When we first considered moving to Mull I found an intriguing feature marked on the map that was crying out for further exploration. Three years later we finally ventured to it and it was exactly as marked on OS Explorer 375 - A Pile of Stones.
It was worth the trek, not so much to find the stones which were, when all's said and done, a pile of stones on the lonely and hard to access shores of Loch Uisg. But the scenery was amazing, especially so since the rhododendrons were in bloom. There are plenty of pictures of the area at the end of this short update but for those that can't wait to see what a Pile of Stones look like there are some pics below.
In other news the edits to Still Following Rainbows are coming along. It's taking a while because the real world keeps getting in the way. We have someone lined up to provide the foreword and hope to announce a release date shortly.
Now here are some pretty pictures, including a close up of the worlds angriest Bullfinch who wanted our ice cream.
When I started getting serious about hiking, more serious than taking the dog for a walk to the pub via the long route anyway, I equipped myself with all manner of hi-tech walking attire designed to fool the overweight desk jockey that I was into believing that I was God’s gift to mountaineering and that scaling any peak higher than a mole hill counted as serious climbing.
One of my purchases was a coat. It was bright red, had more pockets than I could possibly use and plenty of zips in unlikely places. The salesman promised that it would keep me snug in arctic temperatures and cool under tropical skies. Which it did, if you accept that the nearest it ever came to arctic conditions in suburban Essex was a cool breeze and if the weather was balmy, I didn’t wear it. But the most disturbing thing about it was that it came with an owner’s manual. I’ve purchased cars with less information than what was apparently required to master a nylon skin to cover the upper half of my pallid body.
One evening, bathed in the yellow glare of a hotel reading lamp, I prepared for its first adventure by digesting the manual. In the morning I was planning go boldly where only 3 million people every year fear to tread and climb (walk up the footpath) of Kinder Scout in the Peak District. Apparently, my new coat had a snug pocket for a homing beacon in case of avalanche - I put my chewing gum in it, a map pocket that was too small for my OS Routefinder, a hood with three different types of fastener and many other adornments that I seldom used and some I never found. The material was designed to survive all but the most extreme of temperatures, would wick away sweat and it even had little zip-up vents under each armpit to let the stink out, although I think the manual put it more delicately. One whole chapter was dedicated to laundry instructions, which I skipped over. After 30 minutes of struggling with all manner of jargon and erroneous nonsense I binned the manual.
It was a good coat, I felt rugged and vaguely like I knew what I was doing, although I was undoubtedly wrong on both counts. Nevertheless, it served me well and was eventually replaced by a succession of cheaper models after one too many laundry mishaps. Yes, I know I should have read that chapter.
Recently I tried the specialised expensive coat route again. This time, since my job entails much outdoor work in everything the west coast of Scotland can throw at me, almost all of it wet and cold, I went for a long wax jacket designed for cowboys and stockmen who spend their time herding cattle and corralling wild horses.
I should have known better.
For a start it reaches down to exactly 10” above my wellingtons, meaning I come in to the house dry as a bone except for a soggy band just below my knees. Secondly, it has a built-in cape that I assume is meant to keep water from cascading down my neck. This does seem to work, but at a price because it’s fastened by straps that reach under each arm. This makes putting it on an adventure that invariably ends up with me twirling around chasing a limp sleeve flapping about tantalisingly out of reach, or I’ll cut off all circulation to an arm because its wrapped around so tight. Fortunately, unlike cowboys on the prairie I have Alison who will hear the tell-tale crashes and swearing and come to my rescue, check that I have my mittens on, spit on her hanky and remove flecks of breakfast from my chin and warn me not to play with the rough boys from the estate.
But the biggest flaw in a product explicitly designed to deal with wet and windy conditions is the metal fasteners that hold the collar and hood in place. Left to their own devices they whip about in the slightest breeze and leave angry red welts down both of my cheeks. Doing the top one up prevents this from happening but has the unfortunate side effect of cutting off the blood supply to my head.
It does have the redeeming feature of leg straps that you can step into to stop the tail flying around, although when I tried them, they made me walk like a toddler who’d had an ‘accident’ in the underwear department. I’m told that these also mean that you can wear it while riding a horse, but that’s an extremely unlikely scenario. Still, it’s nice to know that I have something in my wardrobe that could pass muster as bona-fide outdoor wear from a shop that doesn’t have a permanent sale or too many letter X’s in its name.
Who knew that a simple item of outerwear could be the cause of so much strife? *
*Alison, thats who.
I’m supposed to be telling you all about my new book and starting to ramp up expectation, so that when it goes live the pre-orders start flooding in. And I will, I promise, but you know how it is, sometimes life places little temptations in the way and before I know it the cheerful promotional copy that I’m composing in my head gets derailed by something so mind numbingly stupid that selling books will have to wait. In this case the offending distraction was on a brightly lit gentlemen’s grooming shelf in Tesco’s.
‘Quantum Dry, what the f*** is quantum dry supposed to be?’
I quickly realised that I’d uttered this out loud. As I get older, I’m getting good at recognising the signs; chuckling from strangers, children whisked away by worried looking parents and a few swirling dust motes in the space that up until five seconds ago contained Alison. I usually find her a few isles away where she’ll carefully check the area for warning signs, like looming security guards or grannies improvising a noose from a budget range clothes line, before acknowledging my existence.
But my point stands, what in heavens name is Quantum Dry and why would I want to flavour my armpits with it? It sounds suspiciously like the marketing department intern trawled the internet until they found a sexy sounding word that conveyed just the right amount of sciencey mystique to convince men that they want to smell like the minimum amount of any physical entity. For that is what quantum actually means.
What’s wrong with smelling like Old Spice or Brut 33? Okay I don’t understand that last one, but it was incredibly popular back when I wasn’t. As a hormonal teen in head to toe denim trying to mask the aroma of adolescence in an era of enforced participation in muddy sports, cycling to school and a weekly bath on Sunday evening, a splash of Brut 33 at least mellowed the heady aroma, although by Thursday I probably needed something stronger, like bleach.
It’s the same with paint. Well not the fragrance, although most paint smells better than Brut 33, but the names they dream up. I recently had cause to purchase some yellow paint. I described it as mustardy yellow.
‘Do you mean Yellow Ochre?’ said young Wayne, who looked like he was doing work experience but was wearing a duty manager badge, possibly by mistake.
‘Aren’t they black and white whales?’
There followed a pause while both of us did some mental shuffling. Wayne gave in first.
‘It’s darkish yellow, a kind of mustard colour, would you like to look at a paint chart?’
I looked. ‘Oh, ochre, I though you meant…never mind... yes that’ll be fine thank you.’
