Monday, 30 May 2011

Signs I like #22

I found this graffito on the seaward side of a seawall at North Berwick today and found it strangely moving. I read it and thought: "Me too...". I grew up in East Lothian with a view of the sea, but I no longer live by the sea and miss it every day. So, this struck a loud chord today! Sometimes I go to the sea too... but not often enough!

Saturday, 28 May 2011

What a Rush!

I think it was probably 1978, round at Pete's house one schoolday lunchtime. He had just received a delivery, maybe his first, from one of those mail-order record clubs. In the delivery was Rainbow's 1976 album "Rainbow Rising" which, alone, was enough to blow young minds freshly arrived in the world of rock. But for me, a seminal and slightly life-changing encounter that day was with another 12 inch diameter piece of black vinyl that had arrived in the box - Rush's "Farewell to Kings" album:

 What was this? Who was that guy with the high voice and what on earth were they singing about? Three Canadians with songs about Spaceships, black holes, Kings, philosophers and ploughmen, and some sublime musicianship. To a teenage mind rapidly absorbing as much science fiction as I could lay my hands on and with a burgeoning taste in rock music, especially on the more melodic wing (and maybe even then in the progressive vein), this was heady stuff indeed! After a bit more rooting about in record shops (this was pre-internet of course), I came to realise that this was Rush's fifth studio album and I remember thinking at the time "Ah well, I guess I've missed their most productive period", as that was the usual pattern, wasn't it? A lifetime of preparing for the first album, spillover of that good material into the second and then a steady decline! I could never have guessed that I would still be listening to fresh new music appearing from Rush 33 years later, and still eagerly anticipating new albums from a band that had been recording for 37 years!

Anyone who knows me really well will know that the music of Rush has been one of the great musical loves of my life. I can't count the thousands of hours of activity that have been accompanied by Rush on vinlyl or tape, then on CD and now on mp3 or iPod. I'm a Rush fan or a fanboy or a geek or a nerd. Accordingly, I was delighted and excited to hear of another tour, the Time Machine tour, which they were to bring to the UK in May 2011. And so, accompanied by the same Pete who had inadvertently introduced me to Rush in the first place, and who has been to at least two other Rush gigs with me before, I went to see them in the Glasgow SECC (Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre) two weeks ago tonight, some 30 years since I first saw them.

The big excitement of the Time Machine tour for UK fans was that the band was going to play in its entirety, for the first time in the UK, their 1981 "Moving Pictures" album, one of my favourites and their biggest selling album in the U.S., and which remains the band's most popular and commercially successful studio recording to date. Here's a picture of the cover of my programme for the 1981 tour for "Moving Pictures" (in which shows, ironically, they didn't play the whole album). That was my first Rush gig (and Pete's) (at the Ingliston Showground in Edinburgh) and generated a splendid piece of rock memorabilia for both of us (see below).

My old programme from the Rush 1981 "Moving Pictures" tour

My much-treasured autographed page from the Moving Pictures tour programme, from the days when the band used to wheel themselves out to meet fans after the gig - and all three of the guys, not just Geddy and Alex who do most of the meet and greet (and interview) stuff these days. In fact, Pete and I were waiting for our lift home (Pete's Dad maybe?) outside the Ingliston venue. Most of the crowd had gone home, when suddenly a roadie sauntered over and said that the band were just coming out to a table and three chairs behind us to sign autographs. Blimey, talk about the right place and right time... I don't think I washed the hand that shook the hands for about a week! Hey, I was 16 - this was an important event! It has to be said, they don't look much like this anymore, but I've changed in 30 years too...

With the advent of camera phones, there is now a much greater opportunity to capture some great personal memories of gigs, so here is a selection of my photos from the Glasgow show on May 14th. No real spoilers here from me for anyone still to see the tour elsewhere on the planet. If you want a detailed set list or a review, look elsewhere!

Successful rock bands on tour need big trucks - here, Rush are using Stage Truck (did you notice what they did with that name there? Very clever!)

But a big show like the one that Rush puts on needs a lot more than one truck - ten, in fact, which needed a stitched-together panorama to capture then all!

A selection of the signs in the SECC that night - strobe lighting, smoke and pyrotechnics? I damn well hope so - that's what I paid my money for!

