Empty flat

Reuben and Joshua's bed
Reuben and Joshua’s bed

I struggle with weekends at the moment.

During the week I’m busy. I usually rise around 05:45, say morning prayer, have breakfast (usually porridge… what can I say, I’m Scottish), get myself together and head in to the office early. In the evening I return to my flat and get stuck in to hall life and other little projects that I have on the go right now (writing, illustrating, music, reading).

Most weekends I have my three children over, and I love it. I love them. I love being with them. I feel whole again. They have such energy, such life, such wild imaginations and we spend hours riffing off each other’s silliness with word play and rhyming (earlier today we had “stranger danger with the lone ranger”, and “I am Gimli, son of Glóin, son of… George?!”).

Some weekends they come over on Friday evening, still in their school uniforms, bouncing with energy, irritable with tiredness, overflowing with cuddles. A few hours later, they are asleep in bed, and I’m either asleep too or I spend a quiet evening in the lounge enjoying the emotional glow of having my boys with me again.

Saturday is usually filled with all sorts of activities. Reuben enjoys lying beneath his duvet on the bedroom floor with his tablet, watching cartoons on Netflix or Minecraft tutorials on YouTube. Joshua and Isaac migrate from the sofa to my PC and back to variously play computer games on my PC (mostly LEGO, although they’ve recently got into the multiplayer Ballistic Tanks and Dirt 3 rally) or their tablets. Usually at some point the LEGO comes out. Yesterday Reuben presented me with a packet of Papercraft models he’d received for his birthday asking for some help to build them. Translation: Dad, could you please build all of these for me while I watch?

Minecraft, but on paper: Papercraft.
Minecraft, but on paper: Papercraft.

This morning I heard Isaac (who will be six next week) exclaim, “Look at me! I’m doing elf parkour!” while playing LEGO The Hobbit.

Sometimes we’ll go out, though by the weekend they are often ready for a quiet day in, especially if the weather is foul. (Me too!) Yesterday we went out shopping for new winter hats and gloves, and they then spent a couple of hours (and most of the heat from the flat) traipsing in and out to play in the snow.

By Sunday lunchtime I generally begin to feel melancholic and heavy as I begin to anticipate the loss that I will feel when they have to go home. It’s unusual for me not to shed a tear after they are driven away. Not always immediately, but certainly at some point.

On some occasions Joshua (mostly) has simply refused to leave and has curled himself up in a ball on the sofa in a sulk and has stopped responding to any encouragement to leave, or simply repeats “I don’t want to go!” Sometimes I’ve just let him stay for a few more hours and we’ve enjoyed a fabulously fun afternoon, just the two of us, before cooking dinner and driving him back to Anstruther in the evening.

This is the hardest part of the separation for me. I’m sure I’ve said this before—I’ve certainly mentioned it in conversations more than once. I can accept that Jane doesn’t want to be with me: I’ve broken up with girls in the past. But it hurts to not live with my children.

I’ve often wondered what other people think about me because I moved out. It wasn’t easy. I think it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. On the day I moved out, my brother at times had to physically carry me. I’ve never experienced grief like it—my father’s death nineteen years ago was a walk in the park (well, in the cemetery, at least) compared with this. I would have happily stayed with them but it’s less socially acceptable for a mother to move away from her children than a father.

During the week, where I can, I nip over to Anstruther after work to see them for an hour or two, in a house from which my memory is slowly being erased. It’s not enough, but it’s better than nothing and it keeps me going until the weekend when we can enjoy another few days of silliness and laughter and cuddles together.

This weekend, for some reason, the WiFi went off in my flat. So it was a good opportunity to introduce them to the wonders of setting up a portable WiFi hotspot using my smartphone (4G, thankfully). And then watching them gobble up about half a month’s bandwidth allowance in two days between them on their tablets.

We also started to play around with Microsoft Kodu, which is designed to introduce children to computer programming.

This is Isaac's latest world and Rover.
This is Isaac’s latest world, and Rover the robot.

Using nothing more than an Xbox games controller (and/or keyboard and mouse) Kodu allows you to easily create games within a simple point-and-click environment. It was amazing to see Isaac get into it and think through how to build his world and program the controller with the basic framework of when X, do Y, e.g. when I press A on the gamepad, fire a missile; when I bump into a rock, make it explode; or when I press the right trigger on the gamepad, make my character grow to four times his normal size. Their experience with Minecraft: Pocket Edition has done wonders for their creativity and problem-solving skills.

And so… to my usual Sunday evening routine. Over the next few hours I will sink back into the silence of the flat, enjoy the warmth of the memories of another fun weekend with my children, and look forward to the next one. And prepare for my week ahead.

A weekend of LEGO building

Kylo Ren's command shuttle and Poe Dameron's X-wing fighter
Kylo Ren’s command shuttle and Poe Dameron’s X-Wing fighter

Reuben and Joshua have spent the weekend building LEGO models they received for their eighth birthdays.

