Category Archives: Coldhome

Raised a Roof!


The peoples of old used to be finely aware of the ghosts of the departed that lingered in deserted spaces. Departed meaning just that, of course: not necessarily dead ‘uns. And that was a bit like us at Coldhome for a couple of days after the end of our Work Week, otherwise known as Raising the Roof – which, unbelievably, is already more than a week into the past.

Yes, it was quite strange how we moved disconsolately amongst the secured roof-timbers or picked up offcuts, or gathered lost tools from the floors, and could practically hear with our physical ears snatches of conversations, laughter, short technical dialogues, and of course expressions of the simple wishes of the volunteers – time for coffee? beer? any food? beer? A little more beer?….
Actually, the picture – they are all empties (though not quite all the empties), and exclusively the home-brew empties, ie matched by similar quantities of shop-bought brew – doesn’t to my mind speak of overindulgence when you consider they’re the intake of well over twenty adults over a total of six days’ good-going labour: I took it out of a sense of satisfaction that I could now re-claim my bottles for other brews, as I’m slowly learning the arts of making beer from scratch.

Arty number with Dru

Mealtime shot with the tumbledown shed

I believe there are various pictures of the week on Facebook, so (apart from some pics in a pending “technical” page) I’m just including an arty number with Dru – and a mealtime snapshot with the Tumbledown shed, mainly because it (the shed) reminds me of a decrepit pet (dog? bear? dragon?) presiding benignly over proceedings, and probably not long for this world.

Anyway, we’re over the work, we’re over the excitement of such a large and joyous crowd of people, we’re even getting over the silence and the come-down and the exhaustion and the minor squabbles and the colds and related bugs, and we can look up and say, hey, we’ve got a roof! Or half a roof, rather. Or half a roof on the first of the three buildings that need a roof….. Well, that means we can do it all five times over again. Hooray. That should take another seven to ten years. I hope the crowd will still be young and fit enough. Maybe they’ll have an army of children of their own by then who can be cajoled into a fresh wave of activity.

What can I say? Some time ago CharlieR mooted the idea of a Coldhome Role of Honour, which we were all quite enthusiastic about, at least until someone anxiously mentioned the possibility of forgetting someone, so we all fell into a sombre consideration of Sleeping Beauty and the thirteenth Fairy. One day we’ll risk it. For the moment, and with our memories still fresh, we gratefully salute all who took part: Eileen and Sally and Kevin and Alex and Steve and Sally and Callum and Simon and Ella and Ellie and Bill and Eleanor and Dan and Mark and John and Rosie, not to mention the semi-residents, Abi and Will and Ben and Anna and of course Dru and Rebecca. This tally falls one short of the twenty-three workers that Rachel said had passed through: I fear we shall fall into a hundred-years’ sleep…..

Last night of the work week coincided with Rachel, Annie and me doing a slot at a ceilidh in Huntly which we’d agreed to earlier in the year and all felt we could have happily done without just on that particular evening. However – probably not unusually for such events – the original twenty minutes required was slashed to ten at the last minute, which was probably quite a relief, though it meant that the last-minute scramble to re-arrange our set meant we finished up well short even of the ten minutes, and as none of us were in very talkative mode we didn’t even fill up the time with introductions and bad jokes. We managed to rise above throat infections (and, as I say, exhaustion) for just long enough to thump out our three non-solo numbers and decided that we were rather glad of PA system, too, though I do believe we “popped” more than you’re supposed to, being but wet-eared amateurs in front of a mike.

The pressure, man, the pressure – isn’t over yet, as I (and Paul K, though separately) unwisely agreed to parade ourselves as Authors at two events during the Huntly Hairst celebrations. Why unwisely? Well, in my case when poor Fiona Wilson was trying to get me to write something down about what I’d be talking about so she could get it into the events catalogue (programme? notes? – doofer: doofers always do) I inadvertently jotted something down about having travelled in many foreign countries and, for want of a better thing to do, sent it to her. So now I’m in trouble. I never go anywhere foreign, or indeed anywhere at all, unless Annie drags me, and then only if there’s a bar and a hot bath nearby. Hell, Huntly seems like a metropolis. While I was waiting for our chips in the Dragon Garden (ha, maybe I do go to some exotic places) after the ceilidh the other night, I was accosted by a chap who seemed to be having some problems with his balance and said he liked my hairdo – well, he addressed me as Snow-white and started looking around for my seven dwarves, to his own great hilarity. That’s the sort of thing that happens in a metropolis, though, isn’t it. Anyway, Saturday coming will just have to see me telling a heap of lies and maybe I shall manage to preserve a shred of dignity. My ancient mentor Jock Paton used to say hawf the lees I tell arena true; and I think I might try and confuse them with something like that. Maddy says I shall also have to sign at least a hundred copies of Dragon Fire for sale.

