Thursday, August 31, 2006

Folk Nights and Redemption

For about 10 months or so I’ve been going along to folk sessions in the area, but there are 2 distinct types who don’t really mix. On the one side (alternate Wednesday or Thursday evenings) we have the musicians who are mostly fiddle, flute and pipe players, with the occasional guitar, mandolin, squeezebox and hurdy-gurdy. Many in this group play more than one instrument and the standard of musicianship is exceptionally high. They all know hundreds of tunes that they can all play at breakneck speed, but the one thing they are united in is that they don’t sing and can’t be doing with people who think that folk music is just paying 3 chords and singing with a nasal inflection.

On the other side (Fridays, fortnightly) we have the singers, which mostly comprise of guitarists, many of whom also play the mandolin, plus the occasional bodhrán player, a ukulele player who covers everything from George Formby to Britney Spears, and a single fiddler, who doesn’t sing but is well respected by all nonetheless. While there are bursts of music-only playing, as the evening goes on and the pubs fill up, the singing gets louder, slightly slurred and is often accompanied by a drunken crowd wanting yet another rendition of “Danny Boy”. This group cannot be doing with the “diddley-dee” players who are perceived as possessing a superiority complex and want to steal the limelight away from a moving, soulful voice or a good old sing-along.

I’m one of the very few players who go to both groups

I don’t sing. I know a handful of tunes that I can play well that, unfortunately, nobody else knows. However, once I’ve worked out what key everyone’s in I can usually play some kind of accompaniment either plucking a more basic or complimentary tune or, if I can see the guitarist clearly, strum along the chords. I’ve got by with this for nearly a year, and although I’m steadily improving I always feel like I’m completely outclassed. The fact is that they all know the tunes and I don’t.

Last night, at a sparsely attended diddley-dee session – one fiddle, one tin whistle, one flute and, unusually, no guitarist – there was a guy from Turkey with a Baglama. With its long neck and round back it had a beautiful, deep resonant sound, and when Gürhan played his Turkish folk songs and tunes, the hairs on the back of my neck prickled as I was swept away in an exotic soundscape of Middle-Eastern emotion.

The whole tuning of the instrument, along with a different scale and chord structure made it nigh on impossible for anyone to join in with him, or for him to join in with the traditional Scottish and Irish folk music. So after one or two abortive attempts, the main group played most of the tunes, occasionally giving Gürhan a slot to play something of his own, while admitting that their ears were just not accustomed to such radically different music structures. But I was captivated. I listened intently and eventually thought I could see a way in. At the end of the evening, after the rest of the musicians packed up and left, I re-tuned my mandolin slightly and was able to jam with Gürhan for 20 minutes until we were finally booted out of the pub.

I may not be an expert musician, but I'm not bad at improvising and getting the general gist of what’s going on. In this case it seems to have given me an advantage over those who are so proficient, that their very skill in understanding the patterns of Celtic folk music have also restricted them to that form.

To be fair, with instruments like whistles, flutes and fiddles you have to commit to each note completely as you play it, because a half-hearted attempt will sound awful, but with a mandolin you can dampen the strings as you play until you feel more confident. This made it more difficult for them to improvise with the baglama player.

However, even if no one else was there to witness it, in my own eyes I felt I’d redeemed myself somewhat.

A baglama saz

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Tour of Britain Cycle Race Stage 1

I must confess that I've never watched cycle racing, but I do know that it's quite popular in some circles - notably among fit people, in my experience. The Tour of Britain race, while not perhaps as prestigious as the Tour de France, is still, apparently, something of an event.

Now while it would not usually interest me enough to check the TV schedule, the finishing line of Stage 1 happens to be 100m from our house.

So leaning out of the window I was able to take the following photos (you can click on them for larger versions)

The leaders, Martin Pedersen and Mathew Goss, are shooting past, just under my children's bedroom window

50m to go with Luis Pasamontes right there with them

The winner crosses the line and the other 2 are obscured by the 50m sign

Zoom in on the winner.

According to the PA system the winner of this stage is Martin Pedersen

If anyone would like a copy of any of these in their original size (4048 x 3040 pixels) just send me an email. I'm led to believe that some people are interested in this sort of thing.

Being relevant and up to the moment, I sent the top photo off to the BBC Sport website and they've used it both for their news page on the event:

and photo number 6 on their Photo of the Day page:

Forget writing, maybe I should be a photographer.

Then again, not every sports event will be easily viewable from my kids' bedroom window.

Saturday, August 26, 2006


11 years and 6 days old. Cub Scouts. Competition for Best Halloween Costume.

