UK Culture

Trust Me

[31 Dec 03] 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.


The Huge Ever-Expanding Brain at the Centre of Edinburgh

[30 Nov 03]

The Big Merino

Since April, a bunch of us amateur ethnographers have been investigating that noble British institution, the pub quiz. Dozens of them are held every week around Edinburgh, in pubs ranging from the noisy to the cosy. Some cost a pound a head to enter, and have hefty jackpots at stake; others are free, but all you win is a cheap bottle of wine.

Our first few outings were to the Pear Tree, a pub near the heart of Edinburgh Uni. The quizmaster had what turns out to be standard-issue facial hair, with bonus long wizardly locks; his questions were good, and he reminded me of my AM radio-listening days by including a guess-the-tune round. But the quiz was undermined by the serious money at stake—hundreds of pounds—as the place was full of wired students surreptitiously phoning a friend on their mobiles, presumably ones armed with a modem and Google.The Big Merino

One of our crew knew a quieter place, so we shifted there, even though it was on the other side of town from most of us. The Bailey in Stockbridge is a basement-level pub with real character, and its quizmaster is a real character too, with snowy hair and a Holmesian cape. No guess-the-tune round, but one question every week always has the answer "Belgium" or "Belgian", which gives everybody a sense of achievement at being able to guess the answer to the most obscure question of the night. And the questions seemed to be pitched at just the level our group could handle. Our first two weeks there, we took home two bottles of wine for first and second place. The Big Merino

The biggest question in any pub quiz isn't one of the quizmaster's, though: it's what to call the team. Serious players pick a distinctive name and stick to it; dabblers change from week to week. We took the middle path of variations on a theme. Our team is the Big Merino, after the Goulburn landmark beloved of our Australian team-members and bemusing to the rest (who demanded photographic evidence to be sure we weren't taking the piss). After week one, we became El Merino Grande; then Das Gross Merino; then Le Grand Merine. We hopped around the languages until boredom and lack of linguistic ability set in, never quite getting to the Fijian version, Na Sipi Levu. Last time out we shifted direction with a musical reference: the Huge Ever-Expanding Merino at the Centre of the Universe. Next time, my vote is for the Towering Merino.The Big Merino

The bigness of the monicker reflects the bigness of the team, which has had anything up to nine members at a time, depending who makes it on the night. You could almost feel the heat in the room from the other three- or four-person teams glowering at us as we used our combined mental might to crush the opposition and take home £2.99's worth of red. Lately, though, the numbers have shrunk to five or six regulars, and the bottles of red have shrunk to nothing.The Big Merino

A month or two into our quiz-going the Bailey quizmaster (who also runs others in the area) announced an annual grand final for the Stockbridge area, with an entry fee and teams limited to four people. Shauna, Gareth, David and I fronted up, just for the hell of it.

The Big MerinoThe heats were held in a pub that had a big atrium out the back, with tables arranged in disturbingly exam-room-like fashion. There was time for a drink beforehand, so we got to hear the hard-core contestants swotting up, asking each other, "Quick, what's the capital of Croatia?" (Fools. This quiz was a Zagreb-free zone. Abu Dhabi was the one they should have studied.)

It started well enough; almost everyone got the questions in round one. In the Bible, who dreamt of a ladder to heaven? The French TV show Jeux Sans Frontieres is the equivalent of which British show? What was the name of the ship that took the pilgrims to America? Which was the third country to launch manned spacecraft? What does SUV stand for?

The Big MerinoRounds two and three went okay, too. Our mix of UK and Australian team-members helped us pick up some of the more obscure questions (to Brits), like "Who was the first president of Indonesia?" We dropped a few in the final rounds, but made up for it by getting nine of the ten countries with the greatest total length of roads (in no particular order, US, China, Germany, France, Canada, Australia, Russia, Brazil, India... but we had Mexico instead of, surprisingly, Japan). In the end we came fourth out of eight teams, just scraping through to the final.

Where we got slaughtered.

