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.




Sci-Fi Challenge

The eagle-eyed amongst you will have spotted a cute little photo of a lego storm trooper has appeared in the top left corner of my humble little blog. This is because I have joined in with Curiosity Killed the Bookworm’s 2012 Sci-Fi Challenge. I only found this after randomly following her on Twitter as a #FollowFriday suggestion. The idea is that you read at least one sci-fi book a month and then review it, posting a link to the challenge in the process. This’ll be interesting as I haven’t had to read a book and then write about it since I was at school so I’m having to pay attention.

I’ve always been a sci-fi fan, I’ve got all of the original Dune books by Frank Herbert as well as some of the prequels written by his son Brian and Kevin Anderson (although I have started losing patience with them now they are filling in the gaps between the original books. It’s starting to smell of desperation and exploitation to me, and they are not very good if you believe the Amazon reviews), all of the Arthur C. Clarke Space Odyssey books and late last year I discovered Iain M. Banks’ ‘Culture’ novels. But anyone familiar with the genre will recognise I stick firmly to the traditional space and aliens style stuff while the challenge is set to cover all of sci-fi which includes “dystopias, zombie viruses, genetic engineering gone awry, time travel, steampunk, extreme weather, space exploration and, of course, aliens.” so I’m looking forward to being nudged out of my comfort zone.

January’s suggested read is Zoo Story by Lauren Beukes, apparently a cyberpunk story (so I’m trying something new already) which is set in an alternate Johannesburg where criminals are assigned an animal familiar and, through these, acquire mystical and psychic talents. With this obvious sign of guilt they are shunned by polite society and have gravitated together in the slums and ghettos of Zoo City. I’ll be honest, I’m struggling to get into it so far but my Kindle tells me I am only 21% of the way through so I shall give it the benefit of the doubt for now. I’m avoiding reading the reviews that have gone up already so I don’t spoil the story and my own review is actually my own and I’m looking forward to discussing it with everyone.

Soccer Saturday Drinking Game

I’ve been slack haven’t I? No posts since the beginning of April. My only excuse is that things have been a bit of a whirlwind since then and unfortunately blog-writing has slipped down the list of priorities, but I’m making an effort to correct that now things seem to be calming down again.

With that in mind I thought I’d ease myself back in with something fun and light-hearted: a drinking game. And with the football season coming to a close, what better way to finish it off than a drinking game based on Soccer Saturday?

Soccer Saturday (if you don’t know) is a show that’s broadcast on Sky Sports News every Saturday afternoon of the football season. It is hosted by Jeff Stelling, statistician-in-chief and ringmaster to the rest of the clowns. Joining him are four pundits, all of them ex-players, who watch a specific game each through the afternoon and are there to provide live updates and commentary as events unfold. Usually these pundits are Matt Le Tissier, Paul Merson, Phil Thompson and Charlie Nicholas. There is also a videprinter news feed running constantly on the screen giving updates of goals, scorers, and incidents such as bookings and sending-offs from every professional game being played across the country and roving reporters at various matches, again usually ex-players, (Chris Kamara being the most celebrated for his colourful metaphors and “UNBEEEEE-LIIIEEEVABLE!!” catchphrase) . For some reason the chemistry and banter between the pundits and Stelling’s seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of the game makes it compulsive viewing and it was almost inevitable that a drinking game based on it would emerge eventually.

