Friday, 28 December 2012

Post-Christmas Cold Turkey

January’s going to be a dry month. This has nothing to do with the droughts predicted by mild-mannered environmentalists - or as the Telegraph's Delingpole describes them, Eco Nazis.

No, my dry January is about a lack of booze rather than a lack of rainfall. I know a few folk who go without drink each January and I’ve decided to join them. I appreciate I am risking my reputation as The Life And Soul Of The Party, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take.

Some people are taking it on as a challenge to raise money for charity, which is very worthy. I’m doing it for someone special. Me.

Jaffas. Not for sharing.
I have pretty addictive tendencies. They say the first step to tackling a problem with alcohol is acknowledging you have one. That’s not where I am so I don’t need to go there but I am happy to admit I find it hard to give up on a good thing until it’s gone. Even simple things like tea and biscuits. I will drink the whole pot and woe betide anyone who thinks those Jaffa Cakes are for sharing.

Even in the wild, physically pushing myself, I find it hard to resist extending my enjoyment. One summer’s day a friend and I bagged four Munros in a row - twice as many as we’d planned but we were easily tempted because they looked so close. I’ve never felt so puggled in all my life. But incredibly satisfied.

All the chocolate I got for Christmas from various sources has been scoffed in flagrant breach of the GDAs printed on the wrappers. I’ve never been the sort of bloke who gets drunk for the sake of it, and sadly I’ve known too many people whose lives have been wrecked by the inability to say no to another round.

The health experts (aka Wife-features) will tell you the best advice is moderation. You can have a drink five days out of seven, apparently. You just need to avoid binges and sustained pummelling of the liver.

It’s my birthday in early February so that gives me something to aim for. Mind you, I don’t think I’ll celebrate by going on a Harry Nilsson-style bender. The last time I abstained was when Wife-features was heavily-laden with the Bump (before it became the Bairn), and when I attempted to “wet the baby’s head” in the Corriegarth pub in Inverness, I almost passed out after my first half.

Going without could also save us a few bob. I prefer artisan ales to cornershop lager and well-aged single malts to Buckie, so a trip to the wine merchant to stock up isn’t usually cheap. I have a feeling those boxes of herbal tea at the back of the kitchen cupboard are going to be pressed into action. Wish me luck!

Carrots And Sticks, Bananas And Pyjamas

Carrots and sticks. Incentives and punishments. The impossible balancing act that is parenting.

How do you encourage a three year old to eat her greens without resorting to a promise of ice cream for pudding?

It’s an eternal dilemma and if anyone ever properly cracks it they deserve a Nobel prize. Luckily our Bairn loves her greens - except peas. And sprouts. And lettuce. Basically, she likes broccoli. We regularly have to explain that she can’t say she doesn’t like something she hasn’t tried. And we try to praise her for trying.

It’s hard work and it seems to us the answer is to be pretty firm. Here’s your tea and that’s all there is. If you don’t eat it and you get hungry later your tea will still be here. No sneaky bowls of cereal and biscuits to fill your belly when you could fill it with perfectly reasonable things like bangers, mash and wholesome vegetables.

For a while I slipped into pudding promise mode. Eat up your tea and you’ll get a sweet treat. But in our house puddings aren’t the norm so I’ve had to wean myself off that tactic. We recently made some stickers with different pictures on them and created a sort of combined reward-height chart so we can track the progress of polite eating and physical growth. It sort of works.

Not a carrot or a stick but a spurtle
I’ve also hit upon the notion of making potentially boring food fun. It’s completely against my nature so I do have to work at it. I am the sort of guy who, like Calvin’s dad in Calvin and Hobbes, loves the idea of a bowl of plain oatmeal after a 6am bike ride in the snow. Thankfully our Bairn has responded with enthusiasm to the idea of adding things like bananas and raisins to porridge.

The other thing we’ve been trying is having porridge after bath and before bed. I looked up the sorts of food that can help aid sleep. It turns out porridge, bananas and toast are excellent snooze-inducements. My ideal breakfast is super-soporific!

The first few times we tried it we both conked out within minutes of hitting the pillows. It’s less reliable these days but does at least give assurance that the Bairn is going to bed with a belly full of goodness rather than gulch. An 8pm bowl of porridge also prevents me snacking on cheese and other comfort foods later on as a coping strategy when Question Time comes on the telly.

And my spurtle is ideal for making violent gestures at the screen.

The Bike Bells Weren't Ringing Out On Christmas Day

The streets round our way weren’t exactly packed with kids on new bikes and scooters on Christmas Day but we did see a few. It does seem traditional toys are increasingly old hat while iPad thingies are what the kids of today crave.

