Thursday, 24 December 2009

Edinburgh and Festivities

So, like the gnarled hand of death with its hand around our throats ready for the final squeeze, Christmas is almost upon us. Up in Scotland, the festive season has been appropriately hit by a pile of seasonal snow, giving rise to many pretty festive scenes, lots of minor car crashes, and a whole nation of people in constant exclamation about the state of the weather. I am now in my mother's new house - almost completed after months of work and looking very cosy and nice - in Dingwall, after having travelled up from Edinburgh via a quick trip to Aberdeen

In Aberdeen, just to briefly take the conversation aside, I unwittingly recreated what must have surely occurred in many low-quality British 1970s sitcoms, when I had to venture into my attic to unplug something. I'm now living in Edinburgh, and the flat in Aberdeen has just been put on the rental market but obviously around Christmas isn't really prime time for leasing out. As part of the moving and leasing, I put all my spare possessions (rather a lot) into my attic, took away the stairway, and nailed a big hatch over the top. Access was only possible therefore by removing the hatch, and an additional lock, and hauling myself up the hole. As the ceiling is rather high, and as I have no ladder, this is achieved by precariously balancing a bedside table on top of a chest-of-drawers. And alas, as I pulled myself up, my feet knocked the beside table off, onto the ground. So I was suddenly trapped in my attic, with the floor and chest-of-drawers looking frighteningly distant. My flat door was also locked with the key in the lock, so there wasn't even a possibility of phoning someone to rescue me. So I paced around my attic for a while, considering my options, all of which seemed to conclude in certain death or paralysis, and finally reckoned the best way was just to lower myself from the attic hole, hanging from the ceiling, and hope my feet could find the chest-of-drawers. This was in fact successfully concluded, without serious or mortal injury, but with a somewhat lack of grace. All I required, as I hung from the ceiling, feet flailing, was a jaunty comedy piano number, and perhaps a camp gent/butch wife/black neighbour to make some kind of weak joke about "How's it hanging?" before the credits rolled.

Anyway, that is all to the side and past, and now I'm in a snow-filled Dingwall, in a warm house, alone except for my mother's wimpy cat who spends his entire life pressed against radiators. My mother has decided to invite me to hers for Christmas this year, but has then abandoned me here for the Day itself as she drives, with my sister, to the manfriend's home, hours away. The manfriend has five rowdy dogs, which are entirely incompatible with a newly decorated house and a wimpy cat, so he is remaining in his country home over Christmas. Evidently, my mother, given a choice between "son" or "manfriend" has rejected the 31 years I've faithfully stood by her and opted for the 1 year of the handy house-building manfriend. When I mention any of this to my mother, she gets awfully flustered, and blurts out a series of apologies, and I was in fairness given the option of travelling to the manfriend's home with her, but have opted to stay in Dingwall, where many friends and family are, and where I intend to consume many gallons of wine.

Wine, or Diamond White cider, as won yesterday in the Dingwall pub quiz. It was a Christmas-themed pub quiz, and thus full of all kinds of stupid questions, and so my team did terribly; however, afterwards there was a raffle, and at the very tailed my number appeared, winning me the classic combination of Haribro marshmallows and Diamond White cider, the latter - for those unfamiliar - a staple diet of scraggily-bearded homeless men and 15-year old youths. I intend to save it for a special occasion.

So it's Dingwall now, and for the next few days, but as mentioned, it's been Edinburgh prior to this and my fleeting Aberdeen cameo. I officially moved to Edinburgh a few weeks ago but was promptly sent to Ghana, so only really moved in last week, and have now spent a total of five days there. And it's been a five days of great entertainment, promise and very unhealthy trends.

I decided to move to Edinburgh just about a month ago, and a number of people have asked the reason why. The main answer is "Because I can." I am in the fortunate position that my work allows, although isn't necessarily hugely keen on, me to live outside of Aberdeen. I've been back in Aberdeen for almost four years now. It was a couple of so years in Korea before that, but then something like seven years in Aberdeen before that. So quite a long time in Aberdeen. And I've been getting restless. I like Aberdeen and have many ties to it, but am not tied down to it, so while I have the freedom to go elsewhere, I think I should. And Edinburgh is a fantastic city, where I can walk about the grand, historic buildings and feel like a cultured, civilised gent. It's filled with wooden-style pubs, pretty doe-eyed girls and quirky nice shops - just five minutes from me there are two shops selling antique maps and a further two selling cigars and pipe tobacco. I've been lucky to find - renting - a great flat smack bang in the city centre, just seconds off the Royal Mile and minutes from the train station, where I can live a full and satisfying life without ever having to walk for more than five minutes in any direction. "A change is as good as a rest" it is said, and as I've had an insane amount of rest recently, there was no other alternative but for change.

So change it is... but is it really? Upon regaling a few of my Edinburgh tales to Green, he described it as being something more like a "regression". A return to my old wayward ways, with old wayward characters leading me astray. Are my efforts at cultural improvement and regeneration to be derailed by a series of shady characters of questionable moral fibre?

The most notable of these questionable characters goes by the name of Mike Day. Sharp-eyed and eagle-beaked (or whatever) readers may know Mike to be from days of yore, indeed during 2003 I lived in a castle with Mike. I also sailed on a yacht with him two years ago in the Adriatic. Since then, Mike quit a hated job in corporate law, and has become a filmmaker. For some time, being a filmmaker seemed to simply involve owning a camera and telling people he was a filmmaker, but by some random fluke of the universe Mike ended up actually making a film, a documentary about some traditional Hebridean bird-murdering (go to http://mikeday.org/ for more details), and then ever more remarkably, the BBC bought it. Yes, the BBC. The BBC. The BBC bought Mike's film. This is clearly quite impressive, and is clearly like taking a massive electro-pump to Mike's ego, as he strolls around telling everybody he sees that he's a filmmaker. Unfortunately for Mike, I don't really watch films, and especially ones about seabirds, the Hebrides or tradition, so all his filmmaking enthusiasm is wasted on me - but there are plenty of 15 year old girls he's able to impress with it.

Mike has become my temporary flatmate, a very smooth ploy by him on my first evening in Edinburgh last week. I had decided to go on an "Edinburgh pub familiarisation pub crawl", surely an educational experience. Varwell was in town for the day, so he came along, and my ever-unemployed sister obviously had nothing better to do than to spend her dole money on booze, so she came too also. And then Mike. Except he came with a bag... could he leave it at mine please, it had expensive stuff inside and he didn't want to lose it. Of course... and thus he now lives in the spare room. By the cratefuls of possessions promptly appearing over the next few days, you'd be forgiven for thinking he was the main resident, but I've given him occupancy until February 15th, the day after Valentine's.

So that first night out turned into a somewhat drunken affair. Great fun, with everyone on good form, but just a blur of increasing wastedness. Back at the flat there were no bedsheets yet, so I slept under a pile of housecoats, as did Mike (in a separate bed, I hasten to add). The next day was a day of suffering and recovery, almighty at times, but by the evening and by the time some wine had appeared we were ready for a new evening. The plan, by Mike, was to go what he described as a sculpture exhibition party, which sounded very cultured. The reality, it transpired, was that this took the form of a dire club full of students listening to garbage boppy music: it was not my scene; Mike loved it. I decided it was beneath my dignity to stay long, so disappeared off home, leaving Mike a text message informing him he had 1 hour 15 minutes before I went to sleep. There was still only one set of keys for the flat, and I had it, so if Mike hoped to get back he would have to buzz the door and hope I answered.

I woke the next morning with 10 missed calls on my phone, and no sign of Mike in the flat. My clothes, incidentally, were covered in curry sauce, but that's neither here nor there. I woke, made some coffee, and a little later the buzzer went and Mike appeared, with a bar of chocolate by means of an apology. An apology?

