Monday, September 30, 2013

Rugby: In a different league?

 I hadn't watched any Rugby League since the days it was on telly every Saturday, when for me it was a puzzling substitute for my beloved Union (played, very badly but with enthusiasm, until just after Uni). Yesterday I watched the TV highlights of the two Super League semi-finals, Wigan Warriors versus Leeds Rhinos, and Warrington Wolves against Huddersfield Giants. I was mesmerised.

What I remembered from those teenage telly weekends was a downmarket sense of grim, slow physicality: then you had the puzzling breakdowns after every tackle, the lack of lineouts, that silly wee joke scrummages. But this? This was lean, mean, brutal yet open and very, very fast. The handling skills were on a different level from any recent RU international I've seen. 

Because modern RU is a frustrating watch, even at the top level. The set scrum is now a hopeless, tedious farrago of bulk and fakery. The referee is the most important player. It's no longer a 'loose maul', it's a static one. Kick, catch, hold, maul, kick, lineout (another piece of ludicrous tedium and gigantism: and in my day lifting was rightly illegal)... kick,maul,  run, breakdown, maul...Interesting too that the bulk of RU players is so vast now, even among the backs. There is so much sheer...lumbering.

The first thing that struck me about League yesterday was how thin everyone was. And then I realised it was all about fitness, fluidity and breathtaking speed. Fewer rules, and fewer daft ones. No allowances for the occasional one-role giant or muscled blob. No passengers. 

Also: I have no idea of comparative injury levels in top class Union and League, but I'm betting that at the very least the kind of injuries sustained in League matches are nothing like as serious when it comes to necks and spines. Scrums and mauls look like passports to intensive care nowadays, and about as entertaining as a week in traction.

(UPDATE: According to a study in New South Wales,  Rugby Union is more than 400 per cent more likely to cause serious spinal injury than Rugby League - )

League is and always has been professional, of course, with £700,000 transfer fees and an evident sheen of cash in stadia and presentation. But Union is pro too now in all but the brandy-soaked delusions of the class-ridden top administration. And if it is to have a future in TV it has to take even more lessons from League. RU has already tried to appropriate the family-friendliness, the cartoon names, aspects of the showbiz. But the time has come to go further. Like perhaps, I don't know...13 men per side, slashing numbers in the scrum, abandoning lineouts and loose mauls?

You never know. It could just work... 

Friday, September 13, 2013

A wee trip to Peebles, some whisky, music, Ollie Reed's chair and a damn fine breakfast

The Peebles Malt and Barley Revue gig was another chance to visit the rather beautiful town in which I once purchased a breadboard for my wife and was bought a vintage wristwatch in return.

At Villeneuve Wines with Alister and Gregg
It happened like this: Ali Wilson, aka Drumslinger, mastermind and skinbasher behind various eminent east coast bands, was at the launch of A Whisky in Monsterville in Drumnadrochit, and offered to organise an M&BR in his native town. Which he proceeded to do, brilliantly.
In Oliver Reed's chair, Crown Hotel

Thanks to Audrey at the Courthouse, and all the staff there, especially Nicola and whoever made the excellent fish and chips. Also Fay at The Crown, whose breakfasts are deservedly famous. Very nice rooms, too. I do like a high-threadcount-sheet-situation! Great to meet the legendary Evan 'Hard As Nails' Balfour, former Airdrieonian, now singing with the terrific Taylor Brothers. I see you can still buy those 'Hard As Nails' stickers from an Airdrie fan website!
Taylor Brothers: Evan, Ali, Glyn
Peebles really is a lovely and very friendly place, full of splendid pubs, shops and restaurants, including the truly impressive Villeneuve Wines, run by Alister Rae and Kenny Vannan, with help from Gregg Parker. I liked it so much a bought a bottle of Clynelish 14. It's the only small(ish) town in Scotland with an internationally-acclaimed academy for chocolatiers and pastry chefs, as far as I know.
Full Scottish at The Crown
Great crowd at the gig, and thanks too to Ian Rankin for donating a signed bottle of the 'Rebus 20' Highland Park which was auctioned for an eye-watering (but still reasonable, as they're £2500 online) £1500. It will stay in Scotland, and was bought by a Fifer!

Next Malt and Barley Revue is at Ayr Gaiety Theatre on Saturday night. We'll be tasting Some highly unusual whiskies including, dare I say it, something from...let's just say outside of Scotland. And my special guest will be whisky valuer and auction specialst, Angus MacRaild from Whisky Online.
Ali in Ollie's seat

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Top review for A Whisky in Monsterville!

