The last few days of the year

The week between Christmas and New Year is a festive hinterland where nobody ever truly knows what the date is or even which day it is.  The days blend into one another; one food coma followed by another hangover and eventually it feels like all your days are stuck together like thin, sweaty slices of prosciutto.  You go to bed at 4am and then wake up and suddenly another day is sort of just happening and you’re sitting in the cold rain at Celtic Park watching a 0-0 draw with Rangers.

When I stepped onto the Glasgow bound train at what seemed like the end of last week it was preceded by eight days of festive imbibement and yet another night which had spilled over into the early hours of the following day.  There had been a winter-like dusting of snow overnight and, after many weeks of resistance, my body had finally succumbed to the seasonal bout of man flu.  It wouldn’t be Hogmanay without my lungs making their annual attempt to perform The Great Escape through the cunning ploy of being coughed up out of my mouth.  

I stood at my reserved table and sat a carrier bag of beer on the seat as I noted the presence of a young woman in close proximity.  I pulled the black gloves from my hands, one at a time (it is impossible to do both hands at once,) the left-hand proving to be a little more resistant at giving up woolen warmth than the right.  I unwrapped the scarf from around my neck – which provided some real respiratory relief as I was so conscious of the cold and of my cold that it had been clinging to me like a python – and extracted the earphones from my backpack before lifting it onto the overhead storage.  Next I unbuttoned my long black overcoat and laid it next to the carrier bag of beer.  I paused for a moment as I tried to get a feel for whether ScotRail had taken the rare step of putting heating on their service on a cold winter day.  They had, and so I continued the elaborate performance of stripping myself of winter layers by lifting my grey acrylic wool jumper up over my head in as methodical a manner as possible so as not to ruffle my comb over.  I took my seat and glanced over at the woman sitting at the opposite table, curious as to whether she had taken notice of my show.  Her eyes were fixated on her phone.

As the train began to depart the station I reached into my carrier bag of beer and snacks.  I glanced around the carriage and observed my fellow passengers, many of them sipping from fancy looking novelty festive coffee cups.  Meanwhile I drank from a screw top bottle of Budweiser and struggled for an inordinate amount of time to tear open a Tesco meal deal sandwich.

At the Travelodge check-in desk I went through my usual routine of informing the receptionist that I had “a room for the night for one person” – because it is always for one person – and she asked me to recite the first line of my address.  I did this and it seemed to spark some kind of memory for her and she insisted that my face seemed familiar to her.  

“I’m not sure whether to take that as a compliment or an insult,” I said in some terrible attempt at flirtatious banter.  She grimaced in an awkward manner and I compounded matters by informing her that I would “probably take it as something in the middle.”  She asked me if I had stayed at the Travelodge before and I acknowledged that I had done so some months previous, at which point I recognised the receptionist as being the equestrian studies girl of my September Ryan Adams tour.  I accepted my room key from her and left for the lift, frustrated that I had thought it a good idea to flirt at the reception desk.

Later in the evening I decided that I would venture along the road to eat dinner at the Italian restaurant I had walked out of earlier in the year after mistaking it for the Malaysian Chinese place next door (“The weekend where many small things happened”)  I walked inside and waited to be seated by the waitress, though I could immediately see that this would not be a problem, as there wasn’t another diner in the establishment.  Whereas all of my dining experiences tend to be solo, this would be an actual literal solo dining experience.

The waitress greeted me and advised that, unsurprisingly, I could take my pick of seating.  I elected to sit at the table by the window so that I could enjoy my meal with the view of a Glasgow street after a wintry snowfall:  black clumps of slush swept to the side of the pavement, discarded cigarette butts impaled on the peak of the ice.  I looked around the empty restaurant and noted that every table was adorned with a rose-red tealight candle holder complete with a flickering flame.  Every table except mine; the one table that was being used.

Having perused the menu the waitress returned to my table and I ordered a couple of courses to be complimented with a carafe of house wine.  “You know what a carafe is?”  She asked.  “Of course I do.”  I didn’t really.  “It’s half a litre of wine; about four glasses.”  “I know.  I’ll take a carafe of red wine.”

I began to contemplate how I was going to drink four glasses of wine as I waited for my food to arrive and I noticed how much louder the pop Muzak seemed without the usual background chatter of a restaurant to drown it out.  I enjoyed my dinner and was onto my fourth and final glass of wine by the time the bill was ready to be settled.  I lounged back in my chair, quite content with the evening so far, and took a long, satisfied swig of the delicious red wine when All By Myself by Celine Dion played.  I couldn’t decide whether the restaurant staff were jesting me or if this was one of those weird and quirky coincidental moments you see all the time on television sitcoms.

Still burdened with man flu I thought it best to retire to the Travelodge and enjoy a quiet drink or two before getting my first early night in more than a week.  I sat on a barstool and waited for one of the hotel staff to return to the bar to serve me.  Eventually the equine studies girl arrived and I decided that I would let her know that I, too, recognised her face (The day the horse left the stable (aka Ryan Adams @ The Sage, Gateshead)  She complimented me on my impressive memory when I enquired how the equestrian studies were going and I furthered my attempt to impress her by channelling some recollection of discussing dressage with her.  She insisted that she isn’t studying to become involved in competition, she simply wants to help train horses and get them ready for competition.

“I see.  So not so much dressage as dressing…?”

The receptionist/barmaid glanced at her watch at this point.

