Monday, 29 September 2008

In Search of Borders (Journeys by Blog part 2) - continued

You'd think I was getting the hang of meeting all these other bloggers by now, following the ever increasing amount of occasions in which I've had cause to cross paths with various different ones.

Well perhaps I am getting the hang of it, but it's still weird for me seeing people in real life for the first time and recognising them from the photos they've published online - I'm so much more accustomed to knowing people's faces first and seeing photographs of them at some point later. So I'm sure it sounded daft on Saturday when I said, isn't it weird how people look like their photographs?

So - Saturday. I had by now met Caroline, who looked remarkably relaxed and composed given the hectic few days she'd had of promoting Black Boxes. I bought a copy of the book, and tried to give her the money directly (I'm so used to buying cds or records directly from bands after gigs). Luckily for me, she didn't take it, and pointed me in the direction of the counter.

I had also only just started getting used to the fact that I'd met Caroline, who is very lovely, when I found myself being introduced to a whole host of other bloggers (and being introduced as trousers, which made me smile). At which point, who should wander in but Ms M, Stray and Badger. In seemingly no time at all I was sat having lunch with these latter three. I felt very comfortable in their highly genial and warm company, though I didn't get to meet their dog, Ruby: they'd not brought her since she would have been baking in the car (a much underused skill for a dog, perhaps).

The initial weirdness that struck me about Cheshire Oaks now was replaced by a sense of conviviality. I remained with the aforementioned individuals - and the equally lovely b - and we had a mixture of illuminating and silly conversation, drank coffee, looked for bargains in the stationery department, and discussed the finer points of Fermat's Theorem amongst other such pressing topics.

Later there was a change of scenery for a gathering, and much eating of cakes and drinking of tea: the atmosphere remained just as pleasant and relaxed throughout. I also met and enjoyed conversation with some people entirely new to me, and it was a delight to make their acquaintance too.

Well, if this sounds all-too-pleasant and enjoyable, that's because it genuinely was a perfectly good, memorable afternoon. In fact the only thing that served to put a slight dampener (so to speak) on the whole day was when, with perfect comedic timing, a bird shat on my jacket sleeve while I was waiting for the bus back into Chester. Bless it....

With a short while to wait for the train, I had a reflective pint not too far from the station. It was slightly odd seeing such a picturesque town centre being the backdrop for what would otherwise be pretty standard Saturday night drunken hordes, but this didn't serve to break the spell of the preceding few hours. I felt very content.

At the train station itself, the evening light was glorious: I stood for a few minutes just soaking it all in.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

In Search of Borders (Journeys by Blog part 2)

I seem to be making it a habit to be getting up early on Saturday mornings these days - earlier in some cases than when I normally get up for work on weekdays.

Yesterday was no exception, and it was worth it even just for the walk to the bus stop. The streets were totally silent and the weak morning light diluted even further by the hovering mist, though ameliorated by the promise of warm and sunny weather later.

I was journeying up to Chester and then on to Cheshire Oaks, the latter being a big retail outlet village in the middle of I'm-not-quite-sure-where (don't bother trying to search for I'm-not-quite-sure-where on Google Earth: I'm not quite sure where to start looking, for one thing).

Chester is a lovely, historic town with many fine things to see and to savour. I arrived there mid-morning - roughly half past ten - though due to the early hour of my awakening and embarkment (I know that's not a word, but sod it) it felt more like early afternoon. I would like to take you on a journey through this town with its many sights, its hidden stories waiting to unfold: old and beautiful buildings from times past which stand proudly, the weight of history more than ably carried by their aged but resilient facades and interiors. I would like to, but there's bugger all for me to tell because I headed straight from the train station to the bus station, and eating a Kit-Kat Chunky was about as cultural as it got for me during this time.

Perhaps, you might think, this is beside the point. You'd be right. The point being, I was heading over to the aforementioned retail outlet whatsit - specifically Borders, the bookshop - in order to meet the very talented Caroline Smailes, author of Black Boxes (her second novel, following on from the wonderful In Search of Adam), since she was to be signing books instore.

As I sat down on the bus, keeping my eyes peeled and my wits about me, a rather chic lady leaned over and asked in an Italian-sounding accent, Do you know where is Cheshire Oaks?

I explained that that was where I was heading, but that I hadn't actually been there before: so if she wondered why my eyes were peeled and why there were wits about me, that was why. She nodded knowingly. We exchanged a few words here and there. As the journey progressed, it occurred to me that she might be a fellow blogger, heading over to meet the aforementioned author. I had to ask.

