25 June 2016

Thank You!

Friends, Remnants, and Countrymen.....

I bought a new car the other day.  I had saved all my life and put aside a little bit here and there, and now, as I'm not so far off my three-score-years-and-ten, I wanted to treat myself.  A little bit of fun left at the bottom of the bucket list.

I took possession of the car the other day.  I thought it looked like this.....

Shiny and new.  Quiet and safe.  A car for the outdoors.

So I proudly took Amanda (my wife) for a drive into the countryside. Parked.  And went for a walk.

The countryside looked like this.....

Fresh and green, with those wonderful splashes of mischievous digitalis purpurea (common foxglove)....

Even on a slightly overcast day I thought my country - the country where I grew up, the country that my parents and grandparents fought for, the country that formed me -  was beautiful. Something to be proud of.  

We watched skylarks ascending, and swifts scissoring across the tops of the grasses.

Then, when we got back to the car park, everything had changed.....

No longer the shiny fine vehicle I had put my pension into, but a burnt out wreck, a worthless shell....

The irony is, I should have seen it coming, so, despite my shock, I am grateful to those who went to the trouble to teach me this lesson....

I know who did it.  But it wasn't the usual suspects.  No.  Not the seventeen and a half million of my compatriots who normally attract the blame.  

They weren't responsible.  No.  They have been abused for years, the victims of an under-education posing as a National Curriculum, and of shameful welfare cuts.  The lack of investment in northern cities and small towns, the poverty of austerity has reaped its own harvest.

No.  Seventeen and a half million of my compatriots cannot take the blame.  They too, after all, will find their vehicles, their prized possessions, burnt out in the countryside. They will find they have no friends.


Friends, Remnants, countrymen, lend me your ears.....

I have been taught a lesson.  My eyes were blind.  I thought I was a European, but....

O masters, if I were disposed to stir 
Your hearts and minds to mutiny and rage, 
I should do Boris wrong, and Michael wrong, 
Who, you all know, are honourable men: 
I will not do them wrong; I rather choose 
To wrong the dead, to wrong myself and you, 
Than I will wrong such honourable men.

And though I remain a European, geographically, culturally, spiritually and emotionally, 

Good friends, sweet friends, let me not stir you up 

To such a sudden flood of mutiny. 
They that have done this deed are honourable: 
What private griefs they have, alas, I know not, 
That made them do it: they are wise and honourable, 
And will, no doubt, with reasons answer you. 
I come not, friends, to steal away your hearts: 
I am no orator, as Boris is; 
But, as you know me all, a plain blunt man, 
That love my country......

We must be patient now.  We have to tighten our belts, and start again. No longer will I yearn for a shiny new vehicle, I must learn to walk again.....

And so must my children.

The evil that men do lives after them....

But the larks still sing...... (for the moment....)

22 June 2016

Independence in Scotland

Scotch Mist

I am filled with metaphor.  

We are staring into an abyss.... Or, at least, we think it is an abyss, though there is no way of telling. Mist, Scotch mist, obscures all (except that there is nothing there....)

Apart from this sign.....

My brother is a mountain goat (though you might not think so to look at him).  He has 'conquered' 219 of 282 Munros (Scottish peaks over 3,000 feet), so has 63 to go to become a compleater.   

I am more a lame duck. I may, perhaps, have got to the top of some half dozen or so in my lifetime, but I wouldn't call it conquering.... 

But it's not about achievement.  It's about compleation.... Or it's about the road to compleation. You start something. You don't just walk away. At nearly 68 my bro' has managed to clamber the sides of 219 peaks. Why quit now?  I have absolutely no doubt he will top the lot before he pops his clogs, but if not, so what?  At least he will die trying.  To walk away now, saying he had to regain control, would reduce the whole experience to a petri dish of Nigel Farage's sperm....

I have just spent a weekend with said Bro' in Scotland. I have been gaining my independence. Writing as I am on the eve of the UK referendum in which the question is whether to remain in partnership with blood brothers or to perform a caesarian on ourselves without an anesthetic, I am filled with metaphor.  

