Saturday, October 24, 2009

The ferry from Shetland arriving in Aberdeen in, ahem, not-very-calm weather...

...thing is, these boats can handle worse weather than shown here. But the cars and passengers tend to go flying about the place.... hence the fact that the southbound ferry is, as I write, still in port, waiting for the winds to subside. The northbound boat is, however, as far as I know, at sea...

Here in Hillswick, the wind is very bad indeed. Dave Wheeler, Fair isle's ace weatherman is saying 75 mph gusts and we're a good 70-80 miles north. No night to be on the briny. Thanks to Dave at Shetlink for this.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Thick of It returns...

Hard to believe Capaldi was once in Glasgow band The Dreamboys, along with one Craig Ferguson...

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Peat: between eight and 10 liftings by a human between hill and hearth

It takes eight physical human liftings for a single peat to leave the ground and reach fire or stove. That's not carbon burning there; it's human energy. It's time.

Casting, raising, turning, bagging, lifting bag to the roadside, lifting bag onto trailer/pickup truck/pony/passing human, lifting bag off the aforementioned following the trip home, and finally lifting said sod into the house and placing it on the flame. It could be nine or ten, actually. Some insist on turning the peats twice on the hill (part of the drying process) and others will bring the peats inside in a kishie or bucket, to rest by the fire until needed. It's complex.

We're crap at peats. We actually pay to have the banks cut, but then we do all the other stuff. The house is heated by oil, but there's a solid fuel stove in the kitchen (which is where I live and breathe and have my being, basically) and lighting it in winter reduces the oil bill dramatically. So there's an incentive to sort out our peat situation. Alas, peat turning, raising, bagging etc is unpleasant in the extreme. In fact, casting - the bit we pay someone else to do - is the only enjoyable part, in my opinion. With so much else to do, peats get left. Until far too late in the year.

And so it was that today, as dusk fell, I was dragging bags to the roadside for collection sometime this week, if I can borrow a trailer or a van. It's sore work. It's dirty. I can think of a million things I'd be better doing. In fact, this is supposed to be a holiday. I'd be far better off broadcasting, getting paid and paying someone else to get the peats home.

Or buying a wind generator and some storage heaters.

The moving story of Killian Mansfield - and some good music too

Being Scottish, you have to fight past the slight whiff of tooth-grinding sentimentality. Well, I did. But it's more than worth it, just for Dr John doing Scratch My Back.

Killian Mansfield was a 15-year-old ukulele player, dying from a rare form of cancer, who determined to record an album with 'famous people'. It helped, I suppose, that he lived in Woodstock. Still, the result is more than moving. It's very good. And the 'famous people' are quality: The aforementioned Mac Rebennack, Kate Pierson from the B-52s, Levon Helm, Todd Rundgren and John Sebastian.

Read the story here.

Stream the album here.

Contribute to the foundation here.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Rodents in the First Class Lounge and other railway tales...

The Virgin First Class Lounge at Euston station is really rather swish, though the access provided to Scotrail customers travelling on the Caledonian Sleeper to Glasgow kind of sets the weary and worn nature of the Scotrail rolling stock in context. Free, proper coffee and soft drinks, biscuits, nuts, alcohol, comfortable seats, computers, showers. All the things you don't get on the train. Except for the cheap alcohol, funnily enough.

Oh, and rodents. Susan saw a long tail disappearing and swears she heard squeaking. A box of poison was clearly on display. And according to one of the staff, they are aware 'they have a problem'. Rats or mice? The jury's out. But it's a decaying sixties station and...

Anyway, the lounge closes at 11.00pm, as does the (very expensive - £8 a bag) left luggage store. So we had the rather grim experience of waiting for Scotrail (23.50 departure) to allow us aboard the train. Not until half an hour before sailing.

The northbound train was A LOT more pleasant than the southbound. Better lounges, with 'the only real leather sofs on any British train', better availability of drinks, and a breakfast delivered on trays with teapots, not a paper bag with crappy cardboard cups. You get a £2.50 voucher for drinks, too.One typically trainish toilet per coach, no showers and really cramped sleeping accommodation. No power points worked, no wi-fi, same as the way down.

