Racing.

thumb_COLOURBOX5661662 - Copy I honestly didn’t know if I could stay on my feet. I really was close to either throwing up or crying, or possibly both. My chest heaved, my legs sent signals to my brain that pleaded with me to stop and the scenes all around were reduced to tunnel vision.

The route ahead – more concrete – stretched out to a pin prick that remained in focus while all else around me, the crowds of screaming spectators and the steel-framed bed I was pushing as it rattled loudly from its wheels rolling over the road beneath my feet, pulsated in an increasingly claustrophobic blur. I must have been on the verge of losing consciousness and we were only about half way in.

At this midway point of the Great Knaresborough Bed Race I berated myself for being there. With absolutely no exaggeration, this was the worst physical punishment of my life. My wiry frame and limited fitness was being tortured, despite weeks of intermittent practice (albeit without the bed half the time and never once with a passenger aboard, as is required on race day – we only had ourselves to blame).

The crowds thickened and the noise erupted… somehow we summoned enough energy to lumber on.

All that kept me going was the money. Between seven of us we had raised, by that point, around £900 in sponsorship for the British Heart Foundation. We owed it to people’s generosity alone to make it over the finish line.

Here we were, six of us – three blokes and three lasses all aged 30-plus – pushing this heavy structure through the streets of what is a pretty North Yorkshire market town; our seventh team member riding as passenger and wearing a helmet and life jacket as per the rules.

Bed race 2bed race 4Part-way through the 2.4-mile route of Tarmac and, in places, cobbled roads, we were at the peak of the route’s almighty, twisting summit – a seemingly endless, steep, helter-skelter hill that winds up from the riverfront to the market square at the top.

The crowds thickened here and the noise erupted. Our passenger, Ally, hammered repeatedly on an air horn tied to the bed with her foot as the adrenaline pumped, shouting encouragement in thick Scottish tones. The rest of us – Rosie, Clare, Caroline, Dan, Matt and yours truly – somehow summoned enough energy to lumber on as we came to the long downhill section of the High Street before crossing a bridge and navigating a river crossing just before the finish line.

Some 90-odd other competing teams filled the route and there were thousands of people lining the streets in support – some of whom were armed with water guns to fire at you as you run past with the bed.

Come the river crossing and I was one of two of us who we’d agreed would jump in the water first to bear the weight of the bed as it was lifted into the River Nidd, but I was muttering over and over, though barely audible to the rest, that I couldn’t do it… I did it anyway and half way across the river I turned the air blue with obscenities. The ‘frog man’ stationed there in case of emergencies had a good chuckle and urged me to picture the pint of beer that would await me at the finish line. It was enough to get me over and out of the water and across the line.

bed race 3bed raceThe rest of the team had been utterly incredible in getting us round. I collapsed straight away at the finish. High fives all around. I couldn’t believe we had done it. Overwhelmingly, I was filled with sheer relief that it was over.

A huge ‘thank you’ to every single person who cheered us on around the route whether you know us or not. A massive ‘thank you’ to all our friends who supported us in Knaresborough on the day. And a heart-felt ‘thank you’ to every single one of our 63 sponsors who raised an incredible £1,090 for the British Heart Foundation – smashing our initial target of £150 – via our JustGiving page: JustGiving: So Sozzled Crew 

Turns out we’re suckers for pain and despite the trauma described here, our team ‘So Sozzled Crew’ fully intends to enter the ballot for the 2017 Knaresborough Bed Race. Although it was so very, very hard work, the event is actually fantastic fun that attracts a real community atmosphere and it is all held in a beautiful setting. Congratulations to the voluntary Knaresborough Lions group for another wonderful occasion.

 

 

 

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Looking. For the Aurora Borealis.

Twelve nights in Iceland in search of the Northern Lights.

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It isn’t supposed to be easy. The best things in life tend to be those that are earned; through perseverance, through dedication, yet sometimes rewards come just by being in the right place at the right time.

Where I was heading, 66 degrees North, Iceland, all the advice told of October to April being the best time to see the Aurora Borealis – the Northern Lights – when the hours of daylight are shorter.

With age I’ve become increasingly fascinated by the night sky: it’s twinkling stars, the sense of perspective it provides, and so, the phenomena of the greatest light show on Earth, was something I had to see. And where better, I figured, than the land of ice and fire; a giant’s stone throw from the Arctic Circle.

The spaceship-like front of the Hallgrimskirkja, Reykjavik

The spaceship-like front of the Hallgrimskirkja, Reykjavik

Vast vistas of natural nothingness, of rugged mountains, imposing volcanoes, black lava fields, and plains and ocean inlets dotted with colourful metal structures of homes and industry: Iceland was a mysterious, far away place to me that appealed to my wanderlust, sense of adventure and lust for life less ordinary.

The Myvatn area in the North of Iceland offered stunning scenery

The Myvatn area in the North of Iceland offered stunning scenery

However sage the advice though, that is not to obsess over catching sight of Aurora while staying in this spectacular country, the possibility seduced my thoughts regardless of the days’ wonderful pursuits; from stepping behind the pummelling Seljalandsfoss waterfall and bathing in the hot geothermal spring waters of the mountainside Myvatn Nature Baths, to marvelling at the beautiful calmness of the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon.

Feeling giddy behind the Seljalandsfoss waterfall in the south

Feeling giddy behind the Seljalandsfoss waterfall in the south

There is, of course, more to happening upon the Aurora Borealis than simply rocking up at a tip of the Northern Hemisphere at the right time of the year.

Two other elements are important: matching clear skies with high magnetic activity, and if you are heading to Iceland a great tool is this website – en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/ – which provides a dedicated Aurora Borealis forecast for the whole of the island. It is frequently updated throughout the day, showing a map of the country with different shades of green indicating the depth of cloud at any given location.

Next to the map a sliding scale of 0 to 9 provides a measure as to the magnetism in the atmosphere, so the higher the number the greater the magnetic activity. Match a high activity number and a location where the skies are clear, away from light pollution, and boom, there’s every chance of being in luck.

