Snowshoeing in Tromsø

The last time I went winter walking in the mountains above Tromsø, I lost both my map and myself in the snow.

It was 2009, and I’d left my editorial job in London and swanned off to the Norwegian Arctic in search of adventures, green as green can be. A few days doing a mountain circuit out of Tromsø was my first proper attempt at using snowshoes, but I made a lengthy catalogue of errors, culminating in a truly unhappy moment watching my copy of the Nordeca 10152 sheet flapping away into oblivion off the side of a mountain.

It was the sort of trip that would have given the keyboard warriors a field day, but it is a boring man indeed who never overreaches himself. I found my way to the nearest hut through vague memories of the map and a rough compass bearing, and all was eventually well. However, my multi-day jaunt was reduced to a couple of nights hunkered down in a hut, and it’s always been one of life’s open loops.

This year, I finally got round to finishing what I started. I’ve made a decade’s worth of further cock-ups since last time, and am rather a different man to the one who set out back then. Among my various reasons for wanting to go back, I quite fancied trying to walk a few miles with my 25-year-old self, swap some notes on how some of his ambitions turned out, maybe come up with a few new ones for the fellow we might meet there in ten years’ time.

A simple plan

A five-day jaunt snowshoeing between mountain cabins above Tromsø is a good deal more convenient and less intrepid than it sounds.

Tromsø is one of my favourite cities in the world. It’s a proper gateway to adventure, and some of my very best trips have started or ended with a connecting flight to its tiny airport or an overpriced beer somewhere in its handsome streets. My Grandpa used to stay in the Saga Hotel on his motoring holidays back in the mid-20th century, but fortunately my tastes are not quite so extravagant, and I bet the Saga didn’t do free waffles at 6pm each night like the Enter Viking Hotel does.

Anyway, the people in Tromsø are as outdoorsy as you’d expect, and there’s a handy series of four huts strung through the mountains just nearby to facilitate their weekend escapes. Each hut is within a day’s walk of a bus stop, and each bus stop is within an hour’s ride of the city centre. Link the huts together and you have five easy days that finish up on the outskirts of town.

View of Tromso from the bridge


The huts are all owned by Troms Turlag, the local trekking association. If you haven’t been to Norwegian huts before, they’re mostly very well-maintained, with plenty of bedding, kitchenware and firewood. They’re usually kept locked, and there’s a universal key which is available from DNT (sort of like Norwegian YHA) for a deposit. Etiquette dictates that the first thing you do when you arrive is to enter your name in the visitors’ book, pay your fee (either by sticking an envelope of cash or a filled-out bank authorisation form in a lockbox) then make yourself at home.

When you leave, the general rule is to try and leave the place just a smidge nicer than you found it – all clean and tidy, with a full basket of firewood and some kindling chipped. And the system seems to work most of the time. It’s all honesty-based but I’ve never come across anyone who hasn’t played the game. For a DNT member it’s about £15 per night, which is pretty cheap for a country where a pint of lager is £8.

Skarvassbu cabin in the snow

As for route-finding, the trails linking the huts together are occasionally signed, but are more often marked by spindly poles sticking out of the snow. These are sometimes broken, buried or obscured by weather conditions, so you can’t rely on them, but they’re very useful all the same. The main challenge comes when the visibility drops (see below).

I brought an ice axe and crampons along in the hopes of scooting up to some summits, but the avalanche forecast was too high for me to feel comfortable tackling the steeper slopes, so I mostly just stuck to the trails. And to be honest, that was plenty – I walked satisfying, low-mileage days, blessed sometimes by a sparkle of sunshine or some of those mightily muscular, ice-planet views that winter mountains are all about. There’s a good deal of happiness to be found in such an undertaking.

Tromso plateau

When the whiteness descends

As cold-season walking trips north of the Arctic Circle go, this was a fairly gentle one, but I was glad of good winter kit and a few more practical skills in my pocket since last time. The ability to light a fire quickly and reliably, for example, or to dig myself down out of the wind a bit during more exposed lunch stops. That far north the cold can sneak up on you quite quickly if you’re not careful.

The tricksiest thing was navigation. Much of the time it was fine, but snow can change the shape of things quite significantly, particularly in passes and valleys. Contours get disguised by drifts, rivers and streams are obscured, and whole lakes disappear. More significantly, white-outs can render the visibility so atrociously poor that you genuinely can’t tell the slope of the ground in front of you, or whether you’re about to stroll off a cliff.

