Friends and Adversaries

Formal university education is finished for the foreseeable. Three years of study have culminated in two mediation Saturdays, a debate on interim interdict, an employment tribunal cross-examination, sorting out a casino licence, a personal injury claim negotiation and a mock trial in the Sheriff Court. It only remains for me to redeliver the jury speech I gave for formal assessment and I’ll be officially done with my diploma in professional legal practice.

The diploma has not been without challenges. It was something of an adjustment to go from luxurious theorising and expansive essays on legal minutiae to the unrelenting churn of practical deadlines, form-filling, tax calculation and quantification that apparently make up the day-to-day business of law. In the early days, I struggled with the relative intellectual deprivation of the course compared with the LLB, but I came to reconcile myself to the necessity of it and persevered bolstered by the commonality of hardship suffered by my peers.

Something I have valued highly is the continuity of studying at Strathclyde from the graduate entrant CLLB to the diploma. It meant that I already had a lot of friends and contacts from the accelerated undergrad. I was also able to continue with my Law Clinic work, so my encounters weren’t strictly limited to the perhaps otherwise cliquey diploma cohort.

Carrying over from my LLB experience is my continuing command of the Initial Advice Clinics. This is due to come to an end soon, however, as I will no longer be a student when the diploma is over. It will be weird not to be bound to every second Wednesday any longer. I might be able to go to some midweek gigs now I’d hitherto missed out on due to a sense of obligation. The duty has been gladly fulfilled, however, and it has brought me immense satisfaction to bring back the human connections of face-to-face meetings alongside Zoom calls in a hybrid format driven by client preference. I can also say I’ve increased the number of regular volunteer solicitors through my article in the Scottish Legal News and nurtured new student advisors such that I feel confident I’ll be able to leave it in capable hands.

Being so busy with the diploma recently, my opportunity for diversion has been relatively limited. In terms of gigs I’ve only been to the one this year so far – Dry Cleaning at Barrowlands – which was good, but I was quite tired after an hour and a half set that possibly could have been 50 minutes, considering they only have one album and a couple of EPs.

The Doublet and the Arlington have been the pubs I’ve ping-ponged between over the past few months. Those and the Press Bar after criminal advocacy on a Thursday. All three are what I’d describe as typically Scottish pubs. Not about food particularly; music is there but not front and centre. What’s key are chat and drink. In England, pubs are inns primarily and equal emphasis is given to ale and victuals. Press Bar is where I’ve got to know grad entrants from Glasgow uni. It was nice to have this post-class ritual end-of-week thing. Never overlong but usually longer than intended and inevitably curtailed by the hunger pangs inherent in a 6pm finish.

I’ve spent a long time in higher education. Seven years in all. I don’t think I’ll ever fully let go of the university spirit. Scholarliness. Pursuing knowledge for its own sake.

Alongside law, I’ve persisted in my nonfiction absorption by taking in ancient and modern history volumes. I’ve tried with middling success to give myself a grounding in French to supplement my German proficiency. Recently I’ve attempted to reignite my literary leanings by joining a classic book group which meets in the Mitchell Library on the first Monday of every month. We’re discussing one of my all-time favourites in April – Frankenstein.

Now we diplomats will be scattered to the wind. It won’t be quite the divergence of the MA, as Scotland limits our range by jurisdiction for most. Despite the scrappiness of the closely competitive scramble for traineeships at the diploma’s close, the fact remains that the profession here is relatively small. We will see each other again, whether as friends or adversaries or, as is the case in Scottish courtspeak, both.

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(Re)tracing my steps

2022 has been an improvement on the success/happiness/fulfilment scale. In comparison with the slow awakening of 2021, this has been a year of activity and spontaneity. The fear of looming lockdown has dissipated and we are left with the legacy of ubiquitous hand sanitiser in all public places and restaurants with easy-to-navigate booking systems, which I think we can agree is both tolerable and, indeed, convenient. A positive legacy of Covid – there you go.

Midway through the year, I took over from Cara Hope as the Initial Advice Clinic coordinator for the Strathclyde Law Clinic, which I’m still involved with in my diploma year. Being in the Law Clinic is great and I’ve spent a lot more time in the actual building this year between classes as a place where like-minded people are likely to be at any given moment. Like the Ethics & Justice seminars of last year, it’s a chance to meet people at different stages in academic life, which can bring a fresh perspective on things. It also means that going into the diploma, there was a core of people I knew very well at the same time as encountering folk from different universities.

One thing I have felt has been slightly lacking this year was my creative output. A lot of my energy has gone into practical things, like the Law Clinic. I’ve written much less and didn’t really have a big project I was working on. Part way through the year I did have an idea to set up a kind of literary salon thing, inspired by the 18th-century coffee house culture, but that didn’t come to anything. For the most part, it’s been creative input rather than output. I’ve read quite a few good books and watched some (not in that way) inspiring TV in the form of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul plus, in my view, the excellent 2000s Battlestar Galactica series. Next year I hope to find some consistent creative outlet that is more than just the occasional tweet or blog post.

In terms of my career, that was remarkably resolved right at the beginning of 2022 when I received an offer of a traineeship with Digby Brown in their Glasgow office. I am really enjoying the litigation subjects on the diploma, so look forward to starting with them in September.

Thus I have made two journeys this year. The first was the St Cuthbert’s Way, which I wrote about at length in another blog post. The second was my return to Europe after a four-year absence.

My journey was motivated negatively by my desire to get out of the UK and positively by a desire to use my German again in an immersive context and to live out my cultural identification with Europeanness by existing in as many parts of it as possible. The places I chose to visit were constrained by two factors. Firstly, my limited student budget and secondly, my need for some thematic cohesion. In terms of theme, the budgetary constraints guided me down the path of basing the trip mostly around the idea of Lotharingia – a book I’d read three years ago about the lesser-known third kingdom between West and East Francia that one of Charlamagne’s three grandsons was apportioned on his death. It was a polity containing much of modern-day the Netherlands, Belgium and Western Germany. Basically, cheap flights to Amsterdam followed by where you can get by train from there.

The thing I was most excited about in the trip I’d planned was my visit to Aachen, the seat of Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor. The cathedral at Aachen dates back to the Carolingian age (9th century) and its strange octagonal design has been the setting of imperial coronations from then until the 16th century. Parts of the Rathaus in the historic town centre also date back this far, and it was during my visit to this that I stumbled upon what I took to be the imperial crown itself.[1]

I wouldn’t have recognised it two years ago, but this was before I started playing Crusader Kings III. It is some utterly iconic headgear and I felt strangely emotional upon seeing it, especially since I didn’t expect it to be there. My thought was, this is unsere Welterbe, our collective inheritance as earth citizens. Die Welterbe – if nothing else, we succeed to this.

Polish tourists see my fascination as I spin around the 3D model next to its glass cabinet housing. They ask me if I want to buy it. I hesitate and say – I want to wear it.

Aachen to me represents the idea of a Kaiser as originally conceived and that object represents Civilisation; an aspiration to something higher than the time from which it came. A new Caesar out of the ruins of Rome. A republic-breaker forcing the wheel of history to turn against its nature. A new pole in a hitherto unipolar world.

