BEEN blessed through my career to work with some top-class journalists and writers, the ones whose copy you looked forward to popping up on your screen.

The very best are a rare breed. Over the years have seen the English language fight a losing battle with some reporters whose copy has barely escaped intact (in more than one award-winning case, having largely been replaced by agency copy).

But when the top-notch ones arrive, you cherish them. The pressure is on a sub, not to make it readable and coherent, but to do it justice with a quick polish and suitable headline and design.

Steve Tucker was one of those. Above that, he was a good friend.

Which makes his sudden loss this week at the age of 52 hard to take.

Tucker – it was always Tucker, he always called me Freeman – was one of a group of journalists and assorted others who became a fixture of my Cardiff years in the office, the pub and… well, that covers an awful lot of it.

This blog has mentioned several times nights spent in The City Arms and endless repeated musical arguments. That was Tucker. And still reckon he was wrong.

Inevitably, the last couple of days since the news broke of his death has seen plenty of words written about the man, his work and his passions – he could get very passionate about Cardiff City, his family or whatever had caught his attention.

A former colleague penned a tribute for Wales Online, sharing some of Tucks’ best-known pieces on the Bluebirds and Tucker’s Travels.

A former editor can take the credit – or blame – for the Travels. Sure he had to take a fair bit of flak over it, the news desk and People’s Champion Nick Machin (appointed to address readers’ needs and, probably most commonly, complaints) certainly did.

The Travels saw Steve and his companion Gustav the Squirrel journey to a different part of Cardiff, his home city, each week and provide an individual view on what he saw.

It was not meant to be taken too seriously, it certainly was not assiduously researched or to be considered a factual portrayal of its subject.

The man himself can explain:

 “The Travels has been criticised recently for giving the impression we merely arrive at our destination, write down a few facts and figures and then proceed to get very, very drunk.

“I would like to put these hateful rumours and slurs to rest once and for all: we do not write down any facts and figures and I’m deeply hurt by the allegation.

“All this fine work is done with the assistance of a photographic memory, White Lightning cider and an impeccably-trained squirrel who sits on my shoulder and says things like: ‘These Cardiff people, Mr Steve, they crazy like the nuts.'”

Not the standard stuff in an evening newspaper

Play some Happy Mondays’ man

The weekly missive was always keenly awaited (and you could wait for Tucker’s copy) throughout the office. Well, maybe not so keenly by those who might take the flak from Pissed Off of Penylan, Furious of Fairwater or whichever part of the city was annoyed by that week’s comments.

Some of us did not always have to wait as long – he would often run it by me before sending it over to news desk, just to check it was not too over the top. Not sure he listened to suggested changes, the most common of which is to have more Gustav.

We could then sit back and watch gleefully as Nick attempted to desk it with his head in his hands, working out how he was going to explain away some of the comments when the phone started ringing.

Nick got his own back – on me at least – by volunteering our services to help Tucker and his family move house. Not sure whether he wanted us there to carry stuff or as an excuse to be allowed out in the evening to take us on a tour of his new local pubs as a reward for our efforts.

Tucker volunteered to help me move out of Nick’s spare room to my own place, but sure he was more interested in claiming his reward that evening.

And chances are, he would spin some tales over some liquid refreshment. Or we would embark on one of those endless musical debates, argue about the merits of egg-chasing against football (you didn’t want to start him on former Cardiff manager Dave Jones, especially when we were banned from his press conferences) or work out more details of our great sitcom that never was, Gorilla In The House.

While the sitcom never did get written, the former drama student in Tucker was happy to embrace stand-up for a while. It was irreverent, genuinely funny and certainly not for a family audience.

There were very good gags about a bloke with a mop and adult movies (don’t be crude) and enjoying yourself while at work (you can be crude on that one). Just not sure a crowd at an arts centre was the right one for a set which opened with the question: “Anyone here like porn?”

As the plant at the back, was certainly not expecting to be the only one to respond.

Even, as just been reminded, his internal emails were humorous and mischievous – one involving the parking spaces the paper used to have at the nearby rugby ground reducing almost the entire office to hysterics and almost ended with us convincing him he had been summoned to HR.

