Welcome to my adventures and experiments in creativity. Where writing is like running: sometimes I know where I'm going, and sometimes I see where the mood takes me.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Peak Of Paw-fection

On Wednesday 19th September 2012, six people and four dogs took on the challenge of climbing Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK. The party comprised Helen and Gav, with their Golden Oldies rescue dogs Flint and Ruffles; Jo and Dave, with their rescue dog Jim; and Kath and Paul, with their fourteen month-old dog Chloe.

Before heading to Scotland, they raised sponsorship for the climb and received pledges totalling £445, which has been split between local animal charities.

This is the story of how they got on.

No matter how strong a bond you share with your dog – they might greet your return from work with a wag of the tail, or impeccably perform any task required of them – there are some things you simply cannot communicate.

However hard you might try, for example, there’s no telling them that cow muck does not form part of a healthy balanced diet. You can’t explain that the football on television is not a real ball. And you certainly can’t get across what length of walk you intend to give them.

Having said that, with 4409 feet of relentlessly steep mountain standing before us – of which only two-thirds was visible, thanks to a permanent blanket of cloud over the summit – even we owners weren’t sure what length of walk awaited us. Estimates and averages declared seven or eight hours was the norm. The weight of our packs suggested we might be out on the hillside for a week.

Mind you, just reaching the foot of the mountain was an achievement in itself.

* * *

Less than six weeks before the climb, Chloe developed a worrying limp in her right hind leg. With a little rest (only a little, for a youthful Springer Spaniel is incapable of remaining still!) it cleared up and allowed us to do some hill walking in preparation. Even so, she had never done anything like the kind of distance that lay in store, and as if to prove that maybe she did know what was planned, the limp suddenly reappeared that very morning.

To add a little more drama to proceedings, just two weeks before making the 360-mile journey north, Ruffles broke a toe in the most innocuous of circumstances – chasing a ball. A three-week recovery was diagnosed, but a heroic period of doing as little as possible saw the toe heal sufficiently for her to suddenly do rather a lot. Helen and Gav just hoped she wouldn’t need carrying.

Nobody was quite sure whether Flint had it in him to do a ten-mile round trip. Not for health reasons, you understand, but simply because he often chooses to stop and sniff anything and everything along a walk. And he is equally capable of deciding enough to be enough and staging a lie-down protest from which there is no shifting him!

The only dog you would have put money on completing the journey was Jim, a veteran of previous mountain expeditions and long country walks. In fact, with such ease does Jim scamper about that you suspect the only challenge he would ever relish is attempting to break a pedometer.

One further challenge remained before we could actually start walking, and that was to make canine introductions. Thanks to their backgrounds, Ruffles and Flint make a good team but are not at ease with other dogs. No one is sure what Jim experienced in his previous life, and past attempts at socialising the three were not successful, while Chloe had never met any of them. But with a bit of careful control (from the owners) and a flurry of excited barks (from the dogs), a truce seemed to be quickly agreed and we could all get on with the adventure at hand.

* * *

An hour later than planned, we eventually got going.

All the dogs except Chloe found this sudden progress overwhelming and duly felt the need to poo, meaning prompt retreats to the car park for responsible disposal. Wishing not to be left out entirely, Chloe waited until it was no longer feasible to turn back before doing her ‘business’. Yours truly was thus given the dubious pleasure of tying a used poo bag to his rucksack and taking it up the mountain with him.

Despite the unique perfume of this unexpected extra cargo, progress was smooth. Ruffles and Flint remained very much on lead; the former on instruction from the vet so as not to over-stress her broken toe, and the latter because he possesses no sense of self-preservation and would have merrily run off the side of the mountain!

Chloe and Jim, meanwhile, were given the freedom of the mountainside but repaid the trust shown and stuck resolutely to the path; the fabled pony track. Yes, the desire to explore was in their noses, but good training and good instincts kept them on the rocky trail, always quick to return to our sides if called.

We encountered a few other dogs along the way, most of them making the return trip as we continued to labour against the wishes of gravity. They looked none the worse for their experience, and so it was with good spirits that we tackled the second half of the climb. The valley floor became an increasingly distant memory, and thick cloud an ever-present threat. In the gloom our party strung out, with me and Kath lagging behind. Chloe remained faithful and stuck with us, trotting a short distance up the path and back again with wonderfully reassuring consistency.

