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British Poetry? Really chaps?

The Whitsun Wedding Video: a journey into British Poetry by Jeremy Noel-Tod. Rack Press

I havent used this portal for a blog since I reported on a London gathering nearly two years ago, a Reception for British Poetry in Buckingham Palace. “British Poetry” was a fair description for the purposes of that event, since 300 poets were invited from all four of the UK’s component countries, along with the Laureates or Makars of Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and -- not England but the UK. Why hasn’t England got a Laurate of its own?: Not fair? But my question was Why.

Of the 30 poets from Scotland, not many knew much about the ordinary English poets, and vice versa. It is this detailed background knowledge that makes a culture. From the starting point of a twitter conversation when I objected that a book “about” Larkin was inappropriately subtitled A Journey into British Poetry, and was challenged to explain, I shall outline the history and present situation of Scottish poetry and allow conclusions to be drawn. I shall also make some desultory comments (which does not mean negative comments) on the booklet in question, which is full of insights and charms and with which my only quibble is the misuse of the term British.

In the mists of time, Caedmon, the Gawain poet, Chaucer, and the poet of the Gododdyn in Welsh, wandered these isles, their exact locations often unknown. The Gododdyn was about Catterick, Caedmon we know was from Whitby, and the Gawain poet was probably connected with the monasteries. All in Northern England. The monasteries, spread around the whole country, had not sucked culture into London and Oxford as would happen later in England.

Meanwhile in Scotland, the ancient literature was in Gaelic, which thrived beyond the age old garrison of Stirling Castle, under whose aegis the Scots poets wrote: Barbour, James I, Henryson, Dunbar, and Sir David Lyndsay, who was actually based in Stirling Castle with the title of Herald, a kind of ambassador (mainly to the French). The difference between the literary origins of the two countries may be seen in the Early English Texts Society on the one hand, and the Gaelic Texts Society on the other.

In succeeding centuries of colonial government, many writers such as William Drummond of Hawthornden, and his contemporaries Beattie and Campbell, wrote in formal and often flowery English, as was understood to be the way of educated gentlemen. Even at the Scottish universities, English literature and language were taught in place of the academically derided Scots and the barely mentionable Gaelic, a situation that has persisted until recent decades. So you see we are not even using a truly indigenous language as our main and official language in Scotland.  Indeed, even our great Scottish lexicographers, Onions and Murray, remained in Oxford working on the English Dictionary, which still believes that only 2 per cent of English words originate in Gaelic or Welsh.

The concept of Scottish English didn’t come along until Sir Walter Scott in his manifold writings showed the different character of the Scottish mind and its way of expression. David Hume the great philospher was subsumed to the English universities and studied without reference to his very different cultural background. Hugh Miller, the religion-tortured but great geologist was eclipsed by the Englishman Darwin, whom Miller foreshadowed. With most publishing in London, (though much printing in Edinburgh ) our poets, as with sports figures, were Scottish when they lost (MacGonagall) and English when they won (Byron). Had Burns not written ‘in the Scottish dialect’ you may be sure he would now be English.

This is how the three most important modern Scottish writers fit into the picture: Burns , Scott and Stevenson. Burns was inalienable because he wrote in Scots and was hugely popular from his own time on. Scott and Stevenson perfected Scottish English, which never strayed by a comma from English orthography and yet carried both Scottish character and Scottish content. This is what Scottish prose literature does to this day.

As for Scottish poetry. We now proceed to the twentieth century and the train to London, which many have taken, many never to return unless for plaudits. English writers who meet these poets in London may think they are typical, they assume they are the Scots but in fact they are the émigrés. What of the important poets who have remained here? What of MacDiarmid who remained in Scotland in the 1940s, at the height of his powers, lambasting politics and language alike, and leading a genuine renaissance in Scottish poetry? His contemporary Dylan Thomas went to London, and his reward is being mentioned as “the most orchestral and influential British poet of the 1940s” in Mr Noel-Tod’s book. What about MacDiarmid? Where was he being influential? Not in England, therefore not in Britain, it appears. And it should not be forgotten that if Thomas made out in America, MacDiarmid also made out in Russia.

This is the only use of the word Britain in the text of the book: it is also used in a chapter heading (again unnecessarily: the book ends with Basil Bunting, of the true north of England, having the last word) and in the offending subtitle.

Adding a chapter on Ian Hamlton Finlay, which the author commented he might have done, would not have redeemed the subtitle. Hamilton Finlay was undoubtedly a great character what with his interest in surrealism and his beautiful garden - only a poet could turn Stoneypath into Little Sparta, but he cannot be said to have been part of the mainstream of Scottish poetry, despite being a lively participant in the poetry (and artistic) circus in London and Scotland. I am reminded of the well known contemporary book artist who took an artist’s book to the National Library of Scotland, only to be told that they could not purchase her book because it didn’t contain enough words.

By all means add a chapter on Hamilton Finlay, but while you are at it, please add a chapter on Sorley Maclean. His fame spread after he attended a poetry conference in Cambridge in the 1970s but he too had been working through the whole era of our discussion, long unpublished but very well known in Scotland; he too led a renaissance in his own literature, which has been followed by much funding for the Gaelic language, which had almost reached the point of no return before his singular intervention. Edwin Morgan is now well known; Norman MacCaig is increasingly being discovered and revered by English poets, and we are not even up to the poets who, for their pains, are still alive in North Britain, as some would no doubt still wish to call it.

All these poets have been missed in a journey into British Poetry? Yet the journey catches Larkin, with the title piece. Perhaps it’s because I live in Scotland, but Larkin, likened here to the National Anthem, to me, like the Anthem, seems a mildly anachronistic mild embarrassment. He was close friends with Kingsley Amis, as I learn from Martin Amis’ writings, and I consider Amis’ poetry to have been most important in teaching Kingsley to write prose. Eliot -- no one could miss him and this was an entertaining essay too. Eliot did visit Scotland at least once -- he had tea with Maurice Lindsay in Edinburgh in 1949 when Lindsay was trying to get the Edinburgh Festival off the ground. Which has been London season in Edinburgh ever since.

MacDiarmid once met Yeats in Ireland. They are said to have mingled their pee on the ground one night to represent Scottish and Irish literature. Apart from such laddishness, Yeats was a towering example of the connection between poetry and politics. MacDiarmid emulated this but somehow didn’t quite connect -- he was more interested in theory and in generally causing rumpuses wherever he went. But he did manage to start one faction of the Scottish National Party. This brings us to poets in Scotland today.

Poetry may be described as “a mug’s game” as Mr Noel-Tod suggests, but usually when we say we are in a mug’s game, there is a caveat: we exclude ourselves, as in “It’s a mug’s game but...” The problem is that many poets really are mugs.

Fewer of us in Scotland are mugs. We have learnt. Poetry is political, and we are in a possibly long end-game over Scottish independence, which is bound to come by the law of all independence struggles. I would say 95 per cent of my Scottish poetry colleagues, including some notable names down in England, have been publicly in favour of independence. This country is now run by its own government, however there are many quangos in our country filled with English thinking, including those in the Arts, the Theatre, the Press etc., and these organisations oppose and obstruct the progress and visibility of pro indepedence poets. We are glad to stand and be counted, but we are left out of anthologies masterminded in London, of “Best British Poets” or what have you, and we are often back-burnered in our own country. We know things will improve and that we are doing what we have to do. I said 95 per cent.

Some of our poetry is linked with that in England by our common background and influences etc, but some is different. We have different angles on long poems, international poetry, fashions of verse etc. We remember different poets when we read, and therefore we see different meanings. I believe we were ahead of England when women were suddenly allowed into poetry in the 1990s -- remember? That in itself accounts for much of the “Golden age” writing referred to in the book.

Meanwhile this extraordinary phrase British Literature has turned up from nowhere. Didn’t you study English Literature, chaps? We know there is something called British English, to distinguish it from American English for instance, but British Literature? British Poetry? Is it anything more than Bloodaxe and other English publishers bringing out hasty anthologies because they want to see these islands retained as a whole? and what more powerful than poetry to cement this?

On the Train Home

On the Train Home

Don't click the link first before you have read this blog. If you do, there is a risk you will never get back to my simple personal account of The Reception for Contemporary British Poetry at Buckingham Palace on 19 Nov 2013.
After you've read it, you can hunt through the thousand plus photos at your leisure:

    Arrived along Buckingham Palace Road walking slower and slower as l went because I was early. At 6.25 saw a gaggle of people outside the palace gates. A couple walking away from them and towards me said “Poetry or something.”

   Sure enough these were my fellow poets. I immediately bumped into Joyce Caplin, who with Gwyneth Lewis was held up a little at identity clearance as we went through the main gates. Gwyneth's passport was in her husband's name. Details like that were meticulously cleared.
    Shooed away from them I walked with Joanne Limberg through the courtyard and the inner courtyard where those who came by car were parking, then into the main palace onto red carpets. We were directed by efficient attendants to cloakrooms. I immediately met Hilary Davies and learned to my sorrow of Sebastian's illness. The whole evening was studded with meetings with friends, some not seen for many years.

   We were shepherded through the halls to a reception gallery, and collected our name tags at tables by surnames. At the E table I met Hannah Ellis, Dylan Thomas' granddaughter who has been working with the Dylan Thomas Centre festival. We moved on up the room and I then found myself talking to the head of Dublin Arts Council, then to Helen Mort whom I'd got to know in Edinburgh one festival.

   There were people I knew and people I didn't, but now we had name badges. We also had Green Cards (our entry tickets) with our names and description on. My Green Card said Bookseller. I had thought carefully about this and was ready with my rejoinders “Of course I'm a bookseller, that's how I make my living” but I have to admit I was relieved to find that my name badge said Poet Publisher and Bookseller.

    Drinks and fancy bites were all served very efficiently. We were both controlled and assisted by an army of organisers, mostly tall and young, wearing Buckingham Palace badges. Spoke to Alastair Cook and to Pascale Petit around this stage and we began to realise just how many friends were in here with us, as more and more people were coming up the stairs.

   After a while, “Presentations” was the whisper. We put down our glasses and were guided round a corner where, standing quiet as you please and looking quite vulnerable, were the Queen and beyond her the Duke, more assistants around them. We gave in our green cards, somebody read out our names and we all filed past our hosts, shaking their hands. It was surprisingly moving. The Queen was in purple with no blinding jewellery, the Duke looking quiet and very elderly.

   This part of the proceedings was recorded on film by a professional company who have already made available a complete set of photographs of all who were presented to the Queen. I knew that these photos were going to be put online but am very surprised at how quickly they have appeared.

   We proceeded round more corners, a long line of poets and poetry people behind us, and found ourselves unexpectedly in a large room set out as an auditorium, with a platform and filled with gilt chairs. I was quite near the front and ended up in the row behind the front reserved ones, chatting to Chris Agee on my right, whom I'd met in the days of Angus Calder at Grindles. Across the aisle were Nell Nelson, Robyn Marsack and people from England that I knew. I risked a quick dash from my seat to speak to Michael Horovitz, whom I'd last met at Cape Wrath.

    The hall filled. On the stage was one of our bookshop customers, John Sampson, playing bagpipes and then a tenor recorder. To the front appeared Joanna Lumley, to the side front, the four poet laureates, for UK, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (ALL women) and to balance the sexes perhaps, John Agard. It is odd, but if this event had happened even twenty years ago the hall would have been filled with men, with possibly five per cent women. Now, the genders were equal.

    Everyone stood as at the start of a church service and in came the Queen, the Duke, Princess Anne and Princess Michael. They sat right in front of us. I spent some of the next half hour surveying the fastening of Princess Anne's pearls on the back of her neck, but most of it admiring the laureates, who, MC'd impeccably by Ian Macmillan, each read a well chosen and well performed poem. The poems were just on topic – John Agard did his kettle boiling for tea performance piece, Liz Lochhead (inexplicably described as Elizabeth Lochhead in the programme sheets on the chairs – the only and very minor mistake I could see in the whole event) did her classic poem about the wee girl going to school speaking Scots with her mother – and CAD read the poem she had written for the 60th anniversary of the Queen's accession.

   Briskly and brilliantly performed, all was over, the Royal party exited stage right and we all filed out, greeting more friends and acquaintances as we went – Elaine Feinstein, and Richie McCaffery among them.

   Back in the big gallery with paintings on the walls, the social gathering continued in earnest, through the throng of which the Queen and Duke, and also Princess Anne, threaded, talking to small groups here and there – again well guarded. At one point I was chatting in a group – I think it was with David Morley – when one of these tall polite men materialised at my shoulder. I was about to step backwards, and unbeknown to me the Queen's back was directly behind me – these guys were there to prevent such collisions. I then spied Ian Macmillan and some other people I knew, and thought I could scoot across the small but significant space that had developed beside the Queen. Immediately there was the minder – Keep moving please, he said as I went towards Ian Macmillan. Now this bit impressed me. I don't think I had met Ian M. before but he turned and said Hello Sally. I guess he had been doing his homework as an assistant host.

    The next group I met was a Scottish lot (I totted up 18 present from Scotland altogether) including my good friend Rody Gorman. The Duke then popped into our circle from nowhere but seemed nonplussed to find we had a Gaelic poet in our midst and moved quickly on.

   And so it went on. It was so exhilarating to be in such a big party of poetry experts, were they old friends, newer friends, those just met or long term acquaintances. Going nearly hoarse from the constant parley, and STILL being plied with food and drink, I was totally absorbed. I spoke with Penny Shuttle, Jo Bell, and Anna Dreda, had a laugh with Kei Miller, and greeted with delight one friend from the North of England who then said Please don't tell anyone you saw me here. I accede, though she'll be in the photos all the same.

   When the halls began to thin out and it was clearly time for departure, we all went off willingly and with that special kind of happiness you only get after a very good party. No one was gathering to go out in gaggles to eat, as I'd expected might happen – it wasn't necessary. As much champagne as you wanted to drink – in my case three glasses – and very tasty snack food had shored us all up. Not many were staying in central London so we quickly dispersed. I went back to Stephen's (my brother) fizzing and bubbling about what a great time I'd had. I'd expected it to be formal and that one had to be there if invited (if possible) but had forgotten what a joy it would be to meet so many poetry friends in such a location.

   Stephen and I had poached eggs on toast for late supper. I could imagine the Queen having poached eggs on toast at the Palace.

   I found out, too, who it was had nominated me for an invitation (which had been genuinely puzzling me).  I'm keeping this to myself, but there 's karma and appreciation and I'm grateful.

   It gave me a great sense of inclusion in a field I obviously belong to and have given much of my life to. I know many friends of whom the same is true who were not there, and they also are fully a part of this field.

Dont read this if you havent read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time

Just read this book today, though I knew about it long ago, as it was written by a very young man, its background matter being Aspergers and a child who was extremely unsocial while highly intelligent. And about his family.

I thought I'd discuss this directly after reading so please do not read on if you havent read the book, as there are bound to be spoilers. I read it both fast, because it was a gripping page turner and you really needed to know how the turns of the story developed, and deeply, because I am married to an Asperger who was undiagnosed as a child and had a very difficult life in consequence.

In this story you have parents who can barely cope with the son's eccentricities. They both love him dearly but quarrel with each other over the pressures that arise. Both parents have made terrible mistakes, particularly perhaps the father who seems to be the more loyal of the two, as we start the story with a dog that has been murdered in a street of uneasy neighbours.

One doesnt usually talk about the murder of dogs, but the boy treats it as a murder, for he likes animals better than people. And indeed mathemaitics and mysteries better than either. Numbers are a feature of the book, whose chapter numbering is a run of prime numbers (you are left to work this out for yourself). You soon understand how the boy responds to numbers, notices lamp post numbers, never forgets a number.

The boy (his name is Christopher but this doesnt seem to be important) precipitates drama and near disaster by determining to solve the mystery of the dog, but dark deeds have already been done. Despite his very poor socialisation the boy tries to quiz neighbours in the street, but his father, with whom he lives, forbids him to talk about the dog and gets very uptight on the subject, making it easy for the reader to start guessing who has murdered the dog. The father confiscates the son's notebook in which he is writing a murder story abut the dog (complete with fascinating discussions of Sherlock Holmes) but I was not expecting the next revelation. While searching his father's room for his confiscated book, the boy finds a hidden heap of letters from his mother, whom he thought was dead. Father had been very naughty and had told him she was in hospital and that she had died, when in fact she had gone away to live with another man, husband of the woman whose dog was murdered.

The story at this point changes completely. To say this was a shock to a child like that is an understatement. In a bungled attempt to apologise, his father admits to having killed the dog, and between the two transgressions Christopher cannot immediately forgive his father, but becomes terrified that his father will now kill him. (This is the most irrational thing the boy thinks in the whole book, but he is obviously extremely confused and shocked). With his pet rat he absconds and hides behind the garden shed, and wonders what to do next.

He has a school with wonderful teachers who are very helpful to him when he lets them be, although it is woefully inadequate for him as it is a special school with many kids with severe adjustment problems but without his extremely high intelligence and aptitude for numbers. He decides to leave home as he no longer feels safe with his father, and heads for school but sees his father's van parked at the school - the father has also gone to the school for help.

The boy knows the address from the letters he read, so he decides to go to London and find his mother. He has borrowed his father's credit card - he knows the number because his father told him it knowing he would not forget it. Despite being terrified of being enclosed in small spaces with people, he attempts to travel to London by train. A policeman tries to help him, realises he is incapable of looking after himself and there is a very funny section when the policeman tries to get him home to his father and gets stranded on the train. Christopher hides in the luggage rack behind some suitcases and the policeman loses him at the next station. Christopher proceeds to London.

This is followed by an utterly terrifying scene where he is in the tube station and panics, letting trains come and go through the tunnels as the platform crowds up and thins out every time people get on a train. His pet rat which has been in his pocket throughout, escapes and gets under the rails, and Christopher dives down into the rail pit and tries to catch his rat. A bystander tries to pull him out. There is a half minute's total nail biting while a train approaches. They all escape (rat too) and he finally gets on a train leaving his rescuer on the platform convinced he is a nutter.

 All is not rosy with his mother's new life but she greets him with love, runs him a bath ( an echo of what his father did ) feeds him and lets him sleep. He then remembers he has to be back at school for his A level maths in a day or two. It is the first time anyone in the school has ever sat an A level and he says he will get a grade A. His mother says things like, well he can do it next year, but this won't do. The upset is all too much for the new boyfriend and eventually the mother nicks boyfriend's car and drives him back to father's house. There are the inevitable rows (one is now sympathetic to both sides) and Christopher takes his A level though he has been so tired and upset he doent know if he fluffed the questions. The mother gets a bedsitter and the father buys him a dog, and you can feel a slow reconciliation between him and both parents, if not between the parents, for probably things have gone a bit too far.

