Monday, 15 December 2008

Strange Phenomenon

I don’t know why it happens but it does. After years and weeks of managing to completely avoid the X Factor I always seem to end up compelled to watch the final. Is it because it is on a couple of weeks before Christmas and I am so knackered by the time Saturday comes round I just want collapse in a heap and be drip fed red wine and dross TV?

This year I have to be honest and say I did have a tiny motive. I had heard that Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah was to be the X Factor single. I guess many purists will be horrified, but poor Leo’s retirement fund has been ripped off so he needs the cash. This is one of my favourite songs and I was curious to see how brutal the murder would be. Alexandra, the girl who won with a little help from Beyoncé, did an OK job of the classic but it wasn’t a patch on the Jeff Buckley version.

I have been trying to play and sing the song since last week and have been failing at every F, it is full of them!

Leonard depends more on his songwriting skills than his singing style.

Guilty Pleasures

As the night progressed I threw out the last of my street cred (if I had any to begin with) into the recycle bin and watched and enjoyed The Girls’ Aloud Party. I had forgotten what a Saturday night was for, but I will make sure I have other plans organised for next week or I might end up watching the final of Strictly Come Dancing.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

The result of climate change or the return of winter?

Alpine glow on Bidien Shuish

On Friday we drove through scattered snow showers to reach Fort William before the big freeze happened. Our weekend with the Ochil Mountaineers had begun in seasonal style. The Àite Cruinnichidh bunk house at Roy Bridge was the perfect doss for a trip into the abundance of hills nearby. Saturday morning broke through with every drop of precipitation in evidence frozen white. Colin and I and one other OM decided the small Binnein Shuas (746) was a perfect excursion for our winter gear. It was so, so, so cold. What’s going on, November is normally the wet month? This was phenomenal, or maybe I had just forgotten. I certainly can’t remember the last time I donned my balaclava at the car park. We were like puppies let out in the snow for the first time. The three hours to the summit gave us plenty time to dawdle and snap the light.

Our return home on Sunday was just as incredible. At the summit of Rannoch Moor the car told us it was -8.5 outside. The landscape looked like a Christmas cake iced too early. It looked alien. Is this the beginning of the ice age we have been warned about or is it just that we have been due a good hard winter?

Judging from the number of businesses closed down in Fort William (not counting the troubled Woolies), it feels like the Fort could do with a bumper skiing season to pull the town back in full swing. Let’s hope this is the year.

Recipe for the birds

We arrived home with a bump from the dizzy clear heights of the high country to the fog bound Central Belt. The garden birds were down to their last few peanuts so I made then a special treat - Home made bird cake. This counts as a first because I made it first only a couple of weeks ago.

In a large pot melt half a packet of vegetable suet over a slow heat
Add a general wild bird food mix until the suet has been absorbed and all the seeds coated
Pack the crumbly mixture into half coconut shells or any other suitable container. It only takes a couple of minutes to cool and harden. Take outside and sit back to watch your afternoon entertainment; a feeding frenzy and a few spats too.

As I put the food out I couldn’t help worrying about the deer herd I saw down at road level hunting for some food. I hope they will not suffer too much with this early winter.

Just Read Barbara Kingsolver Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Barbara Kingsolver, author of the Poisonwood Bible, is famous for her novel writing but I suspect she is about to become the Al Gore of the literary world. This book chronicle the project she embarked on with her husband and two daughters; to live for a year eating only food sourced within a hundred mile radius of their home in Virginia. This fascinated me because it seemed impossible and I continually searched for holes in their theory. How would they manage without resorting to living through the winter months eating turnip and brussels sprout soup. They achieved it in style.

They did have the benefit of living on a farm and flexible jobs but it could not be denied that they worked hard at making this work.

I loved reading the book. At first I wished that I read it in February because I was itching to grow things but half way thorough I decided November is the perfect time because I now have time to plan how I can make a dent in our food miles.

While reading the book I dragged up a memory of someone trying this in Fife. Google brought me to the Fife Diet. I know Fife isn’t as exotic as Virginia but it is only fifty miles from me and I have to travel there anyway to visit my family so I found their resources most helpful.

Even if you don’t agree with Barbara’s view the book is worth a read for the exquisite and humorous writing.

I’m now off to order my cheese making kit. Thanks for the idea Barbara.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

Firecracker Corn Bread

Today is Thanksgiving and because I am a global type of person, I decided we should celebrate it. We have been celebrating Chinese New Year for at least three years. The only problem was Colin is out tonight so we celebrated one day early.

I am addicted to two US food blogs 101 cookbooks and Smitten Kitchen so finding recipes was not going to be a problem. On the menu was Pumpkin Soup (recipe courtesy of the BBC) served with firecracker corn bread (101 cookbooks) - this was hot! I had roast duck because I can't face cooking turkey twice in one year, roast potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and Confit of Cranberry (Delia). OK so it was a trial run for Christmas but at least I now have duck fat for roast potatoes and my mountains of cranberry freezing away until the 24th. Life is going to be so easy. Now looking back at my meal I see the one and only recipe from over the pond was the corn bread.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Not Long to Go

Fig wine colour co-ordinating with a pumpkin and my maturing Sloe Gin.

It’s been a while since I posted a ‘first fifty’ blog and because it is nearing the end of the year the ‘firsts’ are starting to pile up.

Over the past few weeks the firsts have been;

Read Great Expectations
. I have read Dickens before but am amazed at the amount of people I have met recently who declare this to be their favourite all time book. It was beginning to get to me. In my classics bookcase I have a fine set of three leather bound compendiums my dad bought years ago and never read. Mark Twain (another who beckons), Arthur Conan Doyle and Dickens. There is no excuse.

The introduction to this version of Great Expectations claims, rather sniffily, that it was a block buster of its day. I can assure anyone who has never read it, that it is a fantastic page turner but it deserves the title of classic. The characters, particularly of Pip, are flawed with human traits and the mad Miss Haversham is every bit as nutty as I imagined she would be. Even the ending is left for the reader to decide. It may not be the best book I have read but it is certainly in the top twenty.

Make Fig Wine
. This year I planted a fig tree and in anticipation of that crop I bought a 500gram bag of figs from the health store. I was then flummoxed as to what to do with them, so I did what I always do with buckshee produce – I made wine. Fig wine was easy to make and cleared to produce a warm honey coloured liqueur with long legs. And the taste? Well it tastes a little strange – it tastes like honey and Greek yoghurt. I am sure it has some medicinal qualities too!

Go to the Bingo
. This is one I have been pining to do. When I was an unruly teenager I would occasionally go to the Sunday night bingo session in the Oakley Miner’s Welfare Club. I sat among all the old biddys and tried to win back some of my drinking money. I was hopeless because I was always too shy to call, but I hankered after these big colourful neon sparkled bingo halls just the same. What would they be like?

On Friday night my friend Fiona and I went to a Carlton Bingo(somewhere in Scotland). We signed up for our membership, paid our money and were given a pile of bingo books, each page containing about six separate grids to play off. It was daunting. The wee man at the microphone was kind enough to tell us what order the books were to play, then we were off. This must be the best trial for concentration I have ever had. The game starts with trying to fill one line. In no time someone calls. The next game is for two lines. This was new to me, they never had this in Oakley. It turned out to be the most difficult of all, so difficult that unlike my early days of silence, I called because I believed I had two lines filled up. I did have two lines filled up, I was certain and yet when the boy came and called my book number, ‘the computer said no’ I still needed 46. Fiona was buckled and my confidence was floored and my face scarlet. No one else seemed to mind. The next part of the game was for a full house. Neither Fiona nor I were near the mark on any of the games, but we did have fun for the first half, then the novelty ran out. We had arranged to meet Colin for a meal and had to leave before the end. The two ladies next to us were delighted to receive out remaining books. They were not fazed with the prospect of looking for numbers on twelve grids. I don’t know how they do it.

