Monday, June 28, 2010

the name of the munros

Let's clear up the outstanding Munro business from the Scotland trip - as last time we managed four, which brings my personal tally to fourteen. In an unexpected but welcome break from tradition, we had clear and sunny conditions throughout. Here they are:
  • Stob Dearg (3353 feet, 1022 metres). This is the highest point of the ridge better known as Buachaille Etive Mòr. This is the iconic Glen Coe peak, the one on all the postcards that marks the entrance to Glen Coe from Rannoch Moor. It looks impressively impregnable from the front (though some nutters do scramble straight up the cliff wall) but fortunately if you continue into Glen Coe a bit there is a chink in the armour round on its north-west flank where you can make a slightly scrambly way up - as it happens this is the scene of the 2009 avalanche that resulted in some deaths, but in the summer it's considerably less deadly, I'm glad to say. From the top of the scree here it's a short walk to the top and some impressive views over Rannoch Moor from the cliff edge.

  • Stob na Bròige (3136 feet, 956 metres). This is the fairly recently promoted (1997) second Munro at the other end of the Buachaille Etive Mòr ridge. From here you either plunge downwards off the end of the ridge into Glen Etive, or make your way back along the ridge a bit to a point where you can scramble back down to the river valley and make your way out back to the car park (we chose option 2). The whole walk can be seen here.
  • Aonach Mòr (4006 feet, 1221 metres). The two Aonachs are the seventh and eighth highest mountains in Britain, there being only nine over 4000 feet. So they're big. We started from the car park in Glen Nevis which you get to by heading out from Fort William - from here you trek down the valley a bit, then head north up to the high bealach between the Carn Mor Dearg ridge and the Aonach ridge (which, just as an aside, is a bit of a tautology, or possibly a pleonasm, as "aonach" just means "ridge"). From here it's a bit of a hands and knees scramble up onto the Aonach ridge, but when you get there it's a surprisingly wide and grassy plateau. The summit of Aonach Mòr is a couple of hundred yards to the north and is marked by a large cairn.
  • Aonach Beag (4049 feet, 1234 metres). From Aonach Mòr you turn back south and head back along the ridge, via a bit of a dip, to the rockier conical summit of Aonach Beag. Then it's a steep descent on grassy slopes back to the path you left in Glen Nevis, and thence back to the car park. The route can be seen here.

Monday, June 21, 2010

the last book I read

Henderson The Rain King by Saul Bellow.

Eugene Henderson is big, loud, American, middle-aged, on his second marriage, rich (having made his money in pig-farming) and generally dissatisfied with his life in a vague and ill-defined sort of way. To alleviate his ennui, his Weltschmerz if you will, he ups and takes himself off to Africa, hiring a guide to show him the "real" Africa, not that rubbish they show the tourists. Inevitably he gets more than he bargained for.

Firstly he encounters the Arnewi tribe, who, in addition to having some sort of vague cattle-worshipping thing going on, have a bit of an amphibian problem. An infestation of frogs has taken up residence and spawned extensively in their water supply (a sort of primitive reservoir), and an obscure tribal taboo prevents them from either extracting the frogs & spawn or saying to hell with it and just drinking the water anyway (possibly with some sort of spawn-sieving exercise carried out first).

Henderson is confident that a bit of down-home rustic American know-how and can-do attitude will sort things out, so he extracts the charges from a few shotgun cartridges and blows up the frogs; unfortunately the explosion also destroys the reservoir's dam and Henderson and guide are obliged to beat a shamefaced retreat on to the next village.

The next village turns out to belong to the Wariri tribe, and following a slightly surreal incident where Henderson and Romilayu (the guide) are accommodated in a tent with a corpse they are granted an audience with the king. The king, Dahfu, turns out to be an erudite sort of bloke, educated in Europe and with an excellent command of English. While he and Henderson are getting acquainted, they attend a tribal ritual, wherein Henderson's impulsive display of strength in lifting a tribal statue sees him anointed as the Rain King.

