supposed to.  What upset me most was the knowledge that five years previously I would have been the asshole lighting a cigarette in an area where nobody else was smoking, completely oblivious to their discomfort.  It occurred to me that you never really know how annoying something you are doing can be to other people until you are no longer the person doing it.  I suppose it’s a lot like being part of the couple in a room full of single friends.

A week had passed when I walked into Aulay’s.  The rain was falling briskly outside and the Dundee derby was playing on the television screens.  It was like any other Friday night.  In the corner of the lounge bar, underneath the televised football, was sitting a young woman whose hair was curled and the colour of midnight.  Her skin was like crushed olives and she had exactly the type of face I liked in a person: symmetrical, with two eyes, a nose and a mouth.  From her ears were hanging two large brass earrings which were the width of a champagne flute.  She was wearing a top that was camouflage coloured, yet I couldn’t help but see her.

I was standing at the bar with Brexit Guy and Geordie Pete, the latter of whom was waxing lyrical about the majesty of St James Park and telling me the story of how he went there to watch Newcastle play Arsenal in 2011.  The visitors raced into a four-goal lead inside half an hour, and Pete decided that he had seen enough so he left the stadium for the Irish pub which sat on the corner of the Gallowgate, in the shadow of the massive stands nearby.  He was leaning against the bar watching the afternoon’s football scores come through on the TV.  Newcastle scored.  Then again.  And again.  The game Geordie Pete left finished 4-4 and was regarded as one of the most remarkable English Premier League games of the modern era.  I couldn’t help but relate the story to my own romantic interests, though I couldn’t be sure if I was the Geordie Pete, the Newcastle or the Arsenal.  All the same, it was a distraction from the girl in camouflage.

In the meantime, as I leaned across the bar to order another pint of Tennent’s, I heard an unfamiliar voice speak into my left ear.  It was soft and complimentary and welcome.  “I really like your suit,” the voice soothed.  “You don’t see a brown suit often enough.”

I dipped my mouth into the frothy head of my pint and turned to face the tweed enthusiast with something approaching a smile.  “It’s probably my favourite suit,” I said, attempting to curry favour with the tall bald-headed man who I recognised as having been sitting in the company of the camouflage girl.  The gentleman’s head seemed to have been shaved bald out of a consideration for fashion more than as any kind of natural progression.  We exchanged pleasantries and he returned to his table with drinks for himself and the camouflage girl.  I was left standing at the bar feeling like a frying pan without a portion of butter, or a man who had just had an enormous puff of cigarette smoke blown into his face.

An august playlist – my Spotify playlist for the month of August

The following two songs were my most listened to through the month.  Unknown Legend was perfect for my feelings of restlessness, the way that reality collides with fantasy.  The song always gets me.

Funeral Beds builds to an epic climax.

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

The tennis racket reservation dispute (aka Brian Fallon @ Usher Hall, Edinburgh)

I always like to make a great drama out of taking my seat on the train.  Even if nobody is watching the scene as I unload my vast supply of travel companions into the small space before me, it gives me a tremendous sense of purpose.  On this particular morning, I was experiencing an exuberant rush of energy, which was supplemented by the session of yoga I had been able to get out of bed for, and the power walk to the train station I had been forced into when I once again mistimed my morning, despite living closer to the station than ever before.  I expect that my cheeks must have taken on the appearance of undercooked bacon with the physical effort exerted and from the frosty February air as I plonked my baggage onto the empty seat next to mine.  From the bag I extracted a silver flask which had been filled with approximately a cup and a half of coffee, an A3 notebook and a pen to record any observations I felt I had to make, a set of earphones, a Tupperware box which was packed with two bananas, two small oranges and some broken up pieces of rye crispbread, and an empty sandwich bag which would be used to discard of the loose peel.

I was feeling pleased with my organisation, and when the train pulled away from the pale platform and Pearl Jam was playing on my Spotify playlist, I opened up the Tupperware to eat the first of my bananas.  The oranges rolled out of position as I removed the greenish-yellow shape, and it took me a few attempts to snap each of the four latches on the sides of the lid back into place along the lip of the container.  Across the aisle of the carriage, I could see the young woman who was seated opposite me shudder with each failed attempt at securing the snacks.  Her face contorted into a soft fury as she glared at me from the corner of her eye.  I was beginning to feel anxious that the box would never be properly closed, that the woman with hair the colour of a late winter afternoon would erupt into a volcanic rage by the end of the journey, and that the crispbread would become soft and inedible.  Eventually, the lid was fastened safely into place, and the woman opposite me alighted from the train at its first stop in Connel. Commuters hardly ever get off at Connel, and I wondered if the woman had decided on a different mode of transport owing to my lack of tact with the Tupperware.

The snow-peaked fields on the west of Scotland had given way to an icy fog which was leaking profusely by the time I arrived in Edinburgh.  It seems that the city’s cobbled streets are always slick with rain, which really makes a person think when they are leaving a bar after wiling away a few loose hours in the afternoon.  As I was sitting in the corner of Brass Monkey reading the last couple of chapters of A Confederacy of Dunces, I studied a young university-type as she approached the bar.  She enquired to the barman who, according to the observations of native drinkers in the pub, had recently had a haircut, about the possibility of reserving space for seven members of The Fresh Air Society, who were due to meet at 7.45 the following evening.  I kept my head in my book, but my eyes were straining upward towards the young woman.  I found myself hoping that the society’s fledgling meeting would run late into the night and I could chance upon them after Brian Fallon’s performance at the Usher Hall, for the woman seemed to have a quality which I couldn’t quite describe.  She appeared to be a very new and welcome vision.

I was still thinking of The Fresh Air Society on the day of the show when I returned to Glasgow to meet with my two gig-going friends.  We arranged to assemble for drinks in The Ark, a bar which is close to Queen Street station and seemed reasonably priced.  I was the first of our trio to arrive, and although the place was remarkably busy for four o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon, I was able to find a table.  All of a sudden a great sound could be heard rattling against the roof of the building, like handfuls of gravel being tossed against the window of a lover to attract their attention.  I turned to look out into the beer garden, where hailstones were furiously lashing the canopies.  A sense of relief that I had made it into The Ark when I did flooded over me as I watched the hail continue to fall.

