Posts Tagged ‘edinburgh’
Not because it’s an excellent read (though it certainly is that), but because something happens towards the end that casts confusion and doubt over everything you’ve read so far.
And when you do read it again, you realise just how clever the opening is at setting the tone for the rest of the story. Then throughout, you see clues that you didn’t pick up on the first time around, but which on the second read scream so loudly about what they so blatantly point at, that you think you must have been stupid to miss them the first time.
Or maybe it’s just me and I really was being stupid the first time.
When I read this originally two or three months ago, I remember thinking that I was quite enjoying it but not as much as the author’s first book (more on which later). Then I got to that “game changer” near the end. I’ll not spoil the book by revealing it here, but if you read A Method Actor’s Guide… then you’ll see what I mean and will understand why I’ve chosen not to spoil it.
The novel is set in Edinburgh, and revolves around the life of a struggling actor, Robert, who is finding it hard to get on with his forthcoming performance, a stage version of Jekyll and Hyde, and who has more than a few personality clashes with his fellow cast. Though clearly a thoughtful and and intelligent character, Robert’s ability to rub people up the wrong way and tendency to self-destruct leads to an enjoyable and often tense tale of man versus world.
To say more would reveal some of the twist, but suffice to note that the story deals with issues of our sense of self and sense of place, in a way that clearly draws on the author’s own interests in philosophy and his love of the character and nature of Edinburgh.
Having just recently finished my second read-through of it, I’m now a little clearer about what precisely it’s all about and what happened, though the book is so rich and deep that there are still questions in my mind I can’t quite figure out.
Maybe I was being stupid the second time too.
While it’s a great book, and highly recommendable, it would be remiss of me to blog about Kevin MacNeil without mentioning his first, and in my view better, novel The Stornoway Way.
Given it is about his native isle of Lewis, and is a less than complimentary portrait of its main town, Stornoway, the first thing to say, therefore, is that this is an exceptionally brave book.
The characters, both central and background, are vividly described and their real-life inspirations are probably quite easily identifiable to those who know the town. However the book is all the better for its brutal honesty.
The main character, who carries the pseudonym R Stornoway, is a drunken waster, a man struggling to come to terms with both himself and the town in which he lives. His ambition and failings embody the curious personality of the town.
Mixing R Stornoway’s whisky-fuelled introspection with powerful demonstrations of human capacity for self-destruction, it might not be too far off the mark to suggest The Stornoway Way is like Trainspotting, but with whisky and Stornoway replacing heroin and Edinburgh as its two backdrops.
Growing up in the Uists, Stornoway was in a sense “the big town” to me, and I remember noting on a school visit aged around nine or ten just how big and scary the place seemed. From my experiences of the town over the years, there is an odd duality about it – its people are worldly: intelligent and great travellers. But there is an insularity about it too; as if people think it’s the best place in the world even after checking out all the competition.
This is summed up perfectly in one of the most powerful lines from the book, when our anti-hero declares “We do not live in the back of beyond, we live in the very heart of beyond.” In those words, I have never read a better description of the character of Stornoway or Lewis.
The Stornoway Way is not just an immediately local book though. Things wider than the personalities of Stornoway are sent up, including aspects of island and Gaelic culture, and anyone who has watched more than a little Gaelic TV or spent time in the Highlands and Islands will laugh knowingly at the biting references to everything from the Mod to the area’s tragically rampant alcoholism.
The book should therefore be useful reading for anyone with an interest in the contemporary Highlands and Islands, smashing as it does the romantic view of this part of the world as a quaint, picture-postcard land of earnest faith and friendly locals. It’s probably the only novel set in the Highlands that I’ve read which doesn’t contain an ounce of cliché or kitsch, and that has to count for a lot.
On a wider level, though, a broader audience will recognise the themes of small town life, the struggle for personal meaning and identity, the fickle nature of friendship, and the humorous reflections on humanity as a whole.
Like A Method Actor’s Guide, The Stornoway Way demonstrates the author’s magnificent powers of observation, his brilliant characterisation, and his immensely poetic use of language. Indeed, I shouldn’t understate the poetry and language in either book, nor the fact that MacNeil is as renowned a poet as he is novelist (not to mention playwright and musician).
I am not, I must confess, a voracious reader of Scottish fiction, but Kevin MacNeil is probably my favourite Scottish novelist, past or present. Both the above books are a pleasure to read, and ones I’d heartily recommend.
En la pasinta semajnfino, mi partoprenis en la kunkongreso de la Esperantaj asocioj de Britio kaj Skotlando, lokita en Edinburgo. Estis mia unua Esperanto kongreso, kaj estis tre interesa.
Anstataŭ skribanta pri la kongreso per longa blogafiŝo, mi pensis ke mi povis doni nur mallongan liston de mia ĉefaj lernitaĵoj de la kongreso.
