Friday, 31 August 2012

How to get the blues without holding your breath

It is not at all unusual to hear the words:  ‘they only come along once in a blue moon’--when you are standing at a bus stop.   Blue moons are not as rare as buses on a rainy day, but then again, they do not happen with monotonous regularity either (15 in the next 20 years?).  But today is one of those days.  If you are standing at a bus stop tonight, the full moon in the sky above you will be a blue moon.

 As a measure of rarity,  ‘a blue moon’ sounds wonderfully exotic.  It is the very stuff of romance: ‘Blue moon/you saw me standing alone/without a dream in my heart/without a love of my own’, as the Rogers and Hart song has it.  For some reason blue moons always make me think more of ‘Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar’ -- either because Kashmir seems so much more intriguing than say, Gorgie, or maybe because I have some subconscious understanding that the light from a blue moon would be enough to make anyone look like a bucket of skimmed milk?

But of course, blue moons aren’t blue at all.  A blue moon is, rather more pedestrianly, when a full moon is seen twice in the same calendar month--not so rare as Halley’s Comet or hen’s teeth, but intermittent enough to lend interest, happening every two to three years.        This definition has evidently only been around since 1946, so is a comparatively modern usage. In the 19th century you said something wasn’t going to happen ‘until a blue moon’ if you meant it was never going to happen.  At some point this usage was overtaken by flying pigs (which, as far as I know, are not related to cows jumping over the moon, although as a child I was reliably informed that the moon was made of green cheese).

 Another, older and rather more confusing definition of a blue moon is the third of four moons in a single season.  I think I get that... but two full moons in a calendar month is the Trivial Pursuit definition of a blue moon, so that must be right? Right? (this from the woman who once answered the Trivial Pursuit question:  Which airplane is launched with a rubber band?  ‘A B52’, I replied brightly.  For those not up on airplanes, this is a very large, lumbering bomber.  I blame my education...).

However, just because blue moons aren’t blue, that doesn’t mean you are never going to see a blue moon.  According to, ‘Volcanoes and wildfires fill the air with ash and dust. If the airborne particles are just the right size--about 1 micron (one millionth of a meter) wide--they act like a color-filter, tinging the moon blue. Clouds of water droplets, ice crystals or fine-grained sand can do the same thing.’

Blue or not, sometimes I would rather just do without the science.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Civilisation for beginners

