marathon, part one

[London, UK, October 2015]

Autumn. In six months it'll be spring. When spring comes around, I'll be running my first marathon in Brighton.

While I've never done a marathon, I have done two half marathons before. It's just that they were four years apart. The first half, in 2008, I got through in relative comfort because I was 20 and slight in frame. The second was in 2012, when I was no longer 20 and not quite so slight. That one I didn't train for, because I had a harebrained theory that a miserable couple of hours on the day would be better than a consistently exhausting few months of training beforehand. When I got to the end, as broken as my logic, I found it preposterous that 13.1 miles could possibly only be half of something. I told myself that I'd never do a marathon, because I probably don't have that distance in me.

Crystal Palace 10k

Although I've done a few long runs in the past just to pick up the t-shirt, I'm no runner. That would be like calling myself a chef because I sometimes have basil with beans on toast. There was a time, though, when I used to enjoy the catharsis of running from or to a decision, or using running as a method of exploring somewhere new. There was this one particularly memorable run in 2013 when, having spent a couple of months in Japan, I was struggling over whether to stay or return to the UK. That on my mind, I spent a morning running around part of the Tottori countryside that I barely knew. In thick late summer heat I ran between grids of rice fields, stumbled into quiet shrines, found an abandoned baseball ground, and at one point had to jump over a snake. Sure, it didn't appear to be alive, but I really was very brave. You should've seen.

A snake in Tottori

That was two years ago, and these days I don't run anything like as much as I once did. When I moved to London in February 2015, I hoped that a new postcode would reanimate my enjoyment of running but, for a couple of reasons, that hasn't really happened. Firstly, London is full of bars. They're everywhere, and it's much easier to make new friends in a new city when you've got a drink in your hand than when half of your body is entombed in nylon. Secondly, in the months since relocating I've managed to all but destroy both of my feet. The left when I twisted my foot awkwardly during a game of football, tearing a tendon. The right when I fell down the stairs after a bit too much wine, cracking a bone. That was the first bone I'd broken since I broke my wrist during a game of chess when I was eight. Long story.

Crutches in Croydon

And so, autumn. An inflamed tendon in one foot, a cluelessness in mind, no particular ability, and only six months to go from being someone who runs for 26.2 minutes every now and then to someone who runs 26.2 miles in one go. It's going to be terrible, but at least there won't be any snakes.


20 years in st petersburg

[St Petersburg, Russia, September 2014]

A lot can change in 20 years.

In 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.

A full 20 years since he went, 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 18 hours there to sip vodka and recreate his pictures. It felt silly and frenzied, but it felt meaningful. 

With my dad's pictures crumpled 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 20 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

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.



[London, UK, August 2015]

In October 2014 I went to Oban, Scotland, and bought a bottle of single malt from the town's distillery. It was about 11am when I bought it, so I thought better than to open it right there.

Instead, I decided that I'd have a big glass each time a good thing happened. Not necessarily something important, just something worth pulling a cork out for. Something to remember the bottle by. 

It was a harebrained free-pour enterprise, and as I drank I made a note of what I was listening to. Nine months later, I poured the eighth dram and finished the bottle. Eight good things.

Dram #1 - 22 December 2014

In and around this time, I met somebody worth saying hello to in the rain. There was something memorable about wanting to say hello, and wanting to open the bottle for the first time.

Alvvays - Party Police

Dram #2 - 1 January 2015

The night before, I made a recklessly late decision to see in 2015 in Brighton. The year started with barely lit bars, sulphury alleyways, sidesteps. I came away hoping that the rest of the year might be as unexpected.

I Break Horses - You Burn

Dram #3 - 6 January 2015

Without me knowing, the Guardian ran something crummy I wrote about Oban in late December 2014. It seemed only right to open the bottle, given the link.

Real Estate - Green Aisles

Dram #4 - 27 February 2015

A fortnight earlier I'd moved to London, and was just about getting to know my new postcode. New city, new daylight, new something.

Slime - 2 Player

Dram #5 - 15 March 2015

That day I went to Switzerland for the afternoon. I needed a drink to try and understand why.

Dick Diver - Percentage Points

Basel, Switzerland
Basel, Switzerland

Dram #6 - 27 May 2015

A few days before, I went to my first wedding as a grown up in Surrey. Until about 9pm on the night before I didn't know the wedding was taking place, or that the couple even existed. I was drafted in as an emergency +1. There's nothing quite so fun as being an unknown wildcard.

