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Friday, 13 August 2021

While my guitar gently weeps

"Someone once said they found me intimidating," Bob tells me as we're sat in his back garden, sipping coffee from his bean-to-cup machine, a thing I'd never heard of, whose price when I looked it up later provoked a small pang of envy for a lifestyle that delivers mellow coffee on the patio, a specialist workshop in the extension and a black beast of a BMW in the driveway.

Surprised at first by this depiction of a man that in 50 years I’ve never heard raise his voice, much less lose his temper, I eventually hit on the answer. “You’re good-looking and carry yourself with an air of confidence,” I tell him. “Some might find that intimidating. You also look down your nose at people.”

“I’m six feet three,” he says. “I can’t help it.”

“And you’re witty which intimidates the humourless.”

Bob's wife Kim steps through the French windows with a packet of large, hospitable biscuits, briefly stays to chat, then returns to her Zoom call with other international aquaculture experts.   

Bob sips his coffee and nibbles a biscuit, while following the flight of a butterfly that’s finding slim pickings on the patio, and asks a hesitant question.

“How’s your treatment going?”

“Better than I was led to expect,” I tell him. “Hot flushes and tiredness are the main side-effects. Oh and a weird one I noticed the other day when I was in the shower and made the mistake of looking straight down.”

Bob squirms. “Steady on,” he says. “We’re men. We can be good friends without sharing intimate secrets from the shower-room.”

“It’s my legs,” I tell him and he visibly relaxes.

“What’s weird about your legs?”

“They’ve gone bald,” I tell him. “Well, half of them. All the hair has vanished from the outside of each leg. The insides are as hairy as ever.”

“Look,” I add, rolling up my trousers for inspection.

“Bugger me, you’re right,” Bob says. “Did you ask your doc why?”

“Yeah, she said loss of body hair was a side-effect of the hormone treatment. I’d have to get used to looking like a plucked chicken, she said.”

Bob shakes his head. “Harsh but you’re not even that,” he says. You’re a half-plucked chicken. You’re a chicken somebody started plucking, got a phone call from the wife and forgot all about.

“Speaking of plucking, would you like to see the guitars I’m making?”

Happy to drop the subject of my health and always interested in another man’s workshop, I concur and we head inside. A resinous blend of shellac and pinewood welcomes me, as we enter a white-walled room, well-equipped with dark work surfaces and lined with tools, shelves and enticing, grainy woods.

“Looks professional,” I tell him. “I’m guessing making a guitar that sounds good - and looks good - is highly technical. Takes a lot of experience?”

He smiles. “Somebody once said it was easy: you just cut down a tree and take away all the bits that aren’t a guitar.”

“Michaelangelo?”

“Probably,” he picks up a lovely, light-coloured piece of wood. “This is spruce, a favourite for the soundboard. I’ve been using some very old – and very expensive – spruce from the Dolomites. The cool mountain air makes trees grow slowly there, and evenly. Gives you a wood that’s light, strong and resonant.

From our student days together, I remember mellow evenings with beer, girls and Bob on guitar, but I never knew he made them.

“I didn’t then. Built my first three from kits – oh, years ago now. Gave me confidence to start building from scratch. For the moment, I’ve settled on a design that combines classical guitar ideas with techniques for strong steel string constructions. All my guitars are finished with French Polish. Takes a while but produces a lovely, fragile sheen that lets the top vibrate better than a heavy lacquer finish.”

I shake my head with that mix of envy and admiration that craftsmen have inspired in me since I was a boy watching my Dad build TV sets in a small bedroom-workshop, filled with the smoky scent of rosin-core solder.

“Gimme some technical terms, Bob, so I can look them up later and learn more.”

“Sure.” He rubs his chin. “Well, there’s silking, purfling and kerfing.”

“Don’t just make shit up – that’s my job.”

“Silking – small cross-grain lines in the wood, a sign of a perfectly quarter sawn top,” he says. “Purfling – a narrow decorative edge inlaid into the top of a stringed instrument. Kerfing – strips of wood glued around the inside seams to add strength and stability.

"Then there’s chatoyancy, Spanish Heel and a phrase that luthiers often use." He gives me that deadpan look of his. 

"What's that?"

"'Oh shit!'"

