Thursday, September 30, 2010

The red sofa reading list

Susan is threatening to put my red sofa in the newly-converted-to-holiday-accommodation barn. I am, of course, fighting a rearguard action! Literally, as I have worn a depression in this settee which perfectly suits me. Though it is....rather difficult to extricate myself from...

The red sofa has become my office, my bookshelf, my occasional dining room. From it, I can see through the old kitchen window (positioned in the manse so the minister could see the kirk), and the telly. The stove is comfortably six feet away, there's natural light from the window behind me. Its arms are flat and on one side accommodate phone and charger, cup of coffee and mains extension. On the other is the pile of books I'm currently engaged with.

Le Carre's Our Kind of Traitor is really a novella and in some ways a small masterpiece. Full of rage and wit. Eileen Lupton's Indie Publishing is being dipped into for the sake of an upcoming project. Moral Combat is  rumbustiously written in Telegraphese by Michael Burleigh, and is a kind of fallback read. He's got a bit of an AJP Taylor complex. Laurence Hemming's Benedict bio I haven't started, the brilliant Alan Furst's Night Soldiers is, in retrospect ( struggled with it a bit) a magnificent achievement. His NKVD protagonist really haunts the memory.

Elsewhere, there's the owner's manual for my motorbike, the Moto Guzzi Bellagio, currently and reluctantly for sale.  The humanist magazine Humanitie, the new edition of Q, and The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson,  one of my favourite writers. I read it at the insistence of my son Magnus, having abandoned it previously as 'too steampunk' in its early pages. Just finished, and I found it quite profoundly affecting, despite its many faults and intrinsic messiness. Cryptonomicon is Stephenson's best book, but the Baroque Cycle is just astounding in its scope (and the fact it was written in longhand).

Then there's Jonathan Franzen's much-vaunted Freedom. The first chapter is wonderful, but it's Anne Tyler in HD, isn't it?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The last unread Alan Furst

Alan Furst's novels of WW2 and the years preceding are, on the whole, truly excellent. I thought I'd read them all, but for some reason missed Night Soldiers, which is unlike the rest of his books, being much bigger  in scale: it covers Bulgarian fascism, Soviet NKVD recruitment and training (in too much detail) the Spanish Civil War (not bad) and on to the author's beloved Paris. For the first time with a Furst, I'm struggling a bit. Spies of the Balkans, his latest, is much better. Indeed, I'd say this is the worst of the Fursts...
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Monday, September 20, 2010

Home to the Caravan of Rock and the greatest sunset window in Scotland

Home after a flying visit south, courtesy of FlyBe, the airline that charges you an extra ten quid for carrying your guitar. Still, it all worked out rather cheaper than the boat would have been, even including a hire car (assuming I'd booked a cabin on NorthLink) and was much, much less tiring.
The Caravan Of Raaawwwkk!

Back to beautiful weather (which continues this morning, at least for the next five minutes) and to find The Caravan of Rock parked in The Beatcroft's precincts, one tyre flat. It was there for The Booze Cruise on Saturday, an event at the village hall involving an entirely fictitious 'cruise' to several different countries,  featuring  music, food and, err...dramatic performances from said destinations. all without leaving Hillswick. Australia, it seems, was one of the stops.

Then a splendid dinner at Stacey and Kieran's house, the lounge window of which features this view.

 Sometimes the best geography in the world is...quite near at hand.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Ardgour, Strontian, Glasgow, Big Jake and the fastest food in Glasgow

The ferry across the Corran Narrows to Ardgour must be the most expensive per metre in Scotland: £6.40 for a car and passenger, to travel what seems like the length of two football pitches, if that. On Friday, with Tom Morton Show time approaching rapidly, I arrived off the ferry after a discombobulating trip down the A82 from Inverness, and the Garmin satnav sent me up the road to what it was absolutely certain was Watercolour Studios.
Ben Nevis from Watercolour Studios

Nope. About 17 dogs of all shapes and sizes assured me it wasn't. Eventually, with time rampaging away, I asked at the pub. Four or five miles up the A861 to Stronchreggan, Nick Turner and Mary Anne Kennedy's new residential recording studio complex  eventually appeared, in almost unbelievably scenic surroundings. No sign, just a disused dodgem car at the gate. Dead giveaway.

