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A 12 year wait

I love the British and Irish Lions more than any other form of international rugby. There is something magical about bringing together often rival players from four nations and trying to turn them into a functioning team against southern hemisphere opposition within a matter of weeks. It shouldn’t work, but it does. And a Lions tour almost always feels special, unless Clive Woodward is in charge.

While there is a rugby World Cup every four years when the same teams compete against each other, the Lions only play each country every 12 years. So if they don’t win a series, then they will have to wait 12 years to redeem themselves.

The last time the Lions played South Africa was in 2009, I watched the first test back home. But when the second test came around the following week, I was following the game on the Guardian live blog on my phone while in the relatives’ room at Frenchay hospital after my dad had been taken ill and was in intensive care.

This time around, I had to get a Now TV sports pass for a month after I cancelled the Sky package a couple of years ago.

As a series, the 2021 tests were some of the slowest and tedious rugby matches I have ever seen. Almost every few minutes, the match would stop and the referee would want to check a potential infringement from several angles. Video replays certainly have their place in refereeing, but they really shouldn’t keep getting in the way of just letting them play rugby.

The third test was the most frustrating of the lot. The Lions really had the win there for the taking and blew at least 16 points that were there on the table. But they did look so much better going forward with Finn Russell at 10. He really should have been involved in one of the earlier tests.

And there was something cruel about the kick that won the game being scored by Morne Steyn, who kicked also kicked the winning goal in 2009. A lot was made about him getting on and approaching retirement. But I’ve just checked, and I’m a week older than him.

A crazy amount of things have happened within the last 12 years. But after everything that’s gone on, I almost dread to think what’s going to happen in the next 12 years. And the ridiculous thing is that the next time the Lions tour South Africa, I will be 49 years old. That still doesn’t seem physically possible.

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A brew day

I spent Friday in a brewery making ale. Unfortunately, this is not the start of a new career path. It was all part of a crowdfunder in March that saw me spend more than £1,000 on various rewards to help Stroud Brewery survive the pandemic, with all of these rewards being beer-related. And the most expensive reward I paid for was to brew an ale with a group of friends, and us each getting to keep about 30 pints each of the finished brew.

It was an early start, with us needing to be down there for 8.30am. We began by emptying sacks of wheat and malt into the tun for what is known as the mash in. This would form the base of our ale. We got to taste the very early brew that can be best described as tasting like Ovaltine.

Then we started weighing the hops and other ingredients for a process known as sparging the wort. That is not a euphemism. All the liquid from the first tank would then be filtered into a second tank, where it would then be heated to high temperatures. Once the liquid had all transferred, it was time to get a shovel and clear the first tank of the leftover malt in what is known as the mash out. I learned a lot of new terms.

I also learned that brewing is much more scientific than I thought, with measurements and temperatures having to be accurate, otherwise everything becomes messed up. I don’t know quite what I was expecting. In fairness, I hadn’t given it a huge amount of thought, preferring to focus on what goes in a pint glass instead of how it got there.

Anyway, it was a really fun day. Also, it was certainly the most talking and socialising I had done in about 18 months. And the ale that we brewed should actually be drinkable and go on sale within the next month or so.

We finished the day having several pints and talking nonsense, thus proving once and for all that I can organise a piss-up in a brewery.

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Edinburgh sensations

A few things this week have made me think of Edinburgh Fringe. One thing, strangely enough, was the EdFringe website itself. Odd, that. I had a look to see what shows were going ahead this year and seeing that website layout brought about rumbles of terror in the bowel area, along with a compulsion to check ticket sales and panic I’ve not done enough previews.

Despite my adamant predictions that Ed Fringe wouldn’t be going ahead this year due to Covid, it is proceeding all the same. I’m still convinced it’s not a good idea. But I have a few friends who are going up and I hope they have good runs. I’m just glad to be sitting this one out. Saying that, I said to Langton that I’m convinced that the versions of us from 2011 would insist on going up and nothing would stop them from doing so, not even a global pandemic. Audience apathy is much more potent and they could take that all day long.

The second thing that made me think of the Fringe was the weather today. After the heatwave, the temperature cooled dramatically today. And that combination of a cold wind blowing in warm air and a few specs of rain instantly take me back to the Scottish capital. It is a much cheaper way of doing it.

