Thursday, December 30, 2010

St Bernard at leisure

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Saturday, December 25, 2010

Kayaking Christmas Day!

Just couldn't resist taking the Malibu sit-on-top for a wee spin off Hillswick. around noon on Christmas Day

Hillswick, Christmas morning

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Solstice dawn (lunar eclipse the other way)

Couldn't get my fumbling fingers to work the old Samsung Pro815 properly, no tripod, so no rust red moon. Just loved the description from a meteorologist on Good Morning Scotland: "It's every sunrise and sunset in the world, reflected off the moon."

In the other direction, though, this was dawn over Ura Firth leading to St Magnus Bay. You'll have to imagine the seven snorting seals. No, not the Bergmanesque ones.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Too good not to share: Ronnie's top list of 'bullshit bingo' words and phrases

I hope Ronnie Johnston doesn't mind, but this came in to the show this afternoon. Fantastic!

Hi Tom,

This is one of my pet hates.

I have already a list of words that are overused in the media and have copied them below.

I am sure there are many more.

Perhaps the worst however is the use of the word “literally” when it is clear that it would be impossible.

“ When my dad found out he literally exploded.”

I am sure you are already aware of the “Bullshit Bingo” game where persons attending a meeting are given a list of buzzwords and have to cross out each as it is used.

The winner should then exclaim “Bullshit” when all have been used.

Ronnie Johnston

icon, iconic

shock, in shock, shocked

miracle, miraculous


under the microscope


going forward

long fight with cancer

slam, slammed


don’t get me wrong

to be honest


at the end of the day

it’s a nonsense [it's nonsense]

shell shocked [shocked]

found battered to death in her own home [her home]

anything with the suffix ‘gate’

devout Catholic [not totally lapsed]

devastated [upset]


residents woke to discover

surreal [incredible]

absolutely essential [essential]

incredulous & credulous [often confused]

credulous [credible], incredulous [incredible]

kick-start [start]

riddled with cancer

almost palpable

binge drinking culture

Monday, December 13, 2010

Babyliss Easycut attack after major surgery

The compensation claim goes in shortly...if you haven't seen a Babyliss EasyCut, it's like a wee rotary lawnmower for the head, currently getting big licks on telly advertising. They are instruments of the devil and should be avoided by all.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

36 whiskies and whiskeys, but no uisges

World Whisky Awards tasting some point this week. No, honestly, it's no fun whatsoever...Irish and Rest of the World for me. Just the 36 drams. Probably not a good idea to wash them down with a Tesco Strong Lager chaser. On the other hand...

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

I'm a PC

...Microsoft. The ultimate platform. Great support.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

75 years of the Hillswick Hall

Last night, in the depths of a blizzard which saw the band cancelling and one guest of honour being forced to send in his speech by email, Laura Manson was there to cut the Hillswick Community Hall's 75th birthday cake in front of a small, but highly select local audience.

And a great time was had by all. An even better time might have been had, perhaps, if the hall's paid-for but mysteriously unerected wind generator had been functioning. Shetland Windpower, you should be ashamed of yourselves. Still, the tireless team of cooks and waiting 'staff' provided a magnificent feed, the drink was the cheapest in the world (even cheaper for me with my secret flask of Longmorn 12) and the display of pictures from the past three-quarters of a century highly entertaining. Peter Sinclair's stint as John Nicolson was impressive. The beautiful art deco vase presented at the opening of the hall did not get broken. And I have to admit, the absence of the band meant I didn't have to dance, which was a good thing for the safety of Hillswick toes.

The extension of the hall should go ahead next year, and the windylight (sitting outside in bits) should be up and running, once the conundrum of what on earth Shetland Windpower is up to has been solved...

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Discovering her inner St Bernard

It was sunny when Lulu made her decorous entrance to the back garden and decided that yes, she remembered what this white stuff was, deep down in her genetic make-up...but it's dark now (15.40) windy and freezing, as well as much more snowy. Susan didn't make it into Lerwick - she gave up in a white-out at the Ollaberry junction - and since then we've been priming the generator for the inevitable power failure, tending the two stoves that are consuming peat voraciously, and stoking ourselves with caramel KitKats and coffee.

Susan's practice night out has been cancelled, and so we're able to go to the Hillswick Hall 75th anniversary dinner dance. It's a mile along the road. I doubt the Alan Nicholson Band may struggle to get there, and attendance generally may be depleted. But still, it should be fun.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

I'm going to be helping out Shetland Islands Council with its communications strategy...'s the official announcement:

Tom Morton to advise Council on communications

HILLSWICK-based broadcaster and journalist Tom Morton is to advise Shetland Islands Council on its communications, as part of the Council’s ongoing improvement programme.

