Friday, 23 December 2011

'Twas The Night Before Christmas

'Twas the Night before Christmas was first published anonymously this day (Dec 23) 1823 in The Troy Sentinel, New York City.

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tinny reindeer.

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!

"Now Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid! on, on Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!"

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky.
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys, and St Nicholas too.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler, just opening his pack.

His eyes-how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself!
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings, then turned with a jerk.
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose!

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!"

Thursday, 22 December 2011

A Christmas Fairytale

I was listening to a World Service broadcast early this morning and heard a fascinating story about Eowyn Ivey, a young writer in Alaska. She works in a bookshop part time, and one day was putting a Russian fairy tale Snegurochka (The Snow Maiden) onto a shelf. Snegurochka goes with Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost - pictured in my post on Sunday Dec 18) in Russian folklore. She opened the book, found herself drawn into the story, and was inspired to write a novel. She abandoned the project she had been working on for five years, and within a few months had completed 100 pages of her story. She met a book agent for a two minute 'pitch' slot at a writer's conference in Homer, Alaska who asked to see the book so far, and to cut a long story short now has a prospective best selling book deal Her book is being 'trailed' with a charming short animated clip online - see What a wonderful story for Christmas! I have ordered a copy of the book which comes out in the UK on Feb 16 2012.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Update on planning for our MBE May 2012 event

There was a programme subcommittee meeting yesterday to progress plans for MBE's May 26/27 2012 event Beyond The Garden Gate. Thanks to Marilyn, our MBE project manager, we will soon have a seasonal greeting as our new home page on our website, with mentions of the events we have planned. In another part of the wood entirely, a fascinating series on BBCR4 on word derivations yesterday revealed the connection between 'pooling' resources and 'scooping the pool'. They come from an old French gambling game involving throwing stones at a chicken (a 'poule'). The kitty that was won by the player who scored a hit became known as the 'pool'. Hence also the reason that the game similar to billiards is also known as 'pool'. Who would have guessed?

Monday, 19 December 2011

The Meaning of Fife

The Dumfries-based landscape artist Charles Jencks has designed a massive land art installation for a disused quarry in Fife, entitled The Meaning of Fife. Rightly or wrongly, I tend to disapprove of feeble puns, especially if they are attached to colossal works of public art. The piece itself - details are in the public domain - maps the Scottish diaspora in Canada, the USA, Australia, China, south America and so on. There are interesting meditations on maps in the essays of Jorge Luis Borges the blind anglophile Argentinian writer of genius. According to Wikipedia: His work embraces the "character of unreality in all literature".[3] His most famous books, Ficciones (1944) and The Aleph (1949), are compilations of short stories interconnected by common themes such as dreams, labyrinths, libraries, animals, fictional writers, religion and God. His works have contributed to the genre of science fiction as well as the genre of magic realism, a genre that reacted against the realism/naturalism of the nineteenth century.[4][5][6] In fact, critic Angel Flores, the first to use the term, set the beginning of this movement with Borges's Historia universal de la infamia (A Universal History of Infamy) (1935).[7] Scholars also have suggested that Borges's progressive blindness helped him to create innovative literary symbols through imagination.[8] His late poems dialogue with such cultural figures as Spinoza, Camões, and Virgil. When my library is unpacked, which I hope will be early in 2012, I will track down the conceit in which Borges imagines a map-maker who eventually devises a map that is the same size as the territory it seeks to record.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Getting Ready for Christmas

I finally felt like getting ready for Christmas today. I texted my decorator and he came straight round. He likes to be left to get on with it his way, so I made myself scarce and sat in my bedroom by the window reading Will Self's Walking to Hollywood. Harry's signature decorating style includes the rather postmodern draping of my furniture in table cloths of various sizes and colours. He likes tinsel and fairy lights, but not - unaccountably - Ruby the veteran Reindeer (who sings and jiggles her head around when her batteries are in) or Ded Moroz - Grandfather Frost - the yellowing Russian folk figurine of even earlier date.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Authors v Book Festivals

Two articles about book festivals, book signings and book events generally caught my eye this week: one was in the Winter 2011 issue of The Author magazine, by Simon Hoggart, parliamentary sketchwriter of the Guardian, and another, by gardener and garden writer Anne Wareham, was in today's Dec 17 2011 Daily Telegraph. Simon Hoggart's piece begins: 'The worst literary festival I ever attended...' and continues describing a whole catalogue of snubs, parsimony on the part of organisers and - crucially - failure to sell more than a handful of books at a variety of book festivals, including Edinburgh. Anne Wareham's piece lists a whole year's worth of travel to promote her book, including an even worse catalogue of humilations and pointless excursions to bookshops for signings where nobody came, and 'appearances' where nobody asked any questions. According to Simon Hoggart, what makes up for these shortcomings are two nights with his partner at the organisers' expense in beautiful surroundings (such as Keswick) and delicious meals with the other interesting people- such as other writers. Interestingly, this is what Anna Pavord cited in her message accepting an invitation to be part of our May 26/27 2011 Beyond the Garden Gate event: what a treat it was to be wined and dined with other authors at a Scottish castle at a book event in the Borders. All this gives one pause for long, hard thought. Simon Hoggart winds up with: Festivals are fun, and for real writers (as opposed to us journalists) they're a chance to get out of the lonely study and meet other writers. But they couldn't exist without us, and it's about time the performers laid down a few reasonable but clear ground rules.' I have been offered the hospitality of The Author's columns to write a reply in their next Spring 2012 issue on behalf of book event organisers, so watch this space.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Why Am I Still Here?

I commend to you Why Am I Still Here? by the under-appreciated Welsh biographer and man of letters Roger Lewis. Lewis's sequel to his best-selling Seasonal Suicide Notes combines irascible commentary on everyday life, arranged by month January-December, interspersed cleverly with short paragraphs about his family. The family sketches, including of a series of extraordinary aunts, are illustrated by grainy black and white photographs of his subjects, as in W G Sebald. That the sign of greatness in writing is the capacity occasionally to make one bark with laughter, or at least smile, is the theme of an interesting essay by Sam Leith in the exceptionally interesting Winter 2011 issue of The Author, the quarterly magazine of the Society of Authors. Roger Lewis writes in the same issue, deploring the crowd mentality of commissioning editors in a line of descent from 'Grim Cambridge don, F R Leavis' ,who - mistakenly in Lewis's view - promoted the notion of consenus in judging literary merit. One does not have to agree with all Lewis's opinions to appreciate his distinctive voice, backed by a lifetime immersed in life and literature. For instance, he revels in Rules, my late father's favourite eating -house on the southern fringe of Covent Garden, which I consider a bit of a tourist trap, too tarted- up since its glory days of moth-eaten red velvet banquettes and dusty hunting prints. Never mind.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

American Role Models

There are unexpected connecting threads between the announcement of the death in Paris of the proprietor of Shakespeare & Co, the US Bill of Rights, Edna O'Brien, Paradise Lost and Gone With the Wind, as follows:
Shakespeare & Co was Sylvia Beach's Paris bookshop, made famous in the 1920's and 30's as a meeting place for writers such as Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce and Ezra Pound ( 'il miglior fabbro' -the master wordsmith - in Eliot's dedication to him of The Waste Land). After Beach's death, the bookshop moved to new premises where it was eccentrically run for 60 years by George Whitman, who has died aged 98. Whitman famously allowed aspiring writers to stay, sometimes for up to seven years in one case, in exchange for working in the shop and reading a book a day. Breakfast pancakes were served every day to all comers, and wodges of cash were hidden in the shelves. The shop continues under the more conventional management of Whitman's daughter, another Sylvia. The US Bill of Rights was adopted on this day in 1791, guaranteeing freedom of speech, religion, the press and other protections for the citizen. Edna O'Brien, born Dec 15 1930, was inspired, by hearing read out loud the first few lines of Hemingway's A Farewell To Arms, to write her own first novel, in three weeks, The Country Girls (1960). A later, similarly semi-autobiographical novel, The Lonely Girl was made into a movie The Girl With Green Eyes starring Peter Finch. Her first book was publicly burned by the priest in her home town in County Clare, and all her books were initially banned in Eire. There is to be a Hollywood version of Milton's Paradise Lost. Lastly, it was on this day in 1939 that Gone With the Wind starring Vivien Leigh and Clarke Gable opened in Atlanta, Georgia. Due to the 'Jim Crow' regulations in force at the time, the black members of the cast were not allowed to sit with the white ones for the screening. I saw the movie, aged 13, on two parts on successive nights, from the dress circle of a converted theatre in Malmo, Sweden, where we had anchored to dry out during a sailing holiday in the cold, wet summer of 1957.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Hail and Farewell

