Sunday, September 28, 2003

East & West

I was in Glasgow twice last week - once to attend a conference at the SECC (right next to the gorgeous armadillo), and the second time to run an adult learners' forum in the Mitchell Theater - another architectural treasure, of an altogether different era. The interior is yet another contradiction - all wood panelling, orange and brown carpet and architectural steel light fittings (originals of course), that wouldn't be out of place in one of the ubiquitous "style bars" that are so popular in these parts. The fourth in this little architectural quartet was the depressing interior of the Western Infirmary's emergency waiting room (one of the learners had had a fall and I was designated taker to hospital) - old and tatty and covered in posters warning of the evils of drugs, drink, sex, and pretty much everything else. As some of you may know, I intensely dislike hospitals, and have discovered that the only way to survive the experience is to treat visits as a cultural experience. I watched family tragedies unfold, and lives teeter on the brink, in that depressing, antiseptic wee room.

I like Glasgow. It's different to Edinburgh in a way that's maybe summed up by my architectural experiences last week - bolder, brasher, tattier, trendier, more diverse, shinier. Not that I dislike Edinburgh - which is perhaps more conventionally appealing, prettier (although not without its rough edges). Maybe it's just that my roots lie in the west.

My Edinburgh architectural experiences this weekend (courtesy of the fantastic Doors Open Days, where you get to go into buildings that aren't normally open to the public or would normally have to pay to see) comprised the South Bridge Vaults - a labyrinth of chambers built beneath one of Edinburgh's oldest bridges, where, up till 1820, people lived and worked. They are reportedly haunted, and are in the Guiness Book of Records as something like "the most systematically investigated supernatural site". We also visited the Royal College of Surgeons, where we wondered at the opulence of the building and the intricacy of the cornicing, learned about the man who was the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, and looked at lots of truly repulsive specimen jars (cancerous lungs, tumours, and many other body parts that had seen better days). For one so squeamish, I think I managed rather well.

Tuesday, September 23, 2003


My current shopping list has a slightly ominous ring to it - dad-style pjs, vests and other thermal wonders, a hottie. The air has a chilly crispness about it this week, there's a "central heating" van parked outside our building, and the coat and gloves and boots are all being hauled into action. Although the temptation is to make like a squirrel and hibernate (but no hottie squirrelled away yet to make that plan a goer), I probably just need to get better at layering.

Speaking of squirrels & other indigenous fauna, A's workmates have realised that NZ'ers don't know what badgers are. They think that this is the funniest thing in the world, and were absolutely delighted when they asked him what colour a badger was, and he replied, "sort of brownish".

That's all for now - a conference in Glasgow means an early train tomorrow...

Sunday, September 21, 2003

Mushroom Madness

This week's subject of fascination is fungi...

It's that time of the year when the possibility of foraging in the forest and finding food for free is a fabulous one (didya like all those Fs?). There is a likely woodland just down the road. But in the interests of not poisoning myself and other loved ones, I thought I'd better find out a bit more before I ventured into the woods (this is all sounding a wee bit Hansel & Gretel). Fortunately, help was at hand, in the form of enthusiastic mycologist Gordon Rutter, running a course this weekend at the Royal Botanic Gardens.

An hour of slides, showcasing weird and wonderful specimens from the fungi kingdom, and then it was off to the forest for a bit of a foray. I was quite delighted to find a common stinkhorn (phallus impudicus) - can you guess what that looks like? In the East, they are sold dried in markets, as aphrodisiacs. We also found a very pretty Fly Agaric (they're red with white spots, very Noddy & Big Ears, and also, apparently, very hallucinogenic). An old lady in our group decided to take it home because it was "such a nice looking specimen". Another very cool one is the beefsteak, which turns red when you cut it open and bleeds - possibly the only mushroom to spark a murder inquiry!

Moving on to movies, Belleville Rendezvous is worth a look. It's an animated feature by Sylvain Chomet, very French, very funny (in a laugh-out-loud kind of way), and completely bizarre. For me, the delight was in the gorgeous animation and intricate visual detail. And any film that can withstand a screening at Cameo 3 (tiny screen, sticky floor, smelling more than a little of wee) must have considerable merit. Will be interesting to compare Spirited Away, the other animated feature that's big news at the moment (I can already say I prefer the funky BR soundtrack to the Disney job done on SA).