My girlfriend, Rosie, and I had chosen early March to fly to Iceland from Manchester, England – flight time approximately two-and-a-half hours – and booked our flights through easyJet. Determined to see the Northern Lights we were staying in Iceland for 12 nights.

We settled on an itinerary that saw us spend our first three nights in the capital, Reykjavik; four nights in the second most populous settlement, Akureyri, in the north; another two nights in Reykjavik as a half-way house to adventures further south which led to two nights in tiny Vík on the coast; ending with one final night in Reykjavik before flying home.

DSCF3115A week in and we’d seen precisely zero hint of Aurora activity and I’d be lying if I said we weren’t a little anxious. In the back of my mind the lights were to be the pay off for holidaying in sub-zero temperatures and thus wearing five layers of clothing, long johns and all. We’d been checking the Aurora forecast several times a day, more so as the holiday wore on, in the hope of getting decent conditions.

Lo and behold, on the morning of day eight, the forecast for the next day was looking promising: an activity rating of four (meaning ‘Active’) and clear skies over much of the south of the country, where we’d be for our stay in Vík; a village of around 200 people located next door to Katla, one of Iceland’s largest active volcanoes. According to locals, on average Katla violently erupts twice every century but the last major eruption was in 1918. A slightly unsettling fact when you are sleeping in a bed next to it…

So the next morning we made a plan, to tour east along the ring road to the glacial lagoon late in the afternoon. We would stop for dinner in a remote village on the way back to Vík, by which time it would, all being well, be ‘show time’. Another quick check of the forecast before we set out on our days’ road trip and the activity rating had crept to a five; ‘High’.

This had to be it, had to be our lucky day, now or never. The long range forecast for the rest of the stay warned of clouds, clouds and more clouds.

It was 8pm by the time we pulled up outside a simple restaurant, out on a limb in a tiny settlement consisting of no more than a couple of streets and small houses. The orange glow from the windows an enticing draw in the chill of the evening.

We dined at a table next to the window and cast glances through the glass at the clear night sky in anticipation. No sign. Conversation by a group of Americans around a table in the middle of the room touched on the Aurora then drifted onto other matters. Main dishes over. Still no sign. I ordered dessert. A risky call. “For all we know they could be right above us!” Rosie said, only half joking. It is fair to say it was the quickest I’d ever eaten a serving of apple pie.

We settled the bill. Fleece on, jacket on, hat on, gloves on… we swung open the door into the dark night, the glow of the restaurant’s light filtering a warm hue onto the pavement outside. We turned to the right and WOW. At last!

Right across the sky as far as the eye could see stretched a thick luminous green streak. Rosie screamed in excitement but I was gobsmacked, classically awestruck. Wow, is indeed what I think I said. A few times. Before I knew it Rosie was off, urging us to flee the invasive light from the restaurant, bounding across the road, no one else around, into the nearest ink black field.

Together, we stood there, held one another and craned our necks. Aurora was out, in all its glory, directly overhead. The brilliant green streak grew wider, then slimmer in parts, wiggling like it was being gently shook in slow motion at one end; dancing an ethereal dance. As mesmerising as promised. 

Majestic. It was truly unlike anything I’d ever seen. Then it changed, split into two lines, its texture like dust caught in a stream of light from a window on a sunny day. Directly above us a blotch of green, it widened, looking as though it was opening itself out from the middle. It seemed as though it was cascading downwards; felt like we could reach out and touch it. I seriously expected to see a face emerge out of its centre and speak to me in stern, slow sentences; the result of watching too many sci-fi flicks.

Its otherworldly dance continued across the sky for, we reckon, 12 minutes. Every second of every minute was intoxicating. I couldn’t believe we’d actually got this lucky. And then, slowly, its green sheen faded and faded, gently, disguised back to the black of the night; just a faint trace visible on the horizon. It’s safe to say what we saw will stay with us for the rest of our lives.

I didn’t care that the battery in my camera had died hours before. So elusive the spectacle, it seemed fitting that I hadn’t documented an experience hard earned. I can still see it now. All I have to do is close my eyes.

The snow, the ice, the layering up, it had all been worth it.

Stargazing.

thumb_COLOURBOX5661662 - CopyIt’s incredible what’s on show if we just stop for a moment and peer up at the night sky. On a clear night a carpet of far, far away stars shine brightly back at us. But more than just a pretty canvass, this beautiful array of sparkles peering out of deep space is a snapshot of natural history stretching back millions of years.

Having recently admired with wonder the appearance of the ‘super moon’ in our skies last month, I jumped at the chance to sign my girlfriend and I up to a ‘Night of Stargazing’ held at the Yorkshire Arboretum next to Castle Howard (pictured below) in the Howardian Hills – a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

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The evening started at 7.30pm, cost £12.50 a head and was held by the Scarborough and Ryedale Astronomical Society, concluding at about 10.30pm.

Around 50 people turned up; a mixture of families with small children, couples of all ages, a mother with her teenage son and astronomy buffs, some equipped with rather powerful looking, large telescopes.

We were given a talk which lasted for about an hour. It covered an introduction to astronomy and gave us a brief guide to some of the constellations of stars in the night sky.

There was some basic advice for partaking in stargazing: wrap up warm, find a spot where there is little light pollution, use ‘averted vision’ to look at more distant known spectacles as these often become clearer if your vision is focused instead on something else very close by, be patient and give your eyes at least 15-20 minutes to adjust to the darkness, and, use red light. An red LED light torch optimises our visual sensitivity. It counteracts other stray light sources so that it doesn’t interfere with our observations of the far off objects above us.

It was entertaining to hear some of the stories behind the constellations. The Seven Sisters is an impressive sight – seven bright stars clustered together which are also known as the Pleiades. Legend has it that seven sisters were bathing in a pool when an enormous hunter strode forward wielding a club. Scared, the sisters wailed for Zeus (the father of Gods and men in Greek mythology) to intervene and so he did, transforming them into doves. The seven rose into the sky and, out of fear, kept ascending until they reached the darkness of night above and were frozen in place as stars. A quick Google brings up different versions of the tale.

