snow white and the seven paternity suits

Oliver had left us for rehearsals and Stage Crew work for the school production (he’s doing lighting). The day after we arrived in Edinburgh, the school theatre company rolled into town, for their show… at the Edinburgh fringe. What a total coincidence.

The production was “ASBO Fairy Tales.” I wasn’t overwhelmed by the concept (fairy tales – BUT WITH CHAVS AND DRUG REFERENCES LOL) the script (spotty and overly reliant on sudden scene changes and random narration), or the idea of private school kids pretending to be chavs (just because I didn’t think they could do it without looking dumb, rather than from any stereotypes or issues of class warfare, comrade.) But it turned out to be pretty good entertainment; the acting was excellent across the board, and laughs were had. The only thing that let it down was the lighting – an endless sequence of painfully ghastly failures, which left the actors in pools of darkness, blinded the audience, set the curtains on fire, strobed us all into epileptic fits, and at one point caused all the lights to explode, sending showers of red-hot fragments across the stage, drilling into my body and stopping dead my beating heart, OLIVER. Still, I later heard they had totally unusual and unexpected full and near-full audiences for the rest of the week (still running at a loss, as all Fringe things do, but a less crippling one.) After the show I offered to help tidy things up, an offer perfectly timed to coincide with there being nothing to do but hobnob with the actors. We went down a Secret Back Staircase past a long line of nervy-looking young thesps wearing period costume and clutching various props, lining up for the next show. They really rush them through; the turnaround time at these venues would make pit crews envious. Most of the talent seemed to be Mikes: Mike Lovering (lighting, covering for Oliver’s treasonable incompetence), Mike Howie (butt-ugly duckling) and Maik Keefe (mutely suave crack-piper of Hamelin.) It’s odd how well I get on now with people who I just didn’t have much contact with in school. Odd, and good. Mikes are cool people.

After that, Dad went off to Fringe it up on his lonesome while Mum and Dorothy bought Nick and I hideously overpriced, slow paninis and I browsed the fringe guide: trash, gimmicky trash, the same magnificent Flanders & Swann act we’d seen with Ned years ago, lolsorandumXD trash, shows that would have sold out five years ago, a variety show by Clarke Peters (Lester Freamon)! Then, before putting Mum on a train down south for Fran’s funeral, we trotted up the Royal Mile, to look at buildings Paul had designed and be harangued by a million and one assorted weirdos in assorted weird costumes. So thick were the crowds that we got separated, upon which the heavens opened. The weather had been highly un-Scottish, and I was reminded of something our old Glaswegian neighbours would say in response to a sunny day: we’ll pay for it.

We paid for it.

Dorothy had proudly told us that Edinburgh had (according to some awarding body) the best public transport in the United Kingdom. There were buses everywhere, and on Princes Street was a demonstration model of the proposed Edinburgh tram, though due to budget cuts the proposed Edinburgh tram will go from one end of Princes Street to the other about three quarters of an hour. I feel there’s a critical bus-to-street-size ratio, at which transport is amazing and beyond which the buggers are just getting in each other’s way. Most London high streets approach it, delightfully; Oxford Street is just past it, and Bristol has never heard of it. Princes Street is way, way too far the other side. Thirty full minutes in the pissing rain Nick and I waited for the right number in the neverending wall of double-deckers, though it would have been rather less if we’d known any other than the 31 went the right way. Still, we made it back in the end, somehow avoiding pneumonia.

The next day, Dad and I climbed up to Arthur’s Seat and looked down on the city – the winding, picturesque tangle of the Old Town, the orderly grid-pattern of the New, weird spiky spires, office buildings that looked like a scaled-up Giant’s Causeway, faux-Athenian ruins and fortified civic buildings (St. Andrew’s House, Scottish government HQ, combines Art Deco stylings with no-bullshit Scots construction sensibilities, a match made in stony heaven). Tugs guided a big liner into the docks among towering cranes and grain elevators, the tops of the Forth Bridge cantilevers poked up from behind the hills over the firth. Little puddles in the rocks were black with dead midges. We came down on the path less travelled (read: one fumble away from a rockslide) and had lunch in the town – battered cheeseburger. I’ve said it before: I love a place that takes its cholesterol seriously. Then, armed with a memory stick, a street map torn from the Fringe guide, some bus recommendations from Dorothy and the TomTom capability of my new phone, I crossed town to give Andrew a copy of Office, and back again to watch some Fringe shows Dad had recommended.

