Wednesday, February 28, 2007

On starting up a motorbike...

The BMW is being shipped south on Friday, marking, I think, the end of my motorcycling career. Then again, maybe not. My friend Dave is allegedly getting a new Ducati, and he's a decade older than me...

Today I tried starting up the Big Blue Beast that is my R80/7, and after a bit of cajoling, it thundered into life, sounding spry and healthy for a 21-year-old machine. Better than I sound in the mornings, anyway. Or for that matter, most afternoons...Momentarily, I felt like keeping it. But then I tried to get the Beemer off its centre stand, and nearly re-opened my old hernia scars.

Maybe a Honda 50. Or a Vespa...

No! It's acoustic motorbikes only from now on! I swear!

BTW, there's a new post on Nippy Sweeties for all you whisky lovers...

Monday, February 26, 2007

Guilt-ridden bashing of someone's car door

Hell's teeth! The rush south to Sumburgh Airport on Friday night, amidst terrible weather, saw the Berlingo door thud into driver's door of a Volkswagen Golf (or it might have been a Polo), having been whipped out my hand by a gust of wind. Damage was done. None to the Berlingo, oddly. Vorsprung Durch Edith Piaf.
I had no opportunity to leave a note (which would have been destroyed by the weather anyway)so now I'm working out ways of contacting the owner and offering to pay for the damage. It was metallic green, and I have the number. If anyone knows whose car it was, please let me know.
There's a new, brief whisky post on Nippy Sweeties.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Have a look... the new posting on my whisky blog, here.
It's called Nippy Sweeties: Tom Morton's whisky musings, and its URL is

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

What we talk about when we talk about whisky

(Mirrored from the new blog Nippy Sweeties: Tom Morton's whisky musings)

You see, that's my problem. It's partly what drove me away from the otherwise hugely attractive world of malt whisky: The sense that I was drowning in adjectives, metaphors, similes and, latterly, numbers. I felt the same way I did when people started writing scholarly books about Iggy and the Stooges. That this was something too precious, too personal, too intuitive, too visceral to obfuscate with mere description and analysis.

In 1992 I rode a horrible East German motorcycle (and sidecar, because I hadn't passed my test)around several dozen Scottish distilleries. I travelled from Kirkwall to Campbelltown, Islay to Bladnoch, Glen Garioch to Wick. It was an interesting time for the whisky industry, right at the start of what would become the boom in single malts, and at the tail end of a great depression in whisky production which saw many distilleries silent or demolished. I met industry figures who seemed either terrified of, or simply uninterested in the possibility of a malt-fuelled revival. Who hated the notion of visitor centres, of catering for tourists; of change.

My trip was written up as Spirit of Adventure: A Journey Beyond the Whisky Trails, a kind of punk rock odyssey into the world of distillation. It was also a partial autobiography. I went into it knowing very little about whisky except for the fact that I liked Laphroaig (tasted due its starring role in the John Fowles novel Daniel Martin) and I came out of it raving about Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig, obsessed with peat, viciously denigrating 90 per cent of all known Speyside malts (other than the big Macallans and Glenfarclas 105)and with a heartfelt plea that the Scotch Whisky Industry embrace the making and marketing of malts as its salvation.

I was also obsessed with the notion of place. That was the greatest discovery for me: what the French call, in wine production, terroir. I loved the notion that Clynelish, for example, could speak to me of location, people and history, of the Highland Clearances, of Croik church and its desperate, scrawled messages from homeless crofters. That you could taste its cultural and geographical origins in every sip.

We made a 13-part TV series based on the book (shown in Scotland and Canada and, as far as I know, nowhere else) a new paperback edition of Spirit of Adventure came out in 1993, and since then I've engaged in sporadic bouts of whisky writing, public tastings and tours of South Africa, where they absolutely loved the book. In Scotland itself, not a single distillery shop stocked it (it was too rude about too many companies and drams, and it had swear words in it). And gradually, my grasshopper mind was attracted by other subjects - golf, cars, island life, religion, oil, fishing and, of course, music. For the last five years my main concern has been a daily two-hour show on BBC Radio Scotland. Of course, I kept drinking!

