Norway Cruise – Days 2-6 : a Week on the Ocean Waves

It’s a strange and wonderful world living on a cruise ship for a week. We are not on one of those massive 3,000 berth Caribbean monster liners with 7 passenger decks, 7 bars and 17 nights of restless B-factor entertainment.

Rather, we are on something of a mini-cruise on a robust Hurtigruten Nordic ship, working down the spine of Norway. Like a slow and deliberate masseur checking out every vertebrae of a mountain and every disc of a port. There are 300 of us, with the occasional educational lecture and one bar – unused by me on an alcohol-free week.

All Aboard the Big Floating House

So a random selection of not-previously-introduced voyeurs are squeezed together for a week into a makeshift instant community. Day One to Day Eight, each day announced like a new day in the Big Brother House. “Day Four – and Debbie is eagerly anticipating the arrival of the cloudberry cheesecake”

Unlike in that ironically labelled “reality TV” programme, in this literally real floating apartment block, there is no overt competition or confrontation. Everyone is polite, respectful and accommodating – at least on the surface. More on that later.

Each day, a different part of the world streams itself live in front of our eyes, as we sail effortlessly from one town to another. We just have to sit back, eat, take photos, post them on Facebook and then count how many people like them. What could be more relaxing?

We were warned that we could be the youngest people on the ship. Well not quite. But there is a majority of elderly couples – particularly German and French – many no doubt retired. The majority clearly enjoy the unlimited food and possibly should be taking the stairs rather than the lift. I haven’t seen any of them in the gym.

There are some folk you notice and keep seeing – others you only spot on the last day and wonder where they have been hiding. As in life.

The staff too become familiar as they too are part of the closed community – just living on a different, lower deck. Upstairs for the elite, and downstairs for the servants.

The Fullness of Full Board

Most people take full board. Otherwise, obtaining regular food would be pretty challenging. There is one shop on board selling chocolate and crisps, otherwise you would be forced to find a shop on one of the stops. Unsurprisingly, nothing is open in Tromsø at 12.30am, or in Trondheim at 7am. Or, it seems is some ports at anytime. Norway seems to have a refreshingly no-fuss approach to tourism. There is no need to open up specially, just because 300 people are landing every day in your little town of 2000 people. If we ignore them, they may go away.

The downside of full board is the constant challenge of having to eat “what we have paid for” even when we are not hungry. Two weetabix at home translates into fruit, porridge, yoghurt, salmon, pickled herring, boiled egg, cheese, cold meat and a variety of salad in a breakfast buffet. Repeat ad nauseam (if not careful) for lunch and then a three course dinner, which becomes a relative light snack, because the food is brought to us, rather than the other way round.

The constant feeling of being bloated becomes rather too much. We pretend it is something imposed upon us rather than self-selected, as we return to the dessert bar for “just something to finish us off”.

Queue the Quiet Competition

I mentioned that people are outwardly polite and respectful. But as everywhere in life there are undercover competitions and unspoken conflicts. With so many people in a closed space, accessing food, facilities and seats – there is the a temptation to jump the queue. This could be the rush to check-in, the dash to leave the ship, the stampede towards the vacant chairs, or the queue for the coffee machine.

Competition is discrete and tactics are well-hidden. Subtle enough that no accusation would stand up in court, “I didn’t see you”, “I thought you were in a different queue”, “I thought I was here before you”. As we checked in, there were two queues with some unauthorised moving between them, people using their suitcases as markers, like towels on a deckchair or a golfer marking his ball. Playing the queues both ways. Or maybe one half of a couple in each queue.

Be careful the person who tries to subtly cut in front of my wife when the waiter brings in the fresh tray of tiramisu. She has tracked it leaving the kitchen on her fine-tuned pudding-radar, and vacated her seat at the perfect time to meet it as it arrives at the dessert bar. Don’t even try to get in front of her – or the just desserts you get may not be so pleasant.

Maritime Mating Rituals

There are many rituals on board. We are invited to wave at passing ships, in some sort of international competition to see which community of passengers waves the most. I have never seen this sport on TV, nor expect to read any of the results in the maritime newspapers. So I leave it to others – mainly Norwegians with flags it seems – to take part.

What is harder to avoid is the exchange of mating calls. Our ship groans out a deep guttural and seductive B flat. The approaching ship moans out a higher pitch perfect C. Like two sea-monsters checking for a mutual attraction. Thankfully, nothing ever comes of it. Swipe left, swipe left.

A Long Time at Sea

Whilst there are lots of meals, quizzes, excursions and presentations on board and frequent stops. But even if you went to them all, there is awful lot of time simply “at sea”. Sailing along for hour after hour through water and time. Every knot is 4 minutes, every minute a quarter of a mile. Time and distance spread out – and the temptation is to keep asking ourselves “what shall we do?” The opportunity to read, write, take photos, social mediate, make coffee are all fine and not to be sniffed at. But there is also an opportunity as the beautiful world passes across our eyes simply to stare and watch and listen and notice things. Look and listen out.

Or, its quite okay to give ourselves permission to be bored and to lapse into lethargy and low-energy stupor. Even to take a nap or watch inane TV. We don’t get the chance very often. So let’s not feel guilty.

Journeys End / Carry on Cruising

And so we come to the final day, when we will all be evicted, with our tummies full, our suitcases re-packed and our batteries recharged, or at least rested. I only took to the treadmill once – for 20 minutes.

