Another Country

August 9, 2014

Our writers’ anarchist collective conducted a cross-border raid yesterday – down to Carlisle to recce the latest incarnation of our pop-up bookshop at the city’s newly hatched literary festival in September. Following a local recommendation we pitched up at Coffee Genius for coffee and further plotting, where my ‘slow brew’ coffee (aka a cafetiere to you and me) came with this to ensure that my selected beans were brewed for the optimum time (four minutes was recommended but, reckless scofflaw that I am, I went for five, partly because I was too busy taking a photo of my coffee timer to press down the plunger at the operative moment). coffee timer We have nice cafes in Bigtown but I gather we’re a little behind the times (‘oh, menus in Ladybird books, those were really trendy a few years ago’, someone exclaimed on being taken to our newest and nicest). They rather tend to concentrate on the cake side of things, which makes sense given the rural economy is about 50:50 farming and baking (if you want to dine really well in Bigtown, order a bacon roll, followed by a tray bake. If feeling adventurous, try a haggis pannini, and yes I know that’s the plural in Italian, but once you’ve put haggis in it, it’s been fully assimilated and we can pluralify it how we like. You can do your own joke about deep frying it in batter in the comments.)

So where was I going with this? Oh yes, regardless of the outcome of September’s vote, England already feels a little like a different country. But then again, so does Edinburgh.

And my coffee? Very nice, if a trifle over-brewed, but I’ve nobody to blame for that but myself.

Scotland Undecides

August 6, 2014

I’m probably going to regret posting this, in case the cybernats and cyber-other-lot come piling in, but with six weeks to go, I do have to make a decision about how to vote in September’s referendum. Last night I actually hurried home from the pub in order to catch the big debate between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling (and does anyone else think ‘Salmond and Darling’ sounds like an unsuccessful pilot for an odd-couple detective series?) but sadly this just consisted of two men in suits shouting over each other and scoring debating points so after about fifteen minutes of amusing myself on twitter with the #ScotDecides hashtag I took pity on the other half and turned it off so I could cook supper instead.

The debate (in so far as I did follow it) turned mostly on the mechanics of who will have what after independence – the pandas, the pound, the oil – but to be honest, I’m not that bothered about all that. Whatever happens, an independent Scotland is unlikely to turn into South Sudan, although there’s a risk it might turn into, say, Ireland. Nor, realistically, is it going to become the land flowing with milk and honey that the independence campaigners suggest. It will sit somewhere within the spectrum of other wealthy western democracies – possibly a little poorer but hopefully a little more equal than it would have been had it remained in the UK. I can live with that. There’s a greater risk that the Rest of the UK will suffer from its loss – from an England left ‘locked in a room with Nigel Farage’ (as James Meek so vividly phrased it), to a Northern Ireland left seriously destabilised by the possibilities opened up by the break up of the UK. That does worry me a bit more. In fact, I’m beginning to feel that by moving to Scotland I’ve been accidentally handed rather too much responsibility for another country’s entire future for comfort, and my previous stance of planning to vote yes just to have one over on the Scots Nats when they assume I voted no on the grounds that I’m (half) English is looking a bit frivolous.

But seriously, how to decide, especially now it’s looking close enough that my vote might actually matter? Obviously not by watching the debate. There have been other debates and hustings held locally that have apparently been more illuminating, but I’m not sure I’ll ever make up my mind by listening to other people talk about it. I’m hampered by having no gut feeling on the matter, seeing as I’m not Scottish and – despite having been educated here for six years, and lived here for another six years – I know I never will be. There are some who would argue that we shouldn’t have a say in the matter at all, especially as there are thousands of Scots who won’t because they live in the rest of the UK – but then again, we’ve made a positive decision to throw in our lot with Scotland by moving here. If anything, we’ve got more of a stake than someone who returns at Christmas and wears a kilt to weddings but won’t be paying any of the extra taxes (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. In fact, if I thought an independent Scotland might go for a more redistributive fiscal policy I’d vote for it like a shot, but I suspect it will just squander the oil money the way the UK has done for the last 30 years while pretending we can have the public services of Denmark on the tax regime of the United States).