Henderson (in his new official capacity) and the King become friends, and Henderson is exposed to the tribe's strange belief system whereby the outgoing King is reincarnated in the body of a lion, which must then be captured by his successor. Eventually there is a climactic lion-hunt, during the course of which the King is killed, only to reveal with his dying breath that Henderson is his successor. Henderson, while tempted by the harem of nubile women that comes with the job, isn't keen to get caught up in the whole cycle of become king/hunt down old king in lion form/attempt capture/get mauled to death, and so makes good his escape and finds his way back to America and his wife, possibly as a new man with a new perspective on life, or possibly not.

Bellow famously had never visited Africa before writing this book (in 1959) and it's clearly not intended to be particularly accurate in its representation of anything African (beyond that it's pretty hot and they have lions). What it actually is intended to be is a moot point: Henderson, generally lovable though he is, is a big lumbering oaf of little sensitivity or capacity for reflection. As for the Africans, well, you can read it in two ways: either Henderson has received an insight into life as a result of his experiences among people who may not have digital watches or hostess trolleys, but (perhaps) have access to a more mystical, truer sort of truth, or, alternatively, he has simply discovered that people everywhere believe whatever sort of implausible bollocks gets them through the day, and the Africans are no different - some of them think their fathers come back as a lion, and the rest would rather die of thirst than sieve a few tadpoles out of the drinking water, for fuck's sake.

Whatever your slant is, it's a lot of fun, certainly more so (or at least more straightforwardly so) than the other Bellow I've read, Herzog, which is a convoluted tangle of flashbacks, internal monologues, texts of unsent letters and various other tricksiness. Herzog is hailed as a landmark American/Jewish novel, and no doubt it is, but I liked Henderson better. Which I guess makes me (since Henderson isn't meant to be Jewish as far as I can tell) an anti-Semite. You've got to be so careful, haven't you?

Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976; Henderson The Rain King also appears at #21 on Modern Library's 100 Best Novels list; note that other books in this series appear at #2, #4, #64 and #70 - twice (well, sort of).


A fuller post with some details about our recent trip to Scotland to follow soon, with additions to the Munro list plus some whisky shenanigans, but meanwhile here's the obligatory photo gallery. Also, here's a quickie recipe you might like to try: buy a haggis (MacSween's are the guv'nor, haggis-wise), discard the stomach/bladder/plastic/whatever it comes in, chop it up into bits, make the bits into sausage shapes, wrap each one in a nice thick bit of back bacon, whack it in an oven for 25-30 minutes, eat. Makes a change from the usual bake/boil-in-the-bag approach. I reckon stuffed into a chicken breast/thigh would be pretty good, too. A wee dram to accompany would be nice, of course.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

fannie magnet

In a continued bid to fulfil my New Year's resolution of going to more gigs, we went to see the mighty Teenage Fanclub at the O2 Academy in Bristol last Sunday. Here's a few pictures:

As I alluded to in this earlier post, the Fannies are the band I've seen in concert the most often, this being the third time I've paid actual money to see them play (all of them in Bristol); I also saw them play at Glastonbury in what must have been 1993.

They've settled into a nice routine over the years, Norman Blake (in the middle in the photos) doing most of the between-song banter, Raymond McGinley (on the left in the black) looking increasingly like your greying but still slightly groovy and disreputable rock'n'roll uncle, and Gerry Love (on the right) seemingly not having aged a single day in the last 20-odd years. As with the albums, the gigs are divided fairly democratically between each of the three singer-songwriters - this gig kicked off with a bracing blast through Start Again from 1997's Songs From Northern Britain, then a few songs from the new album Shadows (including the single Baby Lee, a splendid live rendition of which can be seen here), and went on to include (in no particular order) The Concept, Ain't That Enough, I Need Direction, About You, Sparky's Dream, I Don't Want Control Of You, Don't Look Back, Your Love Is The Place Where I Come From, Verisimilitude, It's All In My Mind, Can't Feel My Soul and a rousing encore of Everything Flows.

