To My Dream Reader…

It feels like I have my own version of the Mad Hatter’s watch here, but mine is running much more than two days late.

As part of this Blogging 101 lark we have to write to our dream reader which has given me pause. I never really thought about who I was writing to before, the first person I thought about when writing was me. Did my post entertain me while I read it? If it did, great! Then hopefully someone else out there will be entertained too, but as this course is supposed to improve my blogging technique I should think about who my audience is, or at least who I want them to be.

So, Dream Reader, who are you? What are you? First off, you must be patient. Willing to wait for my updates, as I am never as regular as I’d like to be due to work commitments, time away, my own laziness and occasional lack of courage to start writing. Not too patient though, as you should give me the kick up the backside I sometimes need to stop reasons turning into excuses. So patient, yet demanding.

Even more important than patience would be that you, dear Dream Reader, are entertained by me, that you enjoy what I post and it makes you laugh, or cry, or think, or rage, or anything, as long as it is a reaction beyond indifference that keeps you coming back and wanting to see what I have to show you.

That you keep coming back is something else you should do as well, and support me in what I’m doing. I’m going to be telling you about my struggles with running and fitness, pushing my photography and writing on you, and sharing hopes and dreams so I’ll need some encouragement. Constructive criticism only though please!

I’m happy for you to challenge my views or opinions, after all, if we all agreed all the time it’d be pretty boring, but do it with sensible arguments. You, Dream Reader, will not be one of those who argues from the standpoint “I don’t like it therefore it is rubbish” and that’s the entire argument. You’ll disagree with me but give me reasons why. Some stuff I write certain people will find controversial but you will appreciate that and be willing discuss it rather than just descend into abuse. I am aware, Dream Reader, that this one may stay firmly in Dreamworld given the way the internet works.

What else? Competitive. If I tell you I beat my best time for running 10km, cheer me on but tell me you did it 10 seconds faster. Give me a target to beat or an expectation to meet. I work best in a competitive atmosphere, but let’s keep the rivalry friendly eh? It should still be fun after all.

There you are, Dream Reader. Patient, entertained, challenging, and competitive. It’s not too much to ask of a professional photographer or publisher who spots potential is it??

New Title and Tagline

This one took a while as I was thinking hard about it. I’d always originally planned to call my blog ‘Biscuits for Breakfast’ but never got around to changing it from my username. Biscuits for Breakfast was inspired by a work trip I made to Crewe where the hotel I was staying was meant to be quite swish but was, in fact, not. In the three days I was there I never once found anyone in the restaurant, morning or evening, and so ended up having for breakfast the biscuits that were part of the tea-making facilities. A vague idea I had when I started was to have a series of posts titled Biscuits for Breakfast that chronicled my adventures while travelling for work, but these have gotten fewer as I’ve traveled less recently.

The tag line is what gave me the most grief to come up with. I’ve settled on ‘A blog of grog, sweat, and fears’ as most of what I write about will involve drinking, hard work, or something that scares me. Or a combination of at least two of these.

Of course, I expect these will change as time goes on and I find my voice. After all, that’s what this course is all about is all about isn’t it??

Who Am I and Why Am I Here?

Nuts. I’m a day late already. This is the sort of ill-discipline I’m hoping this course will help me out with.

My name is Martin and I’ve had this blog for a while now but have never been quite able to keep it up regularly, probably because I never had a proper focus for it other than “I think I’d like a blog”. It was originally supposed to be a place where I could set down stuff that came into my head and connect with people with similar interests and if you look back through my old posts there’s some daft things in there (my survey that proved Jeremy Clarkson wrong about Audi drivers being worse than BMW drivers these days is still a personal favourite) but there’s no real running theme and I never quite got my head around how the networking side of it worked.

More recently I have used it as a place to try and explain how I feel about different subjects so it has become a more personal thing than a place where I was putting things up to see if it entertained people so there was even less of a constant theme and, it seems to me anyway, less of a way to connect with people.