Apparently, I have 300 unread emails. So the that particular treadmill is still waiting for me. But for now, we are relaxing for the final time on our final night, watching the satsuma sun sink slowly into the sleepy blue-grey sea. A life on the ocean waves is probably not for me. But a slow week at sea – just cruising along – definitely floated my boat.

Norway Cruise Day 1 – Vardø Bewitched

Our giant ship sidles into the little Norwegian town of Vardø, gently buffering up against the daisy-chain of old tyres pinned along the dockside. Then, throwing out its ropes as an invitation, it is accepted and entwined to the harbour cleats.

Five minutes later the boat opens its mouth, sticks out its gantry tongue and spews its bellyload of tourists into the empty streets.

Stamping our feet back onto immovable ground, with our recommended sturdy shoes, warm coats and rucksacks, we obediently follow our expedition leader in his fluorescent jacket. We process like schoolchildren, away from the harbour, dissecting the town, heading with determination towards our predetermined tourist destinations – the fort, the church and the witch memorial. We have 50 minutes to return to the ship, or risk being abandoned here, maybe forever. So we walk at a pace. Vardo sits reclusively on a small island. There would appear to be no other means of escape.

Vardø is like a ghost town. We see no signs of life save a half sawn sheet of wood abandoned on a workbench and a couple of painfully slow cars. Finally, we pass two small children in bright knitted jumpers playing out in the field, oblivious to the line of foreigners invading their silent existence. I guess it happens every day at this time, this procession of strangely dressed ghosts from another world. They are best ignored. Maybe familiarity breeds contempt. We shouldn’t expect a reception party.

The streets are shabby, the children’s play area is overgrown. Nothing appears to be open. There is a feeling of desolation. The daily invasion of tourists from the ship brings no money, only feet, eyes, cameras and phones, stealing easy pictures. A town, a life, a history casually encapsulated in a few clicks and engraved on a few GB. Then onto the next port.

And yet, this small silent town of Vardø hides a terrible history, recorded in great detail in court transcripts. One which it maybe prefers to keep quiet about and explains its reclusive silence even today. It is a history of trials, torture and awful executions.

We are a group of a certain age – some of more mobile than others, so we are soon strung out in a long line. We continue to follow our leader, just as the children unthinkingly followed the pied piper.

People are so easily led. A fire ignited by prejudice, and misogyny by a few, soon spreads into a wildfire of fear and hysteria amongst the many. Sane people are led into believing impossible lies and allowing and even encouraging unspeakable horrors. Before you know it, 91 innocent people accused of witchcraft – mainly women – are dead. Burned at the stake.

We pass the fort where the Finnmark witch trials took place in the 17th century. From here we cross the fields leading down to the sea at the far end of the island. Here is the witches’ memorial – a long, thin structure, like a giant elongated surfboard perched on its edge facing the waters. A small wooden bridge allows us inside.

It is dark. There are 91 small lights aside 91 windows and 91 court statements written in Norwegian. Each one names a person, the date of their court hearing, what they were accused of and all the things they confessed to. Each one “convicted of witchcraft” and “sentenced to death at the stake”, one or two “beheaded” or “tortured to death”.

What strikes me is the extent and fantastical nature of the elaborate confessions. The vast majority confessed to casting evil and harmful spells on people. Others said they had made served, made pacts with or had given themselves to the devil. Some had take to the skies, ridden on brooms, or transformed into ravens, wolves, falcons, dogs, goats or cats. Nearly every one had confessed to a dozen crimes, some only after torture, some without being tortured. What could possibly have possessed them?

At the end, a large, square, somber black building with a fire burning endlessly inside on a wooden chair.

There is no further explanation, no analysis. Only on Wikipedia do we find that the people of northern Norway – especially the Sami – were viewed with great suspicion by the so-called “civilised” Protestants from the south, who conducted he trials.

80% of those executed were women – nearly all Norwegian. Most of the men were Sami. A third of those executed had their feet and hands tied in a “trial by water” and somehow all of them survived – further “proof” of their witchcraft. The sheer numbers killed in such a tiny community is staggering. Most of the death sentences were passed in so-called panics – where one trial led to another in rapid succession.

We walk back to the boat in solemn procession. Back past the fort and through the desolate town to the giant boat. I reckon there were about ninety of us.

We return to our comfortable cabins, not to prison cells. There is no torture, no hysteria, no panic, no wild confessions, no convictions, no burning executions. Just dinner and another day of sailing ahead.

Later, suitably fed and with a cup of coffee, I read through the 91 statements in the small booklet I had picked up – bewildered and horrorified at the capacity of men to fabricate and believe such madness and to do such terrible evil.

Norway Cruise Prequel – It’s cold up north

Kirkenes is a long way north. I mean a LONG way north. For those of you in London, it’s WAY beyond the M4. Even the Watford Gap is a comparative nip to the shops.

For those of you have ventured a little further upwards, you may have seen the motorway signs on the M6 for THE NORTH which traditionally stop at Preston. And yet, to the Scots this is still, at best, the Midlands.

Even if I drove from my house in Leicestershire, past Preston and then twice as far again to Aberdeen, I’d only be a quarter of the way to Kirkenes. That’s because Kirkenes is perched on the northern most coast of Norway.