They didn't play it at this particular gig, but here's a bonus - the deeply Neil Young-esque Gene Clark in a very rare live rendition from 2008.

I literally cannot comprehend anyone not finding the Fannies intensely lovable; the same probably can't be said of support act Veronica Falls, who suffer from the usual problem of new young bands - lacking the confidence to trust your songs and leave a bit of space here and there. The shoegazing frantically-scrubbed barre chord wall-of-sound approach is great in the right hands, but a bit monotonous otherwise. Nevertheless here's their single Found Love In A Graveyard for your listening pleasure.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

i'm gonna be (100000 miles)

Somewhere between Membury services and the Newbury junction on Saturday my car ticked its way over into six figures. At the risk of a horrendous pile-up of sharp fiery twisted metallic death I got Hazel to snap a couple of iPhone pics to capture the historic moment:

Needless to say the resale value of my car has now halved, but never mind. It had about 61,000 on the clock when I bought it, so given that that was two years and two months ago to the day that means an average of 49.3 miles per day.

Monday, June 07, 2010

the laddie in red

It seemed only fair to reward myself for successfully moving house by buying a celebratory bottle of whisky, so here it is: Bruichladdich Rocks, currently available in Morrison's for about £23.

A quick bit of background: Bruichladdich is an Islay distillery which until fairly recently (when Kilchoman started producing) laid claim to being the westernmost distillery in Scotland. It's had a bit of a chequered history, most recently including being closed between 1994 and 2001. When its enterprising new owners started production up again they were in the tricky position of not being able to release any of their newly distilled spirit as whisky for three years - fortunately they'd inherited a substantial stock of existing casks, and so they embarked on an enterprising, if slightly bewildering, programme of limited edition expressions of the existing stock. One of the things they did was issue a series of bottlings called Waves, Rocks and Peat which supposedly reflected the various facets of the Bruichladdich character, or some such bollocks.

Also, a note on pronunciation: the general convention seems to be towards something like "brook-laddie", though orthodox Scottish pronunciation rules would normally oblige you to stick a final "ch" sound on there, like at the end of "loch". Up to you.

Rocks is made up of whisky of various ages (hence no age statement on the bottle) and is "finished" in casks that previously held Banyuls wine. Slightly irritatingly you'd be hard-pressed to glean any of this information from the bottle or the packaging, both of which offer some vaguely poetic flannel but little in the way of cold hard facts. That there's something slightly unusual going on is obvious from the colour of the whisky, though: it's got a faint pink tinge to it, which you may or may not be able to pick out from the photograph.

Have a sniff and a taste and you'll discover that any notion of there being a single signature Islay "style" - big, tarry, peaty, medicinal whisky that you could clean paintbrushes in - is a bit of a simplification, as this is very light with barely a trace of peat or smoke at all. This is the second successive Islay malt I've tried, but this and the Bowmore couldn't be more different. This one is quite sweet, a bit floral, with just a hint of something red and tart and fruity in the background - more redcurrants than strawberries, I think (could this be from the wine casks?). It's quite "hot" on the tongue at first - like the Penderyn (which this is not dissimilar to) that's probably partly from being bottled at 46% and partly a bit of rawer, younger, estery spirit coming through.

I think there's an argument that the sheer size and diversity of the Bruichladdich range is a bit bewildering and perhaps not conducive to developing a recognisable distillery "style" - on the other hand I salute their ingenuity in wringing out every last bit of interest they could from the stocks left in the warehouse. As I've said before I'm mildly suspicious of whisky that's been mucked around with by applying non-traditional "finishing", and as with the Caol Ila this doesn't quite measure up to the magnificence of, say, the Highland Park or the Dalmore, but I think as an experiment it works quite well.