Thursday, 14 February 2013

My Heart’s In The Highlands

It’s been a year since The Big Flit from Nairn to Musselburgh and this week we’re back north visiting family and friends. Given the amount of time that has passed and the relatively few visits we’ve paid over the last twelve months I had expected any homesickness to very, very mild. But no. I am almost literally hurling.

Despite originally being an East Lothian boy it seems my heart’s in the Highlands, as Dylan put it.
Maybe when I’m back to work on Monday the sickness will have passed and I’ll wonder why a few days in Inverness and Nairn created such a wave of emotion.

Meantime it’s worth observing how our old patch has developed and what it is we miss - and don’t miss - about it.

Inverness is in many ways the pinnacle of the consumerist society. The whole city centre is a big pile of shops - mostly national chains with a smattering of international tax dodgers. But there seems to be a wee revival of local indies going on. As HMV struggles, and Dixons and Jessops lie empty, there are signs punters are happy to spend what little money they currently have on something a bit special and in the right atmosphere.

As a Highland Cycle Campaigner (I don’t think I cancelled my membership when I moved - I hope they’re making good use of my annual tenner or whatever it was) I used to badger councillors, officials and agencies to capitalise on Inverness’s potential to become a cycling city. So it’s great to see something like Velocity operating at the top of Stephen’s Brae. Those bike racks that were installed as part of the multi-million pounds “Streetscape” project some years back are no longer unloved. Velocity provides space to learn how to fix your bike and serves a great cappuccino, which I’m guessing helps pay for the fixing lessons and overheads.

It’s a wee bit of bike heaven in a city so dominated by car culture - retail parks, malls, suburban sprawl, and constant demands for 120 miles of dual carriageway to Perth. On my visit I happened to read this great article about England’s chief medic calling for cycling to be integral to planning as a public health measure. If only Scotland understood. Instead we’re led by an SNP government ramping up spending on new roads rather than fixing the ones we’ve got and making them easier for cyclists to share.

The snatches of conversations I caught drifting over from the other tables were all about bikes. I really hope Velocity is the start of something big.

The old Melven’s bookshop (latterly James Thin and I think a Toymaster for a while) is now an indoor market called The Village. It’s a low-fi mix of jumble sale style stalls, retro clothes rails and sk8r dude gear. Upon entering the shop the girl at the front till was slipping a Talking Heads LP onto a turntable. If that’s not a positive sign I don’t know what is!

The Bairn got some emergency toys (In every sense - we were out without her backpack of Octonauts gear so needed some stand-ins and for 50p we got a couple of Matchbox metal vehicles including a rescue snow plough lorry) and I came dangerously close to buying a sports jacket football commentator Archie Macpherson would have been proud of.

I’m also delighted to see the real ale boom is causing one new business to brim with goodies. Up Castle Street there’s a wee shop selling over 200 varieties of beer. I stocked up on some new-looking Highland brews including Speyside (beer from malt whisky country?) and wonder if this could be a decent rival to the Highland capital’s whisky purveyors. Tourists flock to Inverness to see the monster, visit the battlefield, buy cashmere sweaters and shortbread at James Pringle Weavers, and as it’s the Highlands it makes sense to buy a bottle of whisky. But a bottle of beer is cheaper and at least you can be sure the local economy will truly benefit from your purchase.

In terms of development I see the UHI Beechwood campus is taking shape and the pedestrian/cycle bridge over the A9 is about to slot into place. This link has enormous potential to make walking and cycling between Raigmore/Drakies/city centre and the city suburbs so much easier. It’s still a shame the UHI development doesn’t include a halt on the railway line that passes through the middle of it.

And speaking of public transport one thing that hasn’t changed is the shoddy bus service. Information is almost non-existent, shelters are tiny and grim, and tickets are ludicrously priced. To get from Raigmore Hospital to the city centre (a ten minute journey at most) is £1.55 for a single. It seems like only yesterday it was 55p.

Earlier this week we had to make a few bus trips across the city so opted for a “Dayrider” ticket. The sides of the buses state these are £3.20. When I asked for two and offered £6.40 the driver paused and asked if at any point we were likely to need to go to Culloden (part of the eastern suburbs). Erm, yes. Ah, well you’ll need the “other” day ticket. That’ll be £7 in total, thanks.

It’s been great visiting old chums and slipping back into old habits - like a pint of Red Kite in Hoots and a fry up in Rendezvous - but one of the big differences we notice is the lack of anywhere to take the Bairn if the weather’s lousy. Anywhere that isn’t a shopping mall or a retail park. Living so close to Edinburgh we’ve become used to using the National Museum in Chambers Street to fill a grey day.

Whatever happened to the plans Highland Council drew up to establish a decent museum and art gallery in Inverness? I recall public exhibitions and talk of using the college buildings in the Crown or the Royal Mail depot behind the library in Farraline Park. I guess the Age of Austerity put paid to it. At least we’re not in Moray where it seems complete philistines are running the show.

In Nairn our old house is proving to be a great home for someone else and one of our friends has secured a plot on the allotment site where we had ours.

And Nairn is perhaps where the biggest difference worth commenting on is. Brace yourself. The Nairnshire Telegraph (still only twelve pages long with cracking front page leads such as “Lack of directional signs in temporary car park elicits mixed reaction from public”) is in COLOUR!

I think I’ll have to crack open one of those local beers to settle my nerves.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Bottled Out Of TV Appearance

So I completely messed up Dry January. Right at the end. I was within hours of the arrival of February but I blew it.

