Tuesday, 21 December 2010


Just when we thought the snow had cancelled too much excitement this festive season, the moon and the sun conspired to give us one of the greatest shows on Earth...a total lunar eclipse at the Winter Solstice...last time that happened it was 1638.

I stood in the snow, looking like a red sheep in fleecy dressing-gown and furry boots, from 6.15am, watching the moon being shaved down from a perfect silver sphere to a delicate slither. Finally the last slice of silver had gone and we were presented with an astonishing copper-toned ball, the most outsanding Christmas bauble I have ever seen.

Since the same moon shines on all of us, wherever we may be, this whole event seemed other-worldly. I wondered who else might be watching...friends further south, across the North Sea, across the Atlantic, on an oil-rig, perhaps even servicemen and woman in Afghanistan....loved ones separated from each other, despite the approach of Christmas.

As people struggle to be reunited with family and friends in time for Christmas, the weather has done its level best to put hazardous obstacles in our way. The desperate frustration of those stuck in airports, stations or on the roads, the agony of those waiting at home for family to arrive, is painful to behold. I wish all those travelling a safe journey as soon as possible.

As one of our national sports appears to be a fondness for saying how rubbish we Brits are at doing anything these days, the questions have started already. We seem to be going through some kind of international embarrassment as the rest of the planet watches Britain failing to cope with unusually ferocious weather. With one Transport Minister already having had to resign here in Scotland, one wonders how many more ’heads will roll’ before we admit that Nature is bigger than us. Especially in the winter, and especially at Christmas.

Could all this frustration be the inevitable result of ‘globalisation’? Can you believe that the very concept is one that was born Aberdeen? A friend’s neighbour was the academic who came up with the word and the concept of ‘globalisation’, an idea that seems to have taken over. (By the by, if someone would invent a universal electric plug that would function in the UK, Europe and the US, I would feel ‘globalisation’ had actually achieved something.) When the current scenes at Heathrow are broadcast across the media, I can’t help wondering if we are too quick to take ‘globalisation’ for granted.

Only last night, Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbo was on the box talking about Norway’s vast wealth, the result of a lucky oil find in the late 1960s (I’ve bored you about all that stuff way back in spring). Reflecting on how poor Norwegians had been before oil, particularly in the 1920s when so many escaped across the Atlantic, Nesbo wondered if the soul of his nation had been damaged, if not lost in some way. While no-one would advocate a return to poverty, I know there are many Norwegians who would agree that he has a point.

If one assumes the sheer number of people on the move just now is a reflection of how our world expects everything to function flawlessly in the twenty-first century, I can’t help wondering if we’re just kidding ourselves...we assume we humans are invincible. And it turns out we in the UK are not the only struggling humans...try going through Frankfurt Airport today, try flying out of Belgium, try driving in Stavanger on last week’s ice, even with snow-tyres. I suspect we Brits are not as useless as we think we are, and I know there are thousands of good-hearted folk who are valiantly working long hours and through the night to help others. We can be world-champion complainers, if we want to be. There has been many a tale of people not saying thank you, and not being helpful, but the opposite is also true. If you ask any of the Brits who work abroad or travel for business, they will be quick to tell you that the people who hate Britain more than anyone are the Brits themselves.

As Christmas arrives, our first since returning to Scotland, I am still in a state of transition, well-aware of how Norway reached under my skin in 2010. I shall be making a note that I should count my blessings more often. And next time I see the moon, and wonder what on earth we must all be looking like from up there, I’ll repeat my favourite bit of Burns;

‘Oh wad some Power the giftie gie us,

To see oursels as ithers see us.’

Whichever part of the planet you are on, settled with family or still in transit, at home or abroad, I wish you GOD JUL and A VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS!

Wednesday, 15 December 2010


As I scoff a frosted mince pie or three, topped with pointy stars, I’m wondering what it is, precisely, that marks the start of Christmas for you. Even if you are a Bah-Humbug sort of a guy, there are so many festive options that might just tip you over the edge into something sparkly.

Could it be the arrival of one’s tree, closely followed by a ‘domestic’ over how to get the lights working? Is it the sight of a paper-chain or two being blue-tacked to the office ceiling? It might be the smell of uniquely spicy concoctions wafting out of the kitchen...pepperkaker (Norsk, see above), Christmas cake, mulled wine or some non-descript experiment dreamed up by an over-enthusiastic youth.

