Monday, 31 October 2011

Any Human Heart

I'm gripped by William Boyd's Any Human Heart, a clever, if mechanically devised but admirably researched 'page turner'. The protagonist, an unconvincing medley of Uruguayan (mother) and English (father)is now aged 50, having survived an English public school education, Oxford university, introduction to sex by his best friend's girlfriend, early success as a writer of both lit crit and a novel, three marriages and a stint as a prisoner of war in mysterious circumstances connected with the Duke of Windsor followed by an improbable second career as an art dealer in post WWII New York. I am reading it on Kindle and can therefore see that I am 68% of the way through it. I haven't read a novel for ages, and now have a taste for them. Or maybe a short story by Helen Simpson. Some people count W G Sebald as a novelist, because he blurs the lines between documentary and something imagined. Well, ditto Graham Greene if it comes to that, in his A Sort of Life. It was remarkably mild yesterday, and I took my dog in law and grandson to the park . Harry and his brother Zac were at my house on Saturday, when Zac announced that he wanted to go home. I said to Harry who was absorbed in Scooby-Doo 'will you be OK?' - 'home' is just across the road. Without taking his eyes off the TV he said 'It's against the law' (meaning to be left on his own, aged 6, for two minutes) which made me laugh. He is also exercised by the - in his view - unjust ruling by his father that part of his birthday money is to go on a shoebox Christmas present to a child in less fortunate circumstances. And his snake has disappeared. Beanie apparently managed to escape from a tiny crack in the wall of his heated tank. A lizard is mooted as substitute. ps Many congratulations to Alistair Moffat, our Moffat Book Events guest on Oct 15, who was elected Rector of St Andrew's university on Friday. He follows in the footsteps of that other magnificently bearded Scottish celebrity James Robertson (Doctor in the House etc)Justice.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Wet, wet, wet

Wow! was yesterday wet or what? We went up to the forest, where the trees were enjoying the warm rain. We have let the house up there, which I built and occupied for 15 years until Dec 2009, when work began on the windfarm and I was evacuated to Moffat. I'm glad it will be occupied through the winter. Friends on the east coast of America have been posting comments about a snow storm over there, unheard of event as early as the end of October apparently. I saw an ad yesterday in one of the weekend newspapers for a tapestry series illustrating the creation. I stared and stared at the illustrations, pondering purchase of one, and concluded that two were (unintentionally) identical. I guess someone - not the Almighty - will get ticked off about that on Monday. I received two invoices through the post from Bank of Scotland for 0.50p and 0.15p, for charges incurred on an account I have closed. The one for 0.50p was shown as 'paid' but how to settle the one for 0.15p? I guess I'll go into the branch in Moffat in the morning. I wonder how much it cost them to send those notices out? It has taken me ages this morning to change the time on my bedside alarm clock radio back. I fear that I have set the alarm in the process. One year, but it must have been in the springtime when the clocks go forward, I set off to go to church from my childhood home in Kent. I was probably 14 or 15. I walked all the way down Farningham Hill into the village feeling unusually sanctimonious only to arrive at the church and find it closed - I was an hour early.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Saturday extra

By way of a Saturday extra, and because today is a particularly interesting example: here is a slightly edited version of The Writers Almanac, available free daily online -

Sometimes, I Am Startled Out of Myself, by Barbara Crooker

like this morning, when the wild geese came squawking,
flapping their rusty hinges, and something about their trek
across the sky made me think about my life, the places
of brokenness, the places of sorrow, the places where grief
has strung me out to dry. And then the geese come calling,
the leader falling back when tired, another taking her place.
Hope is borne on wings. Look at the trees. They turn to gold
for a brief while, then lose it all each November.
Through the cold months, they stand, take the worst
weather has to offer. And still, they put out shy green leaves
come April, come May. The geese glide over the cornfields,
land on the pond with its sedges and reeds.
You do not have to be wise. Even a goose knows how to find
shelter, where the corn still lies in the stubble and dried stalks.
All we do is pass through here, the best way we can.
They stitch up the sky, and it is whole again.

"Sometimes, I Am Startled Out of Myself," by Barbara Crooker, from Radiance. (c) Word Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission.

It's the birthday of the biographer James Boswell, born in 1740 in Edinburgh, Scotland. His family was descended from minor royalty, and they had occupied the same land in Ayrshire for more than two hundred years. Boswell's father was a judge who insisted that his son study law. So James Boswell passed his bar exams in Scotland, but he didn't really like law and he didn't really like Scotland. Boswell loved gossip, drinking, and traveling, and he wanted to be in London, to be in the company of the rich and famous. He also wanted to be known as a great lover, so he bragged constantly about his love life.
James Boswell was a good writer with an incredible memory, and he started keeping a journal as a teenager, and he kept it for the rest of his life, filled with reflections and anecdotes about the famous people he befriended--Voltaire, Rousseau, Oliver Goldsmith, John Wilkes. Most of all he wrote about his friend Samuel Johnson. When Boswell was just 22 years old, he met Johnson, who was his idol, in the back of a bookshop. Johnson was 53, and he gave the young Boswell a hard time when he met him, but Boswell went back to visit him anyway and they soon became good friends. Over the next 20 years, Boswell followed Johnson around, and he always had paper and took notes constantly. Johnson was often frustrated with Boswell, and Boswell could be critical of Johnson, but they still liked to spend time together, and they traveled together through Scotland and the Hebrides.
After Johnson's death, Boswell spent years writing a biography of his friend. He used letters, interviews, as well as his own diary, of which he said, "A page of my Journal is like a cake of portable soup. A little may be diffused into a considerable portion." Finally, in 1791, The Life of Samuel Johnson was published, and people loved it. There had never been a biography like it before. Instead of a dry recitation of facts, Boswell filled his book with personal anecdotes and vivid descriptions, and overall it was fun to read, and he made Johnson sound like a real person who wasn't totally perfect. It's still considered one of the greatest biographies ever written, and it's a big part of the reason why Samuel Johnson is still so famous today.

