31 July, 2006

Achilles heel

I really don't know what's going on. I've hurt my right foot somehow, to the extent that I can barely put any pressure on it and have resorted to walking about the place like I have a wooden limb.

Worse, the effort of not exerting any strain down my right leg has resulted in me developing a strain in my left knee, which too limits my ability to move around in anything approaching a normal fashion.

I'm only 30 years old, yet I feel like I might as well be 70. Earlier on I found myself stumbling painfully slowly across the room to pick up the phone, shouting "don't hang up, don't hang up - I'm coming!"

Maybe this is ordinary. Maybe your body starts winding down when you least expect it. I know I strained my back earlier this year from simply climbing up a step. One step. It's laughable, were the laughing not of a kind that hurts me even more.

I really don't know what's going on.

30 July, 2006

Glasses, please

Chasing time from hour to hour,
I pour the drinks and crush the flowers

During another compulsory after-work social "event" the other week, I was asked on no less than four separate times as to why I didn't drink. The same thing happened during the away day to the south coast last month, and indeed came up as a topic of conversation back in March during the very first week of my new job.

I'd no idea this subject would prove to be such a source of interest to people. It certainly wasn't in Liverpool, but then thankfully there were never any compulsory after-work social events in Liverpool (there were never any voluntary ones either).

It's not, I try to explain, due to some cathartic break with the past, some personal epiphany or some terrible breakdown in my younger days. It's just that I never really liked the stuff, and as I got older I thought, well, why bother with the pretence of simulating enjoyment in something that doesn't really figure in my life that much anymore and doesn't demand such mass, all-pervasive populist participation. Both of which were true during the years when I drank the most, between the ages of 18-21, when I was at university.

I say drank "the most", but by most other people's standards I hardly drank at all. I think the most I ever consumed in one night was around four and a half pints. This, in a culture where upwards of eight or nine were considered par for the course, and that was before retiring back to your abode for a few more cans to round off the evening.

For some reason I never cottoned on to the idea you could just as legitimately drink bottles of beer at the same rate others drank pints, but that was probably because nobody I knew drank bottles of beer at university, such was the crowd into which it was my luck to fall.

So I always ended up stumbling hopelessly through the first couple of pints keeping up with the others, then meekly giving way to my lacklustre constitution (beer makes me feel horribly bloated), passing on the offers of another round, and quietly battling with the business of merely finishing what was left in the glass in front of me. And often, when backs were turned, pouring it away on the floor.

Yes, I know that sounds fucking pathetic, but what started out as our Liverpool local, the Dovedale Towers, was initially fitted out with the most rank set of carpets I'd ever seen in my life, and one more beer stain made no discernable difference whatsoever. Neither did a dozen, for that matter. But that was the culture in which I was living. I felt compelled to do what I could, in a modest way, to fit in.

It was a hell of a shock to the system. I hadn't really drunk anything much at all before I was 17. From the few sips I'd curiously sampled from the occasional bottle in the family cupboard, I already knew I hated the taste of wine and spirits. Not that my mum and dad drank much either. Throughout my entire childhood I never saw a can of lager in the house.

I never knew, and still don't, whether this was through choice (they didn't like it either) or design (they couldn't afford it). Suffice to say there was rarely a bottle of anything doing the rounds, and I was never inclined, or allowed for that matter, to be mingling with friends who were already frequenting pubs at the age of 15.

Anyway, all this meant that when I was exposed to the full-on pub culture of university, my body took a real battering in the practice of being able to take, and being seen to be able to take, my beer.

I wonder on how many of the times I pretended to still be sharp and focused and fully awake and aware after just two pints, when in reality I was well on the way to feeling pissed, people could see right through me. For what it's worth nobody ever said anything. But I'm sure they knew I was a lightweight, and a bit of phoney.

The first time I found myself absolutely drunk was on the occasion of my 19th birthday, when I was more or less frogmarched down to the Dovedale to be served up weird cocktails and deceptively sweet-tasting brews which left me barely able to stand and resulted, on the short walk back to the hall of residence, in me holding a number of animated conversations with complete strangers.

The morning after I suffered my first full-on hangover, though luckily I had no lectures or any reason to go out of my room. I lay in bed for hours wondering how long the agony would continue.

By mid-afternoon, of course, it had all gone and I was eating again. But the memory of the extreme intoxication and the confused aftermath persisted long in my brain and I don't think I ever permitted myself to get so pissed ever again.

The ludicrous flirtation with great big pints of beer persisted as long as I remained an undergraduate, however, though once I was through my first year I more or less opted out of sprawling nights in the city and stuck to quiet visits to nearby hostelries, now including a horribly revamped Dovedale Towers and the agreeable Rose Of Mossley Hill (the scene of my bizarre meeting with Robbie Fowler).