Rain lashed down upon us and disappeared as quickly as it arrived. The cloud, however, was every bit as immovable as the mountain. We reconvened at a cairn to take on refreshment and some extra layers, and there was a certain amount of relief in the dogs’ eyes as we fastened their canine coats. The temperature was getting uncomfortably low now – snow started to litter the sides of the path, and people returning from the summit looked damp and talked of ice.

Differing levels of fitness saw us string out once again. Ben Nevis took on the appearance of an Arctic wasteland, but the inches of snow brought out Chloe’s playful side and suddenly she was a dog having fun rather than a dog enduring a hard walk. There was no doubting how hard it was though, for as the path started to level out toward the summit we noticed a few spots of blood tarnishing the pure white of the slippery ground. One of the pads on Chloe’s front left foot was grazed, and the thrill of us all making it to the top was tainted slightly by the thought of our little girl being in discomfort. Photos were taken to mark the achievement, but the cloud and the cold offered nothing to savour and we commenced the descent without hesitation.

Chloe’s graze quickly stopped bleeding, but the mountain had further tests in store. As if taking revenge on us for daring to succeed in our quest, ‘The Ben’ threw down a sustained, stinging shower of hail. Harsh and painful it may have been, but we were not demoralised. The arduous journey finally got the better of Ruffles’ toe, however, and Helen had to carry her a short distance to give the foot some respite.

Flint continued as stoic as always, showing no signs of displeasure or discomfort at what was being asked of him. And if you need any evidence of Jim’s indefatigable nature, you need only know that once back at the campsite he was chasing his beloved ball for all he was worth.

Lunch was eaten once the company of the unforgiving cloud had been left behind. With full stomachs and rapidly weakening knees, we all found a comfortable pace – giving in to gravity is harder on the body than going against it. Partners got separated however hard they tried to support each other, and Chloe and Jim took to going back and forth between their Mums and Dads, as if rounding us up. Perhaps they were desperate for us to finish the interminable journey without delay, or perhaps they just care about us and wanted to keep an eye out that we were okay.

Late summer sun witnessed the first two hours of our ascent, and it saw us back to the car park well within the eight-hour mark. An average time, but a far from average day. A brief shower accompanied the removal of our weary boots – a cleansing, refreshing rain rather than a further endurance test. Under the kind of rainbow that the Scottish Highlands seems to have perfected, Flint and Ruffles gave a metaphorical shrug and casually resumed residence in the back of the car. In the following days, they showed no after-effects of the epic journey – even when climbing mountains, life with Helen and Gav clearly suits them.

Jim might have played ball that evening, but he showed some signs of strain at the end of the week; Jo and Dave were just grateful to know that something can tire him out. Chloe, in many ways still a puppy, suffered the most. Every bit as stiff as her owners the next day, she continued to sleep off the effects of the walk right through the weekend.

* * *

So unpredictable is the weather around Glen Nevis that even setting out from the visitor centre we had no idea if the elements would prevent us from making it to the top. Though we would never have taken unnecessary risks, thanks to the generosity displayed by everyone who donated sponsorship, it would have been doubly frustrating had we been forced to turn back prematurely. In the end, it was the sense of satisfaction that was doubled as we returned to the car park knowing the good faith of those donations had been fulfilled.

All four pooches conquered the fearsome peak, but they had no concept of standing at the highest point in the UK. Nor of raising a fabulous sum of money – in Flint and Ruffles’ case, for the very charity that had found their home. For all that we fussed them and told them they had done brilliantly, no amount of praise could help them understand how proud they should be, and exactly what that seven-and-a-half hour walk achieved. Proof, if any were needed, that there’s no telling dogs sometimes.

The £445 raised was split as follows: Cheadle Animal Welfare received £145; £100 went to each of Greyhound & Golden Oldies and Paw Prints; and Rottweiler Rescue and Cocker & English Springer Spaniel Rescue were both recipients of £50.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Ain't No Mountain High Enough

The gantries over the M6 displayed their ever-optimistic revised speed limits. As soon as the glaring orange '40' started flashing in the deepening grey of late-Friday afternoon, our hopes of meaningful progress were numbered and we ground to an inevitable halt a matter of metres later.

