Sunday, August 29, 2004


The occasional framed picture that may appear from time to time in this journal is not simply some picture that I happen to like. It is artwork that I have created in an attempt to open up that largely unexplored territory, where visual form and verse meet – especially where both arise from the same creative source. - c.j.o.

Standing stones - Callanish,Isle of Lewis.

Callanish Posted by Hello


To stand below the sky at Callanish
is to feel the meaning of spirit
to realise our part in the universe
and to know that what may seem important
in our daily lives is but a speck in the eye of time.

Saturday, August 28, 2004

"We have learned that humanity can cultivate its intellect to an astonishing level of accomplishment without becoming master of its soul"
Herman Hesse Siddhartha

Friday, August 27, 2004

On The Helly Hansen V Trail - Glentress Posted by Hello

The Glentress Phenomenon

I've just returned from a holiday in Morzine widely recognised as the Mountainbike Capital of the world and, good as it was, our very own mecca now the biggest 'Tourist Attraction' in the Scottish Borders still gets my vote.
Compared with the Morzine runs Glentress is very much man-made as opposed to the 'natural' ungroomed trails in the Alps and,it could be argued, is a bit more forgiving for the 'middle range' rider like myself. Having said that if you can do the 18miles of the 'Black' rated Helly Hansen 'V' Trail, the Glentress showpiece, in around 2hrs you'll get all the excitement you want with a trip in the ambulance always only a concentration lapse away!
The once ski-based economy of Morzine has been extended by Mountain Biking to all year round. Perhaps with a little imagination this could be the saviour of the all but dead Scottish Ski Industry!

Sea Otters - Summer Isles Posted by Hello

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Dharma Clips

Things are not what they seem;nor are they otherwise.
Lankavatra Sutra

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Monday, August 23, 2004

On the Ice and Frozen Turf of Invernookie  Posted by Hello


A bright blue sky and more importantly a windless morning greets us as we park the car in the Coire Cas car park at the Cairngorm ski centre. I use the word windless in a relative sense, because in this part of the world that condition rarely, if ever, applies. I have driven from Edinburgh on what seemed a fine day, arriving here to find that I was unable to get the car door open because of the wind and, on another occasion, I witnessed stones being lifted off the ground and smashing car windscreens – all we can say with certainty is, that on this occasion, it is relatively windless.

The day’s target is ‘Invernookie.’ No, nothing sexual, simply the name of a winter climb in Coire an t- Sneachda one of the Northern Corries of the Cairngorms. It may come as a surprise to the uninitiated to find that winter climbing is not simply a case of starting at the bottom of a face and getting to the top. The ice-clad cliffs of Scotland are covered in very well documented ‘routes’ of varying degrees of difficulty, all mapped out in the relevant guidebook for the area concerned, a process which has been going on for over a hundred years. In the old days the naming of these routes was a fairly straightforward business, for example, routes like ‘Central Gully’ and ‘Left Edge’ were simply denoting position on the face; while ‘Raeburn’s Gully’ and ‘Patey’s Route’ were named after the first ascentionists. Today we range from the esoteric such as ‘The Glass Bead Game’ on Beinn Dorain to the sexually punning ‘Hoarmaster’ in the neighbouring Coire Lochain, and ‘Invernookie’ - well who knows?

The great attraction of the Northern Corries of the Cairngorms as a winter playground for climbers lies in the fact that when you get out of your car, (wind permitting!) you are already at 1600ft and an hour or so of brisk walking can see you at the foot of the climbs. Somewhat different from the days of the pioneers when the nearest roadhead was ten miles away!

There is not a lot of snow on the ground and as we slip and skid our way along the well worn but icy track that leads away from the car park towards the climbing area, we become aware of a new feature in the landscape. The Cairngorm Funicular is no longer a political argument - it is a fact. The concrete track snaking its way up the hill will doubtless improve the rate of uplift for skiers and it could be argued that at least it is an improvement to an existing development rather than an intrusion into a totally new area, as was so long on the cards with the Lurcher’s Gully proposals.