Kirkenes is RIDICULOUSLY far north – 69.72 degrees north – another 17 degree angled slice of the earth’s circle from home. Further north than Morocco is south.

The coast of Norway meanders endlessly north, leaving the Arctic Circle (at 66.67 degrees) a long way behind. Then it wraps its protective arm eastwards around the heads of Sweden and Finland. Finally, it pokes the left shoulder of Russia, as if to say – “don’t come any closer, and keep your hands off my Nordic friends.”

Kirkenes is a town of 3000 people at the very tip of that poking finger, just 5 miles shy of the Russian border and 25 miles east of Finland. Which means bizarrely you can travel west and add an hour to the clock.

Due north of Kirkenes is nothing but thousands of miles of sea until you cross the north pole and continue in a straight line back down south into Alaska.

I love geography. I loved geography at school. I loved it so much I took a degree in geography. I have travelled around the world as much as possible since, to see the geography I had only read about as a student. I work in the Nordics and have been to Oslo many times. But in all of my travelling life, the furthest north I have been is cold, arid and tree-less Reykjavik. Kirkenes is another 400 miles further north.

My wife and I are heading there now – from where we will sail back west and south for 6 days on a cruise ship, playing footsie with the beautiful Norwegian coastline. The travel advice was to pack thermals – woolly socks and woolly underwear. As they say in Norway – the weather is not a problem, it’s just people being “inappropriately dressed”. Woolly socks and underwear are – perhaps surprisingly – classified as “appropriately dressed”

Funnily enough, we came across some nicely presented woolly socks at a southern England National Trust shop last week, whilst we were looking for a “thin lilac scarf” for my mother-in-law. She is not travelling with us, it would be too risky with a thin scarf like that, even if we had found one.

But we had found woolly socks, so we asked the ladies behind the till whether they sold woolly underwear to match. We were out of luck. Apparently there is not much call for woolly underpants in Northamptonshire, not even amongst the country folk and aristocracy.

So we have settled for packing multiple layers of normal clothes. Two pairs of socks, two jumpers, two pairs of undies etc will work just as well – and without the risk of itching.

Right now we are flying due north out of Oslo. It is 7pm and sunny. We climbed aboard in single layer T-shirts. My wife is still too hot and we have both our Scandinavian Airlines ventilation nozzles wide open and aimed at her head. She should enjoy the heat whilst she still can. Hopefully our suitcases full of our extra layers are safely stowed in the hold.

They should be. As we transferred from Oslo international to domestic and scanned our boarding passes, two very grainy pictures of suitcases appeared on a small screen. We were asked us to identify them.

It was pretty hard to tell. It’s easy enough to pick out your own suitcases on the luggage carousel – much more difficult in a one inch blurry thumbnail. Yes, they were square and vaguely the right colour. But that was hardly conclusive.

I said “yes” anyway – wary of the consequences otherwise. The thought of being so far north without all those essential clothing layers – not to mention toothbrushes, contact lenses, dental floss and our emergency chocolate bars, was a risk too far. If it turned out to be a suitcase of mistaken identity – at least we would have someone else’s luggage. And maybe some of those elusive woolly undergarments.

Also, rather strangely, we had to go through security again – even though the only place we could have been since we last went through security was on the plane, oh and through Manchester T1 airside shopping emporium. Okay – well maybe they just can’t be too careful. Let’s blame Brexit. Or Eurovision.

When we land it will still be light – and when we go to bed it will still be light. And when we wake up in the middle of the night, guess what – it will still be light. 24 hours of daylight. That is all due to the 23 degree angle of the earth and being north of the arctic circle. More geography. I love it. Bring on the ice-bergs and polar landscape.

We have just stepped off the plane. As we walk across the tarmac at 69.72 degrees north, It is cool, but it’s doesn’t feel very Arctic. I slip on a thin jumper. When we get on the bus, my wife pulls off her extra later fleece. She is too hot again. The digital thermometer shows IN 22 degrees and OUT 10 degrees. We are grateful we didn’t fall for that woolly undergarments ruse.

GROUNDED – Day 8, The Great Escape

I have escaped. Having survived a whole 11 nights* of confinement at home, with the occasional release into the exercise yard of my local town, I had to break free. Yes, I know I wrote all of that positive stuff about being grounded and relaxed. But a travelling habit is not so easily kicked. As I write this, I am already at Derby station.

I sneaked out of the house under cover of darkness and on the pretence of bringing the wheelie bins in from the road. My driver rocketed me up the motorway in the getaway car, deposited me at the station “drop and go”, and ushered me out of the door. Time was critical. She only had 10 minutes, or there would be a £1 charge at the barrier.

I board the train, my clothes stuffed into a suitcase with my toothpaste, my head and shoulders in a plastic bag (just in case it leaks).

I already feel liberated. Things are returning to normal. I have a valid ticket in my Apple Wallet. My laptop is open and reassuringly low on battery. I have the warm familiarity of uncomfortable seats, unpalatable free coffee and finally – after almost two weeks –  a receipt to scan into my expenses app. It’s been too long without a receipt to scan. I was getting withdrawal symptoms. I fold it neatly and lovingly into my receipts wallet. £4.17 for a cup of tea and chocolate. Perfect.