The girls were running later than planned following an incident where a loud-mouthed woman fell up a flight of stairs in a piercing studio, and I went up to the bar to order myself another drink.  I removed my black leather jacket and folded it over my stool to indicate that the table was occupied, giving the seat the appearance of a sloppily dressed child.  When I returned with a beer in hand, one of the other stools around my table had been furnished with a rucksack which had the handle of a tennis racket protruding from it.  Soon a young lady appeared and informed me that I was sitting at her table.  I told her, with great pride, that I had been sitting there since before the flood, and the look on her face implied that she didn’t know what I was talking about nor care for my sense of humour.  I lifted my buttock to show her the leather jacket I had used to mark my territory, an act which seemed to speak more honestly to her.  I apologised and claimed that if I had not been waiting for two other people I would have gotten up and given the table to the girl and her boyfriend, though I wasn’t sure if I was saying that to make her feel better or to absolve myself.

I could sense the cold stare of the couple from somewhere else in the dimly lit bar for the entire time I was sitting at the table by myself.  Even when the kaleidoscope of hair arrived and vindicated the story I had told, I felt unable to put my jacket back on, despite the increasing chill around the place.  It was the penance I had to pay to make it clear to all onlookers that my jacket was a legitimate placeholder.

After a series of drinks which increased in strength over the hours, from beer to wine to Jagerbombs, the three of us split a bottle of pink gin between three bottles of Sprite and took the train to Edinburgh.  We arrived at Usher Hall pleasingly intoxicated as Brian Fallon was taking to the stage, where the frontman of The Gaslight Anthem was performing a solo acoustic show.  His ninety-minute show spanned the majority of his career and was enjoyable, although some parts of the set left me feeling underwhelmed, like a steak dinner you have been looking forward to and it is only after eating it that you realise you have forgotten to cook the onion rings.

The night ended in Shakespeare’s, where the answer to the question was to beer, and we enjoyed a final drink before the girls with the spectacularly coloured hair caught the last train back to Glasgow.  The rain had stopped by the time I left the bar, though my black leather jacket was still wet and my stomach was in ropes.  My day had been riddled with an anxiety I couldn’t understand, and the walk along Princes Street to the hostel I was spending the night in took more than an hour, according to phone records.  By the time I had reached the other side of the city it was too late for me to venture to Brass Monkey as intended, and the chances are that no responsible bar person would have served me anyway.  It was a sorry end to the night, when all I had been looking for was a breath of fresh air.

The night I gave the worst travel advice

The streets of Edinburgh were bulging with city goers seeking some festive spirit, with crowds of people so thick that it was barely imaginable that a line of a hundred white LED lights could be strung through them.  It required a real effort and a measure of ingenuity to walk from one end of Princes Street to the other at any kind of regular pace.  There were families exploring the vast Christmas market, whilst couples were walking with their arms linked along the street, their knitted hats and scarves straight out of a page they saw in a catalogue.  A pair of large dogs, Great Danes, I think, were striding alongside their owners, each dressed in a red and a green elf costume.  Meanwhile, I was on my way to dine alone at a French restaurant I had read about earlier.

Everything about the city was lit up.  In the gardens, by the Scott Monument, stood a massive Big Wheel which was flashing a brilliant bright red as it turned.  Positioned so close to the Victorian Gothic structure, built in 1844, the scene looked like a Pixar production of Lord of the Rings.  On George Street, there were Christmas lights as far as the eye could see, more than any person could reasonably count.  In the windows of department stores, there were colourful and joyous displays, depicting all sizes of Santa Claus, red-nosed reindeer, and sweet haloed angels.  Over on the South Bridge, the neon blue sign of The Church of Scientology was burning in the cold night air, and I thought to myself how nice it was that all of the crazy beliefs were being catered for.

Down a cobbled side street, I found the traditional French restaurant I was searching for.  Opened two years ago and run by a French couple, the restaurant was small and intimate, housing only six tables and seating a maximum of four parties at any time.  At the door, I was greeted by the wife of the couple, whose role in the partnership seemed to be to act as the most diminutive French waitress I have ever seen.  She led me to a table at the back of the room, taking me past a long table in the centre of the dining area which was showcasing a range of Christmas figurines arranged into a festive scene.  When seated I became aware of the fact that the woman was dressed entirely in black, with the exception of her footwear, which was a pale colour.  Once I had seen it I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I was wondering if she knew.  Soon it was as distracting as the waitresses’ habit of approaching my table as I was deep in contemplation, and I never did get to finish my thought.

After a short while, the waitress – no taller than a mid-size Christmas tree with a star on top – presented me with two menus:  one was the dinner selection and the other a seven course Christmas menu.  I perused the festive feast on offer, considering whether the duck foie gras would be like the French Christmas dinner equivalent of a pig in a blanket.  Seven courses seemed like five too many for someone who has never dined in a French restaurant, however, and after a quick consultation with Google to pinpoint which dishes on the menu might contain mushrooms, I ordered from the regular evening selection.

Along with my Venison Parmentier, I ordered a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, because it was the only words I understood the waitress say.  She returned from the wine rack with an ice bucket and the bottle of my choosing, in a presentation which seemed much too elaborate for a single man who was really only wanting to get drunk.  She opened the bottle, the glass dripping with an enticing condensation, and asked me if I would like to taste it.  I have never known anyone to say no in such a scenario, though a panic streaked through my mind as I considered how awkward it would be if I tried the wine and found it was disgusting.  Would I have the guts to turn it away after she had gone to all the trouble of opening the bottle and resting it in a chilled silver bucket?

The waitress poured a mouthful of Sauvignon Blanc into my glass, and I raised it slowly to my mouth, pausing to take an exaggerated inhale.  I wasn’t sure what I was sniffing for, but it seemed like something a person would do when tasting wine.  “That’s acceptable,” I said, in the most ridiculous manner possible, after drinking the fruity white.

