#31 Travelling

In my mind, the dark roads had already unfurled themselves ahead of me, the broken white line flickering to my right. I had begun to lean into corners that unspooled from the dense night beyond.

So, when the journey was aborted by a stomach bug, that particular anticipated experience was severed from this time-stream. Last night’s midnight-run from here, through Wales to Pembroke Docks was left hanging like an ellipsis. To be continued…

Mastering the disappointed child-within is decorous, and necessary. As my mother would gladly attest, I’m predisposed to sulk. This last-minute cancellation of our motorbike trip to Eire is prime sulk material, I could (un)happily use up this kid-free week in a heavy funk. Yet, somehow, I won’t. The ferry can be re-booked, there are refunds on the air-b-and-bs. A bumble bee is surveying the lemon balm, and my sweet-heart’s foot is resting against me.

Next year _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ __ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

#30 Marta

Raton. Rrrrrrrrrrrraton, Spanish for mouse.

I can’t pronounce it, my lips/tongue/mouth don’t know the way of forming the sound.

Marta laughs.

Quack, miaow, woof. Animal sounds are the same in Spanish, which is useful as- right now- they form the only shared language between Marta and me.


Yesterday, I was so tired. The weekend I’d been anticipating for so long was over, and now it was just me and my fatigue. J and I took a train to Whitstable to visit an old friend. We ate (plenty of oysters) and drank copious amounts. We caught up,  broke bread, laughed, lounged.

There had been a malaise that fell on me towards the end of Saturday night. Gin-fuelled, undoubtedly, gradually I slumped into a wordless sinkhole, and detached from J. It hurt her. I pulled myself more-or-less together the next morning, but I was left with the consciousness of dark silt in the depths of me, threatening to billow up with the next change in current.


Marta is my daughter’s Spanish exchange student. I had to retrieve her from school Monday lunchtime. She was crying as we drove away, and she phoned her mum as we headed to B&Q. When we got out, the trolley I chose was unco-operative, causing Marta to chuckle. A woman from B&Q came across to help me separate a different trolley from one with which it seemed to be coupling. More chuckles. I needed some manure and shears and, as I searched for them,  I gradually managed to draw Marta out on the subject of her garden at home in Seville- quite large, no orange trees. We got the manure – caca de caballo. Smirks.

Back home we set about making spag bol. Turns out, Marta is an excellent sous chef. She made quick work of the pepper, garlic and onion, though the latter drew yet more tears. I offered her a taste of tea. Slowly, without either of us really noticing, trust was being established; the sense that, although we couldn’t communicate about anything more significant than nouns or the films we liked, the tone in which we communicated, the way we  inhabited our shared space suggested that we both meant well.

Later, after my daughter came home, we took a turn around the town. Keynsham of an evening is something of a ghost town, certainly compared to the Spanish evening promenades (passegiata in Italian). What we did come across, helped draw Marta further out of her shell. Two boys sprinted downhill in the park, away from a bin they’d just set light to. We went down to Echo Bridge and presented Marta with the acoustic wonders. We jumped, clapped and shouted a cacophony of reverberations. She was delighted.  There was an old woman drinking cider by the river, whose dog (a white, cutesy teddybear fluff ball) followed us, ignoring its owner’s calls. Marta seized the initiative and the dog, and returned it. She wants to be a vet. As we walked up the hill towards home, my daughter found a broken egg at the base of a tree. Gaviota, seagull. Marta picked up the fragile shell and unravelled it as we walked on.

We got home and the girls watched a film while I filled my newly prepared pallets with topsoil (to be raised beds). By the time it was time for bed, we all knew each other a little better and I was feeling more recovered from the lapse of the weekend.

Marta had come to feel safer and more able to be herself once she felt that my daughter and I understood who she was. The ingredients had been:

  • mispronunciation
  • animal noises
  • slapstick comedy with supermarket trolleys
  • caca de caballero
  • cooking
  • echoes
  • a little white dog
  • a seagull egg


Last Saturday night’s existential angst was a momentary forgetting of who I was. A slow-burning chain reaction of:

  • gin
  • tiredness
  • disorientation (J and I rarely spend time with others for long periods)
  • mild envy/the acknowledgement that my friend (and his girlfriend, with whom we were staying) are home-owners and materially better off
  • lack of a sense of belonging (my friend’s mum and dad live close, he lives in a town he grew up in, always bumping in to long-established friends with whom he maintains a mostly easy, regular socialising existence)


Marta recovered herself gradually, by establishing an understanding between the three of us of who she was, while (simultaneously) discovering who we were. Not only that, but we cared about her well-being and actually wanted to know who she is.

