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Monthly Archives: October 2011

Admittedly, we've let things get a little out of hand

Writing a cheque is never fun, but one I had to make out for £371.60 a couple of weeks ago ranks as the least enjoyable I’ve filled in for some time.

On the other side of our drive we have outbuildings – a garage and a workshop. The former we’ve used as a dumping ground over the years. It now houses an impressive array of broken and unwanted equipment – from an un-tuneable piano to a hoover that wont suck, past two electric strimmers with blown engines, a faulty washing machine and the garage’s wooden doors which blew off in a particularly ferocious storm a couple of autumns ago.

The workshop was once used for purpose when Jessie (wife) had a small millinery business on the go, pre the arrival of sproglet 1 in December 2006. Now though, it’s predominantly somewhere to keep my bike and an outdoor fridge and chest freezer.

We’ve thought for some time that we’ve not been making the most of these buildings. We decided this summer we should turn them into accommodation with a view to providing holiday lets for fishermen and other visitors to the area. We reckoned, as the basic structure was already there, we could make two bedrooms, a bathroom, living area and kitchen reasonably easily.

The first step was to approach an architect friend for an opinion. He was very positive. The council would look favourably upon the scheme, as anything tourism related is good news. And, the footprint of the building is already there so we wouldn’t be starting from scratch.

His last piece of advice was that we should have a “bat survey” done. Just a formality he said, but you need to have one to accompany any sort of planning application.

I wasn’t entirely sure what this was, but a quick look online told me it’s exactly what you’d expect: a survey to see if there are any bats living in your belfry.

Fair enough I thought so I contacted a firm that provides the service and arranged a time. They came at dusk one evening with listening devices and thermos flasks, not sure if they had night-vision goggles, but possibly.

Anyway, the result of their investigations that night, another night and one dawn was that we do have bats in our belfry. Not just any old bats either – we have brown long-eared bats in the lean-to out the back of the workshop.

How exciting I thought – it’s a pretty cool animal. I assumed we’d be able to work around them, to provide bat boxes to re-house them or some such scheme.

Nope. We now can’t do anything. In fact, we’re not even allowed to go into our lean-to anymore. We’re not allowed to make alterations or improvements to it. We’re supposed to maintain it in its current state of disrepair.

It’s pretty much scuppered our plans for converting the garage and workshop, as it would be impossible to do the work without affecting the lean-to. It might be possible to get an exclusion order on the grounds of our plans being of benefit to the local economy, but it’s not certain.

So, then I received an invoice from the bat survey people for £371.60. For the pleasure of being told that I would be unable to go ahead with my plan to renovate my property, boost the local economy by giving work to local architects, builders, plumbers and electricians etc, then provide accommodation for potential visitors to the area, I was being charged almost £400.

I’m very aware of the environment and I love nature. I was genuinely excited to find we had brown long-eared bats here. But, surely this is all a bit over the top. These bats are not endangered in this area. It is possible to re-house them in bat boxes and we have other possible roosting sites – in our potting shed dug out under the sloping garden for instance – it’s ideal and I know bats have lived in there before.

Things have gone a little mad when you’re prevented from bettering your situation because of a few wee bats. Am I seriously expected to allow my outbuildings to slowly deteriorate and just look on, occasionally making sure the lean-to is still standing so the bats have somewhere to live? Well… yes, I am.

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My trusty old trainers

As a kid I was massively into sport. At one point, aged 13 or so, I was doing so many different sports there simply wasn’t enough extra-curricular time in the week to fit them all in. My mum made me write a list in order of preference and the sports at the bottom didn’t make the cut.

At that time I was running, swimming, skiing, playing tennis, squash, golf, and football. It was football and swimming that didn’t make the grade; football because I wasn’t very good at it and swimming because the training was ridiculous – six times a week, including three 6am morning starts and once a week during the school lunch hour.

Anyway, I continued with the others and, I suppose, as a result was pretty physically fit through my teenage years.

When I went to University, other activities outside academia began to take up my time. Some were athletic, others less so. But I continued to go on the odd run and, occasionally donned my boots to play Sunday league football.