Meanwhile, a mania for malts swept the world. Great, erudite, witty writers emerged - the Charles MacLeans, Jim Murrays, Michael Jacksons and Dave Brooms to name just four. Distilleries reopened, visitor centres and shops sprang into operation, sometimes in the most unlike places. Collectors and obsessives multiplied across the web. Markets for malt whisky began to open up in China, India, Thailand and Russia, and new distilleries were planned or indeed opened. Far from their previous lassitude about the individuality of malts, the industry, with Glenmorangie leading the way, went utterly nuts over wood finishes - adding tastes, not always nice ones, to whiskies and ever-more collectible items to shopping lists - by final ageing of whisky in barrels previously used to name it: rum, claret, Tokai, pickled herring, human remains...

Three years ago, asked to address a dinner organised by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, I denigrated this practice, which seemed to me a reductio ad absurdam of single malt passion: you might as well, I argued, add essence of American Cream Soda, or some of those syrups you seen in vodka bars and coffee shops, the pure spirit of Scotland. It's fiddling. It's fidgeting. And yet I knew that fidgeting and fiddling had always been part of whisky production. A touch of magic, if you like, too. But real magic. Not fakery

I felt out on a limb. And I didn't want to talk about whisky in terms of scores out of a 100. Yes, there was the nose, the palate, the finish to discuss, tones and notes to be identified, but so much of the discussion and description seemed to cater for the anal retentiveness of the middle class male with money and nasal passages to burn. What do you do when you hear Raw Power by Iggy et al? You dance, you fight, you scream, shout and if you're lucky, find someone to have sex with. It's elemental. Like drinking Glenmorangie in the pouring rain, scooping water from the Tarlogie Spring itself to dilute it, and feeling the warmth spread through your's not a number.

Now, though, I feel the need to talk about whisky. About what it means, what it does, the people who make it, the places it comes from. And what it's like to drink. Why? Well, it has to do with visiting a couple of distilleries. Reading a few books(Notably the two Neils, Gunn and Munro), drinking a few drams with old friends, and asking myself: what DO we talk about when we talk about whisky?

Monday, February 19, 2007

Home again briefly, and that Hold Steady gig

Where did last week go? Good grief, it was Up Helly Aa on Friday (Northmavine version) and I haven't had a chance to get the pictures online, or even think about blogging. We had friends to stay, including the indefatigable Daniel, one of the easiest house guests ever. I'll get to that eventually. Possibly tomorrow.
First, zooming back to The Hold Steady: every British gig seems to have been a triumph, and the Glasgow Cathouse appearance was no exception. They are truly amazing live - a band who rejoice in rock'n'roll, who exude positivity and joy and are not afraid to talk about it on stage either. While drinking copiously - always a good sign.
Craig Finn, lead singer is...cheery! Frenetic, perpetually shouting and miming off-mike, grinning cherubically and unleashing those torrents of extraordinary lyrics over his stupendously tight band...Tad the guitarist does that heavy metal trick with his guitar, spinning it around his neck and back in a full 360 degree loop...just the once, but it's eye-popping. Some songs, like The Swish from their first album Almost Killed Me, have come to mean a great deal to me... hearing the band do them live reminds me of the first time I saw the E-Street Band. Only I don't weep quite so much.
'Golden with bar light and beer...' I could quote them endlessly. I won't, but I will quote my friend Lindsay Hutton, who was not quite so impressed. 'Kaiser Chiefs for auld folk' he said, pithily. Read his opinions here. He agrees, though, that the band's time is now. There were 200 folk at the Cathouse, or thereabouts. I expect Barrowland to be packed for their next adventure north of the border.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The New Model Inverness and lots of whisky

