The stare goes through me. I’m being herded. I must counter this. I’m the alpha here. I’m the leader. We’re engaged in a battle that involves chewsticks, training and discipline. Panda the border collie can stare all he wants now, but this high energy ball of fur won’t be allowed the upper hand. And, to make my point clear, I have dropped him at the vets. He’s going to be neutered. No baby Pandas. No mini-stares. As an unwanted pet, rehomed after a month or so in a cage, his journey from a litter of puppied in Germany to Dongguan ends genetically wherever I choose to take him in our family journey. Stares or no stares.
The last week of school was interrupted twice by the standard COVID-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR). I had it last Tuesday and Friday at school, as well as Saturday in my apartment garden complex. It is what it is. One case a week last Tuesday in neighbouring Dàlǎng (大朗) town has risen to 25 today. As my school is in Sōngshānhú technological area and my house is in Dàlǐngshān town, we all fall under the 6 towns of Sōngshānhú district: Liáobù, Shípái, Cháshān and Shílóng.
Throughout the last few days, I’ve wandered into Dalingshan town because Songshan Lake and every surrounding park is closed. I was told (by government notice) that Dalingshan library was closed yet I sat there today reading in their branch of Pacific Coffee. I don’t usually favour chains but they have a strict no smoking policy. I read some more Jack Reacher short stories, watched Dave German’s Genius show on YouTube and did a little school preparation. On the way back, I passed an open mall area. Parks are closed. Indoor gathering spaces are closing. I shouldn’t complain. I never really did lockdown.
This pandemic has spread fast and gets me muttering, “Bloody virus” quite often. Yet, since 14 days of quarantine in April 2020, I’ve personally experienced no lockdown. I’ve been very blooming lucky. Of course, the inconvenience of being unable to travel to my hometown in Blighty does more than counterbalance that fact. Now lockdown sits in the town next door – and threatens life in my Blighty. Britain is blighted by this bloody modern plague. COVID-19 released its Christmas hit as Omicron. 2020 definitely helped my knowledge of the Greek alphabet even if the variants list is a cast of horrors.
Twas the nightmare before Christmas and all around the house, excitement sank away. After watching the climax (or anticlimax) of La casa de papel or Money Heist, I found myself feeling like I did at the end of 007’s latest (but not last) outing, No Time To Die. So, what now? It’s almost like 2021 is a loose bundle of scripts with no apparent direction, as if all order had become tangled in the mop head of Boris Johnson.
Walking around, as a solo foreigner, in a town located in South China is easy. It’s safe. Millions of people in a huge catchment area and just a few dozen virus cases. Low violent crime. Scams, for sure. Air pollution, but improved conditions. Man Utd fans, but they’re everywhere. Poor Ole. The one thing that’s got me muttering words like a 1990’s Essex gangster is simply hurtful: people who dart out of my way, or pull their masks up suddenly or cup their hands over their mouth or say in Chinese that I may have the virus. 2020 and 2021 has seen too many divisions. I remain in China as a token of hope. I believe things shall be better. They may need to break more before they get better. It is what it is. Whilst I breathe, I’ll remain positive. Even when I’m negative. Still, it’s hard to be totally positive when Panda is staring at me. Dogs!
Xiexie ni he zai jian! Thank you kindly and goodbye!
Today marks the memorial of the terrible fire and Grenfell Tower disaster that claimed 72 lives. The enquiry goes on. The battle against protected imperialist privilege remains. The racism of yesteryear hasn’t faded at all. These days a man born on November the 30th in 1874 at a palace (Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire) is gaining rather a bit of attention. This, a man who, somehow appears (on camera) to have been meddling in Police affairs in 1911. This is long before you look at Sir Winston Churchill’s cash for influence…
“…ought to be lain bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi and then trampled on by an enormous elephant with the new viceroy seated on its back” – Winston Churchill, on Gandhi, “a half-naked fakir”
Hussein Onyango Obama is better known to many as former US president Barack Obama’s grandfather. He was one of thousands held in British detention camps during Kenya’s Mau Mau Uprising of the 1950s. Winston Churchill served as leader there from 1951–1955. Not many people know about that. Even the Imperial War Museum’s web link skirts over the wartime leader’s involvement.