Our Bairn got a wee scooter, replacing a little wooden tricycle she’s had for two years and hasn’t shown a huge amount of interest in. Except when the Tour de France appears on telly - then she starts racing round the flat.

Quentin and Ned
She also got what could have turned out to be a thoroughly boring board game about buses. But she loves it. I love it too. Mainly because the passengers look like Quentin Tarantino and a Ned from Still Game. (Did I hear you say no wonder, all bus passengers look like that? See me in my office afterwards.)

Anyway, back to the scooter. My heart stopped briefly on Christmas Eve when I smugly suggested to the Bairn she was getting a bit big for her wee trike, to which she replied no she wasn’t. Aarrgghh.

But in the end the scooter proved a huge hit. Helping her maintain a straight line instead of veering off into bushes has brought back all sorts of memories of Christmases past for me. I remember my younger brother and I getting matching BMXs in the late 80s. They were red and white. Mine had stunt pegs. In my jogging suit and wearing my Sony Walkman I can tell you I was the hippest dude in town.

In fact, I can recall every bike I’ve ever had, all the way back to a wee metal tricycle with a red and yellow dragon on it. (Does that mean it was a Raleigh?) I had a Grifter at some point (three gears!) and when we moved to Germany I got a bike with a back-pedal brake. Awesome for skids.

No new bike for me this Christmas - the three I have in the shed are enough to be going on with. This past year has been a bit of cycling revolution for me - I do much less leisure cycling and lots more commuting in the saddle. I’ve also been made acutely aware of the insanely car-centric society we encourage.

Edinburgh in many ways leads the field when it comes to supporting cycling in cities. The council has promised to spend a decent (and increasing) chunk of its budget on cycling infrastructure. The city is full of ups and downs and cobbled streets but it’s also full of amazingly straight avenues with dazzling architecture and green spaces. If any of Scotland’s seven cities is suited for a cycling culture like they have in Holland and Denmark it’s Edinburgh. I love the idea of simply going from A to B without breaking a sweat and needing high-vis gear and a survival of the fittest mentality.

Sadly it seems the car is king and there’s the most violent reaction to any suggestion to make areas of the city centre car-free. The other day I tried to get from George Street to Holyrood and was genuinely terrified. Between the roadworks, the tram tracks, the HGVs, the buses and the hoardes of Christmas shoppers ignoring the pedestrian signals I was utterly confused and mortified. Quite why Princes Street couldn’t have been made a walking and cycling only zone I don’t know. To have that world famous shopping avenue cut off from the gardens by lanes of zipping traffic is pretty idiotic when you think about it.

My switch from cycling for fun to commuting also seems to have led to an increase in punctures. Maybe it’s just that I cycle through fairly industrial bits of Edinburgh. I’m also increasingly aware of the behaviour that gives cyclists a bad name. I recently stopped at a red light at a very busy junction near Meadowbank stadium only watch the woman on the bike in front go sailing straight ahead. A bloke on a bike pulled up beside me and pointed out he’d cycled behind her for a fair distance watching as she went through loads of red lights. When our light went green he set off with the intention of flagging her down for a chat. I wished him luck.

My favourite encounter of the year has to be the one on a main road between Portobello and the city centre. It was early morning and there wasn’t much traffic but I still pressed the button to use the crossing. Off to my left I could hear a roaring noise like a jumbo coming in to land. It was a motorbike. He’d clearly just got up to a good (almost certainly illegal) speed and was having to slam on the brakes to allow me to cross. As I did so he yelled “Come on! 7am! Give us a break!” I pedalled on with the coolness of Quentin Tarantino on a bus.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Loafing About On A Long Walk

Wife-features misses the Highland air. I know what she means. Although we’re by the sea and technically in East Lothian rather than the throbbing metropolis that is Scotland‘s capital, we‘re also on a bus route and in a town centre that gets choked with commuting traffic every morning and evening.

I also think there’s more of a culture of smoking in public. Maybe it’s just there are more people, so more cigarettes.
Levenhall Links, looking west to Musselburgh.

But although we miss long, bracing (and at times genuinely balmy) walks on Nairn beach we’re lucky to have another kind of wilderness on our doorstep here in Musselburgh. It’s Levenhall Links.

On the eastern edge of the town the links are probably best known as home to Musselburgh racecourse and a golf course. In fact, not just any old pitch and putt - this is the oldest course in the world! I have fond memories of playing a birdie on the course back when I was a teenager and my dad thought it’d be fun to show me how to play golf. I think he immediately regretted it and I probably spoiled a good walk, as the saying goes.