“Right. What’s a luthier?”

“Me. Someone who makes stringed instruments, especially violins or guitars. Comes from the French for ‘lute’.”

It’s my turn to broach a sensitive topic. “How you doing since Archie died, Bob?”

"I miss him. He was a lovely dog."

"You think you'll get another?"

"Yes, we will. Another Labrador. We tried for a rescue dog, but you just can't get them now - everybody wants a dog to keep them company since the pandemic. So we're going to buy one."

"How much?"

"Couple of thousand."

"Wow! You got a name in mind?"

Bob scratches his chin. "I reckon good names for dogs have two syllables with a plosive in the middle - like 'p' or 'b' - or a sibilant. So I want to call him Basil."

"Not a common dog's name."

"No, but I like it.  I don't know if I can get it past Kim, though.” 

He gives me that look again. “Especially if it’s a girl.”

Thursday, 15 July 2021

The Big Grey Man of Ben Macdui

Macaroni balls. Sounds like something a cyclist gets after a long run in tight pants, doesn't it? Hands up when you know for sure that's not what they are.

I'm on a recce in the Cairngorms and I've tried to get up on to the plateau near Coire an t-Sneachda, where deep snowdrifts still cling to the walls of the corrie, even in mid June. Out of nowhere, gusts of wind so strong that they twice have me on my knees force me back down.

Having a coffee in the car while assessing alternative routes, I pull a little plastic bag from my backpack, courtesy of a kind friend who doesn't trust me to feed myself, take one of the mysterious, brown wrinkled balls between thumb and forefinger, and savour the sensual springiness as I squeeze. Dipping it in salt crystals from a silver-paper twist, I raise it to my lips and bite. The mouth-feel and flavour are deeply satisfying.

Draining the coffee, I wipe my lips and head up by a different route. Straight out of the car park, I meet a couple of young, street-clothed women pulled along by a perky Jack Russell on a long lead. They ask the way to the Cairngorm summit, so I point them to the Windy Ridge track. But visions of their little pet soaring like a kite, move me to warn of the likely strong gales up top. They thank me kindly, ignore me completely and push on.

My friend Iain reckons no one ever listens to him. That can't be true or I wouldn't know he says it. But I take his point. It's frustrating that you can't pass hard-won experience on to the young. Muttering about this, I find myself joined in my uphill trudge by a tall, dark, similarly muttering figure, with a woolly bunnet pulled down over his forehead and a scarf covering the lower half of his face up to his nose. His beef seems to be tourists rather than young people, but he sounds as disgruntled as me.

Falling silent as he matches his pace to mine with a loping, effortless stride, he fixes me with a disconcerting stare. I feel compelled to speak, so tell him my plan to come back and camp out on Ben Macdui, once I've recced the route.

"Wild camping, iss it?" he says, as he holds me with his glittering eye.

I sense disapproval but burble on. "I've been on a course in the Lake District and now I'm ready to go solo. I'm really looking forward to it. I want to test myself in tough conditions." 

"On Ben Macdui?" he says, shaking his head. "You'll not haff heard of Am Fear Liath Mòr?"

"What's that?"

"It iss a who, not a what. The Big Grey Man of Ben Macdui."

He says no more and a sepulchral silence falls between us, as our footsteps crunch on the stony track, three of mine to two of his, in a syncopated, slightly stressed beat. I'm keen to hear more but hesitant to question him, so I study the plants beside the winding track, many of them more at home in cooler climes than Scotland. 

Dark-hearted flowers of dwarf cornel peek out between clumps of Alpine lady's mantle, their silver-edged leaves spotted with shimmering dewdrops. Ragged deergrass blossoms seek the sun, while solitary bees sip nectar from cloudberry flowers, whose rose-orange fruits I last saw nestling in tall glasses in a Turku boardroom. 

"Strange tales are told of Liath Mòr," my companion comes to life again. "Many more will never be told." He lapses into silence and I wonder if one lifetime will be enough to reach the end of this conversation. 

"Sightings are rare," he starts up again, casting a glance in my direction. "But his presence is often felt and his footsteps heard in the mist ... behind you."

I suppress a shudder and try scepticism. "Yeah, but you get stories like that in the hills. Most told by tourists with scant experience of wind and mist and mountains."

