UK Culture

Engines of the North

[15 Dec 02] Casting my mind back over the year and an eye back over the archives, I notice a bunch of things I never got around to writing about here: exhibitions visited, movies seen, books read, and, in a couple of instances, places visited. Two of the latter were home to genuine engineering marvels of the new millennium: the Falkirk Wheel and the Gateshead Millennium Bridge. Both worth mentioning, even if three months late.

Falkirk Wheel Gateshead Millennium Bridge

Millennium Engineering

The Falkirk Wheel stands upriver (or, more accurately, upcanal) from the Scottish town of Falkirk, halfway between Edinburgh and Glasgow. Prior to its completion, Falkirk's main tourist attraction was the Antonine Wall, the turf rampart that pushed the Roman Empire north for a few decades. Since the wall is now more of an Antonine Ditch, which doesn't have quite the same draw, the need to build a giant rotating engineery thing to lure visitors was obvious.

And what a giant rotating engineery thing it is. Its ostensible purpose is to reconnect the canals running from Edinburgh to Glasgow to make the entire length traversable again, so that in theory I could hop on a boat a block from my place and end up drifting helplessly towards Ireland. But its actual purpose is to give visitors the chance to climb into a boat at the wheel itself, be lifted upwards verrrrrrry slowly, think "gosh, we're up high", and then be gently returned to where they were just ten minutes before.

The marvellous thing is that it all runs on the same amount of power it takes to boil a kettle. Although, given that, it'd be even more impressive if instead of a giant wheel it was a giant kettle, filling the canals between the Firth of Forth and the Clyde with Earl Grey. That really would have been a fitting British commemoration of the millennium. But never mind; the Falkirk Wheel is certainly the most enormous mechanical nodding bird in Christendom.

Meanwhile, the home of Earl Grey himself has been linked across the Tyne with neighbouring Gateshead by the equally impressive Millennium Bridge. Newcastle is an attractive place, with a Georgian centre replete with aforementioned tea magnate perched high on a stick, and enough medieval and Tudor buildings to break up the post-war landscape. The Millennium Bridge, along with the new Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art (housed in a converted flour mill on its Gateshead side), gives the whole place a contemporary, forward-looking feel. We were lucky enough to see it just as it was being raised in the middle of the day to let boats through; the whole thing pivots on two large cogs, lowering the main arch and raising the curved footbridge to form a second. I don't know whether it uses less power than it takes to draw a pint of Newcastle brown ale, but no matter. Along with the imposing Angel of the North on the A1, it's given the region a morale boost, even if it isn't at peak use yet.


Dear Metro

[15 Dec 02] Bus passengers in Edinburgh and Glasgow pass the time by reading Metro, a free tabloid that litters the seats of the double-deckers hereabouts. By far the best part of Metro is its letters page, a print version of IRC and Usenet, where locals exchange views on such trivia as the breeding habits of neds (lads, yobs, cogs, booners); whether Irn-Bru is the only fizzy drink that can properly be called 'ginger', or whether the term also applies to Coke; and whether Liam Gallagher is a glaikit has-been, or what.

Until recently, my favourite Metro letter was this one, published in February:

After exhaustive research carried out in the workplace and the local hostelry I have discovered I am the only person I know who hates soup. All soup. Am I alone in detesting the vile, illegitimate child of food and drink, that tries to pass itself off as a meal? Surely someone else out there despises this edible work of Satan. Graham Robertson, Uddingston

It sparked a few replies, but none that could match the beauty of the phrase 'edible work of Satan'. But last week it was bettered by one that particularly appeals to my expatriate sensibilities (and even has echoes of a fine weblog):

I dreamt last night that wombats were running wild in the Highlands and I was their leader, Lord Wombat. They would come to me when I played my pipes. G, Glasgow

Any paper that leads off its 'In Brief' column with that is fine by me.


Rumours Exaggerated

[15 Dec 02] As a public-spirited resident of the fine auld toun of Edinburgh, it's my duty to help correct the misimpression held by many potential visitors that the entire Auld Toun burnt down last weekend. Apparently so many tourists are cancelling their plans to visit the city that authorities are considering an emergency advertising campaign to reassure them.

