Monday, 6 April 2009

Accentuate The Positive

In tonight's edition of my sporadic blurblings - pleasures of the flesh, glorifying historical violence, mutilated animal carcases, and exquisite handmade guitars. (If anyone's offended by the notion of 'French polishing', it'd probably be best to quit now). But first, by way of introduction, a little self-pity...

A couple of weeks ago I returned from Bergen in quite a depressed state. It's a fantastic, exciting city full of creative opportunities. Where I live...isn't. In spite of the 220 days a year (on average) on which it rains, Bergen is colourful and, if you know where to look, vibrant. Dunfermline...ah. My 'lovely and wonderful' Norwegian partner is still both mest 'vakre og vidunderlig' (I have a dictionary rather than linguistic ability, just in case anyone was wondering), but she's over there...and it's particularly selfish and unfair of me to even consider asking her to give up the delights of what was once Norway's capital (back in the days of King Sverri and his offspring, before the Hansa came in and made a mess of the place), and put up with such a poor alternative.

Then of course the news has been a whirligig of troubles around the world - deepening global economic recession, various forms of religiously-inspired cruelty and oppression, Somali pirates back in action, the earthquake in Italy (and Silvio Berlusconi proving himself to be a world-class arsehole. Again), etc, etc.

But rather than respond in the obvious fashion, by ranting (with plenty of supporting statistics, possibly even graphs) about all the bad events and feelings, I decided to concentrate on some of the small, solid, good (and also mostly relatively cheap) things - although I've inevitably omitted far more worthy candidates, my choices can be dismissed as mere expressions of my soft, liberal Western lifestyle, and largely confined to the tiny corner of the world that I inhabit. Here, then, are some of the 'happy things'...enjoy.

Afternoons and coffeespoons
As I noted back in December, Bergen has an impressive array of cafés at which to squander your money at an alarming rate. Edinburgh can more than hold its own in this department, however - a couple of my favourites being Patisserie Florentin in Stockbridge, and The Bakehouse on Broughton Street. In fact, if you could combine the two you'd probably have café perfection, since while The Bakehouse's coffee is slightly better, (and served in cups that could double as swimming pools for small kittens), Florentin's "Herrison" is arguably the most deadly variation-on-a-theme-of-chocolate-cake in the city. If it's simply the coffee you're after, though, the mere act of sitting in The Bakehouse (especially with small children) does have the additional advantage of seeming to really annoy some of its upper-middle-class, mostly Edinburgh New Town clientele. Which is always highly entertaining.

Pigs on the wing
My budget is tighter than an obvious-ageing-rock-star-reference's inadvisable leather trousers, so if you're looking for a quick, filling, 'nae-MacDonald's-because-it-gies-ye-ra-boak' just thinking about it, lunch in the centre of town, then my first suggestion would be Oink, which you'll find about halfway down Victoria Street. A brown roll stuffed (very) full of delicious, freshly-carved roast hog (from their farm in the Borders), complete with stuffing and apple sauce, can currently be had for just £4! Don't go there expecting to 'eat in', though - they've only got space for about 8 adult-size bottoms (that's 6-and-a-half standard Americans), and since Edinburgh's 'tourist season' runs from approximately March to December, finding a convenient local park bench is a more likely option. And why not, when just around the corner you can merrily fill your face with tasty deceased piggy while enjoying this view of St. Giles' ? (the "other" 'Sir Walter Scott', 5th Duke of Buccleuch, is the subject of the impressive statue in the foreground. Although whether he ever truly merited it is another question altogether...I mean, Granton harbour - not exactly a work of art, now is it?). And since I appear to be slowly metamorphosing into a cut-price, poorly informed impression of Jonathan Meades...

Ramblin' on my mind
Simply wandering around the city of Edinburgh in a state of mild awe at the bewildering array of neo-classical statuary and architecture - if you avoid the dogs' breakfast known to the world as Princes' Street...oh, and the St. James Centre at its eastern end...and the stunningly ugly "Princes Mall" (the shopping centre formerly known as Waverley Market)...and, well, I'm sure you'll work out pretty quickly that 98% of the "new" building isn't up to much - can be a grand way to spend an idle afternoon. Wonderful views are to be had throughout the city centre:

How pleasant, too, if it's possible to stop and salivate over some completely unaffordable 'kitchen porn'...mmmm, hand-crafted, oiled, solid wood smooth to the touch, yet simultaneously firm, conveying a sense of inner strength...built with a suppressed passion...*cough*. Yes, well, anyway. There's no harm in just looking, now is there?

