Highlander and the Christmas Market

– Stop procrastinating and go write a blog! scolded my friend Nicola.

We had been discussing the recent bombshell that a remake of Highlander is slated for 2019. This has, apparently, been on the cards for around 10 years, but now it seems is coming to fruition. I am simultaneously excited and dismayed by the news. Highlander is one of my top five films of all time. The potential for ruining the memory of a classic movie is huge.

Nicola seems unperturbed. She’s never seen Highlander. I am shocked and horrified by this. Granted, she’s more into her daytime visits to the cinema to watch high-brow subtitled Japanese releases, at which she is usually the youngest viewer by a margin of several decades.

Discussing Highlander didn’t seem like procrastination to me, but might have for her, since she should really have been tending to the sick and the infirm, however I gave up on trying to convince her of the merits of a film which cast the Frenchman Christopher Lambert as a Scot, and the Scot Sean Connery as a Spaniard, and resolved to write an overdue blog post. 

But first I headed up town, on the 44, and made my customary December visit to Edinburgh’s Christmas Market. Shrugging off an auditory Bublé assault, I marched onwards, defiantly passing the purveyors of glühwein and hot chocolate, resolutely past the waffles and crêpes, ignoring even the aromatherapy bath salts and anti-ageing face cream.

The organisers of the Christmas Market now have signs up, arrows here and there and warnings to KEEP TO THE LEFT. These are being blithely ignored by all. 

I find a stall selling pottery-related items, and score another thing off the Christmas list.

Back out of the Market, Santa Baby firmly embedded in my head, and onto a 23. Up the Mound, southwards along George IV Bridge, and eventually to Bruntsfield. 

The December sun, despite its best efforts, is unable to reach the heights required to bathe both sides of the road in its watery light. I get off the bus in shadow and cross over to the sunny side of the street.

Pick up some coffee beans and a quick double espresso at Artisan Roast, and on to Kenny’s for a haircut. Kenny’s been cutting my hair for 20 years now, I reckon. I used to live in a nearby neighbourhood, and have continued to frequent his establishment ever since, despite now living on the other side of town.

Freshly shorn, I jump on an 11 heading for town. One of the joys of getting an all-day bus ticket is that you can, provided you’re not in a desperate hurry, jump on an unfamiliar bus number, and if it doesn’t go quite where you expect, you can jump off and try again.

I get off at Tollcross and try a 47, which lands me in Newington, so I nip round the corner to Meadows Pottery, and cross something else off the Christmas list. It’s fair to say that I’ve drained the Pottery-Related Items Fund of my 2018 budget today.

Back onto the 49, which I’m confident I’ve never been on before in my life. It takes me along streets, though, that I absolutely have been on in my life. Past Record Shak, and Vogue Video – a film rental shop – both of which have been there possibly since the dawn of time itself, but certainly since I was a Newington-based student in the 90s. I was actually a card-carrying member of Vogue Video, and am mildly astonished that it is still a going concern in this digital age.

Then past South Side Community Centre, which I have only ever visited because it was a polling station for the Scottish Regional Elections in 1994. I went along to vote with my flatmate Tom, and he absolutely insisted, since we were intending to vote for different parties, that we toss a coin and vote for the same candidate. Otherwise it was a wasted vote, he maintained. 

I seem to remember I lost the toss, and our block vote of two didn’t help our candidate all that much against the relentless red Labour tide that year. In those days, the idea that Edinburgh as a whole might not back Labour at every available opportunity would have been a fantasy.

Off the 49 onto the now re-opened Leith Street, and briefly back into the heart of the town, breaking rank with lines of hesitant kerb-bound tourists, timing street-crossing by traffic and traffic lights with confidence born of local knowledge. 

On Princes Street I look up to see an oncoming 4, with a 44 hard on its heels, both a suitable ticket home, and me caught neatly at the point where they diverge, equidistant from both stops. I missed both, but catch a 26 shortly after.

Brunswick Street, Abbeyhill, Meadowbank Stadium, home.

A slice of choc chip panettone, a reckless late-afternoon coffee, and I go to work on this year’s Christmas playlist.

Now about that blog post…

Slowing Down to Catch Up

When you walk into a coffee shop for the first time, and they have 3 grinders, a La Marzocco espresso machine, and both baristas have beards, you know everything’s going to be ok.

And it was. I made my first visit to Century General Store this week. I have no idea how long it’s been there, and I may have never even known it was there, if the kindly City of Edinburgh Council hadn’t rearranged the roads again, such that my bus into town is diverted up Montrose Terrace past its characterful front. Thus it was that I spotted it from the top deck last week, and resolved to pay it a visit at the earliest opportunity.

