Monday, 29 October 2007

Winter Crops

I live with the hope that my crops next year will surpass the fine specimines I admired in a Paris street market.

Winter Crops

My first season as a gardener is almost over. I have preserved as much as I dare and am slowly working through the crop of potatoes I grew in whisky barrels. Because I didn’t want to leave the barrels empty over the winter I have sown them with turnip, cauliflower and onion seeds and today deposited a garlic bulb into a tub near the back door in the hope I will have a fine crop in June.

This week’s success is the harvest of alfalfa shoots and bean sprouts. Both of these can be grown all year round indoors and only take a week to grow. The crisp alfalfa has a crisp nutty flavour of the alfalfa complemented, in taste and texture, the carrots I mixed in with it. It is satisfying to have fresh crops straight from the airing cupboard.

The bean sprouts were a little messier than the alfalfa; they were grown in a tray filled with damp loose woven cloth. They required more handling and cleaning but made a fine addition to a stir fry. Both will be on the menu for the next few months.

il postino - DVD

This weeks offering from the Amazon DVD rental was il postino, the Italian made film about the visit of exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda to a small Italian community and how that visit effected the life of his postman. The film starred the wonderful comic actor Massimo Troisi who tragically died two days after the film’s completion in 1995. But the star of the film is the stunning poems of Neruda. I own a book of these poems and tingle in awe at their perfection. Like the postie in the film, I am inspired, yet again, to pick up pen and compose.

Just Read - To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee.

I first read To Kill a Mocking Bird at school too many years ago. And of course I remember the powerful performance of Gregory Peck in the film.
My reason for choosing to read this a second time came from a need to experience the voice of a child to help me build up my characters for novel two. And this must be one of the best examples of a novel narrated by a child.

Told through the eyes of eight year old Scout Finch, TKa MB tell the story of three children playing and living in a small town in Alabama before the civil rights movement changes the ways white people view black. The story is about fun and adventure and even contains a bogie man in the guise of Bo Radley, a recluse who lives in Scout’s street. But it is when Scout’s lawyer father, Atticus, defends a black man accused of raping a white girl, that the novel takes on its true purpose and uses the children to expose the injustice and warped human values around at that time.
Although this novel has a large number of characters, they are expertly drawn and nothing is lost in the telling. At times the eight year old’s vocabulary seems too mature, but she is the product of a legal household, which makes it easy to excuse.

I don’t normally read books more than once but I have a feeling this novel will be read for a third time in a few years.


Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Reading and Writing and Pumpkin Soup

The Writing Process

Starting is the first and worst hurdle. Novel Two (working title Witch) is whirling round in my head. It wont come out. Why? I have time, I am disciplined, I rise every morning and write my morning pages. I decide what to do for the day and then…well then I faff about doing anything and everything other than what I am suppose to do. I write my dreaded lists and I go through the motions.

I know! I will do some research, at least that's something towards the novel.

I know! I will read novels about the period I intend to write from. I will find books with a similar voice. That is all working towards the novel, isn’t it?

What about the music of the period. I'll just go and dig out some old CDs.

And then synchronicity steps in. I work on Week Nine of Julia Cameron’s Artist Way and read an insightful piece of advise. New projects are scary, she says, procrastination isn’t laziness, it's fear. What good is discipline without Enthusiasm?

Enthusiasm, I can do that. I put down another 1500 words and I wait. Ideas seep in.
I re-read some of my old note books from 2005, when I had a break neck busy life. I now count my blessings and read some Stephen King advice.

In his excellent memoir On Writing he states that he writes 2000 words every day, even on Christmas Day, not because he has to but because he wants to. That’s Enthusiasm.

Then it happens. I wake early with ideas bouncing off every brain cell active at 6.00am. I rise Enthusiastically, turn on the PC and chisel out the stuck words.

My Enthusiasm returns with a vengeance so look out.

Pumpkin Soup or Old Faithful

Today I made pumpkin soup from a featured recipe off the 101cookbook blog, well it’s that time of year isn’t it?

The colour was zen like, the taste divine,
but I made it so thick,
when I heated the gloop
Old Faithful erupted in the pan.

Just Read

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

I first heard of Barbara Kingsolver when I stumbled upon an interview with her on Radio Scotland's Book Café. There she discussed her latest book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and an Oprah choice The Poisonwood Bible. My local library had neither on their shelves, but offered her debut novel The Bean Trees.

This charming tale tells the story of Taylor Greer, a poor small town girl who leaves home to avoid an inevitable future of babies and maybe marriage.