I skipped the maths except for a few visual puzzles, but I should think most people do skip the maths. Many pages are adorned with formulae, graphs and other advanced illustrations. There are tricks of narrative very unusual in a first book, such as his teacher Siobhan who encourages his writing and advises him not to digress (leading to wonderful digressions on science, religion, the universe, the stars).

I am left with a sense that it was a very powerful story and of how pure luck can get you out of knife-edge difficulties which themselves arise inevitably from peoples true personalities however flawed and uncontrollable. And how humour and patience also matter. This is not a review, it's a telling. Like when something happens that you have to talk about.

What is Poetry?

Poetry shouldnt really need definitions: if you need a definition you're in trouble maybe. But people ask poets for definitions, perhaps thinking the answer will help them write poetry (sorry it probably won't) and poets being highly verbal creatures will often oblige. Consequently there is a wealth of soundbites available, many of them worthy of their poet perpetrators. These converge into a number of groups.

   There are those who say poetry is condensed language, or the best language, or the best words in the best order (Coleridge). Who say it distils experience (If fiction is beer, poetry is whisky: Shaindel Beers), or is the language of feeling or emotion. Wordsworth's is the most famous statement on emotion: Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity. 
But see also Poetry is that / which arrives / at the intellect / by way of the heart: R.S. Thomas.  Poetry is language at its most nourishing: Robert Crawford.
   Others say it is memorable language. I like this definition. It's subscribed to by Paul Valery (language that stimulates you to reconstruct it identically) and Don Paterson (A poem is a machine for remembering itself). A poem is infinitely repeatable. There's the related definition that it is words next to words, or in the words: poems cannot be paraphrased or translated, though their meanings can be explained and they can be fairly closely copied in other languages.
   Then there are definitions explaining how poetry manages to be memorable: Poetry is words in a pattern (suggested by Sheenagh Pugh) , or it has rhythm and form. 
Also that it is dancing rather than walking, or physical. Basil Bunting said it was all about music, but since his words make sense, that cannot be true. Karl Shapiro offered: Poetry is an art of sound moving in time.
   There is a longstanding physical definition: that poetry makes the hairs on your neck stand on end. Most people dont have that many hairs on their neck, but it has some credence. Emily Dickinson's slightly scarier physical definition goes thus: If I read a book and it makes my body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry.

   Another favourite definition of mine is that it is a great tradition, as poets follow other poets to spin their work into the whole. (Brodsky: Poetry is a dame with a huge pedigree, and every word comes practically barnacled with allusions and associations.) The forms which most poems take are part of tradition, too:  sonnet, pentameter and all the rest.

   All of these definitions are partly true.
   There are also portmanteau definitions which pile on the requirements willy nilly. Peter Finch: Poetry captures ideas, emotions, fixes things, explains them, erects memorials, expands ideas, delights the ear, moves the soul, fences with the tongue, pulls perception through hoops.  Elspeth Murray quotes Nigel Forde: Poetry is precise, intense, concrete, significant and formal. (If  Nigel's definition is at all questionable, Elspeth's mnemonic for school kids makes it worthy of quoting: PICSF = peeing in cupboards strictly forbidden.)
   Add to these the descriptive definitions - not complete, but identifying properties of poetry. Psychological description: (Les Murray: Poetry is a zoo in which you keep demons and angels.) Metaphysical descriptions: (Heaney: Poetry is language in orbit). The grateful and appreciative descriptions (Christopher Fry: Poetry says heaven and earth in one word.)

   Outlandishly poetic definitions are among the most interesting. Poetry is the synthesis of hyacinths amd biscuits (Carl Sandberg).
The poet like an acrobat climbs on rhyme to a high wire of his own making (Ferlinghetti).
I have nothing to say and I am saying it and this is poetry
(John Cage).  As Ira Lightman points out, Cage's quote crosses line breaks in a poem, so is inevitably misquoted.
   Ira's suggested definition is part process (It's a form that hesitates from word to word because it is known consciously or unconsciously to sabotage itself, to betray itself.) and part tradition (quoting Bunting): Today's posts are piles in the quaggy past upon which impermanent palaces balance.
  We need to look, too, to how poetry says things (or whatever it does with things: it has content). Pound's dictum was Make it New. Day Lewis said Every good poem is a bridge into the unknown,
while Frost added Poetry begins in delight and ends in wisdom.
Mark Burnhope suggests: A poem can say anything you want, but there are elements that make it a poem: line, rhythm, sound, imagery and various other tools... the amount of thought and innovative stretching... distillation of thought comes into it too.
   Charles Causley mentions magic: All poetry is magic. It is a spell against insensitivity, failure of imagination, ignorance and barbarians.

   I did notice the absence of inspiration as a catchword in all these definitions. I have a lot of time for inspiration. It is when the poem almost writes itself because you are ready for it. Perhaps the Muse is an inside secret.
For my part, I will satisfy myself with a descriptive remark about the subjects of poetry, with which I prefaced a poem called Fishing in Gairloch. The three subjects of poetry are love, death and poetry. I think this is true, and it fits into the tradition view and the language of feeling view.

Acknowledgments: I discussed this topic with facebook friends. Angela Topping sent me some definitions, and I found more definitions in the book Quote Poet Unquote edited by Dennis O'Driscoll (Copper Canyon Press), and on the internet, which abounds with them.

End of the Party for another year

The house put straight, the cats appeased, one day of lovely fine weather followed by one of lashing rain, and people from the village asking me Did you have a good Poetry Weekend. We did. Brilliant.
   Described as a vintage year by one blogger, and that though we've had bigger audiences in the hall some years, and it rained all Friday evening and all Saturday. The weather was accommodating enough on Sunday for us to have garden sessions, and our Viewpoint Finale was not rained off. After the year of the Boat trip, we reckoned that going somewhere local on Sunday teatime was a good way of getting everyone to go home! We did have a lovely finale with 16 poets seeing something of the mountain scenery roundabout.
   There have been a lot of thanks and photographs on facebook, all most appreciated, but one thing I'm sorry to hear was that a visitor came last thing on Sunday, met some of the departing poets and was just too late to catch us in the shop. At least I found out about it and could get in touch and say how sorry we were.
   Most Weekends have a defining feature: the year of the Boat, the year of the Banquet and whatever. last year was: the Year of the big photography. This year, perhaps, the Year of the Book of Kells.
   There was a fine discussion of the Establishment/Disestablishment led by Fred Beake.
   Friday early evening was also spectacular with readings by Grey Hen Press contrasting with those by Glasgow poets, leading us into the first of two late evening book launch parties, so that by Saturday morning we were already well into the programme. The Hall provided the usual brilliant performance space and repaid its value as insurance against the rain.
   The whole atmosphere of the weekend was completely friendly and relaxed and there was plenty of good food and drink, but I think I agree with Colin Will who said it was a year of excellent readings : well presented, good poetry, watchable, with people in upbeat mode. Added to that, a core of poets who come regularly or often, and enjoy meeting annually here, make the mood is a very happy one.
   One such poet is Les Merton of Poetry Cornwall, who wasnt here this year but has said he can manage next year, when the dates (it is a Leap year) will be September 7th to the 9th, 2012.
   Many thanks to Mike Penney for the photos here, those on facebook and those of the poets performing. Thanks to those who came, contributed, helped in the kitchen, read poems, sang songs and everything else. It's the people who come who make Callander Poetry Weekend such a lovely annual event.

I can't get the pictures in right now so here are some links to albums of Mike Penney's pics:

In Callander               

Performers: Hall         

Performers: Bookshop

At the Poetry Weekend

Poetry in the Garden   

Finale: Viewpoint        

London and unLondon

I was born in London, the capital that drew people to it, where both my parents felt at home. My mother had gone into London from rural Northamptonshire for teacher training and to teach. My father's family were from Cardiff, and he had an aunt in Surbiton who became their family's kingpin as they travelled in from the west towards the capital. We lived in the countryside in Surrey when I was small, in an open area you can now see in Google maps filled with new housing schemes.
   My parents' big adventure was to travel north, to County Durham where I grew up.
   Just before university my first boyfriend, who lived in London and was really a young man while I was still a kid, invited me down and we had an amazing week on the town with plays, pubs, beats and meals, but this was a flash in an unheated pan if you like, and receded from view when I went to university, though it was nearer my true life than I knew.
   But such was my sense of the capital's power that I went back to London straight after university, first to study librarianship and then to work in outer London (Enfield).
   Living in Chalk Farm the first year, I had found life hectic, solitary, difficult and at the same time highly exciting. Enfield was a good solution for me, and since I worked weekends I had many happy days in the centre, usually involving the Charing Cross Road bookshops, but also saw many of the great and small sights of the city. At my Enfield flat I wrote and wrote, and began to garden.
   This life was interrupted by changes that are too far a digression from London, but they involved living first in Italy then Newcastle upon Tyne, marriages and children, then a life-changing move to Scotland, undertaken by accident or fate, but becoming the central chapter of my life.
   London does not go away even if you live in another country. We were many years in Edinburgh but now I am in real unLondon, a highland village and a garden with blossoms, chickens, bees. And it goes without saying, books.
   Just as my father's aunt made a centre for his family in outer London, my own brothers and sisters and their families -- the younger generation especially -- meet at my brother's in Westminster. He, after working around and abroad, has been settled in London most of his life and if I want to go to London I don't have to worry about somewhere to stay.
   I do, however, have to think about my commitments here, the time I will be away, the organization needed to get tickets etc and sometimes the simple cost. If I go to a niece's wedding in October, will I also go to a meeting in September? If I'm offered a poetry reading without costs, how many times a year can I justify being away from my work in Scotland? It is a long way, and as I get older, I feel I'm likely to go down oftener for family events than professional ones.
   Yet I have many friends there, by which I mean poetry friends. Not only would it be great to meet them in London for coffees, chats, events, I can imagine very vividly what they are up to, because of knowing the terrain. Hearing about an event in London is like reading a Rebus novel when you know Edinburgh intimately. You know every turn of the road, you know every tree your characters are walking under.
   One of the things that makes me a writer is the fact that you cannot live in two places at once. And believe me, at times I have tried. I have lived in Edinburgh and Callander at once. In Newcastle and Edinburgh at once. It involves commuting till you drop, which is the crux of it.
   The big cities can be very self-involved as well as exciting. People who live in them forget there is life anywhere else. If you want the citta slo, move to the country. I think I now accept I'm a country person. It is not how my children saw me (how little we may know of our parents). For an outing nothing can please me more than a drive up country, to quiet and hidden places or dramatic gardens or coastlines. For a fantasy alternative life though, London still heads my personal list, ahead of Cardiff or Paris, of the other possibilities that keep you on your toes.
   Finally the internet. I can't imagine the last fifteen years, that is, my last fifteen years, without it. It transcends time and place. With google maps I can wander in the garden of Isola Bella as I once did, I can cross Australia as I never have, I can watch the street in Chicago where I am reading on Skype in a poetry event, wait in Lincolns Inn Fields while many people I know very well, only some of whom I have met in real life, are struggling with a bureaucratic nightmare about which I suddenly care a great deal.
   I'm interrupted by the squawking of chickens. I look out of my kitchen window where blackbirds are feasting on the amelanchier berries. Scotland is on the inevitable road to independence. We had a great run to Inverness one day last week. You can only have one real life. UnLondon is the one that has happened to me.

The Poetry World

     It's so like the church. Your good clergyman is humbly working to help his community and praying, while beyond him in the seats of power, the bishops, the church institutions and the state are hammering it out between them, eating good dinners, quite possibly encouraging wars and very likely not a prayer in sight.
     It has happened before and it will happen again. Poetry has traditionally been for thinkers, eccentrics, those who are temperamentally inclined to question the status quo. Rewards have traditionally been less monetary than satisfactional.
     At one time, practising poetry (as opposed to reading it) was mainly feasible for the priviliged and rich. Byron and Burns were both highly popular but Byron was a wealthy aristocrat and Burns was living hand to mouth. Chatteron, Fergusson and others could not
cope with their world, having too high a ratio of brain to possessions. As the twentieth century, the old century, progressed, there was still a strong flavour of privilege, the Sitwells, the Woolfs, the Oxford graduates, pervading poetry.
     Then various people began to rattle the cage. Pound was a fascist!
D H Lawrence came from the coalfields! Dylan Thomas was a law unto himself! Ted Hughes came from the North! 
     Poetry is the sum of all poets. By the later twentieth century it had become a sort of secret society. You would sit with William Oxley asking who had seen Merryn Williams last, you would chat to Tom Scott about Peter Russell in Italy. Bill Pickard would have cycled from Bristol to London to meet Betjeman, Maurice Lindsay would have had tea with T S Eliot in Edinburgh. It didnt matter, really, how good or bad poets people were - they were characters, they were writers, poetry happened and they all knew each other.
     Poetry Festivals were probably invented by Adrian Mitchell, Michael Horovitz and the Poetry Olympics, and poetry groups by Howard Sargeant and the poets at the Dog in Dulwich - Londoners all. All this poetry, at all levels, supported by the half-lunatics (I use this term favourably) who took part in it, wove itself in and around the wider world of bigger names and mainstream publishing.
     Today, we are a stronger and less secret society. The internet and facebook have had a huge effect, as have the poetry events and festivals all over the country at which we poets have met each other time and again. We support the establishment, we buy books from the major poetry presses, we willingly go and listen to the big names. Most of them are pretty damn good poets and some of them (Les Murray for example) are friendly to everyone.
     The hard truth though is that the establishment could not care less about this, in their view, lower level of pond life milling around in poetry. Yes, they want our money. They mistake us for the public they would so dearly like to flock to their events. If you want to see the public flocking to word arts, go to a pop concert.
     Every now and again one of the institutions in poetry erupts in this tension between the establishment, representing the top earning poets, and the people on the ground, often young people, who have become more active than the establishment really want.  The sad thing is, the young people really care about poetry and the public, and are really keen, with ideas, proposals and projects. And the establishment, tragically, does not like it .
     It has happened before, and it seems to have happened again. Several key players including the Director and President have resigned from the Poetry Society in London. The Trustees of the Society have given little explanation amid much unhappiness coming out through the cracks via our friends. The improved communication on facebook in particular, has been countered by a real fear of being pursued for libel, fuelled by a reply from the trustees to an email sent by a number of poet members, myself included. There is a strong sense of battle lines.
     At this point I gave up. I do not want to be a member of a society where the communication between its trustees and its members is as bad as that.
     So I have left the Poetry Society. To be fair I am 500 miles away and I have never had active involvement in the Society, although in the seventies my husband (before I met him) was one of the young people who got on the wrong side of the establishment for the misdemeanour of simply joining in.
     I have enough on my plate in Scotland, where for reasons I can barely fathom, there are people in the poetry Arts establishment who will not even speak to me, despite my having several published books and being the editor of a well known poetry broadsheet. Or is it because? I dont want to take their money. I dont pretend to be one of the more important poets. Again I think they wish people like us would be satisfied to be consumers, but we are that too.
     The Poetry Society needs an EGM. Kate Clanchy is collecting names of members. If you are a member, please email her at:  kateclanchy at gmail dot com  
     It's the least I can do to ask this of you, as I am no longer a member, though I must make sure they have removed my statistic so it doesn't affect the proportion of members you need to achieve an EGM.
     Kate, you are a brave lady and a very good poet. Do make sure you get a lawyer to look over your proposals for dealing with an EGM. Maybe the Campaign for Civil LIberties, now called Liberty, will lend you one.
     That's it:  kateclanchy at gmail dot com

Email kateclanchy at gmail dot com to add your name to the petition.

Welsummers: a new word in our vocabulary

Not sure where the desire came from but we decided in Spring we would have some hens in the garden. Don't remember, but suddenly it was a goal. We'd been through a hard winter. I'd broken one wrist then the other in the previous six months. The second time was when I said I needed a walk every day for my health, went out in the regularly dreadful icy snow, and promptly fell on the path near the river. It eventually transpired I had osteoporosis, which is completely curable by ferocious tablets which I am am now in process of taking.
     Yes I do remember. It was the bantams. Helen, whose stint gardening at the Roman Camp Hotel had come to an unexpected end, asked me to look after her 4 bantams in an emergency. A fox, or we suspect a labrador, caught one of them one Sunday morning, and the feisty wee cockerel crew louder and louder as the snow melted and the spring began. He woke me in the mornings, and his cry was so penetrating you could hear it up the village. It was already a serious problem when I was visited by the environmental enforcement officer, an incredibly impressive gentleman who informed me there had been a complaint, and I couldnt keep the bantam cock. I was quite relieved. Phone calls to everywhere soon taught me no one wants a spare rooster, and that people who buy fertile bantam eggs gamble on a proportion of hen bantams and destroy the cockerel chicks. Eventually the bantams went back to Helen but by then we'd begun to think of chickens.
     There are two ways to get hens in this area. One is to go to the battery hen rescue place the other side of the river, where you can get 3 or 4 year old ex battery hens for a fiver, feed then up and pamper them and you have good layers in happy retirement. The other way, we discovered, was the poultry breeder on one of the big estates between here and Stirling, a place whose road end we had passed every trip to Stirling for ten years but had never known it was there. Beautiful barns had been converted to henneries in which a dozen colourful species could be purchased at point of lay (it was now March).
     We came home with 2 Welsummer hens and housed them in a pen against the big garden wall. We had to wait till Easter for the eggs, for they start laying when the daylight reaches about 14 hrs a day. They are beautiful, stupid, funny, talkative and healthy, and we let them out in the garden every day for an hour or two.
     Should have done it years ago.


All Quiet on the Western Front, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Spy who Came in from the Cold. All books which have had their day. All mentioned as typical of the 25 titles to be dished out to an unimpressed public in the middle of a fuel crisis (which it will be) by Britain's geriatric government-propped publishing industry.

The world has moved on. Young folk dont want books like these any more. What is the publishing industry thinking of to propose a million-book handout in the UK on something called World Book Night?

Operations beginning "World Book...." commonly relate to activities connected with the Third World, which we are not. Is it a charity, a quango, or the Beeb itself who cooked up this crazy idea? Is it an attempt to put folk off going into bookshops at all?

The reason we dont buy enough of these books is that we have read them all already, as have our grandfathers before us. They were interesting books at the time, but very very few books stay interesting for ever, and those that do, the publishers well know they can go on making money from. So what are they playing at?

The great British public does not want fowsty old tripe flung in its face. This stunt will damage bookshops and second hand bookshops, silt up the charity shops, imply that books are not worth paying for, and adversely affect the country's reputation. What would a foreign student think being handed a pile of books like these and told it was contemporary British literature? Any authors with the misfortune to be caught up in this who are still alive are puttting themselves at the head of the has-been list.

