Monthly Archives: April 2012

April 23


We were all up at the community hall in Glenlivet last weekend, where Annie and Rachel, and some of the kids, were taking part in “An Evening of Women’s Voices” in aid of somebody called “Sea Shepherd” (sounds a bit messianic, if you ask me). I’m afraid Sea Shepherd won’t be quite as much richer from the event as everyone would have liked, as snow was threatening, and if snow threatens in Glenlivet you take it seriously. Only three members of the general public turned up, and two of the acts pulled out, leaving the young people to take up the first half and Rachel and Annie to have to extend their rehearsed programme considerably for the second. The General Public left at the end of the first half, we hope because they had a previous dinner-date and not because “we weren’t expecting a concert from a bunch of kids”, or some such. The kids’ part was in fact very delightful, and far from unprofessional, not that professional was in their minds – they just got up and performed as easily and naturally as they do everything else. Poor Ellie was considered too young to take part, but she launched her own floor-show on – well, the floor, in front of the stage. Jessiman School-trained, after all, is Ellie.

The exit of the General Public didn’t matter too much, as it left a large gang of friends and their kids, but what is interesting is how it changed the whole dynamic of the performance. Both Rachel and Annie remarked on it. What was it: disappointment? Not exactly. Being less “on their mettle”? Probably. Being more prey to the assaults of embarrassment? Certainly. Annie, who is actually a natural performer, “under-did” her act more than she intended. Rachel allowed herself more obviously surprised/questioning/apologetic glances at Annie if things weren’t going quite as rehearsed.

Things were different a few weeks previously, when they took part in a performance at the Tin Hut (Gartly village hall), that time – there being no restrictions as to gender – backed by a couple of chaps, me on the flute to be exact and the wondrous Tim Branston on his slide guitar, and we brought off – I say it with due modesty – a scorching performance. That’s to say, we enjoyed it and if the audience didn’t they didn’t let on.

The Rot

So much goes into the whole thing of Performance, and frankly I think most of it is bad. Take traditional dances, ceilidh-type frolics. You require musicians for these. They aren’t performers as such, they’re providing the music you need and they get paid for it (or should), and everyone does lots of clapping and shouting to keep the enthusiasm level up. That strikes me as a reasonable balance of “audience” and “performer”. This is also the reason I like our monthly sessions in the Tin Hut – and the various other folk-ish clubs in the area too, though the Tin Hut is special because of its acoustics. The balance is good. Everyone gets an equal chance to take part, regardless of their supposed credentials; everyone gets an equal – and fairly muted – amount of applause. Sometimes something that someone plays or sings particularly appeals for one reason or another, and then there are additional sounds of satisfaction, but this isn’t the rule. I call this healthy, and while there’s no denying that everyone loves “a good performance”, even (in small doses) “a great performer”, the general balance of audience and performer, contaminated as it is by the cult of Celebrity, has become pretty unhealthy, wherever you look.

I guess the rot set in back whenever, when music stopped being solely the background to some Count’s dinner party, and big symphony orchestras were brought in to fill the grandiose concert halls that everyone wanted in the big cities. There was something faintly democratic about this, but it also forced the musicians to become performers, and everyone else to sit on their bums and participate by shutting up; and then of course you had the super-musicians, creamed off from all over the Empire, to prance in and head up the orchestra, so the rot got even rottener with a new cult of celebrity. The golden years of Classical music, these. Later on, when orchestras got too expensive, along came the Gift of technology: amplifiy the sound, and then three guys could fill the whole space with the same – no, with bigger sound, with as much sound as you had the electrics for, really.

It seems to me that when true belief collapses, self-belief takes its place, and as self-belief is invariably phoney, a sort of icon-fuelled self-belief – really just an old- fashioned religious-superstitious belief – takes its place: Celebrity is such a case. The geezer up on the stage will do it all for us. We may be inadequate, but he will carry our inadequacies and transmute them into glittering treasures. He is our messiah – at least till we decide, in our religious-superstitious frenzy, to crucify him…. (Or her, one is obliged to add….)