And yet, it’s almost gaudy to look at. Over-elaborate, self-justifying. A crude kind of glory. A peasant’s idea of majesty.

A massive portrait of another Master of Europe hangs in the Rathaus – Napoleon in his imperial get-up. I remember when his countryman Macron was awarded the Charlemagne prize here a few years ago. Previous winners have included Tony Blair and Henry Kissinger. Illustrious company.

Great photography, I know

My other experiences included trying out my Duolingo French in Brussels and being mistaken for an Italian by the hostel receptionist in my attempts. The highlight of this particular European capital was the Museum of Fine Arts’ exhibition on the fin de siècle. The 1890s are my jam. There was a lot of freaky stuff in there, especially towards the end. The last room held: a massive transfixing triptych featuring a waterfall of cherubs rendered hyper-realistically, a portrait of a glamourous woman standing among a heard of swine and a huge focaccia slab of fiery women melting into each other meant to represent the temptations of Hell.

My takeaway from the holiday, however, was that I don’t want to do that type of holiday again. I spent an awfully long time just wandering about rather aimlessly, aside from these snapshotted highlights. I felt I had to cram a lot in. Always be moving, to make the most of my time, while simultaneously being quite purposeless. Although it was good to take in a couple of capitals, I think I prefer more regional, specific experiences and to have a definite goal, even if somewhat arbitrarily set, and make progress towards this. I suppose what I want is more of a quest than a holiday!

What I also found was that I was doing a lot of Exploring. I have enjoyed this in the past. Criss-crossing from point to point with no regard to the incidental retracing of steps. Somehow it was less enjoyable this time. I don’t want to be retracing, I want to be tracing. I suppose this is the difference between linear composition and free jazz. At this point in time, I favour the former. Room for the unexpected and the occasional remembrance of the main theme, but essentially forward-facing and generative, always building from what has gone before.

[1] Later turned out to be a replica of the crown jewels from 1915. You’d think that the Kaiser would have more pressing matters to attend to at that particular date. Apparently, the real thing is in the Wiener Schatzkammer, which maybe makes a bit more sense as their resting place following the HRE’s dissolution in 1806.

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The materiality of faith

Working in a Cathedral, I think, does push one to examine Christianity and its various forms more often than the average person. Probably I am the sort of person who thinks about Christianity on a level above average for the general population, especially for a non-religious person.

For context, I grew up in Orkney where the majority religion is Church of Scotland, although I didn’t really think of it as anything other than “going to the kirk” at the time. As a young child, you don’t have much of a sense that there are other forms of religion, apart from perhaps there was that church in Dounby we didn’t go to (United Free Church).  In mid-late primary school, I was invited to Christian Endeavour camps run by the church my neighbours went to. Apart from the activities and much more lively music, this seemed to be a much more activist, sincere sort of religion, which appealed to me more at the time versus the general morality of Sunday school. The leaders were willing to answer any questions, no matter how daft, and they usually had a coherent answer. This kind of Christianity seemed more real, not some elaborate metaphor or ur-parable. The problem was, I realised I didn’t like what it was saying about the majority of people being damned by default and that there was one quick fix to be un-damned, and then everything was fine. At that point, I just gave up on the whole thing because I don’t want to live in a world where that’s the case.

In retaliation, mostly against myself for being drawn in by it all, I got into the New Atheists in my early teenage years. From a young age, I could sense that most of the Old Testament stuff was untrue, but there was something about pitting the fundamentalists at their most fundamental against the rationalists at their most rational that was both exhilarating and affirmative.

Only in my mid-late teens did I start to think about Calvinism as a distinct flavour of Christianity. Before it had been the default setting. Barely detectable in a contemporary church service. My first encounter with it was in the world of literary criticism. Scottish literature was about Calvinism. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Confessions of a Justified Sinner: Calvinism.

This meant nothing to me. I didn’t know what Calvinism was and the essays didn’t seem to explain it satisfactorily either. It seemed like an inside joke. How could this be the key to understanding these bizarre stories? To me, it failed to make them any clearer.

One aspect did seem to transfer from what I’d previously learnt about Christianity – the division of people into the saved and the damned. Here, however, the saved were not called that – they were the Elect or as Muriel Spark has it, the crème de la crème. The novel element was that the Elect were chosen – they did not choose; and no one could remove them from that office, no matter how they behaved. Not nearly as hopeful, but at least intellectually consistent.

When I went to uni, I parked thinking about Calvinism philosophically for the most part and thought about it more politically and geo-politically in terms of the wars of religion in Europe and later the Wars of the Three Kingdoms in Britain. I was studying history and literature, not theology, and I’d decided I was an atheist anyway.

New forms of religion started entering my life in any case. My former first-year flatmate and friend, Charles, had gone from an abandonment of his childhood faith of an evangelical persuasion to an embrace of Anglican forms of worship. He was also inspired by Orthodox ideas about Christianity through his Russian studies. Charles talked about the materiality of faith in a way I had not considered before.

To me, the material spoke against faith. Hard facts against belief. Geology against creation. No definitive, real evidence of the truth of the scriptures. He had a different view. Communion as a physical manifestation of faith, the idea of doing Christianity as in some ways more important than belief, and the power of art and architecture not as folly and vanity compared with God, but living expressions of the faith of generations, embodying the argumentative power of thousands of souls.

These are medieval ideas, but they appear to have survived the Reformation. I started getting seriously into the medieval era after doing a semester of history, learning how to read Middle High German poetry in Leipzig and from there dipping my toe into Old Norse on my return to Edinburgh. After graduation, I seriously considered doing a masters in Viking and Medieval Studies at the University of Aberdeen. My feelings then were that the Reformers had essentially been right but that pre-Reformation Europe, or “Christendom” as it was, possessed a cohesion of Weltanschauung that will never be replicated, such that travel within its bounds was psychologically unproblematic.

Travel as an act of faith was something that was thrown out by the Reformation. The temporal and spiritual journeys were separated. Intellectual distances were the only ones to be travelled.

I don’t reject this logic and I would say that on balance it is far preferable to travel intellectual distance than betaking yourself endlessly without developing the mind. To militate against the temporal-spiritual journey, however, is a mistake. There is no guarantee that making one’s way from one place to another will result in psycho-intellectual progress, but the least we can say is that it works for some people and to attack the idea that it lends itself to being given meaning is counterproductive.

And so, this, I suppose is the “catholic” side of my spiritual nature. My belief in attempting to connect with the material pathways Christians have trod throughout the centuries. Not necessarily to share their worldview but to breathe the same air and see the same sights as they did in the places and (perhaps more importantly) in-betweens that were most significant to them.

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2022: My year in music

2022 has been much more of a positive year for me. The clouds finally lifted for good on Covid. It took me a full two years to get that dreaded double line on the lateral flow. When it hit it was unpleasant, but the isolation was probably more annoying, and thankfully I had been vaccinated by this point so didn’t get the tastebud rewiring to which the pioneers were susceptible.

