Monday, April 30, 2018

Two Masters?

An illustration from yesterday's sermon!

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Film Notes: Winter in Wartime (Oorlogswinter)

Winter in Wartime is a Dutch film about life in Holland in the last days of the Nazi occupation of their country during WWII. As the title suggests, the entire film takes place during the last bleak Winter of the war and it centres upon the life of the van Beusekom family, as they respond to the pressures of life under tyrannical occupiers.

The central protagonist is the teenage son, Michiele, and concerns how he became drawn into the war, despite the stern warnings of collaborators and resistance fighters alike, to remain apart from it. Michiele's father is the town mayor, who has to deal directly with the Germans, and takes the approach of seeking as friendly relations as possible with them, in order to ameliorate the suffering of the people. His cheerful hand-shaking with the Nazi commander, might win the occasional reprieve, but is seen as great treachery by the resistance, as represented by Michiele's jovial uncle.

The delicate balance as difficult negotiation between occupiers and the occupied, is shattered when a British plane is shot down in the woods outside the town, and the body of a dead German soldier found near the scene.

When local resistance members are shot, Michiele, finds himself as the only person who knows where the Allied airman is hiding; and takes responsibility for him - and his sister soon falls in love with the airman after bandaging his wounds. The action (all rather nicely shot, against the snow-bound landscape) unfolds around a gripping tale of betrayal, loyalties and reprisals; and ending with a couple of unlikely plot-twists.

While this film was apparently wildly popular in Holland, it received quite a few hostile reviews here, which I thought were unfair. It's true that showing a harrowing scene in silent slow-motion has been done before and might be thought of a cliched, but is a technique that rater closely mirrors the way in which memory works; and so its use isn't as dreadful as some reviewers might suggest. It might be true that this isn't a film bursting with action, or making huge statements; but I thought it was gripping, and the characters engaging and the acting strong. My gauge is watching films such as this, is whether I care about the fate of the characters or not. Some films just fall totally flat on this score, and I find myself counting the minutes until the credits roll. Poor writing, lack of character development, or just wooden acting can all act as a switch-off to engagement with a film; but despite some of the critics moans; I found that I really did care about these characters as the film built to its conclusion. Would Michiele negotiate the complexities of a situation that was way beyond him? Would the British airman survive his wounds, and the intense search for him by the Nazi's? Would Michele and his sister get caught protecting him? What would the resistance, and Michele's uncle do? Who kept betraying resistance men, and would the airman be handed over? Needless to say, all these pot lines converge into a surprising finale, which held my attention to the very last frame.

This film might not appear in the 'greatest films ever made' lists which appear all over the internet; but it's a fine piece of work; embedding a very believable story into a grim historical context and drawing the viewer in through the universal themes of childhood, loyalty, good v evil, danger, survival, betrayal and love.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Along the Borders Railway

My much anticipated escape to the mountains this week was postponed because of the weather. First the 'Beast from the East' has moved Winter conditions right back into what should be Spring; bringing a late, huge depth of snow to the mountains. Then, the immediate forecast this week has brought further snow to Scotland, making conditions (for a solo-walker like me, at least), impossible. It has been a horrible year for mountain accidents, avalanches, and folks getting lost or killed. Mountain rescue services across the country have been called out again and again, sometimes with happy endings, sometimes not. I noticed that a few days ago a search was abandoned for a missing walker, whose remains presumably won't be recovered until the snow retreats from the High Mountains.

Much as I love the mountains, I need to stay alive, not least to collect my family from their various travels at the weekend. So instead of heading North, I drove southwards, to explore the Borders Railway - that section of the historic Waverley route which got bludgeoned by Beeching's Axe, and has re-opened in the last couple of years. My plan had been to go all the way on the train from Perth, but the best ticket available was a cheap day return for just over £50-. "Cheap" is presumably being used ironically in this context. Strangely, a return from Inverkeithing to Tweedbank cost only £12-, which meant a 25 minute shoot down the motorway, and into the Park and Ride car park, to jump on a train making it's way down from Perth to Edinburgh Waverley! This is such a mad example of pricing forcing people to use cars that I asked the ticket seller at Inverkeithing why this was the case. She had no idea, but upon checking it on her screen assured me that I could have got a Perth ticket for between £30-£35, had I gone into the station, not just checking online; before admitting that the whole thing was indeed a bit mad. So Scotrail ran a mostly empty-train from Perth to Inverkeithing, missed out on a fare, and had I been on the train, would have bought my coffee in their facilities, not elsewhere.