I survived Dry January
Oh, I didn’t fall off the wagon. No, no, no. I’m talking about a chance to open my heart to a nosey nation and be truly famous for five minutes. I took a call from breakfast TV. They’d heard I’d shunned booze for a whole month and wanted me to catch the night train down south so I could appear on their sofa looking fresh faced, regaling the audience with hilarious anecdotes and raw emotion. An ex-journalist going more than twenty minutes without a swig from a hip flask is apparently newsworthy.

I had to let them down. You see, Dry January was a bit of doddle for me. (Wife-features made some whiney noises about wanting wine a couple of times. I pointed out she didn’t have to show solidarity but she’s a girl of principle and stamina. She has for example watched the entire box set of Murder, She Wrote - even the flimsy episodes towards the end where Angela Lansbury merely introduces someone else's criminal teleplay.)

Given that a month without drink had not been a rollercoaster ride I couldn’t really see me making great TV. Also, the last minute nature of their call meant I was committed to cooking that night’s tea and reading bedtime stories.

Plus, I’m Green Dad. I like to think I occasionally help correct misconceptions about Greens. Going on national daytime telly to bare my soul about how peppermint tea really helped me through the past four weeks, and how I was looking forward to breaking my fast with a craft brewed organic ale probably wouldn’t have busted any stereotypes.

Will I go dry next January? Probably not. I definitely saved a pile of cash not buying alcohol for a whole month, and I feel a bit healthier, but I think a better tactic for keeping my consumption in check is to view it as an occasional treat. The bottle of Red Kite Wife-features and I split on the evening of 1 February to celebrate our achievement reminded us of those great Friday nights we used to have in Hootananny in Inverness, after work with loads of friends. Or sometimes it would just be me and a bespectacled bookseller buddy. A few jars of the Black Isle Brewery’s finest, a Thai curry (that I would invariably forget to pay for) and a mad dash for the ridiculously early last train home to Nairn. Good times.

But instead of wanting more once the bottle was finished I was happy with the rush of memories. Anyway, drinking less is the least of my challenges. For the past couple of weeks I’ve mostly been off coffee. My old nemesis the caffeine-induced migraine made a spectacular return so I’ve ditched the java (apart from a birthday treat with cake yesterday) and I’m looking for ways to limit the wheat I eat. A fortnight ago I would have had a panic attack at the thought of no pot of black coffee and marmalade on toast for breakfast but I definitely feel better without them.

Given the rate at which I used to go through decent ground coffee and the rising cost of a loaf I’ll probably save a few bob by switching to porridge and mugs of tea. Local oats and Fairtrade tea, of course. I have no problems conforming to some stereotypes.

Decarbonising The School Run

Part of the routine we’ve established in recent months is that I walk the Bairn to nursery on a Friday morning. She takes great delight in “reminding” me the way to go. I insist I’ve forgotten and she plays along by explaining as we walk where we’re going and the landmarks we passing. The route to nursery seems kind of obvious from our house but in a society where car is king it’s actually a bit of faff trying to take a direct line.

Lucy was tired of pooper-scooping
There’s car parks, railings, disappearing pavements, roadworks, construction sites, scaffolding, illegally parked vehicles, unbearably slow pedestrian crossings and passing traffic comprising half asleep motorists texting, HGVs that shudder to a sudden halt when the lights go amber and exhaust fume-tastic convoys of buses.Oh, and the last wee bit of the walk is referred to by the Bairn as Poo Lane. (Hum the popular CBeebies theme 64 Zoo Lane and it’ll seem hilarious. Sticky floor, sticky floor, Poo Lane. Some poos are large, some poos are small, some get cleaned by the council, some never at all…)

There’s been a fair bit of debate locally about the issue of parents’ determination to park within millimetres of a school or nursery’s front door. And there’s always a concern that our obesity crisis is made worse by the fact that very few kids walk to school these days. But of course if you work chances are it’s easiest for you to use a car to drop the wean off, head for the office, and pop into the supermarket on the way home. I have sympathy for that arrangement but sometimes I see such inconsiderate parking - and quite often engines left running - that I find myself tutting out loud. I know. I’m basically an anarchist.

It’s a real challenge for proper Greenies. How do you decarbonise the School Run? I’m only doing it one day out of five and the day in question is one where I can arrive at the office a bit later than usual. I also do the sort of work that can be done or partially done using a BlackBerry or a broadband connection at home. Added to that I cycle to the office.

It would be really interesting to know what all the motoring parents dropping their kids off at our local school do for a living and how society or some level of government could assist in working out a way to meet work and family commitments without needing to burn loads of fossil fuels. I suppose there’s the electric car revolution (any day now I’m sure - jet packs too) but of course you’d need lots more nice power from renewables or it’d be pointless. It probably makes more sense to reduce the need to travel in the first place. Certainly half of all the traffic that passes through our town is just that - passing through. The glum looks of the lone drivers (doesn’t anybody car share?) suggest they have no option but to endure the daily jam. I wonder if that’s really the case.

It’s so important when developments are planned in our communities that they are either within walking/cycling distance of an existing school or a new school is made part of the development. Employers could have incentives for home-working or at least flexibility for employees to do a low carbon School Run. For those whose jobs involve early or late starts and finishes we could have more breakfast clubs and after-school clubs to help.

Just think of the benefits if parents and kids got a walk each day along streets not choked with traffic particulates. Better for our pockets and better for our health. Yet somehow I can’t quite see the back of the daily jam just yet.