1. Mi parolas pli malpli bone….
Mi komencis en septembro, lasta jare, kaj ŝajnas al mi ke mi atingis bonan nivelon dum tiu tempo. Kelkaj homoj diris al mi ke mi parolis bone.
2. …sed mi komprenas ke mi havas longan vojon al flueco.
Fakte, multe da homoj neniam atingas ĝin. Partoprenantoj kiu parolis Esperanton antaŭ multaj jaroj priskribis ilin mem kiel eternaj lernantoj. Mi pensas ke estas granda malsameco inter la mallonga vojo de komencado al meza kapablo, kaj la longa vojo de meza kapablo al flueco.
Mi trovis ke mi ne tute komprenis la homojn kiujn mi kunparolis, kaj mi komprenis inter ĉirkaŭ kvarono kaj duono de la kongresaj prelegoj. Kaj pri la prelegoj…
3. Kongresoj eble ŝajnas internevidanta.
La temoj de la afero de la kongreso estis plejparte pri Esperanto mem. Ĉi tio ne estas problemo aŭ kritiko. Estas kompreneble kaj nature, kiam oni kunvenas Esperantistojn, ke ilia saminteresoj temos pri (kaj sola pri?) Esperanto. Do la temoj estis plejparte pri la lingvo kaj sia literaturo, traduko, uzado, plibonigado kaj lernado.
4. Reformo estas konstanta afero en Esperanto.
Eĉ ĉu minoritato aŭ malofta voĉo, mi vidis ke ĉiam estos ideoj, ĉu bonaj ĉu malbonaj, kiu volus ŝanĝi la lingvon. Mi skribos denove (kaj eble iomete frivole) pri ĉi tiu temo baldaŭ.
5. Onia Esperanto vere plibonigos en kongreso.
Dum tri tagoj kiam mi parolis preskaŭ ĉiam en Esperanto, mi kompreneble plibonigis. Okazoj por babilado estas kutime rara por Esperantistoj trans la mondo, do mi komprenas kial homoj ofte antaŭĝojas partopreni en kongreso. Mi trovis ke mia ebleco, komprenado kaj memfido kreskis dum la semajnfino, kaj mi eĉ ekpensis iomete en la lingvo.
6. Parolantoj estas reala komunumo
Kialo por mia plibonigo estas aliaj parolantoj. Ofte, aliaj kongresaj partoprenantoj helpis kaj korektis min, kaj la malnovaj parolantoj gvidis aliajn kiel mi. Estis vera sento de komunumo inter parolantoj, ĉar kvankam ni havis nur Esperanto kiel kunintereso, la naturo de la lingvo ankaŭ donas al multaj homoj interesojn en, ekzemple la internaciismon, lingvojn generale, vojaĝadon, kaj tiel plu. Tial, plaĉas al mi la vorto “samideano”, esprimanta la ideon ke parolantoj kunhavas ne sole lingvon sed ankaŭ mondvido.
Mi eĉ trovis surprizan numbron de kristanoj en la kongreso. En la kongresa diservo dimanĉe, mi nombris ĉirkaŭ kvarono de la tutaj kongresanoj.
7. Esperanto estas bela religia lingvo
Mi jam legis la biblion en Esperanto dum kelkaj monatoj, sed la lingvo estas tre bela aŭdi en la diservo. Esperanto havas la riĉan senton de sentempeco kaj profundo de la latina lingvo, sed ankaŭ havas la komprenpovon de facila, neŭtrala, unuiĝanta lingvo.
Ĝis la sekvonta kongreso!
Se vi trovas erarojn, bonvolu korekti min!
I’ve been zipping about a fair amount this past week. I’ve been ambling around in Inverness…
…loitering between trains at Perth station…
…and exploring Glasgow at night.
The Glasgow visit was for an Explosions in the Sky gig on Monday night. It was my third time of seeing them and they were excellent. Beautiful, uplifting, energetic and powerful. The Texan post-rock outfit remain my favourite band right now. It was a great set, though to my mild surprise they didn’t play much of their most recent album, but with such a strong catalogue that was no loss.
The support was in the form of Lanterns on the Lake, a Sigur Ros-like outfit from Newcastle. I’d not heard of them but they were very good, and I’ll definitely be checking them out further.
Then on Wednesday night I was in Edinburgh overnight for work, and took the opportunity of a quiet evening to take some night shots from the top of Calton Hill. Being at a major spot overlooking the capital felt somehow apt on the day that the referendum consultation was launched.
It’s interesting times in Scotland these days.
See the whole upload of this week’s shots here on Flickr.
I spend a lot of time on trains. Too much, at times. I’m at the stage where I recognise train conductors, can recite stations along routes my most regular routes, and have often found myself at the whim of the vagaries and foibles of ScotRail. Mostly, to be fair, ScotRail does a good job, though its staff do let it (and passengers) down terribly at times, for instance by not having a clue how to get places or not checking whether passengers have all fully boarded.