There are endless other memories to savour from my time in Cardiff, far too many to mention here (at least one former colleague will be complaining this has rattled on too long to which the only response is: Keep taking the tablets).

And while there was an evolving group of us, Tucker and Nick were among those at the core of those memories.

We were roped in to wet the baby’s head the evening Tucker became a father for the first time. Perhaps on a school night we should not have been quite so keen on more than the baby’s head getting quite so wet.

That they are both no longer with us is incomprehensible.

Wherever you are guys, grab a Stella and a cooking lager. Stick The Smiths on the jukebox and settle in for a good night.


Have It All to Heavenfaced

THIS post was supposed to be about something else. But every time writing got delayed or interrupted, events conspired to render the proposed subject out of date.

Lost somewhere in the mists of time is a post about trolls and Twitter intolerance, be it related to Brexit, journalists, Six Nations rugby… anything which somebody was not a big fan of or knew nothing about so opted to criticise and attack rather than simply ignoring and moving on with their own life.

But then something came along which, given the subject and history of this blog, could not really be ignored.

We need to talk about Ryan.

If everything had gone to plan, the highlight of this weekend was not supposed to be Gloucester winning at Northampton (no matter how thrilling that was, especially with the enforced tactic of playing much of the game with no specialists in the back three).

No, the main event inked in for this weekend was a trip to Birmingham to watch Ryan Adams.

Anyone paying the slightest bit of attention to this A-Z blog will have noticed Adams crops up as much as anyone, partly due to my love of his music and partly because of his ability to churn out stuff – certainly in his younger years when he needed a touch of quality control.

He rates among the top three gigs on my list (all by acts beginning with R and all, bizarrely, in South Wales), so news of a first new album for a while – well, three throughout the course of the year – and a few live dates had me at a keyboard the moment they went on sale and paying rather more than my normal gig budget.

And then the New York Times published an in-depth report containing allegations of sexual misconduct against Adams, their sources including his ex-wife, actress and singer Mandy Moore, and singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers, who had hinted at her relationship with Adams in the wonderful Motion Sickness.

Moore claimed Adams had stifled her own musical career, saying she was not a proper musician because she did not play an instrument, while there were a string of allegations that he “dangled career opportunities while simultaneously pursuing female artists for sex”.

The report also contained allegations Adams had exchanged sexually inappropriate messages with a teenage girl with the FBI confirming they were launching an investigation.

Strangely, neither the rapidly-delayed album nor the gig looked as inviting – the clamour for refunds adding to the pressure before the tour was also cancelled.

Even if it was not, doubt there would have been too many in the audience – certainly not me.

Plenty has been said and written about the articles, not going to dwell on them. If true (they remain allegations), they are despicable and Adams deserves everything that comes his way. It’s not just a male-female thing, it’s simply right and wrong.

If you want a female fan’s perspective, check out this blog post outlining anger and disappointment which was tweeted into my timeline and rang a fair few bells.

The writer shares a few mutual friends with me, one in particular who regular readers will have heard a lot about in recent posts given that we lost him last year.

Adams soundtracked plenty of memories for me as the soundtrack to one break-up in particular, plus several other personal moments and, most recently, a key memory of a friend lost far too young.

Not sure Nick knew too much about Ryan Adams – the overlap in our musical tastes were certainly elsewhere – but his wife was a fan and Oh My Sweet Carolina has always been a great, bittersweet reminder of a sweltering week in Charleston for their wedding. And it’s a great song.

Which raises the question – is it still acceptable to listen to his music?

Think it is going to be a long time before scrolling through the iPod or reaching for a CD sees me hover in the Adams section, but what happens if one pops up – as it is very likely to do in the near future heading through my iPod from A-Z?

A few have – none in this particular section from Foo Fighters to The National – and it is hard to listen to songs, many of which are so familiar, when the first thing that springs to mind is what you have just found out about the artist.

The fact he could be a bit of a dick came as no surprise – numerous reports of pre-Madonna behaviour (as one reporter once wrote) long circulated around Adams. But if you are going to stop listening or watching people because they are dicks, your choice of entertainment is going to diminish a fair amount.

