KAYAKS & KINDNESS: breakfast in wales

A celestial-sounding melody echoed around the dark hostel room as rain pattered relentlessly against the window. As the phone from which the sound was coming vibrated against a vinyl floor, sleepy eyes widened to see a square of black glass, peppered with raindrops and the silhouette of the mountains of Snowdonia.

We are in Llanberis, North Wales, at 5.30am one Tuesday in August, 2021.

My friend and I had set our alarms with the intention to take a sunrise kayak trip across Llyn Padarn, a breathtaking, glacially formed lake which stretches two miles in length and twenty nine metres in depth at the foot of a host of rocky peaks, Mount Snowdon being the most famous.

However, a combination of Samsung’s contemporary cock-a-doodle-doo and the prospect of getting completely drenched was enough to make us reconsider the idea we had conjured whilst basking in the heat of the previous afternoon. But, if the last couple of years have taught anyone anything, it’s that you have to do these things when you get the chance. There haven’t been many opportunities to wake up away from home in the past year, and if you postponed all of your plans until the arrival of better weather you’d barely do a thing.

So there we stood, a few minutes later, shivering hands stoically inflating our kayak by the side of the lake. The skies were fading from black to a watery, charcoal grey and there was absolutely nobody else about, beyond a lone swimmer who offered us a chirpy greeting about having the lake to ourselves as she stepped out into the water and started gliding about contentedly.

By the time we were out on the water the sky had turned into a sheet of off-white wool and there was just enough daylight to make out the mountains behind the clouds. We paddled in a southeasterly direction, taking in stunning views of Snowdon behind the thirteenth century ruins of Dolbadarn Castle. To our left were a cluster of features symbolic of Welsh heritage and history: the National Slate Museum, the Llanberis Lake Railway, and the former Miners’ hospital building. With virtually the whole of this impressive body of water to ourselves, and so much around us to see, the early start had gifted us the kind of mentally energising experience which can completely shift internal paradigms and conjure new dreams. I want to do this every morning, and just who exactly says that I can’t?

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We savoured this moment for as long as we could though it was only a matter of time before the weather caught up with us. It was a beautiful morning but it was also extremely cold, and the water – whilst calm in its demeanour – had managed to find its way into our shoes and soak our clothes. Teeth were beginning to chatter. Fingers were starting to freeze. Minds were being seduced by the thoughts of warm hot chocolates and cooked breakfasts. It was time to get out, and shiver on the banks for thirty minutes whilst waiting for the kayak to be deflated enough to fold into the boot. Maybe I shouldn’t do this every morning. Or maybe I wear ten fleeces, boxing gloves, and a spacesuit next time!

After what was the quickest turnaround ever back at the hostel to get changed (nothing challenges the concept of time like the prospect of a massive hot chocolate with cream and marshmallows) we were stood on the pavement in the rain forming the queue for the cafe. Each of the tables inside were occupied and we were still in a pandemic, so “budging up” could not be a thing in this instance. I watched through the window and willed the diners to eat up quickly, though my friend had assured me that it would be worth the wait, and she was right.

Behind us in the queue stood a man with his young son, discussing what they were going to eat. The rain was falling faster at this point, and whilst it seemed a sauna in comparison to shivering on the banks a short while earlier, it was still bitterly cold. I kept thinking about swirling my spoon round a receptacle of molten chocolate, and how the marshmallows would melt into a fluffy goo that would ooze down my throat and radiate heat round my icy insides. As transfixed as a dog by a bone I watched a pair of diners finally stand and take their jackets from the back of their seats, and when the waitress simultaneously approached the door we knew our turn had finally come. The newly vacant – and only available – table sat six, and it made no sense for just the two of us to occupy it, so we invited the man and his young son to get out of the rain and join us.

The breakfast exceeded expectation, and neither of us held back. After the early start, the freezing temperatures and all that paddling, we deserved our massive hot chocolates and our morning feasts. Whilst eating we started engaging in a fascinating conversation with the man. He explained how they were traveling around North Wales in a camper van with uncomfortable seating, reliving his childhood holidays and giving his son an experience to remember. He also shared with us his voluntary work rescuing chickens and the values behind it, an incredibly eye opening conversation about an issue I had known very little about before we met. As we chatted and chatted, his son contentedly dined quietly on his toast. The pair of them consumed very little compared to us, and were gone within about thirty minutes, bidding us goodbye and wishing us a nice day as they put on their jackets and walked back out into the rain, back to their van and back to South Wales. My friend and I remarked about what a nice pair of people they were. The inspiring, kind-hearted man. His well behaved young son, who just let us chat, no screaming, no fuss.

We stayed in the cafe nursing our warm mugs for a little longer to bring our fingers back from the dead, then motioned the waitress over to pay for our banquet breakfast. She seemed a little stuck for words:

“Erm, well actually, there’s no need. That man who was at your table. He paid for you.”
“What? All of it?”
“Yes. All of it…he said he enjoyed the -“ (unfortunately we’ll never know exactly what, as her vocals were doing battle against the clattering of cutlery in the background at this point, but it’s fair to guess that dining with us had obviously not been the worst experience in the world).

Now it was our turn to be stuck for a words! But why? We had ordered so much more than them. We didn’t even know their names. We thought back to the moment the man had gone to pay for his bill. He had gone up to the counter, outside of our earshot, obviously not wanting us to know what he was doing. He clearly wasn’t after praise or anything in return; he knew he’d be long gone by the time we found out about his gracious act. He knew that we would never be able to contact him to say thank you, or identify him as a hero.

