Friday, December 24, 2010

A Christmas Eve Arrival

Spidery black fingers whip past, their forms keener than usual, crystallised against the mottled white background. The sun climbs with gargantuan effort from the horizon, as a climber negotiating a tricky overhang, tracing a shallow arc of iced fire: the most brilliant, blinding light, but imparting imperceptible warmth. A pair of geese, startled by the train, take to the air. A couple, layered in coats, gloves, scarves and hats, walk with their dogs along an icy path through the grass; a seam of silver bisecting the frozen field. The little rivers scattered across the Weald flow viscously between the matted remnants of reed beds. A heron imparts only statuary to the scene. On a day like this, even the chub and perch will be lethargic, and only the weekly meal of a pike, or the occasional bite of a grayling, will provide a whisper of hope of contact to the frigid angler.

Suddenly the fields, inhabited by flocks of Southdowns, turn a shockingly intense green, contrast which is jarring, though the hills are still white and grey. Arundel Castle stands stoically, overlooking the broad flood plain of the Arun. Soon the Weald yields to suburbia, then Portsea Island and Portsmouth - a dialogue between the proud, reserved architecture of its naval history and its post-war reconstruction. At last, the Cat carries me across the waters, and reality recedes.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Thank Heaven for the BBC

The Proms have come and gone, marking the end of summer. This season of concerts, like no other, captivates my imagination; many weeks of great music, performed in one of the world's most iconic venues, aimed at making such masterpieces accessible to the general public, and out of phase with the main concert season. Occurring just as I move back to the US, it was exceptionally poignant this year.

Thanks to the foresight of the BBC, the concerts were broadcast using a new high-quality streaming service Coyopa - named after a Mayan god of thunder. Coyopa streams at 320 kbps (that's the bitrate of audio files one can purchase from Amazon, and higher quality than one typically gets from iTunes). The Proms have been a testing ground for this service, which will now be withdrawn, evaluated and (one sincerely hopes) made a standard streaming option in the near future.

Tonight, I listened to the Last Night of the Proms on my KEF loudspeakers, via this digital service, my computer's soundcard, and my Cambridge Audio amp (the computer soundcard being clearly the weakest link in this chain). The quality was astoundingly good for digital streaming, something that became exceptionally apparent at the end of the Prom, when the audience were singing along to the familiar (in the truest sense of the word) tunes of Jerusalem and Land of Hope and Glory. In closing my eyes, I was seated in the upper circle of the Royal Albert Hall. (with miraculously generous leg space). The orchestra was below me; music reaching directly to my ears, and music resounding from the mushroom-patch above. All around and below me, resonating fiercely, was the audience, singing in joyful abandon. I sang. I pointed skyward; a confirmation to the heavens, in a manner that reminds me immediately and solely of a certain Italian friend of mine. For a while, the 3000 odd miles seemed tangibly shorter.

Friday, August 13, 2010

A lapse in judgement

The latest release from Scottish brewers Brewdog is a limited-edition 55% beer, End of History, in bottles mounted within dead rodents by a skilled taxidermist. I began writing with the intent of expressing my disappointment in Brewdog, for what seemed to me to be an exercise in novelty marketing, as implied by news articles on the subject. I thought that, at last, Brewdog had forsaken their values of making interesting, flavourful beers in place of tasteless numbers and shock value.

I've been following Scottish brewers Brewdog for a couple of years now, since discovering their brew The Physics, Punk IPA, Trashy Blonde, and a myriad of others. I followed with delight that, after bringing out the UK's strongest beer Tokyo* , to the criticism of the Portman Group, Brewdog released a highly hopped low alcohol beer branded Nanny State. This was followed by the release of the world's strongest beer, Tactical Nuclear Penguin, made by using an icecream factory to crystalise and remove water from the beer, thus raising it to a strength well above the alcohol tollerance of any yeast. This was bested in strength by the German brewers Schorschbräu, which initiated a back and forth, with Brewdog retaliating with Sink the Bismark (41%), and the Germans beating this with a 43% brew.