It's the birthday of The New Yorker editor David Remnick, born in Hackensack, New Jersey (1958). This is his first editing job. He worked as a sports reporter for The Washington Post and then as their Moscow correspondent, where his duties once included tracking down a hairdresser for his boss, Washington Post owner Katherine Graham, for her interview with Mikhail Gorbachev.
Soon he was researching and writing big stories from Moscow for the Post, and earning a reputation as rising star. One day, three of his stories from Moscow appeared on the front page of the Washington Post. Then his first book, Lenin's Tomb: The Last days of the Soviet Empire (1993), won the Pulitzer Prize.
In 1992, he started as a staff writer at The New Yorker, and six years later was asked to be the editor. When a room full of staff writers at The New Yorker heard that he'd accepted the post, they burst into applause -- a five-minute-long standing ovation.
He continues to report and write for The New Yorker as well as edit it, and he's also the author of a 672-page biography of President Obama, called The Bridge (2010).

It's the birthday of the children's poet and novelist Valerie Worth, born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1933. She's most famous for her "small poems," poems for children about everyday objects, and she said "As a child, I preferred reading and writing to everything else, and I still feel much the same way. I was also greatly attracted to 'smallness,' perhaps because throughout grade school I myself was the smallest in my class. My favorite fairy tale was 'Catskin,' about the princess given three ball gowns--one like the sun, one like the moon, and one like the stars--packed up in a walnut shell; and the idea of such magnificence hidden inside so plain and tiny a thing not only fascinates me still, but also has served as a model for many of my poems." Her books include Small Poems (1972), Small Poems Again (1986), and Curlicues: The Fortunes of Two Pug Dogs (1980).
Here is the poem "Safety Pin":
Closed, it sleeps
On its side
The silver
Of some
Small fish;

Opened, it snaps
Its tail out
Like a thin
Shrimp, and looks
At the sharp
Point with a
Surprised eye.
From More Small Poems. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright 1976.

It's the birthday of the British novelist Henry Green, born Henry Yorke in Tewkesbury, England (1905). He wrote most of his first novel while he was a teenager, going to school at Eton, a novel called Blindness (1926). Then he went to Oxford, but he mostly drank, played billiards, and went to movies. So he dropped out and went to work as a laborer in an iron foundry, a factory which made beer-bottling machines and plumbing equipment, and he used that experience to write his second novel, Living (1929). He wrote many more novels, and he's best remembered for Loving (1945), which TIME magazine named one of the 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. Loving is what's called an upstairs-downstairs story; it's about a fancy country home in Ireland, parallel stories of the people who live there and the servants who work there.
Green wrote, "Prose should be a long intimacy between strangers with no direct appeal to what both may have known. It should slowly appeal to feelings unexpressed, it should in the end draw tears out of the stone."

The Commonty

Thanks to The Commonty website for an instant bulletin following the arts in D&G meeting at Dalbeattie yesterday. Something good will come of the upheaval. Or something different, not necessarily the same thing. Yesterday was a textbook autumn day: sunny but with interesting clouds; leaves a wonderful variety of browns and golds; I drove to see a friend in Lochmaben. We have worked together in the past, and have another joint venture or two in the pipeline. She is unpacking books from a property sold down south, and invited me to take my pick from any arrayed on her dining room table. By way of a response, I opened my handbag and showed her my new Kindle with its first book downloaded: Any Human Heart by William Boyd. A Kindle is ideal for the sort of book you know you just want to skim through and then pass on. I needed to sample Any Human Heart in case I attempt a similar fictionalisation, of a character living through the 20th century, and meeting real historical characters as he does so. I have to admit it's a brilliant idea but it starts slowly as the character drags himself through childhood and adolescence. But I am not begrudging William Boyd because it has only cost me the equivalent of an egg and cress sandwich. My friend arrived in D&G about 10 years ago, and has made a full and generous life for herself, a model of Christian hospitality (not hair shirt) and empathy. I recounted a painful episode from my recent visit south, of the family 'secrets and lies' variety and she buried her head in her hands in sympathetic recognition. Out of her kitchen window stretched a long field of dark brown earth, with patches of silver water standing in pools on it. I had taken her a bunch of pale mauve chrysanthemums, and half-remembered a poem* by D H Lawrence - we talked of New Mexico where one of my friend's children lives, and where DHL (not the freight company) also lived. Apparently it is a magical place. I am struggling to retrieve where it was that I was reading recently about a family living somewhere in the northeast of north America where a member of the family - a male relative, father uncle or brother disappears to New Mexico to avoid some complication, perhaps a dying mother, sister or similar turning point. Families, eh? Who'd have 'em. On the other hand: who'd be without 'em. *It isn't a poem, it's a short story called the Odour of Chrysanthemums, in a collection entitled The Prussian Officer and Other Stories, which I studied as a set book for my English A level in Switzerland in 1960. In that year I won a prize for an essay 'The Pen is Mightier than the Sword', and chose Keats and T S Eliot's The Waste Land. Lastly, a must-read: Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage, an account of his failed attempt to write a book about DHL

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Good Causes

I am occasionally roused to write to the newspapers, and yesterday wrote to protest about the camp outside St Paul's. This is the latest in a series of mysterious failures by the police to enforce 'law and order', which it is in all our interests (including the protesters) to maintain. No sooner had I bunged the letter off (in the shape of an email) than the cathedral authorities declared that they will finally be taking steps to unbar the way into the cathedral. The dome and upper gallery will remain closed, apparently for fear that some nutter will set them on fire or cause some other damage in pursuance of their grudge against 'the City'. All this is against a background of which I would have thought the protesters would heartily approve, namely the imminent collapse of the world's financial system. Nearer to home, in the aftermath of the collapse of dgArts, moves are afoot to position Moffat as a deserving focus for arts support. A meeting tomorrow convened by Dumfries and Galloway Council, with Creative Scotland in attendance, in Dalbeattie will take soundings from an invited audience, which will include a representative of Moffat Book Events. Book events nowadays have spread their wings beyond the covers of bound volumes full of printed pages. Books about walks, for instance, are promoted by open air activity in company with the author. Matters of public interest such as the war in Afghanistan or the Arab spring are debated by expert platform groups, quizzed by a well-informed audience. All change is disturbing, but opportunities for clearing out those dusty corners of our habits of thought. What rights do we have to 'the arts'? What right, for instance, for individuals or events to be sustained by the public purse? (Within the generally accepted proposition that the arts are an indispensable part of a civilised society). My thoughts about the future of books was concentrated yesterday by downloading my first book (Any Human Heart by William Boyd) for £3.49 onto my new Kindle via my 'one click' account on Amazon. My first reaction is that the text alone does not fully replicate the physical book. My library is like my autobiography. I can remember where and when book was bought or read. Why did I want to read it? Perhaps a friend recommended it. I started to read nearly 65 years ago, and I need my library not for the information it contains - that is available now on Wikipedia or some other online resource. No, it is like a photograph album (another vanished artefact), it is my memories.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Translator's Day