Now and then, I feel unsure of who I am.

The things I do- the writing, playing the accordion, motorcycling, rambling- are partly about defining my self to myself (and those around me). It’s probably the same for all of us. Most of the time, the way seems clear- just keep doing the things you do, try your hardest, help others; smile. But from time to time, the energy required to just be can just suddenly wane and the ground beneath you falls away. Thankfully, this Saturday night, I was with one of my oldest friends and the woman I adore. I was given time to resurface and gather my senses. It’s not always the case. In the future, when the walls close in, I will try to remember how an eleven year old Spanish girl pieced herself together with the simplest of words, echoes, an egg and a little laughter.

#28 The garden


My daughter took this photograph a few night’s back. It’s useful because it is me as I am, here and now.

The bonfire that lit me is ashes, but I’m stood in the same place. It’s just started to rain, there is that sense of electricity, the scent of it has risen into the air. Although it’s nearly sundown, I’m waking up. I’ve been waiting for this moment for hours.

My daughter has just berated me for stealing her pillow. She has been tucked into bed, but opened the window and yelled, well within earshot of my Polish neighbours two doors down who are having their usual summer evening smoke and chat. The neighbours stopped their chat, I went back inside. By now, she’d found the pillow I didn’t steal, but she’s still angry. Just angry, no reason. Grudgingly, huffing, she went back to bed.

I am supposed to be doing some other writing, but gave myself a break to water my garden, which has now given way to this.

This is my horse chestnut


It is over 5m tall, and about that many years old. I grew it from a conker from my garden back in Eynsham, Oxfordshire. J and I repotted it a week ago Sunday into a half sherry barrel that is too small. I will order a more suitable one here: huge pot

The 230l one should do the trick.

I love repotting plants.

This is one side of my row of pots


Five lavenders, strawberry trough/lavender, rosemary, and a young birch sapling.

This is the other side of my row of pots


Horse chestnut, two lavenders, scots pine, ash, rocket, willow, hazel, blue tub of rocket, olive, french marigolds (not sprouted), willow/lavender, mini Christmas tree, lavender…

The young ash has thrown up its first leaves of the year this week


I’m very proud.

The plants are all in pots because I’ve moved three times in the last five years.

The plants might represent several aspects of me:

1. I made mistakes

The first of the three moves was to move myself and my daughter in with a girlfriend. It lasted three months before she found out I was flirting with someone online.

It is the worst thing I’ve ever done.

I’ve tried to reason out why- maybe it was a result of the damage done in my own divorce, the unfaithfulness of my wife. Maybe it was some need to not be instantly, entirely merged into someone else’s world. As likely is that I am not perfect, that I am capable of baseness and cruelty. It’s been three years and I’m still feeling guilty.

2. I need moments of calm

I usually water the plants after working-out in the evening. For the last four months, I’ve given up weights and adopted this programme: Medicine ball workout Maybe I’ll write about that another time, but it is good, despite the fact several of the exercises make you look like a bell-end. In between sets, I like to fill up the watering can, then get close to the plants and carefully water them.

There was a toad amongst the strawberries once


Beautiful creatures. Orwell wrote an essay (Some thoughts on the common toad, 1946) in which he describes the toad’s eye:

…the toad has about the most beautiful eye of any living creature. It is like gold, or more exactly it is like the gold-coloured semi-precious stone which one sometimes sees in signet rings, and which I think is called a chrysoberyl.

3. I want a future in which I can plant my trees into the ground

I keep the plants in pots because I am too selfish to leave them to whichever tenant moves in after I leave. I  love my plants, particularly the saplings, and want to sustain a mini arboretum which increases each year. Medium specimens of all my favourite trees. One day. One year, I will buy a house, or we will build our own, with some land into which I will plant the trees, the lavenders. Their roots will sink deep and they’ll flourish.

My plants will go with me wherever I go. I provide for them, they grow and provide me beauty and joy. My children too.

My hopes are the same. For them to come to fruition, I will ground their roots in endeavour, nurture their growth with clarity of purpose, honesty and humility.


To everything there is a season,
a time for every purpose under the sun.
A time to be born and a time to die;
a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to weep and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to lose and a time to seek;
a time to rend and a time to sew;
a time to keep silent and a time to speak;
a time to love and a time to hate;
a time for war and a time for peace.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8






#19 being worthwhile, secret images

I deleted the earlier draft, it was a gallery of  photographs copied from the last month on my phone. I changed my mind. I changed it because some of the images that mean most to me are of the other humans that mean most to me, i.e. they are personal. They are deliberately captured moments that remain deeply felt. They are memories, altered atoms imprinted with experience,  giving existence meaning, improving and strengthening who I think I am.