Unfortunately one of the people I'd ended up having to share a place with during my second and third years was a shameless and utterly clichéd beer monster, who loved consuming vast amounts of alcohol along with his similarly-inclined mates then barrelling back into our house in the early hours shouting and cackling, waking me up and keeping me awake for hours.

It was fucking dreadful. I hated those nights, and I hated him and his friends. And they hated me. They used to insult me to my face, which when I look back on it was blatant bullying, no more, no less, and I handled it like I handled all the times I was bullied in my life: by running away.

In later years, after I'd graduated, I began to realise that, just like you can choose the company you keep, you can choose where to keep it and on what terms. And I discovered bottled beer. Then, as I ended up leading an increasingly more secluded life, I found I was contriving to avoid social occasions where alcohol was involved altogether, or if I did go, I didn't drink. And that was that.

I once tried to write a poem pissed, just to see what it looked like in the morning. Naturally, it was shit.

I never did, and still don't, understood the value of socialising and talking to friends and acquaintances in a situation where you steadily lose control of your own faculties and your very ability to socialise and talk. But I see the vast body of the population doing otherwise, and enjoying it, so there you go.

I guess it's just me. I don't like losing control. And I never much liked the taste anyway.

29 July, 2006

Positive ions

At last: the heatwave has lifted, the air has freshened, and there are proper summer skies overhead.

Although I bet in a few days it'll be back.

28 July, 2006

Blackout blitz

It didn't surprise me in the slightest to find the power cuts in London's West End on Thursday ending up making the national news in print, on TV and on the radio.

Word emerges that an area of a scant few square miles loses electricity for several hours...and it's suddenly a major news story jostling for attention alongside war in the Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan. Of course if it had happened anywhere else in the entire country, even on a scale ten times as large, it wouldn't have won as nearly as much coverage - if any. No, it was just because this all kicked off on the media's doorstep that it found itself worming its way up the news agenda and colonising the headlines.

It's happened again today. In fact, the order came from the office that we shouldn't even bother making the journey in, and instead spend the whole day working from home. Which I subsequently did, albeit popping out at lunchtime to chase up my landlord and to get my hair cut.

The upside of this was that I didn't have to use the Underground at all, on what turned out to be yet another sweltering day. The downside was that I had workmen gutting some basement or other right outside my windows. And that it got very hot. Which wouldn't have been a problem were I sitting in my air-conditioned offices. The very same air conditioning, lest we forget, which caused the power cuts in the first place.

Role on winter, eh?

When no doubt all the pipes will freeze and burst and there'll be even less water to go round.

27 July, 2006

London collapses

Or some of it, at any rate.

By lunchtime, rumours were going round at work that parts of the West End had been subject to a power cut. The local company were apparently rationing the supply, such was the demand being caused by a million air conditioning units and cooling fans. There was some idle speculation as to whether our offices - just behind Piccadilly - would end up the same way, but nobody was taking it seriously. I mean, the very idea of electricity being rationed - in this day and age? Preposterous!

Anyhow sure enough just after 2pm the power went off and the entire building was plunged into darkness. And intense heat. And misery. And the eerie glow of a hundred battery-powered laptop computers.

To begin with everybody just carried on as normal. This was, of course, a thoroughly typical British attitude to the circumstances, and, in that sense, a thoroughly hopeless one as well. Sure, we may have been able to do a bit of work, but the batteries in the computers only had, at the most, a couple of hours life, the temperature was rising steadily with each passing minute, and we could tell that the streets outside were filling up with people who'd only too readily abandoned their desks for the thrill of being sent home early.

No word was forthcoming as to what we were expected to do. No word at all. And so the time passed, and the amount of stuff actually being done slowed to a crawl. The situation was ludicrous. The phones went down. Machines started dying. You couldn't even go to the toilet, as you couldn't see anything inside the cubicles.

Finally it was decreed that we would be allowed to leave the premises and go home. Not to relax, though, but to continue work. For there was stuff that had to be readied for tomorrow, and it needed to be completed one way or another. So that was what I did. I was back here by 5pm, and after having a shower and my tea I picked up where I'd left off and worked on through till 8pm.

At which point I discovered there was no water in my flat. Nothing was coming out of the taps - not a thing. I phoned up Thames Water to be told that - yes - a power failure had knocked out the pumping station serving the whole of north west London. This, by the way, was a different power failure to the one affecting the West End.

For a dreadful couple of hours I have sat in the knowledge that, during one of the hottest heatwaves in history, I couldn't even fetch a glass of water or wash my face.