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

More is more

This is the maxim followed by all good Scots b&b hostesses (as they invariable are - often with invisible, silent husbands who really don't get into the hosting thing). Decor-wise, the more stripes, florals, other patterns, doilies and embroidery the better - preferably in shades of pink or apricot (or both). Stuffed animals, small statuary and gilt are also good. Minimalism is not a word in their vocabulary (and nor, I suspect, is Ikea - not that that's a bad thing!). This does induce in the visitor an initial sensory overload, but it comes to be quite comfortable - a bit like staying at your granny's house!

More is also the philosophy applied to breakfast at such establishments, and especially, more grease. A heart attack on a plate is standard fare - bacon, eggs, sausages, tomatoes (all fried) - occassionally supplemented by fried mushrooms, fried potato waffles, fried bread. And lashings of brown sauce. Cereal too, if you go for that kind of thing, juice, coffee, toast, porridge, fruit, and even, my favourite, homemade oatcakes & marmalade. Phew!

I almost forgot to mention our nessie-sighting. But maybe in this instance, less is more. A picture says 1000 words, right?

Monday, September 15, 2003

Highland capers

Real life hielan' coos were indeed spotted - on the first night of our trip, happily grazing away (in perhaps a slightly art-directed way) outside the entrance to Blair Castle in Blair Atholl. It's a quiet wee town in the heart of Highland Perthshire, very much on the tourist trail as a result of the castle (which we didn't visit - you have to pace yourself with castles in Scotland, there are so many of them), but rather empty on Friday. With the cool highland air and the mist, this emptiness gave the place a slightly spooky air after dark - somewhat exacerbated by what sounded like the random detonation of a huge stockpile of ammunition (or someone's very big fireworks stash) just next to our b & b - nobody mentioned it the next day!

Blair Atholl's pub, The Bothy, was probably the best of the highland pubs we visited. It had tartan without tack, roaring fire, real ales , excellent pub grub (game casserole w juniper berries & red wine; Haggis, tatties & neeps - of course; steak & ale get the idea! - hearty, tasty stuff), and a kiwi behind the bar. A Johnny Cash tribute provided a fitting soundtrack for the evening. We'll all miss the Man In Black.

Real ales are definitely a discovery - there are hundreds of them, and different pubs serve different ales, so there's always something new to try. Sure beats drinking American beer (which is also reasonably common here).

The Clachaig in Glencoe, which is a CAMRA award-winner, comes a close but not too close second. It definitely wins on the location front - nestled deep in the glen, nothing else around for miles. With 120 malts to choose from, its whisky selection was pretty good too , and of course there was the ubiquitous kiwi behind the bar.

Our whole weekend wasn't spent in pubs. We discovered the delights of single-lane roads with passing places - taking us through tranquil glens, wooded grottoes and misty mountain passes. Scotland is very much a storybook kind of country, you can just imagine the faeries and goblins. We explored a bit on foot, too - no Munros bagged this weekend, and in fact the closest we got was 3/4 of a Graham but I don't think that really counts for anything. Still, walking doesn't need to be about conquest - we discovered some gorgeous wee lochs, a ruined castle on an island, a lilypond and yes, you guessed it, another kiwi (at the end of a fishing rod rather than behind a bar) on our ramblings.

Watch this space for insights into Highland decor and scottish breakfasts (gleaned from 3 nights in b&bs).

Thursday, September 11, 2003

Free range butter

My favourite thing from NZ at the moment - good ole Anchor Butter. It's marketed here as free range, from cows that eat grass all year round. In this hemisphere, cows eat feed instead - battery cows. What a weird concept. Anyway, Anchor is the only spreadable butter that spreads and tastes like butter - most others do neither!

While I'm on the subject of cows, on our highland adventure this weekend one of the things I most want to see is a real life heilan' coo - I haven't seen one yet (there not being many in Edinburgh), and for me they are the quintessentially cheesy picture postcard Scotland. Who knows, maybe next post I'll have aforesaid picture postcard image to show you all.

Congrats to Matt & Kirsten and their bonnie wee bairn.

Monday, September 08, 2003

We got up yesterday morning and the sun was shining, so decided to get out and enjoy it, by climbing Arthur’s Seat. So who’s Arthur, you’re probably wondering. I know I was – I had just assumed he was a giant because his Seat is pretty big, at 253 metres high. But then I read in the paper that:

 Legend has it that deep in the hill, King Arthur and his knights slumber, ready to defend Scotland in battle.

I thought that King Arthur and his knights were English, maybe they just like to identify with the underdog. Anyway, it’s nice to know that they are there should battle loom.

