Wednesday, 19 October 2016

The gift that keeps on giving

The last time I took a circuit around the increasingly well-furnished Green Park, I was clutching the remnants of a large doner, the after-party following a few beers in the Barley Mow, and weaving towards the tube station. The kebab was purchased from Flames Grill next to Victoria Coach station. Sadly, it is now merely rubble holding together the foundations of yet another corporate office makeover in the ever-redeveloping Victoria Street glasshouse canyon.

Still, the tree behind which I relieved myself was still there in the park. I was happy to point it out to Mrs A as we ambled towards a very different culinary experience. A table was awaiting us at Michelin-starred Galvin At The Athenaeum. This was a birthday treat from Mrs A. And some. Fine dining harvesting the best of British ingredients and served with classic style and a smidge of swagger. Was that starch-aproned waiter flirting with my wife?

Caramelised apple tart sticking to the inside of ones ribs slows the progress a little. We took an age to perambulate through Piccadilly before settling on the Blues Bar in Kingly Street for a drink. A late afternoon set of acoustic blues was just kicking out and we congratulated ourselves on a great find. As it turned out, we left just before my mate Bacchy stumbled into the self same establishment mid-shopping spree. London is such a small place for the hip crowd… Anyway, just as well he didn’t see me knocking back gin-and-tonics in there with all those lovely real ales on view. The heavy dessert had left its mark.

Hitting 50 has been a pleasurable experience so far. That day was the first of a steady flow of excellent celebrations. Dad and Bruv came down to take us for a birthday meal over the road at our rather fine pie emporium, erstwhile of Covent Garden. We’d taken a turn around Marsworth Reservoir earlier and fancied that we’d earned some of their deep-filled crusty goodness. Especially after the dog spun into a buzzed-up roll around the embankment and was a hair’s-breadth from pitching over the side into a sheer 10-foot drop. I don’t remember having this much heart-stop with the kids when they were 2½!

My local Corals was the scene of some wild celebrating soon after. Though this was nothing to do with my anniversary. I had snuck in to have a quiet bet between deadlines (the rarefied joys of working at home) and found an unexpectedly animated scene. A regular punter, Dave, with whom I’ve had common exchanges about lucky winners and unlucky losers, was having a good day. Storm Rock, the 3rd leg of his each way Lucky 15, had just crossed the line in front at Salisbury. He was hugging the cashier, having by then locked in a four-figure profit. The last leg was the 4.10 at Nottingham. The same race I’d come to watch, and I quickly realised we were also on the same horse, Tomahawk Kid. I shrugged and offered him a muttered apology about surely having brought him the kiss of death.

It was unnecessary. The Kid bounded clear from the two-furlong pole and his rivals did not sight him again. Dave was leaping around wild eyed and breathless, mobile hanging off his ear. All his birthdays and Christmasses together. I and every other punter in the bookies (that’s the chain-smoking chef from the Szechuan take-away, the silver haired retired plumber and the toothless free paper deliverer) were slapping him on the back. Liam, the shop manager was furiously calculating the winnings. After adding in the bonus, he declared,

 “North of sixty grand at least, my lovely pal!”

“Sixty big! Sixty big!” shouted Dave down the phone.

I sheepishly presented my own winning slip courtesy of Tomahawk Kid, collected £30 and sloped off.

The winnings were partly invested in a bowtie. I had decided to have a bit of do to formally mark the arrival of my half century. ‘Black tie’ we said on the invitation. ’Let’s pretend we are classy, if only for one night’. So now Mrs A said I couldn’t wear an elasticated bowtie. It had to be the real thing. But I failed to leave the requisite hour before our event to affix the wretched thing properly.  We arrived at the venue and I had to enlist the help of four people and three different You Tube clips that even then only resulted in a scraggy, limp, lopsided effort.

Bad bowtie day
“Bow tie? Dinner jacket? Tennis Club? Jazz band?” accused my oldest mate from Yorkshire, shaking his head.

“I still vote labour!” I pleaded and pointed across the sea of penguin suits to another mate at the bar. “Me and him. We are the blokes who vote labour in this town. Every time!”

The jazz trio were genuine class. It would have been easy to find a decent rock and metal covers band. I really fancied something different though. Nell & the Hot Mess Muggers were certainly that. Stylish hot club, chanson Francais and gypsy swing. It was as if Django Rheinhardt was in the building. I thought the band caught the mood perfectly and there were even spontaneous outbreaks of actual dancing. Briefly.

Sadly, we reverted to type back at the house. By the time the stragglers had come back (bolstered by a few more off the last train from London), the night was filled with lusty, ill-advised Meatloaf singalongs into the early hours. Oh well. The spell could never last. Beyond The Sea and Ou Es-Tu, Mon Amour? will have to wait for next time. The whole evening was an absolute joy.

