Friday, 30 April 2010

Happy Ever After

I was very fortunate recently to be invited to the wedding of a good friend of mine, David Stewart. He was marrying a lovely girl called Samantha Millar, and the whole event took place at Balbirnie House Hotel in Fife, and what a grand affair it was.

I first got to know David when he was just eight years old. I was an officer in the Boys' Brigade, and David was coming up through the Junior Section. I ran the company section of the 25th Edinburgh Boys' Brigade Company, and before long David turned eleven and joined my section. Years later David would work for me for a period of time in the deli I once owned, and from there on a strong friendship was formed. Now David is successfully pursuing a career in sound design, and has met the girl of his dreams.

Theirs is a rare internet success story. I've tried internet dating myself a number of times, and have had zero success, and I had never known anyone who was any more successful. But this is exactly how Sam and Dave met. At the time Sam was in Germany and David was living in the Lake District, and it was a long time before they had the opportunity to meet. But meet they did, and the rest, as they say, is history. I first met Sam in 2006 at a party thrown to celebrate the end of my time at the deli, and it was obvious to me from that moment that Sam & David would remain together.

The staff at Balbirnie House Hotel are first class. As you'll know from many a previous blog, I'm big on getting good service, and Balbirnie staff receive top marks. Everything ran smoothly, and it's always a good sign when you don't really notice the staff. The wedding was fabulous, with the room decked out in cream and black, and the hundred or so guests dressed to the nines. David & Sam were having a ball, enjoying being prince and princess for the day.

The cake is worth a special mention: This wasn't just your normal wedding cake. This was a giant green dragon, with a small bride hitching a ride on it's back. Not just that but the cake had special indoor firworks within, and it breathed fire from it's nostrils!

The meal was excellent and all the speeches were very entertaining. Sam's father, Andrew, was understandably emotional, and he set me off! Following the meal the room was reset for the evening, and guests retire to the bar where a number of the evening guests had already arrived. I had decided to stay the night, and managed to sneak off to my room and freshen up away from the crowds before joining everyone. Very civilised.

The music for the evening was provided by the well known Scottish band Calanish, and they played for the entire evening and rocked the place, I have to say. The dance floor was equally impressive. What had been a black marble-looking area, suddenly lit up with hundreds of stars underfoot. Everyone dance al night long, and the time whizzed past, until suddenly, it was all over. After final drinks with the few others who were staying, and David showing off his skills on the piano, we all headed off to our rooms.

The following morning we were all reunited at breakfast, a few, such as the bridesmaids, a bit worse for wear! Sam and Dave were heading off for Florida that afternoon, and I was heading back to Edinburgh, but not before an enjoyable saunter through the grounds with my good friend Pauline, who had joined me that morning.

My best wishes to you, Dave and Sam, Mr & Mrs Stewart.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

It's the little things

Have you ever stopped to wonder just how you got to this point in your life? Have you ever had a moment when you ask yourself why you're doing what you're doing at that precise moment?

Yesterday I had coffee, and cake, of course, with a friend of mine. We were talking of some fun things we had both enjoyed over the past year, and of family and friends. Then we talked briefly about our own upbringings, and the influence our formative years have on the rest of our lives.

I had a bizarre and strange childhood to say the least, and certainly not one which people would call stable and supportive. My first twelve months of life could not have been more turbulent, and I was separated from my mother for six months during that time. Years later, as I was approaching double figures, the relationship between my stepfather and I started to decline into something which I can only describe as violent. Thirty five years on and I now believe he had jealousy issues with the love my mother wrapped me up in, as her own penance for leaving me behind so early on. I don't think it was a conscience thing, but it did create bad feeling between my stepfather and I.

I often have regrets at not having gone on to further education, and gaining a degree. I didn't do well at school, partly due, I would say, to not getting the parental support and interest in my studies. On leaving school at sixteen, I knew I would have to fight and work that little bit harder to get on.

I developed a hard work ethic, that I would say I've only realised in the past few years. It just seemed perfectly normal to me to work as hard as I have. It's been pointed out to me many times, but as I say, I've only just realised it myself. This has certainly been a product of that little moment of thought when I first left school.

But how did I get here? What brought me to this point in life where I am sat here writing a blog, and trying to forge a career in film making? It all seems very bizarre to me. I can understand and piece together my formative years easily now, but my adult years seem to have been purposeful stepping stones that have naturally fitted together, almost by design.

My first foray into the big wide world, was to join the RAF. I wasn't in for long. Sadly a friend of mine on my flight, as they call groups of trainees, was killed, and it was all hushed up. I decided I couldn't be a part of such an organisation, and left, much to my stepfather's disappointment.