Don’t know about Paul though: he’s at another venue, presumably talking about Gaia’s Children. They didn’t ask him if he would be requiring a crêche, which makes me really wish I’d spent more time writing adult stuff.

I’ve just realised: Paul – he was the twenty-third fairy…. Now I really am for it.

By the way: last blog I included a couple of pictures by CharlieR; I couldn’t download them, it seemed, without entering the unholy portals of Facebook, and by the time I’d decided the whole kerfuffle of registering etc wasn’t worth it and had gone off to retrieve a copy mechanically, it was too late: I was on, I was caught, a worm wriggling on a hook. So thank you everyone who sent Friend requests: my reluctance to get on and take you all to my bosom is not a personal reluctance but a reluctance about finally confronting the Beast 666, Ahriman-the-Great, He-who-rises-in-the-last-Days (alias Facebook), at my own writing-desk. I’ll get round to it, I know I must, it is my Destiny…..

One last PS. Got your funny little hammer, Mark. Also there’s a natty little black sports glove left behind: any claimants?

A solution for the accommodation Challenge. The erecting and fabricating of the yurt was Abby and Will’s work. A bit of a Tardis experience, a canvas yurt space – definitely one of those more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts phenomena, a satisfying combination of shape and light and space which makes me prepared (almost) to revise my opinion of camping.


Filed under Coldhome

Yearly Itch

Robin, who is, more or less, with us just now (“more or less” because he occasionally shoots off for short stays with other people, like film-star Jake, or Max and Luke in Dufftown: I wouldn’t like to suggest he’s in any way “not all there”), has shown great understanding about the plight of the hay gaffer (that’s me). I (and I presume everyone else) have always noticed how grumpy I get at hay-time, and Robin was the one who outlined the reasons why.

At best, haymaking is a great communal activity: the weather’s warm, the sun is shining, the dried grass fragrant, the combination of sweat and hay-dust makes your entire body itch (which sounds unpleasant, but it can also stimulate many other reactions – hence subsidiary associations of expressions like “making hay”, “hay fever”, etc); and, particularly if you’re one of the boys, you have all the joy of a pitch-fork to play with. All this fun-and-frolics doesn’t improve the mood of the gaffer, but at least he knows that the job is getting done quicker than he could do it himself, and that is of the essence.

The gaffer’s job is thus a lonely one and nerve-wracking to boot: a constant eye on the weather, which has been pretty consistently appalling so far this year, constant assessment of how far a particular batch of grass has “cured”, of how safe it’ll be stored out in the field, of whether it’s ready to go in under cover to its winter home, because if it’s not ready for its final storing there’s the danger it’ll heat and then go mouldy.

What was the “traditional” method of haymaking from the ‘sixties on, and still is to some extent nowadays, was the mechanised business of cutting, turning whenever the weather was good, and finally baling up in “small bales” which were manually stacked and/or shifted by trailer to the barn – a backbreaking job, considering the weight of a 36 x 18 x 14-inch bale, and not always producing the best results. The new “big bales”, particularly the round ones, can only be dealt with mechanically, and because they’re so tightly bound they make a product that’s safe from the moment it’s done, ie. it can be safely left out in the field for a surprisingly long time, well into the winter. But you have to be a fair judge of the condition of the grass prior to baling, or you’ll still finish up with half a ton of mould. Horsey people seem to have the resources to pay for “hylage”, which is a sort of combination of really old-fashioned half-cured, half-fermented grass-hay and the new hi-tech product, ie. the whole thing is clingfilm-wrapped in masses and masses of plastic, and it, naturally, is fantastic. Silage, which is what most people in these parts make, is also made in plastic-wrapped bales since some government decree that old-fashioned silage pits gave off too much effluent. Now, instead of the wake of dead trees and rank nettles where the effluent used to run off, you have vast mounds of used and useless black plastic which the farmers have to pay to have disposed of and which it’s illegal to burn (not that that puts all our chaps off: some have the nous to wait for cloudy weather when satellite surveillance is not at its best).

Hay-time: it’s nothing but a big worry, but everything else notwithstanding, this year has been quite good fun, because our tiny requirement has been worked on by most of the family, so Rachel and I can grouch and the rest can cavort, and between us we’ve hand-made a reasonable little pile. I should explain that sixty-odd guinea-pigs can get through a frightening amount of hay in a winter, especially if they’re not getting much other food, and this is what all the effort is for.

