A Free Admission

Midday in Manchester; streetlamps lit. The overcast gloom was a mental association, acquired thanks to Morrissey and co, satisfyingly confirmed as I was transported through a city whose psychogeography was already etched deep into my mind and which was later reinforced by Valette’s magnificently bleak canvasses. Names like Strangeways, Rusholme and Salford all held specific emotional resonances despite my never having visited them; but this was about to change thanks to the happy alignment of dirt-cheap Ryanair flights and two weeks school-free because of the Herbstferien. I trundle along on a Metrolink tram. Used to the depersonalised tannoy assertions of “Nächste Haltestelle x” in Hamburg, I’m warmed by the comparatively wordy announcements delivered in here in an authentic Mancunian.

Some part of me needed to justify this trip on grounds more solid than the convergence of variables. Although I regard myself tolerant and open to diverse cultures I’m not particularly travelled. How can one fully accept/reject or comprehend what you’ve never encountered first hand? It was a struggle for me to accommodate a visit to the UK within this philosophy – it seemed more motivated by sentimental notions nurtured in me through devotion to a band. Well, I thought to myself, it might be possible if I considered England foreign, but as much as I might like to, I don’t fully feel that, on a personal level, to be the case. I shy away thinking in terms of ‘foreign’ generally, preferring to think of people as citizens of their own nations rather than incomprehensible outsiders, of which I think the term carries connotations.

As Scots we know the English; they are not us, but they are not foreign. When we talk about someone who is foreign, it is usually because we can’t place where they’re from, but they give off strangeness in their speech or ethnicity. Besides this, culture can also make someone a foreigner, and this, unlike political institutions, can take generations to shift. Culture, in this context, I take to mean a guiding underlying ideology common to the majority of citizens of a particular place – not high art.  At the moment I believe Scotland and England share a culture in this sense, which is markedly distinct from a German or a French one. It operates tacitly, subconsciously affecting decisions, designs and our day-to-day interactions with one another; most importantly, it can only be noticed through comparison. This shared culture may be diverging, but it could take the next generation to determine this. Anyway, this is a topic for another day. In the end I managed to come up with two solid reasons:

  1. I might as well actually see some of the UK before I dismiss it altogether, and I don’t think being driven along the length of it on a school trip behind bus blinds really counts.
  2. I’ve not seen much of England apart from passing through on the way to other places and an anomalous weekend in Bournemouth.

Upon arrival I was immediately antagonistic. The ticket machine wouldn’t accept my banknote and the patriot in me screamed, “It’s legal tender!” at the bastard. Later, in an attempt at de-escalation it was suggested to me that this might be because of a shift towards plastic cash. The UK’s change had changed, I noticed as I was handed a shiny handful of new pound coins, the old having gone out of circulation this month in my absence.

Seeing with different eyes, I observed the ubiquity of self-service in a service-based economy. In Germany there is almost a total lack of this option, except for travel tickets. The supermarket is a stressful (items must be packed as quickly as possible and paid for with exact change) but less lonely experience. Perhaps forced contact with actual human beings in the purchasing of Lebensmittel helped me out in the long run by giving me confidence to visit restaurants and cafes on my own where I’d normally have been put off by the necessity of direct face-to-face interaction.

The first place I visited, once my tram finally reached the city centre after a protracted crawl through suburbia, was the central library. Its featured exhibitions were on the world of Harry Potter and its medieval precedents in terms of the subjects taught at Hogwarts for the 20th anniversary (meh), and the relationship between the twinned cities of Manchester and Leningrad to mark the Russian revolution’s centenary. Entirely free of charge and not requiring a card or membership to access, I was able to explore the vast reading room. Not wanting to spend too long in somewhere overtly academic, I managed to see the music section, which houses pianos in wee alcoves for anyone to play; this had me grinning from ear to ear and praising the great municipal spirit that permits such things. Later Mia told me they had rehearsal rooms for other instruments too, including drumkits and DJ decks – imagine starting a punk band in a library!


Then I saw the gallery. It was laid out in a pretty similarly to the National one in Edinburgh, with different time periods for different rooms, although there was probably more of a thematic distinction here as well. One of my favourite pieces was a Japanese feature garden kitted out with hidden synthesisers in the undergrowth playing ambient, sequenced noise. Early 20th century impressionist artist Pierre Adolphe Valette also caught my eye for his masterful depiction of Manchester’s urban gloom.

