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Friday, 27 July 2012

Highland Adventures - Isle of Rum

Star rating 10/10

I had been warned of the 'murderous hoardes' of midges on such a lovely day on the Isle of Rum, but yet again nothing, not even the most vicious small insect, could ruin this perfect Scottish island paradise for me.

Skye and Eigg had been so fabulous I couldn't see how Rum could compare, but this just may be my favourite of the Highland Small Isles. Sailing into the small cove at Guirdil, past an old wrecked French trawler to add a frisson of excitement, we were soon among green majestic rolling hills.

The view from the 571 metre summit of Orval was stunning. And the day's early wildlife rewards were a golden eagle and an otter. Rum is now mainly a nature reserve managed by Scottish National Heritage, and the walking and dramatic coastal views are fabulous.

It is more well known for being home to Kinloch Castle, built in 1900 by its millionaire owner Sir George Bullough. The red sandstone pile is actually more of a house than a castle but there you go. There is a scandalous story about how the family got their title involving King Edward VII and a messy divorce suit. And what the young landlord got up to inside his castle sounds equally eyebrow raising. The castle was officially closed for my visit, but it was more thrilling to press my nose up against the windows and see the grand piano draped with a leopard skin, and the polar bear rug. These are just a few remnants of the no expense spared attitude to filling his home/castle with fineries that Sir George had. Thank goodness the island is now in safer hands following a community buy out.

But no wealth on this earth could buy the treat in store on the boat ride home. Our small boat was suddenly accompanied by a pod of 200 playful dolphins. It was one of the most thrilling experiences you could imagine to have them swim alongside the boat, leaping in the air as they went, for miles. Divinely beautiful creatures which it was an absolute privilege to witness.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Highland Adventures - Isle of Skye

Star rating - 10/10

Another exhilarating and dramatically beautiful day's walking today started off with seal spotting on the way into Skye.

The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and all was right with the world on this majestic island. And a fabulous and rather privileged walk around Loch Coruisk in the heart of the Black Cuillin mountains was definitely worth the effort.

Lots of visitors to this part of Skye don't venture far along the shore, and consequently those who do are rewarded with a seat among the most awe inspiring mountains in a most tranquil and peaceful setting. It truly is amazing.

On the way back to Knoydart we saw a mInke whale near the boat, and the excitement of seeing such an array of wildlife so close up nearly made me come over all David Attenborough.

And so my wonderful Highland adventures continue...

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Highland Adventures- Isle of Eigg

Star rating 9/10

The Isle of Eigg is pretty much what you might picture for your perfect Scottish hideaway (of course minus the sunshine - for today at least). It is dramatic and beautiful with a colourful and bloody history.

My minor achievement today was climbing An Sgurr, which at 383m is not bad for an afternoon's work. And although the mist obscured the view from the summit, I am assured it is usually pretty impressive.

Eigg was the subject of a community buyout in 1997 from former Olympic bobsleigher and not so great landlord Keith Schellenberg. Today it is home to a small but seemingly thriving community, and some very endearing collie dogs too.

It has a rugged coast line, which as well as being isolated and very scenic, also has some caves with a fascinating history. One is called Massacre Cave, after a sixteenth century clan rivalry which ended up with the whole Eigg community being burnt alive in the said cave. All except an old woman who refused to retreat to the cave, and also refused to give away the hiding place of her clansfolk. Sounds like a tough Scottish cookie.

The same cave was also the hideout for a follower of Bonnie Prince Charlie. The poor wee lamb found the stone a bit hard for a pillow and asked his personal gillie to cut him a sod of earth to rest his head on. His gillie conjectured that it was a pretty pointless exercise as he was going to lose his head the next day - which the story goes he duly did. You just can't get the staff...

Eigg is magical, dramatic and pretty special, and there's no way I'm going to let a bit of mist get in the way of a good story. And I will most definitely return one day.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Holiday Adventures - Knoydart Peninsula, Scottish Highlands

Star rating 9/10

My walking holiday with Wilderness Scotland started with a thrilling sighting of a basking shark swimming around the small boat we took from Mallaig to our base at Doune. Knoydart is supposed to be the most inaccessible and remote part of the British Isles, and it is fair to say it is surpassing all my expectations so far.

It started with the incredibly scenic railway journey from Glasgow on the West Highland Railway. And as if the shark wasn't enough, in the morning there was a stag having a rest outside the kitchen window of my log cabin. It's certainly a far cry from sunny Manchester.

And no the weather has not been great - ironic as up until the day I arrived north west Scotland had been enjoying its best summer for years, firmly bucking the rest of the wet weather trend the rest of us have been enduring. But to be honest the beauty and drama of this place more than make up for a bit of wind and rain, and anyway the sun now seems to have returned.

