Friday, 31 December 2010

The dreaded lurgy!

How was your festive season? Not over yet I suppose with 2011 just a few hours away. Will it be a party with thousands of people in the streets of some rain swept city, or a friends house with copious quantities of good food and wine, or high on a mountain pass in the Andes? Well for me it will be snuggled down tight under my duvet in my bed.

A friend of mine married a lovely American girl this year and moved across to live in Alberta. This new year he's bringing her over to Edinburgh to sample the delights of the now world famous Hogmanay street party. Frankly, I think she'll be disappointed. Thousands of drunken people all trying to tell you their life story and passing the time until a bunch of fireworks go off in low cloud and pissing rain at midnight. Great! What a night.

I am disappointed though not to be joining my friends tonight in a gathering at one fo their houses. On Boxing Day I contracted what I can only assume is flu and as a result for the past 6 days I have only ventured out of bed for the postie and to answer nature's call. In fact I am writing this today from that very bed.

But that disappointment pales in comparison to my festive experience with a certain courier company. I apologise if you have ever had a similar experience with this same courier company and are about to scream at the very mention of their name . . . CityLink Express Couriers. A subsidiary of Rentokil I think they should exterminate themselves!

Over the last couple of years they have gone through 3 changes at the top and slashed staff to an unprecedented level. So much so that the combined effect has reduced their ability to deliver, no pun intended, to virtually useless.

I had ordered a product online form southern England on the 7 December. Their first attempt to deliver was 24 December! They gave me a handy time slot of 7.30am to 5.30pm, for which I remained in all day, to then change their mind at 4pm and reschedule it for the 29th!

And yes, the same handy delivery slot, the same waiting in all day, the same no show! Finally, on the 30th, they decide they feel like fulfilling their obligation and turn up! The company who sold me the item were marvelous, offering all sorts of compensation. Though generous I don't feel it's fair they are penalised for the inabilty of said courier. In contrast a box was sent to me from Buenos Aires by normal mail and took just 8 days to get to me!

Maybe with the cutbacks of course they don't have vans anymore and had walked from down south. I hadn't thought of that.

There, end the year on a damn good rant!

That aside 2011 holds some potentially exciting adventures of which I am already very excited about and will tell you more about that on the other side.

It just remains for me to wish you all peace, health, prosperity and happiness in 2011. The adventure continues.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Attaboy Clarence

As many people tend to say at this time of year, It doesn't feel like Christmas to me, though watching through the window of my cozy flat as the fluffy flakes of snow gently float down once again, it certainly looks like Christmas. Last year was the first white Christmas in many years in Edinburgh, and this year has been no exception with the first falls arriving late November. It had all but disappeared by last weekend, then during the night on Saturday it came back with a vengeance. Ever since it's stayed well below freezing and it still looks as fresh as the day it fell.

I've done my fair share of wandering the shops, and noticed just how much we seem to rise to the will of the advertisers; buying more food than we can possibly consume, though some give it a good try; pushing and shoving our way through endless crowds to obtain that must-have-but-will-be-broken-in two-days present; then queuing endlessly to part with our hard earned money. Isn't it so much more than this? I'm was on the search for the answer.

One big effect of all this snow and freezing temperatures, and worth remembering when we're buying all that food in excess, is our garden birds. These poor creatures are now struggling to find food and just as importantly, water. I put food in my garden every day, and defrost the bird bath twice a day. I always get regular visitors, such as starlings, sparrows and the occasional robin, but I think the word has gotten out in the neighbourhood that its party time in Graham's tiny 4m by 5m garden! The variety of birds now coming to the garden every day has astonished me, and confirmed just how desperate they are for food. In fact no sooner have I reached the back door after putting food out than they are down, scoffing away. For the record here's the list with the most numerous first. And this was just this morning:
Blue tits
Wood pigeon
Long tailed tit
Song thrush
I'm no Twitcher (the nickname for avid bird watchers) but I spent over an hour at the kitchen window, with a warming gingerbread latte, just watching all my feathered friends enjoying themselves.

Some of my other friends of the human variety, assembled last weekend at Andrew's house and enjoyed our annual viewing of James Stewart in It's A Wonderful Life, accompanied by vats of mulled wine and mince pies. No matter how many times I see that film it always makes me cry at the end, always at the same moment when James Stewart's character George Bailey opens the book Clarence left behind. Inside the inscription reads: "No man is a failure who has friends".

My closest friend is far away this year, currently basking in quite the opposite climate in south west Argentina, and I know she will be delighted at the list of visitors to the garden.

This time of year for me always reminds me of the value of friends, be that human or feathered, and the joy and love they bring to your life. I suppose that's what Christmas really feels like to me, and the answer to my search. Above all I miss those that are far away more than I can describe.

I found a nice friendship quote the other day: "True friends are never apart, maybe in distance, but not in heart"

Merry Christmas everybody.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Spark of genius

Over the past six weeks I have been teaching film making to a small group of 13 year old boys at my local Boys’ Brigade company, and was pleasantly surprised at their eagerness.

About fifteen years I used to run the BB company, the 25th Edinburgh, and I had been involved for over seventeen years. During the latter ten years I would write a comedy show for their end of year presentation, the parents night. Not necessarily original material, mostly borrowing from the greats of Peter Cook and Monty Python.

The age range of the boys started from as young as 11 and all the way up to 18. It always amazed me that at age 11 every boy would do anything possible not to participate in the show in a lead role. However, let a few years pass and by the time they were 16 or older they were literally fighting each other over the parts! Overall the entire idea was to build their confidence in being able to speak in front of an audience. This was achieved in spades, as they say and many I’m sure have benefited in this boost to their confidence. Maybe some have even gone on to a stage or screen career.

