Monday, 31 October 2011

Changing the clocks

 Once again I became briefly agitated about the changing of the clocks at the end of British Summer Time. This year, however, it seems that the views represented in the media are more in favour of your-round British Summer Time than is usually the case. It seems that the English are waking up to the fact that the current arrangements squander their evening light and deprive them of opportunities for outdoor recreation. A number of voices in the media expressed the opinion that the clocks were changed purely for the benefit of the Scots, but even here I think people are waking up to the idea. It has been reported that the Scottish Government would have a veto, and it seems depressingly likely that they might be willing to use it. Year-round BST would be one thing that I wouldn't mind having foisted upon me by our unelected Westminster government.

I wrote this last year. My views on the topic haven't changed.

I don't object in any way to the changing of the seasons or the shortening of the days. What I do object to is having the natural flow of the seasons interrupted by the entirely senseless transition between British Summer Time (BST) and Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). Every year a small minority propose that we should in fact stay in BST all year, perhaps with the option of advancing a further hour in the spring to GMT+2. Each and every year these visionaries are shouted down by dogma-peddling dimwits and dullards who trot out the same Tired Old Reasons as to why our evenings from now until the end of March should be plunged unnecessarily and prematurely into darkness.

Tired Old Reason Number 1: We change clocks for the benefit of the farmers, it is dangerous for farmers to start work in the dark. This is utter  nonsense. I know because I grew up and worked on a farm. Farmers work long hours and it is therefore inevitable that they will start and finish their work in the dark for many months of the year, no matter how we fiddle with the clocks. This reason is doubly spurious because farmers, not being bound by 9 to 5 convention, can start work at any hour of their choosing.

Tired Old Reason Number 2: In some places in Scotland it wouldn't be light until 1000 hrs. Is having darkness until 1000 for a couple of weeks really that much worse than having it until the already pretty late hour of 0900? It is simply very dark in midwinter and any morning-related gains made under the current  arrangement would be comfortably offset by the increased quantity of evening daylight gained under year-round BST

Tired Old Reason Number 3: We change clocks for the benefit of the children. Children would be mown down in droves every morning if they had to walk to school in the dark. This is absolute nonsense.   The popularity of this Tired Old Reason illustrates the wrong-headedness of the pro-GMT lobby perfectly. Not only is it demonstrably false - a trial of year-round BST between 1968 and 1971 resulted in less, not more, road casualties -  children would actually benefit  from the additional opportunity to play outside in daylight after school.

All of us would benefit enormously from additional evening daylight during the winter months, from the ability to go for a walk, a run or a bicycle ride and feel the evening sun on our faces. So support the campaign:  join the Facebook group;  rant to your colleagues and family members. It would be great if common sense prevailed eventually. One year -maybe even next year - I might be spared the pain  of listening to some unthinking automaton reciting the three  Tired Old Reasons above.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Glen Roy: landscape interpretation through the ages

View up Glen Roy from the viewpoint. The famous Parallel Roads are discernible if you look hard enough.

The Scottish landscape as we know it  - the shape of the hills, the contours of the land, the courses of the rivers - has existed for around 10,000 years, since the ice melted at the end of the last ice age. The urge to interpret the landscape is a core part of the human condition, so we can be reasonably sure that there has been landscape interpretation for as long there have been people on the land. 

Inevitably such interpretations will have been  made within the context of the prevailing belief systems of the time. It is only very recently that they have been based on science, that we have been able to say with some degree of certainty how our surroundings came to have their current shape. It is ironic that as our understanding has advanced over the last 150 years or so the world's increasingly urbanised population has become disengaged from the landscape, disinterested in the answers that science can now provide.

This may have something to do with the complexity of those answers and with the impenetrable jargon in which geomorphology, the science of landscape interpretation, is cloaked. For example when a geomorphologist wishes to convey that an object is curved he describes it as 'arcuate'; on a recent excursion to the nearby Flemington Eskers my field guide perplexed me by describing the complex of low, braided ridges as 'anastomosing'.  It was during this outing that I began to wonder what the hunter-gatherers of the mesolithic thought about these striking landforms, how they incorporated them into their creation myths. 

I carried these thoughts with me last weekend to one of the few road-accessible parts of the highlands that I hadn't previously visited, Glen Roy. Glen Roy is famous for its Parallel Roads, distinctive lines that contour round the hillside at heights of 260, 325 and 350 m. They are prominent in the foreground of the image below, taken from the summit of nearby Creag Meagaidh.

