Thoughts on becoming a dad…

All going well, I’ll be a dad in about five months. I can’t say that I’m delighted. I can’t say that, because that’s a deeply inadequate way of describing how I feel. Rather, I’m effervescent. Yes, that works much better.

Getting to this point hasn’t been easy. That’s why I’m so unbearably smug about it. I shouldn’t be, really, because five months, each packed with devastating potential, still lie ahead of us. I can almost see them, stretching out like an unintelligible map of a longed-for destination. I’d just like to enjoy the fact that, right now, in this moment, I’m going to be a dad.

It’s funny really because I wasn’t always convinced that I wanted to be a dad. I was happily bumbling through life, living week to week, year to year, lazily content. My life was quietly unremarkable. It still is.

One day, a chemical change took place within me. I needed to have a child. I wanted – desperately – to look into the face of a person that is the beautifully imperfect fusion of Isabel and me. Our good bits, our bad bits (heck, it’s inevitable), us. Writing this, even now, makes my eyes fizz with emotion. That’s how badly I want this. This probably all sounds rather selfish. That’s because it is. Well, strictly speaking, it is and it isn’t. I’ll explain why.

When Isabel and I got married, I made a speech. If you know me at all, you’ll know that I over prepare for everything. Everything. This means that I took this duty very seriously indeed. I’m not the kind of person who Googles ‘Groom’s speech’, nicks a template and adds in their own bits. No. I thought long (too long) about what I should say. I wanted it to be authentic.

When it came to the bit where I had to talk about Isabel, I got a bit stuck. This isn’t because I didn’t know what to say but because I didn’t know how to distil how I feel about Isabel into words that would do her and my emotions justice. In the end I settled for: ‘Isabel’s the most beautiful person I know’. That probably sounds a little hollow. It isn’t. I genuinely believe this. Why? Because if everyone was like Isabel (me included) the world would be a better place. Ok, ok, I’ll give you an example of why it’s true.

We used to live in Bristol. This meant that, twice, every week day, Isabel would walk across Bristol bridge to get to work. Sat up against the side of the bridge was a homeless man. He sat there every day. Most commuters ignored him and walked past him. Isabel didn’t. She stopped, each day, and talked to him. She learned his name. She took the time to learn about the desperately chaotic life that had led to him sitting by the bridge. She knew, by the state that he was in each morning, whether he’d managed to get into a shelter the night before. She bought him food, bandages (for his ulcerated legs) and (non-alcoholic) drinks. Sometimes he wasn’t there. When this happened she worried about him. When he reappeared, she asked where he’d been and, oftentimes, consoled him.

I only found out about this by accident. When I did, it made me love Isabel more than ever. I added it to my speech because I wanted people to know about it. Things like this are what make Isabel a beautiful person. My hope is that, our child, will be full of this innate kindness. That he or she will create and continue this beautiful legacy. I want to be part of making that happen. Heck, I guess it is rather selfish after all.

So, right now, I’m going to be a dad. I couldn’t wish for anything more.

Things of 2013 – another pointless list…

Just when you thought people had stopped publishing their pointless lists, another one rears its obsessive-compulsive head. Mine’s a little different though, I promise. Here’s why:

  1. it’s hopelessly, almost inappropriately, late; and
  2. it’s not a top ten or anything so logical. It’s a random assortment of things that floated my boat in 2013.

Film: The Great Gatsby (in 3D). Baz Luhrmann’s masterpiece distils the essence of Fitzgerald’s novel and catapults it into a stratosphere suitable for 21st-century audiences.

Wine: Chateau Figeac ’88. This experience was, to me, what being a wine aficionado is all about. The bottle looked like it’d been rescued from a sunken pirate ship, the label rendered the exact vintage a mystery but what was inside was one of the finest sensory pleasures I’ve experienced. It was like opening a wine-filled oak barrel and curling up inside. Cheers!

Technology: Amazon Kindle. Yes, I said it. Buying a Kindle has transformed the way that I read. Not least because its percentage-read status indicator gamifies reading. If, like me, the modern world has turned you into a distraction magpie (ooh! shiny…) then anything that helps you commit to a book is a fabulous thing.