It is a  foolish game with dire consequences only played by idiot alcoholics. Here are the rules:

Everyone playing is required to wear their team shirt or colours. If a player supports no particular team they must pick a Premiership or Championship team from a hat. It is permissable to limit the drinking when a goal is scored rule to only Premiership and Championship games (trust me, it gets very out of hand otherwise) but the rest of the rules apply to all leagues shown on the Soccer Saturday news feed between 3.00pm and 5.00pm

When a goal is scored – Everyone drinks two fingers

A player is sent off – Everyone drinks two fingers

Whenever Chris Kamara is onscreen – Everyone must be drinking

Whenever Paul Merson uses stupid rhyming slang (“He’s hit the beans on toast!”) – Everyone drinks six fingers

Whenever Phil Thompson says “Stevie Gerrard” – Everyone drinks six fingers

Whenever Jeff says “There’s been a goal at… But which way has it gone?” – Everyone guesses which team has scored. Anyone who guesses incorrectly or doesn’t guess in time drinks four fingers

Whenever your team scores – Drink an extra four fingers

Whenever Jeff says “They’ll be dancing in the streets of…” – Everyone drinks four fingers

STRICTLY no drinking at half-time – Half-time is a break in proceedings as it is in football. Use it to smoke, eat, relieve yourself or any of the other things you would not be able to do if you were on a football pitch. Anyone caught drinking during half-time will be severely punished once the second half begins

When someone claims to have seen a “Goal of the Season contender” – Everyone drinks two fingers

Whenever Jeff says “It’s doom and gloom at…” – Everyone drinks four fingers

Whenever Robbie Savage or Craig Bellamy are mentioned or appear on the videprinter – Everyone must shout “TWAT!” (or similar) at the screen. The last one to do so drinks four fingers

Whenever a pundit shouts off-screen – Everyone drinks two fingers

Whenever Jeff says “There’s no question” – Everyone drinks two fingers

Whenever Paul Merson mis-pronounces a player’s name – Everyone drinks four fingers

Whenever Chris Kamara says “Unbelievable!!” – Finish your drinks!

For the purposes of this game a ‘finger’ of drink can be interpreted as a mouthful. If you use standard finger or shot measures things will go very wrong very quickly. I would also suggest having a hearty breakfast and\or lunch to line your stomach and try to avoid drinking before the 3.00pm kick off.

Whatever you do, do not, DO NOT, DO. NOT. arrange to play this game with a load of your mates for your birthday and then instead of eating lunch go out and drink five pints of Kronenbourg with your dad before starting. It will end badly.

Don’t let this happen to you kids

Just so we’re clear, I share this information in the name of fun only. If you are daft enough to decide to play this game, on your head be it! I take no responsibility for any of your actions, reactions, blackouts, stomach pumps or poor sexual choices that may result as a consequence of your participation.

On Doing Stupid Things

I like doing things with a bit of danger involved. Along with my penchant for climbing there are several things on my 101 in 1001 list that a lot of people, on hearing I want to do them, say “Why would you want to do that??”. The bull run in Pamplona is probably the biggest example of this confused disbelief. My usual answer is “Why not?” but if I’m honest I don’t really know why I want to do these things, other than the vaguely unsatisfactory answer that I want to be able to say I’ve done them, to have a story to tell. Shark diving is the latest one that’s been put in my head, and if there’s a possibility the shark will attack the cage, even better.

But it doesn’t even have to be dangerous, just something with a consequence. I like pushing my luck, taking risks, whether it be an outrageous bluff in a game of poker or seeing if I can get home before the petrol runs out. I’m interested to see how I handle things if it all goes wrong. How do you really know where your limits are unless you go beyond them? “Here would be a good place to stop doing this, but I wonder how much further I can go before I really have to stop?”. How far across that log can I get before I end up in the water? How much further up this tree can I get? What part of the house can I get to and be back in the kitchen in time to stop the washing up overflowing?