I knew I was the best looking wizard who had ever paraded the scout hall. I was so proud of the outfit my mother had made for me, especially the cape with its golden swirls – it was a regal cape, a cape worthy of the King of all wizards. I pitied the other boys in their substandard attire, and the cheats who had bought their gear from the shop. Mine was the finest, the greatest, the most splendid of all Halloween Costumes and I knew I was going to win.

I didn’t win.

I didn’t come second.

I didn’t even come third.


Oh the pain, the hurt, the humiliation.

Be gracious in defeat. Big boys don’t cry.

But my costume was the best. My mother was a greater designer and seamstress than anyone else's.

It wasn’t fair; the competition was rigged. They didn’t like the fact that my costume was so good it put everyone else to shame; they were uncomfortable that I had a girl’s name; and they hated me because I was English, growing up in a small Welsh village. It was nothing to do with who had the best costume and everything to do with the politics of exclusion. It was personal – they didn’t like me and despised everything I represented.

Move forward 28 years, 9 months, 3 weeks and 4 days. The results are in for a local Flash Fiction (200 words max) competition I entered. The winning entry, out of 80 or so submissions, was ok I suppose, if you like that kind of tightly written, multi-layered, meaningful prose. However, even allowing for variations in personal taste, I should have come in the top 3. But to not even be included in the 10 runners up, well, that almost feels personal.

Of course I’m an adult now. I’m not 11 years old. I am gracious in defeat. Am I bothered? Do I look bothered?

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Introduction to Philosophy

I was always one of those who loved to sit up until the wee hours of the morning discussing the universe. So when I got the opportunity to go to University as a mature student in my mid twenties, Philosophy seemed like the ideal option for me. There were times when it was intensely frustrating and times when it was conceptually mind blowing, but on balance I’d have to say I loved it.

My frustration never came from trying to grasp complex ideas – that was the fun part – no, it came from appallingly written, pretentious, intellectual crap. There are some philosophers (Heidegger springs to mind) who are like wading through half-set treacle. I continually found it astonishing that I could comprehend each word individually, but make no sense whatsoever of a complete sentence. To me, it was completely unnecessary: if you can understand a concept, you can find a way to explain it. Any philosopher who uses overly complicated language in some form of intellectual elitism deserves to be head-butted in the balls repeatedly until they are prepared to climb off their self-built pedestal and talk to the rest of us on our own level.

A few years ago, up in Central Scotland, I taught Intro to Philosophy as an Adult Education Evening Class where one of the primary objectives was to make it as understandable and accessible as possible. It was great fun. The adult learners had varied social and educational backgrounds as well as spanning over 50 years in age from the youngest to the oldest member.

Dealing with different philosophical ideas each week, such as “What is the self”, “Free Will & Determinism”, “Existentialism” etc, I would introduce the concepts, give examples and get discussions going. One of the few rules was that if you disagreed with someone you were to attack their argument and not the person. It made for lively dialogue and I encouraged people to try arguing from viewpoints they disagreed with as it gave them a better understanding of the issues involved.

All in all these classes were a great success, but then I got too busy with the web design business and couldn’t spare the time to continue with them. However since changing my life and moving to Castle Douglas I now have more time available and entered discussions with the local Community Learning Assistant.

The new Adult Evening Classes leaflet for the Stewartry Area of Dumfries and Galloway came through the letterbox today and behold, there is my course being advertised. If there are sufficient numbers of people interested, then the class will begin in 4 weeks.

I’m all excited

Introduction to Philosophy course

Sunday, August 20, 2006

When my niece came to stay

When my 16-year-old niece came up to stay for the weekend, it felt odd on several levels. I knew her well for the first 2 years of her life, but the number of times we have met since then could be counted on the fingers of one hand. And yet, here she was, playing with her younger cousins and very much a part of our family. Physically she was clearly the daughter of my brother, although she could just as easily have been my sister’s daughter, and even reminded me of my mother when she pulled particular expressions. Her eye colour, though, was exactly the same as mine – grey with flecks of brown in them – the same I once saw on a distant cousin at a great aunt’s golden wedding anniversary many years ago.

Even more disturbing, however, was an almost constant stream of “your eyes are the same as my dad’s when you smile” and “my dad does that” and “my dad says that” and “I can tell your joking because that’s the same expression my dad has when he is”.