All through my 20s, golf was pretty much the only sport I focussed on, very rarely doing anything to build up a sweat. Yet to Jessie (wife) and friends’ annoyance I somehow retained a decent level of fitness. When a hike, sponsored run or other such event, required a gritty display, I had it in the locker. I still think it was a result of all the running I did when I was a youngster – my body just had a supply of residual fitness that I could tap into if needed.

The thing is, now in my 30s that residual fitness is definitely gone. We’ve decided to go on a ski holiday next year, just to try and break up the monotony of the grim North East winter. In fact, we’ve already booked to go to Zermatt.

I can’t wait because we haven’t been for a few years – having kids has made it rather unappealing. This, though, is going to be the last ski trip we go on sans famille – the girls are going to Granny’s for a week.

I decided a few weeks ago that, in order to get the most out of the holiday, I ought to make sure I was fit enough. I decided to go for a run. It was the first time I’d had such an inclination for over two years.

I didn’t even think of that at the time, I found my tracksuit bottoms, dusted off my running trainers, looked out my digital watch and got ready to head out. One of the things I love about running is that you can do it from, and back to, your front door. There’s no need to get in your car and drive to a sports centre or pitch, or pool. It’s by far the least time-consuming athletic activity.

Anyway, I set off from the house at a pace that seemed steady, something like the speed I remembered running at in my heyday. The route from my house starts by winding up the road towards the woods at the top of the hill. I was feeling strong for approximately 400 metres before my legs began to feel like lead weights and my chest began constricting as if I was on the final ascent of K2, without oxygen. Another 150 metres or so of increasing pain and I had to stop for a little walk. Yes, my residual childhood fitness was gone.

The remainder of that run was not a pleasant experience. The bike ride I went on two days later was similarly challenging – both required a very long bath, multiple cups of tea and a little lie down to recover from.

For the last couple of years, a group of my friends has become seriously interested in endurance sports – marathon running, Iron Men, triathlons etc… I’ve struggled to understand the appeal, but now I think I get it.

As we get older, we have to exercise regularly and vigorously to stay in any sort of shape and, in order to find motivation for regular exercise, there has to be an objective. For my friends, it’s whatever their next insane event is – the Marathon des Sables or some other nutty undertaking.

For me, this ski holiday has been enough – I’m doing pretty well in the “Race to Zermatt,” as Jessie and I have coined it. I’m almost a month down the line now and am noticing a slight reduction in the length of my, still rather time consuming, recovery routine. After yesterday’s cycle I needed only one pint of Ribena and one cup of tea before I could get out of the bath.

Obviously, when this trip is passed I’m going to need some other motivation to keep up with my exercise regime. I’m not going to plan a polar expedition or attempt to run the length of the Great Wall of China, but maybe I’ll enter a 10k race or something similarly straightforward.

2 – The Strath

At one time the Strathmore Hotel was well thought of. A striking granite building, on the edge of a sprawling green with views towards the hills across the river, it was an attractive setting.

In Victorian times it was a coaching house, welcoming wealthy, weary travellers as they made their way down the valley. In the early part of the 20th century, tourists from the south – walkers, fishers, shooters and golfers patronised the hotel, their laden wallets and purses sustaining a staff of 50 odd.

Over the decades, the hotel had become run-down and uncared for. In recent years The Strath had been best known as a drinking den, and not a particularly welcoming one.

The bar was shabby and furnished with a haphazard selection of unmatched tables and chairs. Some the sort of vernacular-style, dark wood you might expect in a Scottish country pub, others looked as though they’d been pilfered from the local school – metal frame chairs with rubber stoppers at the base of the legs, leather-effect seats and back rests. Many had been sliced causing the yellow foam inside to spill out. The pool table had a rip in it and a distinct roll to the bottom right corner, the dartboard had lost its wire and the TV showed a picture with a constant horizontal line of interference about two inches thick, roughly midway up the screen.

The drinkers didn’t seem to care. The better heeled in town began avoiding the place some years ago and now the Strath’s public bar had a hint of the Wild West about it.

David Lowe and Lachlan Slattery hated the place, though they visited it almost every day.

Both were 24-years-old, both had grown up in town and both struggled to understand why they were still there.

David worked for a small firm of solicitors on the high street, Petrie and Clarke. He had done for the last couple of years since being thrown off a graduate training programme he’d never wanted to be on in the first place. He did nothing of any consequence at work. He wasn’t training as a solicitor. He was merely an office boy. He answered the phone, took messages, organised filing, made coffees and looked after the petty cash. He showed no ambition to progress and his parents despaired.

