Travel columns & archive

Postcards: a series of travel columns from the Leither magazine, 2014-present.

lerwickDaniel Gray’s Postcard #10: Shetland
“We’ll have to pedal that bugger!” says a Lancastrian gesturing towards our compact plane as we idle in the airport gate holding pen. His phone rings. It is The Wife, as I imagine he calls her. Their septic tank is overflowing. “Well what the bloody hell do you want me to do from here?” he asks, not unreasonably.

We shuffle and fold onto the plane and pulp ourselves into our seats. Every time the plump woman in front exhales, her seat scrapes my knees. Behind me, an old lady in jogging bottoms launches into a programme of stretches aimed, I suppose, at preventing DVT. I feel like I am trapped inside an accordion.

I look around. There are pretty girls returning to Shetland with glossy carrier bags that have string handles, northern wages enjoyed on George Street. There are bulky men in fleeces with company logos on them, and a pair of polite Americans who bless a sneezer seven rows away.

This fleeting community in the clouds seems almost excited each time the air hostess reaches the space by the cockpit and draws closed her small corrugated curtain, before opening it again shortly afterwards. And for my next act…the drinks trolley. When she temporarily retires there is always the pursuit of looking beyond the droplets at what lies beneath. Sea, mainly, it turns out. We sink from the clouds and witness jaggy grey rocks, and fields and hills in Scrabble-lid green. A single road creeps around to remind us of the century.

Sumburgh Airport smells of bleach and is smattered with bored staff cackling and passing time. Our cloud community fragments into oil workers, and the rest of us. They are met by men in yet more logoed fleeces and disappear through a revolving door; we are left waiting an hour for the bus to Lerwick. I sit drinking from a metal pot of tea of the type whose lid you can manipulate with your thumb so it can talk (remember: I have an hour), and I delight in the melancholy of a rural airport. An advert on the wall reads: ‘In London they have Harrod’s. In Shetland we have Harry’s, Shetland’s Department Store’.

By the airport bus stop’s ‘No Waiting’ sign, in silent communion we board the number six. At times, the views are so ridiculously beautiful as to be obscene, all bays of drama and hills of content. At other times, two men in front of me are enthusiastically talking about Warhammer games, and a large malodorous chap in chef’s whites snores off a staff lock-in. Out of the window, Shetland winds blast hanging washing dry. When a litter of schoolchildren board, wind seems to remain in their hair, a breezy aura. We rattle through Okraquoy, Fladdabister, Quarff and Brindister. By Gulberwick, I would not be surprised should a helmeted-Viking board and ask for a single into town.

Passing King Harald Street we spin into Lerwick. On an impromptu feedback board in the bus shelter, comments include ‘shoot the bastards’ and ‘Why are elderly people waiting for buses in the lavatories?’, which sounds philosophical to me. At the harbour lollops a giant ‘boatel’ for oil workers. It is the shape of a fallen milk carton and the size of an abbey. As if it were not incongruous enough among the charming stones and colours of the bay buildings behind, the boatel is painted in black and white stripes, a dystopian CGI zebra.

The boatel means you have to put a little effort into finding a more palatable version of Lerwick. I drift among streets behind the harbour that siphon you up cobbled alleyways called Crooked Lane or Jimmy Col’s Steps. As evening drops it suits their ghostly comeliness. Sitting on a bench eating terrible fish and chips in the mist, it occurs to me that this place is a coloured-in Victorian photograph.

In a hotel bar I glance through a goldfish bowl window into the restaurant area. Thirty or so holidaying pensioners are eating. Nearly all are silent, though the smell of fish is loud. Over a pint I read about the Reverend James Ingram. He built the first Free Kirk in Shetland, I learn, and banned the playing of the fiddle on Unst, the most northerly inhabited island in Britain. In accents which are both speedy and soft, like machine guns shooting popcorn, two locals discuss the majesty of the word ‘peerie’. “It’s better than ‘wee’, and definitely better than ‘small’”, they agree.

The next day I walk to the top of the town. Displayed in a shop window are two funeral notices, for Harry Jamieson, and for Alison Margaret Thompson (Polly). I walk on and look out to sea. As I pause, an old lady very politely begs my attention. She stands while her husband sits behind on a bench. In her hand is an Orangina bottle. “Can you open this, son?”, she asks, “We can’t do it, now.” I look to the man, as if checking I am not undermining him. “Aye. Even Shetlanders go weak at the end”, he says.

Spain photo

Daniel Gray’s Postcard #9: Catalonia
There are stout lilac towerblocks and parades of tobacco shops and butchers with six storeys of flats above. Suckered onto the chemist is a neon green medical cross. It winks away, defiant in the afternoon sun. Every fourth or fifth premises seems to be a bar with a lone man sitting outside and a television on top of a fridge inside.

Washing dries on balconies and old ladies slowly die on street corner benches. They still have time to smile and wink at children. The Spanish always do. Here, niños are forever seen and heard, and never apologised for. They are treated as eternal flowers, there to blow a sparkle into a stranger’s eyes. Even the blind man selling lotto tickets feels it, waving his white stick in a mock shepherd manoeuvre towards a dark and gorgeous little girl with a monobrow and a pink silk dress. She convulses with laughter.

The pavements are slick and waxy as if made from the soles of bowling shoes. Your nose detects sweet fried things and bad drains in equal measure. It is intoxicating because it is alien and familiar. It doesn’t smell like home, but it reminds you of the last time you were here. All at once, Barcelona’s edges, its residues, tickle me under the arms and punch me in the face.

Beyond the taxis and the Tabac stand is our station. The clock tip-taps like a cathedral roof drip falling on a stone floor. It is the kind of clock made to remind the waiting and arriving hoards that time owns us all. The train skates in, an elegant block of lard, and we board. To our right, more towerblocks and happy little lives. To our left, sea and sky merging into a joyous wall of blue.

My daughter is five and there is only one thing better than television: peering through the gaps in-between seats at strangers on trains. Usually, they respond with stuck-out tongues and “hello beautifuls”. It is interesting when they ignore her – a difficult concept when the only people you know in the world have made you its centre.

When the train pauses – perhaps to check over its shoulder that it has definitely shaken off Barcelona – she tunes in to the clicking noises of knitting needles and moves to find out more, a cat aware of mousey scratches behind the skirting board. She finds a Peruvian woman who could be any age between 70 and 108. Though her eyes do not waver from the yarn, she tips her head gently sideways to beckon my daughter into the empty seat next to her. My daughter, and this surprises me, takes up the offer.

At first I mourn the passing of the years when she hid behind my legs. Then I look at the lady. Her crow’s feet have feet of their own, her cheeks are a spindly vine of crevices and pocks. She wears the very faintest of smiles and probably has done for a thousand years. She is restful, content. Her eyes, mahogany brown, can see through time. This lady is a story. I sit back down, elated by my daughter’s character judgement.

A couple of days on, all sated and settled and Spanish as undone shirt buttons, we walk to a beach. Sea laps, sun laughs, and African men with Mums somewhere desperately seek sales of watches and sunglasses. There is an open café towards the end of the beach, next to the promenade where British thighs pump away at the pedals of hired bikes. It is the kind of place you sit down in and decide to move abroad and become a poet or an old man. It has thin serviettes in metal holders and ketchup in plastic tomatoes.

We order chips, that pleaser of all the family. We have walked a long way and need guarantees. The proprietor, who takes our order, is deaf. Not hard of hearing. Deaf. I nominate my wife on the grounds that she speaks Spanish. “Aye, Spanish. Not Spanish sign language,” she replies. Somehow, our message is received. A plate the size of Wigan is brought to our table. When I imagine this moment again, there is a silver salver cover over it, and rays of light beam outwards as it is lifted to reveal a hillock of chips.

I don’t think I’ve eaten chips like them. I don’t think any of us have. They are crispy as winter by a lake to the bite, soothing as the sound of lemonade popping on the tongue. The sea moves in and there are two chips left. I give one each to my wife and daughter and feel as good as Jesus.

On the final day, it rains. Spain doesn’t wear rain well. It is a colour clash. Soon, we are back in Scotland, resplendent in its robe of drizzle. “Can we go for chips?” my daughter asks.

107 coverDaniel Gray’s Postcard #8: Wembley
The man has a piece of paper. On it is written ‘Black Ford’ and ‘11.30am’. Up and down, up and down he paces along the footpath, glancing at cars and then at the paper. With the non-note hand, he nudges his sinking spectacles hard against the bridge of his nose, sighs and slumps against a wall. Luton Airport’s pick-up area does this to you.

He shows me the piece of paper. “Have you seen a Black Ford, mate?” I have not the heart to tell him that I couldn’t tell a Ford from a motorbike, that cars have long eluded me, but I settle for what I hope is a sympathetic shake of the head. In front of us, a man in shades performs an Irish jig around a ginger-haired bloke who looks like he wants to cry. Drivers toot and gesticulate at one another, their arms like the branches of some demented tree in the wind. My fatherly lift arrives and we leave the man looking for his Black Ford. It is way after 11.30am.

Football brings me to the Deep South. This is not just any football. This is Middlesbrough. For 27 of my 33 years they have tormented and delighted me. They are my curse and my family. If – and millions are like me here – I put the toil into another pursuit that I do following this football club, I would be useful and perhaps even beautiful. We are going to Wembley, rhythmic, magic-fuelled words when you are lost to this game like I am. Me and 40,000 others, all convincing ourselves that getting the upstairs front seat on the bus or finding 20p on the floor are lucky omens. Not only are we going to Wembley: we are going to win.

On the morning of the game, we travel to 1957. A relative has brought mementoes of his footballing career to show us. There are prim matchday programmes and newspaper clippings gone brittle. He played in the Spartan League, a fair level if you happened to be in Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire or beyond in the 1950s. In fonts that take me far away, I read about Boreham Wood and Ruislip FCs, Tring Town and Sandy Albion. ‘Brown’s Brilliant Goalkeeping Prevented an Utter Rout’, a headline shouts at me. Another tells of ‘The Massacre of Stonecross Road’ (Hatfield Town 8 v 3 Baldock Town).

Old adverts take your hand and lead you gently down the high street. J. Hartrop Tobacconist (‘Dutch and English Whiffs’), Days’ Off Licence (‘For all your drink in the home’) and Hollier’s Tuberculin Tested Milk. How about we look in on EC Careless, Ironmonger or Peter Goodfellow with his Distinctive Menswear? And let us not forget that Boreham Wood Cage Bird Society meets on the first Wednesday of every month.

I am still thinking of Bob the Barber and the Hankin Drapery as we jolt and grind through Metroland and into London. The old beast fascinates me. As ever, it is not the parts or buildings I am supposed to be interested in, but the housing estates and scruffy shop parades. All those lives, all those stories, piled together like chaotic toys on a jumble sale table.

This, though, is a football day, and therefore one for the heart rather than the head. My fellow reds swarm around King’s Cross. Half of Middlesbrough is here, the old with steel in their blood and the young who may well have to take their chances elsewhere. Work for the latter has vanished since the days when ‘Made on Teesside’ was chiselled into bridges straddling Sydney Harbour and the Tyne. Here is a town and team whose identities are interspersed. Hope is pinned on shirts with lions on the crest, and hope is important.

The escalators down into the earth are caked red too. I feel wildly, hypnotically optimistic. What is the point of going to football if you don’t? I look across the Tube carriage at my Dad. We were first here to see our team in 1990. I remember flashes of the game, and more about the riot afterwards – Police horses bolting and me picking up a Middlesbrough flag with Doc Marten prints across it, a spoil of war. I still have it. I ask him if he thinks we will win. “Of course we will.” He looks as petrified as I am beginning to feel. Somewhere between Kilburn and Dollis Hill, I am remembering that we actually have to play another team to win, and not a bad one at that. Wembley Way feels like the centre of the world. This is an occasion. We sing our way in. We are going up.

Norwich City score two early goals and the game is over, really, by half-time.

Again and again, I look around our half of the ground, up and down, up and down. We needed this. Our town needed this. All those hopes and stories turned to sadness and thoughts of work tomorrow. The final whistle goes. Other people’s joy is hell. We trudge and dredge away. “I bloody hate Wembley,” says my Dad.

106 coverDaniel Gray’s Postcard #7: Strathpeffer
The taxi driver was in the army. Eighteen years in the army. He tells me about some of the places he went to, some of the things he saw. I decide not to moan about my leaking shoes. When I mention the rain, he recalls the sound Afghan raindrops make on the roof of a British Army tent. I try to steer the conversation away from Helmand and towards the Highlands, but the driver is not for turning. “I lost my best mate out there. Blown to bits. That’ll be £7.60 please.” It’s an unconventional sign-off, I’ll give him that much.

At the hotel reception, there is a queue. Leading it is an American lady in a hotel-issue dressing gown. “Is my shower supposed to be cold, is that, like, a Scottish thing?” she asks the Spanish man behind the desk. He telephones someone called Stevie and says “the water has gone again”. I check in and squelch to my room. There is no milk for my cup of tea. I phone reception and get the Spaniard. “My apologies, sir. I’ll get  Stevie to bring you some.” Stevie never materialises. He has a lot on, I decide, and head out.

Strathpeffer has a calm beauty. It is solidly, reassuringly Victorian, all titan houses with frilly doorways fit for parasols and bulky skirts. Gardens are roomy, many with monkey puzzle trees, lush souvenirs of Victoriana. Decorative iron streetlamps line the main road, a dainty sentry guard. The Grand Spa Pavilion entices my eyes, suddenly the only girl in the room. Its crescent window is like a sad eye offering you a look into another time, but there is nothing morose about the place. It is a work of art, on the one hand evocatively Rule Britannia, on the other like a New England town hall. White and wooden, it is a portal taking the viewer somewhere pleasing. Here once tourists danced, here once locals fell in love. It was a place of learning and fiery oratory too: the walls whisper of the night Emmeline Pankhurst dropped in, of George Bernard Shaw holding court.

Strathpeffer’s setting adds to the feeling of being in another place, in another time. It sits beneath hills, onto which are lodged houses and hotels in cream and stone. It means a content feeling of being cut off from the rest of time and the world, hidden away, ghosting around. The wild west wooden shops are set back from the road and I feel cheated that they don’t have a balcony and a lone rocking chair swaying in the wind.

Inside the mini-market, a lazy store cat refuses to move away from the crisps section. Not even an ear flickers as I climb over it. Two women in their thirties are talking about a mutual acquaintance. “She gives me the boak, that woman. Ties my stomach in knots when she speaks.” The store noticeboard advertises a Snail Race.

Back outside the shop, a boy in that purgatory cusp between happy boyhood and intense teenagedom is on his bike. He is not riding anywhere, just circling, occasionally performing a wheelie. Growing up somewhere like this gives you a permanent sense of waiting for something, even if you never quite know what. In my village, it was waiting to leave. A dog tied to a lamppost looks on, an indifferent audience. It feels like both of them wish they had been raised not here but beneath the bright lights of Dingwall.

I walk down to the old railway station, last train departed 1946. Its autumn-red wooden plank walls have been kept exquisite, shops and things to look at or eat sold from within. The platform is intact too, but look down for tracks and all you see is long grass; listen out for steam rising and all you hear is a waterfall and happy birds. Occasionally railway station aromas waft by, scented ghosts hanging in the air – nothing specific, just tar or mucky steam water.  It’s all nice enough, this Little House on the Prairie end of the line, but a shame. Why not trains fizzing here from Inverness, bringing us to this glad timewarp of a town? Screw the sums and the feasibility studies. Give us life and railways.

Back by the shops, the bike boy is still prowling. My bus to Inverness pulls up 15 minutes late. The driver doesn’t take a fare, instead ushering me on. I am the only passenger and he turns up the radio during a news story about a murder in rural Scotland. I don’t know if it’s a good or a bad thing when we stop to pick up a school-age lad. Another couple of kids get on elsewhere, one carrying a trumpet. At least we can use it to bludgeon the murderous driver, I think. Somehow we arrive at Inverness unscathed. “Is this bus always free?” I ask trumpet boy. “Aye, it’s the school bus mate.” The driver gives me a friendly goodbye.

104 coverDaniel Gray’s Postcard #6: Train to Dumfries
At Barrhead, a lady in fingerless gloves gestures towards the train driver and convinces him to wait for her. She has bright red hair and milk-bottle glasses. “Ach, she’s no’ quite right” says the man in the seat behind me, before breathlessly moving to “Oh hello Sheila, hen” when she enters the carriage and he realises he knows her. “What you up to, darlin’?”

The train sounds ill. It is just after Christmas and everything has taken its toll. As it pulls into Dunlop it seems to let out a scream. Perhaps it is possessed by the Dunlop Warlock, Tam Giffen. In the 1860s Tam, say stories passed through air and time, did evil things, often with comical elements. Once, he tried to blow a roofer from the top of a house, but could blow only his wig off. In the end, Tam was killed by fairies for giving away their secrets. Shit happens, as they say. Or maybe not.

We trickle into Stewarton and I watch the breath clouds of cold people on the platform. They bellow in sequence as if rehearsing for a brass band. As the train stops an old lady appears suddenly at the window, startling me. She has lines and sadness on her face. She looks for someone or something in the carriage, her hand up against her forehead, and then walks away.

The train all but empties at Kilmarnock, spilling out lives and errands. Here is a neglected town speckled with old buildings worth caring about and thick prim houses on leafy hills.

On the spluttering train, there is no-one else around me and the Ayrshire day has decided to be beautiful. The sun does not climb beyond the blue sky’s knees, but it strains away and licks things golden. It lights bobbly countryside and low white cottages. Just as you expect to see Rabbie Burns himself emerging from such a cottage while pulling up his trousers, the 21st century slaps your chops: a road caked in lorries full of logistics; the noise of silver and bronze clinking and chinking in the pockets of the bored and fidgety train guard.

Neat, proud council estates half-mask the purging of Auchinleck, robbed blind when its mines shut. Maybe nothing seems so bad when you are but a stroll from air that smashes you in the face with its freshness. As if reacting in opposition, a man gets on with his roll-up still lit. The smell fills the carriage and feels foreign, exotic, historic even. I want him to light another.

New Cumnock and Kirkconnel are similar, though I imagine residents would not agree, and fair enough too. Stopped coal has changed lives. Two old ladies in purple get on at the former, spend their short journey talking about Eastenders, and alight at the latter. And all the while out of the window, the countryside gladdens me. It is still and spacious, an open palm as opposed to the clenched fists of the Highlands. The hills are not dramatic, but pleasing. Their outline resembles a dangerously slow heartbeat on a hospital bedside monitor.

The train heaves itself into Sanquhar. Two women with rhythmic accents which seem to jolt in places sit opposite me. One is in her twenties, the other, her Mum, in her fifties. Both have tiny tattoos of tea pots on their wrists. Mum opens a Fry’s Orange Cream and daughter takes the piece offered, which is also a tablet of permission for Mum to speak almost nonstop until Dumfries. “Ah said the wrong thing. I know I did. You cannae say anything to him. He’s obsessed with Aldi. Won’t even go in Lidl anymore.” There is brief respite when her phone rings: “Is that you Dougie? Aye, I knew `cos the wee screen said ‘Dougie’.” Then she continues. “You should see the size of the hoose. It’s too much for her. It’s even got a dining room! Ah’d love a dining room, I would.”