I deleted the earlier draft because I came to suspect that it was  motivated by the need to be defined. I learned this phrase  something like fifteen years ago watching an episode of Friends. In that episode, Phoebe was in that coffee shop, at ease, being friendly and her boyfriend joined her. This friend was not like the other friends, he was a cynic. Having had the opportunity to observe the friends’ winning mixture of joshing and self-deprecation, he couldn’t resist commenting on their group dynamic:

I hadn’t considered this in much detail before. Since that time (quite probably before, but the Friends episode is a convenient reference point), I sometimes question what motivates the wish to share my experiences with others. These are my thoughts:

– due to simply being human/ being a single parent only intermittently able to be with his lover/ being adopted?/ having boarded school? I find I sometimes need definition*.

[*I am defining: definition, as the comfort given when we have it affirmed that we are worthwhile, that we are lovable, we are attractive, and that our existence in the world has purpose and value outside of the value that it has to us. The need for definement is akin to loneliness.]

All this need seems a bit needy and I treat it with suspicion. This isn’t an original thought, I don’t think I’m alone in this.

My thoughts in summary:

  • what is written here should have more purpose than a Facebook status update, or a posted image
  • it is true/a cliché that being shown someone else’s holiday snaps is perversely tedious
  • aren’t there more important things to do than to be writing this (be reading this)?

At the heart of my thoughts is that sharing your private life online is casting pearls before swine. I see that you are not entirely swine, but it is foolish to give precious things away, let alone set them adrift on the internet ocean.

I can admire dignity, or creativity in sharing our own perceptions or fantasies:



But uploading our children, or our lovers into the ether seems to me as if they are somehow taken away, like we’ve valued them less. So, I keep mine dear.

The images that I didn’t post are:

                                            My son asleep                                                                 My son and daughter gazing at the sunset from a train leaving Bath

                                                                        A moth on my bathroom ceiling

                                                                                     A poppy                                                                           A chestnut in full flower in Victoria Park, Bath                                                                                My son in a sand-pit

J draped in a tree                         My daughter and me after swimming in the Wellow                            J and me at St.Pauls Carnival, Bristol

                      Our watercolours from Tintern

#17 The worst thing

Be insincere to someone dear,

Bitter, callow, moved by fear,

Lend frost to tender, naked roots,

The threads that delve,

The nets they weave.


Haul them out,

Fling them wide,

Watch them fall

Over yourselves

#14 OM ugh

OM stands for Orgasmic meditation.


There are OM classes locally (around Bristol and world-wide) that couples can attend.

OM is a meditation, equally powerful for both partners — only the object of focus is the clitoris.


Women lay down, supported by men and OM branded pillows in the church hall/community centre and have their clitorii massaged. Collectively.

When I heard of this, I was disturbed for a number of reasons. Call me a prude, but never has it occurred to me to take my girlfriend out to meet a bunch of strangers and massage her clitoris. I thought that was called dogging. It’s not really crossed my mind to meet up with friends and do it, either.

I’m not against the idea of people engaging with their sexuality to enhance their relationships and sense of self- these are clearly good things. If I felt that something was up in that department, I would definitely want to sort it out.

My negative reactions are based on:

1. The sense that there seems to be a growing consensus that doing your washing in public is not only a good thing, but also intrinsically beneficial/therapeutic.

2. That sex is being turned into a commodity again. That people’s insecurities/dysfunctions are valuable income streams.

Let’s look at 1 first.

When I discussed the public nature of the sessions with my girlfriend (purely in the name of research, things are very nice between us, thanks), she suggested that this group exposure of your intimacy could lead to banishing any damaging, dysfunctional feelings that sex is a dirty, sinful thing. A process akin to confession or an enema. This has some credibility, particularly in British society where we are supposed to be repressed in these matters. However, I would suggest that there is something sexy about naughtiness, that transgression is a turn-on.

What is possibly more concerning is the assumption that doing something in public makes it transformative. Are we to imagine that the adulterous wife baring all to Jerry Springer and the cameras is necessarily changed? Most participants seem to lack the decency to find the process embarrassing, so how far is it likely that they have the moral imagination to move forward from the experience? Put another way, what is to be gained by wanking your missus off in front of an audience, even if they aren’t supposed to be looking? Not having been to an OMing session (sorry for my lack of professionalism, I just don’t want to), I’m not able to say what the demographic is, but there must be a certain amount of exhibitionism going on. The sort of purple-wearing,wholesome folk who might hover on the fringe of a wife-swapping sesh. More linseedy than seedy.

