Monday, November 22, 2010


Lonely as a cloud
Is a thing of the past
In Grasmere
The entire stinking town
Is a bun fight
And old Will Wordsworth
Would say the same thing
If he was here today
If he struggled for a parking spot
If he'd had to pay
Three pounds twenty pence
For a hot chocolate
"Dog eat dog," he'd say,
"Eyeball to eyeball.
Every man for himself."
Watching gangs of city traders
On their long weekends
Scrapping for seats in a cafe
Wearing North Face jackets
And extremely clean boots.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Throup fight at the OK Corral... The horror, the horror... Down, and out for the Goose... Take twenty-seven.

I couldn't decide the right title. It's been that kind of a week. Sunday was the worst Goosing I've ever had. As an experiment, landlord Steve Throup had me down to start work at 2pm, which is - unsurprisingly - the nadir of the shift. It doesn't get any busier at lunchtimes - the Goosing doesn't come any worse. And into which section was I drafted with my Vaseline smile and dazzling customer service skills? The 10s? The 40s? Outside? No. Steve had me pegged for 'Backup'. This is, according to the other waiters, an invention. It means I scope the entire restaurant with the principal duty of hand-washing cutlery. Marek thought this was very funny. He is gigantic, almost Andre the Giant size - 6'8 tall, and top heavy with 21 stone of muscle. He also speaks excellent English, which renders him unique amongst my colleagues. Scottish and Polish, I'll hasten to add. Last week a diner asked for mayonnaise and Emil returned five minutes later with extra menus. We have almost exactly one fork per customer, which leads to terrible shortages as the more experienced staff hoard cutlery for their section in cubbyholes hidden throughout the building. The restaurant has undergone two large extensions in the last nine years, but the kitchen is the same size. The result is chaos when front of house is full and baying for the blood. I imagine this to be a bit like chronic plastic surgery.

Sunday. My Christ, Sunday. The horror. After waiting over an hour for their meals, roughly a quarter of customers walked out. I grew so tired of taking complaints that I gave up even asking the kitchen when the meals might be ready for table 27
Your lucky numbers: it could be you. Every head in the restaurant turns to the kitchen door when I emerge with my plates in dribs and drabs, and every head sighs, curses, mutters evil things as I drift past their table and take the plates elsewhere. One man pleaded with me. "I ordered fifty minutes ago," he said. "I don't understand. Please-" he caught my arm. He had a thin moustache. "Please. I'm hungry."

I resigned. If I really wanted a job where I was paid minimum wage to be roundly abused while addressing non-stop customer complaints, I'd work in a call centre, and then I'd quit that too.
"Leaving us so soon?" asked Steve. He has eyebrows liked a badger.
I was grim. "Yes," I said. "Hell yes."
"But why?" He seemed genuinely puzzled. I took a deep breath and began listing reasons. I had ticked off six fingers by the time he spoke again.
"You don't want to give it another week?"
"Just one more week?"
"No! I'm going to London."

And so I am, readying myself to Megabus the country with final destination of the spare room in my brother's East Dulwich apartment. I'll stay with him for a while - Tim reckons he can point me towards some recruitment agencies who will be much better at working out what I want to do than I am. I'm dubious, and I still want to get back on my travels, but I'll give it a go.

It's been a strange few weeks in Inverness. The Goosing has slid by in a flash of loathing and disgrace; I barely noticed my birthday until it actually happened. Twenty seven years old, and hang your head in shame if you didn't spot 'take twenty seven' coming a mile away... now it's almost over. Another three-hundred and sixty-four days to go. A curry with mum and dad, dog-walking, bouldering on plastic, books in the attic, forgotten things. Everything in a compartment! It's hard to feel positive about it all. The girls I kiss and the tears I burst into during ad breaks, the rocks I fall off and the beer I drink, the friends I catch up with and those I won't see or speak with for months at a time, the streets I walk and the films I flick between. Trying to write more than a thousand words at a time, trying to make it all stick together, somehow, anyhow. The things with which I measure happiness, little victories like roaching Noel Edmonds' business card or playing cricket with Banks and Phil. Failures like constant uncertainty, my returns to the Goose. Things inbetween like the girl wearing suspenders at fancy dress but I drink too much wine and go to bed. These things haunt me for months at a time.