Dumfries station is as close as I have seen in Scotland to that of a model railway. On each side  steady Victorian redbrick buildings wear white brass shelters. I expect to see a porter clumsily rolling about a laden wooden luggage carrier with a lady in a fur coat walking ahead of him. The toots and fizzes of a steam train would fit more than the panting train I have stepped off. It seems to look onwards to Gretna and then Carlisle with dread.

An entire class of schoolchildren squeezes into the small station café. They queue in as orderly a manner as their hormones and personalities will allow them. Chips, chips and more chips are ordered. I join in. Four workmen in bright coats wedge themselves through the door and up the chip count further. I sit for an hour and watch the café empty. At 2 o’clock an ancient man shuffles in with great effort. “Portion of chips please, son” he croaks. “We’ve none left, I’m afraid,” replies the man behind the counter. The old man looks like he could cry, but he orders a toastie instead.

104 coverDaniel Gray’s Postcard #5: Nairn
Their names are in a log book. Toppy, Ting-a-Ling and Whistling Dan. Dozy, Peekie Ralph and The Stoor. Big Ian, Bigger Ian and Mole Catcher. Indeed Indeed, Jimmy Two Times and Paraffin Tommy. There are hundreds more, from Browser to Watery Dan via Mad Golfer. Every one of them was a fisherman of Fishertown, Nairn. There were only a few real names to go around, so each became known by a characteristic, an incident or a misfortune. I stand in old Nairn Museum and feast upon every one of them.

“It’s ever so quiet in here,” says one museum volunteer to another, “I wish we could play music or something.” But the names and the stories are noises that speak to me. Old pieces of paper in gilded frames talk about Geordie Patience, who ‘was never known to have done a day’s work and lived entirely on his wits, and had a glib tongue and personality which made him acceptable and tolerated by everyone.’ They whisper the story of William Gordon, known as Tiptoe due to a foot injury. The injury left him crippled; he ‘spent his life fishing and rabbit trapping. He chatted to all the visitors at the harbour who would listen to his weird and imaginary tales.’ This is history by tittle-tattle and it makes for a dusty old heaven of a museum.

I walk back into town thinking about creases on sepia faces and sailors’ ganseys, each with a pattern unique to their boat. In the back room of a bakery is a café, all clinky-clanky and ‘och, I see that’s Tam Malcolm died now too’. A German couple poke at pasties with plastic forks and next to me a mother and daughter, both pensioners, chew the gristle. “It makes you go, but it doesn’t make you GO, go.” “I’ll have to try that. Sen-o-kot, did you say?”

The early evening high street is a soothing place to be. The air is crunchy and smells of young bonfires and the coming winter. This high street is sprinkled with independent shops of the sort that make standing and looking-on like watching a 1970s sitcom. Nairn: now in Technicolor. I half expect to see Frank Spencer zooming past Burnett and Forbes clothes store on rollerskates, almost knocking over an old lady leaving Clark’s of Nairn (‘Complete House Furnishers’) before smashing into the window of Pat Fraser Electrical Contractor (‘Radio, T/V, Video…Fishing and Shooting’).

Down another street is The Nairn Pet Shop, ‘Pets Birds Fish etc Upstairs’. In smalltown Scotland, the intrigue is always in the etc. Postcard adverts in the Co-op offer ‘Victorian Antique Mixer Bath Taps £10’ and ‘Victorian Style Bath Taps £15.’ There is too a mattress for sale, ‘Only used occasionally’. In Bloomers a florist neatly sets out tomorrow’s delivery on the front desk. It is four flowery letters which together read ‘GRAN’.

I cross an impolitely busy road into Fishertown. The scale changes, Duplo to Lego. Tiny adjoined cottages peck at the cheeks of thin streets which crisscross eachother. Here lived the tightest of communities, fisherfolk separate from the hoity-toity Nairn folk uphill. They built their houses side-by-side, their backs turned to the sea which gave them work and sometimes death, shunning the other world.  I walk along Society Street and see the sturdy Seaman’s Victoria Hall. In the days of Toppy and Ting-a-Ling, this hall was a social and cultural beehive for fisher families: weddings and parties, political meetings and Band of Hope classes that ended in rousing songs about the evil of drink.

Dark is falling, the glow and scent of the Friar Tuck Chippy calling. I eat my chips outside, as God intended, ambling beneath old lights which once knew only gas and gossip. I reach the harbour, and then hear sea slapping at walls, ringing last orders for the beach it will soon hide. Oil rig lights can be seen in the distance, for there are still pennies in the ocean just as Jimmy Two Times and Paraffin Tommy always said. Water that could have come from the sea or the sky lashes my face and I have never felt more awake. All I need now is a tale from Tiptoe.

I settle for the pub. “Twenty-three years I’ve been on my own now” says a lady to her gin. Two men in golf jumpers, their faces ruddy yet tanned so that they resemble the surface of Mars, talk about a bar they once went in. “Wall-to-wall homosexuals, John. I didn’t know where to look.” I make mine a half and walk back into town, finding the war memorial. Chiselled letters recall that one of many lost boys was Private George I. Wildgoose. This is a town of names and yarns. It has a glint in one eye and a tear in the other.

The Leither coverDaniel Gray’s Postcard #4: Saltcoats
The town hall clock has stopped. It hasn’t worked for years, a lady in the café tells me. She tells me this shortly after she has asked me if I know anything about Henry vacuum cleaners as hers is playing up.

The clock is one marker of decay, the sealed-off promenade area another. When the waves aren’t climbing over the wall and scratching your face, the Isle of Arran is visible from here. Then comes Ailsa Craig, a crumbly pyramid. The skies are big, the seas gloopy and tempting. I walk to Nonsuch Amusements, where a teenage boy skives school to put pence in slots. Orange and red lights flash against his pale face, his eyes besotted with apples and pears, pushes and holds. I look at him and I want to believe that one day the joke will be on the boys and girls who swotted up and studied hard, that one day he will make a home and a name but most of all dollars for himself in Las Vegas.

The high street has a sad shell but a busy heart. A church has become Best Buys (‘Everything £1’). It sits near Pound Express and the Pound Plus Mart. The pound goes far in Saltcoats, if you avoid the amusements. A shivering old man in a kilt walks by me and waves a gentle hello to a lady selling the Big Issue. “I’ll get mine the night, Magda hen” he assures her. “Give me a smile” says a graduate-voiced twenty-something in a deceptively expensive woolly hat. He has fingerless gloves and a clipboard and wants me to hear about Greenpeace. I avoid him but a second clipboard warrior is not far behind, like the mole-bashing game back at the amusement arcade. These are Direct Debit magpies, bussed into a poor area full of people with sound hearts. I stand and watch one of them nearly walk into a bloke in overalls. “Look where you’re going” he shouts, “and not at that bloody phone.”

Queues linger in Alex Bicket Quality Butcher and men sense a snifter in the Labour Club can be had before ‘she’ finishes her appointment in Salon 71, home of ‘Massage Body Treatments Cosmetic Injections Teeth Whitening Ear Piercing’. It is a busy, breathing, Usborne book of a town centre, albeit one whose pages are curling at the corners.

Beyond it, there are two grand theatres gone by, one now a Wetherspoon’s, and rows of wide streets where Victorian boarding houses have become family flats. Here streamed the Fair Fortnight Glaswegians, because after the pavement comes the beach. There is no plaque, but in one of these homes was born Otto Kiep, a man killed by the Nazi regime for plotting against Adolf Hitler. History daubs the streets as it always does in smalltown Scotland. Where there are bricks there are stories.

I walk slowly along towards the sea, looking into these houses and catching glances of lives. Three men watching daytime television and laughing. Shift workers from somewhere east? Lonely unemployed Dads finding solace in human company and property programmes? An old man on his own with an empty budgie cage. Where is the budgie? Exercising or buried in the backyard? A young Mum and a smiling bairn, both of them lost in each other’s eyes and in the exultancy of besotted, unreasoning parent-child love. A dog walker asks me if I am lost and I suppose I am, really.

Down by the harbour I stand and look outwards, to islands then…Newfoundland? The seafront stretches languidly, to Ardrossan one way and Stevenston the other, ‘The Three Towns’. I try to hear yesterday’s whispers in the wind, the bustle of holidays being had, of people rolling up and rolling up to shows at the Beach Pavilion. A gust shoves some clouds apart and ushers in the shy sun. It closes its eyes, counts to three and then lets out an almighty burst of sunrays. They skim the sea and illuminate the bricks of Saltcoats houses.

At Greggs I sit-in, underneath an old bicycle strapped to the wall, or perhaps a replica of an old bicycle made in a factory to be strapped to a wall. A daughter tells her baffled mother about graffiti: “It’s a competition thing. They have to get their Tags everywhere.” “But, why?”, pleads her Mum. I talk to a lady called Marion who moved to Saltcoats during the war when her home in Clydebank was bombed. In early peacetime, she tells me, Marion and her family hated the Germans and the Japanese. “Then you meet them, and they’re all just the same as us really, all just trying to live their lives and be happy.” She puts on her anorak. “Ach well,” says Marion, “It’s not such a bad place, this. It just needs someone to smile on it.”

102 coverDaniel Gray’s Postcard #3: Holiday
On the blue wooden door there’s a sign. Its words are written in black marker pen. ‘Sadly Cat Rescue has once again been targeted by a thief who manhandled the padlocked moneybox off the front door. He was about to depart with it until a neighbour managed to photo him before he ran off, without the box.’ It is a story in forty-or-so words, a tale of cruelty or desperation. The testimony is signed ‘Dora and Belle’, a human and an animal whose names together sound like a cutesy fashion label or 1970s Eurovision entrants.

For the week we are in Padstow, we don’t see Dora or Belle, just the latter’s empty window throne. Every day by the doorstep in front of her house, Dora sets-up a mini-shop. It reminds me of childhood and little girls with their street stalls. She carefully places disused ornaments in a small crate, stacks teddies and dolls in a wooden box and lines a small old drawer with thick novels by Maeve Binchy and Lee Child. Prices are set out on pieces of cardboard, no item costing north of 50p, and customers expected to choose their goods and place their coins in the moneybox. Until the thief struck, that is. Dora’s shop, despite the theft, lives on, defiant, monies now to be placed, the sign notes, through the letterbox. It probably gives Dora pleasure and worth, her life valid as all others – rich, poor…even desperate.

Ten footsteps from the former Alms House in which Dora and Belle mind their own, one celebrity chef has a café and a souvenir shop, while another has a restaurant selling pork, lettuce and eel for £29. Cornwall masks poverty and sadness well. Every day here we walk heavenly streets that all seem to lead to the same figure: a handsome young homeless lad who carries a board asking for ‘any type of work.’

We are on holiday, though. If nothing else, holiday is about shutting the world out. My daughter gives “Cat Girl” a holiday quid through the letterbox, and I suddenly feel better. Each day we walk tight and dandy streets of hanging baskets and ivy, chase living things across a meadow and warm the freezing sea. I become generally bewitched with an England I’ve only previously seen on ITV dramas. We hang about the harbour listening to tinkling boat bells and watching kids from Leeds and Leicester fish for crabs. “I can’t get any today, Grandpa” says one lad. “One day you’re the statue, the next you’re the seagull” says his Grandpa. The boy looks pityingly on this seemingly mad old man he loves and says “can I have chips now?”

The best in town are from Chip Ahoy. It has a rhythmic list of former owners on the wall, like a Rotary Club roll call of Chairmen: Ida Bat, Horace Jones, Peggy and Fred Norfolk, Stan and Cherry Withbread. We meet an old sailor on his way back from the more expensive chippy. He tells us of the boats he crewed, and lights up recalling some now berthed in Scotland. He has only a children’s portion of fish and chips: “I got there and it’s all I could bloody afford.”

One night, I sneak off to the pub nearest our cottage, a faintly glorious old boozer in which a swift pint is impossible. An Australian couple talk with a pair of locals. When the Ozzies leave, a pub regular joins the Padstonians. “Apparently they’re all like that down there,” he says. “Friendly, talk to anyone in a pub. Not like us miserable bastards.” At the bar, the natter concerns an agricultural show starting the next day. The bargirl will only go if she gets free tickets from “that bloke who stays every year…you know, the tall one with the hat.”

That next day comes. We visit a more functional town nearby. A lady falls from her mobility scooter and into the road. Six different people rush to help, each slightly less charitable when a half-done bottle of vodka rolls from underneath her jacket. The bus back to Padstow hits a traffic jam outside the agricultural show and I pass the time looking for a tall man in a hat. A teenage girl, her Mum and Granddad begin chatting to us, and a boy from the girl’s school joins in. They’ve never spoken before, but her Mum announces: “I’ve just worked out you pair are cousins.”

The Granddad needs help to get off the bus, and I fumble to some kind of assistance. His upper-half is ox-strong and the arms I grab are hard as lampposts and wide as beer kegs. “Two years” he croaks into my ear as we ease him down into his wheelchair, “two bloody years to turn to this. I was fit as a bloody flea. Now look at me.” I do, and I see eyes filled with stories to be jealous of.

101 coverDaniel Gray’s Postcard #2: Wick

The door to the town is locked. Wick is closed for the night even before News at Six has finished. In the old fishermen’s cottages and in the dock owners’ serious mansions they have not yet done the tea-time dishes, but Wick is shut. I rattle the door, the entrance and exit to Wick Station, but it holds firm. ‘Ach well, best get back on the train’ says to me a lady hulking a wheelie suitcase about. Wick has a side door, though, and if you really want to get in while the sun is stickily collapsing, then you can.

On the curvy hill from the station, chiselled words proclaim ‘Some Distinguished Visitors to Wick’. The last left in 1923. The buildings here are silvery-grey and made of fierce bricks, and they line roads wide enough for whales on horseback. Ivy climbs up the library and among black houses with yellow pointing, giraffes in reverse. No-one moves and nothing stirs, though trees planted by a Victorian merchant here and a green-handed pensioner there rattle away. Wick looks at me with sad eyes, yet those eyes have a glint in them. History hangs about, resulting in a certain air, and modern life floats along contentedly, reminding you that this place still breathes. Schoolboys in white oriental pyjamas arrive for karate in the hall, dog walkers grunt their secret language to one another and Shona walks by the water to meet the Tuesday Night Girls in Wetherspoon’s. Someone has written ‘Lee is gay’ on a wall down Albert Street. Passing clocks and pillars and a street named Sunbeam Terrace, I find the concertina steps down to the harbour, steps LS Lowry thought monotonous and gorgeous enough to paint.

On this side of the water is Pulteneytown, on the other Wick proper. This was ‘the first industrial planned town’ according to an information board by an old brass canon. In 1790, Thomas Telford designed a harbour metropolis, water supplies and all, and shortly afterwards 1,000 fisherfolk sailed in and settled. Boats still crawl in and out, their bells ring in the breeze this evening. Rowing clubbers roll in all radish red, somewhere between ‘picture of health’ and ‘heart attack’. Their pints are now earned, and they can stretch the Wick evening in a pub.

After the harbour is the cliff, after the cliff I don’t know what. It feels like the end of the world, and all the more pleasant for it. It is impossible to feel anything but contentedly unimportant and small when listening to ferocious, eternal sea thrashing the cliffs. The smell helps too: a mix of bonfire, chimney smoke and the distillery, which exhales among streets in seamless lines with perfect stone. The buildings look as if Lowry himself sketched them onto the sky. This place has a calculated, permanent beauty.

Back by the harbour I cross over into the original Wick. Above are wonderful skies of a sun that can’t keep open its eyes, changing blues and clouds like soup bubbling in a cauldron. The old high street is sad and beautiful, as embodied in the clock-towered building at its centre. This is two-thirds hanseatic glamour and one-third Original Factory Shop. D.R Simpson Bookseller has recently closed down. A long, final letter in its window ends: ‘I wish you, our customers, a safe and prosperous life and hopefully we will meet again one day, on better terms.’ Other shops survive and will not let Wick fade, their character and diversity seeing to that. Whatsits has two windows, one offering BB guns and the other alarm clocks. Hugo Ross sells televisions and fishing tackle, and has a rifle in the window. There are one or two shops with yellow cellophane draped across their windows, a homely trait from happier times.

Dark falls leaving the yellow glows of cosy insides. Houston’s chippy throws luminous light outwards. I pass by and hear the friers crackle, smell that saintly smell and see teen servers in white coats idly flirting, each hoping the other doesn’t recognise acne. De Vita’s, the town Italian, is cheerful beyond reason tonight. Not one of its red-and-white-checked tables is free. Balloons are tied to the backs of chairs and outside a gaggle of women suck cigarettes before mains are served.

Practice is swelling towards its beginning in the Pipe Band Hall. After martial arts, rowing and ballet girls by a youth club, it is the fourth hobby being pursued I have so far seen. No wonder there are not many people around; the men and women and boys and girls of Wick are busy being useful. Not like city folk, watching screens or hiding indoors. They are doing, and being. Small towns make you like that.

As I walk back to my bed and breakfast, I find myself whistling. I think it is because I want to be noticed and to join in too, to be part of this town at the end of the world. I am glad we didn’t get back on the train.

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Daniel Gray’s Postcard #1: Trains north

Long skies and the glowing sun, and that forlorn search for a seat. Those with a table to themselves dread the latecomer like me. ‘Is this seat free?’ I ask a man in a waxy coat and bulky wool jumper. He pivots his head, which carries skin not unlike corned beef, and says ‘I suppose.’

As the train guard ping-pongs and announces that one day we will land in Inverness, Corned Beef begins talking with the three blokes opposite. As far as I can tell, for they speak from a different dictionary to me, they are on their way to a shareholders’ meeting. One of the men speaks as if he is sucking on a golf ball. They are all wearing suit jackets with trousers which don’t match. It is not class war to say that men of this ilk always do. It is as if coordination is giving in to proletarian values; these are men of ramshackle country piles, not neat council houses with a ‘good room’ at the front.

Their faces are very satisfied. The furthest from me has a cloud of white hair which jumps towards the ceiling when he gets excited, usually about share prices or restaurants that serve seagull. It is the kind of hair that has never worried about paying a bill, the kind of hair that thinks all youngsters should be made to join the army. They discuss FTSE like it is alive and a world contentedly turned by oil prices. Worst of all, they flicker not a jot as the train clacks over the Forth Bridge. This is like walking past Audrey Hepburn in 1961 and not turning your head, like humming the national anthem over the Beatles.

They don’t see the hills and the water, the greens and the silvers. They don’t see Lothian skies across from us, or clouds lurking over the Pentlands like the end of time. They don’t see the men in wigs having a crafty last fag in Inverkeithing, or the two girls snogging like their lives depend on it at Markinch. Who is rich afterall?

