Sunday 23 August 2009

It's not the despair that gets you, it's the hope...

Anna's youngest brother has been over from Greece, and he and I made our regular pilgrimage of pain to watch Southampton play on Saturday.

There's something rather awkward about having such a huge stadium for a League One side. Over 19,000 people showed up for the game against newly-promoted Brentford and, like so many other Saints fans, I found myself hoping - maybe even believing - that this would be the day when the recovery started. This would be our first victory of the new campaign.

True, there was a nagging thought at the back of my mind - even if we won, it would scarcely be something to brag about. Beating Brentford isn't something that I'd have been excited about in years gone by. However, this was the best that we could hope for on the day and, as we went through the turnstiles, that thrill of anticipation banished common sense and got us in the mood...

...and then the match started.

It's difficult to explain the awful cocktail of emotions that go with supporting Scotland, Partick Thistle, or Southampton. You have to admire my consistency in picking teams that disappoint, and nobody has ever referred to me as a glory hunter. But it would be nice to have just a little respite from the terrible frustration that comes with missed chances, failed passes and altruistic defending.

When we went 1-0 up, it seemed as though there was light at the end of the tunnel. All the preceeding agony had been worthwhile as we jumped about and celebrated in the sun.

Sadly, the light at the end of the tunnel was an oncoming train. The game finished 1-1 and we trudged home with that special sort of post-match regret reserved for vital leads that have been foolishly squandered.

It's going to be another long season.

Thursday 20 August 2009

An e-book opportunity...

Somewhat out of the blue, I've been contacted by a couple of former colleagues who are starting a publishing venture, putting e-books out via the iTunes store. I'd almost forgotten that Star Wars parody from years ago, but now it looks like I'll have an opportunity to get it out there to a new audience.

Editing it is proving a nightmare though. I'm not rewriting, just fixing errors, but there are so many typos and examples of bad punctuation. My heart goes out to those who read the original version.

Still, despite many cringe-worthy bits of humour, it has made me smile in places as I read it. Hopefully it will strike a chord with other Star Wars aficionados when it's done.

Friday 14 August 2009

End of the road...

And so, as it turned out, we saved the best for last. Today was a glorious end to a hugely enjoyable road trip. I’m writing this in Stirling, where we’re spending our last night, before the long journey back tomorrow.

It’s a shame that Anna wasn’t with us, but though I missed her terribly, it was great to have Cam all to myself. There’s no better travelling companion and without him I know I’d have fast-forwarded through some of the most enjoyable moments. Also, he prompted me to bring The Hobbit audiobook, which made the miles pass much faster than music could.

A long drive awaits us both tomorrow, but this – along with the general end-of-trip blues – are offset by the prospect of seeing Anna again.

And on that happy thought, goodnight.

Road Trip: Fintry

The tiny village where I grew up is still beautiful and remote. A few years ago, we hired a small cottage on its outskirts and walked to a vast waterfall called the Loup. Today, Cam suggested this might be a good place to have lunch.

We parked not far from the cottage and followed the overgrown path across the hill. The ravine is well-hidden – only when you are very close do you begin to hear the roar of the water and then, as you come round a slope, the ground falls away before you to reveal the multitude of torrents, crashing down onto a series of black rock steps before disappearing into the tree tops far below.

The path winds its way gently down to a stone shelf at the very top of the waterfall, and there we sat, right on the edge, and had lunch.

I’ve enjoyed picnics in some very beautiful places, but this was surely one of the best. There, with our hands trailing in the water as it sailed out over the precipice, with the foam and mist below, and the long valley stretching out towards the distant mountains, we had the best table anyone could wish for.

Road Trip: Loch Lomond II

We woke to sunlight streaming in through the window and a clear blue sky between the curtains. Earlier than usual, we were on our way, stopping off briefly to collect something for lunch before we left Milngavie on our short drive west.

In no time, we were coasting down towards Drymen, purple heather lining the roadside, mountains in the distance, and the bright silver of Loch Lomond in the valley before us. Some of the route had been unfamiliar to me, but soon we turned onto a road I remembered well. Now, the loch was on our left as we skirted its eastern banks, passing through Balmaha and on. The tarmac ends at Rowardennan, but we stopped at a little bay just before it, parking the car and walking down onto our very own deserted beach.