The Big Merino

Sure, we guessed which British actor married the daughter of Eugene O'Neill in 1943. One of us even knew the name of the new leader of the House of Commons. But how were we supposed to know which Graham Greene novel was set in Sierra Leone? Couldn't they ask which one was set in Brighton? And which John Cleland novel was subtitled Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure? How about "Who the hell is John Cleland?" Or which Rugby Union club was about to play at Stoop Memorial Ground? Who in Great Britain gave a toss about Rugby Union before last weekend?

The winners were the same people who won last year. And the year before, I'll bet. Worse, there were only three of them, implying that we all had twenty-five percent less grey-matter than they did. They surveyed the room serenely through their thick lenses and large unruly beards.

The final put our brief winning streak into perspective, and it hasn't really mattered that we haven't won a single bottle of wine since. What use is knowledge when all it wins you is the title of Smartest People Who Turned Up For Something To Do On A Tuesday? It's the turning up that's fun: turning up to meet your friends, and turning up strange pointless facts from the clutter of your brain. Whether your pointless facts beat someone else's seems beside the point.

Jacob; It's a Knockout; The Mayflower; China; Sport Utility Vehicle; Sukarno; Charlie Chaplin; Peter Hain; The Heart of the Matter; Fanny Hill; and (not that you can tell without the date) London Irish.


Ice Ice Baby

[16 Nov 03] The precarious state of the Gulf Stream was in the UK news again this week, with scientists warning that fresh water from melting polar ice is about to shut down the giant jacuzzi and leave Britain lying in a cold bath. While the rest of the world sits on the hot jets, we'll be stuck in a January that never ends. Since January is only six weeks away—and already I'd like it to be over—I'm not looking forward to this one bit.

One way or another Britain is due another cold spell: if it wasn't for global warming (and who started that ball rolling, eh?), the world would be facing another ice age round about now. The last one left an impressive number of smooth curving valleys all over this green and pleasant land, which just happen to be the exact same size and shape as a bloody great glacier. Sooner or later the ice will be back, and everything built while it was away, from Skara Brae to the local Safeway, will end up as gravel.

Nobody's sure when it will happen: maybe in fifty years; maybe next year. My only hope is that the Caribbean goodness keeps flowing our way for a few more years, and that the snow doesn't start compacting into an unstoppable wall of ice before we sell our flat. Nothing like the prospect of your home being ground into a powdery residue to knock a few percent off its market value.

Still, it's a while since we had a good environmental scare around here, and at least it'll give the hard-core survivalists a chance to use up all those beans left over from Y2K. And there's a perverse appeal in the idea of millions of Britons seeking asylum in sunny Queensland, only to be told by the Howard government that there's nothing in the Refugee Convention about glaciers, so they're all going to a holding camp in Nauru. Irony, eh. So good, they named an age after it.


Auld Balti

[29 Oct 03] Edinburgh is Old; or, as the local vernacular has it, Auld. The castle is one and a half thoosand years old, Holyrood Abbey nine hundred years old, the university four hundred and twenty. Every second sign on the Royal Mile goes on about how old everything is. Even souvenir shops stress their Auld and Antient Nature, as they tout their Auld Traditional Jimmy Hattes.

So it was no great surprise to see, from the windows of a bus I don't often catch, a curry house claiming itself to be "One of the Oldest and Finest Indian Takeaways in Edinburgh".

How old would that be, I wondered. Does it date to the Victorian days of the Raj? To the fading days of empire in the 1930s? Or just to the wave of subcontinental immigration in the 1950s and '60s?

I looked down to the caption underneath: "EST. 1990".

Thirteen years. Thirteen. There are curry houses on the Gold Coast older than that. I've eaten pappadums older than that. That's not old by Auld Reekie standards, that's old by Old Navy standards.

Man, those health inspectors must be harsh.


[23 Oct 03] A Metro headline which must be shared with the world: Day of High Drama as Llamas Harm a Farmer.


The Feast of Stephen

[22 Oct 03] December approaches, and with it the workplace Christmas meal. After a meeting on Monday we came up with some potential restaurants, and the e-mail negotiations have now commenced. Thai? Mexican? Organic? Or, since we're a Scottish Centre and all, should we go Scottish?

Poised delicately between two cultures, I imagine the possible menus.

