A break from the norm

A bike trip to the seaside, an escape from the Smoke, and a religious surprise

Small town. I came out of the supermarket to find two fourteen year old schoolgirls sitting on my bike. When I was at school the nymphettes would roll their already short skirts up at the waistband so as to raise the hem as much as possible. These two were probably their great granddaughters, the technique having been handed down. At least they moved off when asked, giggling.

The town itself is strikingly beautiful; famously so. Generations of painters have hymned to its light and colours. Brightly clothed families, with dogs and children in perpetual fear of seagulls, still attest.

Even Hollywood’s most cliched set wouldn’t look as picturesque as the pubs, seeping with the genuine stature of age. No one ever created sky and sea so perfectly in balance, or such a breeze – strong enough to cool, but gentle, so as to stroke the skin.

I came here for a break from London; booked a hotel online and jumped on the bike. It seems it’ll be more of a break than I planned – inadvertently, I booked myself into a Christian hotel. The doors are locked at 9pm, the WiFi has parental controls. There are prayer meetings morning and evening.

I’ve just been out to buy a bottle of whisky. It’s going to be an interesting couple of days.

Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you some lies



Who are told that so many things should be allowed because they will offer us things that we want, but there’s always a cost

I’m told this blog lingers on the failings of the modern world and how much better things were back in the day, and I suppose it does. Put it down your aged correspondent’s accumulated wisdom, hard won over the long years.

For the record, some things were better in the past and some things were worse; the fact is that when one looks back into one’s own past from the perspective of age there is the inevitable danger of subjectivity brought on by wistful longings for lost youth.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we only left behind the bad things, and only brought with us the good and worthwhile? It doesn’t happen that way, which leaves room for grumpy old bastards like me to irritate everyone with stories from the good old days. It’s always been that way of course; even the phrase ‘the good old days’ seems to have originated in the early part of the virtuous Victoria’s reign, when people would look back with misty eyes to the days of the debauched Georges. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Which brings me to Tesco Metro (not just Tesco, of course, all the supermarkets are equally guilty) and their elimination of local competition. The idea of a supermarket around the corner that stocks all the things you need at cheap prices is, of course, great, and I for one will admit to using them. But then the small shops close, and you regret it but you say ‘that’s progress’ as you walk past. Then the supermarket starts to reduce it’s range, getting rid of it’s less popular lines according to modern retail philosophy. And then you realize that one of the lines they’ve dropped is something you use every day, and so the convenience of the local supermarket is now irrelevant, since the local shop where you used to buy it has closed and you’ve got to walk to another part of town to get it.

Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you some lies


Insidious torpor

God I feel awful

What is ‘a cold’? It’s such a feeble illness, so pathetic, so humiliating to admit to, that many simply refuse to suffer from it; calling it ‘the flu’. You see? It doesn’t even get to use the definite article, it’s only ‘a cold’, whereas it’s ‘the flu’.

As a result I’m never quite prepared for how unmitigatedly shitty a cold makes me feel. Attentive readers of the toadstool will know how pure and healthy my lifestyle is and so will be unsurprised that I suffer from colds infrequently; but when I do – stand back, close the blinds, clear the room, evacuate the building and do not return unless bearing LemSip.

And yet I’m always surprised when it hits. As I write I’ve just emerged from one such bout; from the moment when I reluctantly accept that mucus production has increased to unprecedented levels, and fuzzy-headedness drives me to my bed, I live in a bewildered state. Constantly surprised that I feel so incapacitated and trying to remember where I put all the bottles of syrup, pills, sachets, sprays and extra strength tissues I haven’t used since the last time.

Eventually, once I’ve gathered everything around me, so that I only need stir from my bed for calls of nature – or to pour boiling water on another dose of the life-giving LemSip – I nest. Radio 4 reminds me that there is a world beyond my darkened windows as I drift in and out of consciousness for around 48 hours.

The worst of it is that, while the initial descent into torpidity is rapid, the ascent back to humanity is slow and punctuated with reminders that you’re not yet fit to be released into polite society.

And yet, eventually, one day you realise you can take breath without an eruption of coughing, and it’s gone. You’re free. And you forget immediately how ghastly the whole episode was, allowing you to pour disdain on the next unfortunate acquaintance who cancels on you because they’ve got ‘a cold’.

Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you some lies




Thirty five years – I counted them – since the last time I sat in the Old Sailor in Amsterdam. It was basecamp for about a week back then.

I sought the place out as I wandered about the city today, thinking of a glass of beer and a jenever. The old adage applies though: never go back. The place is a shithole.

It’s very possible that it always was; my twenty year old self probably wouldn’t have cared. But the line of English drunks outside vomiting abuse at passers by was certainly new, as were the large football bearing screens glimpsed through the windows. Keep walking.

Favourite bars always change over time, it’s a law, and we’re forced out into the cold to forage for new ones. Fortunately, this is Amsterdam; around the corner I found Café Fonteyn. At first sight it’s pleasing, busy but not heaving. The chill damp evening propels me towards the door, inside it’s warm, a gentle hum of conversation over only just audible music. Gemütlich. There’s a table free. Perfect. And I like the wallpaper.

I have a new home.

There are a few places I like, dotted around the place. Café Lisboa in Valencia, Le Select in Paris, El Glaciar in Barcelona, Witzli Poetzli in Antwerp… Even fewer where I like the wallpaper.

Who knows how many of them will still have a pulse if I ever visit them again.

Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you some lies


Right coffee, wrong cup


When did doing things differently become more important than doing them well?

A coffee in a cafe this morning; first things first – the waitress was lovely. Second: the coffee itself was fine.


It came in a sort of stoneware-pottery-cup without a handle. Aesthetically not my thing – each to their own – but who thought it was a good idea to un-invent the cup handle? This cup contained very hot liquid. I couldn’t pick it up.

Did the person who chose this vessel for coffee think a handle was superfluous? Simply unnecessary decoration? An optional feature on a coffee cup?

While sitting there patiently waiting for the dumb thing to cool sufficiently for me to pick it up, I had visions of a future tv antiques program, a man in a bowtie holding up cup with handle: “Ah yes, an early twenty first century coffee cup. In those days they still used handles!” cue applause and laughter from audience with thick skin on their fingers. And scald marks.

At least the coffee was hot, which it had to be to dissolve the lumpy brown sugar they gave me; de rigueur these days but utterly useless in anything smaller than a mug And certainly no good in an espresso, a fact which has escaped all the twenty year old guys in check shirts and tattoos who think they invented coffee.

Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you some lies


Generation Security


The rollers at St Pancras security hungrily swallowed my modest suitcase, my briefcase, my umbrella, my hat and, at the polite but insistent Eurostar uniformed woman’s behest, my jacket. Apparently she didn’t need my brass cuff links, my watch or my shoes.

I was one of the lucky ones. The unfortunate gent in front of me made the mistake of having a bad knee on which he wore a bandage, which had to be removed and separately scanned for… who knows what? Assault rifles? The small woman behind me had two large and heavy suitcases; they had to be lifted onto the rollers.

Are we going to live with this crap forever now? The first wave of security psychosis has thankfully passed, but we’ve settled into twenty-first century normality – and we’re putting up with it. Almost 20 years have passed since the authorities went into overdrive with all this and the technology hasn’t improved our convenience one jot. Build a machine that can scan us and our luggage as we walk through, why can’t you?

The fact that I can board a train in London and get off in Brussels, though, still fills me with awe. It’s not that I don’t like flying, but if the hassle of St Pancras is bad, flying is a lot worse. Strolling to the station as if on a day trip to St Albans but instead arriving at the chocolate waffle capital of the world is a simple pleasure.

My millennial travel companion, however, was less impressed. Never having travelled by Eurostar before I thought she might be impressed by our swift and seamless arrival in France. “Thank god for that,” was her reaction. “The Internet connection is better now. I’m watching a movie. It was really slow in the tunnel.” Of course.

But why do they trust train staff with a public address system? I don’t need to know the train manager’s name; and I know where the bloody train is going. The delivery of a decent cocktail to my seat would be a much better use of their time.

Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you some lies


London cold


The dead sky becomes so slowly lighter. Not even a noticeable eastern glow, just a slow, slow brightening from starless black to dark battleship grey. And cold: gentle breeze cold. London winter cold. Tedious cold.

Not like the cold of Berlin, with it’s ferocious eastern ice-blast sending you scuttling from warm shop to bakery to Straßenbahn while your brain-stem aches with it.