Birthday events have continued to roll on. I am a lucky boy. Last week, Mrs A and I went to The Book of Mormon, gifted by a good mate.  A brilliant, irreverent, edgy, funny, slick, camp, unexpected cult musical mash up. Soon we are being treated by some more great pals to dinner in probably the finest country hostelry in these parts. Then there is a beer tasting event in south London to cash in, courtesy of the inlaws. And further ahead, we have a wonderful evening at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club to enjoy; and then a guided walk through Mount Teide's secluded passes next time we visit Auntie Sue. Being 50 is a blast so far. I’d recommend it to anyone.

Finally, by the time May hovers in to view, I will be going to see Iron Maiden with a mate who, together with others, bought me a ticket for one of the band’s Book of Lost Souls dates. I first witnessed these legends in 1987 on the Somewhere On Tour roadtrip. It was a close call though. The Hammy Odeon voucher had to be retrieved from the log flume at Alton Towers after the violent final descent (am I overdoing the drama?) jerked my wallet out of my jacket into the splash pool.  

Thirty years later, I’ll be back. Old rockers never die, they just wear posh suits occasionally and pretend to like jazz.

Friday, 30 September 2016

She's leaving home

Our collection of cavernous IKEA bags, long-time unregarded occupants of the shoe cupboard, finally came into their own last week. Temporarily packed with bewildering items from Daughter No 1’s old and new existence, they played a key role in the home-uni transit arrangements.

We relayed the bags and holdhalls to the car, crow-barring them into the boot and seat wells. Jackie over the road said that they had to deploy their trailer, more often used for scout camps, when they took their daughter and kit to uni. 

Last to arrive down from the bedroom was a family-size rucksack last used on her Reading Festival adventure. “That one is mostly shoes”, remarked the Imelda Markos clone, with a casual wave of the hand, ignoring her newly made crater in the dining room floor.

I left for college with nothing but a toothbrush and a packet of condoms. I never used either! (Boom Boom!) Ok not true, but I certainly didn't have a clothes airer wedged over the back seat head-rests. “Can't you just hang stuff out the windows?” I pleaded.

Once again, I'm out of touch with the modern ways. We lost count of cars on the M3 with duvets, pillows and M&S bags crushed up against the rear windows of assorted 4x4s. Moving day. In all senses.

My mate told me about a piece in the Torygraph the other day in which a Dad was taking his daughter to uni. At one point she looked at her father and said 'You did alright you know'. He inflated with chest-swelling emotion and declared the moment to be worth more to him than any of her qualifications.

Anyway, there was none of that on our journey. As if to eek out a reaction, I casually asked what she would miss about Berko. "Maybe the cheap double gin and tonics in the Crown" she said.

I am reminded of a very different car journey almost exactly 19 years ago: 

So very calmly and orderly, we call a cab. I didn’t think it would be like this. Mrs A was not long back from the hospital after a scan on our baby who is due today. She had turned breech and within an hour or so the waters went.

Our Star Car minicab arrives quickly.  The driver, who is wearing a dubious leathery pork pie hat, helps us into the car.  He’s very chatty.  We tell him we want to go to the Delivery Suite at St George’s.  He looks at us for a couple of seconds and then asks us if it’s for real as we seem very calm.  I think he’s expecting screams of agony and panic. 

“‘No”, we say very matter of factly, “This isn’t a practice!”

Little does he know that Mrs A’s waters are gushing all over his back seat!  He’ll know it’s for real when the next passenger gets in.

Things then get a bit surreal. 

“I’m hoping for some good news myself in the next few weeks”.

“Oh yeah, what’s that?” I say brightly. I bet he’s going to be a Grandad. 

“Yeah, I’m hoping to have my vasectomy reversed!”

Where did that come from!  There’s a pause while I swallow back the laughter.  If Mrs A tries any harder to stop giggling she’ll give birth right there.  What do you say?  He must be in his late fifties. 

“Oh really?” I tamely offer. 

He’s off now. 

“Yeah, I had it done twenty-odd years ago after I’d had a few (unspecified) kids.  The doctors reckon I’ve got a 60-70% chance of a successful reversal, but I reckon it’s better than that.”  (How the hell does he know?) 

So I get into the feel of things as well. Mrs A and I chip in with the odd question here and there as he proceeds to describe in reasonably graphic detail what the operation might involve.  Ever made small talk about vasectomies?  It’s quite a challenge.  I have to pinch myself to remind me where we are going.

The journey passes in a flash. We get out of the car and everybody wishes everybody else good luck.  It’s lovely. 

We are checked into the Delivery Suite very efficiently.  We’ve got a nice room with a colour telly and Casualty is on.  Someone has just given birth in Josh’s ambulance – it took about 10 minutes.  We’ll have one of those please, where do we order?