Arriving in the inner corrie we walk easily over the frozen lochan where, this time last year, I took an early bath, breaking through thin ice cunningly concealed under a layer of powder snow which, needless to say, led to a quick cancellation of our first appointment with ‘Invernookie.’ We make our way down into the bowl below the north face in order to avoid traversing a treacherous boulder field and here,on the steepening snow slopes below the climbs, we pass a number of groups practising the rudiments of ice-axe braking under the watchful eye of instructors from Glenmore Lodge Outdoor Centre and the other ‘Guiding’ organisations which, long established in Europe, have now become a prominent feature of Scottish Mountaineering.

Our route lies over to the right on the steep face below the Fiacaill Ridge much beloved of calender photographers and those beginning to cut their teeth in the often unforgiving arena of Scottish Winter climbing . Another twenty minutes of uphill toil brings us into the foot of our route where, donning harnesses and crampons, we rope up amid showers of fine snow or ‘spindrift’ being blown off the plateau 300ft above.

‘Invernookie,’ like most of the climbs in the Northern Corries, is what is termed a mixed climb in that it is not achieved on ice alone but on a mixture of snow, iced up rock and frozen turf. Leading the first section or pitch with my companion solidly belayed to a metal ‘piton’ hammered into the rock below, I find conditions to be rather thin. There is little ice, which means that much of the time progress is on frozen turf and, when that is not available, height is won by the slightly more precarious use of ice axe blades torqued into cracks in the rock.

I suppose to the layman this all sounds rather improbable but the truth of the matter is that ‘Invernookie’ gave up it’s secrets in three relatively straight forward pitches, the only really tense moment being when my crampon became entangled in a sling below me at a particularly inopportune moment. In order to extricate myself, my ageing bones had to perform what I imagine to be third degree Hatha Yoga while suspended above a considerable drop from the point of one axe! I often think that a distinct lack of imagination is a positive attribute in Winter climbing.

We had been climbing in the shade of the face for an hour and a half and it was a joy to be out on the ridge and into the relative warmth of the sunshine again. The walk round the rim of the corrie in the roseate glow of late afternoon is wonderful. The sculpted cornices overhanging the face, which, in another few weeks, will reach prodigious proportions, are just beginning to form and pose no great problem to the climber who pops his head up in front of us having climbed the last pitch of the ‘Crotched Gully’ route.

As we approach the line of the headwall of Coire- Cas we are presented in graphic fashion with the paradox that is the Northern Corries. Looking south we see the low sun illuminating the raw beauty and silent arctic wilderness of the Cairngorm plateau, while the view immediately north leads the eye back to the ski area, to the car park, to restaurants and to noise. However I must admit that I’m not adverse to a good days skiing and perhaps the Northern Corries is, as Voltaire was wont to say, “ The best of all possible worlds.”

The Innaccesible Pinnacle-Cuillin Ridge-Skye Posted by Hello

Munroists Everest

For the aspirant Munroist there is one summit which looms large in their sub-conscious from the time that the fateful obsession to start ticking the 284 3000ft summits of Scotland takes hold. A summit which, for most, keeps getting put off and put off again for yet another day, until the time arrives when it can be ignored no longer. That summit is the ‘Inaccessible Pinnacle’ of Sgurr Dearg, one of ten Munros which make up Skye’s Black Cuillin Ridge. However it is clear that prior to the birth of the Munroism cult, the Inaccessible Pinnacle did not attract the reverence it does today. Sheriff Nicolson of Skye had this to say of it in 1874 “It might be possible with ropes and grappling irons to overcome it, but the achievement seems hardly worth the trouble” Not so today.