“Unfortunately my shift is actually finished now.”

I ordered a Guinness and a Jameson from her substitute – never a good idea at the best of times – and found myself in conversation with another gentleman at the bar.  He was missing his front teeth, wasn’t wearing any shoes and had the general appearance of someone who might have been rejected from a role in Deliverance on account of looking too much like a ‘backwoods local’.  Remarkably he claimed to be the manager of Amazon’s Gourock branch and I sat talking to him until 4am, at which time it occurred to me that it was Saturday morning and I had a game of football to attend in nigh upon seven hours.

Final scores:
Celtic 0-0 Rangers
JJ 0-1 Celine Dion

 

 

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The day I slept on the train

The 8.57 train leaving Oban on a Saturday morning isn’t only a means of travelling to Glasgow.  Often it is my best chance of getting some sleep following a Friday night at the bar, and sometimes it is my first opportunity in the day for a cup of what is generously described on the ScotRail menu as “coffee”.

Nobody ever wants to sleep on the train.  There are potentially as many as a thousand arses each year sitting on the seat you are contemplating slumber on and I struggle enough with the prospect of sleeping with one person, let alone scores of strangers.  Then you consider the decor of the carriage and the faded purple and tired green pattern on the seats and you think that surely nobody could wish to sleep on Smurf vomit.

As soon as I finished peeling the reluctant skin from my orange I could feel my eyes become weary.  Although I am a notoriously shy peeler of oranges in public situations due to my frequent inability to remove the skin in one fluent piece, I felt a certain confidence on this occasion when I observed the small boy of maybe five or six years of age opposite me use his nimble little fingers to peel a satsuma in a single complete effort.  If he can do it there’s no reason I can’t, I thought to myself in a surge of optimism, and I reached for the orange from the bottom of my satchel.  I pierced the top of the orange with my index finger and began to loosen the skin from the juicy fruit contained within.  Things were going pretty well and the skin was coming away with ease.  I felt relaxed and was pretty sure that the five-year-old boy sitting across from me would be impressed if he cared about such matters as much as he appeared to be interested in his colouring book, in which he used blues and greens to bring scribbled life to wildlife scenes.  I couldn’t help but suspect that I was taunting me, and this only added to my determination to peel the orange whole.  Then I reached an impasse and there was nowhere left for my finger to go without starting a second string – and that one proved so hopeless that there immediately followed a third attempt at peeling the orange.  I folded the discarded pieces of skin into my empty coffee cup, hopeful that the child across the table hadn’t noticed my failure.  The fruit itself was consumed in less time than it took to free from its jumpsuit, and I was left wondering if the healthy intake of vitamin C I enjoyed from the orange was worth the charade.

My eyes became as heavy as a plump robin on a thin bare branch and I could no longer keep myself awake.  My head craned to the right, resting against the cold hard window – the worst pillow imaginable.  Even worse than at the Travelodge.  It wasn’t particularly comfortable and to make matters worse I felt certain that I was dreaming about falling asleep on the train.  I could picture the scene clearly in my mind’s eye:  a loose earphone dangling errantly from my ear, my eyes flickering like a faulty fairy light as I drift in and out of a barely sober slumber and my mouth hangs open like a snowmans, frozen in dumbfoundment.  In my dream I could see a small formation of saliva gradually dribble down my chin in the manner of a drop of rain which grows bigger as it runs down the length of the window of the train.  I immediately woke up, my hand desperately reaching towards my chin in an attempt to conceal the drool — but there was nothing there.  My brow furrowed and I scanned the faces of the commuters sitting around me, hopeful that none of them had witnessed my flailing at an imaginary dribble.  I discreetly returned the earbud to my ear, settled back in my chair and vowed that I would not allow myself to doze off again.

When I next woke up the train was nearing Glasgow Queen Street and I was feeling hungry.  After enjoying a pint of Caesar Augustus upon arriving in the city I decided to venture towards the Christmas market at St Enoch Square, where a colleague had suggested that I should try the duck fat cooked chips.  I purchased a carton and found a quiet spot to savour them.  In my hungry haste to shove as many thin pieces of potato as possible into my mouth a couple of chips fell to the cold ground, where inevitably a flock of city centre dwelling pigeons quickly arrived.  The birds cooed as they surveyed their unexpected meal of a couple of duck fat cooked chips and as I watched I was filled with the horrible realisation that I was about to become responsible for inadvertent cannibalism.

I briefly considered that maybe the pigeons would know that the chips had been fried in duck fat, either from a recognition of the scent or from an unexpected (at least from my point of view) ability to read from the sign above the stall.  But my hopes were dashed when the birds wasted no time in scoffing the tasty treats, and I was left pinching myself in some doomed attempt to waken myself from this fowl nightmare.

Final scores:
Celtic 5-1 Motherwell
JJ 0-1 Sleep

The few weeks I realised I am in a funk

I have found myself in something of a funk lately.  Not the sort of rhythmic groove in a James Brown or Prince song, but more a sense that things aren’t quite right in my life.  I suppose this feeling all began a few weeks ago when I decided to break my mealtime monotony by constructing my own salad boxes rather than continue with my lethargic lunchtime routine of spending £4.70 each day on a sandwich and soup from a local eatery.  Initially I felt an enthusiasm as I considered the financial and health benefits of filling a 1.1 litre sealable plastic box with leaves and cherry tomatoes and olives and pine nuts and feta cheese, but I quickly encountered a series of salad snafu’s.