At least ochre is a natural pigment that is, surprise surprise, mustardy yellow so I suppose I shouldn’t complain. But some of the colours they dream up don’t bear resemblance to any spectrum I’m familiar with. Take these examples from Farrow & Ball: Savage Ground, Mole's Breath, and Peignoir. A Peignoir is a light dressing gown or negligee, so I’m imaging whatever colour it starts out as, it turns watery grey and has the texture of much laundered tissue paper. Presumably Mole’s Breath is the colour of half-digested worm and Savage Ground could be anywhere in the range between flaming lava and an artic ice sheet, but is actually dull pink.
I don’t want to single out Farrow & Ball, so I looked up Dulux and struggled to get beyond ‘Old-school goes modern’ on their website. Anyone who dreams up such meaningless nonsense probably has an equally pretentious palette I thought, and lo I wasn’t wrong: Knight’s Armour, Lucky Penny and, oh dear, Tunnel Vison.
‘Darling, I was just wondering if we should spruce the place up, maybe a lick of paint and whatnot. I know, what’s your favourite sensory ailment for the feature wall, I can’t decide between Burst Eardrum or Tunnel Vision?
‘Oh sweetie, they’re both sooo 2018’s. What about something trendy like Fluffy Buffalo Anus or Bonsai Cardiac Popsicle?’
On I trawled. Crown Paints seem to think I want an online immersive experience rather than to buy a tin of magnolia emulsion. I couldn’t find a chart or list of their colours, but I do now know that monochrome is timeless, and that pink is ‘in’, so it wasn’t a wasted encounter.
It’s all rather soul destroying really. What one needs in these times of Monochrome Quantum Mole Anus flavour paint is a distraction. A handy and irreverent tale of, oh I don’t know, maybe two people who sold up, moved into a motorhome and ended up working on a Scottish island. Something witty, poignant and informative, perhaps in a handy paperback edition or electronic format for ease of storage.
Did I mention that I have a book out soon? It’s called Still Following Rainbows and it is crammed full of nonsense like this, or as my imaginary publicist insists that I phrase it, wry observations. It does have lots about our time on the Island of Mull, working at a tourist site and living in our motorhome. There’s some stuff about living in the Midlands too, encounters with Bishops, travel writing, the perils of long-distance journeys, snippets of history and plenty of humour. There is also reflection, candid writing about difficult times and personal struggles. It’s just what you need for the summer and will be available on Amazon soon, so when you’ve finished painting the stairs a fetching shade of Molecular Tinnitus you can put the kettle on, reach for your copy of Still Following Rainbows and relax.
For David John Canham
On a grey day, under clouds of slate, the grey train click clacked between closeted, over manicured villages where graffiti at home is a crime worse than genocide abroad, then onward into the grime of beige commuter towns, separated from the railway by muddy parks and weedy allotments and shunted to a faltering halt under the glare of harsh lamps that cast no shadows.
The tube took me north west, out of the city and into leafier suburbs nestling under the same slate clouds. Preston Road, Northwood Hills, little settlements known to the tube map but alien to me. Are they real places I wonder or just handy platforms for commuters caught between the city and whatever tempts people to live in a Zone 9 postcode.
Deep breath of damp city air, press the doorbell and wait slightly longer than comfortable. Warm greetings for grey days and grim news.
A stale bedroom and empty words. About cricket, about which I know zilch, but he once belonged to the MCC and probably deplores my lack of insight, about the grammar school he attended with Reg Dwight, about Watford FC and about Christmases in Suffolk, which never properly began until he stood on the doorstep clutching a suitcase to his chest with presents balanced on top, all capped by an awkward smile.
I drank bad coffee while he dozed. I thought about all the trips to London when I had better things to do than pop in to say hello. Back in the days when he'd know I was there to see him.
I thought about a man past 70, on his hissing air bed, and about the shy man I once knew. A sharp intelligence inside a brittle shell, the rise through the ranks of the electric company, a few halcyon years and then his troubles, the descent, the diagnosis of dementia when he was barely into his fourth decade. Slowly but surely calcifying a brain too fragile to resist its creeping tendrils.
I remembered the case conferences, admissions, discharges and re-admissions. Tedious social workers, tired consultants and eager junior doctors who carried the smell of the hospital with them.
I talked again. Filling the empty spaces with empty words, about nothing and everything. His family home in Pinner. The organ with his graduation picture on, next to the statue of a knight whose head bent back to reveal a lighter that always fascinated me as a child. A monologue of the banal to keep myself company.
I said goodbye. I said I'd be back in February, but I knew they were useless words. Said for me not him. I stood on the doorstep between the warm haze of inside and the bright cold air outside. Talk of care, comfort and 'arrangements' to be made. All these useless words.
Somehow, I was on the tube, rocking back to the city accompanied by the buzz of meaningless chatter and useless words.
'When do we get off mummy...'
'Do you think Watford stand a chance against Newcastle on Saturday..?'
'... And he told me never to do that again, but I was like...'
The man with the cocaine tic feeding mints between his cracked lips. The woman in a hijab staring at the advert for glossy overpriced homes for two… three… four stops, as if committing every detail to memory. The long-married couple sitting close together and a long way apart. Two teenagers, playing verbal ping pong of boasts and lies.
All these useless words as we rattle through dull stations, neon shops and uneven houses with their backs turned to the railway line. Untidy gardens, and broken swings, a slash of graffiti on a leaning fence and a train of bored commuters swaying past in the opposite direction, on their way home to Preston Road and Northwood Hills.
Ugly shoes on ugly seats, swaying into Baker Street, exit for Madam Tussauds, ugly people and ugly thoughts. Alight and shuffle with the crowds to another carriage under skies turning from grey to black without my permission.
Bethnal Green, higgledy piggledy roofs, neon kebab shops and glaring chemists. Cars crawling outside the carriage. Inside children chatter, nonsense words, parents umm and arr... more useless words. Too much cheap Christmas scent, phone screens for tired eyes and pale ghosts reflected in the window staring into laptops.
Tottenham Hale. TE COS superstore, wondering where the first S went and why I care. Bleak rooms abandoned dinner tables and anonymous offices lit up for our inspection.
All these useless words. Words that shuttle us between now and the past. Memories and snippets of history played out in a flat narrative, free from trauma and worry.
Words of comfort and consolation, words of hope and peace, and words of half-truths and lies. Words that define us, defile us and expose us. That drown out our inner voices, smother our guilt and give shape to our impotence to change anything, now or in the past. Words spoken but not meant, heard but not understood, ignored and forgotten or stored away forever.
All these useless words that change nothing. Nothing at all.
Words that die with us,
David passed away at 04:00 on 31 December 2018.
Welcome to another in our occasional series of blog entries. The pictures don't have anything to do with the text...we really cannot do justice to the scenery with mere words.
I’ve never really been one for car culture or coveted driving anything with more luxury than a functioning heater and radio, but I have just borrowed a lavishly appointed car to ferry Alison back from dropping off our Mazda for its MOT. It was a scary experience.