Why then should a relatively small rock pinnacle, 100ft from top to base, have such an effect on these poor unfortunates? The answer is quite simple, it is that very pinnacle which makes Sgurr Dearg the only one of the Munros that requires rock climbing skills. Sure, there are many which are airy and exposed, An-Tellach and the tops of Glencoe’s Aonach Egach ridge come immediately to mind, but these are attained by what I would term rock scrambling rather than actual roped climbing. In 1880 the ‘In Pin’, as it is known to the cognescenti ,was first climbed by the Pilkington brothers and was described as “A razor- like edge with an overhanging and infinite drop on one side, and a drop longer and steeper on the other!”

Having climbed the Pinnacle myself more than once, I was recently put upon ( not that I neededed much persuasion) by a group of walkers who, to a man/woman, had fallen under Munros spell, and asked to accompany them to Skye with the avowed purpose of assisting them in completing an ascent of the Pinnacle, the Munroists ‘Everest.’ We stayed the night before the climb at the Glen Brittle Memorial Hut, built in remembrance of climbers who fell in the Great War. This ‘hut’ is really a well appointed cottage, hut being a euphemism used by climbers as a ruse aimed at partners who might think that they could possibly be away for the weekend enjoying themselves! It is in a wonderful location, situated at the bottom of the Glen about half a mile from the sea and with the full majesty of the Cuillin Ridge rising to over 3000ft virtually right out of the front garden.

The morning of our proposed ascent was rather overcast with just a hint of drizzle but, as I explained to my charges over coffee, the fact that we could see the tops at all was in itself unusual. This did little to allay their misgivings and there was not a lot of banter as we made our way up the steep screes of Coire Lagan.

When, two hours later, we reached the base of the Pinnacle itself the weather had cleared but the silence among my companions was palpable. The geological origin of this hundred foot horn of rock that had definitely grabbed their attention, is that it is composed of hard gabbro which once lay between dykes of softer basalt, subsequent erosion having left it standing proud of its surroundings. It has two normal ways of ascent, a long relatively easier climb on the east side where the main problem is the degree of exposure experienced while climbing. The shorter, steeper and technically harder west side was more attractive for the days purpose making it faster and easier for me to protect the ascent and, just as importantly, the descent of ten very nervous individuals.

I tied into the rope and could feel ten pairs of eyes following my every move as I soloed up the route and clipped the rope into a wire sling left permanently round the summit block. I felt it important that the first of the summiteers should make it look as easy as possible in order to give the others a much needed confidence boost and, to that end, I chose the youngest and fittest male from a group that were finding it increasingly difficult to hide behind one another on this bare mountaintop. He shot up the climb like the veritable scalded cat on a mixture of fear and adrenalin and so, I’m glad to say, in somewhat slower progression, did the other nine with varying degrees of style.

Needless to say there was a buzz of excitement as the successful group gathered on the narrow summit but their exuberance was still mixed with a tinge of apprehension. The only way down from this airy perch is by abseil and I was glad that I had spent an evening in Edinburghs Blackford quarry teaching my charges the rudiments of this skill, which has often proved the undoing of even the most experienced of climbers. An hour later all were gathered again safely at the foot of the Pinnacle where they more than made up for the lack of banter earlier in the day.

Later that night in the Sligachan Inn, champagne corks were popped, drams taken and tales of derring do circulated, much as one would expect amongst those who had newly joined that select band of adventurers made party to the mysteries of the ‘In Pin.’

Note: One of the party Archie Tollin, at the grand old age of 74 is included as number 2464 in this years list of completing Munroists published in The Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal.

First published in The Scots Magazine 2001

Paying The Piper

Vodka days spent huddled and alone
in the darkest corners of my mind
seem to blend and blur into a manic
frieze of disjointed imagery

As in a daze I contemplate the ultimate
in escape from my tyrant master,
feeling the sharp tang of cold metal on
my tongue as I reach for the trigger.

The image breaks,moves on and tears come
slowly as I search pockets of copper
for the price of my next fix,
the one that will ease the pain.