My first dilemma was with the dressing.  On the first few days of eating from a box I used rapeseed oil to provide a tasty glaze to the salad, but I found that it added little to the inherent blandness of a green leaf.  I tried a French dressing but considered it much too vinegary for one o’clock in the afternoon, while the chilli, mango and lime concoction I used once left me colder than a refrigerated cherry tomato.  After several weeks I am still at a salad dressing impasse.

Finding the right ingredients – or at least the right volume of ingredients – for my box has also caused some consternation of late.  On occasion I have used too much halloumi, which can bring about a most curious light-headedness; sometimes there are too few cherry tomatoes, though arguably there can never be enough of nature’s popcorn (if you consider nature’s popcorn to be the cherry tomato and not the corn kernel); while my use of packaged salad has frequently been less babyleaf and more full on forestry.  At one point in the last week I attempted to put together a Caesar Salad and gathered together everything I thought I would need:  lettuce, chicken, Caesar Salad Dressing, cherry tomatoes (because they are nature’s popcorn, after all.)  I made my way home in the cold November rain and had the chilling realisation that I had forgotten to buy croutons.  On my next shopping trip I had the need for croutons entrenched in my mind.  I collected each of the goods I wanted and scoured the shelves for a packet of rebaked bread, but I couldn’t find the croutons anywhere.  I roamed from aisle to aisle, from the fresh produce section to the biscuits and the bread and the crisps and even to the detergents, but there was not a crouton to be found.  I was in the midst of a crouton crisis.

With my mind clearly preoccupied with the pressures of putting together the ideal salad box, I suffered one of the most distressing sartorial faux pas of my adult life nigh upon ten days ago when it suddenly occurred to me on a bleak Wednesday afternoon that for the third consecutive day I was wearing a tie which was a shade of blue.  I felt a deep sense of embarrassment and couldn’t understand how I had allowed myself to make such a blunder.  As a man who puts a tremendous amount of thought into his tie and sock pairings, and with a veritable rainbow of ties cascading from a tie rack, it should be impossible for me to wear the same colour of tie twice in a week, let alone for three days running.  It was on this day that I realised that like the knot in my baby blue tie, something in my life was askew.

The opening lines in one of my favourite Bruce Springsteen songs, Badlands,  has The Boss singing:

Lights out tonight,
Trouble in the heartland,
Got a head on collision,
Smashin’ in my guts, man…

And that goes some way to describing the numb feeling I have been experiencing inside me recently.  It is like an emptiness…but you surely can’t feel an emptiness, and this feels like a car crash.  Not just any car crash, but a collision between two comically sized clown cars.  And out of the burning, smouldering wreckage of these clown cars are spilling clown after clown after clown after clown.  They keep coming.  An impossible number of white-painted faces, novelty red noses and ridiculously sized shoes, crawling out of the mangled steel frames of these tiny cars.  Running around the scene of the accident and flailing their arms in terror, each footstep squeaking loudly, wounds being tended to by a tourniquet fashioned from an endless ream of multi-coloured tissue.  It is a funny feeling.

It was with this malaise in mind (malaise being a feeling of unease and not a delicious salad dressing) coupled with the late cancellation of two separate Friday night plans that I ended up drinking alone in Aulay’s.  I supped on a tepid Tennents and filled the jukebox with the sounds of KISS, Tom Petty, Neil Young, R.E.M. and November Rain by Guns N’ Roses when I became aware of something that is highly irregular in Aulay’s…something else that is highly irregular in Aulay’s:  a young woman standing at the bar by herself.  I listened to Axl Rose wail over the sound of keys being pounded on a piano – my favourite song – and immediately regretted ordering a packet of sweet chilli flavoured Nobby’s Nuts.  As I finished off my savoury snack and the last of my lager I observed a trio of older women, surely of pensionable age, converge around the jukebox.  My final song faded out and the onus fell on these three women to provide a soundtrack to the night.  To the amazement of all a song by Avicii began to play.  I wondered how on earth this dance remix was blasting out of the speakers and could only suspect that the older women were selecting songs based on the pictures on the main screen.

I cleaned the offending nut residue from my fingers and positioned myself closer to the lone female as I ordered another pint of beer.  By this time she had become involved in a conversation with another woman at the bar and I feigned interest in the Sweden vs Italy World Cup playoff on the television in the corner as I contemplated how I could draw the attention of this drinking damsel.  It was in my mind that I had briefly talked to her a couple of weeks previous when I was out for a colleague’s leaving dinner, but we were both ridiculously drunk and the only memorable thing from the encounter was the red wine stains around her lips and teeth, and not even I am crude enough to fashion an opening line out of that.  I glanced anxiously at the television and surreptitiously observed her bedraggled and windswept blonde hair, but I had been in the pub for hours and couldn’t be confident questioning the strength of the wind.

Eventually I caught sight of a neon blue sock on her right foot and my fashion senses were tingling.  How could I bring her socks into conversation?  It was all I could think of as I watched Sweden launch another attack on the Italian goal.  Then I noticed the top of a pink sock which had looked to have been swallowed by her left trainer.  She was wearing one blue sock and one pink sock.  This was it.  I had to ask her why she was doing that.  The woman she was talking to excused herself to go to the bathroom and I could feel my heart beat in the manner it does after I’ve eaten too much halloumi.