One regular consequence of being on trains is the delays. Sometimes the weather, technical problems, staffing shortages or whatever else mean that trains can’t run, and I’ve had more than my fair share of replacement buses, freezing cold station platforms, late night replacement taxis and soul-sapping experiences at the life-void that is Perth railway station, which incidentally is home to The Worst Cafe In The World.
I’ve come to be philosophical about delays. There’s nothing you can do about them, except sit back, try enjoy your journey, and politely complain in writing later. And if you’re delayed by a certain length of time – as I all too often am – you can get part or all of your ticket reimbursed. I’ve obviously been unlucky in the past few months because I’ve found myself amassing about a hundred pounds of compensatory rail vouchers.
Much as compensation in the form of rail vouchers is like giving the victim of a botched tooth extraction the chance to have the rest of their healthy teeth extracted for free, I’m too much of a lover of travel to turn down the chance for free trips. And the vouchers will certainly come in useful.
In a couple of weeks, I’m going to Glasgow overnight to see Explosions in the Sky play – the third time I’ll have seen them live – and I’m very much looking forward to it. In April, I’ll be attending the joint Scottish and British Esperanto Congress in Edinburgh. Both will be all the more enjoyable for them costing me nothing in terms of train tickets.
Those trips will still leave plenty vouchers left, which will come in handy for another rail adventure I am planning. I am not sure when precisely it will be, but it will be this year, certainly. I want to get under the skin of my very regular Inverness-Edinburgh journey, by finding out more about the places I pass through with often the barest of glances, towns and villages I have mostly never been to. The plan, therefore, is to travel from home in Inverness to Edinburgh by rail, stopping for a minimum of two hours at every station. It will take me the best part of a week: though of course that doesn’t account for any delays…
You may remember me speaking back in June at A Night of Adventure, a fundraising evening in Edinburgh for the great charity Hope and Homes for Children. It turned out to be a really fun evening, and very inspiring because I was rubbing shoulders with fellow speakers that included round the world cyclists, mountaineers, endurance runners and others who all told incredible tales of exploration, determination and adventure. Also, of course, it was a great opportunity to hear more about the charity’s work.
I was quite pleased with my own presentation in the end. I was the penultimate speaker out of twelve, so I was increasingly nervous as the evening went by, particularly as everyone’s thoroughly daring tales of pushing themselves to their physical limits made my mullet-hunting quest feel like a pathetic triviality.
That, however, worked in my favour because my presentation could come over as a refreshing alternative to the more hardcore end of the adventure spectrum, and in any case my fellow presenters were hugely entertaining and hilarious, so my flippant mission ended up not appearing quite so out of kilter as I feared it might.
The presentations were all recorded, and Al Humphreys, who organised the evening, has put them on his Vimeo page. Do go and check them out – there are some thoroughly inspiring and entertaining tales. Mine is right here and, of course, just above.
The gig was excellent, and EITS were on top form, delivering a show that was powerful, gripping and beautiful. I was really glad I made it down to it. They played plenty of their best tracks, including a good few off their new album, and (perhaps this makes me sound somewhat old) the best thing was it wasn’t too loud – the music was allowed to speak for itself and not rely on excessive volume to make an impact (I’m looking at you, Mogwai).
That’s the second time I’ve seen them and I’d happily see them again. I’ve been listening to their new album a lot lately and think it’s cemented itself in my top 10 favourite albums.
I am all too rarely able to make it along to the monthly gatherings of the Highland Literary Salon, and last night was one such occasion. It was a “slam night”, which, far from being a chance to practice ones wrestling moves as I first speculated, was in fact a chance for participants to sign up to read a five minute extract of their work. There was a huge range of style and genres, from poetry and children’s story to crime and romance, many taken from works in progress such as novels or short stories. I think mine was the only travelogue, knocked together hurriedly yesterday afternoon. Here’s what I presented.
Exposure of more than a day or so to Fife can inspire a certain kind of wanderlust.
Not the kind that leaves you hankering for the open, dusty road or lush sun-kissed beaches; but rather a more basic and urgent wanderlust that compels you want to be somewhere, anywhere, that isn’t Fife.
Thus it was that my wife Nicole and I escaped from a few days’ break in Fife for a day out by ourselves in Edinburgh.
I know Edinburgh well – work takes me there frequently, too frequently. It’s a long journey from home, so Scotland’s capital is more synonymous to me for the heavenly smell of the breweries as you approach Haymarket station, crowded trains at the end of the day, and faceless hotel rooms, than it is for its famous icons and sights.
So what to do in a city where I now have a chance to explore without deadline or work commitment, to wander, digress and absorb at will?