So these past six weeks were a return to a similar idea, and though fifteen years have passed the boys are no different now than they were then, apart from maybe a little more bold. What had changed of course was their knowledge and available references to events past. For instance none of them knew very much at all about princess Diana, and 9/11 was a subject they were a little vague on.

Each week I introduced them to another piece of knowledge in the process of film making. We started by watching a few film clips, making sure they understood the structure of story telling, then went on to develop characters and only three weeks later they were asked to come up with a two-minute story.

Their imagination knew no bounds, to put it politely, but through the inevitable innuendo and gore-ridden ideas, one supernatural story came forward. I was impressed. It had a beginning, middle and end and four very identifiable characters.

Last Saturday, much to their surprise, having gathered them together, I provided them with a small film crew for four hours in order that they could act in, and film their story. The boy who had created the idea for the film directed it and the other boys took turns in either acting a part, filming or recording sound.

The end result, though no Miramax production, is quite fun, and with a few additional editing tricks they have a nice little production I’m sure they will want to show off.

As the production came to an end I did stop to wonder if at some distant time in the future, one or more of the boys would go on to become a successful film maker, the spark of genius being ignited in these past few weeks.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Country paralised!

Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be some doom and gloom blog, but the title is how the tabloids like to describe our current spate of wintry weather. Never are we expected to think that it is wondrous, exciting and magical. Well, my past week was just that.

As a small child, more years ago now than I care to remember, I would trudge through feet of fluffy snow on my way to school. In fact getting to school and coming home were the best parts of the day in winter. It seems nowadays if the family’s four wheel drive can’t get out of the suburbia paved driveway, then junior cannot possibly make it the eight hundred yards to school. Not that it matters though, because today there are three inches of snow in the playground and the school has been shut!

I arrived in Aviemore in the highlands late afternoon on Sunday. All around was quite still and the temperature was several degrees below freezing, the snow glistening in the glow of the sodium street lights. I had opted to stay at the youth hostel on the outskirts of the town, now wrapped in billows of fluffy powdery snow.

Monday. Cloudless blue skies. Not a breath of wind. Minus ten degrees.

Seven miles out of town, heading toward the Cairngorm mountain range, is a small settlement called Glenmore. Here is Scotland’s national outdoor training centre, full of tough outdoorsy instructors, rugged, who stand with one foot on a rock as they tell you of their exploits. Also in Glenmore is the Glenmore café, right on the edge of the campsite, now buried in half a metre of snow. The café is my number one stop when I come to play in this area. A great start to the day with lashings of hot tea and bulging bacon rolls, with a backdrop of the forest birds coming down to feeders at the windows, chased away occasionally by marauding red squirrels, arguably the cutest creatures in the world.

I hired bright yellow snow-shoes and headed out into the sea of snow for the day. The large loch nearby, Loch Morlich, was frozen over and the beach was covered in two feet of fresh snow. The snow-shoes still sank in, bringing the snow almost up to my knees, but try and walk through this landscape without them and very quickly you would be telling the rest of the party to leave you there to die, struggle as you would to make any progress.

Today though, I was alone, and fortunate that I knew the area very well. Every path and recognisable feature was invisible under the white blanket with not a single track breaking the surface.

At one point I stopped and held my breath.

Not a sound. Perfectly still.

A few deer were surprised by my approach and pranced off, leaping through the snow like dolphins breaking the surface waters. Snow flakes started to float gently to the ground and the suns rays, breaking through the snow covered branches of giant Scots Pine trees, caught the flakes as they fell, illuminating them like millions of little light bulbs.

By early afternoon the landscape was at it’s most glorious and I stopped to eat my lunch on a snowy log pile. I was alone and by now far from the main road, deep in Rothiemurcus forest, tucking into my cheese and ham filled baguette. A puffed up robin came to say hello and we shared a bit of mature cheddar cheese.

By 4pm the last of the suns light was fading as I emerged from the forest, back onto the main road near Coylumbridge, then made my way down to the Ord Ban café for thick, frothy hot chocolate and mulled wine. Bliss.

Tuesday and Wednesday I traded in my snow-shoes for cross-country skis and pottered around the same forest, retracing my snow-shoe tracks from Monday. They were still the first lines through the snow and it felt very much like this was my forest, at least for the day. At times I felt I could have be hundreds of miles into a wild mountainous country, all alone except for the deer and birds. Nearby a stream was battling to keep its course open as the falling temperatures crystallised the clear waters. As the stream tumbled over rocks, water vapour rose and instantly froze into a thin fog, picking up the suns rays like smoke from a fire.

My final day was spent skiing downhill on the nearby mountains. This was such a contrast to the peace and sincerity of the forest far below. Here was noise and fierce commercial enterprise, with the focus on squeezing every last buck out of you. I felt very disappointed and ripped off, the centre charging high season full price for equipment and lift passes, with only a third of the area open. The runs were glorious though, I have to admit, with perfect conditions and the sun illuminating every run. Three thousand feet below the valley was filled with low cloud and looking down on the clouds at that point made me feel I was at far higher altitudes.

On reflection, though the downhill skiing was a slightly disappointing experience, it put everything into perspective. For the first time I found myself longing to be back on cross country skis or snow shoes, exploring my way through virgin powder snow. This from someone who would thrive on the thrill of the red and black downhill runs of smoothly pisted mountain sides.

I will still enjoy those moments but nothing will ever beat the thrill of using my own power to glide through pristine wilderness on cross country skis, or trudging through on snow shoes, with only the forest and its permanent residents for company.

That headline? Country Paralised! Sub heading - "Graham has wilderness to himself".

More pictures on my Flickr site

A short video of the adventure is now viewable on YouTube