A train is not quite a plane – there is no security and no border control – at least not until we try to enter Oxford. But the broken lift at Derby station evoked fond memories of travel disruption and technical hitches of so many previous journeys. To complete my rehab., they announce we all have to change trains at Birmingham, as this one needs maintenance. Everything in the carriage rattles – windows, seats, doors, even a couple of the elderly passengers – as if to underline the point. It will be “taken out of use”.

All being well, I will arrive in Southampton after 23.07, where a prearranged, unmarked car (24 x 7 cabs) will be waiting to transport me to my overnight hiding place, the Solent Hotel and Spa. Here I will hole up, lie low, and finally get a good night’s sleep – without having to share a cell with some noisy cellmate. Hopefully nobody will recognise me. Just to be sure I will wear a sleep mask.

Outside I see the stars. This is my Shawshank Redemption, my Escape from Alcratraz. I  wait for the refreshments trolley to roll seductively down the aisle. I sigh contentedly. When I close my eyes, I can almost imagine that I am flying.


  • including weekends

BEING GROUNDED – The first 2 days

GROUNDED – Day 3, easy does it.

GROUNDED – Day 4, Loungewear to Lycra

GROUNDED – Day 5, Literally & Metaphorically

 

 

 

 

 

GROUNDED – Day 5, Literally & Metaphorically

I always work at home on Friday, so this is in theory a “normal working day”. It is as if Monday and Friday are two anchors for a rope bridge which I had walked across for three days, and now I am back on terra firma.

But that doesn’t seem right. I feel like I have been on very firm ground all week.

The word “grounded” has many meanings. I have been grounded – in as much as my feet have literally not left the ground. I have subsisted at ground-level for a week, rather than paying to have my body propelled through the air at 30,000 feet at 500 m.p.h – packed like sardines into a metal tube with other people, whilst drinking mediocre coffee from a plastic cup.

Then there is the miscreant  teenager who has been “grounded”, not allowed to go out to play or party – in my case to Copenhagen or some other European playground. I just can’t recall what it was I did that was naughty. I will ask my wife later.

I get dressed today – my first proper clothes since Wednesday. I am wearing  casual jeans and a more casual t-shirt  – one has to maintain some standards. And besides, I have a video-conference with my leadership team in Copenhagen. One of them cheekily refers to the growth my facial hair.  I clean forgot my Monday 3pm pre-travel shave – so this is two week’s of non-designer stubble. Yet another appointment missed, task left undone. Oh, the liberation of not responding to demands and expectations – whether they are our own or someone else’s.

We have a guy in our garden making an estimate for replacing our windows. He has brought his wife with him, who was born in Chile. Whilst he measures up, we compare notes about Santiago. I had spent a fascinating day there when I circumnavigated the world in 13 days – 6 times quicker than Phileas Fogg.

I love to travel, but it’s just as good to be at home. It’s good to go fast, but sometimes it’s better to walk slowly or to sit still. Maybe I have had that ratio out of balance in recent years. The furthest I travel today is a walk up the the chemist to buy some painkillers for my wife, who has wrenched her back. I realise I have not ventured more than a couple of miles from home all week.

Later still I go up to the school hall to help pack away the mats for my daughter, after her cheer-leading class. She is dashing to the station to go to London. It’s nice to be around town to help my family. I tell her to take it easy.

There is another, more profound, definition of being grounded – which is about being balanced, being mentally and emotionally stable. This includes living at a sensible pace, being realistic about life and expectations – enjoying what we have and not always striving for something else. Walking slowly and sometimes sitting still.

It includes being grounded – or rooted – in normal family and community life. It is about connecting with the people and places around your home. Like a cat marking out her territory. I have enjoyed walking and running the streets of my town this week, mixing with the locals – rather than dashing around foreign parts in planes, taxis buses and trains. Having our feet on the ground metaphorically, requires having them on our own  ground physically.

I am a stranger to most around here. On the rare occasions when I meet new people here, I always say, “you probably know my wife?” And they do. She lives in the community every day and she can’t get past the fruit and veg. aisle in Asda without someone asking her about their child’s gymnastic badges. I know more people in Copenhagen than in my own town. It’s hard to be grounded – in any definition of the word – when you live a double-life, flipping between two different entirely unconnected worlds.

So that was week one. I seem to have done more than just survived. Two weeks to go before the world starts turning again.

Being Grounded, the first two days

Grounded – Day Three, easy does it

Grounded – Day Four, Loungewear to Lycra

 

 

 

 

 

GROUNDED – Day 4, Loungewear to Lycra

I interacted with other humans a bit more today, which wasn’t difficult after yesterday’s mainly solitary confinement. My wife was out all morning (again), but my daughter came for the day. Not specifically to spent quality time with her dad – rather because her car needed an MOT at the garage at the end of the road. We were both “working from home” and hardly spoke. But sometimes it’s lovely just to share space with a loved one.

Speaking of which, it was nice to be home for Valentine’s Day – ready in person for all the cards cascading through the letter box. Sometimes our postman gets confused. We are number 57 and next door is 57A and our neighbours must be away.

