Sunday, 25 July 2010

Ill communication

Mobile phones, eh? Ubiquitous technology, ever advancing, ever increasing in number and, consequently, edging out the old ways be they proper grammar and punctuation, speaking face to face or - heinously? - the vanquishment of the Red Telephone Box.

The attempts by BT - for surely it is they - to sideline the iconic edifices range from the downright bizarre, "Sorry, this phone box no longer accepts coins", to the economically driven: "If you DO have coins and you're lucky enough to be in a box which accepts them then, please, put in at least 60pence to make a call"! Okay, so your sixty pee gets you a thirty minute UK call but, for goodness sakes, most of the time the public telephone would have been used in the same banal way we now use the mobile: to let people know we're running late or that there's been a change of plans. Even the most rambling of us would struggle to stretch that out to half an hour.

This particular Local Hero style kiosk is on the tiny Hebridean island of Muck. Needless to say, as the knot of blue rope tied around the upside down door testifies, this chap's out of action. I've no doubt this will probably be a permanent measure. This is sad for all manner of reasons, not least because it represents the end of an era in terms of improving the island's links to the outside world.

At a storytelling session earlier this week, the island's previous laird - Lawrence MacEwan - told us how up until as recently as the mid 1950's Muck was phoneless and relied on the post office on the neighbouring island of Eigg to light a bonfire to let the Muckites know when an important telegram had arrived! Far more exciting than checking for messages on your Blackberry.

Perhaps this box can be saved for purposes of posterity and practicality, if not, and if the current patchy mobile coverage doesn't improve, it may well be time for the Eigg postmistress to break out the firelighters once more...

Monday, 19 July 2010

Rules are there for a reason...

In his book, McCarthy's Bar, the late, great Pete McCarthy lists one of the rules of travel as being: never pass a pub with your name on it. Clearly a man with his priorities in the right place. Today though it's another of his maxims which has come to haunt me: never go anywhere without something to read.

Admittedly this takes on far more significance if, like Pete, you're trapped on a tiny island accessible only by irregular cable car. It's also worth bearing in mind when you turn up to a National Trust for Scotland visitor centre in torrential rain for a children's event only to have the kids wheeched away and be told you're not needed.

Since reading McCarthy's Bar I've taken smug delight in always having a book or two with me. That'll teach me. With heavy heart I hit the gift shop only to be confronted with the usual Highland array of tourist tat. I was half hoping to find The True Story Of Whisky Galore by Roger Hutchison who wrote the excellent Calum's Road. Alas the closest I came was a book on what's worn under the kilt (nothing, it's all in perfect working order! Barum tish) and a selection of volumes detailing how best to match a tartan to whatever tenuous clan connection you may have. Ach well, I suppose they know their market.

Here, this one looks's by A. Local, 'Extraction and Digging Deep: A Century of Milking The Tourist Dollar'

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Britain's got talons...

The other week I was outside a well-known supermarket in Dumbarton. Also outside were a selection of birds of prey, I thought initially they'd been attracted by the two for one offers on fresh melons but it turned out they were there to promote the work of the Loch Lomond Birds of Prey Centre.

There were around a dozen birds there, by far the most impressive of which was a very chilled looking eagle owl. I was thinking what a shame it was that the wee folk weren't there to see when a wonderful idea occurred - why not take them there? Sheesh. Who knew?

So that's just what we did...albeit about a week later. A meander down through Strathyre forest and Callander brought us in the back way, avoiding all the traffic we'd been hearing about heading for the golf at Loch Lomond. The centre itself is in the back of a garden centre of all things, there must be a good reason for that but I'm damned if I can think of it.

We were shown round by a group of teenage volunteers, led by a girl of about seventeen who, she told us midway through, hadn't done the tour for over a year but with her relaxed manner and informative delivery it seemed to us as if she did it several times a day. She managed to get across loads of great information and wee asides without ever doing the whole patronising-know-it-all thing.

