El Miracle de Miralles

I wrote this whimsy in a fugue state one evening in October after seeing this Tweet. Thank you Paul for the inspiration.

To say that the world was shocked when the Scottish Parliament building was suddenly transported 1000 miles into the centre of Barcelona, would be something of an understatement.

No similar, verifiable phenomenon had ever before occurred in human history. The field of physics was thrown into disarray, when not one scientist could offer an explanation for why a building with a footprint of some four acres should suddenly, and without warning, disappear from its site beneath the cragged, volcanic mountain of Arthur’s Seat, and reappear on the site of the Mercat Santa Caterina. Continue reading “El Miracle de Miralles”

How the Olympics Pwned the Terrorists

A final thought on the Olympics. It was a giant middle-finger towards the terrorists, wasn’t it?

I remember that week in 2005 very well. As well as the announcement confirming we had won the Olympic bid, that week in July also saw the G8 protests at Gleneagles and Edinburgh, and the Make Poverty History events, also centred in Scotland, that culminated in the Live 8 concerts. There was a real sense of political momentum, a feeling of people power, and for once, and absence of the usual cynicism associated with politics. I was living in Edinburgh at the time, and attended several of the events, including the Make Poverty History march around the city. We all wore white, and from the air the crowds formed a white ring that resembled the plastic wrist bands that had become the emblem of the movement.

And then four idiots spoiled everything. (I have written before – on the first anniversary of 7/7, actually – about what an act of deflation that was. The constructive political ‘moment’ around G8 was destroyed by their actions, and the country and the government fell back into fear and reactionary politics).

We know that the aim of the four terrorists, and those who assisted them, was to sow division within our society. It would be wrong to ascribe to them a consistent ideology, but their confused brand of fundamentalist Islam was at odds with cosmopolitan London and multicultural, multi-racial Britain.

The fact that Londoners and tourists alike continued to use the London underground system was an immediate retort to their actions. The fact that the party that they spoiled on 7th of July 2005 was reformed as a celebration of modern Britain during these recent Olympic Games, is also something to be proud of. The success of the games is the most eloquent possible response to their actions (a complete ‘pwnage’ in modern digital parlance). That the person who emerged as the darling of these games was a Somali born, British Muslim man comfortable in his nationality and faith, makes the refutation of the terrorist ideology all the more complete.

I hope that other disaffected young men like Mohammed Siddique Khan and his group Will have seen these Olympics and realised that there are other paths to follow. Perhaps the Mo-Bot and the cheeky smiles of the Games Makers are together a more effective counter-terrorist measure than detaining people without trial could ever be.

The Seams of Our Society Are Exposed Tonight

We live in interesting times. As I write there are protesters kettled by police on Westminster Bridge, and burning portaloos in Parliament Square. The army are deployed in Edinburgh, clearing the effects of the worst snow for 40 years. Meanwhile, an ‘info war’ is being waged on the largest financial services companies in the world by a disparate group of hacktivists. Digital technology allows us to watch all these crises unfold in realtime.

In my twitter stream all these stories are spliced together. This makes them seem like different scenes in a single master-narrative.

All these events are compelling because they show just how tenuous our human systems are. Visa and MasterCard should be reliable to the point of invisibility – instead we are reminded that they can turn off our credit on a political whim. The food supply into our cities should be consistent and unbroken, not severed by a bit of snow. And our shopping districts should not erupt into blazing vandalism in an instant.

These confusions expose the thin seams of our society. I do not think they will break, for tonight at least. But the strain is obvious.


Here we have the typical, pretty much index-case example of a Web 2.0 internet startup: Wigadoo. (One of the directors is a friend of mine).

Basically, it acts as a sort of escrow service, to allow groups of people to avoid awkward financial shenannigans when booking holidays. I hear they already have some kind of deal with LastMinute.com.

If they found a way to make it work for resident’s committees and communal stairwells, then I reckon it would take them only a matter of weeks before they pretty much take over Scotland, which is full of tenement blocks with leaky roofs. At present, most residents wait for the council to place a Statutory Notice on their building, and pay the council individually for communal work (the council takes a heafty administration fee, obviously).

It would also be handy for All Tomorrow’s Parties, which only sells group tickets.


Dialogues of Rain and Bamboo

Dancing in the Rain

“Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun!” wrote Noel Coward. I think he missed a trick: there was no corollary ditty, about mad Scotsmen going out in the rain.

Many of my recollections of peace and contentment take place in the rain. Playing cards under a canvas canopy of an eight-man Stormhaven tent on a scout-camp; Sitting at an old desk and writing a diary during the afternoon storms in Zimbabwe; Leaning against the door-frame of a rural Brazilian villa, watching clouds sweep through the valley. Sure, rain prevents you from stepping out into the street, but it also protects you. It creates a barrier you can hide behind. It isolates you like an incoming tide. It enforces privacy. Sometimes there’s nothing better to be stranded indoors by the rain. Open the window and listen to it fall.

Although, if you’re caught out in the rain, you might as well pull a Gene Kelly, and stay out. There’s a serenity to that too. A favourite quote:

There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you still get the same soaking. This understanding extends to everything.

