Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Twee in the Park

The Glasgow West End Festival has come and gone, and I unfortunately did not get to catch anywhere near as much of the music and theatre that I’d of liked. However, I did finally get to see Belle and Sebastian in concert as part of their free Festival gig in the Botanic Gardens. While not the best venue acoustically, the positive energy of the band’s music was the perfect accompaniment to a warm and sunny Saturday afternoon. 12,000 people showed up to watch the show, and it was good vibes all around.

Recently caught Ash at the Carling Academy. I normally quite enjoy the Academy as a venue, but since we were late in buying our tickets this year we were forced to grab balcony seats. Not only was the sound up there terrible, but it was an especially warm day so the rising heat from the folk below us was particularly stifling. Ash was great as always though, and it turned out I’d be seeing them again much sooner than expected as they announced they would be joining the T in the Park line up.

Speaking of said line up, take a look at it. Should be a good one this year. The biggest challenge will be choosing who I am going to see on Sunday. That day is particularly full of amazing bands, and there are bound to be conflicts.

Saturday, June 26, 2004

All Together Now?

Even though I’ve been in the UK for almost 16 months now, I confess I haven’t really taken to football like I thought I might. When it comes to league football (SPL, English Premiership) I care about the games as much as I do for British reality TV programmes (which is to say not at all). However, it’s a slightly different situation when it comes to international play. You get the impression that the games actually mean something when an entire country comes together to support their national team. The nationwide euphoria or shock and sadness (depending on the result) is undeniable. While I’m well aware of the more dubious aspects of patriotism, it is thrilling to see a country’s supporters out en masse with flags and banners, singing their national anthem with teary-eyed pride.

That said, we are now into the knockout rounds of Euro 2004, and I had yet to really get into the tournament (Scotland never qualified after all). But that changed Thursday night when I was convinced to grab a few pints and watch England v Portugal in a quarterfinal match. And what a bloody game that turned out to be! Tied at one each nearing the end of 90 minutes, England scores what appears to be a legit goal but is disallowed by the referee. The game goes into overtime and each team score another goal apiece, but nothing is settled by the end of the additional 30 minutes so we go into penalty shots (always a nail-biter). David Beckham is up first and makes a spectacularly horrible shot that sends the ball flying well over the goal post. After five shots each we still don’t have a result. The game is settled by – of all unlikely people – the Portuguese goalkeeper who after saving England’s 6th shot, left the goal to score the winner.

I was sitting with a group of English supporters who were not happy. They, and the papers the next day, blamed everything from dodgy refereeing to Beckham to uneven turf for the penalty shots. But at the end of the day, England is out. Which made for many gleeful Scots (Fiona among them). All the other big teams are now out too - Italy, Germany, Spain and France. Based on my newfound enthusiasm for Euro 2004, I watched Greece score the upset over Les Bleues at the pub last night. While not as exciting as the England game (how do you beat that?), it was still a fun 93 minutes. Fiona is convinced the Czech Republic will win. She might just be right.

Straight out of O-Town

A hearty welcome to Chris into the world of blogging. As he states in his first post, blogging is quickly becoming the easy (lazy?) alternative to emailing. CJ – I haven’t heard much from you lately so keep the posts coming!

He also makes a great statement about the upcoming Canadian elections. I confess I did not get my act together soon enough to register as an international voter, so I won’t be able to cast my vote this election. However, I do hope that all those who are able to vote do so and prevent any form of Conservative government. While admittedly the Liberals are hardly the picture of corruption-free government, electing the Tories is not the way to punish them. It will only be punishing the country itself. Canada is still one of the best places in the world to live, and electing a government that promotes many of the same policies as the Bush administration is not doing anybody any favours. After all the progress Canada has made, why would we want to take a giant step backwards?

I’ve got my fingers crossed for a Liberal minority.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Haggis & Maple Syrup v.2

I figured it was about time for a site upgrade – it was looking a little shabby and I thought it could use a bit of tweaking. There is so much more I would love to do with H&MS if I had a better computer, broadband Internet access and more time. But I guess a new layout will do for now.

I was going for the one-year anniversary relaunch of H&MS theme, but it turns out that my first post was the 6th of July. Call it the 11.5-month anniversary relaunch then!