Late August in Edinburgh, when the frenetic madness of the past few weeks is touched by the slightest whiff of melancholy as the nights begin to perceptibly draw in and here and there trees show the first hints of bronze and russet pink.  Rowan berries glow preternaturally red in the soft evening light and there is a sense  of febrile exhaustion—of an entire city feeling tired and emotional, but determined to have a good time until the party is well and truly over.  In this overcharged atmosphere everything seems exaggerated—the crowds, the rain—and responses are often disproportionate.  We are all subject to this end of an epoch mood.
Riding the bus is different in August as well.  The drivers are remarkably even-tempered (to the extent that I wonder if they have been to special classes) with all the befuddled visitors asking questions and not listening to the answers or complaining vigorously about deviations from the routes shown on their maps.  There are people sleeping, fighting, or staring straight ahead in stony silence, pointedly ignoring their partners as punishment for some misdemeanour--a considerable advance on the frequently heard waspish exchanges:  "if you’d not left the tickets at the hotel..."  "Well, it’s your fault for making me go and see the play about a three-headed nun and a zebra...."  A few afternoons ago  a couple at the back of the bus were arguing with such grim concentration that neither of them noticed that their suitcase (one of those shiny, hard ones resembling a small refrigerator with a wheel on each corner—something you would keep nuclear grade weapons materials in) had broken  free and was sailing down the gangway picking up speed.   It took out two loved-up Spanish teenagers waiting to get off (the bus, I mean, though I have no doubt the other was on the cards as well).  
Passengers loll about with their legs or bags or theatrical props in the aisles, refusing to give up the front seats to the elderly and infirm, blocking the gangways, yelling down their phones or at each other.  When sudden heavy showers of rain come umbrellas turn into pikestaffs, tempers fray, traffic irretrievably tangles, buses are late and even the up to now sanguine drivers show the strain—honking, head-shaking, impatiently nudging -- the ‘I’m bigger than you, mate’ bus equivalent of sticking the elbows out in order to force their way through blockages.  The absent-minded pedestrians who have, with impunity, been ignoring traffic lights, wandering into the road unexpectedly and generally exhibiting the same sort of behaviour that did for Lord Cardigan’s cavalry in the charge of the light brigade, have now exhausted the  drivers’ patience--they are scattered like hens in a rainstorm as the buses try desperately to make the lights before they turn, losing more minutes on schedules already hopelessly out of touch with the putative timetable.  Puddles are parted like the Red Sea, though with considerably more splashing, leaving perfectly innocent bystanders looking like extras in ‘Waterworld’ rather than ‘The Ten Commandments’. 
I can’t help but think that it is a situation that calls for George Washington...or rather, the lines young George wrote as a schoolboy when he wasn’t not lying (if you see what I mean) about chopping down cherry trees.  Not unlike Bart Simpson’s efforts (‘I will not buy a presidential pardon’ or, ’poking a dead raccoon is not research’), young George’s homework was to copy out a list of 110 ‘Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation’.  It is said these were compiled by an order of Jesuits for the young gentlemen they taught and were thought to have had a profound influence on the young  George Washington’s character. 
Some of these guidelines for how to behave in public may seem a bit puzzling in a modern context, nevertheless there are some that seem particularly apposite for Edinburgh buses in August.  I can’t help but feel they should be adopted into legislation as soon as possible:
1st. Every Action done in Company ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.
2d. When in Company, put not your Hands to any Part of the Body not usually Discovered.
3d. Shew Nothing to your Friend that may affright him.
4th. In the Presence of Others sing not to yourself with a humming Noise, nor Drum, with your Fingers or Feet.
5th. If you Cough, Sneeze, Sigh, or Yawn, do it not Loud, but Privately; and Speak not in your Yawning, but put your handkerchief or Hand before your face and turn aside.
6th. Sleep not when others Speak, Sit not when others stand, Speak not when you should hold your Peace, walk not when others Stop
7th. Put not off your Cloths in the presence of Others, nor go out of your Chamber half Drest.
8th. At Play and at Fire its Good manners to give Place to the last Commer, and affect not to Speak Louder than ordenary.
10th. When you Sit down, Keep your Feet firm and Even, without putting one on the other or Crossing them
11th. Shift not yourself in the Sight of others nor Gnaw your nails.
12th. Shake not the head, Feet, or Legs rowl not the Eys, lift not one eyebrow higher than the other wry not the mouth, and bedew no mans face with your Spittle, by appr[oaching too nea]r [when] you Speak.
If you think about it, the applications are obvious...  There is even a rule for me:
18th. Read  no Letters, Books, or Papers in Company ...
....or even on the bus


Sunday, 12 August 2012

Having your chips...

This week, I did not read on the A9--largely because I was driving on it.  The A9 is arguably (at least to ex-highlanders like me) the coronary artery of Scotland.  If you were a Mars bar, you would deep fry yourself and clog it; if you were Hannibal, you would march your elephants up it.  It is the grand trunk road (sorry, no pun intended) of Scotland, though  General Wade, who was responsible for building all those military roads and rather attractive forts and bridges to help the English army control the natives after the ’45, would be appalled at the political cheese-paring that resulted in a highway that changes from two-lane to dual carriageway and back again in the on-again, off-again road-building equivalent of the relationship between Liz Taylor and Richard Burton.   

Aside from the quiet pleasure of seeing the Cairngorms rise up before you in all their purpled mountain majesty (it is hard to believe Katherine Lee Bates had never seen them when she wrote the lyrics to America the Beautiful.  She also wrote Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride, a poem that arguably established Mrs Claus as an early feminist, but I digress... ), there is the satisfaction of knowing that not too far down the road Ballinluig Motor Grill waits.

Although some people might consider ‘Ballinluig’ a place name as unhandy as the strangely concocted names parents seem to be giving their children:  Shateequa and Daisz and Chlamydia; ‘motor grill’ seems refreshingly straightforward--particularly in a country where public libraries have been re-named ‘Idea Stores’.  You know where you are  with a motor grill (unless English is not your first language, in which case you might wonder about the customer base for a business that barbecues engines).