“Can I make what might seem like quite an unusual observation,” I began after a nervous mouthful of Tennents lager.  “It’s about your socks…”

“They’re odd?”  She responded, knowing exactly what I was thinking.  “They’re the only clean ones I could find.”

I struggled to hide my disappointment.  “Oh…I wondered if you were maybe making some kind of bold fashion statement.  Like my habit of matching the colour of my socks with my tie.”

I rolled up my trouser leg enough to let her see my bright yellow socks against the yellow with blue spots tie I was wearing.

“They’re not quite the same colour,” she probably correctly observed.  The fourth person to do so that day.

I wondered if I had made a huge misjudgment in firstly deciding to try to talk to this girl and secondly in thinking that it would be a good idea to open a conversation with an observation about socks, but she went on to mention how she recognised me from the bar a couple of weeks earlier.  She didn’t remember talking to me – fortunately – but she could recall seeing me with a group of friends that Friday.  I felt pleased that I somehow have an impressionable view from the back and commented on her unusual accent.  She explained that she is from Edinburgh – which explained the accent – and arrived in Oban a few weeks ago after deciding that her original destination of Fort William was dull. She announced that she was leaving to meet a friend and I asked her name as I extended a hand.  Her cold, nicotine scented fingers wrapped around my hand like winter and I knew that I would have to try and find some other ridiculous way to talk to her again.

The day I didn’t drink a cup of coffee until midday

It was with a great deal of effort that I was eventually able to peel open my eyes on Saturday morning in a manner similar to how determined old wallpaper is finally torn from a wall; piece by piece.  I felt worn and droopy, like a style of interior decor which has gone horribly out of fashion, and I decided that rather than get out of bed and make myself a cup of coffee I would lay amongst my sheets in a crumpled, hung over heap for an extra twenty minutes before getting up for the train.  This would prove to be an unwise decision.  I went on to find that the coffee shop near the station was closed for refurbishment, while the station shop itself had run out of milk and there was no trolley service on the train.  I wouldn’t be able to drink a cup of coffee until midday, leaving me lethargic for the first half of the day – quite the opposite of Celtic’s performance against Hibernian that afternoon.

I am not one of those people who insists that I need coffee early in the day to function as a human being, but it was clear on Saturday that I would have enjoyed the morning better with a little caffeinated stimulation.  To begin with, a paranoia normally associated with someone who has drunk far too much coffee crept into my mind as I sat clutching my train ticket between my forefinger and my thumb and I watched the conductor wind her way slowly up the train towards me.  I found myself repeatedly checking every detail on the small orange card, fearing that I had somehow picked up the wrong ticket at the collection window and would be forced to get off the train at some stop in the middle of nowhere, miles and miles away from a coffee shop.  I could sense the shame I would feel as I am ushered up the packed carriage, the eyes of every passenger on me, shaking their heads to indicate appalled disgust as the conductor urges me onto the platform.  Next time boil the kettle!  She would call out as the train pulls away.

Fortunately I was given the correct ticket for my journey and I was granted access to the replacement bus service between Crianlarich and Glasgow, where I found myself seated next to someone of indeterminate gender.  Of course, this was a situation I could easily have been in after a cup of coffee or two, but I felt that my judgment was definitely inhibited by the absence of caffeine from my system, as well as a reluctance to glance too often at the person next to me.  They wore a bright red jacket which was of a fashion only a woman could confidently wear, but the body was slender and lacking any notable feminine shape.  The hair was short and grey and appeared to be an acceptable style for any person, whereas the thin-rimmed spectacles looked much better suited to a female face.  However, the face of this particular person seemed to have the features of a grizzled veteran male and I knew immediately that I could not even contemplate beginning a conversation with this person if I couldn’t determine their sex.  I stared out the window at the passing wet countryside, sighed to myself and wondered whether the sheep grazing on the grass suffered from these social complexities.

It was a late night at the bar the previous evening and an over-indulgence in Jack Daniels which led to my traumatic Saturday morning without coffee.  Here I encountered a woman whose acquaintance I have only really made in the last seven months or so and upon seeing me she enthusiastically threw her arms around me.  I questioned whether it was perhaps a little early in our friendship for us to be greeting each other with a hug, especially when our contact to that point had only been vaguely verbal.  She suggested that we try a handshake instead, but it felt quite formal and I was anxious that it might appear to onlookers as though we were exchanging drugs for money.  I tend to favour a high-five, I said, considering the hand slapping to be friendly without being too intimate or too formal.  We raised our hands into the air and completely missed one another on the first attempt.  We tried again and made minimal contact and I agreed that she was probably right to go with the hug in the first instance, so we reverted to that and shared another friendly embrace before I made some tenuous joke when she innocently answered my question about what she’d been doing with her life recently and we didn’t talk again for the rest of the night.

