Thursday, 26 March 2015


No, this isn't a blog about a sequel to the Oscar winning Daniel Day Lewis film of 1989, but I feel like I've been through an epic performance just the same.

Last Friday, on the eve of the Spring equinox, I was admitted to hospital for a foot operation that I had waited on for some time, with the goal of preserving one of the damaged joints in the big toe of my right foot. At the same time, just for fun, it was decided to carry out two further operations, one to realign the toe better, and one to shorten the toe marginally to reduce pressure on the joint.

It's fairly accurate to say I was a little anxious whilst waiting, but I was also looking forward to the point of recovery and going back to things I have not enjoyed for a few years, such as walking the mountains of Scotland, which would make me very happy.  By coincidence the day of the operation was International Day of Happiness.

It was an early start at 7.30am, and the first hour was taken up with pre-op, checking and rechecking every detail. It was a little disconcerting, when, in each of the five sessions I was asked to state my name. Thankfully they put a name wristband on both arms, just in case I, or anyone else, forgot. The last thing they did made me laugh, as they drew an arrow pointing down my shin to the big toe. After all this attention to detail I thought someone might next hang a little card on my big toe saying "This one".

Then, very quickly, I was taken through to a small waiting room where I changed into the rather less than fashionable hospital gown, which is supposed to tie at the back, but the ties had long since vanished. It was a little disconcerting to sit down on the cold, vinyl-covered chair. In the room was a small TV, which was showing the solar eclipse event live. One of the locations was in the Faroe Islands, where a plane, high above the clouds, was filming the moment of totality. I felt it was a good sign as, just as the diamond ring appeared, the waiting room door opened and an attendant said, "they're ready for you now".

I have no end of praise for the staff at the hospital, especially the surgical team, as they got me ready to go through, keeping me calm. The last thing I recall was answering a question about my film teaching and getting as far as, "well, every Saturday I . . ."  I think some close friends would like access to that drug when I start on about the film academy.

I woke up what seemed almost immediately, only to find myself wired up to monitors. This was a surprise. There were also a number of staff scurring around me, talking to me as I came round. The anesthetist arrived and told me that during the operation my heart rhythm became irregular, and so they were just monitoring things for a while.

All was well and I left just 12 hours after being admitted,  hobbling out on crutches with rather strange footwear, reminiscent of an over-sized Geisha shoe.

One week has passed and in all that time I have been limited to walking between the kitchen and living room, or bedroom and bathroom. I have had various visitors every day, bringing me all sorts of goodies, and Pauline, my closest friend, has looked after me in the evenings, cooking all my meals. Maybe I can spin this out a bit longer for more attention.

I know I'm desperate now to be more mobile, but the pain and stiffness is still very noticeable, even though I am off the pain killers. The thought of grabbing a hold of the big toe and manipulating it up and down is making me quite anxious.

I'm reminded of a classic John Wayne film The Wings of Eagles, when John Wayne is in rehab after an accident. He's lying on his hospital bed, staring at his big toe, and repeats to himself over and over, "I'm gonna move that toe".

Thursday, 19 March 2015


Tomorrow, Friday 20 March, at roughly 9.25am on the Outer Hebrides islands, off the west coast of Scotland, a solar eclipse will take place. It will be around 98%, with a full solar eclipse happening on the Faroe Islands about ten minutes later.

I have only seen one solar eclipse, which was back in March 2006 when I traveled to southern Turkey. I can say that it made the hairs on the back of my arm stand up and was altogether a very eerie experience.

It is little wonder, I thought at the time, that the ancients interpreted it as a sign of impending doom.

By coincidence solar eclipses have occurred at times of battles, when one side was victorious over another; they have occurred at the time of a meteor impact; and attempts have been made to firmly establish the date of Good Friday, interpreting the darkness that fell suddenly at Christs crucifixion to be that of a solar eclipse.

But a solar eclipse can also be a sign of a coming momentous and joyous occasion. A new beginning almost, quite literally, a new dawn.

About six years ago I sustained an injury to my right foot, in particular the big toe. Over the years my body grew additional bone around the damaged area, and six years on the flexibility is limited to 5% downward and 10% upward movement. It has also been gradually forced out of line. As the years have gone on the pain level has increased, and it has prevented me from certain activities such as hillwalking and skiing, primarily because I cannot get the boots on.

I was told two years ago that the only thing that could be done was to fuse the bones, thus reducing the toe movement to zero. This would eliminate the pain. I decided to hang on and persevere for as long as possible with some movement. However, by summer last year, the pain attacks were becoming unbearable and would keep me awake most of the night. At that point I had a consultancy with an inspiring surgeon, who convinced me he could carry out three operations that would bring the toe back to 75% normal, and pain free.

In much the same way that auspicious events in the past have coincided with a solar eclipse, at around the same time tomorrow morning I will be in theater, for what I hope will be a new beginning for me and my outdoor pursuits.

