Travelling by Train

Trains

At train stations I always start dozens of imaginary journeys alongside my real one. Trains to loved places, places we have lived: always conjured up by names on the illuminated departure boards. Sometime even the mention of nothing more than the mention of a journey’s necessary midway point is enough: you can’t get to Windermere from the south without paying your respects to Lancaster on the way, so that small, provincial city’s name comes to stand for the whole of the wild Lake District. The same with Carlisle, when coming from the north: pay your dues at this border city’s red gates and you may safely pass to the south.

Some places are more potent, richer with past and potential journeys, than others. Peterborough stands for the whole of the East Coast mainline – York, Durham, Newcastle, Edinburgh. Each one keep a memory suspended in time’s vitrine: a couple waiting for a baby to arrive, a brother studying, a lover living, our latest home. I am reminded of E.M. Forster’s description of the emotional potency of London’s main stations:

‘she had strong feelings about the various railway termini. They are our gates to the glorious and the unknown.  Through them we pass out into adventure and sunshine, to them, alas! we return. In Paddington all ; Cornwall is latent and the remoter west; down the inclines of Liverpool Street lie fenlands and the illimitable Broads; Scotland is through the pylons of Euston; Wessex behind the poised chaos of Waterloo.’

I have always loved this passage, recalling in it the long New Year train trips to Cornwall with a boyfriend, trains taken home to Suffolk, the sleeper to Scotland which I was almost too young to properly remember. My first relationship was conducted through their spiders’ webs of rails: the late train to Newcastle after school on a Friday and then in reverse on Sunday, the rush to the west to visit his home and his family.

Stations come to me in dreams too. I spend dark hours waiting for trains that slip silently by without my ever being able to catch one. Like metal moths they evade the net of my sleep-slowed needs. I look at endless departure boards and can’t read a single letter of the destinations. The clocks’ hands move far faster than they ever do in life, minutes melting into hours. Time and again I am there on the platform, waiting for trains to places I know, but never climbing aboard.

On the real trains I do manage to catch, and I have never yet missed one myself, though have occasionally been thwarted by delayed connecting services, I slip into parallel time. Whatever the purpose of the train journey – leisure, pleasure, work – the time it takes to make it is a gift to myself. I can do whatever I like once I’m there.  I am purposefully engaged in getting somewhere, so I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to. I can read, or loll sleepily with my head cushioned against the window with a jumper, or write, or simply sit there. If I have a train picnic, a luxury I often allow myself in the form of packets of treats from Marks and Spencer, I have to eat it as soon as I get on the train, otherwise the knowledge of its presence won’t let me rest.

Ferries have the same effect on me as trains. I sometimes fall asleep, which can result in drooling and  stiff neck, but usually I bury myself in a book. Sometimes I listen to radio podcasts, or I write. I feel like this is time I can do anything in, because it is both productive (I am on my way) and completely free – I don’t subject myself to any internal guilt about what I do during this travel-time, it is simply time for me to spend as I like.

The Railway Station by William Powell Frith, RA. Signed and dated 1862. Royal Holloway, University of London..jpg

The Railway Station by William Powell Frith, RA (1862), Royal Holloway, University of London.

 

 

The Gathering Tide

A couple of weeks ago I was up at St Andrews attending a little nature-writing festival put on by Waterstones. I’m not much of a one for literary festivals – one summer stint at Edinburgh International Book Festival and one spring weekend at 2014’s Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of Women’s Writing is my sum total to date – but nature writing is one of my favourite genres and I was looking for an excuse to get to know this little seaside town better, as my husband had just got a job there and we’d be moving there in a couple of months. It was also pretty cheaper – £10 per person for a whole day of events, and that £10 fee redeemable against the cost of any books bought. Sold!

gathering tideThe festival space was a corner of Waterstones packed with chairs and guarded by a table containing lots of tasty things to eat: we arrived in the middle of the afternoon to a choice of cakes, tea and juice and happily settled in to some nibbling before the reading started. We were there to hear Karen Lloyd talking about The Gathering Tide (2016), a book which explores the edgelands of Morecambe Bay on the south-western periphery of the Lake District. Having met and married my husband in the Lakes, crossing the sands of Morecambe Bay with him and a group of friends in 2013 (more of which here), it’s fair to say that we know and love this area well – though not anywhere near as well as Karen Lloyd, who spent a year tracing the Bay’s basin to research this book.

Lloyd has a lifetime’s love of the Bay, having moved to South Cumbria as a child and living there still. She’s also dug deeply into the area’s history, hunting out maritime charts and chasing elusive guides to lead her to places like Piel Island, with its King and Castle and pub, The Ship Inn.

 

The Morville Hours

Each of us has the potential to hold a thousand different languages on the tip of our tongue. Even if we have nothing more than a smattering of schoolgirl French or the ability to order a glass of wine in Greek, within our mother tongue lie several hundred possible modes of language, each one individually special and specific.