They alight at Perth and the train seems to speed up. Even so, it always feels as though we are climbing uphill, the diesel engine going into battle with the terrain. We cut and jag through forests and above streams in landscape to make you blush. There are lumpy great hills tickled by mist, and sheep sucking on heather. At Inverness I change trains for Wick, just 25 stations away.

The train is almost empty by Muir of Ord, no-one gets on at Conon Bridge but Dingwall brings Belgian backpackers (two). At Alness, two more people get off and no-one gets on. I realise I have become Dr Beeching, ticking off passenger numbers, and give my reflection the evil eye, as if I’ve looked in the bathroom mirror and found I look like Hitler. A rig means we’re at Invergordon. Isolated churches and graveyards mean we’re definitely in Scotland’s north; grief is not grief without a 17-mile walk added.

The station at Fearn is someone’s house, and ‘Tain’ has 16 letters in Gaelic. The train makes lovely noises like one of Reverend Awdry’s, and I realise I haven’t looked at my watch for a long time. I have accepted that my fate is a day on the train. At Ardgay, a boy sits on a bench in the station. It is one of three things to do here, I imagine, the other two being: go to the shop and find it closed or sit on the swings for a bit. Invershin is a request stop which no-one requests, Lairg is ‘Lairg’ in Gaelic (I like the ones where the signwriter couldn’t be arsed).

Outside Rogart an unidentified (by me) bird of prey claws at something I can’t see, at Golspie the line narrows so much I think the carriage walls are coming in. Dunrobin Castle, Brora and Helmsdale go by, the train picking its way between knobbly hills on the left and a twitching sea to the right. The only real revelation comes when one of the Belgians announces to her impressed Scottish table-mate that she is a train driver and a qualified welder. After Kinbrace the landscape grows huge and almost ridiculous, like some overgrown other planet. Forsinard ‘has been awarded Bronze Tidy Station Standard’ says a sign. Bronze?! It is bleeding spotless. Presumably you actually have to serve meals on the platform surface to achieve Gold.

Altnabreac is an unrequested stop like an unrequited love, and the Belgian talks about the orchestra she plays cello in, and Spanish dialects. Scotscalder, Thurso, Georgemas Junction; the names become functional and every now and again civilisation flickers through the window. The train speeds up, the driver wants his tea, and we arrive in Wick, where the people are wise enough to not give a hoot about share prices.

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Daniel Gray’s Midget Gems #16: The End – a postcard from home

A Sunday morning walk across Leith. Up top the air is fresh, and below the pavements are sticky with vodka and coke. Dogs duck and dive to avoid broken bottles, and every 100 metres or so a three-quarters-full drink from last night rests on a wall or step, gathering dew.

The sky is eye-droppingly gorgeous, a blue somewhere between sea and heaven, its sun low and weary. Joggers run from something or other, dirty stop-outs carry stilettoes and secrets close to their chests and old ladies buy tabloids for housebound Mary in flat 2 and grieving Jimmy at number 67. A car pulls up and from its window someone shouts ‘Stevie, STEVIE’; in Leith there is always someone shouting ‘Stevie’.

I’m walking to a part of Leith I’ve not been to before, walking off my hangover with a stroll into the unknown. I’m walking to a place that no longer exists. I pass a church whose lanky spire stabs at the sky and cross cobbles towards a wall high as a lamppost and dense as a tomb. On metal gates in the wall someone has etched ‘VIVA LA FORT’, just as we used to etch ‘I LOVE DANA SCULLY’ into classroom desks with our compasses. ‘VIVA LA KINGDOM’ says the next gate.

Through a small door within the gate – think urban prison chic – I enter the Kingdom that was. The gatehouses remain, one on either side. On the wall of one is a noticeboard with events and benefit form deadlines that were once up-and-coming and are now dead-and-gone. One of the gatehouses was latterly home to the Warden. ‘Press for attention’ reads a sign, only someone has scrawled the word ‘unwanted’ before ‘attention’ in bright green marker pen. Rebellion is best served sardonic. Cobbles between the gatehouses mark a path to a further gateway. On one of its pillars a sign reminds us that after a Tuesday now gone ‘This stairwell will be secured’; ‘secured’ and then knocked down.

Before La Kingdom was a housing estate, it was, of course a Fort. There are boards up today to tell us all about it – something about men with boats and canons and moustaches, then later men with barracks and rifles and bunkbeds. It is, like much of Britain, a former site of something interesting, though this one has actual archaeologists and their volunteers scraping away like filthy dentists.

But guns and swords and uniforms don’t interest me. I’m interested by what it was next, the thing they have just knocked down in which thousands of lives were schemed and lived out for forty years until demolition day. Where the children of the middle-class now scrape – it is family day at the dig, and kids called Jonah and Martha have been brought along by ruddy-faced parents in Berghaus gear – it is not inconceivable that working-class people rejoiced over their first indoor toilets.

Beyond the pillars a ‘NO BALL GAMES’ sign stands alone in the mud. The wall surrounds this entire settlement, protecting (or hiding) it from the rest of the world. On the far far side I can see goalposts chalked onto it and a street sign for a street no longer there. The last of the cobbles before the mud carry orange letters still declaring this space to be for ‘EMERGENCY VEHICLES ONLY.’ Ah yes, the emergency vehicles, for towards its end the Kingdom was a troubled one – living in Leith you knew the scrunched up faces people pulled when you mentioned it, you knew the tales of stairwell fires and the cheapest drugs in town. In the end, the Kingdom’s heavy-hearted residents voted for its abolition.

A tall man in jeans and a gilet takes photographs with a camera worth more than me. As he snaps away, he talks. He grew up here and it was heaven. They walked on those walls, had real (but dead) canons to play with, and concrete mazes in each corner of the estate. All the kids round here wanted to live in the Kingdom. Everyone looking after eachother, families sharing laughs and deaths, lending fivers and bread. They should’ve had a motto: what’s Latin for We’ll no’ see ye’ hungry? The tall man sighs. He’s left his working-class castle, his magic magic world, and now he’s back looking at the space with sad eyes. He turns away, walks out of the metal gate and clambers into his Aston Martin. The Kingdom did him no harm.

A boy and a girl of 18 or 19 pass me so I turn to watch. They stop at the mire’s edge and look at where their homes once were. “Already seems like pure ages ago,” says the boy. “Aye,” replies the girl, “but we’ll always be fae the Fort, ken.” I walk off and I hope to fuck that life gives them an Aston Martin or anything else they want.

Archive of Leither columns, 2010 to 2013.

Leither cover 15Daniel Gray’s Midget Gems #15

Time for the cinema, and some magic in the dark. The screen lights our faces and soon we see home – a wonderful, sky-sliding shot of Leith and Edinburgh pickled mustard by the early morning sun. The lump is already in my throat and I’m going to have lots of trouble with my contact lenses tonight, even though I don’t wear contact lenses. Sunshine on Leith. We’ve been waiting for this. Our world on screen, our words with cellos and dances.

“Why did they numpties go tae the New Toon tae get tae The Shore? Bampots. Nae wonder they goat that other laddie killt in Afghanistan. Must’ve goan through Taliban Street tae get back tae base.” The lady next to me is unwilling to suspend belief for the next ninety minutes. Interestingly, she is not remotely perturbed during the film when pub-fulls of characters on screen break into song and all know the same dance routines. “Ah’ve no’ been in that pub,” she says, “nae danger that’s in Leith.” “That’s no’ The Dockers! There’s nae radges in there for a start.” “What’s that fud up tae noo? Ah’d tell him tae get tae fuck if he turned up blootered and singin` in ma stair.”
And then, as if that was not enough, something in a night-time scene dawned on her.

“That’s…that’s fuckin’ GLASGOW!”
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I’m stood waiting to cross the road when I see him on the opposite side. Ample white hair and egg-shaped red glasses, his chin stroked by a goat patch beard (Incidentally, he did have other features too, chiefly nose, mouth and eyes). I knew him and only stopped myself from waving because I couldn’t remember from where. Instead, I nodded from across the road. He ignored me, and then turned and looked behind himself to see who I was nodding at. How rude. How bloody rude. I’d definitely say something next time I saw him in wherever I knew him from. But where was it? A pub? Work? Football? Was he a friend’s relative? My own? I hadn’t seen my Dad in a few months, right enough. The Green Man awoke and we crossed, everything in slow motion, him the only person I could see in the throng like a beautiful woman with wavy hair and bouncy breasts in a shit film. As we came face to unrecognised face, I gave a nod again and he looked right on through, possibly at the beautiful woman with wavy hair and bouncy breasts crossing behind me. For whole minutes as I walked the pavement home I wondered who he was and felt perturbed by the snub. Had I changed that much since last I saw him, whoever he was? Had I put on weight? Were these skinny jeans really too young for me like my cat had said? No, cats can’t speak and I don’t have one. I placed my key in the front door and finally it hit me: he was Paul, a character from my daughter’s Guess Who? game.
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To Chester Literature Festival, promoting the new book. My gig is in a grand old chamber of the Town Hall. The carpets have city crests weaved into them and a portrait of Lady Diana looks on, not exactly enthralled with my tales of travels in Luton, Burnley and all. It seems to go well. The audience ask a lot of questions. Afterwards I’m told about the 101-year-old lady in the front row. ‘I thought this was going to be about vaginas,’ she had whispered to the ticket man during my performance, and sure enough tomorrow’s lunchtime talk is all about female regions. ‘Mind you, there’s not much I can learn about them at my age,’ the owner of Chester’s oldest vagina had continued. That she stayed for the entire hour of my talk says something, and I’m not quite sure what.
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In a café on a corner near home. The dark evenings are here, clawing the days from us. The sky’s been up all summer and it needs some shuteye. From the stereo spills Billie Holiday singing Cole Porter. Autumn time and the listening is easy. I close my eyes because this music wants to take me somewhere. That somewhere is fifteen or seventeen years back and my Grandma’s house. I’ve walked in because, as always, the front door is unlocked (‘Don’t worry, love. Mrs White over the road keeps an eye on the house.’) Grandma is in Her Chair, eyes closed, listening to the damp pianos and smothered saxophones of just this stuff. In turn, she is miles away, wartime or just after, living in her memories, always living in her memories. It’s a good place to be, a good skill to have. I open my eyes, look somewhere that might even be the sky and thank her for giving that skill to me.

Leither 97 small coverDaniel Gray’s Midget Gems #14

Since you asked, these are my four most disliked modern machines and appliances:

1. Vending. When these window-faced arsewipes are not telling me to ‘USE CORRECT CHANGE’ they are hacking at the back of my hand with their surprisingly-hooky sideways doors. Then there’s the treble beep when I hit G7, which clearly has a wealth of Toffee Crisps, only to be told by that snide digital slit ‘ITEM UNAVAILABLE’, with those words in Speak & Spell lettering. The beeps are an air raid siren to me, and I usually flee in anger to hide behind the nearest bin or old lady. At least while I am hiding, though, I can avoid the most hellish of perils a vending machine offers: the hanging item. Once selected, this item, usually though not exclusively a packet of crisps, is nudged forward by the small Victorian kids who man (or child) these machines from their rear, but only as far as the last centimetre of the last metal holding coil. The item’s top half hangs loosely over the edge, its bottom half remains in situ as if saying ‘Just jump, go for it, leave me’, like a person in recent hit motion picture Tremors shouting to Kevin Bacon while disappearing into a hole. The Victorian child just laughs. It is the only entertainment it has since its family died in 1863. When this happens, I am firmly in the ‘shake machine until someone tells you to leave the building’ camp, rather than the ‘plough in another 70p and have two of them’ camp, just so you know.

2. Self-service. There is nothing ‘unexpected’ about a tin of beans when you are a self-service machine in a supermarket. It is what you are manufactured to expect. Your Bagging Area lives for these items. They are its bread and butter, though you probably find bread and butter a bit leftfield and zany. I’m not sure why I’m addressing you in person. I bet you didn’t expect that, did you? Is it unfair to blame you, the machine? Should I be blaming the Bagging Area itself? Perhaps your mate Bagging Area is the most easily-surprised thing you’ve ever known. Perhaps when a customer bawls ‘I HATE THESE FUCKING MACHINES. THEY ARE JOB-STEALING COCKJAWS’ Bagging Area sends you a signal which says: ‘What an unusual and original attitude that old dear had.’ Or am I asking too many questions? Which brings me to…

3. Deli staff. Not strictly a machine or appliance, more of a person or persons. I walk in to a sandwich place and the man behind the counter is already halfway through asking me what I want to eat. It is possible that his question started while I was still in the shower that morning, or even attending infant school. Or perhaps he is just on loop, fated to stand asking the same question until a colleague palms a wholemeal bap into his face. He continues to ask it as I look upwards at the blackboard menu above his head. So many options on there. ‘What can I get you?’ Sandwiches, soup of the day, hot dishes. ‘What can I get you?’ White and brown bread. ‘What can I get you?’ Roll and sliced. ‘What can I get you?’ And panini. ‘What can I get you?’ Or a toastie. ‘What can I get you?’ Oooh, a wrap, yes. ‘What can I get you?’ Now, what to have in it. ‘What can I get you?’ Maybe falafel and houmous. ‘What can I get you?’ Mind, that feta and sundried tomato sounds nice. ‘What can I get you?’ Or the Mexican chicken. ‘What can I get you?’ Yes, I’ll have that. ‘What can I get you?’ Or maybe a cheese and ham toastie. ‘What can I get you?’ No, definitely the wrap. ‘What can I get you?’ Erm, carrot and coriander soup, please. ‘Do you want a brown or white roll with that?’ pipes up another voice. I run out of the shop and chew on my hands.

4. My daughter’s toys. Not all of them. I like the wooden ones and the ones with bubbles and the one that’s a talking doll of the late great croc-botherer Steve Irwin. It’s the ones with batteries. The worst of these is a small hamster which is impossible to turn off (and possibly to turn on, I haven’t tried, I’m not that way inclined, but each to his own, whatever floats your boat). It likes to wait until I am alone, watching television late at night. I hear its motorised wheel feet first, the wee gobshite. They spin into action and it rattles along the wooden floor towards me, wittering in Japanese. It then rams my feet, back and forth back and forth, all the time wittering in Japanese. But I know what it is saying. It is saying: ‘Daniel son. Tomorrow, you must remember to take the correct change with you to work.’

Leither 96 miniDaniel Gray’s Midget Gems #13

Saturday morning, surely the week’s best time. Croissants burning, culture supplements set aside never to be read, the clunk-clink of last night’s bottles in the bin. The child looks away to crayon the walls or chew the wife’s vinyl albums, so I switch from CBeebies to BBC One. A man sails down a French canal, stopping occasionally to poke snails and lick frogs. His voice is engagingly slow with sudden peaks and troughs in pitch, like a child at the piano. This is that Stein man, that Stein man whose name seemed to be everywhere in that Padstow place.

That Padstow place was handsome, all narrow lanes and curlews chomping carp (they may have been herons scoffing seabass, or pigeons pecking at dropped Cornish Pasties; I’d forgotten my monocle). It brimmed with people lurching around on bad knees, high on flask coffee and the anticipation of a virgin Daily Express crossword to do when a bench could be found. I was at the end of England for the end of my new book, Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters: Travels through England’s Football Provinces, published this month by Bloomsbury. Like Stein, I was travelling and eating local fare, this time in one of his restaurants, which is a bit confusing.

I had, in my year’s journey across England, eaten my way through much of her wonderful cuisine, all of which helped fuel me in order to write the notes which became the book Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters (R.R.P £12.99). Middlesbrough meant cheese straws, Sheffield Nando’s. In Ipswich I ate a pizza on my hotel room bed and then fell asleep wearing my shoes. Watford was a cheese and onion pasty while watching Take Me Out on ITV, Leyton some Haribo, Chester a Chinese and Burnley a McDonald’s, my first for fifteen years. The best meal, though, the best I ate in researching Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters (‘Book of the Week’ – Bradford Telegraph and Argus), was in Crewe. There, lady and gentleman, I had a full English breakfast which cost £2 (accompanying tin of Sunkist 45p). You don’t get that on Saturday Kitchen (the producers of Saturday Kitchen should note that I am currently doing the publicity rounds for my new book, Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters).

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Do you do that as well? Do you remember whose drink is whose by their political leanings? I must have first used this method back at university, some twelve years prior to the publication of Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters (‘Excellent’ – David Conn, the guardian). Here’s an example of how it works: Charlie asks for an IPA, Claire the guest ale, light golden in colour. Then there is Gary and his IPA with a dash of lime (don’t ask), Michelle with her vodka and coke and Katie with her rum and coke. Yours is also the guest ale. You order, the bar man places the drinks down, annoyed that nothing about your face says ‘and one for you too mate.’ A number of these drinks look the same, but you don’t panic; you have your method. The right drink will go to the right person, avoiding a social faux pas even worse than putting out the recycling on the wrong day. So, you rearrange, placing yourself on the far left, and Gary to your right (basically the same but supported the Iraq War). Then come Michelle (her Dad was in the miners’ strike), and Katie (once called for renationalisation of utilities at dinner party, but sometimes a bit draconian on law and order). Charlie and Claire are more difficult: both have tried to justify the coalition’s cuts forcing you to temporarily delete their numbers from your phone, not that you only like to have friends who agree with you. Mind you, they both said they would buy Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters (‘Brilliant’ – Chester Chronicle). No, Charlie’s going on the far right – I remember his impression of Desmond from Desmond’s. Easy. Not a drink out of place, and thus more time to discuss that month’s literary releases.
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Inconveniently, I’ve run out of space with nonsense to burn. As such, I’ll now give you the Leither ideas scribbled on my bedside pad and you can make up the Midgets from there: ‘being somewhere by accident.’ ‘talking to bits of self, each an individual.’ ‘Children given names with hashtags in them.’ ‘Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters: Travels through England’s Football Provinces, published this month by Bloomsbury’. ‘Middle urinal hidden rulebook.’ ‘Snitches.’ ‘Networking.’ ‘Laces in new shoes: piss me off.’ ‘Replacement bus service/pair up with the person next to you – most dreaded words in English language.’ ‘Superpower – can see inside Kinder eggs to choose toy.’

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Daniel Gray’s Midget Gems #12

London. Springtime lately over, and me sitting in a tube station. I delight in the map, its lines mesmeric, its place names captivating as ever, though I know there is nothing exotic about Perivale. It is just the idea of all those many places and the lives lived within them, every one so different to mine, from bankers to paupers. Such a concentration of contrast. This must be a thousandth glance and I still notice new ones: I’m sure someone has added ‘Canonbury’ since last time. In the carriage, where eye contact is a death threat or a marriage proposal, I catch a whiff of perfume. I remember this particular scent. It takes me back to a girlfriend of long ago, when the parents made us keep the bedroom door open. I’m sure she was with us on that school trip to London; has she left a scent? There always was something a bit feline about her. That was the trip where Carl Whitehead managed to buy a bottle of vodka and spend the entire trip home abusing the headmaster. I was sat behind them and Carl kept going right up to the Head’s face and calling him a ‘knob’. When we got home Carl’s Mum, a school governor, was in the car park. I drift back as if I’m on the coach again, trying to remember who was there.