The Battle of Stiling Bridge in crayon. It wasn't originally as messy as this, but the sheet has been kicking about in my handbag all weekend

Brass Rubbing.
This might sound daft but it is still a first. I remember when I was a kid this was trendy, if a little nerdy pastime; a bit like crocheting your own bikini. On Saturday I went to the Smith Institute in Stirling with the intention of visiting the Leonardo De Vinci exhibition, the only problem was it moved to Aberystwyth at the beginning of the month. The Smith Institute can still thrill no matter what the exhibits are. The replacement for Leo was the Fife Printmakers Workshop which, spookily, normally lives in the next street to my mother’s flat in Dunfermline. The rest of the time I spent revisiting the permanent exhibit of the history of Stirling, which is more comprehensive than the bridge battle and William Wallace. There are hands on activities one of which is a brass rubbing section. Pick up a piece of paper and a crayon and rub. It isn’t as easy as it sounds; I think the correct way is to tape the paper to the brass, without tape the paper slides around. Good fun though.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008


The Bandsmen

A few years ago my sister and I helped Mum break up the family home in preparation for her move into a retirement flat. It was a time of sadness, but also a time of fun and joy when we found long forget ten toys, photos and musical instruments in the loft. One of the finds, among my dad's possessions, was a diary that belonged to his father, James Patrick McPartlin. Mum gave it to me along with some photos.

The diary is a brown book measuring only one and a half inches by three inches. Just the right size to fit into a serviceman's tunic. The year of the diary is 1918.

My granddad (Papa) was a bandsman and served in the Machine Gun Corp (Suicide Club). In 1918 he was wounded and gassed and spent most of the year in hospital. This diary has fewer than 20 words written in the pages, but they are enough to sketch the picture of his year. When he was discharged from hospital he still had an open wound which needed to be dressed daily for the rest of his life. He died in his fifties, years before I was born.

Not long after receiving the diary I had the opportunity to visit the memorial to the Machine Gun Corp which is situated at Hyde Park Corner in London. Unfortunately it is covered in graffiti but it gave me the chance to thank my grandad for my life and gave me the inspiration to write this poem.

The first few words of each verse are his words - the few entries to be found in this historic diary

(in italics, the sparse 1918 diary extracts of bandsman, James McPartlin, No11 Coy D. Batt, Machine Gun Corps (Suicide Club).)

Jan 10 operation at Stoke War Hospital - your time cut
through horror and waste, steal a breath.
Lungs to blast music fill with poison gas
lay down you instrument and accept the shrapnel blast

Jan 29 operation war Hospital - and lie there, alive
whilst your bandsmen march the tempo of death,
innocent eyes stare out from the frame
stir guilt that beats time in your brain

Feb 6 23 years of age - celebrate old man,
the passing of youth through your bloody wounds
here’s your chance to play the second canon
perform in a brave new battalion

May 3 To Stone Red Cross Auxiliary Hospital - and as you heal
forget the distant thunder of horns
tend to your heart for there lives a hope
sound the Reveille and drown the Last Post

July 29 Left Stone Red Cross Hospital - to bear false hopes
pack your kit bag once more
the suicide club fights to the death
and they are not finished with you yet

Aug 24 operation - hush in dolce
they whisper ‘instruments still shine’
another theatre awaits the twist of a knife
to lay open a weeping wound for life

Oct 18 Discharge from Hospital - with instruction
for a lifetime of pain, a daily dress down parade
a small sacrifice to return home
sow seeds and watch them grow

Oct 31 Left Stoke Staffs - turn your back
for your year and war is ended
syncopation falls flat and the metronome slows
as bandleader bows, the last valves close

Nov 1 Landed Home - to fanfare
to an annual garland of red paper flowers,
your life short, others shorter yet
so we may be free and still we forget

Thursday, 6 November 2008


Last week I trailed round my village with a red can and a bag of plastic poppys to try to persuade people to part with their money for the Scottish Poppy Appeal. The week before all the poppy volunteers gathered in the village hall to watch this video.

It should be shared with everyone; the statistics are shocking.

Please watch this and give to the Scottish Poppy Appeal if you are as moved by it as I was.

Let us hope Obama and Brown can sort this out.

Monday, 27 October 2008

food and drink and foraging

High Brow or What

It is no coincidence that food and drink feature highly on my list of first fifties. I adore food (and drink). The weekend before last was the beginning of my collection of food firsts.

Every year Aberfoyle hold a mushroom festival and being close at hand seemed like an opportunity not to be missed for a novice forager like myself. I booked a couple of places on a mushroom foray. The weather has been pretty yuck here but thankfully the rain stopped just in time for us to meet Liz, our guide for the day. She led us under screaming children having fun on the Go Ape slide that operates from David Marshall Lodge. Liz was very knowledgeable about her subject and without being too technical managed to engage an audience of about twenty adults and teenagers. We were given an opportunely to forage for mushrooms and bring them back to Liz for identification. In one small patch we managed to collect a fair haul, most were inedible, some poisonous. There was one log covered in Angels Wings, a white fungi Liz said was edible, so I took a couple of wings to try later.

Next morning I chopped up a small piece of mushroom and fried it in butter. Colin and I both tried some and waited for an effect. When but there was no ill effect I chopped up the rest and put in our chicken gravy. I was not happy when clearing the plates away I found that Colin had left most of his mushroom lying on the plate. Coward.

The next first was a long overdue visit to a Concert, a Canapé and a Cocktail, which plays every Monday at Oran Mor and is a sister event to the much loved Play, Pie and Pint. The concert played by the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland was superb. Unfortunately the canapés were unremarkable and the cocktail had dubious ingredients and little alcohol content.

Not so the last of my firsts this week. On Saturday night we went to dinner at friends’. We were royally treated to champagne, red wine, roast beef with perfect vegetables and a cocktail I have never tasted before. ‘A dirty girl scout’ was served between courses, this is a concoction of three parts Baileys to one part crème de menthe, I think vodka might have been mentioned too. It tasted like peppermint creams and judging by the hangover I had yesterday it was lethal.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Echo Wall by Dave and Claire Macleod

Watch the trailer again

Last week I blogged the trailer for Echo Wall. This week I’ve been lucky enough to preview the Echo Wall DVD and can tell you that the full length version lives up to the thrills of the trailer.

Climbing was a mystery to me until I moved to Glasgow in 1998. Back then I sometimes accompanied Colin to the Glasgow Climbing Centre at Ibrox. There I would piddle about on a couple of climbs trying the reach the top of easy walls before wimping to the café in the rafters to sup hot chocolate and watch the show on the really, really hard walls. One night I noticed a dark haired climber who bore a striking resemblance to my horrible ex boss, I was fascinated, not by the resemblance but by the sheer eloquence of the climbing. Even I could recognise this climber was special. At the end of the night I asked Colin who he was. ‘That’s Dumbie Dave, he’s from Dumbarton’.

The climber was Dave Macleod, now one of the world top climbers as proven in his astounding film E11, when he pioneered one of the hardest rock climbs ever.

A year ago Dave and his wife Claire moved to Fort William to concentrate on their professional climbing and film careers. They might not like this comparison but they seem to me to be the Posh and Becks of the climbing world, but with substance and much more to offer.