It took me two weeks to latch that last sloper at the climbing wall. I'd been stuck for so long, made so many attempts, that I actually started laughing aloud when I realised I was about to finish it - that I'd finally got my balance right, finally found the sequence, the right foothold, matched my hands, reached the top. No-one is around when I drop back to the mat and lie there laughing. The lamps in the ceiling make hot white dots in my eyes when I look away.

London is gigs and carabiners and house parties and eyes that meet and flash green in the Underground where the trains complain with whale song but still turn every corner.

Take twenty seven.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Dumb waiter

I had forgotten the feral mentality of the waiter until my first full shift at the Goose. It is a truly mercenary business. Any attempt to help my colleagues - carrying plates, sharing cutlery, making coffee - is met with hostility, curiosity, aggression. The reason for this is tips. Assisting someone with their section is tantamount to demanding a share of whatever tips from whichever tables you assist with, and splitting tips is taboo. The gratuities are the only reason we work there - nothing else would justify the pressure, which can border on violence. It may sound like I am exaggerating the workings of the restaurant business, but you simply have to understand: the Goose is a machine. Moloch, burning babies, ancient industry. Minimum staff level, maximum customer numbers, a goddamn factory line from Brakes Bros. to the microwave oven to the greasy burning plates to my hands to the table. Three plates stacked along my right arm and one held in my left hand, or two plates and swooping on the pickle tray as I pass the dumb waiter. Computers relay the order to printers stationed throughout the restaurant. The system is perfect - the weakest link is the soles of my feet. Dessert menus, further napkins, another pint, do you have a children's menu no madam we offer half portions.

You can't fight the system. Sometimes the Goosing isn't too bad - other days I'll get a thorough Goosing but the tips will make up for it - and often I'll be horribly Goosed without the sweetner. The tips can be phenomenal. On Saturday I worked from noon until 10pm with a twenty minute break. I am paid minimum wage of £5.35 an hour - totalling £53.50p for my shift. But I also took £97 in tips - taxfree cash - not including the visa card tips on which we are disgracefully levied tax as part of our wages - so I made £152.30p overall, or £15 an hour, which is actually a better hourly rate than most of my employment as a camera assistant. So much is unusual, but I make a minimum of £20 a day, and more often £50. This money goes directly into the bank, though I want to buy a rope and Tiso's are selling last year's Edelrid stock at £85 for 60m...

There is a soundtrack of unoffensive music drifting discreetly throughout the restaurant. You can't hear it in the evenings because the chatter, but on quieter afternoons the horror is unleashed... Enya, The Corrs, James Blunt (best rhyming slang ever?), Rod Stewart raping Cat Stevens. Dire fucking Straits. I can just imagine Knopfler in the studio, perma-tanned and wizened as a walnut, smug in his sweatbands, nodding with pleasure as some hard-up session musician does terrible things to a pawnshop saxophone and weeps silently, thinking only of the rent. Did any instrument ever suffer so much abuse for so little reward? And I'm not sure how, but somehow Richard Cheese covering Nirvana 'Come As You Are' has made it onto the soundtrack. This was probably a mistake but could potentially be a joke by some hateful graduate student with an iPod and spots.

Everyone comes to the Goose. Only three things are certain in life - taxes, eating in the Goose on a Saturday night, and death, which is actually the one I wish for if I am working on Saturday night. Not my death, of course, but the deaths of everyone who comes to eat. Slow death, painful death. We get the nouveau riche Irish eating fillet steak with asparagus, cooked rare, and the old money Scots who come every week for the bangers and mash. We get ned drinkers demanding WKD, which we don't serve, and pensioners in for their halves of IPA. Newlyweds who have already run short of things to say and grandparents still holding hands. Yelling kids, babies wearing mashed potato, German bikers in full leather, surly teenagers with eyeliner and hair dyed black, nuns drinking only water, business lunches who never ever tip on the company credit card, first date dinners, American tourists appalled at the atrocious service.

