Tuesday, April 28, 2009

An inconceivably glorious day in the kayak

I've already been out on the water more this April than in the whole of last summer - mainly due to the easiness of using the Bic Ouassou kayak. And the astonishing weather. This morning in Hillswick it's like summer - genuinely hot in the sunshine. It's flat calm, too.

Bruce (local blacksmith and all round expert in all things nautical) came round for a look at the Kestrel dinghy, and we managed to raise the mainsail, revealing a need for some sewing action. Still, the wee fibreglass boat is sound and this morning's post brought a restored British Seagull outboard for it. Of which much, I expect, later. Bruce also offered me the makings of a mooring, so with that it was out in the kayak for a wee bit of depth sounding.

It was also a chance to try out my new camera. Taking pictures is one of the great pleasures of being out on the sea, but I was always conscious of how easy it would be to damage a digital camera with seawater. So, off to eBay, there to obtain a Vivicam 5399 camera with 15-metre underwater case. How much? For five megapixels? Nine pounds. Not ninety. Nine. Less than 10. Ebay is a wonderful thing.

And this is the result. A picture of Hillswick I've been trying to take for years, showing the red cliffs of the Eshaness peninsula behind the village. Hillswick is basically built on a shingle spit.

When I finally beached the kayak after an hour or so, I was overcome with an unwillingness to return to dry land. Still, work calls!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Afloat again, but running out of puff

This is Hillswick, from the sea. I decided to try out the old Sevylor inflatable kayak, and fortunately chose a calm night. Only the camera escaped getting wet.

The big white building (with patches of new wood where it's being repaired) is the St Magnus Bay Hotel, now going like a train under the ownership of Andrea and Paul. Sadly, the Hillswick shop (lower right) is currently closed, though a community buyout is currently being attempted and will hopefully succeed. On the lower left is The Booth, or Da Bod, originally a Hanseatic trading booth, then a pub. It's now the Hillswick Wildlife Sanctuary.

There's a great picture to be taken from a bit further out, which appears to show Hillswick shadowed by the great red cliffs further out towards Eshaness. The village is essentially built on the stony beach between the Hillswick ness and the rest of the mainland.

I won't be going out in the inflatable again. I fear I'm a teeny bit too heavy for it...

Sunday, April 19, 2009

What's in a name?

I've written previously here about the 'other' Tom Mortons, but a strange thing happened today at the excellent Brae Sunday Teas (and car boot sale - fundraising for Martha's school trip to...somewhere).

I was speaking to someone who had been reading a book about the Salvesen shipping line. Salvesens of Leith was hugely important to the economy of Shetland right up until the 1960s, as they employed many islanders in the South Atlantic (Antarctic) whaling.

Anyway, I was told today that Salvesens had a ship called, wait for it, the Tom Morton. At first I thought this was a joke, but no, a bit of checking revealed that in the early years of the Salvesen company, they bought a ship built in Leith by the engineers and shipbuilders S&H Morton and Co, owned by one H Morton and yes, called the Tom Morton.

Here's the only reference I can find to the vessel online:

Tom Morton 1872 S. & H. Morton & Co., Leith Ex Tom Morton built for H. Morton, Leith, 1884 purchased not renamed, 1886. Went missing at sea. 1,402 tonnes.

Slightly worrying fate. I'll need to be careful in my kayak...

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Looking forward to a wee motorbike jaunt in June...

...a wee note about a new blog called Journey's Blend. This is the first post:

It's all Rob Allanson's fault. He's the editor of Whisky Magazine, and this is what he's got to say...

"...so in June myself and BBC Scotland presenter, whisky writer and
motorbike nut Tom Morton (let¹s not forget he travelled to every
distillery in Scotland using an ancient sidecar outfit) are heading
out on a bit of a epic long distance whisky trip ­ entitled Journey¹s
Blend. To help out and document the trip a photographer and mechanic will complete the two wheeled entourage.
The idea will be to travel the compass points visiting the more
extreme distilleries and selecting whisky that will be shipped to the
hub of the circle to create a blended malt.
So starting at Highland Park, we head to Kilchoman, then Bladnoch and
Glen Garioch before finishing at Glenturret ­ taking about five days to do it.
At Glenturret, Edrington's master blender and whisky creator supreme
John Ramsay has agreed to pull the blend together. The result, just 50
bottles in all, which will be presented in a bespoke engraved
Glencairn Crystal bottle, will be unveiled at Whisky Live Glasgow, and
some of the proceeds will go to the Parkinson's Disease Society in honour of Michael Jackson."

