30 May 2007

Walking in the Rain

About fifteen cold, wet and very-muddy miles along the Cotswold Way we reached the precise spot where in 2006 our hosts (so they were telling us) had encountered a naked hiker. The children looked around eagerly, hoping for a repeat sighting, as if the walker were a permanent feature of that section of the Cotswold escarpment but, like a badger, he was nowhere to be seen, and to be fair it was hard to imagine weather less conducive to nude rambling.

The rain hardened, I drew my hood in around my face. My boots were heavy with red earth and sheep-poo, I had long-since zipped up my ventilated arm-pit holes, so I closed my eyes and imagined hot, sun-baked earth.....while I listened to the children's questions.

"So he was just walking along, naked? Did he say 'hello'?"
Silly question: of course he said hello. I'm not sure if it's a countryside thing, or a rambling thing, but everyone on the Cotswold Way says 'hello'. The first day I had naturally assumed that our local hosts actually knew all these people, before Mrs Botogol put me right '"No, stupid, they are just being friendly". I liked the sound of that and the second days I was like Crocodile Dundee I was that friendly. In fact, I reckon I'm a chameleon, the way I fit in: last week throwing thundery glances at a chic gay theatre in London, this week throwing cheery 'Good Mornings' at ramblers on a national trail. Only my lack of poles betrayed me.

"No he didn't, he just walked by quickly" (Aha..not a real rambler after all!)
"Could you see everything?"
"No he held his hands in front of him as he walked past"
"Did he have a ruck-sack?"
"I couldn't see what type of sack he had, the way he was holding his hands in front..."

Altogether we walked 25 miles. It rained for the entire first day, and most of the second. I only fell over once but when I did it hurt a lot and because of the rain, the blood didn't really clot. On the way we did 4 geocaches, and we bought 43 doughnuts, muffins, buns and mars bars in Broadway; but we didn't go to any pubs because we were were too wet, too muddy and too numerous.

In Stanway we saw the largest gravity-fed fountain in Europe and high, high up on the hills, at Belas Knapp we ate ginger cake over a 4,500 year burial chamber where excavators have found 38 skeletons over the years; all of them, according to the audio-guide - all of them hikers who attempted the long climb from Winchcombe in inclement weather while wearing inappropriate footwear.

There were only 23 of us; a mixture of old friends and mutual strangers, but because it is a very small world one of the strangers turned out to have been to school with Mrs Botogol. Of the 15 adults four have indescribable jobs, four work for the government, six work for themselves and one is retired. Only one had a second pair of walking boots - dry you see - to wear the second day. Another carried an umbrella all the way - and had a spare brolly in his rucksack - which he didn't share with anyone, not even when we stopped for lunch.

"I guess you'll blog about all this when you get home",
opined our host, later that evening, curry eaten, red wine finished, the barrel of beer considerably emptier than it had been when we all arrived.
"I'm not really sure", I reflected, "that you'd all want to read about yourselves",
"You could disguise our identities", he said, "and jazz us up a bit? Steal our best jokes? Put words into our mouths?"

"Yes", I said, "Well, yes, I suppose I could"

26 May 2007


The Botogols are away. If it's Monday it's Gloucestershire, if it's Friday then it's Berlin.

Germany /-/ Gloucestershire
Berliners /-/ Bucolics
Jungen /-/ Yuppies
Kurfürstendamm /-/ Cotswold Way
Unter den Linden /-/ Under the trees

They couldn't be more different, could they? One known world-wide as an oasis of ostentatious, decadent capitalist wealth, encircled by a hostile proletariat, for all the world as if there were a wall between them; the other the capital city of Germany.

I don't know if I'll have the time to blog.

24 May 2007

Three Pounds Eighty

"Excuse me ladies and gentlemen, I am really sorry to bother you on your journey home after a busy day, but I am currently a rough sleeper and I am trying to raise eight pounds tonight to get into a hostel.

"Normally I do sell the Big Issue for a living, but today there was a problem and I only got a small number to sell so I am £3.80 short tonight. If I can raise that, I will be able to get into the hostel and have a bed for the night and keep warm and dry. If you can spare anything I would be really grateful. God bless you"

I probably hear that speech once a week commuting home on the train. Probably every other late-night commuter in London hears it as well. I wonder how many young men there are (for it is always young men) travelling the late night trains, all with this same patter? They are well rehearsed - much of it is delivered verbatim - and most strikingly it is always precisely in the same tone of voice: a tone of voice that is at the same time apologetic, respectful, slightly embarrassed, self effacing and polite. The whole package is a successful meme, no doubt about it. Where did it come from? Did it evolve naturally by imitation, did someone actually script it?