“Many of our friends in Muslim countries all over the East have already expressed great appreciation of this gift.” – Winston Churchill addressed the cabinet in 1940, They set aside £100,000 for a London mosque to honour the Indian Muslims who fought for the British Empire.
At the weekend thugs and far right fascists waved Hitler-style right arm salutes in front of the Sir Winston Churchill statue. The very character who helped Britain and her allies to overcome Nazi Germany, fascist-state Italy and a hugely militarist Japan hellbent on expanding their Empire. In April 2014, Labour candidate Benjamin Whittingham tweeted on Twitter that Sir Winston Churchill was “a racist and white supremacist”. The Labour Party removed the post and apologised to Churchill’s grandson Sir Nicholas Soames – and the world. In February 2019, before COVID-19 ravaged Europe, Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell called Sir Winston Churchill a villain. Newspapers often dig up some rusty pieces of Churchill-bashing and The Guardian’s Gary Younge’s piece from 2002 is hugely relevant today.
“I think my grandfather’s reputation can withstand a publicity-seeking assault from a third-rate, Poundland Lenin. I don’t think it will shake the world.” – Sir Nicholas Soames (Grandson of Sir Winston Churchill, The Daily Telegraph, February 2019.
Groomed by class, and shaped by his headstrong opinion, Sir Winston Churchill helped deliver Britain through its darkest hours. Strong leadership and action needed to prevail – and it did. People gave their all for freedom and choice. Without such actions, Britain and Europe surely would have fell to Nazi ideals. To freely discuss Sir Winston Churchill and his party’s feelings of other races is easy now. Back then, in another lifetime and era, many were obsessed with master races and strong genes over others. There are even religions, cults and countries now pushing and plugging that notion, but that is another story, for another day.
Sir Winston Churchill was not a stranger to eugenics and controversy. The man himself adorns countless history books, five-pound notes and was and is celebrated by many. Many British-Indians see Sir Winston Churchill as a figure of division. They have a just case, and rightly so they are free to argue their cause, after all the defeat and prevention of Nazi rule on British soil was all about that. Freedom of speech belongs in the U.K. Even during Sir Winston Churchill’s time pre-war and after World War II many argues his faults and his seemingly eugenic views as far more than just class division. His speeches were often tinged with venom and fear-mongering: watch out for those pesky East Asians…
I’ve always found Sir Winston Churchill’s books – of which there are volumes to be fascinating and idiosyncratic. They’re outlandishly eccentric pieces from a time of Empire and fear of Communism and Fascism. They’re contradictive deep pieces of opinion and words twist and turn hither and dither to form a kind of blog or diary or history bibliography. Many have deep direction. Most have one-sided takes. The more that people can read into Sir Winston Churchill’s works the better. They’re illuminating and showcase an often-troubled mind full of intellect and discovery. One moments they pour with respect, the next they stand over their quarry and stamp their feet down. Like all heroes, he’s a troubled kind. To question his legacy is natural. There is no alternative narrative from his dealings in World War II. But there are other stories, lesser told and lesser written about. Sir Winston Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples is by and large referred to as social Darwinism in a manuscript.
“I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.” – Part of Winston Churchill’s address the Palestine Royal Commission in 1937.
If given a school report for his handling of World War II, Sir Winston Churchill would be awarded an A* with all possible distinctions and awards. For his relationships to the Suffragettes, well, how can you offer bail one day and then imprison many just a few years later? That’s the mark of a poor Home Secretary. Sorry, Sir Winston Churchill that’s a U mark on your report card: unclassified, as in terrible. Historians and defenders of the recently desecrated statue of Sir Winston Churchill are now doing battle in the foreground of society. Was Sir Winston Churchill a racist? Hmmm, these knights, there must have been a few over the years that have fell foul of the race cards. How about his treatment to the working classes and liberals he once represented? Scribe another U on the report card please. How about using the Army (Lancashire Fusiliers) against Welsh miners in 1910? That Tonypandy and Rhonda Valley matter deserves another U. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, superfan (in the girl group sense of things) denounces any such things.