I suspect that the Ballinluig Motor Grill has not materially changed since it opened in 1970, though I noticed on this visit it has a new sign and hanging baskets.  There was no need to panic--everything inside was the same as always, although I have an idea there used to be a display of banknotes of the world on the wall (but I suspect I might be making that up).   There are still swirly-topped tables of grey formica and blue vinyl covered pews that match the blue carpet-tiles on the floor.  The walls are still freshly painted pale blue and it is so clean I would quite happily have my appendix taken out in the ladies' room.  

The servers line up with their backs to the pass, the cook quietly efficient behind them in the kitchen that was open to view long before it became a fashion.  Leaning against the counter where toaster and soup pot, plates, glasses, mugs, coffee maker and milk machine (complete with rubber udders) are all immediately to hand, they cover table and cash till in apparent perpetual motion, though  they also serve, who stand and wait.   This is fast-food triage: customers sorted, fed and expedited out the door in a seamless example of effective service delivery.  You never feel rushed, but you know your order will be taken and a hot mug of tea on the table in front of you in the time it takes to put your car keys away and settle yourself properly. 

To my shame, though there is a menu to explore and homemade soup to try, I have never eaten anything other than egg, bacon and chips at the Motor Grill.  There never seems cause to visit the gastronomic hinterlands when egg, bacon and chips are what I want.  The egg yolk is always just on the right side of runny--shiny and viscous, like new motor oil--oozing rather than liquid.  The bacon tastes like pig--not dry-cured, vanilla-flavoured Islington pig--just reassuringly familiar pig.  The chips are hot and crisp and the individual packets of sauce are both culinary adornment and a handy test of motor skills: if you cannot open the packet, you shouldn’t be driving; pull your rig around the back of the service area and have a kip.

I know sensible, right-thinking people who recoil in horror, when I confess to my affection for the Motor Grill.  Reader, I judge them.  It is a place of unswerving honesty, with no pretensions to anything but serving plain food quickly and well.  Go in at almost any time of day and you are guaranteed to find as good a cross-section of the travelling public as you might find anywhere.  Someone should tell Ipsos-Mori to conduct their polling there, if they want a consistently broad-based demographic.   It is one of the few places I can think of where all men are truly equal.

When you have finished eating, you pay your bill at the till where the tab for your table waits on a numbered cup-hook.  Just in case you need something sweet to see you on your way, you can buy a Tunnock’s teacake or caramel wafer--anything else would be just plain wrong.  Put a generous tip in the cup provided on the counter--equality reigns there as well.  

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Coming over all biblical

When I was a little girl and getting a bit too uppity my mother, like thousands of mothers before her, would ask in an exasperated voice:  ‘Who do you think you are—the Queen of Sheba?’
I was puzzled by this, as I had no real desire to be the Queen of Sheba. I had seen the film ‘Solomon and Sheba’ at a tender age, so understood this to involve being biblical, but with pointy bras, really uncomfortable looking sandals and having to spend time with the Pharaoh from 'The Ten Commandments', who wore dresses, looked even more ridiculous  with hair than he did without (apologies, Yul Brynner) and seemed to be cross all the time.
  It was all very confusing, as none of this ever seemed to quite gel with what I was learning in Sunday School, though I have to admit I spent a great deal of my Sunday School career climbing over the fence to steal strawberries from the garden next door; hiding in the minister’s perfectly enormous waders, which he wore for full body immersion  baptisms (it was a Southern Baptist Church--I had a terrible Proustian shock the first time I encountered a condom,  as the rubbery smell was identical--it's a wonder I don't have issues); and reading Nancy Drew books—of which there was an impressive collection mixed in with all the worthy volumes on missionaries, angelic children and evil communists in  the tiny library in the church hall.  Truly Nancy was my personal saviour and role model:  I longed to grow up to have shiny hair, drive a blue Mustang and cleverly solve mysteries whilst in grave, personal peril.
 I daresay I behaved a like a miniature Queen of Sheba quite a lot of the time—my father and brother still regard me as a spoilt brat.  So you may imagine my surprise when I learned from The Sunday Times that, thanks to DNA research, the direct descendent of the Queen of Sheba has been identified.   She lives in Edinburgh and is a former English language teacher who describes herself as ‘very anti-bling’ (that's the Edinburgh influence), though she admits she is ‘very fond of middle-eastern food' .   
Better still, the putative Queen of Sheba does not have a car; she is a member of the city car club.  Clearly the Queen of Sheba Jr. is a right-thinking person, so any day I might find myself on a bus with her.  Now, I wonder where the King of Babylon and Nebuchadnezzar hang out?