It's soon to be farewell to the out -of -date Moffat Book Events home page advertising our Oct book event and hello to a new look for 2012. Keep tabs on the website around next Tues and Wed. I am housebound this week with a couple of packs of antibiotic so it will be a case of A Journey Round My Room a la Xavier de Maistre (1871). I suffer from a chronic physical condition called bronchiectasis, originating from very early childhood when my lungs were damaged - one worse than the other - by pneumonia. Some people, including myself until it suddenly became life-threatening, think that pneumonia is on a continuum where a cough and a cold are at one end, and pneumonia at the other. No. When you have pneumonia, your lungs pack up to a greater or lesser extent so that your whole system, all your vital organs and your brain are deprived of oxygen. This is highly inconvenient. I have begun to learn to recognise the symptoms which I can describe as feeling a) extremely unwell but also b) spaced out (the result of the aforesaid lack of oxygen reaching the brain). Even so, I was sitting - clearly not my usual breezy self - on a sofa in London on Saturday evening and had to be told by my elder daughter to go to bed, go straight to bed and not to pass go etc. My doctor and my medicine are in Moffat so I came straight back north the following day and will be lying low for the necessary week.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Moffat then and now

"Moffat residents 'clean and decent'
Residents in Moffat in 1837 were described as 'particularly clean and decent'.
The Statistical Account of that year also praised the way that townsfolk spoke: "Their language is among the best samples of English to be found in any Scottish village."
It goes on: "There is hardly any smuggling or poaching, and low and gross acts of immorality are seldom heard of in Moffat."
It includes facts about daily life in the town, such as:
curling, bowling and billiards were popular sports
a subscription and circulating library operated locally
there were two daily newspapers
no houses were uninhabited
There was no manufacturing industry but the town could boast plenty of services, ranging from 50 weavers, six shoemakers, six tailors and eight merchants, to one watchmaker, two bakers, five masons, six wrights and one surgeon.
And it was also a popular tourist destination, thanks to the location of the Moffat well.
According to Graham's Social Life of Scotland in the Eighteenth Century: "In spring there meet round the little wells of Moffat a throng in their gayest and brightest from society in town and country, sipping their sulphur waters and discussing their pleasant gossip ... city clergy, men of letters, country gentlemen and ladies of fashion and the diseased and decrepit of the poorest rank, who had toilsomely travelled from far-off districts to taste the magic waters." (reprinted in Moffat News Dec 8 2011)

175 years later, in December 2011 a letter to The Scotsman confirmed:
Your article on successful 'themed' towns in Dumfries and Galloway omitted a notable example: Moffat. Our theme, admittedly as yet unacknowledged as a brand, is 'hospitality' – we have the greatest number of pubs, cafes, restaurants, B&B's, and hotels of any town in D&G. Plus, remarkably for a town of our size (2,499 residents), we have virtually every other civilised amenity on or just off our high street: a bank; a library, two GP surgeries; vet; churches; chemist; deli; co-op; ironmonger; convenience store; clothes shops; gift shops; hairdresser; butcher; baker; book shop; blacksmith; garages; garden centre; newsagents; post office; beauty parlour; physio/osteopath; jeweller, a cottage hospital and a police station. Many of these are housed in a magnificent collection of Georgian buildings associated with the finest flowering of the spa, which spanned three centuries from the 17th –20th century. We were also once the reserve venue for the Wimbledon All England Championships – the real ones ie croquet not tennis.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Society of Authors Christmas party

The Society of Authors in Scotland Christmas party in Edinburgh was faintly reminiscent of a gathering of archers after the invention of the flintlock, or of farriers once Henry Ford's Model T in any shade of black was bowling along the road. The atmosphere was convivial and civilised and the words 'ebook' were on many lips. Before I left Moffat, by McEwan's bus, someone asked if I would know many people. Writing, on the whole, is a solitary calling, but I guessed correctly that I would know one: Aline Templeton, who was one of our guests in April at our MBE D E Stevenson event. The group on my table included an academic author from a Scottish university and a travel writer. It was agreed that, alongside the euro crisis, the sudden loss of authority by Putin in Russia following blatant vote-rigging and consequent demos was a game-changing development. Appropriately, last night I watched a DVD of Moonlighting, Jerzy Skolimovski's 1982 film about a group of four Polish builders working - in those pre-Berlin Wall, pre-EU days, illegally, - on a house renovation in London. Three are kept unaware by their foreman ( played by Jeremy Irons) that the Russians have invaded their country. Every period detail of the film is telling, from their arrival at immigration to the supermarket where Irons daily risks arrest for shoplifting. At the bus station in Edinburgh, and on the bus, I was struck by the friendly, chatty village atmosphere that prevails, in stark contrast to present-day London. As the credits rolled, I saw that the late great poet Christopher Logue had played a cameo role as 'workman'.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Full circle

I woke up wondering if my life was going to describe an arc, parabola or trajectory in the material sense that I was born into a world where one was cold and hungry a lot of the time - not because I was underprivileged but because we were all cold and hungry more or less from 1944 when I was born until 1958 when my father, on a whim, sent me to school in Switzerland. At home we were cold - no heating upstairs; coal fires in the downstairs rooms; coal fired Aga. Food was filling and bland: shepherd's pie, rice pudding, 'custard' made with powder etc. I was sent away to school aged 7 where it was equally cold and there was still rationing so we had 2 ounces of butter a week distributed in little pots with our school number on. You could blow the whole lot one teatime or there were school champions who could keep their supply going nearly the whole week, by which time it was rancid because the pot were kept in the dining room at room temperature. We had a sweet ration which was doled out on a Saturday too. At my big school on the Weald of Kent, it was so cold in winter that water froze inside the dormitories and many fellow students suffered from chilblains. We used to stand next to the big old radiators for some heat and stamp our feet to keep the circulation going. The diet was so appallingly short of any fresh vegetables or fruit that I developed chronic constipation - a typical meal would consist of baked bean pie followed by 'Dead Man's Leg' - a pastry roll with jam and custard. Life as a student in Oxford in the early 1960's was equally spartan; we subsisted on a dreadful diet of faggots (the cheapest nourishment known to man) and cheap fags - meaning cigarettes not gay men. Some of our best friends were gay men, of course, but we were unaware, until one by one they succumbed, not long after, to AIDS. The first to go was Luis, a charming Puerto Rican who was a guest at our first spectacularly inept 'dinner party' my flatmates and I gave. To us, making and serving a meal for five or six was like splitting the atom. The meat - was it duck? - was indequate and inedible; we managed to cook some frozen peas and maybe we made a trifle for dessert? I cannot remember. We knew nothing about wine, so bought the cheapest gut rot, probably rough Spanish red because we remembered ( thought vaguely) that red went with meat. Our other guests included a delightful history don from Balliol, Maurice Keen and perhaps David who is now a very senior city lawyer, specialising in mediating in international corporate legal disputes. Two of my four flatmates have 'gone before': one was murdered in France by persons unknown in the first long vac after we all went down, and another died early from a combination of self neglect and alcoholism, leaving her magnificent family house to the National Trust. Privilege is not a passport to happiness or even, in those days, comfort. Perhaps the opposite.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Wild Excitement

Wild excitement yesterday! I noticed a 10cm shoot growing from my 'orchid' - a tiny plant which came into my possession sometime late in 2009 or early 2010. I think it was a present from one member of the family to another, and it was left behind in my flat where I was then living above Manse Furnishings. The tiny, exquisite bright purple florets fell off one by one and I would have chucked it but there were signs of new green leaves so I spared it. It moved with me to Milburn House in Sept 2010 and has sat on the windowsill of my little first floor kitchen ever since, neither quite dead nor in full vigorous plant life. This summer, concerned for its welfare, I even went into the garden centre and tried to buy some appropriate compost to repot it. To her eternal credit, the lady behind the till refused to sell me any, insisting that these fragile plants like to be cramped and starved. How right she was! Four months later, a flower shoot has emerged and I have pinned it carefully to the narrow stake which once held the (now dead and brown) previous shoot and flower head, using the tiny plastic clip that does not damage the shoot. This gardening exploit set me thinking about the garden I am going to make at 21 Well Road, behind our new offices and a workshop. I made a four square grid with 'low' and 'high' maintenance at either end of the vertical line and 'practical' and 'pleasure' on the horizontal. What would please me best is a garden that somehow complements the pretty mid 18th century building we have restored, both in appearance and for use, whether as a meditation walk, a 'hortus conclusus' or a patch to grow fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers, with perhaps a few chickens. Speaking of vegetables, yesterday I rescued all the blackening carrots from my wire basket in the hallway (kept there because it is cool) and one withered parsnip. I roasted some in the oven, adding an onion, and the rest I browned first in oil and butter, then added water and boiled them with a chicken stock cube. I also roasted a squash. Inspired, I then browned two beef olives in a frying pan with some sliced garlic, added some carrots and their liquor and a bay leaf. When the beef olives were done, I removed everything with a slotted spoon and added some couscous grains to the gravy and feasted on the result. In the evening, I had egg mayo with beetroot salad - a magical combination that I commend to you, with possibly a freshly baked potato, butter and plenty of freshly ground pepper. I have hung my Christmas wreath on the front door and last night it snowed. Moffat looks beautiful

Saturday, 3 December 2011


I became involved in a mini controversy on Facebook yesterday about whether the word 'tad' is (or was) an Americanism. I held that it is, and found a reference via Google that supported my belief that the word came into English from America during my lifetime. The debate veered off into whether it is an age thing (if you are old, 'tad' is an Americanism; if young, then it is English) at which point I gave up.

