There were nigh upon 812 days between the last Let’s Make A Scene in November 2019 and the most recent rejuvenation of the event, and a lot had happened in the intervening months and years. Since I last read from my notebook in front of an audience, I have: become a man who frequently wears corduroy trousers; been told by an optician that my retinas are in perfect condition; learned that Chinese five spice is the secret ingredient to making a really good fried rice dish; visited Dundee; almost made my niece cry when I ‘won’ all of her favourite books in a family game of poker at Christmas since we didn’t have any chips to play with. Oh, and we have all lived through a global pandemic and multiple lockdowns of the country.
For a while, back in the early days of the original lockdown in 2020, there were discussions surrounding the possibility of hosting an open mic event over Zoom or a similar platform, since at that point in time practically every aspect of our lives was being conducted through a screen. An ‘Oban Lockdown Fest’ Facebook group had attracted more than 500 members and featured videos shared by at least a dozen local musicians, demonstrating that there was a keen appetite for the arts in the area. There was some initial enthusiasm for the idea of an online Let’s Make A Scene, but it faded as restrictions began to ease and we were at least allowed to leave our homes again. It was reckoned that an open mic night wouldn’t be the same without an audience in attendance anyway. You can’t truly gauge how well a piece of music or spoken word has been received without the applause of people telling you that they enjoyed it, while it is difficult to tell if a joke is funny when you don’t hear the sound of laughter following it. Personally, I would have been happy to proceed with an online event since it seemed just like every other performance I have ever given, but officially Let’s Make A Scene was on hiatus.
When Covid restrictions were rolled back almost to a level we hadn’t enjoyed since the last Let’s Make A Scene was held, we could finally get on with planning an open mic night in a new venue. I delved into the cupboard where I store my bottles of whisky and completed notebooks hoping to find some inspiration and enough material to cobble together a ten minute spoken word set. It was already decided in my mind that I wanted to read about some of my experiences during lockdown, given that most people in the audience could probably relate to the things I was saying. The trouble with that, however, was that I was going to have to force myself to read through all of my notebooks from during the pandemic years. I don’t enjoy reading back my old journal entries at the best of times, but this was especially gruelling. At more than one point I had to stop and ask myself: why are you writing 500 words about the contents of your cupboard? And the answer, of course, is that there was nothing better to be doing in April 2020.
Something I never used to do before my previous open mic performances was practice, which probably goes some way to explaining why on the night my dad came along he was heard to comment, “it was fine, but he went on a bit too long.” If there’s one thing that I dislike more than reading my own diarised notes it is hearing my voice speak them, and yet that is exactly what I was going to have to do if I wanted to take my set more seriously than before. Around two weeks before the return of Let’s Make A Scene was scheduled to take place, I was invited to be one of the support acts for the Scottish comedian Gary Little when he comes to Oban in March to headline a comedy night in aid of the Argyll Wellbeing Hub. I quickly learned that it is impossible to resist the opportunity of performing stand-up comedy alongside a professional comedian, no matter how ill-suited you know that you are for it. Writing a blog about your experiences as a single occupant and being asked to support a comedian would be like achieving a respectable score on the video game Guitar Hero and being plucked from the crowd to fill in for The Edge at a U2 concert; why would you say no? Knowing that the organisers of the comedy night were going to be attending Let’s Make A Scene to listen to me read from my notebook meant that I had to take it seriously and make sure that they didn’t realise they had made a terrible mistake.
Once I had settled on some of the excerpts I wanted to read from my journals, I prepared to host a few practice readings in my living room. The mood in the room was already perfect since the two expired lightbulbs in the chandelier meant that the remaining three combined to resemble the ambience of a dimly lit stage. I sat in an armchair facing the mantelpiece, trying not to become fixated on the cobweb which was dangling between two red candlesticks like a hammock, and set a stopwatch as I cleared my throat and took a sip from a cup of Earl Grey tea. Even with no one there I was tripping over my words in every other sentence, and it was difficult to get over the awkward feeling of reading aloud in an empty room. I tried convincing myself that I was at least heading to my houseplants, but in truth, they were yet another dead audience.
The night of Let’s Make A Scene found Oban caught between two winter storms. When it was reported that Eunice and Franklin were going to bring strong winds, heavy rain and snow to parts of the country, you could have been forgiven for thinking that Scotland was being battered by a copy of the 1921 census. In a welcome change, I wasn’t feeling the same anxiety I had before all of the past open mic nights. At five o’clock in previous years, I would have been opening my third can of Tennent’s Lager and playing The Midnight Organ Fight for the second time before going to Aulay’s for a couple of hours and getting half-drunk by the time I was ready to read. There were occasions where I got myself so worked up with nerves that I was sick in the bathroom, which is the only time I have ever vomited in Aulay’s. However, at five o’clock last Saturday I was on my yoga mat going through a flow and practising some meditation. When I arrived at the Corran Halls I was still maintaining my calming breathing whilst reciting the same motivational words over and over again in my head, transforming my thoughts into some Instagrammable mindfulness meme. Having never felt confident about anything in my life, I can’t tell if it’s what I was experiencing in the moments before reading, but I do know that whatever it was, I liked it better than throwing up in a public toilet.
What was most noticeable about the studio theatre in the Corran Halls was the way that our brilliant organisers had managed to transfer the space into something resembling a side alley Hungarian speakeasy. There was maybe around six tables – each with a dainty tealight candle dancing in its centre – that were positioned across the room in a way that would have made for a terrible strategy in a game of Tetris, but in an auditorium, it worked. Meanwhile, the biggest debate before people started to arrive was whether or not we should turn the fairy lights on and at which setting. There were as many as a dozen different options to choose from, which when you think about it, is a lot of different ways of flashing the same red and green lights.
As eight o’clock neared, the studio theatre was filling with more people than we had ever seen before. At final count, there were more than sixty folks in attendance, which was probably around double the number who usually come to a Let’s Make A Scene. Amongst them were 19 acts who signed up to perform on the night, by far the most diverse range of artists we’ve had. We heard everything: an acoustic guitar-backed poetry presentation about the dread of feeling as though you’re falling in love with someone when you’re around the age I am, which had more than a shade of Arab Strap to it; K9 Kev’s standup set that veered into rap and then a story about an ill-begotten jobbie; a piece of poetry which called for the audience to howl like a pack of dogs at the mention of any word with a canine connotation; the witch gave birth to a frog; the ever-beautiful Lush Puppies.
Usually at an open mic night, you will get one artist who is a little more eccentric than everybody else, sort of like witnessing a juggler catch knives outside the London Palladium, but this time everyone was a star attraction. It was heartening to see such a wealth of talent pulsing in Oban. After two years during which we were all afraid to so much as breathe near another person, this was like the moments after blowing the candles out on a birthday cake, when all you’re left with is sweet, rich, delicious cake, and in that instant it is the best thing ever. By all possible metrics, the revived Let’s Make A Scene was a triumph. We even managed to collect enough donations to cover the cost of hiring the Corran Halls, as well as a receipt for £6.70 from Aulay’s Bar dated 18 September 2020 which it was suspected came from me. It said a lot when most people assumed that my wallet would be opened so little as to still contain a receipt from 17 months ago, but I couldn’t contend it.
I had cultivated my own set down to a smooth 9 minutes and 20 seconds, which I anticipated would leave enough time for apologies. Somehow they weren’t needed, though. People laughed at exactly the right points as I went about describing the loneliness of trying to recreate the experience of being in Aulay’s on a Friday night during lockdown, and it felt anything but lonely. My journal reading went as well as I could have imagined, much better in front of an audience of people than houseplants. Everyone who I spoke to afterwards was very supportive and complimentary, while this time the only complaint I received was that I hadn’t worn a tie like I used to.
Often when I reflect on nights like this it invariably ends with a defeat that brings the universe back to its natural axis, such as me making a ridiculous attempt at talking to a woman, losing my phone by a furniture shop or falling asleep on the couch with an untouched can of Tennent’s Lager at my side whilst trying to watch The Spy Who Shagged Me for the thirteenth time. But not even a long walk home in the rain from the incoming storm could dampen the spirits of such a joyous night. 812 days had never been so worthwhile.
I will be reading some ‘Diaries of a Single Man’ excerpts in support of actual comedians Gary Little and Wray Thomson on Friday 25 March at The View, Oban. The evening is in support of the Argyll Wellbeing Hub, and ticket information can be found by following this link.
Our pub quiz team, The Unlikely Bawbags, recently suffered its worst-ever performance in The Lorne on a Wednesday night. We finished in seventh place out of around ten teams, far removed from our usual lofty position within the top three. It wasn’t even as though we had one terrible round that set us back, because for us the entire quiz was a shambles. Things were so bad that by the end of the night we almost celebrated ending up so high in the rankings, since for most of the way through we had been sitting bottom of the pile. It was a chastening experience, one which none of the three of us appeared to have an answer as to how it could have happened, which was seemingly in keeping with the night.
I went to Aulay’s to drown my sorrows, different from my usual visits there drowning my liver. The lounge bar was empty, which wasn’t unusual for a midweek night in February, and so the barman was forced to listen as I told him of all my woes. Would I ever get another general knowledge question right again? Did there really need to be an entire round about Germany? Why can we never remember who voiced the Bugs Bunny cartoon character? I imagined that he would much rather have been dusting the tops of the malt whisky bottles, but I had a lot to unload. To the relief of the barman, the pub gradually started to fill up, at least as much as three people can fill an alehouse.
First, the Plant Doctor arrived carrying a pool cue, which he propped up against the coat rack, similar to the way that someone who is out walking the dog stops into the pub for a pint and sits their pet at the end of the bar. A while later a local shellfish seller dropped in. Following some discussion over the froth of our lager, it was noticed that there were three people in the lounge bar on a Wednesday night and each of us was wearing a pair of corduroy trousers. Who knows for certain if such a thing had ever occurred before, but it’s difficult to imagine that it had. It was, quite emphatically, a parade of corduroy.
Naturally, we were eager to bring this anomaly of fashion to the attention of the two members of staff behind the bar, and even to Aulay himself. There were three distinctly different shades of corduroy on show. I was wearing a vibrant cherry, the Plant Doctor wore a neutral olive, while the shellfish seller’s legs looked like two hot dogs smeared with English mustard. We asked anyone who would listen for their thoughts on our respective cords, including one poor sap from Glasgow who was just wanting to enjoy a peaceful drink. All three of the opinions we canvassed came back with the same response: that the neutral olive was their favourite colour of corduroy and they wouldn’t be seen dead in the bold cherry. I’ve long become used to suffering a crushing defeat in the month of February, but this was two of them on the same night five days before Valentine’s Day had even arrived.