After nabbing a copy of the new Ibibio Sound Machine album in the Northern Quarter, I sat down for an indulgent strawberry milkshake with a slice of Victoria sponge. Waiting for what seemed like an inordinate length of time, I was presented with my milkshake. The wedge of cake was balanced on top of the drink, secured by two wooden skewers with just enough space to slot in a straw; a skirting of white chocolate was fused around the rim. Although the golden fork was a nice touch it didn’t really help me tackle the immediate problem with any more dignity. I had no companion to advise me, so was forced to set about the task with all the inelegance one might expect, and after all that the cake was dry and in some parts undercooked.

That night I saw Fickle Friends at Gorilla. They were supported by a Norwegian trio whose name escapes me, and Google’s not proving fruitful. Their exuberance in triggering samples failed to quite match the music they were playing but their clunky literal translations into English did amuse me. Fickle Friends had taken a different direction since I’d last seen them at Electric Circus in Edinburgh, which is probably a plus because their older material is so similar as to be virtually indistinguishable from track to track – luckily, it’s a good song though.

After a blissful night’s sleep in a (sorry Germany) proper double duvet, I visited HOME whose name kept making me think of that vapourwave artist every time I saw it, not helped by its insistence on all caps. In front of the entrance stood a strident statue of Friedrich Engels, co-writer of the Communist Manifesto who spent the best part of two decades in the city; this effectively signalled another exhibition exploring the 100-year anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. This time there was more of a pressing focus on the present, examining the idea of when a dream of the future becomes the past. Probably the most affecting thing I saw was a photography display depicting Ukraine’s so-called ‘Leninfall’ from 2014 onwards – later I learnt that the statue outside was actually transported out of the country by artist Phil Collins, and was the source of some controversy. These images were conflicting to look at. I don’t pretend to understand exactly what went on there, but it seems pretty drastic to suddenly abolish 70 years of history in the space of a few months, even if a part of that was unimaginably horrendous manmade famine and when the population is up against an intolerable Putin-led Russia, who is unfortunately symbolically conflated with the iconography of Soviet communism.

Manchester’s main museum reminded me surprisingly of Stromness’s with its extensive natural history collection of taxidermy. I didn’t spend too long there before I moved to the Whitworth Gallery of modern art. My kind of modern art is the big installation sort, and with its vast space the Whitworth was able to play host to sprawling sculpture and immersive 3D concepts. A highlight was a room with two walls covered in clocks whose hands pointed to words like ‘euphoria’, ‘guilt’, ‘ecstasy’ and ‘depression’ instead of numbers. Above each clock was the name of a city, although alongside genuine place names were “fictional” metropolises such as Atlantis, Shangri-La and Babel.

As the afternoon drew to a close I met up with Mia, who I met in second year through The Student’s music section and who encouraged and inspired me to start my own radio show on Fresh Air while she was head of music there. Footage, where we met, feels very much like a student union and it’s located on Oxford Road, home to several universities and colleges on this street alone. Choked up from a lingering cold she talked about her masters in journalism and the opportunities to be had in and around Salford’s Media City, and I my work at Immanuel Kant Gymnasium, during which I had to account for the randomness of my appearance in Manchester. We moved to a restaurant and had the pleasure of sampling the niche cuisine of Nutella fries. Abhorrent? Perhaps. They tasted divine.

Mia helped me find the right trams and we said goodbye. I was off to another ‘pre-booked whim’ – Reggie Yates was launching his debut book about his career in documentary making so far. I’d been to a couple of book launch events before, the one that stands out though is probably Margaret Atwood’s for her novel Hag-Seed – a re-interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In the front row and sat next to incredibly beautiful phenomenon of nature, also attending on her own, I spent the evening awestruck from several angles.

This was quite another experience. Reggie, and I’m calling him Reggie, not out of disrespect or lack of authorial prestige but because we all know him as that through his work on Radio One and CBBC, does not inspire the same goddess-like reverence as Atwood. He is essentially straight up, quick and to the point while never abrupt; he possesses a manner ideal for talking to difficult people about difficult subjects. This lies in contrast to Atwood’s supremely measured, dry wit and tantalising enigma, which one is never likely truly to understand.

