Tag Archives: whisky

My Country

My country
says she hates her face
she hates herself, though she won’t admit it
she’s starved herself
of mercy and pity
thinks her hard edge will
do for positivity

My country
says she’s not creative, creativity
is for the toffs and ponces
she’d like to be like them
but it’s not for her, and anyway
someone has to sort the expenses

My country
says it’s better to stay in a pack
there’s laughter and strength in the herd
everyone keeping their head down
she’d kill a leader rather
than let him break cover

My country
says she’s the least important
of all countries
and if I say the opposite
she’ll hang me up
expose me to public ridicule

My country
says anyone who wants to stay in her
must be weak in the head
she’ll happily give passes out
to sunshine and ease of living

My country
does not take kindly to initiative
or authorship, that mug’s game
if initiative’s about
there’s some foreigner behind it
– she’ll always take kindly to him

My country
is empty except
where she’s knotted into conurbations
there the lights
keep out the stars, she never lies
now, contemplating the moon

My country
has thrown out all her mythologies
where she puts her feet down, that’s
where it’s all at
the only spirit she recognises
comes from a condensing worm

My country
is a stubborn old goat
I’ve pictures that tell me
I liked her when we were young and fresh
but now I’m too weary to remember
if she was really ever dear to me
– and ever dear is saying a lot.

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After the Hard Stuff, the Orgy!


In the course of a long conversation this morning Paul and I touched on the quantity of whisky which would certainly be consumed in Scotland on Friday the 19th. (and what a bonanza this Referendum must prove to this mainstay industry in our economy), when the hard business of campaigning and deciding is in the past and we can relax with a glass in our hand…

As a poet, that’s to say someone with one foot in each of two worlds (sounds a bit like an Undecided Voter), I’m fascinated with the web of meanings which has formed round the word “spirit”. It’s connected to that other web of meanings around the epithet “water of life” for something which is quite clearly the water of death (there’s a doctor in one of Hugo von Hoffmansthal’s plays who gets lyrical about the connections between alcohol and corpses). I’m a bit old-fashioned about the use of the word spirit, and regard its hijacking to mean alcohol as just one of many attempts made to subvert human consciousness by that hard-nosed little demon, Materialism. But what interests me even more in the current circumstances in Scotland is the fact that this so-called traditional drink of our land can’t have been around, in more than laboratory quantities anyway, for more than, say, five hundred years, and more likely three to four – for the very simple reason that distilling equipment would have been very hard to come by. Which brings me to the very interesting question of why whisky – grain alcohol (universally available, with the right equipment) stored in foreign barrels in which foreign wines had previously been stored – should have come to be regarded Scotland’s “national” drink. Maybe it just means we’ve got a very cosmopolitan outlook. But it’s interesting when you consider that this beverage must have first seen the light of day in this country at the very time Scotland was being got through the process of so-called “union” with England. I don’t think it’s too much of an intellectual leap to suggest that “spirits” came as Civilisation’s gift to the Scots, in very much the same way as strong liquor was Civilisation’s gift to the indigenous populations of America and Australia. (It occurs to me that the German word for poison is “Gift”.) And in parallel – we hear less about this – cheap strong liquor managed to come the way of undesirable elements of society at the same time, just when the English countryside was being systematically cleared of its excess population to make way for the parkland and manor houses and darling little villages which we still know and love as the English Rural Idyll.

Anyway, being a resourceful people, Scots turned their spirit into a prime export – not that we could do anything similar nowadays, the Bank of England will point out that we’re far too brainless – and everyone has to drink it or at least try it, and for those who think they don’t care for it may I say it’s a bit like sex: a bit bizarre at first but all right once you get used to it.

And this is positively my last blog about the Referendum. Have a good orgy.


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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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