The coffee was outstanding, so I had another. I think I sat there for a couple of hours resting, reading, and journalling. As well as coffee, they sell food and wicker baskets. And other things, but I was particularly taken by the wicker baskets.

There’s a particular joy in discovering something great organically, without having first being recommended to go there by the internet.

My post-coffee bus wended its way into town along London Road and up Leith Walk. Onwards, slowly, onto Leith Street, where a proliferation of signs forewarned the impending closure of the street for a whole year. A whole year. The closure of this main artery into town for 12 months has provoked strong opinions from locals, to the point where someone stood as an independent candidate in the recent Council elections principally to oppose it. I voted for them, too, not because I’m particularly invested in getting along Leith Street easily, but they seemed like they cared about the city and would work hard on behalf of people. They didn’t get in.

There are things that are only visible from the top deck of a bus. It’s a marvellous place for people-watching, observing new places, and even new views of the city. Today it afforded me an excellent view of the rubbly concrete-and-rusted-iron remains of the St James Centre, which is partially demolished already. The Centre will soon be rebuilt, and has already been rebranded, as Edinburgh St James. As we passed the mounds of rubble, I found myself wistfully remembering good times at the St James Centre, until it occurred to me that I didn’t have any good times there, apart from getting a few keys successfully cut.

On up onto Princes Street briefly, and then onto the Bridges.

On North Bridge we pass the shop that used to be H Samuel, back when H Samuel was a thriving jewellery chain, before its owner famously explained to a business conference that the reason why their products were so cheap was because they were “total crap”. H Samuel actually survived, but the group lost £500m off its share price, and 300 of the group’s jewellery stores closed within 2 years. So much for the belief that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

More importantly, I got my ear pierced there in Freshers Week 1992, much to the consternation of my parents. I subsequently discovered that the ear one chose to have pierced (presuming only one was pierced) was a way of communicating one’s sexual orientation. Added that to the Things-I-Should-Have-Checked-Before-Acting-On-Impulse list.

Onto South Bridge, past what used to be Ripping Records, which was in existence until surprisingly recently. Ripping was the place to get concert tickets when I was a student. Concert tickets, and overpriced CDs and records. I remember buying a Little Angels CD single there. Can’t remember what its main track was, but it had a decent cover of The Mighty Quinn on the B side. Not that CDs have B sides, but you know what I mean.

Turned right onto Chambers St, and more student-related memories aplenty if I allowed my mind to go there. I decided not to. This part of town has been a hub of the Edinburgh Fringe for the last 3 weeks. Last night was the fireworks concert that marked the end of the Festival and Fringe, and there’s a distinct morning-after-the-nights-before vibe in the air.

Left onto George IV Bridge, up Bristo Place, and then a right turn onto Lauriston Place, past George Heriot’s School (where the BBC set up shop for the duration of the Fringe) and the old Royal Infirmary, where I had a broken wrist put back together in 1996.

I got off the bus, and met Wiseman on the steps of the Edinburgh College of Art.

“Ah, the smell of fireworks and singed squirrel…”

I couldn’t smell anything myself, but you have to doff your cap to his word-pictures.

The ECA café is a great place for a cheap lunch, and at this late summer pre-semester stage, is deserted, and we have the place more or less to ourselves.

We share some thoughts, on a yearning for a simpler life, and the importance of quietening down, finding God in the silence. And slowing down to catch up with God.

“You only see thing things that are moving at the same speed as yourself,” offered Wiseman. You miss those travelling slower, they tend to be the old, weak or those hurting.”

Was reminded of how parents of young children find their walking speed dramatically reduced when trying to get anywhere with the youngsters. Not to mention the time it takes them to get out of the house. Strikes me that, while this must be frustrating at first, there’s something to be said for it. Without these natural braking systems in life, would we continue charging onwards in the pursuit of greater efficiency, and getting More Things Done In The Time Available?

One summer I paid a visit to my sister in London. I flew to Stansted, and got the Stansted Express into Liverpool Street Station. There I found the entrance to the Tube, and joined the throng of London commuters through the turnstiles. It was busy busy busy. After a minute or so I became aware that my walking pace had quickened to match those around me, and realised I was rushing to catch the next train. Even though I was on holiday, and had no need to rush anywhere. I gave myself a good shake, and deliberately slowed down.

