Slow news week

Slow news week

13 July 2000

…So I’ll just keep this one brief and to the point. The most interesting
event over the past week was, of course, Abi getting a tattoo. You can read
all about it on her section of the sunpig
, but that doesn’t stop me from mentioning it, too. Even though we
had to get up ridiculously early on Saturday morning to get an appointment
for that same day, it was still worth it. It looks great.

My favourite line now: “Hey, there’s something on your arm.”

If I didn’t have a severe needle phobia, I’d be tempted to get one
myself. (Not that I have any idea what I would like embossed on my skin for
the rest of my life, though, so it’s probably more a mild envy of Abi’s than a
genuine desire.) Abi has suggested that the next time I’m under general
anaesthesia, she’ll hire a tattoo artist to come and do one for me, so I won’t
have to suffer through the whole pain and fear thing.

Latest car update

Unfortunately, it’s nothing too exciting. I called up my good friend at
Fuji on Tuesday, and asked him if there was any progress. He said that he’d
been in touch with Toyota, and that they were now getting ready to take things
over from him. Then, on Wednesday morning I got a call from Toyota UK, first
of all congratulating me on winning the car, and then explaining what was going
to happen next.

They’re sending us out a brochure on the Picnic, and a colour chart, so we
can choose what kind of paint job and interior trim we want. Then, we send our
selection back to them, and they arrange for this vehicle to be delivered to a
local Toyota dealer. Unfortunately, because they don’t have huge numbers of
Picnics in stock, this will probably take somewhere between 4 and 6 weeks.
So we won’t be able to drive it down to Dumfries and the
Plumed Horse for our anniversary
next week. Oh well…

If we we’re not going to have our own brand new car, we’re going to have to
rent a car for the weekend. Because it’s a special anniversary weekend, I had
a sudden wonderful idea of maybe hiring a little sports car, rather than the
normal tiny hatchback we go for. I went by our usual rental place
(Enterprise, in Leith)
at lunchtime yesterday. They greeted me with their usual enthusiasm, but the
only thing they had that came kind of close was a BMW 3-series. That was just
a bit too big, though. I’d really had my mind on a Mazda MX-5, or an MG.

The ever-friendly staff at Enterprise mentioned that Budget might have
something more along these lines, so I gave them a try, but they weren’t taking
any bookings until August. (Can I also say that the very fact that Enterprise
were willing to refer me elsewhere is a typical indicator of their very high
levels of customer service. These people are great, and really do their best
to make car hire an easy and enjoyable experience.) Lunch over, I scouted
around on the web for a bit and came up with
Avis Prestige
, which hires out luxury and sporty cars. A brief look at their
prices, however, told me that this was not going to fly, though. (£320 for a BMW Z3
for the weekend? Hmmm…probably not.)

So, a little disappointed, I ended up back at Enterprise, where they were only
too happy to supply us with a Renault Laguna-class vehicle for next weekend. It
should have a CD player, and they assure me that it’s a really nice drive. I’m
looking forward to it.

Books, movies, and music

(Though not necessarily in that order)

We saw two films last week,
Chicken Run
Mission Impossible 2
Chicken Run was very funny, and a great family film, and MI-2 was a
pretty good action movie. (Towards the end, though, the stunts did cross the fine
line between breathtaking and ridiculous, though.) But between the two of them,
probably the neatest thing was the “CR-1” Chicken Run/MI-2 crossover trailer that
was shown just before MI-2. Almost worth going in to the cinema to it on its own!

Music-wise, I bought three CDs on Saturday, Liquid Skin by Gomez,
Dizzy Up The Girl by the Goo Goo Dolls, and I Like to Score by
Moby. Although since the weekend, the only thing I’ve had running on my MP3
player is Byzantium by Deep Blue Something. (Remember the song “Breakfast
at Tiffany’s”? That’s them.) See my
review of the album

And finally, I’ve just finished reading John Sandford’s Night Prey.
If you’re looking for an excellent police/serial killer thriller, pick up one of
Sandford’s Prey series. I’ll have to do a proper review on DooYoo, or
somewhere else at some point. (I’ve just found out about
ThemeStream, which seems to bill itself
as more of an on-line magazine and review digest than other reputation managers.
I’ll check it out and write some more about it, too.)