Last week there a woman wearing sensible boots and an ankle length skirt. She was in her late fifties and she was called Charlotte or Margaret or Victoria or Elizabeth. And she was sad, so sad, looking after her husband and his stroke, or his depression, his haemorrhage. He took over an hour to eat his ploughmans, and I don't think he spoke at all. He sat there with his big red nose and an archipelago of blue and grey on his arms, his rolled-up shirt sleeves, the shoelaces she tied this morning, sat there staring down at cheese, chutney, apple. I think at school they must have called her Charlie or Lottie or Lizzie.

One month and twenty-nine days to go.

Tune in next week... same Goose time, same Goose channel.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The canape weasel strikes back

Chi leaves Nick hanging: I think this might be my favourite photo of all time.

Back to the Goose. For those who don't know, I have a long and chequered history with the Goose. It opened in 1999, not long after I decided not to go back to study in Aberdeen. It was a fairly dismal time, for a number of reasons, and I needed a job. The Snow Goose was recruiting. It was easy money - on good days I would double my wages with tips. I'm not sure where all that money went, but I think it involved Aberdeen, alcohol and a girlfriend.

For forty hours a week I would wait tables. The Goose did - and still does - a roaring trade. Folk would queue in the rain half an hour before opening to guarantee a good seat. It's just solid pub grub at decent prices, the same as every other one of the three hundred Vintage Inns. They have identical decor, too, faux-antique furniture with crafted burns and wax, quirky candlesticks and tarnished brass picture frames with prints of days gone by. A truly hateful arrangement, in other words.

I was the canape weasel, raiding the fridges and bain maries to create small stacks of food, balanced delicately atop the half-roast potatoes used in the salads. Ross and Duncan tolerated this little thievery. They understood my art.

A fat American man was studying the menu, while his fat American family sat around him in check jumpers. He was wearing golf trousers. "Honey, what's a fuckin' Snow Goose? You ever hear of a fuckin' Snow Goose? Naw, me either. I mean, it's on the sign above the door, but I don't see it on the menu. Yeah. Yeah, maybe they're out. Still, what is a fuckin' Snow Goose? Like some kind of mythical animal? It ain't snowing. Hey! Waiter! What the fuck's a Snow Goose?"

I couldn't answer him. I was crying, hysterical with laughter. The place started to fill me with spite. Fight Club came out. I watched it three times in four days. I got in trouble when the landlord heard me dealing with a query.
"Is everything a la carte?" asked the customer - sorry, the guest - "Is everything home-cooked?"
"Absolutely," I replied. "We serve the very pinnacle of microwave cuisine."
"Simon," said Steve, "can I have a word?"

I'm still - genuinely - not sure how I wound up in Lancaster. I don't remember filling in the UCAS form, and I can't recall any particular flash of inspiration that lit the path back to university. During holidays, I usually found myself back in the Goose, my spite both unabated and honed by resentment. The last time I was there, I worked four shifts before someone in London offered me work and I fled immediately on the train. I do not sense any chance of that rescue, this time round. I'm back in the Goose. I'm amongst the oldest waiters by several years. The whole place is synonymous with my personal failure. It's a horrible, poisonous regression. Customers look at me in a puzzled manner and ask politely what I'm studying at university. Because I'm on holidays, right?


I get up, cycle to the leisure centre, swim a little, cycle home, cycle to work, work, cycle home, beer and bed. On half days I take the dog for a walk where he chases ducks with an optimism that verges on inspirational. I spend a lot of time looking at my map of the world. I've read the entire Rebus canon. I listen to Modest Mouse 'We were dead before the ship even sank'. Every now and then I have a beer with Baker or James or Ruaridh. I helped out at Dad's am-dram group last week doing the lights for the world premiere of The Brahan Seer, first in English then Gaelic. Ewan and I came third in the pub quiz last week thanks largely to his borderline autistic sports knowledge, though Matilda rolled up for long enough to tell us that vodka, cointreau, orange and lime is a Cosmopolitan. I'm leaving in September, though I don't yet know where or why. I've been applying for jobs in some of the Alpine chalets but Europe might be too safe.

