Monthly Archives: June 2011

I like to ride my bicycle

Awake at just after 6am this morning, glancing at the digital clock by the side of the bed, my instinct was to get up, get breakfast, and get out on my bike for an hour and a half, clock another 20 miles before Emma was even awake.

But I decided against it today, because I’m aching a little, and it wouldn’t be wise. I played football for the first time in about a month on Thursday evening, and it left me a little stiff. Today we’re due to spend a couple of hours on our allotment for the first time, digging it over and planning what we’ll plant and where, and I’m anticipating this could be quite tiring; probably too tiring if I do 20 miles first thing.

But the main reason I decided against a Sunday morning cycle, the main cause of the leftover fatigue in my muscles, is that fact that yesterday, with Pete (brother-in-law) and Pete (colleague) I cycled a 50-mile loop from Exeter down the river Exe and the coast road to Teignmouth, up the west bank of the river Teign to Newton Abbot, and then through Kingsteignton, Chudleigh, and over Haldon Hill via Old Exeter Road back to Exeter. We ascended 200 feet out of Dawlish, 300 feet into Teignmouth, 290 feet into Newton Abbot via Milbur, and then to a peak of 824 feet at the top of Haldon, according to Pete (brother-in-law)’s GPS tracker. It took us four and a quarter hours, at an average speed of just under 12mph.

I’d not done a serious ride, with ascents, for about a fortnight – since before going to Spain. The day after I got back from Spain I went out at quarter to seven, cycled to Dawlish and back, and then went out past Broadclyst and along the back of the airport, intending to do 40 miles. I hit the wall about 32 miles in, and the last six were torturously slow; I didn’t make it to 40. I couldn’t. I think the wall was made of olives, bread, jamon, and cerveza.

I wasn’t really into cycling as a kid. I don’t think I had my own bike properly until I went to university and bought myself a red mountain thing with suspension, which, with hindsight, was wholly inappropriate for the type of riding I was doing (to and from university, all on roads or tarmac cycle paths). Before that I had an inherited Grifter; we lived at the top of the cliff in Dawlish, and cycling in any direction meant going downwards first, and ergo upwards last, which was not an appealing prospect on a cumbersome bike with three practically useless gears, so I tended not to cycle at all.

When I moved back from university I brought the red mountain thing with suspension with me, and I cycled to Exeter on it a couple of times, up and along the river, on Saturdays, after I’d met Emma, because I was in that first flush of romance, and I wanted to see her, if only for a moment, in the record shop where she worked. Then I put it in the garage, and never looked at it again.

Nine years later, just married, Emma and I decided to get bikes via Cyclescheme, and I chose myself a Marin hybrid, intending to cycle to work and maybe occasionally down to Double, or perhaps even Turf, Locks, on sunny summer days, for a relaxing pint. But then I realised that, when you live by the river, and mile upon mile of almost unbroken cycle path (part of National Cycle Network Route 2) is on your doorstep, cycling can be a lot of fun. When I also discovered that I could track my cycling using the GPS on my iPhone, and log my trips, and count my miles covered… well; I’ve cycled 1,600 miles in the last 12 months, almost by accident.

At first this was almost all along the river; 7-10 miles pretty much every other day, hit the cycle path and go for 35 minutes, an hour, in the evenings. Occasional longer rides out to Dawlish or Exmouth and back. But I’ve built up, aided by the competitiveness of Pete (brother-in-law) and my boss, who’s training for John O’Groats to Land’s End, and now a 26-mile ride seems average. The two Petes and I did a 42-mile round trip one Saturday before I went to Spain, up to Cullompton, across to Ottery, and back, fuelled by malt loaf.

I prefer flats to hills. Some cyclists see hills as challenges; love the exhilaration and the sense of attack. I’m not so keen, a hangover from the Grifter, perhaps. I’d rather hit the road where it undulates gently, and keep a consistent pace. Although, saying that, I enjoyed hitting the downward part of Haldon Hill hard yesterday, pedalling through it and finding the bottom a minute or two before the Petes, who took it slightly more sensibly. But the ascent was hard. I don’t like to plan a route, either; I like a sense of discovery, I think. Other than setting out to go towards Totness (obviously we thought better of it at Newton Abbot), we had no idea where we were going yesterday, especially on the return leg, through Chudleigh.

