Tag Archives: Scotland

The dirty dream of the nineties is alive in Portland

Belle and Sebastian, Oregon Zoo, June 2018

Belle and Sebastian, Oregon Zoo, June 2018

Much time has passed since I first heard the Scottish chamber pop outfit Belle and Sebastian.

I have a vague recollection of seeing the video for their 1998 song “Dirty Dream Number Two” on MTV, back in those ancient days when music television was a thing. I remember a college housemate singing the praises of the album that song featured on, “The Boy With The Arab Strap“.

But my listening interest was truly sparked when I picked up a copy of their debut album “Tigermilk“, likely in Tower Records on Wicklow Street in Dublin (now gone the way of MTV), and played it endlessly through fourth year of university.

For a number of years after that I dutifully bought Belle and Sebastian albums on their release, always intending to see them live one day. I never did of course, as the fates and my best laid plans conspired against it. In time, though no reflection on the quality of the band’s output, I eventually gave up buying the latest B+S album.

Stuart Murdoch. Pic: Amy Hope Dermont

Stuart Murdoch. Pic: Amy Hope Dermont

But ageing and perhaps nostalgia and – more likely – distance from Europe has recently led me back to seeing bands from my 20s, acts who heydayed in the late nineteen nineties and early noughties. And so, in the past year, I’ve seen live performances by Teenage Fanclub, PJ Harvey, Nick Cave and Lloyd Cole, to mention four.

All of which is a convoluted way of explaining how, on a sunny Saturday evening last weekend, I sat amid the toddlers on the grass, the 40-something indie kids and a family of bored elephants, watching Belle and Sebastian perform at the Oregon Zoo in Portland.

The music was – as I expected – wonderful; bright, melodic and witty, it was easy to link the best of the evening’s songs to their writer, front man Stuart Murdoch, who himself looked just as he did in the MTV videos of my memory.

That was the charming thing about the evening. Belle and Sebastian didn’t sound or feel like they’d aged. Nowadays, when I look at pictures, or read cards, or reminisce about the nineties, my reaction is usually: “God, we were so much younger” or “what the hell happened to that guy?” or “I wish I’d time to read that book again”.

But for a couple of hours in a zoo in Portland my knees didn’t feel the ache of an old running injury, and my hair didn’t appear as gray as usual in a photograph. Nor did I have to fight through the mental distractions of everyday life just to focus on the music.

Twenty years later Belle and Sebastian were there and so was I. Ain’t that enough? And they even played “Dirty Dream Number Two”.


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The sound of silence? It’s quiet good for you

Quiet man. Thelonius Monk.

Quiet man. Thelonius Monk.
Pic: William P. Gottlieb

You know what’s the loudest noise in the world man? The loudest noise in the world is silence.”

So said Thelonius Monk.

How much time do you spend in silence each day?

Three minutes? Thirty? An hour? Not enough?

On average each of us encounters 52 noiseless minutes every day, according to a study published last week.

But that’s on average. The same survey also found that a third of us have less than a half hour’s silence a day – and one in six of us less than ten minutes.

‘That’s more like it,’ I thought to myself (silently) on reading about the study.

I don’t know exactly how much silence I encounter each day but I’d guess it’s around 30 minutes, usually late in the evening.

Even the time I spend alone – running in the morning or eating breakfast – is not silent. Traffic, the wind, background music, a boiling pan – there’s plenty of ambient sound around.

As the day passes this usually doesn’t bother me. With the exception of a construction drill or a ringing phone I don’t notice any ill effects.

A silent Loch Lomond. May 2010.

A silent Loch Lomond, May 2012.

But every couple of days my mind jerks me alert, demanding ten minutes of silent nothing. The next chance I get (which usually arrives hours later, at home that evening) I turn off my phone, laptop, sound system and just sit, embracing the quiet.

This silence principally fosters a sense of peace, a reason why it’s vital for practices like meditation.

