September 19, 2009

National Preparedness Month.

I mean really. It’s been eight years since Pearl Harbour v02, when the second round of evil furriners with aircraft made their presence felt. If you’re not prepared yet…

And a month?

How long does it take to get prepared, when you’ve had eight years’ lead time?

I despair. Especially when I see that they weren’t even prepared to hire a designer to do the logo. And the slogan – I’m having a Seinfeld moment – what’s with that? “Are you prepared or are you prepared?” Huh?

I refer you all to this. Perhaps the most coherent thing to be said on the subject.


weeks late

September 4, 2009

So, now that I’ve got a representative portion of my photos onto Flickr, and now that it’s several weeks irrelevant, I can update you all on the final days of our time in Scot-Land (to quote a movie I’m working on.)

Sunday: Leisurely breakfast at a window seat with harbour view, not a standard fry-up this time, but a kipper fried in butter with toast for me (very salty indeed!) and smoked halibut on a muffin with a poached egg and cream sauce for Linda.
Next stop, the hunt for fresh lodgings, so we headed to the tourist information centre, where once again they, despite being run off their collective feet by swarms of similarly disorganized tourists, showed us the Scottish hospitality that we’ve seen so much of, and found us a B&B south of Uig at a place called Cnoc Preasach. Don’t ask me to pronounce it (though we did learn that Gaelic is pronounced “gallic” in these parts.)
That sorted, it was off to Talisker, the distillery of which is beside a tiny village called Carbost (not to be confused with Skeabost, Orbost, or the other Carbost, for the second whiskey tour (and the purchase of otherwise impossible to get fine beverages,) and the discovery of Isle of Skye Oysters – just up the hill from the distillery, we found a man selling his local rock oysters, farmed right there in Loch Harport, and sold out of his shed, shucked by the man himself, for 50p an oyster. If we’d had the oysters in Applecross, he told us, they’re his work. Best of luck to him (shame we didn’t have the oysters in Applecross.) Delicious!
We followed that up with a visit to Mrs Nicolson, our hostess and breakfast provider, to drop off luggage and do some much overdue washing (well, she did the washing for us.) Then a drive around looking for places which exist on maps but are only marked in the real world by, I don’t know, a tuft of grass identifiable only to locals. Saw lots of signposts indicating things that appeared not to exists on maps. Our search for the ancient MacKinnon crofting grounds was thwarted.
Dinner proved difficult, as the only two places to eat in Uig were packed, and looked like places where backwoods greasy spoons from the mid-seventies went to die, along with the families that were in them at the time of their reported demise. Too scary to eat in by a long shot, so drove back to Portree, and roamed the streets with packs of similarly hungry tourists in search of the facilities we associate with civilization, all of us only now remembering the Skye is small and remote. Strangely, there are quite a few places to eat and drink in Portree on a Sunday night, but they all seem to be massively in too much demand, or to have priced themselves out of the market and are therefore empty. And then it rains some more, and there are packs of hungry, bedraggled, desperate-looking tourists roaming the streets. We stopped at a terrible-looking place called Well Plaid, which was neither full nor expensive, but so ugly that even the desperate punters weren’t coming in. We had local mussels, dependably good; Cullen skink, which is much better than it sounds – it’s a thick smoked haddock and potato soup – and langoustines on a bed of undistinguished wild rice. Once again, we were impressed by the quality of the food in an establishment which looked like it should have offered up the creme de la blurgh. And then back to Mrs Nicolson’s house for a good night’s sleep.
The next morning we had the choice of looking at Skye’s hills and not climbing them some more, or moving on and seeing a little of the Great Glen. What’s another 200km driving, we’re Antipodean? We’ll check out the great long line of lochs south of Nessie territory. Sounds like fun. And so it was, once we got off the main road (I hate those things!) The scenic trail around the Lochs is precisely that, and deserves to be driven touristically slowly. We had been heading for Glen Coe, famously scenic, surrounded by peaks that Himalayan climbers train on, and were almost foiled by a complete lack of B&Bs with vacancy signs posted, until we found a large pub/hotel whose name I could not spell, nor pronounce (nor remember, though I could look it up, but I’m strangely disinclined.) Room at the inn, for two nights, even, though not in the same room. We’ve not spent two consecutive nights in the same room the whole time in Scotland. Our own fault, but we’ve gotten to see quite a lot of the place!
The guy at the desk warns us off every slope in the neighbourhood, clearly discerning at a glance our unintrepid natures, and recommends a sightseeing walk around a small local lochan
gradients maxed out at about 1:30, safe for grandmothers with hip replacements overdue, and he seemed disappointed when we reported back that we’d walked every trail in the area in an hour, with rest stops, and photography stops, and sound recording stops included. He then gave us some vaguely accurate directions to a slightly more interesting walk, but it would have involved being rained copiously on, so we bailed. Especially once we determined that we had almost no idea what he was talking about once we’d scoped the landscape he’d allegedly described.
Never mind, the whiskey menu at the hotel was truly exceptional , and the food wasn’t half bad (though the haggis was so heavily spiced as to be more of a meaty cinnamon roll…)
Then we drove back to Edinburgh, to rid ourselves of the rental. On the way we stopped for lunch at Crieff. Good food, but watching the pedestrian traffic was a painful exercise, given that nearly all of it was on the way to starting friction fires with pure thigh on thigh action, and waddling to keep the friction up.
The return to Edinburgh was complicated by the cloud cover. I completely lost my sense of direction, and we got the car back with minutes to spare, with the help of a friendly service station attendant (thank you, who ever you are!) with accurate comprehensible directions.
Nice hotel, central-ish Edinburgh, cheap on Wotif, (or similar), then the next morning we met the wonderful bootpainter. Look at her photos. A truly wonderful sense of colour and form. And humour. Met Mr bootpainter, too, and then had to run and catch a train back to London. Here endeth the story…
The pictures tell much of the rest.


