Friday, 21 March 2008

Five times bigger than Glastonbury

That's the boast of the organisers of new comedy festival, which has been established on the Edinburgh fringe. It should make £1.8m in sponsorship for its promoters. But not everyone's smiling.

Read more at the Times online: Few laughs in comedy festival

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Making sense of a colourful condition

The Times, Wednesday March 19, 2008

It inspired the vivid paintings of Wassily Kandinsky, and filled the thoughts of Olivier Messiaen, the composer, who experienced colours whenever he heard sounds. Now a study has found that synaesthesia, a little-known sensory condition, effects 500,000 children in Britain – equivalent to two in every primary school classroom in the country.

Derived from the Greek words for "sensation" (aisthesis) and "together" (syn), people with synaesthesia experience two or more of the five senses at the same time, “seeing” sounds, or “tasting” words.

The condition can both help or hinder academic performance, but despite its prevalence the research carried out at Edinburgh University demonstrated that that only five per cent of head teachers have heard of it, and fewer than 15 per cent of learning support teachers could provide an accurate definition.

Reactions to the condition vary, said Dr Julia Simner, the cognitive neuro-psychologist who led the research. “Some people with synaesthesia are completely euphoric about it, someone else might be really suffering,” she added.

Ann Wight, whose children James, 13 and Jenny, 9, have synaesthesia said her children had experienced some difficulties at school because of their condition, before teachers were made aware of their condition.

“When my daughter hears music and sound, the colours are projected in front of her, and are opaque, like a kaleidoscope. A boy sitting behind her absent-mindedly tapping a ruler creates purple streaks; someone humming creates yellow and green. Once the teachers are aware of it, it’s fine. They know now that if they have to test her at school, they have to test her in complete silence," Mrs Wight, from Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, said.

The Edinburgh study showed clear but complex patterns among synaesthetes. From a group of 70, results demonstrated that most were likely to experience the letter A as red, S as yellow, X as black and O as black or white. Researchers also found that those with synaesthesia often had superior memory recall, provided that the conditions were right.

“If you showed them a large array of numbers, took the numbers away, and then asked what was there before, synaesthetes could do much better than the average person. But if you changed the colour of the numbers their memory performance collapsed, they really did flounder. That can be a problem in the classroom and it can give a sense of malaise and discomfort,” said Dr Simner.

In the 1990s, brain imaging showed how synaesthetes reacted to certain letters, words and sounds. Since then researchers have estimated that there are around 50 variants and have found the condition more prevalent among women than men.

Synaesthetes are wary of being described as “sufferers” and many show a marked predisposition to the arts – David Hockney has the condition, so did Duke Ellington and Vladimir Nabokov, the writer. However some undoubtedly experience discomfort.

One member of Dr Simner’s sample constantly experienced tastes whenever someone spoke to him. “If you put him in a brain imager you can see the taste areas of his brain light up. Taste happens every minute of his life. Some of them are unpleasant, like ear wax and vomit. He can’t pay attention. He has trouble reading road signs when he is driving,” said Dr Simner.

In another case investigated by researchers, a man loved ice cream, and the sound of his local ice-cream van – but the voice of the saleswoman made him feel sick.

Synaesthetes are born with the condition, and research to be presented at a conference in Edinburgh next week will suggest it is inherited through the X-chromosome.

Mrs Wight, who along with her mother and sisters has the condition and long regarded it as normal, only discovered her own synaesthesia in her mid thirties. She said: “I was reading New Scientist. I said to my husband, ‘This magazine says that not everyone has this colour-number thing. That’s nonsense. You know how my fives are orange, and yours are blue …’ He looked at me and said: ‘What on earth do you mean? My five doesn’t have any colour at all.’ I said: ‘We had better get you to a doctor.’”

Sundance comes to Edinburgh

The Times, Tuesday March 19, 2008

A huge increase in the budget of the Edinburgh International Film Festival has been announced which could turn the event into the British equivalent of Sundance the influential independent festival in the United States, and bring a sprinkling of Hollywood celebrity to Scotland.

The £1.88 million investment spread over three years was revealed yesterday by John Woodward, the chief executive of the UK Film Council, who said the award recognised Edinburgh’s consistent record in nurturing new talent, and showcasing movies which were “fresh and interesting” for audiences and for film industry insiders alike.

He said: “It’s not a perfect match – but [Edinburgh] is probably closest to Sundance. If you think about where Sundance is, that is not a bad aspiration.”

Such is the Film Council's enthusiasm for Edinburgh that it announced that its first tranche of £600,000 is to be invested in time for the 2008 festival, a commitment which will take total funding of this year's event to £1.8 million and help to expand the range of films on show, according to the festival's director, Hannah McGill. She said that the Film Council's decision was a “ringing endorsement” of Edinburgh’s “ethos of discovery, celebration of talent, and of spreading film knowledge and film education”.

