London SE1 9QU

The Bailiwick in Windsor delighted us with its exquisite fish pie and seared scallops the evening before.  This indulgent dining experience, we imagined was going to be awfy hard to beat when we traveled south to London town.

Bermondsey Street, SE1 put up two impressive looking eateries, both carrying the name of a particularly colourful dude, Jose.  Choose between the simple tapas bar or more refined Jose Pizarro.  Pizarro won our business and our palettes.  Exceptional Spanish flavours delivered with care and accompanied by earthy Spanish wines.

Satisfied, we wrapped our scarfs snugly, wandering back to London Bridge, fascinated by SE1, a neighborhood populated by artisan bars and cafes, smart offices and quirky design studious. Swathes of light and purpose in a historically grim location.

Beyond the grime, there is a lost horizon waiting to be found.  Especially if you are prepared to chip through the sheer ice like exterior of the Shard.  A trip to the 35th Floor, elevator doors askance and voila, the Shangrilah greets you with its majestic perch over The Thames, over the heart of London.

Beyond the grandeur in the clouds,  the Shard continues to impress, from the heated toilet seats, luxury accommodation and of course, as you float in the pool on the 52nd floor, commanding views that embrace the marmite spread of this amazing city.

In 1666 London was burning.  Now, on London Bridge it is freezing.  I can't help but wonder what Sir Christopher Wren would think of London and the Shard in Brexit elect times.  We marvel at his work on St Paul's Cathedral and indeed in Greenwich, still commanding the lines of sight he imagined across the city, extending as far as Greenwich.  Both sites were symbolic of the skill set of London in the day, the capacity of Great Britain to rise above adversity and together with Royal approval, claim authority and permanence.

Wren's prominence as preferred architect to the crown prevailed until last century when London was burning yet again.  The blitz set seige to the city and St Pauls threatening again the very survival of this incredible city.  On this occasion, it was a very confident and self assured leader, Winston Churchill who delivered the leadership that London required.  Not always in sync with Royal approval, Churchill generally embodied the British spirit, Queen & country. 

His perseverance and leadership contributed to preserving the capital and the country.  It is perhaps at his funeral in the 60's that you recognise the depth of feeling for Churchill.  Beyond the outpouring of grief by the people, on the Thames you witness a sequila of cranes each orchestrated to bow simultaneously.  

The memory of Churchill and Wren are present in the London of now.  It remains a vibrant and stoic city still ready to delight contemporary visitors like our good selves.

Expect to be overwhelmed and expect to be impressed by this current and important London.

 

HOPE

As the full moon smears white across the early Edinburgh sky, I watch Tess devouring her denta bone on the Links.  Turning from the moon , the distinctive Barclay Viewforth church and surrounding Georgian tenements adopt a film noir feel.  Perfect conditions to reflect on the state of the world and our last eighteen months in Scotland.

Many years ago, Steven Covey, during a presentation at Dallas Brooks Hall in Melbourne invited me to, "Be an island of excellence in a sea of mediocrity." This mantra stuck with me, empowering me over the last couple of decades to make some substantial achievements happen.  Now I am wondering if the Rev. Covey would mind if we changed mediocrity to uncertainty.

Whether it be Brexit here, the new Presidency in the States, turmoil in Allepo or the growth of the new right across Europe, these are indeed times of significant uncertainty.  Throw in more local questions around the future alliances or indeed independence of Scotland and it is reasonable to suggest that we could well be overwhelmed, gripped even by a mood of uncertainty this Christmas.

As with any mood, uncertainty can creep up on us and before long we are caught, often unaware in its swell.  Uncertainty can disempower, lay us prey to feelings of anger or disenchantment, even encouraging us to throw in the towel and simply give up. 

An antidote for uncertainty, I propose a paradoxically simple interpretation, hope.

Hope encourages us to lift our gaze from the here and now to the future, it allows us to take control where there appears to be none and invent scenarios that are engaging and empowering.

Hope is equally as powerful as uncertainty and all it takes is a choice to embrace it's power.  A choice that takes us beyond the toxicity of uncertainty to the possibilities inherent in all of our futures.  As the Rev Covey invites, what if we simply choose hope as our island in the current sea of uncertainty.

This Christmas I will toast the spirit hope as I continue to reflect on our achievements in Scotland.

In just over twelve months we have moved three times.  David Bowie, who sadly passed away this year encouraged us in 'Changes', to "turn and face the strange". We certainly did that, moving from Melbourne to Hollyrood, Hollyrood to Greenbank and finally Greenbank to Edinburgh.  Each move produced challenges, breakdowns and significant learnings.

We just recently won a dispute with our landlord in Greenbank, our very own "Castle" victory, and a great closure to the itinerant stage of our life here in Edinburgh.  Again the spirit of hope and perseverance paid off and we now embrace our fabulous new slice of Edinburgh on the Links.

Beyond moving, Linda has well and truly established her new professional identity with Blackrock, elevated to a new broader role within her first 12 months.  She has been invited to be part of an internal Board of Directors occurring next year. This will provide more opportunities to travel on this side of the planet.

Encased in it's own special package, Elliot's Presidencial medal for Edinburgh Rotaract is as impressive as it is heavy.  Like some sort of Mayoral charm.  From Rotaract to the Edinburgh University Swing Dance Club, Elliot has embraced his life and time in Edinburgh and continues to evolve as a leader.  His exams now complete for this year, he enters the final semester of his International Relations degree and is contemplating Honours next year.  More examples of hope in action.

I have been criticised a couple of times over this year of being too ambitious or visionary.

This time last year I was being misled by the  Board of Directors of a not for profit organisation into establishing a men's group, only to be told that my vision for a men's shed was not supported by the chairman or the board. Twelve months later, I am the Chairman of The Men of Leith Men's Shed, a new not for profit organisation recently credited with charitable status and embraced by the City of Edinburgh.

This combined with my new role as Trustee on the Board of the Scottish Men's shed Association, clearly highlights my capacity to learn, to persist and despite criticism or setbacks, to embrace ambition and continue to engage others in the future.  Hope, what's not to like.