Sad though the fire was, the fact is that it affects the city's residents far more than it will affect tourists. The block involved is not on the Royal Mile—indeed, can only be seen from there if you know exactly where to look—and wasn't home to any museums or other tourist attractions. The businesses most affected were nightclubs, cafes, a theatre venue, a games parlour, an outdoor equipment store, and a department of the University. Edinburgh's club-going population is feeling the blow, and the Fringe has lost a major venue. But visitors who walk the length of the Royal Mile and Princes Street and visit the Castle, Holyrood Palace and National Gallery of Scotland will hardly notice the difference.

So come and visit. It's still a beautiful place.


Edinburgh Burns

[ 9 Dec 02] Most days I get off the bus on George IV Bridge and walk along Chambers Street towards work, either crossing the road at South Bridge and taking an alleyway down to the Cowgate, or cutting down to the Cowgate using a set of stairs next to Adam House. Lately I've been taking the latter route more and more, because the sidewalk past the Gilded Balloon is quieter, and I enjoy the atmospheric medieval surroundings of tenement walls soaring up on either side with the stone arch of South Bridge overhead.

I won't be making that walk for a while. Today Chambers Street, the Cowgate and South Bridge are all closed off, after the worst fire in Edinburgh in living memory. Many of the buildings in that block have been gutted.

They're still there for now, looking much the same from the outside; but structural damage could mean that some of them have to be pulled down, leaving a gaping hole in the middle of Edinburgh's Old Town. Luckily, the fire didn't cross the Cowgate and spread along the Royal Mile, but the effect on the area is serious all the same, with dozens of businesses and hundreds of residents left homeless. Thirty-six hours after the fire started, it still smells of smoke.

A sad day for the city. I only hope that they rebuild as faithfully to the originals as possible.

[Update: the Gilded Balloon at lunchtime today.]


[ 2 Dec 02] A bizarre seasonal element of the UK food chain: Walker's Roast Turkey with Paxo Sage and Onion Flavour Crisps. These taste disturbingly like an actual slice of roast turkey, and no wonder: they contain roast turkey.

Such an ignominious end for Ben Franklin's favourite bird: being ground up, boiled down, and sprayed onto thin slices of potato. I don't think I could cope with life knowing that my only value was as a flavouring.

Do followers of the turkey messiah go around with a spud hanging round their necks? 'This was Gobblus... he died on the crisp.'


The Fifth

[ 7 Nov 02] Edinburgh's streets echo to the bangs and whistles of explosives. Lines of light trace across the sky. Smoke pours from burning piles of wreckage. Three nights of bombardment, with no end in sight.

This isn't Guy Fawkes, this is the Gulf War.


[22 Oct 02] I'm just amazed that nobody thought of it before: beer-flavoured yoghurt.


Auld Reekie

[ 6 Oct 02]

The Place of Execution [detail]

"An Execution", by Captain Topham

I was this morning a witness to one of the most solemn and mournful of all spectacles, the execution of a criminal. Death is always affecting; but it becomes still more moving when we behold a poor wretch sacrificed to the injured laws of his country.

In Scotland, and I mention it to its honour, there is, on these unhappy occasions, much more solemnity and decency observed than in Paris. The lenity of the laws here makes it necessary that a man shall be "habit and repute" a thief, before he can be condemned to die for theft; and therefore, executions, except for murder, are very uncommon. This man had already been twice convicted and pardoned; so that there was no room for intercession to the King's mercy; nor was there the least hope of his amendment, as he was near sixty years old, had spent the whole of his life in a series of repeated thefts, and as he advanced in age, had advanced likewise in iniquity.

The town of Edinburgh, from the amazing height of its buildings, seems peculiarly formed to make a spectacle of this kind solemn and affecting. The houses, from the bottom up to the top, were lined with people, every window crowded with spectators to see the unfortunate man pass by. At one o'clock the City Guard went to the door of the Tolbooth, the common gaol here, to receive and conduct their prisoner to the place of execution, which is always in the Grass Market, at a very great distance from the prison. All the remaining length of the High Street was filled with people, not only from the town itself, but the country around, whom the novelty of the sight had brought together. On the Guard knocking at the door of the Tolbooth, the unhappy criminal made his appearance. He was dressed in a white waistcoat and breeches, usual on these occasions, bound with black ribands, and a night-cap tied with the same. His white hairs, which were spread over his face, made his appearance still more pitiable. Two clergymen walked on each side of him, and were discoursing with him on subjects of religion. The executioner, who seemed ashamed of the meanness of his office, followed, muffled up in a great coat, and the City Guards, with their arms ready, marched around him. The criminal, whose hands were tied behind him, and the rope about his neck, walked up the remaining part of the street. It is the custom in this country for the criminal to walk to the gallows, which has something much more decent in it than being thrown into a cart, as in England, and carried, like a beast, to slaughter. The slow, pensive, melancholy step of a man in these circumstances, has something in it that seems to accord with affliction, and affects the mind forcibly with its distress. It is the pace which a man in sorrow naturally falls into.

