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March 11, 2007

Taking the plunge

With 100,000 blogs being started daily, why do I dare to add to the blogosphere? Two reasons, mainly: recently life has become more interesting than usual: next month I'm setting off for Nepal for the first time so I'm hoping to keep up the blog from internet cafes ... With handwriting like mine, this makes more sense than scribbling in a tent by headtorch. As a total newbie, I see blogging simply as writing a legible personal diary that's public rather than private.

The other reason is last weekend's Independent Publishers Guild conference. Mark Thwaite's excellent talk was on ReadySteadyBook and the blogosphere, and led me to the Snowbooks blog which proves that a publisher blog can be readable. I was thrilled when my friend Philip Kogan won the IPG Lifetime Achievement Award. I've known him for over 30 years, learned a lot from him, and he has always fought the corner for the independent publisher. By coincidence, Snowbooks shares the Kogan Page premises, so clearly the time had come. We are a 21st century publisher, therefore we need a blog: does this follow? Time will tell.

I don't know about the second day of IPG as I had a more important commitment. Flying home to host grand-daughter Amy's first birthday party, I just made it 20 minutes before guests arrived. What a total contrast, just lovely to see babies crawling, clambering, smiling and interacting: here is Amy with her cake:

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March 13, 2007

A grand finale for my father

I've never been to a Memorial Service before, so flying to London to speak at the Lincoln's Inn service for the late Sir Robert Megarry, my father, to a congregation of over 150 distinguished lawyers, friends and family was triply terrifying: concern about the journey timing, the imperative for self-control, and the total lack of any precedent in my lifetime. Unlike at the family funeral when I spoke about him from my heart, this time I had only to read somebody else's words: Bessie Stanley's essay on Success.

This was a much less difficult task than speaking at his funeral which followed his death on 11 October 2006. But in nearly 60 years of making myself, from time to time, do some bold things, I had never been so terrified. An hour later, even after uplifting music from the choir and Susan Anderson singing Dido's Lament, I was still hyperventilating, dry-mouthed with heart thumping, despite no physical exertion, no altitude challenge, no rational explanation. Only after the second glass of wine did my nervous system begin to calm down.

The event took place in Lincoln's Inn yesterday, and the Chapel was full, with people standing at the back. Bryan Garner, who edited my father's book A New Miscellany-at-Law (published when R.E.M. was 95 years old), had flown in from Texas to read an extract about arbitration by hen turkey. Representatives of his old school, Lancing College, were there in strength. Sir Martin Nourse gave the eulogy, which was both erudite and wonderfully affectionate: download it here. It makes a wonderful counterpart to the close-up and personal obituary in the Independent of last October.

The service was a grand celebration of R.E.M.'s 96 years, and the whole family is grateful to Lincoln's Inn for organising it. Here is Anthony Morris' fine portrait of my father which the Inn commissioned in 2001:

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March 15, 2007

Seeing London afresh

Although I grew up in London, Tuesday was the first day I really saw the city afresh. With the high emotion of Monday's Memorial Service laid to rest, we went (I with husband Keir, son Sandy, sister Lindsay and brother-in-law Nick) to Dulwich Picture Gallery for their Canaletto in England (1746-55) exhibition. There's an extraodinarily timeless quality to many of these paintings, with gentle folk seemingly always at leisure, skies always blue and London's waterfront echoing shades of the Venetian lagoon. His paintings of Westminster Bridge, completed 1750 despite the bitter opposition of the Thames watermen, were particularly striking.

Later, on a whim I boarded the London Eye, finally fulfilling an intention dormant for the last seven years. It was a warm spring day, and by chance this was the perfect time to go, with a huge red sun kissing the horizon just as our capsule glided smoothly to the top of its 450-foot trajectory. At that moment, with the sunset glow over classical buildings, the floodlighting on the Houses of Parliament and Whitehall, with Westminster Bridge looking as great as Canaletto painted it, London really was beautiful. Although London often seems infuriatingly dirty, crowded and expensive, I intend on future visits to see it as if from the Eye and try to forget that I was a Londoner originally.

And so, finally, to the Gielgud for Equus, which made the deepest impression on me when I saw the NT production (with Peter Firth and Alec McCowen) on tour in 1974. Not many evenings stand out all that clearly 33 years later (!), and I was keen to see whether and how Peter Shaffer's play would withstand my high expectations. I needn't have worried: Richard Griffiths's self-doubting psychologist was conversational, credible and caring. Daniel Radcliffe's 17-year old Alan was convincing enough to create "that willing suspension of disbelief" - as well as moving well while naked, to the obvious delight of an audience with an unusual proportion of young women. Led by dancer Will Kemp, the horses were magical: balletic, athletic and palpably equine. This powerful play starts from a shocking (true) incident, cleverly delves into Alan's past, and ends by romanticising his pain and passion - but it certainly has stood the test of time.

March 18, 2007

A family weekend

Stirling Literary Society organised its Spring outing to Perth Theatre yesterday: the play was Humble Boy, written in 2001 by Charlotte Jones. Perth Theatre is great - a West End theatre in miniature - and this was the play's first professional production in Scotland. Felix Humble is a 35-year old astrophysicist who struggles to accept his bee-keeping father's death and his mother's new life. The script combines verbal wit in a middle-class, middle-England dysfunctional family with some splendid black farce involving accidental soup seasoning with the dead father's ashes: think Alan Ayckbourn meets Tom Stoppard. Jones weaves astrophysics, bee-keeping and psychology into the plot, and it's well written, with a superb cast.

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Back home, daughter Helen and grand-daughter Amy were waiting. This was a momentous weekend in Amy's life, as she in the process of moving on from her first few faltering steps to walking as her preferred mode of transport. Each time she sustains the vertical for a bit longer, cue enthusiastic applause, with Amy joining in and sometimes collapsing as a result. Our black lab Bramble is tolerant of this "incompetent puppy", but puzzled by all the fuss. After all, her own pups had walked within their first weeks. Happily, Bramble tolerates Amy's assaults with calm good nature - even when Amy invades her bed:

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One great thing about babies is how they put you back in touch with the child inside yourself. Under Amy's influence I have been rediscovering swimming (we are teaching each other). And only today I discovered a movie button on my camera in order to capture her walking, so the next step will be to find out how to upload it to my blog. Until then, the still photos above will have to do.

March 23, 2007

Dumyat, Rennie McOwan and Stirling Literary Society

Yesterday the air was gin-clear, visibility superb, so I abandoned the office email mountain in favour of taking Bramble up a local hill, Dumyat, which has a Pictish fort, dog-friendly access and a view of the entire carse (the flood plain of the Forth). The views yesterday were captivating: to the north and west the snow-capped mountains, to the south Stirling Castle, the Wallace Monument and the sites of seven battlefields in the foreground, with the Pentlands and Moorfoots behind.

To appreciate Dumyat fully, read Rennie McOwan's chapter in our anthology Call of the Wild, which we published for the Outdoor Writers Guild. Rennie grew up in Dumyat's shadow, it was his playground, and he immortalised it in his wonderful novel for children Light on Dumyat. A well-known author and broadcaster, now semi-retired, he still sometimes speaks in local schools. Years ago, my daughter Helen came home from school full of the excitement of hearing him talk. And there's nothing like hearing the author in person to breathe life into literature.

I was reminded of this on Monday, when crime writer Christopher Brookmyre spoke to Stirling Literary Society - a group that, like Friends of the Ochils, was founded by Rennie McOwan. He read a wonderful extract from A tale etched in blood and hard black pencil which is about to come out in paperback - lots of us bought signed advance copies on the night - quite a coup for SLS! Not merely a gripping and amusing crime novel, it's essential reading for anybody interested in children and schooling. It's a vivid, authentic evocation of the casual cruelty of the playground, and the licensed abuse by some teachers, in the west of Scotland in the 1970s. It rings true, but it's also very, very funny. Brookmyre's website is lively, but oddly it shows the wrong colour on the jacket image: etched in blood should be red, not blue, obviously. Not many people have this book yet!

March 28, 2007

Kintyre and its Way

I spent the last two days in Kintyre, visiting Campbeltown for an event to support and develop tourism surrounding the Kintyre Way. This new long-distance walk opened in August 2006, and we are publishing a guidebook for it in October. Co-author Sandra Bardwell and I will do the research trip in May, but this was a golden opportunity to meet some of the people we want to work with, and also to get my first taste of the peninsula. The drive from Dunblane via Loch Lomond and Loch Fyne was wonderful, with stunning scenery on both coastlines, Atlantic and Firth of Clyde.

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Campbeltown has a fantastic natural harbour sheltered by Davaar Island, seen above at sunrise just before the event. It was held in the Aqualibrium, a glaring white concrete cylinder housing a leisure centre and "family room" with appalling acoustics where our sessions were held – seriously headache-inducing for group work. What on earth must it be like when full of noisy children? Colin Hossack of the Forestry Commission gave us an inspiring presentation on the assets of Kintyre for the walker, and Steve Duncan provided the Visitscotland perspective.

Before the start, I had a look at the wonderful Lorne and the Lowland, known locally as the Longrow Church. Its tall tower dominates the skyline from Campbeltown Loch. An early work by John Burnet (1869), its wonderful sweeping curves create the warmest, most welcoming interior of any church I've visited. It's encouragingly well looked after, and obviously plays an active role at the heart of the community. I was lucky enough to find workmen repairing the roof, so I was able to get inside with my camera:

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The only downside of my trip was over 40 midge-bites from my lochside evening walk. If that's what they're like in March, what must it be like in high summer? (Postscript 3.4.07: still itching badly, over a week later!)

March 30, 2007

Wind turbines and the Ochils

I'm deeply sorry to learn that Clackmannanshire Council has narrowly voted to approve the Burnfoot 13-turbine wind farm above Tillicoultry. I was one of over 100 objectors, both as an individual and as a member of Friends of the Ochils, the society started by Rennie McOwan. The Ochils provide an island of wilderness not only for those living in and near Stirling, Alloa and central Scotland, but also for Glasgow and Edinburgh. They offer hills and moorland of character and distinction, which walkers can traverse by ancient Rights of Way. These huge turbines (102 m tall) will be close to their highest top, Ben Cleuch (721 m), and will intrude on the skyline for many Ochil walkers.

The Ochils should be conserved in their wild state for our grandchildren, not despoiled by the distorted economics of subsidised turbine construction. The Ochils are under siege, not only from proposed windfarms (two approved and four more the subject of public inquiry) but also by the Beauly to Denny power line. As Stuart Dean said "we could be sleepwalking to a disaster in the Ochils".

Wind farms should be small and designed for local needs, such as those in Gigha. Large-scale turbines, if we must have them, should be out at se, but we should also invest in other, more reliable forms of renewable power and do more with hydro schemes. The turbines are productive only when the wind is right – not too little, not too much – but they ruin the horizon 24/7/365.

It's already too late for the first Highland vista for visitors heading north on the A9 from Dunblane: the Braes of Doune windfarm already ruins that. I know that its 36 turbines were manufactured in Campbeltown, and I can see why windfarms are more popular in Kintyre because they bring much-needed jobs. But already the blades are being manufactured elsewhere, and it can't be long before UK labour costs mean that these huge, ugly devices are wholly imported. Why don't we account for the major energy demands involved in their manufacture and transport before permitting them to spread at such terrible cost to our beautiful scenery? This is utter folly!

April 7, 2007

Preparing to leave Landrick for Nepal

Belated realisation of how unfit I still am, together with a spell of stunning weather, led to a week of work punctuated by the odd hill climb: Dumyat by the less-trodden route, Ben Chonzie which still had mountain hares in their snow-white coats, then Ben Ledi on Wednesday afternoon. Here is Bramble on the summit of Ben Chonzie, with its wonderful 360 views: the mountain behind her is Schiehallion:

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Still, I am conscious that these efforts are all "too little, too late" and feel nervous about my ability to keep up the pace/survive the medical tests on Xtreme Everest. And I'm sad about leaving my husband Keir for so long, I'll miss my children, and I'm worried lest grand-daughter Amy forgets me completely in the coming month.

I'll also miss Landrick, which is beautiful year-round and especially now with the bird life on the pond. A couple of weeks ago I looked out to find a mute swan had dropped out of the sky (sadly s/he left the next day), I often see our friendly heron, we have two resident oystercatchers and yesterday the first ducklings were launched by their proud mum:

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She can't protect them all, of course, and today only four were left, which upset me more than usual: the callous crows had left the pitiful tiny corpses lying in the open. We leave on an evening flight from Heathrow, so there's been time for a good long walk with Bramble, prepare the weedkiller, half a weekend with the family, finish off the packing and now for the EDI/LHR flight. First I had to burn a couple of CDs for photos downloaded from the digicam, gather up chargers, instructions and batteries for sundry electronic bits and pieces, and generally make sure I've got enough to keep myself occupied: I dread boredom on a long flight, and can't usually sleep. I'm really surprised how full the Jagged Globe kitbag now seems, all for under a month. Just hope I make good use of it all ... and that I can update this blog from Nepal.

April 13, 2007

A clear view of the summit of Everest (from Namche)

From one of Namche Bazaar's internet cafes (altitude 3400m/11,000ft), I'm trying to catch up, despite the sensory overload and backlog of events since I last blogged - not to mention the distractions of street noise and meter ticking at 10 rupees per minute: this is only half the rate in our Namche lodge but still five pounds per hour, a small fortune in Nepal!

The highlight so far was today's pre-dawn excursion from our lodge to the military base which has an amazing viewpoint towards Everest, flanked by Nuptse and Ama Dablam. So I have finally seen the summit of the world, clearly and with awe. I watched the light dawn over the ridge about 7 am. Most iconic of all summits, Everest has entered the English language and seems an overworked metaphor, as whenever somebody is a bit stretched they talk of attaining their "personal Everest". To me, the Nepali name Sagarmatha ("goddess of the sky") seems much more fitting. (Chomolungma, meaning "Mother of the Universe", is the Sherpa/Tibetan name.)

Afterwards, I had a heart-warming experience. On return to the viewpoint later, I had carelessly left my wallet in its cafe-museum. Noticing later, I returned a third time, not in panic, but with total confidence that the Nepali attendant I had spoken to would have kept it safe. He had, and I knew I didn't need to check its contents, although obviously I was happy to reward his honesty: rupees to the value of about 40 pounds in sterling could have represented considerable temptation. So here in Nepal, Friday the 13th was my lucky day.

We (the Xtreme Everest volunteers) are certainly working hard. Our daily routine begins with a half-hour testing session (blood oxygen saturation, pulse and blood pressure, then a strenuous 2-minute step test, then re-test, then swap places and repeat all). We do this before breakfast and sometimes it is followed by further tests (blood samples, exercise bicycle and neuro-psychological). We have trekked so far between Lukla and Monjo, over precarious suspension bridges and steeply uphill to Namche Bazaar. My maximum power output at Namche was a mere 140 watts, but producing it was just as big an effort as the 170 watts at Kathmandu.

We realise that things get inexorably harder as we gain altitude: Base Camp has about 50% of the oxygen available at sea level. But our morale is good, we know why we are here and we are getting feedback on our performance. We also had a good briefing on the brain from a young doctor in Kathmandu, and last night an excellent talk on hypoxia by Monty Mythen. He is a Professor at University College London, and also a great communicator who involves his children in his professional life: his use of Brio toy railway to explain hypoxia will remain with us all a long time.

April 16, 2007

No-frills Pheriche (4250 m/14,000 ft)

We arrived at Pheriche yesterday from Deboche, after criss-crossing the river by various suspension bridges and with a net altitude gain of 550m/1800ft. It's a wind-swept spot, known as "no-frills" and famous for housing the HRA (Himalayan Rescue Association) clinic. The HRA is a wonderful outfit, founded in 1973 to provide free medical care to Nepalis and paid-for help to trekkers. Its daily briefing on altitude sickness is excellent (over 40 trekkers attended today's) and apparently nobody who has attended it has later died of altitude sickness - so far, at least.

Outside the HRA stands a stainless steel memorial to those who have died on Everest since the 1924 Mallory/Irvine expedition. It's inscribed with the names of nearly 200 climbers and sherpas who have died in the attempt. The chilly vertical surfaces of its split pyramid in have ample room for adding the names of those who have yet to die. The death ratio seems fixed at a predictable 1 in 10: one death for every 10 successful attempts. But of course everybody who attempts Everest thinks that this refers to somebody else.

This morning I completed my testing: the normal diary set, plus blood samples and the infamous bicycle ramp test. Although my maximum power output was much lower (125 watts cf 170 watts in Kathmandu) and maximum heart rate also down (160 bpm cf 181 in Kathmandu) I can't say that pedalling the bike was any less effort. However, at least the testing was brief, so there was time to go for a walk and also to attend the afternoon briefing at HRA. We have dinner at about 6.30 pm and retiring later than 9pm is considered staying up very late!

April 22, 2007

Everest Base Camp (5350m/17,500ft)

It looks so simple on a map, Friday's climb from Gorak Shep to Everest Base Camp, with an altitude gain of a mere 180 metres. But net gain conceals a multitude of undulations - too gentle a word for the stark rocky ups and downs. There was a slow section where we were supposed to keep 10 metres apart because of rockfall danger, but the real reason it took a full four hours was the superb clear weather combined with stunning scenery: you had to stop, stare and take loads of photos. We were walking first alongside, then on top of, the Khumbu Glacier, with brilliant views of Nuptse, Everest and Pumori. Coming into Base Camp, although you can no longer see Everest's summit, the views of the Khumbu icefall were closer and more breath-taking than expected.

Physically it wasn't that tough because we went so slowly, and for once I found myself more comfortable near the front of the group (mostly I've been hanging near the back, but altitude is a great equaliser:). Yesterday's exercise bike ramp test showed a further decline in my maximum power output and heart rate (only 120 watts at 150 bpm now, compared with 170 w/181bpm at Kathmandu) but that's expected. We also did smell and taste tests, had retinal photos, spirometry (breathing tests) and neuropsych (block design, dexterity, memory of 15-word lists, coding and speed reading) so this took most of the day.

The food is definitely more varied than before, with fresh fruit as well as vegetables, and they are working hard to entertain us here. Last evening's illustrated talks were on how your mitochondria handle oxygen (more challenging viewing than Eastenders), and also a photo-history of attempts on Everest. Despite the deep chill inside the communal mess tent, we stayed alert and took in most of this. Back inside my tent it was another very cold night (about -15 or -20°C) and your breath quickly turned into clouds of icicles. Sleep was punctuated by the loud (and surprisingly close) sounds of avalanches from the Icefall. We have just heard that the summit team have postponed their departure as a result: seems wise! This morning I shall explore the Icefall, but with great caution and cowardice as it does seem to be on the move.

April 26, 2007

Namche Bazaar revisited

Yesterday we descended to Namche from Tengboche (3860m/12,700ft). My day began at its monastery, which sits on a spectacular ridge surrounded by snowclad mountains. My three previous attempts to make sound recordings of the monks chanting had failed, so I went along to the service at 6.30am with my sound kit: fourth time lucky. The early service was also more atmospheric than the 3pm one, where thoughtless tourists ignore the clear and understandable prohibition on flash photography. Anyway, the recording was captured, breakfast quickly swallowed and we set off by 8am.

During a net descent of 420m (1400ft) over 4.5 hours, down a path that undulates a fair bit, we felt a rush of well-being as the vegetation grew lusher and the air richer in oxygen. And not far above Namche, we were thrilled to see 7 eagles wheeling and soaring over the valley, really close to the path. You never get that close to a golden eagle in Scotland!

Had a busy afternoon in Namche, rejoicing to find moving around much less effort than last time: what a difference a fortnight makes! Revisited my favourite internet cafe and not only found a raft of emails (thanks, guys) but also played around with our website: it was obvious that, thousands of miles away, my PA had just released a new book (our Speyside Way) so it seemed like a good idea to feature it on our front page. Making this change gave me a curious sense of satisfaction: can't have lost all my brain cells!

The Namche lodge was unexpectedly busy with two other Xtreme Everest groups, Group F having been delayed 24 hours by fog at Lukla airport. Club Namche's chilly basement was transformed for our benefit into a party venue, by sparkly lighting, funky music and plenty of booze. All this followed immediately after dinner, which meant I was still in my hiking boots. (An oddity of trekking is that you often wear heavy boots all day and evening, and you don't always take off any clothes before retiring.) What I didn't know is that the Ceroc session wasn't just a demonstration, but also a lesson and all of us were to take part. So I learned the beginnings of a new type of dance (it's a cross between jive and salsa) in hiking boots, at 3450m/11,300ft!

May 5, 2007

Retirement, celebration and departure

My husband, Keir Bloomer, retired yesterday from his job as Chief Executive for Clackmannanshire. The Council held a lovely presentation for him in the afternoon: it was terrific to hear how many other people think he's a great bloke too. Then we went on to dinner to celebrate, or at least those who hadn't been up all night with the General Election count did. Foregoing the pleasures of being Returning Officer, as at previous General Elections, on Thursday turned out to be one of his better decisions!

Tomorrow I set off for the Kintyre Way, having collected my co-author Sandra Bardwell from Perth today. The plan is to leave at 6 a.m. to drive to Tarbert, drop Sandy there, drive myself to Claonaig so that she walks Day 1 while I do Day 2, then taxi back to collect car and Sandy and write up our notes on the laptop. Working this way, we expect to cover the entire 89-mile route plus spurs and including a day-trip to Gigha by the end of Thursday. This should let us collect all the material and photos that we need for our forthcoming Rucksack Readers book The Kintyre Way.

It may sound ambitious, but at least it's an answer to all those prophets of doom who say that Keir's retirement will create a problem for me in having him around all day ... It looks like he too will be busy with freelance work, and it'll be at least a fortnight before we will coincide at Landrick on a weekday.

July 13, 2007

Death of a red kite

Today is Friday the 13th, and the news is both sad, and predictable. A rare and beautiful bird of prey has been killed by the turning blade of the ugly, pointless wind farm on the Braes of Doune. Red kites were persecuted almost to extinction in the past by gamekeepers, although we now know that they mainly eat carrion. Various reintroduction projects, including the one at nearby Argaty, have worked hard to save the red kite. Now we are killing them in a different, 21st century way.

Like long-distance walking, the opportunity to see rare birds such as red kites and osprey is known to attract environmentally aware visitors. Wind farms are springing up in Scotland because of crazy government subsidies that make them attractive to landowners, while ruining our most precious asset: our scenery. Now we know that they not only could kill rare birds, but actually have done, will the tide of public opinion turn against them before it's too late for other skylines?

