That’s not the Pizza Express way

I saw the news that Pizza Express is in trouble and at risk of folding. People have used the occasion to deal in some clunky humour, display their class credentials, or just relive memories.

My memories are of work. I was part of the inaugural staff at Pizza Express in St Andrews, Scotland, where my wife took her Master’s the first year that we were married. I had myself just graduated with a degree in journalism from Canada’s best programme, and I had over a year of work experience to boot as a reporter and chase producer for the national broadcaster, so I was pretty sure I could get some good work while she studied. Turns out the local rag for that corner of Fife was published out of Dundee, so I took the bus across the Silvery Tay and met with an editor. Tail between my legs, I returned with the knowledge that D.C. Thompson was something of a family firm and they weren’t really hiring.

How, then, to support ourselves when the Canadian dollar was two-fifty to the pound? Well, Pizza Express was opening a new resto, and they were hiring. Not only that, though they had plenty of applicants who were also students and therefore up for part-time work, there was a need for more stable full-time staff to keep the keel even. I had some waiting experience, so they took me. Sent me, of all places, to Dundee to train while the shop was getting finished.

J&G Innes Stationers, Church Street, St Andrews

Just across the street from Church Square and my employers, Pizza Express, was the stationers (my wife’s employers), which seems once upon a time to have been a possible media hub. Too bad. Photo by SwaloPhoto, found on flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

Dundee and St Andrews Pizza Expresses were a study in contrasts. The company had lobbied hard and long to get a location in the Home of Golf: the town council was generally quite shy about chain shops coming in, but they’d finally cracked, and the firm had a good location on Church Square. Perfect for mums and dads taking their little Beauregards and Penelopes off to uni (though maybe a touch wrong for the celebratory graduation meal three years later… but I never got the chance to find out). The floor staff’s uniform was the typical polo shirt but black, with the logo embroidered in gold.

Dundee, however, was a real maverick. The manager had to twist the company’s arm to get permission to put in a fryer: if people couldn’t have a burger and chips, Dundee would not come, he said. They relented, but it was an odd fit. The manager had also, somehow, negotiated for bespoke music to play through the speakers rather than the PE-issued playlists. I enjoyed working with the people there, coming home tired on the last 99 bus with a pizza under my arm to share with my slumbering studying bride. I heard the resto closed a few years after we’d left; I wasn’t surprised. Continue reading

(Dis)United Kingdom

Daffodil by Dave Morris

Daffodil, (CC BY 2.0) Dave Morris, found on

So Happy Saint David’s Day, or as they say here in Wales, Hapus Dydd Dewi Sant, though I’ve also seen a Gwyl in there, and I may have the order wrong. I’m mostly relying on Twitter for these things; my children, who are being educated in the English system but are of course learning Welsh as a subject, are not really better placed to correct me yet.

We’re figuring it out.

The move from Scotland, which as I’m fond of saying is distinct because of its institutions, to Wales, which is instead distinct due primarily to its language, is full of opportunities to learn. In fact, Wales has always been about learning for me: I remember doing a class project in Grade 3 about Wales, drawing the flag (ineptly), making a map full of mountains and castles, and drawing Sir Percival in his red-gold armour. In truth, I’m all about Wales.

Our first St David’s Day in Cardiff was grey, windy, and wet. Really, it felt like we hadn’t left Edinburgh at all. These things should unite us, but every St David’s Day, I can’t help but remember an object lesson of disunity.

In 2013, I was in Glasgow, doing field work for my PhD, and I had to get from one site to another rather quickly, so I took a taxi. We pull up outside Location #2 on a gloriously sunny March day (yes, in Glasgow), and I ask the driver for a receipt.

“What’s the day?” he says to himself as he fills it out. “First of March.”

“Yeah,” I say (in my Boy Scouty Canadian accent). “Happy St David’s Day!”

He snorts. “If you’re Welsh.”

Blackberries Revisited

I felt that same thrill—like I was getting away with something . . . —last summer when I discovered that the wall of our shared back garden was covered with blackberry bushes. Despite receiving no sunlight and poor drainage, the bush was full, and no one else was picking them.