It seems Mike had come back to the flat and buzzed for ages, and eventually got an angry reply. "Go away. You don't live here any more." Mike, a little drunk, was confused, but the voice was angry and Mike figured he must have angered me somehow. Fortunately, he had his parents' holiday flat to go to, about half an hour away.

It turned out, of course, that it was not me that had been buzzed and woken in the middle of the night, but our poor neighbour.

Ok, next night was a YMCA-themed fancy dress birthday party, which I leave to your imagination, as I have to go and be festive.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Christie Cousins' Dinner, Moving to Edinburgh and Ghana

It's been a busy week or so. Last Saturday, I held a Christmas dinner party for my paternal cousins, which saw me cook a full Christmas dinner, with turkey, brussel sprouts, bread sauce etc, washed down by a variety of dubious spirits. We all ended up a little toasted, and at one point stumbled over to the casino across the road, bet on number 18 on the roulette table - and won. The night ended with a mixture of terrible DJing (I was the best there, which gives you an idea of our level) and housecoat mania.

The Christie cousin Christmas dinner party.

I was in a grim state the next day, but still (with my sister's and cousins' help) managed to get the flat cleaned and my stuff packed. For on Monday I hired a van and moved out, and Tuesday I moved to Edinburgh. Yes, I now live in Edinburgh, the conclusion of a brutal two hours for myself and my sister as we took a series of heavy loads and boxes up to the top floor - I always live on top floors - of a flat just off the Royal Mile. Upon finish, I sat down in my new flat (it's just rented, not bought) for ten minutes, then drove back to Aberdeen.

I've still to finish working on getting my Market Street flat presentable for renting, as my efforts have been waylaid by going to Ghana. I flew there on Thursday and have been there for the weekend. Not a flight of fancy, but a flight of official high-level business, or more accurately, getting very sweaty in a couple of industrial yards. I had a meeting in Accra at first, in which I eschewed my normal plan of hiding in the corner and nodding at everything, and actually had to put in quite a lot of input, including an impromptu presentation - alas, no public voice as I had no script to work from. Then it was down to a small town/city called Takoradi, where I've been careering around various different yards, shunting and shuffling equipment, and taking photos of different bits of pipe.

Some pipe I was working on. I've edited out the "top secret" part, but just try imagine some more bits of pipe, except shinier.

It's been just a quick weekend away, as by today just about everything is done, and I'm flying back to Aberdeen tomorrow, most likely. There I'll quickly finish getting Market Street ready, and I have a work Christmas party on Saturday - with free booze. And then it's time to celebrate the pagan-turned-Christian-turned-commerical extravaganza called Christmas, but which being a non-pagan, non-Christian ascetic, I have decided to call "Winter Magic!Time" (the exclamation point is crucial).

And one day, whenever that day may take place, I might even start to live in my new Edinburgh home.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

The Forsythian Cousins' Dinner Party

Well, things have been a little busy recently. Busy is, of course, a relative term, as I've not actually been working, and so have not been part of the daily schedule that so dominates people's lives until their cycle of monotony finally ends in retirement, insanity and death. No, I've been on holiday (though let's not pretend I was grinding at the mill beforehand) and have been busy with such events as Varwell's stag night and wedding, and then last week's poker night followed by a dinner party for the cousins from my maternal side. In amongst all this, I decided to move to Edinburgh, and so have been getting ready for that, and get the keys to a flat next Tuesday.

Despite all this pretence of being busy, I've still found plenty of time to have a few quiet drinks. In fact, you may argue, excuses to drink have been pretty much the cornerstone of why I've been busy. And so let's wind back to the Saturday morning just past...

...where I find myself awake in the stiflingly hot living room in my flat, slumped on the sofa, with the winter sun streaming through the window. The electric heater is on full, pumping out sickly warm air, my body is still awash with sherry, the smeared remains of a baked potato with chicken tikka filler sits by my side, and the room is strewn with debris from the poker mayhem of the night before. I'd had a poker evening, with the poker regulars (Green, Poker Mark, Stan, Julie) plus other assorted luminaries who fancied their hand at winning some money: Vizzy, Kitchen Mark, and two colleagues, my Polish colleague, as seen last year on a boat, and Bigboy, as seen during our mini-lifetime together in Azerbaijan earlier this year. Booze (tellingly, the two non-drinkers failed to win anything back) and stupendous poker skills thrust themselves about for almost eight hours and two poker games (£10 entry each), with the conclusion of the hyper-aggressive Vizzy winning the first and coming second in the second, won by Green, with myself a very respectable second and third place, to on overall profit of £10.



It was a very enjoyable evening, and an interesting change to our regular poker played on Tuesdays, without alcohol or money, but none of this took priority in my waking brain in this baking room.

No, all I could think was, "Oh God, I've got less than 10 hours to learn how to cook."

Because later that day, my sister, my brother and his fiance, my two maternal cousins plus their respective romantic associates, plus my two younger second cousins, were all coming round to enjoy a dinner party, the first ever Forsythian (as it's been dubbed, though the two second cousins weren't actually generated by a Forsyth) cousins' dinner party. Plenty of stuff was all worked out - where everyone was staying, the various alcohols ready and waiting, coal and wood for the fire in my living room to debut, and plenty of plates and cutlery for the occasion - but one big problem remained: I can't cook.

Or perhaps that should be, I don't cook. Because in my modern life, cooking is something that doesn't feature. One notable attempt 18 months ago some may recall, but otherwise when I'm onshore, I go round to Green's for his culinary sensations, or if he's not about I just eat out or get takeaway, or maybe shove a pizza in the oven. But actual cooking is rare, so to have to cook for ten people was quite an undertaking for me. But luckily, I'd had time to decide upon a couple of dishes, deftly chosen by my brother's fiance, and I'd practised them - successfully - earlier in the week.

Here was the menu.



So, I rose from the sofa, got a few hours of rest in my bed, and then showered myself to a waking health. By mid-afternoon my brother and his fiance had arrived, to quietly watch over me in case the effort got too much. But I was feeling fairly relaxed, and there was plenty of time to get the dinner table prepared, and the lamb dish basically involved getting a bunch of ingredients and shoving them into a casserole dish then the oven for 3 hours. Only the soup and the (made the day earlier) vegetarian dish for the token awkward vegetarian required any effort.

And so, by 7pm, all had arrived and were stuffing wine into their mouths, and by 8pm it was time for food, and round one: some soup. Tomato and basil soup, to be precise. And mmm, it was actually not bad. The key, for me, is not to aim for subtlty, just cram a bunch of stuff in a pot and make the flavours wrestle with each other. Wrestling is of greater mass appeal than opera. So lots of tomatoes, basil, cream, garlic, and whatever else ended up in there. The main course, the Cypriot lamb and potato casserole, also turned out pleasingly well for the same reason - flavour bombast rather than delicate orchestral movements. The next three courses I could coast through then, as they were alcohol based and therefore back in the realm of what I know. Amaretto and ice-cream were a nice combination, cheese and port is a no-brainer (and there was no subtlty with my port pouring), and the finale, cognac and cigars accompanied by a choice of housecoat, which also double as smoking jackets. Around the dinner table, us ten family members gathered in a selection of high-quality housecoats, and smoked cigars with a tipple of cognac by our sides (or, at least, the gentlemen did - most of the ladies found both components too manly for their taste).



