And to find out more about what makes him tick, you can read Questions & Answers on the Biography page.
November 13th, 2014
Okay, so the gap between this blog and the last (almost exactly a year to the day, and written in exactly the same place) is proof once more (if, by chance, you needed it confirmed) that I am an extremely bad blogger. It’s not that I don’t like doing it – it’s just that, when actually sitting down to do it, I really can’t think of anything that anyone would find particularly interesting. To write about ‘my life’, I feel would seem quite self-indulgent and self-important; to write about my political views would most likely show me up as being a complete ignoramus (I’m certainly not going to even start on the Scottish Referendum – all I’ll say is that Scotland just and no more saved itself from years of uncertainty and deep recession – but changes will have to be made); and to write about books, TV programmes and films would make me seem opinionated and self-important. So I much prefer to keep my own counsel.
But then, if you happen to visit my website (and thank you for that…) and you see when the last post was written, then you might think that I’d gone completely off air or, at worst, fled this mortal coil. So, as I bounce across the Bay of Biscay, after a 6-week stay at my house in Spain, I thought that I should at least get something down to say what’s been going on since the last blog.
Well, actually, I’ve really enjoyed this year, although I have to say at this point that I haven’t been writing. That’s maybe the only thing I’ve been missing. As the great Russian writer Alexander Pushkin said, “When I’m not writing, I have no peace of mind.” I try to offset that by finding as many other things to do as I can – my friend, Sam Chesterton ( great-nephew of G.K. Chesterton) calls them his ‘displacement activities.’ So most mornings, I don my outdoor work clothes and head off in a financially unrewarding flurry of tractor driving, chainsawing, lawn mowing and general maintenance-ing, while office work is left to the evening hours. So a quick run down of what’s happened this year.
• The arrival of two grandsons – Herbie, born to Oliver and Abi in Forres, Moray, and Myles, born to Hugo and Lucy in Thonon, France. That rounds it off nicely to three of each.
• We decided to do a bit of B&B at our house in Scotland this year, really to coincide with the Ryder Cup which was held at Gleneagles, Perthshire – about twenty five miles away. The Ryder Cup was a huge success – our B&B was not… Where people were looking for accommodation 50 miles from the event, we were completely empty. It was quite laughable, really. It was as if our farm had suddenly been shifted to the moon. We had a few wedding parties come during the year – that just about covered the cost of our website. So, next year, if you’re this way, and want to sightsee, play golf etc., in the east of Scotland, this is the place…
• To help with the non-existent B&B, we had a series of young people come and help us through the Workaway website. They came from Germany, France, Czech Republic and Australia. We did up the ‘bothy’ for them, the small studio cottage on the farm, and converted Kirsty’s old studio in the farm buildings into a very presentable bedroom. It was a great success and it was lovely to have young people around the place during the summer – and they worked!
• Daughters Alice and Florence move about – Alice to Amsterdam to work for interior designer Kate Hume – and Florence from London to Edinburgh to set up a resurgence of childrens’ clothing company, Tinkers, which was started back in the 80’s by my sister Pippa in the US and my wife Kirsty in the UK as Pedlars (now run by others as an aspirational toyshop for rich urban kids in Portobello Market.) Cult clothes they were back then, both for adults and kids – Florence just doing kids up to 4 yrs to start with, but you can check it out at Pilchers Clothing Co.
• My mother Rosamunde (the ‘FA’ to us – Famous Authoress) had her 90th birthday lunch in September, just before the Ryder Cup to avoid there being a log jam of travel plans. And travel they did. Film producers from Germany, publishers from New York and London, agents from Hamburg and Oxford, film agent from London, and families from France, Amsterdam, Hawaii, Long Island, St. Barths, and nearer to home (well, slightly) from Cornwall and Somerset. 110 people for a sit-down lunch and Ros ‘queened’ the event just as she should.
