The day I was three minutes and thirty seconds late to the game

There is something about the first day of a new football season that makes it more exciting than any other on the calendar.  There is a hope and expectancy that comes with it, a tangible belief that anything is possible when you’re working from a blank page.  There has been an entire summer to learn from the mistakes made over the previous season, an opportunity to put in place new routines and systems which will surely lead to better results over the coming year.

When I roused myself from a fairly ordinary slumber on Saturday morning I was filled with intentions of ensuring that I didn’t repeat the missteps I took during my first year as a season ticket holder at Celtic Park.  I had promised myself that I wouldn’t get so drunk on a Friday night that the train journey the following morning to Glasgow would be an unbearable trek through the various stages of a hangover:  Wishing the world would end, remorse, discomfort, a need for sleep and, finally, an unquenchable desire for another drink.  I also vowed that I would dress appropriately for the climate; make sure that I reach the queue for food at half-time before they run out of steak pies; eat some form of breakfast in the morning; watch more of the game than the stewards; become more fluent in my understanding of the Northern Irish accent.  On the opening day of the season I was convinced that I would have learned from my mistakes of the previous campaign.

As I stuffed my green and white scarf into my olive satchel I became increasingly aware of the fact that, despite my better intentions, I was feeling a lot like a person does after an evening spent at the bar.  I found myself contemplating how a football scarf must feel between the months of May and August, when it sits unused and unloved in the dusty bottom drawer that you keep all the things you no longer wear.  Because, really, there is no use for a football scarf once the season has finished.  Nobody is walking around town in July with their club’s colours wrapped around their neck in some crazy, woolen warm show of support.  A grown adult wearing a football shirt in a non-sporting environment is ridiculous enough of a sight.

I planned my day so that I woke up early enough on Saturday morning to allow me adequate time to get a bacon roll from the corner shop close to the train station.  I took care of matters of personal hygiene as best I could given my condition and arrived at the fast food outlet just as the girl behind the counter was thrusting a tray of light pink bacon slices under a grill.  She informed me that there were only hot drinks available at that moment as “we open at eight o’clock on a Saturday.”  I looked at my watch in the manner a person does when they know what time it is but they want to emphatically make a point.  It was 8:35am.  My famished frustration turned to a concern that this humble employee didn’t know how to cook bacon.  I had visions of some hungry patrons walking into this establishment at 10am expecting a bacon roll only to be told that they open at eight o’clock on a Saturday and they would have to wait until the portions of pork have been turned before they are ready for purchase.  In my confused panic I poured a medium cappuccino from the machine at the side into a large cup, when what I really wanted was a small coffee.

I departed the corner shop hungry and over caffeinated and made my way towards the train station, early for a change.  I located the carriage relevant to my reservation and found that my table seat was positioned opposite a fairly attractive young woman.  Ordinarily this would present a pleasing opportunity, but with a hangover and a large cup of coffee filled only with a medium-sized cappuccino I was in no position to pursue any kind of romantic agenda.  I pushed my earphones deeper into my ear holes, as though to indicate that I was not to be spoken to under any circumstance, and plopped into my seat by the window.  As I performed this grand spectacle I noticed the slender woman opposite me reach into her bag and proceed to parade a variety of items across the surface of the table.  A bottle of water; a black Bose headphone case; an iPod; a copy of the Sunday Times Magazine dated 12 March 2017.  It was this latter item which caught my eye the most.

As the train progressed its painfully slow journey through the West Highlands I began to question why this woman had a copy of the Sunday Times Magazine from 12 March 2017.  Surely she was aware that today was Saturday?  And, despite what the weather later in the day may have suggested, it was most definitely August.  It is possible that the 12 March issue was an especially good edition of the Sunday Times Magazine, but I have never heard that said in every day conversation and it wouldn’t explain why she didn’t thumb through a single leaf of the issue.  If it wasn’t a noteworthy edition worth keeping for future reference then it is perhaps reasonable to assume that this stranger is a slow reader.  After all, it is said that the Sunday Times can be read over an entire week; maybe this girl needs five months to read a copy?  It was probably around Ardlui when it struck me that she was probably employing the same strategy I use on the train of leaving a piece of high brow content sitting in public view next to me in order to intimidate potential train talkers from interacting with her.  My deployment of this tactic is typically to convince my fellow passengers that I’m not some kind of drunken scumbag, but I definitely recognised this is a variation of the tactic.

It turns out there was a reason that the journey was feeling more arduous than usual:  a signal failure in the Helensburgh area caused a 13 minute delay to the service, which wasn’t ideal when I was already pressed for time in making the 12:30pm kick-off.  I walked off the train at Glasgow Queen Street with some urgency and found a ticket machine to purchase a single journey to Bellgrove, which is still a significant walk from Celtic Park but I felt confident that I could make it without missing more than maybe ten minutes of the football.

