Just a Wee Blether…

About doing breakfast…American style

A few days before I left Scotland, I ‘did breakfast’ with one of my former colleagues from the Evening Times. We dined in Hyndland, in Glasgow’s cosmopolitan west end and it was an extremely pleasant, if slightly un-Scottish, occasion.

‘Let’s do breakfast’ is a very common foodie refrain over here in the States. Hollywood movies and American television shows have for decades been showing us images of people meeting in restaurants for morning coffee – never tea – and doing business deals over breakfast long before the start of the traditional British working day.

It’s only in recent years that Scotland has remotely caught up and even then, it’s only to an extent. In certain parts of certain cities in Scotland it is possible to meet a friend or business acquaintance for breakfast. Going out for a meal still tends to be an evening adventure.

There is, of course, nothing quite like a full Scottish breakfast. Eggs, sausages (links and square), bacon, black pudding, baked beans, potato scones, tomatoes, mushrooms, toast, all washed down with several cups of tea. It’s not called a widow-maker for nothing.

For me anyway, these tended to be special occasion breakfasts – a B&B in the Highlands or something similar. At home most of us in Scotland start the day with either cereal, tea and toast, sausage and eggs, a bacon roll, or granola with yogurt and fruit.

Here in the US ‘doing breakfast’ is big business – yoooge business in fact. And the portions are massive. I’ve been out at 7am for breakfast and not been hungry again until close on 6pm. Every breakfast restaurant has a combination of sweet and savoury menu choices which are way off the scale of what’s on offer – so far – in the UK.

The breakfast menu of the Henhouse Café, not far from my house, is a typical example. One item, Mom’s Homemade Pancakes, is followed by the warning ‘may cause drowsiness, they are huge’. In fact, these pancakes are so big they are hanging over the edge of the plate. And the plates are pretty big.

The description of the Strawberry Cheesecake French Toast goes like this. Hawaiian bread dipped in batter, crusted with Graham Crackers, stuffed with strawberry cheesecake filling, topped with whipped cream, strawberries and strawberry syrup. All for $8.29 (£6.32p).

There are umpteen savoury choices including the Grandpa Skillet, which consists of eggs cooked whichever way you choose, sausage, potatoes, mushrooms, red onions, red and green bell peppers, cheese, covered with gravy, and with a portion of toast. It costs $8.99 and, again, the portion you receive is ginormous.

To put it into perspective, the Henhouse Café is one of hundreds of breakfast places to choose from in the Greater Phoenix area. They are on every street corner and they do steady trade every day of the week, but on the weekends be prepared to wait 30 or 60 minutes – and many people do.

I find the whole ‘doing breakfast’ experience a great way to start the day. It doesn’t beat getting up at the crack of dawn and heading for the Scottish hills, but it does make you get out of bed earlier than you otherwise would, and mix with people at a time when you would normally be snoozing.

Breakfasting out has been something of an American tradition for decades – think of old-fashioned diners in movies starring the likes of Joan Crawford and Ray Milland. And nowadays there are entire TV networks devoted to food, with many episodes focused on the bounty of available breakfast fare.

Glasgow and the rest of Scotland has a long way to go to catch up – although I’m not sure it really wants to. I’m not convinced that Scots are ready to embrace the breakfast culture in the same way Americans have. Perhaps there is too much emphasis on the 9-5 working day, maybe it’s just not a Scottish thing.

But judging by my Hyndland experience with my jolly ex-colleague, it’s something I would recommend as a fun and refreshing way to start the day. Just keep the portions down to UK size.





Just a Wee Blether…

About rock on Kelvingrove bandstand

The picture below was taken by me in April 2012. I often used to walk along the River Kelvin pathway in Glasgow and pass the old Kelvingrove bandstand which, as you can see, was in a serious state of disrepair. People used to reminisce about the days when it staged open-air concerts.

There was talk of a restoration project but it all seemed like a lot of hot air. Far easier to demolish it or wait till it became the ‘victim’ of fire?

7 April bandstand

But hats off to everyone. The bandstand has been beautifully renovated and has staged concerts by Tom Jones, Primal Scream, Echo and the Bunnymen, Steve Earle, and a host of others. Van Morrison is due there soon; there was even an outdoor screening of the movie Local Hero. It has become a major – if not-so-new – musical venue.

