Monday, June 28, 2010

RAW SPIRIT – in search of the perfect dram

by Iain Banks

Everything in here is true, especially the bits I made up.

“Banksie, hi.What are you up to?”

“Well, I’m going to be writing a book about whisky”.

“Your what?”

“I’m going to be writing a book about whisky. I’ve been, umm, you know, commissioned. To write a book about it. About whisky. Malt whisky, actually’.

“Your writing a book about whisky ?'

“Yeah. It means I have to go all over Scotland, driving mostly, but taking other types of transport – ferries, planes, trains, that sort of thing – visiting distilleries & tasting malt whisky. With expenses, obviously”.

ardbeg distillery islaycaol ila distilleryedradour

“You serious?”

“Course I’m serious!’ 


“Oh yeah”.

………Do you need any help with this?”                                                                                                             

Iain Banks, starts Raw Spirit with the above commentary, perfectly describing how a whisky lover would feel, if given the job of researching a book on their favourite drink. More commonly known for works of fiction such as, The Wasp Factory and Consider Phlebas (written as Iain M. Banks) he is widely acknowledged as one of Britain's greatest living writers & as a Scotsman is passionate about the  Whisky. In this book he combines Books & Whisky with a third love, Travel, the result being, he, along with a bunch of fellow travellers “some svelte, some burly, some vintage, some just over the top”, journey across Scotland, by planes & cars, by bikes & trains, by ferry & on foot. Searching remote shores & hidden glens to get to as many Distilleries as he possibly can. It’s a tough job, but as he puts it:

Someone’s got to do it, & I’m damn sure its going to be me”


Malt whisky is made in some of the most beautiful, rugged inaccessible areas of Scotland, with some of the least modern methods of transport, resulting in a lot of planning & a unique  view of his homeland “its a journey of a 1000 cheers & subsequent wobbly walks”. Along the way he meets people engaged in a centuries old tradition & manages to imbibe, along with a vast quantity of malt, some knowledge of the traditions, practices & eccentricities that make up the live blood of whisky & the distilleries that produce it

This book is hilarious, full of sharp witticisms, sparkling prose & that staggering imagination that has brought critical acclaim to his novels, but more importantly this book is full of the joy & excitement of someone given the chance to do something that they love.


If you want to learn about “the daft customs & superstitions”, if you want to know how to pronounce those Scottish names properly (Bunnahabhain = Boonahavin), or if you want to learn where your favourite malt is from, this is the book for you. If you want discover something new about Scotland & it’s people, this may be the book for you & if you want to have a laugh, read a popular writer just having a riotous time & find out if he can survive it, this is definitely the book for you.

Find out if he can survive the research !

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

To E or not to E ? that is the question


Having some time on my hands recently & spending that time constructively i.e. checking out Book blogs, I’ve noticed that this question keeps popping up in one guise or another -  should I get an E-reader/kindle/Sony etc, or are books as solid objects better?

Now for me this is a strange situation, I’ll stick my hands up I love GADGETS, I have my 32 gig creative Zen x-fi, my Nokia smart phone, my laptop, & I’m thinking about an I-PAD, in short I LOVE GADGETS.
So it should be easy, nip down the shops/order online,load it up & away I go with my electronic book,

I’ll have read The Complete works of Shakespeare by suppertime on to all western literature by bedtime.
But, there's something about holding a book,turning those pages, the smell of a new book & the smell of an old one. There’s the weight and the solid presence of something that's filled with dreams, fairytales, ideas that float above the surface, that seep into your thoughts & feelings.

Whether you would still feel this way with something like an E-reader,I don’t know, personally I doubt it, don’t get me wrong I can see their uses, brilliant for travellers, ideal if your away from home for short periods of time. Maybe for all my love of gadgetry I’m a Luddite. Yet books, solid, pristine, torn & battered, finding books with old bookmarks or notes inside - there’s just something about them, about the ritual of positioning yourself, finding the page & settling down for a period of time that can’t be replaced by a gadget.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Ideal Guide

 This has been described as the most comprehensive & thoroughly researched guide ever produced. Jim Murray has tasted over 2,500 Single Malt Whiskies, 240 Blended Scotches & around 260 American Whiskeys in the quest to make this the book it is. The Whisky Bible is a fantastic shortcut to discovering the world of whisky, it's a reference source for the consumer, the industry & the drinks trade, but most of all it's a fantstic guide to research how many expressions of a favourite whisky you can find, preferably with a bottle of your favourite malt. 