Reggie’s certainly had a varied career and he was refreshingly candid when it came to questions of money, relationships and his own vanity. He stressed a dislike of industry jargon, but his natural slippage into the corporate shorthand he allegedly wanted to avoid made me question his commitment to reforming the culture. At the end of the event, and unlike at Atwood’s where we were handed out pre-signed copies of the book, we were given the chance to meet him personally and he’d autograph it there and then. This was done highly efficiently – you handed over your phone to a guy who would snap for the obligatory Instagram post and it was all over in about 10 seconds, most of which I spent spelling my name!

The most interesting aspect of the evening was probably meeting a guy in the queue who handed me a copy of his self-published novel in exchange for a review on Amazon. It reminded me of my younger, more naïve self who had embarked on something very similar in the past (although it must be said I never printed a physical copy). Anyway, he seemed nice enough, but I tried to advise him in the nicest way possible, after he revealed to me the number of downloads he’d had, to keep trying for publication through a literary agent or competition win as this was, as harsh as it may seem, the only real route to serious, or for that matter even moderate, success. I sat reading the book in the airport with mild amusement and frustration in equal measure (feedback: overuse of italics) as the passengers for flight number xxx to Kirkwall via Edinburgh were called to proceed to gate for immediate boarding.

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The return of Twin Peaks: a classic revived


It is unusual for a writer to revisit his work after such an extended period of time away, and stranger still for him to successfully gather almost all of the original cast for the return. The only comparable example that comes to mind is the recent Harper Lee sequel to the acclaimed To Kill A Mockingbird entitled Go Set A Watchman, which was published, the year before the author’s death, in 2015 with an impressive 55-year gap between the two novels!

1989’s Twin Peaks was ground-breaking on several fronts, not least for its reticence to be shoehorned into any one genre. Lynch and his writing partner Mark Frost created something that was on the surface a crime drama, this morphed into something more like a soap opera, as the show became as much about the subplots of the inhabitants lives as the murder. Add to this mix quick-witted humour, sharp dialogue, cleverly drawn characters and increasing elements of horror and the absurd, and you have recipe that shouldn’t work on paper but which realises itself beautifully in practice. This is not to mention the show’s compelling dream-like soundtrack composed by Angelo Badalamenti. Lynch is also one of the pioneers of cinematic television, taking a broad arc rather than episodic approach to the series and incorporating extended establishing shots of the North American landscape.

Did we want a new series? We hoped for it, but we were equally concerned that a new incarnation could tarnish the legacy of the original. Did we expect it? Most didn’t. Twin Peaks seemed so rooted in its particular time and place that it was hard to imagine the small-town charms breaking through into the 21st century. Yet there was always a sincerity in the prophecies of the original that made it hard to ignore Special Agent Dale Cooper’s final threat of “I’ll see you in 25 years” in the concluding episode.

Instead of the microcosm of 1989, Lynch presents an American odyssey grounded in 2017. Unbound by the constraints of a network he is free to indulge in what is almost painfully slow and intricate pacing. The iconography of the original is persistent, and the motifs recurring – Lynch, so it seems, is ultimately the show’s biggest fan. There are moments of genius (episode eight in particular) but whoever embarks upon this mammoth voyage must be warned that these instances of ecstasy come at the cost of hours of borderline tedium. The viewer, as much as the director, must suffer for his art.

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Lübeck: charmingly wonky

The weather this Sunday is disconcertingly mild for October, it seems stolen from a summer past or future, wrenched anachronistically into autumn. I cower in a room saturated with light. Creamy, lumpy walls that have a vaguely pebble-dashed texture encase me in their nondescript magnolia embrace. Sun streams in from a hunched over window – through this single portal a slice of serendipity filters into this wee attic flat in Seevetal.

Quarters are comparatively spacious, that is with slumming it in Edinburgh’s Buccleuch Street. The snows of Hamburg are yet to affront this fortress, but so far, the insulation seems sufficient.

Alas I must delineate the cons, for although I’ve finally had something of a success in the city’s hectic rental market, things could, as always, improve.

For a start, there is no kitchen. Well. There is and there isn’t. A plug-in hob rests on a shelf and there is at least a microwave; we’ve also been given the luxury of the use of a fridge-freezer.

There is no washing machine, which means that I must trek to the Harburg laundrette when I start to run out of clothes. The busses are frequent enough but not great logistically for weekends, when I’m going to have to crash or leave absurdly early.

