Adventures on less than two legs

Apologies for the radio silence from the Emu blog. Like most people, I’ve had a rubbish 2020, followed by a rubbish 2021 and I’m not sure that sharing any of that is going to be of any help to anyone.

However, what I have noticed over the last 18 months or so, is that everyone has been able to derive some sort of enjoyment from other people’s misfortunes. So here’s a blog about misfortune, disaster, stupidity, weird cows and stagnant water for you all to enjoy. Here goes:

Like many other people with time on their hands during lockdown, I decided that I was going to do something exciting once I was allowed to be properly outside again. What I had in mind was a really long run over quite a few days. I’d been talking about this for a while with Mrs E, who approved of the project on condition that a) I didn’t do anything stupid or injuring and b) it didn’t cost too much money. So b) put the idea of running between luxurious B&Bs across the country into the long grass, and I started planning a more spartan event, involving a small tent. I started training properly, and planning routes between campsites, which were beginning to open up in May. And, most excitingly, started ordering all manner of ultra lightweight equipment. As each piece of lightweight gear arrived, I unpacked it, held it gently in my hand, and marvelled at its delicate being. It didn’t strike me until much later that combining lots of lightweight gear in one place would make for something that was actually quite heavy, and that may well count as my first school boy error.

I planned a route over six days, which roughly covered the perimeter of Norfolk, on long distant paths. By the start of July I had all of the routes downloaded, all of the kit bought and paid for and all of the campsites booked. By the start of July I was ready to go – I tried out the tent, albeit in the living room with unwilling volunteers pretending to be tent pegs, because it was raining, and it seemed to work. I could even just about sit up in it. On the 2nd July it had just about stopped raining, and at first light I was ready to go, just managing the time so that I could bring Mrs E her morning cup of tea. Rubbing the sleep out of her eyes, she looked me up and down; the first time she’d seen me in my new lightweight gear.

“Those trousers are ridiculous”, she said, instantly putting me at my ease before my big expedition.
“They look like the sort of thing that Lionel Blair would wear. And they woke me up.”

To be fair, they were a bit ridiculous. Alongside an elasticated waistband that was straight out of the Damart catalogue, they also boasted a roomy nylon fit with long side zips to allow for speedy changing without shoe removal. This was the first time they’d been worn, and she was right, they really did make quite a noise, a sort of shushing, swishing noise that I could only avoid if I walked like John Wayne. I wasn’t really sure about the Lionel Blair reference. Somewhere on the internet there is video evidence of our band playing on TV with Lionel Blair introducing us, and dancing along as we played. I suspect it was more memorable to us than to him, but I have no recollection of him wearing noisy lightweight running trousers. Anyway, armed with this peculiar insight into my wife’s waking thoughts, off I went.

I hopped noisily onto a train to Cromer about half an hour later, with my lightweight/heavyweight bag on my back. Got to Cromer, walked down to the sea, removed the Lionels and started to run, keeping the sea on my left. The plan was to get nearly to Caister-on-Sea, then turn inland to Martham, and then on to Clippesby, where a pitch with my name on it would give me a well earned night’s rest.

Day One was relatively uneventful. Even by keeping the sea on my left I managed to get slightly lost, and had to circumnavigate Bacton power station, which I can report is a good size bigger than it looks on the map. And as I was on the the Norfolk coastal path, unsurprisingly a lot of the running was on sand, so quite a bit of this soon turned to walking. No matter though, and 29 miles later I jogged into the campsite, bought an ice cream from the reception area, found my pitch and (you’ll have to forgive me here, cos I’m new to this camping parlance) ‘set camp’. The campsite even had its own bar, where they were showing Spain vs Switzerland on the TV and serving food. So, one veggie burger, a caramel slice, three pints of Guinness and one penalty shoot out later, I staggered back to my very small tent, and negotiated with my sleeping bag and inflatable mat. The three pints of Guinness were probably my second schoolboy error, as exiting your way out of sleeping bag and very small tent several times during the night is not to be recommended, particularly if your legs are complaining about a long run the day before.

Refreshingly though, I found that I could move fairly freely in the morning, and I’d (apparently) ‘broken camp’ well before my fellow campers had changed out of their jim-jams.

Day Two involved getting onto the Wherryman’s Way, which runs between Great Yarmouth and Norwich – I was going to follow this to Loddon, then pick up the Angles Way, which by the end of day three would land me somewhere around Thetford. I’d decided that today was going to be more walk than run, so had slipped into my Lionels, and made my way noisily out of the campsite, no doubt waking many of the other campers as I shuffled past.

“Did you hear that noise, Brian? Fair woke me up. Any idea what it was?”

“No idea. But it sounded strangely like….well, Lionel Blair, going for a walk”

Off I set along the route, when a voice in my headphones advised me to turn left onto the hiking path. I mentally made a note to write a charming letter to the navigation software company when I finished, as without their help I’d have completely missed the small gap in the hedge which led onto a narrow path.

A few minutes later, and I’d redrafted my note a couple of times, as the path gave way to a jungle of nettles, thistles and reeds which I had to negotiate like an Amazon explorer. Each time I got to a clearing I checked my tedious progress on my phone, and I was still on track – river to my left, field to the right, so there was nothing for it but to press on. In actual fact there was a very clear alternative, which was to turn round, go back to the road and to stop entrusting my well-being with a silly black line on my phone, but for some reason I wasn’t thinking of that as an option. And while I wasn’t thinking of that, a very loud bark was barked from across the field. The weeds and grass were up to my shoulders at this point, so I wasn’t able to see anything that was in there. I’m not by nature a fatalist, but I have read the legend of the Bungay Black Shuck, and I was headed in that general direction. I hoped that me shouting ‘Sod Off!’ very loudly would do the trick. It didn’t, and I was replied with a louder, more menacing, and worryingly closer bark. So I stood as still as I could, like a meerkat, popping my head above the nettles and swivelling around to survey my impending doom….

,oOo.

Meanwhile, about twenty yards away, a frustrated deer put his head above a similar set of nettles, looked in my general direction, barked again, and wandered off. Relieved, I just tried to remember whether deer got particularly aggressive during rutting season, and for that matter, when rutting season actually was. Tentatively I carried on, and finally was rewarded up a climb to a jungle free bank of a field. Checking on my trusty map, I saw that I was still on the hiking path, and off I jogged, with not a care in the world, other than the thought of lunch that no doubt awaited me at some Broadland inn en route.

Crossing the field, I came to a drainage ditch. It was about 3 metres across, and thankfully some kind soul had put a couple of logs across it, and I balanced like a tightrope walker with a bad case of DTs. As I lumped across to the other side, I looked behind me, and saw the log disappear into the stagnant ditch. ‘Ah well’, I thought, ‘no going back now’. It was amongst my more stupid thoughts of the morning.

Along the next field, still no noticeable path anywhere but on my phone, and I got to another drainage ditch. No kind souls placing logs in advance here, and a couple of metres across – too far to jump, even without a ridiculously lightweight/heavyweight pack on my back. What I really needed was some sort of pole, so I could reenact one of those village sports days where they vault across a river. I should confess at this point that I never, for one moment, considered that a ridiculous idea. I found a tree nearby that looked like it had been struck by lightning, and managed to pull off a branch that, to all intents and purposes, looked like something that the Slag brothers from the Wacky Races would carry:

I’m not entirely sure how I managed it, but with a bit of fancy footwork and the help of a muddy island and my caveman club, I managed to get across to the other side without getting my feet wet. Again, the familiar ‘no going back now’ thought rattled around in my head, almost as if it was a good thing.

I strode on purposefully across the next field, still on the path, with a drainage ditch to my left, and still holding my trusty club. I was about halfway across the field when I noticed a cow to my right. And another, and another, and another. In fact, quite a few cows were headed in my direction. I don’t like cows. Never have and never will. They’re gormless, dangerous and the wrong size for their brains. By rights they should be British political leaders, haha. Anyway, several of them were headed in my direction. I tried the tactic that had worked so well with the deer/Black Shuck situation.

“Sod Off!”, I shouted. And to my surprise, they did.

I felt quite pleased with myself, but this was quite a short-lived experience, because as I looked up, I saw many more cattle, all headed in my direction. Clearly the first lot had found my ‘Sod Off!’ so amusing that they’d been to get all of their mates. They were all headed in my direction, and by the time they were a few yards away, I was beginning to panic. I tried ‘Sod Off! and a number of variations on that theme. I tried waving my trusty caveman club around, and over my head. They inched forward, and started to pin me in. Finally I tried.a line that had only previously worked outside a chip shop in Edinburgh, around midnight, about forty years ago, to a drunken charmer who was offering to beat me up.

“I’M NOT FROM ROUND HERE!”

Maybe it was the volume of the voice, the anxious tone, or the combination with the caveman club wave. Or maybe they understood every word, and decided, as did my Edinburgh opponent all those years ago, that if those were the best words that I could offer, then I really was a pathetic specimen that deserved to be left well alone. Whatever it was, they turned on their ridiculously tiny heels and stampeded off in the other direction.

I wandered on towards the edge of the field, still holding onto the club, just in case. Gently stepping on to some reeds, I lost my footing and fell directly into a drainage ditch. By the time the water hit my waist, I’d managed to use up almost all of the swear words I knew, and was cursing on repeat as I threw myself across the reeds to the other side. The bottom half of me was covered in a sludgey mess from the ditch that absolutely stank. As I scrambled up the side of the bank, still cursing, I thought again that at least today’s hike couldn’t get any worse than this point. On reflection, this was a hopelessly optimistic thought. By now, the route had mysteriously disappeared from my phone, as had any mobile signal. So even if I’d wanted to call my wife I’m not entirely sure what I could have asked her to do. My cheery optimism started to peter out.