A variation, perhaps an extension, on Wiseman’s gem is that you’re inclined to move at the speed others around you are, unless you make a conscious choice not to. Not a fresh revelation I realise, but something I, as a city-dweller, need to actively remind myself of from time to time, as I drive past billboards encouraging me to post all the details of my life on social media.

Technology has dramatically assisted our drive towards greater efficiency. Once, a movie could only be watched by making a trip to the cinema. Then we got VHS rental stores, which still necessitated a physical visit. Now you can download and watch a movie without leaving your seat.

Playing music in your home could once be done only by getting up and putting a record on the turntable. And getting up again to change sides after 20 minutes. Now, again, you don’t need to leave your seat.

Same for switching on and changing channels on the TV. Not to mention not having to watch programmes when they’re aired anymore – they can be squeezed in anytime you have a spare 30 minutes.

Much is made of the inactivity all this technological wizardry promotes, but consider also how the time taken to do the thing is reduced. Much more can be done in an evening. Rather than essentially devoting a whole evening to going out to a movie, it can be watched while eating your dinner, and then you can get on with something else.

Is this helpful? I wonder sometimes. I’m a practiser of most of these things that I’ve described, and I’m not about to sell my car, buy a horse and cart, and move to the hills. And 20mph speed limits are still anathema to me.

But I am also consciously trying to slow down, notably by taking a proper day off each week, and choosing to rest. And discovering great coffee shops, and blogging a bit more, ha…

The Train

Currently on the train, en route to London. I managed to score a seat in First Class on this trip, which is a great bonus. For those who haven’t sampled the Great British Train Experience, First Class means more legroom, complimentary food and patchy wi-fi, and, perhaps most importantly, a significant drop in the probability of you having to share a carriage with a table-load of Geordie lads who drink steadily, and with gradually increasing volume, from Newcastle to London. I was trying to craft that sentence in such a way that it didn’t make me sound like an effete snob. I think I failed.

Sadly the sandwich choices on this trip are not quite to my taste (when are they ever?), but I have been tucking in to the complimentary crisps and Coke. And shortly after each stop at a station, a nice man comes round offering complimentary bad coffee. But that’s a mistake I only made once.

It’s been a fun few weeks back in the UK. Two weeks in London gave me plenty of time to catch up with the family and, with unflaggingly enthusiastic assistance from my 3 year old nephew, burn off some of the energy I’ve acquired from 3 months of ‘resting’. Then over the last week in Edinburgh I’ve had the opportunity to catch up with many old friends. Inevitably I didn’t have time to see everyone I wanted to, which makes this departure feel slightly premature. I did, however, see Wiseman on three separate occasions, so that particular itch has been well and truly scratched.

There are many differences between the UK and the US, and I realise that I highlight them in my blog ad nauseam. But let me just mention the weather. It’s better in Tennessee. Some might say “it’s just different” but I would say it’s better. Even though the temperatures in Nashville and, say, London are probably not dissimilar right now, there’s a dampness in the air here which makes the cold cling to your bones in a disappointingly consistent fashion. Of course, in Edinburgh, you need to factor in the wind chill as well, which cuts a few more degrees off the ‘feels like’ temperature.  It was in this context, a returning son grown accustomed to sunnier climes, that I feel I had a justifiable right to feel aggrieved about my mother’s decision to switch the heating off. My protests were dismissed with an airy wave of the hand and some comment resembling “if you got up and moved around you’d stay warm.”

It’s hard to text on an iPhone when your extremities have gone numb, but, from beneath a number of blankets, I managed to fire off an SOS text to my sister. Her response I do not recall exactly, but am confident included the words “big jessie”. She seemed to relent later and suggested I phone Childline. She even provided the number, so quickly, in fact, that I suspect she might have it memorised.

At least here in First Class, no heating expenses are being spared. An orange rolled off the table of the nice lady across from me and was heading in the direction of the restaurant car, until I retrieved it for her. She was grateful. That has been the most hair-raising event of the journey so far. Let’s hope it stays that way 🙂

Public Transport and T.B.

Still a decent amount of snow in Edinburgh’s suburbs, with a corresponding lack of car parking available in Balerno, where I go to church, and so I took the bus out this morning. Felt quite virtuous, and texted Wiseman accordingly. In due course, after he’d woken up, he replied and we agreed to meet for lunch in town. 
“No idea when I’ll be there, like, what with this transport for the common people”
“Any bus journey you make without contracting T.B. is a total success in my book” he replied.
Inveterate snobs, both of us, although he at least speaks from experience (of buses, that is), being a frequent user of public transport, with a couple of Driving Lesson vouchers still lying unused on his increasingly crowded Unwanted-Christmas-Presents-From-Andrew-Shelf. I’m not remotely bitter about this.