And in the meantime, Hammer Time - you know when you've been Goosed. It takes two to Goose. Can I have a dry red, please. Hey, waiter. What the fuck's a Snow Goose. Upsell, upsell.

Two months, four days and counting.

Sunset over the Black Isle

"Dude, rainbows are beautiful arcs of light in the sky!"

This last shot was taken just after midnight.

Saturday, June 23, 2007


"This is how it goes: not with a bang but a whimper. And with a whimper, Jack, I'm splittin'."

...and the longest days of the year drift in a fug. Dreary grey cloud, thick with rain, sour as three-week milk. It doesn't get dark at night - the sky never dips beyond mid blue. At the moment I still enjoy the miserable weather but really it's just the same as in Australia. The killer is monotony.

I've signed up with a temping agency in Inverness who send me out to drive vans for Lynx in Elgin or Inverness, map-reading and address queries or Not At Home or "Sign here and print your name, please." Strange memories wait on every corner: you can't go home again. The stressed man with crazy hair at the pharmacy at Raigmore - "I can't accept this, I won't take this, this needs to go somewhere else!" The door goes slam. "Fuuuuuuuuck!" screams Donnie at Lynx. "Fucking bastard fucking bastard fucking bastard fucking bastard fucking bastard!" He smashes the scanner off the desk in time with every word.

I've given up on looking for proper jobs since it occurred to me that I don't actually know what I'm looking for, or indeed what a proper job is. A career. I'd like to travel more, but any further journeys will have to be funded by work on the road - which is not, in itself, a bad thing. I harbour fantasies of a pub job in Fontainebleau where I boulder by day and pour beer every night. That's about the limit of my ambition, and way beyond the limit of my French.

We've won the pub quiz two weeks on the trot, although last week was an embarrassing victory. Eight of us won by half a point over a team of two, but Thursday was better - Jon, Ewan, Kate and myself earning a drink and a fiver each. Zinc - Nixon - Elton John. The tiny dancer in my hand.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Fantasy Cricket

This was written, over by over, between Andy 'My Friend Otto' Banks, Phil 'Dancing Phil' Powell and myself when the England-Windies game was rained off. I actually think it's a lot better than real cricket. Anyone who knows what they are talking about is welcome to add another over in the comments - this does not include Jeremy on account of him being Australian.

Over 1
WICKET! - Strauss claims his first golden duck of the series. At least he's consistent. Vaughan steps up like a graceful yet somehow mechanical and boring puppet. He pads a few away, one falls short and pitches up plumb for the slapping, but Vaughan defends, actually shouting, "Safety first!" as he does so. Cook rolls his eyes. Interesting email here from Thinky McGenius, "Wouldn't it make sense to have Collingwood as one-day captain?" Sounds like good advice to me - what do you think?

Over 2
OBO is reminded that test matches are supposed to last for five days, and when you lose a wicket to the first ball of the match, it’s worth thinking of the bigger picture rather than chasing every half-chance for runs. Vaughan once again demonstrates his astute captaincy by valuing the team rather than his own run rate. On the Collingwood issue, the general consensus in the inbox is that everyone seems to have forgotten that prior to the commonwealth bank series and the world cup, Mr Vaughan hadn’t played first class cricket for 18 months which is approximately the same amount of time since OBO last got laid. There are bound to be problems when you’re coming back from such a lay off. “Collingwood is a key bowler and batsmen and fielder in the one day side,” observes Mia Buttreaks. “Look what happened last time such a key man was made skipper, the last Ashes tour anyone?” Quite. On the field, Cook scores consecutive fours using his monobrow instead of his bat. Unorthodox!