I finally got my hands on a hot cup of coffee, but not before having to zig-zag a route between several charity talkers on Buchanan Street.  If there are two things I fear in the centre of the city it is charity talkers and umbrellas, and with the rain falling from the sky as incessantly as the attempts of these young volunteers to convince pedestrians to donate to their cause I was panic-stricken as I attempted to weasel through the masses to the nearest coffee shop.  I find it very difficult to ignore charity talkers.  It requires a certain confidence to politely decline whatever they are offering or an equal amount of rudeness to completely ignore them, and I possess neither skill.  This is particularly the case when the charity talker in question is female, given how rare it is that a woman shows a genuine interest in talking to me.  Once when standing outside Liverpool Street Underground Station in London waiting for a friend I became involved in a lengthy discussion with an attractive female charity talker which led to me providing her with all of my contact details and an agreement to donate £1 a month to some charity pledging to preserve the Cumbrian slug or help grow pomegranates on the Norfolk coast or something equally as tenuous.  After several months I eventually came to the realisation that my donation to this cause wasn’t going to win the affection of the female charity talker who I would never see again anyway because she lived in London and I didn’t, so I cancelled my monthly donation and I never knew what become of her gastropod mollusc.

Fortunately the charity talkers in Glasgow were dressed in a bright blue which alerted me to their presence several yards before I reached them and I was able to dodge their good intentions on my way to the coffee shop.  I ordered an Americano and sat at a table by the window, where I pondered everything I had experienced that morning.  I cradled the styrofoam cup in my hands and let the warm steam rise up to my chin between mouthfuls.  In a way it felt comforting and relaxing, and it was then that I realised that what I really needed was a beer, so I got up and left for a nearby bar.

Final scores:
JJ 0-1 Coffee
Celtic 2-2 Hibernian

The day the horse left the stable (aka Ryan Adams @ The Sage, Gateshead)


When I left Dublin towards the end of last week with the realisation in mind that I hadn’t engaged in a single conversation with another person I couldn’t have expected that by the end of my brief stay in Glasgow on Saturday I would have experienced a deluge of vocal interactions.  I talked to exactly as many people as Celtic scored goals against Ross County:  four.

I had hoped that my recent twenty-two hours in Belfast would have given me a greater capacity for understanding the accent of the Northern Irishman who sits two seats along from me at Celtic Park.  In the past I have found myself nodding along to his every utterance, trusting that he hasn’t been saying anything contentious that I’ve inadvertantly agreed with because I can understand only every seventh word he says.  I took my seat a few minutes before kick-off, sharing a nod of acknowledgment with the older gentleman as I passed him.  After some moments of silence he reached across the two empty seats between us and tapped me on the arm.  I turned my head in his direction and felt an anticipation I have rarely felt when waiting to hear what a man is going to say about a game of football.  This would be my moment of truth, the first test of my newly discovered understanding of the Northern Irish accent.  He said something about Moussa Dembele – that much I know – but I will never know what, for his accent remained almost completely indistinguishable to my ears.  I nodded and smiled.  It’s good to see him back.  I took a wild assumption that he wasn’t complaining about Dembele returning to the team from injury.

This scene was to be repeated often over the course of the afternoon:  him stretching across the empty green seats, his bulky hand crashing against my forearm with a force that would probably crush a grape if I was in the habit of keeping them in the sleeve of my jacket, me taking my eyes off the game to face him and eventually nod in acceptance of whatever opinion he was offering.  I began to wonder if his increasing act of striking my arm was in some way a recognition of my inability to understand his words and he was urging me to try harder.  You better understand what I’m saying to you or I’m going to keep hitting you.  In that event I had better bring padding to the next game.


As is usually the case the half-time break afforded me with an opportunity to escape my translation issues for at least fifteen minutes and I took my place in the queue for a pie.  For a change the food stall experience was relatively unchallenging and I got the pie I wanted with minimum fuss.  The real task at Celtic Park these days is finding brown sauce.  I ventured to no less than three condiment stations in search of the savoury accompaniment and found nothing but tomato sauce and sachet upon sachet of salt and pepper.  I wondered of what use pepper is to anyone eating the standard pie, chips or even pizza.  No wonder there is so much pepper; nobody needs it!  I cannot think of a single food on offer at Celtic Park that would be enhanced by a sprinkling of pepper, whereas a pie practically demands brown sauce.  I could tell that the search was once again forlorn and the pie was beginning to burn my hand – which at least reassured me that it was hot – and I resigned myself to a pie without brown sauce.
That evening I would find myself sitting at the bar in the Travelodge prior to meeting my friend with the pink hair, my arm suitably recovered from the football to hold a pint of beer.  My thoughts were lost in the blandness of the setting:  the decor which was more beige than beige, the mundane pop music filtering from a speaker over an otherwise empty room, the subtitled BBC News 24 on a television in the corner, an offering of Stella Artois or Bud Light on tap.  A curly-haired blonde barmaid appeared behind the bar as I was nursing a cold pint of soulless beer, looking entirely different to the balding middle-aged man who had poured me the pint minutes earlier.  

“What brings you to Glasgow?” I heard her say, and I automatically assumed that she was speaking to another guest, even though I knew I was the only person who would be drinking at eight o’clock in a Travelodge bar.  I looked up from my glass and, sure enough, she was looking in my direction.  My natural instinct is to answer such a question with a response along the lines of “the train”, but since this promised to be my first actual conversation with another person since I left Oban on Monday morning I decided that I would try to not fuck it up by being myself.  I assumed the unfamiliar role of a normal person and responded by telling her all about my trip seeing Ryan Adams perform seven gigs in six cities in four different countries, adding the usual caveat about him not being the Canadian rocker with the letter ‘B’ in front of his name.  This story remarkably did not cause her to lose interest and she continued to talk to me.  We discussed the iPod she received as a gift last Christmas but has not yet used and I noted how they are coming back into fashion like the vinyl record player, even though I have no idea how true that is.  We touched upon the way that Google Maps has taken all the fun and adventure out of getting lost in a city – a conversation I am certain I had in Belfast – and she told me all about her equestrian studies and her hopes to eventually earn a living preparing horses for shows.  She clearly enjoyed talking about horses and so I indulged her, and she talked and talked and talked — until eventually I asked what certainly ranks amongst the most stupid questions I have asked a girl.