And so went the dinner party. Everything then descended into hours of drinking, gathered round the coal fire, and reminiscing about all the times the older members of the family would upset and make cry the younger members of the family. It is a twist of cruel fate that of the five Forsythian cousins, the three males are the oldest and the two females the youngest. Thus my sister and Esme, my cousin, were regularly beaten. I, as the oldest, escaped all beatings, until reaching about 16 when my brother caught up with me in size and I realised it was time to quickly leave home and go to university.

It was a terrific evening, and happily only my cousin Malcolm was sick from it, though consensus is that it was due to all the port and not a rogue element in my food (as all else escaped poisoning). And this Saturday, it's the same again, except with the cousins from my paternal side. And I've got to figure out how to do a Christmas dinner rather than just some easy casserole. Yikes.

For those of you who prefer the pictures to the text (i.e. the "Heat" as opposed to the "Classics" readers) I'll leave you some photos taken by sister, from The Facebook.





Monday, 23 November 2009

Varwell Gets Married

Good evening ladies and gentleman, thank-you all for visiting my blog, and I hope your perusal is a pleasant one. My name is Nev, and for the next few hundred words I shall be telling you about my weekend, plus a few additional little tales...

The above, for those who cannot tell, was written in my "public" voice. For my public voice, you must imagine the dulcet tones of a radio presenter, on the shipping forecast perhaps, or maybe a host of a civilised afternoon gameshow. It is a voice from my unconscious, entirely unintentional, and is a very recent discovery from this weekend (though the last couple of years has seen a couple of previews during on-the-spot radio vox populi on the street). The discovery that I have a hidden voice for public speaking (though perhaps, alas, not a hidden talent) came in the form a best man's speech on Saturday, during the magnificent wedding of Varwell and his new wife, Mrs Varwell.

Yes, Varwell actually went ahead and married a girl, a fact both delightful and alarming - does this girl know what she's getting herself into? And a fact also a little astonishing, certainly if I'd been told it would happen at the start of the year when Varwell was keeping the very fact he had a sweet lips a classified secret. The veil of secrecy was only lifted upon the grand announcement of a marriage, some months ago, and as part of that announcement I was given the honour of being one third of a best man.

Yes, just one third, because Varwell, quite wisely I'm sure, reckoned that myself or any other of the two best men - Green and Kitchen Mark - couldn't be trusted with a range of important duties alone, so that by sharing responsibilities we might manage to approximate a successful tour of duty. However, less wisely perhaps, given that he was fudging the issue of "best", and given that he is a committed Christian, he managed to choose possibly his three most devoutly heathen friends to perform these duties for him on this most special of days. Fortunately, his choice of a heathen trio didn't induce God's full anger, and just made Him a little peeved, and we were treated to just an afternoon and evening of steady rain, and not the furious bout of thunder and lightning and celestial roaring of "NO!!!!" we feared.

We gathered then a day before the wedding day, on Friday, in a Ballater, a small dozy town of wealthy royalists about an hour from Aberdeen. This choice wasn't arbitrary, and certainly was no statement of Scottish Nationalist Varwell's love of Our Queen of The UK, but was because it was the to-be Mrs Varwell's home up until Varwell plucked her out and demanded she live with him in Inverness. Green and I drove Varwell there before noon, so we could give the caterers a few packets of fruit juice (inexplicably this had to be done at noon precisely or else the entire wedding plan would fail). Varwell then vanished to meet his future in-laws, thus leaving me and Green at a loose end, without evening our hotel ready to accept us, so we had no choice but to start drinking.

And that pretty much was Friday. Drinking in the pub, joined at stages by an assemblage of characters, such as Kitchen Mark, the simmeringly beautiful French Claire, a curly haired chap called Keiron and... oh, God knows, I was drunk.

Hence, Saturday morning wasn't my brightest. But the wedding wasn't till 2.30pm, so I had plenty of time to freshen up, take a stroll through Ballater for some lunch, and put on my full kilt regalia, and help Kitchen Mark - a sassenach (albeit ginger) - get into one too.

And so, the wedding. Gosh, it was a religious one. I've been to a number of weddings now, and all but my uncle's and two utterly surreal Korean ones have been set in a church, but Varwell pulled out all the stops by having not one, not two, but four different ministers at his, including his own father. And he included communion as part of the ceremony - the first time I've ever witnessed communion and, goodness me, it's a slightly intimidating experience for the uninitiated. I think it was the chanting that got me (I didn't mind all the blood). But it was a well-judged ceremony, with a nice little moment of freestyling from the organist, and "Bring Me Sunshine" playing at the end as Varwell plus wife exited the church brought a light moment of laughter, especially given the dark rain that had descended on Ballater.

And then it was over to the main hall, for an evening of food, ceilidh dancing and boozing. Ah, but one small hitch – I had a speech to do much later in the evening. And so, unless I wanted to deliver some drunken ramble of a speech and almost certainly offend the 75% Christian audience with tales of fisting, Richard Dawkins and the S Club Juniors (who, incidentally, are all “legal” now; yes, Frankie too), and especially Mother Varwell who was in a perpetual flurry of anxiety that everything went well, it would be wise for me to temper my alcohol intake. And thus I did so, with a big frown on my face.

I still had some wine and champagne of course, and mingled with the masses, and enjoyed a buffet dinner. And despite the impending speech, I was feeling remarkably relaxed about my first bout of public speaking in ten years (and with earlier efforts being mortifyingly bad). Until about 15 minutes before, when suddenly my entire being went “oh crap”.

Varwell was first to speak, and produced a seemingly off-the-cuff, sincere and humorous thank-you to everyone, and especially to his new wife. He was followed by the father of the bride, who managed a few confused and unquestionably unrehearsed mumbles into the microphone before quickly proposing a toast. It wasn’t quite my turn, as because there were three best men, we had collaborated to divide the speech into three sections, all based around parts of Varwell’s anatomy which led to various anecdotes and warnings for his new wife. This included several props, including the main one, a lifesize outline of a human body, with a frightened photo of Varwell’s face for the head, and such parts as the stomach, the feet, the heart, the brain, and a discreetly placed fig leaf.

Mark began, and produced a fine display of off –the-cuff quips, especially in silencing an argumentative (and very worried) Varwell with “Is this a speech or a conversation?” Of course, earlier that day, he’d had practice in speaking to an evening larger audience, global no less, when he’d spoken live on Radio 1. He’d woken at 5am gripped by panic as he realised he’d left his sporran in his suitcase – in his flat in Aberdeen. French Claire had driven him back, and while listening to Radio 1 he’d texted them about it, and they had phoned him back asking him to speak.

Green then followed, managing impressively without any copy of the speech or even notes, and managed some terrific, if unintentional, comedy when he lost his earplugs prop in his sporran and sprayed all his money over the table trying to find it. As he often speak publically, albeit less on comedy matters and more on dry and technical specialised sciences, he was more concerned with timing than of stage-fright, but managed such lines as “Simon only has eyes for you, Nicole... well, for you, and maybe for the occasional 18-year-old... single malt,” just right to elicit a slight gasp of surprise-then-relief from the more devout element.

And then the microphone was handed over to me, and from within my radio voice took over. It’s strange how the few minutes seem to have vanished from my memory, as I can only really recall the sight of about 130 people looking at me, looking at my speech a lot, and moments of surprise when some jokes went down much better than expected. The speech ended by referring to Varwell’s “most important organ” and then a few puns as “you don’t want to balls this one up” and “you have to look after the big man”, before revealing I was referring to Varwell’s heart, and saying a few nice words about Varwell (who is a splendid fellow, truth be told), proposing a toast, and sitting down to great relief.

I proceeded to drink really quite a lot then.

