Wednesday, 31 December 2014

CHRISTMAS WHINE

Despite the promise to write on Christmas day, I've only just made it to the computer. Far from stuffed turkey, rustic veggies and roast potatoes, the past 10 days have been more like stuffed nose, rough cough and roasting temperature. Some dreadful lurgy crept up on me during the night early last week, and at its height gave me conjunctivitis in both eyes for good measure. The only Christmas wine in my house was that of me groaning from my bed.

Christmas joy.

But, I was determined not to let it keep me down, and carefully managed my energy levels. Normally I wrap up warm and go to my local church for the watchnight service on Christmas Eve, but this year I wrapped my self up in the duvet and went to bed early. I'm a generous person normally but I didn't want to give anyone a gift of flu, or whatever it is I had in abundance.

Dosed with paracetamol and various decongestants, the following morning I started to show glimpses of being on the mend. I was invited to a friends for Christmas Day dinner, and having spent the last two months feeding a homemade Christmas cake with brandy for the occasion, I was determined to deliver it personally.

By mid afternoon I had renewed energy and thoroughly enjoyed the day. Since then I have continued on a slow improvement course. Over these past few days I have enjoyed the company of several visitors, and on Monday Pauline returned from her Christmas away, which lifted my spirits even more. It wasn't until then that we swapped out gifts and enjoyed a traditional Christmas meal.

Having missed most of the activities I am now determined to get away on a trip with my bike up north. The battle is on to kick this lurgy into touch,  load up the bike and head off for winter wonderland experience in the snowy Highlands of Scotland.

Next weeks blog will be all about that adventure. Until then I'll most likely find something else to whine about.

Hope you all had a fab Christmas and my best wishes for the New Year.


Thursday, 18 December 2014

TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS

Well, OK, the week before, but you get my drift.

Speaking of drifts, there's been a fair dump of the white stuff in Scotland over the hills and mountains of the Highlands, so in the north at least it looks like a white Christmas is on the cards. Here in Edinburgh we've only had the odd flurry so far, but there's time yet.

With a week to go I'm busy making final preparations. Like most people, for me it's the final buying spree this weekend for those last minute presents. I also make a few presents as well, with that little personal touch, and I'm busy putting the finishing touches to those.

The academy, where I teach film and TV to young students, is putting on its end of term show this Saturday. First up the youngsters will showcase their live performances in Musical Theatre and Comedy & Drama, then it's my turn to present the films the students have made, all with a Christmassy theme. I've enjoyed the first three months with the academy but I'm looking forward to the break until the 10th January. If you liked to see one of the academy's set of three, lasting just short of nine minutes in total, just click here.

Every year for the past four years I make several Christmas cakes, usually around the end of October, then feed them with brandy for two months. This year I've made three as gifts for various people, and tonight they get their royal icing coating. I decided to make them all gluten free, which isn't difficult as there's hardly any flour in the recipe anyway, and I also make my own marzipan.

The rest of my Christmas treats, mince pies and Christmas pudding, are shop bought. On the day I will join close friends and their family for a festive feast. Because of this the traditional feast in my house will be held on New Years day, which I quite like.

Then I'll be off into the Highlands with my bike and tent for a few days in search of that white stuff.

In the mean time I hope all your own preparations go well and I'm already looking forward to blogging on Christmas day, the first time my "blog day" has fallen on the 25 December.


Friday, 12 December 2014

TWINKLE TWINKLE LITTLE STAR

To twinkle or not to twinkle, that is the question.

This weekend is an important day if you happen to be a little superstitious, as it will be 12 days before Christmas when some believe that is the time to put up the Christmas decorations. Then 12 days after you take them down, and a curse be upon you if you're late!

Well, mine went up last night, and very nice they are too, so there.

Pauline and I met up in the city centre to wander around the Christmas lights of Edinburgh. Within the confines of the east side of Princes Street Gardens, right in the heart of the city, a large Christmas market had sprung up, with traders all housed in quaint wooden, chalet-style huts. The remainder of the gardens are occupied with a myriad of entertainment opportunities, everything from a giant Ferris wheel to horse carousels and even an ice skating rink!

As we wandered around, with traditional Christmas music as the backdrop, it started to snow. Which was nice.

Next stop was the huge department store of Jenners, to see their traditional giant Christmas tree. And giant it was. I've never quite figured out how they get this enormous tree in there, but apparently it does come in, through the front door, in one piece! All around the balconies above were strands of white lights.


George Street, one street up from the Christmas market, always does something a little special and this year is no exception. At regular intervals all the way along it's half mile stretch, were pure white artificial trees festooned in white fairy lights, throwing out a magical bright white glow. One business on George Street always decorates the giant stone pillars outside their entrance with large holly garlands wound around the pillars and lit with thousands of lights.