Sunday, June 06, 2004

West Highland Way: Part Three

"Is the last mile the hardest mile?” – The Smiths

Day Five: Inveroran Hotel to Kinlochleven (16 miles)

It was bucketing down when we awoke that morning, so we decided to linger over our breakfast. They were serving bagels after all (oh yes, tasty Canadian bagels in the Highlands!).

The first half of the walk that day would be through the Rannoch Moor. It is the largest moor in Britain, and is described by our guidebook as “barren, bleak, desolate and inhospitable”. We had been told that the moor was a miserable place in the rain because there was absolutely no protection from the elements. Again, we got lucky as the rain stopped shortly after leaving the hotel and didn’t come back in any proper form for the duration of the day.

After walking through a small, cultivated forest we entered the moor proper. It had a very powerful effect on me as it was indeed a very barren place, complete with small lochans and snow covered hills scattered throughout. The boggy grass and granite rock combined with the grey sky contributed to the sense of isolation, as did the fact we could see the path, both before and behind us, for miles – completely uninterrupted. Despite this, or in fact because of this, I found it to be a beautiful stretch of terrain to walk though. The land steadily rose, and a small cairn marked the peak height of 445 metres. From here we could see fantastic views of Glen Coe, and we both looked forward to returning to this part of the Highlands which we had visited only a few months previous.

After emerging from the moor, we made our first stop of the day at the Kings House Hotel, built in the 17th Century to house troops in King George III’s army. There were two entrances to the hotel, one for guests and another for walkers. Our entrance took us to the decidedly dingier part of the hotel, but no matter as it was full of fellow walkers, some of those we had drank with the night before, and others whom we had seen days previous. We had a lovely brie and cranberry baguette that was pure luxury compared to the usual pub grub.

Shortly after leaving the hotel, the path took us within view of Bidean nam Bian, the peak we had climbed back in March. It also took us to the base of what is known as the Devil’s Staircase. This is a zigzagging part of the trail that goes up a steep stretch of hill, taking you to a peak of 548 metres. This by itself wouldn’t have been too bad, but it was tough going after already having walked over 10 miles that day. We could feel every pound of our rucksacks during the ascent, and as a result the climb was a strenuous piece of business. But the view at the top made it all worthwhile, allowing us take in all the beautiful terrain of the Glen Coe region. In short order we had descended 100 metres and could see the town of Kinlochleven below us where we would be spending the evening. But the view was very deceiving. I was convinced we would be there within the hour, but due to the steepness of the descent, the path took a long and zigzaggy route down the mountain that took a serious toll on our knees. It was in fact another two hours before we arrived at our destination, and each of our knees was loudly protesting upon arrival.

We stayed at the Tailrace Inn that night, where we shared drinks and a meal with two couples whom we had met that day. It was great to hear that other people were experiencing the same pains and delights as we were! As Kinlochleven is home to the Atlas Brewery, we knocked back several of their very delicious pints that night.

Day Six: Kinlochleven to Fort William (14 miles)

And here we were, well rested and ready to embark on our final day of the WHW. I was feeling nostalgic already, and could scarcely believe how fast the previous five days seemed to have gone by. We had heard that the final 14 miles to Fort William contained no especially difficult terrain, so we were happy to take our time and really soak in all the atmosphere of this day.

Shortly after leaving Kinlochleven, we entered a forest and immediately were faced with a 250-metre climb that admittedly was a tough way to ease into the day. We had found that it took a good hour each morning before our stiff limbs would acquiesce to co-operate with us, and they were none too pleased to make this steep ascent that morning. But as with most climbs, the view made it all worthwhile as we were presented with a stunning view of the rocky valley that we would be walking through that morning, a valley enclosed by towering mountains on both sides. The rain was off and on that morning, but I was so grateful for the previous days of good weather that the rain was no bother at all. In fact, I thought it heightened the atmosphere of the place. The path again was an old gravel military road, and it snaked its way through the valley for many miles, occasionally passing through forest plantations.

While walking through one of these plantations, we passed though a clearing where we got our first glimpse of the majestic Ben Nevis, the highest peak in Britain with a height of 1344 metres. The sun had returned at this point, filling the air with plumes of steam as the day’s rainwater began to evaporate. This forest was especially gorgeous, as the trail worked its way through the dense trees and over swift moving streams. The path was busy this day, and the excitement in the air was tangible as fellow walkers discussed the imminent end to their journey.