He was just genuinely, purely and beautifully kind. And after eighteen hard months of this pandemic, during which as a society we have seen some of the worst examples of human behaviour ever and been challenged in ways beyond comprehension, these acts of genuine kindness mean so much more than they ever would before. This was about way more than saving fifteen quid each, it was about just knowing that people like that exist, people who infuse the mantra to “be kind” into the world around them not just by posting those couple of words online to look good but actually by being kind. If I ever happened to meet this man again, I would thank him for that first and foremost, and then I would thank him for the breakfast.

We were still speechless as we returned to the car and looked out over Llyn Padarn again, taking in the same stunning views as the morning but this time appreciating the warmth of the heater and human kindness. Not every stranger we share a table with in life will pay for our meals, in fact the vast majority won’t. The vast majority might even snap at us to move, scrape their cutlery loudly against their plates, constantly curse, or use the last of the ketchup before it’s our turn.

But it’s not always about the vast majority, and a majority is still not everybody. The most inspiring and memorable people you will come across in life won’t always be those you have the most exposure to. They’ll often be the ones you encounter by chance, in tiny cafes in tiny towns on rainy days, strangers who aren’t after reciprocation, strangers who are just peaceful and kind, strangers who will always be strangers but who raised a smile and left an impression that you’re still thinking about several months later as you reflect back upon a year. Strangers who inspire a blog post.

Llanberis, North Wales, at 5.30am one Tuesday in August: the morning nature and kindness breathed optimism into the midst of a pandemic where it had so often seemed scant.

MISSING THE AUDIENCE: A LESSON FROM THE TELEVISION

“RICKAYYYYYYYYYY!!!!”
Harold & Madge
“You are the weakest link, goodbye!”
Beek-her Grerrrv – ha-ha, ha-ha, ha-ha.
Here’s our Graham with a quick reminder”

If, as reading the above, you either heard or visualised them within, then the chances are that you are a similar age or above to me and would have seen them on the television at some point. I feel confident that most people can identify all five and I feel that way because for many years the majority of us were all watching the same things, and I miss that.

During the 1990s there were several things I would religiously watch: Grange Hill / Byker Grove at 5:10pm, Neighbours at 5:35pm, The Simpsons at 6pm, Eastenders at 7:30pm (or 8pm on a Monday!) as well as all of the Saturday evening classics: Noel’s House Party (gutted I never received an invite), Blind Date, Casualty, Gladiators, and all the rest. Does this sound familiar to you? Chances are it does. Just the other week, among a small group of friends, we randomly established that half of us were still haunted by an episode of Michael Buerk’s 999 where the lady got her long hair stuck in a jacuzzi filter and almost drowned. It was probably only broadcast once or twice, in the mid-90s, yet several of us remembered it well. We think about it every time we affix our hairbands in the swimming pool changing rooms, yet I can’t tell you anything about what I watched last year.

Nowadays, even though my television gets turned on almost every evening in the hope of being mind-blown, there is nothing I regularly watch, and if I do get really stuck into something, chances are I’ll only chat to one or two others who watch it too.

It’s easy to understand why this is. In the halcyon days described above, there were far fewer channels, no such thing as Freeview, and only a fortunate minority of the population owned a satellite dish. The internet was still several years off being something the majority had access to, and barely anybody owned a mobile phone on which they could while away time sending yellow faces to friends. When the weather was a bit rubbish (and remember, this is England) there was only a choice of about four things to do of a typical evening, and they each had their own button on the remote.

There were no such things as spoilers, no world wide web to give away the plot, and you either watched a programme at the same time as everybody else or you didn’t watch it at all (okay, strictly speaking you could watch it back on a recordable VHS, but the success of that was always at the mercy of whoever was in charge of setting it up). Our interest in soaps, sitcoms and dramas was always about the characters, and not the cast’s messy personal lives. Those two things never intertwined, like the media manages to make them do today.

Whilst these days watching television would not be something I endorse people doing too much of, I do – in some ways – miss how it used to be. That’s not because I believe the standard of programming has decreased in quality, but that the way in which we watch it has.

As of December 2018, there were around 460 available television channels in the UK. Of course, not everybody will have access to all of these, but on Freeview alone there are at least 70, and that’s not inclusive of the fact that you can essentially watch any programme hosted by the main channels at any time if you have access to their free streaming hubs.

This magnitude of choice may have sounded very appealing back in the 1990’s – when the likes of the Antiques Roadshow being on would decrease the likelihood of an evening being fun by twenty five percent – but in my experience, it’s turned out to be anything but. In fact, it’s probably one of the key reasons why I don’t tend to watch much anymore.

Earlier this week, I returned from an evening walk feeling shattered and cold and in need of a nice Winter evening on the sofa. I liked the idea of being ensconced in a bit of escapism in the same way I was in the past, and after making myself that little bit more comfortable, took a look through the numerous channels to find something that I could get stuck into for an hour or so. Snacks were prepared for this event.

But it just didn’t happen.