The contemporary book world is made up of many talented, highly intelligent and hard working people, none of whom appear to have been consulted.
The whole operation is geared to imply that nothing else has happened in literature since these stodgy items first appeared, fresh-faced. Are the young writers, editors, independent bookshops, forward looking librarians, new publishers, and indeed any reader below the age of 60, totally invisible to the establishment?

Is it that the establishment could not care less, or are they deliberately trying to hinder the current generation?

This is a golden opportunity to showcase our culture WASTED.

The Queen

Never before have I felt sorry for H M The Queen, but I did when I saw a photo of her sitting in a draughty and sparsely furnished corridor of Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, wearing an outdoor suit and hat, with Prince Philip sitting on one side of her wearing a black greatcoat, and on the other side Pope Benedict. She had accompanied the Pope to Bellahouston Park in Glasgow, in the company of 65,000 Scottish Catholics, the singer Susan Boyle, First Minister Alex Salmond and other apparently ill-assorted people as part of a state visit to Britain.

For some reason, no doubt of protocol, she was unable to receive him in London, and this was the best she could do. But the Pope did not do the best he could have done. First he allowed an aide to describe Heathrow as looking like a third world country on the way in, then he attacked, infuriated, inflamed and insulted the entire community of intelligent atheists in Britain by, inexplicably, comparing them to nazis. His insensitivity was only equalled by that of the BBC's reporting. Though they certainly had to report it, the Beeb made it sound more of an outburst and less of an embedded insult than it was.

Throughout the nearly 60 years of her reign, the Queen has been Head of two Churches in her realm. During this time our countries have developed a unique balance that has enabled church, state and universities to coexist, with the various protestant churches, the Catholic church, Muslims, Buddhists, non believers, atheists and those who could not care less, all managing their lives together, learning, working, living and studying as one community. On the whole, it is a highly successful community, God and Mammon are separate, and the way it all gels together is something of a marvel. On the whole.

This integration of church and state is in no small part due to the Queen herself.  Lacking an ordinary education and (like her biggest challenge Princess Diana) of no exceptional intellect, she has substituted experience for education and sense for intellect. She has done her job of ensuring that the churches, the state and education can all progress on their own terms. She has acquired a huge and largely invisible respect from all quarters, invisible because it all seems to go so smoothly, huge because of the length of time she has served.  She has met and advised all her prelates and premiers from the sticklers of Churchill's time to their more slick and spun successors today. There cannot be much she hasn't come across before, even if a loud-mouthed Pope on her rostrum was something of an anomaly.

The situation is even more complex when it is known there have been explorations by the Anglican clergy of possibly reuniting with the Church of Rome. This weekend seems to have made that far less likely, because in this country the state runs itself, while this Pope clearly wants religion to rule the roost. This would go against the grain in Britain even without starting in on the Catholic church's records on feminism, contraception, abortion, gays etc - or as Polly Toynbee wrote, its battle over women's bodies. Ordinary Catholics here take many of their Church's crazier doctrines with a pinch of salt, but this is something they can probably only do in the context of Britain's liberality in general and its social cohesion between groups, We've all got Catholic friends and the Queen has Catholics in her family. After this weekend, the hassles to the state of this sort of coalition can no longer be contemplated.

So I say of the Queen (not to her, for it isn't my business), "Well done Ma'am, you entertained a difficult guest. Thank goodness, he has gone home." Now I can continue my friendships with Catholics, my relations with family members in the Church of England. Now I can pick up the pieces of the arguments I got into, on facebook and in the street, with people who were full of the controversy all in different ways. Some took a papal license to attack "extreme atheists" as if atheism were a form of terrorism, others were simply hurt or embarrassed or angry at the turn all the arguments had taken. Catholics, Protestants, atheists, no one was happy.

It's been most disappointing. But we hope things will now go back to normal. We are too much one community for it to be otherwise. My son and daughter (both with science degrees) like most young people have a great respect for Professor Dawkins, who was undoubtedly incensed when he made his speech in London yesterday, but who clearly believed, as I did, that we must answer back these accusations at whatever personal cost (to me, friendships with Catholics, to him, presumably, university positions etc). While we have free speech we must use it. When the dire wind is whistling we must lead the way.

And the Queen is very good at being Queen. It was an extraordinary day for her in Scotland, what with the Duke of Edinburgh on the one hand asking Annabel Goldie the Scottish Conservative if she wore tartan knickers, and the Pope on the other hand haranguing our beautiful country in which he was a guest with this nonsense about our intelligent, educated, atheist citizens. I feel sure the Queen knew we could and would defend ourselves. She did what she always does. The Queen stayed calm and correct.


Callander Poetry Weekend: This needs winding up.
Maureen, Mike, Kemal and Edwin went home via loch Tay, visiting the Crannog centre and thus giving themselves an interesting highland episode on a roundabout way home. They have moved on, as we all must. For a last glance back, look at the wonderful photographs appearing and flagged on this page.
(Don't miss the wonderful page-header picture of the view from the footbridge.) There are also generous blog mentions by several participants, including Colin Will, Elizabeth Rimmer, and Irene Cunningham who admitted to being the alter ego of Ann York,  poet and magazine editor who fell off the radar in Newcastle some time ago.

The poetry weekend was fantastic thanks to all the help offered and given in the run-up when I had my broken wrist in plaster, and throughout the weekend too. The weather did us proud. We have been smugly hiding from the rain storm and thunder today now it is over. Two superb albums of photos from two fantastic photographers took much of today to process. We have also put the premises to rights, shop and kitchen back to normal. After last year's boat trip we sort of thought we could not beat that, but this one, possibly a little more relaxed, and certainly warmer and sunnier, was just a delight.

People seemed to come in small groups which then integrated with the whole: the Chester contingent, the Newcastle contingent, etc. I was sorry I never got time to talk to some good friends properly, viz Chris Barnes, and Eileen Carney Hulme.

Another small regret was that the food for the Kirk Hall lunch ran out. I just couldnt believe that those three huge pans were empty and six men still queueing up, including Colin, and Brian and his musician. Eek. Pork pies and salad were immediately supplied but it was not the same. At the last minute I had decided the hall plates were too small (which they were) and fetched bigger plates. I should have had an intermediate size.

Apart from that, everything was brilliant, and the rest of the catering went smoothly. The couscous was a good large scale dish, and crannachan also worked large scale though it could be made in very small quantities, and several said they would make it at home after trying it. Quantities of washing up were done by Kemal and Lucinda (you were seen) and cooking and preparation by Elizabeth, Maureen, Juliana and others. Jean and Charlie both drove us on shopping trips because I couldnt drive a car on account of my wrist.

So what's left over? Two marrows which I bought and didnt use, some beetroot from Colin's allotment which I've just boiled, the inevitable spectacle case, don't know whose. A small box of seedlings from Bridget, another gardener:  feverfew which I like and havent got at the moment, a small berberis which I shall try to grow potted, and  a sedum. Maureen's flowers, which will last another week or two, and Elizabeth's sweet peas, which are over but were spectacular and especially spectacularly scented. A few plates to be returned to the Kirk Hall

Some books, booklets and postcards by the poets. This one by Deborah Murray I like a lot: Sylvia and Elizabeth, not Elizabeth Browning as you might have expected, but Elizabeth Smart, George Barker's wife. Geraldine's lovely Cumbrian dialect poetry booklet, published by Les Merton of Poetry Cornwall, who quite often manages to come to Callander but wasnt here this year.

Went to see a Garden

Pictures and snippets of Alan Jamieson's gardenmaking on the edge of Edinburgh have been sneaking through cyberspace all summer, so when he called a Come-all-ye to visit the garden I was quick to accept. He has a very steep site rising from behind his rooms in a building beside an old mill, the shape of garden you sometimes see in ancient Scottish towns, rising to an old wooded area at the top, a wood which most people occupying such a garden would have left to fend for itself.

But Alan saw the potential of the wood. In what has been an extraordinary feat of will and exertion, he has been in about the wood with saw, ropes and tools and turned it into a shrine/grotto/outdoor theatre, in other words a garden to be lived in all summer and, if there's nothing to stop you, in other seasons too.
It has been said (has it? well I say it now) poets make the best gardeners. I distinctly recognised the creative will that removed the right branches of the right trees and left the framework for Alan's space, and did it quickly and determinedly in less than one summer.

Here's the pond, in the upper part of the wood, surrounded by slates from the Tron's old roof, rescued by an artist friend. Simlar slates surround the sunken fireplace a little way away. There's a tiny fountain in the pond, rising from what looks like an old bagpipe chanter. What a great place to cool your champagne. The pond is guarded by the resident white cat (who was slightly miffed yet honoured by all the visitors yesterday) and, somewhere, a frog.

You can see at the centre back (top picture) a huge, Rackhamesque old ash bole, traced with ivy stems. Holly and ivy give a Druidic touch, and the newly laid turf (imposed with a determination necessary to all gardeners) has little plants added, toadflax, some geraniums in pots. There are circles of pebbles cut through the turf, and the tree stems make handholds as you climb the little steps.

The garden is highly secure, being accessed from behind the house, and surrounded by other gardens of similar shape but less purpose. You simply don't notice the other gardens, there is such a sense of architecture within Alan's garden. If you look anywhere it is up at the sky through the leaves, where surreal seeming airliners plough their way to the airport runways, or over to the wonderful woodslopes beyond the mill river, which effectively shut off the other travel artery, the road from Edinburgh to the Forth Road Bridge. Secure, it contains many of Alan's possessions, his outdoor kitchen, shed and tent, the Burns tile, the Scott bust in homage to Scottish literature, the Buddha behind the pond, and whimsicalities such as this chicken dish lid, who finds a whole new meaning in life as a garden ornament
The garden accommodated its party of maybe thirty people very well, yet one or two would fill the space. There are actually five adapted pallets ranged in the upper wood to create a tiered seating space (each would take two people in comfort) and there are other places to sit. Food was brought to the campfire - unexpectedly marvellous, well cooked sea trout, curry, soup, and cheese and fruits. The Come-all-ye was partly in celebration of Alan's new novel Da Happie Laand, which in the manner of these things was said to be printed but not yet bound. But everyone knew it was also because Alan has recovered from serious illness in the course of his year living in and around his garden.

I asked Alan's permission to blog his garden and sat at the back behind the ash tree looking down on the rest, and made some notes, for the sheer pleasure of writing in such a lovely writing space. I haven't needed to refer to my notes, I am still fizzing.

These are all Alan's pictures, by permission, too. I think this is a public facebook page to see his party photos. There may be a few more to add, from the construction work. I'll put them here
in smaller format.

Sharon, Pearl and Fuckin Dave

I was reminded of this episode by the Mobile Library picture posted by the Scottish Poetry Library yesterday, while I was preparing to join the Simultaneous Blog project on an interpretation of the word SWEAR. My story is true. Links to the other blog sites are listed here:

Mairi Sharratt:  A Lump in the Throat

Caroline Mary Crew:  Flotsam

Colin Will:  Sunny Dunny

Andrew Philip: Tonguefire

Kevin Cadwallender:  Cadwallender

Claire Askew:  One Night Stanzas

Russell Jones:  Russel Jones

Martaerre SobrecuevaL de la posia y otras disciplinas
   en palabras
Tony Williams: Tony Williams's poetry blog

Sharon, Pearl and Fuckin Dave.

I'm sending you out with the Mobile Library for six months, said the Director of Libraries.

I took a vase of flowers and a paperweight into my new office, to settle down. It was my first professional job, after passing my postgraduate library year with high grades, and a degree before that. I was feeling rather pleased with myself.

A young man cannoned in through the door. Are you the bleedin new librarian? he said.
I stood up. I'm Sally, I said.

I'm Dave. They said you were a soddin lass.

And who are you? I said.

I'm the bleedin driver aint I? said Dave.  Sharon and Pearl are waiting for you in the bleedin van. We always go a bit sharp on a Choosday.

A rather cowed librarian came in behind him. Can I introduce you to your driver? he asked.
We've fuckin met, said Dave.

Pearl and Sharon were indeed waiting in the van. I'd met them briefly already. We settled down in our travelling seats as the van suddenly lurched off, driven by Dave in the most theatrical manner possible. In our first village we rattled and banged into a layby under some trees. Dave looked in. You ladies bleedin appy? Well I'm not, cos the powerpoint's buggered. There! He waved to a sort of standpipe under the trees. It don't bloody work. You can't use the flamin lights. I told fuckin Mr Cox about this and he said it would be  mended. Is it fuck.

A small group of villagers had appeared clutching books.
Let them in anyway, I said. They clambered into the van, staring at me and greeting Sharon and Pearl, whom they knew. 'I liked that one.' 'Have you got my requests?' They peered round the half-lit van.

Time for a cuppa, said Dave. But where can we boil the bleedin water? I'm going off to see Mrs Marton. I glanced at the girls and they nodded. Dave wasn't asking, he was stating his intentions and he went. So did the kettle.

In half an hour the girls started to pack up. Dave suddenly appeared in the doorway and said, Right Oh me darlins, we're off to fuckin Adley Wood. Let's ope the flamin electrics is workin there. Another few jerks, and the equipage was on its way.

Fuckin Adley Wood was extremely smart and the reason the library went there was because the Chairman of the Library Committee lived in one of its big houses. We set out our wares. One or two posh housewives and an artist turned up straight away. This time the electrics went on and we had our sandwiches and tea in some comfort. No sign of Dave as I chatted with the girls, trying to get a hold on my new empire. But I found the entire small talk was of Dave.

He's in quite a good temper today, said Sharon.
Really? I said,
He's nice lookin isn't he, said Pearl.

I soon found that the entire operation of the mobile library was based on being nannied by this foul-mouthed Lothario. Sharon was religious and Pearl was newly married and he assaulted both of them with his rich-text attentions. They were silly enough to gossip about their private lives and they got it back threefold, with honey.

Whenever he was in a worse temper he was late, he abandoned us for hours while he took long lunch breaks in pubs, he drove scarily and he burst out in diatribes against the management, which included me.

After a week of this I went to see the Deputy Chairman of Libraries with Bleedin Responsibility for Mobile Libraries.
How are you getting on with the driver? he said.
He's a bit of a bleedin law unto himself. I didn't say bleedin, but I was thinking it by now.
A rough diamond, said the Deputy. Quite a character, isn't he?
He took long lunch hours, I said, and I think he came back the worse for drinking yesterday.
In fact, I knew it, and I knew I was being a grass but I wasn't going to have my young life ended by a maniac like this, even if soddin Sharon and pesky Pearl were prepared to take the risk.

Hmm, said the Deputy. I'll have a quiet word with him.

I heard all about the quiet word the following Choosday. That cunt Mr Cox bloody interferin, he started. How you gettin on with soddin Miss Evans, he says. And why did I see you at the Market Arms at three o'clock on Thursday?
You know what I bleedin told im? I was AVIN MY BLEEDIN LUNCH, that's what I said.
You an me's getting on bloody fine, aren't we, he added. I pushed a few books round my desk by way of an answer.
An we better shift our arses. Carnt be late again at bleedin Adley Wood.

I bore it another bleedin week, learning quite a few new expressions in the process. My girl friend advised me to answer him in kind, saying I'd had absofuckinlutely enough of it, but I was not yet strong enough for bleedin Dave. He had a mousey little New Graduate Librarian in his clutches and he was damned if he was going to let her off fuckin lightly.

It wouldn't have lasted six months, but I thought I would get through more than four weeks of this. He'd had a row with Sharon, who had taken two days of my time being tearful and religious about it, then he made it up with her and he had Pearl's new husband pulled in for inspection and was as suggestive as he dared to be about him afterwards. I pen-pushed and book-pushed, completely helpless.

One morning he came flying in with a look of great satisfaction, and announced: Bloody hell! I'm on strike! His union, which was different from ours, was coming out in support of something, or more likely in opposition to something. It was a dramatic turn of events and he was over the moon.

I telephoned Mr fuckin Cox. He was not pleased, but he said, 'Our advice is not to mention it, do not talk about it at all. Just carry on with your work without him.'

Well yes. Bloody hell. We had two days sitting in our office, Pearl discussing evening meals and Sharon pulling little bits of the Busy Lizzie to pieces. Professional development. Then the strike was resolved.

Bleedin back, aren't I? announced Dave. But he had been up to no good in the two spare days. He drove us to site at record speed, disappearing for three hours and then turned up in a fouler mood than ever and ricocheted us back to the office.

Dave. I said. I've absofuckinlutely had enough of your temper.
There was a pause. Sharon and Pearl held their breath.

You bloody come with me, said Dave. I'll fuckin show you why I was in a foul temper today. He led me across to an office back window. I looked out. There was a large heap of red metal lying in a yard. It had recently been a car.

I was in that yesterday when it fuckin crashed, he said. The bloody cops were chasing us and we had to fuckin hide it. Now I've got to get it bleedin mended on the quiet. Now will you shut up and leave me to get on with my bloody life and you get on with yours.

He was off. I watched him leave the building and go down the road.
Did you see his car? said Sharon.
Bloody hell, said Pearl.
Home time, girls, I said.

They went, and I phoned Mr Cox, catching him as he was about to leave. I was sent back to the Central Library which was where I wanted to be anyway. Dave carried on for a week or two with Sharon and Pearl, then he left. He got a job on the buses. After that you might see him driving a 107 any bleedin Choosday.

A look back at the eighties (for Kat's Eighties Retro Day blog event)

It was a decade that almost didnt belong in my life, but it led to important developments and changes - and it wasnt just me.

Marriage and divorce were everywhere as sixties swingers took their turn at trying responsible citizenship. I was bringing up two eighties children in a country that was new to me, due to the job mobility that affected my partner and the rest of his generation.

Television had progressed from evening and afternoon to all day. Participative television was beginning, which would lead to much more involvement by ordinary people in media life. Esther Rantzen's That's Life was running throughout the decade. Television was the big medium of the eighties, and as pop music tracks began to have videos, the visual appeal of stars and singers mattered more and more.

Madonna and Boy George thrilled tweenies and teenies, fashion became fashion for school age pupils and divergences in dress began to appear - sports wear, feminist wear  (those awful dungarees). Skinny models had been overexposed and you could now be fat if you wanted. Big blowsy fashions appeared for the large and for older wacky types. Liberation was the game.  Orwell's 1984 had come and gone and had failed to terrify. In politics, Thatcher was supremely unpopular, whether you were a militant miner or an intellectual.