Occasionally the here and now interrupts, as when I see someone actually give up their seat. It’s always disappointing, somehow, to find polite people in London, as if your stereotype has let you down. Those reality checks do not last long though. I’ve had a drink or five, let’s be honest, and so I drift back in time again, and am mostly awake.

I check the time on my phone. I have lost 45 minutes to this dreaming. I have missed my stop. This is how I know Perivale is not exotic.
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I am not certain of much in this life, but there is one truth – the best before date on crisps always falls on a Saturday. Now that is mind-blowing in itself, but get this: nobody knows why. Theories range, each tinted with conspiracy. Most blame the church, suggesting this is a safeguard, a haloed barrier, against potato and maize-based snacks going out of date on the Lord’s Day. They point to Leviticus Chapter 17, Sacrifice and Food, which decrees that ‘whosoever allows Pickled Onion Monster Munch, Cheese ‘n’ Onion Walkers, French Fries and their ilk to become rotten on the Sabbath, shall be punished. Scampi Fries we’re not so arsed about.’ As ever with the bible, much is down to interpretation.
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People, and I am one of them (as are you, in a way), spend much time and money trying to be less stressed. Hours and pounds are lavished on spa breaks, therapists, prostitutes and Reiki, despite the fact that absolutely no-one knows what the latter is. Some even employ ‘life coaches’ who basically follow you around talking about ‘easy wins’ and ‘goals’, like some demented football manager but with dangly earrings and a history of substantial cannabis use. Actually, I did once have a football manager like that. He was terrible for writing fifteen names on the teamsheet when high or, during a bout of paranoia, enmeshing himself in a goalnet shouting ‘they can’t see me here.’ The earrings were just for show.

Anyroad, observing my toddler as one generally must when a parent, I hit upon an extremely cheap and pleasant way of de-stressing: acting just like her. Thus, for one hour each day I terrify those around me. If someone annoys me in the supermarket, say by cutting in front of me while I peruse fruit, I grab a peach and casually lob it at their face. Further, nothing shocks an annoying neighbour more than me marching up to them, violently pushing them over, and then walking off giggling. It’s even better when I shout ‘No, MY car’, shove them and then drive away in their Citroen Passat. And you just see how much better you feel when you do the exact opposite of what your boss asks: ‘Can you submit those spreadsheets to head office, please?’ ‘Delete the spreadsheets and tell head office we hate their faces. No problem gaffer.’ Less popular, domestically anyway, is the smearing of your dinner across the walls. The whole potty thing was another step too far.
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I know you probably saw the Sky News ticker-tape announcing it, or caught Melvyn Bragg’s piquant documentary (a line too for Trevor McDonald’s special edition of the Tonight programme; dropping Syria like that for me, Trev…you are a one!), but my new book is upon us. Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters: Travels Through England’s Football Provinces will be out on August 1st with Bloomsbury.

Leither 94 miniDaniel Gray’s Midget Gems #11

Some people beg to be eavesdropped and Martin was one of them. I was sitting alone on the next table, in a pub. He had two accomplices and absolutely no intention of letting them speak. His voice made the beer mats shake, the half-pint glasses rattle and the pool table balls roll. When Martin went to the bar he sonorously ordered ‘something triple-hopped and zesty’ – Paul Robeson in CAMRA: The Musical. Back with his captives, Martin took a sip and then rolled the beer around his mouth, preparation for a coming soliloquy akin to licking a finger before turning the page. ‘Well, that was some trip,’ Martin said, imploring someone to say ‘Oh aye, where were you?’ They didn’t, which he took as a stamped permit to continue. ‘We stayed right out in the countryside, and just hung around reading about Far Eastern spirituality. I really think I’ve found a new sense of being, a oneness with nature. It just made me so aware of everything around me. I’ve begun to accept the world and see it for what it is.’ ‘Ye mean,’ said one of the captives, finally speaking up, ‘yiv goat yer heid oot yer erse, Martin?’

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A van man hurtles his vehicle to the wrong side of the road, winds down the passenger side window and leans across, elongated seatbelt almost scything off his ear. ‘`Scuse me pal, is there a building site around here? My gaffer just said ‘Easter Road’.’ I try and think about building sites but instead notice he has a Dolly Parton CD on his dashboard. ‘Erm,’ I say, to reassure him. Then I remember that there’s quite a lot of mud and some yellow signs with ridiculous housing estate names near the Hibs ground, so send him in that general direction. When he goes past me again ten minutes later, I hide in a bush.

While there I start to wonder about all the other people to whom I have given rubbish directions. Everywhere I’ve lived and spent time enough to look like I know what I’m doing, there must be people still walking about going ‘I’m sure he said left at the lights.’ In Middlesbrough, I imagine, there are Ipswich Town fans from 1991 trawling the streets from behind desert island beards. In York, a family of Japanese tourists who only wanted to visit the Minster have ended up playing statues at the Jorvik Viking Centre. As I leave the bush I think: ‘how did I end up in Leith, again?’
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I’ve always liked the way bus drivers wave at one another. In more romantic moments, I see it as an act of high solidarity. Mind you, it’s even more likeable when they don’t wave; I enjoy wondering what happened back at the depot and concluding it involved someone failing to replace the last of the staff kitchen milk. Bus drivers are real human beings like you and me, you know, regardless of how they’re portrayed in Tatler and Readers’ Wives. I like the way they ignore rival companies too. Imagine if we all did this – we work for Tesco so at a party we refuse to talk to a Sainsbury’s checkout girl and go out of our way to be rude to her Farmfoods equivalent.

I noticed recently – on telly, obviously; I don’t actually leave the house in case anyone asks me for directions – that train drivers also do ‘the wave’. I now wish to see it extended, though not along lines of vocation. Yes, we should wave to people we feel a kinship with, even if it baffles them slightly because they know not the reason. They might be left-handed or ginger-haired like you. Or, you might just fancy them, and how’s a friendly wave across the street for a perfect chat-up line? You can have that one for free. Just give me a wave next time I see you.
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Are you still reading? Have you followed the page all the way down? I was watching the marvellous Old Jews Telling Jokes the other night. Not all of their jokes are one-liners. Some are 56-liners. Endurance tests. Listening, I began to get that familiar feeling of losing the thread. This is worse when someone corners you in a pub with a similarly elongated ‘funny’. My concentration lapses so quickly that I laugh at completely the wrong parts. I lose the will to live never mind laugh, glancing over the teller’s shoulder and thinking longingly back to a simpler time before the joke began. How did these ridiculously lengthy jokes come about? Were they designed by committee, or are they embellishments of true stories? I’m off to ask Martin.

Leither mini cover 93Daniel Gray’s Midget Gems #10

Charlie has been a sweepie for eighteen years. He never meant to stay in the job this long. Thought something else might come up, then a career path at the council. ‘Well, once you’re in, you’re in. That’s whit was supposed to happen, anyhow.’ He probably thought he’d be running something by now. Maybe he should be.

Charlie only works until 1.30pm; ‘Efter that, there’s nae one to sweep up so that’s why it’s a guddle by tea time. It’s the cutbacks, ye see.’ In the afternoons, he likes to sit in front of the telly and do his crossword. ‘I love my puzzles, like.’ He hasn’t got enough money to go to the pub every day, but when he can ‘a wee hoff and a nip’ is ‘taken’. Charlie is saving up at the minute, for a holiday. ‘Nothing special like, but ah’d love to go up north. Went when I was in the BBs and ah’ve no’ been since.’ There’s never been a Mrs Charlie: ‘Ah’m just one of they yins who’s never settled doon. Ah’m a bit o’ a free spirit, you see.’ And with a roll of the eyes and a veteran cough, Charlie is away. The next time I see him he is absent-mindedly attacking some chewing gum with his sweeping brush, thinking much of holidays.

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A large open plan office. Lots of people walking really quite fast to nowhere in particular. Their heals clump against the carpet, which has a number one haircut. There is a ‘Touchdown Area’ so I run the room’s length shouting in American and then dive down beneath it. That’s in my head, of course. Actually I am hiding in the toilets, wondering where it all went so wrong, for me and for them.

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I am waiting for someone, someone who is on a bus. I sit on a wall by the stop and find a song that is five minutes long. At the song’s end the bus is due. It occurs to me I have been doing this for nearly two decades. Now, I am waiting for my daughter, returning with her Granny from a winter’s day in a seaside town. Back then, it would be a pal from a different village to mine, a third of his pocket money splodged on his fare, the other two thirds already mentally spent on a quarter of sweets in a paper bag and Shoot magazine.

A few years on and the lads who were my friends have gone. Now it is lasses who I hope, but I’m not sure, are more than just my friends. You can never be sure with girls, I think as I rewind the Walkman to a song, a song that lasts until the bus arrives. When you’re on your own with them they tell you you’re great, then when they’re at school they ignore you. Anyhow, I’m waiting for this one now, and I can’t believe in five four three two minutes she’ll be here. An actual, walking talking girl that I might be able to touch. The other day in Maths, a lad friend has told me he’s broken ‘top half only’ rules; I just want to get as far as ‘top half only’. It would be a start.

The bus pulls up. She gets off. The bus pulls up. They get off. I look at my three year-old and feel sorry that one day, she will have to be a teenager.

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So much seems to be about waiting. Buses, good news, holidays; we’re forever just waiting for them. Our lives are a series of waits punctuated by arrivals and events. I’ve often wondered what I would be now if I’d used some of my waits constructively, learned a foreign language or something. I’m still waiting for an answer to my ponderings.

There are skills involved in waiting, but circumstances and equipment are critical. A wait for public transport without headphones is a tortuous one. A wait for test results added to free time on the internet googling symptoms too. Length of wait matters. Some are long enough for you to forget about in the meantime. Some are practical enough for you to carry out other chores as you, well, wait. Some though, are ten minutes, and ten minutes is rubbish.

A ten minute wait is rubbish because you simply can’t do anything with it. There is not enough time for a pint, and access to ale is a key measure in all quality of life research. There is not enough time to read a significant part of a book, go for a look in an interesting adjacent shop or take a walk around the block without thinking ‘gonna miss it now gonna  miss it now gonna miss it now’. But then, on the other hand, there is just enough time to speak to street cleaners named Charlie. I’ve changed my mind. I hope it was worth the wait.

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Daniel Gray’s Midget Gems #9

I know the café is going to be good because it is nigh on empty. It also has those huge glass vats of juice with the spinning blade at the bottom, one orange, one yellow. In the corner a lady tells all who won’t listen about traffic. There are booths and banquettes, formica surfaces and cutlery constricted by white serviettes like gangster film bodies inside rugs.

I sit to peruse the menu (laminated, of course). A man turns around as he is leaving. When the bell above the door has faded he says ‘Have the chips, son. They’re the best chips money can buy. They taste like chips used to taste.’ Boy oh boy they do, and isn’t the idea of money not being able to buy a certain kind of chip joyous? They are spectacular. Crispy shells, juicy innards and a hundred different shapes. The chips are time machine food. I am eight again, Mum is out so Dad is making tea. I can smell the deep fat frier, hear its crackling, cackling rhythms, see the black stains that snake from its rim. ‘I’ll just make us egg and chips, son, that okay?’ Today, I finish the last one and the man comes back in and looks at me. ‘Told you, eh?’ he says, smiling.
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Bonaly. Greendykes. Hillend: all destination names on the fronts of local buses. I am not convinced that any of these places exist. I have never noticed them on a map. I have never met anyone who has described themselves as a Bonalyan or is a proud resident of Hillend, and isn’t the end of a hill its brow or its foot in any case? I have never asked where something is and been told to get a 14 to Greendykes.

There are scores of these made up bus front places in this city. Clermiston? Not having it. Hunter’s Tryst? As if. Bush? Fucking Bush! With that one the people who make these things up have got lazy or arrogant; I’ll not be surprised if the number 44 soon claims to start from ‘Fanny’ or ‘Cockanbaws’. On that theme, Hyvots Bank sounds like a dwelling in which one deposits the unwanted remnants of a sexually transmitted disease. Baberton is clearly another world-changing Scottish inventor, and Ravelston Dykes his truly mad aristocratic uncle. ‘Lord Ravelston Dykes at your service, dear boy.’

Or so I thought until a recent lift across town. On that occasion I looked out of the window and saw a road sign denoting the start of ‘Clovenstone’. Truly, rancid light had been let in on magic.

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There are a number of pleasures unleashed when you become the horrible iPhone person you pledged you would never be. In the street nobody expects you to glance up from your screen and look where you are going. This makes ignoring people you know but don’t want to know much easier. Then there are Apps to become momentarily enthusiastic about before never using again, because the idea of rain noises helping you go to sleep always seems like a good one at the time. In fact, the noise of rain just makes you need a really long wee. And here’s something: do men ever wee outside anymore? I’m sure the eighties and nineties were littered with males weeing up trees by B-roads or walls behind Odeon cinemas. Maybe there’s an App to answer that.

Anyhow, my latest whim is an App that lets you listen to radio stations from almost any country on earth. Given the endless intrigue and exoticism on offer, and the idea of listening to late night foreign radio during the British day, I always select the breakfast fare of local radio stations in the United Kingdom and Ireland. All of them are manned by chaps with very enthusiastic voices. These men are the go-to guys in Basingstoke or Bangor if you’ve a Farmfoods that needs opening, and they really do call people ‘guys’ (men and women).

The finest feature that runs in all of them is the daily text or email-in topic. ‘When have you been in another country’s hospital?’ they’ll ask, or ‘What’s the most interesting load you’ve seen spilled on a motorway?’ I listen and I dream of a disillusioned breakfast presenter airing in question his darkest thoughts. ‘What’s the worst thing you’ve ever looked at on the internet?’ perhaps, or ‘Have you ever stood in a local woodland area watching another man weeing?’

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Daniel Gray’s Midget Gems #8

In 2012, food got on my nerves. This is not to the extent that I have stopped

The crisp, handily, is a perfect example. I presumed that one benefit of austere times would be the retreat of gastro potato chips. Their sea salt and balsamic on hand-reared Wessex potatoes watered by the tears of angels does not seem right in a time of food banks and Wonga.com. Yet they are here, there and everywhere: Tyrrell’s with their Ludlow Sausage and Mustard from bags that rustle like sustainably-sourced sheet metal; Burt’s Hand Fried Parsnip Chips – hand fried, how the fuckdoes that work? Have they never heard of basic fire safety in Devon?; Marks and Spencer and their Hand Cooked Parmesan, Asparagus and Truffle Herefordshire Potato Crisps – that’s not a flavour, it’s a personality disorder. eating and am dictating these words via the power of thought, but I have lost respect for it. It has, you see, frequently disappeared up its own arse, a phenomenon previously thought impossible given the shape and structural integrity of, say, a crisp.

None of this would matter if these crisps kept themselves to themselves and only hung around in the kind of larcenous delicatessens whose patrons deserve every eight quid crab baguette they get. But they’re everywhere. It is almost impossible to get a proper bag of crisps in a pub. ‘You want some artichoke and whale skin shavings with yer pint mate? The artichokes are well grazed. And they’re hand fried in organic oil.’

In unison, the language and content of menus has gnawed at me. For years dishes have been ‘on a bed of’ or ‘drenched in’ which was bad enough. Now, we learn of the method by which their ingredients are gathered (‘line-caught mackerel’) and the means by which they are prepared (snigger, ‘pulled pork’, snigger). There is an obsession with geography that goes way beyond Ludlow’s famed sausage fields. If an ingredient does not have an attached location it is suddenly suspect, liable to be stopped and searched, its papers examined by someone who swirls wine around in their glass and thinks drink is for enjoyment, not getting hammered. As that last exaggeration, one in a series of many, tries to demonstrate, this is almost entirely about social class. It is a means by which the bourgeoisie separates itself from the rest; in austere times the linguistics of food are a cheap means of feeling superior.

Christmas is a fertile time to begin the backlash. I had best go: I need to talk to a man about a cage-reared Armenian turkey.

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We are the toffee pennies left over at the bottom of your Christmas chocolates tin. You didn’t think we had feelings, but we do. You pushed us aside, day after day until January came. Your whole family, and your guests, rifling through, sometimes picking us out and hurling us back in, disgusted. Occasionally we got as far as the menu stage, checked against a graphic and then discarded, incorrect, unloved. Imagine how this made us feel, the complexes we suffered. And what did you think we were, given our shape? But we are not helpless. Our ostracism has bred steely resolve. We talked to our fellow unloved, us and them, the seasonally snubbed together as one. When you least expect it we will strike. Eat Me Dates and exotic cheese will rise, novelty slippers and last year’s baubles too. When the turkey leftovers cast off the shackles of their Tupperware prison and the candy canes march as one, and when the bottle of advocaat finds her courage, there shall be fireworks. Music, too. And dancing. For we will have a party far greater than your ‘Christmas’. You are not invited.

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This season brings thoughts of people gone by. Lately, I keep dreaming of my Grandma, who died at Christmastime two years ago. In the dream, she is always sitting in the same chair, as in life, peacefully working through her puzzle books, a crafty fag burning in a novelty ash tray. I am not there, just watching. This was her near the end, when vibrant yuletides of grandchildren to buy for and their parents to cook for had slipped into the past. Grandma, though, lived with her memories, each of which brought a smile that made West Yorkshire glow. Most stories were funny, even on the 743rd telling. ‘I love the Jews, Danny,’ she’d say. ‘Oh that’s great Gran. How come?’ ‘Well, if you went up posh parts in Leeds they were only ones who gev ye tuppence for cleaning their shoes.’ She is the person who came closest to summing up my own political philosophy: ‘we never vote blue, Danny. Thems not for likes of us.’ If you’ve still got a Gran, listen to her this Christmas. If you’ve not, no matter: her words are here to stay.

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Daniel Gray’s Midget Gems #7 

These boots are made for walking. They’re not, actually. They’re made for general activity. And they’re actually smart trainers. I do walk in them a lot, though. My walking is not in a bagging Munros sense, more in a pounding pavements watching people bagging dogshit sense.

I do a lot of urban walking. I can’t drive so there is no quick run to Tesco to buy biscuits or other emergency essentials, and I value my life moderately well, so at certain times of day the 49 bus is not an option. When I am feeling particularly funky, I brighten up my walks with a number of games in my head. I might slow when approaching a crossing with the aim of timing the changing lights perfectly. If this happens, and I don’t have to stop and thus I overtake static fellow crossers, I feel pretty fucking amazing. Or, I commentate, not frequently aloud, on my progress in relation to fellow walkers. ‘Gray, gradually speeding up here, his eyes firmly on the pensioner ahead. Oh! Look at the way he scowled at that cyclist on the pavement there. Wonderful. Oh and a hop over the terrible paving. The Council really should do something about that, don’t you think, Mark Lawrenson? Surely obstruction there by the young homeless man’s dog. Gray carries on though, oh a slick acceleration and he’s around her, he’s around the old lady! Well, this boy is quite majestic. What more can you say about him?’