Over 3
WICKET! - Vaughan falls. He's blocking the shot before it's even out of the bowler's hand and a bouncer ricochets of the shoulder of his bat into his grille, forcing metal to cut up his stupid face, and into silly point's diving hands. KP steps up, improving the run rate 200% by getting a sensible test rate of 2 an over rather than none. Very steady KP! Cook says something, causing the umpire to fall momentarily asleep. "What we need from a one-day captain is energy, belief in the team (rather than self-belief which I admit Vaughan has mistakenly in spades) and to lead by example. For me, Collingwood has proved he should at least be made Vice, if not full captain of the one-day side." Good words Mr. Iknoweverythingaboutcricket.

Over 4.
"Now these batsmen," says Geoff 'Two tins of Stella and a sleeveless vest, please' Boycott. "These batsmen don't want to score runs. That's not how you play cricket. How can you possibly hope to win a game if you score runs? They want to not get out, that's what they want. Look at me. I never got out. Not once, me. Concentrate on not getting out, and then maybe on day three or four, they can think about squaring their shoulders and looking for a quick single. But they don't want to score any runs, no." Alistair Cook unrolls his sleeping bag and opens a good book.

Over 5
Pietersen has gently played himself in by only taking 32 runs from his first 2 balls, but is then almost cleaned up by the third whilst scouting the crowd for a new missus after his current squeeze's career disappeared out of sight almost as quickly as "Ashes fever" did late in 2005.

Over 6
Cook appears to have got a pint from somewhere. Pietersen smacks ANOTHER for 6 as he casually chats up a female streaker. Umpire looks unhappy but refusing to take action. Vaughan shouts something from the pavilion, he looks cross, and more than a little drunk, it was something about, "I used to be good" I think but it's hard to tell through the slurring.

Over 7
With today's opponents still not identified, Cook's average will not suffer from this so far lacklustre display of sleeping and drinking whilst at the crease. In the press box, the debate about Flintoff's replacement for the India series rages on. Cook perks up to take a quick single from the final ball of the over thus denying KP the strike. He looks cross.

Over 8
Alistair Cook strikes a glorious cover drive while asleep. KP on the boundary colelcting telephone numbers. The ground is covered in pictures of Flintoff - the 'slightly retarded' pose. We have reports that Simon Jones is in an underground bunker shaving his head and body. He has guns and computers, but will not be able to take over the world just yet due to injuries to hip, shoulder, both knees, one ankle, three metatarsals, seventeen fingers and his penis.

Over 9
The Crowd are getting increasingly agitated with the nonchalance of the batting side and are just leaving en masse when - WICKET! - Cook run out! He was lighting his pipe and readjusting his flat cap when he mistook KP's shout of "One there" for the sound of a giraffe dying. The crowd return just in time to see future one-day captain Collingwood stride to the crease.

Over 10
Frankly, what a morning's cricket it's been. We've seen the end of Andrew Strauss' career, Michael Vaughan's intelligent captaincy and encouragement mistaken for drunken abuse and what the hell Cook was up to, we'll never know. Collingwood faces the first delivery from the still unidentified fielding team, forgets where he is and executes a terrific slip catch diving high to his left. Luckily the umpire signals no ball. The next raps Collingwood on the pads, Pietersen mistakenly takes this as a slight against Dickie Bird's good name and has to be persuaded from leaving the field in protest.

Over 11
The umpire has to be persuaded against leaving the field in protest at KP not leaving the field in protest. The fielding team light a spliff whilst England CC and the umpires sort out a sponsorship deal with Nike to provide more jumpers. Collingwood survives his appeal for LBW by disguising himself as a fourth stump and third bail. KP stands guard at the non-strikers end like a Rider from Rohan.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Squirrel goes nuts

I know what you're thinking - two blogs in one day?! Crazy talk! The world's gone mad, I tell ya - but I had to draw your attention to this excellent piece of news from Germany:

BERLIN (Reuters) - An aggressive squirrel attacked and injured three people in a German town before a 72-year-old pensioner dispatched the rampaging animal with his crutch.