It really gladdens my heart to see structures like the bandstand restored and put to use. Old buildings that fall derelict are very often knocked down or, in the case of the wonderful old Scotway House (below) at the mouth of the River Kelvin, destroyed by fire. It would have been a wonderful building for an upscale restaurant but, never mind, the distress of the owners should be relieved by a large insurance cheque.

The problem I have with the wrecking ball being taken to buildings whose best days may be over is that, in most cases they are structurally sound and architecturally stunning. A disused factory, for example, could be transformed into housing. But once demolished they can never be resurrected and they are inevitably replaced by something modern and far less attractive.

8 July - Drawing Office

Imagine if some of our clan chiefs decided to knock down their ancient castles because they were no longer habitable?

Meanwhile new estates spring up on what used to be precious countryside. Mass-produced houses in suburban developments are affordable but they lack any character. Given the choice between suburbia and a restored old city tenement, I would always pick the latter.

The town I grew up in once boasted a magnificent hotel, the Marine and Curlinghall. It had a sprung dance floor and a historic connection with the development of the sport of curling. Nowadays it would be a listed building but in the early 1980s it was sold to a development company and demolished. I used to work in the hotel and thought it was a crime.

Here in Phoenix, the spread of large housing estates seems relentless. This is an ever-expanding city thanks largely to the year-round sunshine. What is depressing is that many of the pockets of waste land that break up the endless housing and commercial developments are being steadily built on.

The desert landscape doesn’t have the same beauty as the Scottish countryside but it is still a relief to get in the car and leave the city behind once in a while. There are plenty buildings in and around Phoenix that are lying empty and could easily be used for housing with a bit of imagination.

On a slightly similar theme, I always wonder why old ships or boats must end up in the scrapyard. They could be put to good use in ports and harbours around the world as museums or for educational purposes, perhaps even for short excursions.

Maybe it’s just a dream and commercial considerations will always win the day. But it seems absurd that while perfectly good buildings stand empty in the centre of a city, cookie-cutter homes are being built in the suburbs.

And equally absurd that old boats that have been built with the sweat and toil of shipyard workers are rushed to the scrapyard at the first opportunity.

Just a Wee Blether…

About national anthems – to sing or not?

There’s nothing better than seeing a pompous, arrogant prat being brought down to earth with a thump – and former Fleet Street editor turned chat show presenter turned Twittersphere pain in the butt Piers Morgan is most definitely a pompous, arrogant prat.

After Olympian Bradley Wiggins had strained every sinew to claim a cycling gold medal for Britain, he committed the heinous crime of not singing the National Anthem. Shock horror, he even pulled a funny face on the podium.

Without delay, Morgan took to his trusty Twitter account to tell the world, “I was very disappointed @bradwiggins didn’t sing the anthem either. Show some respect to our monarch please.”

Wiggins’ reply was short and to the point. “@piersmorgan I was disappointed when you didn’t go to jail for insider dealing or phone hacking, but you know, each to his own.” So far nothing more has been heard from Morgan but give him time.

Only days earlier a similar type of row broke out in the US around the head of gymnast Gabby Douglas, part of the American gold medal winning team who had produced arguably the finest gymnastic performance since the days of Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci.

Arizona October 2012 240

Douglas stood straight and proud as the anthem was being played – but crucially her hands were clasped in front of her. Her four colleagues held their right hands over their hearts, as many Americans do. All hell broke loose, she was accused of being ‘unpatriotic’ and of dishonouring the American flag.

Columnist Bill Plaschke wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The next time Gabby Douglas stands on a podium for the national anthem, she can forget the words, disagree with them, protest them. But here’s hoping she never again ignores the weight of their meaning.”

Gabby Douglas aplogised but it’s not the first time a row has broken out at the Olympics over athletes allegedly disrespecting the flag or the monarchy. Remember Daley Thompson whistling the anthem after winning decathlon gold at the Los Angeles games in 1984?

Does any of this really matter a damn? These are sportspeople who have trained hard for years and turned in magnificent, medal-winning performances. What difference does it make whether they sing along or where they put their hands? Are there ancient rules of etiquette governing this sort of occasion?

I remember an old Scoutmaster once telling us boys that, when the anthem was played, we should hold our hands behind our backs and stick out our chests. The chest-puffing would demonstrate pride in Queen and country. That was his take on the matter.

The dirge-like British national anthem is so tortuous that the only emotion it ever inspired in me was boredom and a sense of ‘please let this be over’. I like Flower of Scotland as a Scottish anthem and I’ve sung along at Hampden Park football matches and other occasions. However, I never once felt the need to place my hand reverently on my heart.