Reuben built Poe’s X-Wing Fighter (75102) while Joshua built Kylo Ren’s Command Shuttle (75104). And so that Isaac wouldn’t feel left out he received a wee silver Captain Phasma stormtrooper minifigure.

It took them pretty much all day, finishing just before bedtime.

The boys ‘helping’ me with my studies

Boys on the desk
Reuben, Joshua and Isaac ‘helping’ me with my studies

 

For the next few days I’m on a course at work looking at DSDM Atern agile project management. It’s certified, so I have exams on Wednesday morning (foundation) and Thursday afternoon (practitioner).

When I got home last night, after dinner, I decided to sneak upstairs and get about 45 minutes of study in before the boys had to go to bed.

It turns out Reuben, Joshua, Isaac and monkey had different ideas and came to ‘help’ me study.

My albums of 2014

Album covers 2014
Album covers 2014

Since having children my album buying has decreased quite considerably—who would have thought.

Another factor is my 195 metal CDs project which sees me reviewing a different album every week—CDs that I got for free a few years ago on Freecycle. I did wonder if I was going to need to dip into that opus to make up my top 10 for 2014 but it turns out that I bought—or made,or obtained—more than enough.

Top 15 artists (Last.fm)

Before launching into my top 10 though, I’ve just taken a look at my Last.fm top 15 artists over the last 12 months. This reflects what I’ve actually been listening to over the last year and now that my Android phone can ‘scrobble’ tracks to Last.fm it’s much more accurate than ever before. I just need to get my car hooked up and the circle will be complete.

Top 15 artists over the last 12 months
Top 15 artists over the last 12 months

The chart is quite predictable, although I’m surprised that Iron Maiden are at #2, and I would have expected both Porcupine Tree and Lamb of God to rank higher, but perhaps I’ve played them more in the car than anywhere else.

  1. Opeth (356 tracks played)
  2. Iron Maiden (285)
  3. Testament (269)
  4. Exodus (236)
  5. Apocalyptica (231)
  6. Metallica (212)
  7. Mastodon (205)
  8. Slayer (199)
  9. Machine Head (173)
  10. Kyrbgrinder (164)
  11. Porcupine Tree (161)
  12. Lamb of God (160)
  13. Celtic Frost (159)
  14. Faith No More (155)
  15. Slipknot (154)

The notable artist there is Kyrbgrinder who were from my 195 metal CDs project. I knew that I’d played them a lot, but I would never have thought that they’d rank as my 10th most played artist of 2014.

But then take a look at this chart of the top 15 most-played tracks during 2014:

Top 15 tracks played during 2014
Top 15 tracks played during 2014

Kyrbgrinder features in seven of those 15 slots, as does Russian Circles (another of my favourite 195 metal CDs this year).

10. NYCGB Alumni—Live at Spitalfields, London

NYCGB Alumni—Spitalfields, London

I’m going to start my countdown remarkably with an album that I’m singing on. In January I travelled down to London for the inaugural NYCGB Alumni singing day at Christ Church, Spitalfields.

This was the first time that I’d sung properly since the choir’s 25th anniversary concert in Birmingham in 2008 and it was blissful to be with such dear friends again and to sing such fantastic music, particularly “O Magnum Mysterium” by Lauridsen. I wept when I heard the recording for the first time. (During the performance I was so focussed on sight reading the score that I didn’t appreciate the overall piece.

You can download the concert for free on the NYCGB alumni website.

9. Pink Floyd—The Endless River

Pink Floyd—The Endless River

I’ve listened to this album quite a few times and while I do appreciate what David Gilmour and Nick Mason have done, and have done very cleverly, there is a part of me that is still a little disappointed.

I loved The Division Bell (1994) and as many of these tracks came from the same sessions I was hoping for something… more. The lack of vocals though, except on the closing track “Louder than words” is probably what I’m missing.

It is lovely, lovely, lovely though to hear my friend Louise Marshall on backing vocals.

8. Triptykon—Melana Chasmata

Triptykon—Melana Chasmata

Celtic Frost were one of my favourite bands growing up in the 80s. Triptykon is latest project from Celtic Frost founder Tom G. Warrior. And it’s heavy; very heavy. And very dark.

I’ve probably not given this album enough time, it’s definitely one I need to listen to more in 2015.

7. Godflesh—Decline and Fall

Godflesh—Decline and Fall

This was the year that I was supposed to see Godflesh live. They are one of my all-time favourite bands and their album Streetcleaner (1989) is one of the best albums to code to.

Guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Justin Broadrick disbanded Godflesh in 2002 to focus on his new shoegazing/ambient outfit Jesu. But he and G.C. Green (bass) are back together and as Godflesh is on my ‘bucket list’ this was the year to see them. They even played Glasgow twice! But marital difficulties and then viral meningitis got in the way… so it will need to be next year.