Another 12 hours and an emergency cesarean pass before our own bundle of joy arrives.

This journey ends in Southampton at the halls of residence. We are greeted by a very efficient Arrivals Team (it says so on their t-shirts) who locate her room in the cluster flat, provide a guided tour/dos and don’ts briefing and then work out that the door pass key doesn’t work. They also assist with lugging the hundredweights of gear up to the first floor bedroom. Things have changed.

The flat was pretty good actually. Better than many we saw last Summer, touring round university campuses prior to engaging with the grinding UCAS process.

Some of the IKEA bags are coming back with us, so we spend a good hour or so unpacking. This helpfully illuminates the nature of the priceless cargo we have hauled down the road.

“Swimming goggles? You haven’t worn these for five years!”


“I thought I might take up swimming again.”

“Feather boa?”

Swiftly taken from my grasp and draped around the window.

“Reminds me of my 18th

“Spotty bandana? Fake pirate’s hook?”

More giggles.

“Fancy dress parties, Dad!”

Later, we go for some grub on Oxford Street, not far from the campus. The road is pedestrianised and lined with representatives of pretty much every bar-restaurant chain I could name.

“You’ll be alright here”.

We settled on Prezzo and their spicy meatball pasta. I did anyway. Daughter No 1 has decided to begin her university education as a vegetarian. She has a bowlful of green leaves and brown seeds to sustain her. It looked lovely.

“Yes, but it’s really quiet.”

It was.

“Berko is busier!”

She has been desperate to escape what she regards as the fatally flawed small-town syndrome of our Tory- , Brexit-voting middle-class settlement for years. (Put like that, I think I’m on my way out too!) The dread of confronting something similar after moving away passed a shadow across her face. Only briefly. This was the middle of the afternoon on a Friday, I reassured her, before most of the students had even returned from Summer holiday.

We met some of her new flat mates. They seemed fine. I knew that meeting them and deciding that the group harboured no obvious axe murderers would help me leave her behind with (a little) less anxiety.

We had to push her out the door when a few arrived in the flat together.

“Go make friends. Do your thing!”

She took a deep breath and strode towards them. Within a few moments, she’d arranged to go to clubbing that night. Bit hasty I thought. Won’t she want to stay in and cry for hours once we’ve departed?

The moment came to go. There was a gurgle as I hugged her. Less an emotional reaction, more a cry of pain as I crushed a number of her more important vertebrae. Mrs A was more gentle. I suspected that Daughter No 1 had actually spent longer saying goodbye to the dog that morning.  

There was no Toy Story 3 lump in the throat moment of passing on her bears and dolls to the next generation. They remain wedged in the top shelf of her wardrobe. (I think I saw another feather boa up there as well. What's going on?) 

Aside from that, the newly stark and echoey bedroom at the top of the house now seems breath-takingly empty.

She’s gone!

(And hasn't stopped clubbing since. Bloody students.)

Tuesday, 23 August 2016


The phrase 'shocked and saddened' has been overused in this year of death and demise to the point of numbing emptiness. Bowie, Prince, Ali, Lemmy.... Too many to dwell on.

When I read that JT McNamara had died, somehow the armour of de-sensitivity was pierced. He won't be remembered as the most iconic figure to pass this year, but on a personal level, though I never knew him, I am shocked and saddened.

I was there at Cheltenham on the day he fell from Galaxy Rock in the Kim Muir. The uncharacteristic quiet only broken by the arrival of the air ambulance. My mate Chris, with whom I had stayed overnight, was walking the path adjacent to the perimeter fence at the time, showing his young son some of the action. He witnessed the incident and heard a crack as rider and horse came down. His relief at the sight of the horse getting up was immediately replaced by concern that the jockey had not moved. The green screens were erected to shield the view from the stands – but curiously not from the perimeter fence – and as my mate saw medical staff and ambulances arrive, he realised it was time to move on.

Three years later and he has lost his fight. Maybe I'm shocked because I had assumed he was getting better. Saddened because it has been such a cruel three years.

At his funeral, people were describing him as one of the finest horsemen they had ever met. His victory aboard Rith Dubh in the 2002 National Hunt Chase has gone down in the annals of racing as a perfect demonstration of coaxing a winner up the famous hill.