The 12:18 service to Edinburgh Waverley screeched alongside platform 9 at the exact moment I was bounding down the steps to the lower level of the station and I began to feel that things were finally going my way.  I stepped in to a fairly quiet carriage and waited for the train to depart, knowing that in four minutes I would reach my destination.  The conductor announced that we were on the delayed service to Edinburgh Waverley, confirming that I had successfully managed to get on the right train.  He continued in his flawless tone to inform passengers that as the train was so far behind schedule it would be skipping several stops and would next call at Airdrie, far beyond where I needed to go.  I stormed off the train as emphatically as a fairly aloof, placid guy can and clambered up the stairs I had just come down, unsure of how I would now get to Celtic Park.  I meandered around the station concourse before deciding that I would take a taxi, which I should probably have done in the first instance.  There were a couple of taxi’s waiting outside the front of the station and so I got into the back seat of the first car, asking the driver to take me to Celtic Park.  He asked me to repeat this instruction, leading me to suspect that he might either be incompetent or a Rangers fan.  With some hesitancy I asked him again to go to Celtic Park, fearing that he was intending on driving me to some wildly distant part of the city far from the football.  Kick-off was nearing and I sat anxiously in my seat listening to the league championship flag being unfurled on the radio, an event which really doesn’t lend to an exciting radio commentary.  I stared intently out the window, soon recognising the familiar landscape of the Gallowgate and feeling my fears of being double-crossed by the taxi driver subside.  He drove me close to the stadium and I told him to keep the change from £10 as gratitude for him not taking me to Govan.

I arrived inside Celtic Park with 3:30 shown as having elapsed on the stadium scoreboard.  I walked down to my row to find that my seat had been taken by a young woman, probably around my age.  I decided that I wouldn’t challenge her over her erroneous seating, accepting that the empty seat next to my own would offer the exact same view of the game in an equally uncomfortable green plastic.  Of course, this put me right next to the Northern Irishman whose thick accent proved incomprehensible all last season.  He provided a running commentary on every aspect of the game, all the way through.  Every word spoken in an accent I couldn’t understand.  I would throw in an occasional “aye” so as not to appear rude, but really I could have been agreeing to anything.

The half-time whistle brought some respite from the barrage of opinion, which came as frequently as Celtic attacks on the Hearts goal.  I stood in the queue at the pie stall for close to fifteen minutes and observed how peaceful it felt.  Finally I made it to the front of the line and ordered a steak pie, which I noticed had increased in price by 10p since May.  The young cashier took my money and then asked me once again what I wanted, presumably because she had forgotten.  I told her and she slumped over to the hot cabinet, returning seconds later empty-handed.  “Sorry, we only have Scotch pies left,” she informed me.  A curious thing to say after she had taken my payment for a steak pie, I thought.  However, a pie is nothing if not a pie, in my opinion, and so I accepted the substitute meat offering and ate it before the start of the second-half, despite my failure to find a single sachet of brown sauce anywhere.

As it happens the pie was almost as warm as the sun which beat against my forehead for most of the afternoon.  It felt like a pleasant summer football experience, at least until the walk back to the city centre brought the most almighty downpour of rain I can remember.  It wasn’t a long shower, but for a while it rained and rained and rained.  Every article of clothing was soaked through until it felt like the water had gone beyond my skin and into my bones.  It kept raining, harder and more viciously with every step I took, my clothes clinging to every identifiable part of my body and my socks sodden in my boots, until eventually I was little more than a man wearing wet clothes walking into a bar.

Final scores:
JJ 0-1 Lessons Learned
Celtic 4-1 Hearts

 

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A weekend of failed flirtations and unexpected bonding (aka U2 @ Croke Park, Dublin)


When you’re standing in Croke Park and the lights go down (as much as they can go down at an outdoor show) and you’re suddenly hearing Sunday Bloody Sunday followed by New Year’s Day on a Saturday night in July you are bound to ask yourself is this some kind of U2 concert?  And, of course, it was.  

The opportunity to see one of the world’s greatest rock bands perform one of music’s most iconic albums – The Joshua Tree – in their home city on the 30th anniversary of its release was too good to pass up and it was an excellent reason to make my second trip to the city of Dublin; a journey which proved to be both one of the feet and the mind.

One of the best ways, though not necessarily the only way, of getting from Oban to Dublin is to travel first to Glasgow, and it was here that I enjoyed a few craft beer refreshments at the Hippo Taproom on Friday night.  It would be advisable not to visit this bar in the expectation of being served your IPA or chocolate porter by a hippopotamus, as the name almost definitely suggests that you might, because you will only find yourself disappointed.  Besides, when you really think about it, how could a hippopotamus pour a schooner of beer with those massive clumsy paws?  It would result in far too much leakage for any business to remain sustainable.

As I supped on a pint of milk chocolate stout poured by a barman with a beard I unexpectedly became the subject of the attention of a silver-haired gentleman who was clearly enjoying a few post work beverages of his own with a couple of colleagues.  He asked me how I decide which beer to drink in a bar like this, as he finds most IPA’s too bitter and acidic to enjoy, and I responded with a series of words which fell from my mouth with no particular reasoning or meaning.  Our conversation moved on beyond beer, as most conversations do at some point, and it was when he took it upon himself to tell me that he is 52-years-old that I began to realise that there was a chance this man was flirting with me.  When he proceeded to speculate that I “must be early forties” I recognised that, if he was flirting with me, his technique of seduction is worse than my own.  Once I corrected him and pointed out that I am actually thirty-three years a man he attempted to make amends for his flawed flirtation by touching my arm and suggesting that his mistake was an easy one to make when I speak with the eloquence and wisdom of a man in his forties, which he certainly would not be saying if he knew me.  Some minutes passed and the first man to have ever hit on me in a bar left with his colleagues to catch the last train to Edinburgh.  I ordered some pistachio nuts at the bar and contemplated if, in the scenario I had just experienced, I was the nut or the shell.