After the introduction we were served potato and leek soup and were then encouraged to gather outside where the astronomers among our number set up their telescopes.

Earlier in the evening clouds had threatened to scupper our chances of seeing much at all, but now, by 9pm, most of the clouds had blown over.
It took a while for our eyes to adjust, hearing owls hooting as we awaited for the necessary adaptation. All was pitch black now, bar a security light on the outside of the arboretum and a dim glow of light pollution off to one isolated spot which our hosts said was light emanating from Middlesbrough, reflected by clouds, north east of here.

Some minutes later and we were able to take in a whole vista of constellations. So often I’d gazed skywards and had no idea what I was looking at, bar The Plough or The Big Dipper as the Americans call it.

I always presumed that the North Star, or Polaris, was the brightest star in the sky – I’d been told as much before – but it’s not, and in fact it ranks only 50th in brightness in the northern sky. But its importance is as a navigational tool. It holds nearly still while the northern sky moves around it.

The North Star is easy to find. Locate The Plough and follow the two stars at the front of the ‘bucket’ of The Plough upwards and you’ll spot it. And this we learned, was the way to understand what you were looking up at. The night sky is a big map and once you learn a few of the brightest constellations, you can use these as points of reference to find others.

That night we saw the Pegasus Square, the Autumn and Summer Triangles, and, one of my favourite sights that evening, the Hercules Cluster, a concentration of about 200 galaxies some 500 million light years away.

We could clearly see the Milky Way – our own galaxy – stretched out above us in a hazy cloud like formation. It was particularly odd to look at something so vast that we can see ourselves as almost a separate entity, yet planet Earth is a part of it.

We heard how the speed of light is the equivalent of travelling around the Earth more than seven times in one second. So to think that the Hercules Cluster was 500 million light years away – given that a light year is, obviously, the distance light can travel in a year – was utterly mind-blowing.

Apparently if you gathered up every grain of sand on the Earth, you would still not have enough individual grains of sand to represent every star in our known universe. When you consider such things, it makes it very hard not to believe that, chances are, there are other planets with life not dissimilar to ours out there somewhere. We may just never find each other. And this is one of the joys of stargazing, the unanswerable questions, how it stirs your imagination and offers perspective.

The great thing is about astronomy is its accessibility. Anyone can do it. It doesn’t have to cost a penny and, if you’re so inclined, even a decent telescope will only set you back a couple of hundred pounds if you shop around. Just be sure to wear a woolly hat.

  • If you fancy finding out more, recent TV programme Stargazing Live featuring Professor Brian Cox is great entertainment and you’ll find episodes posted on YouTube
  • And here’s Dara O Briain with some advice on remembering the difference between astrology and astronomy, because why not?

Listening III.

thumb_COLOURBOX5661662 - CopyThe art of listening to music has been lost. There are generations of us now who use music as a means of keeping us entertained while we do something else.

Headphones plugged in, we exercise our limbs at the gym or running in the park to give us momentum, it fills the vacuum on the commute, allows us to block out the irritating behaviour of others and avoid the chuggers on the high street. Music has become a useful tool rather than a cherished entertainment in its own right.

Watching Ghost World and High Fidelity feed my own romantic preference for listening to music, that of whiling away hours, laid out on my bed, feet off the end of the mattress tapping away while I examine the CD case and its insert with all the cool artwork and lyrics, the album in question playing out the speakers and filling the room. There’s probably a mug of tea on the side and some sweet tasty treats to munch on; I’m in this for the long haul, not darting between rooms doing chores or using the music as a distraction while browsing or messaging on my smartphone. This for me is an epic use of my time.

Here’s what I was listening to when I wrote this.

Music can take you places, inspires you to dream and makes you question emotions and world views. Its energy can lift you out of a funk, it can bring you peace when outside this cocoon the pressures of the modern world weigh heavy. It is theraputic and motivational all at once, and the art of listening to music, really listening to music and feeling its rhythm, is a truly wonderful experience.

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I remember sitting with a good friend of mine, when we were 12 or 13, listening to Now tapes for hours. We’d play that game where we would challenge each other to guess the song from the opening couple of seconds of the tracks. We were good at it! And it came from hours of listening to music in our rooms when we had an innocently unfathomable and then inappreciable wealth of free time.

I do admit, I’ve found less and less time to partake in such a leisurely and solo pursuit as I’ve ‘grown up’ but the listening of music in the sense where I am detached from everything else and am absorbing the sounds conjured up by incredibly talented imaginations, voices and hands… well, I’ll never stop finding time for it entirely and neither should you if you know what’s good for you. I’m willing to bet that everyone who reads this blog can relate to the distinction between hearing music and really listening and digesting it.

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I’m thoroughly excited. I’ve just celebrated a birthday and have the dosh in purchase what should be an awesome addition and one that will indeed encourage me to find more moments to indulge in this past-time. Decades after the event, as it were, I’ll soon be the proud owner of a record player. I’m joining the vinyl revival; a nostalgic sub-culture that tugs at my own inclinations. And, the best thing is, when you do it this way round, there’s the parents’ extensive back catalogue to raid.

Led Zepplin and The Beatles for starters I reckon…

Cycling.

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As a boy I would cycle a lot. I would spend weekends and school holidays bezzing about on my BMX and then my green Rayleigh Ascender mountain bike. When I became a teenager, I embarked on a riverside cycle following a rocky, muddy track on my dad’s road bike.

I was asking for trouble, wasn’t I? But, as it turned out, the greatest peril was attempting a downhill right hand turn, back on tarmac, as I pulled into the street I called home.

Wrenching the handlebars at too acute an angle at speed, the tyres lost tread mid-turn and down I went, and stayed down in the middle of a thankfully quiet suburban road junction.

Flat out on my side, I was in trouble. Minutes later I somehow manged to pull myself up and staggered the 500 yards home, gingerly pushing my dad’s bike along with me.

Scolded for arriving home late for tea by my mum as I unhitched the back gate, I was close to passing out. It would transpire, hours later in a cubicle at the local hospital; leaving my mum feeling somewhat guilty, that I had in fact broken my left arm. It required manipulating back into place which, yes, is as painful as it sounds.

