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Raw Spirit by Iain Banks

In search of the perfect dram

Century, 2003, 368 p.

I bought this mainly for completeness. I’ve read all of Banks’s fiction and so his only non-fiction book kind of rounds things off. It also qualifies for the Read Scotland Challenge.

Raw Spirit cover

It is strange to be writing about this in the wake of the referendum. While the book is ostensibly about whisky it is in reality a hymn to Scotland, in particular its landscape, its “Great Wee Roads” and its inhabitants, not forgetting the West Highlands’ voracious midges and prodigious rainfall. Banks’s liking for fast cars can’t be missed and the numerous inns and hotels he frequented as well as the distilleries and their visitor centres (there is, it seems a whisky “experience” look) will be grateful for the exposure. Had the book been solely about whisky I would not have been the best person to appreciate it as I have never taken to the stuff.

That said, the history and processes of whisky production are described in extremely accessible terms. While Banks attempts descriptions of the single malts he samples in the course of his travels (for which he had no shortage of willing companions) this is perhaps an impossible task – in the way that descriptions of music are often lacking – but the word “peaty” does appear quite often.

Parts of Raw Spirit read like Banks’s non-SF fiction. The verbal interplay between the author and his friends is just like the conversations encountered in say Espedair Street, The Crow Road or Complicity, the asides and digressions – his journeys were undertaken and the book written around the time of the (second, the illegal) Iraq War, occasioning familiar Banksian rants – typical of his mainstream work.

As a book Raw Spirit is barely ten years old yet so much has changed since it was published. Banks himself is sadly no more, as are the Inverleven Distillery at Dumbarton and (not so sadly) the Forth Road and Skye Bridge tolls. The landscape, the Great Wee Roads, the whisky, though, remain – at least those bottles as yet unconsumed.

A delightful addition to the Banksian œuvre.

Great Tapestry of Scotland and Edinburgh’s Art Deco Heritage 10: TSB Bank London Road

A couple of weeks ago, mostly on the good lady’s volition, we travelled to see the Great Tapestry of Scotland which was on show at the Scottish Parliament building. Its exhibition there finishes sometime in September and it will eventually end up in Melrose when the new rail line to the borders is complete.

It’s quite an impressive collection – of embroidery rather than tapestry but Hey-ho – of over 100 panels stitched by volunteers from round Scotland each one illustrating a piece of Scottish history.

I may get round to posting other views of the panels but this one featured Dumbarton Rock, which in 870 AD (or 870 CE if you prefer) fell to the Vikings:-

on the way back to where we’d parked I captured the building below on pixels. I’d passed it many times before in the car but never stopped near enough by. It’s the TSB bank in East Norton Place (London Road) Edinburgh.

The pillars on the corners are good. The street sign on the bank also says East Norton Place. From the other side the pillars are again stand outs. The style of the number 30 is nicely deco too.

Arthur The King by Allan Massie

A Romance. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2003, 292 p.

A novel about King Arthur? What new is there to be said?
Well, Massie’s approach is different. This is the second part of his Dark Ages trilogy as told by Michael Scott (known as the wizard) to his pupil, the Hohenstaufen Prince who would become The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II.

In Arthur the King the focus is not so much on the legend we all think we know as on Arthur the man, a very human creature, from his humble upbringing, through his kingship to his gritty death. The effect is to demystify, to demythologise, to render Arthur into history. Michael Scott has his own reasons for this, to educate the prince, to remind him of a monarch’€™s duty to maintain peace and justice, to underline the burden of kingship but it also serves to emphasise the Hohenstaufen line’s links back to the Roman Empire. It’€™s a nice piece of ventriloquism by Massie and allows the use of wonderful Scottish words like howdumdeid.

In addition he has Scott locate Camelot in Scott’s boyhood environment – the Scottish border country – and mentions, among others, the legend of Arthur still residing in a hollow under the Eildon Hills. There are of course many parts of Great Britain which claim Arthur as their own. Indeed a cave by the Clyde shore at the Havoc in Dumbarton was/is known as Merlin’€™s Cave (though others have it as Bruce’s cave, such is legend.)

In the narrative the point is made that most of the tales of Arthur are actually those of the Knights of the Round Table. Here, there are some digressions of that sort but they are short and we are never away from Arthur for long.