I'm not against renewable energy. We have plenty of water hereabouts, and schemes like Cruachan have proved that hydro power can provide electricity when the grid is under pressure without despoiling our countryside. Water power is controllable, unlike wind power which is notoriously fickle; wind power is least likely to be productive when power is most needed - in cold, high-pressure winter weather. So let's have more hydro power and save our scenery, as well as the red kites.

July 25, 2007

The West Highland Way revisited (south)

The West Highland Way was my very first long walk, in May 1998, and it was a revelation: I and three friends had a wonderful week. Indirectly (and via Kilimanjaro) it led to the creation of Rucksack Readers, the guidebook business that now more-or-less earns my keep. Naturally, the WHW was one of the first books that we produced (in 2000), and I updated it for a 2nd edition back in 2003. With stocks are running low, I thought I'd re-walk the entire Way for the next edition. The southern portion is accessible from Dunblane, so I'm doing it in stages: last week was Milngavie to Balmaha (20 miles), then Balmaha to Inversnaid ("only" 14 miles, but more tiring because of the terrain).

Yesterday, with a good forecast, was Inversnaid to Crianlarich, so husband Keir kindly gave me a lift to Inveruglas (having dropped off my car at Crianlarich en route). That let me reach Inversnaid by ferry across Loch Lomond, which was a glorious start. A robin made my day by posing on a waymarker; I'm holding my breath while reaching for the camera. Then it was splendid walking along Loch Lomondside, noticeably easier than last time (in May 1999 I rewalked the whole way, with rain morning noon and night, but when you're charity-sponsored, giving up is not an option). It wasn't just better weather or that I'm more experienced, the Way actually has become easier, with bridges over burns and boardwalks over awkward bits. Some mixed feelings about the wildness tamed. Also, now that I'm using my poles properly, powering along using upper body strength, it's like having an extra gear.

From time to time I walked with three lovely guys from down south, who were doing it for the first time. Bees seemed very fit, and I think Brad and Marc were wondering why they had let Bees decide the important things like how many days to take (six is ambitious for first-timers with heavy packs)! I enjoyed the chat, and it's amazing how quickly the miles sped by. If they remember to email it, I'll add the photo I took of them. I was surprised (and indignant) that having read on the official website that a map is essential, they had assumed that they had to buy all ten OS Explorers (at £7.99 each)! I showed them my handy little Footprint map which costs £4.95, shows the whole route, is waterproof and fits your trouser pocket. Since they hadn't yet got their Explorers out of the rucksack, guess which is more useful? Tempted as I was to linger over lunch with them at Beinglas Farm, I knew I had to bash on to Crianlarich, from where I'll resume soon to complete the northern half.

August 9, 2007

The West Highland Way revisited (north)

On Sunday, I resumed my West Highland Way hike, starting from Crianlarich with the goal of hiking the 48+ miles to Fort William by Tuesday afternoon, taking the train back to the car back to Dunblane. Logistically, it all worked perfectly, with overnights at the Inveroran Hotel and in Kinlochleven. The weather, however, was something else. Remember that great forecast for August? Well, it didn't apply to those three days, at least not in the Western Highlands. Apart from the fact that trudging through soaking ground in horizontal rain isn't much fun, it certainly thwarted my hopes of getting photographs for the new edition of my book. Of course I could and did check the validity of the directions, but I suspect I'll end up having to go back in better weather. It's really frustrating, having climbed the Devil's Staircase, knowing that you are looking north over the splendid scenery of the Mamores, to see nothing but cloud, rain and mist!

On Monday morning I had walked from Inveroran to the King's House, where a nice thing happened over my lunchtime bowl of soup. Being in the business, I always look to see which guidebooks and maps people are using, and had been talking to some Danes with a really old Footprint map that they had used 9 years ago and were still finding good this time around. A guy from Paisley then told me about this neat guidebook he had, with drop-down map and signpost graphics and all waterproof. I waited until he got it out before producing mine and saying "snap", revealing myself as author and publisher. Even better, he too was using it second time around, it having rained both times, and although it wasn't pristine, it certainly didn't owe him anything. He thought this was an amazing coincidence. It certainly made my day.

On arrival in Kinlochleven, I fell into conversation with a fellow guest who clearly knew the Way rather well. I asked how often he had done it, but he couldn't remember "about 15 or 16 times" he thought. This underlines the fact that this walk has something special.

After my last hike, I took up the issue of how the official website recommends maps, by the way, and I am delighted to report that as a direct result it no longer lists the 10 OS Explorer maps. So if my friends Bees, Brad and Marc are reading, they can see that I listened, learned and acted - even though they had bought the wrong guidebook!

August 12, 2007

Lunch with a composer

Yesterday was the start of the 2007 Edinburgh Festival, and the most memorable day I have spent there. We began in the Queen's Hall with Jane Irwin and the Hebrides Ensemble. Jane Irwin used to be famous for singing like Janet Baker, but now she's famous for singing like Jane Irwin. Her performance of Mahler's Kindertotenlieder was so moving that the audience was silent and still for a full ten seconds after the sound of its final bars died, before bursting into inevitable applause. Harper's lean arrangement of Mahler's orchestral score for 8 instruments was intriguing and fresh. Less is more.

After the interval, the Hebrides Ensemble played Osborne's Balkan Dances and Laments, which they had recently commissioned. It draws on his interest in folk and popular music from the South Balkans, as well as his rigorous classical training, and features a new method of playing the piano: a string is bowed with horsehair, which sounds gimmicky, but was very effective. Sandwiched between Mahler and Berio, Nigel Osborne was in good company, musically speaking, and the audience obviously liked the fact that the composer was not only present, but also shook hands with the performers.

Even better, because husband Keir works with Nigel Osborne through the Tapestry Partnership, we had lunch with him in a nearby restaurant, so I got to ask him the questions that had been building up in my head. The conversation ranged widely over Balkan history, James Joyce, his pioneering work in music therapy for child victims of war, his music school in Austria, the Robert Winston conference in Glasgow in September et al. He speaks about a dozen foreign languages more fluently than I'll ever speak a single one, and if he weren't such a modest chap, I'd almost resent so much musical and linguistic talent in just one person.

After lunch, we went to some Fringe theatre, and finally to On Danse, the most eclectic and athletic dance programme I've ever seen. Montalvo-Hervieu is a blazingly creative Spanish-French partnership, and their company marries creative video animations and multi-talented live dancers in an improbable but brilliant fusion. Hip-hop, classical ballet, break-dancing and trampolining all blend in this choreography, to a background of music by Rameau. The playful computer-based morphing and antics of the animals made us laugh out loud at times, with elephants pirouetting on tightropes and storks doing gymnastics. There was a subtle and surreal interplay between the live dancers and their filmed (naked) selves, via the catwalk, halfway up the massive upstage screen. It was utterly different from any other ballet.

August 17, 2007

A touch of greatness: Alfred Brendel

We went to a stunning performance of Monteverdi's Vespers yesterday at the Usher Hall. In a world seemingly obsessed with fleeting fashions and newness, it's heart-warming to find that a work composed almost four centuries ago (1610), performed on authentic period instruments, can speak so strongly and directly to its audience in 2007. Conducted by Jordi Savall, the Catalunyan singers were memorable, the baroque ensemble (La Capella Reial de Catalunya) and surprised us all by performing an encore by Arvo Pärt (2004), movingly introduced by Savall.

Before the concert, waiting in line to buy a programme, we were stunned to recognise the bloke just in front, after he turned round, as Alfred Brendel. Some conversational greeting seemed inevitable. Fortunately we had heard him play the previous evening in this very place, so were not too overawed to mumble something about how much we had enjoyed his concert, only to be told, in his self-deprecating way, that it wasn't a terribly daring programme. (It had been a masterly performance of Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart piano sonatas, plus two Schubert impromptus.) Now you don't want to impose on the world's most famous living pianist, especially not in a programme queue, but we couldn't quite let that pass. Only at the Edinburgh Festival does this kind of encounter take place!

September 11, 2007

Deeply chilled on St Lucia

In this Caribbean paradise, it's still a shock to recognise that today is the haunted "9/11", the day when everybody remembers exactly where they were when that first, deeply shocking footage of suicidal aeroplanes ploughing into the Twin Towers was broadcast repeatedly, almost obsessively. We are still finding out all that it means.

For me, it was the day before my first visit to South America, specifically to Peru to hike three Inca Trails in 10 days. So being deprived of cameras and film at Edinburgh airport seemed a major setback (we publish very visual books which need 70+ photos each). EDI wasn't allowing ANY hand baggage, not even one camera. Two weeks later, after needless worry about X-ray fogged film, I was delighted to find that I had plenty of good shots for our Explore the Inca Trail. Six years on, I am (escapist, perhaps) relieved to be away from television, newspapers and anniversary reminiscences. Like the images of floral tributes, I'm not sure that all that stuff helps us to learn, to regroup and to move on.

Before leaving Scotland, I mentioned to a friend the forthcoming diving on St Lucia , and got a weird "Jetta, don't you ever just chill?" kind of reaction. But I've never known such depths of relaxation as when diving. Today's dive featured a large, friendly turtle, maybe one-metre across, on the wreck of the very photogenic Lesleen M at 21 metres depth (and the water so warm I don't need a wet suit). I'm diving with Island Divers, who combine sea-level relaxation with deep-water professionalism: highly recommended. Can there be anything more deeply chilled-out than swimming with a turtle, stroking a turtle, not even trying to keep up with a turtle?

On arrival in St Lucia, my watch battery packed up. Soon after, I noticed that my travel alarm battery had also succumbed. I already knew that my dive computer battery was sinking too low to be viable (so I borrowed a depth gauge from Island Divers). At home, all this time-uncertainty would have driven me demented, but in St Lucia it simply didn't matter. And the village resort Ti Kaye was just wonderful: once you've stayed there, you'll never want to take a shower indoors again!

November 21, 2007

Recycling, resurrection and rejoicing

Last Friday, my Apple laser printer stopped working. No reproaches, I've only hammered it daily since 1989, but since my best friend and computer guru Bob Tennent was due next day, I waited to get his confirmation of its death. On Monday I ordered an Epson (6200N) on next-day delivery and spent Tuesday chasing up why it never reached us: we live in the wilds and I was desperate, with our next Rucksack Reader at a printout-demanding stage. On Wednesday it arrived, and thanks to the simplicity of Mac, it was unpacked, installed and working inside 10 minutes ... and then I became uneasy about the landfill angle.

Having recently installed a new, full cartridge in the old Apple printer, I thought I'd offer it back to the lovely people at Supercharge who have been providing my refills all these years. Bill McCormack sounded kindly, but amused. Seems I'm the last customer they have left using this antiquated printer. Oh well, it was worth asking. Before saying goodbye, however, I mentioned that felt from the fixing roller cleaner had wrapped itself around the roller, could that have caused a problem? Like Bob, he thought that impossible, but said it should work without one. So I tried removing it anyway, reconnected everything and was stunned when it sprang into life again: does this presage another 18 years??

So I phoned Bill again, whom I've never met, but who now seems more like a friend than a supplier. He has promised to send free replacement cleaners, and actually seemed happy about the renaissance. Perhaps he thinks we may go for the Guinness Book of Records. So obviously I'll go on buying cartridge refills from him. And after a slight struggle with temptation, I am keeping the elderly Apple printer and letting my husband have the superlative new Epson. OK, the Apple hasn't got anything like the resolution, but for long-service it surely deserves some loyalty. How many Windows users can be using the same printer as 18 years ago?

So my printer is not dead, but resurrected, and recycling has paid off with a knowledge of its innards that I woudn't otherwise have gained. And as for saving the printer after experts thought it was fit only for landfill, I am astounded, but I rejoice.

February 24, 2008

On becoming a pensioner

Today I am 60 years old, and proud of it. It's a pleasingly round number, I'm lucky enough still to have my own teeth, robust good health and at least most of my faculties. And my whole family and four of my closest friends are joining me for a celebration lunch at the Sheriffmuir Inn, my favourite watering-hole near the site of the battle. It's a pub I've been walking to with dogs for over ten years, and we'll walk both ways today.

I don't, however, feel a day older and am getting fed up with the way officialdom has started to talk to me as if all pensioners are doddering, pathetic or faintly imbecile. TransportScotland tells you its bus pass is for "older and disabled people": older than whom? And don't they mean "or" and not "and"? Various letters have been arriving from schemes into which I paid trivial sums many decades ago (having turned self-employed when I was 30) demanding obscure choices to be made, screeching "you are retiring in X days": wrong, I'm not. Actually I've no intention of retiring now, nor in 5 years' time, nor perhaps at all unless my health breaks down. My father finalised his last book when he was 95 years old, and I'm enormously proud of that.

I really love my job, and as long as people go on using our guidebooks I intend to continue publishing them. I suppose I ought to apply for the bus pass and I shall definitely spend any "pension" windfalls (probably on diving kit or a new digital camera). But please, no more talk of retirement as if it's axiomatic. I'm off to Ireland tomorrow to check out changes to the Wicklow Way, one of several new titles we'll be announcing this year: much more fun than retiring. Rant over!

March 6, 2008

Birthdays are brilliant

Well, Sunday 24th February was the most brilliant birthday ever: helium balloons, banners, presents, champagne, cake and singing, even a flashing badge (!) - but above all about eight of my closest family and friends making a ridiculous fuss of me. Totally undeserved, but perhaps once in 60 years the delight is somewhat excusable? I was particularly pleased to be able to inhale the helium from the balloons so as to hear the very silly high-pitched voice that results. Must find out how to upload MP3s to this blog so you can share this giggle.

My wonderful son gave me the most generous presents: an iPod shuffle, which I had no idea I wanted but now realise that I can't live without, and a voucher for an hour-long microlight flight. Having reached an age when I am much more interested in collecting experiences than belongings, I can really appreciate what Experience Ecosse, his gift voucher website, has to offer. My resourceful daughter and amazing grand-daughter gave me thoughtful, personal and feminine presents. And my endlessly creative husband has given me a voucher for a Mystery Trip in late March: so far I don't even know which continent, only the dates ... more idc. But I'm hoping that the stunning book of David Doubilet photos is a hint that there'll be some diving ...

And the following Sunday, when I didn't think it could get any better, there was this truly wonderful party for grand-daughter Amy's second birthday. About 7 toddlers and 11 assorted adults all gathered in daughter Helen's flat, and had a ball for a couple of hours. Despite what they say about the Terrible Twos there were surprisingly few tears or tantrums, and we all enjoyed it thoroughly. I'll never forget Amy blowing out the candle on Sheila's and Celia's incredible birthday cake:P1070101.jpg

Tomorrow I'm off to the Independent Publishers Guild conference in Brighton, which usually makes me feel more like a publisher again. Hope it still works this year!

May 31, 2008

A truly great thinker

Yesterday I went to Glasgow for the second day of the Tapestry Partnership event Learning and teaching and all that jazz. I had heard great things about the day before, when Nigel Osborne had masterminded the performance of 1000 Scottish primary children with Beats from Brazil and the Tapestry Jazz Radio Orchestra. But on Friday, I had two incentives: one was to hear Jerome Bruner, whose thinking I have admired for 40 years, and the other was a dinner in his honour at the Hotel du Vin (1, Devonshire Gardens).

In 1969 while studying for a Master in Education at Glasgow University, I first heard the Bruner hypothesis, that

Any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.

This bold claim has been the subject of ill-informed ridicule by people who think it's obvious that you can't teach calculus to a young child. But a very young child on a swing can experience acceleration and slowing-down, and may feel how the rate of change varies at different parts of the arc ... If so, he or she is well on the way toward an enactive understanding of calculus. Combined with Bruner's powerful notion of the spiral curriculum, in which children revisit subjects while moving from enactive to iconic to symbolic levels, this challenges the lamentable dumbing-down which results from underestimating what and how children can learn.
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It was a pleasant surprise to hear that a man who had risen to fame in the post-Sputnik era was still alive, let alone able to travel to Glasgow and perform in public. Yesterday he held 800 teachers and others spellbound. He was not merely "amazing for a man in his 93rd year", he was simply amazing. Lucid, articulate and able to draw on a long, rich lifetime of experience, this was no routine lecture. Bruner (unlike many other Tapestry lecturers) had found out a great deal about Scottish education, had related his message to the Curriculum for Excellence and was confident enough to depart from his script. He had that remarkable knack of engaging with his audience, who rewarded him with a well-earned (but unprecedented) standing ovation.

And over dinner, I was lucky enough to be in conversation with this erudite, modest and charming man. I made the most of it. Here was my chance to ask about his journey from Harvard to take up his Chair at Oxford: he had skippered his 42-foot yacht across the Atlantic to take up this post, as you do, he explained, because shifting it by other means would have cost a silly price! He seemed to be enjoying his stay in Glasgow, having gone to Nigel Osborne's opera Differences in Demolitions the previous night, and fitted in a visit to Kelvingrove Art Gallery that afternoon. He kindly signed my copy of The Process of Education. This highly collectable book will never be up for auction on eBay, at least not in my lifetime!

June 2, 2008

Nigel is 60

Yesterday evening we went to the Queen's Hall, Edinburgh for a most remarkable event: a concert in honour of Nigel Osborne's 60th birthday. Nigel is a man of such all-embracing talent that it's easy to forget what an exceptional musician he is. After being a concert violinist, he became a renowned composer and pioneer in music as healing in war-torn countries. The people who had turned out to celebrate included the Hebrides Ensemble, the Edinburgh Quartet, members of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Mostar SInfonietta. And the compere was no less than the incredibly witty Richard Stilgoe, with poems and anagrams for the occasion. He even had the whole audience singing in canon (in Serbo-Croat, obviously) just to cover the scene-changes.

It's a measure of Nigel's popularity that the event seemed to be organised largely by his students, notably Clea Friend. Seven of his students had each composed one-minute pieces specially for Nigel, so this was their "world-premier" - with the Edinburgh Quartet. What a refreshing diversity there was among them, the hallmark of a great teacher. For me, a lapsed oboist, the highlight was the stunning performance by Nicholas Daniel of Nigel's amazing oboe concerto, a work apparently delivered about 10 years after it was commissioned, but was certainly worth the wait. And what a huge treat to hear the aria from Nigel's latest opera, Differences in Demolitions. Michael Popper performed an extraordinarily moving dance (to Bach/Busoni) without ever moving his feet and Ruaraidh, Nigel's young son, played piano and guitar for his dad.

The formal part ended with Sevdah songs from Teo Krilic and friends, with lots of audience participation and scarcely a dry eye in the house. The party afterwards probably went on all night, but Keir and I had to come away, returning to Dunblane inspired and humbled by all that talent. Respect, Nigel, and remember that life begins at 60 ... from one who knows!

June 8, 2008

40 years of marriage - all to the same man ...

Yesterday was our 40th wedding anniversary. Despite marriage being not much in fashion these days, I'm rather proud of 40 years of it - and all to the same man! Keir Bloomer is remarkable in so many ways, and although officially now retired, he is very active as Chairman of Tapestry and still a leading light on the Scottish educational scene. He's come a long way since the idealistic 20-year old student who married me on the last day of our last term at Cambridge University. I'm glad to say he is still idealistic, in a good way. And over 40 years of being seldom apart, he has always been, and ever will be, my best friend, as well as cherished husband. I believe we have helped each other to be true to ourselves, to keep on growing, questioning and exploring.

Our dearest friends Celia and Sheila had laid on a wonderful barbecue in their beautiful garden near Loch Lomond to help us to celebrate. Food and drink taste so much better in the outdoors, especially surrounded by family and close friends in a beautiful setting:

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Daughter Helen had her camera along and captured the lovely flowers we'd just been given. Grand-daughter Amy was there too, capturing hearts, minds and limelight. Her Uncle Sandy is brilliant with her: it's a pleasure just to watch them interacting. And our dear dog Bramble was included, so the whole family was together: what a lovely day we had.

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June 17, 2008

Touching base, between trips

Just back from Edinburgh airport after a wonderfully long weekend in Tuscany. Based in the lovely Casa del Sole, Camaiore, this was a chance to see Italy afresh through the eyes of two-year-old grand-daughter Amy and daughter Helen. Keir and I (Il nono and La nona) enjoyed a different perspective. Yes we went to the Piazza dei Miracoli, Pisa, but we also visited the Pinocchio Park (and the superb gardens of the Villa Ganzoni also in Collodi), the zoo at Pistoia, the play park in Camaiore and cycled around the walls of Lucca pulling Amy in her chariot. Considering that Keir was about the only person I knew at Cambridge who couldn't manage a bicycle, I thought it was remarkable that we all survived the Lucca walls without injury, and although the puddles spattered poor Amy she didn’t seem to mind at all. We all climbed to the very top of La Rocca in San Miniato for a great view over the town.

The only downside of all this is that I have to leave home tomorrow morning at 0415 for my return trip to Kili. Were it not for the necessity of swapping Italian holiday clothes for high-altitude trek gear, it's barely worth returning to Landrick from Edinburgh airport. The trouble is that all that pasta and vino rosso has added to the task, and there was really no chance to do any training … I’ve always believed (hoped?) that the most important organ for trekking at altitude is your brain (rather than heart, lungs or legs) but I hadn’t expected to have to put this theory to such a severe test! The Lemosho route I’m trying this time at least has a long approach, but it joins the strenuous, scrambling Machame route. Although I’ve done Machame before, at the time I was an important 8 years younger, several kilos lighter in weight and much fitter. Still, if this ill-prepared pensioner can summit once more, it will prove that anybody can.

So I have no small misgivings, despite the usual pleasant sense of anticipation of any long-haul adventure. I love Tanzania, I am still fascinated by the world’s highest free-standing mountain, and I’m hoping to bring back many and much better photos. I’m taking my new Leica-lensed digital camera and hoping that I’m far enough up its learning curve to dodge many of the mistakes I’ve made before. I look back with embarrassment to my 1999 attempts, taken with a borrowed APS camera(!) This pre-dated the formation of Rucksack Readers and was chosen purely because it was very light, at a time when I was most uncertain if I could carry weight at altitude!

July 26, 2008

From HyperCard to SuperCard, with a little help from my friends

Contrary to what many folk think I'm not actually interested in computers, only in what they empower you to do. (I programmed my first mainframe computer over 45 years ago.) I seldom upgrade unless forced to, and I am still devoted to my eerily silent Apple Cube despite its great age (virtually "last century"). Above all, I am still running not only my business but also all domestic, personal, family and other contacts using a wonderful HyperCard stack that my guru Bob Tennent and I developed in 1989! HyperCard was fast, friendly, flexible and (perhaps fatally) free. It was easy to adapt to developing needs and I simply can't imagine life without it.