Since that fateful day I had, until recently, just a single bike ride to my name as an adult, and that being a most leisurely jaunt alongside the Sava river in Belgrade last summer followed by a remarkably untesting diversion through the city centre on the way back.

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There were no dramas to speak of on that occasion. And then, this summer, just months after the Grand Départ of the Tour de France passed through my home town, I received an interesting offer from the Austrian Tourist Board. Would I like to go on a four-day cycling trip through the Zillertal valley? Perhaps still mind-drunk from the thrill of the Tour, I accepted, without hesitation and with, at least initially, an absence of apprehension.

As the trip drew nearer however, the nerves crept in a tad; what with my long absence from the saddle – Belgrade aside. My answer was to kit myself out with cycling gear because what could possibly go wrong if I looked the part? Then the itinerary arrived. Great news. I’d be cycling up a glacier.

The only comfort at this stage was that I’d be taking on such treacherous terrain firmly in the seat of an e-bike, which isn’t, contrary to the wise cracks, a bike made in Yorkshire. No, this would be a battery powered set of wheels. The power kicks in to respond to the rotations of the pedals, giving the rider a boost that would only otherwise come through extra manpower. It’s cheating, essentially.

Reassured, I warmed up the day before the flight east by pedalling a Boris bike through central London, as you do. In town to catch the flight from Gatwick, I caught up with an old friend. Meeting at London Victoria we cycled to Leicester Square. Picking our way through traffic and gulping in the not so fresh capital air with my seat too low, thus requiring needlessly strenuous effort on my behalf, it was hardly an experience that filled me joy about the adventure ahead.

I joined five other English and Welsh ladies and gents signed up to the trip and headed for Innsbruck. Day one was gentle. Having touched down we were transferred to the tourist board HQ and were equipped with the machines that would be our companions for the rest of the holiday. Here’s my trusty stead, pictured below.

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That day we trundled 25km to the nearby town of Mayrhofen on flat terrain along a trail that passed through sleepy farmland alongside a train track (pictured below) with speed mode on my bike cranked up – effortlessly clocking 29km/hr.

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Day two was to offer the biggest test – glacier day and a two-hour crawl uphill via winding dirt trails with panoramic views of the Zillertal valley and the village of Hintertux (see next photo). Those vistas proved a spectacular diversion as we wound ever upwards in low gear at slow speed. Our end point was a cable car to the top of the glacier and the most testing part at this stage was my increasingly painful saddle sores. The air too was thinning out, presenting an extra challenge and the chatter between us died down as we came to terms with the rhythm required to make the trek.

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At last, we rode the cable car to the glacier’s peak, some 3,250 metres above sea level. It was shrouded with fog as we arrived but suddenly, stationed on the viewing platform, the wind cleared the weather front in patches, offering majestic views of the sleepy iced capped mountain range that stretched out around us. The border with Italy was just 2km away.

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A few pictures for posterity later, lunch and the odd experience of a robotic toilet seat that rotated to clean the bowl (blew. my. mind.), and it was descent time. Wow. This is where it got interesting. The forward momentum as the steep gradient gave way beneath the bike’s wheels propelled me along at increasingly pulse racing speed; the edge of the path gave way on the right of the bumpy track to uncompromisingly sheer drops into the picturesque valley below. Cows are known to plummet to their deaths with one misplaced step. I didn’t fancy joining them.

Such a high speed descent over rough ground requires steady navigation to negotiate ruts filled with water and loose rock debris, as well as the hazards presented by hikers – who thankfully stepped aside – and cows, obviously…

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Gaining velocity and plunging headlong into a straight stretch having taken a sweeping bend with a mere stroke of the brakes, my path was unwittingly blocked by a herd of these four-legged friends. They moo-ed and sniffed, and slowly a gap between their hides opened up, wide enough to allow me to continue downwards. Soon I was again hurtling at speeds on the outer limits of my comfort zone. Then – oh great – the pedals locked up. The chain double backed on itself. I had no option but to stop. I couldn’t fix it so I freewheeled on, letting gravity do its job.

We were nearly there, our pack of six riders and then… slip, SMASH… and the gent two cyclists ahead lost his balance and was down in a tangled heap having taken a sharp, rocky, muddy corner onto the final section of the route without appreciating its difficulty. The main road back through Hintertux was just a couple of metres away. The corner was suddenly upon us now, me and the rider immediately ahead. Screech, hard braking, rubber against metal wheel rims, then tip, skid, SMASH, the guy in front of me was now down in the same spot as its last victim.

Bizarrely, my reaction to having seen this sorry spectacle was to let out a chuckle, quite uncontrollably, but I had to concentrate because now I too was rapidly bearing down on the blackspot. Rear and front brakes both squeezed, I took the corner with incredible caution and delicacy, so much so in fact that suddenly it wasn’t the bike that had the momentum. Almost stopped in its tracks, 75kg of me, raised ever so slightly out of my seat to take the corner, was carried forward, overbearing the 20kg of the steel frame beneath me, and I felt it go. Weight ratios in horrifying disarray. The frame of the bike was overcome, I lurched forwards and sideways all at once, and silent nanoseconds later, down I tumbled, SMASH; bike landing on top of me. Both me with limbs flailing and it, my overly exerted bicycle, sliding six feet, ten feet, more, down the slippy rutted hillside with my right foot wedged between the seat and the frame.

I came to a stop. Instead of shooting pain, this time, this crash, my overwhelming rush of sensation was that of hilarity, and I burst into a fit of giggles. No harm done, not this time, only bumps and bruises, to my legs and to my pride.

Over four days, I would average a crash or a ‘stack’; so the experienced cyclists in our number called them, once every two days. Between us we ‘stacked it’ a total of eight times. Consistently dramatic if not polished in our performance on the slopes of the Austrian alps.

