Friday, July 31, 2009

Chinese guitars

Far too many guitars have passed through my hands. I could measure my life in terms of Gibsons and Guilds, Martins and Fenders, crippling hire purchase agreements (Guild 12 string), shocking maxxing out of credit cards (Gibson J40), and the selling of everything else for the sake of one instrument (black Martin J40MBK).

Time was I'd hang out in music shops for hours on end, endlessly strumming and picking, comparing and contrasting. I was a total guitar snob. And, I think, trying desperately to gain some kind of security in my very limited playing from possession of a good guitar: It gave you some kind of status, even if only initially.

Lately, though, I've sold the hand-made Moon, keeping the Martin Shenandoah Susan gave me for home use and giving the last roadgoing Martin (not the black one; it's long gone)to James for his 18th birthday. As for performing (still doing it, I'm afraid: gigs coming up are Belladrum, Wizard and Wigtown festivals) I've acquired a couple of Chinese-made acoustics.

Labelled Guvnor, they're examples of a phenomenon prevalent on eBay: a UK/US designer comes up with an idea for a product, and gets a Chinese factory to make it at a fraction of the price it would cost anywhere else. Depending on the baseline cost, the factory's capabilities, skill of craftspeople, quality of materials and obviously the original design, the results can be excellent, or terrible.

The Guvnors I have are very good. Not all carrying that label are. What I have are designs by a British luthier known as 'Marc Lamaq' though I think his original name is Hammick. His career, if you do a bit of Google digging, appears to have had its ups and downs.

The guitars are, to put it mildly, heavily influenced by the designs of Northern Irish legend George Lowden (pinless bridge, split bridge insert)but the quality of (all solid) woods used is fantastic. I have one (GA777CE)cutaway acoustic with a rosewood body, the other is maple (GA700CE). The rosewood one has one of the nicest bookmatched spruce tops I've ever seen. Both come with Fishman Classic Four electronics. They were less than £200 each. If there's an issue with either, it's in the neck area. Both necks are Gibson pattern, meaning thick and lumpy. I have large hands, so that doesn't bother me. The frets are jumbo sized and probably need dressed. But at least they're not lifting, as was the case with that hugely expensive black Martin J40. Which I sold, in the end, after smashing the front accidentally, with another Martin's headstock. Let's not talk about that.

Now, the black Martin mentioned above cost around two grand, and that was 20 years ago, with basic Fishman electronics and a hard case. Are the two Guvnors as good? No. That black Martin, when new, had more, and more even, projection than any other guitar I've played. The neck, lifting frets notwithstanding, was a joy. But what a price. My two Chinese guitars are more than capable of handling professional work over a long period of time. The rosewood one in particular has the depth and aggression I look for in an acoustic. And the split bridge means the intonation is perfect.

Really, no-one should be surprised. The tradition of quality instrument making in China goes back thousands of years. In the classical world, this has been long recognised. And if you're looking for a violin, cello or double bass bow, the carbon-fibre examples made in China are among the best anywhere. They're not cheap, though.

Guvnor Guitars have a website, but I don't think they're trading except through Chase Direct in Manchester and the electronics in those guitars do not appear to be Fishman. You can track down the originals, and occasional Lamaq prototypes, on eBay, however.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Private medicine in Aberdeen

The "consultants' choice" eh? That apostrophe is key. Do they mean ALL consultants? In which case, that is a clear breach of advertising standards. SOME consultants, maybe. Oh no, wait a minute. Maybe they don't mean medical consultants. Maybe they mean the kind of consultants organisations hire at a cost of X-thousand quid a day to summarise Wikipedia entries and put them in PowerPoint presentations.

Or maybe not...

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Travelling like a Victorian gentleman

And so, after four hours on the train from Wick, I have reached Inverness. I have an hour here before the next train to Aberdeen, so I am now ensconced in an old haunt, the glorious foyer lounge of the Royal Highland (formerly Station) Hotel. Here you can hide behind giant plants, flop into comfortable couches and gaze at the sweeping staircase and old oil paintings, while a moulting stag's head gazes down at you. It has always been my favourite Inverness retreat. More so before its (quite careful) modernisation.