My Bro' and I (and not to forget L'il Bro') are blood. We don't live together. We circulate in different spheres.  But we are blood and need each other when times are up or down.  

Like the orchids on the hillside we are not complete in ourselves. We cannot exist in a vacuum.

Or, like the cotton grass, we don't flourish singly. Symbiosis, with a little independence, seems to be a suitable way of life.....

The first day of our trip we climbed Creag Mhòr, which reaches a height of 1047 metres (3435 ft). Creag Mhòr (Big Rock) is one of the remotest of the southern highlands being situated about eight kilometres from the nearest public road and being surrounded by other high ground (thanks, Wiki). We probably covered about fifteen miles in the eight hours or so it took us to get up and back. For a weed from the south this was testing, and the frequency and content of messages from my knees, thighs and hips to my brain put antisocial networking to shame as I began to yearn for some end to the pain....

But, when the exhilaration was over, and we were back on the flat, I was glad I had done it.  

Later, at the Luib Hotel, James and Jenny provided us with sustenance and liquid refreshment, and humanity no longer seemed a remote ideal....

The bigger test - the real caber tosser - came the next morning after breakfast, when, overlooking Rannoch Moor, with distant views of Ben Nevis, Bro' parked near Achallader Farm and we set off, in fine weather, for Beinn Mhanach (954 metres) via Coire Achaladair.  

It should have been a walk in the park.  The breezes were Zephyrus at his kindest, with clouds dappling the hills and nary a spot of sleet nor snow.  But I wandered with cloud-like loneliness in my heart, thinking, I am slowing him down,  and I can't go on.....

Truth is, I had become as useless as Nigel Farage in a finishing school, and as self-centred as Boris Johnson on the wall of death.  Or, perhaps, as welcome as Iain Duncan Smith at one of William Hague's drinking bouts....

Somehow there was a mismatch.....

We stopped for lunch.  The views were wonderful.  The map, however, said to me that there was no way I should proceed.  It was time for me and Bro' to part company.

And so it was. He was to scamper across, fly up the crags and bag another Munro, with his personal goal ever nearer. And I was to turn my attention to the closer study of the world immediately round me.

I love being in the open, with air in what's left of my hair, and that ringing silence you can only get when a skylark is deafening.  No buildings.  No cars. No TV.  No football.  No worries.....

I love to explore the pictures that all of a sudden, without the need to slog up to yet another thousand metre cairn, reveal themselves to me.  Here is the delicate-looking Common Butterwort (pinguicula vulgaris)

It's barely ten centimetres tall, if that, but it is a killer, being one of the United Kingdom's few carnivorous plants.  The sticky leaves being disposed to curl around unsuspecting flies, who are then ingested through the pores...  And these are all around me!

Quietly working out their existence, like the lichens on the rocks:

I nearly step on this beautiful ground beetle....

And narrowly miss slipping over this little frog, one of many:

On close examination, the world about me is alive.  Without the slightest difference with my brother, I come to the realisation that our differences are compatible.  He can leg it and I can limp.  He can soar like an eagle, while I flit like a wagtail.  And there's room for us both....

And so an afternoon passes, my eye tracing waterfalls:

Catching reflections:

Enjoying the rich colours:

The lighter shades:

Discovering some strange creatures away from the public eye:

And eventually being reunited with Bro' amongst the bobbing of the exploding cotton grass.

The Hills are Alive.....

Yes.  I achieved something approaching independence in the Scottish Hills, and was the better for it.  But that independence couldn't have happened without my Bro', without the planning and the travelling together, and the shared love of challenge and outdoors and all that.  I wouldn't have been there etc etc.  

It's late and my metaphors have begun to muddle.  I have a drop of Aberlour within reach, but the memory of James's cask strength 20 year old GlenDronach in my head. 

This is no time to leave.....  The party is just beginning!  

I can be independent.  But not on my own......

That's just Scotch mist.  

The abyss.....

To recap last year's sortie, please see....

I remain, 
yours faithfully....

3 June 2016


A Cocktail of Memories

Sunday March 31st, 1985, Dawn at Delhi, again.  The plane empties a bit and we can change seats and have a bit more space and a better view….. We’re not allowed off however as it’s only a refuelling stop.

