Wednesday, 31 August 2011

One Adventure Ends - Another Begins!

Hello blog, it's been a while! I've not been ignoring you, I've just been busy. First, there was Operation Decorate, which was hectic, but is getting there, then I had my own Royal Visit.

As readers of my FB will know, I've had friends from the USA staying with me for a few days, which has been immense. Having Ann-Marie and Susan here has been great, it's been a whole heap of fun.  They are two of the nicest, most fun people I've had the pleasure of meeting for a while.  Ladies, thank you for your company for the past few days, I've said this to you, but it bears repeating, any time you feel like coming back to Scotland, it would be my pleasure to be your host again!

Having the two ladies around has made me realise things, both about the country in which I live, and about myself.

Scotland is not without it's faults, meteorologically, socially, economically, politically, and there is a lot you could say about Scotland in a negative way, with much justification.  I was as guilty as anyone of being somewhat jaded about Scotland, and life here (and I still am), but having the girls around has made me realise that there is stuff to be positive about. It seemed like every time we crested a hill, or turned a corner, the girls would look out of the car window and be genuinely delighted with what they saw - be that from the top of the Camera Obscura in Edinburgh (which as an aside, is immense, if you get the chance, go!), as we were driving along the coast of Fife from St. Andrews, from Loch Lomond, to the convoluted journey (replete with speeding ticket, sadly!) to the Antonine Wall, they obviously loved what they were seeing, and it's impossible for that uninhibited enthusiasm not to rub off, and I started trying to look at Scotland through their eyes, which was easier in some places (such as Loch Lomond and the trail to the Antonine Wall, neither of where I'd been before) than it was in others, but it did make me think - for all it's numerous issues, Scotland does have some good points, it's got a history to rival any other, and when you look past the social issues, it actually has a culture which is the envy of countries the world over.  Look at the Fringe - people come from all over the world to perform, to watch, to just be there.  There are Scottish societies the world over, celebrating Scots history, Scots culture, the impact this tiny little country has had all over the known world.

That influence is much larger than many, including most Scots, give it credit for. Look at some of the things Scots either invented outright, or had a key hand in.  Everyone knows about Bell's telephone, Baird's TV, Watt's steam engine, even Carnegie Steel, but fewer know about Smith's 'Wealth of Nations' (outside of economic circles anyway), that Pittsburgh was founded by William Forbes, from Dunfermline, Dunlop's pneumatic tyre, the modern seismometer, the Banks of England and France, the US Navy, ultrasound and MRI scans, the RAF and many, many more.  When you dig into it, the influence of what should, in all reality be an insignificant little land, never numbering more than about 5,000,000 inhabitants at it's peak, is astounding.

Scotland does also have some amazing architecture, some gorgeous scenery, so you know what, it's not all bad.  So, thank you ladies, for opening my eyes a bit to my home and native land!

The second mini-revelation which came as a result of my guests, was the stark realisation of just how lonely I am. I'm used to living on my own, and I'm not going to lie, I was wondering how I'd react to having to share 'my' space with not one, but two others. Well, it was great. It was a huge reminder of how much more fun life is when you are sharing it with other people. When we were out and about, we had fun, lots of laughs, and it was surprising how quickly we got into a routine of getting home, getting dinner, and settling down to find a movie which we'd then have fun watching, usually taking the piss out of some cheesy dialogue, or plot hole, or whatever. My house, for the first time, literally, in years, felt alive. It felt like a home, rather than just a collection of walls and furniture. It was a bit of a surprise to me, just how quickly I got into having them around, and just how much I enjoyed it.

So, I've made some decisions. I don't want to spend life on my own any more, so I need to make changes to have any chance of my current situation changing. First and foremost, I need to change me. A little bit mentally, but mostly physically. I'm never going to be a particularly attractive man, I'm under no illusion about that, but, I need to stop making things worse by being fat.  Last year I did ok, I lost some weight, and seemed to be getting somewhere, this year has, so far, been a disaster.  I've certainly not lost any more weight, I've more likely put some back on.  This has to change. So, I am resolved to get myself back to the gym, get back into a routine of doing cardio (and Ian, I'm going to need your help here, big fella!  I'm going to need help making sure I stay on the straight and narrow with diet and exercise!).  I want to lose at least a stone (14 lbs) by Christmas, ideally more. By next summer, I want to have lost another 4 stone (56lbs).  That's my target.  If any one wants to help and be part of my support mechanism, please feel free to let me know!