If there’s one thing I learned from my cycling travails, it’s that I won’t ever mount and expect anything other than some rough and tumble, but in Austria I rediscovered the liberating thrill of two wheels. The adrenaline rush of zooming breathlessly down a mountain, wind in my face, was exhilarating. Time for a trip to Halfords soon, me thinks, I’ll just remember that it is wise indeed to wear a helmet.

  • If you would like more information about the Zillertal region of Austria, have a look here. Otherwise, here’s some quality Austrian music…

Spying.

thumb_COLOURBOX5661662 - CopyDaniel Craig is my favourite Bond. There, I’ve put my cards on the table like Le Chiffre in Casino Royale. Sean Connery comes a close second. With Craig, it’s the combination of his brutal appearance which makes him appear more genuinely powerful than his predecessors in the role, and his ability to mix daft chat up lines with a dark, more brooding persona that gets him my vote.

What gives rise to impressing my Bond preference so abruptly upon you, dear reader, is a recent visit to London. Ambling through Covent Garden after a genteel saunter along the South Bank, I happened to find myself at the foot of the London Film Museum in Wellington Street. Not knowing it was there or that such a place even existed, I was giddy and immediately so, as the words ‘Bond In Motion’ confronted me from a sign above the entrance.

This, my friends, was a new exhibition and in fact, the largest official collection of original James Bond vehicles ever staged in London. I. Was. Excited. Less so my good lady, who left me to pay the admission fee (£14.50) and an extra £3 for an audio commentary by stunt driver Ben Collins, better known as The Stig in Top Gear. Collins was also the stunt driver for Bond’s car in Quantum of Solace, Casino Royale and Eve Moneypenny’s car in Skyfall.

It was a surreal experience seeing so many cars from the franchise in one place but very cool and I’d recommend a visit if you’re in that neck of the woods anytime soon. Anyway, this is a selection of the vehicles that I saw.

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This battered chopper is one of the models used to film the finale scenes of Skyfall, as Bond, M and the gamekeeper attempt to evade a siege from the air orchestrated by villain Raoul Silva.

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The Acrostar Mini as seen in 1983 film Octopussy starring Roger Moore.

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 Q’s ‘retirement boat’, last seen tearing up the River Thames with Bond aboard as he pursues a would-be assassin in The World Is Not Enough.

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The Glastron 150 GT speedboat was navigated by Bond in a high speed water chase in Live And Let Die, the eighth film in the series and Roger Moore’s debut as our suave spy.

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How do you make a Lotus Esprit even cooler? Why enable its driver to transform it into a submarine at the touch of a button of course. Maybe not of all that use for the daily commute, but Roger Moore’s Bond certainly found it handy when outrunning metal toothed nutjob Jaws in 1977 installment The Spy Who Loved Me.

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This is what was left of one of the Aston Martin DBS V12s hammered around Italian roads as Daniel Craig’s Bond out maneuvered would-be assassins en route to Siena via mountain passes and gravel roads in Quantum of Solace. Authentic.

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The same car, but a film earlier. The Aston Martin DBS V12 was flipped more times than a pancake on Shrove Tuesday as Bond took sudden evasive action at high speed to avoid running over gorgeous double agent Vesper Lynd who had been dumped and tied up in the middle of the road in the 2006 version of Casino Royale. It what was a world first, the scene saw the stunt team land a Guinness World Record for the most cannon rolls in a car – seven times. Barrel roll.

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The iconic and timelessly majestic Aston Martin DB5. Released in 1963 it first appeared in a James Bond film when Goldfinger hit cinema screens. Later, the same model was used in Thunderball, GoldenEye, Tomorrow Never Dies, Casino Royale and Skyfall.

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Red leather interior eh? Niche market. This 1969 Mercury Cougar convertible featured in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

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The BMW Z8 was driven by Pierce Brosnan’s Bond in The World Is Not Enough and came equipped with ground to air missiles. Obviously. Sadly this fine sporty number was sawn in two by a helicopter later in the film.

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A Honda CFR250R in Turkish Police colours from Skyfall. For when two wheels are better than four.

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‘Little Nellie’ appeared in You Only Live Twice. The heavily armed gyrocopter could be transported in several cases and quickly assembled to deliver Bond from tricky situations.

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This Aston Martin V8 Vantage Volante was particularly well packed. Used in The Living Daylights, it came armed with everything a slick spy could ask for: side skis, spiked tires, missiles, hubcap-mounted lasers, rocket propulsion and a self-destruct mechanism (best press the right button there James).

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The style ante was really upped when it came to motors in Die Another Day which came as an aesthetically pleasing distraction from what was possibly the most disappointing Bond movie in the series. In striking green, the Jaguar XKR convertible commandeered by villain Zao certainly caught the eye. Its miniature missiles on the door panels and the rockets under the front grille certainly seized Bond’s attention.

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Bond was not to be thwarted in Die Another Day behind the wheel of this Aston Martin V12 Vanquish which had an invisibility cloak, front mounted rockets of its own and target-seeking shotguns on its bonnet.

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Some golden oldies to finish this picture special, in the form of two Rolls-Royces: the 1962 Silver Cloud (above) and the super vintage 1937 Phantom III. The former featured in A View To Kill and the latter in Goldfinger, which was used by the Auric Goldfinger to smuggle gold.

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If that wasn’t enough for you then click on over via this link for more information about all the vehicles that have featured in the James Bond films so far.

Bond In Motion is running at the London Film Museum in Covent Garden until the end of 2014. Full price adult tickets are £14.50.

Cue the music: De-de, de-deeeerrrrr, de derr-derr…

 

Listening II.

thumb_COLOURBOX5661662 - CopyThere are moments; we all experience them, when you unwittingly find yourself quite involuntarily immersed in a stranger’s life from a distance. These spontaneous occurrences come in many guises: being forced to overhear one side of a mobile phone conversation while sat opposite someone on a train (it’s never the interesting folk is it? Always an ‘undesirable’), riding a lift with two people you don’t know who are having a chat between themselves, or taking in the dynamic of couples or families in the queue at the supermarket. If you’re in the kind of mood I was in the other day – dreamy – you’ll start to build an extended picture in your mind of that stranger’s, or group of strangers’, life or lives.