When her car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, an Indian lady dumps a bundle in Taylor’s car, a bundle that is a small girl previously subjected to physical and sexual abuse. Taylor, described in the blurb as ‘plucky’, embarks on a search for a home for herself and the little Indian girl and finds both amongst good people in Tucson, Arizona.

The story is a simple one of love, friendship and human compassion told in an easy page turning style. There are a number of serious issues raised and aired but Kingsolver resisted delving too deep.

Friday, 19 October 2007

A Tale of Two Cultures

Culture Two

Toronto, a city of high buildings and the CN tower. It is a different city from Montreal, but with its own charm. Our train was delayed by a major fire beside the track. There was high excitement when the driver switched the electric off one side of the train, causing the tilting mechanism to shut down and the carriage to lurch to one side. She had been instructed to teeter past the fire site, a scrap yard with burning tyres and propane canister. But despite the delay chaos at the Central Station ,the information lady found us a decent hotel in minutes of our arrival.

One of the Toronto highlights was visiting three city centre bookstores.
1) World's Biggest Bookstore, who live up to their name. They stock a huge selection of Canadian and American literary magazines. I bought two, I couldn’t help myself.
2) Nicholas Hoare. I can honestly say is the best bookstore I have visited in my life. The interior is lined with tall wooden shelves bordered with green wrought iron detail. All books are classified to perfection and every book I saw on display I wanted to read. It is a class act. I could have browsed and lingered all day.
3) Indigo. I spotted from the eight floor café of the Hudson Bay Company. The curved glass street front window looked inviting; unfortunately I had to battle through Saturday afternoon shoppers in a mall to reach the entrance. It was not a good experience. The store is similar to the large bookstore in the UK. Popular fiction, cookery and self help books piled up for the masses.
Lucky Toronto, their bookstores cater for all taste.

French Bliss - DVD Cyrano de Bergerac (Gérard Depardieu)

My DVD rental was one of my all time favourite films this week. Cyrano de Bergerac, stars Gérard Depardieu as the French poet and soldier, expert swordsman and popular leader. His one distinguishing feature is his huge (in fact it is massive!) nose, Pinocchio without the strings.

Because Cyrano believes he is ugly, the love he harbour for his cousin, the stunning Roxanne, falls undeclared. Roxanne, who admires Cyrano is blind to his devotion and when the handsome guy she fancies joins Cyrano’s unit she asks her cousin to look out for him. He does more than this; he helps the tongue-tied youth win Roxanne’s love by composing exquisite love letters, so full of passion and soul they make her swoon. She marries the youth but becomes a young widow when he is killed in battle. Roxanne wastes the rest of her life mourning the lie and is content to live with the paternal company of her ugly cousin.

The film is heartbreaking because it allows the viewer to witness Cyrano's painful unrequited love until his death scene, when Roxanne realises the soul she adores belongs to her selfless cousin. It is then she tell him she love him. Too late!

One thing that is interesting about this film is that the personality of Cyrano is so strong his big nose become almost invisible. As my granny would say, ‘handsome is as handsome does.’

If a heart breaker is your pleasure, this is a must.

Winter is on the way
Today I spotted the first V of geese this season. I look forward to watching my friends from the frozen North make their morning and late afternoon flypast over the house.

Monday, 15 October 2007


Me and my minder

researching Torque The Novel

Last week I received another encouraging rejection letter for my novel Torque. For years I've been told to expect rejection, to have fiction published is an impossible feat. And yet I am also informed tens of thousands of books are published each year. If this is the case why do I find myself searching the reviews for a decent read and resorting to novels published years ago? Where have all the good novels gone?

This rejection backs up a revelation at the recent Wigtown Book Festival when on two occasions I heard speakers state that ‘everyone’ was sick of Scottish authors.
A journalist recounted his efforts to have books reviewed in the press, only to be told ‘We’ve recently reviewed McCall Smith, Rankin and JK Rowling, can you give us a break from the Scots?’

At another session, an author, who is an Englishman resident in Scotland explained to his audience that his publisher instructed him to loose his Scots connection, it was bad for business.

But it isn't only Scots authors who suffer. My depression sank deeper when I read this article from the Frankfurt Book Fair.

The ‘wise ones’ tell me to persevere. One quality I have in abundance is determination. I recently joined a forum, The Small Press Exchange, which I hope will put me in touch with writers and readers in a similar predicament.

And today I laid down the first 1500 word of novel number two.