The only explanation as to why this always happens is that '40' is not the required speed limit, but some sort of Highways Agency in-joke; a code number shown to unsuspecting motorists that actually means, "It's busy but you're hopeful of keeping going. Wrong! Now why not travel at some other time of day?" Stranded somewhere between Junction 20 and Junction 19, Google Maps promised the exit wasn't far away and thus staved off any potential despair. Some seven hours after setting out, home wasn't far away.

Witnessing the end-of-the-week rush hour in full flow (sort of) was a shock to the system. Five days in the Scottish Highlands reconditions your brain entirely. The open space, the majestic sights, the lack of traffic; everything makes you question the bustle of your normal routine. Casting an eye over the lethargic tide of idling cars, I couldn't help but adopt a slightly smug, superior attitude.

What have you done this week? I wonderedWe've climbed Ben Nevis.

Not attractive thinking, I’ll admit. Such feelings were simply a defence mechanism against being thrust so vividly back into the reality of nine-to-five living. Doubtless there were people in their vehicles justifiably proud of the week’s work just completed; people who felt their impending weekend was well earned. Normally I’m one of them, but all that fresh air had brought about something of an existential crisis.

Is it any wonder? The entire top third of Britain’s tallest mountain spent the week permanently shrouded in cloud. Making the slow ascent into poor visibility had the feeling of crossing into a whole other plane of existence, like you’d imagine the plot of some old Star Trek episode. We left behind a world we knew, a world we could marvel at; we found ourselves on the steep, rocky slopes of a madness-inducing alternative dimension.

During a brief stop to catch our breath, with the declining temperature nipping at our spirits, a man in a red coat materialised from the veil of mist. The colour was intense with the energy of descent, and I made some reference to the weather that he had the satisfaction of leaving behind. I can’t recall my exact words for I was too busy trying to sound relaxed. Trying to sound as though we weren’t amateurs, lured by yesterday’s forecast and its promises of clear skies and giddy views from the top.

“It’s getting icy up there,” he said, sparing us a moment but never faltering in his search for the land of waterfalls and rainbows he – like us – had once known. We turned our faces back to the wind and wondered how many steps we could manage before our lungs started treating oxygen like a scarce commodity once more.

Briefly I thought about work colleagues in the office 350 miles away, but it might as well have been 350,000 miles. Did I really have a desk in Stoke that I sit at for 37 hours a week? Unlikely. The person on that mountainside was not a person who knows everything there is to know about oddly named insulation products. What function could I possibly have there if this is what I’m doing now, and why would I be here if that is where I normally am? I put these thoughts/memories/illusions to the back of my mind.

I was grateful for my coat, the cold no longer numbing my arms. A hail shower came and went, as if simply teasing us into thoughts of turning back when it knew we would force ourselves forwards. Small accumulations of snow had found a way to grow between the rocks. Imperceptibly the scene changed and we trekked across the ice planet Hoth toward our goal. My fingers fumbled to capture a picture. The next most recent camera shot was the lush green of Glen Nevis – some photos taken in the meantime must have been deleted, because this was not the same mountain.

The weight of people undertaking the same journey – and maybe of a few ghosts as well – ensured the path was marked clearly in compacted snow. The occasional cairn turned into structures of a different sort – memorials, the fabled weather observatory, and finally the summit marker itself. People milled around, as if asking themselves whether they had really achieved what they set out to do.

I know that’s what I was doing.

Nobody savours sub-zero temperatures, however. With everything and nothing to see there was little to be gained from hanging around, except perhaps hypothermia. A treacherous descent commenced almost immediately. The cloud lingered, watching us slip and slide back toward the relative hospitality of dry rocks. Once beyond the snow, it threw down upon us a barrage of stinging sleet; the last desperate measure of something that knows it has been beaten.

Grim determination and sheer force of will might be considered a madness of sorts. If they are not, then madness finally manifested itself in one brief flourish under the blue skies of relative normality. Having marched through the onslaught – but still not yet halfway through the descent – I took a moment to look back at what we had conquered. I couldn't see it of course, but with a piercing gaze I looked into its heart and ranted at it under my breath.

"Screw you, Ben Nevis. We beat you."