The use of Latin plant names, unapologetically untranslated, in English represents straight-forward borrowing, words imported wholesale and their rules applied to each new hybrid as it emerges from the ground. But there are many more subtle tongues being spoken every day, ones flying so low under our daily radars that we probably don’t even think of them as languages. But in many ways they are: compare the cable and casting off of the knitter against the casting off and cable of a sailor, the builders’ kentledge against the printers’ colophon. The rosin and vibrato of a violinist, the anemometer and the quadrant of the geographer, the gomme and gouache of the painter. Each special skill offers the acolyte a shibboleth – how do real horticulturalists pronounce corymbs and guelder, proper teachers say Melpomene and Calliope? The hunter’s tack is a world away in meaning from the seamstresses’ word for the same, the language of the hack for the horse and the news hinting at the different universes inhabited by both. These idiolects of trades and interests can be both ancient and modern: ‘a bit of 2-by-4’ and an RSJ are immediately understood by a builder but may mystify a hairdresser, who would be more familiar with an upsweep and a fauxhawk.

morvilleThis is a fairly roundabout way of approaching Katherine Swift’s The Morville Hours, but the reason for doing so is because Swift is so astonishingly good at entwining the languages of gardener, builder, priest, beekeeper and a multitude of others into her narrative. The Morville Hours tells the story of Swift’s life and garden using the dual frameworks of the mediaeval book of hours on one hand and England’s traditional horticultural calendar on the other. Both are potentially off-putting subjects in their extreme specificity and almost complete irrelevance to our city-centred modern lives, but in Swift’s exquisite prose both become fascinating and beautiful in their complexity. I found that although I didn’t know what many of the words Swift used meant precisely – the list includes terce, none (pronounced to rhyme with ‘one’ and ‘stone’, not ‘bun’ and ‘fun’), achillea ptarmica, and a hundred other plant names. But it didn’t stop me understanding Swift’s story, and I didn’t mind not knowing as she made me feel that a world was opening up to me through these words, not shutting me out. The Morville Hours is a magical book in that it has the power to transport, translate and transmorgrify things of which I was completely ignorant into fascinating subjects that I just want to more and more about.

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Kellie Castle, Fife

It also made me long for the outdoors, for a life lived closer to the soil and the seeds. It made me miss my birthplace in the south of England, which was so much warmer and more verdant than the colder climes of Scotland. But it also inspired me to go on a visit: to Kellie Castle, a National Trust for Scotland property close to the Fife coast. Like the Dower House at Morville where Swift made her incredible garden, the Castle was home to what are known as ‘improving tenants’, people who live in a property but pay a lower rent because they have offered to improve the building or gardens on behalf of the owner. At Kellie the ‘improving’ family were the multi-talented Lorimers, best-kent among them sculptor Hew Lorimer (he who made the Lady of the Isles on South Uist and carved the seven allegorical figures on the front of the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh), architect Robert Lorimer and artist John Henry (J.H) Lorimer. Inside the house they sensitively restored the building and filled it with beautiful furniture, either of their own making or from the periods spanned by the house’s history. Outside they rebuilt the castle’s walled gardens and created beautiful spaces in which people could while away many a happy outdoor hour. Many of JH’s paintings perfectly capture the play of light on the buildings and grounds at Kellie, and below is one of my favourites – Happy Easter!

Sunlight in the South room

Sunlight in the South Room (c) The National Trust for Scotland, Kellie Castle & Garden; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Where Lemons Grow

I’ve always been a fan of lemons as a flavour: as a child my favourite ‘treat’ drink was Schweppes Bitter Lemon, which always seemed mouth-puckeirngly sour at the time, but now seems quite sweet to my adult palate! But in the last month I’ve read two books about lemons, and have become fascinated with everything about them – their origins, scent, how they grow, and what to make with them in the kitchen. Here follows the beginning of my journey of discovery…

First, I got sick and had to spend a few days in bed feeling sorry for myself, so the husband, bought me a book to cheer me up and distract me from my immune system’s struggles. Driving Over LemonsThis was Driving Over Lemons – An Optimist in Andalucia. Well, they do say you should take in plenty of citrus fruits when you’re ill, right? The author, Chris Stewart, was originally the drummer in Genesis, but that means almost nothing to me and indeed I didn’t realise that was the case until I’d finished the book and was reading the author interview hidden away at the back. The book chronicles Chris’s decision to move with his family to Spain, buying a derelict farm called El Valero and making a new life for themselves in the Andalucian hills. It’s basically A Year in Provence, but further south and set over a longer period. Jolly, gently humourous and the perfect antidote to modern city living, it transports you rural Spain in a miasma of joie de vivre – but the lemons, though omnipresent and heavily scented, provide only the backdrop to the main narrative of family life.