Tour o’ Scotland part the second

August 6, 2009

Friday: over the highlands after a black pudding fry-up breakfast, past Inverell to the west coast, over vast tracts of rainy mountains devoid of humanity bar the road and the odd abandoned decrepit crofter’s cottage, lunch in Poolewe (mussels and scampi – and chips) and a B&B in Mellon Charles, Aultbea. Dinner was prawn cocktail and fish pie with new spuds, at the Aultbea Hotel. Again, much better than we could have expected from anywhere similar we’ve been to in England. Watched the sun go down as we ate, the long summer evening drawing out to 21.30-ish, and almost an hour later still not dark. Fog on our breath as we headed for the car, though. Summer.
We were pleased to make the acquaintance of Sidney (the seagull,) who had a bad leg and was helped by the owners of the B&B when they first arrived – 14 years later he’s still in regular attendance at the kitchen window (he likes cat-food, they say,) having brought generations of his offspring by, and his leg is long since well-recovered. Since the dog died, he’s now the family pet, albeit a wild and standoffish one (sadly didn’t get a photo.)

Saturday: Another Scottish fry-up, all the usuals, again with black pudding, alongside two slightly hung-over Scots lads from Inverell who were in town for the local annual raft race (they came 4/6.) The very loud and jolly landlady, Pauline, served tea and teased them while they winced, while her husband Phil did a fine job in the kitchen (they make their own bread, their own jam, their own marmalade – which was nice.
Off, then, to the Inverewe Gardens which were impressive, if rhododendron heavy. After two hours of plant-gazing we set off via the scenic route to Skye, around the rugged and sheep-filled coastline past Sheldaig, through Applecross where we had another surprisingly good Scottish pub lunch. Halibut with a local prawn (which looked like scampi to me) sauce, and local wild salmon, new potatoes and asparagus. Then over the Bealach Na Ba mountain pass (impassable in winter), which we’re told is the highest road in the UK, and spectacular and hair-raising, especially with its one-lane road. The one lane road thing (very common in these parts) works well – every so often there’s a ‘passing place,’ a little bulge on the side of the road, and almost all the drivers are very aware and careful and courteous in the face of the difficulty that the system imposes, especially with the number of tourists and campervans and left-hand drive vehicles.
So, some time later, we found the bridge at the Kyle of Lochalsh and drove over the sea to Skye. Not quite in the manner of Bonnie Prince Charlie (we weren’t disguised in drag as servant girls, for a start.) Found a wi-fi hotspot, checked the email to confirm our accommodation, only to find the offer of same, happily confirmed from our end, had been retracted. So, we drove to north to Portree and saw a sign to the Cuillin Hills Hotel which seemed like a good, though potentially expensive, option for a place to sleep, and it was (good, that is. More expensive than we would have liked, but arriving so late in the day we got a good deal on the room.) No view from the room to speak of, but a lovely view over Loch Portree was to be had from the front of the hotel, on the lawn, restorative dram in hand (21 year-old Ben Riach.) Then Linda met the midgies, which we’d been warned of that morning, and we had to move indoors. And so to dinner, where we had oatmeal-crusted herring, and lobster with pea risotto. Very fine, and everyone was lovely and helpful and accommodating (especially the receptionist, who had given us a surprisingly good price, and warned us to take the word of travel agents as we would politicians’.)


Tour o’ Scotland part the first

August 3, 2009

Tuesday, up at the proverbial crack of dawn for the 7AM train out of KX. Next stop, bonnie Edinburgh!

Nightmare finding the bus to the (very substandard) B&B, it turns out that Princes St (and most of the rest of Edinburgh) is being dug up for a tramway. Just the one. None of this mucking about with multiple routes – just simple, good old-fashioned A to B transportation. Perhaps needless to say, many Edinburghians are less than thrilled.