Are you a fellow blogger heading over to Borders to meet the aforementioned author?

She smiled knowingly.

No, she replied.


I entertained the notion of telling her that she could bloody well find her own way to Cheshire Oaks then, but I resisted. We arrived there soon enough, in any case.

Cheshire Oaks is huge and slightly surreal. The mist had long since cleared and the place was positively sun-drenched - as such, it appeared before me as a big plantation of shops, or maybe a retail-opportunity version of one of those sprawling towns in the American Deep South with wide roads running through the middle of them (whether such towns exist is another matter entirely).

It took perhaps 15 minutes to walk from the point at which the bus dropped us (a bus stop, I believe it to be called) to where Borders was, looking every bit like a huge slab of bookshop which had been dropped there from a great height.

I walked in.

I felt a bit nervous, like I usually do when meeting someone for the first time, but there was no immediate evidence of book-signing-related activity at this point. Upon asking one of the store assistants, I was pointed in the direction of a table which had copies of Black Boxes stacked in neat little piles on it - Caroline would be here in a little while. Fair enough, I thought. It was midday by now, though it felt more like the tail-end of the afternoon. I headed over to the music books at the back of the store, picking up a copy of The Fallen by Dave Simpson to flick through whilst sitting on one of the all-too-comfortable settees nearby.

Not that I really looked at it: I was too busy looking around in search of familiar faces, or at the very least, people who looked like they might be fellow bloggers. Here wasn't a particularly good vantage point in any case, so I wandered around for a little while: presently, I toddled back in the direction of the table, and there was Caroline, hurriedly putting the finishing touches to her book:

A thought hit me, uncanny in its prescience :

If, say, I blog this tomorrow, it's possible it might get a bit rambly and long-winded...depending how it goes, I wonder if I might use this moment to have a break in the narrative and resume in a subsequent post?

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Trouser leg

This is what happens when you leave the door to the grill on the front of the cooker open and walk into it in the dark:

Still, it's better than the time a couple of years ago when I decided to take a short-cut to wherever I was going, and jumped over a very low (ie less than 2ft high) wall. Not a problem normally, except somehow I managed to make a complete mess of it. I managed to snag my foot against something on the floor which took away my balance completely: I landed heavily against the top of the wall, which gave me an absolute shiner of a bruise in more or less the same place as the one you see here. The main difference was that you could clearly see the brick pattern on my leg.

What was worse than the pain at the time was that it happened in a public square in the middle of the afternoon, but I think I got away with it without anyone seeing me. No such worries this time anyway.

Update: I found a photo of the bruise from when I fell on the wall.

Bricklayers of a nervous disposition should look away now:

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Another cat...

...just because it really made me laugh.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008


I finished reading The State of Me by Nasim Marie Jafry earlier this week. I'd read the bulk of the book (save for roughly the last 100 pages) a couple of weeks ago, but I quite deliberately put it to one side because I didn't want to finish it just yet.

On picking it up again, I expected that I'd finish it in two or three sittings, but as it turned out I quite easily got through the rest of it in one go.

If I had any hopes or expectations beforehand, it was that at the very least I would find the book engaging, interesting and informative. I found it to be all those things. But what I didn't expect was that I would find a novel about ME - the illness, myalgic encephalomyelitis - to be not just compelling, but to be such a sheer delight.

But I'll add a correction to that: it's not about ME, it's about a person (the central character, Helen Fleet) with ME. In other words, it's a novel about a life - one which becomes severely disrupted by a whole cluster of debilitating, bewildering, frightening symptoms, which in turn are potentiated by the attitudes and assumptions of others and by a huge raft of uncertainties.

Which from that brief description might make it sound like a joyless trawl through tales of illness and suffering: far from it. ME is - necessarily - one of the constant themes here, and it's there throughout. As I progressed through the pages I felt so much more informed and aware about the condition - about what it is and what it isn't, and so on - but the beauty of the book is how this is interwoven into the fabric of Helen Fleet's life, friendships and relationships, frustrations, aspirations and observations.

What makes it so readable and compelling is the deftness with which it's been written, and the keen observational eye and wit as transplanted into the narrative voice of the main character. There is simultaneously a descriptive richness and an economy of expression throughout which can be playful, poignant, sad, laugh-out-loud hilarious, and many other things besides. The key is that the narrative never stoops to sentimentality or demands sympathy or pity from the reader. Rather than effectively say (for example), isn't this terrible, the text instead says this is how it is, and leaves it up to the reader to respond or empathise.