It happened, as it normally tends to do, at a most unexpected time the other day. I fired up the engine of a company car; a vehicle I’d not driven before, and automatically there was music. The dashboard stereo churned into life. It was the beginning of a song, clean and without interference – it wasn’t the radio, it was a CD.

“De-de-der-de-de-der, De-de-der-de-de-der,   De-de-der-de-de-der,   De-de-der-de-de-der,   De-de-der-de-de-der,   De-de-der-de-de-der, DRUM, Sheee says her love for me, can never die…”

It was of course – fingers on buzzers – Bryan Adams ‘Run To You’. Okay, ‘this is cheesy’ I’m thinking though milliseconds later I’m unconsciously tapping my foot; I’ve not started driving yet. The foot tap is swiftly added to by a continuous head bop, aka ‘The Slow Chicken Peck’. Ah damn, I purse my lips in a pout at the same time, a sure sign that I’m ‘feeling it’ as it were. From outside the car, anyone casting a glance in my direction as they retrieve their motor from the car park at the end of a long day at work would be confronted by a slightly amusing, slightly deranged vision; I look like a guy pecking at the steering wheel of a Vauxhall Astra with my lips. I’m caught up in the moment, such considerations don’t enter my mind.

Halfway into the song I’m intrigued as to what the next track is. I’m as susceptible to the Slow Chicken as much as the next man when a Bryan Adams tune comes on, but I’m hoping this isn’t one of the chirpy, pock-faced Canadian’s albums – you’re just not my bag Bryan, not for a full listing of tracks, soz. Track two is ‘The Wolves’ by young Ben Howard. Meh, bit pedestrian for my tastes.

Falling from high places, falling through lost spaces,
Now that we’re lonely, now that there’s nowhere to go.
Watching from both sides, these clock towers burning up,
I lost my time here, I lost my patience with it all.
We lost faith, in the arms of love.

Next track. ‘The Man Who Never Lied’, Maroon 5. No. Just no. Suddenly I’m getting the impression, rightly or wrongly, that this is a compilation burned onto compact disc by a member of the opposite sex.

I was the man who never lied, I never lied until today,
But I just couldn’t break your heart, Like you did mine yesterday.

Track four is cheeky and happy. A funky beat. Then he goes and ruins it all by singing: Jamiroquai. Look, it’s a long time since ‘Space Cowboy’ and even ‘Underground’. ‘Seven Days in Sunny June’ just isn’t in the same class.

Sitting in the summer sun, You know I’ve wanted you so long,
Why do you have to, Drop that bomb on me?

My listening experience declines markedly with the next track. Kelly Clarkson, ‘Mr Know It All’; “You don’t know a thing about me”. I hit skip but suddenly something’s stirring in my mind. It looks obvious when you read the lyrics here, but the person who’s compiled this playlist has done so with intent and I’m starting to pick up on the mood. I think our girl – yep, definitely a female – is a bit troubled. I can sense a consistent sadness and reflectiveness in the lyrics and suddenly I’m empathetic. Through the words rattling my ear drums, I’m absorbing the memories of her unease. I try to imagine what’s left her feeling this way. The lyrics, to me, are suggestive of relationship issues. As well as sadness and reflectiveness there’s a dash of attitude; a sense of being wronged. That’s why the next song surprises me.

I mean, Loooooove-lllllly, Is The Feelin’ Now”, that’s right Michael Jackson, as ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’ kicks in; I’m happy now. Two things completely unrelated to my thoughts about the girl who had occupied this vehicle before occur to me. One, this must be on Yoda’s iPod – “Keep on with The Force don’t stop, Don’t stop ’til you get enough” – and two, this clip from Rush Hour II:

But once I’ve had my fun, the playlist continues with less rises and more falls and the sentiments I detected earlier return to the surface. The remaining tracks play out as follows: Billy Joel, ‘New York State Of Mind’ which is slow, sombre, knowing; Maroon 5, ‘One More Night’, an interesting one as the beat picks up and I can sense whatever troubles our girl is having with her other half, she’s not ready to throw in the towel:

You and I go hard at each other like we’re going to war.
You and I go rough, we keep throwing things and slamming the door.
You and I get so damn dysfunctional, we stopped keeping score.
You and I get sick, yeah, I know that we can’t do this no more.
Yeah, but baby there you go again, there you go again, making me love you.

Then it’s: Jamiroquai, ‘Black Devil Car’, fast and distanced from relationship issues. Now it seems like our girl has gone through a spectrum of emotions, something has been resolved in her mind, and she’s regaining her composure. The rest of the CD is a real mixture: The Script, ‘The Man Who Can’t Be Moved’, the words of which hint at acceptance that she can’t live without her man, whatever their current differences (“Good for her”, I think). Then there’s some Razorlight, Scissor Sisters, more Michael Jackson (‘Black or White’ – ace! The Slow Chicken is back), round two of Bryan Adams, Taylor Swift, ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ (come on girl, I thought you’d reached a happy resolution… oh, maybe this is it! …Good for you, he was never good enough for you darlin’), Red Hot Chili Peppers, ‘I Could Die For You’ (Right. That’s It. I’m confused. Argghhh! Don’t make me side with him), Maroon 5 (skip, skip, SKIP), James Morrison, Corinne Bailey Rae and, finally, track 20 and the end of the CD, and it’s Sheryl Crow:

All I wanna do is have some fun, I got a feeling I’m not the only one,
All I wanna do is have some fun, Until the sun comes up over Santa Monica Boulevard.

You were messing with me all along weren’t you girl?! …I wonder what Santa Monica’s like at this time of year. Oh look! A rainbow! *And he drives away into the evening*

 

 

Bearding II.

thumb_COLOURBOX5661662 - CopyTyping ‘why grow a beard’ into Google brings up some bizarre and entertaining results. Number one: ‘Want to look older and more aggressive? Grow a beard’. Number three dares you to grow epic: ’10 very good reasons why you should grow a giant beard’. I like number seven the most: ‘7 reasons to date a guy with a beard: Research shows that growing a beard keeps a guy younger-looking and cancer-free’. Contradictory advice on the affects of ageing but at least, as a beard wearer myself, I can consider myself immune to the big C (possibly).

