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Long, long ago I had a job that occasionally involved looking at old trees. There’s not much in Nature that speaks with a richer, stronger voice to us, I think.

Was up on the banks of the River Tay (one of Scotland’s two or three nicest rivers, imho) last week, and found two wonderful examples of timbery ancientness. First up, the Birnam Oak, of indeterminate age but a half millennium plus old. Supposedly the last survivor of the forest Shakespeare referred to in Macbeth:

” … Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him.”

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Leaning on its crutches like a Yoda of the forest, or a declining ent. And though you can’t see it in these photos, hollow as a drum, with enough space for a modest hobbit house inside its trunk.

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And right next door to it, what’s supposed to be Britain’s biggest sycamore. A mere 300 years old this one, but if anything bigger and more spectacular than the oak alongside:

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It’s the oak that’s got the richer voice of the two of them, though. All texture and age and wrinkles and character. Ancient trees are cool.

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More photos! Those who follow me on twitter might have seen one or two of these already, but here they all are together. Photos from a recent visit to Jupiter Artland, a cool privately-run art park/estate just outside Edinburgh. It’s a place with a fantastical, surreal vibe – big art installations scattered through the landscape, mostly wooded, nestling in with Nature.

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Took a little break in a nice bit of Scotland last week: Aberfeldy, which is in one of my favourite – because pretty and loaded with Nature – areas of the country.

Cue photos of the Birks of Aberfeldy, a wooded gorge (birks = birches) made famous by one Robert Burns who visited and wrote a song about the place. There’s a statue of him there in the woods, sitting contemplatively in the dappled sunlight. Nice.

Nice that they put the great man on a bench, so that you can sit beside him, don’t you think?

Couple of verses, just to round things off:

Now Simmer blinks on flowery braes,
And o’er the crystal streamlets plays;
Come let us spend the lightsome days,
In the birks of Aberfeldy.

While o’er their heads the hazels hing,
The little birdies blythely sing,
Or lightly flit on wanton wing,
In the birks of Aberfeldy.

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Dunecat

Don’t think I’ve ever posted a silly picture of a cat on this blog, which clearly means I’m doing the internet wrong. No longer!

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… kind of fun. First time I’d been to one of these ‘pop culture’ shows that are sprouting up all over the place now, mixing celebs from film/TV/Sports with bits of toys, comics, all sorts of odds and ends. First time Newcastle had had one too, I think, and the level of interest seemed to have caught the organisers a bit by surprise, so there were biiig queues (at least on the Saturday, I gather it was all more or less under control by the time Sunday came around).

Anyway, I had a good time. Was great to meet Alberto Ponticelli in the flesh and spend a pleasant few hours hanging out with him. Talked to a few folks about Rogue Trooper, signed a lot of copies of the first issue. Got my own, unique copy as a souvenir, signed by me, Alberto and Courtney, the very nice lady from the convention crew who patiently sat with us for the whole day:

All the usual sort of stuff was going on …

… but a few personal highlights/impressions:

  • seeing a Rorschach cosplayer wandering around all day holding a can of baked beans (you’d have to have read Watchmen to get that …)
  • having lunch in the secret guests’ facilities while sitting next to Frank Bruno (you’d have to be a Brit of a certain age, or a serious boxing fan, to get that), and realising he really is as big as he always looked, and he really does have the deeeepest voice ever heard on the surface of the planet
  • watching (and filming, but that didn’t work) Alberto do a Rogue Trooper sketch in three minutes flat – which he then gave to me, because he’s nice like that:

  • being Judged (inexplicably, I was released without charge) …

  • realising I have never, not once in my life, been as much of a fan of any piece of entertainment, or brand, or celebrity, as many of the attendees were. Not being sure whether that was a good thing or bad; but knowing I didn’t regret it for one second.
  • coming out of the ‘celeb’ toilets just as Teal’c from Stargate SG-1 was going in, and thinking ‘Huh. Isn’t it funny how life turns out?’
  • being generally very struck by how extremely pleasant and patient and accommodating all the celebs were in dealing with their fans, no matter how big or small their celebritude was (and then overhearing one of them – who shall remain nameless – at the train station after the show telling someone it had been a ‘terrible, terrible madhouse’, and feeling some sympathy. Can’t be that easy, doing what they do at these shows and smiling, being utterly professional, all the way through it.)
  • giving Alberto a sustained and detailed introduction to the correct use of the word ‘Cheers’ in colloquial English (I think he got the hang of it, since he’s using it in his e-mails to me now …)

But you know what the best bit of the whole day was? It was the most striking, most obvious example of something that happened several times: people deriving enormous pleasure from their experience of being at the show. And even though this instance only involved me somewhat indirectly, it was immensely enjoyable to sit there and watch it happen.