My daughter went to Glasgow yesterday and reported that the shops were heaving. Will history divide our lives into BC (Before the Crunch) and AC (After the Crunch)? I have visions that, whereas we are being encouraged to feel relatively protected - cushioned as we are by sterling from the euro crash - , there is a darker scenario: democracy disappears from Europe in favour of the coercive rule of technocrats, the worst possible combination of French and German bossiness. How near the surface are lingering resentments and regrets following the outcome of WWII? Is Nicholas Ridley's Spectator prophecy to come true?

(From Wikipedia: On 14 July 1990 Ridley was forced to resign as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry after an interview published in The Spectator. He had described the proposed Economic and Monetary Union as "a German racket designed to take over the whole of Europe" and said that giving up sovereignty to Europe was as bad as giving it up to Adolf Hitler. The interview was illustrated with a cartoon depicting Ridley adding a Hitler moustache to a poster of the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. While Ridley was not one of the most powerful government members, he was regarded as a Thatcherite loyalist and his departure was a significant break in their ranks. Margaret Thatcher herself had to resign four months later. Some commentators point to Ridley's resignation, its manner, and the European issue at its core, as leading indicators for the next decade of Conservative Party politics.)

Lunch yesterday at Brodies to discuss progress on the Moffat Book Events Sept 2012 conference. I had done a Jeremy Clarkson (ill-advised use of irony) by prefacing an email to my lunch companion: 'No! No! No! No!' - a quote from Margaret Thatcher whose biopic starring Meryl Streep is being promoted on TV. Clarkson's scripted sally on The One Show was delivered quite clearly and deliberately in two parts: first, he said how blissfully quiet London was because of the strike, restaurants empty therefore easy to get a table etc, then 'in the name of BBC balance' he went into the rant about taking the strikers out to shoot them. End of.

Friday, 2 December 2011

My Dinner with Andre

I watched a DVD of My Dinner with Andre last night. The film,directed by Louis Malle, consists of a conversation over dinner between Wallace Shawn, an actor and writer and his friend Andre Gregory. The first long section concerns an account of a bizarre acting class which took place in a forest in Poland. I think the director Jerzy Skolimovski is mentioned as having organised this for Andre. Jerzy directed Moonlighting, of which more another time. Spookily, in the course of a riff about whether theatre is still capable of delivering a level of experience capable of changing hearts and minds, Wallace Shawn cites Gordon Craig, who I had been writing about earlier in the day.

The house in south Lanarkshire where I lived until I moved to Moffat two years ago overlooks Watermeetings, where Sir Henry Irving and his partner Ellen Terry, giants of the Victorian stage, used to stay with their entourage: Eleanor Marx (daughter of Karl, Ellen Terry's secretary who ran her fan club, thought to be the world's first), Bram Dracula Stoker, Henry Irving's secretary and Ellen’s children, her daughter and illegitimate son Edward Gordon Craig (surname plucked whimsically after his mother saw Ailsa Craig the volcanic core rock nicknamed Paddy's Milestone, one of the world's two sources of curling stone granite, sitting off the coast of Ayrshire) whose portrait can be seen hanging in the foyer of the Moscow Arts theatre. Craig was the most celebrated theatre designer of his time. Their presence as a touring theatre company in Scotland was directly due to religion. Severe post-reformation Scotland abjured theatre, (indeed Christmas itself was first celebrated only in 1947 as a public holiday in Scotland, when shops such as Jenners began tentatively to put Christmas scenes in their windows) so the only theatre was provided by touring companies such as Henry Irving’s.There is also quite a lot of talk in the film about Findhorn, the eco community in northern Scotland. There is a comical aside by Gregory about a university production of The Bacchae that brought to mind a tragi-comic episode in my own life. Towards the end of my second marriage, on the occasion of our wedding anniversary we booked tickets to see a play at the National Theatre. When I arrived, my about to be ex-husband broke the news to me that for some reason that play had been cancelled and we had been offered (and he had accepted) tickets for The Bacchae instead. Connoisseurs of classical drama will know that the plotline of The Bacchae is the savage pursuit and dismemberment by enraged female spirits (the Bacchae of the title) of the protagonist. Ahem.

Thursday, 1 December 2011


I noticed yesterday that at one of the December 2011 weekly meetings of Ph D students at St Mary's College Institute for Theology, the Imagination and the Arts (ITIA), St Andrews university, someone is going to speak about the American farmer-philosopher and author Wendell Berry. In 2000, I flew to Baranov Island in Alaska from my home in Chelsea, where I lived two or three doors down from the poet Kathleen (On a Deserted Shore) Raine. The purpose of my visit was to explore the native territory of a tree – Picea sitchensis - I grow as a commercial timber crop in south Lanarkshire. Kathleen had founded an organisation called Temenos, of which Wendell, a close friend of Kathleen's, was a member (as was I). As I left my house to go to the airport, I saw Kathleen and waved to her. On my arrival at Sitka, I discovered that the Island Institute was holding a literary festival, and walked into a room where Wendell Berry was telling the audience about a visit to Kathleen in London, and in particular about the fact that our shared back gardens had once formed part of St Thomas More's country estate, therefore how the little weeds and wild flowers we found coming up in them were in all probability descended from that time. When he finished his talk I put my hand up and explained that my garden was virtually next door to Kathleen's, and how I had seen her the day before. I had had no idea before I arrived that Wendell Berry was to be in Sitka. I classed this experience under 'synchronicity' and regarded it as a sign that my life was somehow 'on track'. On a less elevated plane: I was moved yesterday to write to the BBC TV quiz programme Only Connect pointing out that they had mis-spelled the word borshch - Russian beetroot soup - with an unnecessary, non-existent 't' at the end in an item about words of increasing length that only have one vowel. The combination of the four letters shch in English are represented by one consonant in the Russian alphabet. It occurs in the name Khrushchev - the first two letters kh are also only a one- letter consonant in Russian. A classic example of concision in Russian is the two word message sent by one Russian to another when the Soviet Union collapsed 'Neuzheli dozhili' - rendered in eleven in English: Is it possible that we have lived to see this day.