Then the third thing was also today. I had some posters printed for my show at Stroud Brewery on 9 September (tickets are available on their website, here endeth the plug) and took them to the venue to get some put up around the place. That was it. Nothing poetic or evocative, just posters.

In other news, I had my second jab of the Covid vaccine this week. Originally, it was booked for mid-August in Cirencester. No doubt I would then reminisce about my awful time as a reporter there. But I got an email from the NHS saying I could book an earlier appointment. And it turns out that there was a walk-in place two miles away in Stroud. So that’s what I did. From arrival to injection to exit, it only took barely 20 minutes. There wasn’t even much of a queue. Just one of many reasons why Stroud is better than Cirencester.

Anyway, I’ve not had any real side effects, other than it hurting when I raise my arm and the area around where the needle went in is a bit red. This also means I can now finally get a haircut. I had planned to not get one until the pandemic was over, but that doesn’t look like that’s going to happen any time soon. I can’t control how long Covid will last, but I can control how long my long hair will – sort of.

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Loki

I will continue with my series in writing about MCU shows on Disney+. It’s not a review though, as I would then be a reviewer and thus everything I oppose when it comes to the creative industries.

Anyway, the first season Loki has just finished and it was great. It involved time travel and I’m almost always a sucker for anything that involves time travel. Just for the record, the mid-90s show Crime Traveller starring Chloe Annett was really good and deserved a second series.

But much of my time travel fix comes from Doctor Who. And there was a fair amount about Loki that reminded me of this, but more if the central character was The Master instead. The final few episodes of the Capaldi run also features male and female versions of the same character as they also did in Loki.

Also, meeting a character at the end of their life, when we’re going to see more of their past in future stories, is right out of the River Song playbook. That particular character in Loki reminded me of John Simm’s Master. i.e. just trying a bit too hard to be wacky and insane, with the writing jarring just a little. But these are small gripes.

My favourite MCU Disney+ series is still WandaVision, mainly because it was so unexpected and refreshingly unconventional. What Loki and Wandavision also share is keeping the audience guessing, letting them try to figure things out at the same time as the characters are. I always find this fun.

But when it came to the multiverse, Loki went full in with what WandaVision so cruelly and brilliantly teased us with. Come to think of it, Spider-Man: Far From Home also teased the multiverse, but WandaVision did it better.

And we’re now getting a multiverse. The way Loki ended also set up infinite possibilities for the future of the MCU, and that is very exciting indeed.

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Something about football

I think there’s something to do with football happening today, so I thought I would write about my relationship with the game.

Growing up in Stroud, I’m not from a football part of the world. We have Forest Green Rovers now – and did then – but I was barely even aware of them until they got to the FA Trophy final at Wembley in 1999. I planned to go to the final but would end up being in Northern Ireland visiting family at the time.

Anyway, the location is important here – also note the past tense for the next several paragraphs – because although I’m not from a football part of the world, I grew up loving the sport.

I collected cards at primary school and also stickers for my Merlin Premier League album, which I very nearly completed in 1995 – albeit having to use Warren Barton twice and also a picture of Michael Jackson, years before his statue appeared at Fulham. I even tried Panini for the 1994 World Cup, but it didn’t feel right. And it’s much easier to fill up a sticker album over a whole season, as opposed to a month-long tournament.

And my club was Manchester United, predictably as a 90s child. West Ham were my second team after my dad’s aunt gave me an old kit from the 1960s that once belonged to her son. My support was that easy to gain.

But it was always England that got me the most excited, possibly as they didn’t play every week and it felt like more of an occasion. There was something special about watching them playing at the old Wembley. The white shirts with the dark blue shorts and white socks, plus a strange-looking big badge. I couldn’t quite work out what was on it, but it certainly didn’t look like lions to me.

Tournaments were my favourite part, before the inevitable exit. As a six-year-old, I remember crying when Italia 90 finished. Not when England went out, just when the coverage ended. I didn’t enjoy Euro 92 so much, other than getting bought an England home shirt pyjamas set. Still, Euro 92 failed to diminish my excitement for England, even after the failure to qualify for USA 94 – that possibly remains my favourite World Cup as it was the first one I properly remember.

