Wednesday, 31 December 2003

[site news] A lot has happened this year that I haven't been able to put into words, or at least public words; a lot that I once would have said I find myself putting aside, keeping to myself, holding back. This year's log has had barely half the number of entries of last year's. Where I used to have an explanation for every absence of a few days, now I offer none, and am absent more. I can't go back and fill in all the things I would have written; I'm not even sure this is the right place for them. Right now this place doesn't feel right.

Time, then, for a break. I'm taking some time off from the updating urge; to be honest, the urge has been missing for months. I'm not even sure how webloggy the next incarnation of Speedysnail will be, but there'll be something new eventually. The rest of the site will probably see the usual tinkering and gradual expansion in the meantime.

Thanks for sticking with me. If you're looking for something to distract you in the early months of '04, you could do a lot worse than these fine sites.


Into the West

[travel] The cold temperatures and occasional clear days this past week were perfect for an end-of-year day trip to the west coast of Scotland. The train to Oban passed snow-covered ranges and lonely castles, and Oban itself looked out to the frosty mountains of Mull. Not much to do there but see the sights, but what sights.

The Train to Oban

Ardlui Station View from the Train View from the Train Oban Harbour Oban Oban Sunset Oban Sunset


Trust Me

[travel] For such a small country, in area and population, there's a lot of history packed into Scotland. That's true of most European countries, I guess, but this is the one I happen to live in, so it gets the New-Worlder-dazzled-by-the-Old cliché today.

By the end of our first 18 months here we still hadn't seen as much of Scotland as we wanted, so at the beginning of the year we made a few resolutions. One was to think about getting a car. That resolution was completely successful: we did indeed think about it. But the cost put us off actually doing it: a grand or two for a car, hundreds more for MOT and insurance, and who knows what for repairs, all to go off on a picnic now and again. We almost bought one anyway, until Jane found out about the biggest car-sharing scheme in the UK. The cost of joining was less than a few days' rental, so we figured it was worth a try.

It's worked well. The club cars are hooked up to the booking system via an onboard computer and a mobile phone link, and you book them online for anything from half an hour to three days. An afternoon costs £10-30 depending how far you drive, but the per-mile rate includes petrol. It's not as convenient as jumping in a car parked outside your back door, but it's better than filling out forms at a rental company every time you want to go anywhere, and it's good not to have to look after half a ton of metal. Best of all, it's got us out of the house; we've finally seen more of Fife, the Borders, and other tantalisingly close parts of Scotland.

That led to another change: joining the National Trust. We'd been members of Historic Scotland since we got here, but apart from the showpiece castles of Edinburgh and Stirling they deal mostly with ruins; the NTS has the intact stuff. We soon found, though, that the difference is more than just that. People look at you strangely when you join the National Trust under the age of seventy. It's just not something that's done. You might have thought you were saving on entry fees to the great houses of Britain, but no, you've bought into a lifestyle: the upper-middle-age upper-middle-class lifestyle. You're shoulder to shoulder with people who write to the Trust magazine to insist that all the bench seats along Edinburgh's Princes Street be removed because they aren't "heritage" (as opposed to the historic Body Shops and HMVs lining the other side of the street). Medieval peasants had nowhere to sit down after muckin' oot th' sty, after all, and modern-day tourists are just peasants in loud shirts.

Fortunately, the grey-haired staff of the NTS are a kindlier lot, some of them excellent guides to the history of the properties they work in—and some of them, not. For every ex-printer who can talk you through the workings of an old press, there's an old biddy who forgets your face between the time you've left the room and when you've returned five minutes later, and tells you all over again about the Duke of Extinct Family Line, 1895-1971.

It's worth it, though, to see the properties themselves.

Pollok ParkPollok House in Glasgow is overshadowed by the nearby Burrell Collection, one of the best museums in the country; but the house itself is worth a look, as we found on our second visit to the park that's home to both. Inside was one of the best El Grecos I've ever seen, a portrait of a dark-haired noblewoman trimmed in white fur. Outside, a red-haired noble coo grazed happily.