The ride from from Inverkeithing to Waverley is one I know well, and the views over the Forth, now resplendent with its extra bridge, are magnificent. Waverley Station is a wonderful place too, with trains coming and going to all corners of the UK. It seems to be a building site a lot of the time these days, as services are increased and new platforms needed along with overhead cabling. I hope that the end result does the great Victorian structure justice; the tendency to litter such places with view-obscuring walls, kiosks, and signs robs them of the sense of space and size which their designers aimed for. They weren't meant to be compartmentalised but to be industrial cathedrals, meant to impress the visitor with the simultaneous sight of a London Express pulling southwards, with Glasgow and Northern trains pulling away on the other side.

The new Borders Railway train was waiting for me in the building site end of the station, facing the tunnels at the east end. You probably don't want to know that it was a two-car, 156 unit; but you might want to know that it was a clapped out piece of 1980s British Rail technology that was in need of replacement. It seems a shame to open a 'new' railway with rolling stock that is neither new enough to impress, nor old enough to have any nostalgic chic; but just tired, uncomfortable noisy machines which have been retired from other lines. After the tannoy announcement about the station being a 'non-smoking environment', the driver tried to start the train. Nasty, oily smoke duly poured out from under the carriage. Not, I should add, good old-fashioned clag, coming out of the exhaust; but billowing out from underneath and gusting around the platform. Nice. I was once on a train that caught fire, and I really thought it was happening again here, but it seemed to pass as the old thing warmed up. The train that caught fire was a much newer Turbostar, on a Glasgow-Aberdeen service. Somewhere just before Blackford the rear carriage filled with smoke, and the unit was diverted into a siding. The guard dealt with the passengers, while the driver (apparently) shut down the flaming motor at the rear. The driver then went along the track and used a phone to the signalman, while the guard took the fire extinguisher to the under side of the train, before climbing back on board to re-assure the passengers, and sealing off the affected part of the train - and making sure that passengers at the subsequent stop (Gleneagles) didn't try and board it. Why the convoluted explanation? Simply because, at the moment there is a dispute between train staff and some rail companies about whether they should cut costs and have driver-only trains. My experience is that driver-only operation makes economic sense, most of the time - but I don't think that incident could have been managed safely by one person. A driver alone could not have been negotiating with signals, moving passengers, putting out the fire, and communicating with the public. A potentially dangerous situation did not become a crisis, because this two-man Scotrail team new exactly what they were doing, and it was a two-man job. Eventually the train limped on to Perth on reduced power, where it was parked, and ongoing passengers taken to a bus.

The clunky old train I was on stopped smoking and pulled out of Waverley onto the East Coast Main Line, perfectly on time. The Borders Railway has been plagued by late running, but my train, despite its age was on time as we accelerated away from Holyrood and out past Meadowbank stadium and Craigintinny Rail Depot. Scotrail's latest second hand trains were in evidence there, old High Speed Trains (once known as Intercity 125's) displaced by overhead cables and electric trains from Paddington; coming North to add capacity to the system here; just as elderly displaced Gresley A4's once did when displaced by Deltics on the ECML. Peeling off the main line and into Brunstane, the first stop on the line, I was struck between the elegance of Waverley and the sterile functionality of the modern station, a picture which is re-enforced at Newcraighall's brutal park and ride; the terminus of this line from 2002-2015.

After Shawfair, the line breaches the city bypass and rapidly becomes a rural line, as hills, farms and castles replace flats, car-tyre companies and DIY Stores. The land is complex, folded, and pierced by meandering rivers, and the railway line, with its miles of bridges, cuttings and embankments twists and turns its way through the undulations. Before long the Lammermuir Hills of Walter Scott's novels rose up around the train, as it battered forward into driving snow. The line is a strange combination of old and new. Old cuttings and stone works, which have weathered into the landscape, jostle alongside garish modernity - steel, chrome and extreme security fencing, which make the railway look more like a scene from Escape from Alcatrazz than The Railway Children. This is especially grim around Galashiels, but mars the route elsewhere too. I wonder why for all the years of railway travel, people managed not to wander onto the tracks without the Berlin Wall being erected alongside them, but these days we are considered to be stupid enough to need to be corralled behind these vicious barriers? 