After a Christmas Blend latte at Starbucks, with a muffin too of course, we set off home to put up our decorations.

This is not quite on the scale of what we had seen in the city. We have a two foot high artificial tree decorated with bits and bobs of Christmassy items collected over the years, and a small string of lights. As a small addition this year we bought some tiny coloured fairy lights, powered by a small solar panel. This we have wrapped around the bare hawthorn tree in the garden. You can have them on all the time or they can be set to flash and twinkle.

Sadly, on day two, they do neither. It would seem there just isn't enough light during the day to charge them.

And there was me deliberating over whether to have them on all the time or to twinkle.


Thursday, 4 December 2014

GOSSIP IN A WAITING ROOM

Today I had an appointment with an orthopaedic consultant surgeon, for an issue which has been ongoing for the past five years. As always, you are given a appointment time which bears no actual resemblance to the time you will be seen. On arrival, and having "checked in", the waiting room was empty, and I sat down pleased, thinking this was my lucky day. A nurse then called my name within minutes, and I was off. Fantastic. Only, she took me to my consultants waiting room, wherein sat 20 bored and miserable people.

Joy.

This was my second visit in the past three years. I wasn't expecting any good news, but surprisingly, to both of of us, things are looking up. For what I thought, and had been told as much three years ago, was a hopeless case, turns out to be not that bad. After studying new X-rays it appears there's been little change, and the injury has stabilised, to the extent where I am the perfect candidate for a little done surgery technique that could improve things ten fold. More on that in March after the procedure.

So I'm sitting there, twiddling my thumbs, observing those in all manner of casts and slings, and feeling a bit of a fraud with my "sore toe", when I spot the ubiquitous pile of magazines. The usual rubbish was there of course, in the form of celebrity gossip rag mags. I surmised the misery in the room was because most of them had read these mind-numbing publications. Amongst the rubbish was a gossip magazine of a different kind however, The Tatler.

A famous magazine there is no doubt, but one I had never read. I picked it up, curious. Turns out that the name comes from the phrase Tittle Tatler, literally meaning "gossip". There was a picture of the very first edition front cover, which ran with the epigraph:

"Whate'er men do, or say, or dream
Our motley paper seizes for its theme".

It was most popular in the middle classes of the early 1700s and had been designed to be read at leisure in the "coffee houses of St James". I'm guessing Starbucks circa 16th century!

To my surprise the paper/magazine has been going a long time. Over 300 years! It was started back in 1709 by a chap called Richard Steele, formerly of Charterhouse.

As an aside, the name Richard Steele brought a smile to my face. Now sadly passed away, back in early 2011, a very good friend of mine in the film industry went by the same name. And the same spelling. That was a nice coincidence. I wonder if he knew?

Steele and another Charterhouse chap, Joseph Addison, went on in later years to start The Spectator newspaper.

This particular issue of The Tatler was the 300th anniversary edition, and had been sat in this waiting room since 2009.

Thankfully I didn't have to wait that long.


Thursday, 27 November 2014

HAPPY THANKSGIVING

I've said it before and it hasn't changed; one day I want to experience a traditional Thanksgiving in America.

It is in its most basic sense a thanks-giving for a good harvest and for the preceding year. For America it all started in 1621 in Plymouth Massachusetts after the had a successful and much needed good harvest. Having been to Plymouth Mass I have at least taken part of the step to a Thanksgiving feast.

In the UK we have a sort of Thanksgiving day as well, which is of course the Harvest Festival around late September, again closely linked to a good harvest.

But all that celebration of successful agricultural yields aside, we have much else to be thankful for. Currently the people of West Africa are fighting what seems like a losing battle with the deadly Ebola virus. Living in the West we can be thankful for first class medical care that these poorer countries can only dream of at present.  I run a local farmers market once a month in my home city of Edinburgh, and in December we are holding a raffle for a hamper to raise much needed money for the Ebola crisis.

Back in January 2007 I was lucky enough to visit the astonishingly beautiful country of Cambodia. I mention this here as yesterday evening I watched the Roland Joffe film The Killing Fields. It follows the story of a young Cambodian who is an assistant to  New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg. In 1975 the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh, the capital, and slaughtered, or set to hard labour, everyone therein. Pran tried to escape to the US but was unable to do so because of his passport not being valid for travel out of Cambodia. For four years he survived regular torture and starvation at the hands of the Khmer, until eventually escaping into Thailand in October 1979. He became a citizen of the US and died in 2008 aged 65.  During the period that he was struggling to survive in Cambodia I was going through High School. When I think how easy my life was compared to his back then I have much to be thankful for.