The guys from the band (as they were in 1976 at least) - this was a mini-highlight of the night for me - these three uber-fans must have had a couple of hundred photos taken - they were in the front block of the stalls - I hope they had a great night and I do hope the band spotted them!

Here's the original look from the 2112 album in 1976 - at least we now know from where George Lucas pinched the costume ideas for Luke Skywalker...
The audiences at Rush gigs these days feature a lot of heads like mine...

An eight-armed lighting rig, each arm multiply jointed and able to move independently, and each arm covered in lights - very impressive!

And a great video screen put to great, often split-image, effect. In this case, a little Geddy Lee and a big Geddy Lee!

During "Working Them Angels" from "Snakes and Arrows"

Little Geddy Lee and big Alex Lifeson with a mandolin close-up, again during "Working Them Angels"

The guys in the band...

The Professor, Neil Peart during his drum solo - the great overhead camera shows his three different drum kits on a rotating base, includin th electronic kit he's added in recent years. And was that a wee bit of film of Gene Krupa that I saw during the video show for the drum solo?

We're jammin'...

A bit of "2112" - what else could it be?
A great night - probably the best show I've seen Rush put on over the 30 years I've been going to see them! If you have the chance, go and catch the Time Machine tour - you won't regret it...

Signs I like #21 ( or Signs that made me smirk #1)

So, what I want to know is, can I have a discount, please, on account of your terrible spelling? Thanks.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Signs I like #20

Spotted in Longniddry at 20 miles in the Edinburgh marathon on Sunday. Eclectic and maybe profound, but I'm not sure...

Stormy Scotland: addendum

Yet more damage in Stirling from Monday's storm, including uprooted and snapped trees on King's Park golf course, and a significant incident involving a mature lime tree uprooted and falling on a house in the King's Park area. A lovely original Victorian cast iron railing bent like it was plastic, its wall demolished, a bay window smashed and guttering torn off, but it could have been worse...

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Stormy Scotland

Today saw relatively unprecedented weather conditions for Scotland in May. Usually a month of increasing temperatures, sunny weather and generally altogether pleasant conditions, May 2011 has seen unsettled, wet weather, despite a glorious and hot few weeks in April. Today, as forecast by the Met Office, Scotland has been subject to an intense area of low pressure, bringing howling, raging south-westerly winds and torrential driving rain. The Met Office ‘s amber-rated Weather warning predicted winds gusting up to 80 miles per hour. In fact, In Glen Ogle, 25 miles or so north-west of Stirling, on the road to Crianlarich and Oban, a gust speed of 100 mph was recorded. Such high winds in late Spring or Summer are bad news as regards damage to trees and gardens. Deciduous trees are carrying their full complement of new leaves by this time of year, increasing the resistance to high winds and greatly increasing, therefore, the strain placed on branches. And so, not surprisingly, there were many examples of broken branches and even uprooted trees here in Stirling today. I was on holiday and took a walk around this afternoon recording the scene.

Everywhere was littered with small branches, leaves, even some major tree branches. Many trees were also pushed over by extreme gusts.

This poplar tree fell over behind me with a soft crash while I was sheltering from an extreme gust, waiting until I judged it safe to walk under a big lime tree that had already lost some big branches.

Our lime trees are, in one way, a bit like Australia’s “drop gums”, a species of eucalyptus, the River redgum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) – this drops branches or even falls over when under stress (and kills and injures the unwary!). Lime trees are not as unstable as this but are prone to dropping fairly large limbs in high winds. I was very wary walking into town today down an avenue of mature lime trees, for obvious reasons, given the size of the logs that were raining down! Thrashing violently, the lime trees looked more like whomping willows in the extreme winds today...

Up on King’s Park Golf Course, trees were yanked out of the ground all over the place:

I like the way the root plate, the outline of the branches and Stirling Castle in the background mirror each other’s shape in this case.

Our garden didn’t escape the damage either – here are the sad remains of half of our 150 year-old pear tree which snapped clean off in the wind.

And our neighbour’s old (50 years old?), highly prolific bramley apple tree was simply pushed right over. So, no more free bramleys for us.