My winter task is to translate a book. I have metaphorically sharpened my pencils and literally sent off for a new dictionary. The patron saint of translators is St Jerome, and there used to be an annual lecture named after him, mysteriously renamed the W. G. Sebald lecture (mysterious because he wasn't the translator he was the translatee). The book I aim to translate is a collection of letters, and I have already spent three years messing around visiting the places where one of the correspondents - a painter - lived during a long life reminiscent of one of those fictional character in a novel by William Boyd. She was born in St Petersburg in 1898, and died in 1988. Her life intersected with many people I knew, in the Crimea (the Obolenskys),Paris (Evgeny Lampert and Metropolitan Antony of Surozh), London (the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius, John and Irina Findlow) and Moscow (Ekaterina Genieva and Alexander Men). The settled upper middle class circumstances into which she was born were swept away by the Russian Revolution; her mother and a sister died of an epidemic in the chaos of civil war in the Crimea, her father disappeared, and thereafter she herself lived in poverty as a refugee, devoted to painting in the twenties and thirties, living in Paris as a willing skivvy having been created a 'nun in the world' in the household of Fr Sergei Bulgakov and as a student of the Nabis Maurice Denis; in London off and on, including to paint the wall panels of the chapel of St Alban and St Sergius in Ladbroke Grove; emerging in post- war Prague to paint the altarpiece of the Orthodox cathedral ruined during the Nazi revenge on the Czech assassins of Heyderich. After the denunciation of Stalin, she and her surviving sister returned to their homeland and were exiled to central Asia, a sentence mitigated towards the end of her long life to allow her to escape during the sweltering summers to the more moderate climate of Moscow, where she met Alexander Men who became her 'spiritual father' and with whom she began to correspond: it is their selected letters which are the substance of the book I am to translate. She sent him 'little stars', icons for his converts, concealed in boxes labelled as sweets from her tiny flat in Tashkent through the years when Christianity was strictly controlled and believers were regarded with suspicion by the authorities. He survived her by two short years, murdered at the age of 57 on the verge of achieving the international status that would have put him beyond reach.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Installation in a stell

A visit yesterday morning from Peter Coates, who helped Ian Hamilton Finlay make work, including sculptures, at Little Sparta. He is making an installation for a drystone sheep stell at Crookedstane: a pavement engraved with lines from the poem by Joachim du Bellay 'Heureux qui, comme Ulysse' - appropriate for a stell because it references the Golden Fleece. The visit was to inspect and, if necessary, reconsider the foundation works carried out during the summer. Result: we are going to start again. Before Peter arrived from north Yorkshire, Zac came in after nursery with a Fireman Sam puzzle, which we did together and was highly enjoyable. Harry came over after school and decided to paint. After doing some work on flat paper he looked for something three dimensional to paint. We found a shoe box in the Moffat CAN recycling pile which needed stripping of sticky tape before becoming a blue apartment block with white windows. Fiona had made steak pies with mashed potato and broccoli for supper. I ate mine early and settled down to listen to Misha Glenny's BBCR4 programme on The Invention of Germany, followed by Analysis on cultural or 'soft' diplomacy, which I was involved in for many years. I knew John Mander, the author of Our German Cousins, an attempt in its time (40 years ago) to recalibrate attitudes to Germany. John Mander was involved in Encounter, a magazine whose modern equivalent would be Prospect (in my view, one of the most boring magazines ever produced). In its day, Encounter was a highly respected organ of intellectual inquiry, with long essays , short stories and poems. Then it fell into deep disfavour because it was revealed to have received covert financial support from the CIA. As a, by then, seasoned student of Russia, I never really understood why western intellectuals were so attracted to the police states of eastern and central Europe that the USA found it necessary to fund the few 'conservative' voices challenging the default left-leaning consensus. However, they were, it did and then the empire caved in over a few extraordinary months towards the end of 1989 and in 1990. I was in Moscow when, overnight, all foreign currency suddenly vanished from the little kiosks which had sprung up in parts of the city and at which one could freely change dollars into roubles and vice versa. My hostess at the time nevertheless reported that she had been able to buy a fridge freezer that day, using a credit card issued by a Russian bank which no longer had any foreign currency funds - this was in the days when there were still 'foreign currency' shops in Moscow, selling goods that could only be bought in dollars or other western currencies. We are now faced by the real possibility that roubles might be a harder currency than the pound or the euro. What a turnup for the books.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Train chaos

I arrived at Euston station yesterday for my 15.25 train to Lockerbie. I was early, so I took my time, bought a paper and then, acting on a hunch (sharpened by years of doing this particular journey) walked down to the platform 14/15 end of the concourse. Sure as eggs are eggs, an announcement came over the PA system, but with a twist: passengers with a seat reservation were to queue at platform 15; those of us with a ticket but no seat (I had an open return) to queue at platform 14. I was first to arrive and showed my ticket to the inspector. Quite soon, it became clear that this manoeuvre was due to some earlier cock-up. Effectively, two trainloads of people were going to attempt to board one train. Worse, the people with seat reservations had been booked on an earlier train (presumably cancelled some days before, but after many had been issued with tickets and seats for it - there had been no earlier train shown when I went online on Sat). I was directed to coach G. Coach G was full. I attempted to enter coach H, next along and my way was blocked by a train employee because I had no seat reservation. This was at odds with the fact that I and others queuing at platform 14 had been waved through to board the train. It became an ugly free for all. I walked back to coach K and found a single window seat and watched from the comparative safety of this perch as aggrieved travellers who had paid for first class upgrades issued sometimes minutes before found that, far from occupying a peaceful oasis of calm, were lumped in with riff raff such as myself. The train eventually left 20 minutes late. The train manager never appeared; his disembodied voice giving out information that did not apply to me - would I be in time for my connection to Lockerbie at Carlisle? Only after we had left Oxenholme did I learn from the helpful train attendant who had boarded at Preston that I had 6 minutes to sprint across the bridge from platform 4 in Carlisle to the Transpennine service for Lockerbie. Home at 8.30pm for a welcome bowl of soup and the fag end of the Antiques Roadshow followed by BBCR4's Analysis at 9pm, on ?what? I can't even remember. Fell asleep dreaming of the family row reported between Sarkozy and Cameron ('Don't tell us what to do!!!') a familiar, albeit unhelpful reaction, when things turn stressful.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Mission Accomplished