NewhailesNewhailes in Edinburgh bests the city centre showpieces of Gladstone Land and the Georgian House, although both of those are well worth a look. It's harder to get to—our first attempt failed, the bus leaving us stuck a few miles short without time to reach it before the pre-booked tour—but when you finally do, it's one of the best things in the city. The grand late-17th century home of a family who later became too poor to change it much, it's a true time capsule, with peeling 19th century wallpaper, rococo rooms decorated with gilded scallop shells, and a huge library with rows and rows of dark empty shelves; the books are awaiting return when the conservation conditions are right. There were books in other rooms, though, a couple of them particularly noticeable among the tomes by worthy authors: the 1960s-ish Good Food on a Budget; and from the '20s or '30s, Rambles in Womanland.

InnerleithenThe drawback with most Trust properties is their short opening period, often only four months long. We only just caught Robert Smail's Printing Works, in the Borders town of Innerleithen, a week or so before going to Oz. The smell of ink was instant nostalgia for this printmaker's son, and a couple of the presses were almost identical to some in Dad's studio. But the real fun was setting up metal type to print a few words on a bookmark; my first attempt at setting an email address failed for want of an @, so I stuck with the URL.

CulrossHill of TarvitWe visited the Royal Burgh of Culross on the Firth of Forth one bright October day, which turned out to be a few days after its NTS properties had closed for the winter. It was a perfect day for outdoor photography, though, and for dozens of pictures of windows and winding streets. That same day we looped through Falkland and St Andrews before following the Fife coast back to the bridge. My other favourite sight was the Hill of Tarvit, a mansion built by a Dundee jute millionaire a century ago. Every room reflected the period of its antique furniture: here a 16th century Scottish living room in mahogany and oak; there a white fine-plastered French Regency sitting room. The silver model galleon on the dining table was impressive, but it was hard to beat the fencing taxidermied frogs in the upstairs bathroom.

LindisfarneThere was more: the Tenement House in Glasgow, with its Essence of Grandma kitchen; Inverewe Garden on the west coast, warmed by the Gulf Stream; Culloden Moor near Inverness. And more Historic Scotland, English Heritage and English National Trust properties: Sizergh Castle in the Lake District; Stott Park Bobbin Mill, another fascinating insight into the working life of the past; the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, with huts made from boats sheltering behind its castle; Skara Brae, Maes Howe and the Broch of Gurness on Orkney; Fort George outside Inverness, and other castles.

TraquairCarlisle CathedralAnd the rest: Traquair House in the Borders; the cathedrals of Carlisle and Durham; a Rennie Mackintosh-designed school in Glasgow now turned into a museum; the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow; the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh; exhibitions of Leonardo's drawings in the Queen's Gallery at Holyroodhouse, Duane Hanson's photorealistic sculptures at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Monet's Seine and Sea paintings at the Royal Academy of Scotland, Antony Gormley's ethereal sculptures at the Baltic in the Newcastle; and my favourite museum discovery of the year, Sir John Soane's Museum in London, preserved exactly as he left it in 1837.

Too much to do justice to here, which is why I hardly mentioned them before now. In 2002 it felt as if we still hadn't properly explored the north of the UK, even though we lived here; now it feels as if we've given it a good shot. Next year is already shaping up differently, with two weeks in Andalucía in February after a year of Monday-night Spanish lessons in preparation. (No aprendí mucho todavía. Hay demasiados verbos acordarse.) After that, back to Leuven in March for a brief work trip, and maybe to the inner and outer Hebrides in the spring. Got to make the most of it while we're here. Not that that isn't true of anyplace, anytime.


Thursday, 25 December 2003

A Christmas Gift For You

[site news] Two dozen Doors and Windows in detail.