Perhaps it’s a viewing, tissue in hand, spectacles steaming up with emotion, of the school show...who can resist melting when a five-year-old angel starts to sing? Is it the first time you shout, ‘Oh no it isn’t’ (or the opposite) at some hairy old bloke in a sticky-out dress and high heels? It might be the moment you festivify your toe-nails in a startling shade of scarlet edged with golden glitter. If you’re a bit of an old bore, it might simply be reading the papers, full as they are of the annual round-ups of Best This and That for 2010. Or maybe it’s that annual cry of frustration... ‘which fool has nicked the sellotape, I’m in the middle of something really important here, Pratt-features’.

Perhaps you are a genuinely tasteful person, and wait until an angelic choir boy sings the first strains of ‘Once In Royal David's City’ from King’s College, Cambridge on Christmas Eve itself.

Everyone has their own particular ‘Official Christmas Moment’ when the whole jing-bang kicks off and we are lost in a miasma of over-indulgence before emerging, heavier but skint, just in time for a really serious session at Hogmanay. Some of us are overly-keen and are already there ....one hard-core wassailler I know says Christmas starts when the first snow-flake falls. Ambitious, I would say....apart from being a hopeless romantic, surely THIS year he’s going to be on his knees with exhaustion by the time we reach the 25th.

I expect you have been on the absolute edge of your seat with anticipation, if not foaming at the mouth, desperate to know how our choir concert turned out. Well, as it happens, that concert, which is of course an annual village event, marks the start of Christmas for many a reveller round here. People travel miles, you know, braving all manner of hazards to delight in our dulcets. Knowing this, you can only imagine the immense burden of responsibility placed upon our choral shoulders.

Thus, we approached our Christmas Concert with reverence and glitter, decked out as we were in a classy blend of black and silver. Star-like, we belted through the music full pelt. In rehearsal, we had been reprimanded for too much nodding in parts, (especially the wiggly bits in Handel’s ‘Messiah’) and told off for not swaying enough in the more swingy numbers. There’s ‘nae slackin’ in this choir, you have to pay attention. Glancing through my pencilled-in marks on the music, you would wonder what the heck was going on....it says ‘nae noddies...keep the heed....just shut up noo...start swaying from left....put a sock in it here....eyebrows-eyebrows!!!!!....gentle wooooo’. (Obviously, I have no idea what any of this actually means.)

Well, we made ‘em laugh and we made ‘em cry, which is one of my main aims in life, so the job was done. We also shocked ‘em into singing a few times, which is always good for a laugh. Eventually, after numerous attempts, the rapturous applause was calmed with the promise of a mince-pie and a wee dram, and everyone was miraculously transformed into the very essence of Christmas Present. Fa la la la lah, la la lah lah lah.

Now, if you’re having a little trouble finding your ‘Official Christmas Moment’, I’ll just say one thing....Farmer’s Market, Noon, Saturday, Carols, Be there or don’t be in The Square.

Friday, 10 December 2010


Snow makes people do peculiar things...things they would not normally choose to do. Whether it’s clearing a neighbour’s driveway, attacking the pavement with an axe to break up compacted ice, or skytting down a hill on your backside to deliver a little festive cheer to someone’s house, if there is snow in your vicinity right now, you will no doubt have indulged in several new and challenging pursuits in an effort to help others.

This early snow has certainly been a major inconvenience and has made thousands of us very angry and upset at the difficulties it has caused. On the other hand, it is also heart-warming to see people helping each other out so magnanimously. Thousands of people have set off early, stayed late, or not gone home at all. Shopping has been fetched, meals delivered. The drivers of 4x4s, spurned like uncaring vermin when there is no snow, have become the heroes of the hour, taking essential staff to their work places, ensuring appointments can be kept, and transporting the vulnerable to safety. Strangers have leapt to the aid of struggling vehicles, hot food and drinks have been handed out to stranded travellers, snow-clearing gangs have gathered together to work more efficiently, and extra phone-calls and visits have been made to check people are alright. There’s a twang of ‘Spirit of the Blitz’ in the air this festive season, which seems remarkably appropriate.

Personally speaking, the scariest thing I have had to do sent me into a state of shock from which I am only just recovering. A phone-call came through from school...the Christmas show must go on, there’s a shortage of staff, the snow has scuppered rehearsals, it’ll only be a wee bit, we really, really, really need a pianist, can I help?

