Everybody Knows That You Are Insane to Eyes Wide Open

There’s the day job, the travel company I run in my spare time, the personal blog website which needs some serious work, sleeping, watching rugby and the gym (yeah right – guess which one has gone by the wayside), so who planted the idea for a new blog in my mind?

THE above message popped up in my Facebook timeline earlier this week in one of those On This Day messages.

There’s a slight amendment from the original, rules of the blog mean names are largely left out of posts so the person responsible can keep his Cornish anonymity.

It came as the blog sparked by that idea reached a landmark, so thought it would be a good idea to have a quick catch-up on how we got from there to here, what here actually is and where we go from… well, here.

That Facebook entry was written in February 2013, so how have things changed in the intervening four years?

The day job remains, in principle, the same. There has been a change of title and a move of a few yards across the office, albeit bar a lengthy detour around Africa and – even more of an adventure into unknown territory for someone from Gloucester – to Bath for a couple of months.

And the way newspapers (remember them?) are put together is a bit different as websites have moved front and centre to everything we do.

The travel company is, sadly, no more. It was (and remains) a lovely idea, based far more on a passion for travel than any entrepreneurial drive.

Still think it could work given the time and money to reach a critical point where it has momentum to roll along.

Sadly we did not have either of those and eventually something had to give, especially as that passion for travel was causing extremely itchy feet (not 100 per cent cured) and that African detour forced a decision to be made.

The time may be right to start sharing a few tales from those days and the main irritant which kept us occupied and became known as The Troll. Even now, choosing my words far more carefully than he ever did.

There is still plenty of rugby being watched (as the next post, already partially written in my head, will attest), a fair amount of sleeping and not enough time in the gym (even though it is actually visible from my flat nowadays).

Which just leaves the website…

Travel Marmot existed four years ago, courtesy of a friend who got up early and built the earliest version before presenting it over breakfast the morning after we had kicked around the idea of transplanting my travel blogs from a hosted site and expanding.

At the time, all it had on it was those posts from  an overland London to New York trip copied across from another site and a few additional articles, which was supposed to be the way it developed.

Until the idea of blogging the A-Z trip through my iPod came about.

The journey had started once before but came to grief somewhere early in the C songs, but had long meant to pick it up again or start anew – a suggestion made aloud in the office which was picked up on by a colleague who came up with the blogging idea.

It took a while to start – a quick look into the archives will tell you that while the idea was made in February 2013, the first post outlining the journey ahead and the rules was not written until March 2014 – mainly because of the time being spent on Epic Overland (the travel company).

But when the decision was made to call time on the business and plan the African adventure, Travel Marmot got a new lease of life and the A-Z journey began,

And three years on we have completed A to E, Eyes Wide Open by Radio 4 rounding off the latest letter at track number 3,222.

It has not been a direct journey – it has not taken almost three years to listen to the first five letters. There’s been a couple of long breaks along the way when travelling (and struggling to find internet access for those blog entries), the need for a rest from it and time demands of work conspired to limit the writing – the listening has never been an issue.

When it started, there was 11,235 tracks on my iPod, which has risen to 12,907 (and you can add 12 from Prisoner by Ryan Adams when it is uploaded to my iPod).

E has actually been the shortest part of the journey so far with 323 tracks (if anyone’s interested, A was 605, B was 871, C lasted 758 and D 765). F awaits – a few asterisks elevating the first track alphabetically – with 514 to come.

Shortest of those has been Ask for Janice by The Beastie Boys (11 seconds), the longest Driftin’ Back by Neil Young and Crazy Horse (27.37). Both will be beaten.

The final section of the E tracks, which kicked off with a blast of Queens of the Stone Age, brought a fair few familiar faces from this journey.

The Wedding Present have popped up as much as anybody (alongside Ryan Adams) and we had three versions of Everyone Thinks He Looks Daft, which is worryingly 30 years old this year.

Fellow regulars Radiohead (the beautiful Exit Music (For A Film) and Everything In Its Right Place twice), New Order (Everything’s Gone Green), REM (Exhuming McCarthy), Half Man Half Biscuit (Everything’s AOR and Excavating Rita) and Belle and Sebastian with Expectations, twice.