• Okay, so here’s the truth about the writing. Having been told by my publishers that I had to find a way to self-promote, I started Shortbread Stories to get my name out there. A year and a half in, my partner quits and I find myself having to cover the work of two to keep it going. I build it up successfully, but I have to devote time to it, so I don’t get time to write. Then I get down to it eventually, write half a book and a synopsis and send it off to my London publisher. My editor there, a young girl of about 23 who I had never met (my third or fourth in about so many years) said that I had been away from writing for so long (erm, three years? And what had I been doing – trying to self- promote as you’d asked me?) that I would need to be re-launched and this was not the book to do it – and while she was on the subject, the last book hadn’t made the advance so they were dropping me entirely. And, as for my US publisher, well, I hadn’t heard one word from him since my previous book had been published (successfully too), so I hadn’t bothered sending him the outline or chapters.
So I’ve been going round and round in circles in my head how best to proceed, and also getting more and more frustrated by the fact that so many of you continue to write to me asking “When’s the next book due?” Anyway, about a week ago in Spain, I re-met up with a brilliant young journalist from the Sunday Times in London who said, “Dammit, you’re known, you’ve cracked that part through your writing and through Shortbread – just publish yourself through Amazon. I’ll help you do it.” And that’s all I needed to hear. The fire in the belly rose, and I clenched my fist in determination to get on with it again during the long Scottish winter evenings.
I think that’s all I’ve got to say for the moment. I hope it does answer some of those questions that so many of you have asked over the past eighteen months and have been rather fobbed off with some very wishy-washy answers. The captain announced about an hour ago that the weather is getting worse, but it still seems to be like sailing across a millpond. If you ever do the Portsmouth – Santander crossing, make sure it’s the Pont Aven you sail on. It’s Brittany Ferries flagship and it’s classic…
November 14th, 2013
I don’t know if I’ll be able to post this today as I’m enjoying the rather hit and miss satellite internet service of Brittany Ferries as we head back from Santander in Northern Spain, riding the choppy seas up the Channel (is it still English?) I’ve done this journey quite a few times before – it’s 500 miles exactly from our house in Andalucía to Santander and I do it in about 7½ hours without any hold-up. The time taken for 520-mile journey from Portsmouth to Dundee, however, can range from 9 to 18 hours. It’s a great pity the ferry, which has great food and comfortable cabins, can’t just keep going and dock in Rosyth…
We left the house in Aracena early on Wednesday morning, having completed the annual chestnut harvest the day before. A total of 2½ tonnes went into the co-operative this year under my socio (membership) number of A51, the best we’ve ever done. Remains to be seen now if the co-op has any money to pay us. La crisis has hit that part of Spain really hard and there’s very little work to be had, especially in the building industry – and that’s what most of the local men are involved in. However, their saving grace has been the small huertas (vegetable plots) that most families have somewhere on the outskirts of town. There they grow their vegetables and fatten a couple of pigs, so this inherent self-sufficiency has certainly helped them during this extremely hard time.
And meanwhile, 5 hours north in Madrid, the top football team has recently paid €103,000,000 for a Welsh football player. Doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it? Actually, I have to say that one of the biggest thrills I had over the past five weeks was going to a Real Betis match in Seville against the reigning Spanish champions, Barcelona. I never thought that I would actually see live the best footballer in the world. Lionel Messi moves like a will o’ the wisp – he’s everywhere, and fast, and has feet so quick that they must completely mesmerize a team’s defensive line. It’s not a wonder that clumsy feet usually catch him in the calf or the shin and he’s off the pitch as soon as he starts. Well, at least he lasted fifteen minutes this time. And then he was replaced by Iniesta whose no slouch either…
But the real treat was the atmosphere. The Real Betis fans sung heartily for the full 90 minutes, even when Barcelona’s fourth goal went in without reply. The Cruzcampo beers were slung back by ‘the lads from Aracena’ at an outside bar 500 metres from the stadium, and afterwards, we gathered again, spirits undeterred by what was really a pretty ignominious defeat, and downed huge hot dogs and drank more beer before Alberto, my young host, steadily drove us the hour and a half back up to Aracena.