The real treat lies behind the gowf and the nags. There’s a massive area of “claimed” land composed of ash from the Cockenzie coal plant along the cost. (It’s not reclaimed as it’s never been land before.) Over decades this ash has been heaped into massive grey mountains which have formed murky lagoons which in turn have slowly transformed into amazing meadows of grasses and flowers. The area is famed among twitchers for its flocks of migrating birds.

There are hopes to have it designated as a Local Nature Reserve. Worryingly the quality of some of the operational ash lagoons is deteriorating as Cockenzie owners Scottish Power focus their attention on what happens when the plant switched off next year.

It’s amazing to experience such peace and quiet aware of the area’s industrial DNA. On our walk there the other day we kicked a ball about, spotted a buzzard and watched it flit about from treetop to treetop, and we hunkered down in a brick bunker bird hide to munch mince pies.

En route we were treated to the spectacle of a horse race, which the Bairn didn’t find terrifying as I had feared and she loved hearing them clip-clop round the enclosure at the end.

Bizarrely we witnessed a plonker in an SUV heaving a couple of loaves of bread into the pond - sorry, that should be onto the pond, as it was frozen. Every town should have a Joe the Swan Man like Nairn, to keep numpties in check. (Joe’s top tips were small pieces of bread so the birds don‘t choke and dropped at the water’s edge so it’s not just seagulls who feast.)
Ice and a slice (or twenty-three)?

What a great, low-fi day we had with zero expense. Access to green space is so important. We forget about it at our peril.

The real highlight was on the way back home - we somehow got onto the subject of growing old and the Bairn promised to look after us. “I’ll feed you soup and carrots and cucumber.” I’ve suggested to Wife-features we get that in writing.

Meantime I’m looking forward to lots more long walks. As the first professional golfer Walter Hagen famously said: “You're only here for a short visit. Don't hurry, don't worry. And be sure to smell the flowers along the way.”

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Noisy And Sickening - My Wind Farm Pilgrimage

The other weekend I combined two of my great loves - cycling and wind farms. NIMBYs and climate deniers like to scaremonger about turbines killing tourism. Some go even further - check out this Argyll community councillor’s crusade. She’s off to the UN to tell them wind farms increase CO2 emissions, make people ill and result in opponents getting death threats. Good luck with that.

While there’s no evidence wind farms deter visitors - indeed many developments are attractions in their own right - there’s plenty of evidence that cycle tourism is an important sector of the visitor economy. The other weekend I attempted to put the two together.

Having been granted a day pass from The Bairn and Wife-features I checked the maps and set off for the nearest wind farm to Musselburgh. An absolutely glorious bike ride ensued, weaving up and down the rolling East Lothian countryside - mostly up if I’m honest.

Apart from a slightly hairy bit between Ormiston and the turn-off for Humbie I was able to use very quiet B roads. My ultimate destination? Dun Law wind farm. It produces 120 Gwh of electricity a year, enough to supply 24,000 homes. It’s pretty visible from the main A68 road as you cross into the Borders.
Dun Law. Turning blades and swirling mist.

And it was the A68 that proved the only real hurdle in my renewable pilgrimage. The path beside the road runs out a couple of hundred yards short of the turn off that goes up the hill to Soutra Aisle from where you get a pretty close view of the wind farm. So, after a bit of trudging in a lumpy grass verge and an extremely cautious hop across the A68 I made it.

I counted almost 60 turbines in a row, their bases smothered in swirling mist. I could feel an enormous smile stretching across my face. I noticed a couple of very large birds of prey strutting about in a nearby field and watched a massive flock of geese honk by. None of them got minced by the blades as they steered well clear.

After a while I became aware of a strange, and frankly annoying whooshing sound. Then it dawned on me. It was the traffic over the horizon on the A68. Stop the traffic and it would be so peaceful.

If only Soutra Aisle was still an epicentre of herbal remedies, perhaps I could have calmed my queasiness.

I desperately wanted to spend some money in the local visitor economy and fill in some sort of form to say how much I enjoyed my trip. But the nearest shop was shut and from what I could tell the local pub was further up the A68 which only an idiot would attempt to cycle on.

This website describes the Borders as “Scotland at its traditional best“ and lists Dun Law wind farm as “thing to do”. Well, I’ve done it and will consider making a cycle pilgrimage there a new tradition. 