I was there that day too and in an ancient blog I attempted to capture the thrill of that race. In its naive and simple narrative, it now serves as a tribute to JT McNamara.
"We've had a big, black blank day. Steve needs some space. I, too, need time to reflect. Brynaldo takes a look at me and thinks I may be gutted, an empty shell, a broken man, wrecked, all washed up. He’s only partly right. I’m also hungry.
I stomp off in search of a large pork and apple sauce bap. Comfort food at a time like this is a basic requirement. The plan is to give the next race - another amateur hatchet job with plenty of scope for disaster - a miss and meet back by the Guinness enclosure. But I can’t get within twenty yards of any of the superior junk food emporia. They are mobbed.
My mood darkens. So I sidle off to the parade ring and watch the horses emerge for the National Hunt Challenge Cup. Rith Dubh, a gelding as big and dark as my mood skitters onto the track with an aloof air. The jockey wears JP McManus’s famous colours. I swear the horse winks at me on his way past.
Right then. I can take a hint. Real or imaginary. That junk food failure has sent me over the edge. I’m all steely determination and bloody mindedness now. I find the best price on offer and slap down double my maximum win stake at 10/1. This is no time for strategy.  I go off in search of the lads by the last fence and swallow hard. Can’t find them in the melee. I’m on my own for this one.
It’s a marathon 4 mile trip and plenty begin to drop away. But Rith Dubh is held up in mid division. He’s jumping like a stag. As he flashes by me with a circuit to go, he's picking off his contenders one by one.
Coming down the hill for the last time, there is barely a fag paper between three or four very tired horses. At the last, Rith Dubh is there, he flies it and challenges for the lead. It is surely too late though. I can’t breathe. I catch the finish on the big screen. It’s bloody close. Rith Dubh is a canny old bugger - a shocking idler in front. JT McNamara is aboard and asks him for more. He doesn’t want to hit the front too soon. But, again I say, it is surely too late? They stretch over the line. Looks like Rith Dubh to me from a furlong away. But the commentator calls a photo. More agony.
I switch from scanning the crowd for the lads to fumbling for my race card. 
'Come on 19, come on 19.'
Christ I am really shitting myself. Here it comes - (the photo result, not the bowel movement).
'1st number 12, 2nd number 7.'
'What? WHAT?' I politely enquire of my neighbours. Rith Dubh not even in the first two? I think I’ve spotted Steve’s ten-gallon hat and I move towards him. 
'Correction. 1st number 19, Rith Dubh. 2nd number......'
'Yeeeeaaahhhh. You fucking beauty!' They actually called the number wrong! I can't believe that.
I hurl myself at a rather surprised Steve in spasms of ecstasy. He deals with it very magnanimously. Safe to say I’m rather pleased.
I try, but can’t wipe the insane grin off my chops, especially as the bookie is counting out those juicy tenners in to my hot little mits. My jaw is starting to ache
What a ride..."

Rest easy JT.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

The Ghost of Jimi Hendrix

Essaouira has plenty enough going for it already. Formerly known as Mogador, the city has a beautifully preserved medieval walled town crammed with souks, art and craft shops, cafes, riads and a maze of lanes in which to get blissfully lost. It is set on a perfect half-moon west-facing bay, carpeted in soft yellow sand. It is cooled by a sea breeze which takes the edge off the burning sub-Saharan sun.

Nevertheless, the local tourist board likes to add in to this heady mix a soupçon of myth and legend: Jimi Hendrix once visited briefly in the 60's and you would be forgiven for assuming that this is the most important incident to illuminate the settlement's two-thousand year history. 

Arriving at the newly constructed airport was a relaxing treat compared to the dehumanising experience of low-budget departures crammed together in 10 minute slots at a Luton terminal undergoing a complete rebuild. Stress levels had subsided on the flight. Waiting in the brief passport control queues, Daughter No 2 spotted a pen-portrait of La Hendrix on a four-foot square tablet above the main door. It was in a series of pictures alongside Orson Welles, Bob Marley and the current Moroccan King, Mohammed VI. Interesting company.

In a few short minutes, we were on our way to the hotel. The taxi was a Merc saloon circa 1978 painted blue and white. This was no Cuban style classic car relic though. The badly fitting front doors were replacements for the originals and were painted a different shade of blue to the other battered bits of bodywork. I pulled the seat belt across my body, only to find the buckle was missing. I grinned at the driver and let it dribble back up the stanchion. He grinned back at me.

The hotel was a different matter though. If there was ever any benefit to be wrung from our girls taking GCSEs and A levels in the same angst-ridden Summer, jetting off to a posh gaff before the prices sky-rocketed in the school holidays was it. Sipping mint tea on comfy sofas and then offered hot towels whilst completing the check-in formalities was a small part of the 5-star experience I had unknowingly been craving all my travelling life.

Most of the other guests were either Moroccan or French and, notwithstanding a modest spike of visitors over the weekend, the hotel was pretty quiet. The resort is a popular with those who reside in the hotter, steamier inland areas of the country. We had access to a private beach: a rectangle of sand segregated from the main beach by a low, white picket fence which enclosed hotel branded beds, recliners and towels. It was policed by G4. Seriously. However uncomfortable I felt about this rampant commercial elitism, we were happy to avail ourselves of the facility.