The train was on time when we reached Galashiels, and onto the terminus. That is good, but when the average speed was somewhere in the low 30mph's that is hardly ambitious for a modern railway, and not a huge amount more than a volunteer run steam railway might aim for, purely for nostalgia - not a public service. The problem is that while there is evidence of massive engineering works, the railway is in places chronically under-engineered. The original railway was a double-track mainline throughout, and used to run all the way to Carlisle. The lack of passing loops means that any one problem is amplified throughout the system. There seems to be little ambition to move freight on the line. Railway experts repeatedly drew this shortcoming the Scottish Government, but their was little acknowledgement.

Then the train just stops. There doesn't seem to be any reason for the line to end at Tweedbank, it just does. The old trackbed continues, uninterrupted towards Melrose, but the buffers appear and the trains just stop. The tiny trains empty out their passengers onto extraordinarily long platforms, with no buildings, or even run-around loops should any kind of loco ever venture this far. The waiting rooms are like bus shelters, open to the elements and freezing, as I would discover on my return. The whole plan and design of the place looks as if the architect was saying - 'Don't Stop Here', keep building! As it is, a two-mile walking route leads on down the line to Melrose, a steady 35 minute walk, to the Abbey, before my return to the ice-bound station and another terrible old train back to Edinburgh; perfectly on time.

It's great that the rail network has re-penetrated this once-abandoned part of the country, let's hope that the likes of St Andrews, and the Fife Coast regain their lost lines too. But it does feel half-finished, in length, in speed, in infrastructure and in rolling stock; perhaps finishing this one might need to be done before they move on?

Melrose Abbey

Monday, April 02, 2018

Ardoch Roman Fort

 What have the Romans Ever done for us? Well, they left these lovely earthworks near Braco, for a start.


Sunday, April 01, 2018

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Barnhill waking up for Spring

The ice has finally melted from Barnhill, the ground is warming up, and the hill seems to be waking up for Spring. The first daffodils are opening, and animals are venturing out too. Rodents must be scampering about in the undergrowth, because the buzzards have resumed their diligent patrols of the woods. 

Now that the pond has unfrozen, the giant heron has taken up residence again, along with the ducks. Once the heron has nested, there are great fights to be watched on Barnhill, as the buzzards try and evade its great beak, in order to steal its eggs.

The woods have not yet grown thick with bracken though. In these early days of Spring, you can see right through the woods. In only a few weeks time, the ferns will be waist high, and dense - and accompanied by acres of nettles.  The woods will change dramatically, and though the sun will be brighter, they will feel much darker and less airy than they do today. The deer had a sniff around the woods, but seem to have retreated back to more sheltered areas, because March 2018 had a big late snowfall, a Siberian storm nicknamed 'the beast from the east' No doubt, as soon as the saplings start to grow, they'll come and eat everything! 

Red squirrels seem to be everywhere though. In the quiet of the little gap between Barnhill and Kinnoull Hill, their skitterring and clicketting around the great trees is audible above the sparkling birdsong. Chasing each other round and round the trunks, and leaping from tree-to-tree, these shy little reds are a lovely sight. Somewhere out there, there is a woodpecker, manically attacking the trees. His percussion rings out through the quiet of the woods in the evenings, but he's very had to see, and as yet, impossible to photograph.

Over on Kinnoull Hill, its getting really busy, crowds of people trooping up and down the grey, gravel paths the council poured all over the hill. There's always a trail of litter about too, which is sad. There's been no sign of the peregrine falcon around the cliffs yet, but I'll keep watching for that.

Back on Barnhill, there's a lovely little Spring (not the one that splutters from a broken pipe!), which oozes and eases water into a little rivulet. It runs only when the weather has been wet, and is running nicely at the moment, as the soil is still saturated with snow-melt.