(james benedict brown) on the road

The circular strike

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 7 October, 2008

The Cathcart Circle railway line that snakes through our little corner of Govanhill and Queen’s Park is our handy link to the centre of Glasgow. It takes just six minutes and £1.35 to get from our stop into Central Station, which is both quicker and cheaper than the cynically expensive bus. The lines (and most every other one in Scotland) however, are much quieter today, as the RMT calls the first of two twenty-four hour strikes this week (from 12h00 midday today and 12h00 midday on Thursday). As with all labour disputes, there are of course two sides (link and link – thanks Monkey for the URLs) to every story.

Apples and onions

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 24 August, 2008

Imperial unit of length, four letters.

Damned imperial measurement system. I am a metric child, born late enough to have only ever been taught millimetres and metres but early enough to still have bought fresh produce in pounds and ounces. I don’t object so much to the transition to metric or the lingering half-status of the imperial system, but being raised exclusively with one means I’m usually stumped if an older butcher or grocer asks me how much of something I want. And this kind of crossword clue reminds me of one of minor annoyances of the imperial system – a four letter crossword entry with the clue “unit of length” could be “inch”, “foot”, or “yard”. I’m not bothered about the inconsistency of the imperial system (twelve inches to a foot but three feet in a yard… I had to look that last one up), but I am frustrated that the three primary length measurements of the system all have four letters in them. It simply doesn’t help with crosswords.

Looking up from my paper (crossword doomed to be no more than eighty percent completed, I can feel it) I observe the scene. I’m in Broadford, one of the less defined, less attractive and frankly straggly towns of Skye, and I’m waiting for a bus. Beneath grey skies, light rain is falling, and I’ve retreated to a Beinn Na Cailligh, a café on the outskirts of the village. There are three buses a day from the principal towns and villages of Skye to Glasgow, and I tried to catch the first one. Although the ticket I bought was flexible, the driver refused to let me board the earliest serviceon a technicality. Flexible ticket or not, mobile tickets have to be checked against the driver’s manifest, so they’re actually only valid on the booked bus.

The driver did give me a lift though, picking me up from the cloud of midges beside the road where I hailed the bus and bringing me a few kilometers down the road to Broadford. There was, at least, more chance of me passing two and a half hours here than where I’d tried to board the bus.

My walking tour of Broadford was concluded in about five minutes. The main road from the Skye Bridge up to the island’s de facto “capital” of Portree passes through it, and there are a handful of minor streets on either side. For a brief stretch the road passes alongside what could have once been an attractive harbour, but just to cement the town’s aesthetic mediocrity, a petrol station and aircraft-hangar of a supermarket were built between the road and the water. A handful of attempts at town beautification have produced some delicately designed parks, but the town’s entire density is too low and the buildings are notable only for the functionality and weather resistance. Of all the towns to be stranded in the Hebredes, Broadford is not my choice destination.

But there are at least some retail opportunities, so I buy a paper and send a postcard, and once Beinn Na Cailligh has opened at nine o’clock, I saunter in for a cooked breakfast. I’m already damp and shivering, and the prospect of a meaty breakfast (black and white pudding included) cheers me. The coffee isn’t bad either. There’s an actual espresso machine, which probably tells you all about the expectations of modern holiday makers who visit Skye. I’d previously be told by a resident that amongst English tourists, Skye is a firm favourite with lower income groups (my interpretation of his words), a fact that seemed to be born out by the conversations I overheard in the café and the types of cars parked outside. There were others, however, with bemused Spaniards peering at the desert cabinet and an American woman flying in to get three cappucinos “to go”.

Outside I spy some middle aged men who’ve pulled up in a silver car and who have stepped out to photograph a pair of buses that have pulled up at the stop outside. They snap a few pictures and then drive off, perhaps to catch the same bus further down the line. During the hour and a half that I spend in the café, I count almost twenty buses coming and going. Skye is phenomenally well served by public transport. Locals rub shoulders with tourists on most of the routes that connect the towns and villages of the island with the railway station at the other end of the Skye Bridge in Kyle of Localsh, and the ferry terminal at Armadale.

I clear my plate, finding black pudding much more digestable with brown sauce. The sauces come in small plastic sachets that are kept in little bowls on the table. I remember that it was around this time last year, on a Caledonian Macbrayne ferry not far from Skye, that I noticed something on the very same design of sauce sachets.

Each sauce packet was a little double sided envelope. One side, in white against the appropriate colour, was the written name of the contents. On the back was a photograph of the principal ingredient. So on the back of the tomato ketchup sachet were tomatoes. On the back of the mayoinnaise sachet were hard boiled eggs, de-shelled and cut in halves. What surprised me a year before, and what I remembered again that day, was the illustration on the back of the brown sauce sachet.

What would you expect to see on the brown sauce sachet? What are the primary ingredients of brown sauce?

When I first picked up one of these little brown packets, I was quite surprised by the illustration. I may be devoted consumer of brown sauce, but only because I find tomato sauce a little too tart and dull. I’d never really thought about what might actually give brown sauce its flavour.

According to these packets, the primary ingredients of brown sauce are apples and onions.

Whether or not this commercially prepared and packed brown sauce had ever come into contact with an apple or onion is open to debate. For all I know, it is quite possible it was just “red” sauce with extra vinegar and colourings. But the idea that once upon a time, brown sauce was freshly prepared with green apples and brown onions amused me, because it’s only when I’m in the Scottish islands that I consider the origins of brown sauce.