Although it has long been overshadowed by the big European festivals at Cannes, Venice and Berlin, ironically it was the strength of Edinburgh’s reputation as the champion of independent filmmakers in the 1970s which led some commentators to label Sundance “the American Edinburgh” when it was established in Park City, Utah under the chairmanship of Robert Redford.

Since then, Sundance has been transformed from an event for low-budget movies made by little-known directors into an extravaganza, which lures A-list actors and representatives from all the best-known Hollywood studios.

This January’s festival bill featured typically eclectic fare, including Marina Zenovich’s expose, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, Morgan Spurlock’s Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? and the new Steve Coogan comedy, Hamlet 2.

But it added a celebrity cachet which has usually eluded Edinburgh. Redford himself was in town; Colin Farrell attended the premiere of In Bruges, and Mary Kate Olsen arrived for her latest film The Wackness. Jack Black, Woody Harrelson, Jessica Alba, Ben Kingsley, Quentin Tarantino and Colin Firth were among a host of celebrities lured into snowy Park City to be snapped by the paparazzi.

Ginnie Atkinson, managing director of the festival, said Sundance “was a good analogy” for the Scottish event. “Sundance was always connected with training and the development of filmmakers of vision, all of them with an independent spirit. The industry wants Edinburgh to succeed.- they want Edinburgh to deliver for them, they can see the value of the festival. If they can see that happening, more people can have a good experience,” she said.

For the first time in its history, this year’s festival will be held in June. As well as improved programming, Ms McGill said the new funds would enable services to the film industry to be expanded “enhancing the ability to network and talent spot in Edinburgh” and would enable more new talent showcases to be staged.

She added that a festival in early summer was a more attractive proposition for the industry, because it no longer competed with the London film festival, usually held in October. The new dates also ensure that the event is not swamped in the media frenzy which surrounds the Edinburgh International Festival and Fringe, she said.

“In terms of press attention, it’s a lot more attractive to say to distributors to say ‘the film festival will be the only show in town’ than to say ‘you are going to be up against every arts thing in the entire world and you might get bumped off the front page if a Korean chef juggles some knives on the Royal Mile’,” she said.

Other film festivals, notably London and Cambridge are expected to benefit from further announcements from the UKFC, and one will be established as a “red carpet” event - London was “a serious contender” said Mr Woodward.

Edinburgh was the only film festival singled out in the 2005 Labour Party manifesto as a high priority for extra investment. However the Scottish government were quick to point out that the level of its funding through the publicly funded film agency Scottish Screen had also been increased to £250,000 a year.

A Scottish Government spokesman said s that the UK Film Council award would “allow the festival to play a leading role in the development of film in the UK.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Established in 1947, the Edinburgh International Film Festival enjoys the longest continuous run of any comparable event in the world.

The first festival was dedicated to the documentary, which was where Scotland’s great strengths in film-making lay. John Grierson opened the eight-day event which screened 75 titles, including Roberto Rossellini’s Paisa, one of the most moving films about war ever made.

During the 1960s, Edinburgh introduced the the idea of the retrospective, re-evaluating the diverse talents of filmmakers including John Huston, Sam Fuller, Douglas Sirk and even the young Martin Scorsese. Over the following decades the festival consolidated its reputation as a pioneering force for UK audiences, screening European, Japanese and independent American films, alongside works by new talents found closer to home, such as Bill Forsyth.

Notable premieres of recent years include Control, The Full Monty, Mrs Brown, Billy Elliot, East is East, Ratcatcher, Stardust, Ratatouille, Little Miss Sunshine, An Inconvenient Truth, and Tsotsi.

Last year, a decision was made to the move the festival from August to June 18-29. A full programme will be announced on May 7.

Friday, 14 March 2008

Farrell urges critics to shape city's future

The Times, Friday, March 14

Sir Terry Farrell has hit back at critics of his role as Edinburgh’s design champion, and challenged his doubters to get involved in planning the future of the city rather than bellyaching on the sidelines.

Farrell was speaking after it was revealed that he had been re-appointed for a fifth year to his unpaid post by Edinburgh City Council. That move prompted complaints from some unnamed local architects who questioned his contribution to the city, including one who suggested that Farrell and his company had “gained much more from this relationship than the city of Edinburgh has.”

Farrell vehemently rejected those allegations, pointing out that since he took on his public role in 2003, he had “not sought” nor accepted any commissions for work in the city.

Last night he went a step further, announcing that Edinburgh would host an international conference on “urban design and city making”, which will focus on Edinburgh itself.

“I have been acutely aware of the need to engage local architects more in public affairs in Edinburgh as they have often self-marginalised themselves … Unfortunately there has been a minority (who have invariably expressed themselves anonymously) and who have it seems been somewhat negative about the benefits and imagined conflicts of my role," said Farrell.