Seeing an abandoned windmill a few fields away, I decided to head for it, on the logic that there still ought to be some sort of path to it that didn’t necessitate diving gear. I navigated a couple of further ditches semi-successfully, although by now I wasn’t overly worried about getting a bit wet.

.oOo.

I can’t remember the sequence of events that led to the next disaster. One minute I was finding my way towards the edge of a field, looking for a way across the widest ditch I’d seen so far. The next minute, I was in it – I’d fallen through the reeds, I was literally up to my neck in drainage, and my feet weren’t touching anything other than water. The lightweight/heavyweight rucksack was pulling me down, and I wasn’t able to turn around, so I kicked as hard as I could against the reedy bank and launched myself across to the other side. Fortunately I managed to keep my head above the sludge, grabbed onto the reeds on the other side, and hauled myself out. It doesn’t sound too bad written down like that, and it was over very quickly, but I was as scared as I think I’ve ever been in my life. A couple of other thoughts struck me. Firstly, that I’d exhibited astonishing levels of stupidity – if any of my children had been half as idiotic on an adventure as I had in the last couple of hours, then I’d have sounded off at them for being ridiculously irresponsible. And secondly, that if I were to have any say over when I got to meet my maker, then it definitely would not be in a Broadland drainage ditch, dragged out goodness knows when and in goodness knows what condition.

Away from the ditch, I did my best to assess the situation. Mentally, I was now, by a country mile, the most stupid object within a five mile radius. Including the cows. Physically I was tired, and I’d managed to knock my back and left knee so that neither was very keen on any further movement. Stylishly, I had rather lost the edge. My lionels had lost their jaunty swish, and, like all of my clothing was now clinging to me unhelpfully, under a carpet of slime and small-leafed greenery that until recently had been laying peacefully on top of the stagnant ditch. And pungently…well , I was in another place altogether. If every farm animal in the county had shat on me from a great height for 24 hours, I think I would have smelt slightly fresher.

‘Ah well’, I thought, ‘I’m not sure it can get any worse’.

And naturally, it did, but fortunately only for a bit. After climbing up the bank, I found myself in a very large field, fairly close to the windmill. I wandered around the perimeter, peering into the drainage ditches that surrounded it on all four sides. Thankfully there were no cows, but that was probably because, other than airlifting them into position, there was no obvious way to get them onto the field. I considered the situation as best I could. Despite the submerging incident, the waterproof rucksack had lived up to its billing, and everything inside, which included a tent, sleeping bag, two chewy bars and a bottle of water, was all usable. My phone had been in an unzipped pocket but had miraculously not disappeared into the drain – it was complaining of being wet, and was still functional, but without any signal. So things weren’t exactly desperate, but there was still no obvious way to get out of this miserable field.

Walking back around the field again, I noticed that a corner had been fenced off with barbed wire. Behind the wire was lots of reed bedding, which I assumed led to the connection of two drainage ditches. I didn’t have much option but to try it, to see if there was a way of getting across, but I was very nervous about going into an area that was fenced off, given how precarious the unfenced area had been. I said a quick prayer before passing my bag across the barbed wire. Thankfully the bag didn’t sink, and neither did I, as I tiptoed through the reeds. After about twenty yards, I came across a brand new galvanised five bar gate, and beyond that dry land which seemed to lead up to a path. It suddenly struck me that the gate and the barbed wire were there to stop idiots like me going into the field, rather than stopping idiots from getting out, and I fair skipped up the slope, as well as my left leg and lower back would allow.

I realised that I’d managed to get myself onto the Wherryman’s Way. I realised this partly because I knew that the path follows the river Yare, and beyond the path was a huge river. And in the river were the sort of pleasure boats that you only ever see in summer in Norfolk. There were quite a few of them, many piloted by cheery souls in captain’s hats, and they merrily waved at their fellow nature lover standing on the footpath. I waved back, trying to forget that I looked like Stig of the dump, and hoping that they were upwind of me.

I couldn’t run any more because my knee was still complaining. I checked my phone and was delighted to see that I had a signal. So I phoned Mrs E, who was slightly put out to have her Saturday morning dog walk interrupted. I don’t think I’ve ever actually cried down the phone before, but the threat of this must have come through to her, and she said she’d come out to Acle to meet me. Optimistically I asked her to bring a change of clothes and some wet wipes so I could carry on.

I made my way to Acle, found somewhere that sold coffee, and even better let you drink it outside, and waited. Mrs E turned up in a cloud of dust in the car park. She said she had the clothes ready if I wanted to change and carry on, but by then, I was completely fed up and my left leg had given up the ghost. I asked if she could take me home so I could get a shower, lie down, and forget about the last few hours.

On the way home, I asked if she wanted the window open.
“That’s alright”, she said, “you don’t smell too bad. Those bloody trousers were a mistake though”.

Another tick for the Wall

Last Wednesday I was walking around the local cemetery, like you do, when I bumped into my friend H, who was cycling about. We stopped minding our own business and had a quick chat about where our lives were currently at. He was trying to get a very young baby off to sleep by taking her for a bike ride. I was trying to shift an injury in my left calf from the previous night’s run, in preparation for walking Hadrian’s wall later in the week. 

‘How long is that going to take?’ asked H. 

‘Five days’, I replied

‘Wow’, he said. ‘That’s the stuff of bucket lists’. 

Which took me by surprise. Firstly, I’ve never really been one for a bucket list. You’ll be unlikely to get to the end of such a list, and it all seems a bit like a tick list of how you’ve managed your life. And secondly, I’d not thought of it as that much of a deal. Me & Mrs E were going to do some walking, and it was going to be from one side if the country to the other, but that was it. And I knew a couple of people who’d done the 84 miles in a couple of days, and one who’d knocked it out in under 24 hours, so 5 days was unlikely to test us. But the bucket list comment kept coming back to me over the next few days…

The next day we biked down to the railway station, hopped on a train to London, tubed across to Euston, got on a train to Carlisle, hung about there for a couple of hours before getting a bus out to Bowness-on-Solway, and made our way to the only accommodation I’d been able to book, which was a small shed in the garden of a rectory. 

We’d exhausted the entertainment possibilities of the inside of the shed within a couple of minutes, so repaired to the pub, which already contained two sets of walkers, one of which was just starting, and the other who’d just finished. It was fairly easy to tell which was which – the ones who’d finished were the ones with four pints, two g&t’s, and a bottle of red to their name. We fell into an easy conversation with them as they moved onto large whiskies, and I made a mental note that they’d set the benchmark for how to celebrate finishing. 

So, off early the next day, and ironically back to Carlisle, in rather more time that the bus driver had managed the trip the day before. The bits that we didn’t share with cows were shared with some lively traffic for the first part, along the Solway, which separates England from Scotland. Years ago, there was a bridge across the water, which Scots would walk across on a Sunday if they needed a drink, and occasionally fall off as they made their way back. We rattled along, fuelled by banana and jam sandwiches, and made our way into Carlisle, which, in the late sunshine, felt as if it was trying hard to come out of a depression. Friday night in Carlisle doesn’t seem to be a particularly lively time, we had a quiet pint in a pub and wandered down to the ‘number one curry restaurant in Carlisle’, for further refuelling. I made the mistake of asking the waitress if she’d recommend anything on the menu, and she said she couldn’t, as she didn’t eat spicy food. Mrs E gently suggested that she might be in wrong profession, and was told that ‘it’s just a job, innit’ before walking off, thereby assuring us that the hospitality industry in Carlisle is in another safe pair of hands. 

Setting off the next morning, safe in the knowledge that we only had 18 miles to cover, we started to hit some proper rolling countryside, all grass trails and sleepy villages, occasionally interrupted by wild eyed farmers whizzing about on quad bikes. Every now and again we’d come across a small fridge by the side of the road, advertising snacks and drinks for walkers, and asking for payment in an honesty box. I looked more closely at one of these boxes to read the small print, which basically said that anyone close to the box was monitored by cctv, and that that non-payment would result in unholy retribution. That kind of defeats the point of an honesty box,  but maybe they’ve had a spate of tracker bar thefts in the area, who knows?

We’d started to see a bit of the wall by now, and oohed and aahed appropriately, trying to get some appreciation of how 15,000 soldiers built a 5 metre high wall and a massive ditch over 84 miles, in about 5 years. By any measure, it’s remarkable, and you don’t necessarily have to be right next to it to appreciate the sheer magnitude of the thing, but once you’ve been up and down a few of the hills, and seen the size of some of the stones, it certainly helps. 

The 18 mile estimate proved to be woefully short, once we’d taken a couple of wrong turnings and remembered that tonight’s hotel was a little way off from the path, and we finished on about 24 miles. We limped into the reception of the hotel to find ourselves, confusingly, in the middle of a Scottish country dance convention. With our fleeces, sensible shorts and sturdy boots, there was a danger that we would be fully integrated, but thankfully we managed to find somewhere else in the hotel to eat away from the reeling crowd. Unfortunately the place we managed to find was a dark look into our future, an institutional room with the lighting and food that will be a feature of the retirement home that our children send us to a few years from now. We ordered quickly and safely, having been told that the kitchen was closing at 8:20 sharp, possibly as there were some neeps that weren’t going to stew themselves next door, and our food arrived in about the same time as it takes to defrost and reheat a vegetable lasagne. The experience of actually eating the food confirmed our future carehome worries – it all sort of blended into itself ina bit of a lukewarm brown mess, and all around us in the big room with the bright lighting and the gentle 80s music were people  looking as if they were dragging their way through their final meal. 

