Sunday, January 06, 2013

Scottish New Year – Dumfries & Galloway

Day 1 – Castles, Birds & Towers

Christmas period was spent in Edinburgh and Glasgow but it was in Twynholm that we spent New Year with old friends Tony, Ruth, Ken, Fran, Hilary and Ron. We spent New Year here two years ago and had a great time, it was just as good this time round.
This is not the Scotland of Bens and Glens but rolling green hills, huge sandy beaches and castles. Our first walk was a trip to Threave Castle. This single tower castle surrounded by later fortifications, sits on an island in the River Dee. The river was in full spate but this made it even better for bird watching.
All along the path we saw robins, so friendly that they sat, literally inches from the camera. Every fifty yards or so another would be guarding their territory. Looking us right in the eye. Tony has a new birdwatching app that has lots of images but also plays bird calls. Not that you’d need it for the hundreds of geese we saw feeding on the farmland.
But it was the lapwings that we were after. We knew there was a Peregrine Falcon in the area as a more professional sounding bird man told us, and the lapwings were certainly skittish, which was fine as they look great in flight.
Then off to Orchardton Tower, a very rare round Tower house. It had three stories and when you climb inside, seems quite cosy. This whole area is dotted with fortified towers and castles. They’re often in well-chosen, beautiful spots and have a fascinating history. This is the land of border raids, changing royal allegiances, wars between Scotland and England.
Ruth and Tony are great cooks and their venison stew, laced with fruits was fantastic. If you're reading this guys - thanks for the food, walks and endless laughter.

Day 2 Hogmonay
Off to the butchers for some Scottish goodies – a couple of Desperate Dan steak pies, some black pudding and fruit pudding (to be fried for breakfast) yes there’s nothing we won’t fry. New Year was spent playing games, drinking and reflecting on the past year. Everyone gave their highlights and all in all it seemed to have been a good year. For me the highlights were; Best experience: Berlin debate, Best trip: Greece, Best music experience: Latitude, Best TV series: The Walking Dead, Best meal: Ljubljana, Best film: The Hunt, Best exhibition: Bronze (Royal Academy), Best theatre: Timon of Athens (National), Best Museum: Tank Museum Bovington, Best architecture: Charles Rennie Macintosh's Glasgow Art School, Best Album: EdwardSharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, Best single: Willy Moon's Yeah Yeah. Best reading: Robert Macfarlane's three books on nature.
Hilary and Ron arrived in their mobile home and we got a tour. It’s amazingly comfortable inside with a fixed double bed, toilet, shower. Really thinking about buying something like this. Ron runs this as a small business, renting it out for around £800 a week.

Day 3 New Years Day – Birds and spot of geology
Down to the coast to walk. The views across the Solway look south and west and are stunning. More birdwatching – Plovers and Redshanks. It’s down this road that John Paul Jones lived, one of my favourite Scots. He left from here as a cabin boy and was commanding his own ship in his early twenties. He then founded the American navy, left to head up the Russian navy with great success and eventually was Admiral of the French Navy. Fascinatingly, he returned here as a US commander, robbed the local Earl, who had wronged his father, of his silver, then invaded and burnt down Whitehaven across the firth in England. He also sailed round to Edinburgh, pretended to be a British ship, received gunpowder, then bombarded Edinburgh. What a man!
At Abigland we walked along sandstone beds that have been seismically altered so that the current bedding is literally folded back on itself. There’s rippled beds in the sandstone at the back of the beach. The strata are at 50 degrees or so and rise up from the sand. Further along there’s a fantsastic fissure that forms a natural arch.
We stopped at the site of The Wickerman Festival, where the huge wickerman had been dressed as Santa. It takes place on 27/28 July this year may turn up as a precursor to Latitude. Finally a trip to the pub where Tony was due to play in a folk session. It was rammed and we were fleeced for raffle tickets, which the ticket collector won! Finally, Gil was kissed by the 'man with no nose'! Strange place the Borders. On the way back the stars were out and we could see the Milky Way.

Day 4 Final walk
Walked around the village with Ruth and Tony’s lovely daughter Rachael who had turned up down from Glasgow University where’s she’s studying Psychology. She was bemoaning the sociology lecturer who doesn’t believe in quantitative research and constantly disses psychology. Witches were burnt in this area, on the hill behind the village, no doubt qualitative research showed they were witches. Views were sought, people surveyed, views sought and yes the research showed that they were guilty! Discussed our planned cycling holiday on Islay and Jura – that will be something special in 2013.

Berlin December 2012

Been visiting Berlin for many years before and after the fall of the wall in 1989. This time to do a triple bill of lecture, debate and chair a film at Online Educa, with two extra days to explore the city.