Hardly two days had passed before I and my pub quiz teammates were afforded a shot at redemption, just like in any big-budget Hollywood movie, only this was a charity quiz at The View with a prize of £100 in cash. The event was a joint effort to raise funds for Kilmartin Museum and Dunollie Museum, two local projects in Argyll, and I somehow ended up in the middle of a tug o’ war between my usual Wednesday night pub quiz team and my regular Friday night drinking partners. I had never honestly wondered what it would be like to be a child caught up in a dispute between two divorcing parents, but I reckon this was pretty close to how it must be, and on this occasion, The Unlikely Bawbags were awarded custody of me.
Following our all-time worst performance a few days previous, we recruited some reinforcements for the charity quiz to bring our numbers up to six; amongst them a Doctor of Scottish literature who had started the week off-piste in Glencoe and was looking to finish it on the piste in Oban. The theme of the night was anti-Valentines trivia, which we felt confident would suit us since the majority of our team seems to have an allergy to all things romantic. There were several different rounds throughout the quiz, including the standard music round, film and television bedrooms, one where we were invited to list ten given animals by the length of their penis, as well as a series of questions all about sexually transmitted diseases, which I was really hoping wouldn’t be the traditional picture round.
The quiz was so busy that people were being turned away at the door. There must have been no fewer than twenty teams taking part, and things were competitive from the very start. With so many points to tally, it would be impossible to ask one man to mark every answer sheet, so teams were asked to swap their papers with a neighbouring table at the end of each round. On the face of it, this seemed like a sensible solution, though it turned out to be like asking a couple of barmen for their opinion of corduroy trousers: problematic. In the very first question of the quiz, we were asked to name the winner of the 2021 series of the reality TV show Love Island. Being that we were a team of adults who have seen the better part of our thirties, we couldn’t even begin to hazard a guess at a name and left the space unfilled. Following the end of the general knowledge round, we exchanged sheets with the table adjacent to ours, whose team included a podcasting phycologist and a young woman who owns a vast wardrobe of scarves. Much to everyone’s surprise, our paper was returned to us with one point more than we were expecting, while the gap left at the first question had been filled with a careful, scientific scribe.
We didn’t think too much about the ill-begotten point at the time since we were in second place, but as the quiz developed it was becoming clear that there was a tight tussle at the top of the leaderboard between ourselves and my usual Friday night companions. Our cause was assisted by a full complement of marks in the round on sexually transmitted diseases, which had to be the first time anyone has been happy to correctly identify an STD. By the time the final piece of music had been played to bring the quiz to an end, the two teams were separated by the length of a flea’s penis – or one point as it’s sometimes known. We were delighted; the Plant Doctor, my brother and their team were devastated. It clearly hadn’t required a great deal of detective work on their part to recognise that the beautiful penmanship used for the first answer was entirely different from the scrawl seen at the other sixty-odd questions on the sheet. I mean, we had an actual GP in our team whose contributions to the sheet read like a prescription pad.
With a prize of a hundred pounds going to the winners and £50 to the runners-up, we could see why our competitors might have felt disappointed. Some of the people at their table had a look on their face that was similar to one I have seen around the pier when a tourist has treated themselves to a fresh prawn sandwich from the seafood shack and just as they’re ready to enjoy it, a sneaky seagull has swooped down and snatched it from their hands. A few of us were feeling some guilt about winning a charity quiz through nefarious means, even if strictly speaking it was only accidental cheating. We agreed that given the circumstances it would be the right thing to do if we came clean to the quizmaster, so we called him over to our table and explained what had happened. To say that he wasn’t interested would be an understatement. As far as he was concerned, the quiz was over and he had already declared us as the winners, which could probably be translated as him admitting that he hadn’t prepared a tie-break question. Maybe he was right. This was a Valentine’s quiz, after all, and it is said that all’s fair in love and war. Where love is concerned, it’s usually the case that one party is going to end up bitterly disillusioned. It just so happened that for once it wasn’t me this time.
Despite a fortuitous turn of events, we had already decided that we wanted the moral victory as well as the acknowledgement of being quiz winners, so we approached our rivals and proposed that we split the £150 prize fund between the two teams. They agreed, though somehow even that didn’t quench our thirst for redemption – or perhaps more accurately, clear us of our guilt. I was too busy trying to plead my innocence to the opposition to know who from our team made the suggestion, but it turns out that we went a step further than sharing the prize money and offered to donate our £75 to the charity. When I heard about our philanthropy, I couldn’t stop wondering how much more we had to do to have our names engraved on a plaque at Kilmartin Museum.
A few of us made the usual Friday pilgrimage to Aulay’s after proceedings had been brought to a close in The View. There were three members from the opposing team looking to spend their £75 in the final hour before closing time, and I saw this as an opportunity to recoup some of ‘our’ prize money. All manners of whisky and shots of Tequila were being added to the bar bill, meaning that the most straightforward quiz question of all was posed the following morning when I went for breakfast with the rest of my family and wondered why I felt as though I was still drunk. Along with the growing bar tab, there was significant jukebox abuse, and not only from us. I could have sworn that one group played the same Feargal Sharkey song three times in a row. I guess it’s true that sometimes a good song is hard to find.
It was difficult to say at the end of the week whether I had come out of it all on top or not. I lost a corduroy-off, though was at least part of a historic fashion event in Aulay’s. The Unlikely Bawbags had their all-time worst performance in the Lorne quiz, but followed it up by beating around twenty other teams to win a charity quiz, albeit with some controversy attached. Even now I still don’t know who won the 2021 edition of Love Island, but I think I have learned that in future quizzes when we don’t know the answer to a question, such as who provided the voice of Bugs Bunny, it is best to leave it blank.
Everybody seems to have a Wordle strategy these days. The web-based game where players are given six opportunities to solve a daily five-letter word puzzle is the hottest trend of 2022 so far, and for once I seem to be in tune with popular culture. My opening salvo is almost always HOUSE, I believe for as simple a reason as I am usually in my flat when I attempt the day’s challenge and it only has four letters. In my next guess, I like to use the remaining vowels, since I would have to shyly confess that I can’t think of any words that do not have at least one vowel in them.
The one time that I deviated from my game plan also happened to be the only occasion from 21 puzzles where I have failed to get the correct word. I had decided to switch from HOUSE to SOARE after reading an article by a language researcher who reasoned that the word for a young hawk is the best option for a first guess because it uses five of the six most common letters in the English language as well as being in a more strategic order than, say, AROSE. I couldn’t stop from wondering how it must be to be like some of the people I had spoken to who are much more free-spirited with their leading Wordle guess and type the first thing that comes into their head, varying their opening word from day-to-day. It was difficult to imagine having such spontaneity with words, but I figured I would give it a go with SOARE first and see how things went. As it turns out, I just couldn’t get the word that day. I think I was one letter away in the end, but it wasn’t coming to me. Mostly because the word was one I didn’t expect to encounter in such an inoffensive game. It was PRICK. What has life become when even Wordle is goading you?
My introductory Wordle pick has been the same ever since my 100% record was pricked. I’ve rarely thought about it, but I suppose I’m rigidly habitual like that; if something works I tend to stick with it and if it doesn’t I’ll usually avoid it. This is why I have cooked the same adventure-free pasta sauce recipe for the last five years, and it’s the reason why I haven’t accepted a shot of Sambuca since the stuff immediately had me vomiting on the night of my thirty-fifth birthday. On the other hand, it hasn’t stopped me from making jokes anytime I talk to a woman I have met, but there are some habits you just can’t change.
I solved Monday’s puzzle within a couple of attempts while I was taking the bus to Glasgow to see The Districts play that night. It was my first time at a gig since the summer of 2019, if I don’t consider the time the Edinburgh band Wrest played in The View in November 2021 whilst a 40th birthday celebration was taking place in the adjacent function space. It’s not that Wrest aren’t a decent act, but I found it hard to focus on the music when there was the sight of several enormous helium balloons emblazoned with the number ‘40’ rising to the ceiling at the back of the room as a member of the bar staff emerged with a buffet of party food.
Saint Luke’s is a repurposed music and arts venue in the east end of Glasgow. It was originally built in 1836 as a church, and when that was disbanded in 2012 the building underwent an elaborate refurbishment. There’s a temptation to suggest that the fact my first gig in over two years took place in a former church had some kind of a spiritual significance, but really, it was probably just a coincidence since the show was originally scheduled for May 2020 and was postponed twice due to a global pandemic that has caused millions of deaths.
Adjacent to the old church building is a bar and restaurant, The Winged Ox, where I ate a halloumi sandwich and drank some lager from the nearby Drygate Brewing Company. As far as I can remember, it is the first time I have eaten grilled Cypriot cheese in an establishment that has the statue of a saint perched on the shelf above its bar. Not long after my plate had been cleared away, I was surprised to look up from my pint and see that the four members of the band who I was about to see play on stage were standing at the end of my table, not but a chip’s throw away from me. They must have been there for several minutes. My heart was rattling all the way through my ribcage as soon as I recognised them, and I’m sure it wasn’t just from the Covid I had recently recovered from. I could hear the drummer tell a story about a flight he had missed one time in Germany before they stepped forward to the bar. Each member of The Districts was lined up along the front of the bar, taking it in turns to settle their individual bill. I could hardly believe it. That’s how my brother, sister and me pay for our breakfast on a Saturday morning if dad hasn’t come with us, but this was a touring rock band. Although they are far from the best known musical artists on the circuit, I had always imagined that the rock and roll lifestyle would be different; more glamorous. I never knew that they would have to queue up to pay for their own food at The Winged Ox.
One of the downsides of dining solo is that there isn’t anyone to tell when you see something remarkable occur in your vicinity. Worse still, if you want to engineer an opportunity to take a picture of a rock band who you have been listening to for six years standing near your table with bar bills in their hands, you are forced to make like you have a keen interest in photographing empty chairs. I felt ridiculous, especially when I couldn’t position my phone whilst the four men were standing side-on to me so I had to wait until their backs were turned when effectively I would have been as well snapping a picture of anybody.