And why does it work? All the passengers know they are being spun a line; there is no shelter further along the Kingston loop turning away the young homeless for want of £3.80.

We have heard it all before; the performers know we have heard it all before but nevertheless they proceed to deliver it again, straight-faced, and because they deliver it we passengers give them money. All parties all complicit in the shared fiction, a suspension of disbelief, a doublethink: an unspoken - but clearly understood - agreement between strangers to a pretence that makes it easier - less embarrassing perhaps - to give and to receive. I wonder if it happens in the same way in other countries?

But last night something different; the spiel delivered, the hapless supplicant was moving down the carriage collecting money when a second man entered at the other end of the carriage and started the exact same speech. Beggar #1 started guiltily and backed away. Too late; he was noticed, and he turned and ran down the aisle, hotly pursued by beggar #2.

A small window in this world opened to me.

I never give them anything, anyway.

22 May 2007

In The Country

We were in the countryside last weekend - Mrs Botogol and I - on our way back to London after a romantic weekend away, and we had this idea: why not visit a proper Farm Shop and buy some goodies to take home for our supper? You know the sort of thing: fresh mushrooms with moist soil clinging to the base, home-made high-strength cider, dark red well hung organic beef, individually crafted ravioli containing smoked venison and artichoke hearts. That sort of thing. The sort of thing you get from Farm Shops, right?

The trouble is: Farm Shops in the countryside simply aren't as rural as the ones in town.

In South West London the farm shops and farmers' markets feature cheery, red-faced sons of the soil who wax enthusiastically about their terroir, their traditional methods, the injustice of DEFRA subsidies and the importance of knowing-where-your-food-comes-from. While they ramble they press tiny organic tomatoes into your hands, before weighing out a pat of butter on brass scales. They wear latex gloves to handle the produce. They call you 'Sir'

In the countryside farm shops are staffed by sullen-faced tattooed rustics, moonlighting from Homebase, who don't know celery from celeriac and call you "Yeh Wha?". They have freezers with manky-looking scallops, they microwave their pasties, and they don't-know-where-their-food-comes from.

We selected Bombay mix, beetroot and turkey twizzlers. Our assistant was sooo slooow on electronic cash register that we abandoned the the whole lot on the belt.

It's nice to be back home

21 May 2007

In Two Minds

One of the advantages of working for a very large, very posh big-city firm is that it has no corporate memory; consequently it forgets which of its staff left voluntarily and which were hustled indignantly out the door and both sets are invited to the alumni evenings. Which makes for excellent alumni evenings. Last week I was invited to just such an event - drinks and canapés - by the employer before last. Initially, I was in two minds whether to go, but....

... but when I got there, I found I was in two bodies. Either that, or I'd slipped through a gap in the space-time continuum and I had arrived 10 minutes before myself as - it seemed - someone had taken my name badge and gone inside with it.

I was nonplussed: I didn't like the idea of an alter-ego working the room, meeting my network, making new contacts and, well, probably eating less, drinking less, sweating less, being more polite and making a lasting positive impression. Suddenly I cheered up, and the bright, bubbly hostess reassured me further: "Don't worry! we'll just print you off another badge!" she said brightly, bubblily, "What's your name again ?"

My spirits fell once more - it was noisy in the bar, and my name is sometimes difficult to pronounce and hard to hear and, sure enough, within moments I was one half of a ghastly sketch routine.. "NO!" bellowing politely over the din, while still smiling charmingly (I hoped) "NO! NO! IT'S BRAVO, OSCAR, TANGO, OSCAR, GOLF, OSCAR, LIMA!",
"Sorry Oscar. Oscar what?"
"Mr. Lima?" (doubtfully)
She inspected the spoiled tablecloth suspiciously: "Aaah", she said, "like the mountain in Siberia! Why didn't you say so?"

Eventually she gave me a ruby-red badge. There was a system: alumni had red badges, junior staff had silver badges, partners had gold badges, and senior partners (alpha males all) had circles of silver-badged acolytes taking advantage of rare face-time with their Gods. A passing waiter offered a me Pineapple Martini so convincingly disguised as a margarita that I actually took it, and that's how I found myself encircled by my horny-handed beer-swilling old friends, clutching a girlie drink.