Looking forward I would like to mainly use my blog to promote my interest in photography and a re-discovered interest for writing and try and connect with people who can help me push these interests further but I’d like to share other passions like travel and cooking as well as questions like why, as I get older, do I find myself more and more tempted by gardening?? I dare say there will still be the occasional silly posts as well, just to keep it exciting.

Once was not Enough

In the summer of 2012 I finally did something I’ve wanted to do for almost as long as I can remember: I ran with the bulls in Pamplona. Last year, I did it again. This year I went for a third time. When people found out I was going the first time I got asked “Why do you want to do it?” a lot, now I get asked “Why are you doing it again??”. I’ve tried to explain the attraction of doing dangerous things previously but Pamplona is different, Pamplona is something special. It was an ambition that became a passion that now borders on an obsession.

You’ll hear a lot made of the connection between Ernest Hemingway, the San Fermín fiesta and how his writing inspired many to visit the medieval city but my inspiration was a little less highbrow. I saw Billy Crystal get hit up the arse by a bull in the opening sequence of the film City Slickers as an impressionable young teenager and thought “That looks like fun”. There began around 20 years of trying to convince friends to come and do it with me. As you may imagine, they were not keen, but eventually in the autumn of 2011 I took advantage of one who was in a vulnerable state of mind after he broke up with his girlfriend and found a companion. I immediately started looking for someone to book with and found the Pamplona Posse, who seemed an ideal match to the sort of experience we were after. As it turned out, due to a combination of my companion getting jury duty and a new job I ended up going on my own anyway but that was by the by, I was going to the bull run! I never expected to want to go back, I thought it would be a one time thing. Run with the bulls, then spend a couple of days getting drunk. That’s it ticked off the list and I’d have a story or two to tell at parties. I’d been at the fiesta for approximately four hours, I hadn’t even seen a bull let alone run with them when I turned to the man who became my first bull-running friend (and somewhat of a mentor), Gus, and said “I’m coming back next year.” His response was a knowing smile and a comment to one of the other fiesta veterans of the Posse, “This guy gets it!”.

I was pretty wide-eyed and naive about the whole thing when I first got to Pamplona. I hadn’t realised that everyone would be wearing white clothes with red neckerchiefs and sashes, I thought it was just the runners. I’d flown in from Madrid wearing my three-quarter length shorts and a t-shirt and felt immediately out of place watching everyone from the taxi. Everyone, and I mean everyone, was in white and red. Young, old, men, women. Babies in pushchairs, even dogs had red bandanas around their necks. I hadn’t read up on any of the history of the fiesta, just the running and party side of it and I began to realise this was something a lot bigger than I had first anticipated. I found my way to Posse HQ, checked in and Gus showed me to my apartment. I put on my fresh whites, stepped outside to start exploring and found myself still feeling out of place as everyone else’s whites were so covered with sangria I stood out like a freshly-bandaged sore thumb. As it happened Gus was about to start a walking tour of the bull run so I headed that way, determined to learn everything I could about how to run with the bulls in the short time I had available to me. Gus was taking it in turns to explain the course with another runner I have to come to respect and admire, ‘Buffalo’ Bill, and it was these two who were to fan the smouldering obsession I didn’t realise was starting. It was their passion for the run and the bulls that made me think “I want to be good at this”. Before that, in the weeks leading up to the trip, I’d been swinging between outright terror (“Of all the daft stuff I do, this is the one that could actually kill me”) and reckless bravado (“If bloody Richard Hammond can do it then of course I can”) and confided in Gus about this. He looked me straight in the eye and told me “Reckless bravado will get you killed” and gave me the single piece of advice I feel qualified to pass on to anyone else who has asked me for any since, “If you go down, stay down”. After that I hung on every word he and Bill said, desperate to take it all in and absorb it. Once the tour was over things got light-hearted again. Gus showed me where I could get  a 2 litre bottle of beer for a few euros and we sat in the square where the sangria flowed freely, music played, and I was welcomed as an old friend. This was when I realised I was going to have to come back.

