31. My death-defying mountain climb
1980ish… There’s a lovely wee sea bay at Cwmtydu (“Coom-tidi” will do for our purposes) in west Wales, a striking little beach that’s loomed over by the great reaching hillsides of Cardigan Bay. The family spent a great deal of time in Wales when I was young and I still hold the place and the people in very high regard. When I was about eight years old, a sudden adventurous spirit took me, and I began climbing the cliff on the south side of the beach. It was steep but not too difficult a climb – but I hadn’t realised that, at the top of the cliff, the hillside continued very steeply, and with very little to hold onto. The dark inlet in the picture is where my climb began, and you can see that it doesn’t really let off after that, but I couldn’t see that from beach level. I remember being terrified, and it’s probably the first time I talked to myself, trying to rationalise the situation by drowning the fear signals with assembled language. I remember it was even to steep to just sit down and take stock – it was keep going or don’t. So I kept going, talking and praying out loud, ignoring the fear as best I could. Of course, as soon as the landscape flattened out (in the same way you can’t remember pain, because it would drive you mad) it was just as if it had never happened, and I happily found an easier way back down to the beach and the tiny tidal lake where we’d sail our inflatable dinghies. I always thought it was an extremely personal moment until my mum mentioned a few months ago that she’d been watching me every minute, equally terrified, and talking and praying along with me. I think it was incredible that she didn’t say anything at the time, but instead let me learn my own lesson, which I did – but realising she’d been with me at every moment was a separate valuable experience that I’m still processing.
32. The magic of Rannoch Moor
2002ish… My then-girlfriend and I had enjoyed a grand dinner in Fort William and we were returning south, later than planned, one late summer night. As we crossed Rannoch Moor I asked her to stop the car, because it was midnight, and I couldn’t pass up the chance to stand alone on Rannoch Moor at midnight. That place is magical. Severe, unforgiving, stark – but beautiful, truthful and real. I’d never been there at midnight before and I haven’t been since either. It wasn’t really her thing so she stayed in the car as I wandered away from the road, over a wee hillock, just so I was utterly on my own with no tarmac, no light pollution, no noise of humanity. For my Sixth Year Studies Music course I’d written a short composition inspired by the moor, and it was running through my head, and I’m glad to say it worked perfectly. Just as I returned to the car I heard a weird thundering sound –– and a herd of wild dear bolted from one side of the road to the other, appearing from nowhere north and disappearing into nowhere south. For a very brief moment there was just me, the moor, and the dear running past me, their eyes lit by the cold moon at midnight. Unforgettable.
33. I spent all my money on whisky and beer
I once had a “job for life” – which wouldn’t have been any such thing unless I was prepared to mortgage my ambition, happiness and potential – and I’ve had several other entertaining jobs. I’ve worked for newspapers, magazine, radio stations, TV stations, bands, PR agencies and other stuff I can’t remember, along with my own projects. I’ve been very comfortably well off and I’ve been very painfully poor, and I’ve learned to treat those two impostors just the same, within the realms of survival, of course. If one moment could define my attitude to money it would be the day, recently, I had £25 left to my name… and I went to the pub anyway. It may sound like an act of desperation but it was actually an act of self-confidence: “This will work out. You’ve been here before and you will be again. Live it.” And you know what? It did work out, after an immense amount of effort (which has never scared me).
