Do you recognise this painting? Yes. it's one of mine! The Green Boat, gracing the cover of The Leopard magazine.
A wee while ago, a lovely lady called Annie Woolridge contacted me, asking if I would be happy to be interviewed for an article she was writing on artists based in northeast Scotland. There was to be a series of articles. I happily said yes. Annie came to The Cabin one morning a couple of months ago. We drank coffee and chatted; she admired my paintings hung around the walls. I had tidied the studio a bit. At some point she turned on a very unobtrusive recording machine. It was all very relaxed and pleasant; I felt as if we had known each other a while.
I partly forgot about the process. then realised last week that the article might be in the current edition of the magazine. I popped into our local Co-op (I knew they stocked it) and lo and behold, there was my painting on the front cover! Above it on the magazine stand was the Scottish Field, with Alexander McCall Smith's name writ large upon it. I was thrilled to be in such excellent company, even in print! In fact I was so excited (not a very accustomed state for me, as those who know me well will confirm), I mentioned to the poor young lad at the checkout that it was my painting on the cover of the magazine, when I purchased a copy. He smiled politely.
In the run up to receiving copies of my new book of short stories, I thought you might like to read the first one free! Here it is; hope you are sitting comfortably. It is one of my "alphabet stories".
Arthur hated going on holiday. Beautiful sandy beaches and cloudless skies did nothing for him. Christine, on the other hand, spent all year looking forward to their fortnight’s break on the coast. Dutifully, Arthur looked out his khaki, knee length shorts and camel-dung coloured sandals. Every year, some mystery ailment would attack Arthur, usually on about day three of the holiday. Fretting over him as he lay under the floral eiderdown on the twin bed nearest the window, Christine would ask if he minded if she popped out for a little stroll on the promenade.
“Go on, you enjoy yourself. Have some fun, my dear, you deserve it. I’ll be fine here; I’ll just have a little snooze and then I’ll be as right as rain. Just give me a little tinkle on my mobile phone when you’re on your way back, so I know to expect you.”
Kenneth was waiting on the corner, a bunch of yellow chrysanthemums only partly hidden behind his back.
“Lovely to see you again, my dear!” he boomed so loudly she feared the whole street would hear.
“Must we carry on like this forever?” she asked, much later, as they drank tea at the little café on the prom.
“Not if you don’t want to, of course not,” Kenneth replied, holding both her hands in his.
“Only the lonely” was playing on the car radio, as Arthur pulled up outside Zena’s little house at the far end of the town. Parking in front of her tiny, neat garden, he sighed with relief at the sight of her smiling face at the open door.
“Quite the man about town, aren’t you?” she laughed, taking in his smart blazer and regimental tie, his neatly pressed trousers and shining shoes.
“Right, this old soldier is ready for some action,” replied Arthur, bounding up the front steps and into her arms.
“Steady on, you’ll end up having a heart attack, Arthur!”
“That would never do, imagine the scandal.”
Under the esplanade, Christine sat alone, staring out to sea. Valerie had given Kenneth an ultimatum; stay or go. Wise woman, Valerie, she had waited until she was dying of cancer to let him know that she had always known. Exactly at the moment when Christine was about to phone Arthur to say she was on her way back to the B&B, she saw a couple, happy and smiling, walk down the sandy shore and into the sea. Yesterday, holidays had seemed wonderful. Zena, her arm in Arthur’s thought she heard a splash at the end of the pier, as they turned back towards the town.
I'm in the process of editing a new book of short stories. After sifting through the pieces I've written over the past couple of years, I realised that I had enough to put a new collection together. It also seemed a wee bit overdue, the first one having been published in 2013. The format will be similar to the first volume - ten short and very short stories, half of which are "alphabet stories". The tales are told by a range of characters and include a walk in the park which turns sinister, a misunderstanding about money and affairs which end badly. I'm looking forward to finishing the editing and making this new volume available to you. If you would like to pre-order a copy, this will be possible very soon.
