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August 17, 2008

Saskia and Trewin Restorick: the wedding (text)

Set back by yesterday’s train running 50 minutes late, after undue anxiety we finally made it to Dulwich College Library with ten minutes to spare before the marriage! The service included wonderful readings from Ovid's The Art of Love (my sister Lindsay, Saskia’s mother), Edward Lear's The Owl and the Pussycat (Giselle, Trewin’s daughter) and Ann Morrow Lindbergh’s The Gift from the Sea (Saskia’s friend Sarah). Saskia was a truly radiant bride, and my three other nieces (Olivia, Helena and Rosie) were cheery and stunning as bridesmaids. I’ll add some unofficial photographs after I get home: this blog comes straight from the train.

We walked back to champagne and canapés in Lin and Nick’s magnificent garden, where 96 guests later sat down to a superb meal featuring organic lamb, in an enormous marquee. Drink flowed very freely, the dance floor was well used but not too crowded and it was the happiest, least formal wedding I’ve attended. Speeches were made by Saskia, as well as Trewin, best man Dave, the bridesmaids and bride’s father Nick, the latter clearly unscripted, inebriated and, as ever, very articulate and entertaining. After a dubious moment when Nick seemed in danger of going over the edge, he drew back from the brink just in time: brilliant.

We were in Dulwich for a total of 22 hours, at the price of over 16 hours on trains or in transit, and although that ratio was far from ideal, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. The fact I had totally lost my voice to an unseasonal throat infection was a bit frustrating, but it led to some interesting conversations, necessarily one-sided. Several guests worked at Global Action Plan, an environmental charity that Trewin set up in 1993, long before sustainable development had become trendy. It now employs 50 staff on a wide range of projects aimed at home, school and workplace.

And I really enjoyed my chat with Helena’s boyfriend, Henry Hemming. His father, John Hemming, wrote the definitive Conquest of the Incas which was important to me when researching our Explore the Inca Trail. Henry has clearly inherited his father's writing talent and appetite for adventurous travel. He works both as artist and writer, and was talking about his latest book, In Search of the English Eccentric.

Saskia and Trewin already have established a lovely home together in Clapham. Perhaps that’s why they had requested no presents, instead asking guests to email a recipe and a photograph. We complied, slightly puzzled, and months later were thrilled to find all recipes anthologised into a smart, spiral-bound book with recipes attributed and displayed alongside the photos. What a generous and imaginative souvenir to give your guests!

August 18, 2008

Saskia and Trewin Restorick: the wedding (photos)

A blog is the wrong medium for a photo gallery, but it may be a few weeks before the official photos are available so I'm uploading a few meantime for family and friends. Yesterday's entry gives the context. First, here are bride and groom, Saskia and Trewin, relaxing in the garden after the service:

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The rest were taken later, inside the marquee, first Helena and Henry over dinner:

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The bride's sisters, from left to right Olivia, Rosie and Helena making their wonderful speech:

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And finally, late at night, here's my gorgeous sister Lindsay dancing with my fit nephew Seb:

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September 20, 2008

Fresh Light on Dumyat

Yesterday, we launched Light on Dumyat, the wonderful adventure novel for children, as part of Stirling Literary Festival, at the Stirling Smith. Elspeth King, its curator who has so successfully captured the Leonardo drawings for this, its only Scottish venue, was chairman for the evening. Moira Lawson, Chairman of the Friends of the Smith, spoke about the book’s origin and appeal. Clearly an ex-teacher, she had excellent rapport with the audience of over 100.

False modesty will not, however, prevent me from expressing my belief that husband Keir was on top form in his speech which set the “political incorrectness” of Rennie’s fine novel in the context of modern educational thinking about childhood and children’s needs for autonomy and real experiences. Willie Thom, an old friend of Rennie’s and former policeman and advocate, told me that this last speaker was so good that somebody should make a transcript available. Since he didn't know of my connection with the event, I gave this some weight. Keir speaks only from a few notes, but this morning I sat him down and simply took dictation. You can read the result here.

All credit to the McOwan family who hosted a fine launch and to Moira who also created the superb refreshments. Rennie is well known to this audience, not only as founder of Stirling Literary Society and Friends of the Ochils, but also as a celebrated and popular Stirling citizen. He was kept busy, signing about 90 books, and chatting to so many guests who obviously warmly welcomed the book's rebirth.

October 4, 2008

From the bedroom of a sleeping toddler

It's lucky that the PowerBook keyboard is near-silent, because I'm typing this in the same room that grand-daughter Amy is sleeping. She has had an exciting day, with no nap, lots of exercise, games with two large black Labradors, sociability and a swim. She wore the Polyotter today, a swimsuit with removable body floats, and it was her longest, and most independent swim so far. Then we visited neighbours and dear friends Malcolm and Aileen, which was a brilliant distraction from the fact that her mother was going out for the evening for a well-deserved break and her grand-father Keir was going to Glasgow for a concert to celebrate Nigel Osborne's 60th birthday. We walked back up the hill in near-darkness (Amy in the buggy by now) and had the loveliest bath with bubbles. Before I had finished reading Jill Lambert's wonderful "Peace at last" to her, she was already asleep.

Much as I would like to have gone to Nigel's concert, fielding Amy was more compelling. (I've just found out that it will be broadcast by the BBC on Saturday 25 October, 22.30 to midnight, which is great news as he sang a cameo role in one of the opera selections and I've never heard Nigel sing before.) I feel absurdly proud of Amy's water confidence, and her insistence "I can do it by myself". This is approximately true when she's wearing the Polyotter but doomed to failure when, as so often, she asks to come back in the water, after I had thought she was finished, without a stitch on. But she will get there, as long as she goes on enjoying it. She has the most wonderful social confidence, a real tribute to her mother's patience and child-centredness. But she fell asleep before 8.30 pm and I needed to occupy myself for the evening.

Real work is now out of the question: the office is too far away to be in earshot, and neither music nor TV are compatible with monitoring her welfare. So this is the ideal moment to update my blog, which at least has proved useful to me when I forget things (which has become increasingly often lately). I'm wildly unreliable about update frequency but have decided just to accept my own faults and forgive them. If I blogged about some of the exciting things I've done recently, I might never be able to make myself write the book. My time in June on Kili by the Lemosho route is an example: I just have to keep my powder dry or the book would never be written.

October 14, 2008

A sojourn at the Savanna Lodge, near the Kruger

We've just been staying at the Savanna Lodge. I had been sceptical of its website claim "the ultimate safari experience", but I was wrong, it's all true. The Savanna Lodge staff are passionate, dedicated and skilful, and the whole day is geared to maximising your chances of game viewing in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve (which borders the Kruger). The morning game drive leaves at 0530, with breakfast served on return. Lunch is at 1530 followed by the evening game drive. (Between the two you can sleep, swim, chill or whatever.) Guests are assigned to a 2-man team which takes you on game drives in vehicles with no sides or canopy. Sitting thus exposed, within a few yards of elephant, lion or leopard, really does feel like the ultimate safari experience.