Then, a short while ago, I heard the gurgle of something trying to make its way through the plumbing and, thank heavens, the water returned. Spluttering and stuttering, to be sure, but it was there.

I can't help but wonder for the future of our supposedly advanced society when basic, fundamental utilities are so prone to being simply wiped out, seemingly in the face of anything we can do about it.

Either that or it's just too fucking hot.

26 July, 2006

In absentia

Rather excitingly, and totally unexpectedly, the neighbours downstairs, who from time to time blasted me with bursts of bhangra beat alternating with Chris De Burgh, have vanished. They've disappeared. Fled the building. Ran off.

I know this because the owner of the flat told me so. He knocked on my door earlier, eager to see whether one of my outside walls was suffering from the same kind of damp that was apparently running amok one floor below.

Why, in this weather, any sort of damp is able to flourish at all is somewhat beyond me. But it was while pursuing this line of enquiry that he casually revealed his tenants had gone, more or less overnight, and he was reluctantly beginning the process of tidying the place up ahead of putting it back on the market.

He's not the same person who owns my flat, the one who is mysteriously absent from his office everytime I try to ring him. No, this was somebody else. And he looked mightily pissed off.

I have to admit I did suspect something was going on when, coming back from work yesterday, I noticed none of the windows were open in the flat. Usually they're all wide open, especially during these last few weeks of scorching heat.

That reminded me of how, on Sunday night, or rather early Monday morning, I was woken up at something like 5am by the sound of raised voices drifting up from downstairs. Of all the times to have a slanging match, 5am does not suggest itself as the most obvious. Clearly something was up.

Anyhow, they've gone and I can be slightly reassured by the knowledge I won't have to put up with any sudden interruptions of 'I've Been Missing You' or 'A Spaceman Came Travelling' for the time being.

Although saying that I was stunned and not a little peturbed to hear the sound of 'I Want To Dance With Somebody (Somebody Who Loves Me)' by Whitney Houston come barrelling out of somebody else's open window at around 12.30am last night. Does nobody ever sleep in this accursed city?

24 July, 2006

Hell is...

...quite possibly being stuck in a stationery Underground carriage on a muggy Sunday night sometime after 11pm a mere 10 minutes from home with no explanation as to what's happened and no idea how long it will be before you're able to breathe fresh air again.

23 July, 2006

Twelve plus

The best summer of my life was 1994.

It was the summer between the end of school and the start of university, a bucolic buffer separating two distinct periods of weighty expectation and apprehensive socialisation, but one elevated and elongated and made that much more special by twin commitments I had agreed to only a few weeks before.

The first was to spend a couple of weeks away travelling by train around Western Europe; the second, following on immediately, was an entire month spent rehearsing for and performing in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

I'll talk more about the latter some other time. The former, though of less personal consequence and emotional resonance, remains just as vivid and affecting even now, a dozen years on.

One of the undoubted reasons for this is that it remains the last time I ever went abroad; indeed, the last time I ever took what could pass as a holiday. Another reason is the way it gave me a useful introduction into the kinds of judgements and responsibilities which adulthood demanded, from overruling your acquaintances over something as rudimentary as finding a place to sleep for the night, to learning to live with someone 24 hours non-stop seven days a week. Or fourteen, as it proved here.

This point was the most potent. I found my feelings towards my immediate travelling companion flickering between toleration and despair most days. There were four of us in total; me, one of my friends from school, his sister and one of her friends. I never approved or even conceived of this particular line-up; for starters I didn't know his sister's friend whatsoever, and to be honest didn't get on with her at all from the moment we left to the moment we returned.

But that was nothing compared with the way my own friend had this habit of getting under my skin with unwavering frequency, usually over the tiniest and most inconsequential of subjects. Like whether to sit in the sun or the shade. Like whether to walk down this pavement or that. Like whether to sleep in the top or bottom bunk. Etc.

I hadn't really seen him like this before, and wasn't prepared for it either. I wasn't prepared for a lot of what I had to endure on that whole trip, in fact, right from spending the first night trying to sleep in a desperately uncomfortable seat on a ferry from Harwich to the Hook of Holland, to spending the second night in a bunk bed with a light bulb suspended mere centimetres from my face and which remained switched on until morning.

Then there was the time I was sick in a gutter in a Paris sidestreet at 8am, more from fatigue than anything else, having just disembarked on the overnight train from Brussels and not having had anything to eat for 14 hours. Or the time I was woken up in the small hours by a host of Japanese tourists flocking into our bedroom looking for a place to sleep. Or the three days in Nice, when I thought I would never experience weather as hot as that ever again.