My companion emits a guttural sound and I realise I've annoyed him. "Professor John Norman Collie wass not a tourist," he says. "He was an eminent scientist and mountaineer, the first to tell of Am Fear Liath Mòr."

Crunch, crunch on the track. This is a man who talks slow but walks deceptively fast, and I'm starting to pant as I struggle to keep pace, keen to hear his story. 

“Collie heard footsteps stalking him, near the cloud-covered summit of the Ben. He told himself it was nonsense but the footsteps kept on coming. He was seized with terror. 'I took to my heels,’ he reported later, ‘staggering blindly among the boulders for four or five miles. There is something very queer about the top of Ben Macdui and I will not go back there again.’"

My companion turns his head to gauge my reaction. We walk on. Crunch, crunch, crunch. He speaks again. “Alexander Tewnion was not a tourist. He wass a naturalist and mountaineer. Will I tell you his story?”

By this time I can breathe or speak but not both, so I simply nod and he continues. "As Tewnion reached the top of Ben Macdui, the mist swirled across the Lairig Ghru, shrouding the mountain. He heard loud footsteps and a huge shape came charging at him. He pulled his revolver and fired three times.

“'When it still came on, I turned and hared down the path,’ he reported later, ‘reaching Glen Derry in a time that I have never bettered.’”

Crunch, crunch, crunch. I've heard more than enough to know I should find another mountain for my next camping expedtion. The wind is up again, as strong as ever, shrieking like a lost soul and trying to push me back down the mountain. 

"What about you?" I ask and my companion's dark eyes turn towards me. "Have you ever encountered the Big Grey Man?" 

The cloud is down now, clammy on our faces, as we approach the snow-banks in the headwall of Coire Cas. "I haff not," he says, lengthening his stride and pulling effortlessly away from me. 

As the cloud closes around him his soft Highland tones sound in my ears one last time.

"But you have.”

Sunday, 30 May 2021

Hello darkness my old friend (wild camping part 2)

It turns out Paul and I have a lot in common. He plays the drums. I play the drums. He's a vegetarian. I'm a vegetarian. He's good-looking and knowledgeable. I'm  ...

So anyway. Having ascended every peak in this part of the Lake District, and scaled most of the rock faces, Paul has picked out what he considers an ideal spot for my first night wild camping.

It's not exactly a spot, though, more a vast expanse of marsh and meandering river, cradled by craggy mountaintops. "It's called Great Moss," Paul tells me, as he plots a path across, after three hours hikingI had pictured something more secluded for my first night under the stars. But Paul knows what he's doing. 

"You'll see the sun rise in the morning over those hills behind us," he says, as we splash across the shallow water. Rejecting several sites as too hard or squelchy he chooses one for me, beside a mountain stream, and another fifty yards away for himself, and we pull the tents from our rucksacks. 

Having learned all I know about tents from Carry on Camping, I expect erecting them to be tricky and time-consuming. But it happens so fast I almost miss it, colour coding and structural ribs made of sectioned tent-poles making it look so easy that I think even an idiot could do it. Fortunately.  

"And there you are," Paul says. "A two-person tent ready for the night."

"How many persons?" I check.

"Two," He confirms. "This one's quite roomy." 

Not to my eyes it isn't. But that's fine. Solo camping is the long-term plan, not snuggling up with a friend – partly because I want to experience the Cairngorm wilderness without distraction, as Nan Shepherd did, and partly because I don't have any friends willing to snuggle up with me on a mountaintop. (Yeah, I asked.)

During dinner, heated on the stoves and saucepans we carried in with us, Paul chats about wild camping around the country. The short version is that, barring a few exceptions, it's legal anywhere in Scotland and nowhere in England*. 

After dinner, we wash our dishes in the mountain stream and Paul gets to his feet, eyeing the track behind us that leads to the peaks. "Do you feel up to it?" he asks. "It'll be easier now you've stowed your rucksack." True enough, I do have a pleasant floaty feeling, but I'm also wearier than I'd normally be after a six mile uphill hike, the after-effects of my second Covid vaccination yesterday. 

It seems a shame not to try for the top, although it's not my main aim in being here, so we set off upwards. But short of the highest point in England, I have to call it a day and we turn back down, to prepare for the night.