Four nights into my five-night stay in London, where the weather is like the south of France. It's been wall to wall sunshine and blue skies since I arrived on Tuesday evening Oct 18. On Tuesday evening I went to a translators' evening at Pushkin House where I caught up with Robert Chandler, translator of Grossman's Life and Fate, serialised recently on BBCR4. The Russian theme continued on Wednesday Oct 19 with a rehearsal of The Sleeping Beauty at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, courtesy of my sister who is a Friend. A smallish (?50) group filed into the amphitheatre, including sandy-haired Sir John Sainsbury who walked with his wife, a former ballerina, past the bronze bust of himself in the corridor. We had brunch in the Piazza in boiling hot sunshine, at Laduree, home of the pink macaroon. The exquisite layout, pale green chairs etc were in stark contrast to the ear-splitting continuous cabaret just next door, provided by a succession of licensed buskers. In the evening I continued in northern european vein with a friend I have known for 60 years, at Madsen a newish excellent Swedish restaurant just next to South Ken tube station. My friend and I talked about her persistent tickly cough, the perils of tied cottages and the threat to her neck of the woods of an impending major renewal (the first since Victorian times) of London's sewerage system. Thursday Oct 20 was my mother's 94th birthday, celebrated with family and friends in the house she and my father built in 1939. She has updated the house sympathetically over the years, collecting modern pictures and putting Osborne and Little on the walls. The Russian theme returned yesterday, at Sobranie, a new restaurant in Victoria with authentic Russian cooking. We had: Salad Olivier - a staple starter, consisting of ingredients chopped very small, including hard boiled egg; Julienne, another perennial favourite, a small long-handled brass pot containing chopped mushrooms in a cream and cheese sauce; then (I was full by now) pelmeny - Russian version of pasta, little meat- or mushroom-filled bite sized morsels in bouillon. The Russian atmosphere was completed by the maitre d'hotel, a central Asian who hovered in an otherwise empty dining room. I tell a lie: empty except for a table of three who were sampling the menu for a chamber of commerce international evening on Nov 29 for 50.

Monday, 17 October 2011

George Mackay Brown

Happy Birthday to George Mackay Brown, born in 1921 in Stromness, a fishing village on the Orkney Islands. He wrote poetry, essays, fiction, and travel books about Orcadian culture, history, and ritual. When he was young, he was often ill, first with measles, and later, tuberculosis; he was often hospitalized or confined to his bed, so he spent the time reading and writing. He studied literature and poetry near Edinburgh when his health permitted. His first book, Orcadians, was published locally in 1954; his first commercially published book was 1959's Loaves and Fishes.
He told Contemporary Authors: "I believe in dedicated work rather than in 'inspiration' [...] I believe writing to be a craft like carpentry, plumbing, or baking [...] In 'culture circles,' there is a tendency to look upon artists as the new priesthood of some esoteric religion. Nonsense -- and dangerous nonsense moreover -- we are all hewers of wood and drawers of water; only let us do it as thoroughly and joyously as we can." (resume courtesy of the online The Writer's Almanac).
I have never read anything by GMB, but am resolved to do so. I agree with his analysis of writing, that it is a craft improved only by application, doing it every day (like painting, for that matter, or any 'art'). And I am interested in the same things as he is: culture, history and ritual. Talking of 'hewers', when pronounced, the Energy Secretary's name* sounds like 'hewn'. There is a quote circulating to the effect that the wise course 'going forward' is to grow vegetables and keep chickens. I have no garden at my rented house in Moffat, but early next year I will be making one two doors down at 21 Well Road, a property in which I have a shared interest. Watch out for signs of veg cultivation and the sound of clucking. *Chris Huhne

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Red letter day plus one

Well, it was a good day, all in all. Moffat Book Events can consider itself fledged. If we emerged from the egg at Easter, we are now, as winter approaches, hopping about looking for worms in the grass or on the forest floor. An excellent summary has been circulated, of a teatime discussion, informally convened round the specially-commissioned cakes, sandwiches and scones, reflecting on what needs to be done better next time, action to take and a theme for spring 2012: Gardens and gardening. We are a team of many talents but it is agreed that, above all, a budget is required for professional publicity/PR to grow our audiences. In his talk yesterday about the history of immigration into Scotland, Alistair mentioned the phenomenon of ice age and nuclear winter (post volcanic eruption) 'refugia' - places where, against all the odds, life survives. I feel that Moffat is such a favoured place, in the present murky world of corruption, chaos and imminent financial collapse.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Red letter day

Today is a red letter day: our second Moffat Book Event. Some of us met yesterday to take Julia Eccleshare out to dinner at Brodies. Having a distinguished guest, doyenne of the children's books world from London made us very proud of Brodies, which exemplifies the 'centre of unexpected excellence' quality of Moffat. One of us likened Moffat to Brigadoon, which I was lucky enough to be taken to see in a London theatre by my theatre-loving parents in the 1950's. The whole experience made a great impression on me, half-understood, a little frightening. There is an analogous town in Russian folklore, called Kizhi - a fairytale city that emerges from a lake fully fledged and functioning, then disappears again just as suddenly. The mention of Brigadoon has made me want to know more, to revisit the story - it was made into a film, I think. Why did it enjoy such success? Was there any connection in the mind/s of the author/s with Kizhi? I mentioned at dinner that I had heard Vidal Sassoon on Desert Island Discs and how moved I was: by his gentle voice, his delighted laugh, his lack of bitterness at a terrible childhood, shunted in and out of orphanages by failing parents, wartime evacuation somewhere pretty unsympathetic. But he has emerged from it all, apparently as peacefully fulfilled as a Buddhist monk. We used to share a tiny coffin-sized lift in 1961/2 when he had the flat immediately above mine in Curzon Place, Mayfair. When I first saw the bronze name plaque V. Sassoon, I assumed he was the elderly racehorse owner, Sir Victor Sassoon. then I began to see Roger Moore, Terry Stamp and Albert Finney and realised this must be another V Sassoon. Finney went on to marry, or to have a long partnership with actress Diana Quick, the granddaughter of a local builder in Dartford who my father worked for before he started his own business. When she was promoting her autobiography the year before last at Borders Book Festival in Melrose, I bought a copy, asked her to sign it and took it down to my mother as a present. Back to Vidal Sassoon: a friend went to have that famous asymmetric haircut at the salon in Sloane St, and we were all terribly impressed. I went to The Ginger Group just across the other side of Knightsbridge, the Hyde Park side, tucked under a building that straddled oddly a narrow lane. Before that, as a teenager I had gone to Evansky, a salon in Mount St, or thereabouts, the other side of Hyde Park in Mayfair. Then I went to Leonard in Upper Brook St. I must write my memoirs if only for my grandchildren; try to evoke that vanished world