In terms of gigs this year, I saw TOPS, LoneLady, BODEGA, Indoor Foxes, Alex Cameron, Soccer Mommy, Kit Sebastian and L’éclair. These were at Stereo, Audio, Mono, Hug & Pint, St Luke’s, QMU and Broadcast respectively. Of these, I think I enjoyed Alex Cameron and Kit Sebastian the most. AC’s latest album didn’t do much for me to be honest, but the strength of his previous two was more than enough to carry the night in a unique venue. Kit Sebastian is centred around a French-Turkish duo and their music is evocative of a sort of lost 60s film soundtrack – maximum vibes.

2022 has been mostly a year of stalwarts and continued listening to old favourites, but a casualty of my Covid-imposed incarceration was missing a gig by Nilüfer Yanya whose new album and particularly the song “the dealer” was one of my most compelling discoveries.

I was lucky enough to see my top artist from last year live at SWG3 last month: Stereolab. Perhaps less jubilant or irreverent than Alex Cameron but as good, if not better, in other ways. It was funny to see the fanbase who were a lot more introverted than other artists I’ve seen. While the band was really making a lot of noise there was a minimal outward show of appreciation in contented head bobbing. There was no place for moshing in this mass. I felt that the performance started off quite frostily but gradually things warmed up and I began to see the dynamic between what seems like an unusual pairing of serious French absurdism and reserved English handiness, all over a relentless base of infinitely reproducing Krautrock solidity.

Old favourites resurfaced in my Spotify Wrapped, with Toro y Moi taking the top spot, followed by King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, Kurt Vile whose 2018 album Bottle It In I got into for some reason, the aforementioned Nilüfer Yanya and Charli XCX.

An honourable mention in my music round-up of 2022 is my Arabic Funk phase. This year I got into this YouTube channel called My Analogue Journal. It does mixes of particular genres from specific regions in the world in certain decades. For some reason, the Arabic 70s stuff seemed to resonate with me. I suppose it is a natural progression from my Turkish penchant the previous annum?

I can only honestly recommend three new albums that have come out this year that I have listened to the whole way through multiple times and liked. Without further do, here is my list of projects that I think are worthy of checking out:

3. Mahal by Toro y Moi

On Mahal, Toro y Moi revisits some of their chillwave roots but leans more into a vintage vibe that is sometimes reminiscent of Steely Dan. I think that while the record perhaps doesn’t have the standout singles of Outer Peace it is more cohesive and listenable. There is no ‘Laws of the Universe’ or ‘Freelance’ but there aren’t any real lulls in the tracklist. As opposed to Outer Peace there are recurring motifs and a few weird sketches that help to stitch the album together, even if one wishes that some of them were stretched out into fuller songs. It has a couple of funny earworms in ‘Postman’ and ‘The Loop’, but these are not indicative of the album’s general expansive tone.

I really enjoy the psychedelic laziness of ‘Mississippi’, which showcases the dynamic production style of the album.

2. CRASH by Charli XCX

One has to allow for some pop in one’s life, and surely it doesn’t get much better than Charli XCX in 2022. Again, I’ll be honest and say that I did prefer her pandemic record How I’m Feeling Now for capturing the Zeitgeist, but that was a high bar to surpass. In any event, this album is tonally quite different from the previous outing and there are far fewer A.G. Cook-isms in terms of production. HIFN was much more introspective whereas this is bombastic and outward-looking. The double-run of ‘Baby’ and ‘Lightning’ is the peak of the album for me – both undeniable bangers.

The energy rarely drops off on this one, which makes it an ideal gym playlist staple. There is no mid-album lull and it has a very strong start and finish – bookended with the title track, ‘Crash’ and the club-inspired ‘Used to Know Me’.

  1. Blue Rev by Alvvays

I adored the last album from Canadian band Alvvays, Antisocialites, which saw me through a challenging time trying to teach teenagers English in Hamburg. Five years on, their sound has not lost any of its potency and the songwriting is as on-point as ever. I love how the band don’t rush the development of a musical idea, but neither do they linger on a hook too long – giving you just enough and no more. The album has a very shoe-gazy start, which is a theme throughout but is front and centre on the arena-filling ‘Pharmacist’ and ‘Easy on Your Own’. The next section is more jangle-focussed with beautifully melodic guitar work reminiscent by turns of Johnny Marr and Robert Smith – ‘After the Earthquake’ and ‘Pressed’ are highlights here. We then go to the quirkier side of the band with ‘Very Online Guy’, which I suppose would be the lead single if Alvvays were a single-type artist and what is probably my favourite track, at least at the moment, ‘Velveteen’.

If I have one criticism of the album, it would be the jarring intromission of ‘Pomeranian Spinster’ which doesn’t really seem to fit the tone of the rest of the project. The band quickly wins me back with ‘Belinda Says’, which is also a major highlight. It’s a massive track with huge descending pitch-bent guitars set against the sweet celestial vocals of Molly Rankin and features a bold key change just a minute in. Oh, and it mentions Inverness! If you listen to one album from 2022, let it be this.

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From Woodside to Woodlands

I recently moved flats from the Maryhill/Woodside border zone to a place off Woodlands Road right beside Kelvingrove Park. After two years together, the Grovepark gang disbanded. I moved my stuff piecemeal in the final week of the lease, but the majority was in two carloads of my friend’s convertible Saab. Within an hour we had tried the falafel shack that had been recommended by my cathedral colleagues and decamped to the Arlington – one of two notable “teuchter” pubs in the vicinity.

The move has not been without problems. The toilet seat was a flimsy plastic shell-shaped thing that slid about all the time; the sofas are basically metal frames with a sheet of fabric stretched across and my New Stateman subscription (a graduation gift) doesn’t seem to have survived the change of address. By the use of the past tense for the first item on the list you will be able to see that these are gradually getting resolved, no thanks to a decidedly non-interventionist letting agent. Anyhow, to focus on the positives, I have upgraded in terms of space and location (in terms of trendiness, but not in proximity to Lidl).

August will be my last full month full-time at the cathedral this year. In September I’ll start the diploma in professional practice at Strathclyde, which requires me to attend three days during the week, meaning I’ll only be under Gothic arcades for 11 days out of the 30 that it hath.

I feel I’ve had a happier summer than last year. 2021 was still quite far from normal. Social occasions were still fraught with cost-benefit analyses. It was only until mid-August that I had my first gig back – not that I’ve seen too many bands in the summer of 22. I was going to go and see Rage Against the Machine in Edinburgh but was put off by the £90 ticket price. That’s been cancelled now, so I guess I needn’t have worried. I was due to see Parquet Courts in June but had just been appointed coordinator of the Initial Advice Clinics so felt I couldn’t abandon my event, falling as it did on a Wednesday evening. My next scheduled one was Francis Lung at the Hug & Pint on a Friday. The Friday I had finished feeding a newfound feline friend – king of the gods, the apex of the pantheon – Zeus! (The cat, I was cat-sitting and house-sitting, to be clear).

My sojourn in the Southside, where said deity did reside, had come to an end. I’d decided to accept the offer of an Uber home instead of cycling back in torrential rain, and in an all-of-a-sudden fit of exhaustion opted not to go to the gig.