Keir and I were assigned to ranger Shaune and tracker Nordic - a long-term partnership in which communication was mainly wordless. They had an uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time, each depending on each other's skills not only for successful sightings, but also for safety. They read the animal's body language, approach only when the animals are calm, often positioning the vehicle (engine always switched off) so that the animals approach it. Thus we found ourselves amidst a herd of 40-50 elephants, including very young ones and the matriarch, calmly feeding and walking past us, at one point only inches away. Here is one of the many photos I took (telephoto lens unnecessary:):

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Elephant, rhino and lion were plentiful and most drives gave us close sightings of these and more. Rhino were even grazing quietly outside our cabin on the day we arrived, although I captured the one below at a water-hole, late afternoon. Shortly after, we saw these two lions near a kill, and they were so relaxed that they resumed mating. Apparently they do this every 15-30 minutes for as long as the lioness is in oestrus - only yards from the vehicle. I felt slightly voyeuristic at first, then just awe-struck.

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But the most thrilling sight of all was leopard. Solitary, stealthy and secretive, it's the most elusive of all carnivores. We followed this female as she stalked and killed a baby kudu. The chase was literally breath-taking and the experience utterly unforgettable.

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We really enjoyed the excellent Savanna Lodge food and drink: game drives always stop for a sundowner, and unlike many "inclusive" resorts, this one charges nothing for extras, whether drinks, laundry or bathtime luxuries (e.g. lavender oil in a quail's egg). They even give you a blank CD on which to burn your photographs!

January 2, 2009

December 2008

It's hard to know what became of December, although the 5th-13th was spent very enjoyably in France, ski-ing with friends and neighbours Aileen and Malcolm Johnson at Val Claret, just above Tignes. We had both the best conditions I can remember, and almost the worst, with two whole days out of seven when I didn't ski at all. However, it was so brilliant when we could that this hardly mattered. Now that the apartments at Val Claret have wi-fi, I routinely take my laptop and regard bad weather as an opportunity to work, rather than a challenge to ski regardless of wisdom. This has had a good effect on my broken bone tally: after three years out of five with successively a serious back and head injury, then broken clavicle, finally just a scaphoid, I was beginning to feel defensive when asked if I wasn't getting past it. Nowadays when blizzards loom, I just get out the laptop. Just as well, too, as a kind fellow skier spotted a mistake in our new Everest guidebook (on the back cover too) that had somehow slipped through all proofreading. Thanks to the magic of email, this was fixed, proofs rechecked and the whole book put to bed just as fast as if I'd been at home.

After the return from Val Claret, there wasn't long before Christmas and I must say that this was the most peaceful, amiable and enjoyable Christmas Day I can remember. I think Amy was partly the cause, but my wonderful family must take some credit too. Probably we were all seeing the event through two-year old eyes this time. Certainly she got super presents: Uncle Sandy provided a music centre with karaoke, and you can see how popular that was:
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My pre-Christmas trip to the Early Learning Centre for the grandparent present had started badly, because I naively answered the assistant's questions about age and gender truthfully: this led to my being steered toward a toy ironing station! Once I told them she liked transport, we refocused on one of those garages with lifts, ramps and a helicopter pad and about 20 diecast cars of the right scale to go with it. Sandy and I had a wonderful time "helping" Amy (i.e. preventing her) sticking on the transfers and we all had a great time playing with her toys. Pure magic!

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February 9, 2009

Amy and Gregor

We had a lovely visit yesterday from the Flynns. It had to be postponed from Saturday because the snow and ice on our hill has been so bad – not a problem for adults in suitable hiking boots, but far from buggy-friendly at the best of times. Craig and Carol-Anne were bringing a Very Important Visitor – Gregor, their ten-month old baby – all the way from Greenock to meet us.

Craig runs Mini Tours Scotland - which gives private guided tours of Scotland to visitors (mainly from the States) in smallish groups. Carol-Anne is currently a full-time mother and Gregor, as you can see below, is just adorable. Amy, being two years older, was the focus of Gregor's attention and admiration. It was fascinating to watch them together, and Amy's obvious delight in Gregor's company was fully reciprocated. The paddling pool-cum-ball swamp gave them their own territory.

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February 12, 2009

Images from a microlight

Yesterday I finally cashed in my voucher for a microlight flight from East Fortune with East of Scotland Microlights. This was a generous birthday present from son Sandy, who runs Experience Ecosse which issued the voucher. Sandy is also training to pilot one, and last Sunday he was listed at number 31 in the Scotland on Sunday Hot 100 eligible men. I was hoping to see him fly.

It had taken us a while to sort out a date, partly diary problems but also weather constraints (too much crosswind is a showstopper). It was well worth the wait. The visibility was great, a dusting of snow on the Pentlands and with Gordon Douglas at the controls I had never a moment's nervousness. He even let me do some simple turns and a bit of descent toward the airfield, although from the back seat it's hard to see where you're going.

I have a satisfying souvenir in the shape of some decent photographs (I had my new Lumix G1 round my neck) of the Bass Rock, Tantallon Castle, Gosford House and North Berwick Harbour. Another time I'd try for an even faster shutter speed: the helmet visor meant I couldn't use the viewfinder and it was too bright to change settings, but I'm trying to put perfectionism aside and just enjoy them as they are. After a quick lunch, there was time to watch Sandy doing take-offs and landings (Gordon in the back seat). This put both him and the microlight in a new perspective: the image was suddenly of a flimsy contraption, heavier than air yet impossibly vulnerable in flight. As he disappeared into the wide blue yonder, I turned away to drive home, lump in throat, suddenly reminded of what enormous strides he has taken in recent years.

Here's a selection of what I saw: Sandy flying past the airfield, then Queen Margaret University (which I took for husband Keir who is Vice-chair of its Court), then Gosford House and (my favourite) the sands of Gosford Bay. Things look refreshingly different from up there!

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February 15, 2009

Amy's first snowman

Today is our 15th consecutive day with snow on the ground at Landrick, although the thaw has begun. It's been a time of leaving a car at the foot of the hill and walking up and down, far preferable to risking getting the car up but not down again. There's a great deal of rubbish talked about snow ploughs that takes no account of the cost of maintaining them to combat conditions that arise about once in 18 years. Sometimes the weather is in charge and you just have to adapt.

Anyway the snow has its upside, too. Daughter Helen and I took Amy outside yesterday and we built her first snowman, a fine collaborative project. He may look a little lopsided to you, but to us he was a splendid creation: sturdy birch arms, twigs for his hair, pebbles for eyes and a half-carrot nose. We were just in time, because this morning his neck has thinned to breaking point and he seems unlikely to survive the day.

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May 24, 2009

Experience Ecosse is 5 years old

Being country bumkins, and pensioners besides, we don't often get out on a Saturday evening. Yesterday was different: we took the train to Edinburgh to celebrate Experience Ecosse, Sandy's gift experience company, which was 5 years old. He threw a wonderful party at the Hawke and Hunter, Picardy Place, where the Prosecco flowed freely and the 60-100 guests included his suppliers, office staff, friends and family. Husband Keir and I went to it, along with long-standing friends Nick and Margaret Walshaw, but sadly minus grand-daughter Amy who was banned by the byzantine licensing laws, thus also preventing her mother Helen from sharing the event. Amy, watching everybody getting ready, was asking why she couldn't come to Uncle Sandy's party too, and we couldn't really explain.