Echo Wall finds Claire behind the camera, filming her husband training for an attempt on a dangerous climbing route, a blank wall on Ben Nevis. Where this film differs for other climbing cinematography is that there is no Big Wall American hype or zoom-in shots of worried faces; no phoney tension build up or histrionics and no strangled cries of ‘OMG this is awesome’.

Echo Wall is clever. One powerful opening shot is a wide angle of the massive, terrible ice smeared cliffs of Ben Nevis and a single, small figure (Dave) moving up the face, the shot is super imposed with the climb’s name ‘Don’t Die'(XI). My heart stopped at that point and I began to bite my finger nails.

The training in Spain shows Dave climbing 'Darwin Dixit' (8c) solo (no ropes – very bad if he fell). The techno drum soundtrack choreographed the piece into a stunning new art form; a synchronism of man and rock. It was wonderful to watch and I still had some nails left.

The training on Echo Wall itself showcased Scotland at its weather worst and best. The highlight for me was Dave’s training run over Tower Ridge, a ridge that most people tackle roped up.

It was fascinating to listen to Dave’s philosophy on risk and to watch him on hand and knees on his hall floor making a reinforced thighpad (next years must haves) and explaining how it would give him a few minutes rest time on the climb just before the crux (the hardest part where he could fall off).

The actual attempt is arresting, I have no idea what Claire must have been feeling behind the camera and I wonder if having her there makes any difference to Dave’s obvious sound attitude.

I won’t spoil the ending for you but will recommend that, if you are planning to buy a Christmas DVD for an adventure hungry relative or Discovery Channel junkie, then this is guaranteed to thrill.

As a novice film maker, Claire must be applauded for the production of the film. The appropriate and evocative music is ModernTrad and very desirable to own. She would have been spoiled for choice of scenery shots in Scotland, in this instance the choices shows relevant locations, using the best light and angles. Even the fun shots of the pair digging a snow pack off the route lightens the tension and makes the whole project feel intimate.

I suspect we won’t see a perfume range produced by Brand Macleod but I predict that thigh pads and hopefully the movie soundtrack will be the next offering. Even an art installation at the Glasgow Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) is a possibility.

The DVD can be purchased from and selected outdoor stores.

Friday, 10 October 2008

The best First of all

The Memorial, Lochore Meadows (the meedies)

Yesterday was National Poetry Day and I had something on my list that could no longer be avoided – to read my poetry in public.

I woke in the morning and decided there and then it had to be done. To prevent me wimping out at the last minute, I emailed my intended participation to the organiser of the Scottish Federation of Writers’ poetry event that was due to happen in Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art(GOMA)library. All the way into town I psyched up, reminding myself that I had climbed the Inn Pin on Skye and hadn’t been this scared. What was I scared of? I was only reading, I wasn’t going to fall off a podium to my death.

The problem is that I suspect I have mild dyslexia, my reading is atrocious, my spelling even worse. Visions of me standing in front of the School assembly and stumbling through passages from the bible still haunt me and bring me out in cold bile. Now that I am writer, I find that reading my own work is even worse. Whenever I read out at my local writing group my throat closes up and I sound like a throttled chicken.

At the GOMA the show was in fair flow when I arrived. My two writing buddies Frances and Sarah came along for moral support and to make sure I didn’t bolt. As I sat and waited for my name to be called, I could feel my face and neck redden, this often happens when I am nervous. Then a strange calm came over me. This is my inevitability period when I know I will go the whole way. It happened to me as I sat in the car at the beginning of my driving test and it happened as I stood at the start of the Inn Pinn climb. I recognised this feeling and decided that I could do it. My name was called and I stood up in front of twenty odd people, I held a microphone tight and read my two poems. It was fantastic, I was so happy, I still am.

The theme of National poetry day was Work and being brought up in Fife I read two poems about the industry there. The first Cut Fingers is about the fishing industry, I explained how a fisherman’s jersey is knitted with individual patterns to make it easier to identify drowned sailors. The second poem Colliery Requiem is on my website and is about the closed pits on the Auchterderran Backbone seam in West Fife.

Here they are below, I hope you like them.

Cut Fingers

Cut fingers twist coarse yarn,
A new bride adds her history.
Bramble, moss, lover’s knot,
her family’s texture wovening.

Cut fingers mending nets,
salty, worn, stinging.
The beacon calls, guiding home.
Harbour walls embrace them.

Cut fingers casting off.
Storm brews then rages.
Hook their bodies, reel them in.
Life’s threads unravelling.

Colliery Requiem
Minto, come away, you've had a hard life,
your belly, ripped apart, with nought to show.
Your master tired of grafting,
searching for a prettier face.

Nelly and Mary you were raped in your youth,
became killers of children and men
You were treated like whores,
then cast aside on the heap.

Jenny Gray , are you there? Or lost in time,
To creep into the memories of breathless souls.
They loved you too much,
but to what cost?

Josephine, Oh queen, witch, volatile wench,
your fiery depth, the lure of all greed.
Ten honest men entombed,
on your Halloween.

Michael, conquered tides, held back the swell.
Rich beyond dreams, was justice ever yours?
Once the prize of the land,
now a fight beyond mortal men.

Frances, you were drowning, or so they said.
No good for the cost, a sacrificial lamb.
Keep your treasure locked,
and wait for resurrection.

Continuum, a back bone tired and destroyed.
Cruel death and disease replaced by depressions.
Community soul passed on
to other pursuits.

Memorial, raise your defiant head in the blistering rays,
shadowed in Benarty's bulk, beyond the rising Loch.
Silenced, while children play oblivious.
The cage closes, sealed forever.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

A fistful of firsts

Check out this new film by Rare Breed Productions. 'Echo Wall' is released this month and can be ordered directly for

Who needs manufactured Hollywood Blockbusters when you can witness real live thrills played out on the steep cliffs of Ben Nevis.

A fistful of firsts

Well maybe not a fistful but I love alliteration and sometimes I can’t help myself.

Saturday dawned with the water pouring from the sky and from the cold water tank overflow pipe. Colin could fix one but not the other. We decided to knock off a couple of things I had on my fifty wish list with the biggest and best of the day being in direct response to the weather. What better day to go to the first and only boat lift in the world – The Falkirk Wheel. Opened by The Queen in 2002 and just thirty miles from home, I am amazed it has taken me so long to visit this feat of Scottish engineering. While we waited for the boat trip we encountered many soaked and mud splattered charity mountain bikers who had just travelled the route we originally planned to take to the Wheel; the canal tow path from Anniesland. I am so glad we opted for the car.

The Boat trip lasts an hour and for our £8.00 we were treated to a running commentary by a crewman while we travelled the four and a half minute vertical journey from the Forth and Clyde Canal to the Union Canal, then a short trip through a tunnel and back again. It is too difficult for a engineering nitwit like me to explain the full principle of the wheel but it works using the counter weights of two gondolas, so uses hardly any power to operate.

Another first for me was, while travelling to the Wheel, we passed through Bonnybridge. Now Bonnybridge has been a fascination with me for years, ever since I heard that they have more UFO sightings there than anywhere else in the world. As we drove through I tried to suss out why aliens would pick this place to make an appearance. The town was a boom town during the industrial revolution, with good road, rail and canal links, but now it looks very much like a number of small towns in Central Scotland, a bit tired.

A second interesting fact I found out about Bonnybridge while at the Wheel was that they have more lottery winners per capita than anywhere else in the UK.