Friday, 14 October 2011

Jeans or.... palazzo pants

In preparation for tomorrow 's Jeans or Genes Moffat Book Event 9.30am-6pm at Moffat House hotel, I had made an appointment a little while ago to spend a whole day with Moira Cox, our inhouse adviser on 'Presentation of Self'. (At my own expense, I hasten to add, having just heard Liam Fox's letter of resignation read out on the radio). I therefore presented myself at the door of Moira's working premises, a very attractive wooden home office set in her pretty garden with its ever-running stream and riverside planting set steeply into the hillside along Annan Water. On arrival I was plied with coffee and set various tasks of self examination and measured from top to toe. The result was a highly enjoyable, puzzling conundrum. It seems that in the codex of House of Colour, I am neither fish nor fowl nor good red herring. At first sight, to the expert, I would appear to be a 'Natural Classic', and soft autumn colours do suit me. But the longer we went on, the less likely that type seemed to fit. By the end of the day it was agreed to put what type I am in the pending tray. It is salutary to be reminded that looking good and being appropriately dressed for the occasion is a courtesy to others. I regret now that when my husband retired, I vowed never to get dressed up again, ever, for any reason. Of course, I did put my best foot forward for my daughter's second wedding in Moffat (at Moffat House as it happens) last September. But on the whole, after an exhausting working life 'on
parade', married to a senior diplomat, meetings in the Kremlin, part of an ex-Prime Minister's entourage laying a wreath on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Red Square, receptions, cocktails at the Embassy, first nights - yes, you can get totally fed up with the whole business, aching feet in high heels, force-fed with endless banquets, polite conversation, trying not to drink too much or too little. Onyhoo. I am admonished and will try to do better again, in looser fitting clothes and lower heels, occasionally in startling hues of mustard and geranium. See you tomorrow I hope.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Book poem

This poem, an appropriate epigram for our Sat Oct 15 Moffat book Event, popped into my inbox this morning from the online daily The Writers Almanac:

...because I need something that will tell me
what I am; I want to catch a book,
clear as a one-way ticket, to Paris,
to London, to anywhere.

"Bookmobile" by Joyce Sutphen, from Coming Back to the Body. (c) Holy Cow! Press, 2000. Reprinted with permission.

Moffat Book Event : best laid plans dept

When we planned our forthcoming (this Sat Oct 15 9.30-6pm) autumn Moffat Book Event, back in April, we had not reckoned on our regional arts association dgArts ceasing to trade on Fri Sept 30, a fortnight beforehand, and for the online ticket sales system to grind to a corresponding halt. This has certain knock-on effects, mainly that we can have no idea how many people will come. This doesn't matter - the more the merrier - other than how many cakes to make for the traditional tea that will round off the day. However, we are confident that the day will go down in Moffat history because of the introduction by Angus Sinclair of his genius discovery on Moffat's hills and in Moffat's memory: The Moffalump. This iconic, shape-changing (therefore protean) creature is to be stalked by young and old, drawn, knitted and possibly even fed ( have special dishes invented for it). Only Moffat has a Moffalump. The hunting of the Moffalump was once a seasonal rite of passage for young people locally, who were sent out onto the hills in mist and rain with only an empty tin full of pebbles to rattle in case they surprised one. A surprised Moffalump is not a happy Moffalump, and unhappy Moffalumps emit an evil-smelling green exhalation that sticks to the unwary. Herds of peaceful Moffalumps used to graze the wooded slopes of the Devil's Beef Tub. It is often wrongly supposed that the drystone enclosures that pepper the landscape were built for sheep. Wrong. They are Moffalump nests, maternity units where the unfledged juveniles can play safely until they are big enough to roam alone. Every attic in Moffat will be searched next week for the traditional Moffalump traps which were woven by alewives the length of the High St in pre-coaching days, and the wooden castanets intricately carved with runic symbols played to warn unsuspecting Moffalumps before tins and pebbles were invented. As more becomes known of lost Moffalump lore, expert attention is being turned to bigger structures in the landscape, such as Skara Brae, Stonehenge, Newgrange and other massive strutures in the dawning realisation that these are not - as widely surmised - for human use,but are associated with early Moffalump cults, housing for Moffalump herders, for Moffalump markets selling prize creatures,their wool and other valuable by-products.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The genius of Roger Lewis