Despite my libations the previous evening I made it to Glasgow Airport in good time on Saturday morning.  Whereas I frequently arrive at railway stations with barely minutes to spare before the train departs, I always get to the airport much too early (apart from two occasions:  the time I was so hung over that I couldn’t possibly make it to London Gatwick and the Monday morning of this trip, when I was so hung over that I arrived at Dublin Airport with around fifteen minutes to spare.)  There is part of me that thinks there is an over-emphasis put on the need to be at the airport hours before your flight to allow time to go through security.  I feel this deceit is probably concocted by Starbucks – and probably other retail operations – because what else are you going to do when you’ve cleared security and have two hours to idle away in an airport other than spend £5 on a coffee from a man who adds four letters to your two letter name?

The moment I receive my styrofoam cup of froth addressed to Jay-Jay (always with a hyphen) isn’t the most awkward of the air travel experience for me, however.  It is far more uncomfortable trying to decide whether to start a conversation with the woman sitting next to me on the plane.  I am not at ease opening a discussion with a stranger at the best of times, but I find silence equally as unsettling.  Others appear to be terrific at talking to new people, even the silver-haired gentleman in the Hippo Taproom, but I have to deliberate over it if I do it at all.  How do you start a conversation with a stranger on a plane?  You can’t ask her where she’s going, because unless one of you has made a hugely unfortunate mistake or there has been a serious breakdown in the process of boarding passengers it should be fairly obvious where she’s going.  So I sit there anxiously processing the various possible outcomes of talking to this unknown woman in my mind:  falling in love with her, making a terrible play on words that ensures the rest of the flight is more awkward than it would have been if we had sat in silence, discovering that she is a serial killer on the run from the law, finding out that she had a deeply disappointing night in the Hippo Taproom when she learned that her beer wouldn’t be poured by a hippopotamus.  And then so much time passes that it would just be weird to speak to her thirty minutes into the flight, and so you develop a fascination you never knew you had with looking at clouds and nondescript land mass from above.


Dublin is a city of many bridges – 23 if you’re keeping score or don’t have access to Google – but on Saturday it appeared there was only one place people were going.  Nobody mentioned it by name, almost as though they were trying to keep it secret, and I don’t think that I heard the name U2 spoken the entire day.  Instead folk would simply refer to “the concert.”  “Are you going to the concert?”  They would ask.  “It’s busy with the concert on tonight,” it was said.  There were U2 t-shirts everywhere.  Mostly the black Joshua Tree anniversary tour novelty shirts, but there were some men who wanted to show that they were of a certain vintage by proclaiming their love of War or the Vertigo 360 tour through sartorial selection.

There was one place in Dublin where the concert wasn’t a consideration, though.  Across the River Liffey in J. W. Sweetman craft brewery, a tall building painted a creamy white like the smooth head of a pint of Guinness and which is dressed with a number of hanging baskets blooming with an assortment of colourful flowers, there were groups of people gathered together watching the hurling whilst a riotous hen party competed with the sounds of whooping and cheering.  The hens were most definitely from Liverpool and some ordered pints of Guinness, which seemed like an especially bad idea at four o’clock in the afternoon.  Some chose to dilute their Guinness with blackcurrant juice, which seemed like an even worse idea and immediately caused me to dislike them.  

In my position at the bar I ended up with two hens, one at either side of me, possibly due to congestion but probably down to poor organisation.  They talked loudly across me and my pint of Barrelhead IPA, the sound of their Scouse screeching still nesting in my memory like a small startled bird which is still too afraid to leave two days after the fact.  These hens became concerned with the gaelic sport which was on the television and one of them asked me “why are they playing lacrosse?”  In my mind my face was in my palm, but as I couldn’t actually conjure an image of what lacrosse looks like I didn’t feel confident in disputing this assumption.  “I think they call it hurling over here, and they’re probably playing it to determine which is the better team.”

“Oh,” replied the hen.  “It looks like it would hurt.”  I nodded in agreement with this observation, as it does look like hurling could be quite painful.  The hens took their pints of cloudy Guinness and rejoined the rest of their flock in taking photographs with novelty inflatables.  The barmaid remarked that I would be featuring in all of the pictures the women were taking.  I told her that they would be appalled to find that in the morning and confided in her that while the situation of being surrounded by a large hen party would be the stuff of dreams for many men, I was finding it utterly terrifying.  She laughed wildly, presumably out of acknowledgment of my ineptitude.


I hadn’t really researched how I was going to get to Croke Park, believing – rightly as it turned out – that I wouldn’t be the only person attending the concert and so shouldn’t have any trouble finding the stadium.  Still, after four or five pints of beer it wouldn’t usually be advisable to blindly follow a large group of people in the hope that they are going to the same place you are.  It worked out for me on this occasion, and the whole thing felt like a procession of sorts.  Thousands of people in uniform marching slowly, if not solemnly, towards the same place with a single goal in mind.  The sky was blue, like in the U2 song Bullet The Blue Sky, though a quartet of rain drops splashed my face as I lined to enter Croker, lending to a fear that my decision to leave my jacket back in my hotel would prove to be foolish.  Fortunately there was no rain to follow and the only wetness I would experience would be from the sorely overpriced bottles of Carlsberg on offer pitchside.

A lot of consideration was taken over the question of tactical use of the toilets prior to the concert.  Urination is not always easy to predict in ordinary circumstances, but you can generally get a feel for when it is going to happen.  One of the downsides of drinking beer – or any form of liquid, really – is that your need to expel urine is bound to increase in line with the quantities you intake.  So when you are drinking bottles of beer at a concert, even terrible beer like Carlsberg, you are going to need to get rid of that shit at some point – or usually points.  You don’t want to find yourself in desperate need of relief just when U2 are about to launch into the rarely played Red Hill Mining Town, so you forensically plan your toilet breaks and hope for the best.  