On the way back home I was tempted to stop off in Bonnybridge to bag another first, - buy my first lottery ticket, but then I remembered the reason why I have never bought a ticket before. I passionately believe that the lottery robs people not just of their money but of their aspirations. I remember in the olden days people pinned all their hopes on winning the pools, at least there was a small degree of thought went into that practice. The lottery is chance. Folks live from one week to the next in the hope of winning money to pull them out of the doldrums.

I know that the counter argument is the lottery gives to a large number of good causes, but it is my experience that the beneficiaries of the good causes are a different demographic completely for the poor buggers who spend large proportions of their income chasing empty dreams.

My first fifties are things I have always wanted to do, the lottery does not fall into that bucket. I know I will never buy a ticket.

First number three for this weekend was to cook a Sri Lankan meal. I am not sure if this is a cheat of not but I bought a packet of different spice at The Wheel Shop and yesterday I mixed them with the last of my garden potatoes and spinach to make a lovely coconut curry. The Hodhi Mix contains turmeric, dried curry leaf, mustard seed, mustard flour and Rampe. At first I thought this was a funny thing for a Scottish tourist shop to sell until I realised the producer, Therssy’s Village, is based in Portree, Isle of Skye.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Joan Baez wows Glasgow

Another first for me. Last night I witnessed the hard men of Glasgow simper under the hypnotic vocals of legend Joan Baez. The show at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall was special for me because having just learned the rudiments of guitar I have a renewed love of all things folk.

Joan Baez was a huge draw when I was a child and to have the chance to see her singing live was a privilege.

This lady, who has shorn her hippy hair, now looks stunning with a trendy silver crop. She retains the crisp vocals and astounding range of early Joan. However she did admit last night, after forgetting lyrics for a second time, that her brain cells are not what they were. Her band played a little out of sync with her; this was explained when she introduced them as having met her only a week and a half ago. Because of this I enjoyed her solo set best, just Joan and her guitar.

It is a testament of our time, that her signature protests songs have now been reintroduced into the set. Dylan's God On Our Side was particularly telling.

The humor was provided by the guy in the first row who persisted in shouting out requests, despite Joan's plea for a translator. The affection the crowd poured towards Lady Joan was touching. I suspect she has a long career ahead of her.

Just Read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

In my quest to read more African books in 2008 than I have in my previous fifty years, it was a delight to stumble upon Poisonwood Bible in the Bibliocafe. The book is a former Oprah book club choice but, having now peeked into the list, with some exceptions, I am beginning to think that is no bad thing.

Set in the Belgian Congo at the time of Independence, this novel tells the tale of an evangelical minister who drags his wife and four daughters into the jungle to convert the natives. Told through the five very distinctive female voices, this is a masterpiece in character, plot and sentiment. With the exception of War and Peace it is the best book I have read this year.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Food for Free but no vitamin D

One of my few sunflowers not felled under the weight of August's rain.

Experts said on the radio yesterday that the people of Scotland suffer from a vitamin D deficiency because the sun's rays refuse to shine here. Looking at the weather today I can see their point but there is so much more going for us that we forget to look beyond what the experts tell us.

Last night's full moon could not been seen through the rain clouds, but I knew it was there. I am inclined to call this the Harvest Moon although that technically is not correct; the Harvest Moon is the moon after the first frost and miraculously we haven’t had a frost yet. But harvesting is what I did most of the weekend. The wet summer means the hedgerows are dripping with produce and there is enough for me and the birds. The day was dry and bright on Sunday and Colin and I stepped just outside our door and foraged for sloe berries, rowan berries and brambles. The hawthorn is in abundance too but we had run out of bags when we reached them. I also collected some beechnuts which I intend to roast.

And like last year I collected pounds of plums and damsons from my neighbours’ trees. Yesterday while the rain poured down and the sun refused to gift the Scots with their necessary dose of vitamin D, I spend the afternoon in the warm company of the radio making compote, jam, chutney, wine, sloe gin and rowan berry liqueur. I think we now have more than enough sugar and alcohol in that batch to see us through the wet winter.

I just need to find my own herring stock and then the vitamin D problem will be sorted.

My barrel garden

More firsts

The harvest in the garden has also been a bumper. In keeping with my Fifty First Timers here is a list of all the vegetables and fruit I grew successfully for the first time this year;
Peppers, cucumber, cauliflower, leeks, celery, asparagus pea, red onion, tomatillo and Brussel sprouts. I am also attempting to grow aubergine but as yet they have to bear fruit. Rhubarb, gooseberry and blackberry, have also been planted this year although the birds had the feast of the harvest there. I grew marigolds from seed and used these as a companion plant for the greenhouse plants. It was amazing to watch them being shredded by tiny beasts while the veg plants were left to grew in peace.

If the food prices continue to rise at their present rate I may have to put in even more effort next year to reduce my food air miles and the strain on my budget.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Buffalo Burgers and Mud Cakes

Wet or What!

Hydro may be Greek for water but Hydro Connect is Rock and Roll for Mud

Last weekend I experienced probably the best first of the year. We went to our first ever music festival; Hydro Connect, a boutique festival still in its infancy which is held in the impressive grounds of Inveraray Castle, the ancestral home of the Duke of Argyll.

We wanted the whole outdoor festival experience so opted to camp, although we weren’t so brave as to take our own tent, we opted for ‘posh’ camping organised by Tangerine Fields. The tents were supplied and erected. All we had to do was lug our supplies in from the car park situated twenty minutes up a muddy path. Being festival virgins we were dismayed to realise that the dozen bottles of beers we carried in would be banned from the site. So we drank some, hid the rest in the woods and vowed to know better next time.

The weather was overcast on the Friday but warm and dry. The main stage was situated at the bottom of a field directly below the castle and because the tickets were limited to 20,000 it was possible to sit on your free poncho and watch the bands without any obstruction and dance around on the grass without spilling your drinks. It was also possible to spot friends you haven’t seen for over a year.

The Friday highlights for me were Manic Street Preachers and the brilliant and very tall Kasabian, who were headlining that stage.

We were further delighted to stumble upon Sparks, a weird band I remember from my teenage years.

The first night in the tent was not too bad, but that may have been helped by the alcohol consumed. We were disappointed that the dedicated toilets and showers promised to us by Tangerine Fields had not arrived. The line of Portaloos was found after a long traipse through a muddy field and were non too fresh by the evening.

The next day was still overcast but dry. The earlier line up was uninspiring so we headed towards the Speakeasy tent for brownies and coffee. Alan Bissett was due to appear at four but before that we saw an interview with the organiser and the Duke and saw a fantastic new band called Grace Emilys. It was such a treat. Alan Bissett performed his piece in wellies and was very entertaining.

Although I was ambivalent about seeing Paulo Nutini, he was the highlight of the day for me. His set was spot on and his new songs inspiring.

The tent field - no chance of escape

Our night in the tent was spent sleepless, listening to Tangerine Fields staff playing guitars and singing. There was one happy guy who held the title of “The world’s most irritating laugh”. If I had met him next morning I think I might just have punched his laugh out.

On the Saturday I noticed the camping and festival fields were morphing from grass to mire. When Sunday arrived wet with no outlook to clear, I predicted a mud riot in the car park later, so we packed up early and took the car out of the muddy field and parked it in Inveraray. Although the coffee shops there were filled with tourists, the owners welcomed all the festival goers and didn’t seem to mind the muck on their carpets.

Back at the field the mud was getting deeper and someone started a mud slide. Waiting in the queue for the toilets was like trying to walk through plastacine, and it stank because the urinals were overflowing (I was reliably informed).