Characters who might have seemed important, like Merlin and Lancelot, are bit parts; even Morgan Le Fay isn’€™t Arthur’€™s main antagonist. Merlin, though an instigator of the sequence of events which lead to the complications inherent in the tale, is disappeared offstage about halfway through.

The main problem with all this is the narrative style. Massie, as Scott, digresses frequently and irritatingly, leading to a certain turgidity in the delivery. I remember this trait as being worse, though, in the first book of The Dark Ages, The Evening of the World, which I read before I started blogging. So much so in fact that I left off reading this one for years.

It probably won’€™t be so long, I suspect, till I undertake the last in this series, Charlemagne and Roland.

Art Deco in Tranent, East Lothian

On the way back from seeing Eric Brown in Dunbar we stopped off at Tranent. The main reason is my mother was born there – or at least it was her first home. Her family later moved to Eyemouth before coming to Dumbarton.

I found it a typical Scottish small (post)industrial town with all that implies. But it has Art Deco.

Art Deco Shop, Tranent, East Lothian.

The above is Homezone – on Edinburgh Road just after it branches off from High Street. This is a close-up on the detail:-

Art Deco Detail on Homezone, Tranent.

At the other end of High Street is this solicitor’s. The stepping on the roof line is good – and the triangular effect on the upper stone blocks.

Art Deco Frontage, Tranent.

To its left (on the right in the above photo) the deco feel continues. The pillars on the stone work are nicely detailed. The premises were to let, as you can see.

Art Deco Frontage, Tranent, 2.

Patrick Moore

So sad to hear the news of the death of Patrick Moore.

I watched the latest episode of The Sky At Night only a week or so ago and he did look frail. It has been obvious for many years now that Chris Lintott was being lined up to take over the presentation duties but Patrick will be sorely missed.

He was one of Britsh TV’s glorious eccentrics – who else in the modern world wore a monocle? – and as well as his scientific credentials he could play a mean xylophone.

His long and productive life was overshadowed by sadness as his fiancée was killed during WW2 by a German bomb and he didn’t wish to settle for what he would have considered “second best.”

As a child I may have been aware of him as a late-night TV presenter (his record for continuously hosting a show will surely never be surpassed) but I certainly remember reading his Science Fiction – from that Children’s Section at Dumbarton Library accessed down the external stairs – where, along with the SF of Captain W E Johns (yes, the author of Biggles; whose WW1 adventures led me to other books coming from the same hands) I gained my introduction to the genre. Blame the pair of them.

Patrick must almost single-handedly have contributed to several generations of British astronomers taking up their trade and won a new set of admirers when he appeared on GamesMaster which is where my own sons came to know him well.

I have a particular debt to him myself as I drew on one of his astronomy books, which contained a reasonably detailed map of Mars that I found fascinating and invaluable, for the background of my first published story, The Face of the Waters.

Sir Patrick Alfred Caldwell-Moore, CBE, FRS, FRAS: 4/3/1923-9/12/2012. So it goes.

The Birth of Steam Navigation

The first commercially successful steamship in Europe sailed up the Clyde on its maiden voyage 200 years ago this month.

For an image see here. It shows a painting of the ship passing Dumbarton Rock. It’s a detail from a picture painted in 1914 by William Daniell.

The ship was commisioned by Henry Bell and called the Comet. She was named for a prominent comet that had appeared in the skies the year before. Bell became known as the father of steam navigation.

This tale and the inspiration for the ship from the earlier Charlotte Dundas was a familiar one to children of my generation but with the demise of shipbuilding on the Clyde I don’t know how much of it today’s youngsters will hear about.

There were substantial celebrations for the 100th anniversary and again in 1962. This year‘s have been more muted.

At least two obelisks to the memory of Bell were erected on the banks of the Clyde and a replica of the Comet can still be seen in Port Glasgow.

Scotland’s Art Deco Heritage 21: Loch Lomond Hotel

I took my photos of this over a year ago and have only just got around to posting them.

Loch Lomond Hotel, Balloch

The Loch Lomond Hotel is in the village of Balloch which as its name suggests is at the foot of Loch Lomond. The loch is only five or so minutes from the hotel.