We stopped to look in on the country dancing on the way up to our room, the party was in full swing, and there was a serious amount of jogging and reeling to be seen.  Mrs E was delighted to witness one guy, dripping with sweat, race up the stairs to his room, to return minutes later, and ask her if she’d ‘nae fancy a wee reel’ with him. She said no (or nae), and managed to mention that her feet had just covered 24 miles and weren’t in any fit state to be chasing around the floor. Off we went for another early night, and were serenaded fairly robustly for the next few hours by the kind of noise that was going to keep men in kilts constantly on their feet. I could only make out two accordion players (which, frankly, is two too many), but they seemed to be able to punch above their weight on the volume front. On our way to breakfast early next morning and the riddle was solved – we walked past the stage in the ballroom and saw a PA system that Megadeath would have dismissed as far too loud for their needs. 

Breakfast had been prepared by the care home cook from the night before, and he/she had managed to cook a variety of food and blend into a single taste. On a positive note, it’s probably quite a skill to be able to cook mushrooms, eggs, tomatoes and beans separately to the extent that they all taste like mashed potato, and there’s probably a market for it, possibly at that stage in life just before it’s liquidised and fed through a straw. 

Well, we ate it all up, in the knowledge that we needed fuel before the long and challenging third day. We knew this was going to be tough, as we already had it down as 21 miles, and given the previous day, was likely to be more in reality (it ended up being 28, which Mrs E has mentioned several times since). We had fantastic sunshine and saw the most spectacular parts of both the wall and the surrounding countryside.

It was Sunday, so there were loads of people out walking bits of the wall, contrasting with the pair of us as they sprang along in trainers and shorts, carrying tiny rucksacks which contained proper sandwiches, flasks of coffee and car keys. We had more of a knowing slog about us, and it would be fair to say that the wonder of the wall was palling by the time we hit mile 20.

In the event we walked for 11 hours, and had to phone ahead so as not to lose our hotel room. 

‘Don’t worry’, said the kind lady who answered the phone, ‘I’ll hold your room and I’m here till 10 so I’ll probably see you’. 

Which was probably meant to make us feel better. 

But, into Chollerford we finally trudged, straight into the bar where we drank cider and bitter and ate about half of our body weight in fried food. It’s funny, said Mrs E, after wolfing down a plate of chips. ‘I feel rubbish at night but my injuries seem to heal after sleeping’. 

And so it proved as we scampered down for more fried food in the morning. The leg from Chollerford to Heddon-on-the-Wall was going to be less taxing than the day before, but there was one really long climb at the start which we fairly whizzed up, not minding the rain at all, and even showing a bit of renewed interest in the next mile castle or fort ruins. We’d passed into Northumberland by now, and once the weather cleared we could see the country falling away in front of us, still with the line of the wall visible through the trenches stretching off ahead. We had another diversion into Wylam, where we were staying the night, which didn’t please Mrs E particularly, as it added yet more miles onto what were already some fairly manky feet, but that did give us a chance to go past the cottage where George Stephenson had been born. Like Hadrian’s wall, there’s nothing to stop you reaching out and touching this bit of history (although you’d probably annoy the current residents) – we take all of this astonishing stuff in this country for granted and it’s even more fantastic that we don’t feel the need to rope it off. 

To the pub then, for beer, ginger cider (‘Not sure about this’, said Mrs E, ‘it tastes like squash’, before necking a pint in record time and demanding another in the style of Father Jack), and Thai food, which was fantastic. All followed by a night’s sleep caroused by the local youth of Wylam who may well also have been knocking back the ginger squash. 

And finally on to the last leg, which at last matched the guide book in mileage, and took us across yet more gently descending fields, a little away from the wall and onto the Tyne into Newcastle. It’s hard to properly follow the wall at this stage, as it effectively got hijacked by the soldier/politician General Wade in the 1700s, to create the military road for his troops to march across to quell a Jacobite uprising. It’s now the slightly less romantically sounding B6318. Paving over the wall was an astonishing act of outright vandalism, and if General Wade was alive today, he’d probably fit right in to the current cabinet. 

Coming into Newcastle along the North of the Tyne was both exciting and depressing in equal measure. I know Newcastle reasonably well, I worked there on and off for a few years and have mixed feelings about whether it was ever my kind of town. When I was there, I punctuated the work with long runs in the evening, and similarly, some of these were fabulous, and some of them quite demoralising. Which is pretty much how the last bit of the walk goes. Walking around the bend of the Tyne to see the bridges at Quayside is fabulous, and the buildings just fit their surroundings; if that had been the end of the walk then it would have been great. But the wall went a little bit further onto Wallsend (of course), so we still had another 5ish miles to go. Along the path, the litter began to pile up, not just odd cans of coke and papers, but assorted underwear and, for some reason, a number of disposable gloves; normally Mrs E and me will make up back-stories about the the unusual things we see on a walk, but thankfully by now we were too tired to do so.

We walked straight past the sign that flagged the end of the wall, retraced our steps, and a kindly coast to coast cycle rider took our pictures. We popped around the corner into the visitors centre, where we were met with smiling faces and sympathy for Mrs E’s feet (and feat, come to think of it). She has been testing the security and decency settings of social media ever since :

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We asked to go into the museum, and a very astute woman behind the counter suggested that we might have seen enough Roman ruins for now, and that we might be better off just going upstairs for a coffee, which we did.

Upstairs, I chatted to the woman making the coffee, who told me that her boss had just completed the walk in three days carrying a 25 kg backpack. I’m sure she didn’t mean to piss on our chips, so to speak, but it felt a bit deflating. And it shouldn’t have; we’d walked over a hundred miles in five days, carrying all our own gear, met some fabulous people and some ridiculously steep terrain, and seen some of the most glorious countryside ever, and the stuff you’d never see from a car. And in Mrs E’s case, done all that in a pair of boots that even now were making her feet bleed, and were destined for a more appropriate place.

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Perhaps the walk should have been on a bucket list after all.

Wanna Be Your (Action) Man

A few years ago, I convinced Mrs E that the way to enjoy her mid-forties was to hop on a bike constructed by her husband in his spare time, and pedal round as much of the Scottish western isles as we could manage in a week. Never one to scorn a challenge, she duly agreed, and we set off for a number of days of knackering hills, scary descents, mechanical challenges (make that really scary descents), more than our share of rain, and a certain amount of fun. 

Towards the end of our holiday/challenge, Mrs E started to complain of unbearable shooting pains in both her wrists and her ankles, both of which were quite important to completing the trip in one piece. There is another blog to be written some time on what happened next, but the quick version is that shortly after we got back she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, a really crappy auto-immune disorder that doesn’t really have much to do with what most people think about either rheumatism or arthritis. What it does seem to do is stop people doing anything particularly active. Fortunately, there are some pretty good drugs that allow patients to muddle through and some brilliant people in the NHS who seem to be able to pull the right levers to manage pain relief against side effects. And there’s Mrs E herself, who completely refuses to be defined by her illness, which I guess is both a blessing and a curse if you’re trying to treat or live with her. 

So as a result of all that, we didn’t do any more cycling holidays. 

But one evening in February this year, we started talking about getting away. Mrs E declared that she would need some proper sun, but not the sort of sun that you enjoy by the side of a pool. 

We started looking at walking holidays, on the premis that they wouldn’t be too challenging because (and I quote) ‘I manage to walk the dogs for a couple of hours a day’. 

We signed up for 4 days walking in the south of France, travelling to Nice, taking a train north for a couple of hours, then making our way down from La Brigue to Menton. We got a load of information about walking terrain, essential equipment and navigating, all of which we completely ignored, and waited impatiently for the end of June. 

If you’ve been in Europe this June, you may well have noticed that the temperature has been a little bit on the warm side. We landed in 35 degrees and the temperature kept rising, so that our first day of walking took place in around 37 degrees, most of which was in direct sunlight. We walked for about 5.5 hours, generally feeling that we were not only inside an oven, but one where the grill had been left on as well. Worse, temperature-wise, on the next two days (6.5 hours each) and a nightmare on the last day, where, after 7.5 hours, Mrs E said she was truly cooked and starting to hallucinate, and I had to remind her that we still had an hour left to go. 

All of which we put to one side when we look back on the trip, which was more fun than we had any right to expect. We saw parts of the French Alps that were jawdroppingly beautiful; huge green mountain passes, beautiful streams and gorges, and, as we got to the end, fabulous sea views. We lived inside these picture postcards almost on our own – in the four days we were walking we saw one runner and three walkers travelling in the opposite direction. Parts of the walk had so much sunny butterfly action that it was like being on the set of a Disney film. And, without getting unduly soppy about it, we had a good time just being with each other. There is no-one I would rather have long discussion with than Mrs E. And no-one I’d rather play silly games with (eg day 2 – name a herb or spice in popular culture – a clear winner in Ike & Tina Turmeric).

So it was wonderful. But, as I said, really really hot, and that did have a bit of an impact on our tanning plans. I spend quite a bit of the summer wishing I had a healthy tan about me. I normally manage a reasonable glow about the face, but my chosen leisure activities rather get in the way of anything that you might want to see on a beach. To illustrate this, I’ve taken the wise decision of using a stock photo rather than any actual pictures of myself, which would need to carry a public health warning. So this is what I’m going to go with as a base:

action-man-1966

Firstly, let us consider the cyclist tan. You’ll see this quite a bit around this time of year, and it’s defined by the very clear lines of the bib shorts and short-sleeved shirt. In very keen and accessorised cyclists, you’ll also see tanlines around the cycling goggles, which make for a bit of a startled panda look:

A less forgiving tan is worn by the keen summer runner. Summer is a time for short shorts and vests in the running world. It is not an excuse for anyone to take their shirt off and run – there are certain male runners (mainly triathletes) who ignore this rule and look ridiculous, especially if they choose to keep their chest straps on. Although they would claim that they’ve avoided the even more ridiculous summer running tan:

Unfortunately, some of us have both of these tans working, as it were, in tandem. Even more unfortunately, those of us who have spent some time hiking of late have discovered a third tan type, which you get when you wear walking boots, socks, long shorts and no shirt, but still carry your double strapped rucksack.