My strategy after going from (and going at) J. W. Sweetman was to make immediate use of the facilities at Croke Park and then pee again around the halfway point between Noel Gallagher finishing his set and Paul Hewson and the lads taking to the stage.   Naturally I wasn’t needing to use the toilet at that moment.  Only an hour or so had passed and not enough beer was requiring to pass through me when I strode up to that urinal with a mask of confidence.  I stood there hoping for something to happen.  Anything.  I just wanted a drop to justify my strategy.  But I was met with the same sound of awkward silence that I had experienced earlier in the day on the plane.  Then the guy to my left spoke to me, his thick Irish brogue distracting me from the task at hand.  I can’t remember what his opening line was, but I recall admiring his ability to start a conversation over the urinal at a U2 concert when I struggled with the issue on an airplane.  He noted that I was a fellow ‘shy pisser’ – which I suppose I am, really – and we bonded.   He expressed a sympathy for the men waiting in line behind us, acknowledging that they were likely cursing us and the refusal of our genitals to perform their natural function.  I said that what I found especially frustrating about the situation was the sound of urine cascading from every man to our right, as if mocking us.  How do they do it?  How can they walk up to this urinal and just piss like there’s nothing to it?  It felt like we were there for at least fifty-three minutes exchanging tips on how to convince our bodies to pee in pressurised social situations and discussing the strategic need to urinate now rather than when The Edge would be belting out those glorious opening chords from Where The Streets Have No Name minutes from now.  Then it happened.  That wonderous thing of waste water trickling from your system.  I apologised and left.  It was the first time I had ever been sorry for peeing, and certainly the only time I have ever felt comfortable talking to a fellow-man with my penis in my hand.


The U2 show was a triumph.  It is difficult to recall such peace and love and harmony at a gig and the set was worked perfectly around The Joshua Tree.  I can’t compare it to the Innocence + Experience tour two years ago.  That is still my favourite gig experience, but there was something very special about seeing the band in their hometown and to be in the place that moulded these songs.  You know that with U2 you are going to get a visual and musical experience that no other act in rock can provide, to the extent that when an aircraft flyover painted the sky with the colours of the Irish tricolour it somehow felt understated.


I wasn’t entirely sure how to spend a Sunday in Dublin without U2, but as it turns out U2 has a way of finding you in Dublin.  After spending an afternoon taking the enjoyable tour at the Irish Rock ‘N’ Roll Museum – which obviously is laden with artifacts related to Bono, The Edge + Friends – I embarked on the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl, which is something I was greatly looking forward to after my experience of the New York City version last year, despite having a limited knowledge of Irish literature.  As it turned out I had been drinking beer since one o’clock on Sunday afternoon, so when the literary tour began at 7.30pm I was in little mood for enlightenment and had greater interest in the pub crawl aspect of the event.  As individual groups of people began to assemble upstairs in the Duke pub on Duke Street two things became evident:  almost everybody on the tour was both older than I am and American and I was the only solo attendee.  

I remained unperturbed, however, and continued to nurse the Jameson’s on ice with a slice of lemon which I was becoming fond of.  Straight whiskey isn’t something I normally abide.  I am typically a lover of Jack Daniels and coke, but someone who should know about these things recently advised me that whiskey is best consumed sour and without sugar, and this trip to Dublin convinced me of the merits of that argument.  The only trouble with my enjoyment of this tonic – other than a single measure proving to be so small that I soon decided to double up – was that I found myself drinking a lot of it.  And more frequent visits to the bar resulted in my wallet becoming choked with coins due to my inability to tell the separate pieces of currency apart by sight.  I always found it easier to hand over another pink note rather than force a barmaid to watch me attempt drunken mental arithmetic as I fished around the coins in my wallet for the correct change.  

Back at Duke Street, when my wallet was still relatively light, I spied that three of the American visitors were female and approximately of my age, if not younger.  One of the ladies caught my eye in the sense of being physically attractive to me, but in reality all three were pretty pleasant in comparison to how I must have appeared to them.  I made it my goal that by the time we reached the next bar on the tour I would have imbued myself into their company.  After a stop at Trinity College where we discussed Oscar Wilde we walked to a pub the name of which has completely escaped my memory.  It had multiple rooms and the group dispersed to explore this bar; I simply wanted to drink Jameson.  As I stood at the bar watching the barman inexplicably pour a single shot of whiskey into a large glass I became aware of the fact that the American who appeared physically attractive to me was standing beside me waiting to be served.  This was my opportunity.  The question might be asked:  how could I possibly talk to this attractive American woman at a bar when I couldn’t bring myself to open a conversation with a woman on a plane?  But I could, for two reasons.  I was still in admiration of the confidence of the shy pisser, and I was drunk.  So I feigned ignorance and asked her if she was on the literary pub crawl.  It was an abysmal opening line, but it was an opening.  In a few brief moments I learned that she and her friends were from Boston (I speculated that she must have a little Irish in her, which was another horrendous line) and that one of her friends had also attended the U2 concert the night before.  She wasn’t a particularly good conversationalist, but by the time we reached the next bar on the crawl it didn’t matter.