Sadly, although Apple has kept faith with its legacy users who can run HyperCard in a window under the obsolete OS9, successive upgrades have been less and less compatible with keeping my wonder stack updated, and no new Mac can run it at all. My Cube is groaning under its workload and has slowed to a point where I notice delays. I saw this coming, and actually bought HyperCard's modern descendant SuperCard a few years ago. And then I postponed and procrastinated ... SuperCard is fundamentally different, a more powerful piece of software, slightly scary. Despite being about 95% compatible with HyperCard, I was worried about the other 5%. Normally 95% of a programmer's effort goes into fixing the last 5%. No longer a spring chicken, I funked the idea of having my life and my business paralysed by inability to debug unfamiliar code. It was, after all, nearly 20 years since I had been competent at HyperTalk coding ... and my LaserWriter which also dates from that era is still going strong!

Fortunately, SuperCard has three enormous assets, beyond the fact that it works with modern Macs. First is a HyperCard conversion utility which (to my enormous relief) took my stack (now with nearly 9000 records) and converted it into a 95% usable SuperCard project. Second, there's a wonderful user group where my "seeking help" message (concerned with the other 5%) has already provided 47 response messages from SuperCard developers who are really generous with their time and expertise. Third is John Johnston, user group member and teacher at Sandaig Primary School in Easterhouse, Glasgow. He has already helped me loads by email, and I haven't even met him yet. Look at the pupils' blogs, podcasts and projects on his school's amazing website. The result is that despite a hair-raising week since I converted, some scary "Bad Star" messages and a lot of messing with code (SuperTalk, AppleScript et al), I now have a working project which is very nearly as useful as the previous stack and not all that much slower.

Whilst I appreciate Danny Goodman's altruism in insisting that HyperCard be free of charge, had it been sold even at a sensible price, I bet it would still be alive and well and available on modern Macs, thereby saving all of us who loved it the pain of switching to SuperCard. Just a thought about market forces.

August 1, 2008

A Cowal interlude

I returned yesterday from a magical few days in Cowal, the peninsula that reaches down like a crab claw around the Island of Bute in the Firth of Clyde. Having published books on long-distance walks in both Kintyre to its south-west and the Arran to its south, I'd been thinking it would be logical to publish a Rucksack Reader to the Cowal Way, a long walk devised by Jim McLuckie of the Colintraive and Glendaruel Community Council. I was encouraged in this idea when one of its Committee members approached me in Campbeltown over a year ago, saying that stocks of their own guidebook had run out. Published in 2001 with Lottery funding, that book was written by John Fisher, and always seemed readily available in Cowal but almost unobtainable outside. That isn't my view of how to bring in visting walkers, with their sterling, dollars and euros, to an area rich in scenery and wildlife.

The 2-hour drive to Ormidale (where we met in Jim McLuckie's lovely house) was extremely scenic, passing three large lochs (Lomond, Long and Fyne). The meeting was most enjoyable: longer, and with more laughter, than I could have hoped for: thanks, Jim, Michael and Annie. It would be lovely to think it might lead to a guidebook.

Anyway it made a good excuse to stay with my dear friends Bob and Di Tennent in Blairmore, from Ormidale only half an hour's drive easterly. And despite a fairly dire forecast on Wednesday, we had an amazing sail in a Freedom 21 around the Holy Loch and down the Clyde to Kip next day. The breeze was at least Force 4/5 and although the photo below is of the right boat, it's one that Bob took earlier this year. I should explain that we weren't actually flying the spinnaker for the good reason that there was too much wind: we were surfing at up to 7.3 knots even with the mainsail reefed! It's a long time since I've felt such sheer exhilaration and it was deeply refreshing.

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On Thursday I headed for Glasgow, mainly to meet John Johnston for lunch at the Ubiquitous Chip. John has become my SuperCard guru and was kind enough to fix a few problems on my laptop after lunch. It's wonderful watching a skilled programmer at work, even better when he is solving problems for you, and SuperCard's trace facility is very slick. John teaches at Sandaig Primary when he isn't writing creative SuperCard software such as Rommy Robot (see his blog) and rescuing folk like me who are out of their depths. After our email exchanges in July, it was great to meet this amazing former zoo keeper and enjoy a civilised lunch. Endearingly, it turns out he's a little absent-minded, to the extent that he told me if you withdraw cash from an ATM machine but walk away instead of collecting your cash, the machine takes it back and credits your account! (This presupposes that somebody else doesn't lift it meantime, so is not recommended.) This was just one of many things I learned today:)

And, returning to Dunblane yesterday afternoon, I couldn't believe I'd been away for only two nights. It always seems as if you've been away for longer when a ferry is involved.

August 6, 2008

The design genius of Apple

My 26 July post was about my recent efforts to achieve HyperCard/SuperCard migration. The payoff was being ready to order a new Mac. My trusty Cube had been grinding slowly, overtaken by "progress", and my online publishing business needs five applications open just to process an order, up to ten if I'm editing, choosing images or reviewing page design. Since it's nearly seven years since my last upgrade, I jumped without hesitation to the best current iMac: gorgeous 24-inch screen with blistering fast (over 3GHz) dual processors and plenty of memory. Best of all, it took under five minutes to unpack, plug in its single power lead and get it surfing the web fast and gracefully. I enjoyed small details such as well-designed packaging, and the way the remote control works straight away and intuitively, just like an iPod. Here's hoping this will suffice for the next seven years!

And, had my Cube been unmodified, I expect that Apple's brilliant Migration Assistant "software that lets you transfer your data, preferences and settings from one Mac to another" would have made the next bit painless. Sadly, all attempts to get the Cube to start up in "target" mode failed, so Migration never began. Best friend and guru Bob Tennent managed to troubleshoot this: it's a side-effect of the Cube's retro-fitted non-Apple optical drive. We tried using Airport (wireless network) instead of Firewire, but that failed: you can't even instal Leopard (System 10.5) on a Cube so as to use its two-way Migration Assistant. Deep sigh, but there's no gain without pain, especially where computers are involved. I spent the next few hours reinstalling software, importing bookmarks and retrieving passwords, product keys and settings. Without my wonderful SuperCard project (which contains everything I needed, and much more) I couldn't have done it nearly so fast, and maybe I would have lost my reason ... so converting from HyperCard first was deffo the way to go!

All the data files from the external hard drive came across fine. I rejected Time Machine's kind invitation to back up automatically, fearing that this might have replaced all my precious ex-Cube data with the iMac's minimal data. Remembering the bad old days of MS-DOS (which expected you to know syntax in order to back files up in the intended direction) I'd rather make such decisions manually.

Right now, less than 24 hours after the box was delivered, nearly all applications have been reinstalled and nearly all peripherals are working fine. Downsides (so far) are that AppleWorks 6 won't run any more, and my 19-year old LaserWriter is unable to print: maybe the iMac thinks it's too last-century and won't talk to it? Or maybe guru Bob will talk me through the solution tonight. It was after midnight when I finally sorted the Entourage database and frankly, some Dutch courage had been taken in the meantime: sleep beckoned, so I left it overnight, downloading its updates.

Best of all, all orders have been handled and no customer (unless they happen to read this blog) will be aware of any disruption. And husband Keir, who was in Oban overnight (just as well, for all the attention I'd have paid him:), will return to find my 22-inch screen attached to his Cube, where it will give his PowerPoints more room to breathe.

August 7, 2008

Wildlife at Landrick

I've just had a jaw-dropping experience: looking out of the window, I saw an otter ... a large, sleek, dog otter. It was only about 10 yards from the house, running across our driveway, where it met a fence and crossed again - in which instant I managed to attract Keir's attention so he saw it too. We haven't seen it since, but think he must have trotted in through the front gate, and presumably that's the only way he can leave because of our perimeter fence. Otters are my favourite creatures, and previously I've seen them in the wild only from a distance, and only twice before in Scotland (on the River Endrick and on Arran). So I was astounded to find one visiting our garden.

Landrick has the most amazing wildlife. We have a resident heron, known as Harry, who thrives on the fish in the pond, but also sometimes takes frogs and field mice. Roe deer are frequent visitors to the garden: unlike the otter they can easily jump the fence. We see brown hare and buzzard often, and stoat occasionally. We have had oystercatchers nesting in the garden, this year successfully thanks to my improvised shelter which kept the crows off. And a mute swan dropped in for a few days last year.

This year, unlike last when 12 ducklings all perished in their first few days, the ducklings have been a huge success: they were launched later, at the very end of June (instead of April) and their mother has been a total control freak, keeping them close and protecting them overnight by letting all 10 huddle beneath her. While out of line with infant-centred views about little ones choosing for themselves, this has the enormous advantage of having kept the little darlings alive. I wholly approve of this feisty mama, especially when she attacked me (I had picked up a duckling to let grand-daughter Amy stroke its superb down).

For weeks, I didn't even dare blog about them, in case I was tempting Providence, but now they are six weeks old and fledging, they are viable and have as good a chance as any. So here is our feisty mama, leading her offspring in closely controlled formation, with a larger close-up beneath: gorgeous or what?

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August 12, 2008

On hearing, deafness and a great novelist

I went to the Edinburgh Book Festival today, to hear one of my favourite novelists, David Lodge. He spoke mainly about his latest novel Deaf Sentence, but anyway I'd never heard him live before, and for me it's authors that bring books alive. His book explores the theme of loss of various kinds – of hearing, of his father, of youth, of retiring from employment. He skilfully exploits the comic potential of deafness via double entendre, pun and misunderstanding, acting out the premise that deafness is comic, whereas blindness is tragic.

He has hearing loss himself, but there isn't an ounce of self-pity either in his book or in his talk. With refreshing lack of political correctness, he describes himself as a "deafie". He also appreciates the point that my father demonstrated at age 95: being a writer is one of the few professions that can't forcibly make you retire. Let the market decide!

The EBF Main Theatre was packed to capacity to hear this charismatic writer read an edited version of the first couple of chapters. We all laughed a lot. In a few cases the laughter was delayed, and I realised that an unusual proportion of this audience themselves had hearing loss. The missing link was a skilful, sensitive sign language expert who somehow kept up with Lodge's dazzling stream of words. Indeed her hour-long performance was in many ways as impressive as his.

How on earth do you represent post-modernism, campus novels and linguistics (to pick three examples at random) using only hands, face and body language? And how did she manage to keep up that data rate for a full hour? Lodge is fiercely intelligent, articulate and deals in abstractions. He pulls no intellectual punches, and nor does Desmond Bates, former Professor of Linguistics and hero of his novel.

Question time was interesting: Lodge's hearing was clearly adequate to fielding questions, thanks to excellent microphones and acoustics. I had wondered if he would turn to the signer for "translation" but no, she just went on translating and it was fascinating to see how her body language independently echoed his, sometimes improving on it, although neither was watching the other. The whole event was truly captivating.

And afterward, my son Sandy took me to lunch at the Tiger Lily and I enjoyed catching up with his life a bit. He's in the process of hiring a PA to help with Experience Ecosse, his gift voucher company. Knowing how much a really good PA has helped me over the last 15 years, I deeply hope that he makes the right appointment. And having had a couple of amazing experiences thanks to his vouchers, I certainly hope that his company prospers.

August 14, 2008

Calmness descends after the computer upgrade

I'm delighted to report that the dust has settled on my computer upgrade, and I'm back to using the machine as a tool rather than diverting energy into installing software, troubleshooting and choosing hardware. My SuperCard project is running sweetly on the new iMac and although it doesn't try to exploit most of the new SC features, it does the job smoothly, and I can expand its functionality as I go along. And I have never seen photographs look as stunning as on its glossy 24-inch screen.

The problem with using my ancient laser printer was looking intractable with System 10.5 (Leopard), possibly related to its AppleTalk connection. Having swapped it with the new Epson printer (which I had given to husband Keir, see blog entry of 21.11.2007) for diagnostic purposes, I had the happy idea of making the swap permanent. Since husband Keir is not about to upgrade from 10.4 any time soon, Leopard gives me a good reason to retrieve the better printer! How ironic that a piece of machinery which has given 19 years' reliable service is now on borrowed time for reasons of software "progress"!

The AppleWorks problem has been solved, also in an unorthodox way. My own, legally purchased and upgraded AppleWorks CD had refused point-blank to instal under Leopard. Considering that all our invoices and many book manuscripts are in Appleworks, this was a major setback. The solution was a kind friend who emailed me his AppleWorks to try. Despite having the same version number (6.2.9) as mine, this one works a treat under Leopard. So all my recent concern about Microsoft Office 2008 and downloading a trial version of iWorks Pages was needless. I realise AppleWorks is no longer maintained, but feel I've done enough innovating recently and my motto remains "If it ain't broken, don't fix it". The time to change word processing systems is not ripe.

August 16, 2008

A death at Landrick

We woke up early, to catch an the 7.07 train from Dunblane to King's Cross for niece Saskia's wedding in Dulwich. Thanks to the train's slightly flaky wi-fi I am able to blog the sensational reappearance of the otter at Landrick only hours after it happened. At 0545, Keir came upstairs, breathlessly announcing that the otter was back, and devouring something on the pond. We hadn't seen him for 9 days, so this was a welcome sighting - until we realised that what Keir thought was a large fish was actually the remains of our goose.

Jack had lived happily at Landrick since 1994, when we purchased her from Auchingarrich in the belief she was a gander. At the time we were seeking a breeding partner for our resident gander, who at the time we thought was a goose called Jean. She seemed lonely and the children were keen on goslings. The first time they mated, the gender double muddle became clear: in the words of daughter Helen (then 9 years old) "they're doing it upside down".

Sadly Jean (the gander) died the following year and we had lost faith in the supplier's ability to sex a gander reliably, so we didn't replace him. Year after year, Jack produced a dozen or more eggs, sat on them faithfully for weeks, fiercely defending her nest from anything that came close, and losing a great deal of body weight. Annually we used to break up her nest and dispose of the addled eggs, fearing she might die of starvation brought on by excessive and wholly misplaced maternal devotion.

The violent demise of the family's pet goose was both shocking and sad, though perhaps less painful than watching her declining or dementing or whatever happens to elderly geese. Welcome though the otter's visit had been, we had naively imagined it would feed on fish and frogs. Having such a fierce carnivore in the garden is slightly worrying. All ducks and ducklings have disappeared, and since we haven't seen any corpses we hope that means they've moved away, as opposed to been eaten.

Postscript: it was dark when we got back on Sunday, so my first job on Monday morning was to recover her corpse and give her a decent burial. I felt I had to photograph the corpse first, as so many people had been disbelieving about the otter's ability to kill an adult goose. Since all we saw was the otter feasting on dead goose in the middle of the pond, in theory it might not have been the actual predator. But otters allegedly don't eat carrion. It all seems far too great a coincidence.

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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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August 22, 2008

Farewell to Alfred Brendel

We've spent the last three evenings at the Usher Hall for Edinburgh Festival concerts. Tuesday's had Brahms' Requiem as its second half, a work I first sang 45 years ago, and which I know and love from various perspectives, having sung it first as soprano, then as alto and once, to help out in rehearsal, even as "tenor". I also played the oboe line long ago. The Monteverdi Choir were absolutely wonderful, powerful despite their modest numbers, and a younger, more distinctive sound than a large chorus can produce.

However, Wednesday's event was a tribute to age and experience. After the Scottish Chamber Orchestra had romped through Mozart's evergreen 40th symphony, Alfred Brendel played Mozart's Piano Concerto 24. This was a masterly, moving performance, especially the wonderful larghetto which he made sound disarmingly simple. Brendel, of course, is a mere 77 years but is anticipating retirement just after his extended series of farewell concerts. Conductor Charles Mackerras, at nearly 83, made Brendel look young, but you don't need anything like the fine motor control (nor such feats of memorisation of scores) to go on conducting in old age as to continue playing at Brendel's level. Anyway, this was Mackerras' 56th Festival, and at the end of his standing ovation, Director Jonathan Mills announced Mackerras' appointment as its Honorary President - a post vacant since the death of Yehudi Menuhin in 1999.

And on Thursday, Brendel made his final farewell recital to the Festival audience. His programme returned to his classical repertoire with masterly performances of works by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert - the same composers as we heard him play here a year ago, when he described them modestly as "not a terribly daring" selection. This time, we all clapped until our hands were sore, and he rewarded us with no less than three encores. The standing ovation was prolonged and emotional. Nobody present will quickly forget the 21st August, 2008.

August 30, 2008

A deeply counter-productive protest

Today was our last day at the Edinburgh Festival, overshadowed by yesterday's extraordinary protest at the Queen's Hall. It is difficult to imagine a more peace-loving, well-behaved audience than that which frequents the Festival's finest chamber music. Most of us not only were polite to the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign demonstrators on the pavement, but also took and read their handbills, afterwards submitting cheerfully to the unprecedented bag search on our way in to the concert.

By the time the performance of Haydn and Smetana by this talented and delightful young quartet had been disrupted by loud, ignorant shouting not once, but five times over, systematically, we were all feeling a lot less tolerant. The accusations of "Gaza genocide", "Israeli army musicians" and worse were wholly misplaced. Good grief, would Barenboim have lent his dear dead wife's cello to Zlotnikov if he didn't approve of the cellist both personally and politically? And with two quartet members also belonging to the Arab-Israeli West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, what possible purpose did it serve to shout abuse and spoil the concert for 900 music-lovers who had paid to hear this wonderful, but uncontroversial, programme of classical music?

Since the protesters had bought seats scattered about the hall, the authorities were powerless to know where the next outbreak would come from. Indeed members of the audience started looking sideways at the stranger sitting next to them, wondering if it was safe to continue listening. The event security staff had to manhandle the protesters in order to eject them, so elderly concert-goers had to clear the row to avoid being injured in the fracas. The audience demonstrated its hostility to the protest with slow handclaps and shouts of "get them out", but the noise and disruption still meant that the quartet had to leave the platform each time a protest surfaced. Fortunately they resumed thereafter, apparently undaunted, with unruffled professionalism, so we heard most of the Haydn and Smetana twice: great value!

We also had the benefit of impromptu speeches from the viola player, and from Jonathan Mills, who reminded us that the Festival's theme was "Artists without borders" and pointed out that they had hosted performers from Iran and Palestine, as well as Israel. Alas, the appeal against interruptions went unheeded until the second half, when we heard the Brahms in blissful peace.

The audience demonstrated their whole-hearted support by sitting out the concert (which lasted nearly three hours) and closing with a standing ovation. I've never witnessed such a thing at the Queen's before, and it showed how much damage the misplaced SPSC protest did to their cause. We were rewarded with an encore of the wonderful slow movement of Borodin's first String Quartet.

September 11, 2008

Imaging the human body

I went to a wonderful lecture in Stirling yesterday. It was at the Stirling Smith, which is currently hosting ten Leonardo drawings from the Royal collection, and has an associated series of lunchtime lectures on Wednesdays until 31 October. If they can even approach the standard of yesterday's, it will be a truly remarkable series.

The speaker was John Reid, a Consultant Radiologist and a bit of a Renaissance man himself. He ranged widely over paintings, anatomy, astronomy and the physics of recent medical advances in imaging, with a talk supported by stunning visuals – without a note or script in sight. Articulate, interesting and professional, he even worked in a reference to Big Bang Day!

From X-rays to MRI, his exposition of the incredible advances in technique left us all the more bemused by how Leonardo managed such detailed, accurate and incisive drawings 500 years ago. His Vitruvian Man of 1487 embodies the mathematical proportions of Vitruvius in astonishing details. And I shan't forget Reid's movie of the human heart demonstrating its pumping through the mitral and tricuspid valves – with full three dimensional realism – for a very long time. It was superlative.

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 9, 2008

South Africa and Mozambique

Today we are off on a mystery trip. It's only a mystery to husband Keir, who officially doesn't know where we're going. I booked it a few months ago: no mystery for me! Sadly, the combination of anti-malarials, time of year and flight times must have given away the fact that we are going to southern Africa. It remains to emerge whether he has guessed the Mozambique bit (Benguerra Island). Since both my experiences of diving earlier this year have been muted, at best, he has probably guessed I'm keen to go somewhere coastal as well. The books I'll give him at Heathrow will certainly tell all: one on the Kruger and the other on Mozambique, where he can relax and bird-spot and I shall dive (weather permitting).

I've got a name for the pre-departure tailspin that precedes any holiday, but I never seem to get any better at managing or preventing it. In just over an hour we are off, and I had barely time to write this. Although I wrapped up the massive task of page-making our forthcoming Everest book yesterday, that meant leaving packing until today. And this morning I couldn't find my favourite camera, the excellent Panasonic Lumix with an 18x zoom. OK, I'll fess up to having other cameras (2 other digitals and I won't admit how many film-based) but this is THE safari camera. And until I found it, I couldn't start charging its batteries, which takes simply hours ... hence I'm sitting in my office waiting for the light to go off: ridiculous! Actually the combination of dive kit, underwater housing (for the other digicam) and so forth makes for a surprising number of batteries, chargers, adaptors et al, not to mention the wonderful obsolete dive computers.

Time to go now (EDI then LHR then Johannesburg), this entry filed just after mid-day but I'll schedule it ahead (for once) so Keir can't read it before we go.

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!

October 18, 2008

A dugong while diving

Wednesday was my first day of diving here at Marlin Lodge, and it was sensational. Within the first five minutes, I found myself staring at this weird-looking mammal:

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The fact there were a couple of sharks nearby was strictly a side-show. Dugongs are a threatened species, so rare that divemaster Paul had never seen one on a dive before despite 10 years of diving almost daily in these waters. There's a total of about 40 animals in this part of the Indian Ocean, and it's the icon of their Marine National Park. If I hadn't seen manatees in Florida before, I would have thought I was hallucinating. I found out about the dugong only after I saw it.

Dugongs (and manatees) are also known as sea cows, perhaps because they graze on underwater grasses, but (unlike the manatee's) the dugong's tail is fluked like a whale's. Sea cows are related to elephants, and reputed to be the origin of the myth of the mermaid. The photo above is courtesy of National Geographic. For once, I was glad I wasn't carrying a camera, as it left me free to enjoy the magic of the sighting.

It was the first of many dives I made on Two-mile Reef, although yesterday we went further afield to Cabo San Sebastian and dived to 29 metres in crystal-clear water. The journey there through the "washing machine" was a real white-knuckle ride, the motor-boat slamming hard through huge, confused seas. It was such a tranquil contrast then to drop below all that surface noise and share the cool, deep seascape with turtles, devil rays and potato bass. However, the bumpy journey was also rewarded with sightings of humpback whale and lots of dolphins, which was a considerably bonus on top of the diving. Above all, the diving was enhanced by divemaster Paul's relaxed, but highly professional style, which led to safe but enjoyable diving for everybody.