The former Shetland Times and Scotsman reporter, who now hosts a weekday afternoon show on BBC Radio Scotland, will spend three mornings a week for the next four months providing advice, support and expertise to the council. He will continue to broadcast in the afternoons from BBC Radio Shetland’s Pitt Lane studios.

Chief Executive Alistair Buchan said this morning “I think that it was very important for the council that we got someone with media background to help our team develop our communications function and strategy. Communications in many ways goes to the heart of everything we do as a Council. So, I’m very pleased that we have someone with Tom’s experience on board and look forward to working with him in the next few months”.

“I’m absolutely delighted to be helping the council communicate more effectively,” Mr Morton said. “The SIC’s commitment to openness, transparency and accountability means that everyone in the Shetland community should feel informed and involved in what it decides, and what it does. It’s a privilege to be part of that process.”

Mr Morton began his journalistic career in specialist construction journalism in Glasgow, before moving into music reviewing, freelance writing and TV production. He first moved to Shetland in 1987 as news editor of The Shetland Times, before setting up the islands’ first independent news agency, and subsequently becoming The Scotsman’s Highlands and Islands Reporter. He won a Bank of Scotland Press Award for columns written about the wreck of the tanker Braer.

Since then his career has included two stints at BBC Radio Scotland, two more at The Shetland Times and work throughout the world on various radio and TV programmes, newspapers and magazines.


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Aboard the mighty vessel Bygga

On the way back from ghostly antics at da Windhoose in Yell.

Friday, November 19, 2010

That's it for PQ until next year. Possibly

End of a long, strenuous week, then...thanks to Cherry Ghost (playing tonight with The Coral at the Academy, well worth seeing), Kassidy (excellent) Chick Young, Susan Calman, Bill Whiteford, Isabel Fraser, Edith Bowman, the technical team - Ken, Max and Julian - and production from Jenny and Sam. Also the canteen staff for lending all the cooking stuff, and actually baking the bread, which turned out well. Children in Need continues tonight on telly and radio. Buit you knew that.

Booked on the 'plane home tomorrow morning, and no plans to be south now until February. Maybe. By which time NorthLink may have got the boats working again properly.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Sky over Inverness

Taken from my 4th floor room at the old Caley hotel in Inverness, looking due west. I was in Inverness to be the after dinner entertainment at the Crofters Commission Assessors Conference. Jokes about Brian Taylor, Inverness food, Fred Macaulay, seasick vikings and Bob Bird, erstwhile News of the World editor and infamous wearer of naught but underpants in the service of Murdoch. Nobody walked out until after I'd finished...

Monday, November 15, 2010

Glasgow: Walking from Queen Margaret Drive to Pacific Quay: Pictures this morning

Creamola Foam: The real thing unearthed and an imitation erupts

Creamola Foam. It's time has returned. The great lost Scottish drink, its chemical formula apparently mislaid during a slew of company takeovers, tins and cartons of the stuff appearing only rarely and fetching vast sums on eBay, seems to have invaded my life recently.

It has popped up on my radio show once or twice, but I really didn't expect to see a vintage tin (carton, really, in its latter years, as the 'tin' was made of cardboard) ever again. Let alone taste it. But the power of nostalgia is immense.  It has become an iconic Scottish retro-brand, like Mother's Pride bread and Irn Bru, to the extent that you can get T-shirts and bags bearing the logo.

Then last week, I received a package from a  Robert Kelly in Larkhall. Inside precious...a tin of Creamola Foam. The real deal, albeit the late cardboard version with the plastic top. The contents were, it must be said, a bit lumpy and brownish. But still, chemical analysis would surely be possible. I could recreate Creamola Foam for a new age! It would live again!

But. Yesterday, walking down Byres Road in Glasgow, I passed the sweetshop I Love Candy, and a blackboard outside was advertising...tubs of 'Creamola foam'. Three quid. THREE QUID? Anonymous plastic tubs, they were, marked Krakatoa Fizz. I bought a raspberry version and took it home.

"They analysed the original and it's been phenomenal" said the shop assistant. "People have been buying one and then coming back for more. They're making cocktails with it!"

As it turns out, a company in Dumbarton which specialises in vintage sweets seems to be responsible for gazumping my half-formed business idea. Originally available in Edinburgh as 'Kramola Foam' the Krakatoa version is made from sugar, tartaric acid, extract of quina, citric acid, sodium bicarbonate, stabilisers and natural colour. I missed, somehow, the Scottish Parliament motion from Rob Gibson in January that the 'new' Creamola Foam was going to bring about revolutionary change, independence and a revival of the compulsory full set of dentures for all 16-year-olds...but see this story.