And that’s all for now!


Deep Blue Something – Byzantium

Remember the song "Breakfast at Tiffany’s"? I can hardly believe it was released back in 1995. Even now, you only have to hum a bar or two of its chorus, and pretty soon everyone around you will be humming or whistling, or singing along under their breath. But, as my lovely wife pointed out, it’s one of those songs where no-one can remember anything but the chorus.

The band was Deep Blue Something, and the album it came from was called Home. The one I want to review, though, is their follow-up, Byzantium. (I was just warming you up with some background…) Having loved Home, I got Byzantium as soon as I saw it in January 1998. At first I found it disappointing, because it was very different from the earlier album. They seemed to have lost some of the high-energy pop sound, and the tunes weren’t as immediately catchy.

After listening to it for a while, though, I started to appreciate the wide variety of styles and musical influences represented on the tracks. The first song, “Daybreak and a Candle End” starts off with a two-and-a-half minute intro reminiscent of latter-day Rush. “Tonight” has a chanty chorus that could have come from Chumbawamba, and “Cherry Lime Rickey” wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the Manic Street Preachers’ Generation Terrorists LP.

With 15 tracks on it, Byzantium has something for almost any mood, from the totally chilled out “Enough To Get By,” through the dance-like, driving grooves of “Dr. Crippen” and “Parkbench,” to the all-out rocking anthems “Light the Fuse” and “Becoming Light”. I think I found it hard to like the album initially precisely because it’s so varied. It doesn’t have a unified feel to it, and it isn’t “easy listening” music by any stretch of the imagination. The best classification I can come up with is “Indie Rock”, but that is still too narrow a description by far.

Although Deep Blue Something are from Texas, they have a distinctly British feel to them, and would fit well in a line-up next to groups like Dodgy, Toploader, or the Manics. They’re mostly a guitar band, but Byzantium uses some very nice horn and string arrangements as well. Lyrically, it’s is not hugely involving, but I find that the complexity and intricacy of the music itself more than makes up for this. Overall, it’s one of the most interesting albums in my collection, and one that I come back to time and again.

This seems to be turning into a weekly thing

This seems to be turning into a weekly thing…

3 July 2000

First things first: an update on the whole car thing.

On Sunday afternoon I had been playing with the idea of hopping on a plane
and delivering the winning ticket by hand, but by Monday morning this seemed a
bit over the top. So I called Fuji, and asked them what we should do with it.
The ticket itself said that we should take a photocopy and then send the original
to Fuji by recorded delivery, but I wanted to hear it from a real person. When I
spoke to them, this exactly what they said, but somehow that reassured me.

Of course, as soon as the envelope left my hand at the post office counter,
I immediately had second thoughts. The probability of the envelope getting lost
in the mail was surely about the same as of us winning the car in the first place.
Why hadn’t I splashed out on a courier instead? What if the person I’d spoken to
at Fuji wasn’t a real representative of their marketing department, but an impostor
who was going to intercept the ticket and use it for himself?

After an anxious afternoon and night, I called them again the next morning,
just to confirm that it had arrived. It had. (A victory for common sense, or
a lucky escape? Who knows…) They said they would be back in touch towards
the end of the week once they had verified the claim, and sorted out things with
Toyota. Unfortunately, when they did call
on Friday, it was to say that the only
person authorized to release a car is off on holiday, and won’t be back until
Monday 10th July. I’m sure we can wait, though.

Mobile Phonery

I thought the day would never happen. Neither did Abi. Even at the best of
times, I hate getting phone calls. Using an answering machine isn’t much better,
because I don’t like making phone calls either, and when someone leaves you a message,
they generally expect you to call them back. So why would I conceivably want a
mobile phone, so that I could be reachable all the time? The very
notion is absurd.

…But somehow, while I had the loan of my mum’s mobile phone while they were
away on holiday, I sort of got used to having it around. While I still worked
for the bank I used to have a pager, and although it had the same problem as an
answerphone (i.e., you have to call back), it was kind of useful (sometimes)
for keeping in contact with Abi. For meeting up after work, for example.