Things went up another notch with Euro 96. After a lacklustre start, England suddenly became really good. The game against The Netherlands was my highlight. I remember running around the living room and jumping onto and off the chairs and sofa. England were really good.

They won the penalty shoot-out against Spain. Although quite how much they owe to Uri Gellar, we will never truly know. At the time, I was down in North Devon at a farm park called The Milky Way, where I milked a goat – thus living up to the hype. The penalty shoot-out was on in one of the rooms there and I kept running to watch it and would then run back to tell my dad what was happening.

Then came the ill-fated semi-final against Germany and it really felt like England could do it, especially when they scored first. I wasn’t allowed to stay up to watch it the whole of extra time and the infamous penalty kick, but saw it on GMTV the next morning. I often wonder what became of the poor man who had his kick saved. Anyway, it made me so upset that I defaced my German exercise book with swastikas. Yeah. That’ll teach them. Looking back on it, I was quite nationalistic for much of my pre-teens and teens – and football was almost solely responsible – mainly as I didn’t know any better and lacked vital life experience.

I may have even thought Brexit was a good idea when I was 12 years old. As much as I love the song, there is even an argument that the essence of the anthem Three Lions laid the foundations for that horrendous political event 20 years later. i.e. “We used to be good. Now we’re not, but we might be good again based on historical events we had nothing to do with.” MEGA, anyone? The Leave campaign even recorded an appalling cover. It is abysmal and you’re better off not watching it.

Anyway, the excitement (and nationalism) continued at France 98, with a new generation of England players that included Michael Owen, who I thought I looked a bit like if I ran fast enough and people squinted. Inevitably, England went out on penalties to Argentina after Beckham got sent off. But I was convinced that the real reason they lost was that I sat on the wrong side of the bus to school on the day after I sat on the other side for previous victories. The next day at home, I printed out something I made on Word with a picture of the World Cup and the words “English and proud” on it, or something similar. As it was on A4 and my upstairs bedroom window, I doubt anyone would have actually been to read it outside.

After Glenn Hoddle lost the England job for saying some horrendous things about disabled people, it was the turn of Kevin Keegan and the end of my fanaticism would soon come crashing down. It wasn’t immediate, I continued to closely follow all things England throughout 1999 and into 2000.

Then came Euro 2000. I was perhaps more hyped than any other tournament, as it was the summer I was doing my GCSEs and I had more time to follow the coverage – mainly as I wasn’t doing any work. I even sent my tactical suggestions through to Teletext. My suggestion was 4-4-2 but with a diamond midfield with Nick Barmby on the left and Gareth Barry at left-back for balance, as he was that formerly rare beast of a left-footed Englishman.

Anyway, Kevin Keegan clearly can’t have been reading Teletext for ideas on tactics – or arguably from anywhere else, for that matter. And England went out to at the group stages after Phil Neville gave away a late penalty against Romania.

I was genuinely distraught and spent the following couple of hours with my head in my hands. Then I realised that I’d had enough of the torment and severed my emotional ties with football. I didn’t think it was worth it as England will always let you down.

Not being from a football part of the world, this detachment was actually pretty easy. There are some cities and towns where you step out of your door and there’s a flow of people walking to the stadium on match day. I didn’t have that. And there are some families where football is a big event that everyone goes to together. I also didn’t have that.

Rugby was now officially my only sport, where I had also achieved more success on the pitch at school. And by “more success”, I mean that I was a permanent starter in the school team for a few years. We didn’t win that often, but it far exceeded my record in the school football team of being a substitute twice and only getting on the pitch on one of those occasions. Still, I did get a medal for a final I didn’t play in. The very early 2000s was also around that magical time in rugby when England were well on their way to becoming the best team in the world, something that seemed forever out of reach in football.

That’s not to say I stopped watching football entirely. When England were on, I pretended I wasn’t really watching and didn’t really care. But somehow, the games always seemed to be on in my house by some strange coincidence.

Sven Goran Eriksson’s era started off brightly enough before that sense of entitlement from the underachieving “Golden Generation” kicked in. They became a petulant bunch who grew more unlikeable with each year that passed – and didn’t seem to like each other very much either. Then there was playing Fifa at uni, which became an integral part of everyday life.