A big part of it is the atmosphere in Pamplona. Forget any romantic, Hemingway-esque ideas you might have of people sitting in cafés sipping brandy or wine and watching the fiesta parade past, pretty much everyone is drunk pretty much all of the time. People stumble around in sangria-soaked, dirt-streaked clothes and many sleep where they fall. Empty glasses and bottles line the streets (despite the heroic attempts of the municipal teams to clear them several times a day), and the place stinks, and  I mean absolutely reeks, of piss. The constant revelry means that the temporary public toilets and those in the bars and restaurants cannot cope and are ignored by those outside with bins, doorways, corners, and trees taking their place as there is generally less of a queue. But as with any smell you get used to it and now if I go into  a toilet with poor drainage or walk past an alleyway alongside a pub that particularly acidic smell makes me smile. And smiling is all everybody at the fiesta ever seems to do when they don’t have a drink near their face. It really is just one big party and everyone there wants to enjoy it as much as possible. There is singing, there is dancing, there are street entertainers, there are roaming drum bands. Oh God, someone save us from the fucking drum bands! There are processions, giants, acrobats, artists, dancers and demonstrations. It is all a constant assault on your eyes and ears that makes it a complete unreality and the most unique place I have ever been. Where else could you see Spiderman having a sword fight with a medieval knight or start a game of cricket in the town plaza and almost instantly be surrounded by a crowd of spectators wanting to join in? The place is magical.

My recollections of that first afternoon going on into the night are hazy. I went to a bullfight, watched the fireworks above the old castle, there were a lot of different bars, a lot of dancing and a lot of laughing. I stumbled back to my apartment just as the streets were being hosed down and the soberingly sturdy fences that line the course of the run were being built in preparation for that morning’s event.

Not many hours later I saw the run from a balcony overlooking The Curve and even from there I could feel the excitement below me. I watched the police lines break and the people stream up Calle Estafeta, a sea of red and white. When the first rocket went off and all hell seemed to break loose with people running I wondered if I’d missed something, then the second rocket exploded and I knew these people had lost their nerve and run early. More advice from Gus and Bill came back to me, “When the first rocket goes off, stand your ground. People will panic and bolt”. The shouts and screams suddenly increased and above that I could hear the bells of the steers, it took just a matter of seconds for the bulls to thunder through and disappear up the street but it was something hard to forget, especially as I could make out Gus below me, running in front of the pack. Despite the fact I’d only had a couple of hour’s sleep I was hyped up and feeling the thrill of it. The next morning I would be down there in amongst it.

That evening I tried to take it easy but as all I remember is going to the fireworks again I’m not sure I managed it. What I did manage was to get an early night by Pamplona standards and be in bed by 2.00am. I remember my sleep was broken and I was already awake when my alarm went off. I remember getting up and dressed in the apartment, carefully putting on my trainers and making sure they were laced up tight. I remember putting my neckerchief on and tying it with a slip knot as I’d been shown. I remember being in front of the town hall feeling the chill of the morning air, watching the clock tick round to 8.00, the tension in my stomach building as I talked to others who were running for the first time about where we were going to run and advice we’d been given. I remember the crowd getting tighter and tighter then surging forward towards The Curve when the police let us out of the square.I remember feeling the adrenaline dump itself into my system as everyone made their way to their chosen start points, wishing my new friends “Suerté” and leaving them to make my way to my starting point I’d picked out the day before.