Without looking over the Atlantic at the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, we have a few of our own in Britain, in recent years. Racism has never gone away. I recall the Stephen Lawrence enquiry in 1999 said that the killing of young black teenager was “institutionally racist”. Disparity in races has been around all my lifetime and I don’t believe anyone who thinks otherwise. Social-economic constraints act as shackles and supress. I always wondered how shows like Little Britain and Bo’ Selecta could get away with playing black characters. But, me being white, I didn’t question them, I just assumed somebody somewhere in the ages of political correctness had said these shows were portrayals on not to mock anyone. Now it seems actors, comedians, writers and more are apologising for fun. Others like Ricky Gervais are making video blogs.
#BlackLivesMatter and other protests, as well as raves in Daisy Nook (near Oldham, Lancashire), and seem to cast a shadow over the COVID-19 coronavirus problem that is filling our lives right now. The bug is back in Beijing, China and should serve as a warning that suppression of the virus globally is far from achievable – right now. Just as the establishment presented Sir Winston Churchill as a hero and awarded him a state funeral, I can’t help but think that the powers that be will paint all the protestors with one dirty paintbrush and dishonestly claim that they’re the problem. Sir Winston Churchill was made to look like he won World War II with speeches and dogged determination alone. As the Red Army of Russia rolled over Nazi Germany and into Europe, Sir Winston Churchill campaigned so fiercely to take out the Communist threat that he was swiftly shuffled aside. The coalition with the supportive Labour Party sent him packing. It was his ousting that paved the way for Dominion of India to gain independence from Great Britain/the U.K. on 15th August 1947 ( a day after the Dominion of Pakistan). That led to the Republic of India.
Indian history is complex – and British intervention, colonialism there only makes things more complicated. Hindus and their belief, have been around far longer than second testament Christian values and have experienced more fusions, branches away. Nobody has the right to say their religion is better than any other religion. But, as history tells us, our species is pretty damn good at enforcing and passing the message of the latest Messiah, God or entity to pray to at some temple, home or prayer mat. Sir Winston Churchill was raised a time when 24% of Earth’s lands sat under the British Empire’s flag. He knew that “the empire on which the sun never sets” was fragile. The ruins of European nations and the balance of global power now swung between the U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. Anti- European colonialism and anti-imperialism thoughts. Peaceful disengagement led to a British Empire of 700 million becoming just 5 million.
Our modern multicultural society is really privileged. We have the freedom and the questions to tear apart pop idols, song lyrics, scientific facts and history. We can have discussions that our parents and forefathers could not. Well, some of us. Don’t deny the good things from history and hide the sculptures and portraits away. Dig out the dirt and add it. Let people make their decisions and choices about how to remember people from key historic times. Nobody is perfect. I wasted a punnet of blueberries this weekend. They went mouldy. I feel ashamed. I hate wasting food.
Sir Winston Churchill had read about the Irish Famine and knew of its bleak effect on humanity. This knowledge was useless to him. The man who sacrificed Coventry, would let down Bengal to an even greater effect. The Japanese occupation of Burma and its affect on Bengal led to Sir Winston Churchill having to do something. He didn’t. He actively refused to send aid – and perhaps as Britain was engaged in austerity it was a justified lack of aid, or not. There is great debate. Some estimates say 2-3 million people died. British Empire colonial policies did not come to the rescue. Sir Winston Churchill had served in the Boer War he had seen concentration camps, he deployed the infamous Black and Tans (Irish War of Independence, 1919). If you think Saddam Hussein was bad or ISIS (Daesh), look up Mesopotamia and a certain Winston Churchill, Colonial Secretary. Perhaps there is reason as to why some memorials keep getting targeted with paint. Maybe the Indians shouldn’t as Churchill called it, bred “like rabbits”?
“Churchill was very much on the far right of British politics over India. Even to most Conservatives, let alone Liberals and Labour, Churchill’s views on India between 1929 and 1939 were quite abhorrent.” – John Charmley, Churchill: The End of Glory
Voted as Britain’s Greatest Ever Briton in 2002, today’s society is understanding this complicated man in ways less fitting for a late Sunday night TV drama. In 2007, Sir Winston Churchill’s legendary statue on Parliament Square was splattered with red paint. The once mighty Churchill grew up in and around an era where racial hierarchies and eugenics were plentiful. We, on the other hand, have the chance to fight and discuss equality. The man who sent tanks and troops to Glasgow in 1919 should not be spared our discussions – and he should not be met with hate, for it is too late. Now, more than ever, we must embrace the past and educate – or learn.