The wedding got into full gear then, as the ceilidh begun and I remembered how much I enjoy being Scottish. Can there be a better way to celebrate a wedding than a ceilidh? Disco dancing is so tacky and excludes much of the crowd, but ceilidh dancing is hugely enjoyable, traditional, is so energetic it gives the satisfaction of exhaustion not unlike climbing a hill, and most importantly I get to manhandle lots of women.

Varwell and his wife had very correctly opted for a full evening of ceilidh dancing, uninterrupted by anything else except a half hour cake break. The crowd were enthusiastic dancers and the floor was always busy, and the night disappeared into a whirligig of Scottish dancing and vigorous stripping of willows.

And perhaps because of all the dancing, I woke the next morning, despite the many whiskies and wines, feeling astonishingly fine and fresh – as I enjoyed reminding a worse-for-the-wear Mark. A bunch of us ate lunch, and then it was back to Aberdeen, where life continues on as before.

There we go then. There’s other stuff I’d love to tell you, such as the stag night last week, but I’ve written quite enough. I failed to take any photos at all that night, though I’ll endeavour to find some and perhaps post a few up in a couple of years’ time. Oh, and I’m moving to Edinburgh in two weeks time. That’ll be nice.

And so we come to the end of this particular blog, but I would like to thank you all for reading this far, and I of course look forward to having you with me next time, when I expect to be reporting on the topic of a dinner party being held for my cousins.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Aberdeen's Union Square: The Official Review

Just last week, and to great fanfare, a new shopping centre opened in Aberdeen: Union Square. On its opening day, a reported 60,000 people - 25% the population of Aberdeen - poured through the doors to view a whole bunch of familiar shops in a slightly different context. Usually, the opening of a new shopping centre, whether big or large, thick or thin, or pink or brown, would not register highly on my consciousness (which is very preoccupied with housecoats these days), but Union Square happens to be on my very doorstep, and heralds the first step in a potential shift of focus for Aberdeen's city centre, making me even more central than I already am.

To celebrate this new collection of "Next" shops and "Costa Coffee" coffeeshops, I thought I'd take the 2 minute walk from my flat to Union Square to see what all the fuss and hysteria was about, and whether it really measured up. As an experienced veteran of shopping centres in many glamorous world cities, there could surely be no better choice than myself to make a studied and critical analysis of where Aberdeen's new gem figures on the world stage. And to accompany this review, for the ease of my younger readers who find my word selection tricky on their literary palate, I've included some pretty pictures. Regular readers will be pleased to see my reintroduction of the "bold" style, and some font size increases too: I spoil you. I have decided to arrange the review in the format of "pros and cons"; so here goes:

Pro
The main facade is quite attractive.



Architecturally, I'm very much a traditionalist and tend towards classical and just plain old styles over the more modern look. That's not to say there's not a ton of terrific modern architecture out there, but Aberdeen in recent times has put up a lot of pretty drab anonymous cheap-looking buildings that look plastic and nasty against the traditional granite of Aberdeen. But I find the facade of Union Square bright and open, not overstated, and even a little grand. Despite my second photo here making it look a little dingy (it isn't, it's just my poor photography), from the inside I think the facade works even better, and makes Aberdeen's Station Hotel and surrounding buildings look quite impressive.

Pro

The Giant U


I like this giant U, just outside the facade (there's another one at the rear entrance car park). It's simple, bold and makes a statement, and looks good from a distance or close up.

But Con

A lamp post



But why, oh why, after all this well thought out design, did someone have to put a big lamp post right next to it? If the person who designed this feature would like to get in touch, I will buy you a drink if you will sit down and justify this to me. Instead, they should have put some nice ground lighting, to light up the U at night.

Pro

Masterful integration of the train and bus station into the shopping centre


Let this not be understated, this is the masterstroke of the whole enterprise, and the reason alone that justifies it. Visitors to Aberdeen by train or bus were for years greeted with sheer drabbery. The area was run down, unattractive and a very unwelcoming introduction. But now, the area has been made functional, attractive and a pleasant arrival. If you don't fancy the Station Hotel across the road, there's a (slightly too gigantic) Jury's Inn Hotel attached and, indeed, dominating the complex. What has happened is a general shift in Aberdeen city centre overall, making the station area more desirable and thus the areas between it and Union Street, for years pretty shabby, much more in the public attention; indeed, council funded regeneration work is already underway.

The above photo is of the side of the train station, which has been cleaned up, and I think looks good inside the main entrance of Union Square.

Con

Stupid Ugly Pillars


All this good work into creating a nice looking shopping centre, and the pillars, which should be a nice touch, look ghastly. Some cheap metal painted grey, already they look tattered but even brand new they added nothing of aesthetic value. I'm not asking for Greco-Roman columns (though wouldn't a "Doric Column" have been particularly appropriate to the area?) but just something that looks like it hadn't been left over from building a warehouse.

Pro

Attractive, spacious interior



Whoever designed Union Square has obviously taken some tips from other shopping centres. Nobody is asking for quirky charm in such a construct, rather a clean, bright, neutrally attractive space is requested, with a smattering of style, and this is what is delivered.

Con

Crap doors



In the front facade, there's only one pair of automatic doors, and already one is broken. This may amuse me when watching people walk into it, but I'm sure wasn't the desired effect. Otherwise, all the doors are opened by the old fashioned technique of "pushing". I hate such doors in public areas as it inevitably means I feel obliged to hold the door open for someone, awkwardly, and they feel obliged to thank me, awkwardly. But perhaps this is more an issue with me.

Pro
A concise history of Union Square, before and after.


Con

I'm afraid to see it because local "toughs" are camped out in the comfortable sofas.



Pro

Look at all these lovely shops!





Ok, fair enough, I've never even heard of "Zara", "Faith", "Cult" or "USC", but no doubt girls have. The Apple store has had legions of people literally ejaculating in their pants with excitement and though I'm not so enthusiastic, it at least means I only have to walk two minutes to complain when my iPod next breaks down. And "Next"... well, there's already a gigantic, brand new one in the Bon Accord Centre, which I went to once but found nothing to suit my tastes (this is not necessarily a criticism of Next), but I'm sure there are lots of girls in Aberdeen delighted to have the choice of two giant Next shops within five minutes of each other.

There are many other shops there, of course, but I've got better things to do with my day than take lots of photos of shops that you get in every high street in Britain, nay the World.

Pro

Food



And in case you'd exhausted Aberdeen's repertoire of fooderies, Union Square has added to the list. I've never heard of the unimaginatively but functionally named "Handmade Burger Co" but presume it's not a misleading title (how shocked we would all be if they only sold pre-packed shellfish). "Nando's" I have heard of, though never frequented, but it's another novelty to Aberdeen that has generated mass excitement; indeed, earlier at lunchtime I saw a queue of eager people gathered, just to gaze. "Costa Coffee"... lovely, I suppose, and in the same picture you can see a "Yo! Sushi!". I'm a big fan of sushi, albeit less so of gratuitous exclamation marks, and so should welcome its arrival, but it makes me feel very guilty, because there's already an excellent Korean-run sushi stall in the nearby Aberdeen market, but I've not been there in a year because I always feel under pressure to speak Korean there, and my Korean has rusted to embarrassing levels these days. But I couldn't look at myself in the mirror if I abandoned the private Korean enterprise in favour of the big chain... so perhaps I'll start paying young children to go to the Korean stall and buy a sushi selection for me. Or is that frowned upon these days?