Throwing In The Towel

I mark my sobriety every year by the age of my youngest daughter, I am one of the lucky ones – she is now seventeen.
It strikes me that the conflict analogy most often used with regard to recovery from alcoholism the ‘battle’ with the bottle, the ‘fight’ against drink is an unhelpful one. This is a battle that cannot be won and therefore a fight best not entered into. I say this from painful experience because I climbed into the ring in this contest many many times and suffered some fearful batterings in a mismatch that would only ever have one outcome. The truth is that it is only when one refuses to compete and throws in the towel that recovery can truly begin.
When I stopped drinking I truly believed that I was entering what could be described as a ‘greyscale’ world, a world where everything would be boring, dull and uninteresting but things were so bad I was willing to live with that. Examining that kind of thinking from where I am now only serves to confirm what many people forget, that as well as being a physical illness alcoholism is most certainly a mental illness, how else can you account for such a warped worldview.
To those of you struggling out there I can only tell you that if you throw in the towel and are willing to truly and deeply change your mind, by which I mean change your way of thinking about alcohol and your relationship to it, there is a wonderful, bright, technicolour world out here
full of possibilities that you never thought existed.
One other thing, I don’t worry who knows I am an alcoholic, it is a part of me. I now look on my years of active alcoholism as a crucible through which my present character has been refined.
One tip though, don’t wait too long - some die in the fire.

Charlie Orr (51), former Detective Lothian and Borders Police

First Published in The Scotsman 2004

An Affinity With Stars (For Giannis Ritsos)

To think of stars,
to internalise them,
feed from them
in times of darkness
gives me strength,
a strength my torturers
find difficult to understand.

'King Of The Mountains' Reaching the top of the Tourmalet. Posted by Hello

King Of The Mountains (2001)

That I am now a cyclist ‘of a certain age’ should be clear when I say that my boyhood heroes of ‘The Tour de France’ were Eddy Merkcx and Jacques Anquetil and, in these far off days, the thought of an American taking part in, never mind winning the most coveted prize in cycling for the third time in 2001 was unheard of.

While holidaying in the Pyrenees in July that year, I had the privilege of seeing this ‘unheard of’ New World figure in the shape of Lance Armstrong of the U.S. Postal team dominate his rivals in this the toughest sporting event in the world. I saw him ride gracefully over the 6000’ Col du Tourmalet apparently breathing through his ears as others struggled in his wake, mouths agape like stranded fish. The German Jan Ullrich of the Deutch Telekomm team, himself a previous winner in 1997 before the onset of the ‘Armstrong era’, was the only one who managed to stay with him, sticking doggedly to his wheel over the toughest climbs in the Alps and now, on this the last of the Pyrenean mountain stages, sticking manfully to his task without being able to make any impression on the piston like climbing machine in yellow. On the final brutal climb of this 100 mile stage to the ski station of Luz Ardiden, Ullrich attacked time and again but to no avail and as they crossed the line together he offered his hand to Armstrong in acknowledgement of his place as ‘Dauphine’ to the rightful King.

What is it then that drives a relatively sane middle aged man to even contemplate riding any stage of ‘The Tour’ never mind one described in the official guide as ‘the third moral-shatteringly gruelling Pyrenean mountain leg of the 2001 Tour.’ Good question!

It was in March this year that I booked a family holiday in Bareges in the Pyrenees only to find that the village was situated on the slopes of what is in ‘Tour de France’ terms the legendary Col du Tourmalet. Further research showed that the 14th stage from Tarbes to Luz Ardiden passed through the village while we were there and that is when the seed of an idea was planted, to ride
the stage in its entirety the day after The Greats.

I had done some competitive cycling in the seventies with some success but I hadn’t ridden 100 miles at a stretch on a road bike since then, never mind a hundred miles over three of the toughest climbs in cycling, the Col d’Aspin, the Col du Tourmalet and finishing with the climb to the ski station at Luz Ardiden. Tour climbs are categorised from 1 to 4 in order of difficulty. The Aspin is a first category (hardest) and the other two are what is termed ‘Hors du Categorie’ or out of category, which means they are so hard that they don’t even fit into the system!