Wild Nothing - Paradise

Dram #7 - 24 June 2015

A few weeks before, in early June, I went to America to look for somebody. That somebody had no idea that I'd decided to travel 4,000 ragged miles just to say hello for the first time.

Crossing an ocean to surprise someone had long been a dream of mine. Over several days I caught planes, hopped buses, hailed taxis and hiked along the North Carolina coastline until the door was there, in view. I held my breath.

Flock of Dimes - Don't Dream It's Over

Kure Beach, North Carolina
Kure Beach, North Carolina

Dram #8 - 18 August 2015

The day before, one of my oldest friends and favourite nitwits walked his bride down the aisle. It seemed like a decent reason to pour out whatever was left.

Ducktails - St Catherine



[Basel, Switzerland, March 2015]

It was gone 2am and I was sat on a grey stool in Gatwick Airport. There was a stone in my shoe that I was trying to wriggle out, just to pass the time. Others lay on the floor or across several seats, shuffling and sleeping beneath the flaring white. Sat there, typing away, I felt a bit like a child on a high chair playing with crayons opposite silent, unhappily coupled adults. There was a girl beside me wearing a fog coloured hat, also playing with crayons. We were two of the few who'd chosen to stay up all night before flying early in the morning.

'What are you working on?' I asked, and took off my glasses to rub my eyes and scrunch up my face.

'Oh, just some stuff,' she said through half a yawn.

I turned the corners of my mouth downwards and nodded. Someone nearby snored a little, probably mocking that conversation.

A while later the girl, Fran, piped up to ask where I was going. Switzerland, I told her, before asking her the same thing. Paris, she said, with a boy. A few days there together. He was flying from up north and they were meeting at the airport on the other side. Then streetlights and time-lapse photography and things like that.

'Why Switzerland?' She asked. I didn't know what to say, because there was no real answer, so I panicked.

'I love Swiss roll.'

At 2:30am I rarely find the right words.

Fran had given away something nearing a love story and all I gave back was a comment about jam sponge. There was a long pause that I cut in two, explaining that I was just joking. She laughed out of pity or something near to it and I felt bleak knowing the truth, that I do love Swiss roll.

'How long are you going for?' Fran asked, which was useful structurally.

Not long, I explained. We went to buy coffee and then took to the floor like everyone else, hastening the slide into delirium by sitting awake, close by but entirely separate like pencils in a pot.

Going to Basel wasn't the first time I'd dabbled in international day-tripping. The most notable was the couple of hours I spent walking around Oslo in pale October sun in 2010. Travelling briefly has an appealing surface-level pointlessness, like a first date that goes well but is left there. Oslo never called back and I didn't mind.

Oslo did, though, leave me with a fondness for first impressions. Only having a day somewhere means only having enough time for connectionless glimpses, leaving everything else suggested. Four hours in Basel meant there'd be nothing meaningful, and every second look would be have to be imagined. A thousand miles of compelling loneliness.

Dreiländereck, Basel
Dreiländereck, Basel

The first thing that Basel shoves in front of you is its proximity to other countries. Euroairport makes that plain enough, because upon exit you're able to completely mess up the admin by choosing which country you want to officially enter - France or Switzerland. The borders of France and Germany cut across Basel's suburbs with the country-hopping giddiness that Europe does so well. Three countries corner, dreiländereck, is at the head of a calm riverside path in Kleinhüningen, and is marked by a sort of upright paper plane monument, its tips noting the direction of each country beside. The dashes of the borders are somewhere in the river, so you could feasibly plant a limb in each if getting wet is your thing. I didn't really fancy it.

Basel was quiet and swaying in the breeze of a warm spring Sunday, so much that I fell asleep on a tram and drifted around the city for a while like a trolley floating down a river. Some bloke woke me up by getting out his accordion and going at it. We pulled into Marktplatz, and when the tram stopped so did the musician. Overwhelmed by a sense of Britishness, I started to clap a bit and an upturned hat full of Francs and lint was pushed in front of me.

'English!' The accordion man shouted with absolute accuracy in chunky baritone as I threw some coins into his hat. He stared at me dead in the eyes then walked away shrugging and laughing, and I remembered that you haven't truly visited a place until you've had an experience on its public transport.