While not listening to Ryan Adams will affect many people not one iota, the case of Michael Jackson is a bit different – and he was cleared of any allegations that got as far as court.

And do you avoid all Kevin Spacey films? The Usual Suspects (which has other connotations) and the excellent Baby Driver were both on TV not that long ago. Is it OK to watch them? After all, Spacey was just one part (albeit significant) of both.

Suggest there is no right answer to this one. There will be those who feel it is impossible to listen to Adams at all. Personally, will not be picking him out by choice but when he pops up along the way from A-Z, not going to turn away.

Would place doing something to tackle the sort of behaviour of which he stands accused as a far more important response.

As I said, there was no sign of Ryan Adams in the latest, pretty short, chunk which took us to the 4,700 track mark on the journey through my iPod (which looked to have surrendered as it refused to turn on for a few days – right up to the point when given one last chance to behave on the way to the Apple shop to be checked out).

We had a couple of classics from Echo and the Bunnymen – two versions of Heads Will Roll and Heaven Up Here – and a pair from The Smiths (The Headmaster Ritual and Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now).

And sticking with the selection of ’80s classic, we stopped off in Heartland from the oft-overlooked classic Infected album by The The.

  • The observant may have noticed there is no playlist on this post, courtesy of a rather nifty update from WordPress which somehow makes it impossible. Will have a play with that, until then, enjoy the videos.

Light Enough to Travel

OVER the past few years, this blog has developed one or two traditions – the end of year music lists, the new year state of the nation post and any number of good intentions and plans to write more regularly going out of the window.

Certainly things have been quieter than planned since the latest new year missive, partly due to a lack of time and partly due to a couple of A-Z iPod Challenge posts being scrapped or overhauled due to being overtaken by events (another one is on its way, just not on what was planned – it might even be about music. Well, sort of).

Signed off the new year post by promising there would be more regular posts, particularly on travel and overlanding and have been itching to keep that promise and reveal just why that vow could be made so confidently.

This post has been lurking in the wings for even longer, just needed to sort a few things out first before revealing some news. The last of which was handing in my notice at work.

And later this year, that promise will be kept. From out on the roads, mountains, cities, jungles, beaches, wilderness and whatever else we can find in South America over the course of 31 weeks.

Going back for more… the last day on the truck in Africa

Having returned from 10 months in Africa in 2015, my initial assessment was that my days of epic, long trips were behind me. Instead, the travelling was going to be short and often.

Ah well, all plans are there to be changed – have failed to live up to the little and often plan, so why not abandon the no more long adventures idea as well?

That idea was floated on the back of 10 months overlanding around Africa, so maybe there is a bit of an excuse for some weariness with such large scale travel. Reckon that lasted six months – by the time we met up for our first trip reunion just over a year after our return, most of us were admitting we would happily do it all over again.

And when a smaller bunch of us assembled in Nice just over a year ago, the idea of doing another trip was met with pretty much universal agreement. Just not the one which has tempted me back on the road.

The initial plan from three of us was to head out on an overland trip from London to Singapore through the Stans with Oasis, the same company which carried us around Africa on one of its trademark yellow trucks.

In the end , none of us are doing that – one plans to travel on her own, another headed to West Africa yesterday for an overland trip through part of the continent we were forced to go round due to ebola.

And me? For a long time, that trip to Singapore (now starting in Istanbul) was top of my list and a few months ago it was my likeliest destination – followed by heading down to Australia and New Zealand – and would have had me leaving next month. Was within days of booking.

But then something in the back of my mind planted the idea of South America as an option.

It was a tight call. Spoke to people who had completed both trips – as both passenger and driver – who all came down very much on the fence, finding it hard to pick between them.

In the end, having studied the itineraries, it came down to one crucial factor – there were more things on the South America trip which really grabbed me. More potential wow moments.

And so the trip is booked, the lists of things to do are drawn up (and have been redrawn several times) and even managed to make inroads into key things on the Africa prep list which never really got touched – lose weight and get fit.

The weight loss was, originally, far more for health purposes but the target from very early on has not been a certain weight but a size and state of fitness to tackle the rigours of the trip, especially with a less than perfect record of coping at altitude.