The Parallel Roads are a particularly interesting example,  for a record exists of how they have been interpreted through the ages. In reverse order, stretching back into the mists of time, we have:

The scientific interpretation
In 1840 visiting geologist Louis Agassiz realised that they were were ancient loch shores, formed when the entrance to Glen Roy was dammed by the great valley glaciers of the final stage of the glaciation of Scotland, the Loch Lomond Readvance. During his tour of Scotland Agassiz, who had spent his time prior to that studying glaciers in the Alps, amassed an impressive body of evidence in support of Scotland's landscape having been sculpted by ice. These were new and controversial ideas and marked the start of the modern science of landscape interpretation. 

The position of the shorelines was defined by the height of cols or bealachs over which the trapped water could drain from the ice-bound lakes. As the ice advanced each bealach in turn was blocked, causing the water level to rise until it found another escape route. The first, 260 m road, was the shore of a large loch that extended out into Glen Spean, formed when the westward flow of water was blocked by the Spean Glacier, forcing it to drain eastwards over a bealach near Kinloch Laggan. When the Spean Glacier advanced further, sealing the entrance of Glen Roy, the water level in Glen Roy rose until it reached a col at 325 m, draining into the now isolated 260 m loch in Glen Spean near the Laggan Dam. In due course the advancing glacier reached this bealach too, forcing the loch to extend eastwards up Glen Roy until it reached the 350 m bealach at its head and escaped down the course of the River Spey.

The pseudo-scientific, biblically inspired interpretation
Prior to Agassiz the shorelines had been taken as evidence of elevated sea levels during the biblical flood. Even Charles Darwin, who contributed so much to other areas of science, lent his support to this version of events. 

The Celtic interpretation
The Celtic interpretation is one of pure legend, that the roads were created by the warrior Fingal to aid him in his hunting. Fingal, or Fionn mac Cumhaill, was a giant who is also reputed to have built the Giant's Causeway so there is an inconsistency of scale, it is not clear to me what use these human scale roads would be to a giant. 

The explanation above should make more sense when viewed in conjunction with this interpretive sign.
Beyond the Celtic interpretation
Celtic culture has only been present in Scotland for a tiny fraction the period over which it has been occupied. The millennia of indigenous (Pictish?) landscape interpretation that preceded it would be the most interesting to get into, yet we can only speculate as to what our distant ancestors may have believed. It is tempting to imagine that their views on landscape may have been similar to the Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime tradition of landscape interpretation, a tradition that is still very much alive today and laid out for the visitor in the form of interpretative signs. One example that sticks in my mind are the  Devil's Marbles, believed to be the eggs of the rainbow serpent. I once visited a cave in the Kakadu National Park in Australia's Northern Territory in which excavations had revealed evidence of continuous habitation for 40,000 years. The food remains in the archeological record had changed from marine to land-based origin as the sea level had risen and fallen over the years, but it is possible that the culture and beliefs of the people had remained relatively constant,  that the reverence for their land and its mythology-laden landforms felt by modern Aboriginals can trace its roots back through the oral tradition to that of the first Australians, tens of millennia previously. It would be wonderful to gain a similar perspective on Scotland's landscape, to be able to see it through the eyes of the first humans who colonised it at the end of the Ice Age. But this is nothing more than a delicious fantasy, for such knowledge is most certainly lost. Thankfully we have the modern science of geomorphology to fill the void.

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Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Urban exploration in New York

When this guy realised I was from Scotland he started singing the praises of George Galloway, who is now something of a celebrity in the US 

Last week I had the opportunity to travel to the US with work.  My itinerary took me to New Jersey, just outside the great city of New York. This was my first trip to the east coast.  While off duty I sought opportunities to interview the Americans whose paths I crossed, hence this week's post will be the first example of straight travel writing that this blog has seen for a while.

When the president of the US publicly states that the rich should pay more tax than the poor it can mean one of two things. Either we are poised on the cusp of great change, or Obama's days are numbered. Indeed both may be true. In any case it is unprecedented, particularly when on our side of the Atlantic Cameron and Osborne are taking the opposite position, keen to scrap the 50 p top rate of tax. Hundreds of protesters are occupying Wall Street, demanding that the rights of the many take precedence over those of business and the very wealthy. Now these ideas are out they will be difficult to contain. If the much feared double-dip recession materialises, I would not be surprised to see civil unrest. All in all these are interesting times.