Every last one of them was running a triathlon. What is it with these people? have they no originality? We descended immediately into OCD training talk and before I knew it, hours had passed. I wasn't drunk, though: I had eaten far too many canapés for that.

Eventually the triathlon conversation began to pall (really) and I paid attention with one part of my mind while with another I scanned the passing name badges half looking for myself and half for escape; scanning carefully for it was dark and I had left my old-man glasses at the office; until a moving plate of prawns tempura provided the perfect opportunity to slip away, and I plunged amongst the serried ranks of red-badged blue-chip FTSE 100 employees, holders all of indescribable jobs for a bit of reunion oneupmanship

".. so you must know Roger then?", "Yes he works for me"

"..I'm retired, actually. Well, we didn't plan to sell up but they were offering silly money, so.."

"...then somehow Country Life got to hear of it, and the next thing you know our old barn was featured as their Organic Eco Conversion of the year. It was all rather boring, but Sue's actually made quite a business of it since..."

"...well, I just write about ordinary life and so on.. Well, 5,217 hits last month and eleven comments, I don't know if that counts as a
lot - yes I did see it - Sunday Times yes, she's very good isn't she? No I - ha! ha! - no I don't think any publishers going to be interested in mine..."

I felt I was in two places at once (perhaps three, if the badge-thief was still present) both participating in and observing the ritualised work-based exchanges, and standard personality-types. With them but not of them. And I wondered if everyone else felt just the same. Or are they all like that at home?

Then I pulled myself together and had a mini roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, washed down with one of those rather-nice Pineapple Martinis. At the far end of the room I could see someone who looked strangely familiar. It was all far too much excitement for one evening and I reached home far too late.

13 May 2007

Patrick Gale on blogging

I think I rose to the occasion, stepped up the mark and blended in fairly well. I was at the Drill Hall, London's premier venue for gay, lesbian and queer performing arts, to see Patrick Gale perform his short story 'Wig'. After some consideration I wore my new post-triathlon skinny jeans and a mushroom-pink crumpled shirt: perfect, with the delightful Mrs Botogol on my arm, I reckoned I could pass for bi. Mrs B told me to grow up and behave myself.

I first read one of Patrick Gale's novels in about 1991 when I noticed Amistead Maupin's enthusiastic endorsement on the cover and I have been an avid fan ever since. I find his novels engrossing to point of total immersion. Breaking every hour or so from Rough Music, or Friendly Fire for a glass of cold rosé (both books read in straight-sittings in shady corners of villa-gardens in the heat of continental summers) I felt like I was coming up for air after two lengths underwater. His books are witty, clever, touching and troubling.

Mind you, I read five of them before I realised that they they were gay fiction. Until I started reading the Guardian I had innocently imagined they were simply novels which happened to have gay people in them. I realise now I underestimated the power of the genre, the category, the pigeon-hole. See: if his novels aren't gay-fiction, how would they be marketed?

Anyway, gay fiction or not, there's no doubt that he Drill Hall is a gay venue. Reader, it has a different atmosphere from the Ambassadors' Theatre in Richmond, the normal dramatic haunt of Mrs B and myself, of a Friday evening. But not really because the audience is gayer, that made no difference - it reminded me of countless other theatres, up and down the land.. but because it was younger. What a great thing it is to live in a city, so many places, so many events.

Wig is a tightly constructed modern fairytale: an impressionable shopper purchases a strange, magical item from a mysterious, itinerant seller with a lugubrious manner and simian fingers, who can see into her heart. She buys not a handful of magic beans, nor a battered lamp, nor a picture, and nor a wand of holly containing the tail-feather of a phoenix with a pedigree, but a wig. A blonde wig made from human hair, a wig with a power to transform, not just the appearance (though that it does of course, rendering the lucky Wanda immediately unrecognisable to her friend) but more importantly it transforms the heart.

The story is about becoming, it's about identity and the extent to which we are defined and shaped by the opinions of our partners, and it's about loneliness and it's about power. It has a snappy ending as well.

Described as a 'performance' rather than a reading, it featured an eerie soundtrack and transitions of scene and mood were signalled by Gale, dressed in white shirt and positively rustic jeans, changing position on the stage: he stood, he sat, he faced us, he faced away.
I mock, but it was surprisingly effective.

After the performance I bought a book, as is traditional, and joined the queue to have it signed. It's strange to meet in the flesh a novelist whose novels you know very well, especially one with a set of books as autobiographical as Gale's, such that you can't help but feeling you know the person, as well as the books. It's an illusion of course. It's akin to encountering a cyber-friend, previously known only on the net. You know who they are, but you don't know what they are like.