Basel Rathaus
Basel Rathaus

The Rathaus was red and striking, and a dozen or so people wandered around the courtyard looking up and murmuring. There was a sleepy atmosphere that was suited to those, like me, with no reason to be doing anything other than strolling. It had that everyone-sitting-outside-the-brasserie-sipping-quietly feel, something that the UK doesn't pull off with anywhere near as much collar-straightening charm. Basel's red sandstone was snoozing in the afternoon sun and it felt right. 

Three hours passed somewhere in Basel's alleyways, beside the shadows of closed shops, the smell of coffee from the cups of people on benches, the whispers of trams weaving this way and that, and the sight of the sticklebrick Cathedral punching its way upwards. It was a city at half pace, and although it was a welcome breather from London I got the bus back to the airport without feeling the need to do a double-take.

Basel Cathedral
Basel Cathedral

On the flight back I imagined bumping into Fran again, and ran through the conversation in my head a few times, just in case. If she asked how it was I'd probably say that I didn't find any Swiss roll, and then I'd go a bit red. In truth, though, I was more interested in her trip than my own, because the afternoon left me wanting something more, somewhere else. That's the risk when you take four hours, and give up the chance to connect in the hope of something wilder. You risk having a pleasant time, but feeling nothing.

Basel, like Oslo, probably won't call back.


moving on

[Bristol, UK, January 2015]

'Don't. Don't do it,' R said with concern in his voice. It was late on Friday night, but I could pick out concern.

'Why not? It'll be funny.' 

My right thumb was hovering above my phone. There was some text on the screen.

'It won't be funny. You think it's funny now, but it won't be funny in the morning.'

'It's 4am. It's already the morning so it's already funny.'

'It won't be funny when you wake up, and it definitely won't be funny when she wakes up and reads that.'

'It'll be fine, I'll just explain that it was funny.'

'She won't let you explain. Don't send it.'

My phone made its way back into my pocket. I'd sent the message before the conversation had even started.


All sorts of things happen in life that have a definite next step. If you're late you call somebody, if you move into a new place you fill up the fridge, if you miss a call from an unknown number you spend hours hooked on the mystery. Breakups are less defined. How do you start dating again after several years out? How can you possibly tell when you're ready? How do you know if you even want to move on?

For a while I gave up on the thought of moving on completely. During a relationship that lasted a few good years I'd seen the shimmering best of love, which meant I'd felt the blisters of its end. Although I spent months afterwards resolutely declaring that I'd shun companionship from there on, like everyone who goes through heartache I reached a point where I missed the in-jokes, the chats about nothing much by the toaster, and the person who knew the ins and outs of my brain. Eventually, I wanted to know the answer to the question in my head: How do you know when you're ready for something new? 

I met R, whose name contains many other letters, on a dozy Friday afternoon in the pub. He'd recently been through a similar upheaval, so I thought he might know what to do.

'What happens next?' I asked.

'I've no idea!' He laughed, uselessly.

That's the thing. Beginning a new game for the first time in several years isn't straightforward. The board and the rules feel completely alien even if the pieces are the same, like going from checkers to backgammon. You're older and you're different, and people are meeting people on apps now. There's no club where somebody runs you through the landscape, you just guess.

R's advice was to join everyone else by loading some coal into the engine of online dating. He'd just started dabbling himself, but I was reluctant. It represented a firm product of moving on that I wasn't quite ready to accept, so I told him that I wanted to do things offline instead. The idea of online dating made me feel uneasy, in that I might miss an opportunity to meet someone in the real world as a result of holding out for the one-page version of a person who feels the same way as me about the latest Real Estate record.

Offline means letting serendipity do the steering. It means doing silly things, like taking trips to places for little reason other than to walk on cobbles and see who might be there. The benefit of meeting in the real world is that if you get it right it can make something mundane strong in story. It helps you build the comforting illusion that you might have met for a reason.


'Why do you want to see her if you're moving to London?' R asked later that Friday afternoon. I'd met a girl a few weeks before, kind of by chance. A midnight hello in diagonal rain. He had a point, though. Why leave anything behind? I had no clever answer, only the looming feeling that I was enjoying getting to know somebody new.

After three years away from the place, I was getting ready to return to London and its midnight palette. Although Bristol feels like home, that was exactly the problem. Post-breakup I needed somewhere new, somewhere that gives and takes in a less predictable way. London has always given and taken from me in doubles.

When I worked in London in 2012 there was this one time in Covent Garden when I was given a free cup of coffee. In my haste to grab my phone and share the news, I dropped an egg sandwich in perfect time with my step and I kicked a blob of egg mayo onto the shin of a passing lady. That, to me, is London. It owns and it keeps, but gives enough fun back amidst the frenzy to keep it interesting. London is a new start, a last hope, a swinging saloon door.

