Tuesday 30 March 2010

Midlothian Storm

About a mile and a half into my morning run to work I passed a large puddle at the same time as a car coming the opposite direction. As surely as if I had been standing on a breakwater, I was drenched head to foot by an impressive wave. In work, people complained of the wet and windy weather, which I had secretly enjoyed.

However I decided to walk to the bus rather than run home. A tree had fallen and crushed a car at a road junction. The police were at the scene. It wasn't clear if anyone was inside - I hoped not but feared the worst - the area was taped off, frenzied flapping police tape threatening to break loose.

Further up the road, wet masonry littered the pavement, the street taped off again. It looked like a cornice had collapsed, exploding like a bomb on the street, littering it with lumps and shards. I looked nervously upward and stepped well away from the side of the buildings. A bin full of discarded umbrellas. The bus stop vibrating like a tight sail. It was good to get home and close the door on what had become snow squalls. This wind is a chimney-pot toppler.

There's a hillwalking saying "there's no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong type of clothing." There certainly is such a thing as bad weather: or do we have the wrong cars and houses too?

Wednesday 24 March 2010

Meeting Hamish Brown

Sandstone Press, publishers of my book The Weekend Fix, have now released it as an e-book. To celebrate, and to take a publicity shot for the slightly more newsworthy event of Hamish Brown's Hamish's Mountain Walk being republished, Sandstone impressario Bob Davidson, North of England salesman James Benson, and I convened at Hamish's house in Burntisland for a photo:

Three of these people have done all the Munros. The other has done all the Munros... seven times:

It was great to spend the afternoon in their company, and not just because it meant a half day at work! I was that excited about meeting Hamish that I had to tell my work colleagues. "Who's he?" they'd asked in pure ignorance. "Have you heard of Tom Weir? Aye?" I said. "Well, he's up there with Tom Weir, and Weir's dead!" Consider the competition in the hill-writing world. Borthwick, WH Murray, Weir, Wainwright, Butterfield are all gone. There's Adam Watson, but he's more of a naturalist than a hillwalker. Dave Brown and Ian R. Mitchell co-wrote the stone-cold classic Mountain Days and Bothy Nights, and Campbell Steven wrote Enjoying Scotland, but that is just one book - Hamish has written Climbing the Corbetts, the Groats End Walk and The Last Hundred, books on mountain poetry, as well as guides to Morrocco and numerous other articles.

There's Andy Wightman and Jim Crumley and Dave Hewitt, but I think it would be fair to say that Hamish Brown is the greatest writer of the hills alive in this country. So you can understand my excitement.

However Hamish doesn't have the airs and graces of a big star. A bowl of soup at his house, outside for a photo, and back in for a cup of tea and a chat. My head is now spinning with new book ideas. A Children's History of Britain, that I am writing purely for my own amusement, now starts:
You might as well realise now – for it is the most important fact about history – that the past is not fixed in stone. “But,” you say, “facts are facts, what happened happened, and all we need do is record it!” The naivety of youth! History is much more than mere fact: it is a mixture of myth, prejudice and interpretation, re-written by every generation in its own hand. If history were a body, it would have a skeleton of fact, animated by sinews of supposition, and fleshed out with big meaty lies...

Sunday 21 March 2010

An Angus Adventure

The rich brown earth of Angus lies exposed, ploughed and expectant, every second vehicle on the quiet backroads a tractor. It is a well-husbanded part of the world, lacking the west's wildness, and claims to be the 'birthplace of Scotland'. The core of this ancient country of Scotland is the stretch of land between Strathearn and Montrose centred on Strathmore, which perhaps comes as a surprise to your average punter. Where is the stereotype of the Angus farmer? Think of a Scot, and you are probably imagining an angry Glaswegian or a bagpipe-playing Highlander.

Perhaps this is why I've tended to neglect Angus in the past. The benefit is that it feels like a new destination, and on my way to Glen Clova for a hillwalk I stopped at Eassie church.

Chickens from a nearby house foraged by the roadside. There was little chance of them being hit by a car on this quiet Saturday morning. I wonder how old this church is?

Eassie Church:

There are plenty 18th century gravestones outside, but the church could easily be many centuries older.

Eassie gravestone:

The real attraction in Eassie is a Pictish carved stone from the 6 or 700s. It's tucked away in a corner of the church ruin:

Eassie stone:

There are similar stones are all over east and north-east Scotland. The Picts left little else for posterity.

After Eassie it was up Glen Clova and a place I consider to be one of the most beautiful corries in Scotland, Corrie Fee:

In Corrie Fee:

It's not the most dramatic corrie by any means, but it has such an atmosphere of rightness, with a satisfyingly regularly shape and a line of fairy hillocks at its neck.

Above Corrie Fee:

Corrie Fee is the transition zone between forestry and agriculture in the glen and the subarctic plateau of the Mounth. This is Scotland's historic wilderness. Unliked the artificially deserted, cleared glens of the west, nobody ever lived here, and you can see why:

On the Mounth plateau:

There was plenty wildlife: mountain hare ran away from me, and I was buzzed by a pair of grouse. There were ptarmigan and I was observed by distant deer. What I didn't see all day was another person except at the Glen Doll car park (which now charges £2!). Given my unusual route - up the Munro of Mayar via Corrie Fee then along the plateau towards Tolmount - this was hardly surprising. The going was horrendously hard work. Without snowshoes or skis, this plateau is virtually inaccessible. The acres of dazzling, rolling whiteness surrounding me were a far cry from the brown farmland earlier in the day.