Beautiful South (Everybody’s Talkin’), Teenage Fanclub (Everything Flows, twice) and Manic Street Preachers (Everything Must Go) are less regular but welcome visitors, while Rival Schools popped up for a rarer visit with Everything Has Its Point.

And we have even seen the evolution of my relationship with rap.

Back when The Wedding Present were introducing their chattering guitar kitchen sink drama indie pop classics three decades ago, rap had no chance of breaching my jingly jangly ghetto.

But then De La Soul – represented here by Eye Know – arrived with their classic debut album Three Feet High And Rising and things started to change.

Slowly. Ever so slowly. The wonderful Arrested Development followed suit and over the years there has been a gradual exploration of some of the classics – much more old school than what is happening now, but at my age can say that about a lot of music.

Can’t say know much about rap, but know what I like and NWA popped up twice with Express Yourself.

And we’ll see more of them very, very soon…

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Depression Era to Dig For Fire

EVENTUALLY, think my father forgave me for crossing the bridge and decamping to live and work in Wales.

He never quite got the hang of deadlines and would call for a chat after major rugby matches, no matter how many times it was explained to him that the final whistle was when producing sports reports and pages really got busy and was not the time for a post mortem.

If he was still with us (and my career hadn’t, via a circuitous route, switched from sport to news), not sure that would be a problem following my latest move – doubt he would be talking to me.

Wales is one thing, Bath is another. Behind enemy lines. It’s a Gloucester thing.

Bath Abbey. Not viewed from a car
Bath Abbey. Not viewed from a car

But, for a while at least, Bath is my destination for the (far too early) morning commute after a year of travelling and, for the last couple of months, freelancing was ended with a permanent return to the workforce.

Back on the payroll, back to a guaranteed salary, back to paid holidays (yippee), back to only five weeks off a year (booooo), back to the career. And back to being able to give an accurate answer about what my job is.

Well, almost.

It’s all been a bit confusing for the last few weeks, that limbo that became my life on returning from Africa transferring to the office (when it wasn’t still asleep on my sister’s sofa), neither out of work or employed, sat at a regular desk, but without any recognised role, a regular at leaving dos, without having actually started.

“What do you do?” was the short version of what one of our trainees asked at one of those leaving dos.

Best answer at that time was “whatever anyone is willing to pay me to do”. Well, within reason.

It was far too difficult to go any deeper as, at that point, two job offers were on the table, one further afield (and back in sport), one on familiar territory. Sort of.

Having spent a lot of time thinking on the back of a truck over the past year, one clear decision (along with vague plans to do a degree and finally write that book) was that putting down roots somewhere familiar was infinitely preferable to relocating and starting anew, even if life by the seaside had its attractions.

So back home to Gloucester (or Cheltenham, to be precise) it was… or was it?

Stiperstones, Shropshire Hills
Some Stiperstones, pre-descent, evidently

Pretty much a year to the day after leaving, my return to my old company was confirmed, complete with a twist. Not employed by my old paper or even in the old office, my new role was as an employee of the region, dispatched to where needed. Have log-in, will travel.

And where needed is, for the next couple of months, Bath where there is a need for a senior body on their news production desk. As Sam Burgess leaves town, another person not that hot at more than one position on the rugby field arrives – and comments like that are probably why my services won’t be called for on the sports pages.

Three days in and all is going well (at least nobody has told me any different yet), but in a World Heritage City, the main view so far has been the back of the car in front while sat in a traffic jam and questioning the decision to opt for a hire car rather than taking the train (long and circuitous) for the first couple of weeks.

It took almost as long to get out of Bath on my first day as it did to get the rest of the way back to Gloucester. That has improved – partly due to actually finding the right route – but it still means a lengthy commute at either end of the day.

Which means, in the evenings at least (radio in the morning), plenty of progress through the A-Z commute through my iPod (see, almost seamless link).