I’m at the point where I’m lusting after new bikes now; drop handlebars, lighter frames, carbon fibre front forks; something that can take me further, faster, but still have a pannier with a malt loaf and my camera slung onto it for full days out. I want to plan a couple of trips around the camera, taking in spots I want to photograph; the china clay quarries beyond Kingsteignton that we zipped past yesterday for one, a couple of follies and old industrial brick buildings for waterworks that I see in the distance sometimes.

I’ve tried running, and I hate it, but I love cycling. I feel a bit foolish for not realising this until I was in my 30s.


Music we have listened to in the mountains

We knew that the house where we’ve been staying in Andalucía had no TV and no internet (theoretically; we found some going spare on the roof) when we booked it, which was kind of the point – this holiday has definitely been about getting away from it all. But we also knew that it has a CD player (two in fact), and while we suspected that they wouldn’t quite be up to my usual standards of fidelity, we thought we’d bring some music along, just in case.

So a couple of nights before we left I tweeted asking for recommendations of music to bring along, and inspired by the answers received (thank you all) we selected about 18 albums to pack into our old CD travel case (not something which gets used that often in the iPod age).

(Regarding what people recommended: there were a handful of things I’d never heard of or didn’t own; lots of postrock, most of which I felt was a bit too doomy for the kind of break we had in mind; and some ambient / gentle electronic stuff, which seemed like a very sensible option, but not something I’d want too much of).

So, here is what we’ve been listening to, when we’ve been listening, over the last six days in the mountains. I’ve broken it into two chunks; music we’ve listened to in the house, and music we’ve listened to in the car (after I got comfortable enough on crazy Spanish mountain roads to be able to have music on).

en el interior de la casa

Luomo – Vocal City
Susumo Yokota – Grinning Cat
Boards of Canada – The Campfire Headphase
Yokota and BoC were both Twitter recommendations; the former someone I’ve to listened to or thought about in probably six years, but who instantly seemed like a good suggestion. I picked Grinning Cat over the other three or four albums we have as, well, we couldn’t take a real cat with us; I also remember it being more cheery than The Boy And The Tree or Sakura, if less ambiently beatific.

BoC just seemed like such an obvious choice that I hadn’t considered; I picked Campfire Headphase as I feel I have more ownership of it than most of their other material; perhaps because I reviewed it for Stylus way back when.

Luomo’s minimalism I thought would suit the massive blue skies I was anticipating, and I thought would also be good to read to; it was – all three of these albums got listened to while I read The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga.

Caribou – Andorra
Panda Bear – Person Pitch

Andorra begins with the same first three letters as Andalucía, and I suspect is similarly mountainous, sun-drenched, and beautiful; the album certainly is, dynamic rhythmical peaks and troughs, stretches of exquisite beauty, and sunshine melodies abound. I think Emma put this on the CD player, again while we were reading in the first two nights here, but rather than encouraging me to consume words on the page I found it distracting; probably because I like it so much.

Person Pitch I bought because Noah Lennox lives in Lisbon, which is where he made the album as I recall, and I wanted to see if the aesthetic transplanted as well as I suspected to the Mediterranean; it does. In fact it works so well with pueblo blancos and views of the straight of Gibraltar that I’m tempted to slap anyone who over-emphasises its Beach Boys / West Coast heritage. Again, it was put on while we were reading, but distracted a little; though not as much as Andorra. I don’t think we got all the way through it before either going to bed or leaving the house (I forget when exactly we played it).

Brian Eno – Before and After Science
Laura Marling – I Speak Because I Can

The Eno I brought because I’ve been hankering after listening to it since I chose Another Green World for Devon Record Club; there’s been a recent ILM poll about it, too.