Lachlan had done basically nothing since being awarded a first class degree in philosophy by Edinburgh University three years previously. He drank a lot, smoked almost as much, read quite a bit and listened to music. David thought him the most intelligent person he’d ever met and Lachlan thought he was probably right.

Days and months blended into one another for the pair and nothing seemed to change. They talked about moving away, about starting a business, about starting a band. They talked, but they didn’t act.

This day was panning out in a familiar fashion, David had clocked off early and met Lachlan on the walk to the pub. They’d sneaked through the swing doors, sidled up to the bar, procured lager and taken it to a table in the far corner under the battered dartboard. It was a tired script.

But this day was to be different. After a half an hour or so, things actually began to change.

David and Lachlan had been sitting in silence for a few minutes, concentrating on the last couple of inches of liquid in their glasses. Glancing across the room, David noticed the door swing open and a very strange looking character entered the pub.

It was a man, thin and stooped and dressed entirely in black. He shuffled into the room, un-noticed by the rabble around the cigarette machine or the bruisers propping up the bar. As he moved further in, the man seemed to unfurl himself like a bat preparing to leave its roost. He was enormous, well over 6 feet, and he was much younger than David had thought on first look. His face was pale but his eyes shone in his head like those of a cat. They were piercing blue, un-naturally blue.

David suddenly realised he was staring at this stranger with his mouth half open, he also realised that those burning blue eyes were looking straight back in his direction. The man was heading their way.

By the time he reached them, the stranger had somehow obtained a glass of red wine, but he certainly hadn’t got it from the bar.

“You won’t mind if I join you,” he answered his own question.

“It looks like we’ll have little choice in the matter.” Lachlan replied. David assumed his friend hadn’t watched the man’s theatrical entrance.

“Thank you kindly, my name is Conrad by the way,” the stranger replied with seemingly honest gratitude. “Now, I can see I have sat down with two gentlemen of considerable potential.”

“What on earth do you mean by that?” Lachlan snapped impatiently.

David gazed into his empty pint glass, trying to conceal the pang of terror that suddenly consumed him.

“I don’t know what would lead you to think we have potential,” Lachlan continued. “David’s got a shitty job at a bookkeeper and I’m yet to earn a single pound in my life.”

“Oh dear, oh dear. Why are people so obsessed with earning money?” asked Conrad. “Why must everything be about money? I for one, think the best work is done when there is no financial incentive… Now, I’ve just seen you’re in need of another drink.”

“Yes, I think I am,” said David whose nerves were shot. He looked towards the bar to assess how quickly he might be served. As his eyes returned to the table he wasn’t as astonished as he should have been to see his empty pint glass was once again full.

An old drunk two tables away was slightly more amazed. He’d been watching this odd meeting since Conrad had sat down. He may have consumed a quarter bottle of Whyte & McKay but he could still recognise there was something strange about the liaison taking place two tables over.

“I saw that, I saw that,” he shouted. “That glass. It filled itself from nowhere. There was nothing, then it was full.” The man was causing a scene and the whole pub turned to see what was happening.

“Calm down sir,” said Conrad. “Nothing of the sort happened.”

“Are you calling me a liar?” the drunkard splurted out.

“Certainly not. But really, how could a glass fill itself of it’s own accord?” Conrad looked sympathetically towards the drunk and then towards the crowd of men standing at the bar. He shrugged his shoulders as if to ask them for back up.

“He’s right you old piss head,” a surly looking man with a bushy moustache addressed the distressed drunk. “Your eyes must be playing tricks.

“See,” said Conrad. “Glasses can’t fill themselves… They can empty themselves though. Oh yes, terribly quickly.”

Just then the surly character shouted.

“What’s happened to my beer? I only just ordered it and now it’s finished. Which of you bastards drank it? Did you have it?” he turned to his most immediate neighbour.

“No I did not,” the neighbour replied. “And, wait a minute, someone’s had my pint too.”

All seven of the men at the bar looked down at the glasses in their hands and were dismayed to see each was absolutely empty.

“Who was it?” Each began accusing the others. “Whoever it was owes us all a pint.”

“I bet it was you.” The surly man grabbed a short skinny character with a checked shirt by the collar and lifted him up.