This latest chunk, plugged into the stereo of the hired Ford Focus with handy display identifying any surprise appearances, has taken us from Depression Era (Patterson Hood) through Desire, Desolation and Diamonds (with the odd bit of Devil thrown in) to Dig A Fire by Pixies.

Manics. Very handy for headlines
Manics. Very handy for headlines

There was also one of my common fallbacks which can be manipulated for headlines involving design (surprisingly common), the Manic Street Preachers’ A Design for Life.

Ryan Adams, almost inevitably, appeared just after with three versions of Desire, which fed straight into Desire As from Prefab Sprout, who also popped up with Devil Came A Calling.

The Devil… section was rounded off by Devils Haircut by Beck while on the opposite extreme, the Sugarcubes gave us Deus (although they are adamant he does not exist).

Paul Simon was the pick of the Diamond tracks (Diamonds On The Sole Of Her Shoes) while another musical veteran ate up the miles – even in a traffic jam – with more than 11 minutes of Desolation Row by Bob Dylan.

A couple of familiar faces popped up twice, Half Man Half Biscuit with Descent of the Stiperstones and Dickie Davies Eyes and Sufjan Stevens with the noticeably wordy Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!) and, quite apt considering the number of festive stories which landed on my screen this week, Did I Make You Cry On Christmas (Well, You Deserved It!).

But pick of this section was the wonderful Different Day from the equally wonderful Jason Isbell.

Different Day, different traffic jam.

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Contact On The World Love Jam to The Crane Wife 3

In the kingdom of the blind
It’s said the one-eyed man is king
And in the kingdom of the bland
It’s nine o’clock on ITV
Corgi Registered Friends – Half Man Half Biscuit

TRAVELLING souvenirs come in all shapes, sizes and degrees of tackiness.

Barring the odd bottle of ouzo or Metaxa brought back from Mediterranean beach holidays – which never taste quite the same after spending months or years in a suburban sideboard – not many of them have resurfaced at the back of a cupboard during a clean-out before moving out of a flat.

But one of the more memorable keepsakes of my London to New York overland trip popped up in just those circumstances (the others being a surprisingly large collection of shot glasses from a cruise liner and a selection of T-shirts providing a guide to our progress across the USA – and where we were running low on clean laundry).

Three-plus years past its sell-by date may be, but it was still tempting to use it while cooking, such were the memories it brought back and the impact it had on a succession of meals.

Certainly far more than we thought likely when it was thrown, almost as an afterthought, into a Latvian supermarket trolley.

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Multi-Purpose – The pepper which made any number of train meals palatable

And while most of what we brought that day has been forgotten – not all, some of it evokes some less than tasty memories – that magical bottle of pepper has gone down as one of the stars of the trip.

The magic pepper bottle fell into our hands in a scamper around a Riga supermarket on the lookout for food during our upcoming stint on the Trans-Siberian Express.

And… nope, absolutely no idea where this was going.

Written more than 10 months ago, those first few paragraphs were supposed to start the final entry in the A-Z Challenge before heading off on my travels around Africa but time sort of got away from me.

As tempting as it was, listening to loads of music and writing an article about it could never really take precedence over packing, jabs, the chance to buy shiny new things (which, in one case, had broken in the first couple of months) and the need to move out of my flat, unearthing the magical Latvian pepper in the process.

Think the intention, given the opening Half Man Half Biscuit quote and the mere fact a picture of the pepper was taken on my phone, was to recite a few tales of the meals we rustled up on the Trans-Siberian – essentially, anything we could make by just adding hot water to (lots of Smash, noodles and soup, often combined) and spray pepper all over.

It sort of worked, especially when washed down by a fair amount of vodka.

Thankfully, the food our revolving cook groups created during the past 10 months on the road was, mainly, better. Surprisingly so, given the limited budget to feed up to 22 people with three meals a day over an open fire in whatever the elements could throw at us at whichever remote bush camp we had pitched up in.