Erecting this beauty has proved to be the biggest hold-up of the season so far. As is all too plain, I couldn’t get on top of my Pythagoras; hence the ill-fitting roof sections. So far the cats haven’t discovered the gaps between the sections, but it’s got to be just a matter of time…. The strange little furballs down at the bottom are guinea-pigs. See the “technical”  page (about Coldhome) if you think we do all this for fun. The blue thing in the background is some of our hay curing on the fence, inadequately protected from these deluges we’ve been experiencing.

Over the years I’ve tried to work back towards an old-traditional method of haymaking, which involves only manual processing: field-curing on “quoils” and then storing in an outdoor stack, but that’s really highly-skilled stuff, and so far beyond me. I once had detailed instructions for this in my grandfather’s Cyclopaedia of Modern Agriculture – possibly to this day the only major work on agriculture and horticulture that has a distinctively Scottish slant – but my good brother unaccountably sold the set, and I’ve only been able to garner odd volumes since then: “Hay” to – I don’t know – “Kohl Rabi” isn’t among them (though I do have the revelatory – and, nowadays, revolutionary – one about raising potatoes from seed).

My first haymaking must have been near Bathgate in 1974, under the aegis of Jock Paton, ex of Wigtownshire, whose name still recalls for me the shock of disbelief at being expected to work through a half-dozen rolling fields carrying these leaden lumps of dead grass held in bales by string especially designed to torture the hands, blister and lacerate, and then after all the lugging have to heave them up onto a flatbed trailer that was chest-high when empty. Jock ran down into town to purchase a couple of pitchforks, so painful were our loading-efforts to watch, so then we had the joy of trying to pitch the monsters up to level six with implements we’d only ever seen used by Nazis to winkle out some filmstar fugitive from a farm cart. The following year, in Dumfriesshire, Drew Lammie’s skill at weather-prediction allowed him (and his hapless crew, of which I was a member) to cut, dry, bale and store all twelve hundred bales in one single frantic effort over six days of hot weather. Next year, when we had goats, I scythed nearly seventy bales-worth of hay and brought them home for baling off a hillside half a mile away – in a wheelbarrow…. I look back and wonder if this could possibly have been the same me that accomplished these feats. I think I must be an impostor now, replaced for the real article long ago during some night of lethal drunkenness, and only by sheer luck has no-one noticed, or has forgotten what the original looked like.

I’ve just remembered: it doggedly states “living literature” above this blog. Well sorry, that also is an imposture: too much living to leave time for any literature.


Filed under Coldhome

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 4

Keep them regular, and keep them short, Anna advises me, but neither regularity nor shortness have ever really been my virtues. On the other hand, as Anna says, nobody’s reading it anyway (I googled “Coldhome”, just to see for myself, and found “cold sores” and “cold remedies” as the main suggestions). So while I’m still enjoying myself and annoying nobody, I’ll let it go to its natural length, but I will try and work on the regularity thing. (Why did the notion of Prunes suddenly jump into my mind?)

I realize now that I’m actually no stranger to the blog idea. In the good old days, when I regarded myself not only as a man with a purpose in life but also as a Useful Member of the community, I was the editor of one of the local newspapers in the region. (Not a job I would recommend to anyone – a bit like being a pastor only without the Gospel; anything interesting, and you were earnestly enjoined not to publish it.) It was back in those Good Old Days that I hit on the idea of a weekly “letter from the editor”. As Dennis of “The Ploo” unkindly (but accurately) remarked: “he has to write a letter to himself because nobody else’ll write t’im”. But it was my way of keeping myself sane within the exhausting busy-ness yet searing monotony of the stuff I was “expected” to write, and I fancied it wasn’t altogether unentertaining for the readers, though, a bit like the Sunday Post in my youth, people tended not to admit that they ever read it and you got little feedback, or at least little that you could react to politely.

So, that was blog-ish: a bit of entertainment, a bit of ranting, a bit of news about one’s personal doings. And then there was a whole bunch of files I discovered on the laptop, in a folder called “Coldhome” that I frequently noticed on my way to “Stories” or “Poems and Songs” and wondered about, always assuming it must have been the start of someone’s praiseworthy, but doomed, attempt to begin a record of our doings here. I opened it the other week and discovered files with names like “Human Scale”, “Underconfident Mums”, “Education”, so I suppose I must be the guilty party: it certainly looked like a start on setting out some kind of rationale for our landing up here at the Coldhome Project…. Unfortunately I have absolutely no recollection of writing any of them, though they certainly look like my style too. Maybe I have a secret admirer/imitator, someone who must have nipped in here on a Friday night, a bit like the shoemaker’s Elves, and written them when I was otherwise engaged. Friday nights used to be when I and Charlie R had long conversations (well, as long as a bottle of Stewarts Cream) and got ourselves fired up over all kinds of stuff. After Charlie decided he had a heart condition, uncorroborated as it happened (long story: maybe for some future date), but decided to turn over a New Leaf anyway, there were no more raucous Friday Nights at Coldhome. On the evidence – ie. no more files mysteriously appearing – it must have been me. This character now has a name: David Dryburgh, who has posted his intention of writing some serious books. I hope he realizes how tough life is for serious writers at Coldhome.