Kate Adie was the queen of reporting and reported the Queen explaining her views on Arthur Scargill to a newspaper worker caught up in the row about technological change. But the Beeb would not screen Kate Adie's piece, so she resigned from Royal reporting, but continued to impress from horrific war zones whose existence seemed to be the accepted alternative to nuclear war.

Cars were very brightly coloured. Bringing up children was expensive. They all wanted computer games that plugged into the television. They still went away on school trips abroad. They were supplied with quantities of junk, in the form of plastic toys, My Little Pony, Barbie, Lego kits and model trains. They wrote and scribbled and painted and wasted things, and had    tapes and tape players of ever increasing sophistication. Telephones had few control features and use of the phone was a nightmare when they were in and I was out. People complained about TV advertising of expensive toys and also of junk food directly to children.

They knew Enid Blyton by heart, and then It Shouldnt Happen to a Vet, Terry Pratchett and the all-the-rage Hobbit books. They went through quantities of fancy shirts or short-skirted, bright, lively clothes. They plastered their rooms with black pop posters and ugly, large soft toys. They had skateboards, and stuck badges all over their denim coats.
Bicycles changed shape.

It was the decade when something was happening to us but we didnt know what. We were heading for more and better communications, much more participation in TV and future media. We thought we were so sophisticated in a world of advanced technology, advanced speed, advances in medicine. People were beginning to whisper that soon everyone would have computers in their homes, but we could not have imagined the internet, facebook, Google Street View, Contact Us, Send in your photos, Were you there?

A new disease was hitting the headlines. People were dying of an unexplained immune deficiency, especially gay people, who began to be accepted more widely in society just at the time they were singled out by this disease. Church attendances were low. Universities were still expanding. Quangos were starting to flex their power. Charities proliferated.

Lennon had been shot. The Beatles were the grandparents of popular music, which now included many women. It was the first decade when girls grew up believing they could become or do what they liked.

It was long, hard and tiring. There were drugs in the streets, and no one could spell the word millennium (they all lost the second n). But it was an era of high expectations.

At the end of the decade my daughter walked out on me, as her father had done (he was pushed), and went on to a university life in genetics. My son was a first generation computer whizz kid, and subsequently did a degree in space science and became a playwright.

And boring old mama? I started the decade as an Anglo-Welsh woman whose career had collapsed into slightly inept child rearing, and ended it as a Scot.  I started it as a long term secret writer and ended it back on the road to the life in poetry that I had abandoned long back in the seventies as not feasible.

So I see the eighties as a sort of draughty corridor between the old millennium and the one we could not prophecy, just as when raising children you do not know what they will become, and when trying to grow in your own life you do not really know where it will lead. We cannot know the future. When my parents visited Scotland long ago when they were alive, they would have liked to know that I would cross the Forth Road Bridge they so much admired at least weekly in my adult life, or that I would live in and know intimately the village of "Tannochbrae," the setting of the adventures of old Doctor Cameron and Janet, so greatly enjoyed by my mother. But we cannot know such things. And in the eighties there was less knowledge of the future around than usual, if that makes any sense.

Hamish and Heather

I'm giving in to popular sobculture to tell you about Hamish the bull at Kilmahog, half a mile down the road from Callander. When Callander was a market town and drove-road pitstop, Kilmahog was a small settlement of a row of cottages. It harks back to hard times, losing its men to wars so it was called the Street of Widows at one point, but now its few houses, on a sort of ox-bow road from the main road, are well looked after as they have wonderful outlooks and beautiful country air. At one of the two woollen mills /restaurant/driving stops at Kilmahog, Hamish holds court in a field overlooking the car park, and in summer there is a constant queue of tots and grannies etc admiring him. His birthdays are marked by posters all over Callander and a special Birthday Sale at the mill shop. Now his astute owners have got him a female companion. You wouldnt be so crass as to say they have got him a mate (or that he isnt capable, from his true description bullock.).  Hamish is a gentleman.

Hamish is more than a famous publicity stunt, he is a local character. In the post office (when we had a real one) you'd hear someone say "How's Hamish?" and the reply would be, "He's in the other field this week."

Hamish is said to have done a "highland fling" when Heather was released into his field out of a truck from Fife. At 17, Hamish may not be too long for this world, and I have great respect for the owners' foresight. When our much loved and famous dog Rusty died in Edinburgh, Grindles customers were so upset that our turnover was severely disrupted for at least a month.

Hamish has made the Scottish news this week so we are expecting traffic jams at the weekend. We'll be strolling along ourselves very soon to pay our respects to the happy pair. And I'll find a picture of Rusty to put up. Exactly like people who missed the internet by being a decade or so too early for it, Rusty deserves a corner of cyberspace. It's time he had one.

And I'm STILL not the Sally Evans in America who runs the web site for deceased pet poems, much though she serves a social need. She's "bunnyluvr." Look out for a piece on Rusty.

Salmon and strawberries and cream -- and shopping

Ages since I did a blog on these pages, mainly because of the special occasion of Robin and Rachel's wedding. It took a while to recover from the excitement and my mind had been slightly off its patch. Now back to normal with only the consequence that I am behind with my work, with the editing, gardening and writing, though also able to look at it all afresh. Something you keep doing for years needs a step back occasionally.

Today, I held a discussion lunch, for two and one guest. I wanted to have lunch outside but rain looked possible so I set a table in the office -- it was a round outdoor table with a cloth and fitted in very well, in fact it is still there. In the event the weather was sunny and we ate outside.

Though I often do one-dish menus such as those you can find on facebook's Peasant Cooking group page, this time I played safe with people's likes and did not mix items. I had decided that basically I would do antipasti followed by a hot course, probably salmon and vegetables, depending on last night's shopping, and in the event we turned up some very good reductions. It always makes me laugh when I see recipes adding the cost per serving: mine are always far cheaper because some or most of the ingredients are selected for what I can get for next to nothing at any given time.

Last week I got a very good line in salmon fillets being sold off for next to nothing at the end of the day, so the main course was baked salmon fillets plus three-coloured Thai rice (10p last thing last night), marrow (ditto) roasted with toasted sesame oil and olive oil. I find toasted sesame incredibly strong on its own though I am getting to like it, carefully used. Tomatoes were also roasted with salt, sugar, basil and olive oil  -- mostly crappy tomatoes with a few tiny ones among to look extra good. They were far from crappy when finished. I microwaved the fish and the rice, added them all to a large platter in the oven with the vegetables at the sides, then left it all on low, with the plates, till needed.

The starter was antipasti. A little cooked beef, a very small pack of pate, and three pots of very good Greek salad were picked up last night, to which I added hard-boiled eggs, olives, a couple of sardines and some garden herbs. The Greek salad pots made the dish, as they contained olives, onion, and other med vegetables chopped up in piquant oil. I didnt really need to buy the jars of olives I had on my list, but I did as I like them in store.

The pudding was rhubarb pie, which we fairly often buy, and loads of strawberries which were on offer at 20p per large punnet last night, and oodles of extra thick fresh cream offered 10p. I have just frozen most of the remaining strawberries. We are still O.D.-ing on them and on the cream.

To get these reductions and variety we went round 5 supermarkets last evening covering about 50 miles. It is our usual weekly routine and well worth the journey. You have to be able to shop late at night, which doesnt suit everyone, and it's a kind of detective exercise deciding which shops to try. It gives us a very varied diet as we take whatever is on offer. My only reservation today is I dont think this amount of cream is all that good for anyone.

What shall I wear...?

   In a Famous Hat Shop in Amsterdam   

But I wasnt in a hat shop in Amsterdam, I was stuck in Callander, we  were delighted that the young people were getting married and they were going for a simple ceremony followed by a party at their home. A happy and important family event, so what was I going to wear?

I didnt really have anything suitable for the part of mother of the bridegroom at a wedding, or indeed anything very fresh for a wedding at all. My favourite two-piece, chosen for my brother's wedding a year ago, had been used as separates a good deal since and wasnt looking new any more.

Like many of our family activities this wedding will be a masterpiece of budgeting, particularly since the visas for the bride and her daughter proved so expensive to obtain. So I needed to be smart without too much show, without looking as if I had spent too much money and without actually having much money to spend!  Any spare money would be going on more important things, such as setting up the young people in their home.

I usually dress quite dramatically for poetry events, or else comfortably for the garden and country, and I am not accustomed to the conventional things, hats and high heels. How was I going to manage? A  funny hat? I mustnt make them laugh.  An extravagant outfit? It wouldn't  be my job to stand out. I began to think about sewing something, and I asked around about a hat.

The hat query produced recommendations to try Ebay and charity shops, but also a suggestion from Orla Broderick that I should ask help from her friend Dee Anderson, who collects hats and knows a thing or two about fashion. Dee was brilliant. In her first email she said 'Hats are like books, they come in every flavour, colour and price.' She said she would want to know a few things about the occasion and myself, so I started to explain how
my usual colours are mauves, dark pinks, turqouisey blues and greens etc also browns, and I would look for something bright to wear, not pastel.

I then volunteered there is a sort of charity shop in Callander that
sells a lot of new wedding outfits, I think its a back door outlet of some sort, I was going to go and have a look there that day but a nosy neighbour was volunteering in the shop so I was waiting for someone else to be there! Its not a particularly cheap shop for a charity shop but the clothes are new and better than charity shops usually.

And Dee replied: 'This shop sounds just the ticket, Edinburgh has a few of them and you can pick up outfits that originally would have cost a mortgage at less than £100. Suggest you stick with the spring palette and discount the autumnal colours eg browns. Yup get outfit first. Decide if you want your hairdresser to style your hair up or down for the day ?
Is the wedding mostly indoors or out ? If inside is it registry,church or other space, if so what ? eg a big open space or small intimate one for example ?
Also are you expected to participate in the ceremony at any point ? and Is it being videoed ?'

Well, I had to reply that I had not seen the inside of a hairdressers for some decades, and my  hair would be down. All this got me thinking and I began to see I was playing a part in a sort of circus and had to dress right for that occasion. I went to the shop again this morning. Dee had added, 'Once you've got your dress drop a line or if you just see a hat there try it on, be brave and go for it'

My last year's outfit had been Jacques Vert and rather swish. There were a couple of swish things I honed in on today, but there were reasons I didnt want them. An assistant (not the nosy neighbour) was trying to give me a little bit too much help. Then I saw a simple Eastex four-piece, a plain primrose coloured jacket and skirt, a blouse and skirt in all-over pattern navy and primrose, with a matching conventional wedding hat attached, primrose crown, flower and navy rim. It was Eastex but it was polyester which I dont much like, and it all seemed tremendously conventional at first, but I tried it on and realised it was ideal for the purpose. I didnt want to be flashing about in more expensive clothes than anybody else, it would photograph well, it was what would be expected, the skirt and top would be re-usable indefinitely though the jacket wouldnt, and at twenty quid the lot it was a terrific bargain. Even though I left the extra plain yellow skirt in the shop, as I didnt have a use for it.

I reported back to Dee that I had made my choice, helped by her prompts, in particular that I should go for a spring colour. I would not have considered the primrose yellow before. But the big eureka was that this time I did not have to be arty, the young people's thespian friends could do all that. This time the way to play it was to dress up as an ordinary mother, however little I have managed to fulfil that role in general.

Many thanks to Orla, Dee and others who made suggestions about the hat. Pictures will follow after the wedding has taken place.

Couch-surfers Pierogi Party, and Burns Supper

   That man to man, the warld o'er,

                        Shall brothers be for a' that.

Two very different events this week, which have more than a thread of connection and comparison. I was down in Edinburgh with my son's family delivering some copies of his play, and was staying over with them the evening they had a party for couch-surfing friends in Edinburgh. If you don't know about couch-surfing, it's a community who offer each other informal accommodation in various cities round the world. They communicate via internet and Rachel invited them to her party by internet.

Sixteen turned up, the most interesting, international, bright and friendly young people you could hope to meet. We all prepared and cooked pierogi, a food Rachel had learned to make in Poland, and the house was full of happy chat among Germans, Dutch, Lithuanians, Americans, Brits and Scots. Last autumn, Ian and I had found Rachel and Robin a pair of long sofas at the auction, which not only provided attractive and comfortable sitting room furniture, and enabled them to be hosts of couch-surfers, but also allows me to stay the odd night without disruption.

These young people know and trust each other internationally, far more so than in past times when there was less travel and communication, yet boundaries and divisions still exist between the countries they come from, as we all experienced with Rachel's recent visa problems, now resolved.

During the evening, a young woman from California asked Rachel if she could stay the night, as she was having a bad couch-surfing experience (which occasionally happens) - her hosts were fighting tooth and nail and she was embarrassed and a bit frightened. Rachel asked me if I minded sharing the room, and of course I didnt, which gave me the genuine couch-surfing experience, at twice the age of the other couch-surfers, who all seemed to be in their late twenties.

Rachel for her part had a practice party in advance of their wedding, and you could see she was enjoying the catering, cooking and welcoming people to her house.

Burns Supper
The reason I was there overnight was my time was crowded with planning the Burns Supper in the country. I was one of a group preparing for this, a sit down meal with both formal and informal elements. Its clientele was not the couch-surfer generation but mainly older people - note how the food is all easily eaten by oldies: soft vegetables and haggis, trifle and plenty of whisky (the couch-surfers drank beer).  Its nationality was largely Scottish, though we did have an eminent Russian visitor who could not have been made more welcome. But the main thing is it was in honour of Robert Burns, the poet of equality and intelligence, with the open outlook on the world and its people. The man's the gowd for a' that. In the raffle we won a bottle of champagne, which will come in for the wedding, and the Russian visitor won the Burns encyclopedia and Burns calendar we had contributed. A piece of very clever compering by our Fear an Taigh. 

Oddly, now that I've written it, I don't know what I've said or concluded about these two parties, which struck me as comparable though different. Was it just that all parties and their planning are interesting? Something about the groups of people on which each of us converge? The political placing of the different groups, their confidence as groups? That the young become the old, the couch-surfer and the traveller become persons of place?  Perhaps that the bigger party took longer to plan, yet the smaller was no less a party for its relative impromptitude (reaches for dictionary). That it was a privilege to be at each, most certainly.

Commitment to a community: Teesside Artists Journal.

Carol Fenwick has been working for some time on producing the new Teesside Artists' Journal, a magazine of poetry and prose with photographs, to pull the Teesside literary and artistic community together. It has finally happened, a subscription pdf  or paper journal containing varied and interesting poems and pieces, all of a practised standard and including both writers from Teesside and those with a background or interest in Teesside and North East England.

She has done a very good job, clearly with commitment to the community and its writers and artists. If not many of the contributions are from younger or beginner writers in the area, those who are presented give very interesting work and there is clear encouragement for others to join in, and reach publication standard. The work here is not of beginner or amateur character as can so easily happen in local publications. Teesside, like other similar conurbations, is growing in confidence. I left Teesside almost exactly 50 years ago, for a Tyneside also developing its modern literary potential with personalities such as Jon Silkin, Sid Chaplin, Claud Rawson and Frank Graham around. Stockton had a library where I found Faber poetry books and a bookshop, Smiths, on the high street quite near Dovecot Arts Centre which was then a small theatre. There was little to draw a local young poet for encouragement, in that era. People hadn't got together then, and when they did it would tend to be with less confidence and more amateurism - as when I later saw a 'little magazine' from Stockton which stated as its policy "This magazine does not publish poetry by anyone who does not live in Stockton-on-Tees." And that was what was wrong with it, I observed facetiously.

Carol has not made this mistake. She has drawn on contacts near and far to present the local writers she has used in a confident background among professionals, thus bestowing on the Teessiders themselves a serious status and a good team to play in as their work stands in this first issue.

Teesside Artists' Journal avoids a number of the pitfalls that often trip first issues, beginning with the fact that it doesn't shout 'Number One' on the cover. It is full (not lacking in material), and the work is consistently interesting. People may say that the print is small, but the material is there in a feasible economic form (£2.50 to download or £3.50 for a paper copy posted out). I know this because we have sometimes been criticised for small print in Poetry Scotland broadsheet - the answer being, do you want people's writing to be available or not? The journal thus successfully overcomes the internet v paper controversy. (Though they might look at slightly upping the print size in future - it's smaller than ideal.)

Among the Teesside poets here, Julie Edgehill and Katie Metcalfe stand out as the kind of young writers who can flourish in this open environment. Yes, writers ought to be published young, and they ought to be able to study poetry locally as these two are doing, Katie at Cumbria and Julie at Teesside Universities. The rest of the poetry is varied in style, some of it urban ( Robert Henry Lonsdale) some experimental (Ira Lightman), some coastal and demotic (Keith Armstrong.)  The prose pieces/stories are substantial and well chosen, best examples of a type of writing one usually finds only in magazines. One about Poland, one about WW2 evacuees, one about solitary country life (Birches by Diane O'Leary), and another about local Middlesbrough life. All make interesting, thoughtful reading and some photographs give grace and background.

Of course there are other Teesside, and Teesside-connected, writing folks who are not in this journal, - Maureen Almond and Bob Cooper come quickly to mind - but that only means more high quality contributions should be possible in  future issues.

Keep it going Carol and the Teesside Writers!

You will find Teesside Artists' Journal quickly on the internet and they also have a facebook group of that name.

on the ice, our curling eposiode

The decade's turn was marked by prolonged white-out, see Lake of Menteith above. Apologies for the peppery look of this post with several links, but there are some fantastic photos and varied reports, which I really wanted to include.

As many in Scotland have learnt this week, a Bonspiel is a curling tournament on open ice, where there is room for many teams to play alongside each other - not the case on an indoor rink. Lake of Menteith (above) is the perfect arena. Pat Morrissey inspired me with his video on a less populated day, in the long frozen spell that thickened the ice to 7 inches. On Sunday we went down in the morning - this poem describes the day. Gerald England requested it for his blog (he likes geographical stuff) but we have different readers (possibly just a few overlapping).  And here's the link to the Beeb's lovely and truthful pic. There was a rumpus about cancelling the full Grand Match, but people turned up and will continue to do until Tuesday. Though the thaw is now setting in and so the full extent of the lake may not be in use by Tuesday, there is plenty of curling space round the  shallow rim.
The Lake of Menteith is the only "Lake" in Scotland, being round and artificially constructed. It was very beautiful indeed as an ice rink. At one point there were apparently people curling and skating by moonlight. And the main BBC link picture gives a good idea how strong the ice was, so you can understand stories of roasted ox on Thames etc.
That's the "antler" chestnut tree on the island last May. One of its sisters has collapsed this winter, with huge pieces of trunk leaning and lying everywhere.


Winter's black trail over the hill.

Snowy woods. Icy verges, till
near Menteith, traffic cones
mark no-go zones.

Down, past the police cars, to a gate.
Curling teams spill everywhere, and yet
there's room to park.
Two hours since dark.