A guy came wandering past, saw me and Alberto sitting there and came over to see what was what. He was after a copy of Rogue Trooper, but then he discovered Alberto’s small portfolio of original art pages for sale, and I could see his eyes lighting up in something approaching disbelief. To cut a long story short, this guy eventually (after queueing at a cash machine for about half an hour, spending another fifteen minutes trying to decide) bought a page of original Ponticelli comic art, and he was as happy as a happy person could be.

He said something along the lines of ‘You’ve made my day, I never in my life thought I’d own something like this’, and he absolutely meant it, and he was absolutely delighted. It was great. And it was kind of the point of the whole show, really. Whyever they came, whoever they wanted to see, I guess pretty much everyone who was there was just looking for that moment when they’d think to themselves ‘This is awesome. I never imagined …’

And although, on some really quite profound level I don’t get, can’t share in and indeed find a little dispiriting this whole celebrity culture, this idolisation of actors and characters and shows and films and fictions, this longing to be part of something, there’s no denying the happiness that was abroad in Newcastle on Saturday. And there’s no denying it was infectious.

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I Grew A Beard

Hard to say why, exactly. Impulse. Because I can. Idle curiosity.

It is, I fear, not a very convincing beard. Insufficient density. Lack of uniformity. Needs tending in some way, obviously, but I’m not sure I was signing on for tending when I began this experiment. Certainly not for the nurturing that looks to be required if a pleasing effect is going to be produced.

Funny how I’ve got a pair of discrete white/grey chin tufts showing through, though. The whole thing’s a subtly different colour than my head hair, too.

So, a possibly failed experiment (though kind of fun). What do we think? Beard good, beard bad? You decide! Actually, no: I decide. My face, my responsibility to take the weighty decision.

Made me wonder, though: should every man for whom such a thing is an option grow their beard out a bit at least once in their life? Just on principle? It’s there, waiting to be expressed, a part of you. If you never let it come out to play, not even once, there’s an aspect of you that you’ll never see or know.

Maybe not. It’s just a scrappy strew of hair, after all.

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… recent developments in Edinburgh connect to stuff that happens in that book.

Someone who gets quite a bit of mention in The Edinburgh Dead – even though he’s long dead at the time of the story – is Major Weir, Edinburgh’s most infamous, notorious warlock. The book’s hero, Adam Quire, even ventures into Weir’s derelict, haunted former residence. I had to improvise a bit for that scene, since Weir’s actual house isn’t there any more. People who tried to stay there after his execution reported all manner of distressing manifestations and supernatural goings-on, and it was eventually demolished.

Or was it? Someone thinks it survived, and they reckon they’ve identified it. So perhaps Edinburgh’s most famously haunted and creepily-historied building is, in fact, still here. Amongst us. Watching us. It was apparently absorbed into the building pictured on the right.

I’m instinctively a bit sceptical, to be honest, but who knows? Anyway, if true, it amuses me that Weir’s house was apparently incorporated into a chapel building, which is now the Quaker Meeting House. I confess, that building’s not quite where I chose to put Weir’s house for The Edinburgh Dead, but I was only off by about fifty yards, which isn’t too bad I reckon.

The tale of Major Thomas Weir is, by the way, crazy and creepy – worth a read if you’ve not heard of him – and also perhaps kind of sad, since it seems more than a little likely he was, like many people in the past, unpleasantly executed basically for being mad.

Slightly more tenuously connected to The Edinburgh Dead, but included here because it’s pretty: there’s been an exhibition of Chinese lanterns in the University’s Old College this week.

The Edinburgh Dead‘s based on the true history of grave-robbing and the illicit trade in corpses for medical dissection, and quite a few of those corpses ended up in Old College. Indeed, in one of fate’s most wry and satisfying twists, William Burke – who was one half of the Burke & Hare duo who murdered to meet the demand for corpses, and who appears in The Edinburgh Dead – ended up on a dissection slab in Old College. After he was hung, his corpse was publicly dissected there. There was such demand to witness the butchering of his body that there was a near-riot when audience space proved inadequate.

Anyway, nice lanterns don’t you think? Based on the famous terracotta army, of course.

Check out the Edinburgh Dead photo-trailer for lots more visuals and history that connect to the book.

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The Falkirk Kelpies

Big public art is cool when it’s good, and Scotland’s newest example is pretty good, if you ask me.  Very good, in fact.