Again, not my usual style of thinking, but the fever quickly left me. Weary knees and empty stomachs finally overcame the group’s desire to reach a more temperate altitude. On one of the few occasions where random rocks appear to offer the same comfort as bean bags, packed lunches were duly unpacked. Although now clearly visible, the valley floor and all its connotations of civilisation remained a distant dream, but a firmer memory.

The contented peace that accompanies deserved refreshment was briefly shattered, as an RAF jet flew through the hills. Impressive as it was - and how often can you say that you actually looked down upon an aircraft in full flight? - the measure of our experience in that cloud layer made it seem somehow unremarkable. Maybe the pilot, as he employed every bit of his flying skill to skirt round the highest mountain in Great Britain, caught a glimpse of all the walkers negotiating the steep path.

What have you achieved this week? he perhaps wondered. I've flown a fighter jet through the Glens of Scotland.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Everybody Was Haiku Writing

The English language has not been kind to the haiku. While the format is set in stone in its Japanese homeland – albeit a stone that is beginning to suffer from a certain amount of weathering – almost anything goes in the Western world. The Wikipedia article on the subject is frankly bewildering – a monoku, anybody? How about a cirku instead?

I am not, and do not seek to become, a haiku scholar. When I decided to try writing a couple of examples, there were two guidelines I wanted to abide by. First, three lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables each. There are alternatives, but this feels closest to the tradition of 5, 7 and 5 on in Japanese poems (on not being the same as syllables).

Wikipedia: Some translators of Japanese poetry have noted that about 12 syllables in English approximate the duration of 17 Japanese on.

Secondly, to maintain a theme of nature, but with a bit of a twist. It is not necessarily the case that haiku must be written about nature, but it is popularly considered that they are. More than ever, modern haiku do not fit with this supposed tradition but I thought it would be fun to try and play with it a little.

So it was that I attempted to contrast the fundamental wonder of the natural world with the trivialities and ‘take things for granted’ attitude of middle class life. What follows are the collated efforts of my last couple of week’s poetry writing. Hopefully some of them will make you chuckle – that is my only, relatively lowbrow, aim. Some of them don’t necessarily fit with the self-imposed guidelines; some of them don’t work at all, I’m sure.


Innocent, carefree
Children burst with life and soul
Cans of Monster drunk

Soaring high above
Call of nature to answer
Car washed this morning

Sleepy morning eyes
Toothpaste, face cream, side by side
Scent of mint awakes

Genetics dictate
Attraction on the inside
Lying Lynx bastards

Cave paintings and grunts
Language, expression evolves!
Now ‘meeting’ is ‘mtg’


Global poverty
Dictator-led oppression
Bad e-mail grammar

Best local produce
Diet of global cuisine
Krispy Kreme doughnuts

Good Transport Links

Internal combustion
Freedom road broadens the mind
Infernal road noise

Raw tuna for lunch
Electronic wonderland


Windswept mountaintops
Scaling heights of endurance
Scaring me shitless

Atop misty moors
Battling the elements
Check in on Facebook

Lost in wilderness
Despite compass in pocket
Relied on iPhone

Wide eyes and sore legs
Capture nature’s masterpiece
Battery just died


Heights of performance
All athletic disciplines
Olympic glory

Donation of blood
Oh, noble humanity!
Free biscuit after


Expectations rise
Under grey Manchester rain
‘The Dark Knight Rises’

Blue puffer jacket
Shades, tracksuit, ironing board
Gentleman of Stoke

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Master Of My Domain

Like the characters in the Seinfeld episode that this blog title references, it is time to put my money on the table and declare, “I’m out!” (Oh, and the episode in question was broadcast many years before Dragons’ Den started, so you can stop with the Duncan Bannatyne impersonations).

Strictly speaking, there is no actual money involved. I made my investment last year, without help from any Scottish leisure-industry tycoons, so that is all I stand to lose. It is an easy loss to accept, and therefore an easy decision to make. And yet, at the same time, a difficult decision to see through. Because in my head right now, aimed with precision at my conscience, is a mock television advert for charity:

“Less than £1 a month could save this baby – brought into the world a year ago, full of life and promise. Can you spare the cost of one chocolate bar every month to save it from being cruelly left to die?”