“Hey, put him down Bill,” said another grabbing the surly man’s arms.

“Get the hell off me.” The surly fellow was at breaking point. A fight seemed on the cards. David glanced up at Conrad who was watching the unfolding scene with a grin on his face.

At that moment the fruit machine in the far corner, which nobody had been playing, began to spew pound coins all over the floor. The barman dashed towards it and began pressing buttons. Still the money poured out. Then he took out the plug from the wall but the pound coins continued to flow. He changed his approach and began to scoop the coins up and put them into his pockets.

While the barman was distracted the surly fellow leaned across the counter and began pouring himself a pint. The others followed suit. The Whyte & McKay drunk saw an opportunity, got up and stumbled towards the bar. Almost there he tripped, apparently on nothing, and tumbled into the surly man, knocking his newly acquired pint out of his hand and all down his front.

“That’s it.” Surly Bill had now totally lost his rag. He kicked the drunk in the stomach.

“Hey. You bastard!” Another group of younger drinkers at a table close to the door decided to get involved. One, bigger than the rest, strode over and squared up to the man with the moustache.

“Kick an old man when he’s down will you?” the challenger said. “Try taking on someone your own size.”

“Fine,” said Bill and he immediately took a swing at the younger man. The challenger ducked and the punch missed. The young man then rose and struck his adversary right on the moustache.

Now all hell broke loose and a proper brawl ensued. Pint glasses began flying around the room, though later nobody would admit to having thrown one. Pool cues and chair legs materialised in people’s hands and the pub was filled with shouting. Nobody seemed to know who was fighting who or what the objective was.

“Let’s go,” Conrad said to David and Lachlan. “We’ve done all we can here.”

The pair, feeling more than a little confused, rose and followed their new acquaintance. They stepped over the fallen drunk and tried to avoid the broken glass and the flying fists as they made their way to the door.

The trio emerged into the fresh air and began walking away. As they rounded the corner David could hear the approaching sound of a police siren.

Also published on the Golf Monthly website

Luke Donald’s phenomenal performance to win last week’s Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic marked the end of the PGA Tour’s Fall Series. By taking the winner’s cheque for $846,000, he wrapped up this year’s money list title. So that’s it for of the 2011 PGA Tour season.

No, wait a minute; this week is the CIMB Asia Pacific Classic in Malaysia with a purse of over $6,000,000. Right, then that’ll be it until next year. Well no, obviously there’s the WGC HSBC Champions next week in Shanghai, then the President’s Cup, the World Cup, the Chevron Challenge, the Wendy’s 3 Tour Challenge, the Franklin Templeton Shootout… Aarghh why won’t it stop…?

To be fair on the PGA Tour, the European treadmill is even worse. There are tournaments every week from this until December 8-11 and the “season-ending” Dubai World Championship. Then, the first event of the 2012 European Tour, the Africa Open, will take place from January 5-8 next year – a break of less than a month. Believe it or not, this is an improvement on last year when there was a gap of just two weeks between the end of the 2010 season and the start of 2011’s.

Now, I’m a massive golf fan and love watching the action from both main circuits on the TV. But, the sheer number of tournaments does dilute the excitement to a certain extent for me. The last few weeks, there have been European Tour events in Spain, Portugal, Spain again and, oh, Spain again. I must confess that, without looking up the results, I’m struggling to separate them, (and I watched them, then wrote about them.) I remember Sergio won one on his home course, but was that the Castello Masters or the Andalucia Open?  Come on brain… OK, Tom Lewis won and there was an event in Madrid.

20 years ago, the 1991 European Tour season began on February 21 in Spain and ended with the Volvo Masters on October 27. Then there was an off-season of three months before the 1992 circuit kicked off. As that first tournament of 1992 approached, excitement among true golf fans would have been building to a fever pitch. Imagine, three months of no European Tour. I would certainly seriously miss it. Would a longer lay-off rekindle excitement in the circuit and draw more viewers back in the New Year?

Possibly, but there’s TV revenue, sponsors and all the other associated global business interests to consider and the European Tour has, of course, made huge strides in recent years to expand and attract investment. All golf fans on this side of the Atlantic have greatly enjoyed basking in the reflected glory of the European Tour over the last few seasons. No, you just can’t have it both ways.