I started training in April with fifty mile stints from my home in Midlothian and as I grew fitter I increased the distance and more importantly the climbing content of my outings. I made special trips north to climb the biggest and longest we’ve got on the Cairn o’ Mount and the Lecht from Cockbridge to Tomintoul. My final outing in early July before we left for France was the 100mile round trip by St Mary’s Loch to Moffat returning via the climb of the Devil’s Beef Tub.
Was I ready? Well, as ready as I would ever be. The truth of the matter is however, that nothing that you can do in this country can properly prepare you either physically, and more important, mentally, for the enormity of these climbs and when, approaching your fiftieth birthday, you string three of them together with all the other bits in between well - That phrase beloved of the Irish Tourist Board just about covers it, ‘You’ll never know until you go!”

Prior to leaving, my children presented me with the ‘Malliot de pois rouge’ the distinctive red and white polka dot jersey worn by the Tour’s leading climber, ‘The King of The Mountains.’ I hoped I would live up to it.

The afternoon we arrived in Bareges I rode the Tourmalet taking about an hour and a half for the 16km climb. Interestingly on all of the climbs in the area used by the Tour there are marker boards every kilometre which give height, distance to the summit and the average gradient for the next kilometre. How one feels about these is all very much a state of mind, if you are going well, they can be helpful and encouraging, if badly they simply remind you, very slowly, of how far you’ve got to go. I was on this occasion going well and was surprised at the number of cyclists doing the climb, but I suppose, given that I was at a ‘Tour’ mecca six days before it was to pass, perhaps I shouldn’t have been. On the climb I was passed on three occasions but consoled myself with the fact that these guys were less than half my age and of course the half dozen or so that I passed were also younger, or so I told myself. I was aware here of the folly of treating what I was attempting to do as some sort of race, do that and I would undoubtedly fail. Completion was the name of the game.

On Sunday 22nd July, the Tour and it’s accompanying cavalcade of advertising vehicles and team cars passed through the village. The cavalcade precedes the riders by about an hour and a half and gives the whole thing a carnival atmosphere reminiscent of the annual Festival cavalcade on Edinburgh’s Princes Street, as free gifts and samples of the sponsors wares are distributed among the crowds. The Tourmalet is used regularly on the Tour route, sometimes the riders are climbing through the village and sometimes descending, this was a descent year and at speeds in excess of 50mph they swooped down through the village in a multi- coloured lycra torrent and were gone, on towards the 16km rigours of the climb toLuz Ardiden and the finish of their days labours.

10am the next day saw me in the car- park of the ‘Champion’ supermarket on the outskirts of the town of Tarbes. An omen perhaps? ‘Champion’ are the sponsors of the ‘King of The Mountains’ competition, their colours being the red and white of the ‘pois rouge’ which I was wearing. Bike assembled, I stuffed my pockets with bananas and energy bars. A light rain top and a puncture repair outfit completed my kit as my wife and daughter waved me off.

The first forty five miles took a pleasant route through the relatively flat countryside although two category three climbs and a category four sapped some energy which would have been useful at the end of the day. At this stage, I was grateful for the considerable cloud cover which was present, unlike the previous few days where we had experienced what the French refer to as ‘Le Grand Chaleur’ the big heat, when the sun beats down from clear blue skies from morning till night. After about an hour I started to eat and drink from the two 2 litre bottles I was carrying. It is never very pleasant forcing food down during hard exercise like this but it is essential if you are to avoid ‘bonking’ later in the day. An alien concept for British youth you might think but there is something lost in the translation ‘bonking’ is in fact cyclespeak for hypoglycaemia or what marathon runners refer to as ‘hitting the wall.’

The village of Arreau marked the end of the foothills and the 14km climb of the Col d’Aspin loomed ahead as I settled into a steady rhythm. It is a pleasant climb wooded all the way to the summit offering some shade from the sun which now burned down unremittingly. As I neared the summit a young lad overtook me going like a train and was standing arms folded and smiling smugly at the top as I passed. It was at this point that I thought that it would have been a good idea to have a sign on my back saying ‘Only doing one? I’m doing the whole f****** stage. Please pass if you can!’ Translation difficulties and the extra weight would have caused problems though.