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Beautifully bright Bosa

A few days after finishing Driving over Lemons and feeling fully recovered, the husband and I found ourselves in Sardinia.  Moving house and starting a new job which required working throughout August meant that this was our first holiday this year, so it was magical to be away somewhere beautiful and sunny for two whole weeks. We stayed in Bosa, a Phoenician hill town, for 9 days, then had 4 days in an agriturismo not far from the coast. We’d  been to Sardinia for our honeymoon last year, and had such a marvellous time that we couldn’t wait to go back – it didn’t disappoint!

The land which makes liqueur from lemons...

The land which makes liqueur from lemons…

As ever when on holiday, I had brought plenty of reading material, but chief among them was Helena Attlee’s The Land Where Lemons Grow. I’d bought this book for the husband for his birthday back in June, lured in by the beauty of the cover and happy memories of our honeymoon, and he’d raved about it all the way through, sharing so many delicious snippets of citrussy information that I already felt quite familiar with it by the time it came to read it for myself. I’d been deliberately resisting starting it before the holiday, as when I travel I like to try to read books set in the places I’m visiting, to more thoroughly experience the place not only geographically, but culturally and historically too. Technically, the book focusses mostly on Sicily and mainland Italy, but Sardinia’s just a stone’s throw further into the Mediterranean – so close enough!

Attlee is a garden expert by trade, leading tours and writing books on Italian gardens. She obviously adores plants in all their splendid variety, but it is the citrus family which has really captured her imagination. Although the title makes specific reference to just one member of this family, Attlee’s book covers the whole gamut of the genus, from the three original citrus fruits (pomelo, citron and mandarin) to hundreds of different sub-species.

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Drinking citron fizz in the sunshine

From the Medici to the Mafia, we discover that citrus lies at the heart of Italy’s economy and gastronomy since at least the 6th century. I was also introduced to several fruits I’d never even heard of: the chinotto, a small bitter citrus used to flavour drinks and sweets; and bergamot, the name of which I knew but which I had believed, rather erroneously, to be a herb. It is in fact an inedible citrus fruit whose powerfully fragrant essential oils form the basis for Eau De Cologne, and have done ever since the perfume was first invented by Johann Maria Farina in 1709.

Attlee’s writing is pitch-perfect, balancing the academic with the anecdotal to create a whole which is so fascinating that when I’d finished, I immediately turned back to the first page and started reading it again. Although she is narrating the tale of citrus development throughout history, the book’s form is non-linear and moves effortlessly between place and time – in some books this jars or can confuse the less expert reader (such as myself), but in Attlee’s hands these connected stories simply weave in and out of each other to create a truly rich and vibrant text.

Tagliolini alle scorzette di arancia e limone

Tagliolini alle scorzette di arancia e limone

The book also inspired us to seek out the more unusual citrus fruits we’d read about – and we found both chinotto, in the form of a drink made by San Pellegrino, and citron – again as a drink (see photo above.) We also saw a pomelo in the supermarket, but it was so huge that we stopped short of buying it as we didn’t fancy trying to chop it up with our tiny kit knife. But we did try Attlee’s delicious recipe for pasta with orange and lemon – very unusual but well worth a taste.

The Land Where Lemons Grow is a definite contender for my favourite book of the year – if you’ve read it, let me know what you think, and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for? Hie thee to a (good independent) bookshop!

Book Crossing in Kinlochard

Thanks Stilring County library...

Boat-bottom at Loch Ard

This week at work I’ve been recommending Book Crossing to teachers and parents, but all the while never having actually participated in it. But that has now changed – thanks to the hand of fate on a sunny Saturday in Kinlochard.

Bright and early on Saturday morning the husband and I set off for a walk up Ben Venue, determined to make the most of the sunshine forecasted. About half an hour in, I was seriously struggling – heavy of breath, light of head, sweaty of brow – and had to have a rest by a scenic pool. I’d been feeling sore of throat all week, and this seemed to suggest that I have some lingering bug in my system.

Flowers by Scott's pool

Flowers by Scott’s pool

So I baled just after the beautiful pool by which Walter Scott sat and wrote Rob Roy, and retraced my steps back to the village of Kinlochard, leaving the intrepid husband to scale the summit.

After a reviving cup of tea at the Wee Blether Tearoom (oh ok, and a slice of delicious cranchan cake – they also gave me three free hot water top-ups which is always much appreciated, particularly when one is a lone traveller) I wandered along through the village, until I came across this:

Thanks Stirling County Library...

Thanks Stirling County Library…!

Beautiful boxes full of books! There was a donation box next to these, for anyone who was feeling charitable towards the survivors of the Nepal Earthquake, and I flung in a handful of change in exchange for Paulo Coelho’s The Witch of Portobello. The owner of the boxes was sunning herself in the porch of this beautiful house:

The beautiful house which also provided the book

The beautiful house which also provided the book

and I shouted a cheery ‘thank you’ over the gate after my lenghty deliberation over which one to choose. I then took my choice off to the lake shore for a read in the sunshine.