Firstly, I had to start the damn thing. What I had mistaken for a handy receptacle for my glasses turned out to be a port for the key fob which, once deposited, allowed the car to start…or didn’t. Not until I’d pressed the correct sequence of buttons and then, to my alarm the interior lit up like a Christmas tree, beeped, flashed and whirred in a fashion that would have delighted a toddler or someone called Wayne but terrified the bejesus out of me. Even the arm rest had more buttons than my own car needs to function successfully. Finally, it settled into an impatient humming sulk while I worked out that the handbrake was a switch buried somewhere out of sight below the steering wheel and required nothing more of me than a gentle prod to release 2 litres of finest Swedish engineering backwards at 70 miles an hour.
Until that hair-raising moment my attention had been focused entirely on trying to figure out which of the many gears would result in forward momentum. I tried all of them at least twice before we finally lurched forward in a series of crunching hops. I realise now that it is quite a good idea to acquaint oneself with the basic functions before setting off. Had I done so I would have known where reverse was, that it had 6 gears, not 4 as I’d thought for the first 5 miles of my journey and I wouldn’t have had to stop twice within ½ a mile of leaving home. Once to find out where the windscreen wiper control was (in the boot possibly) and once to try and turn the heating down from thermonuclear to merely tropical, all this while outside rain lashed down and the wind lifted sheep into the next postcode.
Once underway again I made good progress, even successfully indicating right by pounding every stalk on the steering column. I had wanted to turn left but after seeing the look on the face of the driver behind me I decided to stick to the direction the car had chosen, to his evident relief as he vanished in a cloud of dust.
Around 10 minutes into the journey I discovered the word ‘cruise’ etched into the steering wheel. Maybe it came equipped with its own guided missile system I thought, those canny Swedes pretending to be neutral and all the time arming their family saloons with enough technology to launch a pre-emptive strike on Norway and steal their fjords. While absentmindedly musing upon Scandinavian conflict I became aware of a slowly increasing warmth in the rump. I felt between my legs and the seat was reassuringly dry but alarmingly hot. I guessed what I earlier thought was the control for the radio had in fact been the seat warmer. I took the only sensible course of action and twisted, punched, pummelled and mashed every button, knob and switch within reach until the hairs on my posterior were no longer sizzling away in their own juices.
I had no idea how the climate control system worked. Every so often a puff of warm damp air would escape a vent in the dashboard and warm the empty passenger seat to my left or a cold draft would suddenly cool my left ankle until it got bored. I tried a likely looking knob with a red crescent fading into a blue one, but this only succeeded in turning the radio on. So now accompanied by Radio 4 and intermittent updates on the traffic situation in Glasgow I settled in for all of two minutes.
I could see the roadworks in good time, and thanks to their luminous coats also the two men with their STOP/GO boards standing at each end of a digger clearing goodness knows what from a ditch. There was no traffic following me and nothing approaching from the other direction for approximately 4 miles, so seeing me, one of them decided to switch from GO to STOP because they’ve had nothing else to do all morning. I jerked down through a few random gears to a dead stop; whereupon he switched immediately to GO. Of course he did…I was just thinking about how he might not be qualified to do a job where the essential requirement is the ability to hold a stick, when I stalled the car and had to go through the whole pre-flight routine before crawling past him and his smirking colleague, mistook 2nd gear for 4th and screeched off in a cloud of rubbery smoke. I tried stabbing the ‘cruise’ button a few times but sadly no one in a high vis jacket exploded.
Roadworkers can be an easy target so out of interest I looked up the statistics and now have a renewed respect for the UK’s 4000 or so high vis souls who are generally trying to earn a few bob while making our roads safer. In 2016, 347 incidents of road worker abuse were reported, but fewer than half of the 23 companies who belong to the Highways Term Maintenance Association were asked to supply figures, so the real number will be much higher.
Of those incidents, 267 were in the form of swearing, shouting, hand gestures and threats but the rest encompassed a smorgasbord of serious assaults that included; shooting, throwing of items such as screwdrivers, kicking, punching and beating, in one case with baseball bats. Not only that but accidental injuries and fatalities are also happening because drivers frequently encroach into coned off areas (over 150 times a month according to Highways England), all because we want to get home in time to see who’s been expelled from The Great British Bake Off. A study by Oxford University in 2016 placed road workers as the 16th most dangerous occupation in the UK, and some of the professions rated more dangerous include comparatively tiny work forces, like deep sea divers and bomb disposal experts.
I didn’t know any of this on my way home, although by then I’d mastered most of the rudimentary controls, so I was at least able to glide to a gentle halt at the first STOP sign for exactly the same length of time it takes to turn a pole with a round sign on top to face the opposite direction. Next time I’ll be sure to give them a cheery wave and smile of acknowledgment as I drive past. Or at least a smile, I’m not sure lifting a hand from the combined steering wheel/gearstick/heater control would be wise under the circumstances. When I eventually arrived home, there were whole clusters of switches that I hadn’t tried and lots of enticingly illuminated knobs remained untwiddled. Goodness knows what any of them do, I’m at a loss to account for anything short of a coffee maker that was missing from my journey.
After the stresses and strains of recent events and a busy time at the castle I realise that I’ve been out of practice with my writing, so I hope that you don’t mind but this blog entry is a composite of some stand-alone pieces I’ve written to try and get the creative juices flowing again with a smidgen of recent events added to the mix for little other reason than I rather like the word smidgen and wanted an opportunity to use it.
Alison has increased her days in the castle to three, which means she shares the delight of selling tickets. Mostly it’s a pleasure, people are on their holidays, possibly discovering the delights of Scotland for the first time and they are generally brimming over with vacation gaiety.
We do get a few characters through the doors though, from the eccentric to the down-right rude.
Wearing a formal white shirt with a tie from one of the older Oxford colleges, cream trousers and brown brogues that probably cost more than our house, he bumbled up the drive in a flurry of gesticulation. What should have been a 2 minute walk turned into 20 as he waylaid passers-by with improbable anecdotes, accompanied by so much waving of arms he may have been keeping up a simultaneous translation by semaphore. He carried an ageing thermos in his right hand that was wielded around like a club when he added particular emphasis. By the time he reached the kiosk he’d left a trail of people stunned by this force of nature, although a few may have just been concussed by his flask.