On the extensive flat summit of the Aspin you have to thread your way through the resident herd of Charolais cattle who live there and who, being used to the tourists, can be a bit stubborn. Having safely negotiated this obstacle I began what is for me one of the great pleasures of mountain cycling, the descent. Swooping valleywards, skilfully negotiating tight hairpin bends and passing cars at speeds in excess of 40mph is a wonderful experience although one has to be very careful not to overcook things on the bends. This can happen to even the best as when millions of television viewers throughout the world saw Jan Ullrich somersault through the air detached from his bike on a big descent earlier in the race.

Safely in the valley I stopped to pull on my jacket for the short run to St Marie-de-Campane at the foot of The Tourmalet. A thick fog had gathered on the valley floor making things decidedly chilly especially after sweating in the sunshine on the climb. I had a brief stop at the village fountain in St Marie to replenish my supplies and was pleased to note that I had drunk over three litres of liquid since starting. Bottles filled and jacket off again, I got down to the serious business of climbing the Tourmalet. It was three o’clock in the afternoon and I was five hours into the stage and it did cross my mind that Armstrong & co would have finished by now but he is twenty years younger than me after all (apart from being the best in the world)!

Unlike the Aspin, on the Tourmalet your are quickly out of the trees and there was no shelter from the sun which had firmly re-established itself. I was still climbing well but when the road ahead reared up to an average 12% through the ski centre of La Mongie I was made distinctly aware of the difference of today’s venture when compared to the one off climb I had done earlier in the week. The speed dropped and I could have done with one gear lower than I had. The zig-zag hairpins below the summit seemed to go on forever and they were a mass of multi coloured paint where supporters had written the names of their favourites on the road. Unfortunately no one had written ‘Allez ORR’ on the road although my wife and daughter had tried to get paint in Arreau earlier in the day but the French were having their famous dinner hour(s) and the shops were shut. They were there to cheer me over the summit of the climb though but I was by this time having doubts as to whether or not I would make it to the finish.

This descent was fast but not enjoyable as I was nursing a stiffening neck and lower back and. as I stopped to don my jacket again, my resolve was at it’s lowest. The proximity of my wife and the car didn’t help matters but my insurance policy did. I had made a point of telling people back home what my intentions were and I didn’t fancy having to admit defeat besides which, I knew if I didn’t do it now, the way my mind works would make it unfinished business and I didn’t fancy going through it all again. So Luz Ardiden it was. I knew that descending through Bareges past the flat where we were staying and a potential hot bath might be a weak point but as it was my crises was past and I was soon through the bustling town of Luz St Saveur and onto the final climb to the finish.

It was here I started playing mind games with myself. Another of my cycling heroes Glasgow born Robert Millar past Tour stage winner and King of The Mountains came to mind. I was he, on a lone break, now only minutes ahead of the chasing peleton on the climb to stage victory at Luz Ardiden. It didn’t make me go faster but it did help to take my mind of the pain and effort as the kilometre boards crept slowly by. Now in single figures, 9km to go, my family passed in the car en-route to the summit and I was glad that they had made the decision not to stop on the way. The final bends to the summit were brutally steep but ------------------

Millar is climbing well he hasn’t lost his rythym.2km to the finish and Scotland’s Robert Millar is going to take the Polka Dot jersey of the King of The Mountains. He is out of the saddle now forcing his way into what seems like a solid wall of spectators. Horns blaring, the lead vehicles carve a path for him round the final bend. Robert Millar of Scotland is there, he’s there, he’s over the line. Robert Millar triumphs at Luz Ardiden.

The reality was a cold empty car park area with fog gathering round piles of rubbish and dismantled barriers from the real stage finish the day before. The thousands of spectators gathered up here in the sky to cheer their heroes had all gone home. I slumped over the handlebars, I was sobbing with emotion. I had ridden one of the hardest mountain stages of the Tour de France.