I drank another two double Jameson’s at that third bar, which again remains nameless in my mind although it was the subject of a quiz question at the end of the night when we learned that its former name was ‘The Monico’.  The Americans sat at the far end of the bar and didn’t acknowledge me and I didn’t feel any haste in wanting to talk to the poor conversationalist again.  So I drank my whiskey and waited for the cow bell that would signal the end of our allotted twenty minutes in this particular bar.  As I rose to my feet and left at the sound of the ringing of the bell one of the Americans asked me if I was the Scot who had been at the U2 concert the previous night.  I looked around and was fairly sure in deducing that she couldn’t have been talking to anyone else, so I engaged with her.  We talked all the way to the next and final bar on the tour, Brendan Behan’s.  We made a pact that seeing as we had a limited grasp of what was actually going on, literature wise, on the tour we would not take the end of tour quiz seriously and instead offer joke answers to the questions in the hope of winning the booby prize of a miniature bottle of whiskey, as opposed to the star prize of a t-shirt.  Unfortunately she betrayed me and answered a question seriously, though I maintained her favour by insisting that Oscar Wilde excelled at ten pin bowling and Bono was one of only four Irish men to be nominated for a Nobel Prize in literature (that wasn’t so much of a joke answer as Bono was nominated for the Man of the Peace prize in 2008.)

By the end of the tour I was invited by the three Bostonians to sit with them and join them for a drink.  We discussed U2 – a little, at least – how it might feel to discover that you have inadvertently turned up for dinner at the home of a couple of swingers, the Claddagh ring which the American I was most enjoying talking to was wearing and the Scottish accent.  I walked them back to their hotel, which was far, far away from where I was going, via a stop at the statue of Oscar Wilde, which one of the Americans had to climb over a locked gate to get a photograph with.  On the way to their hotel the American with the Claddagh ring who attended the U2 concert and I walked several paces behind the other two Americans, talking shit and making each other laugh.  She gave me a guided tour of Dublin whilst putting on the worst Irish accent I have ever heard and we both discovered the only bar in the whole of Dublin which sells Guinness.  Even though I had no idea where I was it was the finest walk I have taken.

As we reached this hotel in the middle of nowhere in Dublin 2 I suggested to the American with the Claddagh ring that we take in a drink together at a nearby bar.  She seemed enthusiastic and tried to convince her friends that one more drink wouldn’t be a terrible idea, but they were travelling to Belfast by bus the next morning and she ultimately decided that it would in fact be a terrible idea.  It was just another example of the north taking from the south of Ireland, yet this failed flirtation didn’t seem quite as bad as some of the others experienced over the weekend.  Instead I walked a few feet to another nameless bar and indulged myself in a few more double Jameson’s on ice with a slice of lemon as I contemplated the night and the weekend I had just been a part of, which truly was a terrible idea on account of the fact that I reached the airport with around fifteen minutes to spare this morning.

The night I packed a bag

As far as I can tell there are only two ways to pack a bag.  You can either pack too much, or you pack too little.  There is no in between.  Nobody has ever packed a bag with precisely every item they required for their trip.  I know this because I have never seen a self-congratulatory post on Facebook praising someone’s perfectly stocked luggage; and there are always people on Facebook who are taking a holiday.

My own packing tends to fall under the category of too much, though here I believe there are different extents in which a bag can be overloaded.  I can remember dating a girl who would insist on filling a suitcase with at least four pairs of shoes for an overnight or a two night stay.  She would never stuff them in either, like one imagines you would have to convince four pairs of shoes to fit into a small suitcase.  Each pair was placed like they were handcrafted crystal glassware.  Every time I would ask her why she needed four different pieces of footwear for a visit to Brighton and on each occasion she would reiterate that it is impractical to decide what outfit she would be wearing days in advance.  As a man who will often plan his attire from shirt to socks for work or an event weeks in the future, like some kind of mental pill-box, I found this argument difficult to swallow.

In contrast, I find that my own over packing tends to be a little more subtle.  Regardless of where I am travelling I will always take a small packet of pocket tissues, even if I have not blown my nose for weeks and am not being threatened by the common cold.  I think I must have sneezed once as a child and suffered the trauma of not having a tissue at hand and having to scramble for a suitable paper substitute before my face became completely overwhelmed with mucus, because I purchase a fresh packet of pocket tissues before every trip, often going to put them into my bag only to find that there is still an unopened packet from my last journey.

Another thing I find myself with more of than I need in my baggage is the notebook and pen.  I like to carry a notebook and pen with me most places, because you never know when you’re going to have to remember something for future reference and I find technology isn’t nearly as reliable as paper and ink.  A recent example of this would be when I text a friend to inform them of a tasty looking recipe I had seen in The Times Magazine for courgette fritters; the trouble being that I had intended to store the gourmet reminder as a note on my phone.  On the plus side my friend enjoyed a delicious dinner.  Instead I have always enjoyed the simplicity of a small notebook and a pen and the way that you can read back a note you have made and remember exactly where you were (which bar you were in) when you wrote it.

Though, like with paper tissues, I have a serious problem when it comes to buying more notebooks and pens than are even nearly necessary, which is partly born out of a severe dislike of standing around a crowded train station waiting for a platform announcement.  That’s when I will seek the comforting familiarity of a railway WH Smith – usually for a bottle of water, or a newspaper if I haven’t already got mine – and be met with their promotional offer of a Dairy Milk bar the size of a tablet (in the Biblical form, rather than the kindle.)  I always panic in these situations.  I find it very difficult to say no, usually out of fear of disappointing someone, and so usually I will turn down the £1 slab of chocolate and instead offer to pay £5.49 for a small notebook and a pouch of ten black biros.