I can't believe that the old Highlands and Islands Development Board/Highlands and Islands Enterprise HQ in Inverness has been converted into luxury flats. But my eyes were not deceiving me yesterday morning: there you have it, proof positive that half of the reason for me using the phrase 'Cumbernauld in a Kilt' all those years ago has now, if not vanished, at least been tarted up in a kind of 'Dreich Miami' style.
Actually, Dolphinsludge, Queen of the Highland Fleshpots, was looking like a million Euros, I thought, with the Ben Wyvis massif all Eiger and Matterhorn white, and the riverside down by the Glen Mhor Hotel as lovely as ever.
A truly excellent meal was had at Rocpool Rendezvous - better, cheaper and much less pretentious than the Glenmoriston's absurd, and now Ramsay-condemned Abstract. Daniel and I zoomed off to the excellent Benromach Distillery in Forres yesterday morning, then it was time to visit old haunts at BBC Highland and broadcast from there. No time to waste, though, as we had to be in Glasgow by currytime. The A9 was awful as ever, but we arrived in time for a curry fit to wash out the taste of the terrible Cinnamon (see below) at Sibbo's Delhi Dhabba. Yum! Good to see young Magnus, and there was just time to drive over to the Showcase complex at Coatbridge to see the movie Blood Diamond, which is over-long, over-worthy and a bit too self-important, but worth seeing. Leonardo Di Caprio does an amazing Rhodesian accent, and seems to have grown about a foot.
This morning, Dan and I looked round Auchentoshan at Clydebank - what a difference from the last time I was there, back in 1992. Lovely visitor centre, good tour. Tonight, it's The Hold Steady at the Cathouse. The hottest band in the world comes to Glasgow! See you there.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Aberdeen again and a bad Bangladeshi fish

Bumpy flight into Castle Greyskull but it could have been worse. We could have crashed, for example. Or disappeared into the Orkney Triangle.
Very peculiar meal in Cinnamon, reputedly the city's best Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi restaurant. Ordered Bangladeshi fish curry as this is one of Europe's top fishing ports. If you can't get fresh fish in Aberdeen...
But it wasn't fresh. It was a steak of frozen fish which, the waiter assured me, I wouldn't recognise as it was 'Indian'. Or possibly Bangladeshi. He was right. I didn't recognise it. As fish. A rubbish, pretentious, very expensive meal.
To Inverness tomorrow, after the show, in a hired Vauxhall which has done all of 10 miles. Soon fix that!

Friday, February 09, 2007

Three days of glorious snowiness

Since the first snow fell in the early hours of Wednesday (or was it Tuesday? I have entered a dream-like Narnian state) the weather has essentially been bright, crisp, cold and sunny. Shetland at its most beautiful. The word for the weekend, though is 'wind', and if it snows again, we could be in for some serious drifting. As I'm booked on the morning flight to Aberdeen on Sunday, there to meet my South African friend Daniel and begin a week of visiting whisky distilleries and general misbehaviour, I am slightly concerned. Unlike the St Bernards, Lulu and Lucy, who appear to think they have regressed to their Alpine origins, and are refusing to come inside.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Snow! Darkness!

It's the special silence you get with slow snowflakes in the darkness. And we were lucky, I suppose, on Tuesday night with the absolute lack of wind. It's classic coorie-in weather, a time for lighting the Rayburn and the open fire in the lounge, for sipping Talisker as the fragrance of burning peat fills the house, and the lights flicker threateningly with the promise of power cuts...
But here we are on Thursday, and still only a smattering of snow. It's cold, though, and the forecast is for more snow tonight. Is it childish to say I'm hoping for the 10-foot drifts we had one Christmas? At least until Sunday, when I have to fly south. A brief blizzard and a swift melting would do nicely. Just to give us a wee taste of Narnia. Only without the trees, talking or otherwise.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

My new bicycle! It folds up!