October 20, 2008

On sailing a dhow at sunset, Marlin Lodge

We've been in Mozambique for six days, and Marlin Lodge is stunning. Twice we went on a dhow cruise near sunset. The dhow is a traditional Arabic sailboat with a large lateen (triangular) sail and simple rigging (one halyard, one sheet). They have no keel: heeling is controlled by moving the passengers and/or sacks of ballast. The cruises are provided by the local islanders, in locally owned boats in which the mast looks improvised and sails are patched together from bits of tarpaulin and other material:

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Our first skipper was all of 16 years old (his crew a year younger) and the teamwork whereby they handle these heavy, keel-less boats is most impressive. The rig is much more efficient on one tack than the other (where the sail presses against the mast). For our later trip, I had worked out how to get on helm, right across Flamingo Bay as it turned out. This photograph is significant as it is husband Keir's very first image taken with the Leica-lensed Panasonic Lumix camera that I used on safari:

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To see how wonderfully elegant these boats are under sail, and why sunset is the best time to enjoy them, words are inadequate, so here's another image.

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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 6, 2009

Hiking the Cowal Way

I confess to being more "hands-on" than most publishers, or even editors. Our forthcoming Cowal Way guidebook was finally nearing readiness for repro when I was struck by the fact that the authors had never written a book before, let alone detailed walking directions. So I decided to test their manuscript by trying to walk the 57-mile route from their directions alone. To avoid delaying the book (due out in May), this had to be done by the end of January. I knew the short hours of daylight would be challenging, but I hadn't reckoned on the deep snow. From Cowal's coastal roads, it's hard to believe how wintry conditions can be on the high ground.

My trip began early on Sunday 25th with a hair-raising drive from Blairmore to Portavadie along the thickly snow-carpeted single-track B836. It was passable by my car (front-wheel drive) only by sticking to the tracks of the previous vehicle as if to tramlines. Any oncoming traffic would have ended the attempt before it began: it took all the momentum I could muster to crest the hills.

On Tuesday, I left Strachur very early, apprehensive of the uphill hike to Curra Lochain, the watershed above Loch Goil. Its outflow burn was in spate with melt-water, and it seemed impossible to find a safe crossing for this raging torrent. The "stepping stone" (promised by the directions) was submerged, slippery and sloping. Alone, unsupported and with no desire to get frostbitten feet, let alone swept away, I hesitated, backtracked and finally overcame my loss of nerve by tossing my rucksack across. It contained my prized Lumix G1 camera, so then I had no choice but to follow.

After an untidy, strenuous leap and scramble, I sat down to recover my breath and happened to look up. And there it was, less than 100 feet above my head, soaring and wheeling: a golden eagle. I had never seen a wild one before (other than as a speck in the distance), though buzzards are commonplace at Landrick. Once you see an eagle close up, there can be no confusion: its silhouette is more like a plank of wood than a bird's! The moment was too magical to spoil by reaching for the camera, but this photo (taken elsewhere by friend Sandy Morrison) evokes it well:

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The descent past Sruth Ban falls to Lochgoilhead was easy enough and I reached Drimsynie House just after lunchtime. Wednesday's plan was to go over the top and try to meet friends Rob and Di Tennent somewhere on Loch Long-side. The cloud level wasn't too low when I left Lochgoilhead, but by the time I had climbed up Coilessan glen, I found myself approaching a featureless white plateau in total white-out, looking (according to the directions) for white marker posts! Not surprisingly, I didn't see any, but headed easterly, found the cairn and descended to pick up (with some relief) the line of a fence which, after some time turned out to be roughly the right route after all. Our rendezvous worked just fine and, even better, Rob and Di (with dogs) had kindly hiked and photographed the Ardgartan/Arrochar section for me. So they kindly ran me back to Strachur to retrieve my car and we celebrated the success of my four-day hike with a decent meal and a stiff drink.

But still I had this nagging feeling. I couldn't pass the proofs without checking out the white marker posts, so I went back today to look for them. The snow was still lying, but this time the visibility was superb, albeit the wind chill factor breathtaking. And, happily, neighbour Malcolm decided to join me as I hiked up from Ardgartan to the cairn. That meant that two of us tramped all over that plateau for an hour, but neither of us saw a single marker post! It turns out they were removed some years ago, so I just deleted them also from the route description. And although it demanded an extra expedition just to be sure, I'm not sorry I returned to the cairn. Here's looking west toward Beinn Bheula, across the frozen lochan:

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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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April 21, 2009

London Book Fair 2009

Yesterday was Day One of Book Fair, so I arrived keen to see if the books we sent months ago are actually on the stand, and to discover if the shelf is buried in obscurity or near to eye level. Once again, the Independent Publishers Guild stand was prominent and effective. I even forgot to take a photo of our shelf of Rucksack Readers. Next year we'll be 10 years old, which seems amazing.

One of the joys of Book Fair is being able to sit and talk to our partners from all over the world: Derek and Wayne of Hong Kong Graphics and Printing who make all our books these days, Craenen of Belgium who distribute in Europe and Interlink Publishing, Massachusetts, who distribute for us in North America. In fact it was this time last year that the idea of going back up Kilimanjaro by the Lemosho route was conceived at Book Fair in a conversation with Michel (who set up Interlink in 1987). Last June we all summited, and he and his partner Hildi have even created a gift book drawing entirely on this trip. I'd be truly delighted about that if it weren't for the fact that their book is likely to be out before my own, overdue guidebook, which keeps getting sidelined!

Today's main joy was listening to great novellists. I began with Umberto Eco, who is one of my favourites. A new novel from Eco is a rare event, about once in 8 years, and hearing about his full career as an academic historian, philosopher and teacher of semiotics and essayist, no wonder. Unlike most authors, he wasn't here to promote a new book, but to present an award to his editor. He spoke freely about the passionate battles between his editor and translators, sometimes days and weeks debating a single mot juste. Happily he scotched the rumour (spread in Wikipedia) that he would never write another novel, though he conceded he might be slowing down a little. Now in his late 70s, he seemed much younger, more energetic and full of humour as well as wisdom and patience.

Later I caught up with William Boyd talking about an unusual source of ideas for his novels. He lives beside the Thames, and had been struck by the little-known fact that over 50 bodies a week are recovered from its waters. How many of us could turn that into a best-seller? Sadly my business meetings that clashed with Vikram Seth, speaking this afternoon, whose novels "A Suitable Boy" and "An Equal Music" are some of my favourites.

April 23, 2009

Boris Johnson at the London Book Fair

I arrived at Book Fair yesterday unsure what to expect of the Mayor's keynote speech. So often, TV "personalities" are disappointing in the flesh. And Boris Johnson is strongly identified with the London Transport that let me down so badly on my journey to hear him: Victoria Line cancellation (strike action) discovered from notices at Brixton tube where I arrived with heavy luggage. After walking to the rail station, more stairs with luggage because of Penalty Fare notices demanding a new rail ticket. (My pre-pay Oyster card beats paying £4 for single journeys, but why can't it be valid on ALL forms of transport within the London area, especially after strike action closes the bit you need?) And the non-Victoria tube lines were even more crowded than usual because of the overspill, so it was an unpleasant journey.

But I needn't have worried about being late, as Boris was even later. Perhaps there was extra traffic on his bike journey from Islington. Once he started to talk, however, we forgave him everything. He was articulate, interesting and witty, a self-confessed "fogey" on the subject of Playstations and his sons, and although he had prepared his "keynote" he never read from a script and I suspect departed from his brief. The chairman wisely didn't attempt to summarise an address that ranged ecelectically over London's literary advantages. These included having twice as many bookshops as New York, being rich in libraries (363 of them), being custodians of the English language with its 500,000 words and (bizarrely, because of the weak pound) having the world's cheapest Big Mac (cheaper than the Ukraine and Brazil).

Boris's talk was well-informed, intelligent and good fun. As an author, he spoke to this LBF audience in its own language, starting with a witty aside about his agent getting the title of his novel wrong (by alluding to "42 virgins" - in place of 72 - the agent was reflecting deep discounting in the book trade.) He made much of birthdays – today is allegedly the day for both Shakespeare and St George – but it was his handling of questions that impressed me most. The first was a left-fielder from a Danish chap who wanted to know how Boris would combine proper celebrations of the Charles Dickens' bicentennial with the Olympics. Boris was understandably taken aback, but barely hesitated before confirming Dickens' dates as 1812-70, and spinning a brilliant fantasy of the Olympic opening ceremony as a Dickensian pageant. The audience loved it, the Dane was baffled.

Stripped of the glamour of TV, despite his heavily Eton/Balliol accent and persona, he came across as a genuine and approachable bloke. If I lived in London, I can even imagine voting for him. Although I've never yet voted Conservative, there are some politicians who seem to rise above party prejudices and to leave the baggage behind. Besides, the man has charisma. If Boris were a dog, he'd be a yellow labrador.

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Photo © www.contactmusic.com, with thanks

May 17, 2009

The Cowal Way guidebook is launched

Glendaruel Village Hall was the centre of an amazing range of activities yesterday: guided walks, primary children's displays, walking theatre, home baking and a very generous launch for our Cowal Way guidebook by government Minister Mike Russell.

He congratulated the authors and the whole community on the completion of this project, and it is remarkable how strong is the sense of community in Cowal, where he also lives. He spoke of the power of a long-distance route to funnel people into the peninsula, to provide a shop window on Cowal's scenery and wildlife, and to form a building block in the development of local tourism. I was pleased at how enthusiastic he seemed about the route, including its role as the missing link that joins the Kintyre Way to the West Highland Way.

The event was well supported by local residents, who not only attended but also bought books. Some of us went on the Walking Theatre event, in which actors appeared in costume and involved the walkers in various activities. It almost worked, I felt, but our "willing suspension of disbelief" was pole-axed at the start by standing around while one of those daft Health and Safety ticklists had to be completed. However, I was delighted and amazed to find that a fellow-walker was someone I hadn't seen since schooldays in London (over 40 years ago) where I knew her as Julia Martin. Since she lives in Western Australia and was in Cowal only temporarily, it seemed quite a coincidence.

Yesterday was the culmination of months of work at Rucksack Readers, but that's nothing compared with co-author Jim McLuckie's decade of work in developing and waymarking the route. My own contribution had gone somewhat beyond the normal role of publisher: see my blog entry for 6 February. However, that trip proved that even I could hike the Cowal Way in deep snow, over sodden ground, inside 4-5 days in January. So I'm fairly confident that it's feasible for normal walkers over that schedule year-round.

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 7, 2009

Two old ladies climb Dumyat

We had expected to have son, daughter and grand-daughter staying overnight, but for various reasons they had other plans and we ended up alone last night. So this morning I had the luxury of deciding to go up Dumyat - which I've neglected for too long. I'm hoping that Bramble will manage 12 miles when we take part in the Rotary Club of Stirling hike of the West Highland Way in July, so it seems timely to find out if this is over-ambitious. She was 13 years old last month, so in canine terms she's an even older lady than me. Nevertheless, we both made it and thanks to some kind hikers, we even have a "summit photograph":

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Recently, Bramble has been having Cartrophen injections for her arthritis, and if today is a reliable guide I'd say she is walking as well as she did 3-5 years ago. We have also been consciously cutting back on her food, and the combination has created a lighter, livelier, younger-seeming dog who was scampering, not plodding, up steepish slopes. (I wish I could have kept up with her.) The problem was the well-meaning group who were feeding her on the summit. She had been under close control off the lead all the way up, but I hadn't reckoned on her mooching technique at the top. Heaven knows what else they had given her, but I certainly saw a whole Maryland cookie - the kind of treat she never normally get. I fear that her Dumyat climb ended as a net calorific gain.

And since today is our wedding anniversary, Keir and I are just heading for Cromlix House for dinner, so doubtless my day will also end in a net calorific gain. This wouldn't matter so much if I hadn't just booked up to return to Nepal in September, so some serious weight loss and fitness training is badly needed. But not today!

June 15, 2009

A welcome arrival

We had various arrivals at Landrick on Saturday: one was the HD box that will enable Keir to watch tennis in high definition. This was set up just in time for us to see Andy Murray beat James Blake in two convincing sets at Queen's yesterday. The hi-res picture makes it noticeably easier to follow the ball, even when Andy serves at 135+ mph! This should be a great asset for Wimbledon viewing.

But the box which really made my Saturday was the arrival from York Camera Mart of the long-awaited wide-angle zoom lens for my Lumix G1. Unless you are into cameras, you may find it hard to share my excitement, but if you glance at the images below, you may get the gist. This lens picks up from where most "wide-angles" run out of steam. In the old film-based camera world, "wide-angle" might mean a focal length of 35 or 28mm – if you are very lucky, perhaps 24 or even 20mm. But this new lens has focal lengths ranging from the equivalent of 14 to 28mm. I can't wait to try it out on landscapes, where it should raise the standard of photography in our guidebooks.

Since there was no time to get up a hill today, instead I took it with me to a lunchtime meeting with Rucksack Readers' wonderful web designer Dan Champion in the dignified context of Inglewood House, Alloa. Here is its splendid exterior:

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Now compare these two snaps of its entrance hall, taken from both extremes of the wide-angle zoom range:

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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 7, 2009

Rotarians walk the West Highland Way

Last Sunday was the day of our Rotary Club's sponsored walk of the West Highland Way. President Alan Skilling had organised it to raise funds for the Craighalbert Centre in Cumbernauld which does conductive education with children with profound conditions such as cerebral palsy. It looks like we'll have raised over £2000, but I'll update this with the final figure once we know. The date was fixed long ago, independently of men's finals day at Wimbledon. However, by leaving Landrick very early, our team completed the driving/car-dropping, hiking 12 miles from Tyndrum to Inverarnan and retrieving the car from Tyndrum, and still got home in time to watch most of that wonderful match. My heart really warmed to Andy Roddick in his protracted and gutsy challenge to Federer. His post-match comments were a model of generosity and restraint, and I do hope his turn comes soon.

Anyway, our team comprised three people and two dogs: neighbours Malcolm and Calum Johnson with their dog Laochan, plus me and Bramble. Here they are, in the woods west of Crianlarich, with Bramble waiting for me to catch up:

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Here's the view from our early lunch stop, with Ben More, Stob Binnein and Cruach Ardrain in the distance:

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And once Laochan discovered the River Falloch, even Bramble (a non-swimming labrador) was tempted to join in:

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Walking from north to south, against the flow, means you meet more people. One group of hikers included a woman from Ontario who recognised me from the long profile in Scots magazine that by chance she'd read the night before. Her companion promptly asked me to autograph her copy of my guidebook. I was thrilled to see it was open at the page, and slightly dog-eared from heavy use. They seemed pleased with this chance encounter, but it was their reaction that made my day!

July 9, 2009

New school curriculum "complete nonsense"

My husband is all over the Times, today, under the misleading headline above. He is quoted extensively by Lindsay McIntosh on the front page, with a photo and more on p13, where there's also a commentary by Magnus Linklater. Keir was part of the team which wrote the original document nearly 5 years ago, and what he was criticising was its lamentable implementation, not the vision.

And what he called "pretentious" (not "complete") nonsense was the official definition of literacy (but "pretentious" wouldn't have fitted the broadsheet headline). Officially,

Literacy is the set of skills which allows an individual to engage fully in society and in learning, through the different forms of language, and the range of texts which society values and finds useful.

Keir's "pretentious nonsense" comment referred to the above mumbo-jumbo, of which he said:

No it's not. It's about how to read and write.

The Times goes on to predict "His comments will not be welcomed by Fiona Hyslop, the Education Secretary." Keir's combination of incisive thinking and plain speaking has never endeared him to the Scottish educational establishment. So what?

The online version of the Times piece had already attracted comment by this morning.
"Mr Bloomer's definition of the word literacy is correct" says Des, from Edinburgh. "Well done Keir Bloomer. It's time someone from the education establishment came out and said what classroom teachers have been saying for long enough: CfE is a worthy cause but the implementation has been done without any real engagement with the "chalk face" . The result is educational mince!" says Peter, also from Edinburgh. Hooray for sanity and plain English.

July 10, 2009

The Scotsman takes up the theme

The pebble thrown in the pond was the front page of yesterday's Times, featuring Keir's attack on the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence. The ripples started to spread later in the day. First the BBC were in touch, looking for an extended radio interview with him, then the Scotsman asked him for a short article.

Today's paper has Fiona Macleod's news story which develops the theme of "pressure growing on the Scottish Government after a leading education figure joined mounting criticism" and trails Keir's article. She quotes various politicians' comments, including both Labour (Rhona Brankin), who described the literacy section as "complete gobbledegook", and Conservative (Liz Smith) who confirmed "the entire structure behind implementing the curriculum is in disarray".

A government spokesman (anonymous) said something complacent about "Scotland already performed well on the world education stage" and something insincere: "Keir Bloomer is an important educational thinker, and we will always listen with interest to his views". Aye, right!

Keir's article is inside the Scotsman. Educational innovation is notorious for its failure to translate rhetoric into reality, and CfE has been subverted, emasculated and buried under thousands of tonnes of paper. Yet many of the Experiences and Outcomes aren't worth the paper they're printed on.

The slogans "successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors and responsible citizens" are on every classroom wall. But

Ask a dozen teachers (or a dozen directors of education for that matter) to define the new curriculum in two clear sentences and you will get a dozen different answers.

August 14, 2009

Keir, Shereen and a Curriculum for Excellence

I had a lovely email out of the blue from Alistair Mooney, an Assistant Producer who contributes to the BBC Scotland Learning blog. He had picked up Keir's interview with Shereen about CfE and linked to it here. After it was recorded back in mid-July, we had forgotten all about it, and it was news to us that it had been transmitted. Be warned: it runs for 11 minutes, so is not for the faint-hearted, but it also includes discussion afterwards from Sarah Oates (Glasgow Uni), Paul McNamee (The Big Issue in Scotland), and Bill Leckie (The Sun).

Keir made a significant point strongly:

If you put your faith in teachers, they will deliver a great deal, but if you want change, the plan has to be one that genuinely inspires them.

Although once an educator by profession, nowadays I am an occasional observer at Tapestry Partnership events. Their most obvious feature might appear to be the galaxy of visiting speakers, including Howard Gardner, Robert Winston and Jerome Bruner. In fact, the most impressive aspect is around the coffee breaks, where there's a real buzz among teachers fired up by new ideas, genuinely inspired to go back to their classrooms and make changes.

What support do they need to help make this happen? Not more piles of bumf with experiences and outcomes. Not more prescription and guidance, but less. Not more tick-lists or other attempts to micro-manage classrooms. Stop checking up on them and their pupils.

In the 1970s when I taught at Jordanhill College and Concordia University, we promoted active learning methods such as simulation and gaming – not by talking or writing about them, but by putting teachers through the very same experiences as we wanted for the pupils. The levels of activity, excitement and laughter were unprecedented. Afterwards, the teachers went away not to write essays or with piles of handouts, but to create and adapt simulation games that they used in their classrooms. Experiential learning works.

Depressingly, Fiona Hyslop's exhortation piece on CfE in today's Times Educational Supplement Scotland claims that Building the Curriculum 3 "provides the clarity that teachers have been seeking". Complacently, she claims that "we have the chance to set standards that will inspire our neighbours and those around the globe". The rhetoric of her "new way of teaching and learning which thrives on freedom, flexiblity and creativity" sounds fine, but what the CfE implementation lacks is reality. After nearly five years, that isn't good enough.

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.

October 5, 2009

How a tractor cured my online displacement activity

I returned from Nepal last Monday afternoon to the usual mountain of email, post and messages. Being somewhat sleep-starved and travel-weary, dealing with it would probably have occupied most of my week. But on Tuesday morning, an overladen tractor on our hill took out the phone wires, which mean no phone, no email and no web-surfing all week.

BT sent engineers out daily, to communicate, to survey the damage and to plan the repair. By Friday afternoon they had replaced two telegraph poles and a long section of cable, which seemed rather efficient, and we were back online. Meantime I had realised that my most important task was to write up the Everest trekking route description while it was fresh in my mind. Have broken the back of that task without online distraction, I now think the tractor did me a favour, although it didn't feel that way at the time.

It's so tempting to let the small, easy tasks (like replying to email) squeeze out the large important ones (like writing a book). Next time I am tempted by displacement activity, I shall try to remember the tractor – albeit unplugging my ethernet cable is an easier step to undo.

December 9, 2009

Ice diving beneath Lac de Tignes

I’m in Val Claret for the week, the ski resort just above Tignes where I have been coming for 20+ years for a pre-Christmas boost of unrepentant, politically incorrect downhill ski-ing. I keep thinking I should grow out of this, but I constantly rediscover that I am still addicted.

Most lunchtime stops are a bowl of soup in a mountain restaurant, but today was different. I had decided to try ice-diving under Lac de Tignes, with Evolution 2 and it was completely unlike anything I have ever experienced. I mean, I have dived before, but in warm water and maybe a wet suit, not under an ice ceiling in a dry suit having arrived on skis and departing shortly after, also on skis, but winded: because of the high altitude (2100m/7000ft) and low temperature, the regulator delivers less air than you expect, and would freeze if turned up to a normal setting. So you suck air, greedily. And wear blue rubber gloves that are locked on at the wrists.

Courtesy of Evolution 2 and marinebio.com, here are a couple of pictures. They aren't actually of me, but easily could be as everybody looks the same in a dry suit and full-face mask:

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The colours are extraordinary. The air bubbles trapped underneath the ice take on the curiously convex, reflective quality of mercury. Unlike when sea diving, there was no fish life nor live corals to view. I was certainly not cold, nor even faintly damp nor frightened. But it was as different from the world of lift queues, après-ski and pisted fluency as outer space.

The instructor holds on to you at first, all part of the beginner treatment, but then asks (in sign language) if you prefer him to let go. Of course I did, but it wasn’t nearly as easy as sea diving, where I am very much within my comfort zone. I found myself fighting the buoyancy and striving to stay upright. I would probably be more competent next time around, but I’m not sure if I need to do it again.

Of one thing I am certain: I will never again look at the blank surface of Lac de Tignes in quite the same incurious way. Now I know what lies beneath, there is literally a whole new dimension on the familiar mountain experience.

January 7, 2010

Bramble enjoys the snow

One of the compensations of the snow, ice and general difficulties of everyday life is that Bramble seems to be enjoying a new phase of puppyhood and silliness. Aged nearly 14 years, she really enjoys the snow at Landrick!

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January 15, 2010

Cars, complexity and instruction manuals

Son Sandy left his Mini Cooper S at Landrick on Tuesday while he is away for five weeks. By today, enough snow had melted to make our road driveable, so I thought I'd drive it to Stirling to keep its battery in condition. My first problem was finding where to insert the remote control/key: its slot is obscured by both steering wheel and wiper stalk. After a bit of searching, I found it and the car started at a touch of the button which, as on a Windows computer, doubles as both Start and Stop.