Leaving the accommodation (‘petite’ they told us, before sending us and our baggage down the hallway with a magnifying glass,) we head to Leith; some buses and some walking in drizzle, to see the sights, and eat some fine Scots fare – oysters, mussels and smoked haddock with fishcake at the Ship on Shore (which proclaimed sustainable seafood on the menu but sold dredged scallops. Not impressed with that little bit of greenwashing.) Not much really in the way of sights – tourists by the horde up the Royal Mile to the castle – but we start a walk in Holyrood Park, as it started to rain again. So, caught a bus back to the B&B (we had day passes, v. good value at £3) to dry out and check emails and suchlike things. Managed to get hold of a Flickr friend, and we arranged, despite a reprise of the Princes St shambles, to meet for a quick drink and chat and some (not so great) Chinese. So now I’ve met someone, in person, though the interwebs. Even my mother beat me to that.

Weds: haggis with trad fry-up for breakfast, pick up car drive to Elgin via Perth, Pitlochrie, Blair Athol (where I had “Sporran o’ Plenty” for lunch – a steak stuffed with haggis – with chips) &c.

the Sporran of Plenty

Indian nosh in Elgin, much better than expected, for dinner. So much for my ambition of three meals of haggis in a day.

Thurs: around Elgin to beachy place with very blue water called Findhorn – crab and the biggest fish and chips (haddock) known to humanity. Chips, always chips. No Mars bars yet, deep fried or otherwise. We watched the rain roll in from the west as we ate, and headed back to the car just in time to get wet. Post lunch – Speyside whisky tour – visited the Cardhu distillery at Knockando and toured, discovered there are many cute names for bits of whisky making. Also discovered that peaty whiskey isn’t the be all and end all of whisky. ‘Plain’ whisky stills are beautiful and look like giant gramophone horns, in copper. Rained on again. Stopped also at Aberlour, and passed by many other famous names. Drank water directly from the River Spey – yum!


Dinner – Thai restaurant in Elgin – best fishcakes we’ve ever tasted, the rest average but by no means bad – waitress delightful, we slipped her a very large tip because her bosses looked evil. Didn’t leave a general meal tip, which could have been a terrible mistake.



July 8, 2009

I doubt many people would have noticed, but we were forced off the internets for most of the last two weeks.

After the first twelve hours outage (and replugging everything, and turning it all off and on again,) I rang Virgin, our current, but soon to be no longer, provider, and of course they asked me to turn everything off then on again, as expected. No dice. Then after examining some chicken entrails, the phone support guy determined that we needed a new cable modem. Fair enough, I thought, the one we’ve got isn’t doing the trick. Three to five working days, I’m told; again, fair enough (sort of.)
Five working days pass, we call again, “where’s the modem?” “What modem? Oh, that modem… that’ll be ten days.” Steam pressure builds in customer – luckily the modem arrived in two. Was plugged in, turned on: nothing. Ring Virgin. “Ah. We’ll have a technician look at that. Give us a couple of days. Later that afternoon, a phone message: “Um, we’re terribly sorry [yeah, right], but that will take 5 days.”

This suddenly becomes too much for Linda, who promptly rang and served them, with extreme prejudice. Some guy at the other end of the line says internet outage? Here you go, all fixed.” And it was.

One bloody button press from ‘turn subscriber’s service off’ to ‘turn subscriber’s service on’ solved the problem, after wasting ten days of our time (and money – we do pay for this ‘service’.

Hello, some other ISP. Virgin, you are truly fucked.



June 21, 2009

Today we’ve had tea, poached eggs on toast (with chipotle Tabasco and Worcestershire sauces,) followed by a walk up to the markets, where we bought peas and broadbeans and smoked eel and smoked mackerel and heritage tomatoes and mozzarella di bufala (English-made) and asparagus and strawberries and early-season cherries (bloody great!)

Came home and had oysters, then a pea and bean risotto for lunch. Bloody amazing for about £10 for the two of us.

Just been listening to Cat Empire. It’s a sunny summer’s day (the longest one, it’s the solstice!) and they’re brilliant. I’ve been trying to work out how to define what they do – a bit ska, a bit gypsy, a bit mariachi, a bit wog, a bit of a bunch of other stuff, all fun, all great. Feeling good, sitting in the sun with a drink, couldn’t be better.

Then Cat Stevens comes on- Tea for the Tillerman. Great songs, it has to be admitted, but what a palooka. Sorry, but anyone who can happily commit to a fatwah is in my book necessarily an idiot. Come to think of it, anyone who can happily commit to a religion is in some way deeply defective, as far as I can tell. So the music is poisoned. Such a shame.

Yay for Cat Empire, oysters, peas, beans and rice!


neologism time

April 21, 2009

Well today I came across a good new word, in an article about the death of Ian Tomlinson at the recent G20 unhappiness in London, and the state of British policing in general: testeria.

Built directly on the foundation of the outmoded, anatomically ridiculous ‘hysteria’, ‘testeria’ has an apparently greater claim to bodily relevance, referring as it does to those testosterone-fuelled raging enthusiasms for violence that many men seem prone to, and have come to characterise the expected behaviour of the police involved in crowd control.

I’m just waiting for the adjective to come into vogue – “settle down, you’re getting testerical!”, or the substantive “pay him no mind, he’s always been a bit of a testeric…”