I spent some nerve-wracking spells flying blind off a compass bearing, but then that is the magic thing about a compass. If you use it with a bit of care and trust it over your own sense of direction, chances are when the snow clears you’ll be somewhere near where you wanted to be. Lest I sound too smug, I will admit that the first time I came out of a brief white-out I couldn’t work out how I’d gone so far off course, until I remembered magnetic variation. I rarely bother about it back home because the difference is so tiny. Not the case further north, where it is nearly 10 degrees off.

Tromso compass

The companionship of cabins

If you’re looking for absolute soul-searching solitude, this is not the place to find it. I walked alone each day, but there was only one night that I had a whole hut to myself. The rest of the evenings were spent sitting around by candlelight with total strangers, swapping stories in our underwear.

Most people just visit the Tromsø area cabins on overnight trips – getting the bus out of town on a morning then skiing up to a hut. I, on the other hand, was out for five days, so since I was walking straight out of the door and onto the trail each morning, I was usually the first to arrive at the next cabin in the afternoon. I would fill out my paperwork, get the wood stove going, put on a dixie of snow to melt, then sit back with Last of the Mohicans and see who turned up.

One night there was a schoolteacher with two teenage pupils who’d had enough of sleeping in a snow cave just nearby; another night it was four Danish girls from the university, bearing a flask of Baileys and enough food for twelve people. I played cards and drank cheap vodka with a pair of German mountain guides, and another evening I sipped a tot of single malt with three Dutch brothers. There was a footsore group of five international students from Oslo, and a quietly spoken young Norwegian couple who strolled in out of the cold at 9.30pm one night.

Only the last evening was I completely alone. After a tranquil start among half-buried trees on the valley floor, I’d spent most of the day ascending through steadily worsening weather. By the time I reached the twin huts at Skarvassbu high in a mountain pass, I’d been walking blind for much longer than I cared to, stumbling up and down invisible drifts, compass in hand. It tests your nerve a bit when you’re so completely disorientated, and I was just wondering whether I ought to stop and dig out my GPS for a fix when the wind cut a slight fade into the cloud ahead, and to my delight I saw three black patches in the white.

The timbered buildings of Skarvassbu were part-buried, and the log store in particular took a bit of getting into. I picked the smaller and older of the two cabins, and once I got the old Jotul stove going I soon had it deliciously warm, stretched out on the bench in my underwear with a cup of hot coffee, my damp gear hanging from hooks on the beams.

Inside of Skarvassbu cabin with a stove and a table with a knife and snow goggles

Skarvassbu is the least accessible of the huts near Tromsø, and on such a raw night I wasn’t surprised when no-one else turned up. I cooked dinner as darkness fell, then lit my last tealight, poured out an inch of bourbon from my flask, and read and daydreamed as the flurries of snow rushed against the windowpanes.

Back in 2009, I think it was reading too much Jack London that prompted me to pack in my job and buy a one-way boat ticket to the far north in search of adventure. Such impulsive bridge-burnings have always appealed to me, but perhaps if I did ever bump into myself of ten years ago, I might gently suggest to him that you don’t always have to go all-in. You can feel decidedly like a Jack London character with a week’s holiday, a pair of snowshoes and a cheap flight to Tromsø.






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The inaugural Oak Royd Beer Festival

One of life’s great pleasures is actually doing a thing that you’ve been talking about for years. In the case of last weekend, it was holding a charity beer festival at my brother’s rambling old end-of-terrace in Hebden Bridge. What was unusual about this particular beer festival was that I made all the beer myself in the back yard at Sunnyside Cottage.

Friends or occasional readers of this blog will know I’ve always dabbled in home manufacture of alcohol, ever since I discovered – aged 18 – that you could make 40 pints of beer from a £7 brew kit. Since then I have made countless batches of assorted rotgut, from beer and cider to mead and country wines. I’ve made or infused drinks out of elderberries, sloes, gorse flowers, rosehips and petals, blackberries, raspberries, beech leaves, crab apples, herbs and camomile. Even parsnips once. Over the years I have moved from brew kits to malt extract and dried hops, and then onto full-grain brewing with big bags of malt and fresh hops from the garden. I have, on occasion, written about recreating forgotten beers or dredging up recipes from the 17th century.