Wednesday, 24 December 2003

Return of the Mountain King

[film] The best movie I've seen this week was full of stunning alpine scenery and almost unbearable tension; and The Return of the King was good, too.

Touching the Void is the story of two mountaineers who tackled an unconquered slope in the Andes and barely escaped with their lives. This dramatization of their story is by turns breathtaking, horrific, funny and truly amazing; it grabs you by the neck and drags you up a mountainside, through the snow, over the boulders and down a crevasse. All the time you wonder how on earth these men—particularly Joe Simpson, who wrote the book the film was based on—could have lived through things you can barely stand to watch. Again and again it seems as if surely he must have died at this point, or at this point—but you know he didn't, because he's narrating over the top of it, and every few minutes you see him talking to camera. Combine that incredible tale of survival with some of the worst dilemmas and decisions anyone would ever have to face, and you have an absolute classic of a documentary, the best of a year full of them.

The Return of the King was a classic of a different kind, and if you have any interest in it whatsoever you'll either have formed your own opinion already or not want me to spoil the surprise. Well, surprise: it's every bit as accomplished as we've come to expect. The novelty of the scenery and the characters may have worn off, but there's still plenty to get excited about. Strangely, for such a visual feast of a movie, my favourite moment was part of the soundtrack: the combination of score and sound effects under that scene—you know, the denouement, where that guy, and him, and the thingummy, reach Mount Spoilers and... yeah, that one. Top scene. I think I'll be going back just to hear it again.

My only quibble—not a quibble, really, more of a quiblet—is that Return feels more like one-third of one very big film than the other two did. If it was physically possible to sit through all three of them in a row with bladder intact, this would make an even better ending than it does. What are the odds on an extra-extended 24-hour all-in-one cut at cinemas next Christmas?


Friday, 19 December 2003

[minutiae] About the least-helpful sign you can see when you're looking for a meeting room in a strange building:

Sign at Strathclyde University, Glasgow

Probably just trying to get their students into the right frame of mind.


[weblog] Two more weeks' worth of feedin':

Mr. Picassohead · Who Will Be Eaten First? · Only days old and already a Powerful Force for Good · Friday Coetzee's Nobel Lecture · Congratulations! · An alternative to fight or flight · Awe is what's for dinner; grab a shovel · The 20,000th Mirror Project photo is wonderful · 'Gervais, how many times have you been punched in the face?' · More Office analysis · Shoot out the lights · Antarctic Photo Library


Wednesday, 17 December 2003

[site news] More detail: Edinburgh II, featuring photos from the past year and a half.


Tuesday, 16 December 2003


The Göta River Canal and City Museum Jul Decorations Decorated Street Poseidon Canal in Vallgraven Marzipan Pigs Jul Decorations New Tunnel Being Dug Slippery Slide Dusk by the River


The weekend before last, The Guardian ran an article on Britain's unbelievably cheap air travel and its obvious environmental costs. I read it guiltily, because six days later we were catching a flight to Sweden which cost all of one pound each plus taxes. It cost the two of us forty two pounds to get from Glasgow Prestwick to Gothenburg City Airport and back—in fact, to get there from Edinburgh, because you can get free rail connections to Prestwick from anywhere in Scotland for some flights. It would have cost more to take a train to Aberdeen and back at apex rates.

Half of our city-hopping around Europe last year was down to cheap flights. We didn't do it this year out of a conscious decision to see more of Scotland instead; but it costs as much to go away for a weekend here as it does to go someplace where they speak a whole different language. (Like, say, England. Ho ho.)

It's certainly the only reason we found ourselves in Gothenburg (or Göteborg, yooteborg, in Svenska). I'd barely heard of it before, even though it's Sweden's second-biggest city. But we loved Stockholm when we visited some friends there six years ago, and although other parts of Scandinavia were higher on our list that was no reason to pass up this opportunity.