Surely, focussed, reactive counselling from a genuinely qualified practitioner coupled with an honest commitment to personal growth might be a more productive way to overcome sexual anxieties.

2. Take a look at this:


According to the OM shop, Orgasmic Meditation (OM) requires supplies. You’d be best advised to spend $184.97 on various cushions, otherwise sold as The Signature OM Kit. If you’re feeling less flush, you really should fork out $29.99 on that Strokers kit, because clearly Every stroker needs a strokers kit. Worryingly, I have dabbled with a bit of stroking myself, without the kit. Now that I’m better informed, I realise how inadequate this has been. I will get tooled up with: 1 Strokers Bag, 1 OneStroke Lube (full-size), 3 OM Towels 3 Vinyl Glove Sets. How many of these can they have sold?

I have a friend who used to run marketing workshops for companies looking to advertise their products in more engaging, leftfield ways- he called these sessions Quirkshops. I have a tip for those entrepeneurs looking to gain a broader market share for OM. Be honest. Re-brand, and call OM experiences what they really are: Jerkshops.

#8 Murder and death

I wove my path between the cows, feeling like a farmer, swinging my aluminium water bottle like a miniature milk canister. People are crushed by cows all the time, not continually, but several, annually. Sometimes cows will crowd a timid walker, slowly squeezing him to death with warm, suffocating curiosity. Occasionally, one lone cow will go berserk and charge, utterly out of character. These cows were calm.
They have large heads and walk like heavy horses, their brains must be of a significant size. We often hear that our brains go 90% unused, what if the cow uses all of its mango-sized one? The herd were gathered on my side of the valley in clearly defined groups that faced the same direction, with one or two loners mooching about, doing their own thing (mainly eating). The sinking sun illuminated the opposite hill, about a quarter of a mile away, and I saw instinct more clearly at work. A semi-circle facing a possible threat, a line grazing the best grass. Perhaps they use their brains for sustained empathy. Imagine continual, mindful understanding of the others in your herd, shared parenting, companionship and security. Or perhaps they move instinctively, ancient patterns woven into double-helices.
I eat the dead flesh of these gentle beasts. I can convince myself that I know how to hunt and gather, I should be able to kill and butcher one myself, that makes it okay. Cows are relatively easy to round-up and kill. Meat producers have made the process more pleasant for the animals, kindly designing the abattoir route so that the final bolt through the skull is a real surprise. I don’t dwell on the cow holocaust. I try to eat ethically.

Death comes to us all, the cows are murdered. Whether I’m murdered or reach the end of my allotted time, one day I will surely die. Natural death may be considerably more prolonged and painful than a quick gutting. People have probably been murdered in this field on a hillside over the past few hundred years. There is an enticing view into the soft Somerset hills along the valley, it would be a gentle place to bleed.
I have had a tiring and depressing week. The animals and the plants, the mushrooms and the trees have lived and died in the same week. They make no choices in life other than to follow the most direct path toward survival. Do their lives lack meaning? Wouldn’t our Earth be more wondrous if every trace of humans was suddenly removed? What is our great architecture, our invention, our fractured society to a willow by a river? A fox trotting? An owl.
Meaning in life is in its living. Somewhere, death sits and waits and will make it quick or slow, kind or cruel. Life is a cow grazing under a lavender sky. It is me lying under the same sky, staring upward, the seeing of it as relaxing as having my eyes closed.

#4 Breakfast

I’m naturally lazy and, given the chance, I think most people probably are. It may just be lazy thinking, but I find work hard work. As a supply teacher, I both rejoice in and bemoan days without work. These are days in which I can almost feel myself slipping further into debt, and yet they are also a gift, six hours of my own.

The preparation of a leisurely breakfast is something to savour. Unhurried by the school run, there is the chance to actually observe coffee percolate, toast toast and an egg coddle. The eating of it (inside/outside? Radio/tv? In bed?!) is the domestic equivalent of matins. Each unhurried mouthful of food a moment of meditation and unity.

#7 Noel Edmonds and me

Noel Edmonds lives behind my daughter’s school. He lives in a large Georgian-style house with a recently landscaped lake near the Avon. If I’m not working and take my daughter to school at a normal time, we often pass him on the A4175 between Keynsham and Bitton. Oddly, he drives an anonymous-looking old black cab.

Everyone at school knows Noel lives around the corner. I think we’re all quite proud of it. He lives here because it’s a nice, rural spot, but easily commutable to the Endemol studios in Bristol, where he records Deal or No Deal. I have memories of all his programmes:
  Noel’s Multi-Coloured Swap-Shop – lurid and psychedelic,
  Telly Addicts – an array of giant tellies and Eighties graphics 
  Mr Blobby – the giant pink bell-end of a mascot from Noel’s House Party.
But I also remember something bad had happened along the way, somebody had died.