Place: Saint Emilion, Bordeaux, France. This medieval city is majestic, charming, pretentious and workaday. It’s also a melting pot of some of the best wines in the world. Not many places can claim that.

Music: The Next Day, David Bowie. The fact is, this chart-botherering sexagenarian could probably have banged out a glorified best-of album and we’d have bought it. The Next Day is exciting, relevant, tender and raw. There are moments of shuddering electricity even when Bowie’s not singing. Check out 00:20 – 00:33 on If You Can See Me if you’re not sure of what I mean.

Book: Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn. Hang on, hang on! Before you say anything, I will say that this isn’t one of the best books I’ve read. What I will say is that it contains one of the finest sentences (‘He was a man of jagged risings’) I’ve read and is unputdownable. I’d also say that its narrative chicanery would put Dickens to shame. You’re right though: it is a bit baggy towards the end.

Event: Glastonbury Festival – because I was a thirty-something Glasto virgin.

TheatreBorges and I, Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bedminster, Bristol. This came as a true surprise. The tale of one of the greatest storytellers of modern literature and his heart-wrenching love for literature and tigers was tender and exquisite. The realisation of the near-blind Borges that he’ll never see his beloved animal again was devastating and beautiful. I’m not a crier but this moment tipped the emotional equilibrium within me until I sobbed uncontrollably.

Person: Mrs. H. 2013 was, at times, an incredibly tough year for us both. Despite all this, my wife’s optimism, charm, support and loveliness have held things together. Thank you, you’re wonderful x.  

Meal: Home-cooked (by Mrs H) Chateaubriand (bought from: http://www.donaldrussell.com/)  served with goose-fat chips, stilton sauce and a rocket and parmesan salad. Eaten at home and thoroughly complemented by a bottle of Chateau Haut-Brion, 1998. Perfection.

So, that’s my list. I told you it’d be different. Are any of those things on your lists? Not the last two, obviously, that’d be a bit weird.

Hemingway, cats and me

‘I do know that I do not love dogs as dogs, horses as horses or cats as cats.’

Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon

For many, Hemingway is the definition of sturdy masculinity. The first picture I ever saw of him reinforces this. It was the one on the front cover of The Essential Hemingway. Here we have Hemingway depicted as leathery, defiant sea captain, replete with cable-knit sweater and luxurious beard. He looks so tough that you’d think twice about mocking his impressive combover.

A picture of The Essential Hemingway book, courtesy of Amazon.co.uk

Inspired by a friend, I’ve been revisiting Hemingway’s works over the last few months and I’ve discovered something surprising. I expected to be reacquainted with the toughest man (and men) of modern literature but, instead, I’ve discovered that Hemingway was, at heart, a bit of a softie, like me.

My image of Hemingway first started to change when I found out that he had a thing for cats. I’d always had him down as a dog person. Not least because of their fierce loyalty and innate ability to fetch the charred-and-scattered remains of the thing you’ve just shot. Hemingway’s fondness for cats (by 1943 he owned an impressive 23) made him seem human, tender and vulnerable. This made him more interesting but seemed to betray the image of him that I’d always had.

I’ve always been a cat person. We live with a deeply moody one now and, at one time, I lived in a house with five of the furry lodgers. I never would have imagined that cats would be the thing that Hemingway and I have in common.

A visit to Hemingway’s house in Key West last year provided even greater insight into Hemingway’s feline world. We met (and stroked) relatives of cats that Hemingway owned whilst he lived there. I was delighted to hear that this literary tough guy gave his cats names like Snowball, Uncle Wolfer and Furhouse. Some of the cats that we saw even had have six toes (known as ‘polydactyl’ cats) just like the one that Hemingway was given by a ship’s captain all those years ago.

A six-toed cat at Hemingway's House in Key West, Florida

I used to read Hemingway because he and his protagonists were the types of men that I knew I’d never be. It was a form of escapism. Spending time with his characters was a vision of lives lived by men more confident and self-assured than I. The more I get to know Hemingway through his works, the more I see glimpses of his less-familiar, fragile, sensitive side and I like him the more for it.

Hemingway didn’t love cats as cats, he loved what they represented. To him, they were the embodiment of fierce individualism, profound affection but also an innate capriciousness. Perhaps the kind of heart-breaking capriciousness embodied by Lady Ashley and suffered by Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises.

