Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Lost At Sea

Today I got a first proper view of what my new pamphlet with Roncadora Press is going to look like.  And it's entirely beautiful, thanks to the skill and artistry of Hugh Bryden.  It's 4 metres long, folded into zig-zags, with the skyline of Shetland running right through it, and the poems 'floating' in the shifting sea. 

The sea really looks as if it's shifting and has light glancing off it, due to the aforementioned artistry.  This photo is just a wee bit like it.  Hugh has done less sky and much more sea.  But the linear feel is about right.  It's off to the printers next week. 

Coincidentally I came home from work to find a copy of 'New Shetlander' on the kitchen table, sent because they've kindly published two of the poems which will be in 'Lost At Sea'.  Here's one of them.


Dark wood polished by use and damaged
down one side, it’s been
familiar to my touch since childhood.
He must have known its balance
intimately, weighed it in decisions,
fingered the fine milled edges of its eye.
All through his grainy, deck-tilt years
he shut it safe away.   

I learned to tweak with a fingernail
the tiny pin on the metal shutter
which slides back to reveal  
the eyepiece just as
I’m pulling on the casing, shlunck
shlunck, and this
neat cubit passes me
the vision of a sea eagle.

Far back through the glass
a wide grey sea and slant
of rain, a rig of swaying furrows,
medallions of salt, each stamped
by some small imperfection on the lens,
a whorl and ripple that lays
a long century
between my eye and his.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Snow, light, different days

It snowed again last Monday night, and on Tuesday morning 4 inches of snow creaked underfoot in temperatures of around minus 6.  The outdoor thermometer is read in a slightly approximate way by our household, because it blows away so often.  Still, it was obviously a very cold morning. 

We worked from home, and gave the boys a Snow Day.  Sledging and snow fighting were partaken of, though the snow was too cold and feathery to make good snowballs. The boys came in glittering with it.

Snow makes the world new.  It's so bright, in a dark month. It didn't last.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Sign of Summer

As this crab apple shed its leaves, the first bird's nest to be built in the trees we planted here 8 years ago has emerged.

I took the camera out early this morning when I let out the hens and fed the sheep.  It was minus 3, snow still lying.  The garden pond is solid, and the lochans below us frozen right across.  There's a young blackbird haunting the haybarn.  I'm not quite sure if it's ok, or just the cold is making it tamer than it would be.  It sits on the beams and watches me fill haynets. 


Saturday, 27 November 2010

Snow in November

seems to have taken us all by surprise.  The hens are appalled. And I've started feeding hay to the sheep today, as there's really not much else for them to eat. 

By way of a total interior contrast, I'm reading 'Just Kids' by Patti Smith.  So as well as trudging over the creaking stuff in -6 degrees C this morning, I've been in the Chelsea Hotel, watching the young Patti Smith loitering in the foyer holding a stuffed crow, when in comes Salvador Dali, in a red-lined black cape.  He stops, stares, then pads over to Patti.  He remarks, "You are a crow, a gothic crow", and walks out again...

A poem called Snow, in anticipation of next month. 'Snow'is included in 'The Treeless Region', published this year from Ravenglass Poetry Press.


Snow fallen, frozen, melted, fallen.  Snow
laid up to the dykes like plumped-up pillows
at first light.  Each fencepost steeples
a white tower, while in the unclaimed stretches
in between, some sheep wool snagged on barbed wire
is hoar frosted like moss.
Snow fallen, frozen, melted, fallen.  Snow
in the wide field where moss pawed out by sheep
is hoar frosted like wool.  Deep prints say
the fox travelled the sheep-track last night.
This morning woodpigeons coo from the white wood.
The lane’s impassable.  It’s Christmas Day.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

A windy week in a book

Some time back I bought an Andrew Greig novel by mistake. I hoped I was buying an Andrew Taylor novel but memory didn't serve before I got to the checkout. The unwitting victim of this disappointment, the Andrew Greig book (which happened to be 'In Another Light') went to rest on a shelf while I went back to reading other things.

Last week, I finished something else and drifting along the bookcases in search of inspiration, picked up 'In Another Light' again. I've had a great week. Even the weather was enhanced. Andrew's book has provided a space in my head for sweltering days in Penang before the War, laid closely alongside his narrator's winter in Orkney. All the while (obviously in sympathy with the Orkney section, day followed day of gales, and darkness and the horizontal rain Dumfriesshire does so well). But at least I got to spend time in Penang as well. And Greig makes Orkney sound actually worse. Liked the bit about salt and seaweed plastering the windows in the morning.

But weather aside, I love this book. Memorably, beautifully written (he's a poet too, and words are used thoughtfully, sparingly and to effect) I've been completely immersed in Greig's characters. His narrator is middle aged and has just survived a life-threatening brain trauma, in the course of which he experiences a vivid encounter with his long-dead father. On his recovery, he takes up a short contract job in Orkney, and is gradually drawn into researching for traces of his father's time in the far east. Eddie knows little of his father, who effectively tidied away his life, and that little is challenged by discovery of a long-ago scandal in Penang. Meantime, life in Orkney provides him with an acceptance and community Eddie craves, but also the challenge and risk of a not-quite relationship with a vibrant, clever, reckless woman, Mica.

Laid alongside Eddie's story and his gradual discoveries, Greig tells us what did happen in 1930 to Eddie's father in Penang. Which is a tale of class and broken rules, as Sandy, impoverished Scottish doctor meets two beautiful sisters in the goldfish-bowl ex-pat society of Penang.