Friday, 5 August 2011

Once Upon A Time....

Everyone knows the story. Mary had a little lamb. One day, she went up the same hill Jack and Jill were so fond of, and there was some kind of disagreement.  At the time, no one really knew what went on up there, other than three people went up that hill, but only two came back down again. 
This is the story of that fateful day, as told to Humpty Dumpty, Jack's best friend, who confided in the Grand Old Duke of York, chief of police (with a force of 10,000 officers)  just before he took his own life by jumping from a wall.
What started as a day like any other, ended with tragedy.  Jack, a loner from the wrong side of the tracks, had a long history of trouble, and a police file the length of Pinnochio's nose.  Jill was a young and impressionable grade A student who lived a quiet, unassuming life in the expensive Little Star area of town. 
Looking for some excitement into her life, Jill and her friends snuck out one night to head to the bright lights of the London Bridge area, the part of town where men are men and sheep are nervous. Along side the 'Pat-a-Cake' bakeries and the famous Miss Muffet's Curds & Whey restaurant, London Bridge had a seedier side, being split between two mafia legends, George "Georgie" Porgie, and "Simple" Simon Pieman.  Don't be fooled by the nickname, there was nothing simple about this crime overlord. 
Jack had been a low level associate of Georgie for some time, and made a decent living smuggling vinegar and brown paper.  whilst Mary occasionally worked for Simon, sometimes moving illicit wool, sometimes, when times were hard, Simon would pimp her out.  It wasn't a good life, but it was all Mary knew.
Mary and Jack had known each other since they were thrown together in the tumult which followed the brutal assassination of 'Cock' Robin, who ruled the London Bridge underworld with an iron claw. Everyone knew that the assassin was that shady figure known only as 'Sparrow', but no one knew anything about him.  Immediately after the assassination, GoD York announced a curfew and his men started kettleing the crowd into zones, for their own 'protection'.  It was in one of these zones that Jack first met Mary.  They had seen each other around but never spoke until that day.  the chemistry between them was instant, and they had so much in common, both came from broken homes, both had seen the seedy underbelly of London Bridge.
For the next few weeks, Jack and Mary were inseparable. living the life of grifters, making money any way they knew how. The good times ended though, with the rise of the new crime lords, all eager to get their hands on what was left of Robin's empire. Nature abhors a vacuum they say, crime certainly does. Before long the streets of London Bridge were awash with blood. Crime was rampant, GoD York's forces were stretched to, and then past, their limits, so when two factions started to grow as they either assimilated or annihilated the opposition, the police started to turn a blind eye. Sadly for Jack and Mary their families aligned themselves with the opposite factions. In a dramatic twist of irony, worthy of Shakespeare himself (who incidentally never signed his name Shakespeare, despite there being 6 copies of his signature, no two of which spelled his name the same) Jack was a Capulet whilst Mary was a Monatgue.  As their families got drawn deeper and deeper into the underworld, Jack and Mary's relationship, which by then had already started to unravel strained to breaking point.
It is said that the day of their parting was marked by ominous portents.  In the meadow, Bo Peep, a shepherdess found that her sheep had vanished, Ma Hubbard's body was found on that day, starved to death, whilst the police found themselves investigating an infanticide. Someone had placed an unnamed child in a cradle upon the bough of a tree. The weather that day, was stormy, causing the cradle to start to rock in the tree, and it was this motion, coupled with the razor sharp blade which had been put on the cradle's feet to secure it into the tree, combined to cause a structural failure of the bough. Gravity did the rest.
As time passed, the new crime lords more or less carved up the city between them.  Each wanted to get their paws on the other half, but after the savagery of the free for all following Robin's murder, both were content to replenish their forces. For now.
Jack was a born smuggler, and before long Georgie was in control of 80% of the vinegar which hit the streets, selling for up to a sixpence a time. Georgie was a cruel drug baron though, not content with charging a sixpence for the hit, he liked to humiliate the poor addled junkies, and made them sing for it.  Eventually, he worked out a way to refine the vinegar even more, and called the new poison 'rye'. Before long the underclass of London Bridge rang to the sound of junkies singing their song of sixpence, to leave with their pockets foll of rye.