There are also the less manic habits, although equally contributing to my conviction as a subtle over packer.  I will take my stubble trimmer with me whenever I travel, even if only for one night and even if I have shaved on the morning I leave home, in the event that I am thrust into a situation where I feel compelled to have exactly 1.6mm of stubble on my facial features.

I always pack a book into my bag.  That isn’t wildly absurd, even if I rarely read when I am in transit.  Typically if I am on a train I will be listening to music and drinking beer from a can, but I do like to keep a book in my backpack in case I feel the need to place it on the table beside my Innis & Gunn in order to convince my fellow travellers that I am not a complete social vagrant.  Leaving a copy of The Times open at the crossword page can also have the same effect, but to be efficient that method requires at least some of the clues to have been solved.  The Times, naturally, serves the dual purpose of becoming useful should I suffer some sort of sneezing incident.

All of this surely pales into comparison with my worst habit when it comes to packing a bag, however.  That habit being procrastination.  I am travelling to Glasgow tomorrow night, en route to the U2 concert in Dublin on Saturday.  And all I have done to prepare for this trip is write 900 words for my weblog on packing a bag and buy another packet of tissues.

What Ryan Adams’ songs mean to me, part two: When The Stars Go Blue

There are not many things in life that disappoint me; I’m a relatively happy-go-lucky kind of guy.  I can sometimes feel a little disgruntled when I can’t find a shade of socks to entirely match the colour of my tie, and there’s a certain kind of sadness when a pair of boots I particularly enjoy wearing are cracked right across the soles (although this experience did very recently aid me in getting the most wonderful laugh out of a barmaid when a random stranger I was conversing with decided to reveal to her that he works as a shoe repair man and I was at the ideal level of drunkenness and boldness to comment:  “A shoe repair man?  That sounds like the kind of job that must be great for the soul [sole,]) but other than that the greatest disappointment I tend to feel is when I step into the shower on a morning and realise that I have forgotten to replenish my Nivea facial scrub, which happens once approximately every seven weeks.

One moment in my thirty-three-and-a-half years outside of the womb has stuck with me as being a poignantly displeasing experience, however.  It was the time that one of the most iconic performers in the world, Bono, covered a Ryan Adams song with The Corrs.

I love U2.  Somewhere on the internet in the dense scrap heap of discarded blogs written by me there is a series of posts detailing my adoration for Bono and the lads.  And The Corrs are a quite inoffensive pop quartet.  Indeed, probably the only offensive thing attached to the family foursome from Ireland is the pub question popular amongst groups of men who have nothing better to discuss:  Would you fuck Jim Corr in order to sleep with the rest of The Corrs (particularly, although not limited to, Andrea?)

I would like to state for the record that my answer to this brain teaser is typically no.  Not out of some overtly masculine fear over my sexuality being brought into question.  Nor is my answer negative due to some vague form of chivalry whereby I refuse to have sex with a prospective lover’s brother.  I generally answer no to the question of whether I would have sex with Jim if it meant I could have relations with the other members of The Corrs because I cannot help but imagine how awkward the subsequent family dinners would be.  The trembling in my hand as I pass the gravy to Sharon whilst trying to avoid eye contact with Jim.  The silence that would wash over the room when Andrea asks her brother if he would like more meat.  It would be too much for me to bear.  And there is certainly no way you could have a meaningful relationship with Andrea Corr after such an inglorious courtship.

I cannot remember where I first heard of Bono and The Corrs covering When The Stars Go Blue.  I have a suspicion that they performed it at a large benefit concert that was televised in the mid 2000’s (I’m thinking a Live Aid or something similar?) and I felt this palpable excitement when it was announced that one of my favourite artists would be covering a song by my absolute favourite musician.  I couldn’t wait to see it.

Then Andrea Corr called it “Stars Go Blue” (fair enough, hardly the greatest crime ever committed – especially when you consider the things her brother does) and Bono pranced onto the stage wearing those purple shades and with a yellow rose in his hand.  Everything about how they made this lonely and miserable song an attempt at upbeat beauty made me cringe.  By the time Bono and Andrea finished up dancing I could not think of a musical performance I hated more.  There should have been a benefit concert for the tragedy of this song.

It has taken me a long time to get over this disappointment.  Ryan recently (in the last three or four years) reintroduced When The Stars Go Blue into his live set and it still makes me feel uneasy, although my intolerance of it has cooled the more he plays it.  It is a lovely, melancholic song and I would kind of like to like it.  Maybe this year he can reclaim it.

Album:  Gold
Album release:  25th September 2001
Also appears on:  VH1 Presents:  The Corrs, Live in Dublin

The week where my Apple earphones wouldn’t stay in my ears

There are two things in life that I am terrible at keeping a hold of.  A case could be argued for there being three things, but my problems with my hair are genetic and not something I can easily do anything about.  What I am really unfortunate and, frankly, awful at maintaining are shoes (as detailed in this post from March) and earphones.  The drawer in my desk at home is filled with perished earphones; a tangled mess of audio uselessness and a crass memorial to my incompetence in caring for them.  This week I added another wired to victim graveyard for flawed technology.

I have never been fond of the Apple earphones which come with their otherwise sound devices.  My primary issue with them is that they are officially called “EarPods”, which sounds like it should be a hideous disfigurement of the ear or an exceptionally dull podcast made especially for the Otolaryngologist audience.  They are also not the most attractive of things to have weaving their way from your pocket and up into your ear holes.  It has the appearance of an undercooked noodle and the speakers are quite strangely shaped.  Still, an unopened set of Apple earphones was a welcome discovery in my backpack when my more aesthetically pleasing black Sony pair lost sound in the right (wrong) speaker on a trip to Glasgow two weeks ago.