Because we cannot see other people’s thoughts, we believe ours are unique. Sure we know that physically we can resemble our siblings or parents, but our minds are our own, aren’t they? We’re comfortable enough with the notion that someone might have inherited their mother’s temperament, or their father’s musical ability, but are our innermost thoughts and feelings just as genetically determined as our metabolism or our skin colour, where environmental factors might play a small role, but not that much? It’s an uncomfortable idea and challenges our innate sense of free will.

But over and over again, people repeat patterns of behaviour while all the time thinking that it was their free choice. How many times have I heard people declaring with surprise when meeting me for the first time, “But that’s a girl’s name!” Each one thinks they are the first person to have had that thought, and yet in my experience 95% of all people I have ever met say, or at least think, the same thing.

Events in my life have certainly affected my thought patterns, and therefore my behaviour. Due to a close scrape with homelessness several years ago, for example, I am more likely to buy a copy of The Big Issue from a street vendor, understanding that not everyone ends up in that situation by their own fault. But so many of my thoughts and actions run on automatic pilot and are not reflected upon or assessed at every juncture. I can accept that many of my beliefs and attitudes result from the influence of society and my upbringing, so is it so hard to make the leap that certain thought patterns are just as influenced by my genetic makeup? But it is unsettling.

While teasing my son at dinnertime about whether I was going to steal his pudding, I believed myself to be acting wholly independently; but my niece saw my behaviour as a carbon copy of the way my older brother behaves in a similar situation.

When I was younger I was so convinced that I didn’t think I looked anything like my brother, and that we had very different personalities, I was quite certain that one of us had to have been adopted. But as we age it seems we are beginning to merge.

However, unlike my brother, you won’t ever catch me sporting a moustache without a beard.

Friday, August 18, 2006


I am tired so much of the time. Not so much of the can’t-keep-my-eyes-open, but more of the I-could-really-have-done-with-a-couple-of-extra-hours-sleep kind of tired. The tiredness that means everything is that bit more of an effort.

It’s so difficult to summon up enthusiasm or motivation. If anything is suggested that requires effort, all I can think is that I can’t deal with it just now; I just have to hope I’ll feel more like dealing with it at some point in the future.

I finished my course of 10 vitamin B12 injections about 2 weeks ago, but it feels like it’s just lifted me back to the point where I was just before I went to see the doctor in the first place. My craving for coffee, just to bring me to a point where I can feel like I’ve got a bit of energy, is steadily increasing and the coffee is getting steadily stronger.

When I saw the doctor on Wednesday he started questioning me along lines that indicated he thought I might be suffering from depression. He tried this one back when I first saw him, before I’d had any blood tests. I tried pointing out that I was familiar with the symptoms of depression, and although this had some similarities I was pretty certain they were following the tiredness, not causing it. He’s clearly got this idea stuck in his head and we ended up in a slight argument when I said I had no desire to go on anti-depressants when we still hadn’t looked into the physical causes.

Fortunately it was his last day. He was only at the practice for one year and now moves on to Aberdeen. I have an appointment with the nurse to take blood next week to check the B12 levels and will see a different doctor when the results come back.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

For the Love of Coffee

My relationship with coffee has changed over the years. As a young-un I didn’t like the stuff – ptoui – I was a tea drinker, thank you very much. When I was seventeen-and-a-half, however, I was forced to learn to tolerate the stuff as I began work as a landscape gardener on the YTS (a government training scheme designed to exploit the youth for cheap labour and keep them off the unemployment statistics). One of the earliest lessons I learned when mowing lawns and building patios was that if a client offered you something to eat or drink, you always said yes, no matter what. If you declined just once then you would never be offered again. Great were the times when the client would ask if you would like a tea or a coffee, but far more often they would just ask if you wanted a coffee. You should also understand that in those days Nescafe was the height of sophistication (before we learned about boycotting Nestle products) but you were more likely to end up with a supermarket brand chicory/coffee instant blend.

In my early twenties I went through a period of giving up caffeine altogether. And after a brief flirtation with Kenco Decaffeinated, I made the move to fruit/herbal teas, with a special fondness for bramble or strawberry. A few years later, once I had returned to education and become a mature student, I discovered the advantage of having a zero caffeine tolerance level was that if I did have a cup of coffee then it made me absolutely hyper for up to two hours. Fantastic for those times where there’s an essay deadline to meet and you’ve just slumped completely – in those 2 hours I could achieve what would normally take me eight or more. However, there was a price to pay. While the up was undoubtedly great, the comedown was a crock of shit. For an hour or two after the coffee had worn off I would feel tired, drained, and slightly nauseous. I never particularly enjoyed the taste either: coffee was to be used as a strictly controlled drug only.