I'd had a brief job before the RAF, with an agency that provided graphics to the advertising industry, and I approached them in the hope they would take me back. Which they did. That then led to moving to an advertising agency called Hall Advertising, a part of Saatchi & Saatchi, which in turn led to being head-hunted a number of times for my creative skills by other companies.

But it all came to an end in 1989 when the advertising world hit a turbulent time with the introduction of desk top publishing, and overnight my job was replaced by a computer. I was given no warning of losing my position as director of the Scottish arm of an English agency, and one day the company directors turned up and took the keys to the office, and my car, and left with the parting words: "We've shut down the Scottish office". I never saw them again. I had not a penny on me, and so had to walk the four miles home. Half way there the heavans opened, and, dressed in only my suit, I was thoroughly drenched by the time I reached home. I decided I would never work for such a back-stabbing industry again.

This was one of the best decisions I ever made.

I opened a deli, then five years on expanded into a coffee shop. Another ten years later and I sold it, deciding to go for my ambition in life, to become a film maker. During that period the deli also allowed me to travel the world extensively, something which I will forever be grateful for. Looking back I feel the start of the deli was the real start to my life. The people that came into my life during that time, and those that left, have brought me to where I am today. But it goes deeper than that.

There is one person to whom I owe so much to above all others.

I will never forget the moment in early July 1995, during the time I owned the deli. It was a Friday, and the sun was shining. I had finished for the day and was walking along the front of the shops toward a side street where I had parked my little, rusty Fiat Uno. On the corner was a post box. Just as I started to turn the corner, right at the red letter box, I almost ran into this girl in a great hurry. The moment was over in a second. She was carrying an enormous rucksack on her back, off for some great adventure somewhere in the highlands, adventures that we would go on to share to this day.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

It was the little things that had led to that moment. Had I not lost my job, started the deli, or left two minutes later that day, I may never have met her. She has been my rock ever since. She has been there whenever I needed support. She is my soul mate.

I may not have had the greatest childhood, I may not have gained that degree, but I've made it this far, and I am richer for the journey. I've made many mistakes along the way, sure, haven't we all, some big, some small, but I'll forever be grateful for the little things.

Especially that moment in 1995.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Eric, Monarch of the Glen

For those of my readers who feel I should blog more often, here's a long tale that should keep you going for a while!

Our intrepid heroes, led by Pauline, aka Mountain Ninja, myself, aka Mountain Goat, and Andrew, aka Mountain Jessie, packed our expedition gear and headed off to the north west highlands of Scotland on Thursday 8 April, for a four-day adventure. Our destination on this outing was to be a 70km traverse of Glen Affric, starting at Attadale near the west coast, and finishing at Tomich, not far from Inverness. The journey north by train, changing at Inverness onto the Kyle of Lochalsh train, passed quickly, due in no small part to Andrew's idea to attempt the Guardian crossword. Five hours after leaving Edinburgh, and two clues solved later, we arrived at Attadale.

It was an overcast day with spits and spots of rain, and we made good progress to our first campsite, just three hours and 9km into Glen Ling over a small hill. The campsite that Pauline knew about was at an elbow in the River Ling, with beautifully soft mossy ground, easy to get tent pegs into. At first we had the place to ourselves, but by late evening another two hillwalkers appeared to camp in the same area. After another attempt at the Guardian crossword with Andrew, with cryptic clues more akin to Three Two One and Dusty Bin to anything remotely sensible, we settled down for our first night.

Morning broke to light rain, and unfortunately we had to pack our tents away wet. This day would see us following the river up the picturesque Glen Elchaig and crossing a mountain pass into Kintail Country Park, a distance of 21km and over 700m climb. This was the day that a pain, that has been plagueing me for months, started to rear it's ugly head again. With each step, the flat of my left heel started to become painful, and this was after only four or five kilometres.

It was a little later, roughly half way, that I spotted something on a small hill nearby. As we got closer I realised it was a stags antler. Closer inspection revealed it to have not long been lost by the stag, and it had six points, making this a mighty twelve-pointer, Monarch of the Glen. Though in pain with my heel, I decided immediately that Eric, as he became known, would journey with me back to Edinburgh, despite weighing around 2 kilos, and I duely strapped it to my rucksack. We stopped for lunch at a small bridge, the only safe crossing over the River Elchaig, but we had added a 4km detour to our route to get to this point. As we sat there, high above us were the Falls of Glomach, a precipitous gorge that could take us through to the next glen, but we had safety concerns as to our ability to navigate it, especially with the amount of water cascading down. Andrew was feeling quite ill at this point, suffering from dehydration, and so we set off at an easier pace, looping back toward the safer pass that would take us across the mountains. It took us an age of trial and error, but eventually we found the feint path to take us over, past pools seething with frogs and frog spawn. By now every step was sending shooting pains up through my ankle from my left heel, and it slowed me down considerably. But I recalled a time, twenty five years ago, when walking with a group of fellow Boys' Brigade hillwalkers on the mountain Braeriach. One of the party, Ewan, developed blisters over the course of the three days. Now, these weren't any old blisters. Both of the soles of Ewan's feet, from the toes to the heels, were single, large blisters! The top layer of skin had become completely detached over the course of the three days, and I can't imagine the pain he was in. Anyway, he decided to jog the last few kilometres out of the hills, as, in his words "it was just as painful to run as it was to walk, but at least it would be over quicker". I believe he still has the scars today.