Where the pace of Helen Fleet's life is painfully slow due to her having pretty much been completely floored by the illness, this is brought into sharp relief thanks to glimpses of her friends and fellow students getting on with their lives - flirtations, sexual encounters, parties, studies - again all with a keen and witty eye for telling detail in terms of situations, atmosphere and dialogue.

Similarly, her relationships with friends, family members and with boyfriends are examined as much in terms of how they have to be reorganised or accommodated (or not) afresh, as they are in terms of loss or limitations. Again, all done with a refreshing frankness and straightforwardness: much of the power here though is in terms of what is not said, but is largely implicit.

While there can be seen to be a political element (in the broader sense) to The State of Me - rightly putting across a strong case against all the doubts and misconceptions that have surrounded a now more-understood but still-controversial illness, the strongest aspect of it for me is that it could be -in fact, is - a novel which stands up in its own right as being about so many other things besides.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Slaying demons

Breathing slowly and steadily.

I stood admiring the view: it was a glorious day. A man walking his dog stopped nearby, and he remarked upon how nice the conditions were.

Me: isn't it just? Think I chose a good day to go walking.

Man With Dog: Whereabouts have you been so far then?

Me: Oh I started off going up the high street, then cut sharply upwards towards the Heights of Abraham, all the way over the top and then down into Matlock. Along the road for a while and then up to Riber, then back down the hill and up to here.

MWD: I'll be doing similar with a group of people next week, but we're starting off at Cromford and walking the first stretch down by the Derwent - it seems to be a part which is really overlooked.

Me: I know that one, I went camping down there about 20 years ago at Cromford Meadow, and I would walk along the Derwent to get into Matlock. Seem to remember it being really nice.

Dog: woof.

MWD: It is. Do you know it round here then?

Me: I grew up not too far away, we used to come down here pretty regular. I tend to come back every so often just to do some walking and to have a change of scenery.

...and so the conversation continued for a few more minutes (me having the pleasure of inadvertently lapsing back into my broad Derbyshire accent - something I'm rarely able to do if I'm to have any chance of being understood): remarking on various walks we had done or intended to do, a few general observations about life, and of course about the weather. It was glorious, after all.

Calm and relaxed, I remained at the same spot for a few minutes more once the man and his dog had gone on their way. I felt like I had just gone a long way towards conquering one of my fears. Not - I hasten to add - a fear of engaging in conversation with men walking their dogs.

The point is, I was stood just a few feet away from the sheer drop at the top of High Tor. For whatever reason, in recent years I've found myself increasingly nervous about the prospect of such heights (or drops). Not unreasonable in itself maybe: but as someone who enjoys walking in the hills and mountains it feels like a bit of a handicap, the extent to which it has affected me.

Back in February I had travelled up here and walked on a similar route which took in this particular spot. As I'd got nearer, my legs had the sensation of being made of ice, but with large dollops of electricity coursing through them. I'd felt dizzy and more than a little unsteady, and I'd had to slow down. The closer I'd got, the more it felt like electricity was coursing through my brain as well. It wasn't safe - I didn't feel safe, but I'd forced myself to at least try and stand there for a minute or so. I managed to take a few photographs whilst feeling like the ground might fall away beneath me at any moment.

It had felt like a very dark moment as I edged closer, fear mounting, thoughts racing. Darker than I could handle, in fact: I turned round and walked away, rushed away. Even just the knowledge that I was still on the crag itself (though well away from the sheer face now) was unnerving, like I was being goaded. I couldn't stop until I was back at ground level. The sense of vulnerability was deeply shocking, nasty, raw - and it seemed as though the further away I walked from this particular place, the less in touch with those feelings I would be.

It had left me feeling rattled. I'd visited this spot again in the spring and I fared better, at least to an extent.

So how pleasing it was yesterday to be close enough to the edge to peer over and have an amazing view down towards ground level: close enough, but not enough to be in danger. I felt much stronger, more secure, less vulnerable. A cliched phrase I know, but it does feel like I've gone some way towards slaying a demon. I wonder how much it's about the external fears themselves, and how much it's about a general sense of my own well-being.

Friday, 12 September 2008


I was really very pleased that one of the bloggers who has landed here in recent days found my post about a piece by Stars of the Lid, checked out the link to the piece mentioned and was, (and I quote) completely blown away.