I stood halfway up Estefeta, advice from Gus and Bill crashing through my head: “Run on the right, the bulls usually run up the centre or over to the left.”, “Stay about an arm’s length away from the wall.”, “If you go down, stay down.”. I stood there waiting, watching the people around me embrace friends, cross themselves and offer a quick prayer skywards. I was jumping on the spot, half as a warm up and half as a way of burning off the nervous energy, when the rocket went off and my heart jumped from my chest to somewhere just below the back of my throat and just above my stomach that was a little slow off the mark. All I remember after that is in flashes, people shouting and starting to run, being determined to hold my ground for as long as possible, staring up at the balconies and waiting for spectators to turn to get an idea of where the pack was on the street, hearing the steers’ bells and the noise around me getting louder. Then I was running and as I looked over to my left I could see two of the bulls coming past me just a couple of metres away. What I remember most clearly at that point is watching the bulls go past. One a golden-brown and the other a deep, glossy black, their heads bobbing up and down with their stride, and I couldn’t hear them. The only noise I was aware of was my panting as I ran, trying to keep up as long as I could without getting sucked into the crowd behind me. Then they were past me and I was concentrating on getting to the arena.

The rest of my run was uneventful apart from a slight panic just as I got to the tunnel leading into the arena when the sweeper steers came through and I thought they were a tardy bull but then I was on the sand and I realised I’d made it, I’d survived my first bull run! The rush that came from knowing I’d done it was incredible, I found someone I’d been speaking to in the square and we jumped around hanging on to each other screaming and laughing. It was a primal thing, the relief of having survived the chase had made cavemen of us and I loved it.

I’d decided I wanted to make it into the arena at the end of the course to join in what happened directly after the run. Once the bulls have been shepherded into their pen and the arena floor has filled with people, young fighting cows are released one at a time for around 10 minutes each. They are small compared to the beasts that run through the streets and their horns are corked but they have the same aggression as their older brothers as they charge through the crowds and I’d been told being part of this would be good fun. Right then I felt invincible and running around the arena with the vaqs seemed simple. Because of their smaller size it was impossible to see where they were, the only indication you get about their location is the pattern of the crowd. At one point I lost one completely until the crowd parted in front of me and I was face to face with it charging towards me. I jumped out of the way with others around me and heard the crowd in the arena cheer. It was the icing on the cake. I was, for want of a better phrase, hooked.

The buzz of Pamplona is not just the danger and the survival of the run, it is the fiesta itself. For a few days all reality is suspended. There is music, dancing, wine, friends and fireworks, brandy at half past eight in the morning, and I fell in love with it all, even the smell of piss. So now I go back with the intention of becoming a better runner. I have learnt from Gus, Bill and others and I want to build on my runs from previous years. The last run I did last year felt last slow to me and when I remarked on this to others afterwards they answered with a grin, “That means you’re running without panic.” which felt pretty good to me. Even more so when I found out that run had been the fastest of that fiesta so far. Now I can take more notice of what is going on around me in the street and enjoy it on a higher level than sheer adrenaline. Will I ever reach the levels of those I look up to? I don’t know, but I’m looking forward to the adventure I’ll have trying to.

 

 

All Change

Well we’re at the end of March already, how did that happen? The last few months have been a bit of a whirlwind and now the dust is settling I find I’m living back in my home town with one of my best friends as a housemate. That I’m sharing a house with someone I’m not sleeping with after living by myself for 5 years is a massive shock to my system on its own, but the fact that I am back in Gravesend is an even bigger one as since I left (for the second time) in 2008 I’ve always been adamant that I would never end up living here again. So I’ve been complaining about it. A lot. To everybody. To the point where some of my friends (quite rightly) are sick of hearing about it, so I’m going to see if I can explain why I’m so upset about being back a bit better than I’ve been able to so far.