Speaking of which ("looking", I mean), if you're in the vicinity, the National Museum Of Scotland is still partially open, and definitely well worth a visit - where else, for instance, can you see how, in a time long before the invention of the motor car, Scottish clan chiefs attempted to "over-compensate" for certain...'personal inadequacies', shall we say? I think the picture pretty much speaks for itself...

After all that walking (and drooling), you're bound to be in need of some more sustenance, and with that in mind, let's head back towards the Royal Mile, then turn off it slightly, with my final food choice for today - the affable, child-friendly and altogether excellent Viva Mexico on Coburn Street. Everything tastes good, the prices are nowhere near what you'd expect in the middle of town, and if at all possible - try the home-made chocolate chilli cheesecake. I know, it's an extra £5 on the meal, but trust me - it's worth it. Mouthfuls of rich chocolate are counterbalanced by perfect micro-blasts of habanero chilli...any further attempts at description would fail to do it justice. Buy a piece to share (with a complete stranger at a nearby table if necessary), whatever it takes, just go there and eat some, ok?

Bits and pieces
So many minor entries on my list that I could be enthusiastically tedious about, but probably shouldn't try everyone's patience with: my obsolete and discontinued-but-I love it Canon Powershot A80, which stretches 4 megapixels to their absolute limit; the Trailwise Rambler walking poles that got me up here, 3 + 1/2 weeks after knee cartilage surgery; the Norwegian wonder-food Lefse - and sticking with Norway, there's my current favourite newsreader, Christian Borch. He has the greatest "editorialising eyebrows" I've ever seen, and he's not afraid to use 'em. (The in-vision continuity announcer that followed the news was a bit worrying, though - she gave the impression she derived enormous physical pleasure from reading out details of the upcoming programmes. Either that, or she was wearing a butterfly. Impossible to tell which. Weird, and slightly off-putting, to say the least). Oh, I could go on about insignificant little items for weeks, but that would be far too inhumane, so, finally...

Norwegian wood (again)
Stroll along Kong Oscars Gate in Bergen, ('Kong' is Norwegian for 'King', which could lead to a very tortuous -and unfunny - routine about Norse confusion regarding the title of the classic 1933 'big ape up a tall building' movie. But it isn't going to on this occasion), and you could easily miss Hanno Kiehl's small guitar (work)shop. That would be a serious mistake, because this charming, unassuming guy (he's a bass player, so naturally...) builds beautiful instruments, in a variety of styles. Now, I could never be confused with any sort of "gypsy jazz", Django-inspired player, so I couldn't fully appreciate absolutely all the subtleties of the 'D-shaped' soundhole model I was abusing first, but it was still obvious that it was a fine guitar indeed (very fast action, perfect intonation all the way up the extended fretboard, lovely French-polished finish, etc). Then things became a notch more impressive, when he handed me a small-bodied 'parlour'-style guitar. Oh, wow. Full, deep tone, and more volume than anything of that size had a right to produce. Joy, delight, rapture, etc,etc...(it had to be prised away from me just a little).

Of course, such wonders don't come cheap. The 'parlour guitar' was 30,000 Norwegian krone (about £3,000 when I was there, add another £250 or so onto that currently, and most likely rocketing upwards - I was damned careful handing it back, believe me), but then, this is a custom-made instrument, from an individual luthier, not an off-the-peg, one-size-fits-all-hands purchase. Buying a unique guitar from someone like Hanno Kiehl is to enter into a close relationship with its maker - potentially a lifetime of maintenance and repairs, small modifications to suit the individual player, possibly upgrading to a newer model along the way (sounds a lot like some marriages...?).

I'll probably never be able to afford the luxury of owning one, but I'll always have a small memory of how pleasurable it was to play those guitars, and for that, I'm very grateful indeed.

p.s. Regarding some of the "bad stuff" - the Taleban (and the rest of their woman-hating chums) are clearly a bunch of bastards, the Pope is either "stupid or wicked" (as Prof. Dawkins actually put it) for lying about HIV and condoms, and our great-great-great-great granchildren are still going to be paying for the global banking mess...but for now, at least there's coffee. And possibly cake - I'll dig down the back of the sofa to see if I can find some extra loose change, then we'll see...