Saturday, August 30, 2003

Songs From Northern Britain

It was back in the early 90’s when I first started developing a love for guitar-based music, starting with Nirvana and then the Smashing Pumpkins. This was during the time when the so-called “grunge” revolution was getting into full swing, and Seattle was the city to name-drop in music conversation. While certain bands ruled the roost (Nirvana, Pumpkins, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam), there were many other bands that were lumped into the “grunge” label that were slightly under the mainstream radar – bands such as Dinosaur Jr., Mudhoney, and Teenage Fanclub. It really was a great time for music, but as these things do, the scene soon fizzled out and we were left with the void that is mainstream pop music. Nowadays, a lot of the grunge era bands are long gone. Some have quietly endured but no longer have the same relevance they once had. But one, Teenage Fanclub, has quietly become one of the best bands in the world.

I “rediscovered” the Fannies earlier this year after catching them on a triple-bill concert in Edinburgh, along with Travis and Arab Strap. To be honest, I hadn’t really heard any of Teenage Fanclub’s material after their 1993 album “Thirteen”, but I was quite curious to see what they had been up to since. You can imagine my surprise when the Fannies confidently came out and proved that they were still an incredible band with a tight set that showcased the best of their catalogue from the past 14 years. I revelled in the straight-up power-pop with the beautiful 3-part harmonies and hook-laden choruses. And this was not a revel based in nostalgia, because the most brilliant material they were playing came from their most recent two albums. The crowd was suitably impressed, and even Fran Healy from Travis couldn’t help but gush that “the Fannies were my biggest influences” and that they were “brilliant”. I saw Teenage Fanclub play again at T in the Park, and once more they put on a show that left 'em begging for more.

So how best to experience the Teenage Fanclub catalogue if you’re starting from scratch? They have a great compilation disc out now, "Four Thousand Seven Hundred and Sixty Seconds: A Short Cut To Teenage Fanclub" which highlights 21 of their best songs. I also recently picked up Songs From Northern Britain which is a brilliant example of their newer, more mellow sound. After one listen to songs like “I Don’t Want Control Of You” or “Your Love Is The Place Where I Come From”, you may just be a convert too.

I could have said “you’ll want to join the Fanclub too” but that would’ve been a bit much. And yes, the Northern Britain they refer to in their album title is Scotland, as the band is from and still based in Glasgow.

Wednesday, August 27, 2003

News and Coos

While most tourist paraphernalia is utter rubbish, I did see one the other day that provided a valuable piece of knowledge without costing a penny. This came in the form of a t-shirt emblazoned with a cartoon picture of everybody’s favourite shaggy Scottish bovine, complete with the proper spelling of its name: the Heilan Coo. So now we know.

Enjoyed a nice day out in Edinburgh where I caught a few shows at the Fringe Festival. First up was All the Great Books – Abridged from the excellent Reduced Shakespeare Company. The first show I saw from this troupe was a few years back in London when I saw The Complete Works of Shakespeare – Abridged which sees three actors perform all of Shakespeare’s plays in just over an hour. Very clever, very madcap and very funny. Admittedly the Great Books show, which follows the same format using classic literature as its base, wasn’t quite as funny as the Shakespeare show, but this may have just been due to the fact that I already knew what kind of show to expect. Still, funny stuff and many pat yourself on the back moments when you understood some of more obscure literary jokes. And the dancing Trojan Horse scene (while recreating the Iliad) set to the Pink Panther theme was priceless.

Keeping with the “whole bunch of stuff abridged” theme, we then caught a show called Great Scots! – Scottish History in 69 Minutes. It was a one-man show where the actor played a professor who could go back in time to various points in Scottish history in order to illustrate a particular era. It was funny enough, and surprisingly informative. But it was bloody hot, as there were about 50 of us packed in an unventilated basement theatre. A case of suffering for the arts?

The last show we saw was Shakespeare’s Italian Job, which was a recreation of the 1969 Michael Caine movie but using Shakespearean characters and dialogue. It was incredibly clever, and often very funny (after observing his mate grab his girlfriends backside, a thief remarks “Aye, there’s the rub”, and suchlike). I confess that at the time some of the humour went straight over my head as I had yet to see the movie the play was recreating. But then the very next night, the BBC movie of the night was, you guessed it, the Italian Job. Ah, so that’s why they had the three Mini Coopers on stage…

I came across this excellent article in The Observer the other day. I think it describes perfectly how many people, including myself, feel about the “good” ol’ USA these days.

