Pans

I usually write about places I like. That’s because I find it easier to write positively, it just comes easier to me than conjuring up negativity. Some of my favourite places are places maligned by others, not well thought of if they are at all. Dundee, which I visited a couple of weeks ago, was described in a travel book as being one of those places it is better to travel to than arrive. (To be fair, it has improved since they started working on the waterfront.) Glasgow is a place many Scots loathe, particularly those from Edinburgh. (They don’t know what they’re missing. As someone born in Edinburgh, I love Glasgow immensely. Nowhere’s perfect, certainly not Edinburgh.)

Prestonpans is a town in East Lothian. It sits on the southern bank of the Firth of Forth and has a considerable history of fishing and coal mining. It’s also notable for the battle of Prestonpans in 1745, with Johnnie Cope, Bonnie Prince Charlie and the rest. It isn’t the finest place in the world. It is one of the poorest parts of my home county with one of the main employers, Cockenzie Power Station, having closed a few years ago. The people are rougher and readier than other East Lothian natives, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. At least Panners can pronounce the name of their town right, unlike the good folk of Gullane.

Just outside the Pans is Prestongrange Museum, an open air site which once housed a vast industrial complex including a mine, brickworks, chemical works and countless other operations in an unbroken period from 1174 to 1975, when the brickworks closed. Some of the buildings are still there, opened seasonally by East Lothian Council. It is a place I know well. I worked there for a few years and every so often I go back for a walk around the site, now a quiet place where nature is once more taking hold. I relive old memories and reimagine the great past of the place, usually from the Beam Engine looking down across the Beehive Kilns.

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My walk usually starts near Sammie Burns’s yard, at Morrison’s Haven, a large expanse of reclaimed land that was once one of great ports of Scotland. I walk towards Prestongrange facing Arthur’s Seat and Edinburgh beyond, hearing the waves lapping beside me and feeling the wind that is ever present in those parts. There are folk who go down to the beach and make jewellery from what they find. I once found a Prestongrange brick but didn’t take it home, reasoning that it’s a long way back home to Glasgow.

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Since I moved to Glasgow, nearly three years ago, I have been to Prestongrange more than I have Dunbar. PG is closer but it has a lot of happy memories too. It is uncomplicated by ties that bind. A little bit of my soul lives there, just as it does in Belhaven Bay. Like when on the approach to Durham, I can’t help a broad smile coming across my face when in the vicinity.

Morrison’s Haven leads me back across the road back onto the Prestongrange site, across the railway track, by the carriage and up to the wildflower meadow, imaging the wagons roll on those tracks laid in 1722 leading to Tranent. I turn back to the Powerhouse and down to the Beam Engine, marvelling once more at the wonders of Victorian engineering where an engine could be so reliable as to only break down twice in 80 years. I walk across, looking down the slope to the outline of the beehive kilns, towards the Hoffman Kiln and its chambers where a house’s worth of bricks could be fired in one go.

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I work in libraries and I love what I do, well, most of the time. Before I did that, I worked in various museums. Prestongrange gave me confidence and some friends I still have. It is the kind of place where you root for the underdog, as PG undoubtedly is. It could be unbearably quiet but we had some big events too. I miss it still, just a little.

Today I go back as a visitor. I haven’t been for a few months but I will be there shortly, either tomorrow or when I’m in Edinburgh on 2nd January. Every one of these thoughts will be swirling around as I wander there. I might just bring home a brick from the beach this time, to go with the memories and the dreams of what is still to come.

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Best of 2015

This will probably be the last post of 2015. While I am working over part of the festive season, I intend to spend the rest of the time reading, eating and sleeping. So, I wanted to round off the year with a little post about some of my travel experiences this year and hopes for next year.

Best museum – Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge –
Not a hard choice, this one. The Fitzwilliam is wonderful, full of interesting and varied collections, from Greece to Rome to French art, plus a polystyrene Hercules. Perfect.

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Runner-up – Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester –
MOSI is another favourite, though I have been there a few times in the last few years. It blows my mind every time I go. The recent 3D printing exhibition was particularly enlightening.