BUT, even travelling first class, which means you don't have to share a cabin with a stranger, you can get a reasonable deal on tickets and you save a night's accommodation. And, whisper it, there's something romantically daft about a sleeper train. Oh, the joy of watching the dawn break over...Motherwell. Though the run from London to Fort William is a long-term ambition...

Boat tonight and home tomorrow, all being well. NO MORE SHOPPING!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Sunset at the Louvre

Well, that's basically it for Paris, and the three-day break has just been great. Metro was easy, bike tour fab (like, totally awesome in guidespeak - all Fat Tire guides appear to be Americans in Paris) Food up to expectations. Cataclysmically expensive, but I suppose that's just the way of things. Bring on the Scottish euro! Or British...

Great discoveries? The Caroussel mall under the Louvre, utterly devoid of signposts and possibly the most impressive shopping centre in the universe. Great food court, too, where you can eat good French food relatively cheaply (glass of wine, 2 euros). Gobelins is a good place to stay, handy for walking into the Latin Quarter (Rue de Mouffetard is pure Alan Furst)Jardin des Plantes and reasonable Metro connections. Hotel was friendly and generally very good (Eurostar deal). Oh, and the Paul caravan next to the Louvre is great for Tuilleries picnic stuff. Cesar pizza place on Boulevard St Marcel is very good, as is Le Petit Bar.

Paris is the star. You can just walk around and look at...stuff. But for me, after two visits in two days, the Musee d'Orsay was just...extraordinary. Seeing in the flesh those Gauguins, Renoirs, Van Goghs, Sisleys, Seurats, Monets, Toulouse-Lautrecs, Degas and Cezannes rendered me almost insensible. And all this in an old railway station! If you go, though, don't start humming Don Maclean's 'Starry Starry Night' to yourself. You won't be able to stop.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Fat Tire Bike Tours.... opposed to fat spare tire on bike tour. Recommended. They're at 11.00am and 3.00pm, meet at south pillar of the Eiffel Tower.

Coming down the Eiffel tower stairs: not recommended if you suffer from vertigo

Arrived in London after a disappointingly 70s and rather grimy trip on the First Scotrail sleeper ('I'm sorry - we've only got on cafetiere and it's in use'). The rolling stock is a disgrace, though the staff did their best. Still, Once at St Pancras, everything became really easy. Loads of interesting cafes for breakfast (try Paul or Le Pain Quotidien, both French)and then Susan and Martha went off with Susan's sister Jane for a frenzied morning's shopping. I wandered about the British Library and the three wonderful squares on the way to the British Museum (Russell, Tavistock and Bloomsbury) checked out some vintage camera shops and dozed on park benches.

The Eurostar was easy, fast, reliable and comfortable. Swoosh, we're in Paris, two and a half hours. Easy taxi ride to the hotel, Le Grand Hotel Des Gobelins in the 13th Arrondisement. Very good. Metro to the Eiffel Tower, vertigo, great Italian food and a view of the tower from the window. Not bad.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Night in the strange lost boulevards of the West End

Out for a wee cycle in the dry stillness of an autumn Saturday night, in the hinterlands of the West End; this is where Kirklee interfaces with Dowanhill, where Maryhill parallels North Kelvinside, and the grand, deserted boulevards sweep across the Kelvin on mighty, magically lit bridges.

Like any city, Glasgow's posh parts are seconds away from the unequivocally dodgy. The deserted car park of the Maryhill Tesco has a substantial team of loud and screechy youngsters kicking bins and shouting in the shadows. But then, next to Kelvinside Academy I glimpse a couple posing in grand drawing rooms for formal photographs: engagement? Departure? I'll never know.

The last time I cycled in Glasgow after dark, just for the hell of it (as opposed to making more or less inebriated journeys back from pub to pit) was, I think, in 1983. A Falcon racing bike, Christmas night, woozy with wine and far from home, for some reason in Paisley Road West, counting Christmas trees in tenement windows. My earliest memory is in the glorious Greek Thomson sweep of Cessnock's Walmer Crescent. In maybe 1959, my dad worked in a dental practice there, and we lived in a cold flat with somebody else's cat. My first memory is of what happens when you try to embrace a cuddly puss and it objects, jaggedly.