I have to tell you, although it foams in exactly the same way, Krakatoa Fizz...

...tastes horrible.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

In today's Sunday Post: me on embarrassing dads

That I should live to see Lesley Riddoch writing a column for the Sunday Post...this is my contribution to today's paper, the 'In My View' section.

Sir Michael Jagger - once known as Mick, lead singer with The Rolling Stones, is an ageing, if still thin rock star, originally from the sixties, now heading for his seventies. He is uncool. Seriously, deeply uncool. An utter and complete embarrassment. And we’re not just talking about terrible solo records like She’s The Boss here. No, he has been officially nominated an embarrassing dad. In Australian parlance,  he’s a ‘daggy’ daddy. So says his 18-year old daughter Georgia May.
    Georgia’s mum is former supermodel Jerry Hall, who’s even less cool than Sir Mick, apparently, as she’s now “only interested in chicken farming.”  But it is the legendary Stones frontman’s dancing that really upsets his daughter.
“It’s pretty funny when dad gets on the dance floor” she says, “ because he has got such a, like, I don’t know how to describe his moves. But let’s just say he doesn’t go unnoticed, you know what I mean?”
    The idea of Mick Jagger on any dancefloor  being in even marginally anonymous - imagine him at the Buckie British Legion on a Saturday slosh - is ludicrous. You’d notice those hips, those lips, anywhere. But most would be thrilled at the sight of even an aged Mick strutting his stuff. Not his offspring, though.
    And there’s a tremendous relief in this, for dads everywhere. No father is ever cool to his own family. He may be valued, for his command of transportation logistics, his ready supply of £20 notes, his willingness to have his Mumford and Sons and XX albums ruthlessly appropriated.  But he cannot ever be cool. He is and always will be a social liability.
     For example, this week my 16-year-old daughter Martha was off with her friends for the musical event of the year in our remote little community: a concert by dreadlocked one-man-boy-band, consummate guitarist and Peter Gabriel soundalike Newton Faulkner. Doing the job I do, I was keen to go too. After all, we play his records regularly on the radio show and in fact, it was my professional duty to go and nod along groovily to the lad’s tunes. Wasn’t it?
    No. This would be embarrassing for Martha, who wanted to, ahem hang with her homegirls and homeboys in the ultra-fashionable surroundings of an echoing northern sports centre which smelt of liniment and sweaty trainers. I would have to steer clear of the Chinese restaurant, too, as she and her cronies would be dining there. Fair enough. Did she want a lift home? Yes please. A text would summon me.
    Everything I do seems to embarrass Martha. Everything I wear. Especially the rather nice Paul Smith denim jacket I bought from eBay.
    “You can’t go out wearing that! It’s got FADED SHOULDERS!” Fair enough. It does have a slightly...stonewashed vibe going on. “And those are PULL-UPS! You look like a really old CHAV! Why are your trainers red? Put on a pair of sensible shoes and a proper shirt.”
    Hmm. I kind of take the point about the trainers. They are red. But they’re serious running shoes, and I just wear them around the house with track suit bottoms because they’re comfy. I mean, clearly I’m not going to go running in them. That would be ridiculous. I am, these days, built for comfort, not for speed. This offends Martha. And when I try to be fashionable, I get it wrong. This offends her too.
    Poor Sir Mick has always had a slightly dodgy fashion sense. His leather jackets are too fussy, His trousers have too many buttons between them. That infamous wiggle of the hips, especially if  they aren’t his own original hips, is just a bit out of time, baby. There’s no aesthetic satisfaction there for the critical offspring.
    But every dad is uncool to his son or daughter. It’s part of the deal. And the more you attempt to show how ‘down’ you are with modern music, clothes, movies or haircuts, the dafter you look, dude. It’s the rule. As for the dancefloor: Don’t look at me. It’s all over now. Wild Horses wouldn’t drag me out there...

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Drinking for Scotland - establishment drug dealers and a country's shame

I gave up drinking for 31 days, once. Made a radio programme out of it. And then I went back to my Friday night red wine, my couple of whiskies a week, my beer and skittles. Without the skittles..

The occasional binge, too, in the sense of  combining beer, wine and whisky in doses calculated to leave me slumped in an armchair, dribbling and snoring while Jools Holland once again elbows his mediocre piano into some hapless, desperate performer's arrangement. Later. And later, and later, and later...