Best Art Gallery – Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh –
National Galleries of Scotland do a great job. Portrait is one of my favourite buildings on earth with a few minutes on the balcony a must of any hectic day in the capital. My last visit combined the BP Portrait Award and a selection of documentary photographs.

Runner-up – Science Gallery, Dublin –
Random place, run by Trinity College Dublin. It had a range of installations all about blood when I was there in January.

Best Historic Place – Dumbarton Castle –
A surprising choice for me but I had a visit there in September for work, honest, and loved the views across the Clyde and the Vale of Leven. Not my first visit but a welcome return.

Runner-up – Crookston Castle –
My local castle, within walking distance of here, with views across the city and my part of the world in particular. I could even see Morrison’s. Also noteworthy as the very first National Trust for Scotland property.

Best Library – Any one I work in, obviously.

Runner-up – Mitchell Library, Glasgow and Conway Hall, London –
The Mitchell is the largest public reference library in Europe and I can get a bus there from my house. Simple.

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Conway Hall I visited in October and being in a beautiful space with humanist volumes was a secular heaven.

Best Place To Watch Football – Easter Road Stadium, Edinburgh –
Where else?

Runner-up – Cheaper Insurance Direct Stadium, Dumbarton – It was a beautiful night in April, I could walk from my work, good views and Hibs won.

Best Fish Supper – Lemon Sole Supper, Tailend, St Andrews –
Great combination of beautiful night, beautiful food out of chip paper and washed down by Irn Bru.

Runner-up – Haddock Supper, Pizza Mario, Crookston, Glasgow –
Ate this one in my house a few weeks back. Still memorable.

Best Park – Christ’s Pieces, Cambridge –
Great name, beautiful in the autumn.

Runner-up – Meadows, Edinburgh –
A very familiar place, known from many wanders in the capital. It is a great place to think.

Best Beach – Belhaven Beach, near Dunbar –
The curve of the bay opens out into the Firth of Forth with the Bass Rock and the Isle of May out into the distance. A place full of memories but never fails to wash my spirit clean. Usually because it’s bloody windy.

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Runner-up – Prestwick –
My Belhaven substitute, with the Ailsa Craig being the Bass Rock’s stand in. More urban though entirely possible to escape from the world, with views across to Arran and Kintyre on a good day.

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Next year will be interesting personally with changes in job and a return to education, amongst other things. There are many places I want to visit next year, though some of them will probably need to wait for the summer.

1. Dunnottar Castle, Stonehaven – A beautiful, ruined castle on a cliff pointing into the North Sea. I have been there before but not for a while. I was going in April but there were snow warnings so spent the day in Fife instead.

2. Tantallon Castle, near North Berwick –
Very similar to Dunnottar except a lot further south and overlooking the Bass Rock. I know Tantallon well.

3. Oxford –
I have been to Cambridge so only fair to see Oxford too. I would like to see the museums and the Bodleian Library.

4. Bristol –
Similarly, I have never been though would like to go and learn about its maritime history.

5. Stornoway –
I would love to go to the Western Isles, particularly on a Sunday when the place basically shuts down but mainly to see Calanais and the museum in Stornoway.

Some of these will be possible in a day, others not. I am always excited for the new year for the renewed possibilities for adventure. In old places or in new, I am looking forward to getting out there.

Looking beyond the obvious

I am not long back from Dundee. It was a nice day, with some unexpected twists and turns along the way for good measure.

The day began with a change of plan. I had planned to get the Citylink bus straight to Dundee though was a little early into the city centre because of my connecting train from Cardonald. The St Andrews bus was just about to leave and I like a journey across Fife. I knew the roads might be busier owing to the Forth Road Bridge being closed but didn’t mind. Sometimes sitting watching the world go by is the way to go. As it turns out, there wasn’t too much extra traffic and got to St Andrews pretty much on time.