What’s sad is that we urban walkers have no-one to speak up for us (this is probably just as well, given that last bit). We have no influential lobbying groups like the cyclists, no billion pound industry behind us like car drivers and no hard-hitting advertisement campaign containing Grant Stott (killer, lest we forget, of Mr Len Dahand) like the buses. No, all we have is a world class ability to skirt around two junkies grabbing eachother by the face.

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As a teenager, my Obsessive Compulsions veered between moderate and concerning. Getting into bed took half an hour or so as I performed my rituals (not those rituals. Half an hour?). At various times I could not, ‘in case Mum or Dad die’: step on cracks; leave the house without turning the door handle twenty times with my left hand and twenty times with my right; pass a towel wrack without straightening edges; eat my school dinner anywhere but a certain spot. In the 1990s, we hadn’t really heard of OCD, so I just put this down to superstition and the other weird hormonal things happening in my head. By adulthood my behaviours had all but disappeared, filtered into fanatical tidiness and home owner-related anxieties – Mrs Gems loves reminding people of the time she caught me using my mobile phone to take a photo of the kitchen taps being defiantly off before we left the house.

I do have occasional lapses into irrationality, but they are more of the ‘yep, I’ve definitely left the grill on and probably killed the whole street’, normal type. Similarly, there are certain things I like to do in a set order, as a poor checkout girl in Tesco recently found to her cost when she kindly started packing my bags for me. These, though, I do not see as OCDs, more the idiosyncrasies of a slightly eccentric mind. Real OCD is often harrowing and crippling.

These days, you can’t even line your toilet rolls up in perfect rows of six without someone labelling you ‘a bit OCD’. Behaviour formerly known as peculiar is swiftly classed as OCD. ‘I can’t have the TV volume on an odd number.’ ‘I have to let my phone ring four times before I answer.’ ‘Oh, I can’t wear my glasses on the toilet’. It has become a trendy condition, unless you actually have it, and I can’t wait until the same happens with Tourette’s.

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‘It is raining in the house,’ says little blue eyes, and she is not wrong. The water is seeping in and dripping down. It sploshes into buckets. My heart sinks. She giggles and hops up and down, exploding with excitement. ‘Raining in the house, raining in the house!’ After a while I decide to join her rain dance. I warm to the outside on the inside thing, the reverse Pompidou Centre. I plan to move the tree into the kitchen and plot a bedroom place for the shed. Who wouldn’t prefer grass to wooden floors, I think, and a flowerbed in the dining room? Mrs Gems gets home just as we are moving a family of wrens into the bathroom cabinet. She phones a roofer.

Daniel Gray’s Midget Gems #6

Bing-bong the train is delayed. I stand on the platform and stare at the track. Among the ballast is an unopened blue sachet from a packet of Smith’s Salt & Shake. I imagine the pure devastation caused by its being dropped. I picture its former owner as a woman in her thirties. She hasn’t had any crisps for ages and is feeling a bit crap about something (an ill relative; a cheating boyfriend; Albania). She sees the Salt & Shake in the shop and thinks ‘I used to love them when I was a kid. I’m sure they used to have an ‘n’ and not an ampersand. Salt ‘n’ Shake. Yeah, definitely. Why did th

ey change that? Why do they meddle with everything? I better hurry up and buy these as the newsagent is staring at me a bit.’ She pays her 65p (‘65p! 65p!’) and tucks them into her shoulder bag.

Her train is delayed too, so she takes them from the bag while on the platform, even though she had been saving them for the train (‘Also. They’d make a right noise on the train,’ she thinks, because she is nice like that). She opens the packet and searches out the sachet, cradling it between index finger and thumb. She gleefully holds it to the light as if checking for fake bank notes. A thrusting gust of wind blasts it from her hand and onto the track. A tear gathers in the corner of her eye. ‘Typical,’ she thinks, ‘typical.’ On the train people stare at her because she is crying. She moves to a different carriage and begins to eat her salt-free crisps. ‘Awwwww, Salt & Shake,’ says the passenger opposite her, a handsome man in a suit. ‘I used to love them. Don’t know why they got rid of the ‘n’ though. I love things with ‘n’s, me. Fish ‘n’ Chips. And…I can’t think of anything else.’

Years later the pair of them love to tell this story, the story of how they met.

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I travelled to the Deep South, and Cornwall. On the first night I took a room in a budget hotel. The hotel took a low-cost airline approach to costs, so that toiletries were £3, a drinks tray the same and the maid service (oooh pardon) a fiver. Did I require towel hire (£1), they asked at check-in. ‘Don’t worry, flower. I’ll drip dry.’ The joke frightened rather than amused. I hired a towel. I climbed to my room anticipating the usual ritual perusal of the room and area’s promotional literature. There was no promotional literature. I was lucky there was even a room. To that end I poked my bed suspiciously, as if it may disappear unless I inserted a tenner, perhaps like the ‘Continue’ option at the end of an arcade game. As I tucked myself in I worried that the strong smell of damp may come with a cost; they had, I remembered, held £30 on my debit card (‘It will reappear in the next two to five days but will not actually leave your account.’ Where will it be then? On holiday? I hope it doesn’t go budget.) The next night I went posh. When I saw the mini-kettle it looked impossibly beautiful, the future realised.

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Funny things happen when you stay awake late. You begin to persuade yourself that six hours’ sleep, then five, then four, will be sufficient. The warm lights of the other houses in the street go out and in your world you are alone. As you imagine yourself Governor of Nightworld, odd things happen on your television. A small person appears in the corner of the screen and makes hand gestures. You drift in and out of sleep, so that the small person seems to be in the room with you. Look closer and it is a MiniMe, interpreting your every thought into sign-language. This will be fun and dangerous tomorrow, you think, and you sleep on the sofa to make it happen sooner. When you awake, you are disappointed that sign-language MiniMe has apparently left. I really should lay off the whisky.

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A large hole in the path by our house appears so I email the Council a photograph of it. This is who I have become. The Council immediately send someone to place a large yellow cover over the hole. However, the yellow cover slides out of place so I move it back over the hole. While I am doing so a man who likes to drive his car on the path waits and then decides to shout at me a bit. ‘Get oot ma way,’ he says. ‘You shouldn’t be driving on the path,’ I reply. ‘Fuck off you fucking fuck,’ says he. It is a bloody convincing argument, so I move on.

Daniel Gray’s Midget Gems #5

Trying on clothes has long been an ordeal for me. This applies not only when I break into the houses of strangers and rifle through their wardrobes, but also in shop changing rooms. Any sustained period of looking at oneself in the mirror is undesirable, but doing so while in such combinations as t-shirt and smart trousers or tracksuit bottoms and blouse is plain alarming. Further, I have had some pretty embarrassing experiences in these tiny cubicles – very few shop workers are amused or titillated when I announce from behind the curtain: ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome on stage your host, Daniel Gray’ before emerging and performing cabaret hits by the sock aisle.

Recently I found myself in a curtained pod once more. I had in front of me six pairs of jeans. This, you will note, is excessive, not least because at present I do not have twelve legs. However, I was forced into such denim largesse by the bewilderingly large choice of jean-type on offer. Breeds of jean included Skinny, Straight, Boot, Standard, Easy and Loose, with each having a description of key qualities. Skinny ‘Sits low on the waist’, is ‘Slim through the leg’ and has a ‘Slim leg opening’, Easy ‘Sits just below the waist’, is ‘Relaxed through the leg’ and has a ‘Straight leg opening’ and Loose ‘Comes with a free bungalow in Lowestoft’, allows ‘Flying at altitudes of up to 10,000 feet’ and when microwaved ‘Tastes of bacon’.

For the criminally indecisive (of whom I am one. I think.), when confronted with such choice there are two options: choose none or choose all. This, incidentally, is the philosophy by which I ended up trying on six pairs of jeans and buying none, an epically indecisive undertaking. The truth is: there is too much choice in this world. Buying a coffee invites four or five questions, including, in one chain, ‘What’s your name?’ Choosing a new phone involves losing whole days to reading reviews on websites. It is all too much for people like me. I feel permanently overwhelmed, an insect beneath a landslide. I plan to hide from the world in a changing room cubicle.

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I look around Edinburgh and I look around the many towns I visit and write about. The recession has not hit Edinburgh in the obvious ways it has hit other places. There are next to no ghost streets of empty units and pawnbrokers as there are elsewhere. Why is this, I have asked myself, despite my distaste for questions as depicted in the piece above, editorial consistency etc etc? Tourism is one answer, the amount of untouchable bankers that live here another. Those explanations are both wrong.

Edinburgh remains prosperous because of ‘bus change’. Need to split a fiver for a Daysaver? Pop in the newsagent by your stop and buy an Evening News. Two pound coin but require a single? On you go, into Scotmid for some mints. In numbers I am about to make up, £47m a year is generated by bus change purchases. In First Bus and Stagecoach towns elsewhere across Britain, change is given, change that is hoarded and frittered away on heating and groceries and other nonsense.

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Tips for authors include ‘write about what you know’, ‘turn off the internet’, ‘stop masturbating’ and ‘keep a pad by the side of the bed on which to write ideas’. I tried the latter recently. The result was a drawing of some jeans and the words ‘King Lear at reduced sticker fridge. Asda or Tesco.’ For some time the following day I attempted to develop this concept. I worked-up an excellent scene where Lear arrived in Asda at 9.55pm because Cordelia had told him at that time satay sticks usually went down to 10p. Goneril, though, had hidden them behind four cheese and onion mini-quiches (24p) and an All-Day Breakfast Sandwich (35p). Lear had then proceeded to the rotisserie and scolded his hands on a small chicken (£1.14), before looming over a supermarket worker ‘stickering-up’ two loaves of seeded batch (47p) in the reduced bread area. I am still waiting to hear back from my agent, and have switched the internet off.

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I walk around and I don’t notice something: I don’t notice anyone whistling. No-one whistles anymore. Has there been a ban? I suppose it is good if workmen don’t whistle at women now, but what about old men whistling ‘Danny Boy’ or one old pal whistling for the attention of another? Whistling used to be poetic, soaring; some whistlers could even quiver their delivery like birds. I am bringing it back. I demand that you re-read this page and whistle as you do so. When they cart us off we can whistle in the police van.

Daniel Gray’s Midget Gems #4

The band walks on and strikes up a tune. Facing them, 300 forty-somethings holler with joy. The babysitter has been paid and they are all just seventeen again. Everyone is greyer and happier and life feels safe, but for an hour and a half the crowd embrace the uncertainty of that former age. When we are young anything can happen, when we are young the future is unwritten, so tonight let us be young again. It is not pathetic nor grasping: we are not in a midlife crisis or trying to hang on to something that is dead. We are just going back, for a couple of hours we are going back.

I climb the stairs to watch these joyful scenes from a balcony above. I see arms aloft as old favourites are sung from the stage and echoed from the audience. Eyes are closed, everyone lost in their own world. Everyone thinks they are being sung to by the tall man on stage. They lusted after him then and they love him now. A single chord identifies the next song. At once, five beefy lads wearing middle-aged spread well throw their arms around one another. They collide and bounce like fizzing meteors, all loved-up on old times and weathered friendships. Back at the front, light shines from the eyes of four women. They catch one another’s glances and I can see the tears from this distance. Music, you see, matters. It both takes us backwards and makes the here and now vital. What a bloody great thing that is.

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There are nine of you at the table and the bill is on the way. You should have cleared things up before you ordered the first round of drinks: If we are splitting nine ways, I shall have the steak; if we are paying for our own, can we order before 6pm so as to qualify for the pre-theatre menu? ‘Is it okay if everyone puts in £30?’, says somebody’s wife. Inside you are a little livid, for you had two tapas and a thimble of wine. You think better of pointing this out and grudgingly pay up. Not only will it colour the rest of your evening – for months, years, you will remember this. This, my friends, is the curse of being a Yorkshireman.

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Do you fill-in a form or do you fill it out? I usually hide it under something and hope it will go away. Form-filling, whether ‘in’ or ‘out’, can be made more enjoyable if one uses the politicians’ route of answering a different question to the one set. Thus, a tax return becomes a joy when the open option ‘Other Expenses (Please list)’ is filled with the response ‘Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’. Where a job vacancy form asks the applicant to list the ways in which her abilities and experiences match the Role Specification, she should glue on a picture of the actor Christopher Timothy. Passport forms could be improved by asking applicants what they bring to the role of being British. I for one am absolutely committed, when abroad, to shaking my head at the state of the drains, but there is no place on the form for me to reflect this. It is an oversight of epic proportions.

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To the cinema, for the first time in a year. Mrs Gems gets the tickets, I get the Bru, two for £2. Good deals all round, if you’re me. We walk into Screen 7 together, holding hands. It feels funny to be holding hands again, exciting like an affair but familiar, like your wife’s hand. Usually two of our four hands are dedicated to a child’s pushchair. Not just any child, mind – ours. We are giddy in the dark. Where to sit? Is that your thigh? Whoops, sorry mate.

The opening credits roll. We smile at one another, the light of the screen flashing like a pervert. A hush falls. The ‘Certificate 15’ shot shows, wobbling a little. I’d forgotten that cinema-picture wobble. Magical. Special. Romantic. ‘Ooooh. This is that one you wanted to see, hen,’ says the old lady behind us to her companion.

We move to the front but it hurts our necks. We move again but someone has a Grab Bag on the go. We move once more and finally rest. The film begins. ‘He’s someone. I know he’s someone. Och, what’s he been in again? It’s they Post Office adverts, isn’t it?’ We have moved next to the old lady.

In the pub afterwards a barfly in overalls insists on lecturing us about joinery. ‘Sorry,’ he keeps saying, ‘sorry, I didn’t mean to butt in on your night,’ but then he keeps doing so. ‘So is this yous on a wee quiet night up town?’ It was, mate, it was.

Daniel Gray’s Midget Gems #3

She fluttered blue on the grey tarmac. A fiver. Crumpled but resolute. Proud of her value, a value better than that of a coin but not hoity-toity like a tenner or life-changing like a twenty pound note. She should be content, she thought, for with her could be bought the ingredients for a fine family meal but not depravities like drink or anything resulting from the labours of Simon Cowell.

And she had lived. Boy had she lived. While a crisp new-born she had been cherished as the pocket money of a young girl. Sadly, an unintended papercut saw her cast asunder and into the dinging money tray of a newsagent. There began her vagabond days. From the newsagent she went to the pub. In and out, in and out they passed her from the till to the table to the pocket to the till. At one point she was alarmed yet excited to be ‘change for a fiver’, despite having no conception of what this could mean. That week, she slept in a leather vessel and fell madly in love with a book of stamps. Both, they noticed, were wearing the same small picture of an old lady in a spiky-looking hat. It was meant to be. Fate.

Just as they planned children (‘I’d really like a little 20p, if you would darling?’) their romance was thwarted. Stamps was torn from his sheathed comfort zone. As fiver peeped over something called a Nando’s Loyalty Card, she saw a human person trying to eat her love. No more could be taken. The next time she was left alone she threw herself free.

She rode the wind and slept on the grey tarmac. That’s when I spotted her. I swapped her for five National Lottery scratchcards. On every one of them, I lost.

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What else have I not really been up to? Oh yes, there’s a note here that says ‘buffet etiquette’. This relates to a number of paper-plated appointments I’ve attended of late. Here are a few quick tips, or handy hints if you prefer, regarding this particular item I need to write about:

1. Don’t steam in, loiter. I know it’s tempting to get the pick of the sandwiches or snare a mini savoury before it cools and dies, but you are putting yourself under enormous pressure. Do you really want to be the person who sets the marker for how full the plates of others can be? Talking of which…

2. Pile it high. I know you feel greedy, and I know people still queuing are staring at your plate’s saggy beneath, but do it. This is the only way you can ensure full avoidance of conversation with colleagues or cousins, depending on the buffeted occasion. If you’re eating then you simply can’t speak. In fact, it would be rude to do so. Therefore you are just being polite.

3. Sauce is the devil. I know that sweet chilli jus is beckoning you with his fiery ways but avoid him. Avoid him like the plague or even like he once borrowed your Panini sticker album and wrote ‘bum’ in felt-tip pen all over your shinies. Once sauce is on your fingers, where are you going to go? You’ve already lost the one serviette that rested on your plate to an untimely sneeze, and you can’t digit-lick or you will be removed from the buffet area. Actually…

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Comedy characters have catchphrases, but what you need, my friend, is a catchexcuse. Mine is ‘administrative error’. Mrs Gems succinctly asks ‘Why haven’t you moved the broken fridge into the garden so it can sit there for a few weeks before we remember to phone for an uplift?’ ‘Sorry love. Administrative error.’ In the pub, I forget to buy one of our party a drink. ‘Administrative error.’ I forget my Mum’s birthday card. ‘Administrative error.’ I poison a neighbour’s cat. ‘Administrative error. It was very, very fat anyhow, eh?’

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Word news. Last month, I learnt that the plural of plectrum is ‘plectra’. How pleasing. Then,

I enjoyed the fact that ‘altiloquent’ means ‘High-flown or pretentious language’, when most people I know call it ‘pish’. All of this was harmless enjoyment, like throwing a teaspoon at a clock.

Hearing the non-word ‘recency’ used on BBC Radio Five Live was not. It reminded me of a Geordie I used to work for (and before you write in to complain Jimmy Nail, before you tweet me, Tudor Crisps: that she was Geordie is by-the-by and only important for accent reasons). Often unable to think of the right word, she happily and obliviously improvised. ‘Danny,’ she once said. ‘Startin’ with January can ye’ put wor files in full datal order?’

Daniel Gray’s Midget Gems #2

A Bucket List, it turns out, has nothing to do with ranking pails. Prior to recently watching a film of the same name, I had often marvelled at the idea of Jack Nicholson and More Than Freeman doing just that for 100 or so minutes. In my head, they would be sitting, on buckets, sharing dialogue about “the big bendy black ones builders use for cement”, “those metal ones hospital cleaners use” and “the tiny ones with castle turrets for days at the beach”. At some point, More Than would baffle Nicholson with the words: “And did you know, the Scotch use the word  ‘bucket’ for ‘bin’. Neat, huh?”  Then there would be an argument about whether something was a bucket or a vat, and Nicholson would hit someone.

Watching The Bucket List one night on cable TV, then, proved correct the old Latin adage that roughly translates as ‘if you stare at ITV2 for long enough you will learn something.’ In it, two terminally ill men compile an inventory of everything they wish to do before they die. Inevitably, because the film’s producers still had budget to use up and time to fill, they then enact a number of them and everyone has a cry at the end.

It turns out that this Bucket List thing is quite popular, especially among the type of person who thinks leaving the house of a morning is actually worthwhile (pricks!) Many people now have their own lists, most of which include having sex with a dolphin and swimming with celebrities. It turns out that you don’t even need to be dying to compile one, which must really hack off the gravely unwell. ‘Is nothing sacred?’, they probably scream, ‘that was all I had left. Next you not- dying people will be trying to book weekend breaks in hospices as well. Sickos.’

Naturally for someone with a column to write, I’ve been thinking about my own, which I’ll now write in word form:

1. Pull a pint. I have drunk so many of these and yet never poured my own. It would have to be a proper, ale handpull, though I am willing to work up to it via, say, a go on the Guinness tap first.