I was very glad we didn't, even though it took all morning to get there. The sun was low in the sky by the time we stood outside Gothenburg's main bus terminal; it's further south than Stockholm, so has a good six or seven hours of daylight in winter, compared to four or five there. We spent that first afternoon walking around the canals and streets of the city centre, ducking into shops to get warm, until we reached the river Göta at dusk. We criss-crossed downstream by ferry in the dark, watching boats pass by like floating chandeliers. The city doesn't have the dull orange glow that hangs over Edinburgh, so the night seemed darker and the lights more distinct.

The next day was a few degrees warmer, meaning no frost or ice, just clouds and rain. We visited the city museum (featuring the only Viking boat remains in Sweden), the art museum and the design museum; nothing unforgettable, but a fun day's wandering. In between we stopped at cafés and konditori and bought fabulous cakes for a pound each, cursing the Scottish addiction to the oat. It was a great trip for eating out, with pickled cabbage, blåbär juice (blueberry, not blubber; like drinking dilute pancake syrup), and a delicious pear cider which cost hardly more than a Strongbow back in Edinburgh. Christmas also meant hot glögg, saffron-flavoured buns and marzipan pigs.

Being there at this time of year added an extra dimension to the trip: all the signs saying "God Jul"; Agnetha Fältskog's Christmas album in the CD stores; pigs and reindeer made out of straw; and brightly-lit stars hanging in windows and reflecting off the shiny-wet streets. On the ferry into town on Saturday every apartment by the river featured an illuminated up-arrow of electric candles. By chance we were also there on St Lucia's Day, December 13th, and saw a group of children in white shrouds singing special carols in celebration.

It was a perfect 48 hours of wandering and exploring, and embarrassingly easy for an English-speaking visitor. There was no point asking "Do you speak English?" here; to presume they didn't seemed ruder. (A diffident "hello" was enough.) In one café a woman came up as we sipped our varm chocklad and started speaking to us in Swedish; "I'm sorry," we said, "we only speak English"—and she replied, without missing a beat, "I think I left my mittens here." No agonizing over grammar and fumbling through a limited vocabulary, as I would have been; and she was typical of everyone we met.

On Söndag everything was shut until 11 or 12, so there wasn't much to do but catch the tram into town, walk through the park, and buy strange food at the supermarket (Plopp, Kex, and other scatologically-named chocolate bars) before getting the bus back to the airport. But that was okay; any longer and I'd have been itching to get out into the countryside, to explore the lakes and forests and the icy north.

Maybe Gothenburg's council is subsidizing Ryanair; maybe we're all indirectly subsidizing each other to fly to places we never thought we'd see. And maybe I'll have to plant a forest to atone for all that jet fuel. But it's hard not to want to see the world when you're right in the middle of it.


Thursday, 11 December 2003

[site news] Something Shauna found.


Wednesday, 10 December 2003

Let There Be Lists

[film] The one-off has become a habit: here's my fourth end-of-year list. I should wait to see where Return of the King ends up, and to give myself a chance to read Quicksilver, but it's not like either of those need my personal seal of approval. Better fill in the gaps, though...

Intolerable Cruelty was widely reviewed as a weaker Coen film, but I loved it. (But then, where most critics rate Fargo and Miller's Crossing as their best, I'd have The Big Lebowski and Barton Fink.) Screwball comedy in the finest 1940s mould, with George Clooney looking more like Cary Grant every day. Catherine Zeta-Jones is an unusual presence in a Coen movie, but perfect for this role, not a million miles from her Chicago turn; and Wheezy Joe was a classic Coen character. Four out of five.

Another movie with dodgy marketing was Peter Weir's Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, which is much better than its trailers and billboards suggest. A nautical period-piece played completely straight, with none of the winkingness of Pirates of the Caribbean, Master and Commander was suspenseful and convincing to the end. Or perhaps it was just me: my friends thought Russell Crowe was hard to take as Captain "Lucky Jack" Aubrey. Me, I can think of bluffer sea dogs. Another four stars.