Saturday, June 19, 2010



ele 1

This book is a collection of short stories, starting with The Wind-up Bird & Tuesday's Women & finishing with the title story, The Elephant Vanishes. On turning the page to the first tale, I had that strange yet familiar feeling that a Murakami character must experience, a sense of the unknown mixed with an undercurrent of deja vu. First there was the title, then reading further, the understanding that I had read this before, that it was the opening to probably his best  known work, The Windup Bird Chronicles.
His stories deal with dissatisfaction with a heavily mechanised consumer driven society, people are disorientated, out of balance with what they perceive their lives should be, they are haunted by a lack of equilibrium & an aching sense of some loss. There's the sense of something dead in the  relationship of the couple in the 1st tale, the overwhelming hunger of the pair in the 2nd, which results in them robbing a McDonalds for burgers. In The Sleep, a housewife hasn’t slept for 17 days & doesn’t tell a soul, she spends this time reading books & at some point sees her mother in law in the sleeping face of her husband, realising how far apart they’ve drifted, & in the title story the narrator has an obsession over an elephant & its subsequent vanishing, to the extent he has a scrapbook on the subject & even where there's a possible love interest he cannot leave the subject alone even when there's no interest from this other party.

 ele 2

   Murakami creates these worlds that, just below the surface, just outside the corner of your eye lays another version of reality, not an alternate version, more like boxes within boxes. These are modern fairytales, where instead of being lost in some ancient woodland, where your trail of crumbs home have been eaten, the hero/heroine is  lost in Tokyo, with a tenuous (if lucky)  connection to the life about them, sometimes devoid of a work relationship, sometimes family/tradition. It’s in this world that green monsters swear undying love, dancing dwarves help you to score with a girl, but there’s always some condition. Its a world
where an aura of surrealism looks over your shoulder, where cause & effect change places. A place where what you imagined happening is just as valid as the memory of what happened, as in my favourite tale - On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl, One Beautiful April Morning. This tiny story of just  6 pages, where the narrator on passing his 100% perfect girl (her walking east to west & him west to east), doesn’t stop & talk to her. Later on, describing this to someone, he wished he could have stopped her. He then tells this tale complete with, Once upon a time, about 2 people perfect for each other meeting, & how it’s a sad tale. This is a beautiful, funny, sad story that I adored (In fact I read it twice over) that perfectly describes the human relationships within this book.

The Vanishing Elephant is a collection of stories & modern fairytales, that are darkly comic. They are full of lonely fragmented people, that live a puzzled dislocated existence. Some are shallow with little interior life; others have a deep yearning for meaning & self fulfilment. It’s in these tales, sometimes snuck between the lines, that the Murakami magic happens, where the humorous & puzzling tales highlight the absurdities in modern life & by the use of satire points to the mundanity of the daily merry-go-round that is our lives. 

 ele 3
  • The wind-up bird & Tuesday’s women.
  • The second bakery attack.
  • On seeing the 100% perfect girl, one beautiful April morning
  • Sleep.
  • The fall of the Roman empire. The 1881 Indian uprising. Hitler's invasion of  Poland
       & the realm of the raging wind.
  • Lederhosen.                                                                                                                                                                           
  • Barn burning.
  • The little green monster.                                                                                                                                         
  • Family affair.                                                                                          ele 4 
  • A window.
  • TV people.
  • A slow boat to china.
  • The dancing dwarf.
  • The last lawn of the afternoon.
  • The silence.
  • The Elephant vanishes.
 A Murakami link

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Andrew Motion attacks 'catastrophic' plan for volunteers to run libraries

This was  spotted on the site.

To see this story with its related links on the site, go to
Andrew Motion attacks 'catastrophic' plan for volunteers to run libraries
Former poet laureate reacts with alarm to KPMG report on public sector reform that says libraries are 'not very much used'
Alison Flood
Saturday June 12 2010