“There is a long tradition in most other major cities of local architects being involved in public life. There are procedures set out and well monitored, for avoiding conflicts of interest. It is universally recognised that it is essential to engage active, well-informed people with knowledge of their city in voluntary work to help make it a better place."

His comments come at time of continuing public unease over a number of controversial development within Edinburgh’s historic city centre. These include the installation of a £400 million tram system and Caltongate, a £300 million mixed development in the Old Town that is bitterly opposed by conservationists and residents.

Some critics have suggested that Edinburgh could follow the unfortunate lead of Dresden, whose world heritage status is under review by UNESCO after the city revealed plans for a new and intrusive bridge.

This public dissatisfaction was reflected by Farrell himself last November when he told The Times that “Edinburgh is a town which has dire need of regeneration.” He complained of “the forces of lethargy” hampering his work and added: “There’s no-one beginning to think that they even need a vision. Not just at [council] officer level – it’s very apparent there – but also in the elected leaders. There is no belief that they need do anything other than sit back.”

Changes in council personnel have led to a significant thawing in relations. Mr Farrell said he had been “delighted” with an increased recognition for urban design.

This had culminated he said in a meeting with Jenny Dawe, the council leader, Tom Aitchison, the chief executive and senior elected colleagues. They invited the architect to remain in post for another year “and they did so in terms of enthusiasm and commitment that were at a new level for the city,” he said.

Mr Farrell added that new senior officers on the council, including Dave Anderson, the incoming director of city development, would put “pro-active city making high on their agenda”. The international conference – which will focus on the future of Edinburgh itself - he said reflected “this accelerated commitment.”

He added: “How well [the] changes to the City are planned and designed is critical to Edinburgh’s future. Will they match and build on the achievements of the past, or could they diminish these achievements? It is time to prepare and to plan ahead. This conference will be an exciting step forward.”

What the Doctor Said

I was talking with a friend about this poem which was written by Raymond Carver not long before his death 20 years ago. I can't think of a better piece of writing.

If you hit the Raymond Carver link in the 'Words' column on the right, you can hear Carver reading some of his poems in London in 1987.

What the Doctor Said

He said it doesn't look good
he said it looks bad in fact real bad
he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before
I quit counting them
I said I'm glad I wouldn't want to know
about any more being there than that
he said are you a religious man do you kneel down
in forest groves and let yourself ask for help
when you come to a waterfall
mist blowing against your face and arms
do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments
I said not yet but I intend to start today
he said I'm real sorry he said
I wish I had some other kind of news to give you
I said Amen and he said something else
I didn't catch and not knowing what else to do
and not wanting him to have to repeat it
and me to have to fully digest it
I just looked at him
for a minute and he looked back it was then
I jumped up and shook hands with this man who'd just given me
something no one else on earth had ever given me
I may have even thanked him habit being so strong

Raymond Carver

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Crisis? What Crisis?

Scotland on Sunday, October 7, 2007

My new pal Dave is sitting in his conservatory smiling at me as if he's got a surprise in store. He has, too, but it's not something nice like a party invitation or a late birthday present. Dave's a therapist and he's ready to dispense some pretty tough advice, because I've come to talk to him about my man problem. Or rather my supposed man problem, which obviously doesn't really exist. A midlife crisis? Me?

Back in January, as my 47th year loomed, I gave up a handsome salary and a steady job to work for myself. I became more health-conscious, too, and started riding a bike. I began getting back into music again and after years of semi-dedicated child-rearing, I went to a couple of gigs in dark little clubs around Edinburgh, where the audiences were primarily students and spotty adolescents.

I'd never really bothered about any of this midlife stuff until my friends began analysing my behaviour. And when all this evidence was presented on a charge sheet... well, it's easy to see how it might be misconstrued.

Curious to find out more, I checked out the very limited literature on the male midlife crisis but could only find a list of symptoms (erectile dysfunction, loss of libido, baldness) and a telephone number for the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. They recommended me to Dave, who lives just outside Bonnybridge.

"The thing is, Mike, you can find all kinds of ways to postpone this stuff," says Dave - aka Professor Mearns - drawing his palms together in an attitude of prayer. "But at some point, it is probably going to hit you. You say it hasn't affected you... well, that's probably true."

In the pause that follows, it would be easy to crowbar in the words "but quite possibly not", though Dave politely forbears. "What we're talking about here is a crisis all right, an existential crisis. It often happens when things are changing sexually - testosterone dropping and so on. For some people, it's okay, no big deal. But for others, seeing themselves change physically can be very frightening."