I managed to remember to turn up for some conference calls today. Fortunately audio, rather than video. I took the first one in my red-checked lounge-wear trousers and light blue pyjama t-shirt. During the second call, I made a chicken and tumeric soup with garlic, onions, lentils and coriander. I got caught out on the third call when the phone rang. I explained it was my home phone. Incredulous laughter from my colleagues “you have a home phone ?”. Like a child I resorted to easy denial. “Nothing to do with me I never answer it, it’s always for my wife.” For a moment I wished I was in Denmark

So a slightly more eventful day, but nothing like my usual Thursday –  an early rise to pack my suitcase, grab breakfast, check out, meetings and conversations and a hard-stop of 4pm to leave the office for the airport. The gauntlet of security, passports, lounge, priority boarding, seat-belt. And at some point having to get properly dressed. Today was such an easier day.

Tonight, I went out again with the local running club. No romantic meal out for we dedicated athletes. I changed from my lounge-wear to my lycra. As I was running, I found myself talking to a young woman who it turned out knew my daughter’s boyfriend. When I said I was his girlfriend’s dad, she showed some surprise. Yet again I seemed to have caused incredulity : “you don’t look old enough”.

It was dark, I was wearing a hat and running glasses, and it’s an easy line. But hey, sometimes you have to take the compliment. I wouldn’t have got one of those on flight SK2536. This travel ban is delivering more and more benefits.

GROUNDED – Day 3, easy does it.

I am acclimatising to my confinement. I only have two meetings in my diary today, and I  miss them both. The first is at 8am, but I wake at 8.30am, with a shrug. I neglected to set my alarm last night. Then, I simply forget the 1pm meeting. I take some comfort from this neglect and forgetfulness.  I appear to be slowing down a little – filtering out the noise of the non-essential, taking the important at a decent pace, rather than running madly after the urgent. Neither meeting needed me, and I didn’t need them. Instead I am catching up on my agenda, rather than someone else’s. Being proactive rather than reactive – yeah !

After cooking my porridge, my wife decides to go out today from 9.30am to 2pm, visiting her parents. I spend the morning at home all alone. I try to strike up a conversation with the guy delivering gymnastics badges, but he has somewhere else to go.

I don’t think I speak out loud to anyone else, except myself, for 5 hours.  When she comes home, I smile, rediscover my voice and offer to take her out for coffee and cake. Its a decent offer.

She  laughs, “you must be joking”. Call me sensitive, but I feel that is a little harsh. “Not today darling” might have been kinder. I put on my well-practised, less than subtle hurt and rejected look. She goes on to explain that she would love to but that she is going out again in an hour. Nice recovery. But why is she going out AGAIN ?

She is going out to work apparently. Strange concept that – going out to work. I am forgetting what that is like. She tells me as she leaves that she will be back at 6pm, and “there is no tea”. I make a note.

Now, I really need to go out. My step count is embarrassingly low. I keep forgetting to walk around the house. I do five tours of the upstairs bedrooms, but I am still only in three figures and I need to get to five. So, I plot a circuitous walk to the post-box, through town to the shops and back. The hunter-gatherer in me shall provide tea, plus soup ingredients, for the rest of my week.

As I walk the streets of the town and parade the aisles of Asda, I almost feel like I live here. I don’t see anyone I know – but then I hardly know anyone in England anymore, never mind my home town. However, I am mixing it with the locals. I try to strike up a conversation with the woman on the checkout – she has nowhere else to go – she is a captive audience. She simply smiles, and asks me whether I need help with the packing.

I provide tea – Asda make a decent Chinese microwave selection. My wife looks like she is delighted. Even my son turns up to eat – he has been “out to work” too.  She goes out again at 7pm for a couple more hours. I will never again feel guilty for being away from home on a Wednesday. Later we watch another episode of The Crown, and have half a conversation.

I could get used to this. I am definitely more relaxed. My steps may be low, but so is my  cortisone level. I am getting things done, calmly and properly. I feel a little guilty that I am not over-worked. But I think I might just get over it.

BEING GROUNDED – The first 2 days

 

BEING GROUNDED – The first 2 days

DAY ONE – MONDAY

I have been grounded for the month of February. Normally on a Monday I would be taking the evening flight to Copenhagen, where I work for a very well-known optician. We have offices in five northern European countries. For February, we have instituted an international travel ban, to save some cash before the end of our financial year. It feels like we are being incarcerated, like children being sent back to their own rooms. What was it we did to deserve this?

I have flown somewhere pretty much every week for the last five years. I dodged the ban last week to attend a Board Meeting. In fact, the Copenhagen office was swarming with Brits, to most people’s consternation – “travel ban, what travel ban?”. But now it is for real – three solid weeks, 24 whole days at ground level, with no parole. It’s a daunting prospect.

To ease the cold turkey, I am considering fitting a seat belt on my office chair, and keeping my toothpaste and deodorant in a small plastic bag. I spin round slowly in the shower with my hands in the air, to make myself feel better.

Today should have been a gentle loosener. I work at home on Mondays until 4pm every week. And yet the whole day took on a different, restless, unnerving ambience, with no structure or stress.

Normally there is a focus – meetings in the morning, soup for lunch, pack, kiss my wife and leave at 4pm. Drive to the airport. Park in Car Park 5 (by the fence). Pass security. Obtain salad box, small chocolate bar, popcorn and mixed nuts from Pret (“eat out please and a receipt”). Half an hour in the Priority One lounge (snack off the menu and coffee). Priority Boarding. Aisle seat. Free Coffee. Emails. Land. Border. Train to hotel. Phone home. Glass of something. Bed, pretending its an hour later than it feels.