Where was I? Ah yes, the Tin Hut. Fraser Wilson has managed this little treasure so well that fairly eminent singers/bands from both sides of the Pond now phone up to ask if they can do a gig; and of course we once-a-monthers who gather for the ordinary Tin Hut Sessions can bask in the reflected glory. I don’t know if this is good. I also don’t see that it’s inevitable that someone who has a “great talent” should be expected to “move on to higher things”, as we say, meaning join in the brain-drain to ever bigger cities. Amongst the musicians of Old, I think my favourite is still Franz Schubert, a man who sweated, bled and snored great tunes, who hated public performance, and whose profoundest works were written for his circle of friends to play, or listen to, in their own homes or the local Kneipe. That sounds ideal. I was interested to discover that Schubert’s teacher was Antonio Salieri, the court musician who features as Mozart’s adversary in Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus. I’m not quite sure what this might imply, but I know I’ve always had the greatest admiration for unsung heroes like Session Musicians, and I think Salieri might have been one of those, while dear Wolfgang A, I fear, may have belonged to that special breed of performing monkeys who constitute the Mainstream and for whom celebrity is all.

Wouldn’t we all go for it if we could though? Who can say for sure. I’ve been having an Abscess recently, so dentists are on my mind, and dentists waiting-rooms always take me back to a cartoon I saw years ago in Punch magazine (it’s generally Chat these days, or Vogue,  Bunkered,  Horse and Hounds, but back then it was always Punch): I can’t remember the picture, but the caption ran, Oh yes, my husband’s an author – but so far, luckily he’s been able to avoid all that tiresome business of publication…

Here’s an “after” picture of my Author’s Den to complement the “before” one of last time, with the snow replaced by mud. I’m taking advantage of all this wetness-from-the-sky to carry up bucketfuls of earth and turves and plonk them on top of the roof whenever I have time, though the buckets are getting heavier as the ground gets muddier and staggering up the ladder gets increasingly hazardous. There’s a weed-grass that grows round about here, I’m not quite sure what it is but it seems to work pretty well on the turf roofs, forming great big mats of short fine growth that likes wet but doesn’t seem to mind drought too much. I hear May is scheduled to be as miserable a month as April, so that’ll extend the season for turfing activities, as well as for tree transplanting, which we still have a bit to do of (there’s the kind of syntax of which a writer may be proud). So the weather’s always perfect for something. I’ll have to move that stack of old windows from in front of the south-facing window and let in some light. Our littlest tabby cat (pictured in escape mode, Ellie being just round the corner) has been trying for months and now seems to have finally attracted the one intact male left in the District (may be a wild-cat, I suppose). This at least is my guess based on the smell in the caravan, which I again left open one night.

I’ve reached the box of old poems that lie somewhere within, two of which I’m using to start a “poems” page. After much thought about how to arrange my old poems on this page (even some new ones too, as I do occasionally write them still), I decided just to fish about in the various boxes, folders and notebooks and pick out at random. As a postgraduate student I used to inveigh against the habit in Literature departments of requiring a historical/biographical context to understand poems or other works, saying it was just another facet of the Cult of Celebrity and that the work should be supremely capable of standing on its own: so now it’s going to be fun reversing that stance and giving as much details as I feel like. What my eye fell on first was a little booklet put together many years ago (1984, I suppose) by a young German artist who was staying with us at the time. Scarlet picked through sheaves of my poems and came up with a handful which she wanted to illustrate with her intricate pen drawings. I’d better not try to reproduce any of these here, as we have long since lost touch so I can’t ask her permission. But her “Erinnerung an Schottland” is now my “memento of Scarlet Mosel”. The poems she chose – like the first, “Lady Isis” – were mainly love-poems, though love poems have never particularly been my stock-in-trade. The second, “Your house grows….“, is one I wrote for my stepmother’s birthday during one of her bouts of back-pain.

There should now, or soon, be a tab at the top of the page directing you to technical stuff, such as the construction of our turf roofs. This was a split-off from last time’s blog when Anna and I decided that getting too technical on your ass about Coldhome stuff wasn’t a great idea if you’re one of those who read this because of your interest in my words of wisdom about writing issues. In fact, we were discussing splitting the blog into two separate but interlinked blogs. It was Abby who put a spoke in there with the enlightening idea that the way it was (is, has been up to now) was “living literature”. We fell for that one, and I think Anna may even have stuck that up as a quote somewhere.


Filed under Poems, Songs, Writing

April 10

Ha ha, we got our dump of snow – 8 straight inches, so we’ve done even better than our friends up at Tomintoul, who measure in metric. Here’s a picture of my holy-of-holies on the morning after and guess what, I forgot to shut the door again the night before.