When the criminal had descended three parts of the hill which leads to the Grass Market, he beheld the crowd waiting for his coming, and the instrument of execution at the end of it. He made a short stop here, naturally shocked at such a sight, and the people seemed to sympathise with his affliction. When he reached the end, he recalled his resolution; and, after passing some time in prayer with the clergyman, and once addressing himself to the people, he was turned off, and expired. So great is the abhorrence of the office of executioner in this country, that the poor wretch is obliged to be kept three or four days in prison, till the hatred of the mob has subsided, and his act is forgotten.

From pp. 75-78 of Edinburgh Life in the Eighteenth Century, With an Account of the Fashion and Amusements of Society—Selected and Arranged from "Captain Topham's Letters." New Edition with Illustrations. Edinburgh: William Brown, circa 1899.


Walking Worst

[ 1 Oct 02] When I embarked on the past year of pedestrianism, I never knew that walking in Edinburgh would be so fraught with hazard. You'd think that a compact medieval town grown to a modern city of half a million would be fairly sympathetic to those on foot, but no. First, those medieval Edinburghigians built their town around a castle sitting on top of an extinct volcano, and trailed its main street (the 'Royal Mile') down a long slope of hardened lava. Then they covered it with polished grey cobblestones the size of bricks, spacing them just far enough apart that the edge of the foot slips neatly into their gaps. And then their Victorian descendents went and built my workplace at the bottom of said street, and contemporary bus planners routed my bus across the top.

Add the frequent presence of moisture in the form of fog and rain, and the result is having to completely re-learn how to walk. Heels, toes and calves develop new nerve-endings and muscles and hold themselves in a completely different way, braced against the constant threat of ankle-twisting, moulding and shaping themselves to the uneven surfaces, never lifting too far from the pavement so that they can better detect the next safe spot to land. Eyes, usually faced at least occasionally forwards or upwards, are stuck in a constant downwards cast, searching for obstacles—obstacles like thousands of grey-white splotches of discarded gum, the remains of freak hailstorms of PK and Juicy Fruit. 'Wrap It, Bin It', the council billboards implore; 'Shut It', the locals respond.

True, the downwards gaze has helped me find over sixteen quid in hard cash; but it also means looking chronically depressed, and having to be constantly on the lookout for tourists. They saunter around blithely, staring up at the crinkly pointy buildings in their gothic splendour, oblivious to downward-staring locals barrelling downhill towards them. The local then has to loop off the footpath and into the path of oncoming double-decker buses, adding chronic anxiety to chronic depression. No wonder so many British cities built boring grey boxes after the war rather than rebuild what they had; get those tourists staring at their feet like the rest of us, they must have thought.

At every intersection you see tourists wondering when the little red man will ever turn green. Unlike just about every other traffic-light system in the world, here the pedestrians don't get to cross first, but last, in an all-directions scramble after both streams of traffic have had their turn. The result: everyone ignores the lights and crosses whenever they feel like it—right into the path of double-decker buses.

Safer to travel on those, you might think. But buses bring their own hazards. Their bottom seats fill up fast, so you usually have to go up top; it's easier there, at least, to see when your stop is coming up. You hit the bell and lurch up the walkway to the spiral staircase, as the driver races to your stop to test how quickly he can bring four tons of steel to a complete halt. If you haven't got a firm grip on the central pole by the time you reach the spiral staircase, you slip and crash down its eight steps, with only the tight surrounding panels to stop you from setting off a human avalanche. With practice, you learn better timing, learn the rhythms of the lurching halt, learn when to use its momentum to swing round and down the stairs like Tarzan and, with a single light step, out of the central doors and onto the nearest treacherous cobble.

Walking at least gives you something to do; sitting on the same bus every day gets boring. But soon you start using that dead time as reading time, working your way through novels half-chapter by half-chapter. With practice, you can even keep the book open as you alight, and keep reading as you walk down the (quieter side-) street, flipping your eyes upwards and downwards at the end of each paragraph to avoid potential hazards. A useful skill when your bus trip ends three exciting pages before the book does.