The Medina, for all its crumbling charm and Portuguese, French and Berber architectural influences, was a bit of an eye-opener on the first night. We had all overestimated the percolation of western culture into this still isolated part of Morocco. The girls, with their fair hair, fair skin and a modest areas of bare flesh on display attracted plenty of unwelcome stares, winks and gestures. Daughter No 2 predictably met this behaviour with outrage. "I'm not a piece of meat! Stop looking at me! They can't behave like that!" Daughter No 1 was more circumspect and prepared to ignore the attentions, however uncomfortable.

We had many conversations about clash of cultures, respect for women, male dominated society, respect for other people's views, the significance of dress and so on. Both girls worked out ways of dealing with attentions, though for good reasons they were never happy. Humour helped. Daughter No 2’s boyfriend, via her messenger app, implored me not to sell her, even though I was offered diamonds. She had understood the going rate to be camels and was a little flattered.  On another occasion when I was hagglingfor some trinkets, the trader complimented me:

“You have a lovely family. Lovely girls”. Implying that I alone was completely responsible for this perfection.

"Have you met my wife?" I tugged on Mrs A's arm. "She's for sale too."

Poking around the old town's narrow by-ways and snickets became a regular daily adventure. 

Apart from eating breakfast, buying tat, scaling bastions and drinking, there was plenty of Jimi Hendrix spotting to do. We bagged a portrait in a cafe circa Band of Gypsies; and a pock-marked mural on an alleyway off the main drag.

Such a male dominated culture, in the odd moment, can throw up some surprising mutual understanding. The three women in my life were helping me to buy a souvenir t-shirt, my usual habit on holiday.

"That design is best"

"No, not that colour."

"Are you sure you don't need extra large?"

Mrs A was holding the shirt up against my back whilst the others were generally making fussy hay. The shopkeeper looked at me and smiled.

"Are you happy?"

"Not really!"

The place played to the strengths of my five-word multilingualism. Though I did struggle pin down in which language I was trying to communicate.

“Hola!” I cried, passing a shop stuffed with wood carvings.

“Hola!. Are you Spanish?” replied the trader in English. For the life of me I have no idea why I said ‘Hola’.

“No, English!” I shrugged and moved on, leaving both his bemused expression and Daughter No1’s cringe/laugh, in my wake. 

Down by the harbour, crammed with tiny fishing smacks and more substantial boats, all manner of fruits of the sea could be purchased from stalls set up right where they were landed. 

We pottered along the massive ramparts built in the 18th century to protect the port. Moroccan youths posed for photos of each other next to cannons and on the battlements striking macho shapes in, frankly, homo-erotic behaviour. If you cupped your ears against the wind, you could almost hear them asking “Do you like gladiator movies?” So I struck a bold shape of my own, just to show we Westerners can go all butch too. Only mine didn’t seem to carry the same gravitas…

The enterprising Moroccans never missed an opportunity to maximize their tourist income. One afternoon, we thought we would take the ‘petit train Mogador’ around the harbour. This open four carriage convoy was hauled along by a tractor disguised as a loco. There were no other visitors on the train. I asked the ticket collector when we would be leaving. He made that now familiar non-commital shrug and said maybe five or ten minutes. Within a moment he added. “If you give me one-hundred, we leave now. And you have train to yourself! Spread out! You enjoy, yes?”

Deal! It was the best 100 Dirhum we spent all week. Not only did we get a tour round the harbour, but right along the seafront as well, as far as the end of the built up parts of the settlement. I thought about booking it for the trip back to the airport. We had walked past the tourist train every day at the Medina gates. It was always there. And now as we snaked through the streets behind the bay people waved at us like they had never seen it before. I wondered exactly how many times the train was used on an average day… 

I never struggle to wind down on my breaks. People have said to me in all earnestness that they go away for a fortnight because it takes them the first week to get into holiday mode. I suspect this is a myth created by those weaving a web of self-importance about how busy and irreplaceable they are.

 After a few days chilling in the sunshine, I was so laid back I became incapable of performing basic tasks. Like ordering lunch for instance. Anwar, our friendly pool bar waiter was on his day off. I didn’t strike the same bond with his replacement, although I felt reasonably confident that I’d accomplished the task reasonably well. I joined the family on the covered day-beds. As you do. The waiter came with five plates of heavily laden food. The four of us just smiled politely and I simply ate two lunches. We played it cool. He surely didn’t suspect a thing.

The food was pretty good on the whole, though variety wouldn’t be the area’s greatest selling point. I might not be tempted by tagine for a little time to come. We found a great spot for breakfast overlooking a square in the old Medina where we were serenaded by a gaggle of wandering troubadours. Much better than the saucepan-lid wielding racket that accompanied a terrible meal in one of the rooftop restaurants we found one evening.  (John Dory like old boots, crepes like latex and boiled cous cous like, well, boiled cous cous).