(Tom adds: No, not that Michael Jackson. The beer hunter/whisky writer one)
"Also to lend the project an air of sophistication, British bike
manufacturer Triumph has agreed to lend a couple of modern classics. I
have to say I cannot wait to ride a Bonneville. It's a bike I have
always wanted to ride, the essence of British motorbiking and
engineering. With its wonderful burbling exhaust note, I know it will
be hard to part with it after so many miles. Mind you the trip is also
a dream come true. ­ It's all about the bikes and whisky, both taken very responsibly, obviously."

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The death of print, and the Spotify model for news...

This was originaly written as a forum post at All Media Scotland, in response to an article by Professor Brian McNair.

Prince's Lovesexy? Hmm...

First CD I ever heard was at a demonstration evening in the old Albany Hotel. Inevitably, it was Love Over Gold by Dire Straits.

I still remember the guys from Linn Products' militant refusal to accept that the eerie lack of hiss and scratchiness implied superiority to vinyl. CD was 'less musical'. Analogue, they claimed, would always be 'better'. Bigger dynamic range, lack of edginess, etc etc. Now, of course, they make some of the best CD players in the world...

Brian's interesting piece brought all this back. But his assertion of vinyl's disadvantages in favour of CD, coupled with a defence of newsprint's thoroughly 'analogue' advantages over online, surely misses the real lesson of how digital technology has affected the consumption of music.

Because it's not CD that we ought to be looking at, but online music distribution systems. Not even the likes of second-stage digital gubbins like ITunes, but more to the point the painfully zeitgeisty Spotify, which puts constantly available, unlimited streamed music onto every computer for the price of a few adverts.

The killer app of said app will be its availability on mobile phones. We're weeks away from that. Soon you'll be carrying access to all the music in the world with you, all the time.

We're not far away from already having access to everything newspapers can offer through our phones. Brian's listing of newsprint's benefits (tearing bits out, flipping back and forward, lovely touchy-feely analogue notions that already reek of nostalgia) can be replicated online (see The Scotch Malt Whisky Association's online magazine, Unfiltered, for example).

Making it work effectively, making it comfortable in the pocket, is the key. The Kindle Reader and its competitors are halfway there. Merge that with an iPhone and some smart software, and newspapers will only be for hacks and luddites.

And yet... it's there, surely, that we'll see both the end of newsprint and the beginning of a longing for its finger-licking inky advantages. Because just as Spotify has fuelled in me a desire to own vinyl and enjoy the (yes) superior sound quality, better artwork and sheer tactile pleasure, maybe mobile phone news consumption will spark off a longing for fumbled broadsheets and smeared tabloids.

Like those newspapers-from-your-birthday gift offers, they'll come in presentation boxes, possibly, and be pored over with little sighs of pleasure. They'll be about memory, not news.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Around the Horn in a square-rigger, 1929: I'll never complain about NorthLink again...

This is a link to one of the most famous pieces of maritime film ever: Irving Johnson's incredible amateur footage of his 1929 voyage 'the wrong way' around Cape Horn, from Hamburg to Chile, aboard the biggest sailing ship afloat at the time, the nitrate carrier barque Peking. No motors of any kind, everything done by hand. And some of the scariest storm footage ever shot. Fantastic commentary, too, from Johnson himself. It's 36 minutes long. Shot using a big hand-cranked film camera, too. Unbelievable.


Amazingly, the Peking is still afloat, albeit as a visitor attraction at the South Street Seaport in New York.

Johnson was an astonishing character
, who lived until he was 85.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Baptism of kayak...splendid fun in St Magnus Bay

The man from Northwards Transport was very sceptical. 'It looks' he said (unfortunately, to Susan, who didn't know about the kayak at all) 'like one of those things bairns play on in the swimming pool.' Not the carefully designed (from surf-longboards) hydrodynamic marvel I'd been led to believe, then...