Last week I enjoyed an evening out for a festive meal with the lovely folk who make up Deeside Writers Group. Of course we set ourselves a little writing task for the evening and that was to write a short piece (no more than 50 words) using the prompt "restaurant" (kindly provided by Val of Buchanan's Bistro, where we were dining). I didn't think too hard about the task, and found that a piece came to me in the form of a song. Written to fit the tune of "Oh my darling Clementine", these are the words that appeared. It seemed apt for this time of year, with the lovely orange fruits in abundance, that this tune came into my head. It was a song that my dad used to sing, mainly if not only, on long car journeys. I meandered off for a reminder of the words - "In a cavern, in a canyon, excavating for a mine, lived a miner, forty-niner, and his daughter, Clementine". It is of course a tragic story, which I had forgotten in the intervening years. So, I enjoyed my wander down memory lane; funny the paths some things lead us down. Here is my offering - I had the foresight to print out several copies, and the group was generous in their joining in. Happily the tune was familiar to everyone. Oh I do like a good singalong!
(to be sung to the tune of “Clementine”)
In a bistro
In the country
Near the Deeside
was a pair of
very fine chefs
and their cooking
Served they dishes
Of local produce
and some platters
And the diners
were not whiners
in that bistro
And now for something slightly different. I don't always manage to find instant inspiration for my blog, so sometimes I go for a trawl through things I have written earlier. There is plenty of it around, I can assure you. This is not strictly-speaking a poem, it's more a "real-time" stream of observations from a train. That's how it was written. It's almost a series or collection of haiku, which could stand on their own. As you can see from the date, it was written seven years ago.
(Aberdeen to Inverness, by train, 14/3/08)
three sheep, side by side
bask in spring sunshine
on a sloping field
tops of trees
cluttered with crows
and their half-made nests
already wearing ear-tags
lie beside their mothers
to burst into life
train track runs
beside the burn
we go up as it goes down
than the sky
smoothness hides its urgent flow
with a bucket by
the open door
ancient crumbled walls
of ruined house
two old trees – who lived there once?
alongside the track
frog spawn possibilities
last year’s heather
the colours of tweed
horses with their coats on
etched on the hillside
ridged with sheep tracks
along its length
in the perfect lawn
around the whisky store
fluffy white sheep
still wearing their
brown winter coats
in lichen beards
no pollution here
take off in unison
startled by the train
the gorse blooming
by the track –
does it ever not?
piglets scamper in the mud
round their little nissen huts
scars the landscape
- distracts me from the kestrel
we can see
where the mole has been
- does he have any idea?
the edges of the town
spreading into a
with smart fences
- sore thumbs
I should have known better. All the signs were there. The lashing rain and howling wind which had beaten at my bedroom window all night. The fact that I had to wait for a semi-dry five minutes in which to load my luggage into the car. A small rucksack was blown across the ground and into a puddle. And then there were the fire crews pumping water out of the burn next to the butcher's shop, which is opposite the newsagents, in an attempt to stop the burn bursting its banks. The newsagent and the butcher were standing watch over some sandbags at the door to the latter's shop. Another fire crew (all volunteers) was pumping water off a the car park between the Chinese takeaway, the community centre and the local supermarket.
The burn in the left hand picture above had been just a little trickle the day before. Now it was a swollen, raging brown torrent. I was glad that the new bridge was still intact. Luckily it has been built quite high above the stream bed. The sea was frothing and churning; the first half-mile or so of it brown with peat and silt and detritus carried into it by streams and rivers. Such a contrast to the blue seas and skies of the previous days.
I discovered that the road north was blocked by a landslide, so decided to take the road south. Glad that I had checked the road conditions before setting off, I was only a couple of miles on the road when I encountered a pickup reversing along the road ahead of me (in the same direction as I was going). I followed it; not the most sensible move, as it turned out. It reversed to a point beyond the pickup in the right hand photograph above. In the middle of the road was a black minibus. Stuck. In floodwater. Attempts were made to tow it out. It seemed that there was difficulty attaching a tow rope. I waited patiently, in what appeared to be shallow water, neatly in at the side of the road. I put on my hazard warning lights and watched with slight concern as vehicles started to pull up behind me. A police car appeared. Attempts to tow the minibus were aborted. Four men pushed it along the road past my car and out of the water. I was probably about a hundred yards from where the water on the road started.