But in Caledonian terms, my binges do disservice to the word. I am, to put it mildly, a lightweight these days when it comes to booze. I hate, always hated being drunk, and now, when I find myself in social gatherings where alcohol is being taken, I usually safeguard my exit route before even beginning to imbibe. I ensure there's a way home, or out, and when the boredom begins to seep through, when dehydration starts to sandpaper the thrapple, I make my excuses and leave. Or switch to Ribena.

I hang out with connoisseurs, sometimes. People who drink professionally, or who, to be more precise, describe whiskies for a living. Indeed, I have done this myself, though I always have to fight back the giggles, as there's something essentially ridiculous about the striving to differentiate single malts, one from Glen t'other. Yes, they are different, but in the way grades of heroin and cocaine are different. The taste is not the point of whisky. It's meant to do a job on you, enliven, inebriate, dull, destroy. Like Keith Richards' obsessive hailing of Merck pharmaceutical 'fluffy' cocaine in his recent autobiography. Push comes to sniff, dirty lumps of Bolivian or Columbian crack or factory-made Swiss snow are drugs that deliver the same message to heart, brain and body. Whisky is a delivery vehicle for alcohol.

They are, for the most part, lovely folk, the dope dealers of the whisky trade. They are more than respectable, occasionally hilarious, often charming. It's an area of Scottish life absolutely awash with money, and the marketing of  uisge beatha has always been cutting edge, from the days of Tommy Dewar onwards. Doubtless he would have been happy to be called a brand ambassador. Maybe not an evangelist.

Whisky is now so suffused with lore, mythology tall tales, anal-retentive male compulsions and downright bullshit that you'd think it was some kind of art. It's not. It's a drug, disguised for its many niche and mass markets in the form of a social badge, a collector's trophy, a mind-blowing display of wealth (silver, gold, platinum and diamonds encrusting a bottle? You got it) a signifier of coolness, of belonging.

Expertise has become the latest marketing tool. Whisky clubs and societies have sprung up worldwide, whisky festivals (I admit it. I participate. I talk phenols and oakiness, caramel and esters, washbacks and mash tuns. I judge whisky competitions, for goodness' sake) see wise heads, young and old, slurping and nodding over rarities in hotel function suites. Notes are taken, words are slurred, stairs fallen down. A great deal of fun is had. Money changes hands. Lots and lots of money. Mantras? Excess is good. Greed is good. throw the cork away. Moderation is for sissies.

Elsewhere, the same companies slosh alcopops and factory-made sweet spirits into underage bellies. industrial scale drinking is encouraged at the annual alcofest-with-music that is Pee in the Dark, or T in the Park. Scotland goes out on a Friday and gets rat-arsed, crashes cars, kills pedestrians, freezes to death in a park. Slashes, burns, abuses, fights, smashes, damages. Does the same again on Saturday. Maybe a a few Smirnoff Ices on a Sunday to ease the way back into work on a Monday. Or just miss Monday out, why not? Internationally, countries in Africa, Asia and the Americas are targeted. Drink this, it'll make you...richer, more attractive, it'll make you belong. One glass makes you bigger, one glass make you small...

Hey, let's not forget the weans. Foetal alcohol syndrome, anyone? Och, how can you have sex anyway if you aren't pished? Brain damage. Shrinkage. Fits. The meaningless rubbish that's sold only to mess you up, like Carlsberg Special, originally brewed specifically for Winston Churchill's visit to Denmark after the war, now the tipple of  choice for oblivion merchants everywhere.

Tomorrow, the Scottish Parliament will vote on party political lines and eradicate the proposed bill that would set a minimum price for alcohol in Scotland. Spurious arguments will be advanced that raising the price of a unit of rotgut cider will cause terrible damage to the economy, and won't stop folk boozing unwisely anyway. Education is all. have a wee dram. Smell the history, the geography, the culture.

I don't believe that for a moment. I am afraid that the drug dealers have once again  flexed their considerable muscle and quashed the first serious attempt to tackle the shame that is Scotland's relationship with alcohol. Gutless, ignorant, hidebound politicians have cowered before them.

So. That's that, then. Might as well go out and get pished, eh? Just remember this salient fact: Two single malts: that's enough to destroy your ability to appreciate their quality. After that, you might as well switch to Old Gumripper or Glen Haemorrhage. Slainte!

Monday, November 01, 2010

View this morning from our new barn conversion/holiday cottage, Seabarns

...once the plumbing's finally installed, and there's furniture, it'll be available to rent. And yes, there are windows onto the sea...