Luckily administratively things seem to be heading in the right direction. I have a bank account and plastic, a sim card and university library membership. Hamburg’s library annoys me though. While I managed to withdraw the resources I needed, the process saddened me. It seems that you can’t take out books older than 10 years (most) from the shelves; one must order them and then they appear on a ledge next to your surname at some point the next day. To me that destroys all the fun of libraries, by which I mean the searching in old shelves, the smell of yellowed leaves and the discovery of the quaint, unexpected and most importantly, not directly relevant.

I must turn to matters less peripheral, to the reason I am where I am. The cause of my being at liberty to write such a tract are the Herbstferien, or October holidays. With no tatties to pick I’m free to explore the locality and reflect on my progress thus far, this greatly enabled by stable accommodation after a hellish Wohnungssuche and a rather gorgeous-looking, if a little impractical, bicycle.

The terms’ concluding fortnight has been an interesting one containing varied experiences, from correcting primary kids’ grammar to instilling considerable excitement about the world’s shortest scheduled flight. I finally managed to pick up and devour Lessing’s Emelia Galotti in a single night in preparation for a German literature class I’m helping with, only to be told the following morning that the students were on ‘Praktikum’ (some kind of work experience placement I presume). This particular edition, found filed in an entire wall of cute yellow Reclams, was purchased in the midst of a storm, which toppled several trees and left train tracks blocked, hence I had time to browse the Hauptbahnhof bookshop, waiting out the delay.

However, where some opportunities fell through others arose and I got to participate in one of the upper grade’s lessons concerning the theme of dystopia/utopia. Although the teacher was less than enthused, I was in my element. We watched a Black Mirror clip, Thomas More was on a PowerPoint slide and 1984 was set as holiday reading.

At the Immanuel Kant Gymnasium, the final week of term was known as Projektwoche. This meant that all five days were given over to a particular topic be it anti-bullying, health and well-being or drugs education. I chose to accompany the main class I work with on their HVV project, which stands for Hamburger Vekehrsverbund – the public transport system of the city. This, as well as the standard busses and trains, also includes public ferries on the river Elbe. In addition to learning the ins and outs of this system there were also many team building games, poster making and quizzes, which culminated in a class trip. Although I was not required to go on the main trip, which took the form of some kind of city-wide treasure hunt I believe, I did manage to help out on Friday, when the pupils went on an excursion to the Wildpark Schwarze Berge.

This safari park, contrary to most found in the UK (I think, though it’s not as if I’m a frequenter), was home to European native species only. While narrowing the field of exotica somewhat, this still allowed for the spotting of wolves, lynx, beavers and boar amongst other species. Our guide was very patient and knowledgeable, despite the inevitable interruptions cause by the intrusion of a wasp into the company of children.

Yesterday I began my personal exploration of the surrounding region by taking a train to the wonderful medieval town of Lübeck, lying northeast of Hamburg. The train station is subtle and refined and flooded by natural light, unlike grimy tiled Harburg’s insipid jaundiced glow and the Hauptbahnhof’s tenebrous interior. Once you step outside you realise you were housed in a building whose mock-medieval turrets will match the town to come. From here it’s only a short walk to the old gate, flanked by two chunky red-bricked towers topped by copper domes. The first thing you notice is how squint they are, emanating a markedly different vibe versus Berlin’s classical grandeur. It’s a sign of things to come – Lübeck’s charmingly wonky.



The market square is surrounded by municipal buildings with heraldry indented in their sides. As far as emblems go, a double-headed eagle guarded by a red and white shield isn’t half bad. Passing under the arches I discover, having done minimal research pre-departure, that this town is renowned for marzipan manufacture.


After a delightful (and most importantly, excellent value) lunch at an inexplicably Peter Pan themed restaurant, which plays the audiobook through speakers in the toilets, we wander down the many winding alleyways of Lübeck. Pastel coloured facades and higgledy-piggledy rooftops lace the descent to the dock, which resembles a sleepy sort of Speicherstadt but with more greenery and much less commerce. A quick peak in the door of one of the oldest municipal hospitals in the world and we’re ready to go home stocked with Süßigkeiten and Hanseatic pride.

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Ein Kölsch, bitte

I’m writing after the end of my first complete week in Germany, the country which will be my home for the year to come, and there is already a lot to tell.

This is how it went down:

Day 1: Edinburgh to Cologne

I fly from the Scottish capital, my home of two years and where I study German & English Literature at the university (the former part of my degree having a compulsory year abroad and the excuse for the whole adventure) to the most populous city on the Rhine to attend a four-day training course provided by the Pädagogischer Austauschdienst on behalf of the British Council, who organise a foreign language assistant exchange programme.