Presently a face appeared at the kiosk window. From somewhere under a shock of carefully tailored blond hair he beamed and looked at me with clear, Mediterranean blue eyes. ‘Hullo. I’m Nigel St. Barnard’ he announced, proffering a thermos, which we both stared at until he replaced it with his hand, which I dutifully shook. Before I could say anything he continued… ‘What a fine place … do you know Crispin Rodgers from Twaddle on the Water? Fine chap, went to Harrow I think, not his fault of course. He inherited Hampshire when his uncle Percy died…he had a castle… 2 actually now I come to think about it, but one of those was in France, hardly counts does it…have you by chance seen my thermos? Ah, thank you…now I understand that there is a rather fine tea room here…Crispin had one in his, lovely muffins I recall…’
And off he went. I found him later regaling diners with accounts of his travels. He appeared to think the whole world was the size of Eton School playing fields and seemed genuinely shocked that they didn’t know Margaret and Peter in Little Flange, even after he’d carefully described their cottage, 2 Labradors and daughter Emily who lives in Switzerland with Pierre and is expecting their first child in August.
Presumably every story he told started out with a point but he went off at so many tangents they always seemed to finish with different protagonists, often in another country and occasionally involving an entirely different species. It was like setting off on a journey with a new set of directions given to you every 2 minutes by a caffeinated toddler. When he did finally finish a tale with something like ‘…In Tuscany, can you believe that?’ He’d stand back, arms slightly out to his sides and a look of such childlike glee on his face that you just had to acknowledge it encouragingly, with something like the verbal equivalent of sticking a child’s scribbled picture on the fridge.
A red faced and sweaty bloke who’d just cycled up to the castle ahead of his two mates asked Alison if we did a discount for someone who is retarded. Not knowing the circumstances she replied that we did a discount for people who have a disability, including a learning disability. He smiled and said it was for his mate who’s ‘a bit retarded.’
Of course he wasn’t, except maybe being held back socially by his friend’s lack of cultural sensitivity. Retarded, in the context of an intellectual disability is such an ugly word to our ears. It wasn’t always so and in some parts of the world it is still in common use and perhaps hasn’t attracted the negative connotations that it’s acquired here. But some words attract stigma as they age, like once fresh milk they sour and turn rancid. What was once acceptable becomes taboo. Words like idiot, moron and even spastic were all acceptable medical terms that passed into slang. Not because they were affectionate cuddly words, but because they were used as weapons to bully someone by comparing them to people deemed less worthy and therefore open to ridicule.
I once had a protracted argument with someone over their use of the word mong on an otherwise perfectly good website aimed at young people fighting depression (‘don’t just sit at home and mong out…’). The crux of his argument was people don’t care about the etymology of words. It wasn’t until a friend whose brother has Down Syndrome got involved and pointed out how the word mong was used to bully both her and her brother that he relented, albeit with rather bad grace.
I don’t claim any moral high ground here. As teenagers my friends and I would think nothing of referring to our local Chinese restaurant as the Chinky. We meant no offence but the children of the owners were bullied, de-personalised and set apart by our clumsy language. We used the word queer in a derogatory sense too, intending to slander each other with accusations of homosexuality. How awful that sounds today - to suggest that being gay was wrong and should be the subject of bullying is indefensible to me now.
One way that some people have sought to fight prejudice is by ‘reclaiming’ words meant as pejorative, as the gay community has done with queer. They haven’t eliminated homophobia or prejudice but the power of the word to wound is diminished and there is a sense that the push for equality, not just in law but in thought and deed, is in the right direction. The same couldn’t be said with any confidence about people who have learning disabilities. Self-advocacy seldom reaches beyond those already in the support sector and portrayal on TV and in cinema all too often concentrates on the whimsical and photogenic and less so on the everyday struggles of rejection, fear, abuse and exclusion from the mainstream that the 1.5 million people in the UK who have a learning disability have to face. This isn’t just my politicking speaking; there is plenty of research out there to back up how people, and their families, are poorly treated by society.[i]
Our language can be wonderfully colourful, it can express a whole range of experiences in a short sentence and be both complex and simple at the same time; for example my thesaurus gave me a choice of 29 synonyms for the word simple. Language can be subtle and build us up with compliments and attention or erode us over time with insults and slurs, and it can punch with words designed to wound.
The term midlife crisis has been used in a pejorative sense when referring to our decision to downsize and live in a motorhome for most of the year. One review of Downwardly Mobile mentioned it too and I’m sure the thought has crossed more than a few minds, even if it’s not said to our faces. And we’re fine with that. When the time comes for my nearest and dearest to scrape the vinyl chairs up to my hospital bed for a few awkward words before I go I want them to know that my midlife crisis was spent building memories, exploring the byways of life, on mountain tops, discovering hidden lochs in misty valleys, meeting interesting people, learning, living, loving and laughing every day. If that defines a crisis bring it on. I’m delighted to reclaim midlife crisis as a badge of honour.
Words have power but most of us can, at a pinch, reclaim them, redefine them if we choose to. We can reject what we once accepted as normal; I have a paint chart from the 1950’s that includes the colour nigger brown. Only the most obtuse or die hard racist would consider that acceptable now, although I did have a rather protracted discussion with someone who thought it was a perfectly acceptable word, and I quote… ‘because it was okay in my day….’. Leaving aside whether it was acceptable then or not I struggled to find an adequate reason why you would want to use it now. A little sensitivity to combat de-humanising people isn’t political correctness, its applying thought and judgement.
You could make the argument that we choose to take offence, especially when we do so on behalf of others; maybe if no offence is intended then none should be taken. Certainly there are occasions when people can be over-sensitive and need to be a bit more resilient in a world that will not offer them safe spaces beyond their closeted circle of associates. But wherever you stand, people with learning disabilities are not choosing to take offence. The casual use of ugly words like retard and mong, even as a ‘jokey’ reference to each other, reinforce the stigma associated with being different. We can start to welcome people in from the margins and build a better, more inclusive society, person by person, community by community if we’d only stop and think about the power of a simple word.
All human life is of equal value. We are capable of great and unconditional love, we can create breath-taking works of art, compose music that reduces us to tears or euphoria, create medicines that cure diseases on a pan-global scale, give people new limbs and organs, put people on the moon, write books that change destinies, invent the internet, harness the sun, sea and wind. Heck we can even split the atom and tickle a quark if we choose to. We've survived ice ages, epidemics, wars, famines and Bernard Matthews’ Turkey Twizzlers. Not bad for a bunch of walking, talking bags of soggy sentient meat, some of whom happen to be different from those around them, love people of the same gender or have a disability. Get over it!
Talking about going for a walk, which we weren’t but it’s late, Alison is out with a chum and I’ll be dammed if I can be bothered to find some flimsy link to tie this together, the other day we went for a walk.
We’ve have had a lot of rain recently but we have discovered the delight of logging roads that snake into the island and afford us reasonably dry passage through wooded and cleared areas which would otherwise be inaccessible. On one such track we found our way up to a waterfall in the clough of Dun da Ghaoithe, the second highest peak on Mull.