Some people love to travel on business. I'm not one of them. Living in hotels makes me feel a bit like Alan Partridge and I generally find the experience at least mildly disagreeable. You may ask yourself what is so disagreeable about staying in fancy hotels and eating out on expenses. Well for a start there are the hotels themselves. The hotel I visited on my arrival in the Philadelphia area was a classic of the genre. On walking through the doors I felt immediately oppressed by my surroundings. The high ceilinged lobby was decorated with murals of paintings of hunting and agricultural scenes. A discordant muzak, slightly too loud, lent an edge of menace, jangling my nerves. From behind the doors of the Fox and Hounds Pub (advertised as 'genial' on a poster in the lift) came a most unfamiliar noise, the nasal braying of corporate Americans, loaded on alcohol after a meeting or conference of some sort. 

You don't see wallpaper like that every day. Unless you live in a hotel.
 My room was located down a seemingly endless corridor with wallpaper so vile I photographed it. Even in my drowsy state I knew that I would never be able to recall it in its true, horrifying detail. The bed was a four poster, overfilling the room. I groped for light switches, eventually realised that I had to reach inside the shades of half a dozen lamps in order to locate fiddly, rotating switches. Eventually the room was bathed in sufficient light for me to establish that there was no minibar. There was nothing for it but to brave the wallpaper and head downstairs to the bar. The noise was such that I expected to find the place packed but there were only around ten people, all roaring at one another across the tables t the tops of their voices. I caught snippets.

"...up by 25 %, broke all records again this year."

"This account is gonna explode."

"Those guys love Larry, they love him!"

I soon managed to filter it out, quickly drank a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, then retired for a restless night, wrapped against the chill of the aircon while outside the cicadas' chorus filled the sultry night air.

After a day's work I travelled north to New Jersey. My driver was a London-born Arab who celebrated his roots through the consumption of Walkers ginger biscuits and Cadbury's Dairy Milk. We crawled through rain and dense traffic, through unremittingly built-up but leafy country.  He told me his story, how he had three daughters and a Mercedes that he couldn't really afford but couldn't bring himself to release, so loaded was it with boyhood memories of his father's Merc. He had relocated from New Jersey to Pennsylvania to improve his children's schooling, but the pharmacy in which he worked had renaged on their promise to transfer his role. After fifteen years they asked him to start at the bottom, forcing him to quit and leaving him without redundancy or welfare entitlement. He was philosophical, reasoning that plenty people were worse off than him. My driver earlier in the day had touched upon similar themes.  Since the downturn he had reined in his spending and had found the experience revelationary. Both resented the eastwards shift in the balance of world power, of jobs and manufacturing, to China. Perhaps it was all part of their pitch for a tip.

My next hotel was reassuringly bland, with accessible light switches and none of the distinctive but disconcerting touches of my previous lodgings. It amused me that the room contained a catalogue through which all the furnishings of the room were offered for sale, allowing those so inclined to furnish their homes like a Marriot hotel. I read in the guest information that a map of a jogging route was available from the front desk. The description was very American, clearly setting out the conditions of use and guarding against litigation. The menu on the TV contained a similar warning prior to the adult film selection, cautioning the viewer that the acts depicted were not necessarily safe and that the hotel was not in any way responsible for any injuries sustained while trying to emulate them.

'This course has proved to be a favourite of past guests. Although we provide a map for your convenience, we assume no responsibility for injury or damage which may occur while using this route.' 

The rain had stopped and I was in the mood for exercise so I decided to head out. The desk guy advised that I run part of the route then retrace my steps but I set out intending to complete the route. Where possible I ran on the thick, leafy grass that adjoined the pavement, sweating in the humid air. I passed floodlit softball diamonds where teenage girls were practicing. The thump of the ball in the catcher's mitt took me back to my childhood, when I had played Little League baseball with the Bute Buccaneers. We travelled to the nearby US naval base in Dunoon to play with the offspring of the servicemen. The base had a Baskin Robbins ice cream shop where we paid in pounds and got change in cents. This was back in the 1980s when such delights were unknown in the UK. There was always vomiting on the return journey. My baseball career was short-lived. The first year we were beaten in every game. The second we practised hard and won the league. We weren't invited back to defend our title.

The route became harder to run, with the pavement petering out unexpectedly. It became unclear what was verge and what was unfenced garden. The wooden houses felt sinister, set back from the road amid trees. Streetlighting was minimal or non-existant. I was forced to run on the shoulder, nervously eyeing the oncoming traffic. I had read of joggers and cyclists being harassed and even assaulted - pushed over or scalded with hot coffee - by suspicious, uncomprehending motorists. Upon reaching the suggested turnaround point I was confronted by a pavementless, unlit road. I heeded the desk guy's advice and turned round, glad to have explored my surroundings. If that route was a favourite I wouldn't bother to try any other. I can only assume that the past guests for which it had proved a favourite weren't quite right in the head.