I, as do many of you reading this blog, live in a truly free country in the UK, and my health and welfare is taken care of. When I reach old age the government will ensure I will not go without. Despite all our trivial moans and groans, it's impossible really not to be thankful.

It's a short blog this week as I have still to send off my good wishes to all my American friends. Maybe one day I'll get my wish in some idyllic snowy town of North America.

Happy Thanksgiving.


Friday, 21 November 2014

EXPECTATIONS

I have the great privilege every weekend of passing on my film making knowledge to kids from six years old, all the way up to 18. Not that long ago I used to wish I could have been a teacher, but our system doesn't allow it because I don't have a degree. Yet here I am, teaching. Go figure.

Well OK, it's not a full time education post, but a similar responsibility comes with it. Because I've never had any formal training though, I never really know how I'm doing. Last week the academy had a visit from head office and he paid me the nicest compliment. He had been observing one of my classes as we filmed a Christmas music video for my 9 to 12 year olds. At the end of the day he told me that it was rare to find a good film maker who was also a good teacher, and he felt the kids were inspired by me.

Despite not being known as a professional teacher as such, it was nice someone had recognised what to me feels entirely natural.

In a similar way I observe the students every week, trying to spot those who are struggling or those who show a particular aptitude for certain tasks. Over the weeks I had noticed one girl who was particularly quiet. I was starting to suspect that she just wasn't interested in film & TV. For example, every time the rest of her class were up in front of camera, she would be the last to be on set, and would generally stand at the back, trying to stay out of the limelight.

Two weeks ago her group were filming their music video. At one point I took the camera off the tripod to change the battery. To do this several pieces have to be removed to get at the battery, and then they all have to be carefully put back on in the right order before remounting the camera, itself a tricky stage. I'm not yet at the stage of going through these tasks with the class, but every week they observe what I do.

On this occasion I swapped the battery over and handed the camera to the girl in question to keep a hold of while I took the dead battery away to be charged up. On my return, which couldn't have been more than a minute, she had assembled all the parts on the camera and remounted it on the tripod. I had never shown her all these steps specifically. She didn't hang around for praise, just returned to her group to carry on with her other set tasks. Clearly she has a natural ability for the tech side of film making, and despite all my careful observations it had never dawned on me.

This week I saw the new movie The Imitation Game, about Alan Turing during the Second World War, who led the team that broke the Enigma code, an achievement that is widely believed to have shortened the war by more than two years. There is a line in that film that best sums up the experience I had in class that day:

"Sometimes it's the people no one expects anything from who do the things no one expects".

Friday, 14 November 2014

TO BOLDLY GO . . .

Even if you're not a science fiction fan, I bet you can complete that heading.

There seems to have been a space theme to the past seven days. It all started with Christopher Nolan's latest film, Interstellar.

Without spoiling it for those who have not seen it yet, it's basically about mankind in the future trying to find a way to save the human race from extinction by finding another planet to live on. One can't help but be cynical and think we'll just end up trashing that one as well.

Anyway, I was blown away by how real they made everything in space look. A while back I saw the Sandra Bullock film, Gravity, and that was impressive, but Interstellar is even more so. In my way of watching films I sat there trying to pick apart how they would have achieved some of the shots. To me it was obvious they had built large models and filmed them against a green screen, a method that allows the editor to remove the green portion of the image later and replace it with anything they want.

Not on the same scale as Christopher Nolan's multi million dollar, three-hour epic (yes, it is that long!), last Saturday saw me filming against a green screen too, with my teenage group of students at the film academy. It was their day, after seven weeks of tuition, to direct, film and star in a music video for Christmas. I'm not sure they quite got the concept of green screen, but we all had great fun. Interestingly the most daunting part of it for them was behind the camera, operating the equipment and using the correct terminology. There were no shy actors among them when they were asked to perform in front of camera. The past few days have seen me editing their efforts, and like most film making it is clear not all went according to plan. They will now have to film replacement scenes in two weeks time, something we call "pick-ups".

Without a green screen in sight, we come to Hubble. As you will have read last week I have newly installed a blu ray player and giant screen, and it has just had it's grand launch with the one-hour documentary, Hubble, complete in 3D. To make the film they had sent an IMAX 3D camera up into space on board shuttle Atlantis in May 2009, the last ever visit to the giant space telescope. The documentary, narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio, was stunning, and though not a fan in any way shape or form of 3D, this was the exception. I felt as if I were actually there and could have handed the astronauts the spanners.