Footprints on the Mounth plateau:

I was relieved to finally reach Tom Buidhe, an inconsequential bump on the plateau, and was rewarded with a view north towards the distant Cairngorms.

Panorama from Tom Buidhe:

The Angus adventure was nearly over. All that remained was to get back down from my remote perch!

Tuesday 16 March 2010

The Book of Scotlands

I said I'd be back with more Momus, and here it is. He's written a couple of books recently, the dark and unpleasant Book of Jokes, and the one of more relevance to this blog, the Book of Scotlands.

A slim volume of mind-teasing treats, the Book of Scotlands offers playful and intriguing alternative universes to life in Scotland.

Some of the scenarios reflect situations around the globe: the reality of refugees is brought home through the interview with the Scot escaping genocide, and Scotland is compared to both Palestine (where the English build a barrier and execute Scottish artists living abroad) and Israel (where short range rockets are fired across the border, with Carlisle being particularly aggressive).

This book could be written about many countries of course: a Book of Belgiums might be particularly intriguing. But there is something encapsulable about a small country that might not be possible with a Book of Americas or a Book of Italies.

Other scenarios are absurd and playful: there's a Scotland where new buildings must exceed basic strangeness levels to get planning permission, and a Scotland that is towed to the Indian Ocean and left there.

From the tale of the Edinburgh tram driver who leads a highly ritualised yet fulfilling life to a list of pointless plagues to befall Scotland, from the Scotland that becomes as rich - and dull - as Monaco to the one where the only food is soup and nobody has any teeth, this is a book to set the imagination turning.

What would be in your alternative Scotland?

Thursday 11 March 2010

Momus, the Pop Imp

When you think of the musical icons of Scotland, you think of Franz Ferdinand, Texas, Belle and Sebastian, The Proclaimers, Annie Lennox, Simple Minds, The Average White Band, The Bay City Rollers, The Skids... but probably not of Paisley-born pop imp Nick Currie, who works under the stage name Momus, after the Greek god of satire.

Yet Momus is up there as one of my favourite musicians, ranging across Europe, Japan and the universe specialising in ditties of life as inconsequential but penetrating as a stilletto. Gaunt, aescetic, one-eyed, dirty-minded, with a formidable absorption rate of obscure trends and a voluminous output as a cultural critic, Sharleen Spiteri he aint.

My favourite Momus story regards his song 'Walter Carlos' from the 1998 album Little Red Songbook. Walter Carlos created the landmark sixties album Switched on Bach. Soon after this he had a sex change, becoming Wendy, and setting about erasing all official references to Walter. (I have at home both the original Walter Carlos Switched on Bach LP, and the new Wendy Carlos Switched on Bach CD box set).

Album cover for the Little Red Songbook:

So for Momus to write a song mentioning the forbidden Walter, and to make a typically perverted Momus suggestion that Wendy goes back in time to marry him, was all too much. Wendy sued Momus for several million dollars. They settled out of court, with Momus reissuing the Little Red Songbook without the song 'Walter Carlos' but including several other songs of equal merit. There remained only the problem of Momus' legal fees. $30,000 was a lot for a musician on the breadline. To resolve this, he opened shop: he would write a song about each person who donated $1,000. Thirty songs later he had a new album, Stars Forever - 'Jeff Koons' being one of my favourites.

Go to go now, but more Momus later...

Wednesday 3 March 2010

What Have I Let Myself In For?

"Do you fancy doing the island peaks race?" I asked a colleague with a boat last year.

"Sounds good - what's involved?"

I wasn't sure - I was vaguely aware of the requirements - a boat sails from Oban to Ayrshire with runners visiting Ben More on Mull, Beinn an Oir on Jura and Goatfell on Arran. But when I saw the route maps I blanched and pulled out. A dash round the low hills south of Oban, 23 miles run over the munro Ben More on Mull, 16 miles over tough terrain on the three Paps of Jura, and a final relaxing 20 miles in the dark through a forest on Arran up Goatfell and back. Interspersed by periods of seasickness and dehydration. No thanks!

On the Oban dash:

But then this year the colleague got me in the pub. "Fancy doing the island peaks this year?" he said.

"Oh, go on then!"

And so now I'm preparing for the toughest long weekend of my life. I once asked a veteran marathon runner how he kept going and his reply was "it's easy, so long as you keep the weight off." Hmm. I was 14½ stones after Christmas. Have you ever seen a fell runner? They have the body morph of a preying mantis. They are all sinew and collapsed cheeks. They look like junkies. Here's a picture of a fell runner disappearing into the distance (courtesy Saab Solomon / Andy Symonds):

So now I'm running as my (occasional) daily commute for the next couple of months, and have a few big hill days coming up. But there will probably still be a great deal of walking on the race weekend itself... anyways, I'll keep you posted!