So, thanks to the friendly people at the
Carphone Warehouse
, I now have a
state-of-the art WAP-enabled Nokia 7110
with a spring-loaded front cover (like
in The Matrix).
In the past I’ve been quite disparaging about WAP, mainly
because it’s being marketed as mobile internet (you know who you are, BT).
While this claim is true-ish technically, the
shortcomings of the WAP protocol itself
and the size of the screens involved make it a thoroughly silly idea. Mini-services are the
way to go, but nowhere but Japan (with the
seems to have got a proper clue yet. And anyone
who seriously thinks that composing an email or text message on a phone’s keypad
is somehow clever, or a productive use of their time needs to spend some quality
time in a padded room far from the rest of humanity.

Will I use the WAP features? Probably not. I bought the phone because it
makes me look cool. Anything else is just a bonus.

And Finally…

…I’ve been playing way too much Diablo II. Not the most sophisticated game
in terms of graphics, nor does it have a hugely compelling storyline. But what
it lacks in innovation, it makes up in sheer playability. It’s easy to pick up,
but hard to put down. Check out
Gamecenter for their
initial thoughts on the game.


Darroch Learg

If, when you’re out for dinner, you ask for a gin and tonic, and get offered a choice of Gordon’s, Tanqueray or Sapphire gin, you can be reasonably sure that you’ve ended up somewhere that pays attention to detail, and prides itself on offering a selection based purely on quality. The Darroch Learg Hotel in Ballater (near Aberdeen) is such a place.

With three AA rosettes every year since 1997, it is recognised as one of Scotland’s top restaurants, and this recognition is thoroughly deserved. Two comfortable lounges (one smoking lounge) allow you to enjoy an aperitif or an after-dinner coffee in the kind of surroundings you only see in costume dramas. The dining room is half made up of a large conservatory, which allows the evening sun to sparkle in through the trees of the nearby forest. The whole place exudes old-fashioned charm and timeless style.

All of this would be for nothing, though, if the food wasn’t up to standard. No danger there. The tortellini of crab and langoustine I started with were large and succulent, with the shellfish inside chopped to a moist, flaky consistency. The home-baked breads (sourdough or wholegrain) served with the first course came in very handy for mopping up the crab sauce, and leaving my plate perfectly clean.

For my main course, I had the fillet of Aberdeen beef, with braised shin and green vegetables, served on a bed of creamed celeriac and Madeira sauce. (It was either that or the veal on a bed of puy lentils, with a gratin of potatoes and butternut squash; but fortunately my wife had that, and I could steal a nibble of hers.) Perfectly cooked, fresh fillet tastes buttery and creamy, and this was a fine example of the species. The braised shin provided a rich, almost gamy strength to the dish, while the peas and the green beans were crisp and ripe with their own flavour.

My dessert was crème brulee with toffeed apple rings and apple sorbet. The caramel crust of
the crème brulee was thin, but the body of it was deep and thick, and when I’d scraped the bottom of the ramekin as much as politely possible, the base was covered in tiny vanilla seeds… Rich and delicious.

The wines we had with the meal were an Alsatian gewürztraminer and an Australian Merlot, both from the lower-priced end of the 57-page thick wine list, but perfectly tasty and appropriate nonetheless. For those with more sophisticated tastes, the selection was elaborate, though my personal favourite (Tokaji, for dessert) was absent.

Overall, the quality of the meal was excellent, and the surroundings luxurious. The hotel is run by Nigel and Fiona Franks, who work hard to make every guest feel special, and succeed admirably. The price for this three-course experience is a mere £33 a head (excluding wine), and that kind of value is hard to find these days. If you’re visiting the area, you’d have to look really hard for a reason not to choose the Darroch Learg for an evening out.

“Bloody Hell–we’ve won a car.”

What a very enjoyable, but utterly peculiar weekend.

It all started last Christmas… Instead of giving my grandmother a normal gift (she’s very hard to buy presents for), we decided to take her away for a weekend. Our original idea was to take her to Glasgow, but on reflection we decided that Deeside in Aberdeenshire would be nicer. So that’s where we were for the last couple of days.