And finally, the Rosetta spacecraft and the lander Philae. Launched just before my 41st birthday in 2004, it made it's way out into the solar system by a series of "sling shots" round our solar system, including Earth three times, to accelerate it into position to rendezvous with a large asteroid.  In late September this year, having been watching the approaching asteroid 67P for over 24 million miles, it started manoeuvres to catch up with the lump of rock and go into orbit around it, 19 miles above the surface. Incredibly, this week it launched a little lander, called Philae, onto its 4km wide surface, and at 4pm GMT on Wednesday 12 November 2014, something man made landed on an asteroid, 300 million miles away and four and a half billion years old, roughly the same age as Earth itself.


It had a bumpy landing, ending up on its side, but still managed to send back valuable data. Today it started drilling into the surface! For the next year the mothership spacecraft, Rosetta, will stay alongside the asteroid, gathering more data as it gets closer to our sun, shedding some of it's ice and water. Is it just me or does it blow your mind what mankind has achieved with this spectacular mission?

That little lander has certainly gone "where no man has gone before".


Friday, 7 November 2014

THIS WEEK I HAVE MOSTLY BEEN . . .

. . . removing the glitter from fake snowballs. Let me explain . . .

It's been a week of film related activities, mostly fun. It started some weeks ago when I decided that the 10 year-old projector in my apartment was well past its best. It projected onto a screen 60" across, a screen which now sported several creases across its width. But the projectors lamp was on it's way out and no longer displayed true colours. It was most noticeable if I watched a black and white film, such as the Frank Capra classic, It's A Wonderful Life, where Bedford Fall's soap-suds fake snow, would fade from sepia on the left to white on the right. Frank would not been impressed. A new lamp was £300, but apparently that was only half the problem and further repairs would have doubled that price.

So, decision made, it was time for a new projector. But technology had moved on over the past 10 years, and the rest of my home cinema kit was no longer compatible with the next generation of projectors. By the time I'd finished I had replaced two speakers, the amplifier, screen, the projector of course and all the cabling. Because of this I decided to go the whole hog and change from a DVD player to a BluRay player, which made sense as it was only a few pounds difference.

The surprising part of all these changes was that everything together cost less than what I had spent 10 years ago on just the projector! Now I had my own little cinema to not just watch the latest releases as they were meant to be seen, but to watch my own films made over the years.

Which brings me to fake snowballs.

For the past two months I have been teaching kids from age six to eighteen the art of film making. All of the classes have been aiming toward making a short movie to show their parents at a Christmas event in December. For their first project we decided to make music videos, simply because there were no lines to learn etc. The youngest group are making Frosty the Snowman, the 9-11 year-olds are making the 12 Days of Christmas, the the teenagers are creating a story to the song Merry Christmas Everyone by Shakin' Stevens. This Saturday we shoot the Shakin' Stevens one.

In order to keep all the filming indoors we are shooting against a green screen. As the name suggest, it is literally a giant, green, screen. Later in the editing process it is possible to remove the green and replace it with other images, so I can make it look as if the kids are outside playing in the snow for example. One scene is a snowball fight (you see where I'm going with this) and in rehearsals we were using scrunched up paper balls. But they didn't look like snowballs. They looked like scrunched up paper balls. A local craft shop just so happened to sell bags of fake snowballs. Who would have thought you could buy such a thing. The problem was they were smothered in glitter. If this found it's way onto the green screen it would potential ruin it, so yesterday, for three hours, I painstakingly removed all the glitter from every one.

My reward? I'll get to watch the realism (!?) of fake snow on the big screen in my front living room. I think Mr Capra would be proud.


Thursday, 30 October 2014

SINGLE HANDED

About three months ago I sustained an injury to my right arm. For some reason this progressed into tennis elbow. It's not something you plan for, and the main course of treatment is complete rest, so stopping using the arm at all was a huge challenge, one I wasn't really able to do. As the weeks turned to months, and the pain in the tendons of my lower arm gradually became worse, I realised I had to take drastic action. I cancelled all work projects, both at home and for clients, and didn't lift even a cup of tea. Not only this but I was suffering from a bout of sciatica down my left leg and the arthritic toe joint of my right foot had decided to join in. If I had been a horse I would no doubt be on my way to the glue factory.

The downside of this was it also included abstaining from all the fun things as well, such as cycling. Apparently gripping the handlebars of a bicycle puts a lot of strain on your arms.

But an opportunity had arisen, with the recent break in the wet weather, to cycle from Bridge of Allan to Glenogle to a favourite camp spot, a route which I had cycled with my friend Vince almost exactly one year ago. This time it was with Pauline.

But how to do it with this very painful arm? I wasn't sure if it would be even possible, but I decided to try and cycle all 25 miles, there and back, without using my right arm at all! And with a fully loaded bike!

We set out late from Bridge of Allan, just outside Stirling, once the mornings heavy rain had abated. The first section was fairly flat, allowing me test out my plan. It seemed to be OK. We then negotiated several small hills, which were more of a challenge, but apart from using my hand to change gear on the rear set, I seemed to be OK in not using the right arm. I certainly must have looked like a very casual cyclist to those I passed, my arm dangling at my side.