The Marling I brought because Emma loves it as much as I do, if not more. However, neither of us could identify it just from the picture on the disc, so we played it blind; the opening rising note almost fooled me into thinking it was another ambient album for 15 seconds; we wee both pleased when it wasn’t. I remember I purchased this album in Tesco, as a present for Emma, one evening in the week of release while popping out for bread or something. Perhaps the best thing I’ve ever bought there.

en el interior de la automóvil

PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
The Patrick Wolf and Wild Beasts albums have both lead to me talking about this record in recent weeks as one of my three favourites so far this year, but I’ve not actually listened to it in a while, hence bringing it on holiday. I also had a fleeting suspicion that, despite its overt Englishness, it might work well when translated to Spain, and Andalucía in particular; the graphic talk of limbs hanging from trees and men hid with guns in valleys could easily be about struggles against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, or any of the other pitched battles this part of the world has seen, against the Moors, the English, everyone else who has seen the gateway to both the Mediterranean and Africa as strategically essential territory. Likewise the colonial influences o the music here, samples of Arabic singing, reggae lilt, Constantinople, etc etc. I was right; of course Let England Shake is of such quality that it works anywhere, for anything, but it was particularly good as we drove the winding, ascending and descending road from Gaucin to the autovia on the way to Tarifa, the southernmost point of all Europe.

Beirut – The Flying Club Cup
Wild Beasts – Smother
Four Tet – There Is Love In You
Owen Pallett – Heartland

The Beirut was brought because a; I believe he has a new record soon, which I am looking forward to, and b; because of its European influences. Admittedly these are French rather than Spanish, but beyond Spanish Bombs by The Clash I couldn’t think of a great deal of music we owned with any kind of Spanish heritage at all. Given the dross I’ve heard being pumped out of young men’s cars, and the horrific selection available in the one music shop we ventured into in Gibraltar (they had the Joe McElderry album, for heaven’s sake; I’ve never even seen it in the UK), I’m not surprised by this, but vaguely inspired to investigate; there must be some Spanish music that doesn’t make me feel ill, surely? Recommendations welcome.

Wild Beasts was brought simply because I’m in love with it at the moment; likewise Four Tet, which I was in love with so dearly last year but haven’t played in so long, such is the arbitrariness of the cut-off points music geeks enforce on themselves. It fitted the winding coastal road out of Tarifa beautifully, even more so than Smother fitted the frustrating mission to find a parking space in Tarifa.

The Owen Pallett album was brought along for two reasons; firstly much the same call to listen to a favourite from last year as with the Four Tet, and secondly I thought it would fit well with the Beirut (Owen guests on the Beirut album). We listened to Heartland on the second stretch of the return journey from Tarifa, as we wound our way back through the mountains. It struck me that it would make an excellent choice for the record club one time…

We have another 24 hours before we leave for Malaga airport and home; if we listen to any more music tonight, which we may, as after three nights out in a row I think we want a quite evening with a bottle of wine and books again, I shall make a note and edit in our choices.

My personal history of cats

When we bought our first flat it happened quickly. Emma had just finished her degree, which she had started late, and started working fulltime, and so one Saturday evening we sat down and estimated how much we could afford in rent each month. The following Tuesday, before we’d even looked at any rental places, Emma’s dad asked us if we could get a mortgage, and offered us a deposit. We consulted a financial advisor, found out how much we could afford, and started looking. We saw four flats, all broadly similar, two-bedroom affairs in and around central Exeter. On stepping inside the fourth, which wasn’t quite finished being refurbished, and consisted of the top two floors of an old Georgian terraced house just off Magdalene Road, we fell in love. The open plan living room / kitchen had two big old sash windows and was flooded with morning light, rooftop views over Victorian terraces, the church steeple, a park at the end of the road. We bought it.

Inside two weeks it became apparent that we, who had each grown up in houses surrounded by brothers and animals, needed something alive in the flat with us.

My family home since I was 6 months old was a modern, 4-bedroom affair at the top of a cliff. At one point it was occupied by myself (approximately 7 years old at the time), my two brothers (16 and 18), my parents, a black Labrador, a golden retriever, a collie-cross-labrador, and a dark brown tortoiseshell cat who went by the name of Purdie. This seemed strange to me, because she didn’t purr often, and seemed unbothered by humans. She lived almost exclusively on top of the bin house, the roof of which was slightly angled, and which caught the sun for most of the day in our small, south-facing back garden.