My weight loss has been documented elsewhere on this blog and is ongoing – although frustratingly slowly in the last couple of months – while the fitness is making strides in the gym with three weeks under my belt on a Couch to 5K programme (slightly derailed this week by a back problem).

So what lies ahead of a fitter, slimline me?

It is a way off yet. At work until the end of August before heading to the Ecuadorian capital Quito in September, possibly via a few days in the US, which is the start and finish of a circle around the continent which finishes next April.

From Quito we head south along the Andes and Machu Picchu – to trek the Inca Trail or take the train is the first major decision – and on to Bolivia and the salt flats of Uyuni.

Oasis Overland Trans South America

The journey south bounces between Chile and Argentina as we head through Patagonia as far as the world’s most southerly town Ushuaia before turning back north and a few days in Buenos Aires, the Iguazu Falls and into Brazil – our home for, well, ages. Such is the size of the country.

There’s new year in Rio, the Amazon, beaches and an awful lot more to take in before we head through French Guiana, Suriname, Guyana, some more of Brazil, Venezuela (we’ll keep an eye on that one), Columbia and, finally, back to Ecuador and Quito.

And we will do all that on board a big yellow truck with a mixture of camping – often wherever we can find, something which we approached with trepidation before embracing as a trip highlight in Africa – and hostels or hotels.

There’s plenty to be done between now and then, the first jobs on the to-do list are being ticked off and will keep you updated in the coming months and out on the road.

Should be fun.


In The Shadow of a Goblin

NO resolutions, no pledges, not even doing Dry January (or the far harder-sounding RED January), just a few plans which need piecing together in the coming months.

And one promise to myself – to get the New Year’s Day blog post written on the intended date for the first time since it became a Travel Marmot tradition four years ago.

That first one was written in near darkness in a bar by a Ghanaian beach (although not posted until we found strong enough WiFi a couple of weeks later), the ones that followed rather trailed in during the opening weeks of the new year.

All were written in the same spot in my flat and, reading through last year’s entry, it would be easy to claim that not much has changed in the last 12 months (there’s even a football match being largely ignored on the TV, as there was last year).

So, we’ll call that quits then shall we? Not much has changed, nothing to rattle on about.

Maybe not. Not that much has changed looking around from my seat, although that disturbing, now worse for wear, goblin lantern – found that much out about it – is clinging to the lampost outside my window (thankfully, not for much longer. Hopefully).

But plenty has happened in the intervening 12 months – some of it great, some of it good, some of it… well, life can be a bit shit sometimes can’t it?

The most noticeable change, at least for other people, is there’s a fair bit more room in this chair than there was last January.

Then the diet was about a month old and the weight was starting to come off. It continues to do so, maybe not as fast in the last few months and certainly not since last weighing in before both Christmas and a family wedding, but the chair is under considerably less strain than when this all started. To the tune of six stone.

There’s a way to go, a bit more than a stone to get down to the round figure eventually picked out as a target and then two more targets in my mind – where they will stay – which will put me at roughly my lightest since playing rugby and schooldays respectively. Both of which were a long time ago.

Don’t want to bang on about the diet, there’s only so much interest most people can feign and will post a link to a piece which should see the light of day elsewhere in the next couple of days (got to write it first), but it has played a key role in the last year.

As nice as the weight losses are (surprised how fluctuations either way can affect my mood), it is the little plusses you notice which provide the real impetus to keep going – trousers which fit again, other clothes given a fresh leash of life (one pair of trousers, at my reckoning, fitting for the first time in eight years), a belt moving up a notch or being able to do the seatbelt up without garrotting myself on a flight which is suddenly much more comfortable.

Alongside the diet, there has been an effort to get fitter which has also stumbled a bit over the last few weeks through a combination of work, bad back (some things never change) and indifference. The post-work gym crew needs to get its act together again.

Country number 58

Re-reading last year’s new year post  a lot does remain the same. The job has not changed too much, the flat is the same (a lot of things very much in the same spot) and the Wotsit-coloured shitgibbon still occupies the White House – this time last year, evidently, he was declaring himself a stable genius.