In less than two hours, taking it easy, we were in the small village of Callander and time for a break for lunch in the local park. The entire car park for the public park was flooded due to the recent heavy rains. Fishermen wandered across the flooded tarmac in their chest-high waders, and I watched in anticipation of when they would suddenly find the river embankment. They obviously knew the terrain well, expertly navigating, and my hope of some light entertainment was dashed.

As we sat there I spotted what looked like some sort of creature swimming across the flood. It crawled out onto the grass and lay very still. A gull spotted the movement and went for it, tossing it in the air. I scared the gull off and on closer inspection discovered it was in actual fact a small water vole, an endangered species in the UK. They have seen their numbers plummet by over 90% in recent times. We reckoned it had been flooded out of its home due to the sudden rise in water levels, and had swam across to seek drier ground. It was obvious by the large numbers of gulls and crows that this water vole's fate was going to add to the statistics, so Pauline and I decided to intervene in the natural selection process. Pauline retrieved her small cooking pot, and with as little distress as possible to the water vole, we caught it and relocated it to a safer spot. Hopefully we've helped to preserve this little riverbank chap.


From Callander To Strathyre was easy going, following the swollen River Teith and then along the eastern forested shore of Loch Lubnaig and then the River Voil. Single-handed cycling it seemed was not that hard, and the reward all around was well worth the inconvenience. The fall was late this year, and though in a couple of days it would be November, the tracks were bursting with colour and the autumn colours were mostly at their height.


From the brightly lit yellows of the birch together with every shade of green from dark jungle green, through apple reds to a very light pale green and everything in-between,  the hillsides were a joy to behold. They were awash with the pale yellowy-orange colour of the Larch, and occasionally we would come across a crimson Maple. The forest tracks were covered in this natural canopy and our tyres rolled along a carpet of colour reminiscent of a 1960s Axminster weave.

To our right the rivers and loch had burst their banks, and though problematic for surrounding farmers and houses it did create a picturesque landscape. However, by the time we reached Strathyre the flooding started to hamper our progress. A local elderly cyclist stopped us and advised that the route ahead to Balquhidder was impassable. But this brought an added bonus. Over the past year a new section of cycle path had been constructed alongside the A84 road, and now connected Strathyre to Kings House at the end of the Balquhidder road, a saving of around four to five miles. Considering my challenge of single-handed cycling this was welcome news. A small part of the new path was flooded but we were able to detour briefly onto the road.

It wasn't long before we had passed high above the village of Lochearnhead on one of my favourite cycle paths, twisting and turning its way through indigenous woods, though cycling a lot slower than normal with just one hand and thus one brake! The path follows an old rail line and just before our hidden camp spot for the night we crossed the old viaduct that curves its way up the glen.


Almost exactly a year ago when camping in this very spot with my friend Vince, we found a young stag that had literally just died, possible just hours before out arrival. It had taken it's last stumbling steps into a pool of water at the base of a fallen tree, its throat cut open from a fight, it being the rutting season (you can read that story again here). I was keen to see what had happened in that year, imagining there would be a perfect skeleton in the same spot. To my amazement the pool of water was entirely empty.


Very close by were half a dozen bones, picked perfectly clean, and lying scattered around in this dark, damp wood. Something very strong had managed to haul large parts of the carcass out of the pool, and most had been carried off. Maybe the small antlers had been found by other walkers or cyclists and taken home. 

The great circle of life.

The following morning was cold, and condensation soaked our tents. Ahead was another 25 miles single-handed cycling, this time mostly downhill. After a brief stop in Callendar for lunch and the ubiquitous coffee and cake, we were back in Bridge of Allan in record time.

Though not a single-handed, round-the-world adventure in the realms of yachts-woman Ellen McArthur, it had been a physical challenge and one that I had pulled off successfully with no detrimental effects, postponing the trip glue factory once more.


Thursday, 23 October 2014

THAT TRAVEL BUG

Recent changes in my work commitments have meant big compromises have had to be made in terms of my first passion, travel.

There's a few of my friends who ask what the draw is, (travel that is, not work) to give up well paid work, the comfort of a comfortable apartment, convenient shops and entertainment on my doorstep and all that is familiar in my neighbourhood. When I am travelling and discovering new cultures, I know I embrace all the cliches such as freedom, the open road etc, and I find it certainly facilitates letting go of the past and look to the future. But it's a tricky one to explain, as is any choice we make in things that affect our lives.

As a film maker I like to observe people and quietly ask myself questions about them, the answers influenced by what I observe.