And so we begin my therapeutic journey. Over the next couple of hours, it becomes apparent that, for Dave, life roughly equates to a long trudge over a mountainous landscape. You'll enjoy plodding along its sunny valleys - the happy childhood at the beginning of the journey or, a while later, the pleasant route that leads into a long-term relationship. But like any sensible hiker, you should be well equipped for rocky ground, because inevitably you'll hit what Dave calls "an emotional outcrop". That's the moment when life's big questions start tripping you up.

"I wouldn't call it a midlife crisis," he says. "It's an awareness of our existence which is outcropping in our lives. From the adult perspective, we often call what teenagers go through 'teenage angst'. But it's probably very similar to an existential crisis later in life. It is about the same kind of fundamental question, 'What am I about in life?', except the person in midlife asks, 'What have I been about in life?'"

Trauma can pose these questions, he says, through bereavement, illness, a lost job or just the awareness of growing older. And the symptoms? Well, I already know that a lot of smart alecks can recognise those...

Dave is something of a pioneer. In the 1970s, when counselling theories were oozing out of the US towards Britain, he was tackling some of toughest terrain in the world. That was west central Scotland, in the days when rigid Presbyterians ruled the roost and the idea of a Scottish man sharing his emotional problems with a stranger was as likely as Ian Paisley officiating at Elton John's wedding.

But Dave stuck with it. He helped establish the University of Strathclyde as one of Britain's leading centres for psychotherapy, and played his part in introducing the discipline into a once-sceptical NHS. He has written books, edits journals and, even though he retired two years ago, still gets called to conferences all over the world.

Dave's maxim - which he applies equally to me as he does to the messed-up Glasgow gangsters who have occasionally come to him for help - is as follows: "The therapist should be so alongside the client that the client is not aware of him as a separate, independent existence." In other words, he wants to get inside my head so we can march out and face my issues together.

In Dave's world, it is possible to perceive two obvious ways in which middle-aged men deal with those big existential questions like, 'What am I doing here?' and 'Is this it?' They either turn inwards or they turn outwards.

Those who look in, he says, "will probably get drunk while they're doing it" and that's no good for their mental state. Others will flip right round and do things that can often seem out of character or just plain desperate. "That's where the thing about buying the motorbike or the sports car comes in," he says. "Or becoming a workaholic. It keeps you one step ahead of depression. Some people think it's crazy. But sometimes people are just expressing other parts of themselves; stuff that was around earlier in their lives. They think, 'I used to like the bike when I was younger...'"

Some of his observations are funny. Like the notion that the middle-class, middle-aged foot soldiers of the Tartan Army are doing nothing more than fleeing their midlife crises as they yomp round Europe after the Scotland football team. "Think of all the different things you get out of it," Dave muses. "For a start, you're identifying yourself with a team - you have the whole range of emotions associated with that. There's the camaraderie, you get to go to different places and do different things and there's a proper justification. Guys don't get many opportunities to do that. In the course of it all, they are expressing all sorts of things about themselves that maybe don't get that much expression. Psychologically, it's pretty healthy."

Some of his other ideas I find harder to accept. All the men I've talked with who have been labelled 'MLC victim' by their mates feel they haven't changed that much from their younger selves. Earlier this year, the octogenarian author John Mortimer told me that, throughout his life, he felt just as he did when he was a teenage boy. Almost in the next breath, he asked: "Don't you think a woman holding a cigarette is very erotic?" Mortimer's midlife crisis is presumably due to start at 90.

It's not normal, apparently. "That kind of person is difficult for other people," says Dave. "In psychological terms, there might be a slight personality disorder. It makes it very difficult for them to step outside themselves and to see the world the way that other people see it. That kind of character is much more often a man than a woman."

But surely it's not just egocentrics who pose problems for other people, If Dave's 'existential crisis' is inevitable for all of us, there are going to be casualties. Couples will be torn apart. If I go home now and ask, "Is this it?" in a loud voice, there's a strong chance the walls of my domestic world will come tumbling down.

"It can be really threatening to the other person," agrees Dave. "If there has been a pattern to the relationship - and people who live with each other for years will develop a very sophisticated pattern - it can be very difficult.

"For much of their lives, someone has been giving vent to one part of themselves - but now they begin to hear other voices. One part maybe is saying, 'Get a good job, stay steady, be a provider' - the other voice is asking, 'Where is the fun?' Often in therapy, the person will give expression to the different voices and there is more chance of this voice coming through with 'Let's take on some challenges'.

"I'm not making people leave the relationship or go further from it. I'm giving them scope to hear themselves more fully. We could work the other way and have an approach that keeps people together - but wouldn't we be postponing a problem?"