None of that happens today. The day stretches before me like a white sheet – with only the certainty of bed at the end. I don’t even leave the house. I wander aimlessly, dialling into a couple of meetings, nibbling away at my inbox, writing out my task list very neatly. I realise I need deadlines and activity to keep me energised. What can I do?

I will need more soup. 24 days worth of it. I cook up a complex butternut squash, chickpea and spinach concoction from the Guardian Saturday Feast magazine – Indian special. It flatter to deceive – it’s under-whelmimg

My step count target is under severe risk of abject failure. Flying requires a surprisingly amount of walking. I park as far away from the airport as I can – 2000 steps, slam dunk. Airports are small villages, and I never use the travelletor.

Today I am in trouble. By late afternoon I am obsessively circling the living room table, swapping from clockwise to counter-clockwise to control my dizziness. I play the game where I was only allowed to carry one object at once, moving things from room to room.

Finally in the evening I find something to focus on – spending a couple of hours re-vamping my wordpress site (do you like it?).

Midnight approaches. I am still restless. I drink my maximum two glasses of wine. At 10 to 12, I am racing around the house to get up to a semi-respectable 7,000 steps. My weekly target is 73,500 – it feels like a mountain to climb.

Then I eat. Boy do I eat. One packet of crisps, two eggs (scrambled for 90 seconds), three breadsticks, eight squares of Sainsbury Milk Chocolate. Countless Cashew nuts, mixed fruit and nuts. In for a penny in for a pound or more. I am binging. Supper rocks up 1,200 calories. This is going to be a long three weeks – and I will be fat by the end of it – if I make it that far.

DAY TWO – TUESDAY

A better day – not least because by some miracle I weigh the same as I did yesterday (if I take my fit bit off). After breakfast I make myself get dressed and walk out to buy a paper – 2,000 steps and fresh air. My wife cancelled the paper on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, understandably.

“This is what it will be like, when I am retired”, I say to her. I see a spark of panic in her face.”I’m going out” she says. In fact she goes out four times, each time for an hour or so. She tells me this is a typical Tuesday. That she doesn’t “hang around the house all day”. Like I am.

I only have one phone meeting, and I was unusually well prepared for it. Then I write down an immense number of  things I will work through in a focused and disciplined way for the rest of the day. A golden opportunity to clear some backlog. I will get right on with them, just as soon as I’ve skimmed the newspaper and made a coffee, and maybe tidied up a little.

In order to keep up my steps, I decide I will walk around the house as I work. I take a couple of phone calls prowling around the upstairs, shooting onto mute when my wife shouts something to me like “I’m back”, and then “I’m going out again”.

I do some emails on the bed. I work up some costs in the kitchen, I rattle off some emails in the dining room. By the afternoon I can’t find my moleskin, headphones or laptop.

At about 4pm I feel overwhelmingly tired. I watch a bit of cricket and bat back some easy emails, catch up on my Facebook and field some messages. But I am feeling a little more settled. England are winning, and I am making some real progress in my task list.

Also I have a lifeline – an appointment, a time I have to be somewhere. At 7pm, I go for a 8km run with the local running club.  I talk to some real people, stretch my legs, push myself and turn physical energy into mental energy. Amazingly I meet another Oldham Athletic fan, a hundred miles from home. Now that wouldn’t have happened if I’d been in Copenhagen. Ive met people from Iceland and the Faro Islands, but never Oldham.

I am feeling more positive today. I am realising that work can stop at 6, and I can enjoy other things. I am wondering how I seem to have so much time, why the hours seem to be 80 minutes long. This being grounded is making me feel more – well, grounded. Steps are 18,000, I’m ahead of schedule and on top of life.

Tonight we sit and watched The Crown together. I don’t know when I was last at home on a Tuesday night. I might just face-time her and ask her. A little normality wouldn’t do any harm.

Wish You Were Here

It was a Friday night. I was at the Royal Arena in Copenhagen to enjoy Roger Waters – creative force behind Pink Floyd, protester, political provocateur, poet and progressive music pantheon.

My seat was at the extreme front left of the balcony, parallel with, and high above, the edge of the stage – almost the Royal box position. Carrying an obligatory beer in a plastic cup, I climbed the stairs, followed the signs to the correct entrance. I edged gingerly down the aisle towards my seat, unnerved by the lowness of the balcony wall and the sheer drop into the arena below.

There was a line-up of six large middle-aged Danish guys to negotiate to get to my seat. Each was undoubtedly wearing the very same black t-shirt they had worn for their first ever Pink Floyd concert, sometime  in the last century. No doubt their bellies were much fatter, and their hair was much thinner.

I squeezed through the small gap in front of them, precariously close to the balcony edge. Mine was the final seat before the wall. All was dark. I placed my beer carefully down on the floor and sat down. Even seated, the wall still felt uncomfortably low. The adjacent Viking watched me carefully.

“Are you alone?”, he enquired.

“Yes”, I replied, a little sadly.

“You aren’t now”, he told me.

If he has been attempting to reassure me, it had exactly the opposite effect. I decided to end the conversation there and then. Maybe I have watched too many episodes of The Bridge.

My good friend, Jerry would have enjoyed that anecdote . Although he would have coloured it up considerably, slowed it down, and turned it into a much more entertaining (borderline infuriating) 20-minute monologue.

