Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Year of the rabbit

According to the Chinese zodiac calendar, 2011 was the year of the rabbit. A year in which we should catch our breath and calm our nerves. A time for negotiation. If you force issues you will ultimately fail. Those born in the year of the rabbit are reasonably friendly individuals who enjoy the company of good friends.

I was born in the year of the rabbit, 1963, and I know that my friends are the most important and precious aspect of my life.

This year saw me lose too many friends that were very dear to me, some through horrific events. Two of these events occurred just weeks before I left the UK to cycle across the United States. It was very sad, and still is, but I know that friends come in and out of your life as time rolls by, but if you're lucky some stay forever.

2011 seems to have been a year for extreme weather. Pauline and I set off from Boston on the 18 May and from almost day one we experienced wild and unusual weather patterns, repeated across the globe.

In January, Queensland, Australia had major floods. On 22 February Christchurch in New Zealand was hit by a magnitude 6.3 earthquake destroying large parts of the city. March brought the worst tsunami ever witnessed in Japan.

In April, the month before I left for the States, over 300 tornadoes had already hit America. A figure that would rise to 753 by the time the season ended. At one point 200 tornadoes touched down in the space of 48 hours. Just one week after I landed in Boston, a 1 mile wide tornado swept through Joplin, Missouri, killing 162 people. With caution we continued to push west keeping a watchful eye on the weather forecasts. Not long after the Joplin tornado, Minot in North Dakota suffered a terrible flood as the Mouse River swept away many homes. In August we would find ourselves cycling through Minot and would witness the aftermath first hand.

June saw a large volcano in Chile erupt, and by the time we were almost across Montana in August, Hurricane Irene swept up the east coast of the States putting 65 million at risk.

I returned home at the start of October to learn of severe flooding in Thailand and shortly after a 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit eastern Turkey. Then, just two weeks ago, Christchurch finished the year as it had started with another quake hitting the town.

We were lucky to escape most of these terrible weather events, though coming very close at times. I used to think we had poor weather in Scotland but these events go to show how calm and temperate Scotland really is.

2012 is the year of the dragon, a year that is meant to bring much happiness and success. To all those who had to deal with so much devastating change in their lives over 2011, I hope that 2012 lives up to it's Chinese zodiac meaning.

A happy and prosperous new year to you all. Stay safe.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

A Christmas wish

This season of goodwill brings with it a proliferation of invites to lunch, dinner and parties for many of us, and we tend to take it for granted because of the time of year.

Why is it that people rush to get in touch and cram their diaries to bursting, insisting that we should get together before Christmas? By January we've run out of steam, conversation and money, leaving a void because "we managed to see everyone before Christmas". It's a strange concept and all part of the modern day Christmas I guess. Many people make a special effort at Christmas to see people they wouldn't normally see throughout the year, which is in part a good thing.

But why do so many of us take it all for granted? Isn't it a great thing that people around us like our company enough to extend an invite to meet and take part in their lives.

It is surprising how much we all take for granted, from our jobs and work colleagues, to our possessions and even the ones we love. The worst part of this of course is that fundamentally we are not appreciating and respecting the needs of others, which could result in us losing their respect in return and thus no more invites, leaving you reeling and wondering what went wrong.

There are a number of commercials on at this time of year appealing for help to assist those who are homeless or may not eat any kind of meal at Christmas. I'll bet not a single one of the recipients of this charity take any of it for granted.

So it is my Christmas wish for the future, for myself and for you, that we always appreciate those we are closest to, and the privilege that is extended to us to participate in their lives, for food on the table and shelter over our heads.

Merry Christmas everyone. Be kind and thoughtful to each other.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

End of an era

End of an era is a commonly used term for all sorts of events these days, but it really applies to long periods of time, such as the Victorian era, or in geological terms, the Jurassic era. 20 years therefore doesn't seem to warrant being called an era, but in this case it feels right.

In 1990 I was coming to the end of working for various companies in the advertising industry. It hadn't been the greatest working experience of my life by that point to be honest. Advertising well deserves it's reputation as a back stabbing world and I witnessed several incidents of people undermining another's work in order to have them fired and then take their job. This was early on in my working life as well and didn't serve as a good example to be setting I thought.

But a recession hit at the start of the 90s and a large number of advertising agencies went to the wall, including the company I was working for at the time. It came as a complete surprise on a cold morning in January and I vowed never to work in that industry again.