Just Read

Halls Of Fame published by independent publisher Graywolf Press

This mix of essay and poetry from the distinctive voice of American writer John D’Agata was an invigorating and challenging read for a curmudgeon like me. His young enquiring mind takes nosedives into areas never before explored and what a thrill that ride was. The style is engaging and the language clear, but never being one for academia, I found some of his references mystifying. At times the essays soared over my simple head, in particular The Flat Earth Map: An Essay, about the Flat Earth Society. The highlights for me were Collage History of Art by Henry Darger, which tells the tale of an obscure artist. And the chilling final essay And There Was Evening and There Was Morning about the burning lights of Las Vegas. It plunged me back into my Eco Rant.

Why do tall buildings need so many lights burning all through the night anyway?

Saturday, 13 October 2007

Eco Rant

Scotland's shame

Last week one of my friends commented that recycling was the ‘new middle class obsession’. He wound me up after my passionate plea to use less packaged supermarket food and buy locally. I was horrified when others in the group joined him, saying that they had no trust in local governments and believed recycling was a big con because all the recycled items end up in the landfill anyway.

I once heard an influential broadcaster state on TV that she will begin to separate her cans and paper from the rubbish when China and India does something about their pollution.

It was reported last week in a Sunday paper that Scotland is one of Europe’s worst recyclers with 71% of our rubbish going to landfill. No wonder with attitudes like these from intelligent professional people.

Ten years ago I worked in Sweden and Denmark. There were no individual bins in the office. All rubbish was separated into recycling bins. When Swedes and Danes moved to work in Glasgow a few months later they could be found wandering the office floor with empty cans and plastic bottles wondering where to deposit them, they were mystified at our lax attitude towards the environment. 4% of Sweden and Denmark’s rubbish ends up in land fill.

Does no-one care! My efforts might be small but at least I am taking control of things I can contribute to saving our world. I can do little to change China, or India. If I could I would.

Check out the waste aware website to make a difference

Tale of two cultures

Biosphere, Montreal

Culture One

Even though I love the mountains, I also love cities. I love the buzz, the hotch-potch of smells wafting from competing restaurants, the clatter and honk of the traffic, the sirens and the expressions on people’s face as they go about their business. So it was a treat for me to end my holiday in Canada with a drop into two cities listed high on my ‘must visit’ wish list.

After we parted company from our trusty camper-van, we took The Ocean to Montreal. This is a sleeper train that leaves Halifax daily at midday and travels down the St Lawrence River to arrive in Montreal at 8.00am next morning. Unfortunately Canada is thick with trees, meaning the views in daylight are restricted and by the time the train reaches the St Lawrence night has descended. Never mind, the food in the dining car is adequate for a galley kitchen and the bunks are comfortable. Sleep came late however because the train rattles along at a hell of a speed and lurches like a fairground ride.

We spilled, disorientated, into streets filled with commuters. One lady stopped and pointed ‘you are here’ on our map and directed us to the best place to catch an early coffee.
In the café, above our heads, a TV blared morning news read in French. The waitress greeted us with ‘bonjour’. We soon discovered, back on the street, that French is the dominant language and culture. I fell in love with Montreal within minutes of arriving. The restaurant menus, the street signs, the toilet signs, all French. If it weren’t for the big trucks trundling along the roads I would have believed I was in France.

We headed for Old Montreal, by the river and found a boutique hotel, Auberge Bonsecours run by a very French matriarch, who dresses impeccably from head to foot in red and apricot. The bedrooms are furnished in red and apricot, even her dog is an apricot French poodle. And the breakfast she serves is a splendid feast of pate, spreads, cheese, ham and six or seven different varieties of bread (not forgetting the strawberry and apricot jams). What a wonderful way to start the day.

On our first evening we traipsed round the rejuvenate harbour area, dodging the ambush of restaurant staff trying to grab the trickle of custom in the dying days of the season. We settled for a French Restaurant 'Forget', which sat opposite our Auberge. The service was attentive and the caribou I ordered was lean and uncluttered.

The highlight of our second Montreal day was the Biosphere, a remnant of the ’67 Expo exhibition. Here we attended a passionate lecture on wind farms, geothermal energy and natural water treatment, all deliver by Veronique, who oozed zeal but was regrettably tinged with a little cynicism after all the knock back this kind of work receives. Keep up the good work Veronique, we will win in the end.

Monday, 8 October 2007

A film set or two

Loch Ossian on a good day
(photo Colin Baird)

A film set or two

Twice in a month I find myself stumbling into the set of a major feature film.