Inside Saint Luke’s itself, a mirrorball hangs from the rafters above where the congregation once would have gathered. Part of me likes to imagine that it was there before the refurbishment, unlikely as it seems. I can never grow tired of gigs in former churches. This was my third such venue, and somehow they always sound brilliant. I met with a former Unlikely Lads pub quiz team-mate and her friend before The Districts took to the stage, though as happy as I was to have some great company for the gig, I found myself distracted by the tall man who was standing in front of me. It was impossible to stop myself from staring at the back of this guy’s head, which was covered with long, bedraggled hair the colour of a rabbit’s tail. I had only ever seen hair like it once before, but there was no way that the guy who used to own the Squeeze juice bar next door to Aulay’s was in Glasgow to see this little-known band who pay for their own meals. The resemblance was uncanny, however, and eventually, it was all I could do to unburden myself and ask Hannah if she recognised the man stood a few feet away from us as being someone who I had spoken to a maximum of four times in my life. She couldn’t be sure either, but when we heard his bellowing Northern Irish accent between songs it heightened our interest, and she had to approach him to ask if he had ever run a juice bar in Oban. It was just like being back at the Lorne pub quiz in the days when Hannah would pull out an answer that nobody was expecting, and in this instance, it turns out that the man in front of us was indeed the former owner of Squeeze, though he had no idea who The Districts are and was only there because his friend had offered him a free ticket. So little was the juice maker’s interest in the band that I could swear there was a point where he had fallen asleep on his feet for a few moments.
To the left of the man who once blended fruits for a living, my gig companions were in the midst of their own curiosity. They were observing a young couple who might well have been the only two people in the entire place who wore face masks the entire way through the gig. Most others we saw, including ourselves, would put them on whenever we went up to the bar, but these two only ever pulled theirs down for a moment to take a brief mouthful from their cans of cider before fitting them back in place. In a way, there was something to be admired about the couple’s resilience, and if that’s what they felt was necessary to allow them to enjoy a night out then it doesn’t seem right that anyone should judge them for it. But when they would bring their heads together and kiss by pressing the front part of their masks to one another, I was incredulous. Here I was, a man whose chances of receiving affection from a woman are as likely as solving a Wordle puzzle on the first attempt – ZILCH – and then there’s this couple who dared to just throw kisses away against a piece of dirty fabric like they were nothing. It was a toss-up to say whether the young couple was excellent at hygiene or exceptionally terrible with romance.
Back in Aulay’s on Friday, some of us were still feeling the effects from Wednesday night when we had been in to watch Celtic’s 3-0 victory over Rangers. The post-match libations were as unexpected as the nature of the win, and I felt thankful that I was at least sensible enough to stick to my principles and refuse the offers of Sambuca, even if I wasn’t quite as strong when it came to the Tequila. On this occasion, we came out to celebrate the 29th birthday of the town’s most elusive barmaid, a woman who seemingly has a different career-changing scheme each time you talk to her, sort of like a Marvel villain.
The Plant Doctor was already seated at a table with a man who I didn’t recognise when I arrived. We learned that Joe is a chef by trade who was visiting Scotland from North Yorkshire for five days with his wife and their young daughter, who is a year-and-a-half old. He is one of the few people any of us had heard describe a child’s age in that way rather than the more commonly used 18 months, and we welcomed it. Joe had left his wife and daughter in their campervan for the evening while he went out to watch his team, Manchester United, play in the FA Cup against Middlesbrough. He had been looking forward to seeing the football while enjoying a quiet pint in a local pub, but as the night progressed he was finding himself watching less and less of the game as he became involved in our nonsense discussions.
Manchester United were leading for much of the contest, though since Joe had fit into the group so seamlessly we suggested that he could message his wife to tell her that the match had gone into extra-time to give him an excuse for spending another half an hour in our company. He wasn’t convinced that his partner would believe that United were incapable of beating an opponent from a lower league, yet Middlesbrough went on to equalise as we were plotting and that’s exactly what happened. Joe was shocked at what he was seeing – although he hadn’t seen very much of it at all. We all laughed at the idea that the Yorkshire man’s wife would receive a text from her husband claiming that Manchester United had drawn 1-1 with Middlesbrough and immediately accuse him of lying to her. There would be no WiFi reception in the couple’s campervan, while the television signal wasn’t picking up ITV, so she coudn’t check the result for herself. Ultimately the supposed deception might prove destructive to their marriage, or at the very least Joe was going to be restricted to masked intimacy for a while.
Friday was one of those brilliant, bizarre nights that often occur in Aulay’s. It had just the right mix of Jameson, good tracks on the jukebox and eccentric out-of-town characters. As well as Joe, there was a middle-aged couple who were seated in the corner of the pub underneath the television who choked the jukebox with songs that the blonde woman danced her heart out to as her husband took videos. At one time there were four songs by Alanis Morissette queued up on the playlist. Meanwhile, when my selection of Be My Baby by The Ronettes played, the woman shrieked and beckoned me to join her in busting some moves. Her husband didn’t seem to care, although he became agitated when all nine minutes and thirteen seconds of Neil Young’s Down by the River came on. They didn’t stick around for very long after that, but Joe was there until closing time, several hours after he was supposed to leave. Something told me that it wouldn’t take much to guess the five-letter word that would best describe his wife’s mood when he returned to the campervan.
My 2022 has gotten off to what might best be described as a slow start. After bringing in the bells on Hogmanay by watching a spectacular firework display from McCaig’s Tower light up the sky over the New Look clothing store on George Street, I was forced into isolation for much of the following fortnight by a positive Covid test. The new year has been a real damp squib so far.
Rarely has something been both so momentous and utterly mundane as when I left my flat for the first time after my ten day quarantine. It was Friday morning and I was only walking to work, but I hadn’t been outside for any reason other than to take out the bins since I had been for my PCR test, so I guess it was something new for twenty twenty-two. I had a real spring in my step as I took to the pavement. It was the type of experience that catches in the back of the throat and takes hold of your breath, although much of that could surely have been attributed to the morning school run traffic.
Little had changed around town since I had last been outdoors. The Christmas tree in the square had been taken down but some of the festive street lights remained, albeit in darkness, sort of like the forgotten bauble you find underneath the sofa in March. Along the Esplanade, a familiar fragrance ascended from the shore at exactly the same spot it usually does across the road from the youth hostel. It was weed, only not the variety that had been coughed up by the sea. I found it strangely reassuring to know that life still goes on when you’re not around.
In most ways, it was an ordinary Friday, but by the afternoon of my first day back in existence, I was feeling sapped of all energy. Once I had done my evening yoga I was questioning my earlier assertion that I would be returning to Aulay’s at the first opportunity. At that point, I couldn’t imagine sitting and enjoying a pint of lager, and there have been times when that has been all I could imagine. During my bout of Covid I was fortunate that I never experienced any change to my sense of smell or taste, but the first couple of cans of lager I drank after work – my first beers since New Year’s Day – tasted dreadful, even accounting for them being Tennent’s. They left an unwelcome metallic aftertaste in my mouth, however, for the purposes of scientific advancement, I felt compelled to power through them and at least find out if a pint of lager was any better.
There was a noticeable tinge of emotion as I walked into the lounge bar of Aulay’s that night. That may have been because they were showing the disappointing Scottish Championship fixture between Partick Thistle and Kilmarnock, but I think overwhelmingly it was such a relief to be back. It is hardly as if I was desperately struggling with Covid and questioning whether I would ever see the inside of a bar again, but when you’ve been away from a place for ten days it can sometimes seem like an eternity.
My brother, the Plant Doctor and his girlfriend eventually joined me, and for the first time we engaged in a pub game of “how was your Covid?” Three quarters of us had contracted the virus since the turn of the year with a handful of days between each of our positive results. Our experiences were mostly mild, apart from the Plant Doctor, who suffered no symptoms at all and was testing negative again after five days, which made me wonder if the big pharmaceutical companies should be studying Newcastle Brown Ale as a potential vaccination against the illness. After a while, Covid became just another thing we would discuss, in the same way we talk about the latest Nick Cave album or the TV show It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.
The pints of Tennent’s were going down a good bit easier than the cans did, and it was a great relief that my illness wasn’t going to affect my ability to enjoy alcohol, though the lager did still bring the usual side effect of needing to use the toilet. I was enjoying a quiet moment to myself at the urinal when one of the men who was sitting with the group at the table next to ours walked in. He had as much material covering his mouth as he did hair on his head and he was curious about why I was wearing a mask, asking “do you still have to wear those?” I explained that it’s still expected that folk wear masks in settings like pub urinals, but noted that it isn’t something people appear to be too bothered about anymore. For some reason, this prompted the maskless urinator to ask how old I am, as though consideration for public health during a pandemic is determined by the age of a person. I have never been fond of urinal interactions at the best of times, and already this one had me yearning for those days spent in isolation.
The talkative tinkler offered the information that he is 63-years-old, though he soon corrected himself and reduced his age to 62 and a half. It seems I wasn’t the only one who was having time taken off his life by this discussion. Soon he was talking about how he’s tired of all the rules and restrictions, how he’s had all his vaccines and that he’s 63 and just wants to be able to do whatever he likes. “I’m sick of masks and being told to wash my hands; wash behind my ears,” he wailed. I’ve heard of anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers, but never anti-hand washers. I assured the gentleman that I am greatly in favour of freedom but felt it would only be courtesy for me to wear a mask in the bathroom since I was recovering from the Covid I was still testing positive for the day before. The toilet fell silent, only the sound of the urine splashing against the steel as it trickled to a halt remained. Never has a pee been weighted with so much awkwardness. The vaccinated 62-and-a-half-year-old quickly zipped up and left after a brief sprinkle of his hands under the tap. For a moment, I allowed myself to think that being infected with Covid wasn’t such a bad thing after all.
By Saturday morning it was difficult to tell which I was suffering from most: the Omicron or the Tennent’s variant. My head was throbbing with all the vigour of a winter sunrise, and each time I moved I encountered a dizzying sound that would echo in my ears for a minute or two. Although it was uncomfortable, in a way it was nice to have something else to blame my weekend woes on besides a hangover. Another positive of having Covid, it seems. The aftermath of the virus continued into the following week and beyond, with the frequent brain fog sometimes making me question if certain things were actually happening or if I was watching myself in a dream. I’ve never felt anything like the sensation.
One afternoon as I was preparing a pot of soup for my lunch, I heard a knock at the front door, which isn’t a noise I typically associate with potato and leek soup. I opened the door to be encountered with a tall bearded man who was holding a large box of wine. He was attempting to deliver it to my neighbour across the landing but wasn’t getting any response from him, so he asked if I would be willing to accept the delivery rather than him being forced to take it all the way back to the depot in Edinburgh. As much as it is in my nature to be helpful, I really didn’t want to receive the box. It seemed like an awful lot of pressure to be left in charge of a box filled with expensive bottles of wine, and that’s before you consider living under the constant uncertainty of when my neighbour would come to the door to collect his goods. I had difficulty finding the words to express those concerns, however, and told the man that of course, I would be more than happy to help him.