The sun is sinking fast now, the warm afternoon yielding to a cool and peaceful gloaming. The air is still, as it has been all day, the only sound the soft splash of the stream we're camped beside, a soothing murmur that should help me sleep. Paul and I chat about the outdoor life as the light leeches away, before he wishes me goodnight and heads for his tent.

So here we are. The moment that's almost haunted my thoughts for over a year. For the next ten hours it's just me, the sky above, the earth beneath and the darkness.

Oh and the thick socks, long pants, thermal vest, woolly bunnet and four-seasons sleeping bag. The forecast is hard frost and I've come prepared. But after an hour I realise I'm not cold. I'm hot. The woolly bunnet stays on, partly because the air is already chilly as the day's heat radiates up through a cloudless sky, but mainly because it's a present from my son.

Not my son the artist, who often appears in these pages. This is another son you've never heard of. My firstborn. We were close when he was a boy. We made each other laugh. But he had a hard time as a young adult and found it easier to cut himself off from us.

Around three years ago he gradually began to come back into my life. We meet regularly now and go long walks together. He's a lovely man. The whole experience, lasting twenty years, has taught me something I didn't know about human biology. You can function at some level with a hole in your heart. But you get to live again when it heals.

The hat stays on, as does the watch he gave me that also shows temperature and compass direction. The socks come off, and the pants and vest. So now I'm stretched out nice and cosy, naked from the forehead down.

Cosy but by no means comfortable. I favoured quality for the rucksack and sleeping-bag, but economy for the mat, a mistake that's borne painfully in on me as the Lake District presses hard on my ribs and hip. I'm convinced sleep is impossible but I'm wrong. 

At around 5 am, when it's - 6 ° C outside, I'm awoken by urgent messages from my nether regions that my arse is freezing off, as are my feet. I pull on socks and pants again and next thing I know it's 7am and I've almost missed the daybreak.

Quickly unzipping the sleeping-bag and tent, I pull on trousers and top and step into a cool morning under a rosy sky, as dawn turns to sunrise and the first rays illuminate the mountaintops, then travel down towards us. It's too good an opportunity to miss, so before packing up, I sit down to meditate, with my back to a rock, facing the sunrise.

Half an hour later, leaving nothing behind us, Paul and I set off, with the sun still warming our way. On the hike down, the chat ranges widely. We compare old injuries, as men do when they're getting to know each other – fractures, sprains, slipped discs, broken hearts. Paul wins the first. I've got him beat on all the rest.

I ask if he considers Ringo a good drummer and nod agreement when he tells me he didn't, but having listened to the thoughts of other great drummers, he does nowHe asks if I believe in reincarnation and nods agreement when I say I don't know and it doesn't matter: the principle's the same however you get there – don't harm any living thing.

On the last leg, we again pass the little black lambs who, I 'm guessing, look much better for their night of wild camping than I do. At the cars, Paul and I unload our backpacks and prepare to part. 

I have warm memories of our day and a half together. If I want advice or instruction on any other outdoor activity, he's the man I'll call. We bump elbows, say goodbye and drive off in opposite directions. 

Next stop Ben Macdui in the snow.


Find Paul at Rock n Ridge

* Longer version of wild camping law.

Tuesday, 11 May 2021

Wild camping

My companion raises
an eyebrow but says nothing, as another manly moan escapes my aching body. Soft words and sympathy are not part of Paul's job on this trip. 

Taking me up to the Scafell range, pushing me on if he has to, and showing me how to survive overnight in what promises to be seriously sub-zero temperatures, despite the fact that the sun this morning is blazing down from a big blue sky ... are. 

Having grown up in the Ayrshire countryside, not far from Glen Afton, I'd done lots of running and walking in the hills, over the years, without feeling the need for outdoor activity lessons. Seemed like asking someone to teach me how to breathe. But having reached the ripe old age of none-of-your-business without ever camping in the wild, I got a craving to try it last year while reading Nan Shepherd's 'The Living Mountain'. I wanted to experience a dawn like she describes, in which "I hardly breathe - I am an image in a ball of glass.”