Mary never really got over Jack, and grew more and more bitter. Eventually she formed a relationship of sorts with George "Goosey" Gander, which came an an abrupt end following Gander's brutal slaying of an old man who, the court heard, annoyed Gander by refusing to say his prayers. Mark found herself alone once again.
Jill had the misfortune to bump into Jack that night as she and her friends wandered around London Bridge, wide eyed and agog at a part of the world they didn't even know existed. Speaking later, Jill's best friend Mary Contrary remarked "It was like being in another country. There were people drinking, filth everywhere, people passed out in doorways, everywhere you looked there seemed to be some sort of fight, we just weren't prepared for this". Jill was a beautiful girl, and with her clean clothes and youthful glow, she stood out more than Jack Horner's plum encrusted thumb. Mary said that she, Jill and the rest of their group were the focus of a lot of attention.
Jack could be charming when he wanted to be, and soon set his charms in motion on Jill, who had been brought up in such a sterile environment, she was easy prey for Jack.  It wasn't too long before Jill started making more and more secret trips to London Bridge, spending more and more time with Jack. One day, Jill realised that she had missed her period.  All of a sudden, her regular bouts of sickness in the morning made sense. Jill was panicked and ran to Mary's house. The two best friends talked it over. Despite Mary trying to dissuade her, Jill went to London Bridge to tell Jack the news. Jack wasn't expecting to see Jill in the daytime, but agreed to go up Duke of York hill, where Jill gave him the news.  Jack didn't know what to think. In his confusion he didn't see a shadowy shape in the undergrowth.
Jill wasn't the first girl Jack had taken up the hill (in more ways than one), and following the incarceration of Goosey, Mary decided to go up there, to try and cast her mind back to happier times. When she got there, she saw Jack with Jill and flew into a murderous rage.  She bided her time, knowing full well that Jack was of the habit of getting himself a pail of water when he was near the natural spring which gurgled at the top of the hill. When his back was turned, Mary sprang out of her hiding place, and struck Jill a merciless blow across the head with the sawn-off shepherd's staff she carried for protection. Jack heard the sound and turned to see the woman he loved, who was going to be the mother of his child lying motionless. Demented with grief and rage, Jack sprung at Mary and the two fought like wild beasts. Jack said after that it was accidental, and that he wasn't sure who was holding it, but somehow the sawn-of staff went off, hitting Mary first in the throat. then over her head. As she fell, Jack ran back to his lover, unaware that he too had been hit by the staff.  As he picked up Jill and tried to carry her down the hill again, he lost his footing, having become more and more woozy.  Dropping Jill, he fell to his knees and rolled down the hill, with Jill tumbling soon after.
Some time later, the couple were found by William "Wee Willie" Winkie, and were rushed to hospital Against all odds, both lived, and to the utter amazement of the doctors, Jill kept the baby.  She had to tell her family now, after all, her and Jack's story was going to be all over the papers. To her immense surprise, her father accepted it, and with just a mild rebuke offered Jack a job with his construction company. Jack turned out to be a gifted architect, and designed and build some of the finest houses in the land, indeed, many people were proud to say that the lived in a house that Jack built.
GoD York's policemen were marched up to the top of the hill to recover Mary's body, but when they got there, it was nowhere to be seen, so they marched down again.  York insisted on a full search, so split his forces and concentrated on the ridge which was about half way up the hill. What happened to Mary? No one ever knew.  Years passed and the story of Mary went into folklore. Some said that there was an old woman who lived just outside the city limits in a house which was a very odd shape, children calling it "the shoe", and the same some further said that she had marks on her which looked like the kind of scars you'd get from being too close to a sawn-off staff.  Was it Mary? Well... that would be telling