Rented a great film the other day – Dirty Pretty Things – which stars Audrey Tautou (from Amelie) in her first English speaking role. It is a great suspense flick about the illegal trade of human body parts in London. And it stars a hot French actress. Enough said.

After months of living with a wee 14-inch TV, we finally opened up the coffers and bought ourselves a more respectable 21-inch set. Perhaps the best feature of this new set is the retro chic that is Teletext, which can best be described as the Internet circa 1993 on your television screen and controlled by remote. This new addition to the house has also arrived just in time to be able to give The Two Towers some justice when I pick it up, as said film came out this past week in the UK. I wants it, my precious.

Saturday, August 23, 2003

Early Morn in the Cairngorms

When work is busy and the weather is warm, what better time to leave the city behind for a weekend and escape to the Highlands? Specifically, the town of Aviemore situated in the Cairngorm Mountains.

After work on Friday, Fiona and I grabbed a bus and took the three hour journey north. It was reasonably late by the time we arrived in Aviemore, so we decided to find a nice local pub and take it easy. We rose early on Saturday, but we made a poor decision to start the day. Fiona and I mistakenly bought into the hype that surrounds the Cairngorm Mountain Railway and thought we should check it out. The railway is actually a funicular train, which is ironic really because the word “funicular” contains the word “fun” but not the word “shite” (it assuredly contained none of the former but a lot of the latter). £8 brought us the pleasure of taking a railcar up the side of the mountain to a peak-top station that hawked overpriced food and assorted crap (a.k.a. souvenirs). And the train didn’t actually go up a nice part of the mountain, but up a section that is a ski hill in the winter. Disused snow making machines, chair lift cables and the like do not make for a pretty mountain view. We also could not leave the peak-top station for "environmental concerns" so we all squeezed into a small viewing balcony to try and get our money’s worth. The kicker was on the way back down when, after hawking guidebooks, the train operator announced “in order to help you appreciate the view, please enjoy some traditional Scottish music” and then proceeded to play some Generic British Folk Music © over the intercom. What a farce. The Cairngorm Mountain Railway now ranks number 2 on my all-time list of Crappy Tourist Attractions, narrowly missing out on the top spot currently held by the Capilano Suspension Bridge in Vancouver, BC (which is a whole other rant).

Redemption came in the form of the beautiful Loch an Eilein. After a beautiful forest walk of about two hours, one arrives on a beach where you can see the Loch and the island within it which contains the ruins of an old castle. Stunning.

Later that day we met up with Kevin, Kathleen and Troy and their two friends from Germany who had all rented a cottage in Aviemore. In fact, the cottage was a corporate chalet complete with every amenity you could think of, including satellite TV and a gas barbeque. It was fantastic. I think even they were amazed how nice it was.

On Sunday, a few of us decided to climb the Cairngorm peak which gives the Cairngorm Mountain range its name. "Cairngorm" is Gaelic for “Blue Mountain”, though this one is a wee bit different than the one in Collingwood, Ontario. After walking through fields of heather and passing by cairns which had been made to show the way through the rocky terrain, we came across a path that ironically goes right by the funicular peak-top station. Turns out that you are allowed to walk around outside the area where the train goes, but only if you walk from the bottom and not use the train. Serves me right for believing touristy hype. After passing the station, we proceeded to the top of the peak which gave us amazing views of the surrounding terrain. Beautiful rocky valleys, fields of heather, the nearby lochs - it was all rather breathtaking.

Fiona and a few others had decided to avoid mountain climbing that day, and instead took a steam engine train into the town of Boat of Garten. Much to their surprise, they ran into the Naked Rambler on one of the secluded streets outside of town. The Naked Rambler is a naturist who has been walking (naked, of course) across the UK, starting from Land’s End in the south of England and looking to finish at John O’ Groats, the most northern point of Scotland. He’s had a tough time of it with 10 arrests so far (and counting) and has made the news many times already. The chances of running into him when they did was one hell of a coincidence. An interesting tourist experience to be sure. I’m told he has nothing to be ashamed about either.

Fiona and I had to leave early Monday afternoon, so a few of us rose at 7am to do a forest walk along the banks of Loch Morlich, just outside of Aviemore. It was a beautiful morning, with the air still crisp and fresh. Nobody else was about which really added to the tranquility. All I could think of was how much I’d love to stay for the rest of the week.