In fact, the very reason I was at this particular concert, and indeed alone, had everything to do with my good friend. Which is a story I want to tell, in his absence, as best as I can. I’ll try not to pad it out too much.

Jerry and I had been to two Roger Waters concert together. For the first one we drove down to Earls Court, where he played the whole of Dark Side of the Moon before the break. After our disappointment of seeing a disinterested and desultory Bob Dylan in Nottingham, and a fading Deep Purple somewhere I forget, we agreed it was by far and away the best “old rocker” gig we’d been to.

Roger was almost as good the second time we went to see him, in Birmingham, despite going initially to the wrong venue. That time he performed whole of The Wall, with another thrilling mix of music, message and theatre, compete with the giant inflatable pig. On both occasions he slowed the mood down with the deliciously acoustic “Wish You Were Here”

So, when, back in November last year, I saw the dates for his 2018 U.K. tour, I grabbed a couple of tickets for Manchester Arena in July, ready for our third pilgrimage.

I mentioned this to Jerry when we went out for a drink together the following month. He had chosen an unusual pub called the “Cap and Stocking” – one of a long string of unusual pubs we had tried over the years. It was great, as ever, to catch up and chew over a bit of politics, a bit of football, a bit of business, a bit of life.

We invited Jerry and Jane to our house on New Year’s Eve. More beer, conversations, stories and a glass of champagne at midnight. We wished each other a Happy New Year and the next day, as I filled in my 2018 diary, I texted Jerry. “Roger Waters is £110 each, Tues 3rd July Manchester Arena – ok?”. He didn’t answer – he was never very quick at replying to texts.

Jerry never did reply to the message. That early New Year’s Day turned out to be the final time I would speak with him. The night in the Cap and Stocking turned out to be the last of countless pub nights over many years. Jerry passed away suddenly and totally unexpectedly in February.

Through all the shock, loss and sadness of the months that followed, those two tickets lay in my in-tray on my desk for months. I couldn’t bring myself to move them or sell them. I didn’t know what to do with them.

I thought about finding someone else to come with me. I tentatively asked around but there were no obvious takers. Roger Waters is an acquired taste, and Jerry is an impossible guy to find a replacement for. I decided I would go on my own.

Then another issue started to materialise. To everyone’s surprise – and I know Jerry would have enjoyed this – England were making progress in the World Cup. If England won their group, their next game would be on Monday 2nd July. If they finished second in their group, it would be the 3rd – the same night as the concert. It would be impossible to watch the England game and still go to the concert.

On the Thursday before the concert, England had to avoid defeat by Belgium to win the group. With 20 minutes to go, we were drawing, and the concert date was still on. But then inevitably Belgium scored, England finished second. Good for them, in terms of their subsequent progress to the semi-final, but bad news for me.

I offered the tickets on Facebook, there were no takers. I stayed home to watch England beat Columbia dramatically on penalties and progress to the quarter finals. Jerry would have loved that. The two tickets remained attached together in my in-tray.

I still wanted to hear the concert. I found out Waters was playing in Copenhagen in August, at the arena next to the hotel I stay in there for work. I managed to buy one of the few remaining single seats.

In the end, maybe that all turned out for the best. It would have been too poignant going to the Manchester concert with an empty seat next to me. So instead I had my Danish friends, who gently gyrated through the old Floyd numbers, and went to get more beer together during the Roger Waters solo numbers.

It was very sad and moving nevertheless, to be alone at the concert, listening to the same songs, watching the same inflatable pig. Jerry was never one for sentimentality or outward displays of emotion, I think he would have forgiven me for shedding some tears for him through Roger Waters’ beautiful, melodic and poignant rendition of “Wish You Were Here”.

I sang along with it, because like so many others, I wished that he was still here. He was and always will be irreplaceable. I am grateful for all the great times we spent together, for the laughs, the camaraderie, his insights and his friendship.

It is a whole year since we spent New Year together with him and Jane. Like many others, I’ve thought about him every day since he left us. Whilst he is no longer here with us in person, he will always be with us in our happy memories and in our hearts.

Snakes, ladders and tiny little spaces

What are you scared of? My top three fears are snakes, heights and being trapped for more than 5 seconds inside a very small space. Today I have survived being enclosed in a tiny cable car, hanging on a thin wire hundreds of meters above the ground. It wasn’t comfortable, especially the jolt every 50 meters as the capsule passed over a stanchion. But it was okay, and I wasn’t bricking it.

But trap me in a lavatory cubicle or send me at the top of a ladder outside my house, and my stomach churns, my heart accelerates madly and my legs turn to rubber. So fear is not that logical is it ?

Oh dear what can the matter be?

Allow me to say more about my lavatory cubicle phobia. I despise public urinals – being dirty, smelly and embarrassing (thats the urinals, not me). So I invariably head for the cubicle – a small space with a locked door. As I gingerly look inside, I run a mental list of safety checks:-

  • Can I crawl underneath or over the top of the partition?
  • Is there a window big enough to escape from (and am I on the ground floor?
  • Is there a suspended ceilings, with tiles which I could dislodge and then crawl through the roof space like an escaping convict?
  • Does the door have a surface-mounted bolt or one of those dreaded swivel locks which turns an internal mechanism – just so the guys outside can see it is occupied (as if a locked door isn’t evidence enough)

Earlier this year, I visited some new rest rooms in Copenhagen on the way back from lunch. They were in a remote part of the building and I had left my phone in my bag in the office.