It's state of the art inside, and luxurious too. There's a Belgian Sheepdog, like a coal-black version of Lassie. After a couple of hiccups, the show went well, and it was off down the Ardnamurchan peninsula to Strontian, where the first Three Lochs Festival was happening at the Sunart Centre (part of the local school; there was a bar, presumably not open during classes).

Nick Turner at Watercolour
What can I tell you? I had a great time. The evening kicked off with the results of a Gaelic schools poetry competition, some Gaelic singing from the local choir, poetry recitals and a celebration of the local writers' group launching a new book. then we had Roger Hutchinson talking us through the film Whisky Galore (he wrote the excellent book Polly about the sinking of the real life SS Politician), me doing a version of The Malt and Barley Revue (four whiskies: The Singleton of Dufftown (light'n'nutty but slightly dodgy) Bowmore 12 (delightfully, subtly peaty) Glenmorangie no-age (orangeade and Irn Bru) and Auchentoshan 12 (a really good, underrated lowland whisky, I think), and a showing, in the Sunart Centre's theatre, of Whisky Galore.

What a fantastic experience that was. To see this magical film  with about 50 other folk, a few whiskies to the good, people singing along in Gaelic, cheering, identifying known characters among the folk on screen, and applauding at the end. It meant something so much more than it ever could watching on a DVD at home.

And afterwards, the bar was still open..there was local produce, smoked mackerel pate, I sold my entire cache of books...and it didn't stop there. On being given a lift back to my excellent b&b, I was invited into the kitchen for late-night cheese and...(a small) Old Pulteney. Hospitality in Ardnamurchan is fabulous. I went to bed with the window open to the river, and slept like a stone.

A massive and brilliant breakfast this morning, and then, fresh as the proverbial daisy, I headed for the 9.00 am ferry, and the hellish drive down the A82. afflicted with camper vans and cyclists. I love camper vans, but you need fast ones, like Mazda Bongos. I love cycling, but the cussed arrogance of the cycling club that rode, three abreast, for miles down Loch Lomondside, nearly causing an accident every time somebody tried to overtake, frankly beggared belief. No wonder motorists get upset.

Glasgow then, and the sheer delight of seeing Dave, Lucy and their son, my grandson, Jake. He is absolutely gorgeous. Dinner at Nanakusa - excellent Japanese food, served and finished and out in an unbelievable 35 minutes. Now it's bed, up at 7.00 am and off to Inverness for the flight home. A flying visit to the mainland, but lots done and really, really worthwhile.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Stormy night. Sooth boat cancelled. My favourite Shetland weather.

Huge equinoctial gales hammering Shetland, and the NorthLink ferry to Aberdeen cancelled due to, ahem 10-metre swells in the Fair Isle Channel. I remember being on one of the old boats (P&O's rough ex-Baltic ferries, the St Clair and the St Sunniva, which would have set sail in a typhoon, if we had typhoons) for 36 hours, hove-to in Scapa Flow, aged Saga tourists having been previously hurled about the restaurant like brittle, noisy squash balls.

These days it's a bit more civilised. NorthLink just don't set sail when it's hideously rough. Some Shetlanders moan about this, but frankly, I don't mind. Especially when, as is the case tonight, I'm booked on the early morning flight out of Sumburgh...

Famous last words, but wind doesn't tend to stop the 'plane. Just makes for a shorter take-off and a bumpier landing. Or as I once said, on the 'plane you spend an hour thinking you're going to die. On the's 14 hours or more, wishing you were dead.