Purdie died around that time, and Sally, the black Labrador, too: the cat of liver disease, in my dad’s lap one evening after I had gone to bed; the dog by the vet’s method of eternal quietude. Purdie was replaced by Cindy (who had been named Tinkerbell, but which my dad, rightly, said was a ludicrous name and was not something he would call out into the garden when summoning her in for the night), who we got from a rescue home. The home said she was four years old, but she seemed barely out of kittenhood. Where Purdie had been aloof, an animal who happened to live with humans, Cindy, blonde and lithe, was supremely ladylike, and much more comfortable in a lap.

One time, perhaps two years after she had come to live with us, Cindy went missing. She had been missing before, for a day or two. But this time one day became two, became five, became ten, became a fortnight, three weeks, became loss of hope. Became the sigh of resignation that she was never coming back, that she had wondered too far, found the main road, and been run over. By this time the golden retriever had gone to live with a neighbour, and we were left with just the collie-cross, who was energetic, highly strung, hard work. We decided, 25 days after Cindy had disappeared, after we had spent every evening and weekend searching the estate, calling her name, asking the neighbours, to get a new cat, and went again to the rescue home. There we chose two, a brother and sister, Mork and Mindy, and we left a donation and brought them home.

On the 28th day, our elderly neighbour heard a noise in his garage. It was Cindy. She seemed to have been stuck on top of a wardrobe in there for the entire four weeks she had been gone, subsisting on nothing but drips of water from the roof. It was spring. She was tiny, malnourished, close to death. She still had her collar around her neck, but you could have fitted a second cat into it. We brought her home, wrapped in a blanket, and placed her gently onto my parents’ bed. Mork and Mindy had been in the house for three days or so, and to have this intruder, who’s scent had presumably vanished from the house, subsumed by that of the collie-cross and by the smells of three sons and two parents, took umbrage. They hissed, they stalked, they wanted this frail, tiny, pokey-boned creature out. The collie-cross did not. He sat at the threshold of my parents’ bedroom and he growled every time the two new cats came near. We consulted the vet, who pronounced Cindy very lucky, and gave us a feeding regime. And then, regretfully, for my eldest brother had made quick friends with Mork, who was shy and timid and didn’t like to spend time with the younger siblings, we decided that we had to take Mork and Mindy back to the rescue centre. We phoned them, explained, and they understood.

Cindy was slowly nursed back to health, not least by the collie-cross. They became firm friends; amazing friends; inseparable, unlike any cat and dog I have ever seen together. When they had first met he had nosed her curiously and she had savaged his snout with her claws, asserting that she was the boss and not to be sniffed at, literally or metaphorically. But after her entrapment in the garage, Pete, which was the collie-cross’ name, became her companion and bodyguard rather than her subject. He would curl up on the floor in the living room, and after Cindy had tired of a human lap, she would curl up in the nook of his supine form. They would wash each other, follow each other around the house and further besides; dad walked Pete every morning and evening, the same route, and in the evening Cindy would accompany them almost all the way around.

She was an intelligent cat, though, cunning as well as ladylike; for many years our front door was glass covered by wooden slats (like every frontdoor on our estate, which was modelled after the charm and character of Clovelly in North Devon, and thus, like every modelled modern estate, had scant real charm or character of its own), and when she wanted to come in she would climb the slats and lift the knocker. The first few times this happened we were baffled; she would have climbed down to the floor by the time we got there, and we would say “surely not?” and be left puzzled. Eventually we saw her climb up and lift the knocker with her paw, and we understood.

Cindy lived to a grand old age; if the rescue centre were correct, and she was four when we got her, then she would have been 21 when she died. The final few years saw her slow down dramatically; while she was never an energetic cat or a hunter (thought she did bring the occasional bird or mouse back to my mother as a morning trophy), she loved to stroll her territory. The vet gave her a number of steroid injections in her final months; each one would turn her into a kitten again for a few days, until age came back into her joints and made the stairs difficult to climb, and then one day we decided it wasn’t fair to keep doing this, to give her fading glimpses of vitality that made the veil of old age seem even crueller, and we let her pass on.