They turned out to be unisex – therefore with no urinals, and fully enclosed solid walled cubicles, with a swivel locks. When I tried to get out, the lock would not swivel, and the door would not open. I was trapped, in a tiny room, with solid walls with no phone and nobody within shouting distance.

“Oh dear what can the matter be, David Bottomley’s stuck in the lavatory, he’s been there from Monday to Saturday, nobody knew he was there.”

If only if it has been that amusing. I had an exponential surge of fear and a dam burst of adrenaline. Without pausing or thinking, I violently karate kicked the lock with a surge of supernatural energy fuelled by desperation.

I can recall now the immense wave of relief as the door crashed open. The feeling was euphoric. Physical release, space and fresh air. And a massive feeling of freedom and victory. Finally freed after after endless interminable nanoseconds of unjust imprisonment. It was all I could do not to rip off my shirt and shout at the sky. Shawshank redemption had nothing in this.

Surviving Alcatraz

On the subject prisons, this summer we visited Alcatraz in California. On the tour round, I ventured into one of the empty cells to take a picture – not much bigger than, well, a toilet cubicle. Having broken out of my Danish cell, and overcome my demons, this wouldn’t be scare me at all, would it? Well, you’re darned right it did, even more so having been scarred by the reality. I was out before the shutter closed on my camera.

Fear experienced serves only to open wounds and bigger scars. Now, not only do I check the walls, the ceiling and the type of lock, I check whether the door opens inwards or outwards, how strong it is and how well the lock and hinges are constructed.

And now, I always take my phone in with me, so that I can phone someone for help at least, whilst they can talk me down. If all else fails I can at least partially distract myself until help arrives. I get strange looks when I walk down the aisle of the plane with my phone, but they are the smallest of all cubicles with only one other way out. Press flush and hope.

The escalator of fear

Of course, the fear is totally unfounded. In the worse case it could take a few hours to get me out. It’s not exactly the same as the Chilean minors or the Thai cave-boys. I would also be warm and have access to water and, of course, a lavatory. In the worse case I might die of boredom. But fear distorts all of that, magnifies it and convinces us that we could not survive.

As for snakes – well I fear them in real life and I fear them in my nightmares. Not something that impacts my daily life, except it may explain why – as a widely travelled man – I have never been to Africa, apart from one day in Morocco.

On one, level, most fears have a basis in survival logic. If I had no fear of heights I might have already plummeted to my death whilst tightroping between two buildings. Fear of being trapped seems reasonable enough too, if it dissuades me from putting my body into place I can’t get it out of. As for snakes, as well as being particularly slippery, jumpy and unpleasant, they can be quite dangerous I hear. There, that proves it, I am a perfectly balanced human being.

And we all may well be most of the time, but fear will ambush us when we least expect it, disrupt us and unbalance our minds in an unguarded moment. Such is fear. Fear drives us to worry, which magnifies into anxiety and escalates into panic. It drives us to endless avoidance strategies, irrational OCD-like behaviours and at its worse it ties us up in knots drags us to an sea of stress or a tsunami of panic.

The fears which inhibit us

And what about all those emotional fears we all share? The fear of failure. The fear of embarrassment. The fear of not being liked. The fear of loss. The fear of rejection.

These psychological and interpersonal fears are far more damaging and inhibiting than the fear of being trapped in a lavatory.

So we do not try, in case we fail. We don’t express ourselves, for fear of embarrassment. We don’t speak the truth, for fear of not being liked. We play safe, for fear of losing what we have. We go along with the majority, for fear of rejection.

In our most fearful moments, we wrap ourselves up so tightly, that nobody can possibly judge us, hurt us or even get near to us. In this place, the enclosed cubicle with an inside lock is a welcome refuge and safety, rather a prison. We are escaping from the world, rather than into it.

Fighting the fear fires

Countless books have been written on the subject of fear and anxiety. Some tell us to face up to our fears – befriend a snake and gradually get to know it. Dispel the myths and de-sensitise ourselves. Mindfulness advises us to recognise our anxieties, observing them and then breathe slowly as they pass like dark clouds across the horizon. Our fears do not define us.

Others tell us to talk to ourselves, to allow our calm rational logical minds airspace to persuade our emotional, volatile minds not to be so silly. Or as some would tell us “get a grip, pull yourself together and stop being a baby”. We just need to put everything into perspective. What’s the worse that can happen?

Some of those methods and techniques have worked for me at different times. But some fears are so deeply ingrained it’s hard to dig them out, like giant knotweed in our garden of being. Our fears simmer like underground lava, ready to erupt volcanically with no notice.

Whoever said “the only thing to fear is fear itself” hasn’t read the Beginners Guide to Venomous Snakes, sent a private email to the whole department or gone to a meeting with their jumper inside out.

And so we try to extinguish our fears and throw fire blankets of reason on the slow burning anxieties of our irrational mind.

Meanwhile, if I’m a long time back from a natural break, please allow for the fact that as well as washing my hands, I’ll have carried out a full structural engineering survey of the facilities. If I’m more that 10 minutes, please, PLEASE, come and rescue me.