Leveson, Lying And A Local Christmas Dinner

“He can’t fit down the chimney! You’ll have to leave the front door unlocked.”

I can tell our Bairn is going to become one of those film-goers who quibbles with impractical events despite them happening during a work of fiction. Superman turns back time by reversing the earth’s rotation? Winged monkeys that fly and obey complex hostage-taking instructions? A Volkswagen Beetle with a mind of its own?

She’s only three and a half and it seems we’ve gone very quickly from realising Santa is a thing that happens to questioning the practicalities of Christmas traditions. I don’t recall her understanding the idea of Santa this time last year and I suspect by this time next year we’ll have been given a Leveson-style four-volume dossier of reasons why he can’t possibly exist in the way we have claimed.
Octonauts. Not real.

She’s already had words with her Octonauts toys in the bath, explaining to them that they’re not real animals living lives of drama under the sea but are in fact playthings. “Look, there’s the plug,” she tutted at them the other night.

So, I intend to enjoy the next couple of weeks of reasonably-wide-eyed festive innocence.

I’m not a great fan of Crimbo kitch and commercialisation, nor am I religious. In short, this for me is the time of year when I struggle to get out of bed in the morning because it’s dark and cold, struggle to stay awake past dinner because it’s dark and cold, and find the process of choosing gifts for people because of some arbitrary albeit well-signposted date a bit stressful.

Blimey what a Grinch I sound like. Twinkly mince pies, warm lights, hand-knitted drams and generous jumpers however I love. More than that I love being with people and having a laugh. My ideal Christmas and New Year break would be at a But n Ben in the wilderness with nothing but a roaring fire, Wallace and Gromit-sized piles of cheese and crackers, and a well stocked drinks cabinet to keep me, Wife-features, the Bairn and our best buddies merry. Yes, connecting with selected people - not the whole world.

The Bairn’s meeting with Santa was very different this year. It took place in the school where she’s been going to nursery since August. She was bold enough to sit next to him and tell him what she really, really wanted. (It’s Octonauts-related. Incidentally, meeting the big man in the red suit cost £1. His margin will be trimmed by the goody bag each kid is given after their visit. Ours contained a packet of Haribo. I mean - Haribo! What‘s that all about?) Last Christmas she was very unsure of him; indeed many other toddlers burst into tears. This is a common reaction I’m told.

The Bairn understands if she’s very good between now and the 25th Santa will probably bring her a fabulous present. We are basically lying to our child for a month solid. And then rewarding her compliance with material possessions. Yeah. You’re right. I’m over-thinking.

This Christmas will be pretty restrained. Bairn’s first was an utter blow-out. We ended up shovelling half of her loot into the shed and bringing it out in instalments over the following twelve months.

Our flit from Nairn to Musselburgh almost a year ago due to yours truly’s so-called career dented our finances a fair bit and since then we’ve been pummelled by rises in grocery bills and energy bills. We get a local, organic veg box once a fortnight and by comparison the contents are cheaper than the big supermarkets. We’ve certainly spent a fair bit dining out when friends and relatives have visited, and it’s been far too easy to pig out on the delicious offerings of a certain Honest Toun ice cream emporium.

Hopefully that’s us settled and next year will be on an even keel.

Meantime, Wife-features is keen to have all local food on Christmas Day so I must remember to “book” the chicken from the poultry place along the coast. We’ll toast the New Year with some Archerfield Ales, Thistly Cross cider or maybe a dram of Glenkinchie (although that would require overlooking the dodgy tax arrangements of owners Diageo).

Perhaps the highlight of the festive marathon so far is the spectacularly inept parenting I displayed at the weekend in a major department store. The Bairn and I ended up in the toy department and I spotted a couple of games that would top off her pressie pile nicely but obviously I didn’t want her to see me buying them. I was holding our coats and began to wrap them around the games when it struck me that at that very moment an eagle-eyed security guard monitoring banks of CCTV images was probably leaping from his chair and calling for back up to deal with a highly suspicious character.
Kris Kringle. Not me.

I opted for a slightly-hidden carrying technique, making for the nearest till in case my motives were doubted. I thought I had got away with it but sadly two hours later when we had arrived home the Bairn took off her coat and shoes and said: “Can I see my games now?”

I’m ashamed to say further lying was required and the poor lassie now believes she was simply mistaken. But just to be sure, the games in question (if they magically appear under the tree on the 25th) will be from me, not Mr Kringle and I will make a full and humble apology for the deceit.

Never mind the media - where’s state-backed regulation of daft Dad behaviour when you need it?