2009, and back to Magnus's flat, past lurching parties both beginning and ending, piggybacking kids ('Hoy, cyclist! Save the world! Nae motors!') Always aware of the great, black depths of the Botanic Gardens, Kelvingrove, falling away on my left left or right. A dangerous and frightening place once night has fallen. But the lights of Queen Margaret Drive (Full Bhuna! Bagels! Bike Love!) loom, with the promise of Irn Bru and Dairy Milk.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Autumn in Glasgow's west end - a mere 36 years after that first walk in Kelvingrove Park, first year at university

Classic autumn day in the wild west end of Glasgow. On the way back from PQ through the park (aboard the trusty folding bike)I saw a fox and a squirrel next to the Kelvin. Tales of the Riverbank!

It's 36 years since I first came to live in Glasgow, as a 17 year old student of English Literature. The smell of west Glasgow at this time of year (rotting foliage and a distant whiff of curry, basically) always whisks me back to 1973, when the ability to use a typewriter was considered dangerously technical. The Hot Spot, the Green Gate, the legendary Shish Mahal, the Koh-i=Noor (fell into the Kelvin), the Shenaz, the Taj Mahal...and that was about that. And there were NO joggers!

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The strange euphoria of railway stations...

A strange, calm sense of wellbeing comes over me in railway stations. If, that is, I'm in plenty of time for whatever train I'm supposed to be catching. It's even better if I'm not actually catching a train at all. Not that I make a habit of just loitering on railway concourses. Stations are good places to meet, as tonight when I had to rendezvous with a producer so we could do some interviews for the Drinking For Scotland series.

But Costa in Glasgow's Queen Street Station remains one of the great locations for just...sitting and watching the world go by. No need to read a paper. You're waiting. So is everybody else. You're invisible. And so much going on. The young, cutting-edge trendy, enormously in lust couple canoodling, him in a Dizzee Rascal baseball cap, her in a hijab; the strange number of old men in cowboy hats; the furtive men systematically checking the public telephones for change. Greetings, meetings, farewells.

The odd calmness I feel comes from childhood, I think. Trains meant movement, travel, Grannies' houses, Largs, holidays, trips. Other Places. Other people. I loved trains, always, and I still do. Late trains, busy trains. Waiting for trains. Waiting near trains. They trigger something deep, pleasurable, the best bits of the past. Those great red pneumatic buffers at Central come to mind. No train ever touched them. How I longed for one to just...brush against them, gently. Just to see if they worked.

Anyway, Ian arrives, and we're off to Springburn to interview some of Glasgow's truly impressive paramedics. Next week I'm off to Paris with Susan and Martha. By train. I can hardly wait.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

To the Wigtown Book Festival, and then back to Glasgow via The Queen's Way...

It was too much, the overnight boat trip from Shetland, followed by a thrash down the road to Glasgow, doing the show, and then another drive down to Wigtown, for the annual book festival. I should probably have had a quiet night in then, but a gathering of whisky writers forced me to partake of...Freixenet Cava, red wine and yes, whisky. Or to be precise, a Charles Maclean guided tasking of Irish whiskeys, which was a revelation. Redbreast! Never has Paddy's tasted so awful.

Then it was off to the lovely Glenturk Farm Cottages, a converted steading which gave me some ideas for our own unused (except for motorbike storage) barns back home. That's a picture of the lounge/kitchen area. To sleep.

Saturday. Bacon rolls, loads of coffee, then telly. Recuperation of a sort. Wigtown was jumping, when I finally tore myself away from The Hairy Bakers and ambled through the heavy showers to encounter Scotland's Booktown in full festive fig. I took in a session with Alan Grant, writer of Batman, Judge Dredd and much else, and met up with Broons supremo Dave Donaldson, who was due to host a Broons event next day. We went to the 'Author's Retreat' and availed ourselves of the fantastic lobster buffet for which this festival has become famous. Yum!

A bit of preparation for my own gig, and then off to the Bladnoch Distillery for the launch of Raymond Armstrong's 8-year-old whisky. It's a cracker, a really distinctive lowland malt, fresh and zingy. Ulster/Scots folk band featuring a Lambeg drum performed, a first for me. Time for the 'Tom Morton's Drinking for Scotland' show.