The big problem was how to remove the key, which resisted even a desperate tug, and which I was reluctant to leave in the car, even standing at our door, in case the doors locked automatically after a delay. Well, I've been long enough with computers and cars that, if all else fails, I know I'll have to consult the manual: deep sigh.

The Cooper S manual has 223 pages including an index: nothing in the index. Nothing in the first 20 pages of so-called Overview, except a full-page uncaptioned photograph of my problem. Nothing in the next 26 pages, allegedly about Controls but mainly devoted to the "personal profile", customising your locking and alarm settings, a feature called "Convenient access" which told me all about the remote control, including how to change its battery, but unbelievably didn't include the vital information about how to remove it from its slot. I had to plough through pages of being told not to hurt myself when closing the windows; how to operate the sunroof even if the electrics fail; how the slipstream deflector works; everything about seat controls, airbags and head restraints; seat heating, seat belts and adjusting the mirrors and steering wheel; and four pages of child safety!

Finally, on page 48 we reach driving and how to remove the key. Obvious: to pull it out, just push it in further! How intuitive is that? More to the point, why doesn't the manual have a Quick-start single page that tells you what you really need to know, like how to start and stop the car? I always used to provide this when writing software manuals, and as cars become more and more complicated, it becomes more and more necessary for them, too.

January 17, 2010

Snow, chains and publishing

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This photo evokes a period of four weeks in which Landrick has been effectively cut off by snow. In 17 years of living here, we'd never thought of chains before, having coped by leaving a car at the foot of the hill and hiking the last bit. After over two weeks, this was beginning to pall and we opted for Klack & Go which are self-tensioning and supposed to be easy to fit. This isn't as simple as the girl in the video makes it look! We even wondered if they would be too late to be useful. Not a bit: in the last fortnight, they have repaid their cost by letting us give lifts to people and boxes of books. As a publisher, we still have to get orders out to customers, which means meeting delivery drivers at the foot of the hill.

A compensation of the snow has been the view from the office window: snow becomes Landrick well, and our pond is a natural skating rink:

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Wednesday brought a phone call from The Bookseller to ask if Rucksack Readers had been affected by the weather at all? So I told them about the snow chains and the view from the office window and was astonished to find myself quoted on page 3 of Friday's issue.

Yesterday the thaw arrived in earnest, and we removed the chains (much easier than fitting them). Our colour-starved eyes are feasting on greens and browns, the postie has resumed delivering our mail and life may be returning to normal. Perhaps washing and putting away the chains will become a feature of Januaries to come, like taking down the Christmas tree and packing up the lights.

February 22, 2010

From New Providence Island

The Bahamas have seemed very exotic to me ever since my elder sister Lindsay returned from there as a bronzed, beautiful 18 year old (nearly half a century ago). Knowing that the diving is supposed to be good, I was delighted when Keir suggested a holiday here, and we had a delightful direct flight with BA on Saturday. Thanks to timely online checkin, we had two exit row seats with more legroom than Business Class, and after only 3 movies (Amelia Earhart, An education and Golden 39) we were in Nassau with only a short transfer to the resort.

Sandals is at Cable Beach, near Nassau on New Providence Island. It's an amazing mixture: the down side is the naff pseudo-classical statues and some cringe-worthy (but optional) entertainment, but there is also the stunning natural beauty of its beaches and private island. We also like the simplicity of all-inclusive: if you've finished eating, you need not hang around for the bill, there's no need to carry valuables and no reason not to have another drink.

Anyway, the diving is included! Fortunately I visited the dive shop on arrival and got a place on yesterday's shark dive, an event that runs only if enough experienced divers sign up for it. We were encircled by dozens of Caribbean reef sharks (harmless if treated with respect, but wild animals all the same) and had magical moments watching them at very close quarters. I'll try to update this with a photo: it being my first dive I wasn't carrying my own camera, but Ricardo, the dive photographer, was in action. The water is cold enough that I went into Nassau on the bus today and bought my first wet suit, which should make a big difference for the rest of the week. It was only $10 more expensive than the rental, and can be re-used on my next dive trip in cooler waters. Some women would rather have a mink coat, but I am delighted with this extremely comfortable garment.

April 8, 2010

An aerial view of Landrick

I finally redeemed my birthday voucher for a flight with East of Scotland Microlights where Sandy is training as a pilot. He also had provided the voucher through his company Gift Experience Scotland. The arrangement had been postponed three times because of weather (high winds, blizzards and deep snow) but fourth time was lucky yesterday. Gordon Douglas flew me north-west high, high above the Forth, west over Castle Campbell and along the spine of the Ochils, past Dumyat to circle over Landrick.

House and garden look very different from the air, in fact its dark colours and treelined setting meant that at first I was afraid I'd struggle to locate it from above. But here it is:

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Gordon had told me that we weren't allowed within 500 feet of inhabited buildings, but I pointed out that our house stands on its own and the only occupants (Keir and his visitor) wouldn't mind. Clearly we swooped low enough to attract their attention, because they came outside and are standing by the curved path, with Bramble barking vigorously at this aerial intruder:

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Gordon then suggested we buzz them, which seemed a terrific idea to me, so we climbed and swooped, skimming the tree tops at about 120 mph. The G forces were so extreme that there was no question of using the camera, but it was very exciting. Almost incredibly, within 90 minutes of leaving East Fortune airfield we were back there on the ground. At this point, Sandy was waiting for the microlight (a Quik-R) to do some more solo work, so I took a few pictures of him taking off and landing:

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April 14, 2010

Chamber Philharmonic Europe

Last night we went to Dunblane Cathedral for the first time since the Roseneathe Singers' powerful, agonising performance of Britten's War Requiem. The prompt was, once again, daughter Helen getting us tickets. Unlike the War Requiem which is difficult in parts to listen to, difficult sometimes to deal with Wilfred Owen's devastating poetry, this turned out to be really easy listening. We had Vivaldi (topically Spring from the Four Seasons), Albinoni (trumpet concerto) and Mozart (Divertimento) followed by Bach, Purcell (trumpet sonata) and Grieg. It was lively, professional and uplifting, performed in the intimate setting of the choir stalls of the cathedral.

The orchestra was unusual: the Chamber Philharmonic Europe is very cosmopolitan, with the trumpet soloist Russian, the lead violinist Hungarian and no two other players of the same nationality. With only nine players they achieved a tremendous orchestral voulme in the Grieg (Holberg Suite). The charming young violinist who did the announcements also played (but she didn't identify) a haunting encore. It was so hauntingly familiar that I had to look it up later on YouTube and found that Keir was spot on in his suggestion of Massenet's Meditation from Thäis. You can choose from dozens of performances; I liked Itzhak Perlman (but not the naff visuals) and (amazingly, from 1928) Fritz Kreisler.

How useful to be able to track down unannounced encores while still fresh in the mind's ear ... and how generous of Helen to send us to this concert which we would otherwise never have known about.

May 2, 2010

Mark Beaumont: the man who cycled the world

About 750 people crowded into the Albert Halls on Friday evening for Mark Beaumont's talk. Stirling was the first of the Scottish venues for his UK tour and he certainly got a terrific reception. The recent BBC TV series The man who cycled the Americas combined with his strong online presence, blogging, tweets and facebook, meant that it was completely sold out, with long queues for the book signings.

He is, of course, the guy who knocked 81 days off the official Guinness World Record for circumnavigation by bike in 2008. And in telling the story of his trip through the Americas, he not only covered the length of the Rockies and Andes, but also climbed McKinley/Denali and Aconcagua, the summits of North and South America. In addition, he carried all his own kit, including video cameras and sound kit, and self-filmed. He spoke about both trips, illustrated with stills and video clips, for 3 hours, with enthusiasm, energy and honesty. Most impressive of all, he spoke afresh, not from notes or a script.

Here he is signing books and engaging with his public: the queue after his talk ended at 10.30 would have taken another hour to clear, but he still made time to talk to some youngsters about his bike before he even started the signings:

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We may live in an era of the cult of celebrity, but at 27 this young man has a wise head on young shoulders, and seemed unfazed by all the attention. I'm guessing that the reason he seems so grounded has to do with his mother Una, to whom he pays charming tribute (in his book as well as in his talks). She was clearly not only key to his support team, but she also home-educated Mark with his two sisters Heather and Hannah, until he went to Dundee High School. On his first trip, she also wrote his blog and parts of his book, which I've just started to read. I've alway thought that early years play an enormous role in building self-belief.

I met Una before the talk, when I went to buy Mark's book and also to donate two of our guidebooks. I knew that Mark had met our author Harry Kikstra. Harry has not only climbed Aconcagua, Denali and Everest (!), he has also written guidebooks for us, and he too is cycling the Americas from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Ushuaia, Argentina. Unlike Mark, who cycled alone and under pressure, Harry is taking his time along with his lovely partner Ivana, in a sort of protracted pre-wedding "honeymoon". In this photo from Harry's website, taken in Guatemala, Harry's the guy in the middle:

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Now it was at Nido de Condores (about 18,000ft on Aconcagua) back in 2003 that I had mentally redesigned the format of our guidebooks to suit high altitude, and later commissioned Harry to write three of our Rucksack Pocket Summits. So I took both Aconcagua and Denali along as a small tribute to give to Mark. I was delighted to find that the resourceful Una had long since researched what would be the best guidebook to help Mark on his Aconcagua climb, and sent him Harry's book to take along!

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May 26, 2010

Garden Party dress code dilemma

An odd side-effect of Keir's late-onset acceptability to the Scottish educational establishment was the arrival last week of an invitation to the garden party at the Palace of Holyroodhouse on 13 July. For years, of course, he dished these out to people at Clackmannanshire Council but would never have thought of taking one for himself. This one, however, is different: it is a personal invitation to him. And it includes me: and there lies the rub.

The last time I had such an invitation I was a teenager. I declined, not just because I was rebellious, but also because I had a prior commitment that I valued more: my mother never forgave me. This time, I'm rather tempted to accept, and am guessing that Keir is too. But am I prepared to conform to the dress code? Straightforward for men, the verbatim wording for "Ladies", complete with arcane punctuation and capitalisation reads thus:

Day Dress with Hat or Uniform (No medals). Trouser Suit may be worn.

I am struggling to disentangle what this means. I don't wear hats except at extreme altitude, while ski-ing or sailing. I doubt if my scarlet Paramo ski hat would complement an otherwise respectable summery outfit. Does the separate "Trouser Suit" sentence mean that I can dodge the hat by wearing Trouser Suit instead? Or does it merely mean that you may wear a Trouser Suit instead of Day Dress, or even as well, if it's cold? (And could I wear my medals if wearing Trouser Suit instead of Day Dress, or indeed both?)

I searched for fashion advice from Google: my search for "trouser suit hat" returned this wonderful eBay item as top hit. Would Her Majesty find this acceptable?

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Let's try some analysis of the text. "No medals" appears to qualify "Uniform" but the "or" after Hat provides limited grounds for hope. "Day Dress with Uniform" is therefore OK, isn't it, or is that only if the uniform in question includes a hat? Or did they mean either "Day Dress with Hat" or "Uniform (No medals)"? Could somebody please introduce conjunctions, and perhaps commas, into these abstruse instructions? Do they, like the Building the Curriculum series, need to be rewritten in clearer language?

A later sentence states that "National Dress may be worn" (apparently by either gender), but doesn't say which nation. This makes it tempting to find some deeply unsuitable national dress (with or without headgear) thus dodging the hat problem? Or a fascinator??

Gentlemen are clearly not expected to wear hats. Considering that ladies don't go bald, I don't understand why such discrimination is thought necessary. But in a 21st century invitation package that explains clearly about the two forms of ID required, no cameras or mobiles to be used, DVD order form (£16 to BCA Ltd: that must be a nice little earner) why can't they say what they mean about dress code?

June 4, 2010

Beautiful Bergen

On a press trip to Norway, I left Landrick today at 05.30 and was relieved to reach Aberdeen airport (Dyce) by 07.30, well ahead of our 08.15 rendez-vous: thank goodness for satnav. The rest of the group was three journalists plus organiser Stan, none of whom I'd met before.

We went straight from Bergen airport to Edvard and Nina Grieg's house at Troldhaugen. Grieg's Scottish connections are rich: his great-grandfather, Alexander Greig, came from Cairnbulg (near Fraserburgh) and his godmother lived near Stirling. Greig was a Jacobite supporter who travelled widely post-Culloden, finally settling in Norway about 1770, and changing his surname to Grieg. Edvard Grieg lived at Troldhaugen from 1885 until his death in 1907, aged 64, but Nina stayed on here until 1919. We also visited the wonderfully situated hut where he retreated from company in the house to compose in peace, overlooking the fjord.

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The house is fascinating, full of personal belongings, photographs and presents. Nina was Edvard's first cousin, and a hard-working lyric soprano. Edvard considered her the finest performer of his songs, and they often shared a platform at concerts. Among its contents is his piano, still played regularly in concerts:

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After a short drive, we reached Bergen, a city that grew from the Hanseatic port of Bryggen. Its carefully conserved waterfront has barely changed since the last great fire of 1702 (except for the prudent addition of sprinklers). We wandered around the wharf, now a Unesco World Heritage Site, among timber buildings and overhanging galleries of great character. This wonderful image from Bergen Tourist Board/Willy Haraldsen gives you an idea of its timeless beauty:

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June 5, 2010

The Arctic Circle is closer than you think

I had always though of the Arctic as impossibly remote, but this press trip has cured me. I had driven to Aberdeen for the Bergen flight, but after 26 June I could have flown direct from Edinburgh in a couple of hours. And from Bergen to Tromso¸ takes less than 2.5 hours, although it's over 750 miles and the planes are not jets, but twin props.

On Saturday morning, we left Bergen dead on time by Wideroe Dash 8 at 09.00. The pilot kindly pointed out the towns and features we were overflying, but failed to mention the Arctic Circle, which we must have crossed before 11. Anyway, we were in Tromso¸ airport, baggage collected, by 11.30 and the SAS bus whisked us to the city centre within 10-15 minutes. One of the joys of air travel in Norway is the short transfers from airport to city centre. Another is the quality of the scenery. Flying feels like fun again.

After a cablecar trip to a fine lunch at the Fjellheisen restaurant, we enjoyed the panorama over Tromsø with its elegant bridge. Most of the city, including the airport, is on the island, but its "Arctic Cathedral" is on the mainland, here at lower right:

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After lunch we visited the Polar Museum, the Norwegian Polar Institute and Polaria. The latter is a fine interactive museum full of portholes at knee height for toddlers. Although I enjoyed most of the exhibits, my heart was stolen by the delightful bearded seals:

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And after a fairly long day, it was fabulous to walk across a Tromsø bridge to the "Arctic Cathedral" for a Midnight Concert. This superb building hosts well-judged short concerts at 11.30 pm through the season. Ours was performed by four young musicians on trumpet, cello, organ/piano and soprano. The programme embraced not only Grieg but also Bach (cello solo), Nielsen and a traditional Sami joik. It concluded with Fields of Gold sung in English. IMO the late Eva Cassidy sang it better than Sting, but this young soprano's performance was something else. The surroundings were sublime, the musicians talented and committed, and I was choking back the tears.

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June 6, 2010

Arctic fishing in the Lyngsfjord

Sunday began with a long drive from Tromsø to the boat that took us deep-sea fishing on the Lyngsfjord with Lyngsfjord Adventure. Never having fished before, I was 100% confident of failure, but within minutes had landed a small codling which we promptly threw back overboard. Here is the boat that took us:

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Mark McLaughlin (of the Edinburgh Evening News) put my codling to shame with his prime catch of a 5-kg wolf-fish (aka Atlantic catfish), famously good for eating. However, it has strong teeth and jaws that can crunch sea urchins, and a post-mortem bite reflex that can take off your hand, so we kept our distance:

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After the fishing trip, we visited the Tromsø Museum, with some fascinating cultural exhibits including a sensitive treatment of the Sami people who have established a nation without borders, have their own flag and parliament. That evening, we were heading south by Widerøe back to Bergen. Time to spare at Tromsø airport is an unexpected pleasure. Normally I hate airports, but you can walk around outside this one, taking in the snow-covered mountain views. Here is the stainless steel fish sculpture that stands outside the terminal:

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June 7, 2010

Lessons from an Arctic interlude

Today didn't start well. We were due to leave the Bergen hotel for our Aberdeen flight at 07.55, but I was still deep asleep when the phone rang to say the taxi was waiting. Adrenalin rush, rapid scramble for belongings, clothes and passport, and within 5 minutes I was at the front door, unwashed and apologetic. The silver lining was that my companions were forgiving and we were still in plenty of time for the flight. Mind you, two of them had similarly overslept on Saturday, so only two out of five had been on time every morning. This was an action-packed itinerary, and the mixture of midnight daylight, thousands of air miles and near-midnight meals had disrupted our sleep patterns. But I'm still feeling deeply mortified: I knew I was sleep-starved and should not have relied on a single alarm (its battery failed so it lost time). Lesson learned: if it matters, have a backup.

The homeward flight was lovely: Wideroe fly Dash 8s with twin props, and their flights always seemed prompt with fast turnarounds. They are efficient, modern and fly relatively low, so you get great views:

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After a smooth, rapid drive home from Aberdeen, I was keenly looking forward to the morning's missed bath and picking up the threads of life at Landrick. Delighted to find my iPad waiting, but rather than let it distract me, I thought I'd download my 200+ digital photos (Lumix G1) from the trip. Total dismay/disbelief when I found that all but a dozen were missing from the SD card, although I had seen them clearly in camera where I had already done some weeding (strictly one image at a time). (Have always known that SD images are vulnerable, indeed one reason for wanting the iPad is a lightweight backup for images while travelling. So its arrival just after my first-ever photo loss felt deeply ironic.)

I'm still utterly baffled by this: I can't think of any accidental sequence of key-presses on the camera that could have deleted hundreds of pix without deleting them all. Bafflement gave way to panic: this had been a press trip and at least a dozen images would be needed for various publications. Panic gave way to the idea of searching for photo recovery software online and I found the simply wonderful PhotoRescue. I had always thought such software would be for hardcore techies, and couldn't imagine I could succeed, let alone as easily as I did. After all, a state of urgency, panic and sleep debt isn't the best combo for learning a new skill. However, this software works like a dream: you download the demo for free, preview exactly which images it will recover, then it asks you for money only if you want to proceed (and offers a full refund if recovery then fails). At this point, I'd have been ready to pay serious money to recover not only my images but also some shreds of self-respect. In fact it cost a mere £25: terrific value.

PhotoRescue has a superb user interface: no need to read instructions. "Quick recover" saved all I needed, really fast. (It even offered me all the images that had been on the card before I had deliberately formatted it at the start of the trip.) The photos are the ones I had intended, i.e. minus the ones that I had weeded selectively. (I guess those might be rescued too via Advanced, but once I had all I needed, it was time for huge relief and at last a bath.) I am still mystified as to how this selective disaster can have occurred, but am now feeling that I've got off incredibly lightly. (And have a rescue option up my sleeve for the future.)

We were due to celebrate our anniversary with dinner at the Kailyard, the only restaurant we can easily walk to. But before setting off, I burned a CD just to make sure: another lesson learned.

June 21, 2010

Fame at last ...

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In my wildest dreams I never thought that I'd ever get my name in big letters on a billboard, and if I had, I'd have expected it to be for some really daring adventure. Yet outside our local newsagent, here was the billboard for my flying visit to Arctic Norway.

It had been featured on page 2 of the Observer's June 11 issue, complete with five photographs. If you read my previous entry, you'll know how nearly these photos came to oblivion. Yet thanks to PhotoRescue, they were recovered and printed in the Stirling Observer feature.

The weird thing is that I now look back on that temporary loss of images as having been a good thing. Many of the people who have read that entry have told me that they never used to carry a spare card (but will now); or that they didn't know how to change their card (!) but will find out now; or that they had nearly lost photos like that in the past and had no idea what do do (but know now). I've come to the conclusion that my narrow escape may, through blogging, have had the good effect of alerting a few folk to an accident waiting to happen. And if so, that is a blessing.

Anyway, if you fancy a trip to the midnight sun, Wideroe's twice-weekly flights to Bergen direct from Edinburgh start on Saturday 26 June. But take a spare card for your camera, just in case.

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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April 9, 2011

Jamaica, diving and dolphins

We got back from Jamaica on Wednesday, after ten days of deeply relaxing holiday at the small resort of Ochos Rios on the north of the island. There's good diving along this coast, including a great wreck drive (the Katherine, a World War 2 minesweeper) leading to caverns with narrow swim-throughs and wonderful fish life. And being Sandals, the diving is included in the all-inclusive, which seems almost too good to be true. It seemed a great luxury to have breakfast served on our enormous balcony before going for my first dive:

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We enjoyed some fine sunsets and evening strolls:

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Keir mostly spent his time reading heavy non-fiction tomes, but went out on a couple of excursions. To my surprise, he agreed to visit nearby Dolphin Cove, where you can touch and swim with these lovely, intelligent mammals. Since Keir hasn't ventured into water outside a bathroom in 15 years, to my enormous delight not only did he swim, but he also enjoyed the experience. Here is the Jamaican dolphin with her Cuban friend giving him a tow through the water:

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And here's a view of the dolphin kiss: yep, it's commercial with shades of circus but the animals are well cared for, trained by reward and extremely engaging. We loved it!

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May 1, 2011

Help for Heroes: Doug Hamilton-Cox

Doug Hamilton-Cox is an extraordinary man, and his wife and principal support driver Sue in many ways equally remarkable. At the age of 67, ex-Sapper Doug is yomping from John O'Groats to Land's End, sustaining an average of 4 mph on his walking days. On his "rest" days, he collects for Help for Heroes in various towns en route.:

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Photo: courtesy of his website

Sensibly he has enlisted help not only from his military contacts, but also from Rotary Clubs along his route, though sadly he isn't a member. Yesterday, with a little help from our Club, he collected over £800 from the generous folk of Stirling, which on this journey is a record for a single collection so far. Sue travelled up from Exeter to rejoin him as his main support, and they just stayed with us overnight at Landrick. I have never felt more proud to be able to give a fellow walker a Compeed – for his first blister so far!

You should be able to follow his progress from Where's Doug Now? but it badly needs to be updated: today it still showed his position as the Corrieyairack Pass instead of Dunblane! Doug's previous two long walks raised over £25,000 and he is running ahead of schedule on this 1000-mile journey. Everything about him suggests that he will complete his mission, and that he will raise a remarkable amount of money in doing so. He reminds us all what one determined individual, with an amazingly supportive partner, can achieve.

