Monday, 28 January 2013

Lang mae yer lum reek

Last week-end we gathered together friends and family under our roof as part of the annual village celebration of Burns Night. The village is decidedly English in terms of ethnic mix for amongst the long-standing resident Staffordshire population there is just a sprinkling of Scots, Irish and Welsh amongst the immigrant population from Yorkshire, Lancashire and North Eastern counties such as Northumberland and Durham. Nevertheless, Burns Night is one of the nights in the village year so we were pleased to attend the 4 and a half hour event.

It is possibly the focus on all basic good things that appeals to so many. " Long may your chimney have smoke" declared our Scottish friend having been asked for a translation of the title; or in other words if you have smoke coming out of your chimney you must have heat and so you must have warmth in the home and a source of heat for cooking. Basic needs fulfilled. Except that our chimney contains a wood stove converted to natural gas. Somehow the appeal of having gas fumes emitting from the house doesn't have the same poetic ring to it.

It was the same with the food. The watery Scottish broth certainly didn't need the expertise of a hairy biker or Michelin starred TV chef. Just heat up everyday vegetables such as turnips, onions,carrots and parsnip in a large cooking pot and mix in a liberal amount of barley then serve with a bread roll. Even the mighty plastic bag bound haggis didn't contain many sophisticated items, though something in it was deliciously spicy. Served with mashed potatoes, mashed turnips and carrots and gravy - this proved to be a very filling and delicious meal. Raspberries for the sweet course and tea or coffee - that was the feast.

But there was much more to it than that. The evening began with a tot of whisky and a toast to Robbie Burns. A Gurkha piper resplendent in kilt and Scottish plaid toured the room piping the haggis towards the top table where a ceremonial dirk was used to test the consistency of the haggis. At least I think that was the idea. There was a spell of Gaelic muttering and eulogising before the stabbing but I didn't understand that and anyway there was a good supply of wine on the table. I did think the dirk was a good idea because when it came to cutting the bag of haggis for our table it took some time to get through the plastic with a table knife.

Then when everyone had finished eating the drone of bagpipes started up again and the piper marched back around the tables to the sound of enthusiastic clapping. He was a very ghurka looking Ghurka if you know what I mean, very intent on doing the job properly and clearly not prepared to accept anything less than total commitment.

Two speeches followed (or maybe they came before the piping - the wine was very good). First the local vicar gave a speech that paid tribute to the "lassies" though it did appear that Robbie himself had been a bit of a lad from the variety of sources quoted in the speech. It also contained unintended humour in the form of the sound engineer who was staring down forlornly at his un-used roving microphone, wondering how the vicar was managing to produce so much volume unaided. We all toasted the lovely ladies present, and opened another bottle of wine on our table. A very resplendent Scottish speaking, Scottish clad lady then gave a very sweet reply on behalf of the lasses, using the microphone and saying how lucky they were to have us blokes around. (Well that was my take on it.)

Next came the party game of clearing tables and chairs to the side of the room to create enough space for the Caledonian Society to demonstrate some Highland Dances.It was interesting that occupants of some tables chose to line up their chairs with backs to the wall  and a good view of the floor across a defensive bank of tables in front. I think they already knew that after 3 dances the members of the Caledonian Society would then turn on the audience to 'persuade' more people to join their elegant hopping and skipping routines. What a great way to exercise! Most of those invited onto the floor lasted one dance before needing a rest. How amusing the scene must have been as confusion reigned for most dances. Choices had to be made about right and left; clockwise and anti-clockwise decisions were needed, then massively complicated manoeuvres called reels had to be attempted. I for one got a whole new insight into the term "reeling".

Simple food; simple dances but with good friends and family to share the experience. No wonder Burns Night is so successful - and our table even won the litre bottle of whisky in the raffle!

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Sixth Sense

How well can you predict the future?

I don't mean the end of a story which predictably ends with the hero solving all the problems and living happily ever after. It's the route to the end that is enjoyable, especially with a good writer who provides unexpected twists and turns along the way. A writer like John Grisham is hard to predict, except for the conclusion which will almost always result in a victory for the lawyer in question.