2. Walk along a wall with my Dad holding my hand. Not done this for ages. Would be ace.

3. Wear a short sleeve shirt with a tie. It’s a quite horrific look, very American IT worker, and that’s its whole appeal. It would be a plain white shirt, and I favour a wacky tie based on popular cartoons The Simpsons or Snoopy.

4. Snog Jackie Bird. It’s a personal thing. It would also be a great anecdote to tell my wife.

5. Eat a Caramac. This is not strictly fair as I’ve done it before. However, that was ages ago.

6. Use a drill. This always looks so much fun. I don’t own a drill, but if God or whoever sorts out Bucket Lists could lend me one, then fantastic. I don’t even mind what surface I mine. I’m not fitting the ‘Bit’ though. That just looks annoying.

7. Have a siesta. I’ve never been able to sleep in the daytime. This looks like tremendous fun.

8. Learn how to set the oven clock. Really razzes me off, that thing.

9. Be mistaken for someone else. I’d really go with it, especially if it were a famous person. For example, were it Pauline Quirke (and it has been said), I’d sign up for a Birds of a Feather update. That woman who plays Doreen would get all excited at the idea of work and then on the first day of filming I’d reveal my true identity. Mental.

10. Write a Bucket List. Woo-hoo. Done one. Tick.

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Some days, small things worsen the world: a person signs off an email with a lone initial or your crisps hang tantalisingly from their vending machine perch. So it was when Mrs Gems revealed that Pass the Parcel is actually fixed. I had previously thought there to be hard and fast rules that governed by mathematics alone when the music should stop. It turns out that it depends on how much the adult in charge likes the child holding the parcel. Of my childhood I have many questions to ask.

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I like the lady who often serves me in a popular chain chemist that does a cracking Meal Deal. She has shelved all 21st century customer service boloney and deals only in the etiquette of the grim. ‘Morning,’ she will say, and it is all downhill from there. ‘How are you?’ I recently asked her. ‘Well put it this way darling,’ she replied, ‘stand back because if I puke it’ll go everywhere.’ ‘Oh well, you’re in the right place for it, I suppose’ said I. Then the other day I heard her plough the fertile customer relations furrow of parental death. ‘Oh I’m sorry to hear that hen. Aye my Mum died a few year back. Miss her ever day.’ I wanted to hug my shop lady, but for the fear of her vomiting down my back.

Daniel Gray’s Midget Gems #1

1922. Lloyd George at Number 10, Mussolini on the march. Ghosts of Flanders Fields lurking on street corners and weighing heavily on hearts. ‘Never again’ the people mutter, ‘never again’. In one direction, Ireland is free at last; in the other, Lenin would be all smiles if he ever smiled. One in four of the world’s citizens are ruled by Britannia. Among the newest of them is my friend John Burns.

At the start of January, John turned 90. In Edinburgh, the city that brought him unto us, a privileged few celebrated the milestone. John ran the show: lengthy jokes meticulously recited; comic verse unearthed from endless days waiting for action during World War II (‘never again’!); the front room gamesmaster overseeing and inspiring the enjoyment of those present, ages 2 to, well, 90. What noise. What proper, non-electrical entertainment. When our throats ran dry with laughter and warbling, glasses were filled and charged again. Life felt simple and brilliant, happiness uncomplicated.

John has that effect on people. When I talk to family or friends down in old England, most ask of him. To see him dance the Charleston at Mrs Portraits’ own big birthday was to see life at its fullest. The man hasn’t got a glint in his eye; he’s got a pack of sparklers.

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Oh that all could shimmer like John in their winter days. On the number 49 recently, an old chap boarded and sat in front of me. On his head was an old army bonnet, and on his trenchcoat medals. His eye, though, was black and blue, his hands specked with drying blood. The man shivered like an abandoned cat in the rain; it took him three attempts to reach into a pocket. When he succeeded, out came a cigarette, then a lighter. A simple pleasure, needed now more than ever. Alighting and looking back through the window, I noticed he’d placed the ciggie between his lips, as if about to light-up. I hope he did.

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Now that I’ve upset you, here’s some frippery. Think of the next two bits as your Dad tickling you into laughter through reluctant grazed-knee tears. Then think of your horrified Mum going: ‘Jesus, Bryan, she’s 37. Get off her you freak.’

I like to read television and film credits. This is not a standalone hobby; I do tend to watch the programme or motion picture to which they belong first. In the last few years, this pleasure has often been stolen by squeezed screens and blazing advertising for what’s coming ‘Next’. No longer can I sit and wonder what a Best Boy does, or how much better my life would’ve been if I’d become a Second Assistant Grip.

To compensate, I’ve taken to labelling people in everyday life as if they were credits. Already today, I’ve seen ‘Man in Shop’, ‘Girl with Flowers’ and ‘Barman 1’. Very soon I’m hoping to communicate solely in this way. I’ll get home and say ‘Hello, Woman with Remote Control. Can Man with Windswept Hair watch People Kicking Ball Around please?’ At work, I’ll greet ‘Man with Mop’ and become ‘Worker Hiding in Stationery Cupboard’ when ‘Chatty but Slightly Racist Lady’ approaches. As ‘Man on Train’ I’ll delight in asking ‘Conductor 2’ from where he got his fetching ‘Hat with Badge’. It’s going to interest people so much that eventually I’ll be Annoying Prick in Coma.

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There is something very beautiful about the plain blue plastic bag. Handed out in newsagents, minimarts and family planning clinics (as a holdall, not a giant sheath), it is a symbol of comforting Sunday night shop runs and a subconscious protest against trendy cotton carriers that say things like ‘Recycle all criminals’.

A blue bag’s contents nearly always have a story. There’s probably an Independent on Sunday in there, because by the time you got dressed that was all that remained in the shop. There’ll likely be a Frijj milkshake or other designated hangover tonic, and very often a samosa, purchased spontaneously at the counter. A Peperami sits nicely in a blue bag, too, as does some chewing gum you’ll later mislay. Yes, the blue bag is a fine thing, and its stories many. Just feel that lovely, slightly grainy texture and inhale its charred rubbery scent.

Despite its beauty and usefulness, the bluey is well, well down the pecking order in the hierarchy of bags. Indeed, only the lesser-spotted red and white stripe has a worse public profile. As well as sounding like the punchline to a Bernard Manning ‘wife joke’, bags for life, with their thickset bodies and high morals, lord it over ol’ bluey. Paper bags ooze the glamour of 80s American films and scare old ladies the most when blown up and stamped on. Small Boots bags appear useless but are, in fact, the perfect size for lining bathroom bins (you can have that, Take a Break Readers’ Tips).  So raise a glass of Paul Masson wine or six Carlsbergs for a fiver to bluey, the underdog of bags.

Earlier Leither writings

Issue 80 Pen Portraits from the Port: Macaroni revelations and a review of Midget Gems

When you start a new relationship, one of the exciting parts/death knells is finding out about your prospective other-half’s likes and dislikes. A sneaky study of their music collection while they’re at the toilet is always good, as it rifling through their handbag and diary if they’re away for a long time. If you can, it’s useful to hire a private detective to produce a dossier on them too, with phone hacking essential. It is sometimes the only way to find out if that new partner ever bought a Toploader record.

Nothing, though, is fool proof. Recently, Mrs Portraits went wildly berserk when I mentioned that I’d never had macaroni cheese. ‘What?! WHAT?! But…but you’ve never told me this. I didn’t know. This is…Oh my God. No. No, that’s just impossible. It’s…it’s mental.’ A detailed and expensive poll showed that this was, in fact, a matter of geography: we Englanders knew nothing of the dish other than its name, and sometimes not even that, while you Caledonian culinaires loved the stuff. You, incidentally, were right – it is rather tremendous, subsequent tests have shown.

How, though, do you account for Mrs Portraits’ recent revelation [drum roll]: she’s never seen ‘Dad’s Army’. I’m out.

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I’ve lost my glasses. I know because I can’t wee shat I’m typing. I left them on a train and hope the man who pushes the buffet trolley offers them a brew from time to time. The trauma necessitated a trip to the opticians for an eye test. Yet again, I think I failed it. It’s the pressure I can’t stand.

The optician batters away at me, question after question. ‘Lens one, or two?’ ‘The red, or the green?’ ‘With, or without?’ Ten minutes in and I am ready to confess to anything. Outside the interrogation suite, I try on various frames and can’t quite believe how nonchalant I’m being about moving on to a new pair of spectacles. I’ve hardly grieved for the old pair. I run out of the shop. Out of the shop and straight into a lamppost.

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FOOD REVIEW EXTRA

In my youth, there were a number of gastric certainties. Fish and chips came on a Friday, curry was something that happened to other people and lots of us climbed mountains for a packet of Tudor. And then there were Midget Gems. Proper Midget Gems. Not the limp-wristed softies supermarkets produced, but Lion’s Midget Gems. Only that badge made them official. All others were imposters that tasted, variously, of mouldy flannels, neglected turf, rotten beeswax, sour gravel, septic cats, decayed gnomes, fetid whelk, putrid traffic cone and parsley. Proper Midget Gems were edible only from paper bags, preferably twirled over with a flourish by the shop keeper. Then one day, the Brobdingnags of Maynards colonised little Lion, and nothing has been the same since. Gone are the liquorice black sweets, and in are mass-produced Gems that are a distant cousin of their former selves.

Thankfully the original Lion factory in Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire, does still churn out bespoke originals. Finding them, though, is a very difficult and serious matter indeed. I’d heard whispers of a purveyor in Portobello, so I had my driver, who chargers a flat fare of £1.30, transport me there. So it was that in a green-fronted emporium on Bath Street, I found a little jar of euphoria.

First, a note on the shop. What a place. There was barely turning space for an averagely-sized motorised scooter, so packed were its inches with confectionery delights. Sweets young and old, English and Scottish, hard and soft, fizzy and chewy, big and small, black and white, red and yellow, green and brown, blue and orange, Torvil and Dean mingled and sparkled. From behind the counter, an older gentlemen served with precision and vim.

Reluctantly leaving this toothsome Valhalla behind, I strolled to the beach and opened my paper bag. What unbridled joy. Midget Gems as perfectly flavoursome as tangible rainbows, each colour original and uninhibited by modernity. The texture, too, was straight from the manual: neither too soft nor hard, they perched wonderfully on the consistency fence. Eating a quarter was as close as one can come to time travel without having to sit in a car with the irksome Christopher Lloyd. Heaven is…a small paper bag.

Rating: 10/10

Damage: 87p

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Issue 79: Pen Portraits from the Port: Waiting for the man and British Tapas food review

It’s a tightrope. The email states that the person will call around to fix your phone line between 8am and 12pm. By 9am, there’s no sign, so you risk making some toast. An hour later, bolstered by the success of your risky breakfast, you commit to a toilet visit, and not a toilet visit of the ‘number one’ kind. Giddy as you sit on the pan uninterrupted by the doorbell, you rebelliously look across to the shower and think ‘Could I? COULD I?!’ Do you play safe, or do you go for it? Your decision says so much about the type of person you are. I’m a risk taker, a gambler, an explosion of spontaneity, so I went for it.

The act itself wasn’t the mistake; getting away with it was. I began to feel like I could get away with anything. At 10.50am I baked banana bread. At 11.10, I started my family tree. Twenty minutes later, I’d mowed the lawn and brokered furtive peace talks in Israel/Palestine, and that without the use of a landline. It was all too much. Too many plates to spin. The bread was burning and in the Gaza Strip things were getting testy. By the time the phone bloke turned up at 11.55 I’d passed out on my newly-cut lawn. I still haven’t got the phone fixed.

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To pass the time, I enjoy behaving as if starring in a reality TV programme. Last month, I divided my spare time between an underfunded youth centre and the warehouse premises of a local charity that helps re-house homeless people. I hired a camera crew to follow me around and made up a cover story, telling them I was making a documentary about volunteers. Each day, I’d let my accent slip into ‘posh’, wear Gucci shoes or turn up to work in a limo. The looks when they found out I wasn’t a Secret Millionaire? Priceless.

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The phone-hacking scandal has left me outraged and befuddled: I mean, who are these people that leave voicemail messages containing anything remotely useful or interesting? Until now, I thought that all left messages consisted of the words ‘Hi, it’s me. Just wondering what you were fancying for your tea. Give me a call back when you get this. Bye.’ Apparently, though, there exists a class of people who take the words ‘Please leave a message after the tone’ to mean ‘Please reveal confidential information at length after the tone’.

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Food Review Extra

Summer’s lease lasted long enough to grant many a meeting between food and open air. Al fresco dining: a marriage as fine as chariot and horse or Ant and Dec. Eating under God’s sun is a chance to embrace all the world’s food and a chance to mix the countries – a samosa here, a hot dog there.

Mrs Portraits and I have been enjoying British Tapas (or, as those with less culinary erudition refer to them, ‘crisps’) for the best part of a decade. Early on, we devoured the work of Walkers of Leicestershire, before a long affair with the Golden Wonder stable.

Aside from a brief maize flirtation five or so years ago – Monster Munch were doing some wonderful things back then – we’ve continually stuck with potato-based British Tapas. Both of us feel that our country does them best; foreign trips, with their miles of aisles of paprika ‘Lay’s’ and cheesy ‘Cheetos’ have only reaffirmed this.

Exoticism, then, comes from stepping off the British mainland and embracing Taytos of Tandragee. The County Armagh producer (tagline: ‘`Bout ye’) is a giant on the island of Ireland, and upholds a cult following here. Lounging between disused fag packets on Leith Links, we both tried two flavours each.

For my part, the salt and vinegar (in a blue packet, as they should be) hit the spot marked ‘satisfying’, their tangy bark placated by a smooth bite. Beef and onion avoided the usual pitfall of tasting like Oxo-sautéed curtains, emitting notes of satisfyingly chewy pub steak baguettes instead. Mrs Portraits lingered long on the spring onion before offering ‘It’s so hard to get them right, but I think Tayto have done it. Can we go home now please?’ On the roast chicken she added, ‘Yeah, fine. When are you going to take me for an actual meal?’

Far better than a mixed bag, then.

Score: 8/10

Damage: the right side of £1.97

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Issue 78: Pen Portraits from the Port: A review of the Ikea Cafe

Food review extra

Sometimes in the quest for gastronomic perfection, one has to venture outside one’s comfort zone. This can mean sampling foods the diner previously thought unpalatable – think veal or twice boiled baby chaffinch – or journeying to faraway shores – el Bulli in Catalonia or The Coffee Shop in Erinsborough.

Fully subscribing to this sense of culinary adventurism, Mrs Portraits and I found ourselves travelling westwards in a maroon charabanc of classic vintage. The number 47 bus chugged and chuckled its way up hill and down dale, a romantic sleigh caked in errant diesel flak. Sadly and all too soon, we reached our dining destination, her slinky blue corrugated roof and giant golden lettering resembling the sun setting sleepily on a continental sky.

Tired of the ethnic dietary canon on our doorstep, we had decided to go Swedish and try out a little place called ‘The Ikea Café’. Once we’d surmounted the logistical obstacle of having to enter via the attached shop’s exit (the café’s owners recently branched out into flatpack furniture), we joined a queue bristling with stressed-looking couples. This hiatus gave us chance to appraise the menu, trendily displayed on a dayglo headboard; paper menus are just so not Stockholm or Gothenburg.

What we read was an innovative departure from tired Scandinavian fare, Swedish food only pecked on the cheek by the inclusion of meatballs rather than embraced. Mrs Portraits opted for the calzone (‘a squelchy riot of satisfaction and regret’), your paunchy narrator a hot dog dressed in a jaune paste, which brought to mind soccer moms on a hot summer’s day (never a bad thing). We shared chipped potatoes in the French style, which were triumphantly salty and reminded us of an incident in Marseille I shan’t go into here. Liquid sustenance came via a boutique vessel of carbonated citrus fruit, which sadly veered towards the higher regions of gaseousness. Overall, though, the Ikea Café is piping hot proof that travel can broaden the mind without broadening the bank balance.

Score: 8/10

Damage: under £4.94

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Issue 77: Pen Portraits from the Port: Cultural Quarter and a review of Greggs

The latest Filmhouse programme appears. As happens every month, I pick it up and scruffily circle several films that I’ll never go and see.

Arthouse cinema programmes are constructed entirely for this exercise: the circler can feel intellectual validation for attempting to engage with high culture before going to see Cloudy With a Chance of Meatbaws at Vue instead.

Then on page 13, a shock. An act of marketing larceny has been committed. ‘We are the Cultural Quarter’ explains a vaguely turquoise advert, ‘Filmhouse, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Traverse Theatre, Usher Hall’. But, Your Honour, let me quote from a Pen Portrait published in August 2010. The author is describing a bohemian strip that begins dans le Kirkgate and sweeps up through Duke Street to the elegant lower reaches of Lochend Road:

With a Pets & Things (what things?), three bus stops complete with Tracker and the brand new Marksman quiz night, it is every inch the Cultural Quarter.

Further, Your Honour, said author has since repeatedly championed this, original, Cultural Quarter in his column. Indeed, he feels the CQ (again, his) has lately been improved by the addition of Ramsden’s pawnbrokers (‘We buy gold’).

So no, you are not the Cultural Quarter (how can anywhere with a flesh café named ‘Bottoms Up’ be so?), because we bloody well are.

________

Currently running on television sets is an advert for Bridgestone car tyres. In it, a couple are taking their newly-born baby, Sarah Jane, home from hospital. Dad shelters Sarah Jane from the rain and carries her to the car.

‘3.4kg’ floats a graphic over the bairn, as if statistics might make her more appealing. ‘Her mother’s nose’, it continues, ‘[and] her father’s temper’, somewhat darkly (and let’s hope Dad has never taken his temper near Mum’s nose). At the wheel, cantankerous Papa’s eyes gape with fear: he is about to hit a rogue HGV, possibly errant from Five’s bewilderingly entertaining Eddie Stobart series.

Dad slams on the breaks, managing just in time to avoid disaster. ‘Still sleeping now’ says the baby ticker tape. After pausing while we realise it doesn’t mean ‘sleep’ in the morose, funereal sense, we see the family embraced in a roadside relief huddle.

Cue voiceover: ‘We make tyres that help you stop shorter in the wet.’ Thus, the message seems to be: buy our product or the baby gets it, and I long for the day when more adverts are based on this threatening ethos. In the meantime, I wish Sarah Jane and father well in their parent-toddler anger management classes.

________

Food review extra

Edinburgh Marathon time. Trundling up to take part was Matt, a friend from Manchester, along with his supportive entourage: partner Helen and former cellmate Paddy. As his nominated dietician ahead of Sunday’s slow dash, I took my responsibilities seriously.

On Saturday I treated us all to lunch from a little place in Tollcross, the district sandwiched between controversy’s The Cultural Quarter and nice-but-dim Bruntsfield.