That’s a week ago now, we’ve had lots of family and friends up before, or for, Easter, the snow took a few days to clear and now it rains and the drips are cascading through the caravan roof again and the ground is as it should be, ie capable of supporting life and it’s time to think about sowing seeds.

Ben, Abby, Will, Robin – they’ve all been helping with major cobbing jobs – the insulation layer for the floor of the new room in the Long Byre and, in Robin’s case, some wall creation in the little new (temporary) bathroom – he was stuck for a whole day with his head in a dark corner finishing off the rough parts of the wall there, poor lad, while I prannied about trying to elicit sympathy for the difficulties I was having with the plumbing work above his head. I think I make these difficulties for myself because we’ve spent so many years now washing crouched in a little hip-bath that the very thought of reclining full-length in a real bath gives me night terrors.

However, now it’s Easter Monday and, us being in an irreligious country, Annie has had to go back to work at St Andrews this morning, with Abby and Robin on the Magebus – I mean Megabus of course, but that slip-of-the-finger gives me a nice idea…. They get off at Dundee, from where they go on back to Glasgow (they don’t have to work Easter Monday for some reason). Will and James have meanwhile headed back to the wilds of upper Donside to pack in as much as possible before the tree-planting season ends. How any saplings survive planting in that kind of drought is anyone’s guess, but I guess that these operations are on such a scale that even a thirty percent failure rate can be coped with. When Robin was engaged on some tree planting a couple of years back he was outraged at the disrespect shown to the baby trees. Now I hear chaps with planting-spades are to be replaced by low-flying aircraft which will fire the saplings into the ground in sharp-ended plugs. Maybe it was April 1st I heard that.

So, I’m back to raking through the piles in the little caravan again, trying to avoid the drips (I really must order that pond-liner); unsuccessfully hunting for the last page of “Manhunt in Golden Mall” which will hopefully have a link or something in this posting. It was the year before the London Bombings that I wrote it – I remember that, because Annie was regularly using buses into Russell Square in the week we were there – and the thought of trying to remember the ending after so many years seemed an effort too great to contemplate – and why, with all these disks and storage devices, floppy, hard, pocket-lighter sized, I only had one single hard copy, and an incomplete one at that, is just one of life’s minor mysteries, my life’s anyway – but in the end I bit the bullet, wrote a new ending and it didn’t take too long. I wrote this particular story for a proposed anthology about boys’ relationships with their dads, but it wasn’t accepted; however by that time I’d got rather fond of Baddo and Nazir and I’ve written, or roughed, or planned, three more stories about them, with ideas for a few more to boot. We’ll see what happens.

I’ve just remembered that other thing I’d been going to mention in the last posting; the book on mathematics which I came across in the little caravan, one which I’d been going to use with Maddy when we embarked on the fascinating matter of circles – 360º maths, as we call it. It’s called Vicious Circles and Other Savage Shapes by Kjartan Poskitt and it’s one of a series of maths companions he’s written to make the subject more accessible to youngsters. I think they’re quite popular, though whether amongst students or teachers/parents I don’t know. I have to admit the book brought back all the old smells, sensations, twitchings and sweats which maths books always induced in me at school. I don’t know, there’s always been the same progression with me whenever I try following a new approach to understanding maths, and it goes a bit like this:
Step 1, usually an anecdote – love it, most interesting.
Step 2, a bit of mathematical information – got it, yes I’m following this.
Step 3, more anecdote – yes, yes, I’m still amused.
Step 4, a little more information and – yes, I am truly following, this I do believe this will finally be the approach to maths….
Step 5, a bit more information and – what!?!? How did you arrive at that? How can 5 possibly follow from 4? How can you say it’s an easy step.

That’s how it’s always been. Roger (“very-simple-for-someone-with-the-most-basic-maths-understanding”) Penrose is the Emperor amongst the Names but many other names hover on the dim rim of my consciousness – maths geniusses every one, I’m sure, but I just don’t get it. I don’t have maths in my soul.