Urban rhythms

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 10 August, 2008

The bright colours, strategically simplified angles and smooth corners of another urban transit map have seduced me. Having now spent two weeks in Glasgow, I’m becoming more familiar with the lie of the land and the names of suburbs, especially those distant ones with exotic names.

Unfortunately, Glasgow (like Sheffield) has passed the operation of most of its buses to the First Group. That means fares have sky rocketed for occasional users. So instead of paying £1.30 for a ride into town, I’ll stick to paying £1.05 for a return ticket on the train (note to self: remember to renew the 16-25 Railcard the day before my birthday). I’ve also established quickly that beside from bicycle, the train is the way to get around. Glasgow has the largest suburban rail network in the country; well… the largest in Scotland, if you’re a secessionist, or the largest outside London if you’re not.

Although the Cathcart Circle is partially closed at the moment while engineers fill some subsidence with concrete, the system is reliable, fast and runs like clockwork. During that closure, my nearest station is Pollokshields West (not to be confused with Pollokshields East, Pollokshaws East or Pollokshaws West). The walk home takes me across a footbridge that crosses the Barrhead line (red in the plan above) just north of the delightful sounding Crossmyloof station. Not only has my train been on time every time, but every time I have crossed that footbridge on the way home, I have looked south down the tracks to see the same train approaching at exactly the same spot. It passes underneath the footbridge at exactly the same time that a southbound train passes on the adjacent track.

Can’t they run late just for once?

Watching Sky on Skye

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 6 August, 2008

On Sunday night I took a walk along a short stretch of the A87 between Dunan and Luib on the Isle of Skye. I had only a fleeting overnight visit to Skye this time, although I hope that I continue to have the opportunity to go there to attend to the business that took me there this weekend. With the sun beginning to dip to the west, I plodded along the verge of the reasonably busy road to get a longer view of the sea loch between Skye and Scalpay and to get a stronger mobile phone signal. It was with some modest shame that I even turned on my phone; somehow it didn’t seem right to go to the trouble of travelling six hours and almost 200 miles without sacrificing some contact with the outside world. That cellular contact was comforting though. And it wasn’t exactly cheating. The modest accommodation provided for me on Sunday night was cunningly disguised as a shed at the back of a builder’s yard, but it had a Sky satellite dish hooked up to the TV.

Britain may appear to be a tiny little island to those who see it from a distance, but like most British people, I do not consider myself to be an islander. After all, the British Isles consist of two large islands and about six thousand smaller ones. It’s only in the second half of my life that I’ve really begun to appreciate some of the Hebridean Islands. Although by the standards of my island experiences, Skye is almost too big an island for me, being more than 1,600 square kilometres in area and almost 100km from north to south. It’s status as an independent land mass has also been unromantically eroded by the utilitarian Skye Bridge, over which I was able to float on board one of the thrice-daily buses that connect Glasgow and Fort William with Skye. The first time I came to Skye, I was killing time on a day trip from Mallaig on the mainland before I crossed the sea to the significantly smaller (and suitably named) Small Isles. I felt then, as I did this weekend, that Skye was just too big for me. It was hard to grasp the concept or emotion of an island I couldn’t walk across in an hour or two. And while Skye can be crossed on foot, it’s best not attempted in my shoes.

That short stretch of the A87 is not Skye’s finest walk. But in addition to only spending a brief period of time on the island, I also arrived completely unprepared for its true landscape. The smooth asphalt of the road was about the only surface on Skye that my city dwelling shoes were good for.

I look forward to my next trip to Skye. I may not be able to grasp the island, or its spirit, but any excuse to leave the city behind for this landscape and space is to be relished.

Taking photographs from a bus

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 6 August, 2008

Taking photographs (or making photographs, as you would say more satisfyingly if translating literally from German) through the windows of a bus or train is something I normally look down on. I suspect I have some kind of patronising opinion about those who think that they can get a decent exposure when they press their lens up against the grubby laminated windows (especially if they expect a flashbulb to improve the brightness of a Scottish mountain in broad daylight). But then, during a six hour bus journey from Glasgow to the Inner Hebrides, the monstrously beautiful landscapes of the Highlands won me over, and I found myself unwrapping by digital camera to grab pictures of what we were surrounded by.

This naturally lead to a number of “imperfect” shots. I have no idea what this gantry structure might be, or what that small grey roadside box conceals. But more annoyingly, I have no idea why they might have been situated along a stretch of unpopulated A-road, with no traffic signals or speed cameras to control. This picture is also notable for the reflection of the no-smoking sign fixed to the back of the seat in front, and the hideous orange/brown/red pattern of fabric that the seats were trimmed with. All in all, a horrid picture, but nonetheless a gorgeous amalgam of components, an abstract composition impossible to replicate because of the exact factors of light, movement, angle and location.

Some of these imperfections – when apparently alien objects puncture the natural landscape – seem to help the photographs immensely. After all, without that sign warning of a sharp bend, I’d probably never remember in twenty years time that I took this picture from a moving vehicle. I imagine that it would be a badly composed shot of moorland and distant mountains that is neither balanced nor particularly interesting.

Who are these people? And is that really someone in full Scottish regalia playing the bag pipes at a roadside viewing spot?