I’ve been called an adrenaline junkie but I’m not sure that’s right, not in the sense it was meant. It’s not like I go base jumping every week or anything (although I’d love to give it a go) but I do enjoy the anticipation of getting ready to do something stupid. I love the nerves and and the excitment of something like sitting in the basket on a crane going up for a bungee jump but I get the same sort of buzz from driving past the last services for 40 miles when the petrol warning light is on, albeit on a smaller scale. Of course every now and then it does go wrong and I’ve found myself walking back towards those services through the undergrowth and fields alongside the motorway with a petrol can in one hand, some humble pie in the other and a wry grin. Don’t get me wrong, I love the adrenaline rush of doing a bungee jump or getting to the top of a tough climb  but I savour the build up as well, and you can get that build up from little things as well as big things. Even acting can be an adrenaline rush, going out on stage in front of a large group of people knowing that, despite all the time you’ve spent learning your lines and moves there is still the same possiblility that your mind will go blank and you’re stuck. Coming offstage without that happening is a buzz but sitting backstage waiting to go on is almost as good.

For the really dangerous things, the bungee jumping, sky-diving, bull running, climbing, etc I think a big part of it is the fact that I’m doing something that could kill me. Of course I take every precaution against that possibility, I’m not reckless and I certainly have no interest in relinquishing my breathing privileges just yet, but I think a big part of the rush of doing this stuff is a primal “I’M STILL ALIVE!!” feeling. It’s a caveman thing, poking the sabre tooth tiger with a stick and getting away with it so you can poke him again another day. There’s always the chance that the tiger will catch you, that a rock will come away under your hand, the parachute won’t open, but if all goes well and you survive  it’s a heady mix of endorphins and relief and it is addictive, as well as the feeling of invincibility that comes with it. The fact that you’ve got away with it once makes you think you can get away with it again, so you try again. And again. And again until it goes wrong or you get bored. The downside to getting bored is it means you go and find a bigger tiger to poke, it’s a bit of a vicious circle.

It’s the being bored part that makes me play stupid games with my petrol gauge and the other, less dangerous risks I take. I hate being bored. HATE it. I feel like I’m wasting time if I’m bored so when there’s no other entertainment to be had (such as on a long drive) I have to come up with this sort of thing to stop myself chewing on the steering wheel. I also have a lot of curiousity, “I wonder what would happen if…” is a common start to all this stuff for me. The small, harmless risks keep me from doing the really stupid stuff more often as well. If I may flog the petrol example to death, if I get home with only fumes in the tank I can spend a few days feeling smug and invincible and I’m less tempted to see if I can dash across the road before that bus gets to me. Think of them as adrenaline patches, a bit like nicotine patches but with a better kick.

Maybe I am a junkie after all.

101 in 1001

Ok, so I first mentioned this in my first post this year and now I’ve finally finished the list I’ve put it up here.

The idea behind this one (inspired by my friend Emma’s own list) is pretty simple and can be found over at the DayZeroProject, but essentially it’s this:

The Challenge:
Complete 101 preset tasks in a period of 1001 days.

The Criteria:
Tasks must be specific (ie. no ambiguity in the wording) with a result that is either measurable or clearly defined. Tasks must also be realistic and stretching (ie. represent some amount of work on your part).

I don’t normally need much incentive to go and do something I want to do. If an idea pops into my head I generally research the hows, wheres, and how much? side of things and go and do it, (just last night a friend of mine said “You’re a bit of a do-er aren’t you Mart?” which, after some initial sexual confusion, led to a conversation about shark diving), but after looking through the site it seemed like a good way of actually organising all of the things I have on my internal ‘To-Do’ list.

I was surprised at how hard it was to come up with 101 things to do, but then I have a tendency to think big when it comes to stuff like this. I had a look through some of the other lists on the site and realised I could put things on there that were pretty mundane but were things I just never got round to doing. Usually stuff around the house that I keep walking past and thinking “I must sort that out” so not all of them are going to be high adventures although I’m sure I’ll get a blog entry or two out of it.

I’m planning on putting a brief explanation on each item as to why I want to do it and what happened when each task is completed, just because I think there might be some entertainment and information value in it. The whole project is due to finish on 11th September, 2013, which just so happens to be the day after my 36th birthday so getting everything done would be a nice little present to myself.