So with that in mind I felt I had no excuse but to finish this route. We didn't make our campsite until 7.30pm that night, mostly thanks to my slow pace, but it was another triumph in terms of campsites. As darkness descended, and we all finished a very late evening meal, we could hear an owl off in the night. As I slept, a small rodent, most likely a vole or field mouse, had sneeked under my fly-sheet during the night and rummaged around, making off with a Tunnocks Caramel Wafer wrapper. The evidence was found behind Pauline's tent in the morning. We awoke on Saturday to unbroken sunshine and blue skies, and set off in high spirtis on the 19km trek that would take us over the pass called Bealach an Sgairne (Gaelich for Pass of the Howling), and into Glen Affric, one of the most beautiful glens in Scotland, and containing one of the largest areas of ancient Caledonian Pine forest.

As we trekked ever higher on a gradual ascent, we talked of politics, religion, life, and yes, the universe. Literally. We were all in good spirits and my heel was holding up well. The views from the pass were stunning, both looking back toward Morvich, and ahead into the long glen that is Glen Affric.

While we stopped for lunch Andrew adopted a protective covering over his head to cut out the burning effects of the sun, only to end up looking very much like one of his all time movie heroes, the Emperor from Star Wars!

Just six kilometers on and my heels had decided to remind me that things weren't quite right.
As we approached the Scottish Youth Hostel Associatain's most remote outpost, I was pretty fed up with the pain, but we still had a good six or seven kilometres to go before any hope of a campsite, so there was no choice but to just get on with it. I decided to slow my pace and told Andrew and Pauline to head off, which on reflection wasn't a smart idea. The pain, added to being on my own and increasingly far back from the rest of the team, did nothing to encourage me, and by the time myself and Eric reached Loch Affric at 6pm, I was all but finished.

But the campsite did cheer me up. Right at the head of the Loch was thee most picturesque setting. The flat calm waters of Loch Affric were gently lapping onto the most perfect crescent shaped beach, with rugged snow-capped mountains as a backdrop. My first thought was that it felt like being in some remote area of North America, but then I corrected myself. This was Scotland. And this was perfect.

The loch invited us to dunk our tired feet in, and we accepted. It was something akin to plunging your feet into mushed up ice, and was met with a little profanity by me, but the effect was miraculous in reviving my feet. My shoulders were also painfully tight, and it was a while before I felt ready to cook my evening meal. Well fed we sat out with a cuppa and watched the golden setting sun, joined for a short while by a little friendly vole, though a patroling Tawny Owl made him leave us for safer burrows deep underground. Back in my own nest that is my down sleeping bag, I had no sooner put my head on the pillow, than I was out like a light for a long, restful, and much needed sleep, to the sounds of a Snipe somewhere off in the night.

Our final day started at 6am and a thin covering of ice over the tents. When I unzipped the tent I was met with a glorious sight of a rich gold and red sunrise. The Scots Pine on the far off ridge, along the shore of Loch Affric, were backlit with the suns emerging rays, and it gladdened the heart to be priveleged to witness what felt like the dawn of time itself. At that moment I could understand why the ancients worshipped this glorious event.

There was 22km ahead of us on this day, hence the early rise, and I opted to leave ahead of Pauline and Andrew. My theory was if I stayed in front I wouldn't suffer from the psychological effect that had plagued me the day before, and with my heels feeling reasonably recovered, I set off.
However, this splitting up of the team would prove to be a big mistake. I trekked on, trying to keep a distance, but after 5km, where the path turns off away from Loch Affric toward Plodda Falls, Pauline and Andrew were hot on my heels. I was determined to reach the falls first, as I felt it would boost my spirits, and despite the pain having returned with a vengeance, I forced my pace up a bit, constantly checking over my shoulder to catch a glimpse of my pursuers. It became an obsession, so much so, that when they caught up again after 8km at Cougie, I kept on going, deciding not to stop for an "elevenses" break. This was about to prove to be a bad decision. I was carrying an Ordnance Survey map that had been published in 1988, but generally it's rare that an area so remote as Glen Affric, would change in any significant way as to warrant replacing the map. Andrew and Pauline were carrying the most recent version of the map. Just 3km after Cougie, and only 2km from Plodda Falls, I turned left when I should have gone straight on. I was following a clearly marked path on the map, but after just over a kilometre the path degraded, and then vanished, and I was suddenly in deep, moss covered thick forest. I could already hear Dueling Banjos! I knew if I carried on I was putting myself in danger. Despite the extra distance on painful heels, I had to turn back. Eventually I reached the point where I had turned off, and there, to my relief, marked on the ground, were Pauline and Andrew's initials, marking the way they had gone . . . straight on! The thought of now being once more at the back, did me in, and I was not only in pain, but now angry with myself. Yes, the map was inaccurate, but had I stopped when they had stopped I would now be enjoying the spectacle that is Plodda Falls.

