(james benedict brown) on the road

Unbalanced and smug

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 18 September, 2010

Back in Glasgow, and this news story caught my eye:

Glasgow tourist chiefs hit out over guide
18 September 2010

Glasgow tourist chiefs have hit out at a new guide which claims the city remains blighted by violence, deprivation and unhealthy lifestyles.

The Thomas Cook guide praises the city for its “vibrant” arts scene, high culture, green spaces and shopping.

But it also warns visitors to expect poor weather, sectarianism and alcohol and drug abuse in its deprived suburbs.

Glasgow’s weather is also drawn to readers’ attentions.

It comments: “The city’s rainy reputation is well founded and the likelihood is that you’ll experience more than a few showers, if not a full-on downpour. Going out without an umbrella or a hat is foolhardy, to say the least.”

Scott Taylor, chief executive of Glasgow City Marketing Bureau, reacted angrily to the guide, describing it as “unbalanced” and “smug”

We spotted the link to the article at the top of the localised section of the BBC News homepage (screengrab below). Just above Man scarred for life after attack, Gang attack teenager at bus stop, Probation over runaway boy images and Man guilty of Christmas Day death. And any suggestion that it’s always rainy is clearly disproven by an afternoon of “white cloud” ahead of us in the three day forecast.


My flight memory

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 23 June, 2010

About a month ago I rediscovered my FlightMemory account. It had lain dormant for a couple of years, and on a quiet evening I was able to bring up to date relatively easily. FlightMemory is a free-for-basic / paid-for-premium online service that allows you to log aeroplane flights in an online database. You can specify the date, time, route, airline, aircraft; even the seat number. It can then calculate the flown distance to build a comprehensive database of how far you’ve flown, and which airlines and aircraft you’ve used the most

Even if it were possible to do it – which I don’t think it realistically is – the site doesn’t offer you an indication of the carbon emissions or environmental impact of one’s travels. Different planes, different engines, different climatic conditions, different passenger and cargo loadings, etc. all conspire to make each flight unique. By its very nature, the website seems to err on the side of celebrating rather than lamenting flying. There’s a machismo table of users so that you compare the size of your emissions to the size of everyone elses.

Although I appreciate that the very act of blogging about my (publicly accessible) statistics makes me guilty of participating in the macho competition. But to put it in layman’s terms, I’m prepared to admit that I have flown too much in my lifetime.

I’ve now flown in excess of 125,000 miles, equivalent to five circumnavigations of the planet, or half the distance between the Earth and the Moon. I’ve been able to take into account almost every commercial flight I’ve ever taken, starting with a short cross-channel hop in a Dornier 228 in 1994 (although the exact date still eludes me) up until the Ryanair flight I took this morning. All my recent flights have been booked online, so the receipts were somewhere in my inbox. My diaries filled in the gaps, and only a few school and university trips to Europe are missing precise journey data.

FlightMemory will generate a global, continental and domestic map for each user, personalised around their home country. The European visualisation of my travels is a record of many different holidays and study trips, but doesn’t represent the many journeys I’ve taken to France, Belgium and the Netherlands by train. At a push I’d guess roughly half my trips to the continent have been by train, so don’t throw the book at me yet.

My UK map is, however, a dense hive of lines, primarily because of my personal and professional connections between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. By my reckoning, I’ve only ever flown domestically within Great Britain three times, the train having always been cheaper and more attractive. But the real damage to the environment (and the real damage to my personal life) has been my commute between Glasgow and Belfast. While the longest route I’ve flown was more than 4,200 miles in length (from Edmonton to London) the shortest is between Belfast and Prestwick, at just 80 miles – the shortest route operated anywhere in Europe by Ryanair, and one that is quite surreal in a Boeing 737-800 series, lasting as little as twenty minutes tarmac to tarmac.

According to FlightMemory, I’ve now flown between Belfast and Glasgow fifty times. Strangely I’ve flown to Belfast more times than I’ve flown to Glasgow, and yet as I look around me, I’m still in Glasgow. Similarly, until earlier this year, Glasgow International Airport was one that I had departed from several times, but never arrived into. Having now done both, however, I can confirm it’s a ****hole whichever way you pass through it, and more expensive to use than comparable airports.

This unpleasant existence of commuting across the Irish Sea will continue for the next year or so. As long as I remember, I’ll keep updating the FlightMemory too, although I look forward to the day when I doubt have any trips planned by plane.

Icelandair marketing 1, James 0

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 16 October, 2009

Message to Icelandair management: give someone in your marketing department a pay rise.


You don’t need an expensive advertising agency or a degree in marketing to know that simplicity sells. And when you’re selling a country as breathtakingly beautiful as Iceland as a holiday destination, you don’t need any waffle for advertising copy. Put a picture of Iceland in the newspaper (albeit with some suspect pony-photoshopping, which I am willing to overlook) and a few lines about direct flights from Glasgow and a three night citybreak for £239, and I’m sold. As an American might say “what’s not to like?”

Passing Places

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 5 April, 2009

One of the lasting memories I have of the Isle of Skye is the ubiquity of the English accent. I spoke to more English people on this island in six days than I have in Glasgow in six months. My guidebook warned of a peninsula that was sometimes referred to as ‘Little England’ by native locals, being so full of those southerners who chosen to relocate here in the last twenty years.