Machiavelli's Lawn

Yesterday at our Moffat Book Events meeting to progress plans for our May 26/27 2012 event themed on 'gardens', Carolyn Yates, our Dumfries & Galloway literary development officer, loaned me her copy of Machiavelli's Lawn. This clever little book, written and illustrated by the staggeringly good-looking and talented Mark Crick turns out to be the third in a series whose predecessors are Sartre's Sink and Kafka's Soup. The first item in the Machiavelli collection is such a brilliant parody of Raymond Carver's style, that, as yet unaware of the author's - the series - shtick, I assumed it was by Carver himself. Mark Crick not only writes brilliant parodies, he illustrates each short exercise with a drawing or painting in the style of Durer, Hockney, Klimt and so on. A very clever pastiche of artists and authors - I am amazed that I had never heard of the series or the author before. The committee has added his name to our invitation list. By way of a liber pro quo I gave Carolyn one of several copies on my bookshelf of A Scottish Feast - a collection of excerpts from real novels and stories with accompanying recipes that was compiled and published twenty years ago in aid of some good cause - perhaps the Society of Authors in Scotland? The rain has stopped at last, and I have been able to remove the metal waste paper basket from my stair where it stands to collect drips from the skylight above during heavy rain. It is a token of how much I love living in this house that I now regard this as a quaint, enduring characteristic not something to be repaired.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

A senior moment or two

A new edition of Roger Bryan's book about tricks to improve memory It'll Come in Useful One Day would have saved me from a senior moment yesterday. Well, two, if you count the christmas pudding I found on a shelf, two years past its expiry date. I love christmas pudding, and I ignore use by dates on products such as christmas pudding, so I stuck it in a colander over a large saucepan and began to steam it for the recommended hour and a half. I refilled the water twice and was nearly there but something distracted me. In due course, I began to sense, rather than smell, something amiss in the kitchen, ran in and realised that the water had boiled away some time before. The transparent lid over the pudding and colander was full of steam but there was something dangerous about the ensemble. I let it cool a bit and then decided to pour some boiling water into the top, and stood well back. A violent popping ensued, and it was clear that the new water had immediately vaporised. I poured in some more boiling water and left it to cool down some more. What had happened is that the intense heat had melted the plastic tub that encased the pudding, and welded the bottom to the colander. I had ruined a colander and a saucepan. I tipped out what could be detached of the pudding, wondering if it was irremediably contaminated by melted plastic. There were some slighty suspicious white blobs in the mess, but I was so consumed by appetite for christmas pudding, now bought so dearly, that I ate nearly half of it. It did have a slightly plastic taint, but I persevered. Today, I threw away the colander with the pudding basin welded to it, and relegated the burned saucepan to non-food 'other duties' such as for melting candle wax.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Another gallery visit

What could be more heavenly than bowling along in a number 11 London bus on a sunny day in the direction of Trafalgar Square? We sped along Victoria St and the two great churches - cathedral and abbey - , past the gaggle of tourists outside the Foreign Office, the Treasury and number 10 Downing St, then more tourists at the entrance to Horse Guards, standing boldly to be photographed beside the mounted guardsman on his patient big black horse, past other offices of state, round in front of Nelson's column and his brace of lions, to alight at the stop opposite Charing Cross and the short walk up to the National Portrait Gallery. I was a quarter of an hour early for my appointment, so browsed in the shop, toyed with some lime and orange silk-covered bangles and bought my Christmas cards. My friend Joan is a portrait painter who used to live just up the King's Rd from me. She and her late husband, architectural correspondent of the Observer Stephen Gardner, had a bolthole in Tunbridge Wells, a pretty cottage where she now lives and paints. That's three of my friends - four including me - who have 'downsized'. We exchanged plans for Christmas: she will be beside the seaside in Deal, reading Claire Tomalin's new book about Dickens; we will be in Centre Parcs, Penrith - nearest literary landmark, Greystoke, home of Tarzan, the boy lost in Africa and brought up by apes. The view from the restaurant atop the Nat Portrait Gallery must be one of the finest in London: a vast panorama of ice blue sky streaked with white clouds above rooftops, across Trafalgar Square from St Martin's in the east, south down Whitehall to Westminster, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, then swinging west to Admiralty Arch and clubland, St James's. After lunch, we lingered for ten minutes to look at some portraits: Andy Warhol's exquisite Joan Collins and an unusual black and white Mick Jagger (another image - a colour photograph in mildly ethnic getup - also adorns the foyer: didn't he do well for a Dartford boy); Ruskin Spear's enigmatic Harold Wilson wreathed in pipe smoke; Patrick Heron's T S Eliot (unrecognisable, both the artist and the sitter); a rather alarming Ted Hughes - conveyed in windblown streaks of paint, anchored by two unnerving pale blue eyes; Lord Clarke of Civilization, in brutal profile like one of his Renaissance Italian dukes; Bryan Organ's iconic Diana and Charles hung next to each other, portrayed - now it can be seen - as lonely, separate and isolated as they were in life. Joan was going to have a go at getting into the Leonardo so we walked together across the front of the National Gallery where some mysterious scaffolding was either going up or being taken down, she headed in to the Sainsbury wing entrance and I walked on, along a very familiar route past the Institute of Directors where I was once a member, and just across from the Athenaeum, my ex-husband's club, scene of many a meal for some visiting celeb; then round into Lower Regent Street up and left into Piccadilly to jump on a bus to take me home. Fortnum's window this year is themed on variety and spangled showgirls; the arcades are garlanded in blue and silver, red and gold. I think of the words from the Tempest with which Bruce Wall ended his London Shakespeare Workout (part of Play's The Thing) on Tuesday:

The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

A Walk Down Piccadilly

Yesterday, I decided to go to the National Gallery to get a copy of the Leonardo exhibition catalogue so I can study it before I go to see the pictures on Dec 13. There is a lot of hooha about how big the lady's hand is in the Lady With Ermine (the picture used on the cover). But lots of Leonardo's pictures have weird perspective: enormous babies, and yet more enormous hands. We're not talking about photography here, peeps. On my way I stopped off in Piccadilly at the Royal Academy, to renew my membership and see Building the Revolution - Russian Art and Architecture 1915-1935. What is fascinating about this period is not only how beautiful the designs were, but how pitiful the buildings now look in photographs of the few that were actually built, neglected by a failed system. Yes, the system failed. I think of that a lot at present. Beautiful dreams can have horrible results. If you delve a little into the dream that was the Soviet Union or indeed the European Union you find a fatal lack of grass roots democracy, the emergence of an elite who thinks it knows better. Even election results are rejected if they aren't the 'right' result. VIP visitors from the USSR used to clutch at my arm and whisper 'Don't let it happen here, Lisa'.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011


The wellbeing, 'arts inclusion' event Play's The Thing yesterday was at Toynbee Hall, the organisation where John Profumo worked quietly after the Christine Keeler affair ended his more public life as Minister for War (those were the days). The organisers, Escape Artists, work with excluded groups, such as prisoners, to improve their chances of not re-offending. I opted to join the London Shakespeare Workout, led by Dr Bruce Wall, who gave us some statistics about how many people are in prisons in the UK and how much their incarceration and re-offending costs us. Bruce works all over the world, in prisons from Bangkok to Malta, at universities such as Cambridge and with directors - notably Jonathan Miller and Peter Brook.For over two hours we played games based on developing group communications, including three exercises directly based on Shakespeare. One which involved us all was shouting out at random five-footed (iambic) phrases - the rhythm favoured by Shakespeare. Three volunteers (all actors) played out a scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream, and one other volunteer (ditto) did an exercise with Bruce himself, based on a passage from King Lear. At the end, as we were gathered round, I said how odd it was that in premises established by 19th century Church of England reformers (Toynbee Hall, engaged on an exercise profoundly informed by Christian principles such as 'judge not, lest ye be judged' and 'let him who is without sin cast the first stone', the King James bible and indeed Shakespeare himself, Christianity was nowhere mentioned; the only religion mentioned on the agenda was Buddhism. There was a silence, broken by the awkward, sympathetic comment: 'faith sits better with me' - a remark that merely served to underline the curious black hole into which Christianity among the intelligentsia in general and the C of E in particular has fallen.

I'm indebted to the Writer's Almanac for alerting me to the fact that today's the birthday of pop philosopher, historian, and poet Jennifer Michael Hecht, born in Long Island in 1965. Hecht holds a Ph.D. in the history of science, a subject that fascinates her -- and simultaneously convinces her that art trumps scholarship. She inhabits each world -- teaching, studying, and publishing both poetry and historical, analytical nonfiction -- but ultimately pledges allegiance, she says, to poetry. "If you look at a testimony of love from 2,000 years ago, it can still exactly speak to you, whereas medical advice from only 100 years ago is ridiculous," she said in an interview with the Center for Inquiry. "And so as a historian, I write poetry. I'm profoundly committed to art as the answer. Indeed, I don't put science really as the way I get to any of my answers; it's just helpful. It's poetry that I look to. It's the clatter of recognition. Everybody has different ways, but I attest that poetry works pretty well."
Hecht was speaking on the topic of her latest book, called The Happiness Myth: The Historical Antidote to What Isn't Working Today (2007), in which she argues that happiness is a phenomenon influenced far more by culture than by what we think of as scientific fact. In it, she writes: "We think our version of a happy life as more like physics than like pop songs; we expect the people of the next century, say, to agree with our basic tenets -- for instance, that broccoli is good for a happy life and that opium is bad -- but they will not. Our rules for living are more like the history of pop songs. They make their weird sense only to the people of each given time period. They aren't true."