I was reveling in the adventure of trying French cuisine for the first time.  It was in contrast to my dining experience earlier in the day, on the train from Oban to Glasgow, when I was forced into eating an entire mango on the journey – rather than saving some for the later leg to Edinburgh – after forgetting to pack my tangerines.  I had never before eaten so much mango in a single sitting, and the thought crossed my mind that there could be some kind of unexpected side effect, the way children become hyper on too much sugar, or I transform into a bumbling buffoon around women after a certain amount of beer and Jameson.

Across the aisle from my seat was a girl who had olive skin and who was wearing a fluffy red hat.  I noticed her staring as I brought another chunk of juicy yellow fleshed mango to my mouth.  I couldn’t help but worry that she had seen how much mango I was eating, knowing the crude effect it would have on a person.  She had doubtless seen the way that the skin around my nostrils had the appearance of a window which has been decorated with spray-on snow, the aftermath of a cold earlier in the week, and we both knew that I would have been better off eating an orange.

There was no muzak in the background of the restaurant, a feature which I considered would be ideal in the wild event of me dining with a woman on an intimate date, allowing you to really talk to a person.  Sitting by myself in the corner, it made things eerily quiet, and I was left to dwell on my own thoughts.  Part of me was wanting to create some atmosphere by plugging my earphones into my phone and playing something on Spotify by La Fouine, but I wouldn’t have known where to begin.  After finishing my meal, I sat for what felt like at least fifteen minutes trying to catch the attention of the waitress in order to ask for my bill.  It was another scenario in which I was left to rue my inability to make eye contact with a woman, and it was only after my second attempt at raising my arm in the air that I was able to draw her to my table.

After eating, I retired to my favourite bar in the city, Brass Monkey, where in contrast to the manic streets outside, I found a surprising solitude.  I sank into a seat at the bar and ordered a pint of Innis & Gunn.  On the chalk menu overhead, there was an offer of a mug of mulled wine and a mince pie for £3.25.  It seemed appealing, though I decided that it would contradict the fine French wine I had just enjoyed.  As I was mulling it all over in my mind, I wondered whether they would use the whole orange, or would they peel it and cut it into pieces first?

I was nearing the last mouthful of my third pint and considering moving on to The Advocate, which wasn’t so far from my hostel and in my thinking would save me a walk later in the night.  To my left, there was a man ordering around four or five drinks.  He was sitting at a table with a group of friends, and once he had paid for his round he carried three of the drinks over to them.  He mentioned to the barmaid that he was doing this, and noticing that the head on his pint was evaporating, she asked him what he was drinking so that she could top it up in the meantime.

“It’s a beer,” he responded, quite matter of fact.

“What kind of beer?”  The barmaid enquired.  “We sell several of them.”

The man informed her of his tipple and took the rest of his drinks to the table.   “It’s amazing the number of people who come in here and ask for ‘a beer’,” the barmaid said to me, standing behind rows of taps.  Her voice was sounding faintly Irish to me, and her hair was nearly as dark as the tattoos which were covering the arm she was using to pour pints.  My soul was on fire.  I was put in mind of McSorley’s Old Ale House in New York City, which to this day only serves two varieties of beer:  light and dark.  Having made contact with the barmaid, I decided that I would remain seated in Brass Monkey, and I had the perfect line for her.

“Since you brought it up,” I began, leaning forward on the oak surface of the bar, excitedly.  “Can I have a beer?”

The barmaid laughed and rolled her eyes at the same time.  “What kind of beer?”

I stayed until shortly after midnight, but the barmaid didn’t talk to me again.

Whilst standing at Aulay’s Bar in Oban, thinking about another beer, a quartet of Greeks arrived.  They were talking about their travel plans for the following few days, and when they mentioned their intention to drive north to Inverness, I felt that it would be useful for them if I shared my experiences of making the same journey as a child, when we would often take family car trips to visit my mother’s side of the family.  The Greeks – two couples – were listening with interest as I enthused about the beautiful scenery they would witness on the drive, which is in excess of three hours long.

“I used to suffer from terrible travel sickness when I was younger, though,” I warned.  “There would be many an occasion when mum would have to pull over so that I could be sick at the side of the road.”

“Come to think of it, much of that was probably the Smarties I was eating,” I recalled.

“There was one time I vomited on the banks of Loch Ness.  Dad tried to make me feel better about it by convincing me that we had seen the Loch Ness Monster while I was throwing up, but I never believed it.”

“So, if I could offer you one travel tip when you are driving to Inverness, it would be this:  don’t eat Smarties.  And carry a plastic bag.”

The group was looking at me with their big, dark Mediterranean eyes, expressionless and uncertain.  They shuffled off towards a table in the corner of the bar without saying another word.  It occurred to me that I should have mentioned the mango.

Four days at the Edinburgh Fringe: Part two

I wasn’t being handed any fliers on Wednesday morning and I couldn’t understand why not.  Ordinarily during the Fringe Festival it is virtually impossible to avoid walking any street in Edinburgh without having a glossy advert for some comedy show or theatre production thrust into your hand by an enthusiastic volunteer who is often dressed in costume.  I had been walking for around an hour and not one person had attempted to sell their show to me, and I was beginning to take it personally. I slowed my walking pace out of hope that it would make me appear less in a rush to get somewhere important and therefore more approachable, but even that was having no effect.  I walked with my arms outstretched a little, in the manner of a monkey, and still nobody was willing to place a flier in my hand. I considered that on this particular day no-one was looking for a single man to attend their shows and I was feeling a little low and put out, so I purposefully walked past the same juggling act a couple of times for confidence.

Wednesday morning had started out with the city’s cobbled streets slick with rain, but by around midday it had dried out and there was a warmth from the sun in the sky.  I decided that I would no longer need the denim jacket I had come out wearing, so I returned to the hostel where I had been staying and stored it in a locker with the rest of my luggage.  This is when it occurred to me that I had been walking around for more than an hour dressed in double denim and I suspected that this was the reason I wasn’t being handed any fliers, though a man wearing double denim should probably be a prime comedy victim.