I remember being here after my operation at Raigmore for skin cancer; here for numerous coffees, drinks and nefarious plotting with producers now scattered to the four winds of broadcasting and various corners of the world; the special 'Highland resident rate' for accommodation, a hangover from the British Rail days. And long before that, long lunches with my colleagues in Highland hackdom when I was working with The Scotsman. And briefer, noisier ones with the bairns when they were even more disruptive than they are now. Only much smaller.

Anyway. The four hour trundle down from Wick represents a return to Victorian travel values in a very real sense. The Duke of Sutherland planned and partially built the line, and some of it, infamously, loops inland around his various hunting lodges. It was just as spectacularly scenic as I remember, if you like the alien, treeless vistas of the Flow Country, which I do.

Now for the two-and-a-half hour hop to Aberdeen. Well, perhaps 'hop' is the wrong word. Meanwhile, I appear to be the only person in this hotel...

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Aberdeen Malmaison - good food, horrible decor

Met friends last night for dinner at the (relatively) new Malmaison in Aberdeen. It's the old Queen's Hotel, or rather the granite facade of the old Queen's. Inside, though, it appears that the interior designer concerned has been subject to hallucinations of the most debilitating kind. I have been in hotels from LA to Wick and Le Byblos to La Mirage (Helmsdale's finest establishment). I have never seen anything quite so eye-poppingly, tartan-tattily awful as the inside of the Aberdeen Mal.

Public areas, of course. Though you can stay there for £80 a night at the weekends, neither I nor the Beeb can afford its typically Aberdonian, utterly monstrous midweek rates. In truth the bar's OK, if you like acid-trip Brigadoon style, though the spotlit, dead bagpipes in reception are somehow... evil.

The brasserie, though: A horrendous clash of styles between raw industrial Blade Runner pipework, kitsch animal pictures and gigantic hielan' coo blow-ups, matched with a see-through floor at the entrance (private tasting room downstairs; God help you if you're wearing a kilt) and a glass wall to the meat storage room, in which raw carcases loom like a veggie nightmare or Rembrandt at his coarsest. A nod to Damian Hirst, perhaps, but without DH's phenomenal grasp of integration.

Apart from that, and some carelessly snobby, over-vicious service (we paid for that bread, LEAVE IT ON THE TABLE) and a sommelier who INSISTED on filling our glasses, until he was forcibly stopped, the food bit was really good. Great butternut squash soup, and loads of it. Fine bread, an exceptional shin of beef, and a good serving of cheese. Could have done without an extra £2.95 for each portion of veg, but the table d' hote is good value.

My seat was too low, The 10 per cent service charge is an imposition and the music was bad and way too loud. Apart from that, I think a good time was had by all. But as for the decor. Rip it out and start again. Or have a look at the Leith and Glasgow Mals and, uh, have a wee rethink.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Folding bikes, Aberdeen beach and The Loneliest Teddy In The World

To the Santa Monica/Venice boardwalk of Scotland, for breakfast at the Washington Cafe in bright sunshine as surfers attempt to surf, joggers jog, swimmers shriek with agony at the cold of the North Sea, and The Loneliest Teddy Bear In The World gazes mournfully out to sea. Ah yes, Aberdeen in summer.

The Downtube folding bike is...well, it's OK in the urban setting. The hotel I'm staying in has a tiny car park and it was just unfeasible to get the camper down there. So the bike is an ideal way to zip about the city. Or A bike would be. the old Edinburgh Courier I used to keep here was much more the thing. The Downtube's short wheelbase and 20-inch wheels make it a bit wobbly for someone as heavy as me. Fat Man on a Bicycle...

Hate that twistgrip derailleur, too. And Dr Yan Lyansky's design is OK, but the vicissitudes of Scottish rain (the bike was kept for a month or two outside at Pacific Quay in Glasgow)has left it unexpectedly brown-stained over the white paint. Also, I have to say that I had the embarrassing experience of taking the front wheel to the Shetland Bike Project to get a burst tube fixed. or in fact replaced, as I'd fitted a 1.75 tube, not the 1.5 it needed. Thing is, nothing I did could get that tyre off. Must be age. Or bad resin tyre levers.