Anyway, if you've ever had to think up a present for somebody who seems to have everything, the answer is easy: give them an experience voucher - from tank driving to cook school, hot air ballooning to wine tasting, speedboat to pampering. Sandy's website shows the locations nearly all over Scotland and tells you more. For the last nine months he's been assisted by the highly personable and capable Claire Maasch, but Claire is returning home to South Africa this week. Still, I doubt if we've heard the last of her!

Here is Sandy cutting the "Experience Ecosse" birthday cake, with Claire in the background. The cake was kindly created by friends Sheila and Celia, who also provided the photograph:

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June 2, 2009

Floating toward the Pentlands

Yesterday we had a very special treat: Keir and I went up in a hot air balloon from Bush House, south of Edinburgh, and floated south-west for about 8 miles, broadly parallel to the A702, at heights ranging from tree-tops to 3000 feet. Each of us had been given an Experience Ecosse voucher as a present for a past birthday by son Sandy. Since ballooning demands still, dry weathe, it naturally took several bookings to get on a flight that went ahead. Our pilot was Pete Foster of Alba Ballooning, ably assisted by pursuit driver Tam. (Tam also has the delicate task of negotiating access to retrieve the balloon with whichever farmer's field is used for landing.) Pete is highly professional, refreshingly concise and calm in his safety briefings, and, as you can see, utterly dwarfed by his balloon:

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A feature of the experience is that everybody helps to manhandle, blow up and, later, douse the balloon. This gives you a much more hands-on sense of the scale and weight of this extraordinarily 19th-century form of transport by wicker basket. The pilot has no steering, only the ability to control altitude and hence perhaps to benefit from a different wind direction. Here is Keir, wearing thermal gloves and holding the mouth open while burners are blasting very hot air into it:

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Our 7 fellow passengers included another person on a birthday treat - his eighth. He did seem to enjoy the flight, but I found myself wondering what his mother, who came along sporting her D&G handbag and fashion shoes, will find to give him for his ninth. Keir and I were celebrating birthdays totalling 121 years, and I don't mean to suggest that makes us any more deserving than an 8-year old, but at least we could see out over the basket.

We also enjoyed watching the balloon's effect on the astonishing range of people and animals whom we overflew. It's difficult not to feel elevated when looking down over barking dogs, cantering horses and waving children. We were also buzzed by some microlite enthusiasts. Fortunately, in the air as at sea, motorised transport gives way to sail. Here's one of them:

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We all enjoyed the eerily silent smooth take-off and at dusk had an exciting, but well-controlled landing: just a few bounces and the basket landed on its side. The departure from the basket was orderly and surprisingly trouble-free given that some folk had to climb down from the upper deck. The flight was rounded off by a glass of bubbly, and we returned to Landrick both elated and soothed. Brilliant!

June 20, 2009

A week is a long time in publishing

This has been an interesting week with many journeys, both short and long. After Monday's trips to Aberfoyle and to Alloa (the latter to discuss how to bring our existing website fully into the 21st century), I visited Edinburgh on Tuesday. Mainly this was to meet the team at Seol, the repping cousin of Edinburgh publisher Birlinn. Since February, Seol has been repping our list in Scotland and it was great to meet them at last, and get some feedback from the retailing viewpoint. I managed a quick visit to the National Galleries before it was time to walk down to son Sandy's new flat in East London Street. This is a lovely modern development, with light, spacious rooms and it's great to see him settled there. Even better, he cooked a lovely seared tuna salad for us which we ate at an elegant glass table – in his previous flat, it was more a question of balancing a plate on your knees on the sofa-bed.

Wednesday's visit to Aberfeldy was to meet Richard Struthers of Safe Journeys, who has been leading trips to Nepal for 16 years and with whom I have booked an Everest Base Camp trek in September. I'm hoping to get a fair crack at Kala Pattar this time, and also to return via the Cho La pass (5450m/18,000ft) to Gokyo Lakes, and climb Gokyo Ri. Richard thinks that heavy snowfall is the main hazard that might prevent this, but at present, I suspect that it's my own lack of preparation that would create the challenge.

Thursday was my trip to London, on two publishing visits connected with my IPG membership. The first was a session with Susie Dunlop of Allison & Busby, who is kindly acting as my mentor, and she is proving incredibly helpful. Being a somewhat maverick publisher, based out on a limb in Dunblane, it's all too easy for me to sail on blithely unaware of things we should be doing, or doing differently. Supportive advice from an experienced publisher is a fantastic resource, and I intend to make the most of it.

Then it was time to hasten to the IPG's Meet the Buyers event at which publishers meet buyers from key wholesalers and retailers, both online and bricks-and-mortar, and discover how to try to make them aware of our offer. The answer turns out to be different in almost every case, so it's lots of work but definitely worth knowing how to go about it better. It was held in the recently refurbished Royal Institution in Albemarle Street, a superb blend of modern and traditional. The briefing was held in the Library:

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After arriving late at my sister's house in Dulwich, I had a lovely lazy start next day in the wonderful garden that brother-in-law Nick and sister Lindsay are just completing. Here are some photos of its swimming pond with beach hut: no chemicals, with water kept clean by ecological means. It's a beautiful feature, and this time was an island of tranquillity before an intense session of follow-up by wi-fi on the busy train home to Dunblane:

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July 15, 2009

Sandy goes solo

I just got a phone call from Sandy. Today, unexpectedly soon, he flew solo at East of Scotland Microlights and I'm feeling very proud of him. Like riding a motor bike, you are allowed to go solo before you pass your test, but (unlike a motor bike) you don't go solo until your instructor has decided you are competent enough not to pose a danger to other air traffic or yourself. So until today, he had never experienced the very different handling of the microlight flying "light" (carrying only one adult).

In only about 15 flying hours, he's made remarkable progress. Although he's always been a good learner when motivated, his educational career has been unorthodox, to put it uber-mildly. I saw him fly in February, but that was with his instructor on board. Apparently Gordon now supervises him from the ground, though I don't like to think too hard about how that would work in a real emergency. Here is a shot of him landing, taken just after I'd had my own flying experience in February (he had given me an Experience Ecosse voucher as a birthday present). I'll have to go back there soon, to snap him flying solo:

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PS: update from 16 July: courtesy of Jill Douglas, here is the contemporary shot of the cat that got the cream:

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July 26, 2009

Amy and Catriona on Dumyat

Dumyat has featured in this blog a few times as my favourite local hill. But yesterday marked a watershed: on my way back down, I met grand-daughter Amy, who (with her mother Helen, friend Catriona and Catriona's parents) had climbed nearly the whole mountain by the normal route!

Aware of their plan, but thinking it fairly ambitious for two 3-year-olds, and above all anxious not to risk disrupting or gate-crashing it, I had taken Bramble up the less-trodden route from the north, wondering whether or not I might meet them. I was truly delighted on my way down to meet this cheery group. They weren't far short of the summit and, more important, were clearly having a splendid day.