34. I saw more ghosts.. my wife did too
July 7, 2013… Back on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, at the Crown And Anchor Inn, about 2am on a summer night. The haar was blowing in off the sea in billows and it was getting chilly. I began seeing figures in the haar, but I wasn’t totally surprised because I probably wanted to. I was beginning to weave a story about Eadfrith, the eighth-century bishop of Lindisfarne who’s thought to have masterminded the creation of the wonderful Lindisfarne Gospels. (I have a single replica page on my living room wall. If I’m ever truly well-off, I will buy myself a £30,000 replica of the whole book, and consider myself cheaply let-off.) Then I began seeing what I thought was the beginning of a Viking raid on the island, which would have been at least 80 years after Eadfrith’s death. I saw islanders running from the beach to the abbey in a panicked attempt at finding shelter. My wife was beside me on a wee seat outside the inn, so I started telling her what I was seeing. There was a young monk, carrying a book, waving for people to follow him. There was a woman, carrying a child and shouting on two others to follow. There was a young man – “who wants to stand and fight?” said my wife. “I see him!” And she saw the woman and the monk, and started pointing out people we could both see, and we could both describe individually at the same moment. Look, I don’t care, okay? I’m sensitive to these things, partly because I want to be, as I’ve admitted; but she was never like that, and certainly wouldn’t just entertain my fantasies. Maybe I programmed myself to see what she was seeing, because I wanted the moment. Maybe reality is exactly what we say it is. But I’d like to think we both saw the same thing at the same time, and that, even if it wasn’t a moment in the strictest sense of reality, it was real for us.
35. I felt the spark of life
I don’t have any kids. Sometimes it bothers me – after all, isn’t that kind of why we’re here? Sometimes I accept that, if I’m genuine about following my life-path as a storyteller, I need all of my energy to spend on that (even if others don’t). If part of everyone’s desire is to have marked their existence, leaving a legacy of kids is a great way to do it, but I’d argue that leaving all the stories I’ve written has its own validity. But I’m always interested in talking to people about wanting to be parents and becoming parents, and of course as a bloke I struggle to deal with the enormity of pregnancy, and I take the chance when it comes along to talk it through with those who are in the middle of dealing with it. So a friend of mine was in the pub (not drinking, having just finished work) and I was asking her about the “baby bump.” She took my left hand and guided it over the bump, telling me which bit of baby was where, and how development would go and how baby would move and all that. Which was fascinating enough –– but just as she moved my hand over the baby’s chest and heart, I felt an electric spark in my wedding ring. It’s difficult to describe the amount of energy I received in that split-second. It’s difficult to explain what it meant. I could compare it to a 1970s computer being hooked up to a 2017 one and being totally overwhelmed by the broadband of data it’s asked to receive. The moment was so overwhelming that I didn’t even finish my drink – I went straight home and thought long and hard. Every time I remember the moment I think long and hard again, but the meaning behind the spark evades me. The feeling doesn’t. It was loving, embracing, positive, confident and young, and it felt like a perfect description of what life should be. So, worth thinking about, I reckon.
36. I met the Edinburgh Two
2016… I’m a kinder person since my marriage ended (those who know me, I think, will admit with some surprise that it is indeed the case). I never want anyone – anyone – to go through what I had to, and it saddens me that, right now, someone out there (seriously, I’m so sorry if it’s you) is fighting to deal with it. My first reaction, like that of many, was to hide from it. I got a small fridge, filled it with junk food, moved into the spare room and hid there for several days, leaving only to go to the toilet and to collect more provisions. I’d often wondered about the Sting song I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying; I’d wondered if it was just smarmy kid-on emotion, or whether there was some real truth in it, and now I can attest that there is. “Everybody’s got to leave the darkness some time…” And I did, and I went with my band to play a concert in Edinburgh, and it was a big night for us, and it was the first time I’d really faced people as a single man, with a groove in my left hand where the ring used to be – and, dare I say it, a groove in my drumming because I really enjoyed that show. Afterwards, as is our wont, we retired to a pub near the home of our guitarist, where there was a mixture of friends, fans, crew and strangers all bustling around. I like to find a quiet corner at the best of times, with just a couple of friends to talk to, rather than looking for larger crowds to join. So I found myself at the bar, but for a while I found myself there alone, as my mates circled and spiralled in the happy society. I’d begun making jokes about trying to be single… I painted a picture of taking a woman out on our first date, accidentally calling her by my ex-wife’s name, bursting into tears, throwing up on the table then running for the door, only to knock myself out on the plate-glass exit… I’d spoken of losing weight and tidying my hair and smartening up… I’d spoken of joining Tinder – at which one of my favourite but young bartenders replied: “Do they even do a Tinder Plus?” But at least I was out, among people, and not feeling entirely terrified. There were two young blonde women at the bar, first-year university students. They started talking to me and bought me a drink or two. They liked my hair the way it was, they liked my beard, they thought it was cool I was a drummer (“Wait till you find out I’m an author… bebbe!”) and, well, they were enjoying my company. One of the very attractive and interesting young ladies told me that they shared a flat just round the corner, and asked if I’d like to join them for a drink at their place. I lost the place, to be honest. I said, “Look, I’m really sorry, but I’m very new at being single and I’ve forgotten the rules. Which one of you is chatting me up?” They looked at each other. “Oh, both of us,” one replied. Well, my friends, I’m sorry to report that my bottle crashed – it was all too much for one night. I thanked them but declined, they left, and I returned to the aftershow party. BUT! You should have seen the change in my fragile male ego! “Something made me smile, something seemed to ease the pain… something about the universe and how it’s all connected…” Thanks, Sting. (And how often do you hear that?)