The map lied to me about where C Central was. It lied. But I got helpful directions and arrived well on time. “The Man Who Fell Out Of Bed”, despite a singularly bad title, was a deliciously 1984-esque (the best part of 1984, that feeling of being totally alone and adrift in a facelessly hostile, invincibly orderly and distinctly threatening society, not the government-is-all-knowing-and-infinitely-malevolent thing dumb pundits regurgitate every time another speed camera goes up) drama about amnesia, oppression, sacrifice and redemption, which sounds like cliche blurb stuff, but better than “man forgets everything, remembers some parts and becomes a suicide bomber because of what he remembers.” The “perfect society” part could have used some more work, and I don’t think it really made full use of the large and clearly talented cast, but there was only so much to go round. Following it, “The Demise of Christopher Marlowe,” a play about the demise of Christopher Marlowe, was sublimely acted and had a truly excellent script. Lots of attempts to sound Shakespearian (or, rather, Marlowe-esque) fail completely, even Alan Moore rang a bit hollow in Black Dossier, but this one worked, and brilliantly. The only weak link was a rather unfitting and slightly feeble Elizabeth, who still came off well in the mail-exchange scenes. Fringe shows I’ve seen in the past (and there haven’t been enough of them) have been of extremely variable quality, but these were both brilliant.


the athens of the north

I’d forgotten Edinburgh. It’s one of the loveliest cities I know.

Colin and Paula are old friends of my parents, and their children only a bit older than my brothers and I. Their house, near Newhaven, is linked to Dorothy and Paul’s house on Corstorphine Road by a pleasantly long walk along the Water of Leith.

The path felt as though it had been built by someone digging through my dreams. If it weren’t for the regular-but-unpredictable outcrops of dogshit it’s damn close to heaven on earth. At times it’s a steep-sided valley with fast-flowing water and greenery on all sides, with only the murmur of traffic and the looming silhouettes of viaducts far overhead to remind you you’re in Scotland’s first city. At other times, it’s a straight, civilised watercourse, one storey down from the rest of the town, with flat bridges and buildings on both sides, like a shallower, wilder city canal. The path crosses over the river on all manner of bridges, and sometimes leaves the water’s edge entirely, passing through neat gardens and streets of two-up-two-down tenements or rising a dozen metres to meet a road or circumnavigate a building, swinging you around on a cobblestoned waltz. Everything is green and alive, but the path is clear. Not by the actions of some local authority, but because hundreds, maybe thousands, of people use it, every day. But when we walked the path, the place (somehow) wasn’t crowded; in the depths of the city, you can feel perfectly alone.

It’s got the good stuff: history, architecture, and all sorts of whimsical Fringey things by and sometimes in the water (weird little statues, follies, a rain shelter made of rebar.) The buildings on either side range from Elizabethan half-timbered things real and fake, through the skeletons of old mills (weirs and leats are the only remains of many more) to brand-spanking-new yuppie kennels. Tenement blocks and grand houses tower on the hillsides above. There was a pleasing lack of plastic trash, either in the water or built next to it.

We reached Colin and Paula’s, and chilled in their garden with smartphones, G&Ts and discussions of China. Morag had just returned from the place and had many stories to tell and compare to my parents’ own anecdotes. My knowledge of China in the last hundred years begins and ends with the Sino-Japanese War, and even that ain’t exactly comprehensive. I really should learn more. A buzzard circling overhead was suddenly mobbed by seagulls, making ungodly noises and high-speed passes. One of those things I hear about but don’t see often.