To start with, I think Gravesend is a toilet. There is nothing here. A walk through the town centre is a depressing experience with chav mothers screaming at their slack-jawed, dull-eyed, chimp children and shifty looking men in tracksuit bottoms drinking cans of cheap eastern European lager everywhere. Want to go shopping? You’ve got Debenhams, Marks and Spencers and Primark and that’s about it unless you don’t want to spend more than a pound, plenty of discount stores in between all the empty shops. The cinema was closed down and burnt out years ago. There are plenty of restaurants if you like Chinese or Indian, (to be fair, there are a couple of very good Indian and Chinese restaurants I have been going in for years) and if you’re a connoisseur of kebabs, pizza and fried chicken you are well covered but if you’re looking for anything  beyond that your choices are limited to a pasta restaurant, a couple of smart English places, or the new Polish place. Fancy Mexican or tapas? Keep going my friend. Even your Nando’s craving cannot be satisfied here. If you’re prepared to drive or shell out for a cab there are good places out in the surrounding villages, or you can go over to Bluewater but going to a restaurant in a shopping centre just doesn’t seem that sophisticated to me. About the only thing to do in Gravesend town centre is drink, and there are plenty of pubs to help you out with that but most of them are a bit rough and I’ve long been saying there are not many places I feel comfortable drinking in at the weekend and even fewer with people I want to talk to in.

Maybe I’ve been spoilt by the number of places to go that were on my doorstep in Beckenham and the fact that I was less than an hour away from everything else in London that I didn’t really have to think about getting there. It’s been pointed out to me that Gravesend is close to London as well, especially with the High Speed link and if you’re commuting it probably is but I’m not particularly convinced if you want to go into London for fun. It’s an hour on the normal train just to get into Charing Cross or around 20 minutes on the bullet train into King’s Cross St Pancras but it’s expensive, currently £15.10 for an off-peak travel card on the normal train or £19.10 for the high speed, that’s a big difference to the £7.70 I’m used to paying to get around on my Oyster card. It’s that bit too expensive to make going into London a spontaneous thing, now it has to be planned and budgeted for. Going into London for a mooch around Covent Garden or to spend an afternoon in Hyde Park seems kind of hard to justify and if you’re going for a night out your last train is just after midnight. Miss that and you are in for an expensive cab ride, no night bus, no alternative station that you can walk from, nothing. Just that last train. Compared to what I’m used to, Gravesend is not close to London.

Moving here has thrown a lot of other plans into the air as well. I spent most of last year looking for a new job and had been concentrating on stuff in London, the idea being that it would be nice and easy to get to and I’d be able to budget properly, maybe even save money, as I knew exactly how much I’d be spending on travel each month rather than having to spend all my spare cash on petrol driving up and down the country, and being in the same place with the same people every day might kick start the London social life I’d lost. Now if I were to start working in London everything I’ve saved in rent would go on a season ticket and the idea I’ve moved back to Gravesend to be no better off is one I can’t stand to think about.

So I don’t really have a lot of love for G-Town, having originally moved away 12 years ago and being able to see how downhill it has gone in that time it doesn’t really feel like my home any more. But it’s not just the run-down shops or the distance from all the fun stuff in the capital, it’s a personal thing too. Being back feels like I’ve failed.

When I first moved out to Beckenham a big part of it was because all of my friends in Gravesend were coupled off, settled down and starting families, they were at a different stage of life and there didn’t seem to be much on offer to me if I stayed. Beckenham was a nice looking place, close to London and it was where the office for my new job was so it seemed a logical place to go. I’d been able to make a decent social circle for myself in other places I’d lived and I had no reason to think I wouldn’t be able to do the same thing again. Who knows, I might even find a proper girlfriend at some point and start thinking of settling down myself. To start with everything went pretty much to plan, I found myself a fun bunch of new friends (although they were all backpackers in Bayswater rather than Beckenham), there were some girls and I was thoroughly enjoying having a house to myself, but somewhere over the last couple of years it started falling apart. I was spending more and more time away for work, money was getting tighter and tighter as the rent and bills went up, and the Bayswater Bunch started to move on or go home. I suddenly found myself on my own a lot, unable to create a local social circle because I was either away too often or too skint to be able to do anything on a regular basis. When I got that email in December telling me the rent was going up again I knew I couldn’t do it any more and I was going to have to move, and there was a horrible inevitability that move was going to be back to Gravesend.