And we are still careering head first towards Brexit without anyone knowing what is going to happen while nobody on either side is willing to concede they can’t get exactly what they want or at least what they think they voted for. But let’s not go down that particular rabbit hole.

There were some personal highlights of the year.

The Boston Red Sox won the World Series, Gloucester mixed some excellent rugby with their normal ability to lose games you expected them to win and my travels chalked up country number 58 (Monaco on a Trans Africa reunion weekend in Nice) and state number 40 (West Virginia, leaving Michigan as the sole one missing this side of the Mississippi) during a trip which took in New York, Gettysburg and three bears. But no porridge.

My contribution to the wedding

And the last couple of months were dominated by the wedding of my nephew who, in trying to do the exact opposite, picked a rare Sunday when Gloucester were playing. Which is when he’s supposed to be working.

Which was a lovely distraction from the undoubted low point of the year.

At this point last year, was coming to terms with the fact that my friend Nick was fighting a tumour.

Being blokes, we were far more likely to chat and catch up about travel, football (delighted he got to see his beloved Lincoln City win at Wembley), music, old times… anything really rather than the elephant in the room, although it was pretty apparent early on that this was not something that could be ignored for long.

But even when it had become clear how serious things were, it is still difficult to come to terms with the fact he is gone and that it happened so fast in the end.

Don’t want to dwell too much on Nick – have done that elsewhere – but his loss has coloured much of the last few months and a fair amount of what is to come, be that work (no matter how much we moaned about it, he loved journalism), life away from the office or travel.

Nobody understood my need to wander as much as Nick and after a couple of years with little more than a standard vacation, might be time to come up with something a bit more expansive.

And that certainly holds true for this blog.

It might have been a bit quiet in terms of posts for much of the year, but it certainly has not in recent months behind the scenes and working out a few ideas.

A few tweaks you might have noticed, there’s a few more to come and a lot more regular writing – if there is a new year resolution, that is it – on travel, overlanding and the musical journey through my iPod.

Let’s see where the next 12 months take us.


Best of 2018

JANUARY is far closer than intended and the days are running out before the ice rink and the (still) disturbing green goblin vanish from outside my flat.

So time for another couple of traditions for this time of year – this blog’s end-of-year best album post and the excuses for not posting it earlier.

The New Year’s Day state of the nation post will complete the trinity of Travel Marmot traditions (hopefully without being delayed far longer into 2019 than was intended, one annual favourite that needs avoiding).

The excuse for tardiness was pretty simple and frustrating – especially as most of this best of 2018 list and the appropriate links were sorted a couple of weeks ago. The normal download bonanza after scouring various end of year lists was delayed by a laptop constantly grinding to a standstill, so a few of the late entries may yet move further up the list. Or vanish altogether.

So what do we make of 2018? Seen a couple of reviews claim it had been a year packed full of great albums, but not sure about that.

There has been a lot of good albums, just not sure there has been too many approaching great status. How many will still be on regular rotation in a year’s time or longer?

And there is not one standout – for the first time since doing this on Travel Marmot, there’s not one clear winner (the 2016 list did not pick an album of year, but American Band by Drive-By Truckers emerged as the unrivalled number one.

So it’s a top two. Neither of them reinvent the wheel – one essentially a jingly-jangly indie guitar offering, the other best classified as punk – but both do them with a lightness of touch and reliance on bloody good songs. And there’s not much wrong with that.

Albums of the Year

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Hope Downs

The Melbourne five-piece rely on a pretty simple template – solid, if fairly unwavering, rhythm section over which three guitarists/vocalists weave any number of patterns that head off in any number of directions but always seem to complement each other.

A debut album – albeit one that has had a fairly lengthy gestation – crammed full of cracking songs, An Air Conditioned Man, Mainland, Time In Common and the summery Cappuccino City among others.

Idles – Joy as an Act of Resistance

Rolling Blackouts had top spot tied up for much of the year but the argument for Idles just became too strong to ignore.

In many ways it is angry young men with guitars raging against… well, what have you got? But it is done with wit, intelligence, no little charm and, tellingly, any number of great songs.

Several standouts – and each end-of-year list seems to have picked a different one, while strangely ignoring the wonderfully snarling Television – but Danny Nedelko is up there challenging for song of the year. And possibly most thrilling Later… performance since At The Drive-In.