So, I’m the proud owner of three competing and ridiculous tans, none of which work particularly well as a badge of honour. Unfortunately, also I’ve decided to try to learn to swim over the next couple of months. If anyone has a wetsuit I can borrow, I’d be very interested.

 

 

Hirsute you, Sir

In fashion news this month, #4 has started to wear a woollen hat at all times, indoors, outside, and in all weathers. Under close parental questioning, he tells us that he is planning to ‘grow his hair out’. This concerns me, not least as the thought of long hair brings back associations of hippies and prog-rock, neither of which are to be trusted, in my humble, and vocal parental, opinion.

Given that #4 is the last remaining bubba in the house, he is being treated as single child, and we’ve had to adjust parenting accordingly. Sometimes we even try and reason with him. Irritatingly, he reasons back:

Mrs E ‘You’d look so much better if you had a haircut’

#4 ‘Mmm, that’s just your opinion, and mine’s different’

Mrs E ‘But what will happen when you need to apply for your driving licence?’

#4 ‘I’ll take my hat off’

Incidentally, not the first time we’ve run into legislative challenges with him and hats. We had to go over to France in the summer of 2002, and had arranged rather optimistically to take all the family, with #4 having arrived only a month before. This meant that I had to take him to get a passport sorted out when he was 3 days old. Knowing that he would struggle to remain upright in a photo booth (not to mention operating it), I laid him on the bed in a babygro and fetching beanie cap, took his picture, had it printed, got it witnessed, and hightailed it down to the post office to have all the papers approved.

‘Sorry Sir, we can’t use this one, your son is wearing a hat’

‘But he’s only 3 days old’

‘Sorry, but the only way we can allow it is if he’s wearing the hat for religious purposes…’

‘Ok, so let’s say he is then’

‘…and in that case he’ll have to wear the same hat every time he goes through passport control’

I seriously gave that consideration, but then thought about the slight disagreements we might have if we lost his hat on holiday and had to leave him in Dover. Not to mention whether the hat would really suit him in ten years time. Although reflecting on it now, we could have saved a fortune over the years in headgear.

Back to the conversation then, and we all agree that this interim process of growing the hair out may well be the worst bit, hence the hat. The problem with this stage is that it kind of goes through a wild bedhead/mullet/fluffball stage, managing to be several unpleasant styles all at once. I can’t quite put my finger on it, until #2 pops round one evening, and surveys the situation.

‘He looks a bit of a hillbilly’

Which is pretty spot on. I mention to Mrs E that I half expect him to be wearing dungarees and playing guitar next, and to my surprise a couple of days later, wander up the garden to find him doing both of those things.

The other slight discomfort I have around this whole growing thing goes back to the very idea that men should have anything approaching a ‘style’ in relation to their hair. I appreciate that there’s a danger that I slip into the middle aged outrage that I’ve been trying to avoid for most of my life (although I found myself enthusiastically singing along to George Thorogood’s ‘Get a haircut and a proper job’ the other day), but while men’s hair is concerned, I reserve the right to be a bit Kim Jong Il. Which means it’s all a bit awkward at Emu Towers at the moment.

Kim Jong Il famously only allowed 15 haircuts on his watch (well, 16 if you included his own, which no one else could have), and there wasn’t actually a great deal to choose between any of them:

Most of my hair cuts ever since I can remember, have been in either style 2 or 5 from the poster above.

I’ve stepped away from the North Korea barber book only a couple of times. Before austerity was all the rage round these parts, and early in our marriage, Mrs E decided to save the £3 that I frittered away every month on haircuts by buying some clippers which would ‘literally pay for themselves in a year’. The cutting normally took place on a Friday night, and she had to have a couple of drinks to steady her nerves. As a result, I had a good couple of years of the worst haircuts imaginable, while she tried, and failed, to master the art of fading from a number 1 to a number 4. Had I travelled to North Korea around 1985, I would almost certainly been convicted of crimes against the state.

The other time was in the early eighties, when I mistakenly assumed that the ideal cut for a wannabe blues singer was a flat top. A flat top is very much like a crew cut, but with the top bit, well, flat. Draw a line on top of #15 above if you want to get the general idea. In order to maintain the cut, it needs to be trimmed once a week, otherwise it will start getting a bit messy, so it’s important to find a barber who a) can cut an accurate flat top and is b) cheap.

Fortunately, round the corner from where I lived at the time was Ted (known, unsurprisingly, as ‘Ted the Head’), who ran a barbers shop from the front room of his house. There was one chair, next to which was normally a assortment of kids bikes, lawn mowers and hifi components that he would offer to sell you as part of the barbering transaction. Ted had a range of two cuts – short back and sides, and flat top, which he’d learnt by cutting the hair of US airman during the war. To cut a flat top, you need a client who could keep his head completely still, a flat top comb, which laid on top of the hair, a set of clippers, and two very steady hands. Ted was getting on a bit when I met him, and he couldn’t really manage even one steady hand, so the cuts were a bit hit and miss, but we got there in the end.

A well cut flat top is a thing of wonder though, and quite the style for a rock and roll weekend. I decided to move on partly for maintenance reasons, and partly as during a particularly cold and rainy walk to work on winter morning, I found that a small sheet of ice had formed on top of my head. The next haircut would have to be able to accommodate some sort of hat.

Which brings us neatly back to #4. I guess things will work out in the end. He’ll do his own thing, with or without a hat. And things could be worse; he could have been born 40 years earlier and be trying to fit in with the fashion then….

Taking a punth

For some time now, I’ve been interested in the trend for renaming perfectly good months to repurpose them. My extensive research for this blog tells me that this practice has a name all of its own – these new months are called ‘punths’ – which is actually vaguely clever – it’s a word describing a pun, which is actually a pun. Sadly, that’s about as impressed as I get.

It started off with Movember, where men were encouraged to grow ridiculous moustaches in order to show their support for male health issues, but which gradually morphed into a competitive exercise when the vainest of the vain would place pictures of Terry Thomas, Jimmy Edwards or Windsor Davies on their mirrors, and groom themselves accordingly for a month. I’m all for increased conscious of health issues, although I do struggle with how my next door neighbour trying to look like Nigel Mansell for four weeks is going to heighten my awareness. About the only great thing about Movember is the first week of December, where we all collectively laugh up our sleeves because the comedy moustaches that we’ve been pointing at for weeks weren’t, after all, being grown as a joke.

Movember is preceded by Stoptober, when lots of people who don’t really smoke very much stop smoking. It’s followed by December, when all bets are off on doing anything worthy, unless you want to take part in Decembeard, in which case you can throw away your razor entirely and thus magically increase awareness of bowel cancer by looking like Brian Blessed. Then comes both Dry January, when people who don’t really need a drink make a big fuss about not having one, and Veganuary, when you get your ear bent by some twit in the pub drinking orange juice telling you how much he really misses cheese. We’ve just enjoyed Februhairy, when, possibly inspired by Movember and Decembeard, women have thrown away their razors in order to raise awareness of gender-based violence. You can insert your own comment about cause and activity here as you see fit. 

So, with the world of the punth in mind, I would like to suggest an alternative alternative approach to the calendar. I appreciate that these things will take a little bit to organise, and that you’ll all have to set up your crowdfunding and charity donation sites, so I’ll start the year in April….

Which will be re-named Staypril. As I write, 1st April is only a couple of weeks away, and marks the point at which we should (depending on your point of view) break free of the schackles of the EU or dramatically shoot ourselves in the foot and overtake the USA as the laughing stock of the rest of the world. Staypril will allow everyone who is keen on the whole EU thing to pretend that none of this actually happened. Expect an influx of artisan German sausage makers and French cheesemongers in your local market place, EU flags flown proudly from the windows of Renaults and Citroens and BMWs, and an unseasonal enthusiasm for bistros serving mange-tout, bouillabaisse and crepes.

Staypril will be followed by Brian May. I’ve resisted the temptation to celebrate Theresa May, as May is my favourite sunny month, and every time I look at a picture of our PM at the moment I’m chilled to the bone. Instead, Brian May will be celebrated by loose perms for all, and re-runs of The Sky at Night for astronomy enthusiasts. If you have a partner, make sure they have a matching perm and don’t mind answering to the name Anita for a few weeks. If you want to really celebrate, make a high profile biopic of your life, describing your career as a series of events in which you were almost too lovely to be true.      

Flaming June will encourage awareness of the word flaming as a substitute swearword. There’s a bit more opportunity here than you might think, if you consider the word ‘flaming’ to be an entry point to the lost art of cursing. We seem to have sadly settled on very few swear words in our vocabulary, and you very rarely hear the more imaginative words that we used to use, largely to avoid going straight to four letters. So, during June, we can have flaming, pillock, flipping, knob, blimey, bellend, bint etc. And for every nostalgic swearword used, a pound in the jar for the plain English campaign.

After all that blasphemy, it’s time for Julielo, in which the entire populations, both criminal and non-criminal can spend the whole month staying indoors, keeping a low profile. Staying below the radar in the way will allow the police force to all take the month off as holiday, returning refreshed in August to start hitting their arrest targets.

And what a series of arrests they’ll be making, as the nation celebrates the sizzling summer with the month of Orgyust, when normally straight-laced couples throw their car keys onto the coffee table, and nurture the pampas grass in their front gardens (apparently). I’m quite excited about Orgyust, because, in the past, I’ve only ever found out about orgies after they happen. Apparently there was a thriving swingers scene conducted from the touchline of one of my boy’s sports teams a few years ago, and I didn’t even notice. So it will be nice to have this on the calendar.

