twenty years in st petersburg

[St Petersburg, Russia, September 2014]

A lot can change in twenty years.

Twenty years ago it was 1994 and I was five and then six. I had a Thunderbirds duvet cover, I played Chuck Rock on an Amiga 500+ and my dream was to become a postman. The days were easy. I had no idea at that age what it would feel like to have a hairy face, or what it would feel like to share a smile with an unknown girl in a bar and what it would feel like to experience the bristling disbelief of heartbreak. Although known for being shy, my 1994 school report referred to my dancing in PE as:


Some things really can change. 

Elsewhere in 1994 things were happening. Blur released Girls & Boys, the second Mighty Ducks movie came out, the Channel Tunnel opened and my Dad went to St Petersburg with a disposable camera in his pocket. 

My Dad travelled to Russia to do some electrical work in a children's hospital for a BBC TV show. He had only a matter of hours to sightsee once that project finished, meaning he took very few images of anything in particular.

Twenty years later I was walking around St Petersburg on a warm September morning. A sort of scruffy pilgrim, I'd gone to Russia to do some research for the book I'd started writing about my Dad's life. I wanted to feel connected to an adventure of his, so I gave myself twenty hours there to sip vodka and recreate his pictures. It felt silly, but it felt meaningful. I've always enjoyed brief and frenzied travels

With my Dad's pictures in my pocket next to a disposable camera of my own, I walked around looking for the scratchy and out of focus world he'd seen twenty years ago. 

smolny cathedral

Smolny Cathedral, St Petersburg

Smolny Cathedral, St Petersburg

the church of the saviour on the spilled blood

The Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood, St Petersburg

The Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood, St Petersburg

admiralty spire

Admiralty Spire, St Petersburg

Admiralty Spire, St Petersburg

smolny cathedral

Smolny Cathedral, St Petersburg

Smolny Cathedral, St Petersburg

winter palace

Winter Palace, St Petersburg

Winter Palace, St Petersburg

Perhaps for the first time, I realised my Dad was real. He stood in places and saw things. He lived.


one night in lille

[Lille, France, August 2014]

The old lady with the accordion covered herself and her instrument with tarp and continued to play underneath her little gazebo. A nearby violinist gave up and packed his gear away. August rain started falling and the darkening streets of Lille thinned out.

Walking down Rue de la Monnaie in the evening rain felt like being in a black and white film. The rich Flemish reds of the buildings were washed out by the dull sky and the bars lining the street were so dim it was hard to tell if they were open. There was a damp, cabbagey smell. I watched a well dressed man hold a newspaper above his head as he ran into a restaurant, and I skipped into a bar nearby. It was nearly empty except for a lady staring down at her espresso. The barman laughed at my sodden shirt and poured me a heady beer. After exchanging greetings he joked that English visitors expect Lille to have the climate of the Mediterranean despite being just over an hour from London on the train. Guilty. Wet and mocked, I ordered another drink. Then more.

Lille is a beautiful city to be lost in. The streets uncurl left and right and each has a curiosity of its own, be it an impossibly narrow townhouse, the birthplace of Charles de Gaulle, or buildings with cannonballs in the brickwork as a reminder of the 1792 siege. Like a house of mirrors, it's beguiling enough that you can walk around for hours without realising how far you've strayed. Lille is the cobbled France suited to fleeting visits, couples and hand-holding, and being there alone left me longing for someone else to share it with. That someone else. Her.

Port de Paris, Lille
Port de Paris, Lille

An hour or so later the rain stopped. I settled my tab and walked to Grand Place. As I paused by the fountain to take a picture a mime artist caught my eye and a flower seller loitered. I nervously assumed I was close to becoming involved in performance art. My only ever scrape with street performance was when I was asked to be the supporting legs of a pantomime donkey in Plymouth aged nine. My mum didn't think it was a good idea and I've since realised her wisdom on the matter. With that in mind, I decided that my simplest method of exit was to buy a flower from the looming rose hawker and make a dash for it. They had me good.

Grand Place, Lille
Grand Place, Lille

With the summer rain gone the music had returned. Accordions, strings, harmonicas, some bloke with a keyboard on his lap. It felt young and busy in dry weather, and the tables outside the brasseries were as good as full. A girl coolly stamped out a cigarette and ducked into an oaky kicker bar ahead. That always seems to happen in France. Spirited in several senses, I tipsily decided it was too early to call out Lille as being a place for couples only. Just one more drink, one more hello. Dubious €5 flower limp in my hand, I held my breath and walked into the bar.


the leaning tower

[Puxton, UK, April 2014]

It's not every day you find a medieval church with a leaning tower just a few miles from where you grew up.

Holy Saviour's Church, Puxton
Holy Saviour's Church, Puxton

Holy Saviour's Church is in Puxton, North Somerset, just a few miles from my hometown. A nearby tourist road sign lists it as 13th century. It's a pretty weary cliche, the right-on-your-doorstep thing, but cliche or not it was exciting to discover something medieval nestled away in an area I thought I knew. On a quiet spring Saturday, with nobody around and no noise but the creaking of the oak church door and loud footsteps, it felt like being let in on a secret.