Because my parents are away on holiday in Florida at the moment, they are letting us borrow their cars. We’ve had their Suzuki Vitara in Edinburgh with us for the last week, and we drove up to their house in Murthly on Friday evening. On Saturday morning, we then swapped the Suzuki for their BMW 7-series (a very choice automobile…I highly recommend you try one), and headed up to Aberdeen.

We had lunch at my grandmother’s place, and then set out for a nice relaxing drive along the Deeside road. We stopped off in Banchory for a poke around a shoe shop, and briefly entered the car park at Crathes Castle, but decided to move on because it was raining and quite windy. Later in the afternoon we had afternoon tea and a scone in Banchory, and had a wander around the village centre before checking in at the Darroch Learg hotel, just at the edge of the village heading West.

I hadn’t known about the hotel before we went there–I had only found it on the web a week and a half ago, as I was calling around places to find out if they had rooms for this weekend. On the web site the hotel looks elegant, and close up it matches that impression very nicely. The outside looks like an old country mansion (though with an regrettably tatty modern extension), and the inside is exactly what you would expect: wood panelling all round, a lounge with large comfortable chairs, coffee tables and a fireplace, and even a separate smoking room with a selection of cigars and spirits displayed in a massive Victorian cabinet. The fires weren’t lit, but I could easily imagine walking in there in the middle of winter, brushing the snow from my boots, and settling down with a glass of wine and a good book….

The bedrooms were not quite as sumptuous, but still very comfortable, and came supplied with fluffy towelling robes, which was a nice touch. Grandma’s room was a small double, while Abi’s and mine appeared to be more like a suite. Its bathroom
was certainly large enough to warrant a chair in the middle of it, in case you got tired while crossing from one end to the other.

After we’d splashed some water on our faces and changed clothes, we all went downstairs and had tea in the lounge, while examining the menu for dinner. Although the residential side of the hotel is very fine, it is surely the restaurant on which the owners pride themselves most. Since 1997 they have had three AA rosettes for food each year, which puts them quite squarely in premier league–there are only 20 other 3-rosette establishments in the whole of Scotland. (And, damn it, why is the Plumed Horse not one of them?) Making our choice from the menu was difficult, but we eventually settled on a different dish each, after which we were ushered through into the dining room, which has a conservatory-like sun room extension. As if by magic, some of the day’s first rays of sunshine speared the clouds and sparkled down on us as we took our seats.

After a complimentary taster of home-smoked salmon and red pepper, I tucked into some tortellini of crab and langoustine. Abi had a pithivier (a puff pastry shell, as far as we could tell) filled with goats cheese, and decorated with a spicy tomato jam, and Grandma had smoked trout with poached egg and chive hollandaise. My tortellini were large and juicy, perhaps a little too much so. The shellfish filling was coarsely chopped and oozed dribbles of oil into the creamy crab sauce. It was delicious to mop up with some of their home-made granary bread, but the greasiness lost them a few presentation points.

For the main course, Grandma had saddle of local lamb, with tiny mushrooms and a ratatouille gratin on a bed of polenta. I tried a nibble of the ratatouille, and it was sweet and fruity–very nice indeed. Abi had veal on a bed of puy lentils with a gratin of potatoes and butternut squash. Her plate also contained a black pudding type thing, about the size and shape of a baby aubergine. I didn’t try it, but it looked like an interesting addition to the ensemble. I had been unable to resist ordering the fillet of Aberdeen beef, which came on a bed of creamed celeriac (something I’ve never tried before, but must definitely do again–it tasted a little like herby cheesy creamed mashed potatoes…), and covered with brashed shin, and some of the freshest peas and green beans I have ever tasted. As for the beef itself, well, I took it rare, and it tasted as smooth as cream, and had the distinctive dairy flavour of top class, fresh fillet.

By this time, we were all rather full, but this didn’t stop Abi from ordering a chocolate tart which she described as having “more cocoa butter in a single mouthful than in a whole bar of diary milk.” Grandma had a trio of pears in red wine, while I made the (apparently predictable) choice of creme brulee, which came with toffeed apples and apple sorbet. The caramel crust on the creme brulee was thin, but the body was thick and deep, and after I had scraped as much of it out of the ramekin as I could, the bottom was coated with tiny vanilla seeds–always a good sign.