For example, I am continually fascinated by the fashions people wear. The businesswoman who wears a hybrid of clothes that are neither masculine nor feminine, the fear possibly being that if she expresses either preference it could be detrimental to her progression.

The man who wears an Hawaiian shirt as if to say, "hey I'm colourful and outgoing, not at all boring", and goes home to feed his cat in an empty apartment. Contrast this with the man dressed head to foot in beige. Maybe he's saying, "I have everything I want, I'm happy with who I am, and I care not for fashion statements".

Or the man who wears a hoody, trousers that stop half way down the calf, ankle socks and trendy trainers. Not out of place on an early twenty something, but on a 50 year old? But then who says there are rules? Maybe he doesn't want to accept his advancing years, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Then there's the cyclist is his skin-tight Team Sky lycra top, hoping that those glances from people he whizzes by, are thinking, "hey, there's one of those super-athletes from the Tour de France", but his grey hair, wheezing and sore joints betray him.

But it's not just fashion. We make choices in many things that we decide to "wear," from friends, to where we live, to the type of job we have. They are  choices influenced by many factors, and it takes more than my casual, one-sided observations to know what they are.

And so it is with my "travel bug". It's hard to explain, but in one way nicely summed up in this short verse by Kahill Gibran, a Lebanese artist, poet and writer in the late 1800s:

My house says to me, “Do not leave me,
for here dwells your past.”
And the road says to me, “Come and follow me,
for I am your future.”
And I say to both my house and the road, 
“I have no past, nor have I a future".
If I stay here, there is a going in my staying;
and if I go there is a staying in my going.

I would add that if the desire to take that road grabs you, do not ignore it. There will always be reasons why not to, and life is not a rehearsal, as they say.

I may not be in a position to travel again yet, but I will, and when I do I will follow that road again into the future.


Friday, 17 October 2014

WHEN IS A SHED NOT A SHED?

In 2010, just after returning from cycling the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain, I set about creating a home office in my garden. For years there had been a shed there, but it had to become much more than just a shed.

Since I sold my retail business in 2006 I've always had an office "space" in my house, which occupied a corner of my living room. It was fine as an office space went, but I never "went to work". It was just 4 steps from my sofa, but I hardly ever made the commute, choosing mostly to watch trash telly instead.

I realised I needed a place to go to work, and though it was still on the footprint of my property, the garden seemed an obvious choice.

Over six weeks I remodelled the existing 8' x 6' shed, raising it up on bricks by two feet, insulating the inside walls and installing an electric supply.

Four years on and it's as good as the day I built it.

Two months ago a need arose for increased storage. There were so many bicycles, inflatable canoes  and other large outdoor gear, that the apartment was surely going to burst at the seems. Though the garden is small it once again seemed the obvious choice. First stage was to remove the old overgrown plants in the area and set concrete pillars in place, effectively raising the build off the damp ground. I could have laid a large concrete slab, but that's not very eco-friendly, and it's also very difficult to remove in the future should the need arise. So the solution was to dig one-foot deep holes, fill them with rubble, then sit concrete piers on top with a rubber membrane between the concrete and the timber supports.

Once the floor was built, a strong sandwich of 25mm marine ply and 70mm of insulation, the walls could go up, and finally the roof. For the technically minded this comprised a vapour barrier on the inside (which was later covered in plasterboard), insulation between the wooden frame, a breathable membrane and then an air gap between the membrane and the outer cladding. The roof is a special one piece rubber called EPDM, guaranteed for 25 years. Job done.
The only remaining thing to do, next year, is to place a living roof of sedum down, as just now the view from the windows of my apartment is of a vast expanse of black rubber. It's a tiny bit bigger than the office shed too. Actually, it's twice the size! Surprisingly it sits comfortably in the garden, and has created a really nice enclosed secret garden, which itself has had a bit of a makeover.


Overall it was an entirely different build to the first shed. Over the past four years I have learned so much about construction, and it is with confidence I can say this "shed" is built to a timber frame house standard. It now stands snuggly next to the original office shed.


A shed? Hardly.



Thursday, 9 October 2014

THREE YEARS

Three years ago this week, the 8th October to be precise, I returned from a momentous cycle adventure across the USA. I've been looking back at the three years since, at what has happened as each year rolled round.

In the same week of 2012 I was in the midst of sending out the film of the journey, Sleepless 'til Seattle, to various film festivals and had started cutting a trailer. I entered quite a number, from small town festivals in the likes of Fargo, North Dakota, to the major players such as Sundance. The latter attracted over 12,000 entires, each paying as much as $100US per film. That's quite a business for them. Very quickly I realised that I was up against much higher budget films and the category I had entered, feature documentary, had few slots available. Suffice to say I was unsuccessful in getting in to any festival. Following that disappointment I went on to produce my own DVDs and sold over 200 copies online in the USA and at home in the UK.

