Holy Cow! Failed Attempts to Escape a World Gone Mad

I think it’s pretty well-established that I’m a writer by compulsion. And as a writer, I like to try to push myself from time to time. And so I had intended to try something different, for me, at least, and keep some kind of journal of the last couple of weeks, during which I’ve been out and about and on the road and home only very little. It’s something I’d attempted the last time I came to Stirling a couple of years ago, but ground to a halt after penning my observations of the four-hour train journey and recording a rainbow arching over town on my arrival in simultaneous sunshine and rain.

This time I failed even more miserably. The trouble is, it’s hard to write when you’re actually out and about and living life and gaining the experiences to write about. Rather a catch-22, in short, and introspection can get to be a real drag after a while.

The first weekend of my time away was spent on a 40-mile walk in the Peak District on a variation on the Peakland Piss-Up, detouring via Ashbourne. I generally find such walking expeditions are the perfect way – often the only way – I can clear my terminally clouded mind. Alas, it wasn’t to be, and instead I encountered the first of several examples of social insanity I witnessed over the time.

A small scenic market town, I was shocked by just how chavvy the place is. I mean positively crawling with scabbers on a Saturday night. My feet were killing me and I was ready to drop, but not having a nightclub, Ashbourne’s pubs are the main entertainment, and all seem to put on either live music, karaoke or a disco until the small hours. Not cool when your room is directly above a bar with the worst DJ in the world cranking out chart dance pap. I was reminded precisely why Basshunter’s ‘Pretty Green Eyes’ is the singular most depressing song of the last five years, while The Guru Josh project shook my floor twice (yes, twice!). That anyone could actually consider this a good night out baffles the crap outta me.

I landed in York barely able to work having sustained the nastiest ugliest blisters I can recall: they would have probably been worse but for the fact I had run out of foot surface on which to put blisters by the end of the second of the three days. I put it down to the unseasonably warm weather. Alas, the walking was impediment to any form of writing, and I only just managed to note what beers each of the dozen pubs we called at served for the benefit of my father who devised the walk with a friend of his some years ago.

Still hobbling, I headed off to Sheffield to lead a pair of back-to-back undergraduate seminars on John Donne and the Metaphysical Poets, which pleasingly managed to prompt some quite lively discussion. True to form, I managed to squeeze in an explanation of Marvell’s ‘quaint’ pun in ‘To His Coy Mistress’ much to the shock of a few of my female students, and pour scorn on one upstart who suggested that Donne’s poetry wasn’t relevant in any sense to a contemporary reader.

One day enduring the corporate grind and I was off again, this time north of the border. I’ve attended conferences in Stirling before and enjoyed the vibe, as well as the town itself, despite some very strange experiences with drunken Scots. Arriving on Thursday evening, I was pleased to discover my (very pleasant) B&B, the Auchyle Guest House sits just five minutes on foot from the Settle Inn, Stirling’s ‘auldest’ bar, and the one that most resembles what I recognise as a proper pub. Under new management, it’s not got the range of beers it had two years ago, but the Skye brewery’s Red Cullin at £2.50 a pint was more than adequate.

Friday morning I realize that for the first time in years, I’ve left the house without a notebook, so head into town and swing by WH Smith. £1.99 for a spiral-bound reporter’s pad is fucking extortion, but outside I spy a poster for a gig. I’ve heard of the headliners, Maybeshewill, and quite liked their contribution to the split 12” they did with Her Name is Calla last year. And it was that night! What are the chances?

So, evening’s entertainment sorted, I headed to the university, listened to a lot of very interesting papers (and a few less enthralling), and on the way between buildings en route to the cheese and wine reception (where there was no cheese, much to my dismay), got chatting to a couple of really interesting guy, whom I subsequently discovered was John Lavagnino, the following morning’s plenary speaker, who’s title and abstract had appealed when I first saw the conference schedule. Another chap called Ben who was also cool joined us, and we pondered the hazards of blogging – particularly when one’s blog doesn’t sit too snugly with one’s professional life.

