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:

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

A concise history of Union Square, before and after.


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


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.



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?


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).


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.


A lovely big car park, just near my flat!

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


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.


The barriers aren't working yet!

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


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.


Cheer up Aberdonians!

Sunday, 1 November 2009


Quite wet today outside (and in).