What I have never done, however, is to make 150 pints at once. For three days in early April, boilers seethed in my back yard and the smell of malt suffused the house. Big fermenters gradually filled with dark liquid and airlocks began bubbling noisily. It was a fair bit of work, and I seemed to be washing up constantly.

I made four brews. A best bitter called Capering Old Pagger that I first cooked up for Christian’s 30th; a dark ale called Gwubba’s Foot; a trusty pale which had never previously had a name but was christened Bastard Biscuits in honour of Gef the incredible talking mongoose, and an amber ale that we named Queen Raffertiti after Christian’s odd cat. I made a six-hour round trip to install them in the cellar on the Monday, and we created a sort of shabby Swedish tiki dungeon with fairy lights and bits of old Saabs that were lying around.

beer fest

Then on Bank Holiday Saturday we drank the whole lot. Loads of splendid people came, and there was a barbecue and music, and I wore at least three different hats during the course of the afternoon – which tells you everything you need to know about my mood. Obviously we couldn’t sell the beer, but people kept their own tallies on a lump of wood with a Sharpie, then gave us donations to our two chosen charities (Pyramid of Arts and Sarcoma UK) afterwards. It was grand, and all the grander for having been so long in the planning.

Christian has pointedly called the Facebook album ‘the first Oak Royd charity beer fest’, implying that we might do another one if the stars align. I hope so. In the meantime, here are the beer labels that we drew for the casks.

popy-beer-label Queen Raffertiti Gwubba's foot Bastard biscuits


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Adventures in hatting

How quickly hobbies get out of hand. I wrote in a previous blog about how a habit of cleaning and maintaining my rather extensive hat collection had led to an experiment in restoring a battered old 1950s trilby. But things have gone a bit further since then.

Light grey trilby with bound brim and black ribbon

Having renovated an old hat, I thought it would be fun to learn how to make one too. I did quite a bit of reading around, watched endless (mostly unhelpful) videos on YouTube and skimmed a lot of (mostly very helpful) forum threads on the Fedora Lounge. One of the most useful sources – for me, at least – was an old US hatters’ manual called Scientific Hat Finishing and Renovation (Henry L Ermatinger, 1919). Apart from providing 160-odd pages of practical instruction, Ermatinger is also a consummate all-American entrepreneur, full of canny ways to make a quick buck and cautionary tales about mixing hatting and booze. ‘Your lady customers particularly’, he observes, ‘will be inclined to discontinue their patronage should you attempt to wait on them while under the influence of liquor.’

Suitably semi-informed, I ordered some tools from the very friendly Catherine and Owen at Guy Morse Brown. Hat blocks are expensive pieces of handmade kit, so I went for an open crown block, which is the most flexible sort. While some blocks are sculpted to give you a particular kind of crown shape, an open crown gives you a sort of bowler hat-shaped dome, which you can then mould into a centre dent, teardrop, diamond or whatever using fingers and steam. I also ordered a brim flange and some other odds and ends like blocking string, a runner-down, hatbands, a few felt hat bodies and some ribbon.

If you’re interested, this is how a felt hat starts out.

Brown rough felt hat body

Since then, I have been experimenting and practising. There has been some very ropey workmanship, some steam burns and plenty of mishaps with needles. I still don’t really have all the right equipment – and I imagine the great London hatters do not trim their brims by gaffer-taping scalpels to household objects – but we all have to start somewhere, and my efforts are getting gradually better.

Below is a hat I made recently for Christian. He wanted a sort of 60s-style trilby with a narrow brim and ribbon, and since his head is fortunately a similar size to mine, I could rustle him one up. As a fellow who spends most of his time battering away at a keyboard, it’s nice to make something with your hands sometimes.


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The intricacies of bee etiquette

Fine news. Another edition of Ernest Journal is out. Featuring lots of grand stuff including pieces on Romanian bison, cocktail bitters, American shanty boats, death trees and paranoid French castaways.

Also, there’s a bit from me about bees. It struck me a while back that not only does the humble honey bee seem to have more superstitions surrounding her than just about any other creature, but that lots of these customs are also oddly consistent across different countries and cultures. Look deeper into it and you find some fun ones, which is what I did.

You can get a copy of Ernie 8 here, and it’d be great if you’d consider doing so. They’re a grand lot, and beautifully designed indie publishing like this needs all the support it can get.



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A trip to Japan

Last Friday, as most of the world was going about its more important business, I was sat in a restaurant on the outskirts of Kyoto eating candied crickets, bee larvae and bear meat stew.