I suppose I'm hoping the eventual outcome will eclipse all expectations.

Do you see what I did there?

Thursday, 12 March 2015


In 2008 my home city of Edinburgh embarked upon an ambitious project; to construct a new tram system.

It was to cost a staggering £375million, and even at the time it was hailed as a waste of money. The original plan was for it to go from the shore line of the Firth of Forth, across the city, terminating at the airport. A total of 11.5 miles. That's £32million per mile. However, it went through a number of delays, and even a change in contractor at one point, which extended the completion date. It finally opened for service in May 2014, but with only 8.7miles completed, at a final cost of what is expected to be £1billion, or £114million per mile!!

Imagine what else we could have funded for that!

The main criticism of the project, apart from the cost, is that it doesn't really go anywhere that useful. It has only 15 stops and is used primarily by commuters on it's single line, or people going to and from the airport. Look at this map which shows a comparison between the tram route system in 1950 to the newly opened route (they are at the same scale):

There are plans afoot to complete the final stage, but I wouldn't like to be the politician that proposes that one!

Edinburgh had trams in the past, from 1871 to as recent as 1956, which had a route length of 47 miles. In the area I live in, near Portobello, when the roads are occasionally dug up remnants of the old tram system can be seen. In fact where my old deli stands used to be the stables area for the horses in the days of horse-drawn trams, and nearby, and still there under the tarmac road, is the old turntable for rotating the trams around.

Though I was never in favour of such an extravagant expense, I had hoped that it would be a style of tram in keeping with a World Heritage City, something say like the San Francisco or Amsterdam styles. Unfortunately we ended up with a Japanese bullit train style, each coming in at £1million.

That said, my friend David took an astonishing photograph of the trams recently:

David's skills as a photographer are outstanding, and the photo above was "commended" in the Urban Category for Scottish Landscape Photographer of the Year. You can see more of his images from Scotland at this link:

So do I have anything good to say about the trams?

Well, surprisingly, yes. Last Sunday my friend Pauline and I, decided that we would take a journey on a tram for the first time. Afterall, to have an honest opinion you need to be fully informed.

It was remarkably quick and it seemed as if all the traffic signals were biased toward the tram and there was virtually no delay. It was Sunday I suppose, but we completed 13 of the 15 stops in around 20 minutes. The journey was very smooth and it took corners as if it were on rails. Oh, that's right, we were! It costs the same as a normal bus fare (unless you go to, or are coming from, the airport) and runs about every 10 to 15 minutes.

It was fun I have to admit, especially when it swept around a bend or rang its bell on approach.

The tram is here to stay, and may even be extended in the future, so we thought we had better make good use of it, and so after a little shopping, coffee and cake, we jumped back on for the return leg.

On reflection it would seem overall that a billion pounds doesn't go as far these days.

Only 8.7 miles apparently.

Thursday, 5 March 2015


When I was a little boy growing up, my parents used to buy things such as a car, TV or refrigerator on a credit agreement, at the time called Hire Purchase. Paying back way more than the item was ever worth, these repayments would last for many years. It earned the nickname, "buying on the never never", another way of saying, you could have it now and pay later.

Virtually the whole world has been rocked over the past half dozen years or so by a global financial recession, sparked in part by the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage industry in the USA. However, it really owes it origins to far earlier than that, when we started to have credit made available to us. We could have pretty much anything we wanted right now, without having to wait while we saved up for it. It seemed at times the more you wanted to get into debt, the easier it was. Finance companies were literally throwing money at you, and we had little regard for the interest rates attached.

Eventually this all blew up in our faces, and that debt suddenly needed repaid, and a large percentage of people couldn't, and thus went bust. And it escalated, deeper and deeper, until eventually the system broke worldwide.

Up until 1869 in the UK, if you had debt you could be imprisoned. Now it seems the more debt you have the more you are offered.

But debt and credit's a bad thing right?

I pride myself with having virtually no debt except for a mortgage, which is all but paid off. I don't use credit cards, I have never owned a store card, and for the past 20 years or so I have never been overdrawn.  I'm not wealthy by any means, I just live within my means. If I want something, I wait until I have saved the money for it.

Well that's good, isn't it?

You'd think so, but recently I contacted my energy provider to change a gas meter from a pay-as-you-go card meter, to a regular meter where I would be billed.

I was refused because I didn't have a credit score.

Furious, I delved deeper. It would seem not being in debt, or not paying regular amounts to pay off a credit card balance, has gone against me. I am, quite literally, being punished for living within my means and not contributing to the financial mess that our country is in.

If I had mountains of debt, and were paying it off without defaulting every month, I would have a high credit score and would have no problems.

A completely ridiculous situation, and despite all my efforts of the past week, without a credit history there's absolutely nothing I can do about it.

Short of going out and buying that Ferrari on the never never that is.