I continued to follow the team on the sly throughout the brief Steve McClaren tenure, and into Capello’s, but still didn’t like a lot of the players. Along with a lack of likeability, underachievement was the other recurring theme. I followed it a bit when Roy Hodgson was in charge, but not that intently.

And then 2018 happened. There were no expectations, which is always the best way. And somehow, the team managed to get through to the World Cup semi-finals, which I had never witnessed before as in 1990, I was six years old and asleep at the time. I got into it and my heart was beating fast during that game. To alleviate this, I had to go out and buy a bottle of red wine from the Co-op on Burton Road and proceeded to drink it all. I even managed to fit into the England shirt I got for my 14th birthday, which was the same colour as my wine.

But the team didn’t seem arrogant and entitled like the previous bunch. In fact, a lot of this may well be down to the current team having to go through the lower leagues. A few were also released from clubs when they were teenagers and had to find their own way, away from the security of an academy. The 2018 campaign was built on set pieces and they looked shaky at the back. But that’s all changed in 2021. They look much better prepared and can now even score in open play.

I hope England win tonight. If anyone has earned his success, it’s Gareth Southgate. Regardless of what happens tonight, he’s certainly put some of those penalty demons from 1996 to rest and England are in a major tournament final for the first time in 55 long years.

I also hope England win tonight for the 12-year-old me, whose hopes and expectations won’t end up being for nothing permanently. But he has a long wait ahead of him and will first have to get over his nationalism. And if they don’t, then it won’t break my heart this time. One way or another, life will go on.

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Reinstalled

This past month, I have been reinstalling apps like it’s 2016. This post has nothing to do about certain public votes that year.

I am talking specifically about two apps on my phone that I first started using in 2016, then uninstalled at various points between then and now. The reason I’ve reinstalled both is largely down to Covid-related boredom, which I am well aware may also result in a boring post. But it’s my birthday and I can post a boring post if I want to. Admittedly, that’s not the best birthday perk.

Anyway, the first app is Duolingo. I originally installed it in about December 2016, when I was in Gran Canaria and quickly realised how it was much more Spanish than I originally thought. Unable to speak a word when I arrived and feeling stupid for not knowing any basic phrases, I started learning Spanish in my hotel room. And within no time, I could order a glass of wine, a beer, and a table for one.

I used the app daily for the next year before having actual Spanish lessons and realising that the language was far harder than Duolingo led me to believe. Due to subsequent travels, I’ve used the app to learn basic Portuguese, where I achieved 7% fluency. And I also tried to rekindle my aptitude from school for German – before I stopped doing any work in Years 10 and 11 – when I went on a work trip to Cologne and again, found myself unable to say much other than: “Ich habe schlect durchfall.” Google translate that.

I actually continued using the app regularly until 2020, when I decided one day that I’d had enough of the constant threats of relegation from the leagues and the passive-aggressive emails from “Duo” trying to persuade me to use it more.

This time, I’ve opted out of the pressures of the leagues and have started learning French. I already know quite a few words and phrases from a combination of two years of lessons at school and going to France on family holidays for about 15 years pretty much straight between the ages of four and 19.

The other app I’ve reinstalled is Pokemon Go. I originally installed it when it launched in 2016 and would use it on the commute when I was working in Manchester and built up quite the Pokedex (collection).

I’ve written on here before about why I no longer play computer games due to how easily I get addicted. And it’s true again in this case. This game used to be a lot easier to switch off when you’re not moving about. But now, there’s loads of stuff you can do when staying in one place and those signs of addiction are kicking in, with battles being the main cause. Not the ones with the most powerful Pokemon though. There’s a new one where power the limit is very low. I think it’s actually a lot more fun this way, similar to how I always enjoyed being put in the bottom groups for sports at school as it made me feel like I was more skilful than I actually was. So far, my growing addiction has resulted in me spending £1.58 on additional pokeballs. If I can just get a Charizard, then I will quit again for another year or so. Definitely appropriate behaviour for a now 37 year old.

Appy birthday to me. Ahem…

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More structure

My hop structure is now complete. I think it stands about three metres in total now, which should be tall enough for the hops to climb up and do whatever it is they need to do that results in producing things to make beer out of. That’s a highly technical description of the scientific process there.