But the flip side were the insightful, memorable moments that may not have registered at the time but took on an ever greater resonance the second I arrived back home and the entire trip began to fade into the past.

There was the occasion I was wandering around a small church in Arnhem, Belgium, when I found a poster advertising a concert given by the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra, several of whom I knew from back home but who were due to perform the very night we were due to move on.

There was the weird experience of walking around the streets of Amsterdam mid-morning and seeing all the bordellos and drinking clubs and showgirls open (quite literally) for business.

There was spending the night of 14th July on the beach in Nice, watching the city's Bastille Day celebrations and fireworks.

There was going out into the Paris streets after breakfast and finding all the streets washed clean, fresh and sparkling in the sunshine, and wondering why such a practice was never pursued in any British city.

There was taking a train from Nice right to edge of the Italy, then nonchalently strolling across the border, spending an hour or so loitering in a new country, then nonchalently strolling back again.

There was the very business of travelling by train, a joy in itself, particularly across the broad, unendingly beautiful and eerie landscapes of the Netherlands, but which could just as well have been Norfolk or the Fens or some of the low-lying meadows around my hometown.

And there was, of course, the return to Britain, that wonderful feeling of accomplishment capped by the reassurance of having made it safely back in one piece, of being on familiar ground, of seeing everything just as it was and just how it should be. Of feeling at the same time both completely exhausted yet quietly exhilirated.

I had no time to recover, however. The very day after my return, I was up at school beginning rehearsals for Edinburgh. And that...no. Not for now. Summer's lease has some time still to run. Those days, and those memories, can wait a little while.

22 July, 2006

Inside view

Today hasn't quite gone to plan, thanks mainly to me finding myself, at around 12.30pm, trapped in my own flat. Not locked out, but trapped in.

When I went to go out just before lunch I found I couldn't open the front door. Both of the locks worked fine, I could feel the hinges trying to swing, but the door itself wouldn't move. It was stuck. I was stuck. And I had no way of immediately altering the situation.

If someone had been on the outside trying to get in - me, for instance - they would have had no problem. They could have simply forced the door open. As I said, both locks were working fine.

As it was, the body of the door was jammed. I had no way of exerting enough force to pull it open, save trying to claw a grip around the edges - which would have worked fine if I had the fingers of a small midget. Not just any old midget, mark you. A small midget.

Of course, not knowing any of my neighbours I couldn't very well shout for assistance; nor could I ring anybody up to come round and help get me out. So instead I had to phone an emergency locksmith and brace myself for the inevitably steep call-out charge and labour costs and VAT and the price of replacement parts and the price of replacing the existing parts with the replacement parts, and so on.

In fact first of all I rang round several local firms to get a quote. One company instantly put me on hold (going down in my estimation straight away) and then forced me to listen to several verses of 'Rescue Me', a song no doubt chosen by someone in a particularly waspish frame of mind but of absolutely no humour value whatsoever when you're stuck having to hear it for a good five minutes or so. Suffice to say I didn't take them up on their offer.

The company I did opt for seemed amiable and responsible enough, and thankfully were round in just over an hour to come to my aid.

It turned out all that had happened was that one of the screws on the opposite edge of the door to the hinges had become so loose it was simply preventing the whole thing from swinging past the frame. Had I been on the outside and pushed the door hard enough it would have opened perfectly, and I would have spotted the problem instantly.

The screw still needed replacing, though, as did a couple of other parts. The Yale lock also needs completely replacing, but that can - and most certainly will - be fixed up for another time. First I've got to confront my landlord with the bill for today's events (£88.13), which I already know is going to prove a right pain in the arse given every time I walk past his office he's never in and every time I've tried ringing him up today he's never answered his phone.

I suspect he's buggered off and some completely different company is now in charge of this flat. It wouldn't be the first time that's happened during my life as a tenant.

Anyhow, at least I can now get out of my flat. Not that I particularly need to go anywhere. In fact I don't need to go anywhere at all, and I don't especially want to either given the fact it's the temperature of a sadistic kiln outside. But it's nice to know I can.

Besides, when it comes doors, it's only ever an open and shut case.

21 July, 2006

Flag day

The front cover of today's Independent was bang on the mark (as is so often the case). Britain in America's back pocket, refusing to sway from the party line, even at the cost of alienating virtually the entire world. There's no hope for peace when such petulant posturing is exercised by, for good or ill, two of the planet's most influential brokers.

19 July, 2006

No yolk

This preposterous picture just about sums up the lunacy of the weather at the present time. There's no way that egg has just been fried on that bonnet. It's been placed there for the camera, dammit!