Bicycles! They're great! I used to have two in Aberdeen for my regular sojourns there, but they both got nicked from the BBC's supposedly secure bike park (not only that, but not a single person who works at the Beeb in Aberdeen noticed they'd gone; or the freshly-sawn chains lying on the ground). I still have one at a secret location in Glasgow. It reassures me to think of it, waiting there, poised for a swift run out to Loch Lomond...anyway...this is my latest acquisition. A bike for tucking under one's arm when one gets too tired, and hopping aboard a passing plane, train or automobile.
This is the Downtube IX FS, imported from the USA for the princely sum of, let me see, $520 dollars including incredibly quick (less than a week) door-to-door courier service. That's Philadelphia to the Shetland Islands. I've had stuff that has taken longer to come from Aberdeen.
Bike itself was only $330 dollars, which was an eBay 'best offer' on a buy-it-now of $359. $190 for postage seems a lot, but with a total cost of around £270, that beats any equivalent Dahon or Brompton by a considerable margin. And this is a very, very good bike.
Downtube, owned and run by Professor Yan Lyansky, who designs the bikes himself, sells only on the web and has the bikes made in China. Hence the savings. The quality is extremely high - components (Suntour, Shimano, Zoom) are lowish end but very sound. Brakes (need to cut those rubber gaiters off), saddle, seatpost and bars are all better than standard bottom-end Brompton fare, though it's not a direct competitor. This is a bike you could ride a long way.
Very good 20-inch wheels, good Kenda tyres (though the rear on mine had a puncture, due to tiny slivers of wire polluting the inside tyre casing). But it's the frame that really impresses - incredibly solid, with reassuring latches'n'catches for folding (standard right-angle fold on main frame bar) adapted from your actual quick release levers. Adjustable handlebar stem is amazing value, but it's the sheer rigidity when riding that's striking. Totally unlike my old, very wobbly Dahon.
The Downtube reinforces the notion I've been gradually coming to that for a small-wheeled folder, you MUST have suspension of some sort. I'm 6 foot two, 16 stone plus, and it feels totally secure, very stable, easy to steer, not in the least twitchy. And that on some fairly rough-and-ready roads and stony tracks. Nine-speed twist-grip derailleur worked perfectly straight out of the box, and it's fast enough for my purposes. Will climb some fairly fierce hills (the Clavie, for example, outside Urafirth, Shetland) and cope with our horrendous headwinds.
The aluminium frame is belt-and-braces welded, and not particularly light. Doesn't bother me. It folds down nicely, again not to 'B' proportions, though you can unbolt the rear suspension and tuck that back wheel away if you must. Small enough for popping in the (supplied free!) bag and shoving aboard my regular flight to Aberdeen. No mudguards, and no easy way of fitting them, but my goodness, doesn't it look cool?
The IX FS (nine gears, full suspension) is available on eBay UK at only £25 postage, but the basic price makes it more expensive in total than importing it from the US direct. Also, the US models have been upgraded for 2007 with longer seatposts.
Comes complete with water bottle/pump braze ons, which makes it, I think, unique. I plan to go bus/train/cycle touring in the summer with it and a Bikehod trailer. Can't wait!

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Da grind

....or 'the gate' in English. I am fascinated by the remnants of old sheep-gates you find throughout Shetland, where old fences have rotted away...they tend, for some reason, to be on the edge of cliffs. This has prompted various flights of CS Lewis/George Macdonald/Tolkien- type fancy concering their possible use as gateways to another, even more magical world. What happens if you take a flying leap through one of them?
Not tempted to find out other than in the world of the word processor. Anyway, this one is above the glorious beach of Burnside, not 20 minutes hard walking from our house, on the way to the Republic of Eshaness. Where, this week, the splendid Braewick Cafe was open for business to co-incide with the Lerwick Conflagration, or Up Helly Aa. (which is obviously not as good as the Northmavine one on 16th February - which would you prefer, burning your viking longship in a town centre playpark, or at sea? - but obviously good for the tourists.