And so it turned out to be. I never expected to have to come back and it hurt, and it made me angry. It still hurts and I’m still angry. I’d gone out to find a life for myself on my own and I couldn’t do it, it unravelled on me and I couldn’t pull it back together. I failed. It feels like I’ve slinked back with my tail between my legs into the situation I was trying to get away from in the first place, except that the babies that were being born then are now starting school and I’m scared I’ve blown it. I’m scared I’m stuck in a place where I can’t see any options for the future and time is running short to find some, that I’m somewhere I can’t find what I’m looking for, and walking through that dying town centre every day is a constant reminder of that.

The only good thing about Gravesend, as far as I’m concerned, is it’s where most of my family and friends are. If they weren’t I would quite happily never set foot in the place again. I know there are worse places (Bradford springs instantly to mind, but I don’t want to live there either) but it’s the place I have issues with, everyone seems to have taken my complaints so personally. The only reason I ever came back at all was to see the people I know and love, and please believe me on this one folks, you are the only thing that makes living back here bearable. Right now I’m happy I can see and spend more time with everyone, so let’s enjoy it while we can. I’ll do my best to keep the whinging to a minimum and make the best of things but you’ll never convince me it’s a nice place to live. Sorry.

 

Do What You Love

I’ve long been an advocate of “If you want to do something, go and do it”, I don’t have a lot of time for people who constantly wish their lives away or moan about circumstances but then don’t do anything to change them, when someone is telling me about how they’d love to go and do this or that my response is usually “So go and do it then”.

Over the summer I finally managed to do something I’ve wanted to do since I was a teenager: I ran with the bulls in Pamplona. It was the most incredible thing I’ve ever done and I was buzzing for about a month afterwards. Not just from the run itself but the atmosphere of the fiesta, the place and the people I met meant I came back on a massive high. And people noticed. I’d been pretty miserable for various reasons in the months before I went away but when I came back a lot of things I’d been unhappy about seemed less important somehow and friends commented on how I’d cheered up.

When I thought about it I realised something, I was happy because I’d done something I wanted to do, which led to the further thought that the reason I’d been unhappy before was that I was doing too many things I didn’t want to do. The logical conclusion was that to stay happy I should do more things that I wanted to do, so since I’ve been back I’ve signed up for a photography course which should get me a qualification come next June and a 2 day climbing course to get me back into doing that regularly.

But while I’ve been waiting for those to start I’ve started to feel the unhappiness of earlier in the year creeping back and then I stumbled across this, the Holstee Manifesto:

It struck a pretty big chord with me as it seemed to be the realisation I’d just had spelled out in front of me. ‘Do what you love’. At the moment that’s bullrunning, photography and climbing, I’ve got two of those covered and there’s a good chance I’ll be going back to Pamplona next year.

And then there’s ‘If you don’t like your job, quit’. Hmm, ‘If you don’t like your job, quit’.

Right now, I fucking hate my job.

Because of the amount of travel involved in my job, it affects pretty much every aspect of my life. It makes it very hard to do anything on a regular basis or make any kind of social plans during the week. I had to give up two hobbies completely and cut back my involvement in others to the point where I’m hardly involved anyway. This means I’m not doing things that make me happy. This makes me unhappy (not to mention the effect it has on my social and love lives).

‘If you don’t like your job, quit.’

Choices are easy. Everyone usually knows what they really want to do when faced with a choice, it’s the consequences that make choosing difficult. I could hand my notice in today and work out the four weeks and then have about a month to find something else before the money ran out and I couldn’t pay my rent. While handing my notice in would make me very happy, the consequences of doing so without having a new job in place stop me from doing it. It’s a close thing sometimes though.

I’ve never been much of a career-minded person, enjoying what I do has always been more important to me and if I could make a career out something I enjoy than that’s a bonus. In the past whenever I’ve stopped enjoying a job and it became ‘work’ I’ve moved on and it’s time to do so again. But what will I do instead? I’m not sure that matters, just as long as its something that I like doing and gives me time to do the other things I want to do that make me happy.