But it’s not just the mind that benefits. Silence is good for your physical health. Absence of it (that is, the presence of noise) can lead to higher blood pressure, heart disease and heart attacks.

It’s also important for your cognitive function, specifically ‘right brain’ activities. It fosters creativity by filtering away daily sound, leaving focus and perspective.

When one focuses on silence it can – in the right circumstances – shift from being a passive absence of sound to being a presence, an active un-noise. The value of silence lies in this presence; the deeper one drifts into it the stronger the pull is.

Perhaps this is why Monk, a metropolis musician who spent many nights on stage alongside blaring brass, described silence as the loudest noise in the world.

Until your neighbour’s car alarm sounds.



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Ben Nevis : whiteout on the Red Burn

Close to summit of Ben Nevis shortly before a whiteout, May 2011.

Close to summit of Ben Nevis as visibility falls.

And then the world disappeared.

Where seconds earlier there had been, metres ahead, a cairn all was suddenly white.

Up, down, left, right, forward and back, a complete blank.

My companions P and J were behind me but the fierce wind rendered shouting useless. Coordination was difficult and not simply because of the westerly headwind we were battling.

Our body temperatures had also plummeted in the 15 minutes since we stepped off the summit and the blizzard had hit.

Edging on through the whiteout I was dimly aware that losing the route, marked by cairns, could see us walk into the notorious Five Finger Gully, which threatened drops of hundreds of metres.

We were descending from the top of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Britain, by the Red Burn track. It was May 24, 2011 and we were at 1300m when the blizzard blew in.

It was the first time on the mountain for all three of us.


Few things offer a more immediate mental and physical challenge than experiencing a whiteout.

Whiteout on Ben Nevis, May 2011


For seconds (if you’re lucky) or minutes (if you’re not) your senses are scrambled. Of the five only sight is useful – hearing, smell and touching are all drastically limited by the conditions, and taste long forgotten.

Even with good navigation doubt is constantly present, not least because of the ferocious weather. Stopping, or changing course, is not an option.

Faced with a situation where the ground, air and sky all appear identical and perfectly desolate – and the threat of simple white panic is blowing all around – a feeling of movement is vital.

It is a foremost a test of composure, skill and physical fitness. There can be few better proving grounds for a hiker. And so you keep going.


On May 24, 2011, after three or four minutes battling our way down the Red Burn, we came through. (And shot the video below).

Luckily for us it was summer and the storms blowing over the West Highlands that day lacked the length and ferocity of the Scottish winter tempests.

Within 20 minutes we were below the snowline, scoffing bread and chocolate and packing our away our Down jackets.

Having come through even the briefest of whiteouts it’s hard not to feel grateful. Grateful that you have emerged safely but also thankful that you have experienced such a situation.

'The risk is the lure' Summit of Ben Nevis (1344m), May 24, 2011.

‘The risk is the lure’. Summit of Ben Nevis (1344m), May 24, 2011.

Many would argue that climbing with the risk of such conditions is reckless. But such mental and physical tests are an intrinsic part of mountaineering – though few willingly put themselves directly in the way of such events.

But the risk is a lure. It’s one that seems distant in these summer weeks, when the toughest challenge facing hikers is usually cloud or rain.

After I had returned home from Ben Nevis more than one pal questioned my soundness of mind for even venturing on the mountain in such conditions, concluding that I had had ‘a lucky escape’.

The late Scottish writer and mountaineer Nan Shepherd provides the best response to such a view.

Writing about the deaths of two young hikers in a blizzard on the Cairngorm plateau on January 2, 1933, Shepherd argued risk is an inherent – and necessary – part of the mountain experience.

“They committed, I suppose, an error of judgement, but I cannot judge them. For it is the risk we must all take when we accept individual responsibility for ourselves on the mountain, and until we have done that, we do not begin to know it.”*


*Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain (Canongate Books, 2011), p 40.

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