Con

Boring layout



Ok, whisper it now, but there's one big problem with this much-anticipated new shopping centre: it's a little boring. After you enter the large main hall, you are faced with two choices: short corridor or long corridor. The short corridor pretty much goes direct to the bus station; it's not meant to be exciting so is straightforward and functional. The long corridor however is, effectively, the shopping centre. Union Square is just a corridor! You walk and you walk, and a few minutes later you reach the end, which is either to an outside car park, or Boots. It's really boring. Fair enough, there's two levels, but it's all just a linear A to B layout. I just feel there should be... something more. If it was at least a ring layout, you could go round and round, which would surely encourage shopping, but the current layout is somewhat underwhelming. And at the end of the corridor, there's no escalator, just a choice of stairs and lift. And only old or deeply unhealthy people take the lift in a shopping centre (and I don't want to share with them).

Pro

A cinema


There's a lovely new cinema as part of the shopping centre, which isn't of great use to me personally, but is terrific for all the youth and young lovers of Aberdeen.

Con, kind of

Lack of shops


As yet, there are still many empty spaces in Union Square, still to filled with shops or restaurants. To be fair, much of these are on the way and no doubt will make the place seem even more bustling.

But I do quite like this big poster in front of a non-shop - it acknowledges, perhaps unwittingly, the Aberdonian pessimism of something good actually happening, and the surprise when it actually - somehow - does. As if the idea of Aberdeen getting a new shopping centre was about as unlikely as seagulls ganging together to steal an entire ice-cream van... in fact, knowing the demonic nature of Aberdeen seagulls, this perhaps isn't so unlikely.

Pro

A lovely big car park, just near my flat!


Terrific, somewhere to park if I ever get round to buying another crappy car.

Con

Parking costs money



And it's not cheap. I think it's a little cheeky to ask shoppers to pay money for this kind of car park, but I suppose it is the city centre. And I suppose it does stop people like me parking their car in it for weeks.

Pro

The barriers aren't working yet!


And when they do, I might sabotage them in the night.

Pro

The regeneration


I'm just stating what's already been said, but it's worth re-emphasising. Union Square marks a major step in the initiation of the regeneration of Aberdeen city centre, which will hopefully eventually be followed by an improvement to Union Terrace gardens, pedestrianisation of at least some of Union Street, an improvement to the potentially lovely Castlegate and, most importantly, escalators installed in my Market Street flat: there's really an awful lot of stairs to climb, you know.

Con

Cheer up Aberdonians!

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Leak

Quite wet today outside (and in).


Thursday, 22 October 2009

The Mystery

It was my mother's birthday yesterday - an ever-youthful and enchanting 55 - and so I popped to Dingwall for the day to wish her well and to witness the ongoing ageing process. In the evening, the family went to Fortrose, where my brother now lives, and feasted in a bar/restaurant called "The Anderson". The food, and I can't overstate this, was excellent, and my starter dish of a savoury bread-and-butter "pudding" was perhaps one of the best starters I've ever had in my life. Complementing the meal was copious amounts of fine real ale, for which The Anderson is noted for its vast selection, and so you may imagine that by the end of the night nobody was entirely sober, except my poor sister who was driving - but as she's unemployed she has to do something worthwhile with her time. My mother had a couple of glasses of champagne and was all over the place.

It was earlier in the day, soon after picking me up from the train station, that my mother told me of her recent mysterious happening. And while myself and my practical and unsuperstitious family rule out supernatural explanations, we can't quite figure out the actual one. There are some possibilities, I suppose, but all seem too unlikely. But as Sherlock Holmes once said, "...when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?" and so no doubt an improbable explanation lurks somewhere.

As I may have mentioned a few times in the last while, my mother this year has embarked upon some fairly significant changes in her life. Mainly, quitting her job as a teacher, after many years of suffering at the hands of children, and selling her home of 25 years and buying a smaller, cosier house, still in Dingwall. It is this new house that is the scene of our mystery. For a few months now, it has been undergoing extensive renovation by my mother's manfriend, Richard. who she's been with for about a year. Richard is extremely handy and capable with a set of handtools, and has filled both a large van and garage with them: the garage he built himself, from scratch. He has installed a new bathroom, heating system, and has basically stripped the entire house back to a shell so as to reconstruct it as a fairytale home for his princess.

And, as we know, every good princess should have a lovely kitchen. The kitchen still has a way to go and is very bare and empty, with only a sink, a makeshift cooker and just the other day an old unit/worktop for basic food preparation. Nothing else at all. It may be a complete red herring, but the old worktop was until recently in the shed, but had originally been in the house before Richard stripped the kitchen back to nothing. As my mother needed somewhere to work, it was taken back into the kitchen.

And so the other day she was at the worktop, making a sandwich or cutting something, just a couple of hours after it had been put back there. And she noticed suddenly, on the bare concrete of the floor, was a small slip of paper. She picked it up, and had to put on her glasses to make out the small print. It was a newspaper cutting, a death notice from the "births, marriages and deaths" section of the local Press & Journal.

It was the death notice of my father, from ten years ago.

Needless to say, my mother was rather startled. Not upset or anything, but a little surprised, and wondering where on earth this cutting had come from. From the reverse of it, it was clear it was from the Aberdeen edition of the Press & Journal too, not the Highland edition Dingwall sells. My mother has her own cutting of the notice, but it's in a known location, from a Highland edition, and cut neatly whereas this cutting was a little haphazard. The slip of paper was in good condition, not faded or worn.

As the only change in the kitchen had been the introduction of the worktop, it has been put under most scrutiny. But nothing from that angle makes any sense. Perhaps the cutting had been stuck in a corner of the worktop and happened to flutter out, but there was no obvious corner for it to be stuck in, and it seems more likely it would have fluttered out when the worktop was originally ripped out and taken to the shed. But assuming it had been the case, why would the previous occupant of the house - an elderly woman who died this year in a nursing home - have had a cutting of a death notice of a man she didn't or barely knew (as my father was well-known in the community she surely knew he was, but they didn't know each other per se)? Perhaps, it has been suggested, she kept lots of such cuttings, and it just happened to be my father's that got wedged in the worktop... but all this leads to quite fantastic coincidence and seems too improbable, especially given it was an Aberdeen edition it was taken from.

So the worktop might be a red herring completely, in which case somebody else has knowingly or unknowingly left the cutting there. My mother has spoken to everyone who has been in the house recently, but all deny knowledge and seem as surprised as she is. For someone to have knowingly left the cutting there would seem very strange - it would be a vaguely sinister act, and my mother is far too pleasant a woman to have enemies, least of all anybody who has been in her house. So that would mean it had been left there unknowingly. Perhaps someone had the cutting in their wallet or purse and it had fallen out onto the floor. But it's a strange thing to keep in your wallet (a photo maybe, but not the death notice) and was in too good a condition to have been carried about regularly. And as I say, nobody my mother has spoken to has any idea where it came from.

My mother laughed at the suggestion of it being a "message from the grave", saying my father would never be so cryptic. Sherlock Holmes would eliminate this impossibility, and so it's being treated as a curious mystery to be solved, but so far all real-world solutions seem very unlikely. I think the level of coincidence of it being from the previous owner of the house is simply too great, and so I have to believe it's from someone who knows my mother. But then... how, and why?

Sherlock would surely figure it out, and perhaps the wise readers of this blog too, but I've obviously a bit too much of the Dr Watson about me and am a little mystified.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Eric the Charity Dog

Look at this fellow, just a little bit outside of Marks and Spencers:



Ok, I know that's not really the best of photos. I'm not quite sure what my phone camera was up to. Let's try again, taken from a different angle (I'd make a terrific spy):



Can you see him? Here:



It seems you'll have to trust me on this, but he's a pleasant seeming fellow, honest and tries hard, but perhaps endures more than his fair share of ill luck. Yes, he's a little hapless. And he also happens to be one of these charity guys, who pounce upon you with colossal grins during high street shopping and use numerous forms of trickery to get you to pay £10 or £50 or whatever per month to some bunch of deserving unfortunates (or the homeless), and take a healthy commission.