After watching Peter Brush make a very convoluted and brilliant joke about snails in an awkward manner in a room full of ten people or less, I went out to Pleasance Courtyard where I would spend much of the day and first saw the Irish comedienne Catherine Bohart, who performed a set about being a bisexual Irish Catholic who had recently been diagnosed as having OCD and whose father is a Deacon.  In the small room I was seated next to a woman who shortly after taking her seat reached into her bag for a paper fan, which was a deep red and the sort that stylish ladies would use in the movies. She began to fan herself in an elaborate and exhaustive fashion and it made me wonder if the flushing she was experiencing was in any way related to my testosterone. It made me feel good to think this and I was sitting smugly as Catherine Bohart took to the stage.  As I glanced around the room, which was very compact and warm, I noticed several other women who were using tickets to fan their faces and I accepted that my masculinity probably wasn’t having that much of an effect.

Later, whilst entering another show, the usher called out for “any singles” to fill a seat in the corner, around three rows from the front, which was the last remaining in that particular row.  There wasn’t a rush of people who were attending the show by themselves, or who were at least willing to admit to being alone, and I raised my hand in the air in the most meek way and was directed to walk along the front of the stage to reach this lone chair, as though I was being put on display.

I had some time to spare before seeing Alex Edelman and I decided that I would spend it in the warm early evening breeze in the courtyard with a pint of beer.  Pleasance is one of the major hubs of the Fringe and there was a buzz of activity with audiences lined up outside the numerous venues and people handing out fliers in an effort to sell last minute tickets.  A girl approached me with a handful of such fliers, her hair was a kind of sunkissed hazelnut and she was wearing skinny jeans which were impressively tight fitting and a lime green top which matched the colour of her shoes as well as her handbag.  It struck me that if I was female this is the sort of style I would favour.

The girl with the hazelnut hair offered me a flier for a show in which stand-up comedians perform in the dark.  I took it and asked her how the comedians can see whether the audience are laughing when there are no lights. She laughed in a pained way, as though she really wasn’t wanting to laugh but she couldn’t help but admire the effort made to concoct such a terrible joke.  I took this response as an invitation to ask the flier dispatcher why she thought it might be that I had such a barren leafleting experience earlier in the day. She crinkled her nose, in the way some people scrunch up unwanted fliers, and thought it surprising. We exchanged a silent stare for what might only have been three or four seconds but felt more like a minute and I thought it would be a good idea to ask the citrus styled saleswoman if Comedians in the Dark was good enough for her to consider wasting her time going with me.  She said that she had seen the show earlier in the month but that different comics perform all the time and if she could hand off the rest of her fliers she would go with me.

After the show, which was performed in near darkness, I asked the girl with the hazelnut hair if she would consider having a drink with me.  She declined, citing an early start in her day job the following morning, but invited me to take a short train journey and we could share a bottle of wine at her place.  From Waverley Station her stop was only around ten minutes and it was a place I was not familiar with. Her flat was on the top floor of a building which was in the middle of a high street that was like any other, and she asked me if I would mind sharing a flat with a young dog.  I have formed a bond with many a canine over the years and didn’t consider this a problem, though as we approached her home I felt myself becoming anxious as I realised that now I wasn’t only having to impress her, but her dog would have to like me too. Somehow my attempts at humour and conversation had gotten me this far, but if I didn’t hit it off with the dog then it could blow the whole thing.

As she opened the door a small dog scampered to greet her, and soon its little paws were clambering onto my thighs and I could tell that it was much too cute to hate anyone.  We sat on the couch and she opened a bottle of white wine, which was foreign and as delicious as its name was unpronounceable. The little dog sat between us on the cushions, as though forming a protective barrier until I had its absolute approval to proceed.  As we talked – the girl with the hazelnut hair and I – her dog arched across my lap and demanded that I rub its little pink belly. It was impossible to refuse, and it was probably the first time that I have cultivated a friendship with my ability to scratch.

Some time passed and having removed her own lime green shoes, the girl with the hazelnut hair reached for my laces and insisted that I would be much more comfortable if I wasn’t wearing my boots.  Soon her hand was working its way around an area of my jeans where ordinarily only my hand ventures, and when my penis was released and she was kneeling on the floor between my feet, the dog sat up on the couch next to me, and as its deep black eyes stared at me I began to worry that it might mistake me for a sausage.  Once I had raised this concern the dog was quickly ushered from the room into the hallway, for at least twelve minutes, and whilst it probably didn’t have the capacity to understand what was happening I’d like to believe that the neighbours did.

After the dog was welcomed back into the room and my host had changed into a pair of pyjamas which were much less colourful but every bit as fetching as her daytime wear, I was asked a question which I had not anticipated being asked and which I had never been asked before.

“How would you feel about sharing a bed with a dog?”

I weighed up the options in my mind:  I could either sleep with a girl or I could not sleep with a girl, and I quickly decided that sleeping with a girl would be preferable and that I could live with the dog, which had befriended me as much as I had it.  Following another glass or two of wine we all went to bed, and I had to wonder what the dog was making of all of this. I was a guy who it had met for the first time only a few hours earlier, I had not even bought it dinner, and now I was sharing its bed and bumping bones with its owner.

In the dark of the night I was having difficulty sleeping, partly out of a fear that if I fell asleep I would find that this entire night and this fantastically beautiful woman I was lying next to was a terribly unlikely dream woven by my wild imagination, and partly because at the foot of the bed I could hear the dog licking itself profusely.  When I was finally able to fall asleep I was soon woken by the soft and wet lather of a tongue lapping at my face. My eyes gradually opened and I was considering how this was an unusual but not unwelcome way for the girl with the hazelnut hair to waken me and rouse my attention. She must be ready for some more action, I thought to myself, and it was something that I could get used to.  Then I caught the unmistakable scent of dog food and realised that the dog was right in my face, and that was were it spent much of the night.