Here, courtesy of Jim (Catriona's dad) are some pictures celebrating Amy and Catriona's first day on a big hill:

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September 6, 2009

A festival of premieres

The 2009 festival was perhaps our most exciting yet. It began on 18 August with Mendelssohn’s Elijah, a work that I had performed while still a member of the Stirling University chorus, so I found it particularly engaging. And it ended on Saturday night with Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, a sublime and dramatic performance conducted by Mark Elder with the Hallé Orchestra, Edinburgh Festival Chorus and splendid soloists. 24 hours later, after the pressure of packing and preparing for Nepal, I’m sitting here at Heathrow typing this with Alice Coote’s sublime interpretation of the Angel still going around in my head singing her “Softly and gently”. These two choral works stand like colossuses, marking the beginning and end of our 2009 Festival experience.

In between, two days stand out a mile. The first was a week ago, when we journeyed to the Queen’s Hall for an important reason: the premiere of a work by Nigel Osborne on 31 August. Looking with mounting desperation at the piles of unfinished work and production issues around the Rucksack Readers office, I came close to resenting giving up most of a working day to this concert. But it was wholly extraordinary, truly a revelation. The Arditti Quartet played a late Beethoven quartet (op 85) and a Berg which was challenging but not offputting. After the interval followed the world premiere of Nigel’s Tiree, commissioned by EIF specially for these players, augmented by the shimmering live sounds of the metal plate loudspeaker installation (controlled by a Mac, naturally). This recreated the sounds made by Tiree’s famous stones, and added a wholly fresh, new dimension to the tones and timbre of the string quartet.

Nigel, who is a friend and colleague of Keir’s, joined us after the concert for a beer. I wasn‘t surprised to learn that he had deputised for Ligeti (whose String Quartet no 2 followed Tiree) but when the conversation drifted to fractal geometry (talking to Nigel is full of such hazards) it turned out that he knew and had worked with Mandelbrot at a conference about art, music and maths. Having studied sums long ago at Cambridge, Mandelbrot was a famous name to me, but Nigel is innocent of all pretension when he drops such names. Fractal geometry of the Scottish coastline is grist to his mill as a composer, as is Tiree’s best-known folksong. Nigel is a very rare example of a 21st century polymath: he also speaks about 19 languages. It's just as well he is so modest, or he might be very daunting, or even quite annoying. Anyway, I was fired up enough to ask him to sign my programme, which he did without a murmur. I wonder what he thought of the review I just read on the plane (in Scotland on Sunday, 6.9.09) which described the work as “an ethereal miasma of folk tunes and harmonic expansiveness”. Hmmm.

The other outstanding day was last Friday, which also began with String Quartets: the Emerson were playing Beethoven and two Mendelssohn quartets, one early and the other written in the year he died. We went straight on to Oloroso, to take son Sandy for a birthday lunch. Afterwards, we just had time for the National Gallery of Scotland exhibition on Spain and Scotland (Spain had all the world-class artists) before Brian Friel’s extraordinary “Yalta Game” at the King’s – an unbroken hour of pyrotechnic theatre with shades of Bennett and Stoppard full of teasing ambiguity and tensions between reality, imagination and yearning.

Finally, after several cups of coffee we were off to another world premiere from Scottish Ballet with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra at the Playhouse. The first Stravinsky (Scènes de ballet) was choreographed by Frederick Ashton, followed by Workwithinwork set to Berio. But beyond question, what set the evening apart was the stunningly fresh, modern and fluid Petrushka choreographed by Ian Spink. By setting the story in Russia of the 1990s (instead of Tsarist St Petersburg) it gained a whole new lease of life. Scottish Ballet created a spectacle of energy, drama, full of innovation, and it was good to see the programme give credits for specialist coaching in breakdancing and pole-dancing. The staging was brilliant, showing the love triangle portrayed in the “show” performed in a lorry trailer and "for real" in the chaotic, and finally violent, street scene. It was breathtaking.

January 16, 2010

Mr Boom is pure magic

During the last month of the 1988 Glasgow Garden Festival, we hired a one-man band called Mr Boom to celebrate our two children's birthday. They had reached the ages of 7 and 4 respectively, on the same day, and they and their pals (and parents) had a brilliant time singing and dancing along with Mr Boom. We danced around the "Pixie Tree", and Helen was transformed from a frog back into herself. We all went to the airport, and Sandy got to hold the famous flying sock. We sang the days of the week, acted out the planets moving around the sun and ended with a heartfelt, haunting "What a lovely day I've had". Mr Boom's cassettes were with us on every car journey thereafter, and I think we know most of them by heart.

After over 21 years, it was exciting news that Mr Boom was coming to Dunblane today, and Helen and Amy and I hastened along to Scottish Churches House to see if he'd make it all the way from the moon (where he lives) despite the snow and slush. His spaceship arrival sounds hadn't changed, his much-loved songs and jokes were just the same, and – best of all – his gentle, playful rapport with very young children was as warm as ever. He got 30-odd children and adults to their feet, singing, dancing and acting like animals or machines or planets, and we all went away smiling.

Even his costume and props don't look much different, but now there's a URL on his drum! Yes, the internet must reach the moon, because he now has a charming website where you can buy his music, book a gig or and make contact with his lunar or terrestial offices. You can read about his perfomances to 20,000 children at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, on BBC2 television and live from Adelaide to Tokyo to Orkney. But this modest, charming man, surely a unique entertainer, still seems accessible to those lucky enough to know about him:

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Here is Helen, with Amy and her pal Catriona, being planets:

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And finally a general shot of Churches House with half the room taking part:

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February 7, 2010

Today's Politics Show on BBC1

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Keir was on BBC1's Politics Show today, talking about the need for more diversity in Scottish education and commending the East Lothian proposal for Trust schools (promoted today by Cllr David Berry) as a step towards combatting too much uniformity in school governance. He stressed the need for more school autonomy and the vital role of the quality of headteachers in making the most of it.

For a week or however long the BBC retains it, you can watch this on iPlayer here. The ten-minute item on Trust schools was near the end of a show lasting 90 minutes, so you may want to drag the slider to 1 hr 15 min. And I have just realised that iPlayer is the only way you can access any of the other Politics Shows not transmitted in your area, such as the versions for Northern Ireland, Wales, West Midlands or London. So the internet lets you overcome broadcast TV's restrictions of geography as well as schedules.

April 3, 2010

Little Tiger Cub Amy wins her stripes

Every Saturday, grand-daughter Amy goes to Little Tiger Cubs, a fun and fitness club for 3-5 year olds. It meets in the Braeport Centre, Dunblane, and for 45 minutes the children do exercises and play games that will lead, if they stay with it, to Taekwon-Do (Korean martial arts). There's a national network of these: Amy's class is run by the Taekwon-Do School which Stephen Rooney (6th Dan) founded in Alloa in 1990.

The Little Tiger Clubs are taught by the wonderful Liane Rooney (herself a 5th Dan, and Stephen's sister) who has terrific rapport with the children. She sets high standards for herself, too: I was asking how she got on in the recent European Championships in Barletta, Italy, and she was a bit crestfallen: "only" a gold and a silver! Her expertise comes across in her manner, and the children knows she is no push-over. What is brilliant is how she organises and motivates them, letting them compete while also gently teaching that winning isn't everything. They played a chasing game wearing animal tails: the object is to grab as many tails as you can while trying to retain your own. Below is Amy in the act of a tail-snatch:

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Anyway, today she earned her stripes and 1st Cub certificate (having completed ten classes), so she is looking pleased and proud, with the formidable Miss Rooney:

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Today was also the day of her Easter treasure hunt at Landrick, in which I had rewarded intermediate clues with tiny sugar eggs and the main treasure was virtuously chocolate-free: Emily Gravett's wonderful hardback "The Rabbit Problem". Amy is starting school in August, and certainly seems to be growing up fast and becoming a really interesting little person.