The Kelpies at Falkirk – close enough to Edinburgh for a quick visit at the weekend – are huge, spectacular and very, very cleverly conceived.  They’re memorials and icons, reflecting Scotland’s industrial heritage and folkloric traditions.  Above all, though, I think they’re kind of beautiful.  And eloquent.  And enormous.

Cue photo-fest.

More info on what they are, why they are and how they are over here.

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The Frosts Have Come

The weather’s given us an occasional glorious Edinburgh day in the last week or so.  If, at least, there’s a certain kind of weather you like (as I do).

Pristine blue skies, still air that’s clear and sharp enough to make you feel you might see forever.

These are the small gifts Nature gives us hereabouts to compensate for the less than delightful weather that often also shows up at this time of year (rain, gales, cloud, that kind of Autumnal thing). That’s my theory anyway, and I’m sticking to it.

The days are beautiful, but their mornings are made more so by the magic that Nature weaves at night. I’ve been seeing stars of late, more often than is usually the case, and that means clear, cold nights. And those nights mean morning frost, of course, which delivers tiny, tiny wonders. Little paintings and sculptures that are things of beauty when you get close. Cue an outing at the weekend, getting close.

When the frost gets to the grass, it does pretty things:

But when it gets something more basic to work with, in a nicely sheltered and shaded corner, it drapes whole coats of frost hair over surfaces:

Or encrusts fallen trees with thousands of ramifying crystals:

It’s all free, this stuff. The most delicate and infinitely varied of shows put on for us. All we have to do is wrap up warm and go look for it. Which I’m more than happy to do, but maybe not again for a few days. It’s c-c-c-cold out there …

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A first for me at the weekend.  My first airshow, that is.  The Scottish National Airshow, at the National Museum of Flight, to be specific.  Been to the Museum before (it’s good, incidentally, should you ever be in the area), but never to the annual Airshow before.

Conclusion?  Airshows are good. But also that the banal predictability of male responses means that some bits are gooder than others. It’s kind of discouraging (but also kind of comforting, in a self-identity sort of way) just how much the psyche of so many average adult males, such as yours truly, responds in the same way as that of a twelve year old to certain stimuli.

We’ll get to the stimuli in question in a minute, but first some admittedly amateurish photos.

A Fairey Swordfish, for starters.  One of the most charismatic old-school aircraft there, imho, complete with (dummy, thankfully) torpedo:

And then these folks, the Breitling Wingwalkers. Watching them really is a bit like being transported back to the 40s or 50s or whenever this whole wingwalking thing was in its heyday:

And in many ways the oddest, vaguely surreal element of the whole day, a genuine Vietnam Vet Huey sitting in a field just outside Edinburgh, beneath by then rather ominous skies, waiting to do its thing:

It’s earned its retirement, that helicopter, since it apparently survived over 100 flights and well over 500 combat hours in Vietnam.

You can see much, much better photos of the Airshow than mine, of all these and many more aircraft, over here, by the way.

I don’t know how many fly-bys and displays there were in all – fifteen or twenty, probably – and pretty much all of them were in one way or another interesting, beautiful, cool.  Those wingwalkers, for instance (apologies in advance for mildly shaky, even more amateurish filming):

I mean, that’s a fairly remarkable way to spend your time, don’t you think? Standing on top of a biplane doing a loop. And the noise is kind of appealing, too. But noise, it turns out, is at the heart of an Airshow’s ability to make me twelve again. The wingwalkers, and the historical aircraft all appeal to the heart, or the mind, and are great to see, but if you want to hit a man-boy in the gut and put a big, stupid grin on his face you let loose the dragons (volume needs to be up to 11 to hint at the gut-punching effect for this next clip):

Honestly, when that Eurofighter was doing its thing, it was just like having a dragon set loose in the sky above you. I kept thinking of Smaug. It made every other plane in the show – no matter how cool, how interesting, how beautiful – seem like a housefly, or a droning bee, by comparison.

And apart from raw power, what else makes little boys, however old, stand still and take heed? War, of course. Cultural connections to war movies, and a sound that’s instantly familiar, even though I’d never heard it before in real life: that of a Huey taking off and chuddering away over the fields. The mood music on this one’s not mine, by the way; inflicted on us by the Airshow organisers:

I was struck by how powerfully evoactive that sight, and that sound were, in ways that none of the many WWII era aircraft on show could match.  It occured to me that, even though I’m British, the Huey’s intrinsically and powerfully sumbolic of its entire war in a way that not even the Spitfire is of WWII for me.  The sight and sound of a Huey calls up every film or documentary I’ve ever seen about Vietnam, as immediately and simply as if a button has been pushed.

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