Friday, December 30, 2005


Went to see the winners of the BP Portrait Awards today. I actually already had a look at them a couple of weeks ago, but something made me go back. My initial impression had been a very pleasant one, but at a second look, it seemed more mixed. The initial surprise (or is it?) is that there is a lot of very detailed, precise, and--for want of a better word--traditional work here. However, there's a lot of rather facile stuff too. A good few pieces seem to be developed using large scale photographs (not in itself a fault), but have added little by the process of painting. My overall criticism is that they're too bland, and too afraid of being paintings. The winner, in particular, would be as effective as a photo; if there's been any imaginative transformation here, it's well hidden.

Works I do like:
Monkey Painting - I missed the monkey first time round
Portrait of Chantal Menard - Old fashioned in technique, but of a pierced and tattooed babe
Gran Turismo is a great image, but why paint it?
Anna and Kiki is quirky, and that's good
Older passed me by the first time, but is great
Wife and Daughter is a very sweet portrait, and reminds me that not all the pieces here work as portraits.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Athsma is rubbish

Am having one of my fairly rare boughts of athsma. Spluttering and wheezing is just what you want at this cold, miserable time of year. It does get you some sympathy though, as you sound much iller than you are.

Sunday, December 18, 2005


Reading one of the bits of the Guardian, I come across one of those trendy fashion features, you know the ones, where bored skinny models lounge around a grim urban interior and scowl at you while wearing overpriced clothing. Except this one seems to have gone a bit overboard in the grim set dressing. Surely there's rather more mould growing up the wall than even us sophisticated urbanites want to see? And, come to think of it, there's no model.

It turns out to be an article about the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, the grim interior somebody's abandoned house.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Office party

In common with half the country, we had our office Christmas lunch yesterday. My instinct was to dress down a little, which I did. Most male staff of a similar grade to me had done the same. Most lower grade staff (and why does the Civil Service make you adopt the language of class distinction so effortlessly?) had dressed up, with ties and formal shirts appearing for the first time ever in some cases. It meant that this was probably the only day in the year when A. and I, who sit back to back to each other, were dressed similarly. For the women, though it was a different story, with the uniform response being to dress up.

Oh, and I got the world's least useful present in the secret Santa.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Bird spotting

When I catch the bus on Gorgie Road these evenings, there's often a heron sitting by the weir on the Water of Leith, seemingly oblivious to the traffic and noise about twenty metres away.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Very peculiar

Apropos of nothing in particular, it's a source of great frustration to me that the second series of A Very Peculiar Practice has not yet made it to DVD. I fell on series 1 with delight when it was released. Practice was a highlight of my teenage years and a programme whose originality and delightful oddities were unlike anything else that I can think of. After kicking off with two nuns scavenging in the bins, we are introduced to timid but likeable Dr Steven Daker, who acts as a sort of foil to a grotesque gallery of colleagues: Old Jock McCannon, follower of Yung and Ronnie Laing, now finding himself out of favour in the sick university; the attractive but threatening Rose Marie and her feminist machinations; Thatcher's child Bob (Could you manage Robert?) Buzzard, ever on the make. Add a delightful girlfriend, a maths genius room-mate and a Vice Chancellor of Machiavellian guile, and you are in for some excellent television.

Monday, December 05, 2005

A vertical kilometer

I'd like to record my first use of an ice axe in a good few years. I ascended Ben More (the Crianlarich version) on Saturday. It was steep and short and snowy at the top. Some mild misery on the descent.

It does seem to have reawakened the Munro-bagging urge in me. I spent a lot of Saturday night studying maps and guides.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Wasted heat

Something that irritates me quite a lot during the winter, and particularly in the run-up (the what? - is it an athletic event?) to Christmas, is the habit of shops leaving their doors wide open in freezing weather. This is no doubt to make customers feel welcome and remove any barrier to them entering and spending lots of money. It is shockingly wasteful of heat though. I wonder if it's budgetted for separately. And I've never noticed anybody anywhere pointing this out before.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Look, it's snowing!