Anyway, it's back in the camper now as I have to fly to Wick tomorrow. All will be explained.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

40 whiskies in a row: the good, the bad and the truly horrible

Now THAT was a truly bizarre, and enlightening experience.

I'd been asked ages ago to be one of the judges for the Independent Bottlers' Challenge, a competition in which the top indie bottlers of malt whisky submit their goods to be rated, blind, by a team of entirely sober people. No need for faffing about with colourful descriptions, just simple points out of ten, down to 0.1 and up to 9.9.

But I wasn't really expecting the box of 40 (yes, forty)single malt whiskies that arrived in the post at the weekend. Thirty, no less, Islay malts, the rest 'Island (non-Islay)' Miniatures, I hasten to add. But still.

How to go about it? Tempting as it was to be sociable and invite others to participate, I decided this would be a mistake. I had to go it alone and take it seriously. But how to set baseline parameters? What IS a 'ten' in whisky terms?

First of all, I decided to model my approach on that of John Ramsay, recently retired master blender for the Edrington Group. That meant no swallowing, a reduction with water (though John likes to go for 20 per cent alcohol, I prefer it marginally stronger), sniffing both without and with H2O, a spitoon, a teaspoon, tasting glass and a careful regard for colour. I also decided to tackle all 40 in one day, as I didn't trust my tastebuds to remain constant in their perceptiveness. This was all about comparisons, after all.

The bottles had numbers, not names, though alcoholic strength and age was indicated. To begin with, I went through the sniffing/tasting/sitting ritual with a bottling I have of Bruichladdich Infinity, which I both like and have suspicions of in equal measure. I made that a five, and got stuck in.

I don't want in any way to affect the outcome of the competition if other judges are reading this, so I'll restrict myself to generalities. First, considering there were 30 Islay malts, the variation, even in style, was astonishing. There were drams so heavily sherried their trademark peat was all but masked. There were mild, creamy, American-oak lightweights. There were horrible aberrations tasting of diesel or reeking of ( and I never thought I would actually say this,as I thought this was joke taste)burning tyres. The thought that somebody liked them enough to bottle them was awe-inspiring.

But there were some gems. Unexpected ones too, given the indicated ages. The truth about whisky that dare not speak its name is this: some casks are crap. Always were, always will be. Every year, aged, bad whisky that can't salvaged by decanting and ageing in different wood is recycled into the wash for re-distilling.

The question I'm asking is this: are my faculties completely awry, or are some independent bottlings so bad they ought never to have left the distillery?

And the observation I'm making is, that if I'd swallowed (even the two-teaspoon measure I was using) the alcohol would have unbalanced my opinion after maybe four whiskies, increasing affection and robbing me of objectivity. As it was, when finished, despite the inevitable absorption through the mouth, I felt as if I'd consumed maybe a pint of shandy.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Twelve miles on a summer's night: and drinking in reverse

This is the circuit James (offspring, now 18) and I used to ride regularly. He can do it in 55 minutes, counter-clockwise, which entails an immediate climb up the debilitating Clavie. It took me an hour and five minutes tonight, clockwise. That's mostly slow climbs with a few mild descents and two punishing hills to the top of the Clavie, and then a 42 mph swoosh towards home. James rides a Revolution racer with a carbon fork and 14-speed racing gears. My Orbit tourer has better granny gears for old men climbing hills

I did the ride alone, though James would have come with me. I wanted to find out if (a) I would die, or (b) have to stop, embarrassingly exhausted. Neither happened.

The route is: Hillswick, Urafirth, towards Heylor, turning right towards what's called Voe, along the shores of Ronas Voe, Shetland's fjord. You turn right onto the A970, then right again onto the road back to Hillswick. This last section has the two nasty climbs and then the decsent down the Clavie

It was painful, but generally good. And the aftermath, as ever, all cups of tea and the sense of having worked off that over-indulgence in curry, feels great. It's like drinking in reverse. You get the painful hangover first, then the relaxing glow.