– Take Paul now. He’s my oldest friend, so I assume we must have some stuff in common. But Paul says he loves how maths takes you out of the real world into a world of pure logic and beauty: sometimes when he’s on a plane he shuts his eyes and sets himself a mathematical problem to solve. Well, I don’t know. When I’m on a plane I like to watch angels up against the blue-black sky, so I keep my eyes open. Mediaeval mystics used to calculate how many angels could be fitted onto the point of a pin. See what a nexus you can stray into when you step out of the real world. Maddy seems to have a natural feel for numbers, which doesn’t mean that she willingly consents to twenty minutes of the kind of basic maths tuition I can offer; but it also doesn’t mean that she has any more positive a reaction than mine to Kjartan’s excellent guidance… She reckons there’s only one number that’s important and that’s four, and only one unit important enough to count in and that’s horses’ legs.

My own idea of congenial – nay, comprehensible – maths is more like the one I tried out with Robin, during one of his home-education years, on the windy wintry beach at St Andrews, when I demonstrated the construction of a perfect square with a stick and a piece of rope – much to his chagrin, as he reckoned all passing students or dog-walkers were staring at the mad old geezer and his unwilling accomplice in a very disconcerting way. He wanted – at that stage of his life anyway – the magic without the science, the knowledge without the embarrassment; but I don’t think it can be done.

I suppose, when you consider the gulf between that kind of carry-on with ropes and sticks and the modern-day repertoire of symbols and processes for every conceivable thing, you realise what an incredible work of construction mathematicians have been doing over the centuries, turning abstract concepts – little more than elusive shadows across the mind to begin with – into a formal language that others (well, some others) can comprehend and record and pass on to posterity. But which posterity? Because I do wonder if the human race is actually dividing up into those who can enter that other, perfect, conceptual world and those who just can’t. The division may be evolutionary, and already irreversible.

Well, where was I?…. maths, Penrose, physics, geniusses, angels…. I’m also going to leave a link to my story “The Page Boy and the Stars”, which was one of four I sent as a birthday present to my father a good few years ago (it was the only one of the four he liked; the others are currently being hammered into the texture of a bigger book I’m writing for Anna). Like everything else I write, I don’t know if it’s a children’s story or not.

Paul re-read my “Timeghost” the other week and felt impelled (I hope it was impelled, he might just have been being nice because I’d written a review of Gaia’s Children) to give it a review on Amazon. He reckoned it was in the tradition of George MacDonald, which I take as a compliment, especially in a book that, in retrospect, really feels quite lumpy. But the same would be even truer of Page-Boy, which I do think of as a sort of homage to our great local forebear.

I see Anna’s also put “The Sundial” into the collection. It’s from even longer ago.


Filed under Coldhome, Writing

March 21

It feels like spring. Which is odd, inasfar as March is normally the month when we expect the last big dump of snow. In fact there have been no big dumps of snow this winter, and it’s all a bit unnerving, especially since there hasn’t been very much rain either. Our water-collecting equipment, which to begin with was fairly Heath Robinson-ish, is starting to get a little more sophisticated, but that doesn’t make a lot of difference when there’s no water to be had. So in effect we’re languishing under the Coldhome equivalent of a Hosepipe Ban: plenty of cooking and drinking water, adequate amounts for washing-up, though it’s better if you just lick your plate; but as for washing, of self or clothes, forget it mate, you’re living in the Post-Apocalypse now….

But hell, who needs to be clean? We had some pretty perfect days before the drought kicked in, though as it got really dry the winds got more biting, especially south winds for some reason (the Cairngorms, maybe). What’s more, the hens, undeterred, have started laying again (considering their advanced age, we get a fair amount of eggs, though Maddy is determined we are going to have chicks this year, even if it means nailing the selected mothers down to their nests). Also, I have sold our first trees from our mini-nursery, which has put a proper spring into my step, though it does mean that, apart from a handful of rowans, hawthorns, junipers, and a few scots pines, our selling stock is now at seedling rather than sapling stage: too tiny to be allowed to leave home.

I did mean to get working in my little Study earlier than this, but the spring in my blood has only this week finally led to my broaching this particular barrel, opening this particular can of worms….

The Mulhollands bequeathed us their old touring caravan, seeing how they don’t tour so much en famille any more, and after Dru had had it for a couple of winters (when we get on top of the technology I’ll put in a picture of Dru’s Caravan in Winter), I got the use of it for my own nefarious. Finally – a study of my own! No-one comes nigh and lives. All Mine.