By the time I’d found something I felt compelled to watch for longer than ten minutes, the snacks had long gone, but it wasn’t because there wasn’t enough on the listings to interest me – just the opposite – and I found it hard to settle on one. If I wasn’t fully absorbed by a programme within the first five minutes, my mind wandered to the other listings I’d seen and I’d change the channel and start watching something else. This wasn’t an isolated incident either; flitting between various channels and applications is often the rhythm of my television viewing, and maybe that’s why – in my mind – there isn’t a modern day equivalent of ’90’s soaps and game shows, even though some of those same ones still run.

But this post isn’t meant to sound as though I’m trying to make a first world problem of not finding anything mesmerising enough to watch on the telly. It’s about the identification that sometimes, you can have too much of a good thing. More options to choose from – whether they’re television channels, music streaming apps, careers, profiles on online dating sites, travel destinations or varieties or McFlurry – are undoubtedly a product of the modern age for which we can only be thankful and I would not wish for this post to undermine my gratitude for that. But are they really making us happier, or have they diluted the joy we once took from these things when they were that little bit more rare: classmates bonding over their opinions of Who Shot Phil Mitchell because we’d all watched it (Google now tells you within an instant, it was gravel-voiced Lisa, IF you’d forgotten); Growing to love Track 9 on the New Kids cassette because there’s no quick option to skip and only three other cassettes to listen to; that place you kept going back to on holiday every year because you loved it so much; that one conversation you had time for on MSN Messenger because you couldn’t access the internet for more than fifteen minutes a day. It seems to me that we used to appreciate these things so much more.

My recent fiddle with the remote is just the latest manifestation of something that I have realised numerous times. It’s not always what you want, or even what you have, that makes you happy. It’s just as much about what you do and how it makes you feel. The programme can only be good if you’re watching it. You may never realise how much you love a song if you always skip it after the intro. Distance from home is unlikely to be the reason your favourite holiday was your favourite holiday, and just how memorable can a conversation be if you are having three others at the same time? Spreading things too thin is only a good idea if the jam is toxic. You’re less likely to die after one bite. But if it’s a really tasty, non-toxic jam, you’ll enjoy that bite so much more if you’ve more of it on the bread, even if it means eating a smaller piece.

One of my favourite things about the television is that I learn a lot from it; I didn’t always realise how much.

Something else many will recognise: The BBC testcard was in use from 1967 and 1998 and its predominant function was to freak the bejeezus out of anyone who turned the television on too early in the morning. And some other technical function apparently.

Video of the Day: The Simpsons – Your Putter’s Name is Charlene

What more fitting for this post than to break from tradition by including a video as opposed to a song, and this particular one is an example of how the internet can ruin classic tv. For years I’ve laughed at the scene when Homer vehemently suggests that Bart call his putter “Charlene”. It just seemed so random, why Charlene? Is the putter reminiscent of Kylie Minogue’s character in Neighbours circa 1989 or something? Would the wedge be called Scott and the green itself, Madge? I would chuckle internally at my own poor joke whenever I saw this clip. But I recently found out that it’s actually just a copy of a line from a war film. So it’s nothing at all to do with Neighbours, and there’s a logic to it afterall. Damn.
But still. A classic scene.

GRIM, GREY AND AWESOME

There are three kinds of people in the world: those who see the appeal of Dungeness, those who don’t, and those who’ve never been.

“You either love it or you hate it!” chimes the well-known slogan of a popular brand of yeast extract. A very similar slogan would look perfectly at home on a poster advertising Dungeness. I have already written about it once, almost ten years ago to the day in fact, and though this post isn’t intended to be a repeat of that one, it’s relevant to the context.

In summary, there is so much which is undeniably beautiful about the place – the bold light typical of a peninsular, the gently rippling sea surrounding it, the whispering marshland, and knowing that a third of all plant species in the UK are there around you. Yet there are lot of other features overwhelming on the eyes which are not so traditionally beautiful – rusted corrugated iron in every direction, weathered bungalows, angry handwritten scrawls in windows telling people not to look inside, a silence which is as deathly as it is otherwise comforting and – the biggest blot on the horizon of all – the Dungeness Power Station.

To understand the appeal of Dungeness you have to see how this fusion of polar opposites is – in itself – a thing of beauty and awe. But why?

I am currently reading a book over which I am already lamenting the fact that I will one day reach the end of the final chapter. Gareth E Rees’ Unofficial Britain was a recent random purchase which I started reading over a couple of cups of coffee in town one lovely Saturday afternoon. The topics of each chapter – which include pylons, ring roads and roundabouts – may sound somewhat unappealing, but just like the power station’s relationship with Dungeness (which unsurprisingly features within the book) Rees demonstrates how the brightest of colours can sometimes be found behind the most grey of facades. The stories he tells about some of our landscape’s “ugliest” features are all based on fact, and succeed in convincing the reader to view them in a different way. He inspires us to appreciate the fact that a building need not be medieval, timber-beamed or smell of cloves in order to have a history or magical qualities. I won’t say any more than that, but anybody who sits in the “I like Dungeness” camp needs to read this book. You’ll love it.