Many of the people I spoke to drew my attention to the difference between the laid-back west coast and the stressed, joyless east. People in California look after themselves, eat well and exercise regularly, they told me. Not so in the east where everyone wears dark clothes and splits their time between working themselves into the ground and being pre-occupied with traffic. A ninety minute commute is standard and the New Jersey drivers are reputed to be among the worst in the US. 

I was amused by how unaware the typical American is of the extent to which their culture dominates the rest of the English-speaking world. One guy who lived in Philadelphia drove past the Rocky Steps on his way to work each day. He checked that I was aware of the Rocky movies before telling me that any time of the day or night you can guarantee that someone will be running up those steps, acting out the scene from the film. It is little wonder that Americans find so little time to travel, it being pretty standard to have only ten days leave and five public holidays for the first few years of employment. Their allocation only rises to twenty days total after five years of service. An Indian guy I met in a bar joked that lack of time off is never really an issue because they get fired so frequently that they can always count on some time off between jobs.

After my work obligations were over I had some free time to head into the Big Apple. The cab driver that took me to the train station was a fat barrel of a man. Not fat in the wobbly way, he looked pneumatic, as if he had just been freshly inflated with a bicycle pump.   We were driving down a street in which a large proportion of the houses had flags mounted on the front. It was raining heavily and the flags hung limp. I mentioned them to the driver and set him off on a rich rant.

“Fucking Americans.” He noticed that I was looking at him oddly and clarified, “I’m Irish.”

He gestured to a house with a flag. “White trash. In Europe you would call these people Nazis.”

He spoke positively about life in the US, claiming that he and his wife received free healthcare and three thousand dollars state pension per month.

“You get state welfare and local welfare too. Nobody tells you that shit, they think we’re all dying on the streets. It’s not like that at all.”

His mention of welfare reminded him of the Republican Presidential hopeful Rick Perry and his comments about welfare.  “Rick Perry said that welfare is a Ponzi scheme. It’s not a Ponzi scheme – that’s a criminal activity. Man’s a fucking lunatic. Michelle Bachmann said that the hurricane and the earthquake were God’s punishment for spending too much on welfare. They’re all fucking lunatics.”

I asked if he thought the new Tea Party brand of Republican was worse than George W Bush. He felt that Bush was so near the bottom of the barrel he would be hard to surpass. We marveled at how poor people on both sides of the Atlantic continue to vote for parties that will only ever look after the interests of the very wealthy. The cabbie summed it up elegantly, his wise words rang in my ear as I shouldered my bag and walked into the train station.

“People are fucking stupid, they’ll always be fucking stupid. Ain’t nothing anyone can do about that.”

I changed trains at Newark and the final approach into New York reminded me of taking the train from Weymss Bay to Glasgow Central in the height of the early 1990s gloom: vacant yards; derelict red brock warehouses; industrial wasteland interspersed with the river and its reed beds.

The weather had been unusually wet in the east while drought hit the west. The drought meant a lack of food for bears and there had been a number of attacks in recent weeks as hungry bears sought food in populated areas. Upon exiting Penn Station I found pouring rain, a real monsoon downpour, the likes of which is rarely seen in Scotland. Umbrella salesmen touted their wares. Their time had come, up to four inches of rain were forecast over the weekend.

“Buy an umbrella, stay dry!”

I suddenly remembered a story about someone taking advantage of a downpour to offload a dodgy batch of umbrellas with runny black dye that left the unsuspecting customers looking like wet coal miners.  Anyhow I wasn’t convinced that an umbrella would do much good with the rain bouncing off the pavement. Everyone else had one and once the water started to run down the inside of the arm of my Paramo jacket I began to question the wisdom of my decision. I certainly wasn’t going to buy an umbrella after I was soaked.

An open topped sightseeing bus drove past. At the corners of the top deck were holes designed to let water drain out. It was as if a fireman’s hose had been pointed out each one. The top of the Empire State building was in cloud. I made for Times Square in the hope of finding a suitable window through which to watch the rain and the wet people. Blue Fin, a sushi bar, provided just such a window. Outside I saw a parade of improvised raingear. Umbrellas of all sizes. Ponchos, clear, blue, pink and camouflaged queued for tickets to Broadway shows. Each group of tourists had purchased simultaneously so they looked like teams in uniform. Bedraggled toddlers were pushed past, swaddled in polythene. Despite the rain it was very warm, indeed the impression was tropical, accentuated by a tented village in which an Asian cooking festival was taking place.  Live footage of the cooking was beamed onto huge plasma screens. The stallholders used sticks to drain the accumulated water from the roofs of their tents. This combination of ponchos and sizzling woks brought to mind a tropical downpour I experienced many years ago in Bangkok. For a moment I was caught in a reverie, looking back into the mind of the person that occupied my body thirteen years previously.