37. I planned to dig up Robert Burns’ body
2006… A mercurial businessman called Brooks Mileson decided he wanted to take a football team to the top of the league, so he bought Gretna FC and ever-so-nearly succeeded. And he might have done too had not the gates of the ever-so-powerful establishment not been shut against him. (Which is why he was doing it, I suspect.) Brooks loved the Hugh Trowsers Band, and wanted them to record and release the team’s cup final anthem single, and that led to three weeks of work as their manager which I’m never really sure happened, because it was just a haze of hard, but well-funded, work. The night before we recorded the video, I took the band to a hotel where they could enjoy a wee bit of the “lads on tour” vibe, so that their performance while miming the next day would, hopefully, be a little less wooden than it might otherwise be. It was a memorable night… despite never having scaled the heights of full-time musicianship, the guys definitely made a bid for professional-level debauchery, and in fact they nearly got kicked out of the hotel while I ignored them in a separate room because I could see it was likely to happen. (Ultimately, fuck ‘em, that’s the management attitude!) It has to be said that there was one amongst us who felt it was all very silly, childish and beneath contempt, which made it slightly more difficult to push the esprit-de-corps I needed for the following day. The solution was to up the ante. As we sat in an Indian restaurant in Dumfries, I remembered that the lead singer was a massive fan of Robert Burns, and that said dead poet was buried only miles or so from where we sat. I suggested that, instead of the usual band photograph, we should dig up what was left of Burns’ body and have the singer pose with it – two bards united in life and death. Well, it would have been a great joke just for the look on the face of the one who disapproved of us. But there was more – sensing mischief, people began suggesting how it could be done. There were a variety of very experienced professionals in the band, who could offer genuine practical advice; and before we knew it, and only after a few more drinks, we’d more or less talked ourselves into doing it. We’d even started budgeting the project. I suspect that, if the restaurant hadn’t closed and kicked us out, we’d have become grave robbers.