My two personal favourite anthems are those of France and Wales. Over here the Star Spangled Banner is also a great spirited song, even if the ‘land of the free’ sentiment jars somewhat. Americans sing the anthem at every opportunity, from baseball and football games to high school graduation ceremonies, and people display genuine national, patriotic pride.

But surely medal winning Olympic athletes bring a sense of honour and pride to their nations simply by participating. If they win they are understandably elated. For many it is the highlight of their sporting lives. I’m not advocating outrageous behaviour on the medal podium but I do think some people should get a life.

If there was a gold medal for tweeting I would love to award it to Bradley Wiggins. But I suppose it’s too much to hope that his response will keep Piers Morgan quiet for long.

Just a Wee Blether…

About the millionaire Olympic Games

The first Olympic Games I really remember with any clarity was the 1968 event in Mexico City. They made a big impact on me as a sports-mad youngster. I remember Bob Beamon’s incredible long-jump record; David Hemery winning hurdles gold for Britain; and the Block Power protest by Tommie Smith and John Carlos.

I also have very clear memories of a boxer called Chris Finnegan. He might not be an Olympic household name any more but his victory in the middleweight division captured a nation. It was late at night UK-time/early morning Mexico time when I heard my parents saying that Finnegan had won the gold.

Finnegan was a pretty rough and ready character. Just before the games, he had lost his job as a hod carrier and Olympic records described him as an unemployed labourer at the time of his gold medal win. He was a strict amateur, as Olympic rules decreed, and had been in financial difficulties in the run-up to Mexico. Afterwards he went professional, but with only limited success. Mexico City 1968 was Finnegan’s moment in the sun.


David Hemery was a physical education teacher that year; Bob Braithwaite, who won shooting gold, was a veterinary surgeon who persuaded his local priest to operate the trap while he practiced; Lillian Board, who won silver in the women’s 400 metres, worked full-time in a typing pool; and Marion Coakes, who won equestrian silver, was the daughter of a farmer and learned her riding skills on the back of a donkey.

This week the British Olympic flag was carried into the stadium in Rio by Andy Murray, fresh from his victory at Wimbledon which earned him £2million. Murray’s net worth – before Wimbledon – was put at £36.55million. His professional tennis career has been responsible for every penny.

Murray, of course, is the pride of Scotland right now and hailed as possibly the nation’s greatest-ever sportsman. Chris Hoy, Eric Liddell and others might have a claim on that title but nevertheless it was wonderful to see a Scottish competitor awarded the privilege.

He’s not the only millionaire sportsperson in Rio of course. The USA golf squad includes Rickie Fowler, Bubba Watson and Matt Kuchar, all multi-millionaires thanks to their sport. The British squad contains Justin Rose. Fowler said this week he was proud to be at the Games but that winning a major golfing event such as The Open would trump an Olympic gold.

For decades the Olympic ideal meant love of sport, not love of money. The games were strictly for amateur athletes, people such as Chris Finnegan who sparred at the local gym in between labouring shifts. Then came megabuck television deals, corporate sponsorships, and slowly but surely the Olympic movement effectively sold its amateur soul. The commercial sponsors were fine with the Braithwaites and Finnegans as long as they got big names – Lionel Messi, Ryan Giggs, Roger Federer, Michael Jordan.

When Jordan and his ‘Dream Team’ US basketball squad, which included the likes of ‘Magic’ Johnson and Larry Bird, arrived in Barcelona in 1992, it signalled the end of the amateur era. They won their games by an average of 44 points. There was no competition.

The clock will never be turned back, it’s simply not possible. There is so much money slushing around sport – legally and illegally – that a truly amateur Olympics could never again happen. Having said that, there are plenty of amateur golfers, for example. Why shouldn’t they get their opportunity instead of the likes of Rickie Fowler for whom an Olympic gold is a distant second to a victory in the US PGA? Or is it really the case that the days when winning an Olympic event was the proudest moment of a sportsperson’s life are gone forever?

I’ll still watch the Olympics and admire the great sporting achievements. But I won’t pay the slightest bit of attention to whichever team of millionaires wins the golf, or the tennis, or the football.

As for Andy Murray, he has had many moments in the limelight and may well have many more. There are plenty of lesser-known contestants from throughout the UK, including Scotland, who arguably would have been more suitable candidates to carry the flag. But then another Andy Murray photo opportunity is good for Olympic business and corporate bank accounts.