August 17, 2010

Amy starts school

Today was a landmark in my grand-daughter's life. She started her school career, at Dunblane Primary School. She looks much smarter in her school uniform than I ever did:

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Mother Helen had to fight quite hard to get her in, because Amy's birthday falls in early March and in Scotland the cutoff date is 28 February. Because Amy was, this August, therefore fractionally short of the magic 4 years 6 months, it was an uphill struggle involving an early entry request. Her nursery school had never supported one of these before, though it had experience of deferral requests from parents who felt their child wasn't ready and wanted to delay by a year. But Amy is a confident, outgoing child, rapidly becoming rather too big a fish in the small nursery pond, where she has been full-time for over two years.

So far, she seems to be taking "big school" in her stride. Stirling Council seemed unable to see past the strong tide of professional opinion against "early entry", its officer making dire prophecies that "she'll never catch up", "she won't cope with older children" or "what happens when she's at top end of primary and her friends are becoming teenagers?". This attitude seemed to ignore all the pressure that make children tend to "act up" in accordance with expectations, not to mention the huge variation in size, maturity and behaviour at any given age. Anyway, today she seems cheerily unaffected by all the fuss.

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I am confident that her mother did the right thing by defending her right to start school. Since her mother knows her better than anyone, the Council was right to give way (eventually)! Early entry wouldn't work for every child, indeed we considered it and decided against in Helen's own case, but children vary enormously. Here are wise mother and cheery child, relaxing together after school.

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September 4, 2010

Our last day at the Edinburgh Festival

Today began with the Simon Bolivar Quartet playing at the Queen's Hall: the first half had Bach and Shostakovich, and I'd have gone for the latter alone. We first heard his 8th string quartet at the Argyll Lodging in Stirling on the day that Keir became Chief Executive of Clackmannanshire, and it had an electrifying impact. The Bolivar players gave it a splendid, spirited performance and after the second half (Halffter and Brahms) gave us two encores. My only disappointment was with the programme note, of which the so-called Biography told us nothing about the players, not even their ages, but only about El Sistema, the Venezuela system of children/youth orchestras. We already knew a bit about this anyway, and Sistema Scotland has created the Big Noise in the Raploch, Stirling. But I'd love to have found out more about the backgrounds of these four very talented young men. In case you don't know about El Sistema, here's a clip of a performance that's well worth hearing.

Then we headed for Locanda de Gusti at the foot of Broughton Street, possibly Edinburgh's finest Italian restaurant. The occasion was to celebrate son Sandy's birthday yesterday, and (courtesy of his girlfriend Anna's iPhone) here is the birthday boy:

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His lunch looks good, but I wouldn't have traded it for the superlative lobster that the rest of us enjoyed. Chef Rosario Sartore is to be congratulated. We left a couple of hours later in mellow (prosecco-assisted) mood and spent a relaxing afternoon. Finally we headed for the Usher Hall for Mahler's 8th symphony (Donald Runnicles conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with Edinburgh Festival Chorus and RSNO Junior Chorus). This extraordinary work juxtaposes Veni, creator spiritus with the final scene from Goethe's Faust - culturally worlds apart, separated by 1000 years, yet somehow it works as an unbroken whole. The Usher Hall's platform cannot literally accommodate the "symphony of 1000" as it's nicknamed, but there must have been at least 600 or 700 performers on stage.

I learned from the programme note that Mahler composed it in "a mere eight weeks of incandescent creativity" at his lakeside retreat on the Wörthersee in 1906. He later said, and I find this even more humbling:

The whole immediately stood before my eyes. I had only to write it down, as if it had been dictated to me.

October 24, 2010

Images of central Scotland from a chopper

Today was a Sunday with a difference: on a cold, clear October morning we were booked to fly with Lothian Helicopters on a quick spin from Airth. This was a voucher from last Christmas kindly given to us by son Sandy of Gift Experience Scotland, and - had we spent ten months planning the best day to use it - we could not have been luckier. The visibility was superb and we were amazed at how much of central Scotland we could see. Lucky me, thanks to taking a serious camera (my Lumix G1 with 45-200 zoom, hand-held obviously), I got the front seat. Below is a taste of what I captured.

We started from Powfoulis Manor Hotel, which looked splendid with its mature trees in autumn colour, where the smart helicopter flew in to pick up me, Keir, friend Ken and three other passengers:

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Flying mostly at 2000 ft, we had a terrific view over the Falkirk Wheel, Larbert generally and the new Forth Valley Royal Infirmary (taken through the chopper's glass floor!):

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The distant views on this beautiful day underlined how narrow is the landward part of central Scotland: to the east we could clearly see the Forth Bridges at Edinburgh, and to the west not only the high-rise flats of Glasgow, but also, 50 miles beyond, to the snow-capped peaks of Arran.

It was brilliant also to see crisp detailed views of places nearer home, such as Stirling Castle, the King's Knot, the M9 and River Forth:

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November 10, 2010

The BBC, school governance and the wheelie bin

Yesterday was a long day for Keir: work began at 7 am when Radio Scotland were due to interview him live at Landrick before he left for Holyrood Magazine's conference in Edinburgh, and ended after midnight when BBC Scotland's taxi returned him from Glasgow after Gordon Brewer had interviewed him on Newsnight. On iPlayer, the item begins at minute 12 and Keir's studio interview runs from minutes 14 to 20.

In between, he gave the keynote address at the conference Managing Scotland's Schools. His message has clearly struck a chord not just with the delegates and with the media, but also with the world at large. In essence, Keir wants fresh thinking on the governance of schools. He wants to empower schools and teachers, rather than rely on the outdated command-and-control model whereby councils make many of the important decisions and commit most of the spending in the traditional top-down fashion. Decisions should be delegated to the level closest to the impact of those decisions.

In BBC Scotland's lunchtime news, this was the lead item, complete with reaction from the critics: the BBC website currently hosts this Call for revamp of Scottish school system. By evening, Scottish Television had broadcast their own report, currently on their website under Former education chief calls for change to schooling structure with comments from Mike Russell among others.

There was also plenty of newspaper coverage yesterday: the Times ran a long story on page 11 and the Herald had it front-page, under the misleading headline Scrap council control of schools, urges expert, although its editorial was more thoughtful and generally supportive. The Scotsman ran it under the heading Call for 'massive power shift' to headteachers by Andrew Whitaker.

It remains to be seen if this story is a one-day wonder, or if the debate will pick up momentum. Meantime, here is my crucial contribution to Radio Scotland's technical team early yesterday morning: the wheelie bin in which I had been sweeping up the autumn leaves. To make their Dounreay-style satellite link work, the antenna had to be propped up at the critical angle:

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December 18, 2010

Sandy and Anna are engaged to be married

Today's great news is that son Sandy is to marry his girlfriend, the lovely Anna Knight. Keir and I are thrilled to bits. No date has been set, but the important decision has been made and their love and commitment made public.