I often wonder if Hemingway’s fondness for six-toed cats had something to do with their apparent defectiveness. Perhaps they were outwardly imperfect in a way that Hemingway identified internally? Heck, even tough guys can be painfully self-conscious. Think about the tender exchange between Harry Morgan and his wife in To Have and Have Not after much of his arm has been amputated. Harry worries that his wife won’t love him because she finds him repulsive. She loves him more than ever, of course, but Harry’s vulnerability is deeply moving.

A fact of Hemingway’s life that seems to make him macho is that he was married four times. Many see this as a superficial sign of heroic womanising but this is only one way of looking at things. I prefer the notion that Hemingway, like his character, Harry Morgan, was terrified of rejection.  Many think, and I tend to agree, that Hemingway ended his marriages out of a desire to end the relationship before he could be rejected.

On that thoroughly depressing note, I’d like to pick things up a bit. Cats, to Hemingway, were also about simple, uncomplicated joy through physical contact. Now, when I think about Hemingway (Ernest), it’s not the sea-captain image that springs to mind but this one of him and his sons blissfully playing with their cats. It doesn’t make him less of a man to me, it simply makes him more human. Hemingway with his sons and their cats in Cuba, courtesy of Wikipedia

To e or not to e?

Our basement is full of books. Our dining room is full our books. Our lives are full of books. This is why I’ve finally bought an e-reader. This was one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make in recent weeks (pathetic, isn’t it?). If you’ve read any of my early posts, you’ll know that this makes me feel like a bit of a hypocrite but, heck, we live, we learn, and, I can assure you, my decision was borne out of practicality. Honest.

I adore real books. I love what’s in them and I love them as artefacts. I can select a book, at random, from our bulging shelves and recall which chapter of my life it relates to. For example, Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy will always remind me of living in a mouldy flat in Southsea and sleeping on a mattress because I was too stubborn to buy a bed. There are happier memories too, of course, but that’s the thing about randomness: it’s kind of random.

The books that my wife and I own are part of us. That’s why we refuse to give or throw them away. They’re our version of Borges’ Library of Babel and losing them would be like losing a large part of the history of ourselves. Inspired by the wonderful Dr. John Lyon of Bristol University, I even started writing my name, the year and where I was living at the time of reading inside each front cover. It’s a trivial but delightfully immediate way of keeping in touch with your younger selves. Each inscription is like a miniature postcard from the past.

Sadly, our obsession with keeping all of our books has left us with little space. Our cramped little house is buckling under the weight of our literature of life.

The most obvious solution to this problem was to place an immediate embargo on buying any new books and to enforce a strict library-only approach to reading. This didn’t work. Mainly because of the frustrating amount of time I had to wait until I get get my hands on what I wanted to read. Plus, having the Amazon app on my phone meant that I’d ‘accidentally’ buy a book or two whilst caught off guard (honest). The obvious and more practical solution slowly came into focus: I should buy an e-reader. That was about a year ago and I’ve been grappling with whether to buy one or not until just a few days ago.

I’ve yet to read a book on my new e-reader but I know it won’t be the same. In some cases, it’ll be a richer experience because I’ll be able to look up tricky words as I spot them using its in-built copy of the Oxford English Dictionary. In others, I feel sure that it’ll feel quite alien and divorced from the haptic and sensual delights of a real book. Don’t you just love the musty whiff of an old book? To me, it’s like an olfactory version of Proust’s madeleine, recalling potent memories of days, weeks, months lost in literature.

I do think an e-reader can neatly complement your reading ecosystem. It’ll work best for reading those books that you just want to read but not physically own. It’s also a nifty way of reading something that you don’t want to be seen reading in public. In fact, Fifty Shades of Grey seems to owe a debt to the e-reader for precisely this reason.

I love a beautifully-bound hardback but their format seems almost comically impractical. How many times have you nearly knocked yourself out by reading a weighty tome in bed and drifting off mid sentence? Oh, ok. Just me then. A benefit of the e-reader user experience means that you don’t have to buy a book in hardback if you want to buy it when it’s just been released. That’s got to be a good thing, hasn’t it?