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Drive 55? Who, me? Pah, I mock your 55 Limits!

I have a dream. My dream may not be as noble or inspiring as Dr Luther-King's dream, but then I am not as noble or inspiring myself.   My dream is simple. I want to take 6 months of my life, and traverse the great heaving mass of contradiction and inspiration that is the USA.

I make no bones about it, I would move to the US tomorrow if I thought I could get a visa. Ever since I was a kid I've had a bizarre fascination with the US and A, to the point where I would find myself fervently twisting the dial (and for once, no, that's not a euphemism) to find the American Forces Network so that I could listen to them broadcasting a baseball game, or a football game (one of the first broadcasts I remember listening to was a Rosebowl game, I don't remember the combatants).  I don't remember when the idea to make a trans-continental road trip first occurred to me, probably during one of my trips to the US, but it was certainly reinforced by a couple of books I read - The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson, and America Unchained by Dave Gorman.  The former is a memoir (published in the mid 80s) of the Author re-creating some of the trips of his childhood having recently lost his father (my dad had died not long before I read it, which gave it a degree of poignancy with me), where he is trying to find the essence of America instilled in one town.  The latter is a journey of epic proportions where Gorman attempts to drive from coast to coast using only independent retailers, hotels, petrol (or gas) stations.  Both really reinforced how much I'd like to do that.

As I was talking to someone about it at work (again, AM - who is getting to be a bad influence on me, I mean I was all pure and innocent before she tried to corrupt me), I had a bit of spare time, so during lunch, I mapped out a theoretical map of the journey. You will see this map lovingly re-created to the left. I will be honest and say I am not sure if clicking it will give you the full size version, if not, then take my word for it, it is a thing of awe and wonder. I am aware that I've missed out a big chunk of the bible belt, as I have the two non-contiguous states, although I would like to go to Alaska at some point, and as I said to AM, I have to say that Hawaii doesn't really get me going, if I went there, it would be to see the USS Arizona memorial, otherwise I could see me getting bored.

Just in case you aren't able to see the full-size map, I start in Maine, work my way down the Eastern seaboard, a couple of days in DC (pretty much all of what I'd probably spend at the Udvar-Hazy centre (aerospace geek, remember - they have the Enola Gay, the Enterprise orbiter (which is due to be replaced by Discovery), a SR-71 Blackbird, a Hurricane, the only surviving Doenier Do335, a Concorde, a F4 Phantom (I grew up not that far from RAF Leuchars, which when I was a kid was a F4 base, so seeing (and hearing!) them zip about the sky wasn't uncommon, they still have a place in the geek part of my heart. Annoyingly, the last trip to the US I made saw me arrive at Dulles, but the one and only time I had a stopover of less than 4 hours, was the one time I wanted a massive stopover, so I had time to go to the Udvar-Hazy centre. I was so disappointed. Anyway...), then down, first major stop off would be a few days in Florida (including Kennedy Space Centre, of course), then back up inland to Nashville (actually, looking at it now, I have no idea why I decided to put a trip to Nashville in there. I hate country music), then zp back gown to Texas via New Orleans for some naked ladies (N.O.) and Tex-Mex food (TX), after a day or two in the Lone Star State, along to New Mexico, a few days in Las Cruces, then up to the Grand Canyon, a couple of days in Vegas (and of course, what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas), then off to Cali, up the Western seaboard to Oregon and see if I can get some new trainers, then to one of the cities I've always had an urge to live in for some strange reason, Seattle. By then I would probably want a coffee, so I'm hoping that there would be some kind of coffee shop somewhere in Seattle. If I could get a coffee for a couple of bucks, that would be a star.

After this point, it starts to get a bit convoluted, I'd have to take the opportunity, seeing as I was so far West to pop up to Vancouver for a couple of days, before heading back, through Montana (again, no idea why... is there anything to see or do in Montana?), down to Utah (if I ever won the lottery, I'd create a hockey team in Utah, just so I could call them the Utah Saints and use "Something Good" by the band Utah Saints as their entry music. You are going to Grooveshark or Spotify to find that tune now, aren't you!), whilst in SLC I'll see if I can pick myself up a few wives, then head to Colorado and the Mile High City. After that, up to South Dakota for Mount Rushmore, then meander back east through Iowa stopping at Des Moines, if for no other reason than it's the birthplace of the aforementioned Bill Bryson, who was a major influence in the idea, then Chicago, Indianapolis, Detroit, Columbus, Philly (for a cheesesteak) and then on to NYC, which would be the conclusion of my little jaunt.

Now, all I need to do is either win the lottery, acquire myself a rich widow who has a heart condition, or con charm someone into paying for it all for me!