It's half past nine on Sunday morning.
People flock: wildlife has taken wing.
We step onto the ice,
solid, substantial space,

snow-carpeted expanse of loch,
on which we marvel, slide and walk,
where some skate.
It loves everyone's weight.

As teams sweep long rectangular runs
the click and rumble of unleashed stones begins.
The hotel's busy day
is under way.

Dogs, kids on sledges, locals, sail the breeze,
cross to the Abbey and ancient trees
one of which has collapsed
this winter past,

Abbey buildings melancholy and
two stone ruins on the small island
that cannot usually
be seen properly.

Watching again we buy burgers and tea
and pass the time of day with all and sundry
then drive away before
we freeze to the core,

sent on a one-way route round by Arnprior
bearing with us the polished life and fire
of the Bonspiel.
Stumble and try to tell.

www.saysomethinginwelsh (and something about Welsh)

North Wales: Snowdonia from Capel Curig
I have lived with a gap in my culture by not being able to speak Welsh, for so long now that I dont really know when it set in. Having heard Welsh spoken in South Wales in the late 1940s  by my grandparents' neighbours, and having relatives in South Wales, I grew up knowing my father was an expat Welshman but he was ALSO an Englishman, having taken the traditional Welshmen's route from Cardiff to Oxford and London. There was  a Welsh Society on Teesside which our family sometimes attended. I had a flirtation with a young man named Maelor, and I vividly recall a circle of people singing 'mae hen wlad fy nhadau' at the close of a party, under the rowan tree (which we called mountain-ash) on a summer day in our garden. On leaving school and for two summers of university, I went to work in Capel Curig in North Wales. I learnt a little Welsh naturally in North Wales then, but was distracted by separation, as I was from my family's musical habits by the absence of a piano where I lived. Life went on, and I left something important behind, as we are so often wont to do. It was a musical and poetic language that I might have had a choice of using for poetry.

I suppose I chose English, or it chose me, but later in my adventures I came to live in Scotland, almost accidentally, which is another story altogether. Very soon on arriving in Edinburgh I started going to hear Sorley Maclean read Gaelic poetry, and that link between Welsh and Gaelic fired up in me a great sense of belonging to Scotland. I also met Aonghas Macneacail and others who were involved with Gaelic culture, and soon enough I was studying Gaelic.

Awareness of Gaelic has vastly improved since those days thirty years ago, but I found Gaelic incredibly difficult to learn. I was saying to myself, I'll learn Welsh after I have cracked Gaelic, but it began to look as though I was going to be a "permalearner", with class mates assuming I couldnt do it because I was English, ("Were you the one who complained about the teaching? No!") no adequate way of practising, with Can Seo (ping!) the best and probably only audio course, many poets not showing much interest in Gaelic culture, and worst of all, nowhere to speak it down at the shops. I have since had friendly dealings with many Gaelic poets, including Maoilios Caimbeul, Rody Gorman, Meg Bateman and Christopher Whyte, and I can translate, read and copytype Gaelic poetry but I still can't chatter in Gaelic. It became a kind of Latin to me, indeed I once discussed Gaelic as "The Latin of Scotland", in Chanticleer.

South Wales: Eglwys Sant Hywell, Llanhowell
Still Welsh didnt go away. I made contact with my Cardiff cousin again. I began to feel an uncharacteristic envy of poets who could write in Welsh, like Gwyneth Lewis, and began to see it as my own "missed generation" language, as Gaelic was to so many Gaels. I also had a strong suspicion that I would find Welsh comparatively easy, because for some reason I was programmed to it by generations of ancestors in the past. I would not find the pronunciation difficult as I did Gaelic, I would slide back into something that was waiting for me somewhere in my head.
I got a dictionary, and a copy of "Catchphrase", a primer, and made a start. I joined the facebook learner's group, Dwi i'n Dysgu Cymraig, and made contact with some others who could, did and were speaking Welsh. It was the first time I had given myself an even chance since those warm weeks at Capel Curig. And it was through the learner's group that I found the best language site I have ever come across:

I have learnt other languages, French, Latin, Greek, Italian, and taught English in Italy, and seen many systems but never one like this. A kind user commented that it was like being given the keys to a Porsche when you had been trying to get somewhere for a long time. You are not allowed to use writing, books, pencils or paper till you have mastered a series of lessons. You do not copy a speaker but have to translate as you go, from a widening range of words, you have to say something even if it's wrong, then hear two speakers, male and female with different accents, pronounce phrases and sentences correctly. Moreover, the speakers are constantly encouraging and make you believe you can do it. The psychological effect of that is enormous.

When you start you have to choose North Wales or South Wales Welsh. Though slightly different, both are understood throughout Wales. I chose South Wales Welsh, because of my family. In South Wales I and you are dw i 'n and ti 'n or y' chi n. In the little Welsh I ever heard him speak, my father had used the North Wales forms which I also heard in Snowdonia. Why on earth did my father speak North Wales Welsh? Well, it matters to nobody else, and now I may never know.
[due to the oral nature of the course I need to check Welsh spelling]

Financial Order of Priorities

This may be more creative than financial but not only do I amuse myself, but I sort out some intentions, beginning with essential, enabling requirements and continuing through morally necessary and desirable ones to continuing commitments and on to hopeful ideas. It owes something to Catherine's Wealth Care concept and something to the belief that writing is therapeutic. It is also, let's admit it, an awake-in-the-night job, as my sleep patterns have been slightly affected by either the lyme disease incident or its treatment.

We may assume that the bookshop will look after itself, though of course we work very hard on it, particularly Ian, without this always being apparent, apart from my constant references to auctions, book transporting, the care of books, and simply being here at the shop and it being open. Book publishing is a little more flexible and can be bent to survive the recession. The magazine comes out regularly enough. The next two books are to be real books and produced in house, so that it is more a matter of time budgeting, plus a few materials most of which we have in store.  So I'm talking about personal necessities and desiderata.

First, a universal: my son's wedding. This has crept up on us as a pleasant if expensive surprise, since both my offspring have been out there looking after themselves for many years and their lives don't bring them out of their way to the country too often. Until now.

Another fairly universal question. Will the car pass its MOT? If not, there'll quite likely be another little series of trips to the car auction, a lottery you can play well if you know the auction system, even if not primarily for cars. Who wants what, and how much of a nuisance can you be? is perhaps to oversimplify. Last time we did very well, but there's always that frisson of uncertainty.

Kitchen devil: At present my delight is how well I can cook and cater with a microwave and two hotplates (and there is always an outside barbecue), but next year some time there will be a cooker replacement. I have also cleared out the kitchen to a great extent and it is looking much nicer as a result.

The secret of a good garden is you must spend some money on it. We spent next to nothing on it last year if you don't count the bees, a lot if you do. After ten years here, I have realised the delay in placing a  greenhouse and large shed into the picture must be remedied. Next summer is the intended plan for these things. I have sites in mind - the space round the back of the yard for the shed and the top corner for the greenhouse. And this time, I mean it.

On the house itself, the windows need painting. I am still clinging to the belief that we can do this ourselves. Time budgeting comes in here, as it does for book publishing. Which brings us back to the merry-go-round of our way of life.

Oh the picture? It's Doune Castle kitchen.

Autumn clear-out,politically correct style.

A dry autumn, and the trees stay green till the last minute, only one evening of wind and dancing falling oak leaves. Now mid-October the trees are yellowing, reds, orange, browns tingeing the greens. The sun shone all day and when it set, the entire horizon sky was pinky orange, the peaks grey-blue.

In the garden the bushes all need pruning, cutting, digging out or drastically reshaping, depending on their degree of escaping bounds. A gate post has broken, or more likely been broken, on the back gate. We have a new heavy post to put in. We have also taken down all the hanging baskets from the Main Street, finding them light and dry and amenable to a prod with a window pole, so retrieving  them wasnt the major job I expected. Now they are lining the path and need emptying, compost heaping, a few tough plants still with flowers to be rescued, mainly geraniums (pelargoniums).

The bees are still coming out but I have fed them with sugar candy, which they are eating but not too fast. There'll be plenty there for at least a month of bad weather before I have to replenish the supply. There is a lot of ivy coming into flower, and when the whorls of buds break into whiskery flower, the bees will be all over that. I have already seen them scouting around the buds. But this ivy-feed is weather dependent --the bees will only come out on dry enough days that are also not too cold.

The grass must all be cut and some new areas cleared where nearly ten years' growth has changed the original effect and we can start over. There needs to be a space for the Stirling apple tree and I am beginning to think ahead to greenhouse and shed sites, though I dare say these will not materialise next year -- too much else on the cards. There's been the jumble sale too, and its remnants, along with many of the cast off branches, leaves, grass-sheaves, twigs and rubbishy plant bits need to go to the tip.

The tip when we arrive there is a pantomime zone. It has been closed for refurbishment by the ecofascists, and half the village is there sightseeing. As well as the obvious recycling bins for books (!!!!) glass bottles, fabrics, tins etc, there is a long raised ramp you have to walk up, miserable sinners displaying your waste,  to the various deposit bunkers, one for wood, one for plants, one for... everything but the final bunker for landfill. On the large plaza are more bins for mattresses, fridges, electricals, stone materials, bicycles. I take fright but there is nothing for it, we have to walk this gamut among the sightseers with our armfuls of plant debris. Too many cars and nobody knows where to back up or park. People are wondering whether to joke or grumble, or whether really they ought to admire.

There's a huge heap of fresh compost however, and we help ourselves to a boxload of that at the gate. It doesnt look too bad.

Black Indies: a novel about coalmining set in Aberfoyle

Les Indies-Noires. This extraordinary title was used by Jules Verne in mid 19th century to mean the wealth-bringing coal miners in Britain. He was obviously referring to the then termed West and East Indies. I have another page for discussing books but this was more a social shock than a book, for a number of reasons.

Every prolific author has a book or two that are not so easily got, often because they are not up to standard, or time has shown flaws in their assumptions. Dozens of authors will never be reprinted, and rightly so: they have to make way for the new. Some who told good stories are just too swashbucklingly racist, sexist or arrogant for future approval. You can all think of instances. Others are mixed, some of their books still doing the rounds, others quietly consigned to the specialist.
Jules Verne is supposed to be the world's fourth most translated author (who measured this?) But nobody previously bothered to translate this book in full into English. No wonder, it is an embarrassment from start to finish.

The Underground City was published in Edinburgh to mark the centenary of Verne's death. Verne visited Scotland for a few days, following the tourist trail from Edinburgh up the Forth to Stirling and from Glasgow to the Trossachs. In this story he uses the same itinerary, but slays the whole landscape and countryside by wilfully misunderstanding it. The whole is based on a shocking approach to the mining community, portrayed as an insensitive, arselicking workforce whose only concern is the production of wealth for their masters. When he has put you in a thoroughly bad temper from knowing how badly the miners were actually treated in that era, he starts to preach about coal running out. Aberfoyle (in real life a land of forest and water and no coal whatsoever) has a big mine that the masters close because its coal is used up. The workers are summarily dismissed to find work wherever else they can (much cap doffing and shaking of hands) while the most loyal of the loyal, a small family remains to live in and preserve the empty mine.

The mine manager, now a nob in Edinburgh, is summoned to investigate a mystery at the mine. He jumps on a train for Callander (there is a lot of Edinburgh-Callander commuting), and greeted fondly by his old staff, is conducted down the mine, where they are promptly trapped by enemies. The lad who got work in Irvine (where else) realises his pal has missed an appointment so must be in trouble, and himself puts the Provost of Edinburgh onto the case . Still with me? Thought not.

Down the mine they find an underground world (a forte of Verne's), complete with a wild girl who was born and has lived her life down there. She speaks Gaelic, a way of saying she is unintelligible. She leads them to the four trapped people who are nearly dead of hunger (they immediately revive them with cordial) and subsequently lives with the caretaker family, who apparently train her in social graces for she miraculously acquires a lot of these, then they decide to take her to Edinburgh to show her the view from Arthur's Seat. Er yes, well Aberfoyle is between Ben Lomond, Ben Venue, and Ben Ledi. We know that but not Verne.  They bring her back via Balloch, Loch Lomond, Inversnaid, Stronachlachan and Loch Katrine, completely failing to see any wildlife on the way, but noticing a waterfall at Inversnaid while waiting for their lunch.

They are on the boat on Loch Katrine, mainly for the purpose of the girl being proposed to, when Loch Katrine suddenly drains in its entirety into the underground mine, leaving "a puddle of a few acres" as the boat is grounded. Verne himself remarks they will just have to cross Loch Katrine off the map.

After this monstrous natural disaster the story is hustled to an unsatisfactory close.

I am pretty incensed this has been marketed as a local book. As I keep pointing out, if Aberfoyle wants a local author they only have to look as far as Rupert the Bear, who was drawn there, complete with the Bluebell Wood, the houses, and Pug's chinese palace. But that's making things too easy.


Treasure. The excitement in Staffordshire and Birmingham can barely be imagined. How they kept it quiet for two months astonishes me, but what a trove, or find in today's parlance. And what a wonderful charm-chant the metal detectorist of 18 years came out with: he had said Spirits of Yesteryear, take me where the gold appear the day he found the first pieces.

It is my recession that I cannot go to Birmingham to see them straight away - having too many appointments in the next two weeks, with our accounts also to finalise, and a trip already arranged for Liverpool a few days too late. What are the chances of the Birmingham exhibition time being lengthened - little I  should think. The whole project has been so well planned. It had to be, or pandemonium and chaos would have resulted.

But what a wonderful event. The effect on art, fashion, jewellery, culture will be enormous, though it may not kick in till after the pieces are finally placed on display which may be more than a year off. It is some consolation for not being able to rush to Birmingham that these small treasures are so amenable to video display, and have been well and fairly exhibited through the media even at this early stage.

More important still will be the effect on history. Our knowledge of the so called dark ages is not merely abysmal. It is disgraceful. And now some of it will be fetched back. Links will be made with records and illustrations, places and accounts, until some of the damage done by establishment and churches, the class system and utter carelessness, begins to be unpicked. Class-ridden assumptions included that people went back to being savages without their overlords the Romans, while ecclesiastic disinterest in anything outside the church's own concerns and interpretations, wilful damage to old sites and a total lack of respect for history itself, that is lack of respect for the truth, all combined to produce this unacceptable gap in our knowledge of history. If we know so much about the Romans WHY is there this big gap from 400 to 900 AD? It is inexplicable, yet we have accepted it with far too little question. Now is the time and the opportunity to change all that. 

Cut a Few Capers

Unusually I am doing a culinary blog, to show how we survived the cooker's demise at the early stages of Callander Poetry Weekend and to spill a few secrets about informal party catering.

Preparation is the first thing that saved us, and second the fact that a really good hot party dish tastes just as good cold. Anna Crowe had told me about Caponata, the Sicilian improvement on ratatouille, based on aubergines, onions, capers and pine nuts. You'll find recipes for Sicilian Caponata on google, where you'll also see it wildly praised. And with reason. I had made a huge amount of Caponata in two batches, frozen in the previous week. Nearly all food will freeze for a few days at a late stage of preparation, which makes party cooking much simpler. All this Caponata was to be reheated.

I had also made and frozen a "bake" or concoction of cooked ham strips, halved cherry tomatoes, sweet red peppers and chanterelles. This was delicious and I had to freeze it for two days so I wouldnt eat it. This arose from the lack of recipes to make cold cooked ham interesting (I had hunted) and my discovery of Larry's chanterelle patch, though there were not enough chants for a main dish for so many people. This was the second dish that saved us.

Before the Friday night party I had taken both these cold dishes upstairs to the cooker in the flat to heat them up. It was a good, new cooker but I could not work the complicated timer and when I went to fetch the hot dishes they were still cold. But delicious. There was a hot dish contributed by a guest, and the eating was fine. Without having pre-cooked these dishes and without them being excellent cold, we would have been in trouble.

The third item, the Burns Lunch, was served hot in the Kirk Hall, in four big preserving pans, two on a double plug-in hotplate that we had spare for emergencies (this one), and two on the Kirk Hall cooker hob. Small potatoes, cut into halves and thirds, were cooked in one big pan, and turnips, bought ready diced, in another pan. These were started on the hot plate in the house as they needed longer cooking than the time we had in the hall. They did not need mashing, as they would for a traditional Burns Supper (thus saving a lot of hassle), but were liberally decorated with parsley. Two kinds of haggis, veggie and tinned real, were also served mashed and heated in large pans.The lunchers had to take their plates past the pans and help themselves. There were also some carefully small plastic beakers and a carefully large bottle of whisky. And tea and coffee. The whole thing went off fine, including the quantities which I had not been sure about.

A sweet, to make a fourth. Baklava. I found this recipe in a small Greek cookbook and have done it for special occasions - it is not much more work than a slightly complicated cake, uses the frozen filo pastry packs I pick up cheap while shopping, is essentially pre-cooked and served cold, and also may be frozen for a few days if thawed in good time.

All these recipes and preparations rescued us and turned the disaster with the cooker into the weekend joke.

Broken Holmes and After. A Story in Three Pictures

These photos are by Patrick Spragg, one of the marvellous bunch of actors who did such credit to Robin's play. They had brilliant reviews, great audiences and a sell-out. All the reviews referred to how much it was enjoyed and to the quality of the script, so it was worth the massive work, upheavals and expense. It cost a packet to put on, and even with that degree of success could barely break even, all told. Publicity and accommodation added to venue charges, Fringe charges and the work and time input, increasingly make this almost impossible the way the Fringe is currently run. But all the actors and the writer made their bones and gained profile, and with a couple of thousand folk rooting for the play, there isnt much more to ask for, apart from some return on your money. Moreover, Robin, Rachel and Star now have a new life and a new home, a great conclusion to the whole story.

The Pictures:
Fully Fledged Playwright

Robin and Rachel on the main road opposite the Botanics, round the corner from their new home.
The Picture the Landlady Must Never See

Sticky Honey

There was not as much honey as you would have thought. But there was much more sticky than you would have thought possible. And it was all DELICIOUS. (This picture isnt my honey, but it's definitely the right picture for how it felt.)

I am unbelievably proud of my small stash of honey in jars, lemon coloured, perfumed, a day's work of  the unfamiliar. I was two hours going through the beehive in my bee kit, deciding what I could suitably take, checking that all was well, then two hours processing my modest haul, then two hours or more clearing up. There's another jar containing hashy honeycomb - harder honey, from I dont know which flower, that is either cut as comb or pressed. If you look on my honey year as a commercial venture it is a long long way till it will be into credit - I'm not prepared to divulge the absolute cost per jar this year, and I dare say I might have put it off if I had know Robin would want to get married AND put on a Fringe play, but we never know these things in advance and anyway who's complaining?