The air was damp, with mist rolling over the summit above us and settling on us like fine morning dew. The grasses were lush, deep greens alive with the scent of dank earth and decaying vegetation. Small pink flowers stood on spindly stalks near the side of the track, their heads soaking up the moist air. Yellow flowers hugged the rocks between mosses and grassy peat tangled with roots and insects. The constant gurgling of the river was all consuming in this natural amphitheatre with its roof of mist. We clambered up to the fence line, not just for deer and sheep here but to prevent access to the small hydro-electric plant that feeds the sparse properties below. The view down past the trees to the Sound of Mull and Morven on the opposite bank was lit up in watery sunlight. Up here the small hydro plant seemed incongruous, a man-made intrusion into the wilderness, although most of the ‘wilderness’ was managed forest land below and sheep pasture above.
The track we took was one of several leading up into the Mull hills, and the only one we’ve followed that didn’t just end in the middle of nowhere. Most of them were built for the lorries that took the timber away, so they come to an abrupt halt in marshy clearings or in open patches that have been cleared years ago and where self-seeded pines and gorse bushes are now reclaiming the land. Slowly the land is recovering; even straying a few metres from the track you set foot in bogs or find impassable thickets. On a similar adventure further around the island we saw wonderful waterfalls cascading down hills through gullies centuries in the making but tantalisingly out of reach to anyone not prepared for snorkelling through bogs or at least equipped with sturdy waders and a sharp machete.
Not that we are complaining, the area is unspoilt for a reason, improving access would ruin it and so we are content to admire it from a distance and drink in the splendour, marvel at the scale of these hills and mountains and enjoy what we can access in relative comfort.
One such area (see, that was a better link than the last one) is around Loch Aros. Sitting just south of Tobermory, the island’s de-facto capital, it’s a stunning location. Even so close to what passes for civilisation here, on a hot day we had it almost to ourselves. Following another logging track that switch-backed down between tall pines we entered a high sided valley where the track petered out to a well-defined path. The trees drew in like sentries standing guard over the track, their canopy providing us with welcome shade. Fresh pine and earthy mulch perfumed the air, insects buzzed and long fingers of pale sunlight reached into the gloom, one of which pointed to the ruins of a small house improbably positioned amid tall trees.
Once it would have stood in a shallow glade with a small burn trickling through, perhaps with a vegetable plot that was someone’s pride and joy, the fire grate blackened and a stack of peat drying beside it. Maybe a goat tethered in the yard with chickens pecking around it’s feet. Now it is a few crumbling walls at the end of a path beaten by the curious ducking under a fallen tree and stepping over broken tiles to explore the ruins. What tales could this cottage tell of a time before the trees took over? Where did the people go? Were they happy here? Were they forced to leave? Did it become the last home for an old lady who waved her children off to new lives overseas where there was work and opportunity? Did she sit alone with her knitting for company as the encroaching trees cast longer shadows every year?
Probably not, but it was the kind of romantically bleak place that brought such images to mind. At least it wasn’t made of gingerbread with an unfeasibly large oven or lined with the skulls of other curious tourists.
And on we walked, around the loch where we stood in sunlight and watched a shower sweep across the water without troubling us with anything but a few warm drops. Leaves on the trees shone in the diluted light, colours glowed, translucent greens and soft browns, pale blue water and pastel rocks glossy with fresh rain and warmed by dappled sunlight. We walked around the loch on dirt and stone trodden down to a solid path but met only a couple of walkers and saw no one else apart from a father doing his best to entice a toddler to keep walking.
We climbed some steps up a side trail and watched white water tumbling over the cliff in a tumbling waterfall that we’d seen from the other bank. There is something transfixing about a waterfall; strong and powerful, thundering over the cliff and eating away the rock yet scoop up a handful of water and it trickles away to nothing.
And so we walked back to the car. Nothing dramatic happened, except that we realised that this place, this island, is in our souls and no amount of stresses or strains can diminish its hold over us.
This is in effect two uncensored pieces I’ve written about being with my mother as she passed away in hospital. The first part comes from witnessing the state of the NHS up close. The second part was hard to write, but necessary (for me) and is much more personal. Writing it has been cathartic; I’ve got a lot off my chest, not least anger. I’m hard pushed to know where the anger comes from but I do know that a lot of it is aimed at the appalling state of our National Health Service. Maybe that’s just me projecting my feelings somewhere or maybe it is because what I saw made me angry.
‘Nurses are human cogs in a machine that’s being patched up with sticky tape and good intentions…’
My mother’s funeral was held on Friday 6th July 2018, one day after the 70th anniversary of the formation of the NHS. Unless we act now it won’t be around to celebrate its centenary. Spending mum’s last days beside her in hospital really brought home to me how much we’ve let the NHS become so neglected that it is essentially running at full speed just to stand still. Years of political incompetence, under investment, deliberate sabotage and our love of low taxes have left it in an ever decreasing spiral of decline.
It won’t be long before a tiny cog in the machine breaks and brings the whole thing grinding to a halt. The corporate vultures are already circling, sharpening their smiles along with their knives as they prepare for the kill.
What we, Alison and I, witnessed wasn’t unusual by any means; in fact my mum was probably lucky compared to many. At least we could be there and the ward team weren’t unkind or without considerable skill and knowledge, but they were overworked. Nurses and all the others who make up a ward team are not angels. Angels are heavenly beings who presumably don’t require paying or proper rest breaks and one assumes are sufficient in number to ensure that they can do whatever job it is that angels do properly. Nurses are human cogs in a machine that’s being patched up with sticky tape and good intentions, forced to put up with crap conditions and harden themselves to the daily indignities that the lack of money or any credible plan of recovery forces them to accept.
In a moment of weakness I picked up a copy of the newsletter for the hospital trust responsible for the hospital my mum was in and it was full of inane corporate claptrap that said nothing of any substance. For example: ‘Strategic Ambition 7: Make the best use of our estate and infrastructure’, which rather begs the question (to a cynical old bastard like me anyway) in what sort of business would you ever consider not making the most of your estate and infrastructure? No wonder the NHS is in crisis when the managers don’t consider looking after their property as an ordinary part of their business.
Just to add insult to injury, in 2017 the hospital’s Team of the Year was – wait for it - the Car Parking Team. In a hospital of around 500 inpatient beds and goodness knows how many outpatient services, catering to a resident population of over 230,000 people and unpredictable numbers of holiday visitors, that employs over 3,000 staff in accident and emergency, critical, intensive and high dependency care, general surgery and medicine, maternity, paediatrics and neonatal services in a hyper-busy resource starved NHS, the team voted the best by ‘a record 460 nominations from both patients and staff’ were the ones responsible for ensuring that your precious Ford Escort would fit neatly between two lines on the tarmac.
‘When my Johnny was born 8 weeks prematurely and I needed 6 pints of blood and then our Derek only goes and ends up in A & E because he fell off the ladder and broke his leg I was so pleased to finally come out and find Aunt Doris could park the Skoda outside for 3 hours while we all waited for Sharon to finish her appointment at the clinic.’ said a completely fictitious person I just invented to make a point.