Sepptember will announce not only the start of the new football season, but by honouring Sepp Blatter, an opportunity to cram all the season’s financial irregularities and blatant cheating into a single month. This will allow the rest of the season to concentrate on actually playing football, but Sepptember will be a feast of stories of cash handed over at motorway service stations, Far East syndicates linked with huge bets on the number of corners in the second half of non-league competitions, drug cover-ups and exposes on the business activities of pretty much every premiership chairman. Expect to spent most of this month tuned into TalkSport for the incisive wit of Alan Brazil and Ian Abrahams. 

 

Doctober is very much a month to honour the poor sods who choose to train for years to be good at making people better, just so they can be worked to breaking point, trying to fix the unworthy, the ungrateful and the unhygienic. For just a month, patients will be prohibited for taking their internet printouts of their ailments to their GP appointments, and to limit themselves to no more than 3 ailments at a time. All patients should bathe or shower before asking a Doctor to examine them. Patients will be encouraged to keep a small supply of paracetamol in the house in case this is the prescribed cure for their illness. Also a selection of plasters for the little cuts that otherwise seem to find their way to A&E. If you have an urge to celebrate Doctober with me, you can borrow my soapbox.

Lowvember. When David Bowie passed away in 2016, Mrs E wore black for a full year, and the (very) many albums that made up Bowie’s body of work were on strict rotation in the kitchen. There was the odd exception, eg she’d be out on a dog walk and return to me listening to some early Elmore James, and without even asking ‘what’s this nonsense?’, she’d pop on the first Tin Machine album before she’d even fed the dogs. Partly to stir things up a bit, Lowvember will aim to celebrate the Dame in a more measured way, by playing a different album each day of the month. I have to be a bit careful here, and make sure I’m not in the same room as Mrs E when she’s reading this, but I don’t quite go along with the idea the DB was a creative genius for every single minute of his life (Mrs E, incidentally, has an encyclopaedic knowledge of each of these minutes, so I know I’m on shaky ground). In fact, I’d go as far as to say that Bowie was pretty good until 1970, utterly brilliant until 1977, then, with a couple of exceptions, fairly average afterwards. And the 1977 demise happened towards the end of the first side of the Low album (which, in Lowvember will be played around the 11th of the month). It’s just my opinion, and as I said to Mrs E only last night, opinions are like arseholes – everyone’s got one and they all stink.

Kiki Deecember follows, and we can enjoy the runup to Christmas dancing along not just to ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ but also to every other Elton John duet. Sing along with EJ and Josh Stone on ‘Calling It Christmas’. Wipe a tear as George Michael croons his way through ‘Don’t Let The Sun’.  Ask yourself what planet you’re on, as Ru Paul reprises Kiki Dee’s role on ‘Don’t Go Breaking’.

And it’s into the new year, with even more retro-enthusiasm. I’ve been around for long enough now to see some interesting fashions that lose their appeal with age. I don’t mean the age of the fashion, more the age of the wearer. When I was a kid, some of the funniest people I saw were Teds in their 50s, still wearing drape jackets but with really thin quiffs. A few years ago I ended up at a skate-punk gig next to a guy who was spilling out of his anarchy t-shirt and trying desperately to coax his male pattern baldness into a mohican. All very sad. So expect more of the same in The Jamuary, where mods of all shapes and sizes will pour themselves into their tonic suits, sta-press trousers and mohair sweaters, and bounce along to Woking’s finest.

And from Woking to the World Wide Webuary. WWW, as it will confusingly be known, will be an opportunity to enjoy life as it used to be without the world wide web, and thereby appreciating it all the more afterwards. So, assuming we can get the necessary permits in place, we’ll be switching off the internet for a month, and thereby also allowing some upgrades to take place. Let’s face it, the internet hasn’t been powered down for ages now and it must be getting ever so tired. For four short weeks we’ll celebrate by going shopping in shops, talking to people without feeling the need to copy in the world or shouting, and by reading books. We’ll not stop people taking pictures of interesting cats or every single meal they’ve ever consumed, but they just won’t be able to share them for a month.

And so, into our last month. For those of us of as certain age, enjoying the music of the Smiths has been a bit of a roller coaster exercise of late. Chronologically, the story goes 

  • The Smiths burst onto the scene playing music that was unparalleled
  • Step above the copyists and write some more fantastic songs
  • Morrissey becomes spokesman for generation
  • Generation largely responds by going vegetarian and hanging on his every word
  • Band splits up a bit
  • Band splits up a bit more
  • Morrissey continues ‘spokesman for generation’ role
  • Generation still tolerates Morrissey despite some awkward moments
  • Morrissey produces several wonderful solo albums
  • Generation confidence is restored
  • Morrissey produces ‘Autobiography’, to ‘polarised’ reviews      
  • Generation is confused
  • Morrissey starts spouting on about race, rights, politics, immigration and anything else that he seems to find entertaining
  • Generation says enough is enough, please please please can you stop sounding off at us

So, my suggestion is that we all enjoy listening to the music of the Smiths for a month in the full knowledge that we’d feel guilty if we tried to align ourselves with Morrissey. Instead, we’ll just say that we’re enjoying Johnny Marrch. 

 

Tune in next month for more Puntastic fun x

Judgement Days

As I write, my youngest child has just gone into an exam hall, scraped his uncomfortable chair noisily into position, put a few pens and pencils out in front of him, and, in common with thousands of kids across the country, prepared to do battle with a brand new GCSE exam.

This afternoon’s challenge is Physics. In common with most of his cohort, he’ll not have a lot of use for  F = k x e or a = F/m in later life, and if he does, he’ll be able to look it up, rather than try desperately to remember as he walks into the exam hall. So we should probably forgive him if his mind wanders occasionally into the realms of ‘is this really worth it?’

At almost exactly the same time, several hundred miles north, his eldest brother is walking into a similar hall, but this time in a group of twenty-somethings, to take his final written exam, after five years of pretty serious academic and practical study. Months and months of revision have gone into just this one 3 hour event; 8 in the morning until 10 at night, day after day, seven days a week, just to put himself through a series of strenuous mental hoops, to qualify for a specific job. In which, incidentally, he will suffer astonishing levels of stress and anxiety for an entire career.

Just up the road, #3 will be sitting an exam to mark the end of his first year at Uni, and hopefully allowing him entry to the second, where, assuming there isn’t a repeat of the university strike action this year, he might actually get some tuition.

And finally, another few hundred miles to the west, at 9am, #2 has been handed a topic on which to write a 24 hour assignment; his final assessment of his degree. He’ll work on it all day, get some sort of finished paper this evening, get it proof read, and then work through the night fretting and finishing and fining until he hands it in tomorrow morning.

As a parent, this combination of events delivers a level of stress that has to take second place behind what the boys are feeling, but is nonetheless, very real. At 1330 this afternoon, when #4 hears the words ‘Turn over your papers’, I’ll be feeling physically sick. That’s not because it recalls any horrible past experience particularly, although like many people, one of my recurring nightmares is being put in an exam hall, hearing those words, and not being able to function. No, this nausea is about the consequence of success or failure, and what it means for the future of the ones I hold dear. All over the country, I imagine parents are all feeling this way, feeling awful for the ones whose hands we stopped holding years ago, but, who for a few hours at a time, really are completely and utterly on their own.

The point of writing this down is not particularly for any empathy, certainly not to justify any vicarious living through our kids. It’s to challenge why we go through all of this as either parents or young adults, as an accepted way of measurement. And to do that, we need to look at what’s at stake. For our family, the consequence of #1 screwing up this morning’s exam would be a re-run of year 5, on the assumption he fancies a sixth year of expensive study and pressure, and a bid goodbye to the job he’s already accepted. For #2, there’s about a 2% tolerance in his marking of this exam to distinguish between a very good and a very very good degree; something that will matter enormously in the daunting challenge of career prospects for arts graduates these days. And for #4, he’ll either get the qualifications to get to his college course, or he won’t. And if he doesn’t, then his plan B isn’t especially palatable.

And all of this is hanging on a couple of hours of assessment, when you might not be on your game, when you’re entirely at the whim of the examining board in which part of the syllabus they want to quiz you on, and, most importantly, when you might not be able to remember stuff.

Because pretty much every exam that my kids are currently sitting through still requires them to remember things that they’re unlikely to need either now or in the future. And the tests are a bit light on proving their abilities at (say) reasoning, or logic, or any other measure of what we might call intelligence for later life. That’s important because we just don’t need a lot of that stuff in our heads any more. I’m not saying that facts aren’t useful, but they’re all available, at the touch of a button, through that thing called the internet. Which is a much better reference point in most cases than the half remembered facts in your brain. For example, the last time I went to my GP, we had a quick conversation about why I’d come in, a bit of a poke about in the relevant area, then he went straight onto Google to confirm his thinking and choose the right medication. And rightly so; at a guess, the last time he’d been fully tested on his memory for medical facts was over twenty years ago.

I can’t help thinking that life would be a bit more sensible for everyone taking these exams these days if the focus was on reasoning, analysis and the ability to seek out relevant information rather than the regurgitation of facts and figures. The most intelligent people I’ve ever met have these sort of skills in spades; and they don’t necessarily have a detailed knowledge of stuff to make them any more functional in their lives. They also tend to have a high level of what them psychologists call ‘emotional intelligence’, which allows them to interact by recognising their and other people’s feelings.

For one reason or another, I reckon my kids score fairly highly when it comes to things that matter, like emotional intelligence. But I’m really fed up that they’ll continue to be measured on stuff that matters less, and in a way that tests something altogether different. Anyway, good luck to them, and good luck to everyone in similar boats. (Although I don’t know why you’re reading this, you should be revising, for goodness sake).