Emma had had cats too; one named Bogie in her childhood, and, when we met, a black hunter called Duster and a longhaired, floppy, friendly cat, who we suspect may have had a touch of Norwegian Forest Cat in him, called Harley. Harley died early of cat leukaemia, and Emma was distraught; he had been her cat, had slept on her bed, had followed her around the house like a daft, affectionate dog. Harley wasn’t daft, though – there was a drawer in the livingroom where the cat toys were kept, and he observed where it was when they were put away and then methodically set about learning to open it by himself.

After Harley died, Emma’s younger brother acquired a ginger and white tom kitten, called Goose for a day and then rechristened, by his girlfriend, with the slightly less unusual name of Tom. He came away from his mother too early, needed almost hand rearing, and seemed not to quite understand that he was a cat, or how to be social. If you spoke to him, he would turn and face the other way. If you stroked him, he would bite you; not aggressively, but a little too hard all the same. He too died early, age about four, cat leukaemia yet again, and, suspecting that Duster was a carrier but not a sufferer, Emma’s family decided not to have another cat until after Duster’s time had passed.

So you see that living in a house with just the two of us, no younger or elder brothers, no dogs, no cats, seemed unusual, seemed alien. But it was a flat, two stories up, with no garden, only a tiny concrete yard that one had to pass two other flats to get to, and neither of us thought it would be fair to keep a moggy in these circumstances.

Emma researched. For the first month or two that we were in the flat, she was working in an inbound call centre, with internet access and long stretches of nothingness to do. Some breeds of cats, pedigree breeds, were suited to living indoors, had insanely friendly temperaments, thought they were human, had no sense of direction, couldn’t be let outside for their own good, because they would wander off, get lost, get beaten up by smaller, tougher, more streetwise animals, and never return. So we decided that, as tight as money was (always is for a young couple in their first house) we absolutely must be able to afford a few hundred pounds for such a cat. We drove one evening past Okehampton to see a breeder and meet some kittens. The breeder brought two out, ragdolls, one so perfectly coloured with a grey face that it looked like an alien, the other with smudged markings that meant he would never be good enough to show. His nose was picked out in black, with a tattoo of a flamenco dancer in his fur, almost. The alien-faced cat huffed at me; the smudge-nosed cat clung to my shoulder and purred. I reacted, as I did often to cats, by developing an inflamed neck, streaming eyes. Emma wondered if we were doing the right thing. We declared that we were in love with the smudge-nosed kitten, and we would collect her in three weeks, when she was old enough, and we would call her Mabel.

Three weeks later we went to pick Mabel up, but the breeder had an apology; she had mis-sexed the kitten, and Mabel had, quite clearly now, two tiny brown balls beneath his tail. We put ‘Mabel’ in the box, got in the car, and set to drive home. He looked up at me as I was about to start the car, with his enormous blue eyes (a feature of ragdoll cats, alongside long, lustrous coats, and the most bizarre, placid, affectionate, demanding temperament), and I said out loud “his name is Bob”. And that is what we called him. I have no idea why I said it; it just seemed right.

Of course he’s not just called Bob. He is referred to by a number of variations, as is any cat. He is “The Bob”, with a pronounced and deliberate definite article. He is “Bob-Bob”, doubled-up, because we like saying it. Boberty. Bobert. Bobbity-Boo. “Hello Bob” is perhaps the phrase that most often found itself enunciated in our flat in our first year there. It still gets said a lot, four years in.

Bob received a huge amount of our time, attention, and affection, but we felt guilty, leaving him for eight hours a day, five days a week, as we went to work. We would come home on lunchtimes, as often as possible, to ask him how he was. After several months of separation guilt each day, we decided he needed a friend. The breeder we had been too had given up breeding; Bob had been part of her last litter. So Emma researched. We needed another ragdoll. This time we would get one with an alien grey face. We found a breeder beyond Crediton, who had a smallholding, who also bred pygmy goats, miniature border collies, and other things besides. They had built a pen for their ragdolls so that they could go outside but not get lost, and had built a covered ramp out of their porch, over their carport, and into this pen. Ragdolls, being curious of humans, and affectionate, and prone to following, wherever people went, would stream out of the porch, along this wire tunnel, over the carport, and into the pen as you left the frontdoor. If you went into the pen, they would swarm you, asking for strokes and fuss and conversation. It was bizarre.