Since I started reading the book it’s fair to say I’ve been paying a lot more attention to my surroundings, and trying to see “the Dungeness effect” in more places. Near my parents’ home in Canterbury there’s a section of the North Down Ways which is a cluster of rapeseed fields and orchards which during Winter is just one large beigey-brown patchwork quilt. Stitched across it is a row of electricity pylons, which traditionally evoke a sense of danger and caution. Earlier in the week I took a walk around the area to get some steps in and found myself besotted with how it all looked and felt in the late October sunset: the colours, the hums of power lines, the coolness:

Towards the end of my walk, the cloud emerging from the left in photo three had cloaked over the whole sky with a watery navy cloak, and I felt the Dungeness effect wash all over me again, in the same spine-tingling way. The music I was listening to at the time intensified this. It was from a label called Ghost Box Records, which describes itself as “a record label for a group of artists exploring the misremembered musical history of a parallel world.” Think electronic music. Think production music. Think scary ’70s public information films. The music was recommended in my beloved book and was consequently swiftly Spotify-ed up and enjoyed. And it really complements all of this.

I have often asked myself what it is about the likes of Dungeness, or these kind of grey views, or Ghost Box music, that makes them so captivating and unconventionally beautiful, and the only conclusion I can really muster is that it’s something to do with the way in which they somehow serve as dynamite to the imagination. They get right in to your senses and they might frighten you a bit, but they’re also blank canvasses upon which you can let creativity and imagination run wild without the presence of the wider public to distract it with loud conversations which hook you back into a reality which – with its pandemic and rising fuel prices – can ironically sometimes look more grim than any pylon or sheet of corroded iron. It’s no surprise that numerous artists descend upon – and rave about – Dungeness, the most famous example being the late film director Derek Jarman, who even owned a cottage on the peninsular which can still be visited today.

Sometimes it’s not so much about what you see right in front of you but their invisible companions. The stories. The memories. The feelings. The character. The inspiration those things provide.

That’s the beauty: tudor beams, immaculate topiary, or not.

If this post resonates with you – buy that book! And if it doesn’t, if you’re really not sure what any of this is about, let me know and we’ll arrange a trip to New Romney to look at a bunch of nothing. I assure you, it’ll be mesmerising.

Song of the Day: Belbury Poly – Farmer’s Angle

A fine example of Ghost Box music 🙂


Chapters 30-35

It’s an often recurring realisation of mine that the more I find out the less I feel like I really know. The older I get and the more I experience, the more I question things. It makes sense I suppose. Until you find a reason to question something, then why would you do so. It’s that classic, Socrates-inspired adage again: You don’t know what you don’t know, because you don’t know it. Each and every one of us have our own set of a billion things which we don’t know yet, and it’s both a little scary yet also achingly exciting to know (or do we? ha!) it. Astonishing lessons we’ve yet to learn, impactful experiences we’ve yet to have, and people we’ve yet to meet are floating around us like rubber ducks with hooks on their heads, waiting to be caught, and if we can manage to do so, we stand to win a prize. Hopefully a good one, perhaps a rubbish one, but either way, we get to keep it forever.

Shortly after turning thirty, I wrote a post here which seemed to resonate with a lot of my peers. It was a post that essentially celebrated the liberation in jumping off that high speed train which herds its passengers to each of life’s mainstream milestones without diversion. It was a post about seeing beyond the numerical context of age; and feeling more free by doing so. Turning thirty was an absolute highlight for me, predominantly for that realisation. It felt akin to removing the high heels after an evening trying to recreate Stomp on the dancefloor, and replacing them with comfortable flats for the walk home. And also because it was an excuse to throw a big party and eat tonnes of Frazzles and cake.

I still believe and stand by everything I wrote in the post, but in the same way that turning thirty taught me a lot, so too have the following five years. I continue to be mesmerised by the ways in which humans grow and develop, and how our experiences shape the people we become and the dreams we dream. I continue to believe in keeping well away from that high speed train and laying your own tracks instead, even if they do take you to somewhere that feels quite remote once in a while. If there’s one thing I’ve never had any reason to question it’s that you just have to be yourself and follow your instinct no matter how challenging and/or lonely it can sometimes feel. You can go to as many fairgrounds as you want but there’s no rubber duck out there that will tell you anything different to that, and if there is it’s the sort that’ll win you a really shit prize: think a counterfeit fiver, or a Dip Dab without the lolly.

But I suppose what I didn’t bank on discovering was how much more conscious of my age – and critical of my choices – that I would become, the closer I got to my mid-thirties. How much I would start to think a bit more about those numbers, and how historic “1985” would increasingly sound. I couldn’t have predicted how unsettled I would sometimes be by the connotations of the additional seconds it would take to scroll a drop-down menu when entering a year of birth, combined with the notable prevalence of grey hairs and frequent need to apply the Nice’n’Easy.

I had never wanted to engage my biological clock in a race, and I still don’t – and won’t – but I do have to concede that the prospect of old Clocky bothers me now much more than it used to. Mainly because it’s ticking louder, and the increased volume of that is just generally annoying. I’d really like to just take the batteries out of the blasted thing and bury it for a decade, in all honesty, so that I can unearth it in the future and look at it in the same way I look at a trouser-skirt, a clunky cassette walkman, or a glittery green jelly shoe now. Throw in a pandemic at the same time, and that’s a lot of reflection opportunity, and reflection, whilst important to do, isn’t always an easy experience.