Oatmeal Gruel
Haggis wi' Neeps and Chips
Sorbet (Irn-Bru)
Roast Sleekit Beastie
Banoffee Pudding
Cocktail saveloys on toothpicks
Pie and sauce with chips
Sorbet (Victoria Bitter)
Roast Lamb with peas & spuds;
or, Wombat
Barbecue Shapes
More VB


Gi' a Toss

[29 Aug 03] A couple of weeks ago we went to the world-renowned Crieff Highland Games, a stoatin' day of Scottish burliness and kiltery. Except that half the contestants, it turned out, weren't Scottish; they were part of the Scottish diaspora, to use the academic term that makes the descendants of migrants sound like mutant spores from Venus. The lines for limp hamburgers and water-logged hotdogs were full of tartaned Americans and sporraned South Africans, and the winner of the 56 lb weight event (which involved swinging said weight back and forth between kilt-covered legs and throwing it straight upwards over a high bar) was some bonzer bloke from Melbourne.

My favourite event was the pitching of the sheaf, although over the loudspeaker it sounded like the pitching of the sheep, prompting disturbing visions of raggedy blackfaces arcing skywards to the sound of Doppler bleats. The sheaf turned out to be a big sack, filled with straw I guess, which the kilted burlymen would skewer with a two-tined pitchfork and hoick sideways over, once again, a high bar. Life in the highlands obviously involves a lot of flinging. Which makes sense, come to think of it.

But the event we were all waiting for was none of these, nor the dancing of jigs by the young gels, nor the hurling of iron balls or javelins or judges or farmyard animals; it was the tossing of the caber. Because nothing says 'kilty hefty highlandy burl' like grabbing a bloody great tree trunk and flipping it through the air onto its end.

The hairy highlanders didn't disappoint, and our digital camera didn't run out of batteries or memory, so we got a few classic snaps. None more classic or snappy than this one.


Equivocation on Toast

[20 Aug 03] Inspired by a bed & breakfast sign I see every day on the bus.

Probably the Best Breakfast in Edinburgh
Likely containing two or three eggs
Scrambled, perhaps, or fried or poached
Two rashers of bacon, sweaty pink
A grilled tomato, I would think
And possibly a tatie scone
Fried in bacon fat or lard
All of its nutrition gone
Overcooked until rock hard
A can of Heinz baked beans, maybe
Warmed through and tipped onto the plate
And dry cold toast served up too late
Probably with tiny plastic jam sachets
Not too fantastic
A cup of coffee, vaguely, maybe
Or tea—it's hard to tell, you see
And this being Scotland,
A bowl of porridge, sugar-free
And with your bacon, also fried,
A slice or two of sheep's insides
Possibly resembling food
And sometimes even somewhat good
What's that? You cannae eat all that?
You say it has way too much fat?
Probably, but as they say,
You might be going to die one day.


Phew, Wot a Pleasantly-Warm-er

[ 9 Aug 03] I never thought I'd say it of Edinburgh in August, but it actually feels like summer. The other day it got to—wait for it—twenty six degrees! Two degrees warmer than the hottest day last year. And who knows, today feels like it could be even more. Down south they're buckling under temperatures in the low to mid thirties (the railway tracks are buckling, anyway); here people are wandering around in tank tops because we've matched a winter's day in Queensland. The papers last weekend noted in wonder that the average daily highs in Scotland over June and July reached 13.9°C.

But I shouldn't mock; it's very pleasant. I even felt an unfamiliar moistness of the arms the other day, right up until I took my jumper off.


Moving Pictures

[30 Jul 03] Every time you go to the movies these days there are piles of free postcards on a rack somewhere in the foyer, advertising Coming Attractions, mobile phones, Häagen Dazs, and so on. For a while, when they were still shiny and new, I used to squirrel away multiple copies of the good ones against the off-chance that one afternoon I'd want to sit down and write to all my friends, "Wish you were here, so you too could get 30 hours free with T-Mobile." Strangely, those afternoons never eventuated, and so we accumulated more and more of these things, in that insidious way stationery has ("You can't throw me out—I'm completely unused! Look at that—that's perfectly good writing surface, that is."), especially the anthropomorphic kind.