Kirsty asked me if I was the oldest person in this bunch of aficionados. I said by about thirty-two years. She laughed rather too loudly at that…
October 11th, 2013
Filling up my car last week at a Tesco garage, I spun round when I heard someone let out a cry of pain. At the side of the main building, an area set aside for disabled parking, there was a man hanging awkwardly out of the driver’s side of a small red car, his legs stuck in the footwell while his backside was planted on the ground. About four feet to the right of him was a wheelchair.
I glanced around at the people who were nearest to him and noticed immediately that most had chosen to ignore him, pushing their trollies furtively towards the entrance of the supermarket or keeping their faces hidden below trunk lids while they hurriedly packed away their shopping bags. However, there were some who didn’t even bother displaying any such sign of guilt or willingness to help and stood at a distance watching him flounder around on the ground.
I had done a pay-as-you-go with a card on the petrol pump, so I just jumped in my own car, drove the short distance over to the disabled area and, having given a hardened, narrow-eyed stare at those who had still made no move to help him, I came up behind him and put my hands under his armpits to get him back on the car seat. Now, he was a big man and I really made no headway at all in the initial attempt to move him. I was certainly not going to ask help from any of those who were standing around watching, so I worked out that if I managed to lift him a bit, I could use my knees and legs as a sort of a jack to get him into the car. I gave a huge heave, pulled his weight onto my knees and slid each foot in turn along the ground, edging my way to the car.
“I’m…” the man said.
“Not a bother,” I groaned, pushing myself hard against the side of the car, trying to get more than half his backside onto the driver’s seat. “We’ll have you in in no time.” I put my hip against his shoulder to hold him in place. “Can you hold onto the steering wheel while I go round and get in the passenger door?”
There was nothing wrong with the man’s arm muscles. He grabbed the wheel and stayed put, but was unable to pull himself into the car seat. I ran round the car and got into the passenger seat and after a few heaves realized I was getting nowhere.
“Okay,” I said, breathing heavily with the effort. “So what I’m going to do is get in the back seat and see if I can’t get more leverage from there.”
The man just shook his head, obviously embarrassed and angry at having found himself in this position. It was a two-door car, so I got out, pushed forward the seat and got in the back, sliding along the seat so that I was positioned behind him. At this point, I noticed that many of those who had been standing watching from afar had now gathered around the car and were staring at us with quizzical, almost zombie-like expressions on their faces. I flicked my head back in derision at their lack of interest in helping and, leaning over the seat, once more took a firm grip under the man’s armpits and heaved him the last eight inches across until he was completely and utterly centrally placed. I slumped back in the seat and sat for a moment recuperating from my efforts and then leaned forward, gave the man a light slap on his shoulder, and said, “There you are. That’ll get you home now.”
I turned to those outside the car with what was probably a smile of complete self-righteousness on my face. They in turn were now smiling back, some were even laughing. I frowned and looked towards the man in front of the car, just as he turned round to look at me.
“Well, thank you very much for doing that, but, for your information, I was trying to get out of the car, not trying to get in. I did try to tell you…”
I managed half a smile at him before pushing forward the seat and getting out, murmuring a quick “Sorry about that” as I did so. I then slunk over to my car, hearing a few audible guffaws from behind me, and drove away without looking back.
Oh well, you get it wrong sometimes. Actually, not just sometimes…
October 4th, 2013
Last month, my son, Oliver, hosted and photographed a big fashion/ travel story shoot at his house in Forres in the north of Scotland. The main model was contracted for one day only, so every daylight hour was put to good use, but getting everyone to Inverness airport after the ‘wrap’ was a race against time. Models, art director, assistant photographer et al rushed into the airport terminal half an hour before the flight was due to leave, spirits slumping at the prospect of being turned away, and the staff just smiled, gave them a wink, and said, “Come on, we’ll make sure you get on the flight.” Imagine that happening at Heathrow or Gatwick or any major airport. You wouldn’t be allowed on the flight if you arrived at the gate half an hour before the flight, let alone the terminal building.