Today was sunny and relatively calm, so I decided to at least put the kayak in the water. I have both wet and dry suits, but once it was actually floating, dressed as I was for work, I just thought...better have a wee seat in it and see if it sinks...and the next thing, I was 50 yards offshore, paddling with an enormous smile on my face. Damn, forgot the lifejacket...

And relatively dry, too. I've always fancied kayaking and done a bit of pool training, but hated the sense of being trapped from the waist down in a plastic tube. This is a BIC (same as the pens) Ouassou sit-on-top. So no sense of enclosure. Despite two large holes right through the hull ('self-draining scuppers')it stays amazingly dry and it's very stable. It is, in fact, a joy for messing about not too far from shore.

Half an hour later, regretfully, having been thoroughly investigated at close quarters by two seals, I hauled the wee yellow boat ashore. It works! It's great!

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Elvis Perkins In Dearland - thoroughly commended to you

This is from the new album. It's amazingly fresh, and astringent...you'd think nobody had ever done that acoustic guitar/harmonica thing...

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

A poem to celebrate the completion of 30 non-drinking days and nights

The Nominated Driver

A shorter version was written for Shetland Library's 'Bards in the Bogs' scheme, but the site specific nature of the poem probably told against it: it can only be displayed at the Voe toilets, an important, nay crucial staging post on the long road, the A970, between Lerwick and the North Mainland, especially if drink has been taken on board in Coalfishreek. This is part of the live show Tom Morton's Drinking for Scotland, booked for the Belladrum Festival's Co-op Verb garden. And possibly elsewhere in due course.


The nominated driver sits
And most deliberately shits

It's three AM, midsummer, Voe
He didn't really need to go

And this is most unsalubrious
The graffitti extremely dubious

The chauffeur needed to take a break
Though agreeing to drive was no mistake

He's never really liked the drink
With it, he finds, he just can't think

Straight, crooked, birly - any way
So sober, now, he likes to stay

And sometimes, he'll take his friends to town
And watch them pour the draught beer down

Their conversation, brilliant or slight
To him all just the purest shite

He sips his iced Coke, a dash of bitters
A cocktail found in literature

In Raymond Chandler's Marlowe thrillers
Drunk by the hero, not the killers

And not by Chandler, to tell the truth
Who died a hopeless, gibbering drouth

(A different Chandler from the one in Friends
Though they may come to similar ends)

Anyway, tonight, they went
to Posers, until the cash was spent

And now they're heading home, to Brae
Next week, though, he'll make them pay

For valeting his car, the bonnet
Even now is smeared with vomit.

And the back seat is soaked in piss
They aimed for a cider can and missed

So. In the crapper at Upper Voe
It's nearly time for him to go

They're singing Hank Williams and Steve Earle
Dreaming of missed chances with girls

They'll remember nothing of this night
The falling down, being sick, the fights

But the nominated driver will
In the toilet he's writing still

In his notebook, with great care
All sorts of things are detailed there

For staying sober there are compensations
He retains a wealth of information

All documented, filed and stored
Ready to settle any score

So never underestimate
Sobriety's capacity to hate

Always suspect that teetotal bloke
If he puts bitters in his Coke.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Day 28, into 29, of the Great 30-day Teetotalism Experiment

Strong tea. Mug after mug today (Scottish Blend), consumed with great lip-smacking, soul-quenching relish.

Extraordinary piece in The Guardian by Chris Paling, a diary of his 30-odd days in a hospital ward specialising in alcohol-related stomach and liver complaints. Disturbing, especially as I've been daydreaming about a moderate return to imbibing come day 31, which is Tuesday.

Hmmm...perhaps not. Even with a large chunk of the family in Pisa, quaffing Frascati...

I do think the proposed 50p per unit minimum price for alcohol is absolutely justified. The argument that it somehow discriminates against 'sensible' drinkers is complete tosh. A 50 per unit bottle of wine is less than £6. It's only once wine gets above a fiver a bottle that you start paying a reasonable amount for the actual wine, as opposed to tax. Fifty pence a unit discriminates against insensible drinkers. Or to be exact, folk who use alcohol as a convenient anaesthetic/social lubricant, and don't really care about the taste.