Arriving a little early, in order for me to be able to explore the city a bit before I’m whisked away to the relative seclusion of a place called Altenberg on the outskirts, I have some time to consider a couple of coincidences that seem to bode well for the year ahead. For a start, the notebook upon which I’m writing these reflections is a Leuchturm, not only made in Germany, but more specifically Hamburg, where I’m spending my assistantship. The second coincidence is relevant to Cologne; just the previous evening I’d had a last hurrah in Edinburgh with a good friend and after a delicious Thai meal we paid a visit to our regular craft beer paradise where they play B-movie horror films on low in the background. Anyway, I asked for a citrusy pale ale (it’s the kind of bar where that’s necessary, not solely pretentious by virtue of the regularly rotated selection of indie beers on tap) and I was presented with Kölsh – a beverage for which Cologne is renowned.

Day 2: A Tourist in Cologne

Only getting to the city in the early evening, I resolve to try and see as much of the sights as possible. The cathedral is impossible to miss and dominates the townscape (pardon the pun lol), it’s gothic architecture makes me feel oddly conflicted – I want to feel awe at what medieval society was capable of but knowing a bit of the history introduces something more complicated. It was only actually completed by 19th century enthusiasts when the middle ages were in vogue, and much of the structure is in fact a reconstruction after the intense bombing at the end of the Second World War. Adding to this, it’s hard to experience anything approaching spiritual when there is such an influx of tourist traffic, people taking selfies when a father instructs his children to kneel in prayer before a shrine etc.

Seemingly I have a knack for coming to Germany on open days, or that most of them fall in early September and that’s when I’m there. Today is Der Tag des offenen Denkmals and this meant that I got to explore the medieval Rathaus free of charge. Apparently, it is one of the oldest still in use in Europe. Part of it is highly modern, but the medieval sections are remarkably preserved. In some ways, it is reminiscent of the Reichstag building in Berlin in that it combines styles from different architectural eras. It evokes craftmanship, guilds and the hanseatic leagues.

I try to reach the cable car for a bird’s eye view over the Rhine, but it’s closed for repair and I only manage the botanical gardens. The chocolate museum seemed like a good deal for 9 euros and unlimited free samples in the guise of something educational, but the reality was about three pieces in total if you didn’t pay more.

Day 3: Arrival in Altenberg

Having walked around most of the city to the west of the Rhine, I decide to cross over to the east to kill a couple of hours before I travel, a bit counterintuitively, back to the airport where the rest of the language assistants are meeting to get the bus out to our training course. Apart from the rather grand Köln Messe/Deutz train station there is really not much there.


On arrival in the airport I feel awkward, but conversation soon starts flowing. I’m able to relate an icebreaker anecdote about my lack of appreciation for “Wurst mit brötchen” being exactly that, with sausage and bun being completely separate items – to top if off even the Senf came in a separate plastic pouch.

It takes a bit of faffing but once we’re all in the coach, given rooms and fed we get quite an extensive admin talk. After this we’re told (to at least my surprise anyway) that the bar opens at half eight, and there’s nothing else to do in this place (apart from view the cross-denominational Cathedral with, apparently, the largest stained-glass window in Northern Europe, which is admittedly impressive) other than to make use of the facilities on offer.

Day 4: The course properly begins

We are taught how to teach.

Day 5: Final day

Employing these very freshly acquired skills, we give lessons we spent the previous day preparing. There is a pub quiz and I feel inordinately proud of myself for knowing who Heidegger is.

Day 6: To Hamburg

Some (most) had overindulged the night before, but somehow I ended up in one of the more sensible teams, so got off lightly. We are bussed back to the Bahnhof and several of us catch the train to Hamburg. I am seated beside a Canadian; more of them seem to know where Orkney is than English folk! We both get off in Harburg, where I meet my mentor, who tells me that the city has more bridges than Venice.

Day 7: Zur Schule

I commute south to the school I’m placed in. Correctly identifying the three pop-art style images of the philosopher after whom it’s named, I meet the head teacher, who seems to warm to me. The first class I observe have a lesson in Hispanics in the United States; the primary school pupils who follow them all come to the front and compare heights with me and find the question ‘do you have a girlfriend?’ absolutely hysterical. I wish I could see the funny side with the answer I give them…

Day 8: Some of the city is seen

Confirmed: Hamburg does have many bridges. Its canals, harbours and warehouse district are beautiful. Even what could be ugly concrete facades are transformed by the citizenry into vibrant and engaging murals.