Doubtless it's all over Facebook by now, but this blog is my chance to broadcast it: Keir and I are looking forward to welcoming Anna and her daughter Libby into our growing family. Hooray!

February 8, 2011

Thinking the unthinkable

Keir was on Newsnight Scotland again yesterday, together with Ross Martin (Centre for Scottish Public Policy). It was supposed to be about thinking the unthinkable, but actually the film report (which mentioned the idea of a 4-day school week, or children not starting school until age of six) wasn't really discussed in the studio. Compared with the Lockerbie discussion that preceded it, the interview was a model of rational discourse, but it's still hard to get across novel and radical ideas in the space of a few minutes with many interruptions from Isabel Fraser.

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You can (until 14 Feb when it's due to be taken down) see the interview here, the film running from minutes 13 to 17 with the studio discussion following. Some interesting facts were presented about Scottish spending: Northern Ireland spends £2544 per primary pupil whereas Scotland spends £4638, and overall Scotland spends £1200 more per head on schooling than England does. These numbers reflect smaller class sizes, which teachers understandably prefer, but they do not result in measurably better pupil performance.

Ross Martin and Keir Bloomer put forward some interesting and workable ideas. Budget cuts need not be entirely negative: they could get people to discuss ideas that would otherwise be unthinkable. But the constraints of broadcast TV make it really hard to pursue difficult ideas. Keir put forward a radical rethink of the management of schools, suggesting grouping Scotland's 2500 schools into clusters which could be managed with greater coherence and much less expense. Savings would be much more scalable than the widely-punted idea of reducing the number of councils. Ross suggested having 4 terms of 10 weeks each and abolishing the random inservice days that disrupt the present schooling.

There is a huge discrepancy between the average hours worked by working parents (35-40 hours for about 46-48 weeks a year), and the maximum pupil contact time of the teachers (now only 22.5 hours per week for 39 weeks a year). Since McCrone, which brought a phased 23% pay rise, teachers get 65 days of paid annual leave as well as preparation time, professional development time and other benefits. The number of attendances in a school year has dwindled to 190 out of the 365. So teachers are teaching children for a maximum of only 7% of the 24/7/365 hours potentially available. In a country where most parents work from perceived economic necessity, not from choice, schooling also has a child-minding function.

With talk of an all-Masters teaching profession, maybe it's time to consider hiring more non-teaching staff in schools, to lead children in activities such as art and crafts, drama, geo-cacheing, music and team-building? Non-teachers may have fewer bits of paper but more specialist enthusiasms and skills – and certainly fewer restrictive practices. Maybe the number of highly trained and qualified teachers needs to be reduced drastically, with more flexible, more available and less expensive adults. "Dilution" is the obvious knee-jerk reaction, but children can learn from lots of different sources, and the old assumption that teachers are the only people from whom children can learn has itself become unthinkable.

April 29, 2011

An update on Amy

I'm long overdue to post a catchup on Amy's progress: having let my blog lapse recently, there's otherwise a danger she'll be a teenager before I get around to it.

Her early entry to school last August seems to be working out fine. She is progressing with numbers, reading and – all-important – socialising. Despite being only four and a half, last November she won Mrs Kennedy's Headteacher's Prize for writing her own sentences:

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Helen organised a fifth birthday party for her at the soft play centre at Springkerse on 5 March, which seems to have been a huge success, with lots of friends, and wonderful face-painting:

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The next afternoon I took the whole family to Mamma Mia (Amy's favourite show) in Glasgow. We had managed to keep it a surprise, but Helen nimbly managed to capture her expression when she'd just discovered the posters outside SECC:

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And although to my great regret she dropped out of Little Tigers, I'm delighted that she has persevered with the Lazytown Fit Club and today earned her Level-3 trophy. To me, she already looks noticeably older even than in March:

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May 26, 2011

Keir's voice as heard via The Sun and Radio Scotland

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It started today with the Sun. Keir is comfortable writing about education for heavyweights such as Holyrood or the Times Higher Education Supplement, so when he said he might have an article in the Sun newspaper I was open-jawed with surprise. But here it is in today's newspaper!

Now The Sun doesn't resemble Keir's normal publishing genre. For a start, it gives you 96 pages for 30p! Also, its paragraphs are short and its sentences even shorter. Even its words are short!

Impressively, Sun journalist Graeme Donohue had not only talked to Keir about the issue of pupils using computers in exams, but also had let him read what he intended to attribute to him before publishing it - a journalistic discipline that isn't easy to maintain on a weekly, let alone daily. And although it's mostly in Sun-speak, you can still hear Keir's authentic voice in the breakout quote "when I was a pupil, the introduction of the biro pen was deemed controversial". Quite.

The heart of the issue over whether using laptops, calculators or other aids leads to cheating is well summarised:

What constitutes cheating depends on what it is you are trying to test.

Anyway, half an hour later I was hearing Keir's authentic voice again, this time on Good Morning Scotland, which had obviously picked up this story from this morning's Sun and phone-interviewed him. The questions ranged over calculators and laptops, and felt less coherent than his Sun article, but perhaps I wasn't fully awake.

May 27, 2011

In memoriam canum (Bramble and Max)

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Bramble would have been 15 years old today, had she lived. You've never met such a good-natured dog - emotionally intelligent and loving to a fault. From puppihood in 1996 she had lived happily at Landrick - much loved by Sandy and Helen, as well as by me and Keir, and in the last five years adored also by Amy. We were all very sad when her end came 3 weeks ago, on 3 May. I want to keep her memory alive with this photo that I hand-printed back in June 1999, just after Bramble had mothered five lovely puppies.

Below is her great friend Max, a half-Doberman mongrel whom we rescued from Cambuskenneth in May 1998, and who nearly took over my life. His end came over five years ago, and Bramble is now peacefully buried beside him. Life at Landrick will never be the same without these wonderful dogs. My office feels achingly empty.

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September 26, 2011

Salamanca, and a future student?

I hadn't been to Salamanca since 1990 when Apple held its hypertext/CD-ROM conference in its university, one of Spain's oldest and most famous. We were staying in Avila and for a change took the train from there, which turned out to be a bit slow and inflexible.

We started with the cathedral, by far the largest we visited, and with the loftiest vaulting and dome:

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It's a bonus that you can climb on to the roof, along the balconies inside and part way up the tower. This gave great views from new perspectives:

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Those images are all of the so-called new cathedral, which dates from the 16th century, but happily (and unusually) the older building wasn't knocked down to make way. It still stands, adjoining its larger cousin – a dignified building of beautiful proportions, with superlative altar paintings:

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After the glories of Salamanca's two cathedrals, the afternoon seemed long; siesta hours are a nuisance to tourists on a day trip. We had to wait until 4pm to get into the Casa Lis, the city's brilliant museum of art deco and art nouveau. Sadly, they don't allow photography so I can't post any images.

After we got home, we were able at last to deliver the souvenir we bought for Amy – a sweatshirt from the Universidad Salamanca with her own name below the logo. Here's how she looks in it. I wonder if she will consider a university abroad when the time comes?