If there was such a thing as a Good Airports Guide, a sort of Egon Ronay’s Top Terminals, I reckon Inverness would be given 5-star rating. I hear Newquay in Cornwall would merit the same. All provincial airports, none of them transit.
So, why is it that travelling by air has become such an unenjoyable, stressful experience? Why is it that we are made to feel, as soon as we enter the terminal building of a major airport, that we are not going to be allowed to enjoy the excitement of imminent travel? The girl at the check-in desk hardly looks at you when she asks if you’ve packed your own suitcase. The chap manning the security conveyor raises his eyes and shakes his head at your stupidity at forgetting to take your belt off or removing your laptop from its case, or barks at you for not having your jacket off before you approach him. Listen, I understand that 9/11 changed the whole concept of air flight security around the world, but downright unpleasantness didn’t need to be an integral part of that change.
Maybe I’m being unfair here. I have travelled throughout Europe and have had good experiences, especially in Germany. Maybe, sadly, embarrassingly, we are talking in the main about Britain here.
I have a bit of a theory about it and it comes from a fly-on-the-wall TV documentary called Airline, which featured staff and ground crew with Easyjet in certain regional airports. It was quite an entertaining series, but what it seemed to do was put the airline staff in the right the whole time. The commentary would say, for instance, that ground crew stalwart, Janice, was having to deal with a difficult customer at a check-in desk, and what you actually saw was Janice being pretty rude to this poor guy, who, surrounded by his wife and three whingeing daughters, was trying to get some information on a delayed flight to Malaga. Camera then cuts to close-up of Janice who long-sufferingly describes what a nightmarish day she has just had, but ‘oh well, maybe tomorrow will be better.’
So, all this might make good TV watching, but what it really does is give all those who work in airports the idea that they are doing all us commuters and passengers a HUGE favour being there. Okay, so it happens to be their job and they may be paid for what they’re doing, but it’s all under sufferance. So why on earth should they walk through the terminal and smile at the woman or man who happens to catch their eye? You don’t do that to someone whom you hold in contempt, someone who is not…an airline worker!
There is a TV advert – can’t remember what it’s for – but it tells the whole story. Three female ground crew personnel suddenly become merry (you see, TV advertising is all about fuelling fantasies!) and start skipping over one of those canvas expandable bands that are used for delineating queues. They are suddenly aware that passengers around them have stopped and are gawping at them in disbelief, and the girls become aware of this and break into fits of giggles. So what the advert is saying is that this kind of frivolous behaviour is the least thing you’d expect from an airport worker, but it can be changed if you use or eat our product.
So, please, can we put out a countrywide search and find out what this product is, and make it obligatory in the staple diet of all those who man our major airports?
September 17th, 2013
About ten years ago, I went to a big bash in Hamburg organized by the tourist boards of Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales and listened to the respective representatives sell their countries. Wales was particularly inventive, giving a very funny account of the sport of ‘bog-snorkelling’; England and Wales, pretty good; Scotland, a poor fourth, focusing their whole campaign on the bagpipes, men in kilts and the Loch Ness monster. A bit predictable. So I tried to work out how I would sell Scotland (besides mentioning ‘golf’ once or twice) and I came up with ‘The Country Where You CAN Drive Sixty Miles In An Hour.’ Now, you might not think that a particularly brilliant idea, but if you have experienced the near-gridlock situation that seems to be the status quo in England, the thought of driving sixty miles in a hour might tempt a few St. Georges northwards to clear their clogged catalytic converters, and bring with them a rush of European tourists who usually get no further up country than the Yorkshire Dales.
And, believe me, if Scotland gets its independence in the referendum next year, we’re going to have to be pulling in money from whatever source we can possibly find, and tourism will indeed play a big part in that.
I really do enjoy driving in Scotland. We’ve just spent two nights up in the north-west in Lochaber and the 300-mile round trip was a real pleasure. I was once interviewed for Edinburgh Airport’s in-house magazine and asked to give my perfect weekend in Scotland. I said that it was ‘driving on the A9 from Perth to Inverness on a sunny October day when the traffic was light and the holidays were over and all the foreign tourists had stopped driving towards you on the wrong side of the road.’