Day 9: A stroll around Altona

Pick a tourist attraction that’s open on a Sunday or is free; go there. This happened to be the Altonaer Balkon, which gives a magnificent view of the harbour and commercial cargo vessels. I have to squint to make them out in glorious sunshine. However, after a trip to the train station to scavenge some lunch the sky breaks with a crack to unleash a thunderous downpour and I’m forced to retreat to base for the day.

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The bleary pilgrim

Bundled into the Corsa. Beltless, unshaven and woozy. Despite its lack of a working radio I still love this car. The defunct Blaupunkt reads “SAFE” in all-caps instead of channel, or frequency. It couldn’t display track number; in this respect, alongside its winddown windows, it’s still very much in the analogue age with its cassette drawer only playing tapes – although I’m told they’re making a comeback too.

A drumstick air freshener swings erratically in vain from the useless volume knob, suspended by its elasticated cord. It attempts to mask a seemingly inerasable aroma; a legacy from the previous owner. It is within the cradle of this benevolent metal cage that my pilgrimage begins.

Now I’m sitting at the back of the kirk, pretty pleased with myself – I’m not even that hungover. Hours ago, I was spinning, loving life at a charity gig. I methodically determine the total sum of the previous evening’s consumption, then repeat it like a mantra in my head, thanking my luck that I wasn’t in a worse state. Mum arrives and I’m promptly told that I stink of drink. Not to worry tough, I’ve still got that chewing gum I purchased last night. As I slip the piece onto my tongue I curse myself for not reading the label properly at the till; not normally an impulse buyer, I am forced to endure its adolescent “bubblemint” flavour. Still, better than nothing, and should stave off the fumes.

The talk begins, and it’s a talk, not a service, with an update from the minister about the pilgrimage route’s official recognition from the local authority, and incidentally lack thereof, and the state of the interactive companion app’s development. I feel a bit of an imposter here on this soggy Saturday morning. The St Magnus way is a project part of commemorating 900 years since the patron of Orkney’s death at the hands of his cousin’s men. This eight-mile stretch I was about to embark upon was dedicated to that very same treacherous relative, Earl Haakon, who ruled the isles jointly with the aforementioned saint. It seemed appropriate that this excursion’s theme was forgiveness, as I felt a particularly heightened sense of the need for self-reconciliation as the walk progressed and my perception of reality became all the more acute.

Haakon is often cast as the villain of the piece when the story of St Magnus is related in a hastily constructed, morally black and white fashion to schoolchildren and adults alike. In place of the mythic archetype, Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon, Norse history expert, presented us with a Haakon who was a great deal more complex than the legend would have us believe. She pointed to how the original source, the Orkneyinga saga of Icelandic provenance, glosses over the decade or so of peaceful rule the cousins presided over before their fateful confrontation on Egilsay. Haakon himself did not wish Magnus to die; it was the verdict of the people that only one could live and it ended up being a cook who swung the axe that killed him. Magnus’s murder is the deed that has defined Haakon in the popular consciousness. However, he went on to live for many more years after event, during which time there is evidence of his pilgrimage. Haakon’s further rule is described as being a prosperous time for Orkney in the saga. While Haakon did not pay for what he had done in his lifetime, during the joint rule of his son, Paul and Harald, Paul was inexplicably imprisoned and maimed; possibly as retribution for his father’s actions.

The next part of the talk concerned Rognvald – the guy who commissioned the building of the cathedral. Unlike pious, quite Magnus, Rognvald was a man of action who was aware of his talents; something which survives in the Old Norse poetry he left behind. One poem in particular drew laughter for its description of Jerusalem, during his visit on crusade (something as a Viking he would have doubtless enjoyed), as an overcrowded tourist attraction.

Friday night had been a wash out. Roads were closed and diversions advised. The resultant new burns and streams that had sprung up overnight out of the saturated heath seeped into walking boots and through socks, making for a squelchy plod across the hills.

My thoughts turned to the lost language of Norn – a kind of Norse/Scots crossover that was spoken up until the 18th century in Orkney, Shetland and Caithness. The Scandinavian countries have distinct languages – Danish, Swedish and Norwegian and yet they are mutually intelligible, to the extent that a Dane and a Swede could understand each other without having to change the language they spoke in much. I consider the possibility of a parallel universe which saw Norn’s continued evolution instead of extinction and mull over Scotland’s rejection of its own independence. What if this linguistic kinship had been maintained? Would we then have welcomed the chance to join into the Nordic family of nations?