That means my last one was also at the Hug & Pint, at the start of July. Indoor Foxes. I think I’d heard them on Vic Galloway one night driving home from a shift at the Orkney Hotel. Not that the act was particularly important, rather the company. Yes, that was a fateful Saturday. I had flown back from Orkney to Edinburgh – the flight was somewhat cheaper and more convenient than direct to Glasgow – and I thought I’d see a couple of friends from uni round one while I was in town. The Orkney excursion was preceded by a trip to Aberdeen for my sister’s graduation from med school (now working as a junior doctor in the same city after a well-earned break) and occasioned by a citation as a crown witness in a Sheriff Court case (which failed to materialise after a last-minute guilty plea).

A week prior I had graduated for the second time, in law. The weather was poor, and there was a lot of hanging about, but it was a good excuse for my mother to visit and for us to spend some time together – an excuse to see the new Top Gun and A Play, A Pie and A Pint at least, which I wouldn’t have otherwise.

Anyway, at well past the halfway mark I can count 2022 as one of the more successful years (touch wood). Of course, I’ve got the formal certificate – Clinical LLB, Bachelor of Laws; the accepted traineeship, but what I value more is the nurturing of friendships, painfully missed during those lost 18 months or so of Covid misery. When you are torn away by time and circumstance you are forced to consider what you value in people and the people you value. Why is it so hard to be apart from a certain type of human being? A certain type is hard to find. Rare. Once found you cannot let them fade.

It takes effort to keep the flame of friendship aglow. Maybe you’ll spend hours hacking at a hillside, and when the season is right, store up a barrowload of peats to last the winter. Sometimes it’s as simple as striking a match. But by whichever method, once the blaze gets going again, the light you bask in is the same as it always was.

I started the year with confidence and optimism I hadn’t known since probably July 2019, except this time my goals were far clearer. Within the first half, I’d achieved at least two, with my aim of French proficiency in the works.

The self-confidence I felt probably spilt over into arrogance on occasion. I came close to losing a friend because of hurtful words spoken in jest, which were, in truth, just callous. That was two years to the day I did lose a friend, all too literally – the 7th of April. A date I will never forget. I suppose that was a turning point. I began to recognise my confidence had mutated into a decided lack of humility. That was something I decided to rectify in the remainder of the year.

My pilgrimage I think helped to an extent. It’s difficult to be arrogant when you’ve just walked 25 miles, sodden and stinking, and 15 are on the cards the next day. But I suppose there was an arrogance in embarking on it in the first place. After the sufficiently humbling experience of the first day, however, I was practically weeping with gratitude upon cresting the hill on day three of three and glimpsing the glorious expanse of the North Sea after more than 48 hours inland.

Among people, one is always at pains to distinguish oneself. Set oneself apart. Remain above it all. Aloof. In nature, in torrential rain, uphill for miles on end, it’s just you. No comparator. No companion. There is no mastery here. No conquest, just completion. But this is just something you’ve been through; it’s not an achievement, not an accomplishment. It’s only a goal insofar as it is a point on the map. Once you’ve eaten up the miles, they disappear. They’ve only eaten you.

I think I’ve reached a point where it’s no longer about becoming, on a personal level – becoming is a byproduct – but being. I want to be more and more the agent of my actions. I am not my CV, not my credentials or qualifications or positions held – my biography, but my acts, in the here and now and in the past; the sum-total of the way I’ve treated others and how they’ve perceived me, for ill or for good.

I set out this year to achieve personal satisfaction – fulfilment[1] if you will – a career and status I can be proud of. But I have learnt that there is no true satisfaction in personal satisfaction. There is only mutual satisfaction – call that friendship, companionship, brotherhood, solidarity or love. Collective love, or solidarity, I think, is the political aspect of life. Companionship is the love of strangers brought together by circumstance, but friendship is the most precious of all, and the former is a gateway to the latter.

I am lucky to be able to say that I have discovered two dear friends this year. This is not an achievement or an accomplishment but merely something that has happened to me and for which I am grateful.[2]

[1] In my opinion, pure contentment/fulfilment/happiness is unobtainable. We may only approach it, draw within a few nanometres, and then pull away again. Like the logarithmic graph, we never touch the axis. Greek Orthodoxy has the idea of Theosis; I think happiness works in a similar way. One cannot fully become God, but one can near ever closer to Godliness.

[2] Not to anyone/any entity in particular – I’m an atheist. Let’s just say Providence/the Supreme Being etc. To be clear, I don’t believe that some cosmic Other actively bestowed this on me.

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Presence and precedent

It wasn’t until day two of the pilgrimage that I got a moment to myself to log an entry in my journal.

My first epistle stems from Wooler bus station where a Borders Bus has just pulled out of the terminal. On one such vehicle, my journey began, after two trains from Glasgow to Edinburgh then Edinburgh to Tweedbank, carrying me to Melrose Abbey – the start of the St Cuthbert’s Way.

Day 1 – Melrose to Yetholm

The Abbey is a Historic Environment Scotland monument and it’s always strange to see the green tartan waistcoats in a context you’re not used to. I think to myself, is the HES that they know the same one I do?

The monastery itself was closed to the public as there was high-level maintenance going on. The grounds were open nevertheless and I got a good look at the ruin from the perimeter. Seeing the medieval structure like this in a partly crumbled condition makes me appreciate the completeness of my own workplace, the 13th-century built Glasgow Cathedral.

I had little time to gawk and dawdle, however, as I was scheduled to complete not one but two legs of the Cuthbert’s Way from Melrose to Kirk Yetholm, right on the West/East Scottish border with England.

Harris-fenced Melrose Abbey

I set off from the Abbey at about 11 am. The first 20 minutes were light showers. Good start, I thought. It seemed I was the sole pilgrim today, although there was a group outside the museum suspiciously kitted out in hiking gear.

Luckily after this light spattering, the rain stayed off for most of the day. In fact, it was perfect walking weather – slightly overcast and a fresh breeze; conditions I can thrive in.

Because I was aiming to complete two legs in one, I took more direct routes at times to get to Yetholm before the hostel check-in time ended. At one stage I took a wrong turn on my alternative route to Harestanes – my halfway point. Having passed a dogwalker on my confident stride along the wrong road, I faced the humiliation of turning back and meeting him again. It turns out I needn’t have worried; he pointed out that just round the corner, in the direction I had been going before my about-turn, was the correct route to Harestanes, cutting through the forest via a gap in the dyke. It was a beautiful woodland path that I might have missed otherwise, totally bereft of human habitation and populated with diverse flora, particularly wild garlic whose smell was unmistakable.

Nature, I am in you.

Another example from earlier on in my journey of an attempted off-route shortcut was when I tried to avoid walking along the main road by cutting across a field. On the Scotland part of my cross-border route, I wanted to take advantage of my land access rights by virtue of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 Pt 1. This was a foolhardy endeavour because the perimeter was surrounded by an electric fence and the “shortcut” did not expedite my progress in the slightest.

It was only after finding the woodland path immediately preceding Harestanes that I learnt to surrender to the Way-posts and let them guide me. From then on, I largely ditched maps and apps for signage and my newly purchased compass to check the general direction.

After Harestanes was definitely the more arduous leg, not only because of fatigue but also the lack of features to give one a sense of progress. One of the worst stretches was along the seemingly interminable main road to Morebattle. Worse still was that I had expected to find a shop to bolster supplies and get something sugary to drink, which I did not find – the community shop had shut an hour earlier. The only thing open was a pub, which I filled my waterbottle up in. Though I longed to stop here I couldn’t afford to linger if I were to make the cut-off for check-in at the youth hostel.

