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Archives for December 2008

The Final Hours Of 2008

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Jeff Zycinski | 14:00 UK time, Wednesday, 31 December 2008

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I'm sitting here like Jeffrey No-Mates this afternoon. No change there, of course, but this time the isolation is visible. The ground floor of the BBC H.Q. in Inverness is eerily quiet.
Upstairs the news journalists are busy, as are my colleagues from BBC Alba. In Lerwick (via Aberdeen) birthday boy Tom Morton is presenting his last live show of the year and, at Pacific Quay in Glasgow, the Music Team is preparing for tonight's Hogmanay extravaganza in the rooftop restaurant. Once again Robbie Shepherd will be teaming up with Bryan Burnett and Vic Galloway.

But here, where I am, just a sea of empty desks and an office clock ticking away the remaining hours of 2008. Worse than that, the vending machine has just packed in. Through the glass I can see crisps and chocolate bars, but there's just no way of getting at them. Not without using a hammer.

I've been out. I had lunch at the Inverness Museum on Castle Street. A very nice ham and cheese sandwich with free Hogmanay shortbread. I sat there in the cafe among the Pictish artefacts thinking about what the future may hold. Luckily there was a copy of the Daily Record sitting on a nearby table, so I turned eagerly to the horoscope page. Apparently us Aquarians should leave our flies unzipped and our knickers tucked into our skirts. I kid you not, that's what it said. I mean...how do they get such specific information from studying the arrangement of the planets?

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Downtown Inverness was heaving with shoppers and tourists. One small group of vistors was being led around town by one of those walking tour guides. I saw him point to the spire on the tollbooth steeple and explain that the larger of the two golden balls up there was actually filled with whisky. Can this be true?

Then a final saunter through Woolworths which, according to the posters outside, is set to close in seven days...but didn't seem to have enough stock left to last until teatime. I bought a tub of pic 'n' mix sweets which I plan to store in the attic until it becomes a valuable collector's item.

Or, if they don't fix that vending machine, I might just scoff the lot.

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Anyway...that's it for this year of blogging. I hope you have fun tonight and a Happy New Year to all readers and listeners.

Cheers.

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Frozen

Jeff Zycinski | 11:09 UK time, Tuesday, 30 December 2008

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I was twenty minutes late for work this morning, but I brought a note from home just in case I was summoned to the Controller's office and given the strap. It's the weather, you see. Inverness sits in a bit of a basin in the landscape and, for the past few days, that basin has been full of mist and the whole city feels like one of those freezer-food shops. I keep expecting to see Kerry Katona wandering around with plates of cocktail sausages and profiteroles.

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I had the cunning idea of keeping a bottle of slightly diluted screen wash in the car so that I could douse the windscreen . Alas the whole bottle froze and the contents looked like a huge blue popsicle or a lump of that stuff that falls out of airplane toilet systems. So I had to sit there, waiting for the car heater to do its business and listening to Graham Stewart on Morning Extra talking about plans to install speed limiters in cars. I gave a bitter laugh, but that caused the glass to mist up again.

Technically, me listening to the radio is actually part of my job, so I wasn't really late for work at all.

Honestly, sir.

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Remembering Christmas In Debt

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Jeff Zycinski | 19:25 UK time, Thursday, 25 December 2008

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When the guy in the shop told me he would have to destroy my credit card I realised I was in trouble. At that moment, however, my embarrassment overtook my common sense and I did something really stupid.

"In that case I insist you cut up the card in my presence, "I said, adopting the pompous tone of a perfectly solvent customer who has simply fallen victim to a bureaucratic blunder, "and I'll pay for these items in cash."

The shop assistant was fine with all of that. He produced a pair of scissors and cut my card into four ragged oblongs. He then took my last remaining wad of cash, gave me a receipt and even bagged my shopping for me.

And what were these items? As I recall, one was a brass imitation miner's lamp and the other was a woolly jumper with comedy sheep sewn on the front. This was Cardiff, after all.