I didn’t really have to give much thought to what I was going to say. Maybe it’s because of nostalgic reasons that I like the A9, heading up on the old road to Newtonmore for a week’s pony trekking, or further on to the buzzing metropolis of Aviemore (as it was in the ‘60’s) for some weekend schussing in the Cairngorms. And then later, it was driving even further up to Sutherland for Christmas and New Year to court my wife. And then the new A9 was built, a ribbon of black meandering its way through the Highlands in long wide curves, cutting the journey from Perth to Inverness by at least an hour and at the same time cutting out the small villages en route whose lifeblood was the passing trade from the old A9. But my, what a beautiful road it was – and still is. Over the years since then, I have been up and down that road so much that I know every eccentric inch of it. And it is eccentric, if not quite enigmatic. It may be a great road, but from the beginning it has had a disproportionate amount of fatal accidents.
In 1992, while I was running the Edinburgh office of an Inverness-based public relations company, we came up with an idea for a successful north-based construction company to sponsor a safety campaign for the A9. We were all using the A9 on a regular basis and all had our own ideas of what made it such a unique road. The common thought between us was that, because of the surrounding hills, it was an extremely dark road and it was very difficult to pick up cars coming towards you or to gauge what speed they were going, no matter the time of year or the weather conditions. So the simple solution was to approach the police and ask if they would endorse a privately–funded campaign, with no cost to the taxpayer, of using dipped headlights at all times while driving on the road. Adopt it for a year, and if it worked, continue it, and if not, then look at more drastic measures. The police did not reckon it worth pursuing.
So, you’ll be wondering by now where on earth this is all leading. Well, the A9 has now been branded a ‘killer road’ by the media and the Scottish Government has come under increased pressure to make the whole length, from Perth to Inverness, a dual carriageway. But there’s no money in the coffers to do this and so it has been decided to install Average Speed Cameras instead, and that, in my mind, just doesn’t tackle any of the core problems and is an action that is (forgive the dreadful PR phrase) ‘reactive rather than proactive.’
So why won’t they work?
• Fine on a dual carriageway when vehicles can choose a lane and stick to a speed, but on a predominately single carriageway road like the A9 where lorries and HGV’s are restricted by law to 40mph (yes, that’s the truth!), how can you overtake safely and stick within the average speed limit without slamming on your brakes once you have completed the manoeuvre?
• Average Speed Cameras govern only speed. They do not pick up cars driving on dark, rainy days with no lights on. I would suggest that, on the A9, a car driving at 5 miles an hour over the speed limit with dipped headlights on is 100 times safer, and less likely to cause an accident, than a car driving at 10 miles a hour below the speed limit without any lights on. But, in the eyes of the law and in the lens of the ASC, it’s the car driving at 5mph over the speed limit that is in the wrong and will be penalized accordingly.
• At night, the road is practically empty and one can drive at a safe speed (and, please, I am not advocating driving at breakneck speeds) with headlights picking up those few cars or lorries that are coming towards you. ASC’s, at that time (and probably at any time) would simply create more frustration than there is already – and frustration on the A9 has been labelled as the cause of many of the worst accidents.
Enough, I’ve been on my soapbox too long over this. I did write a letter to my MSP, John Swinney, and received a very good letter back. He suggests that “driver behaviour” is to blame for the majority of accidents on the A9. I countered that by saying that “bad behaviour can be solved through education.” So I would suggest we should go back to the idea of using headlights on the road and allow the lorries and HGV’s to speed up a little so that there are spaces in queues for overtaking. And all drivers should ALLOW for overtaking.
Yes, I agree, we do have to try to make the road safer, but leave the expense of ASC’s for another year. Leave the idea of dualling the road for a bit longer. Try the less costly option first, and if it lessens the amount of accidents over the first year, keep it going. If not, then that is the time to go for more drastic measures. But, at this point, don’t stultify one of the greatest driving pleasures in the British Isles, both for the locals and for the many tourists who use the road as a corridor to the rugged beauty of the Highlands.