Ok, that’s enough trying to convince myself that I’ve made the right decision. Will I feel the same nostalgia when I look through the list of titles that I’ve read on my e-reader compared to picking one up from a shelf? No, and I’ll just have to live with that. Well, at least until we can afford a bigger house.

I was a thirty-something Glasto virgin

I remember when I first decided that I had to go to Glastonbury. It was summer 2010 and I was sat on the sofa watching Gorillaz play the main stage.  Odd then, I suppose , if you consider the fact that many people panned that performance. For me, something about the ear-to-ear grin that shone on Damon Albarn’s face when Bobby Womack belted out the chorus to Stylo was infectious. It told me that watching this on TV wasn’t enough. I needed to put myself on the other side of the screen. Even if it was just once.Dan at Glasto

Before this moment, Glastonbury was something that other people did. I’d been to music festivals before (most notably, three trips to the Reading Festival whilst at uni) but Glastonbury was something else. In many ways it stood at the centre of something that I was happy not to be part of. Plus, there would be mud, E. coli and dreadlocks.

I tried, unsuccessfully, to get tickets back in 2010 but lost out in the, now infamous, Sunday-morning technology lottery. When I managed to get a ticket in 2012, I was elated. I couldn’t believe that I was actually going to go. When, earlier this year, something horrible happened to my wife and I, my want turned into a need to be part of it.

When the time finally came and my brother and I got to Glastonbury (him, the seasoned veteran; me, the gleeful Glasto virgin), I was predictably overwhelmed. The scale of the place is incredible – a city with legs and voices. One of my most potent memories of the weekend is of being buoyed along by a river of people after the light had faded and The Stones had strummed their last string. I expected to find this unsettling and scary but it was something of a joy, like being – literally – part of the human race. The complete opposite of the prickly claustrophobia of The Tube.

The main stage at GlastonburyI understand now that being at Glastonbury is about being part of something, part of people history. It’s the kind of spectacle that, when aliens do finally pay us a visit, you’d be proud for them to see it as part of who we are and what we’re about. The world of Glastonbury is an, often magical, themepark-like place that banishes our normal lives to the sidelines. It’s also a chance to bend the rules of life. Not just for purely hedonistic reasons, but to remind you that normality and routine are arbitrarily imposed and that we can live without them. Even just for a bit.

What were the highlights? Well, Glastonbury was the highlight. If pressed, I’d say that Dinosaur Jnr; Seasick Steve; Portishead; Smashing Pumpkins; and the mighty Rolling Stones were a close second. Oh, and, that amazing jazz-funk band, that bearded Eastern European surrealist comedian, and England’s take on Flight of the Conchords with their triumphant encore: ‘My rock face is my sex face’. They were all pretty good too. Will I go next year? Of course I will. Well, as long as I can get a ticket.

Confessions of a wino

I love wine. In fact, that’s not true. It goes much deeper than that. I’m obsessed with wine. Not in a Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction kind of way, you understand. It’s just that what started out as a fleeting interest has grown and transformed into something of which the word ‘hobby’ just doesn’t fit.

‘When did it all begin?’ you may ask. Well, I’ll tell you, and, thanks for asking.

Confused beginnings

I’d always kind of enjoyed wine but found it baffling and certainly didn’t understand why people would consider spending more than about seven quid on a bottle. As a younger man, my taste in wine was largely governed by four motivations:

  1. what cost more than five pounds but fewer than ten pounds in a supermarket;
  2. what was the one up from the cheapest bottle on the wine list in a restaurant;
  3. what sounded like it would taste good; and
  4. what came in a cool-looking bottle.

This seemingly-flawless approach to buying wine meant that my wine vocabulary was very limited. It also meant that – and I’m not ashamed to admit this – I’d often buy Black Tower and that American one that came in a re-usable carafe. I had managed to taste some pretty good wines along the way (usually when out for dinner and when I had the guts to ask the sommelier for a recommendation) but my knowledge was riddled with holes. The world of wine was daunting and inaccessible and, far too often, I’d buy and order wine that I’d had before or definitely knew something about. Clinging to these certainties helped my confidence. I call it the chicken tikka masala-approach to wine.