That's just marvellous, and makes me smile. I did my best in that post in question to give a description of the music and the feelings it evoked, whilst aware that I don't exactly have an adequate grasp of vocabulary, at least as far as certain musical/technical terms are concerned. Not that I would let such things stop me.

Meanwhile, I've just been listening to Erik Satie: Danses de Travers, and Petite Ouverture a Danser (scuse the lack of little dots above the letter a and so on, I can't be bothered) amongst some choice others.

This is one such occasion where no amount of description would do justice to the music in question. But in terms of the impact - they've just stopped me in my tracks, once again. It's the kind of music which forces stillness and silence, and I'm left shaking my head in wonder.

I'm glad these things still serve to have such an impact upon me.

Update: here's a link to an interpretation of Petite Ouverture a Danser, which is along similar enough lines in pace and stuff (my descriptive powers really aren't with me today) to the one I have, which is on a cd entitled Piano Works by Reinbert de Leeuw.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Croatia 0 England 3

It could all change of course. There's still nearly half an hour of play to go.

But: England beating Croatia by 3 goals so far, with the latter team rattled and in disarray?

Up to now, even under Capello (whom I'm prepared to give a lot of credit to), the changes in players, tactics and formation has seemed (despite glimmers and positive signs) still rather easy or safe to regard as a case of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

But this sounds (I'm listening on 5live) genuinely inspiring and exciting. Am I tempting fate?

Update: final score Croatia 1 England 4. Do we blame the atom smasher at Cern? Amazing stuff.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Welcome cat

Since I'm getting a number of different and random(ish) visitors thanks to Caroline's blog widget, I thought I would post something up that may be a little more initially welcoming (unless you hate or are phobic about cats) than a post about panic attacks.

If you want to read about panic attacks, just scroll down a little.

Update: if you did land here via the aforementioned widget, feel free to say hello and what choices got you here.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

A little eternity (1996)

An all-too-familiar feeling. Vague physical discomfort, an outward symptom of something nagging incessantly at the back of my mind. Something trying to unseat me from within, make me feel unsafe. Unease. Disquiet.

Here I was in a little room used for consultations. A room seemingly without features, let alone any redeeming ones. Two people sat opposite me, one of whom looked at me intently. I was feeling like I wanted to get out of here at the earliest opportunity, wanted the questions to be over regardless of the outcome.

I desperately tried to control my breathing - and desperately tried to conceal the fact that I was desperately trying to control my breathing. What would they think if they knew? I felt dizzy - my thoughts, my pulse were starting to race seemingly in tandem and I felt short of breath. Try to ignore the thoughts which triggered this off: to delve into those thoughts felt like it was to delve into something very dark: was it something I had done, something remembered, something imaginary? I wasn't sure: but as painful as it would be to go through the whole process of trying to pinpoint those thoughts, analyse them, ruminate on them and somehow try to find a way of making everything ok again, it would be just as hard to temporarily banish them to the back of my unsettled mind.

But I had to. Somehow. Amidst the whirling thoughts and the physical symptoms which seemed to be gearing me up for confrontation or for getting the hell out of here.

I'm a bad person. I'm a mess. They know it. They can tell.

Next question.

Have you ever suffered anxiety or panic attacks?

I couldn't help but inwardly afford myself a bitter smile that this, of all questions, should come up right now. I tried to keep my voice even as the words came out.

Mumbled half-formed sentences followed.

Yes...sometimes it's difficult to cope. I's like everything is...I get scared to go out because I. Er, it's like something's going to happen. Something bad.

I wished I could stop clenching my jaw. Were my attempts at breathing easily noticeable to them? Could they tell that this was what I was going through right now? That the words being spoken between us just felt like background noise in a room full of people shouting at each other? That it was a strain just to try and feel normal? Eye contact wasn't easy, but I had to do it, just because of that word: contact. It might help, just having these points of focus, but it might also serve to betray what I'm going through. Amidst all this, all that shouting in my head, a further question.

Are you able to tell anybody or get help when this happens?

Fucking hell, how patronising, I thought. How can you tell anybody when this happens? It's like running up to someone who thinks you're a fundamentally decent person and telling them that you're mad. You fear the response and that just makes the destructive cycle worse. You seal yourself in and just try and deal with the symptoms and rake over the thoughts - over and over, like some forced exercise in internal map reading, the terrain of which is harsh and unwelcoming.

A further mumbled answer.

More questions.

Do you take any medication?