The children were amazed to learn that the European Eagle Owl (the one I'd seen at the shops) has a grip strength in its claws over three times that of a Rotteweilers jaws whilst my own personal favourite tale was that of another owl, Cargottow, the African Spotted Eagle Owl. Apparently, some time ago, he -yes, he - had looked after a rock for about 18months thinking it was an egg and that in nurturing it he would impress the ladies he hoped to woo (to wit, to woo even). He eventually gave the rock to a prospective mate as a gift...we weren't told if she was impressed or if she just thought he was a bit of a twit (to woo).*

*Owl Fact from the visit: Tawny Owls are the ones which do the comedy twit twoo call, the males twit, the ladies twoo.

After the owls it was on to the raptors, including Orla the Golden Eagle who captivated the kids just by sitting there - both of them decided she was the best thing in the place. My other half and I were more keen on taking Brodie, the seven week old Tawny Owl fluffball home with us. I don't think that until that point I'd ever seen an animal with eyes bigger that its head but Brodie had a darned good go!

All four of us were thrilled to have the chance to stroke Smudge, a Little Owl by name and stature. He came out on one of the guides gloves and sat nicely while we all gave him a was easy to see why he's such a popular bird with the sponsors.

A venture like this can stand or fall on the quality of its dealings with the public. We left with the impression that the staff and volunteers are committed, knowledgeable and enthusiastic. Most of all they're keen and happy to share what they know and bring some of their passion to visitors young and not so young.

Open seven days, 10-5.30 (5 on Sundays)at the incredibly reasonable price of £3.50 for adults and £2.50 for kids, it's well worth a visit and the chance to see these incredible animals.

Nature's bounty

That just never fails to be an entirely satisfactory experien... on Twitpic

That just never fails to be an entirely satisfactory experience: picking strawberries for immediate breakfast consumption. Throw in the waffles, yoghurt and freshly made coffee and Saturdays just don't start any better.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Economies of scale

I'm no businessman but even I can see that if you're using 'leftover' pots, homemade compost and a packet of seeds which cost 39pence, then if you get only one courgette with a normal retail price of over 70pence then you're onto a good thing.

I worte a few weeks ago about the wee ones' courgette planting and the other day we harvested ten of the lovely things...

As they say Stateside, you do the math.

Imagine my delight in the greenhouse last night then when I saw the cucumber plant...

The plant itself was bought for £1.50 and the last time I bought a cucumber it was seventy nine pee, so even if we only get those two you can see there, we've broken even. Like the Mastercard ad, though, the satisfaction gained from watching them grow, and helping to be a small part of that process, is priceless.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

A thing of beauty is a joy forever

Some people know just how to win over a punter. Even if the musical content turns out to be duff (which I'm certain it won't), Erland & The Carnival have triumphed with this brilliant packaging wheeze - a mish-mash of letters from those old stencils everyone used to use at school.

It won me over, as did their live session on the Janice Forsyth show the other week. Catch up with them on Twitter...

Monday, 12 July 2010

You gave up on easter for your vegan chums...

The next line of this song, Not One Bit Ashamed by the mighty King Creosote, goes "It's not good enough, not good enough." The very opposite is always, in my experience, true of a live gig by the man himself.

This photo's from a recent outing to Oran Mor as part of the West End Festival, which I'd not got round to posting due to excessive gardening activity (see rest of blog).

I've written lots about Kenny (Anderson, aka KC) in the past and this must have been about the tenth time I'd been to see him live. This was billed as a solo-show, just Kenny and his guitar and accordion - though clearly not simultaneously; that really would be a heck of a show.

Admiral Fallow opened proceedings with an excellent set and were not shy to show their influences. Echoes of King Creosote himself mixed with another Fence star, James Yorkston though the most striking resemblance, particularly on the vocals, was to the sublime Frightened Rabbit. Some heavy duty talent to live up to then. They have an album out just now with the worrying title, "Boots Met My Face" - hopefully a reference to a trip to the cosmetics counter in a well known high street pharmacy chain rather than a late night encounter in a dark lane with a group of neds. The singer was a wee bit mumbly on the night so I couldn't make out the song titles but this one, Squealing Pigs, rings a bell and is a lovely, jangly song which starts in that almost sound-of-the-sea way that James Yorkston's best stuff does. Highly recommended.