Film One

The first was in Toronto. It was our last day in Canada and having eaten mounds of wholesome Canadian food for two weeks the seams of my jeans were beginning to fray. We bought fresh peaches and bananas in St Lawrence Market and relaxed on a nearby park bench to slurp our fruit and watch Toronto at play. The park was busy. Young lads slept on blankets next to some electrical equipment, there was a table strewn with the wreckage of a picnic lunch. Two well made up ladies lounged in director’s chairs. Nothing too unusual. Our bench faced the street, the one of the occupants of a parked black sedan jumped out and made way for two dark haired men wearing black overcoat – an odd choice of garb considering it was 27C. A couple of police officers stood in the road to hold traffic, people with headsets buzzed around us. They began to build a metal frame at our feet on which they erected an expensive looking movie camera. I asked one of the techies should we move, no it was OK – we were not in their ‘wedge’, we moved anyway, to the next bench. From there we watched a company of about thirty bodies labour for over an hour to rehearse and execute what looked like twenty seconds of dialogue taking place in the black sedan. The film, we were told, was a feature called Target.

Better than a flask of tea

Film Two

This film set was less unusual considering where I was. On Saturday morning I met twenty odd hearty mountaineers from The Ochil Mountaineering Club for the auspicious occasion of Mhari’s Munro Compleation. It is traditional among hill walkers to invite a large party of friends and family to join you complete a round of all 284 Munros (mountains in Scotland over three thousand feet high). Mhari had chosen Ben na Lap as the finale to her round.

The happy rabble invaded the West Highland Line train at Crianlarich and travelled through mist and rain to alight at the remotest station in Britain, Corrour. This is the station that made a cameo appearance in the film Trainspotting. The station is situated about half a mile from Loch Ossian Youth Hostel, on the west bank of Loch Ossian. The loch is ringed by ribs of high mountains, including our hit for the day. At the eastern end of the loch, past the impressive lodge built for the Tetra Pak heiress Ms Rausling, is the gateway to another stunning range of mountains. This place is my favourite place in the whole wide world. There are no public roads. The only access to this unique setting is by railway, foot or land rover track.

Our party was cheery despite the rain, but I felt vexed for the number of folks who were new to the area and could not experience the full wonder that lay behind the murk. We were accompanied throughout the day by the sound of a helicopter.

The summit was bagged in record slow time which is also traditional for this hill because our train back was not until evening. Champagne corks popped into the mist, paper cups fizzed with bubbly and whisky, and hasty sandwiches were scoffed before the damp and cold drove us back downhill. Fine views and the mystery of the helicopter were revealed below the clag. Puffing down the track was the steam train we had spotted earlier at Rannoch Station, The Hogwarts Express.

The word at the station was that the train was being filmed for the next Harry Potter film and the passengers for the four or five trips this train made up and down the line were the children from Lochaber’s schools. We received a fine wave from them as they made their final chug past on the way back to Fort William

This remote station is lucky to have a tea room to soothe the weary traveller during his wait for the homebound train, unfortunately the lady who runs this establishment does not appear to enjoy the custom. When I entered the cosy wee tearoom intent on buying a beer, this scary lady looked at me as if I were a bailiff come to clear the land. Her gruff manner increased with each subsequent arrival and I took pleasure informing the crabbit hostess that more custom was on the way.

It is a pity the welcome is not friendly; the tearoom must have few visitors for trains are few and hill walkers must be the primary trade. With almost an hour to kill before the train I took my drink outside and ate the food left in my rucksack.

Hogwarts Express and Holly (the dog)

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Our Pick Up Truck

Canadian Dream - Revisited

We thought we'd try something new. Nova Scotia is a big province and to make the most of our time there we decided to hire, what Brits call a camper van and North Americans call a RV. This is our little baby, a skip chained to a Ford pick-up truck, but it was great fun.

We trundled up to Cape Breton to experience the famous Cabot Trail. We found our first well positioned and well equipped camping spot at MacLeod's, situated between Inverness and Dunvegan. Cape Breton was weird for us because all the place names are identical to those in Scotland and all the road signs are in Gaelic, as they are in the Highlands here.

The highlights of Cape Breton were;

The freedom of the camper van. It was fantastic to pull off the road to admire stunning views of crashing waves and snaking roads, put the kettle on and grab a ring side seat for lunch.

Meat Cove; This neat little community sits on the Northern tip of Cape Breton. The road is windy, steep and rough in places, and at times our trusty pick-up lurched and groaned, but despite the protests we made it.

Four Mile Beach, begins at SugarLoaf, Cabot's Landing, where John Cabot landed and discovered North America. This thin stretch of land forms a pristine beach, embracing the calmer East Coast Atlantic waves.