It was a perfect warm day for reading in a secluded spot, and I was completely thrilled to discover upon opening it that I had unwittingly picked up my first Book Croosing tome! It has only just started on its journey, but I am looking forward to depositing it somewhere once I’ve finished it, and then sending it on its merry way. Huge thanks to the generous ProfKen who started me on by Book Crossing journey.

Lakeside reading spot

Lakeside reading spot

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After the beauties of Book Crossing, we then headed out to that remote literary spot, Inversnaid of Gerald Manley Hopkins fame. It’s one of my favourite-ever poems, and even my glaciologist husband can recite large chunks of it, he’s heard it so often. Here it is for you to enjoy, along with a couple of pictures from the rest of this marvellous day:

Inversnaid

This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.

This darksome burn, horseback brown

The infamous darksome burn

A windpuff-bonnet of fáwn-fróth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, féll-frówning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.

Degged with dew, dappled with dew
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

— Gerard Manley Hopkins

Broken butterfly at Loch Ard

Broken butterfly at Loch Ard

Now – tell me about your Book Crossing adventures and discoveries…

Memoir, Men and Madness

A Year in Provence (Penguin)

A Year in Provence (Penguin)

Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence has sparked a million copycat narratives of the idyllic and sometimes riotous (only ever hilarious rather than destructive) life English ex-pats can un/reasonably expect if they decamp to la belle France. From time to time I am a sucker for this type of jolly escapism, but as a genre these stories often leave one with a curious feeling of jealous disillusionment: jealous of the vin, pain et campagne, disillusioned with the idea that this could ever be one’s own reality.

When I picked up Gully Wells’ The House in France (2011) from a charity shop in Penicuik for the princely sum of 50p, I was expecting just such a narrative. Gently seductive, a little mild lifestyle pornography: the word ‘memoir’ in the title bespoke as much as the subject matter. But Gully’s life, ramshackle and chaotic and tinged with anger and violence and love, certainly wasn’t cosy – though the vin and pain are copious, along with the bouillabaisse, ormandes and the huitres. Money must have been plentiful – the Wells/Ayers household certainly seemed to live like it was.

The House in France (Bloomsbury)

The House in France (Bloomsbury)

The book, or Gully’s life – however you see it – has a stellar cast: Martin Amis as a first boyfriend, the philosopher Professor Sir A.J. Ayer as a step-father, politicians and diplomats and journalists and senators popping up all over the place. Almost everyone in the book is famous, or slept with someone famous, or famously didn’t sleep with someone famous. Affairs are commonplace; ‘fate’s chance-lings’ likewise: arguments and debates pepper the book like chilli truffles, tempting and mouth-burning in equal measure.

Gully herself comes across as something of a cipher: the outrages and actions of others are very much centre stage, and although she doesn’t self-censor – tales of lost virginity, affairs with married men and taking acid with Martin Amis are cheerily told – any deeper emotional analysis of her own motivations always lies at a cool remove. She obviously adores her mother and multiple father figures for the fun and daring and excitement they bring in to her life (boredom is the greatest sin in Gully-world), but any more dark and dangerous feelings seem to be sublimated, lurking so far beneath the surface that barely a turn of phrase betrays them. Maybe she simply didn’t feel them: but it is difficult to believe that a life so shaped by her mother’s furious rages that she ran away to New York did not contain anger, bitterness and hurt and all those other less-than-glamourous feelings which don’t make for such riveting tales.

Not that our narrator is disingenuous: the tone is upbeat even when the subject’s bleak, and it seems that Gully knows that she simply must be able to find and cherish the good in any given situation in order to survive. For example, her attitude towards men, for Gully: ‘men were created to amuse me, love me, tell me interesting things and generally give me pleasure’ (p.19). When she meets a friend who takes this to its next logical step, believing that ‘all men had been put on this earth to do things for her’ (p.109), it is clear that (even with hearts broken and bruised), this type of attitude buoys up Gully and her friends, and gives them the impetus to throw themselves into that social whirl with joyful abandon.

This is not something I’ve ever managed to achieve, but I have watched in open-mouthed amazement (and not a little hint of envy) as a friend from university effortlessly surrounded herself with a group of boys all desperate to help her, wine and dine her, and generally be willing acolytes in her entourage. A couple of years later, as she valiantly battled through the vicissitudes of law school with a young son in tow, I watched her do it again: crowds of men to go out for a drink with on any night of the week; always someone delectable (physically or intellectually) to have dinner with. Blonde, witty, petite, aristocratic – I shared with her only the first characteristic, and surmised that it must be my lack of the other three charms which excluded me from this kind of ménage. This may indeed be true, but reading this book made me realise that my own ideas on what men are for were entirely different (there to be impressed, compete with and make laugh), and that the idea of wanting someone to do something for me that I could easily do myself was anathema to me: independence is all very well, but people like to be needed, love to be useful, and above all need to feel like a welcome part of one’s life.