On Acting and the Theatre

I’ve missed a week in the PostaWeek 2011, but I have a good excuse (and I’m doing two posts this week to make up for it). All of last week was spent on sorting out all the little jobs around the house I haven’t had time to do over the last few months during the day and operating the lights for a production of The Laramie Project in the evenings. I’ve been part of the Masquerade theatre group for the best part of 15 years now. In that time I’ve been a tooth fairy, a Nazi, a gambler, an incredibly well-endowed satyr and (in rehearsals anyway) more women than I care to mention.


When I first joined I was still a Graphics student and was more interested in learning about set designing than acting. As time went on I’d sit in the rehearsals, watching everyone learning their lines and their moves, enjoying the social side of the group as much as the craft. What became apparent was that because I sat through all of the rehearsals I was almost as familiar with the words and moves as the actors themselves so I was the perfect stand-in for when someone was missing, (hence all the female roles I’ve played. For some reason I always seemed to be standing in for the girls more often). Occasionally I would find myself thinking how I would deliver a line or a speech but it still took the director 10 years to get me properly on stage, and even then it wasn’t what you would call a serious role. I made my debut in Faeries II as Ogwurzel Nocturnilus, a narcoleptic tooth fairy who first appeared with a 6 foot high 10 pence piece and subsequently spent the rest of the performance lugging around an enormous tooth, chasing after a bunch of sex-crazed goblins intent on doing battle with a group of fairies in an odd fusion of Star Wars and Riverdance. After that we did a play based on the true account of a massacre carried out by the Nazis in a Tuscan village during their retreat through Italy towards the end of the second world war, The Massacre at Civitella. As this was about as far from the pantomime antics I’d got up to previously, I was not expecting a part but the director read out my name as one of the officers who orders and takes part in the killing. I wasn’t sure I could do it but it turned out that others had been convinced I could act since my early days of reading in for missing people. I seemed set to become at least a semi-regular on stage.

After that I played a cocky, poker-playing waiter in Dealer’s Choice, (which is where my love of the game started. Sadly, I’m yet to become as good as Frankie believed he was) and then there was a bit of a gap while I went to Australia and moved house several times before my final appearance on stage to date  when we converted one of the dry docks in Chatham Dockyard into an ancient Greek amphitheatre for The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus as one of the satyrs charged with finding Apollo’s bullocks, only to find they have been used to make a lyre by one of the other gods. Enchanted by its music they present it back to Apollo who promptly denies them any further contact with its heavenly sound and any other ‘high’ art.


Since then I’ve not been able to be in anything due to the amount of travelling I do for work but I generally get involved backstage, over the last few years I have been operating the sound, and for the first time last week, lights. But I get more nervous about working backstage than I ever did when I acted. Considering how adamant I was that I’d never end up front and centre this is a bit strange. I think it comes form the fact that if you are on stage and you miss a line, it’s usually only your fellow actors who notice and they’re there to help you out. If you get a sound or a light cue wrong it can be very, very obvious. If a doorbell goes off in a very tense prison cell scene everyone knows it wasn’t supposed to be there.

But I’m happy being backstage. If I get the chance to act again I will but I don’t feel the need to be the centre of attention like that. It’s nice to get recognised (and I did once, walking across a car park in my home town a woman I’d never met before came up to me and said “Were you in a play last night? It was very good”. One of the more random moments of my life) and being able to explore different parts of your personality are great. Saying and doing things that you would never normally do, there’s a freedom and confidence the mask of playing a role gives you that you can’t get away with when you’re doing anything else. But I get just as big a buzz when a performance finishes and the sound or lights have added to what’s going on on-stage, knowing that the timing was exactly right and it all looked how the director saw it in his head. I’ve still been a part of something that people have enjoyed and will think about afterwards. I have a lot of fun doing it and I’ve made a lot of friends doing it, I hope to carry on doing it for a long time.

I might not always get to take a bow but I’m always smiling when I hear the applause!

UPDATE: Laramie got reviewed here!