And then one day—a Tuesday, let's say—you make the mistake of doing the same with a free newspaper from the bus, obscuring all forward view of the quiet side street with its pages, watching your feet for hazards, skillfully avoiding the ever-present gum and dog-shit, and walk arm- and shoulder-first straight into a lamp-post.


Tearing Down the Wall

[18 Sep 02]

Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian's Wall, 14-15 September 2002. We spent the weekend walking 4-5 hours a day along its central stretches, from Carvoran Roman Army Museum to Sewingshields Crag, taking in Vindolanda and Housesteads along the way; about ten or twelve miles in all. Clean air, silence, and sweeping views of remote Northumbrian countryside. The paths that were once patrolled by Roman centurions are now patrolled by incontinent cows, so you have to watch your feet, and the best views are at the top of the steepest hills, so you have to use your feet, but it's well worth it.

Hadrian's Wall


Is This Summer? II

[ 6 Aug 02]

Edinburgh Fog

Princes Street, Edinburgh, 4 August 2002, 12.50 a.m.


Curse You, Sir Humphrey

[29 Jul 02] So there I was, having sent off our passports and driver's licences last Monday to get our UK driver's licences before we'd been here a year (after a year we'd have to do a test to get one, rather than just swap our Australian ones over), all prepared to wax lyrical about how we'll be stuck in Edinburgh for weeks and can't drive or fly anywhere even if we wanted to, and about how nerve-racking it is to send your passport away when it has your work visa in it, when suddenly the passports and new licences arrive in the mail only five days later.

Typical bureaucratic inefficiency. Can't even be reliably inefficient.


Is This Summer?

[29 Jul 02] Sixteen degrees at noon, foggy and wet. Walking along Princes Street the Scott Monument and the towers behind it look like surgical instruments in silhouette. On the right, Edinburgh Castle is a set of broken molars chewing through fairy floss. And along a pavement packed with tourists, buskers play and stalls sell ice-cream as if the cold is heat and the damp is humidity.


Must be Acclimatizing

[10 Jul 02] I was able to answer this passenger's question (in my head):

Ca' y' tay m'yichbuss ghose tie kay'h?

before the bus driver, who had to ask her to repeat it. Answer: the number 37 bus goes to Ikea.

Two weeks of listening to German puts Scots into context.


To Whom It May Concern

[14 Jun 02]

Dear Scotland,

Thank you for your response to my letter of 6 January 2002 asking you to please stop switching off the lights at 3.30 p.m. I was gratified to see you leaving them on longer and longer, until nowadays you're hitting the dimmer switch sometime around 10 or 11. I've noticed, however, that you have suddenly started switching them on at 4 o'clock in the morning. This is, I submit, a ridiculous time to be waking up for anyone who isn't a heilan' coo. Please rectify this immediately.

Yours faithfully, etc.

P.S.: You could do something about all this rain, too.



[11 Jun 02] St. Andrew's crosses around Edinburgh.


Grass Sky Grate


Auld Reekie

[26 May 02] Been meaning to do this for a while: Edinburgh in black and blue.


Colour My World

[ 8 Apr 02] As I mentioned last August, we saw some garish colour schemes while looking at flats to buy in Edinburgh. The British seem to have confused home decoration with cookery: how else to explain apricot bathrooms, strawberry living rooms and lime bedrooms (with matching duvet covers, yet)? Spend an afternoon wandering from flat to flat here and you'll see more primary colours than in a primary school art class.

What I didn't reveal was that the flat we ended up buying is a case in point. The colours on our walls are so extreme that they scared off many a potential buyer, which is the only point in their favour: it meant that the flat was available to two Australians desperate to secure a place within ten days of arriving.

The flat was originally owned by a retiree, and decorated accordingly in quiet whites and creams. But the later owners who sold it to us had brightened it up in typical UK 2000s fashion. Thus we have a navy blue bedroom with yellow trim; a purple second bedroom/study; a turquoise living room; and a yellow and red kitchen. If this colour scheme was a recipe it would be psychedelic trifle.

The only room its original colour is the bathroom, but in this case original doesn't mean best. It's green, possibly to match the moss that grows on the outside of Edinburgh's grey stone buildings. Where others associate bathing with cool blue rivers or aqua seas, the original owner of our flat must have associated it with stagnant algae-infested ponds.