Even though most of these advertising acorns are pretty ordinary, because we've been gathering them for a few years we've ended up with a random sample from all over the world, which actually makes them interesting. Like the St Vinnies cards from Australia encouraging you to charity-shop 'till you drop; or the Kiwi ones showing the yachting hero who later died in the Amazon; or the numbered and signed postcards-as-limited-edition-artworks from the UK; or (my favourite) the application cards to join the Austrian chapter of MENSA.

I'd stopped picking them up, though, after realising that acquisition was outstripping actual use by an order of magnitude—until the other day, when I walked past one of the racks and saw its contents move.

It wasn't just a trick of the light; it was a trick of the light reflecting off a ridged plasticized surface to give the illusion of movement as you tilt it back and forth, like those stickers you get in boxes of Golden Grahams—you know, the ones with Aragorn and Eowyn sword-fighting, which you didn't know what to do with and ended up sticking onto the case of the rewriteable CD you use for back-ups at work. Or maybe that's just me.

This was no movie promo, though; this was much better. It was a postcard-sized guide to the imminent expansion of the European Union.

Europe/New Europe

Now I ask you: wouldn't you be thrilled to see your tax money spent so wisely? Thrilled to think of the hours devoted to creating this essential accompaniment to an historic event? Thrilled that this precious palimpsest, which might ordinarily retail for 99 pence in a museum or gallery store, is being distributed freely at cinemas nationwide?

Indeed you would. But the value doesn't stop there. Because as you can see, not only does the card show the countries that are joining, it shows the countries that aren't joining: Europe; New Europe; and They Reckon They're Europe But Ha, We Know Better. Take that, Norway; take that, Switzerland, and Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Serbia, Kosovo, Albania, the Ukraine, that bit of Russia which used to be Danzig, Georgia, whatever that other one is, and of course Russia itself. You're nothing but a yellow outline on the blue plastic background of history.

It gets better. Overleaf, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office reveals its deeper purpose. This is not a card for foreigners in need of a geography lesson; it's for Britons who need convincing that they should even care where Slovenia and Slovakia are, or which one's which:

New Europe: Benefits to Britain. More countries are joining the European Union... this will mean: more jobs... greater prosperity and diversity... greater opportunities to travel and study... a cleaner environment... increased peace, stability and security.

Which on the face of it suggests that Slovenians and Slovakians will now be able to travel to the UK and get stable, well-paying jobs as cleaners and security guards. (So that's where the Daily Mail gets its ideas.)

Needless to say, faced with this feast of laser-etched exotica, my previous resolve grievously dissolved, and I grabbed whole handfuls of those suckers—which puts me at dangerous risk of postcardiac arrest.

Fortunately, I have you, my loyal readers, in your So Not Europe You're Not Even On the Card countries, wondering how you can tell where to spend the euros you haven't got, and thinking "If only I had some kind of map, in handy pocket-sized form—preferably one that changes when I tilt it." Well, think no more, but instead follow this link and enter your snail mail address to get some mail from the 'snail. Shiny new Europes all round! For the first half-dozen takers, anyway. After that I'll have to go and see another movie.

(By happy coincidence, this once-in-a-lunchtime giveaway takes place on the fourth birthday of this very site. Huzzah!)


Licence to Rant

[21 Jul 03] I wrote so much in that MeFi thread about TV licences the other day that I figured I might as well keep it here in handy edited form. And it doesn't stop there... the thread may have been over, but after further thought on the weekend I wrote this. Forgive the clonking and whinnying noises of yours truly riding a pet hobby-horse.



[25 Jun 03] A bunch of us were out on Monday night, and Shauna said how much she wanted a copy of the newspaper banner from that day's Daily Record, which read: BIN LADEN CRASHES WILLS 21ST PARTY. And who could blame her?

So we nicked one for 'er.

It wasn't exactly grand larceny. This was at the very end of the day, about eight hours before they were headed for the bin.

On the way home I became more and more covetous of this precious item, which must surely be the ultimate souvenir—combining as it does Scotland, royalty, tabloid hysteria, and the world's most wanted man. (And Osama Bin Laden. Haaa!)

So Shauna nicked one for me.

Why do I mention this? Well, it's hanging on my pinboard at work, and I've been staring at it for the past two days, and if I don't I'll go mad.


