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.



BMW Drivers Are Still Cocks

Jeremy Clarkson has been saying on Top Gear for a while now that cocks only drive Audis instead of BMWs these days but I’m pretty sure there are still plenty more BMW drivers who are arseholes. As I may have mentioned once or twice already, I travel a lot for work. This inevitably involves a lot of driving, and I often find myself cursing BMW drivers. But after thinking about it while stuck in traffic somewhere between Reading and Newport just after the New Year I decided to test whether it was my own prejudice and I tended to ignore cock-ish behaviour from other drivers or if those in BMWs really do more stupid things.

At this point I should probably point out that I am aware that there almost certainly are careful and considerate BMW drivers out there, but for the purposes of this experiment and comedic value I’m making the sweeping generalisation that they are all cocks. I have several friends and work colleagues that drive BMWs and while in real life they are pleasant and entertaining people to be around as soon as they get behind that steering wheel something happens that turns them into arrogant, selfish and idiotic wankers. To be fair, I know a couple of people with Audis as well and occasionally the same thing happens.

So it was I decided to carry out a survey throughout February. From when I woke up on the 1st February to when I went to bed on the 28th, whenever I was driving and saw cock-ish behaviour I made a note of it and if it was a BMW, an Audi or an ‘Other’ kind of car. Cock-ish behaviour was defined as anything that made me wince, suck breath in over my teeth, mutter to myself, swear out loud or yell abuse at the windscreen. This included, but was not limited to:

  • Tailgating
  • Blindly pulling out of side roads without waiting for a gap in traffic
  • Using the wrong lane and then cutting in to jump queues at traffic lights
  • Using the wrong lane on roundabouts for the same reason
  • Ignoring road markings such as box junctions and blocking the road
  • General impatience and lack of regard for other road-users

And here is the result:

The Results

So out of a total of 66 incidents of cock-ish behaviour, 13 were by BMW drivers, 8 by Audi drivers and 45 by everyone else. Which means 20% of all the times I though someone was being a cock it was a BMW driver compared to 12% being Audi drivers so I think that proves ol’ JC wrong and me right.

To make it even more obvious, I made a chart:

Percentages of Cock-ish Behaviour

So as we can see, between them drivers of certain German cars accounted for pretty much a third of all the cock-ish behaviour I saw through February but between the two most of it still came from BMWs.

Over the course of the 28 days in the February I drove in the region of 1570 miles and saw 66 incidents of cock-ish behaviour. In total this works out as 2.36 incidents per day or 1 incident every 23.79 miles. For incidents by Audi drivers these figures are 0.29 incidents per day or 1 incident every 196.25 miles. For BMW drivers they are 0.46 incidents per day or 1 incident every 120.77 miles. Everyone else clocks in at 1.61 incidents per day or 1 incident every 34.89 miles. So from a purely statistical point of view I can expect to swear at 2 people a day and there’s a good chance that every other day one of them is going to be a BMW driver, compared to an Audi driver once every 3 days.

I’m aware that this survey is probably deeply flawed. It might not be quite fair to single out Audi and BMW drivers while I lump everybody else in together. To get a true distribution of what cars are most likely to be driven by cocks I would have to take into account every make of car that is on the road and the proportion each make has of the total number of cars in the country so the numbers are not skewed. For instance if I was to count Fords or Vauxhalls I would expect to see more incidents of cock-ish behaviour just because there are more of them on the road. But the point of the comparison I was trying to make was how many times I thought a BMW or an Audi driver was being a cock and if I was right in thinking it would be BMWs more often. This is not to say that Audi drivers are not cocks, between them they make up a third of all the cock-ish behaviour I saw remember, it’s just that Audi drivers are not as big cocks as BMW drivers are.

I think my figures are pretty conclusive. I’m right and Top Gear is wrong, I’ve proved it scientifically and have the numbers to back my claims up. So there.

Of course it could be that all this really proves is I don’t have quite enough to occupy my mind outside of work and my time and energy would be better spent trying to find myself a girlfriend…

Biscuits for Breakfast – The Special One

They’re a funny lot the guys I work with. When I first started in the job I very quickly gained a reputation amongst them for being ‘special’ as every time I phoned one of them for help with one error or another invariably no-one else had ever seen it before. The response I got most often was “Yeah, good luck with that!” but I was usually able to muddle through. Most of time I was actually just unlucky with the errors but there have been some incidents which have made the nickname ‘The Special One’ stick.

Some time in 2008 I was assigned to job in Milan and things did not really start well. I was flying out in a Sunday afternoon so I could be on-site first thing Monday but on my way to the airport I realised I had forgotten my passport. I pulled into the services just before Heathrow and called my manager to explain exactly why there were going to be some unhappy Italians the next morning. He was surprisingly understanding as it turned he out he’d done the same thing in the past so after a minimal amount of abuse I carried on to the airport where I found there were no more flights that evening and had to book myself onto the first flight the next morning. Which was at 5am. Which meant I would have to be back at there at 3am. On a bad day it can take 2 hours for me to get to Heathrow and I’m not very good at early mornings, but as it was my own fault it seemed a reasonable punishment, and punishment enough. Apparently it wasn’t.