There are some moments which stay with you, their impact so profound that you recognize them as they are happening. I felt something similar when I stood on top of a mountain in Austria and gazed down on the vastness of the Alps below me – a tremendous sense of place. Now, as we stood on the deserted shore and looked out across the smooth surface of the loch, I felt it again.

It was a blissful morning. Fish were jumping in the bay, and there were endless stones to skim – the water was clear and cold on our feet, and the sun was warm. I really don’t think it gets any better than this.

Road Trip: Loch Lomond

When I was small, we lived quite near to Loch Lomond, and often went there at weekends. Today, rather than walking along the shore at Luss with my dad, I walked with my son.

It’s an odd feeling, revisiting somewhere so steeped in childhood memories but now in the role of a parent. The clouds parted to let the sun blaze down and we made our way along the sandy beach watching rainbows form across the loch, as the late afternoon sunlight hit a fine, distant rain on the far banks. Despite the awesome beauty all around, Luss was almost deserted and when I walked out onto the pier I had the whole glorious place all to myself.

I love this stretch of dark, clear water, dotted with tree covered islands, and flanked by colourful mountain slopes. I love the peace and the permanence in this, the most beautiful part of Scotland.

I think we’ll go back again tomorrow.

Road Trip: Hadrian's Wall

On a map, Hadrian’s Wall is just a knobbly little line scrawled across the top end of England. Yes, it’s long and must have taken a huge amount of effort to build, but when you actually see it marching on over endless miles of rugged hillside, it’s simply stunning.

We left the motorway and drove east, half-way across the country. Near Haltwhistle (allegedly the centre of Britain) we found two villages named Once Brewed and Twice Brewed. Turning down a narrow lane, we parked the car and set off along the wall.

What remains above ground isn’t that high – mostly just 4 or 5 feet of squared-off stonework – but it’s sturdy and neat, and topped with grass.

And it uses the landscape ruthlessly.

Rolling hills, rocky crags and sheer cliffs are all embraced by the wall, as it zig-zags east to west, employing each natural feature to its full defensive potential. It must have been a formidable sight, and terribly difficult to assault.

We followed the line for miles along the high ridge, coming in time to Sycamore Dip, where a single tree stands sheltered between two hills, then crossed the bog and made our way back along the base of the cliffs. It’s a wonderful walk, through truly beautiful scenery, and somewhere I’d love to explore further in the future.

Road Trip: The Lake District

Perhaps it was the drizzly weather. Perhaps it was all the hype. Perhaps it was the fact that we’d previously visited Konigssee in Bavaria. Whatever the reason, The Lake District was a bit of a disappointment. Quite a big bit actually.

We drove up from Blackpool, over the hills to Windermere which, at first glance seemed quite promising. The lake, meandering around the feet of the tree-covered slopes, looked quite lovely despite the overcast skies. However, heading down to the waterfront it became rather disappointing. Bowness was swamped with coach parties and the sort of attractions designed to please them, the shore-line almost obscured by queues of people and sprawling car parks. The weather darkened with our mood, so we struck out north.

To be fair, Ambleside was picturesque, and there were occasional glimpses of beauty as we skirted the lakes, but when we reached Keswick it was impossible not to feel that the whole thing was a bit of a let-down. I’d seen so many pictures of this area, but as we came to each place and I saw it for real, I began to understand that it was skilful photography as much as the landscape that had impressed me.

As we trudged through the winding, souvenir-shop streets of Keswick, we agreed that the whole place felt like a bad copy of somewhere great – as though a businessman from the north-west had been to Austria and thought, “I could do something like that back home.”

The odd thing is, there’s already a place where mighty hills plunge down into long expanses of water, with dramatic scenery and rugged beauty, and it’s right here in the UK. Loch Lomond here we come.

Road Trip: Blackpool

When Cam first suggested adding Blackpool to our UK tour, I admit that I was sceptical. I’d always hoped to live my life without ever visiting the place but, several years ago, a series of unfortunate business dealings found me trapped in that singular seaside town with an army of enthusiastic Northern pyramid sellers.