That wasn’t the end of it, though. It was just my luck that I should take in a delivery that isn’t even for me from the world’s most talkative delivery driver. He spoke very fondly of Oban and how he often thinks about moving here with his girlfriend one day. As he was considering what those people who live in the really remote and tiny villages between Glasgow and Oban must do for a living, I could hear my soup bubbling from the kitchen. It was boiling the same way I was inside. All I could think was that if the delivery driver kept this up I wouldn’t have enough time left to eat the soup before I had to go back to work, let alone deal with the mess it was surely making. I briefly considered that I could probably get rid of him if I mentioned that I was happy to do my neighbour a favour since I haven’t seen many people after my recent isolation with Covid, although there was a risk that would only have given him something else to discuss. I probably wasn’t standing at the door for any longer than a few minutes, but these things always feel interminable.
Despite my fears that I would be spending the rest of my life waiting for a knock at the door, I was able to offload the box to my neighbour as soon as I arrived back home from work that same evening. As far as feelings of relief go, this was right up there with walking back into the pub for the first time after a ten day isolation or finding that you have the urinal to yourself. My year may have been slow out of the blocks, but it looks like things are finally starting to pick up.
A thick mist hung over Oban for several days in the week before Christmas, which if nothing else had the benefit of hiding the town’s thin display of festive lights from view. It made for quite an eerie spectacle around the area when all you could see was the distant islands wrapped up in a veil of fog, their vaguely visible lumps resembling the appearance of my own crudely papered gifts, or the way the tree in Argyll Square would suddenly emerge from the haze the way a cocktail stick does from a cloudy alcoholic concoction. The entire weekend was as though we were existing within the pages of a Stephen King novella, though it was impossible to say which one.
Nowhere was this more true than out in Pennyfuir Cemetery, where we took a family trip shortly after Santa had visited The Happy Wee Health Club. Graveyards are spooky places by their very nature, often found in remote locations surrounded by dark, bare trees, usually with an old church nearby; and the cold, low-lying mist on this occasion only added to that atmosphere. Just inside the gates at Pennyfuir sits a set of public toilets alongside an enclosed seating area which is described by a sign above its entrance as a “waiting room.” It’s hard not to be struck by the rich black comedy of there being a waiting room by the cemetery gates. Those benches are surely the least worn anywhere in Argyll. They could have labelled it anything else and it would have been better: seated area, benches, shelter, living room. Once I saw it I couldn’t stop from wondering if it was deliberate; a disgruntled council employee’s idea of fun on their last day in the job, or did they really name this little hut at the entrance of the cemetery the “waiting room” without realising the connotation?
After we accompanied dad to lay some flowers at mum’s grave, we all took a wander around the rest of the site on our way out. Some of the headstones around the place are majestic, particularly the much older ones from the turn of the last century that are as big as a fully-grown adult. It was fascinating to read many of the tributes engraved on these stones. You felt as though you were getting a small insight into the life the person lived. Not quite the full story, but something akin to reading the back cover of a book. A handful of the inscriptions were a little more on the disturbing side, though. I read one on the stone of an infant child that mentioned the cause of death being a hospital procedure, which is the first time I can remember seeing such a thing. Closeby, a headstone stated how the poor soul below had died in the Royal Hotel in 1927, whilst another made it known that the deceased had passed in number 33 Combie Street. I have always known that it’s only natural that over the years people will have died on the street where I live, and even in the very same flat I’m currently residing in, but it isn’t something I have ever given any thought to. Something about seeing the name of my street on a gravestone sent a chill down my spine, and I suppose it would have in mid-July, let alone a misty afternoon the week before Christmas. It seemed so final. I couldn’t help from thinking that a hundred years from now someone else would be wandering around Pennyfuir, their hair badly combed and troubled by the breeze, and from looking at my own headstone they might know me only by the fact that I once lived across the street from the Oban Grill House.
As well as visiting mum’s grave around the anniversary of her death on 17 December and what would have been her birthday on the 19th, another tradition our family has that is perhaps more in keeping with the festive spirit is when we get together for an evening of mulled wine consumption. Most other years we have done this on the night when the town’s Christmas lights have been switched on, but because we were in Inverness this year, we saved it for the last Saturday before Christmas. Since it had been agreed that we would all spend the big day at my brother’s flat, he and I ventured out to Benderloch for mulled wine at my sister’s place. I’m always impressed by the spread of food she lays out for guests. We enjoyed mince pies, cheese of all varieties, grapes of every shade, crackers, and venison burgers. I hosted the mulled wine night once, in 2018, and was questioned as to why I had prepared the bottle of wine in a pot with a whole, unpeeled orange sitting in the drink. The only downside this time was my inability to savour as much of the cheese as I ordinarily would have on account of being challenged to eat an entire cheese plate by a waitress at Soroba House the previous evening. I believe that I won the dare, although nothing about how I was feeling afterwards suggested that I was a successful man.
While the usual songs of the season streamed from a nearby Alexa device, a pack of playing cards was produced and it was suggested that we should entertain ourselves with a round of poker. I had never played a hand of any card game more complicated than snap, whilst at five years of age my niece had yet to be introduced to casino contests, so it was going to be up to my siblings to coach the youngest and oldest participants at the table. The first problem we faced was that we didn’t have any chips to place our bets with. We thought about dividing the stems of grapes amongst us, but they were much too juicy to last through more than a couple of hands. Our next best alternative was to use my niece’s collection of small, glossy, paperback books. There had to have been around sixty of these things, each one brightly coloured and depicting popular children’s stories. We shared the substitute chips out evenly between the four of us and embarked on a quick run through the basics of the game before playing it for real.
The first few hands were quite cagey, with more folding than is seen in the Mandarin Laundry. We each won a hand to add to our pile of books, but the truth is that as novices neither my niece nor I had any idea what we were doing. It quickly occurred to me that the skills needed to be successful at poker – a good poker face, the ability to refrain from going “all in” at the first time of asking, as well as having a great deal of luck – are exactly the ones I am lacking when it comes to interacting with women. Somehow, though, it didn’t matter that most of them were missing from my poker game since a lot of the time I was able to bluff and wing my way through.
Despite not having any idea of the value of the cards we were holding in relation to the ones being turned over on the table, my niece and I embarked on a strategy of recklessly raising the stakes on every move. Sometimes by as many as three or four books at a time. It was a real test of nerves, but it’s easy to hold your nerve when you have no clue what you’re doing. When the final card was turned and fortune decreed that whatever cards I was holding were better than my niece’s, I won a tremendous bundle of books. My five-year-old competitor became upset. Not only did she hate losing, but she also realised that she had lost her favourite book. From the next round forward we had to wait an eternity as she leafed through her collection to determine which tale it was safe to gamble. There was a valuable life lesson in there somewhere, but I was too busy trying to figure out why I had won to realise what it was.
Either side of the high-stakes poker game, the days were clouded with the fog of alcohol as well as the meteorological phenomenon of condensed water vapour. Hours after my mulled wine win, across the bar in Aulay’s, I was asked by the podcasting phycologist how I was doing. When I told her that I was feeling kinda rough, she took a couple of steps back, despite already being a decent social distance away from me. It was then that I remembered that in 2021 we have to be more expansive when telling others about our physical wellbeing lest the situation is misinterpreted and a round of lateral flow tests need to be ordered. I immediately sought to soothe the situation. “Don’t worry, it’s only the Tennent’s variant,” I insisted to a look questioning what on earth I was talking about. “I’m hungover, basically.”
A group of us went out to watch the Scottish League Cup final between Celtic and Hibernian the following afternoon when I was still in recovery from the aforementioned ailment. It was an entertaining game which Celtic won 2-1, ensuring that they went home with a more palpable prize than the books I was forced to hand back to my niece earlier in the weekend. Most of the guys in our company were on a self-imposed curfew for the night. The Plant Doctor left at seven for an evening of port and cheese with his girlfriend, whilst Brexit Guy had a date with a Chinese – which on this occasion was a takeaway dinner rather than the Colombian women he was due to be socialising with after Christmas. I insisted to my brother that I would be staying out no later than eight o’clock since we both had a few more days of work to get through before the festive break. This noble intention quickly crumbled as soon as I realised that the new barmaid was working on the other side in the public bar. I had talked to her a week earlier and discovered that she has the most remarkable knack for naming business ventures. She has started three or four different businesses of various natures, and although the ideas hadn’t worked out, it was difficult not to admire the creativity that went into the names as well as the determination to try again.
Aulay’s was much quieter than you might expect for the last Sunday before Christmas. With cases of the new Omicron variant on the rise, the Scottish Government had gone to great lengths to deter people from gathering in places like pubs and restaurants without introducing any real measures to compensate the hospitality industry for the loss in trade. At times we virtually had the entire bar to ourselves. There was one large group who briefly appeared alongside us. They had come over to Oban for the weekend from one of the nearby islands, either Islay or Jura, and they had the dialect to prove it. The men were at a level of drunkenness that suggested there was going to be no curfew on their good time. Of the group of four, the senior figure was the most talkative. He frequently leaned across the bar and blurted out a series of words, some of them in the right order, though the only one I could make any sense of was when he kept referring to me as Rupert. It was presumably an attempt at likening me to the long-running cartoon character Rupert Bear, on account of the yellow and black checked shirt I was wearing.
The nickname bothered me. Not because I found it insulting, or even when the pedant within me reasoned that it is Rupert’s trousers that are yellow and black, and not his shirt. It troubled me that so many other people seem to possess the uncanny ability to summon catchy names for folk they barely know when it takes me all my time to come up with a retort, if I can at all. I am struck by how much more useful a skill it is to have than my own quality of asking the most inept questions imaginable, such as when the young man next to the islanders introduced himself as being the captain of the Bulgarian rugby team and I sought to ask him about the worst injury he has suffered on the field. In the last six months alone I have been christened Penfold, Joe 90 and now Rupert. I have little idea of who I am meant to be these days, and evidently, neither does the barmaid who herself has a talent for naming things since she only came to realise on Christmas Eve that my name isn’t actually Rupert.