The azure frame of Greggs deli et patisserie is familiar to foodies across the land, but the artisan chain has, in recent years, shed its snobbish image to embrace customers of all social hues. Gone are the days of Kensington realm knights sauntering in for a foam basin of tomato soup or squire ladies popping by for a week’s supply of sausage and bean melts to take back to Hampshire.

The aristocracy have been rumbled; Greggs is now a democracy where one is as likely to discuss Cornish pasties with Big Issue vendors as chicken and stuffing lattices with A-List celebrities (a London-based friend recalls a particularly illuminating debate over Yum Yum icing with Todd Carty in the Pimlico shop).

As my visitors had not experienced dining a la Greggs before, I ordered the pastry smorgasbord: four sausage rolls (fairly priced at £2.20 for the lot), two steak bakes and a cheese and onion pasty. We ate al fresco from achingly retro papier bags, which I noticed Helen carefully folding for subsequent, kudos-earning re-use in the hipster joints of Canal Street. Matt and Helen were pleased with the steak bakes (‘It’s all about the carbs and the gristle’ – Matt), though Paddy was ultimately disappointed with the sausage rolls (‘immediately rewarding but, much like when excitedly scoffing fish and chips, they left an aftertaste of greasy nausea and moral anxiety’).

A mixed bag, then; perhaps Greggs is moving a little too quickly from its gourmet roots in the rush to be all things to all people.

Damage: under a fiver

Score: 6/10

________

Issue 76: Pen Portraits from the Port: Sauna gossip and a review of chips

I do like to hang around the swimming baths in an afternoon. No hang on, that didn’t sound right. It sounded awful and possibly incriminating. I do like to hang around the swimming baths of an afternoon.

See? SEE? You thought I meant that it was bad because it made me sound like a pervert, but I was actually making a grammatical point. Now who’s the filthy-minded one?

The point stands, though: Leith Victoria Swimming Centre, to employ its Sunday name, can be a mightily entertaining place in which to loiter. It is, afterall, one of only a few places left where men in their seventies can go to stand around in what are essentially waterproof pants and chat about cigarette prices while Aswad blare from the water aerobics stereo.

Even the Pool Programme Timetable leaves me intrigued. On Wednesday nights, a part of the pool is reserved for, simply, ‘Masters’. Of what, though? Swimming? Degrees? The Universe? Then when Saturday comes, 4pm offers ‘Open All Hours (girls only)’ in which, presumably, Nurse Gladys swims about in the nude while Arkwright and Granville peer sneakily over the edges of the poolside changing room doors.

When I’m feeling particularly flush or the heating at Portrait Heights is broken, I pay 75p for extras, in this case a wristband granting access to the sauna. The sauna is the golf course of the swimming pool, the place where the movers and shakers go to move and shake, sometimes with frightening consequences if a flabby person shakes and you don’t move.

Here, men of an uncertain age eye one another to check whether the sweaty, mostly-naked bloke in front of them looks like he could be easily engaged in conversation. I seem to have perfected a terrified and terrifying look somewhere between that of Susan Boyle entering the stage for the first time on Britain’s Got Talent and Susan Boyle entering a sauna at Leith Victoria Swimming Centre. As such, no one has ever tried to engage me in conversation, save for the time a man asked me to sing ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ for him as “ma Jeannie loved that yin.”

Despite my best efforts, pulling this face does not stop me from hearing. In recent months I’ve learnt how poor Fat Colin’s gout is back and why global warming is “jist another ‘Millennium Bug’ scare”. Further, I’ve mistakenly encountered racism so casual that it is wearing jeans and a jacket and whistling ‘Smoke Weed Everyday’.

Sometimes the greatest treat can be walking into a discussion already in stunted flow. Recently, I found three men trying to remember something. “Whit’s that phrase they use? You ken, that phrase,” said one. “Aw, that, er, that one aboot the bucket?” replied another. “Aye, ‘slopping oot’, that’s it,” said the third. “Nawwww,” injected the first, “human rights, that’s the one”.

Adding ‘confused’ to my portfolio of looks, I shrugged, sat back and pretended to be French.

________

Food review extra

Hark, for there is a new addition to the Cultural Quarter (see Portraits passim if you really want to. I wouldn’t, and I was there when the horrible little letters fell onto the keyboard in the first place). The Dragon King Chinese opened on the site of the old Lochend Road chippy in late winter, and I went along with Mrs Portraits just before midnight on a recent Friday.

Service was excellent: prompt, polite and with an enlightening conversation about the Year of the Rabbit thrown in. Typical Cultural Quarter, really. We went for Large Chips, at £1.50 pitched 20p dearer than New Wang’s on Great Junction Street. Salt, vinegar and packaging were free, though, a testament to the kindness of the Chinese people.

By the time our food reached the plate it had retained its heat to a pleasing extent. There were a couple of issues with rogue overcooked potato scraps, but I’ll put this down to the timing of our visit. Mrs Portraits transferred much of her main onto buttered bread before adding a Houses of Parliament jus, while I experimented with Daddy’s Tomato Sauce, a recent addition to our larder following a successful promotional stint in Lidl for the much-maligned, controversial brand.

We washed down our meal  with tins of the excellent 2011 Diet Irn Bru (60p). The Barrs really are doing some special things over at Cumbernauld this year; I suggest you stock up and invite friends over.

Overall, an excellent experience. I’ve a feeling the Year of the Rabbit could be a good one for the Dragon King.

Score: 9/10.

Damage: £2.70

________

Issue 75: Pen Portraits from the Port: A nauseous commuter hamlet and Lassie the Cat

Southwards to Yorkshire, where a pile of journals required my attention. Mother Pen Portraits had gathered them over the three months since my last visit, and each edition now required sarcastic analysis.

The Copmanthorpe Village Newsletter is, sadly, not widely available. Luckily, my Mum still lives in the nauseous commuter hamlet of Copmanthorpe, my home for 16 formative years, and so an arsenal of newsletters can be easily amassed.

Before the kettle had boiled, I was excitedly reading Reverend Geoffrey Mumford’s hard-hitting editorial, ‘A Word from the Vicarage!’ It was the exclamation mark that conned my eyes in Mumford’s direction, plus the promise of a single word summing up the local church’s perspective or mood. What would the word be? ‘God’? ‘Love’? ‘Twatsticks’?

His column’s title was, though, a lie. He lied to me, ladies and gentlemen, me and all the other innocent parishioners: there were at least 250 words from the vicarage. Distraught, I powered on to page five and found that Copmanthorpe Women’s Institute remained intact, a beacon of trust in a time of flux. I do hope their ‘Hearing Dogs for the Deaf’ lecture went according to plan.

Page seven’s Carnival round-up bought the not entirely unconnected sentences ‘We are further burdened this year by the requirements of the York Event Safety Advisory Group’ and ‘Most of you will be aware of the accident at last year’s carnival when a teenager was thrown from the Cliffhanger.’

It was all getting far too heavy, so I ploughed on to the peerless ‘Used Postage Stamps for Charity and Stamp News’ and then more recent newsletters. In March, Les Wilcox, building contractor, advertised his credentials as a ‘Specialist in disabled adaptations’, which sounded vaguely threatening (“You pay cash in hand, love, and I’ll do you a knee-capping for £75”).

Then in April, Reverend Penny Worth (no, really) managed to get from an account of the revolutions in Egypt and Libya to some bearded fella ‘giving himself on a cross’, and all within the space of 150 words. Reverends are amazing like this: give them any subject and in seconds they can tell you how it relates to the bible. “Well in many ways, Hamilton Academical’s relegation plight is symbolic of the Sermon on the Mount, and the Discourse on judgmentalism specifically.”

This edition of the Newsletter needed bringing back down to earth, and what better way to achieve that than with a piece about the local playing fields (I really should write links for The One Show. Seriously. I need a job. Anything will do. Anything). The unintentionally hilarious Recreation Centre News is best read in a cutesy Alan Bennett voice:

‘The Recreation Centre has gone on a spending spree and bought a mower and a strimmer…One of our volunteers has clearly been over-enthusiastic while using the Ransome triple mower. When Kevin Heels serviced it last month, he found that the bar which carries the left hand cutter unit had been dramatically bent. Someone had clearly hit a tree, or something similar, and Kevin has had to take it away to straighten.’

The replacement of the strimmer, meanwhile, was necessitated when in late 2010:

‘…it seized up. Trevor Buckle suspects that someone may have used it with ordinary petrol, rather than 2 stroke mixture. The cylinder was so badly scored that it was beyond repair. Guy Dillon-Kelly has very kindly used his influence at Elcock’s to get us a very good deal on a stihl strimmer’.

The author of Recreation Centre News is a genius at effortlessly ramming up his word count with forensic and irrelevant minutiae. I learnt from the best.

________

To escape the misery of Copmanthorpian existence, I often pretend my visits are television formats. There’s one that is basically the opposite of My Name is Earl, where I wish to go around righting all the wrongs done to me during my teens. For instance, I’d walk into Fred the Baker’s and extract a written statement from Fred agreeing that I did not steal a packet of Space Raiders in 1993.

In another, and this is not exclusive to Copmanthorpe so do try it at home, I enjoy pretending my Mum’s cat is a humdrum domestic version of popular television character Lassie the dog. This entails looking at the cat, listening and then exclaiming such things as ‘What’s that, Lassie? My toast is burning? Run into the kitchen before the fire alarm goes off?’

This is the kind of creativity that may one day earn me my dream gig: a column in the Village Newsletter.

________

Issue 74: Pen Portraits from the Port: Visually impaired raindrops and unspeakable Ginsters violence on the Harthill tarmac

‘Let the train take the strain’ it said on some advert or other, possibly for a rail company. I refused. I didn’t like the cut of the train’s jib. I let the bus take the fuss. Better jib. Good jib. The right kind of jib. Jib so good it almost stopped sounding like an odd word the more times you said it. Jib jib jib. Jib. Jib. Jib jib.

I was travelling to Glasgow, the pearl of Strathclyde. I like Glasgow a lot. I like the awesome, ambitious scale of George Square and the fact that the taxis are cheaper. I like it that after 100 or more visits I still can’t quite find my way around. The centre is supposed to work on some kind of grid system, like New York. In fact, the grid was plotted on the back of a Belgian waffle by a visually impaired raindrop.

Like repeated sex with an imaginary friend, the Citylink bus to Glasgow can be a lonely affair. This is especially true if you travel in the middle of the day, as I did, when none of your fellow passengers really has a purpose or they wouldn’t be travelling to Glasgow on a bus on a Tuesday afternoon.

The mid-afternoon coach is bound only by mutually-shared pet hates. Should any passenger recline their seat, use the over-flowing portaloo or eat anything hot and ethnic it can, to quoth comedy’s Danny Dyer, get pwoper naahsty. It’s a tightrope, a maelstrom of simmering bad habits. One false move on an unopened Ginsters can so easily spill over into unspeakable violence on the Harthill tarmac.

________

That night, I was put-up in a ridiculously swanky hotel where even the bedbugs had room service. Within a minute of my entrance earlier in the afternoon, three people had called me ‘Sir’, which I took to be sarcastic.

One of the name-callers then picked up my bags (admittedly, ‘bags’ is a bit strong: one consisted of an M&S carrier containing some opened Percy Pigs), while another showed me to my room. It was suitably ridiculous. Across wall after wall switches, ports and possibly portals stared back at me. Cushions were everywhere. Cushions on the chez long and the bed. Cushions on the sofa. Cushions on cushions. Cushions on cushions on cushions.

I pointed the remote control around the room and something which I took to be a window sprung into life. Next came the sound, gushing from speakers in the ceiling. Doctors blared out from four corners and I collapsed, frightened. Thankfully, a cushion broke my fall. As the programme’s plot ebbed and did its best to flow, I began to believe I was part of some twisted torture routine. Make any man that comfortable, and you can break him.

I crawled to the minibar and ran my fingers down the price list in search of the word ‘complimentary’. Bottled water fitted the gratis bill. Phew. Plunging my hand through things that cost money I reached for its glassy sheath and pulled it free. Fumbling it open I leaned against the wall and splashed springwater over my face. Everything was going to be fine.

‘You alright, Sir?’, said the porter, still awaiting his tip.

Oh come on. Come on. Is this thing on?

________

After Mrs Portraits had arrived, we laughed at how she’d never seen me cowering and sobbing underneath a mountain of cushions quite that high before, and proceeded to amble along the fine streets of No Mean City.

Turning the stereotype register up to 11, the rain fell in table legs and a drunken man of 80 or so offered me a fight. We ran for the Glasgow Film Theatre. What a place. Wooden panels coughing heavily and oh so glad of the smoking ban. Signs in typefaces that demand respect.

In the auditorium, some audience members had taken our chosen film’s title, The Big Sleep, a little too literally and snoozed deeply.

The film crackled into life. Humphrey Bogart’s trousers were up to his nipples and his one-liners stupendous. Staring far too intently at Lauren Bacall I experienced a weird sense of comfort that my Granddads had probably done the same when they arrived back from the war.

Mind, at least their combat was over by then: I’d still to get the bus back.

________

Issue 73: Pen Portraits from the Port: Time and Wurds-worth

An advert comes on for i, ‘the new concise quality newspaper’. The TV commercial is full of busy, dynamic people with the caveat that they all have enough time to pose on an escalator or while driving a black cab for an advert. One woman, beset and befuddled by a meep-meep flu-voice redolent of a 1980s Tunes advert or Ed Miliband, sits on a bench with drizzle caking the air about her. In front of her is a lunchbox and a child’s scooter. She’s eating outside on a winter’s day. She’s not busy, she’s unstable.

The people this is aimed at are the kind of faux-hectics who are constantly stopping throughout their day to fingerspittle into Spacebook or MyFace just how otherwise engaged they are. They are the man who keeps putting his tie backwards over his shoulder to appear windswept and frazzled, and the office woman in an unkind blouse who bangs the photocopy lid to make people see that she’s far too busy for menial tasks. In the advert, one of them is even Dom Joly, who hasn’t been busy since 1997.

The idea of i (the idea) is that it is a curtailed paper for those who just don’t have time to read full-length articles, in the same way that trousers are curtailed urinals for tramps who don’t have time to get to the McDonald’s toilets. It’s aimed to sit nicely, or shuffle agitatedly, in a world where every second counts. But in a country where people still have the time to watch The One Show, that halfwit nightly study in where it all went wrong for humanity, or pretend to care about tennis, is anyone really that busy?

In a canteen recently I read a laminated sign that implored workers to pay using an in-house credit card system rather than cash. ‘A cash transaction takes 20 seconds, with a card it’s only 5’, it read, ‘Save time, use a card’.

Let’s just have a think about that. In what way would those stolen, cherished 15 seconds make a difference to your day? That’s 1 minute and 15 seconds per work canteen week. Five minutes a month. With holidays and Monday sickies, it’s less than an hour a year. An hour, the time it takes to drive to Glenrothes or instead die having stuck a potato in your exhaust pipe.

I worry (no, I do, I really do) about where all this unnecessary time-saving will lead. Capitalism has cottoned on to the fact that people like to be told they are busy and offered fake sympathy through slogans or images of actors running sweatily for a bus. Food is advertised not for its quality, but for how quickly it can rotate from corpse-frozen to putrid-melty-hot.

If everything continues in this manner, there will be a generation of people who’ve saved so much time that by the age of 48 they’ve got nothing left to do. It’ll be like when a meeting is unexpectedly called-off at work, only that feeling will last until death.

The revolution begins here: next time you see a person behind you in the street feigning a rush, slow down, straddle the pavement and dawdle hellishly. If you have a broadsheet newspaper on you to stretch out, then all the better. It might not change much, but it’ll be bloody funny.

________

To a Burns Supper, that odd mix of poetry, patriotism and sheep. Every year I look forward to these January trysts with old wurds-worth himself. The evening’s stages allow me to enact my finest mental hypocrisies, usually as follows:

Arrive. Feel very English in trousers. Tartan everywhere. Must get some air. Never liked tartan. That’s better. Back in. Friendly noises. Paranoia that this is someone else’s ball. Someone kilted. Someone good. The kilted read jokes and call poems poy-ems. More paranoia: did she just slag-off the English? Haggis comes. Enjoy imagining what’s in it in a twisted way. I love this stuff. Why can’t I have it every day? Still can’t remember what neeps are. Nice though. Happy now. Convivial. Something’s bound to go wrong. Oh God, there’s not a Ceilidh afterwards is there? Oh help. No, just more talking. And some singing. And, and, do you know what? I love this. Burns wasn’t only a Scot, he was a radical. He was anyone’s and everyone’s and ours. And I love this country too. Must get a kilt for next year.

________

Issue 72: Pen Portraits from the Port: Swearers and Middle-class slumber

A friend of mine (this one is real) went to visit the parents of a pal. With her, she took a further friend. The two had just been at a Hibs match. ‘How was the game?’, asked the pal’s Mum. Without pause, my friend’s friend replied: ‘f***ing pish’.

When the two were alone again, my chum enquired: ‘What the hell were you doing there? She’s about 90. You’ve never met her and the first word you say’s a swearword’. ‘Well,’ replied her companion, ‘I thought she was A Swearer’.

In his head, it seems there are two types of people in this world: Swearers and Non-swearers. Joining him and scar-heided fictional footballer Gordon Ramsay in the first group, you have those who believe that all sentences are improved by a garnishing of expletives. To them, everything is game for blaspheming, so that Martin Luther King Junior’s most famous speech would’ve been far better if he’d stood up and gone: ‘I have a dream that one day this frigging nation will rise the s**t up and live out the true meaning of its creed’.

Of course, there is truth in this: anything the great Doctor said would’ve been improved by the use of northern English words like ‘frigging’. If only he’d thought of this, King Junior wouldn’t have become the forgotten and marginalised fringe character he is today; truly, he was the Bobby Davro of the equal rights movement.

Another Swearer was my Granddad, a Yorkshire-Irishman brimming with the confusing sense of morose bonhomie such genetics breed. When marrying into the family, my Dad was immediately impressed by his new father-in-law’s cussing, later defining it as ‘creative swearing of the best kind’. Dad’s favourite remains the occasion on which an exasperated Granddad bore down on a quarrelsome housefly and seethed: ‘Come ‘ere, yer blue-arsed flamer’.

That second group (remember, from a few words back), the Non-swearers, would certainly not have welcomed Granddad into their pious cabal, but it’s amusing to imagine the tame language with which they’d have told him to go away, and equally his untamed response.

Advantages of being a Non-swearer include performing better at job interviews than Swearers and not offending the elderly, always good unless the elder in question is Margaret Thatcher or the novelist Katie Price. In addition, Non-swearers don’t suffer the sense of alienation an ‘Email not sent due to explicit content’ brings.

Whose side are you on? It’s a bloody minefield.

________

For the past month, more often than not I’ve fallen asleep listening to the Ashes and reading the diaries of former Labour MP Chris Mullin (to use some words up, un-dear reader, you can have two jokes here: ‘he doesn’t seem to mind’ and ‘which is a particular worry as I’m an overnight long distance lorry driver’. Neither work, but that’s 42 words used – now who’s the idiot?).