Knoydart is not so much of an empty place as an emptied place, as its population was decimated by the land clearances to allow rich nineteenth century landowners to use it as their hunting and shooting personal playground.

And its lochs and mountains make perfect walking country - even for a softie like me. We have walked around the beautiful coastline around Airor, hiked in the dramatic Black Hills, and walked up (and down) Mam Barrisdale- made all the more wild with cascades of water forming mountain streams with the recent rain.

And the reward at the end of a great
days walking was a pint in the most remote pub on the British mainland - The Old Forge.

This is simply a magnificent part of Scotland, so remote you can only easily reach it by boat, which I am very glad about as it leaves me free to enjoy it. Perfect peace and dramatic beauty - what a holiday.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Exhibitions- The People's Palace, Glasgow

Star rating 8/10

You would expect a city such as Glasgow with a proud socialist tradition to celebrate the lives of its working men and women- and funnily enough it does just that in The People's Palace.

Set at the edge of Glasgow Green, a park near the Clyde on the eastern fringe of the city, this is a real delight of a collection. It covers the whole experience of working people's lives from shopping, leisure, births, marriages and deaths too. There is a particularly good section on the city's housing - through from tenement slums to today's more modern experience.

And in it's adjoining Winter Gardens, there is a sunny and light glass house to have a drink and a snack in very pleasant surroundings too.

It has some great political and cultural banners, one if which reminded me that I haven't been to Glasgow since it was City of Culture back in 1990 - way too long ago.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Holiday adventures - Glasgow Gems

Star rating 9/10

I love Glasgow for being built on the riches of the Industrial Revolution, much like Manchester. And there is no greater symbol of Victorian civic pride than the imposing and magnificent City Chambers in George Square.

Glasgow has beautiful architecture at every turn- in wonderful buildings both large and small. You just have to walk around with your eyes open.

Glasgow Cathedral is impressive, with an amazing medieval lower chapel. But its real gem is just behind it on a grassy mound.

Necropolis is a short walk up the hill behind and boasts marvellous views across the whole city from this wonderful Victorian cemetery. You can have fun spotting some interesting memorials, like the one to the man who wrote 'Wee Willie Winkie'. Or you can just sit in perfect tranquility with your paper for half an hour. Whichever...

Glasgow Film Theatre is a great place to watch independent films and has a lovely little veggie cafe, Cafe Cosmo, to frequent even if you don't want to catch a film. It is a fine old venue too.

I stayed at the lovely Grasshoppers Hotel just a stone's throw from Central Station in the heart of the city. It's on the top floor of a converted old beautiful office building. Highly recommended.

It's around 20 years since I last came to Glasgow, but this wonderful couple of days here has reminded me not to leave it so long next time.

Films - In Your Hands- directed by Lola Doillon

Star rating - 6/10

I've got to admit I am a total Kristin Scott Thomas fan. For me she is classy, elegant, intelligent, and a great role model for women of a certain age.
But this French thriller simply doesn't equal her significant acting talents.

She plays a doctor who is captured by the husband of a patient who died following a failed operation. The story is chiefly about the relationship that develops between captor and captive. But the plot is not taut and tense as it us billed. It is just unbelievable and predictable.

It is in no way the fault of KST though, and Pio Marmai is also excellent as the tortured young man who is channelling his grief in an extremely inadvisable way. It is a shame as Scott Thomas's last two films 'I've Loved You So Long' and 'Leaving' were memorable and affecting pieces.

Exhibitions- The Burrell Collection, Glasgow

Star rating - 10/10

It's amazing that just a short bus ride out of Glasgow city centre is one if the most wonderful art collections set amongst the serene and peaceful woodlands of Pollock Country Park.

The Burrell Collection was the life's work and passion of successful businessman and art lover Sir William Burrell (1861-1958). It is a wonderful eclectic mix of treasures, set in one of the lightest and beautiful settings for a gallery I have ever been to.

And really there is something here for everyone. Burrell was a keen collector of the sculptor Auguste Rodin; of the painter Edgar Degas, and many more giants of the art world.

But there are also delicate stained glass windows, treasures from ancient Greece and Egypt, and wonderful medieval tapestries. Ming vases are just around the corner from intricate porcelain baskets.

Burrell was always keen for his collection to be shared and shown during his lifetime, and this marvellous collection is as lasting and priceless a legacy as anyone could leave.

And the fact that its setting is so lush and tranquil is another bonus. This is a real gem which it was a privilege to visit.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Films- The Women on the 6th Floor - directed by Phillippe Le Guay

Star rating - 6/10

This is a pleasant enough film about the fortunes of a group of Spanish maids working for wealthy French families.

Natalia Verbeke plays Maria, the domestic hired help who wins over her employer Jean-Louis, played by Fabrice Luchini. He comes to long for the love of life displayed by these women, in contrast to the rigid boredom espoused by his wife and her friends.