The Acid House Gynaecologist

Despite trying to write about other topics, I’ve just checked the stats for the Emu, and realised that my readership* is interested in:

  1. Dogs
  2. Running
  3. The joys of family life
  4. Nothing much else

With this in mind, here is a blog about 1 & 2, partly in a desperate bid for attention, and partly because, well, this just happened.

Several years ago, we finally agreed to start having our lives pulled apart by becoming dog owners. About the only stipulation I had in the debate was that I needed to have a dog I could run with, and I spent many happy hours poring over websites telling me which were the best dogs for me, the family, and as running companions. There was a pretty significant flaw in my selection process – I naturally chose the dog breed that was best suited to my running ability at the time, with no consideration that I might conceivably get slower over the next few years. Which is exactly what happened.

Mrs E is nothing if not possessive about the dogs, and allowed me to run with them only after I’d fulfilled all H&S criteria, and critically when the dog in question was at least fourteen months old. Otherwise, apparently, I could cause irreparable damage to fragile knees and paws (the dog’s, not mine). So it was that a couple of years ago, I was able to start running with Luna, first on a lead, then a harness (her not me), and then, when Solomon was deemed fit to do so, I ran with him as well, eventually ending up with a harness around my waist and both dogs pulling me along, often in the same direction.

I can’t describe how much fun this is. Part of the fun element is the very real chance that it could go horribly wrong at any moment, what with traffic, pedestrians and squirrels to contend with, but there is a point on every run, where everything just comes together, and we’re all running together at roughly the same place, where it’s just brilliant. If I had a tail, then three of us would be wagging at the same time.

I run with the dogs at least twice a week, and always when Mrs E is working late. This means I need to pedal home from work at breakneck speed to get changed and out the door by 5:30, which is about the latest their schedule will allow. Any later, and unfortunately at least one of them will start doing laps of the furniture. Now, in this neck of the woods and in winter, 5:30 also means complete darkness. Rather than waiting for the nights to draw out and take my two charges for a relaxing walk around one of a number of excellent well lit and dog friendly parks nearby, I decided it would be much more sensible to buy a head torch and run with them on some of the more enjoyable off-road routes that combine a few muddy hills, some woods, a bit of river footpath, and marginal cellphone signal. I’d light up the path ahead, and the dogs would run along to the light, and we’d all wag our tails. I nipped onto Amazon and bought a bargain headtorch for £7.99. It arrived, I tried it on, I felt like a bit of a knob (particularly after Mrs E called me ‘The Acid House Gynaecologist’ after coming back from my first run, with headtorch shining and too much fluorescent lycra), but no matter, this was to enable fun night-time running with my four-legged chums, with the trail lit up like a spotlight for the three of us:

running n the darkWhat could possibly go wrong?

Well, as you could imagine, quite a bit. But first, a little diversion. In March, 1972, my Dad took me to my first proper football match. We were visiting family on the South coast and Southampton were playing Liverpool, who, under Bill Shankly, were already the stuff of legend. For a wide eyed nine year old boy obsessed with football, it was a pretty good way to break my duck. As far as the game was concerned, I remember very little except for perhaps a 30 second video in my head that I’ve been able to replay precisely ever since. Attacking from my right, one of the Liverpool midfielders stroked the ball onto the far touchline to Steve Heighway, who took off like a train down the right wing. Just before he got to the goal line, he crossed the ball very hard and very low, about a foot off the ground, towards the penalty spot. At this point. the ball met the head of John Toshack, who had started his dive from some distance outside the penalty box, and had travelled, parallel with the ground for a number of yards, like some sort of guided missile, and didn’t actually land until after the ball had whizzed past the helpless Southampton keeper. I’d never witnessed anything so athletic and so powerful in my life, and, looking back, I’m still not sure I have since. I spent quite a bit of the following few months trying to perfect my own technique of flying like a torpedo to meet an imaginary cross, but without any real success – I just seemed to land a bit early – sometimes before my feet had actually left the ground. I think I concluded that there were people in the world who were John Toshack, and there were people who weren’t, and I was definitely in the second group.

Diversion over, on a darkened run, I was being pulled along at a fairly brisk pace, down a muddy hill towards the river, when my right foot met a rabbit hole. What followed was an almost exact replica of the dive that John Toshack made at The Dell in March 1972. I took off, partly fuelled by the momentum of being pulled along by the dogs, and partly by the hill. I travelled parallel to the ground for a number of yards. I landed, painfully, in the mud, and continued my journey for some time, until the dogs realised that pulling a dead weight wasn’t nearly so much fun as one that was trying to keep up with them. I reckon the initial dive was at least the length of Toshack’s, but the subsequent slide would have taken me well past the goalkeeper and crashing into the net.

The dogs were fairly bemused. They actually made a point of coming back and licking my wounds, which was both sweet and disgusting. Having ascertained that I was still breathing, they both sat down and waited for me to get up. They weren’t actually tapping their toes on the ground, but they weren’t far off. So I got up, gingerly broke into a jog, and resolved on the way home to keep this whole mishap a secret between the three of us.

‘How was the run’? said Mrs E as I followed two excited dogs into the house.

‘Fine’, I said, stepping into the kitchen, and realising in the light that I’d managed to bring most of the muddy hill home with me, and that I’d need to fess up.

‘Well, I did fall over quite badly’

‘Oh no! Are the dogs alright?’, she asked, rather predictably.

I tried the next couple of runs around the park, but it wasn’t the same, So, a couple of weeks later,  I decided to run very slowly and very carefully around the off road route. The dogs seemed much keener on this, and we trotted along happily (and safely) together. Past the muddy hill (watching my step), on the river path (making sure they kept to the left), through the grass track (keeping an eye out for the rabbits), into the first little wood (keeping feet away from tree roots), across the path (watching for cyclists), into the second wood (where I forgot the bit about tree roots).

Never forget about tree roots when you’re running through a forest, particularly at night.

What happens is that you hit the root with your leading foot, curse with pain, then catapult forward and down, often onto another tree root. It can be really painful.

‘Can be really’ as in ‘was horribly’; I landed with the force of a WWF wrestler, and managed to hit leg, elbow, shoulder and head all in one ugly movement. Worse; my head torch went flying off my head. Worse than worse, it managed to switch itself off in the process.

So I’m lying face down on the ground (again), with the dogs coming back to have a look (again) but this time we’re all completely disoriented, and in the pitch black. After a bit, the dogs get a bit bored of the ‘pained hound with quizzical look sitting mournfully by their master’ look, and decide to wander off. Unfortunately they’re still attached to my waist, and deciding to go off on separate directions. Luna probably said something like ‘I’ll go down to the river, you see if there’s anything in the woods, and we’ll meet back when he’s found that ridiculous searchlight’, but obviously I can’t be sure.

Anyway, I find a way to release them, and am left to fend for myself. Fending for myself takes the form of crawling around aimlessly, sweeping my palm ahead of me in the vain hope that I’ll find the torch before I find the river. I continue this exercise for about 5 minutes, and it’s no small relief that there’s no one there to witness it.

I give up at this point, and go for plan b, which involves finding my phone, which is handily strapped to my arm, under three layers of clothing. Retrieving my phone therefore means getting undressed in the middle of the forest, and that’s what I do, until I’m down to my tights and bare chest. A sentence I never thought I’d write, and a look I never thought I’d get away with. Fortunately again, I’m the only one able to see this new fashionable low. I thank the genius who decided to integrate a flashlight on my phone, and almost immediately find my head torch, which had landed exactly where I hadn’t been crawling. i put the torch back on my head, switched it on, and to my great relief, lit up my little part of the trail with a reluctant yellow beam.

Incidentally, the reason for all of his nonsense was in buying a £7.99 headtorch in the first place. If you’re ever tempted to buy one, look for something with a strap that is vaguely tight, a battery pack that pulls the torch back rather than forwards, and a switch that you have to get your finger in to work. Mine possessed precisely none of these features, although the replacement one, which, so far has stayed both on and on at all times, does.

Anyway, I called the dogs, and, remarkably, they attended the scene almost immediately. We ran home, very slowly, and with and improved leg lift and, remarkably, without further incident. We got home and in the back door, where, like a 5 year old coming home from the park, I told my wife that I’d fallen over again, and was in some degree of pain.

‘Are the dogs alright?’, she asked, unremarkably.

 

 

*You know who you are x

 

They don’t like it up ’em, Mr Mainwaring

2017 was always going to be designated as a ‘milestone birthday year’, albeit not in the way that other birthdays had happened. Quite a long time ago, I remember going out for drinks on my 21st, drinking and smoking my way into a terrific hangover, and thinking that life was unable to get much better than this (I was completely wrong). When I was thirty, I sent out invitations to celebrate, or commiserate, passing into middle age, and we had a huge party, reforming the bands we’d been in a few years before, in the realisation that we were all headed for some sort of rock & roll decline (which we were). Another party for my fortieth, but this time with a more expensive suit, and a further band reunion, but, worryingly, sitting down to play. And then, a few years ago, 50, which, unnervingly, is least clear of all, lost in a haze of extreme running, ice baths and ill advised tequila competitions with kids who were young enough to be my children. Which, of course, they were.

Being 55 was different, but notable in its own special way. Firstly, there were a series of letters reminding me that years ago, I’d suggested that May 2017 would be an excellent time to retire, and I would save every last penny I had to make that happen. I kept my promise on the savings front, but unfortunately others in my life didn’t*, and I found myself woefully short of the sunset retiree lifestyle that Michael Aspel and Gloria Hunniford seem to witter on about, given half a chance.