Cardiff 1987, just five days before Christmas. I was in one of those souvenir shops in the city centre, picking up last-minute presents before catching the train back to Glasgow. I had survived my first term at University College but three months of socialising had taken a toll on my finances. My Access card had a credit limit of £250, but I had already exceeded that by, oh, £250 and had responded to the threatening letters with an ill-considered 'ignore-them-and-hope-they-go-away' strategy.

One check call in that souvenir shop had left me cardless and cashless. This was a problem because I hadn't yet bought my train ticket home. All I could do was trudge back to my little bedsit. My new student buddies had all left town so there was only one thing left for me to do: I phoned my Dad and asked him to bail me out. I didn't admit the scale of my debts. I just asked him for the price of a train ticket. He was happy to help and put some money in the post that very afternoon.

Meanwhile, all I could do was wait and, as the temperatures in South Wales plummeted below zero, I began to worry about the electricity meter. It was one of those greedy coin-operated jobs with an insatiable appetite for fifty pence pieces.
I had fed it recently, but couldn't be sure how long the power would last. I turned off all my lights and my portable black & white telly. I switched on my battery-operated transistor radio and one bar of my electric fire.

For food I had one big bag of dried pasta and a block of butter. Buttered pasta became my breakfast, lunch and supper for the next two days. The programmes on BBC Radio Wales were full of festive joy. There was talk of mince pies and mulled wine. I felt sick.

On the third morning the postman delivered my Dad's letter and it was stuffed with exactly the right amount of cash for my train ticket. The exact amount. So my nine hour train journey from Cardiff to Glasgow was achieved without the aid of snacks or refreshments. At one point in the journey I entertained the notion of stealing a wee boy's Caramac bar.

And what did I learn from this experience? Well, that tatty souvenirs are never worth the money and that turkey dinners taste a lot better after a period of enforced pasta eating.

Oh...and there's that whole debt business. Not good. In case you were wondering.

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Talking Radio

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Jeff Zycinski | 12:29 UK time, Wednesday, 24 December 2008

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Tonight the thoughts of many children will turn to Father Christmas, but today we should also be remembering the Father of Radio Broadcasting. Who he? Marconi? No, none other than Canadian inventor Reginald Fessenden...the man who proved that radio waves could be used to transmit speech and music and not just Morse code.

Christmas Eve is an important date in Fessenden's story because it was on the 24th December 1906 - six years after his first experiments in transmitting speech -that he used his new alternator transmitter to send out a sequence of programmes that included violin music and a passage from the Bible. Thus he also invented religious broadcasting as well.

There should have been a Scottish dimension to that story because Fessenden had built two huge masts. One was at Brant Rock in Massachusetts and the other at Machrihanish in Argyll. Alas, the Scottish mast collapsed before the big day, so the transmissions went, instead, to shipboard radio operators in the Atlantic.

Fessenden's system of Amplitude Modulation is still in use today. The next time your listening to Sportsound on 810 MW then spare a thought for Reg.

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Spare a thought also for the folk at Talk 107 in Edinburgh. The station has gone out of business and last night they transmitted their last programme. They played "We don't talk anymore" and after that, just dead air. For those of us who work in radio, that's the saddest of sounds.

I've written about the station a few times on this blog and have described my friendship with its original programme director Colin Paterson. I'll leave it to others to comment on the reasons for its demise. I had always applauded the attempt to do something different and I'm genuinely sorry to see it go. I hope the staff there have some bright opportunities in the year ahead.

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If You Go Down To The Woods...

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Jeff Zycinski | 14:47 UK time, Tuesday, 23 December 2008

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Now I know you're all sick of me telling you how Inverness is such a great place to live, but please allow me this one final indulgence before the year ends. You see, in my various travels I've been comparing the different festive displays in town and city centres. I was a bit negative about Glasgow and since then decided to shut my mouth if I see things I don't like. That would have included Inverness, I'm afraid, because the festive lights here are just a wee bit ordinary and boring.

But all is not lost because much effort has gone in to transforming the paths through the Ness Islands into a yuletide wonderland. I've written before about this charmining little part of town its with old-fashioned street-lamps dotted among the trees. Added to those now is an array of illuminated animals and also footbridges festooned with fairy lights. It's all very magical and, even better, it's free!