The book delights in its ability to pick out all the lovely, daring, funny stories without slavish adhering to the plodding chronological structure so common to life-writing. Although the book does – roughly – follow Gully’s life, the more tedious elements (like getting a job) are just tossed into the narrative whenever they are needed to provide the context for an interesting story. When we meet the dishevelled husband of an equally dishevelled friend (who turns out to be the author Alice Thomas Ellis), he declares ‘I’m not fucking George Weidenfeld, you know.’ And that is how we find out that Gully’s job is in the publicity department of this notable publisher. It is also a book about a particular social class of people: wealthy London-centric socialites of the mid-twentieth century, and reminded me of Clarissa Dickson Wright’s Spilling the Beans (2008) – full of jolly romps (in every sense of the word), long boozy London lunches, plenty of scandal, and people we recognise: authors, philosophers, politicians, the lot. Not quite the ‘escape to the country’ plot I had imagined, but a thoroughly enjoyable spectacle none the less.

A snippet of the Mediterranean dream

A snippet of the Mediterranean dream

Bens Lomond and Ledi, Weirs Molly and Tommy

From the summit of Ben Lomond

From the summit of Ben Lomond

This weekend I doubled my tally of Munros summited. Ok, so it was only my second 3000-footer: but it really was a doubling from my previous total of just Ben Wyvis! Ben Lomond was my second, all 3195 feet of it, and it was a glorious sunny spring day as we made our way up, along with hundreds and hundreds of others, all sweating and swearing and stopping to look at the beautiful views of the sunny loch with its sparkly surface and perfect little islands. The main path on the south ridge was heaving with folk all the way up, but once we’d reached the top and started down the Ptarmigan ridge they thinned out almost to nothing, and we had a lovely stroll down this subsidiary flank in the late afternoon sunshine. We’d already pitched camp at the Forestry Commission campsite in Sallochy in the morning, so hurried back home in the evening light to make dinner on our little camp ‘kitchen’. The evening was beauteous and the shoreline sparkled with campfires glimmering in the gloaming – we hadn’t sorted out anything to burn ourselves, so walked along the shore amid the woodsmoke to keep warm before burrowing into sleeping bags and blankets for a sound night’s sleep.

Ben Ledi before me

Ben Ledi before me

The next morning dawned bright and sunny again, so we consulted the map and headed for Ben Ledi – 30 feet short of true Munro status, but a big walk none the less. We parked by the roaring motorbikes on the road between Callander and Strathyre, and set off up the unpleasantly named Stank Glen: fortunately it did not live up to its name and instead was a sunny and fairly open cleft, with plenty of forestry trails crossing the valley and some long twin-force falls at the centre. Once we’d popped up above the corrie, we skirted just to the south of the Lochan nan Corp – tarn of the bodies! Keen not to add ours to it, battling on upwards in ever-increasing wind, barely staying long enough for a summit photograph before heading for a rocky outcrop to hide behind and eat our summit snack. As with the day before, the descent was much quieter and we swiftly made out way back down, and within an hour and half were back in Edinburgh.

Now, what does this have to do with biography, you may be thinking? Apart from being a snapshot of my life, it is part of my experiment to live fully in Scotland and immerse myself in as many parts of it as possible: geographical, cultural, musical, political. I so want to enjoy my time here and want to tread in the footsteps of writers and walkers like Nan Shepherd, exploring those psychogeographical relations between places and people. So for each excursion I make into the wilds, I am going to be reading a book by a Scottish author with a connection to that place.

I love a view with my reading

I love a view with my reading

So, what was I reading this weekend? The actor Molly Weir’s Trilogy of Scottish Childhood. Hardly the obvious companion for a hill walk, but it definitely enhanced my enjoyment of being there. It was pure chance that a lovely friend of mine had bestowed on me a copy of this memoir just the day before, after I had begun to read it at her house, and that as soon as we arrived at Balmaha I spotted the new statue of her brother, the writer and climber Tom Weir, leaning brazenly in a red woolly hat placed boldly on his head by a visiting pilgrim. I have not yet seen any of the Weir siblings’ broadcasts – something to rectify – but I was so pleased that the book and the place were connected in this small way.