Then came more letters, the first one the day after my birthday, inviting me to take out insurance for my declining years (with free Parker pen, but only if I reply now!), then offering holidays, to be taken with other over-55’s, probably so we could have long chats about Brexit and the youth of today. A horrible prospect indeed, a bit like an 18-30 holiday but with less energy, less tolerance, and less wet T-shirt competitions (I’d hope).

And then, the letter I’d been looking forward to least. Because, at 55, you get put on a special health screening list. The first letter is fairly innocuous, welcoming you to the world of the NHS, and giving you assurance that early screening of bowel cancer is a fabulous way of getting old gracefully. Or, I suppose, at all. The letter is beautifully put together, with soft words around screening and images and prevention, and makes very little reference to the main point of the exercise, which is to put a smallish camera up your backside, with a longer lead than you might imagine possible.

So what you do is fill in the form, because you figure that you do really really really want to know if you have the other c-word in your life. And you put the appointment in your diary and try not to think for a few weeks, and, largely, you don’t. And then, a couple of weeks before you need to start remembering about the appointment that you’re trying not to remember, a parcel arrives.

I still love getting parcels, especially unexpected ones. A few years ago, I got a book posted to me about great naval battles of the Second World War. Inside, it said ‘To Kevin’. Nothing else, and no clue who’d sent it, other than a Manchester postmark. It remains one of the most brilliant moments of my life. Last week I got a parcel from my parents, just as unexpected, which had two packets of smoked mackerel in it. Not as weird as it sounds, but just as delightful. So when this parcel arrived, I pounced on it like Michael Fallon at a Young Conservatives rally.

I tore the parcel open, and (you might be ahead of me here) was disappointed to see nothing about great naval battles and no sign of smoked mackerel. Instead, there was a tube, a plastic container full of clear fluid, and a set of instructions on how to use your enema.

I’ve never had an enema before, but my wife, a woman with the patience and black sense of humour shared by many in the nursing profession, told me that there was nothing to worry about. In fact (and I should have smelt a rat here), she offered to help administer the enema, to make sure that it was ‘working properly’.

When the diary date finally arrived, I knocked off work a bit early, got home and reread the enema instructions for about the 50th time, and Mrs E kindly suggested that she could help with what she charmingly called the ‘introduction’. For a while, I wasn’t absolutely sure what she meant, and then suddenly I very much was. There was a definite imbalance on the enthusiasm of the two of us taking part. I don’t think she actually shouted out ‘Geronimo’, as she ‘introduced’, but she might as well have done.

If you’ve had one of these enemas, you’ll be fairly aware of what happens next. Not very much for the first 10 minutes and then, fairly suddenly, something that feels like a small volcano in your lower intestine. Fortunately in our house there are only a couple of dozen buttock-clenching strides between the sofa and the toilet, where I realised the true sensation of what I understand is called an evacuation. When, as Lionel Ritchie once said, there was ‘nothing left to give’, it was time to go to the hospital. In a plan that was either macho, naive or stupid, I’d planned to cycle there, but agreed with Mrs E that it might be, after all, worth taking her up on her offer of a lift.

Mrs E dropped me off at the hospital, arranged to pick me up at some vague point in the future, and I distinctly heard her cackling away to herself as she drove off. Found my way to the gastro ward without asking for directions (always a win), and opened the door to the waiting room. My appointment was for 18:15, and I suppose I expected a small room with 3-4 people awaiting their evening appointment with a sigmoidoscope. Much to my surprise, the door opened to a really large waiting room, with maybe 50 chairs, and almost each one occupied. I sat down at one of the chairs, and looked around. I noticed that everyone else was looking around surreptitiously as well; I wasn’t really sure why until it suddenly struck me – I’d not been in this situation since I was about 15.

Just to be clear, no-one shoved a camera up my backside when I was 15, but that was probably the last time that I’d walked into a room of people of exactly the same age. And then, like now, everyone was looking round, while trying not to catch anyone else’s eye, to see, well, how the last 40 years had gone for everyone else. Slightly different thoughts to the ones when I was 15, perhaps a bit more ‘looks like he had a good Christmas’, and a bit less ‘crikey, where did he get those shoes/trousers/haircut?’, and some new thoughts too, like ‘I wonder why he brought his wife along, particularly if she’s going to look so bloody miserable’, and ‘ there’s an odd place for a tattoo’. And we were probably all having these thoughts as the receptionist kindly matched called out names to match faces. I seemed to get called about 10 minutes after checking in, which did make me wonder how I’d jumped the queue. Maybe this was just somewhere that a selection of 55 year old men go on Wednesday evenings for their own entertainment. Perhaps some of them had enjoyed the process so much in the past that they’d turn up hoping for a cancellation.

Then you’re shown into a small room and asked to undress, put one gown on backwards, another one on forwards, and keep your shoes and socks on, and put your clothes in the shopping basket provided. You emerge from the little room, carrying your basket, and sit down next to the other men who have just been through the same process. Now, I’m not sure if there’s a supermarket scene in ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’, but if there is, we were reenacting it, sitting there with gowns and modesty barely intact, still wearing unlaced boots and socks, and each clutching on to a shopping basket. It’s not a look I’ll be planning to replicate, but it’s definitely one to remember for a while.

Another call, and this time into a room with a proper door, and serious equipment and people inside. There were four of them, and I was introduced to each one in turn. One was going to make me feel comfortable from the front, the next was to keep an eye on things from the back, the lead role was to be taken by a kindly soul who would be wielding the camera, leaving Steve in the corner who was going to be doing the ‘impressive stuff with the computer’. Well, they all looked very relaxed about the whole situation, especially Steve, who had an especially comfortable looking office chair. I asked if they normally heard or told jokes during this sort of procedure. They didn’t, but would be very happy to hear any material from me. I said I’d not really prepared anything specifically for this event, so I told them a bit about the enema and how it reminded me of a John Cooper Clarke line:

‘Like a recently disinfected shithouse
You’re clean round the bend’

Steve pitched in with his favourite joke, which wasn’t necessarily a gag as you or I might know it, but ended with some sort of a punchline from Dad’s Army’s Corporal Jones ; ‘They don’t like it up ‘em’.

With all parties sufficiently relaxed, a nervy silence crept into the room, only to be broken by the lead role:

‘What you’re going to feel next is my finger’

Which I did.

If you’re lucky enough to have the over-55 invite still to turn up in your post, rest assured, because the rest of the exercise is relatively pain free. In common with teenage sex, watching Norwich City at home and the final couple of Clash albums, the excitement of anticipation isn’t really matched by the following reality. There’s a bit of discomfort; a really disconcerting video stream in front of you showing your healthy pink insides and a phenomenal feeling that you’re going to poo yourself in front of four people. There were a few encouraging ‘please relax’ shoves from behind, and a few calming words from the front, telling me that all would be well, and admiring my resting pulse. ‘Are you a runner?’ said the voice in front, and, naturally enough, the next few minutes passed by in a very convivial fashion, with me talking about my favourite subject to a captive audience.

And in no time at all ‘All clear’ was announced, with everyone in the room aware of the double meaning. I started to move off the table, and was met with firm holds on three sides.

‘We’ll just give that a bit of a wipe’

And I think I would have last heard those words, in that context, about 50 years ago.

Sometimes I guess we all feel a bit nostalgic for the days when we didn’t have to bother about self-dignity. I guess that might be something else to look forward to as we get old.

 

 

* In no particular order, the others in my life who stopped me from retiring were : Nick Clegg, Nigel Farage, and Fred Goodwin, along with the hilariously well-rewarded 2007-8 Risk Committee of the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Now We Are Three

Well, we’ve been here before.

Four years ago, we saw #1 off to Uni, and it broke our hearts, not in a clingy or mawkish way but because we knew we’d miss him being such a big part of our lives all the time. Then, two years ago, #2 went off 200 miles in the opposite direction, and another little piece of our heart dropped away. #2 had eased our emotional passage by taking a few months off to explore the drug cartels of South America, which he might have felt would soften the blow of living in the more cosmopolitan parts of Bristol. He was right, up to a point; he told me the day before he left for year three that his new flat was next door to a brothel that smelt mysteriously of gravy, and it didn’t seem to bother him in the least, so I guess we’ve all come to terms with managing without each other. And we now have a huge stock (geddit?) of broth-el jokes to while away the winter evenings.

And now it’s time for number three.

I don’t even know where to start telling you about him. One day he’s going to get married, and there will be a queue of people at the wedding trying to grab the microphone and tell the story about the time when Felix said this, tried that, travelled there, made up that song, told that joke, forgot the really important thing and remembered the stupid one, and so on. And we probably ought to leave most of those stories for now, but just as a taster, in case you’re thinking about whether to RSVP to his wedding invite in 2028:

  • This is the boy who, age 3, almost drowned, jumping into a swimming pool to retrieve his toy polar bear. I asked him about this recently and he said he had a very clear memory of jumping in, and realising before he hit the water that he’d no idea how to swim.
  • This is the boy who would wander about so aimlessly (he once went walkabout with a friend when we were walking in the country, and got returned to us by a guy holding a shotgun, whose shoot he’d interrupted) that we started dressing him in a bright red duffle coat so we could spot him in the crowd. He spent most of years 4-8 looking like a still from Schindler’s List.
  • This is the boy who saw a friend walking past the house, and knocked on the window in his bedroom so enthusiastically that he put his arm through the glass, cutting a artery in the process, and spent the rest of the day in A&E, having generously decorated the bathroom red beforehand. All of this was on Mother’s day, which we will celebrate forever more at Emu Towers by watching the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
  • This is the boy, who, on a school cycling trip to Holland, managed, within 24 hours, to badly damage his bike within the first mile using only a lunch box and a bungee, get stuck up a tree, and burn his armpits with some dodgy deodorant.
  • This is the boy who can learn every song lyric on a single listen, and who can then sing it back, pitch perfect. Who can gatecrash his father’s gig and belt out the songs far better than his old man. Who can steal the show in front of pretty much any size audience, even if he does choose musical theatre as his preferred medium (I’ve still to come to terms with that).
  • This is the boy whose life was pulled apart when some toerag stole his facebook id, and posted really abusive messages to all of his friends. And because we all assumed that said toerag was one of his ‘friends’, he was the boy who walked to school on his own for the next year, who stopped going out in the evening, who changed schools so that he could distance himself from the scene of the crime, who made a whole new bunch of friends who he knew he could trust, and who did so with far more maturity that we could have ever expected.
  • This is the boy who took £20 into town to buy some stationary for school, got £18 change, and, on the way back gave it all to a homeless man who needed it more than he did.