Day 1 – Talk, talk, talk
The double-decker S-bahn express from Schonenfeld loops through former East berlin round the back of Museum Island and the Reichstag to Zoogarten. I went straight to delivering a lecture on the future of Universities but something weird happened. Just as I was about to start, while opening a bottle of water with a bottle opener, the top of the bottle snapped off and I cut my hand in three places. A fair amount of blood was flowing but a woman in the front row had three plasters and I was patched up.
At the end of the day I was a participant in The Big Debate, again on the future of Universities, which we won (surprisingly) as most of the audience were academics. Then off to the Soho House Hotel for dinner. It’s in a restored Bauhaus building, in former East Berlin, formerly used by the Communists as a huge archive, one of those dark, stylish and busy joints where musos stay – sure enough there was a band checking in as I left. Then U-bahn back to the Intercontinental, where Gil and I were staying – huge room, espresso machine….
My son and our friend Jackie were at the H10 Kaufdamm hotel, which I highly recommend. Not only did they both get upgrades, there’s a superb artwork in the huge foyer, a metal figure in a balletic pose. Rooms are great and only £70 a night and it’s right next to a U-bahn station.  So nice, we moved here for the remaining few days.

Day 2 – Gluwein and bratwurst
Breakfast at a small café across the road, always preferable to expensive hotel buffets, then down to Charlottenberg and the Christmas market for some gluwein and bratwurst. I was back chairing a session for a film titled Connections, which I disliked but the audience loved. The German’s really invented Christmas as we know it, and they still do a good job.
Out to an unusual Italian for dinner. You get a card, grab a table, then fetch your food and drinks from counters. It’s classier than a buffet, busier than a sit-down restaurant but the food was excellent.

Day 3 – Walls, Gates and Platzes
First time in Berlin for Callum and Jackie so off to the Holocaust Memorial, Brandenburg Gate and walk down Unter den Linden. I was a little shocked at German tourists standing on the blocks and screaming with laughter for photographs. This is a beautiful and sombre monument, a maze of grey blocks, all of different sizes. It speaks to the horror of being lost, confused, losing your identity, and ultimately represents the anonymity and brutality of the Final Solution. How could they fail to see this?
The Brandenburg Gate has those famous horses that Napoleon stole and I remember this as the site of the wall until 1989. You can now pose with Russian hats, listen to buskers and buy pretzels. I’ve visited lots of walls - The Great Wall of China, Berlin Wall, Hadrian’s Wall, Antonine Wall, Derry’s Walls….. None of them worked in the end.
Then back to the Pergamum Museum. I’ve been there often so sat in the café reading while the rest did the Ishtar gate and Pergamum Altar.
Across to Potzdammer Platz for dinner at the Lowenbrau Brauhaus and a fine evening was had by all – beer, goulash soup, meat, dumplings and strudel. This is really Bavarian food but it was fun. The Sony Centre is fantastic at night.

Day 4 – East Berlin – Stasi Museum
Stasi Museum
Off on a long U-bahn and S-bahn trip to the Stasi Museum deep in the former East Berlin. I shared a room with the guy who turned out to be a major Stasi spy, so this was a trip with a purpose. We first learned of his double life in a Panorama programme. This is someone we went on holiday with, have holiday snaps together, drank together – and we never knew. My initial reaction was to feel miffed at the fact he never asked me to be a fellow spy.
When the wall fell in 1989, the Stasi started to shred their 100 kilometres of files but the shredders overheated and were kaput. Unfortunately for Robin, who was active right up to the night before the wall fell, they stopped just before these British files. He was the real deal with invisible ink and a transmitter, paid 500 Marks per month.
As you enter East Berlin, the huge apartment blocks appear, with lots of graffiti (excellent it is) and the area that surrounds the Stasi Museum is truly stark. The museum is well worth the hike, as you’ll see more of the real, post-unification Berlin as well as experience something extraordinary – a state that turned on itself.
The rooms, living quarters, meeting rooms and so on are still there with their brownish, dated furniture. I visited the DDR Museum near the Dom and found that their reconstructed typical ‘living room and kitchen’ were almost identical to the council house I grew up in Scotland. It all looks so ordinary but the people in these rooms were responsible for executions, torture and oppression on a massive scale.

But it’s the apparatus of spying that betrays the extremes of the surveillance. This is a disguised baker's van used to lift and transport suspects. There’s flatbed trucks with spy cabins, cameras in car doors, watering cans, rail sleepers, logs, ties, behind buttons on coats, in bags, pens, walls, electric sockets, telephones. You name it, they shoved a camera into it.

Youth movements
I can remember Robin wearing one of these pioneer blue shirts. Looked a little odd in the late seventies and early eighties. Mass youth movements are usually a sign of a dysfunctional society, whether it be the Nazi Hitler Youth or Socialist Pioneers.

What I really liked were the photographs of the punks and rockers in disused churches and basements, defying the state in style. I like to think that punk played a part in the downfall of the wall. This girl with the huge guitar says it all.

But the most fascinating exhibit was these sealed jars. Thousands of these were found, and at first they puzzled the citizens who broke into the various Stasi headquarters. Turns out that those who were interrogated, were made to sit on towels, as they sweated during interrogation, their personal smell was captured and the cloth stored in these jars. There’s even a manual on where to mplace the towel.
PS I highly recommend Stasiland by Anna Funder if you and further insights into the Stasi and their methods.