If we get good weather for the next six weeks the bees will make a lot more honey, and there'll be more they can spare before winter. I left them a good lot of honey and redistributed their frames to try to persuade them to fill up some other frames - they had hardly been up into the upper super, (that is to say the box on top). I worked outside, because there was room there- you are advised not to use your kitchen because of the mess! You are also advised to use a bee-proof room, which I didnt, and I had one or two polite differences of opinion with interested bees (mainly my own) and wasps (definitely not invited). I am less frightened of any of these little creatures than I once was, especially wasps, and naturally, nobody stung me. I was going to do gardening as well today but it is already evening. I cant garden tomorrow unless I get up early - I have to fetch Robin's flyers and take them to Edinburgh in the afternoon, where I might do just a little bit more Fringe watching as well as perhaps again seeing my this year's favourite play. (Broken Holmes - if you havent heard me going on about it already, do look it up.)

Not much for an update but that is where the day went. And Magi called, and I wrote a couple of letters, and people came and went at the shop, where I wasnt a lot of use being dolled up in bee gear or  covered in sticky, which does not mix with books.

And honey is sticky, though surprisingly, bees are not.

Reasons our bookshop is better than charity bookshops

A topical blog entry: 25 reasons our secondhand and antiquarian bookshop is better than charity bookshops

* it is always staffed by people who really care about books

* we have all round professional knowledge of books, including writing, production and publishing

*we know the book trade, scarcity, availability and history of books

* we have decades of experience of book people

* we are not greedy

* we give excellent, sensible free advice.

* great banter, discussions with authors, poets and readers

* we have a bookshop garden

* we have a great (free) poetry weekend every year

* excellent local knowledge and advice available

* the bookshop has two cats

* there is also a singing deer

* the shop is like a living room - carpets, flowers etc

* we have our own bindery for the shop

* there is also a printing press and a large case full of trays of lead type

* and a belemnite fossil table

* the shop is open 7 days, all hours and available even beyond these hours by arrangement

* books range from 20p (shelf outside) to three figure sums -  it is several shops rolled into one

* we have published over 100 items, including poetry, plays, occasional non fiction and issues of Poetry Scotland

* we have six bays of Scottish books

* we are in a beautiful small highland town

* we keep bees in the bookshop garden

* we sell a few plants, and tomato plants in the spring

* we sometimes sell violins, pictures and other items, more or less by accident

* we had a Glasgow tram stairway lying in the shop for a couple of years, but we sold it.

* our bookshop itself has an interesting history and was started in Edinburgh in 1987.

Bee Disease in Angus and Fife

A small apiary: two hives
When I remarked there was a bee disease in Angus and Fife last night, someone responded by shouting . "All the bees are dying!" People seem to like panicking about bees, but in fact being aware of disease and working to control it is the best way to help them survive.

The local beekeepers society had called a meeting on Sunday to discuss a calamity. The notifiable disease European Foul Brood that was already known to be present in Angus and Fife, had apparently spread to the Stirling area. Our usually cheerful band of leading beekeepers had long faces.  One of the five government bee inspectors from Perth had come to the meeting to discuss the problem with the beekeepers. I didnt know who this guy was before, but I had seen him around the bookshops, a naturalist type and he was very worried.

The government had know the disease was present in Angus and Fife among commercial bee stocks, but because the lab tests were taking so long to come back positive, no one was informed in neighbouring areas. A simple warning could have helped containment of the disease, as beekeepers would have stopped visiting each others stocks - a way it is easily spread. Foul Brood is a disease of the larvae and the usual treatment is to burn the bee colony and sear the hive with a blowtorch, though if it is caught very early it can be treated by putting the bees into a new clean hive.

Everyone is affected, the more experienced keepers having the most colonies and the commercial keepers having the most to lose, while obtaining bees for the first time or to expand one's stock will become impossible locally as the major keepers try to re-breed colonies. People with the odd hive in their garden (like myself) are less threatened, though no one will want to visit to help us any more, and everyone is going over to extreme hygiene precautions, disposable rubber gloves and overclothes, sterilising equipment. No one knows exactly how the disease spreads, it can be spread by visiting bees especially if bees decide to rob a weak colony, as they sometimes do, so it can spread through the wild.

Barring this kind of wild spread, my own bees should be OK, as the old beekeeper we got them from comes from the Falkirk area which is thought to be clear.

Although the disease is notifiable, there is no official register of beekeepers. If the government inspectors want to inspect private hives, they cannot get the names from the beekeepers associations because of the Data Protection Act. But people were invited to give their permission for their names to be given to the beekeeping inspectors. I havent done this yet, and may not on principle. But someone added that intelligence could be gathered by asking people if they knew anyone "over the hill" who kept bees. I dont see how that is any different from data protection: it is an interesting matter indeed.

All the same, nobody is taking beehives up to the communal heather site this August, though we are still going to have the annual Bee Picnic on the heather moors. Sounds like a bee picnic in the heather without the bees would make a good Fringe play scenario... I'll sting if you pinch it, fellas.

on knowing next to nothing about Googlewave

It's big and it 's coming, and I was impressed by that video presentation with all the superkids dressed in jeans and T shirts. Perhaps at least social media will see off the loved and hated collar and tie.  Google, well it started the internet, didnt it, its the backbone of searches, isnt it.

I've always said the rise of the internet is like the invention of moveable type printing. It releases. It releases us from the establishment, and from bigotry, and from misinformation.  It speeds. The spread of news, the spread of powerful images, the passing on of words. It's going to throw a hammer into the newly and carefully sewn-up intellectual property empires.  We've already got facebook, twitter, mebo, and many other sites and systems, and those of us who can use them have a streets ahead advantage over the mainly ageing clingers to the old ways.

But the old ways dont disappear. Mix and match is a good motto, when the telephone can be used when you know your respondent is available, books are better chosen, better advertised, better produced and better looking, letters and cards are more welcome if less resorted to and if more expensive to send, journalists can switch to internet news sites. Only the newspaper sector is looking sick, and that is mainly because its advertising revenue has shrunk. There are all these other ways of finding out.

The book sector will change, and in my view much for the better. We are suffering from extreme poglism in the book industry. Distribution is pogled, reviews are pogled, major readings and establishment exposure are pogled. The internet gives honest writing and publishing a way out.

Another big pogle is public money for the arts, which includes grants for literary publishing. A recession/depression is good for self funded operations, such as theatre companies that dont depend on handouts, publishers who have been excised from literature funding - funding makes up for inadequacies and supports establishment agendas (the only good ideas of which are pinched from their outcasts.)

And nothing stays the same. Things are speeding up. Much less than a year ago I was dismayed when an earlier facebook setup was abruptly changed, but since then I have learnt to use twitter also, and seen faster and faster social media developments. Which is where I say we need a better, snappier term for social media. It took them a while, back in those classical days, to come up with book.

 We are living a thousand years and travelling a million miles with the new media. Frail and ageing as I may be, compared with those T shirted Google kids,  I want to be on the train.

Production Support

Canavan and Bober rehearsing in Leicester as Watson and Holmes

When hubby did a Fringe play thirty years ago it cost very little and the Fringe community got by on a few bob and shared fish suppers. When we were close to plays in Edinburgh fifteen years ago,  by John Cargill Thompson, Bill Dunlop and the other playwrights whose plays we were publishing, the ante had already been well and truly upped, and our role involved dealing with texts, socialising with the actors and generally turning up and enjoying the plays as insiders, belonging to the small band who had taken it upon themselves to get their particular show up and running and playing to audiences.

We thought we'd retired from all that until Robin's play Broken Holmes went into the lists for this year's Fringe. And this time our role is different. We are sideline supporters, whose help has so far been wanted for tracking down accommodation, acquiring props, including furniture that we may never see again (at any rate in good condition), sourcing a good printer for the flyers the team had almost forgotten until the last minute, conjuring a dozen excellect two-colour posters from the same printer (in advance of an order for 500), and other small services of that ilk. Driving round Edinburgh once again in the re-requisitioned "Mom's Taxi" be it with friends who might miss their last train or with props to the theatre or bags of rice and coffee to the actors' quarters, are pleasures still to come. It is certainly a privilege to be closely involved in the excitement of a play production, with serious young actors out of acting school making their bones. They are mostly, like Robin, ex Leicester University Theatre and we can't help wanting to cheer them on. It is almost like a sport, putting a play on the Fringe, for you play to win. It is easy to say the festival is not what it was, the Fringe is commercialised etcetera and it is certainly much more expensive than it used to be, both to perform and attend, but there are still many hard working artists who slog away for months before you see all those city theatres fill, and the streets throng with leaflet-flinging touters and tasters for a few mad weeks. Make this witty new comedy of Holmes and Watson one you visit, if you can, off the Royal Mile at Venue 45 10.10 pm, 6th to 22nd August. No Sunday sailings.

100 facts about Bees: Part One 35 facts

These are in no particular order, the numbering is a just a check. I feel confident I can easily reach 100, but am making it more readable by stopping at 35 facts here. So many of you have asked me questions about bees, things I have learnt this year yet every country person ought to know, I've decided to give you some points of reference. More facts will follow if you like them, depending on the response.

1. Bumble bees get up earlier in the morning than honey bees.
2. Bees do not like thunder.
3. Bees will travel a mile or two for their favourite foods.
4. They like big trees - lime, sycamore, chesnuts, willow etc.
5. A colony of honey bees can contain 20,000 to 45,000 bees.
6. If bees are going to swarm they usually swarm at the beginning of June (Scotland).
7. Hives are often moved to the heather moors in August.
8. If bees are unduly aggressive the beekeeper may change the queen.
9.  Some bee colonies are docile. I havent been stung at all.
10. Bees need a bit of privacy in front of their hive door.
11. Bees' favourites include cotoneaster, amelanchier, marshmarigolds.
12. Early in spring they like willow, crocuses, snowdrops & aconites.
13. You sometimes have to feed bees in winter or in long spells of bad weather.
14. Bumblebees, wasps, and mice sometimes try to get inside beehives.
15. Beehives should be a couple of feet above the ground.
16. You cannot move a beehive. If you do, even a few feet, the bees get lost.
17. But you can move a beehive more than three miles, then they readjust.
18. Heather honey and rapeseed honey are hard gels. Flower honey is runny.
19. You must never heat honey, it destroys the flavour.
20. Bees keep themselves warm in winter by clustering and constant movement.
21. They keep the hive cool in summer by fanning.
22. Wintering worker bees are slightly different physicially from summer bees.
23. There are many wild honey bee colonies in tree hollows and wall cracks etc.
24. All wild colonies have their entrances facing south or south east.
25. Buckfast bees are blackish wild bees. This type of bee was kept at Buckfast Abbey.
26. Honey bees are smaller than bumblebees.
27. Bumblebees live in small colonies perhaps 2 dozen bees.
28. Bees stick their hives together with propylis which is the stuff on horse chestnut buds.
29. There is propylis on many tree buds but not so pronounced as on horse chesnuts.
30. So bees collect nectar, pollen and propylis.
31. When bees hatch they immediately start cleaning cells.
32. New bees work for a few days in the brood chambers then go out foraging.
33. Bees often dance about facing the front of their hive just like in old pictures.
34. When they have swarmed, bees send scouts out to find a new home.
35. When the scouts have found a new home the bees all fly to it in a beeline.

The Length of the Land

We travelled down to  England at the weekend for family parties, and with four passengers I decided to hire a car. We left at eight thirty a. m. in a large Mondeo, heading for Glasgow on small roads and then on the motorway to cross the border at Gretna, on down past Carlisle, Kendal, Preston and Manchester towards Birmingham and the often congested roads round there, but transferred to the M5 without difficulty. Then it was Worcester and finally the smaller country roads into Herefordshire, with rich hedges, rolling fields and a totally different architecture from Scotland.  And beautiful gardens, including this one at the Three Horse Shoes, Little Cowarne:

Returning the following day, we set off early evening and drove into the night, which was not a dark one at this time of year, in fact we could see the northern light almost all the way, until after Tebay and the simple chips and strawberries that were available at ten p.m., we drove on with sleeping passengers and arrived home at 1.30 a.m. We had had congestion at Birmingham on the homeward trip, but met with no traffic lights on roads until we left the M9 at Stirling and were twice held up on the last twenty minute leg home.

Throughout the journey we had seen only good cars on the road, no bangers, few police vehicles, one old bus, one or two sports cars and basically, nothing whatever going on. The only busy services station was southbound at Tebay on Saturday morning, and the only queues were at the motorway merging in Birmingham northbound. In other words, virtually nothing was going on up and down the country.

Home, and back in my ageing regular car, we went owl hunting this evening on the forest road to Inversnaid, something we could not have done anywhere else on our journey. The big black wild billygoat standing aggressively on the road could only have been in the forest beside Kinlochard, and he was the best thing we saw tonight. But we also saw both ends of Loch Katrine, the northern end of Loch Lomond, the shores of Loch Venachar, Loch Achray, Loch Ard & Loch Arklet, & Inversnaid waterfall so we weren't complaining.

On Flanders Moss

Flanders Moss is a huge wet raised moss area south of Callander, stretching from Thornhill across a wide glen to the Aberfoyle road. Without roads or habitations, it partly explains the demarcation between the populated central lowlands and the southern central highlands. We drive round it on our different routes but I have never been onto it before.

The whole area is spongy and waterlogged. Without the new floating boardwalk it would not be possible to get right onto the bog to see the undisturbed flat world of aquarian and avian wildlife. Mosses were the bulk of the vegetation. There are many kinds which do not flower and seed but grow upwards on their own vegetation. Others have spores in small spore caps which look like seedheads. The area is scattered with cotton grass and interspersed with pools full of insects and ambhibians. It is too shallow and acidic for fish, but the moss itself is very deep. Birds include meadow pipits, cuckoos which "parasite" on the meadow pipit nests, and gulls. Birch is encroaching in places, which is being tackled by introducing Shetland sheep to graze controlled areas.

In the picture below you can see sundew, a small variety, which eats midges, but does not eat enough of them to help control them. Moss heads looking rather like flowers, and green bog myrtle leaves complete the picture. The light green and wine colours are typical of the Moss. Caterpillars, dragonflies, lizards are at home on the Moss, which is a flat, alien world rarely visited by people or the larger animals. A strange two-dimensional world, far from ours.


What kind of tree?

A very old tree, in a row of four old trees, three sweet chestnuts and an oak. This one is called the Antler tree, probably because its branches looked like antlers 100 years ago or more. Thought to be between 400 and 600 years old. Possibly from chestnuts  from the Armada ships? This suggestion which we made has gone the rounds, but it could equally have been a travelling monk who brought the nuts from southern Europe. You can see they are in a protective copse beside a sheltered artificial lake - the water is down the path. The roots will be damp. Water and air unpolluted. Deep leaf mould and a carpet of bluebells. The trees have remained here unmanaged in ideal surroundings, but I didnt see replacement trees which should surely be planted now. There are huge hollows in them, much too big for bees' nests. A duck flew out of one of the hollows as I passed.

The priory here which housed monks from Cambuskenneth, has much white stone building intact. This and another island were the home of the Cunninghame Graham family. Roberto Cunninghame Graham, adventurer and writer, is buried in the priory. Historic Scotland mentions him in a web site as the first president of the SNP. However he was not the founder of the party, which began from more than one origin. Cunninghame Graham was a national socialist and knew Oswald Moseley, and his views would not stand up to our current liberal opinion on race and class. Just as there are two sides to shipowner William Burrell, only one of which is presented as establishment, so there are two sides to Cunninghame Graham, and to many of his earlier age. Perhaps he bridges the gap to the building of the great priory - with room for an audience of at least 200 in the nave. An awning and poetry perhaps? You couldnt bring enough people over in the little boats. I forgot to ask, but I'm pretty sure they built the priory before they made the lake. Priory built 1238.

Thanks to Pat Morrissey for the interesting photos.

Back to the Edinburgh Fringe

It's been a domestic spring/summer.  There have been beekeeping, flower baskets and spring cleaning at home, amidst the never-ending activity of the bookshop. Perhaps we've been to fewer auctions, but we've been to auctions: to fewer regular events but to a range of interesting poetry and writing meetings in Edinburgh, Glasgow Stirling and Perth. I've had a lovely little book published, The Honey Seller (see left menu). The shop has been doing OK, sometimes brilliantly, though we share the financial nervousness of the times.

And now we are flung back to involvement with a play in the Edinburgh Fringe, after a nine year break. It's my son Robin's play, and having supported Fringe plays in various ways in the past, including play publications, props provision, even a huge car camping tent on Calton Hill on one occasion, working in Edinburgh on the spot for nearly twenty years,
entertaining, accommodating, supporting, and consoling actors and performers, and our shop having been associated with nine Fringe Firsts, we could hardly be expected not to get close to Broken Holmes, Semper Theatre, Venue 45, The Space [in Old St Paul's Church], Jeffrey Street, 10.10 pm from the 6 to 22 August (not Sundays).

Having been inconsiderate enough to sell a perfectly good house in Edinburgh nine years ago to come to Callander, we felt the least we could do was to find the company somewhere to live while working their socks off at the Fringe.

Robin's life has been very full this year. He began it in San Francisco with his friend Rachel and her daughter Star. Then he returned to Scotland and Leicester to fix the details of his cast and company, then to France to join Rachel and Star in some country living. They fly back to Scotland next week. Rachel has gotten herself some action in Killin, while Robin has been asked back to do some work for his former boss, who wouldnt give him the three months off over last winter to go to America.

I had asked around casually and had a look at Gumtree adverts website, before I started to panic. All the university flats were a) ludicrously expensive and b) taken. There were more ludicrously expensive flats at Heriot Watt and at Queen Margaret' University, both too far out after a late night show. There were flats on offer daily that didnt answer one's enquiring emails. It was time to seriously canvas our old Edinburgh friends.

I won't betray privacy by saying who I asked, but it was an inspired choice of enabler, who was also inspired to inform us that another of our friends was in process of preparing a small house for rental & hadnt got as far as looking for tenants. So Ian and I descended on Edinburgh and the friend last night, the property was extremely suitable, we went round to look at it and the deed was done. Indeed, it is on the cards that Robin, Rachel and Star will be able to live in it as a family after the festival. So, having promised to sponsor the play by not only finding but also paying for the actors' accommodation, we are feeling we have done rather well by our young people, thus far.

If you're in Edinburgh in August, please don't forget to come to "our" play, Broken Holmes by Robin Johnson, Venue 45.