The shut shop of Morebattle

Shortly after this came the all-time low of the pilgrimage, the battle post-Morebattle. The rain returned, and not the light stuff of the morning but big fat soaking droplets. Half an hour in and I was ready to hitch a lift. I felt no competing urge to complete the walk for its own sake. I was ready to be conveyed directly to my goal.

The problem was that this was when I realised how rural the Borders really is. The roads were desolate. Barely a car drove past and most in the opposite direction. Orkney is far less rural than this. The population must be very sparse. I had seen an advert to set up a community council in Morebattle; attached was a notice stating the plan had collapsed due to a lack of applicants.

I eventually made it to Yetholm. In the village, there are thatched cottages that look very English to me. Do people really live there? I wonder. Their rooves are getting tested tonight. I stop to take some photos and press on to the hostel.

The place is run by a couple, Tony and Helen. They and two fellow pilgrims make me feel very welcome, although I’m not an eloquent interlocutor initially due to utter exhaustion after having logged more than five times my Garmin step goal in one day.

John, in his sixties, is also doing the St Cuthbert’s Way, although he stayed in Jedburgh last night so didn’t have the double leg, I inflicted on myself. Cat, maybe about 30ish, is doing a cycling tour of the Borders/Northumberland area. The former is naturally economical and prefers inexpensive holidays, the basics are all he needs. The latter sometimes volunteers for hostels and is keen to hear news from “the scene” via the couple who spend four months out of 12 away from home in their retirement vocation.

The hostel is part of the European Friends of Nature network. Or should I say, Naturfreunde? because it has German origins. A map from the 80s says something like “Nature knows no boundaries” – it still features West Germany. Perhaps there is at least one conceivable frontier.

In the night, after we’ve retired to bed, two lads from (it sounds like) Glasgow arrive back from the local pub. I’d decided to stay in and shared a basic but much-needed meal of tuna pasta with Cat. The next morning, I would visit the shop to stock up on provisions.

Day 2 – Yetholm to Wooler

At breakfast, John asks me why I’m doing this pilgrimage. I explain that I’m doing it because my friend from university who passed away at the start of the first lockdown walked the Way between exams and graduation, and I wanted to do something in tribute to him. “That’s a real reason,” he says.

The night before Cat had mentioned “Warm Showers” – a European overnight stays for cyclists network. Charles had used this on his epic tour of Europe by bike the summer before I met him.

In the Yetholm shop, they are discussing the distressing events of last night. A walker was seen acting suspiciously around the thatched house opposite. Was he trying to break in? What’s his business disturbing the elderly at that hour (7pm)? Look at the footage. I look at the footage. It’s me on CCTV. It could be me. Well. That resolves that then. I was taking a photo because I thought it looked unusual and out of place. Mistrust of vagrants is alive and well in frontier villages.

An incriminating image

Loaded with provisions I depart for Wooler. This time I should arrive mid-afternoon. Yetholm to Wooler is wild. There is nothing in between.

Trail runners zip past beyond the halfway mark and the accents change over the wall marking the border. So too does the land access law. Instead of the right to roam we have “public bridleways”, “permissive paths” and “access land” which ends abruptly as it begins. Here “trespassers will be prosecuted” and “standard security” is just the name for a CCTV system.

On the border

Wooler is the towniest town I’ve been to so far on my journey. A townhall clock chimes the hour. There are several busy pubs and something resembling a central square. I visit one such establishment for a good feed after I check into the hostel.

Enquiring about what kind of beer the Farne Isle ale is, the barman recommends the bitter then says get a pint of each – get pissed lad, there’s nowt else to do! I’m inclined to disbelieve him. Wooler has the most life of all the settlements on my journey thus far. There’s bingo in the pub, which everyone takes deadly seriously, though they have a good laugh in between rounds.

I get a sense of Verfremdung sitting there at my single table with my gigantic portion of lasagne and chips (steak and ale pie was off), which despite a valiant attempt, I cannot finish. This is the England I have known all my life but at a distance, on-screen and almost unreal. Yet here it is. To participate would be to destroy the scene. It is perfect in its self-contained, self-referential universality. These are a people who do not cringe at their mother tongue whose ancientness is worn proudly on their sleeves. And yet, it is not worn, it’s an unshed-able waterproof skin. Unlike the Scots who will trade a gansey for a jumper when it suits or breeks for trousers when require, the tongue of the Woolerians remains steadfastly Northumbrian. That is, apart from the cockney bingo-caller – an odd intrusion into the Woolerverse, but one, as I alluded to before that seems to confirm the ur-Englishness of the place in a peculiar way.

A quotation I found at the Wooler Youth Hostel. I like a bit of Ivor Cutler on occasion

Day 3 – Wooler to Lindisfarne

My third entry is written on the morning of Day 4, an addendum to the pilgrimage proper. I’ve stayed the night at Berwick-Upon-Tweed, having reached Lindisfarne the previous day.

Almost everyone I’d come across on the pilgrimage whom I’d told of my intentions said to beware the tide at Lindisfarne. Suitably scaremongered, I set off early to avoid any chance of being swept away by the North Sea flooding in.

I managed to keep to the official route right up to about St Cuthbert’s Cave. It was a steep ascent to get up there, but I caught up with a displaced German lady, her two boisterous blond children and their dog who kept me company during the climb. She suggested I take a right and visit the impressive Felsen. Unfortunately, I had to disappoint her and say I was in no mood for detours at present. She warned me of the tides, told me of cars getting “flushed away” and bid me good day.

At the cave, I met the two guys, who I was later to learn came from Paisley, and who were doing the route on the same schedule as me. They were just heading off as I sat down for a bit of a break before my next landmark – the village of Fenwick. Supposedly the Cave is where the relics of Cuthbert were sequestered after the Viking raid on Lindisfarne at the end of the 8th century. Many have carved their names into the rockface here. Quite a few from the 1800s.

The approach to the Cave

My next point of significance was unexpected. Just a few hundred metres further on was a rocky mound with a crude wooden cross made out of tree branches on top. Out of curiosity, I decided to approach the summit. When I made it, I was hit with a wave of emotion I was totally unprepared for. This was my first glimpse of the final destination – after two days inland, the North Sea and the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.

From there I veered off slightly because many routes met and diverged from there, but I eventually got back on track and managed to find Fenwick. My penultimate stop before the island was a service station off the A1 where I got a Costa coffee and ate my lunch.

Going through Beal and over a level crossing, I finally arrived at the causeway. For a few hundred metres I did as is supposedly the tradition and took off my boots to walk barefoot on the sand.

It must be said I underestimated how long it would take to make it to the priory from the coast. In my imagination, I had the idea that it might be similar to the Brough of Birsay, but in reality, it was a good hour, if not more, to reach the ruins at the far end of the island. I resolved to hitchhike back – cars cross this causeway and in large numbers.

On my approach, I met the two guys from Paisley sitting outside a café. I went over and they said they’d booked a taxi to Berwick for 5, and I was very glad to tag along. This meant I had about an hour and a half on the island.