We can see quite a bit on the way down: Hoogli, or somesuch, and Calcutta, Phuket and Penang, and then the straits of Malacca and Singapore.

The airport is a marvel of efficiency and clean design, and we are ushered through, smiled at, vetted, customed, money-changed, and booked into the Raffles in no time.  Then we are in a cab and gleaming through the green and sterile landscape…..

Our suite, No 286, is, admittedly a bit out on a limb, but it is still a part of the palm and bougainvillea set-up.  We have two rooms and a bathroom, lots of hot water and iced drinking water, lots of headed notepaper and a fridge.

We go out for a sortie….  It is gloomy, coming-on-to-rain humid and late afternoon.  St Andrew’s Church is just spilling out the Palm Sunday penitents, and the two cricket clubs on the maidan look healthily fat and cake-ish.  It is very Sunday, very quiet, but we see signs of life in Chinatown and the places we see are not as homogenised as I expected: lots of greenery, and some of it is mould, some moss, some trees growing out of waste pipes….

As I flag, it starts to rain, so we whizz back to the hotel and dive into the Writers’ Bar for a Singapore Gin Sling and an ogle at the badly painted postcards that pose for Winston Churchill and other royalty.  The walls are adorned with these and with mugshots of famous, rich, boozy and boring writers who languished here: Somerset Maugham being one of the tops; James Michener one of the bottoms!

Wednesday March 30th, 2016…. Taxi to Merlion Park and Bumboat ride round Marina Bay and the river down to Riverside Park and back.  Walk back to hotel for shower and rest and thence out again to explore the Raffles Hotel….  After checking out the Billiard Room and the Long Bar (full of tourists) we manage to gain access to the Writers’ Bar (no tourists, no photos) which is residents’ only.  It has been altered, as has the whole hotel, but the Singapore Sling is just as wonderful as it was back then…..

Raffles Hotel Original Singapore Gin Sling, created by barman Ngian Tong Boon in 1915 at the Long Bar…. Made with Beefeater Gin, Cherry Stock, Triple Sec D.O.M., Orange, Lime, Pineapple, Angostura…. [The original Long Bar is now a shopping arcade; a replacement has been created on the first floor….]

(For the record, though it hurts to record this, my credit card was lighter by £27.62 after one Gin Sling and an apple juice)…..

Although the islands of Singapore have been inhabited for millennia, the modern city-state was founded by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819.  Its name (Singa Pura in Sanksrit) means Lion City, and it is the world’s only island city-state and the world’s busiest port.  It has a population of five and a half million, an area of 270 square miles, and an estimated GDP per capita of over $80K, which makes it the third richest place in the world. 

Since the time of Raffles it was a British colony until the Japanese occupied it in 1942.  It was liberated in 1945 (with the help of my uncle Peter McMullin who arrived in Taiping in December 1944), became self-governing in 1959, merged with Malaysia in 1963, and then became independent in 1965, with Lee Kuan Yew as Prime Minister.

At only one degree off the equator it is a steamy place, and the lowest temperature ever recorded there was 19.4ºC.  But, in contrast to other Asian cities it is clean, ordered, and attractive.  

Not much of the old town remains (it was severely bombed by the British before the Japanese surrender) but Boat Quay and Emerald Hill survive to show some of the earlier elegance. 

When I first visited, in 1985, Lee Kuan Yew was still in power (he stepped down in 1990, though continued in the cabinet until 2011, dying in 2015).  He had led Singapore to significant economic success, though sometimes by harsh means (you can be fined for not flushing a toilet, or for selling chewing gum)!  There were then little old streets in Chinatown, and we ate street food there – but there is very little of that left now and today the skyline is dominated by gleaming skyscrapers, including the amazing 200 metre tall Marina Bay Sands Hotel and Sands Skypark, with its roof gardens crowning the triple towers.

There are three main ethnic groups (Chinese, Malay and Indian) but English is universally spoken (though there are four official language – English, Malay, Mandarin Chinese and Tamil).  Due in part at least to its position and superb airport, it is a busy tourist destination, with plenty to see and do for at least a few days stopover. 