-Michael Munnik, ‘Blackberries’
The Messy Table, 21 October 2013

So long as I’m poaching blog posts from my wife’s online column, this one also resurfaced for me in this move. The guinea pigs are about what we left. The blackberries are about what we have arrived to. When I wrote this post, nearly two years ago, I was grieving a particular loss and trying to make sense of neighbours and neighbourliness. The blackberries in our Marchmont back garden epitomised what infuriates me about the place. The blackberries on Easedale are emblematic of abundant generosity and good company.

Easedale, however, is a small island in the Inner Hebrides, a significant journey from our front door and not, therefore, an emblem we could appreciate with any regularity. Less so now that we are in Cardiff. Right coast, way wrong degree of latitude.

But it matters not: among the many virtues of the house we have moved into is a cluster of blackberries right in the back garden! My daughter was the first to spot it, and we got out with gusto to plunder what was already ripe and beautiful and black. Of course, it is only the beginning of August, so although the stock is small compared to our erstwhile Scottish riches, there are many berries yet to come. I have to chase my youngest away from them, and when we’re all picking, the elder two are good at monitoring him and reminding him that they go in the bowl, not in his gob. Best of all, as my daughter is proud to say, no one can tell us to cut them down.

Pear and blackberry pie, first fruits of our new home.My wife mixed them with pears and baked them in a pie. It was a wonderful completion to our first made meal in our lovely, sunny kitchen. And there will be more pies. This truly redeems what was broken.

Piggies the Brave

This is mostly a reblogging effort. My wife has a real and proper online column which she writes once a week, and on the rare occasions where I’d like to write about something that she also wants to write about, her space takes precedence.

This one truly was a whale of a story: the missing guinea pig we were charged with minding, on the eve of our move from the neighbourhood, from Edinburgh, from Scotland itself. You can catch it all here, but this paragraph higlights the nub of the sadness:

It is terribly difficult to be tucked up in your bed, warm and dry, and to know that somewhere out in the dark, there is a little lost creature, shivering and terrified. And that there is nothing whatsoever you can do.

-Katie Munnik, ‘In the Garden’

What I can share here – and you know I’m a guy who likes a good joke – is that I knew,  rooting about in the dark, the wet, looking for the one pig hardest to find in the dark (the others had white patches, whereas Toffee was black and toffee-brown), was that this would be a very funny story to tell if and only if we find the pig again. Otherwise, there’s just no fun. So I’m glad to have a funny joke to share with our new friends in Cardiff. “So, just moved here – how were things on your way out from Edinburgh?”

Let me tell you…

The title doesn’t make any sense unless you know our neighbours’ song, which they wrote about their guinea pigs to the tune of “Scotland the Brave.” It starts like this:

Hark, when the night is falling
Hear, hear the piggies calling!
Loudly and proudly calling
Out of the hutch.
Out in the grassy garden,
Down in the laundry corner,
Panda and Patch and Toffee –
Piggies the Brave!

Last Walk

Panoramic photo of Edinburgh skyline from south of the Meadows

My morning walk

It’s the last day of school for my eldest two kids – not just for the summer but, at least in this jurisdiction, for like ever. I have secured a job in a different city, so we’re moving over the summer. The goodbyes are significant; the lasts more meaningful. They’re both excited and mournful, as you would expect.

We’re really happy with our current neighbourhood, and the people, the places, and yes the school are all important to us and a big part of what made us love Edinburgh and feel at home here.

But the walk to school in the morning has been a special treat for me. If I’m honest, it’s the walk after the walk to school. Getting out the door is almost alway fraught – full of grumbles, inducements to hurry up, and sometimes forgotten bags, lunches, and violins. We hustle through the neighbourhood, past doors of classmates. Drop-off is a mass (often a mess) of small and large huddled bodies getting in and getting organised. Some parents are lucky enough to get hugs and kisses before the kids go in.