So with less than 24 hours notice, I found myself sitting at a piano with an audience of 300 somewhere behind me, about 30 children on the stage above me, madly peering at several unruly pages of music in a desperate effort to play several ABBA songs. How on earth I manage to get myself embroiled into these idiotic situations is a total mystery. But panic had set in, a pianist was urgently required, I am a mug, and nobody else could deliver.

Have you ever tried to play ABBA? With little advanced warning? For dozens of small children’s voices? At short notice? In the dark? (someone needs to invent fluorescent scores for all musicals/pantos or all piano players will soon be blind). Naturally everyone knows ABBA like the back of their tonsils, but Benny and Bjorn were both masterly and dastardly in their melodic construction. What may sound easy and familiar is in fact awash with ingenious complexity....a maelstrom of gymnastic jumps and jives around the keyboard, rapid falling sixths, unexpected tonic variations, subtle changes of key and fiendish twiddly bits. And it’s all so flaming FAST! They don’t hang around, those Swedes. You start off at the required line in the score, and you’re away, like an out-of-control sledge, your fingers bashing around in the darkness, feverishly hoping you might land on the right note somewhere near THE END.

When I reached THE END you could probably have heard my sigh of relief in Svalbard. Immense. Immense it was, and probably visible, even in the darkness. Duty had been done and the thing hadn’t fallen apart, which, in the circumstances, was about all one could hope for. The audience actually applauded, which was a plus, but I expect they felt they should as there were children involved.

With a little help from my friends, who wheeched me off to the local for a modest libation, I am in recovery now. As I sipped a gluwein in the snow, relieved that my paltry efforts were over for the day, I mused on the extraordinary ways in which people contribute to society when adverse circumstances conspire to require them to do so.

It is rather a leap to go from piano playing and snow shovelling to the winning of the Nobel Peace Prize, but as the award ceremony in Oslo has taken place today, I have to pay homage. The winner, the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, was absent due to his imprisonment in an isolated cell in North East China. Seeing his empty chair in Oslo is extraordinarily poignant, a visual statement of what it can mean to contribute to ‘The Common Weel’ as we call it in Scotland. Few of us are that brave, and few of us could ever go as far as he has gone in seeking peace and freedom for others. But it seems the least we can do is pause for thought, reflect upon what we can do within our own, individual sphere of influence. To make a contribution still seems to be worthwhile.

NB: If you are anywhere near this house, please approach with caution and a decent set of ear plugs...there is an infernal racket going on at the piano.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010


I’ve been eyeing up the blackthorn hedge, just in case I need to chop a bit off for the creation of a new magic wand. You never know if one of us might suddenly require one, but the blackthorn, from which standard wands are made, is plentiful. It seems that along with all this snow, there is a sprinkling of Potter magic across the land.

Have you seen it yet? The film? It’s another goodie, and it gears us all up nicely for the final-ever-actual-end-last-what-will-we-do-next film in the whole Harry Potter saga.

If I was 10 now, I reckon I’d be quite unable to keep my bedroom window shut. My childhood bedroom, a place I still frequent as the same house remains Parental HQ, has a tranquil view of a hill, and on that hill lives Hagrid. It’s not his actual Hut, of course, but it is the place to which Hagrid retreats when he isn’t being Hagrid, as it were. And post-HP, the hill has acquired a new glamour, particularly at night when all is silent and I perch at the window gazing onto the moonlit landscape, wondering when Hagrid might send me an owl with an interesting message.

So far zilch, but the magic of Harry Potter does not seem far away. The tourist board here in Scotland is apparently expecting a Harry Potter-induced boost to the industry....after all, it’s not just Hagrid that is originally Scottish, (obviously I KNOW he isn’t Scottish in the film, but he is in real life....I keep seeing him driving his classic cars up the road to the village Co-op). Tourists are expected to descend upon Scotland to pay homage to various HP hotspots for themselves...Glen Nevis, Glencoe, the Glenfinnan Viaduct, and of course the cafe in Edinburgh where JK Rowling wrote the first book. These places have acquired a new fascination, a glamour tinged with magic dust that has become desperately enticing.