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November 6, 2011

Another family weekend

I spent Friday at the Scottish Countryside Access Network event in Perth, a triennial event that happened to be timely for our looking at waymarking options for the Rob Roy Way long-distance walk. We also agreed to set up a management group for the route and it will have its inaugural meeting later this month, just after we return from Mexico via New York, so I've been hastily compiling agendas. And because of our impending trip it was great to enjoy some family company before we leave on Wednesday.

Sandy and Anna joined us that evening for dinner by arrangement, as did Amy (unexpectedly, her poor mother Helen having fallen ill). So we all had a lively and relaxed evening and I for one retired early to share a dreamless sleep with Amy.

Since the next day was that glorious cold crisp weather that can make November such a delight, I suggested we all walk to the Sheriffmuir Inn for lunch. It's a lovely walk with fine views and some very rough bits which suggest that not many people know the direct route from Landrick any more. I was off-duty camera-wise but delighted that Anna took a few. Here she captured us on the oak-lined path up from Dykedale. The red things in Keir's pockets are his slippers, essential lunch equipment:

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And here's one I took on the borrowed iPhone of the lovely couple (soon to be three), relaxed in the autumn sunshine:

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Not long after they returned to Edinburgh, we had a visit from Laochan, the handsome black labrador from our neighbours at the farmhouse, who were going out while firework noise was expected. Laochan apparently needed our company (or maybe our neighbours think that we need his?). Anyway, he seems quite correctly to regard Landrick as his second home. We were thrilled to have both Amy and Helen (by then somewhat recovered) here on Sunday, but maybe not as thrilled as Amy was to find Laochan. She really loves him:

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November 28, 2011

Commission on School Reform and the media

Keir was live on Good Morning Scotland this morning: the interview (while still available) lasts for 3 minutes from 2 hrs 16 min to 2 hrs 19 min. Speaking as Chairman of the new Commission on School Reform, he explained its agenda to examine key aspects of Scottish schooling. The story is also carried by the Herald, Scotsman, Times, Telegraph and Daily Express and was on BBC Scotland TV news – only to be dislodged later by the impending arrival of two giant pandas: you can't deny that they are more photogenic. Anyway, here is Keir's short article in the Scotsman, and their news story.

OECD's recently released PISA international comparison reports that the world's most effective schools are in Shanghai – as measured by attainment in reading, maths and science. This alone should be enough to undermine lingering complacency. Keir conceded that international comparisons are never easy, and anyway don't tell the whole story. But the Commission is setting out to identify how Scotland can improve. Our schools need to help to sustain our fast-changing economy, and somebody needs to monitor how Curriculum for Excellence is working in practice.

December 31, 2011

The timing of Hogmanay

When the children were young and our family ski-ing holiday overlapped New Year, we were faced with the problem of timing, not wanting overtired children on our hands until the local midnight, let alone for them to miss out on ski-ing next morning. Since New Year in France would have translated to 11pm under Greenwich Mean Time, we concluded that we should ignore the constraint of longitude and celebrate New Year at whatever time it suited us. This family tradition has proved very useful over the years.

Since we had 5-year old Amy, and her mother, with us at Landrick this Hogmanay, we felt that 9 pm would be about right to open the bubbly and exchange the greetings, so we lighted upon Moscow as a location for 3 hours ahead. We all exchanged "С Новым Годом (S novim godom)" and that allowed us to be asleep soon after 10 pm. Which may sound really boring, but with Amy's routine and my need for a seriously early start next day, it made a lot of sense.

What is my point? Tradition may be better adapted than slavishly adopted.

January 20, 2012

Welcome news: Charlotte Emme Knight Bloomer

I am delighted to announce the arrival of another grand-daughter, born to Anna and Sandy on Sunday 15 January in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. Charlotte Emme Knight Bloomer arrived, after giving her mother a hard time for over 24 hours, at 2.38 pm with a birth weight of 8 pounds 4 ounces. We were particularly pleased to hear Sandy's voice about ten minutes later, since we had already left Landrick and were driving to the airport en route for Costa RIca via Madrid. It was deeply reassuring to know that mother and baby were both doing well before we flew, even though we were sad that she didn't arrive in time for us to meet her. However, she did time her birth to coincide with her second cousin Jago's first birthday, which was auspicious. This entry has been delayed by our subsequent travels, but I hope any friends who read the good news here will understand why we weren't able to phone round before we left.

Tuesday's flight from Madrid reached San Jose 12 hours later. Wednesday's flight took us to Palmar Sur then by speedboat along the Rio Sierpe spotting cayman, squirrel monkeys and osprey among the mangrove swamps. Arrrival at Casa Corcovado is at a rocky bay: you jump off the beached boat into shallow water with Pacific breakers, so you don't expect to stay dry. The final stage of our journey was in a tractor-pulled trailer up to the stunningly beautiful Casa Corcovado Jungle Lodge. It's taken a couple of days to find free time that coincided with working wifi in the Manager's lodge, so blogging isn't as easy as usual, to put it mildly. But from the heart of Costa Rica's coastal rainforest, we welcome Charlotte to our family.

Postscript of 4 February: on return to Edinburgh last night, we were able to divert to meet our beautiful grandchild at last. So in the photos below she is nearly 3 weeks old, her face already full of character and her tiny hands delicate:

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April 28, 2012

Outdoor Pursuits with my grand-daughters

Last weekend, hard on the heels of London Book Fair, I attended a very different kind of event: Outdoor Pursuits was held at Ingliston. Unlike London, where the IPG sets up the communal stand for its publisher, this time I had to do my own hard work and arrived to unload and set up at 8 am on Saturday, ready to man the Rucksack Readers stand all weekend:

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Saturday's fair had a slow start, although a lot of folk seemed interested in our new Mary Queen of Scots Way guidebook and a few even bought a copy. Anyway, I was truly delighted when Sandy, Anna and Charlotte stopped by to see us. This baby's smiles and laughter were a huge boost to morale:

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Back at Landrick on Saturday evening, I persuaded Helen to bring Amy through the next morning to try some outdoor pursuits for herself. She had a shot at the skiing, bouncy castle, sailing simulator and, best of all, on the climbing wall. Look how high she went:

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May 16, 2012

An evening to remember

It's hard to write about last Saturday evening without name-dropping, but the Albert Roux Dinner 2012 at Queen Margaret University was an entirely extraordinary event. The excellence of the menu was guaranteed, with successive courses contributed by four top restaurants - Chardon d'Or, Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles, Martin Wishart at Loch Lomond and Chez Roux at Greywalls, Gullane. The chefs and restaurants were ably assisted by hospitality students at Queen Margaret University in all aspects - preparation, cooking and service, which they carried off with aplomb. And the chefs sat down to have dinner with us!

Before we dined (in the totally transformed student canteen), we had champagne and superb canapés while mingling with celebrities and elaborately dressed characters wearing White Nights clothes created by QMU's Costume Design and Construction students. The costumes were also paraded in the short film performed by students of Drama and Performance. This truly was a multidisciplinary project on a grand scale.