My recent trip back to Australia confirmed the importance of creating our own futures as Duncan, Simon and I successfully completed the challenging Great Victorian Bike Ride.  A most satisfying anchor in the sea of uncertainty and the shape of many more adventure to come.

As the moons light dissipates in the even yellow of the sun, I Invite you, as you reflect on your year to allow some hope into your world this Christmas and beyond.

Merry Christmas from the Scottish Silcock's

On Yer Bike Jimmy! 2016 Great Vic Bike Ride

And so the odyssey commenced.  Over 4,200 cyclists present and in place, Lycra lit by the rich red sunset over the glorious Grampians. 

Emerging from my tent at 2.00 am the crisp 4 degrees competes for my attention as I am distracted by the bewildering array of stars.  Man Australia still does stars well.  The temperature wins as I sneak back in to the Scottish sleeping bag, wishing I had brought some thermals.

Duncan, Simon and I are the first in the queue for a real coffee at 6.00 am, all equally shattered by the cold and lack of sleep and equally excited by remarkable draw of this event.  Real, Victorian coffee delivers clarity as we lift our eyes to the hills to enjoy a rare spectacle, a blonde white mountain goat, only barely visible in the distance.  You might have thought that the plethora of kangaroos was sufficient.  This beautiful part of the planet is enriched with amazing wildlife.

Several hours later, still reeling from our camping experience, we commence the first of our 527 km journey. We are buoyant, and at first, amused by the Frankston High School Student Team as each time we encounter them, they declare, “Passing on your right, have a nice ride!”  Initially endearing it merges to meaningless and slightly annoying later in the day as we hear it dozens of times.

There are 1500 students present, resplendent in colourful jerseys, caps and a can do attitude.  We are present with my niece and her school, Fitzroy High, a dynamic team supported by passionate staff like Neil and committed parents like Frank.

Corby is not one of these kids, he has arrived on his own volition, a Year 10 Student at Shepparton High School, mad about cycling, he convinced his Principal that he should join the ride. Duncan and I befriend Corbin, of course you would.  He changes my punctured tube in just 3 minutes and finds a variety of ways to simply delight and offer assistance to fellow riders.  A likeable young man.

Physically, we have trained for this.  My regular visits to the gym and rides up and down the cobblestoned hills of Edinburgh made it possible to achieve the two grueling conquests, both in and approaching the Otway’s.  Two days of over 100 km’s in the saddle, mostly uphill or at least edged by a head wind. 

Hundreds of folks got off their bikes and walked, beaten by the uncompromising Lavers Hill and the seemingly never ending rises immediately beyond.  I persevered, slowly, surely, steadily breathing, counting, and chatting, whatever it took to get to the top.  And the ten kilometer drop into Apollo Bay pure joy, pure exhilaration!

Logistically, I was not so successful, declaring that never again would I camp in my life.   Our tent gave up at day 3, just after the hardest ride.  When we should have been drinking beer and relaxing, Duncan and I were attempting resurrect the tent using gaffer tape and splints.  In the end we had to purchase a new tent.

Thinking that I would wash a few clothes in the truck showers, I squeezed in to the cubicles, managing to shower and wash clothes in a space smaller than your average aeroplane toilet.  On stepping out of the shower cubicle, my freshly washed clothes slipped from my grasp, ending up soaking in the muddy mess under the truck.  Camping, hate that stuff.

My new tent and sleeping bag have already been donated to the Preston Op Shop, just in case I ever get that that outdoor feeling ever again.

Socially, the event was huge success, with serendipitous meetings of new and old friends and a regular dose of good bands and ukulele led songs.  Of course all of this was trumped by the opportunity of investing over week with my son Duncan and great friend Simon. I feel so grateful and refreshed by this experience.  Of course this was enhanced by the presence of my old school friend Di, accompanying us on the journey in Roy, the ever present RV.

Ice cold Lazy Yaks, salt n vinegar chips and the occasional real shower were most welcome by us could have been campers.  Thanks Di!

We made it, 527 km later we wound our way through Geelong to the Showgrounds.  The finish line was like a script from Chariots of Fire.

As the three of us entered the show grounds thousands of people were lining the path to the finish, each making considerable noise with their exuberant comments and loud blue hand clappers.  Our speaker held charge to the end, blasting out ACDC, Back in Black.

We felt like rock stars, like sporting heroes, like men who could achieve almost anything.

That feeling’s a keeper.

Alan

Acknowledgement.

Many thanks to Duncan and Simon for your camaraderie, love and support, not forgetting your exquisite ability for taking the piss.  Nae Bother!

Danke schon!

Andre impresses, his bold coiffured beard and tailored touches suggest this man has lived a full life.  We are in the Hofbrauhaus House and he has invited me to sit at his table.  A Bavarian blue chequered tablecloth indicates that this table is not for the tourists but especially reserved for the chosen.

He raises his carefully crafted stein, the lid carved from an antler, with an imbedded picture of Andre himself proudly toasting life.

It is this compelling Bavarian image that attracts many tourists to request a selfie.  Andre happily obliges, you could say, actively encourages this practice.

One by one, the tourists, generally attractive young women sit on his knee, take the snap and one by one, Andre cheekily kisses them on the cheek.

It is not quite the Donald, but for me it is a tad sleazy.  I give Andre the benefit of the doubt, down my Stein and bid farewell.

Just above in the beer hall is another large room.  You can imagine the red and white flags with the unmistakable black Nazi emblem adorning the walls.  You can almost hear Hitler’s passion as he stands and delivers a compelling speech, brown shirted men eager to follow.

There don’t seem to be as many memorials in Munich as there are in Berlin, yet being here and attending the Third Reich Tour is as interesting as it is horrifying.

I chat with Emily, a charming young lady from Washington DC as together we try to make sense of how this horror was made possible.  At the same time considering what is happening right know in the US with particular attention to those who want to make America great again.

Our tour guide Ben ends the tour by making a powerful observation in that such is the shame left over by the Nazi party, Germans find it difficult to celebrate as a Nation and actively dampen their enthusiasm when it comes to anything patriotic.