And then, for as long as I had an office at George Square, during my PhD, I would walk to it. Through the Links, and across the Meadows, to the low-storied buildings on the west face of the leafy square. Barclay Viewforth on the left, and the undulating Links rolling down to the Meadows. Over the roofs of the buildings, the castle sticks up – solid and exciting, every morning. Follow the skyline to the east and you see the Quartermile development, with the old infirmary wards interspersed with square glass towers; it’s actually a remarkably attractive blend of old and new buildings. Amid church spires the minaret of the Edinburgh Central Mosque is just visible, and away to the right are the imposing and inviting humps of Salisbury Crags and Arthur’s Seat.

As commutes go, this one certainly didn’t suck.

The picture above is so compressed and undynamic as to not only not do justice to the walk but actually to do it injustice. Well, it’s what I can muster for you. I took it this morning. We’ll see what the new commute has to offer.

A Heartwarming Christmas Story from the Miners’ Strike

So, I did my Superman bit today. I’ve been donating platelets for over a year, now, because I fit their bill. It’s a sort of blood donation amped up: they take less stuff out of you, so you can do it more frequently, and as a result, you’re in every month rather than every three months; also, the period of the donation is about an hour and a half altogether, about 55 minutes of which is being hooked up to the machine with blood cycling in and out, rather than the 20-30 minutes for a standard pint of your finest A-negative. When they gave me the brief on how it all worked, I was most impressed to learn that, should they need platelets, they spin that standard pint to separate it, and they get about a quarter of a useful unit. Four donations are therefore needed to do one job at the hospital. When you give platelets, they usually take two units, but it is possible to give “a triple,” which would mean you’re really doing the work of 12 human beings over the space of half an afternoon.

Punch line: today I did my first triple.

I’d tried before, but it hadn’t worked out for whatever reasons. They have computers and such that work out of it’s going to go ahead or not, and despite my willingness, conditions were not right. Until today.

Give a little extra at Christmas, sez I. Chatting about Christmas with one of the nurses as she unhooks me, and somehow it gets round to one from the past. “You weren’t here in ’84, were you?” she says. Charitably, I just say, “No.” I don’t need to add that I was five.

“Well, that was the time of the miners’ strike, and my husband was a miner.” Tough times, and they had a bairn, too. She knew it would be long, and she knew that Christmas would be tight. But she put aside her coppers–her ones and twos; she couldn’t stow five-pences in the jar, because they were too precious, too useful in the day to day. Because every day was tight, not just Christmas. Continue reading

#RLSDay in Edinburgh

Here’s how I celebrated Robert Louis Stevenson and participated in his unbirthday.

I was informed from three directions that he gave his birthday to a little girl; we had some scholarly disputes regarding whether it was Christmas Day or Leap Day, but this post seems to have settled it, in true RLS fashion.

Continue reading

A Difficult Love Story – The Messy Table

Hawk trainer at the Scottish Deer CentreI was going to write about this–an event from the last day of our tattie-howking holidays in Fife. But my wife had the same idea, and her gig pays. So check out her post: more reflective, less reportage than I would have done.

The ranger ran towards the field, but it is was too dangerous for her to enter, so she climbed clambered up the rails of the gate, threw her arms in the air and called out to her hawk with a desperate, beckoning shout. She was calling him home, calling him to leave off the distraction of his rabbit luncheon and return safely to her side.

-Katie Munnik

(For the record, I would have called the post “Hawk Versus Deer (Versus Rabbit) in the Rutting Season Showdown: Who Will Win Nature’s Ultimate Bloodbath?”, so perhaps it was better that she got to it, anyway.)

If You Want to

Referendum day in Scotland. It’s been murky of weather and murkier of heart for me and my family today. I have been attentive to the arguments for and against the independence of Scotland since the referendum was announced two years ago, one year after we moved to Edinburgh for me to start my PhD.

We did the math. Unless my studies went freakishly fast or I got a sweet job moments after submitting the thesis (to which I remain, in these unsteady post-submission days, totally unaverse), we would be here to vote. My wife is a dual citizen; I am a Commonwealth citizen. The franchise was ours. So – we could vote.

Yet I felt reticent about marking a ballot on this one. I have voted in Scottish, local, and national elections, and I voted in 2011 on a referendum for electoral reform at Westminster. I felt aware enough to take part, but this was something different. The future of a country I was not born to and am not a citizen of… So – should I vote? Continue reading