A great deal of this stoicism was displayed at the weekend, at the Dialogues of Wind and Bamboo event at the Royal Botantic Gardens Edinburgh. The sky was not kind, and we were rained upon from start to finish. However, I had the sense that sheer bloody-mindedness would prevail amongst both performers and performance-goers, and that nothing would be postponed because of the weather.

And so we persisted, but some things are obviously odd when performed in the rain. No sane person would wander out and do Tai Chi in a cold, damp park, and I felt sorry for those giving a demonstration of the art, who did their best to ignore the rain. It must be extra difficult when people with brollys are stomping past. I think this point is true of the dance pieces too – the audience were probably not as relaxed as they could have been. And if you are distracted during a performance, it precludes the possibility of giving yourself over to the dance, incapable of submitting to the pure movement.

However, I think the traditional Chinese music gained something through being played in the storm. The hum of the rain was like a backing track, which bedded very well underneath the stringed notes.

Susie Brown’s installation Natural Progression, persists until 29th June. It consists of a set of painted bamboo sticks set into the ground, forming a fence-like barrier which slithers accross the lawn. Like an organic Fred Sandback installation, it delineates the open space and makes you think twice about crossing the imaginary boundaries it seems to define. It therefore takes a little courage to engage with the piece, which you can do by blowing across the tops of the bamboo to ‘play’ their notes.

Back in the RBGE glasshouse life was much drier, although the towering, anorexic palm trees occasionally drip onto you. FOUND and the Shanghai Jazz Project teamed up to give a performance. The glasshouse, with its collision of nature and human technology, is precisely the sort of odd venue I expect from FOUND. I’ve seen them in Warehouses and Chinese Kitchens, and they’ve played in portacabins before too.

FOUND are known throughout Scotland for their love of sampling stuff, mixing and remixing what they collect into their music. For this performance, we heard them sample an old 1930s Jazz recording, supplied by the Shanghai Jazz Project. We heard the familiar hiss and crackle of the old recording, and I remember thinking that this was not unlike the patter of the rain ouside.

Dialogues of Wind and Bamboo was the brainchild of Kimho Ip. Over at the project’s website, there’s an interesting podcast discussion with Stephen Blackmore, Regius Keeper, about the twin pleasures of nature and music, and their importance in the increasingly frenetic modern world.

In The Shadow of the Moon

One of the reasons for being at the various Edinburgh festivals is the opportunity to get ahead of the ‘curve’ on films, plays and actors that are destined to become successful in the coming year. I saw Murderball before everyone else, and it was festival audiences who provided a seal of approval for Black Watch before it went on a lengthy tour of Scotland, England, and television.

This year the gem was In the Shadow of the Moon, a documentary about the Apollo Project. It was actually made by a British film-maker, but features interviews with several of the astronauts who journeyed to the moon. It also includes some newly-released and restored NASA footage of the voyages. It is due for release in the US where it is set to be a success, one which encourages a little bit of patriotism in a country that has been hit with a bout of Iraq-induced self-doubt.

Noticeable by his absence from the film is Neil Armstrong, who is a notorious recluse. This is annoying at first, but when one ponders the enormity of what he did, I think it is an unsurprising result. Who could resist grabbing him by the collar and shouting “MAN, YOU WALKED ON THE FUCKING MOON!” He has probably been subjected to that kind of hysteria for many years.

And in retrospect, Armstrong’s non-participation is a blessing, in that it gives the other Apollo astronauts a chance to shine (no pun intended). Michael Collins, in particular, explodes the notion that he was somehow “unlucky” to be left on the Command Module while Armstrong and Aldrin made history. The intelligent musings of Collins and the other astronauts on the nature of their heroism and how they dealt with the enormous pressure to succeed is what makes the film so inspiring – After all, they have experienced the nearest thing to a Total Perspective Vortex that humans can create, and the footage they brought back from the moon is a delight to behold, especially on a large cinema screen.

My favourite quote is from Alan Bean, the fourth man on the moon.

Now, I never complain about the weather. I am just glad that there is weather.

Though the funniest is Charlie Duke’s once-and-for-all put down to conspiracy theorists:

We went to the moon nine times. Why would we fake it nine times?

He has a southern drawl that makes it work. Wise, yet human.

Astronaut Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin walks on the Moon, 1969.
Astronaut Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin walks on the Moon, 1969.


Edinburgh residents: Don’t forget the FEAST performance this evening.

FEAST is a unique Chinese intercultural event to encourage greater understanding between Chinese and Scottish communities through a creative exploration of food, film and music.

Edinburgh-based band FOUND and Chinese composer / musician Kimho Ip will be giving a special performance at Eating Place on Castle Street (off the West End of Princes Street), Edinburgh on Thursday 30 August at approximately 6 pm. They will also present other performances earlier that afternoon. Read More

Chili Bowl

The Clocks in Edinburgh Go Forward Tonight

Léonie is tired and emotional after the Edinburgh Fringe, not happy to be back in London.