A few years ago I flew out to Portugal for a long weekend to see an old friend of mine. While there he insisted on calling in at cafés for ultra strong espressos, which I could only stomach with a matching quantity of brown sugar stirred in. It tasted vile, sweet and fantastic in equal measure, and the hit from it was amazing. After three days I was hooked completely. My addiction was short lived, however, as returning to the UK the coffee was bland by comparison and I couldn’t face it in any quantity.

I kept my use of coffee restricted to the final stretch of long journeys, when I still had 100 miles to go but didn’t want to risk falling asleep at the wheel. However, as the motorway service stations started installing bars run by the likes of Costa Coffee and Coffee Primo I became increasingly intimidated by the jargon. I knew what an espresso was, and that my wife was fond of cappuccinos, but I couldn’t figure out what passed for a regular coffee. Even after discovering that it had been re-branded as an Americano, I was then assaulted with the array of sizes, none of which included the word “regular”. And the sneer from the assistants if I failed to pronounce ‘grande’ with the right accent was enough to have me snarling into my beard.

Over the past year, I’ve found myself enjoying the occasional mocha when out with my wife, although depending where we go it can vary widely from a hot chocolate with a dash of coffee to a coffee with a dash of hot chocolate. But in the past few months, as I’ve steadily felt more tired (see A Trip to The Doctor), I’ve started to develop a taste for a strong cup of coffee in the afternoon which my wife makes up in a cafetière.

On our recent trip to France, the cottage we were staying in only had a cafetière big enough for a single cup, so we went in search of a larger one, but for some reason I was unable to fathom, this French device for creating strong coffee didn’t appear to be sold anywhere in France that we could find.

Still, by this time I was obsessed with the coffees served in the French cafés. In this corner of France, if you ask for un café, what you get is an espresso; un grand café is a double espresso. And that’s it. None of your Lattes, Macchiattos, Ristrettos or Americanos. Just small, strong, coffee that I could stir in matching quantities of brown sugar. By the time we left I was on to a few grand cafés a day. My excuse that it was to counteract the tiredness of the B12 deficiency was only half the reason; the fact is that I was rapidly becoming addicted to the stuff.

Since returning home I’ve tried to restrict myself to one cafetière in the afternoon again, aware that it could easily spiral out of control if I’m not careful. Be it smoking, lottery tickets or food, I eventually learned that it’s easier to deal with addictions before they spiral out of control, than after.

The other day Maggie was out and I decided that rather than go through the plitter of using the cafetière, I’d just have a cup of instant coffee. Bleargh, it tasted like dishwater. It seems that the further down the coffee road you advance, the less able you are to go back.

My Portuguese friend always used a Moka Express Pot when brewing coffee at home. I have one in the cupboard somewhere; it’s just a matter of time before I figure out how to use it.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Meg on a swing

The sound of a child laughing can be quite infectious. While in France Maggie filmed me pushing Meg on the swing. It's not the greatest action shot in the world, but I love her sheer enjoyment.

It also gave me an excuse to try out embedding video into the blog, using Google Video just in case I ever decide to do a video blog in the future.

You have to click on it twice - once for it to respond to the fact that the mouse is on it, and the second time to make it play.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Not a Mary Shelley Experience

I had what I thought was going to be a Mary Shelley Experience as I woke up this morning. The dream still floating around in my semi-conscious state seemed so real, so vivid, so intriguing that I was convinced I had an idea for a best-selling thriller.

Unfortunately, as is so often the case with dreams, once I attempted to explain it to my extraordinarily patient wife, the cohesion of plot, characterisation and dialogue just evaporated. Suddenly the notion of a Mafiosi-style gang of grandmothers taking over the city after an earthquake, dealing with dissenters by deadly use of cut-throat razors, while my mother-in-law came out of a coma to lead the resistance, lacked the force and conviction that had occupied my mind just minutes before.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Maggie’s Birthday

Back from our holiday abroad and I suddenly realised I only had 4 days until Maggie’s birthday. In fact, by the time we’d flaked out, sorted through letters and phone calls, visited Maggie’s parents and got our acts together, I had one day to focus my attention on presents.

“Any idea what you might like for your birthday, my love?”

“Oh, you know, nice wee things…”

Arrgh! No! I don’t know! My stomach lurched, my heart started pounding and I was engulfed in a wave of panic.