I’ve just got back from a couple of weeks visiting my old mate C, who moved to Japan in 2011. I’ve had an open invitation ever since he got there, so of course I waited seven years until he had a wife and a one-year-old daughter. The odd thing is that Japan’s the sort of place I might never have got round to visiting without a friend to tempt me over, which is absurd because it is an absolute delight.

As with my trip to Moscow back in May, I properly cashed in on having tame locals to show me around. Even better, C’s wife and in-laws went all-out to show me a grand time, and within hours of stumbling off the plane they had me hopping between poky little izakayas in the slender, neon-lit back-alleys of Osaka. I was offered four different places to stay, was fed extensively, and my sake cup didn’t run dry for a fortnight.

In general, friendliness and helpfulness were recurring features of my trip. The country has this reputation for being very formal – and I’m sure for Japanese people it often is – but as a big ginger gaijin I found folk were generally quite forgiving of my ignorance and keen to help me out.

Anyway, so as not to ramble too much, here are a few of my favourite things about Japan. I’m not going to mention the food, because that one is taken as read. (It really is very good.)


The glorious contradictions

Imagine a place where having a tiny tattoo of a bird on your chest is the height of obscenity, but reading smutty comics in plain sight on public transport is perfectly fine. A place where conventions of etiquette and politeness abound, yet blue-suited salarymen slumber peacefully in the gutter after a banging night out on the old nihonshu, and the commuter trains have women-only carriages to keep Mr Tickle hands at bay.

Come nightfall, sleek, twinkling skyscrapers tower over warrens of little alleyways full of miniscule bars and eateries that smell of grease and gas burners. Sometimes the bars and restaurants are hidden within the skyscrapers themselves. People use fingerprint access to get into their flats, but then they carry big wads of cash because nowhere takes cards.

To an outsider, everything in Japan appears like this – an unlikely anachronism of seemingly contradictory things existing in perfect balance. I wonder, does British life seem this way to Japanese people?


The mountains

Every friend I spoke to had a totally different notion of what you mustn’t miss when you go to Japan. For some it was outré Tokyo districts like Harajuku and Akihabara (where I passed a girl dressed in a Pikachu outfit with a live owl on her shoulder, and to my great regret neglected to find out what she was selling); for one mate, it was his favourite meiji shrine, while another sent me to a place called ‘Piss Alley’, lined with lanterns and smoky yakitori stalls grilling skewered chicken guts.

However, one old university friend who’s spent a good deal of time in Japan called me up before I went and spent the better part of an hour telling me all her favourite things. She reckoned I ought to find my way into the mountains for a bit, so I did, and she was right. On her advice, I snooped round the shrines above Nagano (more of that below) and spent a couple of days in the laid-back hill city of Takayama, where the timbered old town is full of sake breweries and the river by the morning market ripples orange with shoals of goldfish.

One morning, I took a bus two hours into the Japanese Alps, where I switched my fedora for a flat cap, turned my collar up, and took the Shinhotaka ropeway up above the snow line. I watched one of my fellow passengers tramp off along the trail with his expedition pack and ice axe, and I pined for my proper winter gear. That night I stayed in a remote hot spring inn, where I navigated a 7-course traditional ‘kaiseki’ meal of mostly unidentifiable things, then snuck out in the dead of night for a solitary soak in the geothermal pools.


Obscure goals

On any good trip, you have to try and visit somewhere that’s not particularly easy to get to. When I went to Australia some years ago it was a mining town called Broken Hill – a pin-prick in a sea of flat, red desert. Doesn’t really matter what you find there, since it’s the getting to the place that’s the fun bit.

In Japan, it was the Togakushi Ninja Museum – another recommendation from my well-travelled university friend. There was a large shed full of farming tools; a hall with wicked-looking weapons and black-and-white pictures of masked men in pyjamas climbing things; an icy fairground stall where you could throw four blunt throwing stars at a target in an attempt to win a fan, and the crowning glory – a trick house with hidden doors, secret passages and diagonal rooms. I got stuck halfway round for ages until in my despondency I sat down on the floor next to a Buddha and accidentally opened up a hole in the wall.