All of this was accompanied by a half bottle of Alsace Gewürztraminer (Hugel, 1998) and a full bottle of Australian Orange Merlot (Reynolds, 1998). The Gewürztraminer had an intensely fruity taste up-front, but was a bit hollow in the middle, and Merlot always tastes too oaky for me after a couple of glasses, but they were easily drunk selections nevertheless. After the meal, we retired (briefly) to the drawing room for coffee and sweets (home-made fudge and Turkish delight), before falling exhausted into bed.

So much for the first day. Everything was fine up until then: we were all having a great time chattering away in the lovely surroundings, and enjoying the excellent food and the luxury of the hotel. When we got up this morning we had no clue, either. We
went downstairs for a large cooked breakfast (delivered to almost the same presentational standards of the previous night’s dinner–one wonders if the chef just pulled an all-nighter), and then drove off into a gloriously sunny morning. Our plan was to head to Braemar, then turn around and loop through Speyside (Tomintoul, Dufftown) and back towards Aberdeen.

Well, we got to Braemar. We parked the car and took a walk down out of the village centre towards the royal grounds, where the Braemar games (one of the best-known Highland Games–the one the royals attend) are held each year. The weather was glorious, the sun fair burning down on us, and we had happily snapped off almost a whole roll of photos. There was still plenty of day left, though, so on our way back up into the village, I popped into the Alldays shop and got a pack of Fuji “Multi 400” film. On my way out of the shop, I read the back of the pack, which explained the “Instant Win with Foolproof Colour” competition. Some packs of film come with enclosed colour-coded slips: a “blue” slip means you’ve won one of 1000 quicksnap cameras, “green” gives you one of 50 mobile phones, “red” is one of four iMac computers, and a “cyan” slip means you’ve won one of four Toyota Picnic people carrier cars.

“Just like a lottery scratchcard,” I said to Abi and Grandma when I left the shop, and I showed them the pack. I started to open it, prying open the side, and then saw the little slip inside with a bright cyan dot with the word “cyan” printed on it in big letters. Curious, but not quite believing it, I pulled the rest of the slip out of the packet, unwrapped it, and read the words “Congratulations — You’re just won a Toyota Picnic!”

To make it even more real, the slip was signed on behalf of Fuji Film by a real person, in genuine blue ballpoint.

“Bloody Hell,” I said, “We’ve won a car.”

I think Abi may have looked at me in disbelief at that point, but I’m not sure. I started feeling a little blurry and excited. I read the small print a couple of times, showed to it Abi and Grandma, and they both agreed that we had, in fact, just won a car.

Wow. Still feeling light-headed, I went back into the shop, and in a trembly voice told the woman who had sold me the film that she had just sold a winning packet. I showed her the winning slip, and was reluctant to even let her touch it–I was so worried that she would take it, or that it would evaporate into thin air, or that I would just wake up, but none of that happened. I went back outside, and with the last few snaps on the old roll of film, Abi took photos of me standing in front of the shop with, holding the winning ticket up in front of me. (I’ll scan the photos and put them up here on the site as soon as we get them developed.)

Just to calm down a bit, we went next door into a big hotel, where Abi and Grandma sat me down and fetched me a diet coke and a piece of millionaire shortbread. I think that that this point they were a bit concerned about my ability to drive them safely back to Aberdeen. I got over the shock eventually, though, and then went through a phase of the giggles. I mean, we’d just won a car. It seemed incredibly funny, and still does. On the drive towards Braemar, we had even been talking about how much we were enjoying not owning a car, because it was too much of a drain on our finances, and then suddenly we’re just handed one. Even as a good little atheist, I had a brief moment of doubt about the random nature of the Universe… (But only a brief one ?)

So then we got back into the car, and tried to behave like normal. Failed, giggled for a bit more, then drove on.

And as if that whole episode wasn’t bizarre enough, just after we’d turned onto the Tomintoul road, we turned round a corner and found an enormous horse bearing down on us at a full gallop. It had its head down and its dark determined eyes looked like they would shoot lightning bolts at anyone or anything that got in its way. “Oh crap,” I thought, “it’s going to run straight at us and stomp all over the hood of the car…” At that point I also wondered if this really was a dream–it seemed so unreal. Maybe that’s why I felt relatively calm as I steered to the side of the narrow road. The horse just stormed straight past us, though, completely uninterested in anything but going straight ahead as fast as it could.

