Monday, 22 February 2010

A grand day out

At the end of last week I was privileged to have a free day to be able to go skiing at one of Scotland's ski areas, namely Glenshee.

Glenshee offers the largest ski lift system in the United Kingdom; with about forty kilometres of pisted runs spread over three valleys and four mountains, the main mountain being Cairnwell, taking it's name from the Gaelic for "Hill of bags".

On the Thursday evening I loaded up my van with all the necessary, but cumbersome, ski gear, and headed for my friends house in Newport-on-Tay near Dundee. The plan was to stay with Louise that night and then travel together the following morning in her car to the ski area.

The drive to her house takes only about one and a half hours, and I arrived at roughly 7.15pm.
Dinner was taken care of as Louise served up a delicious venison curry, courtesy of our mutual friend Vince. We washed this down with a bottle and a half of some lovely Chilean red wine.

The morning was bright and crisp and we headed out around 7.30. It is only just over an hour to the ski centre, via Blairgowrie, but we took a bit longer in order to pick up ski hire for Louise, but we still made it in good time, arriving at the centre by 9am.

The mountains were magnificent, the sky was blue and the sun was shining.
It was very cold and though the runs were well groomed, some were scraped and polished in the centre and had thus turned to ice. I cared not a jot, and barreled down them quite happily. It had been a while since I had skied , but on such perfectly smooth runs, in very little time the skills returned. We both certainly made good use of our £25 day ticket, reluctant to stop, even for lunch.

By late morning it was clouding over. When we were in the sun there was mostly definitely warmth in its rays, but once it passed behind the clouds it was bitterly cold, and required us to pull our buffs over our chins and nose.
Undeterred we packed in as many runs as our reserves of energy would allow, skiing to the bottom, and straight onto the uplift again, there being no queues. I wondered just how chaotic the weekend would turn out to be with the glorious forecast prediction.

By mid afternoon we had had our fill, and happily packed up to head home, ahead of the crowds.
We stopped at a delightful place on the riverbank in Blairgowrie for coffee, called Cargill's Restaurant. The menu looked terrific for an evening meal there, and maybe one day I shall return to do just that. On this occasion we were contented to tuck into cream scones and coffee. I felt I must tell you about this gastronomic moment, as many of my readers are amused that my writings at some point always mention food! Having owned a deli many years ago it remains a passion of mine.

Picking up my van once we reached Louise's home, I drove the sixty miles back to Edinburgh, and was back home by 6pm, exhausted but very happy.

What a grand day out.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010


Our intrepid trio, myself, Pauline and Andrew, left the noise and bustle of the city, and headed for the Highlands of Scotland over the Valentines weekend just past. Our accommodation for the weekend was to be at a camping site that offered shelter in what they called Wigwams.

Wigwam is a strange name, and I came upon its origin in a quick search. Two documents from New England in 1628 record wigwam, the Eastern Abenaki Indian name for an Indian house or tent, or indeed any kind of similarly constructed shelter. So I suppose these triangular wooden huts could well be called such. Contrary to my expectation these were not wigwams in the traditional sense, that is, a conical shaped tall canvas tent, supported by long tree branches tied together at the top. No, these were more triangular shaped wooden huts, with an access door more akin to a small child as opposed to tall adults. That said they were perfect for Pauline.

The weather was glorious, and the surrounding mountains of Ben Lui, Ben More and Beinn Dorian, were all capped in snow. Without doubt the Scottish mountains look their best when half covered in white, and give a sense of them being far higher, almost Himalayan, than they actually are.

On the way from the train station in Tyndrum to the wigwam site, we passed by the historic site of the battle of Dalrigh, where, in June 1306, Robert Bruce and what was left of his army, were retreating westwards, towards the mountains of Argyll.

When they reached Strathfillan they found their path blocked at Tyndrum by a large force of Macdougalls, said to have numbered 1000 men. Unable to retreat Bruce's little army was forced into battle in disadvantageous circumstances. Bruce was so heavily involved in action with the rearguard, that he found himself at one point alone, and under attack, between a hill and the lochside, a pass so narrow that he could not turn his horse.

The enemy was fought off and the army retreated to safety; but not long after, it ceased to exist as an organised military force.

After Dalrigh Bruce was little better than a fugitive, closely pursued by his many enemies, both domestic and foreign. For a time his party took refuge in the mountains of Atholl, not fully reappearing on the stage of history until the early spring of 1307. The recovery of his cause from this point counts as one of the most remarkable episodes in the history of warfare. Two years after Dalrigh the Macdougalls were destroyed at the battle of Pass of Brander.