It’s been nine months since I last shaved and the benefits have been many.

It’s taken me to grow a beard combined with turning 30 to bring an end to shop assistants asking me for ID for the purchase of four tinnies of Boddingtons and as someone who can’t sit still, it has given me a constant source for fiddling with; at my desk at work (suggests I’m deep in thought – tick), whilst watching TV and, erm,while I attempt to string together blog posts about beards…

why-to-grow-beardThere are minor drawbacks. My flatmate isn’t overly enamored with how long I spend trimming my chin locks in the bathroom and once compared discovering a stray facial hair to finding a spider’s leg in the sink. More of an irritant to me is cosying up with the duvet or a sleeping bag around my chin. It makes my bristles wiggle in somewhat uncomfortable fashion. The same effect is caused by bubbles in the bath getting all up in my face. Nonetheless, I’m committed to its longevity, albeit not quite on the same scale as the folks I met at Yorkshire Beard Day in Scarborough recently.

Organised by bearded people for bearded people, with a bearded band playing, beard t-shirts and badges for sale and, for the beardless, a generous supply of felt for cutting into the shape of a beard for the day, all proceeds went to Prostrate Cancer UK. It was the third time the event had been held by chief beard wearer, local man Anthony Springall, who works as a cake designer. A noble effort by the bearded community, make no mistake, but it was also a chance for egos to go to war. There was some serious bearding in the room, each man out to impress the others with the sheer manliness and coolness of their facial styling.

One chap mooched about the room wearing plastic curlers – like those you see the girls in Corrie wearing (in the hair on top of their heads obviously) in the salon – in his scraggly grey arrangement. Being early on in the proceedings, I asked if the curlers were installed to prepare his voluminous locks for judging later on. No, I was told, this was just his look. Okay. Someone might having been pulling my leg.

IMG_20140410_120552It’s hard not to stare at a brilliant beard. There was one slender gent, wearing braces over his short sleeved shirt, with an equally slender brown-haired beard that trailed neatly and perfectly column-like down to his waist. But my favourite was the epic effort sported by 31-year-old Andy Teague, pictured here, who is president of The Wessex Beardsmen, a branch of The British Beard Club and who took part in The World Beard and Moustache Championships in Germany last year.

I was staggered by the complexity and tidiness of his beard, and couldn’t help but ask to have my photo taken with him. He didn’t mind at all, and told me how he had driven seven hours up from Chad in Somerset with his wife and kids to be at the event. It had taken his wife two hours, using some form of gluing technique, to arrange his beard into the circular shapes which matched the shape of the lenses of his sunglasses. I believe this look falls into the steampunk category.

By mid-afternoon, 80 people had registered their beards as competitors across seven categories of beards. Despite encouragement from one of the organisers I decided not to enter my amateur beard into the King George V section.

Stylist for the day, Dawn Louise Cooper, who owns Scene hair salon in Scarborough, told me about the popularity of the event. A stylist of some repute herself, she has styled the hair of The Seahorses front man Chris Elms and has worked with celebrities such as Kerry Katona.

“It’s the Richard V category that usually the most popular but longer beards seem to be growing in popularity this year. Beards are bang on trend. A lot of beard wearers have a bit of an alternative look but beards seem to have gone a bit ‘David Beckham’ I think and the word has spread about this event and there’s more people here this year.”

I was unperturbed by joining the ‘masses’ of new beard wearers, not least because Dawn encouraged me to enter the competition, but I couldn’t help but feel out of depth in terms of chin prowess in this room in Scarborough. For now I’ll indulge in the weird and the wonderful of all things beard. To sign off, here’s a bit of light, factually accurate reading from Buzzfeed on why beards rule.

Dreaming.

thumb_COLOURBOX5661662 - CopyI didn’t know whether to title this post ‘Dreaming’ or ‘Believing’. As things stand, ahead of Liverpool FC’s absolutely huge showdown with Manchester City at Anfield this Sunday, I think the former is the most suitable description for how I feel about our title chances and that’s no problem at all. I’ll be sat in a Liverpool pub this Sunday, glued to the action on the big screen, with my head full of hopes and dreams.

I’d love to believe the Mighty Reds are going to romp on to claim their first top flight championship victory in 24 years, and I suspect should we take all three points this weekend I will start genuinely believing, but just dreaming of us lifting our first Barclay’s Premier League title is quite something. And I’m not kidding, I’ve fallen asleep on occasions this last week imagining captain fantastic Stevie G lifting that trophy in May, of the epic scenes of celebration in the city as the trophy is paraded before an adoring fanbase and of my own emotional response to the final whistle of the game that seals title victory. Sobriety in the days, nay weeks, that followed could not be guaranteed.

In 1990, when the likes of John Barnes and Ian Rush fired us to our eighteenth and last First Division title, I was seven-years-old, a full two years before my first footballing memories, which curiously are of watching the Euro ’92 final when Denmark upset the odds to defeat Germany in Gothenburg.

The 1994/95 season was my first of obsessively following the Reds. This is my twentieth season supporting the greatest team of my mum’s home city and in that time it’s no boast to say I’ve watched on as various incumbents of the liver bird shirt have won every single competition in which they have competed in, bar the Club World Cup and the Premier League.

We’ve come close before to ending the title drought. In 2008/09 we were tremendous with Gerrard at his most rampaging, playing off the once brilliant Fernando Torres; the energetic Javier Mascherano doggedly breaking up the opponents’ play, and the imperious Xabi Alonso spraying the ball around with effortless calm and precision. That was some Liverpool side, the best I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing and while it was a season in which we found another gear under the masterful guidance of Rafa Benitez, it was a season when we were always playing catch up to Manchester United and, albeit briefly when we destroyed those lot 4-1 at Old Trafford, it always felt that we were likely to just fall short.