It is this shame he says that will prevent such horror ever happening again, regardless of the fact that as in America, Germany similarly is hot-housing ultra-far right groups.

So let’s leave the beer houses of the world to drinking beer, taking selfies and having fun and let’s hope that Ben is right.

Just Like the Squirrels

Already, tarnished, leaves are claiming the greens and squirrels, regaining their confidence venture beyond the trees to the wide open green spaces of the Meadows.

Jimmy the groundsman is nearby, he is winterising the Links course.  Flags are stripped from the greens and the holes filled.  Chipping,  putting and plus fours take a sabbatical for the season.

We attend our first "Stair Meeting".  Kevin and Katy are the perfect hosts.  A number of good folk, all residents in our tenement combine to blether and consider issues of communal interest.  Lighting in the stair well, noise levels, managing bicycles, cleaning the stairs and keeping safe are all discussed civilly.  This is tenement living after all and all of these people, from the recently arrived students to long term dwellers are given equal opportunity to contribute.

There is a potent sense of community present, a willingness to live and let live.  From 1869 people would have gotten together like this, partly out of necessity to arrange for leaking roofs and the like to be fixed, yet also for the simple compelling reason of acknowledging the importance of community.  Of sharing each others company.

I imagine that difficult issues may have been encountered, brilliant parties and social events organised and many offers of help made.  All the while,  conversation and community providing the mortar to make all this happen.

Occasionally now, in our own flat, the soft shuffle of boots on the adjoining stair and the filtered wisp of a distant piano find a way through the solid stone walls, reminding me that this is more than a flat in a tenement building in Edinburgh, this is an key part of a thriving community.

So, just like our squirrel friends, as tenants in our first tenement, we are tentatively exploring our new territory, open to the many discoveries and possibilities available in our community.

Aw ra best.

Alan

Being Entertained by the Meadows

My premium view across the Meadows provides such rich entertainment as wee folk from the local pre school file pass my window, their high vis vests further enlivened by the golden Autumnal sun.

It is just gone 5.00 pm on Friday, students join with commuters on bikes, scooters and skateboards, taking to the many paths that zig zag across the green creating a safe way home for the weekend.  They won't have to dodge the golf balls for too much longer, as the chip and put course, the original golf course in Scotland closes soon for winter hibernation.

I wonder what our lounge room window will reveal when the green is transformed into a wonderful white in just a couple of months.

My ex neighbor inquired as to the improvement in our croquet skills.  A reasonable question, given that a seven iron distance away sits the original Scottish Croquet Association headquarters complete with rich velvety turf.  More entertainment options.

For now, with Tess requiring the odd jobbie or two, there has been ample opportunities to wander over into the park and look back on the impressive Georgian buildings created in 1869, and now inhabiting such an array of people.

The students upstairs were quick to get their Aussie flag up and already we have been invited to a "stair meeting" to discuss things of communal interest. Getting to meet our neighbours has been most rewarding.  As a young South African lady said to me at a charity event this morning, "People in Edinburgh are so welcoming."

So the light intensifies, perhaps as a reminder that this time in just a couple of weeks it will be dark and stay dark.  Right now though it highlights a few lads, dressed lads style, perhaps heading up to Morningside for a night out.  

The boys don't fail to notice a number of young women suitably attired in active wear and giving them a reasonable berth.  Active wear abounds in the Meadows as it is clearly Edinburgh's version of Central Park, Hyde Park and for the Melbournians, the Tan or Botanic Garden's.

I am distracted for a moment by the lilting sounds of a piano, possibly from next door,  gentle, soothing sounds.  We hear stuff in this tenament, human stuff.  It is a privilege to hear such life,  to feel more a part of this life.

To think that someone actually conceived to put a four lane highway through this majestic green belt and furthermore, proposed monstrous towers and an underground mega supermarket.  There may have been good bands in the seventies, but for architecture and town planning these were dark times.

Fortunately for us the Meadows has survived intact to be a showcase for life, a showcase for community and for me now a great source of entertainment.

Aw Ra Best

Alan

Mist

The mist seeps into drizzle easing to quiet, a quiet that only nature knows, only nature can produce.

This quiet is therapy, soothing colliding brain chemicals, an amniotic fluid for anxiety, agitation and pain.  

In one direction, the bridge that crosses the Beaully Firth to Inverness is shrouded in Scotch mist.  Two distinct red lights, presently blurred by the mist, exist to remind me of F Scott Fitzgerald's beacon in the Great Gatsby and define the key outlines of the bridge.

Greta wanted to stay in a caste and largely her wish is granted.  Bunchrew sits confidently on the shore of the firth, a proud manor house / castle with roots back to the 1500's.  It's rich paneled drawing rooms decorated with hunting trophies are softened by the tasty full Scottish breakfast and flights of Speyside whiskies.  It ably competes with the Culloden House hotel I gave an inspired review of in an earlier blog.

The dreich weather complements the battlefield of Culloden. reminding us that ill equipped, tired and poorly led men do nae say weel in battle.  The horror is available at sodiers view in sensarround at the exceptional visitors center.  

The mist follows us as we journey the length of Loch Ness spilling into the fort of William.  Soft clouds cling carefully to the  enchanting hills of Glencoe and persist all the way to Stirling.  The William Wallace monument is silhouetted by a golden yellow sky, the odd herd of mountain cattle enjoying the splendour, perhaps sensing that winter is inevitable now.

Almost home, I reflect back to Culloden, in particular the young students whose boisterous antics are brought to a rapid halt as they are hit by the clarity and brutality of battle in the sensarround experience.   It is histories time to deliver another quiet.

Alan

 

 

 

 

 

As Scottish as The Proclaimers

In just over a week I have sang along to the Proclaimers live at the Castle, clapped enthusiastically through the musical, 'Sunshine on Leith'  on stage at the Spiegeltent.  I have also downloaded several clips from the movie.  

 I have pulled out my albums of  Proclaimers music revisiting and rediscovering their lyrics and questioning how they are able still to capture a spirit of Scotland that is simply worth singin' about.