After a couple of plastic cups of red supermarket wine, I made my excuses and bussed back from the university, out at Bridge of Allen, to my B&B near the old town. A quick change of shirt and then back out to the town centre. I arrived a little earlier than planned, so called into No. 2 Baker Street for a swift pint before heading to the Tolbooth, a cracking little venue where I saw four decent bands for £6 and scribbled some notes for the review I would later write.

Back at the conference the next day, I do my best to mingle, which really doesn’t come naturally to me, but I think I succeed in not making too much of a twat of myself to too many people as I jabber on about print on demand publishing and how poor the coffee is. There’s a really strong panel on writing and publishing in the ‘net age that my paper would have fitted well on before it’s my turn. I’m aware of just how many people have gone home already, and competing against two other strong panels, have to present to the smallest crowd of my life.

Afterwards, I go and speak to the guy who gave a fantastic paper on Mark Z. Danielewski and the physicality of books, only to be interrupted by some girl who wants him to contribute to an anthology she’s planning. Which really makes my day. I can’t help but feel that my paper might’ve gone down quite well if anyone had actually heard it, but hey. In a parallel world, there’s a huge audience, it’s hailed as a remarkable work and I’m tripping over people wanting to publish and work with me.

I return to the B&B in a state of bewildered deflation, then head out for a few pints and read the ‘November’ chapter of Kill Your Friends by John Niven, which I picked up in Oxfam about three months ago and has been keeping me amused while in transit since I left the house on Thursday. Then I return to the B&B, finish the book, watch CSI and call it a night.

The following morning I treat myself to a lie-in, despite waking around 5am, check out and get an earlier coach (all trains cancelled due to engineering work) to Edinburgh. A couple of hours there before my train back to York is time enough to sink a pint and write the first section of this piece in the World’s End on the Royal Mile and call into the ever-brilliant Avalanche records on Cockburn Street.

On my wanders round Edinburgh, I see the strangest and most disconcerting sights of the fortnight – a woman wearing a face-mask like it’s Mexico city, and a table set out in the street offering passers-by a ‘free stress test.’ the trestle is covered in copies of books by L. Ron Hubbard, primarily Dianetics, which has to be an even weightier tome than Rowling’s last Potter installment. And people are taking this test! Sitting there, clutching the ‘cans’ that connect the subject to the e-meter and being asked by the robotic, Stepfordian girls running the stall why they think they react in such a way to this and that. Now, god-botherers and ‘gouranga’ merchants are bad enough, but you know things are seriously fucked when the Scientologists – young ones at that – take to the streets and insidiously play on the stressed-out mode of living we are surely all experiencing most acutely in the techno-age and in the middle of a recession as a way of peddling their warped (not to mention money-taking) cult to unsuspecting buffoons, most of whom won’t have a clue who Hubbard is. This actually served to increase my level of stress, so I walked on by as quickly as I could.

Generally speaking, I find that travelling tires me incredibly. Perhaps it’s because I’m one of those people who’s incapable of switching off, and consequently finds themselves inundated with new information that needs to be processed. But more than ever, I find that there’s weirdness wherever you look, and the idea of taking a trip to escape the madness is as absurd as life itself.

The weirdness didn’t even stop there: heading on to Sheffield the following morning to lead a couple more seminars with my second-year undergraduates who clearly don’t give a fuck, the train lurched and then began shuddering wildly. There was a scraping sound as though a tree was stuck beneath the carriage, and dust, stones and all sorts came flying past the window until it finally ground to a halt. People were shaken, unsure if we’d even remained on the rails. Livestock on the track. Now deadstock, exploded over the front and down the sides and pulped underneath a national Express Inter-city. Needless to say I was late for my first seminar, but at least I made it. Who would’ve believed that by was of an excuse? Yes, truth really is stranger than fiction.

It’s good to be back.

And if you’re loving my work, there’s more of the same (only different) at Christophernosnibor.co.uk .

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