Is there a drink riding limit the same way there’s a drink driving limit?”

I don’t know why I wanted to know the answer to that question, and quite naturally it seemed to be something that had never occurred to the barmaid.  She did her best to try to formulate some kind of response but it was evidently a subject that was yet to be covered in her equine lectures.  I left the Travelodge bar to meet my friend with the pink hair and I couldn’t help but sense that my interaction with the barmaid would have ended better had I not introduced the idea of riding her beloved horses whilst intoxicated.  I suppose it could have been worse and I might have suggested getting the horses drunk prior to dressage.  This was all on my mind when I entered Variety and considered the etiquette of sitting at a booth when your friend has already arrived.  Is it appropriate to sit on the cushioned area next to them or is it more polite to sit across the table from them?  I bought a beer and sat on what appeared to be a miniature representation of a stool which, upon glancing around the bar, seemed to make most other men who were sitting on similar stools look like giants.  I suspected that to them I would look like I was afraid to sit next to a girl.


I returned to my hotel some hours later and, safe in the knowledge that the equestrian student had finished her shift at eleven o’clock, I headed to the bar for a nightcap.  This seemed a particularly questionable decision considering that I was scheduled to be getting on a train to Newcastle little more than seven hours later, but there reaches a point in any night when drinking Jack Daniels that any decision can easily be justified.  I found myself in conversation with another talkative barmaid and I can remember querying the spelling of her name on her badge; ‘Kaitlynn’.  I suggested that the second ‘n’ seemed unnecessary and I think she broadly agreed and blamed the whole scenario on her parents, which seemed reasonable considering she probably had minimal input in the discussion.  I asked her when they stopped serving at the bar and she informed me that 2am is the cut off, though they will sometimes continue to sell alcohol if it is busy and the guests aren’t too drunk.  I was the only person at the bar and my watch clearly stated that it was about five minutes past two.  Out of ten, how drunk am I?  I asked, hopeful of enjoying at least one more Jack Daniels.  “You’re definitely an eight out of ten.”  I accepted this score without dispute and suggested that we still have two points to play with, so she poured me another Jack Daniels and the 09.30 train to Newcastle was a hellish experience.

Conversation returned to being found at a premium in Newcastle, though I was able to share in the thrill one barmaid had in being handed her first plastic £10 note when I caught sight of her photographing it before putting it in the till.  I questioned whether she was some kind of currency enthusiast – perhaps hoping that she could help me identify some of the coins in my wallet.  She explained that she had not seen the new £10 note until being handed it by another customer now and I asked if it is the one with the face of Jane Austen on it.  She didn’t know and handed the note over to me to examine.  I realised that I don’t know what Jane Austen looks like but didn’t want to admit this to the barmaid.  Oh yeah, that’s the one with Jane Austen on it alright.  I noted that the plastic money is supposed to be practically indestructible but she claimed that she can tear the £5 notes.  How?  “You just have to keep trying…they’ll tear eventually.”   I felt both impressed and suitably threatened.


Ryan’s set at The Sage was another unique occasion on this tour.  He was feeling sick and therefore was “low energy” which seemed to contribute to the set being at least a couple of songs shorter than previous nights and to him indulging the audience – which was entirely seated – in far more inter song banter than elsewhere.  He acknowledged early in the night the awkward nature of playing a rock show to a seated crowd, and it was certainly a strange experience.  His humour added a different dimension to the show compared to the rest of the tour, and his theory that the couple he spotted leaving on an upper tier were “probably away to make out while listening to KISS — though hopefully pre-1982 KISS” was joyful.  That he and the band played Tired Of Giving Up – one of my favourite songs from his eponymous album – for the very first time anywhere made this a memorable night.

Bars visited:
The Raven – 81-85 Renfield Street, Glasgow
Variety – 401 Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow
Nice N Sleazy – 421 Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow
The Union Rooms – 48 Westgate Road, Newcastle
Bacchus – 42-48 High Bridge, Newcastle
The Bridge Tavern – 7 Akenside Hill, Newcastle
The Head of Steam – 11-17 Broad Chare, Newcastle

Next stop:
O2 Academy, Bournemouth – Tuesday 19th September

Final scores:
Celtic 4-0 Ross County
JJ 0-6 Ryan Adams gigs

The night I ate dinner (aka Ryan Adams @ Usher Hall, Edinburgh)


It occurred to me as I was leafing through the menu at The Beer Kitchen on Edinburgh’s Lothian Road that I would shortly be eating my first proper dinner of the week – assuming that regular people still aren’t considering a cup of dry roasted nuts a proper meal.  It’s not that I have been avoiding food:  I have eaten the occasional portion of chips at a couple of bars, and I did once enjoy a delicious breakfast at the Art Cafe in Dublin.  It’s just that generous servings of food aren’t really compatible with pre-gig drinking.  That is to say that I often forget to eat.