'I nearly died laughing' is an expression one sometimes reads. Well, last night I myself experienced that sensation, which was quite scary. I was laughing so much at Roger Lewis 's new book What Am I Still Doing Here? My Years As Me that I couldn't catch my breath. I commend it to you all. In a passage which is not funny, he says this about the British detective story: The puzzle-solving element aside, the clue to the success of the classic detective story is here I think: the pervasive cosiness, the country house or vicarage setting with the nicely tended rose gardens, and the puffing steam trains; and then the violence and viciousness that lurk underneath the nice formal manners and teatime social rituals, like serpents in Eden' I have asked Bishop Seraphim Sigrist to ponder, and perhaps make the subject of some remarks at our Sept 2012 conference in Moffat, why the British detective novel - in this case the Father Brown stories by G K Chesterton and Agatha Christie, were favourites of the 2oth century Russian priest, martyr and polymath Alexander Men. Perhaps Roger Lewis's choice of biblical comparison gives a clue? Talking of serpents, the doorbell rang this morning and there was Postie with a cardboard box, a packet and a heavy official-looking manilla envelope. In the cardboard box was my 'wolfskin' faux fur hat, which will do very well for the winter. It is extraordinarily lightweight and not too loose round my head, so will not fall continually over my eyes as former winter hats have had a tendency to do. This hat feels like a featherweight teacosy, and no doubt my daughters will tell me looks like one too. The packet from France contained a copy of a Russian collection of letters between Fr Alexander and an icon painter, the 'nun in the world' Ioanna (Julia/Iyulia) Reitlinger. I have visions of this woman's life becoming a major movie, starring Julie Christie or maybe Helen Mirren as her middle to elderly self, and perhaps one of those younger actresses - Gwyneth Paltrow, Kirsten Dunce (or is that Dunst), in her youth. Her life fell into decades: to age 16 she was in an eccentric (her father slept openly with the nanny because after five children her mother opted for her own room and celibacy) upper middle class household in St Petersburg. Then followed the Russian Revolution and Civil War, flight to the Crimea, the death of a sister and her mother from fever, emigration to western Europe (Warsaw, Prague, Paris, London), penury and drudgery in the household of her mentor the theologian Fr Sergei Bulgakov, painting classes with Maurice Denis, one of the 'Nabis' a group of French Catholic artists celebrating quattrocentro simplicity and the pastel palette, World War Two, etc etc. She was exiled to Tashkent with her surviving sister in 1956 when she returned to her homeland following the denunciation of the crimes of Stalin by First Sec Khrushchev, where she painted icons secretly (the Church was severely persecuted throughout this period) and sent to Fr Alexander's converts disguised as boxes of sweets to evade arrest and prison. I started translating the letters before various upheavals and now feel ready to tackle them as a winter task. My dear old Russian-English dictionary is somewhere buried among thousands of my other books in Manse Furnishings warehouse, but I can buy another. Also, I see in the current issue of a Russian journal published in France that a new collection of Sister J's letters (this time with Sergei Bulgakov), has come out so I will be running to catch up with those next. The thick manilla envelope, which had to be delivered as if it were a parcel, contains a small book-sized set of forms and instructions issued under legislation pertaining to public nuisance. I thought when I opened it that someone must have complained about my habit of playing BBCR4 loudly through the night. But no. It is because my family and I let out a cottage, so as private landlords we must register or risk prosecution.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

In the eyes of God

Who wrote 'Novels are written by men and for men. In the eyes of God, Who cuts through appearances and goes beyond them, there is no novel, no art, for art thrives on appearances. God is not an artist.'? The quotation is translated from French, and would be easier to discuss if we substitute 'people' for 'men'. And who said: 'Every novel worthy of the name is like another planet, whether large or small, which has its own laws just as it has its own flora and fauna."
And, "If you would tell me the heart of a man, tell me not what he reads, but what he rereads.' The first statement was by Jean Paul Sartre, in an attack on the author of the second,Francois Mauriac born on this day in 1885, died 1970, a Nobel laureate in literature. I re-read: Turgenev; Chekhov, Pushkin; Lermontov; El Romancero Viejo; T. S. Eliot; Philip Larkin; Kingsley Amis; Evelyn Waugh; Graham Greene; Roger Lewis and Andrew Barrow. To name but a few. Off the top of my head. Odd that so many are poets. I am going to an event for translators next week, at which I will meet someone who has lived a life which curiously resembles what mine might have been like, had I made different choices. He studied Spanish and Russian, as I did; lived in Russia and now lives and works in Spain. The similarities between Spain and Russia are not often remarked: they are both enormous countries on the edge of Europe, both suffered centuries of subjugation by an asian Islamic power, both had great empires and suffered revolutions and civil war. Only with such a history could there be a verb, as there is in Spanish that means 'to take the carpets up for the summer' (so that the floor is cool to the feet).

Monday, 10 October 2011

I bought a hat

I bought a hat yesterday. On a train. I was on my way from London to Lockerbie when I thought: I'm going to need a warm hat soon. So I went on line, viewed a few faux fur sites and ended up buying a hat made to look like wolf. In London, people were strolling round in shorts and t shirts yesterday. I spent Saturday with old friends in Wye, in Kent, talking about making new friends - we are all nearing our 70's. Shared interests is part of the answer, I suppose, and perhaps a bit more: education, previous employment, the sort of people your parents were and wanted you to be. At my mother's on Sunday, the conversation turned to education - my nephew, his wife and their two young children were there. Kent still has grammar schools, which are apparently fiendishly hard to get into, so people (such as my nephew and his wife) invest in private primary education to help them do that. We all sat round, uttering platitudes about doing what one can and what one thinks best, but how children can turn out in quite unexpected ways. History is full of duffers and bounders who turned up trumps in the end - and vice versa. There was a ring on the doorbell and there stood C with a bunch of michaelmas daisies from her garden, a gift sent to my mother from the church harvest festival display. It turned out that C spent some of the war at Craigieburn in Moffat, because she had relations living elsewhere in the town. Moffat is extraordinary in that way: so many people I know turn out to have spent holidays, or parts of their lives here. Speaking of education: I was sent for comment a new translation of Anton Chekhov's Lady with a Lapdog; I commend the story to anyone who has either never read it or hasn't read it for some time. I remember now that I used to take Turgenev's Huntsman's Notebooks and a collection of Chekhov short stories away with me every summer to read. Re-reading The Lady with the Lapdog made me suddenly yearn to be back in Russia.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011


I am reading A Book of Silence by Sara Maitland. The cover of the hardback edition, which I bought in Wigtown last week, courtesy of Carolyn Yates our D&G literary development officer, at the discounted price of £9, shows Sara's cottage in its setting of upland heath and sky stretching endlessly around and above . Silence and solitude are attractive to me. Towards the end of my 20 -year (1983-2005) second marriage, I actually began to calculate the hours of solitude and silence I needed; an accrued requirement, like a petrol tank in reverse. Silence has chapter and verse on this well known and not infrequently encountered, human phenomenon. The book records the writer's own journey into silence and solitude (the book might have included both conditions in the title), and is a history and meditation on both. Side by side by Sara, whose intensity requires occasional respite reading, I am also very much enjoying the profusely illustrated, with drawings, maps and photographs, Pilgrimage in Medieval Scotland by Peter Yeoman, published by Historic Scotland. I very much enjoyed staying in a nunnery in New Jersey, USA, some years ago while attending a conference. I found something extremely relaxing about the assumption that simplicity and reflexion are the order of the day. Plain walls; a high hospital-type iron bedstead; lino floor; communal washing facilities and simple nourishing food were - contraintuitively - far more restorative than five star extravagance. Ditto a pilgrimage I joined a year or so ago, to Newcastle, Lindisfarne and a hermitage on Shepherd's Law. Not to mention a real pilgrimage, the annual walk from St Martins in the Fields to Canterbury in aid of the homeless, which takes place every spring Bank Holiday, following the old Pilgrim's Way through south London and Kent, sleeping on floors in sleeping bags. I am glad to be reminded of these things as the rafters of our global economy creak.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Picking Up The Bits