It's the seaward side of an 18th century steading (listed? Oh yes, he said heavily) which has one en-suite (!) bedroom, but can sleep four (there's another bathroom). See that guttering? See that CAST IRON guttering? See listed building consent? More pictures when it's finished! Soon, it is sincerely to be hoped.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The ugliest building in the world

Aberdeen at night. What is this monstrosity, you may well ask, if you're not au fait with shopping in the granite city? A car park? An alien spaceship of the most implacably warlike mien? Perhaps it's one of those nanotech  buildings described by William Gibson in the Bridge trilogy, or a nuke-proof governmental bunker?

Wrong on all counts. This is Aberdeen's flagship John Lewis store. A triumph of massive brutalism, it's Thatcherism made concrete, a stamp-on-your-face statement of  what capitalism really means to the consumer. That cuddly old John Lewis, with its share options and staff ownership, should be inhabiting this 20th Century Castle Greyskull seems somehow...rather appropriate.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

At the source of the River Esk

I was in Eskdalemuir to see the writer Colin Betts about a possible publishing project. He lives, it's safe it say, in the most isolated house I've ever visited, three miles from the nearest proper road, in the heart of Scottish Welsh Celtdom. To get there, you have to ford the Esk, right at its source. There's no mains services.

Colin has written one of the best memoirs of the 60s, I've ever read. He ran away from home at 15 in the company, no less, of The Rolling Stones. It was with Colin that Nick Drake busked his way through the south of France to Morocco. Later episodes involved seriously nefarious characters, including the Manson Family, jail in LA, and some dangerous adventures in India and Afghanistan. Before Colin actually started a successful band called The Impossible Dreamers...

Anyway, he's written a book - Frozenlight  - and a play, specifically about his travels with Nick Drake, called Shininglight. We're hoping they'll be published online before Christmas. Watch this space!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Bike at BBC Ayr

Best view of any Beeb building.20 year old Orbit Gold Medal 531 ST.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Troon, at the end of a fantastic day

Amazing day with amazing people. In a great place

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Mrs Morton has cake and eats it too

Mrs Morton's birthday today, so Ms Morton baked a cake. And a very splendid thing it is/was too! Tomorrow, no radio show due to Colonialism Games activity, so much tidying before exciting trip sooth to celebrate my dad's 80th birthday, see four generations in one place at one time, all being well, and fight with my sisters, if enough drink is taken. Planning to commute by bike from Troon to Ayr next week which should be interesting, and a real return to my Ayrshire childhood. Is there still a level crossing  between the two bits of the Fullerton golf course? Is there still a railway line?

Meanwhile, to the Glenrothes '92!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Long shadows on the peat hill, and a fundamental flaw

It's late, too late in the year to be on the peat hill at all. If I say that these peats are actually last year's, belatedly bagged and howked home after a 12 month or more weathering on the moor, many will look askance at my right to wield a tushkar at all. As it happens, I didn't. Lornie cut them, Susan and me did the rest. You can learn to live with shame.

And with bright ideas that go wrong. I had the notion of ordering a hundred or so forestry firewood sacks, those pink, net-like things you get logs in at garages. They're made of polypropylene, and I thought they would give our somewhat soggy peats a chance to dry. Better than the traditional recycled fertiliser, salmon feed or sheep sustenance sacks.

Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong! Those log bags are ultra-violet sensitive, and the endless days of the Shetland summer turned them into brittle, useless plastic straw. That left me with the task of re-bagging what peats had not crumbled (due to being left out too long) into a solidified lumpy gravy of half-carbonised vegetation.

Today (cool, autumnal, sunny) saw the final part of that dirty, tedious process, and the last trailering home of peats before winter sets in. We burn oil at hideous expense for hot water and central heating, but the solid fuel German stove in the kitchen takes the edge off the quarterly fuel bills. We're hoping to install a big peat-fired boiler at some point, and that will probably mean ordering in machine-cut peat (not as anti-green as you may think; Shetland's peat bogs are almost limitless and at least it doesn't have to travel far to get here). We're looking wind turbines. Heat pumps. Micro-hydro. Or we may just wear thicker jumpers.

Anyway, here's to recycling feed and fertiliser sacks, to the coming winter and to the fabulous reek of peat as it burns, reminding me of...jings. Isn't it about time for a dram?

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Friday, October 01, 2010

Bitumen Citroën

I wish I could show the truly wondrous...texture of this van's paint finish. I'm guessing this has been painted with the bitumen roofing tar used widely in Shetland for felt roofs. Proper underseal would be too expensive.But then, anything to preserve something as glorious as an AX, direct descendent of the 2CV...ah, how I recall journeys from Lerwick to Hillswick, seatless in the back of one of these, perched on a bale of straw...

Undersealed, oversealed...

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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