Monthly Archives: January 2014

No Age At All

I was sad to read the other day of the death last month of the author of one my Books of 2013.  So good was The Robber of Memories – A River Journey Through Colombia that it was listed for the Dolman Travel Book of the Year Awards, and indeed I thought Michael Jacobs might just take the honours.  Sadly Michael won’t get another chance, finally succumbing to cancer.

In recent years I’ve read Jacobs’ work on his travels in South America, enjoying them greatly.  I’ve just ordered a copy of his earlier work on life in Andalucía, which was where I first heard his name.  The signature on it an added bonus.

For as a neighbour and great friend of Chris Stewart it was Michael Jacobs who was Stewart’s foil in his series of books on life and more in the hills of southern Spain, the source, if not butt, of much of the wry humour..

Having heard of his passing I found an obituary from a couple of weeks ago:

I hadn’t been looking for news of the author, but had dipped into the blog of another writer, Robin Bayley, where the news of his friend’s death was the latest article.  Bayley has also written of travels in Central America, the wonderful tale of The Mango Orchard, covering genealogy, travels and evidence of gifted writing.  I did get to meet Robin the year his book was published and had been idly wondering if he’d been writing again.

Bayley had been giving a talk at the Travellers’ Tales Festival a few years ago.  It’s an event I’m hoping may be repeated this year, and just the sort of gathering that Michael Jacobs might have been invited to grace, and enjoy, wisdom to impart.

But another writer pens his last words, taken far too young, in the prime of his writing life, stories untold.  I’ll keep an eye out for any posthumous biography or other works that had been in draft.  But it’s sad news indeed.  61.  No age at all.


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Motorway Art

There was a time when we drove along with passengers gazing at fences or fields, thinking about nothing much at all.  Drivers of course kept their eyes on the road, their thoughts on the traffic.  Then sculptures started appearing, eyes and attention swivel round.  The Angel of the North is perhaps the best known example.  But how about these big beauties:


See how they’re cunningly disguised, camouflaged even, masked to merge into the average Scottish sky.  The structures are not solid, gaps between the plates to let the wind through, and the sunlight gleam; or to give variations of a grey theme .  But aren’t they just wonderful?

And they’re surrounded by more wonders, some also camouflaged for the overhead conditions, like this heron:



In a few months time there will be cyclepaths and footpaths – miles and miles of them, a visitor centre, and wildlife in dipping ponds with walkways and viewpoints.  You’ll find The Kelpies just where the waters of the Clyde reach the Forth, at the last lock of the Forth & Clyde canal where the towpath, I’m assuming, will link these metal wonders with another, the Falkirk Wheel – and what a piece of engineering that is – which lifts barges and boats from one level to another as they travel between the rivers.  So there’s going to be many a fine day out in central Scotland.

At the moment the area is frantic with construction activity, pathways awaiting completion; diggers and dumpers, and fences.  And there’s mud and glaur and much standing water.  But it’s all worth it.  You can look at the Kelpie on the left:


Or the Kelpie on the right:


Or you can just wander, slowly, or more energetically.  It’s a bit of an exposed site so something energetic is probably best, just to keep warm.  Wildlife will be an attraction, amongst the reed beds and the ponds.  The law of sod applying, as it always does, three swans lifted languidly from the water and flew slow and low overhead, just as the camera was stowed and we left the car park.  But we’ll be back, probably with bikes.

The Kelpies are part of The Helix project, and pretty ambitious it all is.  But what’s a kelpie, do I hear you ask?  Well we need to go back into the old folk tales for that one, tales from the highlands and islands, the Celtic lands, with a variety of names depending on the whereabouts; perhaps the Ceffyl Dwr down in the valleys, or the nokken over in Norway; typically a water-horse, luring humans to the water for purposes that we’ll not go into here, with dripping mane and curly tail.

But these particular Kelpies, over Falkirk way, well they’re just a bit different, they like children, and children like them, grown-ups too.  Go on, see for your self, take the bikes, or the walking boots, the binoculars or whatever.  Take the family.


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Mongolia Again

I know we’ve been there quite a bit of late, with both Tim Cope and Rob Lilwall, but sometimes that’s how it falls into place.  You may recall my enjoyment of Alistair Carr’s recent journey in the Sahel.  As promised I got myself a copy of the author’s first book, signed first edition of course, and so back to UB we go.

Carr woke up one day, in 1999, with thoughts of Mongolia in his head, an inexorable draw.  He gave up his London career and set off, for a year.  The Singing Bowl  Journeys Through Asia is his account of those travels.  And he wrote them up beautifully.  First published by Cloudburst in 2005 Carr had taken the advice of Dunedin’s Owen Marshall and got himself a Hemingway-style shit detector.  And in the finished work, which is not long, not a single word is wasted.  Marshall must have been quite a tutor.


Carr takes us to the Altai mountians, to the taiga and reindeer herders, to the Taklaman desert and to the World’s Most Sinister Place, which is how Urumchi was described many years earlier.  He travels the Silk Road in the footsteps of Sven Hedin, among others, unearthing dinosaur bones and ancient relics.