I have been wanting to dine at the Innis & Gunn owned Beer Kitchen for some time and made a point of remembering to eat on this night of the tour, given that the restaurant is but a stone’s throw away from Usher Hall if you have a really strong arm and a precise aim.  I would consider it to be a stone’s throw followed by a few paces.  I had made a reservation for 7.30 and in keeping with that I was directed to a table in the corner where I was seated as the hostess began to clear away the second place setting in a manner which was considerably more emphatic than I would have hoped.

I sat with the palm of my hand drumming on my knee under the table – not to any particular beat or rhythm, I just didn’t know what else to do with my hand as this table for two was transformed into a table for a single person.  The hostess gathered up the side plate, the cutlery and the empty water glass in a fashion which suggested she had done this before.  Then a knife fell from the side plate in her arms and clattered against the table, making what was surely the loudest sound ever to have been made in that particular restaurant, certainly, and perhaps anywhere ever.  It felt like every eye in the place darted towards my table.  Why couldn’t she just leave the cutlery where it was?  At least that way people might assume that I am waiting for someone:  a friend, a date, even a Tinder date.  I appear anxious enough for that.


She muttered an apology and once again picked up the knife.  She asked me if I would like a glass of water and I intimated that a pint of beer would be fine.  Even if she had left the place setting as it was so that I could look over at it longingly every so often, then at my watch, and then again at the lone place setting, as though I had been stood up.  At least then I might get sympathetic stares rather than glances of pity.  I wait for my beer to arrive and consider resting my denim jacket over the empty chair opposite me so that it might appear that I am anticipating company returning from the bathroom, but I quickly realise that ruse would be quite ridiculous when I am still waiting an hour later without a hint of concern on my face as to why my company still hasn’t made it back to the table.  Has she done a runner on him?  People would naturally think.  I wonder what he said to make her lock herself in the toilet for more than an hour?  I bet he made some really laboured play on words and he was on his final warning for it.  They would speculate in hushed tones.  He probably listens to Ryan Adams.

A pint of Innis & Gunn promptly arrived at my table and I ordered some food as a small tealight candle flickered like a beacon drawing attention to the fact that a single man was sitting and dining by himself.  I pulled my notebook and pen out from my pocket and placed it on the table next to my right hand, as though to suggest to anyone happening to notice that I could at any moment open it up and write some words of world-changing significance, rather than the reality of it being some pun I had thought of.


The Ryan Adams set proved to be a unique night on this tour when his pedal board malfunctioned after three songs and he suddenly decided to ad-lib a mini acoustic set of five songs while engineers desperately tried to solve the technical difficulties.  That he was able to do this off the cuff and to such a high standard was most impressive and it allowed the Edinburgh audience to hear what will surely be the only performances on this tour of Ashes & Fire and Jacksonville Skyline, which was worth the price of admission alone.

Bars visited:
The Advocate – 7 Hunter Square
Brewdog – 143 Cowgate
Shakespeare – 65 Lothian Road
The Beer Kitchen – 81-83 Lothian Road

Next stop:
The Sage, Gateshead – Sunday 17th September

The day my flight was delayed (aka Ryan Adams @ O2 Apollo, Manchester)


I had done everything right in my preparation for flying out of Dublin on Thursday afternoon.  Following on from my security faux pas when travelling to the north of Ireland the previous week I ensured that my socks were fully functional in keeping my toes covered and that I removed all illicit items from my possession prior to going through security.  I timed my departure so that I would reach the airport just short of the two hours they recommend, because nobody ever truly needs two hours in an airport lounge.  I was cleared through security leaving exactly the right amount of time to order a Guinness at the bar.  I wasn’t drinking Guinness out of any great love for the beer – though it is abundantly true that it tastes superior in Ireland – but moreso because I knew that it would take longer for the barman to pour and so would assist me in wasting a little more time before boarding my flight.  Everything was going as smoothly as the rich, creamy head which had settled on the peak of my pint.  There was even a surprising and pleasing absence of a hangover from the previous night.

My last night in Dublin felt like an exercise in solitude.  There was no Ryan Adams gig after his two exemplary nights at the Olympia Theatre and as a result I found myself chasing the ghosts of past experiences and emotions.  I booked myself onto the literary pub crawl I had so enjoyed the last time I was in Dublin, partly because I had ended up so drunk on that occasion that I couldn’t remember much of what was discussed, but mainly because I ended that night in the company of three women from Boston and I was hoping that my luck would repeat itself – and indeed better itself –  this time around.  I spent a considerable part of Wednesday afternoon revisiting some of my favourite bars in the city, in complete contradiction of my vow to not drink before four o’clock.  Though I felt greatly vindicated by this decision when a tremendous rain shower pounded the streets no later than around three o’clock, a sight which I enjoyed with smug interest from a barstool in Brew Dock as hapless pedestrians sprinted by seeking shelter, like the Rolling Stones song.