The Trilogy is pure 20th century memoir: it bursts with little stories of life growing up in Glasgow’s tenements and its humour and tone are warm and understated. Molly Weir was born in 1910, Tom four years later, and as children lived with their mother and grandmother in what seems like grinding poverty. The narrative follows Molly’s success at school and as a shorthand typist, and then covers her early years of life as an actor. Glaswegian Scots was the children’s first tongue, and the humour of that Springburn community is familiar to anyone who has seen Billy Connolly or Frankie Boyle: tinged with darkness, full-blooded and self-deprecating. Our narrator bounces and bubbles along beside us, bringing the Co-operative shops and the trams and the tenements back to life beside us, with a terrific ear for a smart turn of phrase or a detail of domestic life. Anyone who believes Hallowe’en as an recent American invention cannot fail to notice how important a part it played in the life of these Glasgow families at the turn of the last century – its roots are deep in Scottish culture, and it provides a platform for the performances musical, rhythmical and spoken which are such an intrinsic part of Scotland’s life. Molly WeirSomething I was amazed at when I first moved to Ayr a few years ago was how everyone I worked with seemed to have a party piece – or several! Singing, dancing, playing the fiddle or flute, telling stories, putting on a party: these talents were shared at Burns Suppers and house-warming parties alike, and I loved that these folk performances were embedded into people’s social lives. Admittedly we were working at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, so perhaps it attracted a higher than average number of performers, but the standard was superb and I wished that English folk culture was still a much greater part of people’s lives.

Storytelling is a much more prominent part of Scottish culture than it is in England. The Scottish Storytelling Centre sits proudly on the Royal Mile, and there are storytelling festivals up and down the country. Storytelling is at the heart of life-writing, but I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable at the overly folksy associations that ‘storytelling’ sometimes has: vague middle-aged women drifting about in tie-dyed dresses warbling tales of birds and beasts getting damp-eyed over rescued birds and brave bold boys. Building and transmitting interesting narratives is such an important part of everything most of us do every day – being it persuading people to buy, invest or donate money, shaping partnerships for new projects, helping people find the resources which best fit their needs, whether those be physical, financial or cultural – that the skills of storytelling should belong to everyone. And no-one who has ever sat through a school lesson, university lecture or staff training day will underestimate the importance of someone who can make the story of their subject matter interesting, whether it be the life cycle of the frog, Middle English poetry or the importance of maintain accurate accounts!

Molly Weir’s autobiography will probably never rate among the literary greats, but it is a perfect example of punchy Scottish storytelling and is fascinating even if you know nothing about Molly Weir. It is peppered with the dialect of Glasgow – again, living in Ayr had helped me ‘get my ear in’ to those west coast vowels – and its central characters are engaging and strong, from Grannie with her insistence on hard work and perfect manners, to Mother with her busy life at the rail works and love of dancing. The stereotyped Scot is often dour, but nothing could be further from the reader’s mind as she steps back a hundred years into those lively and rambunctious Glasgow streets alongside her curly-headed ‘Flying Scotswoman’, racing everywhere and meeting everyone and soaking it all in.

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Edinburgh’s Union Canal at night

 

Following Footsteps

Life-writing has always fascinated me because it connects lives and narratives in such creative ways. Fact and fiction are often blurred, and it always reminds me how anything we read is the product of some biased brain, to be absorbed by our own biased brains. This is not to condemn it; merely I find it useful to remind myself that all narratives and texts are subject to these same pressures. These post looks at a group of texts which very consciously explore those two realms, taking the same point of inspiration in three different directions of life-writing.

John Craxton designed the covers of almost all PLF's books

John Craxton designed the covers of almost all PLF’s books

A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water, The Broken Road: Patrick Leigh Fermor’s almost uncompleted trilogy of travelogues detailing his walk from Rotterdam to Istanbul is one of my favourite-ever autobiographical series. If you have never come across them, I insist that you do so right away. Completed years later, it details the fantastic pilgrimage he made as a man in his late teens and early twenties. Overflowing with charisma, energy and great charm, PLF’s narratives have the glossy sheen of the experienced writer with none of the depressing nostalgia for youth which so often overshadows memoir. PLF’s infamous ‘embroidery’ technique is so skilful that it serves merely to add glamour and beauty to the rich fabric of his narrative, and one is only occasionally aware of feeling a snag of annoyance at realising it would be impossible for a 20 year old to have the historical knowledge and linguistic skill which PLF claims to have displayed.

The book was eventually called 'A Time of Gifts'

The book was eventually called ‘A Time of Gifts’

Telling, too, is the fact that they were written and published many years after the event they describe: 1977, 1986 and 2013 respectively, all referring to events which took place between 1933 and 1935. Even the author was aware of this and felt he should make reference to it, however obliquely: PLF suggested calling the first book Parallax, a word meaning ‘the difference in the appearance of an object seen from two different angles’ (Artemis Cooper, p.325). The result is a tantalising trilogy possessed of a narrative which is impossible to resist, either as a reader, biographer or traveller.