Holy Saviour's Church, Puxton
Holy Saviour's Church, Puxton

I don't have any strong personal leanings, but you don't need any connection with belief to appreciate the peace and character of the place. A curly printed sheet at the entrance gives some richness to the modest rustic detail inside. The pulpit and reading desk are Jacobean, the altar rail 17th century, the Royal Arms of George III on the wall dates from 1775, an inscription below a coat of arms on the porch reads 1557, and poking out of the brickwork by the pulpit is the original wrought iron hour glass holder which would've regulated any lengthy Puritan anecdotes. The depth of history is extraordinary.

Holy Saviour's Church, Puxton
Holy Saviour's Church, Puxton

I stood in the empty field behind the church, the Somerset levels stretching out beside, looking at the westward lean of the tower through overgrown brambles. The lean is a result of the soft soil upon which the tower stands. The tower began to lean as it was being built, meaning it's shorter than intended - a happy accident that has lasted several hundred years. The further away I walked the more the lean seemed to exaggerate and drag against the rest of the building. The further away, the more beautiful.

Holy Saviour's Church, Puxton
Holy Saviour's Church, Puxton

Puxton is a reminder to look around the places you think you know, in case you don't.


the world according to wings of china

[Beijing, China, November 2013]

Air China's in-flight magazine is called Wings of China. When it comes to in-flight magazines I'll pick one up, flick through it, screw my face up and shove it back in its holder before the plane starts to taxi. It's become part of my flying ritual, along with wobbling the laminated safety card and seeing how close to my belly the tray table extends.

Wings of China kept my attention for longer than usual.

Inside, it has a feature about what it's like holidaying around the world. How the locals do it, that kind of thing. The thing is, many of the pictures and their captions don't seem to quite fit.

"Christmas is the most important holiday in a year, a time for celebration."

Christmas in the UK is, apparently, a time to dress as santa and run a race. Tradition.

"Germans have 24 days of paid leave entitlements each year."

You know that moment when you remember your national paid leave entitlements? When you throw all your important papers in the air?

"Labor Day is a good opportunity to buy stationery."

Canadians have a designated day for buying discounted lever-arch folders.

"The French have an easy environment to work in."

I'm applying for a job in France.

Absurdism is memorable. Magazines take note.


scaling daisen

[Mt Daisen, Japan, October 2013]

Mt Daisen is the highest mountain in Japan's Chugoku region. It makes sense then, I suppose, that Daisen carries the meaning great mountain.

Mt. Daisen from Daisen-ji
Mt. Daisen from Daisen-ji

Mt. Daisen from Yonago
Mt. Daisen from Yonago

Mountains are best photographed from car parks.

Similar to Mt Fuji, albeit half the size, Mt Daisen is one of those mountains that sticks out of the land like an earthy nipple.

Although I've made it a habit in my life to do things, before scaling Mt Daisen I'd never hiked up a mountain. I'd spent many days hiking, usually with a tent and a bottle of scotch strapped to my back, but I'd always kept my long trudges on flat-ish land.

Mt Daisen isn't flat-ish. The steep trail to the summit, often rocky and narrow with unnerving drops beside, bends in and out of mist as it inches above the trees and clouds that cast shadows over the countryside below.

Mt. Daisen hiking trail
Mist at around 1,200m

Mt. Daisen hiking trail
Mt Daisen at around 1,500m

Mt. Daisen hiking trail
Mt Daisen at around 1,500m

Mt. Daisen hiking trail
Mt Daisen hiking trail

Reaching 1,729m, Mt Daisen might not be among the world's tallest but it's still a few hundred metres higher than any peak in the UK.

Despite being a fairly lanky mountain, it doesn't take an extraordinary level of exertion to get to the top. It's no long walk on the beach, but from the start of the hiking trail in Daisen-ji the summit can be reached in under three-hours and, as I stubbornly proved to those around me, you can do it without using a hiking stick. It's not something that requires adult leg power, either. We saw flocks of small children and even a miniature dog waddling up and down, which provided useful competitive inspiration during stiffer moments.

Mt. Daisen summit
Mt Daisen summit

At the trail's summit, 1,710m above sea level, clouds can wrap around you quickly. One minute you're admiring the blues and greens that lead out to the Sea of Japan, the next you're shivering inside a giant meringue. The changeable conditions reassure you that you're at the top of something quite big.

Mt. Daisen summit
Mt Daisen summit

Mt. Daisen summit
Mt Daisen summit

It's all in the name.


a mid-twenties bucket list

[Hokuei, Japan, September 2013]

A couple of years ago I scribbled down a list of things I wanted to achieve before turning 25. One of those bucket lists you hear so much about.