With hindsight, I suppose the weekend was always likely to be lost in the fog. It all started on Wednesday when we lost the quiz to a tie-break question. It was going well until we reached the food and drink round, which is up there amongst our worst pub quiz subjects. You can hear the groan from our table when that particular round is announced. We completely flopped in the ten questions, allowing Quadrophenia Alley to surge ahead of us, and although we ultimately clawed them back to take the quiz to a tie-break, our chances had been done for by the food and drink round. It’s ironic, really, that the same thing that keeps us alive in day-to-day life is what kills us in the quiz.
The Friday before our family mulled wine poker game was the office Christmas lunch, which in line with the decree from the Scottish Government was most definitely not a party, although it was the source of me picking up the Tennent’s variant. A small handful of us started the day in the Oban Inn before moving on for lunch. In the corner of the bar, someone began streaming the broadcast of the day’s Coronavirus update from the First Minister to parliament. There was an element of the surreal about sitting in a pub listening out to hear whether there would be an announcement of any further restrictions on hospitality venues. In a way, it was no different to sitting on a bench in a cemetery waiting room. Although the restrictions didn’t come that day, it was only a matter of time. You could have bet all your books on it.
Sunday the 31st of October was undoubtedly the spookiest day of the year. Not only was there the rare occurrence of Halloween falling on the same day as the end of British Summer Time and the loss of an hour of daylight, but in our wisdom, a group of friends and I had booked a tour of the Oban Distillery for 11.30 in the morning. Like on any other Sunday, a hangover on Halloween is just a haunting by the ghosts of last night’s whisky, and I wasn’t sure that I was ready to mess with yet more spirits by taking a trip to the distillery.
Of all the ways I thought I would spend my extra winter hour, a Distillery tour complete with three drams of whisky hadn’t featured near the top of my list. I could have caught up with some reading, tended to some of the repairs needing doing around my flat, made a hearty pot of soup for the cold days ahead or done something else equally as productive. The reality is that I would have laid in bed until around eleven thinking of all the useful things I could have been doing with that time, before getting up and spending hours on the couch watching old episodes of Seinfeld, but at least there was the potential for productivity. As it was, by the time my bleary eyes screamed open sometime after nine, it took me all of my energy trying to determine which of my timepieces was telling me the correct information, since my watch and iPhone were showing a difference of an hour, whilst the clock on my mantelpiece was frozen at a couple of minutes to seven, the thin golden second hand dancing back and forth around the IX marker, as though suspended in an eerie memorial to time passed. The fading houseplants on either side of the clock completing the deathly scene. If only I’d had the time to water them.
We had good reason for booking a Distillery tour at 11.30 on a Sunday morning; it wasn’t just a spur of the moment act of madness. Adam, the lobster scientist who has strong opinions on shoelaces, was visiting Oban for potentially the last time before departing Argyll to be with his wife in the west of Wales, and a trip to the Oban Distillery seemed a nice milestone following the experience our group had at Deanstoun in August. Apart from all of that, the tours were fully booked on Saturday, so we had no option but to go the next morning. In a cruel twist of fate, our guest of honour wasn’t able to imbibe any of the samples along the way since he was driving home afterwards, an outcome that was devilishly reminiscent of Deanstoun, when Adam had to bottle his tasting glasses on account of him driving us from Stirling to the distillery. People have often asked me why I have never learned how to drive; this serves as a pretty good reason why not.
Our group of seven whisky explorers agreed that we would meet outside the Distillery on Stafford Street at 11.20, and it was remarkable to watch as each one of us arrived at 11.25. The Oban Whisky website states that the Distillery is 208 steps from the sea, but they probably weren’t accounting for visitors in the condition we were in. Brexit Guy was last on the scene. We looked down George Street and caught sight of him sprinting along the pavement at what we presumed was full speed, his dirty blonde hair flopping in the breeze. It was like watching the nineties television series Baywatch, if instead of the show being set on a Malibu beach and starring David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson it originated from a rainy and blustery town on the west coast of Scotland and featured a fifty-year-old oncologist with a taste for single malt whisky.
When we lined up on the cobbles opposite our destination, seven dreadfully hungover souls still haunted by the spirits of Saturday night, it was difficult not to view us as a tremendously underwhelming Halloween parade. We were pale, eyes hollow, each of us carrying the demeanour of a basket of unwashed laundry, and caught in the uncertainty of two different times. I could swear that if we didn’t go inside when we did, some passer-by who didn’t know any better would have handed us a bag filled with sweets and monkey nuts and we would have been invited to dook for apples.
The only time I had previously been in the Oban Distillery was back in September 2019 when I was invited to read from my notebook in the bar prior to local band The Blue Moon Travellers performing as part of their album launch event. On that occasion, I smuggled a bottle of Chilean merlot into the place as a prop for my set and didn’t touch a drop of our home produced golden goods the entire night, which is something I always felt a touch guilty about. Think of going to New York City and not seeing the Statue of Liberty, visiting the Louvre and missing the Mona Lisa, or Campbeltown and whatever they have there.
It was interesting being a tourist in one of the town’s most popular attractions and the producer of its world-renowned export. I have lived here for all of my 38 years without knowing that the Distillery was opened in 1794 before the town even existed. We are, quite literally, a town built around whisky. Our guide on the tour happened to be Mike, who I know as one-half of our Lorne pub quiz rivals “Texas Denied.” He was knowledgeable and funny, though I was reluctant to laugh with too much enthusiasm out of respect for Erin, our delightful Deanstoun director. Often Mike would pose our tour group some pieces of whisky trivia, and I was becoming increasingly irritated by my inability to answer them since I knew that he would be marking it down as an area of weakness for the weekly quiz. It’s damaging enough not knowing which mainline train station in London you would go to take a train to Gatwick Airport, but if the silver-haired quiz host ever decided to use any of this whisky stuff on a Wednesday, our chances of winning would soon evaporate as quickly as the Angel’s Share Mike told us about.
We were taken through the different parts of the whisky making process, guided by Mike and the intoxicating fragrance that lingers around the place. The operation is a lot bigger than I had imagined, although Oban’s production is restricted by the distillery’s location which has no capacity for expansion, and the equipment is vast. The four wooden washback containers had to be around twelve feet wide and at least twenty deep, which is a lot of wood. This is where all of the alcohol is produced, and you can really tell it from the atmosphere. We were all invited to stick our heads into the container and have a sniff, which is one of those things you should always be dubious about when it is suggested, but we all took the plunge. Your nose barely had to pass into the hatch before it was hit with the warm, putrid stench from the wash, which at this stage in the fermentation is said to be something resembling beer. Mike asked if anyone felt that they could drink the washback. Ordinarily, I would have expected that at least one person from our group would admit to having so little restraint around alcohol that they would down the stuff, but I think we were all too spooked by our hangovers to entertain the hypothetical offer.
A Sunday afternoon truly takes on a different look when you have had three whiskies before midday. I suppose it isn’t a surprise that tasks such as filling the washing machine or blending a broccoli and goats cheese soup seem less arduous once your hangover has been displaced by the radiant sensation of whisky in your belly. It seemed silly that I hadn’t done this before. With my trivial chores done for the day, I retired to the couch with a cup of coffee and some television streaming services. I glanced over at my living room clock and wondered where all the time had gone.
Everything changes in October. One day you are basking in the breathless autumn air admiring the way that it is so clean, so fresh and so clear that you feel as if you could reach out and shake it with your hands, as you would the blocks of ice in a whisky glass, and the next you have been caught in a downpour of rain so heavy that you are left feeling wet in places that haven’t been wet in years. Even the sight of a rainbow looping across the front of McCaig’s Tower wasn’t enough to take my mind off the fact that my underwear was saturated and my shoes squelched with every step that night. On the darker evenings, the headlights of approaching cars can give the impression of a hurried search party, and the sky wheezes with the whiff of chimney smoke, no doubt people burning what fuel they have while they can still afford to.
While the weather has undergone a striking change in appearance, my own wardrobe also recently went through a seasonal transformation. For as long as I’ve been a single occupant I have gone to the pub after work on a Friday night wearing a suit. The colour of the accoutrements – the tie and pocket square – would match the shade of my socks, and after a while, the technicolour triumvirate became the most memorable thing about me. It was always the first thing a person would ask upon seeing me: “What are you so dressed up for?” Most of the time the question never troubled me, since apart from anything else it got people talking to me, but the pandemic seems to have stifled my patience in such situations. Curious drinkers would ask the same question now and it would be as if there was something weird about wanting to look your best to drink in the lounge bar in Aulay’s. Within a few months of things opening up after the last of the various lockdowns, and following several Fridays spent under the spotlight, I decided to adopt a more casual look on my Friday nights in the pub, mostly out of the hope of putting an end to the interrogation over my fashion.
Amongst the tweed suits and silk ties hanging in my floor-to-ceiling wardrobe, which is so tall that the top shelf can scarcely be reached from a stepladder, was a solitary pair of beige chinos that I would break out on occasional Saturdays if I was going for a more smart-casual guise than the usual jeans offer. It struck me that if I wanted to sport such a look more regularly I would need to invest in a greater range of bottoms, so I took to the internet for inspiration. I shopped for chinos and cords in all sorts of colours: plum, watermelon, kiwi, cherry, banana. If the colour was a fruit and the trouser began with a ‘c’ I was in the market for putting my legs through them.
My decision to change out of my suit and into something looser for my Friday nights was made all the easier by the soaking I suffered earlier in the day on that first instance. If I was being forced to remove everything after being drenched to my delicates, then it seemed to make sense that my entire outfit should be revitalised. I wore a pair of chinos not too dissimilar in shade to a blueberry in Aulay’s that night, and there wasn’t a tie or a pocket square in sight. Yet I could never feel at ease. Neither could Geordie Dave, who sat on the opposite end of the table and gazed upon me with a gimlet eye. Eventually, he cracked, querying “weren’t you at work today?”
It wasn’t any different when I decided to wear my first ever pair of corduroy trousers when Scotland played Israel in a FIFA World Cup qualifying match on a Saturday afternoon. The bar was packed, busier than at any point since the pandemic began, and although all eyes were on the television screen, it felt as though everyone had seen my ginger cords. One person commented that I was dressed like a maths teacher. Having removed the pocket square from my jacket, people were suddenly seeing a protractor. It’s uncanny how often I have been told that I look like a teacher; although it is always a different subject each time, as if everyone has gotten together and agreed that I couldn’t possibly specialise in one area.