Recommendations from friends pile in – the Camera Obscura comes top, with rave reviews of this sort of museum of lights and illusions, the highlight seeming to be 3D projections. “You can fold up a bit of paper,” enthuses a friend, “and see a 3D bus ride along it!”
Staff, presumably, are well-trained in administering sedatives for those patrons for whom the excitement is unbearable.
On arrival at its door we decide against Camera Obscura – anywhere just a stone’s throw from the castle and enscrummed by armies of camera-wielding tourists is almost certainly a trap; the £9.95 entry fee confirms this, despite our unspoken acceptance that we are briefly, ourselves, camera-wielding tourists.
Instead, we take a wander up Calton Hill and take in not just the views outward, across the tightly-congregated histories of the Old and slightly less old New Towns, but inward too, to the curious jumble of architecture on the top of the hill itself.
Among them stands the National Monument, one of the city’s many Victorian-era Greek-style constructs that rendered Edinburgh “the Athens of the North”. I must remember, should I ever visit Athens, to tell the locals how reassuringly familiar I am finding “the Edinburgh of the south”. I’m sure they’ll see the funny side – the Greeks are known for their good sense of humous.
Not much humour greeted the National Monument back in the day, however, a project which ran out of money in 1826 and stands half-finished, a supposed “national disgrace”. I found it no disgrace, personally, as I clambered up and walked between its few dark, lofty columns. Like with the figurative glass, I take it as half-full, half-completed, like today’s Scotland. And in a city that hosts the over-budget upturned boat that is the Scottish Parliament building and the hauntingly barren tramlines, the term “national disgrace” needs some context.
After further wanderings, and in a choice we’d regret, we find ourselves heading underground, on one of the city’s many tours of the streets that lie beneath the Old Town, cramped and disease-ridden alleyways and tenements, long abandoned, built-upon and for a time forgotten by new, grander thoroughfares above.
What I hoped would be a gripping journey back in time and a revealing exploration of a lost city, turned out to be a brief and cheesy tour of some darkened rooms laden with electricity cables and luminous “fire exit” signs, led by a woman in a half-hearted nod to period costume with an accent that was as many miles inauthentic as the years that separated us from the era we were implored to imagine. The depth of our descent constrasted with the lack of depth of the history.
With no freedom to wander, the rigid, forced-cheerful tour was informative only insofar as gaining the hindsight that told us it wasn’t worth it, while the entertainment came inadvertently, in the form of an earnest American woman with some sort of ghost-hunting app on her iPhone, a fluorescent green radar spinning round and round on her screen, presumably not transmitting the message, which was of course that she was a deluded nutter and should stop pretending she was some sort of hipster ghostbuster.
Emerging back into the early evening dusk and drifted back to the bus station, none the wiser about Edinburgh’s murky depths and long past, we reflected on the tour.
Perhaps those 3D buses and folded bits of paper would have been exciting after all.
The new album by Explosions in the Sky came out earlier this week. It’s called “Take Care, Take Care, Take Care” and it is excellent.
There’s always a special thrill to a first listen of a new album by a favourite band. It has a reassuringly familiar sound but also exhiliratingly different and fresh – what are they going to come up with next? I had a couple of listens on my way down to Glasgow for work on Tuesday (hence the otherwise unrelated photo at the top of this post). In EITS’ case, they came up with a thoughtful, energetic almost mournful offering that is up to, if not beyond, their usual standard. It has only six tracks, but with all bar one coming in at over seven minutes, you’re certainly not short-changed.
The first track, Last Known Surroundings, is a beautiful intro, with a slow, tense almost stadium-rock build up that gives way to some almost ethereal, Sigur Ros-esque guitar noises and a rhythm that gives a pulsating spine to the song. The follow-up, Human Qualities, starts out as a brighter, sweeter waltzy tune (EITS’ best tracks, for some reason, are in my mind those that are in 3/3 time: I don’t know why, but that metre seems to give their music a rhythm that captures and draws you in especially strongly), at least to start with, switching over halfway through with a near-sinister break to a more edgy, atmospheric melody that builds to a frantic cruscendo. Then comes Trembling Hands, a short, catchy burst of energy; giving way to a more gentle tone in the fourth and track (Be Comfortable, Creature, and the particularly beautiful Postcards from 1952). The finale, Let Me Back In, starts unusually – it’s one of the rare EITS tracks to have a voice sample – but gives for a rousing finish to an excellent album.
The album creates a soundscape evocative of discovery, mystery, innocence, wanderlust and is a little more alive and upbeat than their previous albums – which of course are mostly brilliant in their own way and their 2003 album “The Earth Is Not A Cold, Dead Place is probably in my top three or four albums ever).
It’s good to know that EITS have the capacity to keep delivering after all these years, and I can’t wait to see them live in Edinburgh next month.