Compare and contrast is the thing to do these days.  With Carr we Compare and Contrast the Uighur and the Kazakh, the slaughtering of the goat by one to the sheep of the other;.  the gers of one to the larger version of the other.  But the hospitality’s the same, wherever.

From China he spends a month on desert travels, with the usual rounds of buses with bare tyres stuck in sand, pushed out by knackered passengers.  But the Jeep bursting into flames when there hasn’t been a vehicle for hours and hours, or the sand-storm more than a two hour walk from the nearest human – if you manage to head in the right direction – are different stories altogether.  He made it back to Mongolia, with 30 minutes left on his visa.

We meet shamans and Buddhists, sacrifices and prayer wheels, ride ponies so small the knees are bent like a jockey, and wash Coquille St Jacques (just about my favourite dish) down with Sancerre (my favourite white) in one of the last places you might expect to find either.

The Singing Bowl is a real gem and I hope we don’t have to wait another eight years before Carr brings another adventure into print.  In Mongolia he turned his talents to art, finding Mongolian models to sit for him.  We know he’s a bit of an explorer (RGS)  and turns his hand to some lecturing, speaking, tour guiding and film making, oh and photography too.  But our old friend Mr Google produces little else; a secretively low profile these days.  As with The Nomad’s Path, I’m left wanting more.

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You’ll have had your haggis

Still recovering from the Burns’ Supper?  Or just a wee plate wi’ neeps & tatties at hame wi’ the weans?  Anyway there’s a fine bit of doggerel out there, in the style of the bard, but quite up to date.  There’s been much discussion of late over whether Rabbie would be an Aye or a Naw, but it disnae maiter, for he hasnae a vote.

Any way this brilliant piece deserves a posting all of it’s own.

But we can’t mention Burns without having an Immortal Memory.  So here’s a terrific one, transcript only I’m afraid, but if I come across a video I’ll be sure to let you know.


Filed under Farrago, Scotland's Future

Watch the birdies

That’s what we are supposed to be doing today, having abandoned it yesterday in foul weather conditions.  It’s not that it’s too awful to venture out; it’s Big Garden Bird Watch weekend, where we sit at windows peering out from behind curtains at what is going on outside, pencils sharpened, field guide at the ready.  No, it’s so damned grim outside no self-respecting little feathered jobbie is likely to appear, unless starving.

And they are starving, for the feeders are busy, and The Urchins are keen.  Rain batters against the glass which trembles as the blasts hit.  The sky has been drafted in from Mordor, evil in the extreme.  The light is so grim that trees are mere silhouettes, hedges shades, and if there were any passing eyes they would be gleaming in the gloaming.

And amidst all this we have angst, enforced angst, from the RSPB of all people.  The Urchins are primed, pencils sharpened and the colour printer ready.  Let’s get those counting sheets in colour this year, make it a bit easier to pigeon-hole what we see.  It seemed like a good idea to me.

We’re on the list, have the email, follow the link.  But even the links to last year’s record sheets are broken, not available.  This year it seems we’re supposed to do it all with our phones and tablets and laptops, using apps, giving the numbers live.  Now I don’t know about you but I find it hard enough to decide if the fluttering activity out there makes it 16 or 17 chaffies, and is that a fourth goldfinch, look a brambling – that having to worry about the technology is more than a distraction.  For some things a pencil and paper really is the best answer, especially if you’re 8, and more so at 54.

Indeed such is the light out there it is quite possible the glow from a bank of computer screens at every window overlooking a feeder may scare off even that bloody magpie.  In fact how many appliances does the average family need to cover front and back gardens, from all angles.  Do It Live.  Where are the old sheets?  Make it easy for us please, so we can concentrate on what’s out there rather than fighting with technology.

There’s plenty more technology to fight with.  We have a problem.  In recent months light bulbs have been popping.  Two switches went, within a week, bathroom and bedroom, but all’s fine now as the master electrician didn’t set the place alight in replacing them.

But the kitchen light bulbs.  The lights have been up for a dozen years or more; pretty inefficient by modern standards, reflectors, three bulbs on each of two fittings.  And in the last two months I must have replaced at least eight bulbs, some within minutes of installation.

New lights have been fitted; energy efficient LEDs.  We can get three times the light for a third of the power.  The fitting was fun.  In fact only one has been replaced so far, with much ado and The Urchins asked to leave the remove whilst spleens are vented.  The bulbs alone cost £12 a pop.

And a-pop is what one did, on second time of asking.  Something is wrong.  Mr Google is pointing towards an over voltage problem.  It can’t be vibrations from children playing upstairs.  For of stairs there are none.  If this goes on I fear The Towers may light up the gloom like an eruption in Mordor.  The crows are gathering, if only I had a sheet to tick.

