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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

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January 21

Anna has put this page together for me. When I first clicked on it and saw the banner – the same one that’s up at the top of the screen here – my first thought was, “my that’s bright”. Then, after a couple of seconds’ gazing, “Hey – that’s Coldhome!” It was the little rowan tree on the far right that did it. I didn’t recognise the rest because of all the trees. Anna must have snapped it herself on some occasion, choosing a spot that made it all look quite tree-ish. The picture’s nice and fuzzy of course, which contributes to this rather idealised view. The roofs of the buildings – why, they could be lovely old red pantiles, really, couldn’t they. You wouldn’t know it’s actually rusty corrugated iron, and the buildings are, well – sheds, what else can you call them. Not quite as tumbledown as they were eight years ago (apart from the Tumbledown Shed, which is even more tumbledown) but pretty tumbledown for all that. And it’s hard to imagine the grim light of November through February, the bareness of landscape, bareness of the wind, the bareness of grey sky, which makes such an indelible impression on the spirit.

Well, it’s good to think about it in a fuzzy idealised light, now and again. Maybe we’ll get round to the pantiles some day.

I like “Coldhome Project” too: that sounds very purposeful. I can’t actually remember what the Coldhome Project is, or was; though I do remember that we all four adults here made earnest resolutions to keep up our own record of things as they progressed. I did, for a bit. I think Rachel might have done as well. But – too busy; too tired; too something; just like most of the rest of humanity, I suppose.

So, I needed Anna to slap me around a bit. “Do you want to sell books? – Yes, I know you really just want to share them; but do you or do you not need some income?” … Anna is actually politer to her revered Parent than this suggests; let’s call it poetic licence – but that was the gist of it. I don’t want to sell books as in Hard Sell. Poetry I’ve never wanted to sell, stories I’ve never minded so much … “Let’s not get bogged down in the detail, Father. You a) want to sell some books, b) share some other stuff, including a rather belatedly-begun record of the Coldhome Project -” (Whatever that is, or was….) “Well, put (a) together with (b) and what do you have? A blog, Father, a blog.”

So, this is that blog. It should be rather a lot about the Coldhome Project (probably) and related stuff, but seeing how some of the related stuff is me, and I write stories (and poems, and songs, and tell stories), it seems reasonable to also give some instructions as to buying some of this output – not poetry, of course, nobody wants to buy poetry, and as I say I don’t want to sell it anyway, so that’s something that will be entirely for sharing; and to be honest, if I can’t sell my stories I’ll probably finish up sharing them as well – why? Because they’ve mouldered in damp boxes for long enough, and I believe in freedom for the captives. I’ve still got 400 copies of the “Dragon Fire” trilogy stored up, so they’ll be for sale. Completely fresh and unmouldy, them. I dare say doughty old Dragon Fire will be going out of print one of these days. Under the good offices of Walker Books it’s been selling quietly away for the last twenty years, but it’s got to be coming to the end of its present incarnation. Marilyn says we should think about a re-launch.

I’m also determined to do e-books, or something of the kind (ha! grimly! Mention anything digital and I always strike the same pose of grim determination), of the half-dozen or so stories that never got published, and perhaps also some of the ones that went out of print; while Ben has promised to do his own princely handmade versions of the same if demand arises – and he won’t do that for nothing, not if he’s got any sense. And I’ve also got some little stories which I’d like to share by audio-link (when I find out how to do that), and several shelves of poems which ought to be allowed to see the light of day so I can at least point to them and say: look! I wasn’t entirely frittering the last few decades away…

Anyway, instructions of one kind or another will follow, when I work out how to do them, or get Anna to do them for me, and the these goodies will be freely (or not so freely) available.

But back to Coldhome; because Coldhome is always in the forefront of my attention, whatever chances I get to creep up to my little hovel and Create. I need to put the record a bit straight already, because I really don’t want this to be my weekly let-me-moan-about-our-harsh-existence slot. I have on occasion seen Coldhome in real life (nearly) as bright as the banner (and frequently as fuzzy: but that’s another story); and I certainly don’t want to be anywhere else than here, even though I’d always dreamed of settling somewhere where there were woods and big rocks and running water. We have none of that kind of nonsense here: just fields, fences, more fields, farms, the odd grudging little strip of woodland more for shelter-belts than anything else or for beleaguered game to crouch in…. But Coldhome is our little island; our shelter and stronghold.

That said, there is something odd about the temperature at Coldhome. Either the thermometers are wrong, or else things happen at higher temperatures – like freezings, and wind-chill, and such-like aspects of cold.. One morning the car thermometer registered -8C as we left the homestead, and as we drove down to Inverurie we watched it plummet to -22, but I swear when we got out in the town it felt exactly the same as it had at home.

When Lairdie (he’s the chap who sold us the property) came round, a few years back, to introduce himself, we asked him, so what does Coldhome actually mean, do you know? After all, names change, they get corrupted. We once stayed at a place called Bellyhack, which turned out to be an anglicization of the perfectly mundane Gaelic name Baile’ Ach). “Home” could mean “holme”; “cold” could mean – well, something different. Lairdie responded with a surprised look and, “Coldhome? It means exactly what it says”, followed with some rigmarole about the way the wind comes round a particular hill and up that part of the glen and I can’t remember what else, but the upshot of it all is: Coldhome means you’re living in a cold home, maties: a preternaturally cold place indeed. When you’re at home here, you’re cold. There was talk, among us and the wider family, of changing the name to help us (and visitors) feel warmer, but no-one could think of any decent alternative. Actually, I’m delighted about that. Coldhome sounds a bit lofty, a bit uncompromising. I think of the House of Sleep in Lilith, where the very idea of being comforted by warmth becomes absurd. Maybe George MacDonald happened upon Coldhome in the course of one of his youthful rambles.

When we arrived here – the first time must have been eight years ago now – there was one tree on Coldhome’s four and a half acres: a gean possibly, long-dead, and dumped on top of a heap of the bulldozed remains of a shanty-town of old concrete buildings that once spread around the main complex. We never burned it, perhaps due to sentimental considerations; and it lies in the pond now, and the kids call it Smoky.

There’s lots of trees here now – over a thousand, I suppose, but they’re all little. Anna’s picture cunningly takes in some of the big trees in our neighbour’s field and then manages to make a little copse out of what is actually a line of apple trees that runs up the north side of the property, once again in the neighbouring field. These apples are actually quite remarkable trees: there are thirty-two of them in the line beside us and then another line meeting it runs along the roadside. We call them crabs, but I don’t think all of them are native types: the fruit vary greatly in size, colour and sweetness, though all of them have that paint-stripper quality in the mouth. I and the kids have acquired quite a taste for them, once you get past the face-scrunching stage. They must be at least a century and a half old, and have an air of craggy, weatherbeaten venerableness. A plentiful crop falls into our field most years, and we’re getting sophisticated in our brewing experiments. Well, sophisticated-ish. Being apples of wisdom, it wouldn’t be right to make unwarranted claims for them, or ourselves.

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