Keir is Chair of the Court at QMU and has suggested inviting Sandy and Anna as our guests (in truth, this was a belated Christmas present). We enjoyed their company all evening, and when we peeled off at midnight, it emerged that they were going on to a late wedding party: they must have terrific stamina! Here they are at the start of the evening:

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We were fortunate to have on our table Andrew Fairlie and his glamorous partner Kate Ritchie, who works at Gleneagles. Here they are both listening intently to Albert Roux, OBE and Legion d'Honneur:

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It turns out that Andrew had known all his life what he wanted to do, having started out in the kitchens of the Perth Hotel while still at school, aged 14. I am always impressed by people who have this sharp focus and energy from an early age. By the time he was 20, he had already won the first Albert Roux scholarship and gone to train with Michel Guerard in Gascony. No wonder his restaurant has two Michelin stars. Since scallops are my favourite food of all time, I was thrilled with the fish course - Restaurant Andrew Fairlie's baked scallop with velvety champagne velouté. The loin of venison that followed was also memorable, I'm salivating even as I type.

The evening was rounded off with Albert Roux's speech. Despite being one of the world's best-known chefs, the great man seemed remarkably modest. He spoke warmly of the occasion, of his collaboration with QMU and of the students themselves. This photo isn't sharp, but flash would have been intrusive.

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July 4, 2012

Verona for visitors

A week ago today, we arrived in Verona - a surprise trip for Keir's 65th birthday. The surprise was a bit spoiled by his guessing the destination at Glasgow airport (my fault, for suggesting he took a rain poncho, which gave him enough of a clue). But I'd have had to tell him on the flight anyway, because the BA flight arrived so late at Gatwick that it was clearly going to be a matter of jogging to the departure gate for Verona. Apparently they don't guarantee the connection.

Anyway, we made it (just) and had daytime free to sightsee. The Verona card is brilliant value: 2 days for EUR15 gets you in to almost everything, even free bus rides, although Verona's historic centre, within a meander of the River Adige and enclosed by the city walls, is so compact that we just walked everywhere. Shakespeare set Romeo and Juliet here and Verona happily exploits this connection in the shape of "Juliet's house" (complete with famous balcony, constructed c 1930!) and "Juliet's tomb" both of which are pleasant and interesting visits if you don't take an unduly literal approach.

Evenings were devoted to a meal followed by opera, with a civilised 9.15 start and finish times ranging from 1.15 to 1.30 am). Temperatures were in the mid to high 30s!

We started with the Giardino Giusti, created in 1570 by Agostino Giusti, with a wonderful avenue of tall cypresses, glorious panoramas over the city rooftops and a labyrinth which we enjoyed bumbling our way around.

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After the Teatro Romano with its fantastic museum of mosaics and statues, we went to the Church of Santa Maria in Organo, famous for its extraordinary marquetry. The music stand in the foreground was made from tiny pieces of wood by Fra Giovanni di Verona:

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This extraordinary monk created about 25 of these masterpieces between 1477 and 1501. Here is another in the choir stalls, close up, so you can see how he created the perspective:

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September 16, 2012

Three generations get on our bikes

Yesterday was a red-letter day for the cycling world within our small family. I called in on Helen and Amy in their lovely new house, with my Brompton in the boot on the offchance that Amy might wish to cycle somewhere too. Unbeknownst to me, Helen (not a very confident cyclist as a child) had nevertheless heroically been to buy a bike from Recyke-a-bike only the day before, so all three of us were able to cycle several miles to a café where we had lunch. And then we all cycled back again.

This involved quite a few roads and pavements and was Amy's first really serious cycle ride. I just wish I had taken my camera, but I had no idea that we would manage all that. And I found it hard to know whether to feel more proud of Amy or her mother!

February 26, 2013

A birthday to remember

Turning 65 on Sunday was a positive feeling: age brings a sense of being comfortable inside your own skin. Without being complacent, there is no longer pressure to conform to other people's expectations or to pretend to like things that you don't. Above all, it feels OK to love things that other people are baffled by.

The surprise feature of my birthday was a mystery overnight trip which Keir had arranged. I was allowed to drive, and once I was told to head north on the A9 I hoped it would be a Highland experience. And it was! The Atholl Palace Hotel dominates the skyline, with Ben Vrackie as its backdrop. And this was the surprise location for the whole family to gather, including all three granddaughters. After some bubbly and a really splendid dinner, most of us slept very soundly.

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Image courtesy of http://www.spabreak.co.uk/

Next morning was not merely a chance to enjoy the swimming pool but also to explore the hotel and its history. After the arrival of the railway in 1863, the Athole Hydopathic Company was formed to commissioned a spa and health retreat. Queen Victoria's doctor Sir James Clark had already declared Pitlochry "perhaps the healthiest place in the kingdom" and the Victorian enthusiasm for "taking the waters" and for temperance made it seem a promising enterprise. Architect Andrew Heiton junior created a fine Scots baronial hotel for 200 guests, with Turkish baths in both wings. His architecture was better than his control of costs, however, and the intitial estimate of £40,000 had climbed to £100,000 by the time it finally opened on 7 June, 1878.

The Highland Lawn Tennis Championship began here in 1896, and continues to be held annually. In both wars, the hotel was home to schools: during the first, girls from Queen Margaret's School in Scarborough, including Winifred Holtby, moved in after being bombed, and remained in the hotel for the rest of the war. Postwar developments were carried out by Sir Henry Lunn of the Alpine Sports Club and his brother. Garages were built for car-borne tourists and the architect of the splendid Art Deco building for chauffeurs was still a final-year student at the Glasgow School of Art when his design was chosen. During World War 2, the hotel was again home to evacuee pupils from England, this time boys from the Leys School in Cambridge.

I learned all this and more from a splendid 20-minute video that is shown continuously in the Museum: few hotels can have as much reason to devote part of its property to its own history, architecture and wartime stories.

November 6, 2014

Scottish education: first class, or complacently second class?

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Keir was interviewed by Peter MacMahon yesterday on the Scottish Television programme Representing Border and for the next few days you should be able to follow the link above to view it. The item lasts from about minute 4 to 8, and Education Minister Alasdair Allan's response to Keir's views follows on, from minutes 8 to 11. A more persistent link may be the ITV News website.

Keir's critique, as recently published in the booklet First Class: Essays on improving Scotland's Education, is about complacency in the Scottish educational establishment, and about its failure to implement good policies. Scotland's relatively poor performance in the PISA studies, and the government's attempt to spin this as a success, was a particular focus. You can download it here.

Although Peter MacMahon put some pertinent questions to Alasdair Allan, judge for yourself whether he got any coherent answers. The Minister tried to slide off into environmental and social problems that need to be fixed first, and seemed to think that new exams and more Highers would fix inequality. But after seven years of this government, it cannot evade responsibility for our present position, sliding backwards by international standards. The Minister's reference to Curriculum for Excellence ignored the fact that it has been sidetracked and is still widely misinterpreted.

By contrast, Keir's comments were lucid, articulate and convincing. Obviously I am biased, but I also know that Keir was having to control Toby, our feisty but photogenic puppy, while being filmed in our back garden (I was in Perth yesterday). I think it's impressive that he delivered all this in a single take while Toby looked on, mercifully out of camera view: he would have stolen the show:)

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