The squirrel first ran into a house in the southern town of Passau, leapt from behind on a 70-year-old woman, and sank its teeth into her hand, a local police spokesman said on Thursday.

With the squirrel still hanging from her hand, the woman ran onto the street in panic, where she managed to shake it off.

The animal then entered a building site and jumped on a construction worker, injuring him on the hand and arm, before he managed to fight it off with a measuring pole.

"After that, the squirrel went into the 72-year-old man's garden and massively attacked him on the arms, hand and thigh," the spokesman said. "Then he killed it with his crutch."

The spokesman said experts thought the attack may have been linked to the mating season or because the squirrel was ill.

That's a hell of a catch, that Catch-22

Strange old thing, the sun. Whenever the clouds have cleared, the sunsets across the Black Isle are just as good as those over Ningaloo. Quietly, when no-one is looking, the sky turns red, and it is still a little light at midnight. But we're on the cusp of the solstice which means halfway to Christmas, I suppose. I always get bittersweet at this time of year, the mezzanine moment when the nights start to get longer.

Jobhunting is not going well. I spent all of last week in a dedicated trawl of both specialised and general recruitment sites, sent away a grand total of two applications and came to realise that I don't actually want to work most of the things I'm looking for. I don't even know what I'm looking for. I met up with Jon Todman and his cronies for the Phoenix pubquiz. It's a good, hard quiz. We fell down a little on music and general knowledge but swept the board on A-Z and the Famous Scientist Anagrams. We came fourth in the end - with two points seperating the top four teams. After the quiz we wandered over to Hootananny's in time to catch a London band called Scanners. It was a short set, maybe only half an hour, but they were excellent. Two guys and two girls in the full-blown Shoreditch fashionista regalia knocking out searing rock'n'roll. They had that same intensity as Sleater-Kinney, fragile, electric. Check 'em out at - especially LOWLIFE. After the gig Jon and I sat in his house drinking whisky and listening to music. I staggered home in the rain in his borrowed coat at half-past four and woke up at six-thirty in the living room, sitting upright in a chair with the fully-hooded coat still making blinkers and the tv plays static. It's light. Bed...

... and up to the Heathmount the next night, catching up with folk bound for Rock Ness - James, Anna, Baker, Nicky, Sanjay, Martyn, Andy, Barbara, Clare, Ruaridh. I was drinking orange squash in an effort to dilute my hangover. Andy and I had a hour-long debate about the role of public-funded radio which was a lot more interesting than it might sound.

That cricket net in London has wound me up in all sorts of trouble. One of the guys from Dad's am-dram group plays for the local Northern Counties Second XI. On his invitation I went along to a net, and wound up with games on both Saturday and Sunday. The Saturday game was for the First XI away to Huntly, who are one of the best teams in the league. Thanks to Rock Ness, our team was depleted to three First team regulars, two players from the seconds, me, four of the Juniors and Sandra, one of the juniors' mums. And we still nearly beat them... valiant defeat, soup, midges, haar. Sunday was less glorious but a similar story - playing in the cup for the Seconds, and seven Juniors to replace the desaparecidos. We lost. Miserable weather.

Since then I've been taking the dog for the odd walk (he nearly caught a duckling the other day - as if he'd actually know what to do with it), reading an Ian Rankin Rebus novel every day and listening to the new Modest Mouse record: We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank is even better than the excellent Good News For People Who Love Bad News. I drink coffee and work at the computer so I can listen to the Triple J request show with Rosie Beaton. I type up my notes from travelling. Late night I stay up to watch A History Of Violence, Serenity, Rosemary's Baby, Catch-22, Inside Man. We went to the movies to see At World's End, which is not nearly as execrable as Tim made out. It is hopelessly convoluted and riddled with pointless special effects but it also has Johnny Depp arguing with himself about peanuts.

Botswana! Iceland, Patagonia! Ivory Coast, New Orleans, Mexico... the Day Of The Dead festival.