I had major problems sorting out any kind of sound with the in-house PA system, and eventually, despite the size of the hall and a fairly large audience, had to go for a totally acoustic performance. One or two people at the back had difficulty hearing me speak (apologies), but the singing came over, I think, pretty well. We're too used to amplification, I think. The drinks (Irn Bru, Buckfast, Scotsmac and the Bladnoch 8) were meant to take us on a trip through Scotland's various libations, ending with the glories of the local spirit. The poems and songs seemed to go down pretty well. I'm hoping to record the whole show on video and have it online sometime next month. Maybe.

Sold a heap of books, which was great. Lovely audience, and splendid to meet so many enthusiastic Radio Scotland listeners. But knackered, so a comparatively early and moderate night. Not for me the Buckfast cocktails! I did find out, however, to my complete surprise, and Dave's, that I was meant to host Mr Donaldson's Broons show next day. OK, no problem.

Sunday morning, and publisher Neil Wilson, also staying at Glenturk, cooks a massive breakfast. Black Pudding. Restraint must be exercised. The Glenturk cottages were built following the farm's entire stock of cattle having to be destroyed following the foot and mouth epidemic. This must have been a bitter blow as Glenturk is legendary for the quality of its cattle, wining multiple awards at the Royal Highland Show. Fortunately, they're back in the kye business, and winning awards again.

Lunch at the Ploughman's in Wigtown (very good - and they're sponsoring the Broons gig) and Dave and I lay down some ground rules for the show. Then, armed with a life-size cut-out of Maw Broon, we spend an hour chatting about Dudley D Watkins, RD Low and Dave's own career (writing the Broons since 1962. Spot Brian Keenan in the signing tent. Then it's off to Glasgow up the Queen's Way from Newton Stewart to New Galloway and Ayr. It's an absolutely beautiful drive.

Wigtown is a great festival and this year went, I think really well. Many thanks to all involved for their sterling efforts!

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Cheesetown, winter clamping down, and another trip south...

Cold, cold, cold in Shetland with an icy north westerly bringing in the Greenlandic North Atlantic's a time for staying in a sorting things out for the dark nights, snatching the fading daylight hours fior roof repairs and house-painting.

Instead, I'm on the boat tonight and heading south. Wigtown Book Festival appearance (Tom Morton's Drinking for Scotland) on Saturday night. It's the same show, basically, as at Belladrum,lacking Martha and James but with added whisky, tonic wine and, well, Scotsmac and Irn Bru. Interactivity run riot. I'll probably record it over the winter and put a video online, and that'll be that. I'm getting too old for restringing guitars!

Still, not too old for what promises to be an exciting 2010. I'm working with Stephen and Jim from FairPley Ltd (They ran the Co-op Verb Garden at last year's Bella) on a huge project which will involve much travelling and fundraising. A dark secret at the moment but will reveal what's planned ASAP.

Meanwhile, Brian Knox kicked off an entertaining thread on today's TM Show with his comments about Kirkliston:

Tom, I heard you mention Kirkliston. I was born in Kirkliston a long while back.
Kirkliston is also known as Cheesetown. I don't think it's used so much now but in my youth it was common.Anyone who was born within the village boundaries was a cheesetonian.
It's alleged the village got the name Cheesetown from the workers building the Forth Railway Bridge who lodged in Kirkliston.
When they opened their sandwiches at work it was cheese everyday.It would be the same type of cheese as well.
I enjoy your programme.
Brian Knox.

We talked extreme cheese (Devil's Suppository, anyone?) and local names for local places.
Some great texts:
Dear Tom.Have you heard of Crook of Devon twinned with the thief of Bagdad.great nightlife. Ian Robertson. crook of devon

Lossiemouth people used to be called cod heads , brian, cod head

I've heard people from Galashiels are called pailmerks - what's that about? Pauline from Duns
Kinucker or kilconqher for the out of towners which is any body not from the kingdom Mk

And as for the Pailmerks conundrum, it is answered by Jason from the Borders:

Tom, It springs from Galashiels being the last town in the Borders to get indoor plumbing - consequently they kept to their previous habits of night time use of a pail/bucket - which might leave a mark (or merk) on the floor - a bucket mark - or if you prefer a "pailmerk"
Jason in the Borders