The first statue I saw was not of St Cuthbert – the quasi-official end of the pilgrimage – but St Aidan, founder of the abbey. To find Cuthbert I had to enter the ruins properly. The lads had told me they (English Heritage) would let me in for free if I told them I’d just done the Way. That didn’t work; I got a well done but would still have to pay. I had another card up my sleeve, however, my Historic Scotland staff pass, which did allow me gratis entry.

Again, after the initial joy of reaching the end, I felt a sadness for what was missing. I recognised the tufty, sandy mounds on my approach from that first episode of Vikings, which I like for its use of old English for the monks and new English for the raiders, setting up our perspective on the scene. Nothing structurally remains of that raided abbey – it was mostly wood and has rotted away. There are artefacts, most notably the Lindisfarne gospels, but the stone walls and arches are mostly from the 12th century.

I find St Cuthbert’s statue, not before having my picture taken by two ladies in their 60s who have also completed the Way (I offer to take theirs too). It is sort of ghoulish and scary compared with Aidan’s proud, uplifted confidence.

What I don’t find at the end of the pilgrimage is something hard to define. It’s not the neat tying of a bow or the sustained final chord of a symphony’s last movement. I visit the church adjacent and find a building that is an echo of the Surrey kirkyard I came to on 1st November 2020, his birthday. This time there is no pre-recorded sermon but towards the east end, just before the choir, is a foil tray to catch the wax of a dozen or so tealights. I don’t strike a match – that seems too extravagant – but lean the wick of a fresh candle to one already lit and place it there, as I did that day.

By undertaking a pilgrimage, you are participating in a tradition going back more than a millennium. But you’re also committing to the present as well as precedent. You’re signing up for pain, discomfort, bewilderment (in more ways than one) but most importantly – whatever you find along the road. This sense of radical openness to experience was one of the greatest lessons Charles showed me through the example of his adventures. It is this I wish to carry with me through life as part of the legacy of a remarkable human being.

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Memento Mori

This past month my summer and winter existences have overlapped.

April brings custodial duties. I called myself a custodian on the census, although apparently “monument steward” was available. I am a castellan, a Steward of Gondor awaiting the Return of the King. He’s the character who builds his own funeral pyre and lies atop it alive. Quite an image.

Apparently, in crematoria, the bodies sit up straight. Stripped spines curling up with the heat.

In coffins, they used to have a bell to ring for attention if they’d somehow made a mistake.

Embalming is at least chemically un-survivable but supposedly distressing to the touch of relatives.

My potter friend wrote a speculation on the custom of the Neolithic folk at Skara. In it, they mummify their dead but keep them on a shelf to be wheeled out on special occasions. My colleague wants to be mummified or at least kept above ground, in a mausoleum. Like Lenin? I ask. But I know that was against his wishes.

I think I’d want to have a normie burial. The thought of complete annihilation and grinding down bones somehow doesn’t appeal to me. Neither would I be chemically dissolved like Desmond Tutu. I’d probably like to overlook the Harray and Stenness Lochs, the twin humps of the Hoy hills. Ending up there would be nice, wherever I go in the interim.

Recently, I read a memoir where the author sets about carving her own gravestone. At work, I’m surrounded by astonishing feats of masonry, both medieval and modern. Skills passed down through millennia. The potter has his headstone readymade, propped up against a wall in his garden. The inscription reads, “Forgotten but not gone”.

Not that I haven’t thought of more dramatic ends. Maybe I’ll be put in a yole and shot with a flaming arrow. Sink into the sea with a sizzling hiss.

Spaghettification has also crossed my mind, as has being launched into the sun. A gravitational process rather than active disposal. I wouldn’t want to be released into the vacuum. I suppose going out the airlock is the equivalent of burial at sea for starships.

Memento mori are all about me in the Cathedral and I’m asked about them every other day. There are more in St Magnus. Many of them are of 17th-century vintage. Skull and crossbones reminders of death. Hamlet’s Yorick is likely the most famous; the fool he knew from childhood. A fellow of infinite jest. The Dane is aye jumping into graves, making dramatic entrances at funerals.

I went to see The Northman, which is based on the Norse legend on which Hamlet is loosely based. It’s the best film I’ve seen this year, though I very much enjoyed The Batman – my first outing to the pictures since the initial lockdown.

It doesn’t seem possible to design a film more suited to appeal to me. It’s an expertly crafted epic of revenge, myth and magic. Its geographic span stretches from the Kievan Rus to the far west of Iceland. Mentioned in passing, though, is Constantinople, and, of course, the Vikings thought of themselves as occupying one plane of reality, Miðgarð – a particular cross-section of the world tree, Yggdrasil.

These Norsemen, as depicted by Robert Eggers, are historical, in the sense that they are the most authentic they have ever been on screen, but also historicised, in that they have a sense of their origins, if only half-remembered and dreamlike. For one, the proto-Norse burial mounds from which the protagonist must wrest the sword, Draugr – a blade from the murky urgermanischem Zeitalter. Also, the chambered cairn of Hrafnsey from an even remoter past, several peoples ago even then. The stone slab passageways where rituals are replicated in ignorance of their bygone significance – the director was apparently inspired by Maeshowe.

Shakespeare’s parallel text runs through the film. Eggers’s Claudius-figure’s words fly up not to heaven but Asgarð and Oðinn. Amleþ, unlike his Renaissance cousin, has no hesitation at all about dispatching his enemies. Madness is not a put-on antic disposition but a berserker rage or mushroom induced paranoia trip.

There is another reason I enjoyed the film so much, but I think I will let you watch it and find out for yourself!

Anyhow, I have come to the end of my CLLB. Handed in all my assignments and exams. Now I am looking to the summer ahead and for what seems like the first time in a while, planning for the medium-term future.

My plan for the end of this month is to embark on the St Cuthbert’s Way from Melrose Abbey to Lindisfarne. I will be covering the journey over three days and staying in youth hostels along the route. My idea was to dedicate the pilgrimage to my friend Charles who walked it between finishing exams and graduation in 2019. I later heard he got his results unterwegs and he and John were able to share a euphoric moment with their doubles firsts on the approach to Holy Island. Personally, I’d be happy with a merit pass for this degree no. 2. It’s not impossible I might be I am graded staff in hand though, as he was.

I have a strong desire to visit Europe again, not having left the UK since 2018 and thwarted by you-know-what for the past two years. My particular priority would be to explore southern Germany and maybe Austria. It could be I’ll be able to spend some time with a friend from the French-Swiss border. All this is speculation though, and I’ve got the added stress of finding a flat for the start of the diploma. But overall, things are on the up and I am determined to keep the momentum going into a summer resembling normality, which, of course, I hope to transcend to some degree through these mini-adventures into the unknown.  

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Finding what I seek

It’s been a good opening month to the year. The first milestone in the diary was my interview with Digby Brown for a traineeship with them next year in their Glasgow office.

Omicron meant it had to be online, so I ensured I had exclusive, undisturbed access to the flat living/dining room for that Monday afternoon, got my suit on and gave it my best shot.