Anyhow, the contraction of T.B. will remain unconfirmed until the next visit to my GP, likely date sometime in 2013, when I’ve amassed a number of complaints, none of which, on their own, would justify troubling him with, but put together, I feel, generate a composite condition worthy of investigation. I usually consider three complaints to be the minimum number for a GP visit, but suspect that T.B. might be worth at least two minor complaints, possibly more.

Passed NJ’s flat the other day on my icy walk/slide home from work. Her immediate neighbour appears to be outdoing her on the ostentatious Christmas decorations front, and I pointed this out. Perhaps she could stand in the window with Christmas tree lights wrapped around her and perform the Sprinkler of an evening. I think it would brighten up the journeys of many a passerby.

Last night I met up with a number of Holy Cross teammates for a drink in the St Vincent. Our most recently-acquired resident Aussie, Pat, had been drinking since 3pm, possibly in an attempt to numb the pain of being 1-0 down to the Poms in the Ashes.  I’m not sure it helped.  He repeatedly stated that on paper, the Aussie team is better than England’s.  Cue raised eyebrows all round, and several discussions on mental strength vs talent, and how much easier it is to be mentally strong when playing in an outrageously talented team.  Highlight of the evening may well have been an arm-wrestling bout between Smudger and Shifty (see above), the prize being the captaincy of the first XI in 2012.  Not entirely sure whether the winner or loser got the prize…

Bus journeys appear to provide good blogging time, must take them more often. Disease contraction-permitting, of course.  I think I feel a cough coming on…

Oh Mary, this London’s a wonderful sight

Oh, Mary, this London’s a wonderful sight,
With people all working by day and by night.
Sure they don’t sow potatoes, nor barley, nor wheat,
But there’s gangs of them digging for gold in the street.
At least when I asked them that’s what I was told,
So I just took a hand at this digging for gold,
But for all that I found there I might as well be
Where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea.

(Percy French, 1896)

Friday last, I found myself in London for the day, courtesy of my work. I had the luxury of travelling down by train, in first class, which was very pleasant. Free tea and biscuits only takes you so far, however, so just outside York I headed for the restaurant car. One lucky and unsuspecting lady got a high-definition close-up of me on the way, as the train rounded a bend suddenly and I lurched into her lap. I muttered my apologies and carried on without looking back to see what her partner had made of our close encounter. In the restaurant a nice Aussie waitress took my order for breakfast.

“How would you like your eggs done, sir?”

Unprepared for such a question outside of the USA, I was just trying to remember how I liked my eggs done (Over easy, as I recall), when she clarified the options.

“Fried or poached?”

Ah. How naive I was.

Today sees me in London again, for the weekend this time, at the beginning of a holiday. I have never been desperately fond of London, finding it intimidatingly big, dirty and generally unfriendly. But it does have rather a lot going for it, too. Quite apart from the obvious (my sister lives there with her partner, and my mischievous bundle of a niece), there’s always plenty of things happening. And it’s noticeably several degrees warmer than Edinburgh. On Saturday I spent the day in Hyde Park, at a Hard Rock Café-sponsored event, soaking up the sun, Sheryl Crow, John Mayer and Eric Clapton.

Sheryl Crow was great, John Mayer, one of my principal reasons for going, was excellent, although restricted a little by only getting a 45 minute set, and Clapton was simply awesome. The sequence which closed the show (prior to the encore) was Wonderful Tonight – Layla – Cocaine, with barely a pause for a breath. The other guitarist in Clapton’s band was a left-handed wizard called Doyle Bramhall II whose guitar strings were in the wrong order. My eagle-eyed festival companion Iain noticed this. Mr Bramhall clearly learnt to play on an upside down right-handed guitar without restringing it. Genius. Either that or he has so completely mastered the conventionally-strung guitar that he got bored and reversed the string order to give himself a challenge.

So my sojourn in London is almost over. In addition to the Hyde Park show I had the privilege of worshipping at Soul Survivor yesterday morning, and what’s more, watching the afore-mentioned Eagle-eyed Iain playing bass there for the first time. As far as I could tell he had all the strings in the right order. There’s been two barbeques in one day, and the usual quality time with little Maggie, lying on our backs in the garden, considering the sky and philosophising. And kicking our legs in the air, which seems quite popular.