In keeping with the season of change, Scotland defeated Israel to take an enormous step to securing a play-off for the 2022 World Cup. It was the fourth consecutive game of football the country has won, which is something that hadn’t happened since 2007 – practically an entire lifetime ago. The tension was palpable as the match swung back and forth. Israel scored within five minutes of the kick-off; Scotland equalised, though we were only level for a matter of minutes before Israel scored again; Scotland missed a penalty kick right before half-time but made it 2-2 ten minutes after the re-start. The bus driver standing at my right elbow complained that he had left the bar for a cigarette twice and on both occasions Scotland scored, to which the only sensible suggestion I could offer was that he should go back outside and stay there. He laughed, but I wasn’t entirely joking.
My nerves were as shredded from watching the game as my feet were from the new pair of shoes I had been breaking in during the week. If there’s one thing you can guarantee about autumn it is that you will quickly learn which of your shoes are leaking. Scott McTominay scored the winning goal for Scotland in the 94th minute of the contest and the pub exploded into disbelieving bedlam. There were limbs and pints in every direction. People who had socially distanced for 18 months were suddenly thrust into the arms of a stranger. It isn’t often that followers of the Scottish national team have something to celebrate, besides the occasional draw with England, so this victory was a welcome change.
When I was next in Aulay’s it was a week later, I was a year older, and the atmosphere was significantly less raucous. A guy no older than me who had all the makings of a bad acid casualty was plying the jukebox with coins and filling the playlist with 90s boy band hits and the occasional Britpop classic. Even after he had been refused service for another Bloody Mary he continued to pump pounds into the machine. Back and forth he would go between the bar and the jukebox, selecting three songs at a time and returning to his spot, where he would once again ask for another drink. It was fascinating to watch. He must have been turned down at least half a dozen times. I just wanted somebody to put him out of his misery and tell him about YouTube.
At the table directly behind the Britpop binger sat an older couple who appeared unperturbed by the saga which was unfolding in front of them. The gentleman bore a striking resemblance to a famous figure, follically at least, but we couldn’t reach an agreement on who it was. Brexit Guy, my brother and I each came up with names for whom the slicked-back grey locks reminded us of: Rod Stewart, Denis Law, Christopher Walken, but we couldn’t settle on a definitive answer. All I really knew was that at 38 I could only dream of having hair like this guy in his sixties or seventies had.
Our trio was later joined by a fourth man who I initially assumed was an acquaintance of Brexit Guy due to him taking a barstool and engaging Liam in conversation, but who it turned out was a complete stranger. At first glance he was fairly nondescript, not unlike any other man who walks into a pub on a Saturday night. He was dressed in jeans, a jacket and a t-shirt, a look I couldn’t attribute to any kind of teacher. Apparently he was still struggling with a tequila hangover from the previous night, although that didn’t stop him from ordering a shot of the stuff on my round. It was suggested that we all take a shot of tequila, but I was still coming to terms with being a guy who wears corduroy without also becoming someone who drinks distilled Mexican agave before nine o’clock on a Saturday. I turned down the opportunity of buying myself a tequila, citing the fact that drinking it usually results in me losing my mind – a statement that I would come to think of later in the night.
When Brexit Guy and my brother both got up to go to the toilet, I was left to make conversation with the stranger. He seemed amiable enough, even when he told me that he is from Bridge of Weir and I jumped in with a mistaken comment about it being near Stirling. Of course, I was thinking of Bridge of Allan, which is a small town north of Stirling, rather than the village of Bridge of Weir, which I was told is close to Paisley. The transient tequila drinker spoke about how he likes to visit Oban twice a year for the peace and quiet he can enjoy in the area, allowing him to get away from the pressures of life back home for a few days. It seems to be a fairly common reason folk have for coming here, and most of the time you can see why – even amidst a low-volume flurry of songs by Westlife and Backstreet Boys.
The bloke didn’t stick around for very long before he moved on, and it was only after he had left that Brexit Guy revealed how the visitor had told him earlier that he had served eight years in prison for killing a man. I believe the story was that his home had been burgled and as he sought retribution against the perpetrator some time later he ended up killing him and stabbing two other people. It sounded like the plot for a movie you might find on Channel 5 on a Sunday afternoon. Upon being told about this development, it was all I could do picture the next scene in the script, where after rehabilitating his life and becoming a pillar of the community, the ex-convict takes a weekend break in Oban which suddenly turns sour when a local at the bar he visits rejects his offer of a shot of tequila because it makes him lose his mind.
Brexit Guy went on to confess that although he didn’t particularly like or dislike the transient tequila drinker, he offered the gentleman his mobile phone number anyway because “I didn’t want him to think bad of me.” I was incredulous. I mean, this I really couldn’t get my head around. How is it that a convicted killer can walk into Aulay’s and receive a phone number almost immediately when I’ve been going there every Friday night after work for more than five years and not been given so much as a digit? I poured a bottle of ginger ale into my Jameson and watched as the bubbles frolicked around the cubes of ice at the top of the glass, the entire drink changing before my eyes. Like everything else in October, I was going to have to hope that the change from wearing a suit to chinos or cords was going to lead to a wider change in my life. Such as being offered a phone number in the pub, or even just something as simple as an agreement on the school subject I could specialise in.
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. It never seems to matter that 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.
Somewhere in an alternate timeline, I bought a Spirit of Scotland rail pass on Tuesday and travelled through to Dundee, where I stayed for seven nights and took day trips to eat fish and chips in Anstruther and smokies in Arbroath, drink beer by the 18th fairway at St. Andrews, and visit Dunfermline Abbey. I visited parts of the country I had previously never seen, met scores of interesting new people in bars and in the hostel where I slept, and even found the time to pen the definitive travelogue on train travel along the east coast of Scotland. It was quite the adventure.
Of course, this being 2020/21, I came down with a cold just days before I had planned to set off on my journey. Even with a multitude of negative Lateral Flow Tests logged with NHS test and trace, it no longer seems the correct etiquette to be jumping on public transport with your nose streaming with mucus. Once upon a time, I wouldn’t have thought twice about jamming a couple of paracetamol into my mouth and a packet of tissues in the pocket of my chinos before getting on a train and spluttering my way through the rural Scottish countryside, but a lot of things have changed in the last couple of years, and maybe not all of them for the worse.
It is said that once a person has learned how to ride a bicycle they never forget, a phrase which was no doubt coined by someone who actually knows how to ride a bike, however, I’m not sure that the same can be said for being sick. When I awoke on Sunday morning and the first thing to happen was for me to sneeze into my pillow, my initial reaction was one of confusion. I felt the way a dog looks after it has sneezed. Following more than 18 months of lockdowns, social distancing, constant hand sanitising and mask-wearing, I was on a record-breaking streak of good health. I don’t think that I have ever felt as healthy. So when that first sneeze was rapidly followed by several more and my throat had me thinking that I might have swallowed some rusty nails in my Jameson the night before, I realised that not only had I failed to stock up on tissues during the great panic buying of March 2020, but I had also completely forgotten what it is like to be sick.
My worst days were on Sunday and Monday when my limited supply of tissue paper was really called into question. In the way of a 1995 Alanis Morissette song, my cold had largely cleared up by Tuesday morning, which was when I was scheduled to travel to Dundee. I wasn’t sneezing nearly as much, and the erratic headache I had been suffering from disappeared. What was most unusual about my bout of sickness was the way that I would become breathless and sweaty ten minutes into my relatively mild half-hour morning yoga routine, something that doesn’t ordinarily happen. My attempts at Ujjayi breathing, which is supposed to mimic the sound of the ocean when you exhale through your nose whilst your lips remain sealed, sounded more like a blockage in the kitchen sink. However, my LFTs continued to show me as being negative for Covid-19, and I never displayed any of the three symptoms that the government website suggests you have before booking a PCR test: a new cough, high temperature, or sudden loss of taste or smell. It was the latter symptom that I really put to the test, mainly because I don’t own a thermometer. For days I was sticking my nose into every fragrant item in my cupboards. Paprika, Dijon mustard, mixed herbs, coffee granules. Never has the phrase “wake up and smell the coffee” taken on such meaning in my life, and never have I been more thankful for the scent of Lidl’s Deluxe Colombian roast.
Although I had taken as much certainty that I don’t have Covid as one can from several negative tests, it still seemed decent manners to not bring whichever bug I was carrying onto public transport, so I postponed my break for a week and stayed at home instead. The period of self-imposed isolation would, if nothing else, allow me time to reflect upon a couple of the grievances I had been stewing over for a while.
Ever since I became a single occupant in Combie Street at the beginning of 2018, there has been a collection of brushes that have leaned against the wall by the bottom of the stairs in the close, usually next to an assortment of bicycles and buggies. Every other day I would take the soft-bristled brush and use it to sweep the floors in my flat since I could never trust the hard broom on my delicate Portland oak laminate flooring. It would only ever take me ten minutes or so and then the brush would be returned to the stairwell, my floor absolved of dust and the small specks of black rubber that seemed to be shedding from my yoga mat every day. As an arrangement, it could hardly be more convenient. So when I returned home from work one lunchtime a few weeks ago to find that my favourite brush had vanished, a sense of worry soon swept over me.
Of course, it was possible that another tenant in the building was using the broom at the time, or that someone had simply forgotten to put it back, so I didn’t let its disappearance get to me and reasoned that I would just do my floor another time. But days passed without sight of the silver-handled brush, and you could tell it from the state of my hallway. Who knows what had become of the thing, whether it was stolen, misplaced, or the victim of a terrible accident, but it reached a point where I had to comb my flat with a tiny dustpan and brush, which, really, is akin to painting a wall with a toothbrush. Inevitably over time I would pass my neighbours in the close or see them out on the street and glances of suspicion were exchanged; one of us knew something, but nobody knew who. It was the worst game of Cluedo being played out before our very eyes, only no one could find the brush to consider it a murder weapon.
Using a little dustpan and brush wasn’t a sensible long-term solution for keeping the floor in my flat free of debris, I accepted that much, but there was something about buying a replacement broom for the entire block that made me bristle. I was reluctant to splash out as much as £2 on a shared sweeper if it was only going to go the same way as the last one, so I did the only reasonable thing I could think of and found a space in my tiny hallway closet to store the thing. My original intention was to house it in a discreet corner of the kitchen, but I became disgruntled with the lime green plastic nib on the grey handle since the colour didn’t coordinate with anything else in my flat, and for my own sake I had to keep it out of my sight. After three years I am still coming to grips with the trials of being a homeowner, though at least now I have clean floors again.
A new broom seemed to be the order of things recently, and it was the same in Aulay’s last Friday when we learned that we were witnessing the moonlighting banker’s final shift behind the bar. From that night on he was simply going to be a banker. Although many of the emotions of the occasion were exaggerated by the heady intake of alcohol, it is true that the banker has been a mainstay of our Friday nights at the bar, sort of like the ornamental clock on a mantelpiece: you might not always look at it for the time, but it is always there. He was present for most of our failures, and I’m sure that if there had been any glorious triumphs the banker would also have been there to see them. This is the third beloved barman to have left the hospitality industry since the pandemic began, changing the face of our Fridays for good, if not for the better.