An alarm soon rung in the morning and the girl with the hazelnut hair had to be up early for work.  Before getting herself ready she lifted the dog into the hallway and she and I were investigating the integrity of the mattress once more.  She climaxed as the dog urinated on the carpet and it seemed like each of us got something from the experience.  After a cup of tea I asked where I was, how I got here and how I get back to Edinburgh. She explained that the train station was a couple of minutes down the street and that the trains are frequent.  I thanked her and left, hopeful that as the day progressed I would receive some more fliers for my satchel.

 

Four days at the Edinburgh Fringe: Part one

It never matters where my final destination in the capital city is, every time I arrive in Edinburgh Waverley railway station I have to exit by the steps onto Princes Street so that I can see the Scott Monument, which is not only one of my favourite landmarks anywhere but is also, as far as I am concerned, the best monument dedicated to Sir Walter Scott.

During the month of August in particular, when Edinburgh is host to one of the world’s largest arts festivals, I am almost immediately filled with a tremendous sense of regret over my decision to take the long and unnecessary detour by the Royal Mile, rather than walking out onto Market Street where my hostel accommodation is located directly across the road from the station.  This was the case yesterday, when I found myself trapped behind an endless stream of slow walking pedestrians – the sort of people whose pace would make a tortoise retreat into its shell out of shame – who inexplicably stop to a standstill on the middle of bridges or suddenly change direction to walk straight across your path. My internal monologue was seething, and I couldn’t be sure if I was more annoyed with them or with myself.

The journey from Glasgow into Edinburgh had already soured my mood when the elderly man sitting opposite me and to my left had fallen asleep practically as soon as the train had left Queen Street.  This was a particularly large man and he had the appearance of a novelty-sized helium balloon from a children’s birthday party which had been caught up in a strong breeze and carried onto the seat opposite me on the train, having deflated just enough air so that it had flopped neatly into the seat.  He was asleep the entire way across the country, and when the train was approaching Haymarket station and he had still not stirred, not even for the ticket inspector, I was becoming anxious that it would be my responsibility to waken him.

I was beginning to visualise how I would attract this much older and much larger man’s attention without startling him so much as to cause a cardiac event.  Would a gentle hand on his shoulder be enough to do the job when there was so much of him? What if it wasn’t and I went on to strike him so hard that he awoke in a furious mood and I had an angry mob of commuters baying for my blood, accusing me of assaulting a pensioner and a war veteran?  Then I thought about what I might say to this man if I was able to waken him and he was sitting there in his seat looking up at me, dazed and confused and sleepy. I have always wanted to use the phrase “it’s the end of the line” but have never had reason to do so, because there are so few instances where it can be applied without sounding silly.  This was the perfect scenario to use that line, though, and I suddenly found myself feeling excited and hoping – almost willing – that the pensioner would stay asleep just a little while longer so that I could tap him on his shoulder. “We’ve reached the end of the line, bud.”

As I continued to daydream, a passing stranger reached down, having noticed the trouble that this man had gotten himself into, and he placed his hand on his shoulder.  “This is the last stop,” the good Samaritan informed the elderly man as he awoke, and his delivery wasn’t nearly as cool as I had imagined mine would be. I gathered up my belongings and sighed, feeling a mixture of disappointment and relief that at least I had not caused a heart attack.

After checking into my hostel accommodation I enjoyed a pint of lager at the Jinglin’ Geordie bar, which is approximately halfway up or down Fleshmarket Close, depending on which way a person is travelling.  For my first beer of the Fringe I considered the price of £5 a little steep, although not quite as steep as the steps seemed after drinking the pint.

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The top deck of a green bus, which was parked on Potterrow Underpass, was the venue for the first show I attended.  Chris Betts Vs The Audience had received a four-star review on The List website and the premise was a fun one where the comedian would argue against anything the audience said.  During this show the audience were tasked with debating in favour of legalising public urination and later Chris Betts would argue for the poaching of elephants, while a couple of ‘quickfire rounds’ took place between.  It was interesting to see the lengths people would go to in order to win an argument.

Much of the evening was spent in the Brass Monkey bar, which was close by, and the pints of Innis & Gunn were a slightly more agreeable price of £4.50.  The bar had the atmosphere of being in a persons living room, with its velvet-like red lampshades and the cast of photographs on the walls and the selection of board games which were available to play.  The white trimmings around the edges of the ceiling reminded me of the living room I grew up in and I enjoyed my time there. On the door leading to the bathroom were the symbols for both male and female sexes and inside there were two cubicles and a short urinal, which was enclosed behind white gates, similar to the saloon doors you would see in a western movie.  I had forgotten about this setup when I used the toilet for the second time and exited the urinal into the common handwash area whilst still fumbling with the zip on my jeans. I was momentarily surprised and felt like a very mild sex offender when I encountered a slightly older woman who was standing at the sink. Then I remembered that this was Edinburgh and that things are different on the east coast and I reminded myself that in future I should probably fasten my zip as soon as my penis is safely away.

At the bar in The Advocate I found myself in conversation with a woman who was waiting to order some drinks for her group.  She had pleasing facial features – it was symmetrical, with two eyes, a nose and a mouth, just the way I like a face – though she had a very strong Edinburgh dialect which jarred a little with my senses.  I tried to use alcohol to dull this but it was proving difficult. The woman spoke of her love of the city during the festival, which is in contrast to most locals who tend to despair during the month of August.  “Other people,” she said, “charge £1500 a week to rent their flat but I only ask for half of that.”  The word only hung in the air and she said it like she was doing somebody a favour with some grandiose act of charity, like she was welcoming the homeless into the warmth of her living room or saving the whales.  She threw a shot of tequila down her throat and introduced herself before leaving with a handful of drinks to convene with the rest of her group outside and I thought about everything that had happened.