I also wanted to push myself a little, scare myself a bit, without doing anything as stupid as detaching my retinas by diving head-first off a cliff with an elastic band round my ankles. I'd tried Go Ape in the Trossachs, with a friend, which isn't scary but is exhilarating, especially the initial 400 metre zip-wire over a wooded valley. I'd gone coasteering, which allowed us to pose in figure-hugging wetsuits and jump off cliffs into the sea. 

But feeling enough fear to push past, I've found, gets more difficult as the years tick away and emotional scar tissue hardens into the imprint of experience. Just one source of terror from earlier times might, I suspect, still be in there, biding its time to turn my palms wet and my legs wobbly. The scent of tobacco smoke can still carry me back to black nights with the wind howling, when my Dad would come upstairs and lie beside me, his strong presence soothing my fears and helping me drift off to sleep. 

Yep, as a wee boy I was scared of the dark. Imagination conjured monsters from the night. So spending one inside a small tent up a mountain, when you can't see but can hear what's sneaking up on you, may well trigger some of that atavistic dread. Good. That's what I'm looking for. 

The expedition gets off to a shaky start, however, when I don't find Paul until an hour later than we'd agreed, by which time I'm feeling agitated, having misread the map, parked in the wrong place and got to wondering if I'm going to balls up my keenly anticipated but long Covid-delayed expedition before it starts. 

When we eventually do meet up, exactly where Paul said he'd be, I am reassured by his soft Yorkshire accent and air of calm competence, as he shows me how to insert the tent, stove and saucepan he's brought for me into a rucksack I thought was already packed as tight as six badgers in a biscuit tin. 

That done we head off into upper Eskdale, past a pair of tiny black lambs whose large eyes and plaintive bleats make us both go a little soppy. I think I'm going to like this guy. But I'm already beginning to hate my backpack. Paul is moving light and easy, while I trudge along behind, trying to get the hang of walking with a small, knobbly horse on my back. 

It's a gorgeous morning, the Esk below us sparkling white as it rushes over rocks, and translucent green where deep, inviting pools collect the icy waters from the mountains. We pause briefly beside one of these, for a cup of tea and a chat about the other activities Paul offers.

Besides wild camping, these include navigation, abseiling, rock climbing, via ferrata, canoeing, winter skills and a host of others, including ghyll scrambling. 

"You've heard of canyoning," Paul explains. "Well ghyll scrambling is similar except you go upstream instead of down. It's a lot of fun."

"Do you have to carry a rucksack?" I ask.

"No," he tells me.

"I'm in."


(To be continued.) 

Find Paul at RocknRidge 

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Let me count the ways

The sign on the toilet wall in Nuclear Medicine warns me, for the sake of other users, to aim accurately and avoid the toilet seat, "since your urine is now radioactive".

Well, that's a new one. Little did I realise, as a fresh-faced physics student, learning that an excited nucleus decays by emitting high-energy particles, that one day I'd be pissing them.

"What's your superpower, Douglas?"

"I can shoot gamma rays out my penis."

"Respect, man."

Another sign advises me to avoid "young children and pregnant ladies" for a couple of days, until I no longer glow in the dark or set off smoke-alarms.

All this because I'm having a bone scan to see if the cancerous cells that migrated long since from my prostate have found a new home and started raising a family. But I almost didn't make the appointment. As I was leaving the house, I got a call from a young member of my own family.

"Hi, how you doing?" His usual preamble to bad news.

"Headed to the hospital. You OK?"

"Yeah. Well. Kind of."

"What's up?" I ask, with a sinking feeling.

"Well I was driving to college this morning and the sun started rising in the east, ahead of me. The world changed from black and white to beautiful colour - like the 1960s, I guess, for you hippies. 

"It glowed like the dawn of the last day. Trees on the horizon stood stark and black against a sky that ...

"I get it. It looked nice."

"Nice? This was a symphony in the sky. It was a Shakespearean sonnet of a sunrise. It ..."

"I'm late for a hospital test. Could we get to the action?"

"I've locked my keys in my car."

"Oh dear."

"With the engine running." 

"Bugger."

"And I'm thinking you must have done it yourself." 

Well of course I have. 

"So have you any helpful suggestions?"

"Not really," I tell him. "I did it in my drive. Car key, house keys, engine running. What I did was shinny up the ivy, force open a window and search every nook and cranny in my house, for the spare keys I knew were in there."