The rain continued until six in the evening. When Sigur Ros came on stage the sky was clearing, mist was settling over the tops of the trees and the air was filled with a spooky anticipation. This is what I had been waiting for and I was not disappointed. They played a perfect pitch set and had the crowd baying for more.

Other highlights from Sunday were Elbow and Goldfrapp (what is it with her and clowns?)

The festival goers were a friendly bunch and just out for a good time. The setting was perfect despite the mud. I will be back next year - well done Duke of Argyll, thanks for giving up your home for the weekend

One other first from the weekend

One of the main festival attractions for me was the food on offer. Loch Fyne had a tent which served the best pre baked macaroni and cheese I have tasted (and I have tasted many because I have a personal challenge to find the best macaroni and cheese). They also have yummy lamb stovies and kebabs, and juicy cheese burgers. There was little of culinary interest outside this tent with the exception of The Puddledub Farm Stall. Have you ever tasted buffalo burgers? The nutritional value posted outside the stall was impressive. I had to try. They were succulent and tasty and hit the spot. I might catch them at a local farmers market later in the year and stock up my freezer.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

A chance to be inspired

Below are the details of the Lapidus Residential Conference. I have been a fan of Lapidus for over a year now. They are a worthwhile group who believe in the power of the word. This year's impressive lineup are sure to inspire you.

I first saw Seeds of Thought last year at Glasgow's West End Festival and try to catch them whenever they make an appearance. Their performance poetry is stunning.

The Line Up

Words In The World - Residential Conference at Newbattle Abbey

A rich line-up of poets, storytellers and environmentally-friendly writers has been announced for a Residential Conference in the beautiful setting of Newbattle Abbey near Edinburgh from Thursday 9th to Sunday 12th October.

The theme is Words in The World and you’ll be exploring the power of words to change yourself and the world. To inspire you there will be Seeds of Thought, an urban poetry group who share words, art and music; Valerie Gillies, the former Edinburgh Makar and Ted Bowman of the National Association for Poetry Therapy (USA).

The Conference aims to encourage personal, political & ecological explorations for writers, singers, activists, environmentalists, health and social service workers... anybody who wants their words heard in the world. There will be Open Space sessions facilitated by Larry Butler & Margot Henderson to maximise those fruitful, between-speaker spaces.

This conference is the harvest of a year-long project run by Lapidus Scotland. Contributors from previous workshops such as land-artist, Gerry Loose; storyteller/poet/singer Margot Henderson and crofter-poet, Mandy Haggith from Assynt will report, share and create new synergies out of the work done throughout the year.

Words in The World is like a river flowing over stone, each event deepening the relationships and embedding the insights made over time. Come and add your unique voice to the flow.
Contact: or Lapidus Scotland, 2/1 14, Garrioch Drive G20 8RS.
Rates: inc. full board: £190 (conc); £240; £290 (organisational)

Supported by Awards for All, Scottish Book Trust, Glasgow City Council and Lapidus [Literary Arts in Personal Development]

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

to be admired

Congratulations Team GB! Nineteen Olympic gold medals and a shed load of others. I am please that the Olympics were such a success. The British reporters on the ground in Beijing were heaping praise on the organisation and the friendliness of the volunteers. Well done Beijing.

And come on London - you have a lot to live up to now.

Leave the girl alone

I was stunned at the weekend to hear normally egalitarian friends slagging off Madonna,

What is she like?
She should act her age
Why can’t she grow old gracefully?
She should be at home knitting


This woman is a dancer by profession, why can’t she be allowed to do her job. I have never heard anyone saying that Mike Jagger should grow old gracefully, they say of him ‘Isn’t it great he still rocks.’

I reminded these so called liberal thinkers that Dame Margot Fonteyn did not start dancing with Nureyev until she was forty three and she did not retire until she was sixty.

If fifty is the new forty then I think Madonna has a few years left before she needs to pick up her knitting needles.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Thank you for the Music

A great music experience

Life has been pretty quiet and I was struggling to find some thing to put on the blog tonight then I turned on the radio for my tea time music fix. I enjoy cooking but sometimes weekday meals become a chore; Radio Scotland’s and Bryan Burnett’s ‘Get It On’ is the best antidote for teatime blues. I have mentioned ‘Get it on’ before but to remind you the programme – now extended to a two hour slot - chooses a theme each night and listeners send in their requests. The format throws out the most unexpected selections and during the show you are constantly saying ‘Oh I haven’t heard this for years’

The programme has a definite cult following with regular contributors like ‘Jim the Jam Man’ ‘Mike from Fife’ and the ‘Inverpolly Crew’. On the Monday second hour one listener has the chance to feature their own summer mix; a play list with related stories behind the choices. These have been immensely popular and often hilarious but tonight’s offering deserved to win a platinum disc.

Maybe it’s because we Scots are a sentimental bunch but Donna’s summer mix was heart wrenching and judging from the comments read out, everyone agreed. Donna, an American pilot, came to Scotland for a holiday last year, ended up on the Isle of Skye met Bryan (not Bryan Burnett) and they fell in love, married, but live thousands of miles apart. I could hardly eat my tea for the lump in my throat. Check it out - Donna's story and her playlist are on the blog. I feel as though I am part of a big family. I hope Donna finds a job in Scotland soon.

Still On the music theme

Colin and I are currently working our way through our separate vinyl collections and converting them to digital. This is enjoyable but can often be an emotional experience. Last Saturday night I played Stevie Nicks' Bella Donna and it brought back painful memories of my first marriage.

Christmas Day 1980something I received this album from my parents, but I was forbidden to play it by my then husband. He maybe wanted to watch ‘Eastenders’ or ‘The Great Escape’ for the tenth time - I can’t remember. Once he was drunk enough and sleeping, I crept out of my marital bed in the middle of the night, poured myself a wee glass of wine and listened to my pressie. Sad eh?

Tuesday, 12 August 2008


Be Nice

Some B*****d has hijacked my email. I was first alerted to this yesterday by a friend and am still trying to resolve the problem with Google.

What amazes me is the various reactions to the spam blast that was sent out from my mail. Most people are concerned and let me know, while others send nasty requests for me not to send such mails to them ever again. Why oh why do people find it so easy to be nasty on email.

Come on guys; let’s be civil to each other out there in cyber space. It wasn’t my fault, honest.

TV and Newspaper reports

I was fed up with the BBC coverage of the lead up to the Olympics. They appeared to be obsessed with the pollution in Bejing, but I was appalled my Kirsty Wark’s biased discussion about the opening ceremony on Newsnight on Friday. The report stressed that there was no reference to Mao in the celebrations and that China seems to have conveniently forgotten its past. When a young Chinese guy in the studio tried to point out that London would probably not dwell on slavery, colonialism and Northern Ireland when their time came, he was dismissed and the debate was handed back to a North American journalist who rubbished the whole games. This happened several times during the debate, was blatant and embarrassing to watch.

Kirsty was not finished, she then went on deliver another bias report on the situation on Georgia, leaving the interviewee visibly bemused by her slanted attitude. I don’t know the full story of this dispute because she was too busy trying to score anti Russian points to allow the story to emerge. I only watched Newsnight becasue it followed QI and I thought it might have shown highlights of the opening ceromany. I will remember to switch off in future.

I gave up reading newspapers a long time ago because their biased views and reports are dictated by the fat cats that own them.

They say their reports are in the public interest, but the public I speak to are sick of it.

I read the Metro which gives the facts; that after all is what I am looking for, not hidden agendas. The rest I can pick off the internet.

Phew, I feel better now.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

History Lesson

Fifty First Timer No. 27
Read and adored War and Peace

The blurb on the cover says this is the greatest book ever written. I don’t know if that is true but it is certainly one of the best books I have read.