It's remarkable how much pleasure some apparently grown-up people in an office can get from a small snowfall. One of the more endearing characteristics of our nation is the ability to be bewildered by our own weather.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005


Have just finished reading a selection of Robert Louis Stevenson's writings on the South Pacific. And very fine they were too. I'm sure I've read The Bottle Imp before, or was it just a story with the same plot? The Beach of Falesa is probably the star of the collection though: a nice account of some somewhat unpleasant colonials and their influence on the islanders, told through a none-too-pleasant principal character.

Sod's law in operation

With reference to my last post: I spent quite some time typing (well, cut-and-pasting) this information in. I then was very stupid and trusted the development environment to save my changes. It didn't. This is particularly annoying, since I am normally hyper-aware of dangers like this and continually save and back up work. Except today, when, just for a change, it mattered. By 4.30, I had just about got back to where I was three hours ago, and left in disgust.

Must stop the geeky posts. I am more interesting than this, really.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Sometimes it's hard being IT literate

This might be a bit geeky.

As part of what I was doing at work, I needed a list of certain codes for every parish in Scotland (all 891 of them). I got my list from somebody, in the body of a PDF, which would not export to anything sensible. I said thank you very much, but do you have it as a text file so I can save myself some typing? I got a reply with an attached Word document and the codes in an even more abstruse graphics-intensive format. I don't actually mind that they don't have a textual list, but in what way did my correspondent think they were helping?

OK, I'm better now.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

A high traverse

I have just invented the Portobello Haute Route. This consists of Newington to Portobello, via Arthur's Seat and Dunsapie. Figgate Park is quite nice too, with lots of seagulls sitting on frozen ponds.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

A lovely health and safety violation

I keep a kind of mental list (actually, more of a bag, as list implies an ordering) of quirky places to go. On Sunday, what should pop off my stack but the Hopetoun monument. This can be seen on an averagely clear day from North bridge in the centre of Edinburgh, somewhere behind the twin chimneys of Cockenzie power station.

Walking from Drem station, I was reminded what good soil there is in the Lothians. A succession of neat and clearly productive fields were divided up by shelter belts, with some more mature forestry covering low hills. I was very pleased to discover that the spectre of health and safety had not caused this unmanned monument with its dark and uneven steps to be closed. The steps were liberally covered with bits of twig, presumably by some birds who wanted to move in. And finally, the top, with a nice balustrade, an amazing view, and some of the poorest viewpoint indicators I've come across. I know these things are meant to be somewhat schematic, but Arthur's Seat just isn't that shape. And how could you not point out the Forth bridge zig-zagging across to Fife? But enough! It was a nice day with flocks of geese resting in the fields after lunch, and some people buzing around in microlight aircraft. And on the way back, a few deer in the woods.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Pretentious parents on board

On the bus home, we passed a car with a "triplets on board" sign attached to the back window. Does this mean that other drivers have to be three times as careful?

Friday, November 04, 2005

Impressions of last weekend

Last weekend involved:
  • Watching night fishermen at Felixstowe.
  • Letting cats in and out of the house a lot.
  • Seeing the Sickert and Munch exhibitions, and liking the former rather more than the later.
  • Hearing a bong from Big Ben that didn't correspond in any way to the time (the clock was being repaired).
  • Seeing Corpse Bride and admitting that I liked the songs.
Now back to work.

Thursday, October 27, 2005


I'm simultaneously pleased and a little miffed that beavers have been re-introduced to Britain (Gloucestershire, to be precise). Miffed, because there has been a move afoot to do this in Scotland, and much hoo-ha has been gone through, with precisely no effect. Meanwhile, our friends in the Cotswolds have just kind of, er, done it. I suppose private enterprise is better at getting things done than a devolved government...

Monday, October 24, 2005

More cute animals

Have just rescued a blue tit, which was flying round my kitchen. It must have squeezed through the gap in the window. Maybe my kitchen units look like a good foraging area (nice arty postcards, yum!).