Discrimination is the key. We should all be connoisseurs!

Friday, April 03, 2009

Generation Kill - Stay frosty! If you love The Wire and can handle the bad CGI, you'll love this

The Wire being on terrestrial telly is truly odd, I think. People are saying 'it's rubbish', having watched three episodes, clearly without ever hearing Wiremeister David Simon's brutal dismissals of 'the average viewer', in whom he claims not even to be slightly interested.

In fact, it's not a series for watching casually on the box; it's for watching, seriously, via the DVD boxed set. You have to immerse yourself in it, taking on two or three epsidoes at a time, to get the full effect. And once in, there's no way out. Not for you, not for anyone in Baltimore...

For those struggling with series one, the arrival of Omar should signal the beginning of absolute addiction...though I have to say, for me the peaks are seasons two and five. Three and four see the moral agenda being hammered just a little too hard...

...meanwhile, on to the next David Simon and Ed Burns show, Generation Kill, based on the book (which is pretty good, but not as good as the series) by Evan Wright, an 'embedded' Rolling Stone journalist with the First Recon Marines in the Second Iraq War.

Like in The Wire, you have to get to know the various characters, and this time you're basically stuck in a Humvee with them. It's like Black Watch crossed with Three Kings, only much, much better. And you don't have to go a bloody theatre. Also like The Wire, once you're involved with these people, good and bad, abandoning them becomes unthinkable.

The DVD boxed set is pretty dear just now, but I would say essential viewing. Love the details: all the marines' info comes from BBC World Service radio. The commander ends up addicted to cricket coverage.

"Gentlemen. From now on, we're going to have earn our stories..."

Couple of things: the acting and the South African location filming are superb, but the CGI interludes are clunky as anything. Why didn't they use news footage? And interesting to see former BBC Scotland drama head Andrea Calderwood as producer. As I said somewhere else, I remember when an aggrieved Peter MacDougall, writer of the wonderful Just a Boy's Game etc, referred to her disaparagingly as 'a wee girl'. Ironic to see her in charge of a series which out-swears, out-machos and, I fear, outclasses anything MacDougall has ever done...

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Tragedy in the North Sea and the London news agenda

The helicopter went into the sea around 2.00pm, and within half an hour there were Twitter and, using automatic feeds, Facebook posts about what had happened.

I was on air at the time and I found out through social media, which obviously plays a part in how the programme works. It's important for news to get to a live music show so we can avoid tasteless or offensive clashes between records or band names and current events. Helicopter Girl would have been out of the question yesterday. Given events at the G20, we came close to dropping the Clash's Rock The Casbah.

For me, living in Shetland, within the sound of offshore helicopter operations and with a heightened sense of the North Sea's dangers, yesterday's fatal crash was of enormous importance. But that was true for everyone in Scotland, where we all know someone who works 'offshore', and for whom the North Sea oil industry has, I think, something of the mythic importance that deep coal mining once had for my parents' generation. It is part of our identity.

I thought BBC Scotland (and I'm trying not be biased here; I do work for them, but this blog is staunchly independent!)reacted admirably and with both commitment and restraint. The story was both reported as a piece of live, developing news and placed carefully in context.

But the 'national' UK news, not just at six o'clock but throughout the evening, even when it was clear that 16 people were dead, didn't just lead on the G20 talks in London and the associated (mild) unrest, it insisted on relegating the helicopter crash way, way past the Obama-gives-Queen-Ipod fluff and the Royal Bank of Scotland vandalism. To say I was disgusted was putting it mildly. A reporting agenda had been set in London early in the morning, the coverage had been budgeted for and planned, and nothing, NOTHING was going to deflect that intensely metropolitan set of news values.

Even this morning, Radio Four is leading its news not an actual events in London, but on speculation as to what may or may not happen later in the day. By contrast, Radio Scotland's Good Morning Scotland is a live outside broadcast from Aberdeen Harbour, with reporters live in Peterhead and elsewhere. Only there could I find out the crucial fact, for Scotland (and Shetland) that Bond had suspended all North Sea operations. Something which could have major implications for the oil industry as a whole.

I can honestly say that I have never felt so betrayed, so overtly, by a set of journalistic decisions. Nor have I ever felt quite so Scottish.