As many of you may know, I'm not by nature an overwhelmingly sympathetic person, especially to these very irritating faux-charity grinners (and especially not to the homeless). But in the last couple of days, I've been feeling a little sorry for this fellow.

I'm a man of vast amounts of free time: my employers haven't forgotten about me but seem to not trust me on oil rigs these days so instead send me away on mini boat trips. This suits me fine, and I get to fill my free time with idle pursuits and routines, including pacing about my enormous flat, striking snooker balls with great force, wearing a selection of housecoats (five new bought in Edinburgh a few weeks ago), reading weighty tomes and melting candles on my coffee table. And also, daily strolls to Marks and Spencers at 11.50am to buy a chicken wrap and Belgian chocolate milk drink for my lunch.

This week, each lunch-time amble, I have seen this chap, let's call him Eric, looking a pained mixture of desperate and forlorn in the square outside Marks and Spencer. It's like watching an eager dog looking for a friend, and the sad look in his eyes when the world refuses to befriend him. While Eric's two colleagues, a squat dude with dreadlocks and one of a variety of "wacky" (but pretty) females, seem to successfully attach themselves to a series of shoppers, and bounce, chat, grin and laugh maniacally with them, poor Eric is alone. They are the fine pedigrees - Eric is the rancid mongrel. And nobody wants a scraggy, mangy, dirty dog.

But Eric isn't a bad dog; no. It's his very niceness that is his undoing. He doesn't grin, he just smiles nicely. While his colleagues force themselves upon others, like roaring hyenas on prey, Eric smiles politely, steps nervously towards a shopper, and accepts with grace when they ignore him or just shake their head. Then Eric looks down, looks sad, loses another piece of the essence of his being, before quickly bucking himself up, looking up, and stepping nervously towards another uncaring civilian.

And it's heartbreaking. I've seen him every day for three days, when both entering and leaving Marks and Spencers, and the frequent other times I pass by the square, only minutes from my flat. Perhaps that's twelve times in the last three days. And each day, Eric is alone, or being spurned, or today managed to have some very short conversations with a couple of people - but just old ladies who'll speak to anybody, until they realise they may have to part with their money.

I think a significant reason Eric has managed to tweak the usually inflexible strings of my heart is because his forlorn hopelessness in a job he is obviously unsuited to reminds me of myself. No, not in my job now, which makes me blush with joy every time I think of it, but in a godawful job I had many years ago. I've had a number of really terrible jobs in my time, such as working behind a safety-grill in a Haddows in Northfield, collecting glasses in the internationally-condemned Amadeus nightclub 10pm-3am Thursday to Sunday, and washing dishes in a place called Girvans in Inverness, with idiot chefs who enjoyed country music - but the very worst was with a company called Universal Energy.

Universal Energy deftly pounced on me one day when I was in the job centre. With promises of vast fortunes to be made, and remarkable incentives for those capable, I was caught like a greedy fish on a hook, or a 13-year-old groomed via the internet. With a host of other young males, I went on a three-day course in a glorious country mansion, enjoying free food and yet more promises of everlasting success. Only slight niggle at the back of my mind - what did the actual job entail?

It was door-to-door sales, trying to convert non-Hydro Electric customers back to using Hydro Electric. Maybe it would save the customers money, but only a matter of pounds each year. That was glossed over, of course. I was chucked out into some grim outskirt of Aberdeen, with a gigantic list of addresses to visit and hassle, and with a well-rehearsed conman routine ready.

For it was sheer trickery. To go to doors and ask people upfront to change their electricity company just doesn't work. It's not a good sales technique. Instead I had to masquerade as a kind of meter-reader, with a torch and clipboard, and a smooth patter to enable myself to get a foot in the door. Then, still under pretence of being "official", I would have to seem concerned about the reading, and then explain how by converting to Hydro Electric they could be making all kinds of savings.

I very quickly realised that I'm not a good salesman, and that the job was an absolutely miserable way to make a living. Stranded in the suburbs with nowhere to go but your next house, your next attempted con followed by rejection, and with hours and hours stretching ahead, it was awful, and completely exhausting. I only made one sale in two days, but many times got into people's homes. It was only then, when I'd gone through my patter, perhaps by now with a cup of tea in my hand, and brought out the papers to sign, including the direct debit section, did it dawn on my hosts quite why I was really there. I can remember the looks of their faces, and the many (mostly polite) excuses they made to quickly get rid of me.

Two incidents remain vivid. The first was during the first morning of on-field training, accompanying a guy called Alan, who was experienced and one of the best. He managed his way into the home of an old lady, everything was very friendly, and he'd totally fooled her into believing he was doing her a massive favour by getting her to sign these papers. But before she signed them, she'd have to check with her husband, she said, and he was out for the morning. Alan wasn't wanting to accept this, and his mood soured, and his attempts became more aggressive, and the lady - in her 80s and fairly frail - obviously wasn't comfortable. She didn't sign, fortunately, but Alan was clearly very annoyed, and insisted he would be round the next day when her husband was back (he didn't). It was very unpleasant.

The other occasion was alone, and into someone's home with the usual patter of lies. The chap, in his 40s or 50s, was very friendly, and had a very disabled son with Down's syndrome. He went upstairs to get something, leaving me with the son, who couldn't talk, for a few minutes. I attemped small talk anyway. When the father came down, he showed me something, his recent electricity bill I think, and I did my pretend ummering and erring and moved onto the subject of how he might be able to save some money, as I took out some papers. The penny immediately dropped with the guy, as he realised I wasn't a real guy from the electricity board, I was just a salesman. His face hardened, and he was visibly furious, absolutely furious. "Get out" he said bluntly. I hesitated, and he said again, "Get out, now."

The true salesman, in cold sales at any rate, has to be able to plough through life and its potential customers without pause for reflection, and certainly not regret or pity. I realised very soon into this job that I was never destined for sales, and especially not door-to-door with an electricity company, and quit on my third day and went back to doing dishes. A dirty dish never looked so welcome. And so when I see Eric, trying his best in a job he's clearly unsuited for, seeing his pathetic eagerness in the face of an uncaring public he's on commission to hassle, and knowing exactly how he's feeling as his very soul is slowly evaporating, I do indeed feel very, very sorry for him.

And feel very, very relieved that these days I can drink coffee on a boat for a living, and studiously avoid people like Eric during my free time at home.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Bedspread

Tip for the day: when drunk, do not take a plastic cup full of vegetable curry to bed with you.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Vanguard!

I am on the Vanguard.

That is, the Caledonian Vanguard, somewhere west of Shetland, bobbing up and down not quite as violently as the last few days, but still enough to send me careering high speed down a corridor and into a wall if I neglect to remember my surroundings.

I've been here since Wednesday, when I strode manfully on to this large stand-by safety vessel on yet another "data" mission. This is one of these jobs where, in essence, I chuck a big lump of metal into a random point in the sea, and then make some prayers. If these prayers are heard, I will not only have located the correct location, via GPS, in a seemingly infinite stretch of waves, but my sonar will be speaking to another sonar 500m underwater. I'm a deeply irreligious man, as you may know, but my prayers often seem to be answered, so I can only imagine that God thinks I'm "pretty",

The boat I'm on, the Vanguard, is actually rather nice. My experience of these kind of vessels might not be authoritive, but I've been on enough to know that I don't fancy being a regular seafarer. My usual experience is of relatively clean ships, with friendly enough crews, and surprisingly good food, but always there's an absolute lack of contact with the outside world. Save perhaps a satellite phone, communication is nil - no TV, no regular phone, no internet. You have the sense you could sail back into a post-apocalyptic land and say "Oh, when did that happen?" Cut-off from the normal world may seem quite appealing if, say, you're alone on a lovely island with a long-limbed lady, but on a battered boat with some brusque and burly gentlemen the appeal is not so great.