38. I got my first pipe… but I never smoked it
1995… A boating holiday on the Norfolk Broads with three dear friends, and most of it still exists on VHS home video, and so much the worse for us. I was never a smoker, but I became fascinated with pipes when I was around five years old – there was an antique stall at Carmarthen market in Wales, and every time the family was there I’d hang around the stall. The two old women had a pair of pipes on display, one carved in the shape of a Native American chief’s head, the other some kind of other face that I couldn’t place. I had the sense to know I’d get into trouble from my parents for buying smoking tools, so I never did buy them. (I went back as an adult and of course the stall was gone.) Anyway, there was no such limit to my stupidity while three burly Scotsman drank themselves along the waterways of Norfolk, and so it was that, on a trip to an antique store in Great Yarmouth, I got myself a pipe. Then I went into a tobacconist (you could still get them then) and bought everything else I needed to start my smoking career. Of course, it wasn’t the smoking. It was how wise you could become in a matter of moments! Pipe-smokers are wise. Everyone knows that. I imagined having a long beard, saying these incredibly insightful things that would leave people nodding in bewildered silence, then returning to my pint –– and two of those three things have come to pass. But back in 1995 that was all (yes, and sorry) a pipe dream. Returning to our boat, I sat on the forward deck and began to gracefully load my new toy. I also, at that time, had a pair of gold-rimmed 19th century spectacles, which had belonged to my Uncle Martin, who died before I was born (he was a priest who passed away on the altar during midnight Mass at Christmas, I’m told). Classic glasses, classic pipe. I lit up, began puffing and waited to see just how incredibly wise I was about to become. My mate said: “Here, let’s have a look at that.” Proudly I passed him my new pride and joy. He dropped it into the river. “You looked like a fucking prick,” he said. Thanks to my obsession with Jeremy Brett’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, I have a small but excellent collection of pipes, although I don’t smoke. But no one says I look like a fucking prick any more. Perhaps because it’s obvious…
39. Spike Milligan: his part in my uprising
Spike Milligan’s war memoirs are in turns hilarious and tragic. It’s a genuine, difficult account of a sane, intelligent, naive, optimistic young man trying to make sense of the fact that God’s creation is destroying itself and it’s alright because leaders of church and state have said so. He never judges, he just reports, but his insight is such that it’s difficult not to feel the truth of his position. It inspired me to write my music biographies in a certain style, and I’ve reproduced his account of the moment he nearly died in Italy as a moment in Simon The Fox, when the narrator comes close to being killed by cannon fire. Spike Milligrew, that well-known typing error, wrote down some amazing lines that I’ll never forget. Out of all the authors including Douglas Adams, Alan Coren, PG Wodehouse and others, who have left me helpless with embarrassingly loud laughter in public (I do have an embarrassingly loud laugh, which I inherited from my grandpa, so it’s staying), a single line from Milligan has always been the killer. After having discussed at length a period in which he was part of an entertainment troupe, he suddenly drops in that they’d had to carry a piano with them. “I haven’t mentioned the piano before,” he writes, “because i was waiting for the person we stole it from to die.” L, as they say, OL. The whole series of books is worth reading if you still need to be convinced that insanity is entirely sensible.
40. I lived in the Young Ones’ house
1992ish… It’s long story and I can’t apologise enough to my long-suffering parents, but I suspect it was more character-building than going to uni, or at least the same… There was a four-bedroom house and I stayed in one room, my brother staying in another and we rented out the other two. They were almost always rented by other band members or similar ne’erdowells. It very quickly became exactly like the Young Ones’ sitcom house and we must have been a nightmare to the neighbours. There was live music at stupid times of the day, there were parties at stupid times of the week, and in our desperate, uninformed desire to create we tried to do everything imaginable beyond the rules. There were days of going out wearing nightclothes. There was the Christmas tree hung upside down. There were the songs written especially for the answering machine message, which meant that, when someone dialled a wrong number, they dialled back, told their friends and more people dialled in. On the other side, it was a genuine sanctuary for some young folk who were dealing with troubled times, and despite all the partying and silliness I’m proud of having been able to help some folk who, without us, might have had to resort to something much, much worse to survive whatever wsa going on in their lives. My favourite moment involves the “classic” lineup of the household – three musicians of a similar age and a slightly younger lad who became our adopted son. It was a very bright summer day, and none of us had any money, but we wanted to have a festival. So we set up a band’s worth of equipment in the garden, took some of the living room furniture outside too, and held our very own festival for whoever was passing in the street, mainly kids, who had a great time. All we had to drink was straight vodka – we couldn’t even afford mixers – but we found some bottles of food colouring, and hey-ho, the straight vodka became cocktails. (Something similar has been known to happen in my modern-day garden, although perhaps with less youthful abandon. But the lesson is: never, ever stop creating. Never, ever grow up.)