Hideaway Campsite, Dingwall. Along side MacLeod's this was one of the best campsites we stopped at. As the name suggests this site is sheltered within a wood, but its raised position awarded us spectacular views toward the Atlantic. As with all the sites we visited the facilities are clean and adequate.

The National Park. Cape Breton National Park maintains the environment around the Cape Breton Highlands. Like Kejimkujik Park, they have designated walks for tourists to tramp.

At the visitor centre we were warned of the high moose population. We thought, like the red deer in Scotland, the moose may be observed from a safe distance. Not so. In the park we had four encounters with moose on the Skyline Trail. One moose, having a grand feed on the trial, refused to move at our approach. We tried to skirt round her, but she began to look agitated, so we make a swift retreat. These beasts are huge and not to be messed with.

One night there was a fierce storm and our wee home morphed into a rollicking boat. Although it was a surreal experience I felt secure chained down to the sturdy truck.


From pick-up to classic

My brother Mike loves everything American. The music , the country, the people. Unlike me he has no need to pour over an atlas to find his holiday destination, the US is large enough for a lifetime of holidays.

His over-riding love is American cars. Ever since I was a wee lassie with skint knees and a pony-tail I have been aware of Mike's obsession. Now being in need of big toys he can indulge himself.

He recently sent me this rare shot of his current car and his previous car separated by the yellow car. They are all General Motors F-bodies: his old Chevrolet Camaro 3rd generation ‘80s, the yellow Pontiac Transam 2nd generation ‘70s and his current Pontiac Firebird 4th generation ‘90s. His ambition now is to become a real redneck.

Mike has agreed to become a guest blogger on this site, so look out for more 'Redneck News'

PS. Look out for ET in this photo!

Monday, 1 October 2007

Wigtown Book Festival

Louis and Ilone

Wigtown Book Town is currently running its annual book festival. Wigtown, a small market town situated in the south west of Scotland, is not the easiest place to reach from Central Scotland, so when a friend invited me there for the weekend, I was delighted. I went a bit mad buying tickets online. I booked five shows back to back during the day on Saturday and The National Theatre of Scotland performance in the evening. On Sunday I was committed to only one show, because I wanted to give myself time to soak up the atmosphere of my surroundings and to visit the towns many book shops.

The programme is diverse this year, with a theme of peace and unity. The festival was opened by Ireland’s first minister Ian Paisley. This, the organiser said, was to show Wigtown’s close links with their neighbours across the sea. The town is closer to Belfast than it is to Glasgow.

The highlights from the weekend for me were;

Robert Crawford, poet and Professor of Literature at St Andrew’s University treated his audience to an entertaining and witty tour through his impressive book ‘Scotland’s Books – The Penguin History of Scottish Literature'. His style was relaxed and honest, and he proved to be resilient when, stepping back from the podium, he fell backwards into the back of the stage. This unflappable academic, picked himself up, checked his glasses weren’t broken and resumed his presentation after warning his audience that if anyone saw him crawling about back stage later not to worry, he would only be looking for his money.

The National Theatre of Scotland Production of Molly Sweeney was staged in the nearby Bladnoch Distillery. The venue was intimate and the set simple but effective. The play, about a blind woman helped to regain her sight, was performed under what looked like a shattered mirror with lethal shards hanging from wires just above the actors’ heads. The tension of ‘that will have someone’s eye out’ was sustained throughout the whole performance. The three actors, Cara Kelly, Oengus MacNamara and Michael Glenn Murphy, played their intense parts with great skill. There were a number of long, powerful, soliloquies which must have required immense concentration. If I have one criticism it is that the play was around half an hour too long. I felt many of the scenes could have been shortened without damage to the story.

The best of the fest for me was Sunday’s performance (see photo). Louis de Bernières and Ilone Antonius-Jones, thrilled the audience with an hour of jokes, poetry readings and medieval music played on a vast array of instruments that Louis had collected and saved from obscurity. Ilone handed weird and wonderful percussion implements out to the reticent audience, but the performers’ easy manner soon had the hall reeling along to a Turkish folk song and a Greek melody Louis picked up while in Kefalonia.

Ilone twinkled with mischief as she declared what fun ‘one’ can have after writing a book.
‘Eight books’ Louis replied through gritted teeth. It was evident Ilone was the true musician of the pair, but Louis could be forgiven his many mistakes for the pleasure he gave with his sparkle and funny facial expression of concentration during some very tricky playing. The man is Captain Corelli in disguise.