The probability is that most couples avoid confronting the issues, he says, and some will stay in a relationship even when they find it unsatisfying, because the alternative is loneliness. But Dave (who has been married for 32 years) prefers to think of marriage as a series of contracts. "Your first contract is about being in love. It's not to have kids, it's to enjoy that time. Your second contract - which might be with the same person or not - is about settling down and having quite a long period of family life. The third phase is later - the empty nest - and that's different too. Making a contract with someone to live together in that period of life involves different things. It's a very interesting idea - couples thinking in this way and re-contracting. It can be very exciting."

After all that's gone before, it's a surprisingly positive position to take. And Dave has more good news. Alongside those inward-looking and outward-looking responses to the crisis, there seems to be a third way. "When those 'who are we?' questions hit, sometimes you can take it. People differ a lot. You can welcome this crisis and be okay about these fundamental questions."

And there's my therapist's message of hope. Baldness? Erectile dysfunction? Loss of libido? Bring 'em on. I'm off to embrace my crisis.

Pictures: Dave and me, in the conservatory of doubt; seven gentlemen from the Tartan Army stand firm against mlc.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Hamas and hatred

"To say you hate them is not to say they’re monsters. But their politics is the death of politics; the violence they use confiscates all other possibilities in Palestinian society. You can’t object to it because you might die; if you support them you just risk creating another martyr. It’s a total nightmare. It will take enormous courage for the Palestinians to get up and say ‘This is not the way’. But until they do, Hamas is leading them right over a cliff."

This is from an interview with Michael Ignatieff, now the deputy leader of the Canadian liberal party, which he gave during his stint in Edinburgh in 2003, where he was delivering the Gifford lectures at the university. Ranging over Hamas and the West Bank, Iraq, the war in terror, the importance of American foreign policy, and Christopher Hitchens' conversion to Liberal Democracy - "I'm glad he's on the train, but frankly he's a bit late" - it's an interesting read.

Click on the link to read the article from The Scotsman: Sense in liberal proportions

Friday, 7 March 2008

Enigma of art's missing man

"Don’t pretend you don’t know the world that you paint. Don’t pretend you’re in a bungalow with a wife and two kids and a couple of dogs, when it’s not like that. People prefer that. I’m not going to stand up there and say one thing when I mean another.

"People can sense that about my work. As much as I’m blamed for it, I try not to make it dramatic, I try not to make people think, ‘That looks a fabulous life’. If you look at the faces, they are not happy. I have gone through long periods of my life when I haven’t been happy at all, but for some reasons that kind of emotional instability does trigger off ideas."

That's from an interview with Jack Vettriano, which I wrote for the Scotsman in 2003. It's a decent piece and it's here Jack Vettriano interview

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Look ma - no sporran

"The author surveys his newly acquired territory." That's what it says under this remarkable photograph which can be found in the UK edition of Readers Digest.

Regular reader(s) will recall this story from Spectrum magazine last August, when I purchased a square foot of land in the Highlands for 30 quid and with it the right to be styled 'Laird of Lochaber'. So impressed with this yarn were the good people at Readers Digest that they bought the rights to it, and it appears in this month's issue. Presumably in the name of good taste, they have subbed the piece down a bit - but you can read the whole unadulterated thing below.

The obvious fashion faux pas in the picture is entirely due to the fact that I had never worn a kilt before, and the photographer, Phil Wilkinson, is English, so neither of us remembered that I should wear a sporran. The result was that I spent the day traipsing round the mountains looking like a big Jessie, a cross between Eddie Izzard and Rupert the Bear. Rupert Izzard in fact.

Monarch of the Glen

Readers Digest, March 2008

FEW mornings dawn like this. With my fishing rod safely stowed, a hamper packed and my ready-to-wear designer kilt and jacket by my side, I'm every inch the monarch of the glen. As the car speeds along beneath the mountain peaks, I feel my heart beating just a little faster in anticipation of the day ahead.

It has taken more than four decades for this kind of inheritance to drop on my doorstep, and I'm hoping that my apparent good fortune isn't a complete illusion. In my hand I grip the papers that prove I have the right to be called Laird of Lochaber.

At Roy Bridge, a tiny village towards the west of the glen, I pull over to buy provisions at the local grocery store. And it's here that I receive my first big surprise of the day.

From behind the counter, the assistant eyes the documents in my hand. "Oh, have you bought a title as well?" she exclaims in a broad Lancashire accent. "Join the club. I'm Lady Barbara. 'Ow d'you do?"

Disappointingly, this is how it is among Scotland's recently ennobled classes. They're friendly, ubiquitous and rarely Scottish. In Lochaber alone, there are probably 5,000 newly created lords, lairds and ladies, though few apart from Lady Babs have actually moved here. Most of the titles are bought and sold on the internet auction site eBay, and many are sent out to America, Canada and Australia.

You might have heard of ruses like this. For a few quid a mystery seller with a grand-sounding name offers you the chance to buy a one-foot-square plot of land in a remote and romantic part of Scotland and with it the right to style yourself 'laird' or 'lady'.