Easy enough question to answer: factual rather than reliant on being able to express thoughts and feelings. Good: more like that please.

I felt shattered. The room wasn't getting any bigger or more inviting. The door was still the same distance from my seat, yet still seemed an eternity away. Freedom if I went through it now, before this was over, but what if there were consequences? The thoughts - including all those nameless, shapeless, malevolent ones - still whirled.

The voices spoken in the room still like something barely discernible in the background.

They must be able to tell. Or am I doing a convincing job of concealing this panic? Well they hadn't reacted to me any differently, we were still sat here.

More questions. We were finally away from the intrusive, searching questions and into the realms of the mundane. Name and address of GP, next of kin, thankfully no more delving into hospital admissions, how you behave when you're unwell, raking over painful personal history.

Finally, a perfunctory, almost businesslike, we'll be in touch - and I was free to go.

Fresh air. Space. Freedom - and I realised I had managed to control the panic attack. I was tired, unsettled, but much calmer. Maybe I was actually starting to get better at dealing with this.

The thing I should point out here is that - yes, I was the one who was having the panic symptoms: I was also the one who was asking the questions, carrying out the assessment not being on the receiving end of it.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008


I was tired: just got back from a long day at work. Having just sat down with a cup of tea and finally begun to unwind, I was mildly irritated to have to get up to answer the phone.

I recognised the voice on the other end as a friend of mine. For the sake of cliche, I'll call him Jean-Paul. Should the nuance in the following account be too subtle, I'll point out - as an aid to context - that he's French.

Est-ce que je peu parle à Trouseurs?

I raised an eyebrow. It was odd, I thought, that the question was so awkwardly constructed, given that French was his native tongue. Nonetheless I was relieved that he had not referred to me as les Pantalons. Small mercies.

Oui, c'est moi, I replied wearily. The oui was pronounced, of course, to rhyme with c'est. I breathed a sigh, and was perturbed to note that I was exhaling a cloud of cigarette smoke: I hadn't smoked for years. Why was there a Gauloise wedged between my index and middle finger?

I took another drag on the cigarette and, realising that I was trapped in a prison of meaninglessness, exhaled once more. The smoke danced and whirled and gradually dissipated against the light of the window.

I looked around. Must clean the flat, I thought - it had gone all grainy and black and white. It almost felt like there was a film noir soundtrack playing in the background. I turned off the record player, and the film noir soundtrack stopped playing.


The voice snapped me out of my sense of ennui (do the French, I wondered, have a word for ennui?).

Pardon, Jean-Paul. C'est un problème?

He lowered his voice. Luckily, for the sake of the remainder of this post, he continued in English.

I've got the cheese.

Give me 20 minutes, I'll be right over.

Click. End of phone call.

Given that he lived just 4 minutes walk away, I was able to spend 15 minutes and 30 seconds relaxing and finishing my tea, followed by a further 30 seconds spent putting my shoes on. Exactly on time, I was chez Jean-Paul.

You'd better come in.

Logically, I went in, and followed him to the lounge. He gestured towards a seat: applying a similar kind of logic to just previously, I sat down.

One moment please.

He disappeared into the kitchen. Minutes passed before he reappeared, though that's hardly the right term: he could hardly be seen behind the sheer volume and variety of different cheeses he was carrying into the lounge with him.

He laid them all on the table, then went off again to get a selection of breads and cured meats. The next 2 hours were spent sampling the mind-boggling variety of flavours, textures and tastes - and combinations thereof.

Jean-Paul would discuss how this kind of cheese brought out a certain particular taste when tried with this kind of bread or this kind of meat. I would frown, thinking, surely I'm not going to get that? Each time I would be surprised as the sweetness of one kind of flavour served to enhance the bitterness of another, or how the herbs in a certain blend brought out hitherto latent properties and textures in another.

Eventually, we could eat no more.

A further hour later and we were both drinking pint after pint of tap water, given that our kidneys had all but shrivelled up to the size of raisins. I then stumbled home, as tired out as my belly was aching.

On the third week of every other month, I would get a similar call, and the scenario would play out again. Because on the third week of every other month, there was a French Farmer's Market in town, and it was the best stuff that Jean-Paul could get his hands on without actually bringing it back from France himself.

I've posted all this just because the memory makes me smile - and I really ought to get back in touch with Jean-Paul. Also, because I've found out I'll be heading to Paris for a weekend later this year. I've been to France often enough, but (apart from a changeover at the airport) never to Paris itself.