But we did have to go, for Fiona and I were going to see Ash in Edinburgh that night! Ash is a fab 4-piece pop/punk band from Ireland who put out the masterpiece that is the Free All Angels album. This was to be their last show before taking some time off and going into their studio to record their next album. The set was amazing, playing all the songs you’d want to hear, as well as debuting several new tracks which all sounded great and bodes well for the new album. The place was full, and the crowd was in rapture of the band so it made for a great night. And their guitarist Charlotte, apart from pumping out great guitar solos, is also a certified hottie.

K,K and T are back from Aviemore today before heading home to Canada, so I'm looking forward to hearing how the rest of their week was. Tomorrow Fiona and I are back in Edinburgh to catch a few plays as part of the Fringe Festival.

Phew – it’s been a busy last week or so, but I guess that is what the summer is all about!

Thursday, August 14, 2003

Boom, Bust and Echo

The latest UK census figures have recently been released, and many of the findings are similar to that of other Western countries. Namely, that the population is growing very slowly and that most of this marginal increase can be attributed to immigration. Based on the natural birth rate alone, the population increase is almost nil. In Scotland specifically, the situation is worse in that the population has actually decreased. Granted, the percentage decrease is quite small but if this continues the population of Scotland could fall below the 5 million mark within a few decades. The reasons for this are varied, including an ageing population, low natural birth rate, and a tendency for new immigrants to settle south rather than north.

So, what does this have to do with anything you may ask? Well, before the census data was released, there had been rumblings that the UK government would be limiting Working Holidaymaker visas (the visa that I currently have) to only one year (rather than two), getting in line with the visas offered by other Commonwealth nations. Instead, I recently received a notice from the British Home Office indicating that my visa status is to change in a different way starting the 25th of August.

Not only is the maximum age limit for the Working Holidaymaker visa being raised from 27 to 30, but all employment restrictions have been removed. Prior to this change, I would have legally not been able to work after one year in the UK but now I can work full-time for the entire duration of my visa. Even more interesting is that after 12 months in the UK, I can apply for a full work permit as long as I am sponsored by an employer. This comes as a huge boost to my future employment opportunities. I can personally attest to the fact that it is difficult to gain any long term (or meaningful) employment with the current restrictions in place. With these restrictions removed, it makes the Working Holidaymaker (as we are so lovingly called) look that much more employable to UK companies.

So did the census data prompt these new changes on Working Holidaymaker visas? Is it a means to fill in potential employment shortages within the UK? Potentially increase population by encouraging holidaymakers to stay? Or could it be a total coincidence? Most likely the latter, but I felt compelled to observe.

Anyway, on to other things. Kevin & Kathleen and their friend Troy arrived this weekend, right in the midst of a continuing patch of amazing weather. I had arranged to meet them at Glasgow airport, but unfortunately for us all their flight was heavily delayed. I can now attest to the fact that spending a warm, sunny Saturday afternoon in an airport is not the best way to pass the time. As good as The Herald newspaper is, you can only glean so much from it before you are sick of the sight of another Edinburgh Festival review or editorial on the ongoing Blair vs. BBC row (coming soon to pay per view).

But it all worked out Sunday, as we spent a great day in Pollok Park under cloudless skies. Highland coos (aka cows) and a baguette picnic lunch, you cannae beat it. On Monday, Fiona and I got ambitious and prepared a full haggis meal for our guests. And we're talking the real deal - haggis, neeps and tatties. That's haggis with turnip and potatoes for the rest of us. And this haggis came in an actual sheep's stomach - white and with veins - and it looked positively revolting. But after cooking it for an hour and bursting the stomach, it was actually quite delicious. Granted the term "bursting the stomach" and good meals are not usually synonymous - you'll simply have to take my word for it.

Friday, August 08, 2003

"Summer’s in the city/do what you’ve gotta do"

30-degree weather in Glasgow is strange. For it to last past 3pm on a Friday is uncanny. Folks, we’re talking about a hot summer weekend in Scotland! Och aye, ‘tis true!