Here's a couple of reasons that I believe they still resonate palpably in Scotland and beyond, and help us to discover just how Scottish we really are.

They may be able to "..tell the difference between margarine and butter", yet when the chorus kicks in you realise this is no triviality. "Well I can't understan' why they let someone else rule our land." My voice breaks a little as I join the nine thousand in chorus, all singing with passion and commitment, "Cap in hand", Can this nine thousand  move from resentment to constructive action and embrace the true spirit of these men?

The tender appreciation of the deep diversity of what it means to be Scottish exemplified in "Scotland's Story" is inspiring.  This is the independent Scotland that I want, this is worth singin' about. "They're all ma lands story and they're all worth the same."

And then it is simply the music, catchy, anthemic and delightful, it gets under your skin, fills your heart and makes you feel gid inside.  "Oh Jean, Oh Jean, you let me get lucky wi you." Depicted as a love song in the stage play, 'Sunshine on Leith' it allows Craig and Charlie to engage as men, suspending their solid religious beliefs for a moment. 

This is moderated by tracks like, 'Let's get married', 'Life with you' and, of course,'Sunshine on Leith'.  Not possible to forget the line, "Whilst the Chief, puts sunshine on Leith." No celebration of the Proclaimers would be complete without mention of their BIG song, '500 Miles'.  That's all I need do here, mention it whilst you sing it in your head and continue to appreciate the power of it.

These boys, Craig and Charlie are local heros.  Not the sort that get traded for millions of pounds on the fitba pitch, more the sort you expect to see wandering down Leith Walk or buying fresh flowers and coffee in their local Sainsbury's.

I hope to meet them soon, partly to tell them about our proposed Men of Leith Shed but more importantly, I just want to acknowledge them for their music, the contribution they have made to my life and the spirit of being Scottish that they encourage indelibly.

Now, that's worth singin' aboot!

Alan

As Funny as Fat Bastard

I was well made up when, sitting in the second row of the Vodka room at the Fringe Festival, I got a high five from Pun Man.  Quite an accolade when you recognise that of the fifty punters present, I was the only one to be celebrated in such a visceral way.

Some of the others had taken a risk in attempting to out pun the pun man and, quite appropriately were derided and embarrassed.  Not me though, thanks Pun Man you are my hero!

As our hands touched the fabric of his super hero suit felt quite strange, mind you he had already asked a wee lassie in the front row earlier, what sort of material it was.  "Spandex." She replied.  "Boyfriend material" he corrected,  his eye contact lingering for that moment too long.

Oh, and the title for Pun Man's show, 'Girls Just Want to Have Puns.'  Of course.  For a moment there, he was certainly as funny as Fat Bastard, responding to "Any topic" from the audience with a stream of puns.  I have seen him twice now and had streams of tears running down my face on both occasions as he pauses the puns for a moment, puts on his best American accent and declares, "Perty Time!"  

Pun Man exists as just one of the 3000 odd shows on view across a couple of weeks at this years festival.  The choice is as broad as the quality and I can safely say that 80% of the shows I have seen have been a least good, Pun Man was both clever and hilarious.

As Al Rayner described when we walked out from one of the venues on to the Royal Mile and then Princess Street, "This is like a washing machine".  Given the volume of people I would further suggest it would be near impossible to keep your colours separate.

Still the festival is terrific.  The highlight shows for us include the musical Glasgow Girls, such an exuberant and funny production that aptly demonstrates the capacity Scottish people have for taking the piss out of each other.

Starman was exquisite, Sven Ratzke delivering a cabaret performance, inspired and endorsed by David Bowie that weaved selected Bowie songs into a rich and extravagant story.  Amazing band as well.

I wrote about the Sorries last year and was equally impressed by their treatment of traditional Scottish songs, banging their wee drums and again taking the piss out of each other and political figures in the UK.

More ahead as we line up to see Sunshine on Leith tomorrow at the Spiegeltent.  If it is anywhere near the actual performance of the Proclaimers last weekend, it will indeed be another wee treat.

So, try saying Saskatchewan without starting' to stutter.

Greetings from the Edinburgh Festival 2016.

Alan

 

 

 

Beyond Brexit

I re-read Caitlin Moran's article in the weekend paper providing a believable hypothesis for the Brexit vote.  It is not so much a protest vote she asserts, more a decision driven out of  resignation.  Many Britons have simply "retired" from the European Union and this is reflected in their vote.

Jeremy Clarkson's reasons are a bit more brutal, indicating that many in the midlands simply can't fathom the idea of living next to Darkies.

Whatever the reason, this is not like a general election or a football game, you don't get the chance to play again, you can't take the milk out of the tea..

Already we have faced significant volatility in the marketplace and the pound, three weeks later has not rebounded much.  I can't help but wonder how people's pension funds will be effected in the near future, with talk of negative returns.

Here in Scotland, the mood is a bit brighter.  The First Lady took the initiative early, declaring that as our voting patterns were contrary to that of England, we had a mandate to be treated differently.  Many of us are hoping that since the last referendum for splitting from the UK, Scotland has matured in thinking and there is a much stronger appetite for independence now.

Jim Dixon , Cr. for West Lothian greets me enthusiastically at the opening of the Ashburton  Men's Shed.  He is sporting a splendid tie embossed with hundred's of union jacks. He seems fine with the result yet nervous about the tumultuous times ahead.

No one really knows what is going to happen and as I used to tell clients in the past, in the absence of clarity, people will make it up.  Let's hope that we move beyond resignation and speculation as soon as possible and start creating a sense of possibility and certainty for our future. 

PS.  From the UK to  America, I recoiled through Trumps acceptance speech yesterday.  I can't help but rephrase his slogan, "Make America Great Again.", to "Make America Hate Again." Perhaps both the States and the Uk are swayed too readily now by fear and divisive practices. Methinks it is time to change this

Alan

 

 

 

Becoming Bordeaux

The Beautiful Game

Bordeaux took some time to wake up on the day before American Independence Day in 2016.  It had already hosted a Euro Cup Final the night before and certainly deserved a big sleep before today's big game vs Iceland.  