I remarked that I enjoyed his novels. They all say that. I remarked that Friendly Fire is my favourite. They don't all say that (Rough Music is his best book, and Friendly Fire didn't sell so well) 'It was the cover' he blurted, 'the cover wasn't right'. I sympathised - I never liked that picture either.

The bar was hot, it was crowded, and the tables were too close together. It was also fun. We stayed for another glass of wine.

In one of Gale's stories his protagonist is asked if her tales are autobiographical 'Lord, no', she replies, 'I don't think you can put real happenings into fiction. Not without toning them down'.

It's the same with a blog.

09 May 2007

The Underworld

What manner of 'staff shortages' at London Waterloo could possibly cause the closure of the entire underground station during the morning rush hour?

That's what happened this morning; I didn't believe it for a moment, I know a hastily-invented prevarication when I hear one.

There's something going on down there.

As i hurried past the locked gates at the top of the stairs i could have sworn that I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a shimmering light if I had had some psychic paper I'd have gone past the guard and had look.

07 May 2007

Triathlon Tales

I like to think of myself as a hoopy frood so when I got out of the pool, dead tired, wet, breathless, shoulder sore, 11 whole long minutes after I had splashed my way in, and did I say cold and wet? and I forced myself to jog through to the transition area, I consoled myself with a heart-warming comforting thought: "At least", I thought, "at least I know where my towel is"

But it wasn't! Not only had my bike-rack neighbour overtaken me swimming but he had used the opportunity afforded him to steal my towel. "Sorry, mate, my mistake - use mine", he said, and reasonable it may have been, but it just wasn't the same. I was so put out I could hardly swallow my carbohydrate and caffeine gel.

Reader, I didn't swim fast; in fact only a couple of dozen people in the whole race were slower than me, but I didn't drown, and I had enough energy left to finish in the top half of the cycling, and to overtake more runners than overtook me. In the overall rankings I finished in the top two thirds, which was my aim, so I am happy.

Thames Turbo Triathlon over and done. What will I do with myself in the mornings now?

04 May 2007

Whispering Grass

It's not a criticism of the Twickenham Rugby Club groundsman when I observe that the grass on the Colts pitch is too long for wheelchairs.

It's also bumpy.

Not that the groundsman doesn't do a good job with his scythe, paint-bucket and roller; He does, he does; It's just not..... accessible

Last Sunday afternoon, for instance, when the end of season 7s festival had all finished, the BBQ was winding down and scores of multi-coloured rugby players were making their way home, I was walking from the U10s pitch back to car carrying the tent, the kit-bag, my rucksack, my boots and the remains of the picnic.

On my right a crowd had gathered around the control caravan watching the prize giving. On my left, some 50m away in the middle of the pitch, was a small boy, about my son's age, in a wheelchair. All alone. As I watched him he struggled forward a few yards, he stopped, he tried to turn, stopped again, went a few more yards forward, hit a bump and threw his hands in the air in frustration.

I looked around very carefully to see if anyone was watching him - parents, siblings? Dom Jolly and a Channel Four camera crew? So far as I could tell there was absolutely noone at all... so I heaved a sigh of relief and hurried on my way.

But when I came trudging back three minutes later he was still there. Well, he had moved about 10 metres. I cursed and I diverted to speak to him

"Hello. Are you all right, mate?"
"It must be hard work wheeling that through the grass. Would you like a push?"
"No problem. Where do want to go then?"

He pointed. He pointed at the public footpath in the far corner of the field. The path that leads past the railway bridge to the reservoir.

I considered this very carefully for a moment.

"Tell you what" (brightly) "are your Mum and Dad here?"
"Great! So where are they then?"

He tossed his head - indicating the crowd around the caravan.
"So, shall I take you over there?"
"No!" fiercely, "there!" He pointed again.

I considered my options and I began to sweat:
  • I imagined myself pushing him off into the distance, down the footpath past the railway bridge to the reservoir
  • I carefully visualised myself pushing him in the direction he didn't want to go, perhaps shouting at me, towards his father. Who would turn out be a tight-head prop, no doubt about it. Evidently with a medal-winning elder son.
  • I imagined myself leaving him on his own, in the middle of the field, unable to follow me Momentarily heartened, I imagined breaking into a run as I neared the car...
No good deed ever goes unpunished.

The sun beat down.
I moved my weight from one leg to the other

At least, I thought to myself, desperately; at least I'll be able to blog about it later....