After a huge, delicious casserole, Parents retired to discuss music for the parents downstairs while Olly and I were dragooned into tech support. Being nice, normal people, Andrew and Morag aren’t immensely tech-literate; they were excited at the DWM Flip 3D thing Olly used (which had us both discreetly rolling our eyes; he thinks it’s a gimmick and I find pointless CPU-hogging GUI shite actively offensive. Yes, I’m running on minimal graphics right now, and only the lack of noticeable changes in performance is stopping me doing it on High Contrast White) and, more to the point, their computers were crammed with awful manufacturer bloatware and a few months of accumulated internet crap. I taught Andrew how to use utorrent, installed Spybot and cleared a decent part of the trash off their laptops, while we both (unsuccessfully) tried to work out what the hell was up with Morag’s machine that was blocking Facebook. It wasn’t some sort of residual Great Firewall of China thing, because she could accept lots of other Party-unfriendly content with no problems; it wasn’t a cache or cookie problem, and it wasn’t a browser issue (we tried Chrome and *shudder* IExplore.) They were both still using Norton, but there was no time to fix that. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to get Sibelius or Photoshop working, and didn’t have a memory stick with my copy of Office for Andrew, so I took numbers and promised to return.

The warm, self-satisfied glow of having a nice fast functional machine is always worth the frustrating tedium of crawling up a computer’s arsehole and breaking things.

hustlers, cheats and anglers, fixers, sharps and mutineers

(Incidentally, Pidgin is actually really really good.)

(12:23:15 AM) underneath the open sky:
franchise reboots offend me
(12:23:25 AM) obtaining fragrant oils and compounds from odorous raw materials:
Star Trek was pretty good
(12:23:35 AM) underneath the open sky:
it was
(12:23:37 AM) obtaining fragrant oils and compounds from odorous raw materials:
it took me that long to think of one
(12:23:40 AM) underneath the open sky:
(12:23:47 AM) obtaining fragrant oils and compounds from odorous raw materials:
The Fly
(12:24:31 AM) underneath the open sky:
any rebooting an IP less than forty years old?
(12:24:50 AM) obtaining fragrant oils and compounds from odorous raw materials:
I’ve heard the Thomas Crown Affair…..
that was first in 1968
3:10 to Yuma
no, that was 1957
(12:26:09 AM) underneath the open sky:
have we found a rule?
(12:26:10 AM) obtaining fragrant oils and compounds from odorous raw materials:
Oceans Ele….1960
ok I’m out

and I’ll sell you a gallon for a five dollar bill

After Culloden, we stopped by Inverness for a mediocre fish and chips by the coach station, and on to the Black Isle (which is a green peninsula), past the seemingly endless fence of a cattle show, spying oil rigs out in the Moray Firth in the slanting rain. At Cromarty town we watched tugs escort an oil tanker out from the deep water terminal, and made a six-pointed trace italienne sandcastle with bastions and ravelins (without the bucket and spade our cottage came equipped with, which had been left in Elgin). In Cromarty, we found a lovely second-hand bookshop/cafe hybrid thing, whose gimmick was having walls and ceiling coated with signatures from past patrons. (The most famous one they could name was “Tolkien’s great niece”, though.) We bought a lot of tea, several excellent biscuits and a little interesting-looking literature, and headed on back to the cottage.

The following day we did the whisky industry.

The Speyside cooperage is one of the few functioning places of its kind left in Scotland, supplying dozens of distilleries, and they’re justifiably proud of it. There are thousands of casks piled up behind the place. The tables and chairs in the cafe are made of casks. There are rain shelters in the car park, made of half-tuns on their sides with little windows and chairs. Made from casks. We got shown around an interesting history of the cask industry (they being the go-to break-bulk container for literally thousands of years), watched an educational video about casks, were shown the cooperage floor full of manly coopers doing manly things, had the general cask-making process explained to us with helpful diagrams and examples of tools and cracked staves.

Casks are an essential part of the whisky-making process, the ageing being what gives whisky a lot of its flavour, and the wood and what it’s previously been used for (whisky is only very rarely aged in casks that haven’t had another kind of alcohol in them) are very important. The coopers we saw were rebuilding casks, which is the main work done by Scots cooperages (their master coopers do actually make casks from scratch on occasion, but they’re bespoke and thus rather expensive.) Used bourbon and sherry casks are broken down and shipped from America and Spain. US law forbids re-using bourbon casks, a law presumably passed due to the influence of a cooperage magnate, or the owner of a lot of prime forest. It looks like back-breaking work; they do twenty, twenty-five of these a day, earning a respectable salary (in the master cooper’s estimation, anyway). Apprentices train for four years, and there was a special area laid out for them, but there weren’t any in attendance the day we came. At the cafe we were given some wine made from oak leaves (me neither) and bought some tablet.