This year, under Brendan Rodgers, in only his second season at the helm, it feels different. We have momentum as the league leaders with nine wins on the bounce. There is cohesion among our XI that I’ve never seen before. To a man, the players seem to anticipate intuitively where their teammates are on the pitch. They press the opponents when they have the ball as one and they attack in great numbers and with electric pace. Has there ever been a Liverpool side so bursting with pace and trickery? I can’t recall a greater attacking quartet in the last twenty years than Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge, Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling.

For long periods under Benitez, we played with great intensity and it was a joy to watch. That’s the hallmark of a great Liverpool side to me. But where we were intense as a counter attacking side under Rafa, we are a different proposition yet with similar qualities under Rodgers. We press hard but express our own game, attacking is the remit, even when we’re a couple of goals up and it’s refreshing to finally hear neutrals who’ve derided the Reds for years as boring, tell me how Liverpool are an entertaining team to watch.

The squad has great youth and I don’t mean rough diamonds, but quality young players who are already full internationals or are otherwise knocking on the door. Sterling is only 19 and has 72 appearances and nine goals to his name. Jon Flanagan is 21, has 36 appearances and one goal (among this season’s highlights for me, his emphatic finish during the 5-0 hammering of Tottenham at White Hart Lane in December). Coutinho turns 22 in June.

Perhaps not ‘youth’, but definitely still young players with plenty of potential for improvement are Henderson, who’s 23, and Joe Allen, Mamadou Sakho and Sturridge, all just 24. Combine them with the experience of Suarez, Gerrard, Glen Johnson, Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel, all top players familiar with the pressure that comes with playing on the grandest stages, then the chemistry of this Liverpool squad looks fantastic. With a few reinforcements to improve upon our second tier players next season – the likes of Aly Cissokho, Victor Moses and Iago Aspas – and I would expect a decent run in the Champions League, participation in which now looks assured and has, incredibly, been sidelined as we dream of what the next five games of this unbelievable season could yet, and just might, deliver.

I’m not counting my chickens. Fourteen wins on the bounce, a feat which looks likely to have to be achieved to immortalise this squad of players, in the history books, is a huge ask and has only been achieved once by an English side in the last 99 years – by Arsenal in 2002 (and that spread over the end of the 2001/02 season and the start of 2002/03).

What is for certain is that this season has already surpassed expectations, with a finish in top four the aspirational target before a ball was kicked last August, but it would be unreal for the dream to come true for two reasons – for Steven Gerrard to complete his trophy haul whitewash and, of course, in this, the 25th anniversary year of Hillsborough, for the 96. There would be no better tribute. YNWA.

Jigging.

thumb_COLOURBOX5661662 - CopyIf you know me at all, you will know I’m somewhat partial to throwing the odd shape on the dancefloor. I can recall one such occasion on a mostly unoccupied dancefloor at a work bash in some random part of Scotland working a Beyonce routine like no man has ever done so before (the song about the ring); I recall unashamedly thrusting my arms in various directions into the sweaty air of a Sheffield nightclub finely balanced on a podium when I felt untouchable, shirt unbuttoned, in my student days.

Essentially I’ve generally no issues with making a fool out of myself for the sake of a bit of fun. I had however, until very recently, never been confronted with a ceilidh. Describing this form of dance in official, culturally respectful terms – doths cap to the Scots and Irish – it is a social event with Scottish or Irish folk music and singing, traditional dancing, and storytelling. The singing here was thankfully limited to the band and required no audience participation. Traditional dancing? Yes, there was plenty, although I would describe it as a high-tempo deviation of the hokie-cokie that wouldn’t look out of place in a Hobbiton dance scene. Storytelling? Perhaps, but it was lost on me.

It was a fine occasion. One of my besties’ wedding celebrations in a fine hotel in the centre of Harrogate, North Yorkshire, and a fair proportion of the guests were getting in on the action – the bride and groom, their parents and family and friends across the age spectrum. There were plenty who took to it as naturals. There were others who did not. From where I was standing – nay, prancing – I was one of the latter.

Here’s what I didn’t look like:

 

Billed beforehand, I knew a ceilidh was on the cards, I just wasn’t entirely sure what one looked like. Bless the brave first couples who stepped up. It soon became clear, as the band instructed them through their paces, that there were stringent rules on the sequence of dance patterns – they have to be repeated a prescribed number of times and strung together in order… over and over and over. Now, I’m more of a freestyler, more at home letting the beats be absorbed by my tipsy brain and translated through my limbs as mock-serious moves. I’m a fan of ‘the compressed dancer’ for example; fists bobbing at chest height, shoulders hunched in – it’s a classic; compatible with a wide range of musical genres.

Me & Kelvin, the stylish groom.

Me & Kelvin, the stylish groom.

Ceilidh intimidated me. My memory is a tad shaky at the best of times so remembering the steps with a belly full of wine in front of a room of people was something of an ask. It was this, and maybe some apprehension after my last attempt at cultural performance in Ireland – when, making my gaelic football debut, I fell full-frontal onto the heel of a friend, landing on my rib cage (an affair which led to six weeks dosed up on codeine as muscle damage repaired itself) – that saw me issue pleas of denial when the mother of the bride wandered over to our table of school friends and demanded I accompany her on the dancefloor.

My resistance was expressed in frantic pointing, to volunteer a friend across the table, alas it was in vain. An awkward ten seconds passed and I suddenly felt guilty for leaving the mother of the bride hanging like this with so many watching eyes on our exchange. So I stepped up like a gent… and proceeded to dance like an under the influence version of the Lord of the Dance Michael Flatley.

Stumbling through the moves, learned as we went along, my dance partner put me to shame. Where she recalled when and in which direction to swing round holding hands, then to trot around and negotiate a couple forming a tunnel with their hands held aloft before sidestepping around in circles in a group, I was none the wiser. In fact I highly suspect I’ve recalled the order incorrectly here. We repeated the maneuvers maybe seven or eight times and I was utterly shattered by the end of it. My performance had been ridiculous and I felt worthy of indulging in a cigar outside to regain my composure at the end of the night.

Ceilidh: approach with caution.

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