I like St Andrews. It is not like anywhere else in Fife, being an university town and invariably with more tourists, even on a cold December Monday like today. I like it because of its history and of course it’s by the sea. Plus it has a cracking chippy called the Tailend, which sadly I didn’t get to visit today. I walked along towards the Castle and down along the pier and back, following The Scores to the Martyrs’ Monument and back up to the bus station. It was cloudy and grey though over towards Angus there was a little area below the clouds where there was some sunshine that made the hills look dreamy in a haze. It was a weird sort of light but captivating. I like gazing in the distance anyway and that was well worth the trip alone.

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To Dundee, then, and the McManus Galleries, after of course I paid my respects to Desperate Dan. The McManus is possibly the best local authority museum in Scotland outside of Edinburgh or Glasgow with an excellent art collection as well as a local museum that does great credit to Dundee and its fine history. My favourite objects are the Pictish stones, reminding me that this was once the heart of Pictland. The stones are impossible to decipher fully. I personally think they were a very elaborate way of saying that their tea was ready or something similarly as mundane.

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After that, I went to Tannadice, home of Dundee United FC, where I got a wee tour from my auntie, who works for them. What struck me was the homely feel that Tannadice had, hardly the Camp Nou or even Easter Road but with a pride in the club and its past. Its present isn’t so great though at least they can console themselves that their rivals 150 yards away aren’t doing wonderfully either.

 

My journey home was according to plan, on the Citylink Gold bus non-stop straight back to Glasgow. It was very comfortable with complementary juice and biscuits though I didn’t have a scooby where I was for much of the journey, which is the problem of travelling by road at night.

I almost forgot to mention possibly the best thing I have seen for ages, which was in the Overgate Shopping Centre. It was a vending machine which dispenses vegetables, eggs and bread from a local farm shop. I think that is a great idea and one that could catch on in this age when a lot of us could be healthier and buy more local produce to boot.

It was a nice day, good to be out of the Central Belt. Dundee always surprises me, in a good way. It is more rough and ready than many more rarefied places in Scotland, including St Andrews most certainly, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The waterfront is getting done up, which certainly helps, and Dundee has an incredible past and future which is plain to see if you spend any time in the place. Like most things, it just needs a little looking beyond the obvious.

Liverpool thoughts

I promised a post about my recent day trip to Liverpool but life has been in the way of much writing this week. Consequently it feels a wee while ago, especially given that since we have had Storm Desmond and all its effects to contend with. That was all in the future, though.

Liverpool is one of my favourite cities. It has a charm about it, with its grand, mercantile architecture and its many museums making a day there a real pleasure. It is very like Glasgow in lots of respects, in layout, outlook and fashion sense, which might be part of why I like it. A trip there is more possible now I live here in the west and I can go straight down the West Coast Main Line to Preston and then change. It is to become even easier in the next TransPennine Express rail franchise with a new direct service from Central to Lime Street. It is still a long, full-day endeavour taking 4 hours one way but thankfully it is worth it, even for that feeling of pulling out of Central and crossing the Clyde in a Virgin Pendolino, which soon tilts its way south through Clydesdale, Cumbria and Lancashire. Before I knew it, having been busy writing and reading, I was in Preston, where I had half an hour to grab lunch and change trains, this time onto a Northern Electric train that didn’t tilt. (With Northern Rail, you should be glad the thing moves, to be honest, let alone powered by electricity. At least it is still easier than going to bloody Manchester which invariably involves using my least favourite train company, First TransPennine Express.)

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Traditionally when I go to Liverpool, my first stop is the Walker Art Gallery, which is just along from Lime Street (pictured above). This time, I fancied a walk instead and headed through the city centre, through the shopping hordes, down to the Albert Dock where I had a wander before proceeding along towards where the ferry leaves for the Isle of Man, a place that is very much on my list. There wasn’t a ferry in so I spent a few minutes gazing across the Mersey. On my way back along, I walked a little way behind a family of mum, granny and little boy. Said wee laddie was taking particular pleasure in kicking a coffee shop sign, one of those metal numbers that was blowing in the wind. That the sign was flopping about made it more harmless and the kid was clearly happy boxing the thing. I would happily have kicked it myself but I remembered I am a grown-up adult with a pension fund and everything so I refrained.

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Liverpool. No’ bad.