It’s a spectacular walk – starting from The Palace of Holyroodhouse – one of the Queen’s Scottish timeshares – up past the ruins of C15th (at least) St Anthony’s Chapel, a couple of wee lochs and generally a lot of wilderness for a hill right in the middle of the city, to the summit and amazing views. Then back around via the Radical Road (really just a path) along the Salisbury Crags.

Up on the hill, you get a good view of the New Scottish Parliament (three words that have inspired many jokes as well as much gnashing of teeth up and down the land, and have made some people very very rich). It’s not even nearly finished, by the look of it (even though it’s already 2 ½ yrs behind schedule), is the only building site I’ve ever seen with 2-storey Portakabins (an entire village of them), and has gone over budget by a whopping £300 million. The latest in the ongoing saga is that an inquiry into aforementioned overages will itself cost £1 million and not report until 2005!

Architecturally, it looks quite quirky and original, and Sir Sean approves. But I wonder if I will ever see it finished…

The scooter’s good fun – great for zipping around town with no parking hassles. We saw Respiro last night, which is an excellent scooter movie, a great ad for Vespas in particular, and has the most resonant film score I’ve heard in a while.

Next weekend, we’re off to the highlands...

Thursday, September 04, 2003

Berin says (in response to the scooter challenge):

  1) Jacqueline (sp?) Kennedy Onassis.

  2) Jake Dagger.

  3) Frank.

  I am working on the France=>Scotland angle, but apart from Old Mary, Bonnie Prince Charlie and a rumoured exodus of the Knights Templar, I am having troubles.

I wondered if "Jake Dagger" was some kind of reference to something meaningful, but Google says no. I guess Berin just liked that name.

Monday, September 01, 2003


This is now the second time I have written this post - yesterday, as I clicked the magic "post and publish" button our internet connection failed and my lovingly composed blog disappeared before my very eyes. This is an ongoing saga with our broadband provider (in reality, the connection speed is often slower than a dial-up) - I'm getting close to throwing a tantrum!

So, I'm giving it another go...

What's new in eh10? eh? I have one of those season-change-induced colds - yes, the heatwave is well and truly over! There's a definite autumnal nip in the air, and it wont be long before the leaves change colour. I have finally managed to book some flights for a wee jaunt this year - to Italy (Rome and Venice), in November. Easyjet's sale has cured my disillusionment with the online travel marketplace (see post back in July), temporarily at least!

I have been underwhelmed by the response to my scooter-naming challenge. So far the only responses have been from Dad (who suggests "Aggie") and David's "MacPac" and "outwith". So either the rest of you have had a very uncreative week, or nobody else actually reads this blog. Sigh.

Saturday night I saw the best fireworks I have ever seen - the finale to the festival, spectacularly located atop the Castle (I can't imagine a better location for a fireworks display), nicely accompanied by the chamber orchestra (Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks, bien sur). It reminded me a bit of the concerts in the Auckland Domain - everyone gets into the spirit of the event, with picnics and much wine - very festive. Even a bit of rain didn't dampen the spirits (but I'm glad that the torrential downpour after the concert didn't happen during it - our entire group would have probably slid down the steep slope we were perched on). The definite highlight was the enormous waterfall effect over the length of the castle wall (especially exciting when bits of vegetation on the rock face below caught alight).

I've been researching Scottish music (not the hoodrum heedrum variety, something a bit more contemporary) for an award ceremony for young adult learners I'm organising for early next year. This means that we are currently listening to a radio station that specialises in new Scottish music. It reminds me of the bad old days of bFM (very variable, real gems lost amongst the thrash guitar). The music scene does seem to be quite lively here - loads of venues, loads of bands. I'm yet to establish my favourites, though. But we have secured tickets to see the Flaming Lips when they come here in November.

While I'm on a pop culture theme, I really enjoyed Pirates of the Carribbean. It was a good give your brain a rest flick, without being incredibly dumb, and, of course, I'll watch anything with Johhny Depp in it. I was quite keen to see Pirates, as it was a project I had worked on at Film NZ (not that it made it to NZ, but I was curious about the locations they chose in the end). We watched at our local picturehouse, the Dominion, where you are personally greeted and farewelled by the owners (it's a gorgeous old art deco cinema, that's been in the family for decades). Now that the weather is a bit cooler, I'll probably be a more regular visitor.

I was the lucky recipient of a stack of NZ mags this week, including the new Wellington title Staple - glossy and stylish and very cool in a kiwi way (there doesn't seem to be much like that here, or maybe it's just harder to find). Thanks mum!