Only, the list was full of things which I felt were in some way possible, rather than being a list of things which might've bankrupted me or required a spaceship. I'll do those before turning 30.

In that sense, the list was inspired by the brilliant Mike Sowden's '50 Amazingly Achievable Things To Do Before You Die'.

Despite my best efforts, the age of 25 has very recently thrust itself over me like an unwelcome gust of sand. I tried holding my breath and all sorts, but it was no use. The list, which was never intended to be taken seriously, has been largely forgotten about since it was written but still, as I stagger into a new age bracket, now is probably the best time to reflect on any progress made on my personal development, if you can call it that.

Here goes.

things to achieve before reaching 25

1. Grow an impressive beard

The completion of this goal depends entirely on what constitutes impressive. While I don't keep a bushy face for fear of looking like the sort of person you'd expect to find hiding in some undergrowth in a national park, I do spend a lot of my time purposefully unshaven. My mum reckons it suits me.

2. Fall in love

3. Be paid to write

There are people on this spinning planet daft enough to have given me real money for words. It's the best feeling making the odd buck from a hobby.

4. Plant a tree

In September 2012 I wandered into a local park at night with a trowel in my pocket. I dug a hole and planted some dubious seeds while my friend Andy shone a light on the ground. We probably looked quite suspicious.

5. Run a marathon

I've finished two half marathons in my life, but I know some people who've done full marathons and they tell me that it's not the same thing. Spoil sports.

6. Build a birdhouse

I have a poorly sketched plan for this somewhere.

7. Answer a ringing public telephone

I did this whilst tipsy in December 2011. Nobody was on the other end of the line, which was desperately disappointing.

8. Donate blood 10 times

I'm a couple of visits short of this goal.

9. Save a lady from a burning building

Fortunately, I've had very few brushes with fire in my life. Although I did almost burn my house down by trying to remove a dent from a ping pong ball once.

10. Send a message in a bottle

While this was something that I very much enjoyed doing in August 2011, I'm disappointed to have never received any response. Whoever found the bottle must be a bit rude.

11. Appear on a television gameshow

Despite reaching the latter stages of two audition processes for UK afternoon quiz shows, I'm yet to realise this one.

12. Brew alcohol

Over a few months in late 2010 and early 2011 myself and my then housemates brewed a thick beer in our cellar which we called Unexpected Custard. It came out a little on the heavy side and made us all feel a bit dizzy.

Homebrewed lager
Unexpected Custard

13. Be involved in a treacherous sailing tale

The nearest I've come to a sailing incident is probably when I swam in a boating lake beside a campsite late at night. It was full of tiny jellyfish floating like fried eggs, small enough to swallow. I've since avoided boating lakes.

14. Climb a mountain and sit quietly at the top

I'm not sure how this has passed me by, but although I've conquered many a hill and scaled the odd peak, I've not yet climbed a mountain.

15. Work and/or live abroad

I once lived, for a brief time in 2007, in a poky flat in Sydney, Australia. And at the time of writing I'm based in a tiny town in Tottori Prefecture, Japan. I don't imagine I'll be ever be the sort of person to stay still for too long.

16. Graduate

I have a degree from a decent UK university and I don't know what to do with it. Does anyone? I doubt it.

17. Receive a standing ovation

This has been thoroughly unachieved.

18. Spend a night sleeping rough

My first experience of being silly abroad involved sleeping beneath a bus stop in Cherbourg after going there for no obvious reason in July 2007. It was cold, wet, I had no spare pants and even now I wonder why I found it all so fun.

19. Visit 25 countries

I've visited 21, so this goes down as a near miss. It would be over 25 if I split the UK down and counted the airports I've transited through. But that wouldn't be very gentlemanly, would it.

20. Hand deliver a letter that the recipient would expect me to post

I'm working on this.

21. Travel a long way for no reason

In October 2010 I flew from London to Oslo for ninety minutes. I had some expensive pastry. It was, if nothing else, alright.

22. Do something illegal but not that illegal

In January 2008 I received a fixed penalty notice in Sydney for unwittingly violating a law regarding bus ticketing. It's one of the most expensive souvenirs I've ever bought.

Australian General Penalty Notice
Not my proudest moment

23. Receive a complimentary upgrade from an airline

Before flying to Japan in March 2013 I rocked up to the airline check-in desk wearing a dinner jacket. I smiled, made chit-chat and did my best to make myself seem worthy of being upped to Smug Class. All I got from the girl behind the counter was a strained smile and a huff. One day, one day. 

24. Grow vegetables

I once tried to grow a chili plant out of season and accidentally drowned it.

25. Learn a skill which has limited application in daily life

As I happily tell prospective employers, I once acquired a certificate in natural horsemanship after spending time on a ranch in Australia. I proved myself as someone who can complain passionately about saddle pains. That was well over five years ago and I've not ridden a horse since. 

A ranch in Leconfield, New South Wales
Ranch life

Score: 13/25

A decent knock, and I've done plenty of other things besides. Plenty.

More to come.