The rain subsided and I sauntered along to the Black Sheep on Capel Street, where my confident attempt at ordering my favourite IPA on this trip – Full Sail by Galway Bay Brewery – was halted by me both forgetting its name and having my attention stolen mid-sentence by a glimpse of a grisly feature on the ceiling above the bar.  How many flies are up there?  I pondered as the barmaid presumably began to consider that I might be some sort of incompetent.  I didn’t know they still made flypaper.  What kind of fly would choose the sweet fragrance of sticky killer paper over the sweet intoxication of the killer drip tray under the beer taps?  The barmaid looked at me as though I was someone who had completely forgotten why I was there; which I was.  What’s the name of that IPA?  I eventually asked as I looked down and to my right and saw it looking back at me.  She poured me a pint of Full Sail and I considered whether or not it would be appropriate to ask her about the fly paper.  It almost certainly could not be translated as being some kind of a crude pick-up line and she would surely see it as the genuine human curiosity that it is.  I settled into my barstool as she continued her duties and I stared up at the fly cemetery which was not entirely dissimilar to some of the exhibits I had seen at the Museum of Archaeology the other day.  I’ve heard about flies on sheep, but flies in the Black Sheep?  I began to count the number of flies on the paper and the barmaid cannot fail to have noticed my interest in the ceiling.  Eighteen, I counted.  Though some of them are quite close together.  It could be twenty.  I glanced around the bar to ascertain whether anybody else had taken such a morbid interest in this memorial.  It was just me.  How many flies do they want to catch before somebody takes it down?  Is it there as a warning to other flies?  I decided that the barmaid wouldn’t have any interest in answering these questions and so finished my pint and left.


Suitably lubricated, I went to the Duke Pub for the literary pub crawl in good spirits and with high hopes.  The tour was busier, perhaps even busier than when I first went on the crawl seven weeks earlier.  There were various different groups of people swarming around the tables and none of them immediately offered any encouragement that the wonderful night I previously enjoyed would be repeated.  There were Americans, of course, but they were older and much too dignified to enjoy the drinking aspect of a literary pub crawl.  And there were Germans who appeared intelligent enough to recognise that talking to me would only result in awkward issues of translation – them speaking fluent English and me talking some drunken, mangled form of English.  I drank alone for the duration of the tour, learning far more about Irish literature than I could ever care to know whilst indulging in my own self-defeat.  At one bar I ordered a single Jameson as I sought to rekindle some of the memories of that last night.  I handed over €4, believing that  to be what the barman asked for.  “You’ve only given me €4,” he noted.  “How much is it?” I asked with some trepidation.  “€8.50,” came the response.  I wondered how much I had spent drinking doubles in July.

There was little evidence of a hangover as I approached the gate for my 13.50 flight to Manchester.  I had finally mastered the timing of travelling by air.  I began to consider all the things I would do with my time when I arrived in Manchester when it was announced that the flight would be delayed by an hour.  I stared at my shoes for a while and then back up at the board, hoping that they might have realised that they had made a mistake and removed the red text stating that the plane would be “delayed until 14.50.”  They hadn’t.  People began to leave the boarding line in search of food or simply a more comfortable place to wait for an hour.  I was reluctant and unwilling to give up what I felt was a pretty good spot in the queue, knowing that I could get on board early enough to fit my bag into the overhead locker and be able to reach my window seat without having to suffer those arduous few moments waiting for the two people already sitting there to puff their cheeks and stand up to allow me in.

I glanced around the gate and considered whether it would be worthwhile giving up my fortuitous position in the boarding queue to go and sit next to a young lady who appeared both alone and alluring.  I thought about how I struggle to even start a conversation with the person next to me on the plane and imagined it would be significantly more awkward if I ignored scores of empty seats around the lounge to sit beside this sultry solo traveller.  How does THAT conversation start??  I concluded that with the enhanced security around airports these days it would be preferable for me not to be the source of some tense scene, and I realised that I was leaving Dublin without having talked to a single person.

My flight eventually arrived into Manchester approximately 102 minutes later than scheduled and I decided to forgo styling my hair into an acceptable appearance in favour heading to the bar closest to my hotel near Piccadilly Station.  It was here that I encountered further farce with my currency as the more familiar Sterling coins became mixed with some rogue Euros which I had forgotten were still in my wallet.  I fumbled blindly with my fingers and hoped for the best, the coins being offered an insight into my romantic techniques, until I was finally successful in paying for my beer.  This scene would be repeated often over the course of three hours, even when my favoured Shindigger IPA ran dry and I was forced to scramble for an alternative.  What would you recommend?  I asked the barmaid, more in the manner of hoping to appease her disappointment at disappointing me than anything else, because no matter what else you drink it is never the same as the beer you really wanted.  


Even with the curtailed drinking hours prior to the gig I felt myself a little unsure of which way I should be walking when I left the O2 Apollo afterwards.  I knew it wasn’t a particularly challenging route and that the venue wasn’t far from my hotel, because I had walked it without hesitation no more than two hours earlier, but I felt uncertainty as I surveyed Stockport Road.  After some hesitation I decided that I would  simply follow the cars travelling in the direction away from the venue, because surely they must know where they’re going.  It proved to be a logical logistical solution and within fifteen minutes I was standing at the hotel bar wondering why, in a certain light, the boots I believed to be black now appear to be blue.  Maybe blue or navy blue?  I pondered this over an expensively poured Jameson and wondered how this establishment deals with their flies.

 

Bars visited:
The Duke – 9 Duke Street (Dublin Literary Pub Crawl)
O’Neill’s – 2 Suffolk Street (Dublin Literary Pub Crawl)
The International Bar – 23 Wicklow Street (Dublin Literary Pub Crawl)
Davy Byrnes – 21 Duke Street (Dublin Literary Pub Crawl)
Piccadilly Tap – Piccadilly Station approach
Motel One – hotel bar

Next stop:
Usher Hall, Edinburgh – tonight