I caught Finding Nemo and American Splendor in Oz, and The Quiet American on the plane over, and liked them all; Spirited Away was strange and sometimes hauntingly beautiful, even better than Princess Mononoke; and Bright Young Things was a successful between-the-wars yarn, with Stephen Fry a perfect director for Waugh's material. Three and a half or four stars apiece.

On the music side, my Britpop leanings have rarely been more obvious. Blur's latest was reassuringly assured, and Catatonia's final album and the much-maligned Manics were excellent bargain finds. The fans' response after Elliott Smith's death led me to his pre-Dreamworks work, which has made me one too; and seeing Alfie at the Flaming Lips concert prompted me to buy all their albums in a fit of retro-'60s-and-Madchester madness—definitely one to watch. The one huge omission from this list, when I recall my fifteen-year Musical Obsession, is MO's 2003 remake of his first and most successful album. But even though it's a polished performance with a few pleasant touches, I can't really recommend it to anyone but a fellow obsessive—not least because I had to order it from Canada to get an un-screwy CD version.

Of all the tech-related non-fiction I've ploughed through this year, Gelernter's and Lessig's books stand out; the former, in particular, demands re-reading. Of the general non-fiction I haven't already mentioned, Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe III was a timely continuation of an excellent series, dealing as it did with the rise of Islam and its impact on the West, and James Woodford's The Secret Life of Wombats a fascinating overview of some of my favourite animals and the people who study them. Fiction has been hit-and-miss this year, with a few exceptions: everything I've read by Jonathan Coe has been excellent; David Lodge's Nice Work was a Rummidge return-to-form after Small World; and Sue Townsend's Number Ten was a far more satisfying political satire than The Queen and I. Also worth a mention: Erik Durschmied's The Hinge Factor: How Chance and Stupidity Have Changed History (which conjures up any number of what-if questions); Michael Moore's Stupid White Men (which explains where half of Metafilter's members get their arguments from); and Ben Elton's Inconceivable, Douglas Adams's The Salmon of Doubt, and Tony Hawks's One Hit Wonderland (all better than I expected).

More introspective retrospectivity coming soon.


Tuesday, 9 December 2003

My Giraffe


When my giraffe intends to sup
He lifts his lofty noggin up
And, depending how he's feeling,
Nibbles at the bedroom ceiling

I would dismiss it with a laugh
But even worse, my daft giraffe
When he feels like having afters
Starts to chew upon the rafters

He doesn't always try this feat
Every time he wants to eat
But it means I have to check
Whenever he extends his neck

He reaches out his lengthy tongue
And licks around and in among
Every cornice, vent and joist
Until the lot of them are moist

His drool has coated every single
Beam and skylight, tile and shingle
Normally, I wouldn't fret
But the entire roof is wet

I thought giraffes ate only leaves!
Not everything above the eaves
My whole damn house will fall in half
Thanks to that insane giraffe

So if you're looking for a pet
And haven't quite decided yet
Take my advice from here on after:
Greet giraffes with hollow laughter.


Monday, 8 December 2003

[site news] About six months later than planned, here at last are some More Castles of Scotland. (In case you missed them, the first ones are here.)


Friday, 5 December 2003

On Reading Montaigne

[books] From the trivial to the substantial. As well as going to all those pub quizzes, I've spent this year working my way through the Essays of Michel de Montaigne, the inventor of the form. Not every one he ever wrote—it's the Penguin selection translated by J.M. Cohen. I finished it a few weeks ago after reading a few pages at a time, bus trip by bus trip. You'd think I would have had enough, but now I'm looking for the complete edition, all 1300 pages of it. After all that time in his company, it's hard to say goodbye.