Origin: mid 19th century (originally US): perhaps from Latin, accusative of vis ‘energy’.
Today I am mostly going to talk about Vimto. Well, maybe not talk, but write. Yes, today, I’ll write about Manchester’s John Nichols and Vimto. When I was at RAC Inspection Services in Cheadle, Stockport, we used to have a fizzy Vimto option on the drink vending machine. It’d pump out gassy and sugar-free purple liquid into a disposable cup, or mug if you remembered to place one down quick enough.
I have always enjoyed Vimto. My Gran and my Nana used to give me steaming warm cups of it when I was too young to touch the top of door frames. Not that the height of doorframes was a prerequisite for drinking the purple-golden cordial. I can even remember having it pumped on draught at the Working Man’s Club in Newton Heath and Morrison’s supermarket in Failsworth. Since those days, I have supped this drink at the Etihad Stadium, in Abu Dhabi’s airport and on Hua Hin beach in Thailand.
Vimto was originally a health tonic. It contains about 3% fruit juice concentration. The key fruits are possibly from Lancashire: raspberries and blackcurrants. There are grapes too. Don’t ask me which valley of Lancashire they came from – I can only assume Bowker Vale. It sounds plausible. Herbs and spices are bunged in too. Preston’s Ellis Wilkinson Mineral Water Manufacturer produced the water early on. It was really a health business on a healthy path of growth.
“My father used to go into work on Saturdays in those days, back in the mid-to-late ’60s, and so there was a fascination. And in those days my grandfather, who invented the product in the beginning, was still around.” – Grandson John Nichols
(John) Noel Nichols came from Shortridge, Scotland to 19 Granby Row, Manchester. By 1908 he had invented his new drink, just off Sackville Street, and around the corner from Back Acton Street. After 4 years his vim tonic was shortened in name to Vimto. The wholesaler of herbs, spices and medicines had found something quite popular amongst local people – especially in the shadow of the temperance movement and the new 1908 Licensing Act. Soft drinks were a new and exciting market. It changed from health tonic to cordial by 1913 and the rest they say is history.
It is not clear if John Nichols would have approved of the Purple Ronnie character or the slightly rude Giles Andreae poems (friend of screenwriter Richard Curtis). These highly marketable poems and colourful animations appeared in the 1990s and set a tone for a trendy drink – as an almost indie alternative to the giants of Pepsi and Coca-Cola. Nowadays the family link is retained within Nichols plc. Grandson John Nichols is the Non-Executive Chairman. His two sons also work within Nichols plc.
“We have a very open, friendly approach and encourage any member of staff to talk to the management team about their ideas for the business. Innovation has been key to our success in developing the iconic Vimto brand and identifying new brands, products and market opportunities.” – John Nichols, interview with Warren Partners.
Vimto Cordial has diversified from its original form, to sugar-free varieties, fizzy carbonated cans and bottles, cherry and strawberry editions. Then there is Vimto Remix. And sweets. Ice-lollies too. With new space needed, Vimto moved to the edge of Manchester into Salford’s Chapel Street, now home to the luxury Vimto Gardens apartment complex. By the year 1927, they then scattered to Old Trafford (then home to the teenage-aged Manchester Utd. F.C. who had by then picked up five senior domestic trophies) before heading back onto Mancunian soil in Wythenshawe by 1971. Nowadays the multi-billion dollar American-Canadian beverage and food service provider Cott Corporation produces Vimto in Leicestershire and Yorkshire. Presumably both exotic locations have better access to grapes. Traditional bottled soft drink manufacturer A.G. Barr in Forfar and Cumbernauld still make the pop too.
Granby Row has a park now, called Vimto Park with a statue to the drink. It’s a very Mancunian statue erected in 1992. Most cities celebrate iconic politicians and movements, but Manchester being Manchester, we celebrate the birth of a soft drink. The artist Kerry Morrison carved wood from a sustainable forest. Again, forward-thinking and considerate!