I was thinking of this yesterday as I considered the never-ending cycle of my own golfing schedule over a pint of lager in the clubhouse.

Last Saturday, a Texas Scramble marked the end of the 2011 season at my home club. But, yesterday I was playing competitively again in the North East Alliance at Cruden Bay. I’ll continue to play Alliance tournaments every week through the winter until the championship on March 21. The Saturday following that will be the first club competition of the year at Banchory… Aarghh why won’t it stop…?

I know, I know, I could quite easily stop it all if I wanted to. Believe me, given the current state of my golf game, I really should. But, no matter how great the urge to lock my clubs away in a vault before throwing the key into the River Dee, I just can’t. As long as there’s golf to be played, I’m playing. And I guess it’s the same with the pro tours – as long as they’re on the TV, I’m watching.


I listen to music all the time. When I’m at home, I press play on iTunes as soon as I wake up and listen while I’m having a cup of tea in bed. I turn on the stereo downstairs and listen while I’m eating breakfast. I listen to music on my computer while I’m working. I’m listening right now – It’s Bjork tranquilly meandering through Vespertine.

Later I’ll get in my car and listen to whatever cd I have in there as I drive – I think it’s Neil Young. I’ll come back and listen to more while I make my supper, and I can’t get to sleep without music playing quietly in the background. Jessie (wife) is very tolerant, or maybe just good at ignoring it.

I’m conscious as I get older that the music I like to listen to gets older as well. I know this is inevitable and has happened through the generations. That’s why “Sounds of the Sixties” is so popular on Radio 2. But, I’m only 31 and am hanging obstinately to my youth. I try hard to listen to, and like, contemporary music. But it’s a tough job.

When popular music as we know it took off in the 1950s, the sound of acts like Elvis, Johnny Cash and Chuck Berry made people stop in their tracks – these musicians were pioneering demigods – it wasn’t tough to like them. Then through the 60s, bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, The Who etc… broke new ground and had fans screaming at their very appearance, let alone their barnstorming music. Yup I do, and would have, definitely liked them. Then glam rock, punk rock, heavy metal, Factory Records, The Smiths, Nirvana, then… oh wait… that’s pretty much it.

That’s not fair, but since Kurt Cobain fronted Grunge in the early 90s, there hasn’t really been a significant, challenging musical movement – not in my mind anyway. Britpop was a cheesy fad (though it did give Damon Albarn his break,) Garage – not exactly life changing, Emo – still going I guess but it began life in the 1980s so doesn’t count.

My point though is that today’s “popular” music (the music on Radio 1 or MTV) is not the same. It’s not groundbreaking, it’s not the best music around even, it’s just the most marketable and easy to package. It’s formulaic. OK, this does make me sound old, but I really think it’s true. Where in the charts is the next Clash or David Bowie?

What we’ve got in the charts is a combination of: over-produced urban pop, auto-tuned within an inch of its life featuring collaborations between whoever is “in” right now, regardless of whether their styles match; various insipid solo musicians who can just about write and bang out a heartfelt tune that’s wishy-washy enough to be played by Simon Mayo on Radio 2; various talent show graduates clinging desperately to the last moments of their, never quite brief enough, careers; then there’s Lady Gaga – she and everyone around her would have you believe she’s some sort of genius, I’m yet to see or hear anything that would confirm that rumour.

It’s so hard for real musicians these days to make a significant impact on the public’s conscience as the industry chews them up and spits them out quicker than you can say, “five album deal.”

Take for example The Strokes. For me they’re the most innovative and interesting guitar band of this century, (although The Arcade Fire are up there too.) The Strokes broke through in 2001 with their debut album “Is this it?” and quickly became pretty massive – one of the biggest acts on the scene. After their second album “Room on Fire,” I went to see them at the Alexandra Palace and it felt like something memorable, maybe not like seeing The Who at Leeds or Led Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden but, perhaps, I thought it was a significant moment. I remember Joe Strummer of The Clash had just died and they played a cover of Clampdown in tribute – it was pretty cool.

Anyway, The Strokes spawned tens/hundreds of copycat bands, none of who could do that sort of post-punk rock as well as The Strokes. But, because these copycats were new on the scene, they received the publicity.