But this boat is set up for TV and internet, so I've been able to watch the football, the news, and flick through the six channels wondering why nothing is on. The internet means I'm still in touch with all my beloveds, and that work can repeatedly contact with me yet more demands and stern orders... it's ok, I can just pretend the connection is "down" again.

I also have a one-man room, which is a luxury never before experienced in my three plus years of oilfield experience. As you can no doubt imagine, I have been spending a considerable amount of time fully naked. Yes, fully.

The crew of the boat are a mixture of either slightly depressed/autistic or Rangers supporters, but are not entirely hostile and have been perfectly helpful and cooperative. The captain is great though. A pleasant and well-spoken English gent, it seems as though he should be sailing a small yacht with his delightful wife and has just somehow strayed onto this big boat. He's been ever so friendly and eager to make sure our stay is comfortable, and is a most genial host, but I can't help but feel it's a great shame he's not quietly enjoying a Mediterranean sunset at sea with a glass of wine, because on this big muscular supply vessel he seems awfully confused. He wanders about with a cup of tea, swaying masterfully with the boat's rocking, and seems rather baffled about what's going on. I don't doubt his ability on the sea, and would trust him implicity with our yacht should I be his wife, but his grasp of anything resembling modern technology leaves him stranded. Even - or perhaps especially - email. A simple request for him to email the nearby FPSO (a kind of rig) for a Permit to Work (required for our sonar stuff) became a jumbled world of complexity. I would compare it to trying to explain to my grandfather how to operate a computer, except my grandfather is quite good at computers these days. "How do I send this thing?" or "Where did that file save to?" followed by a ten minute trawl through folders looking for a file, the name of which he's forgotten. Or the most ponderous possible scrolling up and down looking for an email sent two days prior, or the horrors of watching him trying to send an attachment. In one sense, it's quaintly charming, in another it's tear-your-hair-out frustrating, especially when it delays your time-limited work by an hour-and-a-half.

It also becomes somewhat concerning when you watch three other crew members gather round to show him how to operate a console that sets the ship's location, and he keeps exclaiming "Oh!" while pressing the wrong thing.

Nevertheless, on Friday and Saturday, our allocated days of work, we correctly got on location and, after a small delay, were able to commence work. When I say "we" I mean myself and my colleague, known here and elsewhere as The Mud Shark. The Mud Shark is not a typical colleague in the sense of some "youth" I've got to order about and discipline, and teach spanner grips or how to photoshop a nice pressure graph; no, The Mud Shark is a very experienced software engineer who designed most of the stuff we run, and was also the first ever employee of the company! Crikey. So I could trust him with all the fancy computer stuff, while I dealt with the seas, tightened a few nuts and bolts, and wrestled with the crew.

The details of the next 36 hours have been saved for the official report and job log, which you must trust me doesn't belong on a jaunty blog such as this, but featured toils, tribulations, but ultimately was successful enough. Initially, weather conditions were gentle, but getting the actual data was troublesome and took all kinds of tricks and shenanigans to acquire. By Friday night, the weather was picking up and by Saturday morning the boat was a-rocking all over the place, with crazy waves, and 50 knot winds (I don't know mow much a knot is exactly, but 50 of them are lots). The boat was straining to stay in position but our little 20kg sonar held out impressively, though I was in constant fear of a wire snapping and it being lost forever. One costs about £20,000 - that's almost a month's wage!

Eventually, and after getting to radio the nearby FPSO to demand they "turn off the gas lift - NOW", we started getting lots of lovely data, all of it in fact, and just before the Vanguard actually turned over and sank, we got everything set and were able to move from location. In howling winds and waves, the sonar was retrieved, and I was able to sleep for fitfully for almost 12 hours straight.

And since then, it's just been life at sea and life at leisure. The work is done, so now I'm just waiting to go home. The boat has a few little weather-dependent jobs to do, but weather is fairly calm right now and it seems to be doing them. If that goes ahead, then I hope to back in Aberdeen by Wednesday. And in true sailor fashion, I intend to get blasted on rum and sweet-talk a few shady ladies into compromising deals. So no change there then.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Human Nature Part 2

A couple of months back I wrote a lamentation on human nature, after a few unfortunate run-ins and encounters. The conclusion was grim: humanity is a dirty dog full of fleas, biting you whether you pet it or kick it - or something like that.

Fortunately, every dog is washable, and human nature likewise can veer from dirty, yappy brute to nice, clean mutt. And today I had an example of the good of human nature (and also my own absent-mindedness).

I was on the way to Marks and Spencers to buy a chicken tikka wrap and Belgian chocolate drink, and passed by the Clydesdale Bank machines to withdraw some money, £40 to be precise. I did this and strolled on, and was a good 50-foot or more away when I heard a woman's voice - "Excuse me! Excuse me!" I turned to see a lady chasing after me. "You left this money in the cash machine," she said, and handed me my £40. I was too dumbstruck to say anything but "Crikey" and "Thank-you" as I accepted the money gratefully, and wondered quite where my head had been for the last minute.

So that was nice, and awfully honest, and reaffirms my faith that mankind isn't entirely depraved or sinister.

One day I may become a priest, and I'll use the story to illustrate something. But mostly I'll just talk about housecoats and owls.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Updates

Life being sporadic and episodic rather than a novelesque crescendo, there are lots of bits and pieces, whims and fancies, and songs and dances that don't actually go anywhere: they just happen. Thus too this blog is full of pointless incident, maybe fun but without an overriding story arc. Perhaps one day all these loose strands will spectacularly pull together and I can have a lovely Disney adventure written about my life, but for now I will update some of the above flotsam and jetsam that have drifted by in the last year.

Laser Eyes

I am very delighted with my new eyes. After years of shoving plastic discs into my corneas, or hanging a twisted contraption over my ears, I can now wake each morning and enjoy each day with crystal clear vision free of apparatus. I think this has been just about the best money I've ever spent - except for my £20 snooker table, of course. Sometimes I get surges of happiness when I think about it.

Stocks and Shares

When I last mentioned this, in March or April, I was down about £5. Well, I am delighted to tell you that I have been leading the recent market recovery, as I'm now £30 in profit. I've made a 51.71% and £12.93 profit on Caspian Holdings, a 27.58% and £13.49 profit on the mysterious NCC company (bought because they share my initials), and a 21.78% and £3.92 profit on Tullow, whom I worked with recently in Ghana and were very nice people. Additionally, a few months ago I put a whopping £97.91 into Marks and Spencer, because I often buy my lunch there, and it's now worth £103.60. As you can see, if all this continues indefinitely, one day I'll be a millionaire.

Varwell

Astonishingly, my good friend Varwell is still engaged, defying all known odds. He's due to get married - forever apparently - in just two months. At this rate, I may actually have to write a speech.

Housecoats

A while ago, you may recall I wrote an educational and informative post about housecoats. Well, I am proud to announce that two more housecoats have been purchased since, both gentleman's housecoats. Here they are:

This is the Conservative Gentleman's Housecoat. A sensible and resolutely non-flashy number, it nevertheless courts controversy by having a number of "outdoors" attributes, such as a more rigid fit. It goes particularly well with roast beef and the Mail on Sunday.

The Gentleman's Speckled Housecoat. At first glance, a straightforward housecoat-in-black, but upon closer inspection one is astonished to find it speckled in white thread! It's as though Jackson Pollock himself designed a housecoat. This is a frightfully dapper jacket, with traditional fit yet outrageous patterning. Not one for the faint hearted!