So short of tossing a coin in the polling station, how should I make up my mind? There have been competing pros and cons going round my head for a while and it goes a bit like this:

Pro: it would be exciting and interesting to be part of history, and live in Europe’s newest country

Con: that didn’t work out so well for the Crimea…

Pro: Scotland is much more egalitarian and instinctively left wing than England, so no fear of ever living under a conservative government again

Con: we will have a large and grumpy and possibly permanently right wing neighbour to our south

Pro: Scotland can pioneer new ways of doing things and we might end up living somewhere a bit like Denmark

Con: except that the economy will be heavily dependent on oil, which doesn’t bode well for it becoming a green cycle-friendly place

Pro: living in a small country means we can influence policy more easily as we’re all that much closer to the levers of power

Con:  the danger then is it’s all about who you know … I’ve seen enough of how things work close up to worry that we’ll end up living in a banana republic only without the climate for bananas and it won’t even be a republic.

And so on.

None of this is particularly helping. At the moment I’m leaning towards voting yes, just out of the human instinct to poke something to see what happens. I apologise in advance for doing this to what is not, at the end of the day, my country, although I do at least promise to stick around to suffer or enjoy the consequences.

What would you do?

You Know you’re not in London any more…

March 28, 2014

… when you find your train journey enlivened by a stranger’s life story. I caught the Bigtown connection by the skin of my teeth this afternoon, and slid into one of the table seats beside what I took to be a mother and teenage daughter. The girl was soon chatting away merrily about the Brompton, the train service, her international gymnastics career (now retired), her As in maths, English and child care, her three-year-old daughter, the various fights she had got into in school after the announcement of her engagement, her plans for this evening (chicken curry cooked by her fiance’s sister if you’re interested), the fact that you can no longer get a half on the bus if you’ve got your own toddler in tow, and much much more. It soon became apparent that the older woman was not her mother – indeed, she was a stranger too, and as bemused as I was, as well as being slightly concerned. The barrage continued until the stop before Bigtown where the girl got off, with a cheery ‘see you later’. It was certainly an eye-opener and I suppose it beats one of those overheard telephone conversations that used to enliven my morning commute down in London, although it wasn’t much less one-sided…

You also know you’ve been in London when you come back feeling like you’re coming down with a lurgy. What with the public transport, all the people, school-age children and the pollution, my isolated country immune system just doesn’t stand a chance…


January 9, 2014

A short post today because I am ranting elsewhere – but it was as I was crafting a point-by-point rebuttal of a council employee’s email explaining why they couldn’t put two lousy toucan crossings in to complete what would otherwise be a safe and convenient route to the new hospital instead of a death dash across two 60 mph roads,* that I noticed the message at the bottom:

Please consider the environment. Do you really need to print this e-mail?

It’s so good to know that the planet is in safe hands…

* variously: you can’t put toucan crossings in on a 60 mph road, not enough people are likely to use it, it’s up to the hospital to create a Travel Plan (so that’s all right then), I cross the road on my bike and it’s fine, we don’t think the road to the hospital will be that busy, and people can just find a gap in the traffic and sprint across. Or something…

Committing Pedestrianism

December 20, 2013

I suppose in the interests of strict accuracy, I should report that it’s not always blue skies and gloriously sunny weather here – while yesterday we had lunch sitting in the sun before going on a 3-hour bike ride, today the temperature barely crept above freezing, and we decided it might be time for some of those car-based errands we’d been putting off while the weather was so gorgeous, like going to the grocery store and the giant bookshop and other shops surrounded by acres of parking. And hunting down the mysterious pop-up baklava shop that had no website and appeared to be in an abandoned used car lot, if Google Streetview was anything to go by…

We decided that we’d better do something a little bit active as well, especially if we did find that baklava shop, so we headed down to the riverwalk where you can walk a mile, sponsored by Toyota (the river was actually diverted away from the city centre after it flooded the whole place, but when they wanted to create somewhere for people to walk, they diverted some of it back as long as it promised to behave).

toyota_mile toyota_mile_2

For those who find walking sedately around a glorified duck pond a bit tame, you can always try sprinting across the roads instead…

downtown street

It’s fortunate the drivers around here are mostly pretty patient, but there’s no doubt that round here the car is king. Outside of a tiny historic downtown area, and the mall of course, even parking and walking from shop to shop just feels, well, wrong. Not illegal or anything, but wrong. Well, maybe a little bit illegal if you don’t cross in the crosswalks. If you want to walk and not get funny looks, get a dog. Or stick to the Toyota mile…

Oh and the baklava? We found it in the abandoned used car lot as promised, and it proved absolutely delicious if a little calorific. Looks like we’ll need to do a few more circuits of that riverwalk pretty soon….