"Can't do that," he says. "I'm in a layby out in the country. What's a cranny?"

"Little crack, I think. What are you going to do?"

"Phone Linda and get her out with the spare key. But I'm an hour away. She won't be happy." 

Silence stretches between us. "You'll survive," I tell him confidently.

"Course I will," he says in the same tone.

And he did, I heard later. But when I told the story to a friend, her comment annoyed me initially. "What a Blane thing to do," she said.

On reflection, though, she was right. Locking your keys in your car is hard. But my son did it and I've done it. Another close member of the family went one better. 

She locked herself in her car - don't ask me how - and had to be rescued by the man next door.

It's some kind of genetic thing, I think, travelling down from my Dad's side of the family. My Mum's were all switched on, wide awake, super-alert. Dad was dopey. Two of his sisters were dopier still. My cousins, their kids, were so lightly attached to reality you felt they'd wandered in from a nearby dimension, and were searching for the door back out again. 

They used to make me smile. But self-awareness grew as time passed. I'm just as dopey and I think I've figured out why. I once met Howard Gardner at an educational event in Glasgow. He was affable and persuasive, so I read a fair bit about his Multiple Intelligences theory. 

IQ tests measure only two intelligences, Gardner says - linguistic and logical/mathematical. Quite a number of others exist, including spatial, emotional, interpersonal, kinaesthetic and so on.

High IQ runs in our family so people think we're smart, for a while. Then they realise something Gardner never mentioned. If multiple intelligences exist then so too must something else - which sadly we've got.

Multiple stupidities.

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Be afraid


Funny thing, fear. I thought I knew what it felt like. An emotion so essentially human shouldn't, after decades on Earth, come as a surprise. But it did to me.

Having had a couple of days to ponder what happened, I believe I've been mistaking fright for fear.

I once came off a Scottish mountain by an unfamiliar route, enticed by a virgin snowfield spread beneath me, sparkling in the low winter sun. Having negotiated the steepest part of the descent, I took my hood off, so I could sense the isolation, hear the stillness and feel the cold from the snow that stretched away from me, as far as I could see. 

Instead what I heard was an echoing sound of rushing water from somewhere below my feet. I realised that I'd wandered onto a snow-bridge high across a stream in serious spate. My stomach lurched. I pictured falling twenty or thirty feet into a raging torrent, gasping for air and being seized and tossed by the flood, with no way out of the darkness, until I breathed no more. 

Gingerly I stepped backwards, following my own footsteps, until the sound of angry water faded, then turned and walked briskly away, my boots crunching in the fallen snow. There's no denying I got a fright. But I don't think what I felt was fear. It happened too fast.

Fear, I've discovered, needs time to build, as you slowly grasp what is about to happen. It also needs uncertainty. If you can take a fast decision and act on it, fright fades before becoming fear. 

Let me share with you how I learned what real fear feels like. 

It's late at night in Killearn and the wind that's been blowing from the west all day has dropped to less than a whisper. The skeletal, leafless trees outside my house are dead still now. A small glass of Dalwhinnie and a mince pie have served as a nice nightcap and I'm anticipating the delicious sensation when I slip between the sheets and every nerve-end in my body basks in the heat from the electric blanket. The intense pleasure often puts me to sleep in seconds.

Tonight, though, I want to read a few more pages of a Peter May novel. May has a knack of writing small details of place and weather that convince you it's fact you're reading and not fiction. Cast Iron is the last in a series featuring his forensics expert, Enzo McLeod, and although it grips and I want to know the ending, I'm thinking that's enough murder mysteries for a while. 

I expect you know this, but the thing about murder mysteries is that somebody always gets murdered. Read too many and you see serial killers around every corner. 

A young woman's body is being lifted from a lake aI start drifting off to sleepI put the book down, turn the light off and lie quietly in the darkness. There is no sound anywhere in the world that I can hear. And then ...

Two loud knocks on my bedroom door,

I am fully awake instantly. My mind races. Did I dream it? I don't think so. Was it the wind? There is no wind. Can it be one of my sons, both of whom have keys to my house? No, because they don't knock; they open the front door and call out. Is it mice, a few of which have recently got in from my garden? 