Monday, 21 November 2011

Play's The Thing

I am going to a workshop Play's The Thing in trendy East London tomorrow. I expect to be challenged (and challenge), but that's good from time to time. Yesterday I went to the 70th birthday party of an old friend in Wimbledon, where Anna 'the tulip lady' Pavord, who I have known since 1974, was also a guest. After she and husband Trevor moved to Dorset, we used to meet at Dorchester train station on Friday evenings waiting for our daughters/husbands - on one memorable occasion when Brian Johnson was broadcasting live (or rather failing to broadcast, because he and Jonathan Agnew both became helpless with laughter) his now famous 'leg-over' commentary. She made positive noises about coming up to join in our Moffat Book Events symposium next May 26 & 27 What Are Gardens For? Trevor grows blueberries commercially and thinks that we might be able to do so under our turbines, because blueberries like acid soil and a good hard frost.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Good news and bad news

Well, the good news is that I had an email from Michael, brother of Bob, a close friend who died of Aids in the early 198o's, to say his (Michael's) wife and daughter are coming to the UK next month. His brother, Bob, was a brilliant lawyer based in Los Angeles who loved London and strolling up the King's Road with my older daughter Abi, then in her early teens, bantering and catching men's eyes. Bob told me an adage way back then which has striking contemporary resonance: if you're going to borrow money, borrow so much that if you struggle to repay, the bank's in trouble not you. Yesterday, we also had a very happy planning meeting for our Sept 14-17 2012 Moffat Book Events conference to explore the causes (religious experience and the arts and sciences) espoused by, and generally celebrating the life of, the late great Alexander Men 1935-1990 We have a great team, Sarah Mathieson of Vantage based in Melrose as organiser, an unrivalled venue (St Andrew's church, Moffat), and an exciting programme; we have a fascinating variety of international speakers; we have a good idea of what to offer our parting guests on the Monday (Sept 17) by way of a pilgrimage. All will be revealed on St Andrew's Day, ie Nov 30. My internet connection was down when I got back from St Andrew's, but my son in law rang BT and they talked him through a re-set of the router, so that's also now OK. Our MBE project manager, Marilyn Elliott, MBE member Moira Cox and I met towards the end of the day to agree a final version of a marketing strategy for Moffat Book Events going forward, so that's another good job done. At our Men conference meeting we all agreed how good and funny 'Rev' is (the series about a London vicar written and played by Tom Hollander). The bad news is the death of a young contemporary, Andrew Wyld, reported in The Times today. His older half brother David dated my flatmate Alix Mitchell (murdered in France in the summer of 1965) when we were students. I met Andrew when he was a child; I gave him a 'gonk' - a little pocket money toy. He made a wonderful career in the art world. And an email from New Zealand alerts me to a sudden cancer scare for an old family friend - we lived in the same London square for 30 years. To end on a more upbeat note: we have a visit today in the forest from members of the memorably-named BASH - the Biggar Association of Smallholders to whom we will open the secrets (well, lift the lid a tiny bit and then slam it shut - these are commercially sensitive technologies) of distilling spruce essential oil and brewing spruce beer. Enough said. My lips are sealed. Oh, and I nearly forgot: a friend - another Liz - alerts me to the surprising circumstance, that a friend from student days who was an actor, the Rev Adrian Benjamin, is now a Prebendary of St Paul's. Yes, that St Paul's. The one with the dome on top.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Rotting vegetation

I was out and about on a remarkably mild (people in shirt sleeves) and sunny day in St Andrew's yesterday, including a visit to the St Mary's college which must be one of the most beautiful - if not the most - ancient (16th cent) quads in the world. There is a thorn growing there which was planted by Mary, Queen of Scots. But it is about another sort of vegetation that I wish to write. To set the scene: last year I stayed for one night at the Randolph Hotel in Oxford, famous for its connection with the TV Inspector Morse series. At dinner and the following morning, I noticed a very strong smell of stale cabbage in the dining room and entrance hall. On a hunch, I looked 'stale cabbage smell' up on Google and discovered that it is a gas given off by rotting vegetation, typically from faulty drains. Well, that smell also pervades this hotel, of similar vintage to the Randolph (the hotel, not the vegetation, or maybe both). I mentioned this coincidence to the staff on duty in reception, who looked at me as though I needed my head examining but later when I went up to my room on the third floor two more staff were there. They confirmed the smell was detectable in the corridor and in the room, and the senior of the two in smart blue suit said that DynoRod were at that moment working in the basement. The hotel is horribly overheated especially at night. Despite having my windows wide open, I tossed and turned - and it didn't help that THAT SMELL was drifting in and out too. A message from a neighbour in Moffat bears the bad news that one of the town's tourist venues, a nice garden centre-cum-cafe and fishing ponds has gone into receivership. This news, along with the drains put me in apocalyptic mood, perceiving the stench as somehow a metaphor for something wrong deep down in the underpinnings of our settled society. I hope I am proved wrong.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Ultima Thule

Getting to St Andrews is a trek and no mistake. You get to the Edinburgh bypass and think: nearly there; not far now. Then it takes ages longer than you expect to get to the Forth Road Bridge, which looks so near on the map. But the worst is yet to come. Fife is Scotland's answer to East Anglia, in spades. Tiny meandering roads, on and on you go, narrower and narrower becomes the road. Unsettling signs invite you again and again to visit 'Scotland's Secret Bunker'. When I presented myself at the reception desk of my hotel, the news was broken to me that my room was on the third floor and the lift was broken. I stumped off in a huff to find some lunch while the lift was attended to. I drew a blank at the first establishment where soup was to be found, if I looked, 'in little pots in the fridge', except there weren't any left. I walked on and on to the far end of North St where there are two eateries - one a 'bookshop/eaterie' - on opposite sides of the road. I tried the bookshop-cum-cafe first, wishing to buy a book by Meaghan Delahunt, the tutor at the Creative Writing department with whom I had an appointment. The proprietor told me that because it was a Christian bookshop (not obvious from the establishment's name outside) - ' we only have books on reconciliation or redemption'. (This is a local shop for local people?) , 'Her book is about Tolstoy's wife, so maybe...?' I said. He smiled and shook his head. So I went across to The Point (where 'food is The Point' - geddit?) Where Wills met Kate. I found the only spare table and had delicious Thai sweet potato soup a pot of tea and a smoked salmon and cream cheese wrap with salad leaves dribbled with balsamic vinegar and started to feel the life inch back into my extremities. For some reason, I had stumped out of the hotel with a very heavy and badly designed book bag whose handles are slightly too long to be able to let it dangle, and too narrow to allow it to be carried securely on the shoulder. Revived, restored, I walked round to Market St and along to a bookshop where I found a copy of a book by Meaghan Delahunt. Not the one about Tolstoy's wife (The Blue House - which Meaghan now tells me is not about Tolstoy but Trotsky), another one, set in Greece. I also looked for a postcard to send to my Swedish date who had sent his suggestion for a name for the book of this blog, as requested, on a postcard (so literal-minded, those Swedes). As a matter of fact, it is a very well chosen and exclusive postcard, of a collage by the Russian artist Kasimir Malevich (in Swedish transliteration, Malewitch) 1878-1935. I have a favourite picture, a lithograph entitled Homage to Malevich by the Scottish artist Ian Hamilton Finlay, a present from my sister who worked with Ian H F on and off for 40 years. The image in the Hamilton Finlay lithograph is of a flaming cross falling downwards. The collage (pictured above left) is entitled 'An Englishman in Moscow'. This is not the title suggested on the card for the book of my blog, which is the catchy if surreal: From Farningham (or Kent) and Moffat (or Scotland). There is a slogan on the collage which I have been trying to decipher in case that might be appropriate. I am indebted to the web for the following explanation of the collage's meaning:
  • The visible world is not what it seems to be - one thing conceals another.
  • Familiar themes in this painting:
  • The notion of concealment - expressed here most obviously by the covering of half the subject's face
  • Cutting and slicing - denoted by the wartime images of the sword and bayonets, as well as the scissors and the saw
  • The ladder - with its reference to raising up or to a higher perspective
In words:
  • Zatmenie - at the top of the painting - is the word for eclipse. It is has been divided into another two words that convey the notion of "beyond the dark"
  • Chastichnoe - at the bottom of the painting - is the word for partial. It has been divided in such away as to isolate the word 'chas' (hour) from the suffix of an adverbial adjective, -noe (hourly)
  • The spiritual elements (candle, the Orthodox church, the cross made of candle and sword) all seem to say that with time the scales (fish) will fall from our eyes, and we will truly see clearly.
What, I ask, has this got to do with an Englishman?? In Moscow? But never mind, it is a wonderful image. Thank you, Gunnar.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