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Late to the party

Unwrapped over the festive period, and unsolicited by me, was a volume that I had mused over; an author unknown.  It turned out to be a delightful read, and I want to know more.

Usually when I happen across a writer for the first time I find out that firstly he is now dead, often long dead, and that secondly he or she invariably died at a tragically young age.  But this one bucks the trend.  He breathes yet; and all going well there will be 90 candles on his cake next year.

Step forward James Salter.

Having thoroughly enjoyed There & Then I found out a little more about the man, his life and style.  I’ll read more I think.

There & Then is a volume of travel writing, typically articles and essays published individually over many years, and brought together in one volume nearly 10 years ago.  It tells of a life of some interest, lived to the very full.  And it showcases a writer of huge talent.

Salter takes us to Paris, decades ago, and to rural France.  We go further, to Japan for a return visit with a bicycle and an adult son who wasn’t around when Salter went first to Japan, as a fighter pilot.  And there are ski slopes.  Not just any slopes, but the ones you’ve heard of, at Kitzbuhel and Klosters, the famous runs; and I think of Klammer & Killy, and Tomba & Stenmark.  Salter’s done them all, the Stielhang and the Lauberhorn, the Hahnenkamm.

But he goes up too, up rock faces with ropes and climbs too big he has to sleep on the vertical face before reaching the summit for lunch.  He has magical days, immortal ones.  And with his craft we share in them.

But he’s not a travel writer.  This collection is the only volume bringing together a number of articles around people and places over the years.  He writes novels, and short stories, and screenplays.  He’s been writing full time since 1957, The Greatest Writer You’ve Never Read, as one article I came across shouted.  In his previous career, as a fighter pilot with service in Korea and a hundred missions fighting MiGs over the Yalu River, he flew with Buzz Aldrin.

Allow me to summarise, from an article in Esquire: He is the literary writer who taught himself rock climbing in his fifties, who drank with the greats of postwar American letters, who opened fire in the skies above Korea, who, not to put too fine a point on it, screwed John Huston’s mistress, and made love to French actresses and skied the Alps with Olympians.

His latest novel, and the first for some time, All That Is, was published just last year.  If there’s not a biography out there then there should be, though perhaps, like Twain, he’s instructed a posthumous release.  I want to read it.

Before it became the playground of the rich and the want-to-be-seen, he bought a ramshackle wreck in Aspen, and renovated it, himself.  It’s now prime real estate, though he’s given up the skiing himself.

I’m always excited when I add a new writer to the list, especially one with a list of works to discover.  But to find one that’s still alive, and one that’s had decades of rich experiences, one that can write with the same style as he lived, is joy itself.  It’s a fine start to the 2014 list over on The Bookshelf.  And a quest to follow.

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It has to be said, again

The BBC are inherently biased; and it comes out not just in what they say, but in the way that they say it.  Now this comes as no surprise to those of us with a keen interest in referendum matters.  We’ve long suspected.  In fact it goes way back, back beyond 2007 when the SNP first formed a minority government, back beyond the 2011 election – what, we haven’t lost another seat have we, the East End… – way before the referendum was even on the cards.

But confirmation is out there, in black & white.  It’s the result of a 12 month survey by UWS, and it covers STV too.  Both broadcasters display a staggering level of pro-union bias in their news bulletins and in their commentary.  Surprised?  Not a bit of it.

And don’t expect to see the revelations covered by our state-funded broadcaster.  For the BBC in Scotland are still reeling from the rap over the knuckles by the BBC Trust from their mis-reporting of the Irish foreign minister and their swivelled view on the impact of EU membership.

But the great pity here is that the university looked only, if at great depth, at the early evening news bulletins on both channels.  I suspect that if the survey was extended to cover the political broadcasts – Newsnight Scotland, Sunday Politics, Scotland Tonight, not to mention Good Morning Scotland on the wireless, we’d be looking at a significantly more marked level of the failure of the duty of impartiality which is explicit in the BBC’s own Charter.

But will anything change, with a vital eight months to go?  Don’t you believe it.  If anything attitudes will be hardened, and more London influence exerted.  As always the issue is covered over at Wings and Newsnet, but best to read the views of former BBC journalist Derek Bateman, as well as those of his readers.

So while we cleanse our minds of the BBC and its Labour connections, rid ourselves of political issues and face others struggles of the day, let’s just have a quick update on other issues of late:

Remember the release of those cabinet papers, the attempts to stop Scotland narrowing the wealth gap with London, well here we are, the gap set to widen even more.  It has to stop, and there’s only one way to do it.

And taking that through to matters financial let’s not overlook last weeks rantings from the Leader of the Opposition at FMQs, the numbers, Scotland and the UK subsidy.  Well Newsnet have an excellent piece on that today, explaining, in terms that even Labour should be able to understand, just what the impact is, which way the subsidy goes.  Illuminating.

Right, that’s off the chest, for now.  Other issues press and normal service will resume, hopefully including things mildly creative, in a week or two.

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Filed under Broadcast & Written Press, Scotland's Future