There are some at Glencairn - a tiny croft by Lybster, in Caithness - and others at Kincavel on Ardnamurchan. You can even buy plots on the moon. Mostly they are billed as a bit of fun, 'the perfect gift' for a best man or a favourite uncle, a giggle for the woman you love when you make a lady of her at last.

It's true that these titles have been dismissed as 'meaningless' by the Court of Lord Lyon, the office which deals with heraldic matters and coats-of-arms in Scotland. And it was decided eight years ago that the sales of such miniature plots would not be recorded in the national register of Scotland.

But for many of the buyers, it is quite sufficient that 'laird' means 'landowner' in Scots, and they receive a certificate which purports to prove their ownership of a plot of land on a Highland estate. I am one of these willing investors, handing over £30 for a little parcel of land in the aptly named Laird's Wood. I've gone into this with my eyes wide open, even though I've had the 'reverse quantum' effect patiently explained to me by a gentleman at an estate agency specialising in land sales - that's the means by which the price of land increases when it's sold off in small parts. This seems a bit of fun, something to joke about around the dinner table.

Part of the appeal is based on my surname. My namesake, General Wade, came this way some 280 years ago, building a network of military roads and bridges which were designed to help pacify the Jacobite Highlands.

That heroic campaign was sufficient to get him name-checked in the national anthem ("God bless great Marshal Wade"). But Wade was to come unwittingly to the aid of the warlike Highland clans who, in 1745, formed up in orderly ranks behind Bonnie Prince Charlie and marched down the new highways which led towards England. My title deeds are supplied with the words: "In recognition of the roads built by your illustrious

But my one square foot of Lochaber boasts other, slightly more serious attractions. For starters, there is the impressively green message promoted on the seller's website, which tells me about tree-planting on the wider estate and an ambition to help rebuild the great Caledonian forest. That's the stuff to feed the eco-friendly tree-hugger in me.

Better still are those non-exclusive fishing rights to a one-mile beat along the north bank of the River Spean. "What will your friends say to that?" cajoles the blurb. "Next time you eat smoked salmon, you'll be able to wonder loudly if it came from your stretch of river on your estate in the Highlands."

A document labelled Your Fishing Rights, which I've been sent with my 'estate transfer pack' invites me to look at things another way. You can "fish when you like, as often as you like. You will always be welcome on your stretch of river". There's even a beguiling image of salmon which has been landed by an expert angler. I remain hopeful that I'm on to a bargain.

I am in for a rude awakening when I walk to the Roy Bridge hotel. Here my lordly pretensions are punctured as soon as I show off my title documents to a group of hearty young fellows ensconced under the television set at the bar, keeping half an eye on the weigh-in at Newton Abbot.

The four of them rifle through my papers and gently mock my 12in plot, which they say I'll find on a much larger estate owned by Professor Peter Bevis. More worryingly, there's a prevailing scepticism about the quality of the fishing. The general opinion is that the Falls of Monessie, west of Roy Bridge, are so high they prevent salmon from moving upstream.

"If Peter said you'll catch fish there, he must have put tins of salmon all along the river," says a smiling, thin-faced man, who styles himself Lord Ronald. "He's a clever guy, you know. He made a small fortune out of the American marketing rights to Billy the Bass, the singing fish."

I must look baffled because Lord Ronald glances at a stuffed fish mounted on the wall. Then he nods at the barmaid, who obligingly reaches up and pushes a button. The song 'Take Me to the River' begins to play and the bass comes alive, writhing in time to the music.

"Of course, you might catch one of Billy's mates," Lord Ronald shouts above the din. As the bar dissolves in laughter, a shadow passes over my face. It's time to assert my authority. I step outside to the car park, don my lairdly attire and set off to claim my inheritance.

This, it quickly turns out, is easier said than done. Leaving my car on the verge at Laird's Wood, I stride off along the main road, following to the letter the instructions which came with the deeds supplied by Lochaber Highland Estates.

But after walking 500 yards I am faced with a persistent problem. The railway line which is running parallel to the road appears to make access to my land impossible. I scale walls. I climb trees. No obvious entrance presents itself. "Calm down," says the photographer who has come with me. "Let's go fishing."

It seems a good call and for a while my fortune seems to change for the better. After a slosh through a boggy strand of silver birch and a scramble down a craggy slope, we arrive in a gorge. The scene is improbably beautiful, the Ben Nevis range towering over a wooded glen on a breezy summer's day. Birds twitter and the sun glistens off the white rocks.

But the more we explore the ravine, the weaker seem the prospects for fishing. The water level is low and the river runs over the exposed bed in the narrowest of channels.