Still at least the team responsible for erecting the information signs didn’t win. The ward my mum was on was mysteriously absent from them. Only on closer inspection, of the sort not entirely unrelated to waiting for ones wife to use the lavatory, I realised that they hadn’t been updated since 2015. And when mum’s care home telephoned the hospital they were put through to the early pregnancy ward. I wish I was joking.
Mind you we often place an unnecessary burden on the NHS ourselves. Taking a break outside the ward was illuminating and saddening in equal measure; heavily pregnant smokers wheeled out to quench their addiction, people using the A & E department to get their grazed knee treated, waddling children constantly drip fed confectionary and so on. I don’t want to blame anyone; goodness knows people have enough to deal with in life without strangers like me judging them without knowing their circumstances but if just a few of us took more responsibility for our own health there might be a few quid left over to improve healthcare and provide better staffing on the wards.
Where mum was they had a canteen for visitors and patients run along traditional lines; a choice of foods heavy on the brown end of the spectrum, relatively healthy options, variety and grumpy staff. By contrast Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge has a food court that last time I visited sported a branch of Burger King. I’m sure that selling concession space helps the hospital budget but condoning fast, greasy, fatty fried food really doesn’t send the right message. The hypocrisy in promoting public health, healthy eating and reducing weight from an office permeated with the odour of deep fried cow is astounding.
I was pleased to discover that the ward team still runs on toast though. In my days in the NHS somewhere around 11am a stack of steaming toast limp with butter would be produced and with a cursory wipe of our hands down our uniforms (hygiene taking a distant 2nd place to free food) we’d all dive in. I learnt to love toast spread with Bovril and strawberry jam. These days I substitute Marmite for Bovril, preferring yeast to the juice of a pressed cow in my diet, although I suppose yeast could pass as a primitive life form, like protozoa or Jeremy Hunt.
Oh I know Jeremy is an easy target but what galls me about him and his buddies is the stealthy way that they are dismantling the NHS while claiming to support it. Any observer, whatever their political views, will know that the NHS cannot carry on as it is. The reasons are well researched, argued and known to almost everyone so I won’t rehash them here; suffice to say living longer is costing us a lot of money. There is waste in the NHS and yes we could manage it better but ultimately it comes down to two choices:
1) Raise tax (and/or divert it from elsewhere but let’s not get side tracked by detail).
2) Dismantle it and opt for a private system along the lines of the USA.
I may subscribe to option 1, but I understand, albeit begrudgingly, that option 2 is a choice. My loathing of Jeremy Hunt and all the other baying suits on the right of the house is that they want to put mini malls and food courts into hospitals, commercialise everything possible, pull it to pieces and sell it off in bite sized, profit making chunks to the highest bidder. If only they’d have the courage to stand up and say so we’d all have an open and honest debate.
Which they won’t because it would be massively unpopular and they suspect they’d lose the argument along with their comfy seats in parliament. So instead they sing the praises of the NHS, wear shiny badges proclaiming their support and pop into the nearest private hospital to have their shame surgically removed.
So we have the shambles that heath care is becoming today. There are some fantastic services and we are indeed lucky to have it and the myriad staff who stick us back together when we break or deal with all the squishy, smelly and slimy bits that ooze out or grow without our permission inside of us. But routine care, of the non-sexy everyday kind is stretched to near breaking point and much of our beloved NHS is barely fit for purpose.
And that is what makes me angry. It’s one thing protesting about a democratically elected American president (albeit one that may not have been democratically elected and is a prize klutz), but when it comes to saving the one public service we cherish above all others, the one that unites class, race, religion, sexuality, political views and gender will we take to the streets or will we be watching TV?
‘A strange twilight existence that contained memories and stilted conversations behind plastic screens...’
I used to be afraid of death. As a child I’d have moments of inarticulate panic when I’d swear my heart had stopped, despite all of the evidence to the country.* My mother would offer me the type of comfort that she was good at, generally a variation on the theme of ‘oh for goodness sake Raymond, pull yourself together, you’re not dying…’
This didn’t prepare me for the moment 80 or so years later when I sat beside her death bed and told her that it was okay to go; after we’d told each other, possibly for the first time in our lives, that we loved each other. We weren’t close, not in the conventional sense. I suppose we did always love each other but feelings, affection and human contact like hugs and kisses just didn’t feature in our relationship. At least we had the opportunity to say it before she died. We so nearly didn’t.
Working on the Isle of Mull has its drawbacks and one of those is being over 500 miles away when you get a call to say your mother has been admitted to hospital in Norfolk and isn’t expected to last long. Aside from its remoteness another feature of Mull is its propensity for its own weather system. While most of England melted under tropical skies we had the remnants of Storm Hector to contend with, which meant winds that could pick you up like an empty crisp packet and deposit you in the next village, and then cancel the ferry over to the mainland.
After some debate and confused calls we managed to get an evening sailing and eventually pulled in to a budget hotel just outside Glasgow at around 9.30 pm. Once settled in we spoke to my children, the hospital, Alison’s parents, and my children again, and then we had a call from the doctor who’d admitted mum. He gave us grave news, honest and straight talking but compassionate; he wasn’t sure that we’d make it in time even if we left right away.
Already exhausted and emotional we had to choose whether to set off and drive through the night or get some rest. We knew the answer was rest; to go on then would be foolhardy and risk our lives, and probably those of other motorists too. But not to do so might mean missing the opportunity to say goodbye.
We compromised by setting the alarm for 3am so that we could get on the road after a rest. Alison talked to the ward staff and they promised to let mum know that we were on our way. Meanwhile for some peculiar reason I had an episode of Top Gear in my head with Jeremy Clarkson wittering on about a particular car and how he used it to drive through the night from Cornwall to Yorkshire to get to his father on his deathbed. Oh great! I had an oaf in a sports jacket making me feel guilty.
Somehow though, just as I was thinking that sleep would be impossible I woke as the alarm went off and we headed out into the strange twilight of a mid-June morning in Scotland where the sun barely has time to set.
On we drove, exchanging pleasantries, admiring the early morning sun piercing the clouds over the Pennines, stopping for coffee and constantly checking phones to make sure we weren’t missing any calls from the hospital. We made good time, even across the drudgery of Lincolnshire’s endless flat and featureless landscape, down through Kings Lynn and then with a heavy and anxious heart we were suddenly in Great Yarmouth and pulling in to the hospital. As Alison applied the handbrake I leapt up and out of the seat, afraid that if didn’t move immediately I’d never get out of the car. Fear, a companion since yesterday’s phone call surfaced along with all that my imagination could throw at me. The realisation hit me that I might be saying a final farewell to the person who, against all medical advice, brought me into the world; stubborn, single minded and frankly reckless with her own health she gave me life. Maybe she wasn’t the touchy feely type but she was responsible for my existence.