Not Really An Album of the Year

Boygenius – Boygenius EP

Regular readers will know my ongoing (mild) obsession with Phoebe Bridgers. She didn’t follow up her wonderful debut Stranger in the Alps, which made the upper reaches of last year’s list, but provided some excellent left-field covers (check out her version of Teenage Dirtbag). And this.

Teaming up with fellow rising singer-songwriters Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus to form an indie supergroup of sorts, they each took two songs into the studio and combined their very different styles to form one excellent whole.

And Bridgers’ Me & My Dog should be on any song of the year list.

Honourable mention in this category to last year’s top dogs Public Service Broadcasting’s White Star Liner EP.

The Always Reliable national treasure of the year

Half Man Half Biscuit – No One Cares About Your Creative Hub So Get Your Fuckin’ Hedge Cut

In a country seemingly hellbent on tearing itself apart and losing any sense of perspective, it is good to know that some things can still be relied on as a sort of national pride.

It is not, as some claimed, among their very finest but Nigel Blackwell’s spot on skewering of hipsters in Every Time A Bell Rings and clueless contestants in Knobheads on Quiz Shows are about the most telling analyses of modern times as you will hear anywhere.

Honourable mention for Mogwai’s Kin.

The Surprisingly Good Comeback of the Year

Buffalo Tom – Quiet and Peace

Didn’t see this one coming from a band once described in one of my reviews for a paper as “the Norwich City of Premier League guitar bands”. That rather dates it but, after both disappeared from view, Buffalo Tom appear to be ahead of the Canaries in revisiting those levels.

Honourable mention for The Breeders – All Nerve

It’s Good But… Of The Year

Low – Double Negative

I’ll throw Wide Awake! by Parquet Courts in this category, but purely by dint of how high it appears in so many lists it has to be Low. It’s OK, but been told more than once it needs several more listens as a whole to really appreciate – that just sounds a little bit too much like hard work.

Time for a rethink of the year

Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel

The second album from Melbourne on the list and once almost consigned to the previous category – good, just not as good as previous efforts from a past obsession.

But went back on the basis of a couple of tracks dropped on a playlist and there’s reward for sticking with it. Maybe the Low fans have a point.

Ridiculously Young, Ridiculously Good Award 

This one is shared, courtesy of the plethora of really good albums from young, female artists and groups this year. Barnett and Boygenius could easily have been in here as well, but think we’ve already got enough claiming the spoils.

Snail Mail and Soccer Mommy add to the singer-songwriter quotient, Goat Girl outdid so much of the indistinguishable lads with guitars that make up much of today’s indie landfill while Let’s Eat Grandma have moved on from their hugely-promising debut, continuing to provide something different and more ideas in one song than most bands manage in an album (which is, mainly, a good thing).

Snail Mail – Lush

Goat Girl – Goat Girl

Let’s Eat Grandma – I’m All Ears

Soccer Mommy – Clean

And worth checking out (or in need of greater air time now the problem downloading them onto my iPod actually appears to have been sorted)…

Deafheaven – Ordinary Corrupt Human Love
Lucy Dacus – Historian
Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit – Live from the Ryman (OK, the songs aren’t new and not a huge fan of most live albums, but many Isbell tracks come alive out of the studio – Cover Me Up heading to a whole new level).
Car Seat Headrest – Twin Fantasy
Dream Wife – Dream Wife
The Orielles – Silver Moment
Yawn – Bill Ryder-Jones
Gruff Rhys – Babelsberg
Colter Wall – Songs of the Plains
John Prine – The Tree of Forgiveness
Camp Cope – How To Socialise & Make Friends

The Not Actually This Year Discovery of the Year

Five Eight – Songs for Saint Jude

Nothing new, but in a year without anything new by The Drive-By Truckers and The Hold Steady, this filled the Americans playing guitars like they are performing in the corner of a dive bar hole. Even if it was from last year.

and finally…

The album missed the list (worth a listen though, if only for driving me back to some old stuff and a brief obsession with all three parts of The Crane Wife) but they summed up much of the world in 2018 pretty well.