Doesn't this woman have anything better to do? Like, say, fry an egg for somebody to actually eat?

I don't know what's going on anymore. I feel like I'm trapped in a neverending continental balmy fug which is rendering everything utterly unfamiliar and alien. The heatwave shows no sign of stopping. Its grip merely tightens, and its deathly hand upon all aspects of my life is unremitting and intensely terrifying.

I dream of days when thinking about the weather was never an option, when it was just there in the background, unnoticed, unexceptional, unthreatening.

17 July, 2006

Wedded bliss

"Look love," huffed the man into his mobile phone, "I don't care what you think. You can ring up Victoria station if you want, just don't give me a whole plate of bollocks."

The whole Underground carriage couldn't help but hear. The man was talking at such volume it was impossible not to hear. But what with everybody's blood pressure sky high given the accursed heat and absence of fresh air, this outburst seemed natural, even inevitable, and well worth paying attention to.

"Look, I've been up since half past five, I've been out working in the sun all day, I haven't had a bean, I haven't had a drink, and you think summat funny's going on?" The speaker was wearing a red England football shirt, a dirty pair of shorts and a crooked frown. "I got on the train at 5.51! How many times?!"

Quite a few, as it turned out. It beats me why people feel moved to have such prickly, personal conversations in such unashamedly public environments. Even if you find yourself engaged in a trickly exchange of contrary views, why bellow and fume rather than whisper some terse threats until a more dignified and secluded moment arises?

Fortunately, or perhaps not, I got off the train before this exchange reached its conclusion. By this point the man was almost sprawled sideways along the side of the carriage, somewhat betraying his earlier protestation of abstinence, and snarling to himself like a wounded dog.

You just knew he would walk into his house and expect his tea on the table "and no funny business."

16 July, 2006

Year's end

Back when summers didn't used to just be about battling to work in 30 degree heat and trying to find ways to keep cool during dementedly balmy nights and dreaming of a chance to find a way out of it all, these months used to symbolise limitless potential in the form of the great big school holiday.

So ingrained in my system is the idea of everything winding down and packing up in June, then re-starting anew and afresh all over again in late August, that I still behave as if these particular weeks are down time: dead days, days of transition, days when you should be nursing wounds and resting up and if necessary remaking yourself before plunging back into the fray of an autumn term.

In fact, every year of my life up till I was 21 was lived out this way. Calendar years meant nothing; academic years were everything, and after such a long apprenticeship it's impossible to shake-off the practices and patterns of the past just like that.

So July remains, and perhaps always will be, the twilight time.

It carries with it the hallmarks, not to say the scars, of periods spend totally alone and away from all familiar faces and landmarks. Of cocoon-like spells in contemplation and study. Of family holidays to the same strangely reassuring seaside hideaways year after year. Of endless days spent wondering whether to wait for friends to call you rather than you dare to call them first.

Of growing up and not noticing it. Of growing apart from others and not knowing it. Of chance sightings of school allies and foes around town and deciding whether to keep your distance or wait until everyone was back on safe territory - the playground - before attempting an approach. Of wondering whether anybody else in the whole world was thinking of you.

Then came the run-up to returning to normality as the end of August approached. This was always a period of nervous anticipation and double-edged apprehension.

It would be exciting to know you'd soon be back in your old haunts with the same people showing up, like you, day after day, for the familiar rituals, the comforting routines. But it would be terrifying to think of what might have changed, not just in people's appearances, but their attitudes.

A hell of a lot of ageing could take place during a summer holiday. More than once I would begin a new academic year (both at school and university) to find new relationships had suddenly formed between previously unallied acquaintances. More than once this left me hurt and confused. All the familiar points of reference would have shifted while my back was turned, and I was left having to fathom a new map to chart my way through the ensuing months.

But the process could work in reverse. People who seemed reasonably mature and level-headed before summer would return gripped with some manic desire to run amok and ruin everything that had gone before. Equally those who you could rely on to fall in with when it came to, well, needing someone to fall in with would now treat you with disdain and lofty arrogance. At times it was almost a case of anything goes.

They were tumultous times. The quirks and quakes resonated within me relentlessly. And later I would do my best to shed the burden of those days whenever and however I could, even if it meant, ultimately, cutting ties with a lot of those faces and places I once longed for so desperately.

Yet even though the memories of a hundred summers spent waiting for the autumn or looking wistfully backwards to spring are, with criminal predictability, growing ever harder to recall, their ripples are still washing over me, even now, all these years later.

15 July, 2006

Scorched earth

Today was St Swithin's Day, when tradition dictates that, if it rains, it will continue to do so uninterrupted for a further 40 days.