Just down the road from the cooperage is Glenfiddich distillery, which prides itself on being one of the few left with its own cooperage, and brags about its professional coopers rebuilding seventeen casks a day. Glenfiddich was much more slick than the cooperage; a bit too slick and commercial, which is slightly weird given that the tour is free. Once we’d got past the appallingly gushy, overwhelmingly desaturated, slow-mo-blurred-smiling-crofter-faces-littered, one-too-many-twists-on-a-catchphrase video (with headphones in many languages! I amused myself by twirling the language dial around; simple things please simple minds, like having a single sentence go from Japanese to Russian via pretty much the entire Indo-European family) introduction video, we got to the distillery itself. It was a lot like Bushmills – various immense vats oozing exotic odours, spirit safes built according to brass-and-glass sensibilities that would give steampunkers screaming orgasms, funny-shaped copper stills radiating heat, dark, busy warehouses redolent with the angels’ share. I’m pretty sure all distilleries are about the same inside; in Raw Spirit (one of his best books for the simple fact that the plot was dictated to him by the world) Iain Banks tours more distilleries than I’ve had hot dinners, and comes to the same conclusion.

It all makes me almost wish I were interested in alcohol. At the end of the tour they sat us down in the bar and gave everyone sample drams in 12, 15 and 18-year-old incarnations, but they all just tasted like fire to me.

After the tour, parents discussed Highland Games (some were playing on screens in the bar; I always thought caber-tossing was some sick joke thing that didn’t actually happen, like haggis running around, or Baba Yaga, or Swindon) with the nice German guys in our group, while I chatted up with our pretty tour guide (all tour guides in Scotland so far, despite having good Scots names like Donald and Morag, sound more English than the Queen; in her case it was because her dad was in the army, though I haven’t heard any excuses for Culloden Duncan). The day was yet young, but we needed to get Dad back to an appointment with the spinemongler in Elgin. On the return journey, collectively musing over printing and bandwidth and sati-themed nursery rhymes, we stopped at a bridge by ol’ Tom Telford, arching over the turbulent Spey with plaques proclaiming its proud Welsh heritage, and helpful signs explaining why Telford loved his Welsh ironmonger so much, though I can’t remember why now. Thundering pairs of RAF Tornadoes swept overhead the whole way home (carving parallel lines into the sky, until they turned off near Sandford and were lost).

On the Saturday, with Dad’s spine thoroughly mongled, and he in considerably higher spirits, we set off on the long road south to Edinburgh. On the way down we espied a ruined church lurking by the roadside, and explored. There were death’s heads on half the gravestones, among various other highly morbid symbols; the church had no roof, and the weathering inside suggested it had lacked one for a long time; it all reminded me somewhat of Marienkirche in Lubeck (so it was with wry amusement I noted it was called St. Mary’s). Beyond it all, there was a pervasive, distant buzz, like a thousand beehives. Mum suggested midges. If that was true, it was terrifying.

Craigievar Castle was the spitting image of the tower houses I’d been hoping for, save for being pink. It had straight-up walls and loopholes for shooting at cattle rustlers, and an almost stereotypical highland toff’s interior. It was pink. It had a minstrel gallery containing a spindle and a bunch of Civil War-era (ours, not yours, any Yanqui devils reading) lobster-tail helmets, pikes and muskets, all lurking threateningly as if daring you to play them; but it was pink. It had glorious, sweeping grounds with ancient trees, monkey puzzle and funny grey cows. But it was pink.

Really, really pink.

Castle Kellie, our last stop before Edinburgh, was a deeply Civilised country house, brimful of nannyish guides and down-the-centuries ephemera (children’s picture books of the late 19th century look both hilariously racist and Uncanny Valley creepy). Most hilariously, a couple explained (in character) how to Keep Up With Appearances as a fifties family celebrating the coronation, while short on money but attempting to be long on class. It… it was the most unexpected, and the most priceless, moment of the holiday so far.