To say I was daunted reading this 1360 page novel is a lie; I have been in the past that was until I heard a great piece of advice. ‘How do you eat an elephant? Answer, in bite size pieces.’ That is how I tackled this, a chapter at a time. The hardest part was holding the book for long stretches of time, its heavy!

The story takes place over two Napoleonic Wars and gives a fantastic insight into the way the Russian class system worked at that time – no wonder they had a revolution. The aristocracy were few but owned all the land and also owned the Serfs, who were slaves. I am so ignorant, I had no idea.

I also worked out that Tchaikovsky wrote 1812 Overture about the battle of Borodino – there is a gruesome section about this battle.

As the title suggests, it isn’t all about War. There are long sections about the years between the two wars. There are over 500 characters (some historical) in War and Peace Tolstoy uses great techniques to help the reader remember who each one is. By the time I was finished the book I was intimate with them and now miss them.

I would encourage everyone to read this book, it only took me two months to read.

Age doesn’t come on its own

As a birthday present the Health Board sent me an invitation - I am now eligible for their bowel screening programme – lovely, can't wait!

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Five Firsts on my Fifty Week

Three Chimneys, Skye

What a fantastic time I had. I was amazed that I managed five first. A couple were expected but not five.

Fifty First Timer No. 22
Stay and eat that the Three Chimney’s on Skye

This has been on my wish list for year. The Three Chimneys is reputed to be one of the best restaurants in the world. I didn’t realise they also had accommodation, so imagine my surprise when I discovered my birthday treat was two nights dinner, bed and breakfast at this exclusive establishment.

The drive up through Glen Coe and The Great Glen was dramatic with sun and sheet rain. We arrived at the House Over-by at 5.30 with just enough time to gaze in wonder at the view, experience the luxury of the room and dress for 7.30pm dinner.

That first glass of chilled champagne fair went doon a treat.

My starter was succulent scallops this was followed by the freshest oysters I have ever slurped, they were juicy and ripe and perfect. My main course included a first (see below) - Lamb with heart, sweetbread and kidney. Yummy.

We were too full for pudding because every course seemed to be preceded by an appetiser - pan fried mackeral on goosberry puree was about five mouthfuls too small - we settled for coffee, some dinky little cakes and a dram to finish off. I could see beads of relief wave off Colin’s brow when we were informed the 25 year old Talisker was finished, I had to settle for a 10 year old.

Fifty First Timer No. 23
Eat Sweetbread

I am conscious that a number of these first include eating weird food, but I am a foodie, I have to try everything at least once.

When I was younger and lived in Fife I bought all my meat from a travelling butcher’s van – Bert The Butcher. He came every Wednesday and Saturday and I always bought the same thing, mince, bacon, beef, square sausage for Sunday Breakfast. Ladies would flock to the van. ‘ony sweet breads the day Bert?’ they would ask. I was always curious as to what the elusive and desirable sweet breads were

I later found to my horror that it was testicle. And I still did until I checked before posting this blog.

I thought I had no desire to try this but couldn’t resist when it was offered with the lamb dish. It was delicious fried but not as nice as the heart, which I think I have tried before.

How naive was I? I now find out that sweet bread is a gland near the heart.

There you go, another urban (or Fife) myth bites the dust.

Fifty First Timer No. 24
See a Minke Whale

After a luxurious nights sleep we ate our fill at the House Over-by breakfast table. Homemade muffins, breads, pancakes, oatcakes Scones and applesauce, marmalade, jam. There was also smoked salmon, fish pate, cheese, fruit and a smoked salmon omelette on offer. We had to at least attempt to walk some of this off.

The Three Chimneys is located in the south west portion of Skye, an area we had never explored before. We drove round tiny single track roads to Neist Point where a well laid out path took us to a light house which can be rented as holiday accommodation. Loads of sea bird activity just off the shore alerted us. Some children were screaming with delight and jumping up and down. We rushed down to see what was happening.

I stared at the sea for about ten minutes watching the gulls dive bomb the waves and was rewarded with the sight of a small black fin and then the sweep of a black curled back arching out of the sea and sinking below the depth before I could take the camera out of its case. There was no doubt with that shape and size I had just encountered my first Minke Whale, out for a spot of fishing. We hung around for ages hoping for another glimpse but we only saw a few black fins. I felt privileged.

Sunset over Taransay from Horgabost camp site

Fifty First Timer No. 25
Visit Lewis and Harris

We left Uig in Skye on a CalMac ferry bound for Tarbert, Harris on Monday afternoon. We left the unusual sunshine on Skye for a murky Harris, where the clouds skiffed the roads. The missel soaked us during the ten minutes it took us to pitch our tent and carry our gear from the car to the pitch which was high on machair on a beach side site at Horgabost.
The campsite proved to be idylic so we stayed all week. White sand, bird watching, and the creaking gate call of the corncrake merged with the sound of crashing waves to lull you to sleep.

The next morning proved no better weather wise so we plumped to explore Lewis.
After reading Stornoway Way by Kevin MacNeil I expected a grim town, but Stornoway turned out to be a pretty little fishing town with fine brick buildings, an excellent art centre featuring local artists and crafts and a few good cafes. There were loads of pubs though and this is maybe where the tarred reputation of Stornoway stems from.

While we could still see the road from the mist we headed south to the Callanish Standing Stones.
These are described as the most spectacular megalithic standing stones in Scotland. They are impressive standing tall and fast against the western storms. There is something very touching about the fact that people gathered together and took such care 4000 years ago to erect these stones. I wonder then if they realised the fuss folks would make all these years later.

It was a good day to see the stones, not too many people milling around spoiling photo shots and quite dramatic backdrops.

Callanish Standing Stones

Fifty First Timer No. 26
Have a drink in an inflatable pub

I am pleased to say the weather improved. So much so we were forced to go for a drink in a pub. The main hotel in Tarbert is being renovated; the bar is out of commission for months, what could they do? They took a bouncy castle approach and erected an inflatable bar. It would have been perfect had it not been made out of plastic and had real window instead of painted on ones. Inside the bar on this hot day was like being inside the inside of a wellie. Everyone preferred to sit outside in the 24°heat.

Inflatable Pub, Tarbert

Back to auld claes and porridge

View from Skoon Art Cafe, Harris - The best plum and oatmeal muffins ever.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

The Half Century has arrived

Today is my fiftieth birthday. I am not sure how I should feel; I know I am happy it is my birthday because I love celebrations of any kind. I don’t feel fifty; I don’t know how that is supposed to feel. If I was honest I am worried that I won’t be able to do all the things in life I want to do, but I know I am going to have a hell of a good time trying.

Big Buddha

Fifty First Timer No. 21
Climb a Hong Kong munro

I know I am becoming a bit predictable with all these munros and hills, but it has to be done.

Hong Kong region has vast ranges of forests and hill trails. On our initial approach to the airport on Lantau Island I was astounded by the superb ridges that reached out over the territory. The fact that I could see trails on the crest of one outstanding ridge urged me to explore the area I later learned was the New Territories.

We were staying on Lantau Island the first week of our visit, so it made sense to start with the Lantau trail and its highest point, Lantau Peak (934m)
To say I climbed a munro is a bit of a cheat because we caught a bus from Mui Wo to a high point at Ngong Ping, a popular tourist destination because of the giant Buddha statue and the Po Lin monastery situated in the same spot as the start point of the Lantau Peak. Funny, but it didn’t take long for us to loose the crowds and find we had the path to ourselves.