While the museum was entertaining enough, getting there required staying in a nice retro hotel in the understated mountain city of Nagano – famously home to the 1998 Winter Olympics. To get up to Togakushi, you had to take a bus up into the mountains through tough little farming communities and (frequently dilapidated) Olympic-era resorts, past empty shooting ranges and ski lifts. Togakushi is most famous for its series of shrines, and after I’d concluded my business at the ninja museum I walked 20 minutes up into the woods along a majestic cedar-lined trail to the beautiful, mossy shrine of Togakushi-Okusha. It was a bit magical, and it all goes to show that you never know what you’ll come across when you set out on a silly mission.


Hilltop temple complexes

You can traipse round temples ad infinitum, but some of them can be oppressively crowded, and my very favourites were the more remote ones high on the hilltops that took a bit of getting to. One morning, after an evening celebrating C’s birthday with Kobe beef and sake tasting at his in-laws’ house, we bundled in the car and set out for the temple complex of Mt Shosha – best known as one of the filming locations for Tom Cruise’s historical epic, The Last Samurai. If you haven’t seen it, it’s sort of like Dances with Wolves, but in Japan. An American emerges as the saviour of old-world Japanese culture, which is perhaps not exactly how it went down in real life.

Mt Shosha is a forested hill just outside the city of Himeji, with a ropeway reaching up the side. Once you’re up there, quiet woodland paths connect up a network of ancient temples and shrines. It was ‘koyo’ season – where Japan’s groves of maple trees turn brilliant red – and we trod the old wooden temple walkways in our socks and picnicked off cold pizza and bottles of green tea among the leaves.


Later that week, we set off early one day to walk up to the famous complex on Mt Koya, one of Japan’s holiest sites. We got off a rickety old boneshaker of a train in the middle of nowhere, and spent the day climbing through persimmon groves and old-growth forests, following weathered stone pilgrim pillars until we emerged at the hulking Daimon Gate. Behind it lies what is essentially a small town, full of monasteries, academic institutions, temples, and Japan’s equivalent of Paris’s Pére Lachaise – the Okunoin Cemetery.


C had booked us in to stay in a monastery (notorious, in fact, for a shirty priest who likes to abuse whingeing tourists on review sites). We roamed the village in the pouring rain, ate grilled meats and rice bowls in a poky little izakaya full of monks drinking highballs, and got up at 7am to go to the morning prayers. Sprinkled some incense on a burner, made a wish, the usual. I seemed to make quite a lot of wishes while I was in Japan, so we’ll have to see if any of them come good.

I suppose really, though, what more is there to wish for than quality time with an old mate and his family, and a raft of quickfire adventures in a totally unfamiliar country? I travelled fast and packed a lot in, but I still feel like I only really got a tiny taste of Japan. I’d love another bite sometime.


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Shortlisted for the Bridport Prize

Ever read William Boyd’s Any Human Heart? I become increasingly convinced that his narrator, Logan, was onto something when he wrote that ‘all your life amounts to in the end [is] the aggregate of all the good luck and the bad luck you experience’.

Well, I had a bit of good luck. I got shortlisted for the Bridport Prize Peggy Chapman-Andrews Award for a First Novel.

I’ve been scrawling away at a dark and jaunty Edwardian crime novel called The Tin Face Parade for years. It’s not exactly what you’d call literary fiction – a tinsmith gets one of his tools hammered through his head on the first page – but it’s the sort of thing I like to read, and if you’re going to invest several years in something that might never see the light of day then you might as well enjoy it.

Occasionally I’ve sent it off to agents and have clocked up the usual ledger of silence and rejection, but perhaps this was actually good luck in disguise, because I later sent it off to a competition for an unpublished novel, and got down to the last five out of nearly 1,200 entries.

I didn’t win the Bridport (though I did get to hear and read snippets of the winner and runner-up’s novels, and I genuinely can’t wait to read the full works), but it was rather wonderful getting shortlisted. Sort of thing that makes you puff your chest out a bit. I sat at the prizegiving lunch at the Bridport Arts Centre surrounded by talented, likeable people, and mixed in with the taste of toothpaste and prosecco was the most delicious savour of impostor syndrome. Later I went up and got a cheque off Kamila Shamsie and my brother shed a sneaky tear of pride.

I’ve still no idea if the inept investigators of The Tin Face Parade will have that extra bit of luck that gets them onto a printed page, but it feels just a smidge closer. Even if they remain forever smoking their cigars in the obscurity of some seedy pub in 1907, they’ve given me a fine experience to treasure – which is especially noble given the terrible things I’ve done to them.

tin face parade_clean

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Midsummer on the beach

I may have mentioned once or twice how much I love living in this inconvenient corner of North Yorkshire. However, there are some points in the year when it’s especially wonderful.