Local food and local music weren’t always on the menu though. A fabulous Italian restaurant had a performer dishing out a jazz influenced ‘Purple Haze’ and on another evening there was a rendition of ‘Hey Joe’ by a decent band in another rooftop bar. It was almost as if Jimi Hendrix was there. In spirit at least.  

All that lazing around made me restless for an expedition. We decided to visit Jimi’s dunes. At the far end of the bay, over the River Oued Ksob and close to the village of Diabat, a series of fescue and grassy sand dunes tumbled into the bay. Just beyond was Borj el Baroud, a ruined fortified watchtower that becomes visible and accessible at low tide. This, according to local folklore (well, a couple of travel websites anyway), was the inspiration for the Hendrix track ‘Castles Made of Sand’ on the Axis: Bold As Love album. As anyone who has the merest passing acquaintance with rock ‘n’ roll chronology knows, this album hit the racks in 1967. Jimi didn’t check in to the pink-walled city until 1969. The local tourist board surpassed themselves with this one.

Our adventure had intended to take in a pool/bar complex at the far end of the bay to cool off over lunch. We couldn’t find it (though later I realised we were very close to the Jimi Hendrix hotel in Diabat!) Instead we found ourselves on an unused track skirting around the back of the bay, past a few abandoned buildings. The immediate prospect did not look too promising. No matter. With my innate geographer’s skills, I instinctively took charge. We negotiated the dunes, rocks and water hazards with ease. Not without some dissent from the troops behind though.

“This is the Sahara. This is the actual Sahara! What are we even doing here?”

“That’s a skeleton. Like an animal’s died here from exhaustion. It’s a warning sign!” (It was a dead gull…)

“I’m hallucinating! I can see a lake!” (The shimmering vista was the River Oued Ksob)

“I’ll be alright. I have half a bottle of water. I’m not sharing though.”

And so it went on.

We crested reed-anchored dunes to see the entirety of the glorious bay laid out before us and the base of Jimi’s ruins lapped by gentle waves. “I have led my people to salvation!” I declared. More groans of derision. Daughter No 2 fell to her knees and looked skywards. Relief, thanks or exhaustion: we may never know. A croque monsieur and a bottle of pop in the nearby ‘Beach Friends’ bar seemed to restore spirits. Life on the edge.

Beach activities in Essaouira didn’t actually extend to sandcastle-making, despite Hendrix’s tenuous contribution to the subject. I saw a poor attempt at a boat carved in the packed sand with a stick, but that was about it. If this was Britain, there would be curtain walls with crenellations, motte and baileys, and moats filled with seawater every few yards. Maybe now we are in Brexit mode we should build real castles again to fortify against the dreaded continental invasion. That way I’d get even better value out of my English Heritage membership. I knew there would be a Brexit brightside if I looked hard enough.

And with that cheery thought, we headed back to dear old Europhobic Blighty.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Destination Perth

It was all a bit mad really: A day trip Perth races. An idea conceived one morning with Tim on the shuttle from Clapham Junction to Esher for the Tingle Creek meeting. I had always fancied a trip to Britain’s most northerly racetrack. Tim was a regular visitor to the June meeting when he and his other half visited her in-laws in nearby Dundee. ‘I’ll join you!” I boldly declared.

By the time Spring arrived, I was still committed to the trip. I had some half-hearted squints at B&Bs and timetables, but I was already fondly recalling my sleeper journey of a few years previously to Fort William. Eager to recapture something of the earlier experience, I duly booked up the sleeper either side of the Perth meeting, arriving Edinburgh early in the morning and heading back down south late the same evening.

The Yorkshireman in me couldn’t sanction the outlay on a cabin for what would be a much shorter journey than the Fort William epic; and with much less in the way of attractive countryside upon which to feast my reddening eyes. So I plumped for a seat instead. My decision to slum it almost backfired.

The Caledonian Sleeper web portal has a handy carriage plan so that you can book your preferred seat (and at no extra cost, please note EasyJet). I'd paid particular attention to booking a single seat next to the window in airline configuration, with the double seats on the other side of the aisle. I didn't want to disturb anyone, nor them to disturb me.

Well I messed that one up. Maybe the seat directions were wrong on the plan. Or more likely I just wasn't looking properly. I matched up my ticket reservation with the badge on the baggage rack and my shoulders drooped. I was wedged at the end of a car where a thin bloke with legs like beanpoles and an array of bags at his feet was looking back at me from his seat. "Cosy isn't it?" he observed.

I returned a thin smile and shuftied my feet around until he moved one of his holdalls to the rack above. After we left Euston (bang on time), I found an empty seat behind him in my preferred airline set up and settled in for the journey.