These liminal spaces hold great interest for me; particularly the transition between pagan beliefs and Christianity taking place in the middle ages, to which I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to devote study last semester in my late medieval Europe elective course. This topic manifested itself at the most interesting point of the day when we stopped off at Naversdale, Dr Gibbon’s house, and the site of a remarkable discovery. Whilst deconstructing a drystone dyke, her dad found a piece of stone with what looked like a runic inscription on it. These runes were then translated. It turned out that this was part of the Lord’s prayer in Latin, which had been phonetically transcribed into Old Norse; an astonishing example of popular religion in the 12th century.

As we reach the crest of the final summit we are greeted by a field of alpacas in what is quite a surreal scene. Sheep bleat inanely whilst a wind turbine’s blades chop through the air in an oscillating drone overhead. It’s all downhill from here.

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I am the Ferryman


Midsummer’s in ten days and I’m eking out all I can of this year’s solstice light, situated as I am just a couple more degrees north of Scotland’s capital where I’ve been studying these past two years at the university. I’ve just learnt that in September I’ll be moving to Hamburg, or “Hamboich” in the local pronunciation (I’m not a pro linguist and most likely neither are you so I’ve put down my best phonetic representation here!), where I’ll be assisting pupils at the Immanuel-Kant-Gymnasium in learning English through my British Council placement in the city. Having signed up to WG-Gesucht (Germany’s main flatmate/flat finding service) and made first email contact with my mentor at the school, I’ll be using the coming few weeks to plan for this part of my year abroad.

For me and for the UK it has been a week of significant changes. Although the end of my flat lease in Edinburgh lasts up until July I decided to apply for jobs here in Orkney too and I ended up getting employed in the Kirkwall office of the inter-island Ferry Services. I enjoy telling other people that “I am the ferryman”, but strictly speaking I do no such ushering of souls in person, rather I book people on the boats and sell tickets. In my first week I’ve learnt a lot and it makes a change of scene against a kitchen environment, although each have their advantages and drawbacks.

The political makeup of the country has obviously changed too this week, and I’m left unsure how to feel after the results of the general election came in. I see little cause for celebration even if the Conservatives were denied a majority. Looking across at the party they’ve been forced to appease to get votes through fills me with disgust and dread. Labour may gloat that they were able to defy their internal critics, but the hard truth is they weren’t able to win even if they are still trying to claim victory. With regards to Scotland, this seems to show a halt in SNP momentum and unfortunately the Tories have gained significantly. I maintain that independence is inevitable, but it seems that day has now been put off a good few years. In summary, and what I say here is not hugely original, it was an entirely pointless ballot where the debate, to a remarkable extent, ignored the issue with which it should have been most concerned: Brexit.

Barring all that, it’s nice to be home. I miss the coffee shops, the craft beer and the art school nights out, but there’s something unbeatable about the silence, the space, and the vast skies and seas. Here the nights are unpolluted by the sodium glow, daft singing drunk folk and the strut of oblivious heels ricocheting off the pavement and the stark stone streets.

People. There’s that too I’d have to admit. I embraced The Student this year. Metaphorically of course; I do like to keep that sort of thing to a respectable minimum if I can help it. I met many enthusiastic and talented people, and got the chance to write a lot of articles, which I think helped keep me sane. Hopefully I’ll be able to contribute remotely next year as a foreign correspondent (lol). Anyway here are some highlights if you haven’t had a chance to have a read:




A less social pursuit this year at uni (in that for the most part I was talking to myself in a darkened room) was my flirtation with student radio. I presented a show entitled Flett-cetera on the Edinburgh student station FreshAir, which ended up sapping a lot of my creativity hence lack of blog. Here I talked about life in Orkney and local dialect, had guests on to talk about various cultural topics and read excerpts of poetry. My highlights were getting to interview one of my favourite bands at the moment, Happy Meals, and hosting a live session with The Motion Poets; you can have a listen to both of these below:

Aside from all that major stuff I’ve been watching the new Twin Peaks recently. Having only got into it last year I feel as if the wait for me isn’t enough to justify the intense satisfaction I feel when I see what appears to be the majority of the original cast returning to reprise their roles. The opening few episodes are just as sleek, charming and surreal as the series at its height and I would thoroughly recommend it to any past fans, or, to anyone who hasn’t watched the original, for them to go back and go through it from the beginning. It was ground-breaking TV back then and it continues to have the same power to confuse, bewilder, induce laughter and horrify in the here and now.