It was the latest in a succession of such appointments I’d been having towards the end of last semester. This one I really wanted though. I’d been going for more full-service business-oriented firms before and while I’m sure they would have given me a real breadth of experience, what I really wanted to be doing in law was contributing to society in a more direct way by facilitating access to justice. On the one hand, I recognise that Digby Brown isn’t a charity, but it does help the underdog in most cases and my impression is that it fights to ensure clients get everything they’re entitled to in law. My decision to apply to them was also motivated by the fact that involuntary obligations or delict (basically, suing people for civil wrongs) has been one of my favourite subjects over the course of my condensed law degree and this was a great opportunity to work for the best firm in Scotland in that area. I really wanted it and so I went into the interview with my galaxy brain meme infographic, law clinic experience and the luck of the gods behind me.

While I felt it had gone well after it finished, as the week progressed, I began to doubt myself and think about all the things I didn’t say, how I could have emphasised a particular interest in personal injury instead of my experience in employment law and criminal through MOJO. I said this to the HR woman when I answered the phone on that fateful Tuesday and she opened cryptically with the question, “How do you think the interview went?”

After I had finished my two-minute post-match analysis where I was essentially talking myself out of the role, she interrupted me to say, “Well you’ll be pleased to know we’re offering you the traineeship.”

What a relief! I felt euphoric. The struggle was over. Victory at last. Looks like this law degree will pay off after all.

I really did not want to be going into the diploma without having something lined up at the end of it, and it was one of my new year’s resolutions to secure a traineeship. Good to tick off a year goal in January. Let’s hope 2022 bring yet more wish-fulfilment and hopefully I haven’t peaked too soon!

There we are then. In September 2023 I will start working for Digby Brown in their Glasgow office as a trainee solicitor. Before all that I have to pass my LLB at Strathclyde, then complete my diploma in professional practice, which is another year starting in September. The traineeship itself is two years and only after that can I say – “I have qualified as a solicitor.”

It’s a long haul, I know, but it’s good to have a clear direction in life. It is freeing in a way. My future-worry part of the brain is less engaged, so I have more space to enjoy the present. Of course, one still has short- and medium-term worry, but the bigger dread seems to have been defeated, at least for a couple of years.

This semester I’m doing three main classes: commercial law, evidence and EU law, plus a portfolio for the Clinical part of my degree. Surprisingly I am actually finding commercial law the most engaging at the moment because it’s something I rarely think about in day-to-day life. Evidence I feel I have a head start on through my MOJO volunteering. EU law is probably where I’m most at home because I do think about it quite a lot and I’ve just finished reading Tony Judt’s Postwar, which talks about its development in some detail. I’m continuing with my IACs in the Clinic and dealing with a couple of employment cases, one of which has recently been resolved in a negotiated settlement (another small victory for me at the end of the month).

Something I said at the end of my last blog was that I wanted to become happier in 2022. I have tried to do this by meeting friends a bit more spontaneously. After my mooting mentees completed their first round, I decided to catch them unannounced after the verdict and invite them for a pint. As for the mentees, this flopped, but the judge and their opponent accepted the offer, and we had a good time of it anyway.

The following week I cajoled my school friend (and entourage) to go with me to see Romeo Taylor’s gig at Bloc, just announced that Wednesday night. I knew the billed artist from his Twitter and Twitch presence as cooljinzo and introduced myself to him in the toilets afterwards as my username, flettcetera. He was about to vomit but politely delayed his regurgitation long enough for me to congratulate him on his new English girlfriend with whom he informed me he is besotted.

Speaking of romance, this year I am trying to take steps to mitigate the lack of it in my life. This is contrary to the lets-just-see-what-happens approach that has dominated previously without much success. I am hoping that making a written disclosure of this intention will bring such a desire into actuality, much like my traineeship search. Perhaps this is a form of magical thinking? Anyway, of the three dates I have been on so far only the one I liked the most blocked me. We fight on.

I write at the end of a weekend that similarly started with great promise. For the first time since the pandemic, I was host to a dinner party. Much red wine was consumed and my flatmate, interrupting the interregnum between the main course and dessert, commented on the “jovial” atmosphere. Here’s to more soirées in future; the spirit of “2022 is going to be my year” lives on.

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Better than the last one

I want this end-of-year sum-up to focus on the positive. Let’s start with this: 2021 was better than 2020. A very low bar indeed, but 2021 improved on its predecessor in most ways.

It was a bleak start to the year, and I delayed my return to Glasgow from Orkney by several weeks because there was really nothing to go back to apart from some very restricted library opening hours, and university lectures were all online anyway. Despite university being just about the only thing I could do, I still managed to get some extra-curricular stuff in with the continuation of the Mooting competition virtually throughout the first half of the year. Appropriately enough, the first round of the new year was on culpable and reckless conduct during the pandemic, which was Jason Leitch’s predecessor and an SNP MP’s downfall when travel restrictions were severe. Luckily that early lockdown phase does seem a long time ago now and unlikely to return.

I also kept myself as sane as I could by throwing myself into Law Clinic work, helping host the fortnightly Zoom drop-in sessions and managing cases in between coursework.

The age of Zoom quizzes had a second wind, and I organised a few virtual pub meet-ups with people on my course before we all finally met up in May at the end of a year without seeing each other in person.

Although I was lucky enough to get some furlough pay from my Historic Environment Scotland job during Tier 4, I also took up a one-off paid acting gig through the university where I took part in a role-play scenario for diploma students as a soon-to-be divorcee police officer.

In 2021 I have been thinking more about my career than usual and applying for traineeships and summer placement in the hope of getting a contract with a law firm before I start my diploma in professional practice this year. I have attended several virtual assessment centres and some final stage interviews but am yet to be ultimately successful. Nevertheless, I am pushing on and have another interview lined up for later this month.

I went to the Sheriff Court twice this year. The first time was after the mooting semi-final judge invited all the participants to come and shadow him for a day. I was able to observe the accused’s evidence at a High Court criminal trial where the sheriff was covering and got an idea of what a typical day was like for him. The second time I was appearing in front of a sheriff as a lay representative for a Law Clinic client with a simple procedure claim. I felt prepared for the hearing as a result of my mooting experience, advocacy training and having visited the court before, but unfortunately, the client lost his case due to procedural regulations.

By summer outdoor socialising and internal travel was starting back up and I was able to go to a family barbeque. My sister paid me a visit in Glasgow, and we went to Arran for a day trip where we climbed the Goat Fell and I got quite sunburnt. I also managed to get to Bute with my brother for a couple of hours after being excluded from the limited-capacity ferry at the intended departure time initially.

Through my work, I managed to get a week’s work experience within the new HES in-house legal team, and I also mixed things up by looking after Dumbarton castle for a few days.

In August, I finally got back to gigs after a painfully long absence, the first being Black Country, New Road at the Edinburgh Festival, as I talked about in my previous post. I’m hoping to start off 2022 with The Twilight Sad at Barrowlands if Sturgeon smiles upon us.

In September I was in London for the memorial service of my good friend Charles who died suddenly at the beginning of lockdown. It was a beautiful tribute and showed what an impact he’d had on so many people and in so many aspects. Even though I had been in regular contact with him all the time he had been working in London after graduation, there were things I learnt that I didn’t know about him. The contributions from his siblings were especially moving, capturing his playfulness and intellectual seriousness vividly. It still seems surreal to me, but I am glad we were finally able to come together properly and celebrate him in the right way.