St Andrews

I'm off to St Andrews for a couple of days, to visit the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts, amongst other departments. I have a cheap silver -coloured scallop shell that I bought many years ago in the souvenir shop near the ruins of the cathedral. I was in St Andrew's as part of a short-lived, insane plan, prop. Richard Demarco, to rebuild the cathedral. Nowadays one half expects to spot Prince William or Princess Catherine - is that right - ? sloping along incognito in jeans, loafers and shades. I met the Queen and Prince Philip once, in quite unexpected circumstances. While living in London, I was a member of the Royal Forestry Society (Central London branch). The opportunity arose in the early 1980's to sign up for a visit to see the trees in the garden of Buckingham Palace. A small group of us - maybe 12 or 15, including the chairman of our branch, the former Prime Minister of Ireland Terence O'Neill and his wife - gathered as instructed at the mews entrance. We were led through into the back of the palace, onto the lawn. Before we could look at any trees, the Queen and Prince Philip appeared at the top of the steps and beckoned us in for a drink and some Twiglets. It was all totally informal, and they circulated amongst us all, chatting about this and that including a new addition to the royal family - perhaps Beatrice or Eugenie. The Queen, as people invariably report, was diminutive but formidable. She managed somehow to convey with a stern glance and a steely note in her voice to Elly who had skipped up to her to inquire about the new arrival that it was not done to open a conversation, one waits to be addressed. Prince Philip smelled exceptionally strongly and deliciously of Christian Dior's perfume for men or perhaps some fragrance specially concocted for him. I saw him again, some years later after I came to live in Scotland, leaning against the stone wall of the steps at Drumlanrig castle near Thornhill, one summer day, in an old jumper, waiting to take his turn in some driving trials.

Monday, 14 November 2011

One At a Time please

Pic: Dawn over the Moffat hills today: the sky was streaked with brilliant turquoise and shocking red

It is confirmed by The Lady magazine that Dawn French has lost 10 stone - or to put it another way, half her previous weight. When I was at my largest, expecting one or other of my children, I approached the reception desk of a French hotel. 'One at a time please' said the receptionist without raising his head, 'Sir'. It is the Prince of Wales' birthday today: happy birthday, Sir. I have met HRH once, at a reception at St James' Palace in aid of Temenos, an organisation close to his heart which was run by my then next door neighbour, the poet Kathleen Raine. Temenos is the Greek word for sacred space, not a mis-spelling of the second person plural of the Latin verb 'to hold'. KR shared her house with the remarkable visionary painter William Collins RA and had carried a torch in her youth for Gavin Ring of Bright Water Maxwell (who was gay). The resulting book of poems On a Deserted Shore possess an incantatory, mesmeric quality. I was a supporter of, and sympathiser with, the late Princess of Wales but believe that Prince Charles should be allowed to work out his personal penitence in the spirit of 'Judge not, lest ye be judged'. I wrote a complaint to the BBC last week, following an - in my view - cowardly attack on him by an academic, Mary Beard in an opinion piece comparing him to General Gaddafi. Sometimes people complain about bad language, but in my view gratuitous attacks on people such as Prince Charles are just as corrosive to our quality of life. Talking of quality of life: last week I bought a pheasant for £4 from Wallace Bros, our excellent Moffat butcher - not expensive. I cooked it in a small oval casserole dish, browning it well all over in a mixture of butter and oil, with an onion (quartered), two carrots cut into big chunks, half a dozen cloves of garlic a handful of black peppercorns and a chicken stock cube, water to three quarters of the way up the bird. I brought it to the boil and transfered into a medium oven for an hour or so. I took the pheasant out when it had cooled, brought the liquor back to the boil and threw in some couscous grains. I have enjoyed cold pheasant with couscous and mango chutney over the weekend, with some baked squash for my vitamin D quotient, and am astonished at how much meat there is on the bird.
There is a vote for 'Keep Calm and Carry on Reading' as a title for the book of this blog to be published by Moffat Book Enterprises in 2012. Other, new possibilities include:
For You the Year is Over (too many old war movies?)
Write! Read! Book! Blog!
Diary of a Provincial Lady
By Birnock Water I Sat Down and Blogged
Serpents in Eden - and other animals
Flies in the Ointment (offering the possibility of a follow up volume: More Flies in the O)

Sunday, 13 November 2011

More titles

I read through my year's-worth of blog entries this afternoon and several new ideas for titles have occurred:
Diary of a Book Festival Organiser
What I Was Doing, and Where I was Going (with acknowledgements to Damian Searls)
Brigadoon, Books and Budget Recipes
An Enemy of The People
Out of the Frying Pan
How To Be A Book Festival Organiser
An A-Z of Books and The People In Them
A Journey Round My Room
From Our Moffat Books Correspondent
Small Earthquake; Nobody Injured
Down Your Way
Down My Way
My Way
Happenstance and Makeshiftery
Postcard from The Hedge (acknowledgements to A Roberts)
Going Forward; Looking Back
A Right Turnup for The Books
Getting On With It
Keep Calm And Carry On Reading

The Stevenson Connection

Today is the birthday (1850) of Robert Louis Stevenson, whose niece D E Stevenson lived and wrote her own highly successful novels in Moffat. The entry below is today's - in my view - exceptionally good offering from the online Writer's Almanac. The Writer's Almanac is a free service that gives you a good start to every day as it pops into your inbox. Wikipedia and the Writer's Almanac - two free 'w's for which, come to think of it, we have Americans to thank. So: thanks Jimmy Wales (another 'w'!) and Garrison Keillor.

Simply Lit

Often toward evening,
after another day, after
another year of days,
in the half dark on the way home
I stop at the food store
and waiting in line I begin
to wonder about people--I wonder
if they also wonder about how
strange it is that we
are here on the earth.
And how in order to live
we all must sleep.
And how we have beds for this
(unless we are without)
and entire rooms where we go
at the end of the day to collapse.
And I think how even the most
lively people are desolate
when they are alone
because they too must sleep
and sooner or later die.
We are always looking to acquire
more food for more great meals.
We have to have great meals.
Isn't it enough to be a person buying
a carton of milk? A simple
package of butter and a loaf
of whole wheat bread?
Isn't it enough to stand here
while the sweet middle-aged cashier
rings up the purchases?
I look outside,
but I can't see much out there
because now it is dark except
for a single vermilion neon sign
floating above the gas station
like a miniature temple simply lit
against the night.

"Simply Lit" by Malena Mörling, from Astoria. (c) University of Pittsburg Press, 2006. Reprinted with permission.

It's the birthday of St. Augustine, born in Thagaste, in what is now Algeria (354). He said, "Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are." (ER: Was it not also St Augustine who said: "Solvitur ambulando"- very apt for Moffat)