He’s just a lovely, smart, funny, awkward, charming, beautiful kid. Obviously he’s our kid, so he’s lovelier, smarter, funnier and more awkward, charming and beautiful than any other child that’s ever been born, so it’s always going to be hard work to say goodbye. But we’re old hands at this now, we give him a note that tells him how much we love him, say goodbye and touch his face for the last time before Christmas, then step away before anyone sees any actual tears.

 

Then, like all the other parents dropping their kids off this weekend, we spend the journey home talking about all the things that make them special, and all the differences that there’ll be now that there’s an extra bed in the house, less noise to contend with, and a weekly shop that actually lasts past Tuesday.

 

And in a few days time we’ll see him on a screen on Skype and we’ll talk about little things until the screen freezes and you know it’s not going to come back but you still have the image of his face and you just put your hand out to touch the glass. And, several hundred miles away you know he’s probably doing the same thing.

 

In our case, we trundle home to two lively dogs, and a 15 year old who is extremely nervous about being repurposed as an only child, with all the direct parenting that that entails. We haven’t had a three person family for twenty odd years now, but I’m sure we can remember how to do it. Well, at least until Christmas.

 

 

Ever seen an Alien? No, me neither.

Mrs E, by her own admission, is something of an obsessive, particularly where music is concerned. When we first met, she was well into her Talking Heads phase, and, this being 1987, was suitably impressed by my life-size ‘True Stories’ poster that my friend Kevin B had kindly liberated for me from HMV. From there she went to an unparalleled devotion to Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs, and from there onto what I consider to be a slightly unhealthy obsession with Stuart Murdoch and the twee/tweed Belle & Sebastian.

But before any of that, and weaving a course in amongst it, there was Bowie. Always Bowie, and everything he ever did, with the possible exception of Tin Machine, to which she gave a sensibly wide berth. Before we met, she’d made a pilgrimage to Schöneberg in Berlin, where he’d stayed when he was recording Low, Heroes and Lodger, crossing Checkpoint Charlie to get there. Rather disappointingly, she reported it as reminding her very much of Catford.

When Bowie died, around this time last year, she was understandably devastated. Honestly, when I shuffle off this mortal c., I’d be happy with half the amount of tears and hand-wringing that defined Emu Towers in the weeks after he died. In that time, the stereo pumped out a fairly rigid playlist that was basically the Blackstar album, with anything else interrupted by ‘I’m not really in the mood for this’ or ‘This is nonsense’.

There were a few crumbs of comfort. Listening to Bowie, Bowie, Bowie wasn’t actually that much of a hardship, even though it was pretty much every day of 2016. And Christmas present buying had never been so easy.

Present #1 – ‘The Complete David Bowie” – a completely brilliant book by Nicholas Pegg that charts Bowie’s every song, recording session, gig and very possibly each evening meal from 1958 to 2016.

Present #2 – Two tickets to see ‘Lazarus’, in London’s glittering West End (cf a temporary theatre outside King’s Cross station). If you’re not familiar with Lazarus, it’s a stage show that sort of completes Bowie’s creative career, insofar as it was the very last thing that he worked on – and he got to see it too, in production off Broadway in his last public appearance, a month before he died. It’s the continuation of the story of Thomas Jerome Newton, the anti-hero alien from ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ – Bowie’s best (and some would say only decent) film appearance. Because it’s Bowie, it borders into performance art, and because it’s Bowie, there are reinterpretations of his songs, and some new stuff. And (bonus), it stars Michael C Hall, star of the wonderful Dexter series, who is the subject of a minor crush from Mrs E.

Partly as a result of #1 and #2, Mrs E was the happiest of bunnies all over Christmas, and much of our relaxation time in the evenings since has been spent preparing the ground for present #2, listening to the cast recording, tutting quietly over #1 (which she’s reading like a novel, rather than an encyclopaedia), and watching back to back episodes of Dexter. The book runs to 794 pages, and there are eight seasons of Dexter, so this is a pretty big undertaking, for anyone but the most hardened of Bowie fans. And her husband.

When I bought the tickets, it was already a sell-out, but I hunted around and got, at no small expense, two tickets (seats 17 & 18) in row Z, about two thirds of the way back from the stage. When she’d calmed down from opening the tickets, Mrs E did further research on the theatre layout, pronounced the tickets ‘excellent’ but then went onto Amazon and bought a pair of military-grade binoculars, ‘just to be on the safe side’.

The great day came, and we mooched around London, with Mrs E getting steadily more and more excited, and got to the theatre an hour and a quarter before show time. Because you never know when they might call an emergency tube strike, after all.

A cheeky snifter before the show, and we took our places, looking down onto the stage, which already had Michael C Hall on it, laying on his back, playing dead before the first scene.

“Excellent”, pronounced Mrs E, adjusting her binoculars, and checking MCH out for freckles.

The stage was set up with the band set back and up, with a big screen in the centre of the stage. I’ve taken the liberty of sketching it for your edification:
alien-5
With about ten minutes to show time, Seat W 17 was occupied by a large bloke wearing a parka coat with the hood up. Eventually the hood came down, but left a bit of a static halo around his head.

Before I’d adjusted my neck to compensate for the next two hours, the occupant of Seat X 18 arrived. To my surprise, he was sporting a magnificent Afro cut, the sort of thing that you might have seen on Jermaine Jackson, around 1978. Unfortunately there was no equivalent to the ‘removing the parka hood’ option for X 18, but with a readjustment of the neck, I could still just about see Michael C Hall’s feet.

A real bonus, however, was that seats Y 17 and 18, immediately in front me, were empty, and, as the houselights went down, I happily remembered the ticket instructions about no latecomers being admitted.

Unfortunately, someone in the theatre hadn’t read their own rules, because, just as MCH’s feet start moving out of view, some hushed excuses were whispered, and I was presented with the backs of what appears to be two Canadian lumberjacks, just in from felling redwoods, or working out at the gym, or possibly back from the steroid shop. I’m generalising terribly, but these guys were huge, with bull necks, checked shirts and hipster beards, so big that they could barely sit down without being on each other’s laps. As a result, my view suddenly became really quite limited. I’ve taken the liberty of sketching it:
alien-4

Unfortunately, my view stayed pretty much like that for the rest of the show, so I can report very little about MCH’s acting skills, particularly as an awful lot of the play seemed to involve lying down on the stage. There were a few exceptions. At one point, a load of colourful clothes are thrown into the air, and they sailed into view for me just above the first Canadian prop forward’s buzz cut. I felt a bit like a midget watching the hats go into the air on VE Day.

And during ‘Absolute Beginners’, MCH manages to hold his negligee-clad fellow singer up, like a gymnast, flat against the big screen, legs and arms spread out like a star. This was delightfully framed by two bushy beards, but slightly spoiled by the singer’s open mouth and posture looking a bit too much like an inflatable sex toy, which I’m sure wasn’t the look they were going for.

By far the best part of the show however, was in ‘All the Young Dudes’, in which I managed to get an almost unimpeded view of the stage for over a minute and a half. ‘All The Young Dudes’ obviously has a place deep in the heart of your average Shoreditch/Canadian gym-bunny/lumberjack hipster type, as it was the cue for the occupants of Y 17 and 18 to engage in some really enthusiastic necking. No apologies for that rather dated phrase, which you might have last seen on a swimming pool poster, prohibiting necking, petting, smoking and bombing, because Y 17 & 18 were, delightfully for all parties in row Z, neck to neck, kissing and nibbling all through the second and third verse. (Incidentally, I’m going to form a company called Necking, Petting, Smoking and Bombing. It’s going to replace Sue, Grabbit and Run as my ideal Solicitor’s firm. Any lawyers wanting to join my startup, form an orderly queue.)

Anyway, at about the time in the song that Ian Hunter would have cried “I Wanna Hear Ya”, they separated necks, resumed their positions, and, I’m embarrassed to say, both heard me loudly sigh with disappointment.

So, all in all, I may be the wrong person to review this show. There was plenty of reinterpretation being flung about, as you’d expect from anything that Bowie had a hand in, and they stayed more or less true to the lyrics of the songs, which, because no-one really understands them, didn’t really help with the overall narrative.

But the musicianship was great, and a few moments (Life on Mars, being sung by the astonishing Sophie Anne Caruso; Valentine’s Day, sung by Michael Esper, and MCH’s Absolute Beginners for example), were sublime.

And Mrs E wouldn’t have missed it for the world. She’s an addict, after all, and she needed to know that she’d seen it. And she had the distinct advantage of sitting behind a very small and very old man wearing an anorak and a flat cap. (Him, not her, you understand. She’d taken her anorak off by then, tee hee). And she really enjoyed the whole thing, which kind of made her Christmas present worthwhile.

I asked her about what she thought of Michael C Hall on the way home.

“He must have got really tired”, she said, “he was on stage for pretty much the whole show”.

“Was he?” I asked.