As with any purported autobiography, there is always the desire to know the ‘reality’ behind it. In 2012 Artemis Cooper, who collaborated with Colin Thubron on midwiving PLF’s final manuscript into the posthumous The Broken Road and who knew PLF from girlhood, produced Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, a biography which attempts (in part) to answer those almost unknowable questions. She obviously adored PLF – as did almost everyone, particularly women, with whom he came into contact. Her father and grandfather were part of his vast social circle, and her biography feels very much like a welcoming voice from ‘inside’, calling us into his world and checking everyone’s names at the gate. Peppered with beautiful little anecdotes (gathered in ways devious and wise – you can read about it here) the book is almost as riproaring a read as PLF’s own narratives, but very much aware of constraints of biographic form, waggishly disregarded by those original texts.

Nick Hunt's stylistically similar cover

Nick Hunt’s stylistically similar cover

Another response to the books is Nick Hunt’s Walking the Woods and the Water (2014): an attempt to recreate the magic of that journey by physically retracing PLF’s every footstep. Well, almost – 78 years, one world war and the Romanian Ceauşescu-led genocide separate these two pilgrims; the changes wrought on the landscape ache with inevitability. Hunt describes a ‘cultural amnesia’ he finds in the former Soviet countries, where people will not talk about recent history which has wrought huge changes to their lives and landscapes. One poignant passage described Hunt’s search for the castle where PLf played bicycle polo and smoked an elaborate chibook alongside counts and archdukes – now it is ‘as broken as a building can be, smashed to smithereens’ (Hunt, p.170). This felt eerily familiar to me too – a few years ago I had spent a fortnight in Slovakia on a cultural exchange looking at museum interpretation (the adventures of which you can read about here), and I was very aware of the silence which surrounded Slovakia’s 20th century history, combined with the pride evident in the history of centuries and millennia before: ‘the gruesome nature of the distant past was much easier to represent than the horrors of more recent times’.

PLF’s narrative is, I think the greatest: not only because it provides the basis for the existence of the other two, and is thereby the more original, but because it actively benefits from the parallaxing between the young man and the old. Hunt’s journey is derivative by nature, and although he captures moments of Fermorian joy and beauty, it is overshadowed by the awareness that much of what PLF delighted in is gone, and therefore a sense of nostalgic loss permeates the narrative. Cooper has the Herculean task of trying to condense this immensely varied and complex life into a few hundred pages, whilst keeping up the brio associated with PLF. Both do, though, have something of the magician about them: Cooper in her ability to weasel stories from PLF’s omissions (as well as his admissions); and Hunt in being able to summon the great-granddaughter of Count Teleki, one of PLF’s genial hosts, to join him on his journey. From this point onwards, and the further East he walks from here, the more that nuns, farmers, shepherds and Roma remerge from the shadows of memory into full-bodied reality.

However, Walking the Woods and the Water, whilst ostensibly talking about the romanticisation of European history, does neatly sum up the allure of PLD’s writing:

‘…accuracy wasn’t the point. This mythologised affinity with suppressed ancient cultures spoke of a similar yearning for a long-lost age of greater freedoms, unbounded by rules, that bubbled under Europe’s surface like a buried river.’ (p.184-5)

18th century Slovakian church graffiti

18th century Slovakian church graffiti

Those yearnings and freedoms and buried cultural rivers – those are the things which PLF’s own particular brand of life-writing so vividly captures. Accuracy, whilst useful and taxonomically satisfying, is not the only goal of any writing, not even biography. Narratives drawn us closer to freedom, the hidden mysteries of other places and peoples, and it is through that we can find ‘Gemütlichkeit’ – ‘snugness, warmth, the feeling that you are accepted’. It is remarkable that our yearning for travelling and apparent freedom seems to stem from this need for acceptance, this desire to find your own kith or kin or kind and know: ‘the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’

Slovakian painted house

Painted house, Slovakia (2011)

Longing to Name the Sea

I have always been slightly obsessed with the Nordic countries – indeed, my choice of (serious) partner has always mirrored this to a ridiculous degree: my first boyfriend is a marine engineer for ice-class ships in Finland and my husband is a glaciologist who spends months of his life camping out next to the Greenland ice sheet.

Lofoten beach

Some scenic book reading on the Lofoten islands

At university I spent a summer railing and sailing round Scandinavia, taking the boat from Newcastle to Norway and racing the summer sun up and down the gulf of Bothnia and along the Arctic circle. I rode a bicycle across the Lofoten islands and took the sleeper train to Helsinki, and spent a storm-tossed crossing from Denmark to Germany drinking whisky on a boat train full of German students.