Cute animals

I visited the Scottish Seabird Centre on Saturday. I'd avoided stumping up my £6.95 during previous visits to North Berwick, but felt it had to be done. If you notice a slight hesitancy there, it's because I often disapprove of modern museums, which seem to always be an "Experience" (note the capital E), and involve lots of images but very little real material. Initially, this looked to be the case, with a lot of huge reproductions of puffins and seals in evidence. Ultimately, however, it's redeemed by a number of real exhibits: the remote cameras on various islands that you can control in real time, and the tanks of sea-life, including prawns, hermit crabs and blennies. The grey seals and their pups were in residence on Isle of May, and watching them laze about (anthropomorphic, but what else can you say?) is irresistible.

North Berwick is a very cute place to visit in its own right too. It seems to have retained a very healthy set of high street shops, unlike many small towns. The Aldeburgh of East Lothian? Pity it's full of golf courses, though.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Fun-filled afternoon

It was a rainy Friday afternoon, so it seemed like the time to do some computer peripheral maintenance. I've long held the view that understanding computers is just about possible, but understanding printers and devices of that ilk is a wholly other proposition. Still, I had two useless devices gathering dust on the floor, so they either had to start working, or they were out.

The Epson scanner responded well to some re-installation, and is now mostly working. Some of the wilder shores of scanner functionality seem still to be out of reach, but I'm happy enough. It works.

The dodgy Dell own-brand printer is another matter. This has been sick since I tried to refill the ink cartridges myself, rather than pay over the odds for the gold plated ones from Dell. Yes, I'm tight, but I'd do the same again. Attempted re-installation only made this worse, and had me swearing at the screen quite a bit. It felt just like working on Crystal Enterprise all over again. Need I add that the supplied manual was useless? Not a great advert for my former profession.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Curse of the were-rabbit

Thankfully, Wallace and Gromit's latest adventure is very good indeed, breaking a run of indifferent-to-poor films on my part. I noticed that the adverts beforehand were either obviously targetted at small children ("the best Disney princess album, in the world, ever!"), or were for cars. The distributors have worked out that dad is taking the kids, and apparently not mum. Or is it a sexist assumption that car adverts are only aimed at men? Probably. But I detest all car adverts anyway, so I'd never know any different. I'm old enough to remember when car adverts actually tried to tell you something about the car, rather than just being vague aspirational images. How long is it before some advertising exec hits on the idea of a retro style ad that is just informative?

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Union Canal

I went on a very fine walk yesterday, following the Union Canal from Linlithgow to the outskirts of Edinburgh. I was very lucky with the weather, it being dry, bright througout, and with a couple of hours of sun around midday. This seemed to bring out all the wildlife. On two separate occasions, I saw what I'm pretty sure were mink swimming in the canal. One of them even swam right up to me to allow a better identification. Perhaps I should be more dismayed at the damage they are probably doing to birdlife, than I am thrilled at the mere novelty. Just after the first American visitor was sighted, I passed a riotously perfumed bush clustered with a stupid number of bees and flies, and six red admiral butterflies. Not bad for mid-October.

It's an enjoyable route for other reasons too. Where the original bridges exist, they are lovely: stone built and elegantly arched, and with carved numbers that count down to Lochrin Basin. And you get a good view of the shale bings around Broxburn and of Niddry castle.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Welcome home

Since moving back to Scotland a little more than a year ago, the weather has seemed relatively kind. During all of Alison's visits it has been almost scarily pleasant, so that she thinks the damp Scottish climate is a myth. The last two days, however, have consisted almost entirely of rain. Persistent, heavy, stair-rods of wetness falling from a grey sky. It makes me nostalgic for family holidays. And wet, unfortunately (I need a new waterproof).

