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.