I've reached that point where I could finish this novel in an upsettingly short space of time, and am consciously slowing down. Both Orkney and Penang are vividly, atmospherically created, and I'm so enjoying the counterpoint and balance of this father and son's exploration of how to deal with death (one has just survived WWI, the other his illness) and the risks taken in love, both in youth and middle age.

I'm very slow, really. This book did win the Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year Award a few years ago. Should pay attention.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Black Umbrella

One afternoon of gusts and fields,
whirling a black umbrella
with a broken wing, he peacocked
on the climbing frame.
It was a one-off,my lucky snap
of his grey-pink sky,
some story he was telling,
about a kid who could fly.

Plastic earrings for sheep, and musing on Radio 4

Pearl, before the plastic earrings
Listening to Radio 4, driving into work yesterday morning.  There was a hard frost, and a blue sky.  Someone was talking about her work with prisoners, and how she saw one of her tasks is to try to help some of these people invent a new life story for themselves.  This is such an everyday activity, but so remarkable.  Every day we all do add dimensions to the story we tell ourselves of our lives.   We try to make sense of it, find evidence to support our story arc, believe in it, develop sub-plots, arrange evidence. And then it can all be changed, sometimes in an instant. And we have to start again.

Later, tagging sheep in near darkness.  New regulations require each sheep to have a standard tag and a matching electronic tag.  (That way the government can tell if they've been trained by Al Quaida).  Poor little sheep have ears full of plastic now, but they're legal. 

Friday, 12 November 2010

The brown Nith slip-streamed

Downpouring rain’s a meld
of air and earth:
the  brown Nith slip-streamed
over the flood banks,
the fields’ surge levelled
with its metal.

Wild night follows wild day follows wild night.  Our garden arch is blowing away (chocked up now with a mighty stake).  We've guy-roped the fruit cage.  The sheep are skittish, and shake water out of their ears. And the Nith has burst its banks at Auldgirth, I reckon Dumfries will be going under by lunchtime.

Paul came home from London on the train last night and nearly got no further north than Lancaster, the station roof was blowing off at Penrith.  Tv shows the sea at Maryport towering twice as high as the pier.  Piers usually burn down, but this one is battling an opposite fate.  Very apocalyptic.

Here's our garden pond in a relative lull this morning.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Deceit in Wordsworth Country

Just back from Grasmere, a weekend of poetry workshops in which we were encouraged to lie, deceive, omit and generally bend the truth.  'The Word of a Lie' was led by Jake Polley and Helen Mort, and it was a very good experience.  Actually of course we discussed what, in poetry, is the true bit. How true is memory, literally speaking?  What feels true? 

It was great having the space in which to write, and think about nothing else.  That is hard to come by.  Though I stand by the idea that a packed life is a creative life, complete with supermarket shopping and doing topics on the Egyptian Book of the Dead.  And checking someone remembered to put the hens to bed, before the fox eats any more of them.  (Sad incident last week). 

Anyway, enjoyed the company of lots of lovely talented people, and I have some drafts to work on, and my brain felt very exercised by Sunday evening. 

Thursday, 4 November 2010

The Dying Villages of Europe, with soup

Rain in clouds, light and tempestuous as I headed west to Gatehouse of Fleet last night.  In the warm of The Bakehouse (and a grand smell of soup) was Tom Pow and around a dozen people gathering to consider the evidence of Europe's dying villages that Tom had brought back for us in his suitcase.  A bit like Marco Polo yarning in Venice, just substitute a gilded apple-mouthed pig's head for the soup.

Tom had a series of framed photographs on the wall behind him (at the head of a very large dining table) and introduced us to characters he'd met, which included a lady from Russia who lived all alone in her village.  When he asked why she didn't go to the city and live near her daughter, she said she liked village life.  And a fine poem about a herdsman who lived on the Alta Plano in Spain, for 3 months of each year entirely alone with the cattle.  And Father Georgio, who is a priest in Russia (somewhere, geography gets hazy now) and builds churches for surrounding villages, with the help of ex-convicts, they being the only available labour.

Signs of dying villages include unpicked fruit, Tom pointed out, and unpacked a case of bronze apples made by Elizabeth Waugh, sculptor of Eskdalemuir.  They were exquisite, weirdly like apples in the hand, but for the weight.  When we'd got over ourselves a bit stroking apples, he produced bronze blackberries too. 
Then stories about the camino, that fiercely Spanish concept of the road, and its baggage of adventure, departure, challenge.  In which the village stands for home, security, continuity.  I remembered how in deep Spain the village are built facing inwards, the houses packed closely together as though to keep warm.

All in all it was a bravura performance (and bravura soup too). 

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Edinburgh in the company of The Floating Man

Wangled a Training Day in Edinburgh today.  I hopped off the train into sunshine and shiny pavements, bearing a slightly guilty sense of holiday.
This was enhanced by managing to find 15 minutes to nip into the Talbot Rice Gallery to see the Alastair Gray exhibition.  Strangely vivid, in this font-dominated age, is handwriting and drawing.

And read The Floating Man (Katharine Towers) on the train on the way home.  Writes extremely well about birds (well, I think she writes extremely well).  But -

'These birds have no weight but heart-weight.
They are all heart, borne by lightness

and space - space between feathers, and space
within their trinkets of bone.'

Entirely satisfying.