View Larger Map

Monday, July 13, 2009

My sagging seat

My Brooks B17 is, oddly enough, 17 years old. It was bought for my first Orbit, a glorious Reynolds 531 ST tourer, a Gold Medal Alivio. I still have that particular velocipede, all hand-brazed, double-butted, entirely Sheffield made, lugged to within in inch of its super-comfortable life. The finish on the original bike was appalling, the paint flaking off at the slightest impact. It's been resprayed in satin black and looks a treat. It hasn't been ridden for three or four years.

But this was broken in over punishing, main road trundles between Cromarty on the Black Isle and Inverness. It lurked, covered with a plastic bag, on the bike rack of many camper vans, including the infamous sewage-leaking Fiat that was parked in the BBC Highland grounds for a year. It has been to Orkney, it has covered the 330-mile epic from Hillswick to Campbelltown, it has suffered canal towpaths, the Tay and Erskine Bridges, and my increasing weight...

This is the perfect saddle. Perfect for me, that is. The most comfortable seat a man could have. What nobody understands, it seems, about bike saddles is that they should be slippy. Those sticky gel things are a nightmare of chafing over a long distance. The worn smoothness of the Brooks, coupled with its gradual moulding to my exact, ah, proportions, makes it as much a of a joy as an overweight, unfit bottom can have aboard a bike.

Five miles on Sunday. Nothing like so much pain and angst as Saturday's creaking return to the diamond frame. Pint of lager on my return. Tasted great (Stella 4 per cent) but it probably outweighed any fitness gain. But hey, life's too short. Isn't it? I'm a drinking, fat-eating cyclist. And my life is in that somewhat saggy saddle. Pass the Thorntons mini-caramel shortcake...

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Some small regrets at missing T in the Park

...not seeing Edwyn Collins perform with Malcolm Ross; not seeing Dave play with Paolo; not seeing Nick Cave. And missing a live performance of this titanic song:

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

It's been nagging at me for weeks...why Bruce undoubtedly owes a debt to Cat Stevens and the Tremeloes

I think it was Camy or Kev, regular listeners both, who mentioned that Springsteen's My Lucky Day, from his most recent album Working on a Dream, was reminiscent of...something else. I'd been thinking the same thing for weeks. And tonight, after a bit of trawling through Google and YouTube (I could hear those words, 'in the midnight, moonlight hour') I found it.

Except Here Comes My Baby is twenty times the song My Lucky Day is. It has, for example, not just a proper chorus, but one that soars and develops through three separate sections. It's a genuinely joyful, pop classic. Springsteen just repeats (and repeats and repeats) the same seven-note riff that comprises Here Comes My Baby's first line.

Cat Stevens, AKA Yusuf, AKA Yusuf Islam is, without doubt, one of the great pop songwriters. Matthew and Son, here Comes My Baby, Father and Son, Moonshadow, Bitterblue and if nothing else, The First Cut Is the Deepest. Springsteen, an avowed fan of the British beat boom, would most certainly have known the Tremeloes version of Here Comes My Baby, maybe even have performed it. Any bootlegs out there?

Anyway, compare and contrast. The studio footage, where Springsteen asks for 'a retro feel', is particularly revealing.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Fabulous idea, beautifully done, lovely performances

Thanks to Andrew McConnel for pointing me in this direction.
Playing for Change is a multimedia movement created to inspire, connect, and bring peace to the world through music.
Check out:

Deadhead sticker on a...Talbot Express camper

One hundred and one miles from Dufftown, the Grateful Dead stickers began to take hold...

Here's my newly-acquired Talbot Express Sheldon camper conversion, bought off eBay and collected over the weekend in my first ever two-nights-on-the-ferry-in-succession Lerwick-Aberdeen-Lerwick dash.

I know, I know. Not a VW. But for a VW, even a T25, in this kind of condition (rebuilt, resprayed, cared and cossetted) you'd be paying at least twice what I shelled out for this. No anthropomorphism. No names. Well, OK, the Pug, then, as it has that kind of look about it. And despite it being a Talbot, the last owner carefully sourced and applied a Peugeot badge to the front. It being, he says a Talbot-Peugeot.

We're planning a wee trip to Uists in August, and some gadding about Shetland before that. As for those Grateful Dead stickers....they add a certain sort of Electric Kool Aid Acid Test vibe, don't they? Comes of listening to American Beauty last night.