We arrive in this historic town late afternoon and very soon are enjoying local beers and wines alfresco, in the shade of the Porte Cailhau, a stunning reminder of Bordeaux's majestic history.  Gradually fervour for the game is revealed as the tri colour paints don the faces of the bright young things of Bordeaux and they emerge on to the streets with flags and hooters.

We choose a tavern in the Old Town called Parliament to watch the game, there are a myriad of flat screen Tv's and the place is sardined with mainly French folk.  With five French goals scored, there is ample opportunity to learn the words to the French National anthem, sang with gusto and purpose on each goal.  Together with chants not unfamiliar to the terraces at Melbourne Victory, this is the place for fans of the beautiful game.

Less than 24 hours in France and the Franglais is paying off, my attempts at communicating and hearty barracking winning me a glass of red wine and a kiss on the cheek from a Jeune Femme.

The daubed paint on the cheeks starts to run, this has been a superb night.  As we squeeze out of the pubs, La Marseilles still rings like a never ending round throughout the streets of Bordeaux.  For a moment, I forgot all about Brexit.

The Charm of Carcessaras

Doing a bomb in the pool in the most prestigious hotel in the walls of the Medieval City of Carcessaras is not necessarily regarded as deriguer by the locals as I discover later.

The city has evolved since Roman times and now sports one of the most well preserved walled fortresses in the world.  Life of Brian jokes aside, this walled town has 52 towers and two thick walls traveling side by side for over three kilometers.  

Reflecting on the last Game of Thrones and Outlander episodes we crossed the drawbridge into the city, ending up at Le Hotel de Cite, ready to take our boarding..  The only hotel with a Michelin Star I have ever stayed at, it maintained the sumptuous charm and character of a Medieval structure with everything a five star hotel has to offer.  The pillows were so plentiful and so soft, I found them hard to sleep on.

Plastic cups were garnered from the pool bar, where I had done the bomb earlier, and champagne glasses sequestered from our rooms  All to  facilitate a picnic in the beautiful gardens of the hotel offering staggering views across both the town and turrets.  Wines  purchased from our trip to a local vineyard had been chilled overnight.  Unwooded  chardonnay, and dry sparkling wine were poured with enthusiasm and enjoyed by the Backroads touring group.

Wines and conversation were accompanied by Ian's cheeky smile, John's unmistakably Aussie humour, Gill's sharp observations, Debbie's nuanced comments and Linda's insightful assessments.  Australians and New Zealanders tend to be equal in capacity for enjoying food and wine and taking the piss.  On this occasion all are present in good measure and I take the opportunity to supplement with ample dad jokes and the occasional line from a song.

We are strangers and we are not, combining a joint passion for travelling and enjoying new experiences.  Such a pleasure to be in the company of people who can see the simple humour in dong a bomb in the pool of a luxury French hotel despite signage to the contrary.  

Ce la vie!

The Barber of Sarlat

John and I give up after three attempts at looking for a barber in Sarlat la Caneda.  Our Tour Guide, Gaetano, G Man for short, comes to the rescue.  He has the equipment and he has offered to relieve us of our locks later in the day, poolside.

Watched carefully by le hotel chat, G Man demonstrates his dexterity and ability to multi skill, enthusiastically testing the razor.  Before long, my gray and charcoal hairs are blowing in the wind by the pool.  Only occasionally do they bother other members of our group as they attach to the camembert and jambon our poolside picnic.

Suitably shorn, we turn to John, whose enthusiasm for a haircut in Sarlat  has dramatically waned. Oh, well back to the beers and the cheese.

For ten days we have travelled through the Bordeaux region on this Backroads tour. John may return to Australia with his hair intact, yet like us,  Debbie and our other travel companions, Gillian and Ian, we will all have been enriched by the culture, history,  food and wine of the region.  I do hope that like me, all will be similarly enriched by each others others company, G Man included.

Our hair may grow back, yet the memories will remain.

Au revoir!

Alan

 

 

 

 

NYC2 - The Performer

She has the most delightfully gaudy sunglasses, thick black frames adorned with ceramic floral bursts.  Lady Altovise makes a big Harlem entrance, bouncing on in and welcoming us to her Harlem Gospel Tour.

As we are guided through the wide boulevards of Harlem, we discover that this lady's entrance is matched by her huge personality.  This is more than a tour, this is Harlem itself.

Several local folks stop to acknowledge Lady Altovise for her courage and enthusiasm in keeping the black voice alive on the streets of Harlem.  More than history, she is giving us a sense of the soul of Harlem through it's buildings, its characters and of course its music.

We stop outside Sophia's restaurant, a staple in Harlem, it has been serving soul food for blacks and whites alike for decades.  Photos of Obama and Clinton getting stuck in to their grits are proudly framed.  A snappily dressed elderly negro man decides to gatecrash our group and tell stories about Sophia and her guests, revealing a little of his own dark past admitting that he, "had to spend some time up-state".

Lady Altovise continues to entertain and perturb.  Did you know that the Harlem Globetrotters were never actually from Harlem, the local team were the Harlem Rucker's, who despite their success were usurped by the Globetrotters who simply stole their origin.

You may now be aware of court action against Air B and B for active discrimination against coloured people.  Lady A told us many stories where her and several friends were not accepted as suitable guests until, you guessed it, they changed their profile pictures to white people.

You are confronted with many bold graffiti images depicting discrimination and violence against coloured people.  We stop in front of a particularly colorful declaration encouraging young people in Harlem to know their rights when stopped by a police officer.  Lady A advises here own son not to claim his rights, rather to do exactly what the officer tells him to.  "At least that way, he will stay alive", she says, reflecting on the many young black men who have been shot as early as a few years ago for "resisting arrest".

We are promised an insight into coloured music in a live performance at the National Black Theatre.  An exuberant performance combined the sheer joy of Gospel Music with the poignancy of Billy Holiday.  We were in the National Black Theatre on Tuesday, we could so easily have been in the Abyssinian Baptist Church on Sunday.