Anyway, I’m sat in Dongguan, China, parched and thinking, maybe, I need a meeting. Who wants to invest? Drop me a line. During these COVID-19 outbreak time, we need more sunshine. Let’s bring the purple to the red land of China.
This week I was asked to recommend some cheery comedy viewing and a book, by several people. During this COVID-19 days, with seemingly endless lack of positive news, I turn to Russel Howard’s Home Time Live, amongst other shows.
My early exposure to comedy was catching the odd bit of Spitting Image or other such TV series. I was never too keen on Children’s Television, other than say Stingray, Thunderbirds, The Real Ghostbusters and a few other cartoons. The ones that really got my attention were Dangermouse and Count Duckula. These last two titles had Only Fools and Horses great and comedy star David Jason as the voices of many of the great characters. I also recall David Jason appearing in bits on one of many Ronnie Barker shows. For years David Jason in a show meant that I wanted to see it. From the gentle drama of The Darling Buds of May to the gritty detective show A Touch of Frost, or seeing David Jason as Rincewind in Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic, I enjoyed every appearance. But, I have never seen one full episode of Still Open All Hours or Open All Hours. I’m sure I’ll see Granville in the future. Sir David Jason OBE turned 80 years old this year. He is to television comedy as Sir David Attenborough is to wildlife on television.
Have I Got News for You represents perhaps the longest running show I have watched attentively throughout my life. If I miss a few episodes, or a run over a period of months, I will find a repeat online or in the archives. It now boasts over 520 episodes and the regular panel show game contestants Paul Merton and Ian Hislop share a camaraderie that few series can muster. They swipe at news and bring satire to often bleak or dull matters. They’re often inciteful and wide-sweeping in their opinions. It isn’t a how that tells you what to do. It is entertainment with buckets of wit. Guests such as Victoria Coren Mitchell (who really is very clever and sexy), Jo Brand, Janret Street-Porter and Ross Noble, mix it with politicians, entertainment stars, future Prime Ministers and stars of the silver screen. It isn’t free of controversy or wasn’t so when regular host Angus Deayton left after 12 years. Other satirical shows have been around but few have shown the staying power of this series.
“If it wasn’t for your wellies where would you be; You’d be in the hospital or infirmary.” -Billy Connolly, The Welly Boot Song.
At Aberystwyth University, I’d seen Jimmy Carr, Alan Carr, Men In Coats, and almost every stand-up comedian or visual comedy act from September 2001 to leave four years later. That may explain my poor graduation grades. Still, I met Al Murray as the Pub Landlord. After university I’d go to Manchester’s Frog and Bucket and the Comedy Store. Mark Thomas, a political comedian, became a great favourite and an emerging German Comedy Ambassador called Henning Wehn whet my appetite for comedy that enabled you to think too. Great shows like Dave Gorman’s Googlewhack Adventure and even Jim Bowen having a round of Bullseye in Aberystwyth’s Student Union made for memorable evenings. I’m very lucky to have access to comedians such as Andrew Lawrence over the years. Freedom of speech is a marvellous thing.
“The Buddhist version of poverty is a situation where you have nothing to contribute.” -Sir Michael Palin KCMG CBE FRGS, Himalaya
On paper Jon Ronson, Ardal O’Hanlon (best known as the hapless Father Dougal in Father Ted), and Christopher Brookmyre had my eye for their witty writing fashions. Recently I discovered Based on a True Story by Norm Macdonald which was picked up and never put down until it was finished. Saturday Night Live was also responsible for Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Bill Murray and numerous comedians gaining a foothold in the mainstream, but the ones who have gone on to write add greatness to their portfolio. However, Rich Hall and Charlie Brooker (creator of Black Mirror) remain my all-time favoured comedic writers, just after Eric Morecambe. I guess the Reluctant Vampire,Eric Morecambe on Fishing and Stella hold so much warmth that they are essential bookshelf companions for me. I don’t even like fishing. Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 is probably the only classic comedy writing that I’ve enjoyed. I found Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men In A Boat a little dull. I do have a book published in 1892 on my ‘to read list’: Diary Of A Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith. Perhaps, that will be my latest essential shelf-filler.