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Changing, yet changeless

Last Sunday, I was reading the Sunday Post in a wee cafe. Of course, one reads Oor Wullie and The Broons just to see that they're still the same. Except that The Broons this week concerned setting up a biodiesel scheme. I feel it my duty to record these things.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Good reading

I've had a very good run of reading recently--as sometimes happens--seeming to have a magic touch both with library books and items trawled from second hand shops. I've just finished (if you can be said to finish such a work) The White Goddess, Robert Graves's original, lengthy, passionate and sometimes just downright barmy musings on the origins and interconnections of myth and poetry. It's difficult to come up with a pithy summary of such a large book, so maybe I won't try. I can see why professional Celtic scholars dismissed it, and why lots of new age type people would hug it to their bosoms. Let's just say it's worth reading, if only for the richness of anecdote and the Byzantine footnotes (the belief that barnacle geese grew from barnacles is a nice example).

All this and John Updike too. I have been put off for a long time, but final read Seek My Face recently. A fantastic bit of writing, and all the more interesting for being about post-war American painters (albeit slightly in disguise). The Zack character really being Jackson Pollock gives rise to the lovely line: "When did Zack start dripping?".

Saturday, October 08, 2005

A history of violence

I saw this film last night and thought it was crap. I was hoping for good things, but apart from a promising opening sequence, all I got was a stream of film cliches. The bad men are clearly irredemably bad because they kill a child, which stops you feeling any remorse when they are moved down themselves. Tom Stall is such a regular guy, with a wife who attends to his sexual fantasies, and nice kids, and who runs a nice all-American diner in a quiet town, that you feel a bit sick. And bored--because establishing this takes a long time. No doubt Mr Cronenberg is aware of the debased nature of the currency he is working with, but he fails to turn it into anything more interesting. I considered leaving the cinema, which is pretty bad for me.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

I am experienced in the use of wooden tripods

Went to a painting class last night. I was asked at the start if I had used an easel before. An odd question. Are you now required to view a health and safety video first or something?
Quite fun in the end, but acrylics are a bit yuck. It might help if I took some decent brushes.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Tech authors never die

To write this, I have to click "Create New Post". This is somewhat tautological (though frequently seen in UIs). After all, you can't create an old one, can you?

Monday, October 03, 2005

A view spoiled

Walking home last night, I decided to make the trip a little more interesting by cutting through the Old Town. It was a fine evening, and I had the wizard idea of observing the view from the Esplanade. Cut to the top of Castlehill. Some stands from the tattoo are still there (why does it take so long to take this down?) and an itty-bitty chain stretched across. There are two tourists ahead of me, and I can't see anybody else, so I step across. I'm then accosted by a security guard who appears from a wee hut. I won't bore you with the conversation, but you know how it goes: this area is closed, sir. Eventually, I negociate two minutes looking at the view (he thinks I'm some kind of weirdo though, and I have to repeat the request a few times). Maybe if you're a pretty female tourist, this part goes rather better.

As far as I know, the Esplanade is a public area, and the restriction is just because of that over-persistent scaffolding. The whole thing is trivial, yet it spoiled my evening. Over-zealous security guards seem to be a feature of our age.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

How odd!

It seems I have a job (at least temporarily). The odd part is how little I did to get it. Other applications have caused me a lot of time and trouble, but with this one I ignored an initial email; met the sender on the street quite by chance; decided it might be worth pursuing; then found myself with a job offer. It's a funny old world, isn't it?

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Doors Open Day

As a frustrated architect, I can't resist an oppurtunity to look round old (and new) buildings. Edinburgh provides an excellent selection, and the main problem on Doors Open Day is one of choice.

I've looked at Crocket's Land many times, as it's one of the more picturesque houses in the West Bow. Inside, it's a fairly unaltered house from 1700 or so, and has recently changed hands. It has a lot of very old wood panelling, done in Baltic pine. The previous owners had apparently stripped the pine bare, but the present incumbents have painted it again. One other visitor, who lived nearby and was clearly curious about what the neighbours were up to, hissed to her friend "They've ruined it!". I heard the same opinion later, when I was in the Signet Library and overheard some other architecture groupies discussing their day. I rather liked the effect. It's an example of a problem that dogs all owners of old buildings. People judge them by the aesthetics of their day, and currently, stripped pine is in. From what I know, such an interior would have been painted from day one. The wood used is decent, but not showy, and leaving it bare would have made you look like you couldn't afford to paint it. We are often disappointed how suburban the tastes of our ancestors were. The paint they used looks fairly genuine too.