My words cannot do justice to finding that strong, independent woman laid helpless in a hospital bed; paper thin ivory skin and shallow breaths from sunken lips, a shadow of her former self surrounded by hustle and bustle, by busy people and bored patients. I held her hand, talked to her, saw her pain and felt powerless and impotent. In those minutes that became hours my mind wandered to happy Christmases, to family holidays and silly games, to the person who was always busy and who never accepted no as an answer, and then to the woman holding her young grandchildren with tender love and huge pride. Thankfully they too made it in time to see her and say goodbye, fine young men now with red tear-stained eyes.
We sat, talked, slept, talked, ate, took breaks, went for walks and talked to mum; a strange twilight existence that contained memories and stilted conversations behind plastic screens. I found I would often zone out and let the hubbub of a busy hospital wash over me. It was in these moments that I saw the reality of the horrendous mess we’ve allowed our NHS to become.
In a bay of 6 older ladies one was often crying or calling out for help, one lay with sad eyes watching us and when we took a break my mother lay dying in full sight of her. Still, on the bright side we got to hear all about Eva** in the next bed and how her son left the toilet window open when he called in to get the pressure washer from her neighbours. Her visitor had the type of voice that could etch glass and was clearly under the quaint illusion that a plastic curtain suspended 10 inches from the ceiling was soundproof.
We were also treated to the oral delights of nurses talking in loud voices to deaf old ladies about ‘cleaning you up because you need to be changed’. There was no sense of dignity, no thought for the sensibilities of those they were sharing the ward with because, well because flitting about in a rush was all that they had time to do. If we weren’t present there was no one on the ward who could spare the time to sit with a dying woman or spend a little while consoling a patient whose dignity was left at the front entrance when she was admitted.
One team who really stood out was the hospital chaplaincy who were truly amazing. They were kind and considerate, knew exactly what to say, gave comfort even to a grizzled old cynic like me, prayed with mum, offered respite and a calm space for private thought and reflection and didn’t once shy away from being honest.
The hospital chapel is shared by all faiths and is a beacon of cooperation and mutual respect. There’s no room for the luxury of theological debate when you are on the sharp end of human existence. In a building where fragile new lives struggle into the world and where loved ones exit it no one cares how many angels you can fit on the head of a pin or if you are Catholic or Protestant, Sunni or Shia. When you’re comforting a mother who has lost her daughter it doesn’t matter if you don’t eat pork, eschew all animal flesh or think that all God’s creatures are here for your tasty delight. What matters is the love, compassion and grace you show them and if that isn’t what religion is about then it means nothing.
Up and down the country volunteer chaplains, of all faiths and none (humanists usually) demonstrate exactly what is good and worthy in human beings and do so with scant recognition. No Team of the Year award for looking after your immortal soul when there are more worthy causes, like looking after your precious Audi.
The one thing the chaplains couldn’t help mum with was the physical pain, but that was when the nursing team really came into their own. What I had no concept of until then was the dilemma that her pain presented. While she was sedated on medication she was peaceful but semi-conscious at best. When the medication wore off or if she was moved by the nursing staff she became more lucid, the pain jolting her back to the here and now. How fucking awful is that choice; pain but the chance to say goodbye, a few comforting words, a prayer from the chaplain or just to reminisce … or no pain and no words of comfort or awareness of your surroundings?
Finding her in discomfort the nursing staff gently steered us towards pain relief and we willingly let them. By then mum was in a side room and fading. It was as if there was a celestial holding pattern, like planes circling an aerodrome until a slot becomes available. As she became less responsive and the inevitable end of her journey, at least down here on earth, was in sight Alison and I spent the night taking turns by her side while the other kipped on a sofa in a side room. In the morning around 10am we shared a joke, something of no consequence, and mum passed away while there was laughter in the air.
We cried, placed the wooden cross she’d been given on her chest, and sat with her. After a minute, an hour or a year, I gave her a final kiss and said goodbye.
In a world where we put money before care, political survival before compassion and cars before people death no longer holds any fear for me…but I am now terrified of dying.
For Iris Olive Rose Canham (nee Edgar) 14/08/1929 – 18/06/2018
* Like it beating so fast inside my chest in panic that it threatened to break free.
[** Not her real name.
We regularly use the ferries here on the west coast of Scotland and have been fascinated by the pre-recorded public information announcements. Below are some improvements I’m suggesting, in the spirit of the originals, for when they get around to updating them:
Passengers who have spent the last week camping in the wild and now smell like the floor of a slaughterhouse holding pen should make their way to the designated waiting area for hosing down prior to boarding.
For the comfort and convenience of other passengers people travelling with young children are requested to keep them sedated. A selection of wines, spirits and bludgeons are available in the gift shop for this purpose.
Unattended children will be cast adrift. Parents or guardians can claim their children from the Calmac office at Oban, from the shoreline of Jura or the Antarctic, depending upon the tide.
Children should not be held above the height of the handrails unless they have gained their 5 metres swimming certificate or they belong to someone else.
Will the driver of the silver Range Rover please return to your vehicle and turn the sodding alarm off.
Will the driver of the yellow Ferrari Testosterone please return to your vehicle and don't come back to Mull until you've brought a proper car.
In the event of an emergency, like bumping into a lighthouse, being boarded by pirates or running out of those nice ginger biscuits dipped in chocolate, you will hear 7 blasts on the ships alarm followed by a long splash as the crew frantically row for shore on the only available lifeboat.
In the not altogether unlikely event of the ship sinking there are a few old lifebuoys in the cleaning cupboard behind the crusty bottle of Cif. Only passengers familiar with COSHH regulations and in possession of an up to date certificate may access this cupboard. Other passengers are advised to grab onto suitable buoyant apparatus such as foam seat covers, otters or tubby people.
If you are planning on hitchhiking to Iona please consider availing yourself of some local shops, buses, public houses or tourist attractions on the way - yer tight basted.
Passengers complaining about it being too cold, too hot, too wet or too midgy are invited to shut up and remember that they are in Scotland.
To avoid pestering our staff the following answers should be remembered by all passengers:
Thank you for travelling with us. This information will now be repeated in Gaelic, but since you won’t understand a word of it really it’s just Eilidh’s recipe for Cullen Skink, unless it’s a Saturday when Iain will be reading out the shinty results.
Last one off gets the drinks in; mines a sweet sherry and Eilidh will have a pint of heavy.
This is the second in the series of blog entries that we’re not doing this year. The idea was to spend ‘blog’ time editing and adding to the material we already have to go into the second book. Alas I’ve found it difficult to get going so the plan now is to sneak up on my procrastination and surprise it by suddenly having a completed chapter or two by stealth.