Woody Allen may have been celebrated as a great writer of movies, but I didn’t get taken in by him at all. Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs was more my thing. Anything Monty Python became so laughable and cult that everyone (it seems) shares the same thoughts on their archive of classics. Richard Pryor was a bit part in Superman III. I am glad he was in the movie because years later after university life I delved into his back catalogue. What a star! His observational and political speaking was acerbic and iconoclastic. For me, as a Caucasian Mancunian, I only spotted Lenny Henry and a few others on the predominantly white British TV stations as a kid. Andi Osho and Stephen K. Amos came later. But, for the most, few black or mixed-race comedians made it onto the television and Craig Charles in Red Dwarf had a scouse accent. Over time, and as the internet-age gave rise to more comedians from that America reaching our shores comedians such as Reginald D. Hunter, Martin Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, and Whoopi Goldberg became regular viewing. Comedy is like this COVID-19 disease: it doesn’t recognise gender or race. You’re either funny or you’re not (or ill or not).
“I think some of the best modern writing comes now from travellers” – Sir Michael Palin KCMG CBE FRGS, comedian, writer, & actor
Comedy needs diversity and it needs lovable rogues heading to foreign shores to ply their trade. Father Ted, written by Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews flung religion and culture onto the television with the powerful Catholic Church as the celebrated and loved butt of many jokes. It is surely the most successful comedy production from Ireland ever – and I hope the Pope Ted: The Father Ted Musical arrives sooner rather than later. Father Jack will surely approve. Arthur Mathews is the author of Well Remembered Days: Eoin O’Ceallaigh’s Memoirs of a Twentieth-century Irish Catholic. Pick that book up. Read it. Then, find the audiobook read by none other than actor Frank Kelly (who played slightly inebriated and loaded Father Jack from Father Ted).
My mum introduced me to David Tynan O’Mahony, better known as stage name Dave Allen. Dave Allen was an Irish satirical comedian well-known for sitting on a chair and talking. His style wasn’t too fast-paced but coupled with some creative sketches and ramblings, he remains an Irish comedy legend. Nowadays surreal comedic talent David O’Doherty, fast-mouthed Ed Byrne, the tremendous Tommy Tiernan, Dylan Moran and snappy Andrew Maxwell bring the great wit of the Emerald Isle to the world. Whilst America has its fair share of divide and racism to talk in the open Britain and Ireland have a fair bit of oppression and divide to discuss. Then there are also the political troubles, religion, sectarianism, recreational drug abuse, crime, and self-deprecation. But, being Irish and British means we’re not as good as the Americans when it comes to self-deprecation.
“I get snow blindness from looking at my diary.” – Barry Cryer, writer and comedian
Dag, a Norwegian comedy-drama, about a marriage counsellor and his sex-mad friend Benedict’s struggles through life, is a great dark comedy. It will make you cringe and feel warm in equal measures. Atle Antonsen plays the lead character and he is brilliant counterweight to his love-interest that is Tuva Novotny’s character. I’ve just found there to be a fourth series so I shall look this up soon.
From great comedy series such as Goodness Gracious Me, The Fast Show, Harry Enfield and Chums, or Not The Nine O’Clock News, Britain has been blessed with comedy. Such editions could not be seen in lesser-free states of the world. It is hard to reimagine Father Ted reimagined as Monk Lama set in Tibet, or the ‘going for and English’ sketch of Goodness Gracious Me being re-filmed in Pakistan as ‘going for a Russian’. The right blend of social awareness, love of culture, and respect of differences are required.
“Drumchapel is a housing estate just outside Glasgow. Well, it’s in Glasgow, but just outside civilisation,” – Sir Billy Connolly.
And now, ‘The Big Yin’, the one stand-up comedian I have never seen live, despite chasing ticket after ticket since I was a wee man. Sir William Connolly, CBE is as titanic as the ships that floated out of the Glasgow shipyards. He was and remains the heavyweight champion of storytelling. Having jumped ship from The Humblebums (Billy sang folk alongside Gerry Rafferty and Tam Harvey), lovable comedy-musician scraped a living in his homeland of Scotland doing comedy. Almost 55 years later he stopped, enforced mostly by Parkinson’s Disease, but probably by love of art. Along the road from Glasgow he’s starred with The Muppets, acted alongside Dame Judie Dench, produced music, been a pet zombie, travelled and ran entertaining documentaries and shared his love for his home country. On stage, Billy has always worn what he wants, danced like nobody watches him and shouted whenever he likes. ‘The Big Yin’ has an encyclopaedia of material and an archive that would probably take a lifetime to follow. You can do much worse than sit down to some Billy Connolly. He really is a fine orator much like the smooth whiskies of his homelands.