Moving forward to the same week of 2013 and I was working once again in film, this time at a local school, Liberton High, teaching the students film making in a three hour workshop each week. Two of those students have gone on to study film at university when they left school the following year.

The USA adventure continued to be a part of my life as Pauline and I had just completed out last show, an illustrated talk of the adventure, a tour of eleven theatres in Scotland starting in April.

That week also saw me on a short cycle adventure with my friend Vince to Glen Ogle. As we camped in a small clearing of a forest that night we came across a red deer, a young male stag, that had died just hours before we arrived, probably as the result of a fight with another stag, as it was the middle of the annual deer rut.


I had just started renovating a large apartment outside if Dundee for a friend, a project that I thought I would finish within six months.

And so to this week, 2014. Once again I am teaching film to a bunch of students, this time to a much wider age group of six to eighteen. 

That property renovation is still ongoing, and though I'd like to say that I will definitely be finished by Christmas, I don't want to tempt fate again.

By coincidence there's every chance that at the end of this week I will return to Glen Ogle, just as last year, this time with Pauline.

And finally, that USA trip continues to raise its head: this month I will be putting the DVD of the adventure up on Amazon to see how if it can attract more sales.

It seems surprising when I think about these events, and I feel that they have all actually been within just the past year. The USA adventure continues to be a very special memory for me, even though I've done many things since.

How I long for that long open road on my bicycle.



Friday, 3 October 2014

ANNUAL AUTUMN AMBLE

Those of you who follow my blog regularly will know just how much I love Autumn.I always make an effort to escape the city and head into the Highlands of Scotland to be amongst the colours.

It's been a busy time for me over the past couple of months, without a single day off, so though I only managed two days away it was a break I had long looked forward to.

Just under two hours north of Edinburgh, Pauline and I unloaded our bicycles, attached our kit and cycled west on a bright and crisp Autumn morning. Just minutes out of Pitlochry we were on the small back road to Foss, heading out to Loch Tummel and Loch Rannoch.

The Autumn palette was not at its fullest yet, but there was a bonus to this as there was a greater variety of colours, with lime greens, yellows, orange and red. Many trees still had their full dark green foliage as well, so the contrasts were fabulous.

Along tunnels of tree lined roads we followed the edge of the 11km long Loch Tummel. it is only 1km wide, and on the opposite bank we could see little Highland country castles nestled among the colour forests and red squirrels darted across the road from side to side.


Normally we only see one or two of these most cute Highland creatures, but this area is somewhat of a stronghold for them and throughout the two days several would cross our path, hunting for acorns to top up their winter stores. In the hedgerows blackberries were still fruiting and like the squirrel with his acorns I stuffed my pouches with ripe berries.

It wasn't long before we reached the next body of water in this chain, Loch Rannoch, somewhat bigger at 14km long, and the small village at it's eastern edge, Kinloch Rannoch. There was no resisting the inviting small coffee shop for late morning coffee and cake, followed by our packed lunch in the village square.

The road around Loch Rannoch goes nowhere except to the remote railway station at it's westerly edge, a stepping off place for those walking the Road to the Isles. We followed the northern shore of the loch on the way out, past small white sandy beaches, arriving at it's western point by early afternoon. Out in the middle of the loch at this point was a small Crannog, a tiny island with a medieval folly built in the middle.


Turning east along the southern shore we started our search for an overnight wild camp. On our right was dense forest broken at times with open fields of wildstock. To our left was the loch and nowhere could we find a place to pitch for the night at first. About halfway along the loch we came across a wider spit of land pushing out into the loch and found room for our two tents on the edge of the forest near the waters edge. With a resident Robin clicking away nearby we settled in for the night.

Early morning the rain was falling, a sound I really enjoy as it strikes the outside of the tent with me tucked up in my sleeping bag. It was a lazy start and by the time we set out for the day the skies were brightening up.

We could have merely retraced out route back to Pitlochry, but with time on our side we took a small detour on a hill road that took us past the base of the nearby pointed top mountain of Schiehallion. It is a recognisable peak for far and wide and stands isolated amongst the surrounding lower hills. It's isolation led to it being part of a ground breaking experiment in 1774 when Charles Mason used it to calculate the mean density of the earth. He was assisted by mathematician Charles Hutton who would go on to devise a graphical system to present the heights of large volumes of landmass called contours, a system every hillwalker in the world would be lost without.