Not so far away at The Bunker in Espionage, I went to see Cosmic Comedy, which was a show produced by a group from Berlin and featured four comedians performing around ten minutes of standup material each.  Three of the acts ranged from mediocre to terrible and there were no fewer than two jokes about the German invasion of Poland, which happened nigh upon eighty years ago. The fourth act, who was on third, was Josie Parkinson, whose blog (‘Making Of’ ) I have recently started reading and who was the reason I had decided to attend the show.  She was comfortably the most assured of the performers and I found myself laughing at her Tinder experiences and supermarket tantrums. I had been considering attempting to talk to Josie after the show finished, to tell her that I had enjoyed her performance and that I admire her writing. For a brief moment I found myself within speaking distance of her and I considered how weird it might seem for someone to mention such a thing as a blog in public, and the guy she was with was much bigger than I am, so I decided against it and continued walking.

Outside the venue, I was accosted by a girl who was handing out fliers for a show across the street, as almost everyone seems to be doing in Edinburgh.  She was wearing a sheepskin coat which looked very warm and I felt compelled to compliment her on her fashion and to ask her why she was wearing such a coat in August, which is still meteorological summer at least.  She smiled – perhaps out of enjoyment of my compliment, perhaps out of awkwardness – and told me that she has a cold and has been working outdoors for around twelve hours every day. I again made reference to her sheepskin coat and queried whether she felt others would follow her sartorial lead.  This seemed like a good point to leave.

I saw another four-act comedy show which featured a Russian and an Icelandic comedian, amongst others, at Banshee Labyrinth after the midnight hour and I returned to my room at the hostel happily drunk and satisfied with my first day at the Fringe.  I undressed and crawled into my single bed, which was closer to the floor than any bed I have ever slept in, and I fell asleep immediately.  Some hours later, at 6:56am, I was awoken by a housekeeper who had entered my room.  She apologised from her vantage point in the doorway when she saw me semi-naked amongst my sheets, and for some reason I also felt the need to say sorry.  The housekeeper closed the door again and it occurred to me how it really doesn’t take very much to wake a person up.

The day Celtic won the league (aka The Weekend I wore double denim; aka Josh Rouse @ The Mash House, Edinburgh

Recently I have been finding myself sighing loudly at increasingly frequent intervals and often with a sprawling dramatic effect, to the point where people nearby who are witnessing this theatre have been asking if I am alright.  I have been considering whether this involuntary act is just another thing that happens as we become older – for I am aging every day, after all – or if it is a symptom of something else. There have been days of late where I have felt a lot like a petal in a rainstorm:  lost and alone and helpless and drenched in thought. It was with this wistful and weary feeling that I took my seat on the sparsely populated 18.11 Scotrail service to Glasgow on Saturday evening.

The sun was hanging low in the sky over the bay by this time, longing to be returned to the ocean, and I had eaten a truly terrible pizza before I left the flat.  I was becoming tired, and when I carefully placed my Tesco bag for life packed with four cans of Budweiser on the table it felt a tad ambitious. I glanced around the nearly empty carriage as the train departed and became aware that the only other person who was drinking alcohol was the man sitting at the table adjacent to mine.  He had the appearance of someone who was low on his luck and who had probably not long since gotten out of bed. I hesitated in pulling the ring on my first can of beer, feeling reluctant to be grouped with this down and out. Then I wondered: what does he think when he looks across the aisle at me?  He probably doesn’t care.  By the looks of his fingernails he probably doesn’t care about much at all.  I sighed and opened the can of Budweiser, and in that moment we became one.

I was only able to drink three cans of beer, but somehow that didn’t matter when I reached the reception desk at the Travelodge and was greeted by the girl who last week had remembered me from a previous stay.  This time I didn’t have the same quiet satisfaction of being remembered by an attractive female whom I don’t remember, as not only did I remember her but I had been hoping to encounter her again. She noted that I was dressed in double denim and I acknowledged that it was a bold decision which I might not have made had I been sober.  Over the course of the weekend I would see at least five other men who were wearing a combination of jeans and a denim jacket and on none of those occasions did I feel convinced that it is a style which is back in fashion. My case, in particular, was probably not helped by the fact that my jeans are now at least a size too big for me and so much of my belt is being used to hold them around my waist that there is a length of leather left flapping like a carrier bag caught on a rail.

The Travelodge girl processed my booking for two nights and as she was doing so asked me what seemed to be an unusual and unexpected question.

“Would you mind not having a bath?”

For a moment I was caught off guard and hesitated.  The possibility ran through my mind that the Travelodge girl was sexually interested in me and that the forfeit of decency and hygiene was some kind of kink of hers.  But she looks much too manicured for that and my ability to wash myself is one of my best qualities, so I immediately dismissed that notion.

“Can I at least shower?”  I queried.

She laughed in the same way women tend to when I say something which is both vaguely amusing and laden with ineptitude.  She clarified that my room would have a shower but not a bath, and I declared that would be fine with me as I had forgotten to pack my lavender bath bombs.

Having checked in to my room and applied a fresh squirt of Joop Homme and disrobed myself of my denim jacket I returned downstairs, where disappointment furrowed my brow when the diminutive and curved blonde Travelodge girl was not behind the bar.  Instead I was served Guinness and Glenfiddich – as they were out of Jameson – by a taller, balder and more masculine character. Whilst he was not at all unpleasant he very quickly indulged me in the intricate details of his latest hobby, which happens to be to collect coins, and I have no currency for small talk.  He read to me from his small notebook a list of countries and denominations, page after page of them, and would later allow me to hold a Portuguese escudo. I had never prepared myself for such a thing and didn’t know quite what a person should be saying when holding a small piece of Iberian silver.

“It’s an interesting design,” proved to be the best coin chat I could muster.

Fortunately the coin collector’s shift finished at eleven o’clock and the Travelodge girl glided across the floor to serve a couple of older women who had ordered a vodka and coke each.  She informed the ladies that the bar had run out of ice and asked them if they would welcome a wedge of lemon as a substitute. They declined, and at the first opportunity I challenged the Travelodge girl on the logic of offering lemon as an alternative to ice.  She claimed that as it dilutes the drink it serves the same purpose and I wasn’t convinced.

“Speaking of lemons,” I exclaimed with the kind of excitement I get when something funny occurs to me.  “I’ll tell you something I’m feeling bitter about – you’ve run out of Jameson.”

Without hesitation she responded.