Oxford: Part One: personal

Everybody's Oxford is probably personal, despite the common ground of buildings and streets. I remember it from early youth. As soon as I was old enough to ransack the secondhand bookshops, I was doing just that. I particularly loved the old Blackwells with its twisty upper corners where my love of poetry books began.

My father went to Jesus College, a Welsh enclave, and I might have followed him but for my inclination to study classics rather than the Eng Lit everyone said I should take. There were places for very few women at that time. My father had wanted to see me there. Not only was I sent on a pre-Oxford residential course with an amazing lady called Mrs Hodgson who brought in academic staff and took us to Gloucestershire in coaches, but my father took a swap with a house in a place called Littlemore for the whole of a summer when I was about sixteen.

During this visit, a family friend had come up with a suggestion. She knew of a poet  to whom I might send a sample of the poems I was writing in solitude by then, who might give me some advice as to how to proceed with my interest. I struck unlucky. The poet was snooty, dismissive and clearly uninterested in a young girl from the provinces. I had a short, fancifully written reply from him, saying the poems showed promise and I should keep on writing. It didnt discourage me, but I could see it was not my break.

Inexorably, life brought me further north, but I still seemed to be in Oxford a great deal, and as an intelligent young person I had a sense of belonging in it. There I found and read my first poetry books, new and secondhand, there I read Hopkins and Graves and Auden (and Iris Murdoch), and learnt of the post of Professor of Poetry, which was not then taught as a separate subject anywhere, but that Oxford had this honorary post because poetry was revered by scholars of Greats and Mods and English Literature. Some of the Professorial lectures were printed in books which I bought and read.

As life went on and I became a bookseller/publisher/writer, we went to Oxford as publishers to Blackwells distribution offices and the other shops in Oxford, as bookbuyers to the Oxford auction (where a record price was made by an early book on farting), and as poets to a Small Press Conference in which hubby gave a demonstration of bookbinding. "I have always wanted to teach something in Oxford," he remarked, a comment outclassed by that of a policeman who pulled us over on the motorway on the way there, to ask us what we were carrying in the back of our car. It was a book press, and and when hubby said he was going to a bookbinding demonstration, the copper said, "What are the bookbinders demonstrating about?"

Another time I went there was in process of researching my little book on bookmarks. I had been told the Bodleian had a good collection in a well known Ephemera holding. I visited to inspect these bookmarks, and wrote the Library a nice mini-paper on what their collection contained.

It was only gradually that I acclimatised to Scottish culture and stopped expecting miracles from Oxford. Just as I stopped expecting the Oxford English Dictionary to be particularly interested in Welsh and Gaelic derivations. Just as I was horrified, not gratified, when Blackwells took over Thins Bookshops in Edinburgh. I began to see... well, what? That Oxford could not go on being the historical and literary yardstick, the ultimate academy I had allowed it to become in my formative years.

Oxford: Part Two: Sex Wars

left: Robert Graves writing

In 1935 my father graduated from Oxford,and his parents presented him with a copy of a book that was all the rage in the university that year: Seven Pillars of Wisdom. This book by an upper class gay man, never mentions a woman other than in the sense in which servants are mentioned by Jane Austen. To T.E. Lawrence, women didnt matter. It was as well to take care of them, especially those of your own class. After all, they were going to have babies, and
someone had to have the babies, as a later argument against working mothers ran. The hypocrisy that covered homosexuality, acts of which were still to be illegal for another 30 years, also allowed men to treat different classes of women differently. Basically there were whores and drudges and wives.

The women's colleges, founded by dedicated, enlightened and indomitable women, did their best to provide education for women, but it was a long time until things at all equalised. Women were all but unknown to the science departments, though medical figures, including the famous pioneering Scottish women doctors, brought women students to this important specialism. Most women studied history, literatures, and modern languages, and most expected to turn out as teachers. Some would be writers in many fields. They began as out-students, like Naomi Mitchison in 1919, and gradually worked their way into full membership of the university. It was a slow process, of which my own generation, in the late sixties, saw a few last bastions fall: membership of unions on the same footing as men, rights to achieve certain positions, important precedents.

Now I am not just talking about Oxford. Throughout the era from 1935 to about 1980, most university teachers were men, and women students had the tricky task of forming work relationships with them. Students were young and inexperienced: the teachers were older but also often inexperienced, and personal crises were regular. What was a student to do if her lecturers were making advances during private tutorials? What was a lecturer to do if a student thought he was her father (as I heard one tutor complain) or had a crush on him?

Preferment was often on grounds of attraction to the opposite sex. Discussions, advice, marks and postgraduate opportunities were decided the same way. It was a no win situation for women. You were compromised if you were attractive, and compromised if you were not. The general ethos was that consenting adult women were fair game for men's sexual interest. It is still rare to hear the suggestion that they are not. During the nineteen-sixties and seventies, the Open University in particular acquired a horrendous reputation for libidinous summer schools. Young postgraduates were engaged to teach, innocents such as my first husband who returned from his summer school with a married clergywoman in hot pursuit. The Robbins Report of the sixties had flooded the universities with new talent of all classes and both sexes.

Against this chaos ,and the upper crust male domination of Oxford, which was still the intellectual centre of the country's culture, feminism started to flourish. Women had seen what they might do, given the chance, and they knew they could do it. They wanted to be politicians (thank you Mrs Thatcher), artists, musicians, poet laureates, and they wanted to do this and marry, have children, reasonable leisure and enough money to live comfortable lives. Most women and men performed balancing acts around these requirements and found satisfaction in the sensitively changing traffic of women and men. 

Not so the extreme feminists, and there were many of them, women who disregarded men as much as the men had formerly disregarded women, who considered all men potential sexual wolves and all women the saviours of the future. We all remember the books which flooded the country: take ground back from the bastards, was the war cry of the times.

And Oxford, the beautiful, desirable, middle-class, towery city and branchy between towers traditional seat of privilege, was still held by the Masters. Women professors were at last common all over the country. Glasgow had had its first woman Professor of English Literature in its 400 years. Some of these Chairs were now awarded on a rolling time basis so more scholars, women among them, would occupy them.

There was one bastion left: the Chair of Poetry. Now that poetry was taught everywhere, creative writing professors existed in many universities. First was David Craig, a Scotsman at Lancaster. My own university now had a creative writing school in the very building in which I had studied Classics. But still the Chair at Oxford carried magic. Matthew Arnold had held it, so had Robert Graves and W H Auden. And this time there were three candidates. An English woman poet with several books to her name and a high reputation for scholarship. A very senior 79 year old American male poet (male poet? when exactly did that phrase come into parlance?) with a Nobel Prize for poetry. An Indian poet of good reputation, from that huge English speaking continent, and less known in England, which was where the action took place.

It was a disaster, a deplorable shame that the elderly Nobel prizewinner was savaged as he was by feminists latching onto the reports, a sexual scandal being raised with vague and confusing details (and two sides) and bandied round the press. One can only hope it was not such a big story in America, but information gets everywhere these days except when you want it straight. A microcosm of the old story of the male academics' disrespect of the woman student. Returned.

It is very important in society who get to be the poets. Until about 1980 women poets were universally thought to be a bit odd. Edith Sitwell, Stevie Smith, Emily Dickinson were typical recluses or eccentrics who lived without men. Younger women who didnt grow up against that prejudiced background, have no idea how awful it was. We won't even start on the Ted and Sylvia myth but you can see how it fits.

Then all of a sudden, whoomph, women were everywhere in poetry. Last week (was it?) Carol Ann became Laureate. This week, the inexorable thrust of feminism within poetry, fuelled by those absolutely classic anti-male allegations, swept away the candidate who by seniority and his Nobel status should have been well in the running, the top class American poet who could have brought further perspectives to British poetry studies in the next five years. Five years later he will be 84. He won't come back anyway. Would you? 

It's in the Family

This morning I just decided to ask some friends what they thought of Twitter, as I had noticed so many people were using it, and I hadnt tried it. Was it any use, fun, easy and did it take up too much time, I asked. To which I received a comment from Tim Collins that he had just published a book on Twitter today.

I hope my other friends believed me when I said this wasnt a set-up. I visited Tim's parents recently and to be fair to his Dad, I do remember him saying 'Tim has been writing funny little books,' but the penny didnt drop. Perhaps it was thought I would feel outdone. Far from it, I'm delighted. More likely though, writing is a coterie and if you are in it, you understand it but if you are outside, the whole thing can be something of an embarrassment if your own nearest and dearest are involved. There's also a generation gap: a book about what? Internet dating?



I'm about to be dragged away from this post but it isnt finished  -- I'd like to get stuff on his other books and also briefly discuss how writing often runs in families.  Hope you didnt get signposted here before it was all finished.
Oh, and I've started a twitter page - floundering at the moment, and intending to spend no more than half an hour a day on it (not a joke). TTFN

"The Apple doesnt fall far from the Tree"
Tim's comment on the cousinly trio seen below,
at a performance party in Manchester, 2007.

Front row left: Robin Johnson. 
Back right (partly obscured) Tim Collins.
Fifth from right standing, (blue scarf) Clara Story.

R.I.P. facebook updates: a good ball while we kicked it

It was a good ball while we kicked it, but it's on the slates now.  A young person I know well told me that facebook would probably eventually be replaced by something better. And we know that nothing stays the same, and in a fast moving media world, everything changes even faster than formerly.

Like other facebook addicts this morning, very early in my case, I pressed the familiar "friends" page to find my friends re-listed in alpha order of first name  -- a good development -- but also, horror of horrors, without tags with their updates, those pithy remarks of news, humour, current observations. We have lived in update heaven for the last year or more, and pouf! it has gone.

The whole thing about updates is they were expendable aphorisms. Politically and within an interest field like poetry, they were extremely powerful.  On the very last day of its power, I was able with a few other poets (nearly all women) to inform the world poetry community of the sad passing of poet UA Fanthorpe, an important figure, and a lesbian like her colleague Carol Ann Duffy, who is widely expected to become Poet Laureate today. UA was loved and admired by all who knew her or read her poetry. facebook was particularly important to the disetablishment and to intellectuals who may have been sidelined for their sexual or political stances, though the world tends to catch up with such people, who are first to see the obvious -  e.g. that Scotland deserves to be a country, that lesbians and gays should not be penalised in society and the arts. Social networking is a grade of communication somewhere between journalism - expendable talk and newsprint - and personal conversation, also a great means for people to become known when they deserve to be known, rather than waiting for the establishment to pick up on them. And such people, writers, poets, musicians, whoever they are, can wait for ever, when the establishment inevitably has its own agenda.

When something has gone, you have to move on. Your platform for aphorism has collapsed. Updates now last only an hour on facebook home pages, and I dont think they all appear on everyone's list, it seems more like a random selection. I have never repeated the same updates at later hours, and I certainly have not time to update every hour, despite apparently having facebook files open most of the time.

facebook has given individuals such as myself political power which some may think we should not have, and professional power which was extremely useful. There is another side to this. The government's Cobra committee has met in an effort to deal with the threat of a flu pandemic, and the World Health Organization has been vociferous too. facebook updates from the general population would have potential for increasing mass hysteria. Suppose there were shortages of cleaning materials and tissues (that's sure to happen). Suppose there were thousands of deaths (we hope that wont happen.). It's my bet that facebook was told to reduce its facility of uncontrolled mass communication.

Edinburgh Day

I didnt feel like going to Edinburgh when I woke in Callander on Monday morning. But look at the fun I'd have missed if I hadnt got off & down to Dunblane for the train. There I found a new system of parking control was in its first day, and I was lucky to find a free space beside the main road. I'll have to allow extra time to park when doing a train run in future (of course if they hadnt closed the Callander line we would not need to drive and park in Dunblane.)

On the train, I got out my poem of the day, freewrote into it and got it out of the way. The transition into townie is quite difficult these days but I had made it by Edinburgh Waverley. I trotted off round what's left of Jeffrey Street and down the Canongate, & had a bite of lunch in the little chocolate shop recommended by Gillean. It was brilliant -- cheap, comfortable, uncrowded and good food. I watched a familiar procession of poets headed down to the Poetry Library and then I joined them. It was the opening of the Edwin Morgan Archive and Eddie was there, as I guessed he would be, for they could fix special transport etc in the middle of the day. He was 89. It was a most friendly and enjoyable event all round, with Mike Russell representing Parliament and Liz Lochhead and Ron Butlin doing most of the honours.

There I am, above, with Colin and Anna, photographed by Peggy. There are many more good photos of the event on the SPL facebook page. That's the Jacques Vert jacket I blogged about a month or two ago: still my favourite (it hasnt yet appeared in too many photos like my silver jacket did).

After the party, and a good natter with one and all, I headed off just in time to meet Eric arriving. Edinburgh doesnt change. However I did find the state of Princess Street most alarming as I walked down its length, diverted round every junction past all the tramholes. Hardly any of the shops on the great thoroughfare were trading. I had been going to look out for a pair of boots, but not even any shoe shops. I got down to the bank, paid in my cheques and took the train back to Dunblane, dozing in the knowledge that my stop was the terminus. Memorable day.

Bee plants

Once you notice bees you see they are closely connected with plants. There are some important plants that they like and the one most people will immediately suggest is spring fruit blossom, apple, cherry, almond, pear and plum.
Trees are in fact very important. In the spring they start with willow, then maple, sycamores, limes, sweet chestnuts and horse chestnuts as well as the fruit blossoms. In my garden they liked the amelanchier which is actually a flowering medlar. They also like walnut trees.
The three walnuts and the maple in the Douglas garden (left) would be a very good start for bees at Stirling Castle, but I think it more likely the Castle will have got its honey from Cambuskenneth orchards, where I saw bee plants surviving in the orchard sites, cotoneaster, ivy, gooseberries, bluebells and old pear trees.
In mild weather in early spring the bees will take nectar and pollen from snowdrops, aconites, and crocuses. They dont like daffodils. They like bean flowers and onion flowers and a great variety of garden and wild plants, such as honeysuckle, foxglove, Canterbury bells etc. In Callander there are many hundred-year-old plantings that provide mature trees and blossoms. The crags are south-east facing and are likely to house some wild colonies. Wild bees live in tree hollows and always have their entrances facing south or south east, towards the sun.
When it comes to crop plants for honey, you're likely to think of heather, which makes a gel honey. Many beekeepers transport their hives to heather moors for the August heather crop. Another gelling crop is rapeseed.  [
26 April]

Learning from Poem-a-Day

There are at least two Poem-a-Day projects this April, Robert Lee Brewer's Poetic Asides and one on Na-Po-something or other (that's the one I'm not doing. Doing one gives you no time to investigate the other.)

The first thing I learnt was that eight times out of ten I wanted to revise a poem after a longer period than a day had elapsed from its writing. The exhilaration of new work skews its reading. Maybe one in ten poems comes out right first time, often when there has been a longer gestation period trying to think of the approach (sometimes I got a day or two behind with particular prompts). The tenth time the poem is slight, funny and can stand on its spontaneous feet, or else it hasnt really got anywhere at all so there's no point taking it further. A slight poem is that about hobbies, a funny is the clean/dirty poem, a cop-out. 

I learnt I could write poems of a sort I would not have attempted, at a time when quite likely I didnt "feel" "inspired" to write one at all. I compared writing a poem-a-day to producing an imitation pearl from a piece of inserted grit at the centre, whereas a real pearl arrives from a chance piece of grit.

I learnt from the manner in which other poets tackled the same prompts. I learnt from the bad poems and the good poems, the American poems, the beat poems, the religious poems, the societal poems, the students poems, the form poems, the sloppy poems and the copy poems.
You'll find my poems written this month on desktopsallye on the Poem-a-Day page. I have incorporated revisions which didnt all get into the Poetic Asides posts. Cutting sections, changing a word or words, and regrouping the lines were the most common corrections I made.

I learnt I always needed time alone for the poems, and with busy schedules this was sometimes quite difficult. (I wrote one sitting in the car while Ian was in an auction.) It also cut into time spent on this blog - hence few entries for April. At worst I got three poems behind, and though this was often connected to prompts I found difficult, it was really a matter of time budgets. Needless to say I've been beekeeping, gardening, doing the magazine send-out etc as well. With seventeen days done I am on course to finish, however, and I am also going to be helping Robert Lee Brewer as one of a number of readers to make a preliminary selection of the poems.

Do have a look at the poem-a -day poems on my blog - there are some running comments as well - and if you have time, I'd be glad of any comments about the project here.

A poem predicts

You can come here time after time and not a single soul but yourselves.

I decided to begin a poem-a-day routine for April, as many other poets are doing (some already did this last April). This morning I wrote my first one (on the prompt
origins) about a beautiful, deserted place in central Scotland that we know - Glen Orchy, that runs between the Oban road and the Fort William road past the Green Welly. Green Welly may seem a funny name for a place but it is about as well known a junction as Scotch Corner used to be on the Great North Road.

The Green Welly's at what was once a beautiful little place called Tyndrum. Old Tyndrum is a single row of white cottages that cross the present road at right angles. Present Tyndrum is basically the Green Welly road service shop and two railway stations. Yes two - an upper and a lower, serving different lines and two dozen houses. Future Tyndrum is a bigger place altogether, with developments, gold mines, you name it.

I digress. The poem was about Glen Orchy, where we have traditionally made a spring solstice picnic expedition to see the waterfalls, the stone age cairns and a million mating frogs. The whole river swims with tadpoles for a few weeks and then in June the tiny road is all but impassable for frogs making off into the high marshes.

I thought of frogs, and the stone age cairns, and the poem appeared. But we hadnt been there this year.

Then we went there entirely by accident this evening. It really was an accident. We were meant to be going to Arrochar. But an incident on the journey held us up, and we decided it was then too far to go so returned, via Glen Orchy inevitably, in the last two hours of light.

There's a modern shrine there too, such as are sometimes seen in little-visited woods and glens in Scotland. It was blazing with planted daffodils. A visit had been made to it recently and there were fresh cut carnations as well as the pictures and tokens of family members which lie there from year to year unmolested by visitors. Beautiful. I noticed abundant details of the quiet riverside that had not gone into today's poem, so if possible I will move on with more of the same theme in poems of the next day or two.


A Day in the Shop

It was supposed to be a short Sunday and the weather was great for gardening, and we did quite a bit of that in the morning. Making way for the bees has done the whole area good, as I move plants and bushes and clear up. We got our beehive stand lidded and painted - it's a massive, strong packing case cadged from the tannery with the cut down lid of a gateleg table that was surplus to requirements, nailed on top.