“It’s up to yourself. You manufacture it. You either look at the world one way or another. It’s the old half full half empty. It’s up to you. The world’s a great place, it’s full of great people. The choice is yours. Pessimism is a luxury you can’t afford”. – Sir Billy Connolly on optimism, BBC Radio Five.
你好/ Ní hǎo / Nín hǎo / Hello / How do / S’mae / Namaste / A’m gled tae meet ye,
During a recent whistlestop tour of Scotland, it was possible to admire many castles. The thing about some cities in Scotland, like Edinburgh – and Stirling, is that they have imposing castles on rocks high above the ground below. Another such beauty of a castle is Scotland’s longest recorded stronghold, Dumbarton Castle.
For Stirling, James IV, the sequel James V and James VI built significant parts to the early 12th century rudimental castle. James III was born there, James II sheltered there – and James I gave it to his wife and mother of James II. James, the indie band from Manchester, to my knowledge haven’t played there. Sit down. The early Stewarts and Wars of Scottish Independence have significance at this location. The current commander is James Erskine, 14th Earl of Mar – another bloody James. The castle that could easily be called James (after James from Thomas The Tank Engine?) sits on 350 million year old quartz-dolerite. William Wallace, of Braveheart fame, even resided there briefly after the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Today it is mostly a Renaissance palace from around the times of 1490 to 1600, when the Royal Family pretty much moved to London, as real estate prices were reasonable back then. Since then, military digs, a museum featuring the legendary Balaclava Company and education have dominated the castle’s recent years.
Edinburgh Castle towers of Old Town. From Castle Rock, aged 350 million years, the 460’ elevation (140 m), the views from the former volcanic pipe are stunning. The only way into the castle from the east. The other directions have steep falls. Even water struggled to find a way in during the Lang Siege of 1573.
Edinburgh’s connection to a James comes with a siege to free James III of Scotland in 1482. Ten-year-old King James II watched two teenagers get executed in November 1440. James IV built the Great Hall. In fact, Edinburgh castle featured greatly in the great soap opera of Scottish royal history. The castle nowadays reflects a grander tourist feel with the superb Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo taking place in a stadium-parade ground outside the main castle gates.
Dumbarton Castle strikes out from a 334 million year old volcanic basalt plug. Settlements have been noted as far back as Iron Age forts. The 557 steps up are a challenge for today’s visitors and a face of William Wallace’s supposed betrayer is carved: Sir John Menteith of Ruskie and Knapdale.
“Schyre Jhon of Menteith in tha days; Tuk in Glasgow William Walays; And sent hym until Ingland sune, There was he quartayrd and undone.” – Metrical Chronicle, Andrew of Wyntoun (1350-1425), Scottish poet
The castle can be seen looming over the town of Dumbarton and by the River Clyde. The landscape combined with the history makes for a wonderful daydreaming experience on a passing train.
Sometimes, some places really surprise you. Some people are wonderful, and staying in Dalmally Railway Station’s The Posting Room was one such experience. The hosts, as listed on AirBnB were Liz and Graham (Angus too). They’re ace. Graham welcomed us immediately from our train which arrived on the opposite platform. A proffering of tea and coffee, followed by some delicious courgette and tomato soup. The welcoming really was the bee’s knees.
Throughout the weekend Liz and Graham offered great destinations and advice about the locality. Following a ramble up to the Duncan Ban Mcintyre monument, the path swooped down to the A819 road caressing the Loch Awe’s bankside. Here a walk to view the beautiful Kilchurn Castle and Loch Awe scenery was essential. Heavy rain and a lift back by a friendly truck driver capped off a good wander. By evening hunger had arrived. Two miles up the road later: One pub meal in Ben Cruachin Inn resulted in rhubarb crumble. I was over the moon. The mains selected on visiting were something similar to the following:
FILLET OF LOCH FYNE SALMON Saffron beurre blanc, asparagus & new potatoes. £16.95
The food at the Ben Cruachin Inn is hearty and filling. The local Fyne Ales equally tasty and refreshing. After dinner, the feeding of the legendary Scottish midges commenced at Loch Awe railway station, before a short ten minute journey into Dalmally for cups of tea and bed.