They See Bikes Too

December 15, 2013

I’ll say this for the drivers of Colorado – they have this uncanny ability to see bicycles. Coming up to an intersection on the way down to the river path yesterday I could see a line of cars queuing to turn across my path and started to brake, assuming that even if they did see me they would continue to turn either on the grounds that I was on a bike and thus obviously going too slowly to worry about, or that I was on a bike and thus didn’t matter. But no, as I got to the junction the massive pick up waiting to turn sat there still waiting to turn until I had got safely out of the way. And then on the way back, turning into a petrol station for essential lubricants (chapstick) and fuel (Pearson’s Salted Nut Rolls), the car waiting to pull out waited until I had pulled in. And if you’re reading this waiting for the surprising part of the story, then you haven’t cycled much in any British city.

But it’s not just on the bike. On foot, the cars actually stop when you want to cross the road, even if they are some way away or turning, which is fortunate as it will be at least a week before I can work out which way to look before crossing the road. There’s none of the UK-style game of chicken that you need to play to assert your rights on a zebra crossing where the drivers only grudgingly stop once you’ve stepped out into the road and only then if you pretend you can’t see them and act as if you’re going to walk right across the road in front of them – they just roll to a stop and wait patiently for you to cross, which given the width of the roads around here could be a while. Then again, it may be merely astonishment at seeing someone on foot at all.

And it’s not even just the drivers. Walking through the University campus this afternoon, some young skateboarders were tooling about at the entrance to the building we were headed for. ‘Stop and let these people past’ one young lad admonished his friend before he could launch himself down the steps we were heading for. I don’t know what the youth of today is coming to, frankly. Perhaps they’re just practising for the day when they have cars of their own and can freak the hell out of a visiting UK cyclist by noticing they exist.

More Testing Times

December 11, 2013

We’re off to the US tomorrow, via an airport hotel this evening (I should probably pack) so stand by for what I hope will be a few weeks of bright winter sunshine, cycling adventures and cookies. Apart from the usual worries of travelling (I would feel more confident, for example, if the online check in would actually let me check in, although on the plus side, if it won’t at the airport then at least I won’t have to fly anywhere), there’s a slight worry about coming back in as they seem to have instituted a quiz to let people back in. Now, my informant on this is a man in a hat at a bus stop in Bigtown* so it may not be 100% reliable, but it was a very nice hat. According to him the process goes like this

Airport official: Are you British?

Man in Hat: Of course not, I’m Scottish.

AO: Well, can you tell me the name of the naval hero of Trafalgar?

MIH: Admiral de Villeneuve

AO: (I suspect quite exasperated by now) Who is the Archbishop of Canterbury then?

MIH: Whit kind of a question is that to ask a Scot? John Knox

AO: And who was the wartime leader who defeated the Nazis?

MIH: Eamon de Valera

He admitted that the last one was a bit cheeky – but he still seemed genuinely outraged about the Archbishop of Canterbury question. I hadn’t realised the Presbyterian battles were still so fresh in the folk memory. Despite all this, they seem to have let him in anyway – you’d have thought just asking for his passport would have been easier. But should Scotland ever get independence, I’m hoping they don’t institute a similar system as I would surely fail…

* I can blame the Brompton for this one as it starts more conversation than a dog. ‘Can you no make it any smaller?’ was his opening gambit

Out of Sorts

October 8, 2013

Mostly, I manage to live my life in a nice generally-right-on vaguely greenish bicycle-shaped bubble. Pretty much everyone I follow or who follows me on Twitter has ‘cyclist’ in their bio, except for the ones who prefer to be known by the more politically correct ‘person on a bike’ (the rest are mostly poets and probably consider most of my more rabid cycling tweets to be some sort of extended metaphor about the cycle of life and anyway aren’t in any position to judge someone else’s eccentric lifestyle choices). And most of the people I know locally are also either writing people or green people or cycling people, with a few ticking multiple boxes. But occasionally I have to step out of my comfort zone and be reminded how the world really is, and that (here in the UK anyway) it’s completely dominated by the car to the point where even questioning whether that’s a good thing is considered a bit odd.