I'm clutching at straws and I know it. Only humans knock on doors. I've had a bad fright and I don't know why, or what to do about it. I'm uncertain and confused. Fear starts to build.

I realise I'm going to have to get up, go to the door and open it. My best hope now is that I dreamt it. But as I'm pulling on my trousers the loud double knock comes again. 

I scrabble with both hands at the top of the bedside table and take three steps towards the door. Fear has reached a peak. Fright plus uncertainty plus the almost certain knowledge that something bad is about to happen.

I look down to see what I've grabbed to defend myself. A small hair-dryer and a ventolin inhaler. If my midnight caller has wet hair and a wheeze, I'm in a strong negotiating position.

I open the door quickly, fully expecting to be confronted by a large male, intent on who knows what. 

There is no one there. Moving fast, I search every room in the house. Nothing. As I return slowly to the bedroom, I hear the loud double knock again and this time locate it more precisely. It's not my bedroom door. It's the loft, immediately above the door.

I search the loft with a torch. Nothing.

Eventually I give up and go back to bed. Sleep proves elusive as I try to figure out what could so convincingly simulate a man knocking on my bedroom door. 

Days later, I still don't have an answer. If anyone does, please let me know. I welcome any sensible suggestions. I did an internet search, of course, and the answer came back clearly. 

Racoons.

I don't think it's racoons.

Sunday, 15 December 2019

You can keep it

Well that's enough real life for now, thanks. You can't say I haven't given it a fair shake. 

I've been doing practically nothing but real life since I got the diagnosis five years ago. That's long enough to have formed a solid opinion based on hard facts. 

I once asked a friend what he thought about a TV programme from the distant past called Muffin the Mule:

"Tried it," he replied. "Didnae like it."

Well that's pretty much my verdict on real life. I might check back in five years, to see if the psychos, liars and bastards are still running our country, as well their own. But right now I'm going to focus on friends, family and writing, all of which raise my spirits, while current affairs have, for years, been dragging them down. 

There is a small problem, though, with having writing as your occupation and main method of relaxing. 

Critics excuse me while I spit.

Even my talented friend Gregor, who used to write a light-hearted fortnightly newspaper column, got the occasional bad review. I loved his stuff. So did almost everyone else. But you can't please all your readers. 

One serious-minded soul wrote to the paper, describing one of Gregor's offerings as "worthless and uninteresting small talk." Now despite his rugged looks and firm, well-muscled thighs, honed by cycling to a hardness that makes you  ... ahem, sorry. Despite all that, Gregor is a sensitive soul and he cried on my shoulder.

But only for a brief moment. Writers inhabit a world unknown to normal people, a world filled with rejection. The phrase you hear most often is "Not for me". I once got a rejection letter from some young punk straight out of journalism school who said he "aimed to discourage tired jokes and hoary old clichés".

Eventually though, if you persist, you find a few editors who like your clichés, offer kind words of encouragement and even pay you real money once a month. But to get there you have to turn a blind ear to countless critics, and maybe possess the kind of mentality that makes someone run straight at a bull.

So having been forged in the fires of rejection, Gregor soon wiped away his tears and doubled down on his trademark style of taking a lateral look at life and drawing lessons from the quirkier aspects he finds there. He wrote an entertaining piece on how he did his ironing, which his critic described as "ridiculous and juvenile" and the rest of us really enjoyed.

And isn't this, dear friends, a lesson to us all in these dark December days, made so much bleaker and more depressing by the prospect of five more years of Tory theft, hatred, ignorance and stupidity?

Don't let people talk you into giving up or changing what you know is right. Look after friends, family and anyone less fortunate than yourself. These bad times will pass. 

Scientific studies have shown that the vast majority of us are decent human beings, genetically predisposed to care for each other. The cruel, the greedy and the selfish are in the minority. They are running things now but they won't be forever. If nothing else, climate change might drown the fuckers when the Thames bursts its banks.

And if all that science can't cheer you up, take a look at Muffin the Mule, with his good friend Annette Mills. 

Why don't we sing along with Annette and see if the little chap will come out for us?

We want Muffin, Muffin the Mule,
Dear old Muffin, playing the fool,
We want Muffin, everybody sing,
We want Muffin the Mule.