Fat chance. The sun beat down from dawn to dusk, as it has done for the past week or so, and looks set to do again at least for the next few days.

I think the reason this numbingly hot weather is affecting, and afflicting, me so much, is that I get to feel the sharp end up of it twice a day during the week when I have to use the Underground.

If I was able to walk or get the bus to work, or didn't have to leave the house at all, I'm sure it would be less of an issue. Instead I know I'll be having to once more take a seat in the equivalent of a mobile furnace for around 40 minutes on Monday morning, a thought that fills me with despair.

Saying that, and at the risk of repeating myself (just for a change), the absence of any substantial rain from London for what feels like months is now both a physical and psychological curse. It's reached the point that, during a TV drama I was watching today set in World War Two, a scene set in a room with rain falling outside left me profoundly moved - not so much because of what was being said, but of what was not being said. It just looked and felt the way the country is supposed to be: damp, temperate, breezy, withdrawn. The way the country seems furthest from ever truly being again.

The polaroids that hold us together
Will surely fade away
Like the love that we spoke of forever
On St Swithin's Day
- Billy Bragg

12 July, 2006

Running dry

Apropos anything more constructive or illuminating...


10 July, 2006

Weary bones

It happens every time, but I'm still startled by how just one day back at work after a short holiday leaves you floored with exhaustion. For some reason almost every joint in my body aches. I almost fell asleep on the train home - never a good sign. I'd even had to spend a couple of minutes sitting in the toilet at work resting my eyes.

Once again I am amazed at how, by contrast, some people have conditioned their bodies to treat work almost as an adjunct to the main business at hand, i.e. going out in the evening and in effect beginning the day all over again. Where do they find the energy? The composure? The peace of mind?

I'd say they must spend the whole weekend sleeping - except they come back into work on a Monday with tales of debauchery and decadence on a Caligula-esque scale. They could be making it all up, of course. They could be taking the piss. In which case I envy them even less.

Right now I feel like I could sleep for a week. Unfortunately that is presently not possible, and I must therefore find some way to cheat and sneak my way through to the weekend. A cup of camomile tea might be a start. Well, it worked wonders for Helen Daniels.

09 July, 2006

Low, low

Feeling very down at the moment. Not sure why, but it's being compounded by fatigue, an unhappiness with various aspects of my life, loneliness, and a sense of loss for something I can't put a name to.

I remember reading how, at the start of the episode of The Simpsons called 'Moaning Lisa', the writers deliberately wanted to have Lisa appear sad for no specific reason. I recall thinking what an amazing thing this was for a mainstream American sitcom to do - but also how instantly genuine and utterly universal.

There's a stigma of guilt attached to the notion of feeling depressed when you're no longer a teenager. But conversely since when did life become immediately understandable the second you turn 20 years of age?

Answers on a virtual postcard.

08 July, 2006

Around London II

I've notched up the second leg of my circuit, by way of another nine miles clockwise from Finsbury Park round to West Ham station.

I had mixed feelings about setting out on a Saturday, as I'd no idea how busy the route might be and how cluttered the city would feel. As it turned out I saw barely a dozen people the whole time (out walking, that is), and it was only on the journey there and back that I had the misfortune to brush up against thronging crowds of tourists and fellow travellers.

This leg was a real mixed bag, taking me through some right shitholes, to be frank, but also some real gems. Apparently a lot of the area is due for redevelopment ahead of the 2012 Olympic Games, and judging by the state of most of it, the work can't come soon enough. However there were stretches where, once more, I could have been walking out in the countryside anywhere in Great Britain.

I went past the old Big Breakfast house; through the cemetery where the founder of the Salvation Army is buried; by ornate disused 19th century pumping stations and sewage treatment factories; along the edge of both Walthamstow and Hackney Marshes; crossed over the Meridian (which I shall do again south of Greenwich); and saw Canary Wharf appear on the horizon for the first time.

Despite it being a Saturday I made an effort to pick up where I left off before 9am, and like last time I was through by 1pm. One day I'll actually try and walk in the morning and afternoon, but for now my feet and my stomach aren't quite ready for it.

Day 2: Finsbury Park - West Ham
Miles Added: 9
Total Miles Completed: 17
Total Miles Outstanding: 61

07 July, 2006

Old wave

I heard 'Roll With It' by 90s chart-toppers Oasis on the radio earlier. It felt like it was from 100 years ago.

Everything about it just seemed to reek of a time long long past. The thing sounded shockingly primitive. The singing was crap (another of Liam's reading-the-shopping-list deliveries), the music was crap (page two of Noel's a-tune-a-day guitar manual), the production was crap (it sounded like it had been taped in a church hall) and the arrangement was crap (the rest of the band prodding around as if uncertain of the harmonies).