It's the birthday of writer Robert Louis Stevenson, born in Edinburgh (1850). His books include Treasure Island (1883), Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), and Kidnapped (1886).
The inspiration for Treasure Island came on a rainy day in the Scottish Highlands when Stevenson's stepson was idling away the time by drawing pictures. He drew a map, and Stevenson saw it and immediately decided that it was a pirate map -- he embellished it and named it "Treasure Island." Stevenson told his stepson that there was buried treasure there, and someone had been marooned on the island. His stepson begged to know the rest of the story, so Stevenson started writing it out -- within three days he had three chapters. He worked with his stepson's input, including the boy's request that there wouldn't be any girls in the book.
Treasure Island is the story of young Jim Hawkins, whose parents run an inn in a small English town. One of their long-term lodgers is a sailor man named Billy Bones, who admits to Jim that he used to be a crew member for the now-dead pirate Captain Flint. Bones says that his fellow crew members are hunting him down because they want something that is in his sea chest. One of them eventually shows up and presents Bones with the "black spot," the pirate death sentence, and threatens to return that night; Bones falls dead of shock. Jim and his mother open his sea chest to collect their back rent, and instead, find the map for Treasure Island. Jim takes the map to two rich gentlemen, who excitedly recognize it as the map to the treasure of Captain Flint, and organize an expedition to go find the treasure.
Unfortunately for the well-intentioned but naive gentlemen, they end up hiring all of Captain Flint's pirate crew, plus one trustworthy captain. So Jim, Captain Smollett, and the gang of pirates -- headed by Long John Silver, the ship's cook, and his parrot known as Captain Flint -- set out for Treasure Island.
Jim overhears the pirates planning a mutiny, and tells Captain Smollett. On the shores of Treasure Island, they meet yet another member of Flint's crew, Ben Gunn, who has been marooned there. Both the pirates and Smollett want to get the treasure and then take hold of the ship; but the pirates are also plotting against Long John Silver. Jim is trying to outmaneuver them all and save the day. They finally make it to the treasure, only to find that it isn't there -- Ben Gunn has already found it.
In the end, Jim, Smollett, Ben Gunn, and Long John Silver head home with the treasure -- but Silver ends up stealing some and escaping into the sunset. Treasure Island ends with Jim as an old man summing up his adventures: "Oxen and wain-ropes would not bring me back again to that accursed island; and the worst dreams that ever I have are when I hear the surf booming about its coasts or start upright in bed with the sharp voice of Captain Flint still ringing in my ears: 'Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!'"
The plot for Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde came to Stevenson in a dream. He was yelling in his sleep, and so his wife shook him awake, and he immediately informed her that he wished she hadn't -- he was dreaming part of a story. He wrote and rewrote it in several weeks while he was in bed with tuberculosis, and when it was published -- just a few months after he had first dreamed it up -- it was an immediate success.
Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde begins: "Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance, that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary, and yet somehow lovable. At friendly meetings, and when the wine was to his taste, something eminently human beaconed from his eye; something indeed which never found its way into his talk, but which spoke not only in these silent symbols of the after-dinner face, but more often and loudly in the acts of his life."
The story begins with Utterson hearing a shocking bit of news: that a man named Edward Hyde has assaulted a young girl, but has paid off her family with a check from a prominent and respected citizen, Henry Jekyll. The reason for Utterson's shock is that Jekyll is his friend and client, and he has recently written Mr. Hyde into his will.
When Utterson mentions Hyde to Jekyll, he makes his friend uncomfortable. For a while, nothing more happens. Then one of Utterson's clients is murdered, and a maid identifies the murderer as Hyde, but Hyde has disappeared. Jekyll produces a note from Hyde saying that he is gone forever. The links between Hyde and Jekyll continue to add up, but Utterson does not understand the connection. A mutual friend dies and leaves Utterson a note that the lawyer is not allowed to read until after Dr. Jekyll's death.
Then one day, a servant of Dr. Jekyll's comes to find Utterson and tells him that his master has disappeared into his laboratory, and keeps sending the servant on bizarre errands for a drug. The servant thinks that someone has murdered Jekyll and is hiding in his laboratory. He and Utterson break in. They find Hyde's dead body, but no trace of Jekyll.
They do find a note left behind, and Utterson opens it, along with the one from his friend. He learns the whole story: that, of course, the respected Dr. Jekyll and the monstrous Mr. Hyde are the same person. As a young man, Jekyll was fascinated by the thought that both good and evil exist in every person, and he went to work in his laboratory to figure out a way to isolate his evil self. At first, the transformation from Jekyll to Hyde came about with the use of a drug. Eventually, it started to happen spontaneously, and he could not control it; finally Jekyll could not stand it any longer and committed suicide. He wasn't sure what would happen to Hyde, but Hyde had died along with him.
Kidnapped is set in 1751, the era of the Jacobite uprisings in Scotland. In general, Jacobitism was the attempt to secure the Stuart kings to the British throne. In the case of the Scottish highlands, it was mostly an attempt to keep English influence out and let the clans stay in control, and the Stuarts were more sympathetic to the clans than King George, from the House of Hanover.
Kidnapped is the story of the orphaned boy Davie Balfour, who sets off to find his uncle. His uncle is a sinister drunk ruling over a decrepit estate, the House of Shaws. Davie realizes that his father was older than his uncle, and that Davie himself is actually the rightful heir of the estate. He asks his uncle about it, who tries and fails to have him killed, but succeeds in having him kidnapped. Davie is put on a ship bound for America, where he will be an indentured servant. The ship turns around in bad weather, and off the coast of Scotland, it hits another boat. Everyone on board this second boat is killed except for one man, a Jacobite rebel named Alan Breck. Davie overhears the crew plotting to kill Alan, so he and Alan turn on the rest of the crew and fight them off; but the two are separated trying to get to shore, and Davie ends up in the Scottish Highlands.
Eventually, Davie reunites with Alan, but it's at the scene of a crime -- one of King George's tax collectors is assassinated, a man who is also a member of the enemy Campbell clan. Alan is accused, and he and Davie flee together through the Highlands. They end up in the secret den of an outlaw Jacobite leader, Cluny Macpherson, one of the many historical figures sprinkled throughout the novel. They have many more adventures -- a duel between Alan and his arch-nemesis turns into a bagpipe contest; Alan forces Davie to pretend that he is a dying nobleman to convince a pretty girl to give them a ride across a river; and in the end, they manage to get Davie's inheritance back from his uncle, and Alan heads to France to seek refuge from the English.

Remembrance Sunday 2011

Moffat was the childhood home of Air Vice Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding. His life, in many ways a tragic tale, is well told by the Wikipedia entry,_1st_Baron_Dowding head of Fighter Command in the Battle of Britain. His wife, Clarice, died from a wasp sting (anaphylactic shock) when their son Derek was only two years of age. I met Derek when we worked together in 1966 on The American, a weekly paper funded (unbeknownst to me at the time) by the CIA. A friend from student days had been recruited as sales manager and he in turn had suggested me as feature writer. Derek Dowding was also in some undefined way to do with sales, and a member, with the proprietor's wife, of Alcoholics Anonymous. He was an intensely aimiable man, a former fighter pilot who took nothing seriously. He looked like a thin tall leprechaun, with a grin that practically split his face in two, and kept us in helpless fits of laughter. Impeccably suited by Savile Row, he would lean on the doorway to our rabbithole- sized office above the Old Curiosity Shop (someone behind The American at least had a great sense of humour), in Portsmouth St off Kingsway WC1, sweeping his straight, fine, thining chestnut hair back from his forehead, chatting in his inimitable drawl. His father, the Laurence Olivier look-alike war hero, was by then deep into mysticism and would routinely claim when he arrived at a destination that he had travelled 'in the fourth dimension'. Another - perhaps the only experienced - member of the team was a bulky salesman known as 'El Stupido', (MI5? the Metropolitan Police?) ostensibly responsible for selling space to the various luxury hotels and other places where Americans might pick up a copy of our publication. Alcohol came into it in a big way with another shadowy player in this extraordinary ensemble: a very rich young drunk who would arrive in his open sports car in the early afternoon, toot his horn and carry off my former student friend and colleague for excursions into Swinging London that may or may not have contributed to the bottom line. With the benefit of hindsight I now wonder if even the hotel where I used to meet the 'stars' (not very glittery ones as I remember), the Westbury just off Bond St, might also have belonged to the US government. My responsibility was 'copy' - newspaper speak for putting together the words between the ads. Not long after joining, I had a call from a real newspaper group to be the women's editor of a paper, the Watford Evening Echo, to be printed using new technology - not hot metal but 'web offset', using a photographic technique. I was launched.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Egon Ronay

A book is coming out* about Egon Ronay, inventor of the food guide in Britain - there was always Michelin but that, while useful for France, was always hopeless at finding places in the UK. In a piece about the making of the book in the FT today, there is a photograph of Egon - Mr Ronay as I knew him - in a very luxurious-looking office. When I worked for him, for a few weeks in - was it in 1967, or was it 1966? - his poky little office was on the third floor of a tiny narrow old building just off Leicester Square. I had been laid off by Thomson Newspapers while they sorted out a dispute with the print unions of a new regional newspaper I had been appointed Women's Editor of. So I signed up with a temping agency for some of the most enjoyable and instructive assignments of my life. I was a tea lady in a smart advertising agency, which taught me that people never look at the tea lady, however much of a dolly bird she might be out of overalls; and I worked for Egon Ronay. I think he was courting the second Mrs Ronay at the time. He would make a token appearance in the office, and then say casually that he was going to fly to France for the day. My job was typing out the inspectors' handwritten reports. They visited eating places in strictest anonymity, never revealing their identity. Their reports were full of unintended humour, speaking of hostesses 'roasting their joints by an open fire' and suchlike. Gosh. Over forty years ago. *Egon Ronay: The Man Who Taught Britain How To Eat (ISBN 9780957046009) or ring 08430 600033 or at