So it's back to Sylvia's for a well deserved late lunch.  "I'll have what the Presidents have", I say to the enthusiastic young waiter.  Before long my plate is bulked up with six ribs, swimming in sauce, a huge portion of "Mac & Cheese" and green beans, which I discover have been tossed with pork.

Satiated with the tour and of course the food, I head South towards Central Park.  One last box to be ticked in Harlem, a haircut.  It is late afternoon now and I note that the barbers have ordered in beers and are drinking them out of paper bags, perhaps so as not to alarm customers like myself.

The haircut complete, without incident, I ask the guys if they think that, as has been suggested on the earlier tour, Harlem is becoming gentrified.  They all agree, suggesting that it is 50% black, 50% white these days.  I am not sure that that reflects what I have seen on the street, with very few white folk.  However, as Lady A declared, much of the original Harlem is being sold off bit by bit forcing the black people to move out.

If you are ever in Harlem folks, do yourself a favour and check out the Harlem Walking Tours run by Free Tours By Foot and of course the amazing Lady Altovise.  

123 NYC

Alan

 

 

 

NYC 123 - 1. The Trooper

John pauses reflectively, takes a sip of summer ale and tells me a story .  It was in this bar, the Yankees Bar in the Bronx, that his dad shouted him his first legal beer at 21.  Now a father himself and State Trooper, he ranks this moment with his Dad as one of his finest experiences.  Again today as we share a few beers in plastic cups with Bud Lite logos, there is a legends game on the big screen and John educates me in the stats of these baseball heros.  I wonder what these men are thinking of the new sparkling Yankees stadium, as I wander past the hot dog sellers and the souvenier stands.  

Taking my seat in the stands, the view of the game and screen is sensational.    On one side of me are a family of Yankees fans keen for a win in what has been an ordinary season so far.  Two lads from Manchester are on my other side.  After a while we agree that baseball is the American equivalent of cricket and despite the burst of occasional music, colour and brilliant sunshine, this game is pretty damn boring,

Twenty four hours later on the Top of the Rock, the sun persists in showcasing Manhattan.  From the 70th floor of the Rockefeller Centre, I can just make out the Yankee Stadium, way beyond Central Park over in the Bronx.  Already we have been advised on CNN that there has been a shooting up there today, yet now the stadium shimmers in the  distance, an iconic symbol of New York.

Alan

 

No Sleep Till Brooklyn

“New York I love you, but you’re bringing me down.”  LCD sound system can’t dent my excitement as I indulge in my personal playlist of songs, inspired by New York City.

Of course there is Dylan, the Stones, Bowie and Lou Reed blended with Charlie Parker, Leonard Cohen and even Ace Freehley, with a kick arse version of New York Groove.  The Pogues are present of course, “It was Christmas eve babe........”.

George Benson enchants with his smooth presence celebrating time “On Broadway”.

Currently over U.S airspace, I am intrigued by Le Tigre chanting “My My Metrocard”, a distance indeed from Sting’s gentle “Englishman in New York”. They sound so similar to those Pussy Riot girls who indeed caused a riot in the Kremlin.

I am smitten by the hold that New York has had over so many important and not so important musicians and how the city itself has become a playlist.

More recently, the moving obituary by David Bowie, Lazarus, pays tribute to the exuberance of his time in New York whilst including a sober declaration, “I’ve got nothing left to lose”.

Even LCD sound system concede that “New York your perfect oh please don’t change a thing.”  Their bittersweet song is testament to the changes that have occurred in this slab of concrete and flesh. “You’re still the one pool I’d happily drown.”

Back to basics, the “New York state of mind” that Billy Joel refers to is in my grasp now and hopefully alive and well on the “Subway Train” previously occupied by the New York Dolls .

I wonder if New York still offers the “The walk on the wild side”, iconicised by Lou Reed all those years ago.

I guess I am about to find out very soon.  In the meantime, for me at least, there will be as the Beastie Boys assert, “No Sleep till Brooklyn”.

Alan

Bairns, Ducks and Great Family Fun

The pennant flags indicated the finish line.  The finish line for the ducks.

Quiet at the moment, as we donned our wellie boots, constructed our nets and prepared for one of the most significant Braidburn Valley Park events, the St Peters annual duck race.

Several hundred bairns with help from parents and friends had spent a couple of quid to secure a duck in the race.  Bulbous bath tub sized ducks, each with a wry smile and personal number were poised, ready to make the journey from the Oxgangs end of the park to us at the finish line.

Strategies were determined so neither the ducks nor the burn waters could stop us officiates from accurately determining the winners.  In the meantime, the number of bairns had increased, many of which choosing to spend the race in the burn with the ducks.  Kids, ducks and a few anxious parents encouraged the ducks in their journey downstream.

All of a sudden, the leading ducks emerged from the reeds, rounded the corner and it was now that our carefully considered strategies were put into action.  Ducks were netted, positions identified and in a flurry of activity,  winners were communicated to the Control Tent.

Elliot decided it a great idea to focus on the blue ducks, giving them to a group of wee lasies to populate a tree on the banks of the finish line with these delightful creatures.  The wee girls complied readily, creating what ultimately became the "Duck Tree".  I think we may see a Duck Tree appear as a tradition at future events.

The event was an overwhelming success with a record amount of money raised for the school, a myriad of delighted, albeit drenched children and a warm feeling for us, the Friends of Braidburn Valley Park.

 

Alan

 

 

 

A spot of Polo and Tiara spotting.

The Queen is excited about her 90th birthday party tomorrow featuring some fine horses and of course, Kylie.  We are excited about being in her backyard today, the majestic Valley Gardens.

An avalanche of vibrant Spring colours cascade down in to the Punch Bowl.  Azaleas and Rhododendrons blend in delivering bridesmaid friendly shades of blushing pink and lavish purple. Completing the gallery are a myriad vibrant greens of England.

Yvonne and Ian are the perfect hosts, determined to embrace life, their dignified home, aptly named Kipling, sits amongst manicured gardens.  Ian's labour combined with Yvonne's ideas and the pleasant weather, make for the ideal conditions to relax, sip award winning English sparkling and toss the occasional ball for Ted, the Labradoodle to retrieve.