I took a mental note of where the water level was under the pickup parked in front of me. When I first drew up behind it, the water was about half way across, under the chassis. It was rising. Not that fast, but it was rising. Inexorably. And the water I could see out of my driver's window was flowing. Flowing and quite deep. Six inches, perhaps. It did not seem sensible to try to turn. The other side of the road had effectively become part of the river, which had burst its banks. I asked the policeman, as he passed in his luminous yellow/green suit, if he intended to close the road. "As a last resort" was his reply. And he told me to stay put. He started letting lorries and four wheel drive vehicles pass along the road, in the opposite direction from the way I was facing. By now the cheery chap in the pickup in the photo had headed safely through to the other side. From where I was, I couldn't see round the corner, to where a queue of traffic was building up. The Westerbus came through, a couple of Landrovers, a big lorry which went too fast and caused a great wake to slosh alarmingly at the underbelly of my wee car. It was when that happened that I realised I needed to get out of the situation as soon as I could. I could see how easily a car could end up in water that was too deep for it, and get washed away, or at least become impossible to control.
A fire crew arrived and guided me, reversing, to a place where the water was not too deep and I could turn.
I headed back to the village and waited to hear if the road reopened. It did not; not that day or the next. I took the road north, later on. It was passable with great care, after the landslide had been cleared.
But the whole episode made me think. Quite hard. We make choices all the time, every day. And those choices affect what happens. If I had set out an hour earlier, the minibus might not have been stuck, the water level would almost certainly have been lower, and I might have got through. If I had set out half an hour later, I would have seen the tailback and not been the first car in the line. If I had not followed the pickup into the water, I wouldn't have had a rather worrying hour's wait. If I had taken a stranger's advice and turned my engine off while waiting, would my engine have re-started or would I have had to be rescued? If I had listened to friend's advice, I would not have set out at all, and would not have had this tale to tell.
Last September, I very quickly put together a collection of ten short and very short stories and self-published them via Blurb.com. I had previously used this method for putting books of photos together, but had never tried my hand at a book containing only text. I should know by now that doing something too hastily is not a great idea. But there is a balance between being a perfectionist and getting things done. Sometimes it is necessary just to get on and make things even if they are imperfect. Often we learn more by making mistakes than by doing something exactly right. And to be honest, how often does the latter happen? Not very often, in my experience.
What I am trying to say, in rather a roundabout way, is that there were mistakes in the first edition of my short story book. As someone who has edited scientific journals and biological text books with razor-sharp precision (or so I like to think) in the past, I should be ashamed of myself. But funnily enough, I am not. For once, I just got on and put the book together. Yes, there were a few places where words got chopped in half at the ends of lines. Yes, horror of horrors, the font size changed from one story to the next, at one point (but not within a story, now that would be unforgivable). Yes, there was a slight inconsistency in the use of "'cause" and "'cos". But no-one complained. At least not to me. I don't think the tiny wandering apostrophes spoiled anyone's reading enjoyment - I do hope not.
Since there is still a perfectionist lying dormant, mostly, within me, I have recently edited the book, taking on board the very useful notes and comments from a very helpful friend at my art class. Thank you, May. So, the second edition is now available, either via Blurb, or directly here, from my website, or, coming soon, from Amazon (for Kindle).
And if you spot any errors - please do let me know and I'll keep notes for the third edition.
Last week I was away on a tutored writing retreat, at Moniack Mhor, run by Arvon. I had never been on such a thing before and it was a wonderful experience. Not only did I have the opportunity to retreat from the responsibilities of running a home, I found myself retreating from all sorts of other things. The time away made me much more aware of all the time and energy-sapping activities I do while I am at home. I retreated from the internet (there was none available); ceased posting on Facebook, stopped tweeting, didn't post any photographs here on my website (or on any other websites) nor did I update my blog. I could Google nothing, Like nothing, pin no images on Pinterest. I answered no emails, sent only a handful of text messages (to say I had arrived safely) and spoke to no-one on the phone.