Needless to say I eventually arrived at the falls, where I discovered that the car park for visitors that choose to drive in from the Inverness end, was not at the bottom of the gorge, as on my map, but at the top! Having veiwed the falls, I made my way down, only to be met half way by a worried, and somewhat relieved, Pauline. I should have been touched that both of them had great concern for my safety, and were genuinely pleased to see me, but instead, I splurted out several expletives as to the inadequacy of the map, and to them leaving me behind, blah blah blah. I apologised later, of course, but there really was no excuse, and I still feel bad about my reaction.

Safe together again, we ambled our way out of Glen Affric, moving from track to tarmac,
helping small toads across the road, to finish at 3pm in Tomich, one hour ahead of schedule, having completed what may be our final expedition as a team. In June, Mountain Ninja leaves for a round the world cycle tour, as one does, and the thought of Mountain Goat and Jessie, our team leader and expedition organiser gone, lost in the mountains of Scotland thereafter, doesn't bare thinking about. That said, there are always hotels.

Refreshed with a celebratory Diet Coke at the hotel bar in Tomich, a taxi then took us into Inverness. Well fed on pizza we headed home on the train once more, Mountain Ninja, Mountain Goat and Mountain Jessie.

And of course, Eric.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

A Nation of Inventors

For the last couple of days I've been playing host to two friends from Australia. Actually, one of them, Linsey, is living in London while her husband is on a temporary contract, and her son, Locklan, is visiting for the Easter holidays. They arrived in Edinburgh at the start of the week by train, and I was eager to meet them both as it had been many months since we had last met up in London.

They were continually exclaiming "wow" as we wandered through the streets from the station to their hotel, impressed by the ancient buildings. I'll admit that I take the city for granted these days, and it's only when visitors come and point out the beauty of the city that I'm reminded just how great it is.

Checked in they were keen to do something with what remained of the afternoon, and so we headed off in the direction of the Royal Mile and the oldest part of Edinburgh. Ignoring the blot on the landscape that is the never ending tram works, we worked our way up in the direction of the castle. Rather than take the road route I decided to take them up and through small closes, taking us through dark, low and narrow alleyways, throwing us back to medieval times. I stopped at one point to point out an old window, only half glazed. It days long gone the equivalent of council tax was based on your windows, and so many people would only have half their window glazed in order to reduce their tax liability. Some would brick them up altogether. My Australian visitors only remark was: "well, it is Scotland afterall"!

We made our way down the Royal Mile toward the Deacon Brodie pub where we turned south along George the 4th bridge. In the mid-1700's Deacon Brodie was a skilled cabinet maker, and a member of the town council. However, by night he was a member of a gang that carried out numerous burglaries on the wealthy. His job during the day involved replacing or repairing lock mechanisms of houses, which put him in the perfect position to gain entry to his targets. He was eventually caught and hanged in 1788, ironically by gallows invented by himself! It is said that Robert Louis Stevenson was inspired by Brodie's story for his novel about Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde.

We eventually arrived at the Museum of Scotland, housed in a modern extension to the original museum on Chambers Street, which is currently closed for two years for refurbishment. The new extension stands opposite the statue to the faithful dog Greyfriars Bobby.

As we wandered around the museum I was reminded, and suitably impresses, at just how many inventions, that we take for granted today, were made by Scots. It is an enormous list but includes: penicillin, tarmac, liquid oxygen (that took man to the moon), the telephone, the television, postage stamps, vacuum flasks, golf, the fountain pen, radar, and on and on the list goes. Then there are other famous Scots such as the engineer Thomas Telford, the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, and from stage and screen, Harry Lauder, Billy Connolly, Ewan McGregor and of course the original, and in my view the best, James Bond 007, Sir Sean Connery.

I left my visitors after a very enjoyable meal at Browns on George Street. I will meet them again today to wander down the Royal Mile, after visiting Edinburgh castle, to such places as John Knox's house and the Palace of Holyrood House.

No doubt I'll be as equally impressed as they will be.