A speedy downhill brought us back to Pitlochry on a warm and sunny afternoon in time for coffee and cake at Hetties Place. However, not before one last small detour to a nearby Pictish stone called the Dunfallandy Stone.
I had been to Pitlochry many times in the past but had never known the stone was here. Dating from the 9th century it is decorated in intricate carvings from the period. Speculation over its origins and the meaning of its carvings have had many interpretations over the centuries. Now protected by a stone and glass surround to protect it for future generations. The glass made it impossible to photograph its carvings to show you here, so you'll just have to make the visit to see it yourself.

In my opinion well worth the short amble, especially on a warm sunny Autumn day.

More photos on Flickr.


Wednesday, 24 September 2014

BUSY BOY

I was distracted last week from the tension and excitement of the referendum on Scottish independence due partly to preparing for my new role as tutor of film and television for the new Pauline Quirk Academy of Performing Arts, PQA for short, the first of its kind in Scotland.

It's hard to believe now that just one week ago the eyes of the world were upon Scotland as it decided its future. There is still a lot of passion on both sides, especially from the Yes campaign, but I hope that the passion turns away from negativity to one of positivity some time soon. 

An enthusiastic team from the PQA head office south of the border led the launch day of the academy last Saturday, to a large number of eager and interested young people.

I started the day off with a Green group, ages 6 to 8, followed by Blue, ages 9 to 12 and then Red, 13 to 18. Each session was down to 40 minutes as a taster of what we have on offer, but it was quite high pressure, as all the tutors were embarking on something very new.  Having delivered the taster sessions at one school on the west side of Edinburgh, we shifted camp to the north side and did it all again.

After a 10-hour day I collapsed into my bed early, exhausted.

This week I've been working on the lesson plans proper, as this Saturday is the first of our actual academies.

Mixed in with all that has been several other tasks, all equally demanding. I'm coming to the end of a month long build in my garden of a new, large shed. I say shed, but it has been built to a house spec to make it as damp proof as possible. Then I have my ongoing large renovation project 50 miles north, just outside Dundee. And then there was a meeting with our local council to finalise plans to bring electric provision to a monthly farmers market that I run, a two year project.

But on Tuesday I will escape the chaos for a couple of days into the Highlands of Scotland, and you can read all about that next week.

Did someone say busy?


Thursday, 18 September 2014

SCOTTISH INDEPENDENCE, YES OR NO?

Today the people of Scotland decide whether or not to split from the rest of the United Kingdom and go it alone.

I've listened to the debate on both sides. Well, to the extent where I began to lose the will to live! It has gone on forever and a day. But quite rightly so, as this is a major decision. Despite all this debate I feel it is too soon to vote. Not enough time has been spent figuring everything out. There are too many unanswered questions.

The one great thing about this entire process is people are talking about Scotland all around the world. But here at home it has divided the nation. Even as I write this the polls cannot call it. It is virtually split down the middle.

Which is a problem.

On something so decisive and so historical it should not have been a simple case of one vote could swing it. It's too important. We need to know the vast majority want independence or not. Even a golf club that wishes to amend its constitution has to get a 66% majority. This is a nations future we're debating and yet one vote either way will decide it?!

People talk about the referendum in 1979 and 20 years later we had out own parliament. They go on to say how much longer do we need this time as we've had three years to deliberate. To me that's just not long enough and everything feels rushed. I love Scotland and we owe it the respect to consider it's future more carefully than tit for tat argumentative political debates.

There's also far too much emotion and this has created aggression among some friends in opposing camps. It's reasonable to say that emotion plays a part, and even a touch of the romantic notion, but we should be deciding on hard facts, and we don't have enough at the moment to decide either way.

From the romantic notion of "being that nation again", let's not forget that when the Act of Union took place in 1707 to create the United Kingdom, Scotland was all but bankrupt. We have less than five million people in Scotland, not all of which are tax payers. We give everyone a free education in university and free medical prescriptions. Let alone the cost of converting to independence and small things such as our own armed forces, how do we afford all this?

I'm very tired of the nationalistic point of view and the anti-English attitude. That is so archaic and ignores the fact the world is a smaller place these days and we're far more connected than ever before. Though I am from Scotland I consider myself European. Will I lose that status along with my passport? Already I see fierce antagonism and insults thrown between the yes and no supporters, and it worries me that maybe that aggression will escalate on Friday by the losing side. Whatever the outcome, it has sadly led to a divided nation, so even if we do decide to go it alone, there are deep wounds.

This all said I too am attracted by the prospect of independence, but only if we can be far more organised and knowledgeable about how we go forward, which we aren't at the moment.

So what to do.

In my view the best way forward for the chance of Scotland going independent is to vote no.

That sounds illogical doesn't it? But think about it. If we have a yes decision then that's it. There's no going back. However, if we have a no decision we buy more time to get better organised and gather the knowledge we need before we decide to walk away from a United Kingdom.

Or not.