The remarkable thing about the Essays is how modern they seem. It helps to read a relatively recent translation (which is why I haven't linked to the Cotton one at Project Gutenberg), but it's not just that; Montaigne's 16th century outlook is surprisingly close to our own. (An exception is the scant attention or regard he pays to women.) Reading 'On Cannibals' is like hearing from a time traveller who just dropped in on Cortez.

The cumulative effect is one of autobiography rather than reportage or memoir; by the end we know his mind, but not much of his life story. I was reminded of weblogs, which let us get to know their authors without always telling us a lot about them. Montaigne's discursive style would be familiar to blog readers, too.

But the biggest attraction is his obvious wisdom, an unfashionable trait worth any amount of facts or figures. Montaigne drew on a lifetime's reading of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and on the insight of age (all of 43-59 as he was writing), to fill every page with line after quotable line. It was all I could do to limit myself to only two passages here. After reading Montaigne's thoughts on just about anything, it can seem as if there's no better way to say it, and nothing left to be said.


[weblog] Another feed-bag, minus a few things subsequently linked here. A bit earlier than usual, so that I can note the return of El Relucto.

A web comic based on a friend's blog entries · TWAS on iTMS (try saying that backwards twice) · New Zealand, Land of the Liverwort · '...posting things that require the audience to engage their own intelligence' · Important news if you use MT · Feel old in ten seconds! · Author Websites · Philip K. Dick: The Official Site · Wired: The Second Coming of PKD · Bill Watterson graduation speech from 1990 · Christmas MP3s from Ukulele On The Beach · Return of the Reluctant · Testing the Three-Click Rule · kFDS0dST1VORC1DT0xPUj


[comedy] Eric Idle is three quarters of the way through a North American tour and keeping an extensive online diary as he goes. "I would never be sitting at home writing my memoirs like this. There's just something about the time available and the different places we visit that invites introspection." Tuesday's show sounds like it was a belter. [Via Digital Trickery.]


Tuesday, 2 December 2003


Radiohead, Glasgow SECC, 30.11.2003

Ten years of listening to Radiohead; ten years of listening to other people's opinions of Radiohead. 'Creep' is a one hit wonder. The Bends is nothing special. Kid A is baffling. Hail to the Thief is lacklustre. Radiohead are overrated. I don't like their new direction. I'm not here. This isn't happening.

Well if other people had been at Glasgow SECC on Sunday, other people might have changed their minds.

I'd never seen them live before—never been to a concert this big before—so it was hard to know what to expect. After the upbeat performance of the Flaming Lips I was worried this might be too downbeat. The opening drums of 'There There' put paid to that. What a band: what a tight, driven, compelling band. We are accidents waiting to happen.

And what songs: '2+2=5', 'Lucky', 'Fake Plastic Trees', 'How to Disappear Completely'. They played most of the new album, and tracks from all but the first. The old favourites ('Karma Police', 'My Iron Lung', 'Paranoid Android') got the crowd singing, but seemed almost too familiar, too easy; whereas the new, 'difficult' songs opened up and shone. Seeing them live made clear how well their work hangs together collectively; the complete Radiohead songbook dwarfs the albums, making quibbles about Amnesiac or Hail to the Thief disappear.

And what a show. Thom Yorke can dance. And the lights and video screens complemented their fractured, glowing music perfectly. It reminded me of a perfect Radiohead-listening moment: Kid A and Amnesiac played back-to-back while driving down the Hume Highway at night, headlights and brake-lights passing in the darkness.

My only regrets were that they didn't play 'Pyramid Song', probably my favourite—and that the giant electronic letters spelling out 'FOREVER' at the end of the show didn't actually mean how long it would last.


<<november 2003 posts

Front · 2002 · Walking West · Dr Komputor · Detail · Found · Rory Central · Textuary · Grinding Noises · Cartoon Lounge · The Stand-Up · The Twisted Bell · Pacific Politics
©2003 Rory Ewins · Est. 1999 · Powered by Movable Type speedysnail