Iceland Hesteyri

An unexpected pancake house at Hesteyri

A few years later I flew to Iceland, the mid-Atlantic meeting point between Greenland and England, wild camping on the remote Hornstrandir nature reserve and slipping down into a crack in the earth’s crust to bath in its heated waters. Even as a child I poured over my best friend’s mother’s beautiful Carl Larsson books, imagining what it must be like to fish for crayfish in streams and eat picnics at midnight in birch forests (and live in a beautiful wooden house decorated by my artist-partner!) My family’s three-generation fascination with Tove Jansson’s books (detailed here) fed into this too – how marvellous to have one’s own miniature island to spend the summer on! You get the picture.

I love wool on a cover, so I do

I do love some wool on a book cover

So when I chanced upon a book which told the story of one English family who moved to Iceland only a few years ago I was always going to fall on it like a hawk upon prey. Sarah Moss shared my obsession with all things Nordic, but has the wherewithal (and academic career) to make this dream of Scandi-living into reality. (My only experiences of the realities of this are occasional shopping trips to Ikea, where my husband scorns the Daim bars and I spend the whole time thinking about the meatballs.)

Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland (2012) is not a fluffy nostalgia-ridden account of time spent gazing at the northern lights from the steamy sides of a geothermal spa. It tells the real difficulties faced by people who are not Icelandic living in Iceland. First, there are the practical problems: ‘You can’t do anything without a clan, not without spending insane amounts of money.’ Iceland has virtually no immigrant population, and hardly a single second hand shop. The two are not unrelated: as Moss finds out, people are part of small tight-knit clans who are used to looking out for each other and therefore would not think of buying second-hand from a stranger.

The all-defining sea

The all-defining sea

People from útlond – the outsider’s land – are not easily assimilated into these groups, but fortunately Moss has friends at the university who seek out fridges, washing machines and high-chairs from their familial networks. But the way she is referred to as an útlendingur (foreigner) also jars – and this I can easily understand, because when I lived in Japan it felt very strange to be called a gaijin (literally ‘outside person’), and always appreciated it when people used the more friendly gaikokujin – an ‘outside language speaking person’.

Then there is the omnipresence of the Edda, Iceland’s unique record of its own history: ‘Many Icelanders can quote the sagas in the way that 17th century Puritans quoted the Bible.’ Moss finds these gnomic utterances cropping up everywhere – and it unsettles her, because of the assumed unthinking way that they are treated as a true and semi-sacred text. It is the anxiety of influence and the English professor – I have to say, I rather like that literary heritage is so interwoven into people’s lives and speech. Of course, it is true in English too – but this seems to be restricted to smaller phrases which no-one can quite be certain of their origin (my friend SiAB has done a brilliant quiz to test your knowledge on this here.)

A little Nordic shrine at home

A little Nordic shrine at home

Moss certainly doesn’t seem her time in Iceland through rose-tinted spectacles. I’m not likely to move to a new country anytime soon (the thought of choosing and transporting books alone holds fresh dread after the recent move), but I am going to continue my love affair with all things Nordic, as there is the Northern Streams festival of all music Scandi-Scottish here in Edinburgh in a few weeks and I quite fancy getting my fiddle out, or at the very least singing some new songs…

Contemplating my first Munro, Ben Wyvis

April: Memory and Desire

Apologies for the prolonged break in blogging: leaving one job, moving house, attending two hen parties, one birthday and three weddings have all been occupying spare moments over the last few weeks and months. But now I have a little more time on my hands, here is my first post of 2015!

Stove in the new flat: not a real woodburner, but at least that saves lugging logs up three flights of stairs

Stove in the new flat: not a real woodburner, but at least that saves lugging logs up three flights of stairs

As T.S. Eliot famously averred, April can indeed be the cruellest month. I’ve never been much of a fan of spring, with its unpredictable weather disappointing my expectations of sunshine, gambolling lambs and a profusion of flowers. I know it is a necessary transition, and I long for bright summer days and long warm evenings, but I much prefer autumn as a season of change. At that time of year everyone expects rain, storms and shortening days, so every bright spell is a lovely surprise and cause for unexpected celebrations.

Beautiful Victorian fireplace in the new flat

Beautiful Victorian fireplace in the new flat

But this spring is not so cruel: I am happy to have my memories and desires mixed this year. For it promises a new start: a move to a new flat in Edinburgh (complete with wood-burner style stove, beautiful fireplaces and lovely views), the chance to research and write about a writer whom I admire (details still hush-hush but I will be keeping you posted if this develops!), and who knows yet what else.

The summit of my first Munro, Ben Wyvis

The summit of my first Munro, Ben Wyvis

Something I am committing to now is writing more. Together with my friend over at Melissa’s Compass I am promising to write every day – if we don’t write, how can we be writers? I have always struggled to maintain a balance between work, research and creativity, but after reading this soul-strengthening interview with biographer Jenny Uglow I am aiming to make sure I spend some time writing, researching and working every week – and continuing all the other lovely things I do with my time too! Having scaled my first Munro in September, I am keen to make it a round 100 over the next 18 months: only 99 to go…