In fact, it sounded like a musical joke - a band taking the piss, a band not caring about what they were bashing out. A band, moreover, who didn't need to care about what they were bashing out.

There was no substance, no emotion, no nothing. Yet it went to number two in the hit parade. And was, of course, one of two contenders for the title of Britpop kings, squaring up the same week to Blur's even worse offering 'Country House'.

I doubt either record gets much airplay nowadays. It's instructive, but somehow strangely fair, the way some things age faster than others. Though come to think of it, 'Roll With It' sounded out-of-date the moment it was released.

Pop music needs to be fresh, new, exciting and fun. Fortunately songs that fit all four criteria can hail just as much from 1955 as 2005. Which I guess is just part of pop's magic.

06 July, 2006

Around London

I began my circumnavigation of the city today.

I'd been itching to get started all week, but the offensively hot weather kept me inside. Following yesterday's downpours, however, I decided to take a chance by getting up early this morning and seeing how far I got before either my compulsion, or my legs, or both, gave way.

I actually managed eight miles, and would have gone further but the battery in my camera ran down, I came to a part of the route that had been temporarily closed off for repair, and it was lunchtime. Plus I was only five minutes from the nearest Underground station.

But I was fairly impressed with how far I'd come, especially as most of it was in, yes, the pouring rain. Given it was a weekday, I also found myself walking great long stretches of the route completely alone. This didn't bother me, though, and other than a bizarre exchange with a young child who broke off from talking to his mum to tell me about how he was going to buy a newspaper, and a kid in Finsbury Park who asked me if I wanted to play football with him, I hardly said a word to anyone.

I've already mentioned the route that I'm following. It's fairly decently signposted, at least it has been so far, but for a short spell in Queen's Wood in Highgate where I got lost and found myself walking inside a drainage ditch. According to the leaflets which I'm using as a guide, the section I walked today was one of the greenest of the whole circuit. It was certainly one of the most genteel and agreeable. At times I could have been strolling through the Cotswolds.

Heaven knows how long it will take me to complete the circumnavigation, but just to have made a start has filled me with a sense of enthusiasm and inspiration to press on. As Claire Rayner would say. Now all I need is another day without too much sun. Knowing London, that'll be in about three months time.

Day 1: Hendon - Finsbury Park
Miles Completed: 8
Miles Outstanding: 70

05 July, 2006

Enough now

Things were getting desperate this morning. For the fifth time in a row I'd woken up to find the temperature already up above 25 degrees Celsius and rising, with the sun beating down and not a cloud in sight. I would have prayed for rain, were I a religious man. Instead I just demanded it.

Anyway, sure enough round about 2pm the heavens finally opened. It's still raining now. I'm continuing to wait for the thunderstorms that were forecast to wreak havoc over the city all day, which will hopefully kill off this horrendous humidity for good. But at least the sun has pissed off and the temperature seems to have fallen. Hooray!

04 July, 2006

Time shift

The first anniversary of London's suicide bombings is fast approaching, and with it a slew of programmes ostensibly seeking to commemorate the events of that day.

Quite why, as a correspondent in this week's Radio Times rightfully points out, the BBC have seen fit to hire Natasha Kaplinksy to "present" the two-minute silence remains to be seen (and presumably not heard).

But at least there's no big budget docu-drama recreation lined up, or anything in the way of Channel Five's Diana Night, roled out precisely one year after the titular Princess died and which included I Dream of Diana (various accounts of people fantasising about the deceased royal in their sleep), The People's Princess: A Tribute (a fictionalised retelling of her final twelve months) and, most unbelievable of all, a 100 Per Cent Special (a Diana-themed edition of C5's quick-fire general knowledge quiz).

I'm speaking honestly when I say that in all the times I've travelled on the Underground since moving to London, not once have I involutarily thought that I might be sitting on a train that is about to blow up. Not once. The concept has never entered my mind. There have been a couple of times where reading an article in the paper or overhearing somebody's conversation has planted the topic in my brain. But that's it. I just don't think about it.

It was very different a year ago when I'd planned to come down to London for a job interview actually on 7th July itself, but the night before had suddenly decided against it.

I wrote at the time how "I just can't find any enthusiasm for the job and this would undoubtedly show through at the interview. Weighing up the pros and cons of it all is pointless, because it assumes I'd be offered the job, so I won't do it." I remember emailing the particular organisation with a big fib: I said I was ill and wouldn't be travelling to London after all.