So if you're up this way and looking for a place to walk off the excesses of Christmas feasting then let me recommend the Ness Islands to you.

But feel free to make your own suggestions from your own neck of the woods.

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Update

Ah yes, the curse of this blog strikes again! See this news story . Shame!

Gallus Pirates Of Monte-Carlo

Jeff Zycinski | 23:21 UK time, Monday, 22 December 2008

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Three charming but hapless wide boys are fed up selling pirate DVDs and dodging the police. Now they're using the knowledge gleaned from bootleg gangster movies to plan a heist in one of Glasgow's new riverside casinos. The plan is foolproof except that the city's underworld overlord gets wind of it and orders our nefarious heroes to be "taken out of the picture". There's a frantic chase along the Clyde walkway and it looks like the bad guys will triumph until one of our merry gang spots the wee Saint Mungo dredger tied up on the pontoon at Pacific Quay. It's the perfect getaway craft and they're soon powering 'doon the watter' while waving goodbye to their pursuers with economic use of their fingers.

But have they really escaped?

It soon dawns on our heroes that they have made the wrong kind of enemy and that, really, there's nowhere in Scotland, in fact nowhere in Britain, where they can safely step foot on dry land. So they don't. Instead they steer the little dredger on a course south to the Mediterranean and to the gambler's paradise of Monte-Carlo. It's a dangerous and farcical journey, but they make it and, once there, decide to put their original plan into action, unaware that a Glasgow crime lord's tentacles can stretch very far!

OK...so that's my movie idea, which came to me while I took a lunchtime stroll and spotted the Saint Mungo birling about the Clyde. All I need is, say, half a million dollars in development cash and I'm prepared to start work on the script. In my lunch hours, of course.

Your suggestions for likely stars of this flick are now welcome.

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Blue Caller

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Jeff Zycinski | 20:06 UK time, Sunday, 21 December 2008

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Our family name was once the last entry in the old Glasgow telephone directory. That 'Z' followed by a 'y' was pretty hard to beat and, for a very short time, we took a kind of absurd pride in this alphabetical fame. Until, that is, the crank calls began.

"Congratulations on being the last name in the book. We here at the G.P.O would like to send you a prize...but first you have to test the line by standing on one leg and whistling"

That kind of thing pre-dated the radio "wind-up" by decades (sorry Russell Brand and Robin Galloway) but it was one of the least annoying kind of calls. In the main we would get rung up day and night by teenagers shouting racist abuse down the line. Racist and ignorant abuse, because many of the screamers couldn't make the connection between our name and its Polish origin. Instead they suggested that we return to Pakistan, India or, slightly nearer the mark, Germany. That, I have to say, is the closest I ever came to racism when I was growing up. Yes, of course, there was plenty of religious bigotry, but in the east end of Glasgow that went with the territory and those stories are for another day.

This afternoon, however, I boarded a train to Glasgow and began reading the paperback edition of Nella Last's Peace. It's based on the daily diaries that housewife Nella Last recorded as part of the Mass Observation project during and after the Second World War. It was chosen as a Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4

In one entry - from 1947 -Nella wrote about the number of Polish ex-servicemen who were hanging about the streets with no work to occupy them.

"Why don't they either send them home or let them work? They slouch so aimlessly about as if with no hope - they are dying slowly. If there is a risk of what the Russians will do to them! - well all life is a risk. They are men, and we have no right to spoon-feed anyone."

This passage was still in my mind when I got to Queen Street and took a taxi to Craigend so that I could deliver Christmas presents to my Dad. Over mugs of tea and fish-suppers we got to talking about those post-war years. Had he, I wondered, found it difficult to get a civvy job after his years in the Polish Free Navy ?

"Three years with no job, " he told me, "all the jobs were kept for returning British servicemen. We were so hungry, that's what I remember, hungry."

He went on to describe the graffiti on Glasgow walls. "Poles Go Home, Yanks Go Home..but we had no home to go to. The Russians were waiting at home. Poland had traded one set of occupiers for another."