The rest of the drive was blissfully uneventful. We got back to Aberdeen at about 5 o’clock, dropped Grandma off at her house (with a whole bunch of new stories to tell her neighbours), and then drove back to Edinburgh, stopping off at Murthly to drop off the Beamer and pick up the Suzuki. Bit of a let-down, that was 🙂

(Okay…so we also stopped off at a nearby Sainsbury’s and picked up a copy of “Top Gear” magazine so we could see what kind of a car the Toyota Picnic is, and how much it is worth…. Wouldn’t you?)

So now all we have to do is claim the damn thing. The claim ticket says to send the ticket to Fuji via recorded delivery, but I’m suddenly developing a deep mistrust of the postal system and everyone at Fuji who stands between us and the person with the actual keys to the vehicle. Part of me wants to hop on an EasyJet flight tomorrow and deliver the ticket in person. The more rational part of me is saying that I should call them up tomorrow morning and ask them for advice. I’ve never had to claim a prize before, so I don’t know just how paranoid I should be. (The answer is probably “not at all”, but I’m still feeling too hyped up t be able to think rationally about it.)

Am I going to be able to get to sleep tonight? Is this really a winning ticket, or just some kind of elaborate hoax? What kind of Toyota Picnic is the prize? Is it the bottom-of-the-range 2.0 GS, or the top-of-the-line 2.2TD GLS with all the trim? How long will it take for them to deliver it? Will they want to take publicity photographs, and if so, could this be the breakthrough into modelling I’ve been waiting for?

All these questions, and maybe more (who knows…who really cares?) will probably be answered on this here web site, sooner or later.


Dogma is a film I wanted to see in the cinema earlier this year, but never got round to. Now that it’s out on video, I was straight down to Blockbuster to check it out. I didn’t really know what it was about, beyond that it was a black comedy starring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck as a couple of angels, and that it had offended a lot of people because of its irreverent blasphemy. Even if I hadn’t had friends recommend it to me, this would have been enough to get me to go and see it. (Just so you know where I’m coming from.)

The story follows two Angels, Loki and Bartleby (Damon and Affleck), who were exiled from Heaven a long time ago, and now live in Wisconsin. At the start of the film, they discover a loophole in Catholic dogma which would allow them to re-enter Heaven. But because the universe is built on the perfect infallibility of God, allowing them back in would create a contradiction which would destroy the whole of existence. Cue Bethany Sloane (Linda Fiorentino), a doctor in an abortion clinic, who is visited by the Metatron (Alan Rickman) and charged with the mission to stop this from happening. On the way, she is helped by Rufus, the thirteenth apostle (Chris Rock) and two prophets, Jay and Silent Bob (recurring characters from Kevin Smith’s earlier films, Clerks, Mallrats and Chasing Amy).

The film has one major message, and the script hammers it home at almost every opportunity: organised religion is a Bad Thing. It nails the Catholic Church in particular, but takes well-aimed swipes at the rest of Christianity and a variety of other belief systems. The film is not anti-God, though: God’s existence is fundamental to the story. But it states quite boldly that organised religions everywhere are to blame for God’s word being garbled and perverted. If you are happy with this theme, or if you are willing to accept it for the duration of the film, you’ll probably enjoy it immensely, because it is very, very funny and surprisingly emotional.

Because it is an ensemble piece (Damon and Affleck’s star billings notwithstanding), the characters aren’t explored in quite as much depth as I would have liked. The characters of Jay and Silent Bob don’t need any developing, but Loki, Bartleby and Bethany all undergo profound emotional changes, which are glossed over by some fast talking and smooth scripting. Also, the grand finale and its aftermath are drawn out for too long, and could have used some sharper editing. But in the face of all the fantastic comic moments (the Excremental, the “Buddy Jesus”, Rufus falling from the sky, Jay’s pathetic misogynism) these are easily forgivable sins.

As a comedy, Dogma is hilarious, and more intelligent and insightful than anything else you’re likely to see this year. Watch it with a pizza, a couple of beers, and an open mind, and you’ll have a great time. Highly recommended.