Here is a closer look at the speckled design.

And finally, a sad tale. Those who know me well may recall distant rumoured murmurs of a yellow housecoat, swathed in legend and shocking scandal. For this housecoat has been worn on more than one occasion out of the house! "When is a housecoat not?" the famous question goes - "Out of the house," is a typical response, so this housecoat - the Gentleman's Controversial Yellow Housecoat - has its fair share of detractors. But through all that, it remains a housecoat. Alas, fly too close to the sun and you get burnt, and this was the fate of the Yellow housecoat. While being worn as part of a sailing trip two years ago, it got soaked in sea salt and red wine, and was truly a state. I put it in a cupboard for a year and then decided to take it to the dry cleaners, but for some reason it was a little damp and they said they couldn't do it. So I thought, "Hell, just shove it in the washing machine." Delicate ladies, avert your eyes, for this was the result:

A most woeful sight. I should really put it in the bin, but I just haven't the heart.

Here's the housecoat in happier days:

Still At Home

You may recall that I have a job. As I've been home for all but ten days (plus a holiday) since June, it doesn't really feel like that right now. Unfortunately, my peace has been disturbed as I have to go to Montrose tomorrow. Montrose! Montrose is a town with lots of anagrams, but I'll let you work them out for yourselves. Anyway, I only have to go there for three days, and I can come home at night, thank God. I'm there to do some training, but this actually means I'll just sit in a classroom and be confused. Fortunately, I am exceptionally good at looking thoughtful and interested - a skill that has served me well in my 30 years.

Sister

I have a wayward sister who, I believe I mentioned, last year quit her respectable medical career to become a waster, dabbling in a hedonistic world of sleaze and filth. She returned from travelling in foreign countries not long ago and has since been avoiding looking for employment, and just yesterday moved to Edinburgh to continue avoiding it (and to avoid helping my mother get her new house ready, but this is very understandable). Anyway, my sister has generated a new blog, which I've linked to on the right. I take no responsibility for the poor grasp of spelling within.

Matt

Finally, the ladies have all been clamouring for an update on Handsome Matt, who I visited recently in Australia. Was he still handsome, they all wondered, did he still have his charming way? Ladies, have no fear, you are not to be disappointed. Matt has aged well over the last four years, and is not yet fat or bald:

(he is however as cheesy as ever, but this never seemed to bother the ladies)

Goodbye Mail On Sunday



Since the age of 17, upon starting university and living away from home for the first time, I've had a routine every Sunday. An unremarklable routine, but a routine nonetheless: I would get up, buy newspapers, and two bars of chocolate (one segmented, one whole), make two cups of coffee, and listen to pleasant, soothing Sunday morning music while devouring all of the above. The routine hasn't been absolutely rigid - if very hungover, I'd replace one cup of coffee with lots of orange juice, and sometimes crisps have replaced the chocolate - and it has been very interrupted during my two years in Korea, my last three years frequently away, and during my Year of the Castle, whereby I'd invariably be too intoxicated to stand by Sunday morning. But overall, for 13 years, Sunday morning would be a gentle time of music, coffee, chocolate and reading.

And the newspapers? The Mail on Sunday and The Sunday Express.

The reason for these little-England choices were habit. Growing up, these were the papers my family bought each Sunday, along with the woefully mundane Sunday Post. I've never figured out quite why my parents bought these papers, as my parents were always very friendly and open-minded, but perhaps it too was habit. And so it was a habit that spilled over into my adulthood.

Well, I binned the Sunday Express many, many years ago, as I got fed up hearing yet more tales about dead Diana. Every issue seemed to be another Diana Tribute Special. After Diana died, they seemed to give up on actual news reporting, except for the occasional forced outrage over immigrants (which the Mail did better anyway). I realised that I was reading the same Sunday Express every week, so it was quietly retired in my routine and never replaced.

But the Mail perservered. It may have been rabidly anti-Europe, anti-foreigner, both pro- and anti-Diana, pro-Tory, paranoid about any form of surveillance, obsessed with "Broken Britain", scared of Obama, and pretty much against anything not set in a quaint English village of retirees, but it had the occasional interesting story, a good magazine, a decent review section and once had a double page spread of an owl! Also, I enjoyed appalling my friends, who would buy papers like The Observer, or the Sunday Times, or the Independent on Sunday, or whatever, who would be astonished and horrified that a man such as myself, who walked with the gays, the coloureds and the sick (just like Jesus), could buy a paper holding such right-wing views.

Of course, buying a paper with right-wing views doesn't mean I have to share the views. I'm very capable of reading something and disagreeing with it. It's easy to sit back and read lots of opinions you agree with, it's much more challenging to read and think about a whole bunch of stuff you believe is absolute falsehood, or at least heavily biased. But let's not pretend, that wasn't why I've been reading the Mail on Sunday for the last 13 years. It really, and quite simply, was habit.

And now it's time to break the habit.

You see, the Mail on Sunday, is unutterable garbage. Useless, awful, dull garbage. It's not prime garbage like the Sun or the Star, which still manage to at least be entertaining, have punchy headlines and stories, some quite good sports sections, and very often a half-naked lady; no, the Mail on Sunday is tired and grey and worn-out with outrage. I almost never read any of the stories any more - they are the print equivalent of a fat 50-year old offshore worker ranting about something... I just shut off completely until the noise goes away. The stories don't engage or entertain and they certainly don't inform. I don't take the fat 50-year old tosser out for weekly drinks, so I've begun to wonder why I entertain the Mail on Sunday (only 26 years old, as it happens) in my home each week.

Still, for years I've skimmed the stories, they aren't really the central selling point. What did amuse me more were some of the columnists. Columnists are supposed to be challenging and/or interesting, and for a while they were. But they seem to be on auto-pilot too. Even Peter Hitchens, a man filled with great hate for everything in Britain and especially outside of Britain, although occasionally confused about Muslims as they show religious devoutness, something atheist Britain now lacks - ah, if only he didn't have to live in the same country as them - even he seems to be dashing out his page late on Saturday night from a pre-set list of evils (Britain, Europe, Obama, all politicians, immigrants of course, windfarms, the modern world, lesbians, iPods, cyclists, schools). Though in fairness, he did have a rant about UNESCO and masturbation today. The other columnists have disappeared into a smug world of self-satisfaction that is evidently of great delight to themselves, but not to any readers.

The Sports section is awful. Perhaps in England it's better, but in an attempt to muster a few Scottish readers, they just feature page upon page about Rangers and Celtic. I used to think their reviews were ok, but have realised there's no depth of coverage: the music just seems to be Simply Red, and I don't think I've ever read a book they've reviewed. David Mellor gives every classical music album 5 stars. They have a dire quiz section, including a bafflingly inane chess puzzle which every single week features a single black King and pawn vs about ten white pieces: guys, this is not a puzzle, the game is long over. The letters are all recycled outrage, the only good cartoon (Calvin and Hobbes) they retired over a decade ago, and while I appreciate the gesture of the free CDs, I don't think I'm their target audience (there's been not one piece of German minimal techno yet).

Basically, I buy this paper every week and no longer actually read it.

Therefore, as from next week, the Mail on Sunday is banished from my home, along with its small-minded, paranoid, petty, smug ways.

So, next week, I'm going to enter into a new world and buy a new and different Sunday newspaper. No longer will I have to hang my head in shame when handing over my money. I haven't decided which yet (not the Sunday Express), perhaps I'll give each a trial run, or just rotate the selection, but I am sure that at the very least I'll have some material I can actually read instead of throwing to the ground after fifteen minutes.