The new semester brought back a single weekly in-person lecture(!) and real-life tutorials. I always looked forward to our Friday morning Ethics and Justice sessions we were privileged enough to receive as Clinic students and will never take a 9am lecture for granted again! These lecture/seminar hybrids kept me going where the majority of learning was still online and the 12 o’clock finishing time often segued nicely into a pint at the newly opened student union just across the road. I was also able to meet third- and fourth-year Clinic students doing honours, which was good socially, as well as getting the perspectives of slightly more experienced people.

In general, I think the second half of the year was when I started to ask people for advice about things a bit more, which is something I’ve struggled with slightly because I like to be self-sufficient. Mostly it has been about my career, but I’ve also realised I want to become happier in my life as well and that can be quite hard to achieve purely on your own. In terms of my professional life, I have more of a plan than I ever have had, and it’s the sort of plan that is robust enough to withstand the thousand natural shocks of Covid regulations. Something similar might have to occur if I want to get beyond “basically fine”, drifting to mildly miserable, on the life-joy scale.

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My top albums 2021

2021 got off to a terrible start with Tier 4 restrictions imposed in Glasgow for the best part of four months. Things began to revive in April and by May I had finally met the people on my course for the first time in real life. From there, things began to open up properly again and I got into bouldering for a time and there was a semblance of a tourist season at Glasgow Cathedral, although much muted.

It was mid-August before I had my first gig back post-Covid. I went to see Black Country, New Road at the Edinburgh festival, a band whose debut single ‘Sunglasses’ I had covered during my tenure as Music Editor at The National Student. Although it was quite surreal, taking place effectively in an open-sided tent where everyone was seated and socially distanced, the gig was a great return to live music – one of the things I had missed most throughout the pandemic times.

The band’s debut album features on this short list of records I have enjoyed this past year. For whatever reason, I have not been as interested in contemporary albums this year. My top Spotify artist was Stereolab, whose 1997 album Dots and Loops I looped throughout 2021. King Gizzard appeared again as my number two, a band who this year re-explored microtonal music on KG and LW neither of which in album form made it into my top records but each containing some standout singles like ‘Straws in the Wind’ and ‘K.G.L.W’. Eyedress, a Filipino artist who makes lo-fi, moody punk was my third and Slowthai, who released a double-album this year was my fourth. Unknown Mortal Orchestra again made my top five with songs like ‘That Life’ and ‘Weekend Run’.

Aside from that though, here is a list of albums that I liked the most in 2021:

5. Daddy’s Home by St Vincent

On this album, St Vincent explores the textures of 1970s soul, jazz and soft rock with her typical warped and glitchy twist. I preferred this record to MASSEDUCTION, despite the latter’s singles such as ‘Los Ageless’ and ‘New York’, because it had more replayability from start to finish. It also seemed to have a more cohesive aesthetic and natural recording style that leaves space where appropriate, such as on the title track, in marked contrast with the appropriately claustrophobic and compressed ‘Pay Your Way in Pain’.

St Vincent brings back the electric sitar on ‘The Melting of the Sun’, which I think showcases why the album is worth listening to through its bizarre blend of gospel and Eastern vibes.

4.  Juno by Remi Wolf

Remi Wolf’s type of music is not the genre I’d usually go for, but sometimes pop hooks just can’t be denied. Juno has these in abundance. If I were to describe the closest thing to Remi Wolf I listen to, it would probably be Kero Kero Bonito. Juno has the same sort of hyperactive energy, colour and charm as KKB. Its use of samples is often hilarious such as on the standout track, ‘Front Tooth’ which plays the cackle of a dolphin as an auditory illustration. Sometimes the talky bits in tracks get slightly grating, but Wolf more than makes up for that with her ear for melody.

There’s not an especially strong thematic thread through this album, which is more a kaleidoscope of singles than anything. It’s exceptionally well produced and an extremely strong debut from an artist who seems to have shot to popularity from nowhere. There aren’t many people making records like this at the moment, although it’s not like Juno is particularly new sonically, drawing heavily from 90s R&B and pop. The thing that seems to set it apart is how upfront the songs are – they demand your attention and aren’t content to be background music.

A favourite track is ‘Anthony Kiedis’ (yes, the Red Hot Chili Peppers singer), but an honourable mention has to go to ‘Sexy Villain’ about the morbid contemporary fascination with serial killers.

3. For the First Time by Black Country, New Road

As I mentioned in the intro, I have been following BC, NR for a couple of years now and went to see them live at (literally) the earliest opportunity. I think the main thing that was apparent in their songs is how impressive their dynamic range is. It’s not all about the softly-softly to a dramatic crescendo in their songs, however, like some contemporary post-rock bands. You can actually enjoy their quiet patches in and of themselves and not just an interlude between face-melting. In fact, there is actually not a huge amount of that on the album, and where it appears it is “tasteful” if that makes sense as a description.

I haven’t taken quite as much to their quickly released follow-up Concorde that just came out. For me, For the First Time’s appeal is in the odd simplicity of their music for being a seven-piece band. The textures never feel too busy and the extra instruments augment and complement the sound rather than overcomplicate it. My particular favourites are ‘Athens, France’ and ‘Track X’.

2. Bright Magic by Public Service Broadcasting

I love what Public Service Broadcasting do. They can communicate things no other artist seems able to articulate. On previous albums, they have used archive recordings of 20th century moments and built characterful, emotive and thoughtful instrumental tracks around them whether describing space exploration, the heroism and tragedy of the coal industry or the wonder of the postal system. Bright Magic takes a step away from this approach and into the more abstract. Dedicated to the city of Berlin emerging from the despondency and total destruction of losing two world wars, it features many original vocal performances and poetry mostly in German.

It may not have the quirkiness of previous albums, but Bright Magic has some seriously beautiful peaks of emotion. Because of its abstraction, it can take some time to fully get into, but once you do find an interpretation that seems to work for you it can really transport you. One of my favourites is ‘Der Rythmus der Maschinen’ as an ode to re-industrialisation after the disaster and a desire to create an automated workers’ republic, the product of material self-forged material conditions.

Equally powerful, however, is the track ‘Blue Heaven’, featuring Andreya Casablanca of Gurr, whose massive coda features the line, “Ich bin mein Produkt, ganz von mir gemacht”. It is a huge tune apparently inspired by Marlene Dietrich going her own way in Weimar Berlin.

  1. Bright Green Field by Squid

My top album of the year is also by the band whose gig at SWG3 was my highlight of the year, Bright Green Field by Squid. Again, I covered their first singles, such as the angsty ‘Houseplants’, at The National Student. Like BC, NR they have truly smashed it out of the park with their debut record. There are so many crunchy tunes on here from ‘Narrator’ to ‘Paddling’ and ‘Pamphlets’ each having unhinged energy that is somehow under complete perfectionist control.

Their songs aren’t really about anything in particular and the lyrics are quite abstract (or possibly, read another way, matter-of-fact). One doesn’t listen to Squid for the words though. It’s about the jam, the groove, the mosh-ability of their music. These are the musicians at the top of their game, and they have something to say! You probably won’t hear it in their lyrics though.

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