Mr. Anderson was in typically charming mood. Shorn of beard, he looks even more cheeky and elfin than usual and kicked off in contrarily quiet and almost downbeat fashion with the beautiful "And The Racket They Made". Such quiet contemplation is normally the stuff of mid-set slow downs but KC used it to grab attention in the way a good teacher does: speak quietly and they just have to listen. A reverential hush gave way to rapturous applause as the last chords were plucked.

Never playing a song the same way twice and often delving deep into a back catalogue of over forty (!) albums, a King Creosote gig is always an entertaining experience where one learns to expect the unexpected. Tonight we were treated to the use of a rattling toy elephant as percussion, a new song written in collaboration on which the ink was still so wet Kenny had to read the lyrics from a big "This Is Your Life" style red book in front of him and a blistering guest appearance on moothie from legendary man-about-the-west-end, Kenny McCluskey. So talented is the former Bluebell that you actually want to take up the harmonica because he makes it look so easy and sound so damn good.

Throughout the evening there had been occasional references to Kenny's Fence Records right-hand man and long time collaborator, Johhny "Pictish Trail" Lynch so it was no great surprise and no small delight when he was persuaded to join KC on stage for a couple of encores. It's always a delight - tinged with awe and envy - to watch talented musos just slip into comfortably matching each other's playing and harmonising as if they were a well rehearsed act; this was no exception and a reprise of "Not One Bit Ashamed" brought the sweaty subterranean proceedings to a close. trail

Friday, 9 July 2010

No pop, no style: all strictly roots

This is better. Much better. I wrote recently about my abortive strawberry runner potting up. My other half suggested I should have waited until there were roots coming out of the pot before severing the new plant's ties with the main crop.

Yesterday was that day.

Into the damp garden between downpours with the youngest who wielded an Opinel under parental supervision to slice through the - tougher than expected - runners to leave us with three new plants.

And, as it turned out, a rather nice way to tie up a wee flower bundle from her own bed in the garden...

Hey, I never claimed to be a flower arranger.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Cordial relations...

Into the midge-ridden garden again this afternoon with the wee folk to take on one of the summer's lovelier tasks: the gathering of the blackcurrants!

A much healthier haul today than the sour, hard spheres harvested for the freezer at the t
ail end of last week. As the soft inky globes dropped into the colander we could all smell the essence of Ribena and we can't wait to use them in a nice sorbet or (middle-class spoiler alert) a coulis type thing to put on our waffles.

Next up is to find out how best to promote growth for next year - hard pruning or leaving well alone? The advice on the web is a veritable tangled bramble bush of contradictions...

Eggshell a bunny rabbit's eyes

It's easy, all too easy, to grumble about the paucity of today's television, particularly when it comes to comedy. All too often we lament the passing of great shows like Only Fools and Horses whilst managing to forget the aberration that was Sorry. For every Good Life there's a Joey.

Thankfully, albeit surprisingly, the BBC's Children's Department is addressing the issue. Like a funnier Little Britain, "Sorry, I've Got No Head" is, according to The British Comedy Guide, "a fast-paced and irreverent "grown-up" sketch show for children, in which all the roles are played by adults." Their glowing review continues:

You'd have thought a sketch show made for children's TV would be a bit simple and patronising - this comedy is neither of those things. It's just like a normal sketch show, but without any rude words. In fact, it is better that a lot of the sketch shows that are aimed at adults!

As an added bonus, Sorry, I've Got No Head isn't written or performed by obscure unknowns - far from it - British comedy fans should recognise nearly all of the cast (James Bachman and Marcus Brigstocke in drag in the Little Britain-esque Jasmine and Prudith sketches are a particular joy).