The plot is a bit unbelievable, and the characters are somewhat stereotyped, but it's diverting enough. This is something of a missed opportunity though, as it gives the impression of a very funny and delightful film just waiting to get out but never quite managing to.

Exhibitions - The Essence of Beauty: 500 Years of Italian Art-Kelvingrove Art Gallery, Glasgow

Star rating - 7/10

This is a nice little exhibition of Glasgow's Kelvingrove Art Gallery's finer Italian pieces, and a few more besides.

The exhibits are organised through the centuries from the Renaissance through to the nineteenth century. My favourites were The Annunciation by Botticelli, with its amazing perspectives; and a beautiful porcelain dish traditionally given to Italian women after they had given birth. The detail on it is really ornate and the colours vibrant.

And while you are there don't forget to sample some of the other delights of the museum, like Salvador Dali's controversial Surrealist masterpiece Christ of St John of the Cross. And the little section in the Cultural Survival room on the haunting and fascinating history of the former inhabitants of the remote island of St Kilda is another gem.

All in all a great way to spend a rainy summer Glasgow afternoon :)

Exhibitions - Glasgow School of Art

Star rating 10/10

If you have ever wondered what a brilliant, beautiful yet totally functional building feels like then take a trip to Charles Rennie Macintosh's Glasgow School of Art.

It was completed in two parts due to lack of funding, the first half in 1899 and the second in 1909. But it looks as modern and inspirational today as it must have done then. It's amazing that Mackintosh was only 28 when he designed it, and as a former student of the institution he knew exactly what Glasgow's budding artists needed to work in and be inspired by.

You can go on a tour of the building, guided by a current student. I was shown around by recent graduate Alice, whose knowledge was extensive.
You see the stairwells inspired by Japanese art, and the strong lines and beautiful floral details at every turn.

By far the most staggeringly impressive room I saw was the library. It is dark panelled with light flooding in. Mackintosh paid attention to every detail here and throughout the school, and would never scrimp on the finer touches.

And best of all this is no museum. It is a fully functional art school still inspiring future stars. Which is more than can be said for the much more recently built 1950s design school across the road which was considered no longer fit for purpose and recently demolished...

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Books – Richer Than God – Manchester City, Modern Football and Growing Up by David Conn

Star rating – 9/10

I admit that I am a proud Manchester City supporter, still relishing the taste of being Premier League Champions at long last, but with many more battle scars from the years of disappointment and failure. And so I was always bound to love this account of my club’s history by Guardian journalist David Conn. But this book is much more than a supporter’s handbook – it is a serious look at the politics and, perhaps more to the point, the economics behind our beloved beautiful game.

Only Manchester City fans can tell tales quite like this - of the ups and downs we have had in the past couple of decades supporting our glorious club, and Conn, a true blue since boyhood, is very good on the detail, told with humour and heart. The promotions, successive relegations, sell outs, buy outs, stars and flops are all here. Only my club with our famous Joe Royle coined disease, Cityitis, could have made such hard work of things. Conn is very good, for example, on the massive let down that was Franny Lee, who came back like a knight in shining armour as a star of our past, only to sell ‘our best players to pay for restaurants.’ And as someone who was part of the Kippax sit-in to get rid of the hated former Chairman Peter Swales, that particular piece of disloyalty and greed still cuts deep with me.

But Conn is also very concerned with the overtaking of the whole national game, not just Manchester City, by money men who can buy and sell clubs, can load them with debt to finance personal fortunes, and who are collectively raising ticket prices and ruining its soul, for this author at any rate.  It is very well written and well argued. And with the tragedy of Rangers unbelievably unravelling not so far away over the border, it could not be timelier.

Conn is one of those City supporters who lost their way and stopped believing religiously in their club, as these changes in the game occurred. This is perhaps understandable for a journalist who has to cultivate an altogether more dispassionate viewpoint. I wish all our clubs could be collectively and communally owned like in Germany or the mighty Barcelona, but they are not and I cannot see that happening any time soon. So I am not sorry that my club has been bought by a rich sheik - and I defy football fan of other clubs in our position to spurn the riches, and yes the success, which we enjoy now (although of course many say they would).

And although I have never stopped believing, and still get the same buzz out of the roar of the crowd at the Etihad as I did when I first went to Maine Road over twenty years ago, this is still a book to really appreciate. Obviously it will appeal to City fans, but I do hope that other people concerned about the future of football, and its place in the fabric of our society, will read it too. Now roll on the start of the season...

Monday, 16 July 2012

Films - Nostalgia for the Light - directed by Patricio Guzmán

Star rating – 9/10

This is a spectacular, moving, and totally original documentary from Patricio Guzmán that really is worth seeking out. The concept sounds a bit unlikely, as it covers two seemingly totally unrelated subjects.