We had wanted to stay in a particular wigwam at the site, but due to the incompetence of the site owners we had been moved to a less than ideal alternative, without any consideration or apology whatsoever. Though we were all disappointed I particularly felt aggrieved, and superbly managed to show as much throughout the entire three days.

Inside, the huts are pretty small, with four, narrow foam mattresses on the floor up both sides.

Just big enough for four adults. We were only three, and struggled for space to put our gear, so heaven help a party of four, tall adults! Each has its own heater which keeps it very cosy, but a little too hot in the evenings. Nearby was the toliet and kitchen cabin, with toilets heated to a tropical 95°, but in sharp contrast the kitchen and sitting room were open plan chest freezers! Hot water supply in the kitchen was also in short supply, or should I say, no supply.

Our first day consisted of trekking toward the mighty and rugged Ben Lui along a very easy dirt track, past the remnants of the Caledonian pine forest, then turning south to tackle a hill called Fiarach.

The first part of the ascent was steep, but thankfully we had left behind the majority of out heavy kit. I hadn't had much sleep the previous night, and by the time I got to the top of the first hard pull, I was exhausted.

However, this proved to be the hardest part over, and now we were up, the vistas started to open up before us. We were in an altogether quite different landscape, other worldly in look. There was a distinct lack of colour as everywhere was covered in snow. It was as if we had stepped through some sort of portal into a different icy planet. The sun was starting to disappear behind clouds, with just the odd distant hill being illuminated in bright light.

We stopped for a bit of lunch next to a small round lochan, roughly seventy metres in diameter, called Lochan Fiarach. It was completely frozen over, and the surface looked to be fairly thick. We had only been sat for a brief few minutes when we heard loud booming noises coming from the lochan. It sounded as if some great monster had been awoken from it's sleep and was pushing up against the underside of the ice to escape. I imagine these are the kind of noises polar explorers hear all the time as the water freezes and expands, with nowhere to go, and so it pushes against the ice that has sealed it and makes these tremendous booming and cracking noises.

It was a short distance to the top of the hill, and from there we spotted fellow walkers in the far distance on their final approach along the craggy and exposed ridge of Ben Lui. The way down was steep but quick, and hot buttered toasted crumpets, and lashings of tea awaited us back at camp, which we consumed at speed next to a small waterfall.

The night sky was clear, and the temperature plummeted, and we retreated inside to the warmth of our wigwams, but not before witnessing a glorious star speckled sky.

Our final day was a very easy chilled out day and we sauntered up behind the wigwam site to the remains of shielings, which date back to the 1600's and the time of the Highland clearances. Not much remained, and you had to use your imagination to picture what it must have been like, but it was a nice gentle walk to end our weekend. In the afternoon we took a slightly longer path back to Tyndrum to catch the evening train home.

That was after myself and Andrew gorged on pizza of course.

Saturday, 6 February 2010


This is a story of an event that happened several years ago, back in October 2001. I related the story to a friend recently and he thought I should blog it. So here goes.

First of all you need to know a little background to the person in the story. His name is the Venerable Bagdro, and he is a Tibetan monk living in exile in Dharamsala India. He fled there in 1991, escaping severe torture and persecution at the hands of the Chinese authorities.

I first met Bagdro in February 2000, and, after hearing his story, I asked him if he would like to record it on video. We spent the next week doing just so. On my return to the UK later that year I decided to edit the interview, and I started to call around for photographs of Tibet, or any newsreel footage that I could use. One such organisation was Amnesty International.
It just so happened that they had been the key force that had been influential in securing Bagdro's release from Drapchi prison in Tibet in 1991, but they hadn't heard of him since. And here I had him on video! So they were very helpful, and the finished film, called A Hell On Earth, went on to be shown at various festivals in far off places such as Vancouver and Melbourne.

It was this one film which made me decide to launch a career in the film industry. I had worked in advertising many years before, and this brought my creative urges back to the surface again.

So that's the background, here's the story:

In spring 2001 I damaged my spine, which almost crippled me. After waiting an eternity for tests and scans, I was finally scheduled to have an operation in March 2002. However, the severe pain process had many negative effects on me, one of which was to give up on my film career dream.
In October 2001, fed up and miserable, I decided I need a change of scene and booked a two week holiday on the west coast of Canada.

It was at this point that Pauline, my best friend, suggested that maybe what I needed to do was to return to India and meet up with Bagdro again to try and recapture the moment. But, stubbornly, my mind was made up, and I headed for Vancouver.

I'd been there about a week, pottering about, taking a trip to Jasper at one point and returning by train. I then took a ferry across to Vancouver Island and the capital, Victoria.