The sleeper car had a strange atmosphere. Most people were solo travellers and once the lights were dimmed, there was a sense of intrusion on other people’s habits. The old chap across the way from me said he’d been sent in error to King’s Cross to pick up the train. He had two seats to himself, but even this luxury was insufficient, judging by his twitching and restlessness. At various intervals, I’d catch glimpses of his deep red cords in a new angle in, around and over the reclined seat.

Before we departed, a young businessman in an expensive open necked shirt with glinty cufflinks and sporting eye-catching brogues in two tones of brown was talking on his mobile phone just loud enough for us to hear about his day. This had involved meetings at which Richard Branson had talked about trade options in Brexit fallout-World, before he was whisked off to meet Theresa May. I did wonder what such a high-flying executive was doing in the sleeper cheap seats. Anyway, after Watford, the guard tapped him on the shoulder and off he went. A spare cabin had presumably been found.

A middle-aged American lady, travelling slowly around Europe, was going back to Edinburgh to hook up with friends she’d met on a previous journey. She fell in to intriguing conversation with a Polish woman with whom there was a shared interest in whisky and face creams. The latter was heading up to Islay to start a new job in a distillery.

For my part, I had something in common with King’s Cross Man. Others around me were fast asleep in exactly the same position as they were sitting. Feet neatly tucked away, arms folded, head back. Me? Fidgetting and squirming. I accidentally kicked my M&S bag, full of discarded plastic food wrappers. In the muted sleeper carriage it sounded like a cat in a waste bin. A few people glanced over, even lifting up their blindfolds (thoughtfully provided by Caledonian Sleeper, together with yellow earplugs) to check what was the noise. Then I snapped down the little metal footrest with too much vigour. It clicked into position with a resonant clang. More looks.

Eventually I nodded off for a couple of hours, stirring as the first fingers of morning light were spreading from behind dark clouds. The last time I took the sleeper, soft early sunshine played delightfully in the mist rising from Loch Lomand. Here, a few tentative rays illuminated a deserted and bleak Preston station where a train of car transporters was rumbling though on the adjacent freight line. I hate Preston. Always have.

We rolled into Edinburgh Waverley bang on time. I took the chance to wash and brush up in the loos, once the concourse geography had been navigated: this is the only station I've ever been to with more roads than platforms and more vehicles than trains.

Edinburgh is a handsome, stately place; known as the English City to the independence- & EU Remain-seeking Scots. Although a while since my last visit, I wanted to explore a new district and so caught the No 22 fuel-hybrid, wifi-enabled Lothian Transport bus out to Leith. Breakfast was next on the itinerary.

Leith used to have a seedy, crime-ridden reputation based on its declining ship building and dock-related activities. Like many British ports, since the 1980’s Leith has seen significant renewal, regeneration and repurposing of maritime infrastructure. The fine granite warehouses that lined Leith Water now house gastro-pubs, galleries and gift shops. At the end of the bus route, Ocean Terminal has a top-end shopping centre with the Royal Yacht Britannia moored alongside.

I ambled around the handsome buildings and over bridges that criss-crossed the Water, before settling on the Clock Café, a former pub, for a top quality fry up. The exact level of that quality had to be established in real time via facebook photos and commentary before a tough jury comprising Colin, Bryn and Bacchy over 400 miles away.

The docks are connected to the city centre via the mile-long Leith Walk. If ever a street told the story of recent waves of immigration, this was it. Many of the Victorian edifices that form the backbone of the walk remain – converted factories and workshops, protestant churches, gin palaces and the Central Railway Station, saved from demolition and given a new lease of life. However, building signage gave away a more recent history. Early 20th century Asian cultural centres, money shops and food stores have made their mark. Then Turkish community’s late 20th century stamp is seen in a few places, notably to my eye, one take-away sign declaring ‘The Best Kebab Shop’. No geographical or temporal delineation necessary. Simply the best. Except that, rather confusingly, three doors up stood ‘The Original Best kebab shop’. I was picking up mixed messages. A little further down the road, the story was brought up to date where the most recent settlers had opened a collection of Polish shops – a large deli called ‘Polonia’ and a few other a groceries and newsagents.  

There was even a racecourse here until it moved to Musselburgh in 1816. It’s been there ever since. Talking of racecourses, it was time to make my way to Perth to meet Tim and Sarah.

The train journey took me across the Firth of Forth, a stretch of water that is to bridge building what the M42 is to junction remodeling, only much more attractive. My four-car unit felt like a pawn in a giant game of Sim City. The line then took in an oversized arc from south-east to north-east around the coast, through Kirkaldy, Markinch and Ladybank, whilst Google Maps showed a much more direct route north along the line of the M90…

Anyway, I arrived eventually and Tim and Sarah were waiting in the garden bar of the rambling Victorian Station Hotel. It was full of ladies in strappy shoes and stringy tops ready for the races. I tried to photo bomb their selfie in the loo corridor, but was too slow. Someone should tell them that this is Perth, the most northerly racecourse in Britain. Not Ascot.  We saw them later, staggering out of the dining marquee towards the rails bookies, high heels sinking into the grass like knives into butter. Highly amusing.

