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April 23

Performances

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.

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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.

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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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