‘Haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle…’

The turning point came in 2005. How come I can pinpoint the exact year? Well, that’s when the film Sideways was released. I’d heard about the film but it wasn’t until my brother said that the character of Miles (played, expertly, by Paul Giamatti) reminded him of me that I knew I had to see it. ‘Right’, I thought, (quietly outraged that I could be pigeon-holed so easily) and set about getting hold of a copy.

Whilst I wasn’t all that keen on the comparison with the troubled Miles (my brother assured me that he’d meant it in a good way!), the film ignited my passion for the world of wine and convinced me that I needed to crack it.  Now, I know that Sideways is a work of fiction but its message about wine awoke something within me.

After I’d seen the film, I started with Pinot Noir (the subject of Miles’ obsession), eager to sample the ‘[h]aunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle’ flavours that Miles described. I haven’t looked back since and passed my Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) level 2 exam last month. I wouldn’t say that I’ve cracked the world of wine but I’m now a seasoned traveller, able to navigate my way around it with confidence. I can also say that I’ve drunk wines worthy of Miles’ hyperbolic words.

The personality of the earth

In his book, Making sense of wine, Matt Kramer describes wine as ‘the voice of the earth’. I don’t agree. To me, wine is an expression of the personality of the earth and a sensory link to it. Its idiosyncrasies, its good bits and its bad bits. Think about the most delicious wine you’ve ever had. Think about the smells, the taste and how much you enjoyed it. Isn’t it incredible that all of that experience is produced by fermented grape juice? To me, it’s like natural alchemy.

Good old ‘Ho Bryen’

Wine is about shared experience, with our contemporaries and our ancestors. It’s capable of taking us back in time within our own lifetimes and those of our ancestors. I’m convinced that that’s why people like to hang on to it for so long. Cellaring a bottle from a particular year is a way of locking away a fragment of that year to uncork when you fancy a spot of time travel. I recently drank a bottle of Barolo from the year of my birth and, whilst the wine was past its best, it was thrilling to drink something that was born in the same year that I was.

In some cases, wine is capable of putting us directly in touch with our ancestors. You could say the same of antiques, I suppose, but there’s something about the immediacy of the smell and taste of wine that’s far more potent. I love the fact that if you’re lucky enough to be able to sample a bottle of Chateau Haut Brion then you’re in great company. For none other than Samuel Pepys did the same at the Royal Oak Tavern on April 10, 1663. According to Pepys, he ‘drank a sort of French wine called Ho Bryen that hath a good and most particular taste I never met with’. How cool is that?

Karmic kindness

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.
Plato (427 BC – 347 BC)

It was a rainy afternoon in Kyoto. We were lumbering down a long road towards the train station, our jeans heavy with rain. We’d long given up hope of keeping dry. We held hands but didn’t talk. Neither of us wanted to be the first to say that we weren’t having a very nice time. Then it happened.

Out of the cement-grey day she emerged. Her smile was the first thing that we noticed. She thrust her umbrella into my wife’s hand and, before we could say anything, she turned and walked quickly into the rain. Not a single word was uttered but we’d shared a moment of pure communication.  It feels daft to admit it but this event is probably one of the kindest gestures that I’ve ever experienced and I’ll remember it forever.

The world can be a pretty horrible place at times and we’re capable of some pretty horrendous things. As I said in my last post, I’ve stopped listening to Radio 4 in the mornings because I can’t bear the gloom. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hide from what’s going on; I just don’t like starting my day being reminded about how truly crap everything can be.

Moments like the one I started this post with make life magical. They remind us of how instinctively lovely we can be to each other and they spread like a benign contagion. When I’m not brimming with the milk of human kindness (it happens) I try to think about that rainy afternoon in Kyoto and remember that I can make someone’s day through a gesture that’s insignificant to me but hugely important to someone else. Whether you realise it or not, everyone’s fighting their own battles, it’s just that some are easier to spot than others. If you think someone needs help and you’re tempted to help them, go ahead and help them. These random acts of humanity are a form of karmic kindness. They’re karmic because they inspire future kindnesses that someone will never forget. I like to think that I don’t need to thank the kind lady in Kyoto for her overwhelming generosity but the person who was kind to her.