When you’re reflecting in your twenties, all you have to really look back on is your childhood self, and so it’s easy to feel like you’re growing, but your mid-thirties is the first opportunity you really get to look back over a time in your adult life, when you thought you knew everything (or at least, a fair bit). And that can be a tougher match. We all felt “old” when we turned thirty, and that we had life and the world all figured out. Nowadays, we have the ability to both laugh at that idea but also know that our future forty year old selves are laughing at both of us from 2031. The eighty year olds have even more to say; and hopefully they’ve got a massive glass of sherry and a huge piece of cake in their hands as they say it, because I can imagine this calorie-counting-to-keep-healthy game will get really boring after a while.

As I approach my thirty sixth birthday, which will officially herald in my “late thirties” (urgh), I find myself wishing I could write to the girl who wrote “The Truth About Turning 30” and tell her that there have been lots of things she’s been right about, but also lots of things she hasn’t been right about, so to go out and embrace the new knowledge that’s out there for the taking, and never just assume that “this is it“. Explore the other carriages on the train. Look out of the windows a bit longer. Get out at one of the random stations and linger there for a bit. Understand that you won’t always get it right, and that there are a number of things you’ve got pretty wrong despite feeling confident in the ideas at the time. Own those mistakes. Accept reality: Be prepared for the fact that life gets indelibly more expensive and you’ll often feel like you have both your head and your heart clamped within a financial vice, no matter how much you vehemently believed that money shouldn’t matter. Be prepared for the fact that there will be certain stages coming up where the tracks you have laid – and continue to lay – feel very far apart from the main line, and it won’t always feel as easy as you think it should, so be sure to have a destination to focus on. Be prepared to acknowledge that your youth is gone and so too have some of the opportunities that come with it. In other words, be prepared for challenge, and the fact it gets harder, and have a response to that.

And with this in mind, it’s very hard to approach thirty six and feel excited about it in the same way one might an 18th, a 21st or a 30th birthday. These days I feel knackered after two beers and don’t have quite the same energy that youth enables. Yet, there is somehow a lot of comfort and security to be taken from this realism. To be prepared, to be ready, to make time count, and to know that the final passage from a particular chapter does not give away the plot of the whole book.

So, mid-’30’s peers, let’s take a look and see which ducks are floating around this particular ‘ground.


Song of the Day: Sufjan Stevens & Angelo de Augustine – It’s Your Own Body and Mind

This is just exceptionally lovely. Sufjan nails it again in this brand new release which Spotify has completed my Sunday with.


“One hand holds the candle
The other onе holds the flame
Infinite with it’s guiding light
Illuminating all things thе same”

An Own Goal from your Own Goal

In the 1990’s, when I chose to support Aston Villa, I certainly wasn’t choosing to make my life any easier. At that time, and probably still now, Villa were an unfashionable club to support if you lived in the South of England, and I would often experience ridicule for it in school. “So what if you beat Nottingham Forest!” retorted a classmate during one year 8 Maths class in 1999, “Your shirts are still really ugly and your team is still shit.” That was the typical high-brow way in which the debates went. I responded by using my Aston Villa-branded biro with pride for the remainder of the day. Take that. My pen is better than yours.

Villa certainly weren’t about to win the Premiership any decade soon, but still, I really liked them. They were different. Understated. Interesting. To support a team which won when it wasn’t expected to, felt more special than supporting a team that just expected winning and trophies and took those things for granted when they got them. I came from a family of Spurs fans and whilst I liked them too, they just didn’t pull me in like Aston Villa did. I suppose in some ways, I also just wanted to be different, and instigate lively discussions around the dinner table about whether John Gregory was a better manager than George Graham (he was, by the way).

Anyway. Once you pick your team you’ve picked your team. I’ve followed Villa throughout, though I would never class myself as a die-hard football fan. Sometimes I even withhold from telling people, simply because in that moment I’m not up for the inevitable arduous football chat once I do. It’s fun to follow but it’s just a game, and if I took it as anything more than that then, well, I’d probably be pretty depressed. In over twenty years I’ve yet to see my team lift a trophy, and apart from an exceptional few years in the late ’00’s they’ve pretty much constantly been linked with relegation, and even became victim to it in 2016, taking two years longer than expected to gain promotion to the top tier again. They’re the sort of team who concede a late equaliser just as you start getting a bit excited, and if it weren’t for a huge financial injection from a couple of billionaires in 2018, they’d possibly not even exist anymore. Magpie-eyed supporters of either of the two Manchester sides, or Chelsea, Liverpool etc.. probably don’t realise how easy they’ve had it by comparison.

But once you pick your team you’ve picked your team.

In the past couple of years, Villa have progressively improved and these days are a team that others genuinely fear playing. In an era when the game is dominated by greed and money, there’s been something hugely romantic about supporting a team both managed and captained by boyhood fans of the club, Dean Smith and Jack Grealish respectively. It’s just not something you really see anymore, and it’s something every Villa fan takes / took (spoiler alert) a lot of pride in. You can be paid to do a job and you can do your best at it in return for picking up a wage, but if it’s for a cause or company you always believed in, you’ll not only do your best but you’ll excel, without even trying. That’s what Jack Grealish did for us. He wasn’t just “a really good player”, he was an excellent player and as a fan of the club, he was also “one of us”. Every time he scored a goal, you just knew it meant as much to him as it did to the fans.

This month, 11 months after supposedly committing his future to Aston Villa (“My City, My Club, My Home!” he waffled on at the time, as he put pen to paper on a bumper new contract), Jack chose to leave his club for the Premier League champions, a team who win things all the time. He chose to move because he too wanted to win things all the time, and whether us Villa fans like it or not we can’t argue with the fact that he’s more likely to win things with his new team sooner than he would with us.