After a few days sightseeing, in quite some pain, I took a train, and then a bus, out to the west coast, about half way up, to a small town called Tofino. It was pouring down, and I was still in a great deal of pain as I walked. Feeling sorry for myself, I went for a walk and passed a small coffee shop. I had a double take at a poster in the window. And walked toward the poster and on closer inspection . . . it was a picture of Bagdro!

Reading the poster I discovered that someone from Victoria was conducting a tour where she would tell audiences all about him. The tour was starting in about two weeks, and I would be back in the UK by then. I spent the rest of the day trying to contact her.
Finally, at the end of the day, I made contact. This is how the conversation went:
"Hi, sorry to bother you, but I am in Tofino and noticed you're doing a lecture tour all about a monk called Bagdro. Well, a couple of years ago I made a film called a Hell On Earth, all about him..."
She interrupted.
"You must be Graham Kitchener"
I was lost for words. Maybe she had seen the film. That was it.
"Yes, I am. Well, I was thinking that on my return to the UK I could mail you a copy of the film, A Hell On Earth, and that way people would get to see him and hear him on your tour"
"Oh, I can do better than that Graham. He's stood right beside me!"

He came on the phone, and we talked, and I cried. The following day, by thumbing a lift, catching a bus, then a train and finally a taxi, I made my way to a Japanese restaurant in Sydney, not far from Victoria, where we met up. We laughed, took photos and he placed the traditional Tibetan white scarf, a khatag (pronounced: katah) around my neck, while saying the traditional Tibetan good luck blessing, "Tashi Delek".

I recalled what Pauline had said about going to India to meet him, and how, stubbornly, I had stuck to my plan to go to Canada. And there, in one of the most remote places in that country, Tofino, I make contact with him and we meet again during a sponsored visit of his to relate his story to a wider audience.

It still amazes me, and all those I tell the story to.
It was that one single event that made me continue to strive for a career in film making, and here I am, nine years later, doing just that. Three years after meeting up with him in Canada, as a direct result of the film, I was to become the Dalai Lama's official film director for a visit to Scotland.

All thanks to that chance meeting in Canada.


Friday, 5 February 2010


This week saw me in London, first and foremost to catch up with friends, but also for a meeting at Paramount Pictures in Golden Square.

I usually travel by train, and this time was no exception. With a small amount of effort a few weeks before I had saved travel vouchers from the Scotsman newspaper which gave me a heavily discounted price of £11.50 one way! However, I decided to treat myself to first class, which still worked out a third of the normal first class price!

There are points of the journey that always unnerve me slightly, when the train reaches it's maximum speed and feels at times that at any moment we are going to leave the safety of the iron rails beneath us. By noon, less than four and a half hours later, I was in Kings Cross and heading out on the Piccadilly tube line to Chiswick where my friends stay.

The following day we decided to spend most of it at the Imperial War Museum. I had never been before and at first thought it would all be
over in an hour or so. How wrong I was. Four and a half hours later I was still in there! The building was jammed full of World War I and II planes, from the famous Sopwith Camel to the mighty Spitfire, all hanging at jaunty angles by wires from the roof. The ground floored was covered with an array of tanks, guns and missiles, with more of the same together with uniform and small arms displays on the next floors.

At the very top was a Holocaust collection. I defy anyone not to be moved by what is contained in there, and it beggars belief that some people would believe it never happened! In one room there is an enormous model of the now famous railway entrance to Auswitch.
Though it was just a very detailed model I found it quite sad and desperate to look at. One particularly moving moment was a video of a woman, now in her 80's, talking of the moment of liberation. They had all been herded into a large barn by their Nazi guards, and from within could hear a great deal of commotion outside, shouting and gunfire. After a great length of time the doors swung open and there before them were the Russian army. This was her moment of liberation. And she cried as she told of the moment. More than sixty years later.

The following day was my meeting at Paramount. I had arranged to chat about a new project they have launched called Move. The idea is to try to recreate the success of the recent film Paranormal Activity, made for $15,000, bought for $300,000, and to date has taken more than $1.8million at the box office! I was there pitching an idea, and following this I am now developing it further.

Though I enjoy visiting London, it is always with a little excitement that I make the return journey home to Scotland. As the train thunders ever northward, it empties of its passengers at various stations. After Newcastle, it is non-stop to Edinburgh.
As we cross the border it is very quiet onboard. Once in Edinburgh I catch a bus home to Joppa, and as I walk to my house the only sound I can hear in the darkness is the waves rolling onto the beach, twenty metres from my house.

There's no place like home.