A lot of eggs, a lot of veg (leaving meat out altogether can be easier and cheaper when you have to do a veggie alternative anyway), a lot of potatoes (especially from our cook group, even for breakfast), a lot of stir fries (anything thrown in a wok and stirred about a bit), a lot of stews (anything thrown in a pot and stirred about a bit) and a fair amount of curries (anything thrown in a wok or a pot with some spices and stirred about a bit).

There was only one truly inedible meal – and that merely down to too much (way too much) spice – and a few that failed to deliver, mainly down to personal taste (one which had peanut sauce sticking my tongue to the roof of my mouth for much of the night).

Everything Everything
Everything Everything

But any complaints about to the food were mainly down to our shortcomings as cooks and, on the whole, my diet was much better than back home (even without the magic pepper) as it finally featured breakfast on a daily basis, regular ingestion of green, healthy stuff and much less snacking – courtesy of a self-imposed rule not to stockpile food on the truck.

Admittedly, my consumption of fizzy drinks crammed full of sugar rose – some achievement given how high it already was – but the outcome of all this is the need for a new wardrobe, particularly trousers, as all my clothes are now too big.

The jeans bought this week are four inches smaller than the ones which went round Africa and needed holding up well before the end and that flat clearout just before the off included throwing out any clothes which were deemed too small and never likely to be much use again.

D’oh!

One thing which has not shrunk – nor, until a mass catch-up of stuff missed over the last few months, grown – has been my iPod collection, which remains at 11,638 tracks.

And until today, the trek through those tracks from A-Z had not progressed any further after the decision to put it on hold while away, given the difficulties in keeping up with one blog while away, let alone a second subject.

Before the off, Public Enemy kicked off this latest section which also rattled through Steve Earle’s Copperhead Road, a couple from Half Man Half Biscuit (Corgi Registered Friends and The Coroner’s Footnote) and rounded off with Cough Cough by Everything Everything – owners of possibly the poshest and most-inept moshpit in history.

The Decemberists, Cambridge. 03/10/07
The Decemberists

In the unrealistic hope of actually finishing the C tracks before departure, there was a catch-up on the then newly-installed ABC tracks which had joined the collection, mainly from Johnny Marr, more HMHB, Weezer and some Gaslight Anthem.

And then it stopped… until a couple of bus rides (still to replace the car scrapped before departing) got things up and running again through the 1900 mark with Cousins by Vampire Weekend, followed by the excellent Jason Isbell – whose latest is high on the list of catch-up albums – with Cover Me Up.

The Decemberists then took over. Totally. Their three-part The Crane Wife opus – based on an old Japanese folk tale and forming the backbone of the album of the same name – goes on for a fair amount of time in its own right.

Throw in the live version of all three parts and it will take you all the way from Cheltenham to Gloucester and beyond.

But after 40 weeks around Africa and with close to 10,000 tracks still to go, that’s not really very long.

And at least there will be no trying to remember what I was going on about.

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Come To Dust to Contort Yourself

IN comparison with the ground to be covered across the next nine months or so, the last week has not covered too much distance.

What’s a couple of trips to Bristol, one to Cardiff, a couple of nights out, more shopping (and spending) than you’d normally get me doing in many months compared to 39 weeks travelling overland around Africa?

And what is the relatively short sprint (albeit a considerable distance between musical styles) from Boards of Canada to James White and the Blacks in comparison to the inroads that trip will make into the A-Z rattle through my iPod?

But both musically and elsewhere, it has been a week of covering an awful lot of ground as two journeys – or, at least, sections of them – have neared their conclusion.

For the A-Z, we are entering the final stretch of the C section, almost to the point where D is looming into view and the desire to get through the final 100 or so tracks forms a type of “are we nearly there yet?” mentality – especially as number 2,000 heralds the entry into the home straight ahead of the new letter.

Away from the music, the journey has been through a success of daily to-do lists as the road to heading off to Africa has seen the miles clocked up at an alarming rate.

The final leg of that journey kicked off after leaving work and – once the effects of a later than planned finish to my leaving do had worn off – has seen a lot of jobs ahead of departure chalked off the lists where they have been sitting for some time, waiting for the short spell before the off when getting ready for it has become my full-time occupation.