The aforementioned dragged-up Bachman and Brigstocke are indeed a joy; here they are in glorious action...

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Monday, 5 July 2010

Old Town, Top Rankin...

The party's finally over. For both Inspector John Rebus and myself.

Since a stint in hospital for physio last autumn, where I picked up a copy of Fleshmarket Close in the TV room I've been hooked on Ian Rankin's detective series. Never normally one for crime novels - and sometimes not one for fiction of any sort, depending on my mood - I soon discovered the tales of the non-comformist officer to be unputdownable. One reason undoubtedly being that the prose is far less clunky than the stuff I've just typed...I digress; the 450 or so pages were finished around four in the morning having only picked it up at around nine the previous evening.

I'd be hard-pressed to say exactly what Rebus' appeal is. Certainly the few episodes of the TV adaptation I'd seen featuring the spectacularly anaemic performances of John Hannah in the title role had failed to impress, though the later incarnation featuring the impressively world-weary Ken Stott as our favourite DI is a far better watch.

In terms of the books, my previous exposure to the world of the crime/detective novel started way back with the amateur sleuthing of The Hardy Boys (alongside their faithful sidekick, Chet Morton and his 'jalopy', anachronism fans) and more recently has taken in the harder edge of Denise Mina's Glasgow-based work. A few years ago, whilst living in Edinburgh, I got heavily into the Quint Dalrymple series of "future fiction" by Paul Johnston. Although set some thirty years in the future of a vaguely dystopian Edinburgh, the fact that I lived and worked in the city at the time - just yards in fact from the main characters residence - gave the stories a certain resonance; so much so that being out alone after dark having recently read any of the books gave one a certain feeling of disquiet in the city's streets.

These forays into the underworld, though, have been few and far between. Normally I'm more content to stick with humorous travel writing: Pete McCarthy, Tim Moore; 'mad' fiction: Chris Brookmyre and a general random selection of Scottish writers such as Des Dillon, Iain Banks and Alans Warner and Spence.

John Rebus has, for me, been a welcome break in what has been the twelve or so months from hell. The familiarity of the setting - Edinburgh, the easy humour and wit of the writing, the musical references and the pace and quality of the story-telling have all been contributing factors in my immense enjoyment of the series. Mr. Rankin is an immensely engaging writer and brings the warmth and personality of his tweets to the page at every turn. Sadly, yesterday, I finished the last one, 1993's The Black Book. It's actually only book number five in a series of seventeen so you can see that chronology wasn't important to me. I'd been picking the books up in charity shops, second-hand bookshops and online for several months and had always planned - once I got a fair way through the 'set' - to read the last one, Exit Music last, regardless of the rest. Unfortunately for me I found Exit Music for a few quid some months before I'd tracked down Tooth and Nail and The Black Book and, unable to resist the lure for any longer, read the final instalment before the two earlier ones. No matter.

I've finished the lot now, though, and feel strangely bereft. Where next? Doors Open? The Complaints? Read them both already - my brother in-law and I have even mentally cast Doors Open for the big screen! (James McAvoy as 'Westie' and Stephen Fry as 'Professor Gissing', right?) I thought perhaps I'd revert to my travel idiom or perhaps read one or two of the various tracts which have been piling up since christmas without yet - as with so many of Rebus' own bedside books - making it to the top of the pile. A quick library trip in the lashing rain today saw me return with these chaps...

Murder, humour and the tyranny of the round robin xmas letter. Not necessarily in that order.

Any further suggestions welcomed: @singletrackroad

Bella cucina!

Is this what's meant by fusion cuisine? Umbria meets Uddingston in a classic cappuccino-caramel log coalition. Tasty.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Strawberry yields for breakfast...

Our first crop from the ten or so plants in the bed. The slugs have had a wee go at one or two of the precious rubies but overall they're a healthy bunch with a great smell. The fruits, not the slimy slugs...

Looking forward to this lot with some waffles, yoghurt and a cappuccino.

Pretentious? Mais oui...