The astronomers of Chile study the starry skies above the Atacama Desert, the driest place on Earth, for the mysteries of space. And desperate relatives search amongst the same territory, only this time below the parched earth for the Disappeared - those people who were murdered for their political views under the military dictatorship of General Pinochet that came to power in 1973, after the overthrow of the elected left wing Government and murder of its President Salvador Allende. For the same desert was the site of many of the notorious concentration camps, brilliantly sketched by one architect who was held prisoner there, and kept every detail in his head.

This film contains simply stunning cinematography, with some of the most beautiful and barren places on the globe, and contains images of the solar system that match the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci for sheer glory, and majesty.

And the quest for answers, either in the solar system and far flung galaxies; or for what happened to brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters all those years ago is mesmerising and moving. This is a wonderful film that is awe inspiring and heartbreaking, but ultimately carries a message of hope for humanity.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

DVD - Red Dog - directed by Kriv Stenders

Star rating – 7/10

If you are looking for a light hearted film to take away the gloom of this dismal summer weather, then Red Dog, directed by Kriv Stenders might be just what you need.

It’s a big hearted story of a red dog (uncannily enough) set against the beautiful sunsets and arid deserts of Western Australia. Red Dog is everyone's dig and no one’s dog, as he has those magical doggie qualities that help to bring people together in the small mining community of Dampier.

So it’s a bit Skippy the bush kangaroo, and a bit Carry On – but in a good and generous way. Our canine hero settles on one master, and as that master is easy on the eye American John, played by Josh Lucas, frankly, who can blame him? He is also adopted by the group of miners in the small town. And it is small town in attitude as well as size.

This is a funny and unashamed romantic tearjerker of a film, based on a true story. Great dog, hunks and amazing scenery. What's not to like?

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Books - Dial M for Murdoch - by Tom Watson & Martin Hickman

Star rating – 9/10

It sounds a bit implausible as I already know the beginning, end – and lots of the gory details in between – of this story, and yet this excellent account of the full extent of the dark arts practiced by Rupert Murdoch and his colleagues at News International has to be the most page turning, thrilling read of the year. Labour politician Tom Watson, and Independent journalist Martin Hickman have written the story of the phone hacking scandal that shocked us so deeply when some of the more horrendous details emerged last year, and it is just crying out to be read by any right minded person who cares about basic human liberties and the abuse of power of any sort.

To be fair I was expecting something of a biased version of events, considering the personal experiences of News International that Watson has endured, and his pivotal role in the Commons Select Committee quizzing of the participants. And the book does start off by reinforcing some of my prejudices about New Labour politicians. For example, Watson recounts how he became disenchanted with Tony Blair due to Cherie's haircuts and the redecoration of their nuclear bunker being charged to public purse – not a mention of the war in Iraq then! To my mind that is dubious judgement to say the least.

In fact parts of the first chapter about Watson are slightly unnecessary and biased in tone. And also, dare I say it, the writing comes over in a News Of The World manner when discussing Rebekah Brooks’/Wade’s appearance, describing her 'with her burning ambitious eyes and extravagantly curled red hair tumbling over her shoulders.'  It’s a little over the top, and to be fair to her, which I am not usually unduly concerned about, as her curly hair seems quite natural to me even if she is a completely loathsome individual. 

But these minor details soon pale totally into insignificance as the taut writing and fast paced account takes hold. The extraordinary arrogance and criminality of some of the players in the News International stable, and the way all our politicians (from every party who they would pay any attention to at any right– hence the Liberal Democrat self righteously stance) has more than an echo of Watergate.

And with some of the decisions about who will fall from grace at the final reckoning and be held to account for the heinous crimes committed in the quest for world domination via our media, still in the balance - there is more to come still. Some of the names of the protagonists are kept tantalising hidden (‘a senior executive at Wapping’) due to ongoing legal proceedings. Later editions should be able to be more candid and shocking then!

But the detail that is given is actually extremely frightening and Orwellian. You get the distinct feeling that Murdoch and his cronies would have, and did, stop at nothing to get their way. Murder; harassment; wrongful imprisonment; invasion of the privacy of celebrities, victims of crime, and anyone the intimate details of whose lives would generate newspaper sales; all this on an industrial scale is all involved in one way or another. It is extremely scary stuff.

There are some unlikely heroes in the shape of Hugh Grant and Tommy Sheridan. And I have to agree with hacking victim Charlotte Church when she commented of the Murdochs and their pals that 'they are not truly sorry, only sorry they got caught'. This breathtaking book is an abject lesson in the corruption that comes about with absolute power through control of our media. I can only hope that the guilty will truly pay the price for their actions – but somehow I suspect they will not. Well done to Watson and Hickman. Shame on the Murdochs, Wade, Coulson et al. Read this book, and wait for the next chapter in this disgusting saga to unfold.