That joke is something to be bitter about,” she welped, emphasising the first two words as though she was questioning whether it could even be classed a joke.

Although she was clearly incorrect I continued talking to her anyway, and I relayed the tale of how I had gotten so drunk at the bar the previous Saturday that I fell asleep on top of the bed and gave the housekeepers the easiest Sunday morning they could have experienced.  Her face demonstrated a lack of surprise at this revelation, and she confirmed that I left the bar “in quite a state” that night. With those words I imagined that I had walked away from my bar stool in the manner of a bag of wet, unfolded laundry.

By this stage I had been joined by and found myself in conversation with a gentleman from the west coast of Ireland.  We discussed the upcoming Old Firm fixture; his love of Liverpool FC and how if Steven Gerrard becomes the next Rangers manager he will disown him the same way he did Michael Owen when he signed for Manchester United; the difference between football fans and GAA fans and how he can attend a Mayo vs Dublin game and sit next to someone from Dublin and hate them for no longer than the period of the game; how living in Switzerland for four months has taught him that “the Swiss are cunts.”  At points I found myself acting as a translator between the deep Irish brogue and the Glaswegian accent, and I was melting inside at the sound of both. I felt a deep awkwardness drinking Guinness poured from a can in front of an actual Irishman – it is inferior to the real thing in every conceivable way – and I suspect that he eventually became so offended by the sight that it was the cause of him getting up and leaving without ceremony.

On Sunday morning the sky was a sapphire blue and it looked as though it was dressed for a party.  I was conscious earlier than anticipated and decided to walk from the city centre to Celtic Park rather than take the train to Bellgrove, as I would ordinarily do on these type of match days.  During the week I had created a playlist of predominantly sad songs for a blue-haired friend who seems to be going through a troubled time and I listened to it as I made my way along the Gallowgate, as I had been doing all weekend, though I didn’t imagine that the groups of people singing behind me were serenading the journey with The Speed of Pain by Marilyn Manson.

Although it was early in the day – pre-afternoon, in fact – it was notable how many of the men walking ahead of me were cradling bottles of Buckfast in the back pockets of their jeans like it was the most prized possession in their life at that moment, in the way some carry a wallet holding pictures of loved ones or an iPod with their favourite songs.  Later, into the afternoon, those same bottles are standing triumphantly against lampposts, lined in regiment along the tops of walls and propped proudly against pavement kerbs, statuesque, like the way we memorialise heroes.

Celtic Park was shimmering in sunlight and the next time I saw my face my forehead was pink like a medium-rare fillet steak, owed to the lack of protection a cap might have offered – or a full head of hair.  This was not my first health and safety concern of the afternoon. I almost lost my glasses in the wild exuberance of the first goal, and by the time the third goal was scored and the entire stadium – save for some of the 7,000 in blue who were already shuffling towards the exits – locked arms around one another to do the Huddle I had visions of tumbling over the seat behind me.

At times I found myself glancing at the steward presiding over my block and wondered if she was The Most Beautiful Steward in the World from a game some time last season.  I had my doubts, because she looked a little fuller than before, but then that was an evening kick-off and much like bar lights everything looks better under floodlights.  I was convinced that it might have been her, however, by the fact that she shared many of the mannerisms The Most Beautiful Steward in the World had, such as frequently looking up at the screens and refusing to make eye contact with me.

During the half-time interval I embarked on my usual effort to source a sachet of brown sauce, which at times seemed almost as unlikely as finding a Rangers goal.  The base of the steak pie was sticking to the foil case with much more resolution than the Rangers midfield had been showing and the whole thing became a messy farce.

In the ground I was continuing to struggle to understand a single word spoken by the Northern Irishman next to me, though I am certain that he was excited.  The names of Andy Halliday and Alfredo Morelos reverberated around the stands with an adoration which is unlikely to be heard in even their own homes. By the time the fifth goal was scored and Celtic had won the league on an occasion where they had beaten Rangers for the first time since 1979 the place was heaving with joy the likes of which I have rarely seen.

After the final whistle I found it difficult to celebrate the way I felt like doing when I ended up in Shilling Brewing Co. drinking a hoppy session pale ale by the name of Goonies Never Die.  Often it seems to me that an IPA is a drink which is not supposed to be enjoyed, so complex and harsh it can be on the palette. The girl with the pink hair made a late withdrawal from the Josh Rouse gig and I travelled to Edinburgh alone.  I decided that I would eat dinner on the train and bought a brie, bacon and chilli chutney sandwich that had been reduced from £2.25 to £1.49, though with hindsight it wasn’t as substantial a reduction as it had seemed at the time.

With the journey between Scotland’s two largest cities being less than an hour I reckoned that I would not need a great amount of beer and so bought three 330ml cans of Brooklyn Lager rather than a typical four-pack of 440ml.  These cans were individually priced at £2.05 and the vigilant Sainsbury’s checkout woman queried whether I was aware of this. Whilst the price was indeed ridiculous I accepted it and confirmed that I would pay for the beer. She commented that she often pays inflated prices for wines she enjoys and I wasn’t sure if she was trying to make me feel better or worse about it.

On the train I continued the title-winning celebrations by listening to my sad playlist of songs by The Smiths, The Cure, Ryan Adams and The Ramones and attempted to drink Brooklyn Lager discreetly from an orange Sainsbury’s bag which was nestled between my thighs because I couldn’t be sure whether there was a ban on alcohol following the football.  A toddler of about three years of age, dressed in fluffy pink fairy wings, kept looking at me from across the carriage and it was the most judged I have ever felt. I got off the train at Waverley Station and hoped that the experience of watching a pink-faced man quaffing lager from an orange carrier bag wasn’t one which would traumatise this young girl in later life.

Edinburgh’s grey and gothic features were basking in the haze of an early evening glow and it is something I have rarely witnessed in the city.  The sun conspired with the architecture to cast haunting shadows across the streets and it was almost as charming as when the rain slickens the cobbles in the Old Town.  I made quick visits to some of my favourite bars in the city and drank Tennent’s Lager in Banshee Labyrinth, drawing attention to the fact that I am from the west coast. The Banshee Labyrinth is one of my favourite bars anywhere and its sign holds the claim that it is Scotland’s most haunted pub, though in my times there the only spirits I have encountered sit behind the bar in bottles.