Take our community council meeting, for instance. Now, on the whole it’s a lovely community council: it’s not riven by disputes, it only spends 10% of each meeting discussing dog poo, most planning applications are uncontroversial, and generally we whip through the agenda at a brisk trot. We don’t even get too het up about wind farms. Last night was no different, except that we ended up discussing the issue of the purchase of a piece of land to create a larger car park for the (newly delivered – it looks pretty good too) school. The dropping off area outside the current school is too small for all the cars, so there is a bit of chaos (although not as bad as this – the staff supervise things fairly strictly), which means that the kids who walk (and the three who cycle) are at risk. So a new car park would, technically, make active travel more attractive although it would also of course make completely inactive travel even more so. And I can see their point – the catchment area of the school is pretty large, and while most of the roads are lovely and quiet, there are enough quarry lorries bombing up and down the road beside the school to make parents think twice about having kids cycle however much they may enjoy any one-off biking events (and no, we can’t stop the lorries from roaring through the village because, well because we just can’t, and we can’t even restrict them for an hour around the start and end of the school day, because when they’re mending the roads they need to be delivering tarmac and gravel all the daylight hours because you cannot hold up the mending of the roads and obviously that is more important than anything else). They are considering having parents park up near the village hall and walk down with their kids but that all seems a bit complicated and difficult compared with just buying a bit of field and tarmacking it. And – as the others said – a bigger car park would be an asset to the community. After all, when there are events on in the hall, there’s not enough space for everyone to park.

I didn’t say anything. Well, I did try and press the case for the ‘park and stride’ option and I may have made a small whimpering noise at the ‘asset to the community’ part, but I did manage not to just put my head on the table and give up. After all, I knew that every single member of the community council except for myself and one member who lives in the village, had driven there, mostly less than two miles. The thought of any of them choosing to walk or cycle to the village instead, even on a summer evening, let alone in October when the nights are drawing in, just seems totally improbable even to me. Looked at objectively, it’s not the community that’s wrong about welcoming the prospect of a new car park, it’s me. Not building a car park won’t suddenly make everyone cycle everywhere, or walk, or even arrange to share lifts down to the village. So I kept my mouth shut and my opinions to myself and so another little piece of the countryside risks getting tarmacked over in service of the great god car.

There is a school of thought even among cycle campaigners that the UK is so car-centric that there’s really no point investing in cycling because most of the population just won’t countenance the idea. I’m not quite sure what lesson we’re supposed to take from that (give up? Start looking for a new planet? Move to the Netherlands?) so mostly I choose to ignore it. After all, in the cities where there has been investment in cycling, rates have increased markedly. Give people the facilities, and they will come. Even in Bigtown, you see more and more people on bikes using them simply to get around. But every so often, I am brought up short by the realisation that here and now, to most of the population of my own country, I am, in fact, a weirdo, and I should remember that fact. A tolerated, indulged, even occasionally admired weirdo, but a weirdo nonetheless.

Raining in my House

January 28, 2013

Well, the thaw came, exactly as predicted, with a night of heavy rain to wash the snow away – accompanied by the usual dire warnings from the BBC Terror Centre of flooding and mayhem to come.

flooded road

Which were entirely justified, as it happens – although you can’t go too far wrong predicting flooding in Bigtown these days; it’s been more or less a monthly occurrence this year. The bits you can see underwater there are a Very Important Road and some Very Important Car Parking spaces the closure of which would cause gridlock, traffic chaos, economic devastation, the opening of the Hellmouth and quite possibly the end of the world, not to mention people having to walk a few hundred yards from their cars.*

The forecast now is for more rain, for more or less the foreseeable future. Which makes it an excellent time for us to discover that there is a hole in our roof…

*I mock, but as it happened I was supposed to be holding a workshop in the building just behind where the photo was taken and six people who had booked and paid in advance didn’t show up. It turns out they really won’t come if they can’t just drive up and park outside…

Cluck Off and Die

January 3, 2013

let us at them

The walled garden where the veg patch lives is rather quiet these days – and not just because the mice have eaten themselves into a stupor. No, it’s because the landlord has, with commendable ruthlessness, sent the hens off to the big stock pot in the sky. They had not really been earning their keep as the two surviving white ones never really got into their stride – and the two remaining brown ones were getting rather long in the tooth, or beak, or whatever it is with hens. Once they started to moult and stopped what little laying they were still doing, they were for the chop as they’d then spend the rest of the winter eating without producing anything other than manure, of which, frankly, we’ve got enough.

I can’t say I’ll miss the white ones as they never really showed much spirit but the brown ones (Black Rocks, if anyone’s interested) were a feisty bunch, with distinct personalities of their own. They’d always come racing over to investigate what delicious treat I was bringing to the fence (drunken slugs? Chickweed? Baby rabbit?) and they were nice and chatty too when they were happy (obviously their conversation didn’t actually make any sense, they’re hens, but the point of most conversation is to make a companionable sort of noise and that’s what they did). They also laid wonderful eggs, of course, which made our occasional stints of chicken sitting something to look forward to. So I’m hoping that the spring will bring some replacements…

Meanwhile, in other news, the cat is considering whether to forgive her staff for their three weeks unauthorised absence. So far, the jury is out.

glaring cat


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