When at last we find a place where the waters have broadened out into a brackish pool, I cast a line and wait. "Tackling salmon requires stealth and the skill to outwit a natural creature, accustomed and attuned to its environment," it says in my transfer pack. Too true. It's becoming clear that Lord Ronald's doubts were justified. The nearest salmon is so attuned to its environment it's 20 miles downstream.

Standing by the water I take a bit of time out to consider what I know of Peter Bevis and his family, who live at Tulloch estate. Until 2001 he worked at the Mount Sinai school of medicine in New York, an Englishman abroad whose wife Helen was formerly a barrister with the Crown Prosecution Service. She was even chosen by the CPS to meet the Queen and take part in a mock trial so that Her Majesty could see how justice works in her courts. The elder of the couple's two daughters is Laura, "a nice wee thing", I've been told, who has just finished an accountancy degree at Glasgow University.

They seem a thoroughly professional and respectable family and appear to have the respect of all my new friends in the village. If I have cause to doubt the value of my investment, I'm certain they will be able to explain themselves. After a fruitless hour or so by the river, I'm beginning to think I deserve that Explanation.

When I drive up to the lodge where the Bevis family live, there are signs of prosperous life. An estate car and a rather tasty Audi sports job sit on the gravel drive. Lights glisten though the window of a beautiful Victorian stone-built country house, and when I ring the bell the sound echoes through an ample hall. The newest Laird of Lochaber is not overly impressed, though. I can't find my family plot. And the fishing's rubbish.

The young woman who opens the door is disarming. This is Laura Bevis and although she is obviously nervous about being confronted, her straightforward answers take me by surprise. And she's even too polite to mention I've forgotten to wear my sporran. Laura is happy to listen to my questions, she says, as she pulls on a pair of wellies. "And I'll show you where your plot is. But you could have found it yourself. There is a map reference, you know."

As we trudge across a damp paddock, the young lady of the manor tells me about the internet sales, which stand at 4,600 in the last year alone, a figure boosted by transactions on the Lochaber company's own website.

"Look at the feedback and you'll see it is 100 per cent positive," she says. "A lot of people like to buy a small estate - and when they get it they love it. You can't buy a piece of Scotland any other way without spending an awful lot of money."

This is affordable and fun, she adds with a smile. On cue, we have arrived close by grid reference NN327806. My square foot of land, my children's inheritance. It's a patch of boggy, greasy grass, dignified by a molehill. Is this how it started for the Duke of Westminster?

What about the fishing?, I ask. What about the plans to build up the forest? "He's away, but you can speak to my father," says Laura, and gives me a telephone number.

Now I will finally have a proper explanation, I think, or even a grovelling apology. But when Peter Bevis answers my call, he is every bit as plausible as his daughter, speaking softly but confidently, his voice friendly and ready to laugh. Only on the question of the quality of the fishing does he very briefly wobble.

"What I've been told by the locals is that Monessie Falls, when they're in spate, simply turn into rapids and fill up with water. If the salmon are running at the same time - I admit it's infrequent - they can come up. If I saw a fisherman with one hanging on the end of his line I would be startled, but I would be thrilled. I even considered offering a prize for the first one caught."

And so it goes. He shrugs off any suggestion that he avoids British tax - "the business is registered in the Channel Islands because that's where the family's from" - and defends his organisation, the Scottish Woodland Alliance, whose website is linked to Lochaber Highland Estates and encourages its readers to invest in trees at Laird's Wood. He intends to register the alliance as a charity, he explains, to help fund even more tree-planting in Scotland.

He even accepts that it would "probably be a reasonable thing to say" that the public were funding his estate. "When we came to Lochaber about six years ago, we imagined that we would make money from farming and be able to plant a forest. It was intriguing to discover that there wasn't any money in farming. I was earning a salary in Inverness, but it doesn't plant many trees. We planted as many as we could afford and we got permission to plant another 20 hectares from the Forestry
Commission, but we had no funds to do it."

He adds, "We do intend to plough the money back into the estate and in Scotland in general. I don't intend to be buried with it."

And it turns out that, yes, he did sell Billy the Bass. Well, his wife did. They were in New York. Helen was having trouble getting a work permit when she became friendly with a guy in Manhattan who was selling the joke fish in his store. She offered to sell as many Billys as she could on eBay and the storeowner agreed.

"It was quite exciting," muses Professor Bevis. "They did go well. But I am really a zoologist who has spent most of his life working in the pharmaceuticals industry. I'm neither a property speculator nor a fish salesman."

Perhaps not. But his estate probably has made in excess of £100,000 by selling these tiny plots of land, which is an excellent result for him. For this follower of General George Wade, the outcome is not so good. All I've got is a molehill and a bit of greasy grass, dignified by some silly documentation. Not forgetting the right to stand by a quiet stretch of river and dangle my rod for as long as I like in search of the ever-elusive salmon.