 

On my walk down I had stopped by the monument to those who died at Hillsborough. I always do when I visit Liverpool, each time experiencing that same feeling of horror as I think on how those poor people died and about the reaction of the authorities in the aftermath.

Very close by is the World Museum, a rather good collection of natural history, anthropology and actual animals. I was there earlier in the year and saw an amazing exhibition about the Mayan civilisation in central America. Sadly it had finished but instead I went to see the World Culture gallery, which I had bypassed last time owing to being a bit overloaded. It was magnificent, a great range of objects and information about people on five continents, including a Buddhist display and another of bronzes from Benin in Africa, both of which ticked my boxes in a big way.

My next stop was only next door, the Liverpool Central Library, which has been refurbished in recent years to great effect. I earn my living from working in libraries and I like being in them. This one in particular because of the magnificent Picton Reading Room (pictured below) where I sat and stared before walking around the mezzanine level amongst the stacks. I felt inspired by being in the midst of knowledge just there, though sadly, unlike in Cambridge, there was no book about Dunbar.

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My last stop was the Walker Art Gallery, which I like because of its old-fashioned feel as well as its 19th century collection of British and French Impressionist art. It also has a Turner of one of my favourite places, Linlithgow Palace. There was an unusual but very interesting display of dresses owned by a man who crossdresses, basically. The key difference between the dresses he had bought years ago and the ones ordered more recently was that the newer dresses were tailor made for him, as seen by the broader shoulders built in. The visitor comments were almost entirely positive, which was great to see.

So, that was Liverpool. I was glad to be out of Glasgow for a bit and just to travel and sit on trains and watch the world pass by a while. When I joined the world again, when I got off the train, it was good to be in a city I like and have my mind blown just a little in the process.

My next day trip is tomorrow. Not as far, just Dundee, the town so nice they named it once, to see the McManus Galleries and to pay my respects to my style guru, Desperate Dan, whose statue is just across from the Caird Hall in that fine city. In his honour, I will try and find a decent cow peh for lunch though probably not one with the horns still attached…

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RRS Discovery. Thankfully I won’t need it to get to Dundee.

Being autistic in a museum

I’ve just been thinking a little about museums. I have been going to museums since I was very young, with school, not with school, and then for a few years I worked in various museums. My last museum visit was a couple of weeks ago, at Paisley Museum, which was very enjoyable.

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A museum I know very well is the National Museum of Scotland (NMS) in Chambers Street in Edinburgh (as shown above). Whenever I visit, I have a strategy to combat sensory overload, which is to only visit certain bits in one go, limiting visits to about an hour. Too much visual stimulation makes my head go a bit funny and it’s why I tend to do one of two things. I either go outside into the world to clear my head or find a cafe and gulp down a great lump of sugar, which can tend to have the same effect. The latter tends to be what I do on days far from home when I might not be able to get there again for a while, as recently utilised in London (with a cake and a Coke) or Dublin or wherever. In Edinburgh or Glasgow, for example, I’ll just go back another day.

If I am near to reaching saturation point, I tend to have a seat for a few minutes, often to try and absorb what I have just seen. This is a particularly useful strategy in art galleries where there tend to be others seated for whatever reason, and I can blend in a bit more. If I could make one suggestion to museum and art gallery curators, it would be to provide more seats and designated quiet places. Not just for me, not just for other visitors on the spectrum, but for everyone. Such little changes benefit everyone, making the visitor experience more positive and helping folk like me keep the head, to use a good Scots expression.

One place I would praise is the National Railway Museum in York, a place I call ‘the most autistic place on earth’. I always feel like I am in the majority when I go there and the NRM have taken little steps to make the place more friendly, even listing quiet places on the leaflet you get as you go in. One of those is in the splendidly named Search Engine, the research and library service within the museum.

The one thing about NMS and my strategy when I visit is that there are areas I don’t go to all that often that I like but where I tend to lose the thread. One example is the basement of the ‘new’ bit, what used to be called the Museum of Scotland before they started doing up the ‘old’ or ‘Royal’ bit. It’s the bit about Scotland pre-1000AD, all about Picts, Romans, Gaels, Celts. This stuff fascinates me but the basement is quite dimly lit and there are lots of objects and words, making it quite hostile to me as a visitor. I tend to last about half an hour or else I lose all focus. What I tend to do in such situations is skim and skip ahead, looking at the objects but not so much at their accompanying captions, which keeps me on track for a bit.