But for myself and many others this situation prompted an ethical debate which transcends the footballing context within which it’s placed. Somebody who professed to love the club, had been a part of it for twenty years, and played an integral part in its progress, was ultimately swayed by the promise of immediate riches with a team that his historic Tweets had suggested he disliked. Grealish choosing to leave Aston Villa is not just bad news for football and any other football club trying to improve, it’s a harrowing indictment of society: victory and prestige obsessed. Willing to jump ship at the thought of personal promise, no matter how much the remainder of those on board supposedly mean to you. There’s this fixation with winning and the mistaken assumption that if you didn’t win a medal you didn’t succeed, so do whatever you need to in order to make sure you take it home. Verruca Salt’s worn out father frantically instructing hundreds of workers to spend all the hours under the sun opening up chocolate bars to find a golden ticket.

Whatever happened to choosing to stand by those you love no matter what personal gain you might miss out on? Is it better to lose with those you love, than win with those you feel nothing for? Somebody on Twitter put it very well (I know, I hate myself for saying that too), but what’s the point in showing off that you’ve reached the peak of Mount Everest if you took a helicopter up most of the way?

Putting football, Jack Grealish and Twitter to one side, this is a really important question, and given the nature of the responses on social media it seems that many are divided on it. “But he plays so well, he deserves his chance to win medals!” reads a very reasonable argument. “But he promised his boyhood team – the one he professed to love – that he supported their project to progress and wanted to be a part of it. The team that supported his talents and nurtured him to grow. The fans who loved him” reads a very reasonable retort. So… which is the right answer? Is there even one at all? Perhaps not, but I know which angle I sway towards.

Jack Grealish, had he stayed with Villa, would have become a club legend no matter how many trophies we won (or didn’t). Us fans had thought he was loyal and loyalty is what really pays. Loyalty is what makes one really stand out and be remembered for years to come. Instead, he’s off to win medals but become a forgettable part of Manchester City’s history, and if you don’t believe me on that, have a read-up on Fabian Delph. A few years back, he made what was virtually an identical choice, but is now still renowned more by neutrals for his time at Villa than City, regardless of the medals he won at the latter. Delph barely contributed to that success, but he still got the medals. Is that really something to be proud of?

Ultimately it’ll always be hard work and loyalty that makes you a winner no matter what jangly things you do or don’t have to show for it at the end. Taking shortcuts to the top doesn’t make you a winner, whether you’re a professional footballer or a person who cheats or buys their way to any form of success in life.

Ultimately, it’s not about what you achieve, it’s about how you achieve it. It’s how you achieve it which determines whether you are a true winner.

Song of the Day: The Delgados – Child Killers

Scotland has produced so many excellent indie bands over the years. Teenage Fanclub, Trashcan Sinatras, Belle & Sebastian, my guilty pleasure Bis, and we can add the Delgados to that list too. Their existence was relatively short-lived from the mid-90’s before disbanding in 2005, but they produced so many excellent songs during that time.

Child Killers is a classic example of, “songs you listen to over and over then forget about for fifteen years, before Spotify chucks it back at you”. It’s also a classic example of a song which has such unhappy-sounding lyrics yet remains such a beautiful and uplifting piece of music. I have loved being re-acquainted with this song. People need to hear it.



The House

Do you have any of those fleeting, pixelated memories from very early childhood, which you’ve not necessarily been able to place into the context of anything else?

I have a vivid one in which I’m stood in the doorway of my grandparents’ house in August 1989 (I only know the date because my mum has kept a family diary for decades). I’m saying goodbye to some relatives as they leave a family party. I remember it because I heard the word, “fortnight” for the first time. Through a wound down car window, they said they’d see us in a fortnight, as they drove away in their beige car. It made me think about forks and knights, and I needed my siblings to explain its real meaning. There are many other memories – all just as fleeting and fragmented as that one – from that particular house, and they always seem so mysterious and magical. Maybe just because the wider detail, and explanations, are missing.

Over thirty years later I often walk past the same house, and from the outside it looks exactly the same as it did then. The same front door. The same lion-shaped door knocker. Same bricks, same roof.

I expect, and want, to be able to ring the doorbell and be embraced by my grandad – still in his ’70’s – and a plume of sweet tobacco smoke from his pipe. Behind him, I expect to see puffy maroon sofas, wooden cabinets stacked with crystal sherry glasses and toby jugs, and pale green lampshades with tassels on the end that I can jiggle between my thumb and forefinger. I expect to smell a joint of meat being roasted in an oven.

But I won’t, because it’s 2021 and somebody else lives there now, and they probably wouldn’t take too kindly to a random 35-year old woman knocking on the door expecting to find 1989, turquoise walls, a cream cake, and some relatives who left us a long time ago.

Plus, I need to hurry home and send an e-mail about an urgent matter. One which I doubt I’ll be recalling within a pixelated memory in thirty-two years time. And what time does Morrisons close during the week?

Time is a very, very strange thing. I am always pretty mesmerised by old buildings such as this. Those which have seen so much, and changed so little, plonked within a society that zips along and changes so frequently by contrast.

They’re building more and more new houses here in Faversham. But I’m glad they’re keeping the old ones too.

What buildings make you feel this way?