The Strokes have now released four albums and are writing a fifth. I think they’ve continued to challenge and excite, but the industry seems to have become bored of them. They have a loyal fan base who still appreciate, but I asked my brother, who wasn’t old enough to have heard the band’s first offerings, first time round and he answered, “Oh yeah, I think I’ve heard of them.”

The thing is, there is great music being made and released right now but not enough people get to hear it. I guess it’s always been the case with alternative music that, if you’re interested, you have to go out and find it. But now it seems that “alternative” has just come to mean anything that is produced by proper musicians or that even slightly breaks the mould. So, if you want to hear someone with actual talent you have to scour the internet – myspace, youtube, the more obscure radio channels… to get an inkling.

Most people don’t have the time or inclination to do this so they have to make do with what they’re spoon-fed, perpetuating the problem. People turn on the radio and are content enough with the mediocrity that comes out at them. After they’ve heard James Morrison enough times they even know the words and can hum along. They’ll go and buy the cd as a Christmas present for their other half… aargghhh, god help us.

1 – The Interloper

Gordon Petrie liked his small town existence. As a solicitor he held a position of prominence in the community, was well known by everyone and, for the most part, respected. He was generally happy with the decisions he’d made in life and was glad he hadn’t gone to work for a city law firm. He liked being a big fish in a small pond.

Gordon’s principal client was Roy Cooper. He was usually described as a businessman but it was a generous title. He had a finger in many local pies but some of those pies had been made using controversial recipes.

Gordon met Roy for lunch every Thursday in The Old Ford Inn – An attractive country pub where the food was of a considerably lower standard than the décor would suggest. The pair always sat at the same round table, to the right of the main door under a hunting print.

Their meetings were ostensibly to discuss business but they tended to skirt work-related issues, dwelling on topics they thought to hold greater import. Both men considered themselves intellectual but anyone with a modicum of academic ability would have quickly identified they were by no means as clever as they thought.

This Thursday was apparently the same as any other. Roy had already told Gordon of his desire to acquire some land adjacent to workshops he owned to the south of town and had ordered lasagne. Gordon had listened to Roy’s plans for gaining this land and had mentally noted they were not legal. He changed the subject and began to clumsily tackle something else. The pub was seemingly empty and his words were at a volume that would have been unsuitable if anybody else had been present.

“I believe, Roy, you share my convictions with regards the NHS.”

“I think so Gordon. Scrap it you say?”

“Yes indeed Roy. It’s a lumbering oaf of an organisation that inhales money and provides ever-decreasing levels of service.”

“In my younger days when I had more socialist views I may have had some vague thoughts that it was a good system.” Said Roy. “But when my mother died I lost any sort of faith. If she’d been in a private hospital she’d be alive today”

At that point something very unexpected happened. From a table in a darkened corner, where both men would have sworn nobody was sitting, rose a figure. It was a man, but rather an odd looking one. Over six feet tall, he moved across the room towards the men in an awkward and intimidating manner. He was skinny to the point of appearing unhealthy; his face was drawn and gaunt though his eyes sparkled lucid blue as if he was wearing coloured contact lenses. He wore a long black leather coat covering black, skin-tight jeans and a red woollen sweater. On his head rested a black beret over jet-black hair. He looked about 40 years old.

“Yes your mother died a most unfortunate death.” Said the stranger.

“Excuse me?” Roy was taken aback.

The stranger re-adjusted his beret and straightened his back, apparently gaining at least another three inches in height.

“My apologies for the intervention gentleman, I certainly didn’t mean to shock you. You see I’m a visitor to town and had been enjoying a small glass of wine in the corner when you came in. I couldn’t help but overhear your conversations and opinions. Many of which are most informed I must say.”

Roy was clearly pleased with the stranger’s compliment but had not forgotten the interloper’s opening gambit.

“Right, right. Whatever. But what could you know of my mother?”

The stranger turned his head away for a second, evidently agitated, then brought it back to face the confused pair. With much creaking and cracking he lowered himself into a crouching position. He positioned his mouth inappropriately close to Roy’s ear.

“She was admitted to hospital suffering from kidney stones.” The stranger spoke in a grainy voice almost as if it was coming from a slightly tuned-out radio. Gordon couldn’t place the accent. He certainly wasn’t British. Maybe a well-educated Pole he reasoned. “It should have been routine but her charts were muddled and she was given the wrong drugs. She received penicillin but was allergic to it. The dose was administered late in the evening and by the time the doctor on ward rounds noticed the mistake it was too late. Oh dear, such a shame.”