There are several Scots amongst the cast in these films, but it would be turgid to name them all. Frankly, any British actor who has not been in a Harry Potter movie must be feeling a mite peeved...it’s a wall-to-wall Who’s-Who of the great and good of British theatre. But I can’t resist mentioning one of my favourites. Dame Maggie Smith is of course an English actress, but there is no way in Muggle-land that Professor McGonagall could have had that wonderfully ‘refined’ Glasgow/Kelvinside/Hyndland accent if Dame Maggie’s mother hadn’t been from Glasgow. I can’t help being rather thrilled that this gem of an accent has gone global, thanks to Dame Maggie. So I’m sharpening my blackthorn clippers...Professor McGonagall is so very reminiscent of my own school teachers that I do sense, you see, I could still be summoned by the Ministry of Magic at the next flick of my black cat’s tail.

JK Rowling was apparently stopped recently by a fan who simply said, ‘You ARE my childhood.’ Can you imagine anything more heart-warming for a writer? Proof indeed that one person’s imagination can change the world. But as the films have rolled along, and rumours of Hollywood producers and animated characters were long-since crushed, I have become more and more relieved that JK stuck to her guns in insisting the films were made here in the UK. They are peculiarly, very peculiarly, British.

Thanks to overwhelming mountains of snow right now, our youngest has just finished reading her first Harry Potter. Fittingly, I may well celebrate with a swig of Sloe Gin, the concoction that has been gently distilling since I plucked the sloes from this very blackthorn hedge a few weeks ago. Having had ten years of Harry Potter playing a dominant role in the cultural appetites of this household, I think we know that HP has been a central character in many children’s lives, a source of solace and comfort, as well as adventure and humour. Thanks to JK’s flights of fancy, the joy of fiction has been discovered by thousands more children than it might have been. And now, publishers and book retailers are seeing a steady growth in the sales of children’s literature. Last year over 60 million children’s books were sold in the UK, bringing a most welcome £293 million into the book industry.

Pure magic.

Thursday, 2 December 2010


A friend of mine, a 47 year-old man, emailed earlier this week to say how very, very, VERY excited he was about opening the first window of his advent calendar in the morning. Naturally I assumed he would be greeted by a neat little chocolate, the first little thrill of December.

You will have heard, if you are not currently experiencing it yourself, that we are having record amounts of snow here right now. Perhaps it’s a Yin and Yang thing, but I do think that copious quantities of snow encourage the eating of copious quantities of chocolate...snow is so very cold and white, it seems to point us towards something warm and dark. Maybe it’s just me, but with the arrival of this extraordinarily wintery weather, I have noticed an odd phenomenon....the more snow I wade through, the more chocolate I wade through. The two must be directly related.

In Norway, there is a cross-country skiing tradition whereby you take chocolate and oranges with you for well-deserved sustenance en route. Somehow, this winning combination is now imprinted into my soul, the perfect comfort for the lonely skier as they pause for a moment's rest in the middle of a frozen plateau. Some real sticklers for tradition would only ever take Norwegian chocolate produced by the famous Norwegian company Freia, and more specifically, Freia’s ‘Kvikk Lunsj’. It seems no accident that Roald Dahl, born in Britain of Norwegian stock, was a world expert on chocolate. I’m convinced it must have been in his genes.

Perhaps it’s the snowy backdrop. Like tomatoes by the Med, or oysters in Paris, somehow chocolate in snow is especially necessary. And particularly delicious. And extremely comforting. And oh, so richly deserved.

Take today. I looked out of the window and ate a ‘pain au chocolat’ for brekka.

I put on twelve layers of clothing, went out to shovel snow off the car, came in, de-layered, and ate several huge triangles of chocolate for elevensies.

I put on eight layers, went out and shovelled two feet of snow off a sagging trampoline. I came in, boiled-alive and breathless, and polished off a pile of smarties I happened to find lying around.

I put on four layers, and went out to move a heap of 206 logs. I came in, de-layered and wolfed down an old bit of chocolate cake.

I put on two thinnish layers, and went for a three mile ski. I came in, glistening like an Olympian, stripped down to my murino thermals, and drank a pint of hot chocolate as an accompaniment to four chocolate gingers.

I’m wondering how this will all work out in the end....will nature somehow maintain a sense of balance between the endless choco-scoffing and the energy I spend every time I go outside? My weight is in even more of a state of flux than it normally is...what on earth I will look like by the end of this snow is anyone’s guess.

Then I felt even more embarrassed when my email went PING. I had done my good friend an unforgivable disservice. Turns out, his advent calendar is chocolate free. I was so shocked at my shallowness, I thought I’d better do something useful and constructive. So I finished off that bag of chocolate raisins that had been littering the bottom of my handbag.

Dinner is going to be such a surprise.