Not content to leave well enough alone, the next owners took to the pale green tiles and painted dozens of them dark green, to cover up their old-ladyish but otherwise innocuous floral pattern. Tile paint is a quick and easy way to cover up old tiles, and starts coming off just as quickly and easily, especially in the damp conditions of a bathroom. Starts coming off, that is, but stops short of coming off completely. And nothing says 'clean' like half-visible flowers and flaky bits of paint clogging up the drain.

The kitchen has also been tile-painted—red this time—and the paint is chipping away there too. This and its yellow walls, green lino floor and ratty 1980s cupboards inspired us to do something we never thought we'd do: visit a kitchen centre. The eager sales assistant took down the dimensions of our tiny kitchen, fed our requirements into his modelling software, shuffled simulated cupboards and sinks around within the constraints of plumbing and window positions, and ended up with... a layout identical to our existing kitchen, but with a three thousand pound price tag.

Red and yellow make good kitchen colours, don't you think? Kind of like a taco. Or spaghetti bolognese.

We'll repaint it eventually, at the very least to help sell the flat when the day comes, but for now we'll live with it. Repainting the bathroom, similarly, would involve replacing the toilet, sink and bath, all of which are a matching green, so that won't happen either. Painting the bedroom is more tempting: sleeping in a dark navy room throughout the winter was like hibernating in the Marianas Trench. But since the painted walls extend into the built-in wardrobes, which are inconveniently full of clothes, they can also wait for now.

The purple study is actually the least obnoxious; it's more of a lilac colour, and hardly noticeable behind all of the shelves and desks and bikes and clutter. The turquoise living room, though, is driving us slowly mad. Nothing goes with turquoise, except perhaps gold. Since we couldn't afford gold-plated bookshelves, tables, or chairs, the walls are going under the brush, and soon.

But first off was the one space I haven't mentioned: the hallway joining the various rooms of the flat.

If you've ever decorated, you'll know the contrived names that paints go by. Harvest Fruits. Viennese Truffle. Vapour Blue. Clambake Pink.

Our hallway was Exorcist Green.

That is not the first colour you want to see when you come home every night. It's not the first colour you want your friends to see when they visit. And it was the first up against the wall when the revolution came.

Jane has been preparing and undercoating the hallway and the seven doors leading off it (front door, four rooms, two cupboards) for most of the week, and by yesterday the pea soup fog had finally lifted. Last night it was my turn to slurp on the final coat. After four hours of masking, brushing, rolling and drying, our hall is now a clean and light custardy shade of Pharoah's Gold. From the Exorcist to the Mummy.

We'll go even lighter for the living room, close to the original white that lurks under Montezuma's Turquoise. Once we lose the indoor swimming pool the flat should really start to feel like home.

No doubt the next owner will paint right over it, though, in the Baskin Robbins Flavour of their choice. Why settle for vanilla when you can have Neapolitan?


Full On

[ 6 Apr 02] Some readers won't have experienced the joys of the Full English Breakfast mentioned in passing in my account of last weekend's outings. Sadly, while spam is all-too-readily transmitted over the Internet, the same is not yet true of sausages, bacon, and boiling lard. So to help you recreate this gastronomic wonder in the privacy of your own home, Speedysnail is proud to present the Typical Full English Breakfast: all the wonder of a B&B without the international airfare and dodgy shower-fittings.

2 Eggs
2 Large Rashers of Bacon
2 Breakfast Sausages
1 Can Baked Beans
2 Tinned Romano Tomatoes
3 or 4 Medium-Sized Mushrooms
1 Half-Slice White Bread

Fry bacon and sausages until all the saturated fat has come out of them and the bacon is semi-crispy, while still remaining disconcertingly pink and porcine. Fry the half-slice of bread in the bacon fat until it's the translucency of wax-paper. Slice mushrooms and cook in the remaining fat. Stew tinned tomatoes in a separate saucepan, and heat the beans to lukewarm. Meanwhile, scramble the eggs in the frying pan until they're the consistency of dry breadcrumbs, soaking up the last remaining traces of fat; or fry until leathery. Pile everything onto a plate. Serve with toast that has been left to dry out and get stone-cold in one of those metal toast racks.

Northern English Breakfast: Add fried slices of black pudding. Yes, I know it's made out of congealed blood. Just shut up and eat it.

Scottish Breakfast: Add fried haggis. Porridge optional.

Welsh Breakfast: As English Breakfast. It's hard to work a leek into the whole Full Breakfast ethic, because it's just too damned green-vegetably.


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