Andrew Motion, the former poet laureate, has dismissed suggestions from consultancy KPMG that libraries are "not very much used" and should be run by volunteers as foolhardy, outlandish and potentially catastrophic.
A new report from KPMG into public sector reform [" title="new report from KPMG into public sector reform] says that "giving councils total freedom on libraries could mean that they create huge social value from engaging a community in running its own library, backed up with some modern technology, whilst also saving large amounts of money on over-skilled paid staff, poor use of space and unnecessary stock".
Speaking on the Today programme earlier this week, one of the report's authors, Alan Downey, said that although "libraries are hugely important in the national psyche [" title="libraries are hugely important in the national psyche] ... there is a problem with libraries, that they are not very much used and very expensive to run".
"We're not suggesting in this report that libraries should be closed down, we are saying that libraries and other community facilities might be better off if they're run by [a] community that values them rather than by the state," he said.
But Motion, who is chair of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, said that if the government were to take up the report's suggestions, it would "harm the most disadvantaged" in the UK. He stressed that maintaining libraries was fundamentally important.
"Of course money must be saved, and it will be saved, in the public library sector, but to put the whole thing at risk is absolutely the wrong step to take," said the former poet laureate. "Good libraries, like good anythings, need expert people working within them. Maybe there is a role for some aspect of volunteering but all the central stuff must be done by people who are qualified to do it ... I think it would be a catastrophe."
"Whether we are traditionalists about libraries or not, and I consider myself not, we ought to be able to accept that libraries are very important pieces of machinery for delivering to human beings what they need ? information, pleasure, instruction, enlightenment, new direction in life. They're also joining up with services which help people with difficulty reading, and working with people learning English ? to put all that in danger is exactly the wrong thing to do," he said.
Although Motion "completely accept[ed]" that this is a time "when we ought to be able to have a grown-up conversation about how things can be done differently", he felt that "simply not to recognise what libraries fundamentally are, and what their potential is, as this report seems to do, is frustrating, in the view of all the work that has been done and the manifest values of these things".
Motion said he hoped the government wouldn't "waste too much time" debating the "more outlandish suggestions" floated in the report "when there is a very challenging task ahead to deliver relevant, quality library services with less money".
"There is no harm in society periodically asking itself which services should be publicly funded, and how they should be run, but it is a foolhardy notion that a modern economy would wantonly abandon resources that support learning and help build our potential as human beings," he said. "We are at a critical time. A time for big thinking, not big mistakes that would set the country back and harm the most disadvantaged who need the best possible libraries and free access to books."

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“Fame requires every kind of excess”

“I mean true fame, not the sombre renown of weary statesmen or chinless kings. I mean  long journeys across gray space. I mean danger, the very edge of the void, the circumstance of one man imparting an erotic terror to the dreams of the republic………….
Great J,S

         ( is it clear I was a hero of Rock ‘n’ Roll)

So starts Don Delillo’s 3rd novel, Great Jones Street. The hero, Bucky Wunderlick, has left the group high & dry, by dropping out of a national tour at the height of their fame & success. His reasoning is to seek out an alternate existence, outside of his public persona, by seeking refuge in some crummy bedsit on Great Jones Street. The problem with this is everyone knows he’s there, his manager (the building is owned by his management company), members of a cult, fellow band members etc & they all want to or already do own a piece of him. Some are after some experimental super drug & some for some tapes of music he has made.

In trying to write this piece, I’ve checked out various resources & they make comparisons between the hero & Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Jim Morrison & even Kurt Cobain (amazing as the book was out in the early 70’s), discussing the relationship between self & public persona. In the book there is no division, the public perception has as much credibility as the individual, Bucky & us, as readers, constantly learn of his exploits all whilst constantly aware he hasn’t left Great Jones Street, making rumour & publicity at least as real as his private self.
Also mentioned a lot is the connection between the underground movement & rock. There's a cult called the Happy valley farm commune, who have set up home in a lower eastside tenement & seem to connect themselves with Bucky's withdrawal from society (or his perception of it). Personally I think Delillo points us elsewhere to what he perceives as the real underground, through the character of Watney(named after the English beer comp?) an old retired English rocker who says on page 232

The presidents & prime ministers are the ones who make the underground deals & speak the true underground idiom. The corporations. The military. The banks.This is the underground network. This is where it happens. Power flows under the surface, far beneath the level you & I live on. This is where the laws are broken, way down under, far beneath the speed freaks & cutters of smack. Your not insulated or unaccountable the way a corporate force is.Your audience is not the relevant audience.It doesn’t make anything. It doesn’t sell to others.Your life consumes itself”

If this book has a message, its something like, rock & its rebel underground image has no real status, no power, it is merely a way of selling a particular commodity. That the real status,those that really stick their fingers up to the man, are the man. This was probably true then & it definitely resonates with what makes the news today.

This book also  left me with a dilemma, a question. Can you still like a book that has no redeeming characters, that has no likable quality in its ideals, individuals or even the images it portrays…..In the end it’s saved by the sheer power & beauty of the writing, it is strong, erotic & has a insular nature suited to its main character, in fact it reminded me of a book I read years ago, that was also in a confined setting & had a poetic nature & that was Lawrence Durrell's The black book.