Or Budapest, with that cliff-edge plunge through snow, then sludge, to deep, horror-filled freeze.

The London cold is just tiresome. Sometimes cold enough for a real coat, when standing in the bus queue (who am I kidding, no one queues for a bus anymore; there’s just a shapeless pavement blocking crowd), then appalling t-shirt summer once you enter a shop, and autumnal mildness on the Tube. It’s a coldness designed to irritate, not intimidate, and a city designed to ensure you are never suitably dressed for it.

A city where conversations always start with the weather despite us getting so little of it; never much below freezing or much above temperate, rarely snowing, never baking sun and, despite the myth, not even really that much rain.

London maintains its mild-mannered, even-handed composure; it doesn’t want to cause offence.

Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you some lies


Time’s vacuum


Days vanish into the Internet’s virtual cesspool, one after the other, each spiralling deeper until slipping from my grasp only to be replaced by the next.

An intricate, expensive system devised to suck away time, as if powered by all those hours spent by billions of people every day. As if driven by time itself.

Are you hunched over your laptop, internally debating the merits of a four-pack over an eight-pack on the Tesco website? Those minutes are driving it. Weighing the three day weekend in Rome against the minibreak in Lanzarote? Grist to the mill. And which hotel would be better? This one has a prettier spa, but that one’s in the centre of town. Tick, tick, tick, the smiling face of the Internet demon is relishing your time.

Or are you standing on the morning tube reading this on your phone? Tick, tick… Or the hours spent trying to unfuck what it’s done to your book of holiday snaps? Tick, tick, tick…

And we do this to ourselves, no-one compels us. We do it because we have convinced ourselves we’re being productive, or that more choice is, obviously, better.

So here I am, writing this, staring at a screen. Tick… tick… tick…

Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you some lies


A pub’s life


A cold afternoon in Soho and I have an hour.

A statement, not a question, but nonetheless there is an answer; and the answer is pub.

The age of the pub is over. Thousands are closing monthly, we’re told; and those that remain don’t feel like actual pubs. More like bars, cafes, restaurants.

And it’s our fault. My fault and yours. If we don’t go to our pubs they will close. A simple truth. One could blame the corporatization of pubs, big money’s simple desire for more and the dull conformity it nurtures, but the fact is that the attraction of a bottle of wine and Netflix is stronger than the desire to go out and drink in the company of strangers.

Or — god forbid — actually talk to them.

Inevitable, of course, that such a proud tradition should end. Society changes, influenced as it is by our apathy and unconcern, our misguided wantings. And thus pub dies.

And yet from my stool at the end of the bar, as I wallow in the warmth of a blended scotch, voices break through my self-grown keratin shell. Just ordinary conversation. Three men, standing, pints in hand, their dust covered clothing betraying a day spent reshaping the city, discuss women.

Their appearance may seem incongruous in all this neo-gothic Victorian mahogany, but here they are, doing what generations of young men before them have done: sharing a drink and idle chat after the day’s toil. This afternoon, at least, pub is alive and well.

Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you some lies


Days and days


Does the inevitable living death of the day obscure the sparkling vitality of the night before? A night of beauty and passion curtesy of Puccini and Domingo, Scarpia and Tosca, and the companionship of angels.

London continues to offer this jaded old hack glimpses of a life worth wasting, flashes of technicolor in the shadows, beauty on which to rest a restless eye. Last night, in all its light and shade, was one of those nights, just one of those things, gossamer wings.  A break in this succession of fruitless days and lost evenings. An invitation to the opera, a box with friends. A sumptuous sensual delight, finished off with the rough wit of a drag queen.

And then here I am again, the day after, listening to the constant cynical tick-tock of the great clock; the only clock that matters. Hours slide past like polished ice under this sled’s skinny runners. I wonder what’s next as my carefully listed daily tasks sit and rot away through lack of attention, and suddenly the day has passed away, and my solid achievement is the consumption of three episodes, previously watched.

I turn and gaze back over the undulating landscape of my past, complete with occasional jagged peaks and chasms, and my inner face, battered and bloodied by decades of frustration, starts to talk once again: get off your arse. Get out. Sieze the fucking day. Roll over and close your eyes.

And so here I am, just me, sharing with you, whoever you are, the bland reality. I might write more tomorrow, or next year, or next life. I might not.

Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you some lies


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