Musically I’ve been enjoying the new Toro y Moi single ‘A Girl Like You’ and the new Mac Demarco album, This Old Dog. In the former Chaz Bundick returns to his eighties synths away from the classic rock sound of his previous release ‘Omaha’ to delightful effect and this is of course accompanied by a lo-fi music video where the track finishes and then restarts to make the optimum four minutes twenty seconds mark; clearly, he is ignoring the cries in countless comment sections that vapourwave is dead. Certainly the kind of music that is literally just old 1980s tunes slowed down and pitched a few notes lower is over, but songs in their own right with a ‘wave’ vibe have proved more durable – the ‘chillwave’ label was artificially attached to Toro y Moi’s style by journalists in any case. It seems likely that the video released alongside the song is an ironic statement against those who liberally apply the vapourwave label, it does however revel in those retro sounds yet it somehow retains a simultaneous freshness.

Back to more serious matters. I’m hoping to get everything sorted for my year abroad within the next few weeks – the second semester of which I’m spending at the Universität Leipzig (Happy Meals say good things about the city, so it should be alright). Working 9-5 for the first time in my life is a bit weird, although I must say I do appreciate the more social hours after this free weekend. While politics has left me pessimistic, at least I’ll be getting out of the country fairly soon. I will definitely, and do miss Edinburgh, but I’m glad to be home and I look forward to next year.

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New Who Review

A puddle perplexes companion Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) in Doctor Who’s series debut, ‘The Pilot’. This strong opening episode should set the tone for executive producer, Stephen Moffat’s final year at the helm of the TARDIS.

After a year away from our screens, Doctor Who is back and finally, with the closure of Clara’s chapter (about whom fans’ views are mixed), we have the introduction of an intriguing new face to the time-travelling team. The episode’s name, although perhaps tongue-in-cheek, is appropriate because it seeks to establish all the fundamental aspects of the legendary science fiction character in a concise 50-minute timeframe. If this is indeed Moffat’s objective following the tying up of many loose ends in his last couple of series’ then he succeeds amicably in giving himself a positive fresh start.

We meet the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) having taken up a lecturing position at Bristol University of all places. More avid fans may know that this is not the first time the uni has been used a location for Doctor Who as parts of 2012’s ‘Asylum of the Daleks’, where a certain Oswin Oswald is introduced, were filmed around campus. Matt Lucas, who stars as the Doctor’s cyborg helpmate, Nardole (whose comedic quips largely fall flat), dropped out of Bristol in 1995 but received an honorary degree in February. The Time Lord’s lectures are proving popular, despite his teaching poetry when he is contracted to talk quantum physics, which he flippantly equates because of “the rhymes”. Canteen worker Bill is an interested onlooker; thus, their paths inevitably collide and he agrees to become her personal tutor.

The question of Bill’s sexuality, which was revealed in a misleading press release prior to the episode’s airing, was tackled pretty much head on from the start – the episode revolving around an instant attraction between her and an intriguingly melancholic woman. Capaldi’s doctor is never one to pry into the personal lives of those he travels with, so there is no cliched moment of recognition on his part, which plays out very fluidly and naturally.

On the pilot nature of ‘The Pilot’, exposition on is done well overall. The introduction of the TARDIS is highly amusing, with Bill mistaking the blue box for a ‘knock through’ and a lift respectively. Moffat’s comedic strengths shine through when Bill remarks with astonishment that because it is morning now, they must have travelled in time and the Doctor replies, “Of course not, we’ve travelled to Australia!” before flamboyantly revealing the Sydney Opera House behind him.

However, one aspect of the Doctor’s backstory was not handled so elegantly – that of the Time War and his exile from Galifrey. Making the trip to what was presumably the Time Lords’ home world just to make a half-formed point of exposition cheapens the Doctor’s origins, although admittedly it’s always nice to see Daleks, and the watery effect of the sentient puddle’s assuming the antsy battle-tank’s form was also aesthetically satisfying.

Pearl Mackie gives life to an interesting and outspoken character in episode one. If Mofatt restrains himself regarding overly complex plots and contrived resolutions, then this series looks set for success.


The trip to the Time War is gratuitous, although the leaky dalek visually impresses.


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