We boarded a London routemaster bus, chartered by the track for the shuttle from the town centre, and enjoyed some expansive views of the Tay whilst trapped in a line of traffic heading up to the track. It was highly tempting to ring the phone number on London Transport sign left over from the vehicle’s last days in active service to complain about the delay.

Perth racecourse had been on my radar for some time. I enjoy the three-day Spring festival that comes hard on the quality meetings of Aintree and Ayr. The track doesn’t offer up anything like the same level of prize money as those, but the races are always supported by some good trainers. Last season Willie Mullins dispatched Up For Review to land the decent novice hurdle on the same card. At the time he was in hot pursuit of Paul Nicholls in the British Trainers Championship. That April Festival is the first of its season of Summer jumps fixtures. It had been a while since I last went Summer jumping. Probably Newton Abbot in 1982 on a Torbay family holiday before I was old enough to gamble. So it doesn’t really count.

The track didn’t disappoint. Set in the stunning parkland grounds of Scone (that’s ‘Skyooon’ - I learned quick) Palace, the racecourse sits above the city and grand has views to encircling hills. The racecourse buildings suit the landscape and help to create the welcoming atmosphere: modest, characterful stands with the accessible parade ring at the back.

The beer tent was a little gem. Real ales from a few different local brewers served up by a knowledgeable and enthusiastic patron. Ossian from the Inveralmond Brewery was amber and sharp; whilst Head East from the Strathbraan Brewery a couple of stops further up the line at Pitlochry was smooth, fruity and dry in the finish.

The finishes of each of the seven races on the card were drier still. For me anyway. I barely troubled the frame all afternoon. Meanwhile Tim was hoovering up, and not just with his customary 25p each way online bets either. Folding stuff came out of his wallet at the rails bookies on more than one occasion. I was left regretting the missed opportunity of some serious form study that a broken night’s sleep on the train should have presented me. I did not even take advantage of some basic facts. Such as Gordon Elliott and Richard Johnson being top trainer and top jockey at the track. Together they took the opener with Faraway Mountain at a perfectly respectable 4/1 and then landed another one each.

"Arrested for shit tipping" said Sarah. Ho.Ho.
The racecourse is good for viewing. It’s configuration is a little like Doncaster’s teardrop shape, except that the narrow end was close to the stands, affording some fine sights when the fields navigated the tight bends. Taking photos on the rail was literally as near as I got to a winner all day.

Back in the Fair City after the races, we stumbled seamlessly off the shuttle bus and into Dickens on South Street. Perth’s premier malt whisky bar was a top place: a sustainable mix of back street local and welcoming tourist joint. Like much of Perth, low on pretension but high on impact.  

My eyes goggled at the choices. The top rail of the bar was lined with whisky bottles of all shapes and sizes fighting for attention. Thoughtfully, the handy A4 menu on the table detailed alphabetically each of the staggering 100-plus malts on offer. We all began carefully with sensible choices of medium-proof shots. I was even allowed a couple of begrudged chunks of ice with my Highland Park. We were unable to stay on an even keel for long. Last thing before we bailed for the curry house across the road, we were supping some fearsome concoction of peat, heather, bog water and naked flame from Islay known as Bunnahabhain 18-year-old. Wow.

A curry really was the only option by that stage of the evening. Tim and I were rolling and I don’t think Sarah was far behind, though she was sharp enough to keep taking photos for the running social media commentary of our day.  Another nice venue. The main room was a high ceilinged, elaborately mullioned and moulded affair that may once have been a chapel. Not that architectural badinage overwhelmed enjoyment of the fare laid before us. Not at all. I was also full of appreciation for the rogani naan that accompanied my karahi: flatbread made with egg yolk. A day full of new experiences.

I was done in by then. We parted at Perth station and I headed back to Edinburgh drifting in and out of sleep. That became the template for the rest of my night. After a head clearing stroll along the beautifully lit Princes Street and Royal Mile, fitful probably best describes the journey back to Berko. I wasn’t so lucky in my seat alignment for the return trip and there was a little footsie with the young man opposite me before we fell into a mutually agreed but unspoken personal space arrangement. To be fair, he was always going to be on the wrong side of the argument. Apart from my involuntarily twitching feet emanating 98%-proof bromodosis, I was also giving off a proper acrid whisky-sweat and a fine blend of garlic and lime pickle fragrance oozing from most of my visible pores.

I jumped off at Watford in the early morning drizzle and was home in bed for some proper shut-eye by about 7am.

Quite the day trip.