Enter the End of History brew. Contrary to my initial reaction it, on looking deeper it has become clear that the idea is actually a much more sublte and directed statement. After the back-and-forth in the strength war, this beer, limited to only 12 bottles, is a tongue-in-cheek cap to the overflowing bottle. Clearly, those at Brewdog had realised the escallating strength competition had become ludicrous, so nothing short of a farcical bottling would firmly put an end to the affair. Sorry for losing faith momentarily, Brewdog!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Windy Hill

Yesterday evening, I returned to Windy Hill. Having thrown a sandwich and a bottle of Glencoe stout into a pack, I climbed the hill to watch the sunset.

Despite the name, all four elements are met in this place, in a combative equilibrium - cohesive yet opposed. The land - in black, greens and browns - meanders into shades of purple and grey as the earth erupts skyward to the north. Overhead, clouds drifting so low to be within human grasp form a broad flat base, hovering over the mountains in defiance of their rugged form. To the east, Glasgow; its monochromatic shimmer a strange oasis within the continuous spectrum of the numinous landscape. To the west, just over the hilltops, the sun's death in the perpetual presence of the unseen sea.

The grass was soft and cool beneath me. I sat, with a flask, the wind to my back, my eyes lingering over the foreboding mass of Ben Lomond and the jagged peaks of the Arrochar Alps, and vowed to return to this spot as often as I physically can. Never has a place so taken my heart.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

A change in viewpoint

I exited a two-hour conversation with Sandy today, bearing numerous thoughts about which to contemplate. The only one that is fully formed is this beauty of an idea. Following a discussion on the concept of creation yielding plurality, and all the divisive spiritual trauma that entails, came the notion that the Big Bang is not an apt name at all, for it is far too exuberant an image. Instead, considering the universe started at the highest intensity, which subsequently decayed with time - a universe imbued with a sense of "Do we really have to?" - we propose a more appropriate name for that seminal moment of creation - the Big Sigh.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

On top of the world

It has been snowing for days. In the East, a steady few inches per day has blanketed both town and countryside, purifying all that stares skyward. Snow, uniquely, makes the ugliest beautiful for a time - morphing demons into angels.

Driving North and West, I crossed the Pennines, and briefly skirted an invisible boundary; fleetingly traversing the veil which separates two worlds. No words can describe the beauty of that drive. The sky was exceptionally clear. Snow draped over the ancient hills, crossed with drystone walls and dotted with farmhouses; the winter sun casting oblique shadows on the pristine palette. Looking South-West, the hills were ablaze with frosted fire. The scene was dissected by one of my favourite roads, and my perception of the stark beauty was heightened by the ever-present risk of the conditions, by constant alertness to the subtle messages of traction transmitted through the steering column. Through superposition of the beauty and the danger, I felt unusually alive.

As so often, Divine Comedy lyrics sprung to mind.

One butterfly spies the glint in his eye

The birds sing as he cycles by

And Oh! Why should he feel sad?

This world ain't so bad

And besides, woe betide he who would frown

When natural beauty abounds!

And now, with wheels spinning free,

He's picking up speed...

Two butterflies tie knots in his stomach

They love it when he goes to fast

Wind whistles past: vast oceans of air

That will mess up his hair

Though he no longer cares anymore

For overindulgence in vanity's
vacuous vice
Just once or twice
. Thrice.
Four times in five

We forget we're alive

And neglect to remind ourselves

Oh wait, wait for me!

Oh, great Mercury

As long as you may be

Oh, won't you wait for me?

Three butterflies realise when it's time to depart

They have tickled his ribs, they have fluttered his heart

But the starting is easy compared to the stop

And the bottom is hard when compared to the top!

Ooh, la la, la la la la....

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

We have forgotten

Dreams - inconsistent angel things;
Horses bred with star-laced wings

But it's so hard to make them fly


These wings beat the night sky above the town

One goes up and one goes down

And so the chariot hits the ground

We have forgotten
[Don't try to make me fly]

How it used to be
[I'll stay here, I'll be fine]

How it used to be
[Don't go and let me down]

How it used to be
[I'm starting to like this town]

When wings beat the night sky above the ground,

Will I unwillingly shoot them down

With all my petty fears and doubts?

We have forgotten
[Am I in love with this?]

How it used to be
[My constant broken ship]

How it used to be
[Don't go, I'll shoot you down]

How it used to be
[I'm starting to like this town]

Sixpence None The Richer