Nor do I mean the end of a tea-time tv quiz show such as The Chase or Pointless. You just know that if there is any danger of money being won then either the questions will need a google type brain to have the answer, or the questions for the chaser will be along the lines of "what is 1 plus 1?". However, if it just happens to be a big occasion such as Christmas, then there is a very good chance that a competitor will win.

I can predict that whenever I hear my wife's car on the drive I will have to multi-task almost immediately. Specifically this will include making a cup of tea; carrying heavy bags of shopping from the car to the kitchen; re-organising the freezer in order to fill it again (twice); and generally making soothing noises about the stress of shopping, often applying balm in the shape of my credit card. 

Garden birds can easily predict my movements. The moment I reach for my camera in order to record a happy feeding scene for Facebook, the birds will disappear. Or, worse, the blue tits will arrive mob-handed and orchestrate a feeding frenzy which lasts until just before I press the shutter on my camera.

In my moments of black humour I sometimes think it would be useful to know my date of death. That would allow planning of travel, spending and saving accordingly. I would also have time to say the things I wanted and needed to say to friends and family, but which don't get said because I am "too busy" with everyday activities. On the other hand the day before DOD might not be that exciting - perhaps..

Inanimate objects can also predict the future. Essential items such as wallet, mobile phone, glasses and car keys all love to play hide and seek and in moments of stress (e.g. by being late) I can guarantee that hide and seek will have started.

By the far the best predictor is my lap-top. I am amazed at the predictive skill  of my lap-top. Recently I was  browsing the internet to find a supplier of small rugby balls, using sites such as Amazon or direct manufacturers. In the end I was overwhelmed by the choice, so bought nothing. However, over the next two days, by sheer coincidence I thought, I was amazed to see endless adverts for rugby balls of every size and shape, and in the end I made a purchase. Then I found that after researching a train journey, the adverts changed to offering low cost trips to London; train and hotel deals; offers on Eurostar and insurance for rail journeys. How did my laptop predict I would be interested in all these?!

This afternoon I intend to make life difficult for the cookie monsters hiding in my laptop. I'm going to google for elephant traps; organic compost; custard; toe nail varnish; minis and global warming - just to see what lap-top thinks I want to buy. 

If it really can predict the future I may have some interesting purchases ahead.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

I dreamed a dream

Dreaming a dream - not a good start perhaps; there are few alternative actions other than living in one; chasing one; or trying to live in one I suppose.

I think dreams are vital to us. Sometimes I help myself to sleep by starting an adventure in my head then waiting for sleep to take over the story. I'm envious of a friend who is on a type of medication that allows him to take a comfort break in the middle of a dream, go back to bed and pick up the dream where he left off. In my case I have to start a different thread, usually a successful experience such as scoring a rugby try or sailing a long trip in a dinghy without falling over. On rare occasions a real event comes along which seems to echo a dream in an eerie sort of way - like seeing a "new" place and feeling I have seen it before.

Yesterday we went to see the film version of my favourite musical (by a long margin). Reading various critics of Les Miserables nearly put me off. Some of my highly skilled musician friends were also full of reasons why mere actors should be not be allowed to perform in such a highly rated film. The musical is of course a world phenomenon now - and yet the so called experts got it wrong at the start as well, predicting an early end to the stage show.

Well, I still love the musical - and the film has added hugely to my enjoyment of the stage performance. It certainly hasn't spoiled my dream. Instead of having to imagine what events were taking place from programme notes or brief text comments I now have a much clearer mental picture of the plot. Street conditions were portrayed vividly. Anguish and emotion were present in abundance. The escape through the sewer was horrifically vivid. And good though the landlord and landlady have been in the stage and video performances I have seen - Helena Bonham Carter's take was delightful, especially being paired with the often dubious Sasha Baron Cohen.

There were lots of dreams in the plot, and the songs around this theme are woven all through this epic story. It mattered little to me that very few of the performers could match the singing performance of their equivalents in the stage show - Russell Crowe's strained rendering of "Javert's" stern edicts are a prime example.

Hope; Forgiveness; Remorse; Second chances; Love; Dreams.. in my head all these themes of Les Mis are now much more clearly defined. If you haven't seen either the film or the stage performance - you are missing out.