One of the many reasons I love Moffat is because of the view out of my sitting room window, of birch trees growing alongside the mill leat. The mill leat, as any fule no, is the channel dug to divert water from the main water course (in this case, the Birnock Water) for reasons understood by people who use water for mills. I do not know, and have yet to find out, what the piece of land is called between the river bank and the leat. In the case of the one I overlook, it is an exquisite shallow arc, the sort one drew doodling with one's school compass. I looked at the view particularly carefully this morning, because my sensibilities had been twanged by the arrival of the RA mag whose cover (Winter 2011)is a Hockney tree painting. The nearest I ever got to him in person was on Millenium Eve. We were standing by the Embankment waiting for the damp squib (the flash of fire that was meant to fly up the Thames before the fireworks proper, but never did) when he walked past, wearing quite a big hat. It is true that good painting - great painting - makes you immediately see the world differently. I like Hockney's trees. I looked at the birches outside my window, and they suddenly looked like Hockney birches. I could imagine how he would paint them. They still have a few golden leaves which hang delicately round them, like a veil. The golden leaves, the colours and shapes of the trunks, the arc of the mill leat - add up to an unrivalled view. Which brings me onto my second point: great artists like Monet, Matisse, Hockney go on and on painting the same thing time and time again. Unlike the rest of us who perhaps sketch a window frame in Provence and then a line of washing, these guys perseverate; they persevere, repeat themselves; they go over and over - in Monet's case the same quite boring haystack - and over again, changing the colour a bit, just completely possessed to suck out every last tiny bit of interest. To confirm my point, see an article in today's The Times newspaper about two virtually identical paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, one at first glance more or less a copy of the other but on closer inspection, radically different. There is no need to look for endless surface variety. If you find something that interests you, you just need to go on digging away at it. Novelty, variety, is not all. Depth, minutiae, sticking to one's last - all that stuff - is the mark of great artists. By the way, have you ever heard of Gerhard Richter? Nor me. He is apparently the most expensive living artist. I thought when I looked him up on the internet that someone - William Boyd perhaps - had made him up. As a matter of fact, William Boyd did make an artist up, Nat Tate (geddit). but this guy Richter. He is protean, but not in a good way. Every so often he seems to ingest the whim of the moment and splats it out as dots, neorealism, abstract expressionism. You name it, this guy can (and does) do it. Is it art? I doubt it. Stop Press: Blow me down with a fine porcupine feather quill if a work by Nat Tate (fictional artist invented by William Boyd, David Bowie and Gore Vidal) isn't to be offered for sale at an auction at Sotheby's this very Tues Nov 15). the work is entitled 'Bridge No. 114', estimate £3,00-£5,000. You read it here, folks

Friday, 11 November 2011

Book titles

I am trying to decide what title to give to the book of this blog, shortly to be published by Moffat Book Enterprises with a lovely cover design - a sinuous tree with books for 'leaves' - by Nicola Forsyth. If I were Fyodor Dostoievsky whose birthday it is today I might choose: The Idiot or The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoievsky's breakthrough novel was Crime and Punishment, which he himself summarised in 1864, as he embarked on writing it, thus: "It is the psychological report of a crime. The action is contemporary, set in the present year. A young man, expelled from the university, a petit-bourgeois in origin and living in the direst poverty, through light-mindedness and lack of steadiness in his convictions, falling under the influence of the strange, 'unfinished' ideas afloat in the atmosphere, decided to break out of his disgusting position at one stroke. He has made up his mind to kill an old woman, the wife of a titular counselor who lends money at interest. The old woman is stupid, stupid and ailing, greedy [...] Almost a month passes after this until the final catastrophe. No one suspects or can suspect him. Here is where the entire psychological process of the crime is unfolded. Insoluble problems confront the murderer, unsuspected and unexpected feelings torment his heart. Heavenly truth, earthly law take their toll and he finishes by being forced to denounce himself." Moffat Book Events has been invited to support the Moffat Museum Group's application for funds via LEADER, the EU community initiative which enabled (for instance) the launch of the wildlife reserve and the bikers welcome scheme in D&G. The museum wants to collect oral histories in Moffat. What a good idea. Reverting for a moment to Crime and Punishment: one of the most thrilling episodes in my involvement with Russian creative industry was when a Russian theatre director, Yuri Liubimov came to direct a stage version at the Lyric, Hammersmith, starring Bill Paterson as the detective and Michael Pennington as the murderer. He had a beautiful and excitable young Hungarian wife and small son, Petya in tow who we had to hide in our house when it was feared that heavies from the Russian Embassy were looking for the child to kidnap him and thereby force the director to return to Moscow to answer for his crimes - which were criticising the Soviet government. We took the family to Aldeburgh where the cellist Slava Rostropovich and his wife the opera singer Galina Vishnevskaya were installed at Benjamin Britten's Red House, and the two men went and sat in a Russian steam bathhouse in the garden to discuss their plight. For the record, Galina - one of the great dramatic sopranos of her day - did not put her pinny on and peel potatoes. We went into town and got takeaway fish and chips for everyone. To this day I remember the production, which was very effective, including the way Paola Dionosotti, the actress playing the landlady and had the line: 'That's bad blood acting up in you', played her part for some reason in a northern accent. Petya went on to Eton and then read psychology at Bristol University, I believe.
Ideas for a title of my collected blog entries include:
Pages from a Bibliophile's Notebook
Ramblings from A Booklover
A Gallimaufry
Moffat Musings
From Aldeburgh to Alaska via Azerbaijan – travels in my room
The world in a grain of sand
Can You Hear Me At The Back? -
Do You Read Me, Moffat?
Life and other accidents
A Moffat Miscellany
Marriage, Moscow and Moffat
Grist to My Mill
With love from Moffat
Preferences on a postcard please

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Style Notes

A grey school skirt is mentioned in every obituary of the late style guru Loulou de la Falaise, companion to Yves St Laurent and (it now seems) responsible behind the scenes for quite a bit of what appeared later on the catwalk under his name. Loulou wore this grey school skirt for her first visit to the YSL atelier. Loulou attended Portsdown Lodge School, the same prep school in Sussex as I did. Being four years younger than me (she was born 1948), I cannot claim to have known her but the grey school skirt sounds familiar. Our school coats were beautiful but prickly grey Harris Tweed, complete with the orb logo sewn into the lining. I feel suddenly sick at the memory of that time when, aged 7, I found myself away from home - we were allowed visits called 'exeats' which we looked forward to but were in fact horrid reminders that childhood was over. Our parents would arrive, looking debonair and delicious, in their car (at one point a pale green Rolls) in which I would promptly be car sick as we bowled off to the Cooden Beach hotel for stilted conversation over lunch, tea and a walk on the cold pebble beach. Just before waking this morning, I had a curious dream of running for a train. I was following a young man dressed in overalls or similar work dress. I looked at my watch. The hands showed the half hour, the time when the train was due to leave. The young man paused and opened a concealed door in the wall of the passage we were both hurrying along. I followed him and found myself standing next to the cab of the 1950's steam train - the young man was clearly the driver. He beckoned, and I made to board the train, realising as I did so that I had given my handbag to whoever it was I was due to meet on the platform and travel with. Would I find them - would they board the train, unaware that I was on it? Then I woke up.

Institute of Theology, Imagination and the Arts

Thanks to a link in Facebook, yesterday I discovered the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts at the University of St Andrews. The title reminds me irresistibly of the academic syllabus - Reeling, Writhing and Fainting in Coils - in Alice Through the Looking Glass or is it Alice in Wonderland. Johnny Depp famously starred in a recent movie of Alice, and stars in a film just released, The Rum Diaries, written and directed by Bruce Robinson, the same man who wrote and directed Withnail and I one of my favourite movies (along with This is Spinal Tap). I watched Withnail last night in the new knowledge that the photograph of Uncle Monty, improbably in football strip, is a still taken from a movie in which my son in law Terry starred as a child actor. As the film progressed, I picked out some dialogue that for some reason I found particularly guffaw-inducing, as follows:
'This IS the morning. Stand back. Stand back' (as Richard E Grant/Withnail strides manic and wild-eyed towards the kitchen to do the washing up).
'We are drifting towards the arena of the unwell' (I think this is said by Paul McGann, the fellow actor and Withnail's hapless flat-sharer.
'We've gone on holiday by mistake' (Withnail, pleading with the farmer, whose left leg is mysteriously encased in polythene, for fuel and food).
'GET INTO THE VAN' (the policeman cutting across Richard E Grant/Withnail's increasingly implausible representations and arresting him for drunk driving).
I was also rendered helpless by the shot of Grant making his way unsteadily across a muddy forecourt with plastic bags tied round his feet (no wellies being available).
Then: the scene in the tea shop in Penrith where the far gone Grant orders: 'I want the finest wines available to humanity. And I want them NOW' My sentiments exactly.