Despite being on the east coast of England, Whitby actually faces north, which means that in the very highest days of summer, the sun both rises out of the sea and sets back into it. From my nearest beach – Sandsend – you don’t quite get to see the sun hit the sea because the headland blocks it out, but you do get some killer skies that feel like there should be flocks of flamingos coming into land. Or maybe hordes of Valkyries, depending on the evening.

June has been one of those months where the deadlines have come thick and fast and I don’t really seem to have come up for air, but each night for the past week or so, come half nine I’ve downed tools, thrown the dog in the car, and headed for the sands. And it’s pretty difficult to get stressed about life when your evenings look like this.

DSC_1956 DSC_2078 LRM_EXPORT_20180621_221327

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Field guns in the Kremlin

The other week, I took a little jaunt over to see my old mate P and his family in Moscow. I’ve been promising to visit him since he first moved there around a decade ago, but you know how life can pass you by. Anyway, it was high time.

Among the many pleasant things about going to visit a place where you’ve got an ally on the ground is that you can sort of have your cake and eat it. I could enjoy a bit of solitude drifting around the city in my own time, but equally I could spend a few evenings setting the world to rights with an old friend, and a couple of days out on the town with his grand little family. The big sights were all there for the taking – and places like the Kremlin and St Basil’s were as riotously overblown and magnificent as advertised – but we also did some fine things that I’d never have thought of doing off my own back, like heading up to the university for the best view of the city, or getting the Metro out to P’s place on the outskirts. The apartment blocks out in the workers’ utopia were as deliciously brutal as you’d imagine from the outside, but Moscow’s suburbs were rather leafier than I anticipated, and ten minutes from P’s flat was a vast country park, complete with a stately home, formal gardens and peacocks (and elderly Russian men playing ping-pong in their Y-fronts).


Perhaps more than with other places, I went to Moscow with a set of preconceptions, and of course I was way out. It’s the only time I’ve ever visited Russia, so I can’t speak for any other cities, but Moscow felt very much like any other European capital, just on a larger scale. If anything, the centre seemed rather safer (and certainly cleaner) than places like London and Paris. To my great disappointment, impeccably groomed Gorky Park was devoid of spies, murder victims and seedy funfairs, while the bars of Zamoskvorechye seemed to be doing considerably brisker trade in craft beer than in eyeball-stripping vodka. No corrupt policemen demanded my papers (though I carried a photocopy faithfully in my pocket throughout the trip), and out on the roads the smart little Japanese runabouts vastly outnumbered the decrepit old Ladas. On my first morning I passed a regenerated chocolate factory that was now full of baristas selling expensive coffees to blokes without socks on, and I might have suspected I’d fallen through a wormhole into East London if it wasn’t for the vast and ludicrous sculpture of Peter the Great towering over me like a cross between the Colossus of Rhodes and the cover of Time Bandits.

DSC_1685 DSC_1669

In fact, Moscow often feels so modern and Westernised that you can occasionally forget that the 20th century ever existed. Though of course it did, and there are plenty of reminders around. The modern art in the New Tretyakov gallery has a conspicuous chasm in its collection that seems to open up around the mid-1930s (coinciding, in fact, with the death dates of many of the artists), and an intriguing corner of Museum Park contains rows of statues that were pulled down from squares around Moscow in the 80s and 90s – chipped Brezhnevs, neglected Krushchevs, and imperious busts of a well-known moustachioed psychopath sitting quietly in the shadows.


Then, of course, there are the towering ministries and apartment blocks, the palatial Metro stations, and the ornate pavilions of the sprawling Soviet exposition park out at VDNKh. One afternoon, on our way back from a restaurant to the Metro, P pointed out a handsome villa that now houses the Tunisian embassy. It was once the personal residence of Lavrentiy Beria – head of the NKVD under Stalin, and a rapist of prodigious appetites. When the Tunisians did some remodelling in the 90s, they found his stash of murdered women buried in the garden. It’s all a bit difficult to get your head round, but the past is the past and here we are.