Needless to say, that one trip was enough to put anyone off, even if they had previously harboured warm feelings toward Blackpool, which I hadn’t. So today, my expectations were not high.

And yet, it wasn’t bad.

I had prepared myself for a tacky, shabby seafront, populated by characters who’d escaped from Coronation Street, all garnished with chips and trams and endless packets of “original” Blackpool Rock. And, while it was all of these things, it was also strangely enjoyable. We walked down onto the almost deserted beach, basked in the sunshine, played catch, and generally had a laugh together. When the tide came in, it came in quickly – so quickly that it caught us out several times, soaking our feet before lunchtime.

We almost lost both cameras to the waves at one point (thank goodness I bought a waterproof rucksack!) but in the end only one bouncy ball was claimed by the waves.

When we left, we left in high spirits, and in the end that's high praise for a place I'd really not expected to enjoy. I'm still not a fan of seaside towns, but perhaps Blackpool isn't that bad after all.

Tuesday 11 August 2009

Road Trip: Warrington

After the pleasures of Oxford, it was amazing to see what a difference a few miles can make. We stopped off for a pit stop in Warrington – “pit” being the operative word.

I’m used to high-value merchandise in supermarkets having security tags, and familiar with trolleys that are designed to lock up if taken too far from the store. However, we were both rather surprised to see that, in the huge Tesco in the centre of Warrington, even the hand-baskets carry anti-theft tags. Obviously, those baskets are aspirational items round here.

Not long after, we pulled over for pizza. The service was courteous and there was nothing wrong with the meal. However, it was hard not to notice the young couple on the table opposite us. The buxom young woman had asked for a pot of crayons – standard equipment for your average, family-friendly Pizza Hut. She wedged the pot firmly into her exposed cleavage and instructed her boyfriend to take crayons out, and put them back in, while she recorded everything on her camera phone.

This went on for quite some time, but I suppose you can’t hurry true art. In any event, I now feel certain that I’ve experienced the very best that Warrington has to offer. How can the Lake District possibly compete with this? Tomorrow will tell...

Monday 10 August 2009

Road Trip: Oxford

A whole week off - just Cam and I on the road while Anna is busy running Church activities - and our epic UK tour begins in Oxford.

The weather could have been better, and it will take a bit of Photoshopping to make the most of my photos, but we had fun nonetheless. We visited the Eagle and Child pub, where Tolkien read parts of Lord Of The Rings to C.S.Lewis and the Inklings. A far cry from us writers who meet in the Bellemoor pub on Wednesday evenings, but the sentiments are similar I think.

Then as the rain caught us, we took cover in the wonderful covered arcades and found a world of specialist chocolate shops, coffee shops, bakeries and cake decorators - there was even a place called Pie Minister but we never found out what they sold. It was a great place to work up an appetite, so after we'd strolled around some of the city's more famous landmarks we made our way back through the streets to where TV chef Jamie Oliver has his famous Italian restaurant. Cam refers to Jamie as 'the guy who ruined school dinners' so we went into the Gourmet Burger Kitchen directly opposite and took lunch there.

Dessert was from a fab little place called Chocology where we sampled some excellent ice cream before returning to the car and hitting the road once more, with The Hobbit audiobook floating out of the stereo. How apt!

Saturday 1 August 2009

Wishful Drinking

Just finished reading Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher. I suppose it's not surprising that a 70's starlet who played Princess Leia should go on to lead a mixed-up life, but really - I had no idea!

It's a biography, so it covers the bizarre childhood that comes from having two celebrity parents (Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher) , the whole Star Wars thing, marriage to Paul Simon, and the heady combination of alcoholism, drug addiction, and bi-polar disorder. However, it races along like nothing else I've ever read, flitting back and forth across the years in an erratic stream-of-consciousness style.

And it's funny. Carrie Fisher may have had a troubled time, but she certainly knows how to tell uncomfortable truths in an entertaining way. I won't spoil it - I'll simply recommend it. Short, sharp and utterly compelling.