Things were going relatively well with my substitute listening aid — for about a day anyway.  Then I began to notice that the Apple earphones were sitting very loosely in my ear holes, particularly the right (wrong) ‘Pod’, which would frequently make an attempt to jump from my ear like a nervous bungee jumper.  It was a mild annoyance, but for a week I was just about able to contend with it.

By Monday the faithful adherence to the laws of gravity by my Apple earphones was beginning to bring me down.  I found myself questioning the relationship between my footsteps and the insistence of the right (wrong) speaker to fall from my ear, with every ten paces seeming to jar it from that little spot where music should be flowing into, sending the oddly shaped piece flailing sadly down my torso.  I tried to adjust my walking technique to a more delicate and graceful manner, but the earphone remained determinedly slack and I was only getting places several minutes later than intended.

Tuesday brought a growing paranoia as I observed a great number of pedestrians sporting these undercooked noodles upon their person without an ear pod so much as flinching.  How were they wearing their earphones so perfectly and what was I doing wrong?  Meanwhile my right hand was constantly rising to my ear to jam my own in as far as it could go, feeling certain that passing motorists were observing this crazed act and wondering what kind of ridiculous code I was attempting to communicate in.

I went home that night and queried Google on the correct method of inserting Apple earphones into one’s ear holes.  I felt sure that I couldn’t be doing it correctly when everybody else is enjoying their music and I am suffering in this cavalcade of calamity every morning and evening on my walk to and from work.  To my surprise there are actual videos on the internet guiding people like me on the precise method of wearing Apple earphones, and according to some there are a variety of ways to utilise the buds, but the online consensus seemed to be that I was doing it right.  All of which made me wonder if the problem was not with my EarPods, but rather with my ears themselves.  Are my ear holes the right size?  What size should a normal ear hole be?  Are my ear holes misshapen?  I wondered if it would be total waste of a doctor’s time for me to make an appointment to get my ear holes measured; and if it wasn’t then what would a doctor even use to measure an ear hole?  It surely cannot be a common question down at the surgery.  [Sidebar:  Would cosmetic surgery be entirely out of the question to allow me to wear Apple EarPods?]

I decided that a less drastic course of action to take would be to buy myself a new pair of proper earphones, the kind that can sit snuggly in my ears and cancel all outside noise and allow me to continue to ignore the rest of the world as I walk to the places I need to go.  Of course, come my midweek shop I forgot that I had made this resolution (I also neglected to buy oranges and nuts, but that didn’t trouble me so much) and I was to be trapped in the tyranny of a restless earphone for the remainder of the week.  Not only that, but by the end of the week a series of typically summer rain falls had ensured that water had weasled its way into the unprotected right bud and dulled any sound I wasn’t hearing to begin with to a whisper that I still couldn’t hear because my earphones were dangling by my hips.

This morning I finally discarded the Apple earphones to the desk drawer where they can no longer haunt me.  I can hear the melancholic sounds of my music again, when even turned up to full volume it is a delicate and sad party in my ears.  But at least they are in my ears and I can hear it.

The night I listened to The Joshua Tree

Maybe I am doing my Friday nights wrong when my abiding memory of the occasion is the walk home.  By any reasonable standard it was a pretty unremarkable walk home, too.  To even describe it as a walk is to give it more physical credence than it deserves, for it was more of an amble, really.  Like nearly every other Friday in history I ambled home from the pub alone, only this time I didn’t stumble into any bushes and there was no roadside retching.  It was unremarkable; so unremarkable that I am compelled to write 900 words about it.

Perhaps the only noteworthy event of this amble was my decision upon leaving Markies to forego my usual shuffled Spotify soundtrack in favour of a full play of The Joshua Tree, being that U2 will be performing the album in Dublin in five weeks.  Ordinarily the distance between the bar and my home would allow for me to hear the first four tracks (ie. ‘the hits’) of the 1987 classic, but last night I somehow heard The Joshua Tree one and a half times before I crashed through my front door, finishing up – ironically enough – on Running To Stand Still.

It’s difficult for me to place exactly how I managed to listen to approximately 75 minutes of a 50 minute record, let alone consider the geography of the feat.  There was a cooling summer breeze whispering in from the sea which tempered some of the humidity that lingered in the air as I plugged my music into my ear holes and began my odyssey with Where The Streets Have No Name – the song which, for me anyway, is the definitive U2 sound.  The opening 107 seconds of this track are my favourite of any U2 song, possibly any song.  It’s possible that I repeated this at least once, because I was barely onto I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For when I reached the station and procrastinated over whether or not I wanted to take a taxi home.  I saw what I was looking for at the rank, but I decided against another failed flirtation (it wouldn’t have been fair/fare) and continued homeward.

I found my mind begin to wander towards Croke Park as I snaked across Argyll Square.  I imagined the atmosphere as those loveable lads took to the stage in their home city to play their most loved – even if not their best – album.  Then I began to try to pre-plan my toilet/bar breaks.  This is an important part of the tactical consideration of attending a gig.  Usually a comfort stop between the support act and the headliner will suffice, but in a stadium gig in summer all bets are off.  I envisaged almost the entire stadium emptying in search of a portaloo after the four ‘hits’ at the start of the album, but I’m fond of the second half of The Joshua Tree and would be loathed to miss some of that rarely played material.