As the evening wears on, the wind is dropping (thankfully!) - I'm up late completing this and it is now almost silent outside (0130 hours). I’d like to round of this wee report with one of my favourite poems, the highly appropriate “Wind” by Ted Hughes. My High School English teacher, Brian Christopher, left me with an abiding love of Ted Hughes’ poetry, particularly his nature poems (surprise surprise), for which I’ll always be grateful. The images conjured by this poem would be familiar to many today in Scotland (and Northern Ireland, I gather):


This house has been far out at sea all night,
The woods crashing through darkness, the booming hills,
Winds stampeding the fields under the window
Floundering black astride and blinding wet

Till day rose; then under an orange sky
The hills had new places, and wind wielded
Blade-light, luminous black and emerald,
Flexing like the lens of a mad eye.

At noon I scaled along the house-side as far as
The coal-house door. Once I looked up -
Through the brunt wind that dented the balls of my eyes
The tent of the hills drummed and strained its guyrope,

The fields quivering, the skyline a grimace,
At any second to bang and vanish with a flap;
The wind flung a magpie away and a black-
Back gull bent like an iron bar slowly. The house

Rang like some fine green goblet in the note
That any second would shatter it. Now deep
In chairs, in front of the great fire, we grip
Our hearts and cannot entertain book, thought,

Or each other. We watch the fire blazing,
And feel the roots of the house move, but sit on,
Seeing the window tremble to come in,
Hearing the stones cry out under the horizons.

Ted Hughes

Monday, 23 May 2011

Wild food from the Park: April

Oh, lovely May is a horrible month for a blogger – so much life to live and so little time free to write about it! Here I am half way through May and still writing about April’s wild food experience. I’ve been busy though, accumulating topics and stories to write about!

So, April brought our fourth “wild food from the park” opportunity. March had offered us an improvement in the diversity of our “park-based” diet, with the appearance of nettles, but April, oh April was a joy – buds burst, leaves unfurled, flowers flowered and the sun, the weeks of wonderful hot sunshine warmed up the vegetation and made it smell all green! We were stuck for choice about what to make from all the newly-appeared edible plants, so we made it all! And, joy of joys, in April, following a hunch about the likely location of some suitable habitat, we tracked down a big patch of ramsons or wild garlic growing in a secret, secluded and difficult-to-reach corner of the Park.

First up, in early May, we made some nettle and potato soup. We based it on Roger Phillip’s recipe from his “Wild Food” book. Here are our raw ingredients:

People keep asking me if I’m worried about eating wild leaves that “dogs could have peed on” – as if the vegetables they buy in supermarkets don’t grow in fields, exposed to the unobserved attentions of wildlife. So, here, for the benefit of those folk, is a picture of the nettles being washed – yes, we do wash everything first!

The onions were chopped and fried in Scottish Borders rapeseed oil, the potatoes chopped and added, then the nettles with home-made chicken stock, all simmered gently:

then liquidised:

We served the soup with some wild garlic bread, i.e. garlic bread made with a wild garlic butter

Wild garlic butter

– a handful of wild garlic leaves in the food processor with a pack of butter and blended until completely mixed. Garlic bread was then made in the usual manner, but with this butter mix. Delicious!

A week or so later, yet more edible plant species had popped up in the Park. Our first really ambitious attempt of the year was a wild Spring greens soufflé, based on a recipe in the book “Seaweed and eat it” by Fiona Houston and Xa Milne. This was also the first soufflé I have ever made (real men do eat soufflé, you know!). We picked a range of edible plants: nettles, white dead nettles (Lamium album), cleavers, ground elder, dandelion and chickweed. From the following photo, you can see that the nettles and ground elder formed the bulk of the veggies.

The leaves were washed, steamed until tender, fried with onion, and then mixed in with beaten egg yolks, before folding in stiff, whipped egg whites. All of that was poured into a greased casserole dish, parmesan grated on top and then the lot was baked in the oven. Coached by the lovely O, I resisted the urge to open the oven to see the souffle rise. And so it rose.  We also picked some wild sorrel and sliced that up, along with wild garlic, to add to a chicken and rice salad, which we garnished with some edible, vinegary, clover-type leaves of wood sorrel. We served the two together, rice salad and soufflé.