The Pipes Are Calling

[25 Jun 03] Walked up the Royal Mile this sunny lunchtime on the way to get some Fringe tickets, and I noticed the tourist season has begun. It's easy to tell: your eyes are full of fresh-faced hipsters with the EDI tags still attached to their backpacks, and your ears are full of bagpipe.

The first piping hot culprit was standing on the corner of the Mile and North Bridge, in the usual tartan regalia, attracting a crowd of middle-aged David Baileys. "Come on baby, give it to me, give it to the camera, give it up now, feel that bagpipe!" weeerrrrrrrnerrrrrrrnerrrrrr "Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes!"

I'm joking, of course. They never say anything; they just stand there with their videocams trained on Angus McAirbag and go 'tsch' whenever anyone walks in front of them. Which is often, given that they stand in the middle of the road to get the best wide-angle shot.

But as I walked carefully around this gaggle of Scorceses, I did actually hear one tourist say something. A middle-aged Australian woman walking towards the spectacle with her family said, to no-one in particular: "Is he there for a reason?"


Heart of Glass

[15 Apr 03] A £10m public inquiry into plans for the tallest building in Europe, known as the Shard of Glass, is beginning on Tuesday.BBC News.

For centuries, Londoners have asked themselves one question: how can we prevent the sky from falling? The answer is obvious: scare it away with a bloody big spike. Early attempts using church spires were defeated by the Great Fire of 1666, and Wren's replacements were entirely too round and smooth. The 19th century, however, gave us two important developments: buildings made entirely of glass; and the gothic revival that saw the new Houses of Parliament at Westminster graced with the tower of Big Ben, or 'Ol' Pointy'.

By the late 20th century, after the sky-wrought devastation of the Blitz underlined the need for more protective spiky buildings, Londoners redoubled their efforts. The multi-pronged Millennium Dome held out hope for a new golden age of sharpness, but the effect was undermined by a failure to use jagged glass shards in its construction, and by that crap exhibit about The Body.

But now, as London enters the 21st century, Southwark Council promises a new line of defence against rogue cumulonimbi. Taller than any European or even British landmark, pointier than the Post Office Tower run through a giant steam-powered pencil sharpener, and with room for 660 individual greenhouse allotments, the Shard of Glass will provide new inspiration to London-based Egyptophiles and dagger-wielding psychopaths alike. London Bridge Tower: The Sky's Delimit.


[27 Feb 03] Walking back to Queen Street station in Glasgow yesterday, I saw a man in front of me wearing: red tartan knee-high socks with tassles; a green tartan tweed jacket; green plaid draped around him in proper Highland manner like a tartan toga, leaving only his knees showing; a battered blue tam-o-shanter; straggly black hair, and a beard. In Edinburgh you see buskers dressed up in immaculate Victorian-era gear all the time (the kilt was actually invented in the 18th century by an Englishman), but this guy's clothes looked well lived-in, like he'd just walked off the set of Braveheart. Sure, it may have been an exercise in postmodern fourth-world identity construction, but it was still something to see; and made me think how anonymous and rootless the clothes I was wearing were. There I was, an Australian in Britain, and just about everything on me came from Canada. Quick, hand me an Akubra!... but make it fur-lined.


Celebration of a Nation

[20 Feb 03] You may suspect, given how frequently I post on the subject, that yours truly has something of an obsession with the humble chip in all its forms. But even I almost missed the advent of National Chip Week 2003. It's a good thing we were desperately low on chips on the weekend and had to drag ourselves to Sainsbury's, or we never would have picked up the leaflet about it.

"Make a point of celebrating the great British chip from 17-23 February," it implores. So I've been doing just that. On my way home from work last night I stopped in at the local chippie and insisted on purchasing an entire portion stuffed full of vitamin C and complex carbohydrates (which "release energy slowly, leaving you feeling satisfied for longer"). He tried to weaken my resolve, oh yes; tried to tempt me with additional battered goods and carbonated beverages; but no, I said, this is a matter of national pride, of saturated celebration, and your wanton greed shall not spoil this pure moment. I made my point, I think.