However that's only part of todays story, as the bookshop was surprisingly busy and totally took over during the afternoon. To start with, we filled a massive hole in the children's section made by somebody buying all the remaining Railway Modellers. A colleague from Australia who had missed us in the week came back and bought his usual select heap, including a gorgeous Talwyn Morris hand binding we had hidden in the lobby upstairs. Ian was quite sorry to see it go, but even Australia needs a culture.  We were then mobbed by Glaswegians and others on a sunny day out, looking for thrillers, novels, "World War 2 for children," etc. Somebody made off with all the James Bonds, and for some reason the cookery has taken a hammering.

Last thing, Ian was approached by a Masonic delegation looking for a Bible as their lodge had burnt down on its 250th anniversary. He produced a large 1797 Bible he had rebound, wondering at the time what use a rebound Bible would be - and it fitted the bill perfectly. It took them an hour and half and some strange phone calls to decide to buy it. From a day like this, you would get no indication there was a recession.

By this time I was done in and went off to read a book about Ireland - an old lady's account of her childhood around 1880. All in all, although the day has been one hour shorter than usual it feels like three hours longer.

Too much excitement?

each of our shops has in turn hosted a family wedding

Back from St Andrews to the heartland of Callander, the week swung into gear and a high gear it was. First my brother turned up a day earlier than I expected, and married Sandi in our local registry office with our local registrar Irene, brother Stephen turning up by air from London to support brother Paul. I was just home and hadnt prepared for a meal for the evening before, so we all went to Poppies, Callander's No 2 posh restaurant for dinner and a great natter.

The day of the wedding dawned wet, unsuprisingly, but we only had a few steps to the registrar's after Stephen arrived. A happy and dignified ceremony, included the reading of my poem 'Travelling together' and a subsequent chat with the registrar, who showed a quick country appreciation of veterinary ophthalmology. We returned to the shop for a cup of tea before heading down to the Roman Camp, very much Callander's No 1 restaurant, where we had a top class peaceful and leisurely lunch. After which the Londoner and the Welsh borderers departed.

The Roman Camp Hotel

Other concerns this week were addressed yesterday when we set off on a book buying trip. We added to this some other purchases and a visit to the tannery where Ian got glue, brown leather (difficult to find the sort he wants) and the expensive French and Turkish endpapers he uses. I had spied a heap of abandoned wooden pallets outside in the yard and I asked if I could take some for bee hive stands. I was invited to help myself. Among them we found a strong packing case that will be ideal for two or even three hives. My first bees and hive will be arriving soon - most of the beginners have been allocated a fully operational hive from the estate of a beekeeper who has reached the end of his days & whose family passed on the bees to the club. We are paying for them but much less than a hive and bees would otherwise have cost.

Today was the Castle writing group followed by lunch with Elizabeth at Cambuskenneth. She had arranged to introduce me to the local historian Cambell Chesterman who in turn took us round an old orchard, one of three at Cambuskenneth, and bombarded us with detailed local history, much of which I managed to write down. Hot stuff, about kings and abbots, books, boats, artists and tradespeople, orchards and berry fairs.

Tonight I am going to catch up with some reading: I've been living my own life very hard this week & would like to latch into some other life via the page. I am behind with my work by one book to be edited, and ahead of it by one unexpected pamphlet, due out around April end. (Oh, and adrift by one book containing Gaelic translations, supposed to be published this spring.)  [27 March]

The Clock Tower

This was my third visit to Cambo House near St Andrews, and my second to stay. It was a very nice feeling to return to this specialist garden and massive house, still a family home, with apartments and B&B. In the sheltered yard full of plants I started picking out snowdrops and aconites, scillas and unusual tulips, as soon as I arrived, and had a box of my choices reserved till I was ready to go. I had a small apartment last year, but this time decided to go for B&B, which was better value since my room felt like a flatlet in itself, having its own landing, on which a cat named Stella hung about trying to dash into my room, and a vast bathroom besides.

In the corner of the room was a wooden door, behind which on investigation there was a rough ladder leading to a massive clock, with a pendulum like a big oil drum creaking back and forth every second, and chains and weights taking up a small room space with two windows. So that's why it was called the Clock Tower room.

There are things I always have to do at Cambo,  besides choosing plants for the garden. It's the national snowdrop collection and a specialist winter flower garden, so it's obviouly for me. There's an unusual walled garden with a wide cundy (conduit) burn running through it. Same word as in:

Geordie's lost his penker, it ralled inta the condy, doon the dibble raa.

I have to walk down the wooded dene to the sea, too, through the fading snowdrop plants, blue pulmonaria, white violets and aconites. I have to sit and watch the rookery at the foot of the dene, and glance at the view from the dunes. I have to drive past the Tamworth piglets on the long sandy drive through the trees, and zoom in and out of St Andrews through Kingsbarns and along the coast like a native.

There is always something interesting botanical to bring home, and this time I brought a eucryphia. A shrub I have read of so often but rarely seen, and never grown. It will get a good position somewhere fairly sheltered in my bee re-design. It still might be too cold for it but I'm prepared to take the risk.

I was both nights so tired that I slept through the pendulum tock.


The pull of Glasgow

The secret: park to the north of the motorway. It 's a short walk to Sauchiehall Street etc. from here

Glasgow is 35 miles away. Edinburgh is 50. Because we worked in Edinburgh  for so long, I have tended to treat Edinburgh as my neighbourhood big city. Robin was based there for ages, and we still have our bank there, and I could well expect to meet many acquaintances, friends and contacts whenever I dropped back in.

To get to Glasgow you have a choice of small roads or complicated motorways. Last night I took the A84 which is dark, quiet, country and twisty almost all the way in, till it hits Bearsden then Maryhill.

Destination Mitchell Library, I found somewhere to park on my Aberfoyle route only five minutes walk away, and easy to get to and leave by car. Into the Mitchell, the best library complex in Scotland, and down to the cafeteria. Here I started seeing people I knew, in droves. Had a cuppa with Louise and Zoe and some of their friends, on a decidedly women's table. Then Elizabeth & Paul Rimmer, Sandy Hutchison and Hazel Frew, Gillean McDougall and Claire Quigley, Gerry Loose and Gerry Stewart, Nalini, Rob McKenzie, Donny O'Rourke, David Kinloch. Nobody uppity. Glasgow turns into my home city as I greet them. And best of all, Glasgow doesnt hold its Book Festivals in a tent.

The Shetland poets. Christie was brilliant, Alan scholarly, and Jen has a new confidence. Despite their varying styles there was a strong sense of the group.  Musicians Chris Stout and Catriona McKay did more than punctuate the event, they added to it with breathtaking music. The venue was the library's main hall, the seating set sideways.

Poets fill Space!

Two massive audiences for events today, the Makar launch at the Church of the Holy Rude by Stirling Castle, in the afternoon, and the Glasgow Slam late evening, at the Mitchell Theatre within the Mitchell Library complex.

The Church of the Holy Rude is a beautiful cathedral but is often used for secular events such as concerts. It was the theatre for the installation of Magi Gibson as Stirling's new Makar. Rory Watson introduced her, she herself gave a very well planned reading , and two schoolchildren from Bannockburn read engaging poems. The Provost spoke of the importance of poetry. The whole thing took less than an hour and was followed by tea and cakes. There was a great audience of all sorts of literary and townspeople. We filled that vast area of seating. Ian and I shut the shop so we could both go and we thought it was a splendid occasion.
I had had a lot to do with organising this event, not to mention helping to find and appoint a Makar,  and we were extremely  happy with the eventual outcome.

The other event, in the evening, was at Glasgow's Aye Write Festival, the Glasgow Slam. It took place in the Mitchell Library, if not quite as photogenic a site as the Stirling Church, a large capacity tiered-seat theatre which again was comfortably filled by a massive audience. In this case I had a role as one of  the poetry judges. The event was engagingly compered by Robin Cairns and won by Mike Dillon, who had qualified by winning the over Sixties slam I took part in in Edinburgh last year. Graham Holly and Tickle were the runners up, brilliant and original both, but just pipped by Mike's complete good humour and confidence. Drove back very late, through the deserted dark countryside, arriving back in Callander after one pm and somewhat exhausted by the busiest sort of poetry day. [6 March]

Violence: is it a Men's thing?

Violence: is it a Men's Thing?
Robin Cairns' pamphlet: the Last Man with Sky.
Recently, answering a silly quiz on Facebook, I was asked, When did you last cry?  I said, I don't cry, I get angry.
When I am angry I feel physical sensations, my head seems about to burst, there are tears behind my eyes and it feels as if my blood pressure is pounding, while under a very thin layer like thin ice there is misery and despair which I am fighting. It is not at all good for ones health.
I dont get angry often nowadays. I have learnt to thicken the layer of ice. When I was younger there was a lot I couldnt stand. I used to make scenes among the people I was with if certain subjects were raised, there were many things I couldnt read, and I certainly couldnt watch most red blooded films.
It wasnt violence that bugged me, it was cruelty. It still does. Because we have to live our lives as sane people, I've learnt to work round this place in my psyche, but there are times when, if I am confronted with whatever it is I cant stand, I will get tore in. Anger.
I was reminded of this again when Sheila Wakefield sent me Robin Cairns' new pamphlet, the Last Man with Sky, asking if it could be reviewed.
I was thinking that I would review it. Robin Cairns and I are friends. I think he is a brilliant writer and performer and that he will go far, and moreover I think the pamphlet is very good. I think it will sell and is the right book for the right person at this stage.

I do have a problem with one of Robin's poems in the book which  is also the one on the CD, about a fierce schoolmaster belting kids.  As is well known, I interrupted a performance of it at Callander, and if I had not been in charge of that event I would have walked out, probably quietly. Robin himself handled the incident extremely well and we made our truce about it immediately after the reading, but since then I have not been able go to his performances (although I know they are so good) because he says "he always does that one."

I was at first a bit worried that my strong reaction (and perhaps others have reacted similarly) has encouraged him to make this poem so prominent, and I am really glad he didnt use it as the title of the book. I also thought that perhaps having put it on a disc he would not longer feel the urge to use it in his programme at most of his performances.

Now, I know people say censorship is bad and I know I have no right to object to what other people like, but the way the history of beating kids comes across to me, is that at its worst, and it often was at its worst, it was torture inflicted on social scapegoats, something which damaged many people, something we ought to be really ashamed about like slavery or witch-burning. I do not agree we can turn it into a laugh.
But I have thought about it more today, and I now wonder if the hypnotic horror that schoolmasters produced by these public beatings would not have had some additional fascination to a future word performer. Isnt the purpose of the performance to inflict the hypnosis on his listeners all over again? And do many of the listeners enjoy this? Is violence a men's thing?
Sheila, being the industrious publisher that she is, had decided on a belt and braces technique (no pun originally intended) and had also sent a copy for Colin Will to review. We normally review in the same outlet - Poetry Scotland website of which Colin is Webmaster, and Colin got his bid in first. Colin has written an excellent review of it which he sent to me privately before uploading. It is the first time and may well be the only time things will have happened like this, for far more books come in than we regularly have space for.
Partly because of my public objection to the poem, I would like my overall position to be understood. And I want to make this point in the context that I think Robin Cairns is a powerful and able writer/performer, and I wish his book and his career well.

A Fashion jacket

It took me a long time to find my style in clothes. Problems began with school uniform, continued with the beat non fashions and the disastrous effect of archaeology on dress sense. They continued with the miniskirt mafia and then those years working libraries wearing little suits... followed by maternity and poverty, a disastrous combination, luckily both temporary.

But now I know where I am at. I like cosy tweeds and coats for the country and I like really dramatic clothes, performance clothes you could call them, for poetry etc. And since 2000 when I decided to go back to wearing colours rather than black, I have had some fun clothes. This is the style of the jacket I bought today - but not its fabric design.

I dont usually buy clothes in the charity shops in Callander, but Ian sent me along to the new one for the local Hospice. They have opened with a marvellous collection of new fashion clothes, which must have come out of a back door in the trade somewhere. Lots of mother-of-the-bride type stuff. I couldnt possibly wear those allover pastels or mince around with a clutch bag, but there it was, the must-have, with a skirt too. I wont wear them together but separately - with the whirly colourful pattern I'd look too much like a firework display wearing the lot.
It's Jacques Vert, which makes me think of Jacques Prevert - as in Notre pere qui est au ciel -- restez-y.
I'll start by wearing it for my trip to England this week, and then for Magi's Makar launch at the Holyrood Kirk in Stirling.  [23 February]

The Lake Isle of Innisfree: the last great poem?

I recently chose and read this poem at a funeral, not for someone particularly close, but I noticed a lot of things about the poem, not least its complete immersion in the place described. In the same way as in Hopkins' Inversnaid, the place takes control of the poem, producing a strangely detached, impersonal description.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree
I will arise
is biblical. Repetition of and go is also biblical.
The next lines sound practical but are really mythical:
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
There's that repetition again, of bee. Nine is a mythical number . Bees feed on bean blossom. In the presence of thousands of bees, the poet makes being alone sound desirable.

He develops this idea in the first line of the next stanza:
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow
This is a very long line, and slow. We are out of time, yet in the correct time for the poem.
And now probably the most important lines of the poem:
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer,  and noon a purple glow,
The four parts of the day are litanised, and after the dropping slow line, the light and dark are given quality in the definiton of midnight and noon, and then the extraordinary line
And evening full of the linnet's wings.
Was Yeats going to have the linnet sing in line one of this stanza? Is that how he hit on this amazing description of linnets and evening? You feel the brush of the linnet's wings, just as you hear the bee-loud glade in the first stanza. You are taken to the island.

Repetition is vital to The Lake Isle of Innisfree. We may shorten its title, but the word Lake is a critical repeat word, coming at the climax as the reason the poet must obey the voice: the repetition of the start, then back to the parts of day and night:
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping in low sounds by the shore;

Lake water
would not have the effect without the Lake in the title. And  water: a highly important word, mythical, sustaining.
But where is the poet? While he is so clearly sensing the island, he is in town, but still mythically:
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
and now we get the word hear repeated, and how he hears the one place from the other:
I hear it in the deep heart's core.
And - are we not talking about life and death? Hell (or chaos) and heaven? While I stand on the roadway...pavements gray.  It doesnt say he is going for a three week holiday. He is going there to live. The bees and the bean rows could be seen as grave goods and the lake isle as heaven.
This poem not only transports the poet from the grey places to the perfect solitude, but it takes the reader there, sensually and immediately.

The veils of the morning? The deep heart's core? These phrases which are supremely imprecise, are completely explained by the rest of the poem, and therein, with the dignified and mellifluous register of the language, is its greatness.
It is no doubt over fanciful to call it the last great poem. There are many memorable ones from the twentieth century - but it is surely one of the last from the golden age of English. It is almost at the end of the Oxford Book of English Verse but not in the Oxford Book of Modern Verse. It is also near the end of Palgrave's Golden Treasury.


Stirling Castle Writers

Stirling Castle Writers' Group continues at the Castle, in a superb room above the Douglas Garden, near the highest point of the walls. We had a good session there this morning, mainly chatting about all sorts of writing issues. The group has gelled, despite great diversity. I didnt do any writing there, but on the way in I scrawled down a few notes and this has become one of two new poems. One is finished, the other one, the more immediate one, needs time to settle, and may well need some revision when I look again. There is a third poem from this session, which I have just revised, but may need another look.

The one I am posting today in the Stirling Castle page, is about the visit to the Great Hall with Stirling University Poetry Conference last summer. I had not written or considered that as a poem before, but because of the fresh distance of looking on it, it came out right very quickly. or maybe, it came out because I had already been working on drafts of other poems and I saw a gleam in the corner of my eye, of something I wanted to say. There often has to be some sort of distance, of before, or after, or space, or thought.


Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee
and live alone in the bee-loud glade.

Yeats would have been better off with two hives. There are several well known designs of hive, of which the National is probably the best known. All are of the same basic plan.They are very simple stacking crates which the bees stick together with gluey stuff. You have to prise the crates apart with a metal tool when you want to manage the hive. Some people also have very small sub-colonies in miniature hives little bigger than shoe boxes. They may keep these in small gardens and have the main hives further away. The national hive can be made either in wood or in a very hard polystyrene. You may get more honey from polystyrene hives but the bees are more likely to swarm from then due to increased activity.

I am prospecting sites in the garden for two hives. I think behind the ponds may be good, but there needs to be good access and somewhere to work, and it is easiest to have the two hives together. Plus not being too noticeable till the neighbours have got used to them (neighbours know everything in a village anyway) and being where they will not be an inconvenience to our own use of the garden or anyone else's use of theirs. Read more

Additionally you have to look to the flora for good food for them. Heather above the crags is the best thing. That gives the August honey. Before that, there are clover, cotoneaster, honeysuckle, sycamore, chestnut and lime. They will easily travel a mile or further.


I omitted to give you the location of the stone figures in yesterday's piece. Kilmartin, in Argyll, is an area of great iron age interest. Its glen is full of standing stones, cairns, burial mounds, all manner of iron age antiquities and later stones, many with cup and ring marks, decorations of celtic heraldry and mysterious signs. The Kirk and the old Manse at Kilmartin are built on a large raised mound at the centre of the area - typically erasing what had lain underneath them. The Manse is now a museum and coffee house.  We have been there twice in the last year - once on a day which turned out exceedingly wet, and again a week or two ago when we left behind terrible rain and snow in the rest of central Scotland to find a dry, sunny day down the west. [Today's pic is the Aiguilles peaks in the Alps]

Kilmartin is also the location of a poem by my friend Christopher Whyte, who now lives in Budapest. He writes his poems in Gaelic. I have translated a number of his poems, including a very long one, to Christopher's eventual satisfaction, but I failed to get the point of a small and beautiful one about Kilmartin Bridge, and I had to give up (I think Christopher eventually translated it himself.) After the rainy trip to Kilmartin I wrote my own poem, which draws on my failure to understand that poem and also the difficulty of accessing Kilmartin's past.


New Accessibility

New Accessibility

After help from both NetworkedBlogs and my provider, Mr Site, here we are beginning an index blog for desktopsallye, which will link into topics throughout the site, hopefully enabling the Blog Feed feature to work on facebook. For those who access the site via the website home page, the index to recent topics will remain, but I will remove it to below the welcome pictures. On this blog page, the beginnings of topics will appear, taking you two or three paragraphs into the text, then a read here link will take you to the continuation.

Contact Us is one of the most useful links on any site. On bigger sites it is well hidden, but it can always be found and will take you to a real person, and one who knows a good deal about the sites and subjects in question. Sometimes one gets an autoresponse and a time indication, but there's always help to be had, and if you follow the normal rules of clarity & courtesy these will pay the usual dividends. Here are some of my recent topics as a rough indication of the content and interests of the site:

  January:  Aconites  Inversnaid

February:  25 Things.  Laureates.
Sestinas  Gaarrye   Jokey Speech  Cambo   Steampunk

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