I started this article with a question about motivation, the answer I think is clear, for a day I was
riding in the path of giants, I was fulfilling a dream and unless you have that dream don’t do it, it’s too sore.

The Great Call Centre Conspiracy

‘Sorry for the delay – Your call is important to us – you are in a queue and your call will be answered as soon as the first customer service agent becomes available.’

Sound familiar? The soothing tones of one of the great cons of the modern age, the Lesser Spotted Call Centre. (Lesser spotted because many are apparently migrating to India!) It’s not too far fetched to imagine that you could soon be transacting business based at the Bank of ABC
Dundee branch via a call centre in Bombay! This deeply felt, pre recorded and oft to be repeated apology is invariably accompanied by the usual Air on a G String, Four Seasons or whatever else is available from the ‘Best Of Classical’ sausage machine and is likely to be faintly recognisable to the malleable and gullible masses - if only as ‘the one from the Hovis Advert,’ The Onedin Line or whatever happens to be flavour of the month at the time.

How do they get away with it? The maths are simple. Sweep the big net far and wide and hook as many calls as possible but, and here’s the clever bit, don’t land them, put them indefinitely into a holding pen, at their own expense, until your intentionally vastly under staffed operator section can deal with them in their own time. It’s actually the same as before, if the office is busy, you don’t get through but at least under the old system you knew you weren’t getting through and, more importantly, it wasn’t costing you anything. Under ‘The New Order’ you’re still not getting through, only you think you are, the wait is longer because they’ve used a bigger net and, you’re happily shelling out for the privilege.

These companies, Banks, Building Societies or whatever, who all spend vast amounts advertising how good their service is, would have us believe that the Call Centre system is in place to help them deal better and more efficiently with our calls and they never tire of telling us so. But the reality of the matter is that, OK it might route calls more efficiently to the departments able to deal with them, but, if these departments are, because of advanced technology and an eye focused solely on profit, cut to the bone as far as, I think they call staff ‘human resources’ now, is concerned then there is no way, other than dead slow and stop, that they can deal with the overflowing denizens of the holding pens.

As I’ve said, the maths couldn’t be simpler, so simple in fact that companies can not possibly be oblivious to the obvious that 500 into 15 won’t go efficiently, irrespective of whether or not it’s routed through 50 on the way! It obviously suits them to operate in this manner, their systems are designed this way, it is not something they are striving to improve no matter how much the front line ‘complaint fielders’ would have you believe otherwise. This is how they want it. But there is, for them, one flaw in the operation, a flaw which is beyond their direct control and that is that it relies completely on the unthinking, uncomplaining compliance of those who are having their bellies tickled in the pens and who seem quite happy to swim about aimlessly, often for 20minutes and more being soothed by calming music and listening to the pre-recorded platitudes of ‘The Company,’ while paying for the privilege so to do.

We are victims of our own complacency, because in order to try and do something about this situation, which I don’t imagine any customer can be particularly happy about, requires more than complaining to the person who eventually answers the phone. They work from a script and won’t or, one suspects often can’t, go outwith that. That’s how it’s designed you see, nobody to shout at, nobody accessible to take responsibility and certainly nobody accessible who can initiate change. I started this article with some idea of it being a ‘Lets wake up and do something about this’ rallying call but, as I reach the point where I should be advising you how to go about this, the only method I can come up with other than direct action! is writing letters of complaint to all and sundry and that just seems so damned inadequate.

I suspect that the Lesser Spotted Call Centre will thrive and indeed proliferate, with many mutations springing up in the economically attractive Far East. The majority of us will be content to flap our tails idly in the shadow of a lilypad while being gently soothed by piped Pavarotti. while a militant minority, with which I am well acquainted, will continue to shout and curse ineffectually at the poor wee lassie who eventually becomes free to deal with the head of the queue.