The Mansfield Traquair centre gives another example of the past being painted in brighter colours than we'd like to admit. The paint in this case belongs to the murals by Phoebe Traquair. I've heard about these from several sources, so it was good to finally see them. The church is/was catholic, which explains the willingness to place bright images on the walls, something few protestant churches of the era were keen on (though, oddly this stricture seemed not to apply to stained glass). It's a nice reminder though, that pre-Reformation churches could have been just as brightly decorated. I'm not sure I like them as paintings much; a bit too arts and craftsy. They have been very well restored, apart from one badly faded bit which was over a coffee machine for many years.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Isn't oil paint gorgeous?

After quite a long dry patch, I finally did some painting last night. As ever, it was awkward getting started, but once the smell of turps is in your nostrils, you're on a roll. The usual gripes were felt: "I don't have enough brushes" (actually, I have loads); "I wish I didn't have to wash the brushes afterwards". The subject was a copy of a Peter Howson head that I started a while back. It's looking a lot better now. I really need to get into a regular painting habit again. A routine can be a very helpful thing.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Bored, Bored, Bored

Is there anything more dull than an application form? Dull, yet stressful, as the outcome could get or lose you a job.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Do I look like a twig?

Just back from a walk around Holyrood Park. On descending the hillside, I heard a rustling, flapping noise just behind me. It sounded like a plastic bag being blown around. After turning a few times I found that it was actually a crow flying around my head. It didn't seem to be actually agressive--it could have dive bombed me much more assertively if it had wanted to. It kept pace with me for quite a distance, always seeming about to land on my head, but not quite doing so. I wonder if there was something aerodynamic going on--some kind of eddy created behind me by the stiff breeze that could comfortably accommodate a crow? Or was it just trying to weird me out?

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Little Sparta

I've wanted to visit Little Sparta--Ian Hamilton Finlay's extraordinary garden--for some time. Yesterday I finally managed to, courtesy of the delightfully obscure McEwan's bus service 100. A fair walk was involved, but the day was crisp and bright and the scenery pretty, so this was not a problem.

It's hard to do the garden justice here, and I only had an hour or so, but it is brilliant. I enjoy gardens, but not always the production of self-styled garden designers. It's rare to find an out-and-out artist expressing themselves in this way. Why? I say the world needs more bird tables in the shape of aircraft carriers.

The garden is the more remarkable if you approach it, as I did, from the moorland behind. It appears as a small cluster of trees on a very open hillside at nearly 300m. Once inside, it seems huge, and you're only conscious of the lack of time to see everything.

Naturally, I was the youngest person there, except possibly for the very nice young lady who collected the money. But then I'm used to this.

It's refreshing to see a visitor attraction where the car drivers are forced out of their vehicles and have to walk up an unmade road for half a mile or so. I can see that changing.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Blake's 7

I've been enjoying re-watching Blake's 7, recently made available in a nice DVD box set. One interesting discovery is how little I actually remember from this well-loved programme of my childhood. Other than generalities of plot and character, it seems that the memory is very fickle and arbitrary after 25 years. It often seems to be an image that stays. From Countdown, which I watched last night, the clearest memory was of the three pronged detonator thingy that Avon manages to disarm in the final seconds. A message for film-makers perhaps--that a simple arresting image can lodge in the mind? I also can't believe how little of Servalan there is. In memory, I had her stalking through every episode in slinky dresses, but there is much less slinking than you might think. Ah well, fine stuff all the same.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

I declare this blog open

I'm sure my thoughts are just as interesting as many others that I see published, so... No, wait, that sounds Pooterish. Anyway, here I am.