We had a most enjoyable wander around the Singapore Botanic Gardens

where monitor lizards behave impeccably, 

and orchids (in the National Orchid Garden

Vanda Ban Ki-moon 'Yoo Soon Taek'

are hybridised to commemorate celebrity visits…..

Vanda William Catherine

And we enjoyed dining out overlooking Marina Bay under a beautiful sunset.

We stayed this time in the Village Hotel Albert Court, where Saravanan Ratha looked after us with great care.  The hotel is in a series of converted shophouses in Chinatown, and was fine.  

I would have stayed in the Raffles, but at about £400 B&B it seemed excessive, especially as it has lost some of the charm that Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham and Ernest Hemingway left behind them….  Shortly after I departed in 1985 it was declared a National Monument (not because I had stayed there), and then closed down for three years’ refurbishment at a cost of $160 million (also not entirely because I stayed there).  In 2010 it was reportedly bought by a Qatari Sovereign Wealth Fund.  In 2012 the Raffles Hotel Museum was closed; this had held memorabilia such as silver and china items, postcards and menus, as well as old and rare editions of the works of the famous writers who stayed there as well as photographs of its famous guests…..

I guess people are more interested in pictures of themselves these days?

Saturday April 13th, 1985, Lazy morning: tea and newspapers at 7.30. Marvellous shower; vast buffet breakfast (fruit and fruit juice, coffee, cereal, scrambled eggs on toast), long letter writing session to catch up on a few long-unanswered letters (and to use the swanky headed notepaper)…..

We’ve been granted stay of execution until 4.30, so relax and pack and then check out and have a rather old-fashioned (and unsuccessful) haircut by a Chinaman who razors behind the ears and pummels the shoulders….

I'll see you again
Whenever spring breaks through again
Time may lie heavy between 
But what has been 
Is past forgetting 
This sweet memory 
Throughout my life 
Will come to me 
Though my world may go awry 
In my heart will ever lie 
Just the echo of a sigh 

I'll see you again
Noel Coward, 1938


Flew back from Australia the other day via Singapore

Went to see my mother today.


Both are distant, and both contain large empty spaces.

But then, both have sunny dispositions….

Next day: Visiting my mother, in her dementia care home, I couldn’t help but notice how her existence has certain things in common with long distance air travel.  For almost a day I was confined in a sealed environment.  Smiling attendants brought me plastic cups containing various coloured liquids: cold to make me sleep; hot to wake me up.  I was fed, frequently, with yellowish substances which stuck to my clothes and dried with a crust.  Screens flickered around me, jabbering repeated images of television shows and films past and present at me, with occasional freezing intervals of public address system interventions requiring me to sit down, tighten my belt and withstand emotional turbulence.  The only place to go is the lavatory, and to alleviate the discomfort and the boredom this becomes habitual….

Nothing happens for hours, and then nothing more.  I might doze for a while, then wake up to find that hardly any time has passed.  Someone else might snore, or cough, but there’s little conversation. The possibility that all of a sudden it will go dark, and very very cold, and that I could fall like a snowflake for six miles into oblivion is part of the adrenal entertainment. 

And then, eventually, encrusted with yellowish food, and hovering between sleep and wakefulness, muddled by the intake of red and brown liquids, the hissing and crying sitting room returns to earth and I am vacuumed out into an unreal brightness, people wandering aimlessly around me, authorities staring at me without so much of a flicker of friendship, checking my ID, checking my eyes, dismissing me…..   Are these the pearly gates?  Did I die? 

I can't remember.....

Is this what it’s like for my mother?


30ml Gin. 
15 ml Cheery Memories. 
120 ml Juiced pinings 
15 ml Smiley thoughts. 
7.5 ml Cointreau. 
7.5 ml Dom Benedictine. 
10 ml Grenadine confusion. 
A Dash of Bitters. 


Shake with ice. 
Strain into an ice-filled bottomless glass. 
Garnish with a smile and a slice of understanding.
And serve with care.....