Crossing Fife we had a perfect view of the glorious Forth Bridge in the dying sun, on the last leg into Edinburgh.

(The word “cask” appears in this post thirteen times.)

solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant

The visitor centre at Culloden had clearly had a lot of effort put into it; Paul later told us it cost the National Trust for Scotland a cool twenty million quid. I wonder how much of that went on the building (solid, grey wood), how much on the artefacts (muskets and edges, medals and pottery, woodcuts and handbills, cavalry boots and field guns) and how much on people proofreading every last line of information to keep it as neutral as possible. My dad tells a story from when he was working for Scots government, in which a senior Scot asked a junior Scot, only half joking, “Campbell, eh? Whose side were you on in the Forty-Five?” Getting on for two hundred and seventy years, and it’s still an issue.

All the signing in the visitor centre was bilingual – English and Gaelic – a strange sort of sop to a set of ultranationalist Gaels I wasn’t even aware existed. Unlike the Welsh, the Highlanders seem less tiresomely attached to their old tongue; but I suppose the Welsh had no Clearing, no Culloden. The exhibition was a fairly well set out maze of corridors, with a peculiar design; on the right hand was the red wall, which told the story of the Government, and on the left the blue wall, following the Jacobites. While for the first few metres it seemed to be “pick your bias”, each wall describing its faction in glowing terms, you would then have to switch sides, as both proceeded to thoroughly deconstruct their cause and talk at length about the various defeats, setbacks and foolish mistakes they suffered in the run up to April 16. The last corridor was somewhat dodgy, using unseen speakers to play you audio clips ostensibly from soldiers on the eve of the battle; I preferred Peter Watkins’ version. Then there was a reconstruction of the battle in a room whose walls were all screens, which was stylish, expensive, and in every sense visceral.

After this, the corridors panned out into a huge room full of militaria centred around a big floor screen displaying a top-down RTS style account of the battle, all Time Commanders-style (I wonder if they actually used the Total War engine…)., and then a door to The Place. The field itself isn’t much to look at. Well, it’s a field, what do you expect? There are rows of red and blue flags showing the original line of battle, GPS-linked audioguides that play you a clip when they detect you’re on a certain piece of ground, a great big stone memorial to the Romantic Lost Highland Cause, and a great many small monuments celebrating where individual tartans were gunned down. There was only one memorial to the Government’s troops (who were, in case you didn’t know, as much Scots lowlanders as Englishmen): “FIELD OF THE ENGLISH; THEY WERE BURIED HERE.” Mum got the impression that was biased towards the Government, in emphasising the Highlanders’ failures and making little of the Government’s losses; I felt it was entirely the other way round, with a soulless and inaccurate monument to Cumberland’s troops but a trashy Victorian headstone for where every chieftain and famous clan was heroically escorted from this vale of tears by Brown Bess.

It was a tricky one; the Gaelic, the romanticism and the serious wait before the museum got around to mentioning the actual outcome had me rather annoyed at a perceived pro-Jacobite slant, but by the end I wasn’t so sure. The disgusting Victorian Bonnie-Prince-Charlie-on-a-bottle-of-Drambuie ahistorical romanticised kitsch that no true Scotsman on either side actually believes has left its mark, perhaps indelibly, and even in this most truthful of exhibits there still seemed to be a hint of That Noble Lost Cause; but maybe this is a knee-jerk response I have that objects to any recognition of the Jacobites as anything but doomed, misguided idiots on the wrong side of history.

In modern parlance, you can call the Forty-Five a heroic act of defiant independence against economic tyranny (under Union rule the lowlanders and city folk were prospering, the Highland crofters and smallholders not so much) and religious persecution, betrayed by incompetent leadership. But in that same modern parlance, the Jacobites were a foreign-backed insurgency of a small minority attempting to violently overthrow a legally elected, popularly accepted government, and replace it with an absolutist monarchy. Still sound romantic to you?

The displays were informative, the artefacts plentiful and well-chosen, and the audiovisual stuff of extremely high quality; it’s a serious, no-nonsense account of Culloden in all its brutal detail and desperate futility, and you really could see where the £20m went.

By the by, Bonnie Prince Charlie was a prick.