Although this is a well marked trail, the path was steep with a couple of sections where I felt a tad exposed. It was also raining which made the rock slick.

Climbing a hill in Scotland is hard enough work but the added tropical heat meant that the leg up we were given by the bus ride did little to ease the pain of the ascent. The summit was reached in good time for lunch, but the flies and mosquitoes on top had the same idea, so we beat a hasty retreat along the Lantau Trail to find ourselves spewed out of the forest onto a busy highway ripped up by major road works. The workies were helpful in guiding us through the traffic cones to the nearest bus stop and like all our transport in Hong Kong, it wasn’t long before a bus stopped to accept our Octopus card swipe and we were soon home in Mui Wo drinking beer.

If we had left this trip to the end of our holiday we would have failed because a week after our climb Ngong Ping and its neighbouring villages were cut of by a major landslide which left the area without electricity and fresh water for days.

In the last week of our holiday we climbed Tai Mo Shan (957m), Hong Kong’s tallest mountain.

If I look shattered it is because I am.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Money makes me mad

If only we could blow Grand Lisboa Casino into the South China Sea

Fifty First Timer No.20
Gamble in a casino

One ambition I have held for years has been to visit a casino and place a bet. Where better to achieve this ambition than in that world famous gambling paradise Macau. This former Portuguese trading port is an hour’s ferry trip from Hong Kong and was high on my lists of ‘must visits’.

We caught the ferry from the exotically named China Ferry Terminal in Kowloon. This Sunday morning the streets of Kowloon were almost deserted, but for a few stragglers all heading in the same direction as we were. The terminal lives up to its name; it is possible to travel from there to over fifteen different destinations in mainland China. The Macau ferry has frequent sailings but the cheap seats on the next ferry that Sunday morning were taken, so we couldn’t leave for another hour. Starbucks is quite a good place for breakfast though!

Macau was hot, hotter than Hong Kong and because the ferry disembarks a good half hour walk from the main thoroughfare, our tempers were beginning to fray by the time we reached town. This wasn’t helped by the walk through Fisherman’s Warf, a tourist amusement park, the epicentre of which boasts a fake mountain which looks more Utah than Pearl River.

The walk took us past vast concrete and glass creations; the hotels and casino of this Chinese Special Administrative Region. Our guide book led us on a walking tour mobbed with tourists, so we ditched the tour and wandered the quite side streets. I marvelled at the incense burning in almost every doorway, if shrines could not be bought a drain pipe would suffice as a suitable alter. Throughout my journeys in this area I was struck by the arrogance of past colonialism and their suppression of individuals’ rites to worship as they please. I am glad that Bhudda is still strong in the Macauan’s hearts and is pushing forth among the cathedrals and churches and casinos of those other religions.

The heat was intensive and a beer was soon required, but not forthcoming. Even back among the Starbucks, McDonald's and Haagen Dazs, we found no Carlsberg. Then I spotted a young man in an upstairs window that over looked the square supping a beer. There!

We found the door way to café E.S. KIMO round the corner in a crowded market street. Beers taste so much better when you have been deprived. We also ate a Korean Egg sandwich (an omelette on white bread) and a fresh fruit salad which we were appalled to notice was drizzled with Heinz Salad Cream but it tasted rather good.

The biggest and most vulgar casino in Macau is Grand Lisboa Casino. This gold monstrosity rises up like an Imperial standard at the edge of cowering colonial streets and hails the start of the casino studded highway back to the ferry terminal.

Before we could enter the casino we were subjected to a bag search and a pass through an airport security screen. We were then thrown into a hall crammed with tables of baccarat and poker and roulette. The back of the hall beckoned, with flaunting bauble and bells, the fruit machines sang.

Shiny escalators floated us to higher floors where the stakes rose with the altitude. I could see on the seventh floor a high stakes area, cordoned off, admittance by invitation only. Most of the gamblers were middle age, Chinese men, although a high proportion were haggles of young women. Smoke and expensive perfume choked the air and made me gag or maybe that was caused by my disgust at the indiscriminate waste.

I gaped as one man threw a thick bundle of Yuan onto the table and then shrug as it was scraped into the sealed cache of the croupier. Why had I felt so guilty in China, languishing in my expensive hotel in Guangzhou? At least I was giving something back in terms of tourist revenue. This debauchery was indecent.

I had lost my taste for gambling but I was there, so with my grubby twenty Hong Kong dollar note in hand, I perched at a fruit machine and did what I had to do; loose it in three presses of a button.

I would now like to visit a Glasgow casino for comparison, but I can be certain I will never be in danger of becoming an addict; I am too canny for that.

Just Read
Chinua Achebe, Home and Exile

I have only recently discovered Chinua Achebe and am now a fan. A couple of months ago I read the excellent Arrows of God a novel based around the nineteen twenties. Home and Exile is a non fiction essay originating from a series of the lectures given at Harvard University. I bought the book thinking it was an autobiography. It isn’t, although there are a number of pleasing autobiographical anecdotes.

I was delighted to find that Home and Exile examines African literature and argues that African literature should only be written by Africans. He cites the African writing of the past, written by Europeans, as distorting the perception of the continent and portraying the African as primitive, heathen and stupid.

It was quite a shock to read his comments because I am currently writing a novel with an African character and although I do not presume to describe her homeland or her upbringing, Achebe’s comments have made me rethink my approach.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Here, there and everywhere

Liz on the summit of Sgor na h-Ulaidh

Poor wee soul

This is going to be a short post because I have a chest infection and am splattering my screen with pea green mucus every few minutes. It’s enough to make even me sick.

The McPartlin Munroists

On Saturday I struggled up Sgor na h-Ulaidh (scoor na hooly) a rocky munro in Glen Coe. I wouldn’t normally leave my bed when ill but it was my sister’s munro compleation. The weather was perfect; high cloud, slight breeze in the valley, just a few drops of rain. A well deserved cheese burger was gobbled down in the legendary and hoatching Clachaig Inn followed by a stagger of about a mile to stay over night in a caravan my brother John had booked. The caravan, next to the Glencoe Bunkhouse, had great views towards the hills we had just climbed. It is a shame I kept everyone awake all night with my coughing. Well done Liz!

That makes three McPartlin Munrosits.

Fifty First Timer No.19
Fast Train to China

On the first full day in Hong Kong we booked a trip into China, it takes about a week for the visas to come through so we left the following Wednesday. Mr Lee picked us up at the hotel and deposited us at the railway station with grave instruction on what to do on arrival in China; hang onto your bag, do not get separated, do not declare anything, look out for the guide, if she is not there phone this number.

Our destination was Guangzhou and our guide, Eve, was waiting at the station along with her driver Mr Jang. Together they made our stay an enjoyable, entertaining and informative one. We were templed out, three day later, when Eve dropped us back at the station.

The highlight for me was getting up at seven the first morning to wander the river side streets and find them filled to the banks with people exercising. Tai Chi groups graced every inch of park, make do badminton nets were strung from handy trees, there was even a group of old men swimming in the mighty Pearl River. To say I was impressed would be an injustice, I was inspired. The Chinese, as a race, are temperate, hard working, and thin. What must they think of the arrogant blobs and lager louts who stagger and swagger in the West (and in some parts of Hong Kong)?

This is one of the markets Eve took us to see.

And Talking of Blonde Birds and Bikes

In my last post I mentioned Lucy’s John O ‘Groats to Lands End attempt. Well she has done it. Well done Lucy!