Josh Rouse was playing at The Mash House, which turned out to be but a short stumble from the pubs I had travelled to.  The venue itself was very small and intimate, surely not much bigger than my flat, wall to wall. His set was very tight and had the kind of chilled out vibe I enjoy from his music and just about everything I could have hoped he would play he did.  I was particularly pleased and probably let out a shriek every bit as triumphant as when Callum McGregor scored earlier in the day when he played Hollywood Bass Player, the video for which features an animated Madonna taking a giraffe to a drive-thru cinema on a date.  I have long since seeing the video questioned what the etiquette would be when dating a giraffe: who buys the popcorn, who initiates the first kiss, who picks the movie?

By the time the gig finished and I was on the train back to Glasgow the ten o’clock curfew for selling alcohol in Scotland had passed and I was forced to endure a dry journey.  Similarly the bar in the Travelodge had closed for the night when I arrived there, being a Sunday night, and I returned to my room. It was barely midnight when I got under the covers and turned off the lights.  I sighed loudly and another rainstorm started.

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 I couldn’t stay awake (aka Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls @ Usher Hall, Edinburgh)

I have previously noted on this blog how I have recently turned 33, and I have frequently written of my ill-formed habit of travelling on early morning trains with the previous night’s alcohol soaked activities weighing heavily on my body.  Those two variables aligned can very quickly lead to an outcome similar to that of a retired train – ie. it goes off the rails.

The official journey time on the 8.57 Oban to Glasgow is a little over three hours, but it feels a whole lot longer when you’ve been in Aulay’s until closing time the night before.  I feel I owe a multitude of my next day woes to that bar.  That’s generally alright, though, with 8.57 typically being considered by reasonable human beings to not be an appropriate time to start drinking beer, so there’s little option but to sleep off that hangover.

Train sleeping is a very difficult act to pull off for any decent amount of time, however.  It is not an environment that is conducive to rest and relaxation; the rattling and rolling is not something I am used to in my own bed.  And the need to contort your body into all manner of shapes and positions to get some semblance of comfort in that garishly patterned seat is rarely worthwhile when you are invariably jolted from your slumber by something you will never be able to identify and you awaken without even the vaguest awareness of where you might be.

So my journey into Glasgow was punctuated with brief dalliances with sleep and I arrived feeling no better or worse than I had when I started out however many hours earlier, which I feel has to go down as a victory.

The Auctioneers was the highest bidder in my search to find a bar near to Queen Street station to watch the Celtic game and whilst I can’t state it with any scientific distinction, it seems true to me that the best cure for a hangover is a beer.  Or watching a dramatic 4-3 Celtic win in a pub rammed full with Rangers fans.  Both had a dramatic effect on my spirits and I was ready to tackle the significantly less daunting train ride to Edinburgh.

I thought eating some soup and a sandwich on the way would help with my situation.  Maybe it did.  Perhaps it was the remarkable warmth on the train – which is unusual for ScotRail – that did it.  But from around Falkirk High onwards I was overwhelmed with a sudden onslaught of fatigue.  I couldn’t keep my eyes open and I was enjoying some fantastically lucid dreaming.  Before I knew it I could see Murrayfield Stadium and I knew we were approaching Haymarket; this journey had been effortless.  In little more than two minutes we would be in Edinburgh Waverley and I could begin pre-gig drinking.  Then I fell asleep.  Into so deep a slumber that it required a conscientious passenger to tap me on the shoulder as the train filled with passengers on the next service.  Who knows where I might have ended up if I hadn’t woken and disembarked before the train left.

I was fucked.  There’s no other way of saying it.  My eyes were heavy, my head was fuzzy and my body had all the willingness of a woman on the receiving end of one of my chat-up lines.  All I wanted to do was check into my hostel and go to bed, but that seemed about as socially acceptable at 3.45pm as drinking beer on the train at 8.57am would have been.  So I ventured out into the cold, breathless streets of Edinburgh in search of a bar to watch the scores come in and where I could tear up the coupon I had placed on in Glasgow.  But the capital is very much a rugby city, and of nigh upon a dozen bars I tried from the Cowgate to the Grassmarket each and every one of them was showing England vs Australia rather than Soccer Saturday.  Defeated and tired I retreated to the safe Solitude of Brewdog and struggled to keep myself awake over a pint of Santa Paws.

Ordinarily I adore the gothic magnificence of Edinburgh, but it’s fair to say that it wore thin on this visit.  The Scott Monument was cloaked by giant flashing ferris wheels and Princes Street was slower than my speed of thought, which was severley lacking at this point.  Walking out to Usher Hall on Lothian Road felt like an achingly arduous funeral procession under the haze of a million Christmas lights, only made worse by my foolish decision to buy a hot cider at the Christmas market.  This wasn’t how my Saturday was meant to be.

Shakespeare’s set the world a little closer to its natural axis, even if my amusement was largely gained from watching the growing frustration of one particular punter who wasn’t getting served at the very end of the bar,  The misfortune of others really shouldn’t bring a person any kind of joy, but when you’re sitting comfortably on your bar stool with a near-full pint in hand observing the puffing of cheeks and the petted lip it is difficult not to feel a glow of satisfaction radiate within.  At this point I felt vaguely human.

If there’s one gig that could enliven a person it is Frank Turner.  He embodies positive energy and his shows always produce a happy, sing along environment – even if these days it seems slightly more forced than it used to.  It is near impossible to leave a Frank Turner show and not feel better than you did two hours previously, but boy I gave it a darn good try.  I could barely raise my arms to clap on command or dance that terrible dance I dance.  I was tired, and as much as I wanted to hear the next song all I could think of was the gig being over and me getting some actual sleep in a proper bed.  It’s no way to live, but it was the only way to live.

Of course, as I write this on the train home – six hours earlier than intended – I’m wide awake and feel like I could probably drink until closing time again.