Ted luxuriates in the grass as we simply enjoy good wine, good conversation and good friendship. Simple pleasures indeed.

Earlier in the day, Windsor Castle deserved our attention.  Windsor itself, though a wee bit touristy, is a delightful town.  The Queen features prominently in this part of the world.  The town has been polished up for her 90th Birthday and decorated like a cake with extensive bunting.

We follow Ian on his regular walk with Ted through the grounds and alongside the vast stands of Royal Ascot, a racecourse certainly fit for a Queen.  You can easily imagine her arriving in the Royal Coach and being ensconced in the Royal Box the jewel in the crown of Royal Ascot.

Again Royal patronage is present across the swathes of lands in Windsor, Ascot and beyond.  Keen to pick up the exquisitely branded Guards Polo Club balls, I am immediately surprised at how light they are, more the weight of a softball than a cricket ball.

No visit to the English countryside is complete without a pie and pint in a traditional country pub. The Bailiwick Inn offers and delivers a "snug bar" and friendly service.  It also produces the most satisfying fish pie I have tasted in the UK.

For now we say goodbye to to a most pleasant time "In England's green and pleasant land." We shall be back Mr. Blake.

 

Alan

 

 

A Potter About the Lake District

Beatrix Potter would no doubt find the dozens of Japanese  tourists filing through her Hill End property amusing.  They are accompanied by many English visitors intent on cramming the main attractions of the Lake District into their bank holiday long weekend.

We decide upon other pursuits, seeking space ahead of schedules.  Our lodgings on Lake Windermere are the perfect partner.  The Lakeside Hotel and Spa, originally constructed in 1890 retains the charm of its past, gently nudging the lake with manicured gardens and worn jetties. 

Lake views are carefully framed from the beautiful glass conservatory offering traditional English High Teas and tasty local ales.

A cover drive from the hotel and we are clambering through the woods beyond Fell Foot.   As we ascend, the path eases gradually and guides us over a stile.  Beyond this, rich farmland unfurls, freshly born lambs and their protective parents graze as we wander by.  

A handful of country buildings with their distinctive Cumbrian slate construction are similarly protected by a church.  The spire directs our attention to the hills in the distance, snow still clinging to the peaks.

Enjoying the British tradition of "Free Access" we wander around more sheep, cows and horses wishing that we could simply pick up one of those lovely little lambs and give it a wee cuddle. Still the horns of the mother suggest that we dinnae dae that.

Lunch at the Cuckoo Brow is a memorable affair.  This  authentic country pub welcomes kids, dogs and soaked cyclists.  The teeming rain accompanies such hearty fare and again fine ales.  Not sure about the sodden black dog at my feet.

Clouds engulf the lake as the light dissipates, creating an atmospheric and mesmerizing backdrop to our final evening conversation in the Conservatory.

Driving through Windermere itself, past Ullswater Lake and on to Penrith is for me one of the key attractions of the area.  The views are inspiring and the roads at times challenging as they descend in up to a one in three gradient and often become single lanes.  

The Lakes District, a place of simple majesty and magic.  A place we shall return to.

 

 

Putting Braidburn Valley Park to Robert Louis Stevenson's Scrutiny!

Let's go on a wee walk.  Please select your wellies and be prepared to be blown away by the scenery and enticed by the myriad of natural enchantments on offer in Braidburn Valley Park, Edinburgh.

You may of course choose to walk in the footsteps of Sir Robert Louis Stevenson and imagine just what he imagined as he skirted the Fly Walk en route to Edinburgh from the delightful Swanston Village in 1886.   Perhaps it was in the park, the magnificent Pentland Hills behind him and the Castle in view, that inspired him to write, "And yet the place (Edinburgh) establishes an interest in people's hearts.."  The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson.

Or perhaps he was compiling ideas for the soon to be published, 'Kidnapped', whilst casting his thoughts ahead to 2016 and considering just how good a job the caretakers of the park are doing encouraging an interest in the hearts of our community now.

I never thought it would happen, yet this week I attended a lecture on bats, sponsored by the Friends of Braidburn Valley Park.  Myself a friend of the park since arriving in Morningside around nine months ago and now a Trustee on the committee of the park,  I was bewildered by the knowledge of our presenter and by the solid interest of our community in bats and indeed in the park itself.

Jackie Watson, an Environmental Advisor and Ecologist who refers to herself as a "Poo Surveyor", proceeded to deliver some of the important distinctions around bat poo and encouraged us to "Enjoy them (bats, not the poo) and be kind to them".  Introducing and thanking Jackie on behalf of the friends of our park was a delight, it is lovely to hear from people so passionate about their work.

Everyone in Edinburgh knows about Braidburn Valley Park.  Apart from the fact it dates back to 1933, a mere mention of the park usually elicits a smile and a positive memory.  Now it is populated by kids on scooters deftly challenging their parents notion of the appropriate distance between them.  I guess there is a burn just a short distance from the path, so some caution would be required, mind you in this park common sense has prevailed and the burn is allowed to flow swiftly just like the kids,  bringing cool, clear waters from the Pentland's to town.

The burn is home to some otters and small trout, yet it is the community dogs that really benefit as they search for a ball or frisbee in the shallow clean water and use the grassy banks as perfect diving boards.  The dogs bring the people and they walk beside the burn, stopping occasionally to admire a child or share stories about their dogs.  These are important conversations and very much facilitated by the park itself.

Quite simply, it is a lovely place to be.  As you enter from Greenbank Cres, immediately you are rewarded with the vibrant green walls of the valley, beautifully framing the sparkling burn and the spectacular Pentland Hills.  At this time of year the green is punctuated with showers of yellow, daffodils carefully planted to showcase the natural valley.

Fruit trees also decorate the banks, delivering a soft elegance.  They also provide practical opportunities for local school children to tend to them and as a result learn about the importance of nature.  Another highlight of the park that appears on earlier maps of the area is that it has a natural amphitheatre complete with stage.  All manner of theatre productions and concerts have been staged in the past and are being imagined for the future.  More recently a hugely popular dog show occurred, and most certainly we will be doing some bat spotting in the near future.  Watch this space.