After those three years my Father got a job at Faslane, breaking up old ships. But it meant leaving his wife and son (my Mother and oldest brother, of course) back in Glasgow while he and his workmates were housed in old army barracks. From that start, however, he began to learn the skills that finally led him to become a qualified welder. But at every turn he would confront some form of prejudice - sometimes even from trade unions - that would have to be overcome or ignored.

Today I can only count my blessings. Oh sure, there are a few vile comments about me on internet message boards, but you have to search them out (I do). More commonly I get accused of being anti-Scottish because I work for the British Broadcasting Corporation - or anti-English because I work for Radio Scotland. One or two zealots believe a person with a name like "Zycinski" must know nothing about Scotland. Those are the same kind of people who talk about blood purity and compulsory DNA testing.

But here's a thing: today on the train I heard someone talking about the new generation of Poles who have been arriving in Britain over the past few years to take up low-paid jobs in the service industry. That same someone suggested that the money those people have been sending back to Poland has, somehow, contributed to our current economic woes. It was time, said that someone, for them to go home, to go back to where they belong.

Is this how it starts? If so, don't call me at home. We're ex-directory these days.

Pillow Shock

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Jeff Zycinski | 14:15 UK time, Wednesday, 17 December 2008

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There was almost a fist fight on Good Morning Scotland today. At least, that's what it sounded like when Gary Robertson and Isabel Fraser started taking sides on the subject of man-flu. Now, this caught my attention because I've been shuffling about the house for the past three days with watery eyes and pockets bulging with used tissues. Not man-flu, just a bad cold.

"You look like a methadone addict." said Mrs Z as I ripped open one of those new-fangled sachets of paracetamol syrup and sucked greedily at the gloop within. The manufacturers claim it will relieve the symptoms of cold, chills, headaches, shivers, aches, pains, blocked nose and sinuses. They also claim it will give you a "chesty, productive cough". Yeeuuch!

Mrs. Z, it has to be said, has also been suffering from a wee bit of cold but hers must only be a fraction as awful as mine because she is still able to function like a normal human being, take children to school, hoover, make meals etc. I, on the other hand, have been having little naps and nodding feebly when offered cups of tea and digestive biscuits.

Until this morning, that is, when the row broke out in the GMS studio and there were claims and counter claims about whether men or women were more prone to take time off work for illness. It all sounded ugly and clearly the entire radio station was falling to pieces without my guiding hand. I threw back the duvet and announced to the household that I would now be resuming my place in normal society.

"The BBC needs me!" I said, "This is what public service is all about."

Mrs Z. said nothing. I guess she was overcome with pride.

I guess.


P.S I've just discovered that those sachets contain alcohol and now that I've sobered up I'm wondering why I'm sitting at my desk in my pyjamas.

Three Years Of Blogging

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Jeff Zycinski | 10:47 UK time, Sunday, 14 December 2008

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I couldn't find three candles for a cake, so I just ate three cakes instead. Yes, this blog is now three years old. It was on this very day in 2005 that I embarked on this little cyberspace adventure. Now,100,000 words later it's time to reveal that the whole project may be cursed. Oh yes.

You see, I've noticed that sometimes when I write about something or someone then that thing or person suffers some terrible fate. I wrote about banks and a few weeks later there was a global economic meltdown. I wrote about Russell Brand and, well, we all know what happened there. And I feel very guilty about my trip to the Woollworths in Dingwall and my observation that there were more staff than customers.

Yes, blame me, but be warned: I might write about YOU next!


P.S. Given the fuss about the BBC's procedures for competitions, you might be interested in this little archive blog about the hoops we used to go through before the strict rules were introduced.

They're Looting Woolies

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Jeff Zycinski | 16:08 UK time, Thursday, 11 December 2008

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An ugly, bad-tempered atmosphere in downtown Inverness today, as joyless bargain hunters picked over the decaying carcass of the Woolworth's store. I was expecting as much when I heard Good Morning Scotland report the closing-down sale this morning. By lunchtime there were queues spilling out of the doors and the shelves were being stripped in scenes that resembled the looting frenzy you associate with a riot.