Those preparations will be covered in more detail in another post (this one coming first purely by chance), but they have now reached the point where, if the call came through saying the trip had been moved forward a week, it would not be a major problem.

The Hold Steady
The Hold Steady

One last shopping trip in the morning for a final few essentials (socks, pants, toothbrush, you know the sort of thing) and all that is really left for the trip is to work out how to cram what currently covers my bed and the best part of two shelves in a cupboard into my newly-repaired rucksack and newly-delivered shoulder bag.

Packing out of the way (and the plan is to pair that with working out how to use my new GoPro camera, so look out for a video on how – or how not – to pack for an overland journey and, if in a charitable mood, you might also get to see my attempts to work out how to tie my new bandana) and the final few days before departure will be given off to packing up my flat.

All of which will be done to the soundtrack of my iPod as the race is on to get through those pesky Cs before leaving (the daily chunks of listening to them on the drive to and from work having to be replaced by other methods).

There’s also a chunk of newly-downloaded ABC tracks to catch up on after an afternoon spent getting my iTunes up to date with new albums, books and, courtesy of the vouchers which made up my leaving present, all five series of The Wire downloaded for re-watching on the road.

Weezer and Half Man Half Biscuit’s new albums will play a major role in that chunk, after The War On Drugs lead the way through the last batch of C songs, courtesy of four tracks starting with Come or Comin’.

But musically, this week has belonged to The Hold Steady.

They may have only cropped up once on this leg of the journey, with Constructive Summer, but they were responsible for one of those trips to Bristol to catch them at the Academy.

Not my favourite venue and, to be honest, the evening had started with a touch of “can we really bothered?” syndrome, but well worth the trip it was as they played a storming set mixing up new stuff with a healthy sprinkling of their back catalogue.

Where White Denim, also in Bristol, felt the need to add any number of flourishes to each track and stretch them almost to – and sometimes beyond – breaking point, The Hold Steady trimmed away any unnecessary flourishes and raced through tracks at a healthy clip, building as they went and heading off before outstaying their welcome.

They wrapped things up joined by support band The So So Glos – who were so-so – for a cover of American Music by The Violent Femmes, who popped up again on my iPod with Confessions, just as the second trip to Bristol (another spot of pre-journey shopping) merged into a sprint along the M4 to Wales to make a meeting with my account manager at the bank on time(ish). Thought it might be a good idea to go through some of the more bizarre transactions that lie ahead in the next nine months.

Elsewhere, The Beatles contributed three versions of Come Together – Primal Scream and Spiritualized chipping in with songs of the same name – while there were two versions of Elastica’s Connection, The Concept by Teenage Fanclub (from their excellent, fairly recently rediscovered Bandwagonesque album), Company In My Back by Wilco and Coming Home from Richard Hawley, someone who has never truly grabbed my attention but is making his mark whenever he appears on this trip.

Shack contributed Comedy, Pulp added Common People and regulars The Lemonheads (Confetti) and New Order (Confusion) popped up again.

As did Complete Control by The Clash, with which my brother in law kicks off his birthday each year.

There’s worse ways to mark getting older.

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B+A to Ballad of Climie Fisher

FOUR years ago, this day was spent journeying through three US states.

It kicked off going to bed on a big green bus in Seattle, Washington (while listening to Nirvana) in the early hours, breakfast was on the road somewhere in Oregon and much of the day was spent in the Redwood State Park, California.

Golden Gate Bridge - Somewhere in there
Golden Gate Bridge – Somewhere in there

The evening was spent celebrating my 40th birthday in fairly riotous fashion in the town of Arcata while the mist that swathed the Golden Gate Bridge as we arrived in San Francisco the following morning was somehow in keeping with the state of my head.

Four years on, 44 has arrived with my head in a better state, bar being a bit bunged up from hayfever which meant it started far too early, albeit in my own bed (listening to Radio Five Live). Breakfast was in Cheltenham, while much of the afternoon has been spent sat tapping away at this laptop and my shiny new present to myself, which comes complete with an Apple logo on it. The evening promises much of the same.