It wasn’t only the face of our Fridays that was changing, but also the voice – or more specifically on this Friday, the accent. While we are used to spending time at the bar with the Geordies, Pete & Dave, last weekend we found ourselves in the company of a Mackem for what I believe may have been the first time. Luke was visiting Scotland from Sunderland to travel the North Coast 500 scenic route, though we immediately questioned his direction of transit since most people don’t tend to start their journey in Oban to end up in Aberdeen. On first impressions, Luke seemed a pleasant guy. He had the appearance of a man who had just stepped off the set of a photoshoot for a high-end lumberjack catalogue, with his black and blue checked shirt, dark drainpipe jeans and a beard that was thick and lustrous and obviously recently groomed back from having been much longer.
Early in our interaction with Luke, we learned about why people from Sunderland are known as a Mackem and their counterparts in Newcastle are tackem – which is a term I had never heard before, not even from Geordie Pete. Seemingly this goes back to the shipbuilding days in the North East of England when the people of Sunderland would make the ships (Mackem) and the workers in Newcastle would take those ships for fitting (tackem). It was pretty cool to hear, the sort of thing that only truly makes sense when it is told in the local dialect. Unfortunately, it turned out to be the last interesting contribution that Luke would make to the night. I don’t recall why it came up, having most likely blocked it from my memory, but the model lumberjack told us about how, in the anticipation of romantic discourse during his tour of Scotland, he stopped in Glasgow to buy some rope and a dildo. It was either the set-up to a particularly off-colour joke to be making in the company of three strangers at a bar, or it was an incredibly dark insight into the life of a lumberjack on the road.
Whilst indulging us with this information, Luke was scrolling through some of the many matches he had made on the dating app Tinder since his arrival in Oban. I found it galling that this guy had made multiple connections in such a short time when I probably average no more than three a year, and I’m lucky if any of those women even live close to town. The last time I matched with someone happened to be on the Friday previous to when we met Luke. ‘Joanne’ was actually only 18 miles away, which is practically local compared to some of my usual matches. I arrived home from a night out when after being paired we exchanged messages for around an hour. Things seemed to be clicking until ‘Joanne’ commented that: “You’re actually hilarious. Your humour is appreciated here [emoji]” at which point I immediately assumed she was a bot. Still, we kept in contact for a couple of days, until I made a chickpea remark at the end of August which has to date gone unanswered.
Luke apparently has a system that dictates how he interacts with women he meets from dating apps at home, where he might know them or somebody who knows them, and when travelling, when he is a stranger who will be leaving the next day. We observed this first hand when he discarded any notion of composing an endearing or witty opening line and messaged several women the same chivalrous inquiry: “Fancy a shag?”
We never found out if the lumberjacking Mackem received any kind of response to his question since he downed a glass of Oban malt whisky like it was a shot of apple juice and went outside to smoke a rollup cigarette, never to return. It’s possible, I suppose, that one of the women got back to him while he was away and he left to meet her, in which scenario I like to console myself by imagining that he invited his unsuspecting Tinder date back to his motorhome, where he swung open the door in dramatic fashion to reveal row after row of thick carpet. It was an investment gone wrong and he ended up with far more of the rugs than he anticipated, which he was finding difficult to shift in the current economic climate. He was forced into selling his home and travelling around the country in a caravan, where he would use his charming persona to sell the surplus shag carpet to women all over the UK while supplementing his income by modelling for lumberjack catalogues on the side. Of course, shag rugs are notoriously more difficult to keep clean than other types of rug, which means that I probably have more in common with Luke than I would care to admit. We’re essentially seeking the same thing. Tinder, but just for brushes.
The hangover from my first night of vertical drinking since March 2020 had all but subsided by the time the train from Glasgow arrived at Stirling station last Thursday. For me it was my first time visiting Scotland’s seventh-largest city; it was my brother’s first time back since studying at university there; and for our ‘beer club,’ it would be an unprecedented step in the relationships many of the seven of us had only formed during the various lockdowns of the last year. When we met for drinks at No. 2 Baker Street, which is not only the name of a pub but also its address, they were the first pints of many consumed over an entire weekend spent together – a weekend that by the end of which the drinking would be better described as being horizontal.
Originally we had decided to spend the weekend in Stirling with the intention of attending the Doune The Rabbit Hole music festival between 12-15 August, but uncertainties over the council’s ability to license the event in the current climate led to it being postponed for the second year running. Since we had already organised accommodation in the city it was agreed that we should travel through and make the most of the weekend anyway, especially when it was the first one after the majority of Coronavirus restrictions were lifted earlier in the week. We had a core cast of four people for most of the weekend, and the others dropped in to spend either a day or a full 24 hours, in the style of a television sitcom where a beloved character returns for a special guest appearance.
Upon toasting our arrival in No. 2 Baker Street it was exclaimed that this was “Beer Club on tour,” which to my mind made us sound like a bunch of twenty-somethings sitting by a pool in a Spanish resort downing shots of all-inclusive Tequila, when the reality was that we are all in our mid-thirties and were sitting in a bar in Stirling drinking £4 pints of Peroni, Innis & Gunn, and Deuchars.
Our flat was but a stone’s throw away from Stirling Castle, which would have been ideal if we were an invading English force from 1297, but it was equally as suitable for a group of men whose only war to wage was on the boxes of beer they had brought with them. The apartment was spread out over two floors, with a lounge and a pool table upstairs, and the kitchen, bedrooms, dining room, and bathroom downstairs. My brother and I shared a room for the first time since our ill-fated family holiday to Orlando in 1998 when I fell in love with a Tallahassee lassie and ruined the Magic Kingdom for everybody else. The Plant Doctor and Adam, the lobster scientist who has strong opinions on shoelaces, bunked up together, and the third bedroom was left spare for our guest appearances. From every room in the flat the Wallace Monument could be seen in the distance, never more spectacularly than when a vivid rainbow looped across its face on our second day in Stirling, and never more ominously than when standing in the bathroom and glancing out of the window to be confronted by this enormous phallic structure.
After enjoying a delicious homemade vegetable curry in the elegant dining room, where we spent more time debating whether or not there is an angry dog depicted in the Georges Braque painting which hung above the fireplace than we did admiring all of the other interesting features in the room, the original four of us along with special guest star formerly amongst the ten best bar staff in Aulay’s and now the best Covid test site operator in Oban went upstairs for a session of pool before embarking on our first tour of Stirling’s pubs. There was a wide range of abilities in our group: from those who had the ability to play pool, to those who didn’t. Unfortunately for anyone with an interest in the sport, Adam and myself – the two amongst us who fell into the latter category in the range of abilities – were somehow nominated to play the first game. It must have been around fifteen minutes before either of us potted a ball, by which time everybody else had taken an unusually keen interest in the St. Johnstone vs Galatasaray football match screening in the next room, and by the time the game was finally put out of its misery we had both thoroughly disgraced ourselves. Adam at least improved as the weekend went on, to the point where he was regularly making shots and winning games, whereas my pool game was resembling my sex game: best described as a lost cause.
It was alleged that I fell in love four times during the course of our weekend in Stirling, but by my count, it was no more than three, and only one of those was true love. On Friday the 13th we booked a two o’clock tour of the Deanston whisky distillery, giving us ample time beforehand to have a wander around the village of Doune, which was the entire purpose of our weekend in the first place. It was a brooding morning, the sort where the clouds in the sky were as grey as the stone on Doune Castle; which is the perfect weather for viewing a 600-year-old building. The castle has been used in many films and television series, including Game of Thrones and Outlander, but walking around its perimeter felt no different to walking around any other grey and windswept part of Scotland. It’s part of the enduring charm of the place.
We continued down through some woodland beyond the castle, where we walked alongside the River Teith, which had the strongest current I have ever seen. Along the way, Adam mused aloud about composing a strongly-worded letter to Stirling Council complaining about the lack of benches along the bank of the river, only for it to become evident that there was one solitary wooden seat sitting on the other side of the fast-flowing water. A person would have to be really keen to rest their weary legs to reach the bench from where we were, but it would undoubtedly be the council’s out when challenged on the matter. The saga with the benches seemed to be repeated throughout Doune with their pubs. We tried the doors of no fewer than three pubs or hotel bars on Friday afternoon, eager for a drink and maybe some bar food to line our stomachs before the whisky tasting, only to find that they were all closed. In the end, we resorted to purchasing cheap sandwiches and the Bud Light beers with the screw off tops just to see us through. Doune was a quaint wee village, though. Every house seemed to have a hanging basket dangling on one side of its door and a noisy wind chime from the other, which on a day like Friday carried more than a hint of menace. On the main street, there was a video player repair shop and a cartographer, and it was then that I knew we were finally on the right track.
The Deanston distillery has been producing whisky since 1965, when the site was transformed from a cotton mill following the decline of the cotton industry. From the outside, the building doesn’t look very much like a distillery. If it wasn’t for the white lettering on the side facing the car park, you might be forgiven for believing that you have driven into an industrial office complex or a mid-level insurance company, rather than a whisky distillery. We were greeted inside by our tour guide Erin, who led us through the gift shop and beyond the cafe into a courtyard, where she opened the door to the warehouse and gave us an introduction to the brand. Before leading us into the cask warehouse, Erin asked each of us whether we prefer drinking sweet or smoky whisky. Everybody answered in a calm and sensible manner until it reached the end of the semi-circle, where I was standing. I could barely contain myself. My hands were practically shaking, so pleased was I with the line I had balancing on the tip of my tongue, ready to drop like a lemming. I looked straight into Erin’s eyes: “I like my whisky the same way I like my bacon…smoky.” She hardly flinched. It was impossible to tell if she was smiling or not due to the face coverings, but I like to think that she enjoyed it. “You’ll probably be disappointed, then; Deanston is a sweet whisky.” It was ever thus.