There was another programme, The Late, Late Breakfast Show, which was on in the evening. It featured the Whirly Wheel which a member of the public would spin, randomly selecting a stunt which they would then have a week to train for, before performing live the following week. It turns out the Whirly Wheel wasn’t really random, there was a technician behind it who fixed the result. One week, a man called Michael Lush span the Whirly Wheel and got bungee-jumping from an exploding box suspended from a 120 foot crane. The following week, on the 13th November, 1986, he fell to his death and died from multiple injuries. 

Noel resigned from the show which was instantly terminated by the BBC, who paid Mr Lush’s family compensation equivalent to £285, 600 in today’s money. At the inquest, the jury heard of many failings by the production team, not least that the carabiner securing Mr Lush to his only rope was insufficient to support the weight of a bag of sugar.

Sometimes things linger in the mind. This association between Noel Edmonds and a pointless, embarrassing death has stayed with me. I saw Noel a few Sunday’s back. I had gone to the farm which adjoins his house to buy some chickens. As I left, Noel was stood at a back gate in a t-shirt, smiling, friendly and looking like anyone else on a Sunday morning. Our eyes briefly met. The death wasn’t his fault, it was a long time ago, and despite having lived my entire life familiar with his face, I don’t know Noel. Yet somehow my brain has formed subtle connections. I have not become a stalker, but I now have an inkling where they come from.

#6 Poor

Being skint, it’s hard to be able to say thank-you properly. My daughter was given two bags crammed full of excellent clothes by her school-mate today. I wanted to buy a card, or some flowers for the mum, but have no money. Absolutely none.
I will have worked four days this week, but have nowhere near the money I need to pay rent, bills, or buy food and petrol. If I get called in to work tomorrow, I may not be able to go because the car is empty. I don’t have £3.98 to print a photograph from an online shop for my mum’s birthday. It’s proving hard to remain chirpy on the school drop-off, to maintain a professional demeanour where I work, or even to remain patient with my daughter.
Despite education and an innoculation of middle-class expectations, poor choices and naiive optimism have lead me to this point of bankruptcy. The picture of a modest house, tasteful living and a comfortable pension has receded beyond view. What remains is a bit bleak:
a pokey flat, not enough food, shabby clothes, constant reminders of money owed, well-meaning condescension in the playground and a daughter with limited opportunities.
Can I go on this trip? No.
Can I have a guinea-pig? No.
Can I have music lessons? No.
Can I buy something? No.
Rent is the hardest bill to meet. I won’t go into how much it is etc., but should explain that in order to move into a cheaper property, my landlord is charging me extra. Despite working hard, looking after my daughter and being honest, I cannot meet my obligations and am sinking rapidly further into debt.
I have no idea what to do. My parents have already lent me five hundred pounds, which I cannot repay. My girlfriend has offered to give me a loan, but how can I borrow more from loved ones when there is no clear way to repay? Tomorrow, I will go to the council and see what can be done. My bank statements and bills will spell out exactly how bad it is. I have a feeling that my case will not be unusual or surprising; there’s a lot of it about.
Look at a piece of archive footage from the Seventies, or the Eighties and there’s a familiar tattiness about this country: a lot of litter about, a lot of queues. Men wearing unbranded blue jeans and thin t-shirts, sheepskin coats and Farahs. People smoking more, eating less nutritiously and exercising less. Most cars are second-hand and the paint-work is faded. Banks spent little on corporate branding, lending was frugal and greengrocers still existed. It didn’t seem shameful, but it was clear that most people didn’t have much money to spend.
We’re heading back to that place, or at least, I am.
When I consider the society I inhabit, where do I belong? The school-run, working as a supply teacher, driving in my car, food-shopping, holidays, in each of these, no money leads to difficulties. Most of my precious time seems to be spent swimming against the tide. Many people profit from my labour and it is hard to bring them all to mind. The letting agent that rents my house makes a tidy sum for little discernable work. The teaching agency that sends me to schools to cover sick teachers makes a lot for very little. The phone/ electricity/ gas/ water/ television companies all make their percentage. Once everyone else has been satisfied, there is little left.
I want my family to benefit from my work, not those who contractually oblige me to put them first. I want to buy unnecessary food sometimes, an occasional change of clothes, a book whilst out. I want to take my children to the seaside, camping, to the cinema and do what I consider to be normal things that people like me ought to do, but without excess money, it’s hard to join in.
It feels melodramatic to write something like the water is rising and the current is getting stronger, but, right now, it does feel as if I’m going under.