Maggie has an aesthetic understanding way beyond my own. I tend to come from a school of practicality that says if it fits, wear it. Maggie, however, is an artist and understands things such as beauty, form, colours, shape, texture and je ne sais quoi. This finds its way into the clothes she wears, the ornaments she buys, the garden, the decorations and it’s great: I get to enjoy beautiful surroundings without any effort. Left to me everything would be bland, boring and cheap.

But because it’s so effortless to Maggie, she is constantly surprised by my lack of comprehension at what she does and doesn’t like. Oh, how I would love to buy her just the right thing, to be able to see something and know, without doubt, that Maggie would like it. Every now and then I’ll find something in a shop that has, what I think, are sort of the right colours or texture and so I’ll call her over to look at it, and after a quick glance she’ll look at me quizzically, wondering why on earth anyone would think she’d be interested in that.

Over the years I’ve learned some basic rules like, if it’s practical, or for the house, then it will not do as a gift, but that’s pretty limited.

“‘Nice wee things,’ you wouldn’t care to be a bit more specific would you?” I asked, desperately hoping for some kind of clue to unravel the mystery of Maggie’s taste.

“Oh, you know, some nice earrings…” Yeah, right. The last set of earrings I got her have never been taken out of the box and I think were donated to the school bring-and-buy-sale.

“…or some nice smellies – aromatherapy oils or body lotions…” That’s a dangerous a thing to say to a man who can’t tell the difference between Coco Chanel and underarm deodorant.

“…or you could get me a book – see what they’ve got at Ottakars.” Oh god, not literature. My understanding of what she enjoys in a book is even worse.

“Stop right there,” I say, “just scribble down a list of CDs or DVDs you’d like and I’ll see what ones I can find.” I knew it wasn’t ideal, but it was better than either getting it totally wrong, again, or adopting an even worse approach.

I once knew a guy who, when it came to buying presents for his wife, would go into a clothes shop and grab anything off the rail, wrap it up and give it to her, with the receipt inside so she could take it back and exchange it. He’d long given up trying to guess what she’d like and said that anything he bought would be wrong anyway so at least this way she would end up with something she wanted, eventually. While I was horrified by this way of doing things, part of me understood his frustration.

However, to try and make up for my lack of originality, I spent a few hours playing around in Photoshop to adjust the cover of Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall”, pasting Maggie’s head onto Diane Keaton’s body. And if it wasn’t the most romantic birthday present I’ve ever bought her, at least she laughed appreciatively.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Night Before the Journey Home

And so we draw inexorably to the end of the holiday. And we still don’t know who won Wimbledon or the World Cup. And because I misjudged the distance between the port of Calais and the coastal village of St Efflam, tomorrow morning we have to get up at 4 o’clock to ensure we have enough time to rendezvous with our ferry at 4.55pm, allowing for extra check-in time in these days of heightened paranoia about illegal terrorists trying to enter Britain and live on the dole. And because I’m sure I can remember from my English lessons at school that you should never begin a sentence with ‘and’, even though it happens a lot in the bible, and I’m feeling a little rebellious, every sentence in this paragraph begins with the word.

My use of French has moved through three distinct stages during the course of this holiday. It began with excessive worry about my lack of vocabulary and fear that it would be one long fortnight of misunderstandings, embarrassments and nightmare scenarios involving the local Gendarme and irate farmers. However, within a few days I was walking tall, feeling proud of my achievements at buying croissants, ordering coffee and putting my credit card pin-number into the payment machine at the supermarche, following the French instructions. Stage three has only really occurred in the past few days when I’ve realised that it would enrich my life if I was able to ask, and understand the reply to, what kind of fish was being sold at the poissonerie and what’s the best wine to buy for under a fiver. Alas I may never know what that white stuff that tasted a bit like cod actually was and may remain forever convinced that French wine is overrated while Australian is infinitely better.

I won’t grieve the dribble of water in a space the size of a shoebox that was laughingly called a shower, and I’ll be pleased to return to a toilet roll holder that isn’t spring loaded and liable to propel your paper to the far corner of the room right at the point of most need. However, I will miss the boulangeries with their freshly baked croissants and 400 types of bread, and the markets with their locally produced food and array of colourful stalls, while the kids will most certainly pine for the crêpes.

But I think one of the greatest things about this holiday has been the reminder that there is a whole world out there beyond the shores. Of course I know it on an intellectual level, but really I’m just as guilty of the Island Mentality I accuse my countrymen of. It’s too easy to believe that the rest of the world speaks English and views the world the way I do, and it’s too easy to forget the wonderful diversity in language, culture and outlook that exists in the human race. And sometimes you just have to step outside of your own country to truly realise it.