I didn't read a newspaper the whole time I was away, nor watch the television (there was none there to distract us), nor even listen to the radio. Funnily enough, it was the latter I started to miss first. But not the news, or the spoken word programmes which I listen to regularly at home; I suddenly craved hearing some music. We finally managed to persuade the CD player to work and so that was soon assuaged.
I didn't go to the shops for five days; didn't drive a car, cross a street or see any traffic lights. For 90% of the time, I didn't have to cook, or clear up, or wash up. Or do any washing or hanging out of clothes, or ironing (not that I do that much of the latter, if the truth be told).
Instead, I wrote, I read, I listened. I talked and walked; I looked, watched, noticed, listened some more and thought. I laughed a lot. I thought a great deal, in a space inside my head which I had almost forgotten existed. And it all felt in balance. Somehow I had retreated from all the mindless things and found all the mindful ones; having the opportunity to do so was a golden one and I believe that I made the most of it. Now the trick is to continue to carve out that balanced time within the days and months ahead.
This post has also been published on the "My Arvon Week" blog page of the Arvon website.
"So, is there anything to do round here, then?" I was asked by someone I met on the beach the other day. They had never been to the area before.
My answer at the time was a bit glib -
"Well, there are no shops or cinemas, if that's what you mean."
I meant clothes shops, department stores and multiplex cinemas, of course. There are grocery stores, a very good butcher and a rather well-stocked book shop. Since then I have been thinking.
It's all a matter of what you want to do. This is your kind of place if -
- a stroll on the beach, gathering cockle and limpet shells, empty sea urchins and the occasional starfish appeals to you
- you can stand and watch the waves crashing on the shore, without being impatient to move on
- you see the rapidly changing weather as a source of fascination and varying light conditions
- carrying a camera is a way of life
- carrying a sketch book and pencil and maybe a small box of watercolours is a way of life
- you like mucking about in boats and fishing, both fresh and salt water
- you enjoy any kind of walking - hill-walking, mountain climbing or a brisk march along a sandy beach
- you play golf
- you like horse riding
- you don't get phased by single track roads and know the appropriate polite gestures to use when driving on them.
I don't think I'm finished with this theme. To be continued.
I have been asked a few times recently, what I paint. I have happily told the questioners that boats feature a lot in my paintings at the moment; ones from both the east and west coasts of Scotland. And then I mention the sheds, and they look slightly bemused and I feel rather apologetic. I'm not sure why this is, so I have spent some time thinking about it, as I suppose there really should be some underlying reason as to why I feel drawn to sheds, particularly ones with corrugated iron roofs.
This is the conclusion I have drawn. It all goes back to summer holidays spent in Lochcarron, in Wester Ross, in what had been my paternal granny's house. Not just summer holidays, when we would spend hours on the shore turning over rocks looking for butterfish and crabs, or digging very fast to try and outwit clams which scooted down into the sand, or for lugworms, beneath their telltale casts, to use as bait on fishing expeditions. No, we were often there at Easter too, and in the winter as well. There are diaries of those holidays somewhere. One day I'll look them out.
At the back of my granny's house were a couple of wooden sheds, where the garden tools and coal (I think) were kept. They were quite well-maintained, these sheds; wooden slats with sloping corrugated iron roofs. They were of no particular interest to me. It was my job in the summertime to clip the long grass away from the outer walls of the shed, so the wood would not become damp and rot. This job was done with an old pair of sheep-shearing shears. I loved using them. I learned to scythe in those summers too, when the grass was thigh-high when we arrived, and had to be cut down before it got trampled flat. There is a rhythm required for scything - enough speed is required to cut the tough grass stalks, but go too fast and you get tired very quickly and the grass is not be properly cut.
But the shed I liked best was the one away up at the back of the plot or land (part of a croft at some time, I suppose). It had no door, but the doorway faced away from the prevailing wind, so it was always sheltered and warm. I think it even had a little window, grimy and cobwebbed. I set up a wooden table and a stool, made from logs and planks of wood that I found. It was my den. I swept it, tidied it, put a jam jar filled with wild flowers on the table. And then I had a visitor. I think he lived in the shed next door, or under a nearby pile of branches. A hedgehog. I provided a saucer of milk, sat in the corner, barely breathing, watching, listening, drinking him in. I was in love. In my shed.