The picture is the Toft inter-island ferry terminal tonight, taken while my daughter was at piano lessons. The notice says that the 8.15pm ferry to Yell WILL sail. God help all aboard, I say...meanwhile, it's a Black Bush (my new favourite blended whisky in the whole wide world) and an evening enjoying the house vibrating in the  wind., while the waves crash over the cars, and the new sheds come apart, bit by bit. Weather like this tells the truthful tale: do you really love being in Shetland, or just the idea of it?
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Monday, September 06, 2010

Sheep attack

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Mysterious arrival of sheep in Shetland - a creature never previously seen in this habitat. Origins believed to relate to knitting activity here.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Moto Guzzi Bellagio: Living with the beautiful beast of Lake Como

Well, That's six weeks or so since I took possession of the Bellagio down in Norfolk, and almost a month since I arrived home after the 3500-mile excesses of The Barnard Challenge. Susan has reconciled herself to the existence of the Guzzi, and even ordered a special shed for it. Which James put together and into which the Bellagio fits. Just.

This is the weekend I've decided to keep the bike, unless financial crises intervene. Certainly until next year, when any major touring projects may force a rethink. Or an addition to the fleet...

The Bellagio is extravagantly good looking. It's part cruiser, part street-dragster. One of the benefits of that huge lump of V-twin engine is that it stops any thoughts of a feet-forward daft Harley riding position. But it's big and light and responsive enough to (just about) tour on. It managed the full-on motorway thrash from Leicester to Inverness relatively easily, though the lack of a screen left me almost paralysed with cold on a midnight A9. It now has a (very small) screen, which cost £132, and that takes some wind blast off the chest. But it's a stress-free ride in many ways, easy on the knees (unlike the scintillating Triumph Street Triple R I used for most of the Barnard Challenge; it went like a space rocket but was very cramped) but hard on the wrists and thumbs.

The Guzzi makes a very nice noise - that V-twin thump is addictive - but this is a new take on an old design: Four spark plugs, short stroke, 75 bhp in a light chassis. It will leave any Harley Sportster for dead and indeed out handle all Harleys. But is that enough? You have to cane the engine to get the best performance out of it. It's not effortless, and the six gearbox ratios seem weirdly ill-matched. Best for overtaking is fourth. Sixth is virtually an overdrive.

Handling is occasionally lumpy and twitchy, especially on poor surfaces. It's better heavily loaded. The shaft drive is the worst I've ever experienced (compared to a Kawasaki GTR1000, my ancient Suzuki GS and BMWs of all kinds), despite the much vaunted CARC system: backlash at slow speeds is terrible, making traffic a jerky and thumb-savaging business. Vibration is, as you'd expect, severe, but not as a bad as a Harley.

Other problems? The horrendous clattering when you pull in the clutch lever on idle is a Guzzi hallmark, but initially...disturbing. You get used to it. Range is disappointing. 150 miles from what is a deceptively small tank.

But. It will sit at 80-90 mph in absolute stability, and do so very comfortably for the rider (where legally possible!). The engine, which has done 2900 miles, should be good for at least 25 times that. Finish is excellent, with the exception of some badly-chromed screws (Piaggio); brakes are good (Brembo); suspension is high quality (Marzocchi). It came with the comfy twin seat and a rear hugger, and it cost much less than an equivalent 2007 Sportster. It's by far the better bike.

Did I say it was good looking? Actually, I think it's breathtaking. And if I do keep it,there's the matching panniers and tank bag, the Bellagio helmet, the racing exhausts...all possible Christmas presents...

The truth is, I've wanted a Guzzi since I was a wee boy, and saw one, probably an early California, cruising down the main drag in Playa de Aro, Spain, ridden, helmetless, by a guy with a beautiful blonde woman on the pillion.

And in the end, I fear, that's defined motorcycling for me since. I'm shallow that way.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Last of the Stevenson lighthouses

Eshaness, Shetland. Built by David in 1929. Now owned by Shetland Amenity Trust and available for tourist rentals! How cool is that? The roof is reinforced concrete and can withstand frequent batterings not just by wind but by the stones and indeed large boulders thrown up over the 61-metre cliffs. Seriously. Extreme holidaymaking! In glorious weather today, though. Northern Lighthouse Board info here:

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Thursday, September 02, 2010

Misty dawn of what would be a lovely day

From the front door this morning.

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