A beautiful drawing by my very talented mother

Song of the Day: Smashing Pumpkins – Beautiful

My challenge to you is to listen to this song and not fall absolutely in love with it. Beautiful by name, stunning by nature. It’s the final minute of the song and it’ll do things to you. And even if you’re not a massive SP fan (I’m not) you’ll be so thankful this band exists.

#liveyourbestlife

I’m not against social media, I think it has many supportive values and can be very fun, but I do think that it needs a few boundaries to keep its usage healthy, especially among the young and impressionable.

I think one of the biggest disservices anybody can do to themselves is fixate on comparison to others, or worry too much about what people think. We’ve probably all done it, but it’s damaging – effectively a form of draining self-harm in which social media is often the weapon presented as Exhibit A. It’s very easy to look at peoples’ best bits and think your life is lacking, but don’t. Just do your own thing, put that energy towards gaining approval from yourself instead, then fly propelled by a sense of freedom and relief that only comes once you’ve unchained yourself from societal expectations.

This is a little poem I wrote about it whilst eating a biscuit:

Sometimes all I want to do is eat a Custard Cream,

and watch a documentary,

whether that’s with company, or even when more solitary.

And other times all I want to do is gaze at the land,

feel the breeze in my hair, and hear a new band.

Sometimes I lull in the depths of a food-themed daydream.

and read a big fat book,

or Google home furniture and take a lengthy look.

And other times it might be instant noodles for lunch,

not #smashedavocado or a bright #boozybrunch.

There’ll be times when I love to head out to dance,

but most nights I take much more relaxed a stance,

no #Prosecco to drink, no #Bellini to clink,

“What on earth will your peers think?!”

The hashtags may suggest that my life isn’t fun,

or that my cooking looks shite and I weigh a tonne,

but as you get older you learn how to see,

that the best way to live is #hashtag free.

Your media doesn’t define the person you are,

it’s about how you feel, not that lavish bar.

Too many people, and most of them young,

determined to showcase all that they’ve done,

but learn to obsess, less, about the way you dress,

and focus instead on what makes you feel best.

It’s perfectly okay to be a bit “boring”,

because the simplest things are the most rewarding

(Or at least they should be)

#liveyourbestlife – but by being you, being true, being free.


Song of the Day: Plone – Puzzlewood

I’m not sure what genre you might call this, or whether that even matters, but this is a nice, chirpy bit of electronica from Birmingham, UK, recommended to me by Spotify. Spot-on, Spotify.

Hello, Fluorescent Dawn


Well, hoorah!

The sun is shining, the birds are probably singing (a car outside has been revving its engine for ten minutes and so I can’t actually tell) and the lockdown restrictions are easing and easing. After a year of misery for all, it’s finally a more exciting time, an upbeat time, a time for happy reunions with everything: friends, family, indoor seating, even the dead plant in the office. There are so many reasons to feel positive right now and among those reasons, I am feeling positive that I have absolutely no intention of approaching life in the same way I did before this thing came along.

I wouldn’t have dreamed that I’d ever find myself saying that sort of thing during the difficult Spring of 2020, but that was because there’d been no reason until then to have to review what “normality” really was. It was just: normal, something we were accustomed to, a sequence of unchallenged processes repeated day after day, month after month, year after year. Now if you were to try applying that same practice in the workplace, your organisation would quickly begin to fall behind and fade away, hence why every year we spend time reviewing every policy, procedure and strategy. We routinely embrace change in our professional lives, but when it comes to how we live there has rarely been such dramatic annual review like the one imposed upon us by COVID. There may have been the odd personal reflection here and there, whilst sat under a tree or looking out to an ocean or something, but there was nothing in the way of an overhaul to our “procedures” like the one we’ve just experienced.

When we were first told that we were pretty much barred from seeing anybody we care about, or going anywhere we like, it really hurt. For most people it was a real struggle, a lonely time surrounded by incessant quiet, incessant bad news, and incessant efforts to try and replicate every real life activity through Zoom. We craved “normality” and we felt so very distant from everything when we knew we couldn’t have it.

As the weeks went by we believed lockdown was well and truly isolating us, and by the very nature of it of course it was, but as we now sit shoulder to shoulder with “normality” again, the realisation I’ve come to is that maybe we’d been spending decades doing that to ourselves anyway. Pre-March 2020, we were desperate to live in our own separate homes in separate towns, so that we could be held financial hostage by separate bills for separate cars and separate mortgages, whilst using separate lawnmowers and cooking biannual meals in separate slow-cookers that spent most of the rest of the year gathering dust. We were consumed, mostly, by what was going on within our own four walls, mentally and physically: Home-life, work-life, social-life. Lockdown came and put fences all around us then suddenly we were each living in a fortress. On separate islands. How different could it have been if we’d chosen to live in the same fortress, though?

Pre-March 2020, it often felt like there was barely any time to really think, or any time to really reflect.  Daily life often felt like a tampered-with Waltzer ride: you’d pay a silly fee without question then rush to get on and belt-up in time, then rush to clamber off once it finished, before it started going berserk again and risk tripping you up.  Round and round, and round and round, the colorful structure would go. Eat, sleep, work, repeat. 