In the morning Graham delivered us more brews with porridge and some cake. If Mrs Doyle from Father Ted fame has a male Scottish counterpart, then Graham is he. That’s meant with no disrespect whatsoever. I haven’t experienced this nature of hospitality ever. A host who really cares about his guests. His partner Liz was busy with her felt studio, Heartfelt by Liz(located on the platform). Graham could be seen zipping between guest throughout the day and delivering warm pots of tea and coffee at almost every hour. It seemed everyone was invited for a brew, “On your way back, call by and come and have a brew.”
They go out of their way for you. Hospitality at its absolute best. I really want to revisit the station. Maybe next time I can try the Ben Cruachin room or the Rambler’s Rest – or ideally The Writer’s Retreat. The Shepherd’s Hut doesn’t look too bad too. All have great West Highland picturesque views, a stone’s throw from lochs, mountains and wildlife like the tawny owls or screeches of buzzards in the daytime. The idyllic village is a little far out from many places but a wonderful location for hiking, cycling and exploring the region. The venison burgers up the road in the Kilchurn Castle car park aren’t too bad an option. Add haggis.
Staying in The Posting Room was idyllic. With a great variety of biscuits, porridge, jams and brew options. A rucksack of food provisions was barely needed! The final day of two involved a stroll to St.Conan’s Kirk, a church containing a bone fragment from Robert The Bruce. The architecture is splendid, diverse and varied. The architect Walter Douglas Campbell mixed in Norman, Roman, Celtic and other styles. There are famous ship timbers and it is easy to see why it was added to the Top 10 buildings in Scotland of the last 100 years list. The Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland made that list in 2016. The building was built around 1881 and renovated in 1906. Beyond the church there is a great tea room outside and the author Mary Stewart once resided at the nearby House of Letterawe.
Before visiting Dalmally, the whistlestop tour of Scotland began much further east in Stonehaven. The castle of Dunnotar has featured in Victor Frankenstein (starring James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe), Hamlet(with Mel Gibson) and other productions. For me, it was a castle I had seen in a book. Its clifftop location, on a kind of island of rock has long stuck with me. A walk from the charming Stonehaven Harbour, passing the dramatic (and deliberately unfinished) war memorial, leads to Dunnotar Castle. The memorial on Black Hill is imposing and powerful. A line of poem can be found inside the octagonal towers.
“One by one death challenged them, they smiled in his grim visage and refused to be dismayed” – Sankey’s Student in Arms
Staying with another Graham – and Sam, in Aberdeenshire, an introduction to their master Percy and enjoyed wonderful hosts. Their house at the top of a hill gave the legs some good stretching but the location was peaceful and the room more than luxurious. The monk fish and chips from the sustainability champions at TheBay Fish and Chipswas the best I have had in years. They were so good, a shitehawk (a gull) dropped a bomb across the back of my navy-blue shirt with precision. It didn’t get a single chip. Back off shitehawks!
Following a night in Stonehaven, a night in Stirling was next on the agenda. The famous National Wallace Monument was visible from the room at yet another AirBnB place with Iona and her family. After the quickest breakfast ever we headed to Doune Castle – as seen as Winterfell, Castle Anthrax, and series such as Outlander.
Later in the day the National Wallace Monument witnessed a 120kg man struggling up the stairs and then being thankful he had no hair to blow away, once at the summit platform of the tower. Taking in each gallery along the way on the steps down, seemed the backwards way to do it, but damned if I was going to take a break on the 246 steep steps upwards. The Guardian of Scotland and influence of legendary stories since (including Mel Gibson’s Braveheart) featured alongside exhibitions on Robbie Burns (the famous poet) and Robert the Bruce. The monument is dramatic and almost like something from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings…
From Dalmally the road (well railway) led ot Edinburgh… via Glasgow… and a route of other rained upon soggy places.