Decline and Fall (2014) is a return to form for Godflesh, and this EP was designed as taster for the full album A World Lit Only by Fire (2014) released in October. I have still to buy that one.

6. Machine Head—Bloodstones and Diamonds

Machine Head—Bloodstone and Diamonds

This is a late addition to my MP3 ranks given that I only bought it on Boxing Day. But at #9 in my top artists of 2014 I’ve been listening to a lot of Machine Head this year, and this is a rocking album.

I don’t think it’s as good as Unto the Locust (2011) or The Blackening (2007) but with tracks like “And now we die” and “Night of long knives” there are certainly some cracking tunes on that platter.

5. Exodus—Blood In, Blood Out

EXODUS—BLOOD IN, BLOOD OUT

This year Exodus parted company with their vocalist of the last 11 years, which is a shame as I really liked Rob Dukes’ voice—to be honest I think Exodus recorded their best work with him.

This album, with the ‘classic line-up’ vocalist Steve ‘Zetro’ Souza back on the microphone isn’t their greatest, but it’s still pretty darned good.

With guitarist Gary Holt now splitting his time between Exodus and Slayer (following the sad death of founding Slayer member Jeff Hanneman in 2013) it will be interesting to see how that influences the output and activity of both bands.

4. Slipknot— .5: The Gray Chapter

Slipknot—.5: The Gray Chapter

Following the death of founding member, bassist, Paul Gray in 2010 there was some doubt whether Slipknot would ever record and release another album; a doubt that was reinforced again when drummer Joey Jordison was ejected from the band in 2013.

But here it is, dedicated to Paul Gray and it’s a crushing album of riffs and delicate melodies.

3. Opeth—Pale Communion

Opeth—Pale Communion

Following Heritage (2011) which saw Opeth move away from their death metal roots and embrace a more 1970s prog rock path, Pale Communion (2014) follows a similar mellow and retro route.

I know that Opeth have come under fire for their dramatic change of style, compared by some to Spinal Tap’s middle-life-crisis “Jazz Odyssey”, but I rather love it. It still contains the light-and-dark twists and turns of any other Opeth album.

This album is heavy in a different way to Blackwater Park (2001) or Ghost Reveries (2006) but if on their next one Mikael Åkerfeldt happened to stomp on his distortion pedal once or twice then I’m sure it would propel that album to the number one slot that year.

2. Mastodon—Once More ‘Round the Sun

Mastodon—Once More 'Round the Sun (2014)
Mastodon—Once More ‘Round the Sun (2014)

This has been in many ways my go-to album of 2014. It’s the album that I’ve gone to sleep listening to more than any other, and it features my most-listened to song of the year: the opening track ‘Tread lightly’.

This isn’t the Mastodon of Remission (2002) or Leviathan (2004). This is a more laid back and melodic Mastodon, more progressive rock than metal throughout but it is still great music. (Even if the album cover is freaky and gives my children nightmares!)

1. Johnny Flynn—Detectorists

Johnny Flynn-Detectorists

This folk-song theme-tune from the BBC Four mini drama Detectorists written by Mackenzie Crook rather took me by surprise. The writing and acting was exquisite, the theme song was short but sublime.

I wish there had been more—an album—rather than a single song but I’ve listened to this one track over and over again. Last.fm ranks it as joint #14 this year.

In what has been a generally very difficult year, it’s nice to have this gentle, romantic song as its counterpoint.

Bonus: Reuben Saunders—Oh I am a spaceman!

Reuben Saunders—Oh I am a spaceman!

A special word must be given to the song “Oh I am a spaceman!” that my eldest son Reuben and I wrote back in May.

My wife Jane was away and while his younger brothers played a LEGO game on my PC Reuben asked if we could write a song.

Unsure about what we’d produce I said yes: at least it could be great fun. I had no idea that we’d produce something so fun. Most of the ideas were Reuben’s, I just shaped them into a song format and gave it a simple tune.

I’m in the process of illustrating the song to turn it into a self-published book for Reuben. But don’t tell him: shhhh! That’ll be a nice surprise for him next year.

You can hear our demo of the song (featuring Reuben on vocals and percussion) on SoundCloud.

It turns out I am a souter after all

Reuben's shoe—mid-mend
Reuben’s shoe—mid-mend

A couple of days ago I noticed that the stitching on Reuben’s shoe was coming apart. My response to this came from two places.

First, I was brought up with the attitude that we should always try to mend something first, rather than simply throwing it away. After all, there really is no ‘away’—it’s just over there, somewhere.

Second, I was brought up in Selkirk which was historically famous for its shoe makers, or in Scots: souters.

So I got my needle and thread out and re-stitched Reuben’s shoe.