More than 60 writers, artists, musicians and dancers gathered at the Glenkens CatStrand community centre on Monday Oct 3 2011 under the chairmanship of Mrs Cathy Agnew to discuss how to organise themselves in the wake of the shock announcement on Friday Sept 30 that Dumfries and Galloway Arts Association - a charitable Trust - had ceased to trade. The council is one of its main creditors having paid for services not delivered. After two hours discussion, it was agreed to form a steering committee to take proposals to a meeting with representatives of D&G council and Creative Scotland in Dalbeattie on Friday Oct 28 from 10am-4pm.

Monday, 3 October 2011

All About Our Compere

Alis Ballance is our compere for *Moffat Book Events'* Jeans or Genes? on Sat 15th Oct 2011 9.30pm-6pm. Alis says:

I live in Moffat with my husband, Chris, and we have two wee boys, Calum
(5) and Ossian (2).

I taught languages in my twenties then got my Equity card and went into
professional acting when I reached thirty. I have been a green campaigner
throughout, having 'gone green' at the age of fifteen, despite being the
daughter of a very Tory farmer and very Tory doctor!

If I could have been born in Moffat, I would be content, because Moffat is
the place I feel at home, and I am really chuffed that at least my boys are
going to be local Moffat boys. However, I grew up, and very happily, on a
farm in Aberdeenshire, where I had a lot of freedom, cycling and running
around the countryside, climbing trees and putting on plays with my friends
to any captive audience.

Reading was really important to me - I can't imagine my childhood without
stories. My favourite book was 'The Bullerby Children' which was all about a
little girl on a farm in Sweden. So there was just enough I could recognise
in her life to relate to, but also there were lots of intriguing
differences, such as Swedish customs, plus she had two brothers, while I was
an only child. Enid Blyton books were a full-on addiction, especially the
Famous Five and the Big Adventure books.

But it wasn't just stories in books that I loved; I loved listening to
story-tellers, and going to the theatre and to the opera from an early age.
Although in some ways I was quite shy, I always enjoyed being the narrator
or acting in plays from an early age - I continue to be fascinated to become
someone else for a while when playing a role, to know how it feels to be
someone else. It is really only as I have got older and had my children that
I've started to be a bit more confident just being myself and not playing
someone else.

As I seem to spend all my time campaigning these days, I really enjoy when
I get the chance to work in story-telling and performing again, so am
delighted to be involved with Moffat Book Events once more, having done a
reading for them at their Miss Buncle Married event back in the Spring.
Moffat Book Events have a flair for offering very special and creative
events locally."

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Colour for health

Moira Cox of House of Colour will be sharing some of the secrets of how to make the most of yourself at Moffat Book Events, Moffat House hotel at 2.30pm in the afternoon of Sat Oct 15. Appearance is not a superficial matter, contradictory though that may sound. Dressing to impress - in a good way - is part of the successful person's armoury. At a crucial stage in her own successful and varied career, Moira took advice from a House of Colour specialist, so when, some years later, she was looking for a business to set up in Moffat, she decided to go in herself for helping people in a structured way to choose the colours, styles and accessories best suited to them. 'Wellbeing is what it is all about' says Moira 'and if you wish to be taken seriously, you must take yourself seriously - that means looking long and hard at what image you present to the world.' According to the House of Colour philosophy, people can be divided into seasons representing the spectrum of colours that suit their skin tones best: summer, autumn, winter or spring. If you buy into the simple proposition that expert help can get results, then a personal session with Moira of one hour costing £99 will help you discover which season you belong to, and then you can have your body type analysed and your style accordingly into classic, ingenue, and so on.

All About Our Authors

Angus Sinclair will be launching his The Moffalump at the children's story-telling session at Moffat Book Events Jeans or Genes? at Moffat House hotel on Sat Oct 15 9.30-11am. Angus was born in Edinburgh but came to Moffat when he was 10 days old. He went to Moffat Academy then on to secondary school in Edinburgh. He went to sea in the Royal Navy and then worked at the House of Commons in London until this time last year. He enjoys story-telling and learnt this when his own children were young. Moffat has always been his first home and he holds the countryside in huge respect. The story of The Moffalump is connected to sheep, the weather in this part of the Scottish Borders and a number of local stories, some true and some not. He hopes that the story of The Moffalump will be one that grows and that anyone with imagination, a big heart and an ability to laugh will look to contribute to it so that as the story gets longer the more it will be enjoyed.

Carolyn Yates As I am a biologist by training, my storytelling activities involve some science questions along the way. I was trained to use puppets as part of an education project run by Millgate House. The project involves using human-style puppets to engage pupils in thinking and talking about problems and questions related to the world around them and is called PUPPETS: talking science, engaging science. On Saturday I'll be bringing along Discovery Dog and Naughty Nora his niece to help me tell a story about who we are and how we inherit some things and develop others. A kind of genetic journey for little ones.

I was lucky enough to acquire two step sons when they were aged 5 and 3 and always read to them a lot. Mainly football annuals to the youngest! Of course they have long flown the nest but the eldest one now has two children, Henry 3 and Oliver seven months. The youngest son has a baby on the way. Henry already loves books and I have great fun choosing them for him. As the Literature Development Officer for Dumfries and Galloway I am in the ideal job for making sure I get hold of the best and most enjoyable books for young children. Meeting many of the authors recently at the Wigtown book festival give some an insight into why they write and illustrate particular stories. I managed to meet two of my favourite authors Debi Gliori and Emma Barnes and they are as lovely as their books! Perhaps you have to be if you write for children

When I was about ten or eleven my favourite book was The Wizard of Boland published in 1959 and written by Denys James Watkins-Pitchford MBE , a British naturalist, children's writer, and illustrator who wrote under the pseudonym "BB". I went on the net and found, to my delight, it's still in print. Though I don't approve of the picture on the cover now as that's not the wizard of my imagination.