Other than inviting Delia Smith around to make you a coco laced with free-range port, this is about the most middle-class way to reach slumber. It also leads to lucid dreams of former Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Nick Brown bowling at Michael Hussey or Diane Abbott dropping an easy catch at slip, but that’s a different matter, as my psychoanalyst keeps reminding me.

Laying there, understanding between four and seven per cent of the words babbled and jargoned by the commentators, a nagging feeling gripped me in its arms: having never played cricket on any discernible level apart from twatting an apple core with a pogo stick, how do I know that this isn’t the game for me? How do I know I’m not in possession of an incredible, raw, world-beating talent?

Before long, this feeling extended to everything in the universe, ever (it was a long night): politics; metaphysics; javelin; making cup cakes; medicine (medicine, for Pete’s sake – I might have within my hidden talents a cure for cancer or the common cold or that thing when you knock your elbow on the table and it goes all fuzzy). You name it, I fretted that it could be my leashed talent, my untapped gift to mankind.

Now though, the cricket’s over and I’ve finished the diaries. I can get back to listening to Tony Livesey’s 5Live phone-ins about bin collections. I can start reading Mrs Pen Portrait’s Heat magazines again. Happy New Year.

________

Issue 71: Pen Portraits from the Port: Boycotts and Toby Jug Cameron

Home to York, where I grew up (well, older). There, the Minster stood grandly as places that cost £8 to enter should. At the ancient marketplace, men called Ste sold multipacks of pegs to women called Denise and the fishmonger told people to cheer up as it might never happen. I walked through the Farmers’ Market, picking up a burly offal-faced dairy specialist named Colin for £107.50 as I passed, pressed on via Whipmawhopmagate (take that, spellchecker you halfwit!) and settled for a pint in The Blue Bell.

The Blue Bell is a pub of magnificence. In room one, men that have known eachother since Roman times sip and fail to speak. Their faces are so rigorously Yorkshire that if you look hard enough in their wrinkles you can see tiny Geoffrey Boycotts pushing Wensleydale cheese downhill in a steel bathtub. In room two, baffled tourists, sent there by their Rough Guides, wonder if you really do have to order your poison through a hatch. Of course you do. This is Yorkshire. Full frontal service is frowned upon.

I settled by the front bar and tried to look like my choice of real ale was informed by wisdom and not the shiny picture of a dragon on the handpump. Accompanying the pint with Scampi Fries beside an open fire that threatened to melt one side of my face, all was well in the world. Then a man wearing a cravat walked in.

Behind a thin beard, I could pick out a chap in his early 50s. His tweed jacket smelt slightly of fetid dog, his conversation of dormant fascism. ‘Yes,’ he would say to anyone who wasn’t listening, ‘I’ve just been to a civilised country where they actually let you smoke in bars.’ Wearily going through the motions like a cruise ship comedian 32 years into the same routine, the barwoman was the unlucky person obliged to reply. ‘Oh yeah? Where was that then?’ ‘Belgium. That’s a proper country. None of this PC nonsense.’ Because, of course, it’s Politically Correct not to want lung cancer via passive smoking, I didn’t say; the Scampi Fries were all gone and it was time to get Colin the farmer home.

________

As baby-faced Toby Jug David Cameron hones in on society’s most vulnerable, I’ve been wondering just how far he can go. Each week, there’s a fresh policy to terrorise a new group weaker than the last. Realistically, this can only go on until he levies a stealth tax on pigeons for relying on the food crumbs of hard-working families. There is every chance this is all actually a reality TV show where ‘the government’ push things as far as they possibly can. Expect the impoverished blind to burn their sticks for warmth, the disabled to smelt their wheelchairs to sell for scrap and the obese to sell parts of their flubber for cat food before it gets any better. Then, and only then, can Davina McCall reveal the truth in an altogether shouty manner.

________

Given their strike the other week, it’s comforting to imagine what a picket line of Scottish referees would look like. Firstly, they’d all be in garish full kit, occasionally stopping to jokingly book one another for knocking over the stack of foam tea cups. Officials would be scrawling tiny slogans into their books, causing cars to drive dangerously close as they strained to read the words ‘Honk if you support our claim to not get shouted at in the face by Neil Lennon as defined by the Human Rights Act 1998’. Around a barrel of fire, others would stand rubbing their hands together and occasionally blowing for imaginary free-kicks or sending bypassing pram-pushing mothers to the stands.

________

As the deadline for this humble rag lapsed before the recent snow deluge, I can’t really write about it. I can’t write about how, despite nauseatingly in-depth coverage, the world’s media missed the real story: that of my working from home routine being disturbed by the snow-bound presence of Mrs Pen Portraits. I can’t write how she singularly failed to realise that I have my newspaper and banana break at 10.30am and scattered her real-job detritus all over my regular resting perch. Nor can I mention how much her failure to see the genius of Homes Under the Hammer perturbed me. As for the madness of having lunch at 12pm? Bring on the melting, I’d say if I could.

 ________

Issue 70: Pen Portraits from the Port: Buses and Ikea Flea Circuses

At last, I belong here! It all happened on a recent Monday afternoon, as important events tend to (Bob Geldof being unhappy; weekend hangovers starting to kick in; Ben Fogle’s Escape in Time on BBC2). As the number 49 bus lumbered around the corner, I noticed something remarkable about it: it was a double-decker. Never in all my 49-catching had this occurred. This in itself did not mean I now belonged to Edinburgh; it was the fact I had noticed and cared enough, even, to text Mrs Pen Portraits the words ‘Seen. It. All. Now’ (she presumed I’d caught the bloke that lives opposite drying himself in front of the bedroom window again, but that’s by the by). Once you start to care about LRT, well that’s when this city has got you underneath its confusingly contoured skin.

On arrival here seven years ago, I was immediately transfixed by how much locals knew about bus routes. Ask anyone how best to get to, say, Silverknowes and it’d be ‘37 this’, ‘16 that’ and ‘why?’ Places didn’t have directions or geographical locations, just bus numbers, so that when I asked where the Mining Museum was ‘you get a 29’ came the answer, or when I enquired as to what Crammond was like people would reply: ‘a nightmare to get to.’

After a while, I became convinced that this particularly Edinburgh version of The Knowledge was no fluke: it was, in fact, being taught in schools. All across Midlothian, children as young as eight were being instructed in how to get best use of a Day Saver and in the nuances of the strange non-queue queue system that seems to somehow work at bus stops here. By 11, pupils were being dropped blindly somewhere across town and told to make their way back to class using no more than two buses. By 16, if any child had not been on all routes (including the lesser-spotted 21) they would be exiled to Dalkeith.

_______

In most living rooms they sit there, ignored, old and left behind. I talk not of Grandmothers at Christmas, but of the humble landline. The mobile phone has enjoyed an emphatic victory over it among an entire generation. Very few people under 30 even give their home number out any more. Indeed, landlines only ever get used for chats with Mums like a version of the Downing Street to White House emergency hotline only with more talk of Ethel next door’s bunions. In our house, when it rings we glance at one another with the kind of horrified look formerly reserved for midnight chapping of the door by police officers or my weird cousin Kenny. I still remember our childhood numbers, mind: everyone from our borstal does.

________

Seamlessly picking up the phone theme: lately I’ve been getting exasperated with people moaning about call centre queues, options and outsourcing. I need some kind of system whereby I can give them buttons to select should they wish to proceed. Press 1 if your diatribe is about muzak, press 2 if it’s about the cost of the call and press 3 if you’re masquerading slightly racist views with a pretend point about commonsense and will soon say, ‘I mean, I’d be the same with a broad Geordie, honest’.

________

Disconcerting scenes round our way: the postman’s only gone and taken a three-week holiday. I’ve had number 16’s mail twice, and Cathy up the road found Paula’s free Gillette Venus sample in with hers. People are livid, taking to the streets in their slippers to shake their heads and furtively leaning to pick-up red rubber bands as if extracting single hairs from a murder scene. The poor stand-in has no chance among curtains twitching like Ikea flea circuses and dogs sensing new whistling, red-shirted meat. The whole neighbourhood is in chaos. Tough times indeed but we’ll pull through.

________

There’s only one way to avoid the creep of mild Seasonal Affective Disorder, and that’s turning the clocks forward when they’re supposed to go back. No-one really understands the whole thing anyway, and twice a year most of us have to use our landlines to ask our Mums which one it is. Just think how early you’ll be for everything. I think. No, is that right? Because if it was dark at 7 it’ll now be…oh I don’t know anything anymore.

________

Issue 69: Pen Portraits from the Port: Poundland and phoning Sophie Webster

What does Asda stand for? Associated Dairies. What does Tesco stand for? Low prices and everyday value. Ay? AY? Oh, you people. Last month, said retail colossus brought its Clubcard points and half-price Tony Blair bibles to the Cultural Quarter (see editions of this piffle passim. I’ve always wanted to use the word ‘passim’. Now I can look myself in the eye. Using a mirror, obviously). Risking the ire of Mr Lidl, I bimbled down on opening day in search of free things and to find out if every little really does help.

That, anyway, was the plan – I hadn’t reckoned upon half of Midlothian doing the same. Never had I seen the likes: old boys crammed to price-up John West tinned salmon; grannies rubbed their hands suspiciously across 45p Tesco Value foil; and a fat girl in a Flintstones t-shirt picked up some fluffy red slippers with all the warped reverence of Cinderella’s shoe-fetish prince. Where had all these people come from? Where had they shopped before?

I could only conclude that I was in the presence of a travelling Tesco Army, distributed by the coach fleet load to attend store openings across Britain. As I became stuck in-between two trolleys by the soya milk, my paranoia worsened: were these even real people? I mean, that bloke over there angrily complaining about them running out of chicken breasts, does any human really care that much about poultry, Bernards Matthews and Clifton aside? And that woman there, who somehow knows where the Tracker bars are; who on earth knows where the Tracker bars are, I ask you? The Tesco Army, that’s who.

_______

While Tesco brought its brutal consumerism to the CQ, Poundland gently slotted in like a kindly impoverished Auntie at a wedding reception. On its own opening day, an actress from Emmerdale turned up to cut the ribbon and bark at anyone adding the suffix ‘Farm’ to her programme’s title, mysteriously lost in 1989. Once I’d got over the fun of repeatedly picking up items and asking staff members ‘How much is this?’, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience; how can the spectacle of a potential shoplifter protesting ‘why would I bother stealing from here, everything’s only a quid?’ be anything but enjoyable? My favourite eavesdrop, though, came from the woman who approached a shop assistant hanging up skeleton costumes and witch hats and remarked: ‘Is that the Christmas stuff up already, hen? Jings, it gets earlier every year.’

________

When the leaves crunch underfoot, a trademark Autumn can make you glad to be alive. The artist Kyffin Williams wrote ‘There is poetry in the dying of the year and mystery as well,’ which perfectly sums up that feeling (When the leaves squelch that’s a different matter, but scraping your feet across grass and removing the rest with an ice lolly stick should do the trick.)

Autumn means time for sitting on benches, a particularly underrated pursuit. Thoughts are gathered on benches, and tempers calmed there. Whole communities live their days upon on them, and some their nights. First snogs, business chats, lunches all occur on benches, though only if you wait there long enough. Most benches have plaques dedicated to the dead and buried on that, their favourite spot. I hope one day to find one that says ‘Big Davy sat here and got pished every day. Aye, he loved a bevvy in the park, right enough.’

________

Non-lowbrow television watchers look away now. This gobbet contains scenes of a soap nature.

Lately, I’ve been trying to help Kevin Webster find his daughter Sophie on Coronation Street. Pausing the telly and writing down the number from her ‘Missing’ poster (07760 900 763, in case you want to try), I called to say I’d seen her in Sheffield, shacked up with that Sian lass. However, all that greeted me was a woman doing a passable impression of Moira Stewart ostensibly unaffected by the inhaling of helium. ‘The number you have dialled has not been recognised,’ she said, ‘please check and try again.’ And do you know what? She only bloody hung up. No wonder they can’t find Sophie.

________

Issue 68: Pen Portraits from the Port: Jabba the Hutt carrots and fascist hairdressers

August was a momentous month in our garden. After much deliberating and high-level conferencing, we finally pulled a carrot out of the ground. This was not just any carrot; it was a shrivelled, pathetic carrot resembling one of Jabba the Hutt’s thumbs. Having stared at it for a while, we then washed said carrot, barbecued it and applied some Reggae Reggae sauce, which took much of the foul taste away. Next to be uprooted was a courgette, the only survivor in its family after a savage ransacking by the kid next door’s Finding Nemo football. On the palate, this performed a little better than the carrot, and we only fed 80 to 85% of it to the neighbour’s dog. On reflection, gardening has failed to resemble popular documentary series The Good Life.

________

On three Saturdays through the same month, accompanied by a supreme Spanish guitarist I read stories from that book wot I wrote, Homage to Caledonia, as part of the Fringe. All three shows sold out, with many of the audience members only slightly related to me. This was generally a good experience until the final week when one lady went to sleep on the front row and the man next to her erupted in a coughing fit of sarcastic proportions. I’ll not be inviting my parents next year.

________

Talking of fringes, one of the pains of my existence is the haircut. Every few weeks I’ll go along to some bonce rug reduction unit or other and remember just how rubbish I am at banal conversation. This is not to say I deal only in the sparkling, far from it (I own five books about trains for a kick-off), but I really am poor at chit chat. Put me alongside the most prattling of taxi drivers and within minutes he’ll be whipping off his seatbelt at the traffic lights and running for the hills.

At the hairdresser’s, I’ll try to fit in by pretending to enjoy an old issue of Esquire magazine. Then, there’s the nervous acceptance of a cup of tea, trying to slurp it while describing that you want your hair styled the same way as last time despite never having been there before, followed by the alarming feeling that the barber is about to say something vaguely fascist. It always reminds me of an old schoolmaster I’ve just made up. When asked ‘how would you like your hair cut today, sir?’ he’d emphatically reply ‘in silence.’

________

Picture the scene. In the beginning, there was only a few of them. Then in time they multiplied at the rate of screen-faced Von Trapps on a desert island. iPhones. i-bloody-Phones. Small ‘i,’ large ‘P,’ and ruining the very thing they were born to facilitate – conversation – for three years now.

Look up in any café and there you will see their pie-eyed users pushing away. In the street, hark at the way those users walk with one arm outstretched checking Facebook, slaloming into one another like zombies sponsored by Apple. They’ve got ‘Apps’ for telling you when the number 49 is due and Apps for ruining Likely Lads-style football score avoidance. They are information vats that delete the possibility of surprise and ruin the traditional pub quiz. Like Mrs Doyle and her teasmaid, I like the misery of knowing nothing and of using age-old timepiece and timetable technology to catch a bus. I’ll be sticking with my Alcatel, thanks, an anti-iPhone that chuckles and says ‘Are you taking the piss, mate?’ when you mistakenly press the redundant camera button.

________

Issue 67: Pen Portraits from the Port: Working from home and the Haribo dentist

When I tell people I work from home, they react in one of two ways: ridicule or awe. The concept is either preposterous and can result only in Jeremy Kyle and first name terms with the postman, or it inspires a level of unquestioning admiration reserved usually for firemen and Stephen Fry.

To the first bunch, humans are unable to labour without carrot and stick, or at least if they have a carrot and stick it’ll be turned into a sculpture in pursuit of work avoidance. To the second, domestic toilers are paragons of self-discipline – industrious Stakhanovites dressed in opus dei baw-ticklers for good measure. The convenient truth lays somewhere in-between.

There are many theories about how best to work from home, very often written by office-based journalists who have never suffered the daily agony of taking in the rest of the street’s Amazon deliveries. Regular breaks, dressing smartly and going for a walk round the block ‘to work’ every morning are recommended (the latter falls down when you get in and mistakenly think you have been at work all day, open a can of lager and find it’s 8.45am. That’s what I told my wife, anyhow).

The message seems to be ‘make home like an office,’ an edict I am closely following. First off, every Monday morning I’ll call a meeting with myself about the week ahead. As I walk into the kitchen, I’ll say in a thoroughly irritating voice, possibly my own, ‘oh hello. Someone had a bit of a rough weekend!’ and banter with the kettle about how Ian from accounting got off with the new girl.

At some point in the week, there’ll be a surprise fire drill: I know, because I do the alarm noise. Single-filing downstairs, I’ll assemble in the forecourt at the front of the building (the flagstone by the wheelie bin) and reprimand myself for thinking ‘Christ, I hope it’s a real fire.’

It’s outside too that I perform another of my office functions. With no watercooler to congregate near, chats over the fence with my neighbours are invaluable sources of business intelligence, if you count who isn’t sleeping with whom and which local takeaway has rats as intelligence, which I do.

Morale is very important to our organisation, with teambuilding exercises toe-curlingly frequent. Mood facilitation games include trying to balance a pencil in between my lip and filtrum and roll it into my mouth, throwing a teabag into a mug from across the room and running my finger along surfaces and tutting at the dust as I pass.

Really, it’s a wonder there’s time left to watch any telly at all.

_______

The recent opening of The Parlour (a pub, it’s a pub, ok?) on Duke Street just confirms that area as Leith’s hippest. With a Pets & Things (what things?), three bus stops complete with Tracker and the brand new Marksman quiz night, it is every inch the Cultural Quarter.

The Parlour has nothing to do with a former Arsenal midfielder and is a little bit ace; with a popcorn machine and separate section on the menu for Monster Munch, how could it be anything else? Aside from an atmosphere that couldn’t be any more amiable if it kissed you on the lips, wiped dirt from your face with its hanky and gave you 50p, by stripping the old Golf pub back to its knickers and deep-cleaning them, they’ve revealed the building’s inner-gargoyle; now, you can look up and enjoy being eyeballed by an ornate Victorian carving. I’m not sure which one out of Ying and Yang is the good one, but if it’s Ying, and Yang isn’t just suffering from a bad press profile, then the Parlour is Duke’s Ying to the new Tesco’s Yang. Got that?

It was in that Parlour that a dentist friend from back home in Yorkshire revealed her love of Haribo Tangfastic. This is no mere dalliance with the wormy sweet made to make your mouth cringe, but full-blown, twice-a-day addiction. What she expected was shock and tut; what she got was accord and nod. I am just the same, only with a wider range that lurches from chocolate limes right across the scale to Midget Gems. This conversation was therapy for us both. We agreed that society would be easier on us if we came out as alcoholics or drug abusers than adult sweet fiends, and that green wine gums were vastly underrated. It was the kind of erudite discourse that made a 1970s Open University maths documentary look like….. Typical of the Cultural Quarter, really.

________

Links to a few more Leither pieces:

Issue 65: Pen Portraits from the Port: John Cormack

Issue 64: Pen Portraits from the Port: William Wedgewood Benn

Issue 63: Pen Portraits from the Port: Eduardo Paolozzi

Issue 62: Pen Portraits from the Port: John Gladstone

Issue 61: Pen Portraits from the Port: John Hunter

Issue 60: Pen Portraits from the Port: Robert Jameson

Issue 59: Pen Portraits from the Port: Clarice Shaw

 

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