I considered this early one morning during our five night stay on the island. A vaguely circular itinerary was taking us around the northern part of Skye, and that morning an hour long ride on a school bus was our only possible form of public transport to make the journey without a longer backtrack through landscapes we had already seen. I had found the bus listed in the island’s timetable, and had checked and re-checked the footnotes to make sure that it was actually running that morning. It was still a relief to see a bus pull up, though. Departing from Dunvegan, in the north-west of Skye, it follows a very leisurely route down the west coast of the island, pulling off the main road on several occasions to follow narrow winding lanes closer to the sea to pick up dejected looking school kids from junctions and driveways. After leaving us at the junction for Carbost (and a fruitless wait for another bus in torrential rain) the schoolbus would head inland and then turn back north towards the High School in Portree. I heard some English accents among the schoolboys and schoolgirls on that bus. I wondered whether their parents had chosen to ‘downshift’ to Skye to escape tedious commutes to and from England’s larger cities, only to commit their offspring to daily journeys of equal length just to get to school.

But what a bus ride. I know that those schoolchildren might disagree, but it’s worth getting up at six-thirty to see (although maybe not every day).

Visiting Skye in late March, we took a big chance on the weather. But then a trip to Skye at any time of the year seems to take a big chance on the weather: the Atlantic is right there; the Western Isles are too small and too tiny to offer any protection. Layer upon layer of clothing beneath a rigourous waterproof outer coat is the only way to maintain your body heat and sanity beneath skies that shift in a matter of minutes.

But when the sun shines, it shines on spectacular scenery. The day before that bus journey we had struck out from Dunvegan towards the relatively remote community on and around the Orbost estate. Not being well experienced or well equipped walkers, we stuck to roads and tracks, rarely being passed by other cars but always receiving a friendly wave when we were. One (a bus driver who had a few days earlier driven us from Sleat to Portree) even offered a lift, presuming that anyone walking at this time of year would appreciate a ride.

Only one day of our visit to Skye was completely lost to rainstorms. But it was also the day we visited the aforementioned Talisker Distillery and found one of the best pubs on the island. Skye supports a year-round tourist industry thanks to its fixed bridge connection to mainland Scotland and busy through traffic for the ferries to the Western Isles. We witnessed several tour buses, including the dreadful looking mini-coaches offering chaperoned backpacker tours of Scotland in 3, 5 or 7 days. But in March we were there on the shoulder between winter and spring, long before the real crowds arrived. During six nights in hostels, only one was in a room with someone else. In Dunvegan a local even professed that we were ‘the first tourists’ of the year and that the lambing season therefore couldn’t be far off.

It was not difficult to escape the English, therefore. We walked miles and breathed deeper than we might normally in Glasgow, and thanks to low off-season prices spent very little for the best part of a week. As a full-stop on a seven month period of unemployment, it was a fitting pause before work begins. More photos here.


Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 21 March, 2009

Every journey has a beginning, and regrettably in Glasgow that usually involves an overpriced bus. Allowing for some traveller’s artistic license, I could happily remember a journey to the Isle of Skye beginning here, at the tranquil Helensburgh Upper railway station. Maybe twenty miles from Glasgow, Helensburgh has two stations, one with a regular service on the electric line into Glasgow and the other a modest single platform in a cutting on the northern fringe of the town. Having skirted along the shores of the Clyde for half an hour or so, the West Highland Line begins here. We have left behind the grey tower blocks, littered streets and urbanised horizons of the city, and suddenly find ourselves rattling through rolling rural landscapes.

I have taken this train many times before, although not since moving to Glasgow last year. This line is no longer a component of a much longer journey from England to the remote west coast of Scotland, but a practical escape hatch from the city to the countryside. A couple of times a day an unassuming train of railcars departs Queen Street station for Fort William and Mallaig, normally with a portion to Oban detaching en route. After winding up steep hills past suspicious looking military bases, the train approaches Loch Lomond and begins a sharper and more screeching series of curves. Above us, only mountain. Below us, only trees, glimpses of a road and water. At Ardlui we’re held up for a short while, waiting for a southbound train to leave the single track ahead.

Being so remote, the West Highland Line has no traditional railway signals to control access to its portions of single track. A team of doubtless charming British Rail boffins developed a system in the nineteen-eighties that could satisfactorily replace the traditional tokens. Until then (and to this day on other remote British railway lines) an actual physical token, normally a large coin or loop that could easily be scooped from a signalman by the driver of a passing train, must be held by a driver before he or she can lead a train onto a section of single track. With only one token, it’s a relatively failsafe system to ensure that only one train enters a section of track at any one time.

The solution of the dynamic and pre-portable computer nineteen-eighties is a radio-controlled system. The token is virtual, transmitted by radio to an ungainly metal box in the cab of the train. On clearing a section of single track (normally at a station with a passing loop) the driver releases the token for the previous section of track and then awaits reception of the new token.

Don’t ask me how it works, but it does. And it permits an archaic but astonishingly beautiful railway to continue to exist, with daily passenger service and popular summertime tourist trains winding through the mountains of the West Highlands, perfectly framing any escape from the city with a rolling landscape of beautiful scenery and wildlife.