But that’s my digging for gold in London over for now. I’m off to where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea, to see if Mr French had it right after all…

London, unexpectedly

Sitting on the train at King’s Cross, waiting to depart for Edinburgh and the snowy north. Four Geordies have commandeered the table directly ahead, but they seem of a well-behaved generation, and are tucking into panini rather than bottles of Newcastle Brown.

I found myself in London courtesy of my boss being a bit under the weather and unable to travel to a product launch he was booked on. So I took his place, and his room in the Tower Bridge Hilton, which was, I have to say, very well appointed. Modern but comfy furniture, a huge bed, and trendy lighting. Perhaps the only downside was the disabled access shower, which flooded the bathroom very effectively. I have previous with these showers – it is a mercy Wiseman wasn’t sharing my room and distributing his follicles all over the bathroom floor.

The sink was outfitted with some sort of chrome designer tap, which had a joystick on the top controlling water pressure and temperature. However, the water pressure seemed fairly oblivious to my joystick-wiggling, if you’ll pardon the expression, and remained resolutely medium. Not a problem, and in fact, something of a bonus, as the tap was so close to the edge of the (beautifully contoured) basin as to make it tricky to wash one’s hands without flooding the immediate vicinity. A high pressure tap could have been a disaster. Another example of style winning over substance, as it so often does in our modern venti-triple-shot-skinny-latte society. I read a comforting article on the BBC News website recently which announced that a recent survey had decreed that the coffee offered by the large chains (Starbucks, Costa, Caffe Nero) was of low quality and seriously overpriced. Comforting because it made me realise I wasn’t alone in my assessment of their coffee and prices. Coffee is a matter of taste, of course, but that doesn’t mean that people who like Starbucks coffee aren’t completely misguided.

But back to taps. In the same hotel, the public toilets were kitted out with equally trendy automated taps, which were even more useless. I acquired some liquid soap from the ultra chic dispenser on the wall, and then placed my hands under the tap. Nothing happened. The sensor which detected your uncleansed hands was, altitude-wise, just underneath the output of the tap. Which was high above the rim of the basin. So I raised my hands a bit, and lo, the water flowed, onto my hands and all over the polished inter-sink surface (what exactly does one call the worktop-like area around the sinks in a public loo?). Lowering my hands into the basin, in an attempt to prevent this haemorrhaging of water, abruptly stopped the water flow. Genius.

Modern life is like this. Full of fancy gadgets which look very nice, and purport to make your life easier (saving you the hassle of turning a tap on and off, for example), but don’t always actually do the job their manual predecessors did so well (providing water for you to wash your hands with, for example). Full of coffees in Label-embossed cups which make you feel like you’re at one with the hip iPod-wearing generation because you’re not drinking coffee, you’re drinking a skinny-venti-mocha-frappucino. But actually you’re drinking a bucket of frothy milk with a tiny drop of coffee in the bottom. (With apologies to David from London)

The automatic lights in my car are a bit better. Initially I was a bit disconcerted by them (You think I don’t know when to turn my own headlights on, huh?), and sometimes during heavy rain they don’t switch on. One of my pet targets for verbal abuse is the driver of an oncoming car who hasn’t switched on their lights in heavy rain or low visibility. I now fire the same volley of abuse at my automatic lights, who in fairness take it all on the chin and don’t answer back. They still don’t switch on, however.

(Yes, I could switch the auto function off completely and operate them manually, but… whisper it, I do like the way they switch themselves on when you enter a tunnel and the like. And yes, I have retained enough manual control of my life to override the automatic function when the rain is heavy enough to reduce visibility.)

Snow has been coming down heavily in the north of England this weekend, according to the news. I have now travelled through what I thought was the affected area, and haven’t seen any snow, although it’s kind of dark out there. Perhaps the train’s automatic headlights haven’t come on. The Alps have been receiving snow of late, which bodes well for my second skiing extravagance of the season, in March. The Admin Supremo, DC and an old flatmate Tom are joining me for some snow action underneath Il Cervino, which is how the Italians refer to the Matterhorn. Filipideedooda is unable to come with us due to carelessly allowing part of her foot to break off while boarding in Val d’Isère. She found out it was broken after deciding to have it x-rayed once she’d been reassured by the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary that it “definitely wasn’t broken and an x-ray wasn’t necessary”. It’s a shame she won’t make it, although she might have had a tough week coping with four lads.

It’s now February, and I’ve turned the page on the calendar to discover that I have only two things lined up in February: on 10 Feb I am buying a laptop and mobile phone for Nasty Jen, and on 22 Feb I am sending money to Hazel. Curious, don’t remember writing those reminders in…