My playing of the album obviously mimicked my outlandishly drunken footsteps because I must have backtracked from Red Hill Mining Town to be listening to With Or Without you again as I journeyed up Combie Street towards the Parish church, which if you are familiar with Oban you will know as the Coriander church, and if you don’t know Oban:  it is the Coriander church.  

I love With Or Without You.  Chunks had just played it in Markies and it is a song which is very much present in my mind.  I am not ashamed to acknowledge that I was singing along quite emphatically with Bono as I approached the church (we had both reached the part just before the pained “oh oh oh ooooh” refrain) when I became very aware of a young female walking quite quickly to overtake me and power ahead.

I pulled out my earphones and called out after her.  “My singing can’t have been that bad!”

She turned to look at me, the street light acting as a spotlight on her.  “It was terrible,” she said, confirming what I know deep down to be true.  “But I love that you’re happy and don’t give a fuck.”

She carried on up the road and I walked through the church graveyard, returning this woefully, wonderfully melancholic song to my ears.

The walk up the hill from Millpark is the most difficult and longest part of the amble home.  It is where the majority of my backwards steps will occur and where most of those awkward to negotiate bushes lurk on the periphery of the pavement.  You could say that it is more than a One Tree Hill, but last night I sauntered up it unscathed, if a little slowly, and got most of my U2 listening in.

It was on the hill that the rain started.  Light to begin with, almost refreshingly light, until it began to tumble heavy and warm.  I was on Bullet The Blue Sky when I neared the top of the hill, chanting along with Hewson:  “One hundred!  Two hundred!”  The rain was seething from the dark sky in tandem with The Edge’s guitar riff and my grey suit had turned the colour of defeat.  I stormed through the front door and relieved myself of my jacket and rain slicked tie and collapsed onto my bed, earphones discarded in a drunken recognition that I wouldn’t need them as I sleep.

And then I woke up this morning, still half fucked from the beer and the Jack Daniels and the God forsaken Venom – such is the wonder of the internal body clock – and although I still hadn’t found what I was looking for I had that one memory of an especially long walk home listening to The Joshua Tree, and that was good enough for me.

The morning I encountered a humble bee

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It may not have been 5am in the cold water of the Inner Hebrides, but in the Jack Daniels haze of my mind it could well have been any time and any place.  As I stepped outside and heard the soothing sound of birdsong – I wasn’t sure if they were singing for the joy of it or out of some mocking of my bedraggled hungover state, but it didn’t seem to matter – and felt the gentle tickling of a cool June breeze behind my ear, I felt alive.  Which was significantly better than I was feeling hours earlier.

Like any other Saturday morning my eyes creaked open to meet the realisation that not only was I horifically hungover again, but I had arrived home in the small hours of the morning and fallen asleep whilst browsing Netflix, thereby ‘watching’ half a season of How I Met Your Mother.  I sat up in my bed and began to consider why my socks were strewn at opposite ends of my room, when I concluded that there has to be more to a Saturday than this weary routine.  The football season has reached an end until it begins all over again in August, and I needed something to occupy myself in my flailing jelly like state, so I decided that I would take a refreshing walk.

With my earphones in (the first track to shuffle on my Spotify playlist was Highway to Hell by AC/DC, though as the day would progress it would be Thunderstruck that would seem more appropriate) and a satchel sinking across my shoulder – it would only make sense to feed two birds with one scone and do some shopping while I was out – I embarked on my journey to reacquaint myself with the world around me.

It was a different experience using walking as a means to observe the things I usually ignore when I am sober:  greenery, wildlife, people.  Typically I walk with the purpose of getting somewhere I need to be, but with nowhere to go today I revelled in the freedom of walking without aim – like the terribly inaccurate marksman.

The sky was a noticeably strange patchwork of colours.  In parts the sun was making a bold attempt to break through the clouds and illuminate all the hidden treasures along my walk.  Much of the sky gave the appearance of a canopy that had been smeared with crushed blueberries before a crude and unsuccessful attempt to clean it up with a dirty dish towel had been made.  Elsewhere it vaguely resembled a measure of gin which had been mixed with cloudy lemonade, though in my hungover state I refused to acknowledge that image or even contemplate why anyone would mix gin with cloudy lemonade.

It wouldn’t be long before those swollen grey clouds declared their triumph over the sun’s vain efforts with the release of a series of trickling raindrops, washing over my face like nature’s shower.  A battalion of umbrellas went up around me – my worst nightmare – and I immediately lamented my poor choice of jacket.  Still, I stood and watched the ships in the harbour as the rain become more incessant, sprinkling the silver sea with shards of yet more silver.  If I felt alive earlier then this was the moment that I knew I was alive, with the cool rain on my face and my lungs inhaling and exhaling as they do for any person who is living.

Once I had remembered that I was alive I continued my journey.  I frequently stopped by the roadside to admire the luminous daffodils which were nestled amongst discarded cans of cider; truly nature’s wonder!

Further along I came across a clutch of beautiful roses which had evidently proved as enticing to a number of bees as it had me.  I pulled out my earphones and listened to them buzz around these sweet pink flowers.  It was a sight to behold, and one I wanted to capture.  So I withdrew my phone from my pocket, leaned a little closer to the buoyant winged creatures and took a photograph.


For a moment my hangover had vanished from my mind.  I positioned my phone to take another picture.  Then I vomited all over the flowers in a vicious release of last night’s excesses.  It was then, for the first time in my life, that I was truly and intimately at one with nature.