May 2, 2011

Trailblaze blots on the landscape

I'm about to set off for my first long walk in the south of England: the South Downs Way. The goal is to sample the route and its waymarking and to make any final tweaks to our forthcoming guidebook.

At least, that was the original goal, but over the last month I've become aware of the spread of Trailblaze on our National Trails: garish metal boxes with a hole into which runners are supposed to stick their timing tags in order to prove how fast they ran. These blots on the landscape also advertise the Trailblaze website. Here's a photo sent by a friend while walking Offa's Dyke Path:

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So far these things have been installed on 8 National Trails, including apparently the South Downs Way – so I shall struggle not to be distracted by them. I was delighted to find that some enterprising person has set up a Say NO to Trailblaze website and I must have been among the first hundred to sign their petition. Please follow this link to find out more and read people's comments, including some big names in the outdoor world.

I have nothing but respect and admiration for endurance runners who push themselves to the limit, whether on a National Trail or elsewhere. I just can't understand why they need to clutter our lovely countryside walks with these clunky metal boxes. If you are proving something to yourself or to others who trust you, what is wrong with a wristwatch – or, if you prefer, GPS? And if you don't trust other runners to tell the truth, the Trailblaze system won't work: there's nothing to stop cheats from cycling or mostly driving between boxes in their desperate attempts to be named on the website and win their coloured wristbands.

The system seems hopelessly low-tech, even obsolescent: you register online but then the timing tags have to be posted back and forth, so there's a delay before the results appear. It's also sadly open to misunderstanding and vandalism. Somebody suggested (in jest) on a forum recently that the flame logo and hole might confuse people into thinking it was a safe place for smokers to stub out their cigarettes. But a friend just sent me this photograph of the start of the Cleveland Way:

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Look closely and you'll see that some vandal or fool has already done just that:

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I can't say that I'm looking forward to seeing one of these "in the flesh" for the first time on the South Downs, and we'll avoid any photos that include them in our guidebook. I'm so glad that Hadrian's Wall Path has stood out against the trend among Natural Trail managers to agree to Trailblaze being installed.

May 20, 2011

The Rob Roy Way and Rotary Club of Stirling

Last Sunday, I organised a sponsored walk on the Rob Roy Way which was well supported by members and supporters of the Rotary Club of Stirling. We covered the 79-mile route in sections, and all completed their sections in good time and in good spirits.

We can't compete with the massive fund-raising achieved by the imminent Rob Roy Challenge, but we have raised a total of over £2350 for our two charities: End Polio Now and Riding for the Disabled. Considering we are a small club of fairly high average age, I think that is a creditable effort. What's more, we had a great day out, not much rain and a friendly meal at Stirling Golf Club that evening:

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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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July 15, 2011

An unusual start to the day

I was on BBC Sussex local radio yesterday. At one level radio interview by phone is wonderfully easy – no travel, you don't even need to get dressed first, and in today's world it's so easy to monitor the previous part of programme via the web at your computer. In another way it's hard: you have no body language to interrupt with, no matter how strongly you think you have a telling riposte to a long ramble from the other side.

BBC Sussex treated Trailblaze as a news item as well as giving it two interview sessions: Neil Pringle interviewed a grand old chap called Nigel Buxton in the studio, later talking to me and Endurance Life's marketing manager, presumably both by phone. You can listen to it here, the first 5 minutes being Nigel Buxton, followed by myself and Andrew Barker for 7 minutes (of which I got total air time of just under two minutes).

Nigel Buxton focused on the ugly boxes themselves, and demolished the idea that size matters: the boxes may be small but it takes only one piece of litter to spoil an otherwise immaculate view. I commented on the numbers – endurance running appeals to maybe 1% of the 1% of trail users, not all of whom are gullible enough to feel they need Trailblaze. Since Easter, according to the Trailblaze website, a total of only 38 runners have used the boxes on all the trails put together, excluding the launch event. So the promise of income to the National Trails is a false hope.

Andrew Barker demonstrated his listening skills by persistently getting my name wrong. (I know it isn't the easiest of names, but he didn't have to keep calling me "Marketta" or indeed anything at all.) He dismissed his own numbers and talked about 18 months as a normal timescale for numbers to build up, making it sound like this "pilot" [due to end May 2012] is a fait accompli.

He went on to make the astounding claim:

There's very little difference between trail runners and walkers. Most trail runners were walkers: they've just decided that instead of doing 12 miles on their daily walk they could actually do 30 and see more of the National Trail.
See more and more of less and less, doing what damage on the way? These trails pass through fragile environments: let us show a little respect.

Meanwhile, signatures on Say no to Trailblaze have risen to over 330 and climbing daily. Each time Andrew Barker speaks on radio, their campaign gets a boost!

September 19, 2011

Lemonade, floor cleaner and fuel

Our final 24 hours in Spain went slightly less smoothly than the rest. En route to La Granja, Keir wanted to stop in Segovia to see its cathedral, and since Saturday parking was a total nightmare I volunteered to mind the car while he did so. Because it was so hot, I thought I'd slake my thirst with a bottle of lemonade that I'd bought for a change from all the agua con gas we'd been drinking. I was so thirsty that the first swallow was substantial - and revolting. Looking in disbelief at the lemonade-shaped bottle, which was lemon-coloured and covered in lemon photos, I discovered it was 1.5 litres of concentrated floor cleaner - friegasuelos!

This was unbelievably stupid of me, although I don't see why the supermarket had to shelve it among the water bottles, just to confuse me. It was worrying that the label told you, if ingested by mistake, to seek immediate medical help and phone an emergency number. This was going to be tricky: I don't speak Spanish, Keir was in the cathedral and the car was improperly parked in the middle of Segovia. After what seemed like an age, Keir returned and I 'fessed up and since La Granja wasn't far, I drove there anyway, feeling worse and worse by the km. On arrival, the Parador got no reply from the friegasuelos phone number and suggested their 24-hour medical centre. Finding it unexpectedly closed, I decided that self-induced vomiting was the only answer ... and had recovered fully by evening.

For some reason, Keir found the whole thing incredibly funny, and keeps making friegasuelos jokes and looked up the fateful square on Google maps and insists on calling it Friegasuelos Square. He also keeps pointing to lemon-themed bottles of various kinds of poison and asking me if they look like lemonade (they don't: the bottles are a totally different shape) and - the cheek of it - reproaching me for not having photographed the bottle in question! Oddly enough, I had other things on my mind than blog photos. I do seem to have become a bit accident-prone while on holiday (with broken bones or torn muscles on the last four out of four) but this was my first self-poisoning incident. I'll never drink straight out of an unknown bottle again!

Throughout the 10 days, our in-car division of labour had worked perfectly: Keir did all the navigation (some of it very challenging) and I did all the driving (mostly easy except the medieval city centres where "roads" sometime narrowed to two metres or less). The only tense moments were on our final drive from La Granja in pitch dark driving to catch our morning flight to Madrid airport. Although we'd covered some 1200 km over the trip, the car (a diesel C4) was frugal and with a range of 130 km still showing at La Granja I was confident we'd get close to Madrid airport on the original tankful. Although Keir mentioned the crossing of the Sierra de Guadarrama, the height he quoted was 1500 m and I thought we'd be OK.

We set off from La Granja in total darkness and climbed and climbed and climbed. By 1500 m the range had dropped to 60 km: it was falling faster than the stock market on Black Monday - each time I looked it dropped another 5 km. Finally we levelled out at 1880 m (6170 ft), by which time the range had slumped to 40 km - less than the distance to the next garage! I couldn't even coast downhill because the hairpins were so severe, but (as I hoped but didn't dare to count on) the range started to increase on the downhill, and we made the next garage with range to spare and considerable relief all round. Since we were in good time for the plane, I'm left feeling I want to return and drive that road again in daylight: it must be very scenic and without fuel anxiety could be very entertaining. And next time, I'd stick to drinking agua con gas.

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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October 24, 2011

John McCallum: an obituary

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Last Friday, I was privileged to be included in the family funeral gathering to celebrate the life of this great British hero - an intensely private, modest man. John McCallum's extraordinary story could not be told for decades because of the Official Secrets Act, but finally was published in his book The Long Way Home (Birlinn, 2005). It's an account of an incredibly daring escape by three Glasgow-born prisoners of war, by chance taking them through Zagan on the day of the famous (and tragically unsuccessful) "Great Escape" of 25 March 1944. It is also the moving story of his intense, doomed romance with a very brave and self-sacrificing German woman.

Today's Herald carries the obituary that I finished writing yesterday. I had started with 500 words, fearing that they would cut it severely, but in the event they telephoned to ask for more. In my professional career as a writer, I've never ever had a newspaper ask for more words before, so I was delighted to extend it. You can read it here.

There are details of his book on Birlinn's website (link updated for the new edition in 2012). He made a posthumous appearance on TV in David Jason's Great Escapes, aired on ITV1 on Armistice Day this year.

It's almost exactly five years since my father died, and although they were from very different backgrounds, he and John McCallum had a number of admirable personal qualities in common: integrity, stoicism, longevity and great resourcefulness. Although both are now dead, their lives and our memories of them will continue to affect those of us who were lucky enough to know them.

November 8, 2011

Making snow chains size 10.5

It's nearly two years since snow chains entered my life, in January 2010. The size 10s I had bought for the Jaguar X-type were hard to fit first time around, which I put down to my inexperience. But second time around they were nearly impossible, so by November 2010 I had decided they were one size too small. Since they were by this time firmly and usefully in place, nothing happened until January when the 35-minute struggle to remove them at 4.30 am in heavy snow en route for the airport (admittedly after they had been frozen/rusted in place for two months) very nearly cost us our plane to Bangkok. We made the airport only after the flight had started to board, and our heart rates didn't return to normal until half an hour after take-off.

I was determined to avoid a repeat performance this winter. My supplier Snowchains Europroducts' offers a part-exchange scheme so I bought a pair of size 11s. It was deeply disappointing to find they were too loose, and the offchance of a chain flying off the wheel spells damage or even danger. After many phone calls and emailed photographs, they suggested the solution could be to shorten the perimeter chain to achieve what I now think of as size 10.5. Andrew of Snowchains made it sound easy: you open up a link, move the chain along, refit the chain and if it's a good fit simply close the link, cut off the surplus and the job is done. Here is the test fit, which had to be done on carpet so I could still return the chains if this all failed:

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and here's a close up showing the dangling blue links:

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This was great progress: the chains were now a doddle to fit and remove, and my friend Andrew at Snowchains was enthusiastic about my photos. He said they showed as good a fit as they achieve at their centre in Kent and almost made me feel I could apply for a job! However, I felt that our front tyres could do with an upgrade, and fearing that the new tyres might be slightly different in size from the worn ones that they would replace, I thought I should retest the chains before cutting any links. So this morning I took my carpet, chains and tools to J K Tyres of Springkerse so as to refit the chains after the new tyres were in place. On the driveway outside, the task was slightly harder than before, but only very slightly and not remotely like the nightmare of the size 10s. Each chain was on and off inside three minutes. They kindly helped by cutting through the spare links for me: this was hard enough to break one pair of their snips and took a lot of hammering and manual strength using a second, stronger pair. I was suitably grateful.

So now I have all-season Klebers on the front axle and, after only 22 months, size 10.5 chains that I can both fit and remove. Conclusions? Probably it won't snow at all this winter. Will I care? No: I shall take great delight in having spared everybody a snowy winter by finally having solved my chains problem. And, as with assembling flatpack furniture, I feel I have acquired some hard-won knowledge which may never, ever be useful to me again. It includes the unwelcome discovery that 225x45x17 may sound like a precise tyre measurement, but tyre sizes vary more than chains manufacturers realise!

November 27, 2011

Forgotten and unsung heroes: DMFF 25-6.11.11

We (Rucksack Readers) supported the Dundee Mountain Film Festival again this year. It's the UK's longest-running such event and next year (23-4.11.2012) will be its 30th. I enjoy being out of the office, meeting people and selling direct to real customers in the intervals, but I also greatly enjoy the lectures and movies that make up the main programme. The big names for 2011 were Mark Beaumont and Peter Habeler, neatly addressing both younger and older generations.

In contrast to the global fame of those two, a theme of forgotten and unsung heroes emerged. The 2002 Irish film which came second in the People's Choice vote was about Tom Crean (1877-1938) – the unfailingly cheerful hero of so many Antarctic expeditions with Scott and Shackleton. He retired to run a pub, the famous South Pole Inn of Anascaul, which I visited while working on our Dingle Way book. I bought Michael Smith's brilliant biography at his pub and reread it after seeing the author in this movie on Friday night.

I'd never heard of Alexander Kellas until his biographer, Ian R Mitchell, gave a lively lecture about him the next day, based on Prelude to Everest. In 1921 Kellas was the first to die, tragically young, on an Everest expedition. Born in Aberdeen and weather-hardened on Ben Nevis and the Cairngorms, he was the first ascender of several Himalayan peaks over 20,000 ft. In addition to his mountaineering records, he was a pioneer of high-altitude physiology. He had predicted that exceptionally acclimatised, fit humans would be able to climb Everest without supplementary oxygen. He even predicted correctly how much slower the final ascent rate would be than the climbing rate at sea level.

This was a perfect cue for my question to Peter Habeler, who gave a superbly illustrated lecture about his climbing life on Saturday evenin. "In 1978, when he and Messner became the first men to summit Everest without oxygen, did they actually know whether it was possible? Medical opinion at the time was divided, but did they know about Kellas's work?" His answer was emphatic: he had never heard of Kellas until Mitchell's lecture that very afternoon and he had been fascinated by this prescient prediction from 60 years ago. So kudos to DMFF for assembling such an interesting programme and finding contributions from which the great Peter Habeler learned something new!

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 1, 2012

A grand start to 2012: the Mary Queen of Scots Way

I set off from Landrick early this morning, and parked my car at Dollar at first light, to set off up Dollar Glen and through the Ochils:

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From Castle Campbell, a climb took me up and alongside Glenquey Reservoir before dropping down to Glendevon. A further climb took me up the Cadgers' Way to Cadgers' Yett (gate), the watershed at 435 m (1425 ft), spoiled only by the ugly intrusion of Green Knowes wind turbines: the scattered white dots (sheep) convey the scale.

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After a pathless section, and a bold leap across the Coul Burn which was in spate, I climbed again briefly towards the glorious wilderness of Corb Glen:

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After the descent to the B934 near Corb Bridge, Keir kindly collected me and ran me back to Dollar. What a wonderful way to start this new year: I now feel a modest sense of achievement, and energised from the novelty of the route.

For this itinerary, I am indebted to Paul Prescott, of Callander Ramblers, whose book on the Mary Queen of Scots Way we will be publishing later this year. His route is unwaymarked, and has some adventurous bits, but in the course of the last four years he has managed to connect Arrochar on Loch Long with St Andrews on the North Sea, thus crossing Scotland from west to east in a 107-mile route that is almost entirely offroad.

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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July 6, 2012

Verona for opera

Keir's birthday treat was to see opera outdoors in the Roman arena of Verona, and of course this became my treat, too. Long ago, I had got tickets for Verdi's Aida last Thursday, Mozart's Don Giovanni Friday and Bizet's Carmen on Saturday. The whole experience was a total revelation: I had no idea that opera could be staged so compellingly. No effort or expense was spared, and at times the huge stage hosted several hundred performers, professional dancers as well as singers, horses and other animals, and amazing lighting effects. The arena is a giant oval, about 140 m (460 feet) on its long axis, by about 110 m (360 feet) wide.

Not knowing the venue, I had begun with more affordable tickets for Aida, at centre back of the arena, moving us closer the following two nights. There is no sound amplification, and the better of the singers needed none, but we both thought the orchestral sound in Aida muted, not surprising outdoors and from a distance of about 120 m. Still, the ballet was truly superb, and the way the torch bearers filled the whole height of the arena was magical:

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Don Giovanni was designed by Franco Zeffirelli and both sets and costumes were amazing. Our seats were superb for this production, and the Don was brilliantly sung by bass-baritone D'Arcangelo. His appearance and acting was great for the role of rake and playboy, although his surname is ironic for the bragging rapist and bully. He is centre stage in this shot of the dinner to which he invites the avenging Commendatore, and the next shot shows his descent into hellfire where he gets his just deserts.

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Carmen was also designed by Zeffirelli, and here words fail me. The other two productions had featured live horses on stage, but when one of the soldiers cantered across the crowded stage to break up the fight between Carmen and her fellow worker in the cigarette factory, my heart was in my mouth: at only six rows from the stage, we wondered if we were even safe! The flamenco dancing was extraordinary. Here is Escamillo, Carmen's latest lover, a toreador showing off:

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July 8, 2012

Lake Garda: Loch Lomond in the Dolomites?

A week ago, on the day of Keir's birthday, we took a bus from outside our Verona hotel to Lake Garda. OK, it's much larger than Loch Lomond (about 6 times larger, apparently) but it's a very similar shape and its character varies similarly between southern and northern parts. Only the sun shone and it was in the 30s Celsius.

The bus cost less than 5 euros and took under an hour to Sirmione, a historic town situated on an improbable peninsula at the lake's southern end. So we walked into the Hotel Flaminia and were pleased to find our room ready. Its balcony overlooked the lake, so we could see the boats coming and going. The hotel lounge area included a pontoon from which I swam, dodging the swans and boats: of the two I was more nervous of the swans, which don't worry me on land but when you're swimming they kind of tower over you and you feel defenceless.

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The hotel is just in front of the castle, Rocca Scaligera, and Keir was pleasantly surprised to find that 65 year olds get in free! Here are some shots of and from the castle:

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We walked to the so-called "Grotto of Catullus" (actually a Roman farm, although Catullus had a house nearby) at the northern tip of the peninsula, where Keir also got in free. I was beginning to think "roll on my 65th birthday, there are compensations" - at least in Italy. Here are some more views of this very photogenic place:

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July 20, 2012

A bicycle post

Having had my Flying Scot bike (handmade by Rattray in Glasgow) for over 40 years, I have finally realised that it's time to part company. It doesn't suit where we live (atop a steep hill), it doesn't go onto or into either car, and anyway I'm getting too old and stiff comfortably to swing my leg over its crossbar. So, with heavy heart, I listed it on eBay yesterday and it's already attracted a lot of interested questions as well as a first bid. I still love its classic clean lines and lean efficiency:

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and here is its splendid front post decal:

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The next question was how to replace it, and the answer (I hope) is a very different solution, a folding bike, but also handmade in Britain - namely a Brompton. If you don't already know about these bikes, have a look at this video showing the brilliant inventor, Andrew Ritchie, doing a leisurely fold and unfold it in under a minute. Most owners manage it in under 20 seconds, I am told.

When it arrives, I'll 'fess up to how long it actually takes me. Because Brompton make everything by hand, and their bikes are highly in demand, orders are on at least 14 weeks' lead time, but I am hoping that my recent eBay purchase will arrive on Monday.

August 20, 2012

Say No to Trailblaze before it's too late

Natural England has set a deadline of 7 September to receive evidence for evaluating Trailblaze, the metal boxes that were installed on 8 National Trails to encourage endurance runners to compete on timed runs. Here is the one installed at Bloworth Crossing, that bleak, beautiful, remote place visited by both Wainwright's Coast to Coast and the Cleveland Way. Does the white box look out of place to you? If so, please consider signing the petition at Say No to Trailblaze.

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Even if you have already signed, please click the Updates tab on the protest website for further news. Although I've blogged about it before, I make no apology for raising it again. The more people that sign the protest, the more likely that Natural England will have to admit its mistake and remove the boxes. Their so-called "pilot" installed 99 boxes for 18 months, which seems needlessly large-scale for evaluation purposes. Time is running out, so please forward the link if you know anybody else who may care about the impact of these boxes on the National Trails that they disfigure.

The photo above was taken of a clean box just after it was installed. Some are now rusting, others are home to cigarette butts, chewing gum and even snails. In an era of smartphones, GPS and indeed wristwatches, why do runners need these fixed, battery-backed boxes?

Over the last 16 months, a total of only 207 people have used this scheme on all 8 trails put together. The cost of installing them has been estimated at £50,000. Of that amount, about 75% was public money from one source or another. So about three-quarters of the £242 cost per Trailblaze run (on average) has been contributed by the hard-pressed taxpayer. Does that seem like good value for money?

September 16, 2012

On driving a tank

Today started with something completely different: my first experience of driving a tank, courtesy of son Sandy and Gift Experience Scotland. OK, a purist might argue that an 18-ton Armed People Carrier (APC432) differs from a tank, but to most people, this was a tank. (If you really want to know the difference, try this entertaining blog.) The APC dated from the 1980s and is ex-British Army.

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(Image courtesy of Absolutely Scotland which offers this and other activities in a rural setting near Stirling.)

Driving a tracked vehicle is very different from a wheeled one: steering is by means of surprisingly light touches on two brakes to achieve left or right turns respectively. As in a boat, you need momentum in order to steer at all. As when ski-ing (but unlike in a boat) it's easier to pivot if you are on a crest, much harder in a dip. The driving position is interesting: you are sitting above the front right pivot point with 14-feet of vehicle overhang behind and about 8 feet of tank to your left. Speeds are modest - although we made it into second gear at maybe about 8 mph - but speed isn't the point. It's a whole new type of driving, great fun and curiously exhilarating. Here's how I felt after two complete circuits of the wonderful track in rural Stirlingshire:

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The photo was taken by friend Ken who had come with me, as he had on our helicopter trip two years ago. But unlike in the helicopter, one or other of us was driving for the whole time we were in the tank. Instructor Mick had delivered a concise briefing, was sitting beside the driver and giving hand signals as need be. He was wonderfully calm and clear throughout. No wonder this is one of Gift Experience Scotland's most popular activities. And Mick kindly snapped us both before we climbed down, having used about 15 litres of fuel, apparently:

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November 5, 2012

A breathtaking experience in Jersey

At the end of October, the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild held its annual AGM over a weekend in Jersey. I hadn't paid enough attention to the choice of activities and unthinkingly had volunteered for abseiling, something I'd never tried before. The only other beginner at this session was, by pure coincidence, the author of our forthcoming Settle to Carlisle Way book, Vivienne Crow.

What neither of us was prepared for was suddenly being expected to lean backwards off the 90-foot drop of the Somerset Tower of Mont Orgeuil Castle - in a high wind! To be fair, instructor John did demonstrate the friction mechanism first and told us we could control our speed by the position of our right hand. The theory seemed fine, but it didn't prevent a sharp intake of breath when I stupidly looked down before lurching backwards over the parapet.  The wall is a sheer drop, designed to daunt would-be invaders, and successfully daunting novice abseilers. Thanks to Karen Frenkel for capturing my descent:

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And thanks also to Ian Battersby for capturing the start of Viv's windswept descent. Sharing this somewhat breathtaking experience with an author was a unique first.