In the end, I opted to strap some bamboo canes together with some garden twine. I’ve used that obelisk I put together as a base, with three canes tied near the top of it. I also have another cane strapped horizontally toward the top of those three canes. Then I’ve tied some garden twine from the high up horizontal cane down to the other bamboo cans that have hops growing around them. It looks a bit like a ceremonial structure they would use as part of a sacrifice in a Wickerman-style event.

But considering that my DIY skills are seriously lacking and I’ve never attempted anything like it before, I’m pretty pleased with my efforts. It’s almost exactly as I’d sketched out, albeit a little wonkier. I’ll be more pleased if the hops actually grow onto it. I’ve also cut away from branches from the sycamore tree above so the hops get more sunlight.

A neighbour is mine is doing the same thing and has built a much more technically impressive structure out of wood that looks a lot more professional and robust than my efforts. It is also three metres tall and one of the hops has almost reached the top already.

I’m thinking next year of moving the hops to the front of the house, where they’ll get a lot more sunlight and be able to grow much higher. But I’ll worry about that once this year’s crop is done and I’ve drunk the nine pints of communal ale that will be heading my way.

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Back in the studio

Yesterday, I met up with my old mate Rich Shillitoe for the first time in month to work on the much-anticipated Ross Kemp: The Musical. And by “much-anticipated”, I mean by me.

Since our last session in October, I have listened to our opening number countless times. And I really fancied having a crack at recording my own version after what I considered to be several successful attempts while driving.

Aside from in my car, I haven’t done a massive amount of singing in public before. I did attend choir practice at church on one occasion when I was about eight. I was actually thinking up ways I could get away with miming and my main motive was money. But I got scared when one of the elderly ladies tried to measure me up for a cassock and never returned.

At primary school, I accidentally sang a brief solo over the instrumental part in a song during a summer concert and made sure to finish the chorus. Then about 13 years later in the first year of uni, I grabbed the microphone and sang the chorus of We Are the Champions during karaoke in our campus bar when I felt the group I was up there with weren’t putting in enough effort. And of course, after a few pints in 2010, I sang Bohemian Rhapsody with a live backing band at a rockaoke party and people genuinely enjoyed it.

Also at uni, I was the lead singer in a hypothetical band with two mates. We never wrote any songs, or even played together. But the band existed in theory.

My teenage years were when I wanted to be the frontman of a band. This was despite not being able to really play any instruments to any particular level of skill. Then again, this has hardly stopped many well-known frontmen from making their fortunes. I actually thought about forming a band with Rich when I was 17 or 18. We would have been called Contrasting Souls. He’d be dressed in black and I’d be dressed in white. I never actually told him of these plans and think it’s probably for the best.

Yesterday, it turns out that Rich wasn’t impressed with my vocal efforts. What soon became apparent is how much work I’m going to have to do on my vocals if there’s any chance of me landing the leading role in my own musical. As ridiculous sentences that I’ve written over the years on here go, that one is well up there.

At present, my breathing technique is non-existent. If I were to sing about eight songs a day for three and a half weeks at Edinburgh Fringe, there would be a good chance I’d lose my voice within a matter of days. Then there’s my history of mild throat issues that are caused by sinus problems. Perhaps I wasn’t cut out to be a rock star after all.

But then after yesterday, I thought I could direct and produce the musical and have a smaller role. It would also allow me to oversee the production to make sure everything’s running properly, which I couldn’t do it I was on stage for most of it. There’s also less chance of me burning out within the first week. Another plus side is that I will no longer have to shave my head. And maybe, just maybe, it would also give me enough time to also do a certain quiz-based show.

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Back on the road

This week, it felt like I was heading to a gig. And by that, I mean that I had to get to the motorway during rush hour.

But it wasn’t to a gig. I was on a rescue mission. My sister’s partner had been up in the Lake District with his parents for the weekend and their car had broken down on the M5, so I had to go and pick him up while to take him back to his house in Bristol while his parents waited to be towed home to Plymouth.

To mark the occasion, there were delays; albeit nowhere near on the scale of getting out of Manchester or on the M6. And it got me thinking.