“So you’re a doctor and you must have worked on her ward,” said Roy.

The stranger looked offended.

“I most certainly am no doctor,” he snapped. “I am, you could say, an overseer. I fill a number of different roles.”

Roy was becoming distressed.

“So you’re a coroner or work in the general register office?” He asked.

“No and no.” The stranger chuckled. Roy’s anxiety was clearly amusing him.

“You’re insane, that’s what you are. Leave us alone,” said Gordon. The stranger rose back to his feet.

“Yes, maybe I’m insane,” he said. “Or perhaps I’m the only source of sanity in the entire universe. Humans quantify sanity on a very narrow set of criteria, who or what is to say they have made their judgements accurately?” “I, for one, see the merits in the human view of insanity. It ensures a certain equilibrium is maintained.” As he spoke the stranger’s voice grew louder and deeper and he seemed to grow another couple of inches taller. He was towering over them and his face seemed to be lit up, though no lamps were pointed in his direction. The unfortunate pair had never seen such a man.

“As an overseer, one of my roles is to ensure an equilibrium is maintained.” He continued. “As such, I monitor deaths very closely. I could tell you, for instance, how you will die.” The stranger was staring down at Roy.

”No you couldn’t and I would very much appreciate it if you left us alone now please,” Roy pleaded.

Gordon noticed a flash across the stranger’s vivid eyes. He was hoping desperately that Graeme the barman would re-appear but there seemed to be no sign of him.

All of a sudden the interloper smiled and the aggression in his features eased. He reached over to an adjacent table and grabbed a chair pulling it up to the table where Roy and Gordon sat.

“Gentlemen, I am very sorry. I have had a long journey and am feeling tired, I speak out of turn.” He said. “Now. I’m staying in town for a few days and am in need of lodgings. Could either of you recommend a hostelry?”

Seeing an opportunity to get rid of this most unwanted table-mate Gordon spoke.

“Yes, The Strath Hotel on the square has comfortable and affordable rooms. It’s just a few minutes walk if you turn left out of the front door here.”

“I’m much obliged,” said the stranger. “I’ll go there forthwith.” The stranger stood and turned for the door. Roy and Gordon had to hold in sighs of relief. After taking a few steps the stranger turned back.

“Delighted to make your acquaintance.” He said. “No doubt we’ll bump into one another again at some point.”

I sincerely hope not thought Gordon.

“No, we definitely will,” said the stranger as if he’d heard Gordon’s inner monologue. “And Roy, that land you’re hoping to acquire. I have a feeling you just won’t have the guts to go through with it.” And with that, he left and the door slammed behind him.

“That encounter was most odd.” Said Roy in a stage whisper. “Who in hell was that chap and what in god’s name was he talking about.”

“I have no idea and frankly don’t care. I was on the verge of getting physical.” Gordon displayed that common male characteristic of extreme bravery after the moment for it has passed.

“Anyway let’s get out of here.” Roy had lost his appetite.

At that moment Graeme reappeared behind the bar.

“Where have you been?” Snapped Gordon in a tone that seemed rather unnecessary to the barman.

“Major issues in the basement,” replied Graeme. “I’ve never seen it before but all of a sudden the bungs on the un-opened barrels blew out, beer was spraying all over the place. It took me 15 minutes to get it under control. Very strange, never seen that before.”

Gordon hurriedly settled their bill and the bemused pair left the pub. It certainly hadn’t been their most enjoyable Thursday lunch meeting.

“Do you have a moment to go and look at this land?” Asked Roy as they made their way back towards their cars.

“I suppose I do.” Gordon was far too confused to think of a reasonable excuse as to why he couldn’t.

“We’ll take my car,” said Roy.

Gordon climbed into the passenger seat of the Nissan Patrol 4×4. It was the sort of motor that people who live in the countryside claim to need.

It wasn’t a long drive. Just over the river and down a dirt lane. Roy was clearly still perturbed as he was driving too fast. Even through the end of the 30mph zone he was doing nearly 60. They left the main road onto a dirt track and Roy showed no sign of slowing down.