"What a shame," seems to be the phrase on everyone's lips, as it looks increasingly likely that Woolies will disappear from our High Streets after Christmas Eve. Yes, what a shame indeed, but then no one can quite say why they feel that way. Perhaps it's all those associations from our childhood and teenage years. I bought my first - and only - guitar in the big Woolworth's store in Glasgow's Argyle Street. In that same store I also bought the most wonderful am/fm radio which looked like a piece of military equipment and came with a microphone that allowed you to amplify your voice through the speaker.

In the Broughty Ferry Woolie's I bought seaside toys, spud-guns, water pistols and picture postcards. In the Largs store I would take my children there after Sunday afternoon trips to the Nardini's ice cream parlour. The Byres Road store in the West End of Glasgow was a lunchtime refuge from the BBC at Queen Margaret Drive.

Today, in Inverness, I squeezed my way past the throng of shoppers - their faces tripping them - who had been lured by the promise of 50% reductions. No one seemed to have anything particularly exciting in their baskets. One woman was juggling with rolls of Christmas wrapping paper, another was holding a toy car with a built-in reverse parking sensor.

There wasn't much left on the shelves to tempt me to join that queue. I considered buying up the entire stock of desk fans and selling them for a profit next summer. Too risky an investment given that summer sometimes doesn't come. It was either that or those towels that look like kilts. There were dozens of those.

In the end, like so many of my recent trips to Woolworths, I bought nothing. And that, I suppose, was the problem.

A Garden Of Curses

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Jeff Zycinski | 20:33 UK time, Monday, 8 December 2008

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There were three of them. Two of them held me down while the third punched me in the stomach. Between blows the fist-happy leader of the trio was offering me an easy way out of my predicament. All I had to do was use a "sweary word" and the torture would be terminated. A small group of spectators watched helplessly. My tormentors came from the ranks of an Easterhouse street gang and no one dared step in to rescue me. One or two of my friends urged me to take the deal.

"Just say it, Jeff!" they shouted, "nobody will tell on you."

That, you see, was the problem. As much as I feared for my very life, I was even more scared that my parents would find out that I'd been using "bad words". They'd brought me up with the well-known promise of a carbolic tongue-scrubbing should I stray towards the dark side of Glasgow street-talk. So I took the beating. Even when the psychos reduced their demand from the F-word to a simple "bloody", I still refused to give in. My pals thought this was taking stubborness to new heights of stupidity. Finally the bullies got fed up and let me live. Good of them, really.

All this happened when I was eight years old, but I still have a thing about strong language.

These days, I'm ashamed to say, it doesn't take a punch in the belly to get me going. Show me a spreadsheet from our finance department and there had better not be small children in the room.

The BBC, of course, has editorial guidelines about such things. There's even a list of the strongest swear words. These have been checked with groups of viewers and listeners so they must be true. (Gosh, can you imagine that research project!) Apparently people get most upset if you combine a strong swear word with blasphemy. Next worst thing is to use that American expression that suggests a person might be having sexual relations with his Mom.

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In these days of Russel Brand-inspired compliance procedures, I often have to make a judgement call on what can or cannot go on the air. Take our new sit-com, for instance. It's called No Hard Feelings, stars John Gordon Sinclair, and deals with the sexual and career problems of a middle-aged man in Scotland. Why, that could be any one of us. Not me, obviously...but anyone else.

There's also some "bad words" in the script and, truth be told, after the recording, and even though the studio audience didn't complain, I asked that some of the language be edited out. Not all of it, though. There's a scene in which the main character is splashed with a bucket or urine. Except, he doesn't cal it that. Well, people don't, do they? Not in comedy programmes anyway.

Moving swiftly on, I'm glad to see that train operators are cracking down on passengers who swear at their staff. I arrived in Edinburgh tonight to see posters on the station concourse suggesting that anger can be expressed in other ways. It suggests that "cheesed off" is preferable to the Gordon Ramsay version. If only I had tried that with those Easterhouse headcases!