When I was in London, I always envied comics with cars. Or as they’re known in the trade: “a London driver”. If you have a car, live in London and are a half-decent comic, then you instantly get more gigs because you can drive other comedians to gigs – usually the headliner.

But when I moved to Manchester, and was thus a Manchester driver, I found that I actually really hated driving to gigs. I’ve been thinking about how many different stresses were involved with the drive before I even got to a gig. The first stress was getting back to my flat from the city centre. There weren’t normally any delays on the trams, unless I had a gig to get to.

Stress number two was getting my car out of the driveway on one of the tightest imaginable roads, with cars often parked on both sides. What made this worse was if the arse bag who lived next door was blocking me in and was out when knocked on his door to ask him to move it. Thankfully, this only happened once. But even without that, it was often a really tight road if enough people had got back from work.

The third stress was getting out of Manchester, with delays and congestion on seemingly all routes out of the city. Then there was the myriad 50 mile an hour limits, reduced lane sizes and speeding lorries.

Stress number four was motorway driving during rush hour, or the winding roads of the Peak District. Snake’s Pass is one of the most terrifying places to drive in the world at night, and is even worse during bad weather.

Stress number five was finding somewhere to park when I got to the gig. And stress number six was the general race against the clock to get there on time.

So by the time I’d endured all these stresses, it was time to go on stage. It’s not surprising that many of the gigs I did during this time didn’t go as well as I’d hoped.

But that wasn’t the end of the stresses. The seventh stress was getting home again, battling motorway lane closures, diversions along one-track back roads, and just trying to stay awake.

Then the eighth stress was parking when I got back to my flat. There was enough room in the driveway outside my flat for two cars out of the three flats. And there was also technically enough room for the arse bag next door to park on the driveway outside his house. Unfortunately, he almost always strayed over to our driveway, thus depriving one of the people of their parking space – because he was an arse bag. Then getting back and finding there was nowhere to park meant trying to turn the car around in the ridiculously tight road, with mere millimetres to play with to avoid scratching one of the parked cars.

With all these stresses encountered regularly, it’s little wonder that in the summer of 2018 that there was what felt like an apocalypse raging on in my bowels.

Anyway, that went on a bit. I didn’t have to worry about most of these stresses for my rescue mission, where I was rewarded with beer for my troubles. And it just so happened to give me a chance to visit the highly regarded Gloucester Services for the first time. Service stations are a big part of the travelling comedian’s life and Gloucester Services is a firm favourite for many comics. But as I only need to come off at pretty much the next junction, I never had a reason to visit before.

I have now, and I can confirm that they’re really good. Although my heart will always be with Tebay Services, which always felt like a post-Edinburgh treat just before returning to the real world.

Visiting services stations for the sake of it isn’t something I intend on doing, although I may consider it if I need a new hobby if I ever permanently turn my back on comedy and feel there’s a lack of overpriced food and petrol in my life.

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Much-needed structure

This week involved some much-needed structure. And by that, I mean putting together something for my hops to climb.

For some time, they’ve been climbing bamboo canes without anywhere to go once they reach the top. Fortunately, they’ve only grown just over a foot and have another three feet or so of bamboo before they run out of room. So it was hardly an urgent race against time.

I ordered an obelisk online, having previously never even been aware of the word. Essentially, it’s a four-sided, free-standing trellis thing. I thought it would arrive fully formed, but it turned out to be
in pieces and with limited instructions.

Previously, the extent of my assembly skills was largely limited to a Meccano set I got for Christmas when I was about 11. I made things for a few months, before packing everything away to gather dust forevermore.

Assembling the obelisk was not without its complications, by which I mean that it kept falling. But after about two hours and a lot of swearing under my breath, it was finished and stands at about 1.8 metres. And it is still standing to this day, albeit four days later.

I’m now trying and encourage some of the hops to climb onto the obelisk. The plan is to use this as a base and then build and a taller network of bamboo canes and twine, possibly even branching out using actual branches of the nearby sycamore tree.

In other news, gigs are running again but I’m not actively pursuing them at the moment. I need to get a steady run of them together to avoid the stop-start situation that always ends up being frustrating. And that won’t be for a while. But by the time I am doing gigs again, my hops will be a lot taller and may even be ready to harvest.