I’m not sure if that particular blog would ever have taken off. Davie has a tendency to wander off into long theoretical rants, and just because he’s an admirer/imitator doesn’t mean I’m going to indulge him. I notice he also has a tendency to speak of himself as some sort of ancien regime character, who had his day but now is jaded, world-weary, full of the wisdom of the Failure. Neither Anna nor Annie will give him houseroom in our hearts or our caravans. There’s one piece where I – sorry, he – lists his various university acquaintances and their various notable successes in the world of real affairs (one of them was the UK Prime Minister at the time) and sorrowfully goes on to a “And then there’s me….” Paragraph. That’s all about what have I done with my life except produce a lot of children? And Annie would say it’s self-pitying, self-indulgent, and what’s wrong with having raised seven children anyway.

But back to poor old Gordon Brown. I’m interested to see that we were never under any illusions about his “coming to power”, as they call it. Anyone could have foretold that with that accent he was going to come a cropper. It’s not the way we do things here in the UK. His is the accent of a good second-in-command, but you don’t go getting ideas above your station. What will happen to BBC news broadcasting if Mr Salmond gets his way in Scotland I wouldn’t care to think: the whole posse of Mairs, Naughties, Warks, etc will be sent pelting up the road with all the hounds of Newgate on their tails. And what will become of the Labour Party….

We were over at Paul and Amber’s house the other night for the official launch of Paul’s Gaia’s Children. With this latest opus, Paul decided to throw himself into a proper self-publishing enterprise, via Matador Books, who seem to be considered one of the better self-publishing outfits. His whole endeavour has led to some fairly vigorous debates about the merits or otherwise of self-publishing. I see Anthony Horowitz pitched into the argument the other day in The Guardian, and I guess his comments about regular publishers representing a kind of quality control is just how I’ve always tended to see it.

On the other hand things are not right in publishing. “Have you heard of this Harry Potter business?” my editor asked me one day – must be quite long ago, I suppose – as we tucked into buns with mozarella and herbiness in some joint not too far from Vauxhall Bridge… (would I have remembered the conversation if there hadn’t been the association of the nice grub? We do march on our stomachs, after all.) That occasion lives on with me, anyway, as the cloud no bigger than a man’s hand. It was indeed the first I’d heard of it – the “business” I mean, the Harry Potter Business. And overnight children’s literature seemed indeed to become a business – nay, an Industry. How the stars of Thatcher twinkled! In case you’re unaware of it, when something like Literature (I put in the capital L to distinguish it from blogs and reports) becomes an Industry, then Quality becomes something measured in bucks, Originality becomes “a difficulty”, an artist’s voice has to blend in seamlessly with the unison of the Mainstream, your work becomes a Product, your reader becomes a Customer and – because the Customer is always Right – has to be given exactly what he or she expects; meanwhile everyone involved stands around and informs you with faces as straight as a Donkey’s that standards have never been higher.

There’s nothing really new about it all. It must be over thirty years ago now that an editor from some big publisher got up and declared publicly that authors were two a penny and what he really wanted was a decent phototypesetter. I suppose it just hit children’s literature a bit later, Blyton and Dahl notwithstanding.

It seems to me that the relationship of writer to publisher is a bit like the relationship of whisky to water. You don’t want to water down good whisky, but you need it to get it through your bloodstream where it can do the most good. The whisky’s poison, of course, and another thing the water does is dilute the poison. And then of course good water makes the whisky taste sweeter – not mixed, of course, but well balanced one with the other. It looks to me as if what the publishing world wants is whiskyless water, probably they’re on some kind of a health kick. Anyway in a market democracy, the public gets what it deserves.

All that said, Paul’s launch had multiple associations with fantastic grub (Amber’s Deep South cuisine beautifully, if not quite congruously, counterbalancing Paul’s Far North setting) and fantastic whisky (actually cut-price Grant’s, but it had had some of our elderberries steeping in it since November), and everyone wishes him the best. And who knows? If The Smoke People continues to fall at every hurdle, perhaps I’ll follow suit. I suppose some snippets of The Smoke People wouldn’t be out of the way in one of these postings – but from which version, three, four or five?.

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Filed under Coldhome, Writing