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Finally, here is how this impressive castle looked across Gorey harbour at sunset. From this safer distance, I looked at the sheer walls of the Somerset Tower slightly proprietorially. And I've discovered that abseiling is great fun, once you're past the parapet!

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January 8, 2013

Gordon Simm

Looking back on 2012 overall, by far the saddest event was the loss of a good friend, coauthor and talented photographer, Gordon Simm. We had worked together closely on two guidebooks, Hadrian's Wall Path and the Cleveland Way. The BBC showed a programme yesterday about his disappearance while hiking in southern Spain last July. This gives a moving account of his widow's return to Nerja in September to seek traces of his last hike, and of the legal difficulties facing the family of anybody who is missing, presumed dead. The lack of closure must place an intolerable strain which the financial and bureaucratic difficulties can only exacerbate. This link to the programme should work, at least for another six days.

Here, and it should be permanent, is the appreciation Gordon Simm.pdf that I wrote for Outdoor Focus, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild to which Gordon belonged. They published it along with this photograph, one of the triumphalist self-portraits that I used to tease him about. I'd give anything to be able to tease him still.

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February 6, 2013

Petitions work: let's use them wisely

Some readers of this blog already know that I was deeply opposed to the Trailblaze scheme to instal ugly timing boxes on National Trails in the hope of attracting endurance runners to race the trails: please see my last entry on this subject for a photograph and more background. I have just learned that the petition campaign has succeeded and that even Natural England now admits that the whole thing was a terrible mistake: see their recent coy news item.

The folk who set up the protest website Say no to Trailblaze deserve some credit for their role in causing this climbdown. One of the wonderful aspects of the global web of personal computers is the empowerment of individual citizens to influence policy.

Another example is a petition started by Frances and Keith Smith, independent booksellers in Warwick, which I signed today. They want Amazon.co.uk - which sold £2.9 billion poundsworth of goods in the UK last year - also to pay corporation tax in the UK (instead of evading it via Luxembourg). Since all of us publishers and booksellers who are based in the UK already have to pay tax here, there is a solid argument that the playing field is not level.

Having signed, however, I baulked at some Facebook app that wanted my permission to badger other Facebook friends to sign. I may well be wrong about this (I'm a real novice at Facebook) but I'd rather people decide for themselves than being pestered by a robot that I have unwittingly set in motion. There is a degree of automation that risks credibility.

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.

March 4, 2013

By Diverse Means: the Commission on School Reform

Am off to Edinburgh shortly for the launch of By Diverse Means - the report of the Commission for School Reform, at Dynamic Earth. Keir has been chairing this group for the last year and they've come up with some radical, far-reaching ideas.

The report is a profound and thoughtful document, with 125 pages of evidence-backed analysis of where and how Scotland's education system has failed to combat disadvantage. It offers 37 sepcific recommendations, plus just over a page of Executive Summary for readers in a hurry. It will be widely available by PDF as well as in printed form, but I can't upload it here: I'm sure I'd get into trouble if I used the copy sitting on my hard drive before the embargo:) I expect it will be on Reform Scotland's website soon. (Reform Scotland is one of the two think tanks behind the Commission.)

It's good to see that the BBC has picked up the story already: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-21643568 - and trailed it also on its UK pages. Keir will be on Good Morning Scotland (radio) and TV later in the day. It's good to see the publicity momentum beginning to build.

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March 11, 2013

Does Newsnight want Michael Gove to run Scotland's schools?

Did you watch Newsnight Scotland last Thursday (BBC2)? If not, courtesy of iPlayer, you can catch it here at least for the next few days. The first 7 minutes is an excellent film report, followed by what was supposed to be studio discussion, with Keir Bloomer and Ken Cunningham (School Leaders Scotland) in Glasgow and Alex Massie of the Spectator in Edinburgh. But it was discussion so strongly led and stage-managed by Gordon Brewer that I was left wondering if he wants Michael Gove to run Scotland's schools.

Because I was away at the IPG conference, I watched it for the first time yesterday, and, with mounting disbelief, again today. Gordon Brewer had a clear agenda, and seemed to go well beyond the role of chairman in order to promote his own enthusiasm for league tables and for punishing "failing schools". Alex Massie of the Spectator was his willing accomplice, and clearly Gordon Brewer knew he could count on his support. A habitual interrupter of almost interviewee, Gordon Brewer even interrupted himself to bring in Alex Massie to agree with him.

Considering that the item was created and broadcast in Scotland, just after the publication of a major report, you might have expected it to address how to improve Scotland's schools. In fact, with under 3 minutes remaining, Keir had to interrupt Gordon Brewer to suggest that the panel should talk about Scottish education.

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Students of media studies might view this programme carefully when considering the role and techniques of a neutral chairman. Here are some verbatim quotations from Gordon Brewer: "England has come from behind and is now ahead - that's the bottom line on this ..." and he interrupts Keir's response to say "The way to make that distinction is by doing what they do in England which is by using school league tables". Keir then suggests discussion of Scottish schools, rather than English, and Gordon Brewer interrupts again to insist on his league tables as the only way forward, and breaks in again to assert that "On average, it's working in England" - as if all failing English schools have been turned around by outside interventions. And he quotes from his own experience and perceptions while working in London.

Gordon Brewer is of course entitled to his personal enthusiasm for league tables and labelling failing schools. But did he really want to listen to, or even to hear, what his invited panellists had to say?

March 16, 2013

The enduring appeal of the BBC Micro

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After over 30 years, I was thinking that I should part company with my much-loved BBC Micro with its twin disc drives and colour monitor. Somehow it had come to seem part of the family, although in truth it was bought for professional reasons. It was my workhorse word processor on which many books were written, including Inside Information (BBC Publications, 1985) and the manual for Wordwise Plus, its instant word processing ROM chip with a powerful built-in programming language. It was supplanted only in 1989 by a Macintosh IIcx.

Thinking that I should try it on eBay, rather than consign it to landfill, I assembled it ten days ago to see if it still worked. I tried out an endearing Acornsoft program called Podd, which leapt into life immediately (my fingers haven't forgotten how to Shift-Break or *W.). I thought it might be interesting to see how grand-daughter Amy, aged 7 and well used to iPhones, iPads, Kindle Fires and other technotoys, would react to its prehistoric clunky graphics, electronic beeps and simple interface. She absolutely loved it, just as her uncle and mother had loved Podd at her age. By this time I had looked out what a friend described as the largest collection of legal educational software for the BBC Micro that he had ever seen and was wondering what to try next, once she was bored with Podd - when disaster struck. A sharp crackle, a smell of burning and smoke started to billow - so I hastily unplugged it from the wall! Amy was first terrified and then really upset: poor Podd, she worried, would have been hurt, and protectively she picked up his box to cuddle him!

Thinking the power supply had blown, I realised that this made the eBay decision much easier, and last Sunday I listed the still-working disc drive and display screen on eBay. This has triggered dozens of messages from BBC aficionados: some explained that I could and should repair the BBC micro, rather than sell it, another had used Wordwise while at school and thus knew of my manual and prompt cards. Others again wanted to buy the dead computer as well as its peripherals, another wanted me to ship it all outside Great Britain. Some were at pains to assure me that it would be going to a home that would look after it well, and another was appealing to me to sell it for a house containing "a living timeline of vintage systems". Clearly this listing has touched a communal nerve of computing history, just as Podd has endeared himself to successive generations. Without the demise of the power system, I still wonder if I would have been strong enough to part with it.

April 21, 2013

Arthur's Seat rocks

Having overnighted in Duddingston, we were delighted to find Saturday's weather still good, and decided to climb Arthur's Seat first thing. From Duddingston Loch, there's a steepish but fairly direct approach to the upper road near Dunsapie Loch, then a lovely gentle grassy approach to the final rocky summit area. At just 250.5 m (822 feet) this extinct volcano dates from the Carboniferous era (about 350 million years ago) and it offers a huge payoff for a very modest effort.

It's amazing to be part of such a rural scene and yet only 2 miles from Waverley Station. It's also humbling to be treading in James Hutton (1726-97) territory: the famous Hutton's Section is a feature in nearby Salisbury Crags. He concluded that its volcanic rocks must have been molten when they penetrated the sedimentary rock, thus placing them in a different geological era. It was this sense of "deep time" that later gave Darwin a long enough scale over which to imagine that natural selection could take place. It's tempting to wonder if Hutton would have realised all this had he not been a son of Edinburgh and regular visitor to Salisbury Crags.

We were thrilled to see a kestrel hovering over the rough grasses of the approach, to glimpse skylarks and to hear lots of other small birds. You also get good views over the hill forts of Crow Hill and Arthur's Seat. But the climax was reaching the craggy rocks of the summit area with its wonderful views in all directions: below are some views north-west over Waverley towards the Forth bridges, west over the Meadows and south towards the Pentlands:

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And finally, I can't resist the inevitable summit photo of two happy people:

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May 5, 2013

First aid for a wet mobile phone: ten top tips

After being careless enough to leave my mobile lying out of doors overnight, I was surprised to discover how commonly this happens. A 2011 survey of 2000 phone users found that 31% had damaged their phones with liquids. An amazing 47% of these dropped them down the toilet, which underlines that there are liquids worse than rain!

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Online, I found lots of people offering "how I fixed mine" advice and others wanting to sell you repair kits - but what would you do with your phone while awaiting the delivery? YouTube features some of the worst-made, most frustratingly repetitive and incoherent videos that I've ever watched.

Here is a summary of what I learned:

  1. Stay calm: if the liquid is plain water and the phone hasn't been exposed for too long, act fast and your chances of complete recovery are good. (If too much water is already inside the phone, the damage done is probably beyond economic repair, but what follows may be worth trying anyway.)
  2. Do NOT switch the phone on to test it, however tempting this seems! If it was already on, don't press any buttons except the off switch. Get the battery out as fast as you can. Recharging comes later: your first priority is to avoid a short-circuit leading to sparks and fried electronics.
  3. Remove any bumper or other cover, and take out anything that you easily can (battery, SIM card etc). Shake out and mop up as much moisture as you can (I used kitchen paper), and try to dry in and around sockets.
  4. Do NOT be tempted to use direct heat (avoid the oven or even a hairdryer on low setting): patience is your best ally in the drying out process. You need to draw moisture away from the electronics slowly using a desiccant, not to risk moving the dampness around, let alone melting the plastic. If a friend suggests using a microwave or freezer, they either know no physics or they aren't your friend.
  5. Some people advise immersing it in isopropyl alcohol, but how many people who have just dunked their phone have a bottle of that handy? Also, if it isn't at least 99% pure, there's a risk of impurities doing further damage, so I didn't pursue this. 
  6. Most people can easily get hold of uncooked white rice: burying the phone in plenty of rice inside a ziplock bag will draw out the moisture eventually. But it can take several days, and there are many stories of people taking it out too soon in order to try it, only having to put it back for another 24 or 48 hours. And the rice flour/dust tends to get everywhere, which can't be ideal.
  7. Silica gel works much faster than rice. Even if the shops are closed when disaster strikes, have you a few little sachets marked "Do not eat. Throw away." lying around? (I assume you have followed the first instruction but maybe not the second.) Check cartons from anything electronic - TVs, cameras, computer stuff. Put the phone inside a ziplock bag or plastic box, and be patient. Ideally, leave it overnight before testing. It's natural to be in a hurry to see if your cure has worked, but patience pays.
  8. Prevention is better than cure, obviously, both for keeping the phone dry and for damage limitation. Start collecting silica gel sachets now: even if you never get your mobile wet, they may be a godsend to a friend!
  9. Most mobile companies won't cover water damage under warranty, and inside your phone there is probably a cheatproof Liquid Contact Indicator, so don't be tempted to economise with the truth. Apple won't repair, they will replace. Water damage may lead to latent faults which are near-impossible to diagnose and uneconomic to fix; and for sure, replacing wet iPhones is very profitable for Apple.
  10. Having pondered the above, I suspect that many folk (even if successful in the short term) may mistrust the phone after a soaking, and perhaps put it on eBay before too long. (I won't be doing that, but I also won't be buying a used cellphone on eBay, ever.)  

Although it was very careless of me to have left my phone outside, I don't think I'll ever do it again.  I just hope that anybody reading this will, if they are unlucky/daft enough to get their phone wet, be more likely to remember what to do and what to avoid!

When I found my phone I was too busy drying it off to think of photographing it. Credit for the photo above belongs to Liquipel - a Californian company that offers a waterproofing service - at $59 plus shipping!

May 28, 2013

Societas Regalis Edinburgi

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Keir has become a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh which was created by Royal Charter at the height of the Enlightenment in 1783. Above he is being formally admitted by its President, Sir John Arbuthnott on 20 May (photo courtesy of the RSE). The RSE is Scotland's national academy, with strong leanings towards science and technology. It stands in a beautiful domed building in George Street where we enjoyed mingling with other Fellows and families after the formal ceremony: the language level of the smalltalk was impressive, but plenty of wine helped to lubricate the proceedings. 

For the 47 Fellows admitted last week, the vocabulary level involved in the citations was challenging. Honorary Fellows included Sir David Cox (Nuffield College), one of the world's leading statisticians, Robbert Dijkgraaf (Princeton) who "has uncovered new structures in topological string theory, quantum states of black holes and supersymmetric gauge theories" and Jean Tirole (University of Toulouse) whose research covers applications of game theory to corporate finance, banking and currency crises (!). So it was a relief to read Michel Virlogeux's citation, which included the design of the Millau Viaduct whose elegance is more easily appreciated (courtesy fotopedia.com).

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Given the average number of higher degrees and academic honours of his fellow Fellows, some might think that Keir (who has only a first degree) is lacking in credentials. Of course I am biased, but I believe that his lifelong work at the leading edge in Scottish education means that his participation in the RSE will reflect well on the Society, albeit vice versa, the RSE has certainly honoured him. Furthermore he was the only Fellow to mention his family in his biographical note. I can't resist sharing a clipping from his certificate.

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June 24, 2013

Bill Clinton at the Scottish Business Awards

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Bill Clinton gave the keynote at last Friday's Scottish Business Awards, where we were generously hosted by Gift Experience Scotland which was shortlisted for Online Business of the Year. From its table, where eyes and conversation sparkled, we were treated to a fine view of the evening's keynote.

Bill Clinton was introduced by Tom Hunter with a reference to his time at the White House resembling being in a cemetery - "lots of people beneath you and none of them listening". The former President began with the famous Steve Jobs quotation (used in Apple's 1997 TV commercial):

Here's to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the trouble-makers ... The only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius.

He went on to speak at length about the Clinton Foundation, renamed 12 years ago for his family, and his experiences of funding African traders. He spoke of his recent travels, including celebrating his friend Shimon Peres' 90th birthday in Israel and golfing in St Andrews, and confided that he got up at 2 am to watch basketball. It was fluent and entertaining, but if there was a structure, it was hard to discern: he rambled.

This makes summary difficult, but I'll try: he stressed some obstacles to the rise and rise of global capitalism. He remarked that the market needs inequality to function at all, but if there is too much inequality, then growth suffers. Problems are also caused by unequal access to good health and to the clean water and other infrastructure on which it depends. He spoke of the need for some instability, but terrorism and banking collapse were examples of excessive instability. And the demands of capitalism on energy and other scarce resources may not be sustainable.

He acclaimed as the most important book that he read last year The Social Conquest of Earth by biologist Edward O Wilson. Its thesis is that humans, like ants, have to master "the supremely delicate art of encouraging altruism, so that individuals in the groups would act as if they value the goal of the group over their own goals. ... Every human and every human society has to learn how to manage adroitly the perpetual ambiguity and conflict between individual needs and group needs." However Clinton didn't explain any of this, but dwelled on the factoid that the combined weight of all the ants in the world outweighs the biomass of humans. (I looked this up afterwards and learned that ants outnumber humans by over a million to one, so the equal biomass doesn't seem that surprising.)

Clinton concluded by stressing the importance of co-operation: "Conflict is about the past. Our future is about our ability to co-operate."

The questions ranged widely. The first was about Scottish independence, an issue which he judiciously body-swerved: "I honestly don't understand enough about what the difference would be between a status of independence which apparently will have some relationship with the UK and the current devolution understanding" he said - an unsurprising disclaimer in front of Alex Salmond who present an award thereafter. The Q&A that impressed me most was "What's next for Hillary?" - to which he confided some intriguing early history of their relationship, and declared his unquestioning present and future support, whatever she decides. Overall, despite lasting well over an hour, it was an entertaining talk from a plausible, charming fellow - once the world's most powerful man.

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July 9, 2013

Nigel Osborne, D LItt

It's difficult to be objective about Nigel Osborne: I've mentioned his 60th birthday and our memorable lunch with him a year later. He retired from his Professorial post at Edinburgh University last year, and last Friday he was honoured by another university: Queen Margaret University awarded him a Doctor of Letters, and Keir, who is Chair of its University Court, gave the laudation Osborne.pdf.

Below is Keir, Nigel (central) and Petra Wend, Vice-Chancellor of the University, pictured outside the Usher Hall.

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The whole occasion benefited from the imposing atmosphere of the Usher Hall, with its splendid organ, good audiovisuals and superb acoustics. Somehow, despite the large numbers and limited time, all the graduands were treated as individuals, with humanity.

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This is something for which Chancellor Tom Farmer and Vice-Chancellor Petra Wend both deserve considerable credit. Tom Farmer managed to doff his cap on a baby in its mother's arms - a baby who thus took his degree at a very young age, setting the tone for a humane and individualised graduation. (All photos courtesy of QMU.)

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July 23, 2013

Gordon Simm and the joy of living

Last Saturday was the anniversary of Gordon Simm's disappearance in the mountains of southern Spain, marked by a celebration of his life in words, images and music. About a hundred friends, family and neighbours gathered at the Methodist Church in his home town of Kirkbymoorside, Yorkshire. Although no trace of Gordon has ever been found, the occasion testified to how much he is missed.

His brother Colin told of a Lancashire boyhood in which Gordon had been amazingly tolerant of a boy five years younger, including Colin in all his adventurous and unorthodox expeditions. He also described Gordon's determined pursuit of his own goals, a self-taught concertina-player as well as a fine folk singer and a brilliant photographer. His concise "he ploughed his own furrow" could make a good epitaph.

Daughter Debbie spoke movingly about the father she had lost, and the wonderful grandfather he had been. She referred to the pride he had taken in his two guidebooks, Hadrian's Wall Path and Cleveland Way. They are full of his superb photographs, his deep local knowledge and his many nights spent bivvying solo on the moors.

His widow Wendy somehow found the strength to speak too, and she recalled the time at Whitby Folk Festival when Gordon, who had a great baritone voice, had given the performance of his life. The song was Ewan MacColl's Joy of Living and it is so evocative of Gordon and our shared interests that I've downloaded its lyrics. And later, amazingly, Debbie found the courage and control to sing it herself, unaccompanied and impromptu, in Gordon's memory. It made an even better epitaph than Colin's.

Earlier, folk singer and guitarist Martyn Wyndham-Read had sung Tony Bayliss' song AW, a tribute to Alfred Wainwright and very appropriate to Gordon's interests. Martyn was a friend of the late Ewan MacColl and had been the first to hear MacColl sing his newly finished Joy of Living. Martyn remembered that night in Whitby a decade ago when Gordon had "sung it as well as MacColl himself". Coming from as fine a professional singer as Martyn, that is a massive testimonial. Sadly we have no record of Gordon's singing, but here is a recording of Ewan MacColl.

There was a great display of photographs, some taken by Gordon, some of his childhood and early life. This self-portrait, taken in a waterfall in Spain, shows him just as I want to remember him: drinking in deeply the joy of living. 

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June 21, 2014

Amazing dogs, human partners

Last Sunday was Assistance Dog Day at the Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh, and I went along to find out more. First I went for a blindfolded walk, guided mainly by a trainee guide dog, which was a strangely enlightening experience. Then I saw and heard about Casper, a Medical Alert Dog of extraordinary talent who can detect blood sugar levels in his partner human, and will alert her even if either or both of them is asleep. Sue Surbey has Type 1 diabetes and without his prompting, she had been suffering frequent blackouts.

Assistance dogs are highly trained, present no health risks and carry identity paperwork. To avoid disability discrimination, they should be permitted in restaurants and other places (such as the Royal Botanic Garden) where pet dogs are not normally allowed. Sadly, despite all this, Sue Surbey has been driven to take legal action against a restaurant that wouldn't let Casper in. It'll be a good test case for the Equality Act 2010 and I hope she wins. Here is Casper lying obediently at Sue's feet, as he remained throughout her talk and would certainly have been at the restaurant.

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Angie Fowler and Dexter demonstrated how hearing dogs for the deaf can overcome the isolation and invisibility of deafness. They alert their partners to everyday sounds such as the doorbell, phone or cooker timer and are also trained to respond to the emergency noise of a smoke or fire alarm. I was so impressed by the way these amazing dogs transform their owner's lives, restoring them to independence and promoting self-esteem through the partnership.

This was eloquently shown in Sally Hyder's demonstration. She developed MS at the early age of 28 while training to be a Macmillan nurse. After a very difficult period, she applied to Canine Partners for an assistance dog and was given Harmony. Harmony has helped the whole family through some very dark times, and has helped Sally to feel "a proper mum again". Harmony picks up things that Sally drops, passes her wallet in the supermarket, loads and unloads the washing machine, undresses her at night and fetches help if she falls out of her wheelchair.

Sally has written a book Finding Harmony which tells the wonderful story of her life and their relationship. Here's Harmony being sent to fetch help, and also pulling Sally's sock off:

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Assistance dogs are amazing. Guide dogs for the blind are well-known as the world's largest canine charity, but we are less aware of hearing dogs for the deaf and Canine Partners. The latter are looking for "puppy parents", people to foster, socialise and train puppies for a year or so before they are placed with their final human partner: visit their website to find out more. 

August 24, 2014

Toby at four months

Toby has been here for nine weeks. He has spent half of his life with us, and his memories of his mum and his seven litter-mates must be fading. Meantime his impact on our lives has been immense. He is better known in Duddingston village than we are. Workmen from Scottish Water greet him by name and kind neighbours take him for walks and to their houses. This morning he and I were walking in Holyrood Park and a whole coachload of tourists made a fuss of him. The bold Toby, who likes buses, tried to board the coach to be with his fans.