Lockdown forced us to take a break from the ride.  A long break.  A really long break. Not just a, “Aow I’m back from mah two weeks of bliss in Mauritius” type break, when the holiday glow would fade within only a week of returning to one of the wettest Mays on record. It was a distressing time for so many nasty reasons, and given the choice we’d all rather it had never happened in the first place, but it did, and you can either unequivocally lament that or you can choose to make something from the ingredients stuffed at the back of the cupboard.  And I’m not just talking about all that pasta we stockpiled.

Pre-lockdown, it wasn’t very often that we’d set aside a day to really sit and stare out of the windows of the homes we slept in every night.  We were too busy looking either internally, or dead ahead, at just the immediate surround: the bills we had to pay, the jobs we needed to keep and the fence panels we needed to paint. We lay heavy decisions on decaying foundations, guidance proffered through handwritten scrawls etched onto recycled paper bound together by treasury tags in beige ring-binders. Take one and pass the rest along. We set life goals around what we felt was the societal norm. We chose where to live on the basis of its proximity to our work.  We chose where to work on the basis of its reward:  salaries, satisfaction, prospects… but rarely would we choose it on the basis of how well the job and its associated conditions – like hours and paid Leave – tessellated with everything else we hold dear. 

We let our job titles define us, which is perfectly fine (and in many ways admirable) if you want it to, but it’s not fine if there are other things you care about and want to be known for just as much.

I would say that life pre lockdown was often more solitary than life during it.  Too busy stuck in traffic to take a call from somebody who obviously wanted to chat. Sorry I missed your call. Too tired to chat as much as we should do.  A busy calendar consisting of things we maybe sometimes didn’t even want to do but felt obliged to, and just like that that, another weekend would go by. Sorry, it doesn’t look like we can find a day we can both do.  Maybe we can meet next year instead?

I sometimes wonder about the things that never got to happen because we were too busy losing entire afternoons to pilgrimages round ring-roads to buy Ronseal and Windolene, or making up the guest numbers at some loose acquaintance’s 32 and 3.5 months birth-week party in bars where the cocktails cost the same amount as a week’s worth of groceries from Lidl. Mornings lost to hangovers. Weekends lost to sofas whilst fawning blankly at forgettable box-sets because we were too knackered from spending hours brushing Ronseal onto fence panels that were promptly shat on by birds to do anything else.

In tedious exchanges of small talk which we hoped would help expedite the socially-awkward queue at the printer, we’d frequently ask our colleagues where the year was going. It was one of those safe topics of conversation, a bit like the weather, that we’d know everyone could empathise with. Facebook newsfeeds would groan each August as somebody proudly became the year’s first to post a meme about the dwindling number of paydays left until Christmas. “At this rate, we’ll start putting our trees up in January!”, somebody else would comment, in an equally irritating honk of a response. Time would whizz by and we’d wonder how it managed to go so fast. Well, see the previous couple of paragraphs. Ronseal. Windolene. Sickeningly-priced stuff and fings funded by a perceived obligation to buy them.

We assumed that busy-ness was the antidote to loneliness when often it was actually the cause, because it was the kind of busy-ness manifested from all those procedures inked out in a beige ring-binder that, it turns out, had stopped aligning with our souls long ago but just never had the time to be re-written. Because we were too busy following it without question, just like how we paid that silly fee at the Waltzer.

It wasn’t lockdown that made us feel isolated.  It was us, and all of the habits we had fallen in to over years and years, frantically treading water to keep afloat whilst the important things slowly sank to the ocean bed.

We might soon be able to return to a life without restrictions, but there’ll be some rides I’ll be keeping away from for good.

It’s a fluorescent new dawn.

Song of the Day: Weezer – Aloo Gobi (Guitar Version)

You think you have a favourite song. You listen to it all the time. Then you hear a cover of it. Then you have a new favourite song.

Little Things I Love Pt. 3

The other day, I was taking a sunny stroll along the Grand Union Canal when a family of ducks caught my eye and made me smile. I loved how fluffy the ducklings were – like five little buns gliding across the water – and how the mother managed to keep them alongside her as they ventured to a destination that presumably only she knew.

It’s been three years since I last published a “Little Things I Love” post, to follow on from the original, and so I think it’s time to write another – particularly after the past twelve months.

So, along with ducklings and the things already written about in 2016 and 2018, here are some more of the little things I love:


…The satisfying sound of a hoover whooshing up bits you couldn’t even see but will certainly feel better without…

…Discovering a new food which you think about for days and days after consuming for the first time…

…Being so engaged in something that you forget to look at your phone for a while…

…The smell of seaweed on days when you can feel the sun against your skin…

…Sunsets on the East Kent coast, a burning peach sinking into the sea…

…The first day of the year when it feels so warm you can just slip-on a dress and be fully clothed by free-flowing fabric…

…A buttery plate from where the spread has seeped through the crumpet…

…Staring competitions with sheep and lambs…

…People who manage to craft puns out of nowhere at all…

…Applying the ink from a brand new marker pen to flip-chart paper. A symbol of meaning business...

…Victorian-style lamp-posts. Generally…

…The smell of old, family photos and fond memories they trigger…

…Moments when you lose yourself in a good piece of music…

…Big, tall pine-trees and the smell of barbecues…

What are yours?

Song of the Day: Weezer – Aloo Gobi

This is one of the best songs I’ve ever heard from one of the best bands I’ve ever loved and if I had to pick one song to listen to for the rest of my life it would be this one, which is pretty funny when you understand the meaning behind the lyrics.