As I consumed my thick-cut morsels containing "less fat than a pot of natural wholemilk yogurt" (per chip, one assumes), I pondered the low-key nature of this fried festivity. Why hasn't the National Chip Board (or is it Ministry?) done more to promote its week of weeks? Where are the billboards? The adverts? The people dressed up as giant potatoes roaming the streets and forcing free samples on anorexic passers-by? Where's the promotional footage of the Queen stuffing her face full of greasy crinkle-cuts? And what about a mascot? Why no jolly old man in apron and toque scattering lumps of spud to good children everywhere?

Well, I'm doing my bit. I hereby declare this National Chip Day at the Republic of Speedysnail, and humbly offer my recipe for...

The Ultimate Chip


1.5 kg potatoes
4 litres oil


1. Choose your spuds carefully. New potatoes are far too small for deep-frying, as they would probably just dissolve. Large baking spuds are best.

2. Wash potatoes to dislodge any prominent lumps of topsoil, reserving these for stock. Remove sprouty eye bits and use later in Bean Shoot and Sprouty Eye Bit Salad.

3. Peel. Reserve peelings to sell at New Age Fayre as organic sticking plasters, 50p apiece.

4. Remove flammable objects from kitchen. Don protective clothing; asbestos is fine, provided you don't inhale. Pour oil into large pot to depth of six inches, and heat until smoking.

5. For thin 'French fry' style chips, cut potatoes in half. For proper British chips, leave whole.

6. Drop chips into oil while holding nose and shouting "Bombs away! Take that, Gerry!"

7. Run blistering skin under cold water for 25-30 minutes while chips cook. Call fire brigade if required.

8. When chips are golden brown, test centre with skewer or knife. Pushing hard should force it through. Hold chip aloft on knife like ancient Briton about to go into battle. Sprinkle with salt and vinegar, and serve.

Variant: Wedges

Prepare as above, but do not peel.

Chips and sauce


Rage Against the Dying of the Light

[13 Feb 03]

Dear List,

Re: Odeons Under Threat (461)

How depressing to read of the imminent closure of the Odeon on Clerk St. I've only been here 18 months, but this cinema has been one of the best things about Edinburgh. I've visited movie houses from pirate-video joints in Tonga to the Sony Metreon in San Francisco, and none could compare with watching The Fellowship of the Ring on screen one at Clerk Street.

Back home in Australia anything that classy was refurbished into a soulless multiplex twenty years ago—exactly the kind that's springing up around Edinburgh and Glasgow today. They have their place, sure, but does every place have to be like that?

The saddest part is knowing that in a few years' time everyone will be sitting in the movie theatre equivalent of Economy Class wondering why they ever gave up their First Class seats, and by then it will be too late.


Rory Ewins.


I Know What It's Been, But What Is It Now?

[ 6 Feb 03] Remember the roast turkey flavoured crisps? Well, the artificial flavouring chemists at Walker's have been working overtime. Ladies and gentlemen, your corner shop proudly presents: baked bean flavoured crisps.

As if that isn't enough, they have a serving suggestion for baked potato topped with baked beans and baked bean flavoured crisps. Don't they know they risk setting up an infinite bean-and-potato loop? You'd be lucky to get out alive.


Freeze a Jolly Good Fellow

[31 Jan 03] Further to the Birmingham radio fiasco discussed below, my Scientific Advisor has supplied me with the packaging from a typical laboratory package of dry ice, which is covered in warnings like this:

Dry Ice Warnings

Should be sufficient to tip off any over-eager DJ, you might think, but obviously wasn't. So I've come up with a new warning to help prevent future mishaps. Radio BRMB, this one's for you.


Radio Ga-Ga

[26 Jan 03] From the should-you-laugh-or-cry department: a Birmingham radio station has just been dragged through the courts for a truly jaw-dropping stunt perpetrated in August 2001: a competition to see who could sit on blocks of dry ice the longest. For the chance to win tickets to a music festival, three of the four competitors ended up in hospital and were left with permanent damage to their buttocks and thighs. In other words: they froze their buns off.

An eye-watering fate. Yet, like any accident involving the nether regions, strangely compelling.

It's hard to imagine why anyone would want to enter such an insane competition in the first place—until you remember that not everyone has taken Mad Scientist photos of their cackling girlfriend holding a beaker of steaming dry ice in her oven-mitted hand. Even though the UK gets pretty cold and gloomy in winter, it doesn't get -78 degrees Celcius cold; those sorts of temperatures are beyond most people's experience. And I guess they trusted that the radio station knew what it was doing.