Balloch and Loch Lomond are only a few miles from Dumbarton.

This one shows the doorway with its nice rounded portico but the windows have been mucked about with.

Loch Lomond Hotel, Balloch, Doorway.

These two old postcards show how it used to look. It seems once (in the 1960s, judging by the cars) to have had a pointed pediment above the doorway.

Old postcard of Loch Lomond Hotel 1
Old postcard of Loch Lomond Hotel 2

Edited to add:- some more of my photos of the hotel are on my flickr.

Scotland 2-1 Denmark

Hampden Park 10/8/11

I know this is a bit late but I only saw the highlights of this game. It looked like we were hammered 1-2. Denmark made much the more and better chances but Scotland scored two and they didn’t.

The first came from a free kick where the Scot, were he a Dane, might have been described as going down too easily.

Allan McGregor flapped at the equaliser. It was like watching Stephen Grindlay.

Scotland’s second was a finely worked effort, though.

A win’s a win. I’d have taken it in any Dumbarton game.

Whether there will be a similar result against the Czech Rep in the upcoming qualifying game is another matter.

Scotland’s Art Deco Heritage 11b. Dumbarton Again

Dumbarton Co-op Building

I don’t know how I missed this before, I suppose I was so used to it I never looked properly. The picture is a stitch of two to get it all in. I took them after the game against the Shire last Sunday. We took a turn along the High Street and I gazed up at the Co-Op building and noticed its date; DECS 1938. This building was where the linen, drapery, furniture and clothing depts were. It had those pnuematic pipes for sending your cash off to the central office where all the money was dealt with. The food department was (and still is) a bit further along the High Street. Strangely, there the money was handled at the till by the assistants.

Dumbarton Co-operative Elephant

(For anyone who doesn’t know, DECS stands for Dumbarton Equitable Co-Operative Society and the elephant is on Dumbarton’s town crest.)

I’ve got one more photo of the Co-Op on flickr.

I can still remember my mother’s Co-Op dividend number…..

War Memorials

In Great Britain there are War Memorials – mainly to the Great War and the Second World War – in even the smallest towns and villages. Sometimes when you’re driving along in the countryside there will be one at the edge of a field; covered in names even though there appears to be no habitation worthy of the name round about.

I’ve also come across them on walls in churches, police and railway stations (does anyone know what happened to the memorial at Dumbarton East when they demolished the old buildings?) and Post Offices commemorating the former workers who “gave their lives.”

It’s always striking that the number of dead for World War 1 outstrips that of World War 2 – perhaps a reflection of the fact that, after 1916 till late 1918, the greater burden of the Allies in the Great War lay on Britain and its Empire, while in WW2 most of the fighting after 1941 was done by the USSR and the US.

I spent a fortnight in Germany 30 years ago and was tremendously saddened by the war memorial in the town where I was staying. The sacrifice seemed even more poignant because they lost (and, of course, in WW2 had no shred of excuse nor reason to fight.)

I have already posted pictures of Kirkcaldy’s War Memorial.

There is another war memorial in Kirkcaldy, though, one which is fairly unusual.

It is to the local dead of the Spanish Civil War; members of the International Brigade who came from Fife or the Lothians. That conflict preceded and presaged the greater anti-fascist fight of WW2. Arguably had France and Great Britain taken the government side in that war then the later, bigger war might have been averted. But Britain at least was in no mood to fight (think of all those names on the WW1 memorials) and was also unprepared (no Spitfires for example.) This was still more or less true by the time of the Munich crisis in 1938. But failure to stand up to him on both those occasions and also during the remilitarisation of the Rhineland in 1936 and the 1938 Anschluss encouraged Hitler to believe we never would.

Here is the memorial in situ. It stands just off Forth Avenue, quite near Kirkcaldy railway station.

Spanish Civil War Memorial

The main plaque is inscribed as below.


These are the names just above the plaque.

Memorial front names

There are more on the plinth below the shield.

Memorial top names

This is the shield. The mounted knight is an old emblem representing Fife.

Memorial shield

It’s strange to think that had the Western European powers fought in Spain and helped the Spanish Republic to victory, a Nazi Germany would, paradoxically, likely have survived long past 1945.

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