As it turned out I wouldn't have been able to get to London even if I'd tried, because by the time I would have been nearing the city all mainline stations were already closed. Instead I sat in my old office with my colleagues (I hadn't booked the day off - I was simply going to phone in ill) watching the TV that sat on my desk tuned to the BBC and not doing any work.

One thing I recall very vividly is that we were all quietly impressed by the way Tony Blair appeared to be handling the situation, especially the statement he made live from the G8 summit with the world's most powerful leaders arranged behind him. Strange days.

I then had to go back to London for a different job interview later in the month. I was shitting myself as it was, but the dozens and dozens of armed police all over the mainline and Underground stations merely conspired to alarm rather than reassure. They all appeared on edge, a bit trigger-happy, a bit menacing.

Which is, of course, a shamelessly ironic thing to say in retrospect, given I was visiting on 20th July, and less than 24 hours later four more bombers attempted to blow themselves up but failed, and less than 24 hours after that some of these self-same policeman cheerfully emptied seven bullets into the head of an innocent passenger.

By accident rather than design I won't be in work on Friday to see how they choose to mark the two-minute silence - I'm on holiday. Still, at least I've got Natasha Kaplinky to tell me what to think.

03 July, 2006

Evening haul

This heat is appalling. I've never known it so bad. Seemingly the only way to cool down is to go out for a long walk at 9.30pm every night.

02 July, 2006

And again

As expected, England not so much bowed as slouched out of yet another football tournament by losing on penalties.

To be honest, as soon as the match went to extra time it was obvious the thing would end in spot kicks and hence an England defeat, because for at least the last 10 years England have been shit at penalties. So I didn't actually watch the closing minutes of the game, preferring instead to finish the washing up and let the noisy reactions of the restaurant staff gathered in the car park down below tell me what was going on.

There was a great cry of delight from out of one of the flats underneath me when Portugal triumphed, which in turn prompted a lot of fierce but hopeless glares from the assembled throng. I then went and switched on the TV, enjoying the closing montage of English highlighs and lowlights set to, and this was a nice surprise, the Pet Shop Boys.

Of course England should have been dispatched from the World Cup ages ago, playing as they were to an infinitely worse standard than a great deal of other teams who had the misfortune to be eliminated as early as the first round. Not a massive football fan by any means, I'm hoping Germany repeats France's trick of 1998 and wins the thing on its home turf - if only to piss off the anti-German tabloids even more.

01 July, 2006

Dead-end world

"Yoo hoo!" a woman called out to me from the other side of the street. "Do you want to have a good time?"

It happens all the time. Every day, in fact. Yes, I have to confess to regularly finding myself in the situation of being hailed by, for want of a better word (or for a more offensive one), showgirls.

Before I let this go on any further, I should say this happens by accident rather than by design. I have to walk to work through a particularly seedy part of the West End, which involves running the gauntlet of a string of poky bordellos - burlesque houses, as they'd say in The Simpsons - each of which sports what looks to all intents and purposes like a common or garden wooden front door, but out of which looms a scantily-dressed woman whose business is to shout at every single passer by.

They're not there in the morning, of course, but come the evening when I'm rushing to get back to the station every lady is at her post, leaning against the doorway, smoking, half-heartedly jigging to a piece of ultra-loud R'n'B and yelling at any males within a 100 yard radius.

I've never actually seen anyone take these near-naked foghorns up on their offer and step inside, though on a couple of occasions I've witnessed exchanges of conversation, and possibly money, happening on the doorstep. For the most part, everyone completely ignores the invitation and just passes on down the road. Yet nobody is exempt from an ear-bashing: old, young, rich, poor, every nationality under the sun.

The desperation and relentless pursuit of potential customers no longer surprises or alarms me as much as it used to; what continues to boggle, though, is the fact that the street upon which most of these establishments exist also sports several perfectly ordinary and dignified pubs, restaurants, bookshops, hairdressers and - most bizarre of all - a primary school.

Yes, every morning dozens of parents and children have to pick their way through the detritus (literally) of the previous night's debauchery to make it into the playground for morning bell, in the process passing under the awning of the Windmill Club (sporting its giant drawing of a scantily-dressed waitress along with the amusingly hesistant slogan 'Probably The Best Gentleman's Club In The World') and in the full glare of 24-hour-flashing neon signs pronouncing 'Strip Club' and 'Live Girl Action'.

Fuck knows how the mums and dads explain away all these sights and sounds. Maybe the kids know perfectly well what's going on and have just assimilated it all without question. Whatever, it's a strangely unsettling juxtaposition which I still can't get my head round. I don't think I've ever seen anything like it before in my life.

And it's a hell of a far cry from my primary school, buried unassumingly at the end of a terraced street with only some outside toilets for controversy.