During our Warehouse 4 Experience, we tasted three 15ml drams straight from the cask, though there was a fourth that was not advertised which Erin claimed she had given to us because she liked our group. This sounded more like theatrics to me than any justification for my joke about bacon, but either way, it made the £35 cost seem like good value, especially when it felt quite steep earlier in the day when we thought we were just going to be walking around a distillery rather than sitting on a bench in the warehouse drinking shots of whisky. The first dram we sampled was a 2001 Organic Fino Hogshead Finish cask at 55% ABV, which would also be the favourite for most of us. I always struggle when people talk about whisky tasting notes, and I especially did when Erin spoke of hints of nut and sherry on the nose or a taste of red fruits and chocolates, partly because I was still distracted by the question of whether she had found the bacon remark funny or not, but also because when I swallowed a mouthful of the stuff my throat felt like a dentist had performed an oral procedure on me with a blowtorch.
Our whiskies had strengths ranging from 55 & 59% to 61%, significantly greater than the 40% I am used to experiencing in my Jameson, and I could still feel it the following afternoon when we made our way up to the Wallace Monument. I didn’t have any more than the crib notes on the life of Sir William Wallace and I’ve never seen the film Braveheart, so I saw the trip as a good opportunity to fill in some gaps in my understanding of Scottish history. Once you have made the long trek from the base of Abbey Craig to the monument, you buy your tickets and are given a raffle token in return, and when your number is called you are summoned to begin your climb up the structure. Whilst we waited for our ticket to come up, Arctic Fox pulled one of the tennis balls she is famous for carrying everywhere out of her bag, and we began kicking it around amongst ourselves. It is the highest altitude at which I have ever played any ball sports, and I could tell that there was a lot of panic about losing it over the edge. The more we kicked the small tennis ball against the side of the Wallace Monument, the easier it was to imagine returning there the next day and seeing a newly-installed plaque warning: “NO BALL GAMES,” particularly when we were attracting the attention of two separate dogs who became very interested in the fluffy ball. Even now I can’t stop thinking about how mortifying it would be knowing that you are the party responsible for Stirling District Tourism feeling the need to put up a sign asking adults not to mess around at a site of significant national interest.
There are 246 steps leading to the top of the Wallace Monument, and I was aware of every single one of them. The narrow stone spiral staircase up to the observation platform doesn’t lend to grace or elegance, especially with the requirement to wear a face covering and the way those can fog your glasses in heated situations. I was wearing my salmon chinos for the first time in several weeks, and when I dipped my hand into the pocket to reach for a tissue to wipe the condensation from my lenses, I found a light blue mask I hadn’t used in a while. I think I ended up with three separate masks on my person that day. It occurred to me that face masks have become what a £5 or £10 note used to be back in the days when we were still carrying cash; something you unexpectedly discover when you slide your hand into the back pocket of a pair of jeans, or maybe even down the side of a sofa cushion.
After visiting the three exhibition galleries within the monument, you finish up in the crown at the top of the building. The first room played an animated video that told the story of William Wallace’s rise to prominence, as well as housing the mighty sword that he carried into battle. Wallace’s sword weighs approximately 3kg and is 1.68m in length, close to what we recently knew as social distancing. The second exhibition displayed thirty sculptures of significant Scottish figures who have contributed to the history of the nation, including the first two women to be added to the Hall of Heroes in 2018. In the final gallery before reaching the summit, we learned all about the geography and military strategy behind the 1297 Battle of Stirling Bridge, which was pretty cool to see before stepping out into the crown and witnessing the landscape for ourselves. The view from the observation platform was well worth the whisky-soaked sweat. We could see all the way out across the Ochil Hills and the Forth Valley. From our perspective, it was easy to see how William Wallace trapped King Edward’s English army at Stirling Bridge. Though at the same time, I had walked up all 264 steps carrying the tennis ball in my jacket pocket and never felt as much temptation as I did there on the observation platform to toss it to the group. Somehow I resisted.
Once safely back down on steady ground, we took a leisurely stroll around the grounds of the University of Stirling. I could tell that it was quite cathartic for my brother and the Plant Doctor, who both studied there at different times. Arctic Fox attempted to feed the ducks in the pond with tiny slices of carrot, but despite their vociferous quaking, the ducks seemed unwilling to dive their beaks into the water to catch the sinking pieces. Soon a couple of swans who were surveying the scene from a distance began wading their way through the thick algae. Seemingly they had seen enough of the attention the ducks were receiving and were keen to re-establish their territory. The ducks quickly fled, and we were forced into re-thinking our carrot distribution when the swans puffed out their chests and hissed at us. This happened at a couple of different points around the point, and every time it seemed to be Alan who was the subject of the swans’ ire.
We were all brought to a panic when a dog who was walking by the side of its owner on the path behind us became attracted to the scene on the grass. This dog came barrelling down the slope and bounded straight into the muddy water to a cacophony of cries from its owner, hissing from the swans and howls of shock from us. The owner was quickly able to coax the canine from the pond without anyone being hurt, at which point it became the most playful pup in the world, parading from one horrified person to the next, tongue hanging from its mouth and mud dripping from its body and legs, seeking all the affection it could get. I have never felt so terrified as when it approached me and all I could see was the end of my salmon chinos. Something about this playful, mud-caked dog trying to befriend a complete stranger with its mischief as the rest of the group looked on unimpressed reminded me of Erin at the Deanston Distillery, but I couldn’t place what.
As if the 264 steps to the top of the Wallace Monument weren’t enough, we then embarked on a steep climb up a hill at Sheriffmuir, but at least this time we had beers. For all the good I believed that 18 months of yoga had done my fitness, this day was really testing me, though that it was the fourth day of considerable alcohol abuse probably didn’t help. At the top, we took a group selfie in which all of us are surely sporting the wildest hair any of us has ever had, and we could see as far afield as Grangemouth. In fact, it was more or less the same view we’d been treated to from the Wallace Monument, only this time we could see the landmark in our photographs. Whilst up there, the Plant Doctor revealed the deeply personal story behind his reason for wanting to take the group up that particular hill, which was probably the most touching moment of the Beer Club on tour.
The walk back from Sheriffmuir was not without its trauma. The introduction of beer into the mix invariably meant that a call with nature was going to be required for some in the group. My brother, the Plant Doctor and Alan wandered off into the forestry at separate sides of the road while I took it upon myself to look after the beers. From my position on the roadside, I could hear my brother warn that there was a hole in the ground containing a wasps nest. The next thing I remember is seeing Alan moving faster than he did even during our game of football with the nine-year-old boy in Easdale. He had a rapid turn of pace, and it turns out that he did so because he had been stung three times; twice on his arm and once on the back of his leg. It was the first time he had been stung by a wasp since he was a boy, and it was obviously extremely painful.
I remarked how the incident put me in mind of the 1991 Macaulay Culkin film My Girl, but nobody else understood the reference. I tried to explain the scene where the young boy, who it is earlier established has an allergy to just about everything, accidentally steps on a beehive while trying to find a ring belonging to the titular girl and dies from the allergic reaction to the sting. None of this meant anything to the rest of the group, and I was finding myself increasingly more concerned with the fact that nobody had ever seen My Girl than I was about the health of my friend. Alan became curious and asked how long it took for Macaulay Culkin’s character to die and whether he went into anaphylactic shock, as though the movie was a medical journal. I tried to assure him that, to the best of my memory, the kid was killed instantly by the bee sting and he probably didn’t have anything to worry about, but it had also been around thirty years since I’d seen the story. To the best of my knowledge, Alan is still alive today, though between the swans and the wasps he really had a day of his 24-hour guest appearance in our weekend.
Since we first met him, the Plant Doctor has been waxing lyrical about his hometown pub, the Settle Inn. As much as anything, this trip was a pilgrimage to the bar. When we walked in on Friday night it could just as easily have been Aulay’s. It had the same kind of homely vibe; the regulars sitting around the bar; the barmaid who knew everybody’s name; the jukebox to throw money into. They even had my favourite beer on tap, Caesar Augustus from the nearby Williams Bros. brewery. Really the only difference between Aulay’s and the Settle Inn was the flytrap which we found on the windowsill by our table, a contraption that was little more than a glass of Coca-Cola with clingfilm wrapped over its top and a hole big enough for the barflies to be tempted into. It plays on the anomaly that while flies are excellent at finding their way into tiny gaps, they are terrible at getting back out. The glass must surely be the subject of some outrageous wagers on a weekly basis.
Like Aulay’s, the Settle Inn became the central focus of our weekend; the ultimate goal and the place our days revolved around. We went in on Saturday night and found ourselves talking to the same people we had met on Friday. I was in conversation with an older gentleman who had an impressive head of white hair and wore an immaculate Harris Tweed coat which I swear he claimed he had paid a thousand pounds for. He was wearing this expensive coat with a garish tartan shirt and a pair of jeans, which seemed at best ill-advised and at worst offensive to me, as I’m sure it would have to Marco the director of an Italian menswear company, too. I couldn’t comprehend the thought process that would lead someone to spend a thousand pounds on a quality coat only to pair it with denim jeans. You don’t see a Versace necklace resting over a black bin liner, or a notice warning against ball games on the Wallace Monument.
On a couple of nights we invited some folks from the Settle Inn back to the flat for some post-pub drinks, although those never ended well. One red-haired woman was offended by the way Adam and I would make crude jokes at one another’s expense, whilst another guy grew increasingly exasperated by our failed attempts at getting the movie E.T. to play on the DVD player. As he stormed out of the flat he was heard to say, “my ex-missus is dropping off the kids in the morning. I don’t even know what I’m doing here.”
Invitations to the Settle Inn seemed to be more difficult to convince people to accept. Whilst in Molly Malones watching the Celtic game, we struck up conversation with two of the barmaids who were on duty, intending to ask them to join our team for the pub quiz in the Settle Inn later that evening. We learned that they are both from Dublin, or just outside the city, have the same first name but spelt differently, and are in Stirling studying nursing. I asked them how it was to be watching a bunch of thirtysomethings nursing pints of beer, and it is hard to think that that wasn’t the point where our offer began to look less appealing to them. If not, it was probably when I pointed to the pint of Icebreaker IPA I was drinking and asked the Irish barmaids what their favourite icebreaker is. “I’ve never tried it,” one of them responded.
Remarkably they seemed to be warming to us as time went on, and the young woman who was first to finish her shift went as far as to join us at the bar for a drink. At one point she even agreed to come with us to the quiz, though it was doubtless induced by the hit from the initial mouthful of cider after a long shift, and as soon as the friend she was going out with turned up, all bets were off. It’s difficult to tell how much difference a couple of nursing students would have made to our cause anyway since the quiz was extremely difficult and we went on to suffer a crushing defeat, but it’s something we will never know for sure. What we did know was that even amongst the wreckage of all of our defeats, from hissing swans to wasp stings, and whisky hangovers to poorly-judged remarks, we had somehow survived Beer Club on tour.