The Wednesday I was there coincided with Victory Day, a national holiday and one of the most important days of the year. In Russia, you see, the Second World War is the Great Patriotic War, and commemorations go rather beyond the respectful silences, poppy-wearing and wreath-laying that we favour over here. Thousands upon thousands of people poured into the city carrying placards with photos of their ancestors on, crowding the riverbanks to watch Putin give addresses on a big screen, as tanks rumbled along the embankment, fighters howled overhead, and field guns thumped in the Kremlin. I’ve never seen anything like it, and it all closed with an almighty firework display in the evening.

Shortly, I imagine, a whole lot of British football fans are going to be making similar discoveries about just how much fun it is to spend a bit of time in Moscow, but even if you find football as deathly tedious as I do, I can definitely recommend finding your way over there before too long. Don’t dawdle for a decade like I did.



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Restoring a 1950s trilby

As those who’ve come across me in the unflattering light of the real world will know, I’m quite fond of wearing hats. They’re unfashionable and affected, of course, but then so am I, and I’ve built up quite a collection over the last decade or so.

Thing is, though, that when you have nice hats and you wear them all the time, the weather ends up shrinking and mangling them, so by necessity you learn how to clean, stretch, and reshape them. I find it quite therapeutic maintaining and restoring things (whether it’s polishing boots, sharpening knives or darning jumpers), and hats are no different.

But as with anything, once you’ve started to learn something, the temptation is always to take it a step further, so I got a battered old 1950s furfelt trilby off FleaBay for less than £20 and set about restoring it. It started out looking pretty Greengrass, as you can see here.

Greengrass-1Revealing my ancestry as the grandson of a dry cleaner, I worked the worst of the stains out with lighter fluid, then steamed and brushed the whole hat to within an inch of its life to clean the dirt off. The surface of the felt had got quite rough with decades of use, so I used progressively finer grades of sandpaper to put a nice smart finish back on, before steaming crown and brim back into shape.

The leather sweatband had perished, so I cut it out and stitched a new one in. I suppose a proper hatter would use a sewing machine, but you can hand-stitch it if you’re patient.

Finally, the ribbon was pretty rank, so I put a new one on. In some ways this was the trickiest bit of the endeavour, but once I realised that steaming the grosgrain ribbon helps you get it tight, things got a lot easier.

So there we go. Quick last brush and it’s ready to face the world anew. What do you think?

Greengrass-2 Greengrass ont cliffs

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The Easter reset

A while ago, I was reading a fun article by Jeremy Anderberg on temporal landmarks, the basic idea being that there are ‘certain dates that naturally inspire us to turn over a new leaf’. Birthdays, for example, or New Year, or even just the beginning of the month. For the teachers I know, new terms, school years and holidays seem to be helpful punctuation, and I quite like Anna Hart’s idea of a post-summer reboot, since my life is always a bit of a shambles by the time I get to September.

For me, Easter is quite a big one. Churchgoing is something I’ve drifted back into as life has evolved, but even before I got into the habit of frequenting the pews on a Sunday morning, I still used to try and get to church on Easter Sunday. There’s something enormously compelling about the feelings of absolution and optimism around Easter, and while everyone takes different things away from the experience, for my part I think it’s quite uplifting to be in a room full of people all thinking about how they’ve fallen short of being their best selves over the previous year, accepting that they’re almost certainly going to do the same thing over the coming one, and enjoying the sensation of having a clean slate as they clutch at the ambition to be just a little bit better.

I imagine comparatively few of my fellows believe that they are literally washed clean of all their transgressions on an arbitrary Sunday morning somewhere around the spring equinox, but it’s the symbolism that’s important. A reset button means you’re not beaten before you’ve got started. I become increasingly convinced that living the kind of life you want is about ongoing incremental shifts as well as occasional upheavals, and I’ve always found smaller changes to be much harder to go through with than the almighty bridge-burnings.


This year, the Easter holidays have been a reset button in other ways. The past fortnight’s been uncommonly full of opportunities for quality time with the best of people – long, dinners with my mum and stepfather; lazy afternoons putting the world to rights with old schoolfriends, and tramps in the woods with buddies I made on South American adventures 15 years ago. I drove an hour and a half each way to meet a mate’s new baby daughter in a pub somewhere off the A19, took my 17-year-old French cousin to a Kris Drever gig, and stayed up ‘til 4am one night plotting with my brother over bottles of home brew. Solitude and companionship have both been essential parts of my adult life, but it’s been confirming and energising to have a glut of the latter.

So yes, Easter’s been especially fine this year for a variety of reasons, and I hope yours has too.

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