Wild Spring Greens souffle preparation

Chicken, rice and wild leaf salad, with wood sorrell garnish

 Another delicious wild food combo! The soufflé was dense, very green and actually tasted like it was based around interesting-tasting spinach.

Ground elder, a key element of the soufflé, is an under-rated food plant, despised by gardeners as an über-invasive weed in gardens that is incredibly difficult to eradicate. It was, however, apparently introduced into Britain by the Romans (what did the Romans ever do for us, eh?) and is really quite tasty and nutritious if eaten while young and tender and treated like spinach.

The final wild food delight of the month was a wild garlic and walnut pesto, prepared by bunging a large handful of King’s Park wild garlic leaves into the food processor with a handful of walnuts, a big glug of extra virgin olive oil and some grated parmesan, all whizzed to a fine blend and with some salt and black pepper to taste:

We’ve eaten it a couple of time on pasta and it is much more interesting than boring old shop-bought basil pesto. It is preserved in the fridge, submerged under olive oil in its jar.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Signs I like #19

Runners take precedence over cars. The New World Order, at least for a few hours... Good luck to everyone running the Edinburgh Marathon tomorrow!

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Hello Emperor Haile Selassie, I'm pleased to meet you (kind of)!

Ever since I first came across the idea of small-world networks, I've been fascinated by them and how they relate to our everyday life. If you've heard of small world networks, it's almost certainly in the context of the "six degrees of separation" hypothesis, the  the idea that everyone is on average approximately six connections away from any other person on the planet. There's an excellent wikipedia article about it if you want to learn more.

Six degrees of separation
  It seems implausible and perhaps counter to common sense but, on testing through various social networks, researchers have found that, so long as reference is to the average number of connections, something between 5 and 7 is quite normal (the average separation for all users of Facebook, for example, is 5.73 degrees, with a maximum chain length of 12). 

Another example that was popular (in a geeky kind of way anyway) back when t'internet was young, was what Nature magazine quaintly described as a "collaboration graph of film actors", but which the rest of the world heard of as the "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" game, in which (presumably movie-savvy) players try to connect any individual actor to Kevin Bacon as quickly as possible and in as few links as possible. Again, it is well-described elsewhere.

Small world network ideas have been adopted quite widely as a means of describing and exploring systems in physics, neurobiology, geology and for technological networks. But it is connections between people through social networks and billions of individual relationships that I find most interesting. Even exploring Facebook friends' lists of their friends can identify some surprisingly short chains of connections. Through two friends lists, I was able to identify with only two or at most three degrees of separation almost all of the most well-known BBC News presenters and foreign correspondents. Now, through them, presumably is a 3 or 4 degree chain to most of our leading politicians and many of those in other countries. Fascinating stuff!

I thought I'd try a wee experiment for which an opportunity presented itself recently. One of my dog-walking friends makes frequent extended business trips to various parts of Africa and was to make his first visit to Ethiopia. I challenged him to find and shake hands with someone who had shaken hands with the Emperor Haile Selassie, "Ethiopia's regent from 1916 to 1930 and Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974. The heir to a dynasty that traced its origins to the 13th century, and from there by tradition back to King Solomon and Queen Makeda, Empress of Axum, known in the Abrahamic tradition as the Queen of Sheba". This was quite a challenge as Selassie died in 1975 and so, presumably, the number of surviving people who have met him shrinks, if not daily, then at least annually. In fact, it would be an interesting exercise to try in Britain, where Haile Selassie was in exile (in Bath) between 1936 and 1941, while Ethiopia was occupied by Italian forces. He also made at least one state visit (in 1954) and apparently travelled widely, meeting many British citizens. There was an interesting run of articles on the late John Peel's much-missed Saturday morning Radio4 show, "Home Truths", where people recounted their tales of encountering the Emperor!

I met my friend this morning, recently returned from Ethiopia. He shook my hand, having tracked down and shaken the hand of an Ethiopian man in his 70s who was the warden/custodian of an Imperial palace built by an earlier (presumably then Abyssinian) Emperor and who claimed to have shaken the hand of Emperor Haile Selassie. From me to Emperor Haile Selassie with three degrees of separation. Hello, Emperor Haile Selassie, I'm pleased to meet you (kind of)!

Emperor Haile Selassie