It leaks. So – this was last summer – I slung a wooden frame over the top of it, got some straw and thick rubber onto the frame, battened down the hatches for winter, and then whenever possible started barrowing earth and grass up and plonking it on whatever rubber the gales had left intact. The rotting walls of the interior I shored up with our favourite building material, cobb (Coldhome’s stony clay mixed to mud with straw and water), and put in plenteous shelves. A table installed, I was then supposed to get on with the business of writing – there and only there.

First problem: cobb walls make for a very damp atmosphere till they’ve dried. I would nibble at the little kale seedlings that sprouted out of the walls to greet me. Second problem: I decided I ought to line the little cupboard with wool, for insulation, and store our seed potatoes there, a job which took up a lot of early December (last winter, half the seed potatoes got killed by frost, but we had no frost this year, apart from one night, and on that sole night I somehow left the door wide open – but the seeds still suffered no harm). Then Santa Claus got the lease of the caravan to store his stuff in. Then, after Christmas, the sub-arctic darkness had really got into my soul and it seemed much nicer to snuggle up in bed to write rather than having to trail outside into the cold dark and the empty desolation of the caravan. Then in the Christmas holidays Annie and Rachel decided it was finally time to clear out the himalayan pile of “stuff” stored in the top end of the big shed, and guess who most of it belonged to – and guess where it had to be taken off to?

So, finally, in this spring-like March, I’m getting round to organising my caravan, which still leaks a bit, seeing the rubber on the roof is a bit skimpy, and whose mounds of “stuff” are so, well, sub-himalayan in proportion that I don’t envisage much more than a paragraph being produced in here before the autumn.

But it has to be done. On day one, I attacked the various folders of stuff I’m supposed to use in my part of our home-educating deal with the kids. Many folders, many loose sheets, many poly-pockets, all bursting with fine educational fillings. What great ambitions I had – and how paltry what we actually get done, and with how much effort and slithering-out-of-the-inevitable on the part of the young ‘uns…. Here’s a volume of – no, I’ll write about that in my next blog, when I finally (I hope) get round to including a Story. If I go off on that particular tangent this time I really shall be in trouble with the ever-watchful Anna.

Here, more to the point, a list of words I’ve been looking for for Ellie.

Ellie, at six, still shows every sign of being the real academic type. Very articulate, very sharp, picks up and remembers everything she’s told. But reading and writing and numbers….. Well, Annie says she’s still very young. Boring, that’s what it is: getting into the nitty gritty of learning how to put a word together, why should she bother, when she’s surrounded by a constant stream of interesting information, always someone on hand to tell her stuff or read her a story, or DVDs for the odd hour when she finally acknowledges that her tongue needs a rest.

This word-list means that phonics (they sounded like the latest educational flavour-of-the-month anyway) have been firmly chucked out of the window (Ellie still doesn’t acknowledge any difference between a letter and a number), and out have come the old vowel-stories I did six or seven years ago for Maddy. They were designed to help guide her through the vagaries of vowels in the English language. They might have been successful in that, who knows? Maddy has never answered a teacher-style question in her life, or made any comment, critical or otherwise, about anything like a story, but as she’s one of those who read to Ellie nowadays, I suppose she must have picked something up from somewhere….

The vowel stories essentially mean, from Ellie’s point of view, a whole load of story that imparts a very small chunk of serious information, which is right up Ellie’s street of course. And in fact right up mine too, because the words of the titles have actually become the basis for her to learn to read some words. She’s even analysing them herself now, breaking them down into phonic components.

So, like everything else in home education, doting parent can claim no credit. If Ellie is idiosyncratic, then you should see Gwyn, whose self-taught reading skills date from when he decided he was going to read the Bible from cover to cover – an edition with the tiniest possible lettering on its close-packed pages. We finally realised it had to be the Bible because no other work of literature could possibly have scandalised his mother quite so deeply.

But back to the vowel stories – which, because they’ve never been properly written up, we’re going to try and present in audio form. Rather low production values, I fear, but, well, this is the Internet – and it’s free. There are five stories in the initial flight, The Ape and the Apple, The Eagle and the Egg, The Island of the Imp, The Old Man and the Ostrich, and the Unicorn and the Ugly. They got longer as I warmed to my task, all those years ago, so the first, The Ape and the Apple, is quite short.

The Ape and the Apple – audio


Filed under Stories