Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Ben McCormick

Ben McCormick | 4th January 2024

For Ben McCormick, 2023 was a year in which he learnt to recognise his own good fortune.

As the old year gave way to the new, I cherished the last few hours in my local pub before it closed for good. A bittersweet experience if ever there was one. At the time, I could have had no idea how positively this significant loss would affect me over the following months.

Rather than mope and mourn, as would have been my wont in days gone by, or roam the locale in search of a replacement, I simply stopped boozing during the week instead. A former me may have given over an entire Shadows and Reflections to lamenting this loss (see previous years’ editions for evidence). But in a move some would describe as ‘out of character’, I had something of an epiphany. As the Joni Mitchell song goes, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. But rather than focus on the micro loss of an important part of my social life, I reckoned it would be better to plough my energy into enjoying life itself. The logic being there are plenty of pubs, but I’ve got maybe 25 years left on the planet, so perhaps try living them as well as you can.

Unshakeable logic as it turned out. School night abstinence has never been high on my agenda and I wasn’t entirely sure it was something I’d keep up for too long. Barring a few exceptions for special occasions and holidays, I’ve stuck steadfastly to it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, not having to grapple with midweek hangovers has had a noticeably positive effect on my mental health and an incredible effect on my productivity. The pub’s closure, again perhaps not unpredictably, boosted my bank balance too. Combined with a dramatic upturn in business for McCormick Editorial Services, this has given me the funds to start enjoying things properly.

While it’s undoubtedly true money can’t buy you happiness, avoiding penury doesn’t half help improve your outlook. And freeing up funds normally spent on post-work pints has allowed me to afford the a few adventures too. Easter week saw me hot-foot it to Flanders, where I rubbed shoulders with Hammers fans in Ghent before making a pilgrimage to Kulminator in Antwerp. Sadly this incredible beer bar was closed for the holidays, but Belgium isn’t short of alternatives and I duly found them elsewhere. 

It didn’t stop there. One of the fairly major decisions I took during the early part of the year when setting out to live life to the full was to sell up, move to France and open a brewery in the not-too-distant future. So towards the end of May, and with the advice of Norman Tebbit ringing in my ears, I got on my bike and took the ferry south from Newhaven to the Normandy port of Dieppe. From there, I struggled fully-laden through rolling countryside and a shrinking window of time on the road to Rouen, made the train to Paris in seconds flat and laid out to the Loire valley, where I’m hoping to make my new home. Settling in Amboise, the resting place of Leonardo da Vinci, I spent almost a week pootling around the villages and towns that border France’s most impressive river in search of a setting for my next chapter. I think I’ve found it, but you’ll have to read next year’s Shadows for confirmation.

It’s fair to say I’ve been trying to acclimatise to life across the channel ever since. A family getaway to Descartes in the Indre-et-Loire region followed, while fear of missing out prompted a last-minute decision to join the revellers at Convenanza in Carcassone a few weeks later. It was only another fortnight before I was on the outbound train from St Pancras again, this time to France’s second city Marseille. Something about its often grubby but always vibrant streets appealed to the old Mancunian in me and I’ll definitely be back with more time to linger in future. As if that wasn’t enough, I boosted my Eurostar loyalty points tally once more in November, this time on a trip to see an old friend who lives in the Vendée region, where I first worked abroad as an incredibly callow 19-year-old. At Gare du Nord, on the way back, it’s possibly the first time I’ve felt genuine regret at the prospect coming home. And not just the end-of-holiday blues either; a real reluctance to return.

But even traipsing back from the station on a cold, wet, miserable evening did nothing to dampen my spirits. There’s an undercurrent of optimism almost everywhere I look at the moment. This year has felt like a real turning point. A year when reliance on old comforts and people who don’t really care has melted away and been replaced by a more dynamic, spontaneous, dare I say happy me. It’s a tale as old as the hills, I suspect, but concentrating on what I have rather than obsessing about what I don’t have – probably long overdue, in fairness – has been an absolute game-changer. It’s not hard to look around currently and see how much worse it could be – at home and abroad.

In the past, I’ve found it incredibly difficult to recognise my own good fortune. If the year’s taught me anything, it’s that with great friends, a reasonably stable income, pretty good health and a decent imagination, I’m a lucky man. And I’ll drink to that. Just not until the weekend.