Things have changed a bit over the past four years.

And they promise to change again – next year’s birthday will be in… well, not sure, but somewhere in east Africa. Possibly Tanzania or Kenya as a 10-month trek around the dark continent enters its last couple of months.

Wherever completing another year happens, this leisurely saunter (or long trek – opinion dependent on the quality of songs which pop up on my iPod) from A to Z will still be going strong. At the current rate, we will be somewhere on songs beginning with G…

It’s all making 10 months around Africa look like a bit of a sprint.

It also means we are very much still in the foothills, having just began the road through B, which started with B+A by The Beta Band and has been dominated by songs beginning with four words.

Baby… took up all of a journey to Cardiff and a couple of trips to the tip, Back… a very loud journey back to Gloucester with Bad… taking over the daily commute to and from Cheltenham (which goes to show when and where most of the required listening goes on) before this section ends with the beginning of a run of Ballads.

The Baby… section – which managed to include Babylon’s Burning by The Ruts blaring out on one trip to the tip to dispose of the detritus left lying around my house by the departing tenants – was, to be honest, not the most thrilling run of tracks.

It had its moments – Baby from Warpaint or Baby Missiles by War on Drugs, although not sure that was really worth three versions back to back – but was largely forgettable.

Thankfully, it got back on track as we moved into Back…, which all kicked off with Back At The Farm by White Denim, who also sent me off on a major detour from the direct route from B to C.

White_Denim_-_Corsicana_LemonadeTheir Corsicana Lemonade album popped up towards the tail end of last year and convinced me to stump up for a couple of tickets to see them in Bristol and wave one of them under my brother-in-law’s nose as his Christmas present (mine in return was one to see Half Man Half Biscuit).

But it rather dropped off my radar in the intervening months and so the A to Z trip had to be abandoned for a rapid reacquaintance. Not that rapid – we got an extra nine day’s grace as the delights, commercial and otherwise, of an appearance on Later… forced a postponement.

And was it worth the wait? Well, yes. Probably.

They pack some good songs – particularly the wonderful At Night In Dreams, which appeared in the last post – and are all fantastic musicians, particularly the bewildering drummer. The lead singer comes across as the love child of Marcus Brigstocke and Richard Ayoade while the guitarist and bassist, stood resolutely on the opposite side of the stage, appear to have come straight out of central casting for two diverse, stereotype figures you might find in a southern bar.

They are good, but they really need to realise not every song has to be drawn out beyond its natural boundaries – for almost the last hour, you are convinced this just has to be the final song as they cannot keep drawing bigger and bigger climaxes and jams out of each track. Oh yes they can.

Back to the Backs and classics from two of the keys bands which soundtracked my teenage years (and much of the last three decades, to be honest) – Back of Love by Echo and the Bunnymen, sung very loudly (twice) on the journey back across the Severn, and the beautiful Back To The Old House, the finest entry by The Smiths yet.

Bad… was, well, better than the name implies. Courtesy of an influx of new songs to my iTunes, Bad Habit by The Foals (a band which have yet to really grasp my attention) took the honour as number 600, just ahead of Bad Losers On Yahoo Chess by Half Man Half Biscuit.

And then we got Bad Romance. Yep, the song by Lady Gaga, which sits a bit incrongruously here. Especially next to Half Man Half Biscuit, although perhaps that’s her next wacky costume.

It’s just not by her, it’s an acoustic cover version by a young unsigned American called Juliana Richer Daily who first popped up on my laptop during a search for a version of Wake Up by Arcade Fire to use above a promotional video in my previous life working for a travel firm.

Not only does she do a fantastic version – one of several great covers on her YouTube channel – she has moved from Upstate New York to Nashville and is about to release her first album.

And people have accused me of being obscure.

Which all brings us to the end of this section with the start of the surprisingly long Ballad of… run which took us as far as more Half Man Half Biscuit and Ballad of Climie Fisher.

Just remember, “Fisher hates gravel, Fisher hates shale”…

 

 

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