In my job I have to read a lot and not always of my choosing but I have just been on holiday so I had freedom to choose and took A Calendar of Love by George Mackay Brown. I had tried a novel of his but didn't finish it - his short stories are wonderful though so I really enjoyed this book.

I live in Castle Douglas and have lived in Dumfries and Galloway now for twenty years, having come from the north of England. I have an adorable re-homed ex racer greyhound called Jimmy who makes sure i get some exercise though probably not as much as we should as he's inherently lazy. I know Moffat very well, I have good friends here. Last year my husband and I bought Jenny Wren the toy shop in Castle Douglas. The original Jenny Wren was in Moffat of course and we used to come over for toys for nephews and nieces before the Castle Douglas shop opened.

Julia Eccleshare: I'm planning to make this a personal look at reading which will introduce some great new books by way of sharing where my reading comes from/ how I became a reader and how that along with many contemporary things influences what kind of reader I am now and what I think about books and what they do for young readers.

Basically, what I am interested in is the 'sociology of reading' . I want the audience to think about what they remember about their own reading as children and what they think books do for you as a child as a way of understanding what kind of books children might like today.

ER: Do you have children? If so, did you read to them?

JE: I have 4 children and I read aloud to all of them but not as much as my husband. Mostly, I chose the books and he read them.

ER: What are you reading at the moment?

JE: I'm re-reading Louise Rennison's Georgia Nicholson diaries as I am interviewing her this week at the Bath literary Festival

ER: Where do you live?

JE: London very near to where I grew up

ER: What are your favourite leisure time occupations?

JE: Walking in Scotland

ER: Do you know Moffat/Scotland?

JE: Yes. I have been going on holiday on the West Coast since I was 6 and I am a frequent visitor to relatives who farm in Melrose.

Alistair Moffat will be talking about his new book on DNA The Scots: A Genetic Journey. He says:

'Being a Moffat I know Moffat well and used to come to the town with my parents. Delicious Moffat Toffee was always brought home to Kelso but it never lasted. In the days when it was possible to get an education without saddling students with huge debts, I was lucky to go from Kelso High School to St Andrews University, then Edinburgh and then to the Warburg Institute at London University to do my research degree. I ran the Festival Fringe in Edinburgh for 6 years before working in TV for 20. In 1999 I resigned as Director of Programme at STV and now work a small farm between Selkirk and Hawick with my wife. I am currently writing a book called Britain’s Last Frontier, a journey along the Highland Line from Inverness, round the Mounth and down to Glasgow and all my reading is currently focussed on that. I just finished JM Barrie’s Auld Licht Idylls, laugh-out-loud funny. With animals to feed and look after as well as the other things I do, we have no time for holidays or even any days off. – ever. That means we have to run a daily schedule that allows a breather and the time between 6pm and 8pm is sacred, usually spent with the dogs, some wine and leaning on the gate looking at this year’s foals. Having had the wettest and worst summer in living memory, there haven’t been too many sunny evenings and that ain’t good. But hey-ho, that’s the thing about the Scottish summer. It gives you the winter to look forward to'.

( Interview with Moira Cox, Moffat's specialist on making the most of yourself to follow)

The grand finale to the day is Moffat House hotel's exclusive *Moffat Book Event's* slap-up afternoon tea:

* Sandwiches: Smoked salmon & cucumber and cream cheese

* Scone with cream and home made raspberry jam

* Apple & cinnamon cake

* Almond macaroon

* Raspberry cream mille feuille

* Lemon meringue tart

Unlimited refills of best Scottish tea

The event will be compered by Alis Ballance of Moffat CAN, and books will be supplied by Katherine Clemmens of Moffat Books.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Dumfries and Galloway Arts axed

The news came like a bombshell yesterday Sept 30 2011 at the literary events and activists forum at Wigtown: that D&G Arts had ceased to trade - or was about to cease at 4 or 5pm. The council representative at the forum, Lesley Rogers (Creative Arts Business Development Officer CABDO) had brought details of CABN - Creative Arts Business Network. She was asked, as she circulated details of a 'consultation' what had happened to the last 'consultation' - was she aware of it. Carolyn Yates, sitting quietly at the back, confirmed that a very recently-completed 'consultation' had indeed been the subject of an in depth briefing. I asked if we at Moffat Book Events could discuss having a 'writer in residence' - perhaps at one of the hotels in the town, as has happened for instance Martin Amis at Heathrow (or was it Will Self?). I also mentioned my idea of inviting a small group of senior figures in Chinese publishing to come to see how a community organises a book event. One of our residents, Andrew Wheatcroft, is invited as a VIP every year to the Beijing Book Fair because many of his former pupils who he taught at the University of Sterling now run the Chinese book trade. After the forum, I was sent details of two key meetings: an open one at CatStrand in New Galloway this Monday afternoon Oct 3rd at 4pm and one to which 'numbers are limited' so apply now, at Dalbeattie on Oct 28 from 10am-4pm. Troubled by the turn of events, I decided not to stay on for the session on graphic books illustration to which Carolyn kindly invited me. I had made an appointment, at the suggestion of Andrea Reive, to meet Michael Wickenden the plant hunter and gardener at Cally Gardens and it is a long drive to Wigtown and back in one day for me. I found Michael in his amazing walled garden,still bursting with colour and he explained that he will be self-publishing an account of his most recent (of 12 so far, world wide) plant-hunting expedition, on the border of China and Burma where five great rivers including the Dulong aka the Irawaddy, the Yangtse and the Mekong start their journeys to the sea. We agreed that, if it can be arranged, he will appear at our MBE spring 2012 event 'in conversation' with Kenneth Cox author of Scotland for Gardeners and himself a notable plant hunter. I had no idea until I met Michael that the world of plant propagation, collecting and breeding has a great shadow over it, cast by the recent practice of treating nature as intellectual property, giving plant breeders copyright over 'their' creations. A gardens &/or plant hunter themed Moffat Book Event in spring 2012 is on the way to becoming a reality.