Gordon recognised the vehicle was designed for off-road driving but this was a little much. Rattling over the rough surface, stones flew out from behind the machine’s huge tyres. The suspension was working overtime as they approached a hairpin bend right, still travelling at an excessive speed. A copse of trees meant it was impossible to see around the bend but Roy ploughed on. He swung the wheel as though competing in the Monte Carlo rally.

Unfortunately, around that bend travelling in the opposite direction was Georgie Bruce driving his tractor to collect some hay bales for his cows. The tool for carrying these bales was a huge, five pronged fork mounted to the front of the tractor pointing out at 90 degrees to the cab.

As Roy was driving too fast and the farmer wasn’t really paying attention, a collision was unavoidable. Roy threw his car to the left and George did the same with his tractor, but it was too late. There was a horrifying sound of crunching metal and smashing glass and Gordon’s head was thrown forwards.

Gordon got himself under control and looked right to assess the damage. What he saw was not pleasant. The two rightmost spikes on the tractor’s hay bale fork had smashed through the Nissan’s windscreen and had continued right on through Roy’s stomach. Roy was looking down at his predicament in disbelief.

“This is bad,” he said.

Each fork was some three inches wide and both had pierced him.

At that moment the farmer made an unfortunate decision. Evidently unaware of what had happened to Roy he attempted to reverse. Gordon shouted but wasn’t heard above the tractor’s engine. He attempted to open his door but it was wedged against the hedgerow on the edge of the track.

As the farmer began to move backwards he turned the wheel. This caused the spikes embedded in Roy’s body to wrench across his stomach ripping the skin. Roy let out a bloodcurdling scream before passing out. Gordon turned away as Roy’s midrift was torn apart, his intestines spilled out into his lap. Gordon, desperate to get out, clambered over to the back seats and jumped from the rear driver’s side door. He was immediately sick.

The farmer, now recognising something more serious than a mere prang had occurred got out of his cab and ran forwards. He opened the driver’s door to the Nissan and recoiled. But, he went back and felt for Roy’s pulse. There was none.

“He’s dead,” said Georgie.

Gordon wiped the vomit from the edge of his mouth and looked towards the farmer. As his eyes rose he could have sworn he saw a tall man in a leather jacket disappear into the woods behind the tractor.

Also published on the Golf Monthly website

As a youngster I had an athletics coach who had a great way of inspiring us to enjoy the sport. He was also good at keeping our minds off the things that tempt 14-year-olds but don’t do much for their ability to record personal best times in the 1,500 metres.

Anyway, he was quite a taskmaster and pushed us pretty hard. But, the training was always directed, with a specific purpose in mind. He used to say, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. It makes permanent. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”

I thought of his sage words this weekend just after I’d bludgeoned off 200 balls at the driving range in a desperate attempt to solve the swing problems I’ve been struggling with over the last few months. I came away thinking I’d probably done more harm than good. By pounding shots off, many with the same result – right and cutting – I was merely ingraining the fault, making it a permanent part of my game.

How many players who practice regularly are doing exactly this? The more they hit balls in the incorrect manner, the more this incorrect technique becomes their game. When they finally do decide to resort to a lesson, the fault is so endemic that it takes a monumental effort by them and by their teacher, to cure the problem.

I’ve never had a one-on-one lesson and I’ve always thought I know my swing well enough to solve any minor issues within it. Now, I’m not so sure. I tied myself up in knots yesterday trying all manner of different methods to rectify the problem.

I went to the range having convinced myself overnight that the issue was with my grip – it must be too weak. I strengthened it and made a few swings that felt a little odd. But a couple of solid iron shots and I truly believed I’d sorted it. But then the old blocked cuts started creeping back and soon were dominating again. So, next up, I considered my takeaway – I was picking it up too quick, yes that was it. Yup, a few attempts to make a more rounded swing delivered exactly the result I was looking for – a slight draw. Fixed. Nope, five more shots down the line and I had it slicing away nicely again.

Next, closing my body to the target – either pulls or big blocks, then keeping my left knee flexed through impact – low and not very powerful cuts, keeping my head behind it – big hooks. Then, back to the grip. Sounds like the instructions for a barn dance doesn’t it?

I think the only reasonable course of action is to get a lesson, so it’s time for me, and whoever is unfortunate enough to have to help me, to begin making that monumental effort.