And the mock advert is correct. I could easily spare £8 for the re-registration of the domain name I so proudly purchased last summer. But what would be the point? It would mean another twelve months of staring at the browser bookmark for www.indiecinematour.com and wondering what, if anything, it might have been. It would mean another twelve months of pretending I might suddenly develop the time and resources to fully grow it into the amazing website I envisaged.

Maybe five years ago, before responsibilities and pensions and normal stuff like that came along, it could have happened. Whether the 23-year-old me was the person to make it happen is a whole other question, and one I’m not going to explore here. But the truth is, the 28-year-old me does not have the fuel to fire that growth. I need to concentrate my energies differently. The last six to eight months have been creatively difficult, with even simple things eluding me. It has taken that long just to begin understanding how to adjust to the life I have and still try to create. All the while, poetry has not jumped across synapses and blog post ideas have failed to spark.

But I have continued to read…

And I have continued to enjoy Milo McLaughlin’s ‘Clear Minded Creative’ blog. I’ve mentioned him in these pages before, and doubtless I shall do so again, but it was a few recommendations from Milo that subtly altered the way I was thinking. The driving force was a review of a book by Chris Gillebeau entitled The $100 Start Up. Mr. Gillebeau is the type of chap who talks about ‘world domination’ and other such bombastic ideas that tend to fatigue my simple personality.

Mercifully, his book turned out to be free of such grandstanding. Instead, it was full of sensible business advice for the internet age and case studies of people leading whatever life they choose because their creativity has an outlet that costs virtually nothing to start and maintain, but brings in abnormal sums of money every month. A lot of these lucky/talented/undeterred by failure types are American, which is a point I made to Milo. And his response was very sensible: “If you do start your business, aim it at Americans.” That’s what makes him clear minded and me not!

Nevertheless, The $100 Start Up did generate a few potential ideas and offered plenty of food for thought. I remain sceptical that my tendency for sporadic and diverse creative ideas could be harnessed into a lucrative business idea, but hopefully one day I might distil whatever talent I possess into something more discernible. I thought the cinema tour might be that idea, but what the book demonstrated is that anything requiring time and money to travel around is never going to be sustainable.

With unlimited free time and a friendly bank balance I could have happily made a hobby of touring the country visiting all the cinemas I intended. To generate regular website content in my spare time, I now realise, was never going to be a realistic goal. At best, maybe it would have generated some writing work on the subject. It could have made a book perhaps, and hopefully one that the cinemas would have stocked in their shops, but that would have needed much more travelling than I ever got round to. At the end of August 2011, I wrote the following about the new website:

“I’m a patient person; I still believe in “good things come to those who wait” as much as I now understand how I need to make things happen for myself. Perhaps the next stage is to learn how much patience is too much patience, and how long is too long before realising what the next stage after that is. This is such a new way of thinking for me that I still can’t quite smother that one niggling thought – what if it doesn’t work at all, what if it is a complete waste of time? I guess the only answer to that is – I have to make sure it does, and that it isn’t.”

The ‘Indie Cinema Tour’ blog, then, is to be no more. The $100 Start Up has helped me realise what the next stage might be, though as I have a day job I currently enjoy, I’m not envisaging a wholesale lifestyle change. Much as I’m disappointed that ‘the tour’ hasn’t become what I wanted (or resulted in as many cinema visits as I hoped), can I say the whole thing was “a complete waste of time”?

No, I don’t believe I can (or, indeed, should).

Crucially, although the dedicated online showcase for it may no longer exist, the content is mine. It will live on; remain within my soul, even if otherwise exists only on the hard drive of my laptop. I will have the experience, the pride and the satisfaction of creating it in the first place. I had the pleasure of sharing it with (and receiving feedback about it from) my fellow attendees on the writing course I completed last year. I would have liked a larger audience to read it, but I doubt there are many people in the world who can say they are genuinely satisfied with the numbers that discover their work.

I will allow the site to see it out its remaining two months, and then have a tidy up. Maybe post some of the content here for a bit of online posterity, but delete the Twitter account, delete the e-mail account (and its endless capacity for spam comments) and quietly wave the site goodbye. And then I’ll move onto the next idea, richer for the domain I once had and ready to build a new one.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Stuck In The Past

Contain thy surprise at the following statement, but I have a friend.