Times Square 
Times Square is an appalling and engrossing magnet for humanity, people are drawn there from all over the world. Some are there to see Broadway shows, others, myself included, were there only to see the others. Such an accumulation of life is a spectacle in itself, like the zebra herds in the Masai Mara, like the elver migration in the Sandaig burn, so elegantly captured by Gavin Maxwell, whose biography had filled my empty evenings in faceless hotels. On the plasma screen the chicken was drained from the wok. Surrounding them was a sea of flashing neon Americana; the golden arches, TGI Friday, the Roxy Deli, movie and show billboards. Above the buildings reached higher than I could see. If the fauna of Times Square was engrossing so was the landscape. If the skyscrapers were rock towers they would be genuinely awesome. 

It was still raining and I knew I hadn’t the heart to trudge round Central Park, or to take the subway down to the recently opened memorial at Ground Zero. In any case I had only a couple of hours until my train. Near Penn Station I found a marvelously shabby Irish bar called Blaggards. Some of the letters had fallen off the name and the toilets were in a terrible state of repair. I took a seat at the long bar and ordered a pale ale. A gigantic man with a red and white pinstriped shirt and matching bow tie took the seat beside me. He twisted his waxed moustache as he ordered a beer. He revealed himself to be a banker. Commercial lending, he hadn't touched any sub-prime mortgages. As the plasma screen in the bar dispensed financial tips explaining how to make money in a falling market the banker told me that he was only a year from retirement and had cashed in all his investments, fully expecting that we would be in full-blown recession a year from now.

The owner of the bar was, unusually for an Irish bar, actually Irish with a broad Dublin accent undiluted by 20 years in the US. I only just managed to decline his offer of a fourth beer before he started pouring it and made my way into Penn Station, aiming to catch the 1809 Dover train. Due to the rain the trains were delayed and I found myself packed into a humid subterranean holding chamber along with hundreds of other commuters. We watched the screen as train after train went from ‘On Time’ to ‘Delayed’. Some went all the way to ‘Cancelled’. I struck up a conversation with a trio of Indians from Chennai and a bespectacled, sallow-faced youth who stood beside me. 

Our banter was interrupted by a loud altercation between a tall, bearded thug of a man in his twenties and a middle-aged Asian. The thug had knocked the Asian as he barged through the densely packed crowd. Afterwards he turned and, instead of apologizing, shouted a torrent of abuse and then stared menacingly, at the poor man, who, clearly mortified that several hundred people were witnessing his silent face-off with the thug, stared at his shoes, hoping the floor would swallow him up. The thug moved on and a babble of chatter filled the silence. I was delighted, for angry people shouting at one another in the street was a New York stereotype that I had been hoping to encounter. It could only have been improved if one of the participants had been carrying groceries home from the deli in a handle-less paper bag which had split open during the collision. Or if one of them had pulled a gun.

A train arrived and part of the crowd, including the Indians, exited left. They were immediately replaced. I interrogated the sallow-faced youth; after a few beers I fancied myself as something of a Louis Theroux. He was a film student who wanted to direct horror films. He had spent the day doing unpaid work at his church, which owned video equipment that he hoped to make use of in future. He was dismayed that they had made him spend the whole day coiling cables then testing their integrity. His church was St Andrew’s but he was unaware that Andrew was the patron saint of Scotland. I tried in vain to recall what connected this middle eastern apostle to my homeland. Clearly something of an innovator, Andrew had eschewed the standard cross and insisted on being crucified on an X shaped cross.  At some point after this I believe his remains were transported to Scotland and the shape of his cross was incorporated in the national flag.

On the train I sat beside an attractive female student who unsettled me slightly by taking a well-thumbed illustrated bible from her bag and starting to read. On questioning she revealed that she was studying business and theology at a catholic college. She wasn’t religious herself, but she tolerated the theology which was compulsory. Her only interest was in the business part of the course, which she saw as a passport to travel in Europe after graduation. She clearly didn’t want to talk to me and soon managed to get her headphones on.

When I was younger and more naive I made the mistake of thinking that the bond of a common language meant that the UK was more closely aligned with the US than with Europe. I realise now that our values are European, and nothing makes me feel more European than a trip to the US.  It was a relief to get down from the train and retreat into a Scottish enclave, where I spent the rest of the evening and the next day catching up with friends who now live in the US. It is invariably a great pleasure to meet up after a lengthy separation, especially when you find friends apparently unchanged by the passing of a decade. 

Groundhog (or woodchuck) on the golf course. 

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