Within a few months I had really thrown a curve ball in my working life. I found myself the owner of a small delicatessen in my local town and for want of a better title named the shop Kitcheners Delicatessen, which was rather vain on reflection. It was still a creative type of job though, especially the marketing side, and I found myself enjoying every moment, working long hours 7 days a week.

5 years on and I expanded to the property next door and created a coffee shop in the original deli area and a much larger deli in the new extension. Overnight it went from me and one other member of staff to me and 9 staff. The workload multiplied overnight as well but so did it's success, largely due in part to my great staff and to my best friend's support.

Over the following years it became a destination for the local community. Several times over the summer months I would have live jazz bands outside and together with the tables and chairs on the pavement it created a real cosmopolitan atmosphere. I returned to film making at the end of the 90s, in tandem with running the business. Everything was going well but then a period of physical illness hit me over a period of 2 years and it became obvious that it was time for me to change my working routine. And so, partly on the advice of my GP, I said a tearful farewell to the deli on the 2 April 2006 and left it in the hands of two new owners.

I don't think they really knew the first thing about running this particular deli, despite my best efforts to help, but whatever the reasons the business started to nose dive. They sold it on just 2 years later and the new owners had a steep uphill challenge ahead of them. They apparently didn't get the business in the same healthy state I had left it in.

Then the global recession hit. Try as they might the economy was against them. As has happened to so many businesses in the past 2 years they have finally decided it's time to call it a day. And so, on 31 December this year, after just over 20 years of trading, Kitcheners Deli will close it's doors for good.

My best friend wrote to me about the deli once, comparing it to a scene in one of our favourite films, Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistle Stop Cafe:

It will always make me think of the deli and the wonderful times so many people have had there. In the film the main character says at one point that when the cafe closed the heart of the community was lost and people drifted away. But it always held a strong place in people's hearts and memories, no matter what.

I owe that period of my life so much. So many important memories were made there, and not just for me. I will miss the old place.

It truly is the end of an era.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011


I was asked the other day if I would be putting up a Christmas tree in my house this year, being that I am on my own. I answered I wasn't sure yet, which met with the reply, oh but you must, it's tradition.

This intrigued my as I had often heard that this "Christmas" tradition had it's origins in Germany, so I did a little digging. Turns out the Christmas tree, or Yule tree for those wanting to avoid a religious connection, actually has it's origins in 15th century Livonia, present day Estonia and Latvia. It wasn't until well into the 16th century that northern German churches decorated an evergreen inside the church and hung sweets and apples from it. In present day we have replaced these apples with shiny glass baubles, whose origins was something else I had pondered.

In previous years my best friend and I would put up an advent calendar. It was a large, cloth robin with 24 pockets, and we would each buy 12 small items, with a value of £1 or under, and individually wrap them, taking it in turns to open each one leading up to Christmas, always with the cry "advent calendar present!" It's origins I discovered go back to the early part of the 19th century when German Lutherans would mark off a chalk line on the floor for each of the 24 days leading up to Christmas. Though advent can officially begin as early as 27 november or as late as the 3 December commercial advent calendars always start on the 1 December.

Well, I was on a roll now, and speaking of food . .

Christmas pudding. I love Christmas pudding. In fact, too much. Plum pudding, as it is more accurately called, has its origins in medieval England when the Roman Catholic church decreed that a pudding should be made on the 25th Sunday after Trinity, made from 13 ingredients to represent Christ and the 12 apostles. During the making each member of the family should take it in turns, going from east to west, to stir it in honour of the Magi whose supposed journey took them in that direction. All manner of hidden items would sometimes be included in the pudding, the most common of which was a silver coin, being kept by the person whose portion it was served in, unless he died by choking it on first of course!Personally I just get mine from Marks & Spencer.

Then I thought about the line from a Christmas hymn, love came down at Christmas. What of this tradition of kissing under mistletoe? It all started because the plant was seen to represent the male "essence" so to speak, with the white berries representing, well, you know what. According to custom the plant must not touch the ground between being cut and Candlemas, around 2 February. According to an ancient Christian custom a man and a woman who meet under the mistletoe are obliged to kiss, and should remove one berry. When all the berries are gone the privilege stops. I suppose the trick is to have one the size of a garden hedge! Bit difficult to conceal it though I guess.

Wherever these common delights of Christmas have their origins, I know that for me it is all about friends and family . . . and lots of mince pies!