Whether is is the education of adults and kids alike, the celebration of community, or simply the elevation of a pristine natural gallery, I am convinced that Mr Stevenson would report that Braidburn Valley Park continues to embody the spirit that Edinburgh did in his day, establishing and delivering an interest in people's hearts.

Alan

 

 

 

 

 

"...at your door."

As the Irn Bru stained carpet welcomes me to my door, I sort through three great weeks in Melbourne, providing me with permission to reflect on two great cities, Edinburgh and Melbourne

I am going to allow two negative reflections for each place and include a few observations of the unique and special things each city offers.

In the contest, Edinburgh versus Melbourne, it is not quite a draw, more like the Auskick footy games for little tackers, everyone wins despite the score.

Let's start with the blue corner and the more unsightly aspects of the towns.  Spring has arrived in the Northern hemisphere and one is enticed to get back on your bike.  That is until you encounter the myriad of potholes that inhabit almost every road in Edinburgh.  A combination of the weather and the buses seems to tear large chunks out of the bitumen, leaving it dangerous for vehicular transport never mind bicycles.

Next on the ordinary list is the pallid offer of food and coffee in Edinburgh.  Unless you are willing to fork out over a hundred quid, expect generally to get ordinary coffee and boring, flaccid food.

In the other blue corner, there is no dispute that Melbourne is quickly becoming Manhattan, a most uncompromising city when it comes to driving. Take the already gridlocked roads and add several hundreds of thousands of people to the population every week and you create no end of stress for road users.

Contributing to the stress of the traffic is the temperature.  During most of my visit it remained in the mid to high 30's with 80 to 90 percent humidity.  I was reminded of when we lived in a pool of sweat in Brisbane many years ago and relieved to return to cool spring weather.

Still in the Blue corner and still in Melbourne, there is no argument, Melbourne showcases the very best in coffee and tantalising food at the most reasonable of prices.  It is clearly one of the culinary capitals of the world and deservedly so.  

My recent trip allowed me the opportunity to run, walk and ride among some of the most beautiful gardens in the world, equipped with an amazing network of bike and running paths.  Every morning I was active in Melbourne I would look up into the azure sky and there they would be, a dazzling collection of hot air balloons softly drifting across the city.

No hot air balloons in Edinburgh, yet there is reminders at every turn of the rich history of this place with the castle ever prominent.  More magnificent landscape is available as you turn right to face the Pentland Hills and left to face Arthur's Seat.

Of course the visual landscape is enhanced by the literary giant that Edinburgh is. Walk in the footsteps of  Sir Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, John Irving and J K Rowling to name a few and be inspired by their inspiration.

Finally, Edinburgh is such a comfortable size with a public transport system that is so easy to access and use.  The locals say that there is peak time traffic, yet they have never been to Melbourne.

So there it is folks, if I could combine the features of both cities and eradicate their faults we may just create utopia.

In the meantime, I feel privileged to say that I am a citizen of both Melbourne and Edinburgh and very proud to be so.

Alan

 

Claiming The Kilt

Living in Scotland is one thing, yet claiming the kilt, quite another.  The final step in embracing all that is Scottish has been taken and I can now declare that I am no longer merely following Forsyth, I am Forsyth.

Of course, this now transports me into a new way of being that simply accepts that anything or anyone south of Hadrian's Wall is Sassanach territory and not to be trusted.

Putting on the kilt for the first time was quite a treat.  I was surprised at how heavy the material was.  The comfort and sway of the Forsyth tartan was quite special.  I felt a little like the Emperor with his new clothes, but unlike the Emperor, clothed, well mostly clothed.

Purchasing and finally arranging for the tailoring of my kilt has been a learning experience.  The fabric itself required careful decisions.  I opt for the Forsyth Ancient Tartan and following no return calls from a well known kilt maker in Edinburgh, decide to go online.  For just over three hundred quid, I purchase several metres of my preferred cloth through Scotweb.

Fatih is from Turkey and has lived in Edinburgh for eight years.  He is a skilled tailor and my natural choice, given his presence in my local "High Street"as my tailor.  On examining the fabric for my kilt, Fatih takes a cigarette lighter, pulls out a strand of cloth and lights it.  He examines the smoldering strand announcing that this is indeed quality fabric and he would be delighted to fashion it into a kilt.

Several visits to Fatih and I learn how much time and effort goes into creating this special garment.  Fatih is fastidious and the finished product is exquisite.

But there is not just the kilt to consider.  Several accessories are required if you are to turn the kilt into an outfit.  I pick up a kilt jacket, complete with silver buttons at a charity shop for twelve pounds.  On the arm of the jacket are a few small holes, clearly where the Sasanachs attempted to bite the arm of the brave Scott wearing the jacket at Flodden, Culloden or another famous battle.

A sporran was acquired for half price, how thrifty is that, and the  kit is now completed with bow tie, wing collared shirt, highland socks and flags and finally a Forsyth kilt pin.  Of course you could spare the expense and regalia and always drop into one of the See You Jimmy souvenier shops in the High Street and get a package deal, they specialise in equipping American tourists with "plaid" outfits.

Talk to a number of the local men and they often have two kilts, one for the rugby and football games, and another like mine for more formal occasions, or simply for doing household chores.

Join us in Edinburgh at Festival time and you will see kilts worn across the city, from the pipers busking with their bagpipes in Princess street to the fellows behind the bar at the Three Sisters in Cowgate.  It is common place here.

Historically the word kilt is of Scots origin, literally meaning to tuck your clothes up around the body, The durability of the fabric weather wise and it's flexibility to facilitate long marches and speed in battle made it a staple garment from as early as the 16th Century.

Finally, the issue of what is worn under the kilt requires addressing, or perhaps undressing.

As a canny Scot once said to me, "Laddie, there is nothing worn under the kilt, it is all in perfectly good working order!"

Ye Ken?

Alan