I don’t tend to write about being autistic. It’s my normality whereas I am more interested in the world around me. Plus there are many others who do it better. But what has struck me is how many little strategies and reacharounds I have to be able to do something I enjoy. We all have our little ways, whether we are on the spectrum or not. These are just some of mine.

Let’s Hear It…

In the next few days, there will be a post about my day trip the other day to Liverpool and another about my experiences visiting museums. But first, I want to say a little about the Proclaimers.

I went to see the Proclaimers last night at the Royal Concert Hall on Buchanan Street. They were magnificent, playing a decent mixture of old and new songs from their vast back catalogue. I was there with my mum and ended up singing along, jumping up and down and generally being as joyous as one can be when holding one’s jacket.

The Proclaimers are my favourite band. They have been for years and years. Their songs are well written, emotional but not sentimental, deeply Scottish but concerned with the human condition. I can probably find a Proclaimers song for every mood, every day. Each morning, when I travel to work, I listen to music. Without fail, there is a Proclaimers song there somewhere.

That all started when I was at school. I didn’t like high school and before I left, to gee myself up, I would play music, much like they play suitably rousing tunes before a football match. Invariably, Sunshine on Leith would be among them, perhaps Throw The R Away. That song came on the radio one morning, just before I left for school, and I smiled all day.

Throw The R Away is my favourite Proclaimers song, from the first album, This Is The Story. It’s about not being appreciated or understood because of a thick Scottish accent. Living here in Glasgow but being from the east, I can often relate.

Sunshine on Leith is my favourite song of all. To quote John Peel, talking about his favourite song, Teenage Kicks by the Undertones, there is nothing about it that can be improved. It never fails to cheer me up or console me in times of pain or to celebrate the best of times. Recently, I got some very good news and I was sitting on a bus on Victoria Road here in Glasgow just having heard the good word. I put on Sunshine on Leith and I was in tears, delighted beyond words. Last night, it was the highlight of my night and I couldn’t help belting it out as so many times before, in my own company or more recently after big victories at Easter Road. I read somewhere that the melody came first then the words came after, as the boys were sitting on a plane approaching Edinburgh at just the right angle. I often think of that. More often it reminds me of the motto of Leith, Persevere, that there’s no other option, that life is ultimately worth it and in the end with some hard work we can and will prevail. I must have heard it thousands of times and it still has the same effect, every time. I don’t play it every morning, only on big days or when I need just a wee boost.

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Actual Sunshine on Leith there.

The first song they played was Sky Takes The Soul, which is also from This Is The Story, a song which is also my ringtone. It has an incredible guitar bit to start. I read last night that it was actually written about the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. It has quite bare and stark lyrics but it is essentially about living each day to the last. I often think of the line ‘with a faith and a bit of luck, and a half-tonne bomb in the back of the truck’. Except the bomb, you don’t really need much else, really. It was the opening song in the Sunshine on Leith film and it was great to hear last night.

It was followed by Over And Done With, which David Tennant chose as one of his Desert Island Discs a few years back. This one I listened to this morning on the way to work as it currently has a resonance in one part of my life, which is indeed over and done with, or just about to be.

One of the band’s most famous songs is I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles). While it is a great song, and I listen to it each time I go to my library job, the Proclaimers have many, many other, better songs. Foremost amongst them is the brilliant Joyful Kilmarnock Blues. It was that which I sang walking down Buchanan Street to the station last night. ‘I walked through the country, I walked through the town, I held my head up and didn’t look down’.

The Proclaimers aren’t that fashionable, really. But they make great music that is beautiful and downright awesome. And they still do. The new album, Let’s Hear It For The Dogs, is rather fine. I liked Like Comedy more, particularly for the title song, which helped me get a better perspective on a difficult part of life recently. They are still great and particularly live, particularly when there is nothing to do except go absolutely radge.