We came across a detour that takes the walker to the remains of Dun Deardail, an Iron Age fort on the base of a small hill. It took Fiona some convincing to take a detour off the path at this point in our journey (and fair enough!) but it was worth it to see the remains of the fort and for the incredible view of Glen Nevis and the Ben itself.

After retracing our steps to rejoin the path, we made our way through Nevis Forest, and then made the gradual descent into Glen Nevis and towards the River Nevis. The glen was absolutely gorgeous, full of lush farms and herds of bleating sheep. And of course, we were very close to the base of Ben Nevis itself. From this vantage point, the Ben looked very intimidating indeed, with a cloud cover having settled in so that we could not see its peak. To add to the drama, it wasn’t long before we heard the crash of thunder. Literally no more than a mile from the end, and we were going to get caught in a thunderstorm! We hastened down the path, which soon ran parallel to a road that leads to Fort William. It was at this point when the skies opened and all the rain we had been lucky enough to avoid for most of the trip fell upon our weary heads. The wind picked up, and the lightning flashed all around us. I’ll admit it was a little scary to think that we could have been much higher in elevation and exposed had we left an hour later that morning.

After a walk of this duration and quality, one would almost expect the final stretch to be filled with natural delights that could bring a tear to the eye. In fact, the final stretch consisted of no more than a sidewalk along a two-lane road through the outskirts of Fort William. I felt that there should have been a group full of well-wishers with balloons to greet us in Fort William, with the mayor waiting to present us with a medal. In fact, the end consisted of no more than an anticlimactic sign telling us “You have reached the end of the West Highland Way” by the side of a busy road.

Anticlimaxes aside, it was a hell of a buzz knowing we had finished our 95-mile odyssey. We trundled into the first pub we saw, and were pleased to discover the same couples from the night before enjoying their first post-walk pint. We quickly joined them and proceeded to down many a drink and tell tales about each of our trips – a proper end to a wonderful six days.

A nice postscript came on the next day when we took the West Highland Railway back to Glasgow. Many parts of the railway run close to the WHW itself, so we had a chance to relive some of the scenery from the comfort of our train coach.

The West Highland Way was simply one of the most incredible experiences of my life and the memories from it will linger with me always, especially during long days stuck in an office. I have also now been fully introduced to the wonderful world of walking holidays. Up next – hopefully this autumn - will be the Great Glen Way, the continuation of the WHW from Fort William to Inverness. Although next time, I’ll be sure to pack less.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Second Intermission

I had the chance to see a bit of Canadian musical royalty in concert last Friday at the very classy Glasgow Royal Concert Hall where we saw Rufus Wainwright featuring Kate & Anna McGarrigle and Martha Wainwright. The performance was set up so that all four (as well as a bassist and background singer) would perform a few McGarrigle classics and other standards together. Then the McGarrigle’s would do a song, then a few from Martha, and then several from Rufus. Sometimes the artist would perform solo, sometimes one of the family would join them on background vocals or guitar.

I was really impressed by the powerful voice and great songs of Martha, though some of the older folk who were there to see Kate and Anna may have been a bit taken aback by the bluntness of her lyrics. I’ve seen Rufus perform before, but I was still struck by the impact of his voice and his songs. Moreover, the man undoubtably has the charisma. I’m not too familiar with Kate and Anna’s material, but I really enjoyed the folkie quality of it and the way Martha and Rufus added to it with their vocals. It was also great to see the banter between the family, almost as if we were watching them perform in their own living room.

The entire result was a perfect Friday night show, comfortably seated in a concert hall and revelling in the quality of musical performance I was seeing. And the bonus was that we didn’t even have to pay for tickets – Alison works for the Concert Hall and managed to get us all in without the £18.50 cover!

Less enjoyable – the movie Troy which I saw on Saturday night. I’ve always loved The Iliad and Greek mythology in general. With such a big budget and a classic back story to draw from, how did they manage to cock it up so bad? Sure, the fight scenes were impressive, but it all means nothing without a well-told story to back it up. And how bad was Brad Pitt’s acting? With all the pouting during battle and the pensive looks over the sea (look at me - I’m conflicted!), I just couldn’t take him seriously. And don’t get me started on the dialogue. Stick to Homer.