Lord Ronald is still holding court when I return in my civvies to the Roy Bridge hotel seeking solace. The conversation is genial. There are rueful remarks about the condition of my estate, and a discussion about incomers to the area. Apropos of nothing, I suggest that Bevis is a pretty uncommon name in these parts.

"Don't hear it very often, do you?" agrees one of Lord Ronald's Merry Men.

"Usually in association with Butthead," says a second.

"Only one Butthead in this transaction, eh?" suggests a third.

"And it's not the guy selling the land," concludes Lord Ronald himself.

For the second time today, the bar dissolves in a gale of laughter. As Billy the Bass strikes up another chorus of 'Take Me to the River', Michael, the 5001st laird, walks through the door and out of Lochaber forever. Noblesse oblige and all that.

Visa fee hits arts festivals

The Times, March 6, 2008

Organisers of the Edinburgh International Festival and fringe, the Promenade concerts and many of Britain’s best-loved and most celebrated arts festivals are staring into a financial black hole because of changes in immigration rules which are being brought in by the Home Office.

Under the government proposals which are due to take effect this autumn, many international performers will be required for the first time to purchase a visa, at an estimated cost of £99 each. Orchestras, ballet and theatre companies, travelling from countries outside Europe, such as the USA and Australia will be hit by charges which could amount to thousands of pounds.

The proposals have provoked outrage from leading figures in the arts, who accused the government of precipitating a financial crisis and in failing in its own agenda to promote multiculturalism.

“This is like a massive, unbudgeted tax on internationalism in the arts. It’s crazy,” said Graham Sheffield, the artistic director of the Barbican in London. “Take an orchestra like the Los Angeles Philharmonic – you are talking about thousands of pounds on your budget. The potential for catastrophe, for it being very much more expensive and bureaucratic, is high.”

Paul Hughes, the general manager for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, warned that the changes would take their toll on events such as the Proms.

“It is likely to bring fewer artists to the country. For people bringing in whole orchestras, it will have an enormous impact. Other than as a pure money-making exercise for whoever owns the department of visas, I can’t imagine what the benefit is to anybody,” he said.

Under the current rules, visiting performers from “non visa national” countries such as the USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia who play at festivals designated as “permit free” do not require a visa to enter the United Kingdom. Costs are also held in check for visiting orchestras, ballets and theatres who are able to tour under a work permit which costs just £190 and applies to the whole group.

A Home Office consultation on the arts ends on March 10, but under “Tier 5” of the new points-based rules for immigration, costs are expected to rise exponentially. As well as visa expenses, it has been propsed that each organisation will require a “certificate of sponsorship”, effectively a guarantee of good behaviour from its British promoter.

Though the cost of this is likely to be set at just £400 per company, each member of a touring party will require a certificate. The amount of bureaucracy that this might entail was mind-boggling, said Mr Sheffield.

“We are already having to row extremely hard not to go backwards. This is going to be a nightmare. They will have to employ several thousand civil servants just to process everything,” he said.

The Home Office changes are being made as part of a five-tier points-based immigration system which came into effect at the end of last month and effects all incomers from outside the European Union. Based on the Australian immigration model it is designed to ensure that “only those with skills the country needs can come to work and study,” according to Jacqui Smith, the home secretary.

However, arts organisations accuse the government of including the arts and entertainment industry only as an afterthought. The changes to the immigration system were a huge and important exercise for the counry, said Chloe Reddaway of the National Campaign for the Arts, but “the arts didn’t fit the model” she said.

“Instead of providing an arts and entertainment category that was specially set up, we are being squeezed into boxes that were never made for the arts sector. Everyone has been trying very hard to make that work but everyone keeps coming up with the fact that this is the wrong shape for the arts and entertainment. The sector is not generic, it rests on individual cases, and that is what the new system doesn’t accomodate,” said Ms Reddaway.

The Edinburgh Festival and fringe are vulnerable to the changes. The International Festival commissions work from a wide range of non-EU based companies and will be hit by a huge rise in costs under the proposals. Organisers of the Fringe, which last year hosted more than 2000 shows from all over the world, can expect a massive rise in bureaucracy – if performers are prepared to come to Scotland after costs go up.

A spokesman for the International Festival said the festival was “taking part in the consultation and taking a close interest in this issue."

What has bemused arts promoters is the government’s apparent abandonment of its ideal as Britain as a cultural hub.

Ms Reddaway said: “Think of the government’s creative industry policy, the Olympics, their interest in international trade and transferable skills, and the their diversity agenda. This policy runs completely contrary to all of that.”

The first changes to performer regulations were introduced last year and saw a rise in the cost of visas for countries including Russia, China, Cuba and India which have “visa national” status. Last night the Home Office said that no decision had been taken about whether to replace blanket visa covering groups such as orchestras with a system under which every group member must have a visa.

* Joint by-line with Dalya Alberge