We met the kittens. All bar one had had dibs placed down on them by other owners. There were seven weeks until they were ready. The one who was free, who was ours… was a mischief. The other kittens seemed friendly, gentle, calm. This one ran, and pounced, and climbed, and was curious of everything. He cajoled and poked the bigger cats (of which there were a dozen or so) especially when they wanted to lay still and relax. He made his own entertainment. We called him Cosmo, again my suggestion, again I’m not sure why (Emma had wanted to call her baby brother Cosmo when he was born; she was four; her mother politely declined – perhaps this was on my mind?). We wondered what we were getting into with this troublemaker.

When Cosmo met Bob it was love at first sight. Bob was the greatest thing Cosmo had ever seen, and he followed him everywhere. Bob was not so pleased; he bopped Cosmo on the head, checking if he was real, and then lost his purr for a number of months, so put-out he was that we had brought him a friend. His purr is still not as it had been before Cosmo had arrived, although now they are firm friends, and we often find them curled up together like lazy lovers, nested in the chair on the landing which a person has never been allowed to sit in, because it is a chair for cats.

Cosmo purrs when you look at him. He purrs when you walk in the room. Then he twists his head right around, almost, as if pretending he was in The Exorcist, and he flops down, hard, onto the floor on his side, and rolls onto his back, and says “here is my belly; isn’t it good? You might like to fuss over it” but when you do he takes a little umbrage, and kicks you with his hind legs, and rolls around, and stretches into shapes that even cat spines should not be able to make.

Bob likes to sit between us on the sofa, scared of causing offence if he chooses one lap over another. He likes to be stroked; he likes the back of his neck roughly kneaded like dough for bread. He cannot have a door closed to him, which is fine, as we leave ours wide open in summer and propped ajar with bricks the rest of the time, but we have two cupboards with regular doors on, which cause him issue, and every so often, sometimes not for days, sometimes several times a day, he demands that we open them and show him the boiler, the vacuum cleaner, the toolbox, our pile of shoes, even though they have not changed since we last showed them to him. Sometimes too he will bang on the frontdoor and moan loudly; when we open it he scratches at the mat outside, but seldom dares to go any further; he doesn’t want to leave, he simply doesn’t like a closed door of any kind. On some mornings Bob likes to come and curl up completely on my pillow, his fur buried into my face, and have his neck kneaded, and then his purr is back, and he is the most affectionate cat in the world.

Cosmo likes to sit on the beanbag, or else on a lap, but he does not like to be stroked. It is too much for him, and he gets over-faced with affection, jumps off, and retreats to the beanbag again. He likes to climb into bed early in the mornings, his head on a pillow, his body under the duvet, and pretend that he is human too. He has a myriad of names: Cosmosis, Cosmology, Cosmonaught, Monkey, Blue Fidget Bum, Xanthus (his given, pedigree name, the Greek word for ‘bear’), Cozzy. He is intensely loving and intensely lazy; wave a piece of string at Bob and he plays with a frantic, huffing intensity, pouncing and running and changing direction (on tiled floors he is like a cartoon animal scrabbling in mid-air); but wave string at Cosmo and he plays laconically, insouciantly. Sometimes, though, the spark of kitten mischief stirs in him, and he makes his own entertainment, running around the house, pestering Bob, bashing things to see what noise they make, playing a cat game that humans aren’t allowed to participate in.

I am writing this post on a roof terrace in Gaucin, a pueblo blanco in the Andalucian mountains in Spain. It is beautiful; there are eagles overhead, the sea in the distance, a river winding its way there. The cottage is perfect; a secluded yard adjoining the kitchen, a sun-drenched roof terrace with views of Gibraltar and Africa (and free wi-fi that we are borrowing a little of now and then). Wine is insanely cheap, the bread is good, the cured Spanish ham plentiful and delicious. But both Emma and I agree that it would be better with a cat. Not necessarily one of our cats; just any cat. We both saw tins of cat food in the local shop and wondered should we buy some, tempt a local cat into the yard, and befriend it for a few days. But we decided not to. Cosmo and Bob are a thousand miles away, and I miss them.