That was their big mistake. Placing your bum in the hands of a DJ might be a reasonable thing to do in a crowded nightclub, but not when they want to park it on frozen carbon dioxide. (Speaking of which, hadn't these people seen The Empire Strikes Back?) It's a safe bet that the scientific knowledge of your average hits 'n' memories expert is close to absolute zero.

The original reports noted the station's protestations that they covered the dry ice with plastic sheeting. What next? Contestants protected from vats of lava by sheets of foil? Deep-sea diving in lunch-wrap wetsuits?

Even more staggering—besides the fact that they actually had medical advice before the competition (hadn't these doctors heard of the Hippocratic Oath? "First, do no placing of buttocks on -78°C solids")—is the news that the whole idea was copied from another radio station in New Zealand.

I guess the land that brought you such pastimes as tying a rubber band to your ankles and hurling yourself off a bridge would think nothing of a spot of arse-freezing. But New Zealand has courts too, and Kiwi bums are as susceptible to frostbite as Brummie ones. Surely they didn't get away with it?

No. The Kiwi competition also left its contestants in serious medical difficulties: but because it used normal ice, all (all!) they suffered was hypothermia. And that was after sitting on the blocks for four hours:

Organisers tried turning up the heat on the tenacious numb-bums by making them strip to their trousers then blasting them with a cold fan, all to the tune of Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.

So what does the Birmingham station decide? Not "this is totally mad, let's ditch the idea", but "let's use dry ice instead!"—presumably so the contestants don't sit on it as long, and overrun into drive-time. Well, they got that part right: they suffered permanent tissue damage in one quarter the time!

Most people would be glad that the UK isn't as litigious as the US, but in this case a £15,000 fine doesn't seem enough. A spell in Siberia would be more like it. Tickets to Steps included, natch.


No Isle is an Island

[21 Jan 03] Goofy news story of the day in the UK press is the EU proposal to strip several (rather famous) Scottish islands of island status:

Under the EU plan, an island is not an island if it has fewer than 50 permanent residents, is attached to the mainland by a rigid structure, is less than 1km from the mainland, or is home to the capital of an EU state.

The reaction has focussed on the effects on Skye and Bute, among others ("the bemused residents of Muck recently suggested that they could be reclassified as a shipping hazard"), but surely even more significant are the implications of (a) the Channel Tunnel and (b) London.

Sorry, Winston, it looks like you were wrong.


The Whole Hog

[ 1 Jan 03] Hogmanay in Edinburgh is so popular that you have to apply months ahead for tickets to get into Princes Street. Last year we had to stand near the barricades up at one end, but this year we got it together enough to score some of the precious wristbands. From the composition of the crowd, it seemed like relatively few other locals did; we were caught in a crush of Aussies, Kiwis, Canadians and South Africans, with a large English contingent making up the difference. Kilts were scarce.

I was sorry to miss out last year, when local lads the Proclaimers were playing in the Gardens—especially once we learned that this year's main draw was Culture Club. Don't get me wrong, Boy George deserves respect for hangin' in there, even if his name will forever mean '1983'. But now was not the time to be seeing in the new year to the unsubtle strains of 'War, war is stupid'.

As it turned out, we didn't have a choice: the main stage was ticketed at thirty quid a head, and the video screens were blinking dots in the distance in either direction. The whole experience was starting to seem no better than standing on the barricades. But we found another stage with a band setting up, which looked promising, and stood there in wait.

Easier said than done. The crowd was streaming past in both directions on either side, washing around us like rough surf past an island; pushing, squeezing, groping and 'happy new year'-ing. It felt disturbingly like a trip down a duodenum. We braced ourselves, dodged the elbows, ducked into gaps as they appeared, and managed to stand our ground.

They were worth the wait: loud bhangra music, the perfect build-up to midnight. Urged on by a bunch of sweating drummers and pissed Antipodeans, we counted down the final seconds of 2002, watched a thousand fireworks go off over Edinburgh Castle, and felt glad to be there. Maybe if George Bush listens to George Boy we'll feel just as glad next year.


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