As I transferred this entry from my notebook and sundry scraps of paper onto the laptop I became aware that I have left out a significant event from the last few days, the sad and untimely death of a good and longstanding friend. By doing so I mean no disrespect but his friendship to me, to us, deserves more than a passing mention in a flippant blog and this is not the time or place to honour his memory. That will be for another time.
We’ve just had a couple of days off and they reminded us of the joys and frustrations of living here. We explored Uisken, a remote cluster of houses set around a sandy cove with rocky islands to explore when the tide is out. We arrived in sunshine, admired the views over to the Isle of Jura, wandered across the sand, breathed in the salty air and while at the furthest point from the car had a good nose around the largest of the islands; where we got caught in a hailstorm.
Bedraggled and gently steaming we headed back to the car, set off towards home and got caught behind a Ford Pootle – which is a generic term we’ve adopted for any car that drives along at the exact speed to prevent safe overtaking, too slow for comfort and that doesn’t pull over in any of the amply provided passing spaces. Pootle drivers are the antithesis of Audi drivers. They are usually piloted by people who are completely oblivious of everyone and everything else around them. They seem to be interested only in swerving all over the road while scanning the countryside for anything they can’t see in their native suburbia, like cows, sheep or the inside of a loch as they plunge in after spotting a crow.
There is of course far more interesting wildlife on Mull than crows. So far this season we have seen white tailed eagles, golden eagles, buzzards, herds of female red deer with fawns so young they still have their dappled coats and lone stags with impressive antlers, new born and gambolling lambs and cows with calves tottering on spindly legs. In an effort to spot the most elusive, to us anyway, of Mull’s rare breeds we tried otter spotting from a hide. Spoiler alert- we didn’t see any. What we did encounter was Gerald and Margery, ancient bird spotters. Actually I made up their names as I couldn’t bring myself to communicate with them.
It had all started well; we were ensconced in our little hide with another couple, who took their leave after successfully identifying the Spanish frigate F101 as she sailed down the Sound of Mull. After a few moments of precious silence during which otters were mustering in their hundreds ready to entertain us with a display of synchronised frolicking, the door flew open and in rustled Gerald and Margery, or rather Gerald and a tripod with some sort of scope. Margery eventually wrestled her tripod through the door which she then closed with a clunk that echoed off the mountains. I suspect that they arrived in a Ford Pootle or its close relative the Vauxhall Dawdle.
After exchanging a knowing look with Alison involving much theatrical raising of eyebrows and rolling of eyes I settled back to our vigil. Gerald now started assembling his tripod while his waterproof outfit squeaked an accompaniment to his every move. As if this wasn’t nerve jangling enough he breathed extravagantly through his mouth the whole time with an uneven phlegmy rattle. Just as he completed assembling his super-duper-extreme –deluxe-scope on the tripod and settled his left eye to the viewer Margery opened the window in front of her in a series of creaks, bangs and scrapes which brought to mind a localised earthquake.
“See the… (gasp for breath)…Great Northern Diver…(wheeze)…over here… (gasp…splutter)… Margery… (rustle rustle, cough)… at about 11:00 O’clock … (gasp, pant) …from the third buoy…(wheeze).”
Margery seemed less than impressed and grunted a non-committal “umm” that managed to communicate in one single syllable a whole lifetime of repressed frustration living with Mr Wheezy Excitement. Of course that’s pure conjecture, I suspect they are adorable people and very much in love but I was a trifle frustrated at not seeing anything more exciting than oyster catchers from our snug hideaway.
The oyster catcher is the one bird I have a soft spot for. This comical black and white creature with its long orange beak has us both entranced. Let’s start with its name…’oyster catcher’ sounds like it stalks oysters across the ocean floor in a stealthy battle between hunter and prey. But oysters aren’t known for doing much at all and are certainly not fleet of foot; they’re just a stone with a soft centre. Basically, catching them requires little more than dipping into the water at a likely spot.
In fact the oyster catcher seldom catches oysters anyway but scours the shoreline for cockles and mussels or for worms when it’s off visiting friends away from the coast. But, and here’s the thing, they are just so comical to watch while doing it. They have an animated expression that makes them endearingly like a Loony Tunes cartoon character. They waddle along with a clumsy gait, chirp away with their over-long orange bills and occasionally stab at the kelp on the shoreline, although I have never witnessed one catch anything. We’ve watched them for ages and probably missed white tailed eagles carry otters off to their nests as we do. I’m not sure if they form part of the dawn chorus, but if they do they’ll be the ones put into the back row and told not to let everyone else down by fidgeting, picking their nose or pretending to be an aeroplane.
Speaking of the dawn chorus, it starts nice and early around here and may be part of the reason I was feeling a little irritable with Gerald and Margery. It began around 4.30 this morning when a goose let forth a solo honk. Even the most dedicated ornithologist cannot really call the sound of a goose attractive. At best it sounds like a clown blowing his nose, at worst, at 4:30am for example, like a clown blowing his nose on a handkerchief stained with fresh blood while holding a dripping machete in his other hand. Other birds soon joined in with more delicate but no more welcome calls. After 10 minutes or so I joined in with a quilt rippling fart, turned over and went back to sleep, or maybe passed out, but either way 20 seconds later I was jolted awake by that bloody goose again.
The geese will soon be off to wherever geese choose to spend the summer, Jupiter maybe, and we will get used to the cacophony of tweets and chirps that greet the day and sleep through them. Generally I like birds in the same way I like sunshine and flowers. They are very pleasant and the world would be worse off without them but with the exception of watching oyster catchers make fools of themselves I don’t feel the need to study them, watch them or take more than a passing interest. I leave that to the serious looking folk like Gerald and Margery with their tidy notebooks and matching waterproof clothes.
Back at work this morning the weather is…well improving would be an accurate description. A grey mist was draped over the landscape, sucking out the colour and flattening the view until everything was shadows, echoes of the mountains and trees that we know so well.
Now, after the rain, the colours are back, vivid green fields with ribbons of brown tracing decaying stone walls and across the shimmering bay trees of radiant green poke out from their muted brown neighbours. Whole hillsides have sprung to life, seemingly overnight, with fresh grass competing with the unfurling bracken for the watery sunlight. The scent of wild garlic mixed with the sweet woody aroma of gorse drifts towards me. It’s at moments like this that our lifestyle makes perfect sense…I’m lost in a daydream, letting the day wash over me. In the back of my mind I hear tyres crunching over the car park and turn to watch a tidy little car meticulously reverse into the exact centre of a parking space, pull forward, repeat the manoeuvre until it is resting in precisely the same spot as it was on its first attempt and I breathe in the silence as the engine stops.
After a couple of minutes the doors open, slowly there’s a faint rustling on the breeze, a familiar wheezing and Gerald and Margery slowly unfurl from their Pootle. It may be a long afternoon…
Saturday 24 March 18. Pt.1