Since I'm in a summer spirit, why not profile the ultimate summer album. Actually, it's just the ultimate album period. The band is Athlete and the album is Vehicles & Animals. This album is so addictive I call it musical crack. A day has yet to pass where I don't put this one on at some point. I mean, look at the elements covered: sweet, sweet pop songs, killer harmonies, big choruses, clever lyrics that get into your head, beats, guitars, AND casio keyboards. It doesn't get any better than this. Track this album down, you owe it to yourself.

I was going to write more but it's very hot today and this internet cafe is quite stifling. Plus I hear a pint out there calling my name - who am I to deny it?

Tuesday, August 05, 2003

"Oh, it's getting hot in here/must be something in the atmosphere"

It really is starting to feel like summer as the UK is in the midst of a heat wave. Glasgow is due to reach 26 degrees today, which is sweltering relative to the usual 17-19 degrees we typically get this time of year. Since offices, buses, and trains don’t have air conditioning (because what would be the point, normally?), it makes for a stifling working day.

So - a few weeks ago, over a few pints, my friend Robbie (he of Rouen fame for those who were there) and I decided to sign-up for the half marathon in the Great Scottish Run to be held on the 7th of September. I thought at the time the idea may have just been alcohol-fuelled bravado, but it now seems that we’ve both committed to running this thing; moreover, we’ve even started some sort of training by doing a large run on Wednesday evenings. This will be my first organised running event since the 10K Calgary Road-eo (their joke, not mine) that I ran with Bob (another friend I met in Rouen appropriately enough) last summer when I was out in Western Canada. The Glasgow registration form asked me to estimate my finish time, and I perhaps over-optimistically wrote down 1 hour and 40 minutes. Hopefully I don’t embarrass myself, but if I do at least it will make for a good story.

Next Saturday will see the arrival of the next Canadian travel contingent in the form of university friends Kevin and Kathleen. They will be spending two weeks in Scotland - one in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and one up in Aviemore (which is up in the heart of the Highlands, near the Cairngorm mountains and just east of Loch Ness). It should be a very busy time as August in Scotland is jammed full of events, the biggest of which is the Edinburgh Festival. The “Festival” is actually several individual festivals that take place at the same time – the biggest being the Festival Fringe – but it also includes the International Film Festival, the International Book Festival, and T on the Fringe. The latter is another musical festival brought to you by the letter T after the success of T in the Park (T representing Tennent’s Brewery for the uninitiated). The choices are truly mind-boggling, with over 1500 different events one could try and see. I expect I’ll be doing what I did two years ago when I was Edinburgh – grab a guide, wander the streets, see what is available and throw caution to the wind and go with what sounds interesting at the time.

Rented a fantastic film this week, Love Liza, the story of a man coping (or rather, not coping) with the suicide of his wife. Not exactly a “snuggle up with the girlfriend on a Saturday night” kind of movie, but utterly compelling in a depressing kind of way. Three reasons to see it:

1. It stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is awesome in every movie he is in.
2. The music score was written and performed by Jim O’Rourke, the man who produced the last few Stereolab albums and who is an accomplished singer-songwriter in his own right. I saw him live on a fateful winter’s day a few years ago in Toronto and it was magic.
3. The film was written and directed by Todd Louiso, the guy who played the serious and timid record store employee in the film High Fidelity (Jack Black being the other).

Due to a combination of T in the Park, having a little extra disposable income, discovering an amazing indie CD shop just outside of Glasgow’s city centre, and being especially inspired by the quality of music being released in the UK at the moment, I’ve been on somewhat of a CD binge over the last few weeks. And as you may know, I do love to spread the word about great new bands and/or albums. So I’m going to post a few mini reviews over the next little while. I apologise in advance if the bands and albums I list are already well-known back home and in fact are already despised due to over exposure.

And while on the topic of music back home, and hearty thanks to Mike for keeping me in touch with the Toronto music scene - though it does make me pine for Kazaa more then ever before.

Friday, August 01, 2003


It came to pass that I needed to describe a person who comes from Glasgow in one term in the same way I would say “I’m Canadian” or a “Torontonian”. Imagine my surprise when I was informed the proper term to use was “Glaswegian”. Now I’m sure there is a logical English grammatical rule explaining why this is so. But personally I can’t see how both Norway and Glasgow, each ending with a distinctive syllable, both become “wegian”. Regardless, I’d rather be a Glaswegian than someone from Edinburgh. Imagine having to refer to yourself as an Edinburgher…

And before you ask, yes - many a witty Scottish restaurant already has an Edinburger on their menu.