More than one, in fact. Two, at the very least. But this is about one friend in particular.

We both did well at school, and I merrily skipped straight into adulthood by going to work rather than university. My friend, meanwhile, eyed the opportunities offered by academia and began paving a smooth road through every challenge along the way: a degree in biochemistry at Oxford, the discovery of a gene, and a year spent working at a laboratory in New York before transferring back to the UK.

Impressive, I’m sure you’ll agree.

She recently got in touch to offer her congratulations on me not disgracing myself on the BBC1 quiz show Pointless (a whole other story which probably deserves telling sometime). It’s hard to believe that saying, “Ivory Coast” on television can be considered impressive to somebody who has discovered a gene, but everything’s relative and I appreciated the sentiment.

“How are things at the lab?” I asked in return.

“Good,” came the reply, “but writing a review and had to give a big talk yesterday, so was stressing about that.”

Now then. It’s good to take stock of your life every once in a while. Yes, everything’s relative, and no, comparing yourself to others probably isn’t healthy. But it doesn’t harm to reflect on your ambitions. Remember the potential you once possessed, and maybe still do. Remind yourself that nearly anything is possible with the right level of application. Writing reviews and giving talks sounds like important work. Maybe doing U-value calculations – providing assistance on construction and matters of insulation – sounds important to other people. Even so, it’s difficult not to wonder sometimes if you’re squandering this one chance at life…

“Yesterday,” I said, wallowing in the irony, “I bought a sticker album.”

It was true. As a child, I routinely collected Merlin’s Premier League stickers. Indulged in the habit by my Grandma, who would treat me to five or ten packets when we went shopping on a Saturday (in those days, a packet of stickers only cost 10 or 20p), I completed the albums for three or four consecutive years. And so it was that in Tesco the other lunchtime, a craze of nostalgia consumed me. Made me blind to the fact that a packet of stickers now costs 50p. With the European Football Championships barely a week away, made me think that it would be fun to revisit that strange old habit of childhood. I wouldn’t have anyone to swap spares with, but that didn’t have to matter.

The initial batch of 50 or so stickers yielded a decent selection, with only a couple of spares (does anyone need John O’Shea?). Reality set in quickly, however. 540 blank spaces of reality. A Premier League season lasts ten months. Seems even longer to a 12 year old boy; gives plenty of time to build a collection. It seemed sensible to assume that Euro 2012 stickers wouldn’t be sold for long after the tournament, so I wasn’t going to make much of a dent buying only a few packets a week.

There was an answer. Not sure what my Grandma would have made of it, but Amazon offered the opportunity to buy a box of 100 packets at 80% of the retail cost. In this age of instant gratification – with the exception of choosing free delivery, thus having to wait a few extra days – it was only fitting that the internet should come to my rescue. How could I refuse? And how else could I possibly assemble all those cynical excuses for numbered bits of paper?

I mean, a double page dedicated to a translation of the tournament slogan – ‘CREATING HISTORY TOGETHER’ – for each country? Really? Was it always like that? It could quite easily have been 526 blank spaces.

But then I received my 100 packets of stickers in the post. Spent three hours filling the album, carefully stacking spares in numerical order. Derived an unusual joy from watching the pages fill up, piecing together the jigsaw bit by bit. Some of the shiny stickers were most underwhelming, but some of them had an impressive quality. It was all about instant gratification again – a harmless binge on Panini stickers that raised a couple of interesting questions about probability when the 100th and final packet turned out to have no spares in it.

It’s doubtful that such a minor mathematical curiosity is worth the money spent on the stickers. But there is something reassuring in the fact that, even 16 years after last assembling a sticker collection, it is possible to revisit the experience. Like watching old episodes of Bullseye on Challenge TV, it gives some context to those faded childhood photos in your head. Makes you feel a little more complete as a human being.

Sadly, the same cannot be said of the Euro 2012 album. It is 64 stickers shy of completion, and the maximum that can be ordered from the publishers is 50. Luckily, the second of my two friends happens to be collecting them as well, so maybe we can have a swapping session at the pub.

Oh, and it turns out you can now order those last few stickers online, with a 10% discount compared to orders sent in by post. So no need for me to get a cheque or postal order to send with my carefully handwritten form. Boy, childhood really ain’t what it used to be.