His impact on house and garden has been negative, to say the least: furniture and plants have been chewed, our belongings have been scattered and hidden and Toby stuff is everywhere. This morning, for the first time, his reach extended to the keyboard of my iMac and one casual swipe of his huge front paw invoked features I had never seen before. Nothing that dangles, such as a towel or teacloth, can be kept at a convenient height. We can't keep books in normal-height bookshelves, which Toby has taken over for his toy library:

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Despite our efforts to socialise him, he lacks respect for older dogs and clambers on and pesters them. Here is a very forbearing golden retriever called Ruby, putting up with more than he should have to:

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The TV ads never show you what puppies really do to Andrex, but Toby can trash a whole packet in seconds. Then he moves on to kitchen paper:

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However, just occasionally he will chew something harmless, like a stick, and in this relaxed pose you can see just how much he has grown, still gaining over 1 kg each week. And although there have been many moments of frustration, since he took over my life I have worked less, got out more (short, chaotic walks), spoken to more people (with and without dogs) and laughed more.

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August 9, 2014

Festival Fringe Friday

Yesterday was my first Fringe experience as an Edinburgh resident, as opposed to a visitor, and I liked it a lot. Dear friends Malcolm and Aileen Johnson had driven through from Dunblane, bringing their handsome black labrador Laochan. We offered lunch, some Fringe tickets and the opportunity for Laochan to teach Toby some manners. He asserted himself with a strategic lick (excuse motion blur):

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Keir did a superb salad lunch, the weather co-operated and the dogs were getting on fine. So Malcolm and I headed off to see "My Obsession" the intriguing short play that Suki Webster wrote about a comedian in midlife career crisis and a stalker/fan who breaks into his hotel room in the middle of the night. Apparently her first two choices for the lead role of comedian turned her down. It was only in a casual conversation over breakfast with husband Paul Mertonthat he volunteered - for his first role as a lead actor.

I'd seen Paul Merton and his impro chums at the Fringe last year and was very impressed: they really do rely on the three-word prompts from the audience. I know this, because mine was first out of the bucket. His comic timing is impeccable, and in the intimate context of the Pleasance Upstairs the impact was considerable. Suki's script had lots of great one-liners, and it's easy to love a play that lasts only 30 minutes. The only problem was that she hadn't found a way to end it.

Slightly later was my next Fringe show - Fascinating Aida's "Charm Offensive" at the Underbelly. A short taxi ride with three other friends took us to this scintillating trio (Dillie, Adele and Liza) who sang and played to a packed house. It's impossible to overpraise their professionalism, creativity and humour: they write, play and sing all their own material. If you haven't visited their website, or better yet heard them live, a treat lies in store. Some of the famous old favourites were included (Cheap Flights, Dogging). Of the new material, the outstanding item was "Prisoner of Gender" - a brave, moving and funny autobiography of gender change.

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September 19, 2014

Still together, but not so closely?

The arrival of referendum results from the early hours of this morning made sleep impossible. The spectre of the destruction of the United Kingdom receded only after Glasgow declared. It voted Yes, but not decisively enough to offset all the Nos from smaller councils, and Glasgow's turnout (75%) was low compared with the 90+% in some areas. High turnout (85% overall) testified to how strongly Scottish voters had engaged with this campaign, in stark contrast to the apathy that greets local, European and even General elections.

Clackmannanshire declared first, and 53.8% for No, but until large numbers of votes came in from the urban areas, the Union seemed to be hanging by a thread. But although Dundee predictably voted Yes, other traditionally strong SNP areas (Angus, Moray, Perth and Aberdeenshire) all voted No. The final outcome was 2 million No versus 1.6 million Yes, so 55/45 overall. This came as a huge relief for those who value the synergy that the Union brings to its member countries. For full results, see the Guardian website.

But the detail of the results is revealing: the four councils that voted Yes (Dundee 57.3%, Glasgow 53.5%, West Dunbartonshire 54.0% and North Lanarkshire 51.1%) are all foremost among Scotland's council areas with extensive urban deprivation. Traditionally Labour strongholds, they voted for independence, whereas the traditional SNP areas failed to deliver the expected Yes vote. In effect, Scottish voters rejected party politics and cast their votes on more personal grounds. Perhaps this isn't surprising: if life seems chaotic or hopeless, the Independence blank cheque may seem more tempting, whereas if you are aspiring and optimistic, perhaps the risks and uncertainties posed by independence seem more offputting. And the cliff-hanging nature of the latest polls must have put pressure on No voters to get out in force: there was no room for complacency.

However the last-minute devolution vows thrown in by a panicking No campaign have huge implications for the rest of the UK who must by now be heartily sick of Scotland's demands, the Barnett formula and anti-English sentiment. Why shouldn't England and its regions also enjoy devolution of powers? Why should MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland be allowed to vote on purely English matters and not vice versa? It was in 1977 that Tam Dalyell raised the "West Lothian question": he asked why he, the then MP for West Lothian, was able to vote on matters affecting Blackburn, Lancashire, but not on Blackburn, West Lothian?

It has never been answered, yet it is fundamental. Given the hasty timetable under which Lord Smith of Kelvin is to firm up proposals for more devolution on tax, spending and welfare, it seems unlikely to receive serious attention. If addressing this asymmetry leads the UK to consider a fully federal approach, then what began as a Scottish issue may lead to constitutional upheaval throughout the UK.

October 19, 2014

Freefall off the Forth Rail Bridge: for Canine Partners

This morning I stepped off a girder on the Forth Bridge and descended 165 feet on a rope. It doesn't sound like much, but it felt a big deal. The reason was fund-raising for Canine Partners, whom I first mentioned in June. Anyway, thanks to wonderful support from my friends and family I seem well placed to raise my £600 target for them: thanks so much to everybody who has contributed.

The scariest part was waiting to get started: registration, kitting out, getting into position. Hanging around patiently has never been my strong point, to put it mildly. Anyway here are the CP fund-raisers, assembled just before we jumped, looking more cheerful than we felt:

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Then there was the long, slow walkout on a walkway high above the bridge. The weather was windy, showery and blustery, and the walkway rather too transparent: we were advised not to look down. (Just after we jumped, abseiling was suspended because of the high winds, so in retrospect we were incredibly lucky to go when we did, or there would have been more hanging around.) The event was brilliantly organised, and the instructions, although minimal, were just-in-time: i.e. just before we stepped over the safety rail they told us what to do.

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Once over the parapet and teetering on a girder, the thunderous roar of a train overhead seemed a mere detail. It was a pleasant surprise to find that I could control my descent speed, and that, despite trembling knees, I did manage to stand up unassisted after alighting on the beach below. And I was so pleased to be rejoining Keir and Toby, and also Sandy, Anna and their three children who had very gamely braved horrible weather to watch.

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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:)

June 26, 2015

Disaster and resilience in Nepal

Since 25 April when the first earthquake flattened large parts of Kathmandu and surrounding areas, Nepal has been devastated. The media frenzy focused at first on the mounting death toll (now thought to be well over 8500), and then on the second quake east of Kathmandu. On Everest, 18 climbers were killed when avalanches stormed through Base Camp as a result of the quakes.

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In Monday's Panorama programme, Disaster on Everest, Tom Martienssen brought all this to life: watch it on iPlayer here. (I've watched it twice already, and will return to watch again.) He speaks of how his reporter's "dream job" of covering the Gurkha team's attempt on the summit turned to nightmare: they were stranded at Camp 1 with avalanches above and below, with food and fuel running out, all thoughts of the summit overtaken by the need to survive.

After returning to the devastated Base Camp, he is lucky enough to be rescued by helicopter, and returns to Kathmandu where refugees who are barely subsisting in tents insist on giving him food. Bravely, he goes to meet the widows and children of the sherpas who died at Base Camp supporting the Gurkha team including himself. His interviews seem unscripted, sensitively filmed and are very moving. At times, he is lost for words.

He joins a lorry with relief supplies on a gruelling 48-hour journey, with many punctures, to villages such as Priti whose remoteness has made them hard to reach with help. He meets villagers rebuilding their road, literally with their bare hands, stone by stone.

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Nepal is one of the world's poorest countries, and its lack of infrastructure and hand-made buildings are making the efforts to rebuild painfully more difficult. In a country where education is vital, more than 1 million pupils have had their classrooms wrecked. After the initial shock, grief and horror, in Martienssen's words, "for those left behind the struggle to rebuild their country is only just beginning". The Nepalis are bravely setting about reconstruction and trying to restore normality to shattered lives. Their resilience and generosity is overwhelming.

Worldwide, many people donated when the earthquake first struck, but once the media lose interest it would be too easy for Nepal to be forgotten. It's great that the BMC has created an eBay auction in aid of Community Action Nepal, Doug Scott's charity. There's a celebrity-laden set of prizes ranging from a Lakeland walk with Chris Bonington and Doug Scott to having tea with Michael Palin. The eBay bidding opens on 28 June and will be followed by a second auction starting on 2 July. Read more about it here.

August 18, 2015

Festival Figaro

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A few days ago we caught the opening night of Figaro in which Ivan Fischer conducted the Budapest Festival Orchestra and directed a fine cast of singers: we were expecting a concert performance but actually this was an innovative "staged concert", with playful comedy and intelligent supra-titles. Hugh Canning (Sunday Times) was later very dismissive of the "rudimentary production" and "ugly costumes" but I disagree with him. Fischer placed the orchestra on-stage, instead of in a pit. By involving himself and the instrumentalists in the action, he fused music with drama. As he said "Mozart's music is extremely theatrical and his theatre is extremely musical"

The plot of Figaro is full of mutations (gender, countess to maid, boy to soldier) and implausible changes of costume and identity. Mozart operas are normally played po-faced, but this was a brilliant reminder that "opera buffa" is meant to be funny. I don't remember audience laughter-out-loud in any previous Figaro, and this production felt authentic. The orchestra and singers were splendid, with a specially memorable countess in Miah Persson (photo courtesy of www.wsj.com).

And tonight we have just enjoyed the Budapest Festival Orchestra again playing Mozart's Requiem. Miah Persson starred again as the soprano soloist and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus were magnificent. The range of styles in his final masterpiece is extraordinary, ranging from old-school vocal counterpoint and fugue (Kyrie eleison) to the more operatic treatment of Dies irae and the lyrical Benedictus. It was a convincing demonstration that this orchestra does serious Mozart extremely well, too.

August 20, 2015

Seven: music, movement and Mahler

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Seven was a brilliant combination: the RSNO playing Mahler's 7th symphony and the extraordinary Ballett am Rhein performing modern dance, on occasion ensemble but mostly a series of vignettes, in close and poignant sympathy with the music. Some episodes were ardently romantic, others violent and disturbing, all beautifully danced by this wonderfully talented corps. Their footwear ranged from barefoot to en pointe to (surprlsingly) leather-booted. Enjoy a sample of this tour de force on YouTube.

Martin Schläpfer, when he took over Ballett am Rhein in 2009, abolished the traditional hierarchy within a dance corps: all 47 dancers are treated and paid equally, and this was manifest in the distribution of roles and curtain calls. The dancers were full of grace and virtuosity, and the unbroken 90-minute performance was enthralling. Schläpfer was inspired by World War 2 and referred to Jewishness and exclusion in his interview, but says "in order not to become pretentious, you have to stay abstract". 

Judith Mackrell (The Guardian) was patronising in her praise:

Schläpfer choreographs in blunt emphatic bursts that illuminate the surface of the score but not its architecture. As a result, Seven doesn't add up to a truly compelling interpretation. I sometimes wished the music, played with brio by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, could be left to do the storytelling on its own.

I find that a very pretentious criticism: she wants choreography that "illuminates the architecture of the score" and if she doesn't realise that her metaphor mixes media as well as meanings, she should perhaps just have closed her eyes and enjoyed the RSNO's performance. We kept our eyes open and found the synergy superlative.

Postscript: I am pleased to see that the Scotsman's Kelly Apter is much more generous here.

September 2, 2015

The grandest mass of all

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Of all the requiems in the classical repertoire, Berlioz's is the grandest. Entitled Grand Messe des Morts, it was composed for performance in 1837 in the huge church of Les Invalides (photograph courtesy of Victor Grigas). It demands resources on a enormous scale and, as a result, it is seldom performed. It is scored for a full orchestra (including four sets of timpani) and enhanced by four off-stage brass bands, a full chorus and solo tenor. We know this music well from listening to the LSO recording on CD, and were intrigued to know how the live performance would differ (Usher Hall, 22 August). The answer is night and day.

We were lucky enough to be sitting in the Grand Circle, where three of the four brass bands (trumpets, trombones and a tuba) were stationed in the aisles, the fourth aloft in the organ gallery. The effect of the brass ensembles in the Dies Irae and Rex tremendae was electrifying. No recording can convey the spine-tingling excitement of these relays of fanfares which build the sense of drama, doom and torment.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra with precision and economy, the Edinburgh Festival Chorus celebrated their 50 years by singing their hearts out and the tenor soloist Lawrence Brownlee was splendid. How terrifying it must be to sit waiting for so long for the Sanctus before starting to sing. Berlioz' orchestration is wonderfully varied and this music has been ringing in my ears ever since.

The evening led to reflections of a different kind, about how delicate the Festival organisers' financial balancing act must be. Even if you discount the excellent vounteers of the Festival Chorus, the number of professional musicians in the Berlioz is daunting: conductor, tenor soloist, chorus master and an orchestra of 120 musicians. Yet the Festival has to sell this concert at the same ticket prices as the previous evening, when pianist Lang Lang filled the Usher Hall: number of professional musicians just one!

September 12, 2015

Ingliston Revival: Sandy Bloomer on radio and TV

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Yesterday began by listening to son Sandy on Good Morning Scotland, speaking about the Ingliston Revival that he and his team organised for this weekend. The track opened 50 years ago and became Scotland's main centre for motor racing. It hosted many powerful cars and famous drivers, including Jackie Stewart and the late Jim Clark, before it closed in 1994.

The weekend is not about racing, however, but more a festival to celebrate motor sport and Ingliston's history. The public will be able to drive on this newly renovated track in a choice of cars. Sandy's interview will be on iPlayer for the next 28 days here: scroll along to 1 hour 56 minutes and catch the next four minutes.

Later he was on STV's Fountainbridge Show: there is footage of his interview and of the cars in action from about minute 5 to minute 7, but available for only a few more days.

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The day ended with a spectacular dinner, with speeches by Lee McKenzie (BBC's Formula One reporter) and Ben Collins (Top Gear's original Stig) who arrived in style by helicopter. We were lucky enough to have the wonderful racing driver Tom Brown on our table, with his daughter Fiona who runs Cambuslang Karting. The auction raised thousands of pounds for the Jim Clark Trust, and this event looks set to be an annual success.

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October 13, 2015

Suffragette

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The singular title is a clue: this film is the story of one woman, not of the fragmented, divisive factions that comprised the suffragette movement. Maud Potts was a poor working woman, lacking any of the resources of the affluent Pankhurst family. Played persuasively by Carey Mulligan (above, courtesy of Allstar/Focus Features), she worked in a Bethnal Green laundry in punishing conditions. The photography of early 20th century London scenes is credible and compelling, and it makes a thought-provoking evening viewing, albeit with some violence that is uncomfortable to watch. But it happened.

The film is splendidly crafted, with great supporting actors including Meryl Streep, Anne-Marie Duff and Helena Bonham-Carter. The screenplay, production and direction seem to be all-female but this is not a strident film, it is sober, factual, some might say almost "masculine" in its approach.

The film charts Maud's somewhat haphazard recruitment into the women's movement and how she is radicalised by brutal treatment in that male-dominated world. Her transformation from downtrodden wife and worker to effective campaigner exacts a terrible price, which she pays through her husband's savage reaction, the removal of her son, her imprisonment and violent force-feeding.

The film culminates with Maud as a witness to Emily Davison's still-controversial death in a last-minute decision at the 1913 Derby. Although this attracted worldwide press attention, arguably it wasn't until women had worked so hard in World War 1 that male political opinon started to shift. In 1918, a minority of women were given votes, but it wasn't until 1928 that British women gained suffrage on equal terms with men.

In a world that has now largely accepted women not only as voters, but also as political leaders, movie-goers may be baffled to learn that male prejudice was so deeply entrenched, so recently.  But countries such as Switzerland and Portugal caught up with equal suffrage only in the 1970s, and in South Africa black women (along with black men) were enfranchised only in 1994. In Saudi Arabia, the first women registered to vote in August 2015.

If you are female and haven't always used your vote, please watch this film. If you are male, please watch it whether you vote or not. It tells a very important story that deserves to be remembered.

February 21, 2016

Ethan, echolocation and exceptional talent

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Ethan, aged 10, lives in Glasgow and has exceptional musical talent, memorising a Beethoven piano sonata movement before he was 4 years old - although his hands were then too small to play the octaves, his mother explained. Now he plays Rachmaninov preludes, and his own compositions - listen here (all photos courtesy of BBC Radio 4's Seriously documentaries). So when he won a place at St Mary's Music School in Edinburgh against stiff competition, he faced a challenging daily journey from home in Glasgow, by train across central Scotland to Haymarket station, finally to the school at Coates Hall. In today's world, many 10-year-olds would find that challenging. And Ethan had been home schooled all his life, because Ethan has been blind since birth.

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This colossal challenge meant that Ethan needed help. Enter Daniel Kish, an American adult who has been blind since birth. He has developed an extraordinary form of echolocation using tongue-clicks, which he teaches to other blind people to help them to navigate the unseen world. He uses subtle variations in the click-echoes to detect the shapes and locations of obstacles. Watch him in action, identifying playground equipment, distant buildings and a tall tree here. It's uncanny - as if he has learned to see through his ears.

The story of how Daniel taught Ethan to navigate through the external world and around St Mary's was told on radio last Sunday in the Seriously series: listen here to the full story of Batman and Ethan. Daniel's teaching of Ethan includes a challenging climb of Dumyat (a 418-m peak in the Ochils), and promotes enormous independence and self-confidence. It culminates with his solo performance at the school concert. The whole programme was written, produced and presented by my talented niece Helena Merriman.

May 26, 2016

Delighted damp dog

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This is two-year-old Toby, the epitome of joy. Here is the extreme, exuberant delight of a damp dog who has just been swimming in the Clyde. His afternoon pack walk included a couple of Newfies, his pals Penny and Luka, and half a dozen other dogs. His swim took him out of his depths for the first time ever, and he is very pleased with himself.

Blithely carefree and happy-go-lucky to a fault, he makes us laugh and gets us out of doors to walk and talk. What more can you want of a dog?

Profound thanks to Cowal Canine Services, who not only provided the dog care and the photo, but also thus allowed me to go sailing on the Holy Loch with my friends on a sunny afternoon.

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June 16, 2016

Kraków: a quintessentially European city

Kraków is a quintessentially European city. Firmly in eastern Europe, in latitude about halfway between Warsaw and Budapest, it reminded me of Europe's turbulent 20th century history at every street corner. I hadn't been there since 1970, when it was challenging to reach, closely controlled from Moscow by the Soviet regime. But even so, we managed somehow to see Da Vinci's "Lady with an ermine", the most important painting in Poland, and a potent symbol of Renaissance Europe.

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I returned to Kraków this week, flying easily from Edinburgh by easyJet, to see printers whose 4 million-euro printing presses sounded suited to Rucksack Readers' needs. Capitalism is alive and well in Poland, with retail parks, shopping malls and global brands. The contrast from 46 years ago was remarkable.

Traditional and modern jostle in stark contrast. Touts try to tempt you to sightseeing rides in Krakow's old town in white coach-and-pairs pulled by richly decorated horses - failing which, how about a Segway? Its transport stops feature LED information boards that accurately predict ancient trams with welcome low fares (from about 80p). But Kraków still has the largest market square in all Europe, with its medieval Cloth Hall and an hourly bugle call from St Mary's Basilica - from the higher of its two towers, below left:

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Inside St Mary's is an extraordinarily colourful interior, and its colossal altar is by Veit Stoss, constructed between 1477 and 1489, made of painted oak and linden wood and undergoing painstaking refurbishment.

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Tourism is everywhere in the centre, but some destinations are sombre reminders of the Holocaust: Schindler's factory, the Jewish Ghetto and Auschwitz-Birkenau.  But Poland is an EU member, German is widely spoken and Poland is Germany's most important trading partner. As a country, it has turned its face decisively towards Germany and the West, away from Russia.

The colleague I went to meet is Polish by nationality, but he has strong family connections to Austria. He is just old enough to remember how, as a child, visa requests to Austria had had to be made six months ahead, and the journey took several days because of delays at both borders. Nowadays, such visits can be made impromptu, and the journey takes him less than four hours.

After finishing my business, I visited Wawel Royal Castle where for centuries Polish kings were crowned. I went around the Wawel cathedral with the Chopin medallion in its crypt and statues of local hero and saint, John Paul II. Most satisfyingly, I managed to revisit the Da Vinci portrait - one of very few surviving oil paintings. The Duke of Milan commissioned it in 1490 as an allegory of his love of his young mistress, Cecilia Galleriani. The portrait still has great freshness and its realistic lighting seems to illuminate its attractive 17-year old subject in three dimensions.

And after a dinner that compensated for having missed lunch, I still had time for the Chopin concert, in Legendary Wierzynek on the Market Square. Performed by graduates of Kraków and Katowice Music Acadamies, these recitals are given daily. Agnieszka Kawula looked young enough to be my grandchild, but she gave a spectacular performance, technically brilliant but musically mature.

And if I hadn't already felt strongly that the UK should remain in Europe, my visit to Kraków would have left me in no doubt.

July 9, 2016

Keir Bloomer, Doctor of the University

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"Keir Bloomer is one of the leading authorities in Scottish educational policy and practice"

Thus began Mark Laing's laudation yesterday, in the ceremony at the Usher Hall that gave Keir the degree of Doctor of the University, honoris causaThe award was "for services to Scottish education and for his significant contribution to the strategic development of Queen Margaret University".

For nine years he has served the University Court, from 2011-16 as its Chair. In his acceptance speech, he admitted to having put in many more hours than for his first degree. Mark, who is Vice-Chair of the Court, commented particularly upon Keir's "incisive and self-deprecating sense of humour ... [and how he] somehow managed to leave everyone feeling that their view had carried the day".

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Here is Petra Wend, Principal and Vice-Chancellor, making her thoughtful address to all the graduands. She congratulated them and their families gracefully, and also emphasised the importance of personal qualities, not merely academic achievement. She stressed the importance of self-confidence and adaptability, and of being able to admit calmly when you don't know. She didn't refer explicitly to impostor syndrome, but this article has good advice on how to handle it. It is more prevalent than you think.

If Keir was suffering from impostor syndrome, he didn't reveal it. It was an unreservedly happy occasion, enhanced by having daughter and sister-in-law, Lindsay, present. Here he is afterwards in our garden, with Helen:

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