I am now off to bed with a hot toddy, antibiotics, Lemsip and Strepsils - I'll be better tomorrow.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Hong Kong V Scotland

Carbisdale Castle

I had planned to update this blog with stories from Hong Kong, but it is proving difficult because life back home has been as hectic and exciting as the holiday. However I still have to report all my Firsts, so I will start with another Hong Kong First and slot in some of the Scottish ones.

Fifty First Timer No.15
Eat Shark’s Fin Soup

I know some of you will be throwing up your hands in horror or even just throwing up at the thought of this, but when my principles started to niggle, I remembered the words of my Muslim friend when I once offered her Stornoway black pudding (made from pigs blood) for breakfast and she replied ‘Lovely, I never let religion get between me and my stomach’.

I now apologise and promise never to do it again.

I have tasted Shark’s Fin soup before but it was made from synthetic shark fin. The soup I ordered in Hong Kong was the real thing. The venue was the American Restaurant in Wanchai. The restaurant has been around for xx years. When Hong Kong was a popular R&R destination for the US troops during the Vietnam War the restaurant’s owners, hoping to attract the GIs, renamed their restaurant thinking it would sound welcoming. The name and the restaurant proved popular, so when the war ended they retained the same.

The waiter helped us to decide on the size of portions we needed and advised me that the soup was expensive, was I sure I still wanted it. ‘Yes sir’, falling into an American twang. Like most Chinese meals the food came at different times, what we would consider the second course was delivered first followed by the soup. Sharks fin soup is thick and gluttonous with fibrous strands of fin laced through. The taste is light and eggy which I found delicious, almost like eating noodles in potato soup. The meal was washed down with Tsing Tsao beers and buckets of green tea. Despite his advice, we ordered too much food which gave the waiter a good laugh at our expense.

Weekend wedding and more Firsts

Fifty First Timer No.16
Stay in a haunted castle

The weekend saw a few Firsts, most I will do again because it was such fun.

We attended a wedding party at Carbisdale Castle. The castle is perched on a hill just outside Bonar Bridge in Sutherland and is the Scottish Youth Hostel Association’s flag ship. I have passed it many times on the road to the far north and looked longingly at its towering ramparts and cosy welcoming lights twinkling through the trees, but this is my first stay there.

The castle was built in 1917 by the widow of the Duke of Sutherland. It was gifted to the Youth Hostel Association in 1945. The castle is reputed to be haunted but there was no evidence of ghosts this weekend, they were probably all quivering in a corner to avoid the noise of the ceilidh band, disco, general revelry and my musical abominations.

John and Kate, the happy couple, wanted a party and they certainly bagged their wish. The hostel can sleep over 180 visitors and we almost filled the whole place from Friday night through to a bleary eyed Sunday lunchtime.

Colin and I were attending the evening part of the wedding so we were lucky to spend Saturday in the surrounding area. We went for a wander round Dornoch, had scrummy home made Cornish pasties at the Dornoch Patisserie then walked along the four mile pristine beach to Embo trying to spot minkie whale in the Dornoch Firth. A pass remarkable supper was picked at in a pub before we tarted ourselves up for the party.

The ceilidh band played their ‘Gay Gordon’s’ ‘Dashing White Sergeants’ and ‘Strip the Willow’ for the group, the majority of who were hill walkers who skirled and whirled until the buffet was served. We then switch to the gyrating disco beats of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

When the official music stopped the party moved to one of the many lounges and this is where my other Firsts came in.

Fifty First Timer No.17
Learn to play a bodhrán

Fergus, one of the two Best Men is married to an Irish lady and came to the wedding complete with bodhrán, a traditional Irish instrument, under his arm. I begged for a lesson which he was quite happy to provide, he explained how to hold the single drumming stick and demonstrated the beat then said ‘right practice, I’ll be back in five minutes.’ Being a tenacious learner I did what I was told, but the others in the company moaned in horror, ‘you’re not really going to do that for five minute?’

The stick was as slippery as noodles in chopsticks, and kept falling from my hand. When Fergus came back he told me to relax and steer through the wrist. I did for a little while until my hand grew tired then I handed the bodhrán back to its rightful owner. I think I will add a bodhrán to my birthday list.

Fifty First Timer No.18
Play an electric guitar

Ranald, the other best man, took his electric guitar and amplifier to the wedding. I couldn’t resist a go. I strummed some chords and tried to pick out a couple of tunes, but the combination of previously drunk glasses of wine and the fact the shiny red and white guitar continued to slide over my chiffon dress and off my lap, did not make for a pleasant experience for the other hard core party goers, in the end I reluctantly handed the guitar back and looked out at the dawning day. It was time for bed.

I now apologise but can't promise never to do it again

Blonde Bird on a Bike

Someone who did not partake of too much wedding wine and was probably getting out of bed when dawn was breaking was Lucy. Lucy attended the wedding but rose early to arrive on time for her nine o’clock, Sunday morning start of her John o’Groats to Lands End Bike ride. You can follow her progress on her blog

I have also added Lucy's Blog to my top favourite blogs.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Highs and Lows

Andy with friends at his Corbett completion on Sgurr a’Chaorachain

The High

This weekend I attended a momentous event in my favourite part of the whole world. My pal Andy completed his round of Corbetts on a mountain on the Applecross peninsula. Corbetts are mountains between 2500 feet and 3000 feet and there are 221 of them dotted all over Scotland and some keen hill walkers, but not me, start working through the list of them after they complete their Munros (hills over 3000 feet).

Andy’s feat is more exceptional than most because he is a postie and has to work most Saturdays, also and most incredibly he can’t drive and has managed to access remote areas using public transport and lifts from his fans.

Applecross has featured before on this site. Normally we have bad weather there but this trip saw cloud smattered blue skies and 360° views towards Skye, Lewis, Kyle, Knoydart, Torridon and even as far as the crowning towers of An Teallach just south of Ullapool. I hate the much misused word awesome, but this experience deserves the title.

Much champagne was drunk on the summit and buckets of red wine and beer washed down the excellent seafood at the Applecross Inn later in the evening.

Colin and I caught up with old friends in the village and enjoyed the hospitality they showed to our friends in the Ochil Mountaineering Club.

The Low

Yesterday I received a letter from the Scottish Book Trust informing me I was not successful in my application for their New Writers Bursary. I am used to receiving rejections for my novel Torque, but somehow this was harder to accept. I was gutted.

I worked hard in the morning to shift my black mood. I knew I had to do something positive. I sent off another submission and that nudged the mood into second place but it crept back in. At lunch time I went to my Pilate's class. That did the trick, not only because of the physical stimulation this gave me but because of this view from the hall. It took my breath away quicker than my class.

Fifty First Timer No.14

Swim in the Sea

I know it is terrible to reach this half century never having swam in the sea, but I am scared of water. It is a miracle I can swim. Deep water is a no go area for me. One of my goals for this year was to complete a triathlon but I realised early on, when I couldn’t stop at the deep end, I had to scratch the idea.

Hong Kong first week was spent at Silver Mine Beach on Lantau. I had no excuse. It took three days for me to work up to this but on an overcast afternoon in between showers I squeezed into my cozzie and headed for the shark protection area. I walked into the semi warm water until it brushed my shoulders then swam, not outwards where I would grow out of my depth, but parallel to the shore.

Everyone told me the buoyancy in the sea would make me feel more secure, not so, all that bouncing around unnerved me. But I was happy enough to keep going for a wee while then I waded towards the beach and sat with the sea lapping up to my neck. The water helped to sooth the multitude of mosquito bites I had accumulated and would continue to collect throughout the holiday.

Silvermine Beach preparing for the Dragon Boat Races