Buy my new book here.

Whisky Magazine: "It's got everything a pop-lit novel for guys, guns, black humour, Scotland, religious fanatics, mercenaries, drinking...It even comes with recommended drams and tasting notes for each chapter."

Friday, September 06, 2013

Shetland Life: an editorial on helicopters

Download the full Shetland Life here
Editorial: Helicopters and Shetland

Helicopters have played an important role in Shetland’s modern history, from their crucial role in the exploration for and exploitation of North Sea oil and gas to the rescue of many from the sea and the evacuation of sick local folk to hospital.
They are, however, among the most unforgiving pieces of equipment used for transporting human beings, should any mechanical failure occur. And Shetland is fully aware of the consequences. The most recent, fatal incident involving a Eurocopter Super Puma AS332 L2 just off Garths Ness, which took the lives of four passengers, is a shocking reminder of how at the mercy of machinery we are.
It is impossible to pay sufficient tribute to those who moved with great speed, bravery and skill to save the 14 survivors, and then to recover the bodies of the victims. In what were difficult conditions, the rescue services carried out a hard and harrowing task
What went wrong? As I write, the Civil Aviation Authority's unprecedentedly quick hint that the problem was 'not technical' has brought the grounded fleet of Super Pumas back into service. However. The 2009 crash off Peterhead that killed 16 people involved the same model of helicopter, and two non-fatal ditchings last year were of EC225 Super Pumas. There are questions about the machine that need answered. The EC225 was banned from flying for 10 months and only recently came back into service. The confidence in all models of Super Pumas of those who work offshore has been shaken. And the results of investigations into the reasons for the EC225 ditchings are not encouraging. Experts found a whole range of gearbox problems, including manufacturing errors, corrosion and even basic design faults. All, it seems, now sorted.
It is impossible to ignore the economic pressures to get the majority of the British offshore helicopter fleet flying again. There are around 57,000 workers travelling to 600  installations each year, and capacity is tight, given the high level of activity in new developments such as Clair Ridge and activity west of Shetland. With aircraft grounded, workers were asked to take longer shifts offshore and supply boats were pressed into passenger service.  It wasn't 'economically workable'.
The bottom line is this: helicopters are necessary if offshore oil is to be exploitable. And yet, despite assurances and knowing hints, confidence in them is low.  It is not hard to imagine the dread oil and gas workers must feel at the thought of a flight to the rigs and platforms.
We have been here before, and in even more tragic circumstances. The 1986  crash off Sumburgh killed 45, making it the world’s worst ever helicopter incident. As a result the giant twin-rotor Boeing Model 234 Chinooks, capable of carrying almost twice a Super Puma’s payload, were taken out of service in the North Sea. History has proved that there was nothing wrong with the Chinook’s basic design. The CH47 military versions remain crucial to armed forces throughout the world, including the RAF. Columbia Helicopters in Oregon still use the 234 and its little brother, the twin-rotor 107, for passenger transportation and heavy lifting. There is said to be a much-upgraded Chinook in Afghanistan being flown by the grandson of the man who originally piloted it in Vietnam. Yes, there have been other disasters involving the machine, notably the controversial 1994 Mull of Kintyre crash which killed 29 people, and which was blamed on both pilot error and poor maintenance.
But that is not the reason Chinooks no longer fly in the UK offshore oil and gas industry.  It’s back to the unforgiving nature of helicopter technology: If anything goes wrong, the results are likely to be catastrophic, and a machine with nearly 50 people on board offered a level of fatalities which was simply unacceptable. More people died in the  Chinook disaster than in all the other eight fatal North Sea helicopter crashes. Public opinion, not technology or inherent safety, forced a change, and the decision was taken to move to  the Sikorskies and (mainly) Super Pumas now in service. 
 The switch to smaller helicopters was about reducing the numbers of potential casualties, but saw an inevitable increase in flights, and therefore the statistical risk of mechanical failure. But remember too that 14 people survived the most recent crash, and several Super Pumas have ditched without loss of life. Could a Chinook do that? 
As offshore activity peaks, it is absolutely essential that every step is taken to minimise risks to workers. Complete confidence may never be restored in Super Pumas, and in the end, one fatality is too many. But the risk will always be there. Helicopters are unforgiving machines, and offshore oil is an unforgiving industry.