Spare a thought for those of us still here. Although there is a week left to run on the International Festival, the chaos on the streets ends tonight as the Fringe finishes for another year. For us residents, it is nice to have the city ‘back’ (along with the keys to the flat we have so prudently rented out), but it also seems empty and lonely. During August, media focus is weighted heavily in our favour. As the cultural influence boomerangs back to London, I think we feel the loss.

No more late openings either. During the festival, it is as if the clocks in Edinburgh are put back a few hours, Edinburgh Daylight Squandering Time (EDST). In this local time-zone, 5am is the new 3am. Everywhere stays open later. This means parties and revelry finish later, which means bedtime is later, which means hang-overs are solved later… which means work starts later, which means work finishes later, which means parties and revelry start later, which means parties and revelry finish later. But the clocks go forward again tonight.

The Digital Vigilante

Jeremy Vine tells a story about watching someone get beaten up on a tube train:

I chose to sit there and watch. And I’ve replayed it many many times. I’m very unhappy that I did that, and I now have sort of resolved that if I see a similar kind of situation where I see someone being attacked like that, I will intervene with unmitigated ferocity.

A few months ago I experience a “lite” version of the incident Vine described. Two young whippersnappers were refusing to pay for their journey, or get off the train, causing a rather loud argument with the ticket inspector. It was initially just a verbal affair, until the guard threatened to call the police. They made a quick exit, and shoved him as they disembarked (the cowards). I never thought about getting involved physically, or indeed joining the argument, but I do remember being irritated that my mobile phone had run out of batteries. Rather than resolving to respond with “unmitigated ferocity”, I instead resolved to be quick to film any further incidents I might happen upon.

In late June, Edinburgh’s Pilrig Park hosted the Pride Scotia event. Marquees were erected on the field a few days before. Walking through the park one evening, I spotted a group of hooligans in a pitched battle with some security guards. Remembering my earlier vow, I whipped out my Nokia and began filming the incident for the police and posterity. We can’t be having that sort of homophobia in Edinburgh, not on my patch, no way.

The responses of the young tear-aways was varied and noteworthy. Some of them immediately realised the implications of being caught doing naughtiness on low-resolution video. They covered their faces and made a prompt exit, as illustrated below:

Homophobic Hooligans on Pilrig Park

Ah, digital technology! The citizen’s non-intrusive weapon against Anti-Social Behaviour…

Meanwhile, one fool became rather irritated with my brazen filming. His anger became directed at me, throwing a bottle and a punch in my direction (as illustrated below).

Hooligan throws a juice bottle
The fact that he stayed behind to throw stuff at me proved his undoing of course, because the police arrived shortly after.

“They’re making it all up!” said the kid, when asked to account for the multiple assaults of which he stood accused.

“Well, we do actually have you on film, assaulting people…” replied the officer. The accused kept quiet after that.

Meanwhile, I was getting an earful from my girlfriend, who had not appreciated me provoking the scallywag to further violence with my rampant phone-filming. I could have been seriously hurt. She also accused me of only capturing the footage only so that I could put it into some kind of blog post afterwards. I assured her that this was not my intention, and that I could hardly stand by while bullies made threats. She pointed out that I had, effectively, filmed my own Happy-Slapping, and there was nothing brave or noble about that.

At the time, I was perfectly sure of my actions, but now the correct course is much less clear. I think the problem lies in the act of making a ‘resolution’ to act, in advance of an incident actually occurring. I pulled out my camera-phone without thinking, and my proximity to the action made things worse. Perhaps I should have found a safe vantage point, and got ready to run away if someone approached me. Jeremy Vine resolves to respond with “unmitigated ferocity”, but that might not be the most appropriate action during the next tube-based assault he witnesses. He may end up making a fight worse, and end up beign assaulted himself. Worse, he may end up doing so much damage to the assailant, that he himself becomes culpable, and others have to intervene to stop him.

Each call to violence should be judged on its own merits, at the time. No two conflicts are alike, and intervention in one instance should not endorse similar actions at some other time. If you resolve in advance to go to war, or to get into a fight on a train, then the best outcome is unlikely to emerge.

St John's Church

Mural outside St John's Church, Edinburgh, August 2007

This is the latest in a long series of murals to appear outside St John’s Church in Edinburgh. Positioned at the corner of Lothian Road and Princes Street, the church and its paintings are a memorable sight for anyone who has lived in, or visited the city.

I’m not quite sure what Ahmadinejad is doing in the picture. I think maybe he is walking towards the table that Rev Paisley and Mr Adams have already reached.

It is because of places like St John’s that I can never quite get behind the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens as they denounce religion. These authors rail against the intolerance and the dogma of religion… but the people who run St John’s church seem to be of a different ilk. When they campaign, their objections are not related to heavenly crimes like blaspheme, but against more human ills such as poverty and injustice. And where some fundamentalists encourage a divisive mentality, St John’s is a centre for interfaith dialogue and multiculturalism. It has a Fair Trade café, a bookshop, and a hall for meetings. It is a place where civil society actually happens.