What is the time difference between Delhi and Dundee anyway?

http://www.dhankosa.comPilgrims Progress

Driving north along the shores of Loch Lubnaig I was on auto pilot, after all I had driven this road a hundred times in all weathers, winter and summer. It was as I left Callander, a place I’ve always regarded as one of the gateways to the Highlands, that I realised that this was the first time in years that I had passed this way without a boot full of climbing gear, a bike on the back or a kayak on the roof, and on some occasions even all three! This time all I had was an overnight bag and a set of directions to a Buddhist retreat centre on the shores of Loch Voil.

Midlife crisis? existential angst? curiosity? none of them quite seemed to fit. Why would a fifty one year old former hard drinking Edinburgh cop, more at home with cynisim, conflict and aggression (a direct result of 25 years exposure to said profession some might say!) find himself driving into the car park of the ‘Dhanakosha’ retreat centre, a former Highland Hotel near Balquiddher, in the heart of Rob Roy country?

It’s a difficult question to even try and answer but what I can tell you is, that as the car crunched up the gravel path, my arriving there seemed as inevitable as Frodo Baggins’ arrival at Mount Doom - and for an acknowledged introvert, bordering on the anti social, just as scary.

I had for many years had a passing interest in the possibilities of meditation and, like many, had more than once bought a book and had a go, usually for all of ten minutes! I also had some vague knowledge of the Samye-Ling Tibetan Buddhist Centre in the Scottish Borders and had often thought fleetingly of ‘chilling out’ there, as I then saw it, for a few days.

Who knows when or how this journey started but what I can tell you is that the final impetus to explore Buddhism in a more meaningful way came when having signed up for an MA in Literature with the Open University and done some preliminary reading I began to ask myself why am I doing this? I had already completed the B.A. Hons (Lit) a six year course – did I need more of the same? The result was I pulled the plug on it. And under the influence of ‘Google’ (sounds like something the cops would be interested in!) I found myself doing the introductory Course at the Edinburgh Buddhist Centre. This in turn led to Sangha nights on a Tuesday where a discussion with the Venerable Webmaster (very Tibetan!) Chris, fresh back from retreat himself and bubbling with enthusiasm, led me to the gates of Dhanakosha.

I don’t intend to go into the theme of the retreat because that wasn’t really my reason for going. Suffice to say it was on the subject of ‘Non Violent Communication.’ and was very Americanised – not surprising as the whole concept was founded by an American, Marshall B. Rosenberg. I did learn some interesting things about myself in this context though and took away some positive ideas for change. But I’m still wondering about the brushed nylon giraffe! (intriguing isn’t it!).

Living with other people, strangers for a whole weekend was new to me but I was much more relaxed about it than I thought I would be. The highlight of the weekend as far as I was concerned was the morning and evening meditations in the shrine room. These were led by Smitiratna who is a member of the Western Buddhist Order and part of the resident community at Dhanakosha. The shrineroom is a beautiful building, a converted barn or stable I think, and given that my only previous experience of group meditation was in the, at times, rather cramped Edinburgh centre, the feeling of space was wonderful. The evening mediation was completed with the chanting of the Tara mantra to the sound of a heart rhythm drumbeat –a magical experience and one which I have since included in my own practice.

We awoke on Sunday morning to find the place blanketed in snow from a heavy overnight fall and after morning practice, which I just about missed – I’m a bit deaf and because, like bats, my hearing aids come out at night, I didn’t hear the wake up bell at 7.30am which I am assured is loud enough to wake the dead! – I went for a walk up the hillside at the back of the centre. The water on the Loch below was like glass, reflecting the surrounding hills and forest so completely that it would be hard to tell reflection from reality - (reality?).

My first experience of being on retreat was all I thought it would be and I am looking forward to further retreats at Dhanakosha and elsewhere becoming a central part of my practice. I’ve just found out about a working retreat in November at Guhyaloka, a centre very much off the beaten track in the Spanish Mountains – sounds just the job.

Sam get your bags packed, we’re off again !