My phone lit up. It was her. London or not, I'd told R that I didn't know why I wanted to meet her but I just did. R was helping me think of a decent place to meet her for food and I was explaining to him the good thing about offline dating.

'The good thing about offline dating,' I explained, 'is that meeting someone in the real world means you've already got something to talk about.' 

R looked at me as if he expected a wiser point than the one I'd made. 

'So,' I continued with a smile, 'I can use that to cover up the boring stuff about me!' 

That was the hope, anyway. I'd reasoned that meeting someone in person, without the online prompts of manufactured compatibility, would mean I'd have a certain amount of goodwill I could rely on to begin with. There was already a story, already something to talk about that could plaster over any talk of jobs and real life and how much I'd been drinking since being thrust into singeldom, topics that might cause her to deliberately plunge her face into her steaming dim sum.

Not that I was settled on dim sum, either. After being away from dating for three years, I'd no idea what people were even eating. Do you go somewhere with a certain food group that you can use as an emergency talking point? Do you go somewhere outside your usual realm and pretend to know things about the wine you're ordering? Do you just go bowling and eat nachos? The admin was making me nervous, but I was comforted in some way by the knowledge that my last relationship started in a restaurant that was given a zero rating for food hygiene in 2014.

'Just take her to that bar by the river or something. Anyway, put your phone down. Let's have a drink.' 

R had bought a round of drinks. I put my phone down, picked up my drink and thought of something to talk about.

'You know when the clouds are moving overhead,' I started, 'is that the clouds moving or is it the earth moving?' 

I sipped my beer and raised my eyebrows as if I'd asked a question that nobody could possibly be qualified to answer.

R swore under his breath. It began with T. Four letters.

'Fine, let's talk about where you're taking her. When are you going to let her know?'

'I thought I'd text her after a few drinks tonight.'


'What have I done?' I coughed. I was coiled on the sofa. It was Saturday morning and I'd not long been awake. My phone was in the pocket it doesn't usually belong in, which left me concerned. Rightly so. There, on the screen, were lines and lines of jumbled sentimental nonsense. As I sat there trying to understand what I'd done, a stripe of light came across the sofa through the gap where the curtains didn't quite meet. The day was forcing its way into the room.

'What you did,' R said, clearly enjoying himself, 'is you sent messages to a girl at 4am because you thought it would be funny.'

'I know what I did, but what have I done?' I said, doing little to clear up the situation.

'Well, despite the fact it was going quite well between you two I suspect you've ruined everything.'

We laughed. I rubbed my face a bit.

'Why didn't you stop me?'

'I tried to. You were belligerent. You insisted it would be funny.'

'Was it funny?'

'For me, yes. For you, no, absolutely not. Does it feel funny?'

'No,' I said with resignation, 'not very funny. What should I do next?'

'Probably pretend it never happened,' R suggested, 'although I'm sure she'll make that easy for you because she's never going to talk to you again.'

'I need a cup of tea.'


'So, what did she say?' R asked, no doubt knowing the answer that was to follow. It was the afternoon of the aftermath, and we were debriefing in the sort of pub that nobody under 60 should drink in. I showed him my phone. Nothing.

'Not seeing her tonight, then?'

'I think perhaps never.' I said with a darkly amused acceptance of how badly I'd handled something promising.

'Don't worry. You'll make several more mistakes once you're in London and you'll probably enjoy all of them.'

I hoped so. After all, London is where all the best mistakes live. They hang around on tube trains and at exhibition openings.

Somewhere between the chance meeting that had led first to the exchange of details and then the plan-making and then the spectacular 4am destruction, R had quietly met someone online. Someone in a similar line of work, with similar interests. For him, online had worked in the way it suggests it might. I asked him how it was going and he looked coy, as if by even asking the question I'd created more static in the room.

'I'm happy,' he said with an honest smile.

'Me too,' I said, meaning it. Despite ballsing things up I felt like I'd got my energy back. A new start.

'You've got London,' R said, 'and I've got this new thing. Perhaps we've found what we've been looking for the last six months.'

'Maybe,' I said, 'just don't tell her that at 4am.'


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. 

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 started creeping my way. Worried that I was about to become involved in performance art, I did a scan for exits. 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. With that in mind, I decided that the cleanest way out 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. Spirited, 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.