So it was the following lunchtime I found myself getting out of a cab outside a bank somewhere in Milan with all my luggage and a couple of bleary eyes. As all the information I had was a name and the bank address so it seemed reasonable to try and find my contact inside. I don’t know if all Italian banks have the same entry system or if it was just this one place but to get in you had to go through a kind of revolving door. It seemed like any other normal revolving door but only one person could step into it at once, it then revolved to let that person into the bank properly while blocking entry to anybody else, a simple and clever security system that appeared to be weight-activated. I say it was weight-activated because when I stepped into it with my laptop bag and small suitcase it span halfway round and then rocked back slightly, perfectly balancing between the entrance and exit positions, leaving me unable to get into the bank or back out into the lobby. Italians are an excitable lot and the sight of a tired, confused Englishman trapped in the door that was their only access to their Euros caused a predictable commotion which was what attracted the attention of the security guard rather than my embarassed knocking on the glass. Through hand-signals and broken English he managed to convey that he thought I was an idiot and released the door so I could get through. I managed to explain what I was doing there and was informed that I should have actually gone into the building next door. I thanked them and sheepishly made my way out through the disabled access door, not wanting to risk the revolving door again. You’ll be glad to hear that after that the rest of the job went well I’m sure.

Sadly, although such incidents have become fewer and further between, they still happen. Just as I start thinking I might have become a sensible and uneventful engineer, something special happens. Not long before Christmas I was working in a datacentre in Peterborough. The gentleman I was working with had never been to the site before either and as it turned out the information we had telling us where the server we were to work on was located was wrong so we got a bit lost, to the point where we ended up in a generator room which our security passes had let us into but then would not let us out of again. We were stuck in there for about an hour and were only rescued when someone walked past the door and saw us waving.

Still, it gives me something to write about.

Biscuits for Breakfast – Travelling Alone

There’s something about travelling alone that brings people together. I remember sitting in a bar in Dublin airport with about an hour before I could even check in and I saw something that reminded me of a night I had in Australia, and it prompted me to think it must happen all the time. Essentially a young lady on her own sat down at the counter next to a young man on his own. They didn’t appear to know each other, certainly for the first half an hour or so they ignored each other. But they got to chatting in the manner of old friends and left together. Maybe it turned out they were on the same flight, maybe they were a couple who had an argument at check-in and she found him there brooding over a drink and they made up, who knows? But it made me think of how strangers become friends.

A few years ago now I went to Australia. This one particular night I was staying at a hostel in Melbourne in preparation of an early start to a trip along the Great Ocean Road to Adelaide. After I’d been given my key and dumped my stuff I did what every good Englishman does when on his own and at a loose end, I went in search of a drink. I sat at the bar of the pub next door, ordered a beer and started watching the Aussie Rules game that was playing on the TV. Before long a girl came in and sat next to me, ordered her own beer and also started watching the game. What made me do it I don’t know (I’m always surprised when I spontaneously start talking to a girl) but I turned to her and said something like “You’re on your own as well then?” and what followed were a few of the most comfortable hours I’ve ever had. What we talked about I couldn’t tell you, the alcohol on the night and time since have robbed me of details. What I do remember is her name was Becky, she worked for British Airways, she lived in Newcastle, she was staying in Melbourne with her parents in a hotel just up from the hostel and she had a boyfriend. But it was one of those evenings where two people just ‘click’.  We talked without any awkward silences, we laughed and she showed me her ‘positive, permanent scar’. A tattoo on her left hip she’d had done after a dark time in her life she’d come through and survived. Towards the end of the evening she linked her arm through mine and rested her head on my shoulder. Another English guy started talking to us and asked how long we’d know each other, he almost refused to believe we’d only met that night. We swapped email addresses and she asked me if I would walk her back to her hotel. I agreed and she went to the toilet. I never saw her again.

What happened I guess I’ll never know. Probably we were both that drunk that we missed each other and she just decided to go back on her own. I know plenty of people who have a homing instinct that kicks in once the drink gets too much. I did send her one email after I got home to see if she had got back to the hotel but I never got a reply. It’s strange to think that you can meet someone you click so well with for one night and then have them disappear from your life again, you going in your direction and them going in their’s. I still think of her every now and then, when I’m reminded like I was that that afternoon in Dublin airport. Does she still think of me I wonder? The bloke in Melbourne who was supposed to walk her back to the hotel but then disappeared. I hope so. I hope she did make it back ok and that if we were to ever meet again it would be as friends. I hope the two strangers I saw meet that day made it back ok as well, whatever direction they were going.

Away for Work

Haven’t done too well on this blogging lark so far have I?? I put it down to the fact I’ve been away for work so much over the last 6 months or so.

And there’s the thing, I go away for work a lot. It was a big part of the attraction of the job when I first went for it, getting paid to go around European cities and push buttons, sounded great. In theory it is, in the last three years I’ve been to (in no particular order): Oslo, Paris, Milan, Turin, Bratislava, Budapest, Tirana, Skopje, Bucharest, Vienna, Glasgow,  Istanbul, Copenhagen, Malmö, Dublin, Galway, Edinburgh, a couple of places in Holland, all over northern England and I’m sure there are other exciting and exotic places I’ve forgotten, but on the downside I have also had to go to places like Salford, Rugby, Bradford, Preston and Crewe.

So it’s not quite the jet-set and glamorous lifestyle people think it might be. Yes I’ve been lucky enough to go to some amazing places and got paid for it but generally all I see is airport, hotel, office, hotel, airport, which is why I forget where I’ve been. Very rarely do I get to have a wander around and explore somewhere properly, especially as a lot of the time (particularly in the UK) I’m working and staying in an industrial estate on the outskirts of a city rather than the fun part in the middle.

I suppose you could say I’m well travelled but I haven’t seen much. I have got a list of places I’d like to go back to for a long weekend and enjoy, with the added bonus that I know my way around a bit and know a few decent restaurants and bars to go in.  I’ve got some adventures I can tell people about from it all and it gives me an opportunity to indulge in my photography habit so I can’t complain too loudly, I knew it was part of the job when I signed up and I still enjoy it. Once the travel becomes a burden more than a blessing it’ll be time to think about what I’m doing but until then I’ll still be spending a lot of time rolling up the M1 or sitting in airports.