Happily I did not arrive in the city by plane. I don't doubt that airborne visitors, be they tourists or aliens from outer space, would be mightily impressed by the landscape. But
if you've ever looked at Edinburgh on one of those Google satellite maps then don't linger on the field between Ratho Station and the airport. Not if you're easily offended. (and for that reason I've removed the direct link to it, so you'll have to go searching if you do want to be offended!) Some wag with crop-circle skills has left a not-so-charming message of welcome for those who come from the sky.

It's enough to make you curse.

Me Against The Fans

Jeff Zycinski | 23:42 UK time, Wednesday, 3 December 2008

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I'm in Glasgow tonight and, for reasons that must remain secret, I had to get from Pacific Quay to Partick. That meant a walk through the glass tunnel over the Clydeside Expressway and a one-stop train journey. All would have been fine had I not had to swim against the tide of Stereophonics fans heading through said tunnel for the gig at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre. I also encountered a tout who was approaching teenage girls and offering to buy or sell tickets for the concert. He was about ten steps away from two policemen. Was this a form of entrapment? Or was he simply using Strathclyde's finest as his personal bodyguards?

As for my secret mission, well, it involved a trip to a supermarket and the purchase of Polish kabanos sausages. More than that I dare not say. At least, not until I've brushed my teeth.

Losing My Grip

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Jeff Zycinski | 22:29 UK time, Tuesday, 2 December 2008

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I risked life and limb to bring you this winter scene from Inverness today. Last month I committed to taking a photograph from the same location every month so that, together, we could mark the changing seasons and provide visual proof that those seasons do still exist.
Today's snowfall made my trek to the castle esplanade just that little bit more tricky, mainly because I was wearing my shiny office shoes which have as much traction as billiard ball.
There are lots of words you could use to describe the way I walked up that snow-covered hill, but "gracefully" and "confidently" would not be among them.

I shouldn't complain. Earlier today I was taking part in a conference call with colleagues from the BBC's Russian service. We're hoping to work together on some special Burns programmes next month.

That got me thinking about how cold it must be in Moscow this time of year. Imagine my surprise when I checked on the internet and discovered that people walking around Red Square today were enjoying temperatures 3 degrees warmer than Falcon Square in Inverness.

And I bet they all have better shoes.

When The Glowing Gets Tough

Jeff Zycinski | 22:53 UK time, Monday, 1 December 2008

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Imagine, if you will, two ordinary houses sitting side-by-side in an ordinary street in Inverness. Ordinary, that is, except for the addition of a hundred or so coloured bulbs and enough electricity to power a small village. Well that's what caught my eye as I was driving home tonight. In fact it caught my eye and almost caused me to veer onto the pavement. Yes I know this American habit of illuminating the front of houses has been catching on in Scotland, but still...I was intrigued. Did these two neighbours get together to add a bit of festive cheer to the community? Or are they deadly rivals who try to outshine each other every year?

There was only one way to find out. I parked the car, fished out my BBC I.D. card and knocked on the door of the first house. Seconds later that door opened a few inches and a woman's head appeared in the available space. I told her who I was, asked if I could take a few photographs and then fired a few questions. Soon we were both standing in the garden while she pointed out the various features of the display.

"It's just something we do every year," she told me, "there's also a train that sits on that empty track there and a projector that beams onto the wall...but my husband switches them on when he gets back from work."

I noticed a car cruising slowly past on the street and I asked her if she minded people gawping at their windows every evening. She shrugged and I realised the stupidity of my question. That, when you think of it, is the point of the whole thing.

But what about the next door neighbours? Is this a collaboration or a contest?

"We do our thing and they do theirs."

I can't say I was convinced and if I was ever going to get the bottom of this I would have to do one of two things. Either I could chap on the neighbour's door and get the other side of the story...or else I could hand this whole thing over to one of BBC's crack investigative reporters in the Inverness newsroom.

And you know, there was something about that big 'Beware Of The DOG' sign on the neighbour's gate that made me remember I was already running late and my tea would be getting cold.

It was a light-bulb moment, really.

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